THE SENTENCE THAT MAN WAS NEVER MEANT TO READ (or, why the new X-Files movie stinks)

Aliens, Film, Horror, Narrative, Science Fiction

A quick post today, as – what with one thing and another – I’m running around at high speed. So, a high speed rant about what a total dog the new X-Files movie is…. As it is an epic of badness, a truly colossal set of plot and ethics blunders, a movie that gives duncery a bad name, a Fuckwitiad of an epic of an idiotic abortion of a waste of celluloid that should have never been made. And, come the end of the post, it’s going to have me typing THE SENTENCE THAT MAN WAS NEVER MEANT TO READ. I can’t type it here, because reading it will bring about the apocalypse. Sorry, but the new X-Files movie is that bad. I have to type THE SENTENCE THAT ETC.

Oh, and this review is going to be full of spoilers, but this film is so awful I really don’t think anyone should see it (in fact dissing it feels like some kind of religious calling – perhaps I am the new SF fuelled religious guru de nos jours, and can found a religion based on doing the exact opposite of everything that happens in the X-Files movie? We shall see. If I am driving a gold plated Rolls Royce this time next year, you’ll know it’s worked, and perhaps some positive thing will have come out of seeing this eye gougingly painful acrapalypse of dismality. Anyway…)

So, why’s is it so bad? Well, at the most basic level, it feels like it’s several rewrites off a finished draft. For example, there’s a weird ambiguity about whether Mulder and Scully are living together or not. At the start of the film, Scully drives off into the middle of nowhere to find him living in bachelor-y isolation; suddenly they’re in bed together; suddenly they’re splitting up (!) and Scully’s saying she’s not coming home again, which upsets Mulder deeply. Have they been living together? When did that happen? WTF?

Then, there’s a truly nutty twenty four hour sequences where Scully stays up all night bustin’ crime in the freezing fields of Virginia, before going to work, arguing for the life of a dying orphan she’s treating (he’s not really an orphan, but the film works at that level of manipulative emotional pap, so that’s what I’m going to call him), discovering a previously unknown miracle cure for him, researching it on the internet, accidentally cracking the case that she’s on with Mulder (by this time it seems to be early afternoon), going into full surgery with several doctors, nurses, watching nuns (yes, really), and then wandering off to sort out more crime.

The NHS should hire her! She’d make everyone immediately healthy using previously unsuspected techniques she found on Google, save many other orphans at the last minute, sort out the London knife crime epidemic while her kettle’s boiling for elevenses, and then discover that by playing with the wiring on the kettle she could sign a peace treaty with those whacky dudes from Alpha Centauri. Result!

There’s the berserk ethical front loading of Scully’s rationality. As any fule kno (ta Molesworth), the Scully / Mulder conflict is built on the conflict between Scully’s rationality and Mulder’s sense of faith (I want to believe, as the movie clodhoppingly subtitles itself). The movie seeks to reaffirm faith, in a god-vomitingly programmatic and absurd way, so as it begins it sets up a seemingly unopposable argument for rationality over faith.

Scully gets to try and cure her orphan using THE POWER OF SCIENCE. Mulder gets to listen to prophecies and visions about a kidnapped FBI agent from a 36-choirboy buggering paedophile (the script is very precise about its numbers) priest who lives on some strange self-policing paedophile compound. I’m really not making this up. But you won’t believe me, because now I have to tell you that Father Joe – the aforementioned choirboy fiddler – is played by Billy Connolly.

Honestly, I’m really not making this up… Cosmically peculiar casting of a cosmically awful role. Anyway, of course by the end of the film Scully realises that she can only cure her orphan with THE POWER OF FAITH; and Father Joe has quite possibly been forgiven by God and received into Heaven, etc. Not that I have any problems with forgiveness per se; rather, I’ve got considerable disdain for such boneheaded moralising that seeks to be ‘challenging’ by dealing in such absurdly opposed moral opposites.

Anyway, as yet I’ve only scratched the surface of the awfulness of this nonsensical melodrama, this cinematic purgatory, this inferno of any form of the televisual arts, this film so pointless that – had the first caveman who first put chalk to wall to create the first cave paintings seen it, thus seeding the visual arts as we know them today – he would have fed both his hands to the nearest woolly mammoth and gone and sat in the sea to try and de-evolve into an amoeba for the good of creation as a whole – because I haven’t mentioned the villains.

