Poor Little Rich Girls

Is it ever possible to be a happy minion? What do the waitresses and doormen, drivers and chambermaids make of you? Do they despise you behind your back? Do they scoff at your whims with the rest of the staff? Are they writing a book about you? Yes, you.

DrivingTheSaudisDriving the Saudis, by Jayne Amelia Larsen, is a memoir of an actress fallen on hard times, who makes the odd decision to become a limo driver in Los Angeles. She’s left idling in the car park a block away from the parties she once attended, and ferrying dignitaries to buy things she once coveted herself. She hits the sharp end of the American dream, adjudged unworthy of being one of the Beautiful People, and forced back into the service industry. But this is Hollywood, where every waiter has a movie pitch, and every chauffeur has an angle. For an actress, driving a car is an irredeemable fall from grace; for an author, it’s material. When she finds herself conscripted into an army of drivers shuttling a branch of the Saudi royal family around Los Angeles, she starts to keep a diary…

Her clients are ghastly. Some of them are Jew-hating fascists, others are patronising and condescending fundamentalists, although mercifully she is spared any dealings with the men, and merely has to appease a gaggle of bickering soubrettes. There is an overpowering stench of new money, as the capricious princesses demand iPhones on the spot, unaware of the logistics of signing a service contract, and the servants hoard sackfuls of hotel L’Occitane, badgering the chambermaids for more of it, even though they plainly never wash with it themselves. But most of them are simply awful for universally understandable reasons, not because they are racists or fanatics or spoiled, but simply because petrodollars have made them impossibly rich in a land where the customer is always right, able to have literally anything they want by opening a briefcase full of money. Money is power, and you know what they say about absolute power. Maybe Rodeo Drive gets the customers it deserves.

As time goes by, Larsen befriends some of the servants, who sleep five to a room and must hand over their passports, as well as a few clueless princesses: miserable, fidgety things who yearn to watch carefree infidels on skateboards at the beach, before they are taken away to be someone’s third wife in a tent somewhere. Meanwhile, Larsen had enough of a former career to show up on reruns of Judging Amy, leading to a bunch of odd questions from her charges about why she is in the front of a limo instead of the back.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

She comes to take a simple, servile pride in her work, immensely proud of herself when she is able to source 40 Chantilly bras at short notice, and to round up all the depilatory cream in Beverly Hills, despite scoring zero appreciation from her bosses. She learns, in the manner of all slaves, not to push too hard to be noticed, and begins hiding her laptop so that the onus ceases to be on her to find 24-hour ice cream parlours and all-night liposuction. But she is also dragged into preposterous power games, as higher-ranking flunkies pass the buck on impossible tasks so that someone else gets fired.

The tension over the revolving-door staffing mounts up as the time ticks by, because a month of 16-hour days, working for cartoonishly unpleasant people, is totally worth it to her if she’s expecting a $20,000 tip and a Rolex. So it goes from being ready to walk out the door at a moment’s notice, flipping the Arabs the finger, to putting up with literally anything in the final weeks, holding out in desperation for that long-awaited gratuity. Larsen artfully teases the reader all along with guessing games about how much the final tip will be.

She struggles to be objective. She reads up on Arab history and culture, and tries in vain to persuade herself that her clients are not deeply-depressed shopaholics, imprisoned by medieval despotism and hopeless fates. Her life in their service has all of the antic chaos of a movie set or military operation, but seemingly achieves precisely nothing, unless you count the fortune shovelled at shopkeepers and thereby funnelled into the American economy. Larsen throws around some impressive statistics, such as the claim that 75% of the world’s couture and luxuries are snapped up by Arabs with more money than sense, who walk around in lonely desert palaces wearing lacy knickers under their burqahs.

There are also glimpses of how civilised people behave — the thoughtful Muslim prince who reads a book every day on his way to college being one of only a tiny handful of the characters who seem remotely likeable; Garrison Keillor, who chivalrously chats her up while she drives him to a book signing; or Kirk Douglas, who admits that he has less posh paintings to show her because he has started selling them off. He is using the money to build children’s playgrounds all over Los Angeles. His quiet philanthropy strikes a rare and noble note in a book populated with gimlet-eyed, grasping termagants, swimming in baths of dirty, sexy money.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of the Silk Road.

