Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, July 31, 2006

Strange Fiction 7

7. Never Say Never: or, Metaphysical Narratives And 3D Time

So let's summarise where we're at. You've got your marketing categories and your aesthetic forms. The latter can be defined in terms of either negotiable conventions or non-negotiable requirements. The history of SF involves a huge argument which has a tendency to schism into rival camps as talks break down and one or other party insists on this or that as a non-negotiable requirement rather than a negotiable convention. Most of these camps seem to have too narrow an outlook for my liking, but I'm interested in the idea that there are nonetheless non-negotiable requirements that might be identified.

One way to look at it, I think, involves a modification of Delany's idea of subjunctivity, where the genre of a work of fiction is a product of whether the events "could have happened", "could not have happened", "have not happened yet", and so. Rather than mapping one subjunctivity to one genre, I think we start with a baseline of "could have happened" -- manifest in the reader's suspension of disbelief -- which persists in all fiction. A private narrative can be described as one which stays within that mode, portraying events on a usually domestic level which would not impact on our world. Even if CATCHER IN THE RYE was true, that is to say, if there was a Holden Caulfield, we wouldn't know it.

Comic or tragic narratives, however, generate a conflicting subjunctivity by introducing elements -- the absurd or the unheimlich -- which to some extent contradict our knowledge of "how things are". They challenge the reader's suspension of disbelief with events that we feel "could not have happened"... or perhaps more accurately "should not have happened". As the private narrative develops into the modern novel, we see comic and tragic elements utilised, played off against each other, fused in tragi-comic works such as CATCH-22, or underplayed to achieve an illusion of naturalism or social realism. This mode of private narrative, where the "should not" is founded on a sense of pathos rather than incredulity, may be described as realist works but as often as not these pathetic narratives are in fact melodrama, rife with heroes, villains and twists-of-fate (Oliver-Twists-of-fate, we might say (and then duck the rotten tomatoes)).

Alternate narratives and future narratives introduce counterfactuals and hypotheticals, events which conflict factually with our knowledge of the world. If GIANT was true, if Jett Rink had existed, we would know it, therefore a subjunctivity of "could not have happened" is introduced, in conflict with the suspension of disbelief. Similarly, 1984 could clearly not have been true at the point of writing, as the events portrayed were in the future. Again a subjunctivity of "could not have happened" conflicts with suspension of disbelief. Both of these are resolved by a sort of displacement, the subjunctivities reconciled in a sense that this "could not have happened now". The reader synthesises an elsewhen, a fictive world one step to the side in alternate narrative, one step forward in future narrative.

Where these modes of narrative have become genrefied within SF we ofen see extremes, where the elsewhen is a radical departure from the recognisable here and now. As the ramping up of the counterfactual / hypothetical becomes more and more of a challenge to suspension of disbelief, different techniques may be used to counteract the feeling of implausibility, to prevent the collapse of the suspension of disbelief. Rationalist strategies, in the form of extrapolated theories of science and history, may be used to explain away the implausibility with a sense that "this could have happened, if...". Romantic strategies, in the form of generic tropes of character, background and plot-structure, may also be used to excuse the implausibility with a sense that "this could not have happened, but...". Many of the arguments over what SF is or is not, why it should be taken seriously or why it should not, are born of miscomprehensions that one or other of these strategies is the only real technique for dealing with the effects of the counterfactual / hypothetical.

As a quick interjection... I made a comparison between the rationalised alternate/future narrative and the private pathetic narrative; both seek to maintain an illusion of plausibility. I think a similar comparison could also be made between the romanticised alternate/future narrative and the private pathetic narrative; if we accept within the private pathetic narrative the more melodramatic fictions that develop simultaneously with the naturalistic forms of social realism, it is not hard to see that many works which remain firmly in the mundane here and now also utilise highly conventional tropes of heroes and villains. It is the same heightened pathos, the same "operatic" quality, which gives its name to both Space Opera and Soap Opera.

However, it is a third technique which is, I think, at the core of SF. In this the counterfactual / hypothetical is to be understood as part of -- an expression of, a component of, a step in the construction of -- a conceit. An integral structural element of the story, the conceit does not require a rationalist explanation or a romantic excuse; rather it is the fundamental basis of the form itself, the novel or strange playing a role in the alternate / future narrative not unlike the role played by the absurd or the unheimlich in the comic or tragic narrative respectively. In contrast to the pathetic narrative which aims to minimise estrangement so as to maintain suspension of disbelief, and very much like the comic or tragic narrative, SF seeks to exploit that estrangement, to build the story itself out of the strange, the novel, the conceit permeating the text as a sort of concretised extended metaphor.

So that's the story so far. Does this mean, then, that incredibility is actually more important to SF than credibility? Is that not why we so deeply associate SF with a "sense of wonder"? It seems to me that we might easily understand wonder in this model as in the same relationship to the alternate / future narrative as humour is to the comic narrative or as "pity and terror" are to the tragic, as the affect generated in the tension between a subjunctivity of "this could have happened" and a challenging, testing, contradicting subjunctivity of "this could not have happened... surely not". It would clearly be useful to have a term in the same mould as "tragic", "comic" and "pathetic", a term which denotes the underlying aesthetic at play. I would suggest that the existing term "fantastic" is both suitable and simple.

I would stress at this point, however, that having identified three quite distinct techniques for dealing with the estranging effect of the counterfactual / hypothetical -- to explicate it, to excuse it, to exploit it -- we need to recognise that what we label SF involves such a variety of combinatorial approaches to these techniques that overemphasising one will only lead us to unfairly neglect the use of the others. This is the point where rather than make sweeping statements about Science Fiction, I prefer a more (light-hearted) taxonomy of labels like Scientistic Fiction (explicating, pathetic), Scientific Fancy (excusing, pathetic) and Scientific Fabulation (exploiting, fantastic), with the caveat that these are to be understood as fuzzy sets, over-lapping in the field and in many of the individual works which comprise it. To talk accurately about SF as a whole, as an aesthetic form, we really need to focus on the distinguishing features -- the counterfactuals / hypotheticals -- and how they distinguish the alternate / future narrative from the private. Only then can we begin to examine the different types of alternate / future narrative and their different aesthetics.

To that extent, in order to understand the full scope of the non-private narratives which are grouped together as SF, we need to bring in the fourth mode of narrative that Jay identifies -- the mythic.

In alternate / future narratives there is, as I have said, a synthetic elsewhen offered to resolve the "could not happen" by displacement forward or sideways in time ("could not happen now"), but with mythic narrative there is no such illusion of stability offered. Where counterfactuals or hypotheticals are only technical impossibilites, the irrationalities of mythic narrative involve metaphysical impossibilities. In Delany's theory of genre he describes the subjunctivity of fantasy as "could never happen" (his naming of the fantastic city of Nevèrÿon, indeed, seems quite significant in this context), and this seems to be an apt description of the mythic narrative as Jay outlines it. It also fits with Jetse's idea of the "laws of the possible" versus the "laws of the impossible", and with the idea that there's a qualitative difference between SF, which deals with science (possible), and Fantasy, which deals with magic (impossible). However, I think this begs the question: how does the reader maintain suspension of disbelief in the face of events which patently "could not happen... not now, and not in any now, not ever"?

I think the answer to this is, metaphorically speaking, right under our noses. In describing the idea of an elsewhen as it relates to the alternate / future narrative, I introduced a spatial metaphor in which time has two dimensions. The synthetic elsewhen of the future narrative is "one step forward" in the one-dimensional time that we live in, but the synthetic elsewhen of the alternate narrative can be described as "one step to the side", adopting a simple metaphor in which time is planar rather than linear. This metaphor is so common it's old hat. The term "parallel worlds", in use for decades, is instantly familiar, and that metaphor is implicit in it. It's almost so obvious it's not worth commenting on. But I'm spelling it out here because I think it points to a way in which we deal similarly with the metaphysical impossibilties of the mythic narrative by displacing the events in a third temporal dimension. The synthetic elsewhen of the mythic narrative can be constructed by us, is constructed by us, easily, with no more trouble than it takes to imagine a step ahead or a step to the side, by imagining that elsewhen as being "one step down", so to speak. Or "one step up", for that matter.

What exactly do I mean by "down" here? I confess it's not the easiest thing to put into words, but this vertical axis of time seems to me to be founded on a sort of vague notion that there are levels to reality and that these work by different rules of causality. We can see this manifested in all the mythological models of underworlds and eternities, heavens and hells, too numerous to recount. In many cases the conceptual model is expressed as "inside" and "outside" or with the Great Beyond simply projected in a specific spatial direction further than human knowledge extends -- Hyperborea in the North, the Hesperides in the West. It might combine spatial distance and temporal distance (STAR WARS is set "[a] long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away". Delany offers a number of potential translations for his "Nevèrÿon" -- "across never", "across when", "a distant once", "across the river", "far never", "far when". Compare Neil Gaiman's "Neverwhere".). There's often a sense of this elsewhen being somehow "previous" (c.f. the Native American notions of the "Fifth World", the Ragnarok of Norse myth, positioned before ours by the survival of the Volsung).

But there's an underlying commonality, to my mind, more important than the conflict of metaphors. I'm advancing the up-down axis of time not as a literal description of human metaphysics but rather as a logical extension of an existing model of how we... re-orient ourselves in the face of non-private narratives. And in fact there is, I think, a justification in the term "metaphysical" itself, the Greek root meta- originally meaning with or after, but now often used to mean beyond or above, to convey a sense of a "higher order". We think of metaphysics as the attempt to map the more "profound" (from the Latin fundus, meaning "the bottom", "the deep") truths upon which our physical reality is "grounded", "founded". Whether we conceptualise these truths as higher or deeper, transcendant or immanent, exterior frameworks or implicate orders, it seems to me that what we are trying to express here is, fundamentally, an extra dimensional understanding of our own linear time.

In Jay's description of the mythic narrative he characterises it as telling of "things which never actually happened, or could have happened in a literal reading, but encapsulate important truths for the tellers of the tale". This is maybe too specific for what I'm talking about. The use of the term "literal" and the idea of "encapsulating truths" implies for me that we are to understand the mythic narrative as intrinsically metaphoric. In the model of narrative I'm suggesting, however, conceptually dislocated by the metaphysical in the same way that the alternate and future narratives are conceptually dislocated by the counterfactual and the hypothetical, this seems to me to be adding an additional and unnecessary requirement given that we make no such supposition as regards alternate or future narratives.

Because of this -- and because the term "mythic" does imply a certain quality of archetypal symbolism -- I'm going to propose a renaming of the mythic to the metaphysical. And while I'm at it, I'm going to substitute "parallel" for "alternate", as it saves any pedantic arguments over the bastardisation of language ("It's alternative, you colonial barbarians!"... "Ah, go suck an egg!") and fits better with the 3D-time model I'm proposing.

