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.

Gnosis, meatware, cinema and the Cathars

Film, Gnosis, Novelists

Well, I’m off to a conference today and tomorrow about branding nations – should be fascinating, might well post about it – so an early morning post, written on Sunday. It’s today for me, yesterday for you, so one or other of us is travelling in time. Whoah…

Anyone, I was pottering round the flat wondering what to talk about, when I noticed my copy of Theodore Roszak’s ‘Flicker’. Now that’s quite a book; it’s actually more interesting than Marrakesh, which I found out when I went to Marrakesh and couldn’t stop reading it. So what’s so great about it?

Well, it’s the only Gnostic conspiracy thriller that conclusively demonstrates that cinema was invented by the Cathars in the Fourteenth Century while also rewriting the modern history of cult movie making that you’ll ever need to read. Put simply, it rocks like a bastard, and everyone should have a copy. Go buy now!

OK, now you’ve been to Amazon, or your alternate book seller of choice, let’s ponder why it’s so engaging. It’s not just the taut, gripping writing or the fascinating conspiracy that’s unveiled – it’s the book’s roots in Gnostic thinking, which reflects back in so many interesting ways on how we live in the world now.

Gnosticism was an early variant of Christianity, suppressed (I think) in the 5th Century BC or thereabouts. The Gnostics radically recast Christian cosmology, understanding this universe to be the flawed creation of the Demiurge, a kind of fallen sub-god who mistook his own partial divinity for absolute god-ness. His mistake trapped the sparks of light that were our eternal selves in the flesh.

Hence, this flawed world – essentially, it’s the physical expression of an almost-almighty egomaniac’s wildly self-indulgent power trip. Our basic mission in life is to transcend the meat he’s trapped us in and return to eternity, leaving his flawed creation behind us. Of course, that’s an incredibly reductive and simplistic take on Gnosticism – but as a working definition, it’ll do.

What’s interesting is the extent to which Western popular culture is now built on an implicitly Gnostic worldview. The flawed material world / ideal conceptual world duality exists everywhere. It’s most evident online; as Erik Davis points out in ‘Techgnosis’, virtuality’s desire to escape meatspace is a directly Gnostic attitude.

But it’s also evident in our broader culture. My conference tomorrow is one part of it. Brands exist within an idealised world, one that points up our daily imperfections and promises escape from them. They’re simultaneously unreal, and more real, than anything that’s physically present around us; platonic ideals that we aspire to reach but never quite can.

That sense of an unreachable, perfect world that – if only we were good enough – we could reach pervades our world. It’s present everywhere, from our shared hunger for celebrity lifestyles to our destructive political preferences for a dream of the Middle East.

Though looking back over that, I can’t help thinking that I’m being unfair to the Gnostics. Back in the day, they felt that achievement of the Pleroma was an escape from illusion, not an escape into it – the reverse of the examples I’ve given above. So perhaps our real problem is not our desire to transcend but rather our inability to do so, as we remain as tangled as ever in the great false nets that the Demiurge – that most lethal of failed gods – has thrown out to perpetually hold us back.

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.

Space is Deep

Aliens, Horror, Music, Novelists, Politics, Science Fiction

A.R. Yngve’s comment below set me thinking about the deepness of space, and a writer who’s dealt with its profoundly dislocating emptiness more successfully than most – A. E. Van Vogt.

Van Vogt’s ‘Voyage of the Space Beagle’ (or ‘Space Bagel’, as it’s known round these parts) couldn’t really exist without that awareness. Its protagonist, Dr. Elliott Grosvenor, is a Nexialist. That is, he uses a variety of disciplines (psychology, hypnosis, etc) to maintain the sanity of a crew faced with an overwhelming external blankness.

The need for Nexialism is established partially by the action of the book itself; Elliott spends much effort managing relationships between different political factions on-board ship, eventually having to stave off disaster by taking it over entirely.

It’s also justified by some disarmingly bleak, off-hand comments about how many spaceships just disappear in the void. Their crews are assumed to have had collective nervous breakdowns, either crippling / destroying their ships as political battles get out of hand and turn into real conflicts, or just vanishing on crackpot, unachievable missions.

For Van Vogt, Nexialism is humanity’s response to the problem of the void. On exposure, he sees us as either dissolving into it or fleeing into cataclysmic claustrophobia. To my knowledge, he’s the only SF writer to not only acknowledge the void issue, but also make its solution a key plot component.

