Will the world end in fire? In ice? Or grey goop? A review of The End of All Our Labours by Potassium Cockburn.
I am, on the issue of humankind’s near future, an optimist. As humans we have a historic tendency to predict the worst, and yet our history has been one of steady progress. But there are without doubt more horrifying future scenarios for us to fixate our doom mongering imaginations on than ever before. Climate change of course, and the population shifts and resource wars associated with it. New weapons of mass destruction that make atom bombs look like pea shooters. An almost infinite array of biological terrors, bacterial horrors and viral nastiness all stemming from garage kit genetic engineering. The End of All Our Labours, a near future science fiction novel by the pseudonymous Potassium Cockburn, makes this shopping list of familiar apocalyptic possibities its starting point and, with great imagination, conjures a few hundred new ones.
Manoushka “Manny” Duval is a neuter, a gender and sex identity still hard to hold even in the war and poverty ravaged near future Cockburn depicts. But Manny is among the fortunate. Well educated, implanted with the sensory augmentations neccesary for high level work, born of immigrants who escaped the refugee camps and favellas to which most people are condemned. Manny worked those camps, saw the death and disease up close, but now lives in the towers and dome communities of the upper classes.
However, The End of All Our Labours introduces us to Manny when their life has been literally torn apart. From a tiny cell Manny relates the story into a speakeasy recorder, addressing interogator Mr Deebs. The reader learns of a seeming terrorist plot to break through the walls between dimensions, and the utter chaos of a world where every apocalypse scenario has arrived at once is hinted at. But Manny can remember very little; Manny’s augments have been programmed to block all knowledge of the “Proprietary” research which they were contacted to undertake.
The nature of that programme mutates throughout The End of All Our Labours. A byzantine recruitment programme, that satirises today’s corporate culture of non-disclosure agreements and proprietary intellectual property, lands Manny a highly paid job with the Gardiner corporation on a project lead by Mr Gardiner himself. But what begins as a scientific effort to save a doomed humanity soon shifts as plots within plots enmesh Manny in a far more radical scheme. The programme shifts again as the augmented reality the researchers work within becomes central to the story, and we begn to suspect that far from being a mere researcher, Manny has been drafted as the unwitting research subject.
The End of All Our Labours is clear on one thing. The real threat facing humankind is humankind itself, and the twisted knot that is human consciousness. Cockburn neatly subverts one of the key tropes of the apocalypse story, where the rational mind of the scientist ultimately triumphs over the irrationality of humankind by, for instance, engineering the cure for the killer virus, or switching off the rogue AI. The End of All Our Labours presents scientific reason as just another layer of self deception and delusion fuelling human chaos. Around this thesis the novel plunges into a tumult of multiplying realities and overlaid dimensions.
Like much of the most interesting science fiction, The End of All Our Labours is part thesis, part fiction. Cockburn’s style is dense and challenging, weaving essay and argument through the thoughts and observations of its main protagonist, often sacrificing character and story for ideas and philosophy as it pursues its central obsession – can our world be saved? The author makes very few compromises in chasing the answer through a maze of human madness. That makes The End of All Labours, particularly in its opening sequence and densely self referential final third, a challenging read. Readers who step up to Cockburn’s challenge to match the author step for step will get much from the argument they together unfold.
This review was written as part of my paid review programme. You can find more information here.
The numinous. The weird. The fantastic, or even the spiritual. Whatever name it goes by, humans have a profound need to glimpse some greater reality beyond our mundane existence. And there’s nowhere more mundane than a modern city, where everything down to the light fittings is human-made, and even the darkest alley is under CCTV surveillance. If there is anything numinous in modern London, it must be perfectly camouflaged in the colours of a Caffè Nero.
This was originally published as part of my regular newsletter, which you can sign up for here. Over the last 4 months I’ve built up my Patreon account from $18 to $176 and with luck it’ll carry on growing ;) Here are three lessons I’ve learned.
1. Getting new backers is hard! But worth it.
A monthly donation, even of $3, is something most people put a lot of thought into before committing to. Even though patrons can stop at any time, most people don’t want to start unless they’re going to continue. But once a backer does sign up, it’s like having a new friend, and a great boost to your confidence as a creator.
2. Your patrons are people who like you and your work.
Patrons are often more interested in you, and seeing you succeed, than in just getting a new story or essay to read. Of my 32 patrons, not one is a family member or close friend. But they are people I have connected with through my writing, and that I often talk with on platforms like Twitter. It’s a great feeling when those people decide they value what I do enough to help me carry on.
