Notes from New Sodom

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

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Out With The New

So, long story short: I got fed up with MySpam and bored with FarceBook, and now it's goodnight, farewell, auf weidersein, adieu to both of them.

Short story long: thing is, I was always kinda dubious. In both cases I started up accounts after friends told me how they were, like, totally the place to be online, and I thought, OK, well, let's give it a try. So first I set up the MySpace account and it's all pretty meh. A personal profile like an internet dating site (Hi, I'm a 36 year old gay male from Glasgow, blah blah blah), with all the lists of favourite books, favourite movies, favourite bands, favourite cakes, favourite items of furniture and suchlike. Yeah, whatever.

But, hey, you can also collect friends, like -- I dunno -- stamps or rocks or something. Of course, you have to deal with SINDY and MINDY and CANDY and SANDY and RANDY and SHANDY who, like, met you at a party and thought you were really hot and want you to know that there's hot pics on their new XXX webcam site. And you also have to decide whether you're actually even remotely interested in Manger of Dirt and Cot of Muck and Perambulator of Mud and every dodgy industrial/alt/thrash/metal/skiffle band from Iowa who wants you to know that they're releasing their first EP at a gig in Buck's Roadhouse just off the I70 between Marion and Asheville, North Carolina.

I mean, OK, there are the con-buddies, and the kindred spirits, and the folks who've read your books and are just really sweet in hunting you down to send a Friend Request and a nice message. Who doesn't like that sorta cool shit? Problem is those messages are all but buried in spam and there's no filters on the site to whittle away the crap. And, of course, you can't actually download it to yer email client and put it in the nice folder for chat that you want to respond to when you've got the time, so you have to deal with it then and there or run the risk of forgetting about it, which is just Bad Form. You can try putting a proper email address in yer profile and a note saying, hey, if ye wanna drop me a line, send it to hal_AT_halduncan_DOT_com, but you can guarantee that somebody will miss that and just message you through the site, so you still basically have one extra online email account that you have to check every so often.

Moving from dial-up to broadband does make MySpace a little less tedious in so far as you don't have to wait ten minutes for [Insert Female Name Here]'s incredibly intricately personalised page to load (while the m -- usic -- they h -- ave -- on i -- t ann-- oyingl --y also -- plays -- whi -- le loading) just so you can find out if that Friend Request is actually from a real person. But you still end up at the end of the day logging on and dealing with this cluttered interface full of flashing adverts for a pile of crap you have no interest in. So The Shitfuckers have a new single out with a video I can watch? Big fucking deal.

And just when you've got used to MySpace, suddenly your friends are telling you that it's, like, totally passe, cause FaecesBook is where it's at now. Nobody who's anybody is using MySpace these days (yeah, so the percentage of those MySpaz messages that are spam is actually going up? No shit!) Still, you're always willing to give something new a try (cause the true cynic is cynical about cynicism, baby, ya dig?), so you set up that new FaceBook page. So now you have another online email account to check when you're arsing about in the morning looking for a displacement activity to distract you from writing. Peachy.

And FaceBook's full of crap as well. I mean, no offence, but all those invitations to play at being a vampire, werewolf, zombie, pirate or whatever? Nope. Just can't be arsed with them, I'm afraid. And Walls and SuperWalls and FunWalls and WonderWalls and AllInAllIt'sJustAnotherBrickInTheWalls. Nay, nay and thrice nay.

So after getting about ten friend requests on MySpam in a single day, and every one of them being for some XXX webcam bollocks I thought fuck this for a game of sodjies and torched the account. And after missing out on a mate's celebratory night out recently because the invite was sent through FarceBook and therefore forgotten about entirely (rather than filed in my "events" Outlook folder and added as a task with an automatic reminder), I decided to deep six that account too. Ultimately, if anyone wants to message me, my email address is easy enough to find.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Once More Into The Fray

Fellow GSFWC member, Gary Gibson, recently made a post on his blog on the distinction he sees between science fiction and fantasy and why the former is not, as some would maintain, a branch of the latter. Where SF, he argues, does similarly deal with the apparently impossible, it is distinct from fantasy in that it does so on the basis of a history of scientific discoveries and radical paradigm shifts, a recognition of the limitations of our present knowledge. What he's saying, it seems to me, is that in science fiction the conceit (the impossibility accepted as possible for the sake of the story) is not simply a spurious fabrication but is rather a rational speculation.

"One might speculate as to the (im)possibility of faster-than-light travel, time travel or alternate realities; no one to my knowledge has ever speculated on the possibility of finding elves, orcs or magic swords any time soon."

