‘Of Dawn’ out in Interzone 235

Much excitement at Allumination Towers as Interzone 235 has just come out. It includes my novella ‘Of Dawn’ – more details / buy a copy here. The story’s been rather beautifully illustrated by Richard Wagner, he’s caught its mood perfectly. Alas, this is the biggest version of it I could find; to get the full effect, snap up your copy of Interzone!

Of Dawn in Interzone 235

And of course, there’s a lot of music in the story. Some of the sounds that helped inspire it are name-checked in the story, but there’s some other very important stuff that (in the end) its protagonist Sarah didn’t run into. I thought I’d share some of it here…

That’s ‘Rattler’s Hey’ by Belbury Poly, from their album ‘The Owl’s Map’. They’re one of the Ghost Box roster of artists – strange and wonderful music from a strange and wonderful label, and a big inspiration for the story.

Brian’s hypnotic, evocative music is all too easy to lose yourself in – I’ve tried and failed to write about it directly, the best thing to do is just open up your mind and listen. Check out more of his work here at his website.

 

And finally, that’s ‘The Pheasant’ from Matt Berry’s mighty ‘Witchazel’ (imagine Ronnie Hazlehurst’s great lost pyschedelic soul album, and you’re part way there). For more, here’s his MySpace page – plus my ramblings about ‘The Badger’s Wake’, one of the album’s key songs, in a previous blog post.

Bruce Pennington exhibition at the Atlantis Bookshop

Well, much excitement at Allumination Towers as the other day I met Bruce Pennington! Even more excitingly, the Atlantis Bookshop will be hosting a major retrospective of his art in July and August. The exhibition catalogue website is now live, and stunning! There’s also going to be an interview with him in the next Fortean Times.

You may or may not know the name, but you’ll definitely know his work. He was the New English Library’s main cover illustrator in the early 70s – his images went a long way to defining what genre fiction looked like in its New Wave heyday.

Anyway, here’s the flyer for the exhibition – it’s got all the details you’ll need to go along and be astonished –

I’d only ever seen his work on scruffy, secondhand book jackets. While I was at the bookshop, I saw some of the limited edition prints they were preparing – seeing his images at full size, original colours blasting off the page, was remarkable. I suspect that the exhibition itself will be a cornucopia of wonderment – I for one can’t wait!

Oh, and finally, here’s the audioboo I recorded just after meeting him –

Bruce Pennington, secret hero of 70s Brit SF (mp3)

Psychedelia, empire and Matt Berry’s badger

 

If there’s one thing that Matt Berry’s ‘The Badger’s Wake’ (available on the the excellent album ‘Witchazel’) has been helping me think about, it’s how deeply English psychedelia is rooted in nostalgia. From Richard Dadd on, it’s been about looking backwards as much as forwards.

Again and again, key visionaries have gone diving into memory, and made that memory blazingly, impossibly real, while also being fully aware that the vision thus produced is built on something that has been lost before and will be lost again. The fairy’s shimmering gaze, remembered from childhood, refracted through adult eyes, can never make up for the father’s bloody death.

Understanding that is key to understanding why – harking back to childhood – Syd Barrett called The Pink Floyd’s first (and finest) album ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’. It’s the name of the chapter that gives ‘The Wind in the Willows’ its deeply peculiar heart; Pan’s first and most dazzling eruption into children’s literature, a deep invasion of a nation’s subconscious at a moment when the idea of defence has not even occurred to it. Here’s a very accurate (and rather well done) TV adaptation of that moment:

 

 

Ronald Hutton has written fascinatingly about the depth and resonance of that chapter’s impact, noting how it was key to the development of the belief system that would come to underpin modern English witchcraft. Witchcraft, of course, is a kind of magick; and magick of any kind shows us the psychedelic mind at its most militant, living out the belief that change can be imposed on the world through nothing more than the exercise of visionary will.

Of course, the English have already changed the world, most directly through centuries of empire. On the face of it, such dominion would seem to be a profoundly un-magickal exercise. And yet, the first theorist of empire was John Dee, the mage of Mortlake. Metaphysician to Queen Elizabeth I, he tried to understand how will could shape the world to an England-privileging vision.

