It’s been fascinating watching people mourn David Bowie. There’s a sadness there that I suspect comes from more than just the loss of a major creative icon. I think we’re also mourning the loss of the conditions that created and supported that kind of icon.
Bowie’s iconic status was a product of certain cultural and technological factors. Like all the gods of rock, he came up in a world with relatively few ways of creating and sharing media. And when most people are only spectators, and there are hardly any other channels or stations to turn over to, then it’s that much easier to dominate the the national conversation.
Our modern media world has blown that cosy homogeneity apart. There are so many different ways to enjoy media, and so much of it out there. The idea of any sort of mass canon is dead – instead, there’s only personal gathering of personally meaningful music, film, TV, games and just about any other kind of content you can imagine. These days, we’re all micro-curators of our own micro-channels, enjoying a range of media fully shared with at most probably a few dozen people.
Of course, Bowie was never cosy. But he needed a homogeneous, coherent cosiness to push against, to become coherent himself. That pushing against defined him in ways that would be impossible now. You can push against a hub; with a bit of effort, you can push against a node – but how do you push against a decentralized network? You can’t – if you try, it just melts away. The internet routes around rebellion as quickly and efficiently as it routes around blockages.
And there’s one other thing to mourn. Bowie wasn’t just a media construct. He was also built by the drama schools and generous state benefits of the 60s, supported by a society that understood that creativity both has profound value and needs time and investment to bear fruit. Those conditions helped post-imperial Britain understand itself in new, exciting ways. They no longer exist.
So we’re not just mourning David Bowie. We’re mourning the condition of full-spectrum stardom, broken by modern media. And we’re mourning the mirror we helped him – and so many like him – hold up to us all, shattered in the name of prudence.
I’ve just zipped through Adam Nevill’s horror novel ‘Last Days’ and Hari Kunzru’s literary novel ‘Gods Without Men’. The Process Church are a more-or-less buried presence in both books. And yesterday I found out that weird folkists Sabbath Assembly exist purely to cover their songs of worship! So, I thought I’d do a quick blog post about all three appearances, and how they’ve lead to some interesting thoughts about the problems of writing horror adversaries.
First of all, Sabbath Assembly. I’m not going to say too much about them – instead, just go and listen to the music. They’ve released two albums of the Process Church’s greatest hits. Here’s ‘In The Time Of Abaddon II’ from ‘Ye Are Gods’:
Before you read on, press play to get in the right mood…
And secondly, Adam Nevill’s ‘Last Days’. It’s a highly enjoyable read. He writes about the Temple of the Last Days, a Process Church-like cult who, back in the 60s, called up far more than they could ever hope to put down. Our modern heroes – led by documentary maker Kyle Freeman – have to deal with what’s left over, and take on the putting down themselves.
Nevill does a great job of reworking actual history into something far darker and stranger. He’s always created marvellous monsters, drawing on deep visual literacy to create some profoundly disturbing adversaries. The textures and moods of Francis Bacon’s paintings were vivid, inventive inspiration for the deeply creepy novel ‘Apartment 16’, while ‘The Ritual’ refreshed well-trodden folk-horror tropes with verve and style.
‘Last Days’ draws on both the darker parts of Northern European Renaissance art and the flickering, wall-haunting film and TV that came to surround us all in the 20th Century. It thinks about how history gets pulled into media and frozen there as fixed images, and how those fixed images can then leap back out and become animate invaders of our lives now. The imagery pattern that Nevill creates around that is marvellous; but, despite that, for me the book as a whole didn’t quite come off.
Partially, there’s a bit too much info-dumping in there. I love reading that kind of thing, but deep explorations of the Temple of the Last Days’ history made even me feel that the book was moving a bit slowly at times. That was added to by a certain amount of frustration with its protagonist, Kyle; throughout the book, he runs on rails that are perhaps a bit too well-defined.
Partially, there’s a deeper problem of genre. I only really pinned it down when I started comparing ‘Last Days’ with ‘Gods Without Men’. Kunzru’s book shows us a 60s cult, too. I read them as also being inspired (albeit much less directly) by the Process Church. Like Nevill’s Temple of the Last Days, Kunzru’s cult touch the occult numinous. They too both tap into and to some extent create a deep strangeness that persists into modernity.
But Kunzru’s not writing a horror novel, so he doesn’t need a horror adversary. Because it doesn’t need to be an adversary, his cult’s strangeness doesn’t need to be either finally definable or defeatable. It’s free to exist as peculiar little inexplicable bubble, impossible to really get to grips with either in the 60s or now. As such, long after the book’s finished, it retains a disturbing power that Nevill’s take on the Process Church lacks.
