The ‘Joker’, Punk Mentality and the Closing Year

This Xmas I was appalled to find myself, in my traditional Portuguese family celebration, engaged in the same plight as many American families must have been over the holidays: I had to contain my fury as my brother-in-law defended the indefensible behavior of the White House and shouted the absurd arguments that the IG had proven the political involvement of the FBI and that there is ‘no quid pro quo’! What kind of world is this we live in that these kinds of arguments are even possible? What is it that makes us so angry and surprised and distant and impotent?

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I have been wanting for some time to speak to you about what I think is one of the best movies of the passing year. Actually, I believe it to be one of the best movies of this century. I am referring to Todd Phillips’ JOKER with the amazing Joaquin Phoenix playing the protagonist. Phoenix’s plasticity and dedication make his performance one for the ages – he is able to physically change the character from moment to moment, as the character changes the way he sees himself – always extremely consistent with the emotional charge of the story. This is a movie about growth, sanity, freedom, and enlightenment. Arthur Fleck, the miserable clown who laughs when he is nervous, ends up enacting that Michel Foucault’s idea that the only genuine semblance of a soul breaks through when our insanity stops being seen as insanity and becomes an expression of our most transparent self. I always took odds with the idea that we cannot be truly honest and whole within a system of normality and of structured rules of behavior, and the movie seems to prove my point: there is no exit for Fleck except through violence, criminality and, eventually, being locked up. JOKER doesn’t only show us why we need Batman (he himself a vigilante, a fantasy and a criminal), but why we need to open our eyes ourselves. It is not the game-show hosts who should tell us what to laugh about, but it is not our own right to set free our potential for violence – to be Free we must first be mature whole selves.

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For millennia, Humanity lived in a world of limited information: it was possible and even probable that most men would live their lives with the amount of new information that wouldn’t exceed a few newspaper pages of today. We are now faced with a world where not only we have access to information but it is thrown at us every day. And as many have told us before, it is a world of editors: those who filter and interpret the information are the ones ruling the day. More than that, perhaps: those who filter and control the interpretations of information are ruling the day.

We are caught between competing editors, competing interpretations, which throws us into a curious world where the more we know the less we seem to know, the more confused we feel. And so we act out. We are filled with a constant need to have certainties and have opinions – but more than that, to act on our opinions. To invest considerably on what irritates us and excites us. If we don’t like Government interference, we stop vaccinating our kids; if we feel offended by a piece of comedy we feel entitled to throw Molotov cocktails at the actors (as happened in Brazil), or shoot at reporters (as happened in France a few years ago). We must be for Greta Thunberg or against her, immediately believing that she is a hero or a manipulated child. And, of course, we must act on that, as if our immediate opinions, our instant interpretation of reality, defines who we are. There is no place for doubt, there is no place for uncertainty, there is no place for inaction, or tolerance, or peace. We constantly look for fleeting certainty as if the world depends on it.  And curiously enough that is systematically leading us to a world of uncertainty, where we are ruled by our Punk Mentality: as if enacting our own confusion and our own irritation was the only thing that made sense in it all. As if, in fact, our own tolerance of uncertainty, our own sanity, our own sense of control and of being controlled, was the very thing that kept us from being Free. As if our need to rebel, our own Rebellion, was the foundation of our Liberty and our Meaning of Life. And through that Punk Mentality, we are bound to a sterile path before us: the only way for The Joker to feel whole was, in fact, to descend into criminality, to rip apart and destroy  – and eventually to be locked away and spare society at large of his impending violence and degradation. Everything that irritated him was in danger. Nothing was able to separate him and his enactment of Freedom and Wholeness, his enactment of Chaos, from Society at large – except, maybe, the prison bars.

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Worse than that, The Joker’s Punk Mentality becomes actually an inspiration to many. Instead of being repelled by his abhorrent behavior, many seemed fascinated by it, inspired by it, descending into a seemingly Liberating Chaos on the streets. What we fail to notice, even in our own lives, is that this Liberating Chaos is just a passing fantasy. Chaos brings much worse things than Liberty. And in the end, Chaos won’t even give us that. Liberty will not come from Chaos – Chaos has the ability to release our worst nightmares, and empowers the Manipulators, the Populists, the Masters of Interpretation. The Tyrant Editors. The Beasts. We are constantly being told that what we see with our own eyes, and what we hear with our own ears, is not the Truth. It’s all a conspiracy unless we believe in their conspired Truth. In our need to have opinions, to feel empowered ourselves, we are deceived by illusionists to believe what they want us to believe.

GettyImages-1189143783crop-1024x682For many decades, we have been told by philosophers and fiction writers that the System is our enemy. If anything, what the Trump Impeachment hearings and the testimonies before US Congress has shown us is that there are good people in the world. Within the system we are so fond of hating, there are people who maintain our way of life, our Freedom to have opinions, our Justice, our Integrity. There are people who out of duty and belief in our deeper values work every day to spare us from Chaos. Because punks have it right: the opposite of the System is Chaos. The illusion is that the System is our enemy. That illusion is wrong and self-defeating. We built the System ourselves. We built our Democracies, our Rules of Law, our Bills of Rights, our Institutions, to save us from Chaos. Other countries, like Somalia or Liberia, have shed these principles, these Systems, and we wouldn’t want to live there, would we? They are the realms of Fear. The System is not perfect – it makes mistakes every day, in many instances tragic ones, and it is flawed in many ways, but it is not our Enemy. The Police is not our enemy, the Law is not our enemy, the State is not our enemy and Politicians are not our enemy. Our first enemy is Confusion. Our real enemy is Chaos itself.

Shallow Rebellion, the Punk Mentality, is just another chain, another shackle, another way to rein us in. Only when we choose the Middle Ground, where we can choose with good judgment, proper detachment, and justice, do we see the path between System and Chaos. And only then can we really be Free. (I spoke a little bit about this here, relating to the MATRIX – feel free to explore all 4 posts on the subject.) That’s why there are rules as the Whistleblower Act – protecting those who want to denounce wrong-doing of the State without wronging the State, without wronging the People. That’s why we have Democratic Constitutions that rule the ways to ensure Freedom. That’s why we have Ethics and Education and History Books. And why we should take care of them.

