Adaptations are in: from comics to classic literature, our films and TV screens are dominated by characters originally convinced for other mediums. The most successful of these focus on well-established characters from stories written decades ago that have been adapted several times before. Characters such as James Bond and Batman are being constantly reimagined and updated. Now these larger than life cultural icons dominate pop culture.

These cultural icons favoured by high-budget film and TV adaptations are the ones we have all grown up with and seen in many different forms. They include American characters, such as Superman from the golden age of comics, and icons of Britishness, such as Sherlock Holmes. Many have changed over and over again to suit each new age, like Dr Who. Batman and Bond have been camp, surreal and moody depending on how we want them to reflect how we see ourselves.

These characters are larger than life. In the recent film Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Clark Kent looks up a statue of Superman that is several stories high, an unsubtle way of saying that the idea Superman is bigger than any one person or story. The recent BBC adaptation of Sherlock Holmes featured Sherlock dealing with the consequences of his own fame: the character of Sherlock is surpassed in the public’s mind by a mysterious, unknowable figure in a deerstalker hat who appears on the front page of newspapers. In the recent series of Dr Who, the Doctor is not so much a person but an idea woven through time and space itself.

Many fans, writers and viewers grew up with these characters, and as we did so, our understanding of them grew as well. Now that lifelong fans control the companies and broadcasters who own these characters, we have entered an introspective cultural age. Since the 2008 financial crash, western civilisation has been asking questions about what we stand for and what should we stand for? Nowhere is this more apparent than with writers adapting these larger-than-life cultural icons into new stories. Writers are exploring our culture-wide uncertainty about the future by using established cultural icons to ask questions about who we are. This is done by making films or TV series that ask the question who is James Bond or who is Sherlock Holmes?

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The larger-than-life status of these characters means that stories which explore who they are often do not fit into works that are believable. Writers have to compress their complex history into a believable human being, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the recent Sherlock Holmes Christmas special that tried to reconcile the present day and the Victorian Sherlock into one story. It ended up being a nonsensical mishmash of two tangentially related plotlines. Sherlock cannot be both his modern self and his Victorian self, and this make sense in a story that takes place in a world which we can recognise as being our own.

The Sherlock Christmas special is not the only example where this approach has led writers astray. Writing a story that asks questions about a cultural icon can led to an excessive focus on character and not enough on story. Most people want Sherlock or the newest DC film to be an entertaining story, not existential musing on the nature of Batman. The story must stand alone and be believable to the audience.

Another example of when the story was not believable was the most recent James Bond film, Spectre. Since Daniel Craig took over as Bond in 2006, we have been treated to a darker and grittier take on the suavely-dressed, wise-cracking spy. These stories have probed the nature of who James Bond is – is he a psychopath, or can he connect with other human beings? How can someone recognise their humanity after killing so many people, and treating almost every woman he meets as subservient to his will?

In the most recent adventure, Bond uncovers an international criminal organisation which has been behind all of the awful things that have befallen him. This global criminal syndicate seems to exist only to test James Bond; it is as if he is the most important person in the world. This has come about through trying to reconcile the icon of James Bond, the criminal enterprise Spector from the classic James Bond adventures, and a story which focuses on Bond’s humanity. In our introspective age, James Bond cannot fight a global criminal network as he did in the 1960s: instead, the global criminal network must ask questions about who is James Bond. The problem is, in our world international criminal organisations do not focus their activity on antagonising one person. This makes the story inherently unbelievable.

Daniel-Craig-James-Bond

Man of Steel chose to focus on how alien Superman is, rather than how human Clark Kent is. By constantly putting across how unlike us Superman is, we can see the character as the great culture icon which he is. Superman clearly cannot be human, as no one person can wear so many faces and do so much over the years. This makes Superman difficult to relate to. Audiences are not interested in a protagonist they cannot understand and no one can understand what it is like to be a cultural icon like Superman. This makes Man of Steel quite a cold film, with a protagonist that viewers cannot relate to.

Sherlock focuses on the relationship between Holmes and Dr Watson as the source of most of its drama. This misses the whole point of Sherlock Holmes, solving mysteries. The character of Sherlock has always been seen through the eyes of Watson, as it is the only way he can be knowable to ordinary human beings. However, when writers focus on the internal conflict of who is Sherlock Holmes, or the interpersonal conflict between Holmes and Watson, they miss the extra-personal conflict of the mystery to be solved. Focusing on the character of Sherlock is fine, as long as a good story can be told as well.

In recent years, Dr Who has become very introspective around the nature of the Doctor; an entire plot arc focused on the need to prevent the Doctor from answering the question of what his name is. This focus on the Doctor as an icon has meant that within the world of Dr Who, the Doctor has grown as a character from someone who joyrides through time and space, to a titanic figure who has seemingly touched the life of everyone in that universe. So much has the Doctor grown in infamy, that several times he defeats the antagonist of an adventure simply by shouting “I am the Doctor” at the problem – The Forest of the Dead is a notable example of this.

I can see how knowledge of the Doctor would grow over time in the universe of Doctor Who, but the current obsession with the nature of the Doctor as an icon within his universe has meant that he has grown to become not only godlike but the greatest and only God of this universe. This prevents the Doctor being relatable as a character, makes the dramatic events less believable and the narrative suffers. Any writer dealing with one of these cultural icons needs to avoid these three mistakes.

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This age of introspection has produced some good films and TV shows. Batman Begins is a strong example of how to take an established character, ask questions about them and tell a good story. The film was successful in explaining why a man who wanted to fight crime dressed up as a bat and wore a cape despite the obviously impracticalities. It made Batman believable. Focusing on the psychological effect that the death of his parents had on Bruce Wayne made him relatable. Also, turning Batman’s trainer into a villain made for an interesting narrative.

There are other examples. Casino Royale is the best of the Bond films starring Daniel Craig. It shows the origin of Bond’s bloodlust through the trauma from the death of his lover, Vesper. This is believable and relatable. The film also has a great story. In Sherlock, the adaptation of the Hound of the Baskervilles was their best episode as it had a solid mystery at its core, thus delivering a good story.

