Eastercon 2009 – few panels, much chat, all good

The journey up

Well, H and I drove up on the Friday, and got very bogged down indeed in traffic. Hey ho, it comes with the Bank Holiday territory. On the plus side, we mastered a new technique for comfortable eating in overcrowded roadside restaurants – just cross to the other side of the motorway! Of course, we still had to eat at KFC, but at least it didn’t feel like we were dining with several football stadia’s worth of stressed drivers and their families.

And I am going to draw a veil over the pan-dimensional hell experience that is trying to find a central Bradford hotel in the insanity that is their one way system. I have seen the face of the blind idiot god Azathoth, carved out in Yorkshire streets, etc. Of course, once we found the hotel the idiot piping stopped and everything seemed to go back to normal.

The one and a half panels I made it to

Well, embarrassingly, I only made it to one full panel, and half of another one. I blame the venue; being quite small, and quite social, it was impossible to go for more than five steps without bumping into someone you could have a Really Interesting Conversation with, and then getting completely distracted. So here’s my 1.5 panel report:

Panel A – A fascinating panel on why writers’ groups are worthwhile, with Tim Powers, Anna Feruglio Dal Dan, and Chaz Brenchley, expertly moderated by Maura McHugh – made me realise that you don’t go to them to be critiqued, but rather to learn how to critique; to help become an accurate editor of your own work, and to be able to help others to write better. As ever, you only learn how to get better yourself by giving to others along the way.

Also, much interesting discussion of self publishing, which helped me understand the big difference between fiction that’s self-published out of a sense of grievance – ‘there’s a conspiracy against my genius’ – and fiction that’s self published to be part of a fan or a social group.

That fan / social group perception also underlay Chaz Brenchley’s comment that ‘the ivory tower model [of writing] is no longer sustainable’. He doesn’t think it’s possible to be a successful writer by just sitting on your own and typing any more; you have to be out there, actively working to build up a readership – as he does, here.

And finally, Tim Powers revealed his secret tip for writing motivation – ‘guilt and fear’. Good to know…

Panel B – A rather interesting panel on pacifism in science fiction, with Farah Mendelsohn, Nick Harkaway, Kim Lakin Smith and Sam Kelly. For my money, if you go pacifist, you wipe out about 75% of the canon. Others disagree, and say 90%. Anyway, some very interesting commentary, tho’ sadly I had the classic problem of not having read many of the books discussed. Hey ho, all good suggestions for when the book hoard has diminished a bit.

One interesting thought results – that SF is frequently really a literature of colonialism, rather than of warfare; perhaps explaining its success in Western Europe and America, the two great colonial regions of our age. And that ‘Starship Troopers’ is basically ‘Zulu’, only with a little more context.

Ken Macleod also made a fascinating comment – ‘SF has encoded into it a set of assumptions that we can eventually have peace without pacifism’. A core duplicity, I would have thought, and a perception that definitely bears further pondering.

The Tim Powers keynote

At least I made it to one of the keynotes, tho’ I do have to admit *full disclosure* that it was only because I happened to bump into various folk on their way there, and was swept along in their slipstream.

Anyway, it was very enjoyable indeed; Tim Powers at once witty, erudite, and wise, while also managing to look like a Kyle Mclachlan / Robert Vaughn gene splicing experiment. Cool! I have a new role model. Anyway, highlights include:

TP on being young and knowing Phillip K. Dick: ‘It was instructive for us to see how a real writer actually lived… you’d be living in low rent zip codes and driving cars that people laughed at as you went by’ – well, I’ve always driven Rovers (thanks to Uncle Bill and the Rover garage he used to run) so I’ve got the second one sorted at any rate.

A TP learning from PKD: ‘You need to have your characters have a job… They’re going to have to get the day off work to go fight the [alien space] squids… his characters were always worrying about the state of their tyres, and how much gas there was in the tank.’

TP also helped me confirm why I don’t like ‘The Anubis Gates’. I seem to be the only geek on the planet who was underwhelmed by it (I thought it was a patchwork of sources that never quite gelled into something fully credible and coherent); apparently it was two other books combined, and was also disliked by Lester Del Rey. So I feel a little more justified in my underwhelmment.

The BSFA Awards

Well, once again, I hadn’t read all the books on offer.  So comments will alas be limited. On the plus side, great to see Ted Chiang take the best short story award; Farah Mendlesohn’s ‘Rhetorics of Fantasy’ a worthy non-fiction winner; and thoroughly enjoyed the Newman Mcauley Overdrive that powered the opening sections of the ceremony.

Oh, and I got to witness MacLeeOddGate, which was both a rather wonderful moment in itself and a reminder that British English is both deeply idiosyncratic and frequently utterly illogical. If only everyone had seen ‘Highlander’! Then these things just wouldn’t happen…

The drunken conversations I had

Well, an embarrassingly large number, because I was rather merry quite frequently. But then again, that is part of the point of the con. So, a lot of chatting with old friends, and making new ones. I’m going to draw a veil over the specifics – is the world really ready for Conan Doyle the Barbarian, and other such horrors? – and leave it at –

Hello everyone! Lovely to see you!

