The bones of St Josaphat

• September 12th, 2014 • Posted in All posts

A while ago I wrote a post here about the story of St Josaphat, a story which itself had had adventures and travelled through many lands.  It began as a story about Buddha, but had crossed into Persia, then the Arab world, then Georgia, then the Greek world, and finally into the Latin world, with Buddha’s Sanskrit name (Bodhisattva) gradually changing as the story passed from language to language, and the religious background also changing from Buddhism to Islam to Christianity, so that Buddha becomes the Christian saint, Josaphat.

I came across a coda to that story in a book review* I read recently in the LRB:

In 1571, the doge of Venice presented a sacred relic to King Sebastian of Portugal: a bone from Josaphat’s spine.  It is still in a silver reliquary in the St Andrieskerk in Antwerp.

So a real flesh and blood human being becomes the subject of a legend.  The legend travels half-way round the planet, and there it is made real yet again.  I find that delightful for some reason.

* The review by Eliot Weinberger was of  In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage became a Medieval Saint, by Donald S. Lopez Jr and Peggy McCracken.



• September 12th, 2014 • Posted in All posts

When I was a student (in the mid-seventies) I once travelled by myself to the Western Isles of Scotland.  As the passengers gathered to disembark at Lochboisdale in South Uist, something happened which I hadn’t anticipated at all: I suddenly became aware that no one around me was speaking English.  The strange, remote, very Northern place into which I emerged, was utterly foreign to me in almost every way, and its people even spoke a different language.  (Not only did the people there speak Gaelic, incidentally, but as I was to discover, they were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.)  But there was just one thing that was familiar: the letterboxes.  They were red, just like the ones back home in England, and the ones I’d seen on family holidays in Wales.  For some reason I found this touching.

A few days later, I arrived at Lochmaddy in North Uist, equally Gaelic-speaking, but almost entirely Protestant.   I was hoping to catch a ferry across to Skye, but it turned out there wasn’t one for two days (for there were no sailings on Sundays).  The harbour-master, a stern, dignified man for whom the word ‘dour’ could have been invented, said I could sleep in the little waiting room, and he invited back to his house for tea.  His wife was there, his daughter and a baby grandchild.  A lavish tea was set out for me in the dining room, and then they left me alone to eat it, while they all adjourned to the living room to chat to each other in Gaelic.  This seemed to my English sensibility a strange mixture of aloofness and generosity.

I also remember being introduced to the baby as a Sassanach.  The word simply means Saxon, and is one of those fossils from the past that can be found in every language: a reminder that about the same time as Gaels from Ireland (known to the Romans as Scotiae) were busy settling and invading the land of the Picts and making it into Scotland, people from Saxony and Angeln in Northern Germany were equally busy settling and invading the land of the Britons to the south and making it into England.   The harbourmaster’s ancestors had arrived in Britain from the opposite direction to mine.  No wonder Scotland seemed foreign.

But of course it isn’t really as simple as that.   Lowland Scots are also historically Sassanach, for one thing, and we are all a mixture by now anyway.  (For instance, my maternal grandfather was Scottish and called McIntosh, clearly a Gaelic name, so presumably some of my ancestors came from the same side as the harbourmaster’s.)   And anyway wouldn’t a boy from Edinburgh or Glasgow have found Lochboisdale and Lochmaddy just as foreign as this boy from England had done?  The Scottish border isn’t really the boundary between two different cultures and two different origin stories, but a line across an island in which there are many different cultures and stories, almost all of which can be found on both sides of the line.

Nations are arbitrary things.  In Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut coined the word granfalloon to describe a entirely arbitrary group of human beings that nevertheless see themselves as belonging together (in contrast to a karass, which was a collection of people who had a real core likeness to one another), and he suggested that nations were the biggest granfalloons of all.  But I think this kind of super-rational analysis often misses the point.   These arbitrary loyalties, however superficial they seem, are actually pretty deep rooted in human nature (deep enough for people regularly to show their willingness to die for them) and have enormous utility.  Like a magnet under a pile of iron filings, or a piece of string dipped into a solution of copper sulphate, they provide a focal point for for the formation of structures, enabling very diverse collections of people to engage collectively in projects which they could never see through as isolated individuals.  Saying that the formation of grandfalloons is irrational and arbitrary is a bit like saying sexual desire is irrational and arbitrary: from a certain perspective it is – why the attachment to this particular set of things? – but from another perspective it is simply part of our nature, and serves an important purpose.

