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’ –

KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES!!!!

Kirk 1, Spock 0

Aliens, Culture, Fiction, Film, Gentleman thieves, Science Fiction, Space is deep, Television

Off to Star Trek on Saturday with H; hugely enjoyable, but – when I came back home and picked up my new Sexton Blake compilation (good fun and wide ranging, but not necessarily the best of Blake) to read myself to sleep – something quite interesting struck me.

The Star Trek TV series is one of the most potent products of 20th Century science fiction; but in form it also owes an awful lot to Victorian and Edwardian adventure stories, where manly, usually imperial, heroes of various different stripes are threatened by exotic new dangers on a reliably regular basis.

As a rule, such heroes come in pairs. There’s Sexton Blake and Tinker; Sherlock Holmes and Watson; Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie; Raffles and Bunny; and so on. And, by definition, the sidekick is very clearly a junior presence, someone who lacks in some important way the authority of the lead.

That sense of a senior / junior relationship is fundamental to the new Star Trek movie; but it’s an inverted relationship. The plot is in large part driven by the fact that, because the time is out of joint, Spock becomes the Captain of the Enterprise, and Kirk is left as his subordinate.

However, it’s a temporary upset. By the end of the film, normality has been restored. Kirk has become Captain Kirk, and Spock is his first officer. Spock’s junior status has been acknowledged. But that’s peculiar; because, throughout the film, great play has been made of Spock’s seniority.

It’s made very clear that he’s older than Kirk – in fact, he’s one of Kirk’s tutors. In something of an under-remarked narrative manoeuvre, he’s also sexually more charismatic than the famously priapic Captain. Kirk’s rather adolescent attempted seduction of Uhuru fails; Spock builds a strong, adult, clearly sexual relationship with her.

He’s also a more effective combatant. Kirk spends much of the film nearly getting thrown off cliffs, walkways, etc, by various cosmic thugs. Spock’s Vulcan neck pinch is as swiftly efficient as ever. And Spock knows true loss; where Kirk never even met his dead father, the adult Spock witnesses the simultaneous death of his mother and his home planet.

So, what is it that makes Spock the sidekick, not the hero? It comes down to one thing; his (in the film’s terms) over-rationality, his consistent and near-absolute privileging of logic over emotion. Within the context of the movie – and of the Star Trek series in general – Kirk’s reliance on intuition and passion makes him the better person.

And that’s fascinating. In part, it’s a hangover from the deep suspicion of thoughtfulness, of academic learning, that drove so many of the action men of the 19th and 20th century pulp thriller. But that suspicion takes on a new meaning in Star Trek – because Star Trek is science fiction.

As a genre, science fiction prides itself on its roots in the deep, tested realities of science. It lays claim to a rational objectivity that sets it apart from other, more emotionally driven forms of writing. Given this, surely Spock is the rightful captain of the Enterprise?

Absolutely not. Spock – science fiction’s supreme logician, the most famous Science Officer in fiction – reveals the untruth of that claim, or at least the contradictions that stop it from being really convincing.

The Enterprise is helmed by Kirk’s wild, dangerous emotion – just as science fiction, like all fiction, is powered not by logic, but by human emotional relationships, and the wild, exciting dramatic fallout thereof.

Aliens, invasions, and the act of reading

Fiction, Ghosts, Horror, Memory, Science Fiction, Supernatural, Television

Nigel Kneale’s masterpieces ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, ‘The Quatermass Conclusion’ and ‘The Stone Tape’ cast a fascinating light on the nature of fiction, because each one shows the future invading from the past. In ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, the Martian invaders are five million year old fossils, in ‘The Quatermass Conclusion’, Neolithic stone circles become nexi for a barely comprehensible alien harvesting of humanity, and in ‘The Stone Tape’ hi-tech recording technology empowers an ancient, pre-human evil.

That sense of narrative drivers emerging from the past is an interesting way of thinking about how fiction works. The only building blocks of story available to any of us are what we’ve already experienced, whether directly through active living or indirectly through reading, viewing, relayed narrative, etc. Every single story we have began as an edit of those memories; that edit then being filtered through the writer’s imagination, to shift it from having an entirely personal resonance to achieving a more universal impact.

But that’s not all. Kneale’s invasions are very specifically alien invasions, acting on humanity to – to a greater or lesser extent – recast its sense of itself. In each story, Kneale tracks more than a physical invasion. He shows us the intellectual paradigm shift that is forced on humankind when it’s forced to engage not just with the physically alien, but with the intellectually alien. His invasions happen in the head, as much as in the flesh.

