Friday, 30 September 2011

Ra Page & Magda Raczyńska (eds), Lemistry. A Celebration of the Work of Stanisław Lem (2011)

I can't review this title (much as I would like to) because I'm in it; but I can plug it, and more importantly urge and exhort you to seek out the extraordinary, brilliant writing of Lem himself. So, go on: buy a copy (I've been paid the fee for my small contribution and get no share of royalties, so accept this as a disinterested recommendation). It's in three parts: the first being three hitherto-unavailable-in-the-UK short stories by Lem himself (all very ably translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones). The second, longest portion of the volume is original fiction by Frank Cottrell Boyce, Toby Litt, Annie Clarkson, the marvellous Ian Watson, Trevor Hoyle, er, me, Piotr Szulkin, the legendary Brian Aldiss, sarah Schofield, Wojciech Orlinkski, the excellent Adam Marek, Sean O'Brien and Jacek Dukaj. Some of these writers aim to reproduce, with expert, living pastiche, the authentic Lemmy tone (which is ace-of-spadestastic, of course); others, including me, work more broadly within a Lemmish or Lemic or Lemony mode. The final section is a fascinating series of non-fictional responses to Lem, including a very good essay by Andy Sawyer that starts to get to the bottom of Lem's uniqueness and enduring appeal.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading (1935)

Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading (Priglashenie na kazn’, 1935; English version 1959) is—amongst other things—a far future fantasy. The protagonist Cincinnatus C. has been sentenced to death for an obscure crime (to do with the unusual nature of his being-in-the-the-world rather than for any act he has omitted or committed) and spends the whole of the novel in his prison cell: recalling his earlier life, contemplating his situation, visited by various people. You might call the work ‘Kafkaesque’ save only that, tonally speaking, it is completely unlike that Czech-deutsch master. Instead of Kafka’s deliberately attenuated, tartly bitter dark comedy, Nabokov’s idiom is a rapturous richness and fullness. And the novel is science fiction, a fact rarely noted.

Cincinnatus’ world is a rather old-fashioned place, civilised according to an early 20th-century Mitteleuropean style. Nevertheless the novel refers at several places to a more technologically-advanced deep past. The town keeps a ‘venerable, decrepit aeroplane, with motley patches on its rusted wings.’
There was in town a certain man, a pharmacist, whose great grandfather, it was said, had left a memoir describing how merchants used to go to China by air. [38]
No longer, though. In this novel ‘time gently dozes.’ Cincinnatus reads an antique magazine and is amazed at the plush life his ancestors lived:
That was a remote world where the simplest objects sparkled with youth and an in-born insolence, proceeding from the reverence that surrounded the labour devoted to their manufacture. Those were years of universal fluidity; well-oiled metals performed silent soundless acrobatics; the harmonious lines of men’s suits were dictated by the unheard-of limberness of muscular bodies; the flowing glass of enormous windows curved around corners of buildings; a girl in a bathing suit flew like a swallow so high over a pool that it seemed no larger that a saucer; a high-jumper lay supine in the air, having already made such an extreme effort that, if it were not for the flaglike folds of his shorts, he would seem to be in lazy repose; and water ran, glided endlessly; the gracefulness of falling water, the dazzling details of bathrooms; the satiny ripples of the ocean with a two-winged shadow falling on it. [43]
This is a familiar trope from SF of course: the present seen from the perspective of a notional future and so reimagined. But I don’t know of any SF writer who treats it quite like Nabokov does here. This is not just because the language so gorgeously recreates the images under description—(that high-jumper!)—although it does; but rather because where most SF writers are interested only in the minutiae of the content of their imagined worlds, Nabokov’s description engages the medium, time, directly, by balancing atemporal form against formless endless fluidity. On the one hand the timelessly frozen (the diver, the athlete) in mid-action; on the other, the water.  It's a Nabokovian Dying Earth or Book Of The New Sun, and as intensely poetically SF in its precise imagism as all Nabokov.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

M D Lachlan, Wolfsangel (2010), Fenrir (2011)


Hwæt! Ic novela cyst secgan wylle,
hwæt mē árǽdatte tō midre nihte,
syðþan cildren reste wunedon.
Þūhte mē þæt ic gesāwe syllicre wulf
on bóc áwritan, lēohte langtwidig,
bóc-fantasia beorhtost. Eall þæt átellanung wæs
begoten blódgéotende; wulfas stōdon
fægere æt foldan scēatum, swylce þær þríe wæron:
Vali and Felig, lífgetwinnan, Adisla gefǽmne
Behēoldon þær þríe wulfsengel dryhtnes ealle:
werwulfen ofer moldan, ond eall þēos mære gesceaft.



Þys boke ys issue and generacioun of þe moost-praysed saga of wulfmen & Norsmen ycleppit Wulfesangelus, verilye þe howlinge soule of Fantasia binden bitween two boords. Ne better boke ypublisht was, nor ys, þeis yere or þe last of þe fascion or matter of Fantasy; and newist þe facte of fulle disenclosure (for þe auctor ys freend to mee and myne) shd gif ye stynt nor pause but to buyen þes boke wiþ al haste.

