a chat with Dr Kathleen Stock

FuseBox, Non-fiction, Philosophy, Writer in Residence

Having written a fair bit about the ‘Do Androids Dream…’ event at The FuseBox, I thought it was time for a change of pace. So I got together with the event’s co-host, Dr Kathleen Stock, for a chat about it all. And here it is:

Towards the end of our conversation, I said I’d put up some links to Kathleen and her work. So, first of all, here’s her website. Click here for her blog post about sexual objectication over at the LSE and here for her ‘Philosophy Bites’ podcast on fiction and the emotions. And finally, another YouTube video – here she is giving a talk on the limits of our imaginations. Enjoy!

empathy and electric sheep

Fiction, Film, FuseBox, Panels, Philosophy, Writer in Residence

So, we had our ‘Do Designers Dream of Electric Sheep’ afternoon at the FuseBox, and it went very well indeed – so well, in fact, that I’ve had big problems trying to boil down everything it made me think about into a single blog post. As it turns out, when you combine ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ and ‘Blade Runner’ with a room full of designers, technologists, philosophers and creatives, you end up with an awful lot to think about.

But that’s actually quite useful. For the next couple of months, the FuseBox is being rebuilt, so I don’t have anywhere to be physically resident. So instead, I’m going to become a virtually resident writer. I’m going to go with the flow and write more than I normally would, publishing three or four blog posts and – if all goes according to plan – a videoblog, both discussing the ‘Do Designers Dream…?’ day in general and talking about where it took me in particular.

And I’m going to start at the beginning, with how we defined its core theme – empathy. We began by trying to find out if we had a shared sense of it. As everyone arrived at the event, we asked them to write down their own definitions of empathy. We ended up with:

Rather than a single understanding of empathy, that left us with many interesting tensions. Is empathy something emotional or rational? Does it happen when you imagine another in your own head, or does it build on a genuine connection between you and another? Is it an exclusively human experience, or is it something other creatures (and perhaps even things) can feel? And so on.

Then, we complicated things even more. FuseBox head Phil Jones kicked things off with an introductory talk, then philosopher Dr Kathleen Stock, critical design practitioner and AI expert Professor Karen Cham, and SF writer me all took a few minutes to talk through our own understandings of empathy.

Phil began by talking about empathy in design, describing both its problems and achievements. On the one hand, every effective piece of design is a small chunk of embodied empathy, an actually present representation of a moment of connection between the designer and their audience. On the other, design often fails. For example, there’s the problem of bro-tech – technology designs by highly privileged twenty-something male designers that only show any sort of empathy for the lives and problems of twenty-something males. Design needs empathy to thrive; but too often it embodies its lack rather than its presence.

Kathleen talked about empathy in a more abstract way. She described two different kinds of empathy – cognitive and affective:

Cognitive empathy involves imagining the experience of another; affective empathy happens when another’s emotion affects you. A key point running through her comments was the role of imagination in empathy – you can never actually experience being someone (or something) else. You can only ever imagine it. And that throws up a fascinating question: How solipsistic is empathy? Does it represent a genuine link with the other, or only an imagined one? And is there any real difference between the two?

And then it was my turn. I discussed how empathy is essential in fiction; to feel involved with a particular story, to want to keep reading on, the reader needs to feel empathy for the people they’re reading about. That led to a very basic description of three act narrative structure:

I create empathy for my characters by showing the reader what they want to do and why it’s so important, then making it difficult for them to do it, and finally exploring what it means for them to actually get it done. Once again, imagination’s a crucial part of that process – as a writer of SF, I ask my readers to imagine unreal futures, and as a writer of fiction I ask them to imagine unreal people and events.

Then it was Karen’s turn. She talked about empathy as something very practical, describing how we can achieve a very exact kind of empathy by using technology to measure people’s physical responses to any particular experience. And she described how technology displays apparent empathy for the world around it as it learns from experience. For her, empathy wasn’t so much about imagination – it’s something very present, practical and measurable.

And those were the definitions of empathy we started out with. More on where they took us to in my next post…

machine cycle upgrade

Humanism, Modernity, Philosophy, Poetry


“Expelled as commander to be integrated as connector, the human is transformed by its own works from a brain legislating life to a ligament binding machine cycles.”