Keep up the fight, fellow knights. The old year is behind us, a new year is beginning. The war is still uncertain. Only our future actions will really count. Happy New Year everyone. See you around the next campfire.

‘The Witcher’, Xmas And A World Of Fantasies

So it’s Christmas, I saw some episodes of Netflix’s THE WITCHER and have a few things to say, so hear me out.

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Here I am again. I’m sorry I was away for so long. Other duties spoke louder, as I have explained before. I’m still late with my writing, but now things are more under control, the deadlines have been extended and my vacations will allow me, I believe, to come to grips with the work that needs to be done. It’s always a risk to leave too much work for your holidays, but I have a sense I have things under control and that’s a whole different feeling than the one I had before. So thank you for your patience and your understanding.

And did you catch the first season of THE WITCHER? I watched four or five episodes and am eager to see some more. Andrej Sapkowski’s writing was one of the good surprises I got this year. I found it interesting, clever, sophisticated and satisfying.  I wrote a little bit about it here. And I was at first enthusiastic and then ambivalent about having it morphing into a television series. Enthusiastic because Netflix has already shown us how good it is in producing quality series. Ambivalent once I learned of Henry Cavill’s casting as Geralt de Rivia. Cavill is one of those actors that I constantly underestimated for a while because of his beauty – along with the likes of Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Charlize Theron and Gal Gadot, for instance. Cavill is actually pretty good. And he does a really good job as Geralt. I could see as soon as I watched the trailer that he would be a major asset to the series. Again, I was underestimating him: he is the major asset of the series and every time he is on screen it is a pleasure to watch him.

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But THE WITCHER has many other good features. The runners made a difficult but successful decision, in my view, of starting the plot a few volumes into the story, beginning with the fall of Cintra. And then, without warning, they gave us backstory once and again, then using visual cues and text cues to show us the flashbacking. At first, it’s strange, and I know of some people who are still complaining about it, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a very clever and very sophisticated and interesting way to go about it and I loved it.

“Game-of-Thrones”Then, there’s the usual comparison with GAME OF THRONES – you can read a bit of what I thought of GOT’s last season here. Of course, there is a lot that invites the comparison: kings and queens, geopolitical intrigues, magic and monsters, etc. But THE WITCHER has a completely different feel to it. I don’t believe it does intend to be another GOT. Martin’s writings and HBO’s GOT is more dense, more realistic in some sense, with refined dialogues and character development, mixed with Martin’s definite genius for plot and storytelling (sometimes let down by the TV-people’s choices). It was also based on Britain’s War of the Roses and European Medieval History. THE WITCHER is lighter, assuming immediately its distance from Human reality and our History. It works of course with symbolism and it is not bare of real-world references and significance, but it proposes a different reality and a more linear and focused storyline. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing and I’m enjoying it immensely.

As Christmas and the old year are coming to a close, it occurs to me that they have something in common with several of the things I describe above. I grew up watching my father read mystery novels – Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Earl Stanley Garner, etc. His generation was actually much more interested in these kinds of stories than those of Science Fiction and Fantasy, which they considered kid’s stuff. Mysteries were also focused on one type of question: «who done it?» They ended up being very formulaic in that sense: everything depended on the answer, or the knowledge of the answer, to that simple question. Who killed who and how to prove it. Things like GOT or THE WITCHER elude that kind of certainty and are definitely much more complex. They work with appearances, they play with Time and Space and History, and they are symbolic in nature.  Much like Christmas. A shallow understanding of Christmas would think it’s just for children. But we all know better, don’t we? We can see that the whole world, whole peoples and civilizations are implicated in this exercise of celebration – of love, warmth and caring.

Capitol-US-1024x576There was a time in the past, I believe, when questions and answers were simpler all around. In those days, I think, when 99% of scientists believed in something we would expect that 99% of the population would believe it too. And when the FBI, the CIA, the NSA and all other Intelligence Agencies in the US believed in something, we expected the Americans on the whole to believe it too. But we are not in those days anymore. Now we have to deal with more complex realities where fantasies are dealt with as if they were the reality and reality accused of being fantasy. But even if we can use fiction to develop our understanding of the world, we shouldn’t confuse the two. We shouldn’t be completely deceived by this fantasy that is Christmas nor this fabricated calendar device that is the New Year. After all these illusions, the days will succeed one after the other and all the problems and challenges that were there before will plague us again and again and we will have to come back to deal with the ferocious relentlessness of reality.

But for now, it’s Christmas. Today I will be meeting my family for feasting in the season’s delicacies and exchange laughs and presents. It will be a good day, warm and caring and full of love. So be well, my good friends! Sing and dance! We will go back to the fight soon enough. Cheers to all!

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Writing Time

7448c6b1-7aae-42ee-911b-cddfa9fe01c5-ed296b4789e6.smallThe ability and the determination to write when you work full time and have a whole rich and absorbing life beyond it is not a given fact. People have kids and hobbies and washing machines that break and road accidents and weddings and funerals and doctor appointments and tax forms to fill in. And then you have to relax and go look at the sea and walk the dog and do yoga and make love and read of course, always read, which is what got you into this mess in the first place. So, many times it is not easy at all and there are growing pains: problems and challenges that come up as you start growing and getting noticed. People ask you to write articles for magazines, or participate in short-stories anthologies, or write synopses and bios and take care of your website and post on your blog. As with any other business and organization and art, these are the moments that will make you or break you. If you can overcome the unbearable overwhelming moments of growth when you think you can’t take it anymore, if you can come out swinging after those, you will succeed. But for that, you must be organized, focused, determined and not panic.

So, we’re coming to the end of the year. This will be a crazy time. I have been working on my WIP, the second volume of my zombie-apocalypse novel LAURA AND THE SHADOW KING. I have a definite deadline. I have the chance of publishing this work next year both in English and Portuguese – but for that, I’ll have to finish it by the end of the year. That’s the deadline if it’s all to succeed. But I’m late. I have been having difficulties writing in the last few months for several reasons – mostly life creeping in and showing its fangs. But that’s the trade I’m in and the craft demands I rise to the occasion.

