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Future Interrupted – The Animal-Narcotic Complex

March 22, 2017

Interzone #269 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.

This month’s issue is built around Steve Rasnic Tem and so we have not only a new story but also an editorial, a review, and an interview with the man himself. Here’s the complete list of stories:

  • “The Common Sea” by Steve Rasnic Tem.
  • “The Influence Machine” by Sean McCullen
  • “A Death in the Wayward Drift” by Tim Akers
  • “Still Life with Falling Man” by Richard E. Gropp
  • “A Strange Kind of Beauty” by Christien Gholson

 

This issue’s non-fiction features a lovely column by Nina Allan about the places she has lived, and the experience of leaving England and going to live in Scotland.

Despite my increasingly pig-headed refusal to go and see Geek films at the cinema, Nick Lowe‘s column continues to be one of the greatest things in the universe. This month’s column opens with a lovely little meditation on the way that genre film tends to approach family:

 

Fantasy cinema in particular tends to be aimed at actual or effective adolescents at a moment of identity formation and psychic development where feelings towards parents are most conflicted; and audiences can be returned to the world of generally not being orphaned with a brief flush of cathartic guilt at their failure to appreciate the sacred gift of family.

 

As Lowe goes on to say, it’s hard not to start reading between the lines when every film you encounter seems to be about parental death and abandonment but what is it that we should see in the ever-deepening shadows between repeatedly carved-out lines?

As I said earlier this year in a response to another of Lowe’s excellent columns, I don’t think there’s anything accidental about Hollywood’s obsession with Bad Dads or its constant projection of adolescent identities onto ostensibly adult characters. As Lowe points out, adolescence is the point at which our identities are most unstable and entire industries and technological platforms exist purely to help us define and broadcast our identities.

Infantilisation isn’t just about encouraging adults to consume culture aimed at kids, it’s about creating a cultural environment where adults see themselves as having the same inner lives as children. This environment is created having every piece of popular culture drive home the idea that adults are psychologically indistinguishable from children. The reason characters like Tony Stark and Captain Kirk are obsessed with their fathers is not just so that teenagers can relate to them, it’s also suggesting that it is perfectly normal for grown adults to be consumed by the need for parental approval.

Corporations encourage us to view ourselves as children because children have insecure identities and so are more likely to latch onto material objects as a way of asserting themselves. In truth, being an adult means having an identity that is strong enough to withstand not only parental disapproval but also the disapproval and opposition from people with greater amounts of social status. Contrary to what Disney and their ilk  would like you to believe, you are more than a child.

This month’s reviews include me on Adam Roberts’ novella “Betthany”, Maureen Kincaid Speller on the Welcome to Nightvale book, Elaine Gallagher on the anthology The Djinn Falls in Love, Duncan Lunnan on the novels of Tom Toner, Jack Deighton on Czeslaw Milosc’s The Mountains of Parnassus, John Howard on Jaroslav Kalfar’s Spaceman of Bohemia, Stephen Theaker on Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire,and Lawrence Osborn on Stross’s Empire Games.

My column this month is entitled #Resistance? and it looks at the inevitable move to sell genre fiction off the back of its supposed opposition either to Trump in particular or the general collapse of liberalism into fascism. You’ll have to wait 6 months to read that column but in the meantime, here is a piece I wrote about Emma Geen’s The Many Selves of Katherine North (which I’ll be writing about again as part of the Shadow Clarke project):

 

***

Few films have influenced my thinking as much as Werner Herzog’s 2011 documentary Into the Abyss. The film begins with the story of two young men who broke into a gated community at gunpoint and murdered a 51 year-old woman in order to take her car for a joyride. Rather than obsessing over the facts of the case, Herzog explores both the emotional consequences of the crime and the psychological conditions that inspired it. What he finds is that the survivors of the crime wind up living in a world very similar to that of the murderers, a world where trauma passes from parent to child and stranger to stranger in a never-ending torrent of cruelty and sadness. In Herzog’s view, to be human is not just to suffer but to pass the consequences of that suffering on to those we claim to love. Sure… we try to re-invent ourselves and to draw a line under the past but no shop-bought persona or social media gang colours can separate us from the histories that shaped our thoughts and emotional reactions.

A similar vision of the human experience bubbles up through the pages of Emma Geen’s lusciously angular debut novel The Many Selves of Katherine North. Set a few years into the future of Bristol, the book tells of a young woman who works for a corporation that projects human consciousness into animal bodies for research purposes. The novel tells Katherine’s story out of chronological order meaning that every chapter reads like a moment stolen from the life of a completely different person. Grounding this evocatively asynchronous narrative is a series of sensational set-pieces in which Katherine finds herself ‘being’ a variety of different animals including foxes, octopi, bats, and spiders. Each of these vignettes has been extensively researched and is rendered with considerable style and clarity given the technical challenges inherent in getting readers to imagine what it feels like to be an entirely kind of animal. The novel glides effortlessly between the character’s different selves and invites us to piece the different vignettes together into something resembling the linear cause and effect of conventional character development. A clear picture does start to emerge once the novel reaches its climax and Geen begins weaving together the various threads of Katherine’s life but the uncertainty and dislocation that hovers over much of the novel is never anything less than magnificent.

