Future Interrupted — Doctor Johnson’s Awesome Mix Tape
Issue #257 of Interzone is now a thing in the world: Subscribers will have received their copies while non-subscribers have been left to experience its absence, like an amputated limb or a press-ganged lover. As ever, physical subscriptions are available via the TTA Press website and digital subscriptions can be found on Smashwords. Buy it for the fiction… buy it for the non-fiction… buy it because it is almost certainly the only genre magazine published this year to feature an astronaut with an albatross strapped to his chest.
This month’s issue contains some really interesting work, including:
- “Songbird” by Fadzlishah Johanabas
- “Brainwhales are Stoners, Too” by Rich Larson
- “The Worshipful Company of Milliners” by Tendai Huchu
- “Blossoms Falling Down” by Aliya Whiteley
I say ‘including’ as the cover story is “A Murmuration” by Alastair Reynolds. I think this is the best thing that Al Reynolds has written since Revelation Space. Ostensibly a hard science-fiction story about bird-watching, “A Murmuration” is also a study of professional obsession, isolation and creeping madness. Much like Ian Sales’ BSFA Award-winning novella Adrift on the Sea of Rains, Reynolds fills the foreground of the story with lots of detailed scientific ideas only to then hint at what is actually going on behind the infodump. Sales beat his readers over the head with NASA acronyms and maintenance procedures in a way that hid his protagonist’s growing madness, Reynolds does something very similar here with a scientist who is trying to publish a paper that models avian group dynamics only to find himself getting more and more obsessed with the paper’s referee while the experiment spins wildly out of control. As with Adrift on the Sea of Rains, there’s something intensely satisfying about stories that combine the subtlety of art house film with the directness of hard SF and it’s a real pleasure to see Al Reynolds exploring that particular literary space.
Issue #257 also includes interviews with Helen Marshall and Aliya Whiteley as well as the usual columns by Nina Allan, Nick Lowe, Tony Lee and yours truly. I won’t spoil this month’s column for those of you who aren’t subscribers but it does include the line “Science fiction could stand to learn a lot from Malcolm McLaren”. Anyway, enough of the new stuff and on with the old stuff! Unlike many of these columns, this month’s is dated by my decision to write about a film that happened to be in the cinemas at the time of writing… so please excuse my apparent inability to tell the difference between Summer 2014 and Spring 2015. The curious may be interested to know that I expanded my views on the Marvel Cinematic Universe while posting my review of Ari Folman’s The Congress.
Doctor Johnson’s Awesome Mix Tape
As the late American writer David Foster Wallace once pointed out, we are existentially alone on the planet. Trapped inside two and a bit pounds of skull, I cannot feel what you are feeling and you cannot know what I am thinking. Books, at their best, are a bridge constructed across the abyss of human loneliness for it is only by immersing ourselves in the words and thoughts of others that we can escape the cramped confines of our own bedraggled selves. If we take Foster Wallace at his word and assume that art should aim to break down the barriers between stranded subjectivities then we need to think about how you are going to relate to me and I to you.
In a recent article published in The New Yorker magazine, Rebecca Meads describes how calling a piece of work ‘relatable’ has emerged as the highest piece of critical praise that this particular cultural moment can bestow. At first glance, calling something relatable seems to be little more than an ugly way of calling it accessible but relatability is actually a much narrower concept. To call a work accessible is to say that neither its style nor its content constitute much of a barrier when it comes to getting to grips with what a work is really trying to say. Relatability, on the other hand, tends to be a quality that accrues to characters whose experiences are so similar to those of the audience that literally everyone can find themselves in what a work is trying to describe. Meads refers to relatability as a scourge on Western culture, an aesthetic designed to ensure that audiences need neither stretch their empathic muscles nor make an imaginative leap. For Meads, making a work relatable means sticking it in a blender, pulping the difficulty and serving it up for an audience so intellectually toothless that they prefer to ingest their culture through a straw. As someone who enjoys the challenge of unflinchingly difficult books and films, my first instinct is to agree with Meads but science fiction is something of a special case: A genre prone to setting its stories on alien planets filled with alien characters does need to worry about how it can grant its readers access to an author’s headspace. This is a column about two works of science fiction that, despite being radically different use similar storytelling techniques to make the inhuman seem relatable.