So... what we have is three types of non-private narrative:

Parallel narrative, which uses counterfactual unrealities.
Future narrative, which uses hypothetical unrealities.
Metaphysical narrative, which uses metaphysical unrealities.

All of these effectively breach the "could have happened" subjunctivity, presenting a challenge to suspension of disbelief, but all of them offer a sort of temporal displacement which allows the reader to transform the disruptive sense that this "could not have happened" into a sense that this "could not have happened now". Even the metaphysical unrealities do not prevent the reader from constructing a synthetic elsewhen in which these unrealities could have happened. Despite what their names might suggest, Nevèrÿon, Neverwhere or Never-Neverland do not throw the reader into realms of absolute impossibility. The conceptual relocation in the metaphysical narrative is in a different "direction" to that of the parallel or future narrative, but it is still a relocation.

Never say never, mes amigos.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Strange Fiction 6

6. Crazy Shit, Dude: or, SF and Cognitive Dissonance

Sidelined by our own kneejerk reaction against the attitude that "only a geek would take SF seriously", that "only a geek would expect rigorous science", pissed off by the implicit insult here (science is boring >> your interest is boring >> you are boring), we risk going off half-cocked in our response. What we ignore when we argue the case for SF as scientific and sensible, founded in theory and extrapolation, is that those works of Hard SF and Alternate History which best serve as examples here are only a fraction of the field. Yes, theory and extrapolation are one of the tricks by which SF prevents the counterfactuals / hypotheticals from overpowering the suspension of disbelief. But they are only one of the tricks, and it is only in a small corner of the field that this trick is seen as the most important.

SF does not simply, like the pathetic narrative, explain and explain and explain how things actually are or might be, substituting science for ideology (i.e. socio-political theorising). It doesn't just explicate the counterfactual / hypothetical until we are persuaded that, oh, well, of course this could have happened -- not here and now, but in the right circumstances, because of X, Y and Z and so forth, and so on. It doesn't treat the counterfactual / hypothetical so simply, as an awkward untruth -- a threat to suspension of disbelief that must be countered with logic -- a weakness to be overcome with reason; rather, like the comic or the tragic narrative, it treats the counterfactual / hypothetical -- and the tension towards disbelief that it generates -- as a strength to be utilised, exploited. Like the absurd or the unheimlich an irrationality is injected into the alternative / future narrative, an implausibility which it capitalises on.

Let's call it the strange.

How about some more poems? Like the alternative narrative:

There was an old woman in Peru, '52.
She had so many children she didn't know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread.
She joined the revolt and replaced the State's Head.

Or the future narrative:

There was an old woman in Mars City 2.
She had so many children she didn't know what to do.
She gave them some broth and chips in the head.
She ripped their meme-patterns, installed them in Teds.

As you can see, I've done some extensive research into the socio-political situation in Peru in the 1950's, possible revolutionary factions, and events and actions which might have led to the desposing of the government of the day. And I'm sure you'll be wowed by the rigorous science underpinning my speculations on the viability of lunar colonies, robotics as toys, and the potential translation of human thought-patterns into other media so they can be made to persist outside the human flesh. You see how I've made it all plausible and stuff? Yeah?

What do you mean, "no"?

In those two example there should be a disjunct made obvious between, on the one hand, alternative narrative and Alternate History, and on the other hand, future narrative and Hard SF. The sort of alternative narrative which simply changes the past and tells a story in that altered setting (THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE? THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA?) is quite distinct from the type of Alternate History which pivots on theory and speculation regarding (usually military)courses of particular events. The same holds for future narratives and Hard SF. In the latter example there's not even the slightest effort at justifying the "speculative elements" -- but given that it's essentially a four-line story, why the fuck would I want to bloat the poem up with the requisite infodump anyway? Is it any less functional as a future narrative? And, hell, in the first example, rather than leaving out all the specificity of dates, peoples and places necessary to rationalise a counterfactual coup, I could have (with a few problems of rhyme and scansion) simply substituted Ruritania for Peru and still had what is fundamentally an alternative narrative.

Yes, these examples are boiled down to a ridiculous simplicity. But I think the future narrative is a good example of what's actually going on in a lot of SF; it's a little microcosmic picture of how at least one type of SF story may be constructed and, in its blithe disregard for any real honest-to-god theory and explication, it begs the question: why the fuck should we take this kind of crazy shit seriously? Mars colonies... chips in the head... identities stored as "meme-patterns"... downloaded into "Teds"... yeeeeessssss... riiiiiiiiiiight. You don't think that sounds a bit... fanciful?

We can and do take it seriously, but not because it's "possible". It isn't possible. It's fiction, and it's fiction containing elements which utterly contradict our knowledge of how the world is. We don't have Mars colonies. The only people with chips in their heads are a few loons at MIT who've read one too many issues of Mondo 2000. Identities cannot be stored as meme-patterns. And what the fuck is a Ted, anyway? (It's a robotic teddy-bear, dude. Isn't it obvious?) Half of that story is telling us "this could not have happened", not here, not now, and none of it is offering anything remotely resembling scientific justification for the *ahem* "speculative elements". So how does it work?

On one level it works because these fanciful notions are, to a large extent, conventional. We recognise these as tropes, fictive idioms which -- like those of Noir, Western, Romance, whatever -- we accept for the sake of a good yarn. We know the trench-coat wearing detective is unrealistic. We know pirates were not actually like Captain Jack Sparrow. We know the portrayal of the Wild West on screen is mostly tosh. But we accept them as romantic nonsenses because it's more fun that way. Forget the futurology. Forget the predictive accuracy, the scientific rigour. It's not a matter of setting up a "what if", a hypothetical, and extrapolating forward from that, finding a story in the ramifications; as often as not the story comes out of the tropes and is only bolstered with theory afterwards.

Going back to Jetse's "laws of the possible", I'd say we need to substitute "plausible" for "possible" if we're going to be brutally honest about SF. And I'm not even sure it's always that plausible. The jaunting in Bester's THE STARS MY DESTINATION, for example, is a hypothetical with no real theoretical basis other than the classic SFnal handwaving of "the next stage in human evolution". We might try and justify it by muttering something vague about quantum physics, but it's got sod-all foundation in real science. Fuck it, I'd say Bester is totally walking roughshod over the laws of physics here, kicking thermodynamics to one side, pushing the dirt over it and saying, Look, it's the Goodyear Blimp! as he points in the other direction.

Bester's classic novel may well have rather a lot more to it, to put it mildly, than the throwaway doggerel of my nursery rhyme, but... in terms of theory and extrapolation? In terms of plausible scientific speculation?

So of course your average non-genre reader, recognising the dependence on conventionality, recognising the strategies of pulp genre and Romanticism -- the cowboys and the monsters and the rocket-ships and so on -- is going to wonder why on Earth we take this stuff seriously. As long as we continue to justify SF by reference to the plausibilty of the science, they'll continue to counter with the references to the innumerable works where no such plausibility is evidenced, the countless cases that work, that we immerse ourselves in, that we suspend our disbelief in, regardless of their fanciful content... simply because the tropes that they're constructed from are accepted as "harmless fun".

Of course they too are wrong. Yes, one technique for dealing with the disruptive artificiality of the counterfactual / hypothetical is to rationalise it. Yes, another technique is just to excuse it as a conventional whimsy, a product of the innately romanticising nature of the form. But neither of these are the only technique. Like the comic and tragic narrative, this future narrative functions by making the irrationality an integral component of the story, I would argue, a structural feature. As the comic and tragic narratives are built around the absurd and the unheimlich, so this SF narrative is built around the strange. Let's look at that nursery rhyme in a bit more detail to try and trace exactly how.

The first sentence dislocates us from the here and now, introducing the new subjunctivity of "could not have happened now" by positioning the events in an obviously invented place -- Mars City 2 -- a simple combination of known terms which do not belong together in our world. There's a cognitive dissonance here, an estrangement, but it's mitigated by conventionality. On one level the convention is from the real world, the name-structure of the settlement being in a recognisable, traditional format -- Kansas City, Sun City, Mexico City... Mars City. On another level, we also recognise a fictive convention, the SFnal tradition of naming otherworldly colonies in that format. Given that there's a Sun City in the real-world, there's a possibility that we could theoretically read this as an alternate narrative rather than a future narrative, assuming that this invented Mars City is still located on Earth... but this reading is pretty damn unlikely, I'd suggest. Even if you've never read an SF book or seen a Sci-Fi film in your life, you're more likely to map the relationship thus: Mars City is to Mars as Kansas City is to Kansas (and as Mexico City is to Mexico). And just to seal the deal the extra SFnal convention of the numbered colony is thrown in -- it's not just Mars City, it's Mars City 2. And again this maps to a real-world convention -- the numbering of military bases, scientific stations, rocket ships, and so on.

The result is that the sense of dislocation is balanced with a sense of relocation. A synthetic elsewhere which eases the estrangement can be easily constructed by the readerout of the very words that create the estrangement in the first place.

An aside. Compare how the original nursery rhyme sets up a similar estrangement with the word "shoe", but does not offer a counter-balance of interpretability. Compare also the parseable structure of "Mars City 2" with a name designed to signal Fantasy rather than SF -- where there might be clues in the linguistic roots of the name to the "location" of the city in a sort of conceptual space (e.g. "Katambuktu", "Saint Beaucoup") or not as the case may be (e.g. "Rakkasneru"). In both we are offered a relocation to a synthetic elsewhere, but the elsewhere of fantasy is positioned in a metaphoric landscape of culture and language rather than. In fact, with fantasy the dislocation might well be offered with no relocation whatsoever, or with a relocation to a synthetic elsewhere that lacks even the conventional signal of place which we're offered in the capitol R of Rakkasneru. I could easily imagine a writer like Jeff Ford, for example, beginning a surreal little fable with the first line of the nursery rhyme exactly as it stands: There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. This is why I referred to the "nascent fantasy" of the nursery rhyme.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Back to the future narrative:

If the first sentence dislocates (and relocates) us, creating a sense of estrangement, the second sentence reassures us that, regardless of this estrangement, the story does still relate to our own experience, by focusing on the comprehensible relationship between a mother and her children; it sets up a completey recognisable situation and a completely recognisable problem. One might say that the writer is distracting the reader from the dissonance, forestalling any collapse of the suspension of disbelief by saying: don't worry; this is about human beings just like you. But "distract" is the wrong word. Rather I think the writer is establishing a sense of normality within the strange, establishing the relationship between the elsewhere which is strange to us and the here-and-now we know. This is the sense in which SF is often said to be about the present rather than the future. Think of the sort of classic PKD novel where the elsewhere is a Mars colony in the future, but Dick basically portrays it as 1950's suburban America.

