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[Shadow Clarke] REVIEW — Emma Geen’s The Many Selves of Katherine North

May 24, 2017

Oops… I’ve been neglecting this blog recently as I’ve been tending to write stuff for other venues and it is always a bit of a chore to write a blog post about something that I’ve already mentally filed under ‘done’.

The problem may have been emphasised in the case of this particular piece as it’s the second essay I’ve written about the book. The book in question is Emma Geen’s debut novel The Many Selves of Katherine North and I wrote about it last year for my Interzone column. As I say in the new piece, I have considerable affection for Many Selves not least because I decided to write about it at a time when I had started to question my ability to metabolise science fiction. My second look at the book is somewhat more critical than the first but while I regret the way the novel seems to flinch from the crux of the psychological problem is present, I think it remains a really great example of the type of science fiction that I want to read:

 

Like many of the better books to emerge last year, The Many Selves of Katherine North is a novel made up of a series of discrete parts that require both a squint and a leap of the imagination before they fall into conventional narrative order. The spine of the book is provided by a series of set-pieces in which the book’s protagonist is projected into the mind of different animals and forced to contend not only with their alien cognitive processes but also with their (occasionally overwhelming) instincts to run, jump, fly, hunt, eat, and even fuck. Extensively researched and beautifully rendered, all of these set-pieces are powerfully imagined and beautifully written almost to the point where they overwhelm the novel. And therein lays the point…

 

I’m currently working on my next Sharke post and I have literally just accused an entirely different novel of flinching from the psychological unpleasantness that had sustained its primary narrative.

I am entirely sympathetic to authors who mine their personal lives for ‘real life details’ only to wind up stopping well short of bearing their souls. That kind of forced introspection is never pleasant and when you’re writing about something that was personally traumatic, the urge is always going to be to flinch before you hit the water.

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories are particularly prone to this kind of flinching as genre writing is always partially metaphorical and writing about abstract metaphors is always going to be a lot easier than writing about the truth. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that genre literature’s levels of abstraction may well be one of the primary appeals for its readers.

For example, not everyone can sit through a brutal piece of social realism about how patriarchal attitudes foster abusive relationships but pretty much anyone can sit through Mad Max: Fury Road, which deals with those issues in an abstracted manner that makes them more palatable and therefore more accessible.

This piece may even be somewhat unfair to Geen in that she did not choose to write about someone who got lost in escapist media in order to cope with the trauma of parental death… she chose to write about a young woman who uses VR technologies to inhabit the bodies of endangered animals.

When we talk about genre novels having themes, we are talking about ways in which novels can be ‘about’ one thing whilst also being ‘about’ another and it is worth remembering that there was a conscious decision to write with a certain level of abstraction. Criticise a genre novel for too much abstraction and there’s a risk that you fall into the trap of criticising it for failing to be the more realistic novel that you actually wanted to read instead.

In truth… I’m not sure that this is a binary question. I don’t think that novels are either realistic or abstract, I think that realism is a slider that can be set at a variety of levels for a variety of different effects. As time has passed and my tastes have shifted, I expect more and more realism and depth from the culture I consume and I think this may well go some way towards explaining my growing alienation from what remains of genre culture.

 

REVIEW — Melody (1971)

May 16, 2017

Bit late uploading this but FilmJuice have my review of Waris Hussein’s thoroughly excellent and recently re-released British drama Melody (also known as S.W.A.L.K.)

Set in 1970s East London, Melody begins by introducing the resolutely introverted and middle-class Danny to a working-class community that his shit-munching parents are hoping to gentrify. Initially alienated from his class-mates, Danny soon manages to establish a friendship with a local lad whose home life is so horrifying that you never actually see it on screen. Made in the great tradition of British post-War social realism, Melody explores not only the dynamics of gentrification and middle-class ‘concern’ for the lower orders but also the ways in which proximity and cooperation can work to establish solidarity between people from ostensibly very different backgrounds. Filled with these lovely scenes in which the camera runs and runs as kids go about their normal daily lives, the film soon transitions into an utterly charming and genuinely moving love story between Danny and a little girl called Melody:

