In 2016, I read 243 books – there were a lot of short ones this year, and more comics than usual, plus I wrote a couple of synoptic chapters that required a lot of very fast reading or re-reading.
Portnoy compliance figures
All of the world except…122 (61 by women)
…straight white men writing in English 103
Don’t quite fit 18
My top 20 (which does not include books I’ve read before)
Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of This World (1949)
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle (2008)
Warren Ellis and Jason Howard, Trees, volume one (2014)
–. Trees, volume two (2015)
Muriel Jaeger, The Man with Six Senses (1927)
Marlon James, John Crow’s Devil (2005)
Storm Jameson (as William Lamb), The World Ends (1937)
China Miéville, Last Days of New Paris (2016)
Jason W Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (2015)
Laurie Penny, Everything Belongs to the Future (2016)
Maurice Renard, The Master of Light (1933)
Nina Revoyr, Southland (2003)
Raymond Roussel, Impressions of Africa (1910)
Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North (1966)
Nisi Shawl, Everfair (2016)
Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000)
Tade Thompon, Rosewater (2016)
The full list
Leila Aboulela, Minaret
Saladin Ahmed, Throne of the Crescent Moon
Juice Aleem, Afrofutures and Astro Black Travel: A Passport to a Melanated Future
David Annan, Ape: The Kingdom of Kong
Jake Arnott, The House of Rumour
Mike Ashley, ed., The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers
JG Ballard, High–Rise
Steven Barnes, Gorgon Child
Jim Barratt, Bad Taste
A Igoni Barrett, Blackass
Barroux, Hannah Berry, Kate Charlesworth, Dan McDaid, Pat Mills, Denise Mina, Will Morris, Adam Murphy, Mary Talbot and Irvine Welsh, IDP: 2043
William Beckford, Vathek
Aphra Behn, Oroonoko
Neil Bell (as Miles), The Seventh Bowl
Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos, Jessica Jones: Alias, volume one
Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things
Lauren Beukes, Moxyland
–. Broken Monsters
Karen Blixen, Ehrengard
–. Out of Africa
–. Shadows on the Grass
Karin Boye, Kallocain
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Kamau Brathwaite, Middle Passages
Poppy Z Brite, His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood, and Other Stories
Douglas and Shea T Brode, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Original Cast Adventures
Anthony Browne, King Kong
Ed Bunker, Dog Eat Dog
Katherine Burdekin, Swastika Night
David Butler, Fantasy Cinema: Impossible Worlds on Screen
Octavia Butler, Clay’s Ark
–. Mind of My Mind
–. Wild Seed
John W Campbell, Islands of Space
–. Invaders from the Infinite
Ramsey Campbell, Ancient Images
Karel Čapek, War with the Newts
Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of This World
Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber
Willa Cather, My Ántonia
–. O Pioneers!
Aimé Césaire, A Tempest
M.E. Chamberlain, The Scramble for Africa
Bruce Chatwin, The Viceroy of Ouidah
John Cheng, Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America
George Clinton and Ben Greenman, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle
JM Coetzee, Foe
John Collier, Tom’s A-Cold
Christopher Columbus, Journal of the First Voyage
Joseph Conrad, Almayer’s Folly
–. The Secret Agent
John Corbett, ed., The Wisdom of Sun Ra: Sun Ra’s Polemical Broadsheets and Streetcorner Leaflets
John Corbett, Anthony Elms and Terri Kapsalis, eds, Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra, El Saturn and Chicago’s Afrofuturist Underground, 1954–68
–. Traveling the Spaceways: Sun Ra, the Astro Black and Other Solar Myths
André Couvrer, The Androgyne
Alex Cox, Chris Bone and Justin Randall, Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday
David Cronenberg, Consumed
JA Cuddon, ed., The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories
Lincoln Cushing, ¡Revolución!: Cuban Poster Art
Rjurik Davidson, The Library of Forgotten Dreams
Claire De Duras, Ourika
Françoise de Graffigny, Letters of a Peruvian Woman
Samuel R Delany, Babel-17
–. The Ballad of Beta-2
–. City of a Thousand Suns
–. The Einstein Intersection
–. Empire Star
–. The Jewels of Aptor
–. Out of the Dead City
–. The Tides of Lust
–. The Towers of Toron
Samuel R. Delany and Howard V. Chaykin, Empire: A Visual Novel
Guy Dent, Emperor of the If
Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater
Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory
Thomas Disch and John Sladek, Black Alice
George Alec Effinger, Budayeen Nights
–. A Fire in the Sun
–. The Exile Kiss
Warren Ellis and Jason Howard, Trees, volume one
–. Trees, volume two
Fadia Faqir, The Cry of the Dove
John M Faucette, The Age of Ruin
–. Crown of Infinity
–. Siege of Earth
–. The Warriors of Terra
Jennifer L. Feeley and Sarah Ann Wells, eds, Simultaneous Worlds: Global Science Fiction Cinema
Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain
Otto Willi Gail, The Shot into Infinity
– The Stone from the Moon
Stuart Galbraith IV, Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films
Steven Gil, Science Wars through the Stargate: Explorations of Science and Society in Stargate SG-1
Beryl Gilroy, Boy-Sandwich
John Gloag, To-Morrow’s Yesterday
Solon L. Goode, The Winged Ship
P Anderson Graham, The Collapse of Homo Sapiens
SL Grey, Under Ground
Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Pashazade
Ken Grimwood, Replay
Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines
Peter Haining, The Classic Era of American Pulp Magazines
Cicely Hamilton, Theodore Savage
Edmond Hamilton, Crashing Suns
–. Outside the Universe
Lynsey Hanley, Estates: An Intimate History
Otfrid von Hanstein, Between Earth and Moon
Milo Hastings, City of Endless Night
Margrét Helgadóttir, The Stars Seem So Far Away
Margrét Helgadóttir and Jo Thomas, eds, African Monsters
–. Asian Monsters
Cat Hellisen, Beastkeeper
Matt Hills, Blade Runner
Steve Holland, The Mushroom Jungle: A History of Postwar Paperback Publishing
Robert Horton, Frankenstein
Reginald Hudlin, John Romita, Jr and Dean White, Who Is The Black Panther?
Tony Isabella, Dennis O’Neill, Trevor Von Eeden, Michael Netzer, Frank Springer and Vince Colletta, Black Lightning
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
–. The Haunting of Hill House
Muriel Jaeger, The Man with Six Senses
Marlon James, John Crow’s Devil
Gwyneth Jones, The Grasshoppers’ Child
Bertène Juminer, Bozambo’s Revenge
Billy Kahora, Imagine Africa 500
Ann Kaplan, Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction
Frigyes Karinthy, Capillaria
David Katz, People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry
Richard Kelly and Brett Weldele, Southland Tales: Two Roads Diverge
–. Southland Tales: Fingerprints
–. Southland Tales: The Mechanicals
Geoff King, Donnie Darko
Jack Kirby, Black Panther, volume one
–. Black Panther, volume two
Natsuo Kirino, Out
Teruhisa Kitahara and Yukio Shimizu, Robots, Spaceships and Other Tin Toys
Dale Knickerbocker, ed., Lingua Cosmica: Science Fiction from Beyond the Anglophone Universe
Larissa Lai, Automaton Biographies
William Lamb (Storm Jameson), The World Ends
Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice
–. Ancillary Sword
Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea
–. Tombs of Atuan
Gaston LeRoux, The Man with the Black Feather
Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, Monstress, volume one: Awakening
Don McGregor and mostly Billy Graham, The Essential Black Panther, volume one
Don McGregor et al, The Essential Luke Cage, Power Man
Marc McLaurin, Dwayne Turner, Rurik Tyler, Gordon Purcell and Sal Velluto, Luke Cage: Second Chances, volume one
Marc McLaurin, DG Chichester, Gregory Wright, Scott Benefiet, Paris Cullins, Brian Pelletier, Richard Pace, Kirk Van Wormer and Steven Butler, Luke Cage: Second Chances, volume two
Zaiba Malik, We Are A Muslim, Please
Nick Mamatas, Cthulhu Senryu
Linda Medley, Castle Waiting
Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James, A Short History of Fantasy
Abram Merritt, The Moon Pool
China Miéville, Last Days of New Paris
–. London’s Overthrow
G.R. Mitchison, The First Workers’ Government, or New Times for Henry Dubb
Jason W Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital
Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World
José Moselli, Illa’s End
Sam Moskowitz, ed., When Women Rule
E Nesbit, The Story of the Amulet
Henry Neville, The Isle of Pines
Nnedi Okorafor, Binti
–. The Book of Phoenix
Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, Superman vs. Muhammad Ali
Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization
Jussi Parikka, The Anthrobscene
Laurie Penny, Everything Belongs to the Future
Andrey Platonov, The Foundation Pit
Charles Portis, Norwood
Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself
–. The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself
Jedediah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene
Sun Ra, The Immeasurable Equation: The Collected Poetry and Prose
Hannu Rajaniemi, The Quantum Thief
–. The Fractal Prince
–. The Causal Angel
Sir Walter Ralegh, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana
Rudolph Raspe, The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Maurice Renard, The Master of Light
Nina Revoyr, Southland
Chris Roberson and Robert Adler, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheeep?: Dust to Dust, volume one
Chris Roberson and Robert Adler, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheeep?: Dust to Dust, volume two
Kim Stanley Robinson, Sixty Days and Counting
Randall Robinson, The Emancipation of Wakefield Clay
Roy Rockwood (Howard R Garis), Through Space to Mars; or, The Longest Journey on Record
Raymond Roussel, Impressions of Africa
Mary Rowlandson, A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs Mary Rowlandson
Salman Rushdie, East, West
Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North
James Sallis, Bluebottle
Andrew Sarris, “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”: The American Talking Film: History and Memory 1927–1949
Olive Schreiner, The Story of an African Farm
Max Sexton and Malcolm Cook, Adapting Science Fiction to Television: Small Screen, Expanded Universe
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
–. The Tempest
Edward Shanks, The People of the Ruins
Nisi Shawl, Everfair
Lao She, Cat Country
MP Shiel, The Young Men Are Coming!