What is certainly true about granfalloons, though, is that new ones can be created.  Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter much if Scotland secedes from the UK or remains part of it.   The map of Europe has been a constantly changing thing throughout history, with nations sometimes combining or being aborbed into bigger ones (Courland, Aragon, Prussia, Brittany, Piedmont…), sometimes breaking down into smaller ones (Czechoslovakia, Jugoslavia, Austria-Hungary, the United Netherlands…), sometimes shifting the boundaries between one another.   Either way, life carries on, economies adjust, people redefine themselves in terms of the new granfalloons available.  For this reason apocalyptic predictions of what may happen if Scotland secedes (everything from prices going up in Scottish Asdas, to perpetual Tory rule in the UK) strike me as silly.   We will all come out of this as inhabitants of a properous, stable Western European country, either way.  If we split, it will be messy for a while, like a divorce (which can also feel like the end of the world), but in the end we will come through and life will go on.

One thing I wasn’t expecting, though.  Until recently, I have if anything been slightly in favour of separation, not out of any hostility to Scotland, but simply because it’s fun sometimes to rearrange the furniture and try something new.  Oddly, though, now that the day of Scotland’s vote is almost upon us, I find myself feeling quite anxious and unsettled.   If it turns out to be Yes, I discover, I will miss an indefinable something represented by that comforting red letterbox in Lochboisdale.  Hard to say why, but it will feel like losing a part of me.

But then again, I feel that way about changing my job or moving house: interesting in prospect, but when you get close to it, you are suddenly aware of nice things you will have to leave behind.


New Marcher now available as e-book

• August 5th, 2014 • Posted in News & events

The new version of Marcher is now available on kindle.   Paperback will be out in ten days.

aaa marcher cover


Mother of Eden: revised publication date

• August 3rd, 2014 • Posted in All posts, News & events

Publication date for Mother of Eden has now been put back to Spring 2015.  This will be the publication date both in the UK and the US.

This book has been through quite a metamorphosis since an early version appeared under the title Gela’s Ring (in Tony and Barbara Ballantyne’s online magazine Aethernet.)   I’m very proud of it – in several different respects it’s my best book yet – and I feel confident as I can be that it’ll be worth waiting for.



• July 28th, 2014 • Posted in All posts

Another panel I’ll be taking part in at Loncon is called ‘The Canon Is Dead.  What Now?’ (Saturday, 16th Aug,  19:00 – 20:00, Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL))  The other panellists for this one are  Kate Nepveu, Connie Willis, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Joe Monti.  This is the blurb we’ve been given:

On the one hand, initiatives like the SF Gateway are helping to ensure the SF backlist remains accessible to today’s readers, and an increasing number of “classic” SF writers are receiving the establishment seal of approval in series like the Library of America (Philip K. Dick) and the Everyman Library (Isaac Asimov). On the other hand, the SF readership is increasingly diverse, with fewer readers who have come to the field via those “classics”, and many who find little of value in them in any case. In other words the traditional SF canon is no longer tenable — but the history is still out there. So what alternative models and narratives should we be using to understand the field’s past? Should we be working to expand the canon, or to describe multiple overlapping histories — or something else?

And here are a few initial thoughts of mine:

If I was asked to justify the existence of English Literature as a publicly funded academic activity, one of my first answers would be that it creates a canon.   That is, it generates for the rest of us a sort of longlist of books from the past which are worth our attention. To be sure, any such list (just like the longlists and shortlists of contemporary literary prizes) will be contentious and subjective – so-and-so has been overlooked; so-and-so is overrated; there are too many dead white men, etc etc – but that’s another useful function of Englit professionals.  They revisit the canon, they develop and revise it.  The fact that it can’t be set in stone forever is not a reason for dismissing it as of no use.

The same is true of history.   Our understanding of the past is constantly being revised, but that doesn’t mean that historians are of no use.  Few of us have the time, skills or inclination to go back to the original documents on which history is based, and no one could do so for anything other than a small part of the past.   Without historians going back to original sources, the only history we would have left would be mythology and propaganda.

And, in the same way few people will wade, without any guidance, through the entire body of SF to find the stuff that is worth reading (though in this case, fandom plays a key role which may be more influential than professional scholarship.)  We like to think we live in an information age in which everything is only a google search away, but useful information doesn’t spring spontaneously into being without human mediation, and without layers and layers of evaluation (evaluation of books, evaluation of evaluators, evaluation of the criteria by which evaluation of books takes place).  Leaving aside SF from the past, how does any of us figure out what to read now?   We rely on reviews of one kind or another, shortlists and prizes, word of mouth, controversies, recommendations, all of which are really just the beginnings of the centuries-long process that leads ultimately to some works becoming ‘canonical’ at certain points, while others lapse into obscurity.