I'd suggest that a good term for this might be "cognitive consonance".

Moving on, the third sentence fuses the comprehensible and the strange, the old and the new, balancing the novelty of "chips in the head" against the traditionality of "broth"; but it also, in following on from the first two, develops the narrative. Attuned to the try/fail cycle of plot, understanding that the broth is an attempt to solve the narrative problem, we understand also that the chips in the head are to be read as a part of this story. Our interest is piqued. Are the chips in the head connected to the broth? Are they another attempt at a solution? Will they work? If so how?

In the fourth sentence we're given the solution in a double-whammy of weirdness. We can discern an instantly recognisable feature of SF here in the world-building effect of language, whether it's actual technological jargon ("ripped", "installed"), pseudo-scientific portmanteau ("meme-pattern"), or a known word recontextualised as the signifier of an invention ("Teds"). Again we see situational estrangement, in the idea of a "meme-pattern" and in the implication that these can be recorded.

The really important thing, however, is that the linguistic innovation is not just situationally estranging; it is structurally integral. The resolution of the problem and the fusion, the coalescence, the collapse, of these... estrangements into the singular idea of "chips in the head which allow us to rip a person's meme-patterns and install it elsewhere" are inseperable. At the point where we grasp just what those chips in the head can do -- when we realise that a mind, having been recorded, can be downloaded into a robotic teddy-bear so that the mother no longer has all these hungry kiddiwink's flesh-mouths to feed -- we are being given not just a (novel, strange) hypothetical but a solution of the problem, a resolution of the plot.

So we can see in this an example of what (as I understand it, at least; my knowledge of his work is second-hand, I'm afraid) Darko Suvin refers to as "novum", the sort of "speculative element" which gives SF is title as "the literature of ideas". What we're looking at here is an overload of linguistic strangeness, coinages piled on top of one another, heaped around the core idea of "chips in the head" until the conceptual mass is sufficient for that accumulation of suggestions of innovation to collapse into a singular idea; in that sense, novum is an apt term. This novum is not the same thing as a genre trope, not at all -- though most novum will eventually be recycled by later writers, and a set of tropes derived from the process of conventionalisation, symbolic formulation. Even when a novum is constructed in a fiction which plays with existing tropes, familiarity is of less import than the estrangement, the peculiar novelty it capitalises on.

This is, I think, what really makes us take an SF work seriously. These novum work, and make the story work, because they function as conceits. The reader enters the story with a willing suspension of disbelief. The writer deliberately fucks with that, introducing a counterfactual / hypothetical. But that irrationality is neither mere thought-experiment nor mere fancy. Functioning like an extended metaphor made concrete it integrates plot and theme, glues the story together around it. And like all metaphors it s power rests in the peculiar relationship of literal untruth and non-literal veracity. OK, the writer says, if you're happy to believe my plausible lies, let me give you an implausible lie. Let me give you the absurd, the unheimlich, the strange. Let me give you a counterfactual, a hypothetical, a conceit. Yes, it's patently unreal. Yes, it's going to throw you out of that cosy subjunctivity of "this could happen". But it's an integral part of the story without which the story would not function, would not be a story at all. And if you just keep your disbelief suspended, with that lie I'm going to try and tell you something true.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Strange Fiction 5

5. If, If, If... But, But, But: or, Of Counterfactuals And Hypotheticals

In alternative narrative, as Jay calls it, there is a different type of breach in subjunctivity, but it's minimal; where, in private narrative the events are on a personal level, a domestic level, remaining within the confines of a family or a group of friends whose lives would never impact on our own, in alternative narrative the events are on a scale where we would surely notice. With Jay's example of Jett Rink, the James Dean character in the movie Giant, for example, we would know of his existence in the world, remember him like another Howard Hughes. This great industrialist would have impacted on our lives. We're not asked to accept sweeping historic changes, but a counterfactual has been introduced. We know for a fact that this could not have happened, because the world would be different than it is.

The way I'd put it is that a subjunctivity of "could not happen" is introduced here, but it's one that's immediately rationalised as "could not happen now" -- i.e. in an alternative world, a sideways step through lateral time, another "now", there could have been a Jett Rink, so there (or rather then) it could have happened. In this example, the counterfactual is not sufficient to stretch the suspension of disbelief. The simple fact that one is reading fiction is enough for one to swallow this minor alteration in the fabric of history.

The SFnal sub-genre of "alternate history" can be positioned here as a form of alternative narrative which does stretch the suspension of disbelief. If the Nazis had won WW2, if the South had won the American Civil War, and so on -- these counterfactuals should surely play merry hell with our willingness to play the game. And for many readers they do. For many readers, the patent unreality of the counterfactual premise requires something else, some counter-force to balance it. The "if" immediately produces a "but".

In future narrative, the counterfactual becomes a hypothetical -- but again "could not happen" is rationalised into "could not happen now"... only in this case that other "now", is a future world where there could be a Big Brother, an elsewhen in which it could happen. Unlike simple counterfactuals, but very much like the counterfactuals of alternate history, such hypotheticals do stretch the suspension of disbelief. And again for many reader that "if" immediately produces a "but".

In much SF, as opposed to less generic future narrative -- utopian or dystopian fictions, for example, this is where the "laws of the possible", as Jetse puts it, come into play, the sciences -- hard and soft -- providing a base of theory and extrapolation on which these counterfactuals and hypotheticals can be grounded. The same base of theory and extrapolation is visible in alternate history, so it's little wonder that these two share a market category.

It's how that "but" is answered, and whether that answer works for the reader, that is crucial in understanding why we accept or reject alternative or future narratives, in their generic SFnal forms or in the non-generic forms written and/or sold as mainstream by writers working outside the tradition. Here I'm disregarding matters of quality; I'm not interested by whether a reader hates a work because the characters are cardboard cutouts, or the plot doesn't make sense; I want to focus on the failures of form, the way particular modes of narrative function and/or fail as a whole for different types of reader. My contention would be that the failure is largely to do with an inability on the writer's part or an unwillingness on the reader's part to sustain the tension of multiple conflicting subjunctivities. If all fiction is founded in the suspension of disbelief -- the make-believe that "this could have happened" -- it is when that suspension of disbelief collapses, I think, that we are alienated from the fiction and throw the book across the room in disgust.

The way different readers react to the base of theory and extrapolation offered to rationalise alternative and future narratives is, to my mind, a prime example.

Here is the secret, in my humble opinion, as to why non-genre readers often consider SF and other such fiction as little more than juvenile tosh: they don't give a fuck how well a flight of fancy is rationalised with solid extrapolations from theory and fact, whether it be scientific or historic; indeed, the more theory and extrapolation, the more bored they get; so in the end that whole counterfactual / hypothetical just strikes them as... well... a flight of fancy. The corrollary of this is that this is why genre-readers are often dissatisfied with SF works produced by writers not used to working in the genre; those writers don't know that the counterfactual / hypothetical has to be bolstered, backed up, supported.

This is because such rationalisation is a qualitatively different technique to that of private narratives which utilise the irrational in the form of the absurd or the unheimlich. In the comic or tragic narrative, to rationalise will actually dissipate the tension which these narratives seek to sustain. Instead the rationalistions of SF are more akin to the implicit social models underpinning the plots of the pathetic narrative. Like the domestic novel, alternative/future narratives which provide us with theory and extrapolation are seeking to explain how this could happen elsewhen, to persuade that this really could happen elsewhen. They deny the absurd and the unheimlich. They insist that the counterfactual / hypothetical is, was or will be a very real possibility.

Speak to many hardcore fans of Hard SF or Alternate History, throw some fanciful ideas at them which you've just picked out of the air, better still offer them a book or a movie where the counterfactual / hypothetical is treated as a fancy, no more, no less, around which to build a story. Watch them tear it to shreds with disdain for how "that couldn't happen".

Inversely, offer a solid work of Hard SF or Alternate History to a reader unfamiliar with those modes and I suspect you'll see the same reaction in reverse. Cued by the implicit rationalism of the text to read this work as analogous to the pathetic private narrative, as likely as not their lack of interest in the theories and extrapolations of science and history will alienate them from the very things which make the book work for the genre reader. They will be bored by the exposition, disinterested in "geeky" rationalisation, by diagrams and equations and dates and places laid out in tiresome detail.

But, then again, they'll also flock to the cinema to see Tom Cruise running from the Martians. Where SF readers will be screaming at the screens about why the fuck the Martians would wait underground a couple of thousand years, until humanity had developed the technology to fight them, before attacking.

Of course this is a gross exaggeration, and it's only half the story. There's no essential difference of inner nature that renders one reader "genre" and another "non-genre", now and forever always. There's nothing to say that a reader unfamiliar with this technique of rationalisation won't click to all the speculation and explication. The technique works after all, so we can expect it to work, in some cases, even on those not attuned to it. Where it doesn't work, though, where the rationalisation alienates interest rather than piquing it, we'll likely see a scorn not just of the story in terms of plot, character and writing; rather it will be a scorn of the "ridiculous" idea, the "silliness" of the fantasy, an inability to take the counterfactual / seriously. I'm sure most of us are familiar with this attitude, from the very friends and family who will happily sit and watch Star Wars, but who, when offered a serious work involving a counterfactual / hypothetical extrapolated logically from a theory, will a) find it boring, b) dismiss it as nonsense, c) respond to any argument that, actually, if you think about it, it is quite plausible with a mixture of bafflement and disdain at the fact that you are geekish enough to "take this stuff seriously". After all, it's Sci-Fi; it's not meant to be taken seriously.

Yes, it is, we say, insisting that "good" SF is actually founded in solid theory and extrapolation, sensible speculation. That's what SF is all about, we say.

Unfortunately, we're wrong.

Strange Fiction 4

4. No Fucking Way: or From the Comic to the Tragic to the Pathetic

So even the private narrative can be seen to fuck with our suspension of disbelief. In the previous section, I gave you an example of the absurd in the form of a Monty Python sketch, and traced it back to a nursery rhyme. Here's a rewrite of that rhyme, removing the irrationality:

There was an old woman who lived in Peru.
She had so many children she didn't know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread.
She whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

Here's another:

There was an old woman who lived in Peru.
She had so many children she didn't know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread.
She drugged them all soundly and cut off their heads.

