William Blake understood as a West London Shopping Mall

Aliens, Ballard, Fiction, Film, Ghosts, Landscape, London, Modernity, Poets, William Blake

On Sunday, I went to the William Blake 1809 exhibition at Tate Britain, reviewed here in The Guardian. It’s absolutely fascinating; it restages his first and only public display of prints and paintings, and sets them in a context which helps explain their abysmal critical reception.

I wanted to do a video review of it, but unfortunately (as I discovered) you’re not allowed to take pictures in the Tate. This raises fascinating questions about copyright, and the Tate’s understanding of differences between reproduction and interpretation in a digital world; more on that in an upcoming post.

In the meantime, I still wanted to do a video blog entry reviewing the exhibition, but of course I couldn’t show any of the images. So I decided to follow Ballard, and understand it in terms of a West London Shopping Mall – which led to this short film:


It’s available in higher resolution at Vimeo here:

William Blake understood as a West London Shopping Mall from Al Robertson on Vimeo.


Reviewing ‘The City and The City’

Fantasy, Fiction, Genre, Horror, Literary, Modernity, Poetry, Surrealism

Well, I’ve just finished China Miéville’s superb new book, ‘The City and The City’. It’s utterly gripping, a noir-ish police procedural with an Eastern European feel that both builds on, reacts against and moves beyond the concerns and achievements of his previous novels.

So you’ve probably worked out that I’d recommend it to anyone who shares the concerns of this blog. Whether you enjoy excellent, imaginative fiction, open-ended modern poetry (or even, I’m sure, experimental or improvised music), it’s well worth checking out.

And now I’m going to talk about it in more detail with MULTIPLE SPOILERS, so if you haven’t read it yet, and don’t want any surprises ruined, STOP READING NOW!


Right, that was pretty unambiguous. Anyway, now that I’ve done that, I can start giving away plot points left, right and centre – and to talk about it properly, I really need to do that, because what it is and what it means are so carefully and effectively intertwined.

At the heart of the book is the relationship between two twinned cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma. Both are very literally, and very substantially, intertwined; ‘crosshatched’, to use Miéville’s coinage. Much of the detail and action of the book comes from that relationship, and the way that inhabitants of the two cities have adjusted to it.

For me, the book’s central achievement is the way that it uses that crosshatching to literalise a metaphor set, one that both forces detailed consideration of twinned / opposing otherness, and refuses to collapse into any final meaning or commentary on them.

At various points as I read the book, I went from understanding the two cities as Christianity and Islam, the West and the East, to wondering if the whole book was a kind of coded intellectual / literary autobiography, via seeing it as a way of talking about splits between genre and literary fiction, then reading it as talking about left / right wing oppositions, and so on.

The imagery supports all of these readings, and – I’m sure – many more, without insisting on any of them as full or final. That’s something I really loved, for many reasons. Most immediately, it builds very directly on one of my favourite moments in his previous novels – the climax of ‘The Iron Council’.

As you’ll no doubt remember, the book ends in an image that simultaneously represents two directly opposed emotions – hope and despair – in a way that’s very directly inspired by one of the great Western comments on the distance between legend and reality, the final frames of ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’.

For me, that image felt like the crystallization of an internal opposition, between China the Marxist (who believes in the possibility of radical, positive change in society) and China the Realist (who has a perhaps more nuanced and pessimistic view of human nature). I thought it was a wonderful presentation of two opposed stances; and I also wondered where he’d go from there, how he’d reconcile the tension between the two viewpoints.

My mistake was to see the choice as a binary one. Miéville’s built on the moment by finding a third way, and is now operating – far more effectively than at any previous point – as China the novelist, China the Image Maker. Rather than building narratives that endorse or discuss particular political viewpoints, he’s creating open image sets that resist simple, final conclusions, and instead encourage readers to think for themselves.

That creative maneuver is profoundly refreshing. It’s a reinvention of China’s root definition – he’s moved from being a novelist engaged in a very specific (albeit important) argument with genre, to one who uses the tools of genre to look out at the modern world – and it moves him into fascinating new literary company.

