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Future Interrupted – La Politique des Editeurs

November 18, 2014
interzone255

The November-December issue of Interzone (#255) is now arriving in dataports throughout the Human Imperium. For this gift, and many others, the Emperor would usually require only that you hate but in light of recent events he has chosen to require only miniature British flags and a fresh lick of paint before he comes round to open your local sports centre and/or scout hut.

This month’s issue includes:

  • E. Catherine Tobler’s “Oubliette”
  • Jannifer Dornan-Fish’s “Mind the Gap”
  • Tom Greene’s “Monoculture”
  • Malcolm Devin’s “Must Supply Own Work Boots”
  • Tim Major’s “Finding Waltzer-Three”
  • R.M. Graves’ “Bullman and the Wiredling Mutha”
  • Thana Niveau’s “The Calling of Night’s Ocean”

It also includes regular columns by Nina Allan, David Langford, Tony Lee, Nick Lowe and myself. In addition to some fantastic book reviews there’s also an interview with Hannu Rajaniemi by Paul Cockburn and an obituary for Graham Joyce by Andy Hedgecock that includes the beautiful line:

He had a gift for shepherding seriousness away from solemnity.

As ever, subscriptions to both Interzone and its sister magazine Black Static can be obtained from the TTA Press website (for physical copies) and from Smashwords (for electronic copies).

This month’s Future Interrupted column is entitled “The Origins of Science Fictional Inequality” and it’s another one of those columns in which I take a somewhat critical look at the conventional narratives of genre culture and try to provide an alternative… but you’ll have to wait a few months if you want to read that one for free!

 

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REVIEW – Breaking the Waves (1996)

November 10, 2014
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FilmJuice have my review of Lars von Trier’s Palme D’Or-winning tragedy Breaking the Waves.

Breaking the Waves tells of a rather innocent young woman from an isolated Scottish religious community who decides to marry a man who is employed on one of the local oil rigs. At first, the couple (played by Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgaard) seem perfectly matched as their sex life is nothing short of epic. So profound is the young woman’s passion for her husband that when he has to go back to the oil rig to work, she pines terribly. In fact, she pines so much that she prays for God to return her husband to her side. God appears to answer the young woman’s prayers when a hideous industrial accident paralyses her husband. Unfortunately, because the couple’s relationship is almost exclusively physical, the husband’s inability to have sex with his wife comes to represent a failure of their love and so he encourages her to have sex with other men.

Breaking the Waves is a film about faith. Bess uses her faith in God as a template for her relationship with Jan and because her relationship with God is one of blind, unquestioning and passionate submission, she does not have it in her to deny her heavily-medicated husband when he begins making perverse requests. Bess’s faith in God and Jan is so pronounced that when Jan’s condition deteriorates, she believes that it is because of her lack of faith and so she begins to seek out increasingly violent and degrading men with whom to have sex. The end of the film is gut-wrenching because it proves that Bess was right all along but it also leaves you wondering what kind of God/Husband would demand such blind and self-destructive obedience from those they claim to love?

I very much enjoyed Breaking the Waves and — incredibly rarely for me — I actually teared up at the end of it but my enjoyment of the film in no way diminishes the fact that I regard it as somewhat problematic.

We would all like to believe that art house film provides a viable alternative to the generic and politically dubious output of Hollywood but the truth is that European art film has its own set of well-rehearsed and problematic narratives. Narratives favoured simply by virtue of the fact that most of the people making European art house films come from a particular gender, a particular class and a particular ethnicity. One of the more oppressively ugly stock narratives in art house film involves a beautiful and engaging young woman who winds up getting beaten, humiliated, raped and forced into sex work so that the pathos of her downfall may help the director point an accusing finger at the horrors of the world. Breaking the Waves uses this narrative as does Robert Bresson’s Mouchette, Bigas Lunas’ The Ages of Lulu and it also resurfaces (albeit in a more critical and self-aware form) in films like Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari and Francois Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie. How many times do we have to revisit this narrative before people start to realise that it’s rather long in the tooth? How frequently do you see a film in which a man’s descent into sex work mirrors their existential collapse? How many films are there in which a female character sees the horror of the world and responds by becoming a cold-eyed murderer or ruthless business woman? As I say in my review, Breaking the Waves is a brilliantly made and deeply affecting film but the reason it works so well is that there have been literally dozens of films made using the exact same storyline.