That adds an interesting layer to the reading metaphor, because reading too is an encounter with the alien – with someone else’s memories, with their lived experience. As a rule, direct experience of other people’s internal lives is pretty difficult. We can’t know what it’s like to be the other. But reading downloads a version of that internality directly into our own heads. Engaging with a writer’s modified memories remains one of the most effective ways of experiencing another self, being in the world.

Kneale’s concern with the reconfiguring attack of the other helps show how to read is to be invaded by that other, and to be reconfigured by it. An other’s experience of the world is introduced into our self, and – whether forcibly or more subtly – remoulds it in some small way, creating new perspectives or understandings that would have never existed without that other.

The Quatermass movies, ‘The Stone Tapes’, and indeed much of his other work describes directly how experience of the other can be radically, even traumatically, transformative; at a deeper level, it helps point out that – to experience a paradigm shifting alien invasion for ourselves, all we really need to do is go and read a book.

Why I’m writing a Spanish Inquisition cop show

General grumpiness, Rants, Religion, Supernatural, Television, Utter bollocks

Well, I’ve only ever been able to see ‘The Exorcist’ as a comedy, and if you believe Martin Shaw in the BBC’s nutty new exorco-drama ‘Apparitions’, that probably means I’m possessed. Hey ho, we all have our crosses to bear (or rather, pitchforks). In my defense, the scene in ‘The Exorcist’ that first set me off is undeniably a bit nutty. It’s the one where the psychiatrists come and visit Regan. The bed’s levitating; a head’s spinning round; the wardrobe’s dancing; and the shrinks confidently declare that it’s all in her mind, with a positively surreal determination to deny reality that was really a bit too Monty Python for me.

Alas, ‘Apparitions’ – just watched on BBC iPlayer – wasn’t as entertaining. In fact, it left me feeling positively depressed. Martin Shaw is – as ever – elegantly smooth as an exorcist who bucks authority (in classic cop show style, his grumpy boss even demands his exorcist badge at one point – and of course Shaw pops up a couple of scenes later, exorcising away. I go my own way, dammit! Or, in his rather more priestly take on that particular cliche, ‘I can only promise to follow my conscience’.), in this opening episode dealing with a young girl, quite possibly the reincarnation of Mother Teresa (yup, that’s what seems to be going on), whose dad is possessed. And it’s the way that that possession is handled, and the show’s related condemnation of atheism, that left me feeling so bummed out.

So, let’s start with possession. Martin Shaw’s nemesis – the possessed dad – was, it transpires, taken ill in India, rushed to Mother Teresa’s hospital, and there baptised without his knowledge. This is the root of his problems; Shaw tells us that, if baptism isn’t followed by an acceptance of God, a void is created that demons rush into. And he backs this up with scriptural quotation, so we’re not just hearing this from him; we’re hearing it from the church. This isn’t opinion, the show makes a point of telling us; it’s doctrine. And, given that we’re told this by an experienced exorcist, in this dramatic context, it’s not just doctrine either – it’s fact.

So, what’s the problem? Well, it’s in a very reasonable objection that Possessed Dad raises. He asks about the Hindus and Muslims that are brought into the hospital, and is outraged that they should be forcibly converted. Of course, within the context of the show’s rhetoric, everything he says is false; presumably his outrage is intended to create in us, the credulous audience, a sense that in fact it’s rather good that these non-believers are getting forcibly Christianised. That’s well on the way to being rather offensive; but that’s not all. In the dramatic world that the show creates for us, the forcibly baptised are in fact empty vessels for demons. It’s unlikely that a Hindu or Muslim, unknowingly baptised, will then embrace a Christian God; and so they become the most fertile voids, wherein demons may dwell.

Ugh. And Ugh, too, to the show’s treatment of atheism. Earlier on, Possessed Dad’s daughter tries to convince a doubting Shaw that her dad is possessed. Her proof? Richard Dawkins books, ‘Jerry Springer – the Opera’ on the CD player, and so on. Atheism is here a direct path to damnation; thought independent of church dictat a sure road to destructiveness in this world (Possessed Dad ends the episode by nearly, it’s implied, raping and killing his daughter) and eternal flame in the next. Is this kind of boneheadedly authoritarian theology the kind of nonsense my licence fee is funding? I’m going to be on the phone to the Beeb tomorrow…

And I’ll have one final thing to complain about, too. Because this show really is putting across a theology of command, and that’s made very clear when we find out how Possessed Dad’s daughter was conceived. Her seed was sown on the day of Mother Teresa’s death; Possessed Dad and Mrs Possessed Dad were in Kensington Gardens, mourning the death of Diana. At least, Mrs PD was; Possessed Dad dragged her into the bushes for a quick one, ostensibly to celebrate Diana’s death but in fact to celebrate Mother T’s death. A fascinating moment, linking temporal and spiritual authority in a way not seen since the obsolescence of the divine right of kings.