Brian Massumi, quoted by Pierre Joris in “Nomad Poetics”

I stayed in a Mercure Hotel last night (the picture’s the view from my room), and was struck by the contrast between its lovely staff and its ineffective IT and management systems. If I’d stayed in a more expensive hotel, I wouldn’t have been paying for better people but for better organisation and technology.

at play in infinity

Fiction, Novelists, Philosophy, Science Fiction, Television


I spent Friday both talking and listening at the wildly enjoyable Playful 2011 Conference (that’s me on-stage above – pic @thisisplayful). This post is a very quick follow-on to that. I’ve had quite a few requests for both the talk itself and a list of the writers I mentioned.

So, I’ve posted the talk on my read a story page, and I’ve put together this list of people I mentioned. Oh, and do bear in mind that it’s a not remotely exhaustive list – there’s huge amounts of wonderful SF writing out there that alas I just couldn’t fit into the talk. Enjoy!

I started by defining science fiction, and (with Brian Aldiss’ help) arguing that ‘Frankenstein’ is the first real SF novel.

  • Mary Shelley – ‘Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus’, available in multiple modern editions and well worth a read.
  • Brian Aldiss – his quote came from ‘The Detached Retina – Aspects of Science Fiction and Fantasy’. He’s a Grand Master of modern SF – try ‘Hot House’ or ‘Non Stop’ to start with.

After that, there was a quick wander through some cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk writers. I touched on Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, before digging into 80s / 90s cyberpunk:

  • William Gibson – namer of cyberspace in ‘Neuromancer’; one of the few people who genuinely seems to understand Western modernity.
  • Pat Cadigan – one of Gibson’s fellow cyberpunks, ‘Synners’ is a good starting point (and was very influential on philosopher Nick Land, who’s mentioned a little further down).
  • Neal Stephenson – pretty indescribable; has explored everything from virtual reality to the complete history of money. Try ‘The Diamond Age’ for starters.

Key precursors included:

  • John Brunner – I mentioned ‘Shockwave Rider’, because that’s where he invents the computer worm. It’s a great read, but to be honest I prefer ‘Stand On Zanzibar’, which gets the modern media-scape worryingly right.
  • Michael Moorcock – another Grand Master. When he writes genre fiction he’s really a fantasist, but the deeply fractured Jerry Cornelius stories feel more like the modern world than just about anything else. Try ‘The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius – Stories of the Modern Apocalypse’.
  • M. John Harrison – a contemporary of Moorcock and Ballard’s who’s matured into one of Britain’s finest writers in any genre. Start with his recent SF novel ‘Light’ and go from there – riches await!
  • William Burroughs – searingly radical, searingly peculiar, and someone far beyond any sort of genre, tho’ his writing is shot through with a deep pulp SF sensibility. Why not check out ‘The Soft Machine’, first of a trilogy of pretty SFnal novels?

Then, a step into television. Pretty much everyone’s seen the original Star Trek, and it seems to be on many TV channels most of the time. If you fancy diving into the more recent Battlestar Galactica, it all kicked off in 2003 with a very watchable three hour miniseries. If you enjoy that, it was followed by four seasons of generally fantastic SF tv, plus sundry spinoffs.

And then, back to prose fiction –

  • Samuel R. Delany – ‘Tales of Plagues and Carnivals’ in ‘Return to Neveryon’ was the first mainstream-published piece of fiction to deal with AIDS. The Neveryon books are more fantasy than SF – if you want to experience Delany in full futuristic flight, try ‘Babel-17’ or ‘Nova’.

That led to a discussion of 70s feminist SF. I talked in detail about –

  • Joanna Russ – ‘The Female Man’ – a formally daring, deeply radical critique of the problems of femininity.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin – ‘Left Hand of Darkness’- aliens that can be either male or female, but are mostly neither; a brilliant exploration of gender as construct rather than immutable identity.
  • James Tiptree Jr – ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’ collects her finest short stories – unmissable. To read about her complex and fascinating life, pick up Julie Phillips’ biography of her, ‘James Tiptree Jr – the Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon’.

I also mentioned Octavia Butler – try her Xenogenesis trilogy, recently published in a single volume as ‘Lilith’s Brood’. Then, we moved on to science fiction’s pessimists –

  • H. P. Lovecraft – I quoted from ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, one of his most famous stories. There are three Penguin Classics anthologies of his fiction, ‘The Call of Cthulhu (and other weird stories)’ ‘The Thing on the Doorstep (and other…)’ and ‘The Dreams in the Witch House (and other…)’, which together collect all of his major stories and some fun minor stuff. Personally, I’d start with ‘The Thing on the Doorstep’, if only for the remarkable Antarctic odyssey ‘At The Mountains of Madness’.
  • J.G. Ballard – I mentioned the memorably shocking ‘Crash’. If you want to ease yourself in a little more gently, try starting at the beginning with ‘The Drowned World’, getting a bit of context with the autobiographical ‘Empire of the Sun’, or digging into either or both of the two volume ‘Collected Short Stories’.