So I’m not sure the phrase ‘the canon is dead’ makes much sense, in relation to SF, or in relation to any other field.  It seems to me ‘the canon’ would only be dead in a world where each individual read everything, and come to his or her own judgement without consulting anyone else.   What is true is that the canon is not a fixed thing, but something that grows, changes, and exists in multiple competing forms.  But all of these, surely, are characteristics of entities that are alive!


Launch of Marcher (new and improved version)

• July 26th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, News & events

The new and extensively revised version of Marcher from Newcon Press, with its striking new cover by Ben Baldwin, will be launched at the World SF Convention in London on Friday 15th August 16.30-17.30, Library (Fan Village).

At the same event Newcon will also be launching: Nina Allan’s new novel The Race, Adam Robert’s collection of essays and criticism, Sibilant Fricative, a new edition of Kim Lakin-Smith’s Cyber Circus, and a new anthology, Paradox.

aaa marcher cover



• July 20th, 2014 • Posted in All posts

I’m taking part in several panels at the World SF Convention in London this August (details here).  Below are a few thoughts for the panel ‘Not with a Bang, but with a Metaphor’ (Thursday, 14th August, 12:00 – 13:30 Capital Suite 2 (ExCeL)).  The other panellists will be Jacob Weisman, David Hebblethwaite, Paul Weimer and Noa Menhaim.

From Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, apocalyptic and dystopian futures are a perennial favourite with writers who might be labelled ‘mainstream’ or ‘literary’. Why do such scenarios have an appeal that goes beyond a genre readership? What does a non-genre apocalypse have to offer that a science fictional one might not, and vice versa? Do we all share broadly similar nightmares, regardless of what ratio of science to sensibility we prefer?

Apocalypse is indeed a perennial theme, and to say that its appeal extends beyond an SF readership, is a fairly massive understatement. Look at the story of Noah’s Ark. The whole of civilisation is wiped out except for one man and his family, who have to start all over again, alongside the few animals they’ve saved from the flood. What is that if not a classic apocalyptic story? And the familiar Biblical story, old in itself, is based on a much older story which can be found in written form on a Sumerian tablet some 3600 years old. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is equally apocalyptic : two cities completely consumed by fire .

In fact the use of word ‘apocalypse’ to describe such scenarios is itself Biblical in origin. The word means ‘revelation’ in Greek, and has come to mean global destruction because of its association with the Book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible, which prophesies the end of the world. Not that the concept is unique to Judeo-Christian tradition and its Middle Eastern forebears. Flood stories are found in divese cultures all around the planet, including Native American cultures isolated from the rest of humanity for tens for thousands of years. Norse mythology imagined the destruction of the world in a cosmic battle called Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods.

So, yes, apocalypse is hardly a specialist SF interest, though SF certainly provides some excellent tools to tell apocalyptic stories in the context of the modern world.

As to their appeal. Well, we humans are aware not only of our own vulnerability and mortality but of the vulnerability and mortality of our civilisation, our species, the universe itself. It’s quite a thing to know about. And for tens of thousands at least, we have made pictures of things that are important to us, things that we long for, things that we dread, perhaps in the hope that by containing things in this way, reducing them to something we can shape and control, we will be better able to get hold of the things we want and stave off the things that threaten us.  I guess those two things go some way to explaining why we keep coming back to apocalyptic scenarios?

An interesting question, though, is which category the apocalypse story really belongs in, the things we dread or the things we long for? Millions of years of evolution have ensured that all our basic drives make us struggle against death, fiercely defend the fantastic complexity that makes us alive against the forces of disintegration. Yet at the same time we know, because a capacity for reason also part of our evolutionary inheritance, that death is the end of all longing and fear. The story of the Flood, the Book of Revelation, and the myth of Ragnarok all envisage a purified new world arising from the ruins of the old one, and it seems to me that apocalyptic fiction, while ostensibly about disaster is often rather appealing, to its readers at least and sometimes (as in Ballard’s Drowned and Crystal worlds, for instance), even to its characters. Perhaps the sweetest state of all is to be alive in the world, but freed by a time limit from the burden entailed in living?