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Now, I’m not really able to write 2000 words a day like Stephen King. That’s not me. Believe me, I’ve tried. There was a time, a few years back, when I was unemployed and focused solely on my writing. It was a good time, even though sometimes it didn’t really felt like it to me. I started a table and a graph controlling the number of words I was writing a day. On good days I got to 1500 or even 2000, but those were mostly flukes. I was happy if I wrote 600 or 700, most days I’d get to 500 (Hemingway’s mark – yay!), but some days, more often than I would like to admit, I’d write 0. I mean 0.0. I punished myself for that. I did. I felt horrible for not being able to do more, work more hours, write more pages. I truly believe still today that we need to write every day and write well every day. It’s essential! But at the end of that year, I evaluated the results of that lousy period and this is what I found out: in that year I had written two novels, one play, two long-feature screenplays, three TV-pilots, and at least three interesting short-stories. Wait a minute… That’s not bad, is it? Some of these works I’d managed to first-draft in two or three-week bursts, and many of the ideas and developments I worked on in that year still feed my progress today.

I found out a few other things that year. First, I cannot write more than 1000 words a day for many days in a row. Usually not more than two or three days. After that, I start running out of ideas and stamina and I will need to stop and develop a little more. It’s fatal: I need two or three days rest from time to time, otherwise, the work will suffer. And sometimes it’s best to write 200 or 300 words a day for a week than to mess it up completely and have to put the whole week’s work in the trash. I know it’s not like that for a lot of people, and I do realize that the best thing is to work hard on re-writing, and I do, believe me, but that’s not when I do my best work, so many times I have to pace myself.

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Secondly, even if you’re not writing, remember there is a lot to do anyway: outlining, re-writing, revising, developing ideas. This is still work and it’s work we must take seriously, or the pace of our writing will suffer. And we must read, watch movies and TV, we must feed our minds and study the craft, or our mind will wither. So even if you’re not writing, you don’t stop working. The danger is complacency and failing to go to the page because you’re doing other things. You must go to the page. You must write. Everything else is useless unless you write.

But while I was doing all this and learning all this, I wasn’t earning any money. So I had to go back to a DDJ (Dreary Day Job). That meant stop focusing on the writing once more. And the pace inevitably suffered, of course. I am disciplined enough to keep writing, but everything is a lot slower when you’re working 8 or 9 hours a day for 6 days a week. But those are the growing pains you need to overcome.

So here I am, at the end of 2019, a year that has been incredibly challenging and rewarding for me. I published two novels, participated in comic-book anthologies, developed a blog, won awards, etc. But still, if I want that to keep happening, I must be able to write and keep writing. And here I am at the end of the year with a deadline coming in fast and I feel inadequate, slow, late. Time to stop and evaluate my options. It’s clear to me that I have to choose between much of what I have on my plate. I have been shedding things left and right. This blog of mine, Hyperjumping, will also need to take the back seat, for a little bit. It has been one of the joys of my life for the last two years and I wouldn’t dream of leaving it behind, but it has to stay on the bench for a few weeks. Until the last few weeks of 2019, I will not write more than a post or two here – it’s important I focus on my novel and finish it. At the end of the year, I’ll have a few weeks vacation and I’ll get back here in force. So forgive me if I’m a bit scarce for a while.

student-typing-laptopI hope this post also helps you find your own pace without too much self-loathing. You need to keep loving to write. If you’re doing it for the long run you must create a system that allows you to keep doing it no matter what. Keep at it. Be persistent. And love doing it. Because that’s the craft. I really don’t have brilliant solutions and most of the time I’m as lost as most of you are. But I’m doing what I must. What I love. And that’s the most any one of us can aspire to, really. See you around, my fellow knights.

About Sex and Rape

couple-having-sexThere has been recently a lot of talk about sex and rape in fiction. Of course, sex and violence have forever been major hooks in movies and books. In Hollywood, violence is a key feature, but of course sex is much cheaper to stage and in other markets it has been used ad nauseam by so-called intellectuals exactly for the same type of reasoning Americans use violence: to appeal to our most basic inner selves. In recent times I have also heard a lot of speeches about what it seems to be the ‘fascination’ for rape themes – people complain about the use of rape as a theme to develop characters and ‘enrich’ stories. Do they have a point? Let me speak about it for a bit.

Sexual writing has been here for millennia. Not to speak of other artistic depictions of the subject. Sex is part of life, it rings with our inner beings and of course that means it will show up in art and fiction. We are all trying to encapsulate in one way or another the basic truth of the Human Drama, of the stories we all seem to be a part of. So sex must be present, of course. Obviously, there is a difference between the fictional depiction of sex or sexual encounters and pornography. I’ll try to differentiate one for the other, let me know if you agree: pornography depicts sex to sexually arouse and entrance the reader; erotica or fictional depiction of sex, on the other hand, describes life, and sex as a part of life. The first is showing sex, period. The second is showing life with sex as part of it. Can we tell a story without sexual content? Of course. But should we, for moral reasons? Of course not.  That’s simply not what we do. We writers don’t shy away from life just because it’s inconvenient or morally ambiguous, or difficult to face. So, if it makes sense, sex should be there. With as much or as little detail as it makes sense.

Irreversível-Cannes-Veneza-600x338How about rape? Rape is not exactly sex, in the sense that, as many criminologists would tell you, rapes are more about power and violence. I don’t know if you ever watched Gaspar Noé’s movie IRREVERSIBLE. I remember watching it at a movie theatre and witnessing the incredibly graphic scene of Monica Bellucci’s rape. Bellucci is one of my sexual icons – I think she’s basically gorgeous. But I remember watching her get raped by a criminal in that manner was the single least sexual arousing scene I ever watched. If you ever had an illusion that rape has to do with sex, I dare you to watch that movie. Rape is about power and about violence. And it’s horrific.

Of course, Freud would tell you something a bit different and I would tend to agree with him: all power cravings and violence have to do with sex. There’s something inherently connected within these concepts. Think of Stalag Fiction, for instance. In the 1950s and ’60s, in Israel, with the ghosts of the Holocaust still hanging over everyone’s heads, a series of very popular pornographic and/or erotic novels were published depicting sexual happenings, usually between Nazi captors and Allied or Jew captives in or around Concentration Camps. It was forbidden very quickly, but it is obvious that these sexual fantasies were coming from the very ghosts the whole society was trying to overcome. That disgusting violence invaded sexuality and fantasy. But that, one could argue, was also a way to exorcise it – to expel the demons from the deepest corners of the mind.