Previously I’ve pitched him to people as (in very glib shorthand) Britain’s leading Marxist Fantasist; now, his use of internally coherent but literally inexplicable image sets mean that it’s possible to read him in relationship with cutting edge modern poets like Jeremy Prynne, Lee Harwood and Ken Edwards, who work very hard indeed to balance that same clarity of image with opacity of final meaning, and even of language.

But how fully achieved is that transition? ‘The City and The City’ does hold true to relatively traditional narrative structures; it does have recognizable echoes of previous books, and of the habits of writing that have driven them. Two key examples for me are the collapse of the final Orciny myth, and the mass breach that leads to city-wide chaos as the novel draws to a close.

The former seems to me to be very close to the resolution of the Magus Fin narrative strand at the climax of ‘The Scar’. In both cases, we discover that a central, motivating myth – a Macguffin – is in fact a fiction, a fantasy generated out of neurotic personal need.

However, there is progression here too. The Magus Fin functions as a critique of reader expectations of genre, pointing up the gap between the cod-Fantasy motivations we’re often too comfortable with (Our talisman has been stolen! We must retrieve it, lest we face the anger of the gods!) and the more sophisticated, realistic drivers that make the political world happen (We’re economically exposed! We need to get our data back!).

Althought the Magus Fin narrative does throw a light on political myth making, it’s fundamentally an argument about genre, made from within genre. The Orciny event – although ostensibly similar – can be used to think about genre, but sits outside it. The meanings that can be derived from it centre more on the way that personal world fantasies are received, processed and responded to by the body politic.

So, I’m undercutting my own argument! Read in this way, the Orciny event becomes a conscious reflection on the Magus Fin, an attempt to include its concerns in a broader argument about the real world nature and reception of fantasy (rather than just Fantasy).

And then there’s the mass breach that ends the book. The Threat to the City is a repeated Miéville structural trope, one that is – for me – very directly derived from his genre roots.

Binary oppositions are fundamental to Fantasy; magical heroes need magical monsters, shadow selves that exist to help the hero shine. And, of course, the stronger the shadow, the more glory there is in overcoming it. So, the city gets threatened with destruction, to allow our heroes to save it – to define the terms of their achievement.

But, as I type, I’m realizing that there’s more to China’s repeated city destruction attempts than I’d previously thought. Not all destructions are equal; some, in fact, are to be encouraged – witness, again, ‘The Iron Council’. Breaking the status quo can be – or, at least, can aspire to be – A Very Good Thing.

Seen in that light, the mass breach becomes more interesting. It represents a moment of possible transcendence, an escape from an artificial set of limitations. That would destroy Beszel and Ul Qoma; but it could also liberate a new city, one that might provide its inhabitants with an easier and more fulfilled mode of living.

A shock, or a release? Such a change would be both, at once; and each has their costs, and their benefits. The mass breach forces consideration of such a transition as the novel climaxes, without committing to a final judgment as to whether it would be a Good Thing, or a Bad Thing. As such, it’s a very effective component of the novel’s broader strategy of constructive ambiguity.

There is one thing that the book is very unambiguous about, however. Unlike Miéville’s previous novels, there’s no magic in it at all, nothing of the supernatural. Beszel, Ul Qoma, Orciny, Breach; within ‘The City and The City’, all are entirely human constructs, very carefully sited in our world.

As such, the book has the same kind of relationship with the genre of Fantasy that slasher movies have with Horror. In (say) ‘Psycho’, or ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, Horror is achieved; but its achievement is an entirely human one, making these films meditations on our shared capacity for evil, rather than abstract exemplifications of an external darkness.

Likewise, ‘The City and The City’. It’s an entirely fantastical book that has no Fantasy in it whatsoever. Where there is mystery – for example, in the precursor machine / culture – it springs from a very human lack of knowledge, and consequent fantasising, rather than from any sort of supernatural intervention.

At heart, it’s a meditation on the ability of the human imagination to build unreal worlds, and then to make them real by agreeing on them. Beszel, Ul Qoma; each city is a convention set that only exists because enough people agree that they’re there, consensual hallucinations that become real through that very consensus.

By contrast, Orciny’s failure is not untruth; rather, it lies in its inability to gather enough followers to give it life. If enough people used it as a tool for imaginative interpretation of the world around them, it would become real, just as Ul Qoma and Beszel are – within the book – entirely real, entirely non-fictional.

