The Dread Fox and the Down-home Dandy, part two

spaceww1A swashbuckling wild west space opera romance in seven parts, culminating in an absurd extended mathporn nod to M John Harrison.

Part 1

Eliane moved through the city with practiced ease, transforming her appearance by increments and occasional bold flourishes. She sidestepped prying eyes, and was so charming to anyone who paid too much attention that later, if questioned, they would succumb to an excess of discretion. She arrived at the New Dragon Gate with enough luggage to draw no attention, but not so much that she might be remembered.

Through this series of transformations, the only items she retained were the pack and the belt from which it hung.

She checked into the best room in the hotel, showered, slept for three hours, ordered a light meal and afterwards showered again. Sitting on the bed in just a towel, she split open the belt and withdrew a pair of keratinous filaments. Carefully, she straightened them, avoiding their razor sharp edges and vicious points. She searched through her most recent purchases. The emerald corset was exquisite, and she admired it briefly before unpicking the stitching to remove two of the skrill bones that shaped it. She replaced them with the whip-like keratin blades, ensuring their looped handles would be within easy reach, one on either side of her spine. No weapons sensor would pick them up.

Next, she would do something about her hair, and then summon a maid to help her dress.

*****

Brett slipped into a light shirt.

‘Mirror’, he ordered the monitor, and tied his string tie in front of its silvered screen. As he buttoned his brocade waistcoat and attached an archaic fob-chain, Fare Thee Well tried again.

‘There’s been a lot of bandit activity round here the last couple of years,’ she said, switching the screen to a montage of news reports. Wrecked cruisers floated in inky blackness, their hulls ripped open and haloed by debris. Rapid zooms picked out floating corpses. Corporate spokespeople, flanked by high-ranking military, promised stronger security, swift retribution. Deployment of pursuit vessels to the sector. High alert status. ‘And it’s not just the corporates being hit. CoreMedia says even The Dread Fox thinks us independents are fair game, now. And whoever’s flying her is becoming a lot less particular. Used to go out of their way not to take lives.’

‘When did you start believing CM? Corporates do this every time they’re about to push further into the Riff. Wouldn’t surprise me if they were behind it all.’

‘It’s not just CM. There’s talk, rumours.’

‘Hardly reliable, then.’

‘There’s no smoke without fire.’

‘Sling enough mud, some’s bound to stick.’

Brett brushed his long black frockcoat. Open-breasted, it had room for just two buttons before it swept down and away from his hips. It was an ancient design, intended to give clear access to a gun belt. Out on the Riff, folks often relied on images from the past to survive the future. It helped to keep things simple, to reduce complexities to well-worn stories everyone knows. Nothing could take you by surprise, certainly not a great big handsome man with an easy smile and an aversion to violence that some might mistake for cowardice. He rarely carried a gun, especially not to a card game. Which was just as well. Strangers had a tendency to mistake his sharping for cheating, but Riff-folks’ disapproval of killing unarmed people tended to channel outbursts at the poker table into less fatal expressions.

‘You know I have little compunction about mentioning our insurance situation,’ said Fare Thee Well.

‘For the last time,’ Brett said, ‘I’ve got it covered. At least, I will have in a coupla hours. Until then, it’s down to you.’

He settled a stetson on his head, tilted it forward slightly, dapper as could be. ‘You think you can handle it?’

Fare Thee Well grunted. Unless something really exotic turned up, she’d pit herself against most anyone. And although he knew she would never admit it, she’d back him against pretty much any stud of poker players, talent of gamblers or not-excessively-rigged house. He just wished they didn’t have to rely on it quite so often to make ends meet. A sentiment he knew she would share, if her Turing torcs permitted her such a thing as wishing.

*****

TO BE CONTINUED     Part 3

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The Dread Fox and the Down-home Dandy, part one

spacegambler-flyerA swashbuckling wild west space opera romance in seven parts, culminating in an absurd extended mathporn nod to M John Harrison.

 

Dear Reader, you know what happened afterwards, the romance, the malarkey, the star-crossing lovers – everyone does, but few know how it started; so here is the tale of how it went down – it goes a little something like this.

******

She was a woman with no name, at least none she cared to recall, and a woman with many names. Today, she was going by Eliane.

