Jim Morrison’s Reading Rainbow

Comics, Metafiction, Psychedelia

Reading Rainbow’s a US children’s TV show that ran from 1983 until 2006. Levar Burton introduced various guest stars, reading books for child viewers. As a Brit, I understood it to be something like Jackanory; its theme tune apparently has massive resonance for Americans of a certain age. Here is that theme tune, covered by The Doors:

OK, it’s not really The Doors. It’s American comedian Jimmy Fallon, channelling Jim Morrison with spooky accuracy. The voice, the intonation, the stoned swaying lope – all present, correct and perfectly mimicked. And that’s not all that’s bang on. The lyrics themselves, a blend of the original Reading Rainbow theme and lines lifted from various children’s classics, sound wonderfully Doors-y too.

At first, I thought that that was a nifty bit of satire – Fallon parodying the easy rhymes and cod truisms of Morrison’s lyrics, etc. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realised there was far more to it than that. I was forgetting a very simple fact – the best children’s books are also very simply written, and they’re as profound as they are simple and as simple are they are profound.

Here’s a great example – a lovely performance of Mo Willems’ magnificent ‘We Are In A Book’ –

Mortality, meta-fiction and the consolations of literature – all in a couple of hundred words and a handful of illustrations. Wow!

So, I ended up thinking that, by linking his lyrics so explicitly to children’s writing, Fallon’s paying tribute to as much as sending up Morrison. After all, if they bear comparison to such excellent work (Fallon mentions classics ‘The Indian in the Cupboard and ‘The Monster at the End of This Book’, and quotes from ‘Goodnight Moon’ – and of course there’s the Reading Rainbow theme tune itself), they’ve got to be doing something very right indeed.

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.

Science, the future and my Luddite superpowers

Cons, Metafiction, Modernity, Science Fiction

Well, it’s been a frustrating time for me technologically over the last week or so; I seem to have developed some kind of weird anti-modernity super power.

On return from America, I discovered that my boiler had stopped working; a plumber came and ‘repaired’ it last Friday, but it’s still not going. Last Thursday, my laptop blew itself up, losing the ability to open Windows. I spent the whole of tonight completely rebuilding it, which hasn’t really achieved very much; it’s moving with glacial slowness, and currently busy pretending it doesn’t have wireless. Even my phone has joined in the fun; today, its mail server started crashing. I didn’t even know my phone HAD a mail server.

Anyway… none of this has detracted from wildly pleasurable memories of last week’s convention. In particular, I’ve been pondering science fiction and realism, after a very interesting bar-side conversation with Ted Chiang.

As you’ll no doubt know, I’ve used this blog in part to mount an ongoing argument about the relationship between realist and genre (specifically science fiction and fantasy) fiction. I’ve argued that in some ways genre fiction is less deceived than more ‘literary’, realist fiction, given its deep honesty about its own unreal status. It’s the literature of things that never happen (to borrow from a phrase from M. John Harrison), and at its best it has fascinating fun with the metafictional status that that stance gives it.

This was the argument I was making to TC last weekend (imbetween ranting about Powell and Pressburger, themselves the most metafictional of filmmakers, and weaving to the bar to get more discussion lubricating pints in), and the one that he undercut. As he pointed out, the above falls down when confronted with the absolute literal mindedness that underpins science fiction.

At its purest, science fiction insists on a deep reality of response to the world. Far from escaping into fiction, it consistently grounds itself in the most current scientific thinking. The apparatus of science fiction might be speculative – space ships, AIs, aliens, etc – but that apparatus is hung on experimentally proven fact. Given this, science fiction can be read as more direct in its engagement with reality than even the most realist fiction, grounded as it is in an absolute, exclusive obsession with the root structures of the world.

So where does that leave my metafictional take on genre? For one, I think it helps create a way of distinguishing between fantasy and science fiction, rooted not so much in genre trappings (if the protagonist flies by space ship it must be sf, if by dragon fantasy) but rather in approaches to reality. Fiction steps into fantasy when it bends reality to its own ends; but it becomes science fiction when it refuses that consolation, instead taking an entirely rigorous approach to reality as a grounding base for the wildest narrative mayhem.

But if I had a time machine I might pop back to the bar and point out that on one very important level SF remains metafiction, insisting as it does on an extrapolation from, rather than a direct reflection of, current scientific thinking. It asks ‘given that the world is like this – what might we become?’ – stepping out of direct realism into the most self-aware, highly imaginative speculation as it does so.

