“Sometimes as it blows across the Great Brown Waste in summer, the wind will uncover a bit of petrified wood. Mammy Vooley’s head had the shape and the shiny grey look of wood like that. It was provided with one good eye, as if at one time it had grown round a glass marble streaked with milky blue. She bobbed it stiffly right and left to the crowds: who stood to watch her approach; knelt as she passed; and stood up again behind her. Her bearers grunted patiently under the weigh of the pole that bore her up. As they brought her slowly closer it could be seen that her dress–so curved between her bony, strangely-articulated knees that dead leaves, lumps of plaster and crusts of wholemeal bread had gathered in her lap–was russet-orange; and that she wore askew on the top of her head a hank of faded purple hair, wispy and fine like a very old woman’s. Mammy Vooley, celebrating with black banners and young women chanting; Mammy Vooley, Queen of Uroconium, Moderator of the city; as silent as a log of wood.” [The Luck in the Head, 1982, from Viriconium, also in audio download.]
Category Archives: predicting the present
Is this the best physics scene ever?
Escaped neurophilosopher caught after hunt
Paradise Lost tops language abuse list
“Astonishingly, I could tell Harris + Hoole was a chain not an indy”
Safe Effective Clean
Fiscal cliff only E8 claims IMF
Are gadgets paedophilic?
East Midlands’ favourite Swiss “killed”
Another wave of American food
What if world leaders were survivors of the Vendian extinction?
Advanced Savvy Different
The young cannot cope with Hilary Clinton
Town bans twitter distribution of water
New year sees means testing of faceless heroes
What really causes Sheffield?
Forced Entertainment’s The Coming Storm was an extraordinary experience. I watched it on consecutive nights at Battersea Arts, & was so excited–not just by the performance but by the audience’s reaction–that I became incoherent every time I tried to say something about it. A month later I’m still too excited to write anything sensible, so here are some inarticulate notes I took at the time–
Instant control of the space. Characters evolve quickly from their entangled monologues–random, self-involved, confused. Nitpicking pub-style arguments spin up, develop, fade away without issue. Small narratives form & break as the performers undercut one other: their attempts to bulk out each anecdote with music, dance & explicatory material lead to chaos, brief hatreds, sudden violence. Above all, there are interventions: on the surface interruption is a structural device, deeper down it’s a way of life. The men try to outdo one another with avuncularity, baroque lies & unwanted advice; the women go quietly or noisily mad. A man puts on a Freddie Kruger mask & drags a piano about with a piece of rope. The piano whirls & rumbles lethally around the space. Later he tries to hang himself from a clothes rail. He has designed his own electric chair. He tells a story about his dying mother; a woman screams at him, “We agreed that we weren’t going to cheapen memories!” There’s a fight, & another woman urges the audience, “Don’t look at that! If you look at that you’re looking at the wrong thing.” What she wants, really, is that you should look at her. Klaus Kinski enlisted as a possible bus driver. Bits of broken language fall out of monologues & on to the stage: “Eating potatoes can make you aggressive.”
Adam Roberts rounds up the year’s science fiction. Jonathan McCalmont continues his assault on “the hotbed of empty phrases” that is traditional sf criticism. While Tim Maughan explains himself to Sense of Wonder. I like Maughan’s first answer– “the western middle classes … feel like the future – which they were always told would belong to them – is slipping out of their grasp” –because I’m interested in writing the deflation & melancholy of the people he describes. More interested, in a way, than pursuing the “future” that has left them behind. Science fiction has always defined a future as a global trend successfully isolated & described: the futurologist’s future, the cultural analyst’s future. All that interests the sf writer is the wavefront, the shock of the new. Cold, man. Because the future is also the umwelt of those who are left behind & muddle on–accepting this, rejecting that, failing to acknowledge or even detect macroeconomic shifts. In fact that’s really the only actual future, the non-discourse future, the non-speculative, non-theoretical future, the future on the ground. It’s all around, now. One of the many ways science fiction might delimit itself is to write in that direction, rather than always going for the shiny stuff, the Googie of the day. Bruce Sterling meets Anita Brookner & they totally fail to understand one another at the Hotel du Lac.