And once I’ve mentioned the villains you’ll think, nope, it really can’t get any worse. And that’s when I’ll start talking about its sexual politics. And at that point you’ll be on your way to the sea to start de-evolving into an amoeba yourself. And only then will THE SENTENCE THAT ETC be unleashed, and the apocalypse won’t matter, because we’ll all be happy little amoebae and won’t even notice it.

So there is a silver lining after all.

Anyway, the villains. So these rather shitty looking Eastern European guys (probably Russians) have set up a severed head (and, it’s implied, other limbs) swapping facility in a kennels somewhere in Virginia, using various local women (who they meet at a swimming pool and select for their rare blood type, detected apparently by watching their swimming style and drawing according conclusions – there’s some nonsense early on in the film about how two of the victims have been treated at the same medical facility, but that’s just forgotten about as the film goes on and the narrative torture continues).

The limbs are discarded in a conveniently frozen river (how they mystically teleport into the feet of ice they’re found in, rather than just sit on top of it like severed limbs would if you or I tossed them in there, is beyond me – give Scully half an hour and a Kit-Kat and she’d no doubt develop an entirely new branch of theoretical physics to explain it, but anyway…).

No motive is given for this nutty limb swapping facility; no sense of what it’s up to, how it pays its multiple doctors and nurses, why they might want to swap limbs and heads in Virginia, is defined. No back story for any of it; no groovy alien or conspiratorial connections (surely a sine qua non of any X-Files movie?); nothing. They’re just a bunch of whacky Russians who decided to go and swap some limbs around in a kennel somewhere. As you do. And in fact, we only see one head and limb swapping patient – and he’s at the heart of this Dreckenbury Village’s spectacular fucked sexual politics, so I can’t hold back the rant gates any more…

So, the two antagonists of the film – a severed limb delivery bloke (really) and the guy who runs the firm he works for – are gay lovers. One of them was one of Father Joe’s choirboys. Implicit in their presentation is the sense that homosexuality is catching, that it’s spread by paedophilia, and that homosexual love can lead to the kind of mass murdering moral depravity we see in the film. And that’s not all; this sclerotic codpiece of awfulness doesn’t even have the courage of its comprehensively repugnant convictions. Because the action of the film takes place because limb delivery boy needs to find a new body for his lung-cancer dying lover; and so he’s kidnapping women to find a replacement body for him.

WTF??? I kid you not. Our loopy antagonists are busy trying to transplant the head of a gay man onto a woman so that – presumably – antagonist gayness can be neutralised in a bout of ‘actually I’d rather shag you as a woman’. So contemptuous of gay relationships that it goes as far as an entire body swap to avoid having to deal with them, having first presented them as some kind of ethical leprosy, this film is built on possibly the most fucked sexual politics I’ve ever encountered. It has no redeeming features, beyond the fact that it’s finite. And, one day, with the onset of senility or similar, I might actually forget that I’ve seen it.

Oh, and one of the plastic severed heads in the final scenes is actually pretty good. It needs a better agent, tho’, if this kind of cobblers is the only sort of thing it’s getting offered.

Anyway, so that’s the rant over and done with. And now it’s time for THE SENTENCE THAT MAN WAS NEVER MEANT TO READ:

Don’t go and see this film; go and see ‘Battlefield Earth’, it’s better.

Enjoy the apocalypse, amoeboid regressing friends! I’ll see you in the swamps…

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!

Hunting for the future of story

Multimedia, Narrative, Photography, Travel writers, Whale hunting

Over the last few days I’ve been pondering where narrative might go next, as a result of an interesting news story and a rather lovely website I came across the other day. So first of all, the news story, from the Sidney Morning Herald, which tells us how:

‘Remarkably, half of Japan’s top-10 selling works of fiction in the first six months of the year were composed the same way – on the tiny handset of a mobile phone. They sold an average of 400,000 copies. By August, the president of Goma Books, Masayoshi Yoshino, was declaring in a manifesto that he was determined “to establish this not simply as a fad, but as a new kind of culture”.’

