The empire stumbles

As the Murdoch media empire stumbles (at least in the UK) in the unexpected glare of negative publicity, it is fascinating to hear the palpable relief of politicians (of all hues, seemingly) to have come out from under its power.

It’s different in degree of course, but I’m reminded of the fall of Mubarak or Ceausescu: suddenly a power that seemed unassailable, is seen to be vulnerable, and those who were cowed into silence, or felt obliged to curry favour, find themselves able to express some of the dislike, resentment, even hate, that they’d been concealing all those years, perhaps even from themselves, as they attended the lunches and the weddings and ate the canapes.   Different in degree again, of course, but I’m reminded too of recovering victims of Stockholm Syndrome.

Fascinating, but also disturbing.   We knew Mubarak and Ceausescu were dictators, but Murdoch’s power was more subtle, and though we knew it was there, we perhaps can only get a really visceral sense of its full extent, when we feel the relief of its temporary absence.

But it is a temporary absence.  The empire is stumbling but has not fallen, and even if it does fall, there are plenty of other empires and would-be empires that would happily take its place.   We shouldn’t just sit back and enjoy the drama of the empire in difficulty, or allow the sole legacy of this moment to be a tinkering around with rules of privacy or with mechanisms for dealing with press complaints.  If this story is to be more than a redtop  melodrama of villainy exposed, then the opportunity needs to be seized not to rein in freedom of speech, but promote it by legislating to ensure plurality.

Surely it would not be unreasonable to say that no individual and no private company can own more than one daily paper, or more than one weekly?  And surely it would be reasonable to insist that if you own a newspaper, you can’t also own a TV station of any kind?    And surely genuine plurality requires too that a substantial portion of the media should not be under the control of private corporations and/or beholden to advertisers.

It is worth remembering that this whole spectacle is being unfolded for us by Murdoch’s rivals.  (The BBC for instance is positively crowing ).  Even this we are not watching unmediated.   How could we?   We have to rely on others.  The important thing is to ensure that we have a lot of different others to rely on, with a lot of different interests and points of view.

The News of the World

Once upon a time, far off in the future, there was a World in which there were several political parties, free speech, and fair elections.   However one fabulously wealthy man had managed over time to accumulate the largest part of the World’s holographic broadcasting system, such that just about everyone heard and saw the news of their World only as authorised by him.

His name was Palmer.  He had come across the depths of space from another planet entirely, and his power was such that all the major political parties were obliged to court his favour.  Before each election their leaders would discuss their platforms with him, seek his views, offer to modify their positions in exchange for the support of his many holo-channels.  For they knew that if they did not do so, their parties would be trashed by his vast army of story-weavers and could not hope to win the popular vote.  (Those story-weavers were masters at building and wrecking reputations, and they were utterly ruthless.)

So Palmer controlled the World, giving and witholding power as he pleased, and he didn’t do this by killing people, or locking them up, or using force, because he didn’t need to.   If you control the news of a world – if you can determine the way a world sees itself – then you control that world.

But then one day a strange thing happened.  Palmer’s organisation slipped up.  Right out in public view, his workers were caught behaving in a way that everyone could plainly see was despicable.   The curtain was pulled aside for a moment, and the people of the World could see that their news  – their entire understanding about what happened beyond their immediate ken – was being fed to them by a pack of ruthless and deceitful crooks, who cared about nothing but their own self-interest, and the interests of their master Palmer.

It was a rare rare opportunity.  Soon the curtain would close again.  Soon this very episode would itself have been worked over, repackaged and re-presented to the people of that World by Palmer’s master story-tellers.  So what happened then, was that….


Philip K. Dick

I came to Philip Dick’s work relatively late, but it has a big influence on me.  I would find it difficult to say  which is my favourite one of his books and stories, though at times I decide The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which many people seem to pick, and which I may write about some other time.  At other times I decide on Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, a wonderful book in which the most complex and sympathetic character is a police chief in a brutal police state, in an incestuous relationship with his twin sister, whose death is a turning point in the story  (one of countless references in Dick to a dead female twin: his own twin sister died in infancy).

I also particularly admire his short story ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon’  (I once wrote a 20,000 word dissertation on this one story, and I may at some point write more about it here.)

Although I started reading science fiction as a teenager in the seventies, I didn’t come upon Dick until some time later, and I found his work a revelation: I could use science fiction not just for sociological and political speculation, not just for ‘sense of wonder’, but to write about everything!

