M John Harrison is one of the all time greats, a “science fiction writer’s science fiction writer”, a creator of weird tales in the horror tradition, and a powerful weaver of fantasy. The Viriconium stories defined political fantasy in the 80’s, as the Light trilogy redefined literary SF in the 00s. As editor of New Worlds he was integral to the new wave of SF alongside authors like J G Ballard and Michael Moorcock.
He’s also out and out the most skilled storyteller working between genres today. In this video essay I take a deep-dive into Harrison’s recent short story collection to answer the question, how does Mike Harrison enter a story?
There is no end, it seems, to the impotent outrage of geek dudes who feel hard done by because scifi films no longer exclusively feature geeky white dude protagonists. Here’s the latest dumb s*&t from those guys:
Any dork hating on Ready Player One stems from jealousy since Ernest Cline seems to be living the ultimate geek make a wish. But his follow up novel proves he's not a one wish pony.
Geeks should rejoice in Ready Player One, this is their Black Panther.
So, no. Of course, Ready Player One is not the “geek Black Panther” and I spend all of five minutes taking that idea apart in my video response.
We use the term “geek culture” as a shorthand, it’s useful in as far as it indicates the nexus of scifi movies, genre tv and books, comics, RPGs, video games and various other geeky shit.
“Ready Player One is basically a massive advertisement for corporate brands.”
But we might be better off calling it “geek non-culture”. Geek isn’t a cultural identity. It’s where many people end up because they no longer have a cultural identity, and instead fill that void with products that were mass marketed to them in the 80s and 90s.
Many of us today construct a cultural identity from a cross section typically featuring things like D&D, WWF wrestlers, superheroes and Staurday morning kids cartoons. The stuff we grew up with, on tv and in advertising.
This stuff is more than an entertaining distraction for many “geeks”. For millions of people who grew up in vacant suburbs, ghostly dormitory towns, and mass society of the 50s onwards, geek culture has become their surrogate culture.
I’m not here to kick that coping strategy in the nuts. It’s ok to do this. But it’s really important to recognise that these things we’ve formed an intense emotional attachment to don’t belong to us, or to the “geek” community. They belong to a handful of multinational corporations – and soon will all belong to Disney – who milk them for every cent they are worth.
Ready Player One is basically a massive advertisement for corporate brands. Turning up for the new Spielberg movie is like paying $30 to have McDonalds and Nike advertisements shoved down your throat, except the brands in question are slightly smarter about hiding away in “beloved” video games and kids cartoons.
We can rebuild you, Geek Culture.
A movie like Black Panther isn’t just important because it comes from a black creative team. It’s also part of a powerful movement to reclaim these corporate owned icons for the communities who value them. The recent Star Wars movies, Ghostbusters reboot and franchises like Doctor Who are all being powerfully influenced by the geek community.
Geeks have forcefully determined that the cultural product made for us should reflect who we really are – which is an epicly diverse assortment of people from all around the globe. Contrast that to the era of “geek culture” through the 00s and 90s, as celebrated in Ready Player One, when geeks were depicted exclusively as young white men, because the media corporations decided this yielded the greatest profit margins.
I don’t believe there was any such thing as Geek Culture…until very recently. We the geeks, people of all kinds, are MAKING geek culture. We’re making it by pressuring big media corps into making diverse content. We’re making it by supporting the creators we love on Kickstarters and Patreon. And we’re making it by having a real critical discussion about our culture, and what we want it to represent
Some people, mostly alienated young white men, hate that this critical discussion is happening. So, we end up with nonsense like Gamergate and the Sad Puppies. But let’s be clear. Black Panther and Star Wars are far, far more representative of geek culture today than Ready Player One, which in 2018 feels exactly like what it is – a relic. If any movie is the geek Black Panther…it’s Black Panther.
Any Blade Runner fan who doesn’t have mixed feelings about the Blade Runner 2049 sequel probably isn’t much of a fan. Hollywood sequels have a bad track record of course. And while the presence of Harrison Ford might encourage some to hope for a sequel as mighty as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many of us also (vaguely) remember Indiana Jones and Crystal Skullymajig.
But let’s be crystal clear about one thing. Blade Runner has a strong claim to greatest ever scifi movie ever (with only 2001: A Space Odyssey really in contention for that crown). It also has a good shot at greatest ever movie, no exceptions. Agree with those claims or not, Blade Runner is a profoundly important story, with a place in our cultural life that only a very few works of art will ever reach. The chance to revisit that story is profoundly exciting.
These are my personal questions, going into Blade Runner 2049, that will act as a bellwether of the story’s quality. If the answers to these questions are absent, I suspect the film will be an empty, pretty husk. If they are present, even if the film is not the masterpiece of the original, there will be something there to satisfy me.