Þe scene yt is, Anno Domini 886, at Paris, sich citie be onder seggen of þe Norsmen, þem by King Sigfred wealden; and þat mightig citie forestonds þe asaut. Yet þe Norsmen nicht for grenehede, nor spoyle, but misse lefer an wyf of high estat, ycleped þe Ladie Aelis. An heileg Prest, yclept Jehan, ablenden ond crippled, most her avise to tradice herseln and pass to þe Norsmen entir. Yete he wol nat, for dreden the paynim will her sacrifise & lot, liken Isak by Abram; and she is loth. Prest mid mayden, hem tua voyden þe citie. For þe troth of þe matiere is stranger, far, and ferlie. For þe fals goddes Odin and Loki and the wulf yclept Fenrir foughten the nones, a greet battel of wyttes and will, gildir and ytrapping arond the lifes of þreo mortall men. Þiy died, Odin þwerted was, and Loki did wynn; bot þe whele tornes anew, and peples souls reborne sich þat þe game beginneþ againe.

Grete ys þe Wold, grete þe firm auctoritas et potentia of Lachlanes Lettrure; selden is boke as doughtie and mightie. Brod in reach and scop; bricht in imaginatio; yea þe dramatis personae, sich Aelis, Jehan, Leshii and Ofaeti, all be an weolthe of qhat þe rhetoritians do calle characterisatio. Pythagoaras þe Grece spake of Re-incarnatio, and Lachlanes boke also. þis is þe world in dare, and þe darken of Lachlanes soule is stark and stronge. As þe poete sayde, and richtig: Þe more strenghþe of ioye myn herte strayneз. An grete boke: ye most beye yt.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Graeber on Debt (2011)


:1:
Not a review of economist/anthropologist Graeber's Debt: the First 5000 Years, with the utility orange cover there, which I have yet to read (though it looks very interesting indeed); but a reaction to a couple of online piece and interviews with Graeber covering some of the same ground, here on the origin of money, and here at the New Left Project (in two parts) on debt, promises and freedom. I enjoyed reading these very much, so much so that I'm going to quote some chunks by way of encouraging you to read and buy Graeber's book. Then I'm going to speculate in a freeform sfnal manner, as is my wont. But first:
NLP: In a recent column criticising right-wing Republicans for being cavalier about possibility of default, David Brooks made the following comment:
“The members of this movement [i.e. Tea Party Republicans] have no sense of moral decency. A nation makes a sacred pledge to pay the money back when it borrows money. But the members of this movement talk blandly of default and are willing to stain their nation’s honor.”
This intertwining of the language of debt with that of morality is a main theme of your book. Could you talk a bit about its history?

DG: The idea that ‘honour’ and ‘credit’ are the same thing occurs in situations in which people are trading with each other directly. If there is some kind of market, and debts are denominated in money, but you can’t haul someone off to jail or break their legs if they don’t meet their obligations, then to operate successfully as a business your honour is your greatest resource. In medieval Arabic law - Sharia law – credit was capital: your personal honour was a form of capital, and was legally recognised as such. So Brooks’s comments aren’t as crazy as all that, because states actually can’t force each other to pay.

But there is an irony in thinking of a promise made by a state to pay a debt as something absolutely sacred. After all, a debt is just a promise, and politicians make all sorts of different promises. They break most of them. So why are these promises the only ones that they can’t break? It is considered completely normal for someone like Nick Clegg to say, ‘well of course we promised not to raise school fees. But that’s unrealistic.’ ‘Unrealistic’ here means ‘obviously there’s no possibility of breaking my promises to bankers, even those linked to banks we bailed out and in some cases effectively own’. It’s striking that no-one ever points that out. Why is a promise made by a politician to the people who elected him considered made to be broken – it isn’t “sacred” in any way – whereas a promise the same politician makes to a financier is considered the “honour of our nation”? Why isn’t the “honour of our nation” in any way entailed in keeping our promises to people to provide healthcare and education? And why does everyone just seem to accept that, that this is just “reality”?

NLP: And why do you think that is?

DG: Because the latter promises are not typically framed in the language of ‘debt’. The language of debt is not an economic one; it’s a language of morality. It has been used for thousands of years by people in situations of vast inequalities of power. If you have a situation of complete inequality, particularly violent inequality – if you’ve conquered someone, or if you’re a mafioso extracting protection money – then framing the relationship in terms of debt makes it seem as though the extractors are magnanimous and the victims are to blame. “Well, you owe me, but I’ll be a nice guy and let you off the hook this month…” Before long the victims come to seem almost generically morally at fault by the very terms of their existence. And that logic sticks in people’s minds – it’s incredibly effective. Not universally effective, because it’s also true that the vast majority of revolts, insurrections, populist conspiracies and rebellions in world history have been about debts. When it backfires, it blows up in a big way. But nonetheless, that’s what people almost invariably do when they’re imposing a situation of complete inequality.

