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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.

Into the Abyss (2011) – The Traumafare State

October 9, 2014
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When has Werner Herzog ever made a film that couldn’t be summarised as a journey into the abyss? Early feature films such as Even Dwarfs Started Small and Aguirre, the Wrath of God seem to revel in the existential savagery of the world while more recent documentaries such as Grizzly Man and Happy People: A Year in the Taiga serve as reminders that the world has little time for the collection of bourgeois conceits that we dare to call a civilisation. The question is never whether Herzog will turn his film into a meditation on the savagery of the world, but which tone he will select as a means of approaching it:

Sometimes (as with Encounters at the End of the World and The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) he is a whimsical fantasist who recognises that silliness is the only possible response to a world so cold and drenched with blood.

Sometimes (as with Fitzcarraldo and Little Dieter Needs to Fly) Herzog is a humanist who marvels at our human capacity to overcome the savage injustices of life.

Sometimes (as with Nosferatu the Vampyre and Aguirre) he is filled with bitterness and cynicism by nature’s ability to dissolve humanity’s finest dreams.

If becoming a cinematic auteur requires a director to develop a recognisable sensibility and carry it with them from project to project then Werner Herzog must be considered one of the most prolific and versatile auteurs in cinematic history. Regardless of whether he is producing documentaries or feature-length narrative films, Herzog is one of the brightest jewels in the crown of world cinema but he is also starting to get on.

Back in the early 2000s, a string of moderately successful films provided the veteran director with a level of visibility that had long since been denied him. Thrust into the spotlight and transformed into a celebrity, Herzog made the most of it by adopting the engagingly self-parodic persona of an austere German filmmaker who muses on the savagery of the world with his tongue planted squarely in his cheek. Long-time fans would not have been surprised by this development as Herzog has always had a fondness for deadpan satire and self-mythologising (the documentary My Best Fiend is at least as full of made up crap about Herzog as it is of stuff about Klaus Kinski). The problem with this moment of visibility is that while it evidently made it much easier for Herzog to secure funding on his next project, it also encouraged him to remain Herzog the whimsical fantasist who undercut his meditations on death and destruction with talk of depressed penguins and mutated crocodiles. Given that Herzog was now reaching 70 and more visible than ever, I was concerned that the whimsical Herzog might become a permanent fixture. Would the bitter and humane Herzogs ever return or would it be nothing but dancing souls and iguanas on the coffee table until the end? Clearly, I needn’t have worried as Into the Abyss is a documentary that shows us an entirely new Werner: Herzog the humane socialist.

Read more…

Short Fiction and The Feels

October 6, 2014
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Reviewing Short Fiction

The world of genre literature has a serious problem with its critical infrastructure. Back when the institutions of genre culture were first established, the amount of new material being published was relatively small and while the pool of reviewers was never vast, it was large enough to ensure that most stories had a pretty good shot at being discussed in public. This discussion served as a filtration process that steered readers towards the good stuff and allowed them to make reasonably informed decisions come Hugo nomination time.

Since the arrival of the Internet, the number of new short stories being published has risen considerably. In fact, with the appearance of crowd-sourced anthologies and venues like Daily Science Fiction continuing to publish new stories every single day of the year, the scene’s ability to produce short fiction now massively outstrips its ability to filter it, discuss it, or even provide basic word of mouth as to which stories are particularly worth reading. A few initiatives like Last Short Story, Strange Horizons‘ Short Fiction Snapshot and Tor.com‘s Short Fiction Spotlight have tried to provide some basic filtration but how do you even decide where to start? Blink and another seventeen anthologies will have secured funding. Go to sleep and another paying market will open.

The effects of this failure of critical infrastructure are already evident at the Hugo Awards, which have been unable to secure a full slate of nominees as the pool of nominations is spread too thin. A further knock-on effect is that the Hugo short fiction categories have become dull exercises in getting out the vote as expensively funded professional websites like Tor.com square off against politicised voting blocs and devoted fan-bases happy to nominate an author’s chosen slate of works.

In this type of cultural climate any discussion of a story is good discussion, which brings us to Sam J. Miller’s “We Are The Cloud” (published in the September 2014 issue of Lightspeed)

Read more…

Future Interrupted – Six (Not a Series of Waves, but an Ocean)

September 19, 2014
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Interzone #254 has been unleashed, as has its sister magazine Black Static #42. This month’s issue contains a column in which I compare Guardians of the Galaxy to Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies. It also features excellent columns by Nick Lowe, Tony Lee and David Langford and some excellent reviews by people including Maureen Kincaid Speller, Peter Tennant, Ian Sales and Paul Graham Raven. Interzone can be acquired via the TTA Press homepage.