Once you get past the harrumphing of the literary establishment (‘no character development… not real writing’, etc), two fascinating thoughts emerge.

First of all, these novels were originally serialised in a very direct to the reader way. Assuming mobile phone novels take off as a novel reading medium, does that mean we’ll see a resurgence of that very direct reader / writer relationship built up by Victorian serialists like Charles Dickens? And will that kind of very engaged relationship be further encouraged by the way in which both digital entertainments and online fan networks have greatly heightened expectations of how interactive such narratives should be?

In both cases I suspect that the answer is yes – which could well make the act of writing itself  much more dynamic and responsive, moving it closer to performance than it has been for a long time.

Secondly, mobile phones aren’t just for writing on – you can take pictures with them, record film and sound, attach music to the resulting presentations, etc. I think it won’t be long before mobile phone generated narratives step away from being just text based, becoming something much more multimedia.

That, combined with full usage of the possibilities of digital interactivity, will lead to the creation of artworks at once far more diffuse and far more immersive than traditional prose works have been. The reader / viewer / listener will be encouraged to play an active part in shaping the narrative, picking and choosing from banks of words, sounds and images to create a very personal interpretation of the story  they’re engaged with.

I’m sure people are doing that kind of thing already – and in fact, here’s a purely visual example, that website I mentioned, courtesy of PFSK. It’s a bank of images created during an Inupiat Eskimo whale hunt in Alaska, by unclassifiable maven Jonathan Harris. You can search through the images in multiple different ways, assembling groups that focus on characters, location, theme, mood and so on – focussing on whatever takes your fancy, and assembling a narrative of the hunt accordingly. Is it the future of narrative in general? Maybe so…  

The dark young of Arsene Lupin

Gentleman thieves, Narrative, Politics

A weekend of helping H move into her new place, previewing Zali’s new album (which is fantastic), and grooving to Maurice Leblanc’s ace crime novel ‘The Hollow Needle’. La! North London life, but as this is a blog about writing I’m going to focus on Leblanc (tho’ there’ll be more on Z’s new album when it’s out and about – back catalogue downloadable here).

As I’m sure you know, Maurice Leblanc was the creator of fictional French master criminal, Arsene Lupin. In his day, Lupin rivalled pulp heroes such as Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake or Raffles (the notorious Gentleman Thief, and come to think of it his closest British equivalent) for popularity; but there’s a Gallic sophistication to Lupin’s adventures that’s absolutely lacking in those of his cross-Channel competitors.

Lupin’s at once profoundly urbane and wildly manipulative, a fascinating cross between an Oscar Wilde protagonist and modern uber-mythmaker Kayser Soze. Like Wilde’s heroes, his very real charm is offset by a sense of amoral recklessness; like Kayser Soze, he understands the value of enmeshing his opponents in a narrative over which he has complete control. Lupin achieves his ends through a kind of personalised propaganda, which Leblanc describes thus:

‘the very mechanism of his way of setting to work, his special tactics, his letters to the press, his threats, the announcement of his thefts, in short the whole bag of tricks which he employed to bamboozle his selected victim and throw him into such a state of mind that the victim almost offered himself to the plot contrived against him and that everything took place, as it were, with his own consent.’

In fact, the whole plot of the novel is one, gigantic con-trick, revealed at its climax to be nothing more than a series of convenient fictions created to support the book’s real hero – Lupin himself – as he moves towards the achievement of his final, and in fact rather admirable, goal. And it’s not giving anything away to say that; key to the joy of reading Leblanc’s stories is the way in which the reader, too, expects to be and is enmeshed in the partial, controlling narratives that Lupin creates.

Fundamental to the creation of those narratives is Lupin’s masterly management of the media of his day. Whether manipulating journalists, publishing in the letters pages, placing just the right adverts, or taking a controlling interest in useful publications, Lupin is always in control of the story. That control is part of what makes him such a fascinating figure for a modern audience; taken historically, it shows Leblanc as a remarkably astute social and even political thinker.

