Jesus wants me for a loyalty card special offer

Aliens, Fantasy, Religion, RPGs, Superheroes

Jesus called me yesterday and tried to sell me a 50% discount card, valid apparently at most of the best shops in the UK, including (He made a special point of telling me) Boots*. When I tried to find out more, He said he was going to put me through to His supervisor, at which point I rang off.

I can say no to Jesus without feeling too guilty – He is after all semi-human, and so gets that some of us might not actually need 50% discount cards, even if we do shop regularly at Boots – but I felt that I was risking lightning bolts etc if I turned down his boss, so thought it best to retire gracefully before this became an issue.

I do salute the practicality of His second coming tho’, and His very direct concern for those of us struggling in credit crash hit Britain. Perhaps I’ve also been misunderstanding all those robot phone calls offering me free holidays in Florida – could they be divine, too? Perhaps there is a frustrated choir of robot angels somewhere in Heaven, baffled as to why we persist in refusing their chirpily automatic munificence. Ah, the ingratitude of personkind…

Anyway, quite apart from religious visitations, I was – as regular readers will realise is completely unsurprising – going on about Ezra Pound the other night, having first been discussing the pleasures and miseries of being writing fantasy. But a fascinating comment from the person I was talking to. ‘Of course you like Pound’, she said, ‘you’re into D&D’.

Now that’s a really fascinating comment, because it reveals the previously unsuspected (at least by me) link between RPGs and certain Modernist / Post Modernist poetic strategies. Let me explain…

Key to much of the more interesting modern poetry is its demand that the reader becomes an active participant in creating meaning in it. The poem offers never quite enough information to finally resolve; the final decision as to any meaning(s) inherent in the text comes from the reader.

Remind you of anything? Yup, D&D and its ilk. RPGs aren’t narratives; they’re construction kits for narratives, a set of open fields, each demanding player participation to be completed, and each having no particular final meaning without that participation.

So, formally, there’s a really interesting comparison to be made there. And there’s another point of contact there too; RPGs and strange and strange and interesting modern poetry are very often sneered at in very similar terms.

They’re arcane; they’re esoteric; they’re the preserve of geeks; they have no real aesthetic credibility or worth, instead being little more than a self-indulgent waste of time that encourage flight from, rather than engagement with, reality.

Fascinating… and fascinating that a demand for action and engagement, rather than just passive enjoyment, on the part of the reader / player, should lead to such vituperation. Is not being told what to think by a text really so traumatic? Apparently so, at least for some.

As for me, pretty much all of the really interesting people I’ve ever met have either been dedicated RPGers or deeply into seriously odd and usually pretty incomprehensible poetry – so I know where my loyalties lie!**

*no, really, He did

** clearly if Jesus calls back and turns out NOT to be either an RPGer or a poetry geek, I’m screwed

Relating to Gandalf

Fantasy, Gnosis, Modernity, Religion

Well, it’s interesting times at Allumination Central, as at the moment I’m a full time writer. That – combined with Gary Lachman’s fascinating delve into 60s occult culture, ‘Turn Off Your Mind’, and related ponderings about Gandalf – has set me pondering self determination, external determination, and the relationship between the two.

It’s the self determination that’s difficult; fresh out of three years of pretty much full time employment, I’m finding it an interesting challenge to move back to a situation where – even for a short period – my time is entirely under my control, and my goals are entirely my own to define. And that’s a fascinating difficulty to feel.

It’s making me realise just how much responsibility for the direction of our lives we hand over to other people, and just how much personal goals can be externally imposed. 9 to 5, 8 to 6, or its equivalent is a lot of time; more than half of the most alive parts of our waking lives. Round about 60-70% of them, in fact, if you do the maths.

What’s interesting is not whether that’s a good or a bad thing – rather, I’m intrigued by what it says about us as a species, or at least about one of the basic norms of modern culture. We seem to have a deep need for hierarchy; a deep need to be part of an external structure that both shapes our lives and helps give them meaning; in terms of last week’s post, a structure that creates a quest or set of quests for us to both fulfil and use as a lens to look at the rest of the world.

I’m not sure what that’s a function of. Is it something biological? As social animals, do we need to be a part of a social hierarchy to be fulfilled? Is it something social? Given that it relies on group activity to hold it together, has modern technological society created a value set that demands our participation in ‘work’ to demonstrate our value to society, and therefore create a sense of worth in ourselves? Or is there something very basic here? Does the self need an external theatre space to define itself, a theatre that is usefully created by work?

I have to admit that – although I have my own theories – I have no sense of what the final answer is. What’s interesting is the kind of behaviour that that need for structure leads to – a behaviour that came very much to life during the 60s, as – as Lachman records – transparently nutty cults flourished on an impressively substantial, frequently bonkers and quite often surprisingly malign scale.