3. Patreon is a creative space.
I soon realised that Patreon was, for me as a writer, a space to create in, not just a place to collect donations. Throughout July I’ve been posting a daily series of posts on overcoming creative fear, and connecting with the signal of our creativity. These posts have also become a discussion forum for my patrons, and future posts will be guest authored by some of them. And of course they’ve helped to attract a number of new backers.
Later this year I’ll be publishing a serial fiction as part of my Patreon work. I’d love it if you got involved.
First published as part of the Impakt Festival 2012.
In 1873 Jules Verne described the remarkable possibility of a journey made around the world in only eighty days in his pioneering science fiction novel. Less than a century later the same journey could be made in less than eighty hours. The facility of science fiction to help us absorb the future-shock of such radical and high paced technological change goes someway to explaining its influence in the contemporary culture of the developed world. And as developing nations are swept upin the tsunami of new technologies shaping the 21st century, the culture of science fiction becomes a global language describing our shared experience.
China is managing a technological revolution on a scale unprecedented in human history. In just a few decades it has navigated stages of technological development that proceeded over centuries in Europe. As is well documented, it now challenges in economic and industrial might that other behemoth of high-speed technological development – the United States of America. So it’s not entirely surprising that among the many models for development China shares with America, is the cultural influence of science fiction.
In October 2012 the World Chinese Science Fiction Association will award it’s annual Xingyun (Galaxy) Awards for SF. The Xingyun are similar to the American dominated Hugo awards, and will be given in Beijing, at a convention only slightly smaller than the WorldCon at which the Hugo awards will be announced just two months earlier. But in other regards Chinese SF fandom dwarfs its American counterpart. SF World magazine claimed at its peak a circulation of over 300,000 copies, with millions of readers receiving the magazine second hand from friends. It’s a scale no American SF publication has reached since the Golden Age of magazine fiction publishing in the 1950s, when Amazing Stories defined Science Fiction as a genre.
Liu Cixin is unarguably the leading voice in Chinese science fiction. An eight time winner of the Xingyun award, his work has been celebrated for setting the positive, forward looking character of Chinese SF. It’s another notable echo of America’s Golden Age, when writers like Robert Heinlein expressed America’s post-war future as a global super-power. By the 1980’s with the emergence of cyberpunk authors including Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, American science fiction reflected a far darker vision of technology’s impact on the human condition, one dominated by hyper-capitalism and political corruption. Will Chinese SF take a similar turn in to darkness and cynicism? For now it is content on the whole to explore the manifold wondrous possibilities technology holds for our future.
Liu Cixin shares a background in the hard sciences and computer technology with the majority of the readers of his stories and of Chinese SF as a whole. As a literary genre SF does little to please the reactionary audience for contemporary literary fiction. But through the 20th century it emerged as the culture of choice for the people doing the hands on work of making the future happen – the engineers, programmers, designers and various creatives most exposed to future-shock. It’s the geeks who love SF, in books, comics, films and video games. And as geeks have taken over the world, geek culture has become inextricably part of mainstream culture, so that now ideas born in SF, of space travel, intelligent machines and cyber-enhanced humans, have become common place.
What in the West evolved as an outsider culture has in China been embraced as an essential component of technological development. In a 2011 talk at the British Library world famous author Neil Gaiman explained his perspective on the transformation of science fiction from subversive outsider art to government approved culture in Chinese society. China has established itself as the powerhouse of global manufacturing. But it also wants to invent and design the products it manufactures, and to capture the creative ingenuity that still resides primarily in the United States. The geek culture that powers that creativity is a culture in love with science fiction, and to encourage one means implicitly to encourage the other.
The century ahead of us promises to deliver only more and faster technological change. And China is, all agree, where that change will come fastest. The culture of science fiction will undoubtedly become a culture influenced and perhaps dominated by Chinese creators. The role of science fiction then is to continue to communicate the accelerating rate of change shaping the world we all share.
Recently I was talking to a friend who reads intensely, but has no interest in or knowledge of publishing. He’s a coder, who reads a half dozen non-fiction books a week. This is the kind of reader the industry needs. He’s also the kind of reader who until last year bought ebooks and print exclusively from Amazon. Now he doesn’t even look at their site. Why?
