Saturday, December 31, 2011

The most important failure in modern fantasy fiction Pt 4

Flaws of the First Chronicles

I wouldn't be referring to Covenant as a failure all this time if I didn't ultimately see it as a missed opportunity. Despite my admiration for the Chronicles as an attempt at a ethical project, a world-building exercise and a subversion of high fantasy, it's undone at the same time by some serious weaknesses.

Most of the Covenant-mocking I've seen starts with his use of language - it's the kind of book where both the characters and the narrator drop in words like 'inexculpable' and 'anneal' as casually as they can - which is to say not very. But I've read Poe, I've read Lovecraft. I can take this. And least Donaldson's trying to be creative with his clunkiness in a rather charming way.

The poetry is universally bad, however. This is one bit of Tolkien I wish he hadn't imitated.

But I have bigger fish to fry with my critical Earthpower (Critpower?).

Protagonist problems

Covenant is meant to be a troubled character - embittered, suffering from an incurable disease, and stunned by the health and truth of The Land. Donaldson loads his back-story - I think - with enough woe to make his dilemma believable.

But Donaldson has Covenant do something upon arrival in The Land in Lord Foul's Bane to further complicate his relationship with the fantasy and purposely alienate the reader. Covenant rapes the young woman, Lena, who welcomes him to her village.

It's as shocking in print as it is in bare summary here. If the Amazon reviews are anything to go by, this kills the book outright for many readers.

To be fair to the author, he doesn't let Covenant off the hook for this. Not only could the first half of LFB be subtitled Self-laceration against a fantasy backdrop, but over the course of the three books Covenant gradually reaps the terrible consequences of his action.

But by destroying any empathy you might feel for the central character, the crime reduces the impact of the central question of the Chronicles: is an illusion worth fighting for? Instead, you get the pop reduction of Covenant to asshole leper hero.

 
It doesn't help the book, and it doesn't help Donaldson's problems with women in his novels either.


Why you thought this was a good idea I really do not know

The Chronicles actually have a lot of strong women - warriors, Lords, village elders - but when I sat down and thought about it the safest place for a female character to be in Stephen Donaldson's fiction is in the second rank. That way you get to be awesome without stepping into the authorial line of fire.

Let's take a look at the main female characters in Covenant and what happens to them, shall we?

Lena - rape and murder (the second not by Covenant)
Atiaran (Lena's mother) - despair and death by magical accident
Elena (Lena and Covenant's daughter) - killed by a ghost and brought back from the dead so she can be degraded and killed again.

Now that I think of it, pretty much every one of Donaldson's leading women in his other novels gets thrown in a dungeon and tortured - sometimes sexually - at some point or other. None of it is written to titilate, but if he's trying to make a serious point it's eluding me too.

But that's even before we get to the crowning WTF moment of the entire series on book 2, the Illearth War: Back in the Land after weeks of his time and years of their time, Covenant encourages his daughter Elena's sexual overtures to him so she - now a Lord and super-jedi - can take on the role of saviour of The Land and let him off the hook.

????????????

And for good measure

%$&#£@^*&*!

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I can guarantee you that no-one who gets this far into the trilogy is wondering if Covenant will reconcile his disbelief in The Land with the need to act to protect it. They are all - all of them, darn it - thinking "Dude! This is wrong on so many levels my head hurts"

And these flaws are too big for the reader to ignore.

In writing these reflections, I've discovered that I like the idea of Covenant better than I do the reality. Much as I might appreciate what Donaldson tried to do, as all the bits in The Illearth War and The Power That Preserves without Covenant are great, as the trilogy fizzes intermittently with great ideas, he undermines his own foundations with narrative decisions which seem designed to alienate the reader and cause me to question the merit of the entire project.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The most important failure in modern fantasy fiction Pt 3

Digression - towards a progressive idea of fantasy fiction

The politics of high fantasy - in as far as it articulates them - are deeply retrogressive. While neither Tolkien nor C S Lewis can be simply filed as political conservatives, their works and the works of those who followed them in creating the mainstream of modern fantasy are problematic for the progressive reader.

This is because they fetishise an imaginary medieval.

Humour me while I set up a straw man in high fantasy clothing here. A mediocre author writing in the genre will give you uncritical adulation of monarchy and aristocracy, a poor-but-happy peasantry, nations and species defined by a single characteristic (grumpy dwarf syndrome), fantasy racism (dead orcs don't count), orientalism, patriachy-a-go-go and obfuscatory mysticism.

The classic fantasy happy ending is one which validates any or all of this above. Preferably through a prophecy.

The fact that your setting is pre-modern is not an excuse for any of this if you're making it up.

Good authors can, will and often do subvert these cliches - but in my view most interesting fantasy is being written outside of the genre (wierd fiction, magic realism, science fantasy) precisely because of this millstone.

I don't ask for a politically correct re-imagining of the past, or for Conan to be sent on sensitivity training, but seriously, fantasy writers, the clue is in the name of genre you're writing in.

What does this have to do with Thomas fricking Covenant?

In this context Covenant is interesting because the society he encounters manages to avoid most of the pitfalls I've just outlined.

The people of The Land live mainly in self-governing villages without a trace of a medieval hierarchy. There is no king - there are Lords, but lordship is achieved through initiation into arcane knowledge, training in which is open to all. Men and women alike play leading roles in the villages, the lore-keepers and the military.

Grumpy dwarf syndrome does rear its ugly head with the giants, and fantasy racism with the ur-viles and cavewights existing mainly for plot purposes as sword fodder. But at least the Tolkien xeroxing is kept to a minimum (there are no elves, Galadriel be thanked).

None of the usual grab-bag of forelock-tugging, old-time religion and oppression which usually holds you-haven't-this-through fantasy societies applies in The Land. Instead Donaldson gives us a picture of a people held together by reverence for all that is living, sworn to the healing and protection of the earth.

Whole communities dedicate themselves to the care and mastery of earth and stone, plant and tree, or horses. Other than protecting the Land and increasing their knowledge of 'Earthpower', the Lords pride themselves in their restoration of areas once blighted by Lord Foul.

How many fantasy societies can you think of where everyone swears an oath of peace?

This wierd cocktail of agrarian anarchism, deep ecology and benign academia is there in plot terms, like the geography of The Land, to heighten Covenant's dilemma, to be 'too good' for him. As we shall see, one of the hallmarks of the people of the Land is their refusal to punish him for his misdemeanors (more of which in part 4).

But it also takes us away from the kind of half-baked medievalism of high fantasy into something more like the utopianism which used to be part of fantasy (Cockayne, Shangri-La) before it became the preserve of science fiction and political theory.

The utopian strain running through Covenant is a worthy attempt to use fantasy to put forward some downright progressive ideas about man's relationship to man and nature.