Having re-watched Antichrist since watching Breaking the Waves, I am struck by how many of von Trier’s works seem to walk the line between casual prejudice and critical self-analysis. Indeed, many critics of Antichrist accused it of being profoundly misogynistic as the plot revolves around a woman who goes insane after internalising some misogynistic texts she had been studying as part of a PhD. I certainly agree that Antichrist (much like Breaking the Waves) is in dialogue with a western tradition of misogynistic attitudes towards women but both films make it quite clear that misogyny enters the world of the film through the actions of patriarchal men who coerce their wives into acting out misogynistic  life scripts (the deranged screeching harpy in Antichrist and the saintly victim in Breaking the Waves).

It is always tempting to invoke authorial intent in order to collapse the wave function and deposit von Trier’s work on one side or another of the fence but what keeps me returning to his work is precisely this ambiguity, his recognition that horrible attitudes lie buried just below the surface and that it is often incredibly difficult to work out whether one is doing the right thing or perpetuating blind privilege and prejudice. I have long been of the opinion that the art house film scene needs a groundswell of popular feminist criticism to challenge the out-dated attitudes and tropes that are blindly reproduced in film after film but I genuinely have no idea what the social justice movement would make of a filmmaker like von Trier.

 

Under the Skin (2013) – Infected by Each Other

November 5, 2014
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Jonathan Glazer’s third film Under The Skin is something of a puzzle. Loosely based on a novel by Michel Faber, the film concerns itself with an alien who poses as a human woman (Scarlett Johansson) in order to lure single men to a strange alien space. Once trapped in the space, the men are absorbed by a black liquid that keeps them alive until the time comes for their flesh and organs to be harvested. However, the more time the alien spends in the company of humans, the more she is forced to refine her seduction techniques and this process of refinement seems to alienate her from her function.

Most (positive) reviews of the film praise Glazer’s visual panache and speculate that the film is concerned with human empathy and the process of becoming human. While I don’t disagree with this assessment, I do think it short-changes what is a very clever and unsettling film. The truth is that Glazer does not give his audience very much to work with when it comes to working out what the film is about and therein lies the point that the film is trying to get across.

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Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea (2014) by Adam Roberts – Pincher Verne

October 31, 2014
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Everyone who pays attention to science fiction should by now have received the cheat codes for Adam Roberts: An academic critic and satirist as well as a more traditional (albeit rarely conventional) author, Roberts writes novels that interrogate literary history by pulling apart classic works of science fiction and reassembling them in ways that highlight themes and connections that have heretofore been overlooked. Most evident in novels such as Swiftly and Splinter, Roberts’ methods have grown increasingly subtle and sophisticated with each passing book allowing him to explore the links between the Singularity and Renaissance ideas about collectivism (New Model Army) as well as the bourgeois cosiness shared by works from the Golden Ages of both Science and Detective Fiction (Jack Glass).

While all of Adam Roberts’ novels are perfectly accessible to people who are not familiar with the history of science fiction, there is no denying that you need to ‘get the joke’ in order to get the most out of his work. These accessibility issues might explain why it took until Jack Glass for the science fiction community to recognise Roberts’ talent with both a BSFA and a Campbell Award: These days not many genre people bother to read Swift, Verne and Rabelais but most of them will be at least passingly familiar with cosy crime fiction and golden age SF. The field’s lack of familiarity with the work of Jules Verne also accounts for Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea receiving considerably less attention than is normal for an Adam Roberts novel. This is a real shame as while Roberts’ latest does see him returning to Jules Verne for the first time since Splinter, Roberts is a very different writer to the one he was in 2007 and he is now looking at a very different Jules Verne.

 

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Kotoko (2011) – Track the Emotions, Not the World

October 29, 2014
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Back in 1986, Shinya Tsukamoto began producing short experimental films with science fictional themes. One of these films entitled “A Phantom of Regular Size” featured a man living in a dystopian Tokyo being pursued, infected and ultimately transformed by a cybernetic spirit of the age, a woman in dark glasses and immaculate tailoring who could have stepped right out of The Matrix almost a generation later.

