Self-important walking about: the core trope of television sci fi in the UK. Without it we won’t watch. With it, we’ll watch anything, up to & including the kind of robotic downer hamming closely associated with Hermione Norris. Blake’s Seven to Outcasts, thirty-odd years of I’m-in-charge-here issues & status delirium. Body language of command! Play the role! Pose with the “gun”! Stride from one part of the set to another & then back again! Dialogue that would never come from a human mouth.
Monthly Archives: March 2011
Versions of this aesthetic have been playing to packed houses & across disciplines since the 1970s. Its power was revelatory: it sustained itself between mystification & demystification. With that edge blunted–both by the normalisation of the aesthetic & in terms of the dwindling number of disclosable individual spaces–what’s the point ? Edge zones are fragile. Try to fix them, they vanish in front of your eyes. The next stop here is a kitsch of edge.
Recently, the only thing I can face after work is “The Voices of Time”.
It’s lazy, I suppose, to just slip into this story’s mysterious currents of imagery–astrophysics & mandalas, time & architecture–& bathe in the feeling of a work both historical & two generations ahead of its time: but I love it. A vision completely without literalised predictions & yet so irradiated by its own future. I like the structure, closed but not ended. I like the central black joke. I like the way it foreshadows the nuclear obsessions of his best work. I like the increased sense of potential its drained affect brings to the narrative: the sense that at every turn of the page there’s some further implication, some amused estimation of the kinds of circumstances in which we find ourselves fifty years later. Ballard always diverts me. Other than Paul Bowles’ “A Distant Episode”, I can’t think of anything more relaxing. A guilty pleasure ? Maybe so. But we’d all go mad without them wouldn’t we ?
JG Ballard, pure reading pleasure. More here: Ballardian.
One evening a week I have supper in their garden with my friend B and his family, who live on the hill above the port. The history of that quarter is of a fall from grace. It begins with some medieval prince covering the hill with flowers and ends with a fashionable suburb where the prices now reach European levels. Everyone who’s anyone lives there, diplomat or businessman, or in the case of B “cultural ambassador”. The flowers have long gone. The cheaper streets at the base of the hill, drenched in a rich sunset light, are lined with wrecked cars.
“Not that we mind,” B’s wife told me, without a hint of irony, the first time I arrived for supper, “because they’re really rather lively and attractive, almost art. All the different colours! And people use them as storage, their houses are so small.”
The end wall of B’s garden is rough-plastered a shade of terra cotta. On to the plaster a previous owner has painted a trompe l’oeil gateway a little less than life size, opening on to a trodden-earth path through a wooded landscape. The path leads away along its flat sine curve into distant hills planted with olives. Secondary growth is applied as a mist of green, while the trunks of a hundred trees, very slim and straight, stand away from the path like spectators.
On that side of things, it’s morning perhaps. At this distance it’s really quite hard to tell. You’re too aware of the brushstrokes, the stipple. The effect is best gained not from the garden itself but from B’s kitchen, sixty feet away. From there the faded quality of the paint blurs everything together, turning the garden into an extension of that mysteriously inviting path, a merging effect heightened by the ivies which spill thick and glossy over the wicker fences on either side. Plantings of arum lily, fuchsia and false orange lead your eye to the small acacia tree artfully overhanging the gate itself.
For a moment, especially in twilight, it can have a brief magic.
This evening, as we sit out in the garden waiting for his other guests, I tell B:
“The door in the wall was an icon beloved by late-Victorian and Edwardian alike. The symbol of another life, of lost opportunity, or of opportunities not fully taken. If you pass through the door, the story goes, you cannot be anything less than changed. If you don’t pass through it, you still cannot be anything less than changed.
“Choice, here, offers a fifth major compass point, an unnamed direction or plane. It’s the plane of nostalgia, and of nostalgia’s inverse, a kind of weightless but abiding regret.”
“Bloody hell,” B says. “I bet you can’t repeat that.”
“Don’t tease each other you two,” his wife tells us. “The children are bad enough.”
Her three older girls are in bed, but she is having a problem with the youngest. “Ella, if you can stop crying now,” she says patiently, “Ella, if you can really get control and stop crying, I’ll give you a big bottle of milk. But if you don’t I’ll only give you half a bottle. All right, Ella?”
“If I were Ella,” B whispers, “I’d be pretending to get control now and take revenge later.”
“Bide her time then get revenge on all adults,” I agree.
“Don’t be so bloody horrible,” warns Ella’s mother.
All afternoon the children have worked hard to personalise the gate, surrounding it with art of their own, bold, determined representations of people and stars in unmodified poster reds and yellows, done directly on to opened-out cardboard boxes left over from their recent move from Europe. They have propped their pictures up around the door in the wall like mirror portals, entrances to quite different kinds of imaginary worlds—lively, jarring and expressionistic. Ella’s efforts are particularly determined. Later I will write, “These worlds of hers are not alternatives to anything. Instead they are real, explosive acts of creation.”
The air is warm and soft. The other guests arrive. We talk, we laugh. We eat beautifully cooked fish and tabouli.