That also helps Kunzru’s book become more resonant. In both books, cults create horror. In both books, those horrors comment on certain aspects of the real world we all share. In Nevill’s book, the horror is defeated. Because it’s closed off, its relationship with reality loses force. The real world persists once we finish the book, but the book’s commentary on its flaws has – at an absolute level – stopped.
In Kunzru’s book, the horror is explicitly left running. The reader closes the book, but is left with no closure. A subtle disturbance seeps into the world and destabilises it. Because he’s not writing an overtly horrific book, Kunzru’s book is – ironically – in some ways a more effective piece of horror writing.
And of course, Kunzru’s book has flaws of its own, and is in some ways a much less effective piece of writing than Nevill’s – the historic sections of Kunzru’s book don’t feel nearly as well fleshed out as Nevill’s, and Nevill’s ability to show the weird as it weirds is far surer. And of course there are many pieces of horror writing where the horror does stay running.
And finally, none of the above should be taken as meaning that literary writing is automatically better than horror writing, or similar! Both do different things in different ways to achieve different ends. But, it’s fascinating to see what’s revealed when a horror novel and a literary novel spend a little while travelling together down very similar roads.
Mark Pilkington is one of the few people I know who can genuinely say that they’ve broken people’s religions. He was an active crop circler in the late 90s and early 00s; his calm and careful descriptions of the truths of circle making has disrupted the reality of more than one person who’s built belief systems around either the supernatural or superplanetary origins of the phenomenon.
Now, he’s doing the same for UFOs. His new book, ‘Mirage Men’, documents his journey into the heart of the tangled web of information – and disinformation – that surrounds the saucery folk who’ve spent the last fifty years or so mysteriously invading our airspace. Without any trace of cynicism or negativity, it at once challenges the UFOlogical world’s more optimistic excesses, and highlights some fascinating mysteries of its own.
At heart, ‘Mirage Men’ is a history book. However, it doesn’t record UFO appearances; rather, it’s an exploration of the growth of the mythology that encounters with UFOs have created – a subtle but important difference. The question that drives the book is ‘cui bono?’. Rather than seeking to establish the truth – or otherwise – of UFO encounters themselves, Pilkington seeks to understand the uses to which UFO mythology has been put, and the extent to which those uses have defined its shape and development.
His answers are enthralling and disturbing in equal measure. The book traces the very direct involvement of various US intelligence agencies with the development and dissemination of UFO mythology, from World War II to the present day. It sets that involvement within the context of political struggles between intelligence agencies and the various arms of the armed forces; it describes various documented yet under-publicised technological advances that provide convincingly earthbound explanations for many classic UFO events; and it successfully redefines much UFO activity and mythology as a kind of spook theatre, deliberately designed to deflect hostile attention from highly secret flight testing and espionage activities.
These wider histories are set against a variety of more personal narratives. Accompanied by documentarist John Lundberg, Pilkington meets and explores the histories of various key figures stationed at the borders of the cosmic and the top secret. These range from charming arch-manipulators to tragic disinformation victims. The role of each within the development of wider UFO narratives is carefully explored, bringing to the advantages, motivations, and hazards of involvement with the UFO phenomenon very personally to life.
And of course, by observing, Pilkington himself becomes an actor. At one point, certain sections of US UFOdom become convinced that he’s an MI6 agent; at another, US intelligence operatives seem to be actively trying to recruit him. And of course, one fascinating question underlies much of the information that the book passes on; to what extent is Pilkington himself being used to manage the UFO myth, and move it in useful new directions?
Room is also left for a healthy dose of awe. Pilkington convincingly demonstrates that modern UFO myth cycles have been developed and directed by very specific groups of people, to achieve very specific goals. However, summoned or not, the god will always be present; here, too, traces of the genuinely inexplicable linger. ‘Mirage Men’ does an excellent job of bringing UFOs down to earth; but, in the final analysis, it is also open-minded enough to admit that room for the impossible remains, and that genuinely astonishing, paradigm shattering truths may yet remain to be discovered out there.
In summary, then, it’s a great read, and well worth checking out. For more information on it, visit the book’s blog here – and to pick up a copy, go straight to amazon. For more on Mark’s activities as a publisher, here’s the Strange Attractor site.
I recently took part in the BSFA’s British Science Fiction & Fantasy survey, which led to the publication of a rather nifty little book comparing genre self-perception now and 20 years ago – more details here.