In that context, empire becomes a practical outcome of a magickal intent. And there is indeed something uncanny in the con-trick that England would go on to play on the world. For the Empire was – in part – a conjuring trick; a sleight of hand that misdirected an audience of billions, a rigorously enforced hallucination that dazzled them with myths of English superiority.

There was, of course, a very different reality to see, if you knew where to look. Many did. Unable at the last to sustain the vision, empire fell. And – in that precise moment – English psychedelia exploded, creating the kaleidoscope that was the late 60s. The iconography of its key artefacts is fascinating.

As noted above, Syd Barrett looked back to childhood, dazing himself with its loss. Others turned back to another kind of innocence, living out a nostalgia for empire. The Beatles identified with the rank and file, and recast themselves as Sergeant Pepper’s band. Jimi Hendrix dressed himself in the martial rags of the Light Brigade. Even Rolf Harris joined in, uniting memory of childhood with memory of empire in the searingly peculiar ‘Two Little Boys’:

 

Any 60s Granny would have been born into Empire; now, half a century or so later, Granny Takes a Trip. More significantly in this context, I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet also dressed the decade’s children. The battered old imperial warhorse became an oddly natural psychedelic icon, his ‘your country needs you’ recast as a summons to metaphysical rather than muddy physical battlefields.

New psychedelic worlds were opening up, ripe for conquest; a direct response to a collapse in outward national reach. The youth of England had once had the world to risk themselves in, to win experience in. Such expansive adventuring was no longer possible, and so the quest turned inwards.

Unable to play in John Dee’s world, they sought to reach his angels instead, kissing the sky and then looking beyond it. Hendrix knew very well that a kiss is only the beginning of any seduction; that it can be a prelude to both invasion and occupation. ‘Is this tomorrow, or just the end of time?’ he went on to ask.

 

In many ways, it was better that – for the Empire – it was the end of time; that such a dangerous, damaging, limiting vision should have no tomorrows left to it. But such deep change included deep loss. ‘Am I happy or in misery? / Whatever it is, that girl put a spell on me.’ Britannia’s emotional pull remained strong and profoundly disturbing, even as her temporal power ebbed.

Hence the nostalgia inherent in English psychedelia. Seen in this light, the English psychedelic period becomes a brilliant gravestone. It was an attempt to retool imperial machinery to conquer, colonise and control inner worlds, to make up for the loss of nation defining levels of power in this outer world. And – as had always been the case – such machinery was a mixed blessing. Some returned with riches; others were blasted and fell by the wayside.

Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Gate of a Thousand Sorrows’ is a key text here, showing us a man lost and broken, two thousand light years from home. Geographical alienation within empire has led to psychedelic alienation within the self. Kipling’s stream of consciousness is a remarkable foreshadowing of the ways that 60s vision questers could so comprehensively lose themselves.

Kipling predicted English psychedelia in its gentler, more pastoral form too. There are books like ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’ – and then, there’s his short story ‘They’. It’s one of the most haunting in the English language.

It begins with a man who has known deep loss, motoring through the landscape; getting his head together in the country. It ends as he comes to a profoundly moving awareness that he can know the past; that he can be touched by it; that it can be for a moment entirely real; but that that reality can only ever be temporary, and will always be lost. Vision is as mortal as anything else. Every second is finite. The end of time is always happening now.

And with that, a return to Matt Berry’s set-haunted song (as a footnote – Dadd believed himself to have been maddened by Osiris – I can’t help thinking it should have been Set). Badgers are a deep English icon, far less problematic than bulldogs or St George. There’s a powerful quietness to them, a strength that contains wisdom and patience rather than command and control. In ‘The Wind in the Willows’, Badger is the wisest and most senior of animals.