I throw these in to illustrate two other modes of private narrative, one remaining in the simple subjunctivity of "this could happen", the other complexifying it with something similar to the comic "this could not happen, surely" but with quite the opposite effect. The former private narrative is pathetic; it inspires pathos -- pity. For those of us not living in Peru, but aware that as a South American country there's in all likelihood a high level of poverty and assocciated problems of despair and violence, it never breaches the subjunctivity of "this could happen". The latter, however, is tragic, because it pushes us beyond the realm of rational human behaviour. It inspires not just pity but something deeper and darker. It transcends the merely miserable and becomes terrible.

The comic and the tragic go hand-in-hand, the "pity and terror" of tragedy founded on the flip-side of the absurdity, where events stretch our suspension of disbelief because they are of a nature so terrible we don't want to believe them possible. They seem... irrational, and not in the way that makes us chortle. The German term unheimlich (literally "un-home-like") seems apt here. The feeling that "this should not have happened", that it is against the divine / social / familial / natural order, sits at the heart of tragedy, in the concepts of miasma, moira & pathos, or hubris, ate & nemesis.

This is deeply related to the aesthetic of horror. Although the unheimlich of tragedy is not necessarily uncanny, grotesque, as it is usually required to be for us to taxonomise a work as "horror", in both tragedy and horror the events are literally "awful", violating the "laws of Man and God". From Aeschylus to Arthur Miller, Prometheus Bound to The Crucible, the structure of tragedy involves gradually ramping up the unheimlich until the apotheosis of the hero's destruction. In that simple "story" above we go from Mother Goose to Medea in four easy steps. The first line establishes the set-up of normality. The second introduces the unheimlich in the disruption of social normality; the old woman has too many children to cope with. The third sets up a conflict between her desire to support her children and her inability to support her children; imagine this as the third act of a play and you can picture the slow build towards the character's tragic fall as her attempts to deal with this double-bind fail time and time again, if they do not, in fact, exacerbate the situation. Finally, in the fourth we are given a climax worthy of Aeschylus, in a tragically irrational solution: infanticide.

That we know this kind of story plays out in the real world, that we know infanticide is a very real problem (think of female infanticide in rural India, for example), does not mean that this private narrative remains pathetic; regardless of such knowledge, we are being presented with a disjunction, a deficiency of reason. Domesticity has been shattered by the irrational, the unheimlich, in the difference between a whipping and a decapitation. If the comic turns on a response of "No way!", the pathetic turns on a similar sentiment, but one unmatched by the affect. We might say "No way", but we are only voicing an empathic denial; we know all too well that the world is full of starvation and whippings. With the tragic however, this denial is forceful, powered by a sense that surely to God, surely to God, this could not have happened: No fucking way!

So to what extent do the private narratives of "social realism" limit themselves to the pathetic mode, and to what extent do they, in fact, step beyond this into the tragic mode?

Even reined in, even holding off from the full-on blow-out of murders and misfortunes which is tragedy, I think, we can discern small scale units of the unheimlich in many of the private narratives that pass for realism. Between the tragic and the pathetic -- in the fusion of the two -- we find the mode of melodrama, firmly domestic whether set around the kitchen-sink (working-class) or in the drawing-room (middle-class), but pushing the misery beyond starvation (even if it is just starvation of love, of affection) and whippings (even if it is just verbal whippings of dysfunctional relationships), and into decapitation (or emasculation, or incineration, even if these are purely of the psychological / metaphoric variety).

Thomas Hardy's work is full of impossible coincidences that assist in this or that poor character's destruction. Ibsen's "Ghosts" contains no real spectres but it is steeped in the miasma of moral transgression (syphillis visited upon an innocent son; how much more miasmatic could this be?). These are not tragedies in the classic sense, but they are powered by the same feeling of dread. Yes, tragedy becomes melodrama as it pulls back from the ghosts and witches, omens and portents, poisoned blades and pokers up the jacksies, but it continues to test our credulity with the utter bleakness of its vision. It lowers the scale of monstrosity so our state of shock is not quite so heightened, our suspension of disbelief not quite so tested, but even at the level of miserabilist British TV soap operas like Eastenders the private narrative is not always as mundane as it purports to be. Abusive husbands end up as bodies under the patio. Blackmailers get beaten to death with pokers. The pathetic victims become tragic heroes, destroying their own innocence in their attempt to overcome the villainy the fictive world throws at them.

We can see all of these forms evolving in the history of the novel as private narrative. In Fielding's Joseph Andrews and Richardson's Pamela and almost anything by Dickens, we can see the comic, the tragic and the pathetic as three threads of a dialogue of private narratives through which the novel comes into existence. Rabelais's Gargantua is a prime example of absurdity as literary device (compare the structure of the great "arse-wiping" scene to the "Yorkshiremen" sketch above). De Sade seized upon the unheimlich as the core of the moral melodrama which, in the novel form, tragedy had become. Is Don Quixote comedy or tragedy, or both? I don't know, but there's a process, an interplay that ends up, perhaps, in CATCH-22, where we are entirely unsure whether to laugh or cry in the face of the grotesque absurdity of war. Toning down the absurd and the unheimlich to an almost natural level, we end up with, for example, the films of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, but even in these -- in the farcical humour and banal horror -- we can see the roots of social realism in melodrama poking through, the thin boundary between tragic and pathetic.

I remember going to see Michael Winterbottom's Butterfly Kiss when it first came out. Amanda Plummer plays a crazy woman who wears chains under her clothes; she gets into a doomed lesbian relationship; it all ends predictably badly. I loathed it. I hated it almost as much as James Kelman's A Disaffection, and that's saying something. But I've loved much of what Winterbottom's done since -- Nine Songs in particular being one of the most stunning works of pataphysics I've ever had the pleasure to encounter -- so what is it about Butterfly Kiss that turned me off? What is it about a lot of such "realist" fiction that grates? Is it the fact that, for the sake of naturalism, the irrational -- the absurd and the unheimlich -- must be excised almost completely? The absurd and the unheimlich, after all, are -- I'd suggest -- rather important to making a story interesting. Irrational events, introduced for comic or tragic effect, poke at our suspension of disbelief, set up tensions that keep the reader turning the page.

No way, man!


Yes, way.

And for me these fictions often seem paradoxically less reflective of reality because they excise the irrationality -- the absurd and unheimlich -- that I recognise in the world around me. But at the same time these irrationalities must, by their nature, be exceptional or we would not consider them irrational; and there's nothing wrong with trying to show the reader that the narrative, and the world it represents, doesn't have to be weird to be interesting. The anti-sensationalist agenda of naturalism is not unworthy.

So is it the absence of these that render "realist" fictions "boring" to many readers/viewers, and is that unfair? Maybe so, but I think there's also a sense in which readers of fantastic fiction become attuned to these irrationalities, such that when realist writers do introduce them as purportedly naturalistic events, the artifice is obvious. What truly irked me about Butterfly Kiss was that it seems to be presented as a pathetic narrative when it is clearly tragic. Plummer's madness is not, to my mind, a naturalistic representation of any particular type of mental illness; rather it is an element of the unheimlich which jars with the pathetic context. I recognise it as a trick of tragedy. But it sits in an otherwise pathetic narrative, one which seems to be laying claim to versimillitude; and so, rather than maintaining the tragic tension between suspension of disbelief and the unheimlich, the very tension set up by the unheimlich element collapses. The suspension of disbelief collapses. Thrown out of the film, I cease to play the game of make-believe and see only Winterbottom trying to pull my strings, trying to push my buttons with misery beyond what is acceptable in a pathetic narrative.

Bollocks, I say.

It may well be that Winterbottom, an incredibly ambitious director, is deliberately testing the boundaries between the pathetic and the tragic, trying to reinvent them both (whether or not he sees it in those terms); I wouldn't put it past him, and I certainly wouldn't blame him for trying. I just don't think it works. What I find interesting though is the how and the why of this film's failure (for me), in its collapse of suspension of disbelief under the weight of an irrationality. I wonder if this doesn't offer us some insight into how other such fictions fail for other readers/viewers. We are used to these private narratives -- comic, tragic and pathetic -- but even in modern fiction, after centuries of these modes interplaying, blending, weaving through and around each other in a single work... one wrong move, one crossed wire, can still result in a collapse of suspension of disbelief.

What happens then, if you throw in other forms of irrationality, not just the absurd or the unheimlich, but the patently false?

Strange Fiction 3

3. No Way, Man: or, On Private Narratives And Absurdities

Remember how this started off with reference to Jay Lake's journal? OK, in one thread Jay riffs off Algis Budrys to identify two axes of fictional thought he calls Story Elements and Craft Techniques, the former consisting of character, setting and plot (broken down into problem, try/fail cycle, resolution and validation), the latter consisting of things like voice, style, POV, structure, person/tense, punctuation and paragraphing. The question he throws out, then, is if there's a third axis of Genre Devices, not in the sense of listable concrete SF/F McGuffins (time-travel, spaceships, etc.), but as something more abstract, not tropes but elements or techniques more analogous to the other axes. Jetse De Vries offers an interesting suggestion that the third axis is to do with "deviation from base reality":

Jay then, in another entry, suggests a rough taxonomy, thrashed out in comments, which breaks down types of fiction into private narrative, alternative narrative, future narrative and mythic narrative, further advancing fantastic narrative as a fusion of these forms. As I say on that thread, I think he's in the same territory as Delany's essay, "About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words":

How do we relate the apparently subjective response to the objective quality of "deviation from base reality"? Well, to my mind you start with suspension of disbelief -- the subjunctivity of "this could have happened". All fiction, I would argue, takes this as its base-line. The act of reading a book or watching a movie involves a blithe willingness on the reader's part to make-believe that these words on the page actually map to events. We're not generally troubled by the fact that these are lies, fabrications, falsehoods, that the cat did not actually sit on the mat, that there was never a cat to sit, and never a mat for it to sit on. The cat sat on the mat, we are told, and we say, fair enough. I'll go with you on that. I've seen cats sitting on mats, after all. I know it never happened, but it could have happened.

Note: I've met one or two people in my life who don't read fiction because -- it seems, from what they say -- they cannot suspend disbelief. They cannot entertain (or cannot see the point in entertaining) that subjunctivity. They read a story and remain in the subjunctivity of "this never happened". And if it never happened, why should they care? This is why I argue, contrary to Delany, that the "could have happened" subjunctivity is the base for all fiction, that rather than flip-flopping to other subjunctivities (e.g. "could not have happened") we entertain multiple subjunctivities simultaneously during the (genre) reading experience. Even when we are reading a purely fantastic work, where we're asked to swallow, for the sake of the story, a complete impossibility such as a crescent sun, some part of us is always playing along with the game of make-believe.

We continue to work on the principle that "this could have happened". That baseline subjunctivity, upon which the suspension of disbelief is founded, persists.