And it's a utopia which had a powerful influence on at least one 90's teenager. When asked, I tell people that the two things which got me into environmentalism were hearing about the greenhouse effect (yes, I really am that old) and reading Covenant and understanding what a reverence for nature and for the achievements of your ancestors could mean in practice.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The most important failure in modern fantasy fiction Pt 2

Psycho-geography
Like most fantasy writers, Donaldson's world-building is shaped by plot expediency and sheer joy in topography and taxonomy. However, that The Land also reflects and partakes in Covenant's psychodrama is a masterstroke

















At the start of two of the three books in the Chronicles, Covenant is forced to descend the look out tower of Kevin's Watch. This descent is as much spiritual as physical; it marks his exit from modernity and its entry into a realm begging him to make an apparently simple moral choice to defend it.

Sometimes this plea is verbal, often it is shown rather than told through the beauty of the landscape Covenant sees on his wandering: the Andelainian hills; the pure pool of Glimmermere; the Petra-a-like city of Revelstone. It is even embodied by the 'highest' and 'best' inhabitants of The Land, such as the Giants or the Ranyhyn horse-lords.

In order for Covenant's dilemma to have meaning, this geographical hyperbole is essential. It is vital that The Land be 'too good' for him, ask too much of him.


The creation of The Land through the visual imagination of Stephen Donaldson transcends window dressing - it becomes - and I mean this as a serious compliment - it becomes a stage set which enhances the meaning of the tale itself.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The most important failure in modern fantasy fiction Pt 1

Yes, as part of my attempt to reboot my reading habits by going back to the old school, I've tackled the First Thomas Covenant trilogy by Stephen Donaldson. This is part one of a four page sanity-preserving peace I'll be writing over the Christmas break. :-)

Warning: this is more reflection than review - but here nonetheless be massive spoilers.

For a proper plot synopsis, see the Wikipedia articles for:


I have the impression - rightly or wrongly - that the Covenant books are something of a Marmite proposition for fantasy fans. For some, they seem to inspire the kind of intense love you can witness at the Kevin's Watch discussion board. For others, the flaws in the series prove impossible to overlook.

But let's start with why Covenant still matters to anyone who takes fantasy fiction seriously.

"Comparable to Tolkien at his best"

The editions of the First Chronicles I cut my teeth on came with this millstone of a quote. In the best traditions of back cover blather, it is, inevitably, completely right and utterly wrong at the same time.

Covenant is many things, but it's most obviously a subversion (and sometimes a celebration) of the clichés of high fantasy which had grown up in the decades post Lord of the Rings. Quests miscarry their purpose. Magic McGuffins lare turned against their users. Sometimes the cavalry doesn't arrive in time.

In particular, the Chronicles takes aim at the John Carter power-trip in fantasy fiction. The all-too-common plot of a modern man finding himself (literally and metaphorically) in a fantasy world, becoming the champion of light against the dark, victorious and loved, is adolescent wish-fulfilment in print. A book has to be very good these days for me to tolerate this trope.

In contrast, Thomas Covenant is a very reluctant champion for the land (named, with endearing/infuriating literalness, The Land) to which he finds himself transported. A grieving writer suffering from leprosy, with intense distrust of himself and others, who has no desire to be the prophesied saviour of another world he barely believes in, Covenant retains his complex modernity in a world of apparently simple moral choices.

To an extent unique in fantasy, Donaldson is concerned with ethics and the problem of acting rightly and is using the Chronicles as a vehicle for exploring his views. Where the comparison with Tolkien holds true is that they are both deadly serious about their respective literary projects.

In the Chronicles Covenant is presented with a very Buddhist or existentialist conundrum: is an illusory but oh-so-seductive world something worth fighting for or a threat to one's integrity as an individual?

Time and time again, the supporting characters of Good - the Lords (think less feudal barons, more medieval Jedi) of the Land and their allies either ask him for aid or present him with yet more evidence of the beauty and virtue of the world to which he has been summoned.

This weight of prophetic expectation is doubled by the 'fact' that Covenant is walking around with the fantasy equivalent of the Pershing missile on his hand - his white gold wedding ring - and has no idea how to use it.

Everything he can do is overwhelmed by its potential significance and his potential responsibility for the Land and the lives of those who live in it.

“And he who wields white, wild magic gold is a paradox For he is everything and nothing Hero and fool Potent, helpless And with one word of truth or treachery He will save or damn the earth Because he is mad and sane Cold and passionate Lost and found”

At this stage in his writing career, Donaldson's prose poetry varies wildly, but I like to think that Albert Camus would approve of this statement of Covenant's potential.

Another recurring factor here is the insistence in The Chronicles - again, rendolent of Buddhist thought - that we are undone by our passions, however noble. The supporting characters in the trilogy may have simplistic motivations in the tradition of heroic fantasy - loyalty to the cause of good, love of nature, pride in service. But Donaldson makes the point - repeatedly - that the extravagance of their virtue leads them into defeat and turns their own best weapons against them.

Got warrior monks (the Bloodguard) in the service of the Land who draw power from their unbroken vow for example? Then have the big bad (a largely shapeless force of corruption rejoicing in the name of Lord Foul) cause them to break their vow and dissolve their order. Simples.

In a situation of such moral hazard, can Covenant be blamed for his caution?

Coming up later in the Christmas break

- Part 2 - Psycho-geography
- Part 3 - Towards a progressive idea of fantasy
- Part 4 - The Many Flaws of the First Chronicles

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Magpiemoth's review of the year and Christmas message

So this is my annual “Sorry for being a rubbish correspondent, here's what's been going on with me” update. I hope you, your friends and your families are all well, and that you're able to rest and enjoy yourself over the Christmas break.

2011 has been a good year for me in some respects, unexpectedly challenging in others.

In August Roz and I split up. I was very distraught at the time, but I've gradually made my peace with what happened. I'm thankful that we had a wonderful year together and I hope to stay in continued contact with her as things calm down emotionally.

My family, as some of you will know, are all well, although both Mum and Dad have had minor health issues and Lucy's broken her arm. :-(

I'm really looking forward to seeing them all for Christmas and cooking the vegetarian main for Christmas Day.

I remain grateful for all the fantastic friends I have - you know who you are, thank you.

I'm continuing to work for Friends of the Earth supporting volunteers across the Midlands, and have managed to sort out my work/life balance a little more so that I stay healthy in the longer-term. I still feel honoured to be a part of the organisation and I'm certainly not bored.

The highlight this year was a trip to the Netherlands in May with some volunteers for an international gathering. Not only did I camp for the first time in a decade (!) but I got to meet wonderful people from around Europe and stand on a sand dune overlooking the North Sea. An awesome moment.

Maybe that hitherto dormant travelling urge is beginning to re-awaken. :-)

Birmingham continues to agree with me. I'm not sure I'm settled for the long-term (who is?) but it still feels like the right place to be right now. I jokingly refer to the city as the new Berlin, but it's true that there so much happening here which is really exciting. In the past year, I've been to:

  • My first ballet and my first drag act simultaneously (The Trocks)

  • Art festivals held in a dozen different warehouses in post-industrial Digbeth

  • Local music festivals – Moseley Follk and Supersonic (where things go DER-DANG)

  • Birmingham Zine Festival

  • UK Games Expo (yes, I am still roleplaying)

  • Buy Nothing Day, dancing round the town centre dressed as Santa

And that's really only dipping my toe into what's out there.

