Heat

• December 3rd, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Climate, My favourite posts

It’s like being in a disaster movie or novel.  Not in the main story, though, not in the drama itself, but in one of those little flashback scenes where the narrative glances back at how it all began: the small apparently innocuous signs, the little details that people noticed but didn’t think much about, the other preoccupations that now look so trivial, but which seemed more pressing at the time.

This is the hottest year on recordNext year looks like it may be even hotterFourteen of the fifteen hottest years ever have been in this century.

The movie returns from the flashback to the main narrative.  “Why didn’t they see it?” the characters ask one another in bemusement.  “Why didn’t they do anything about it?”

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An unsung Einstein

• October 10th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts

This article by Sophie Heawood struck a chord with me. She’s writing about her daughter, who she “hoped and prayed… wouldn’t want to start down the road of passive pink princess crap, not when she could be out climbing trees and building dams and doing stimulating things with her life”, but who insisted on wearing a pink tutu and ballet shoes for her third birthday.

“I’m not saying the fight in me has completely gone,” she says. “But I am starting to wonder why mums like me write this stuff off so vigorously: isn’t it more sexist to regard things that are girly as not being good enough?”

I had a similar thought at the recent World Science Fiction Convention, listening to a woman panellist extolling an author (I forget which) for her strong, powerful ‘bad-ass’ female characters. I’m absolutely in favour of having powerful female characters behaving in ways that are stereotypically masculine, but it struck me at the time that we should be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that stereotypically feminine characters, whether female or male, are somehow inferior. That, as Heawood implies, is just sexism in another form, and do we really want to give out the message anyway that soldiers, say, are better and more interesting than nurses? Challenging sexism shouldn’t be about denigrating the stereotypically feminine and extolling the stereotypically masculine. It should be about validating both and making sure that people of either gender are able to play whichever role suits them.

As a not particularly ‘bad-ass’ man, I’m proud to have worked most of my adult life in social work, a stereotypically feminine profession (like nursing), which is overwhelmingly female. Last time I checked, the social work workforce in the UK was something like 85% women, and this is certainly true of the social work students I now teach. Do I think that these women are wasting their talents by not training to be engineers or bankers? Certainly not. Am I bothered that both genders aren’t equally represented? Not particularly. (Who knows whether our dispositions and preferences are entirely socially determined, or whether there’s a biological component, but either way, it’s important that people are able to do the kind of work they are drawn to, not what others think they ought to do.) What does bother me though is that difficult, demanding and manifestly important activities like looking after people in hospitals, teaching in primary schools, or protecting children from abuse, should be regarded as less important and less prestigious, than stereotypically masculine activities like building dams, or playing with money.

Some years ago – I was involved at the time with a fostercare agency – I attended a Christmas dinner that the agency laid on as a thankyou for its carers. The woman sitting next to me was a working class single parent. She was not particularly well-educated, and certainly not in any way famous, but I found myself telling her that I felt a bit like I was sitting next to a kind of Einstein. This woman took in children who had been through absolutely horrendous experiences: children who’d been serially raped before they even started school by the adults on whom they were entirely dependent for care, children who couldn’t get through a night without screaming because of the flashbacks, children who trusted no one and wouldn’t let anyone near them. She took them in, took all their rage and rejection, their violence and chaos, and somehow hung in there, calmly and steadily, for months and years, until even they began to feel they’d arrived somewhere safe. Very few people have this kind of talent. Most people, and certainly me, would very quickly buckle in that blast of misery and terror.

In a more rational world, a woman like her really would be esteemed as highly as famous scientists and great leaders. I guess that will never happen, not least because part of her talent lay in knowing that her own ego wasn’t the most important thing.  But don’t tell me that some action hero is a better role model than her.

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Dickian

• July 10th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts, 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.)

FatFreddyPostCardSpeedKills

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.’

Hope

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.

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The EngLit gaze

• April 16th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts, Story-telling

Many years ago, I went through a phase of writing down all my dreams.  I quickly got much better at remembering them, to the point where writing down a night’s dreams could take an hour or more and was becoming quite a chore.   And then a weird thing happened: I began to dream about writing down my dreams.   After a long and complicated dream, I would write it down, feel relieved that the chore was done, and then wake to find that not only did I have to write down the initial dream, but the bit about writing it down as well.   The act of writing about the dreams, I realised, had changed the character of the dreams themselves, and I abandoned the  project.

*   *   *

In this short article, I included the following quote from a book review by Rachel Cusk:

How does the novel become new again? One way is by its movement into fields of life not yet documented.

I’ve not read any of Rachel Cusk’s books, or anything by Jonathan Lethem who she was reviewing, but when I read this I was immediately struck by her notion that the purpose of a novel was to ‘document’ areas of life.  It seemed to me an odd word and an odd conception of the function of fiction, and yet I felt I’d seen the same idea expressed in various ways many times before.  And the more I thought about it, the more it struck me what a recent conception of literature that is.  As I said in the article, it’s difficult to imagine that Shakespeare was trying to document anything, for instance.