Robert Silverberg, The World Inside
John Sinclair, ed. Sun Ra: Interviews and Essays
Zadie Smith, White Teeth
Mickey Spillane, Kiss Me, Deadly
Nick Srnick and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work
Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men
Francis Stevens (Gertrude Barrows), The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy
–. The Heads of Cerberus
Greg Tate, Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America
–. Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience
JP Telotte and Gerald Duchovany, eds, Science Fiction Double Feature: The Science Fiction Film as Cult Text
Andrew Teverson, Fairy Tale
Roy Thomas et al. The Essential Luke Cage, Power Man, volume 1
Tade Thompon, Making Wolf
JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit
Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle, Cartographies of the Absolute
Max Valier, A Daring Trip to Mars
Jen Van Meter, Cully Hamner and Laura Martin, Black Lightning Year One
Théo Varlet and André Blandin, Timeslip Troopers
Gerald Vizenor, The Heirs of Columbus
McKenzie Wark, Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene
Andy Weir, The Martian
HG Wells, All Aboard for Ararat
–. The Anatomy of Frustration
–. The Holy Terror
–. The Shape of Things to Come
Alex Wheatle, Brixton Rock
Jack Williamson, The Legion of Space
–. The Cometeers
Mark JP Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation
Nick Wood, Azanian Bridges
Barbara Wootton, London’s Burning
Gene Luen Yang, Saints
Paul Youngquist, A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism
Rachel Zadok, Gem Squash Tokoloshe
Chen Zo, Sorceror to the Crown
Back at the start of July, I was awarded the Science Fiction Research Association’s Pilgrim Lifetime Achievement Award for Critical Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy (which is its full title, I think). Here is the text of what I said, or what I meant to say, or something like that – it was all a bit blurry. (Also available in the the SFRA Review 317.)
Thank you. I’m astonished, humbled and honoured and, to be honest, a little freaked out.
Cory McAbee is currently touring a show, Small Star Seminar, in which he plays a singing motivational speaker who encourages us to recognise and embrace our limitations. Occasionally, he breaks character to talk about the ‘romantic sciences’, especially transdimensionality, which is concerned with the way we often slip between multiple parallel dimensions without necessarily realising it. He introduces it by asking three simple questions. Have you ever lost something and then later found it in a place where you’ve already looked? Have you ever continued an argument after the other person has left? Have you ever fallen in love with a cartoon character?
Despite answering in the affirmative to all three, I remained sceptical. Until, well, have you ever had an email from Craig Jacobsen saying you’re being given the Pilgrim Award?
When that happens, you become aware of transdimensional slippage, and it is profoundly disorientating, and now I seem to be stuck over here in this weird place with you guys… Don’t get me wrong, y’all are lovely people, and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but as I said in my beautifully crafted reply to Craig, it was really quite gracious and elegant: ‘Fuck. Are you sure?’
There are so many people I need to thank who I’ve worked with, and by whom I’ve been influenced, guided, helped and tolerated. So many people, from Patrick Parrinder, who taught me as an undergraduate and then invited me back to do a PhD with him, and foolishly one day entrusted to my care a visiting scholar called Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., through to Gerry Canavan, who recently joined us as an editor of Science Fiction Film and Television, or to Rhys Williams, back then a cocky young postgrad who asked if he could borrow my name to help get funding for a symposium on M. John Harrison symposium – and then discovered large pots of money he could apply for at his university, which enabled us to do the SF/F Now conference, the SF Now issue of Paradoxa, the MJH collection that is currently behind schedule but we’re getting there, honest…
But there are three people, for various reasons not here tonight, who I want to thank in particular – they have been absolutely central to my life and work since that first article fifteen years ago – and then later a fourth person, who is here tonight.
Kathrina Glitre, my friend and colleague in Film Studies at UWE. We’ve worked together for about fifteen years; sometimes I’ve been her boss, sometimes she’s been mine, currently we’re both each others, depending on what we’re doing. Our research is mostly in different fields – she wrote the single best book on classical Hollywood romantic comedy you will ever read – but without her constancy and genuinely terrifying organisational abilities, I would not have survived the day job this long, let alone had time to research or write or edit.
China Miéville, who was my first article editor (narrowly beating my good friend Andrew M Butler to that dubious distinction), and thus the first editor to remonstrate with me over my inability to write conclusions (and thus, albeit inadvertently, the author of the most quoted passage I’ve ever ‘written’). He’s also the first person to recruit me to an editorial board, my first co-editor, my first fiction editor, my mate, my comrade, a constant inspiration, a huge political and critical influence – plus a handy source of the occasional paying gig. He is currently engaged in a nautical adventure so secret that now I’ve told you about it I will have to kill you.
Sherryl Vint, my main collaborator over the years, with whom I’ve co-written and co-edited so much. It’s not all been plain sailing. For example, she led the revolt among my co-editors against the suggestion that we dedicate Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction to ‘all the reviewers incapable of spotting the title doesn’t contain a definite article’. She may have been helping me be my better self, but as anyone who’s read the reviews will agree, I’m the one vindicated by history. None of the work we’ve done together could I have done on my own, and that’s not just about productivity. I have learned so much from her about science studies, animal studies, biopolitics – work that is genuinely reshaping our field. Mostly I think what she has learned from me is to let Mark do the proof-reading, ’cos he gets cranky about that shit. A huge piece of this award really belongs to her.
Just three people out of so many.
But realising that helped me to figure out why this award is freaking me out so much. It’s not about getting old. It’s because the award is presented to an individual.
I cannot begin to calculate how many people have edited my work or written reader’s reports on it or responded to it in some way, or the amount of people I’ve edited, reported on or responded to in some way, let alone identify them. It’s even more impossible to count the work I’ve read or heard delivered, the conversations I’ve had, let alone the acts, large and small, of kindness, generosity, critique, support, care, compassion. Yet all of these things are collaborations. Whatever’s been achieved in the work that has my name on it is a product of these co-operative, collective efforts, of this mutual aid.
So this award is not just for me but for all of us (and that is not the lame platitude it sounds like now I’ve said it aloud).