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So should we write about rape? Should we write graphic sexual, violent and despicable acts? I think there are two things to take into account here. First, gratuitous sexual and violent contents are simply bad writing, in my view. We are telling a story, we should respect our characters – having graphic scenes to shock or arouse makes you nothing but a pornographer. I’ve written rape scenes, and if you are minimally empathetic with your characters (and you should be), then you’ll find they are no fun to write. Still, I wrote them because they conveyed something to the audience: what the environment was about or what molded the character’s story. There should always be a point to what the characters suffer – scenes I wrote were never there just because ‘they were cool’. And in one way or another, I had to deal with the weight of the scenes and what that did to the story – and that was the point, actually. And remember: rape is a real phenomenon. It happens, maybe even more than we think. And worst of all in times of war, when it’s weaponized and tolerated. So how can we ignore it if it happens? Should we pretend it’s painless, as in the mainstream movies of the past? That’s much worse than actually depicting it.

Secondly, censorship has no place in fiction. We should not chastise fictional writings just because they are uncomfortable or even morally reprehensible. If you don’t like it as a reader, put the book aside or give it a bad review or bad mouth it to your friends. Pure censorship is the resource of the weak and the ignorant. Fiction’s role is one of disruption, experimentation, learning, feeling and thinking. It’s a way to expand your mind and only dictators, totalitarianists and Nazis believe societies will be better off by censoring.  Creativity is the exercise of Freedom.

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And that’s pretty much what I had to say for today, fellow knights. Keep moving forward. See you around the next campfire.

On Writer’s Idleness, Exhaustion and Recognition

ff2019banner_lowresThese last few weeks have been pretty hectic for me, but I’m finally able to tell you about it. As a writer, I have gotten used to analyze and review my personal strategies along the way. An important factor is to take care of my physical, mental, economic and psychological health. I’m one of those people who often take on more than I can chew, and that has got me into some disagreeable situations in the past. I’ve been near a couple of mental breakdowns before (or have even been through them, diagnosed or not) and they have knocked me out in moments where it could really make a difference. I am also aware that creativity itself depends on our psychological conditions and that it is crucial that I take care of mine (it’s my livelihood, in the end) – there’s nothing so frustrating as wanting or needing to write and to issue original ideas and thoughts and being completely unable to do so. That’s why, at one time or another, I promote my own idleness, even though I do it in a way that I never completely stop. So what happened in these past few weeks and why am I talking about this? Let me tell you about it.

A Saga de Alex 9So, last weekend started on Friday the 11th. I took a day off to attend this year’s Fórum Fantástico, my favorite Sci-fi/F event in Portugal. I thought that Friday would be the boring day of this three-day event, but it wasn’t! Not only did I reconnect with some friends and contacts, with ad-hoc important business meetings on the spot, but I got to meet one of my absolute favorite Portuguese illustrator/designer: the talented Tiago da Silva. He once created the cover for one of my novels, but I hadn’t yet met him in person. It was great and maybe we will have a chance to work with each other soon. Then, Saturday, the 12th, was another full day, with the likes of Ian Watson speaking, plus a handful of very talented Portuguese and international speakers. It strikes me, looking back, how incredibly developed are the new generations of designers, illustrators, comic book artists, game creators and other little geniuses in the Portuguese SF/F scene. On Sunday, though, the focus was a lot on me. It started with playing a demo of the HOT TARGETS: THE DARK SEA WAR CHRONICLES, the game by Sérgio Mascarenhas based on the universe of my books. Then after lunch, there was a speaking event with the ubiquitous Rogério Ribeiro at the Auditorium: about my writings! And then, at the end of the day they delivered the Grand Prize Adamastor for the Fantastic for SF/F novels in Portugal, and… I WON! I won the award! For the Portuguese version of THE DARK SEA WAR CHRONICLES. What do you know!

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The thing is, on Monday, when I had to go back to work I was… exhausted. I was starting the work week so tired I didn’t know how I was going to manage it. So I indulged myself, I stopped everything but the absolutely necessary. I know I have a deadline, I have a novel to deliver by the end of the year and I’m late already. But I stopped writing.  I thought about all those people in this kind of life: how they manage jobs and five kids and still be able to find time to write. Many times it’s not the time to write that’s missing: it’s the time to think, the time to stop and get ideas, the time to create. Because creativity needs breathing air. It needs to grow organically and be given space. And one of the hardest things we have in this life is to be able to create when we’re exhausted. Indulging in idleness from time to time, allowing yourself to do nothing and worry about nothing, is incredibly important to pursue a creative career.

The problem is, of course, that it is a vicious cycle: you want to create so to overcome the status quo that makes you exhausted and you get too exhausted to create. And idleness can become an endless dark pit in an instant. You stop writing for a week to get yourself together, and suddenly that week becomes a month, then three months, then six months. The longer you go without writing the more you ‘lose your hand’ and it seems to become harder and harder to get back writing. So you have to be careful with that. You need to watch yourself.

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Many times I see my career as a writer equivalent to that of a top athlete: I need to think about everything in balance. I need to take care of what I eat, of my body, of the hours of sleep, of the amount of effort I put into my work, of the hours I need to write, of the money coming in and going out, of the marketing efforts, of my creativity, of what is demanded of me by others, etc. I always keep in mind that everything must be at a balance. Idleness included. The focus is in keep going. In sustainability. In my ability to keep everything in balance. That’s not always easy. Maybe it’s never easy. But it’s The Path. It’s what I have to do. It actually helps a lot when I have a weekend like the last. It has been a few exhausting weeks, but it is so good to be recognized by my peers and the public. It makes it all worth it, in my view. Thanks for being there, my fellow knights. I appreciate you more than you know.

Fanfic Playing

I don’t like Fanfic. Really. I don’t even like the concept. But last weekend made me think about it and my position changed a little bit. The concept is simple: you pick up other people’s characters, other people’s scenarios, other people’s work, life blood, soul, and imitate the feel, and pervert the stories. That’s what I think. Worst still if you twist in those idiotic mash-ups like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, or FRANKENSTEIN AND WHATEVER. Completely absurd. I don’t even know if they’re well written, the concepts alone make me sick. But last week I had an experience with something amounting to a kind of fanfic and I’d like to speak about it a little.