My friend liked to use Amazon’s bestseller lists to find new reads in specific categories. But now, my friend says bluntly, those lists are full of crap. Above is a screencap of the category bestseller list for Political Philosophy from Amazon.com. And low, it is indeed full of crap. With #1 #2 and #4 positions occupied by a series of pamphlets that amount to nothing more than an internet flamewar being played out, not on some obscure forum, but on Amazon’s bestseller lists.
And I literally mean that these “books” are just long blog comments reformatted as ebooks. They have ZERO content of any interest to an actual reader looking for works of Political Philosophy. Nothing. Zip. Nada. Theodore Beale hates John Scalzi, so he wrote a very long list of ways in which he has been wronged and published it as an ebook. Alexandra Erin found the thing so hilarious she wrote a parody and published it. Fans of Beale published a response. The outcome? Three totally inconsequential works of nothingness occupy the top spots on Amazon’s prime marketing space.
Imagine a reader who knows nothing of the Beale / Scalzi argument – which is basically everyone in the world except about 300 scifi fans – buying any of these books. What will they make of “John Scalzi is a r¢$^¥t?” Who knows, but I think its fair to say there’s a major risk they won’t buy from Amazon again.
There’s a lot of information in the world, most of it junk. We all need sources we can rely on to show us the rare non-junk info. While Amazon is competent at selling ebooks, it has completely abandoned any effort to help readers find quality information. It’s bestseller lists are so easily gamed that a clique of crazy scifi fans have hacked all the top spots without even trying. That’s a serious chink in the armour of one of the world’s most powerful businesses. And it’s losing them the attention of readers like my friend.
Written with the support of my most excellent patrons.
I never had the good fortune to meet Terry Pratchett, but I’ve been reading his books since I was eleven. My favourite Discworld tomes – Mort, Small Gods and Going Postal – have been read a half dozen times each at least. I also hold a Masters degree, have been a senior university lecturer, and am a columnist for The Guardian, the very same bastion of middlebrow values that Jonathan Jones penned his opportunistic attack on Terry Pratchett. Unlike Jones however, I see no conflict in being both an intelligent educated human being and loving the fuck out of Terry Pratchett’s discworld books.
It’s worth asking why Jonesy begins his tantrum against Pratchett by flouting the fact that he has never read a single one of the author’s works. He’s “flicked through” one and, because of his vast cultural expertise was able to classify, and therefore dismiss it, as a “potboiler”. Let’s give Jones his due here. He wants to quickly dash out a piece of clickbait, so he has chosen a rhetorical structure that allows him to achieve the greatest possible public ire, with the least possible research or effort. What Jones is too high in his ivory tower to consider is what this strategy says not just about him as a critic, but the entire cultural edifice he seeks to represent – the elitest, and poisonously classist world, of British arts and culture.
It’s widely known that Terry Pratchett laboured most of his career with little to no recognition from the UK literary or cultural world. Even as his sales climbed towards hundreds of millons, Sir Terry’s books received none of the attention given to, say, Ian McEwan. As Terry Pratchett’s illness became public knowledge that seemed to change. I don’t want to beat the drum about why it takes a great writer’s illness to make such a change, but it’s hard not to when that good work can be sadly undone by an ignorant spectator like Jonathan Jones. For decades, the cultural establishment held exactly the same ignorant position that Jones today retreated back to – Pratchett wrote “potboilers”, and no more need be said.
This is hardly a new or original position. The history of fantasy can be traced back to the oldest myths and legends. But the dysfunctional relationship between fantasy fiction and the British literary world begins with the early days of popular publishing, and “penny dreadfuls”, a pejorative term for popular books of the Victorian era recently repopularised by the TV show of the same name. Stories like Varney the Vampire sold in huge numbers and rate as some of the earliest truly mass entertainment. They also began the process of defining fantasy stories of all kinds as the literature of the working classes, while realistic novels became associated with the growing middle class. Even when, in most cases, the reality they catalogued was a sordid who’s-fucking-who in high society, or a guide to good manners to show at the table while happily demeaning your household servants, realism became de facto ” high culture”.
Because let’s not forget that the literary and cultural structures Jinathan Jones rides out to defend originate from one of the most unequal and unjust cultures in human history. The Victorian Britain that derided the readers of penny dreadfuls was the same one profiting from their sweat and labour in the nation’s factories. The white, Anglo-Saxon, upper class literary and cultural elite deciding what should be classified as “great art” were simultaneously pillaging the cultural heritage of India, China and a quarter of the planet. The fortunes that paid for the exclusive university educations of Victorian Britain’s artists, writers and critics came in large part from the profits of brutal industry, murderous colonialism and, of course, the vast reparations paid to British slave owners. It’s in no way surprising that Imperial Britain defined art and culture as it defined all things, in such a way as to exclude the poor and keep the oppressed in their place. The values of British culture that Jonathan Jones takes such joy in defending are, in large part, indefensible.
