Today this has been hypnotising me, on and off. It’s John Foxx and Karborn’s cut-up movie, a Ballardian dream of the end of a century – and so much more:
Well, last week was a very cultural week, with Michael Moorcock, Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore live at the British Library at one end, and Zali Krishna playing live at the Klinker at the other. I didn’t record any of the Moorcock / Moore / Sinclair triumvirate, but I did manage to get this – the opening section of Zali’s gig. Enjoy!
Well, I’ve just finished China Miéville’s superb new book, ‘The City and The City’. It’s utterly gripping, a noir-ish police procedural with an Eastern European feel that both builds on, reacts against and moves beyond the concerns and achievements of his previous novels.
So you’ve probably worked out that I’d recommend it to anyone who shares the concerns of this blog. Whether you enjoy excellent, imaginative fiction, open-ended modern poetry (or even, I’m sure, experimental or improvised music), it’s well worth checking out.
And now I’m going to talk about it in more detail with MULTIPLE SPOILERS, so if you haven’t read it yet, and don’t want any surprises ruined, STOP READING NOW!
Right, that was pretty unambiguous. Anyway, now that I’ve done that, I can start giving away plot points left, right and centre – and to talk about it properly, I really need to do that, because what it is and what it means are so carefully and effectively intertwined.
At the heart of the book is the relationship between two twinned cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma. Both are very literally, and very substantially, intertwined; ‘crosshatched’, to use Miéville’s coinage. Much of the detail and action of the book comes from that relationship, and the way that inhabitants of the two cities have adjusted to it.
For me, the book’s central achievement is the way that it uses that crosshatching to literalise a metaphor set, one that both forces detailed consideration of twinned / opposing otherness, and refuses to collapse into any final meaning or commentary on them.
At various points as I read the book, I went from understanding the two cities as Christianity and Islam, the West and the East, to wondering if the whole book was a kind of coded intellectual / literary autobiography, via seeing it as a way of talking about splits between genre and literary fiction, then reading it as talking about left / right wing oppositions, and so on.
The imagery supports all of these readings, and – I’m sure – many more, without insisting on any of them as full or final. That’s something I really loved, for many reasons. Most immediately, it builds very directly on one of my favourite moments in his previous novels – the climax of ‘The Iron Council’.
As you’ll no doubt remember, the book ends in an image that simultaneously represents two directly opposed emotions – hope and despair – in a way that’s very directly inspired by one of the great Western comments on the distance between legend and reality, the final frames of ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’.
For me, that image felt like the crystallization of an internal opposition, between China the Marxist (who believes in the possibility of radical, positive change in society) and China the Realist (who has a perhaps more nuanced and pessimistic view of human nature). I thought it was a wonderful presentation of two opposed stances; and I also wondered where he’d go from there, how he’d reconcile the tension between the two viewpoints.
My mistake was to see the choice as a binary one. Miéville’s built on the moment by finding a third way, and is now operating – far more effectively than at any previous point – as China the novelist, China the Image Maker. Rather than building narratives that endorse or discuss particular political viewpoints, he’s creating open image sets that resist simple, final conclusions, and instead encourage readers to think for themselves.
That creative maneuver is profoundly refreshing. It’s a reinvention of China’s root definition – he’s moved from being a novelist engaged in a very specific (albeit important) argument with genre, to one who uses the tools of genre to look out at the modern world – and it moves him into fascinating new literary company.
Previously I’ve pitched him to people as (in very glib shorthand) Britain’s leading Marxist Fantasist; now, his use of internally coherent but literally inexplicable image sets mean that it’s possible to read him in relationship with cutting edge modern poets like Jeremy Prynne, Lee Harwood and Ken Edwards, who work very hard indeed to balance that same clarity of image with opacity of final meaning, and even of language.
But how fully achieved is that transition? ‘The City and The City’ does hold true to relatively traditional narrative structures; it does have recognizable echoes of previous books, and of the habits of writing that have driven them. Two key examples for me are the collapse of the final Orciny myth, and the mass breach that leads to city-wide chaos as the novel draws to a close.
The former seems to me to be very close to the resolution of the Magus Fin narrative strand at the climax of ‘The Scar’. In both cases, we discover that a central, motivating myth – a Macguffin – is in fact a fiction, a fantasy generated out of neurotic personal need.
However, there is progression here too. The Magus Fin functions as a critique of reader expectations of genre, pointing up the gap between the cod-Fantasy motivations we’re often too comfortable with (Our talisman has been stolen! We must retrieve it, lest we face the anger of the gods!) and the more sophisticated, realistic drivers that make the political world happen (We’re economically exposed! We need to get our data back!).