Already being touted as the surprise box-office sensation of the summer by people who are evidently unaware of advertising, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is the first Marvel Studios film to focus exclusively on events with no connection to Earth. Genre fans might not perceive this as much of a barrier to entry but it is worth remembering that, up until quite recently, works like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class worked incredibly hard to implant their superheroes in gritty realistic worlds lest their audience find the thought of spandex-clad vigilantes with magical powers just a little bit too silly. This is a very real concern for studio executives as Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern was ripped to shreds for attempting to combine standard super-heroics with po-faced space opera.
Guardians of the Galaxy opens with one of the most nakedly manipulative sequences in recent cinematic history as a small child is forced to bid a reluctant farewell to his dying mother. Reminiscent of those TV adverts encouraging us to give money to sick kiddies and adorable puppies, the scene is intended to make us feel pity before using that pity to drag us off to an alien landscape filled with strange planets and exotic aliens whose names describe what it is they do for a living: The Collector, The Broker, Ronan The Accuser, Graham The Mid-Level Manager in A Regional Office Supplies Company. You know… the type of stupid clunky shit that genre fiction stopped doing a generation ago.
Having used a dead parent to manipulate the audience into caring about its blandly human point-of-view character, the film still faces a tough climb up the north face of Mount Exposition. Clearly concerned that his audience might black out at the seventeenth line of dialogue beginning “As you know…” Gunn uses a combination of manipulative sentimentality, impossibly broad humour and old-fashioned values like family and friendship to keep his story relatable. The film’s main protagonist even carries around an old Walkman containing a mix tape of his mother’s favourite songs and while the rights to those 1970s disco tunes must have cost Marvel an arm and a leg, the trans-generational nostalgia they kick up does serve to ease the audience into the kind of dense, pompous and irksome setting that might otherwise have sent them running from the cinema.
A million miles and a billion dollars away from the heavy-handed manipulations of Guardians is one of the finest science fiction novels of 2013. Already familiar to genre audiences thanks to his Clarke Award-nominated Far North, Marcel Theroux’s fifth novel Strange Bodies begins with a man unexpectedly turning up at an ex-girlfriend’s home. What makes this arrival unexpected is the fact that the man is supposed to have died in a road traffic accident and while all of his mannerisms and memories point to the fact that he is the person he claims to be, he looks entirely different. How can a man be both alive and dead as well as both himself and someone else? Theroux answers this question by using science fictional conceits to examine the nature of the self as well as our ideas about life, death and personal identity.
Reading Strange Bodies means learning to navigate a maze of framing devices; One chapter is presented as a diary entry, the next takes the form of a psychiatrist’s notes, then we move on to a letter before slinking back to a diary entry from what might be an entirely different timeframe. Each of these devices provides a very different view of the book’s protagonist and encourages us to wonder whether these fractious snapshots might not actually be of different people. Theroux eventually explains what is going on by invoking the kind of gonzo science and quasi-mystical politics that you’d expect from a secret history of the Soviet Union but as challenging as the book’s understanding of the self may be, Theroux has already laid the groundwork by using his framing devices to coax us into asking questions to which he has all the answers. By asking his readers to meet him half way, Theroux ensures that the journey seems much shorter and the small imaginative leap he leaves us with is made just that little bit easier by the introduction of a major literary figure.
Our guide to the world of Theroux’s novel is the 18th Century poet, essayist, critic and lexicographer Doctor Samuel Johnson. His appearance in 21st Century London is designed to both provoke questions about the nature of the self (‘is it really Doctor Johnson?’) and get us used to looking at the world through science fictional goggles. Theroux’s Johnson expresses horror at the type of things that middle-class Londoners keep in their kitchens and wonder at the idea of restaurants that serve nothing but cheese and tomato on flat bread. Warm and incredibly funny, these fish-out-of-water moments detach us from the present and prepare us for thinking about the novel’s hypothetical future. A time from which the contemporary reader and protagonist are just as disconnected as Johnson is from ours.
Despite their differences, Guardians of the Galaxy and Strange Bodies share that quintessentially science fictional need to guide their audiences away from their mundane existence and towards worlds that are strikingly different from their own. However, while Theroux’s Pizza-loving Johnson may well be nothing more than a sophisticated version of Gunn’s disco-loving protagonist, it is worth paying attention to the reasons why these writers want to usher across the bridge of human loneliness in the first place: Theroux uses Johnson as a means of encouraging us to ask questions about life, death and who we are as people while Gunn wants us to be aware of some stuff that’ll help us to make sense of the next Avengers movie. Just because science fiction shares a set of common techniques, it doesn’t mean that all science fiction is equally worthy of your time.