Did Rachel live?
A story that ends with the words “it’s a shame she won’t live” begs the question, which audiences will all be taking into the sequel, “did she live?” Rachel faces the same fate as Roy Batty et al. But while we saw them fail and die, and while we were told no solution existed, it remains possible…perhaps even probable…that Rachel survives. A high profile spat between Sean Young, who plays Rachel, and the Blade Runner producers, now looks like it might have been manufactured to cover secret scenes filmed by Young for the sequel. If so, the natural question becomes, what did Rachel do next? I think it’s very likely that the fate of the Blade Runner world in this sequel will be deeply determined by Rachel’s fate.
Is Deckard a replicant?
Most Blade Runner fans are aware of the popular theory, suported by Ridley Scott, that Deckard is himself a replicant. The prime evidence for this is the unicorn dream sequence, restored to later edits of the movie, and the origami unicorn left outside Deckards apartment, suggesting that his dreams – like Rachels – are known to his creators. While it remains a theory at the moment, Blade Runner 2049 will almost certainly confirm it either way.
Is Ryan Gosling a human?
No, this isn’t a dig at the acting talents of the Goslingator. He’s no Brando, but he’s waaaay less wooden than Keanu Reeves, and probably in a similar ballpark to the younger Harrison Ford. But as his character is the clear analog to Deckard in the original, we’re all going to be wondering about his humanity. As will he. I think you can expect Gosling’s search for his own human identity to be central to this sequel. That said, if the writers are really ambitious, the film won’t be about Gosling’s character on anything but the surface level.
Are all the humans replicants?
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep is the original novel by Philip K Dick that Blade Runner is, very very very loosely, based on. It’s a broken work of genius, less incoherent that other classic PKD novels like Ubik or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. But it’s still dominated by wild concepts, at the expense of some very shoddy writing and flat pack characters. PKD spins his novel in an even weirder direction when Deckard visits a police station entirely staffed by replicants. The suggestion is that everybody in the world of the novel is a replicant. Story hints about Blade Runner 2049 tantilse with the possibility that it will explore this radical idea.
Can humanity recover its empathy?
Philip K Dick was the greatest myth maker of the 20th century, spinning metaphors for the strange new realities technology has thrown all of us into. Both his novel, and the Blade Runner movie, are modern myths about the human capacity for empathy. Replicants are a fiction, but our capacity to dehumanize and enslave other humans is as great as ever. Blade Runner 2049 has an incredible job to match the original as a treatise on empathy, and our human awareness of our own vulnerability and mortality, without which empathy cannot exist. I wish it luck in the task ;)
It’s a double-edged magical sword, being a fan of JRR Tolkien. On one hand we’ve had the joy of watching Lord of the Rings go from cult success to, arguably, the most successful and influential story of the last century. And we get to laugh in the face of critics who claimed LotR would never amount to anything, while watching a sumptuous (if absurdly long) adaption of The Hobbit.
“A balanced telling might well have shown Smaug to be much more of a reforming force in the valley of Dale.”
On the other hand, you also have to consider the serious criticisms made of Tolkien’s writing, such as Michael Moorcock’s in his 1978 essay, Epic Pooh. As a storyteller Tolkien is on a par with Homer or the anonymous bard behind Beowulf, the epic poets who so influenced his work. But as works of modern mythology, the art Tolkien called “mythopoeia”, both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are open to serious criticism.
To understand why takes a little consideration of what we really mean by the word “myth”. The world can be a bafflingly complex place. Why is the sky blue? What’s this rocky stuff I’m standing on? Who are all these hairless chimps I’m surrounded by? The only way we don’t just keep babbling endless questions like hyperactive six-year-olds is by reducing the infinite complexities of existence to something more simple. To a story. Stories that we call myths.
Science gives us far more accurate answers to our questions than ever before. But we’re still dependent on myths to actually comprehend the science. The multi-dimensional expansion of energy, space and time we call the Big Bang wasn’t literally a bang any more than God saying “Let there be light” was literally how the universe was created. They’re both mythic ideas that point at an actual truth our mammalian minds aren’t equipped to grasp.
Myths are a lens through which we investigate the mysteries of the world around us. Change the myth, and you can change the world – as JRR Tolkien well knew when, alongside other writers including CS Lewis, he began to consider the possibility of creating new myths to help us better understand the modern world – or if not to understand it better, then to understand it differently. Tolkien borrowed the Greek term “mythpoesis” to describe the task of modern myth-making, and so the literary concept of mythopoeia was born.
