.......HOME ....... BACK to 'ZATA' ............see also Update: 'A little Item on Short Stories'


Foreword:..by me: Phil (otherwise known, dubiously, as 'author'!)

Subject: Rod's amazing REVIEW (below) of Zata - or

'How to Convert a weird erotic Space Opera into an inspired Existential Odyssey':

In the following (edited - by me) review, Rod has spotted more than I’d consciously intended for the story. Although most of his observations are probably accurate, I reckon some of them originate more from his imagination than the story. I was, though, as amazed as I was intrigued by his impressive and positive analysis, and am delighted that the story should have evoked such deep philosophical rumination and insight. One little additional remark Rod made was that he'd observed that most of my stories ended on an upbeat - which, he said, implies I'm sympathetic to the reader and refuse to take myself too seriously. Maybe, maybe... I hope so.

Returning to Zata: the ‘EDF’ episode, I should clarify, was supposed to be an event of dramatic life-threatening action, a climactic zap – but from pure (inexcusable) laziness I chickened-out and hurried on to finish the tale…maybe I should have deleted it, maybe I’ll return to write it fully sometime, though maybe it’s best as it is… who knows? 

[It occurred to me a week or so after writing the above paragraph where I suggest laziness to be the blame for my failure to develop the EDF episode, that there could be another reason, a subconscious one - which would tally well with Rod's masterful observations (which I'd no less welcome if they were entirely critical and negative, because they're so searching and ask deep universal questions that are relevant to us all). But the subconscious reason, I believe, for avoiding that EDF episode is that I've always been risk-averse. When I examine myself and my past actions in life over the years, that's what I come-up with. Not only have I never been much of a gambler in any sense of the word, when it comes to physical gambles I'm a total coward. No way would you find me doing a bungy-jump or even, at least these days, climbing a ladder higher than a standard two-storey house. Adventure, fine - so long as it involves no physical risk. Which means that if (in the story) I'm to visit an EDF, I have to first delete that prescience of danger I introduced with the aim of enhancing the dramatic tension. The challenge I anticipated, became subconsciously repugnant. Well, maybe - but it's an explanation that strikes me now as a bit silly, so laziness probably had a significant hand after all.]

First, though, Rod’s original (covering) email - which, had it been from anyone else, I’d have taken as a humorous attempt at extreme sarcasm and mockery (and probably well deserved too):

Rod's email

"Yesterday was a fabulous day and I got out my fast bike, pumped up the tires to 100psi and went rocketing round the streets to Nonsuch Park, where we walked. It was a real first day of summer and soooper. I bet you went for a charge over the hills and made full use of the great weather.

BUT more importantly I was taking a mind exploding break from your incredible story. I always realised that Zata was bloody good and a great read but after printing it out and taking it to an MRI scanner waiting room (……) I realised that you totally, 100% intentionally, and no doubt with a big bloody smirk, planted some fucking superb clues in that story. I was utterly riveted…. my head was exploding with your story. Why and how do you do it? It makes me really worry about the fantastic stuff you have NOT put on the site and I know nothing about. It also makes me realise how much more one can get from your stories if you read them next to a fucking big electromagnet!!! I had to get some of this stuff down so I started a review (attached) [below] intended for someone like degree students analysing your work. I would be interested to know what you think and possibly show sections of to others who know the story (your sister for example?). It has been a real rollercoaster ride and I also know that with Zata alone I have only just scratched the surface. The trouble with your stories is they are all consuming. Once you read them and start to get it, everything else in your life takes second place and the story is the prime focus (do you get this effect with other stories you read?) [my reply]. If a literary person picked up on your stuff I am sure you would be catapulted to fame and interviews with films being made and new work commissioned. Now to try to calm down after several days of adrenaline pumping, mind exploding zata….Arrrrrhhhhhhhhh"


Zen Among the Asteroids (Zata)

A Review

by Rod

The story Zata is one of the longer forms of short story, almost a small novella. Don’t let the length deter you - investing concerted attention will reap rewards. It has become a favourite of mine for reasons that will become clear. Printing it on A4 will fill 21 sides with narrow margins and a small font! As with any story of Phil’s, it’s worth more than a casual glance, since they can be enjoyed on many levels. They work as well for a quick, almost superficial read, as for digesting over time and re-reading - this way you will be lifting the lid on far more than you initially expected, a lid that does not close that easily once prised open!