Seeking to escape the constrictions of straight society – in part, no doubt, of ‘work’ – and develop a truer version of the self, seekers after truth fled one set of structures to – it seems – leap headlong into other, often far more repressive and destructive ones. Crowleyan magicians, acid gurus, Satanists, new age masters and others found loyal sets of followers who thralled themselves to their spiritual leaders and – in the name of freedom and self realisation – rigorously and thoroughly did whatever they were told, for as long as they were told to.

Freedom is a scary thing; joining a cult is one response to it. Perhaps the rise of quest fantasy as a clearly defined genre in the 60s (sparked by the ascendancy of Tolkien) is another. Seen through the guru lens, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ gives readers in Gandalf a demonstrably wise, powerful and right leader, one who sets his followers a quest of very clear worth that produces both epic, psychedelic, world changing adventure and a final return to a re-secured, and for the most part very conservative, home. The innumerable Gandalf themed head shops, restaurants, etc, that sprang up back then point to both his ascendancy as a cultural figure and the attractiveness of the trip that he offered.

But – as previous posts have pointed out – there’s a problem with accepting a guru’s quest donation; you have to accept their worldview, too, and reject anything that challenges it – like, for example, your own personal experience of the world. So the problem still remains; how to reach a personal relationship with the world, one that acknowledges the needs of the self as much as the needs of the structures of which the self is a part?

Blind guru following doesn’t seem to be a particularly good solution; moving in the opposite direction, rejection of the world entire is (I suspect, never having done it) not very helpful either. No man is an island; pure solipsism leads to idiolect, the creation of a personal myth that exists without any relationship with or relevance to the structures of the wider world at all. Perhaps that’s the kind of solipsism that created all those flawed 60s gurus, people busy using their followers to shore up their own sense of self in the face of a determined assault on their worldviews from the realities each one rejected.

The real challenge seems to be to mediate between the internal and the external, acknowledging both the needs of the self and the needs of the immediate structures of the world. Perhaps becoming a person is neither about following nor leading, but rather is best understand as a constant negotiation between the two, allowing the two to co-exist productively. Neither seeking to be Gandalf, nor to be led by Gandalf? If I was aspiring to guru-hood, that would perhaps – at least provisionally – be my message. I suspect it wouldn’t get me too many gold plated Rolls Royces, which is on some levels a shame, but on the plus side it wouldn’t screw too many people up either, which can only be a good thing.

A hatchet for Jung

Fantasy, Landscape, Memory, Narrative, Psychology

Much excitement at allumination this week, as my last big post – the Olson / Lovecraft one – has been picked up on by the international poetry world. Greetings, new readers from just about everywhere! I hope you’re enjoying the unholy poetry / weirdness blend that goes on here.

Some personal poetic excitement as well, as – while attending the most excellent Avantgarde Festival – I’ve been deep in the most excellent ‘Late Modernist Poetics from Pound to Prynne’. Well, it seemed like the right place to read something like that…

Anyway, it’s a ferociously enjoyable book, and a really valuable combination of deep reading of Pound, Olson and Prynne and debunking of their windier / ethically dubious / just plain incoherent moments. It also casts fascinating light on (amongst other things) Jung’s contribution to mid / late 20th century avant garde thinking.

More on the details of that contribution another time; what intrigued me was how interesting it is to look at Jung through the lens of Farah Mendlesohn’s superb recent book, ‘Rhetorics of Fantasy’.

In RoF, Farah develops a really interesting (and very constructive) taxonomy of fantasy. She defines the portal-quest fantasy, the immersive fantasy, the intrusion fantasy, the liminal fantasy and then various irregulars. The book has been discussed in detail elsewhere – for example, here by John Clute – so I’m not going to summarise it again, but rather home in on one of Farah’s categories – the portal quest. And, instead of using it to think about fantastic fiction, I’m going to use it ponder Jung.

Understanding Jung’s work as a component of a portal quest world view leads to some really interesting insights about the deeper implications of his project. But what’s a portal quest fantasy? For Farah, at the most basic level,

‘a portal fantasy is simply a fantastic world entered through a portal. The classic portal fantasy is of course The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe… They are almost always quest novels and they almost always proceed in a linear fashion with a goal that must be met.’

Paraphrasing, they demand reader identification with a naïve protagonist who’s learning the ways of a strange new world – ‘the portal fantasy must be navigated’, and we share, empathise with, and learn the world through that navigation – a process of ‘entry, transition and negotiation’. The end of navigation is – as a rule – some kind of fated or predestined world changing event:

‘portal fantasies lead us gradually to the point where the protagonist knows his or her world enough to change it and enter into that world’s destiny.’

Farah gives various examples of the pq fantasy, including The Lord of the Rings, The Neverending Story, the various Oz books, and reaching all the way back to The Pilgrim’s Process. And – of course – Jung’s oeuvre can be read as a portal quest, or rather supporting a portal quest world view.

He posits a strange new world – the various levels of the subconscious – that we can all step into, populated by strange and interesting new characters – the archetypes – and structured at a deeper level around various mysterious but immutable image- and narrative-sets derived from the Euro / global alchemical tradition, plus various related forms of mysticism.