So, a book that contains much; and a book that is hard to review, precisely because of its refusal to settle into a single set of meanings. That makes the above necessarily provisional; it’s one interpretation, where many are possible, and none can be fully or finally ‘right’. And, of course, there’s a lot in the book that I haven’t mentioned at all.

Which, in the end, makes the responsibility for finding ‘meaning’ in the book an entirely personal one. The above is part of my own take on ‘The City and The City’ – what’s yours?

J. G. Ballard, 1930-2009

Ballard, Modernity, Science Fiction, Short stories, Space is deep, Travel writers, Violence, Visionary, War

What is there to say?

He showed us strange, alien worlds,  and then we’d look around and realise that we already lived in them. It was a bleak privilege to be a part of the culture he was dissecting, and thus receive his writing in the most direct, most living way possible.

There’s much more to be read about him, and his achievement, here at Ballardian, and the full text of a relatively recent Toby Litt interview with him here.

(first of 6 – others can be accessed here – click on ‘More from Adlefred’ at right and they’re all listed there).

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.

Dispatches from a moving time

Essayists, Fiction, Landscape, London, Modernity, Novelists, Poets

Well, the process of moving continues – silence for the last week or so as I’ve been deep in final moving and decorations (with hugely invaluable help and support from H) before the new carpets go in at Allumination Central. More busy-ness continues – furniture ordering, sorting estate agents, etc, before the upcoming move to Stoke Newington. Yup, the Allumination Central mothership is relocating! More news on this as happens.

So, a quick post today, because there really hasn’t been too much pondering time of late. And, in salute of my upcoming new neighbourhood, let’s hear from Iain Sinclair as he wanders Abney Park Cemetery, our soon-to-be-local nuttily gothic burial ground, and discurses fascinatingly on the literary and general history of Stoke Newington, Hackney and London in general.

And I’m off to walk round the flat barefoot again – why didn’t I get new carpets years ago? Hey ho…




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.

We’re the Shoggoths now

Aliens, Despair, Heaviosity, Horror, Humanism, Modernity

Well, there hasn’t been much weird pondering for a bit – but now, I’m back, and thanks to China Mieville’s excellent introduction to the Modern Library edition of ‘At the Mountains of Madness’, once again I’ve been a-pondering H. P. Lovecraft.

China sees him as a kind of crazed pulp modernist, breaking out of tradition despite himself, and deriving his sense of horror from his own fear of the shock of modernity – of the city, of other classes, of other races. He’s particularly interesting on Shoggoths, reading them as a Lovecraft’s image for the overwhelming hordes that surrounded and overwhelmed him in New York – ‘a hysterically hallucinated coagulum of the victorious insurgent masses’.

That difficult relationship with the masses is a very modernist thing; but I think there’s more that can be read into the Shoggoth. And that feeling comes from looking at Old One iconography, and understanding how Old Ones and Shoggoths interact within ‘At the Mountains of Madness’.

Let’s start with iconography. The key, repeated Old One motif is the five pointed star. Old Ones have five pointed ‘heads’, and they bury their dead within five pointed mounds. For them, the pentagram is both the physical and metaphorical seat of the self. And of course, the number five has a broader physical significance for them; five ridges run down their bodies, they manipulate the world with twenty five (five by five) tentacles, and they move through it on five separate five veined triangles.

Both humans and Shoggoths destroy five-ness. Humans dissect Old Ones, and (by implication) dig into their five pointed burial mounds; Shoggoths kill Old Ones by removing their five pointed heads. The human attack is – interestingly – far milder than the Shoggoth assault, taking place on a cultural rather than a physical level. I’d see it as emblematic of the initial human failure to comprehend what the Old Ones really are. By the end of the story, that misunderstanding has been rectified, as Dyer (the narrator) directly and enthusiastically claims kinship with the Old Ones, in his remarkable ‘they’re humans too’ speech – ‘radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn – whatever they had been, they were men!’, as he puts it.