There are a couple of problems here:

Problem One:

On what basis do we distinguish the paradigm shift required to redefine FTL, time travel or alternative realities as possibilities rather than impossibilities from a similar paradigm shift that would redefine, for example, ESP, jaunting or intersecting realities as possibilities rather than impossibilities? Canonical works such as THE DEMOLISHED MAN, THE STARS MY DESTINATION and ROADMARKS require exactly such paradigm shifts to be defined as SF rather than Fantasy, and nobody, largely speaking, has a problem with making the required leap. We do indeed call these books SF.

But on what basis do we distinguish those paradigm shift -- which are radical enough, make no mistake, to breach the most fundamental principles of current science -- from potential paradigm shifts which could redefine even the spurious fabrications of fantasy as rational speculations? As SF writers and readers we are ready, it seems, to abandon the limitation of light speed that comes with Einsteinian Relativity so we can play with FTL, or to ignore the physical foundations of mind in the neurochemistry of the brain so that we can use ESP. We are willing to ditch the Conservation of Energy that is a basic aspect of Newtonian thermodynamics in order to portray teleportation as an act of mere will, to swallow jaunting as an ability to transport oneself instantaneously through space-time. We are more than able to throw away the very coherence of the space-time continuum we exist in so we can imagine a road that links all possible times and all possible histories.

If we're ready, willing and able to play this fast and loose with science why should we draw the line at equivalent paradigm shifts that, for us, render a work fantasy rather than SF? Aren't the secondary worlds of fantasy simply alternative realities where the archaeological distinction of gracile and robust hominids translates to elves and dwarves as distinct races? Aren't the magical powers of fantasy just the telekinetic talent to manipulate a reality tractable to the human will? Aren't all the spurious fabrications of fantasy in fact equally as recastable as rational speculations if only we accept paradigm shifts no more radical in truth than those required with the seminal SF of Bester and Zelazny?

In VELLUM and INK there are two big-ass conceits that, for many people I'm sure, render them fantasy rather than SF. I've certainly been asked enough times what category I'd place them in to know that it's a matter of doubt for some.

First, there's the idea of the Vellum itself, a 3D time-space with future and past as "forward and back", causally alternative realities (i.e. sharing the same basic physics but with different histories) treated as "parallel" worlds off to this "side" or that, and metaphysically alternative realities (i.e. worlds working with different physics entirely) treated as "higher" or "deeper" strata. This is a fairly systematic approach to the multiverse idea, I'd argue, and the fact that characters are able to move between realities doesn't make it, for me, any less SF than Zelazny's ROADMARKS. But I do present one of the "folds" of the Vellum -- shock, horror -- as a realm of what, to all intents and purposes, are dwarves and elves and orcs, fairies and all that fantasy malarky. In Ian Macdonald's KING OF MORNING, QUEEN OF DAY, if I recall correctly, a similar SFnal approach is applied to the idea of Faerie, positing it as a distinct reality that can and does sometimes intersect our own.

Second, there's the idea of the Cant, a language which can be used to reprogram this multiverse and which therefore endows whoever uses it with the ability to perform manipulations of reality that are, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from the magic of fantasy. Fundamentally, this is riffing off the idea that the most basic principle in the universe is information, that maybe all we're made of, when it comes down to it, is data. It's a wild speculation in so far as it makes the whole kit and caboodle as malleable as a Phildickian consensus reality... but that's why I dig the idea. If it was SF for Dick to warp reality itself with drugs in THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH, then it's SF for me to do it with words. Hell, if you read INK you'll even find that the Cant works within the strictures of thermodynamics; it requires energy and that energy has to come from somewhere.

So in VELLUM and INK you basically have a whole underlying schema in which elves and magic are treated as rational speculations rather than spurious fabrications. If you want to argue that this schema isn't actually plausible I'll just shrug and say, yeah, so what? FTL isn't actually plausible. Jaunting isn't actually plausible. Time travel isn't actually plausible. And if the caveat of shifting paradigms works to excuse your inventions as speculations then it works to excuse mine, on the exact same basis that the history of science is one of apparent impossibilities being shown to be actually quite possible. Either we apply that caveat objectively or we ditch it entirely in favour of the hard-nosed rigour that says FTL, ESP, time travel, jaunting, anything which plays so fast and loose with the laws of physics, is all just spurious fabrication. The only other alternative is an entirely subjective application of the paradigm shift caveat -- or rather a refusal to accept the validity of its application -- on the basis of personal incredulity.

If that personal incredulity kicks in when you see a dragon on the cover, that's fair enough. But don't come crying to me when the Hard SF geeks or the Contemporary Realists write you off as a spinner of spurious fabrications because their personal incredulity kicks in at your FTL spaceship.