He sets himself up as guide to these strange new realms, and through his work aspires to help us develop, sustain and resolve our own quest within them; that is, to navigate them, achieve understanding of them and of our pre-destined role within them, and through that to reconcile oppositions and achieve a kind of personal transcendence.

He defined that personal transcendence as ‘individuation’, the resolution of conflicting opposites within the personality, and saw that it would lead to a radical alteration of our selves, our understanding of the deeper worlds of our personal subconsciouses, and through that those worlds themselves.

As in a classic pq fantasy, we begin as naïve protagonists, we achieve ‘entry, transition and negotiation’, moving ‘in a linear fashion with a goal that must be met’, and finally we come to ‘know [our subconscious] enough to change it and enter into that world’s destiny’; that is, to reconcile opposites, uncover the true external, personal destiny implied by the totality of an individuated consciousness, and achieve that destiny with the support of a fully resolved subconscious world / personality in general.

So, Jungian thinking about the self can be read as creating a portal quest fantasy for the self to move through, in search of a very real, very beneficial goal. But that’s not an unmixed good; and Farah is fascinating on exactly why that is.

The process of de-familiarisation and re-familiarisation that she describes is, as noted above, built around a sequence of exploratory actions in pursuit of a certain, clearly defined goal. And, as a rule, that goal is usually externally defined, and the terms of that goal condition and define the protagonist’s engagement with everyone that he or she meets along the way. They’re either helpful (good) or unhelpful (bad); that’s it for moral judgement, while more nuanced understandings of the personalities of those encountered are rendered impossibly by the need to relate with them exclusively in terms of the level of support / not-support they’re giving.

Mapped onto Jung, that gives us an interesting way of understanding archetype theory. Seen as portal quest components, archetypal definitions of others represent a shorthand for understanding them entirely in terms of their relationship to the Jung-defined quest. Rather than supporting a closer engagement with the root structures of reality (as Jung and his cohorts would no doubt claim), they in fact alienate the Jungian subject from anything more than a deeply superficial engagement with the entities surrounding him or her.

In portal quests, that kind of reductiveness also applies to the world travelled through; as a stranger in a strange land, the protagonist is by definition entirely dependent on the world-definitions of their guide. Those definitions tend to be pretty absolute (think of Gandalf’s sense of the evil of Sauron, or the way that the Wicked Witch of the East is presented in ‘The Wizard of Oz’), and pretty non-negotiable; as Farah puts it, discussing portal quest subsets:

‘The epic and the traveler’s tale are closed narratives. Each demands that we accept the interpretation of the narrator, and the interpretative position of the hero.’

Jung seeks to involve us in a single fixed narrative of which he is the narrator; as the hero of that narrative, we have a radically limited set of possible positive actions available to us. The goodness or badness of those actions is non-negotiable. Moving through Jung’s understanding of the subconscious, towards individuation, involved us in a narrative just as closed as that of any generic fantasy quest.

Implicit in the creation of a closed narrative is an absolute need for the narrator to be right, for their understanding of the world (as expressed in the narrative) to be uncontestable. Farah notes what this leads to:

‘in order to convince, to avoid too close analysis, the portal and quest fantasies attempt to convince through the accumulation of detail.’

That is, the closed narrative structures of a pq fantasy are covered over / held up by a mass of supporting detail, all deployed to convince us of the depth of knowledge and therefore the infallibility of the narrator. And that’s a game Jung plays, too, whether he’s deploying case studies or (in his later books) huge chunks of alchemical and related information.

The detail isn’t there to support the argument he’s making; rather, it exists to make it seem incontestable, an output of a world where every accessible point of information demonstrates the truth of the Jung hypothesis, and where that hypothesis itself is seen not as one more argument in a broader, polysemic set of discourses, but rather as a final, irrefutable outcome of an incontestable, almost omniscient seeing of all the detail of the world. Apparently rational, it in fact defeats rationality by burying logic beneath a flood of impressive, apparently global and disinterested but in fact carefully selected and very partial data.

There’s much more that can be teased out of this; I’ve only touched the surface of Farah’s sense of what a portal quest is, and how that can be used to tease out the more hidden, controlling components of Jung’s project (and by extension, any other vatic guru who builds his thought around a similarly omni-applicable worldview). Returning to the Mellors book I mentioned earlier, I think it’s going to be very interesting to feed Olson, Pound and Prynne, and their respective poetic cults through all of this. There’s some fascinating pondering to be done about political narratives, too; the portal quest narrative is a classic colonial narrative, as the other is encountered and engaged with from a purely self-centred perspective. And of course, there’s the whole of the rest of the book to be talking about, too.

But for now, it’s Friday night, and I’ve got a curry on the stove and H has just come over, and we’re going to sit down and watch Kolchak DVDs and chill out. So, bon weekend a tous!