The first Dick book I read was  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and I was blown away by the reckless, even careless, daring with which Dick flung together ideas, bothering not at all with technological plausibility, and combining  deep darkness with playful absurdity.  Dick can be very funny. The opening pages of Androids are some of the funniest writing I have read anywhere, and  who but Philip Dick would have a character (as in Ubik) engaging in an argument with his own sentient front door (he threatens to kick the door down, at which point the door threatens to sue him.)

Some people say Dick has good ideas but does not write well. I find this hard to understand.  His writing can sometimes be sloppy – many of these books were churned out at great speed – but I envy the precision and clarity of  his best prose, and at times it is really beautiful.  The following is from Androids. Isidore stands in his decaying apartment in a nearly empty building, in a decaying and depopulated world:

Silence.  It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill.  It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting.  It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn’t worked in all the time Isidore had lived there.  From the useless pole lamp in the living room it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-specked ceiling.  It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision, as if it – the silence – meant to supplant all things tangible.  Hence it assailed not only his ears but his eyes; as he stood by the inert TV set he experienced the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive.  Alive!  He had often felt its austere approach before; when it came it burst in without subtlety, evidently unable to wait.  The silence of the world could not rein back its greed.  Not any longer.  Not when it had virtually won.

But above all what stands out about Dick’s work is that, however bizarre and ludicrous the worlds he creates, the characters within them are entirely human.   The author has inhabited them and looked out of their eyes (not always the case in science fiction writing, where characters are often very much seen from the outside, their characteristics added-on, rather than integral to their nature).   Dick’s characters’ dramas are real, however strange (or even silly) the worlds in which they take place, just as the drama in a well-acted play is real, even if the actors’ costumes are absurd and the stage set is only bits of painted plywood.

And of course, famously, the great theme of Philip Dick, is that the so-called real world is like that too: painted plywood concealing something else.  We don’t know where we are, or even who we are, but yet somehow we still really do exist.

Grave of Philip Dick and his sister Jane


The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

Cover imageWhat’s your favourite book?   It’s a meaningless question of course.  If you’ve read a lot of books, you can’t really have one favourite.  But if I’m asked the question I’ve been known to answer The Unconsoled. I first read this some 16 years ago when it first came out, having heard Ishiguro talking about it on the radio.   I have just re-read it to see if I still rated it as highly.  I did.  It’s a long book, but I could hardly bring myself to put it down.

I was drawn to the book in the first place when I heard Ishiguro say that he had decided to write the book using the narrative technique of human dreams.  In a dream, he explained, a person can go through a door in one town and emerge in a different town (saving the many pages of rationalisation and explanation you might need to get a person from one place to another in a realistic novel).   These jumps happen frequently in the novel, as do other dream-like devices, such as one  person doubling up as another, or of a person standing outside a building being able to see what is going on inside, or a person or thing from the past turning up in a completely different context without this causing anyone any surprise.  But the novel isn’t in any way ‘dreamy’.   The dream-technique is used for compression, not for random weirdness, the writing is in Ishiguro’s usual spare exact stiff-upper-lippy prose, the characters are precisely and poignantly drawn, and even though the situations are often bizarre, the human relationships are painfully real.

The story is about an eminent pianist, Ryder, arriving in an unnamed European town (the town is unnamed but the characters have German-sounding names: there is a definite debt to Kafka in this book, and in my opinion, if not a debt then a faint kinship with the work of another of my  favourite writers, Philip Dick).  The town expects great things of Ryder, and he is very taken with the idea of himself as a great and important man, but what unfolds (for I guess some 200,000 words) resembles  one of those anxiety dreams (I have them frequently) in which you are trying to get somewhere, but are constantly thwarted by endless complications and obstacles (for example by a brick wall built for no reason right across a street).  Or the ones in which you are never quite sure what part you are supposed to be playing.

