Crashing Heaven and beyond

Crashing Heaven, Culture, Music, My fiction, Novelists

A month or so ago, I had a really interesting chat with French genre maven Gromovar Wolfenheir, about Crashing Heaven and a whole lot of other stuff – he asked some really thought-provoking questions. He put the interview up on his website, having beautifully translated it into French – you can read it here. I thought I’d put the English version up today to celebrate the paperback publication of Crashing Heaven. Happy reading!

Hello Al and thank you for your time.

First, can you introduce yourself to French readers ?

Thank you, it’s lovely to be here! And, hello – I’m Al Robertson. I’m a British science fiction writer who lives and works in Brighton. It’s a particular pleasure to be on a French website as I grew up in France, living just outside Paris until I was about six then returning regularly since then.

Can you tell us of your writing activities before Crashing Heaven ?

I’ve been writing for a long time. The first book I wrote was about Zorro, when I was about six. It was very short. As I grew up I ended up writing a lot of poetry, then working in film script development for various London production houses.

But one day I realised that what really excited me every month was getting the latest edition of “Interzone” or “The Third Alternative” (now “Black Static”) and racing through them. I thought I’d have a go at writing some stories for them, and everything went from there.

I spent about ten years publishing short stories before “Crashing Heaven” came out – mostly fantasy and horror rather than science fiction. There are some up on my website if you want to check them out.

There’s also an unpublished novel that will never see the light of day. It’s about what would happen if somewhere a little like Narnia had massive oil reserves, and someone a little like George W. Bush or Tony Blair found out they were there. Of course, we’ve invaded the magic kingdom and destroyed everything.

Oh, and I’ve also been a corporate writer and comms strategist for the last ten years or so. I’ve worked with many different kinds of companies, writing just about everything imaginable for them!

Can you tell us of your love for SF ? Which authors are your favorite ones ? What are the other genre you like ?

Well, I’ve always been very deeply into SF. I remember watching “Space 1999” and “The Prisoner” dubbed into French when I was tiny, maybe four or five – they blew my mind. Partially because the imagery was so powerful, partially because I didn’t really understand what was going on. So I started trying to invent stories that would explain it all to me – I think that was one of the moments when I really started to become a writer.

Later on, the big influences were the British New Wave writers – Michael Moorcock, J. G. Ballard and M. John Harrison. Moorcock’s been a constant presence, his work – quite apart from being great fun to read – is a huge, endless education in the possibilities of genre writing, for me in particular as satire. Ballard always seemed to be so alien – there’s something very clinical about his writing, it often feels far more like very acute analysis rather than fiction. I think his experiences in Shanghai during the war moved him far beyond our conventional senses of society and humanity, and he never quite came back again. And M. John Harrison’s grasp of the literary uses of genre, of the way that the unreal can in very sophisticated ways reflect and comment on the real (inasmuch as we can even begin to grasp that very slippery concept) is an endless inspiration.

And there’s H.P. Lovecraft. He was a huge obsession when I was a teenager. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realised how problematic he can be – but what I always enjoyed was how he’s absolutely a science fiction writer, but one utterly horrified by all the things that usually excite SF writers. Aliens ? NOOOO! New planets, dimensions to explore? I’M GOING MAD! Vast gulfs of interestellar time ? LIFE ITSELF IS MEANINGLESS!! Time travel ? AAAAARRGGH!!! And so on. He’s also a very nostalgic writer, but his nostalgia is so broken. All those backward looking characters you feel he’d most want to be – all those repressed New England academics and historians – are the ones shown by his stories to be most completely wrong about the true nature of the universe.

Oh, and there’s Iain Sinclair – I started reading him at about the same time as Lovecraft. A remarkable writer, he’s someone I’ve come back to again and again over the years. Partially for the way he blends a crazed pulp-fuelled imagination, a very sharp critical mind and a brilliant prose style, partially for all the other writers and film makers he very consciously and very generously leads his readers to. I felt some of him come through in China Mieville’s early work, too. China’s sense of the weird was very important – my initial response to it was to go and start a cabaret night in  a bar in Brixton, but it’s also been a big influence on how I think about genre fiction in general.

And poetry’s always been a big presence. Partially for the more genre-relevant stuff – poems like Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Christabel”, James Thomson’s “The City of Dreadful Night” have all haunted me, over the years – and partially for the ways it shows you how you can tell non-realist stories in ways that can have very deep resonance. I was deeply into William Blake for a while, for example. His shatteringly powerful, deeply sophisticated myth-making is a very useful antidote to a realist tradition that insists that only literal transciptions of reality can have any sort of aesthetic worth.

Though of course, having said that I’ve learned a huge amount from that kind of writing. Epic, tub-thumping 19th century novels are magnificent! They contain so much and they tell their stories with such ferocious, unputdownable verve. The Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, Balzac, Zola – all essential. Balzac in particular – the Comedie Humaine as a whole is a great lesson in how to write multiple books set in the same world, all crossing over with each other in complex, fascinating ways.

Crashing Heaven, your first novel, is out since June 2015 at Gollancz.  Can you tell us how you got your Publisher ?

Through my agent, Susan Armstrong at Conville and Walsh. I signed up with her in 2012 and then spent a year or so rewriting Crashing Heaven off the back of her thoughts on it. We took Crashing Heaven out to auction in 2013, and Simon Spanton at Gollancz came in with a pre-emptive offer. I’ve always been a huge fan of both him and them, so I was very pleased indeed! I signed up, and that was that.

Let’s talk about Crashing Heaven. What’s the plot of the novel ? What are the main factions warring inside ? What is at stake ?

Well, Crashing Heaven is about Jack Forster, an accountant of the future, and his sidekick Hugo Fist, a very heavy duty military AI that manifests as a virtual ventriloquist’s dummy. As the book begins, they’re just returning home to Station, a giant space station orbiting the Earth where most of humanity now lives. They’ve been battling the rogue AIs of the Totality on behalf of the Pantheon, a group of sentient corporations that are worshipped as gods.