I'm still trying to write more and you can find my occasional scribblings here at http://magpie-moth.blogspot.com/ and when I have nothing better to do on @magpiemoth on Twitter.

Recently I've recorded my first piece of spoken word – a Christmas horror story. A friend is working on the musical accompaniment but we'll make it available online very soon. I've also been taking advantage of my smartphone to do more photo-blogging.

I'll finish up here by wishing you all a very merry Christmas and a happy new year. I hope that 2012 brings you your heart's desire and a better political situation than the one we now find ourselves in.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review: Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny

Recently, I've had a block about reading anything longer than a magazine. This is highly unusual for me - given that my whole life has been defined, pretty much, by books.

Only an oral history of 70's punk has slipped through in the last month, and given that this mainly consisted of bitchy anecdotes about Tom Verlaine, I'm not sure this really counts.

So, in mild desperation, I've gone back to the old school to hit the classic SF and fantasy works on my shelves (note plurality of books and shelves), returning to my gateway drug.

Lord of Light takes up Arthur C Clarke's maxim that any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic. It runs with it all the way to a colony world in the distant future, where those who have the technology have set themselves up as gods mimicking the Hindu pantheon to 'guide' the medieval majority. As is traditional in myth and science fiction, one man challenges the status quo and takes on the Promethean role of bringing science to the masses.

Yes, there are climactic battles, yes, sh*t is blown up in Bay-vian proportions. But what makes Lord of Light (LoL? LOL!) interesting is that the most potent action the hero takes is to counter the hierarchical, false Hinduism of his adversaries by taking on the role of Buddha. A faith with strong egalitarian and atheistic tendencies, Buddhism acts in LoL as prerequisite and smokescreen for reintroducing scientific curiosity.

Zelazny's sincere engagement with both religions gives the novel a curiously philosophical quality, where a character's attitude towards death and reincarnation is given as much air time as his actions. At several points, the main characters stop for some serious sermonising and chin-stroking and it's a tribute to the quality of the writing that these serve to enhance the power and atmosphere of the story rather than quicksanding it.

The climactic battle, on the other hand,, is over in less than less than four pages. Zelazny, you are the anti-Gemmell.
But it's the writing, with its rich characterisation and elegant detours into a remixed Indian culture,
which helps to rescue LoL from merely being Orientalism at play. While this is still a potential major weak-point in the novel, by hinting at the white origins of the so-called gods
artificially recreating medieval India, it arguably includes its own self-critique.

And for those less inclined to read between the lines, the only overtly white character is a crypto-fascist (thanks, Lister) necromantic Christian evangelist!

More clearly on the debit side, the main female characters are, respectively, a praying mantis and a passive victim. And before starting, you have to acknowledge that Z's take on Hinduism has everything to do with the myths and nothing to do with contemporary spiritual practice.

Lord of Light isn't an important book, or a great one, for all that it won a Hugo back in its day.('71). But it's still an extremely good planetary romance with frequent chin-stroking and occasional flurries of action.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Best of the blogs

Polemic of the week - Wind of change


Fascinating reading from pro-wind campaigner Aeolius in Worcestershire who's had to face particularly vociferous opposition locally, it seems. Not sure about his use of the term mentalist, but otherwise boldly goes forth and meets the anti crowd on their own terms.


Common sense widget of the week - Fix Before The Freeze from polihackers (i.e. they use IT to create short cuts through the political undergrowth) My Society.


Winter is coming, and not in a Sean Bean kinda sense.


"You may already be aware of our website FixMyStreet.com, which helps you report common street problems – such as potholes and uneven pavements – to the relevant local council. This year, we thought we’d give people a gentle nudge before winter comes.


Many of the 1,000 issues which the site deals with every week are of the sort which are far better seen to before the big freeze. Potholes only worsen with the frost, and no-one wants a dodgy streetlight once the long dark nights are here."


Common sense made easy - especially for those of us with impractical shoes.


Geek out of the week - Monsters & Mullets


Because what you really want are detailed assessments of Willow, Krull and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves from a 21st century perspective. And a deconstruction of the sexual politics of Flash Gordon.


Don't be put off by the fact that this feature operates out of a blog called Pornokitsch - it's generally SFW. Except the review of Caligula, but I'm not sure if a SFW review of Caligula would be possible without the universe imploding.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Game outline - The End of History - players sought

The storytelling bug has hit me again, so I'm going to be running a small role-playing game for the first time in at least five years, using the Aberrant superhero rules and universe to run something closer in spirit to The X-Files and Watchmen, with a sprinkle of Bourne.

3 or 4 players sought - no experience needed - so just apply to me. :-)

Here's my three paragraph teaser for The End of History (a Fukuyama quote, not a promise of armageddon).

1989 - Eastern Europe is crumbling into revolution. Uncertain times for cold war warriors, four-star generals and CIA stringers.






Uneasy times too for the human element of the arms race, those hyper-rare caped champions of communism and capitalism, totems of patriotism and struggle.

But not for your agency. The human and posthuman agents of The Directive know that glasnost has opened up plenty of Eastern Bloc messes to clear up from the shadows. Soviet wierd science; the supernatural; renegade Stasi agents with powers and hidden agendas.

Never mind the our work-is-never-done investigation, regulation and occasional regulation with extreme prejudice of the Powered in the West.

Whether your character volunteered or was given one of The Directive's infamous 'join us or go to Area 51' ultimatums, it's time to see those uneasy, interesting times for yourself.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Feminist Ryan Gosling wins the internet.













Hey girl. It's hard for me to reify Beauvoir's theory of the lost female genius when I'm around you.

More pics juxtaposing feminist philosophy and Gozer looking soulful at http://feministryangosling.tumblr.com/

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A final piece of wisdom from The Event

From the Lombard Method exhibition, a piece of philosophy I can get behind.



Who's for continuing adventures?















Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Occupational Hazards - Birmingham Occupation under threat

The blog of Occupy Birmingham brings distressing news - the City Council issued a notice to vacate just before the weekend.

No news on the blog yet as to what response the camp have reached, or possible solidarity action.

Supplies needed as of 26 October – gas for cooking, pasta, rice, fresh veg, fresh fruit, cheese, tuna & bread.

Latest video here - the first half is a quick summary of what's going on, the second half is personal testimony - oral history being made?

I went to The Event and all they gave me was a toffee hammer

Here is a photo-report from The Event, the annual collaborative art festival in a 1,000 temporary and permanent exhibition spaces around Digbeth.

During The Event over the past fortnight the area temporarily became so hip, when I checked into my local cafe on Foursquare someone else was actually there.

First - Guerilla Gastronomy - a mysterious box found to contain ...


































... all the necessary ingredients for strawberries and cream with meringue. Note safety goggles - only try Guerilla Gastronomy under Art Supervision.

Thanks to Art, I am now also the proud owner of a meringue-smashin' toffee hammer; another life victory realised.

Here are my faves from the rest of the art tour I undertook with my esteemed colleague - at least those of which I could take a half decent photograph.

