The City in Fiction and Film, week four

SH_BLUE-01One of the many other things to take into account when designing a coherent degree programme is when and where to fit in all the other things that a HEI is now often expected to provide during scheduled classes – things like study skills, careers, etc, etc. So rather than screen a film this week, this module was responsible for the first library training session, beginning with basics (such as where the library is and what resources and services it provides) and building up to a detailed online workbook (locating different kinds of sources, assessing their reliability, how – and why – to quote and/or paraphrase them, how to reference them, etc). The workbook takes maybe two hours to complete – and in a couple of weeks, students will have their first assignment – an online quiz that tests their knowledge of the library, referencing, etc. Our Faculty Librarian designs and presents this workbook and the quiz, and machines mark it for me!

Back in my day, you were given a library card and told the card catalogue was probably quicker to use and more reliable than the rather basic computer catalogue… Kids today, honestly they don’t know they’re born!

Class began with an informal test about all the semiotic terminology encountered last week – students were free to draw on any resources to help them reformulate the ideas in their own terms to a) probe their understanding of those ideas; b) probe the ideas themselves; and c) tame an alien vocabulary and make it useful.

Next, we took on the James Bond exercise we did not have time for last week. At the start of chapter 25 of Ian Fleming’s From Russia, With Love (1957), called ‘A Tie with a Windsor Knot’, Bond is joined on the Orient Express by psychopathic SMERSH assassin Red Grant posing as an MI6 agent sent by M called Captain Norman Nash. After an exchange of codewords, we are treated to a description of Nash through Bond’s eyes from which Bond extrapolates the character and life story of his new acquaintance. Several codes are evoked to suggest that Nash is untrustworthy or at least unseemly.

He has ‘thick lips’ which writhe briefly rather than forming a smile – whether a friendly greeting or an ironic grin at the ‘childish’ password ‘ritual’. Those lips suggest a racialised sensuality – rather than possessing the British character associated with a stiff upper lip, Nash has stayed behind in the Mediterranean after the war, to ‘avoid the rigours of England’ and to take a foreign girlfriend or marry an Italian.

It gets worse. Not only does he speaks with ‘a hint of … cheap brogue’, so perhaps his off-whiteness can be traced to Irish ancestry, his curious accent is probably also a consequence of speaking a ‘foreign language all the time’. He has simultaneously “gone native” and let the veneer of English civilisation slip sufficiently to reveal beneath it a not-Englishness. Perhaps that is why his calling card mentions his rank, Captain, and that he is a member of the RAC. They are desperate attempts to assert an identity he does not quite possess; and they give themselves  away as such to Bond’s trained – or perhaps merely bigoted –  eye.

Nash’s lips might be given to bestial writhing, but his eyes are at once dead – there is ‘no light in them’ – and a ‘very pale blue’, watery perhaps and lacking resolve. Certainly the career trajectory Bond imagines for him – from ‘minor public school’ (so not from one of the best English families, maybe even from an Irish family) through the Royal Engineers (perhaps not the most frontline of wartime active service, and a bit close to skilled manual labour) to stumbling into a position with MI6 because all the more senior and more qualified men returned to the ‘rigours of England’.

His clothing suggests some mismatching of colours – reddish-brown tweed, pale yellow shirt, blue and red regimental tie, a red bandana handkerchief (that flops out of his breast pocket), a ‘gold signet ring with an indecipherable crest’, a battered silver watch with a leather strap. And then there is that tie tied in a Windsor knot. To Bond, the knot signals Nash’s vanity; it is after all ‘the mark of the cad’ – and was in popular consciousness linked to Edward VII, who after his abdication was seen as a potential pretender to the throne (especially as he was not exactly as unsympathetic to Hitler as one might have hoped).

Throughout, the meanings generated by Nash’s appearance rely on the connotations evoked by specific word choices and combinations, which in turn rely on shared codes through which we understand those connotations. And we can push beyond codes to what Roland Barthes called ‘myth’ – especially around class, masculinity and the colonial imaginary – and thus to ideology.

As Jonathan Bignell explains, for Barthes, ‘myth’ refers

to ways of thinking about people, products, places or ideas which are structured to send particular messages to the reader or viewer of texts … Media texts often connect one signified idea with another, or one signifier with another, in order to attach connotations to people and things and endow them with mythic meaning. (Media Semiotics, 2nd edition, 16, 17)

Fortunately the British press, British Prime Ministers and Fox News never let you down when you want a contemporary examples, so we began by questioning why The Times (14 September 2015) described Jeremy Corbyn’s favoured mode of transport as a ‘Chairman Mao-style bicycle’. Why would a right-wing newspaper want to connect the new moderate centre-left leader of the Labour Party with the head of a brutal communist dictatorship?

We then took a look the first half at this segment from John Oliver, in which he explains why it is problematic for David Cameron to call refugees ‘a swarm’, and why Fox News cannot heavily imply all muslim men and/or refugees are terrorists while claiming that they are not implying precisely that.

In each of these examples, signifiers connote and those connotations draw upon and reinforce Barthesian myths. (We also took a look at Barthes’s own famous example of the Paris-Match cover in which a young black cadet salutes the French flag, thus apparently justifying colonialism.)