In the course of this, a whole cast of characters appears, mostly rather lonely and tortured souls, many of them so driven by a need to redeem themselves in the eyes of their imagined superiors, or their parents, or their own eyes, that they neglect and forget about those they are supposed to love.  (Themes apparent also in his previous novel The Remains of the Day).   There are many truly heartrending moments, for example when parents simply fail to see how much their children need their approval, but the book is also often funny enough to make you laugh out loud.  The banality of everyday thoughts are wonderfully mocked by having the vain and self-centred Ryder expressing them in the same pompous language that he uses to talk about his big projects, and often the book is simultaneously funny and excruciatingly sad.  Here is Ryder, who has promised to spend an evening playing boardgames with his little boy, but is distracted by… the need to read every word in the local paper:

Returning to my sofa, I saw that, by putting my plate down on a cushion beside me,  I would be able to eat and continue to read my newspaper at the same time.  I had decided earlier to examine the newspaper very carefully, scrutinising even the adverts for local businesses, and I now continued with this project, reaching over occasionally to my plate without taking my eyes off the newsprint.

There’s no way of doing the book justice in a summary, and I’m sure that, even on two readings, I have only understood part of what is actually there, but it certainly remains one of my favourite books, unsurpassed I think by Ishiguro himself, and I’m surprised it isn’t more famous than it is.

I particularly love the idea of using the narrative devices of dreams because my own view is that dreams are the original archetypal stories.   When people say they don’t have the imagination to write stories, I often wonder how it is that people can say that, when every night they weave themselves complicated intricate stories without even trying, rich in layers and layers of meaning, and often full of truths which waking minds just don’t grasp.  Freud saw dreams as the disguised representations of desires, but that’s only a little part of what dreams do.  In my experience dreams tell me who I am, and often direct a sharp light onto my own self-deceptions, my own little acts of cowardice.  And it is exactly that kind of light that The Unconsoled enlists to shine into the lives of its characters.


Out in Asimov’s: Day 29

A new story of mine – ‘Day 29’ – is just out in Asimov’s.   When I submitted it, Sheila Williams (Asimov’s editor) commented that they didn’t usually take horror stories    Funnily enough, it hadn’t really occurred to me that it was a horror story until that point.  Looking back, it occurs to me that there has been a strand of horror going through a number of my more recent stories, including ‘Karel’s prayer’, ‘The Dessicated Man’, ‘Greenland’.

Day 29 is one of those stories which evolve (it wasn’t planned as a horror story, so I suppose that’s why I didn’t notice it had become one.)   It’s core is a thought experiment (eloquently summarised by one reader here)  about identity, and about the extent to which our individual selves are the product of interaction with others.

The forests of Lutania owe something to The Snail on the Slope, by the Strugatsky brothers.  (Like their Roadside Picnic, this is a very nearly unreadable book, which nevertheless leaves a strange and very powerful trace in the mind, like a powerful and numinous dream which you don’t understand but can’t forget.   Remarkable books, even though you have to force yourself through them.)

I don’t know for certan, but I imagine I got the idea for the title  from Version 43 by my friend Philip Palmer.  In this novel, people travel between planets by teleportation, but with a 50/50 chance of arriving dead and mangled at the other end.

In ‘Day 29’, there is also a price to pay for travelling in this way: you lose your recent memories.  Everyone arrives at the other end having lost at least 29 days, and possibly as much as 40 days.

So you can be quite sure that anything you do in the last 29 days before you make the leap, you won’t remember.

The Holy Machine: the song

The Holy Machine is now also a song!

The Holy Machine – Southern Tenant Folk Union

(Song by P.McGarvey, published by Santa Mira Music/admin. Bug Music Ltd Copyright 2011: Johnny Rock Records.)

The Edinburgh-based group Southern Tenant Folk Union have included this as the final track on their forthcoming album ‘Pencaitland’, due out in June 2011 (see cover image below).   The whole album is well worth hearing.   I particularly liked the setting of the W.B.Yeats poem ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’.

Album cover image

The Peacock Cloak: the picture

The Russian translation of ‘The Peacock Cloak’ appeared in Esli magazine accompanied by this picture by Eugene Kapustiansky, reproduced here by kind permission of the magazine and artist.  I think it’s great.  The eyes are just how I imagined them, alert and restless, and yet vacuous.   More information about the artist is below the picture.

The Peacock Cloak: Eugene Kapustiansky

Eugene Kapustiansky was born in 1946.  He graduated from the Art faculty of Moscow Polytechnic and worked in Moscow with journals including ProgressSoviet Writer and Soviet Composer. From 1991 he worked at the publishing house Friend as an art director, and then with the newspaper Izvestia.  He has been working with Esli since 2003.