Berry’s badger taps into this tradition. It lies at the heart of a wonderfully-evoked pastoral, a visionary dream of rural England. It’s the kind of landscape that fever thrashed Subalterns would dream of; that – in 1982 – Syd Barrett would head back into for good, walking fifty miles out of London to at last escape the dark heart of the post-imperial trip. Many others made – or tried to make – similar journeys.

And yet – in the most powerful response to such pastorals I can imagine – Berry’s badger is dead. The song is explicitly a wake, and its subject is not the conjuration of a vision, but the impossibility of sustaining it. This was something Syd Barrett understood, too. He spent most the latter part of his life making artworks that he would then destroy. Visions happen in time, and time dies.

‘The Badger’s Wake’ is a less oblique statement of the same conclusion. It nails the wistfulness at the heart of English psychedelia, and opens the door to an understanding of the deep and complex sense of loss that underpinned it. For me, that makes it one of the finest pieces of English psychedelic music since John Dee first talked with the angels, and then went on to seed the dream that was empire.

A poem for Kenneth Rexroth

Yes, there is always poetry
lending meaning from language
to us, this world. Yes, there is art
and here is the world, and us;
here before each poem, then after
changed and unchanged. I think of lava,
how Kenneth Rexroth described it –
here and no more. Burning into stone
as if fluid vision can become
cold rock, boring into eternity.
Yes, there is always poetry
and here is this world, and us
running through the words we leave
as if lava were so much water
each letter a failure to hold the flow,
the flow a failure to stop and perceive.

I wrote this last night, then posted it on posterous. I thought I’d put it up here (with two slight emendations) today. It’s very much inspired by reading Kenneth Rexroth – I’m deep in his Collected Shorter Poems just now, and loving his determination to respond to the world as it is, in the moments that he perceives it. This poem came in particular out of reading ‘Lyell’s Hypothesis Again’.

My heart is full of the pain of disco

It’s the way of great writing to bend the world to its own shape. And so, having spent yesterday lunchtime sketching out thoughts for a review of Erik Davis‘Nomad Codes’, I found myself last night at the Tallow Chandlers’ Hall, watching a combined Bollywood lecture / series of clips / song and dance extravaganza. I can’t think of anything that could have more convincingly brought some of his key themes to life.

First of all, a little background. ‘Nomad Codes’ collects essays and articles written over the last twenty years or so. And the Tallow Chandlers is one of the oldest social networks around. It’s one of the Livery Guilds of the City of London, originally formed to regulate the city’s tallow candle trade.

Founded in about 1300, it received its grant of arms in 1456. The hall we were sat in last night was built in 1672, after the original building was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. Alas, tallow chandlery is no longer the profitable business it once was; the Tallow Chandlers are now mostly a charitable and social organisation, though some trade links remain.

The Tallow Chandlers Guild is a deep, ancient structure that remains vividly present and dynamic in modernity; an effective metaphor for much of the religious thinking that Davis excavates in ‘Nomad Codes’. His easy, confident familiarity with Gnosticism, Manicheism, Tibetan and Mahayana Buddhism, and many other more or less occult religious traditions rings through the book, bringing each to life in a way that both respects their deep roots and acknowledges their modern relevance and (in many cases) vitality.

But that sense of separate religious structures isn’t what’s at the heart of the book. Davis is animated not by separate histories, but by colliding narratives. In one of the book’s central perceptions, he confronts our current problem of multiplicity and steps beyond it, defining a ‘networked spirituality’ as an emergent property of the multicultural barrage that is modernity. He describes how:

‘the mix-and-match spirituality derided by traditionalists is only the surface of a far more supple and dynamic synthesis in the making, one that demands a form of being we have only begun to intuit: open-ended and integral, embodied and viridian-green. This path is a matrix of paths, with no map provided at the onset, and no collective goal beyond the tenacity and grace of our step.’
(from ‘Meditating in Sensurround’, Nomad Codes p.187)

The solution to multiplicity is a kind of dynamic synthesis; the following of an interstitial path that acknowledges and respects all spiritual achievement, without finding itself locked into single mode of engagement with the eternal. Eternity, after all, is infinite; it seems entirely reasonable to look for it by stepping beyond the finite.