The neoliberal agenda is destroying universities and learning, turning higher education into a machine for making profit. The UK now has the most costly public universities in the world, funded through a fees system that is more expensive to the tax-payer than free education would be, and that is deliberately creating indebtedness among students, graduates and their families on an industrial – and thus profitable – scale. Academic salaries are worth roughly sixty percent of what they were back when I started, with probably 25,000 academics on zero hours contracts. At the same time, workloads have increased to such an extent that we work on average two extra, unpaid days a week, and there is a massive increase in stress, anxiety, depression and other work-related health problems. There are universities whose workload model assigns a mere handful of weeks for research activity, never mind that it is often impossible actually to find those weeks among increasing teaching and administrative loads; and there are managers who would respond to one of their managees receiving an accolade such as this not with congratulations but with, ‘does it bring any funding with it?’
This is why this award is not for me, but for us.
Not just for the people with whom I’ve worked directly or indirectly, one way or another, but for all of us.
For most of us, most of the time, just as the calculation of labour-power does not care about actual labourers, so the job does not care about the work – whether that work is our students or our research. But here, at moments like this, and whenever our community or parts of it gather together, the job takes the backseat. This is about the work, about our art – about the thing we build together.
And we must make that work count.
It has to matter.
In this field, we know other worlds are possible.
We also know that some worlds are more likely than others: worlds of unchecked anthropogenic climate change; worlds in which a global economic system impoverishes, immiserates and kills people in vast numbers every day; worlds in which new forms of bloody imperialism reign, and in which the right, misogyny, homophobia and racism are resurgent. Unless we work to build better worlds – in our imaginations and our art and our work, and in this our community, and in our jobs, and through our shoddy excuses for democracy, and in the streets, and by whatever means necessary.
China ends his essay in the latest issue of Salvage with these words:
[Pause for an even more abrupt change of direction than those which have thus far characterised this speech.]
Finally, I want to thank Andrea Gibbons, author of the best book you will ever read on the ways in which race and segregation continue to shape the ways our cities are developed. For her uncanny knack of picking up books I am trying to work on, thus relieving me of the burden of precise detail. For always being there to point out that once more I forgot to do a conclusion. For persuading me that this is not the place to tear off my shirt and claim I am Chuck Tingle and crowdsurf a Spartacus-like wave of No, I am Chuck Tingles as it sweeps the room.
But mostly for reminding me that there is life outside of the job and even, sometimes, outside of the work, for making me take days off and go out and enjoy the world. And for repeatedly telling me that, as well as being astonished, humbled and honoured to receive the Pilgrim, I should also be happy about it rather than just freaked out.
Which I am.
 It was around this point that the recipient began to speak through choked back emotion. [Ed.]
 All 17 songs are available here
 He also mentions deep astronomy, emotional mathematics and blink time, but you can invent your own romantic sciences. For example, psychogeology, which is a lot like psychogeography, but slower and, well, deeper; or mountain-nearing, which is about getting up real close to sublime objects in order to discover their mundanity, but that’s probably one to talk to M John Harrison about.
 At this juncture, the recipient made what was widely considered the best, and certainly the last, of the many Brexit jokes at SFRA 2016. It addressed the insensitivity of serving as dessert another Eton Mess. This joke has proven sufficiently popular to appear in a meme in everyone’s FB feed. But the recipient made it first. [Ed.]
 Hollywood Romantic Comedy: States of the Union, 1934–1965. Manchester University Press, 2006.
 The recipient is, after all, among the youngest twenty per cent of Pilgrim winners. He should know. He did the maths. Twice, just to make sure. [Ed.]
 Land, Privilege, Race: something something something. Available from Verso in 2017.
This week we began to work on JG Ballard’s High-Rise (1975; all quotations from pictured edition, London: HarperCollins, 2006), reading the first nine chapters and also watching William Klein’s Le couple témoin/The Model Couple (1977).
We began with some context, outlining the scale and nature of house-building and redevelopment in the UK in the postwar years, drawing largely on John Grindrod’s Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain (2013) and Lynsley Hansley’s Estates: An Intimate History (2008).
There was already a housing shortage in the UK between World Wars. The promise to ensure that soldiers returned from WWI to a land fit for heroes (and thus stave off socialism) was never met – construction rates were too low and often the wrong kind of housing was being built in pursuit of the rather different goal of making private profit (Paul Rotha’s documentary Land of Promise (1946) is the classic film account of this issue and its history). During the war years of 1939-45 the UK population grew by one million per year – and during the same period four million homes were destroyed or damaged beyond repair by bombing (completely undoing the interwar construction efforts and significantly reducing housing stock in relation to total population).
Aneurin Bevan, the minister responsible for housing in the post-WWII Labour government, set a target of 300,000 new council houses per year – but rarely managed more than 200,000 – because the houses were to be spacious (90 square metres), brick-built with gardens. For him, such decent houses were not to be restricted to the privately-owning middle classes – they should be available to the working class, rented at lower than market rates from local councils. (One policy proposal considered but sadly never pursued was buying out all private landlords, thus monopolising the rental market and keeping down the cost of housing.)
When a succession of Conservative governments took office (from late 1951-64), they took up the challenge of 300,000 new houses per year – and succeeded in meeting the target. But they did so by reducing the size of the houses (70 square metres) and shifting from brick construction to speedier (but less durable) prefabricated structures, with no guarantee of gardens. And there was a shift to building blocks of flats rather than houses because they were cheaper and quicker to throw up from prefabricated materials. Ironically, because these blocks were typically set in parkland of some sort, the same number of people could have been housed in the same space with terraced housing.
In High-Rise, Ballard is fully aware of the economics determining such constructions:
All the evidence accumulated over several decades cast a critical light on the high-rise as a viable social structure, but cost-effectiveness in the area of public housing and high profitability in the private sector kept pushing these vertical townships into the sky against the real needs of their occupants. (52)
Why were the blocks typically surrounded by parkland? Partly, it seems to be the influence of Le Corbusier, whose unrealised ville contemporaine (1922) plan to build 24 60-storey cruciform high-rise skyscrapers in which three million people would live and work did so. Ballard does not pursue the scale of this scheme – Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside (1971) comes closer – but he does draw on Le Corbusier in other ways.
Le Corbusier advocated five principles when designing apartment blocks:
1 Lift the structure off the ground on reinforced concrete stilts (pilotis), enabling
2 a free façade (non-supporting exterior walls to allow the architecture freedom in his design) and
3 an open floor plan (interior could be configured without having to worry about supporting walls).
4 The free façade enables ribbon windows so as to provide clear views of surrounding gardens.
5 A roof garden compensates for the ground area covered by the building.
These principles are evident in his Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, often described as resembling a moored ocean liner, contains 337 apartments, with a floor halfway up the block devoted to public amenities, and a roof garden. It is also raised up on pilotis. It became a location of pilgrimage and an object to copy for a generation or two of architects, including many of those planning housing developments for British councils. It also provides the design for Ballard’s own high-rise (it even stands on pilotis, ‘concrete legs’ (19)), one of five spaced equidistantly on the eastern edge of an under-construction square mile development in London’s docklands (in this, the novel is proleptic of material we studied way back in week one of the module, The Long Good Friday and London’s Overthrow – as well as of what has actually happened to such spaces since Ballard wrote the novel).
The other context I introduced was about Ballard himself: his centrality to New Wave sf of the 1960s and 1970s; his early novels refiguring the conventions of disaster fiction, such The Drowned World (1962), which also introduce surrealistic images into narratives indebted to writer like Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene; the thematic trilogy, including Crash (1973) and Concrete Island (1974), which concludes with High-Rise; the autobiographical fictions and the more mainstream respectability that came with Empire of the Sun (1984); and the return of his late novels, Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006), to transformations in bourgeois living environments.
Turning to the novel, we began by thinking about the names and characteristics of the three narrators, each of whom is associated with one of the three classes that emerge among the middle class residents of the building.
From the lower levels, Richard Wilder – physical, aspirational – he is the wildest and most overtly violent of the three and a frequent adulterer whose wife calls him Dick.