From this I can determine that the three important characteristics to bear in mind when writing a story with a well-established cultural icon is believability, relatability and narrative. Writers working with these larger-than-life characters should keep this in mind so that the stories they create are engaging for an audience who are not as interested in asking questions about who is Batman or Bond. Generally, audiences prefer well-written stories focusing on their favourite characters – after all, the quality of their stories was why we fell in love with these characters in the first place.

The London Natural History Museum is unusually crowded, even for a Saturday afternoon. Children charge in every direction towards the skeletons of dinosaurs or volcanic rocks. Parents fret and try to keep up, or at least not lose their children in the throngs of people. There are tourists with confused expressions, who stop in the middle of a corridor without warning. Teenagers are taking selfies with the statue of Charles Darwin and middle aged men are looking at butterflies with furrowed brows. This bustle of human activity is the most important thing in the universe right now.

I step out of the crowd and into the quiet space of the Natural History Museum’s latest exhibition, ‘Otherworlds: Visions of Our Solar System’. The inside of the exhibition is the opposite of the rest of the museum. It is a quiet place in which to regard large static pictures of the planets in our solar system, while contemplating humanity’s place in the universe. Soothing ambient music from Brian Eno plays throughout, an original commission for this exhibition.

The exhibition consists of thousands of photos of the solar system – taken by NASA, ESA, probes and rovers – assembled into large images of Earth’s neighbours by the artist Michael Benson. It begins with Earth and the moon, before moving out to Mars, Mercury and Venus, and then travels all the way to the most distant planets. Each picture appears to show a world that is stranger and more alien than the one before it.

Otherworlds Saturn

As I walked around the quiet space filled with enormous images of distant worlds, I was reminded that the universe is cold, dangerous and indifferent to everything we care about. Mercury’s atmosphere is pushed away from the surface by solar light and trails behind the planet like a comet’s tale. Venus’s atmosphere is toxic, heavy and superheated; completely inhospitable to human life. Mars is a dry desert. The rest of the solar system is cold and airless. Confronted with the stark hostility of the universe, I forgot all about the hive of activity outside the exhibition. It all seemed so pointless and brief compared to the surface of other worlds that have remained unchanged for millions of years.

It was scary to realise how insignificant we are, but I was also able to see also that the universe has great beauty as well as dangerous environments. Saturn looks sublime with its perfect rings. The cobalt blue of Uranus looks tranquil against the perfectly black sky. The cracked icy surface of Europa (a moon of Jupiter) is beautiful as well as protecting the sea beneath, which is kept liquid by the pull of Jupiter’s gravity despite the extreme cold of being so far from the sun. Even in the harshest of environments, nature still holds wonders. The grand vistas of the Martian desert are stunning to behold. The universe is beautiful as well as dangerous.

This beauty is timeless and eternal. It is entirely unaffected by anything humanity has done – aside from the odd discarded rover on Mars or probe flying out into deep space. We are so vanishingly small when compared to the rest of our solar system. There are cloud storms in Jupiter’s atmosphere that are larger than our whole world. The impact of humanity cannot even be seen on pictures of Earth, a reminder that it is not the world we are trying to save but ourselves. We cannot fathom how small and insignificant we are next to the vastness of the universe.

Otherworlds Mars

The universe is very beautiful, but utterly indifferent to everything we care about. The ice on Europa will still be there after everything we have ever cared about has turned to dust. A billion years after we are all dead, Saturn’s rings will still be spinning, unaffected by our lives and everything we hold dear. I was left feeling very small and pointless.

I emerged from Otherworlds into the hall of mammals at the Natural History Museum. The shouts of the rest of humanity disturbed my Brian Eno-created calm, but the scene was a welcome reminder of the fact that we do matter. Life maybe fragile, small and brief when compared to the planets in the sky, but the vibrancy and diversity of life on Earth is stunning to behold and every bit as beautiful as the surface of dead worlds. Humanity and the petty things we care about are more unusual than anything that exists on any other world we know about, and might perhaps be unique in the entire universe. I felt that I had travelled to the edge of the solar system to be reminded of truth about the people all around me: we maybe be small but we are still important.

Otherworlds: Visions of Our Solar System is on at the London Natural History Museum until the 15th of May 2016.

Warning: This article will deal with the issue of domestic violence and thus has a trigger warning. It will also have some mild spoilers for the TV show Jessica Jones.

Jessica JonesAngry, hard-drinking, gets into fights, has dysfunctional relationships, lives in a seedy apartment – these are the characteristics of the archetypical PI. You can usually add male to the list as well, which is one reason why the Netflix/Marvel show Jessica Jones is such a breath of fresh air. Here we have a familiar take on the New-York-based private eye, but this time the PI is a woman – and has super strength. However, what makes Jessica Jones (played by Krysten Ritter) enduring as a character is her personality: she is a savour, living in a dangerous and uncertain world, but she never gives up. Also, she had a habit of breaking doors.

Jessica Jones is part of the wider Marvel shared universe, but one of the strengths of the show is that you do not need to have seen any of the other films or TV shows to follow the plot. The story is entirely stand alone, and it also has a different visual style and narrative to the Marvel cinematic properties. Jessica Jones is a gritty, intimate, ground level view of life as a jobbing person-with-abnormal-abilities. It is nothing like the spectacle rich, epic action-scene-based films of Iron Man or Captain America. Jessica Jones digs deeper into its characters than the films, which is one advantage a thirteen-part TV show has over a two-hour film.

The conflict of the show hinges around Jessica’s personal relationships and not big action set pieces. We sees Jessica arguing with her boss, who is going through a messy divorce (ably played by Carrie-Anne Moss). We find out about her childhood and her lifelong best friend Trish (Rachael Taylor), and their friendship is dramatised with all the complexities of relationships we are familiar with from our own lives. Jessica and Trish have a deep bond of friendship, but Jessica’s volatile personality leads to frequent falling outs. The show also develops in detail Jessica’s relationship with the antagonist, Kilgrave – played by David Tennant on very good and very creepy form.