She brought The Dread Fox in hard and fast, angling down sharply to the plane of the ecliptic, locked on to an asteroid tumbling inwards on a convenient orbit, and slammed to a halt metres from its surface.

It was a fierce and costly ride, virtually impossible to detect.

She powered down Fox to nothing but sensors and minimal life support, set defensive systems a hair-trigger from consciousness, removed her clothes and slipped into a rudimentary dropship. Protective foam flooded the tiny compartment, solidified about her and put her under. In her last moment of consciousness, she felt the kick of ejection.

She came to three days later on Rendall, as the last traces of foam sublimed through precise hull ruptures. She kicked free of her cocoon and staggered to her feet, the customised single-shot already dissolving in the atmosphere. By morning, not a trace of it would be left.

Getting off-world would not be quite so easy.

She dressed quickly in simple grounders’ wear, slipped a small pack onto her belt, took a bearing, and started walking in the dark. She had a long night ahead of her and some kinks in her back to work out.

Drops were never as straightforward as she liked to pretend.

Maybe she was getting too old for this shit.

But Spiker had something of value for sale. Something she wanted.

******

Brett lathered his face the old fashioned way, with soap and a brush. He flipped a monitor around and called up the spaceport’s security feed, hijacked and streamed to give an external view of the ship.

‘Everything quiet out there?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ the ship replied, and then added with a sigh, ‘the trouble will come later.’

‘Hey,’ he drawled, ‘you know it’s just a one-off.’

‘Always is.’

He remembered the first time they’d had this conversation. Back then he really believed it would be just the one time, but things were getting tough all over. If they wanted to keep flying, they would just have grin and bear the shadier deals a little more often.

He watched for a few moments as longshorebots shifted cargo pods from a pair of transport sleds and set them down at the perimeter to be scanned, registered and stowed by the ship’s own drones. He switched to a wider view.

The Fare Thee Well, Annabel was a maverick vessel, plying the trade routes out on the Riff, out beyond the interstellar network of commerce and communications, out there, where such matters were conducted with a touch less formality. An independent, she connected scattered settlements, lonely mining stations and isolated outposts, and brushed up against the leading edge of civilisation’s ever-expanding web so they didn’t have to. A cargo-hauler and a troubleshooter, some said a freebooter, she stayed just inside the law and at least one step ahead of it. Not that the law was any too clear or uncontested thereabouts, or particularly enforceable.

An elegant-looking ship, she stood out among the half dozen or so squat corporate luggers in the grimly utilitarian spaceport. Her long sweeping curves and delicate fins were as nonsensical as they were alluring. Brett knew they would probably rip right off if he was ever desperate enough, or sufficiently drunk, to try bringing her down manually through an atmosphere. They say that you can make a brick fly if you stick a big enough engine on it, and that was, in truth, what she was – a brute ugly thing with a big hold and engines powerful enough to make her shape irrelevant. But such comely stylisation was worth it.

There’s no point in having a reputation for reliability, Fare Thee Well, who was in truth a little vain, liked to point out, if no one remembers what you look like. And while folks out on the periphery were no fools, life for most was tough enough just hanging on to what little they had that they were happy to be won over by a little glamour. Often, all it took was a glimpse of a ship as purty as her and repeat custom was guaranteed.

For the other kinds of jobs Brett sometimes took – the shady, necessity-induced one-offs like this one – it just paid to look good. Even in the port’s low light, her burnished skin glowed. It was the semiotics of a wealth they did not possess, with just enough twist to imply she was teeming with exotic alien technology but being discreet about it. A simple enough trick if you didn’t mind rerouting a little power

Even the occasional client who saw through such thimble-rigging appreciated that they made the effort.

Brett could sense Fare Thee Well waiting while he shaved with his pappy’s old cut-throat, expensively edged with a monomolecular fibril. He knew she considered it a foolish affectation, more dangerous than efficacious. A gene-tweak would have cost less than adapting the blade, which even now did not shave as close the lasers down in Medical, but he figured Fare Thee Well understood why he did it. Even though she was Turing torced down in the deep code equivalent of her DNA, she was not so limited in empathy that she could not imagine and appreciate similarities between them. Like her, he was not exactly what he seemed; and as with her, his masquerade also contained a fair measure of truth, at least from a certain angle.

‘Last sled’s about to arrive, I’ll need you on the ramp to sign off on it all,’ she said. ‘Or we could have a sudden change of heart…’

Fare Thee Well left the suggestion hanging in the air.