Althought the Magus Fin narrative does throw a light on political myth making, it’s fundamentally an argument about genre, made from within genre. The Orciny event – although ostensibly similar – can be used to think about genre, but sits outside it. The meanings that can be derived from it centre more on the way that personal world fantasies are received, processed and responded to by the body politic.
So, I’m undercutting my own argument! Read in this way, the Orciny event becomes a conscious reflection on the Magus Fin, an attempt to include its concerns in a broader argument about the real world nature and reception of fantasy (rather than just Fantasy).
And then there’s the mass breach that ends the book. The Threat to the City is a repeated Miéville structural trope, one that is – for me – very directly derived from his genre roots.
Binary oppositions are fundamental to Fantasy; magical heroes need magical monsters, shadow selves that exist to help the hero shine. And, of course, the stronger the shadow, the more glory there is in overcoming it. So, the city gets threatened with destruction, to allow our heroes to save it – to define the terms of their achievement.
But, as I type, I’m realizing that there’s more to China’s repeated city destruction attempts than I’d previously thought. Not all destructions are equal; some, in fact, are to be encouraged – witness, again, ‘The Iron Council’. Breaking the status quo can be – or, at least, can aspire to be – A Very Good Thing.
Seen in that light, the mass breach becomes more interesting. It represents a moment of possible transcendence, an escape from an artificial set of limitations. That would destroy Beszel and Ul Qoma; but it could also liberate a new city, one that might provide its inhabitants with an easier and more fulfilled mode of living.
A shock, or a release? Such a change would be both, at once; and each has their costs, and their benefits. The mass breach forces consideration of such a transition as the novel climaxes, without committing to a final judgment as to whether it would be a Good Thing, or a Bad Thing. As such, it’s a very effective component of the novel’s broader strategy of constructive ambiguity.
There is one thing that the book is very unambiguous about, however. Unlike Miéville’s previous novels, there’s no magic in it at all, nothing of the supernatural. Beszel, Ul Qoma, Orciny, Breach; within ‘The City and The City’, all are entirely human constructs, very carefully sited in our world.
As such, the book has the same kind of relationship with the genre of Fantasy that slasher movies have with Horror. In (say) ‘Psycho’, or ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, Horror is achieved; but its achievement is an entirely human one, making these films meditations on our shared capacity for evil, rather than abstract exemplifications of an external darkness.
Likewise, ‘The City and The City’. It’s an entirely fantastical book that has no Fantasy in it whatsoever. Where there is mystery – for example, in the precursor machine / culture – it springs from a very human lack of knowledge, and consequent fantasising, rather than from any sort of supernatural intervention.
At heart, it’s a meditation on the ability of the human imagination to build unreal worlds, and then to make them real by agreeing on them. Beszel, Ul Qoma; each city is a convention set that only exists because enough people agree that they’re there, consensual hallucinations that become real through that very consensus.
By contrast, Orciny’s failure is not untruth; rather, it lies in its inability to gather enough followers to give it life. If enough people used it as a tool for imaginative interpretation of the world around them, it would become real, just as Ul Qoma and Beszel are – within the book – entirely real, entirely non-fictional.
So, a book that contains much; and a book that is hard to review, precisely because of its refusal to settle into a single set of meanings. That makes the above necessarily provisional; it’s one interpretation, where many are possible, and none can be fully or finally ‘right’. And, of course, there’s a lot in the book that I haven’t mentioned at all.
Which, in the end, makes the responsibility for finding ‘meaning’ in the book an entirely personal one. The above is part of my own take on ‘The City and The City’ – what’s yours?
Well, last night was a gig by the mighty Thomas Truax, so today – by the power of YouTube!!!! – he’s helping allumination celebrate Valentine’s Day. Happy romancing, all! May the tentacles of love rise from their endless dreaming beneath the Pacific and penetrate the hearts of both you and your male, female or otherly sexed partners…
Space is so often seen as an open field that exists to support some form of vast, optimistic transcendence. But in fact, reality suggests that it will force an almost infinite claustrophobia on us. Surrounded by its empty hostility, we’ll travel it in tiny metal tubes, at best spending only years locked together with nowhere else to go. It’s going to be a surreal, alien experience; but that estrangement will come as we dive deep into ourselves and our fellow space travellers, rather than leap into brilliant externals.
The fish are key to this. Trust me on this.
Anyway… up until now, I’d have said that my favourite take on the oppressiveness of space travel came in A. E. Van Vogt’s ‘Voyage of the Space Beagle’ (or ‘Space Bagel’, as it’s known around these parts). Amongst other things a key inspiration for ‘Alien’, the novel spends a lot of time thinking about exactly how best to manage tight groups crushed together, for decades.