Worldcon Programme

My programme has been more or less confirmed for the London Worldcon this August. One interview, two panels and a speech, details subject to change if my fellow panellists get a better offer or end up trapped on the Docklands Light Railway.

Since the last UK Worldcon in 2005, I’ve published a novel, fifteen non-fiction books and a translation from classical Chinese, provided the voice of a cartoon professor and sold two TV options. But the thing that is most pertinent to this year’s event is the book’s worth of material I’ve written on Chinese and Japanese science fiction, buried away within the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, so that’s pretty much all I’m talking about.

mini-logoInterview with John Clute

Friday 15th August 15:00 – 16:30

Jonathan Clements interviews Guest of Honour John Clute. We’re like a double-act with two straight-men. I will prod the Clute and attempt to make it angry. Shouldn’t take long. Members of the audience can play sesquipedalian bingo as I attempt to get him to use words like “guyliner” and “tosswit.”

10013838_620906787987843_989544364_sEvolution of the SF Encyclopedia

Friday 18:00 – 19:00

The SFE is 35 this year, and is now in its third edition. This panel will discuss how the SFE came about, and how it has changed with the times. What are the processes that go into creating an encyclopedia, and what are the pitfalls? How has the transition to an online format shaped the third edition? And in what ways does its increasing internationalisation reflect transformations in the field at large? Graham Sleight (M), Jonathan Clements, John Clute, Neal Tringham, now with added David Langford.

e1shot2_large_verge_medium_landscapeFrom Page to (Small) Screen

Saturday 18:00 – 19:00

We’re used to thinking about adaptation in terms of feature films, but increasingly Western SF and fantasy novels and novel series — from True Blood to Game of Thrones, The Expanse to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell — are being adapted for TV. What are the challenges of this process? Do viewers expect a longer running time to mean a more faithful adaptation? Are there lessons to be learned from, or similarities with, series adaptations in other countries, such as the transition from manga to anime? (Or Western comics to screen, as in the case of The Walking Dead?) And what happens when a series develops a life of its own? Tanya Brown (M), Debbie Lynn Smith, Jonathan Clements, Mike Carey, Steve Saffel

milkycrisis-1The State of the Anime Industry

Sunday 12:00 – 13:30

In this talk, Jonathan Clements examines the boondoggles and delusions, booms and busts of Japan’s animation business as it thrashes around in search of a cure for piracy, an audience that will pay for stuff, and a foreign footprint bigger than some guy’s living room. Warning: contains charts, and possibly a little bit of exasperated swearing.


The Wu-Tang Scam?

wu-shaolinJust in case you’re not following the antics of RZA, Ghostface Killah, Methodman and their chums, the latest album from the rap group the Wu-Tang Clan is a real piece of work. Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is being released in a single copy, in a hand-carved silver and nickel box, currently stored in a vault somewhere outside Morocco. The album is going to go on a world tour, appearing at museums and art galleries where visitors will pay the kind of money they pay to see The Vikings at the British Museum, just to gaze upon it and hear it through headphones. And when the tour is done, a single lucky millionaire will win the bid to own the only copy of the album in the world.

As April Fool’s Day swung around this year, I toyed with the idea of suggesting that Hayao “Ol’ Dirty Bastard” Miyazaki was planning on releasing his next movie in a similar fashion. Except that in many ways this is already how the anime business is starting to work. The only way you’ll see the short film Mei & the Kittenbus is if you make a pilgrimage to the Studio Ghibli Museum, where, if you’ll lucky, you’ll catch it in the bespoke cinema.

Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is a brilliant piece of marketing, and a bold statement about the value of art. It is also a wild and crazy iteration of the debate over getting modern audiences to pay for creative works. It’s the “event” mentality of modern anime, favouring personal experiences and “holy land” sites of pilgrimage, crowd-sourcing with a crowd of one, if you will. If consumers can’t be trusted not to rip and steal, the Wu-Tang Clan are taking that chance away from them, turning their album’s release into a publicity-generating event of global momentum. And has anyone noticed, the Clan will now have the income from a tour, without actually having to go themselves?

