Is Science Fiction the first international language of literature?

Language may be the most obvious barrier to cultural exchange, but it is also the easiest to hurdle: a good translator can capture much if not all of the character of a great novel. The real barrier to sharing between cultures is culture itself. British literary fiction, deeply fascinated with the minutiae of class structure, isn’t of much more than passing interest to most Chinese readers. Not because Chinese culture isn’t every bit as fascinated with its own social structure, but because if you buy a rulebook you want it to be for the game you are actually playing. As far as a cultural artefact serves as a guide to a culture, it belongs uniquely to that culture.

The Marvel comics’ superhero franchise Avengers Assemble launches this weekend to audiences in dozens of cultures worldwide, and dozens more in coming weeks. At first sight this seems a triumph of international connectivity, but the sci-fi blockbuster transcends cultural boundaries by doing away with the whole problem of meaning and replacing it with CGI spectacle. The director, Joss Whedon, has pulled off an impressive feat in packing so many mythic symbols and archetypes into one movie, while completely castrating their meaning.

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A Game of Egos

A Dance with Dragons
A Dance with Dragons (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Originally published on guardianbooks.co.uk

A wealthy dynasty brought to its knees by popular revolt, the highest in the land caught in a web of corruption, and at the heart of it all a powerful woman with remarkable hair. If you see the Murdoch clan, Chipping Norton set and Rebekah Brooks in these archetypes then you have clearly been spending too long watching the news. If on the other hand you recognise the Targaryen kings, Small Council and Cersei Lannister then I accuse you of reading A Dance with Dragons, the fifth volume in George RR Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire saga. (Now perhaps better known as A Game of Thrones for the HBO TV adaptation from the original books.)

It is rare indeed for a fantasy novel to receive either the attention or thecritical acclaim heaped upon A Dance with Dragons. Among all literary genres, epic fantasy is surely the most widely reviled and ignored. And it can be hard to identify the genre’s best and most original works when they are surrounded on the shelves by hundreds of third-rate knock-offs.

But in the hands of authors who understand their potential, the secondary worlds of fantasy provide a lens that can bring to sharp focus truths that the chaos of modern life obscures. JRR Tolkien crafted a mythology for the modern world from ancient teutonic sources, a mythology that expressed many people’s deep fears about industrialisation and world war. Mervyn Peake created a dark and painfully accurate reflection of the oppressive British class system in Gormenghast. And China Miéville transfigured Dickensian London and showed the daily exploitation of the poor and vulnerable that still powers the modern city in Perdido Street Station and his Bas-Lag novels.

George RR Martin also draws on historical sources to build his fantasy world. Westeros bears a startling resemblance to England in the period of the Wars of the Roses. One throne unifies the land but great houses fight over who will sit upon it. With no true king the land is beset with corrupt, money-grubbing lords whose only interest is their own prestige. Two loose alliances of power pit a poor but honourable North against a rich and cunning South. And the small folk must suffer through it all, regardless of which side wins. Many things change over the course of five centuries, but not politics it seems.

But if Martin had only transposed a historical and political context to a fantasy world his books would never have achieved such staggering popularity. Their author’s real strength is his compendious understanding of the human stories driving the grand political narrative. There does not seem to be a single living soul in the land of Westeros that Martin does not have insight into, from the highest king to the lowest petty thief. Martin does not compartmentalise evil on one side of the map and good on the other. It is a world of high stakes, where the winners prosper and the losers are mercilessly ground under heel. Against this tapestry every one of Martin’s characters is forced to chose between their love for those close to them and the greater interests of honour, duty and the realm. More often than not, those who make the noble choice pay with their lives.

Beheading, dismemberment and being roasted alive have, perhaps fortunately, become less common punishments for the losers in our modern games of ego. And while the throne itself is no longer up for grabs, the same human dramas still play out every day between those who vie for power in the elite spheres of business, politics and the media. The scandal engulfing News International is just the latest example of those archetypal dramas bubbling up in to public view.

