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Future Interrupted — More than Fools. More than Fodder

May 26, 2017

Interzone #270 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 being said, while you might prefer to have an eBook version of the magazine, I recommend getting a dead tree subscription as the magazine has never looked more beautiful than it does right at this moment.

This month’s issue contains a number of interesting stories, each of them beautifully illustrated:

  • “Rushford Recapitulation” by Christopher Mark Rose
  • “Like You, I am a System” by Nathan Hillstrom
  • “Dirty Code” by Wayne Simmons
  • “Encyphered” by Jonathan L. Howard
  • “The New Man” by Malcolm Devlin
  • “Evangeline and the Forbidden Lighthouse” by Emily B. Cataneo
  • “Memories of Fish” by Shauna O’Meara

As usual, in addition to the short fiction, this issue includes some excellent non-fiction:

 

Nina Allan‘s column draws from a similar well to a lot of the writing that has been done for the on-going Shadow Clarke award. Nina looks at how genre fiction developed a self-image that distinguished it quite sharply from what genre people often think of as mainstream fiction. However, while the idea this self-image may have been useful at a time when genre writing was completely different to the the output of mainstream publishing, that sense of cultural difference now seems to serve a very different purpose:

What the Shadow Clarke project has led me to ask most of all is whether the precepts of SF special pleading are now simply being used to lend critical weight to works that could not otherwise sustain it. Or, to put it another way, to excuse bad books.

II must admit to being somewhat torn on this particular issue as I think that, historically at least, science fiction is a literature with its own unique cultural history. Unlike many of the genre critics who defined thinking about genre during the late 2000s, early 2010s, I think that science fiction and fantasy are distinct traditions and that their rapprochement is a historical accident born of the fact that fantasy outsells science fiction by an order of magnitude and so genre publishing naturally tends to select science fiction novels that look more like fantasy.

I’m torn because while I like the idea of science fiction being its own distinct thing, I’m not actually all that interested by what that thing is currently producing. Gernsbackian fiction may have been radical back in the day but decades of creative stasis make science fiction’s claims to uniqueness feel like nothing more than cultural conservatism. As the Shadow Clarke has moved from personal shortlists to the official shortlist, I am horrified by how much better science fiction seems to become the second it is published by anyone other than a genre publisher.

 

Nick Lowe‘s Mutant Popcorn column continues to feature some of the smartest writing about genre film. Lowe’s day job is that of an academic with an interest in the development of narrative and so most of his columns involve quite lengthy meditations on the way that Hollywood’s commercial reality is shaping and re-shaping our cultural attitudes to narrative. For years now, Lowe’s been an unapologetic cheerleader for blockbuster film as he — quite rightly — identified contemporary Hollywood as a field of narrative experimentalism in much the same way as European film in the 1960s was a test bed for different forms of visual storytelling. Somewhat more sombre than in years past given that Hollywood appears to be getting more rather than less conservative, Lowe’s columns are still an absolute goldmine for anyone who wants to understand the role of genre narratives in Western culture.

 

My column from this month is about diversity in genre culture and how success at the level of literary short-lists should not blind us to the extent of the problem at ground level. But you’ll have to wait about six months to read that!  In the meantime, here is a reprint of a column I wrote about Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police series… a critique that I think has even more resonance now than when I first wrote it.

 

***

 

 

PC

 

Recently, this column has devoted itself to first novels in an effort to force me from my comfort zone and into a place where I can help to challenge the field’s tendency to focus its attention on the work of people who are already widely known and beloved. However, while I do intend to return to first novels soon enough, it occurs to me that any attempt to shift the focus of genre culture must involve both a celebration of the unseen and an honest evaluation of the familiar. This desire to confront the successful, the commercial and the overly-familiar led me straight to Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police series, the latest instalment of which was published earlier this year.

The Shadow Police novels are best described as being part of the increasingly crowded sub-genre of novels about magical policemen solving crimes in old London town. Aside from Shadow Police, the last six years have also seen the emergence of such series as Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, Mark Morris’ Obsidian Heart, and Sarah Pinborough’s Dog-Faced Gods. While the fact that all of these novels have been published since 2010 suggests that the market may be reaching saturation point, it is also worth noting that all of these series have emerged in the aftermath of both the financial crisis and the Conservative government’s ill-conceived and failed attempts to return the country to solvency. For both good and ill, Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police series are undoubtedly novels of the now.

2013’s London Falling begins by introducing us to an undercover unit trying to build a case against a gang leader whose rise through the London underworld had been nothing short of meteoric. Drawing on such intelligent TV procedurals as The Wire and Prime Suspect, Cornell introduces us to a cast of conflicted characters who are all trying to find happiness in a job that is hampered on all sides by corruption, incompetence, and institutional decay. Once the mundane elements of the setting are safely in place, Cornell pulls back the curtain and reveals that his gang leader owes his success to a deal he struck with a witch who happens to support West Ham football club. When the cast discover the deal and move to arrest the witch, they wind up accidentally gaining the ability to see the true face of magical London.

