This is the last of my essays about film adaptation, and inevitably it is about the Nolan Brothers’s film of Christopher Priest’s novel of The Prestige. Continue reading
Brian McHale, Christine Brook-Rose, Christopher Priest, Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, Frederic Jameson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Geoffrey Chaucer, Henry James, Iain Banks, James Joyce, John Fowles, Katherine Dunn, Kathy Acker, Kim Newman, Kurt Vonnegut, Laurence Sterne, Miguel de Cervantes, Paul Auster, Richard Jefferies, Robert Coover, Samuel R. Delany, Steve Erickson, Thomas Pynchon, Virginia Woolf, William Gibson, William S. Burroughs, William Vollman
Alfred Bester, Brian Aldiss, Christopher Priest, Henry James, Honore de Balzac, J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, John Dos Passos, John Sladek, Josephine Saxton, m john harrison, Michael Moorcock, Philip K. Dick, Sigmund Freud, Theodore Sturgeon, Thomas M. Disch, Virginia Woolf, William James
This was one of my Cognitive Mapping columns. It first appeared in Vector 196, November-December 1997:
you sat on the bed unlacing your shoes Hey Frenchie yelled Tylor in the door you’ve got to fight the Kid doan wanna fight him gotto fight him hasn’t he got to fight him fellers? Freddie pushed his face through the crack in the door and made a long nose Gotta fight him umpyaya and all the fellows on the top floor were there if not you’re a girlboy and I had on my pyjamas and they pushed in the Kid and the Kid hit Frenchie and Frenchie hit the Kid and your mouth tasted bloody and everybody yelled Go it Kid except Gummer and he yelled Bust his jaw
The 42nd Parallel (1930)
John Dos Passos
No, it’s not Donald I should show the door to. It’s Victoria. He’s told me a score of times about my preoccupation with paleass shiggies, and I never listened, but he’s right. Prophet’s beard, all this talk about emancipation! Just one of the shiggies who’ve been in and out of this apartment like doses of aperient was stunningly beautiful and solid-ground sensible and marvellous in bed and a whole, rounded, balanced sort of person. And that was Gennice, that Donald brought home, not me, and I was unappreciative because she was a brown-nose. I must be off my gyros. I must be busted clear out of my nappy old plantation-bred skull!
Stand on Zanzibar (1969)
Realism is a relatively recent literary invention, though it has been remarkably far-reaching in its influence. It was only in the middle years of the last century that, predominently, French writers such as Balzac began to play with the notion that their writing could somehow encompass the world. True realism lasted only a very short time, it was a political fiction in which the plight of characters was demonstrated by a painstaking recreation in prose of every aspect of their lives, circumstances, environment and work. The idea of realism, however, has lasted a lot longer: the notion that words provide a recreation of the world, that fiction tells of something as it is. It has provided the basic fictional form ever since; even today, whether we are reading a crime novel or a historical romance, a mainstream novel or a work of fantasy, we are meant to assume a one-to-one relationship between the words on the page and some actual world being described.
This is an approach to fiction that was being undermined even before the end of the nineteenth century. The development of theories of psychology by Freud and by William James popularised the notion that all of us see the world differently, that whatever the consensus reality through which our bodies move the interpretation of that universe is always unique, always idiosyncratic. And if there is no one true world, then there is no realism that prose can mirror. It was William James who coined the term “stream of consciousness”, and it was his brother, Henry James, who was among the first to bring these ideas to bear in fiction. Rather than the world of the characters, what mattered primarily in the modernist fiction of Henry James, Virginia Woolf and others were the characters themselves. Their perceptions and cognitions became the focus of the work: the world was not truthful, there was no absolute reality, truth now had to be found in people. (At the same time other scientific developments, such as relativity, were starting to seep into the literary consciousness, further undercutting the solidity of the external world and lending weight to the idea that truth could be found only in the relative realities of individual characters.)