Tolkien’s myths are profoundly conservative. Both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings turn on the “return of the king” to his rightful throne. In both cases this “victory” means the reassertion of a feudal social structure which had been disrupted by “evil”. Both books are one-sided recollections made by the Baggins family, members of the landed gentry, in the Red Book of Westmarch – an unreliable historical source if ever there was one. A balanced telling might well have shown Smaug to be much more of a reforming force in the valley of Dale.
And of course Sauron doesn’t even get to appear on the page in The Lord of the Rings, at least not in any form more substantial than a huge burning eye, exactly the kind of treatment one would expect in a work of propaganda.
We’re left to take on trust from Gandalf, a manipulative spin doctor, and the Elves, immortal elitists who kill humans and hobbits for even entering their territory, when they say that the maker of the one ring is evil. Isn’t it more likely that the orcs, who live in dire poverty, actually support Sauron because he represents the liberal forces of science and industrialisation, in the face of a brutally oppressive conservative social order?
The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings aren’t fantasies because they feature dragons, elves and talking trees. They’re fantasies because they mythologise human history, ignoring the brutality and oppression that were part and parcel of a world ruled by men with swords. But we shouldn’t be surprised that the wish to return to a more conservative society, one where people knew their place, is so popular. It’s the same myth that conservative political parties such as Ukip have always played on: the myth of a better world that has been lost, but can be reclaimed by turning back the clock.
Whatever the limitations of his own myth-making, Tolkien’s genius as a storyteller rekindled the flame of mythopoeia for generations of writers who followed. Today our bookshelves and cinema screens are once again heaving with modern myths. And they represent a vastly diverse spectrum of worldviews, from the authoritarian fantasy of Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game, to the anti-capitalist metaphor of The Hunger Games. The latter is so potent that the three-finger salute given by Katniss Everdeen has become a symbol of freedom. What clearer sign could there be that the contemporary world is still powered by myth?
30 years after they were first published, the Culture novels of Iain M Banks are more popular than ever.
Our first image of Iain M Banks’s Culture universe is a man drowning in sewage: a stark precedent for what was to come. And 30 years after its first publication, Consider Phlebas remains a novel grimily opposed to the shiny rocketships and derring-do of most space opera. Banks broke the genre apart, and with a little inspiration from M John Harrison and Ursula Le Guin (and some outright theft from Larry Niven), he created a series of space opera novels that remains unmatched.
But for all his mastery of high-octane action sequences, and the sheer invention of his Big Dumb Objects, Banks’s science fiction – credited to M Banks, his fiction going without the middle initial – has lasted because his deft balance of galactic scope with human-scale stories. Stories of loss, grief, rebirth and self-discovery are the core of the best Culture novels. He did not write sci-fi and literary novels – he was a master of storytelling that combined both.
These are my top five Culture novels, but I could have included at least five more. I’d put Use of Weapons at six, which might perplex fans of Banks at his most gung-ho. Seven would be short-story collection The State of the Art, which contains only brief glimpses of the Culture. Matter (eight), Inversions (nine) and Surface Detail (10) all have their own strengths, but lack the genius of Banks at his best – which I think you’ll find here:
Five: The Hydrogen Sonata
The final published Culture novel was a return to top form for Banks. The Gzilt are ready to “sublime” to the the next plane of existence. But first some old scores must be settled. It’s the most openly satirical of all Banks’s SF novels, offering an angry critique of “third-way” liberal leaders like Tony Blair. But the star of the show is the Mistake Not, a Culture ship of “non-standard” type IE packing lots of high-level weaponry. It shows exactly how tough the utopian Culture can be.
Minds – sentient thinking computers – are the secret stars of the Culture novels, but here they take centre stage. What do virtually immortal, super intelligent AIs do for fun? Among other things they play out decades-long plots to topple less developed, more barbaric civilisations. But even Minds sometimes run up against opponents they can’t outwit. Featuring the Affront, a race literally named for how outrageously evil they are, this is Banks at his most playful, comedic and inventive.
Three: Consider Phlebas
After almost drowning the hero in sewage in it’s opening scene, the first published Culture novel goes on a rip roaring killing spree across the major sights of the Banksian universe. Space pirates, ringworlds, cannibal cultists, a lethal card game, and a Planet of the Dead… the Culture is shown through the eyes of those who hate and fear this machine lead society, creating by far the darkest of all Banks’s science fiction writing.
Two: The Player of Games
Both a love poem to the joy of game play, and a warning against the psychology of the game player, the story of the Culture’s best gameplayer, who is on a quest to compete against an alien society where games decide real world hierarchies, is the most complete and accessible book in the Culture series. This makes it a good starting point for the Iain M Banks neophyte, and also the first book I recommend to non-science fiction readers curious about the genre.