In what Jay labels private narrative this subjunctivity is never breached, because the events could have taken place without the reader's knowledge. The limitation of our knowledge in terms of scope means the fiction does not contradict it.

I'm going to add to Jay's model here, though, because, regardless of the limitations of our knowledge of private lives, there are private narratives that we know couldn't happen... because the events are preposterous. Comic narrative, I'd posit is based on exaggerating behaviours and reactions to a point where the suspension of disbelief is tested. A new subjunctivity is introduced when we respond with a "you can't be serious" -- "this could not have happened". The picaresque and the humorous anecdote play with our credulity. They ask us to believe absurdities. Often as not an anecdote, told as true but with a twinkle in the eye, gains its power from the sheer tension between the absurdity and the reality -- this "could not have happened (surely?)", but it "could have happened (really!)", and in fact it "did happen (honestly!)"

No way, man. You're shitting me.

I shit you not.

So, as our first genre device, I introduce the absurdity.

Funny enough, in a strange synchroniicity, I clicked onto this 50 Greatest British Comedy Sketches show the other night (after having written this section), and, amongst others, they showed a couple of Monty Python's classics -- the Yorkshiremen, and of course the Dead Parrot sketch. Anyhoo they're interviewing John Cleese for the show, and he comments on the Dead Parrot sketch: that "you can't believe they're having this conversation"; and "that's where the comic effect gets its power from". This is exactly what I'm talking about. As illustration (and just cause it's funny)... Monty Python's "Yorkshiremen" sketch:

#1: Imagine us, sitting in the fanciest pub in England, drinking our Chateau de Chauclea wine.
#2: Right you are, 30 years ago we would have been lucky to have had a cup of tea.
#3: Cold tea.
#2: Yes, without sugar or milk.
#1: Or tea.
#2: In a cracked and filthy cup.
#3: We used to be so poor that we would drink tea out of a rolled-up newspaper.
#2: You were lucky to have a newspaper; we used to have to suck our tea out of a damp cloth.
#1: We were poor, but we were happy.
#3: We were happy because we were poor.
#1: Right you are. My daddy said that money would never buy happiness.
#2: That’s because he never had any money, the bloody beggar.
#3: When I was young, we used to live in a house with big holes in the roof.
#2: You had a house? You were lucky! We used to live in a bottle cap, 23 of us in the middle of the ocean.
#3: Well, I say it was a house, actually it was a room – all 36 of us, and we had only half a floor. We had a big hole in the middle of the floor, and we used to huddle next to the wall for fear we would fall in.
#1: You were lucky! We used to live in a hallway.
#2: Well, you were lucky! We used to live in an abandoned septic tank in the middle of the garbage dump.
#1: You lived in a septic tank? You were lucky! We lived in a paper sack in the bottom of a toxic waste dump. Every morning we would awaken to nuclear waste being dumped on us until we glowed.
#3: Actually, the house I was telling you about was no more than a hole in the ground, covered with twigs.
#2: Well, you were lucky! We were evicted from our hole. We had to live in the bottom of the lake.
#1: You were lucky to live in the bottom of a lake. There were 150 of us living in a shoebox in the middle of a road. We dreamed of living in a lake.
#3: You were lucky to live in a shoebox. We lived in a brown paper bag. All 300 of us! Got up at 6 a.m., ate a crust of stale bread and worked in the mills for 12 hours. When we got home, Dad would beat us and put us to bed with no dinner.
#1: Well you were lucky! We used to get up at 3 a.m., strain the lake clean with our teeth, eat a cup of hot gravel, work 15 hours at the mill and when we got home our dad would beat us about the head and shoulders with a broken beer bottle and use us for kitty litter.
#2: We dreamed of that! We used to live in a rusty tin can in the middle of the road. One hour after sunset we would clean the road with our tongues, eat a handful of cold gravel and work 20 hours at the mill with no pay! When we got home, our dad would cut us up with a dull gensu knife and use us for cheese fondue.
#1: Well, you were lucky! That was luxury. We used to get up in the morning at 10 at night – which was half an hour before we went to bed – eat a hunk of dry poison, work 29 hours a day at the mill and when we got home our parents would kill us and dance around our grave singing “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah."
#3: But you tell that to the kids today and they simply don’t believe you.

The impossibilities of the claims push this towards the nascent fantasy of fairy-tales and nursery rhymes. In fact, there's a clear reference point here:

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread.
She whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed.

In both cases, we're presented with... well... bad housing, huge families, malnutrition and child abuse. Cheery stuff. But they're pushed out of the realm of possibility by the irrationalities. In the first case, the comic sketch, those irrationalities are heightened to the point of absurdity. In the latter case, the nursery rhyme... well, we'll get to that...

Strange Fiction 2

2. Look, It Just Is: or Authorial Intent, Reader Experience And The Buck

A brief digression to deal with a sentiment I've voiced myself on occassion, when questions of SF's nature get truly tedious:

"Who cares? It's just a fucking marketing category, anyway."

It's appealingly simple, I admit, and it short-circuits all the essentialist strictures my thrawn experimentalism rebels against. If SF is just a label slapped on a book to position it in the marketplace then ultimately a work "is" SF only because the publisher/bookseller has decided so. I don't have to worry about it. You don't have to worry about it. Authorial intent and reader experience are factors in their decision, but ultimately what matters most is whether more units will shift if you put it in the SF section. Any bookshop that puts, for example, Orwell's 1984 in the SF section is ignoring authorial intent and (a huge proportion of non-genre) reader experience, and saying, fuck it, I can sell this as SF, so it is SF.

This is the So Fuck idea of SF: fuck it, it's just a marketing category; if they want to call it SF, then it's SF. As an attitude it's pragmatic and sensible on one level, but it drops us into a circularity comparable to the oft-repeated maxim that "if it's SF, it can't be good; if it's good, it can't be SF".

Why is it SF? Because it will sell as SF. Why will it sell as SF? Because it is SF.

The field is thus established as a zone of commercial viability, with the most popular (and therefore exemplary) at the centre and the most unpopular (and therefore exceptional) at the margins. Popular and unpopular don't necessarily map to shit and shinola, of course, but in the world where Dan Brown sells fuckloads and Guy Davenport is out of print (to name two writers of a hypothetical but similarly spurious marketing category of History Fiction), is it any wonder that outsiders buy into a vision of SF with shit as the exemplar and shinola as the exception? Writers and readers pass the buck to publishers and booksellers, the buck stops at the bottom line, and the bottom line is the lowest common denominator, savvy?

So let's ditch that So Fuck idea and see if we can look at SF as an aesthetic form. That circularity seems instinctively awkward anyway, in the context of a field where works not sold as SF are often claimed as SF by readers, while works sold as SF are often rejected as "not really" SF. Works like 1984 continue to cause arguments over whether or not they're SF, regardless of how they're sold. Works like Dune continue to cause similar arguments over whether they're "really Fantasy". The core question then becomes whether a work being SF is a matter of consensus or conformity -- i.e. is that aesthetic form defined in terms of negotiable conventions or in terms of non-negotiable requirements.

Is it a poem or a sonnet?

We can call pretty much any text a poem; while we expect a poem to display certain characteristics, those conventions are constantly renegotiated by the very texts which are presented as poetry. You can take a chunk of prose and chop it into lines and declare it a poem. Some readers will accept that this is a poem but other readers will argue. This doesn't rhyme, they'll say. Poetry doesn't have to rhyme, you'll say. Yes, it does, they'll say. Hopefully other poets will decide they agree with you and start doing similar "experimental" -- which is to say, non-rhyming -- poems. If you're lucky, after a decade or so, the naysayers will have no choice but to grudgingly accept that this non-rhyming stuff is still poetry.

The same with SF. SF does seem to fit the negotiable-conventions model of genre. A work is SF, one might well argue, because those who participate in the decision-making -- the readers, writers and publishers -- are in agreement. Well, pretty much in agreement. Most of the time. Um, sometimes. I guess. But hey, it's only where the consensus breaks down that you have to decide who has the final say, author or reader, right? And then it's really just a matter of who wins the argument at the end of the day. So some New Wave writer comes along and does some weird-ass shit riffing off sociology rather than physics, calls it SF. The argument kicks off, with a whole host of naysayers arguing that it's not SF; but other writers like this New Wave stuff and join in. When the dust finally settles you have a new consensus, a genre (re)defined in terms of (re)negotiated conventions.

Problem is, this model of genre as constructed from negotiable conventions is completely bollocksed up. There is no consensus. Instead we have a bunch of camps -- see "SF as a Subset of SF" for characterisations of what I call scientistic fiction, scientific fancy, soul fiction, speculative fabulation, symbolic formulation... and so on. Within each of these, there's generally a coherent idea of what does and does not constitute SF, but these camps are often deeply opposed to each other's views. While negotiation of conventions may take place within those camps, the talks between them often break down into stalemates as positions ossify and negotiable conventions are proclaimed non-negotiable requirements. A reader of scientistic fiction, for example, might reject the work of a writer of scientific fancy as "not Science Fiction". That's Fantasy, they might well say. But I've covered that argument elsewhere so I won't go over it again.

Anyway, each of these camps has, to a greater or lesser extent, transitioned from a model of SF with negotiable conventions to a model of SF with non-negotiable requirements. Returning to the poetry analogy, when we call an unconventional text a poem we are making an assertion. Others can disagree, but we have the right to persuade them, because poetry's conventions are negotiable. We can only call a text a sonnet, however, if it has 14 lines and a volte; those requirements are non-negotiable. It doesn't matter if you meant to write a sonnet; if the poem is in that form, then it's a sonnet. It doesn't matter if a reader has never heard of sonnets, doesn't know he's reading one, and simply thinks of it as a "poem"; it's still a sonnet. Hell, even if the writer has never heard of sonnets and doesn't know he's writing one, if it has fourteen lines and a volte, if it fits the aesthetic form, then it's a sonnet. Each of these camps is looking for similar formal characteristics of SF, features that are as objective and as necessary as the structural requirements of the sonnet-form rather than the shifting conventions of poetry.

I'd have to say that I find the actual definitions offered by these camps too narrow and restrictive. They simply don't strike me as accurate and representative models for the field as a whole. I would suggest that this sort of feeling is wide-spread and that this is why the default model of SF is so often a So Fuck model, one not pinned down to unneccessary requirements. The end result, though? The Gordian Knot of SF's ongoing argument over what constitutes SF is simply cut by the publishers and booksellers, who side-step this argument entirely and just impose their own notion of SF as a marketing label.

And we're back to Square One.

Strange Fiction 1

1. Fourteen Lines And A Volte: or, Of Sonnets And SF

The following is a sonnet, titled "A Sonnet Lumiere":

My love is like a red, red fire,
My heart on flame but out of luck.
You are my death, my funeral pyre.

