Culture Keeps Me Sane

As the world looks more and more crazy, I’m reminded of why I value culture so much.

It’s the thing keeping me sane.

Part of that’s escapism. If you’re like me, you probably look at modern politics with fear and anxiety. Even if you’re not, there’s bound to be stuff in the news that upsets and angers you. Books, films, music, games – these things let us escape that stress for a while. They stop it from overwhelming us.

And then there are the corners of culture that help us face the awful. I love satirists like John Oliver and Trevor Noah. They take serious subjects and find the humour in them while retaining a serious message. Laughter makes the whole thing more palatable. It lets me watch for longer without fear that I’ll just break down in tears at what monsters we are.

Of course, there are dangers to this. Once you start laughing at the opposition, you risk slipping into hard-hearted ridicule that brings out the worst in us. By all means, make fun of the things Theresa May and Hilary Clinton stand for. But if you start making jokes about their appearance, you risk reinforcing the casual misogyny of judging women on their looks. And if you laugh at every single setback Donald Trump faces, you can easily reach the point of simply laughing at another human’s pain. That’s not a good look on anyone.

So yeah, culture keeps me sane. But it’s a powerful tool for reflecting on where we’re at and with great power comes great responsibility.

Spiderman taught me that. See, culture helping out all over again.

Comedy and Character

Clowns are funny, right? Right?
Clowns are funny, right? Right?

As a writer, comedy is a genre worth understanding. Even if you don’t write comedies, their power is hard to deny. A fifth of the top-grossing films last year were comedies, and many of the others used humour to help tell their stories – Age of Ultron, Ant-Man and The Martian among them. Whatever you’re writing, it’s worth knowing a bit about humour.

All About Character

I recently read Steven Kaplan’s The Hidden Tools of Comedy. It provides some great insight into the fundamentals of being funny, focusing on structure rather than slapstick or smart lines. Intriguingly, Kaplan places character at the centre of creating comedy:

“Comedy is about an ordinary guy or gal struggling against insurmountable odds without many of the required skills and tools with which to win yet never giving up hope.”

To me, that isn’t just a useful tool in writing comedy – it defines the sort of characters I most like. People who, however skilled, are faced with a situation they aren’t equipped for but who keeping pushing on despite that.Their likeable persistence and their most obvious character flaw – the lack of relevant skills – are tied together. Following that thread can lead to tragedy as well as comedy, stirring all sorts of emotions.

Kaplan expands upon this in all sorts of interesting ways, and if you write then I recommend this book. But for me, reading it has been as much about understanding myself as understanding comedy – having something I like defined, and understanding its appeal.


You can read more on this in my latest article for Re:Fiction – Why Every Story Needs Some Humour.

Why is Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters Such an Enduring Favourite?

Past a certain point, my praise for the stories of the late great Terry Pratchett becomes pleasingly repetitive. Humour, humanism, quirky invention and offbeat observations – it’s there in everything from my best loved Pratchett to more recent works that haven’t grabbed me so much. So of course Wyrd Sisters, the sixth Discworld book, is a fabulous read. I loved it just as much re-reading it after his death as I did on first encountering it as a teenager. If you haven’t read it then you should – it’s as good a starting point for Discworld as any, and a fantastic work of fantasy.

All of which got me thinking – why does Wyrd Sisters stand out in the Pratchett mix?

A Favourite Among Favourites

Wyrd Sisters isn’t in my top three Discworld picks (Guards! Guards!, Pyramids and Small Gods, in case anyone cares). But it’s clearly among other people’s. When the Sword and Laser book club were voting on a Discworld book to read, this one came out on top. When someone put on a Discworld play while I was at university, they chose Wyrd Sisters, as well as choosing me for the role of diverse guards and other extras (for the record, I was a terrible actor, and it’s a mercy that I let that ambition go).

Wyrd Sisters is a great book, but so are most of the Discworld novels, so why does this one keep emerging from the pack?

Hitting His Stride

I think one of the answers is that this is about the point where Pratchett really got into the swing of Discworld. Many put that point a book or two earlier, which places this firmly in the comfort zone. That makes it memorable for those who read his books they were released, or who have read them in publication order.

Then there’s the Shakespeare references, and Pratchett riffing on the power of stories. It’s a theme he returned to from time to time, but here he combines it with spoofing The Bard, that bulwark of the English literary canon. Whether you loath or idolise Shakespeare, that probably creates extra associations.

More than anything though, I think it’s the witches. This wasn’t Granny Weatherwax’s first appearance, but it saw her team up with Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. In a move that still remains shockingly unusual in fantasy literature, the book is led not just by a woman but by a group of women, all of them lovable and admirable in their own ways, all very distinctive both from each other and from familiar fantasy tropes. These aren’t a bunch of sexy arse-kicking heroines, but they’re still fascinating people and a hell of a lot of fun to read about. They feel like real people, with all their quirks, strengths and failings, albeit people who cast spells and ride flying brooms.

I expect that Pratchett will be loved for years to come, and I expect that Wyrd Sisters will be too. So if you haven’t read it, please do. And if you have, let me know what you think – is this one of the man’s greats, and what about it stands out for you?

Transmetropolitan – the power of humour

I’ve been re-reading some of Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s hilarious, angry and inspiring sci-fi comic series. Last night, I reached one of the darkest chapters in the story, so dark I put it down as a poor choice for bedtime reading. It was a reminder of what this series does well, and what we can learn from it.

Spider Jerusalem - who wouldn't love a face like that?
Spider Jerusalem – who wouldn’t love a face like that?

Transmetropolitan is the story of Spider Jerusalem, a wild crusading journalist living in a near-future city that combines incredible technology with terrible corruption and deprivation. It’s a funny yet brutal book that combines political thriller, sci-fi speculation and rip-from-headlines slice-of-life dystopianism than shines an uncomfortable light on modern society.

‘Business’, the story in issue 40 (volume seven of the collected edition), is very much in that last vein. Spider Jerusalem, fresh from surviving an assassination attempt, spends a day investigating the horrors of child prostitution.

Yes, you read that right.



This is a book whose average issue is a wild ride of expletives, surreality and bowel-disrupting weaponry, and it takes time out to examine an issue so harrowing even serious dramatists give it a wide berth. It’s something so terrible that even to acknowledge its existence sickens me to the pit of my stomach. But if we look away from the bad things, we leave them to fester.

This the point of the issue, and its power. The sci-fi setting creates just enough distance to let us face the problem, but the realism and sensitivity with which the children are portrayed brings it straight into our modern lives. Nothing is romanticised or glossed over. The social and psychological needs that drive these kids are there on the page, in Ellis’s dialogue and Robertson’s stunningly expressive character art. Within the story, Jerusalem will make his readers look at this terrible thing. Through depicting the story, Ellis and Robertson force us to consider it too. I’ve read it a dozen times, and every time it leaves me stunned.

This is the power of great sci-fi and of truly great humour. Great sci-fi speculates on our future while reflecting on the modern world, the real making the unreal plausible, the unreal raising questions about the real. Great humour, the dark, snarling stuff in which Bill Hicks specialised, opens us up to the serious. By making us laugh it opens up our emotions, so that we feel the serious points. The punchline that makes us both laugh and think is a barb that sticks beneath our skin.

There aren’t a lot of punchlines in ‘Business’, but the barbs are there, our skins soften by the story that preceded it. And that’s part of why it’s such great art.

If you haven’t read Transmetropolitan then you really should. If you’ve read it before, read it again. Because fiction doesn’t get much better than this.