As with other short works of Phil’s where poignant themes are often tackled, Zata is on the surface fundamental in highlighting the controlling and potentially descructive, corporate (& parenting, education, etc) system that has existed in society for centuries: a system that is immensley restrictive to one’s abilty to fully experience life and its pleasures. It also makes clear that ‘all is not lost’ and in the right enviroment, with the correct guidance, the damaged individual (if caught early enough) can see through the corrupting elements and gain enlightenment. It should be understood that the damage caused is not just not as a result of direct inculcating but mainly from a subtle, environmental drip-feed brainwashing. The very realization that this brainwashing exists can form the source or majority of the cure. Sub themes include authority and sexual freedom / liberation.

The story follows a path that is no accident. Having known the author for many years I believe the key elements included have come from direct experiences and personal philosophy. Being set in the far future (2308) has several important effects. Some people may think that futuristic settings allow some degree of cheating from the point of view that an author can concoct a highly dubious fictitious device to solve a problem. This is not the case with Zata as the confines aboard the ACE helps to provide the reader with a boundary and focus. It prevents outside intrusion and actually would probably make the task of writing the coherent plot that much more tricky in the hands of a less able author. Also, technology introduced in Zata has a well-defined reason for its existence and inclusion.

The main character ‘Carl’ is really the author himself and has similar traits to the author - he is highly dependable in responsible positions (he has €10bn worth of freight!) yet will not act upon petty requests from authoritarian figures without questioning the real motive. His age is also described as being ‘20’ – one that the author may feel is appropriate as a key consistent mental age throughout his whole life.

The author has drawn on many real experiences of his own to act as vehicles within the story. Some of these are:

The thrilling futuristic setting is one that he aspires to be in; one where the petty day to day time-zapping jobs are eradicated (or taken care of by robots) and an individual is far freer to just get on and enjoy life. One simple example being the machine that dispenses a cross breed super fruit called a gwonjo. I am guessing that this is a grape, watermelon, orange and mango.

Being aboard the ACE is an indication of the author’s desire to travel and explore but also a safe haven of virtual solitude (apart from robots) out of reach from meddling intrusions. ‘Now I’m on my own – good’ & ‘what I might do with this new freedom?

The ACE interior shows a comfort the author has with technology. His own experiences working in technical areas in the BBC come to fruition with the highly descriptive tech/bay areas, ‘Magno-Racks’ and many others in the story. Also the duties for Carl to carry out on his voyage include monitoring – another reference to common tasks at the BBC.

The apparently 14 year old androgynous robots, later called Zen and Nez, were probably from Phil’s original experience with his long-time companion S whose age was similar when they first met. At first, the attitudes and pre-programming of Zen mirrors closely the early conforming mode of functioning of most people. But after the sensational cyberfon, liberation is realised – and Zen now mirrors more closely the adventurous and anarchic S of real life, esp as back in those fabulous wild days of the 90s. This is shown most especially in the cyberfon: ‘in the removing of blocks’

So what can I make of the story as a whole? It is clear that the author has cleverly woven a tale that viewed from a distance is a complete metaphor for the journey of self discovery and some kind of ‘enlightenment’ (at least) – one that is mentioned in the first few lines as ‘by far my longest ever voyage’. The ACE cruiser, perhaps, is representative of the complete self - the physical body - setting out into the wilderness of space to return after discovering a new period of zen-experience. As we are all essentially alone in the world, the process of ‘awakening’ is a solitary process. The use of a cruiser going into space is highly apt.

We see signs of awe and philosophical wonderment very early on in the story. Carl is mesmerised by the Milky Way and crucially he goes on 'to muse on what it all means and his place in the great future that lies so mysteriously [ahead]'. To achieve the enlightened state one has to be willing to question everything, have a sense of adventure and an ability to solve or at least face the many puzzles of life.

The symbolic use of keys and problems as described earlier fire up the curiosity for potentially restricted knowledge – these are mere challenges to overcome. Interestingly, there was also an active invitation to search from the operations manager in the opening of the story. The implication being that enlightenment is there for the taking should you put in the effort. The operations manager could be another aspect of the self – ‘Regard this as a riddle. You have initiative’ is an internal dialogue that Carl is having as part of his own self-discovery process.

Notice how anything ‘off limits’ becomes the overriding ambition, as you need to turn every stone, push boundaries and take some risks to truly understand and experience life. The belligerent yet fragile boy are other aspects of the self, the child inside us, the cocky side, the vulnerable - and the girl, the passive. All elements that are, in truth, defence mechanisms against the flawed and frequently hostile system; these have no place in a person that truly wishes to 'know' and 'feel'. A classic line the author uses is the indicator that the self is beginning to take control of these wayward traits by the (actually internal) dialogue ‘You’ll bloody well do as I say, You’re under my command’.