One of the Pantheon starts persecuting Jack and Fist – they have to find out why and do something about it. Which annoys the hell out of them, their real motivations are much more down to Earth. Jack wants to find and be reconciled with Andrea, the great love of his life who’s mysteriously gone missing. And Fist wants to turn into a real boy. Some dodgy software licensing means that he’s going to inherit Jack’s body in a couple of months time, wiping Jack’s mind in the process. So really he just wants Jack to do nothing dangerous whatsoever.

CH happens after an AI war that destroyed Earth. Can you give us some details ? What could we see if we were on Earth at this time ?

Well, you get to find all that out in the next book, “Waking Hell”! It’s coming out this October. It’s difficult to talk about without giving away massive spoilers, so it’s probably best if I leave it to the book to reveal it all…

The strong character in Crashing Heaven is the puppet AI Hugo Fist. Can you describe him ? Where does such a strange character come from ?

He’s a psychotic virtual ventriloquist’s dummy and he took me totally by surprise. When I was planning the book, I was imagining the Jack Forster / Hugo Fist relationship as a kind of Faust / Mephistopheles one. Jack was going to be much as he is now, but Fist was going to be a dark, spooky silhouette, a kind of demonic digital familiar. But when I started writing him, he marched into the book as a ventriloquist’s dummy. The scene where the reader first meets him is also the scene where I first met him! It was quite a surprise.

Though of course, he does have some very definite inspirations. I’ve always loved possessed ventriloquist dummy movies – one of my favourites is ace 40’s portmanteau horror movie “Dead of Night”, in which we meet the dummy Hugo Fitch, a very evil little presence. He was a big influence. There’s a lot of Jan Svankmajer in there too. His “Faust” was very inspiring – partially as a Faust myth retelling, partially for its general imagery, and partially for how it shows humans and puppets interacting with each other.

And there was one film that I only saw when the book was pretty much done – Nina Conti’s “Her Master’s Voice”. She’s a wonderful ventriloquist, but at one point was feeling very disillusioned with it all and on the point of quitting. She was about to tell her ventriloquial mentor, Ken Campbell, this, when he – very sadly – died. And in his will he left her all his puppets and declared that she was his ventriloquial heir. The film’s about how she deals with all this. It’s hysterically funny, sometimes very spooky and – most importantly – profoundly moving. Watching it was a shatteringly powerful confirmation of how strong the human / puppet bond can be, in real life as much as in fiction.

There is also the pacifist human Jack. What do you want us to learn from his defection out of his war ?

Whatever you find resonant in it! Writing a very heavy handed fantasised satire on the Gulf War helped me realise that nobody wants to be ranted at. I don’t think fiction’s there to draw conclusions for you – I think it’s there to give you an open field in which you can think through certain situations and possibilities for yourself. So a good story is both defined enough to suggest certain areas to think about and open enough to let you do whatever you want with them. So, really – whatever meaning you find in Jack’s defection is the right meaning.

Jack was an accountant before the war, then an investigator. Did you have Eliott Ness in mind when you created him ?

Not at all – in fact, I’ve never seen “The Untouchables” or dug too deeply into gangster history. But of course, if you as a reader find interesting resonances between the two of them, that’s wonderful. For me, that’s the book doing its job – helping the reader go in directions they set for themselves.

As for where the accountancy in the book comes from – really, it comes from my experiences of the corporate world and my sense that accountants are the secret masters of the universe. Being able to read a set of corporate accounts is a tremendously powerful thing – it gives you so much insight into how a company works, what it’s doing right, what it’s doing wrong.

The recent fascination with corporate tax avoidance is a really interesting manifestation of this. It’s proper militant accountancy – people picking apart internal and external money flows, understanding their social and political implications, then taking action.

Can you describe to us the buddies pair made by Hugo Fist and Jack ? How does the pair evolve during the story ?

Again, I wouldn’t want to talk about that too much because spoilers! I hope their relationship evolves in a way that’s both interestingly unpredictable, and coherent and  truthful.

There is too a beautiful and tragic character in CH, the jazz singer Andrea. Did you have a model in mind for her ?

Quite a few! There are elements of many different people in there. First of all, there’s her as a musician – in my mind, she sounds a bit like some combination of Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell (particularly on their last album, “Pygmalion”), My Bloody Valentine’s Bilinda Butcher, Lana Del Rey and Jesca Hoop. And anyone who’s ever sung in a David Lynch movie, blended with Miles Davis’ soundtrack to “Ascenseur pour L’Echafaud”.

Her films were very much inspired by Stan Brakhage – the way he explores and plays with memory and perception was a huge help as I wrote and came to understand her. There’s a bit of Proust in there, too – I was reading my way through him while doing the last two, very major edits on the book.

Oh, and since writing the book I’ve been listening to a lot of Holly Herndon. She’s a remarkable musician. I think that Andrea would be fascinated by her work, they have a lot in common.

And I could of course be quite wrong about any of that. Your version of Andrea is equally if not more valid than mine!

In CH, nearly everything is virtual and need to be paid on a duration basis. Yet, the Internet now is mostly free or all-included. Do you really think that it will change in the future ? Do you think that a always-augmented world is at hand ?

I’d disagree about that – I think very little of it is free, we pay for most of it with data about ourselves. We just don’t have any understanding of the true value of that data, and no current way – as individuals – to access that value. But the tech giants of our day do very well off it.

And more generally, as I was writing and rewriting “Crashing Heaven” various software and content companies were trying to move to a model where you subscribe to a service rather than buy a product – Adobe moving Photoshop to the cloud, Microsoft pushing Office 365 and so on.

Looking at companies like Netflix and Spotify, something similar seemed to be going on – you no longer buy a piece of music, film or whatever and own it outright, you subscribe to a service and enjoy it as part of that service. Or you just go to Amazon Prime and pay a one-off rental fee.

At the moment, these services are the exception rather than the rule. They have non-subscription competitors ; I can still go and buy a DVD, for example, and completely circumvent Netflix, Amazon or whoever else.