Ripped out and torn and blown to fuck,
My heart explodes with my desire
To die beneath your monster truck.

I offer this, this tawdry verse
Nail-gun it to my dead eyelids
Then light the fuse, blow up my hearse!

My hopes are krushed; my life is shit.
Put your behemoth in reverse,
Drive over all my shattered bits.

[From here the MS can't be read,
The last two lines reduced to shreds]

It's not Shakespeare, and I'm not sure what class of sonnet the rhyme structure puts it in, but it's fourteen lines and a volte in the last couplet.

The following might be a sonnet... or it might not. It's from a series I've been working on called Still Lives:

Grave me an ode upon a funeral urn,
Sonnets of black and ochre, fine-lined grace
Of classic forms museumed in space
And time. Now put a bullet in it. Turn

And scan history as a war-torn foreign place:
See Babylon fall on your TV sets, see Baghdad burn,
Humvees patrol the road of no return,
The trials of grunts. Soldier... about-face.

Will you paint pictures of sweet fruit to mask sour taste
Of spoiled milk spilled from broken churn?
Or will you, poet, as a panther in the sheepfold, pace,
Savage and true to forms of new rhythms -- fuck the rhyme?

Turn as a corpse behind a car, hung from a streetlight, a dead soldier.
Turn, twist and turn poet; use the sharp edge of the serrated volte.

I include this because in some respects it fits the sonnet form -- fourteen lines and a volte -- but it also deliberately fucks with the conventions. It may not succeed, but what I was trying to do there was have multiple voltes rather than just the one. Question is: is it still a sonnet with more than one volte?

My answer to this is, yes, it is; there's nothing in the rules to say you have to limit yourself to one volte. Others might disagree. I have some sympathy for their argument, because I have a similarly thrawn reaction at times, with certain other types of free verse where... well, let me illustrate it with the following "Ode to a Poet", which is most definitely not a sonnet:

The poet spoke a while,
Then paused.
He spoke again, spoke for a time and then
He paused
Again. I listened as he started up once more
And paused.
And then went on to bore us all. It was as if the way
He paused
Was just to add a sense of weight, as if
A pause
Is somehow deeply meaningful, as if
That pause
Is not just fucking ponderous, as if there's any reason why
That pause

Is not just a fucking way of
Fucking breaking fucking prose up
Into bite-size chunks,
Making those fucking bite-size chunks
Sound so fucking important when
It's just some fucking bullshit
With no rhythm and no rhyme,
No fucking poetry or patterning at all,
No literary bite, no verbal claws

Blah blah
Blah blah. Blah blah blah
Blah blah blah, blah blah blah.
Blah blah.
Fucking pause.

I think that we should flay the shite,
Write sonnets in his blood
And then make drums out of his hide,
Sing as we drag his body through the mud.

This does not have fourteen lines and a volte. It is, however, a poem. It's not terribly poetic in places, I grant you. Indeed that second verse is deliberately designed to reflect the type of not-terribly-poetic poetry it is challenging, to simulate the sort of poem that make some of us (on days when we're feeling particularly snarky) mutter darkly, "That's not a bloody poem; it's just prose chopped up into bits."

I include this as illustration of a somewhat reactionary attitude I'm not myself immune to. More extreme and committed reactionaries will often express a similar sentiment in regard to works presented as being of a certain idiom but which, to put it bluntly, fuck with the conventions of said idiom, whether it be poetic or prosaic: that's not a poem because it doesn't rhyme; that's not a story because it doesn't have a proper plot; that's not SF because... well, because it doesn't satisfy some non-negotiable criteria.

Of course, the fact that I present that poem as a poem, means that I'm tacitly accepting that the form of poetry it criticises is nonetheless poetry, that you can indeed chop up prose into bits, lay it out in lines and call it a poem. I just think the result is shite. I like my poetry to have the sort of formal structures of the sonnet. I reckon a sonnet does have to follow the rules. I also want to fuck with those rules, to add extra voltes, or breach the tightly strictured rhyme scheme, to do something extra twisty.

Yes, I'm conflicted.

The point is that what I'm trying to illustrate here is the difference (and conflict) between aesthetic forms founded in negotiable conventions (e.g. the poem) and aesthetic forms founded in non-negotiable requirements (e.g. the sonnet).

The question I'm leading to is this: is SF more like the poem or the sonnet, in terms of its aesthetic formality?

Strange Fiction

Recently, Jay Lake's been trying to "map the genre device", with some interesting results. As an offshoot, he queries the role of authorial intent and reader experience in the decision over whether or not this work or that is SF. My take on it is that these are only important if we're treating genre as a label applied according to consensual/conventional criteria. Jay, however, seems to be looking for some more objective criteria, SF viewed as an aesthetic form which has particular requirements:

At the risk of going over territory I've already explored in other blog entries (particularly "SF as a Subset of SF") and repeating what I've said on Jay's journal, I'm going to try and gather together my own thoughts here and see if I can't flesh out my own ideas on what I'm coming to think of as strange fiction. I'm going to separate this out into different entries, cause otherwise it might well be the most motherfucking huge entry to date (and given my disregard for concepts of brevity, that's saying something). What I'll try and do is update this entry, turn it into a contents page with links to each section.

So anyway, let's start with the question of what type of label SF is. Are we talking about a marketing category or an aesthetic form? And if we're talking about the latter, are the boundaries of that form consensual (and therefore malleable) or are they objective?

Update: Contents:

Friday, July 21, 2006

Writer Unboxed...

... Interview, Part Two

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Big Game TV

Yes, and tonight the three-course Pre-Theatre set-menu at Chez D'Uncan, for all those who scoffed at my reaction to those BIG FAT FUCKIN CHEATS on ITV2, is: Terrine de Crow as a starter; Humble Pie with Potato(head) Gratins for a main course; to be finished off with a nice Your Hat Sorbet.


Monday, July 17, 2006

Photos From Berlin

From the reading at Hannes Riffel's UFO/Otherland Bookstore. There's a wee movie too.

Weekend Wastrelry

It's about time I posted something on this blog which isn't a link to an interview, so...

Went off through to Edinburgh last Thursday night, for the launch party of Alan Campbell's SCAR NIGHT. Surprisingly, I managed to make it to the event both on time and sober (well, it's bad form to make an overly, um, "dramatic" entrance at someone else's launch... so terribly gauche), despite originally going to entirely the wrong Waterstones. I didn't realise, ye see that Princes Street has two Waterstones, West and East. Needless to say, I show up at the East when the launch is in the West.

--Excuse me, says I to shop attendant, but can you tell me where the Alan Campbell book launch is?

-- Buggered if I know, matey bubbles, says shop attendant... or words to that effect.

Luckily it was only a quick jog through one hundred million Italian tourists (and why are they all Italians? do Italians get some sort of special deal? is this a cunning ploy to counterbalance the chill demeanour of the Edinburgh native with Mediterranean warmth? do they ever actually leave or is it just the same one hundred million Italians doomed to wander up and down Princes Street for all eternity, for scoffing at the statue of Greyfriars Bobby or some such?) to get to the right shop, a bit sweaty and smelly but on time.

So this is the name-dropping bit right... who was all there... which is to say, you can skip this paragraph and move right along if you want. Cause you probably aren't that interested in me wittering on about playing Luvvies of Scottish SF with Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod, Charlie Stross, Debbie Miller, Jack Deighton. Although you should pay attention as I name-drop the Edinburgh mob -- names like Andrew Wilson, Hannu Rajaniemi, Steff Pearson, Gavin Inglis which are going to be familiar to you very soon, I'm sure. Hannu in particular has, as I'm sure I've said before, a particularly kick-ass story in NOVA SCOTIA, sort of a Strossian Singularity yarn but with more, to my mind, of a focus on all those human emotions and shit (the things I look for most in a story, to be honest) along with the posthuman techno-godhood malarky. Hannu' going to be *very big*, as Alan and meself did our best to pound into the heads of Peter Lavery (our editor at Macmillan) and Simon Kavanaugh (Alan's agent and my comrade-in-childishness).

Anyhoo, the evening went well, with Alan doing a short (sort of deer-in-headlights, terror-stricken, oh-God-do-I-really-have-to-do-this short) reading from SCAR NIGHT (available in all good bookshops... especially in Aberdeen (for reasons known only to DHL who, in their wisdom decided to redirect a huge whack of copies bound for Edinburgh to Aberdeen instead)) and the rest of us quaffing wine and huzzahing.

After this we all adjourned to the Traverse Theatre bar, which is very nice but exceedingly expensive even by Edinburgh's standards, by way of some strange multicolour fibreglass cows that seem to have sprung up on the streets of Edinburgh for some reason. I seem to recall trying to ride one at one point. It was a stubborn beast, unfortunately, and refused to budge an inch. A quick expedition to a curry house was most fun because I got to chat a bit with Alan's girlfriend Kara's mum, who is absolutely lovely, (and make Kara jealous of my ability to swear profusely and not cause shock and horror... heh). Then it was back to the Traverse for more drinks. Some of the Glasgow mob -- Neil Williamson, Phil Raines, Paul Cockburn, Mike Gallagher (more names to look out for) -- had headed straight to the Traverse, having come through after work and had problems with travel which made them too late for the reading part. (I, being more committed to the concept of FREE WINE, had come through by train earlier in the day.) I had intended to cadge a lift back with Neil. Honest, I had. But, well, since Peter and Simon had a loan of a flat from Alan's mate, Dave (who was doing his best impression of a paparazzo with one of those huge-ass motherfuckers of a camera, snapping pictures all night (which I, as an attention-slut, loved, of course)), the prospect of calling it a night at only two in the morning seemed, well, such a waste. So I begged a place to sleep for the night and carried on in my role as ligger.

It all ended up in a rather scuzzy but, importantly, still-open pub called C.C. Something's, and then a taxi-ride back to Dave's flat to collapse.

I did mean to go home the next day. Really, I did. But, well... Alan and Kara came round for lunch, and lunch involved a Bloody Mary or three... and then a mate of Alan's (also called Alan, just to be extra confusing) walked past the pub where we were sitting outside, and decided to join us... and it was such a fucking gorgeous day... and, well, before I knew it we were all going off en masse like The Broons to see Greyfriars Bobby. I was wondering what Peter and Simon would actually make of it, cause the statue's not actually that impressive, ye know, but Peter's "Is that it?!" was still quite amusing. The funniest thing, though, was noticing the sodding big sign on the entrance to Greyfriars cemetary which says "No Dogs". Just to the left of the gravestone for the doggy. Oh, the irony of it! Still the cemetary was very nice, all grand, crumbly and ruinous, with the requisite mini-Goths and a good view of Hogwarts (sorry, George Heriot's) posh public school place.