A most excellent piece of art (Ben Rowe/Laura Skinner)




















Retro on several levels

Stephen Cornford's wall of vintage tape-recorders making like a steam train (if they'd have made the tuneful crackle of a Spectrum game loading then it'd be some kind of creepy nostalgia trap and I've have never left)















And finally

For those who wondered what Birmingham Central Library will look after The Apocalypse, we now have an answer. James Fowkes, your diorama could only be more awesome if you had monkeys or zombies in it. Or zombie monkeys.
















Thursday, October 20, 2011

Kings In Yellow - gorgeous new Gollancz hardback SF range

Cue mutant Proustian rush for anyone who remembers harvesting the original Gollancz SF hardbacks from your local library shelves when growing up.

Nostalgia aside, let's celebrate the return of a literary design classic for Gollancz's 50th Birthday.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Make mine a 99% - A brief encounter with the Birmingham Occupation

Last Sunday I came across the Birmingham Occupation in Victoria Square. It's small, but perfectly formed at this stage. Just a few tents and banners, but inspiring to see it up in the grill of the Birmingham establishment, across the way from the Council House and cat-swinging distance from the Banking District.

Two posts ago I was reeling at the reminder that 25% of the people in my constituency are unemployed, so it's not like the great and good don't doesn't need reminding.

On Monday the camp had their first General Assembly to decide their approach - interested to hear what comes out of that as I couldn't make it down to listen in.

So, even if you can't occupy, pop along and have a chat with them, find out where they're coming from and what help they might need. They're lovely, friendly people - the Jarrow marchers of our day, perhaps - and along with climate change and global hunger this is one of the most important debates to be involved in right now.

The links!

Facebook page
Twitter feed
IndyMedia article with lots of lovely photos from the rally that kicked off the Occupation.

More photos from the banners slung under the giant video screen in Victoria Square.




















Monday, October 17, 2011

Late-period Woody Allen film much like late-period Woody Allen

Proposal: Woody Allen should go down the James Patterson route of getting other people to collaborate with him on his films.

Take Midnight in Paris, where sock puppet Owen Wilson, travels back in time to an idealised 1930's and hangs out with Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Dali, Picasso etc for writerly inspiration.

It's Woody on autopilot: a nostalgic, rose-tinted view of Europe, a bundle of first world problems, and a first-rate cast all bound up in self-referential autocritique (what, it's not enough to live in the past, you say? well strike a light!), an indifferent script with a few good gags and lazy direction.

Lazy direction? Let's just say I was nearly violently ill during the opening credits sequence of tourist-board Parisian scenes and leave it at that.

But it's not a bad idea for a film, if someone was genuinely interested in the artists of the 30's instead of using them to massage his proxy's ego. Oh, and interested in writing some decent jokes.

So why doesn't Woody, as he slips in to his twilight (Woodydammerung?) come up with the idea, keep directing, if he wants, but let other writers, who probably love his work up to the mid 90's, do the heavy labour he doesn't want to do?

Would we out-woody Woody, would we? Only one way to find out.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sparkbrook by-election commentary Pt 1

I'm working my way up to tackling the big political issues, like, y'know, world peace, but for now, here's a quick thought on the Sparkbrook ward city council by-election next month on 10 November. Specifically, what I'm learning from the leaflets being pushed through the door.

I've chosen Labour to look at purely because they are the only party to have given me anything to read so far, with the exception of a terse postcard from the Greens which said we are Green, we woz ere, you woz not, or something to like effect.

Disclaimer: I'm not a member of a political party, nor am I involved in Sparkbrook politics. I'll happily deconstruct any political literature I come across, just for the sheer geek-out-ability of it.

As you can see from
this year's results in May, Sparkbrook is something of an electoral anomaly in that Respect are a force to be reckoned with. Up till then, they had had all three seats for Sparkbrook. Their three councillors included the formidable Salma Yaqoob, who's triggered the by-election by stepping down for health reasons.

So it's no surprise that, with Salma off the scene, Labour's leaflet strikes a magnanimous tone. Perhaps it's courtesy, certainly there's no political capital in going on hard on Respect under the circumstances
(unlike in previous local elections)




















Yep, it's clear who the enemy is here.
















Here we have a critique of national politics playing proxy for local politics. Understandable but frustrating from the standpoint of wanting to make an informed choice at the ballot box.

The policy solutions? Cutting tuition fees, a tax on bankers' bonuses to create more jobs and a new law on apprenticeships. All interesting policies I'd like to examine ... as part of a UK election and political grassroots debate between elections. None are in the gift of Birmingham City Council, our beneficent municipal Godzilla.


Interesting emphasis on young people's problems, though. Is Labour trying to politicise youth, or appeal to their more-likely-to-vote parents and elder relatives?















Lib Dems and Tories picking on the people of Sparkbrook? Watch out! Sounds as if Mike Whitby is out to steal your lunch money.

I'm just a little disappointed about the standard of political discourse here.


To be fair to Labour, I will add that we also received a letter from local MP Roger Godsiff- making it 200% more literature than I've received from Respect, the Lib Dems or the Conservatives.

While two pages of text risks TL:DR it does include some local proposals:
  • Gating alleyways to prevent them being used for drug deals (is this current Council policy? they're trying to gate our alley at the moment)
  • Community-led projects like insulation, recycling, solar panels (OK - that does push my buttons)
  • More local schooling (not sure what this means but given that I don't have a hard working family and am just a feckless single, I probably don't need to).
There's a major dollop of jam tomorrow with this - the deal seems to be 'help Labour become bigger, if not the biggest party on the council, and we'll see you right.' But hey, at least that's a sensible local political strategy.

I also need to thank Labour for the statistic in the letter that 25% of people in Sparkbrook are unemployed. I mean, for Zarquon's sake, this ought to be a major wake-up call to everyone of any political persuasion and none in my neck of the woods.

Next question: so what are we going to do about it?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ten songs which are also great fantasy short stories

Fantasy seems to fit itself better to the song form than other genre fiction. I like to think it says something about its roots in the exhumations of epic poetry by Tolkien and others, as well as the survival/revival of the wierd in the folksong tradition.

Here are ten tracks which stand up as short - possibly a little experimental - fantasy fiction while also being great songs. Do you have any additions to this list?

1. Patti Smith, Birdland: Farmboy has prophetic visions after his dad's funeral, declares himself inhuman, acquires spooky eyes and an affinity for ravens.

2. Led Zeppelin, The Battle Of Evermore: On many levels ridiculous elf-folk about armageddon, redeemed by utter dead-pan sincerity by Plant and Denny and lovely, darling mandolin. The only entry on this list with serious Tolkien debt.

3. Joanna Newsom, Monkey and Bear: There is room in this list for one tragic story of carnival animals eloping, from the Angela Carter modern fairytale wing of fantasy. Quotes from Westside Story and makes me tearful.

4. Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, The Game of Eyes: "The Game Of Eyes is played between two people on a burning marble board! Mwa ha ha ha!" Nuff said.