After all this (and a break!), it was time for some urban fiction, beginning with Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ (1892) – the one in which a lost hat and abandoned Xmas goose lead Holmes to solve the theft of the eponymous gem. Our main focus was on the passage in which Holmes performs a semiotic analysis of the hat (though we also considered the simple techniques Doyle uses to persuade us of the accuracy of Holmes’s reading).

There were some indexical signs: several tallow splashes on the hat suggest its owner, Horner, lives in a house where gas-lighting has not yet been installed; and, more ridiculously, the size of the hat leads Holmes to conclude that Horner has a large head and therefore must be ‘highly intellectual’ – later, Horner’s mannered expression and use of the term ‘disjecta membra‘ will serve to confirm this absurdity. (The story was published the year before HG Wells’s essay ‘The Man of the Year Million’, which led to the design of his Martians and thus all those later big-brained aliens with puny bodies – so clearly something was in the air, not least because Horner is also sedentary and out of shape.)

There is also plenty of evidence of myth, as the connotations Holmes draws from his perusal of the hat reach out into the dimension of Victorian morality. Horner, who is no longer as foresightful as once he was, who has fallen on hard times, who  is not as attentive to his appearance as he used to be, and who has taken to drink, is obviously undergoing ‘a moral retrogression’ and has a ‘weakening nature’, though there are vague hopeful indications that ‘he has not entirely lost his self-respect’. In this aspect of Holmes’s analysis, meanings are converted into values – myth, and behind it ideology, in action.

This can be seen even more starkly in Holmes’s conclusion that Horner’s wife no longer loves him.

This hat has not been brushed for a week. When I see you, my dear Watson, with a week’s accumulation of dust upon your hat, and when your wife allows you to go out in such a state, I shall fear that you also have been unfortunate enough to lose your wife’s affection.

Patriarchy, anyone? Normative gender roles much? (It took mere seconds to come up with a half a dozen other reasons for Horner’s hat not having been dusted recently.)

We also took a quick look at the sequence from the first episode of Sherlock, in which Frumious Bandersnatch explains his initial reading of Bilbo’s character, history and current situation – culminating in a moment in which his reliance on heteronormative codes leads him to mistake the gender of his new friend’s sibling. (Other parts of his semiotic analysis were also questionable – were Iraq and Afghanistan really the only sunny places overseas British troops were stationed in 2009/10? why are scratches around the port on the phone evidence of the previous owner having a drink problem when we already know the current owner has a hand that sometimes shakes uncontrollably? Etc.)

We also took a look at the start of Holmes’ crime-scene analysis (damp clothes indexing rain, etc). And the handy bit when we see Holmes work along syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes to make sense of the victim’s message scratched in the floor with her fingernails: RACHE. In what languages is that a word? German, meaning revenge. Doesn’t seem very likely. What letter could be added to it to complete an English word? An L? Rachel! It’s a name. That’ll do nicely.

We finally took a look at William Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ (1981), but we were all flagging a little by this time. Its main significance for this class is twofold:

  • that there came a point – Gibson argues for the 1930s – when design started to dominate function in the construction of commodities and thus we started reorganising the way we purchase things in terms of their readable connotations;
  • and that that we live in built environments which are to varying degrees designed, and can thus be read for their meanings, which may well change over time. (And that all around us lurk semiotic ghosts.)





Angry Tourist at Gentrification Ground Zero

I should have been prepared for it. The bus journey to the start of our walk had given us plenty of warning. Weaving through the steep-sided Matlock Bath, we could make out big new houses being constructed on the surrounding hilltops so that rich folks could look out onto the Peak District and down on the strange old resort village.

To be honest, it is easy to look down on Matlock Bath – thanks to a comment by Byron, it was once known as ‘little Switzerland’ and was later dubbed ‘the Venice of the North’, when in reality it is more like the Paignton of the North on a rainy out-of-season weekday when most everything is shut – but at least I feel no urge to transmute my metaphorical disdain into architectural form. (Technically, this is the moral high ground, but it is not very high at all. Or particularly moral.)

It was only when we got onto the open moorland that it became clear how far this gentrification had advanced. Everywhere yougentrification look, noble dignified proletarian grasses and ferns and gorse are being swept away by a tide of purple sprouting broccoli, advancing inexorably like the Martian red weed.

gentrification 1Our long looping walk brought us onto the Chatsworth estate, home to the Dukes of Devonshire. In the 18th century, the 4th Duke reoriented the house and decided he wanted a clear prospect – to provide a startling first view of the house for approaching visitors, and to give himself a nice view of the grounds. In order to achieve this, he demolished the village of Edensor, where estate workers and others lived, and relocated them to a newly built village hidden from his view.

gentrification 2There are several striking things about his new Edensor. First, it is dominated by the Estate’s massive church – just to remind the residents who exactly is in charge. Just because they are out of his sight now, they have not escaped his power.

gentrification 3Second, no two buildings are alike. The Duke is said to have gone through a book of architectural pictures and picked out the ones he liked. The buildings are all rather sturdy and may well have been a significant improvement in some gentrification 4respects for the workers  who moved into them.