From the mid-levels, Robert Laing, whose name echoes that of the unorthodox psychiatrist RD Laing (1927-89), who saw mental illness as a product of social environments rather than as some kind of inward-driven deformation of the self, and who considered patients’ descriptions of their responses to their environments as valid in themselves rather than as symptoms of Freudian disorder. Opposed to use of antipsychotics to treat mental illness, he favoured recreational drug use and believed that mental illness could be a kind of transformative, shamanic experience. He also promoted primal scream therapy – most of the inhabitants of Ballard’s building seem to go through some version of it – and rebirthing therapy – foreshadowed for Robert Laing when he is surrounded by the threatening guests at the cocktail party to which he is not invited, with the whole novel constituting a kind of rebirthing for him.
From the very top floor, the architect of the building, Anthony Royal – a royal, the king of the place. Recently injured in a car accident, he suffers from a disability – and wears a distinctive costume – that makes him come across, one of the class suggested, like a Bond villain. Which enabled me to go, ah, funny you should say that…
I have long wondered whether having the architect of the building live in the penthouse was inspired by the fact that Hungarian-born architect Ernő Goldfinger lived for two months in an apartment on the top floor of Poplar’s 26-storey Balfron Tower (built 1965-67), which he had designed. He and his wife are said to have thrown cocktail parties to meet the other residents and learn their thoughts about his design so that he could incorporate criticisms and suggestions in his later building, such as the neighbouring 11-storey Carradale House (built 1967-70). Back in the 1930s, Goldfinger had been responsible for the demolition of some cottages in Hampstead to make way for three new houses, in one of which he would live. Ian Fleming was among those protesting the demolition. Twenty years later, Fleming would name a James Bond novel – and villain – after the architect. Ernő Goldfinger threatened to sue over Auric Goldfinger, to which Fleming reputedly responded, Okay, I’ll just rename him Goldprick. Ernő decided not to pursue the case.
Next we took a look at the opening paragraph, detailing how the design of Ballard’s building displays the influence of Le Corbusier and, in particular, Unité d’Habitation, and then looking at how it introduces patterns of imagery that will recur throughout the novel.
- a post-apocalyptic sensibility that also suggests a descent into primitivism – Laing is calmly eating a dog (cf. Harlan Ellison’s New Wave story ‘A Boy and His Dog’ (1969) and LQ Jones’s 1975 film adaptation), and the building’s exterior is described as a cliff-face (cf. Henry Blake Fuller’s The Cliff-Dwellers (1893), possibly the first novel about skyscraper living, complete with domestic violence and an Oedipal struggle)
- conflict – confrontation, violence and war imagery (there are skirmish grounds, raiding parties, provocations, retaliations, a buffer state, an interregnum, etc, but also some specifically WWII images – Royal’s ‘personal Dunkirk’ (69) and also, more ambiguously, the Blitz: a voice ‘calm and matter-of-fact, like that of a civilian in a war-torn city dealing with yet another air-raid’ (60) and, during the first blackout, the darkness providing conditions not just of sexual peril but also of consensual sexual adventuring (20))
- the embrace of isolation, anonymity and alienation
- apartments as prison cells (later, there will be news of a prison breakout (30), Wilder will be involved in filming a prison strike (42, 44), and his wife, Helen, will blandly observe that his desire to film in the apartment block will produce just ‘another prison documentary’ (45)) – this introduces the idea of the apartment block as what Erving Goffman called a total institution, like prisons and asylums (two of the psychosociologsist in Le couple témoin previously worked in an asylum) and even ocean liners (to which Unité d’Habitation has often been compared)
We then looked at the next section of the opening chapter (7-11), in which we learned more about the structure of the building and the docklands development of which it is a part, and the feelings it induces as a tripartite class structure begins to emerge among its bourgeois inhabitants. Highlights include:
- indifference, giddiness, exhilaration, insomnia and, especially among female residents, boredom and nomadism; these troubling sensations will later develop into rifts that some think foreshadow or imply the mutation of the residents into a posthuman species (35–6; a similar idea is mooted in Silverberg’s The World Inside)
- Steele’s anal obsession with garbage chutes
- bigotry – people begin to talk dismissively and angrily about other floors as groups to be denigrated, abhorred (14, 24, 38) – Steele will compare ninth floor residents to ‘a traditionally feckless band of migrant workers’ (25), and the intensity of these emerging prejudices will be compared directly to ‘racial prejudice’ (32)
- the relationship to London – which is somehow distanced in both space and time, a past of ‘crowded streets, traffic hold-ups, rush-hour journeys on the Underground’ (9), while the building belongs to an emerging future; in Ballard’s descriptions, time is transformed into space and vice versa
- a grand Ballardian simile connecting the psychological to the urban, with a vague gesture to TS Eliot (he does this sort of thing a lot – never quite makes sense yet seems to imply immensities): ‘the ragged skyline of the city resembled the disturbed encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis’ (9)
- the contradictions of the building – Laing’s sister says: ‘You could be alone here, in an empty building … Besides, it’s full of the kind of people you ought to meet’ (10); Laing will soon appreciate the way the place enables both proximity and distance, providing a neutral background for his potential affair with Charlotte, although he immediately questions whether this is really the case (16) – this idea is developed further when they do first have sex (38)
- the ways in which the building design encourages its inhabitants to turn inwards, away from the city but also from each other
We closed with a brief discussion of Le couple témoin, William Klein’s film about an average couple who win a competition to live as test subjects in a new urban development – the experiment is ostensibly concerned with designing apartments to ensure that they meet the needs of such a couple, but it clearly is more concerned with engineering their consent and subservience. The psychosociologist experimenters – themselves hardly rational – subject Jean-Michel and Claudine to an array of absurd tests, frequently bullying and brow-beating them, passive-aggressively consulting at them, reinforcing the most conservative of gender roles. The tests become increasingly irrational and arbitrary – authority being exercised because it is authority, not for any greater end. As funding for the experiment withers, and viewing figures for the Big Brother-like media coverage slump, so a group of child and teen revolutionaries are hired to stage a hostage-taking…
Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 7 “The Modernity of the Sophisticate and the Misfit: The City through Different Eyes.”
Baxter, Jeanette. J.G. Ballard: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. London: Continuum, 2009.
Colombino, Laura. “The House as SKIN: J. G. Ballard, Existentialism and Archigram’s Mini-Environments.” European Journal of English Studies 16.1 (2012): 21–31.
Delville, Michel. J.G. Ballard. Plymouth: Northcote, 1998.
Duff, Kim. Contemporary British Literature and Urban Space: After Thatcher. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 52–86
Gasiorek, Andrzej. J.G. Ballard. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.
Grindrod, John. Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain. London: Old Street, 2013.
Groes, Sebastian. The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 67–93
Hansley, Lynsley. Estates: An Intimate History. London: Granta, 2008.
Matthews, Graham. “Consumerism’s Endgame: Violence and Community in J.G. Ballard’s Late Fiction.” Journal of Modern Literature 36.2 (2013): 122–39.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 8. “The City as Queer Playground.”
Siegel, Allen. “After the Sixties: Changing Paradigms in the Representation of Urban Space.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 137–159.
Shiel, Mark. “A Nostalgia for Modernity: New York, Los Angeles, and American Cinema in the 1970s.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 160 – 179.
High-Rise is part of a thematic trilogy, including Ballard’s most challenging novel, Crash (1973), and Concrete Island (1974). Ballard’s ‘late fiction’ returns to similar material but relocated to gated suburban communities in Running Wild (1988), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006).
1970s British novels of urban decay include Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) and Zoe Fairbairns’s Benefits (1979).
Ben Wheatley’s High Rise (2015) adapts Ballard’s novel.
Modern city living deranges or makes miserable in Repulsion (Polanski 1965), Shivers (Cronenberg 1975), Crash (Cronenberg 1996) and Happiness (Solondz 1998).
Films about the decay of urban centres include Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger 1969), Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971) and Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet 1975).
This year, I read 166 books for pleasure. (My definition of ‘pleasure’ here includes background reading for new modules, research projects, reader’s reports, reviews, blurbs, etc, as well as ploughing through books that have been cluttering up the house for years – or decades – before donating them to the local charity shop; hence I am surprised to find four of my top twenty were actually published in 2015).