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Last weekend I was at the Rolisboa Festival in Marvila, Lisbon, Portugal. Rolisboa 2019 is an annual Lisbon-based tabletop games convention featuring role-playing games, story games and LARPs. It took place on the 28th and 29th of September and I loved it. Beyond the speaking events, the networking and the amazing games, I was there because my friend and Game Maker Sérgio Mascarenhas invited me for the World Premiere of his new game HOT TARGETS – THE DARK SEA WAR CHRONICLES, a game he created based on Universe of my books THE DARK SEA WAR CHRONICLES/A BATALHA DA ESCURIDÃO.

For those of you who don’t know the books they talk about Byllard Iddo, a young man who accidently killed his father in a martial arts training session. He leaves to join the Space Navy when a war breaks between the Webbur Union, its ally the Kingdom of Torrance, and their rival, the Axx Republic. A lieutenant in the powerful Webbur Navy, Byl will serve in different ships and face danger as the war grows in violence. My personal premise, though, is this: what if WWII’s Battle of the Atlantic happened in Space, thousands of light-years from Earth? So in the second volume of this trilogy, Iddo arrives at the Raven dwarf-planet, at the pirate city of Fumu, a destitute place where all kinds of degradation happens. This city is mostly like a dirty favella inside a giant bright cave. Here’s how Byl Iddo himself describes it in the book:

Bruno_Martins_Soares_KVol2.jpg«As we were speeding through the dirty streets in Thalof’s car, I thought I was looking at a giant lump of mold made of aluminum and zinc and dirty grey rocks and white chalk bricks that was slowly growing in an organic unorganized wild fashion inside a monstrous white ceiling cave. Huts after huts after huts.»

So, what Sérgio did was pick up this scenario and imagine a parallel story that happens just before the events in the book happen. Then he invented a few characters, picked up his game system Pentagram and off we went. First of all, I have to say that Sérgio’s effort to make the city of Fumu more complete and interesting while still managing to keep it loyal to the book filled me with humility and pride at the same time. I felt he did a great job and that my story and my books became more vivid and colorful because of it. The story in the game fits very well with my books and if you are able to both play the game and read the books you’ll have a different and richer experience.

He was actually the one who called this a Fanfic of some kind. I’m not sure I agree with it – and if it was he had the good sense and the respect of running everything by me before hand, which I thank him for the bottom of my soul. But the real Fanfic, in my view, was the game-playing itself. I played twice during the Festival: first as character player on Saturday and then as a co-GM on Sunday. The first time I really enjoyed it because I was always trying to understand what came next and discovering what the game had in common with the books. The second time I was thrilled with my first experience as GameMaster and felt it was a lot like writing, and could have done it for many hours – I was creating new problems and difficult challenges for the characters and that’s what I love doing. So in reality, I ended up the one doing the Fanfic myself – in my role as GameMaster. And it was fun as hell!

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So maybe I’m being too strict on this Fanfic thing. Maybe it’s just a game! Maybe that’s what’s supposed to be. I still think that writing is a way of expression: and that you really express yourself when you create your own characters and your own stories.  The closer you are to your own creations the more honest, deep and genuine writer you are. But still, why not play sometimes with other people’s characters? I think I rather do it in RPG’s myself, but maybe other people can practice their writing and creativity when they do it. I guess I’ll think about it some more and stop being so judgmental. See you next time, fellow knights.

5 Great Historical Battles in Movies

I love a good war movie. Hate them when they are ill-made, but a good one… well, it really makes my day. Over the years the excitement, the terror, the gut-wrenching feeling of being in a battle has been conveyed in a dramatic and impressive way in many different movies. But there’s a lot to a battle, from the general’s perspective to the private’s. As I write war stories and try to impress the same type of feeling onto my readers, and even though I research a lot, good battles seen in movies are many times the inspiration or the resource I invoke to help me imagine and enlarge those scenes. In this post I’m going to reference 5 battles in movies I really enjoy. Today I’m going to focus on battles with a historical setting – forgetting fantasy or Sci-Fi ones. Some are good moments in movies I didn’t really like overall, but in one way or another got the battle right – we feel it happening. They are not the best battles in film, as I didn’t really make a thorough selection. And I didn’t select them for their accuracy or their historical reference. They are just battles I enjoyed and which for a few moments really captured that feeling of ‘being there’, as well as showing something somewhat different than average. So here are 5 great battles in movies in a historical setting.

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– BATTLE AGAINST THE GERMANS – GLADIATOR

Ridley Scott’s GLADIATOR is, in my view, a somewhat overvalued film. It has many plot and writing flaws and one or two directorial ones. Still, it is our current benchmark on Roman-theme movies: the settings and costumes are incredible, the acting is very good and the characters inspiring. And, of course, it features a couple of battle scenes that are quite impressive. The battle against the Germans in the first few minutes of the movie is a very good sequence. We get the feeling of a Roman disciplined war-machine pitched against a rabble of barbarians. The scene is grey and heavy, the events are powerful and it’s an excellent introduction to the character of General Maximus, the MC, played by the strong Russell Crowe. It’s a scene I always like to watch.

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– BATTLE OF GAUGAMELA – ALEXANDER

Oliver Stone’s ALEXANDER is a movie that I have watched only once and for some reason am not that keen to watch again. I haven’t analyzed the film trying to understand why – it’s an unsatisfying movie to me, most likely because of the difficulty to understand and empathize with Alexander’s character. Still, Stone’s Battle of Gaugamela is a scene that I’ve watched isolated a number of times and always enjoy. It’s just very well built. And the way the aerial, birds-eye, view of the battle is constantly used to make us understand what’s happening is particularly happy. We feel the massive size of the forces in the fight and we can also feel the terrifying plights of the individual soldiers. Love it.

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– ASSAULT OF OUISTREHAM – THE LONGEST DAY

Daryl F. Zanuck’s THE LONGEST DAY is a wonderful movie. I’ve watched it many times and the sheer size of it still baffles me. It shows the Allied Invasion of Normandy in a way that really makes us believe in how heroic and amazing feat that battle must really have been. Many of the scenes and parts of Operation Overlord are well captured and accurate, even if many others are pure fiction. Still, the scene that always blows me out of my mind is the French commandos’ assault of the casino in Ouistreham.  The whole first wave of assault is filmed in one shot only, with a crane that travels through the whole village following the commandos running over a bridge and taking refuge in a battered building. The shot is simply amazing – see it here. I’m not really sure who directed it, as this 1962 movie had several directors working on it. It could have been Zanuck himself, who directed several scenes, but most likely was Ken Annakin who was in charge of British and French exteriors. Either way, it’s brilliant filmmaking and a breathtaking scene – if you like Stone’s Gaugamela’s aerial shots you will love this one.