Take Rupert and son James. What words pass between the reigning monarch and the heir apparent in private we can only guess. We might think of Odysseus and Telemachus. Too noble perhaps? Hamlet and his ghostly father then? Closer. But the portrait of a father manipulating a son that George RR Martin paints between Tywin and Jaime Lannister seems closest of all to me.

A Game of Thrones has captured the imaginations of millions for the same reason the archetypal dramas of Homer, Sophocles or Shakespeare have lasted for millennia. They show us the conflict between self-sacrifice and self-interest, between the human spirit and the human ego, between good and evil. And when we look up from the page we recognise those same conflicts in the world around us and in ourselves.

 

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The answer to a riddle

Last year I wrote a short story called A Vast Bit of Hod, which I published to my blog here. As I mentioned at the time, the story is also a riddle. I have congratulated half a dozen people who emailed me the answer. This evening James Everington tweeted me to ask:

btw, when are you going to post the ‘answer’ to the “Vast Bit of Hod” story? It’s been bugging me ever since (in a good way)

Which I have been meaning to do for sometime. So.

Harold, the central character in A Vast Bit of Hod, is completing a crossword when we meet him, behind the counter in the weird antique / collectibles store where the story takes place. The crossword clue is the title of the story. If you aren’t good at anagrams, here is an anagram server to help you. We’ll come back to what the anagram is momentarily.

A Vast Bit of Hod began life when my friend Dana, fellow Clarion writers’ workshop graduate, sent out an email challenge to write a story about a shop that sells lives. Because I’m working on novel length things, I hadn’t written a short story for a time, but this challenge brought an idea to mind that I couldn’t resist. Our Clarion tutor Neil Gaiman says that novels are like a long journey, whereas short stories are like seeing a tree and deciding to climb up it. So I decided to climb this tree.

For three years now I have been studying Buddhism. I enjoy it from an intellectual perspective, and I’ve found the insight meditation techniques it teaches tremendously helpful. Two linked ideas in Buddhism are karma and reincarnation. These are both hard ideas to grasp from a rational perspective. There is no evidence of any mechanism in nature to make ‘what goes around come around’, and very few people I know believe they will come back to life as a goat, or even an Emperor. But as myths they point towards the idea that our behaviour defines our life, an idea I do believe.

So in my shop customers enter to select the new lives which they will incarnate within after when they are reborn. They deposit their old lives in the form of an object which they hand to the shop keeper, and select a new object which symbolises their new life. I’m afraid I’m not very complimentary about the lives many of us choose. In particular I heap a little scorn on the fantasy lives we escape in to, while our actual lives decay around us. For a writer of fantasy, I’m oddly ambivalent about the role of fantasy in our lives.

A Vast Bit of Hod is an anagram for (excluding the ‘of’) Bodhisattva. This is the Buddhist term for, depending on your translation, either humans well on the path to enlightenment, or those who are enlightened but choose to live in the world and help others reach enlightenment. Harold is a little bit of both.  He isn’t exactly kind to Anthony, but he does what needs to be done to help the young man move from one life to the next. At the end of the story, Harold is left holding a simple wooden bowl, the traditional begging bowl that is the only possession of Buddhist monks who have renounced all worldly things. Harold has another lifetime or two of suffering before he is ready for nirvana. But first he fancies another biscuit…

You can read A Vast Bit of Hod here.

Secondary World Problems

You know, those things which are only an issue if you happen to be the denizen of a world created in the imagination of a jobbing fantasy author. Or an ageing English academic. Or a frustrated fan trying to turn pro author. A secondary world always tells you more about the inside of the authors head than it does about the world itself.