Since writing the article, I’ve asked myself another question.  Document for whom?   Who is that looks at novels and works of literature as documentary records of their times?  And the answer, it seemed to me, was academic students of literature.   Of course if you study Shakespeare, or Jane Austen, or Virginia Woolf as an academic exercise, you inevitably read their work as, in part, a record of the times in which they were written, whether or not written with that intention.

EngLit as an academic subject is relatively recent, but many writers now, and particularly writers who aspire to write literature, have themselves studied it.   Even if they haven’t studied it, writers who want to be admired and taken seriously are surely aware of its gaze, aware that in the long run, literature academics are often the ones who determine which works continue to be read and contine to be seen as important.   And perhaps that makes ambitious writers crave the  approval of that particular set of eyes? ‘If those people want to read works of literature as documentary records,’ they perhaps at some level think, ‘then documentary records are what we must write.’

Or it might equally be: ‘If stylistic intervention is what impresses them, then stylistic innovation is what I’ll give them’.   My point here isn’t so much about the specific notion of literature as contemporary record, as about the way in which (as with my dreams) external observation of a process alters the character of the process itself.   Literary academics enjoy intertextuality, for instance (the way one text refers to, and plays with, other texts), and I’ve certainly come across works of fiction that played with intertextuality in such an arch and knowing way that it reminded me of a child trying to impress grown ups.

My hunch is, though, that in the long-run, the great books – the ones that students of literature end up finding interesting in the future – actually won’t turn out to be the ones that played too much to that particular gallery.   After all, whether intentionally or not, any book is a document of its times and any book includes resonances, shadows and borrowings from other works, so, with or without self-conscious gallery-playing, there will always be things for the literary studies people to explore.  And the great books of the past were written without having to consider that particular gaze.

“An academic-led literature is a gentrified suburb,” wrote the Australian poet, Les Murray, and I’m inclined to agree with him.   Gentrified suburbs tend to be pretty and nice to live in, but, with their self-consciousness, their inhibitions, their niggling social anxiety, no one would call them the most exciting places on Earth.

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Thought for the day

• February 23rd, 2014 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts

It’s pretty depressing to learn that an Arizona state law has just made it legal for shopowners to refuse to serve gay customers, in the event that serving gay people is contrary to their religious beliefs.

It would actually make more sense if they refused to serve rich people, since the founder of their religion – I’m assuming that in Arizona the religion in question is Christianity! – spoke specifically of the difficulty of rich people entering the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:24), but said nothing whatever about homosexuality.

No, to find biblical injunctions against homosexuality you have to trawl through the murky and Talibanesque depths of the Old Testament, which also prescribes (for instance) that if a man  sells his daughter as a slave she is not to go free after six years as male slaves do (Exodous 21: 7),  or that if a woman lies about her virginity, she should be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:21).

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Voices from Eden

• February 16th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Audible delights, My favourite posts

There is already a British audio book version of Dark Eden (read by Oliver Hembrough and Jessica Martin), but I’m very much looking forward to hearing the new US audio book from Random House Audio which is still under development.   This will involve 8 actors, so that the book’s various narrators can all have different voices, but what is particularly intriguing about it is that the producer Janet Stark  and her cast of actors are attempting to develop a whole new Eden accent for the recording.

What will this sound like?   Everyone in Eden is descended from just two people – a white man from Brooklyn, New York, and a black woman from Peckham in South London – so one thing that we can be sure of is that the accent will bear traces of both those different sources.  During the early years too, the entire human population of Eden consisted of a single family – mum, dad, kids – and some of the characteristics of Eden English derive from that fact.   Parents with little kids tend to simplify their speech, even when speaking to one another, and this effect would be even more pronounced in the absence of other adults (or the written word) to pull the speech of family members back in the direction of adult norms. This is the source of the use of double adjectives for emphasis – something that little children often do – and the tendency to drop direct articles, but it will have had an effect too on pronunciation and on the rhythms of Eden speech.

But all that is only part of the story.  The accent of Eden would not just be a blend of its two sources.  People play with language, change it like clothes. They get bored with saying things one way, and try another.  New things appear and become cool, others fade out of use.  Who could have predicted the trend towards a rising inflection at the end of a sentence in spoken English here on Earth, or the more recent fashion of beginning sentences with the word ‘So’?  The people of Eden have lived in isolation for 160 years.  Less than 160 years after white settlers first arrived in Australia, Australian English had developed its own distinct and instantly recognisable accent, and that was in spite of continuing contact with the mother country, and continuing large scale migration (even today more than 10% of Australians were born in the UK).

I think the spoken language of Eden would be slow.   Both the source accents are fast, clipped and urban, but Eden folk are as rustic as it is possible to be, and rustic people tend to speak slowly (think Somerset, Queensland or Alabama).   I think too that it would be more musical, more singsong. These are people with no TV, no books, no video games, no movies.  The repetition of oral traditions is much more important to them than it is to us.  I think they would savour language and linger over it in a way that we don’t.