Trompe l’oeil is a con, and not much of one really. Everyone who sits in B’s garden that evening is grown up enough to relish this. They would never call the view on the other side of the door a “world” or insist that, to function as art or even as a mild joke, it successfully suspend their disbelief. After the youngest child has gone at last to bed, the adults smile and stretch and help clear away the supper things. They go to the end of the garden and gently collect up the children’s art to protect it from the dew. “Aren’t these wonderful? Aren’t they so energetic?”
Then they yawn and smile, and say goodnight to one another, and one by one pass through the gate, under the unpainted transom with its moulded flowers.
For a moment I watch them run away into the trees, calling and laughing softly. I leave them to it. In the harbour the tide is down, there’s dark algae on the surface of the mud. A swan sleeps amid the yellowing fibreglass litter between the moored boats. I look back at the hill and, parked round its base, all the wrecked cars. Before each one ends its working life, it has already become so patched and repaired that every panel is a different colour. Pea green. Talbot blue. Maroon. Rich yellow of city sunlight. Their wheels are gone. Their seats are long gone. They are held together with bits of string or leather belts, and full of obsolete TVs, hat boxes, bales of clothes, bags of cement!
I’ve lived with a lot less intensity since I arrived here. You might say that was age, but I would have to call it self-preservation. If I felt things as much as I used to—if I allowed things to take their proper space inside me—I’d be in trouble.
Not A Hint of Irony is copyright M John Harrison 2007, & first appeared as one of the hundreds of stories told by Barbara Campbell at 1001 Nights cast.
what makes sci fi interesting?
For me one of the sharper delights of the piece is its implication that along with “literary fiction”, literature itself began in the 1980s. As some below-the-liners at the Guardian comment, it seems shortsighted–especially on the part of someone whose academic specialism is the early history of the novel–to associate “literary fiction” not with actual literature but with a rebranding exercise from the Thatcher era.
Mullan’s snobbery is canonically based. He loves 18th & 19th Century fiction. Yet here he contributes marketing effort to a product that is shallow & trendy, as well as, at times, wafer-thin in terms of its own models and ambitions. His Guardian piece is written into media time–gossip time–in which deep literary history is what your mum read when she was your age.
I’m not claiming that, just because literary fiction as described by John Mullan can be shown to have the features of a genre, some other genre therefore deserves to be the princess of everything; only that literary fiction as described by John Mullan (“What is literary fiction? It is not genre fiction.”) can be shown to have the exact features of a genre. It can be shown to have a successful business model, strict boundary conditions & a committed fanbase which doesn’t read anything else (except very occasionally and for something it calls “guilty pleasure”).
It is interesting to visit the Cheltenham Festival, literary fiction’s equivalent of the annual British Science Fiction Convention, & observe these parameters & constraints in operation. How is it that when conventional behaviour supports crime fiction, fantasy, romantic fiction or science fiction, it is a laughable, even disturbing thing; yet when it supports a certain kind of reader, in pretty, comfortable conditions, with nice food & wine, in a pretty English setting, it is a fine, celebratory thing ?
Don’t feel you need to answer that. The point is not intended to be divisive anyway, but inclusive:
If science fiction and “literary fiction” so clearly share the social, structural & economic qualities of a genre or marketing category–a clear & obvious commodification–is it any wonder that both so often represent the very worst of what writing has to offer ? The effect of “literary fiction” on literature has been as destructive as the effect of the sf & fantasy genres on the fiction of the imagination. It has reduced surface to a kind of Farrow & Ball blandness, experiment to some clever jokes & humanity to charm. It’s the fictional equivalent of John Lewis.
A few books to read if you are offended by the deep ordinariness of both literary fiction & science fiction: The Journal of Albion Moonlight by Kenneth Patchen, Ice by Anna Kavan, Manhattan Transfer by John dos Passos, Concrete Island by JG Ballard, The Erasers by Alain Robbe Grillet, The Naked Lunch by William Burroughs. & if you really can’t get the contemporary litfic monkey off your back, at least read The Bridge of the Golden Horn by Emine Sevgi Ozdamar or get yourself some Aleksandar Hemon.
But even he can’t be wrong all the time.
The tramp, the assassin, the rebel, the thief, the mutant, the outcast, the delinquent, the devil, the sinner, the traveller, the gangster, the runner, the mask: if we did not recognize in them our least-fulfilled needs, we would not invent them over and over again, in every place, in every language, in every time.” (The Ground Beneath Her Feet.)
“What has congealed as an environment is a relationship to the world based on management, which is to say, on estrangement … It’s difficult to imagine a more complete hell.”
While at Almost Not There, Julian Richards has the fiction of sanity.
C spent the weekend in Berlin. I spent the weekend in a made-up world. Something is wrong here & I’m so close to understanding what it is. No, don’t say anything, just let me think. I want to get it on my own.
Barnes & Noble claim to have 20 (used) copies of Wolf Rider: A Tale of Terror by M John Harrison. Order your copy quickly before they discover I didn’t write it, & it subsides into the quantum foam from whence it came etc etc. Or, alternatively, make me a good enough offer & I’ll have a go at it.