But when that sort of competition no longer exists, when the only choice is content leasing services of one kind or another, then there’s a commercial logic that says these kinds of companies will take advantage of their market dominance. And we’ll all suddenly find ourselves paying much more for much less.

You see it now for example in the way Monsanto sells seeds to farmers. Seeds should create plants which create seeds which farmers can reuse. Of course, this isn’t profitable – when you sell a farmer one year’s worth of seeds, you’re really selling him a lifetime’s worth of crops. So you just turn off the seed production gene in whatever you’re selling him, and hey presto! Guaranteed annual income.

Incidentally, in this context it’s both interesting and a little worrying watching technologies like blockchains, smart contracts and the internet of things develop. On the one hand, they have genuine utopian possibilities ; on the other, taken together they also make it so much easier for any kind of product usage to be very precisely monitored and therefore monetised. A future in which – for example – we pay a software levy to boil our own kettle, then pay again for mug usage because someone holds the rights to the groovy design on it it is both closer and far easier to get to than we might think.

In CH, the inequalities are huge in the Station. Don’t you think that we’re going to a future of post-scarcity as in Banks’ Culture ?

Again, I’m trying to reflect rather than predict – in fact, I see “Crashing Heaven” as realist or documentary rather than predictive SF. So, from that point of view – we live in a very unequal world and I wanted to bring that out in the book.

I do think that the Culture is a profoundly utopian society – particularly in the way that it elides any sense of how it arose from the kind of wealth-and-power-concentrating economies we live in now. Nobody ever gave up that sort of wealth and power without either a fight or some kind of profound, externally imposed destabilisation.

That kind of upheaval might in the end lead to very good things, but not without a fair amount of trauma for pretty much everyone involved along the way. The Culture is wonderful and I would love to live within it, but surviving the journey to it might be quite a challenge.

In CH, the world is mostly contractual as in Ayn Rand or in Kress’ Beggars in Spain. What do yo uthink of this kind of world ? do you think that it’s close at hand ?

I think I’ve answered this above!

Can you tell us of the “gods” that rule the Station ? Where do their names come from ? What are their powers ?

Their names vary. Some communicate relevant meaning, some are randomly chosen. I looked at how corporate entities are named now and tried to reflect that. Some – like Virgin, for example – communicate very specific meaning in an evocative way. Others, like Samsung, have no innate meaning. Our understanding of them comes from the action of the entity they describe.

And as for what they can do – each has a specific sphere of influence, so for example Kingdom is concerned with physical infrastructure, East with the media, Grey with corporate efficiency and strategy, and so on. But in essence, like all brands, they all share a combination of practical and emotional power.

Practically, they sell you things or provide services that do something concrete for you. Emotionally, they make you feel like a certain sort of person when you acquire those things. They want to extract profit from their relationship with you, so they make sure that you give them more than they give you. The effectiveness of their branding makes you feel good about this.

In CH, the powers that be lie and manipulate the people. Is it how you see politics in our world ? Or do you think that AI politicians will be structurally manipulative ?

Certainly in the political worlds I’m closest to – the UK and US. For example, there’s David Cameron, our current Prime Minister. He’s a career politican. The only real world job he’s ever held is as Director of Corporate Affairs at media company Carlton Communications. In effect he was their PR head, managing public perceptions of the company and presenting its point of view to the world.

I feel that’s what he now does as head of the Conservative party. He seems to be very tactical, more concerned with selling individual policies than enacting any grand vision for Britain. And those policies are often brutally harmful, but are hardly ever seen as such by those who vote for them – individual MPs, the electorate in general. It’s a very effective piece of perception management.

As for AI politicians – that’s an interesting question! It depends I think on how they’re coded. It’s very easy to see our current, fundamentally manipulative and extractive version of digital technology as the only possible option. In fact, it’s the result of a series of assumptions and choices about how we want it to work. If we start making different assumptions and choices, then we’ll be able to build IAs on different foundations.

There is a preemptive war in CH. Won’t we have learned nothing from the War on Terror ?

Sadly, I don’t think so. After repeating itself first as tragedy, then as comedy, I think history recurs for a third time as novelty, restarting the whole cycle. It’s been doing that for a long time and shows no signs of stopping.

In CH, the dead continue to communicate virtually with their living relatives. Do you think that these kind of apps will soon appear in our world ? If your answer is YES, how do you think it will change our world and our lives ? What will be the pros and cons ?

They’ve already appeared, although as yet they don’t seem to be very effective. For example, a site called Eter9 offers to learn about your through your social media posts, then mimic your voice and start talking to the world on your behalf. It will of course keep on doing so after you pass on. A while back, Virtual Eternity offered a very fetch-like service, but it didn’t take off and the site closed. Perpetu helps you manage your online presence post-death. And so on.

And of course, the dead already persist in ways they never used to. Facebook’s already asked me to wish friends who’ve passed on a happy birthday, and I occasionally get updates from their accounts, as people leave messages for them or friends and family post on their behalf.

More generally, the combination of digital tech (photos don’t fade any more) and the internet’s storage facilities has made the past a lot more present and persistent than it used to be – and the dead live in memory, so our relationship with them has also changed.

This is both a good and a bad thing, I think. On the one hand, I hugely enjoy having the past more present in my life. Many good things happened there! On the other, it can be more difficult to escape past traumas – Facebook’s recent decision to thrust memories from the past at people seems to have been problematic for some, for example. And I think there’s a risk of a certain kind of stasis. Forgetting the old makes room for the new. When the past persists, there’s much less room for novelty.

Oh, and more specifically – “Waking Hell”, the next book, has a fetch as a heroine and is very much about the pros and cons of fetch existence, how fetch society will evolve, how the living and the dead will relate to each other and so on. In short, I think it’ll all be pretty complex!

Were you influenced by Gogol’s Dead Souls when you wrote ?

Not really, no. I read it years ago but it hasn’t really stuck with me – which is a shame, as I love Gogol’s short stories. I should go back and try again!

