Monday, 14 July 2014

Michael Bay (dir), Transformers 4: Age of Extinction (2014)

My review of this wearyingly long, loud, empty movie is over at Strange Horizons now. I won't lie: the review started out as snark. And continues as snark for quite a long time. But then, mirabile, it turns into something a little more substantial in terms of argument. In fact the more I think about the final point I make, the more I wonder whether I'm not onto something quite important.

I was tempted to dilate upon it whilst writing the review, but I'd already blown thousands of words on The Snark and accordingly, we can be honest, gone on more than long enough. But I can treat this blog as an annex to the original piece (especially since the comments facility is down over there) and think through a little more about what I was trying to say.

The germ of the idea was thinking about how oddly miscast Wahlberg is in his eccentric-inventor-father role. This is not a dig at Wahlberg as such; more star than actor and a player with a very limited range, but someone who's proved able to bring real charm and charisma to some of his previous roles. Not to this one, though. And actually my point isn't about that. It's about Wahlberg's pumped-up musculature, and the film's unexamined assumption that a reclusive parochial inventor guy who works in a barn would also be an 'if-the-bar-ain't-bendin-you're-just-pretendin' style bodybuilder.

So, there's an entire cultural history to be written about the way ideals of masculine beauty have morphed from slender-elegant-aristo to bulging-toned-musclebound. This isn't just about bulk: Sean Connery was a bulky, strong-looking individual. It is about muscle definition: that's the look, nowadays. Why spend all the time and money to acquire such a body? For it is both extremely time-consuming and expensive. Worse, it is fleeting: without continual injections of time and money it melts away, or turns to flab. Of course, one way of 'reading' it is to see it in terms of Late Capitalism. Gym membership is a perfect commodity: something expensive and vacuous that must be repeatedly paid for over and over, like a sort-of healthy version of a cigarette habit.

But for the moment I'm thinking about it from the other side. Why acquire such a body? What do you get out of it?  'Well,' you could reply: 'I do it because it makes me strong; because it makes me fit; and because it makes me attractive to sexual partners.' The strength is, surely, almost an irrelevance (that's almost its point -- the possession of such superfluous strength in a society where machinery do all the heavy lifting is like a peacock's-tail thing). Fitness can be acquired much more cheaply and easily by cycling to work or jogging. The third is salient, though. I spent several years attending a gym, before my present marriage; and it was in large part to make myself 'look good'. I'd guess that the same motive brought most of the other attendees to that vanity factory too: floor-to-ceiling mirrors on every wall, and both men and women narcissising into them throughout their workouts.  But in what way does having a six-pack, huge muscular arms and plumped up pectorals make you more sexually attractive? You're at liberty to say 'they don't, I don't fancy such types'. That's as may be. My point is that what Schwarzenegger, Stallone or (now) 'The Rock', Hugh Jackman or Wahlberg physiques do is take elements of the male body other people may find attractive and make them more obvious. That's why definition, rather than just bulk, is key. There's a equivalent process in female 'beauty': boob jobs, liposuction and botox-lips all renders female secondary sexual characteristics more obvious.

Now, of course, where sexual allure is concerned these are not the only games in town. Human sexuality being both as protean and as diverse as it is, it would be surprising if they were. But they are indices of a broader cultural logic. It relates to film, I think, because film has become the prime medium of obviousness. It needn't be (there's nothing obvious about late Tarkovsky); but it has. This feeds, I think, off the fact that cinema and TV is, formally as it were, less well suited to interiority than the novel; but cinema as a discourse, and cinema-goers by feeding the beast, have resulted in a sort of aesthetics of gigantic obviousness coming to dominance. Bigger, brasher, more colourful, noisier, longer (oh my God longer: what purpose does the bloat of running times serve, except to inflate production costs and make cinema-goers buttocks go numb? Nobody likes it. It's the filmic equivalent of Hugh Jackman's prodigious pecs). Lest verisimilitude slip past the viewers' ken, the dominant has opted for more obvious tropes and symbols: cartoon heroes, jaw-dropping special effects, everything on a gigantic scale, shock and awe.

I need to be clear: I'm not grumping. I love many of the movies that this logic has produced; and I can see the appeal of the Obvious. I just wonder why it has taken contemporary culture by storm. It's not that people are dumb: broadly speaking, people are not dumb. Nor is it a process of infantilisation: children are often not obvious, and are in fact more often in love with secrets, hiding-away, games that grown-ups don't understand and so on.

Indeed, I wonder (this is early-stage speculation, and necessarily spit-balling) if there's not something larger going on. Once upon a time, and not that long ago either, 'knowledge' was an esoteric matter, and many things were hidden away from the profane. But the extraordinary explosion in internet coverage, the range of online content and the breathtaking ingenuity of search engines means that Everything -- all the accumulated wisdom and learning of humanity over the last five thousand years -- is Obvious. It's all right there; all stacked on the infinitely-long front shelf, a few finger strokes away. I'm not sure it's yet sunk in how profound a change this represents. One consequence is that we may start to regard stuff previously rendered valuable by its scarcity (the Mona Lisa; the hermetic corpus; the notebooks of Leonardo) as mere trash, simply because we can so easily access them. But that would be a rather depressing development. I wonder if the reverse isn't starting to happen: and the very obviousness of culture, art and science don't revert a kind of glamour back upon obviousness itself.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

What do you call a wolf with body odour?

I've reviewed this, over on Strange Horizons. Before composing that review I decided the most appropriate thing I could so was to unleash my carnal fury.

Friday, 4 July 2014

They're here ...

Courtesy of the estimable Ian Whates, supremo of Newcon Press, the publisher of this collection. Prepare ye for a blitzkrieg wall-to-wall promoting-of-the-book on this like-named blog as soon as it is officially published. And thereafter. Ye have been warned!

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Jeremy Frommer and Rick Swartz (eds), The Mind's Eye: The Art of Omni (2014)

When I was growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s, and loving Science Fiction, Omni seemed to me just about the most sophisticated and coolest magazine in the world. This was partly because it published prose by William Gibson's ("Burning Chrome" and "Johnny Mnemonic" both first appeared there), William S. Burroughs, Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Carroll and others. But it was, I can be honest, mostly because of the jaw-dropping visuals, art by H. R. Giger, De Es Schwertberger and Rallé amongst many others.