Kilgrave is another person-with-abnormal-abilities (we need better terminology for these people, anything better than hero or enhanced), although Kilgrave’s power is that anyone has to do whatever he tells them. Free will does not exist around Kilgrave. If he wants you to stab your best friend, there is nothing you can do about it. Kilgrave uses this ability to manipulate others and enrich himself. He especially likes to use it make beautiful young women his play thing. One of these women was Jessica and at the start of the show she is still recovering psychologically from the experience of being under Kilgrave’s control.

David Tenant in Jessica JonesThe show uses a sci-fi concept, Kilgrave’s mind control, to explore an important issue in our world, the power dynamics of abusive and controlling relationships. Kilgrave’s abilities are clearly a metaphor for the power abusers’ hold over their victims/loved ones and for how hard it is to break free from the control of someone who is abusive. Approaching this subject through the prism of science fiction allows the show to explore the dynamics of an abusive relationship with a degree of fantasy that makes the narrative less emotionally traumatic and easier to engage with than a more straightforward approach to the subject.

There are lots of films and TV shows that deal with domestic abuse in a sensitive and nuanced way, and stories based in our world that take a frank look at the nature of abusive relationships. Unfortunately, these films and TV shows do not find a huge audience, because of the depressing nature of their content. Tyrannosaur, directed by Paddy Considine, is one such example. Tyrannosaur is a brilliant film but sadly was not seen by many people because most audiences are not interested in social realist dramas set on a Glasgow council estate. The perception of science fiction as more light-hearted and entertaining allows these difficult to digest insights to slip under the radar and into the minds of the viewer.

Jessica Jones is a very good example of serious issues being smuggled into an accessible show with mass audience appeal. Jessica Jones explores the psychological toll that domestic violence has on its victims. Kilgrave appears as a shadow stalking Jessica, disturbing her sleep, distressing her, and appearing to physically assault her despite not being present. At first, the viewer is uncertain if this is a manifestation of Kilgrave’s powers, but later we find that it is psychological damage left by his hold over Jessica.

I like science fiction which tackles serious issues as much as I like escapist sci-fi, which distracts us from this world and appeals to our imagination. The Marvel shared universe has both, in Jessica Jones and Guardians of the Galaxy. Jessica Jones uses the concepts of the sci-fi genre to reflect our own world back at us in a way that we can easily comprehend. This makes it easier to understand how painful it is when an abuser holds power over their victim, and it also shows how difficult it is to escape from an abusive relationship. The use of a sci-fi concept as a key component of this relationship does not cheapen or belittle the psychological suffering of the victims, it merely makes it easier to understand how Kilgrave controls his victims.

Trish Walker in Jessica JonesDavid Tennant plays the role of Kilgrave very well. His usual, charming, likeable persona works well when playing a serial abuser. Often people who abuse others are outwardly charming and likeable. They hide the pain they inflict and force their victims to hide it as well. The character of Kilgrave was also abused himself during his childhood, by his parents’ researching his mind control abilities. This does not excuse his actions, but it does highlight an issue that abusers are often previous victims of abuse. Their own history of abuse colours their relationships with others. Pain and love are intertwined in Kilgrave’s mind.

Kilgrave also does not see what is wrong about what he does. He sees himself as the real victim, and believes that Jessica genuinely loves him despite the way he has treated her. He blames his victims for his own actions, believes he acts in their best interest and tries to give up violence but always relapses. Kilgrave is entitled and believes he deserves the love and affection of Jessica, despite causing her so much pain. These are among the characteristics of abusive partners and the show explores how these traits appear in abusers who do not have a supernatural control over their victims. Jessica’s best friend Trish has been abused by her mother, who believes she acted in her daughter’s best interest, has a strong sense of entitlement and appears outwardly charming. Through the science fiction drama of the struggle to free New York City from the terror which Kilgrave inflicts, the show explores the nuances of abusive relationships.

Personally, I find this variety of science fiction more interesting than the escapist kind, although both suit different movies. It is also possible for science fiction to be escapist and to tackle serious issues, such as Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky. Jessica Jones is an example of a complex issue in our world explored through the prism of sci-fi concepts. I hope that the show is doing some good, that it illuminated some people to the nature of abuse or made[*therefore also present tense: makes] them questions their own assumptions. This is the power of science fiction to be a social good and shows that Marvel can come up with interesting new takes on their well-established characters.

Iron Man in Avengers the Age-of UltronAnother year is drawing to a close and it’s time to reflect on what kind of year it has been. In the cinema, it has been a good year for sci-fi films, with Jurassic World breaking the record for fastest film to gross a billion dollars in June and then Star Wars shattering that record in December. The Sci-fi London film festival also introduced me to several interesting new indie sci-fi films and short films; you can read my summary of the latter here.

As with 2013 and 2014, 2015 was dominated by superhero films. Marvel released its usual two blockbusters in the spring and summer. First up was their crossover film Avengers: The Age of Ultron, which combined many great characters, had a charismatic villain and amazing special effects, but failed to come together as a complete narrative. The character development was bitty, spread too thin between too many characters, and at some points just plain dull. We did not need a whole sequence dedicated to Hawkeye’s domestic situation.

Later in the summer, Marvel released Ant-Man, which was much better. What could have been a quite daft story of a shrinking superhero who talks to inspects ended up being the surprise witty action hit of the summer. The climactic fight on a model Thomas the Tank Engine railway was spectacular and hilarious.

20th Century Fox are still desperately clinging to their Marvel properties and this year released Fantastic Four, which I did not see but the general impression was that it was dire. The Batmanifcation (yes, I am still trying to make that a word) of superhero films is such that we were treated to a dark and gritty Fantastic Four. No one wants that, as the film’s poor reviews and box office shows.

Mad Max Fury Road FuriosaThis year remakes were out: there was only one prominent remake and that was Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the camp British TV spy show, The Man from Uncle. It was funny and filled with early 60s glamour. I enjoyed it a lot; most of the films I really liked this summer were the ones that did not take themselves too seriously.

Remakes maybe out of style but sequels were hugely popular, especially sequels to spy films, as we had Mission Impossible 5: Rough Nation and James Bond 24: Spectre. Both were very entertaining and true to their respective franchises. Less impressive was Terminator Genisys, which saw Arnie reprise his most famous role and audiences wonder what on earth was going on with the insane narrative.