Then it was a wee wander into the Grassmarket, which took us past a wee SF bookshop which (hurrah!) had both SCAR NIGHT and VELLUM, a wee stop for a quick pint and a wander down the Royal Mile, and a not-so wee stop for a not-so-quick several pints. There are some advantages in Scotland's No Smoking Inside policy, I discovered, as it did lead to the amusing spectacle of Simon and Alan waltzing past the window as the rest of us sat inside (followed by Me and Simon waltzing past the window (followed by Alan, Simon and me all doing the sodding Can-Can past the window)). Although, OK, some might not view the generation of such tomfoolery as an "advantage" per se. We ate fish and chips by some bins (or black pudding and chips, in my case), and introduced Simon to the glory which is deep-fried haggis, before once again heading back to Dave's flat for more drink. All in all, it was a fucking brilliant day, wandering round Deepgate -- sorry, Edinburgh -- and seeing the scenic sights in a scorching sun. There was some talk of hiding Peter's camera so we might actually get somewhere at more than half-a-mile-an-hour ("Where's Peter?", "He's not taking another photograph, is he?", "You're not taking another photograph, are you, Peter?", "But the architecture is so lovely!"... and repeat... and repeat... and repeat), but in truth it was such a swellegant day that half-a-mile-an-hour was exactly the right pace to see it at.

I did mean to go home the next day. Really, I did. Because Simon and Peter had plans to go through to Biggar to visit Alan & Kara and Kara's folks and stay for the night; and while I was enjoying my role as drunken ligging bum of a hanger-on, I was supposedly meeting up with some mates for Sunday brunch. And Biggar ain't exactly an easy place to get back to Glasgow from. But, well, as it turned out Peter and Simon were heading back to London on the 15:00 train... and it's only 45 mins from Edinburgh to Glasgow... and Sunday brunch as I know it is actually Sunday brinner (i.e. occurring at some point late Sunday afternoon, when you've had nothing to eat all day and end up eating something big and greasy enough that you're probably not going to eat anything else)... and Alan and Kara had an inflatable mattress... and so I thought, fuck it.

So, Alan came round and we all went through to Biggar. Well, no, actually, we all went to the pub underneath Dave's flat while we waited for Dave to arrive to pick up the keys to give to the Poles he was renting it out to later that afternoon. But after that we all went through to Biggar, a bunch of reprobates swilling beer and smoking out the windows of Alan's car as he drove us along the winding country roads, Simon and Peter gushing over the idyllic beauty of the countryside and me, well, barking at cows and sheep. What? Well, it started off as the usual "Are we there yet?" joke, but Simon insisted that was his role, so I decided that, with the window wide open and my head out, tongue lolling, I would much rather be the family dog than the pestering brat anyway.

We stopped off at Rosslyn Chapel (Me: "D'ye think they'll let me take my beer inside?"), bought tickets from a poor bloke who had to put up with our bad Monty Python American accents (Simon: "Is this Wined-sor Cas-till? Yeah, we just came up from Lie-cestor Square", Me: "It's not Lie-cestor Square; it's Li-chester."). We were actually quite well-behaved inside however, on a account of a tour guide person doing a proper speech thing in a confined space where any murmuring and immature giggling would have been bad form; hell, Simon even gave some Spanish tourists a row for blathering on loudly as the poor tour guide woman tried to not to be distracted from her lecture ("Excuse me, but would you mind shutting the fuck up"). Annoyingly I missed this, being busy decrypting the scratched symbols of the tomb and, yes, actually finding the Holy Grail. (Alan: "Simon, have you got a bag? Al's found the Holy Grail", Me, outside: "Yeah, it was just sitting there."). Really, it wasn't that well hid. No idea how you could miss it. I mean, if you didn't have a pick-axe, OK, you might have some difficulty getting at it... but I didn't even have to destroy that much of the Apprentice's Pillar to get it.

So we high-tailed it out of Rosslyn, Masonic Policemen in hot pursuit, me having decanted my beer from can to Grail (because drinking straight out of the can is so common, you know), shook off our pursuers and eventually arrived in Biggar, where, of course, we went to the pub. Originally the plan was to get some Fraoich as a carry-out to teach Simon the joys of heather ale, but the off-licence only had Grozet, so we thought we'd try Alan and Kara's local. It didn't have Fraoich either but, well, we were there now.

Dinner was curry back at Alan and Kara's, then we walked round to Kara's mum and dad's, an idyllic cottage with a beautiful garden and the even-more-beautiful Tess, a six-month-old collie pup who I immediately went into play mode with, chasing her round the garden, throwing her ball, running away with her ball, throwing her ball, crawling through shrubbery to find her ball, throwing her ball, teaching her that quick-snatch game where you sit the ball between you both, wait for her to make the first move and try and get it first, throwing her ball again, throwing her ball again and, yes, throwing her ball again. Tess really likes the ball-throwing game.

As the sun finally dipped beneath the horizon, we headed inside for more drinks, sausage rolls and music from Jim and Kieran, Kara's dad and brother on viola and guitar respectively. There was some attempts by the rest of us to join in, but as often as not their playing was just so fucking gorgeous that I know I didn't want to ruin it. I did however cadge a shot on Jim's viola and got to be all smug and superior as, after Simon's brief and inglorious attempt, I slide the bow back and forth across the strings and find myself, to my own amazement, actually getting something vaguely tuneful. OK, there weren't exactly chords involved, but just doing a sort of high-low-high-mid-high-low-low sorta thing, I found you could gradually speed it up and get something that sounded kinda cool in a punky-jiggy devil-on-the-fiddle sorta way. I'm seriously tempted now to get meself a viola and learn properly, as it's the first time EVER I've picked up an instrument and felt even remotely, well, comfortable with it. I think it's my diabolic inclinations, you know. If it had been an actual fiddle, I like to think, maybe I'd have really taken to it in a "my God, clearly this man is the spawn of the devil" sorta way. OK, maybe not, but hell, it was half-decent enough that Simon thought I was shitting him about never having touched the instrument before in me puff. Of course, the folk with actual musical skill were, I'm sure, cringing at my murderous travesty of a "tune", but I was well chuffed, well chuffed.

But the viola was, of course, very quickly given back to the real musician so's we could hear it played properly again, and played it was. Well into the night we carried on drinking and singing (or in my case, crawling around on the floor to play with Tess), until this evening of sheer bliss had to end, as all such evenings do eventually. Kara's mum and dad kindly put the three of us -- Simon, Peter and meself -- up overnight, and, Christ, even fed us the next morning with a stonking big fry-up, when we finally stumbled down, bleary-eyed and blissed-out. (Simon: "I'm not leaving.", Me: "Can we be adopted?")

Eventually, we left Kara's mum and dad with gushes of gratitude, poor Alan looking the worse for wear but soldiering on, bless him, to give the three of us a lift back to Edinburgh since Biggar is a bit out of the way (Peter: "Really, you could just drop of us off at the local station", Jim: "That would be Edinburgh Waverley."). Alan headed off camping (the madman), Simon and Peter headed off for the train back to London, and I made my way back to Glasgow. Needless to say, I missed any chance of brinner with me mates, but as it turned out Arthur and Meg were knackered (having just come back from a holiday up north) and were heading back to Portsmouth in the late afternoon anyway. So I just said my goodbyes to them and settled down for a quiet evening of responding to the backlog of emails, texts and answerphones, from folks who were probably beginning to think I'd vanished off the face of the earth (my mobile having died on the Friday or so, rendering me incommunicado).

Fuck, though... it was a great weekend. I mean, I'm a Glasgow boy when it comes down to it, and Edinburgh and the country are, as far as I'm concerned strange alien lands of "salt and sauce" on yer fish-and-chips (it's just not right; it's salt and vinegar, man, vinegar) and that green stuff they have in parks, ye know -- whatchacallit... "grass" (Me: "But where are the tenements?!"). But even Edinburgh can be... alright (he said, grudgingly)... once in a while, ye know. And as the pens given to Peter, Simon and meself by Kara say: "London's big, but Biggar's bigger". Judging by the folks that's certainly true if you're talking about people's hearts.

Anyhoo, a sincere thanks to all those who made the last three days so superb putting up with my wastrelry. Can't wait to see you all again.

Meme Therapy

Hey, if they ask me for an interview, am I going to refuse?

It's all part of my training for the "Most Uses of the Word Fuck" world record bid.

Dedication, as Roy Castle used to sing, it takes dedication.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Writer Unboxed

Another interview.

Yes, it's me talking about writing. Again.

It'll stop eventually. Honest, it will.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

My Brain On Parade...

... over at Meme Therapy

They asked me if SF had changed my worldview, and if so how. I said, "Fuck, yeah."

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Rinky Dink Links

Anna Tambour on meaning in the universe, the human gut and a sea squirt. Brilliant as ever.

David Schwartz on the difference in forms between the novel and the short story.

And on a purely selfish note, I returned from Germany last week to find a box of little baby VELLUMs waiting for me. I had thought the release date for the mass-market paperback was August but it turns out, nope, its only two days off now, 7th July. Apparently it's already been sighted in the shops. So any UK folks who couldn't afford the ouchy-expensive hardback can now pick up a paperback copy for the rather more pocket-friendly price of £7.99. And if you don't want to throw money at our Corporate Overlords, ye can always order it from a nice indie bookseller like The Aust Gate.

Monday, July 03, 2006

On Existence And Eternity

David Moles asks: How, in Vellum do you reconcile "people die" with people always being alive, somewhere else, somewhen else, as somebody else?

It's a tricky question; so, of course, I like it. The simple answer is, I don't; they're not meant to be reconciled, but to remain in irresolvable tension --the existentialist threat of mortality versus the essentialist promise of eternity. I'm trying to put those two into a relationship of antagonism and "reverse the polarity", make mortality the promise and eternity the threat. Or more to the point: to say mortality is true; eternity is false.

I mean, the first thing to bear in mind is that the extra temporal dimensions of the characters don't necessarily mean their lives are unbounded. Just because you have extra "breadth" of "you-ness" spread out across other incarnations (as, say, David Miles, editor of Amazing All Star Wireliner Tales, or David Mules, writer of "Planet of the Centaurs"), or extra "depth" of incarnations, strata of metaphysically "earlier versions" which go down a ways (as -- I don't know -- pick your prototype / archetype)... that doesn't mean those other incarnations aren't equally limited in the cradle-to-grave linear lives that *they* lead. In one fold of the Vellum, you're born here, die there. In another fold, you're born else-here, die else-there... but you still die. So, for the most part (i.e. with exceptions deliberately included so as to explore the idea's ramifications), I'm still looking at characters as finite. The threads of linear existence might build up into planar "shapes" which are then constructed into 3D "forms", but those forms are meant to be existential rather than essential, manifest in time rather than transcendant of it.