The irony of course is that when dealing with each other, rich and powerful people know that debts aren’t “sacred”, and they rearrange things all the time. They are often incredibly forgiving and generous when dealing with each other. The idea of the sacredness of debt is chiefly applied when we are talking about different sorts of people. Just as rich people will come to the aid of other rich people, so poor people also will bail each other out – they’ll make ‘loans’ that are really gifts, and so on. But when you’re dealing with debts owed by people without power to people with power, suddenly the debt becomes sacred and you can’t even question it.
So far, so right on, and hard to argue with. A couple more things. He goes on to talk about the difference between predominantly credit economies, where trust and reputation (or 'credit rating') are centrally important, to predominantly cash or bullion economies, where it they are much less vital:
DG: Credit-based systems are more like human economies, although they don’t go all the way.

NLP:  Because credit is not completely impersonal in the way that cash transactions can be?

DG: Yes, it relies on personal trust, but it’s also quantified and transferable, which makes it a debt rather than a simple moral obligation. This is where you get symptoms like those I have described – for example, in medieval Islam one’s honour is a form of capital; one’s reputation for being a decent person, for being trustworthy, becomes key. As Pierre Bourdieu said of contemporary Algeria, honour is superior to money because you can convert your honour into money, but you can’t convert your money into honour. I thought this was a brilliant discovery– that honour is a form of capital – until I discovered that in traditional Islamic law it is literally true: honour is legally recognised as a form of capital. That sort of system is similar to the kind of thing that prevailed in medieval Europe. In England, for example, you find expressions like “a worthy man” or “a man of no account”, which refer both to one’s personal reputation for decency and to one’s credit-worthiness. The two essentially could not be distinguished.

The interesting thing this brings out, I think, is that while markets emerge as a side-effect of military operations, in certain times and places in history they become something different. They become something which is neither dependent upon nor a side-effect of state actions, but instead become opposed to the state. The first time I’m aware of this happening is in medieval Islam, but you also see it in Ming China and there are traces of it in renaissance England. It is a kind of market populism that tends to occur when controls are instituted to ensure that credit systems don’t go crazy. So in medieval Islam, for example, there was a ban on usury. But that ban was not enforced by the state— people appealed to religious law to settle commercial disputes and contracts, but the state couldn’t haul someone off to jail for violating them. Abusive practices like usury and debt peonage had been typical of the Middle East for thousands of years, and were essentially made illegal under Islam. That’s one of the reasons why many people were so willing to convert – it was really through the judicial system that it all happened.

The way I put it is that the mercantile classes basically switched sides. Throughout most of Middle Eastern history they were allied with the government – they were the money-lenders, they were the people that others fell into debt traps with and became debt peons because of interest bearing loans. And essentially they said, ‘OK, OK, we’ll become the good guys. We will stop charging interest, we will outlaw slavery and debt peonage, and the government are the bad guys now, we won’t even talk to them, we’ll just work this stuff out among ourselves.’
And Graber has very interesting things to say about the origins of money. In a nutshell he repudiates the Classical Economics 101 model: first everybody bartered according to a mutually agreed scale ('one pig is worth six chickens' and so on); then the scale became formalised via tokens we call money. Not so, says Graeber.
The persistence of the barter myth is curious. It originally goes back to Adam Smith. Other elements of Smith’s argument have long since been abandoned by mainstream economists—the labor theory of value being only the most famous example. Why in this one case are there so many desperately trying to concoct imaginary times and places where something like this must have happened, despite the overwhelming evidence that it did not?

It seems to me because it goes back precisely to this notion of rationality that Adam Smith too embraced: that human beings are rational, calculating exchangers seeking material advantage, and that therefore it is possible to construct a scientific field that studies such behavior. The problem is that the real world seems to contradict this assumption at every turn. Thus we find that in actual villages, rather than thinking only about getting the best deal in swapping one material good for another with their neighbors, people are much more interested in who they love, who they hate, who they want to bail out of difficulties, who they want to embarrass and humiliate, etc.—not to mention the need to head off feuds.  Even when strangers met and barter did ensue, people often had a lot more on their minds than getting the largest possible number of arrowheads in exchange for the smallest number of shells.
I think this is brilliantly put; and Graeber goes on to give 'a couple examples from the book, of actual, documented cases of "primitive barter"', including this jolly-sounding set-up:
The Gunwinngu of West Arnhem land in Australia, famous for entertaining neighbors in rituals of ceremonial barter called the dzamalag. Here the threat of actual violence seems much more distant. The region is also united by both a complex marriage system and local specialization, each group producing their own trade product that they barter with the others.