Jurassic Park and The Hunger Games also had respectable sequels, the latter rounding off an impressive film series, but the best sequel of the year and my film of the year was Mad Max: Fury Road. Directed by the original Mad Max director, George Miller, and starring Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy, the film was visually stunning, a rollercoaster ride of amazing action scenes and had brilliant characters. The real star of the film was Theron playing Imperator Furiosa, a character that surely must become a feminist icon. Fury Road was brilliant from start to finish in more ways than I can describe here, all I can say is go see it if you have not already and if you have then watch it again.

SuperbobBritish sci-fi films had a good year, much praise was heaped upon Alex Garland’s Ex Machina for being tense, creepy and making the audience think. However my favourite British film of the year was Super Bob, which I saw premiered at the Sci-fi London film festival. Super Bob is the story of a postman from Peckham who is given superpowers after an encounter with a meteorite. Unlike charismatic American superheroes, Super Bob is self-conscious, awkward and worried that he has signed up to two electricity suppliers. This film is hilarious and moving, in the tradition of many great British independent films. If it is showing near you then I highly recommend going to see it.

Narrowly beaten to film of the year was Pixar’s latest, Inside Out, a film that ponders the question: what if feelings had feelings? This film is laugh a minute, surreal and a tear jerker, like all the best Pixar films. Pixar have been down on their luck with their recent output but this warm and funny film reminds us why they are the best studio in the world at making family films. The central message of Inside Out, that it is okay to be sad and that part of growing up is having complex feelings, is an important life lesson done in an accessible way and with great humanity.

Accessibility and humanity are not how I would describe another of my favourite films of the year, High Rise starting Tom Hiddleston. Based on the classic J. G. Ballard novel, this movie is violent and subversive. It charts the complete moral and social breakdown of a new luxury high rise development with cold, sociopathic precision. The sight of so many geometric shapes and concrete in the architecture of the eponymous high rise pleased my visual sense and the excellent performances from Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons and Keeley Hawes made this a disturbingly intense film to watch. High Rise is not on general release yet, but I would recommend seeing it when it is.

Star Wars cast a long shadow over this year and is undoubtedly the biggest film of the year. The impact was even felt in the indie documentary cinema scene and at the London film festival I saw Elstreet 1976, a charming documentary looking at people who played minor roles in the original Star Wars film and the effect on their lives of the fame it brought.

Star Wars The Force Awakens ReyIn December The Force Awakens came crashing into cinema. Demand for tickets was high, booking websites crashed and fights broke out over tickets at a cinema in Lancaster. I am a big Star Wars fan and I loved The Force Awakens. It was true to the spirit of Star Wars, brought back some familiar faces and introduced some great new characters. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega were amazing as the new protagonists and Adam Driver was intense and creepy as the new villain. It is nice, for once, that the biggest film of the year is also one of the best.

Originality was rare in 2015 and that looks set to continue in 2016. Comic book adaptations include Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange from Marvel, X-Men: Apocalypse and Deadpool from 20th Century Fox, and DC’s attempt to launch their own shared universe with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad – both of which I predict will be terrible.

Sequels and remakes to look forward to in 2015 include Independence Day: Resurgence, Star Trek Beyond and the new all female Ghostbusters, which I am cautiously optimistic about. There will also be Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, filling in the events before A New Hope, and for fans of Regency romance and zombies there will be Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. 2016 will also see two high profile video game adaptations in Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed, which begs the question has there ever been a good video game into film adaptation?

Some of the biggest surprises of 2015 were films which I had initially written off – such as Mad Max: Fury Road – so I am prepared to be surprised in 2016. However, I think it might be a similar year to 2013, 2014 and 2015 – lots of good films but low on originality. That trend is unlikely to change soon.

2015 has been a great year for books. Below are five of my favourites that were released this year:

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Ancillary MercyI have no idea how Ann Leckie will follow up her Imperial Radch trilogy; the first volume won almost every prize in sci-fi and become an instant classic. This year she released the third volume and it was a powerful ending to the trilogy.

The Radchaai Empire has been engulfed in civil war as its multi-body leader Anaander Mianaai has broken apart and is fighting herself. Loyalties are divided between the different factions and series protagonist Fleet Captain Breq is trying to prevent the conflict from spreading to the Athoek system. She also has to deal with ethnic tensions within the Athoek system, a hostile presence from outside the system and a visit from a Presger translator – an emissary from a violent and powerful alien race.

The story of the Imperial Radch trilogy is enormous in scale and it would be impossible for one volume to satisfactorily resolve all of the conflict in this universe. Fortunately, Ancillary Mercy does not attempt this and just resolves the story of Breq and the Athoek system. This is handled well, and all of the main characters are given a conclusion that does not leave the reader feeling cheated.

Ancillary Mercy is well-paced and the tension is high throughout. The second volume in the Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Sword, was not as well-paced and suffered from having to set up a lot for the third volume. Ann Leckie ably delivers on the promise of the previous novels. There was a lot riding on this final volume of the Imperial Radch trilogy maintaining the quality of the pervious books – and it did. This secures the position of the Imperial Radch trilogy as one of the great series of science fiction novels.

The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig

The Fire Sermon-Books with a message that deliver it subtly usually strike a cord with me. The Fire Sermon is a delicate and thoughtful exploration of otherness and how discrimination is built into our society.

After “the Blast” the few surviving humans can only give birth to twins. They are always a pair of opposite sexes, one strong and health Alpha and one sickly and weak Omega. The novel follows Cass, an Omega, who must learn how to negotiate the difficult post-Blast world, where Alphas rule and Omegas are persecuted.

The Fire Sermon has one simple message, that the oppressed classes in society did not choose their lot, so why should they suffer? A dominant class who are in a position of power through luck alone causes their suffering. The world of Alphas and Omegas is the perfect metaphor for this.

Author Francesca Haig’s background as an academic studying holocaust poetry means that she handles the difficult subject matter and complex emotions with sensitivity. This is a novel with a gripping story of survival, lovingly-crafted characters and an important social message at its core. I am looking forward to more stories in this world.