Brett studiously ignored it. Money was tight, and this deal on Rendall promised a solution, at least in the short term.

*****

TO BE CONTINUED     Part 2

 

The City in Fiction and Film, week 14

Farenheit451This week we continued our exploration of the US postwar suburbs (see week 13), reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and watching Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (Siegel 1956). Both texts were framed in relation to the period’s culture of affluence and anxiety.

But first we began by placing Bradbury’s novel in relation to genre – specifically the interweaving traditions of utopia/anti-utopia, utopia/dystopia and US magazine sf.

Thomas More coined ‘Utopia’ 500 years ago this year. When spoken aloud, the first syllable is a Latin pun on ou which means no and eu which means good (and topos means place) – so utopia means ‘no place’ but also suggests ‘good place’. Utopia has come to be understood as a description of an imaginary world organised according to a better principle than our own, and to frequently involve not-always-gripping systematic descriptions of economic, social and technical arrangements. We discussed the efflorescence of utopian fiction in the wake of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888), and mentioned such key utopian authors as William Morris, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. We also noted the relative scarcity of utopian worlds in cinema – Just Imagine (Butler 1930), Things to Come (Menzies 1936) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise 1979) being potential examples, but all of them also demonstrating potentially negative elements and being susceptible to against-the-grain readings.

This led us to anti-utopias – texts that are in more or less explicit dialogue with someone else’s utopian vision, exposing its darker, oppressive elements. William Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, which we read last semester, is a kind of compendium anti-utopia, while novels such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) are – among other things – direct responses to the utopian vision of HG Wells, drawing out its more totalitarian elements, as does Metropolis (Lang 1927).

During the 20th century, however, the explicit anti-utopia has given way to the proliferation of dystopias (dys + topia = bad place), dark, often satirical exaggerations of the worst aspects of our world. The dystopia emphasises bad aspects of our own world so as to make them more obvious (in this, they parallel the suburban world of All That Heaven Allows). The dystopia is not an explicit critique of the utopia, but a depiction of a world worse than our own – usually totalitarian, bureaucratic, brutal, dehumanising, and sometimes post-apocalyptic. Between us, we concocted a list of novels and films, including:

Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano (1952)
Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, The Space Merchants (1953)
John Wyndham, The Chrysalids (1955)
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (1962), filmed as Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971)
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) filmed as Blade Runner (Scott 1982)
Harry Harrison, Make Room! Make Room! (1966), filmed as Soylent Green (Fleischer 1973)
Punishment Park (Watkins 1971)
THX 1138 (Lucas 1971)
Rollerball (Jewison 1975)
Mad Max (Miller 1979)
William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)
Brazil (Gilliam 1985)
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), film (Schlöndorff 1990)
Alan Moore and David Lloyd, V for Vendetta (1988–9), film: (McTeigue 2006)
Robocop (Verhoeven 1987)
PD James, The Children of Men (1992), filmed: (Cuarón 2006)
Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower (1993)
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (2005), filmed: (Romanek 2010)
Gamer (Neveldine+Taylor 2009)
Moon (Jones 2009)
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games novels (2008-2010), filmed: Ross and Lawrence 2012-15)
Dredd (Travis 2012), based on Judge Dredd strip (1979–)
Elysium (Blomkamp 2013)

The widespread usage of dystopia and the relative decline of the utopia/anti-utopia tradition has led to an increased use of the eutopia (a term which makes linguistic sense as the opposite of dystopia) to describe imagined worlds that in some ways are better than ours, if still far from perfect. The eutopia imagines a better world, using its differences to indicate the shortcomings of our own world.

Both eutopia and dystopia are, in different ways, about the possibility of change.

We then turned to consider Ray Bradbury in the context of American sf in the 1950s. From the late 1930s, American magazine sf had been dominated by Astounding, edited by John W. Campbell. It was not the best-paying venue, but thanks to the galvanising effect Campbell – and his key authors, such as Robert A Heinlein and Isaac Asimov – had had on the field, it was the most respected and prestigious. That situation began to change after the war, particularly with the launch of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy, both of which could be characterised as being more literary, as being more interested such things as characterisation, atmosphere, slicker prose and satirical humour. Bradbury could not sell to Campbell, but published in wide range of sf magazines as well as in prestigious non-genre venues, such as Argosy and The Saturday Evening Post.

