Wednesday 29 March 2017

An earlier waveform

Readers and film fans be advised. This is another post about therapy that follows on from this. Happiness and contentment are to be found elsewhere. Hopefully in the pages of a good book. Or better still, on the streets, on a good demo.

As before I post it in the hope it might help someone else and because, somehow, it helps.

   Recently, after a particularly painful therapy session, I tipped into something close to depression. I still manage to go to work and function. I still manage smiles and jokes with the girls at school but really, if at all possible, I would choose to hide in my room for an extended period of time. I'm exhausted. A little prosaic you might think - there must be better places to hide. On a beach in Spain. Somewhere on the Amazon. A Nepalese mountain. In an Instanbul market. A Texan brothel. Uluru. A cocktail bar in Moscow. Somewhere awful, dangerous, exciting, seedy, stimulating. But no.

    Wanting to hide in my room was a bit of a clue. And watching Game of Thrones from the start was another. It seems the broken, lonely 45 year old is tussling with the broken, lonely teenager that has been struggling to find a satisfactory way to live these last 35 years. How dull. And nor is it an entirely satisfactory explanation - it forgets Helen, being a nurse, being an activist, being a volunteer, trying to put myself out there and in to the world. It forgets a good fifteen years perhaps although, without doubt, some of same coping strategies were in place through those years too.

It's like a flash bulb has gone off and, startled, I've reverted to an earlier waveform. Or I'm like a cyborg suddenly aware that he might not be human after all. Or one of those old fashioned PIs who realises his old wherewithal is no defence against the wider, colossal forces laughing at him.

I'm trying on genre tropes - it's like an episode of Mr Benn.

At one point last week I got home, and my very kind house mate asked what was wrong. I replied that I was feeling the futility and joylessness of existence and went to bed. If part of me can see, a few days later, the humour in this - I can't stop myself picturing Harry Enfield's Kevin - another part recognises that the depression is real, and that it is functional and purposive. I can't be like this anymore. I can't keep on living for such thin gruel. This is it - there is nowhere else to hide. Or rather, all my hiding places no longer offer the distractions and consolatory abstractions they once did.

This teenager is moody, angry, frustrated, sad and so, ridiculously sensitive. He's watching himself all those years ago create and finesse ways to survive: distractions and abstractions yes, but also empathy and adaptability, angles and facades. You can hide a lot of yourself and your needs in trying to care for others, or worse, trying to save them. To live, as my father repeated like a mantra, day to day. To be careful and watchful, ardent too. But all this is to be trapped in an eternal present, with elements of an inescapable past.

I discovered this recently:

"Prodigy is, at its essence, adaptability and persistent, positive obsession. Without persistence, what remains is an enthusiasm of the moment. Without adaptability, what remains may be channeled into destructive fanaticism. Without positive obsession, there is nothing at all."

It's from Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower.

What shines out at me from that most of all is the bit about enthusiasm of the moment? Can one be persistent in holding on to enthusiasms of the moment, for dear life? Fuck me, this, this sums up everything. And speaks to this, about the teleology of depression:

"Life is teleology par excellence; it is the intrinsic striving towards a goal, and the living organism is a system of directed aims which seek to fulfill themselves." Or not.

The surgeon.

(The unreleased horror episode). How did Cronenberg never make a film about a surgeon trying to scoop out bits out of himself with his hands? All that queasiness and dissatisfaction. All those techniques and strategies, all that expertise that just isn't fit for purpose. All that tiredness.

The astronaut

My survival suit was made in the 1970s and 80s and I need a new model. It's worn out with all the trying and with all the floating about. It has given up the ghost. Many ghosts actually. Am I full of ghosts or full of nothing?

It's a fairly traditional space suit - white, or maybe orange, with a clear front bubble to see through. If I looked in a mirror there'd be nothing inside. Just the hollow shell, sustaining the conditions for life but otherwise lacking agency and utterly fucking pointless. 

Make me something shiny and new. Something old and comfortable. I don't mind what the fuck it looks like. 

Who am I kidding? Of course I care what it looks like. Something stylish please, something cool. My survival suit: an essay on superficiality.

The magician.

In a cage of his own construction.
All that practise, all those careful escape plans. And now, seemingly, none.
Trapped in a performance of myself and for myself.

The dancer

Dancing to the tunes in his head: slave to the rhythm.
Waiting to be chosen.

The PI (again) (and the environmentalist, the activist, the socialist, the lover)

Damn this investigation.
It's going all wrong. 