If I had to pick Russian books I hope I’ve learned from, I’d probably go for Turgenev’s “Scenes from a Hunter’s Album” and Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”. Turgenev for his mastery of mood and subtle telling detail, Tolstoy for his marvellous ability to balance complex personal stories and the great, epic sweep of history.

Oh, and I think Hugo Fist would love “Notes from Underground”.

Your novel reminded me of Neuromancer (Gibson) and The Quantum Thief (Rajaniemi). I thought that it could be a missing link between those two great novels. Would you validate this assumption ?

That’s difficult for me to say! I can see how it might act as an interesting bridge between those two books – and I both love and am very flattered that you’ve seen it in that light – but I didn’t consciously write it to do that.

Are there some novels that you’d say influenced the way that CH is ?

Yes. Key specific inspirations were (in genre) Leigh Brackett’s planetary romances, Charles L. Harness’ “The Paradox Men” and Barrington Bayley’s “The Zen Gun” and “The Garments of Caean”.

Each combines a wonderful sense of playful imagination with a very serious aesthetic intent. They’re hugely enjoyable, constantly surprising reads, but they also cover some very important ground.

There’s also a fair bit of film in there. “The Third Man” was a big influence – a broken man returns to a broken city and discovers that an old friendship is not what he thought it was. There are some very specific nods to the film in the book.

And of course “Orphee” hangs very heavily over “Crashing Heaven”. A broken world in which reality and illusion have equal weight, the gods walk casually among us and the dead rise again with offhand ease – it was a huge inspiration.

The films of Powell and Pressburger were very important too, in particular “A Matter of Life and Death”. Again, it shows us two worlds – the real and the unreal, the living and the dead – negotiating a sometimes troubled, often dangerous, always fascinating co-existence.

In CH, you mix cyberpunk with singularity and noir. What are your favorite works in this genre ? How did you balance the mix in your own novel ?

I haven’t read a great deal of singularity fiction. Most of what’s in “Crashing Heaven” comes from just looking around. I think the singularity has already happened and it’s transnational corporate entities. They are independent intelligences in their own right, their needs and goals entirely separate from and often deeply inimical to humanity’s. It’s just that their scale of presence, thought and action is so different from ours that we haven’t really noticed. And we certainly haven’t developed effective ways of communicating with and managing them. I tried to dramatise my sense of that in the book.

And as for noir – again, it’s more of an atmosphere I’ve picked up over the years so it’s hard to point to single works. As I said above, “The Third Man” has always haunted me. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, of course. There’s a fair bit of Julian Maclaren Ross, Derek Raymond and Gerald Kersh in there as well, those great, dark, undeceived London mythmakers – again, experts at showing broken people moving through a broken city, trying to make some provisional sense of the parts of their lives they feel they can control.

The way that noir’s mutated into occult detective fiction was also a big inspiration – early “Hellblazer” hit me like a sledgehammer, for example. There’s something very cyberpunk about it – the way that John Constantine deploys street-level occult technologies to enforce his will on vastly more powerful supernatural entities. And there’s such sharp contemporary satire in there too.

Stepping back from individual works – I think the great lesson that noir has to teach is that you can solve crimes but you can’t solve people. That’s something I definitely tried to reflect in “Crashing Heaven”.

Will CH be published in France ? Will it be adapted on screen ? If it’s not secret…

I’d love to see “Crashing Heaven” published in France, but alas there are no current plans for anyone to do so. If anyone reading this is interested, do get in touch! And I’d be fascinated to see it adapted on screen. At one point we did get quite close to selling TV rights to it, but nothing concrete’s yet emerged.

What is your next project ?

I’m deep in final edits on “Waking Hell”, the loose sequel to “Crashing Heaven” that I’ve already mentioned. The past attacks and only the dead can save us! It’s coming out this October.

After that, there’ll be the final Station novel, “Purging System”. “Crashing Heaven” is about Station’s present, “Waking Hell” reveals its past and “Purging System” will show us its future.

And then there’ll be a bit of a change of pace, something a little more contemporary. I’m tossing round some ideas in the back of my mind, but I’m not even sure about them myself!

‘Upon These Might We Brunch’

Albums, Culture, Festivities, Groove, Music

Well, there’s been much musical joy at allumination central over the last few days, as Zali Krishna has launched his new album, ‘Upon These Might We Brunch’. It’s available for free download here, and is well worth checking out.

Rather than write about it, I went and filmed an interview with him, for this short film – which also includes two songs, too. Enjoy!

Kirk 1, Spock 0

Aliens, Culture, Fiction, Film, Gentleman thieves, Science Fiction, Space is deep, Television

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.

Eastercon 2009 – few panels, much chat, all good

Cons, Culture, Festivities, Novelists

The journey up

Well, H and I drove up on the Friday, and got very bogged down indeed in traffic. Hey ho, it comes with the Bank Holiday territory. On the plus side, we mastered a new technique for comfortable eating in overcrowded roadside restaurants – just cross to the other side of the motorway! Of course, we still had to eat at KFC, but at least it didn’t feel like we were dining with several football stadia’s worth of stressed drivers and their families.

And I am going to draw a veil over the pan-dimensional hell experience that is trying to find a central Bradford hotel in the insanity that is their one way system. I have seen the face of the blind idiot god Azathoth, carved out in Yorkshire streets, etc. Of course, once we found the hotel the idiot piping stopped and everything seemed to go back to normal.

The one and a half panels I made it to

Well, embarrassingly, I only made it to one full panel, and half of another one. I blame the venue; being quite small, and quite social, it was impossible to go for more than five steps without bumping into someone you could have a Really Interesting Conversation with, and then getting completely distracted. So here’s my 1.5 panel report:

Panel A – A fascinating panel on why writers’ groups are worthwhile, with Tim Powers, Anna Feruglio Dal Dan, and Chaz Brenchley, expertly moderated by Maura McHugh – made me realise that you don’t go to them to be critiqued, but rather to learn how to critique; to help become an accurate editor of your own work, and to be able to help others to write better. As ever, you only learn how to get better yourself by giving to others along the way.