One: Look to Windward
I suspect that Look To Windward was Iain Banks showing off at the peak of his talents – and what a great show it is. The meddling Culture have accidentally set off a caste war in a civilisation they were trying to liberate. A young, high born officer, maimed in battle and broken by grief, is manipulated to commit a terrorist attack in revenge against the Culture. Meanwhile, an exiled composer creates a symphony to mark the light of an ancient super-nova, seen at two points and six centuries apart, by the immortal Mind who blew the star up. The fact that half the cast are six limbed tiger-like predators somehow only adds to the poetry. Look to Windward is where Banks’s interleaving of science fiction imagery, and literary themes,reaches it’s own symphonic climax, making it not just the greatest Culture novel, but perhaps the greatest ever science fiction novel.
Intersectionality is a powerful idea conveyed in an overcomplicated word. But Star Wars is a great way to understand it better.
One thing I love about scifi? It provides all the best metaphors to help folks understand the fierce complexities of contemporary politics. Mid-way through the snap UK general election a lot of Harry-Potter-as-political-metaphor memes went around, like Corbyn Black saviour of the muggles, or my own tweet on the theme.
Labour = Gryffindor LibDem = Hufflepuff Greens = Ravenclaw Tories = Slytherin UKIP = Death Eaters#GE2017
They work well, Harry Potter is after all one huge metaphor for British class structures. Scifi & Fantasy are genres that tell stories as metaphors, and the best of those metaphorical narratives are always applicable to our actual reality today. Lord of the Rings as allegory for World War 1 is well known. But the mother of all scifi political metaphors today must be Star Wars.
Star Wars is a metaphor for a very specific kind of social / political / military conflict. It happens to be the dominant conflict of our era, fought in many forms, and in many places, for well over a century. Amusingly, many people only woke to Star Wars metaphorical meaning with the release of Rogue One, which amped up the political commentary to levels that even weak willed fanboy manchildren could not miss.
A diverse alliance of rebel forces fight for Liberation from an imperial force aiming to Conserve the priviledge and power of one single racial / cultural / gender identity. That’s the political background of Star Wars in a sentence, and it’s also the politics of most 20th and early 21st century conflicts. From WW2 Nazis vs Allies, to the fierce polìtical conflicts tearing up the USA today, it’s the fight between Liberal vs. Conservative powers that we see repeated time and again.
“Admiral Ackbar feels his people are the real leaders of the rebellion, and as allies the humans should probably damn well shut up and take orders.”
Liberals face a serious problem in this battle. Consider the Rebel Alliance. It’s made up of the most diverse possible set of allies. Not even cross species, it includes military and other forces who literally come from different evolutionary systems. Star Wars never goes into it in depth, but we have to presume the Rebel Alliance has overcome a lot of infighting to unify conflicting agendas into one coherent strategy.
From what we see, Rebel X-Wing pilots are predominantly male, blue collar guys with security / technical backgrounds. In contrast the alliance diplomatic corps lead by Mon Mothma and Leia seem to be mostly women with liberal arts / humanities educations. These two groups probably see the rebellion very differently, and have to continually negotiate to find a good working relationship.
The Mon Calamari cruisers can take on multiple Imperial star destroyers at once, but were only coverted for military function after the Mon Calamari were targetted and nearly wiped out by Imperial forces. No doubt Admiral Ackbar feels his people are the real leaders of the rebellion, and as allies the humans, who basically caused all these problems with their history of colonialism, should damn well shut up and take orders.
Who knows what the Bothans want from the whole thing, but many of them died to recover those plans, so they probably expect a cut of any political settlement when the Republic is re-established.
In real life we have a word for the problems of factionalism faced by Liberal political alliances.
It’s a word much mocked by Conservative a*holes. And perhaps with some cause, because while it represents a very useful idea, it is in itself an overly complex term, drawn from academese, expressing the tendency of intellectuals to cloak their discussions in invented jargon. Intersectionality emerged from academic feminist discourse of the 1980s, but is widely used today in the raucous online arguments spawned by social media. But for all its problems, intersectionality does literally mean what it says.
Intersectionality means this. That gender discrimination, racism, classism, homophobia, ableism and other social justice causes all INTERSECT. They share a single common cause. And they all benefit by working together. All of these groups: women, people of colour, LGBT, the working classes, and many more, are all victims of political oppression. And the people doing the oppressing are the Empire. The political and economic elite of the day. The 1%. For whome class, race and gender are all convenient pretexts to divide and conquer the masses they rule over.
Without a widely held concept of intersectionality, of shared political interest, it’s all too easy for different groups of people suffering under political oppression, to blame each other for their problems. Look at the situation today, where the white working classes in America and Europe are told to blame poor immigrants for the lack of jobs. In fact both groups are equally exploited by the 1%. If they work together they can improve their situation. But that can only happen if they recognise the intersection of their shared interests. Otherwise the divided will always be defeated.