I really wanted to hate the place, but it is so fucking picturesque that at first it is quite difficult.

But the picturesqueness is part of the reason to be really angry at this obscene display of wealth. Fucking furious at the arrogance of the man.

It is not just the social cleansing – people seeing their homes demolished and being forcibly relocated just so someone could have a pretty view – but also that, having removed these workers from his prospect, the Duke then turned them into some kind of entertainment spectacle for his family and household and guests on their way to the Estate church. And no way did he not at other times just take his chums along to marvel at the absurd village he built and the amusing people who lived there. To him, they were no more people than the plants and trees in his garden.

I guess I should calm down. After all, my sole remaining career goal is to retire and be hired by one of these hereditary parasites as an ornamental hermit. And at least the struggle goes on, as the good people of nearby Bakewell demonstrate with their proletarian commitment to not ‘fusion’ but ‘portmanteau’ cuisine.

gentrifcation 5

Primer (Shane Carruth USA 2004)

primer-movie-poster-2004-1020241222[A version of this review appeared in Foundation 98 (2006), 152–6]

From a garage in Dallas, four men run a business in their spare time, using scavenged components and their knowledge of physics, computers and engineering to devise patentable tweaks to existing technology in the hope of getting rich. Two years, fourteen patents – and the best they have managed is disenchantment with each other and a marginal mail-order business selling JTAG cards. However, while experimenting with superconductors, Aaron (Shane Carruth) stumbles upon something peculiar – the system they have built puts out more energy than they put into it. He and Abe (David Sullivan) keep it secret from Phillip (Anand Upanhyaya) and Robert (Casey Gooden). They realise that ‘the easiest way to be exploited [is] to sell something they did not understand’ but also, over following weeks and months, that they are ‘out of their depth’. Until one day, Abe takes Aaron step-by-step through what he has learned – they have actually created a kind of time machine. If they switch it on at time A and enter it later at time B, they can return to time A; but this also means that between times A and B there are two of each of them coexisting. Abe is anxious to avoid messing around with causality, but things start to go awry when the much less cautious Aaron begins to fantasise about getting revenge on an investor who messed them around: Aaron imagines assaulting him and then going back in time to tell himself not to do it. He dreams of acting with impunity, of becoming so rich that he is above the law.

Actually, things go awry much sooner (or possibly later) than that: Aaron grasped the machine’s potential more quickly than Abe realised and has been deceiving him, carrying out his own agenda. Aarons and Abes multiply, attacking other versions of themselves. Disagreements escalate. Aaron and Abe appear less frequently in the same shot, and when they do they are often separated not just by distance but by the vertical lines of background architecture or ominous black shapes.

Placing all that has passed under erasure, the story ends – I think – at some point between the start of the film and Abe’s first use of the time machine. An Abe is sabotaging the machine while the original Abe (or possibly the same Abe, only earlier) is building it, in the hope that he will give up (read backwards, his surname, Terger, provides a clue). An Aaron, somewhere overseas and apparently with corporate or state backing, is constructing a much bigger machine, while the original Aaron (or possibly the same Aaron, only earlier) continues to live with his family. I think.

Writer-director-editor and co-star Carruth (he was also responsible for casting, production design, sound design and the film’s original music) is rumoured to have shot a scene in which everything is explained, but if so, he was wise to cut it – and not only because it must have contained long and stilted dialogue (and probably lots of diagrams). The film is effective because of its refusal to clarify what we see and hear. Fresh but often elliptical information demands that we, like the protagonists, revise our understanding of earlier scenes, which in turn alters our understanding of the information. Multiple viewings are required for those who wish to figure it out, but, like Videodrome (1983), I am not certain it can be – and this renders it probably unique among American time-travel fictions. For example, unlike the Back to the Future ( 1985–90) and Terminator (1984–2003) trilogies, it is not easily reducible to an oedipal primal scene fantasy; and however much their final reels might prattle about the future not being fixed, they lack Primer’s more thoroughgoing destabilisation of temporality, duration, narrative, memory and identity. This contingency of meaning and self-conscious ambiguity is more akin to modernist European time-travel fantasies like La jetée (1962), L’anné dernière à Marienbad (1961) and Je t’aime, je t’aime ( 1968) (Primer’s womb imagery, aural rather than visual, seems to allude to the latter in particular).

Like these nouvelle vague films, Primer is also a meditation on cinema itself. Although it is a coincidence that the Lumière brothers ‘invented’ cinema in the same year that Wells published The Time Machine: An Invention (1895), there is a complex interconnection between time-travel and motion pictures that goes beyond the Wells/Paul patent for a never-constructed fairground ride/exhibition space that reconstructed the Time Traveller’s voyage. The projected representation of past moments, undercranking and overcranking the camera so as to produce fast- and slow-motion, editing out frames or editing them together – these are all experiments in altering time, reconstructing it so as to be experienced differently. (And it is worth recalling that Alain Robbe-Grillet’s script for Marienbad was inspired by Aldolfo Bioy Casares’s neglected sf novel La invención de Morel (1940), whose title nods to Wells but whose story of a man who falls in love with an unattainable woman in a virtual projection of a recorded past was itself inspired by the author’s fascination with silent movie actress Louise Brooks.) Early in Primer, when the garage door rolls shut, the inventors remain visible through four windows in it: the image looks like four frames of film unspooled across a black background. In several scenes footage overlaps, repeats from the same and different angles, the action apparently stuttering; perhaps a consequence of shooting insufficient coverage, it nonetheless disrupts and thus becomes instructive about the ways conventional editing creates the illusion of continuous time and space. Elsewhere, jumpcuts compress time, to similar effect. Reality becomes subject to multiple takes, events can be revised and erased; a key incident is ‘reverse-engineered into a perfect moment’.