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– BATTLE IN THE FOG – MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD

I’m not the biggest fan of Patrick O’Brian’s writings – I believe that Alexander Kent or C.S. Lewis are better novelists in many ways – still, I absolutely love Peter Weir’s  MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD, a delicious Napoleonic-war movie with very sound performances from Russell Crowe and Paul Bethany.  And I also absolutely love the first battle of the movie right at the outset. Weir is brilliant at this. The first few moments, as the British frigate quietly travels in calm waters, there’s a bit of confusion and suspicion as the officers try to decide if there is really an enemy waiting in the fog. The editing is excellent and we are put in a state of constant suspicion as if we were the characters themselves – maybe we see the enemy ship maybe not. And then there are the lights in the clouds and Captain ‘Lucky’ Jack (Russell Crowe) shouts ‘Get down!!’ and the whole first enemy broadside seems to destroy every piece of wood in the frigate – and then the whole mess really begins. The movie is very good and this first battle is better still – see it here. Kudos to Weir, I think this is the best directing he ever did.

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– BATTLE OF OMAHA BEACH – SAVING PRIVATE RYAN

Spielberg’s Omaha Beach sequence in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is probably the best battle sequence ever made. The sheer terror and realism of the sequence of the Rangers arriving at the beach, with Tom Hanks at the center of things, until the attacks on the bunkers, is absolutely amazing. We are never given a moment’s rest from the second the shooting starts and we are baffled that this kind of thing ever happened – and doubly baffled by the ability of these heroes to make coherent decisions in the midst of all the mayhem. Spielberg is a great director with a unique talent for making extras into real characters and Tom Hanks is one of the best actors that ever lived. The sound, the camera movements, the editing, everything is top-notch and we can’t really take a breath until it’s all over. Omaha Beach was one of the bloodiest battles on D-Day, and after we watch this sequence we seem to understand why. Well done!

So these are five moments in movie battles that I wanted to reference to you. As usual with my lists, they are not in any particular order. They are just great moviemaking. Hope you liked it. See you around the next campfire, fellow warriors.

 

 

The Tale of a Table: What is a Liberal?

What seems to have been a few centuries ago, when I was in college, in Law School at Lisbon University, I wrote an article in the Student’s Association magazine about the political spectrum. I was saying then that it was very difficult to maintain the idea of the left-right conflict of ideas. The Great Ideological War was waning after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The left won battles for Social Security, National Health Systems, the Union revolution, the assertion of the Principle of Equality, etc. But it lost the battle over Capitalism. Overall, a Great Compromise seemed to have been established. What we feel since then, though, is not really a void or a peace situation of some kind. No, we’re seeing the exact opposite: the emergence of old foes and the confusion of terms and ideas. Look at a term as ‘Liberal’ for instance, which means left-wing in the US but right-wing in Europe. What does it really mean? Is it really another way to say Socialist? Or, as in Europe, another way to say free-trader or Capitalist extremist? And what about Social-Democrat – a term so well established in Europe and so absent in the US? And what to call these so homogeneous and like-minded populists that have spawned throughout the world in the last few years? Let me speak a little bit about this.

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As I’ve written here, the recent populism wave makes me nervous. It is based on out-dated and dangerous principles Humanity has tried several times and which have failed miserably, leading to almost unimaginable catastrophes. National-Traditionalism, as we may call it, is trying to get back to the times before the Liberal Revolutions and to a Universe where progress, equality, the Rule of Law, and many other concepts we now hold dear were seen as myths.  These dangerous people believe in Nationalism, Culture Wars, Religious foundations, isolationism, ancient traditions,  and, curiously enough, in the Aristocratic Elites. They scorn most of the incredible and profound developments of the last few centuries and bank on the stupidity, the fear and the confusion of a mass of disillusioned who feel left behind by the evolution of Mankind.

Over two hundred years ago a wave of Liberalism swarmed the Western hemisphere. From the French Revolution to the creation of Italy or the independence of Brazil and other Latin American countries, the people were demanding a set of rights inspired by the thinking of the likes of Rousseau or Montesquieu. And then, in the late 1700’s, an amazing experiment came about in the Americas and a rising people wrote a few documents that established in stone the basic pillars of Liberal thinking. These were documents as The Constitution of the United States of America, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, etc. They established that ‘All men are created equal’, ‘Liberty and justice for all’, and that we have rights as the Freedom of Expression, the Right to Vote, the Freedom of Religion, the Right to a Fair Trial, the Right of Association – and many other Liberal Principles. This, my friends, the thinking behind the Constitution of the United States, is the Liberal Agenda.

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In my view, Liberals believe in one thing first of all: that Freedom is the basis of Happiness. That is what I believe as well. I believe Happiness comes from a sense of purpose, a sense of Meaning, and that Meaning depends on Choice. For that, we need Freedom. And that’s why I’m a Liberal. Now, according to the works of John Rawls, people don’t really feel free or happy unless they guarantee a certain amount of things: as a roof over their heads, food, or basic justice. So to some Liberals, the State could/should invest to assure a certain fairness of opportunities, liberty and justice. I take issue with many of Rawls concepts, but in a sense, I believe that he brings to light undervalued positions, as the ideas of decency and reasonability of a society based on how we treat each other.

Now, Conservatives prefer a more structured reality. They seem to believe that progress must be reigned in and that Happiness is impossible unless we protect some values, many times based on Religion, but also in a sense of Family and structured Community that allows people to assert their initiative and their economic power in society.

Then we have Socialists. The ones that survived the Cold War are not hardliner communists and pro-Soviet ideologues. Modern Democratic Socialism survives and thrives in Europe these days, and even if it believes the State to be the central guarantee of Equality and Happiness of individuals, even if it is still suspicious and defiant of Capitalism, even if it prefers to put the collectiveness above the individual, it no longer believes the State to be the source and the guarantor of all-things-Good.