 

Despite being set in a recognisably socialist universe in which social class shapes both your identity and your hopes for the future, Melody is a deeply romantic film that wants to believe in the absolute power of love to remake the world. At first, these two thematic strands appear to be in conflict as nobody but Danny (and later Melody) believe that they should be in love or want to get married. However, as the film reaches its conclusion, opinions begin to shift as kids rally to the couple’s cause and set about creating a world of their own. In a move that recalls the ending to both Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Melody ends with the protagonists running away from a world that they can’t escape… because sometimes all you need for happiness is a bit of breathing room. As Ornshaw says, “Don’t forget to change at Clapham Junction!”

 

Interestingly, the weakest element of this film is probably the soundtrack that inspired its makings. Dominated by profoundly not-famous tunes by the BeeGees, it feels way too folky and blandly up-beat for a film with the urban setting and realistic tone of a film like Melody. This being said, Melody is a thoroughly excellent film from an era when the British film industry was still interested in making films that spoke directly to the experiences of British people.

Thought Projectors 8

May 9, 2017

It’s been over a month since the last of these so I guess it’s time to look back through all of those captured hyper-links and see what stands up to a second reading…

In the meantime, my thoughts have been divided between my on-going duties as part of the Shadow Clarke Award jury and my recent visit to London. The primary reason for the visit is that the wife and I had booked ourselves onto an organised ghost hunt, which I very much enjoyed but she found almost impossible tedious. I may yet write something about my experiences so I won’t go into too much detail on what I saw but I will say that while it’s one thing to know that the human brain abhors ambiguity and to be familiar with concepts like pareidolia and the autokinetic effect, it’s quite another to find yourself in a situation where those systems are making their presence felt. I didn’t believe in ghosts before going on the hunt and I still don’t but I can totally see why you would.

 

Having stayed up almost impossibly late, I spent the following day wandering around central London and realising quite how many of my old haunts have been torn down, gentrified, and turned into either expensive flats or beautiful restaurants with rents so large as to be unworkable for all but a narrow range of restaurant chains. This purely practical disappointment aside, I consider my trip to have been a real success as I went to Tate Modern and saw not only the Radical Eye exhibition of Elton John’s collection of modernist photographs but also  Wolfgang Tillmans’ 2017.

I’ve been to the Tate Modern a few times over the years and never really enjoyed myself all that much as — frankly — I’m not that hugely interested in the world of modern art. However, seeing an exhibition of artworks from a form you’re really quite invested in turns out to be a *completely* different experience as I found myself having quite visceral reactions to almost everything I saw.

I was initially quite disappointed with the Radical Eye as while it was fascinating the see early experiments with techniques that are now included in every ‘how to take cool photographs’ book, the exhibition is long on conventional portraits and works by the visual artist Man Ray. The portraits are obviously something of a fudge as while they feature a number of modernist and surrealist artists, they are not actually modernist works themselves. Similarly, while Man Ray was an early pioneer of ‘art photography’ I’d say that he was a surrealist rather than a modernist and I found the archness and obvious art deco influences in his work to be quite affected and distracting. Conversely, being able to see real-life works by Dorothea Lange (including the really famous one) was a real privilege and when placed next to a load of conventional portraits and Man Ray pieces their rawness really leapt out. In fact, one of them literally took my breath away and even googling it just now resulted in my staring at it for about ten minutes.