Writing in the opening decades of the century, Leblanc both demonstrated an in-depth understanding, and developed a fascinating critique, of the ways in which an ostensibly disinterested mass media (‘we don’t make the news, we only report it’) can be subverted to serve the interests of a particular controlling elite.

Lupin’s fundamental decency prevents him from excessive abuse of such media; those who came after him would have no such qualms. Twentieth century history is jam-packed with figures of various different kinds – dictators, deciders, chief executives, celebrities – who built power on highly sophisticated perception management.

Lupin was a criminal because he was a thief; these people are thieves too, stealing choice from those they rule and replacing it with a carefully managed, entirely manufactured consent for plots contrived against some or all of those that fall within their sphere of influence.

So Leblanc’s light hearted style, and Lupin’s urbane gaiety, hide a dark, prophetic secret. Theft is a crime against property; but, rather than an end in itself, it’s really only a satisfyingly profitable by-product of perception management, a crime against choice that will as the century progresses come to be one of its unique and defining characteristics.

Oh, and if you want to check out some Lupin, I’d recommend starting with the new Penguin Classics translation of some of Leblanc’s short stories, available here…

Spontaneously effusing

Fantasy, Literary, Narrative, Short stories

Well, a lovely weekend in Paris – visiting friends, hanging out in the 6e, and once again failing to get to the Sainte Chapelle, one of the finest pieces of Late Gothic architecture in Europe. Hey ho, one day I’ll get there, tho’ I’ll be cursing Dan Brown as I do so. He mentions it in the Da Vinci Code, so there are now permanent queues to get in. Hmmph.

Anyway, I’m whizzing around at high speed today, so it’s a very quick post. I’ve just been listening to a Neil Gaiman / Susanna Clarke interview courtesy of The Guardian, in which he defines a certain kind of short story as ‘miserable people having small epiphanies of misery’.

That’s a great comment, at once a definition and criticism of a certain kind of Modernist / more generally literary writing. When it’s well done (Katherine Mansfield!) it’s fantastic; when not, it’s turgid, depressing and futile. Minute, miserable subject matter becomes an end in itself – questions of quality of writing (‘how well is this done?’) are ignored.

Which raises a very interesting question. Why is subject matter rather than quality of writing so often seen as the only value needed in defining a book’s literary worth? For me, it’s because of a lack of understanding of the craft of writing.

And I’m not sure where that lack of understanding comes from. Perhaps one explanation is that, for all the talk of Modernism and Post Modernism, our approaches to judging writing remain trapped by the great Romantic pose of the spontaneous effusion.

By definition, spontaneous effusing (what an ugly word!) privileges content over form. ‘I was so moved that I had to write this…’ – so content is all and form is ignored, at best a neutral quality, at worst something profoundly restrictive. What matters is the quality of experience that drives the piece, not the quality of the piece itself.

Which throws critical negativity onto anything that’s not directly realist. Whether detective fiction, fantasy, romance or whatever else, such fiction comes not from direct observation of reality but rather from a much more mediated process of working out – of crafting. And, if you believe in spontaneous effusion, you mistrust crafting.

So, much as the Romantic pose is very attractive (‘bring me my opium, my catamite, my quill – I must compose!’) perhaps it’s time to step beyond it and acknowledge that direct observation and subsequent effusion is an aesthetic choice only, and has nothing to do with the qualitative.

Which, come to think of it, once you’ve been to a couple of poetry readings built around dodgy confessional poets is something you really don’t need to be told.

Aliens and the family unit

Narrative, Science Fiction

Well, according to Grim Reviews and Papers Falling from an Attic Window (hi guys!) I’ve become involved in the online Derleth / Lovecraft debate. To be honest, I didn’t know there was one, but it touches on some very serious issues – the integrity of an artist’s worldview, the limits of universe sharing, and so on.

Some of the genre debates are less serious (tho’, come to think of it, not necessarily to those taking part in them). My favourite such was one I found a couple of years back – a very involved conversation about who would win in a battle between the USS Enterprise and a Star Destroyer from Star Wars.

The debate scrolled on for pages, and got very technical. I gave up reading it when both participants started referencing blueprints, competing technologies, etc. In fact, I couldn’t help feeling that the answer was very easy – the USS Enterprise, every time, because they’re the good guys, and both the Star Trek and Star Wars narrative models would demand their victory.