5. Prince, Darling Nikki: Prince is the L Rider Haggard of funk (probably NSFW lyrically).

6. Joni Mitchell, Roses Blue: Problems with fortune-telling, part 1

7. Comets On Fire, Hatched Upon The Age: Problems with fortune telling, part 2

8. Tom Waits, Underground: Tom bangs on pots and pans and shouts about the Hollow World. This list's Fisher King entry.

9. Scott Walker, The Seventh Seal: Why Scott? A five-minute mariachi version of Ingmar Bergman's chess-with-the-Grim-Reaper-classic! How thoughtful of you!

10. David Bowie, Magic Dance: What? It's Dr Seuss goes fantasy! It's not just a gratuitous excuse to link to the video and to that outfit.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Second-hand music - quick reviews

Just time to round off this week of second-hand music with some quick reviews.

Joanna Newsom - Ys

I've just been downstairs to apologize to the house's three witchy cats for not having previously appreciated how great Joanna Newson was. The string arrangements and Joanna's Betty Boop voice give it a springy feel which carry you through those loooooong songs.















The cats, enjoying a bit of the old Joanna

As a former astronomy geek, she had me lyrically at the meteorite in chorus of Emily.


Willy Mason - Where The Humans Eat


Willy, you were great at Moseley Folk Festival last month, so if it's alright you I'll remember that instead of this album, which made the cats hungry (s'true) when I played it in the kitchen. It's your first album from seven years ago and I'm sure you get better.
Goodness knows I wouldn't want to be judged on what I was like when I was 20.

Human League - Dare vs Heaven 17 - The Luxury Gap

FIGHT!

It's interesting that the Human League sound so incredibly cheap with their youth club synths and - much though I love Phil -
limited vocal ability. Heaven 17 clearly got custody of the good equipment when they left the League - the Luxury Gap sounds expensive in the way that high-end 80's electronica does - and also recruited a more technically proficient singer.

In spite of the majesty of Temptation, I still reckon that the League's endearing amateurishness (herewith Sound of the Crowd) shades the precision-tooled faux-corporate London-Edinburgh-Sheffield schtick that Heaven 17 peddle.

NB: Glenn Gregory is not to be confused with local Birmingham councillor Len Gregory. This is a common mistake, no doubt based on a desire in the collective subconscious to see more eighties synth-botherers in local politics.

Second hand music part 2: Negativland - Helter Stupid

Over the years, the risk in playing the pop agent provocateur has shifted more from scandal to boredom. You could say we live in a Meat Dress World where, for example, wearing half an uncured cow to an awards ceremony seems less about scandalizing the bourgeoisie, less about surrealism, feminism, any-ism, and more about desperately trying to hold the media's attention.

I'm interested as to whether Gaga's reluctance to give a coherent explanation of her costume choice is a genuine reluctance to shut down possible meanings, or just that she didn't have one to offer.

"It [the dress] has many interpretations but for me this evening. If we don't stand up for what we believe in and if we don't fight for our rights, pretty soon we're going to have as much rights as the meat on our own bones. And, I am not a piece of meat."

Gaga stands up for non-specific freedom in essentially empty gesture! Yay!

All this is by way of an introduction to this week's other Second Hand Music post, a band which really did yank the tail of the media donkey with a purpose in mind, even if it did come back to bite them.



Here's Californian sample-punks Negativland with 1989's Helter Stupid, courtesy of You Tube

Helter Stupid Part 1

Helter Stupid Part 2

So, remember news stories linking heavy metal with murder and suicide? Recall the recurring moral panic - probably in the Daily Mail - about what teenagers are listening to? The disregard for basic causation? The lazy journalism which implies people do whatever music tells them?

Back in 1988, In a moment which walked a fine line between Dada prankster genius and self-immolation, Negativland tried to bring down a media witch hunt of this kind on their own heads to demonstrate how ridiculous and poorly researched they usually were.


The band put out a press release suggesting that they had been banned by federal authorities from touring pending an investigation into a tragic Midwest family killing, in which they denied that their music (specifically the song Christianity Is Stupid) was involved.

None of this was true (except the murder case itself) but most news outlets who picked up on the story followed the 'no smoke without fire' principle and assumed that there was a link. End result: a sh*tstorm of negative Negativ' reporting, and both the music papers and the mainstream media ultimately left with egg on their faces.

Now that's a scandal.

Though I'm ambivalent about the stunt itself - part of me feels it's in poor taste - what cannot be denied is that in licking their wounds Negativland made a powerful, important record in Helter Stupid.

Manipulated voices, including news reports from the case, horror movies, priests, John Lennon and an Indian woman demanding ever 'more data', plus characters played by the band themselves, rest on a backdrop of samples and house beats. It puts pretty much everything I've heard to shame for sheer density.

I wonder if Dr Alex Paterson was listening, as what the collage of Helter Stupid most reminds me of is The Orb at their most un-dubbed.

Funny, head-spinning, non-didactic, transgressive, ferociously imaginative, it turns Negativland's point about the gullibility of the media and the fall-out from their escapades unexpectedly into some of the best political music ever.

McLuhan and Kurt Schwitters to a disco beat? If you like, Neil.

Wierd Digbeth and Highgate photography

Here are photos of found objects that catch my eye around where I work.

David Braben cleans out his attic
















After Meret Oppenheim?















Reverse Narnia gambit





















Excalibur down on its luck again




















Street art















That's deep, man. Deep

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Plush It Real Good

Or, do I have a problem with retro pop classicism these days?


First off the conveyor belt of charity shop music this week are Plush, the rocking alias of Liam Hayes, and their second album Fed (2008).


Fed is a very high-quality stylistic exercise and - I think - I mean that as a compliment. The style in question here is early 70's soft-rock, echoing solo Lennon, Al Green, Dark Side- era-Floyd, with some of the best strings, horns and organ arrangements I've heard in a long while.

While Liam Plush self-produces, all this aural cotton candy- you might be surprised to find - has been recorded by Steve Albini and friends, taking a well earned day off from recording shouty men with tattoos. It sounds gorgeous, and you can find two examples of it here on Plush's own site.

No Education, which is pretty typical of the Fed sound (the Wall of Plush?)
the jaunty Greyhound Bus Station, which sounds uncannily like it's about to turn into the Velvets covering the theme to Only Fools and Horses.

Fed's been on my headphones for the past week, sounding great, and causing little moments of happiness every time I put it on.

Yet .... and yet yettery yet:

Liam can't really sing. We're talking nearly Curt Kirkwood from the Meat Puppets levels of not finding the right notes. And he's not trying to do this in a genre where non-singing is a virtue, no, no, no. He's set his cap at the unforgiving heights of AOR and white soul.

If Liam managed to sing the right wrong notes (hello, Edwyn Collins), or he had a distinctive writerly voice (hello, Edwyn Collins), he could probably get away with this more than he does with me.

I'm also asking myself these days - and this is not Plush's fault - how much value there is in an album which sets itself up in the shadow of the old masters. Blame Simon Reynolds, if you like. I feel that musicians who still want to do so either need to find ways of bringing the old into the new, or at least speak to the times (what I think of as the Folk Get-out Clause).