And finally, I ran out of time before getting to the philosophers:

  • Nick Land – the 90s’ leading cyber-theorist. Urbanomic Press have recently published ‘Fanged Noumena’, his collected writings, in a rather lovely little edition. The bastard child of continental philosophy and cyberpunk, now living the postmodern dream in Singapore.
  • Reza Negarestani – ‘Cyclonopedia – Complicity with Autonomous Materials’. It’s kind of indescribable; very broadly a Lovecraftian demonology of the war on terror, cross-bred with a terminator whose OS has been rewritten by Deleuze, Guattari and Ibn Khaldun.

For a broader critical context on science fiction, I’d recommend ‘The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction’ (ed Farah Mendlesohn / Edward James) – an academic work that does a great job of both summing up the history of SF and covering its major modern concerns.

Of neccesity, this list leaves out infinitely more than it includes. Other people writing currently who are definitely worth looking out for include Iain M. Banks (of course), Liz Williams, Mark Pilkington, Hal Duncan, Jaine Fenn, China Mieville, and Justina Robson. If you’re digging around historically, the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series collect some really fantastic novels and short story collections from the 19th and 20th centuries.

So, that’s it – hopefully some useful suggestions there. Of course, the best thing to do is just wander down to the bookshop, root around a bit, and get stuck into whatever seems to be inspiring. So, enjoy! And, in the simultaneously paranoid and visionary final words of 50s SF movie classic ‘The Thing From Outer Space’ –


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.

On becoming an optimist

Humanism, Modernity, Optimism, Philosophy

Well, I wasn’t going to blog tonight (sleeping being very preferable), but while reading in the bath I’ve just had a fascinating collision between three interesting writers, so I thought I’d do a quick post.

So – I’d been planning to start on a novel, but couldn’t be bothered, so took Adorno’s ‘Minimalia Moralia’ in with me. It comes in bite sized chunks that are always deeply thought provoking – perfect! And the paragraph I started on was profoundly and unexpectedly resonant with some other interesting recent reading.

Adorno is talking about the grandiose posturing of ‘spiritual giants’, and notes that it is built on ‘a sublimity ever ready to trample inhumanly on anything as small as mere existence’ (para 53). A page later, he describes the reductive nature of idealist thinking, commenting that it ‘reduce[s] everything in its path as unceremoniously to its basic essence as do soldiers the women of a captured town’, before positing an alternate, more humane way of seeing – ‘contemplation without violence’ – that ‘presupposes that he who contemplates does not absorb the object into himself; a distanced nearness’ (para 54).

That first of all resonated very profoundly with John Gray’s fascinating new book, ‘Black Mass’, wherein he criticises much modern political posturing as being spilt religion; a series of poses that aspire to disinterested, rational liberalism but in fact achieve and are built on a kind of dehumanising apocalypticness, one that redefines mass slaughter as moral good on the ironic basis that it’s eradicating evil from the world. Surely sublime and inhuman trampling in all its terrifying action?

Secondly, it took me back to therapy maven Carl Roger’s ‘On Becoming a Person’, that I’ve been using to (rather surprisingly) help me think about mobile phones. Roger posits an open and engaged state of being as a human ideal; his sense of a live lived fluidly and receptively is absolutely opposite to the kind of self-indulgent, destructive posturing that both Adorno and Gray identify so clearly, and is in some ways an exemplification of Adorno’s ‘contemplation without violence’ in action.

No sublime conclusions to draw beyond ‘how interesting…’ – and now that’s typed up I’m off to bed, feeling thanks to those three coming together much more optimistic than I did last night. Good night!

What’s a person anyway?

Fiction, Metafiction, Philosophy, Psychology

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martians kill Humanism

Culture, Horror, Humanism, Philosophy, Poets, Science Fiction

I finished off a collection of Leigh Brackett’s Martian romances over the weekend – ‘The Coming of the Terrans’. Some great stories in there, but there’s more going on than just pulp mayhem.

Brackett’s Martian stories are set on an exotic, faded Mars. In her world, humans arrived there to find an aeon-shadowed (thanks, HPL) civilisation in the final stages of decline. The dessicated, decadent atmosphere of that fading culture is key to the stories’ success.

The stories in ‘The Coming of the Terrans’ show what happens when humans encounter that culture. In each case, the human engages with the Martian, and as a result the limits of his humanity are (more or less) brutally exposed.