The reason for his failure with Campbell and success elsewhere has been attributed – by Brian Aldiss? – to him writing science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction (which we might more generously describe as writing non-Campbellian science fiction). Bradbury was championed by critics such as Robert Conquest and Kingsley Amis who, although they occasionally wrote and edited sf, were not sf writers per se. Within the genre community, such writers/editors/critics as James Blish and Damon Knight tended to be more ambivalent – caught between what they saw as Bradbury’ ‘poetic’ writing/ higher literary standards and his apparently blissful ignorance of science.

This ambivalence was mirrored by a number of the class, who found aspects of the novel quite compelling while also being frustrated by the ‘vagueness’ of its world-building. (I am not sure ‘vagueness’ is quite the right term, since it implies there is something that Bradbury should be doing rather than thinking about his preference for imagery over concrete images – and it might also indicate a relative lack of familiarity with sf’s specific reading protocols, which often require the reader to collaborate in building the world from the smallest of hints.)

In considering Fahrenheit 451 as an exaggerated dystopian version of the suburbs it is perhaps useful briefly to put aside its most obvious and striking feature – firemen now burn books – and instead think about the other features of its imagined world, all of which resonate strongly with the affluence and anxieties outlined last week:

  • the overwhelming impact of mass media, on everything from the design of houses  (no front porches, replace windows with TV screens, etc) to the fabric of domestic life, which is organised around consumption and pseudo-participation, and dominates social occasions
  • the alienation from other human beings, from nature, from meaningful labour
  • the reliance on tranquillisers, sleeping and other medication
  • the frequency of divorces and the virtual exile of children
  • women’s rejection of pregnancy and natural childbirth (cast as a negative, although Shulamith Firestone and others would see this as a positive)
  • juvenile delinquents racing cars around night-time streets, dying in crashes and aiming for pedestrians
  • how commonplace deliberate suicides and accidental overdoses have become
  • the absence of an urban centre (there is one, but the emphasis throughout is on seemingly endless suburbs)
  • really long billboards because everyone drives so fast
  • the degradation of language
  • the constant sound of military jets and the ultimate outbreak of the fourth nuclear war since the 1960s
  • the near-universal and – it is made clear – willing abandonment of books and reading
  • the only very occasional spectacle of state power when books are burned

We also thought about the ways in which Bradbury’s prose and imagery are ‘simple’ or ‘child-like’ – the way the novel seems to be the product of a pre-pubertal imagination. This led us in two directions.

First, there are the distinctly Oedipal elements of the novel. While its depiction of women is broadly misogynistic, this is especially focused on Mildred Montag. Cast as a simple-minded and anxious nag, she also comes across as a cold and distant mother figure to her husband, who often seems like a boy in quest of a father figure (Granger replacing Faber replacing Beatty). Mildred is early on associated with the kind of marble figure you might find on a mausoleum – remember the suburban fireplace in All that Heaven Allows – and when Montag turns the flamethrower on their twin beds (after all, there is no reason for mummy and daddy to share a bed, is there?), they ‘went up in a great simmering whisper, with more heat and passion and light than he would have supposed them to contain’ (151).

There is also something just a little bit queer about Montag’s relationship with Faber, the older, educated man who first picked Montag up in a public park, slipping him his phone number even though he knew it would put him in the fireman’s power. Faber  maintains this role of mentor, and shares a strange intimacy with the Montag through the earbug the younger man wears so they can always be together.

The second direction in which this sense of Bradbury’s simplicity went was thinking about the imagery he uses. The opening page introduces, among other images, the series of oppositions between black and white: firemen are always associated with blackness, and sometimes Bradbury seems almost to recognise a racial dimension; readers and women are associated with whiteness, although sometimes this whiteness is sepulchral (Mildred) or diseased (Faber). There is also animal and other nature imagery. Sparks become fireflies, books become pigeons. Later, books will rain down around Montag like pigeons, and he will be infected, losing control over his impulses, his hands becoming like ferrets whose antics he can only observe (this sense of alienation from his self culminates in him watching his own pursuit on television, which ends with his capture being faked). As with the bizarre fantasy about the barn in the final section of the novel, there is a nostalgic current underpinning the animal imagery – making manifest the natural world that the suburban sprawl roots up, tears down, eradicates. The imagery haunts the denatured suburb, reminding us of what has been lost and is constantly being thrown away.