Lovecraft, Olson and ‘The Mayan Letters’

Fantasy, Horror, Humanism, Landscape, Poetry, Poets, Seascapes

Well, it’s been a fascinating morning of pondering Lovecraft’s roots in Ovid. Don’t believe me? Well, I’m not going to go into detail here – still working out exactly what I think – but in brief I think the link builds on Ovid’s status as the great poet of transformation in ‘Metamorphosis’, and the chronicler of the numinous’ daily interaction with man in ‘Fasti’.

Lovecraft, of course, has a horror of metamorphosis, although many of his characters don’t; and his work tracks the divine breaking into the quotidian in random, terrifying ways. But more on that another time.

Because today’s weird pondering continues my ongoing death of Humanism rant by thinking about how exactly and interestingly mid-20th Century poet and educator (and inventor of the term ‘postmodern’) Charles Olson tallies with your generic Lovecraftian academic villain.

In Lovecraft, the academic villain is a very identifiable type; someone deeply engaged with lost, historic lore, working either alone or in concert.

As a rule, they’re obsessed with secret lore, are very aware that what they’re up to goes against / is threatening to the cultural mainstream, and yet are driven on by both personal rewards and by a sense that what they’re uncovering is real truth, that will lead to a mass transformation in their particular cultural consciousness and affairs.

For example, the Joseph Curwen circle in ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ look forward to the moment when ‘it will be ripe… to have upp ye Legions from Underneath, and then there are no Boundes to what shall be oures…’, while in ‘The Shadow Out of Time’ Great Race society seems to have been profoundly effected by news of its impending doom.

And these researchers have an interesting relationship with time; it’s a very malleable thing to them, allowing them to bring the past directly into the present, and vice versa. The Joseph Curwen circle talk with the dead of all centuries, while the time traveling delvings of the Great Race of Yith are presented very directly indeed:

‘I learned… that the entities around me were of the world’s greatest race, which had conquered time and sent exploring minds into every age… I talked with the mind of Yiang-Li, a philosopher from the cruel empire of Tsan-Chan, which is to come in 5,000 A.D.; with that of a general of the great-headed brown people who held South Africa in 50,000 BC; with that of a twelfth Century Florentine monk named Bartolomeo Corsi…’

Other examples abound; many Lovecraftian villains (and most of his heroes, come to that) can be seen as researchers of one kind or another. The Fungi from Yuggoth take humanity to the stars, and beyond; the crazed cultists of ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ use forbidden knowledge to excavate Cthulhu; the protagonist of ‘The Haunter of the Dark’ is a kind of archaeologist of local horror; and so on.

So what? Well, the preponderance of researchers / historians / revivifiers in Lovecraft is a logical outcome of his central myth; that of a past that can be recast in ways that radically transform understandings of humanity and of modernity in general. And that’s what links him so interestingly with Olson.

I’d been kind of vaguely aware of this link, but it hadn’t really grabbed me until I sat down to read Olson’s ‘The Mayan Letters’. Edited by Olson’s friend and poetic ally Robert Creeley, aka the Figure of Outward, ‘The Mayan Letters’ record Olson’s researches into Mayan culture over a six month period in the early 50s, carried out from a small village on the Mexican coast.

‘The Mayan Letters’ are a key document in Olson’s ongoing struggle to get past the limitations of Western European thinking and perception, as rooted in (what Olson perceives to be) alienating ancient Greek philosophy. For him (and paraphrasing hugely!) the Greeks separated the object from the discourse, creating an artificial gap between thinking and existing that’s in turn alienated Western consciousness from the world that surrounds it.

As he put it in his essay ‘The Human Universe’, ‘the distinction here is between language as the act of the instant and language as the act of thought about the instant’. One way – he thought – of reclaiming language as ‘the act of the instant’ is to pitch it in terms of hieroglyphs or ideograms, reclaiming the word as object rather than description. And that attitude in part led him to the Mayans, who built their language on ideograms.

Of course his interest was in Mayan culture was far broader than the purely linguistic – as a researcher, he hoped to uncover the frame of mind that an ideogrammatic language supported, find a way of describing and reintroducing it into contemporary culture, and thus bring about a constructive change in Western mass consciousness (‘the shift is SUBSTANTIVE’, as he notes of the past, and will be again).

And that’s what makes him – and ‘The Mayan Letters’, and his broader work, so resonantly Lovecraftian. Whether acting as archaeologist, linguist, historical researcher or just plain explorer, his language rings with the expository excitement of the classic Lovecraftian researcher (‘I tried, for a while, to scratch away at the walls of the graves…’), whether hero or villain:

‘Craziest damn thing ever, this place: nothing on it otherwise but two sets of double small ‘pyramids’ at either end of the island… a damned attractive place… was it the reason the Maya… did so come here, choose, this place [to bury their dead]?… Must find out more.’

Olson then resolves – in a classically Lovecraftian set up – to go and look up MSSs of previous expeditions to the island. Or there’s this:

‘Have been digging up the old Maya chronicles, the last couple of days, and ome up with interesting stuff on Quetz-Kukul – and the question of, sea origins.’