I didn’t really know what to expect going into the Tillmans exhibit as I wasn’t at all familiar with his work but I was rapidly overwhelmed by his means of production. The Radical Eye exhibit is drawn from a private collection and private collections tend to be of prints drawn by the original artists. Given the period favoured by Elton John and the limits of photographic technology at the time, most of the pictures in the Radical Eye are really no bigger than a standard photo you might get back from Boots. Tillmans, on the other hand, is a contemporary artist and his exhibits are made up of very high quality prints that are all at least 2 metres tall. Moving from one exhibition to the other was quite striking as you move from a situation where you’re leaning very close to tiny black-and-white prints to a situation where you’re looking at very colourful pictures that are literally larger than life. Some of the most interesting pieces were distinctly postmodern such as the room made up of nothing but huge monochromatic prints produced using clapped-out printers resulting in so many weird shadows and imperfections that the prints not only become beautiful but also start resembling works like the famous monochromatic pieces by Rothko. Another interesting thing about Tillmans is that he seems to work in quite a relatable way. For example, when you’re learning to take photos, your first attempts at being creative tend to involve a limited range of ‘moves’ such as decontextualising mundane objects or body parts and simply capturing moments in which the real world has naturally and quite accidentally created something beautiful. Tillmans’ 2017 includes a number of these kinds of pictures but they’re  good examples of the form that look really quite impressive when placed in the right context.

My problem with the Tillmans is that while it was ‘well hung’ in the sense that it made great use of the space, it seemed to include pretty much everything the artist has ever produced despite the artist moving from field to field and form to form with very little in the way of on-going themes. As a result you move from collages, to enormous pictures of Asian people selling things by the side of the road, to pictures of car wings, to enormous monochromes, and then to a huge picture of an arse crack and balls that seems to have been included purely as selfie-bait. Then there are a series of rooms given over to an art-installation comprising fake leaflets and then it’s back to more pictures. I got through Radical Eye in about an hour and left it wanting to learn more about that-kind-of-thing, I spent two hours in the Tillmans before having to leave and I’m really not sure I ‘got’ what it was that the exhibition (or indeed the photographer) was trying to get across. At first, I responded quite viscerally to the sheer size of the art but now that the effect has faded, few (if any) of the images have stayed with me and that’s partly my fault for not being critically sensitive enough and partly the fault of the exhibition for failing to say anything about the meaning of the work.

Though perhaps more muted than I would have liked, the experience of viewing some proper photos turned out to be quite inspiring as it engaged not only my creative muscles but my critical ones as well. So my picture-taking continues…

 

 

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[Shadow Clarke] REVIEW — Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad (2016)

April 28, 2017

I warn you now… this week’s piece is a bit of a monster both in terms of length and in terms of the amount of ground that it covers. It’s the penultimate review in a series of pieces based on my personal shortlist for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke award.

My piece on Colson Whitehead’s universally-celebrated Underground Railroad considers some of the genre tropes deployed in the novel and concludes that what makes Underground Railroad a work of science fiction is the way that it uses fictional settings to engineer a particular set of emotional responses to the politics of the real world:

 

The Underground Railroad reminded me quite a bit of The Female Man as the different states recall Russ’s different worlds and their juxtaposition is clearly intended to lead us to a particular set of political insights. The Underground Railroad is not just a work of science fiction but a work of science fiction that is part of a tradition of political writing that stretches beyond the birth of genre all the way back to antiquity.  Unfortunately, while I think that The Underground Railroad shares a lot of common ground with works of Feminist SF like The Female Man, I also think that the book suffers from a lack of moral clarity that would perhaps not be present in a more conventional piece of genre writing.

 

As I go on to explain in my review, I suspect the conclusion’s lack of moral clarity reflects a degree of political indecision on the part of the author. The book’s first ending finds its protagonist living in an — ultimately unsustainable — bourgeois idyll but while Whitehead acknowledges that black people can’t just pretend that racism doesn’t exist, he’s really not clear on what it is that they should do instead…

This raises another question about the state of American literary culture: Would Underground Railroad have won a Pullitzer prize if it had ended with a demand for Reparations? Would Whitehead have been interviewed by Oprah had his book ended with cathartic depictions of white genocide? I was frustrated by Whitehead’s political indecision but I can understand why he — or any other BAME author — might choose to downplay the radicalism of their politics.

Paul Kincaid’s piece about Underground Railroad touches on many of the same points as mine but he seems a lot happier with the ambivalence of the ending:

There is no resolution to the story, because there can be no resolution. The story of being black in America has not reached any sort of an ending, so we leave Cora journeying once more, heading who knows where, hoping to find who knows what. There is no promise in this ending; but she has survived, so far, and that is something.