Technical errors during filming left much of the sound recording unusable; the post-synchronised dialogue and ambient sound often just don’t sound quite right, further alienating the viewer, especially during scenes dominated by hard-sf speak. The film contrives to hold the viewer at a distance while its characters do little to evoke a sympathetic response, making it something to scrutinise rather than wallow in – not that one would want to: the world it creates is far from appealing (shot on super-16mm, and blown up to 35mm via a digital intermediary, it is dominated by sickly greens and yellows), and not just in terms of its appearance.

Roger Luckhurst argues that the figure of the heroic scientist – whether Ralph 124c41+ or Thomas Edison – emerged in popular culture just as the real-world efforts of the latter and his ilk were industrialising and commodifying the processes of technological innovation, effectively removing it from the realm of the individual creator. Just as La invención de Morel explores capital’s colonisation of the unconsconscious in terms of the articulation of desire through the commodified image of an actress, so Primer sees the logic of capital spread into every aspect of its protagonists’ being. They work 30 hours per week in the garage on top of their day jobs. Robert proposes a project which might be fun, but Aaron and Abe dismiss it because it is unlikely to reach a marketable stage. Alienated from their labour and from whatever pleasure they derived from tinkering with things in the garage, all they want to do is produce the tweak that will make them rich. They have instrumentalised their skills and desires, and compartmentalised their lives. Unable to produce a profitable device, they instead use time-travel to pick up information on stocks and shares. The fantasy of free energy (and self-replication) turns into the fantasy of immaterial capital boundlessly reproducing itself. By explicitly rejecting the lottery in favour of the stock market they throw themselves into capital’s annexation of our future.

That their experiment is doomed is suggested throughout by the sense that life cannot be compartmentalised, that causation is complex rather than linear. At one point, Aaron ‘accidentally’ reproduces his cell phone, and when it rings he has to work out whether the network will contact both identical phones or just search grid by grid until it finds one of them. Elsewhere, inexplicably, the father of a girl they know suddenly appears with two or three days of facial hair despite being clean-shaven just a few hours earlier. ‘There’s always leaks,’ Abe tells Aaron, and consequences seem to come not in chains but webs which reach in all directions.

Ultimately, this is where Primer differs from nouvelle vague time travel fantasies. They are primarily backward-looking, concerned with memory and the props which secure bourgeois identity. Primer looks to the future, but instead finds a complex present already out of control. Its garage inventors resemble the utopian writers described in Fredric Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future (2005), but unlike them Aaron and Abe are unable to imagine change, the radical break – the first negation – that makes utopia possible. They are so woven into the fabric of late-capital that they can only conceptualise using this fabulous new technology to leave everything – apart from their bank balances – exactly the same. The market might pretend it is homeostatic, orderly and inevitable, but a fragment of hope can be found in how thoroughly Aaron and Abe are made to learn that the status quo is complex, dynamic and riddled with contradiction.

The Mad Maxathon, part three: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

MV5BMTk0MDQ5NTYxNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTA0ODYyMQ@@._V1_SX640_SY720_Part one, part two, part four

This is the one that broke the franchise.

It is the one with the audacity to have a character claim, early on, that ‘We’re dealing with subtlety here’. And the bravery, moments later, to let Aunty (Tina Turner) ask, ‘You can shovel shit, can’t you?’

It is the one featuring the Goonies outback adventure. It is Max Rockatansky’s Kindergarten Cop. His Mr Nanny, his Pacifier, his Game Plan. It is Dad Max.

It is the one that makes Waterworld look not so very terrible after all.

It is a poxalypse, full of pain.

It begins with a drum-machine, for chrissakes.

It is full of other terrible 80s things, such as a shockingly ill-judged Maurice Jarre soundtrack and a dreadful saxophone that, for a moment, fills you with dread MPW-65247that Aunty will be played not by Tina Turner – whose chainmail shoulderpads are even more awesome now than they were thirty years ago – but by Al Jarreau.

Beyond Thunderdome lays bare the insidious effects of LucasSpielbergianism.

Costing five times as much as the first two films added together, it made rather less than them added together. But a bigger budget meant a drop in the certificate. Which meant replacing innovation with competence. Which meant abandoning crude, robust, imaginative and often very skilful filmmaking in order to imitate the less-than-stellar Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Badly.

It nicks sequences and gags and ideas from HG Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau and Island of Lost Souls (1932), from Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980) but sadly not from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), from episodes six and seven of Flash Gordon (1936) and episode one of Bret Maverick (1981), from Star Wars (1977) and Apocalypse Now (1979) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Mad Max and a whole bunch of westerns. Badly.

mad-max-beyond-thunderdome-train-chaseIt reworks the climactic chase from Road Warrior.