Can X-Wing pilots and the diplomatic corps ever work together?
One of the most bitter divides between liberal causes today is along the fault line of gender vs. class. You can see this in the fight between Berniebros socialists vs. Hilary Clinton feminists that broke out in the 2016 US presidential primaries. This is an old, old conflict. Socialism evolved through the late 19th and early 20th century as a political movment focused on liberating working class men, and has always clashed seriously with feminism as it emerged over a similar timeframe, as an ideology lead by middle and upper class women. Berniebros vs HRC Feminists is only the latest flareup among groups who should be alies.
I’m not here to offer a solution to white male working class socialism vs. white female middle class feminism. Only to point out that if X-Wing pilots behaved with the rank misogyny of Berniebros, the Rebel Alliance would never have even formed, let alone found victory at the battle of Yavin. Then again, maybe X-Wing pilot assholery was only resolved by the more intelligent, better educated diplomatic corps never lowering themselves to the level of trading insults.
A better word for the intersection of shared political interests?
The oppresive power of communism was cast off in part because political leaders like Lech Wałęsa in Poland could draw on the idea of Solidarity. Maybe today we need to stop using a confusing term like intersectionality, and return to using simpler words like unity or togetherness.
Of course Star Wars has it’s own word for intersectionality. The Force is, after all, what surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together. So next time you see a Star Wars fanboy making an ignorant rant about intersectional social justice warriors, maybe just calmly point out that he’s taking sides against Jedi knights wielding the Force.
Sci-fi sells us fantasies. Margaret Atwood’s classic novel is all about the danger of fantasy. Why should they be pigeon holed together?
Damien writes on scifi, culture and politics for The Guardian, Independent, Wired, BBC and Aeon magazine, and also right here. Follow on Twitter @damiengwalter
Women understand, I think much better than men, how horrifying it is to be the object of another person’s fantasy. Glen Close going stalker crazy on Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction is so alien and horrifying to men that you can make a box office smash from it. Women experience that behaviour from men daily.
“The men who founded Gilead probably read and enjoyed John Norman’s Gor novels.”
The Handmaid’s Tale is a story all about the skincrawling horror of being held captive as an object of fantasy. It’s literary lineage is closer to The Collector by John Fowles than anything by Arthur C Clarke. Margaret Atwood has generally resisted all labels for it, including the most commonly applied, that it is a feminist novel, preferring to call it simply a human story. And despite being nominated for numerous sci’fi awards, has never accepted that label either.
Science fiction fans have proved less than happy with that refusal to pigeon hole. As The Handmaid’s Tale has grown in fame, SF fandom has frequently asked why the book isn’t sold or marketed in the genre. It’s not an unreasonable question, after all it shares some similarities with science fiction. It’s set in the near future, in what you might think of as a branching alternate timeline from our own history.
Imagine an alternate timeline where The Handmaid’s Tale was published as science fiction. Possibly in the kind of pulp cover that many novels featuring women enslaved to strange obsessive Nazis often featured, with a subtitile like “I was a captive of fundamentalist perverts!”, and shipped out to bookshops, as one of many sci-fi novels released in 1985.
The sci-fi edition of The Handmaid’s Tale would have found itself in strange, and deeply inappropriate company. Among the actual scifi bestsellers of 1985 was Mercenaries of Gor, the 21st novel in John Norman’s Gor saga. For the unaware, the Gor novels are about a fantasy world where men are muscular barbarian warriors and women, many abducted from Earth, are their sex slaves. By the standards of the modern internet the Gor novels aren’t terribly shocking, but they are full on BDSM sex fantasies.
To give John Norman some minimal credit, he wove such a potent sexual fantasy in the Gor novels that they gave rise to the Gorean subculture, and remain quite widely read today. Is there anything wrong with the Gor novels? Only if you think there’s anything wrong with Laurel K Hamilton’s kinky wereleopard sex novels, with erotic fiction in general, or with pornography as a whole. Few people today believe that repressing our sexual fantasies leads anywhere good. We live in a liberal society that believes it’s much healthier to recognise, express and even celebrate our sexual fantasies.
But there is a serious problem if we can’t distinguish between indulging fantasy, and critically discussing the dangers of fantasy. Because without that critical discussion, we face the serious risk of fantasy being allowed to slip into reality. The men who founded Gilead probably read and enjoyed John Norman’s Gor novels. And enjoyed their fantasy so much, they used murder and violence to enforce it as America’s new reality.
Look at ISIS today, the Nazis in the 1930s, or any brutal patriarchal society in history. These are men driven to make their personal fantasies of power, dominance and control the reality that others must live under. The newly empowered Trumpist far right is terrifying because it shares so many features with those patriarchal regimes, not least its worrying preference for fantasy over reality and fact.