Oh, and for the sake of comparison, here’s someone who refuses to extrapolate from science into tomorrow, finding meaning instead in its intersections with the directly lived world – the wonderful scientist-poet Rebecca Elson. Her single collection, ‘A Responsibility to Awe’, is magnificent, not so much for her poems (which are nonetheless excellent) but for the marvellous sequence of extracts from her notebooks, where the cosmic is interwoven with the quotidian to stunning effect. She died young; a major loss.

What’s a person anyway?

Fiction, Metafiction, Philosophy, Psychology

So much narrative removes the possibility of change. Although faced by risk, the hero always win out, the quality and correctness of his or her original vision unchallenged.

They’re superficially about progress, but in fact such narratives privilege stasis. The hero might develop new skills (whether practical or emotional) to allow them to achieve their goal, but the fundamental identity that makes that goal worthwhile remains the same.

I can’t tell if that’s a good or bad thing. It comes back to the question of what we are. How static are our identities? At what points in our lives do the deep structures of the self change? Should fiction be exclusively concerned with those changes?

The last question isn’t too difficult to answer. Fictions that deal with static characters can still be wildly enjoyable (take the Solomon Kane stories, for example). The important thing here is not to confuse them with any kind of real life – to do so makes a virtue of personal rigidity.

But what of deeper progressions of the self? That, I think, throws you back onto questions that all honest fiction writers face, sooner or later. What are we? How do we work? What is this *person* thing that I as a writer am trying to model?

Any answers I have are deeply provisional.. and in fact I want to ponder them a bit, so more tomorrow. In the meantime, what do you think you are?

Slaying Bob from HR

Escapism, Fantasy, Metafiction, Narrative

Was still pondering yesterday’s post about weakness / achievement gaps in genre fiction when I went to read SF Diplomat, where Jonathan McCalmont is fascinating on the content of fantasy:

‘Why does fantasy prefer to dwell on saving a morally simple world instead of making the best one can in a more realistic one?’

He’s looking for a greater sense of the cut and thrust of the commercial, for narratives that may be fantastic in setting but that acknowledge and riff off the source of most day to day drama in this world – business life, as many of us live it.

One effect of this is to create a more credible weakness / achievement gap – but it also raises a very interesting question – if you’re writing this kind of fantasy, then what’s the fantasy for?

Something very positive, I would say; rather than facilitating muscle bound escapism (‘I pulled out my battleaxe and slew – SLEW!!! – Bob from HR! And all those other fools who do not appreciate my world saving genius!!!’) it enables (amongst other things) a metafictional exploration of why dealing with Bob from HR can feel so much like a deep betrayal of the self in the first place, motivating the desire to hew.

It also takes a far saner view of resolution. Rather than amassing a monstrous pile of treasure / saving the world from imminent oblivion / restoring the balance between Law and Chaos, etc, heroes in this kind of narrative resolve through infinitely more credible, less compensatory achievement sets.

And come to think of it, that kind of understanding of fantasy leads directly to M. John Harrison – but I’m not going to talk about that until I’ve had some breakfast…

Myths to a flame

Essayists, Genre, Literary, Metafiction, Philosophy

In ‘Mythologies’, Barthes notes – ‘it is well known how often our ‘realistic’ literature is mythical (if only as a crude myth of realism) and how our ‘literature of the unreal’ has at least the merit of being only slightly so’.

Elsewhere, M. John Harrison has pointed out that, as soon as you’ve got a spaceship or a dragon, you’re writing metafiction – fiction that’s very aware it’s unreal. That awareness effects the reader’s engagement with the whole, drawing attention again and again to the fact that they’re dealing with nothing more than some ink and some paper.

That would seem to run counter to Barthes’ defense of the unreal as the more real. But he’s getting at something deeper.

All fiction contains ideology. For example, the writer uses words to mimic people, has them behave in a certain way, and then punishes or rewards them – or at the very least, judges them – accordingly. The ideology of a given narrative lies in part in that authorial response to character, and by extension character action.

The metafictional status of the ‘literature of the unreal’ constantly reminds the reader that what he or she is reading is entirely constructed. It’s not a real world; it’s a rhetorical world, created (whether consciously or unconsciously) to articulate a given world view.

Contrasting the ‘literature of the unreal’ with ‘realistic’ literature reveals the flawed nature of the latter. It pretends to be an accurate recreation of reality but in reality – filtered in the same way through a set of authorial values – it’s as mythological as the fantastic. It exerts the same ideological pressure on the reader.

But it pretends not to; it pretends to be a world, rather than an interested representation of a world. It hides the subjective values it embodies, presenting them instead as objective truths. Opinion becomes an artefact – in Barthes’ terms, a myth.

Hence Barthes’ criticism of the ‘realistic’ as being more mythical than the fantastic. Unlike non-realist fiction, it pretends to be something it’s not; a real, objective world, rather than just ink on paper building subjectivity.