Portnoy compliance data:
All of the world except… = 87
…straight white men writing in English = 74
plus multi-authored in ways too complex to divide = 5
(but only about 40 by women)
Top twenty titles (excluding books I’ve read before)
Bernardine Evaristo, Blonde Roots (2008)
Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues (1993)
Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights (1979)
Ondjaki, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret (2008)
Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement (2009)
Alain Robbe-Grillet, The Erasers (1953)
Sapphire, Push (1996)
Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners (1956)
Dilman Dila, A Killing in the Sun (2015)
Nerine Dorman, ed, Terra Incognita: New Speculative Fiction from Africa (2015)
Abdelfattah Kilito, The Clash of Images (1995)
China Miéville, Three Moments of An Explosion (2015)
Sam Selvon, Ways of Sunlight (1957)
Sam Greenlee, Ammunition! (1975)
Tony Puryear and Erika Alexander, Concrete Park: You Send Me (2014)
–. Concrete Park: R.E.S.P.E.C.T. (2015)
Gene Luen Yang, Boxers (2013)
Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921 (1954)
— The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-29 (1959)
— The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-40 (1963)
The full list of books I read this year
Brian Aldiss, Bury My Heart at WH Smith’s
— Helliconia Summer
— The Twinkling of an Eye
Michelle Alexander and Jeanne Long, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days: The Universal Don’ts of Dating
Monica Ali, Brick Lane
Nelson Algren, A Walk on the Wild Side
Grant Allen, The Woman Who Did
Margery Allingham, The Tiger in the Smoke
Guillermo Arriaga, The Guillotine Squad
Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg, eds, Cosmic Critiques: How and Why Ten Science Fiction Stories Work
Marc Augé, The Future
JG Ballard, High Rise (film reviewed)
— The Drowned World
Lynne Reid Banks, The L-Shaped Room
René Barjavel, Ashes, Ashes
Steven Barnes, Streetlethal
Walter Besant, The Revolt of Man
Calixthe Beyala, How to Cook Your Husband the African Way
David Bischoff, Young Sun Ra and the Strange Celestial Roads
Andy Boot, Fragments of Fear: An Illustrated History of British Horror Films
Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day
Dennis Broe, Maverick
Michael Bronski, Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps
Keith Brooke, ed., Strange Divisions and Alien Territories: The Sub-Genres of Science Fiction
Octavia Butler, Dawn
— Adulthood Rites
Brian Chikwava, Harare North
Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger
Teju Cole, Open City
Warwick Collins, Gents
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent
Richard Cowper, The Custodians, and Other Stories
— The Twilight of Briareus
Chris Darke, La jetée
Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921
— The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsksy 1921-29
— The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-40
Bernard F Dick, The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row: Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures
Joan Didion, Where I Was From
Dilman Dila, A Killing in the Sun
Brian Dooley, Black and Green: The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland and Black America
Nerine Dorman, ed, Terra Incognita: New Speculative Fiction from Africa
Fyodor Dostoevksy, Notes from Underground
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
–. Uncle Bernac: A Memory of the Empire
David Duffy, Losing the Head of Philip K Dick
Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo
Nell Dunn, Up the Junction
Caroline Edwards and Tony Venezia, eds, China Miéville: Critical Essays
George Alec Effinger, When Gravity Fails
David Eggers, A Hologram for the King
Bernardine Evaristo, Blonde Roots
Allen Eyles, House of Horror: The Complete Hammer Films Story
Michael Fabre, Under the Skin
Hans Fallada, Tales from the Underworld
Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues
Eric Flint, Gorg Huff and Paula Goodlett, 1636: The Kremlin Games
Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Norton, 80! Memories and Reflections on Ursula K Le Guin
Carl Freedman, Art and Idea in the Novels of China Miéville
Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton
Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm
William Gibson, The Peripheral
Jeremy Gilbert, Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism
Robert SC Gordon, Bicycle Thieves
Joe Gores, Hammett
Graham Greene, Brighton Rock
Karl Taro Greenfield, Speed Tribes: Children of the Japanese Bubble
Sam Greenlee, Ammunition!
Walter Greenwood, Love on the Dole
John Grindrod, Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain
Joe Haldeman, The Long Habit of Living
Sarah Hall, The Carhullan Army
Knut Hamsun, Hunger
Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights
Mark Harris, Scenes from a Revolution: The Birth of the New Hollywood
Ivor W Hartmann, ed., AfroSF, volume 2
Brett Harvey, The Fifties: A Woman’s Oral History
Mary Higgs, Glimpses into the Abyss
Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt
Andrew Holleran, Dancer from the Dance
Tendai Huchu, The Maestro, the Magician and the Mathematician
Fergus Hume, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab
CLR James, Letters from London
James Joyce, Dubliners
Anton Kaes, M
Sue Kaufman, The Diary of a Mad Housewife
Gerald Kersh, Night and the City (here and here)
Abdelfattah Kilito, The Clash of Images
Stephen King, Doctor Sleep
— The Shining
Cyril M Kornbluth, Not this August
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future
Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia
Andrei Kurkov, Death and the Penguin
Henry Kuttner, Elak of Atlantis
George Lamming, The Emigrants
Andrea Levy, Small Island
Marina Lewycka, Two Caravans
Megan Lindholm, Wizard of the Pigeons
Kelly Link, Magic for Beginners
Jack London, The People of the Abyss
Neil McAleer, Odyssey: The Authorised Biography of Arthur C Clarke
Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan
— The Three Impostors
— The Terror
Colin Macinnes, Absolute Beginners
— City of Spades
Katherine Mansfield, In a German Pension
Richard Marsh, The Chase of the Ruby
— The Datchet Diamonds
Guy de Maupassant, Bel Ami, or the Secret History of a Scoundrel
Quentin Meillassoux, Science Fiction and Extro-Science Fiction
China Miéville, This Census Taker
— Three Moments of An Explosion
Rick Moody, The Ice Storm
Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, volume one
Susanna Moore, In the Cut
VS Naipaul, The Mimic Men
Frank Norris, Blix
— Moran of the Lady Letty
Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe, eds, Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis
Félix J Palma, The Map of Time
Richard Powers, Generosity
Tony Puryear and Erika Alexander, Concrete Park: You Send Me
–. Concrete Park: R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
Raymond Queneau, Zazie in the Metro
Alain Robbe-Grillet, The Erasers
Jackie Robinson, I Never Had It Made
David S. Roh, Betsey Huang and Greta A. Niu, eds, Techno-Orientalism: Imaging Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media
Satyajit Ray, The Diary of a Space Traveller and Other Stories
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America
Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark
Sunjeev Sahota, Ours are the Streets
Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners
–. Ways of Sunlight
Khairy Shalaby, The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets
Patrick Sheeran, The Informer
Anne River Siddons, The House Next Door
Sister Souljah, The Coldest Winter Ever
Muriel Spark, The Ballad of Peckham Rye
— The Girls of Slender Means
Colin Spencer, Homosexuality: A History
Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net
Herbert Strang, Round the World in Seven Days
— The Old Man of the Mountain
Mrs Herbert Strang, The Girl Crusoes
Neil Strauss, ed., Radiotext(e)
Boris and Arkaday Strugatsky, Hard to Be a God (film reviewed)
Preston and Sandy Sturges, Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges
Rose Tremain, The Road Home
Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation
Dai Vaughan, Odd Man Out
Jules Verne, The Sphinx of the Ice Realm
HG Wells, The Autocracy of Mr Parham
— The Time Machine
Brian Willems, Shooting the Moon
Jeanette Winterson, The Stone Gods
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
Gene Luen Yang, Boxers
Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road
Yevgeny Zamyatin, We
Benjamin Zephaniah, Refugee Boy
Ultimately, the opening text tells us, the war became unnecessary. Perhaps it was a mutation, or perhaps bone-deep ideology just changed. But people gave up on survival, on perpetuating the species. (The cost, after all, had proven terrible.) The remnant population
slowly started to decrease, wane and languish like the dying flame of a candle that barely resists extinguishing itself. … The elderly passed on and the young became elderly. The news of the sporadic birth of a child, probably conceived out of neglect, was received with condescending smiles the same as in those who mock ignorant people who with pride show off their out of style garments.