By claiming the Old Ones as fellow humans, Dyer both forgives the Old Ones’ dissection of one of his own colleagues (and their slaughter of several others), and implicitly apologises for human intrusion into Old One tombs. For him, commitment to scientific knowledge trumps murder and related mayhem as a signifier of intellectual and emotional equality.

That’s a problematic stance; but let’s pass over that for a moment, and ponder the Shoggoth. Their attacks are more brutal, and more direct. They kill the Old Ones that the Pabodie party has discovered, just as they once rose up and massacred the Old One race. And they do so in a very particular way – by a beheading.

Humans made a symbolic assault / penetration into a dead Old One culture, and found equals; Shoggoths find (one assumes) abomination, and – having completed the destruction of a culture – now complete the eradication of the race. They smash Old One rationality, both on a general cultural and a specific personal letter. They break the fiveness – the orderliness – of the Old Ones, and that smashing is made literal in beheading.

It seems odd to use that word – beheading – when talking about animate vegetables from beyond time, but in fact – within the symbol structure of the story – it’s very appropriate indeed. Humans think from the head; Dyer understands Old Ones to think from the five pointed star; removal of that five pointed star is a beheading, both literally and in the broader sense that a rational, ordering intelligence has been destroyed.

Intriguingly, it’s only in mourning that intelligence, that Dyer realizes his kinship with it. It’s a very particular mode of thought; a mandarin rationality; an elite, ordering mind that views the world from a privileged, separate location and as such is in a position to dissect it (as the Old Ones dissect various dead humans and dogs, as we dissect them), to classify it (as the Old Ones are classified, and as they must have classified us), and thus to set itself at the world’s centre, and control and contain it.

Shoggoths break such controlling, mono-cultural rationalisation, and China reads such breakage as an emblem of Lovecraft’s horror at the New York masses that surrounded him; a symbol of the revolutionary mob, that unseats reason and breaks the high culture that HPL held so dear.

In this context, the fact that Shoggoths behead is fascinating; after all, beheading is a key revolutionary signifier, rooted in the guillotines of the French Revolution, the death of Charles I, and a broader sense of revolution as the decapitation of a certain kind of corrupted state.

But I digress. For me, the Shoggoth is more than a symbol of the revolutionary mob; it is (to return to my ongoing rant about the weird death of Humanism) an utterly compelling and utterly fantastic (in every sense) symbol for the conditions of the 20th century that broke the Humanist worldview, and that continue to make it an impossible one to sustain.

To understand just how that works, we need to go back to the core symbol of Old One rationality and culture, the five pointed star. At heart, it’s a pentagram; but the five pointed pentagram has a meaning that stretches far beyond magic, combining the Christian and the Classical to potent effect.

Including the five vowels, the five lettered name of Christ, the five letters of the Latin ‘salus’ (safety), the five wounds of Christ, the five senses, the Classical five elements, the five planets of the Renaissance solar system, and much more, the five pointed star is far more than just a vegetable head.

It triggers a complex set of associations to both Christian and Pagan culture, a set of associations that – combined – underpin the Humanist worldview, and that help support its sense of a rationally ordered comprehensible cosmos, with a divinity that is mirrored in man at its heart, and from that locus a total viewpoint that encompasses and orders all.

So, when Shoggoths attack, they’re doing more than beheading vegetables; they’re breaking the Humanist world view, and replacing it with something far more chaotic, far more anarchic, far more accepting of a chaos of multiple viewpoints and multiple versions of truth. Something very close to the postmodern worldview, in fact, which accepts multiplicity and a consequent inchoacy as a fundamental, defining principle of life.

That multiplicity is very literally represented in the Shoggoth, with its ‘myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down on us’ – perpetually renewed constellations of viewpoints, looking down on poor, scientific, monocular Dyer – taken literally, Die-er, an emblematically Dying man – and breaking his sense of the real.

Shoggoths are a blizzard of eyes; a cosmos of seeings; an inability to settle into any single, static, perpetually correct and ordered viewpoint or opinion set. From that point of view, Shoggoths ARE modernity, a modernity that embraces incoherence as a core principle of being. Shoggoths kill Old Ones, and Old Ones are representatives of an outmoded civilisation; a civilisation rooted in an impossibly ordered, impossibly rational worldview, a civilisation that Dyer recognises as being fundamentally human, by recognising its proponents as being like him.