It’s unlikely you’ll ever see a political commentator for The Guardian sneering with joy at the suffering of the workers. But it’s still standard practice for cultural commentators like Jones to hack down writers and artists who communicate to, and on behalf of, the great mass of readers. And lets be frank about why. Arts and culture are home to some of the highest paid and highest status jobs in society. And for all Britain’s progress as a democracy, our arts and cultural industries are still overwhelmingly dominated by an incredibly narrow stripe of society. Our actors, musicians, artists, and of course novelists come almost exclusively from the monied elite, a state made even worse in the last three decades of growing inequality.
Why would this confederacy of cultural dunces, snobs and Oxbridge elitests ignore – or in the case of Jonathan Jones openly insult – a great writer like Terry Pratchett. I wonder. Perhaps someone from an average background rather shows up those who managed so much less with so much more. Perhaps a writer who can brutally satirise the media industry in Moving Pictures, or the finance industry in Making Money, or the poisonous glamour of elitism itself in Lords and Ladies, was not a writer Britain’s cultural elite felt safe around. Or perhaps it’s simply that an artist who can make millions of souls laugh with joy, is hard for the deadened souls of some critics to ever truly appreciate.
Shakespeare, Dickens, Pratchett. There’s no shortage of great writers from Britain’s struggling lower classes who have found themselves attacked, with minimal effect, by Lilliputian cultural elitists like Jonathan Jones. Maybe a century from now, when the remarkable satirical fantasies of Terry Pratchett are studied on every school syllabus, some future and equally insignificant Jonathan Jones will slyly claim that no lower born writer could have written these intelligent, subtle discworld novels. Perhaps they were really written by George Osborne, a figure of the era who came from a proper university. Let’s hope The Guardian has advanced beyond such cheap cultural elitism by then, and stands up to defend great art, instead of selling it out for clicks.
David Mitchell is one of the world’s most successful literary novelists. He has been twice nominated for the prestigious Booker prize, and his novel Cloud Atlas was adapted to the Tykwer and Wachowski film starring Tom Hanks. He’s also a huge sci-fi fan with a long love of geek culture. Damien Walter sat down with the bestselling author to discuss his SF influences, which D&D character type he plays, and the future of the novel in a multi-media age.
This interview is brought to you courtesy of Damien’s Patreon backers. Become a Patron for $2 a month to help support independent writing.
Damien – Hello David. Sci-fi and fantasy fiction have a huge and very dedicated fanbase, who over the years have come to love your work. I think many fans see parallels between the metaphysical ideas in your writing, and common ideas in genre fiction. I’d like to ask you a few questions about this.
David – Cheers Damien. Good to meet you, and thanks for your interest in my work. The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth.
Damien – The relationship between literary fiction and sci-fi has been discussed a lot recently, including a fascinating dialogue between Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman.
David – Gosh that was an interesting article – one of the most ideas-buzzing conversations about genre I’ve ever read, don’t you think? I was fascinated by NG’s anecdote about China. My own experience is that while the Party has relaxed regarding SF & Fantasy, it still censors alternative history SF. Of course, if the past is rewritable, the Party’s place in it, and in China’s present and future, is more arbitrary than inevitable. Makes you think of the famous Orwell quote about whoever controls the present controls the past, and whoever controls the past controls the future. There’s something deeply subversive about SF, in part because of its camouflage – “Hey Mr Grownups, don’t worry about me as an art-form, I’m just kids’ fantasy rubbish, they’ll all grow out of me in a year or two…”
“my longest-lived character was a Ranger based on, and possibly even named, Aragorn.”
Damien – That must be why so many writers were inspired by sci-fi as kids. You’ve admitted to a totally normal white middle class upbringing in the past. Did this include such geeky things as Doctor Who, comic books, Dungeons & Dragons, video games?