The first thing to strike you about the Shadow Police novels is how they appear to have been written with television in mind. This is perhaps not surprising given that Cornell has written for series like Doctor Who and Robin Hood but everything from the uncluttered, efficient characterisation through to the reliance on sensational but cheap-to-produce set pieces speaks to a desire to see these books turned into TV. While this stylistic choice deprives the books of the kind of ambiguity that might encourage you to pick up a book rather than watch TV there is no denying the skill and grace with which Cornell handles his plot and characters. Everything keeps moving, nothing outstays it welcome, and the whole thing builds and builds to a superbly tense conclusion. I’ve often complained in the past that genre audiences are poorly served when it comes to thrillers but all of the Shadow Police novels work like quantum clockwork. In truth, the problems only start to creep in once you move beyond the plot and start thinking about what it is that Cornell is trying to say about the current moment.

Much like Mike Carey’s excellent comic series The Unwritten, Cornell presents magic as a form of literal postmodernism in so far as the world is physically shaped and re-shaped by the beliefs of the people that inhabit it. This means that stories have real power in the world of the Shadow Police and that people with influence tend to have magical power as they can control the way that other people see the world. The backdrop of the novels is that the recent destruction of certain institutions in British public life has allowed traditional ways of seeing the world to be replaced by a worldview that is harsher, colder, and of benefit to considerably fewer people. The political dimensions of this backdrop are made quite explicit in 2015’s The Severed Streets.

The second novel in the series finds London consumed by riots as young people take to the streets in order to protest their government’s austerity programme. With the police threatening to strike for the first time in centuries and far-right nationalists causing trouble in the background, Cornell adopts the viewpoint of the political establishment and depicts all forms of political activism as disruptive, toxic, and ultimately pointless. The pointlessness of political activism is evident partly from the fact that the demonstrations turn out to be the result of magical rabble-rousing rather than genuine political disagreement but also from the way that Cornell skilfully juxtaposes the incoherent rage of the faceless masses with the nuanced emotional lives of magical elites who can not only see what is actually happening on the streets of London but also act meaningfully to solve the problems. In a move that can only be described as pandering to his audience, Cornell not only imbues Neil Gaiman with magical powers and has him deliver huge infodumps; he also contrives to make the magical underworld look an awful lot like organised fandom. Turns out that even on the grim and rain-slicked streets of magical London, Fans are still Slan.

The third novel in the series is dominated by the figure of Sherlock Holmes and so winds up reading a lot like an attempt to land Cornell a job writing for either Sherlock or Elementary. However, despite being the weakest novel in the series so far, Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? winds up doing a pretty good job of demonstrating the flaws in Cornell’s literary methods.

The novel’s primary subplot involves a character who has been traumatised by the time they spent in Hell. At first, the trauma is handled quite sensitively as the character’s growing distress and uncharacteristically desperate attempts to avoid trauma-related cues map quite well onto what we know of post-traumatic stress. The problem is that rather than dealing with the character’s condition in a realistic fashion, Cornell stages a magical intervention and cures them by having them choose to act more like themselves. The reason Cornell’s treatment of PTSD seems both offensive and simple-minded is that PTSD is a genuine mental disorder with an increasingly well-understood pathology. Presenting it as a magical illness that can be cured by sufferers pulling themselves together is not only insulting to people who struggle with the disorder every day of their lives, it also serves to distance and distract us from the psychophysiological processes that make us who we are. In other words, Cornell could have told us something about the workings of the human mind but instead he chose to wave a magic wand and make everything okay.

While the Shadow Police series does touch on real political issues, it uses its genre elements to distance and distract us from what we already know about the world. Rather than using genre techniques to help us engage with complex issues like the effects of privatisation, the misguided politics of austerity, the cynical exploitation of racial tensions by successive governments, and the way that neoliberalism has colonised our thought processes and turned us all into fungible commodities, Cornell draws a veil over the real world of cause and effect and invites us to engage in the fantasy that all of our problems are rooted in the actions of a grinning cocaine demon in a well-tailored suit. This is not so much engaging with the real world as exploiting our emotional ties to the real in order to dress up a load of reactionary fables about wizards, goblins, dark lords and magical weapons.

Even by the logic of the novels, Cornell is on the side of the baddies; he hints at liberation but his message is that people are nothing but blind, faceless, and incoherent rage. People need elites to make decisions as their problems are both magically intractable and beyond the limits of their perceptual capacity.  If stories did shape the world then the Shadow Police series would be part of the problem. Contrary to what Paul Cornell would have us believe, we are more than fools and can be more than fodder.

 

 

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