In the 1940s, an anthropologist, Ronald Berndt, described one dzamalag ritual, where one group in possession of imported cloth swapped their wares with another, noted for the manufacture of serrated spears. Here too it begins as strangers, after initial negotiations, are invited to the hosts’ camp, and the men begin singing and dancing, in this case accompanied by a didjeridu. Women from the hosts’ side then come, pick out one of the men, give him a piece of cloth, and then start punching him and pulling off his clothes, finally dragging him off to the surrounding bush to have sex, while he feigns reluctance, whereon the man gives her a small gift of beads or tobacco. Gradually, all the women select partners, their husbands urging them on, whereupon the women from the other side start the process in reverse, re-obtaining many of the beads and tobacco obtained by their own husbands. The entire ceremony culminates as the visitors’ men-folk perform a coordinated dance, pretending to threaten their hosts with the spears, but finally, instead, handing the spears over to the hosts’ womenfolk, declaring: “We do not need to spear you, since we already have!” In other words, the Gunwinngu manage to take all the most thrilling elements in the Nambikwara encounters—the threat of violence, the opportunity for sexual intrigue—and turn it into an entertaining game (one that, the ethnographer remarks, is considered enormous fun for everyone involved). In such a situation, one would have to assume obtaining the optimal cloth-for-spears ratio is the last thing on most participants’ minds.
Here's Graeber's point, nutshelled for us:
Economists always ask us to ‘imagine’ how things must have worked before the advent of money. What such examples bring home more than anything else is just how limited their imaginations really are. When one is dealing with a world unfamiliar with money and markets, even on those rare occasions when strangers did meet explicitly in order to exchange goods, they are rarely thinking exclusively about the value of the goods. This not only demonstrates that the Homo Oeconomicus which lies at the basis of all the theorems and equations that purports to render economics a science, is not only an almost impossibly boring person—basically, a monomaniacal sociopath who can wander through an orgy thinking only about marginal rates of return—but that what economists are basically doing in telling the myth of barter, is taking a kind of behavior that is only really possible after the invention of money and markets and then projecting it backwards as the purported reason for the invention of money and markets themselves. Logically, this makes about as much sense as saying that the game of chess was invented to allow people to fulfill a pre-existing desire to checkmate their opponent’s king.
Ha! Take that, Homo Oeconomicus!

:2:
And now (briefly), thoughts. Graber's assertion that 'in actual villages, rather than thinking only about getting the best deal in swapping one material good for another with their neighbors, people are much more interested in who they love, who they hate, who they want to bail out of difficulties, who they want to embarrass and humiliate, etc.—' seems to me patently and obvious true. But perhaps the danger with the study of origins is that in situating oneself pre-historically, in order to prove wrongheadedness in other economists, one runs the risk of colouring one's grasp of the current state of affairs with retrospective tints. Which is to say: we no longer live in a village. The Adam Smith model, although it started out as putatively descriptive (and howsoever wrong that description was) has become something else: prescriptive, or more than that, normative.

Here's the SF thought: in the future, market trading and other aspects of economical and financial interaction will be increasingly undertaken by clever machines, guided by ingenious and complex algorithms as to when it is best to buy and when to sell, how to get the maximum modern equivalents-to-arrowheads for the minimum modern equivalents-to-shells. We may not act this way 'in real life', but we have invented a chessgame market where following these rules maximises our results. And our machines will be precisely the Homi Oeconomici Graeber so wittily skewers; they will indeed wander through our metaphorical orgies thinking only about marginal rates of return, not because they are monomaniacal sociopaths but because they are machines. It seems to me we're halfway to this state of affairs already; and the closer we approach it the more (paradoxically, perhaps) we will need Austrian or Smithian economics: not because it is right, but because with unconscious prescience Adam Smith envisaged a market populated by clever AIs rather than actual people. The invisible hand is invisible because it is virtual, not actual.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Mad Men (2007- )


We’re up to season three of Mad Men, watching it out of a DVD box-set after the manner of middle class married couples all across the country—which is to say: evening routine -- supper, kids to bed, glass of wine and sink onto the couch to boot up another episode. It took me a little while to warm to it, actually; but by now the characters feel like old friends (no, that’s not right; I probably wouldn’t be friends with any of them—they feel like old work colleagues, which is appropriate enough. One of the strengths of the show is the way it puts so much of the actuality, or simulated actuality, of working in an office front and centre. There have been shows set in offices before of course, and plenty of them: but almost always the actual work has been a backdrop to the real focus of the show, the emotional interactions of the characters—and whilst that’s clearly part of the point of Mad Men too, I’m consistently impressed how large a portion of the drama is simple office work in its office-workish-ness: meetings with colleagues and clients, preparing material for projects, doing accounts, applying for promotion—all that. And this parenthesis has gone on long enough).

So, one of the reasons I’m blogging about the show here is to direct you to my wife’s post (on her blog) about it. But also to jot down some random thoughts.

Here’s one random thought. One reason I held out against the show for, roughly speaking, the first half of series one is that it struck me as too glib. Glibness, I figured, was part of the point; but glibness needs to be handled carefully, artistically speaking, or the art will melt away like icecream in front of the fire.  Mark Greif’s famous (in some quarters, notorious) criticisms of the show in the LRB seemed right to me. The surfaces were all so perfectly glossy and immaculate and 1950s/60s cool; the sexism and racism was of the sort designed to flatter our more enlightened 21st-century perspectives. The episodes often struck me as having a too pat ‘Creative Writing 303’ labour of theme and story—as it might be, 'this episode is about mirrors, so we’ll build it around a Playtex ad showing Jackie reflecting Marilyn and have lots of shots of characters staring at their own reflections in bathrooms etc. Deep!’ More particularly, I thought Grief was right that John Hamm playing Don Draper was too beautiful, and not tough enough, to actually occupy the Tony-Sopranoesque alpha male role the scripts often demanded. There’s a quaver in his eyes, you see: a tremor of weakness.