Victoria Hoyle’s piece is similarly upbeat about the ending and stresses the powerful symbolism contained in the idea of the underground railroad having been built by escaped slaves. While I took this passing reference to the construction of the railroad to be symptomatic of the deeply hypocritical white activists, Victoria chooses to see it as a metaphorical representation of collective action and how generations of political activists have worked themselves to death in order to facilitate the emancipation of their fellows:

It’s a manifestation of the countless unnamed people who fought for the freedom of slaves and the civil rights of African Americans, and a recognition of the real change wrought – to the body of the earth itself – by kindness, compassion and individual actions in the name of justice.  Whitehead’s answer to the question of change places emphasis on the potential for positive outcomes through the work of many hands.

Nick Hubble’s piece — on the other hand — is even darker than mine in that he sees Cora’s journey not so much as an incomplete march towards freedom as a spiralling drift through a series of oppressive delusions:

The Underground Railroad is a novel of our times but it also shows that our times are just the latest ‘state’ in which a deeper, darker scheme has reformulated itself. For an America that more clearly manifests its delusional status by the day, Whitehead offers the hope of escape for those prepared to become flaws in the system and to direct their practical resistance to the collective task of tunnelling to a different future.

 

One thing I have enjoyed about the Shadow Clarke’s coverage of Underground Railroad is that, despite having been written in almost complete isolation, all of our reviews seem to be in agreement. In fact, the only real point of difference between the reviews lies in our respective attitudes towards political change: Victoria is hopeful, Nick is pessimistic, Paul is pragmatic, and I am annoyed that it doesn’t end with violent insurrection. Another really cool thing about the coverage is that we all agree that Underground Railroad is a science fiction novel, which got me thinking about the process of ‘claiming’ genre novels published in the mainstream:

 

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[Shadow Clarke] REVIEW — M. Suddain’s Hunters & Collectors (2016)

April 21, 2017

Another week, another lengthy piece about a relatively obscure science-fiction novel taken from my list of potential Clarke Award nominees.

This time, I have written about M. Suddain’s second novel Hunters & Collectors, a book that I initially loved, then got annoyed with, and finally came to appreciate not only for the sheer quality of its sentence-by-sentence writing but also for the myriad clever ways in which it uses structure, pagination, and the trappings of literary sophistication to produce very specific effects and explore some interesting themes:

 

Hunters & Collectors is a book about celebrity and the way that online celebrity interacts with social class. Tomahawk presents himself as this hedonistic and transgressive figure but as his destruction suggests, his ability to transgress the rules of polite society is constrained by a particular social contract: As a critic, he can express himself as honestly as he wants as long as that self-expression does not extend beyond the realms of consumer advice to a critique of existing power structures and social systems. Be as rude as you like about restaurant owners, but don’t you dare talk about the government. The social contract also has an – unwritten but understood – rule that your celebrity and popularity are entirely dependent upon your ability to face the right direction at all times. Be as rude as you like about the out-group, but don’t you dare talk about people we aspire to be lest we turn against you. There is also an understanding that making any statement in public (even anonymously) positions you in a world where everyone spends their time tearing each other to pieces. Face the wrong direction and your support will evaporate and once your support evaporates, you can be utterly destroyed even if you have not done or said anything wrong. This is a dog-eat-dog world but only for those without any real power.

 

The recent US elections have done quite a bit to focus our attentions on the way that a culture’s Overton window can be influenced not only by the material conditions affecting the lives of political commentators but also by the social dynamics that govern the social circles in which those political commentators move. Any number of excellent pieces have and will continue to be written about this but I found this older piece by Henry Farrell to be a really good starting point.