The secondary world is a problematic construct. The term has become an accepted part of the dialogue around Sci-Fi and Fantasy, and it’s also been taken on by video gamers and game designers, perhaps because SF&F are so hardwired in to that new and still evolving media. But they really haven’t been examined seriously either by literary criticism or contemporary philosophy. They are in fact rejected out of hand, perhaps because, quite rightly, it is awakening humans from fantasy that is the goal of both literature and philosophy.  The cultural phenomenon of secondary worlds is more interesting than the secondary worlds themselves.

I think what might be fairly said about secondary worlds is that they have a tendency to generate terrible, terrible writing. The attempt to build a secondary world through the medium of prose fiction is doomed from the outset. Every step towards world-building is a step away from story telling, which is the heart of M. John Harrison’s now iconic complaint against the clomping foot of nerdism. Arguing about secondary worlds is more interesting than the secondary worlds themselves.

The primary world called reality is a kind of fantasy. We float through reality in the semi-dream state of day to day consciousness, absorbed in our thoughts and in the digital realities constructed on our computer screens. The real problem of secondary worlds, whether on the page or the screen, is that far from being an escape they are another layer to the trap you are already caught it. The sensation you feel when immersed in a secondary world isn’t the thrill of freedom, but the relaxation that comes with a capitulation. Escaping from secondary worlds is more interesting than escaping in to secondary worlds.

Fantastika can do more than that. By drawing you in deeper to the immersive experience of a secondary world fantasy, a great writer can also tempt you along the path to a kind of awakening. These fantasies are few and far between, but once you have experienced them you become suspicious of all those that want to lull you back to sleep.

My quest for e-Weird concludes

My quest for weird has turned up some gems, and shown me that we need to nurture new writing talent in both mainstream and independent publishing.

A month ago I threw open the doors of the Weird Things column to all comers. Nominate your weird stories I said, and nominate them you did. I’ve looked at more than 500 independently published weird stories, from writers of whom I had in all but a few cases never heard. I hope it has been a genuine exercise in new talent spotting, and I hope the five stories (and a few honourable mentions) highlighted below will all receive some well-deserved attention as a consequence. I’ve also returned from my quest for weird with a better understanding of the new paradigm of digital independent publishing, one formed as much by what I did not find as what I did.

Read more @ The Guardian

The New Aesthetic and I

Every creative is always looking for a new aestehtic. And now there really is a New Aesthetic.

I will date the New Aesthetic to Bruce Sterling’s essay on the subject, in response to the SXSW panel chaired by James Bridle. But I’ll date my personal interest to the AlterFutures talk I gave recently, where it came up as a subject of conversation.

A better question might be ‘What will the New Aesthetic be when it stops being interesting?’

The most interesting period in a new aesthetic is its molten youth, when it picks up random debris from the surrounding landscape and no one can say for sure what form it will solidify in to or what parts of human society will be destroyed by its flow. So asking ‘What is the New Aesthetic?’ is like trying to fast forward through the big budget disaster movie. A better question might be ‘What will the New Aesthetic be when it stops being interesting?’

The New Aesthetic has been given a name by a group of London based design and creative types, and maybe it’s taking off because its just about loose enough to encompass one of those ideas that is emerging among many creative people; who given the social conditioning of creativity still at large in the early 21st C, are likely all of a similar age and social class; 20 to 30 somethings with the educational privilege to understand both contemporary culture and the technology driving it all.

The visible tropes of the New Aesthetic are: glitches and corruption artefacts in digital objects, render ghosts, satellite views, retro 80’s graphics. If you look through a tumblr of New Aesthetic imagery thats kind of what you will see. But it tells you nothing, so forget it.

Here’s a better way to think about it. The early 21st C has spawned an entire class of ‘cultural creatives’. Maybe 10-15% of the population of modern post-industrial nations like the UK are employed creating text, imagery, video, animation, sound, for the entertainment and advertising industries, and sometimes even as art. Expand your definition of creative to comfortably accommodate coders and some other knowledge worker types, and it all tallies up to a lot of people creating a lot of stuff every moment of every day. Start thinking about user generated content and you can increase the amount of stuff by factors of ten.