David – I’d use the verb ‘assert’ rather than ‘admit’. Protected solvent normality with sane kind parents, is a stroke of luck, not a misdemeanour. But yes; yes; yes…and yes! Tom Baker was my formative Doctor – someone that batshit crazy simply had to be real, a trick that Capaldi borrows to great effect. 2000AD was my comic – I loved THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT stories particularly, and JUDGE DREDD provided great training in long-form episodic narratives. AD&D, yes, until an age when I really should have been doing something more pro-active about my lack of a girlfriend – my longest-lived character was a Ranger based on, and possibly even named, Aragorn. (He’s still out there, somewhere…) Video games – not so much playing them as programming them. I made an epic on my 48k Sinclair Spectrum called THE SPHERES OF CREATION. (It was a load of balls. I know, it’s the way I tell ’em.) It was a quest-based adventure game, and for a short time a software house in Stockport was interested in developing it, though that fizzled out. I think of it now as a kind of proto-novel.
“Just because you deploy genre for the book in hand doesn’t mean you’re married to that genre ’til death us do part.”
Damien – You’ve listed Ursula Le Guin and Issac Asimov as early writing influences, two Big Guns of science fiction. Are there any others you might add? Which scifi authors impress you today?
I remember collecting the RIVERWORLD books by Philip Jose Farmer; the ‘Gil the Arm’ stories by Larry Niven, about a detective with a psychic arm; Theodore Sturgeon’s MORE THAN HUMAN; Harry Harrison, author of THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT; JG Ballard; HG Wells; EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s LENSMEN books, though I now suspect the Chris Foss covers were better than the books themselves; Ray Bradbury. I’m sure there were more. Like Neil Gaiman, I enjoyed reading Asimov’s (slightly self-congratulatory, but never mind) introductions to each of the stories in his volumes of COLLECTED STORIES – these short passages provided insights into the craft and business of writing which were unavailable elsewhere. I had a cheaply-printed second-hand American anthology called 100 YEARS OF SCIENCE FICTION that I bought from a shop in Upton-on-Severn, and I still remember some of the stories in it, even if I don’t remember the authors.
These days I’d add the names Neal Stephenson and William Gibson and Margaret Attwood to the list, but there would be many more individual books than names of individuals: Kazuo Ishiguro’s NEVER LET ME GO; Emily St John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN; EM Forster’s (seriously) SF novella THE MACHINE STOPS; Michel Faber’s THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS; Gary Shteyngart’s SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY; Kate Atkinson’s LIFE AFTER LIFE. Something’s afoot. For literary-ish writers of my generation – and the freer-styled writers in the generation ahead of ours, like Kazuo Ishiguro – the assumption that only social realists are allowed into the throne-room is falling into disrepute. Just because you deploy genre for the book in hand doesn’t mean you’re married to that genre ’til death us do part. It’s not like Dylan going electric. Or, it is, but it doesn’t end with electric; it can then veer country-wards for NASHVILLE SKYLINE, before wellying up the bass-lines for JOHN WESLEY HARDING, before …
Damien – Before going as far and as freely as the author can imagine. A great imagination must be a basic criteria for a good novelist, but people sometimes frown at wilder flights of fantasy. Do you see anything fundamentally different between mapping imaginary archipelagos and describing the detailed lives of real people and real places?
David – (1) The mapping of made-up archipelagos is imaginary cartography. (2) Describing the detailed lives of real people and real places is biography and history, respectively. (3) Describing the detailed lives of imagined people in places you can find on Earth today is an act of fiction, and if the laws of physics in this fiction pretty much correspond to those of our world, then the label ‘social realism’ is applied by those who care about these matters. (4) If the novel is set on a place not on any map (and “true places never are” Melville writes in MOBY DICK) or if the laws of physics have been monkeyed about with, then the label ‘SF’ or ‘fantasy’ gets applied, depending if the monkeyings are of a techno or a magical nature. So, to answer your question: (1) and (2) are fundamentally different from each other and from (3) and (4). (3) and (4) are not so different from each other, no. In both cases, fiction is being written and it’s either good or bad or somewhere in between, according to the talents of the writer and the tastes of the reader. Frown if it’s bad, frown if you have to take it to the charity shop after only 40 pages in, but don’t frown just because it’s a wild flight of fantasy. GAWAINE AND THE GREEN KNIGHT is a wild flight of fantasy. So is much of Shakespeare. So are key chunks of Dickens. So is Borges.
Damien – Your debut novel Ghostwritten seems to flirt with many forms of afterlife – ghosts of course, and the idea of reincarnation. Do you play with supernatural ideas for fun, or does the book express any part of your true beliefs?