There’s also an interesting broader point to be made. Nexialism is a response to a very real existential shock – there’s nothing out there! It exists as a kind of conscious / subconscious protector and lubricant, forcing spaceship crews to work constructively together rather than collapse into anarchy.

It’s administered by someone who’s effectively an elite priest figure, synthesising all human knowledge for the benefit of the less enlightened. Van Vogt’s description of it points on one level to a politics that despairs of human nature; incapable of dealing constructively with the harsh truths of life, we need to be coerced into ignoring them in order to achieve anything at all by manipulative, all powerful leaders.

That’s unsettlingly close to the Straussian philosophy that – as I understand it – lies behind current Neo-Con thinking. I find that kind of worldview pretty repugnant, and I don’t know anything about Van Vogt’s politics, so perhaps after all I’m being unfair to him.

Maybe he wasn’t trying to do anything more complex than make that point that humanity evolved to live locally on planets – and that stepping out of that into space is such a huge change in scale that we can’t help but risk breakdown by doing it.

Oh, and today’s entry title is a nod to one of my favourite every song titles – ‘Space is Deep’, by the mighty Hawkwind. So, to help you go in search of space, here’s a link to the song, plus a niftily cosmic set of images to go with it.


Flesh eggs, scarlet tracings

Essayists, Landscape, Literary, London, Novelists, Poets

Bringing Iain Sinclair’s book of poems, ‘Buried at Sea’, into work this morning made me think about the impact his selected poems ‘Flesh Eggs and Scalp Metal’, and his novel ‘White Chappell Scarlet Tracings’, made on me when I first read them.

I was at a very conservative boarding school in Dorset; every so often Ted Hughes’ ‘The Thought Fox’ would get dusted off by some corduroy jacketed English teacher as an example of the finest, most dangerous poetry that modern Britain had to offer; appreciation of the contemporary novel stopped at Ford Madox Ford.

After Hughes’ tepid, self regarding, bankrupt Romanticism – a poetry that had and still has all the allure of a fly-blown egg salad sandwich rotting in an over warm chiller unit in a barely used Little Chef just off the A303 – and FMF’s (admittedly excellent, but simultaneously) seventy years gone Modernist novelising, Iain Sinclair was a revelation.

I’ve come to read his work as a driven Cockney response to writers like Ezra Pound and Charles Olson; people obsessed with the way history and geography combine to create an environment that the self cannot but rely on for definition.

He built on their methodologies, marrying berserk pulp mythologies with the seedier scrag ends of the Matter of London to look at how popular culture and mythology shape us.

London becomes a dense palimpsest of experience, a place where figures as diverse as Jack the Ripper, Stephen Hawking, Mithras and Nicholas Hawksmoor create intertwining narratives that echo in an absolutely contemporary way through the lives of all Londoners.

Within it we are are perpetual slaves to our environment, unknowing flaneurs being perpetually remoulded by the city that we are always strolling through, always observing, always being observed by.

There’s an obvious political edge to this, as well; those with the power to shape the environment have the power to shape us. Picking up where the Situationalists left off, riffing off the pulp innocence of H. P. Lovecraft and Victorian Penny Dreadfuls, Sinclair forces us to beware of such designs.

Iain Sinclair was using fictions I was deeply engaged with to build an argument about the nature of place, memory (both personal and cultural) that I found very exciting and relevant. Set against Ted Hughes and his dustily savage nature poetry – what took him a career to achieve was done better by Tennyson in four lines in 1849 – there was no real competition.

A heart of darkness

Fantasy, Novelists, Short stories, Surrealism

Felt a bit bummed out yesterday, so that inevitably made me think of William Hope Hodgson’s ‘The Night Land’, the book that nearly gave me a nervous breakdown over New Year 1999 / 2000.

Normally, I love William Hope Hodgson. His berserk imagery, unhinged sense of space and time, and deep nautical experience (at times he comes across like the bad acid Joseph Conrad) combine every so often to produce utter pulp magnificence.

‘The House on the Borderland’ is an acknowledged classic, helped kickstart H. P. Lovecraft, and more recently has been namechecked by Iain Sinclair, Alan Moore and China Mieville, amongst others. ‘The Ghost Pirates’ is a genuinely haunted tale of subtle nautical mayhem, stuffed to the gills with memorable imagery and authentic sea-lore. The ‘Carnacki the Ghost Finder’ stories are just plain strange (and newly reprinted by Wordsworth Classics) – and so on.