Or this:

‘God, give me a little more of [watching stars in the Mexican sky while talking about them] and I shall excuse what you say abt me, another time, my friend. For you have said something so beautifully tonight, in this business of force:… that force STAYS, IS & THEREFORE STAYS, whenever, whatever:

that is what
we are concerned with
it breaks all time and space’

Where Lovecraft found horror in the breakage of time and space, Olson found wonder. And all of this is in service of an explicitly (perhaps even physically as well as culturally) transformative project:

‘BUT the way the bulk of them still (“the unimproved”) wear their flesh… the flesh is worn as a daily thing, like the sun… carried like the other things are, for use… the individual peering out from that flesh is precisely himself, is, a curious wandering animal (it is so very beautiful, how animal the eyes are, when the flesh is not worn so close it chokes, how human and individuated the look comes out)’

And that wearing is for Olson a ‘real, live clue to the results of what I keep on gabbing on about, another humanism’. For Olson as for Lovecraft, the return to the animal is transformative, but for Olson it’s a positive, allowing a step out of Western humanism into something far more spontaneous and positive, something that (using Jung’s term) leads very directly to the profoundly positive end of individuation, of becoming a true and integrated self.

And that’s the source of both similarity and the difference between the two writers. Both either track or drive a step away from a Humanism that began with the ancient Greeks and that has defined Western culture for the last couple of thousand years. For Lovecraft, that’s a profoundly destructive step, but one that (visionary that he was, often despite himself) one he can’t deny; for Olson, it’s an entirely positive step, one that should be encouraged.

In the end, Olson can be read as a Lovecraftian villain; but being a villain in Lovecraft means breaking an old consensus and replacing it with something unimaginably, transcendentally new – and, in this decaying modern world, that can only be a good thing to do.

In the gloom, the gold

Fantasy, Poetry

Well, what with one thing and another – mainly the fact that my laptop has blown up, tho’ fortunately it happened in slow motion so I was able to get all my data off the hard drive before the death – I haven’t had a moment to ponder Bryan Talbot in prose (trust me, it’s coming) so instead, I thought I’d post a poem from a while back. So, here’s ‘Iskandriya’, which I hope you enjoy –

Iskandriya!

Beneath the mosque, Scilitzis saw
a desiccated man in gold
enthroned inside a pure glass dome –
the story told by a dead writer
in a guidebook from between the wars –
a broken hole in antique walls.

Iskandriya!

The last of Alexandria.
Outside, live streets, a vital town;
Pastroudi’s Café, closed down.

Dust in the dead air, hard gold light

a gleam through lines of latticed slats.
The mirrors show me back myself.

Iskandriya!

What cracks the silent years apart?
It lets a little light break in
so something there so old can blaze –
Greek fire waits out centuries.
Mortar dies and dead blocks fail,
but polished tombs still throw back gold.

Iskandriya!

When Alexander ruled this place
he had his alchemists create
a man-sized, crystal diving bell.
He sank alone, his privilege –
hands pressed against the glass, and peered
out
in a glass-green, turbid world…

Iskandriya!

The streets where Cleopatra walked
temples where they’d chanted hymns –
the slatted tides had smothered them.
He lit a lamp, it made a mirror
of the glass dome’s cold dead skin.
Beneath the mosque, Scilitzis saw –

Iskandriya!

When I’ve done readings, I’ve had the audience whisper ‘Iskandriya’ at the end of every verse. Try it yourself when you’re reading it… Various different versions of Alexandria in there, my favourite is Scilitzis’ one. He was a Greek interpreter attached to the British Consulate who – as recorded by E.M. Forster – claimed to have climbed down beneath a certain mosque in the centre of town and – poking around in the catacombs – seen the dessicated, golden corpse of a king entombed in a glass dome.

Of course, nobody knows where Alexander is buried (nearby Siwa Oasis is another possibility) – I went down there myself, but you’re not allowed to explore. The tunnels stretch away into darkness, a little wooden ladder next to you, and you peer into the gloom and try and look back through the millenia to find Alexander, entombed in the diving bell his scientists made for him.

Iskandriya!

Quatermass, science and absurdity

Aliens, Fantasy, Heaviosity, Science Fiction

A friend’s engaging with Nigel Kneale at the moment, which has left me thinking about him too. If you’ve seen any of his film or TV pieces – the Quatermass movies / TV series, ‘The Stone Tapes’, ‘Beasts’, and so on – he won’t need any introduction. If you haven’t, you’re in for a treat; he’s one of the finest screen dramatists that Britain ever produced, using the fantastic to both comment directly on both contemporary social realities and consider the broader issues implicit in being human in a scientific age.

First of all, let’s take Kneale the social realist. That’s an odd thing to call a man who filled scripts with live broadcasts from prehistoric Martian hive wars, ghost dolphins haunting abandoned sea parks, Westminster Abbey invading alien / spaceman hybrids and ghost hunts derailed by washing machine obsessed scientists; but it’s entirely accurate. Kneale consistently used the unreal to talk about the real, reflecting the public obsessions of the world that surrounded him through the lens of the fantastic.