So this handsome coffee-table book of 'The Art of Omni' (just out: here's a link to the US amazon page) is an absolute delight. These are images you can pore over; a succession of beautiful and estranging and striking and memorable pieces of visual art. The stuff in here runs the aesthetic gamut, from intriguing visual pun to full-fledged Boschian panorama, from Magritte-y surrealism to all out Prog Rock Album Cover Splendour. Just wonderful.

That reference to Magritte, up there, is no throwaway, you know. Far from it:

Nor do I just randomly drop-in references to 'prog rock album covers', my little cultosaurs. No indeed!

Did you know that was first published in Omni, that image? [Update: I'm corrected on this point in the comments.] I've always wondered how that particular megabeast eats. Are those cheesestring-like mouthparts thin teeth? Or is it a baleen-ish grid?

It’s interesting, pondering the appeal of this sort of thing. To my early teenage mind, untutored in the traditions of ‘fine art’, and (if you’ll pardon the pun) omnivorously—that is, indiscriminatingly—hungry for aesthetic experiences that made the hairs tingle at the back of my neck, or gave me that curious involuted twist in my stomach, or made it seems as if the universe (or perhaps the inside of my skull) were simultaneously receding and approaching very fast … for that youngster, images like these worked. They seemed to me strange and beguiling and poetic. It's not only a kind of naivety that informs such judgments, I think; and it's not only the strong residue of those earlier aesthetic experiences in the adult me that means I'm still very drawn to it. I am now tutored in the traditions of fine art, and of literature too; and I recognise the naff and the kitsch when I see it. It's just that art like this (as does science fiction as a whole) demonstrates an important truth about these oft-derided varities of art: that there is good naff and bad, good kitsch and bad, and that the best kitsch approaches truths and intensities unavailable to the more sedate modes of culture. Those things have to do sometimes with a youthful energy, a kinetic force and verve, even a crassness; but they also connect with the more reputable discourses of the Sublime -- of sense-of-wonder, of transport.

All in all, this book is a keeper. Wonderful stuff.

Friday, 27 June 2014

This Is Just To Say: FIFA World Cup 2014 edition

This is just to say
I have eaten
The shoulder
Of Chiellini

Which I daresay
He was not
In a football game.

Forgive me!
I assumed
Was a type of pasta.

William Suárez Williams.

See also.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Ian Watson, Mana (Lucky's Harvest, 1993; The Fallen Moon, 1994)

I’ve been holding back writing about Watson’s two Mana books, for reasons to do with that mode of debilitation called ‘but where to start?’ Given my peculiar academic background, and the topic of my PhD lo these many years since, excuse me if I open with a completely left field comparison to Robert Browning. A critic once described Pauline, Paracelsus and Sordello as like ‘three dragons, guarding the entrance to the gold of Browning’s mid-career poetry’. You see what he means: however much you enjoy ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Andrea Del Sarto’, you know that you can’t get a proper sense of Browning’s work without tackling the three brontosaur-sized texts with which he commenced his career. And I don’t mean to sound grudging: these are three Browninesque masterpieces: fascinatingly freaked and weirdly textured, hard and gnarly masterpieces. Just hard to get into.

The Mana books are mid-career rather than early for Watson; but there’s something in them that justifies the comparison I think. Lucky’s Harvest (1993) and The Fallen Moon (1994) are major achievements, perhaps Watson’s single most impressive work. They are lengthy (uncharacteristically so for Watson, who is usually more at home in the 200-250-page bracket), dense with character and impacted with story—the overarching story is made up of characters who spend much of their time telling one another stories, or being seduced by story, and the for-want-of-a-better-world theology of the novel is of a God addicted to the stories humanity comprise. There’s lots to say about these novels. A dense-textured cake, or biscuit, of Watsonian almond bread.

That said, my first experience of reading them was choppy. I tried three times to get into them, and three times was bounced out by a dense opening suite of chapters set at a festival in a castle, laying dozens of characters and both backstory and worldbuilding all in one go. It was easier re-reading them, which is what I have now done. Indeed: re-reading them has given me some sense of what manner of friction caused my initial difficulty.

Mana (as I’m going to shorthand these two novels) is sort-of an epic fantasy: a sort-of Dark Age or Medieval world, mostly forests and lakes, human settlements dotted here and there, socially feudal and conservative, rural livelihoods interpenetrated with magic—the ‘mana’ of the title. It is, if we wanted to periodic-tabulate it, an example of that mode of Fantasy that provides a pseudo-scientific rationale for its transports. The world, Kaleva, is a distant planet colonised by humans (and later also colonised by the humanoid alien species known as the Juttahat; although they turn out to be slaves to an ophidian alien lifeform called the Issi). Access to Kaleva is not through conventional space travel—neither sub-light spaceships, nor any of the various FTL transportations, but through what we assume at first is an alien artefact discovered in the solar system. This enables people to pass through ‘mana’ space to Kaleva, said space having weird and random effects on people’s DNA.

The first person to enter the artefact was an astronaut of Finnish extraction, and her memory of her grandmother’s recitals of the Suomi national epic, the Kalevala, shaped the reality of the destination planet. Hence: magic (‘mana’), the immortality of Lucky herself, and her more-than-a-hundred daughters—marrying and deflowering a daughter of Lucky confers immortality on the man involved—and the power of some mages to command things by ‘proclaiming’ them and adding ‘this is spoken!’. Hence also weird mutations that result in talking animals, canny cuckoos, mutants with powers to curse or bless, farsight or strange glamour. All the splendid Fantasy bag-and-baggage.

That said, and although this is a sort of Fantasy novel, it’s not like any other Fantasy novel I know. That, of course, is very much the Watsonian thing, and the main thing that has emerged from the set of blog posts I have been, irregularly, writing about him. He is never comfortable doing the expected thing, even though he knows (he is no fool) that doing the expected thing is exactly where commercial success nests. The publishers of Mana (my very own Victor Gollancz!) try their blurbing best with the beautiful monster they have agreed to unleash upon the world: ‘a work that rivals Frank Herbert’s Dune in scale, richness and complexity’, it says on the back of my copy of Lucky’s Harvest:

But the Mana books are really nothing like Dune, which—love it though I do—adopts a wholly conventional approach to its matter, narratively speaking: consecutive storytelling predicated on ‘what’s going to happen next?’, different p.o.v.’s braided into alternate chapters with cliff-hangers at the chapters’ ends and so on. That’s not what Watson does here. (Mana is a little more like Aldiss’s Helliconia, although denser and weirder and more formally complex.)