Crumbs begins with a series of gently floating shots, starting with a broad view of the peculiar mineral structures in volcanic landscape of Dallol, before moving in to detail their folded textures and colours. Water washes over the surface, as in something by Tarkovsky; the shots commute each other, as in something by Kubrick. A desert wind blows, accompanied by Atomizador’s throbbing alien score. There are mountains in the distance. A lone figure in a light shirt and darker trousers, with a satchel slung over his shoulder, makes his way through this alien yet terrestrial landscape. He is dwarfish, hunchbacked, deformed in some way. We will learn he is called Candy (Daniel Tardesse).
Among the rusting vehicle carcasses and other long-abandoned matériel are the remnants of a pipeline. In the ruins of the salt-block buildings he finds an artificial Christmas tree, its spindly green plastic branches still furled close to its metal trunk. In the distance he spots a figure (Quino Piñero). A man in a military uniform: a medal on his chest, a swastika on his armband, and a rat mask covering his head, grey ears visible above the gas mask covering his face. Candy flees. Distortion fills the soundtrack. Above the salt flats across which Candy runs floats a spaceship, an immense citadel hovering in these post-apocalyptic Ethiopian skies.
The tree is a gift for his lover, a young black woman called Sayat or Birdy (Selam Tesfayie) who makes sculptures from salvaged metal. In the derelict bowling alley in which they live – surrounded by fetishes hanging from trees like those in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper 1974) – the ball return mechanism has started to activate itself. Sayat suggests that there must be a magnetic field being directed at it, as if someone, maybe the spaceship, which has been ‘rusting in the sky since the beginning of the big war’, is trying to send them a message. When Candy investigates the mechanism – like Henry (Jack Nance) in Eraserhead (Lynch 1977) looking behind the radiator – he finds something unexpected down inside it: a voice, that will later be revealed as that of a skinny black Santa (Tsegaye Abegaz) who might be very small or just a long way away.
Candy undertakes a quest to find out what is going on – a quest that will take him through the stunning green highlands around the Wenchi crater-lake, to a witch who won’t let him pay for her insights with the pristine copy of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous LP which is supposed to finance his wedding, and then on through an abandoned rail depot to the old city, and through it to a derelict lakeside zoo and a violent encounter with Santa Claus…
I have no idea whether there is a specific folktale lurking in the back of all this, an Ethiopian legend akin to the Malian epic of the crippled warrior-king Sundjata, and accounts of Llansó’s improvisational style of direction – responding to what he finds on location – suggest that while there might be some such narrative armature the final film is unlikely to map onto it with any kind of precision.
It is a film full of allusions: Candy is challenged by a masked warrior on horseback who gallops up like something out of Zardoz (Boorman 1974) or The Planet of the Apes (Schaffner 1968); a bowling ball rolls mysteriously across the floor, like something from The Shining (Kubrick 1980); a rail line subsiding on a narrow stretch of land built across the middle of a lake recalls China Miéville’s Railsea (2012). There are also bits that reminded me of Space is the Place (Coney 1974) and Save the Green Planet! (Joon-Hwan Jang 2003).
There is the detritus of a lost world, given fresh meaning: a plastic figurine of TMNT Donatello, a Max Steel ‘Force Sword’ still attached to its colourful cardboard backing, a Michael Jackson album, a figure of a child asleep on a mattress, all of which are seen within the story world; and then once more, floating in Earth orbit as gracefully as a Kubrick weapons platform or space shuttle, while the voice of the shopkeeper (Mengistu Bermanu) describes them in relation to their production in the pre-apocalypse and their use by the legendary Molegon warriors – an amulet, an instiller of courage before battles, a reminder of the adored Andromeda baby and of its twin who lived in the pyramid of Cheops. There is an altar to Michael Jordan. Sayat, perhaps awaking from a dream, intones a fervent prayer to a string of deities: ‘Einstein IV, San Pablo Picasso, Stephen Hawking III, Justin Bieber VI, Paul McCartney XI, Carrefour!’ (Though the film is as dark as the storm raging outside, and it is possible she is chanting this litany as she masturbates.) There are also a lot of plastic dinosaurs, and a plastic lion. There are children’s superhero costumes. There is a cinema that has screened Süpermen Dönüyor, Kunt Tulgar’s 1979 Turkish Superman knock-off, every day for forty years, including the day on which we get a glimpse inside.
Candy’s quest brings him to a landscape littered with abandoned trains, rusting wheel-less cadavers, somehow both modern and prehistoric – like the rotting symbols of earlier waves of (failed) colonial expansion Conrad describes in Heart of Darkness (1899). Among them he finds a man who used to work for the railway (Girma Gebrehiwot), but the man does not speak. When Candy starts claiming that he is from another world – rocky, frozen, windswept – the man does not hear him; the discordant soundtrack – part Sun Ra, appropriately enough, part Texas Chain Saw Massacre – drowns his voice (a little like the bar scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Lynch 1992)).
Candy moves on, past corroding watertowers that resemble abandoned Martian war machines. All he wants is to be able to return to his home planet, taking Sayat – and the child he intuits she is carrying – with him.
Some reviews of Crumbs suggest that its elliptical narrative, its congeries and clusters of salvage and allusion, defy meaning. That this rather gentle, beautiful, endearing film is somehow impenetrable. Such reviews are simply and straightforwardly wrong. Crumbs – probably the best sf film to come out of Africa so far, and by a wide margin the best sf film of 2015 – is as easy to follow as the autobahn down which we are pellmelling to the end of the world.
We are living in the capitalocene moment, the gutted shell that is the present of the future Llansó depicts. The toys and costumes and other absurd relics, some in their original packaging, represent what Evan Calder Williams calls salvagepunk’s returning-repressed ‘idiosyncrasy of outmoded things’.
If I have one anxiety about this film it is that the unfamiliar landscapes it shows us are so beautiful they seem desirable. In this, it speaks to something dark in us. The thanatopic social sadism, recently anatomised by Miéville, the ‘thuggish idiot’s prometheanism’ that proclaims climate change is good for business; that longs with ‘spiteful glee’ for the further ruination of developing countries and the additional edge it will give to first-world corporations. That yearning to wipe the slate clean. To purge the Earth of the human stain.
[Many thanks to Miguel Llansó, Ewa Bojanowska and New Europe Film Sales for giving me access to a copy of the film; and to China for flexing his celebrity to make it happen.]
Miéville, China. ‘On Social Sadism’, Salvage # 2: Awaiting the Furies. 17-49.
Williams, Evan Calder. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: Luciferian Marxism. Ropley: Zero Books, 2010.
 A ghost town in northern Ethiopia, build for potash mining in the early twentieth century. Photos here – also google ‘Dallol’ for images of the astonishing landscape. And while you’re at it, take a look at ‘Wenchi crater-lake’.
From 18 June to 20 October 2013, the Porter gallery in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum was home to Memory Palace. Sponsored by Sky Arts Ignition, it is the first graphic arts exhibition at the venue in over a decade. It features one eponymous novella by Hari Kunzru (published separately) and twenty installations by as many artists or studios, and attempts to see “how far [you can] push the format and still call it a book,” to provide “an experiential reading format for a story,” to “create an exhibition that can be read’ (Newell and Salazar, “Curating a Book,” Memory Palace 84, 85). It is also a work of sf.
Curators Laurie Britton Newell and Ligaya Salazar commissioned Kunzru to outline a story that would then be developed in collaboration with the artists, who would be co-creators rather than mere illustrators: Abäke, Peter Bil’ak, Alexis Deacon, Sara De Bondt studio, Oded Ezer, Francesco Franchi, Isabel Greenberg, Hansje van Halem, Robert Hunter, Jim Kay, Johnny Kelly, Erik Kessels, Na Kim, Stuart Kolakovic, Frank Laws, Le Gun, CJ Lim, Luke Pearson, Stefanie Posavec, Némo Tral, Henning Wagenbreth, Mario Wagner, and Sam Winston. This process is recounted in Hunter’s dialog-free, short graphic comic, “Making Memory Palace,” appended to Kunzru’s novella.