The book was edited by Niall Harrison and Paul Kincaid; they’ve done an excellent job of picking out interesting survey responses, and weaving them into a text which both once reaches clearly defined conclusions, and encourages further consideration and debate. One of his key concerns is to understand just what Britishness means to genre writers working in the UK.
To celebrate publication, I thought I’d post my answer to his question about Britishness in full, here on the blog. So:
Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?
That’s a difficult question to answer. I’d say probably that everything I write tends to be rather depressive (either the world gets destroyed, or the protagonist dies, or both), and to have a strongly interior focus; the weird elements are usually amplifying metaphors for whatever’s going on emotionally or thematically in the story. I’m not sure that these are exclusive properties of British genre fiction, though.
On reflection, for me the most purely British genre moments don’t come in fiction. They’d be Delia Derbishire’s original orchestration of the Doctor Who theme:
the ‘flashbacks to a Martian hive cleansing’ sequence in Nigel Kneale’s ‘Quatermass and the Pit’:
Of them, the first two combine deep and entirely convincing visionary reach with a sense of having been patched together with double sided sticky tape, papier mache, and whatever else is to hand. They feel very low-tech, and entirely personal – the product of deep personal need and craft, fulfilled in a Neasden back room rather than a Swiss laboratory, an LA film studio or the board room of a Japanese zaibatsu.
There’s something very British about that; as Ballard knew so well, it’s the obsessed achievements of the suburban imagination that are our tomorrow. Come to think of it, that sense of an entirely convincing, menacingly peculiar science fiction that was also clearly built in a shed comes out beautifully in Doctor Who classic ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’.
And of course, there’s ‘Goblin Market’ – a wonderful poem, clearly fascinated by and soused in the deep matter of rural Britain, but also one that refuses to finally draw the bleak and terrifying conclusions that it is so clearly leading up to.
For most of the way, it’s a truly odd tale of the Fair Folk, fruit addiction, and late Victorian twin sisters; but it resolves with a deeply conventional, deeply unconvincing, deeply sentimental ‘if sisters love each other, everything will be ok’ finale (in fact, my story ‘Changeling’ is in part an attempt to write a truer conclusion to it). Rossetti repressed the poem’s true conclusion – there’s something very British, too, about that repression.
Having said that, I get the feeling that there’s much really interesting genre work worldwide that just doesn’t get translated into English. Not having read any of it, it’s difficult to say how British writing might compare with it, and thus what might in fact be specifically British about the SF / Fantasy written within these borders.
On Sunday, I went to the William Blake 1809 exhibition at Tate Britain, reviewed here in The Guardian. It’s absolutely fascinating; it restages his first and only public display of prints and paintings, and sets them in a context which helps explain their abysmal critical reception.
I wanted to do a video review of it, but unfortunately (as I discovered) you’re not allowed to take pictures in the Tate. This raises fascinating questions about copyright, and the Tate’s understanding of differences between reproduction and interpretation in a digital world; more on that in an upcoming post.
In the meantime, I still wanted to do a video blog entry reviewing the exhibition, but of course I couldn’t show any of the images. So I decided to follow Ballard, and understand it in terms of a West London Shopping Mall – which led to this short film:
It’s available in higher resolution at Vimeo here:
Off to Star Trek on Saturday with H; hugely enjoyable, but – when I came back home and picked up my new Sexton Blake compilation (good fun and wide ranging, but not necessarily the best of Blake) to read myself to sleep – something quite interesting struck me.
The Star Trek TV series is one of the most potent products of 20th Century science fiction; but in form it also owes an awful lot to Victorian and Edwardian adventure stories, where manly, usually imperial, heroes of various different stripes are threatened by exotic new dangers on a reliably regular basis.
As a rule, such heroes come in pairs. There’s Sexton Blake and Tinker; Sherlock Holmes and Watson; Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie; Raffles and Bunny; and so on. And, by definition, the sidekick is very clearly a junior presence, someone who lacks in some important way the authority of the lead.
That sense of a senior / junior relationship is fundamental to the new Star Trek movie; but it’s an inverted relationship. The plot is in large part driven by the fact that, because the time is out of joint, Spock becomes the Captain of the Enterprise, and Kirk is left as his subordinate.
However, it’s a temporary upset. By the end of the film, normality has been restored. Kirk has become Captain Kirk, and Spock is his first officer. Spock’s junior status has been acknowledged. But that’s peculiar; because, throughout the film, great play has been made of Spock’s seniority.
It’s made very clear that he’s older than Kirk – in fact, he’s one of Kirk’s tutors. In something of an under-remarked narrative manoeuvre, he’s also sexually more charismatic than the famously priapic Captain. Kirk’s rather adolescent attempted seduction of Uhuru fails; Spock builds a strong, adult, clearly sexual relationship with her.