Since we’re talking Fantasy, I’m going to risk a touch of anachronism and compare the books to the current big beast in the Heroic Fantasy stockade, G R R Martin. Martin’s books have been turned into so successful a TV series in part because (and I genuinely intend no denigration of Martin’s enormous talents when I say this) Martin’s instincts are those of a televisual storyteller. He’s very good at creating exactly the right size of character pool for his audience to grok all of them, and to give his audience choice to pick-and-choose which ones they’re going to identify with and care about the most; and he’s super-skilled and stirring the story-pot so that things move on in a way that leavens the what’s-gonna-happen-next?-ness (which, let’s face it, is limited: winter is coming, is what happens. A big white-walker-dragon battle is coming) by throwing curveballs at us and killing off characters willy-nilly. And fanny-nilly too. Really, I come to praise Martin not to bury him, because he’s achieved a remarkable thing, technically. It's just a little ... disposable, after the event.

This is not what Watson does in these two novels. Because Martin’s strategy depends, as does most commercial Fantasy, upon a fundamentally linear narrative elaboration: A happens and then B happens and then C happens, and the readerly pleasure inheres in not being sure (until it happens) what C will be, exactly. Watson’s Mana formally as well as thematically, eschews linearity. Hence unfamiliarity and a certain stickiness in the onward process of reading. Hence also the unusual density and complexity. Two twinned novels. Embeddable they.

If this looks like a critic abdicating the responsibilities of simple ‘plot summary’, it’s probably because it is. There is a linear narrative threaded through the vesicles of the twin-novels, but it misrepresents the reading experience to over-emphasise this. There are about a hundred characters in play overall, human and alien; book one, Lucky’s Harvest concentrates upon a few of these: Osmo Van Maanen, one of the world’s most powerful Proclaimers and Lord of the castle at Maananford (the novels are notionally narrated by Osmo’s bibliophile and superannuated father) is one; Lucky herself another; and one of Lucky’s many daughters, Jatta, is a third. Jatta has been seduced by an alien Juttahat in disguise, and has given birth to ‘demon Jack’, a young boy with copper-coloured skin who grows at a vastly accelerated rate; by the second book he is having kids of his own. Osmo is a slightly unhinged nobleman, liable to tumble into love, or lash out at someone with a proclamation (‘it is spoken!’) that immediately assumes the iron force of inevitability. His near phobia where mutants are concerned leads him to banish Jatta and her uncanny child. Lucky, meanwhile, is trying to locate a second ‘Ukko’, like the one that transported them all to Kaleva in the first place, which she thinks is growing somewhere on the planet. Book two pays off some of the tensions developed in book one, with Kaleva falling into war, Lucky widowed, Osmo on the rise and the mysterious plotting of the alien races—of which impregnating Jatta was one play—becoming clearer.

There is an elaborate, and in places even an over-elaborate, placement at work in this book, which in turn leads me to wonder if Mana isn’t actually about balancing past and future, remediating the interaction of Fantasy and SF, situating the geometry of the imaginary—about, in other words, centralness. The work stands at its (as it were) centrally in the Watson canon not merely by virtue of its chronological position in his career from the late 1960s to the present day. It is a work formally embedded simultaneously in the mythic tradition of the Finnish Kalevala and in Watson’s own oeuvre—the intricate interweaving of myth and science pick up fascinations from the earliest books, just as the ‘mockymen’ mutants look forward to the thus-titled 2003 novella novel.

We could put it this way: the Mana books are ‘embedded’ in the larger frame of the various Kalevala stories, much as Joyce’s Ulysses is embedded within a structurally and thematically conceived framing version of the Odyssey. One way of reading a novel like this is to test our experience against our knowledge of the frame text, such that we mark the similarities and differences between (for instance) Väinämöinen and Watson’s Osmo. In fact, this frame is recursive in Mana in a way not true of Ulysses, because the SF conceit of the whole gives Watson an in-story rationalisation for why his alien world so closely resembles the Finnish national epic—because Lucky Sariola, the first human astronaut to enter the Ukka ‘portal’ (or whatever it is) that connects our solar system with this alien world had a head full of the Kalevala. The Ukko, it seems, is story-hungry:
The Ukko likes to hear stories over and over again. That’s how it directs itself. It finds a place in the galaxy where stories can belong, and come to life. To the world where they were belong, and come to life. Then it heads back to the origin of the stories. To the world where they were born. It travels to and fro. And people emigrate in it, like fleas in a dog’s coat. Talkative fleas—telling it over and over again the stories that please it and propel it. Always the same stories. It insists on that. Different stories might lead elsewhere. [Lucky’s Harvest, 114-15]
This is a nice-enough satire upon SF Fandom, of course—‘always the same stories’—given piquancy by the fact that Watson is just the writer not to peddle his readership the same stories over and over again (The Watsoniad: An Epic Fantasy in 28 Fat Installments! Vol 3, In Which Doris Gets Her Oats). But it’s a recursive conceit as well; the talkative fleas glancing at those famous insects that have smaller fleas upon their backs to bite ’em/Which smaller fleas have smaller fleas/And so—I forget how this rhyme ends. Mana is a story about stories, or a set of interlocking stories about Story; but what sets it apart from this, we can be honest, fairly crowded subgenre of the metatextual involutes is its choice of Frame. Because the Kalevala is both the ancient Suomi mythic poetry (the ‘Matter of Finland’) and the Joseph Smith-like confection of a specific 19th-century individual Elias Lönnrot. Of all the national epic poems, the Kalevala is the closest to a work of contemporary fantastika; as if The Lord of the Rings were taken by the English instead of Beowulf as the actual repository of national storytelling and identity. (Something like that may actually have happened, or may be happening at the moment in my homeland, now that I come to think of it). I daresay there are Finns who will not be flattered at the comparison between Lönnrot and Smith. Still, it's a suggestive linkage.