There's a potential reading of the metaphysics of VELLUM, which I *am* trying to deal with in part but which *isn't* the real underlying idea -- the idea of eternal reccurrence. You could read VELLUM and say, OK, this is about the same stories happening over and over again forever and always -- cyclic time. But a better way to look at it is if you imagine a sphere sliced horizontally into thin sections. Two adjacent sections from right in the middle will have the same circumference, and the section might be thin enough that the curving of the edge is imperceptible. So if you didn't know what you were looking at, you might think that these two planar structures can just be repeated endlessly, upways and downways, to construct a cylinder without a bottom or a top. But actually, while those shapes are repeated they get smaller with each section, and there comes a point where there's no more sphere to slice.

Now in terms of us -- as beings, as characters, as stories -- imagine you start with a circle section (the core story) and move upwards taking section after section. You keep getting circles (the story recurring), and so, hey, it does look like a cylinder. But then gradually it warps, starts to bifurcate, becomes a sort of snowman figure-eight. And then those separate into distinct circles. Those in turn bifurcate. And so on. Sometimes sections are warped into ellipses. Other ellipses seem to appear out of nowhere only to merge with ones that have migrated out from the centre. Eventually you realise that what you're looking at, if you reconstruct a 3D model from all those sections, is a tree, a gnarly-ass tree. You started at the trunk, moving up through branches and twigs. The shapes that seemed to come from nowhere are where a branch dips down. You could have moved down through the roots and seen a similar process.

Either way, a human life -- in VELLUM, at least -- is a little section of this greater whole... but that whole is still a finite form. The Big Story might be a hell of a lot more complex, taken as a whole, than all the little Branch and Twig and Root Stories spreading out of the Core Story of the trunk. The sheer difference in scale might make you think, man, this little story form (the circle) has infinite reiterations, infinite permutations, but it doesn't; at the end of the day, what we're looking at is not eternal recurrence. Rather it's a fractal growth where the pattern is repeated but which is an existential phenomenon and therfore has a beginning and an end.

(Of course, the danger of this type of character construction is that, regardless of how hard you try, you run the risk of losing reader sympathy for one particular avatar of a character by creating a feeling that, well, that character's only going to pop up in another incarnation anyway -- elsewhere, elsewhen -- so their death in this fold, here and now, is pretty meaningless. I try to counteract this by shifting narrative mode to mimetic / historical "real world" narratives, to offer incarnations of that character where the distancing effect of fiction is reduced (hopefully) by grounding it in the actual. Fantasies of eternity are coping mechanisms for dealing with real world death, as I see it. I want to strip away those coping mechanisms, to say, it doesn't matter a fuck if you imagine a Pie In The Sky When You Die afterlife -- you think the moment of death was any less painful, any less horrific, for the soldier in the Somme, for Matthew Shepard, because, in this pipe-dream of eternity, they get a happy-ever-after of harps and wings? Does that make it OK for you? Does that make it acceptable? Does that make it tolerable? Hell, rather than diffusing empathy the multiplicity of character lives is meant to kick out the crutches of the adventure mode (in which life is pretty cheap) and dump the reader on their ass in a world too much like this one for that character's death to be experienced as just another plot-twist. Some readers this works for, others not. So it goes.)

So I guess this is a sort of existentialist approach to Platonic morphology. Rather than positing a morphological realm, an atemporal essentialist (and therefore, to my mind, bogus) "space" where the form of a CHAIR is, was, and ever will be, what I'm positing is a process where you take a horizontal section of the plane and have hundreds, thousands, millions of branch and twig sections which are all manifestations of the CHAIR. Go back historically and you might find yourself at a trunk, an ur-CHAIR. But go back further still and that form diverges into hundreds, thousands, millions of roots of that CHAIR form. Go high enough or low enough and you find the existential limits of that Platonic form, the points below or above, before or after, the CHAIR.

To me form is (and is only) material, existential, manifest. Substitute COSMOS for CHAIR in that example and you have my underlying metaphysics. Substitute a particular character and you have my weird-ass hypothetical/fictive attempt to extrapolate that metaphysics to the human scale. There are alternative instances of "us" from other branches There are primal prototypes of "us" from (or from nearer to) the "trunk". And there are even more primal root-instances of "us". But all of them are to be understood as material, manifest forms, individually finite, and finite as a whole.

People die. When and where they die might change in this fold or that. Looked at from an atemporal perspective you could say they get to live again (elsewhen, elsewhere) but that just means they die again. And even from that atemporal perspective, seen as the sum of all those other selves, ultimately that whole also dies.

Of course, it gets tricky with VELLUM because this is where the exceptions come in... because I want to tackle the other side of the argument, the essentialist metaphysics which promises infinity, eternity, transcendance of that finite, manifest existence. Life after death. Or rather *spiritual* life beyond *material* life, *outside* material life, outside (our) existential timespace. My take on it is that the religious conception is not just about downloading the Platonic forms of "us" out of our meat bodies and uploading them into another substantial -- albeit "spiritual" -- form in another (higher, purer, but nevertheless existential, which is to say experiential) "reality", one which just so happens to be temporally non-finite. Rather I think the religious concept carries an idea that eternity is the substrate of reality, that existence is built upon essence, and that existential entitites are imperfect renderings of the essential entities temporally (and temporarily) trapped "inside". Fundamentally, those Platonic forms of "us" -- our souls -- are, by nature, in the religious conception, eternal, transcendant, indestructable.

I disagree with this. The whole "people die" thing is an attempt to articulate that disagreement. But to address that essentialist metaphysics in fantasy, of course, it makes sense to try and concretise it. So what I've tried to do is give it flesh as a theoretical possibility within the actual metaphysics of VELLUM. To say, OK, these characters are living in an existential anarchist metaphysics, but some are trying to impose a Platonic essentialism upon it, using a tool which might (at least, so they think) actually work.

So what you have in VELLUM are the unkin with their Cant and their gravings. What distinguishes them from the rest of us mere mortals is that they can hack time, rewrite existential reality... because they have the programming language. So suppose you can recode the world, including yourself. First thing you're going to do (automatically, as I see it, unconsciously as a survival mechanism) is rewrite your body so it doesn't age, to try and make yourself a permanent part of reality. Functionally, that's what I see the gravings as, a sort of permanent imprint of identity, a fixing of one's self into a set form. It’s the carving of one's name, one's life-story into an unchanging certainty. But unkin can still die; they can be killed; that story still has its ending. So the next thing is to have back-up plans. Hey, if you've got yer graving backed-up somewhere, all you need to do, if the old shell buys the farm, is have someone there to reinstall "you" in a new meat body.

But then that requires alliegances or power, comrades or servants. And then your story isn't yours alone any longer, but features all these other unkin with their own agendas and each with the ability to hack the world, rewrite existence to their own favour, so they live and you, if you're their enemy, die. In VELLUM, unfortunately for the protagonists, the big power among the unkin, the Covenant, are basically intent on imposing an essentialist determinacy, a Platonic morphology. If you're an unkin and you want to keep living (for as long as your average Covenant spear-carrier survives) then you have to submit to regraving.

The Covenant think they can build eternal peace by wiping out all resistance. They think the end result will be this nice essentialist heaven on earth, where all these troublesome hackers are either co-opted into the system or eradicated, and what you're left with is human sheep and their immortal, angelic shepherds -- beings perfected, purified, simplified (into one of seven key roles, one of the "Sebbiti"). You take the King's Shilling and, sure, you get to live, but are you really a "you" anymore, or just a crude, reductive type -- an angel of fire, an angel of ice, etc.? Is it worth it? Given a choice between joining the Covenant, fighting it, running and hiding, or trying to scheme your way out of the whole setup, which do you go for?


What Thomas tries, his lateral-thinking solution to the problem, is an attempt to escape the whole duality of existence and eternity. He submits to a regraving which renders him the slain-and-resurrected figure, an eternal victim, but also an eternal escapee. He will die, over and over and over again. But this means he will live over and over and over again. He is eternally escaping from existence (the moment of death) into eternity (mythic permanence), but also eternally escaping essence (being nailed to the one cross, if you'll forgive the pun) into existence (in the metamorphic instances, the moments of life). This is, I freely admit, a pataphysical headfuck dependant on one's ability to percieve Summer, like Thomas, as a state of being. The reader, like Phreedom, is entirely free to not understand and not want to understand, to think he's insane or just plain wrong. He might well be. The price of this is that he's caught on the border between existence and eternity, a liminal creature. All those metamorphosis render him a being which can only exist in the margins, a fanciful thing, a sprite. And even as a faerie, he dies. Still, Thomas accepts this liminal pseudo-existence.


The whole point about characters having the potential to escape "into eternity", to become unmoored from the straight-line track from cradle-to-grave as Platonic forms which can be (re)incarnated elsewhen and elsewhere, therefore, is to raise the question: is the whole idea of binding one's self into a graving -- of concretising one's identity, fixing it as an essential "soul" in order to make this immortality possible -- an artificial hobbling? (*cough cough* the final Endhaven sections *cough cough*)

Does eternity thereby become something we might want to escape from into existence?

In that context, "people die" becomes a refusal of the Covenant offer of eternity as a loss of humanity. You're given that choice and you say no. People die. Maybe you think the price is too much to pay. Maybe you think these Covenant fuckers are wrong anyway, that their plan is doomed to fail because, no matter how much these arrogant bastards might like to believe otherwise, they are not incorporeal, transcendant beings. They can slide and shift from this fold to that, twist and turn through reality virtually at will, but at the end of the day they're flesh and blood like the rest of us. The nearest you've got to "transcendant" beings in VELLUM are those faded gods (Enlil and Sin, for example) who live on only in crumbling statues and inscribed clay, ghosts all but dissolved into their pathetic archaeological remnants. Hell, reality itself is flesh and blood, vellum and ink. And sooner or later, you might think, if you're a Seamus Finnan, the existential nature of reality is going to turn around and bite those essentialist eedjits on the ass.

People die.

You can accept this or deny it. You can surrender to it or defy it. The protagonists in VELLUM each have their own reactions, mostly ambiguous, and while I've got my own personal nihilist / existentialist / humanist / pacifist view about the negative impact of essentialist rejections of this truism, I can't blame those who might decide to counter it with a "fuck that shit". Hell, even if you accept it as a theoretical inevitability, that doesn't mean you're not going to defy it to the bitter end.