*waves through the screen like a cheerful Japanese ghost movie villain*

The books bought

OK, so not such a huge list as – with the credit crunch etc – I was being frugal. But I couldn’t resist picking up:

Paul Kincaid – ‘What it is we do when we read science fiction’ – always good to pick up a new crit, and given that I’m winding up to write a science fiction novel this seemed to be the one to get. Already fascinating on Gene Wolfe; I’m looking forward to reading the rest of it.

Daniel Fox – ‘Dragon in Chains’ – Now this is driving me nuts, because I read a stunning review of it somewhere the other day, but for the life of me I can’t remember where! It does look rather wonderful – and freshly signed by the author himself. Can’t wait!

Toby Frost – ‘Space Captain Smith’ – The first of a series, and it promises to be wildly enjoyable steampunk mayhem… Huzzah!

The sad news

While whizzing round the dealer’s room on Sunday, I stopped to say hi to Eric of the Fantasy Centre. Alas, they’re closing! Bit of a shock, and very sad. More details here – when I get a moment I’ll be nipping down there to say hi and find out what’s going on.

The journey back

Having watched ‘Red Riding’ the other week, I was glad we could leave Yorkshire without being bafflingly fitted up for something horrific by various brutal people who smoke a lot. But not glad to leave Bradford, as in the end it was a lovely, friendly town with excellent curries and much good con fun. But hey…

A nice easy drive down, back here by 8.30pm, and general post-con collapse! Then a slow Monday mostly taken up by building the new BBQ. So that’s Eastercon 2009…

Breakfast in Albertopolis

Good morning all! And first of all, apologies for disappearing for a bit – it’s been a hectic few weeks of settling into the new place, and generally getting things sorted out. Secondly, much excitement, as new stories have hit the streets.

Online, my story ‘Fallen’, which is a stonepunk mini-epic that implicates the Mayans in the development of city-sized macroprocessors, and ponders just what that might mean for a bored young archaeo-hacker.

It’s available here, along with other stories from the Science Museum Writer’s Workshop and Tony White’s groovy steampunk piece, which both resurrects James Colvin and re-imagines South Kensington as Albertopolis.

Tony also talks about his time as Writer in Residence at the Science Museum, and describes the process by which he brought other writers together to workshop stories into being.

In print, ‘Fishermen’ is out in Interzone, with a bang-on illustration by Geoffrey Grisso. And it’s a fantastic issue in general, well worth picking up, with stories from Bruce Sterling, Matthew Kressel, Paul M. Berger and others.

Oh, and if you’re a BSFA member, you’ll have had ‘Sohoitis’ in the post, reprinted in the Postscripts BSFA sampler special along with work from Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Gene Wolfe, Ramsey Campbell, Joe Hill, and more

A little housekeeping

Well, the move is complete, and I’m all settled into the new place, so life – and blogging – begins again. And, more generally, much excitement as my story ‘Changeling’ is available in the current Black Static, and I’ve just heard that ‘Fishermen’ has just gone to print in Interzone 221 – out in a few weeks. And of course, ‘Sohoitis’ is still available in Postscripts. More news soon on the groovy stonepunk story, and something neo-Lovecraftian is crawling squamously towards being ready for submission. More news as it happens – but for now, keep watching the skies! Etc.

Friedman, Capitalism and Fantasy

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.

The Spiders of Instruction

Watching first ‘The Fly’ and then ‘Island of Lost Souls’ – the first the original 50s shocker, the second the classic 1933 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’, starring Charles Laughton as the titular doctor – was a shocking experience, because both end in scenes of the blackest nightmare.

In ‘Lost Souls’, Moreau is forcibly – and amateurishly – dissected by the beast men that he has himself created; in ‘The Fly’, the minute man-fly – pale human head and arm emerging from black chitin, small buzzing voice wailing ‘Help me! Help me!’ – is trapped in a web and bitten at by a spider, before both are squashed with a rock by an utterly horrified policeman.

But in both cases these moments of horror precede a resetting of the balance, a return to the normal. With the death of Moreau and the burning of his island lab, his experiments are rendered un-reproducable and (it’s assumed) their man-beast results are all destroyed. With the destruction of the man-fly, the only remaining end-product of Delambre’s scientific work is smashed; he has himself earlier broken all his equipment, one of his last sane acts before he became a rapacious, inhuman fly-man.

Looked at from this point of view, each ending resolves as near perfect tragedy. The shocks that sprang from each scientist’s tragic flaw are resolved; the by-products of those flaws are erased from the world, if not from the mind. The remaining characters – and the audience, come to that – are left sadder, but wiser; silent in safer, but also very clear diminished, worlds. Implicit in each scientist’s fall is the force for good that their work could have represented; that possibility, too, has gone.