Also, much interesting discussion of self publishing, which helped me understand the big difference between fiction that’s self-published out of a sense of grievance – ‘there’s a conspiracy against my genius’ – and fiction that’s self published to be part of a fan or a social group.

That fan / social group perception also underlay Chaz Brenchley’s comment that ‘the ivory tower model [of writing] is no longer sustainable’. He doesn’t think it’s possible to be a successful writer by just sitting on your own and typing any more; you have to be out there, actively working to build up a readership – as he does, here.

And finally, Tim Powers revealed his secret tip for writing motivation – ‘guilt and fear’. Good to know…

Panel B – A rather interesting panel on pacifism in science fiction, with Farah Mendelsohn, Nick Harkaway, Kim Lakin Smith and Sam Kelly. For my money, if you go pacifist, you wipe out about 75% of the canon. Others disagree, and say 90%. Anyway, some very interesting commentary, tho’ sadly I had the classic problem of not having read many of the books discussed. Hey ho, all good suggestions for when the book hoard has diminished a bit.

One interesting thought results – that SF is frequently really a literature of colonialism, rather than of warfare; perhaps explaining its success in Western Europe and America, the two great colonial regions of our age. And that ‘Starship Troopers’ is basically ‘Zulu’, only with a little more context.

Ken Macleod also made a fascinating comment – ‘SF has encoded into it a set of assumptions that we can eventually have peace without pacifism’. A core duplicity, I would have thought, and a perception that definitely bears further pondering.

The Tim Powers keynote

At least I made it to one of the keynotes, tho’ I do have to admit *full disclosure* that it was only because I happened to bump into various folk on their way there, and was swept along in their slipstream.

Anyway, it was very enjoyable indeed; Tim Powers at once witty, erudite, and wise, while also managing to look like a Kyle Mclachlan / Robert Vaughn gene splicing experiment. Cool! I have a new role model. Anyway, highlights include:

TP on being young and knowing Phillip K. Dick: ‘It was instructive for us to see how a real writer actually lived… you’d be living in low rent zip codes and driving cars that people laughed at as you went by’ – well, I’ve always driven Rovers (thanks to Uncle Bill and the Rover garage he used to run) so I’ve got the second one sorted at any rate.

A TP learning from PKD: ‘You need to have your characters have a job… They’re going to have to get the day off work to go fight the [alien space] squids… his characters were always worrying about the state of their tyres, and how much gas there was in the tank.’

TP also helped me confirm why I don’t like ‘The Anubis Gates’. I seem to be the only geek on the planet who was underwhelmed by it (I thought it was a patchwork of sources that never quite gelled into something fully credible and coherent); apparently it was two other books combined, and was also disliked by Lester Del Rey. So I feel a little more justified in my underwhelmment.

The BSFA Awards

Well, once again, I hadn’t read all the books on offer.  So comments will alas be limited. On the plus side, great to see Ted Chiang take the best short story award; Farah Mendlesohn’s ‘Rhetorics of Fantasy’ a worthy non-fiction winner; and thoroughly enjoyed the Newman Mcauley Overdrive that powered the opening sections of the ceremony.

Oh, and I got to witness MacLeeOddGate, which was both a rather wonderful moment in itself and a reminder that British English is both deeply idiosyncratic and frequently utterly illogical. If only everyone had seen ‘Highlander’! Then these things just wouldn’t happen…

The drunken conversations I had

Well, an embarrassingly large number, because I was rather merry quite frequently. But then again, that is part of the point of the con. So, a lot of chatting with old friends, and making new ones. I’m going to draw a veil over the specifics – is the world really ready for Conan Doyle the Barbarian, and other such horrors? – and leave it at –

Hello everyone! Lovely to see you!

*waves through the screen like a cheerful Japanese ghost movie villain*

The books bought

OK, so not such a huge list as – with the credit crunch etc – I was being frugal. But I couldn’t resist picking up:

Paul Kincaid – ‘What it is we do when we read science fiction’ – always good to pick up a new crit, and given that I’m winding up to write a science fiction novel this seemed to be the one to get. Already fascinating on Gene Wolfe; I’m looking forward to reading the rest of it.

Daniel Fox – ‘Dragon in Chains’ – Now this is driving me nuts, because I read a stunning review of it somewhere the other day, but for the life of me I can’t remember where! It does look rather wonderful – and freshly signed by the author himself. Can’t wait!

Toby Frost – ‘Space Captain Smith’ – The first of a series, and it promises to be wildly enjoyable steampunk mayhem… Huzzah!

The sad news

While whizzing round the dealer’s room on Sunday, I stopped to say hi to Eric of the Fantasy Centre. Alas, they’re closing! Bit of a shock, and very sad. More details here – when I get a moment I’ll be nipping down there to say hi and find out what’s going on.

The journey back

Having watched ‘Red Riding’ the other week, I was glad we could leave Yorkshire without being bafflingly fitted up for something horrific by various brutal people who smoke a lot. But not glad to leave Bradford, as in the end it was a lovely, friendly town with excellent curries and much good con fun. But hey…

A nice easy drive down, back here by 8.30pm, and general post-con collapse! Then a slow Monday mostly taken up by building the new BBQ. So that’s Eastercon 2009…

Friedman, Capitalism and Fantasy

Culture, Fantasy, Genre, Gentleman thieves, Modernity, Philosophy

Fantasy’s often condemned for ignoring reality; but much supposedly rational, descriptive writing can have a tenuous relationship with reality, and with the fundamental structures of reality, too. Stories of the fantastic at least have the virtue of being honest about their fictive nature.

Take Milton Friedman, for example. I’ve just been reading ‘Capitalism and Freedom’ (University of Chicago Press, 2002), which according to Wikipedia ‘makes the case for economic freedom as a precondition for political freedom’, and has been a key text for a wide variety of neo-liberal thinkers – people, you’d think, who were very grounded in reality.

