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Thought Projectors 5

November 22, 2016

The last eighteen months have been nothing short of extraordinary…

As recently as May 2015, most of us were still labouring under the impression that the world was fundamentally the same as it had been since the late-1990s. Sure… the economy had gone to shit and the internet was full of anger but these were all technical problems with technical solutions that would inevitably get solved one way or another. This was the view taken by serious ‘centre ground’ politicians and it filtered all the way down to the parts of the internet where people like me choose to spend our free time.

Since then, a series of unexpected election results have shown not only the depth of public anger at the nature of the political consensus engineered by those technocratic elites but also the extent of the alienation between those elites and the public whose interests they claimed to represent.

Always better funded, better organised, and more disciplined, the right has been able to benefit from the collapse of political formations in which they had always been intimately involved. Back in the 1990s, right-wingers assumed the role of pantomime villains who moaned about abortion, family values, and keeping the pound while a cadre of neoliberal centrists deregulated markets and sold off public goods. When the series of bubbles created by privatisation and deregulation finally became too unstable to support the interests of capital in the late-2000s,  right-wingers happily assumed the role of technocratic fixers forced to implement a politics of austerity after the failed ‘largesse’ of the Third Way.When reality re-asserted itself again and people started to realise that they had now been shafted by at least two distinct political epochs, the right rapidly reconfigured itself as a populist resistance to policies it had itself been pushing since at least the 1970s.

The last eighteen months have provided the middle-class with a series of naked lunch moments: Suddenly, the brutal oppression of racial others required by an unjust and political system is taking place all around them.Suddenly, hardships and inequalities that have long been considered normal in working-class communities are starting to change the lives of middle-class communities where kids are moving home and struggling to find work while ageing parents find themselves having to work longer and harder in order to make up for the shortfalls in their own pensions while everything seems to be getting more expensive and harder to acquire.

The last eighteen months have been extraordinary as they have forced  everyone in the developed world to confront the limits of their own political imaginations. The question is, how are we going to respond to the moment in which we were allowed to glimpse the brutality that lies at the end of every political fork?

A funny thing about important moments is that they tend to play themselves out at almost every level of society. The choice between socialism and yet more barbarism is not just about the way we vote and the way we think about big political issues, but also about the way in which we relate to each other and act in our day-to-day lives. Feminists have long been telling us that the personal is the political because the way in which we think about small things tends to shape how we think about big things too… If you are interested in films then think about the ways in which capitalism determines not only the types of films you get to see but also the messages those films are likely to contain. If you are interested in science fiction then think not only about the way capitalism shapes the discourse but also the ways in which capitalism is shaping and re-shaping the institutions that drive that discourse. Who are reviews written for? What is the purpose of conventions? Who gets to speak? Who gets to shape the debate? Whose interests are served? The answers may be uncomfortable but asking those questions will help to shape the building of the world to come.

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Future Interrupted — Settled, Settling, Settlement

November 18, 2016
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Interzone #267 is now a thing in the world. Anyone with an interest in getting hold of it can do so via the TTA Press website, Smashwords or any other purveyor of quality eBooks with a search function and an ounce of sense.

The magazine opens with a piece by Martin McGrath about the history of the James White Award, which is currently open for submissions. The competition is aimed at non-professional writers who are just starting out, winner receive £200 and get their story published in Interzone.

This month’s non-fiction is particularly fine as Nina Allan writes about her experiences with Scottish SF and the things that distinguish it from English SF. I think this is a really important question and not just because of Scotland’s growing and understandable desire to divest themselves of Britishness.What makes this question important is the fact that the institutions and literature of British science fiction have been allowed to reach a state of disrepair so profound that one could effectively talk about there no longer being such a thing as ‘British genre culture’. However, rather than viewing this as something bad, I think it marks the perfect time to begin some wide-ranging discussions about a) what we want to do with the institutions of British genre culture and b) what British science fiction should mean going forward. Allan’s piece concludes with this wonderful piece of provocation:

If a significant proportion of English science fiction finds itself looking increasingly parochial and irrelevant, one further question remains to be asked: is this lack of political engagement the result of indifference, or despair?

I must admit… the more global events conspire to drag my political sympathies to the left, the more disgusted and alienated I become from genre culture and the fiction it produces. I could say a lot more about this question but suffice it to say that we really should not be surprised when a cultural milieu devoid of solidarity starts producing books that are full of really terrible politics. Speaking of which, my column from this issue is devoted to Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police series… but you’ll have to wait a few months in order to read that for free!