That sense of dynamic synthesis struck me forcefully as I listened to last night’s music, and watched last night’s dance. Each was a series of collisions that again and again locked themselves into ferocious, miraculous grooves.

Synthesisers, electric bass and electric guitars throbbed over sitars and tablas; Western and Eastern musics combined, with no critical judgement of either being made beyond one immensely practical question. ‘Will this work?’ you could hear musicians asking, again and again – and then, joyously, again and again the music roared back ‘YES!’.

The night’s three dancers had a similar, resplendent spontaneity to them. Chatting with two of them, Ash Mukherjee and Showmi Das, at the end of the evening (the third, Khavita Kaur Rendhawa, had alas left) I discovered that they’d only met for the first time that afternoon, and had improvised much of the evening’s dance in response to the unusually long, narrow space they had to work in.

That sense of surprise explained the immense exploratory freshness that animated their performances. It’s also at the heart of the spirituality that Davis advocates in his book. I know it works, because I saw it danced last night, and I’ve lived it myself, improvising music out of terrified on-stage ecstasies with the Stella Maris Drone Orchestra. It’s alive in ‘Nomad Codes’, too, leaping joyfully out of each new essay, each new perception.

Then, there’s Davis’ sense of technology. That’s fundamental to his understanding of religion; in fact, ‘Techgnosis’, his first book, dealt at length with the collision between the two. I’m not sure if he’d agree that the medium is the message; but he’s certainly very aware that the medium contains the message, and thus plays a fundamental role in defining both what’s transported, and how it transports.

And one final point worth noting; Davis’ awareness of the way that (as he quotes Philip K. Dick) ‘the symbols of the divine show up in the trash stratum’. Davis brings this out in his discussions of Dick, H. P. Lovecraft, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and other driven pulp visionaries. It’s a great description of Bollywood action, too; melodramatic pulp madness that contains and creates great, deep and very genuine emotion, wonder and awe.

So, in summary – I’m going to spend the next few months exploring Bollywood movies. Last night’s talk was given by Rachel Dwyer – her ‘100 Bollywood Films’ should be an invaluable guide. I’m going to try and see some Indian dance on-stage. And it goes without saying that I’d strongly recommend picking up a copy of ‘Nomad Codes’ – a rich, fascinating and hugely rewarding read.

A Vanishing

Waking in the morning
to the tumbling of a stream
outside my shining window
and the dreams I had recede
like strangers, met on the road.
I think of stories of hitchers
buckling their seatbelts, pale in the night
picked up perhaps at a crossroads
perhaps at a cemetery gate
who talk of nothing much, but when
the driver pulls up at the place
that they have named as their home
and turns – they are gone – and too late
you know the unknown
has touched you, there on the way
travelling through dark to the dawn.

I’ve posted this new poem as yesterday was National Poetry Day. It was inspired by urban myths of phantom hitchhikers, which have always fascinated me. Wikipedia has a very comprehensive entry on the phenomenon – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanishing_hitchhiker.

Worlds of anthologies, anthologies of worlds

Well, it’s been an exciting few weeks from a writerly point of view. I’ve finished a first draft of the next novel (working title ‘Crashing Heaven’, but I suspect that will change), drafted a novella, had a wonderful – and very productive – time at this year’s Milford Writers’ Workshop, and have the launch of ‘The Immersion Book of SF’ (with my story ‘Golden’ in it, plus fiction from Tanith Lee, Lavie Tidhar, Aliette de Bodard, Chris Butler and others) to look forward to on Friday.

More later on Milford, and hopefully you’ll see both novella and novel in print sometime soon. Instead of going into detail on them, I thought I’d write a little about ‘The Immersion Book of SF’, as some comments that editor Carmelo Rafala makes in his introduction have been resonating with me quite deeply.

The Immersion Book of SF

He describes wanting to put together an anthology ‘where each story was so vastly different from the other, that I felt like I’d visited a dozen or so different worlds by the time I’d put the book down’. In doing so, he hopes that he’s put together ‘a collection… as varied and entertaining as those I’d read when I was a youth’.