Poseidon’s Wake by Alastair Reynolds

Poseidon's WakeIt is great when a trilogy ends on a high, but sometimes you are not so lucky. I was very excited to read the final part of Alastair Reynolds’s Poseidon’s Children series, which follows a family of space pioneers across six generations. The protagonists of Poseidon’s Wake are the great-grandchildren of the first book’s main characters and the great-great-great-grandchildren of Eunice Akinya, the matriarch of this family of space pioneers.

In this third volume, a signal is received from deep space requesting that Ndege Akinya – Eunice’s great-great-granddaughter and a key character in the second volume in the trilogy – be sent to an unexplored system. She is too old to make the trip, but her daughter, Goma, travels in her place. Here she encounters the mysterious Watchkeepers – giant sentient machines introduced in the second novel – and artefacts left behind by the ancient and power M-builders civilisation.

Part three of a trilogy seems to have been something of theme for this year and this book, like Ancillary Mercy, neatly rounds off the story. The narrative of the Poseidon’s Children trilogy covers most of a millennium and is epic in scale. As a result, this third book rambles quite a bit and lacks focus. I have included it on this list because of the strength of the first two books – Blue Remembered Earth and On Steel Breeze – which are very good and I was pleased to see Reynolds draw the series to a satisfying conclusion.

Rush Jobs by Nick Bryan

Hobson and Choi Rush JobsLast year saw the publication of the first Hobson and Choi book, successfully moving a popular web series into book form. This year saw the publication of two new Hobson and Choi volumes, the first of which was Rush Jobs.

Rush Jobs picks up almost exactly where book one – The Girl Who Tweeted Wolf – left off. Teenager Angelina Choi is starting her second week of work experience at John Hobson’s detective agency. Straight away she is plunged into a kidnapping, supermarket slavery and drug trafficking case. At the same time, she must decide if she wants to stay on with Hobson after her work experience is over.

Rush Jobs walks the fine dark comedy/drama line of being both humorous but without the humour detracting from the gravity of the situation that the protagonists find themselves in. There are many potential pitfalls when writing a comedy that also has kidnapping and forced drug smuggling in it, and author Nick Bryan avoids all of these. The end result is both funny and dark, and a great mix of the everyday and the extremes of the criminal underworld.

Also, the bonus story at the end of the novel is brilliant and should be read by everyone.

Trapped in the Bargain Basement by Nick Bryan

Hobson and Choi Trapped In The Bargain BasementThe theme of part threes continues with the third Hobson and Choi novel – Trapped In The Bargain Basement – published in October this year. This time the duo of gritty hard-boiled detective John Hobson and his teenaged social-media-conscious work experience assistant Angelina Choi investigate a shopping centre exploiting homeless people by forcing them to commit crime.

This third book benefits from being one complete story, rather than several interconnected stories as the previous volume was. This means there is more time to build up tension and develop the characters. Choi is still on work experience and deciding whether she will continue working with Hobson, which leads to some interesting interpersonal conflict.

The third book manages to be both funny and a gritty crime story without having the one detract from the other. This is mainly because of author Nick Bryan’s ability to turn everyday institutions into hot beds of the criminal underworld. In the second book there was an evil supermarket, and this time the target is an evil shopping centre. The surrealism of a gritty crime story set in a feature of everyday middle class life allows the humour and the darkness of the narrative to sit side by side.

The characters are well developed and are genuinely engaging, as well as being funny. Three books in, Bryan has built up a whole parallel world, with the criminal underworld behind a whole series of staples of middle class London life. I hope that 2016 brings about more adventures from Hobson and Choi.

These are my favourite books published this year. What are yours? Also what are you looking forward to in 2016? Let me know below.

This is a review of the political events of 2015. Read my summary of the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader here.

Parliament and party politics were more interesting this year than for a long time, but there were important trends outside the Westminster bubble. Questions over Scottish independence were clearly not settled by last years referendum. The SNP will call another independence ballot, but only when they are certain they will win. If Britain leaves the EU because England votes to go and Scotland votes to stay then this will give the SNP the excuse they need to break up the country.

In America gun massacre followed gun massacre and still Obama cannot get any movement on gun control legislation. If you are depressed about the state of British politics, then take a look at the US to feel better about things. The race for the White House rumbles on with Trump frightening the world more and more and Hilary Clinton being so bland and boring that an openly socialist candidate is making headway in an American election – further proof, if any was needed, that 2015 was a surreal year for politics.

2015 was also the year that a lot of prominent feminists were accused of being transphobic, sparking social media spats. This led to a healthy public debate about no-platforming on university campuses. There are already too many people telling students what they should and should not do, but my opinion is that people should be allowed to express their opinions unless they are openly and explicitly encouraging violence.

Online abuse, passing itself off as free speech, has caused numerous people to examine the issue of the limits of free speech. We have a right to freedom of speech but we also have a responsibility to do no harm with it, as much as possible. After so much abuse has been dished out and then defended as “freedom of speech”, I can see why students want more emphasis on the responsibility aspect of our freedom of speech.

Many of these debates – and abuses – have taken place on social media and one trend of 2015 is fashionable social media bashing. Social media used to be means to gage public opinion or engage with the public. Now it’s viewed as a nest of hysterical people, who must be ignored in order for their to be sane political debate.

One recent example is people taking to Twitter after the Christmas floods to claim about Tory cuts to the flood defenses budget. Most people would think that a debate about cutting flood defenses after a preventable flood has damaged peoples’ lives is a good thing. However in the world of “sane political debate” verses social media these people were labeled as idiots, rather than listened too. Here is a good example of someone dismissing discussion on Twitter out of hand and here is a good response.

Some good articles were written about how social media can be a left wing echo chamber and this might have cost Labour the election. For every nuanced thought about the role of social media there were many people dismissing out of hand a platform that gives voice to people, mainly young people, who find it hard to get their voices heard.