Though born within three years of one another they were, of course, very different sorts of person. Having written a quite skilfully pastiched neo-KJV, Smith’s next move was to present it to the world as transcendentally inspired, as proceeding literally from out of the world. Harold Bloom has some fascinating things to say about the way Mormonism mediates a set of specifically American concerns, and The Book of Mormon exists in a strange tension between its archaic manner and purported history and its theology—of a new testament, the New World and an open-ended future. To read The Book of Mormon as a Fantasy novel (however impertinent believers are liable to consider such a textual strategy) is to be struck by how of its time it is: a kind of ‘High Fantasy’ equivalent to Marie Corelli’s spiritualist planet-odyssey Science Fiction works, with Smith playing ur-Tolkien to Corelli’s ur-Asimov. And actually to delve into the Mormon theo-cosmology as Smith went on to develop it is to be struck by a shift towards a (what we might call) sciencefictional logic that anticipates that other distinctively American neo-religion, Scientology: all is matter, including God; pre-mortal Jesus created all the planets and stars under the direction of God the Father as testing grounds for God’s creatures; God the Father himself once passed, like Jesus, through a mortal existence, to die and rise again. ‘The prevailing view among Mormons is that God once lived on a planet with his own higher god.’ You don't need to be unusually endowed with critical insight to see a structural parallel here: the post-Romantic inspired 'poet' (in the broadest sense) who sub-creates his/her own spiritually significant world in his/her books of course also prises open the vertiginous mis-en-abime, fleas on the backs of fleas on the backs of fleas; or angels piggybacking angels. If you create a world in which God creates a world, and part of that world is that God's world (and thus yours) was also created by a higher God, then there's no reason to stop there. Turtles all the way down has always struck me as just as potent a notion, and in many ways as more sublime, than the idea of one monotheistic Superturtle.

Lönnrot is a different matter. He researched diligently and presented his work not as ‘inspired’ but carefully assembled out of folk poetry. And much of it was made that way, from assiduously gathered variant versions of folk poems scrupulously collated (just as much of Smith’s writing proceeded from his intimate knowledge of the KJV). Still, to quote this impeccable scholarly resource
Very little is actually known about Elias Lönnrot's personal contributions to The Kalevala. Scholars to this day still argue and hypothesise about how much of The Kalevala is genuine folk poetry and how much is Lönnrot's own work. During the compilation process it is known that he merged poem variants and characters together, left out verses that did not fit and composed lines of his own in order to connect certain passages into a logical plot.
Finnish scholar Väinö Kaukonen thnks suggests that 3% of the Kalevala is brand-new Lönnrot's with an additional 14% being Lönnrot’s adaptations and recompositions. But its not possible to know. Unlike Scott, who published his Minstrelsy researches as a separate volume to his (prodigiously successful) Minstrelsy-inspired Scots national poems), Lönnrot silently adds-in the one thing—unity—lacking from his source material.

This is in no way to denigrate the Kalevala, of course; or to underestimate its importance to Finnish culture and self-identity. On the contrary, it is to use that very importance to (as the contemporary idiom has it) big up the way 20th-century SF and Fantasy embed their authorial vision in a matrix of actual myth and theology. It is to say that Watson’s game in the ever-playful Mana books is more than aridly intertextual. It is an attempt to breath a kind of cultural vividity into what was, by the 1990s, the stolidly clichéd structure of Sword and Sorcery.

That the books did not quite do this says little about Watson’s skill (these two novels constitute, probably, his single most technically accomplished and textually rich writing) and more about the marginalised nature of Finnish epic to the European mainstream. The Fantasies that have struck chords with readers have been ones that tickle the buried nerve-knot pre-cultivated in the Western reader’s minds by Christianity (Middle Earth, Narnia), or else by the comforting social substructure of class and education—I’m thinking of Harry Potter’s school Fantasy, but also the myriad Fantasy books that posit structurally reliable ‘magic systems’ or caste-defined worlds. Even Grimdark, from George RR Martin to Abercrombie, does something like this (although the comforting certainly of their worlds is, precisely, violence: that man can reliably be assumed to be wolf to man). Mana is not like this. Magic in most Fantasy novels is a simple-enough proxy for power—good power in the hands of Gandalfy characters, bad power-over in the hands of the Sauronic. In Watson’s Mana books magic is a weird, slippery and unpredictable business. Mages are given to arbitrary and sometimes baffling actions; magic spells have unpredictable consequences. Magic, for Watson’s novel, is not a system of rules and a metaphor for power so much as it is the externalised principle of short-circuitry, of certainty-dissolving self-reflexivity.

This is precisely the unelementary embedding that characterises Watson’s writing more generally conceived, and in the Mana books it takes the form of a serpent eating its own tail strategy—appropriately enough in an imaginary realm where the primary alien entities take the forms of gigantic telepathic snakes. I put it this way to try and get at two thing. One is the elaboration of a kind of circularity, rationalised in the in-story logic of the books as the world-accessing and possible dimension-spanning technology of the Ukkos (as one of the alien Juttahats puts it: ‘all Ukkos are surely connecting … within an Ukko, desire is becoming reality. Routes are becoming illusion, bending back upon themselves’ Lucky’s Harvest, 234). It appears formally in the way Watson structures his story, too: from the largest scale of Finnegans-wakey-wakey dream-to-reality recirculation of story to the many moments in the novels when the onward march of the narrative is interrupted by a loop of backstory, usually styled as memory or dream. But the second thing is more thoroughly worked-through, thematically and storywise. It is recursion as a mode of devouring—the eating part of the ‘snake eating its tail’. These are novels that spend a lot of time describing the food characters eat and the liquor they drink. It starts at a big feast and ends with Lucky and her anti-self, a weird twin called Paula, effectively devouring one another in a physically rendered magical union.

A key character is an immortal called Gunther Beck, who eats all the time and has become prodigiously fat as a result. He’s doing this for a reason: to build up enough body-fat to enable him to sleep for a year or more, in order to plunge deeper into the magic realm of dreams than any previous mage. But his endless appetite, and the repeated descriptions of him eating, serve a particular textual aim—they trope story itself, as both a linear process of chomping through a narrative, as we might bite along a cob-corn (I read books that way, I must say: hungrily), and as an involuted process of internalising the stories that construe us. Early in Lucky’s Harvest Gunther is gobbling gingerbread men, and Watson pauses to point-up this second reading:
Scooping up a fistful of the gingerbreads, the dream savant chewed one of the soft rich biscuits thoughtfully As though abruptly re-addicted to that syrupy blend of ginger and orange peel, cinnamon and cloves—his appetite renewed—he munched three more in succession. Quizzically he held up the fourth between his fingertips … a flat fat little body, buttock-cleft at the base … two diminutive button arms jutting from its waist. A globular head with tiny round topknot.