As if Health and Safety finally caught onto some of the crazy shit George Miller was doing.

It is like some Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983) knock off.

While Tina Turner is fabulous as the same-sex-yet-somehow-cross-dressing Aunty, it is disappointing to see the queerness of this future has been muted in the fifteen years since the events of Road Warrior. (I have no idea how the scantily-clad musclemen cranking Bartertown’s elevator managed to sneak unnoticed through the straightening of the post-apocalypse, but I’m glad they made it and are thriving.)

Although there are plenty of stereotypical signifiers of non-white ethnicities – Max’s burnoose and camels, the didgeridoos on the soundtrack early on, Maurice Jarre’s delusion that he is scoring Taras Bulba (1962), the plane-crash-surviving kids’ version of Aboriginal art and make-up – it remains a fairly pallid future in which whitey has learned almost nothing from these cultures about practical fashions for desert environments. One can only assume that Bartertown is built in a quarry (some of the time) because they are mining for sunblock. And talc. And, of course, vaseline.

MCDMAMA EC038When the movie came out, Roger Ebert, who loved it, raved about the Thunderdome fight sequence, calling it ‘the first really original movie idea about how to stage a fight since we got the first karate movies’ and ‘one of the great creative action scenes in the movies’. It was never that good and doesn’t really hold up that well. But it can be made fabulous by taking the time to set up a second screen so you can synch it to the Peter Pan scene from 21 Jump Street (2012).

Much was also made of the alternative Riddley Walker-lite English spoken by the kids who grew up in isolation without any adults around. This linguistic drift, which has none of the post-apocalyptic horror of the final minutes of Threads (1984) either, would have perhaps seem more innovative if a few minutes earlier it hadn’t been revealed that in Bartertown the meaning of the word ‘gulag’ had shifted to mean ‘to be driven into the desert to die while sitting backwards on a horse with a giant papier-mache head on your head’.

So, besides Tina Turner, is there anything good about Beyond Thunderdome?

Well, it provides an opportunity to admire some of the early work by Terese Willis from Neighbours, formerly Sophie Simpson from Home and Away.

It was nice to see Bruce Payne return, playing a character indistinguishable from the one he played in Road Warrior but definitely intended by Miller to be a different character, which doesn’t quite explain how Max recognises him, unless it is a version of that joke in the A-Team title sequence when Face recognises a Cylon.

And it was nice to see the sarlacc pit get work again, even if it never did manage to break free of the way it was typecast by Return of the Jedi

Oh, and the first thing the kids do after rescuing Max is cut off his mullet. Which at least puts it ahead of Steel Dawn (1987), at the conclusion of which Patrick Swayze is permitted to stride off into the sunset, mane uncropped.

Part four

Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.

200px-ModernElectrics1912-02First published: Modern Electrics, April 1911-March 1912
First edition: Boston: The Stratford Company, 1925
Edition used: Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000

In the year 2660, when the world’s population has reached 90 billion people, Ralph 124C 41+ is

one of the greatest living scientists and one of the ten men on the whole planet earth permitted to use the Plus sign after his name. (9)

writing5In the opening chapter, a serendipitous malfunction with his Telephot system and some quick thinking enable him to save Alice 212B 423 from an avalanche thousands of miles away. When Alice and her father travel to New York to thank him, Ralph and Alice fall in love. During an extended guided tour of the magnificent future city Alice is kidnapped, rescued and then kidnapped again by Fernand 60O 10. Before Ralph can rescue her, she is again abducted, this time by the Martian Llysanorh’ CK 1618. When Llysanorh’ realises Ralph is about to capture him, he kills Alice. In a desperate gamble, Ralph performs an experimental procedure on her to preserve her body until he can return to Earth and revive her. A week after the emergency operation, Ralph visits his recovering sweetheart:

‘Dearest,’ she said, ‘I have just found out what your name really means.’
Ralph twined a little tendril of her hair around one of his fingers.
‘Yes?’ he asked with a quizzical smile.
‘Well, you see,’ and the lovely color deepened to rose, ‘your name is going to be my name now, so I keep saying it over to myself–’
‘My darling!’
( 1     2     4       C     4       1 )            (293)

As the above plot description suggests, Gernsback’s fix-up novel is deficient as fiction and frequently unspeakably banal. It is nonetheless a major text in the development of the modern American pulp-and-paperback tradition of sf – although arguably more for what it signifies than for what it achieves. As an editor, Gernsback famously advocated a variety of

‘scientifiction’ … the Jules Verne, HG Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story – a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision. (Amazing Stories, 1 (April 1926): 3)

Ralph 124C 41+, written over a decade before the launch of Amazing Stories, is perhaps best understood as an earlier effort by Gernsback to describe that formula. The naïvely-depicted romance between Ralph and Alice, and the various rescues and abductions, alarums and excursions, are the very stuff of Romance, if conceptualised and presented in a cack-handed, juvenile manner. Ralph_Alice_roller+skatesInterspersed among the narrative elements are plenty of scientific facts, pseudo-scientific information, and scientific-sounding patter – including diagrams and footnotes about experiments. And the future New York offered by Gernsback constitutes prophetic vision.