Could there be scope for an anime release of such exclusivity that it tours the world in a single film print? Does fandom possess an eccentric millionaire who would, say, lure Miyazaki out of retirement to make one more feature…? Or would the whole exercise go horribly wrong, ripped and uploaded within days? If anime followed the WuTang model, would it be a triumph, or a disaster…?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History (BFI, 2013). This article first appeared in NEO #124, 2014.

Event Horizons

Spinal_Tap_-_Up_to_ElevenI’m fascinated by the procedures that get the cast and crew of a touring production from one venue to another, the economics of tour buses, and the nature of life on the road. In recent years, I have become acquainted with many behind-the-scenes elements, owing to my little brother’s career as a swan wrangler and lion tamer on several famous tours. Whenever I see him, he is soon ranting about point-loads and scissor-lifts, and the problems inherent in getting your steel rigs to Paris when your lighting’s stuck in Amsterdam and your dancers are down the pub.

“I am sick of people saying ‘Oh, Ravenna? You’re so lucky!’” he once raged. “I’m not on holiday, I’m putting 6 tonnes of intricate steelwork in the roof, which will be manipulated on tiny bits of string by people who don’t speak the same language as me in a vain attempt not to kill or maim anybody recreating the Blitz (through the medium of dance) underneath. And all this in searing heat and unbelieveable moisture, in a 300-year-old space, with no extra time.”

So, yes, I am probably the only person in the world who regarded Waddell, Barnet and Berry’s This Business of Concert Promotion and Touring as a fun read. My interest is actually in what the Japanese are calling “events” – live shows featuring starlets or special guests, designed to be unpirateable. This includes film festivals and Hatsune Miku performances, and maybe even the occasional convention, but I’m ready to see how things look like to touring rock bands as well. I’m a sucker for insider business books, and this one is authored by the triumvirate of a production manager, Billboard’s executive director of content and programming, and a professor in the Department of Recording Industry at Middle Tennessee State. You can actually study Advanced Concert Promotion! I love it.

this bizThis Business of Concert Promotion and Touring is a hard-core business book, all about the numbers, and the way they can be massaged. From four guys and a second-hand van, to Iron Maiden and their own 747, it investigates the logistics of getting out on the road and earning money through events rather than record sales. It examines the varying economics of ticket prices – Garth Brooks charging a mere $20, in order to get as many people in the venue as possible, versus Paul McCartney’s courting of the corporate crowd with tickets in excess of $450 for that special VIP treatment. It’s also particularly good on spin-offs, revealing, for example, that the Rolling Stones expect every ticket buyer to spend an average of $18 on merchandise before they can reasonably be said to have got that elusive satisfaction. Ah yes, but that kind of merchandise means you are adding a whole extra truck to the entourage just to ship it and its sellers around with you, and costs mounts up…

Perhaps most interesting for me is a section on the impact of online ticketing, particularly the Ticketron software perfected by three boffins in Arizona, and sold to Ticketmaster in 1991. The first ever ticket sold on ticketmaster.com was an accident in 1996, when the company turned on its system to check for bugs, and saw that someone immediately used it to buy a ticket to Seattle Mariners game. Curious, they tracked the buyer down and asked him why he had bought a ticket online.

“Yeah,” came the reply, “because I don’t like talking to people and I don’t like talking to you.” Then he hung up.

A section at the back talks the reader through the hour-by-hour experience of different members of a rock band’s entourage, from the roadies to the support act, demonstrating how each experiences the day of performance in different ways, and with different bottlenecks and milestones. Sadly there’s no gossip or groupies, although one wonders wistfully about some of the likely questions on a Middle Tennessee State examination paper. You’ll finish the book knowing the exact difference between an “arena” and a “theatre” (no mistakenly booking the EnormoDome for you) and won’t ever make the rookie error of buying rather than renting expensive, crash-prone sound systems to take on tour. And next time I see a guitarist smash his instrument on stage, I will always be wondering if he isn’t following this book’s advice, to cover up a broken string by doing something dramatic until his roadie can slip him a replacement.

This Business of Concert Promotion: A Practical Guide to Creating Selling, Organizing and Staging Concerts, by Ray Waddell, Rich Barnet and Jake Berry, is out now from Billboard Books.