So, all in all a bit of a waste of time, this programme. And (not wanting to rant excessively after the X-Files explosion below) I haven’t even mentioned the truly bizarre treatment of the show’s only gay character, an ex-leper who’s now almost a priest, until he’s cast out of the church and falls prey to the temptation to visit a sauna – ‘The Hot Room’ (because Hell’s, like, hot, and he’s going into somewhere like Hell! Good grief, I’m embarrassed to even type this stuff. Anyway…) – and as a result is flayed alive by a knife wielding demon who – we have earlier learnt – also hangs out outside the Vatican, selling the Italian version of ‘The Big Issue’. Hmm, casual – and clod-hoppingly literal – demonization of the homeless, too.

So, who’s this witless, propagandistic, two dimensional, utterly conservative nonsense aimed at? Well, certainly not people like me. I would say the deeply, narrowly religious, but I suspect that they’ll have turned off after the first five minutes, where we learn that -apparently – Mother Teresa spent the last few hours of life either under demonic attack, or actively possessed by demons. Right…

So I can’t see anyone really enjoying it (except, perhaps, for Martin Shaw’s mum, and she kind of has to), and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. So why have I even written about it? Partially, because this kind of unpleasantly subtexted nonsense should always be dissected and exposed for the offensive cobblers that it is, and partially because I still can’t quite believe that something quite as witlessly regressive as this is being serialised on BBC1 at 9pm on Thursday nights. If nothing else, it should lay to rest the myth of the dominance of the liberal media – along with those other myths about intelligent media, challenging media, entertaining media and even just basically well thought through media.

And what now for me? Well, I’m off to get stuck into a script about a heroic crime solving heretic torturing demon fighting member of that wonderfully sympathetic organisation, the Spanish Inquisition – if I get it in front of whoever commissioned ‘Apparitions’, I’ll be a TV big shot before you know it…

Prog horror

Supernatural, Television

Normal service is officially on hold today. So, instead of the usual platitudes, here’s some groovy prog-comedy from the ever magnificent Matt Berry – some prog joy that sounds oddly like the gig I went to last night.

Horror followers will of course know MB as ‘Sanch’ from cult horror visionary Garth Marenghi’s deathless ‘Darkplace’ TV series – just as a reminder, I’ve dropped in the titles from that too. Who can forget the deathless tragi-horror of Skipper the Eye Child? Or the bleak curse of the Highlands? Or the searing romantic trauma of the broccoli from beyond time?

Enjoy, pilgrims…

X Factories

Culture, Music, Television

I used to quite enjoy the X-Factor (UK’s Pop Idol equivalent) audition round; the combination of the deluded, the talentless, the clearly taking-the-piss and the odd gem was just wonderful.

I think the first time I saw it was about when I was running a cabaret night down in Brixton – as a rule, I’d have booked the acts that the judges rejected most directly, because they tended to be the most eccentrically individual ones.

I didn’t have too much of a problem with judge harshness. They seemed to be pretty selective with their responses, and there always seemed to be an effective good cop / bad cop balance going on. So, when I turned on this year’s X Factor the other day, I thought I’d get half an hour or so of enjoyable mayhem.

Instead, I got bullying. Pre-selected acts were marched through to be shredded, directly and brutally. There was a coarseness and absolute lack of empathy I hadn’t seen before, combined with a lack of any sort of balance on the judging panel itself. I watched about five minutes, then turned over.

I’m sure I’m not the first blogger to rant about judge brutality on the X-Factor, and I certainly won’t be the last. But I suspect I’ll be one of the few to link it to the ethical problems implicit in 3 act narrative structure.

Let me explain. As I’m sure you know, three act narrative structure is the dominant modern model for building narratives. If you follow the classic Hollywood version of it, you use Act 1 to establish motivation (‘Luke wants to rescue Princess Leia’), Act 2 to frustrate achievement of that motivation (‘Luke can’t rescue her because of Darth Vader, the Death Star, etc’) and Act 3 to show what happens when that motivation is achieved (‘Luke blows up the Death Star, defeats Darth Vader, and rescues PL’).

Implicit in that structure is a very basic binary opposition – good vs evil. At the start of the story, somebody is shown to have a ‘good’ motivation. The action of the story is generated as the ‘good’ motivation is frustrated by ‘evil’ people or events. The protagonist’s triumph comes when he finally and absolutely overcomes ‘evil’, and his / her little moral universe is thus purged and rendered exclusively ‘good’.

What’s that got to do with the X-Factor? Well, within that structure only the good succeed and only the evil fail. Success itself becomes a basis on which to reach a full and final moral judgement on any given character. If you fail, you fail because you’re evil – you’re worth less than the protagonist, in a very real sense.