Now, I personally always felt a little bit ‘out-of-the-box’ politically. I couldn’t fit into any of the designations of political movements in Europe nor to any of the parties that rule my country Portugal. So instead of classifying myself as a member of this or that movement, I have for a while tried to evaluate my beliefs and analyze my attitudes and behavior. As the terminologies and the political tendencies evolved, I held my baring by putting a set of values in a table and comparing the different parties and political programs according to those values. I can now say with confidence that I am a Liberal, even though only recently (at least in my mind) did this terminology gained a more unified meaning. So, for you who are still confused with the different factions now in play (especially in the US where some of the terms are very mixed-up) here is my latest table (I’m sorry for my untalented design):

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This is not a scientific analysis – it’s the analysis I make for myself. It’s designed to give a bit of perspective. Some of you might think I’m wrong about this or that. Some might think themselves as Socialist and still believe in some sort of Capitalism, for instance, or be a Conservative and still believe Climate Change is happening, or that the State should somewhat regulate the market; and many Modern Socialists believe in International Institutions (like the UN, NATO, IMF, WTO, etc), even though many more, I think, are critical of them. But I’m going for broad categories – for what seem to be the main positions of most people in those political movements or best describe them, so please be gentle with your criticisms. This table is a simple tool. If you want, pick up the Belief items on the left and decide for yourself if this or that political movement is a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. But this is the way I view them and judge them – and the line by which I figure out my own placement.

In view of this table, I’m a Liberal: I believe in Free-Trade, I believe in Fiscal Responsibility, I’m pro-Choice, I believe in a single-payer Health System, I don’t believe the State should own companies or intervene directly in the Economy except in very particular circumstances. I’m pro-World Order, I’m progressive about LGBT rights, I believe Climate Change is a real threat, etc. I also believe in Capitalism, as I wrote here.

Everything I’m telling you about you can find out by reading past posts of this very blog. Go check out. I have good reason to believe in all these things. Each and every one of them. Most of all, I believe in Freedom and I believe in the Liberal Agenda. Hope it helps that I point all this out and hope that it makes sense to you. See you around, my fellow warriors.

The Legendary Undefeated City

2This weekend I traveled North to the special and charming city of Oporto for the city’s Book Fair. My publisher had me come in for a book signing and there I went. The Oporto Book Fair is not a big event, we’re talking of about 130 exhibitors, but I’m certainly not one to complain, I’m happy to stage any book signing, of course – and don’t think many people came, I’m not that known of a writer. But still, I signed a couple of books and had fans come in with previous publications, happy to meet me almost as much as I was happy to meet them. I was also happy to return to this city, the one they call The Undefeated. Been there a few times and I love to go back.

Oporto is the second largest Portuguese city. Which isn’t saying much. It harbors around 1 million people overall. And it is a special city, completely different from Lisbon. Lisbon is built around seven hills, but they are low hills and the city is wide and the proximity of the sea and the wide exit of the Tagus have a peculiar effect on the light. Oporto is also built around hills, near the sea and next to the lovely Douro River. But it’s very different: the streets are narrower, the hills are steeper, the river is closer and narrower as well and the dark stones of the old streets and houses make it a darker city, somehow. And people are different – more gentle and well dressed, less urban. That’s part of the charm of Portugal: you just travel a dozen miles in any direction and it’s like you’re in a completely different country – beaches, mountains, deserts, old cities and new. You just have it all in a small piece of land.

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But here’s something I noticed as I walked through these streets: everywhere I went I picked up many different sounds and languages. I heard people talking in Italian, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Chinese, etc. I didn’t even need to walk. As soon as I opened the window of the flat I rented for a couple of nights I could hear the sounds of all around the globe – as if Oporto had become suddenly much more cosmopolitan than I remembered. This diversity, if you think about it, is a sign of progress, prosperity, evolution and even wealth. Think about it. When you imagine New York or London, or Ancient Rome or Ancient Beijing, or Napoleonic Paris or even Colonial Lisbon, you must imagine these places filled with all kinds of culture, languages, customs, diversity.

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It’s not just the depictions of a great metropolis as Rome in films like GLADIATOR or BEN HUR. In these pictures, it always seems that the diversity of every part of the Empire makes the city greater and more sophisticated. But there are other less… shall we say commercial views? See, for instance, the old painting of 16th century Lisbon, then one of the greatest cities in the world, called THE KING’S FOUNTAIN – see how it depicts knights and other African characters, as well as Jewish merchants and different artisans – they were part of the city’s regular life. Also, here’s how Marco Polo described the capital of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century: «To the city also are brought articles of greater cost and rarity, and in greater abundance of all kinds, than to any other city in the world. For people of every description, from every region bring things (including all the costly wares of India, as well as the fine and precious goods of Cathay itself), some for the sovereign, some for the court, some for the city which is so great, some for the crowds of barons and knights, some for the great hosts of the emperor which are quartered round about; and thus between court and city the quantity brought in is endless.» As in other descriptions, diversity is mentioned as a sign of prosperity and wealth and significance.

Quiz_U.S.ImmigrationSo it’s easy to equate the phenomenon of immigration with progress and prosperity. It seems they come hand in hand. Actually, I remember meeting a Swedish professor that showed me how the USA had built its success around immigration. He said something like this: «If you emigrate to Sweden or Portugal or France, you will never be a Swede or a Portuguese or a French. Maybe your children, having been born in these countries, can have the chance of being considered native – if they’re lucky and they don’t have a different tone of skin or their names don’t give them up. If you emigrate to America, though, you can legally become a citizen after five years. You just become an American like any other. That’s the biggest competitive advantage the Americans have over everybody else.» A place where you can converge a vast amount of points of views, cultures and customs is a place of great learning and adaptation, becoming strong and sophisticated. Places that remain closed and homogeneous and bare eventually fall sick and poor and die.

That is exactly the main strength of cities, as a matter of fact. Cities are in fact the most durable and resilient of entities, more resilient than countries or even civilizations and empires. Paris, for instance, has seen the rise and fall of different tribes, the Roman Empire, the Frankish Empire, and Nazi Germany and many others, and it still remains the City of Paris. Something similar can be said of Rome, London, Lisbon or New York. That happens because cities, those legendary undefeated entities, are the poles of diversity, they adapt and they integrate many different cultures and customs and races and culinary delicacies and colorful games and art forms. They are a phenomenon of integration and resilience.