That throws interesting light on good guy / bad guy spaceships. For me, the basic function of bad guy spaceships is to look utterly threatening and apparently terrifyingly all-powerful (‘This station is now the ultimate power in the universe’, etc), but in fact be a bit crap; the basic function of good guy spaceships is to look ramshackle, or at the very least fallible (‘the engines canna take it, captain!’, etc), but really be indestructible and all-defeating.

That’s a result of the narrative structure that these stories are built on. Without all powerful but ultimately frangible villains, and apparently weak but in fact all-powerful good guys, you don’t get high stakes, fear of failure, final victory and thus the dramatic tension and resolution that keeps people both watching and satisfied.

I’ve also been wondering if there’s a visual semantics of starships. What’s noticeable is the extent to which good guy spaceships are rounded and cuddly, and bad guy spaceships are spiky and alienating. Good guy spaceships are implicitly a home; bad guy spaceships are a threat to that home, tearing into it and breaking it up.

One condition of much of the alien / opponent activity we’re shown is a lack of emotional bonds, contrasting strongly with the close relationships between on-board good guys. Even Star Trek – most hierarchical of SF shows, making heroes of an entire military command structure – is predicated on close emotional rather than organisational ties between its leading characters.

And in Star Trek, antagonist space ship crews are notable for their lack of that emotionalism. From the Borg to the Klingons, the Ferengi to the Romulans, anyone who fires on the Enterprise is really a non-family unit firing on a family unit. One more narrative trick to ensure we empathise with the good guys…

So where does all this lead to? Well, what’s really interesting is what it exposes about popular science fiction’s envisioning and dramatisation of the alien. It’s not really alien at all; it exists to provide a fallible opposite to human good, an opposite that’s portrayed in terms that – by definition – we can’t empathise or engage with, except as an evil, disposable antagonist.

HD and Modernism

Fantasy, Modernity, Narrative

So – Hal Duncan and Modernism.

Well, his writing (particularly ‘Vellum’, as I’ve still got to sit down properly with ‘Ink’) is profoundly modernist in structure, relying on fractured narratives, parallels between individual sub-narratives, broad, deep allusiveness and massive stylistic experimentation to communicate meaning.

But it avoids the worst excesses of High Modernist mandarin-ism through their deep commitment to the broken and the battered. HD’s heroes are neither the epic good nor the epic bad; they’re the people caught between the two, the ones that see basic humanity as a fundamental virtue to live by rather than a negotiable obstacle to enlightenment.

That commitment is de-fantasised through HD’s repeated return to the narrative and iconography of the death of Matthew Shepard, a gay student who was beaten to death for his sexuality in Laramie, Wyoming in 1999. His outrage at Shepard’s murder both gives the novel its profound ethical core and works as a structural equivalent to Dickens’ ‘dying thus around us every day’ riff in ‘Bleak House’.

It reminds us that that ‘Vellum’, like all stories, results from a process of fictionalisation, a process that always begins with reality; that the brutalities and exploitative imbalances described in the book are indeed happening thus around us every day. One of Pound’s regrets in the broken, defeated ‘Pisan Cantos’ is his lack of empathy; HD takes that empathy and makes it central to his work.

And the resultant sense of ethical precision helps him step around a key Post-Modernist problem. His clear and direct sense that ‘this is just wrong’ underpins the book’s complex, broad allusive range, preventing it from falling into simple relativism.

So that’s it in a nutshell. But of course it doesn’t communicate one key thing; this is wildly enjoyable, profoundly psychedelic and utterly groovy fantasy writing.

At base it makes me think of a comment Jim Morrison made, back in the 60s – ‘The Beatles and the Stones are for blowing your mind – The Doors are for when your mind is blown.’ That’s where Hal Duncan is in relation to much genre writing – so if you haven’t read him, go check him out!