One of the most obvious failings of Gernsback’s prophetic vision is his inability to extend imagined social developments beyond the realm of the technological, to allow for changes in human institutions and ideologies. Thus we get a condemnation of industrial action understood merely in terms of workers’ alleged greed and irresponsibility:

 our governor had some trouble with the four weather-engineers of our district, some months ago, and they struck for better living. They claimed the authorities did not furnish them with sufficient luxuries, and when their demands were refused, they simultaneously turned on the high-depression at the four Meteoro-Towers and then fled, leaving their towers with the high-tension currents escaping at a tremendous rate. (18)

The adulation Ralph receives, and that which is lavished upon the ‘light-picture of the Planet Governor’ (118), indicates that for all the supposed improvements that technological advancement has brought to humanity, society remains deeply hierarchical. Also, the central action of the novel is concerned with Alice being exchanged between men and avoiding miscegenation, culminating in her swapping her father’s name (212B – ‘to want to be’?) for Ralph’s.

This inability to imagine human relationships lies behind not only Gernsback’s utilisation of a debased Romance narrative, but also behind the characters’ suppressed sexuality. This is most obvious in the opening chapter, in which Ralph finds Alice alone, about to be engulfed by an avalanche. Throughout this chapter and its aftermath, we find the kind of fascist body imagery analysed by Klaus Theweleit.[1] Ralph has

a physique much larger than that of the average man of his times and approaching that of the huge Martians. His physical superiority, however, was as nothing to his gigantic mind. (9)

His phallic body is matched by his phallic house,

a round tower, six hundred and fifty feet high, and thirty in diameter, built entirely of crystal glass-bricks and steelonium, … one of the sights of New York. (33)

His body is subordinated to the will of the state, and he demonstrates no interest in the crowd of well-wishers, either individually or collectively. Fluid and tempestuous nature often operates as a metaphor for female sexuality. It is frpaul_02_amazquar_1929win_ralph124csignificant then that Ralph uses all his rational-technological powers to spurt energy from his aerial to melt the tide of snow and ice threatening to overwhelm Alice. This sexual displacement is made obvious (and ridiculous) by Alice’s father simultaneously racing home to ensure nothing untoward befalls her, and by Ralph’s tactful withdrawal when he burst in.

In this context, it is important to take account of the primary characteristic shared by the many inventions, techniques and marvels Ralph shows Alice: flawless steelonium streets, liquidised food, perfect climate control, floodlit sportsfields, the bacillatorium, giant double-glazed geothermically-heated greenhouses, artificial milk produced direct from the grass without having to pass through a cow, a city floating in the sky, an antigravity circus. In all of these, it is possible to see Gernsback’s vision of science as a means of abstracting people from nature, and interposing technology between them so as to keep them Frank-R.-Paul-Ralph-124C41+-Resurrectionseparated. This finds an obvious resonance with the lengths to which Gernsback goes to distance his hero from physical intimacy with Alice, even killing her off so as not to leave her alone with Ralph in a spaceship together for fifty days – she is only permitted to recover when it is possible to banish intimacy beyond the end of the novel.

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
Godwin, Caleb Williams
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
France, Thais
London, The Iron Heel 
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

See Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, volume 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History (1977; trans. 1987) and Male Fantasies, Volume 2: Male Bodies: Psychoanalyzing the White Terror (1978; trans. 1989).

Jack London’s The Iron Heel

This wasn’t due to go up until tomorrow, but with the fucking Tories somehow re-elected this morning…

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.

51FHCMEP0MLFirst editions: New York: Macmillan, 1907; London: Everett, 1907
Edition used: Edinburgh: Canongate Books (Rebel Inc. Classic), 1999

The Iron Heel is the incomplete memoir of Avis, written in 1932, on the eve of the Second Revolt. It recounts how, in 1912, she and her wealthy father met the revolutionary socialist, and her future husband, Ernest Everhard, and were won to his cause. Within a year, their lives are in disarray as the capitalist interests who dominate institutions and an increasingly tyrannical government seize complete control of America. This plutocratic oligarchy – dubbed ‘the Iron Heel’ by Ernest – forces the socialists underground. The novel ends with horrific descriptions of the destruction of Chicago in the failed First Revolt, and breaks off abruptly, leaving no account of the subsequent fifteen years. The memoir is introduced and edited by Anthony Meredith, writing in the year 409 B.O.M. (Brotherhood Of Man), the socialist era that follows three centuries of the Iron Heel.

6e75ede3299bc0149a0073dba92eb6d6In the first issue of Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback described the sf story as ‘a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision’. To his list of exemplars – Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe – Gernsback could have added Jack London. The Iron Heel reworks the ‘guided tour’ typical of the utopian novel: Avis, her father and Bishop Morehouse enter a new world – that of the immiserated, impoverished working class – and Ernest, their guide, explains in detail its logic and inner workings. The novel also anticipates the hard-sf which emerged from the pulp tradition (and which can still, arguably, be defined in Gernsback’s terms). The science in question is not, however, physics or astronomy but London’s idiosyncratic version of scientific socialism. The near-future events of the novel are predicated on a (vulgar) Marxist analysis of the process of capital accumulation and the cyclical crises it inevitably produces.