Various literary techniques were developed by the modernists to explore and represent this relativism. Viewpoints shifted from character to character; stream of consciousness carried us on a rushing, tumbling ride through the immediate, unanalysed perceptions of the characters; the first-person narrator became more common than the god-like, all-knowing third person; neologisms started to creep in and grammer to depart to represent the individuality of the perceiver; extra-literary devices appeared in to the text and unreliability in the narrator’s voice. The early decades of this century, and particularly the years after the First World War, were rich in literary experimentation as modernism gave a new freedom to the writer’s voice. One of the most representative writers of the period was John Dos Passos, whose vast record of national decline, U.S.A. (The 42nd Parallel, 1930, Nineteen Nineteen, 1932 and The Big Money, 1936), is a concatenation of all the modernist techniques designed to make us distrust the world. It was, as so often with such experimental works, a political novel indicting the rise of big money and the decline of the ordinary man in post-First World War America. In sections headed “Newsreel” he presents a dizzying sweep through headlines, newspaper reports, fragments of incidents; in sections headed “The Camera Eye” (as in the passage quoted) he takes us into the stream of consciousness; still other sections carry the narrative forward or explore one character outside the timestream of the story, often using radically different narrative voices to move us from one view of the world to the next. The result is disorienting and disturbing, this is not a way of viewing the world with which we are comfortable, even in our normal lives, but like the vorticist paintings of the same era it is onrushing and liberating.
Although much of the serious fiction from the turn of the century onwards (at least up to the upsurge in postmodernism over the last couple of decades) has shown modernist tendencies, little of this technique has leached into popular fiction. This is understandable, if modernism is designed to upset our world-view then it is not going to work within the essentially reassuring and comforting confines of popular fiction. Thus, although by its very nature science fiction cannot be a truly realist form, it has continued to use realist techniques throughout much of its history. This is partly because describing an unreal event or situation in a realist manner helps to underpin the believability of the fiction, and partly because modernism demands an experimental approach to the writing which few early sf writers were willing or able to follow.
However, during the 1950s and early 1960s writers came into science fiction whose backgrounds were as much artisitic as scientific or technical while editors began to encourage a more literary approach. It was at this time that writers such as Alfred Bester, Theodore Sturgeon and most particularly Philip K. Dick began to write stories that questioned the secure solidity of everyday reality. Although Bester was one of the great literary experimenters in science fiction, notably in The Demolished Man (1953) and Tiger! Tiger! (1956), this didn’t really translate into a modernist approach to science fiction until the New Wave emerged during the first half of the 1960s.
It was the British New Wave, an iconoclastic movement centred on the magazine New Worlds under the editorship of Michael Moorcock and reflecting the liberated attitude of the Swinging Sixties, which brought the disturbing and questioning style of modernism into science fiction. Writers such as Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard used stream of consciousness and unreliable narrators, they used the disintegration of the world as a symbol for the mental disintegration of their characters, they shifted between viewpoints to affirm that there is no one, secure, true interpretation of events. Again, as so often with modernism, it was often used for political purpose: undermining the security of our belief in the world also undermined the establishment viewpoint.
Writers as varied as Aldiss, Ballard, Christopher Priest, M. John Harrison, Josephine Saxton and the Americans John Sladek and Thomas M. Disch have been identified with the British New Wave (the American New Wave, which began a little later than its British counterpart, was more concerned with questioning values and beliefs than in literary experimentation), and their works during a fairly brief period between the early 1960s and the early 1970s provide a good representative sample of the mode. Nevertheless, the one work which stands as an exemplar of the British New Wave, in the same way that U.S.A. stands as a symbol of modernism, is Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, for this, too, is a work that brings together the various literary techniques by which the New Wave re-invented modernism. In fact, in many ways Stand on Zanzibar is a mirror of U.S.A. Sections labelled “The Happening World”, like “Newsreel”, clump together newspaper cuttings, quotations, fragments that add up to a kaleidoscopic impression of the near-future world. Sections labelled “Tracking with Closeups” and “Continuity” would use a variety of viewpoints, stream of consciousness (as in the passage quoted), and differing voices to carry the narrative forward. While other sections, called “Context” would be snapshots designed to provide just that. Brunner was clearly and consciously bringing the technique of John Dos Passos into science fiction, and it worked. If received opinion previously had been that a realist style of storytelling was essential to allow suspension of disbelief in the non-real setting or events of a science fiction story, Stand on Zanzibar disproved that contention once and for all.
Modernism, in the form of the British New Wave, flourished in science fiction for only a short period, by the mid-1970s science fiction was going through a period of retrenchment, a re-establishing of traditional styles and subject matter. But it had had its effect, and ever since then science fiction writers have been able to employ an ever-increasing arsenal of literary techniques to tell their unreal stories.
A little while ago I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Konrad Walewski for the Polish version of F&SF. Along the way, he pressed upon me Nest of Worlds by Marek S. Huberath. The novel is apparently successful in Poland, but they have been unable to find any publisher to take it in this country, despite the fact that there is a very fine translation by Michael Kandel. Having now read the book, I find this mystifying. Not that this is an obvious bestseller: it is very weird, as I shall endeavour to show, but at the same time it has the sort of bravura conceit that should win it an appreciative audience.