‘The Mandelbrot Man,’ said Gunther, ‘that’s who our gingerbread fellow really is. Suppose you magnify the cleft between his chin and his shoulder many times, presently you discover a bay of spiralling inlets. Suppose you magnify a fraction of that bayou find fjords indented within fjords. And down there, hidden deep in the hairy curlicues, in the follicles of fjords, a miniscule gingerbread man—who is the selfsame damned insinuating gingerbread man!—lurks, to commence the cycle again.’ [Lucky’s Harvest, 60]
Perhaps this description of what a Mandelbrot set is feels a touch as-you-know-Bob (such geometries may have been less generally known in 1993); although the connection between it and the fjords of Scandinavia is a canny touch. Of all the coastlines in the world, the land of the Kalevala boasts the most recursive. And the dream savant concludes his gourmandising meditation by bringing the point home:
Gunther nibbled the head off the cookie, then bit its body in half. ‘That is how events flow, my friend. Not onward, but inward, repeating.’ He slapped his brown-clad, prominent midriff, and belched gently. [Lucky’s Harvest, 60]
‘Not onward but inward’ might be the watchword for the whole Mana cycle of stories; and, indeed, of Watson’s career as a whole.

This has an unavoidable of-its-time aspect, too. After all, the 1990s was the heyday of Postmodernism, when complexly intertextual involutions were being praised by the academy. The pop group ‘Pop Will Eat Itself’ was often invoked (actually: only their name was invoked—but, hey: it’s a great name for a band) as symptomatic of the cultural logic of this time. If this looks a little dated now it is only because, latterly, pop has regurgitated itself in an endlessly emetic series of talent and ‘reality’ shows by which the commodification of musical product is laboriously displayed for all to see, and we love manufactured bands not despite their artificiality but precisely because we have been privy to all the ins and outs of the process of manufaction in the first place. A new ingenuousness has taken the place of the tricksy old postmodernism ludic complexity, leaving writers like Watson (he’s not alone) stranded by the retreating tide.

There are (it seems to me) two masterpieces of the ‘Fantasy Will Eat Itself’ kind: Delany’s Nevèrÿon books (four titles published 1979-1987) and Watson’s Mana dyad (1993-94). Of the two, and much though I admire Delany’s, I prefer Watson’s—Return to Nevèrÿona can’t quite rid itself of the odour of the schoolroom, a slightly strenuous application of Derridean recursion to the logic of heroic fantasy. Mana flies freer, though still densely and not without some friction. It is fascinating but also a little (deliberately) repulsive to see a creature eat itself. Here is a fable from the folk-wisdom of the alien Juttahat, offered in part as aetiology for the subaltern relationship of these creatures to the telepathic, serpent-like Isi. For the humanoid Juttahat, the voice of their master snakes constitute a ‘second self’ that raises them above a purely machinic existence.
There being a story about the Juttahat who was lacking a second self. When this Juttahat was being told by its kin to be doing anything it would be continuing the same task for ever, unable to stop. Nothing inside was telling it to stop. If it was beginning digging it was continuing digging. If it was starting to walk it was continuing to walk. Lacking its Isi-self it was being a mere mechanism. One day its kin were tiring of telling it to be starting and stopping all the time. They were wanting rid of it, so they were saying to it, be eating yourself.

And it began eating itself, until only its mouth was remaining. Its mouth was sinking upon the ground. Its lips, swollen with nourishment, were becoming part of the ground.

Then it was beginning to consume the ground itself. Sand and soil were flowing into it. Those lips were growing ever larger. The mouth was devouring trees and boulders. The mouth was drinking streams. The whole world was flowing into those lips. Its kin were crying, Stopping, but the mouth having no ears to be hearing them. The mouth was sucking them in too when they were venturing close. [Lucky’s Harvest, 218]
What eventually stops this catastrophic recursion is the arrival of one of a serpentine ‘Isi mage’. ‘What is happening here?’ the mage asks. ‘Why is there being a vast hungry valley with no bottom to it? Why is it eating the world?’ When the situation is explained the Isi mage throws himself, like Marcus Curtius in full armour, into the void. The chasm them vomits up the swallowed Juttahat, and seals up; and the Isi is magically transferred somehow inside the Juttahat species—as well as outside (‘and somewhere else too’ [219]). Listening to this, the mutant poetess Eyeno (so called because she lacks one eye), comments: ‘that’s a strange story … almost a poem’ and tries to rationalise it.
A poem in a strange, timeless tense. It could become a poem. The person who was swallowing himself ... The story only made confused sense otherwise. Maybe to the Juttahats the tale was beautiful and true. Maybe it had persuasive force. Force, almost, of law. Of authority. The Juttahats seemingly had an Isi-mind inside them, a part of them which thought what the Isi would wish them to think, and advised their main mind accordingly. In a sense the Juttahats had swallowed the Isi. In another sense the Isi had swallowed them. [Lucky’s Harvest, 219; ellipsis in original]
‘The story only made confused sense otherwise’ speaks to the way Watson embeds a prosy quasi-scientific (or more precisely: metaphysical) textual artefact inside a poetic logic, or expresses what is fundamentally a poem through the de-confusing sequential logic of a story (‘maybe to the Juttahats the tale was beautiful and true’, with its glance at the final couplet of Keats’s Grecian Urn ode, draws sly attention to this iterated dialectic). In places this aspect of the Mana books becomes almost too ripe … pungent gobbets of prose often flash gaudily from the text, presumably deliberately so: either overplayed simile, as when the dome of a building is described as ‘of callipygian dimension and rotundity, like a buttock presented to the sky’ [Fallen Moon, 308], or the alliteration becomes over-stressed (‘Lucky stamped her boot crossly to crush such a concept’, [Lucky’s Harvest, 406]); or both combine in a kind of feral Manley-Hopkinsness of description—
Critic odour of puzzlement lacing pepper of purpose and unctuous oil of imminent accomplishment aboard Velvet Isi sky-boat. Sky boat having landed by searchlight and sickle-light on frozen pasture to be solving condundrum of captured Minkie-Kennan. [Fallen Moon, 507]
There’s also a fair amount of what we might call ‘actual’ poetry: quoted in-text, sung by characters and so on. I don’t think this is Watson’s instrument running away with itself. On the contrary, and however arch it feels, I take it to be a deliberate loading of selected rifts with ore. This mutual embedding of Juttahat and Isi, which redirects the otherwise sterile recursion of mere machine logic into the richness and roundedness of actual thought—soul, we could say—is one of the key things these novels are about. Indeed, this Jattahat The person who was swallowing himself tale is brought up again in volume 2, and this time glossed differently: ‘was this a Juttahat definition of love?’ [Fallen Moon, 125]. This is to intimate the mutuality of love, where each partner simultaneously (metaphorically) consumes the other, thereby embedding a second soul in their body; the way life is redirected from barren repetition into purposeful creativity. It’s a conceit worthy of a John Donne poem.