I also thought, watching series one, that the show was missing two key beats. One was religion—these people (almost all of them living, at least ostensibly according to tenets of Republican respectability) would be religious, or many of them would; yet religion was absent from the drama. The other was race: the most famous achievement of the 1960s in the US was Civil Rights, after all (well, there was the Apollo programme too; but it comes second to Civil Rights). The only characters of colour occupied marginal roles in the drama. We might think ‘well, they occupied marginal roles in these sorts of people’s lives in the actual 1950s/60s’, but that is to let the scriptwriters—who have the say—off the hook too easily).

Persevering in my watching, I have come to revise all of these objections. I was wrong; I spoke too soon. To take the last first—series 2 tackles religion head on, with Peggy Olsen’s relationship to the creepy priest (Catholicism is shown to be centrally part of her social praxis). And race is given a higher prominence too, although in a slightly awkward way. More importantly, I’ve come to revise my opinion on John Hamm as Don Draper—that quaver in his eye, the melodramatic farrago about his swapping identities with a dead officer in the Korean war, all that. The point I was missing, I think, is: the core theme of this show is selling, and one of its insights is that whilst satirical mileage might be made out of showing advertising as being in the business of persuading people to buy shit, there’re more depth and drama in the idea that ad-men are trying to get us to buy stuff that, actually, is often cool. But. There has to be a but, of course. Draper is a beautiful man—my wife certainly thinks so—rich, clever, creative, superbly dressed and so on. The quaver in his eyes, much more than the creaky old hidden identity story, is the But.

I could go further: the show’s lavish visual aesthetic, its myriad triumphs of design and costume and historical recreation, work by a kind of Freudian inversion. Selling is all about implanting in people the desire to buy things; and desire is wanting, a lack, an absence. As the cocky young rich boy, trying to seduce Betty Draper at the riding stables they both frequent, observes—‘you are profoundly sad’. Betty is, too; it’s just that this matters much less than you might think. It is not, for instance, the occasion for grand existential angst and drama. On the contrary, sadness in the motor by which advertising—and by extension, Capitalism—operates. It is a necessary thing. That’s one thing Mad Men does very well, in the larger sense: rendering sadness not as depression and withdrawal, but precisely as affluent social living and conspicuous consumption.

The name that occurs to me here is Richard Yates—indeed, I’m surprised more isn’t made of the connection in reviews and online discussion (maybe it is, and I just haven't come across it). But Yates is surely one of the key influences on this show. He’s a novelist perhaps best known for the film made out of Revolutionary Road—an equally good-look portrait of postwar US period suburban sadness as Mad Men, but a touch too mournful, even maudlin, in its treatment. Unlike the film, I don’t think it would be fair to call Yates’s exquisitely judged, low-key novels and stories ‘maudlin’, but they are all fascinated by the valences of sadness in everyday life. ‘Draper’ is the name of the protagonist of Yates’s A Good School (1973)—not about advertising, this short, beautiful novel, but very alive to the way sadness can propel us onward through life. Near the end, one of the characters (who had refused the Purple Heart he had been awarded in the war because he felt he didn’t deserve it) tells Draper: ‘listen—don’t look back to much, OK? You can drive yourself crazy that way.’ The novel doesn’t record Draper’s reaction to this advice; but the Draper of Mad Men in effect takes it as his personal mantra.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Ben Aaronovitch, Rivers of London (2011)


Very good. Really very good—easy to see why this has become a bestseller. What we have here is a sort of modern-day Jonathan Strange and Police Procedural. The narrator, Peter Grant, is an ordinary copper in contemporary London who becomes involved in the investigation of a murder outside St Paul’s: some poor geezer having had his head knocked clean from his shoulders. This in turn brings him into contact with a hidden world of magic, supernatural beings, vampires, revenants and other such in-the-night bump goers. He is transferred to a semi-official and rather endearingly amateur ‘magic’ branch of the Met, and becomes the apprentice of a wizard-policeman called Nightingale. The story is well-told but the real triumph here is one of tone: Aaronovitch creates a genuinely likeable voice for Grant, and the whole book is carried off with tremendous charm. I mean that word in a more than flippant sense; charm is more than niceness (charms are the currency of magic, after all).  It cannot be faked, and it cannot be taught at creative writing school. But it makes a story glide very agreeably along.

The book also works as an entertaining gazetteer of London, a city Aaronovitch groks, in a way that—to pick a name at random from my London hat—Peter Ackroyd, doesn’t quite. Aaronovitch knows the topography and lore, gets the multicultural vibe and glamour and friction right, and captures the scuzzy along with the magical very neatly. In particular the rivers are important—not just the Thames but the various tributaries, now mostly bricked over. I liked the fact that, at one point, Grant drives his cribbed-from-Morse jag over Staines Bridge. I wrote a novel a couple years ago in which Staines Bridge gets blown up. And, actually, if you've got a moment: I’d like to take this opportunity to agitate for a new literary movement in Fantastic Literature, after the manner of the New Weird or the Mundane, to be called ‘Staines Bridgers’. The manifesto would require novels to make some mention of Staines. And /or to have a title that can be sung to an XTC track—I found myself humming Rivers of London to the tune of ‘Towers of London’, and it works quite well. Beyond that, the details of the Manifesto have yet to be, er, worked out.