One protagonist hunts down a disappeared girlfriend, and in doing so is forcibly de-evolved and bluntly reminded of man’s fundamentally bestial nature. Another encounters an ancient Martian god-thing, but represses all knowledge of lest it destroy his academic career, and is destroyed by that repression. A third discovers just how futile – not to say absurd – human efforts to re-vivify the Martian deserts by tapping into hidden water supplies are.

In each case, human rationality is broken against far more enduring and deeply rooted alien structures. Initially, I read this in quite a Jungian way, understanding the human to represent the conscious mind and the Martian cultures and landscape to image the archetype haunted depths of the subconscious.

That points to the fundamental misunderstanding-of-self that Jung exposed in his writings. We commonly believe that the superficial structures of the conscious self are the core, enduring definers of what it is to be human. We choose what we are on a daily basis; our humanity lies in those choices.

In fact – Jung pointed out – that’s a profoundly deluded viewpoint. The common self of humanity lies in the deep subconscious. We inherit archetypal patterns, modes of behaviour, from those shadowy regions – and they are our shared human heritage.

Next to them, the conscious self is a useful but ultimately entirely transient structure that gives a useful purchase on daily life, but not much more. Archetypal structures endure through millennia; the self gets three score years and ten, or thereabouts.

There are clear parallels with the basic structures underlying Brackett’s Martian stories. But I think there’s something else going on there as well, something deeper and in some ways far more interesting.

It’s part of a broader trend in 20th century literature. Brackett wrote about the failure of a humane, rational, human centred worldview. She wasn’t the only person to do so. From pulp visionaries like H.P. Lovecraft to broken epic poets like Ezra Pound, the failure of that kind of narrative of the self was a common, obsessive theme.

What I think Leigh Brackett was really charting was the final failure of the Humanist project. Born in the Renaissance, it posited a universe that demanded liberal, humane, rational behaviours as the most productive mode of being possible.

For Humanists, the cosmos existed to reflect back human enlightenment and benevolence on us. Archetypal Renaissance mage Giordano Bruno described an ideal mind state; full of classical learning, the enlightened man should step out of his house and, looking around, see benevolent connections uniting everything around him.

Of course, Giordano was burnt at the stake. Even back then, Humanist optimism faced very substantial real world obstacles. But it’s taken the 20th century’s combination of deep science and deep brutality to really finish it off. The universe isn’t necessarily ordered around anything; it certainly doesn’t run like a benevolent ticking clock.

It’s that death of Humanism that’s exposed in Leigh Brackett’s planetary romances. Against the impassive, often bizarre, and always unshakably experienced ancients of Mars, Humanist thinking is exposed as being at best naïve, at worst downright damaging.

And that exposure is echoed in the 20th century itself, the moment that broke Humanism against events ranging from the discovery of the fundamental oddness of matter itself to industrial genocide on an unprecedented scale.

Myths to a flame

Essayists, Genre, Literary, Metafiction, Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A mirror to shine in

Novelists, Philosophy, Psychology, Supernatural

Seeing a ghost is like experiencing a fragment of someone else’s memory; an insistent, present, repeated moment broken out of all context. Fiction takes such fragments and sets them in a reasoned and coherent narrative and emotional context.

For example, there’s Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s novel ‘The Shining’. He’s trapped in the Overlook Hotel, surrounded by ghosts. The book presents him as being possessed by the hotel – but in fact, the hotel is possessed by him.

Torrance gives the disparate iconography sets of the hotel – the topiary animals, the boiler in the basement, the various phantoms of 20s gangsters and their hangers-on, the lift, the Indian graveyard – a nexus, a narrative reason-to-be.

He’s a locus of meaning that both justifies their presence and defines how they should act. ‘The Shining’ is a great Gothic masterpiece, using the apparatus of the supernatural to amplify the impact of and comment on the nature of one man’s profoundly flawed and destructive emotional makeup.

In real life, ghosts don’t do that; but then again, in real life very little does that. Fiction creates entire, self-absorbed imitations of worlds; these worlds serve to very precisely focus the reader’s attention onto a very small set of characters, providing the imagery and event structures that support and intensify interpretation of their actions and intents.

If ‘Gothic’ describes stories where externalised and highly artificial events and locations respond to and are inspired by internal emotional turmoil, then – read on one level – all fiction can be said to be Gothic. None of it’s real; and it’s all driven by the author’s need to express and amplify what (s)he understands his or her characters to be, and what (s)he wants the reader to find out about them.