Dubious & formalised, as in Bilbao’s ex-docks or Sheffield reinvented as an apres-steel boutique: from industry to heritage industry. Wreckage needs to be real. It needs to be free. The central, inevitable & useful thing about a bent & rusty girder sticking up out of an overgrown cooling pond is that it’s a bent & rusty girder sticking up out of an overgrown cooling pond. Anything else is so pathetic: cleaned up, saved from itself (separated from the entropic processes it was always part of) & fit for a place on the mantelpiece in a nice front room. That teaches us something about the sublime in general: ie, really, it’s the Black Spot, the beginning of the end. So try & avoid capturing, recapturing or–especially– “celebrating” it. The urge to convey the authentic glee & terror of the post industrial wasteland is the beginning of the processes of romanticisation, postmodernisation & domestication. From the raw horror of a working blast furnace, through the uncanny of that much rust, to the kitsch. We need to live in the ruins; forget them; then live through them all over again, as whatever the landscape makes of them. Anything else is the media souvenir.
Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell is a generous, interesting book but it makes me think there’s nothing left to scavenge from the traditional rhetoric of disaster, especially its oppositions. Images of both elite panic & ad hoc mutualism seem historical. They wore out in the 50s & 60s of the last century. I feel the same about The Road. Its issues don’t seem to me to be the issue. They seem to be easy things to think, a waste of the power of the big machine of disaster. I don’t know what the issue is. But I believe more & more that there’s some other kind of disaster ready to be written.
After they had eaten, they finished the bottle of wine. Marnie switched on the TV and surfed desultorily, sampling a reality show in which people were invited to queue for items they couldn’t afford to buy; then Ice Melt!, now in its fifteenth season; before fixing with an impatient sigh on the second half of a documentary which traced the slow demise of the great Chinese manufacturing cities of the 2010s. Anna was reminded of the images of Detroit and Pripiat popular in the early days of the century, when decline and reversal–quick or slow, economic or catastrophic–had seemed like temporary conditions, anomalous and even a little exciting. Long bars of light falling obliquely into the vast rubble-filled interiors of factories already stripped of everything from doors to heating ducts; smoky pastel dawns in abandoned flagship housing projects where drug addicts queued patiently for an early fix; vegetation pushing up through orbital roads closed to traffic less than ten years before; faded, uninterpretable graffiti: lulled by these dreamy images of dereliction, she felt herself falling asleep. [Empty Space, pp58/59.]
I found her in one of the bigger blanket boxes. When I opened the lid a strange smell–compounded of blood & beeswax, pot pourri, vomit & whisky–filled the room. To fit herself in, Isobel had curled up, scrawny and foetal, with her head pillowed on one hand, in the pained attitude of a thirteenth century peat-burial. Beneath her was a litter of brochures, Polaroid snapshots & sodden tissues. The Polaroids were all of Isobel. She was clutching an empty Jameson’s bottle. She had torn the waxy machine-varnished covers off the brochures and then thrown up on them. She had discarded two cans of Gillette shaving foam, an old fashioned safety razor of mine & some spare blades. She had slit her wrists. But first she had tried to shave the nascent feathers from her scalp, upper arms and breasts, hacking at the keratin until her skin was a mess of bruises and abrasions, indescribable soft ruby scabs, ragged and broken feather sheaths like cracked and bloody fingernails. In a confused attempt to placate me, she had tried to get out of the dream the way you get out of a coat. When she moved, the down of twenty different birds puffed up out of the blanket box into the air around us like grey smoke. It fell back into her wounds & clung there turning red. For a second I was breathing it. It was as if a quilt had burst in my face & I was breathing feathers. They had a strange odour, musty yet exotic, dry but full of musk. I heard wings. They were soft & distant. They were close and panicky. They seemed to circle the room, then fade. [From Signs of Life, Gollancz, 1997.]
Empty Space is published on July 19th 2012 by Gollancz. Here’s another chapter, less to whet the appetite than taunt it–
Last practitioner of a vanishing technique, with specialisms in diplomacy, military archeology and project development, R.I. Gaines–known to younger colleagues as Rig–had made his name as a partly affiliated information professional during one of EMC’s many small wars. He believed that while the organisation was fuelled by science, its motor ran in the regime of the imagination. ”Wrapped up in that metaphor,” he often told his team–a consciously mongrelised group of policy interns, ex-entradistas and science academics comfortable along a broad spectrum of disciplines– “you’ll always find politics. Action is political, whether it intends to be or not.”
Some projects require only an electronic presence. Others plead for some more passionate input. Today Gaines was in-country on Panamax IV, where the local rep Alyssia Fignall had uncovered dozens of what at first sight seemed like abandoned cities. Microchemical analysis of selected hotspots, however, had convinced her they were less conurbations than what she loosely termed “spiritual engines”: factories of sacrifice which, a hundred thousand years before the arrival of the boys from Earth, had hummed and roared day and night for a millenium or more, to bring about change–or, more likely, hold it off.
“Close to the Tract,” she said, “you find sites like these on every tenth planet. You can map the trauma front direct on to the astrophysics.”