Not to get distracted.

Anyway, my purpose here is not to review Rivers of London (beyond saying: really very good, read it), so much as to shoot off at an angle and think about Fantasy more generally. Charlene Harris is quoted on the back of the dustjacket praising Aaronovitch’s book as ‘fresh and original’, which it isn’t, really (isn’t trying to be, really—it’s an expert midrash upon a venerable body of magic-intersects-reality fictions that re-imagine London: Dickens, Carter, Gaiman, Mièville, Harry Potter, Susan Clarke et al. This is a feature rather than a bug, and Aaronovitch handles his intertexts cannily, often wittily and adds depth and texture to his writing through them). In particular, and despite wearing the coat of a police-procedural/crimey/murder-investigation plot, Rivers of London shares one quality with fantasy that we do not find in noir. I’m going to call this quality amplitude. Here’s how Aaronovitch opens his novel:
It started at one thirty on a cold Tuesday morning in January when Martin Turner, street performer and, in his own words, apprentice gigolo, tripped over a body in front of the West Portico of St Paul’s at Covent Garden. Martin, who was none too sober himself, at first thought the body was that of one of the many celebrants who had chosen the Piazza as a convenient outdoor toilet and dormitory. Being a seasoned Londoner, Martin gave the body the ‘London once-over’—a quick glance to determine whether this was a drunk, a crazy or a human being in distress. The fact that it was entirely possible for someone to be all three simultaneously is why good-Samaritanism in London is considered an extreme sport—like base-jumping or crocodile-wrestling. Martin, noting the good-quality coat and shoes, had just pegged the body as a drunk when he noticed that it was in fact missing its head.
This is how Chandler or Hammet would have written this opening:
Martin Turner, noting the good-quality coat and shoes, had just clocked the body as a drunk when he saw it was missing its head.
This isn’t a better way of starting a novel, naturally, except in the general horses-for-courses sense that applies to all writing everywhere. But it would be a mistake to think that Aaronovitch writes 150 words instead of 25 because he has more specific detail to communicate to the reader. The point is not in the content; it is in the tone—the voice of the novel. It is a voice that sets its face against terseness and reticence in favour of a generous discursive expansiveness.

This isn't to say that I'd describe Aaronivitch’s treatment of his murder mystery as ‘leisurely’: there’s plenty going on, and the novel rarely feels flaggy or slack (I might have done with a little less of the sub-Harry-Potter ‘learning magical spells’ stuff, but I’m a grump). Rivers of London isn’t trying to do the hard-boiled thing. On the contrary, it is trying, and succeeding, to flesh-out a world in which mundanity is underlaid by magic, with plenty of detail and atmosphere and tone and not a little humour too.  Indeed, we lose sight of the initial murder for quite long stretches. In fact—I wonder if this is linked to the thought that there are a great many brilliant SF short stories and hardly any Fantasy short stories worth mentioning—this amplitude is precisely what many readers of Fantasy go to their chosen genre for in the first place.

It goes without saying that this amplitude can easily become bloat. But my point is that we may go astray if we single out (for example) the latest Robin Hobb or Branden Sandandersenbrand novel and say ‘there’s a fit, lean 250-page novel hidden somewhere inside this flabby 1000-page monster’. Critics certainly do this; on occasion I’ve even done it myself. But perhaps it is missing the point. Not everybody considers ‘size zero’ to be an aesthetic ideal, after all.

I really am moving away from Aaronovitch when I say this: his novel is a trim 400 pages and has a lot going on. Rather, I’m trying to put my finger on something critics of the novel, content-obsessed as they often are, sometimes miss—and arguably critics of SFF titles are more likely than not to fixate on the manifest content of a title and to ignore the form, style, voice and the like. So, to step away from genre for a moment. You see, I was chatting with a writer friend of mine recently about the case of Sir Walter Scott.

Here’s the thing with Scott: he was, in the nineteenth-century, bigger than you can imagine. Everybody read him. Many people read his (very ample) complete works right through, from start to finish, every year (Henry Crabb Robinson talks about the pleasure of maintaining a sort-of on-rolling Scott read, of closing the last page of his last published novel knowing that he could now open the first page of Waverley yet again). Scott was the first international mega-celebrity of letters, rivalled only by Byron (whom he outsold, and outlasted). Aha, but nowadays who reads him? It’s hard enough getting English literature students, people who have specifically chosen to read books, to trudge through Waverley, never mind the rest of the Scotty oeuvre. The problem is that he is prolix.  Things do happen in Scott’s fiction, and some very interesting questions of history and politics, of identity and modernity and fantasy, are worked through in complex ways. But the ratio of ‘things happening’ to ‘great wodges of prosy prose’ is weighted, for modern tastes, disadvantageously on the latter side of the scale. As a result, Scott has gone from being the most famous novelist in the world to (outside academia) almost total desuetude.