Other non-fictional bits and pieces from this month’s issue include Maureen Kincaid Speller on Tade Thompson, Juliet E. McKenna on Chris Beckett, me on E. Catherine Tobler’s novella “The Kraken Sea” and reviews by Stephen Theaker, Lawrence Osborn, Jack Deighton, Duncan Lunan, and Barbara Melville as well as the usual film and TV columns by Nick Lowe and Tony Lee.

 

This month’s fiction includes:

  • “Alts” by Harmony Neal
  • “Dogfights in Olympus and Other Absences” by Ryan Row
  • “The Hunger of Auntie Tiger” by Sarah Brooks
  • “You Make Pattaya” by Rich Larson
  • “Rock, Paper, Incisors” by David Cleden
  • “My Generations Shall Praise” by Samantha Henderson

 

This month’s reprint continues my voyage through the world of recent debut novels. This month’s piece felt like a bit of a cheat as I only decided to pick up Claire Vanye Watkins’ novel Gold Fame Citrus after it had been widely discussed by the mainstream media and highlighted by this thoroughly excellent article by the author about the need to destroy the institutions of mainstream literary culture lest they continue imposing their fucked up values on the world.

Anyway… here is my nineteenth Future Interrupted column entitled “Settled, Settling, Settlement”.

 

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REVIEW – Chevalier (2015)

November 15, 2016
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FilmJuice have my review of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s excellent third film Chevalier.

Tsangari is a director who sits in the shadow of Yorgos Lanthimos. Lanthimos began to turn heads back in 2009 when the excellent Dogtooth used surreal imagery to paint a picture of a young generation that was being slowly crushed by the deluded ideas of their parents. Tsangari may have produced Dogtooth and given Lanthimos his big break but the fact that Dogtooth hit big while Tsangari’s first film did not means that it was easy for some critics to view Tsangari as the junior in that particular creative partnership. This is rather unfortunate as Tsangari’s breakthrough film Attenberg showed her to be by far the superior talent. Indeed, I consider Tsangari (along with Celine Sciamma) to be one of only a handful of really interesting film directors working in European cinema today.

Much like Attenberg, Tsangari’s Chevalier is funny, weird and politically astute in a way that will only become more obvious with the passage of time.

The film is set onboard a luxury yacht where a group of wealthy middle-aged men are enjoying an off-season holiday. Right from the start, the energies at work within the group are noticeably weird but things start to get really strange when one of the men suggests a competition that involves everyone awarding each other points in order to determine something resembling an objective pecking order within the group:

Unsurprisingly, the boundary-less nature of this competition serves only to accelerate and amplify tensions present within the group. This means that an already bizarre holiday gets progressively weirder and more unpleasant the longer it is allowed to last: Time and again, failure to succeed at challenges set by the group leads to loss of face and emotional breakdowns that somehow never quite blossom into either outright violence or the kind of transgressive sexual activity suggested by that image of the bloke showing his feet to someone over the internet. This is a holiday on which older men obsess about their sexual potency while younger men smoulder with resentment at the amount of control exerted over them by more senior and wealthier members of the group. Friendships rise and fall, alliances are made and broken, lies are spun and abandoned, but none of it ever seems to matter.

What makes this film so interesting and timely is the fact that it is — quite obviously — about male sexual desire and how those thwarted desires can result in the birth of political abominations.

There was an interesting piece in this week’s Guardian about the Alt-right and how Donald Trump’s head political strategist has nurtured a connection between right-wing politics and what is often referred to as the ‘manosphere’:

An online subculture centred around hatred, anger and resentment of feminism specifically, and women more broadly.

I have a lot of respect for Abi Wilkinson as a political commentator but I actually think that she has this precisely backwards… The Manosphere is not built around hating either women in general or feminism in particular, it’s a space devoted to indulging male sexual fantasies to the point where they are completely unconnected to reality. It is that disconnection from reality that fuels the resentment and anger.

The Manosphere is in some ways quite similar to the world of fan-fiction where a predominantly female crowd write stories that take characters from popular culture and imagine them not only in non-canonical emotional relationships but also in sexual relationships that are as explicit as they are transgressive. The difference between the worlds of fan-fiction and the Manosphere is that while the literary and derivative nature of fan-fiction allows women to indulge their various kinks whilst keeping a clear boundary between their kinks and their ‘real’ sexualities, the Manosphere not only encourages men to fantasise but to do so in a way that stresses the connection between the stuff they have and the stuff they secretly want.