I fear that, had The Handmaid’s Tale been published as science fiction, it would not today be playing such a pivotal role as a symbol of resistance against Trump and the far right. Because sci-fi floods the world with fantasy. Sometimes high quality entertaining fantasy like those great MARVEL movies. Sometimes rather cheap and exploitative fantasy like John Norman’s Gor novels. But if we’re going to understand, and change for the better, our reality, we need to clearly recognise the work of writers, artists and other creators, who are doing more than selling us escapist fantasies.
It’s hard for a human as universally recognised as Scarlet Johansson to pass as a nobody. But Major Motoko Kusanagi, the protagonist of the new Johanson vehicle and cyberpunk franchise Ghost in the Shell, is the ultimate nobody. The Major is a synthetic human, who appears in the form of an athletic young woman primarily because creator Masamune Shirow understood the young male audience for his 1989 manga series. There’s no small irony that, in the ongoing project to create her star self, Johansson has stumbled by trying to remake a story that is all about the destruction of self.
Beneath the surface of its now cliche iconography – mirrorshades, black leather trench coats, flickering neon lighting – cyberpunk has always been about the self. Or more precisely, a philosophical investigation into what will remain of the self once technology has remade human life. Before cyberpunk gave Bladerunner and The Matrix to cinema, those ideas were evolved in two related literary forms – Japanese manga and American / European hard science fiction, which began asking hard questions of identity and self at around the same time.
“But we’re also powerfully drawn to any experience that allows us to escape our self. Video games, virtual reality, cinematic CGI, all provide a technological liberation from our self.”
William Gibson’s novella Burning Chrome features a young woman who is hustling to buy new eyes, the latest Nikon’s, so she can become a “simstim” star. It’s an image Gibson builds on with the character of Molly Millions (a likely influence over Major Kusanagi), a cybernetically enhanced bodyguard whose eyes are sealed behind mirrorshade insets. His skill at composing such poetic metaphors for self transformation made Gibson the spiritual leader of the cyberpunk movement, even before cyberpunk as a name was coined.
For much of it’s history science fiction treated technology as a power controlled by men. Competent scientists who built rockets, and explored alien worlds. Cyberpunk inverted this equation to ask harder, more interesting questions. When technology allows us to replace first our eyes, then our entire bodies, what will be left of “us” at all? When technology lets us reprogramme our minds as easily as we programme a computer, what of our self will be left? For most of us, especially those brought up to believe in some form of soul or spirit at the centre of our human self, these questions can be terrifying.
That terror at losing our selves gives cyberpunk its strange mix of dystopian darkness and fantasy wish fulfillment. Anyone struggling to “unplug” from the internet understands the terror of having our self obliterated by technology. But we’re also powerfully drawn to any experience that allows us to escape our self. Video games, virtual reality, cinematic CGI, all provide a technological liberation from our self. Watching Scarlet Johansson deconstructed and remade as Major Kusanagi, we’re watching our own selves experience this fantasy…or nightmare.
Japanese creators of cyberpunk perhaps have an advantage in exploring the nightmare fantasy of tecnological self destruction. Buddhist cultures already understand the self as “empty“, a construct of perception, subject to constant change. Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo, arguably the greatest cyberpunk narrative, sculpts a baroque and horrifying metaphor for the self. In the anime’s infamous climax, a young hero cursed with psychic powers is mutated into a vast mound of human flesh, crushing the city beneath muscle and bone, as his full psychic self is manifested in our physical world.
The excitement inspired by a movie adapation of Ghost in the Shell is because, as we stare into our smartphones, and soon our VR headsets, we’re living in the midst of a revolution in how we see our selves. Masamune Shirow’s manga and anime originals have something to say about that. But as is so often the case with Hollywood adaptations, Scarlet Johansson’s visually impressive, but intellectually shallow retelling, does not. That’s a shame, and not only because the movie’s “whitewashing” also robs of it of the cultural context that gave it the Ghost in the Shell meaning. But also because Johansson, as one of the most adept sculptors of self identity alive today, might have had so much more to say on the subject.
With fascism growing at a terrible pace today, Olaf Stapledon’s words from 1937, written at the height of the Nazi menace, hold meaning for all sci-fi fans, readers, and writers.
This post could not have been written without the support of my patrons.
“Perhaps the attempt to see our turbulent world against a background of stars may, after all, increase, not lessen, the significance of the present human crisis.”
I’m privileged to be a part of the worldwide science fiction community. As a writer and blogger, as a graduate of the Clarion science fiction writers workshop, as a regular columnist on SF for The Guardian, and as a lifelong reader and fan.