• July 10th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts, News & events, Other people's books

I’m taking part in several panels at the World SF Convention in London this August (details here).

Below are some preliminary thoughts for the panel on Philip K. Dick. (Through a Hollywood Adaptation, Darkly: Thursday, August 14th, 18:00 -19:00). The other panellists will be Christi Scarborough, Grania Davis and Malcolm Edwards, and the blurb for the panel is as follows:

Thanks largely to the ever-increasing number of film adaptations of his work, Philip K Dick is one of the small number of genre authors whose names have been commoditised: “Dickian” is now a shorthand for paranoia, shifting realities and unstable identities, or even for the condition of twenty-first century life in general. But to what extent is this cliché precis an accurate reflection of the breadth of Dick’s work? What other themes and preoccupations can we see in his novels and stories? How far does his influence on modern SF really extend — and what rewards does his work offer to new readers today?

No one could deny that paranoia, shifting realities and unstable identities are major themes in Dick’s work, and Dick is indeed sometimes hailed as a kind of uniquely prophetic voice on ‘the condition of twenty-first century life’, a post-modernist ahead of his time. But yes, this is a cliché precis. Not only is there a lot more to Philip Dick than it suggests, but, even as a summary, it is somewhat misleading.

First of all, while Dick’s shifting realities may seem post-modern, Dick wasn’t really a post-modernist at all. Post-modernists emphasise plurality and flux: there isn’t one reality, but many different realities. Dick’s work may superficially seem to conform to this view of the world, but in fact what he depicts again and again are people dealing, not with many different equally valid realities, but rather with falsehoods and illusions which seem real, but are actually fake. Dick’s characters are always searching for authenticity, for reality in the singular. They may never find it, they may fear that it can’t be found, but they never stop looking for it. This isn’t post-modern, it’s positively pre-modern, and the more so in Dick’s later works where he is increasingly drawn to Christian theology, albeit in a particularly dark, scary and Dickian form. (No one ever describes as Dickian the belief that the world is a battleground between the followers of Christ and the servants of darkness – it doesn’t chime so well with a vision of Dick as edgy, contemporary, prescient – but it’s very much part of the vision of his later work.)

Secondly, I think the conventional precis of Dick’s work overemphasises the extent to which his work can be read as a social commentary. I would argue on the one hand that his work operates much more at the psychological level (as opposed to the sociological one), and, on the other, that he is at least as preoccupied with things that he sees as timeless, as he is with the condition of society at a particular point in history. (One of the appeals of writing SF, it’s always seemed to me, is that it does allow one to step outside the parochial concerns of the present moment.)  Of course Dick’s work reflects the time it was written in – a time which was simultaneously one of great optimism and one of terrible darkness and violence – but the two deepest roots of his writing, it seems to me, extend outwards on either side of the ‘social’. On one side, many of his preoccupations are very personal ones: for instance the figure of the dead female twin, which appears again and again in his work (Valis, Flow my Tears, Dr Bloodmoney…) comes directly from Dick’s own biography: his own twin sister Jane died in infancy. On the other side it is metaphysical, concerned with the place of the human soul in the universe (which is where Dick’s quirky version of Christian theology comes in). His greatness lies in the way he linked up the personal with the universal.

Here are some recurring themes I’ve noticed in Dick’s work:

A sense of loss.

This, I imagine, had very personal origins for Dick. Parents grieving a dead child are not best placed to welcome a baby into the world, and I would guess his life felt very lonely indeed from the start. (Look at the dark, lonely and guilt-ridden childhood depicted in the brilliant short story ‘I Hope I shall Arrive Soon.’) Dick’s experience wasn’t unique though. A feeling of loss, of absence, of insufficiency, is part of the human condition. Hence the Biblical legend of the Fall.  Valis is a particularly terrifying vision of a fallen world, a world in the sway of darkness, but the same vision is to be found in Flow my Tears and Palmer Eldritch among many others. And the figure of the dead twin sister (elevated in Valis to a dead female demiurge), which so clearly comes from Dick’s own biography, is turned into a powerful metaphor for the feeling of loss and absence which we all know.

Even those famous ‘shifting realities’ are also in a way representations of loss. That’s what loss is like. We think something is real and then it is snatched away from us. Ragle Gumm in Time out of Joint (surely the prototype for the film The Truman Show?) imagines the world he’s in is real, but it turns out to be a crude set of stage props, Rick Deckard in Do Androids Dream finds what seems to be a real animal, and then finds the tell-tale battery compartment.