But that’s changed, as I’ve just finished James Tiptree Jr’s devastatingly brilliant ‘A Momentary Taste of Being’. In part a psychological inquest into a group of people who’ve come to know each far too well, it takes Van Vogt’s claustrophobia and runs with it in several magnificently psychedelic directions at once, generating a devastatingly effective combination of Lovecraftian existential horror and possible-end-of-the-human-race pathos as a group of advance colonists, fleeing an overcrowded Earth, seek a new planet for the human race to colonise.
No more detail about how JTJr does what she does; rather, buy her wonderful short story collection, ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’, and go read. Instead, here’s a passage that caught my eye and made me realise how her understanding of the closeness of space is rooted in a very human sense of how we live with each other in communities of different sizes. Her protagonist, Aaron, is considering an earlier colonist ship – the ‘Pioneer’ – and thinking about lessons learned from its failed, decades long journey from Earth to Barnard’s Star:
‘The people of ‘Pioneer’ had suffered severely from the stress of too much social contact in every waking moment; the answer found for ‘Centaur’ was not larger spaces but an abundance of alternative routes that allow her people to enjoy privacy in their comings and goings about the ship, as they would in a village. Two persons in a two-meter corridor must confront each other, but in two one-meter corridors each is alone and free to be his private self. It has worked well, Aaron thinks; he has noticed that over the years, people have developed private “trails” through the ship.’
What intrigued me here was the implicit definition of a core feature of city life; the multiple ways that we move through cities, the multiple intersections possible as we do so. Implicit in Centaur-space is not just ‘avoidance of people’ but also ‘avoidance of seeing the same people every day’. Privacy in this context is not ‘not seeing anyone’ – rather, it’s ‘only seeing strangers’.
Aggressive estrangement is a key feature of big city life. Moving from Scotland, I was struck by how aggressively Londoners guarded their lack of relationship with each other. More recently H, coming from Seattle, has had the same experience. Of course, I’ve internalised the guarding and now – like any other Londoner – regard anyone I don’t know who tries to break through my shields and have some sort of personal engagement with me as at best dangerously insane. Anyway…
That estrangement is a key driver of surrealism. We don’t just see strangers; we see the strangeness they leave behind, the artefacts that no doubt make perfect sense to them but – shorn of context – become insoluble puzzles to us. Hence the picture of the fish; we found them on Sunday night, lying in the Waterloo Underpass. I’m sure there’s a very logical explanation for them being there, but deprived of that context they became a truly odd presence. A stranger had left them, and so they were strange.
And not just strange. Surreal; alienated from direct meaning; in fact, alien. But at the same time, entirely human; left by a human going about his or her business. Which reminds me of J. G. Ballard’s comment that ‘it is inner space, not outer, that needs to be explored. The only truly alien planet is Earth’, and which helps me finally understand why I so admired ‘A Momentary Taste of Being’.
In the deepest sense, its characters encounter nothing that is not human, or intimately linked to the human. Its horrors at first appear to be profoundly other but – as the story progresses – are revealed to be anything but. At the story climax, we’re left to face a profound truth; the truest surrealism comes from our own hidden selves, and the only alien is us.
Allumination has gone to Paris for the weekend – to eat fine food, drink fine wine, and explore in general, accompagne (of course) par la H.
There’s much to see – the Sainte Chapelle, the Arcades, the various art museums (this weekend’s particular target the Moreau Museum, I think), the place I used to live back in 1990 (how time flies!) – and of course, in pursuit of the weird, we might well be obliged to wander here…
Bon weekend a tous!
Well, a short one today as I was dining at the conference last night (in the Stationer’s Hall, with some Ethiopian diplomats and the bloke who’s job it is to make sure that Parma Ham is really Parma Ham – fascinating evening after a fascinating day!) and now have an early start to get to it.
So, here’s a very groovy animation to be going on with:
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.’
Well, as promised here’s part 1 of ‘La Planete Sauvage’ from Youtube. Alas, it’s not subtitled or dubbed – but then again, who needs language when you have such trippy music and visuals? Oh, and the rest of it’s linked to from the Youtube page.
Last Friday night’s excursion was a trip to see compellingly strange French SF animation ‘La Planete Sauvage’, plus a pre-film performance of some groovy improvised music from The Stargazer’s Assistant. The film was fantastic; the music was marvellous; but what really made the evening for me were David Smith’s coal sculptures, forming his exhibition ‘The Other Side of the Island’.
No words, for once; I took some pictures on the phone, so I’m going to let the work speak for itself.