The short stories included are:

  • “A Minute and a Half” by Jay O’Connell,
  • “Bone Deep” by S.L. Nickerson,
  • “Dark on a Darkling Earth” by T.R. Napper,
  • “The Faces Between Us” by Julie C. Day,
  • “Songs like Freight Trains” by Sam J. Miller

This issue also includes a new novelette named “Marielena” by the wonderful BSFA Award-winning Nina Allan, who has also signed on to become a regular columnist. Nina’s first column is about the surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning and the SF writer C.L. Moore. What unites these two incredibly talented artists in the fact that both of their legacies have come to be overshadowed by that of the men in their lives. In the case of Tanning, her relationship with the Dadaist pioneer Max Ernst has almost completely airbrushed her out of art history while C.L. Moore came to be seen as the junior in a creative partnership with her first husband Henry Kuttner.

C.L. Moore is one of those figures whose visibility has benefited from genre culture’s long-overdue drive to recognise women from its own past. I must admit that I heard of C.L. Moore long before I heard of Henry Kuttner but there’s a really interesting episode of the Coode Street Podcast in which Barry Malzberg describes her work as being ‘all the same thing’ as that of Kuttner, which is definitely something of an over-statement as Moore was a published writer before she even started her collaboration with Kuttner. Thankfully, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s entries for Moore and Kuttner do draw a distinction between the two writers and even go so far as to try and point out which stories were likely to have been written predominantly by Moore. Nina concludes her column with a really interesting point:

I felt bound to ask myself whether we truly are the first generation of women SFF writers not to be at least partially defined by our male partners, editors, commentators  or industry professionals? I really think we might be, a fact I find both cheering and utterly dismaying. We are getting there, yes. But why the hell has it taken so long?

This is a question that I find endlessly fascinating as it speaks to the slipperiness of genre history.

The slipperiness of genre history is a direct result of genre culture having been built by enthusiastic fans rather than professional scholars.

Fandom has always been prone to what can only be referred to as back-of-a-fag-packet state-of-the-union diatribes in which a commentator looks back over the stuff they happened to have recently read and draws sweeping conclusions about the past, present, and future of the field. The thing about these diatribes is that they are incredibly simple to produce; all you need is a year’s best anthology or an award shortlist and you can quite happily mouth off about how you think the genre is dead, dying or teetering on the edge of a new golden age. Subjective, sloppy and steeped in personal ideology, these diatribes are never taken 100% seriously and the only reason the form persists is that a well-written screed serves to stir the pot and give people something to talk about. Recent exemplars of the form include Paul Kincaid’s “The Widening Gyre” from 2012 and Strange Horizons’ round-table discussion about the state of British Science Fiction and Fantasy.

All sub-cultures operate according to their own set of intellectual protocols but because these protocols are social constructs, they necessarily bear the imprint of said sub-culture’s power relations.

Genre culture state-0f-the-unions are designed to be quickly produced and quickly replaced in an effort to keep everyone talking, but there are times when a quickly produced state-of-the-union seems to (either intentionally or not) capture the public mood and stick around longer than it should. One excellent example of this process is how genre culture’s delight at the unexpected success of Cyberpunk resulted in the acceptance of back-of-a-fag-packet literary histories that made Feminist SF disappear. Though certainly unjust, this tendency to fall for simplistic social narratives also explains why traditional fanzines have come to be associated with writing about fans (rather than writing about books) and why negative reviews have become increasingly taboo in a public sphere that now sees itself as an adjunct to the publishing industry’s PR departments.

All genre histories are political and all genre histories are bunk, this is why it is invariably more fun and fruitful to take them with a pinch of salt.

***

Entitled ‘Not a Series of Waves, But an Ocean’, my sixth Future Interrupted column was an attempt to drive home the slipperiness of genre culture by coming up with a semi-credible alternative genre history. In my history, Hugo Gernsback was not an ambitious crook but a Robbe-Grillet-style figure who raged against the Victorian confines of the bourgeois novel by breaking down the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. This is not so much history as it is headcanon. Read more…

REVIEW – Before the Winter Chill (2013)

September 15, 2014
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One of the first films I reviewed when I started this blog was Philippe Claudel’s debut I Have Loved You So Long, a beautifully made but cynically constructed film that skilfully leads you up the garden path before taunting you for having the temerity to set foot in someone’s garden. Like many of the works I value most, I adore and hate I Have Loved You So Long in almost equal measure: I adore it because I admire its courageous choice of subject matter (a woman who murdered her own child) and the skill with which Claudel guides us into a very specific emotional state.  I hate it because Claudel would rather get one over on his audience than use his skill to set them free with a fresh idea or perspective. I have reviewed hundreds of films in the years since I first saw I Have Loved You So Long and yet Claudel’s betrayal has always stayed with me… I am not an academic critic and I do not approach the culture I write about through a fixed ideology but one thing I believe is that great works encourage the audience to make their own choices and their own interpretations.

Given that I have something of a history with Claudel’s films, I jumped at the chance to write about his latest work Before the Winter Chill for FilmJuice.