David – Ghostwritten – If I remember correctly, it’s been years since I looked at it – incorporates various forms of the afterlife because the novel wouldn’t have been the novel I wanted it to be if it hadn’t done so. The novel’s the boss, every time. I’m a content-enough agnostic with a now-common built-in wariness of both mega-religions and cults. I’ve read books about Buddhism that I’ve found instructive and helpful for my relationship with my mind, but I have little doubt that Buddhist institutions in East Asia are every bit as capable of mafioso practices and predatory violence as the Catholic Church has proven itself to be in Ireland.
“Novels can no more compete with films and video games than Led Zeppelin’s The Battle of Evermore can compete with a weekend mini-break in Palermo.”
Damien – Cloud Atlas also interwove multiple story-lines, and took the reader into a future dystopia and the post-apocalypse. Are these serious predictions about how you see the future unfolding?
David – They are possible futures. I have no idea if the futures portrayed in Cloud Atlas will come to pass or not, and neither does anyone else. All futures are possible until they cull the competition by becoming the singular present. Aren’t time and reality fascinating things?
Damien – The Bone Clocks has been called your most explicitly sci-fi novel to date, with elements of the paranormal, the alien, and conspiracy theories. But I’m most struck by your repeated interest in teenage characters. What draws you back to the adolescent experience?
David – Not sure if I’d totally agree with the premise of the question, Damien. There’s the whole of Black Swan Green and one-sixth of The Bone Clocks where my narrators are adolescents, and… I think that’s my lot? That said, adolescence is an interesting threshold in life, with one foot in childhood and one in adulthood, don’t you think? Adolescents are neither fish nor fowl, they have a lot to learn even if they think otherwise. They tend to be seeing the adult world for the first time and thus have fresh eyeballs, and everything they do is a journey of one type or another. Gold dust for novelists.
Damien – The Bone Clocks also revealed more clearly than ever the “meta-narrative” that appears to stitch all of your novels together. Have you been planning this from the beginning?
David – It has been quietly mutating as I’ve gone along.
Damien – Some people argue the novel is in trouble, that it can’t compete with the spectacle of films and video games. Your novels are experimental and challenging, but also commercially successful. What makes the novel relevant for people today?
David – For people who don’t have the novel habit, novels couldn’t be more irrelevant. Just occasionally a HARRY POTTER or a GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO or a DA VINCI CODE comes along and ram-raids the leisure time of people who don’t normally read, and maybe then they experience a ‘relevancy-surge’ and that’s great (and hats off to those authors). A few non-readers may be converted long-term to the pleasures of novels, but most aren’t, and that’s okay too and anyhow it’s the way of the world so what can you do, eh? Novels can no more compete with films and video games than Led Zeppelin’s THE BATTLE OF EVERMORE can compete with a weekend mini-break in Palermo. To novel-readers, however, the novel is rather more than ‘relevant’: at its best, the form brings pleasure, solace, knowledge, bonding with other readers, intrigue, escapism and who knows, maybe just occasionally a few dribbles of wisdom worth storing away. Yes, the novel’s business model has taken a hammering from the Internet – too many people are too pleased with themselves for downloading books without paying the writer – but a business model being in trouble is not the same thing as an art form being in trouble.
Damien – Thanks for your time David. Any final thoughts?
David – My pleasure, Damien. I suppose my final thought is that our artsy sub-corner of the big wide world would be better if the question “To what genre does this novel belong?” were utterly irrelevant to that novel’s critical or commercial reception. I’m heartened by the signs that we’re getting there, and I sense that we are on the same side.
I do understand why people often react poorly to cultural criticism. If I was in a dark, atmospheric cinema watching Avengers 2 : Age of Ultron and just before every witty Joss Whedon one liner I popped up and said “you do realise that’s just a sweetener to help you swallow Whedon’s implicit American triumphalism”, I’d probably punch me in the face as well. And then give me a good kicking when I insisted I was actually right, actually.
“when the escapist fantasies of geek culture become a denial of reality, then they become a problem”
Actor, comedian, writer and all round geek icon Simon Pegg unleashed the fury of the geek mob when he had the temerity to suggest that geeks who carry an infantile love of SpiderMan or My Little Pony into their 30s or 40s might possibly be a little bit childish. Pegg wasn’t literally shouting this into the face of every slightly immature geek, but many geeks felt personally insulted by even this relatively mild criticism. Like a stage illusionist pointing out the smoke and mirrors, Pegg was spoiling the illusion of geek culture.