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers shares many of these concerns. While its mood of paranoia might lend credence to the commonplace notion that the film is somehow about fears of communist infiltration, there is in fact little in the film to support reading it that way (just a few years earlier the emotionless nature of the pods would have been projected onto Nazis rather than Commies, primarily as a denial of the profound conformism in American life and in a consumer culture). Similarly, it is not especially easy to read the film as being about fears of racial passing or queer passing, although they too might be argued – the film is certainly about ensuring difference does not intrude onto this white suburban small town. This difference takes the form of two childless, sexually active recent divorcees – former sweethearts and possibly lovers – finding themselves thrown together, and everyone around them assuming they will become involved with each other again (while elsewhere, Oedipal anxieties take the form of children thinking there parents are not their parents). It is a film obsessed with sex – Miles makes constant innuendoes and hits on women all the time; he races over to Becky’s house in his pyjamas (don’t ask what her house is doing in his pyjamas) in the middle of the night and sweeps her off to his house, where the next morning she is wearing some of his clothes and cooking him breakfast, and Jack Belicec seems to assume this is post-coital. There is Becky’s summer dress, which miraculously stays up while emphasising her breasts, and Miles’s ultimate declaration that he did not know the real meaning of fear until he kissed her. Against all this sex is cast not only the asexual reproduction of the pod people but also the mechanical reproduction of commodities and the replacement of culture (a live band) by its simulacrum (the juke box).

And, as that penultimate hurried paragraph suggests, we ran out of time. Next week, Alphaville (Godard 1965).

Week 15

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 9, “Exurban Postmodernity: Utopia, Simulacra and Hyper-reality.”
Biskind, Peter. Seeing is Believing How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. London: Pluto, 1983. 102–59.
Bould, Mark. “Burning Too: Consuming Fahrenheit 451.” Literature and the Visual Media. Ed. David Seed. Woodbridge: DS Brewer, 2005. 96–122.
Grant, Barry Keith. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. London: BFI, 2010.
McGiveron, Rafeeq O. “‘To build a mirror factory’: The Mirror and Self-Examination in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 39.3 (1998): 282–7.
Seed, David. American Science Fiction and the Cold War: Literature and Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
–. “The Flight from the Good Life: Fahrenheit 451 in the Context of Postwar American Dystopias.” Journal of American Studies 28.2 (1994): 22–40.
Whalen, Tom. “The Consequences of Passivity: Re-evaluating Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451.” Literature/Film Quarterly 35.3 (2007): 181–90.

Recommended reading
E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909) anticipates surburban consumerist isolation.
Suburbia became a regular setting for postwar sf: Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950) and “The Pedestrian” (1951), Judith Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth (1950), Frederik Pohl’s “The Midas Plague” (1954), Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959) and Pamela Zoline’s “Heat Death of the Universe” (1967).
Examples of suburban horror include Anne Rivers Siddons’s The House Next Door (1978) and M. John Harrison’s subtler “The Incalling” (1978) and The Course of the Heart (1991).

Recommended viewing
Bradbury’s novel was filmed by French New Wave director François Truffaut as Fahrenheit 451 (1966). Other sf and fantasy films depicting the dissatisfactions of suburban living include Invaders from Mars (Menzies 1953), Forbidden Planet (Wilcox 1956), The Stepford Wives (Forbes 1975), E.T. – The Extra-terrestrial (Spielberg 1982), Poltergeist (Hooper 1982), Parents (Balaban 1989), Edward Scissorhands (Burton 1990), Pleasantville (Ross 1998), The Truman Show (Weir 1998) and Donnie Darko (Kelly 2001).

 

Memory Palace

Kunzru1

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,kunzru2 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 aakgo9fm2Recycling, 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.

South Wales is weird. And fantastical.

We had some time to kill before the Thee Faction and Helen Love (and others for We Shall Overcome) gig in Newport, so we nipped over to Caerleon to see the amazing Roman ruins. We did not expect to find this:

wales 1

Or, on a map in the museum, to find this:

wales 2

To be honest, this was probably a different guy by the same name:

wales 3

Few things are more weird, though, than putting up a plaque to remember resistance to the Chartists:

wales 4

Before leaving for our walk back to Newport, we thought we’d have a pint. Not expecting the pub we ended up in to be one where this once happened:

wales 5

A lovely afternoon full of surprises. And the gig was even better. Once Thee Faction got on the stage. And then Helen Love.