The Time Traveller’s Wife

I watched the film ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ recently.  I wasn’t expecting to be crazy about it, having not been that taken with the book by Audrey Niffenegger (there was something about the authorial voice that jarred, though I admired the idea of it, and admired the feat of plotting a relationship between two people for each of whom the same life events occur in a different order).  There were some irritating things in the film too, but overall I enjoyed it very much.  It seemed to follow the novel pretty closely, but this is perhaps a story that benefits from not having to have a narrator.

The Time Traveller has an affliction which means that from time to time, suddenly and without warning, he flips forward or backwards in time, leaving an empty pile of clothes, to return again after an hour, a minute, a week…  His wife first meets him, many times, when he is an adult man and she is a little girl.   Then, when she is an adult, she meets him again, a man she has known and loved most of her life, but he doesn’t know her at all, because he hasn’t yet reached the age at which he first flips back to her childhood.   Watching the film, I felt there was something rather wonderful about this notion.  It was one of those ideas that prod away at the mind.

He dies quite young, but after he is dead , he comes back again a couple of times  – not a ghost, not an apparition, but completely alive and well, younger than he had been when he died, and able to tell his wife, the precise time in their mutual past from which he’s just flipped.   The first time he meets his daughter is when he has flipped forward from a time before she was born to a time in the future when he has already died.

And these dislocations too, prodded away at my mind all the next day.   Rather in the way of the bold, simple central idea of the novel Inverted World which I wrote about here recently, this simple device of a woman having a relationship with a time traveller was one of those ideas which I find satisfying because they are rich in metaphorical possibilities, but can’t simply be translated into a single ‘meaning’.

It made me wonder, for instance, whether all relationships are really relationships between time travellers, since we all travel back and forth between our present and our past, and are in some moments grownups and in others adolescents or children, so that ever day the relationship between two people presents endless possible combinations…

It made me think of Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians, for whom time is essentially the same as space, so that the idea of a person not being alive for ever is no more distressing than the fact that a person does not exist at every point in space…

It made me think of the way that I am myself a time traveller, sometimes dealing with the world in front of me, but again and again sliding back to struggles from my past, or slipping sideways into imaginary or faraway places where I don’t  exist at all.

PS  And incidentally, to return to the theme of my previous post, the fact that time travel is impossible (let alone a genetic condition that causes time travel!) is entirely irrelevant to the question of the worth of this book.  Being possible or plausible in a literal sense, is not the only way in which a story can connect with real life.

“Sense of wonder”

Most people who read or write science fiction identify a “sense of wonder” as part of the original appeal of the genre.   This was certainly true for me.  Reading SF as a teenager with an as yet unjaded palette, I enjoyed the almost spinetingling sense of strangeness that it evoked.

I think one of the things science fiction can usefully do, is remind us that, outside the tiny tiny realm which has come to seem ordinary to us  as a result of habit and familiarity, this is a very strange universe.   (Science fiction has a particular way of doing this, but you could argue that all artistic-type activity ought to be aimed at tearing away the veneer of ordinariness.)

Science fiction can however contribute itself to a kind of dulling and deadening:  a kind of inflationary process exists which is in danger of debasing the currency of wonder.   The first time you see or read about a gigantic space ship, for instance, it inspires wonder.  When you have seen the same thing repeated over and over again, it grows tedious – and just making the spaceship even bigger does not help.  As Ian Sales says:  ‘Scale is not sense of wonder, and a lot of sf confuses the two.’    I wonder if it is possible that a failure to understand this fact has led to the decline in prestige and popularity of SF?

This is a related, but not identical point, to that made by the proponents of Mundane SF who propose that science fiction ought to be more scientific, more committed to the world that actually exists, and confine itself  to futures and technologies that might actually occur.   Faster-than-light-travel and galactic empires, are really just escapist fantasies, on this argument.  They will almost certainly never happen, and to write about them as if they were possible futures is perhaps to downplay the uniqueness and importance of our home on Earth, possibly dangerously so.

I go along with the spirit of this argument, but not entirely with the letter of it.   I agree that it is important that SF should connect with the world we actually inhabit and I am not interested in SF that doesn’t (not just for reasons of principle but also because I find it very tedious).   But sticking literally to what is actually possible is not the only way of reflecting and exploring the world we  live in, and not only SF but all branches of literature work by taking some liberties with the literal truth.