The trick to understanding the prodigious success of Scott in the 19th-century is the realisation that he was popular not despite being so prosy, but because of it. You don’t read Scott’s prose for its sharpness, for its quotable zingers or apothegmic wisdom. Opening the covers of a Waverley novel and starting to read is, or ought to be, like sinking into a warm bath. It is the very amplitude of Scott’s art that explains its success. One of the striking things about Scott’s career is that he had a significant stroke in later life, yet continued writing—great screedy novels like Castle Dangerous (1831) and Count Robert of Paris (1832) which read like regular Scott novels with all the actual stuff-happening taken out. Nobody seemed to mind. As if Scott didn’t really need a fully functioning brain to produce the sort of verbal art that made his name.

My point, I suppose, is that although Scott himself has fallen from favour, the taste for amplitude in our verbal art hasn’t. Many readers don’t want their fiction to work as a brisk, cold shower. Many really want to sink into that warm bath.

[PS: I don't want to give the impression I'm doing Scott down, by the way. You might want to glance at this, Chesterton-quoting post and consider whether you don't agree with me that the brief exchange between Sir Arthur Wardour and the beggar from Scott's Antiquary isn't one of the greatest things written in the C19th-century]

Monday, 5 September 2011

Mark Gatiss, Night Terrors (Doctor Who) 2011


Last Saturday's ep.: very enjoyable, much better realised (in key ways: stronger conceit, better structured and paced, better-judged characterisation and less "wait, what-the-??" bollocksness all round) than the preceding week's 'Let's Kill Hitler!' story. I especially liked the Doctor's 'I've seen things you people wouldn't believe, attack ships on fire off the shoulder of specific content altered to avoid copyright infringement' speech ('Do you see these eyes? These are old eyes' -- lovely delivery from Smith really nails the moment). And the ending, where the Dad hugged his young son and told him he loved him, was genuinely affecting. But then I'd be likely to say so, since I am a Dad and I have a young son, whom I love. At any rate, Gatiss is getting better as a writer, I think. Apparently there's talk of him as a future showrunner, when Moffat steps down.  Well, I suppose they'll need someone to fetch the coffee, and that.

Now.  Well.  Here's the thing about decoding dreams the Freudian way: once you get into the habit of reading off for manifest and latent content it becomes both gratifyingly easy and surprisingly eloquent and revealing ... or, at least, it gives the simulacrum of eloquence and revelation, which is all we can really ask for. Some Who episodes are more dreamlike than others in this sense; but 'Night Terrors', true to its name, was very like a dream indeed. More, problems on its manifest level are, I think, resolved by reading the latent content, which is nice. For example: the premise of this episode [spoilers] is that l'il George is a Tenza alien, who has (cuckoo-in-the-nestishly) morphed into the perfect kid for his infertile parents and wants nothing more than to feel safe and loved and to belong. We discover that all the monsters and the terrors are the result of Tenza-George manifesting (via his [wave-hand] alien telepath[hand-wave]ic powers) the terrible anxiety that his parents are going to send him away. Fine, but, thinking back: his parents were only thinking of sending him away because of his debilitating level of fear and anxiety. So something doesn't add up, chicken-egg-wise, in the show's conceit.

But this doesn't matter.  The latent level is where the show's emotional punch is located. See, this is a story about a talented kid with a secret who lives in terror that his parents, once they discover his secret, will reject him. It is the story of somebody who hides his secret self in his closet, even though this act of repression causes him misery and angst. You see, he is not like his parents, even though he loves them dearly.  And although they love him dearly, he is terrified that they will reject him and send him away if they find out the truth. The truth that is in the closet. The girly, dolls-house sort of truth about his actual nature that is tucked away at the back of his closet. The emotional release of the show comes when the Dad embraces his son and tells him that, no matter what secret identity is hidden in his closet, he loves him and will never reject him. How could that not be touching?

And to think some people find Freudian interpretations of dreams reductive! In other news: according to the Independent on Sunday's Pink List of 2010, Gatiss is the 38th most influential gay person in the UK. Bravo!

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Christopher Priest, The Islanders (2011)


It's an extraordinarily good piece of writing. Now, now, wait a minute. I hold Priest in high esteem as a writer.  He’s one of the authors the reading of whose novels (as a kid) inspired me to want to write myself. I’ve met him, too; on several publisher-party occasions, and he’s always been very cordial and encouraging towards me personally (he doesn't much like what I write, and has reviewed my stuff accordingly, but that's fair enough). This is by way of a rather roundabout full-disclosure; since fans rarely provide the disinterested objectivity vital to sound reviewing, however much they may try. Nonetheless, The Islanders seems to me one of the later Priest’s very best novels; beautifully put-together, absorbing and compelling as well as elegantly wrongfooting and soursweetly offkilter.