Like many in the SF community and beyond, I’ve watched the emergence of modern fascism with bleak Lovecraftian horror. It feels as though our little world of sci-fi readers and writers got an early foretaste of this when a group of far right activists turned the Hugo awards into a platform for their bigoted ideology. But there’s a good reason why the Sadly Rabid Puppies targeted the world’s biggest SF award – science fiction can be a powerful way of resisting fascism.
The small minded nationalism that lead to Brexit in the UK, and the outright racism that fueled the Trump campaign, have left the whole world in no doubt that the far right is making its strongest push to assert fascist ideology on us all since the 1930s. That time it lead to global war. Today we are all searching for any way we can prevent that tragedy repeating. How can science fiction be more than an escape from today’s reality? One of the greats of the genre has an answer.
Writing in March 1937, at the height of the Nazi threat in Europe, the legendary science fiction author Olaf Stapledon wondered what response he and other writers could make in such dark times.
“In these conditions it is difficult for writers to pursue their calling at once with courage and with balanced judgment. Some merely shrug their shoulders and withdraw from the central struggle of our age. These, with minds closed against the world’s most vital issues, inevitably produce works which not only have no depth of significance for their contemporaries, but also are subtly insincere.“
Stapledon is keen to identify that a central risk for any writer, artist or creator in the face of terror, is too hide. But Stapledon sees an equal and opposite risk, for writers who “take up arms” as political activists.
“The very urgency of their service may tend to blind them to the importance of maintaining and extending, what may be called the ‘self critical self consciousness of the human species’, the attempt to see man’s life as a whole in relation to the rest of things. This involves the will to regard all human affairs and ideals and theories with as little human prejudice as possible. Those who are in the thick of the struggle inevitably tend to become, though in a great and just cause, partisan.“
These words, that so accurately capture the conundrum faced by writers today, were written by Stapledon for the introduction to his seminal SF novel Star Maker. It’s a story that reaches beyond the bounds of human existence, to life in the broadest possible sense, on the galactic scale, and has been inspiration to generations of SF authors. And it’s a novel that, far from worshipping only at the altar of science, also dives headlong into the spiritual.
“At the risk of raising thunder both on the Left and the Right, I have occasionally used certain ideas and words derived from religion, and I have tried to interpret them in relation to modern needs. The valuable, though much damaged words “spiritual” and “worship”, which have become almost as obscene to the Left as the good old sexual words are to the Right, are here intended to suggest an experience the Right is apt to pervert and the Left to misconceive.”
That experience, in Olaf Stapledon’s thinking, is to see the world from a perspective beyond the human individual, or any political ideology. Stapledon believed that the highest calling of science fiction was to show us the universe, our world, and our selves in new ways. To see our “turbulent world against a background of stars”.
“The attempt to see our turbulent world against a background of stars may, after all, increase, not lessen, the significance of the present human crisis.”
As the last year has unfolded, and the peril of our new political situation has become clearer, my thoughts have gone to Star Maker many times. Seeing our moment in the full context of our history, and potential future, is a form of self-healing, and a way to reorient our perspective away from the immediate tumult, and back to the bigger, universal, picture.
Fascism can only win by reducing us to the most narrow minded and bigoted ways of seeing the world. Science fiction is a perfect way to show people the widest, most imaginative, and most hopeful ways of seeing. As SF readers and writers we might choose activism, we might choose withdrawal. But if we really want to make a difference, our best tool is to write, read and promote great science fiction.
A myth is more than just an old story. In their day, hundreds or thouands of years ago, myths shaped reality. WOAH! That’s a big claim, right? That the Ramayana actually shaped the reality of the people who read it two thousand years ago? That’s like saying Star Wars: Rogue One is shaping our reality today. Maybe it is. Story is how our mind works, and the stories we tell say everything about how we think.
“If Viking myths made humans fearless, I think ours tend to make us fearful.”
If like me you have a new addiction to the Vikings tv show, you’ve probably been doing some thinking about Viking myths. Stories of Odin One-Eye, that eye given to look in the well of knowledge, resonate especially in the frozen months of northen climates. Thor, Loki, Baldur, Freya and the other gods have never truly gone away. Their still on every cinema screen thanks to Marvel, and being read by millions thanks to authors like Neil Gaiman.
Viking myths described a world that was remarkably small. The world was only as wide a longboat could row. The gods lived just overhead, but out of reach, in the heavens above. And they watched and judged our lives. Men and women lived out their destiny, and fought bloody battles to pursue their fate, all to be judged well by the gods. Where today we see the universe as infinite, Vikings saw their cosmos as eternal. An endless battlefield, on which the eternal dramas of gods and men cycled forever. A mortal man was just a shadow of a greater reality. The point of life wasn’t to live a long life in safety and comfort. It was to commit acts that would echo in eternity.