One line that I also thought was extremely good was ‘We have just learned that last voyage an Engineers key was lost on the ACE’ to me this is saying that the knowledge to complete your quest is available to those wishing to look - the journey, in other words, has been done before. In the real world this key could be all the myriad books available on the subject of philosophy written over centuries. We pass them everyday in libraries, bookshops and on the Net, and it is just a matter of taking the effort to find and use them.

By far the best of writing in the whole story is the experience in the cyberfon. Not only is it jammed full of crucial information, it is beautifully written as if the author was really on a roll and wrote it in one short sitting. The reader gets a true sense of the emotion, the peak experience and also the pain of the process. I could write a whole massive piece just on those 4 paragraphs. Notice that although this section is highly descriptive, the author never properly describes what he sees. This is probably on purpose as one’s journey is an individual experience and there is an element of invitation here for the reader to find out more for themself. The actual completely pivotal line for the whole story is contained here with 'why do they create so much only to construct blocks?' This is really saying "look what I could have been, look what we all could have been, real free thinking wonderful people had we not been filled with meaningless conformity from birth - barriers restricting the love, pleasures and creativity of us all." This continues with the big clue – 'the more blocks I remove (the greater my understanding) the happier I (the self) feel.'

It might be worth mentioning at this stage that there are two interesting lines in the story that fascinate me. These are 'I rest in the arms of this unlikely reflection of myself or maybe could it be of what I am not?' And later on in the story 'I can’t help feeling that we’ve overlooked something?' I may have this wrong, but to me they are utterly brilliant indicators placed by the author that we should all be vigilant against complacency. These two lines create an air of doubt. The journey of self-discovery is not a single box that can be ticked off – it just does not end as it is only too easy to fool oneself. It is a continuous lifelong journey that you need to work at and have the radar active at all times.

The cyberfon experience is the true act of liberation, the tipping point. It could represent a nugget of information that made all the others fall into place. That crucial sentence you read that makes you search and question the way in which the system is run and what we are told. The author goes on to suggests that even sex is far better to those with the 'knowledge' and it would be strangely inhibited to those without. The sex scene involving Zen is almost a masturbatory celebration or conformation of the attainment of enlightenment/liberation. It could be viewed as a peak experience - as a result of the breakthrough. The post sex meeting sees Zen and Carl dressed in different clothes to indicate that that transformation is complete. After this transformation the different aspects of the self are as one. There is now a balance between Carl and Zen. Note how we see Zen not only as highly supportive but also as an equal – there is no longer a struggle for power. Zen says to Carl comments such as 'Your’re fine.' and 'Just Relax.' We see that the Self is now in control.

The only aspect of the story that I have slightly struggled with is the relevance of the EDF’s. I do think that there is an indication here from the author that the desire to search is over. Carl would have probably visited the EDF without thinking before, but now in an enlightened and balanced state he feels less inclined to madly investigate everything. He has a comfortable contentment that means he can say 'Maybe we can return to our original trajectory'.

There is degree of reconfirmation and consolidation of the knowledge near the end of the piece, which is entirely appropriate. Then comes the return from the journey and back to the interactions with people that don’t have the benefit of enlightenment. The killer ‘wink’ ending is saying that once you really know, once you have the knowledge, there is nothing to stop you playing along with others who don’t. It does not mean that you are in an exclusive club and cast out by society. Everything can return to normal should you wish. But importantly, a switch has been thrown; there is no going back - You will always know.

So why is this story so good? To me this is another Siddhartha - but better, far better. The story can be enjoyed on 3 levels. Firstly as an exciting romp in space that any teenage kid can enjoy. Second - on a deeper level where the indicators for a corrupt education and conformity system are paralleled. And thirdly – a much deeper journey of the self, where fascinatingly, it no longer parallels education but instead tackles the balance that exists within ourselves. It is the very fact that these levels peel away as you read it that makes the experience so utterly rewarding. This operates on a level unlike other stories and the author knows well what he is doing. He plants signposts as almost a test to see if you really read it. Yet the subtlety of them means that you cannot be blamed for missing them.

I realise that is a highly condensed discussion/review. There is so much (quite major aspects) that I have glossed over and so much more that can be drawn from the story. It is really only the beginning. I guess this is part of the pleasure, to have a story that you can continually re-visit and gain more information, another perspective - an endless open book.

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