London’s extrapolative premises and technique are most obvious in the chapter ‘The Mathematics of a Dream’. Beginning with the ‘ABCs of commerce’ (108) – the production of value by labour and the extraction of surplus-value (profit) by the capitalist – Ernest takes his audience step-by-step through the logic of capital accumulation which leads to periods of overproduction and mass unemployment. His satiric proposal – that destruction of surpluses would be an effective way to deal with cyclical over-production, as in Frederik Pohl’s ‘The Midas Plague’ (1954) – is dismissed as absurd. But in a world in which, for example, agricultural subsidies are paid for deliberate underproduction to stabilise prices and ‘surplus’ crops are routinely destroyed (while people elsewhere starve), The Iron Heel’s prophetic value is difficult to ignore.

A curious aspect of the novel, and of its socialism, is the treatment of the all-but-absent proletariat. Avis’s conversion commences with an investigation into the fate of Jackson, a man who lost his arm in an industrial accident. The machine that maimed him is revealed to be part of a much larger apparatus, an economic and social system which – through coercion, collusion, corruption and conspiracy – denies him justice and subordinates and perverts other ‘slaves of the machine’. Years later, Avis meets a foreman who dishonestly testified against Jackson in order to protect his own job and provide for his family, and is now a member of a group of fanatical assassins. This is not to avenge his dead wife and daughters, he declares, but

‘’tis revenge for my blasted manhood’. (206)

Thus Avis’s career as a revolutionary is circumscribed by images of castrated workers. And when she describes one worker who has been a socialist for over twenty years, it is as

phlegmatic, stolid to such a degree that one could not but wonder how the Revolution had any meaning to him at all … He could obey orders. (198)

a4fa9708a0f91a712cdf60581558931aThis denial of agency to the working class is indicative of the peculiar type of socialism, blended with aspects of Friedrich Nietzsche and with Herbert Spencer’s ‘survival of the fittest’ misunderstanding of evolution, advocated by London (who puts at least one of his own speeches/essays, ‘Revolution’, into Ernest’s mouth).

As his name suggests, Ernest Everhard possesses a phallic intensity of focus and purpose. He physically overwhelms Avis. When she first mentions him by name, he is linked to images of penetration, engorgement and assimilation (6). Her fantasies and desires are ripe with the language of domination (22). Her feelings pulsate with attraction and repulsion, until she is swept off her feet

by the splendid invincible rush of him. (55)

She conceives of him as a messiah – he is an eagle, a lamb, a lion, ‘the spirit of regnant labour’ (63), Christ – and longs to melt before him, to merge her ‘life completely into his’ (138). When they are on the run, Avis learns to take on a completely different appearance through controlling her body whereas Ernest requires cosmetic surgery to transform him: she is fluid, he is hard.

Avis, then, despite her origins, exemplifies what London’s socialism requires of the working class, ‘the People of the Abyss’.[1] In the Chicago uprising, they are not only depicted as dumb beasts but as an inundation, a surging fluid mass. Without form or identity, they are to be shaped or sacrificed by the revolutionary party.

TheIronHeelCapitalV.Labour565This system of images – rigidly armoured male bodies; women and the feminised masses as a threatening flood – is typical of the literature produced by the German Freikorps in the 1920s, many of whom later played significant roles in the SA and SS.[2] And so at the heart of this ‘small folk Bible of scientific socialism’ we find a form of fascism.

Or perhaps not.

London’s novel depicts failed revolutions. This suggests an anxiety about the revolutionaries’ terroristic vanguardism, and the novel does not claim that the final revolution is of that ilk. Rather, the post-revolutionary editorial framework emphasises Ernest’s relative insignificance, Avis’s ‘errors of interpretation’ (1), the ‘equal futility’ of the First and Second Revolts and the

many Revolts, all drowned in seas of blood, ere the world-movement of labor should come into its own. (4)

North America and Asia are beneath the Iron Heel of the Oligarchs for 300 years, but as early as 1912 a wave of socialist revolutions swept the world, inspired and empowered by the general strike which prevented a war between the US and Germany. Perhaps it is such collective action and international solidarity that leads to the Brotherhood of Man.

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
Godwin, Caleb Williams
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
France, Thais
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

This expression, which London also used as the title of his 1903 book of reportage on the London poor, is borrowed from HG Wells’s Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Human Progress upon Human Life and Thought (1901).

See Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, volume 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History (1977; trans. 1987) and Male Fantasies, Volume 2: Male Bodies: Psychoanalyzing the White Terror (1978; trans. 1989).

Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found on an old floppy disc – remember them?). This is one of them.

tumblr_m04x7srMbC1r70saro1_500Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet), Candide, or Optimism
Original publication: 1759 (simultaneously on 22nd February in Paris, Geneva, Amsterdam, London and Brussels in order to pre-empt censorship and pirated editions)
Edition used: Candide and Other Stories, translated by Roger Pearson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)

The innocent Candide is exiled from the Westphalian castle where he was raised when he and the Baron’s daughter, Cunégonde, fall in love. A series of comic, grotesque, satiric and implausible adventures ensue as Candide and various companions trek throughout Western Europe and South America before finally settling, older, battered by experience and possibly wiser, in Turkey.