Social media is a great tool for collective actions, spreading information and holding the powerful to account. It has been used to spread hatred and disinformation by people of all political persuasions. I feel that the current fashionable bashing of social media is a way for journalists and politicians to dismiss the voices of ordinary people as just cranks and bullies.

Elements of the political and journalistic establishment do not like the fact that ordinary people hold them to account and would very much prefer it if social media is thought of as the domain of idiots and that it is everyone’s best interests that they are ignored. You will encounter opinions you do not like on social media, some of them will be stupid and ill-informed. Everyone has a right to an opinion. Fashionable bashing of social media is way for the privileged to conveniently ignore the opinions of everyday people.

2015’s most annoying trend was self-righteous articles about people moving out of London, such as this by Rafael Behr in the Guardian and this by Cory Doctorow on Boing Boing. Yes we are all very pleased that you prefer Brighton to the capital but we really do not care. An opportunity to pop this balloon of pomposity was missed when one writer claimed that they cannot move out of London because the rest of the country is racist. Everyone looked like an idiot that week.

2016 will probably be as interesting as 2015, for better and for worse. There will be more social media spats and infighting in the Labour Party. There will also be more refugees than ever before arriving and we need a practical solution to what is to be done with all these people and we need it today. Terrorism is a fear, but I am hopefully that 2016 will not see a massacre in London similar to the ones we have seen in Paris.

The promised referendum of Britain’s European Union membership will most likely happen next year, because Cameron wants Britain to stay in the EU and he does not want this to be a vote on an unpopular midterm government – so the sooner the better from his point of view. The potential for both Labour and the Tories to trip over their own feet during the campaign is enormous and I am interested and slightly frightened to see how they both handle it. We can also expect sluggish economic growth and further cuts to public services. 2016 might finally be the year cuts and lack luster economic performance blows up in the Conservative Party’s faces.

At the Red Train blog 2016 we bring a new website design, new articles on a wider range of topics and a recommitment to cover as much politics as possible with our usual liberal dose of left wing bias.

Our society is still faced with some very large problems. I believe that the neo-liberal economics that underpin our current thinking and direction of our entire society is heading in is potentially disastrous. There are millions of people – poor people and social minorities – that no one cares about and have been left on the scrapheap by this government. The country needs an effective left wing alternative now more than ever. It is the only way we will meet the challenges of 2016.

This is a review of the political events of 2015. Read my summary of the general election here.

If the election was a surprise than what happened afterwards was a shock. Jeremy Corbyn was given odds of 800 to 1 when he was nominated to stand for Labour leader but he won with nearly 60% of the membership backing him. Corbyn won a huge victory across all ages, demographics and types of Labour members, but all has not gone well since then. Corbyn’s victory has exposed huge divisions in the Labour party.

I voted for Corbyn, and his politics are the closest to mine of any Labour leader during my lifetime. It has been painful to read the writings of many left-wing journalists I respect, trashing him at every opportunity. There are certainly legitimate criticisms of Corbyn – I will come to these – but I feel many journalists made up their minds early on that they did not like him and nothing he can do will change this. This is because the election of Corbyn as Labour leader goes beyond what you think of Corbyn personally, his voting record, or even his policies. It is a question of what Labour stands for and what it should aim to be.

The division opening up across the Labour movement is a division between those who want radical change to our politics and our society, and those who want liberal reform to our current system. It is the difference between those who want capitalism with the worst excesses removed or those who want our entire relationship with capitalism reformed. I feel this divide is unbridgeable, by Corbyn or anyone else.

Corbyn’s victory is partly down to having an ideology at all in an ideologically bankrupt Labour, and partly down to inspiring young voters and many alienated leftists and Greens. But it is mainly because the rival Blairite and Brownite candidates were awful. None of them looked like they could win a general election so the party members preferred to make a principled stand, rather than choose a Prime Minister in waiting. The Blairite and Brownite factions need to take a hard look at themselves to work out why they lost so massively to the left of the party. They have nothing to offer apart from indigent cries of “it’s our party, we should be in charge”. Since Corbyn’s election they have continued down this route, doubtlessly helping keep Corbyn popular among Labour Party members.

Labour wins big when it can unite the working class trade-union supporting voters, the liberal metropolitan middle class voters and the aspirational voters who think they will be better off under Labour. Under Miliband, UKIP ate away at the first group, the Greens at the second and the Tories took a huge bite of out the third. Corbyn is losing the third group, but he has stopped the exodus of the second group and a question mark remains over his appeal to the first. In Oldham UKIP heavily targeted this group, hoping that accusing Corbyn of not being patriotic could win over these voters. It did not work, because of the issues with UKIP discussed above. The Tories are trying the same tactic on a bigger scale and that is where the real threat to Labour lies.

If the Tories can win over group 1 and 3, while holding onto their core support, they will win big in 2020. However I do not see a Labour front bench figure who can win over all three groups and Labour need all three. Yvette Cooper gets group 2 and 3, but loses group 1. Liz Kendall gets group 1 and 3, but loses 2. Stella Creasy gets group 2 and 3, but loses 1. David Miliband gets group 3, but loses 1 and 2. The only possibilities would be Lisa Nandy or Jess Phillips but they are not exposed enough for us to accurately judge how well they would do as party leader.

Corbyn and his new shadow cabinet have made some mistakes. Certainly having John McDonnell waving around Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book was a bad idea, however over four years away from a general election these mistakes matter little to most voters. The few victories Corbyn has had have been the most widely noted, mainly Labour stopping Tory plans to cut working tax credits, which interim Labour leader Harriet Harman supported.

Then came a terrorist attack on Paris and the excuse Cameron had been looking for to start bombing Syria. This is a terrible idea and Corbyn was right to oppose it. However, parliament thought otherwise and a few in the Labour Party seized this as an opportunity to embarrass Corbyn; showing once and for all that Blairities care more about being proved right than they do about the Syrian civilians we will inevitably kill and how this will encourage others to flock to ISIS.

Even so, the Syria vote is a major defeat for Corbyn. I think ultimately he will be proved right and that this military intervention in Syria (and Iraq) will only increase support for ISIS. Unfortunately at the point when this becomes apparent everyone will have forgotten Corbyn’s stance on the issue as we will be focusing on a new political crisis. Sometimes it looks as if Corbyn cannot win whatever he does.

