Sunday, 28 June 2015

Cunning Plans by Warren Ellis Review

Cunning Plans is a short collection of talks Warren Ellis gave between 2011 and 2015 at various conferences around the world. 

Ellis is best known as a comics writer whose work includes Transmetropolitan, Planetary, The Authority, Freakangels, and numerous books at Marvel and DC. A lot of his best work concerns futurism, history and technology, all of which are themes covered in the talks and delivered in an intelligent but accessible, and funny, way. 

He talks about the perception of science fiction as a means of predicting the future and what utter bullshit it is. Captain Kirk may have had a mobile-phone-looking device but it’s nothing like the smartphones we use today. Using it to talk to others is just one of a million functions our little black mirrors can do - Star Trek and other science fictions predicted nothing! Looking at the present is more relevant than throwing out guesses as Ellis writes: “To improve reality is to clearly see where you are, and then wonder how to make that better.”

But also, science fiction is always about the time it was written. 1984 is about 1948, and Orwell wasn’t trying to predict anything, he was using the novel to discuss concerns of the post-war years. 

Ellis ties in ideas of magic and history into our current state of technology. You’ll learn about Cunning Murrell, a 19th century magician, who’s linked to Baldrick, a character from the British sitcom Blackadder whose catchphrase “I have a cunning plan…” is where the title comes from. Also, how older forms of magic and its language informs the technology that’s appeared. As he says, “Technology is the process of replicating the condition of magic. That’s the paradigm.”

The subjects in the talks are wide-ranging from a Kenyan peasant farmer called Mogo to Hannah Beswick the Manchester mummy to the story of the Tongva people who inhabited the Los Angeles basin once upon a time - I won’t spoil those here, you’ll have to read them yourself, but they’re excellent true stories. 

Ellis’ talks are erudite but also have moments of humour, which is what makes his somewhat misanthropic attitude more palatable. On the subject of the Vorticists, he says:

“Modernism says that things can be right. Post-modernism says that nothing can be right. So if you ever wonder why nothing new ever seems to happen any more, find a post-modernist and beat the shit out of them.”

Some talks seem a bit random but are entertaining nevertheless. One morbid talk about old cities has Ellis musing:

“This is the point about old cities that everyone forgets - they’re nothing but dead people all the way down. And this is the point about America that everyone forgets - it is not a young country. It simply has the worst case of cultural amnesia on the planet. The worst, but not the only case. Because it happens everywhere. We only ever focus on the skin of a city, and never its blood and bone.”

Some of the talks are repetitive - Cunning Murrell appears again as mentions of Apple tech - and his talk on pop music was a bit uninteresting, but on the whole these are some wonderful essays full of fascinating history and observations. Ellis’ real voice is similar to his authorial one so if you’re a fan of his comics or books, like me, you’ll definitely find a lot to enjoy with Cunning Plans. Get in league with the fantastic!

Cunning Plans

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