There are several other tropes in the novels that articulate this in-wovenness; too many, indeed, to explore in any detail here. One that comes out in The Fallen Moon is an apparently contraceptive charm whereby one attempts to ‘tie a knot in the egg’. This being so food-fascinated a novel, the egg is both the human ovum and something tastier. Jatta sexually encounters a girl called Anni (herself erotically linked to the telepathic Isi) via a hen’s egg ‘full of sweet chocolate. A mignon egg a darling egg’ (‘Anni rotated the egg till she spied the plug where the molten sweetness had been poured into the snowy white receptacle’ [Fallen Moon, 53]). ‘Shall we crack it and both of us lick it and bite it at once?’ she suggests. ‘Until,’ the narrator adds, ‘their lips might meet’. This romantic pairing off is ‘tying the knot’ in another sense.

The second book also introduces us to the Kalevan notion of ‘the trap story’.
‘A trap-story!’ Hilda cried. Her goat-hide boot kicked out. The ivorywood table flew over … That final apple rolled squashily across the waxed boards for a short distance. Snow whirled briefly in the air, a flurry of white flakes quite like petals of icing sugar.

June asked excitedly: ‘What’s a trap story?’

‘Next it would be a nest within a nest!’ exclaimed the wise-woman. [Fallen Moon, 42]
Hilda explains: ‘a trap story snares you into running on and on compulsively … a story-trap, on the other hand—that’s what I meant by a nest within a nest—is when part of a story causes a new story to start within itself. Then that story opens another story till you can never find your way back to the beginning.’ What, we wonder, might a novel look like that tried to embed the former inside the latter?

The plot works through some of these manifestations. Clever machine-maker Elmer fashions a machine that can make any other machine. The Ukko is birthing another Ukko. The dreaming man dreams of a dreaming man, who is also dreaming of a dreaming man. The Mandelbrot geometry of life begetting life freaks the web of character interactions. In fact Elmer, though he has married one of Lucky’s daughters, proves sexually impotent in the marriage bed, despite acting out a series of increasingly extreme B&D scenarios. He is finally seduced and appropriately stimulated by ‘Goldi’, a Juttahat so-called ‘Girlem’ seductress bred by the Brazen Isi. Goldi achieves this in part via a story-trap-y anecdote concerning tattoos.
‘I am spinning many stories,’ Goldi said brightly. ‘I tell many tales. Once there was a beardless youth who loves a maid. Ever since he was a boy secretly he has watched the maid, so upon his chest beneath his shirt he wears the tattoo of an eye. At last he entices her to a bower. But when he shed his shirt she cries out “oh, I cannot have that strange eye watching us!” She shuts her legs as tightly as a pair of pliers’. [Fallen Moon, 123]
The boy rushes to the tattooist, who hides the eye by folding it into the larger design of a bird. But back in bed the girl again objects: ‘oh that’s a robberbird! It’ll loot me and fly away!’ So he enlarges the tattoo to hide the bird, and returns with a cat on his chest (‘oh,’ she objects, ‘but its claws will scratch me’). The tale continues in this fashion, each tattoo larger than the one before—a lamb, a goat—until finally the boy hits on the solution. ‘Eventually there was nothing else for the youth to do but tattoo the whole of his skin with a life-size picture of himself. How the golden lass grinned. “Oh yes,” the maid exclaimed. “that’s who I want—and it’s you.”’ [Fallen Moon, 124]

This is an almost Borges-like conceit: the map becoming the territory, Pierre Menard rewriting the Quixote word for word. Except, of course, that the tattooed image of a person, even when tattooed upon that person, is not the same thing as the person himself (that’s also the point of Borge’s ‘Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote’, of course). This misrecognition is the whole point. Watson’s world is, precisely, not a mere replica of the Finnish national epic.

The machine that can make anything, including other machines, is described as a three-dimensional iteration of the 2D Mandelbrot set that Gunther, earlier, saw in the circular gingerbread men:
A fat sphere twice as large as a very big pumpkin squatted upon a rotundly bifurcated base. On top, balanced a smaller sphere the side of a human head. Centrally upon the head was set a fist-size metal topknot Scores of similar protuberances studded the flanks of the apparatus, inviting fiddling and twisting. [Lucky’s Harvest, 405]
The second Ukko, when Eyeno finally locates it, is a grotesque flesh version of this same shape; a living being having absorbed, or somehow expressed, dozens of Lucky’s daughters in its growth. It lives in a pool at the navel of the world.
The pool was no more than thrice the width of its massive occupant … the torso that rested in the water was a rounded tawny vat of flesh. Dugs bulged from bosoms and gorbelly. Little hands waggle incapable of reaching anywhere. The head which balanced upon this mass was a great brown globe with a moist split of a mouth. Henna hair rose coiled in a topknot so tight it might as well be solid: a knob. [Fallen Moon, 199]
Viewed with the material eye, this being is a weird cluster of globulating flesh; but seen with the ‘mana’ inner-eye of magic she becomes ‘a sylph composed of stars’, an astral ear cupped within a larger ear like ‘a creamy waxen flower’, a giantess like something out of Baudelaire or Swinburne. The echt principle by which a human egg-cell quickens in the womb.
All was contained within a cave which was woven vibrantly of emptiness and space, a great bubble glistening with reflections of itself; for of itself it was made and of nothing else. Briefly the bubble divided into a hundred glassy-walled bubbled. Then it rejoined. The bubble was a vast eye looking inward (for inward was the only perspective) … [Fallen Moon, 200]
In the climax to The Fallen Moon the Ukko new moon falls upon the world in a slow and dream-ish catastrophe; and the nature of ‘mana space’, and the means by which the Ukko is able to transport people, come clear. A character Wex sees distant trees on the horizon, visible against the descending moon, ‘frosted trees like eruptions of iron filings pulled upward by a force rather than growing organically’ and muses: ‘a tree in the distance is truly smaller than a tree close by. When you arrive in the distance you have become smaller.’ And this leads to his revelation
This is precisely how the Ukkos travel the vast distances between the stars, by shifting scale in mana-space, upwards, then downward again—but downward elsewhere. I have an announcement. … The whole universe must in a sense be an Ukko of space-time—of which we’re all reflections on a miniscule scale, yet equally intricate. The whole universe is within an Ukko, yet the outer limit—which is nowhere definable—is also the very core. We are within the universe but the universe is within us. Adjust our perception of scale and we can shift a moon across a galaxy— [Fallen Moon, 516]
What prevents this sounding like mere Hippy spiritual blather is the way it frames a precisely conceived sense of infinite geometry. Counter-intuitive but topographically accurate, it is the shape of this doubled twin pairing of fictions. Watson carves weird crenulations into the turrets of Fantasy; not all of these achieve the full Mandelbrot, but a high proportion do, and that’s what makes the Mana novels so uniquely memorable.