The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard might seem like an odd authority to reference in a critique of geek culture, but in a post following his initial criticism Pegg made a compelling case for Baudrillard’s postmodern philosophy. Geek culture is poorly defined at best. To the majority of their audience the recent massive popularity of MMORPGs, superhero movies and fantasy novels from Harry Potter to Twilight is simply a new spin on pop culture. Baudrillard and other postmodern critical thinkers like Michel Foucault and the Frankfurt School made insightful criticisms of the mass media and pop culture, criticisms that apply equally to geek culture.
The defining characteristic of geek culture is its fascination with escapist fantasy. Whether it’s the sci-fi escapism of computer generated fantasy worlds like Mass Effect, or escaping into the lush linguistic universe of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the core of the geek cultural experience is encapsulated by the word “immersion”. Geeks want to be immersed in a story, an experience, in a world that takes them as far outside reality as possible. The popularity of geek culture has increased as ever larger audiences have fallen for the allure of escapist fantasy.
Postmodern philosophy provides an interesting critique of fantasy and escapism, and hence of geek culture. Fantasy appeals to our desire to return to childhood, escaping our adult understanding of reality. It is a good vehicle for spectacle, mindless visual stimulation like explosions, gun fights, naked bodies, dragons or anything we can focus our attention on without being made to think. At the core of the postmodern critique is the idea that the “entertainment industry” has a structural purpose in society other than entertainment, a purpose that is served very well by escapist fantasy. All this entertainment is provided to keep you distracted from reality.
The Matrix trilogy, that electrified audiences in the the early 1990s, drew heavily from postmodern philosophy, and in particular the ideas of Jean Baudrillard. When Laurence Fishburne reveals to Keanu Reeves that the only reason for his existence is to be a Duracell battery powering a machine dictatorship, it caps a complex metaphor crafted by writer-director team Andy and Lana Wachowski. Like all great fantasy heroes Neo is an everyman. He is you, the audience watching. And you in turn are a Duracell battery, exploited for your energy by a society intent on keeping you under control.
“The reality you live in is one where women are forced to serve, forced to humiliate themselves, denied freedoms, raped and murdered. That is your reality today.”
Postmodern philosophy argues that, like the machine controlled Matrix of the movies, society controls you by keeping you abstracted from reality. Like Neo in his goop-filled pod, you are kept entertained in your living room by a relentless procession of TV shows, films and games. Today you can even carry the entertainment around with you on your eight- hour work shift, just so long as you keep being a good little Duracell. And the hard truth is, like the character who asks to be put back inside the Matrix, many people prefer to stay in their goop tank. And if confronted with something or someone that wakes them up, they get angry.
When the critic Anita Sarkeesian confronted gamers with the reality of their culture, the response was rage and abuse. It was because Sarkeesian’s feminist critique of gamer culture was so brutally honest and accurate that it incited such intense anger. In the words of former US president Jimmy Carter, “the worst human rights abuse on Earth is the horrible persecution and deprivation of equal rights of women and girls”. Consider that statement. Worse than mankind’s many wars, worse than the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, worse than global terrorism, is the daily and routine persecution of women and girls.
The reality you live in is one where women are forced to serve, forced to humiliate themselves, denied freedoms, raped and murdered. That is your reality today. But the gamers who attacked Anita Sarkeesian don’t live in reality. They live in a series of computer generated fantasy worlds, provided specifically to keep them abstracted from reality. Fantasy worlds that often turn on the freedom to murder and abuse others, frequently women and girls, without consequence. And like all fantasists, when confronted with reality in the form of honest criticism, gamer culture went apeshit.
You don’t have to worship Baudrillard or accept every part of postmodern philosophy to see that geek culture is popular, in large part, because it provides its audiences with expertly made and highly effective escape routes from reality. When geek audiences respond poorly to criticism, it’s because we’re being rudely awoken from the dream worlds we are given to escape into. There is nothing implicitly wrong with fantasy or escapism. When expertly crafted an escapist fantasy like The Matrix can point the way back to reality more powerfully than anything else.
But when the escapist fantasies of geek culture become a denial of reality, then they become a problem. If your fantasy is more important to you than dealing with the realities of injustice and suffering in this world, then it becomes a problem. If your fantasy is more important to you than your own well being and growth as a human being, then it becomes a problem. And when your fantasy becomes a problem, that is when criticism is at its most important. Simon Pegg, Jean Baudrillard and Anita Sarkeesian aren’t trying to hurt you, Bilbo Baggins, they’re trying to help you. And if you find yourself among those outraged and offended by their criticism, you may be the most in need of their help.