 

 

China Miéville, The Scar (London: Macmillan, 2002)

200px-TheScar(1stEd)[A version of this review appeared in Foundation 86 (2002), 132–4]

The Scar returns to Perdido Street Station’s Bas Lag, but it is not a novel about return: it is about departure and loss. Part of that loss is the sense that the author, with his bold opening move of denying New Crobuzon, has learned all he can from Mervyn Peake; and consequently it wobbles, or seems to wobble, in the first 60 pages.

Peake has often been criticised for leaving Gormeghast in the final volume of his trilogy – a criticism with which Miéville does not necessarily agree but to which he has clearly paid attention. New Crobuzon, that brilliant invention and potential albatross, does not appear in The Scar. For the reader wanting a consolatory return, New Crobuzon has become like M. John Harrison’s Egnaro; indeed, an alternative title for the novel might have been ‘A Young Man’s Journey to New Crobuzon’. Miéville is too ambitious to serve up just more of the same, and that is why the novel wobbles at the start (or seems to: I am not exempt from wanting consolation), why the world seems a little thin to begin with, why the visit to Salkrikaltor City seems skimped, curtailed. The opening pages reek of impatience. Like the protagonist Bellis Coldwine, the author needs to depart, to move on, and through her he transforms his refusal to return to New Crobuzon into part of his thematic complex about a mature regard for the universe and the compassionate identification with others that it demands of ethico-political beings.

Which is not to say that those pages are not full of the restless invention, exemplary prose and visualisation we have so quickly come to expect from Miéville. And even when Bas Lag does not seem as dense and filled as it might, there is still the sense of a dense, full world lurking out of sight, of whole other volumes that can only be hinted at. On the very first page we read that ‘Presences something between molluscs and deities squat patiently below eight miles of water’; and on the next page that ‘There is heroism and brute warfare on the ocean floor, unnoticed by land-dwellers. There are gods and catastrophes’. But that is all we are told.

Forced to flee New Crobuzon, Bellis (a former lover of Perdido’s Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin) plans to settle for a while in the colony of Nova Esperium, but her journey is interrupted, diverted, hi-jacked. She finds herself caught up in the plans of the Lovers, the sado-masochistic and megalomaniac rulers of Armada, and in the conspiracies and counter-conspiracies of Silas Fennec (aka Simon Fench), a secret agent, and Uther Doul, the Lovers’ right-hand man. She witness scab-mettlers fight in the mortu crutt style and displays of stamp-fighting; she walks upon Machinery Beach; she eavesdrops upon the Lovers sexualised scarifications; she is courted by Doul and hears him play the Perhapsadian; she learns about oceanic megafauna, the Ghosthead Empire and possibility mining. And she is used, and punished, and used some more.

But that is a mere fraction. There is the magnitude of the Lovers’ hubristic designs for Armada; the resistance of the Brucolac, the ab-dead vampir ruler of Dry Fall; the grindylows’ pursuit of Fennec; the story of Crawfoot and the Conch Assassins; the Remaking of Tanner Sack; Bastard John, the dolphin; the education of Shekel and his romance with the Remade Angevine; the peculiar adventure of the cactacae Hedrigall; awkward friendships and alliances; there is a none-too-secret message hidden in the open, an extraordinarily bad pun (471) involving the Maguffin which drives one strand of the action, and an obscure joke about the author’s doctoral thesis (417–21), which he was completing alongside the novel. There are moments of great tenderness (Bellis teaching Shekel to read; Sack repairing Angevine’s boiler) and tremendous set-pieces (the attack of the she-anophelii; the Brucolac’s revolt and punishment; breaking into the Compass Factory; Hedrigall’s vision). And there is the anxiety of influence, manifested in numerous allusions to The Matrix (a character called Carrianne, Uther Doul’s sword-fighting in bullet-time) and to other nautical fantasies (the Aronnax Lab, the Pinchermarn, Tintinnabulum, Captain Princip Cecasan of the Morning Walker, a godwhale). There are various echoes of Bruce Sterling’s Involution Ocean and a game of pitch and toss borrowed from Tim Powers’s The Stress of Her Regard.