The problem is: how to describe the book without giving too much away. Or maybe I shouldn’t worry too much, because if this really is Nest of Worlds everyone will read a different novel anyway. Continue reading
Andrew Crumey, Ann Leckie, Brian McHale, Christopher Priest, David Hebblethwaite, Hugh Howie, Hugo Gernsback, Ian Sales, J.M. Sidorova, James Joyce, John Scalzi, Karen Joy Fowler, Kate Atkinson, Keith Ridgway, Laurence Sterne, Marcel Theroux, nina allan, Paul McAuley, Ruth Ozeki, Samuel R. Delany, Thomas Pynchon, Tom McCarthy, Tom Robbins, Tony Ballantyne, Ursula K. Le Guin, William Gibson
It never goes away, does it? It’s two years now since I put into words (or, perhaps more precisely, into a word), some of my enduring dissatisfactions with science fiction. The word was ‘exhaustion’. And the debate I generated then still rumbles on. It takes other forms, of course, but at heart Nina Allan, in this excellent blog post, in turn referencing this excellent blog post by David Hebblethwaite, is making much the same point: science fiction is losing interest in the new. Continue reading
Now that a new Interzone is out, I thought I’d reprint the interview with Simon Ings that appeared in the last issue. This accompanied my review of Wolves which I’ll also be posting here in the next few days. Continue reading
Alexander Selkirk, Christopher Priest, Daniel Defoe, H.G. Wells, J.G. Ballard, Jane Mendelsohn, Johann Wyss, John Christopher, John Fowles, Kim Stanley Robinson, Nicholas Ruddick, R.M. Ballantyne, Rex Gordon, Robert Holdstock, S Fowler Wright, William Golding, William Shakespeare
This is another of my Cognitive Mapping columns. It first appeared in Vector 189 (September-October 1996).
The man was inside two crevices. There was first the rock, closed and not warm but at least not cold with the coldness of sea or air. The rock was negative. It confined his body so that here and there the shudders were beaten; not soothed but forced inward. He felt pain throughout most of his body but distant pain that was sometimes to be mistaken for fire.
Pincher Martin (1956)
When you think of life on a desert island, you get pictures in your mind of cannibals and pirates, of desolation and thirst. But at first it wasn’t at all like that for us. It really wasn’t bad … Anyone else stranded on a desert island would probably have wanted to die, but for him the nights had never been more beautiful, the wind more gentle, the sea more calm.
I Was Amelia Earhart (1996)
Between 1704 and 1709 the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk was marooned alone in the Juan Fernández Islands in the South Pacific. When he returned to civilisation he became an instant celebrity, his autobiography was published, his story became known throughout Britain, and he was interviewed by the leading journalist of his day, Daniel Defoe. Selkirk’s years on the island affected him, he built a cave in his garden where he lived, he sulked and raged at neighbours, he was such a tormented character that he was a menace to strangers and an embarrassment to his family. Yet when Defoe took his familiar story and transmuted it into the adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) it became the tale of how a true Englishman could master the elements by his resolution and entrepreneurial spirit.
There had been tales of castaways before, Shakespeare’s luckless characters were forever being cast upon strange shores and in The Tempest (1611) he created a memorable magical isle. But what was different about Robinson Crusoe was that the island itself became a protagonist. Before any other human characters intrude upon his story, Crusoe has already conquered the island, wresting from it a comfortable home, a suit of clothes, a steady supply of foods and luxuries. When Friday comes into his life it is only to extend the conquest, for Crusoe to convert primitive man as well as primitive land to the necessities of civilised life.
Thus Robinson Crusoe was not just the exemplar, it was the creator of a small but persistent literary genre, the robinsonade. Curious in that it is a sub-genre which crosses and re-crosses traditional genre boundaries, a form of fiction that can be at one moment the highest of high fantasy and the next the most realist of mainstream literature, the robinsonade is a romance which pitches man, in isolation, against his environment. Most commonly, robinsonades have told the story of characters thrust into some inimical landscape – most usually an island – where they not only survive, but actually re-establish the comforts of their normal lives. This is most noticeable in those robinsonades that have become established as children’s classics, such as Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss (1812-13) and The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne (1857), which celebrate the power of the family to exert its civilising influences whatever it may encounter.