My old home city, the wonderful multicultural metropolis of Leicester, has a festival called Leicester Writes. Despite being far away on the Indian sub-continent I will be taking part, with a live Q&A on Twitter about indie publishing and digital marketing. Join in!
Twitter Q & A with Damien Walter
JUNE 25, 2015 / 8.00 PM – 9.00 PM
Join us on Twitter for a Q&A with writer and columnist, Damien Walter. Walter was the first professional reviewer to dedicate attention to indie authors in his regular column for The Guardian. He helps indie authors and major publishers market their work in the digital world. Please use the hashtag #AskDamienW to join the conversation and put your questions forward.
When I pick up a Discworld novel, it’s not because I want to know what happens in the story. I likely know what happens, unless it’s one of the few I haven’t read (these are being saved for emergencies). Most times I pick up a Discworld novel it’s beacause I want to spend some time with Terry Pratchett. I’ve been able to hangout with Terry since I found his books when I was eleven. And so have, I would guess, about 200 million other people. That’s a lot of friends to keep in touch with.
This is what novelists do. Some of them. The really good ones. They tell a story, and something of who they are sings through that story. I’m tempted to call it their soul. But I think it’s more likely their heart, which is the place where true wisdom lives. We all need wise friends in our lives, but sometimes they are hard to come by. So some people spread themselves out by writing books.
I wonder about social media sometimes. I spend perhaps too much time on it. Twitter is like catnip for writers I think. And then today, for a quite unexpected and private reason I can’t share, I realised that I turn on Twitter for much the same reason I open a book. Because there are writers there I consider friends, even if I only read their tweets. And with Twitter I also sometimes get to talk directly with my wise friends. The medium changes, but the role of writer as friend remains the same.
Don’t stop writing books though, I want those as well!
I’m writing essays on Geek Culture, and you can help me!
Josh Powell is a successful non-fiction author making the transition to self published fantasy author. In this guest post Josh answers the question…what is it like to transition from traditional to self publishing?
In a word… tough! I’m an acknowledged expert in web development; I didn’t need to shop around to find a publisher. The first one I went after scrambled to land the book. I found an experienced co-author to help out and two years later a book popped out. The publisher, Manning, put it in all the right places, it was an excellent book so it took off. It was a tremendous sense of accomplishment and ego boost to see my work in a bookstore.
But I have stories I love to tell, and non-fiction doesn’t scratch that itch. There is so much to learn when writing and self-publishing fiction about pacing, dialogue, world building, editing, cover creation, avoiding common writing pitfalls, killer openings. There is also a sense of control, the work is mine and I get to do with it what I please. I’ve written the first book in a fantasy series, The Berserker and the Pedant. It’s out in physical and ebook form on Amazon, Smashwords, B&N and all the usual places.
The next trick is getting the word out. My traditionally published book had a built in audience looking for how to do what that book taught them to do and people already sought out that publishers books. If the topic hadn’t been spot on or the writing was terrible, the book wouldn’t have sold, but the publisher knew how to get people to look at the book.
When self-publishing, it’s on you to get people to look at the book. It’s hard. People have many things competing for attention: tv, movies, blogs, articles, and other books. Why should they pay attention to your book long enough to discover how great it is? Being a great writer is only the beginning, you must learn to market as well.
As part of my strategy to convince people to read my work, I’m having the book turned into an audio book and graphic novel, and working with some very talented people. This lets people experience the work in whatever format excites them. I have a professionally created cover I reuse in posters, bookmarks, websites, and business cards. I’m also hitting the convention circuit, going to Baycon and later, Worldcon and Con-volution.
Self-publishing is hard, but it’s worth it to maintain ownership and control over my work.
I’ve been promoting my new Patreon page for the Geek Culture essay series and the response is making me pretty happy. At this point I have 13 backers at $36 a month. That’s great, and I think I’ll likely get a couple more before I start the essay series.
I made the choice to do a Patreon because for the last 6-8 months I’ve been a little stuck. There’s been a lot of writing happening but I’ve been torn in a few different directions about what I want to do. Patreon is a motivator for me, one I’m planning to do a handful of writing projects with. At least one more essay series and a fiction project. The amount of money isn’t the key thing for me, but the support of readers who I know have some expectation of getting work from me really is. It’s hard to express how much each backer means to me, regardless of amount. If you’re inspired to help inspire me, the link is below.