This being said, I think that the focus on well-connected voices who had been hoping to benefit from varying degrees of presidential ‘access’ has served to obscure the realities of life on the lowest levels of content provision. Hunters & Collectors presents the online world as a place that can make you rich and famous or poor and hated almost at the flick of a switch and I think the rise and fall of figures like Milo Yiannopoulos and Devin Faraci show quite how cut-throat and precarious this cultural sphere has become. The (thoroughly excellent) podcast Chapo Trap House has tens of thousands of subscribers and moves almost seamlessly between the celebration and evisceration of different political commentators. Chapo may have turned these cultural reactions into a cultural phenomenon but my experience of social media is that everyone spends their days spreading the pieces they like and tearing apart the pieces they hate. If you don’t believe me, ask Owen Jones a man perpetually misunderstood, regardless of the interpretation one happens to place upon his writings…

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Shadow Clarke] REVIEW — Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station (2016)

April 12, 2017

Ever so slightly behind schedule (the real shortlist is announced on the 14th — CRUMBS!) comes the fourth review from my selected shortlist of potential nominees. The review may have been late but I’m glad I wrote it as I genuinely think that Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station was the best work of science fiction published in 2016. I also think that it’s an incredibly important book that speaks directly to the political climate in which we currently find ourselves.

Set in a future in which the stars have been explored and the nation-state has atrophied, Central Station is about a place far more than it is about a group of people. Sure… there are people in the book — people who fall in love, experience things, and have adventures — but the book’s episodic structure and willingness to revisit the same characters over and over through different sets of eyes signals (to me at least) a desire to explore how spaces create subjectivities and how those subjectivities interact with people’s personal histories to create all new identities. In other words, Central Station is a book about multiculturalism published at a time when liberals and conservatives are falling over each other in their haste to throw those values under the bus:

The global turn towards economic nationalism means that we now desperately need works that will argue for the economic, cultural and spiritual benefits of multiculturalism and that is why Central Station may yet turn out to be the single most important and culturally-relevant work of science fiction to be published in decades. If ever you wanted a novel that spoke to the Now, if ever you wanted a novel that looked to the future, if ever you wanted a novel that understood what it means to be modern then seek out Central Station.

Re-reading my review, I am rather struck by the thematic similarities between this piece and Sarah Lyall’s widely circulated (and absurdly over-designed) piece for the New York Times entitled Will London Fall?

Lyall’s takes the view that multiculturalism and neoliberalism are inseparable in that the free movement of capital begets the free movement of people and the free movement of people creates spaces in which people from wildly different backgrounds are forced to co-exist. Lyall goes on to consider the future of London in light of a Brexit vote that must (apparently) be interpreted as a vote against the free movement of people and the multicultural spaces it creates.

My problem with Lyall’s piece is that while I agree that neoliberalism is very good at creating the kinds of conditions in which multiculturalism naturally emerges, I don’t think that multiculturalism requires neoliberalism and I certainly don’t think that Brexit is somehow going to turn London into the urban equivalent of Midsomer.

Multiculturalism is, at the most basic level, an ethos that allows people with different cultural heritages to co-exist. Some argue that Brexit will make Britain a more mono-cultural place but the British government are already in talks with places like India and the Philippines and that is without mentioning the fact that London has been a multicultural space since the time of the fucking Romans. Even if Theresa May reduces the country’s net immigration to zero, London will still have to cope with the fact that British people from different backgrounds are living, working, and dating together every single day. If London is going to fall, it will be killed by property developers and not by some attempt to impose economic nationalism on a multicultural city. Multiculturalism isn’t a political ideology that one can turn away from… it’s a product of the fact that your parents’ parents’ parents’ happened to come from different places, hooked up, and now people speak three different languages over Christmas dinner. To believe that multiculturalism can be overthrown or defeated by even a powerful political movement is to ignore how subjectivities and identities are even formed.

I mention Lyall’s piece because it annoyed me, but also because I think it touches on a number of themes and ideas that are present both in my piece and in Central Station so it might prove an interesting companion.

 

My fellow Sharkes have also reviewed the book but they seem to have responded to very different things (which is precisely why criticism is both an intensely personal art form in its own right and fucking awesome)…

Victoria Hoyle is surprised by how emotive and moving the book turned out to be:

I return to the love though, and how this book left me with a giddy feeling of possibility.  It ends on a note that suggests a powerful belief in hope, in joy even in death.  However the past marks us, however the future will change us, Tidhar imagines continuity amidst the wrenching disjuncture.  In the shadow of a space station ‘laundry [is] hanging as it had for hundreds of years’ (55), and from the far distant future of the Prologue we are still telling stories about it.  For me this is the kind of story that people were yearning for in Becky Chamber’s A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but with all the nuance and poetry that book lacked.