Let me say as well that it baffles me that the very same people that are scared and dismissive of immigration are the same that deny the massive happening of Climate Change. Because, as many have been saying for years, Climate Change itself, if not addressed and faced, will definitely cause or is already causing massive migratory phenomena around the world. So facing Climate Change and working to stop it is a much more effective remedy for migratory ‘invasions’, real or imaginary, than any wall whatsoever.

wellington-landing-Lx-1809If you ever read Bernard Cornwell, Simon Scarrow and/or Adrian Goldsworthy you might know that Oporto is a city where the brilliant general Arthur Wellesley, the Irish Duke of Wellington, and his red-coats faced the great armies of Napoleon and defeated them. As I crossed the Douro River on a train, heading back home to the South, I remembered those incredible battles fought by, among others, expatriated soldiers. Part of Wellington’s genius was the creation of integrated battalions, with both British and Portuguese nationals, and later Spanish, Dutch and Germans as well, if I recall. Diversity, he seemed to notice, make us all stronger. We should all notice it too. See you around the next campfire, fellow warriors.

‘Chernobyl’ and The Metaphor of Radioactivity

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This week I watched another top-notch HBO TV show: CHERNOBYL. And scary as hell also! I still remember when I was young to have watched the news about the radioactive cloud coming in from the East (it never got to Portugal, of course), and being amazed by the concept of radioactive acid rain. I was born in 1971 so I still remember very well the Soviet Union and that horrible feeling that a nuclear war was always imminent. Just as today with Climate Change, nuclear war seemed in the ’70s and ’80s an inevitable end. Something completely out of our control. At any moment any crazy idiot in power could make a mistake and start shooting missiles and things would go out of hand. Remember that John Badham movie WARGAMES? With Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy? When a young hacker accidentally gets a computer to almost launch a nuclear war? We felt like that all the time. And it was awful.

The accident at Chernobyl affected half a continent for many years, and it is still affecting, with the city of Chernobyl itself and its Exclusion Zone still out of bounds. Radioactivity takes many life spans to vanish. Thousands of years. The series of CHERNOBYL, though, shows that the risks we took were actually much higher and that without the effort and sacrifice of many people and many lives, the consequences of the accident would have been almost unimaginable.

The performances in these five episodes were assured by the powerful Stellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson, and the very talented Jared Harris. Harris performed admirably as the dying King of England in Netflix’s THE CROWN, accounting for some of the best scenes in the series, and now was put to very good use as the Soviet scientist Legasov who was in charge of the efforts to contain the effects of the accident and then turned whistleblower and denounced the fatal flaws in Soviet civilian nuclear reactors. The extreme and frightening consequences of each and every human decision taken through those months should give us chills and nightmares. The whole series is cleverly written and it surprisingly starts with the explosion itself. The actual explanation of what cause it is left to the end, to the shrewd court scenes in the fifth episode – where most of all Legasov’s somewhat crude but intelligent testimony makes it very clear how everything happened.

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As (SPOILER ALERT) Legasov’s final conclusions point out, much of the problem rested in the way the Soviet Union itself worked. Even though it called itself a democracy, it settled on a centralized system of control and command that took to the extreme the very elitism that it claimed to fight against. The communist Soviet Union was a place where it was so deadly or catastrophic to question one’s superior that sacrificing one’s life seemed a better alternative. And as in every other communist country, it was the ruling elite that decided what was good for the people and what was the accepted and repeated narrative – the inferior mass was condemned to obey and lower their eyes as the Aristocracy of the Communist Party affirmed obvious lies and hid the contradictions of the system. The whole decision-making apparatus was fundamentally flawed by this illusion of control that almost dammed half a continent. It was cheaper to sacrifice lives than to tell the truth. Millions could have died from contamination and disease if it wasn’t for the bravery and the abnegation of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians. To all accounts, it seems that between 4,000 and 93,000 people ended up dying because of the accident in Chernobyl – the official Soviet count is 31. It makes us wonder how many casualties there were in the Nyonoksa nuclear accident a month ago – Russian authorities only counted 10.

Yes, in nowadays Russia we see an effort from Vladimir Putin and his cronies to go back to a sort of the Soviet Union of the past. Putin himself named the fall of the USSR as the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century – as if Hiroshima, the Holocaust, Verdun or Chernobyl itself weren’t far more costly, cruel, violent and absurd events. Putin’s clinging to the past and fear of democracy is the fuel that feeds his dictatorial stance and his rampant lying. An elitist lying Government is the pillar of this system and it is a system that Putin is trying to replicate in the USA itself, through the brilliant cyber-political warfare that has been growing since 2015 – and following the success in the 2016 Presidential Elections.

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The main metaphor of CHERNOBYL is the Radioactivity of Lies. Nuclear devices are incredibly dangerous and scary machines. Radioactivity is relentless and almost unstoppable. As with Climate Change, Humans play with it as if we were giant toddlers in a china shop. We are enthusiastic and prolific creators of dangers we do not understand, moving with great energy through fragile corridors without full dominion of our own legs and arms. We destroy with ease and destroy even more when we try to correct what we did wrong before. We are one-eyed ghouls unaware of our power, our weakness, and our ignorance.

But much worse than that is the abject lies that cover this weakness and this ignorance. Mistakes are hidden and the truth is manipulated. This manipulation is corrosive and deadly – it’s radioactive. And, as Legasov puts it in the series, it boils under the surface until it becomes unbearable and explodes. The illusion of control is only that, an illusion. The irony is that the will of the people, so acclaimed in the Soviet Union and yet so missed, when energized in a real democracy has the same effect as radioactivity and truth: it escapes control and becomes unstoppable. Putin knows this – as a KGB agent, he witnessed as the people of Germany rose up to level down the Berlin Wall in 1989. And it scared him. It probably still gives him nightmares similar to what the radioactivity of Chernobyl must have given many many people all those years ago.

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We cannot control everything in our lives. I spoke about it here. What we can do as small individuals in a world of billions of others and a Universe of billions of stars, is very limited. But it is not nothing. Our decisions matter. Our rising up matters. Each one of us. Because many years ago, democracy wasn’t even a choice, and now it’s here. And facing the truth, as hard as it can be, is what assures our freedom and our meaning of life. See you around the next campfire, fellow warriors.