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Future Interrupted:Jumping, Leaping, from Past to Future

July 22, 2016

Interzone #265 is now a thing in the world. I urge anyone and everyone to head on over to the TTA Press website, Smashwords or any other purveyor of quality eBooks with a search function and an ounce of sense.

This month’s non-fiction is typically thought-provoking. We begin with an editorial by Jo L. Walton about the next generation of literary awards and how his Sputnik Award is using the way that genre awards typically impose themselves upon the collection consciousness to say interesting things about social media, community and politics.

A similar theme runs through Nina Allan‘s Time Pieces as Allan takes another look at the problematic nature of literary canons and how their tendency to over-represent works by and about white men undermines genre culture’s ongoing efforts to become more inclusive by telling us not only what types of stories are worthy of our attention, but also what type of people write interesting stories. As someone who broke off all institutional connection to the humanity aged about sixteen, I have always been opposed to the idea of cannons and the associated pressure to read particular things before daring to open your mouth. Fuck anyone who tells you that you need to have read x, y, or z before forming an opinion and fuck anyone who tries to tell you what you should be reading. I’ve never liked the idea of cultural spaces handing out homework and one of my early Future Interrupted columns goes out of their way to stress the importance of choosing your own literary ancestors and coming up with your own history of science fiction. So when Nina asks:

We all bring baggage to our reading and to our writing, but rather than someone else’s pre-packed, pre-selected baggage, shouldn’t we at least be allowed to bring our own baggage instead?

I am in complete agreement.

However… While I recognise the authoritarian nature of institutional entry barriers like literary canons, I think it is also worth asking why those canons were created in the first place. One model of explanation is to focus on the use of power in establishing canons and to point how the establishment of literary canons echoes the academy’s attempts to monopolise and dominate intellectual discourse. Why did academics create a canon and create it in the form they chose? Because academics were familiar with those works and using them to form a barrier between educated and non-educated ensured that academics would have the power to determine who society deemed to be educated. Another model of explanation is to focus on the reasons why these types of canons caught on at all as people tend not to make a habit of blindly obeying academics. The thing about canons is that they provide both a shared point of reference and an implied set of values allowing people to flag up important new works on the grounds that they resemble important old works. Remove the power of canons to focus the attention and you create a situation where people’s willingness to talk to each other and ability to understand each other’s ideas become exponentially more difficult. Contemporary genre culture is an excellent example of what happens when a cultural space loses its shared points of reference: Values diverge, friendships dissolve, conversations disappear off into the undergrowth and everyone stops talking to the people whose frames of reference do not resemble their own. As someone quite content to knock around his own private frame of reference, I’m not overly fussed by the dissolution of all cultural spaces not held together by million dollar marketing budgets but I think that genre culture has now reached the point where it needs to find some sort of balance between the individualism of everyone refusing to read outside of their private field of interest and and the authoritarianism of everyone being forced to read Robert Heinlein novels because them’s the fucking rules.

The Book Zone opens with an interview with Juliet A. McKenna interviewing Lisa Tuttle before unravelling across a series of intriguing reviews. Maureen Kincaid Speller enthuses about Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories while Paul Kicaid is more downbeat about Paul McCauley’s Into Everywhere. Duncan Lunan looks at the new Michael Swanwick, Lawrence Osborne looks at the new Guy Gavriel Kay, Stephen Theaker looks at James Lovegrove and M. Suddain, while Jack Deighton looks at Salman Rushdie and Kasuaki Takano.

Nick Lowe‘s Mutant Popcorn trudges wearily for what is proving to be one of the most depressing blockbuster sesons in living memory.Lowe is one of the great champions of Hollywood absurdism but while he dutifully reminds us that the Hollywood blockbuster has dragged commercial cinematic storytelling kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, even he seems to be getting a little bit embarrassed by Hollywood’s incessant attempts to seduce the population of China with warmed over franchises:

Unloved and disowned by critics, domestic audiences, and even the internet, these are the blockbusters nobody wanted: the belated sequels to films nobody now remembers; the sunk-costs development hellspawn unwisely released to the light; the unwieldy international coproductions made entirely from tax credits; the profit-scrapings of once-valuable intellectual property; the game adaptations commissioned back before the user base collapsed; the exhausted franchise brand-milkers; the Chinese toehold partnership projects; the forlorn attempts to spin a merchandising opportunity out of D-list media properties.