Oh, and apologies for the dodgy lineation of the Pound quotes below – each line should be staggered across the page. I’m having huge problems getting WordPress to lineate consistently. Will have another go later today…

Reality’s a fantasy

Fantasy, Genre, Narrative, Novelists

Just finished Zola’s ‘L’Assomoir’ (‘The Drinking Den’), and once again been pondering the fantasy / reality gap. Zola saw himself as a Realist; closely allied with the Impressionists, he sought to create a prose equivalent to their vivid, journalistic depictions of everyday Parisian life.

Zola and the Impressionists broke cultural and aesthetic taboos, and both – in their day – were seen as exciting, dangerous artistic revolutionaries. But nowadays, both fit very easily into a very conservative view of how the arts work, and what they’re for. They’ve achieved a respectability that’s denied to genre fiction, of any kind.

That’s because of a very interesting shift. The argument for Realism has triumphed. To be perceived as having a serious moral purpose, art – and in particular writing – has to be seen to directly reflect reality. Zola’s work is now praised for the qualities that originally drove its condemnation.

And that creates problems for fantasists. Writing that makes no claim to direct realism immediately steps away from a key plank supporting critical approval. It doesn’t teach; it can’t improve; and so it’s not worthy of serious consideration. Ironically, the more fiction that a work is perceived to contain, the less it’s respected as fiction.

But such a view misses something very important. Zola writes fiction, and that makes him a fantasist too; and in that act of writing he shares very important motivations and goals with the best modern genre writers, the Moorcocks and the Mievilles, the Harrisons and the Peakes, and their peers.

First of all, there’s the fact of the fiction itself. ‘L’Assomoir’, for example, is a very built book, divided into thirteen chapters with a central turn in chapter seven, six chapters on either side mirroring each other in close and complex ways as its heroine Gervaise rises and then falls again. Throughout, imagery and action support this central, entirely artificial structure.

For all its claims to realism, ‘L’Assomoir’ is – like every other novel – an aestheticised, constructed fantasy of the world, not the thing itself. It’s built according to the writer’s need, to make a particular, more or less conscious argument. Zola summed up that argument very pithily: ‘Shut the drinking houses, open schools’.

If this were a conversation, it’s entirely possible that at this point someone would say – ‘But Al! Surely that disproves everything you’ve just said – because Zola is trying to create real change in the real world, whereas fantasists do their best to escape from it.’ And in response, I’d look at this person over my pint of Porter (because such conversations very often take place in pubs), and say:

Not at all. Any kind of writer – fantasist, realist, whatever else – is trying to create real change in the real world, using the inherently unreal tools of fiction. To read is to be changed. The word tells us that; its root comes from an old German verb, whose ‘original senses… are those of taking or giving counsel, taking charge, controlling.’

To read is to be counselled, to control information and at the same time to allow yourself to be controlled by it. Just like any other good writer, the best fantasists use that control to try and accomplish positive change in the reader and, by extension, in the world.

Michael Moorcock defined this kind of writing very precisely in a recent barnstorming Interzone editorial; the goal of such a writer is to ‘confront the present, rather than exemplify it’. He’s talking about writers like those above, like Ballard, Burroughs, Dick and others, but it’s a literary goal that I suspect Zola too would have heartily endorsed.

Normal service will be resumed…


…as soon as possible, I was just going to type, as for various reasons I didn’t feel much like blogging today. But thinking about that phrase – and, oddly, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ – made me realise that there’s much to unpack in it.

I love ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. Partially for Yoda; partially for the fantastically depressing, open ending, which left me shell shocked when I was 11; but mostly for the fact that the entire plot hinges on the fact that the Millenium Falcon breaks down.

Han Solo’s malfunctioning hyperdrive is the broken engine that drives the action of the whole. That breakdown is very significant; it literalises the fact that all drama comes from disruption of one sort or another.

Whether it’s Godot not arriving, Oedipus sleeping with his mum, or the Silver Surfer announcing Galactus’ imminent plans to eat the Earth, plot starts when the expected, relied upon order stops.

‘Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible’ flags up that kind of moment. Disruption has happened, and the breakdown has to be dealt with. Normal service no longer exists.

Of course, chances are that normality will be restored – but it’ll be a new normality, and it won’t come until there’s been a little drama, because ultimately drama is the action either of restoration, or of the failure to restore.

Your 20th century boy

Culture, Narrative, Novelists, Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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