And, most importantly, there is a sustained critique of colonialism. The anophelii, isolated and under military guard, are remorselessly exploited by the Samheri cactacae, their access to information tightly circumscribed and their intellectual labours expropriated without reward. There are questions about who are the real slaves and who are the real pirates. There is a clear-headed explication of the mercantile motivation of exploration, and a revelation that changes our perspective on the grindylow. There is Machinery Beach, a complex image of ruination and potential, of the colonised world as both dumping ground and source of commodities:

Some way off were shapes she had taken to be boulders, huge things the size of rooms, breking up the shoreline. They were engines. Squat and enormous and coated with rust and verdigris, long-forgotten appliances for unknown purposes, their pistons seized by age and salt.
There were smaller rocks too, and Bellis saw that these were shards of the larger machines, bolts and pipework junctions; or finer, more intricate and complete pieces, gauges and glass work and compact steampower engines. The pebbles were gears, cogs, flywheels, bolts and screws … thousands of minuscule ratchets and gearwheels and ossified springs, like the innards of inconceivably tiny clocks. … The beach was an imitation, a found-sculpture mimicking nature in the materials of the junkyard. Every atom from some shattered machine. … She imagined the seafloor around the bay – reclaimed reef of decaying industry, the contents of a city’s factories allowed to collapse, pounded by waves and sun, oxidizing, bleeding with rust, breaking into their constituent parts and then into smaller shards, thrown back by the water onto the island’s edge, evolving into this freakish shore. … This is the flotsam Hedrigall meant, she realized. This is a graveyard of dead devices. There must be millions of secrets mouldering here into rust-dust. They must sift through it, and scrub it clean, and offer the most promising bits for trade, two or three pieces picked randomly from a thousand piece-puzzle. Opaque and impenetrable, but if you could put it together, if you could make sense of it, what might you have? (274-5)

And most of all there is the Lovers’ plan for Armada, in which they convince and cajole many to believe, regardless of its tremendous environmental and human consequences, because it might just bring wealth and power.

The Scar represents a further maturation of Miéville as a writer. If the novel lacks some of the profligacy which made Perdido Street Station such a joy it is made up for by a more disciplined approach to narrative and tighter control over intertextual riffs. His emotional and affective range has expanded, without abandoning the eyeball-kicks.

The Scar is the best nautical fantasy since John Calvin Batchelor’s The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica and the most important one since B Traven’s The Death Ship.

It is arguably the first major novel of the anti-capitalist movement, and as I’ve said elsewhere, it makes Moby Dick look like a big fat book about whales.

 

China Miéville, Perdido Street Station (Macmillan 2000)

PerdidoStreetStation(1stEd)[A version of this review appeared in Foundation 79 (2000), 88–90. Which I think makes it the first thing on China to appear in an academic journal. Yay me!]

Vivid as a comic book, Miéville’s King Rat (1998), with its funky London and splendid conceit, and its passages of grace, charm and glee, was one of the most assured fantasy debuts of the 1990s. Like the bass beneath the treble, its narrative momentum and crafter prose danced the enchanted reader past the slipperiness of plot logic and duration. His second novel, Perdido Street Station, dwarfs King Rat – in words, weight, ambition, invention, accomplishment. It is a garuda to the former’s wyrman, and eagle to its flying monkey. Let me explain.

North of Myrshock, Shankell, Perrick Nigh and the Mandrake Islands; north-east of the Cacatopic Stain and the Shards; east of Bered Kai Nev, the Swollen Ocean, Gnur Kett and the Jheshull Islands; at the confluence of the rivers Tar and Canker, where they become the Gross tar: there lies the city of New Crobuzon, magnificent and squalid, powerful and corrupt, home to humans and others. A mysterious figure approaches. Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, outcast scientist and corpulent dilettante, receives an unusual commission, as does his khepri partner, a renegade spit-artist. And so connections begin. Evil, irresponsibly cultivated, is accidentally unleashed. A company – neither quite a Seven Samurai nor a Dirty Dozen – gathers, although they do not all meet. Things emerge: winged rippers, artificial intelligence, the dancing mad god, class consciousness. Chaos theory is transmuted into crisis science. Dirigibles and aerostats criss-cross the troubled sky. The identity of a serial killer is slyly revealed. A vigilante steps in when it counts. Decisions, ethical and otherwise, are taken. People change and changed. Some die. All suffer.