Now if you want to argue that SF is still distinct because it makes the rationalisation explicit whereas fantasy does not, that my speculative approach to the inventions in VELLUM and INK simply renders them works of SF rather than fantasy, I might well give you that. I like the wide definition of SF that encompasses the grand conceits of THE DEMOLISHED MAN, THE STARS MY DESTINATION and ROADMARKS; I'm quite happy to see myself as working within that tradition. But this brings us to the next issue.

Problem Two:

If both SF and fantasy deal with conceits (the impossible accepted as impossible for the sake of the story) and SF is distinct from fantasy because it also requires a level of rationality in approach, a degree of theorising that renders the conceit an act of speculation rather than mere fabrication, then unless fantasy also requires a secondary aspect which is either incompatible with this or, at least, simply different, then SF is indeed a branch of fantasy. It is simply the subset of fantastic fiction (fiction using conceits) which add rationalisation to the mix.


U is the set of fiction that does X
SF is the subset of U that does A
Fantasy is the subset of U that does B


Fantasy is the set of fiction that does X
SF is the subset of fantasy that does A

Where X is "use conceits", A is "rationalise them" and B is... something else.

To my mind the perennial argument over whether or not SF is a branch of fantasy as often as not comes down to an unrecognised and unarticulated disagreement over which of these models applies to the field.

Those who would argue most strongly that SF is a branch of fantasy are generally, I suspect, working with the latter model in which there is no extra criteria, no B, required to further define fantasy. For them fantasy is simply the field of fantastic fiction, fiction which uses conceits, which means it includes everything from the most generic sub-Tolkien product to the most respected literary tome. When they speak of fantasy they are as likely to be thinking of it in the widest of senses, as a mode of fiction that includes the work of Franz Kafka, Mikhail Bulgakov and Angela Carter never mind Ray Bradbury, Mervyn Peake and Kelly Link. For them SF is just a subset of that field, one with an additional requirement of rationalisation.

Those who would argue most strongly that SF is not a branch of fantasy are generally, I suspect, working with the former model in which there is an additional quality, a B, by which fantasy is defined. For them fantasy often seems to be the commercial genre of capital-F Fantasy, fiction which uses specific conceits in a specific way, which means it is inherently limited by those specifics. When they speak of fantasy they are likely to be thinking of it in the narrowest of senses, as a mode of fiction which excludes the writers mentioned above or within which those writers are at best marginal. For them SF is largely incompatible with that genre because the specifics of B are irreconcilable with the rationalism required in SF's A.

Whether the writers above are considered marginal to fantasy or actually excluded from fantasy altogether (classed as mainstream, Magic Realism, slipstream or SF) may give some indication as to what precisely constitutes the B of fantasy for those who hold to the latter model. Where these writers are excluded we are left with the specifics of the commercial genre -- which is to say the elves, magic swords and dragons -- as the B that fantasy requires in order to be fantasy. Where they are simply seen as marginal this can be taken as a tacit admission that these features are not the requisite B in question, that these writers' works can still be classed as fantasy regardless of the complete absence of elves, magic swords and dragons, because those features are not what defines it.

When Gary characterises fantasy "in its purest form" by those specifics -- the elves, magic swords and dragons -- it's not entirely clear to me which view of fantasy he's working with in respect to the writers named above and the abundance of others like them. Applying a term like "pure" in this context implies to me a definitional stance in which fantasy is in fact limited by these specifics such that the more a writer does away with them the less their work becomes definable as fantasy, the less "pure" it becomes as a work of fantasy. This would imply that the B of fantasy is, for Gary, precisely those tired sub-Tolkien tropes. If so, I think that's a blinkered view of the form; but that may be reading too much into one word, so I don't want to ascribe that view on that basis. And to be honest I don't have much of a problem at all if Gary's focus on that particular form of fantasy is simply a recognition of its commercial dominance within the field, of the marginality of the literary fantasists in comparison with the Tolkien clones. I would argue that it's an overly commercial view focusing on the economics rather than the aesthetics, the market rather than the form itself, but that's a separate argument which has no bearing on the question; the dominance of those specifics is irrelevant if they are not to be seen as the B that defines fantasy.

So the question is: if we do admit of a fantasy distinct from SF which is not defined by the specifics of one (albeit commercially dominant) form, then what exactly is it that distinguishes it out? What is the B?

In many respects, for a large contingent of SF writers and readers who would seek to make exactly that distinction, I suspect the simple answer is that B equates to not-A, that it is simply the absence of rationalisation that, for them, distinguishes a work out as fantasy rather than SF.

And this is why the argument persists. If the B that defines fantasy is simply not-A, then SF and fantasy exist as concentric zones, the former nestled within the latter but excluding by definition that which exists outside its strictures, identifying it by negation. The exteriority of fantasy means that there will always be those who see it as encompassing SF, containing it. The exclusivity of SF with regards to works that fall outside its definitional zone means that there will always be those who see fantasy as an essentially distinct form.