Friday 17 March 2017

The Power - Naomi Alderman

  The first time I read The Power I read it quickly and I enjoyed it. I decided it would make an ideal group read for the 6th formers introducing them to issues around feminism and oppression – a discursive text that would raise issues I suspected they wouldn’t have thought through extensively. Beyond that I felt a mild dissatisfaction. I felt betwixt and between – a novel of ideas that didn’t feel at all strange or disorientating mashed up with a fast plot-driven text of broad brush strokes whose characters, because they felt more like caricatures, I didn’t care about. The reread this week was in the hope of finding the layers that have made it an important text for readers and critics I admire, and a way of firing up my, sadly underused, critical faculties. I’ve found that there are elements that I like and admire about the text but if anything the reread has crystallized doubts I already had. I will assume you’ve read the book – what follows contains spoilers.

First I find myself somewhat suspicious of the framing device that bookends the novel: who is writing? we ask – Neil a figure from the future created by Naomi Alderman. So what is it that Alderman is telling us about Neil and his view of the past. For Neil this a historical novel, a project of reimagining and of using the sources, theories and ideologies at his disposal to document what went before. What subtleties are in the text to help the reader decode Neil’s bias, his aporias, his theories? How do I separate out Neil’s ideological inconsistencies from Alderman’s? This should be fascinating: such a device could be formally mischievous and ask difficult and interesting questions of the reader but in The Power it felt too easy, too cheap a way to add a layer of ambiguity without giving the reader the tools or the clues to manage these crucial distinctions. There is a strong possibility that this is THE set of questions that will determine your reading of the novel. If you can explain the problems in the text as Neil’s problems and misunderstandings, then you might appreciate the novel more than me. But I don’t think you can.

   There are narrative choices that worry at me a great deal: Saudi Arabia as the choice for the first great riots; and then later a visit to India; Moldova as the sight of much of the action; organized crime as a lever for much of the action; rape, abuse and trafficking as the main emotive levers that drive the plot. All these choices flirt with cliché but more importantly they divert us away from complexity and from the intersections of power that that make that complexity so difficult to rationalise and comprehend. None of these narrative decisions help to destabilise troubling binaries – the US as sophisticated barbarity vs the coarse barbarity that thrives on the periphery; the even the greater complexity of the West vs the greater simplicity of the East. Take the idea that Saudi Arabia would be the first place to ignite or that it is the correct choice for this text to focus on. It becomes a lazy shorthand for OPPRESSION rather than giving a sense of how women’s oppression intersects with profound religious belief, with class tensions and the privileges of wealth. It’s easy to hate the Saudi Arabian state for all kinds of reasons, and I do, but its use here doesn’t help me to understand the world’s complexities in any depth whatsoever.

Moreover, there is no sense in the book of how class tensions would play out more generally. How would conservative and Conservative women behave in the West? How would progressives – a left liberal alliance perhaps, combat the tensions and violence? How might men and women unite? How would the institutions of capitalism respond?  In a book that is a huge What if?, and a heady provocation, there are far too many ideas that go unexplored.

However, I’d go further - the text doesn’t know how to answer them or doesn’t judge them to be important enough. Late in the book Neil inserts some more portentous philosophizing in to his account, echoing the religious and scriptural tone of other parts of the text. Roxy and Tunde are wondering how humans could behave SO badly:

“One of them says, ‘Because they could’

That is the only answer there ever is” (287)

And then at the start of the next chapter:

“These things are happening all at once. These things are the one thing. They are the inevitable result of all that went before. The power seeks its outlet. These things have happened before, they will happen again. These things are always happening…..For the earth is filled with violence, and every living thing has lost its way.”

   Neil injects into his narrative the sense of history as circular and a religious understanding of the world that is moral and inevitable combining reactionary ideas about original sin and human nature. There is the sense in the book of course that the primacy of religious understanding in our world would mean that massive changes or catastrophes will be understood by large numbers of people in religious terms and manipulated and used by others. Good, that’s one of the things I like about the text. But there is nothing in the text that even begins to suggest that agency and organisation might combat these forces and ideas. Fine, on one reading this could be part of Alderman’s vision of the future - that Neil cannot imagine human agency, organisation or resistance. But I don’t think that’s a wholly satisfactory conclusion. In the final exchanges Neil can question what is natural, he is sensibly cautious about the merits of evolutionary psychology, he can hypothesize about gender and argue over history: “the way we think our past informs what we think is possible today” (334). I think the unresolved contradictions and gaps are Alderman’s.