The British-Indian Kunzru, a former magazine journalist, who wrote about travel, music, culture, and technology, is, like David Mitchell, one of that generation of authors relatively untroubled by genre-policing. His second novel, Transmission (2005), is about a computer virus, and reads like a slimmed-down, nearer-future version of Ian McDonald’s River of Gods (2004) spliced together with one of William Gibson’s Bigend novels; his fourth and most recent novel, the historically-sprawling Gods without Men (2012), includes UFOs and aliens, kinda. A rather trendy literary author, his first novel, The Impressionist (2003), attracted a £1 million+ advance, and he has won several major awards and prizes. The central concerns of his particular brand of popular, not exactly demanding postmodernism, sometimes described as “hysterical realism” or “translit,” are non-linearity and connectivity. Kunzru’s commissioning by Sky Arts is, then, relatively unsurprising (especially as he also used to be a presenter on The Lounge, Sky TV’s own electronic arts program).
His co-creators are rather less well known. Intriguingly, in their brief biographies at the end of the Memory Palace book, not one of them self-describes as an artist. They are all graphic designers, graphic artists, typographers, illustrators, comics artists, book designers, creative directors, art directors, editors, and/or architects. One is left with a strong sense of a smug and slightly shadowy commercial world of professionals, talented but perhaps a bit glib, for whom this is just another commission to be turned in on budget and on time. This perhaps explains why the exhibition’s satirical attack on neo-liberal hegemony and state-imposed regimes of austerity and amnesia is so muted.
Kunzru’s novella, Memory Palace, is set in a post-apocalyptic London. A magnetic storm destroyed the global information infrastructure and brought the Withering, a post-literate Dark Age of totalitarian theocracy, in which Westminster is known as Waste Monster, and other moderately amusing sub-Riddley Walker (1980) wordplay thrives. The Thing (as the council of leaders is known) wants to bring about the Wilding, a future in which the remnants of humanity will live in harmony with nature. The Thing has outlawed writing and recording, thereby criminalizing the Memorialists, those who are devoted to collecting and recollecting the past, whom they now hunt. Appropriately, then, the story, while nicely written and more than competent, stirs with faint echoes: of post-apocalyptic fiction by John Wyndham, John Christopher, and Walter M. Miller; of the television series Survivors (UK 1975-1977) and the coda to the film Threads (Jackson UK/Australia/US 1984); of M. John Harrison’s seedy bedsit entropy, China Miéville’s rejectamentalism, and Evan Calder Wood’s salvagepunk.
The book version of Memory Palace is, as one would expect from such a project, a gorgeous object, lavishly illustrated with selected work from the exhibition and pictures of the physical and electronic installations. If you have read the book, though, the exhibition itself is a little disappointing (I cannot gauge what it would be like to see the exhibition before, or without, reading the book). Le Gun’s life-size model of what someone from the post-apocalypse imagines an ambulance to have looked like – part medicine show, part museum of curiosities, drawn by wolves and driven by a Día de Muertos cross between Baron Samedi and the Child Catcher – is impressively detailed, as is Jim Kay’s reliquary cabinet devoted to Milord Darwing, the author of Origin of the Species (1859), who is misremembered as a rogue GM scientist. In contrast, Oded Ezer’s eight short films, looped on eight separate screens, are all concept with little art, and Erik Kessel’s enormous temple built from bundles of newspapers and advertising fliers, recalling the pre-apocalyptic religious ritual of Recycling, has even less art and barely even a concept. The more straightforward illustrations – whether blown up on large light boxes (Tral), arranged in a narrative thread on a white wall so you have to move to follow them (Pearson), or presented on zinc letterpress plates (Winston) – do benefit from exhibition. And it is quite pleasing – after all the corporate profligacy, the privatization and militarization of public spaces, the peonage of cleaners and others, the jingoism and spitefulness, that the London Olympics involved – to see the stadium reduced to slums (Tral) and Anish Kapoor and Arups’ 115-meter tall ArcelorMittal Orbit, a kind of flying spaghetti Eiffel Tower, being ceremonially burned to the ground (Greenberg).
Newell and Salazar write that “Unlike reading a printed book, visiting an exhibition is not usually a linear experience” (85). In this case, however, the layout of the space, and the clearly marked entrance and exit, do produce a linear exhibit, whereas reading the book, with its out-of-order narrative and illustrations that tempt one to flick back and forth between them, is more successfully non-linear. Consequently, I would recommend the book over the exhibition, especially as it is available from online stores for less than £10, and unless you live in South Kensington (or “South Keen Singtown,” as it will be known during the Withering), getting to and seeing the exhibition will cost you more than that.
A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Studies 121 (2013), 596–8.
Critics have been unanimous in their praise of how gorgeous the film looks, from its gothicky design to its fabulous frocks and sumptuous colour palette (it also has some nice irises and cunning wipes).
Or they have echoed del Toro’s own point that it is not really a horror movie so much as a gothic romance, full of echoes and allusions, including: Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’; the several versions of Jane Eyre and Silence of the Lambs; Du Maurier’s Rebecca; Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Notorious; Medak’s The Changeling; The Haunting, and Wises’s; King’s The Shining, and Kubrick’s; the Coen’s Barton Fink; del Toro’s own Devil’s Backbone; and so on.
All of these critics are right, and yet without exception they overlook del Toro’s major accomplishment.
Somehow, he manages constantly to keep this astonishing overblown confection of evil aristocrats, ghosts, forbidden rooms, gramophone cylinders, automata, letters, keys, ghosts, murder, incest, idiosyncratic grim-up-north grimness, peculiarly hardy Cumberland moths, violent assaults and revolutionary mining technology just this side of hilariously funny. And somehow he makes it a constant delight, grand guignol at its most operatic, all logic subordinated to production design.
But it would take just one person in the auditorium to start laughing, and it could all go disastrously wrong.
It is not the first time del Toro has walked this particular line. Much as I enjoyed them, Hellboy II and Pacific Rim edge along a similar tightrope, and are rather less successful in keeping it together.
Early in the film, protagonist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) explains of a story she has written that it is not so much a ghost story as a story with ghosts in it, and that her ghosts are actually metaphors for the past. With the kind of New Weird chutzpah that China Miéville once championed, del Toro’s film takes completely the opposite tack. His ghosts are ghosts, not metaphors.
However, the logic of Miéville’s argument meant that while one should be absolutely committed to treating monsters as monsters rather than as metaphors, this should nonetheless leave their metaphorical potential open and even make for more effective metaphoricity. But with del Toro’s pastiche late-Victorian setting lacking the historical resonances of Devil’s and Pan’s Labyrinth‘s (not unproblematic) Spanish Civil War settings, there is nothing really for his ghosts to gain metaphorical purchase, even if they were so inclined. There is some stuff about aristocrats as parasites, and a whole Blut und Boden thing lying around should anyone want to make something of it, but no one does. And del Toro seems utterly uninterested in the gendered restrictions and sexual repression that seem so fundamental to gothic romance.
It is a film of many layers, all of them on the surface.
On the other hand, I loved every deliriously silly minute of it, and you get the impression del Toro did, too.
This year we launched the new single honours BA Literature and Film Studies. The single honours bit is important. In a joint honours with a name like this, generally students could expect to take a couple of modules in the English department and a couple in the Film Studies department each year, with the relationships between literature and film largely unexplored (beyond, perhaps, a module on adaptation). So we set out to do something rather different – to continue to recognise medium-specificities and disciplinary knowledges/practices/skills, but also to bring them together. Various practicalities (staff specialisms and availability, institutional structures, etc) shaped the form this has taken. Basically, each year, students on the degree take one literary studies module, one film studies module, and two modules organised around a particular set of ideas that study both film and literature together; and none of these are shared with other programmes.
In the first year, one of the ‘combined’ modules looks at issues of cultural value and the other one – my one – is about representations of the city in fiction and film. Each week we have a two-hour screening slot, and a three-hour session which combines lecture and seminar activities in various mixes.
I will try to find time each week to blog about what we have been up to.
The first week of a module with new students always has particular tensions between:
1) all the institutional and organisational information that at least needs to be said aloud;
3) encouraging students to start talking to each other and with the whole group;
and 4) actually studying something together
Fortunately, we were able to keep the first intake onto the degree quite small, and the students have already had induction sessions and a class together, so 2) could at least be folded into 3) and 4). Bureaucracies, however, tend to proliferate the items for 1) and drop them in the programme leader’s lap – in this instance, mine. Fortunately, I have great colleagues and we were able to share that load out a bit across the modules. Otherwise we might never have got to 4).