That sense of commentary is most obvious in his masterpiece, ‘Quatermass and the Pit’. Ostensibly a tale of what happens when a spaceship full of long-dead Martians is discovered beneath a London tube station, it was in fact written out of the 1958 Notting Hill race riots and the social and cultural tensions that surrounded them.

Kneale sees racism as something alien to the values of tolerance and empathy that are fundamental to humanity at its best; he takes that perception and literalises it, defining racism as a Martian implanted value that has simultaneously infected us all and that – being alien to our original natures – can be overcome, if only inconsistently. That kind of incisive social commentary occurs again and again in his work.

Secondly, there’s Kneale the scientific writer. In the above, I’ve been very careful to position him as a fantasist; I don’t believe that he can be described as a writer of science fiction, because although his narratives contain science the literal accuracy of that science is not a key concern.

Rather, Kneale talks about human relationships with science, and by extension the limits of science. Quatermass himself is the humane scientist par excellence; but all his knowledge can only offer at best temporary solutions to the problems that his scientific skills uncover.

For example, at the end of ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, the ghosts of Mars are defeated; but the problem of mankind’s implicit Martian-ness is left unresolved, and is in fact insoluble. Science can help us to see more clearly; but all that it shows us is our own fallibility and contingency. The cosmos remains vast and inscrutable, entirely unconcerned with the trivial construct that is modern humanity.

Which sense of vastness is an implicit comment on the humane values that Kneale endorses. To be human is not to be automatically moral or right; in fact, human-ness is a construct, a set of choices about how to most constructively and sensitively engage with those around us made in the teeth of an insignificance that is planetary in scale. At their best, Kneale’s heroes achieve such humanity despite enormous suffering, and with enormous sacrifice.

Sometimes, they fail to even get that far; the protagonists of ‘The Stone Tapes’, putting their faith in the innate rightness and power of scientific inquiry, end by condemning one of their number to a bizarre and in the end entirely unexplained life-in-death. Their faith that the operating system of the universe is fundamentally benevolent is revealed as both absurd and destructive. Their failure to recognise their limits is shown up as a failure of humanity; implicit in being human is understanding how difficult that humanity is to maintain, and how unnatural a position it can be to adopt.

That’s not to say that the struggle isn’t worth it; watch the shattering end of ‘The Quatermass Conclusion’ – a complex, despairing, but nonetheless absolute affirmation of the value of human relationships – and you’ll see what I mean, or rather what Kneale means. The very futility of being truly human in the face of the void is – for Kneale – what gives such moments their rare, deep, splendid value.

And that’s all for now. One worry, tho’ – I haven’t talked about just how entertaining Kneale is. A master of narrative, he tells stories that rock very hard indeed. All the above goes on in them, but it’s buried in gripping, unstoppable narratives that grab you hard and don’t let go.

And that’s why I’m always jealous of people who haven’t seen any of the Quatermass movies, or ‘Beasts’, or his ‘1984’, or ‘The Year of the Sex Olympics’, or ‘The Stone Tapes’, or anything else he wrote – because you’ve got some great nights in of watching and discovering ahead!

Breaking the past, escaping the past

Escapism, Fantasy, Modernity

What to say, what to say? The perennial problem of blogging – but sometimes, an entry writes itself, and tonight is one of those nights, because I’ve been reading Steve Cockayne’s marvellous, green-haunted novel, ‘The Good People’.

It’s about a boy called Kenneth Storey, who – it seems – either has a rich fantasy life, or is living in a very traditional kind of children’s book, one that might have been written by a less talented disciple of Rudyard Kipling sometime in the 50s.

For the most part, it’s set in the 40s. In the distance, there is World War II and the Blitz; and so Kenny and his brother retreat into a faerie dream of rural life. The land of Arboria opens itself up, first to them, and to young evacuees Janny and Nadia.

But, in fiction, nowhere can be Paradise; drama needs conflict, and that conflict comes as first Robert, and then Janny and Nadia begin to grow up. As ever, maturity brings complexity; Kenny sees Arboria change to accommodate that complexity, but also slowly begins to realise that, beyond a certain point, such accommodation is impossible.

And that’s all I’m going to say about the plot – to find out the rest, you’ll have to read the book yourself. Brutally honest in its evocation of the rot attendant on curdled innocence, and the ways in which growth can become an existential threat to such willed ignorance, ‘The Good People’ dissects such escapism with a relentless, surgical determination.

But it would be wrong just to say that the book is just a condemnation of fantasy. It’s also an elegy, for a certain kind of England; a place where there was in fact no such thing as fantasy, but rather a living, breathing folklore, passed on from generation to generation and springing from a very specific kind of relationship with place.

The decline of Kenny’s grandmother becomes a way of thinking about the end of that kind of deep-rooted identity. She can be seen as a keeper of ancient wisdom; but, as the book progresses, she falls into decay, senility and at last a slow and gentle death.