But ‘The Night Land’ is in a different league. It’s set in the far future; and the sun has died. The remnants of humanity inhabit a giant, illuminated pyramid, the Last Redoubt. Everywhere else is darkness. Terrible creatures surround the pyramid, watching and waiting… And then, a signal from the last survivor of another, previously unknown redoubt is received. The narrator sets out to find her.

That’s really it for plot. You don’t read ‘The Night Land’ for seat of the pants narrative thrills; you read it for its crushing, strange, intense atmosphere, battling through its bizarrely contorted prose to do so. The conviction with which WHH images his dark, possessed future world, and the claustrophobic grimness of the creatures that hide in it, are remarkable.

I couldn’t finish it; it was too much for me. So I don’t know how it ends, and I haven’t formed a deep critical view of it, beyond awe at its atmospheric potency. So, here’s a quote from it, to give you a sense of its unique qualities:

‘And so, in a few minutes, I was at the South-Eastern wall, and looking out through The Great Embrasure towards the Three Silver-fire Holes, that shone before the Thing That Nods, away down, far in the South-East. Southward of this, but nearer, there rose the vast bulk of the South-East Watcher – The Watching Thing of the South-East. And to the right and to the left of the squat monster burned the Torches; maybe half-a-mile upon each side; yet sufficient light they threw to show the lumbered-forward head of the never-sleeping Brute.

To the East, as I stood there in the quietness of the Sleeping-Time on the One Thousandth Plateau, I heard a far, dreadful sound, down in the lightless East; and, presently, again – a strange, dreadful laughter, deep as a low thunder among the mountains. And because this sound came odd whiles from the Unknown Lands beyond the Valley of The Hounds, we had named that far and never-seen Place “The Country Whence Comes The Great Laughter.” And though I had heard the sound, many and oft a time, yet did I never hear it without a most strange thrilling of my heart, and a sense of my littleness, and of the utter terror which had beset the last millions of the world.’

The Wall game

Fiction, Literary, Novelists

Monday again, and time to think about Alan Wall, as he has a ‘how to’ book on writing out. This is very exciting, because he’s a magnificent writer. First book of his I read was ‘China’, which was hugely enjoyable (in part because it’s very well written, in part because it’s mostly set around five minutes walk from where I live), but it was ‘The School of Night’ that really blew me away.

‘The School of Night’ is about Sean Tallow, a rather ineffectual intellectual who combines his Shakespeare obsession (who really wrote the plays?) with a job at the BBC. His life is intertwined with that of his school friend Daniel Pagett, who has become a Richard Branson-like multi-millionaire.

There’s a lot going on in the book; but what really leapt out at me is Wall’s deep, subtle consideration of the innate criminality of the self. Building on Nietzsche, Wall riffs on the way that our needs and desires sooner or later clash with those of the people around us.

When that happens, we have a choice; we either betray ourselves by acceding to the needs of others, or we criminalise ourselves by ignoring or actively working against those needs. To fulfil ourselves, we need to deny those around us.

This – in essence – is the problem that Sean has; the book charts his different ways of engaging with it, contrasting his behaviour with that of the more directly criminal Daniel. And it does so in a memorably focussed way. There’s not a wasted sentence in it – in fact, I started re-reading it as soon as I’d finished it, all the better to appreciate the tautness and precision of Wall’s craft.

So it’s very exciting to see that his guide to writing is coming out. Oh, and he’s also very engaged with Michael Moorcock; as I understand it, he looks critically at Moorcock’s marvellous ‘Between the Wars’ novel sequence in the book. I can’t wait to see what he’s got to say about them; and I can’t wait to see what he’s going to say about writing in general.

Why Alan Moore is god #2,734

Comics, Fiction, Genre, Novelists, Superheroes

Quite apart from the fact that he’s actually met John Constantine twice (‘I’ll tell you the ultimate secret of magic. Any cunt could do it.’), and worships Paris Hilton headed puppet snake deity Glycon, Alan Moore is god because of the original comic version of ‘V for Vendetta’. It’s haunted me ever since I was 15 or 16, but it took me a long time to work out why.