It is set in the ‘Dream Archipelago’, a planet-wide assortment of island communities, the scene of some of Priest’s best early stories, as well as his 1981 novel The Affirmation. My memory of the early short stories—since my house move, I can’t lay my hands on my old bashed-about paperbacks of An Infinite Summer and The Dream Archipelago to check, so my memory may be playing me wrong—is that the Archipelago used to have a more Aegean feel to it. In this latest novel, and although there are islands in every latitude, the broad flavour seems to me more Scandinavian, or Scots, especially in the book’s latter stages. It's not just the names (the theatre where a crucial crime is committed is the Teater Sjøkaptein, for instance), or the comfortable, Nordic-middle-class quality of life many of the characters enjoy.  It's also to do with the cool, even Bergmanesque tone of the writing itself. On the other hand Priest himself says, on his website:
the Archipelago itself is not a transplant from a single place, but is an amalgam. You can find archipelagian images and recollections of Guernsey and Sark, the Greek islands, Harrow-on-the-Hill, the French Riviera, the Harz mountains in Germany, Hastings, the Pennines, even Dartmoor and the Isle of Wight.
So I may be barking up what the Swedes call the wrøng trïï.  The novel takes the form of a gazetteer of islands in the Archipelago, 50 or so of them, from ‘Aay, the “Island of Winds”’ to 'Yannet' known as 'Dark Green' and 'Sir'. In listing the histories, flora, fauna, tourist spots and other interesting things about these various places, Priest starts to pick out a series of interlinked character narratives, mosaically assembling these from different contexts, and different perspectives, such that each new cell of the story changes our sense of the larger tale, its rights-and-wrongs, its meanings.  The Priestalike ('sacredocish'?) writer Chaster Kammeston is one, mysteriously opaque figure; and several other individuals are constellated around him.  Many of the specifics are recognisable mundane and contemporary, although there are a few (immortality for some, 'temporal distortion zones' and the like) which are more fantastical. But the focus is less on these.

One of the things I loved about The Islanders is that pretty much all the Priestian fascinations and preoccupations are here: doubles; mirrors; dreams; stage magic; the unreliability and instability of narrative, and several intriguing and underplayed metafictional touches (a young [female] novelist writes fan letters to a tetchily unpredictable Kammeston; when her first novel is published she sends a copy to him. It is called The Affirmation).  It coheres, or more precisely refuses quite to cohere, very stylishly indeed.

It's an archipelagic novel in more than one sense (always assuming that that word has more than one sense), formally embodying its scattered loosely connected strings of island subjects in a loosely connected strings of narratives. There's a distant family relationship with Borges, perhaps; or Ballard’s anthology of ‘condensed novels’ The Atrocity Exhibition. What else? Not so much Primo Levi’s Il Sistema Periodico (1975), which, although it adheres to its ‘Periodic Table’ structuring conceit, is a collection of separate short stories; where The Islanders is fully a novel. One book that did keep popping up in my head as I read is Milorad Pavić’s Hazarski rečnik (1984; published in English 1988 as Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel).  That novel is more modishly postmodern, and has less by way of connecting story, or indeed story of any kind. (At least, that’s my memory of it: I read it because it was a hip campus novel at the time when I was a university student myself, but 1988 is—now that I come to think of it—a frighteningly long time ago, and my memory may be wrong). I have heard of, but haven’t yet read, Han Shaogong’s widely-praised A Dictionary of Maqiao, although from reviews it looks like Priest’s novel has a little more in common with it. And Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas is on my tbr pile.  The Islanders, though, has a very different mouthfeel to all of these titles.

We’re talking, really, about what the critics call Ergodic literature, a phrase coined by the Norwegian critic Espen J. Aarseth; or to be a little more precise, we're taking about novels that stir interesting patterns out of the mix of traditional narrative, and more freeform ergodic structures (many critics interested in ergodic narrative structures trace them through video games and hyperlink texts). The key thing, though, is books that 'produce a semiotic sequence which may differ from reading to reading'.  'Ergodic' not only from 'ergos', 'work', but also from 'hodos', 'path', you see.  We often think of narrative as a kind of path.  The Islanders presents itself to be read linearly, from start to end, and that's certainly how I read it. But the elements of the various narratives are not laid out in a linear sequence; they appear here and there, and I fitted them together into my larger sense of the story, having to revise my sense of what was going on and how people really were as I went (that creative tension between sjuzhet and fabula that's technically quite hard to do but which can be immensely satisfying to read) -- a little like Ford's The Good Soldier in that way, although much more kaleidoscopically rendered. One of the things that grounds this is precisely Priests' cool command of traditional style, world and character; and there's a scrupulousness with which everything is set out -- the doubleness and uncertainty of the book's treatment of naming, for example (most islands and many people have more than one name here) -- that only enhances the artfully fractured misdirection. As if to say: you think of a story as being like a journey, and maybe it is. But perhaps it's less like a march along a road, putting one step in front of the other like Bunyan's pilgrim progressing. Perhaps its like an odysseusing tour of a large group of islands, passing from one to another, losing track of time and orientation, visiting some several times, only glimpsing others, tantalisingly, in the distance. Stories are islands, and we, the readers, are the islanders; but the archipelago of story is far far too large for us to explore in its entirety, and although we roam widely and try our best, the accretion of our fuller perspective is still partial and fog-bound. And that's enough metaphors in this review for now.

In sum: The Islanders is a magnificent novel, one of my books of the year, and you must read it.