   The book’s epigram is from Samuel: “The people came to Samuel and said: Place a King over us, to guide us.” But ‘the people’ do not take on Samuel’s warnings. Late in the novel we learn that the voice in Allie’s head may have been that of Samuel – in this I admire Alderman’s construction of Neil’s cleverness: what a fabulous conceit. Samuel lays it all out for Allie in her great moment of crisis (318-320) and the bottom line is this: everything is really complicated and ‘the people’ always want to defer to powerful leaders. A reader could easily accuse the text at this stage of being somewhat trite but I won’t go that far – there is an element of humour in the passage that unburdens it somewhat and I like the way some of Samuel’s language here mirrors part of the Book of Eve (330). No, the main problem is that nowhere does the text try to answer why ‘the people’ will always defer to the powerful, if indeed they do. The reader might be reminded of a Churchill quote “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. For politicians, and despairing liberals, the problem, and the solution, always comes back to the poor judgement of ‘the people’ rather than the institutions and structures that impoverish, alienate and deter wide sections of our communities.

   Neil’s account provides us with some evidence of course, you see the slick operations of US capital as Margot climbs the slippery pole to the top and increasingly becomes embroiled with the military industrial complex; you see the inanity of the media; you get insights into the influence of religious ideology – this is especially well done since his account returns again and again to those segments of religious language: “The end of all flesh is near, because the Earth is filled with violence. Therefore, build an ark.” (325) ; you get to see the opportunism involved with Imperialism, on various sides. But it really is all incredibly superficial. There is also the mystery of power. It’s a while since I read Foucault but I remember being annoyed by the notions of diffuse and omnipresent power that cropped up again and again in critical theory when postmodernism and post structuralism were the dominant discourses back in the day. The text infers a similar entity but it’s one I don’t accept; complexity – yes, of course, but something that is infinite, scattered and inexplicable, no.

   It seems to me that The Power might be one of those texts that has already been outdone by our mad, perverse and apocalyptic days. It’s not just that climate change overshadows everything, though it does, but that the crisis of capitalism and neoliberalism, accelerating technological change and many other factors are creating the conditions for new expressions of older phenomenon. I’ve realised, reading the Clarke books this year, that I want texts that help me understand what is emerging. And I’ve realised, more than ever before, that this is probably a really stupid expectation. Authors face the same contradictory ideologies, they have the same desires and hopes, they are open to the illusions of liberalism, the prospect of despair, the bias of the media. I hate Brexit and the racism it has unleashed but I recognise that Europe is no answer either. You only have to think about the bodies amassing in the Mediterranean and the way Greece was crushed to understand that it is a bosses Europe that has no great interest in the wellbeing of the majority of its citizens. I hate Trump but despise Clinton and all she stands for too. You want your USA back? Seriously? That’s the USA of war and racism, of police brutality and guns. I could go on and on and on but the reality is this: business as usual means we are utterly screwed. Climate change will accelerate and exacerbate tensions over refugees and war, over food security and energy provision, over nationalism and borders, over every part of lives. And it is accelerating faster than most of us can dare to admit. Can we fight back the current crisis so that new democracies will be able to make sensible decisions over the environment? Is that the question? Whatever your answer I suspect the victory of Trump and Brexit, the possibility of Le Pen, means that Alderman’s narrative choices are even more questionable than I would have otherwise considered.

So what am I trying to say? I suspect that writing SF is a harder job and more unforgiving than ever. And for me that means going through a process of finding anew what I think is valuable and resisting the idea that there will be many texts offering me the answers and ideas that I crave or perturbing me in affecting ways. Reading Mike Harrison leaves me bereft, troubled, shattered, prised apart. Reading Ali Smith or Penelope Fitzgerald leaves me happy, hopeful, measured, joyful. They do so with techniques, precision and understandings I struggle with. They are profound and exciting.

I don’t expect all texts to achieve those dizzy heights. Nor do I forget the limits of bourgeois art. We live in confused and conservative times – I don’t expect a bubbling up of revolutionary ideas or techniques – how could I? Nor do I forget the omnipresence of commercial pressure, new books pushed on us by a calendar of hype and promotion, shortlists and prizes. So what then becomes compensation enough if you don’t find full satisfaction with the ideas expressed in a text? Fine writing? Formal experimentation? Political engagement? The weird and the uncanny? Emotion? Empathy? All of these actually, though I don’t pretend to understand the alchemy involved in separating out the great from the good. And I think that this is a question that intersects with notions of taste. A lifetime of reading and watching films makes me feel, for the most part, that I can trust my taste and my impressions. Yet I can still occasionally be seduced by grandeur and (false) gravitas. I can be seduced by art I don’t understand and sometimes it will be far less profound on closer inspection. I can be swayed too be shitty arguments, especially when they are reinforced by a constant media blitz. Perhaps most of all there is the problem of limited knowledge, restricted horizons and so on. Mystery and uncertainty can be tempting and bewitching but sometimes you just come up against the limits of your own knowledge.