Kenny is unable to receive more than a few scraps of knowledge from her, and that which he does receive – misunderstood, largely contextless – poisons him. Modernity demands movement. The kind of deep-rooted, entirely place-specific maturity that she represents, and that he aspires to, is no longer viable.

Robert exemplifies this need for mobility. He can only grow up by disappearing first to a job in a neighbouring town, and then – through call up – to fight battles in foreign lands. Kenny – who refuses to leave his ancestral home, his ancestral place, and who understands Robert’s departure as a kind of enslavement – is left without a viable path to adulthood.

Kenny’s curdled innocence isn’t just a function of an unhealthy relationship with fantasy; it’s also rooted in the modern world’s rootlessness. In the end, that insecurity claims Robert too, as the family business that he has inherited collapses in the face of international competition. His version of the local is just as fragile as Kenny’s, although its fall is far less destructive.

More than just a story about a willed refusal to mature, ‘The Good People’ can be read as a criticism of the conditions which make a refusal to change beyond a certain, personally defined point dangerous.

Climaxing with senility and decay, containing murder and loss, the book uses a final, backwards view of an entirely fractured Faerie to condemn a modernity that makes deeply rooted investment in the past a killing impediment rather than a source of joy and security.

Of course, that’s only one, partial reading of the book. It’s too complex, too subtle to resist easy, reductive definition. So, there’s only one thing to do – go and check it out yourself!

Why Fantasy isn’t crap, and SF isn’t better

Fantasy, Literary, Metafiction

Hal Duncan has been posting very interestingly about sub-divides in genre lately; in particular, that (and other, related conversations) have made me think about the divide between Fantasy and Science Fiction, which has led me to articles / books which seem to position Fantasy writing as being innately conservative, and Science Fiction as being innately radical.

This seems to be based on a particular argument about the nature of Science Fiction. SF is a literature rooted in the procedures and achievements of scientific method; scientific method is driven by an entirely rational quest for a true description of the universe; that understanding, once instrumentalised, will lead to transcendent change of one kind or another.

Therefore SF is at least the most effectively exploratory fiction we have, at most a key component of a broader, transcendental project that has major implications for our development as a species. Of course, SF can play a strongly critical role in that project (witness ‘Frankenstein’, for example), but the project itself remains both valid and exciting – humanity’s last, best hope for progress.

Fantasy, by contrast, is perceived as being innately conservative. It is rooted not in engagement with reality but in abstraction from reality; further, for the most part it takes its content cues not from the future but from the past. Its view of the past – the argument goes – tends to be both idealised and politically naïve, frequently endorsing dubious strongmen, cosy dictatorships and an over-fluffy view of feudal life in general.

Even where it enters the present, it escapes reality rather than engages with it, by privileging unreal powers / events over actual engagement with actual things. Harry Potter is not a scientist, and in fact is anti-science in that his narrative problem solving is rooted in things that could never happen, rather than things that are demonstrably and rationally true.

This kind of condemnation of Fantasy hinges on a contrast between SF and Fantasy that – for me at least – is based on both a misunderstanding of what fiction is, and a failure to engage with the world around us as it currently works.

Taking the first, first. Fiction is not real; it is not the world. It is ink on paper, arranged to create story; it is a partial refraction of one person’s understanding of the world, an imitation of reality created to communicate a given narrative argument. It is inevitably subjective and partial. It can include science, but it is not in itself scientific, because it can never achieve the objectivity of exploration that is core to the method of science.

As such, Science Fiction can act as propaganda for science, but it cannot honestly lay claim to the realist authority that is innate in science. The fundamental aims of science – the development and propagation of an objectively true, reproducible worldview – are in opposition to the fundamental aims of fiction – the development and propagation of a personally true, unique worldview.

In this context, the claim that SF is superior to Fantasy because it is a more accurate reflection of the potentials and realities of the world is meaningless. Science can seed fiction, but it can’t (by definition) be fiction.

Given this, how can one argue that a science fiction novel that explores the political and emotional ramifications of (say) a certain set of assumptions about the possibilities of science (as, for example, the Foundation series does) is superior to a fantasy novel that explores the political and emotional ramifications of a certain set of assumptions about political theory (as, for example, China Mieville’s Bas Lag novels do)?

Taking the second. We live in a world where fantastic rhetoric is far more successful than scientific rhetoric. You don’t believe me? Watch some ads. Rooted in Surrealist shock tactics, the language of advertising is built on entirely fantasised imagery that presents individual brands as the kinds of crusading , transcendental superheroes that critics of Fantasy condemn. More broadly, check out modern political rhetoric. There, too, is fantasy; a conscious, ongoing project to present the world as politicians would like it to be, rather than to engage with it as it is.