Candide contains no fantastic elements beyond its use of outrageous coincidence, which might be more properly judged comical than fantastical. Its most obviously science-fictional component is the briefly sketched satirical utopia of Eldorado

‘What! You mean you don’t have any monks to teach and dispute and govern and intrigue and burn people to death who don’t agree with them?’ (49)

which Candide and Cacambo decide to leave because everyone there is wealthy:

‘If we stay on here, we’ll simply be the same as everyone else, whereas if we return to Europe with even a mere dozen sheep loaded up with Eldorado pebbles, then we’ll be richer than all the kings put together’ (51).

However, in terms of the Natural Philosophy of its period of composition, Candide is a profoundly science-fictional novel.

The ‘optimism’ of its sub-title refers to Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason, an attempt to apply reason to the problem of theodicy, the branch of theology concerned with defending the Christian god against doubts and attacks derived from the existence of physical suffering, misery and evil. Leibniz’s Principle argued that there is always a logical reason for the way things are. Therefore, as god is perfect, then his actions must also always be perfect. In creating the universe, he created something separate from himself which, by the very definition of being separate from god, must be less than perfect. At the moment of creation, he chose between all possible worlds, and from among them he chose the best of all possible worlds – that which, over the course of its entire history, would produce the greatest ratio of good over evil. Therefore, all the evil and misery and suffering that we experience serves a greater good, although perhaps not on a scale we can perceive. Candide’s journeying and education expose him and his companions to monstrous suffering and degradation, prompting him to question the Leibnizian argument espoused by the supposed philosopher Pangloss.

While darkly hilarious, Voltaire’s relentless assault on the Principle of Sufficient Reason might seem too much of its time to possess contemporary relevance. This is not the case. Chaos theory or non-linear dynamics show that, despite living in a determinist universe, the cause-and-effect chains we construct to explain the world are partial narrativisations which do not take account of the state of the total system as it changes from moment to moment. Nevertheless, we continue to rely on such narrativisations and to frequently misunderstand retrospectively-constructed cause-and-effect chains as inevitable processes and history as purposive. It is good then to be reminded of the spurious reasoning thus produced:

‘It is demonstrably true,’ [Pangloss] would say, ‘that things cannot be other than as they are. For, everything having been made for a purpose, everything is necessarily for the best purpose. Observe how noses were made to bear spectacles, and so we have spectacles. Legs are evidently devised to be clad in breeches, and breeches we have. Stones were formed in such a way that they can be hewn and made into castles, and so His Lordship has a very beautiful castle. The greatest baron in the province must be the best lodged. And since pigs were made to be eaten, we eat pork all the year round. Consequently, those who have argued that all is well have been talking nonsense. They should have said that all is for the best.’ (2)

CANDIDE-BESTOWED-A-THOUSAND-EMBRACES-ON-THE-BARON-AND-PANGLOSS-1-q4532The introduction of and justification for a hierarchical power relationships in Pangloss’s ludicrous argument also demonstrates an early awareness of the instrumentalist misuses to which power bends reason into ideology, normalising existing structures of domination.

The other way into the science-fictionality of Candide is through tracing its possible influence on the genre: the Eldorado episode seems to provide a model for HG Wells’s ‘The Country of the Blind’ (1904); the satire on reason became central to US magazine sf in the 1950s. Neal Stephenson’s monumental Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver (2003), The Confusion (2004), The System of the World (2004)) revisits the origins of science-out-of-alchemy and explores the changes wrought on human understanding by the development of reason and empirical observation. In doing so, in reimagining the Europe of, among others, Leibniz, from a perspective derived from information science, Stephenson revisits the origins of sf in the dialectic of materialist and idealist world-views. By depicting capital as an information technology, Stephenson uncovers the central rôle of fantasy – commodity fetishism – in the modern period. The global trekking of The Confusion resembles Candide (although at considerably greater length – Stephenson has not inherited Voltaire’s concision), while the trilogy as a whole concludes on a distinctly Candide-like note:

At some point the whole System will fail, because the flaws that have been wrought into it … But … he has to admit that having some kind of a System, even a flawed and doomed one, is better than to live forever in the poisonous storm-tide of quicksilver that gave birth to all of this.
He has done his job.
‘I’m going home now,’ he says. (System 886)

Perhaps what is most remarkable about Candide is how very modern it seems. From Pangloss

giving a lesson in applied physiology to [a] maid, a very pretty and very receptive little brunette (3)

to its deadpan descriptions of rape, murder, torture, mutilation and slaughter, its ironic distantiation self-deconstructs reason’s fundamental idealism (its belief in its ability to abstract itself from the material world).

And in this time of religious fundamentalism (Christian and otherwise) and militarism, Candide’s anticlericalism, its clear perception of the sheer brutality of warfare and of the instrumentalisation of reason are to be admired, imitated and pursued.

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Godwin, Caleb Williams
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
France, Thais
London, The Iron Heel 
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X