The Manosphere encourages men to internalise their pornographic obsessions and urges them to act on those obsessions. It achieves this by forging links between the consumption of porn and the employment of sex workers on the one hand and learning how to trick desirable women into sex on the other.It’s no surprise that Reddit features so prominently in discussions of the Alt-Right as the structure of Reddit allows people to indulge their pornographic desires and their desire for political engagement without ever leaving the site. The problem with connecting the stuff you use to jerk off with the stuff you use to make decisions about your life is that almost nobody can afford endless escorts, expensive cars, exclusive gym memberships, and flash wardrobes that are positioned as solutions to the problem of involuntary celibacy.

In effect, the Alt-right is an epidemic of blue balls that has bootstrapped itself into a political movement as all of that sexual frustration has curdled into resentment at the women who refuse to play ball. That resentment has now been weaponised by political operatives in the same way 1970s Republicans weaponised the moral discontent of the Evangelical revival.

The plot of Chevalier does not explicitly mention the Alt-right but it does deal with a load of emotionally under-developed men who are incapable of controlling their sexual desires and so allow those desires to manifest themselves as a weird yearning for social domination. The film’s political edge comes from the fact that while the men battle for dominance, the real world is seen as nothing more than a set of empty buildings on a distant horizon. The sexual energies of the Alt-right are not just toxic but solipsistic in that it begins by drawing on male desire for things they cannot have and then tells them that they can have these things by brutalising women and minorities on their way to remaking the world.

REVIEW – Day for Night (1973)

November 11, 2016
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FilmJuice have my review of Francois Truffaut’s thoroughly excellent Day for Night, also known as Nuit Americaine in reference to the practice of recreating night on-screen by shifting the white balance and deliberately under-exposing the shot.

Despite not having seen this film in about twenty years, Day for Night was absolutely central to my discovery of art house film. I first discovered a love of film while my parents were getting divorced as my mother would take me to the video store and allow me to rent as many films as I wanted, regardless of their age-appropriateness. I took my love of film to the next level as a teenager when my GCSE English teacher started showing us films in an effort to make us think critically about texts. I rather enjoyed the process and so started going out of my way to rent unusual films and one of the films I stumbled upon quite early on was Day for Night, a film whose true brilliance I really only understand now that I’m able to spot all the jokes and references…

Day for Night is a film about film-making or rather the process of film production and how films are assembled by a combination of authorial vision, individual incompetence, collective brilliance and blind fucking luck:

Throughout the film, characters frequently ask themselves why they have chosen to work in the film industry and whether cinema can ever be more than a job and a way of making money. Though never addressed directly either in the plot or dialogue, Day for Night must be viewed as an answer to both of those questions as the film can be read as a picture of what Marxists refer to as non-alienated labour, which is to say work that offers spiritual and psychological succour as well as financial remuneration. Imagine a job that does more than just fill the pockets of wealthier people. Imagine a job that defines you as an individual and provides you both with a sense of purpose and a tangible connection to the people that surround you. Imagine a job that you look forward to doing because it tells you who you are, where you came from, and where you are headed tomorrow. Imagine a job that makes both yourself and the world a better place and you will understand how François Truffaut felt about being a filmmaker.

The film is full of lovely moments and great performances but the really famous bit is a montage sequence when everything on a seemingly disastrous and doomed production suddenly slots into place and — as Truffaut famously put it — cinema reigns:

 

REVIEW -Automata (2014)

November 9, 2016
automata

Last week marked my fleeting return to the pages of Strange Horizons to take a look at the nominally Spanish science fiction film Automata from 2014.

The film is set in a future where 99% of the human race have been wiped out by an ecological catastrophe. After retreating into the kind of grizzled cityscape that recalls Highlander II more urgently than it does the likes of Dredd, humanity created a race of robotic servants in an effort to push back the deserts and reclaim the planet. However, when the technological fix inevitably failed, humanity turned against its robotic slaves and neglected them to the point where they were eventually forced to learn first how to repair themselves and then how to upgrade themselves, thereby accidentally kick-starting the Singularity.