 

 

MSKN

 

 

One of the most interesting things about the projection process is that even the co-called ‘phenomenauts’ themselves seem unsure as to where they end and their borrowed selves begin. For example, the characters speak at length about “Sperlman’s Shock” and the existential horror of squeezing a human mind into an inhuman body but they are reluctant to acknowledge (let alone discuss) the hardships involved in abandoning the addictive complexities of their animal selves and returning to the crushing domesticity that attaches itself to their human bodies. At first, Geen downplays the unpleasantness of homecoming but Katherine’s lapses into animalistic behaviour and fondness for abstracted animal analogies point us towards a deeper yearning.

The novel takes place at a time when the ambitions of Katherine’s employers are beginning to expand beyond the admittedly limited horizons of academic zoology. With plans to create a market for animal ‘tourism’ already in place, the chief executive of the corporation approaches Katherine to serve as corporate poster-girl for the new initiative. Despite Katherine’s extensive experience and love for her work, the promotion turns out to be nothing short of disastrous as Katherine’s blossoming paranoia encounters the corporation’s lack of principle and unleashes a rapidly-escalating cycle of exploitation and disruption that reveals the true costs of psychological projection. However, while this thriller-type plot is never anything less than engaging, the real meat of the novel lays not so much in the story it tells but in the character it develops in Katherine.

As Geen shuffles us back and forth inside the life of Katherine North, we discover an array of different selves. Aside from the animal selves she borrows as part of her job, there is also a raving derelict, a sexually immature teenager, and a daughter whose father leaves her on her own to cope with a terminally-ill mother. Piecing these selves together we detect echoes of Herzog’s Into the Abyss in the way that Katherine is contorted by trauma and deformed by the sadness of others. We watch as an optimistic and animal-obsessed little girl is broken by the world to the point where she desperately wants to be someone or something other than herself. The corporation wants to sell its animal tourism as the ultimate escapist experience but nobody stops to consider why people might be so desperate to escape their own lives.

Another interesting thing about the book’s projection process is the way that it comes to symbolise the capitalist exploitation of our need to exist in a world that makes some form of sense. The challenge faced by Katherine in each of her animal projections is not only to make the animals’ bodies function as evolution decreed but also to find a way for her human thought processes to co-exist with the sometimes overwhelming instincts that accompany her animal selves. While these instincts make it difficult for humans to fully integrate human bodies, full integration provides a sense of self far clearer than anything a human might ever hope to experience. Spiders spin webs in order to catch food and spin more webs just as tigers hunt in order to remain strong and defend the territory that will allow them to hunt tomorrow. Animal selves provide no room for the doubt and self-loathing that characterises so many human lives and this simplicity provides the ultimate in existential intoxication.

Capitalism is an economic system that has proved itself incompatible not just with human flourishing but also the long-term survival of the human race. In order to exist under capitalism, people must learn to subordinate their needs and wishes to those of the social classes and institutions that make up the capitalist system. While capitalism serves to alienate people from each other, from the work they do, and from the things they produce, it also alienates us from the activities that promote not just our survival but also our psychological wellbeing. Marx referred to these activities as human species-essence and the reason that Katherine keeps returning to her animal selves is that while her human life is disconnected from all possible sources of happiness, her animal selves are firmly rooted in the unending quest for life and happiness. She yearns for that sense of rootedness in the world because capitalism has made it impossible for humans to survive and flourish. By offering to provide humans with access to the essence of other species, Katherine’s employers are effectively selling pain-killers for wounds they themselves are helping to inflict on people like Katherine.

Though perhaps a little over-tidy in the conclusion, Emma Geen’s The Many Selves of Katherine North is one of the most exciting debut novels I have read in years. Full of scientific and philosophical speculation and yet grounded in a world of material conditions and psychological consequences, the novel provides exactly what I want to see from 21st Century science fiction and does so from outside of the creative vacuum that used to be the genre publishing business.

Earlier this year, Interzone’s own Nina Allan wrote an excellent piece about the current state of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and raised a number of vital questions about not only the award’s relationship with genre culture but also about the books that jurors have tended to select in recent years. Like Nina, I became of the award in the early 2000s and so think of it as the place where genre culture reaches beyond its own professional hierarchies and connects with the speculative writing being published outside of genre. As Nina explains, the Clarke has never really lived up to that reputation and were that potential ever to be realised I believe it would be through the selection of books like The Many Selves of Katherine North. Despite what genre culture tells us, the future of science fiction lies not in familiar names deconstructing outdated tropes with one eye on the young adult market but in young writers looking at the world and confronting whichever horrors lie in wait around the next corner.

 

 

 

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