Certainly, Friedman views his work as one that’s rooted in the real. He’s very specific about why he wrote it; to provide material for ‘bull sessions’ and – more importantly – to provide a set of options for status-quo smashing change, that can be held in reserve until they’re ready to be implemented at moments of crisis:

‘That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.’

The crisis comes; and Milton’s there, ready to defuse it with his ‘alternative policies’. Designed (as he implies they are) to have maximum constructive impact at moments of maximum stress, one assumes that they’ll be as realistic – that is, as rigorously thought through and as practically effective – as possible. The very opposite of fantasy, in fact.

Well, you’d have thought so. And no doubt, you’d have hoped so, too. But in fact – if ‘Capitalism and Freedom’ is anything to go by – Milton’s a fantasy writer too, though there is one thing that sets him apart from the Tolkiens and the Dunsanys and the Moorcocks and the Lovecrafts – they don’t pretend that they’re writing fact.

The first clue to Milton’s duplicity comes in his deployment of apparent historical fact. Take this, for example, on Winston Churchill in the 30s – according to Friedman, a period when Churchill was desperately trying to warn the British against Nazism:

‘He was not permitted to talk over the radio to the British people because the BBC was a government monopoly and his views were “too controversial”.’ (p.19)

Friedman takes this as an example of ‘socialism’ stifling ‘dissent’. Or this, on exchange controls (of which he disapproves):

‘To the best of my knowledge they were invented by Hjalmar Schacht in the early years of the Nazi regime’ (p.57)

Their Nazi links of course being self-evident proof that such controls are implicitly linked to Facism in general.

Rooting around on the internet, I couldn’t find any reference to Churchill’s anti-Nazi views being censored; in fact, for most of the 30s he had a regular column in the EveningStandard, seemed to have given major speeches at the Royal Albert Hall and elsewhere every other week, and in fact appeared on BBC radio in (at the very least) 1934, 1935 and 1938, talking on ‘the causes of war’ and similar.

Admittedly, Churchill was prevented from discussing Indian constitutional changes over the airwaves in 1933, but he wasn’t the only person thus restricted; it was felt that the subject was so sensitive that only party leaders could talk about it.

What about Hjalmar Schacht? Well, positioning exchange controls as a fiendish Nazi innovation by linking them with Schacht becomes a little less convincing when you find out who he was. I’ll quote directly from Wikipedia:

‘To greater and lesser degrees, Schacht was involved in numerous attempted coups in the years between his dismissal from the Reichsbank and his imprisonment. Indeed, Schacht was one of the main driving forces behind the 1938 planned coup. At Schacht’s denazification trial (subsequent to his acquittal at Nuremberg) it was declared by a judge that “None of the civilians in the resistance did more or could have done more than Schacht actually did.”

As a result of the various putsch attempts between 1938 and 1941, Schacht was arrested on 23 July 1944, accused of having participated in the July 20 Plot to assassinate Hitler. He was sent to Ravensbrück and Flossenburg and finally to Dachau.’

Friedman plays fast and loose with history to score rhetorical points; this focus on rhetorical, rather than factual, support recurs throughout the book. Making dubious, counter-factual links between economic behaviour he disagrees with and the Nazis is actually one of his more restrained tics; more usually, he just points out that – if you don’t follow his policies – free society will collapse, pretty much instantly:

‘the issue of legislating rules for monetary policy has much in common with a topic that seems at first altogether different, namely the argument for the first amendment to the Constitution’ (p.51)

‘such a device seems to me the only feasible device for converting monetary policy into a pillar of free society, rather than a threat to its foundations’ (p.55)

‘the subject of international monetary arrangements is… the most serious short-run threat to economic freedom in the United States today – aside, of course, from the outbreak of World War III.’ (p.57)

Incidentally, these statements aren’t substantiated in any deep way; their function, like Milton’s historical references, is rhetorical, not factual. And, like those references, if you prod them a little – they collapse.

The above are only a few examples; there are many more within the book. And that’s just Friedman’s rhetoric – I haven’t even begun to take issue with his arguments, whether economic or more generally sociological.

If I wanted to be typing all night I would – for example – take issue with Friedman’s rather odd understanding of group dynamics (government or trade bodies can do no right; commercial bodies can do no wrong), have a go at his apparent proof that we don’t need any sort of professional licensing (registration is ‘an important first step in the direction of a system in which every individual has to carry an identity card, every individual has to inform the authorities what he plans to do before he does it’ – p.149), register my irritation at his constant straw man arguments, or take issue with his ongoing assumption everyone can have a perfect, rational understanding of the short and long term costs and benefits of any commercial arrangement that they enter into, at any time and apparently at the drop of a hat. Amongst other things.

But, I want to have a bath, so I think I’ll stop there. And in any case, the real aim of this article isn’t to prove Milton Friedman wrong (he does that himself, very ably), but rather to demonstrate how his apparently disinterested assembly of facts is – in fact – a very partial tract, that consistently relies on rhetoric over reason to drive its argument forward. It is, in fact, a fantasy, derived from how Milton would like the world to be, rather than how it actually is.

And that brings me back to the point I was making. Fantastic writing can trigger an aggressively negative reaction from certain kinds of reader; I wonder if part of their anger comes from the way that fantastic writing is so aggressively honest about its unreality, thus casting an unwelcome light on the dishonesty innate in some texts – like Milton’s – that pretend to be factual in their construction and conclusions.