Made for very little money, Gabe Ibáñez’s Automata looks great but has little to offer beyond a threadbare game of brinksmanship over the question of whether or not robots get to be viewed as people:

 

What began as an important philosophical question ossified into a literary trope around the time that science fiction became a commercial genre. Now, after half a century of sustained over-exploitation, that trope has become the literary equivalent of a ritual: the genre keeps asking the question despite knowing the answer because asking the question is what genre does and because asking it satisfies some unspoken psychological need. One way of explaining science fiction’s obsession with policing the boundaries of personhood is to view it as a set of cultural responses to the guilt and trauma of slavery and class-based oppression.

 

Aside from reviewing quite a mediocre film, the piece expands on some of the ideas I put forward in a Future Interrupted column about Alex Garland’s Ex Machina and considers the question of national genre cinemas and whether the economic urge to get stuff seen by English-speaking audiences might not actually undermine the ability to create a local scene that speaks to local concerns.

REVIEW – La Grande Vadrouille (1966)

November 7, 2016
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FilmJuice have my review of Gerard Oury’s La Grande Vadrouille. Which, despite being one of the most insanely popular French films of all time, remains largely unappreciated by English-speaking audiences.

Set during World War II, the film involves a pair of bumbling Frenchmen being sucked into the resistance movement and deciding to help three allied Airmen escape into unoccupied France. As I explain in my review, this image of ordinary French people as ‘citoyens resistants’ was part of a concerted effort to re-write history by replacing the truth about French collaboration with a myth that restored pride to the French military, honour to the French political class, and self-respect to ordinary French citizens:

 

Though challenged in the wake of the May ‘68 riots through films such as Marcel Ophuls’ epic documentary The Sorrow and The Pity, the myth remains very much a part of contemporary French identity.  The memories of occupation still hurt, the taint of collaboration is still present, and even though the generation of Frenchmen who fought the Second World War is now dying off, the need of the French people to protect themselves from the darker recesses of their shared history is still very much alive.  It is kept alive by comforting and wonderful films like La Grande Vadrouille.

 

The question of French collaboration and the policies of the Vichy regime has been one of my favourite historical riffs since I first saw The Sorrow and The Pity. One of the strange things about having spent my entire Childhood in a French school is that I grew up with a very clear myth of Frenchness that stretched from the caves right up to the figure of the citizen resistance fighter. The Sorrow and the Pity really helped me to see beyond that propaganda and considerably darkened my vision of humanity.

This being said, it occurs to me that something really needs to be done about the British equivalent of the ‘Citoyen Resistant’ myth as British politics is shifting further and further to the right and this move to the right is being at least partially fuelled by this myth of Britain as a plucky little nation that managed to survive on its own outside of Europe. Indeed, one of the things I really like about the British TV series Peaky Blinders is that it portrays 1920s Britain as an ethnically diverse and deeply multicultural place where the Establishment either murdered its opponents or plied them with money in an effort to bring them into line. At a time when people like Winston Churchill are being lionised by fascist revanchistes, Peaky Blinders dares to present him as nothing more than an Edwardian supervillain.

A Cultural History of the New Weird

November 3, 2016
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This summer saw the launch of a new genre magazine called Big Echo. While regular visitors to this site may remember that I ‘have views’ on the world of online genre magazines, something about their lack of ego and their desire to put ideas first really made me sit up and pay attention to the Big Echo project. Having decided to pay attention to their output, I was delighted when the magazine approached me and asked me if I might consider something for publication. In fact, I was so delighted that I decided to give them something that I had sort of half-decided never to make public: A cultural history of the New Weird entitled Nothing Beside Remains.

 

Somewhere behind us and nearly out of view sit the remains of the New Weird. While other moments left behind them great fortresses, haunted houses, and vast space stations, the New Weird left nothing but a few vaulted ceilings and a promise of what might once have been. As we look back over our shoulders we catch sight of the ruins and mistake them for other things from other times. The further the ruins slip below the horizon, the more our minds shape them into the symbols we need to drive ourselves forward.

 

I’ve been tinkering with this piece for a few years now and readers of my Future Interrupted columns for Interzone may well recognise some of the ideas it contains.

The reason for this is that I’ve been using the Nothing Beside Remains document as a kind of critical unconscious where half-formed ideas were left in the dark to grow for months on end before being dragged back to the surface and re-worked for public consumption. As a result, this essay brings together a number of loose ideas to form something approaching a full articulation of how I see both recent developments in the history of science fiction and how genre culture functions as a set of institutions and communities.