So apologies for focusing on the negatives. I’ll repeat: The Power a good novel, well worth your time: It’s already on a number of longlists. I’ve enjoyed thinking about it – I have pages of notes - and I’m looking forward to those discussions with the 6th formers when the paperback comes out. Do any of them really believe that women would do a better job of ruling than men? Do they appreciate the power and divisiveness of simple choices (of say, a referendum)? Where do they think power lies? And so on. Really good, important questions. There are subtleties that I really enjoyed too, especially the passages early in the book when the evocative smells of the emerging Power blend into passages of religious prose. I like the ironies and reversals in the final exchange between Naomi and Neil. But for me the text doesn’t encompass or explore the complexity that Samuel asserts and there are not enough pleasures or discomforts in the text to win me over or inflame my curiosity.

Friday 3 March 2017

The Clarke Award and THE Shadow.

If you haven't been paying attention (!!!) the Clarke Submission list is here.
All the Shadow Clarke info can be found here. I recommend reading all the individual posts, shortlists AND the comments!
All the Shadow Clarke shortlists have now been submitted.
With nine jurors choosing six books each we could have had a maximum of 54 novels. In the end we have 27 – not a bad spread! They are:
The Power — Naomi Alderman (Penguin Viking) 3
Songshifting — Chris Bell (wordsSHIFTminds)
Good Morning, Midnight — Lily Brooks-Dalton (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson) 2
The Destructives — Matthew De Abaitua (Angry Robot) 2
Zero K — Don DeLillo (Picador)
The Many Selves of Katherine North — Emma Geen (Bloomsbury) 3
Ninefox Gambit — Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
Graft — Matt Hill (Angry Robot)
Europe in Winter — Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
The Fifth Season — N.K. Jemisin (Orbit) 2
A Field Guide to Reality — Joanna Kavenna (riverrun) 4
The Man Who Spoke Snakish — Andrus Kivirähk (Grove Press UK), translated by Christopher Moseley
Death’s End — Cixin Liu (Head of Zeus)
Infinite Ground — Martin MacInnes (Atlantic Books) 2
Empire V — Victor Pelevin (Gollancz)
The Gradual — Christopher Priest (Gollancz) 3
The Trees — Ali Shaw (Bloomsbury)
The Core of the Sun — Johanna Sinisalo (Grove Press UK) 4
Hunters & Collectors — M. Suddain (Jonathan Cape)
Occupy Me — Tricia Sullivan (Gollancz) 2
Fair Rebel — Steph Swainston (Gollancz) 2
Central Station — Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing) 4
Radiance — Catherynne M. Valente (Corsair)
The Underground Railroad — Colson Whitehead (Fleet) 5
The Arrival of the Missives — Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories) 2
Azanian Bridges — Nick Wood (NewCon Press) 2
The Lost Time Accidents — John Wray (Canongate)
Notable books that have missed out on Sharke discussion? Maybe these:
All the Birds in the Sky — Charlie Jane Anders (Titan)
Daughter of Eden — Chris Beckett (Daughter of Eden)
The Wolf Road — Beth Lewis (Borough)
The Corporation Wars: Dissidence — Ken MacLeod (Orbit)
Into Everywhere — Paul McAuley (Gollancz)
This Census-Taker — China Miéville (Picador)
After Atlas — Emma Newman (Roc)
The Sudden Appearance of Hope — Claire North (Orbit)
Revenger — Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz)
Underground Airlines — Ben Winters (Century)
 Feel free to analyse away to your hearts content!
   Of the 37 books here I’ve read 16 so add in a few extras for various reasons and that leaves me about 25 to read before May 3rd when the shortlist is announced. I won’t read that many as I have too far too much else to read and do so I’ll have to prioritise.
   How many? Will I do it? Will I stop caring? I’m not sure.
   I’ve read quite a few of these books over the last 2 weeks and my sense so far is that I’ve read some good books – thete are lots of good things about the Sinisalo and the Kavenna is excellent - but nothing as remarkable as those I read last year – like Whitehead, Tidhar and Whiteley. [I’d add Swainston to those three but I haven’t got to Fair Rebel yet]

   Part of the problem perhaps is that I have been reading other remarkable novels in 2017: older classics from Penelope Fitzgerald, Doris Lessing, Muriel Spark and Alan Garner plus contemporary stuff from Han Kang and Dana Spiotta. These novels manage to be uncanny, weird, complex and profound in ways that leave those others severely wanting I’m afraid. That is vaguely disappointing perhaps, but it’s the process - of making me think through more closely than ever why I’m reading, what I value, and a variety of issues surrounding genre fiction – that is proving to be key.
   I’m really looking forward to all the posts and discussions from the Shadow Clarke jurors.