Fed does neither of these things, but it remains a glittering Faberge of an album - shiny, precious, painstakingly done, but I'm not sure what it's for.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Second-hand music

Probably about half my CD collection comes from second-hand and charity shops, library sales and record fairs. There might well be some reduce-reuse-recycle point of principle at bottom here, but I do it chiefly because I enjoy the paradoxical hunt for something I'm not looking for.

Charity shops are the best places for this activity, because the professionals - Record & Tape Exchange et al - much though I love them - make it too easy to find something of interest. They're best for comfort browsing and bulk buying rather than chance, right-place/right-time finds.

Being on holiday last month was an opportunity to place myself in the path of serendipity (or at least Age Concern Lutterworth) and see what I found.

Reviews and more to follow over the course of the week.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Individual Electoral Registration Desk Research Drama

You may have read the Guardian's article on individual registration (IR) earlier this month

"As many as 10 million voters, predominantly poor, young or black, and more liable to vote Labour, could fall off the electoral register under government plans, the Electoral Commission, electoral administrators and psephologists warned"

You may have even read my response, thrown away in passing on a 38 Degrees discusssion

" [...] the issue is not IR ... but how it's been proposed to be done here."

"What are the proposals to mitigate and reverse the drop off if we switch to IR?"

"A botched and/or politically motivated switch to IR could be worse than the current system. It would need to be done well and in a non-partisan way, if it were done at all."


The Electoral Commission have also just put out the following statement:

'We support the introduction of IER [individual electoral registration] as an important improvement in how people register to vote. It was initially proposed by the previous government and we are pleased that the current government has produced a White Paper on its introduction. We welcome the current debate on the issue and the opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny to ensure IER is introduced in the best way possible.

'We believe IER can be introduced in a way to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register is improved. We have however highlighted to Government and Parliament our concern that if the opt-out from registration currently proposed is introduced registration could drop towards election turn-out levels.'

Earlier this week, I went looking for some reasoned perspectives on IR and found the Electoral Reform Society, the Open Rights Group and Unlock Democracy. I'll have a look at these and the White Paper and then report back with Tim's take on IR, take two.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Solar panels at stag do venue

Props also to Dale's stag do venue - the Park Farmhouse Hotel near Donington Racecourse in Leicestershire - for having this mightily impressive solar array on site. Apparently it provides most of the energy for the function barns and banqueting halls (where we toasted Sir Dale of the North Hamptons).


Lance Bubo is The Plague Visitor

This is my friend Giles at my other friend Dale's medieval stag do (how awesome an act of geekery is that?) in costume as a plague visitor during the time of the Black Death.

Giles is an archaeologist, but has a secret life going into schools in costume to explain British history in a hands-on way. So I don't in any way need to reach for metaphor to describe him as a legend.


Having no such fantastic costume to draw on, I took one of Dale's mauve shirts, accessorized with a belt, and used it as a belt. When challenged, I simply claimed to be the Purple Sage, tasked with bringing about the Lilac Time. :-)

Disco philosophy and Hercules & Love Affair

Have you ever thought about the progressive character of disco and it's less polyester-prone daughter, house music? What would it be like to live in a society governed by the values of house? Freedom, racial and sexual equality, and piano breakdowns for everyone, that's what.

And at the level of the individual? Disco and house preach self-respect, persistence in the face of emotional hardship, the right to love, and freedom through dance.

Taken as a whole, surely this should be the music of right-thinkers everywhere.
Although there's nothing worse, of course, than a disco fan gone bad.

So why's this music on my mind? In recent weeks, I've built myself an emotional cocoon out of headphones and this year's Hercules And Love Affair album, Blue Songs. It's unashamedly house-driven - divas, hi-hats, hand-claps and yes, that piano boogie - and equally unabashed in its pursuit of house philosophy: love, self-reliance, reaching for the positive, and dancing, dancing, dancing.


Blue Songs even offers a cover of that groove politics classic 'It's Alright' as one of three slower numbers that push it well into crossover territory. It's a mark of how good the album is that they enhance its pacing rather than feeling tokenistic.

So, why not let a little house music into your life? Not even I can listen to ambient drone metal all the time.

I'll leave you with the video to My House, which seems to be doing its best to recapture the spirit of some obscure American cable TV equivalent of the Hitman And Her circa 1989.

Remember to stick around for the commercial break.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Iain M Banks @ Birmingham Library 7 June

IMB: serious raconteur. I mean, any question from the audience leads to shaggy-dog answers stretching anything up to five minutes, circular, recursive, frequently very funny indeed. Yet his stories neatly divert his interrogators from his secrets.

As Awesome Girlfriend quipped 'He delivers much, but promises little.'

So, for example, questions about Culture prequels and ideas for future novels are ducked, swamped by sheer rat-a-tat verbiage.

Some highlights:
  • IMB's first exposure to SF as a small child was - apparently - an unremembered work by Enid Blyton (Enid M Blyton?)
  • He knew his chosen career aged 11, and spent his teens writing out pun-laden thrillers up to 400,00 words in length.
  • The M stands for Menzies - his never-used original SF alias was going to be John B McAllen after his then two favourite whiskies.
  • He describes mainstream fiction as a delicate piano compared with SF's gothic church organ, where you can pull out all the surreal, exaggerated stops for a spectacle of Demillean proportion
The most resonant point he made, for me, was his reluctance to explain the origins of the Culture, to fill in the blanks of its history. SF/fantasy authors are often compulsive world-builders - or if they aren't then there's usually a subsequent, poorer writer to come along afterwards to do the job for them through unnecessary sequels, guides or role-playing source-books.

The strength of the Culture, on the other hand, is that its vague set-up as a post-scarcity benevolent oligarchy allows IMB to bring in any and every weird flourish he wants without ever having to pretend that he has fully defined it.

Monday, May 16, 2011

I Want My Mumblecore Thor And I Want Him Now




Thor (Hurrgh! What is he good for??) didn't blow me away, but it benefited from being the first film I saw after the Your Highness debacle. Anything was going to be generously received after that.

So, Thor (Hurrgh!) was alright, but I don't want to waste ink describing its okayness in minute detail. No. I want to suggest that somewhere, buried under the Flash Gordon CGI (Asgard = Mongo) is the ghost of a film I would watch the heck out of struggling to get out.

We'd keep most of the start of the film, partly because the Attack on the Planet of the Ice Giants is pretty cool, but crucially Thor (Hurrgh!) needs to get exiled and lose his powers for this to work.

Hammer-deprived Dave Thunder falls to Earth and hangs out with The Radiant Natalie Portman and her astronomical Scoobies in a few charming scenes. Chris Hemsworth and TRNP (given that she's a scientist, does that make her TRNP-PHD?) have chemistry, there are cute misunderstandings of 'primitive Earth culture', it's a rather sweet underplayed romance.

Thanks to discussions of inter-dimensional Marvel astrophysics, it even just about passes the Bechdel Test.

This is comfortably the best bit in the film. Really.

Unfortunately, this is where reality and my ghost film part accompany.