You could call the New Aesthetic the ‘Apple Mac’ Aesthetic

But. Actually what all of these people are doing, now, is using a computer. You could call the New Aesthetic the ‘Apple Mac’ Aesthetic, as that’s the computer of choice for most of these acts of creation. Images are made in Photoshop and Illustrator. Video is edited in Final Cut Pro. Buildings are rendered in Autodesk. Books are written in Scrivener. And so on. To paraphrase McLuhan “the hardware / software is the message” because while you can imitate as many different styles as you like in your digital arena of choice, ultimately they all end up interrelated by the architecture of the technology itself.

Horizon, one of my early published SF stories, is arguably a New Aesthetic story.

Every item of clothing in TopShop, whatever fashion style it is aping, has more in common with every other item because they are all products of the same digital creation / automated manufacture process. The cities of Britain are increasingly just agglomerated masses of Autodesk wireframes constructed from the most economically profitable prefabricated building blocks. Films and television are driven by innovations in CGI, and the superhero franchise reigns supreme because once you have all the digital assets in place, there is no reason not to make the Nth Spiderman movie.

I’ve strayed too far in to negative critique here, some of the outcomes of all this are actually quite beautiful I imagine. And also, this isn’t new. It’s been emerging for a generation. And it’s not what the New Aesthetic is or will be. Think of the New Aesthetic as the totality of our response to this as creators, and we might be getting closer.

Imagine the world’s creative community as a huge colony of meerkats, hanging out on the digital savannah, every single one of us wired and responding to the same stream of information via Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr. If you’re one of us, don’t ever fool yourself in to thinking you’ve found an idea first. Even in the old days of telephone calls and television, no one ever had an idea without a few thousand other people having it as well. If you got lucky, you were the person in the right place and time to capitalise on the idea. Ideas are built from the repurposed components of other ideas. Creativity is re-combinatorial. Curation is the core creative act of all artists, even if only of their own work. And now with social media the speed of viral idea transmission has topped out the acceleration graph. At any given time hundreds of thousands of people are having the same idea, built from the same blog posts and tweets and videos and e-books. And the New Aestehtic is one of these ideas, and it is the aesthetic that arises from understanding that this is how ideas are now.

And that’s another demand of the New Aesthetic worth considering. The constant demand to let go of I.

Which is a challenge. Because I can’t own the idea. And neither can you. Or at least you’ll need an unspeakably monstrous ego to take ownership of something like the New Aesthetic in today’s networked world. And that’s another demand of the New Aesthetic worth considering. The constant demand to let go of I. Because our I can’t grasp the New Aesthetic. It’s a thing of We. A thing of the network.

There are 7431 CCTV cameras in London. I would like to put forward their combined video output over any given 24 hour period as a work of art in the New Aesthetic. Firstly, there is no I present for any of the images being recorded. They are electrical impulses recorded as 1’s and 0’s in magnetic storage. We might sit and watch the footage back in various combinations. We could edit it in to a two hour feature presentation. But that would be at best an introduction to the 178,331 hours of footage that is the complete text. It’s humanly possible to watch all the footage, but would take – as previously mentioned – a monstrous act of ego. And I could hardly claim to be the creator of this artwork. As for any meaning the footage might reveal, its far beyond the the reach of any single I to ascertain it.

The world, the universe, confronts us every day with a vast complexity that we can not hope to understand. One purpose of mediated objects is to give us an edited and abbreviated version of that complexity which our very limited perceptions can comfortably grasp. Films and books that tell limited stories which we can understand. Fashion that makes the world coherent enough that we can adopt a role within it. Visual imagery with a finite grammar that remains somewhat familiar. The New Aesthetic are the mediated objects which in one way or another return us to the actual complexity of reality. As such they become once again frustratingly impossible to grasp through the limited construct of I.

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