Vikings weren’t alone in this worldview. The myths of the Greeks and Romans, and of the ancient Hindu world, all painted a similar picture. These were all pagan mythologies, and warrior cultures. We idolise these times, because they were well suited to the telling of great heroic tales. Of course they were, by our standards, brutal and unjust times, filled with terrible human suffering. But that’s to judge another reality by our own standards. Those who really believed the pagan worldview had no reason to fear death or suffering. Those things were just a gateway to eternal life.
Vikings is impressive as a tv show because, under the guidance of writer Michael Hirst, it dedicates a lot of time to the clash of Viking culture with the Christian culture of Anglo-Saxon Britain. In a memorable scene, a small band of Viking warriors in a “shieldwall” obliterate a far larger Saxon army. The Vikings are better warriors because they do not fear death. The weird mashup of pagan and juedo-christian beliefs that were Anglo-Saxon Christianity made them fearful of death, and of the judgement that would be made upon their sinful souls.
If stories are the operating system of human consciousness, then myths are culture specific upgrades, each new version bringing new features and retiring some old ones. Viking myths made men fearless. Christian myths made us compliant. They took the wild heroism of Viking and pagan cultures, and tamed it into the more stable, communal Anglo-Saxon world. We’re a thousand years or more on from that cultural shift. What do our myths make us?
Our tv screens are filled with heroic tales. And you don’t have to look far to find overbearing patriarchal sky gods still stalking the world. But the real myths of the modern world are stories told by science. A universe some 12 billion years old, measured by the speed of light in a vacumn. Life emerging from a blind process of evolution. All of it beginning with a Big Bang. A very 20th century idea, reflecting all the bullets, combustion engines and nuclear bombs that kept recent history banging. And we do have all these stories of powerful machines, The Terminator or The Matrix, determined to enslave or kill human life.
If Viking myths made humans fearless, I think ours tend to make us fearful. Terrified specks of animate matter in a vast inanimate universe. Once the gods walked with us shoulder to shoulder. Now there are no gods. No eternal drama of life. Only an infinite empty universe, not even ambivalent to our cause, but utterly unaware of it. These are the stories that shape our reality. These are our myths. And even a fearless Viking would find them soul shudderingly bleak.
The only thing I’m going to say about The Last Jedi trailer is…it looks just as great as Force Awakens and Rogue One. It’s great to have Star Wars back, and greater than ever. Now if we can just forget the whole decade where it was not great…
“Anakin Skywalker is Anders Breivik, Timothy McVeigh and Dylan Roof all rolled into one archetype.”
I remember my excitement going to see Phantom Menace in ’99. And the sick disappoint at how very bad it was. It damaged my faith in Star Wars for a very long time, until Force Awakens…awakened my new hope (sorry).
The Last jedi makes me even more excited for Star Wars. It shows Disney as a studio – arguably the only major studio – willing to take risks on darker, more nuanced storytelling on a major scifi franchise. And yes, also more political storytelling. For a story arc of the sheer size and epic grandeur of Star Wars to work, those things have to be there.
And of all their many failings, the Star Wars prequels worst sin, was the absolute failure to convey the darkness of the story they were telling. If Star Wars begins with A New Hope, then the stories that preceede it are the destruction of hope. The prequel trilogy is about the triumph of tyranny over the republic…how can that not be a political story?!
Anakin Skywalker’s story arc is the darkest tale that can be told. He is the holder of power that can, literally, save the galaxy. Instead he is corrupted by an ideology of hate. His arc turns on a fascist terrorist attack where, with his own hands, he murders children he was sworn to protect. Anakin Skywalker is Anders Breivik, Timothy McVeigh and Dylan Roof all rolled into one archetype.
Disney has a history of understanding the long term value of great storytelling. For decades it only released its movies on special occaisions, and shunned video releases for years. It’s a very different company since Pixar’s reverse takeover, but its business commitment to storytelling is even greater.
Rogue One proves that Disney want future audiences to be able to watch Star Wars as one flowing, seamless saga. It wants to own one of the all time archetypal narrative arcs, the ultimate Hero’s Journey, as told in every culture around the world, recast for the modern age. That’s a product it can sell to audiences for decades to come.
The Star Wars prequels just aren’t good enough to fulfill that ambition for Disney. It won’t happen soon, it won’t be announced until they are ready, but have no doubt that those films will be remade to fit Disney’s high standards of storytelling. I for one welcome it, because with Anakin’s story told in its true darkness, Star Wars will be greater than ever.
In the small world of science fiction short stories, Ted Chiang is a superstar. It’s easier to list the major SF awards he hasn’t won than those he has, and he’s equally acclaimed in the broader field of literary short fiction – all for a body of work that could probably fit within half a Game of Thrones novel.