In science fiction, the robinsonade has been a consistent influence, often explicitly so as in Rex Gordon’s No Man Friday (1956) or the film Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964). The island, whether an actual island or an island in space, an uninhabited planet, is an attractive setting partly for the simple, practical reason that it allows the writer to isolate his protagonist, but also because it allows utopias and anti-utopias to be developed. Adam and Eve on a depopulated planet – a post-atomic Earth, the sole survivors of a crashed spaceship – have recreated society countless times in the pages of science fiction magazines. The rational, can-do spirit exemplified by Crusoe is all that we ever need to rebuild our lives, and the safety and comfort we know today can not be lost forever.
But such optimism has not actually been common in science fiction, in a genre that celebrates the social success of humanity as much as the ingenuity of the individual, the loss of society is generally represented as a dark and threatening event. Islands are as likely to result in the triumph of the primitive as they are in a Crusoe-like triumph of civilisation. H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) is a place where the forces of Darwinism have a dehumanising effect in the isolation an island provides, and though S. Fowler Wright tried to counter that with The Island of Captain Sparrow (1928) in which morality stands against nature to load the scales in humanity’s favour the more common scientific view has been that nature is triumphant.
Thus William Golding created Lord of the Flies (1954) as a direct response to Ballantine’s Coral Island: this party of schoolboys marooned in isolation from their society will not allow family values to triumph but will regress to primitivism, violence and superstition. It is a notion echoed in J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island (1974) and High Rise (1975). Both the traffic island between motorway embankments and the multistorey apartment block are islands in the midst of the sea of uncaring, fast-paced civilisation; they are islands of survival and the establishment of values just as Crusoe’s island was, but with the crucial difference that the values are specifically not those of the protagonist’s off-island society.
Implicit in the island as protagonist is the notion that the island becomes in itself a character, and if the hero is to reshape the island to suit himself, then the island becomes a mirror of his psyche. Thus the schoolboys in Lord of the Flies conjure their fears from the dead parachutist captured by the trees, while Maitland, swept up like technological flotsam on the Concrete Island, finds that it “was becoming an exact model of his head”. But this is perhaps most explicit in Golding’s Pincher Martin. The sailor, cradled by the “negative” rock is dead, though neither we nor he know that yet. His ship has been blown up during the war, and after a wild and disorienting tumble through the Atlantic waters he suddenly finds himself upon an island. It is too small, too barren for him to build any comfort or recreate any civilisation upon it, survival is an end in itself. But the very bleakness of the rock forces his pains in upon himself, and this is a metaphor for the way his memories, his life, are forced in upon him. What Pincher Martin is, in its brutal and unrelieved allegorical manner, is a recapitulation of that old saw: the dying man seeing his whole life flash before him. And this is one of the chief ways in which the island has been used in science fiction, its isolation, its small compass providing a physical shape for the mind, the experience of the protagonist. Sometimes, as in Robert Holdstock’s ‘Mythago Wood’ sequence, it is a forest; sometimes, as in John Fowles’s Mantissa (1982), it is a white room; sometimes, as in Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex (1977) or The Affirmation (1981), it is a dreamscape; sometimes, as in John Christopher’s A Wrinkle in the Skin (1965), it is an actual island: but the island, real or implied, provides an allegory for the human consciousness, the exploration of its landscape is a working out of the hero’s thoughts, feelings, his very humanity.
These examples are, notably, all British. In Ultimate Island (1993), Nicholas Ruddick has proposed that the island is one of the central linking threads that characterises British science fiction. It is not exclusively so, Kim Stanley Robinson, for example, in A Short, Sharp Shock (1990) takes his protagonist along a narrow sea-girt peninsula on a journey that seems in many ways to recapitulate that of Golding’s Pincher Martin. But it is true that American science fiction has not used the island as metaphor with anything like the same enthusiasm or the same bitter, allegorical intensity. (We are, after all, an island race; it serves us conveniently as a metaphor for our social as well as our personal and intellectual existence.)
But the American mainstream has continued to use the island in a manner closer to that originally employed by Defoe: as a figure for survival that isn’t just personal but also social and moral. In her recent fable, I Was Amelia Earhart, Jane Mendelsohn imagines the survival of the flyer who became an almost legendary figure in America between the wars before she and her navigator disappeared in the Pacific on an attempt to fly round the world. But here the island becomes not a battleground for survival but a haven for escape, a place where Amelia does not have to be a heroine, does not have to live up to the legend. The island allows her to live the life she wants for herself; like Ballard’s Maitland, it’s a simpler life, but like Defoe’s Crusoe it’s a civilised life.
Given the review of the Tiptree biography I reprinted a few days ago, it seems appropriate to link to this column on Tiptree’s story. The column first appeared in Vector 272, Spring 2013. Continue reading