Parliament and party politics were more interesting this year than for a long time, but there were important trends outside the Westminster bubble. Read my summary of trends in 2015 and what to epxect in 2016 here.

I usually start the New Year with recommitting myself to writing this blog and standing up for left-wing values, so this year I decided to do something different and end the year with recommitting myself.

It has been a rollercoaster of a year in every sense. 12 months ago if you told me that by December 2015 Jeremy Corbyn would be leader of the Labour Party, Charles Kennedy would be no longer with us, David Cameron would have taken us into another Middle Eastern war of dubious legality and that the biggest political hash tag of the year would be in French, then I’d have claimed you had one too many eggnogs over Christmas.

However that’s the political landscape we find ourselves in at the end of 2015. It has been an unfortunate year for Paris, bookended with twin tragedies of the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the Paris massacre in November. Terrorism and security have been major themes of this year; partly because the Tories want to make it the subject of the next general election, in the same the way that economic competency was the subject of this year’s election – more on that later.

The refugee crisis reached a critical point this year as over a million people entered Europe from the Middle East, South West Asia and North Africa. How Europe responds to this crisis will be the defining debate of our generation. Britain’s offering to this debate was frosty indifference until the Independent put the picture of a drowned child on their front page and before long we had a commitment from Cameron to take in “thousands” more Syrian refugees. I was more surprised than anyone by this. It goes to show that maybe people do care about what happens outside our borders and that we not a selfish island of little Englander UKIP voters, whatever that demographic of squeaky wheels claims.

Insulting UKIP bring me neatly to the biggest British political event of this year, the general election. For people who follow politics like it is a sport it was both fascinating and dull. The polls were too close to all (up until the BBC’s exit poll) and it looked like another hung parliament, with coalition negotiations going on in the public view. However there were no moments of controversy, no gaffs and no defining moments of brilliance. The TV debates were interesting but ultimately changed nothing.

Small left-wing(ish) parties did well out of the TV debates. I was very impressed by Leanne Wood from Plaid Cymru and Nicola Sturgeon from the SNP. Sadly Natalie Bennett from the Greens failed to make much of an impression. She did manage produce the worst gaff of the election with a terrible interview for LBC.

I thought that we could face a “Green Moment” when the Greens steal large number of voters from Labour’s metropolitan liberal left and become a serious player in parliament. It did not happen. I have a soft spot for the Greens but while they are seen as the party of the self-satisfied, middle class, Guardian reading set – the people with their own compost heap in the garden but take three holidays aboard a year – they will fail to capture the broad based support they need in order to return more than a handful of MPs.

Lack of effective leadership for the Greens remains a major problem for them. Caroline Lucas is a good politician to have at the front. Natalie Bennett is not and I do not see her leading the party to electoral success. It must be said that the first past the post electoral system is a huge hindrance to parties like the Greens – and UKIP. A fairer electoral system would have given the Greens more seats for the one million votes they got in the general election. However it would have also returned a Tory UKIP coalition government. I think this is right, it is what we voted for and it was what we should get.

It is interesting that, in May, I thought that the general election was the death of major parties and first past the post system, that electoral reform was imminent, and that coalitions would be the future. With the poor performance of small parties this year, a Tory majority government and huge numbers of new members of the Labour Party, it looks like big parties are as strong as ever and that binary left/right politics is here to stay.

The general election also saw the annihilation of the Lib Dems, justly deserved for breaking so many manifesto commitments and alienating a new generation of voters who they courted in 2010. Many of the 2010 Lib Dem voters went over to the Tories, which cost Labour the election. This should finally put to bed the idea of the Lib Dems as a credible left-wing party. They are and always have been centrist party.

The only small party to do well out of the first past the post system was the SNP, who swept through Scotland like wildfire. This should concern Cameron more than it does. The Tories are great at ignoring places that do not return Tory MPs and Cameron is bad for this even by Tory standards. The huge popular support for the SNP means another referendum on Scottish independence is likely and it is possible that this Tory government will be the last of a united kingdom.

No one expected it, but the Tories eeked over the line to form a majority government. The public rejected coalitions, majority rule is back. It was the first Tory budget in nearly 20 years but it is a majority smaller than John Major’s in 1992, and look how well that went. Sluggish but present economic growth saved the Tories bacon at the polling booth. Growth was strong enough that the government could claim that they were doing well, but not so strong that the electorate could trust Labour to turn on the spending taps. Everyone hated the Lib Dem so the Tories were in – narrowly.

I hate the Tories, but I do have to acknowledge their clever electoral maneuvering. Back in 2010 I thought that austerity could keep the Tories out of office for 20 years, that when people felt the impact of the cuts it would mean a Labour landslide. It did not happen. Homelessness is up, child poverty is up, inequality and personal debt are at an all time high, yet the Tories remain popular. They have convinced enough people to win an election and hats off to them.

Having popular support from many newspapers helped, but I lay the blame squarely at the feet of Labour. By supporting austerity, by making it their top manifesto commitment, they handed victory over to the Tories. The Tories lost three elections to New Labour by promising to match Labour spending and deliver tax cuts. Similarly, Labour cannot win by offering spending cuts and better public services. The argument needs to change.

The possibility of a UKIP surge – long predicted but never appearing – was something that worried me during the election. UKIP came second in a lot of safe Labour seats and this should worry Labour, but these seats remain safe Labour seats as the Oldham by-election demonstrates. UKIP have claimed they are parking their tanks of Labour’s lawn, that their popular anti-EU, anti-immigrant, straight talking politics will bring them massive electoral victory. It has not and I see now that it will not.

This is partly because if a voter agrees with UKIP, there are plenty of Tories who share their views. It is also partly because of our British dislike of anyone seen as extreme. However it is mainly because UKIP are, at most, a dual issue party. Those who hate the EU and are frightened of immigrants care about the economy, healthcare, educating and housing and they want a party that has comprehensive policies on all of these fronts. UKIP does not and the Tories remain the main party of the right.