Tony Lee‘s Laser Fodder looks at The 5th Wave, The Call Up and Enemy Mine.

 

This month’s fiction includes:

  • “All Your Cities I Will Burn” by John Schoffstall
  • “The Eye of Job” by Dan Reade
  • “Belong” by Suzanne Palmer
  • “On the Techno-Erotic Potential of Donald Trump Under Conditions of Partially Induced Psychosis” by Ken Hickley
  • “The Inside-Out” by Andrew Kozma
  • “A Man of Modest Means” by Robert Reed

My Future Interrupted column from IZ#265 considers the Clarke Award nominated The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers and expresses profound discomfort of the idea of using science fiction to strip racism from its economic and historical bases in order to provide readers with a nice fluffy liberal fantasy in which systemic structural inequalities can be overturned simply by remembering someone’s preferred pronouns. But you’ll have to wait a while in order to read that.

In the mean time, here is my piece about the British genre TV series Quatermass and how each episode of the series expresses a profound ambiguity about both past and the future.

 


 

***

Kitchen

 

Britain is a nation that struggles to see beyond its own kitchen table. Visit any museum devoted to World War II and you will be confronted by a 1940s kitchen complete with ration books and a piped-in approximation of the BBC light programme. In National Trust properties and stately homes, the same pathetic lunge for domestic relatability lands us in the Victorian era where plastic chickens sit atop polished silverware. Aside from being an indictment of museum curatorship, these kitchens signal the limits of our collective imagination: We struggle to imagine either a past or a future that does not resemble the present.

Our perception of time is like a blade of sunlight drawn across the surface of an oceanic darkness… Constrained by human imagination, we approach both future and past with an assumption of universality. We would rather inhabit Charles Stross’ dreams of corporate finance or Kim Stanley Robinson’s terraforming projects than imagine a society freed from the shackles of the market. Rather than understanding seventh century saints and renaissance commissars, we wait for Hilary Mantel and Nicola Griffith to transform them into ambitious civil servants. Good Morrow my liege, what’s the story in Bala-fucking-mory?

This idea that we are estranged from past and future alike serves as unifying theme to one of the great foundational works of British science fiction: Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass.

 

QX

 

First introduced in 1953, Professor Bernard Quatermass of the British Experimental Rocket Group differed from most period genre protagonists by virtue of being forever at a loss to explain the chaos he uncovered. When a journey into outer space causes an astronaut to change into a murderous plant in The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass mumbles a half-baked theory about disembodied consciousness before abandoning all scientific pretence and calling on the creature to destroy itself. Born of Kneale’s refusal to engage in either detailed world-building or sustained scientific speculation, Quatermass is a transformative figure who does not so much explain the world as provoke it into terrified bafflement.

Quatermass’ role as intermediary between comforting present and disturbing future is particularly evident in the cinematic remakes of his first two outings. While TV encouraged British actors to portray Quatermass as a sensitive boffin, Hammer Films cast an American actor who stripped the character of public school amiability. Reborn as a bull-necked Tony Soprano, Hammer’s Quatermass yells at policemen, bullies underlings and struggles to impose the future on a reluctant Britain regardless of the consequences. His fedora may recall Jimmy Cagney but his presence at the head of a British government agency invites us to imagine him as an American Wernher von Braun, a tyrannical futurist deemed too violent and unpleasant even for the CIA.

 

QII

 

Quatermass II is a more unsettling work than The Quatermass Experiment in that the source of the alien presence remains defiantly ambiguous. Having been denied funding to build a Moon base, Quatermass ventures into the countryside and discovers a working Moon colony based on his exact plans. Puzzled by this rival project as well as their robotic guards, Quatermass investigates what turns out to be a futuristic manufacturing plant with access to both orbital mining platforms and implants allowing the management to exert direct control over their workforce. With little in the way of evidence supporting his theory, Quatermass concludes that the factory is an alien terraforming initiative operated by creatures from the rings of Saturn. His decision to destroy both plant and asteroid must be understood in terms of the chaos unleashed in the first series: Once devoted to constructing the future, a chastened Quatermass is horrified when confronted with a glimpse of Britain as a highly-automated society where corporations remake the world and governments foot the bill.