Phantom went on to form the backbone to a series of feature films that brought Tsukamoto to the attention of a global audience. Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer, and Tetsuo: The Bullet Man are all attempts to communicate what it felt like to be a member of the Japanese middle-classes at the end of a period of unprecedented economic growth that had completely transformed Japanese society in the space of a generation. These films portray the Japanese as a people worn down by the technologically sophisticated society that they themselves constructed. The opening scenes of Phantom are of a man in a subway convulsing with anguish as trains roar past like the blades on an enormous mincing machine. Every passage shaves away another ounce of humanity until there is nothing left but a host for technological infrastructure, as though the machine that had robbed the Japanese of their humanity was now putting them to work debasing and infecting the people around them. The early Tetsuo films not only diagnosed the sickness that was the late-20th Century Japanese experience, they also articulated what that sickness felt like by using imagery inspired by science fiction and horror.

Tsukamoto’s Kotoko feels a lot like a companion piece to the early Tetsuo films but rather than grappling with feelings of rage and alienation brought on by the experience of living under capitalism, Kotoko is all about articulating what it feels like to be a mentally ill single mother.

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Don’t Attack Reviewers

October 24, 2014
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Last weekend, the Guardian published an astonishing piece by Kathleen Hale about her experiences tracking down someone who spoke ill of her and her books online. According to Hale, the negative reviews spiralled out into a more generalised form of online vitriol that motivated Hale to trace her reviewer’s real identity, travel to confront them and then write an article about it in the Guardian that paints Hale as the (moderately self-critical) victim of things like ‘trolling’ and ‘catfishing’ rather than a petulant and intimidating online presence. Anyone who has published a negative review online will read this article and shiver, particularly at the manner in which Hale presents the silencing of her critic as a signifier for personal growth:

 

I’m told Blythe still blogs and posts on Goodreads; Patricia tells me she still live    tweets Gossip Girl. In some ways I’m grateful to Judy, or whoever is posing as Blythe, for making her Twitter and Instagram private, because it has helped me drop that obsessive part of my daily routine. Although, like anyone with a tendency for low-grade insanity, I occasionally grow nostalgic for the thing that makes me nuts.

 

It’s nice that Kale was afforded the privilege of writing about her experiences in a venue as visible and respected as the Guardian and it’s nice that she was able to transform her defeated and diminished critics into stepping-stones on the road to personal self-improvement. I am genuinely glad that she is feeling better but the bulk of my sympathies still lie with her critic.

I feel quite close to this issue because, for the past ten years, I have been hanging out on the margins of science fiction fandom occasionally writing about books and commenting on the state of the field. In that time I have seen a partisan dislike for negative reviews of favourite books broaden into a more generalised taboo against negative reviewing and a related dissolution of the taboo against authors confronting their critics and responding to reviews. Given that Hale frames her encounters with critics in strictly psychological terms, I think it appropriate that I should begin by doing the same.

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A Short Statement About the Recent Unpleasantness

October 22, 2014
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Unplugged

Given the recent spike in searches and the (wonderful, unexpected and slightly overwhelming) barrage of emails I have been receiving, I feel as though I should make some sort of public statement about closing my Twitter account on Saturday night. If only to let people know that I am okay. I am okay.

I closed my Twitter account because I felt extraordinarily intimidated by certain people’s actions. I reasoned that by shutting down my Twitter account I would not only be removing myself from an environment in which I no longer felt safe, I would also be helping to defuse what felt like an escalating situation.

My decision was also informed by the realisation that while I may deeply regret the hyperbolic and divisive atmosphere of genre culture, I myself am something of a divisive figure. It is hard to speak out against those whose words have destroyed communities and driven people to the brink of emotional collapse when your own tendency to make your opinions known also puts pressure on friendships and communities.

I have no intention of walking away from genre culture or cutting my genre-related writing back any further but I realise that it’s probably a lot harder for me to be divisive when I limit myself to longer-form posts. I regret my tendency to be a complete cock on social media and I accept full responsibility for any bad feelings that might have resulted from interacting with me on Twitter when I’m in one of those moods.

Naturally, I reserve the right to return to Twitter at some point in the future either under my old name or a new one (depending upon how long I leave it) but regardless of which handle I may wind up using, I will always make my identity clear so as to ensure that I remain subject to the full social consequences of my past. I value genre spaces and the people who devote their time and energy to them, even if I do not always remember to show it.

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