Before the Winter Chill is one of those incredibly grown-up films that French cinema keeps quietly churning out while the English-speaking world gorges itself on films aimed at children. Set in contemporary France, the film revolves around an aging neurosurgeon (Daniel Auteuil) who has drifted through life without asking himself too many questions. As I explain in my review, the film is filled with pastoral images in which only his wife Lucie (Kristin Scott Thomas) is seen to be working. Indeed, the gap between the surgeon’s indolence and his wife’s incessant toil provides the pastoral setting (a vast modernist house with floor-to-ceiling windows that make the garden feel like part of the house) with its own emotional counter-force. Even as the film bends over backwards to establish the surgeon as an intelligent and sensitive man, it is abundantly clear that something has to give… there is too much unhappiness in every sour comment and petulant gaze. The shock to the system comes in the form of an attractive young woman who seems to be either in love with the surgeon, stalking him or quite possibly both. However, the film keeps the young woman’s motivations at arm’s length and encourages us to stretch our empathic muscles:

The film’s central mystery is a beautiful art student named Lou who seems to be very taken with Paul. Forced to assume Paul’s viewpoint, the audience is asked to keep guessing about Lou’s motivations; in one scene she is a young woman attracted to an older married man, then she is a stalker, next she is gravely disturbed and in need of help. All of these versions of Lou seem to exist in Paul’s head at the same time and his need to ‘solve’ the puzzle of Lou encourages him to spend time with her in a way that only serves to enrage his family and expose the tensions between them. While the film may begin by asking us to identify with Paul and ask why everyone is so grumpy, the film ends by asking us to identify with Lucie and ask: Why didn’t he put that much effort into making sense of the people who love him? Why did he open up to a peculiar stranger but keep everyone else at arm’s distance? How could he ask so much and give so little?

I have quite a strong critical read on this film but, unusually for me, I feel no great desire to share it with the world. As I explain in my review, Before the Winter Chill is one of those films that encourages speculation without providing sufficient clues as to why the various characters act in the way they do. People who are averse to spoilers want to preserve the sanctity of the plot, what concerns me is that by presenting you with a strong read, I would be denying you the pleasure of resolving the film’s ambiguities in your own unique way.

Part of what makes this film so satisfying is that it shows quite how far Claudel has developed as an artist. I Have Loved You So Long was an incredibly impressive debut but it was also intensely controlling as Claudel beat his audience over the head with very specific sets of emotions. Before the Winter Chill is no less skillfully made, Claudel’s use of music, acting and cinematography continue are still absolutely masterful. The difference is that today’s Claudel is comfortable with ambiguity and the audience’s right to resolve that ambiguity in a manner that works for them.

REVIEW – Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection (2014)

September 8, 2014
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This week saw the release of Arrow Films’ Camera Obscura; a magnificent box set exploring the early work of Polish director Walerian Borowczyk. As someone who already owns quite a few luxurious box sets devoted to art house film directors, you would think that I’d be immune to the packaging-foo of independent DVD publishers but Camera Obscura has taken me completely by surprise. Aside from an impressively thick booklet, the box set contains five beautifully restored feature-length films as well as Boro’s early short films and a suite of documentaries about both him and his work. To say that Camera Obscura is comprehensive would be an understatement,

FilmJuice have my reviews of:

FilmJuice’s editorial format required me to break the box set down into five separate films, which is something of a pity as Camera Obscura does an absolutely amazing job of capturing Borowsczyk’s development as an artist. The key to this process of evolution are the short films included on the same disc as The Theatre of Mr. and Mrs. Kabal.

 

Read more…

Wolves (2014) by Simon Ings – Both Right and Necessary

August 28, 2014
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Somewhere along the line we appear to have become convinced that style is something quite distinct from content. We look at heavily stylised works and either lionise them for the way in which style and content complement each other or we chastise them for indulging in stylistic experimentation without ever bothering to ground the experiments in content or message. We believe that content without style is direct. We believe that style without content is decadent and frivolous. We have fallen into the habit of treating style as a luxury or an indulgence when in truth it is anything but.

The French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau once observed that style is just a simple way of saying complicated things and while it’s possible to unpack this statement in a number of different ways, what I choose to take from it is that the style that a work adopts is as much a part of that work’s content as anything else. The rejection of the style/content dichotomy is what lies at the heart of Samuel R. Delany’s oft celebrated and immediately forgotten essay “About 5,750 Words”:

Put in opposition to “style,” there is no such thing as “content”.

Simon Ings’ novel Wolves is proof of the fundamental correctness of Delany and Cocteau’s position; it is a novel whose content is entirely exhausted by its confused, disorienting and thoroughly engrossing narrative style.

The novel deals in the lifestuff of a man named Conrad who, when we first encounter him, is desperately fishing for excuses that will allow him to dump his recently maimed girlfriend without tarnishing his self-image as a sensitive man who claims to have fallen in love with his girlfriend’s world. Conrad later shares this rationale with a woman he is trying to seduce as he thinks that falling in love with someone over their tooth-brushing habits and choice of restaurants makes him appear sensitive but in truth it is a narcissism that cuts to the heart of the novel’s plot as well as the stylised manner in which said plot is presented.

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