I absolutely agree with Victoria’s points here and I think the comparison to Becky Chambers’ A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is really on point. Chambers’ wrote an ostensibly anti-racist novel by hacking up a load of racist stereotypes, using the pieces to assemble a group of alien races, and then talking at length about the importance of using the appropriate pronouns. I think while Chambers’ approach to racism comes from a ‘good place’ its methodologies and ideas about racism turned out to be at best simplistic and at worst reactionary. Central Station is also about a load of people from very different places living together in cramped science-fictional quarters but the book presents cohabitation not as a series of rules to be followed but as a process of understanding and solidarity growing from shared space, mutual interest, and the natural process of recognising the personhood of other people. Central Station is about the world we actually live in whereas A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is about the world you wished you lived in because you’re terrified that someone might call you a racist. It came as no surprise to me that while Central Station was overlooked by Hugo voters, the sequel to A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (which I have not read) made it onto the shortlist.

 

Maureen Kincaid Speller’s review latches onto the book’s depiction of its science-fictional present as a collision between past and future that creates something refreshingly mundane and real:

Central Station is not clinically futuristic; instead it is quotidian. And in being quotidian it offers the space for so many things that readers and critics of science fiction have argued for – ordinary women going about their daily business; a diverse cast of characters drawn together by likely circumstance rather than authorial anxiety; space travel being no more important than bus travel; people just about making ends meet, like most of us do; a future in which the ordinary and the extraordinary continue to meet and collapse into one other, much as they’ve always done, and a literature in which, while the past provides a foundation for the future, it does not insist on continuing to shape that future.

A lot of my writing over the past few years has been informed by a profound alienation from commercial genre fiction. These days, I can no more tolerate violent moral fantasies than I can identify with messiah-like individuals. The world is a complex place and change must come from below and I really struggle to read anything that conflicts with that fundamental worldview. Central Station is a bit more ‘science-fictiony’ than the books that I tend to enjoy and I think that my enjoyment comes from Tidhar’s commitment to the realness of place. I want to read stories about real people, in real places, having real experiences, and facing real problems. I read to inform my thinking about the world, not to escape it and what I really loved about Central Station is the fact that it felt real in a way that so little commercial genre writing manages to achieve.

REVIEW — Paterson (2016)

March 29, 2017

This week sees the home release of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, his first film since 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive (which I adored). Unlike most of Jarmusch’s recent films, Paterson comes without the sugar-frosting of genre tropes. No vampires, no spies, no cowboys, and no assassins.  Just a dude who writes poetry and drives a city bus.  My FilmJuice review can be found over here.

There are many paths into an evocative film like Paterson but the one that caught my attention was the relationship between the poet who exists in an oppressively repetitive world where he is just happy to be a normal guy and the wife who spends her days trying to perform the identity of an artist only to have her true calling almost creep up on her. It would have been easy for Jarmusch to unpack this tension in moral terms and so take a swipe at the culture of public performance created by social media but the view he adopts is actually far more nuanced in that it supports the poet who keeps beauty locked up inside his own head as well as the people who feel the need to ‘fake it till they make it’ creatively.

Like many of Jarmusch’s more memorable films, Paterson is episodic, urban and filled with a wry melancholy over the isolation and strangeness of normal lives but Paterson uses those themes to explore the creative process as it plays out in the lives of normal people.

 

Paterson is a beautifully conceived, beautifully shot, and beautifully acted film that serves as a reminder of how sensitive and humane Jarmusch can be when he isn’t forcing the round peg of his vision into the square holes of popular culture. It is also an interesting piece of cinematic business as while the age of austerity is forever turning the screws and forcing works of art further and further outside of the cultural mainstream, Jim Jarmusch managed to convince Amazon.com to help distribute a $5 Million film about a bus driver who writes poetry.