And at least everyone now knows what to do in case of fires or medical emergencies…
There is a further tension between introducing the module as a whole and meaningfully studying something quite specific that week.
In preparation for class, we read China Miéville’s London’s Overthrow and watched The Long Good Friday (Mackenzie 1981).
We began with some general questions:
- How are cities defined?
- How do cities differ from towns?
- What are the relationships between the city and the country? Between the city and the conurbation or megalopolis? Between ‘the city’ and actual cities?
- Is the city merely a physical, architectural phenomenon?
- How are cities experienced and imagined?
Which inevitably lead to our first run-in with that student-frustrating formula: there is no definitive answer.
Louis Wirth in the 1930s defined cities in terms of permanence, large population, high population density and social heterogeneity. The UN seems to be moving away from thinking in terms of cities to mapping space in terms of intensive urban agglomerations and extensive metropolition regions. In the UK, unless you happen to have an Anglican diocesan cathedral, city status is awarded by the monarch – usually after some kind of competition tied to a celebration of the monarchy, such as a jubilee or royal wedding.
Probably the most useful definition in terms of the coming weeks is Richard Sennett’s self-consciously ‘simple’ attempt from 1977: ‘a city is a human settlement where strangers are likely to meet’. Which we unpicked for a while.
The Long Good Friday
Crime movies are often good for social and political commentary. The urban crime movie, particularly as it builds on hardboiled fiction, makes use of physical mobility across the city to explore social, political and economic relationships; and by moving across class and race barriers, it is able to depict crime as mirroring and/or paralleling ‘legitimate’culture. Hollywood’s ‘ethnic’ gangster movie protagonist (Scarface, The Public Enemy, Little Caesar in the 1930s through to, say, Dead Presidents in the 1990s) pursued individual wealth and personal success but because of race/ethnic/class exclusion had to rely on ‘illegitimate’ means. In the 1940s, with High Sierra and Force of Evil there is a shift to depicting organised crime as not really any different from capitalist corporations – a tendency which reaches a high point in especially the second Godfather film, and which results in bankers becoming indistinguishable from criminals in The International. Against that genre history, The Long Good Friday takes on a British neoliberal – or Thatcherite – specificity in the way it maps out relations between between crime, politics, policing, urban redevelopment and international finance. Gangland boss Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) captures something of the Conservative’s ideological contradiction between
- a there-is-no-such-thing-as-society neoliberalism of competitive economic self-interest and ‘freedom’
- a social conservatism (family, nation, social order, white privilege, etc)
The depiction of the Irish and especially the IRA is informative in this regard. The film came out as the Conservative government and their media lackeys were changing the treatment and representation of the IRA from political dissidents to nothing more than a violent criminal gang. This process began much earlier but had a particular resonance at the time – the film was released on 2 February 1981, less than a month before Bobby Sands and others began the second hunger strike in the Maze Prison. The film also sees politics and political commitment treated as an utterly inexplicable black box, and self-serving economic competition as natural, normal common-sense everyone understands and agrees with – a straight-up Thatcher move (that also involves pretending neoliberalism is not a political project, and accelerating the transition, that Adorno and Horkheimer wrote about years earlier, from government to governance).
We also thought about the film’s treatment of urban gay culture – on the one hand, a little bit seedy and secretive; on the other, everyone knows but no one much cares that Colin (Paul Freeman), Shand’s right-hand man, is gay; on the third hand, if you are gay in this movie you do die violently.
The representation of Brixton is also marked by contradictions: multi-ethnic streets (including a baby Dexter Fletcher!), but Shand implies that it is a black neighbourhood and that is why it has gone downhill; he also expresses disbelief at people being forced to live in such conditions, but it is not entirely clear whether this is empathy or a wannabe property developer seeing an opportunity – not an opportunity to build regular folks better homes, but an opportunity to get rich from property speculation.
The Long Good Friday‘s unredeveloped docklands setting and the anticipation of a 1988 London Olympics make it increasingly timely – and a good match for Miéville’s essay. London’s Overthrow was written partly as a response to the propaganda surrounding the London Olympics development, and in the long shadow cast by the police killing of Mark Duggan and the popular protests (or ‘riots’) that swept British cities 6-11 August 2011.
Sadly, all the Olympics promos I could find online contained some airbrushed images of London but focused much more on athletes doing athletics – understandable, if unhelpful in this context. So we took a look at this short London tourism video from 2014 – all iconic architecture, tradition and (financial) modernity, almost entirely North of the Thames, bustling but never crowded, multi-ethnic but quite astonishingly white-looking, prettified. (Frankly, this video is more fun, especially the way it cons you into outrage at seeming to miss the entire point of The Clash, but I am still not sure what to make of this one.)
We didn’t have enough time to do more than some headline points about Miéville’s essay:
- the publicity image of London contrasted with apocalyptic imagery;
- the publicity image of London contrasted with imagery of a more diverse and stratified London;
- the city transformed by technologies: the phone camera, advertising and other screens;
- the city transformed by ownership: public space, privatised spaces, ASBOs (PSPOs);
- planned London and unplanned London;
- and, because there is something delightfully wrong about mentioning Jacques Derrida in the first week of an undergraduate degree, controlling the future (l’futur) and leaving potentials open (l’avenir)
If there were world enough and time, it would have been good to contrast some of the youtube footage of the 1985 Broadwater Farm uprising with Wretch 32’s ‘Unorthodox’ video that Miéville discusses. But as it was, there was barely time even to conclude with this image:
From the too-much-information section of the module handbook:
China Miéville’s novels are usually set in an alternative London (King Rat (1998), Un Lun Dun (2007), Kraken (2010)), or in one of the cities in the fantasy world of Bas Lag (Perdido Street Station (2000), The Scar (2002), Iron Council (2004)). The City & the City (2009) is a murder-mystery set in two different cities that occupy the same physical space.
Elizabeth Bowen’s “Mysterious Kôr” (1944) contrasts an imaginary city with wartime London as an unmarried couple try to find somewhere they can sleep together.
This concern with the relationships between real and unreal cities is also central to Arthur Machen’s The Three Impostors (1895), Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981), Megan Lindholm’s Wizard of the Pigeons (1985), Iain Banks’s The Bridge (1986), Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange (1997), G. Willow Wilson’s Cairo (2007) and David Eggers’s A Hologram for the King (2012).
Other movies about the murky connections between crime, business and politics include The Bad Sleep Well (Kurosawa 1960), Get Carter (Hodges 1971), The Godfather (Coppola 1972), Chinatown (Polanski 1974), The Godfather: Part II (Coppola 1974), City of Hope (Sayles 1991), Face (Bird 1997), The Baader-Meinhof Complex (Edel 2008), Mesrine (Richet 2008) and The International (Tykwer 2009).
Julien Temple’s documentary London: The Modern Babylon (2012) offers a history of the city through found footage – taken from films, newsreels, television, etc – that is useful for thinking about the ways in which moving images shape our understanding, expectations and memories of cities. Thom Andersen’s documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) uses movie footage to explore the ways in which Los Angeles is represented (and represents other cities) in Hollywood films – and to contrast this virtual or imaginary ‘Los Angeles’ with his own experience of living in the ‘real’ Los Angeles. Guy Maddin’s pseudo-documentary My Winnipeg (2007) concocts a fictional history of his hometown.
In Haddon Hall, the seat of the Duke of Rutland, which dates back to Tudor times and beyond, there is a recurring porcine motif. I took these pictures intending to write about the ancient Peak District custom of once a year dressing up your prize pig as Shakespeare – a practice outlawed by an unamused Queen Victoria following an outbreak of Hamlet jokes during her visit to nearby Bakewell.
Then the light caught this chap just right and instead I planned to write about the Duke of Rutland’s unholy cross-breeding of William Hope Hodgson’s swine-things with China Miéville’s skulltopus.
But after #piggate #Hameron #swine/11 , there is nothing left to do but post the pictures and wonder quite how long that sort of thing has been happening, how widespread it is and how high it goes.