How does this connect with the ‘postmodernism’ I mentioned above? Well, I found myself thinking, from time to time, of another big, complex novel from the 1990s, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996). Tonally quite a different matter, and with a different emphasis (on sport, on ‘authenticity’ and on modern America). But formally an interesting parallel. Watson, I’ve been arguing, has structured his novel as a sort of dyad of circular mandelbrot-sets (the gingerbread man, the Ukka, the everything machine—the big sphere with smaller spheres set upon it, each with a smaller set upon them). This is a mode of infinite geometry compatible with the finite space in which we live (and so I return to Browning, who once defined poetry as ‘putting the infinite into the finite’). It is the decision to put the books together according to this logic that in part explains the bulbous, freaky and endlessly intricate textual structure of the Mana books. Foster Wallace was also fascinated by infinity—so much so that he wrote a book about it (2003’s Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity). In a 1996 interview with radio-show-host Michael Silverblatt, Wallace claimed to have carefully structured Infinite Jest according to an infinite, fractal logic.
It’s actually structured like something called a Sierpinksi Gasket, which is a very primitive kind of pyramidical fractal, although what was structured as a Sierpinksi Gasket was the first—was the draft I delivered to Michael in 94, and it went through some I think “mercy cuts”, so it’s probably kind of a lopsided Sierpinksi Gasket now. But it’s interesting, that’s one of the structural ways that it’s supposed to come together. [I owe the discovery of this quotation to William S Tucker, a PhD student at RHUL—to whom thanks]
Here’s a Sierpinksi Gasket:

It’s an illuminating way of viewing Wallace’s novel I think; but it has a particular interest when set alongside Watson’s similarly conceptually ambitious, also fractally-structured work. Because there is a suitably tech-mechanical look about the Gasket, it fits a more SFnal work like Infinite Jest (and of course Infinite Jest is SF!). The more organic, almond-bread-y curlicues of the Mandelbrot set suits Fantasy better. And what Fantasy Watson’s Mana is!

Monday, 23 June 2014

Margery Allingham, The Mind Readers (1965)

Allingham is famous as (of course) a crime writer; and it so happens that I’ve read a fair few of her Campion titles. I’d been aware for a while that she wrote a late career science fiction, or sort-of science fiction, novel, but hadn’t gotten around to checking it out. Well, the time came; and so I read it. I out-checked it. It got checked over. And out.

Verdict: it’s a strange novel, in good and bad ways. To read it as an Albert Campion novel (which it is; in the sense that he’s in it, although he never feel essential to it) is inevitably to compare it with earlier, better Campion tales and be struck by its creaky anachronisms and paper-thin mystery plotting. The first of these two problems is especially debilitating, I think. The story is set in the 1960s, and hinges on an item of miniaturised technological cleverness that magnifies and directs telepathic abilities; but apart from the occasional reference to televisions and The Cold War the feel of the novel is solidly 1930s in tone, dialogue, class-attitudes and, well, cosiness.

Most of the story happens in London, with two off-stage centres of action: a mysterious ‘island’ off the coast someplace, where scientific research into the possibilities of telepathy has been ongoing, and a famous English prep school where one of Campion’s nephews has been accused of cheating on his exam. He wasn’t cheating, or not in the conventional sense—he and his brother are telepaths, their skill aided by the pill-sized ‘Iggy’ tubes taped to their wrist or neck, and that’s how Eddie, or was it Sam, I forget, learned that the following day’s exam was going to be about Horatius at the Bridge. Anyhow, the government hush-up this scandal so as not to draw attention to the telepathy thing, or perhaps to cover up the fact that they’ve been schoolboys as guinea-pigs (again: I’m honestly not sure), and the boys come to London to stay with Campion and his wife. At Liverpool Street Station they are almost kidnapped, and Campion—apparently now employed in a semi-official though unpaid capacity by MI6, or something—looks into it.

The mystery, though, doesn’t take us very far. In her glory days Allingham was capable of constructing a properly intricate and absorbing puzzle-box textual logic. This, though, is the last novel she completed on her own before dying—cancer—in her early 60s (her husband completed subsequently one remaining unfinished manuscript, and then wrote a couple more Campion novels), and it feels underworked. Who tried to kidnap the boys? Sinister Forces of an Enemy Power. Who drugged one of the junior scientists at the Island and then left him in a room with the gas fire on but unlit, as if to try and suffocate him—only to leave the doors and windows open, so that the victim was discovered long before he died? This mystery is introduced at the quarter-point of the novel and, weirdly, tied-off at the halfway point—it turns out that one of the senior scientists at the facility was worried that his junior colleague might be about to overtake him. In order to keep him on staff—because he was making valuable contributions to the research—yet simultaneously stymie his chances of promotions, said senior scientist staged this half-hearted gassing, to make it look as though the junior chap was suicidal, hence mentally unstable, hence unpromoteable. Mystery-plotting things that make you go: hmm?

