Sunday, 30 January 2011

The rise and rise of the troll

From their Norse origins as brutish cave-dwellers thousands of years ago, trolls have evolved. First, they ripped off bridge-crossing goats, and then they became ugly-but-cute 1960s dolls. Now they have reinvented themselves in their most repugnant form yet – on the internet.

The evolution of trolls 1: the Jotunn (image: Theodor Kittelsen)
The sole aim of these cyber-trolls is to draw mild-mannered internet browsers into illogical and non-sequitur-riddled discussions causing them to react with uncharacteristic fury.

The evolution of trolls 2: Three Billy Goats Gruff (image:
Initially, internet trolls inhabited public forums, such as YouTube’s comments areas, igniting flame wars and providing oxygen with carefully placed snippets of vitriol that end in chain reactions of thermonuclear off-topic hatred.

The evolution of trolls 3: Dam dolls (image:
Now the trolls have turned professional. The attraction of web advertising revenue has encouraged organisations to hire trolls that have trained as journos to write articles that are full of extreme views, encouraging plaudits from fans and outrage from those with opposing views.

The evolution of trolls 4: Trollface (image:
Current masters of article-writing trolling in the UK are right wing press darlings Melanie Phillips and James Delingpole, both of whom receive extra coverage thanks to indignant Twitterati. The liberal press have their own demons though, like The Guardian’s Bidisha.

The evolution of trolls 5: Uber-troll Phillips (image:
Whatever their persuasion, internet article trolls get as many hits from enemies as friends, but whereas bad reviews would normally end a writer’s career, the paymasters in these cases are as happy to receive the hate as the love - both make the same kerching sound.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

‘They’re not tattoos, they’re skin illustrations!’

I was first introduced to Ray Bradbury’s work by ‘Nobby’ Jones, my English teacher, when I was thirteen years old. Up until that point, no literature had moved me. We read the classic short story A Sound of Thunder, which opened up a fissure in my philosophically barren mind. A couple of years later, I watched the movie adaptation of The Illustrated Man, and once I found out it was based on a Bradbury novel, I vowed to read it. Thirty-odd years later...

The Illustrated Man is essentially sixteen science fiction short stories of varying tone, from the morality tale of The Other Foot, to the light-hearted The Rocket, to the creepy Zero Hour, and the rather pointless The Last Night of the World. The stories are top ‘n’ tailed by the brief encounter between the narrator and the illustrated man of the title. The short stories are ‘seen’ by the narrator in the weirdly hypnotic tattoos – skin illustrations – that cover the man’s entire body.

Is it better to step on a butterfly or kill your own grandfather? (image:

The premise of seeing stories unfold in the skin illustrations is fabulous, but unlike the movie, the two characters have no interaction between viewings - we just get the sixteen stories, one after another. This makes the unevenness of the stories seem odd; they don’t feel like they’re from the same collection. This could be explained away if the narrator describes the unevenness of each illustration he sees before they begin to move. A missed opportunity, in my view.

Nevertheless, there are some stand-out stories. The Veldt, which features in the movie, tells the story of the misuse of technology and children out of control; The Long Rain (also filmed) gives the reader the drowning claustrophobia that visiting astronauts suffer on a rainy planet; The Rocket is a heart-warming tale of a man who buys a full-size rocket at the expense of his business, modifying it to make his children believe they go on the journey of a lifetime; The Visitor shows man’s selfishness and greed in action when a group fight over a mysterious man who can give them their dreams.

'I can feel 'em squirmin', movin' on my back' (image:

Bradbury uses a simple, easy-to-read style of narrative that allows the reader to engage quickly with each story. There are times when you have to make allowances for the outmoded ‘future’ technologies and scientific ideas – the book was written in 1952, after all. There are some excellent dialogue exchanges, and a fair turn of phrase; including ‘back to the future’. Bradbury comes up with a few truly great concepts – some of the stories would have made brilliant Star Trek episodes a decade-and-a-half later. I'm sure Kaleidoscope inspired the ending to John Carpenter's Dark Star.

For me though, this is a rare case when the movie trumps the novel – just. The movie has two things in its favour: one is the increased storyline of the illustrated man and the narrator (Willie in the movie), and the other is Rod Steiger, who brings the character of the illustrated man to life like no other actor could have. However, the book does have more stories (sixteen, against three in the film). If I were to adapt The Illustrated Man, it would have to be a six-hour miniseries at the very least.

The Illustrated Man is a recommended read. It was written during the golden age of science fiction, but is far more literary than the ‘pulp’ novels at that time. I also recommend the movie. Steiger was awarded an Oscar two years before making The Illustrated Man, and you can see why.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Howard's way

Having tackled Attwood, rucked McEwan, and kicked Rushdie into touch, I’m not one for handing out plaudits to Man Booker types. However, following his interview with James Naughtie for BBC Radio 4’s Book Club, I might give 2010 prizewinner, Howard Jacobson, a try.

Jacobson was discussing his 1999 novel The Mighty Walzer, a comic novel with a protagonist very similar to his younger, table tennis-playing self. Naughtie and the audience offered compelling evidence for why the book deserves to be read, but that wasn’t what impressed me.

The Mighty Walzer himself (photo: Jenny Jacobson)
The conversation turned to Jacobson’s early writing days, when he was struggling with a particular novel. He said that for years he thought that he wanted to be a serious, sophisticated novelist writing about the English country home, a subject beyond his knowledge and experience at that time.

Out of desperation, while feeling ‘humiliated’ about the situation in which he found himself, Jacobson just went for it – he wrote a campus novel instead of Middlemarch. In doing so, he found his natural writing voice. On penning The Mighty Walzer, Jacobson said that as soon as he started writing it he felt ashamed that he hadn’t written it already.

The not quite so mighty waltzer (photo:
How he describes the process of discovering his voice matches exactly how I feel about my own work. The novel I originally planned to write for my project is a ‘worthy’ piece set in the mid-nineteenth century. What the hell do I know about poor people in early Victorian London? Well, I’ll tell you – nothing!

So, I have a couple of weeks to determine which of my potential novels is going to offer me the best chance of writing in what might be my voice – the voice I haven’t really discovered yet. Thanks Howard.