In the story ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon’, we find another take on ‘shifting realities’ and their relationship to loss. The main character Victor Kemmings is starting out on a ten year journey to another planet, during which he is supposed to be in a state of cryogenic suspension. Something has gone wrong. He is still conscious and faces the prospect of spending the next ten years lying all alone in a kind of coffin. Realising that he will go completely mad, the intelligent spaceship tries to ease the situation by feeding him his own memories, but Kemmings’ past is so painful to him that this only makes things worse. Finally the ship hits on the idea of feeding him, over and over, the illusion of arrival. Again and again, Kemmings reaches his destination and disembarks, only for the illusion to unravel and the ship have to run it all over again. It keeps Kemmings sane for ten years, but at a cost. When he really does arrive, he still can’t believe it’s real.

If we have to retreat into illusion to keep ourselves sane, the story suggests, the price we will pay in the long run is that nothing will ever seem quite real. This is very much a psychological explanation for those famous paranoid scenarios – and one consistent with the work of object relations psychologists such as Bowlbly, Klein or Winnicott – as opposed to a sociological, political or cultural one.

The cherished possession

Another figure I have noticed many times in Dick’s work is what I call ‘the cherished possession’. This is some treasured object which has huge significance for the character. In Do Androids Dream, for instance, Deckard longs to possess a real animal. He keeps an electric sheep as an affordable substitute, but what his heart is set on is a real one, and he spends a lot of time hanging around outside pet shops and thumbing through his catalogue.  In High Castle, Mr Tagomi possesses a jewel which somehow exists of itself, and not simply as a human projection. In Flow my Tears both the powerful policeman Felix Buckman and his sister-lover Alys are assiduous collectors of objects of many kinds and Buckman secures his sister’s co-operation at one point by making a present to her of a particularly fine postage stamp for her to ‘put it away in your album in your safe forever’. In the short story, ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon’ (about which I once wrote an MA dissertation: hence my particular emphasis!), the cherished object is a poster of ‘Fat Freddy’ from the Furry Freak Brothers comics called ‘Speed Kills’, signed by the artist Don Shelton. (Both the poster and the artist are real, incidentally. The poster in question is below.)


These cherished possessions are, of course, subject to the same anxious doubts as other aspects of Dick’s world. Supposedly real animals may turn out to be electric ones, a supposedly authentic object may turn out to be a fake. In High Castle there is a debate about the authenticity of a cigarette lighter alleged to have belonged to Franklin Roosevelt. Yes, there are letters of authenticity, but how do we know that they themselves aren’t fake? Exactly the same debate takes place about the Gilbert Shelton poster in ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon.’


One other thing that isn’t so often commented on in Dick’s work is that, however dark the scenario, however terrifying the forces against which they are pitted, the characters themselves are never completely devoid of good humour or hope. ‘I mean, after all,’ says the indefatigable Leo Bulero in Palmer Eldritch, ‘you have to consider we’re only made out of dust… But even considering, I mean it’s a sort of bad beginning, we’re not doing too bad. So I personally have faith that even in this lousy situation we’re faced with we can make it.’

In the poisoned Earth of Do Androids Dream millions of people subscribe to the stoical religion of Mercerism, using devices known as ‘empathy boxes’ to connect themselves to the vision of their prophet, Wilbur Mercer, as he struggles eternally up the slopes of a bare mountain in spite of rocks and stones that are constantly being cast at him. At a certain point in the novel a TV programme exposes this central scene of Mercerism to be a forgery, faked up in a film studio with an actor playing Mercer against a crude painted backdrop (close examination reveals the actual brush-strokes).  And yet somehow in spite of this the truth of Mercerism – its utility in enabling people to engage with one another and with their harsh existence – remains undimmed while those who exposed the artifice turn out to be artefacts themselves.  (They are androids, famously distinguishable from human beings by their inability to experience empathy).

In suggesting that it is the would-be debunkers, not the Mercerists, who are missing the point, Dick cuts through all the paranoid doubts about reality and authenticity which are such a constant theme of his work, and challenges his own definition of reality (in Valis) as ‘that which when you stop believing in it, it doesn’t go away’. If we are to have a shared reality with other people then this has to be able to include things that are sustained only by belief. After all empathy itself depends on our belief in something that can never actually be proven to be true: that other creatures have feelings which are in some way equivalent to our own.