But that civilisation is dead now, and its proponents are anachronisms. That might horrify Lovecraft but – visionary that he was – he could only see truly, and he shows us the truth, in fact he prophesies the truth. Humanism died with the 20th century, and as post-Humanist people, living in a post-Humanist world, we all helped kill it. If HPL met us, he’d be terrified; because we killed the Old Ones – the elders – the ones who made us, who made European civilisation – by moving beyond them. In 1931, Lovecraft wrote us all; mob that we are, we’re the Shoggoths now.

Luke comes in colours

Eco, Modernity, Science Fiction

Just happened to turn on Blade the TV series, and there was a character who looked just like Hillary Clinton, in intensive care, which seemed oddly apt. Anyway, that’s enough reading American political commentary from random pulp gleanings; instead, I’m going to turn to reading the future from random SFnal conversations, which I suspect will be more rewarding.

Or rather, not so much reading the future as – having spent Saturday at the very stimulating and really most excellent PicoCon – pondering why science fiction’s utopian ways can actually be read as working against any sort of future (or at least, cultural survival) at all.

SF is a literature of ideas, granted – but those ideas are for the most part expressed in things. Scientific principle does not good drama make; but scientific principle expressed through giant shiny space ships, galaxy spanning comms technology, nifty hi-tech gizmos, groovy talking robots, astonishing weapons of all shapes and sizes, consciousness capturing silver tubes and so on rocks – I think many will agree – like an out of control battleship.

And that’s problematic, because it opens a profoundly consumerist trap which SF all too often falls into. Narrative advancement happens when things are acquired or used – so, characters go on an odd kind of galactic shopping trip to assemble the scientific-theory expressing things they need to advance to the next level.

Let’s take a random selection of different SF stories, and see how they look read in that way. Star Wars? Luke gets mature by acquiring his own spaceship, coming across like a suburban teenager spinning around in his first car (in that context, ‘reach out with your feelings’ becomes one of the greatest chat up lines in history, a precursor to the magnificent sperm-and-egg meeting sequence that is the torpedoing of the Death Star; Luke heading home afterwards bathed in a post-orgasm glow much like his suburban self after a fantastic snog at an all night party in someone else’s holidaying parents’ house – ‘I can’t remember her name, but MY GOD THE HEAVENS EXPLODED!’)

Or, at the more serious end of things – Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Last and First Men’. Unstoppably cosmic in both aim and execution, and the work of one of the very few dazzlingly authentic visionaries to grace either SF itself or (in fact) 20th Century fiction in general, it does however still define future versions of man largely in terms of the *things* they make and use, and the problems they have making and using those things.

Well, I’m not going to carry on, because it’s late and I’m tired. And, reading back over the Star Wars bit, staying up too late last night to watch ‘Conan The Destroyer’ until the Bit With The Animated Ghost Pteranodon has clearly done odd things to my understanding of SF. And, of course, two examples do not a thesis – or even a trend – make.

But nonetheless I think the argument’s an interesting one to ponder. Stated simply, it would be: Science Fiction is a literature of technology. Technology is incarnate in useful things, made to achieve certain clearly defined goals. So, the acquisition and manipulation of such things to achieve personal advantage will be key to the action of many SF plots.

That’s very close to the consumerist worldview – ‘buy this thing, and your world will improve through its agency’ – and it’s also the point that makes me wonder how constructive a role SF as it currently works can play in the great world saving debates of the years to come.

Beyond politics, we’re facing a species crisis; global warming. That crisis has come about largely because we like making and using things. Not content with an un-utilised world, we’ve instrumentalised everything we can lay our hands on and – a direct result of our great technological prowess – completely buggered up the world.

In this context, how useful is a fiction largely predicated on – er – making and using things? Not such a positive presence, I would suspect, but that very negativity opens up fascinating possibilities for the future of scientific fiction.

Far from being a propaganda of triumphal instrumentalisation, an eco-conscious scientific fiction could come to embody a kind of instrumental minimalism, showing how we can create viable futures rooted in a use of less, rather than more, to achieve our ends – and with that could come a corresponding re-definition of what those ends could be.

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!