Here – and elsewhere – the unreal is overlaid on the real, in service of entirely partisan ends. Science is powerless here; scientific method presupposes an innate respect for a commonly accepted, demonstrably true and entirely objective set of truths. That’s a respect that modern public fantasists just don’t have. Science is a truth that cannot hurt or hinder them, because they feel no need to even acknowledge the results of its judicious researches.

Fantasy is more directly useful here. Writers of Fantasy – by definition – spend much time pondering the relationship between Fantasy and Reality. At it’s most basic level, it’s in service of questions like ‘How can I keep people reading the adventures of Thringor the Barbarian when he’s acting in a world that people have no real reference points for?’.

As it becomes more sophisticated, it leads to questions like ‘How can I use these transparently unreal things Thringor faces as a means of commenting on / amplifying the very real emotional, political, or other issues he has to deal with, which are in themselves reflections of real world arguments I find engaging or important?’.

That knowledge of the uses of Fantasy is key to unpicking the fantastic in the modern world; in some ways, the fantasised is so prevalent in modernity that it demands Fantasy, rather than SF, as a response to it. Fantasised fables of modernity from writers like M. John Harrison and Joel Lane, J. G. Ballard and Conrad Williams, offer guides to modernity that are as pertinent and revealing as anything more SFnal writers have created.

So anyway, that’s enough for one blog entry. In writing the above, I’ve realised that there’s a whole lot more that can be said about the relationship between Fantasy, SF and Fiction in general, but unfortunately that’s going to have to come out in future posts, as time is limited today. Hopefully the above is thought provoking; and hopefully it also works as the beginnings of both a defense of Fantasy and an attempt to break down any argument that posits SF as an innately superior mode of fiction.

(Hello, Hello) It’s Good To Be Back

Fantasy, Festivals, Gigs, Science Fiction, Travel

Well, hello all! I have returned from a truly fantastic two weeks in the States. We packed so much in, it feels like much longer – so where to begin when talking about it? Well, there were the wonders of Olympic National Park, the joys of Seattle, the sheer bounciness of meeting H’s various friends out there (hi all!), Halloween fuelled Queen / Elton John tribute acts, marvellous Northwestern booze’n’food, proper road tripping, New York haunted house mayhem, the nuttiness of Halloween (I have met Scrabble! And it wears very short skirts), much Met-ness, and of course World Fantasy Con, which was (unsurprisingly) just Fantastic.

So this is really a coming soon post, as there’s much to blog about having conned over the weekend. Again, where to begin? Ted Chiang set me straight on the relationship between science fiction and reality… I talked fiction-as-implication with Steven Erickson… Hal Duncan ranted unstoppably on the absolute need to read both Alasdair Grey’s ‘Lanark’ and Edward Whittemore’s ‘Jerusalem Quartet’… Lisa Tuttle was fascinating on her fictionally challenged Great-Grandfather… and so on…

All that’s coming up over the next few posts (coming soon!) – oh, and of course I’ve got to report back on the great Stellas comeback gig (one of the odder but more rewarding gigs we’ve done, it turns out) – but for the moment a very last minute plug for the great Jean Herve Peron (Faust bassist and all around Art Errorist), playing tonight at the Luminaire. Go here for details – what with the chainsaws, the solo-ness and the ace support, it’s going to rock (my attendance attendant on jet lag, alas…)

Eyes wide shut

America, Fantasy, Politics

Been going back through the notebooks, wondering what to say today, and I lighted on an entry from a while back. The papers had been full of descriptions of Blair and Bush’s relationship in the run up to the Iraq War. Determined to be involved, Blair kept close to Bush and took his assurances about post war planning, etc, as truth.

This led to a confidence in the efficacy of the invasion and conquest of Iraq as a means to establish democracy that was, in retrospect, misplaced. ‘Poor old Jacques, he just doesn’t get it, does he?’ commented Blair after a meeting with Jacques Chirac. But in fact Chirac did get it.

‘[Blair] discovered too late that Bush was only nominally the Commander-in-Chief of the Iraq enterprise. A stark picture emerges of Bush making promises and giving assurances to Blair, which were not delivered because Iraq was being run by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, neither of whom were very interested in their junior British ally.’

Quite apart from the way that this exposes two key Western leaders as wilfully out-of-touch fantasists, it’s interesting because of what it says about the relationship between knowledge and the particular kind of fantasising that they indulged in.

Unlike early Middle Eastern warrior T. E. Lawrence, who saw himself as a ‘dreamer of the day’, one of a group of ‘dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible’, Blair and Bush were dreamers of the night. They dreamed with their eyes closed, privileging inner certainty over external truth.

So, they dismissed those with external knowledge as being at best pessimists, at worst misguided. ‘He just doesn’t get it, does he?’. And that’s one of the great ways of exposing this kind of fantasy.

Poke it with the stick of subjectivity, of hard rational truth; if its defence is either just to dismiss the stick, or hit back with an argument built on an entirely internalised logic structure that takes no account of the external world, then you know you’re talking to people busy dreaming with their eyes shut – and that someone else is probably doing the real work, somewhere else entirely.