I grew up reading both the more formally recognised classics, and whatever pieces of genre mayhem I could get my hands on. The latter came to me in a variety of ways, often quite accidentally, and usually in anthologies of one kind or another. As Carmelo says, they were a great way of reading very widely, very quickly, and thus discovering just how many different subjects genre fiction could cover, and how many effects it could achieve within them.

My junior school library had stacked issues of 50s educational mag ‘Look and Learn’, buried in boxes. Each one contained a couple of pages of astonishing comic ‘The Trigan Empire’, plus various other marvellous bits and pieces. 2000AD was basically a weekly compendium of wondrous (and highly intelligent) weirdness.

My local library was well stocked with vintage fantasy and SF compilations. I found my favourite book of horror stories (a huge, superbly edited anthology from the 60s) in a jumble sale somewhere. It cost me 50p, and gave me at least ten years’ reading pleasure, if not more. And of course there were the various OUP and Virago ghost story anthologies – Christmas presents from my folks (thank you!).

Anyway, all this vaguely Proustian recollection has a point. I owe my passion for genre fiction as much to this slightly random collection of anthologies as to any more formal reading plan. And so it’s hugely exciting to think that a story of mine is going off into the world in a modern version of one of those collections; and that someone might come on that anthology, either buying it new, or pulling it off a library shelf, or in a jumble sale somewhere, and find in it the kind of formative thrill I found in all those books, all those years ago.

And of course, if you want to explore those strange new worlds yourself, you can pick up your own copy of ‘The Immersion Book of SF’, right here… Happy voyaging!

Tracking down the Mirage Men

Mark Pilkington is one of the few people I know who can genuinely say that they’ve broken people’s religions. He was an active crop circler in the late 90s and early 00s; his calm and careful descriptions of the truths of circle making has disrupted the reality of more than one person who’s built belief systems around either the supernatural or superplanetary origins of the phenomenon.

Now, he’s doing the same for UFOs. His new book, ‘Mirage Men’, documents his journey into the heart of the tangled web of information – and disinformation – that surrounds the saucery folk who’ve spent the last fifty years or so mysteriously invading our airspace. Without any trace of cynicism or negativity, it at once challenges the UFOlogical world’s more optimistic excesses, and highlights some fascinating mysteries of its own.

At heart, ‘Mirage Men’ is a history book. However, it doesn’t record UFO appearances; rather, it’s an exploration of the growth of the mythology that encounters with UFOs have created – a subtle but important difference. The question that drives the book is ‘cui bono?’. Rather than seeking to establish the truth – or otherwise – of UFO encounters themselves, Pilkington seeks to understand the uses to which UFO mythology has been put, and the extent to which those uses have defined its shape and development.

His answers are enthralling and disturbing in equal measure. The book traces the very direct involvement of various US intelligence agencies with the development and dissemination of UFO mythology, from World War II to the present day. It sets that involvement within the context of political struggles between intelligence agencies and the various arms of the armed forces; it describes various documented yet under-publicised technological advances that provide convincingly earthbound explanations for many classic UFO events; and it successfully redefines much UFO activity and mythology as a kind of spook theatre, deliberately designed to deflect hostile attention from highly secret flight testing and espionage activities.

These wider histories are set against a variety of more personal narratives. Accompanied by documentarist John Lundberg, Pilkington meets and explores the histories of various key figures stationed at the borders of the cosmic and the top secret. These range from charming arch-manipulators to tragic disinformation victims. The role of each within the development of wider UFO narratives is carefully explored, bringing to the advantages, motivations, and hazards of involvement with the UFO phenomenon very personally to life.

And of course, by observing, Pilkington himself becomes an actor. At one point, certain sections of US UFOdom become convinced that he’s an MI6 agent; at another, US intelligence operatives seem to be actively trying to recruit him. And of course, one fascinating question underlies much of the information that the book passes on; to what extent is Pilkington himself being used to manage the UFO myth, and move it in useful new directions?