As to those double adjectives which everyone notices (and some people hate!), I hear them with the first adjective emphasised and drawn out, with a slight fall at the end towards the lower, shorter repetition:  B-I-I-I-G big.

But then again, sometimes Eden folk do it the other way round.  They just feel like it.  That’s what humans are like.

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The blog tour continued

• February 12th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts

Following on from my post in this series, Tony Ballantyne and Una McCormack were the next links in the chain.  Links to their posts are below.  There are lots of things they say that apply equally well to me.  (I guess you expect that with friends!)

Here’s Una’s post.  ‘…What the trappings of science fiction allow me to do,’ she writes, ‘is move from the particularities of specific real-world situations in order to think abstractly about… well, everything really…’    Exactly so!

And here’s Tony’s.  ‘…I get ideas all the time,’ he writes, ‘and I write them down to be used later, but every so often one idea collides with another and I suddenly get really excited and I just have to begin writing.’   Precisely, and without that collision, there’s no storyIt’s the lightning bolt that brings it to life.

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The Emperor’s Last Laugh

• February 2nd, 2014 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts, Other people's books

Because of my new-found interest in drawing, my wife gave me a book recently called A Short Book about Drawing, by Andrew Marr, the TV journalist, who turns out to be a pretty good drawer.  It’s a charming book, and much of it is simply about the pleasure to be obtained from the act of drawing itself, but at one point Marr speaks with some regret about the influence of Marcel Duchamp on our conception of art, and about all that has since emerged ‘like a vast glittery spout of magma from Duchamp’s urinal.’

He’s referring to the urinal which, in 1917, Duchamp signed with the name ‘R.Mutt’ and decreed to be a work of art called ‘Fountain’.   A work of art from then on wasn’t necessarily a painting or a sculpture.  It didn’t even have to be something that the artist had made.  It could be anything that an artist chose to designate as such.  Indeed, from what I’ve read, Duchamp deliberately chose objects for this purpose which had no meaning or significance to him at all.  What a strange, violent, mocking thing to do!  It’s as if I were to reprint a telephone directory, call it ‘Contact’ and declare it to be my next novel – and people accepted it as such, and actually made themselves read it as if it meant something!

If anything can be a work of art if an artist says it is (even an object that means nothing even to the artist!) this raises the question of who gets to be an artist.  Who gets this strange fetishistic power?  In the past artists would have been identifiable to most people, at least to some extent, by the skill evident in their work.   Some artists were doubtless much better than others at acquiring wealthy patrons, but some degree of skill in the creation of images would have been a necessary prerequisite also.  Now this was no longer the case.   An artist could be created by patronage alone.   With beauty and meaning set aside, the wealthy could create artists out of whomever they chose, and those artists could then return the favour by taking trivial objects and turning them, for the wealthy, into a kind of gold.

The emperor gets the last laugh, after all.  Who cares if the clothes are real or not, as long as they can be bought and sold?

Duchamp Fountain

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Drawing

• January 18th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts

I’ve started going to drawing classes, one of my better ideas.  Drawing turns out to be a wonderfully engrossing and calming activity.

I particular enjoy drawing electric-lit scenes in charcoal, a medium that allows you to create a sense of luminousness by covering the paper in layers of grey and then removing it in patches with a putty rubber to create areas of brightness.

This is one of my better efforts so far: a glass ball in front of a lamp.

Lamp drawing compressed

I’m hoping that in due course I might be able to use this sort of technique to draw some of the creatures and trees of Eden, lit by their own luminosity or the luminosity of other organisms nearby.  That’s going to be a while though, because it is hard enough drawing what is actually in front of me.

In fact the exact thing that’s hard about this kind of drawing is that you must draw what’s in front of you, and forget what’s in your head.    The only way I could do the glass ball in the picture above (and, let’s be honest, I’m pretty damn pleased with it) is by stopping thinking about it as a glass ball and just noticing the various different shades of light and darkness and the shapes they made.

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Happiness

• January 18th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts

I was reading a book in a warm conservatory when a splash of water fell on me.  I looked up, thinking the roof was leaking and that I might need to move.   But the water had come from a drop of condensation that was rolling down the underside of the glass roof, collecting more moisture as it went along.  It had become too heavy for its own surface tension to be able to hold it up against the pull of gravity.

It dripped a second time and a third, and then equilibrium was restored.  The droplet was no longer too heavy to hold itself up, and it carried on down the roof, leaving behind it a kind of snail trail as it passed through steamed up patches.  There were a whole lot of these snail trails up there, descending the roof at various angles, and each one was lined with a series of small static droplets like glass beads, which the larger rolling droplets seemed to leave behind themselves at more or less regular intervals.

I spent some time looking up at this little system powered by heat and gravity, lazily mulling over the physics of it all, when I noticed that, beyond the glass, a series of ragged clouds were passing rapidly across the blue sky above me, one after another.

I suddenly felt entirely at peace.

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