He’s also a more effective combatant. Kirk spends much of the film nearly getting thrown off cliffs, walkways, etc, by various cosmic thugs. Spock’s Vulcan neck pinch is as swiftly efficient as ever. And Spock knows true loss; where Kirk never even met his dead father, the adult Spock witnesses the simultaneous death of his mother and his home planet.
So, what is it that makes Spock the sidekick, not the hero? It comes down to one thing; his (in the film’s terms) over-rationality, his consistent and near-absolute privileging of logic over emotion. Within the context of the movie – and of the Star Trek series in general – Kirk’s reliance on intuition and passion makes him the better person.
And that’s fascinating. In part, it’s a hangover from the deep suspicion of thoughtfulness, of academic learning, that drove so many of the action men of the 19th and 20th century pulp thriller. But that suspicion takes on a new meaning in Star Trek – because Star Trek is science fiction.
As a genre, science fiction prides itself on its roots in the deep, tested realities of science. It lays claim to a rational objectivity that sets it apart from other, more emotionally driven forms of writing. Given this, surely Spock is the rightful captain of the Enterprise?
Absolutely not. Spock – science fiction’s supreme logician, the most famous Science Officer in fiction – reveals the untruth of that claim, or at least the contradictions that stop it from being really convincing.
The Enterprise is helmed by Kirk’s wild, dangerous emotion – just as science fiction, like all fiction, is powered not by logic, but by human emotional relationships, and the wild, exciting dramatic fallout thereof.
And on weird pondering – H and I have just sat down to John Carpenter’s utterly compelling ‘Prince of Darkness’. On rewatching it, I was very struck by how interestingly it riffs on (amongst others) Nigel Kneale’s 70s masterpiece ‘The Stone Tapes’. But I’ve also just downed a bottle of wine, and on this cold, late night my lovely hot bath calls, so more on this in the next post…
Well, it’s been a busy few weeks at allumination central; I’m packing the flat up ready to move, establishing myself as a freelancer, and (for various reasons) whizzing up and down the country between Hebden Bridge, Glasgow and London. So, alas, little time for weird pondering.
However, there has been time for music – and so, as a prelude to the full return of allumination, here’s some music from the mighty Zali Krishna. The clip below is my favourite one of his on Youtube; the rest are available at his channel page, here. Enjoy!
Screens in Blade Runner; for a movie that’s always been billed as a key cyberpunk progenitor, they are – for the most part – remarkably large, and remarkably one way. A core essence of cyberpunk is the hackable system, the two way engagement with the data stream, but there’s precious little of that in this film. Visuals float above Los Angeles, words booming down on its denizens, showing them worlds they can watch but never – it seems – interact with, or enter.
For me, those screens have more to do with the cinematic than the cyber. A cinema audience sits in darkness, visions washing over them; watching worlds they can imagine but never reach or participate in. The screens in Blade Runner make their audience potential migrants – ‘A new life awaits you in the off world colonies… a chance to begin again in a golden world of opportunity and adventure’ – but we know that only the most uncommon will ever really leave the dark city.
It’s the same with so many movies; sitting in the dark, watching people ‘begin again’ (how common a trope is that? The life restarted, the ordinary world left behind) in ‘a golden world of opportunity and adventure’. We too, as audience, become non-migrating migrants; enough of an urge to move on to make us unhappy with our lot, to make us want this kind of escapism, this promise that there could be somewhere else, that we could all be someone else; enough of a sense of stasis to keep us in our seats, to keep us in our lives, unchanged after all.
And yet, there can be glimpses; the other can break through. Roy Batty makes it to earth, and teaches Rick Deckard how to be human. Deckard’s flight is Batty’s in reverse; more tactful in his movements, needing to be less revolutionary, his leap out of the city will (we feel) be sustained, tacitly supported by his colleagues. He can take Rachael, and step out of the picture; away from the great floating dreams and – ironically – away from the screen we’ve been passively watching him on. To enter fulfilment is to leave narrative behind, to leave the sense of absence it’s founded on.
But there is a screen in Blade Runner that does foreshadow the cyber; the esper. Deckard uses it to burrow into the Replicant’s lives, revealing the social connections between them, understanding them as a social process, a network. He explores the room they’re in as he were almost there himself; able to watch, but not to touch. A lovely image of the working of the net, both in its interactivity and its subtle emphasis on emotional inter-relationship. But by the end of the film, that’s a screen he can step away from, too; he no longer needs to dissect the relationships of others, because he has one of his own, and will live it for himself.