The real Thor (Hurrgh!) sees our hero regain his weapon and godlike powers and frees Asgard from the confused and incoherent tyranny of his adoptive brother Loki. From that point the film is passable, but nothing special.

Yet what if this didn't happen? Hammerless, lost on Earth, like the Third Doctor on steroids, what does he do?

Perhaps Thor (Hurrgh!) would move in with TRNP. Maybe he would use his Asgardian super-science to assist her research, maybe employ his hammer-fu to make his living from hand-crafted furniture, like some kind of Viking Viscount Linley.

There would be the inevitable comic resolution of the everyday misunderstandings arising from a modern woman dating a Dark Ages deity. Heck, there can even be an tolerable amount of learning if you want it.



All done in a arthouse (ArtNorse?) style, of course.

Okay, so I'm being a little flippant here, and it may feel like I'm turning Thor (Hurrgh!) into Mork and Mindy but my point is this: for about ten minutes Thor looked like a gentler, better film, and was the poorer for not persisting in that vein.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Curiosity and spirituality

It's perhaps not commonly known, but I occasionally take services at a Unitarian meeting house in South East London.

For more information on Unitarians (like Quakers with hymns) see http://www.unitarian.org.uk. Our Meeting House is on Faceborg here:

http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Lewisham-Unitarian-Meeting-House/204686696210228

The theme of yesterday's address/sermon was 'curiosity and spirituality' and I include revised extracts below.

Last month I finally watched Citizen Kane for the first time. For those who haven't seen it, the story revolves around a reporter's quest to uncover the riddle of Charles Foster Kane's dying words. Consumed with the need for an answer, he plunges deeper and deeper into Kane's life. Yet for all his zeal and labour, he never finds the answer he is looking for.

But if our own questions don't have one right answer, or even an answer at all, does that matter?

Can we enjoy asking questions without needing an answer?

A question of questions

There are differing views on the value of questions. At one end of the spectrum, analytical philosophers like A J Ayer argued that most questions of ethics or metaphysics are not really true questions at all, as they cannot be answered through observation or mathematical logic.

At the other, literal-minded interpretations of religion tend towards being 'all answer and no question', to quote John Updike. In other words, all questions of belief or practice can be addressed through a monolithic reading of a single holy text.

I have too many questions myself to rest easy with either view. I do think the big questions are worth asking, worth discussing with others. But I've also learnt to live with the fact that often all we get isa provisional answer, an answer for the moment alone.

Sometimes all we can do is hold the question without getting an answer at all. Yet I believe that paying the question attention is I believe in itself useful and consciousness-expanding.

This is why the most interesting teachers answer questions with riddles, parables and stories that enrich debate and enhance possibilities, rather than closing them down.

This is why it's vital to engage with ideas, and with others with ideas, who make you think in new and exciting ways.

This is also why critical thinking is so important

Critical thinking and curious cats

The liberal Anglican Don Cupitt (in The Sea of Faith) defined critical thinking as follows:

A critical thinker seeks to emancipate his own thinking from the tyranny of theory. He learns regularly to perform little thought experiments in which he sets aside the theory which he himself uses to look at himself and the world and tries looking at them in light of another theory.

The only thing I think is missing from this definition is a sense of playfulness. For example, I share my house with three cats which the landlady has left in our care. I have no idea what they are thinking when they poke their noses into everything around them, but they are undeniably curious about the world in a playful, open-ended way.

I recently came across a summary of liberation theology and straight away knew I wanted to read more. I don't know what I'll take from these ideas, but I do hope that this open-minded, curious, cat-like enquiry will help enhance my own thinking and spiritual practice, as Christianity, Buddhism, psychoanalysis and conversation with other Unitarians have all done before now.

Curiosity helps us grow as individuals - if Thomas Edison had not sought the new he would have just built a better candle!

Unicorns in the balloon factory

What applies to the individual also applies to to the community.

There's a great story from Seth Godin in Tribes - a parable almost - about a unicorn in a balloon factory. It means no harm, but it causes all kinds of havoc just by having a point to make.

Curiosity, asking questions, is part of liberation. Wherever a status quo is unhelpful, perhaps even harmful, calling it into question can be a powerful and sometimes a brave act, and perhaps the start of a positive change in your life or the life of the community.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Your Highness reviewed and damned

I've been working on a suitably geeklordly metaphor for how bad this film is. Here we go. Remember Mordor? Blackened pits choked with volcanic ash, drear peaks, pits of lava and so forth. "A dying land not yet dead". Doubleplusungood, yes?

Now, hold that blasted place in your mind's eye and add ... Tom Bombadil. Yes, that sorely unamusing rhyming excuse for a Marc Bolan roadie who nearly ruins the middle section of The Fellowship of the Ring with his incongruous, grating, cheerfulness.

Roll with me on this one. You're in the kingdom of the Big Bad, surrounded by dread, encircled by despair, with the most deeply irritating character in the entire trilogy, compared to whom even the Nazgûl are starting to look like bosom companions.

And just when you think it couldn't get any worse, ol' TB starts telling jokes. Not just any jokes, mind, but dirty jokes. Dirty jokes a potty-mouthed eight year old, or Jim Davidson, say, would reject for being overly simplistic, downright sexist, homophobic, offensive, and plain un-fun-ny.

Horror upon horror.

If this has melted your brain, or at least caused a syllable 'of inarticulate pain such as 'gah' to pass your lips, then a small particle of the anti-joy I experienced on watching Your Highness has been successfully transmitted to you like a analogy of suck.

I'm going to pick out three reasons why this wretched fantasy stoner 'comedy' fails and then go and enjoy the sunshine.

1. Lack of genre awareness

Fantasy is not a difficult genre to parody. See The Princess Bride, Blackadder, Monty Python's Holy Grail, Pratchett and his horde of followers, Conan The Destroyer. There are a well established set of genre conventions to skewer, and enough serious, or at least intentionally serious, fantasy movies to provide ample fuel for the fire.

On the other hand, you could just make a few lazy nods to the Platonic ideal of an 80's fantasy movie, establish that the protagonist is a Prince on a Quest to defeat an evil Wizard, wish your Master/Servant relationship was as funny as Edmund and Baldrick, and fill up the rest of the film with Carry On gags.

Guess which one Your Highness does.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not looking for in-jokes that only level 10 gnome illusionists would be hip to. It's just hard to shake the suspicion that I'd see more sophisticated deconstructions of the fantasy genre in an episode of Masters of the Universe than you'd get in this film.

And while sex is inherently funny, innuendo does not = instant yucks.

2. Danny McBride

One fantasy cliche Your Highness does play with is the Redemption Arc - the idea that the hero starts as a loser but ends, after twists, turns and varying degrees of luck and personal application, as a winner.

Unfortunately, Prince Thadeous (Danny McBride) is such a narcissistic, cowardly, sex-obsessed bore that his transition to hero lacks conviction.

I'm told that Danny is very good in Eastbound & Down at being funny-unlikeable. But the Redemption Arc built into the film doesn't allow him to be the full Edmund Blackadder, and he's not likable enough to pull off the Will Ferrell trick of playing the lovable buffoon.