If the election was a surprise then what happened afterwards was a shock. Read my summary of the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader here.

Here you will find a list of every book I read in 2016 for the gender equality reading challenge. The aim is to read 50/50 men and women writers. You can keep track of how I do below:

Female Male
The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge Espedair Street by Iain Banks
Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang
The Manhatten Projects volume 1 by Jonathan Hickman
Startide Rising by David Brin
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
1984 by George Orwell

Warning: this review contains quite a lot of major spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Make sure you have seen it before reading this as it’s dead good.

Star Wars Force Awakens Kylo RenSurely it is not news to anyone that there is a new Star Wars film out. There must be bacteria on Saturn that are aware of this. For the second time in my lifetime, a new Star Wars trilogy has exploded into the cinema with more hype than I thought was possible.

Clearly as a culture, we love Star Wars. Or at least the middle class geeky, mainly male, cultural group I move in loves Star Wars. Not even Harry Potter can so completely unite my Twitter and Facebook timelines in squeals of fannish delight. This new Star Wars film has reached near omnipresent status. It is everywhere and everyone is talking about it.

Star Wars has captured the cultural zeitgeist for a number of reasons, but mainly because this time the fans dared to hope that it would be good. Three sub-par, at best, prequels from George Lucas could not dampen our enthusiasm for more Star Wars. Fans are practically salivating with anticipation for another trip to a galaxy far, far away.

Star Wars The Force Awakens FinnThe fans have every reason to be excited; J.J. Abrams is a good director and has made two very entertaining Star Trek movies. His rambunctious take on Star Trek strikes me as an expensive means of auditioning to helm the new Star Wars trilogy. I cannot think of a director who would be better for the role. The trailers showed a lot of promise; the force is strong with this one.

There is one very difficult line Abrams had to walk, one that could make or break his take on Star Wars: how much do you rely on the recognisable characters and motifs from the original Star Wars and how much do you make this a film in its own right? Nostalgia verses originality. Clearly the film needs some of both, but getting the right balance is not easy.

Watching Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I must admit that it was great to have the classic Star Wars iconography back, something that had been missing from the prequel trilogy. It was wonderful to see a film with tie fighters, stormtroopers, star destroyers, X-wings and the Millennium Falcon. However, The Force Awakens did not rely too heavily on classic Star Wars characters. I appreciated seeing Lela, C-3PO and R2-D2 again but I am glad their appearances were brief to allow new characters to assert themselves.

Star Wars The Force Awakens Han SoloSaid new characters were excellent. We had BB-8, the cute new robot rolling around, which looked convincing because it was a physical character that did not rely on computer effects. The new protagonist, Rey (Daisy Ridley), is engaging and sympathetic, from the beginning we are rooting for her to succeed. There is also Finn, a stormtrooper who does not want to be a stormtrooper anymore, played by John Boyega, who delivers the performance of the film, bringing energy and humour to the part. There is also Adam Driver playing new visor-wearing villain Kylo Ren, who is everything a blockbuster antagonist should be, creepy, evil, charismatic and a little bit frightening.

Despite having a mainly fresh cast, The Force Awakens is filled with nods to Lucas’ original trilogy. From when Finn accidently activates the holo-chess set onboard the Millennium Falcon, to Rey living inside a wrecked AT-AT. There are a lot of these cameos of familiar motifs in the film, and it sometimes feels like a roll call of scenes we knew and loved from episodes IV–VI, but it satisfies the audience’s thrust for nostalgia.

There were a lot of nods to past films, but The Force Awakens is a story in its own right. The new characters have lives and adventures of their own and are not crowded out by classic Star Wars characters. Han Solo is the only returning character to play a major role and Harrison Ford does so with the grace and dignity of an elder statesman. This is in contrast to Lucas’ prequel trilogy, which relied too much on classic Star Wars characters – Obi-Wan, R2-D2, Yoda – and did not develop its own characters enough.

star-wars-the-force-awakens-reyThe other major flaw of the prequel trilogy was that it focused too much on the internal politics of the Jedi. The Old Republic’s priesthood/Gestapo were not as interesting as Lucas seemed to think they were and each prequel episode always came down to a lightsaber fight in the end. There was an absence of epic space battles or feats of dangerous piloting, which should be the meat and potatoes of any Star Wars films. The prequel trilogy lacked anything as exciting as the battle of Yavin at the end of episode IV.

This issue was addressed in The Force Awakens as Abrams brought the epic. There were huge battles aplenty. The escape from Jakku was a breathtaking scene, with the Millennium Falcon flying loop-the-loops and then racing through the husk of a crashed star destroyer, chased by tie fighters. My heart was in my throat the whole time. As it was during the attack on Takodana when rebel X-wings fly to rescue the heroes and Finn tries to use a lightsaber for the first time. The greatest achievement of the film is its climax, when the rebels attack the new uber-Death Star. It combines daring feats of flying, an intense ground assault and a good versus evil lightsaber showdown. In a phrase: perfect Star Wars.

This amazing sequence was ends with the tragic death of Han at the hands of his own son, Kylo Ren. It was a scene of genuine emotion. So many Star Wars deaths seem hollow, when the audiences does not care about the character, but Han has a special place in any fan’s heart and it was gutwrenching to see him go. Both Harrison Ford and Adam Driver played this scene superbly; it is the jewel in the crown of this film.

Star Wars The Force AwakensThe Force Awakens ends with a setup for the next film and a lot of the questions this film raises are left unanswered. I am very excited for episode VIII in March 2017 and I hope it delivers on the promise of this one. J.J. Abrams did an excellent job, taking on one of the toughest directing gigs in Hollywood. He managed to walk the line between the originality this film needed to be a story in its own right and the nostalgia it needed to keep the fans happy. The weight of expectation was enormous and Abrams rose to the challenge ably.

Episode VII has lots of adventure, visual spectacle and epic space battles. This is what Star Wars is all about. This film has the energy and enthusiasm for the classic trilogy that the prequel trilogy was missing. I left The Force Awakens about as excited about Star Wars as I was when I was ten years old. I am now itching with anticipation for more Star Wars films in the future. My faith in the franchise has been restored.