Room is also left for a healthy dose of awe. Pilkington convincingly demonstrates that modern UFO myth cycles have been developed and directed by very specific groups of people, to achieve very specific goals. However, summoned or not, the god will always be present; here, too, traces of the genuinely inexplicable linger. ‘Mirage Men’ does an excellent job of bringing UFOs down to earth; but, in the final analysis, it is also open-minded enough to admit that room for the impossible remains, and that genuinely astonishing, paradigm shattering truths may yet remain to be discovered out there.

In summary, then, it’s a great read, and well worth checking out. For more information on it, visit the book’s blog here – and to pick up a copy, go straight to amazon. For more on Mark’s activities as a publisher, here’s the Strange Attractor site.

At Lesnes Abbey

I’ve made a pilgrimage way beyond Canary Wharf, to Lesnes Abbey, in East London. Before finding the ruins, I lost myself in the neighbouring Abbey Woods. They’re very ancient; there’s a strong sense of the numinous there, of the close presence of a specifically English, and very primal divinity.

Less so at the Abbey. There’s a group of people playing football, a man teaching his small son and daughter cricket. Gothic buildings lie in ruins, their intensity replaced by everyday joys. A walking party comes by, discussing history. Religion is a memory here; a soft counterpoint to the vivid life of the surrounding woods.

On Britishness

I recently took part in the BSFA’s British Science Fiction & Fantasy survey, which led to the publication of a rather nifty little book comparing genre self-perception now and 20 years ago – more details here.

The book was edited by Niall Harrison and Paul Kincaid; they’ve done an excellent job of picking out interesting survey responses, and weaving them into a text which both once reaches clearly defined conclusions, and encourages further consideration and debate. One of his key concerns is to understand just what Britishness means to genre writers working in the UK.

To celebrate publication, I thought I’d post my answer to his question about Britishness in full, here on the blog. So:

Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?

That’s a difficult question to answer. I’d say probably that everything I write tends to be rather depressive (either the world gets destroyed, or the protagonist dies, or both), and to have a strongly interior focus; the weird elements are usually amplifying metaphors for whatever’s going on emotionally or thematically in the story. I’m not sure that these are exclusive properties of British genre fiction, though.

On reflection, for me the most purely British genre moments don’t come in fiction. They’d be Delia Derbishire’s original orchestration of the Doctor Who theme:

the ‘flashbacks to a Martian hive cleansing’ sequence in Nigel Kneale’s ‘Quatermass and the Pit’:

and Christina Rossetti’s sensationally peculiar poem, ‘Goblin Market’.

Of them, the first two combine deep and entirely convincing visionary reach with a sense of having been patched together with double sided sticky tape, papier mache, and whatever else is to hand. They feel very low-tech, and entirely personal – the product of deep personal need and craft, fulfilled in a Neasden back room rather than a Swiss laboratory, an LA film studio or the board room of a Japanese zaibatsu.

There’s something very British about that; as Ballard knew so well, it’s the obsessed achievements of the suburban imagination that are our tomorrow. Come to think of it, that sense of an entirely convincing, menacingly peculiar science fiction that was also clearly built in a shed comes out beautifully in Doctor Who classic ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’.

And of course, there’s ‘Goblin Market’ – a wonderful poem, clearly fascinated by and soused in the deep matter of rural Britain, but also one that refuses to finally draw the bleak and terrifying conclusions that it is so clearly leading up to.

For most of the way, it’s a truly odd tale of the Fair Folk, fruit addiction, and late Victorian twin sisters; but it resolves with a deeply conventional, deeply unconvincing, deeply sentimental ‘if sisters love each other, everything will be ok’ finale (in fact, my story ‘Changeling’ is in part an attempt to write a truer conclusion to it). Rossetti repressed the poem’s true conclusion – there’s something very British, too, about that repression.

Having said that, I get the feeling that there’s much really interesting genre work worldwide that just doesn’t get translated into English. Not having read any of it, it’s difficult to say how British writing might compare with it, and thus what might in fact be specifically British about the SF / Fantasy written within these borders.