Danny co-wrote this film as well, which makes him at least partly culpable for my third point.

3. Tread carefully, taboo-busters
 

Much modern comedy seems to draw its energy from saying the unsayable, from pushing the limits of what can be shown on stage or screen.

Two potential problems here, both of which Your Highness has in doubloons:

First, diminishing returns drive desperate men to dross. There's already an EU mountain, a plethora, a mega-snigger of sex jokes in modern comedy films. The only way to compete in this market is to be really good - remember that sex is intrinsically funny - or to be even crasser than your competitors, which is much easier.

Your Highness takes the easy route out of Least Resistance City, and does it about as subtly as female characterization in Tolkien. And gets not one laugh from me. Especially for the pederasty gags.

Second, it's a thin line between the comedy of shock and the comedy of cruelty. And when that cruelty is applied to a particular social group or practice or individual trait, well, I'm tempted to call that prejudice, not taboo-breaking.

And so I'm unsettled by the cultural context which has deposited Your Highness into my cinema in 2011. There are gags in Your Highness which trade without irony on the idea that being gay is in itself inherently funny. And Natalie Portman's role as an adventuress and token strong woman basically serves as a 'beard' for the film to cover up its more misogynistic moments.

Even if this is a misreading of the film's intent, the fact that such a strong misreading is easy to make suggests that Your Highness has bigger problems than intellectual laziness, lack of genre-savviness, miscasting and a poor script.

It's flirting with a dubious world view indeed.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Squids Are Alright, Pt 1. China Mieville - Kraken (book review)

When I heard fantasy weird fiction author China Mieville speak back in 2009, he was talking 'bout a tentacular revolution. Culture, he said, had appropriated the octopus and the squid as uniquely plastic metaphors for Otherness.

So, recall the B-movie staple of the giant squid, implacable atom-warped force of revenging nature. His predecessors in gothic literature, like Lovecraft's octopus-demon Cthulhu, as well as his descendents – any alien or mutant worth their salt wouldn't be seen dead on a rampage without their many appendages. And that's even before we get to the queasy sexualisation of the tentacle in Japanese hentai.

However, CM was mainly interested in the use of the celephapod to represent social and political threat. In his talk, he drew on warnings in the early twentieth century of the tentacles of imperialism, fascism, communism; all wrapping themselves around their nation-prey.

This curious tradition was revived in recent years with the endearing description of the investment bank Goldman Sachs as 'a vampire squid with its tentacles around the face of humanity.'

So, fluid in form, defiantly inhuman, they give us the heebie-jeebies in so many ways. Octopi, that is, not investment bankers (for the purposes of this review, at least).

Even the creeping banalisation of traditional horror hasn't quite diminished their impact. The Disneyification of the Lovecraft mythos – hello, My Little Cthulhu – has yet to erode the WTF-ery, the squick of the squid, that the original evokes.

We are still suckers for suckers.

And if anyone could get back to the richness, strangeness and political content of the metaphor, you'd think it would be China Mieville. Card carrying socialist. King of the steampunk mutants. Master of intelligent biohorror. One of the few vital signs in fantasy literature in the last decade.

Kraken, Mieville's contribution to our body of squid-terature, does its bit to prove this true. The kraken cult at the heart of the book Is a lovely bit of counterfactual theology, with some sharp questions about why anyone would bother worshipping an uncaring god (answer – because humanity is nothing if not perverse).

One of the chief delights of any of his books is exactly this sort of window-dressing – what Adam Roberts has referred to as worldbling. So, Mieville creates an alternate London the reader can revel in – a dense underworld of occult cops and robbers, secretive cults and wannabe demiurges.

This elaboration of a new world is not exactly uncommon in fantasy literature – after all Tolkien spent years working on the backdrop for Lord of the Rings. Unlike most of his peers, however, Mieville isn't just recycling cliches from a Dungeons & Dragons (or more aptly in this case, World of Darkness) campaign. He brings a playfulness, a delight in unlikely combinations, and a love of ideas.

Who else would come up with the idea of a general strike by wizard's familiars in the face of exploitation? Or deftly satirise the cliches of police procedural TV shows when summoning the spirits of law and order by burning old videos of The Sweeney?

Alright, maybe Terry Pratchett or Tim Powers would. But the point is that this kind of talent and originality is rare in a genre which often feels like a downhill ski run through as many cliché gates as possible.

A special mention also to Mieville's gift with emotional heft. The subplot about a grieving girlfriend investigating occult London for the first time has real tug and resonance and a reminder that what we have here is a proper writer and everything.

The plot – in as far as I can talk about it without too many spoilers – concerns the theft of a giant squid specimen from the Natural History Museum and what happens to his curator, innocent abroad Billy Harrow. The squid mostly gets relegated to McGuffin status – it's what most of the cast are chasing and each sees it differently. I'm still trying to decide if this is cleverness on Mieville's part (look – it can represent anything!) or a missed opportunity for more tentacular action.

Billy's adventures are sufficiently circuitious and fast-paced that at very few points in Kraken is it entirely clear what is going on. This is broadly a good thing – the book is nothing if not exciting. However, in the same way that Raymond Chandler used to advance the plot by introducing another man with a gun to menace his protagonist, Mieville's default is to introduce a new gang of zanies. So, if it's Chapter 9, it must be the Londonamancers/Chaos Nazis/Gunfarmers/delete as appropriate.

And regular readers will find much that is familiar in Kraken: the obsession with transforming people into something else, preferably something icky; the renactment of scenes and motifs from left-wing history, the recasting of London in fantastic form. Mieville has his tropes, to be sure, and it's good that they are distinctly his. But he's too good an author to have to repeatedly indulge his literary fetishes.

Before you ask – no, I didn't like his previous book, The City and The City, which did stage something of a breakout from core Mievilliana. But I applaud his intention in writing it.

My favourite Mieville books are those where the plot is relatively straightforward – the more direct the approach, the more it can accommodate the weight of all that baroque world creation and intellectual playfulness. So, Perdido Street Station, still his best, is at core just the best bug hunt ever.

Kraken, on the other hand, has the motor of a gangland thriller cum detective novel under the occult bonnet. One of our squids is missing – whodunnit? This is too complex to bear Mieville's usual digressions and flourishes and as a result the book felt to me as a reader like an exercise in increasingly complicated plate-spinning.

A lesser author could have got 4 or 5 bad books out of Kraken. A better author, which I hope Mieville is on his way to becoming, could have got 4 or 5 more focussed, intellectually richer ones.

If this seems unduly harsh, let me reiterate that this book remains a fertile piece of work, a bold reimagining of London and a good yarn. Any book which compares religions with criminal gangs and runs with it for all its worth, pausing to stage a faked apocalypse, has a lot going for it.

And even if it's not one of his very best, Kraken's still helping to drag fantasy kicking and screaming out of the Tolkien trap. Which is a Very Good and Necessary thing indeed. Long may Mieville continue to write like the bastard offspring of Roald Dahl and M John Harrison.