But that possibility had in fact been eradicated long before the end of the film. Moreau’s comment on the ultimate futility of his attempts to raise animals to the level of man – ‘the beast creeps back in and begins to assert itself again’ – could be read as the subtext for both movies; but that subtext expresses itself in very different ways in each film.

In ‘Lost Souls’, the beast is Moreau’s own overweening ego. Beginning with whimsical experiments with asparagus and various flowers, he ends by creating a race specifically designed to worship him. Science can give man a sense of god-like power over nature; Moreau falls headlong into the moral trap that that represents, lacking the strength of mind to see himself as only ever fallible, only ever human. But nature triumphs; at the end of the film, he’s brought face to face with his very human limits, in the most direct and painful way imaginable.

Oddly, ‘The Fly’ is a harsher film; odd because it’s protagonist, unlike Moreau, is brought low by no great moral failing. It’s pure chance that the fly ends up in the teleporter with him; and his struggle against his new, insect self is powerfully shown. He remains a good man, right to the end, always battling the insect inside himself. But there is no escaping the consequences of his actions, and he ends by dying twice – once as fly-man, and once – horrifyingly – as man-fly; in both cases, his death is suffused with a sense of regret and injustice.

That sense of injustice is what makes the film so bleak. ‘Lost Souls’ shows us a pitfall of scientific enquiry, but doesn’t imply that all scientists could fall; rather, it shows us what happens to an atypical researcher, a brilliant man lacking a certain moral compass. ‘The Fly’ implies that research itself will lead to horror; that – inevitably – chance will throw a spanner in the works, turning the potentially revolutionary into the always destructive.

Darker by far than its 30s brother, ‘The Fly’ despairs of the possibility of safe progress beyond a certain point. Dr Moreau is flawed, but adult; ‘The Fly’ implies that scientists are little more than children, playing with tools far more dangerous than they could ever know or take full precautions against.

At the end of all scientific enquiry – it’s implied – is a reduction in scale, a Lovecraftian understanding of our true, insignificant place in the universe, of the impossibility of our ever achieving effective, constructive agency within it. The helpless enquirer can only ever become a fly; tangled in the web of truth, all that can be done is to pray for oblivion before the spiders of instruction reach and painfully break you.

Hypnotic ways of passing time

Well, a quick musical post. First of all, just been doing some housekeeping and added the Graan website to my blogroll – if you haven’t already, check out music we’ve made here, from where you can also get to our Myspace page. Secondly, I’ve come across this rather lovely combination of puzzle game and music creator, and thought I’d spread the word. Enjoy!

Aliens, invasions, and the act of reading

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.

A gig, a story, an interview and the apocalypse…

First of all, Happy New Year all! An enjoyable and productive 2009 to all.

Secondly, a gig, a story and an interview. Graan are ringing in the New Year at A Music Club this Thursday 8th January – as ever, I’ll be adding spoken word to the heavy sounds, jah? Sehr gut. Also, my short story ‘Sohoitis’ – a psychedelic tale of drunken Soho gods, inspired by the ever-magnificent Julian Maclaren Ross – is now available in the latest Postscripts. And finally, my interview with Nebula Award winner Ted Chiang has gone live at the Nebula site.

And on weird pondering – H and I have just sat down to John Carpenter’s utterly compelling ‘Prince of Darkness’. On rewatching it, I was very struck by how interestingly it riffs on (amongst others) Nigel Kneale’s 70s masterpiece ‘The Stone Tapes’. But I’ve also just downed a bottle of wine, and on this cold, late night my lovely hot bath calls, so more on this in the next post…

Alas Davey Graham

Sad news today, as I see in The Guardian that Davey Graham has died. He was a (in very broad terms) a folk musician, drawing on everything from Bach to Indian ragas in the 60s to create something devastatingly new. No space here to do him justice – check out the obituary in The Guardian, but before you do that here he is in the late 60s piece ‘Cain’s Film’, about Alex Trocchi:

And here again in a noir-ish feature film, as Edward Fox does moody:

Here he is playing ‘Cry Me a River’ in the clip that first introduced him to the public:

And here he is being genuflected to on ‘Folk Britannia’:

tho’ to be honest, I wish on that last one they’d just shut up and let him play.


We gig Friday

Well, continuing my tradition of only announcing gigs on here at the last minute, a quick one to let you know that I’m performing spoken word with Graan at the Klinker this Friday 15th. The night begins at 8.30pm, at Tottenham Chances, 399 High Road, London N17 6QN – nearest tubes Tottenham Hale / 7 Sisters. Listen to a couple of test runs for the night here (I’m on the A tracks, Stellas vocalist Tim is on the T track) – otherwise, see you there. You’ll know me, because I’ll probably be looking like this (ta Zali for pic):

Moi reading at Voices of Experience in November
Moi reading at Voices of Experience in November