The story told is a familiar one, yet different. It grips and exhausts. The birds, spiders, sewers, rooftops and hybrids of King Rat reappear exfoliated, as do the city’s alternative architectures, the shared worlds existing within but different from the built environment. The appetite for language that occasionally strained the earlier novel has grown to remarkable proportions but is disciplined by the clarity and efficiency of Miéville’s tempered prose; he delineates characters and settings with precision and compassion, building layers of texture rather than ornamentation. Some have suggested that New Crobuzon itself is the novel’s main achievement, but it is difficult to separate city from novel. Their fabric is intertwined and full of echoes: Gormenghast and Viriconium are here, and Cinnabar, Cirque, Dhalgren, Lankhmar, Malacia. London, too, both steampunk and contemporary; and where the lived music of King Rat captured coming-of-age in the late 1980s and 1990s, Perdido Street Station evokes the dark days of Thatcher, Major and Blair. Amid the ghettos and squalor, poverty and the appearance of difference are used as tools of state oppression. Secretive paramilitary forces who police ‘by decentralised fear’ (269) brutally suppress a strike and redefine it as a riot. Government, big business and organised crime are in cahoots. Military funding perverts scientific research and education. A suffrage lottery preserves privilege, and evil resides in a dome built on rubble-strewn wasteground.

Comparisons to Mervyn Peake and M. John Harrison are inevitable – Miéville acknowledges them both and even sneaks in ‘a storm of wings’ (159) – so here are some others. Miéville’s obsessive invention rivals William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and, like Neal Stephenson, he wants to tell use everything (but for more important reasons). He writes with the compassion of Philip K. Dick at his best but without his misogyny and crude moral certainty. His gorgeous, tainted images match those of Elizabeth Hand, Storm Constantine and Poppy Z. Brite, but without the cloying atmosphere or swamping effect on narrative that sometimes mars their work. He depicts and art-world as well-realised as Misha’s, but more concrete and lacking in preciosity. He places the maimings and torments one expects to find only in Tim Powers within a political and ethical rather than mythopoeic framework. And he writes better prose than any of them.

He also mock the anxieties of sf’s ‘scientific’ patter and hand-waving, essays political doggerel and children’s songs, pastiches political journalism, satirises Judaeo-Christian despite for women, lampoons academic doublespeak, nods to Jonathan Swift and Ursula Le Guin, canonises the Jabberwocky – and still that is not all.

In King Rat, when the protagonist, Saul, briefly takes up with Deborah, a young homeless woman, he instructs himself not to patronise her but to treat her as a real person; and because the London Saul has come to inhabit is a fantastical one, this passage, with its conscious effort to bridge between textual and extratextual worlds, seems clumsy, a touch too didactic. Noentheless, it provides an important key to understanding the ethical fiction is attempting to construct. Similar moments, lacking in overt trans-diegetical moves and more smoothly executed, occur in Perdido Street Station: a brothel full of Remade whores and an act of betrayal offer mutual understanding; a trip to a freakshow, undertaken after some ninety pages of astonishments, refuses to conjure still more fabulous grotesques but instead portrays degradation, misanthropy and complacency. The nature of Perdido Street Station is such that it cannot gain King Rat’s purchase, however, awkward, on the extratextual world. Instead, these ethical and empathic moments occur within networks of interconnection. The key metaphor is provided by Isaac’s crisis science, which sees through consensual reality to the perpetual moment of crisis, to a precarious potential energy with which to drive revolutionary engines. It is, therefore, no coincidence that it is the striking vodyanoi dockers whose watercræft draws, albeit unconsciously, on this power. There are connections, Miéville insists, and in those connections, in shated being, there is hopeful energy; and, as Isaac, disgusted by the attitudes of other people at the freakshow, is reminded by a radical friend, ‘It turns … It turns quickly’ (88).

Of course the novel has flaws – some might find the Alien movies cast too large a shadow, or that Isaac’s mourning seems skimped (but not without reason), or that Miéville cares too much about his characters (whatever the hell that means), or that the reader is left as battered and drained as the company – but make no mistake: Perdido Street Station is the rich hallucinogenic dreamshit of genre, mutating into socialist fiction.

Wake up and smell the ordure.