And that’s the morality that’s infected the X-Factor. Successful people judge failed people – and, because success gives automatic moral justification, they’re free to inflict any kind of humiliation on those in front of them. The failed X-Factor singers aren’t just bad singers; they’re flawed people, evil, representing the kind of weakness and failure that any true hero can and must leave behind.

And of course, in the X-Factor narrative, the true heroes do leave this perceived mire behind, rising up into another world of one-on-one engagement with Simon Cowell, Louis Walsh and the rest.

Subsequent episodes become a drama of detection; individual contestants are found out as impostors, not potential winners, but rather people who stand in the way of the final winner’s ascension. Deemed impure, they’re booted out until only unfrustrated goodness remains.

But that’s utter bollocks. The show isn’t a ritual of purification; rather, it’s a ritual of commodification, as the contestants are ruthlessly stripped back to reveal the most commercial performers. And ‘commercial’ as a category is very limited, aiming ruthlessly for that which is closest to the already successful. It demands repetition, not originality; homogeneity, not personality.

And that reflects back on three act narrative structure, too. Far from achieving ‘good’, its most simple (and therefore most common – for we live in a world that privileges the simple) variants achieve ‘smoothed over’, ‘polished’. Anything awkward is banished; anything complex is broken down into neat categories, until we’re left in a landscape that’s both a moral and an emotional pablum.

It’s a key problem of our modern culture that that pablum is taken to represent absolute moral truths, rather than a passing entertainment. Much as I didn’t enjoy the X-Factor, I have to admit that it shows us back to ourselves very effectively; bullying the weak from a position of absolute righteousness, and using the extent of that bullying as a measure of our virtue.

Made from clay

Gnosis, Television

And also, courtesy of Jeff Vandermeer’s blog, some heavy dark weirdness, as the Demiurge enters children’s TV through the Claymation window. Apparently – and unsurprisingly – this was banned for being too disturbing…

<EDIT> It’s from a film called ‘The Adventures of Mark Twain’, which according to IMDB is marvellous… another scene apparently features Twain playing the organ at his own funeral! I shall be looking out for it.

Big things exploding, forever

Narrative, Politics, Science Fiction, Television

I was reading about the militarization of space, and ended up pondering the militarization of science fiction TV. Take the Star Trek franchise, for example – a set of shows whose heroes are almost without exception members of the military, working compliantly within military structures to achieve the goals it sets for them.

Building on that, I went through the other military based / related SF shows I’ve seen. Immediate ones that sprung to mind were Babylon 5, Stargate SG-1, Andromeda, Battlestar Galactica, Quantum Leap, Timecop, The X-Files and Space: Above and Beyond.

These are some of the key US SF shows, and all of them support a view of society in which the military – or related civil institutions – represent the finest exemplars of that society, and are battling to preserve its coherence from one kind of threat or another.

There’s an implied worldview there that’s both fascinating and rather worrying. These are very popular shows. Their viewers (myself included) are clearly happy to buy uncritically into the concept of military or militarised action as the final solution to any problems in dealing with any external, ‘other’ threat.

That’s worrying, for obvious reasons – and it’s also one more symptom of our more general obsession with violence as entertainment. If TV has its way, we’ll all come to see the future as big things blowing each other up, out of a deep rooted and unchallengeable sense of personal righteousness; or, at a more intimate scale, agents of governance stepping in to solve problems before which civilians can only ever be passive.

The butcher’s apprentice

Film, Narrative, Rants, Television, Violence

I’m at home, watching trailers for upcoming movies on Five. Guns, fisticuffs – combat as a fundamental dramatic component. It’s so all-pervasive, you don’t notice it any more.

And I’m sick of it. Sick of the reduction of the subtle emotional conflicts inherent in drama to meatheaded literal battles; sick of the constant presentation of violence as a positive response to problematic situations; sick of the idiot miscalled-morality that can only respond to opposition with absolute destruction.

Encoded in violence-as-entertainment is a whole broken world view, over-brought in to a narrative structure that demands a frangible antagonist for every protagonist, and makes every hero an innocent victim of evil, a by-definition justified responder to a situation that’s been forced onto him or her, thus absolving them of any real moral responsibility for their actions.

This sickened externalisation of such a limited view of evil, this self-indulgent definition of the other as both dispensable and perpetually unjustified, is at the root of so much of the damage we do in the world, complaining about our own hurt while butchering by the thousand to re-confirm our brutally narrow, boneheaded definitions of what heroism is.

You want to hold up a mirror to up to the worst parts of what we are? Turn on the television, and watch endless butchery presented as narrative positivity, casual massacres as a constant solution to opposition. We are our obsessions – and, in the modern world, our obsessions are so brutally, perpetually present and exposed.

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.