We gig Friday

Culture, Dormouse hunting, Gigs, Groove, Heaviosity, Music

Well, continuing my tradition of only announcing gigs on here at the last minute, a quick one to let you know that I’m performing spoken word with Graan at the Klinker this Friday 15th. The night begins at 8.30pm, at Tottenham Chances, 399 High Road, London N17 6QN – nearest tubes Tottenham Hale / 7 Sisters. Listen to a couple of test runs for the night here (I’m on the A tracks, Stellas vocalist Tim is on the T track) – otherwise, see you there. You’ll know me, because I’ll probably be looking like this (ta Zali for pic):

Moi reading at Voices of Experience in November

Moi reading at Voices of Experience in November

Momentous moments of mirth

Comedy, Comics, Culture, Despair, Film

A quick post today, highlighting a superb article from Tanya Gold in The Guardian about that uniquely British phenomenon – the Carry On movies, a set of (very cheesy) UK comedies made in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

If you’re British, you don’t need me to tell you about them. If you’re from anywhere else, you won’t have heard of them – and you certainly won’t have a sense of their omnipresence in the British, and particularly the English, cultural mindset.

There are some very specific reasons for the deep impression they made on us, that Tanya pins down with absolute precision:

‘The Carry On films are not funny. They are parables about failure. The typical Carry On hero is an everyman who lives a life of misery, unrequited lust and boredom…. So why did people like them? Because it was happening to them. Carry On held up a cartoonish mirror to the depressed and repressed Britain of the 1950s and 1960s.’

Bang on. My favourite Carry Ons now are the ones with contemporary settings; the ones that take us into the backstreets of suburban England and show us the lively, limited, busy, thwarted worlds that never appear in more narratively and aesthetically ambitious films.

The Carry On characters would be little more than extras in such movies; here, they, and their local, petty, entirely human desires are given centre stage, and allowed free rein, creating a mythology of English suburbia that is both precise and timeless in its vision and its impact, and that haunts the English accordingly.

That haunting is leant depth by the gap between the superficial froth of the films, and (as Gold points out) the desperation of so many of the lives that underpinned them. The on-screen comedy of failure was underpinned by a series of off-screen miseries that failed to ever develop into anything as resolved and satisfying as tragedy, instead petering out in alcoholism and waste, squalor and death.

There’s something very recognisably English in the deep efforts of repression, the sense of forced jollity and pretence that all’s well, that that reality / fiction relationship embodies. As a nation, we’ve spent the last fifty years or so failing, in one way or another, while beaming joyfully and pretending that nothing’s gone wrong at all.

The Carry On comedies aren’t just myths of suburbia; they’re myths of that pretence, as well, a pretence of normality and worth that’s regularly undercut by the serial collapses it’s not quite managing to hide.

The rest of the article is here, and well worth checking out; and here’s a brief sampler of Carry On-ness, courtesy of YouTube:

Here’s Kenneth Williams, as Julius Caesar, delivering the infamy line:

And here’s another key bit of Carry On-ness – Sid James’ laugh, possibly the single most lecherous sound in cinema. It’s a short clip, alas the best I could find:


Oh, and there’s popcorn and hotdogs on sale in the foyer, now!

*cues crap curry house ad*

X Factories

Culture, Music, Television

I used to quite enjoy the X-Factor (UK’s Pop Idol equivalent) audition round; the combination of the deluded, the talentless, the clearly taking-the-piss and the odd gem was just wonderful.

I think the first time I saw it was about when I was running a cabaret night down in Brixton – as a rule, I’d have booked the acts that the judges rejected most directly, because they tended to be the most eccentrically individual ones.

I didn’t have too much of a problem with judge harshness. They seemed to be pretty selective with their responses, and there always seemed to be an effective good cop / bad cop balance going on. So, when I turned on this year’s X Factor the other day, I thought I’d get half an hour or so of enjoyable mayhem.

Instead, I got bullying. Pre-selected acts were marched through to be shredded, directly and brutally. There was a coarseness and absolute lack of empathy I hadn’t seen before, combined with a lack of any sort of balance on the judging panel itself. I watched about five minutes, then turned over.

I’m sure I’m not the first blogger to rant about judge brutality on the X-Factor, and I certainly won’t be the last. But I suspect I’ll be one of the few to link it to the ethical problems implicit in 3 act narrative structure.

Let me explain. As I’m sure you know, three act narrative structure is the dominant modern model for building narratives. If you follow the classic Hollywood version of it, you use Act 1 to establish motivation (‘Luke wants to rescue Princess Leia’), Act 2 to frustrate achievement of that motivation (‘Luke can’t rescue her because of Darth Vader, the Death Star, etc’) and Act 3 to show what happens when that motivation is achieved (‘Luke blows up the Death Star, defeats Darth Vader, and rescues PL’).

Implicit in that structure is a very basic binary opposition – good vs evil. At the start of the story, somebody is shown to have a ‘good’ motivation. The action of the story is generated as the ‘good’ motivation is frustrated by ‘evil’ people or events. The protagonist’s triumph comes when he finally and absolutely overcomes ‘evil’, and his / her little moral universe is thus purged and rendered exclusively ‘good’.

What’s that got to do with the X-Factor? Well, within that structure only the good succeed and only the evil fail. Success itself becomes a basis on which to reach a full and final moral judgement on any given character. If you fail, you fail because you’re evil – you’re worth less than the protagonist, in a very real sense.

And that’s the morality that’s infected the X-Factor. Successful people judge failed people – and, because success gives automatic moral justification, they’re free to inflict any kind of humiliation on those in front of them. The failed X-Factor singers aren’t just bad singers; they’re flawed people, evil, representing the kind of weakness and failure that any true hero can and must leave behind.

And of course, in the X-Factor narrative, the true heroes do leave this perceived mire behind, rising up into another world of one-on-one engagement with Simon Cowell, Louis Walsh and the rest.

Subsequent episodes become a drama of detection; individual contestants are found out as impostors, not potential winners, but rather people who stand in the way of the final winner’s ascension. Deemed impure, they’re booted out until only unfrustrated goodness remains.

But that’s utter bollocks. The show isn’t a ritual of purification; rather, it’s a ritual of commodification, as the contestants are ruthlessly stripped back to reveal the most commercial performers. And ‘commercial’ as a category is very limited, aiming ruthlessly for that which is closest to the already successful. It demands repetition, not originality; homogeneity, not personality.