Ostensibly, it’s the story of V, an anarchist superhero in a dystopian post-nuclear war Britain who succeeds in bringing down a racist, fascist government by dressing up as Guy Fawkes, killing several hundred people, and blowing up the Houses of Parliament.

But that’s only a very superficial reading of it. For me, what it’s really about is maturity, and loss, and the relationship between the two. As you grow, you leave so much behind you; and it’s the simultaneous sadness and necessity of that loss that provide the emotional engine of the book.

That depth is centred on Evey, the book’s protagonist. As she moves through the book she engages with and loses a series of father figures (her real father, Scots criminal Gordon Deitrich, to some extent the state she lives in, and of course V himself). Those losses are painful, but they’re seen as essential steps on the road to a hard-won and very real emotional maturity.

These themes echo through the rest of the book, explored in a wide variety of ways by a wide variety of characters. Perhaps the most memorable image of loss and progress combined comes from V himself, at the book’s climax; realising his own obsolescence, he lets himself die. Evey takes over from him, an evolved V (or e-v, in fact) for a new world.

So that’s one more reason why Alan Moore is god. ‘V for Vendetta’ is a profound and emotionally sophisticated piece of writing; and it was one of the key books that opened up the possibilities of fantastic fiction for me, teaching me how to use the unreal to talk about the real, and challenging me to get out there and do it for myself.

Lovecraft’s tentacles

Horror, Novelists, Short stories

In an introduction to a Lovecraft collection, China Mieville points out that H. P. Lovecraft introduced tentacles – and indeed the squamous in general – into horror fiction. That squamousness signifies a wider fascination with negotiable identities. One of the key tropes of Lovecraftian horror is that your place in the cosmos – indeed, the very flesh of what you are – is always very mutable.

Which makes me wonder if part of his ongoing relevance comes from the importance of identity politics in the 20th and 21st century. His writing dramatises the horror and joy implicit in identity definition and transformation. His apparent racism has been widely commented on – but perhaps it’s balanced by a more constructive awareness of the problems and processes of identity in general?

Matrices old and new

Fantasy, Film, Novelists, Religion, Science Fiction, Television

I’ve been pondering The Matrix movies lately. Key pieces of plot and character information were offered in animes, computer games, and so on. Back in the day, I thought this was lazy and exploitative. Now, I think I was wrong.

Narrative is getting old school. For thousands of years, the great public stories were built on mythology. Mythologies are inchoate tale masses, springing to life when the simply defined character traits of their protagonists encounter the rich complexities of life.

That narrative breadth was reflected in the variety of media employed to communicate those mythologies. Over the years, their stories were told orally, enacted ritually, depicted through sculpture, painting, illumination, even sung.

Narrative units were excerpted for use in churches or temples, in the house or workplace, or even just on personal amulets or altarpieces, giving a particular devotional emphasis as necessary.

By presenting a single story through multiple different media, that could be engaged with individually or taken together to form a whole, the Wachowskis were tapping into this very ancient set of narrative techniques.

They’re not the only people to do it. Throughout genre writing, this kind of multiplicity is being actively engaged with.

Take the Hellboy franchise, for example – now including comic books, novels, cartoons and feature films. Or the richly populated Star Trek universe, which can be explored through everything from the original episodes to fan fiction, boardgames to a (rather strange) small museum in Las Vegas.

What’s interesting is why it’s genre writing that’s working like this; and why (for a couple of centuries at least) fiction pulled away from this kind of multiple narrative.

Genre fiction’s always been at home with the episodic, the multiple; rooted in short stories, television series, radio serials and even comic books as much as in novels, it comes ready tooled for these kinds of story telling methodologies.

Over and above this, it’s enjoyed by a highly active – and very creative – fan base that’s very comfortable with reworking favoured narratives according to personal need.

And why did we step away from multiple narratives in the first place? For me, it’s linked to the rise of the literary novel as a discrete art form. Such novels are understood to present unique narrative universes, created by and under the control of single, named writers.

Only Dickens can write like Dickens; only Cervantes can write Don Quixote (tho’others tried and failed, as Cervantes successfully managed to defend his own turf against them). This kind of emphasis on individual, highly personal world creation militates against the kind of shared narratives I’ve been talking about.

So what’s going on? How to conclude? Really, by pointing out that genre writing is helping maintain a very ancient narrative tradition; and that literary writers are not the sole arbiters of what fiction is, and how it works.