 

QC

 

Made by Thames Television in 1979, the fourth Quatermass (aka The Quatermass Conclusion) positions its themes of temporal estrangement squarely in the narrative foreground. Now retired, Quatermass returns to London and discovers that society has torn itself apart. Though remnants of British institutions may skulk in burned-out buildings, the ‘youth of today’ have abandoned making sense of the world and joined a series of murderous political gangs and apocalyptic cults. Desperate to reconnect with his long-lost granddaughter and sympathetic to the cultists’ sense of bafflement, Quatermass is torn between the urge to embrace change and the feelings of resentful nostalgia emanating from a young astronomer. In a scene that foreshadows the magnificent temporal dislocation of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, Quatermass visits the astronomer’s home only to find radio telescopes operating out of Regency observatories as though past and future had converged on a present incapable of relating to either.

 

QP2

 

In a reversal of the move made in Quatermass and the Pit, The Quatermass Conclusion embeds the future in groups and places more readily associated with the past. Dismissed as reactionary hippies, the young cultists have somehow attuned themselves to a force guiding them to ancient stone circles where they are consumed by unidentified energy fields. Scientists and government officials leap to the conclusion that these children are being destroyed by some alien force but the young remain convinced that they are being transported to another world. Baffled and desperate to act, Quatermass joins with an army of pensioners who lure the futuristic presence into a trap and detonate the world’s remaining nuclear weapons in a gesture that either saves humanity or destroys it once and for all. As in earlier series, Kneale refuses to confirm or deny either side’s version of the facts and so suggests that humanity would rather destroy itself than deal with the ambiguities of change.

Kneale’s earlier masterpiece echoes the work of H.P. Lovecraft by dissolving the imminent future into an impossibly ancient past. Produced between Quatermass II and The Quatermass Conclusion, Quatermass and the Pit is set in Knightsbridge where a wave of post-war gentrification has seen working-class homes bulldozed to make way for fashionable office blocks. The distant past erupts in the form of an ancient humanoid skull forcing contemporary building-work to make way for an archaeological investigation of the past. However, this historical study loops round to the future when diggers uncover a spacecraft that is both ancient and acutely futuristic. Quatermass’ investigation of the craft soon turns into an exploration of human potential as it transpires that the crew of the rocket ship might have been responsibly not only for humanity attaining consciousness but also for our darkest impulses.

 

QP

 

Growing ever weirder as it goes, the series touches on German rocketry, Moon bases and missions to Mars before plunging into a mire of ghosts, demons and psychic powers. The climactic scene comes when some 1950s wiring snaps, electrifying the hull of the ancient craft. Transformed into a psychic amplifier with unchecked access to the national grid, the ship unleashes the raw cognitive potential of every Londoner by projecting them into the minds of a far more advanced species. Given a glimpse of their own futures and driven mad by their own innate tendencies towards racism, selfishness and paranoia, the inhabitants of London tear the city to pieces in what must be seen as a preamble to the apocalyptic chaos of the final series.

Quatermass and the Pit rails against the limits of the human imagination. Kneale likens contemporary humans not only to medieval peasants and self-destructive insects, but also Cold War military bureaucrats who survey the infinite possibilities of outer space only to see an opportunity to preserve the current balance of power. Arguably little more than a manifestation of Quatermass’ own darkest impulses, the figure of Colonel Breen reminds us of how easy it can be to wage war against the future.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 3, 2016 10:10 am

    You Future Interrupted column in 265 is brilliant. A much needed reality-salve to the abundance self-indulgent, preposterous story-telling going in SF at the moment.

    Like

  2. August 6, 2016 5:58 pm

    Thanks :-) I’m aware that negative reviews aren’t generally seen as ‘on’ nowadays but the politics and storytelling of Small Angry Planet just got my back up.

    Like

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