And that reflects back on three act narrative structure, too. Far from achieving ‘good’, its most simple (and therefore most common – for we live in a world that privileges the simple) variants achieve ‘smoothed over’, ‘polished’. Anything awkward is banished; anything complex is broken down into neat categories, until we’re left in a landscape that’s both a moral and an emotional pablum.

It’s a key problem of our modern culture that that pablum is taken to represent absolute moral truths, rather than a passing entertainment. Much as I didn’t enjoy the X-Factor, I have to admit that it shows us back to ourselves very effectively; bullying the weak from a position of absolute righteousness, and using the extent of that bullying as a measure of our virtue.

Your 20th century boy

Culture, Narrative, Novelists, Politics

In the context of yesterday’s comments about the self-justifying self, I’ve been thinking about Michael Moorcock’s ‘Between the Wars’ series of books (‘Byzantium Endures’, ‘The Laughter of Carthage’, ‘Jerusalem Commands’, ‘The Vengeance of Rome’), dealing with the adventures of Maxim Pyat in the 20th Century.

Maxim’s a fascinating character. Both naïve adventurer and lethal manipulator, he at once lives through and embodies some of the worst parts of the last century. From an Eastern European starting point, he travels the world, encountering the best and (far more often) the worst of humanity at every point.

In narrative terms, Moorcock uses him as a kind of fictional mouse-pointer, guiding him around the world to highlight the moments and processes that led up to the Holocaust.

This focus on history makes the books didactic in the best sense; they support a richer, deeper understanding of the 20th Century, one that sees the Holocaust not as an isolated incident but as part of a broader pattern of deep inhumanity that in many ways is still continuing.

But there’s more to Maxim than mere didacticism. As the narrator of all four books, he’s a very developed character in his own right. Key to understanding him is realising just how he manages his own story.

The gulf between his self-image and his actions is huge. His behaviour shows him up as being variously a con-man, drug addict, thief, rapist, pederast and worse. But he consistently presents and understands himself as a thwarted visionary and frustrated romantic.

That broken self awareness is rooted in his situation. Pyat treats others badly; he often presents himself as having been treated worse. His self-deception is in part a function of those perceived or actual brutalities, a necessary defence mechanism as he becomes a kind of emblematic punchbag for the worst that the 20th Century had to offer.

That self deception builds inevitably to the final book’s emotionally shattering climax, but it also performs a valuable thematic function. It helps explore how victimhood can be the most dangerous mask of all, offering a perpetual and immutable moral high ground that legitimises the worst brutalities as a protective response to threat.

Martians kill Humanism

Culture, Horror, Humanism, Philosophy, Poets, Science Fiction

I finished off a collection of Leigh Brackett’s Martian romances over the weekend – ‘The Coming of the Terrans’. Some great stories in there, but there’s more going on than just pulp mayhem.

Brackett’s Martian stories are set on an exotic, faded Mars. In her world, humans arrived there to find an aeon-shadowed (thanks, HPL) civilisation in the final stages of decline. The dessicated, decadent atmosphere of that fading culture is key to the stories’ success.

The stories in ‘The Coming of the Terrans’ show what happens when humans encounter that culture. In each case, the human engages with the Martian, and as a result the limits of his humanity are (more or less) brutally exposed.

One protagonist hunts down a disappeared girlfriend, and in doing so is forcibly de-evolved and bluntly reminded of man’s fundamentally bestial nature. Another encounters an ancient Martian god-thing, but represses all knowledge of lest it destroy his academic career, and is destroyed by that repression. A third discovers just how futile – not to say absurd – human efforts to re-vivify the Martian deserts by tapping into hidden water supplies are.

In each case, human rationality is broken against far more enduring and deeply rooted alien structures. Initially, I read this in quite a Jungian way, understanding the human to represent the conscious mind and the Martian cultures and landscape to image the archetype haunted depths of the subconscious.

That points to the fundamental misunderstanding-of-self that Jung exposed in his writings. We commonly believe that the superficial structures of the conscious self are the core, enduring definers of what it is to be human. We choose what we are on a daily basis; our humanity lies in those choices.

In fact – Jung pointed out – that’s a profoundly deluded viewpoint. The common self of humanity lies in the deep subconscious. We inherit archetypal patterns, modes of behaviour, from those shadowy regions – and they are our shared human heritage.

Next to them, the conscious self is a useful but ultimately entirely transient structure that gives a useful purchase on daily life, but not much more. Archetypal structures endure through millennia; the self gets three score years and ten, or thereabouts.

There are clear parallels with the basic structures underlying Brackett’s Martian stories. But I think there’s something else going on there as well, something deeper and in some ways far more interesting.

It’s part of a broader trend in 20th century literature. Brackett wrote about the failure of a humane, rational, human centred worldview. She wasn’t the only person to do so. From pulp visionaries like H.P. Lovecraft to broken epic poets like Ezra Pound, the failure of that kind of narrative of the self was a common, obsessive theme.

What I think Leigh Brackett was really charting was the final failure of the Humanist project. Born in the Renaissance, it posited a universe that demanded liberal, humane, rational behaviours as the most productive mode of being possible.

For Humanists, the cosmos existed to reflect back human enlightenment and benevolence on us. Archetypal Renaissance mage Giordano Bruno described an ideal mind state; full of classical learning, the enlightened man should step out of his house and, looking around, see benevolent connections uniting everything around him.

Of course, Giordano was burnt at the stake. Even back then, Humanist optimism faced very substantial real world obstacles. But it’s taken the 20th century’s combination of deep science and deep brutality to really finish it off. The universe isn’t necessarily ordered around anything; it certainly doesn’t run like a benevolent ticking clock.

It’s that death of Humanism that’s exposed in Leigh Brackett’s planetary romances. Against the impassive, often bizarre, and always unshakably experienced ancients of Mars, Humanist thinking is exposed as being at best naïve, at worst downright damaging.

And that exposure is echoed in the 20th century itself, the moment that broke Humanism against events ranging from the discovery of the fundamental oddness of matter itself to industrial genocide on an unprecedented scale.