The senior scientist who staged the mock-attempted-suicide, and then stole the Iggy-tubes with a view to maybe selling it to the Soviets, or maybe just investigating them non-treacherously on his own terms—once again it’s not clear—turns up dead. He was killed, put in the boot of a car, transferred into the back of a stranger’s car to dispose of the body; but this stranger, instead of alerting the police, moved the body into the back of a van at a service station. Wha? Said van then got driven north by its innocent drivers, and co-incidentally happened to be involved in a large traffic accident. Only then did the middle, innocent-of-murder (but guilty of helping cover one up) driver go to the police to report that he’d moved the body. It’s all very strange, and takes the wind out of the narrative sails. At the very end Allingham pulls her finger out for a fairly exciting climax on the island, a tense stand-off between the elderly, feeble Campion and a younger, trained killer ready to dispose of him quickly and untraceably. But as a mystery-thriller there’s something missing in this novel.

The two schoolboys are oddly written, too: the fact that they are period pieces (samples of a now Dodo-like vanished species, the slightly precocious upper-class prep-school schoolboy) notwithstanding. Neither of them come alive in any meaningful, fictive sense, mostly because of the über-Richmal-Cromton mannered awkwardness of the way they speak and act. I might add: that could have been good thing—it could have added an estranging twang to the whole. But somehow it doesn’t. ‘Estrangement’ in the genre sense of the word isn’t Allingham’s game.

The ‘Iggy tubes’ work because they are powered by ‘carbonized Nipponanium’, a new element discovered in Japan and hence so-named. This also has a weirdly 1930s vibe, a gesture in the directions of ‘scientific plausibility’ so half-hearted as to be almost endearing (it reminds me of my favourite line from the old Flash Gordon serials, spoken by a panicking Dr Zarkhov: ‘he’s been infected with radioactivity! He’ll descend to the level of a brute!') But then again, Allingham’s Iggy Tubes (a terrible name, by the way, for a piece of tech) are not offered to the reader as serious-minded attempts to extrapolate current technology, They’re a mystery McGuffin tinged faintly with social satire. But what's really interesting about them is the way they touch in interesting ways on what Allingham does. They are, after all, a symbolic externalisation of the principle of absolute transparency; and to a writer whose whole process relies upon a strategy opacity, a playful withholding of revelation, a valorisation of the secret and the mystery, such a principle would be death.

Allingham was, in many ways, sui generis. A clever and playful novelist, always lively, usually witty and capable at her best of that truly unfakeable literary quality, charm. But in many ways, and despite the superficial fit of her imagination to the puzzle-mystery mode (and despite, moreover, her reputation as one of the giants of Golden Age detective writing), she isn’t terribly well suited to her chosen idiom. I think this is because she really can’t do menace. Her villains tend to be either narrow-minded misguided posh types, or else proletarian professional thieves and (as here) assassins who take a workmanlike pride in their labour. (Her working class characters are, without exception, grotesque sub-Dickensian caricatures too, but that’s not my main point). People talk about Tiger in the Smoke as Allingham’s masterpiece, and it’s not a coincidence that it’s her only novel to centre on what we would nowadays call ‘a sociopath’. Allingham specifically wrote the book in order to put on page a portrait of ‘pure evil’ in the titular and improbably-named Jack Havoc. But he’s a milquetoast sort of psycho, is our Jack: at the final hurdle he is touched by the innate godly goodness of a priest and, given the chance to save his skin and have a bit of fun murdering the bibbety-bopperty heroine, he fluffs it. You don’t see Hannibal falling down at that sort of hurdle.

That doesn’t necessarily matter; and at her best Allingham comes within spitting distance (though we can be honest: no closer) of being the ‘Wodehouse with murders and mystery’ that some of her supporters say she is. Not here, though. Her two telepathic schoolchildren had, in truth, been gazumped by Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos, published eight years previously. There’s certainly no uncanny eeriness about Allingham’s two mind-reading schoolboys, and I’d say there ought to be. Indeed, the denouement relies upon them both acting like mature and responsible adults to neutralise the potential threat of the very technology that makes them markworthy in the first place.

I’m concentrating on negatives, when I should be accentuating the positives. There certainly are good things about this novel, I think. What Allingham does best at her best is a kind of an ingenious and playfully morbid intricacy, a surface glitter that plays cleverly both within and in a more meta sense with the conventions of her genre. I write in some spoilerish detail about Police at the Funeral (1931) elsewhere. What I like about that novel is the way it takes the limitation of its mode, its airless and artificial ‘puzzle’ idiom, and makes a positive feature of it. Campion comes into a hell-ish closed network aristocratic family whose members are being bumped off one after the other. The murderer is inside the family, of course; but all the murderer does is make manifest the mortal logic of this particular kind of unhappy-family intra-dynamic. I quote myself:
The fact that this solution is so involuted, that Allingham portrays the family as a stagnant, closed circle from which and contained within which death operates, gives the book the superbly claustrophobic feel, despite its antic and sometimes strained touches of melodramatic gaiety.
There’s a whisper of something similar about The Mind Readers. The threat attendant to the stealing of the Iggy Tube is not that a super-villain will use this technology to take over the world, but something more small-scale and individual: that an unscrupulous individual will use them to pry and snoop, perhaps to nudge behaviour; something uncomfortable but still just this side of actual violation. That the notionally main character here is Albert Campion, one of the most blandly opaque detectives ever written, throws this into an intriguing sort of relief. What, after all, would the larger implications of a functioning telepathic technology be? Would it be world-shaking? Or would it join the teeming ranks of all our other many little technological advancements and gadgets? The Iggy tube conveys moods (‘feels’ the schoolboys call these) and sometimes content, but it’s no iPhone. On the other hand, the experience of so many surrounding people’s moods and thoughts is described as overwhelming for the adults who try it; oppressive and even stifling. Idiots and kids handle it better, because … well, I’m not sure what the ‘because’ is, here. Because kids are ‘naturally’ less attentive to other peoples’ emotions? It may be that Allingham isn’t so interested in self-absorption, or to put it more precisely she’s interested in the dangerous wedge-end of a new technology that erodes personal, affective space—and that, it turns out, was a pretty prescient future-fear for 1965.