So where do I fall on this question? I have to admit I'm somewhat torn. I'm largely more interested in using the conceits than in rationalising them, but I do hold to a view of SF in which the paradigm shift caveat applies to VELLUM and INK, to much of what I write however wildly implausible it may seem. I'm largely more interested in the experimentalism of those writers listed above, the ones that get classed as mainstream or Magic Realism, slipstream or even SF, than in the commercial work so deeply bound to elves, magic swords and dragons, but I have no problem using the tropes that for many render my work essentially fantasy. I can't help but think that the dichotomy set up between the concentric zones of SF and fantasy is facile and circular, a denial of SF's nature within a wider context of fiction based on conceits. But I also can't help but think that in the historical and economic context of the development of the genre, from the birth of Science Fiction as a marketing category through to the splintering off of Fantasy as a distinct section in the bookstores, the claim that SF is a branch of fantasy glosses over the realities of how those terms are actually in use in the wider world. As much as I'm likely to develop a complex rationalisation for my conceits I will deliberately breach reality with the entirely irrational, the entirely inexplicable, but for me this is a feature that was developed in SF during the New Wave. For me SF is allowed to do that, has been since Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius books, but then if a work like that is published now it's most likely published in the independent presses as fantasy.

So at the end of the day I throw my hands up. If I know what this or that person means when they use the terms SF or fantasy I can usually name a half dozen people offhand who will disagree with them, and I can't say I blame them. The terminology has become so muddled I'm not sure it's really worth a shit anymore. SF? Fantasy? Whose definition are you working with?

Sod it. I know what strange fiction is. I know how that strange fiction breaks apart into this or that sub-type, and I reckon I know how those aesthetic fractures map to all the endless arguments within the field over the empty nomenclatures of SF and fantasy. Somebody give me a sodding non-fiction contract and I'll give you a goddamn book on it, I swear. I'm serious, man. I got it half-written on this blog already, and I would love to go to town on this shit.

And then maybe we can put a bullet in the head of all the category errors and conflations of forms. And move on already.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Just Because

Friday, December 14, 2007

A Long Shot

OK, this probably isn't going to work, but does anybody remember an experimental musical / rock opera thing from the late 80s / early 90s that was shown in a one-off TV adaptation on late night BBC2?

The way I remember it, it was set around a bakery, with the main character being a baker's apprentice or somesuch (but with big dreams of a life beyond bread maybe?). Anyhoo, I can't remember any more plot details than that, but I do remember this guy as looking kinda like Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins -- young, shaven-headed and round-faced in a cherubic sorta way. And I have a picture of him in my head looking pale as the moon against a black background.

See, I'm thinking that the whole thing, visually speaking, had a very artifical, staged look, sort of a Shakespeare's Sister / Dresden Dolls / Tim Burton vibe. I can't be any more specific, I'm afraid, but in my mind's eye I see dark backdrops, pale skin and metallic colour... an iconography of dark fairy tales (moons and stars), of Bradburyesque carnivals, Brechtian cabaret and a burlesque Christmas. Something kinda avant garde, a little bit glittery, a little bit goth. I don't know.

And annoyingly that's pretty much all I can remember. Musically, I think it was a contemporary sound, something pushing more towards experimental rock than Broadway torch songs, but I'm fucked if I can even remember a tune never mind lyrics.

But if the description rings any bells with anybody out there, I'd really like to know just what the fuck it was. Every time I see a picture of Billy Corgan I'm reminded of the fricking thing and I wish I could remember what the fuck it was called, cause I remember thinking it was actually kinda cool. But I've never been able to drag the memories up to the surface of my consciousness, and it's not at all the easiest thing to track down on Google with just a few keywords to go on. So if anyone knows what the fuck it was, help me out here.


So a few weeks back I got an email from The List (Scotland's version of Time Out), offering free tickets to their Christmas shindig if I wanted them. Naturally, I snapped at the chance to lig the event, which was timed to coincide with the release of the magazine's "Hot 100" of 2007's hippest and most happening, and sounded like it should therefore be fairly ligworthy. Hey, I'm shallow; sue me. Anyway, obviously an obscure genre scumbag like me is not going to be on the guest list because I'm actually in the Hot 100, but I figured that my name had probably slipped onto some additional invitees list because of a group interview/article a wee while back by journalist Doug Johnstone in connection with the Ballads of the Book album. I knew that the album had been something of a success, what with the Celtic Connections and Triptych gigs, and the word coming back from friends at university that it had generated a fair bit of buzz amongst students. So it seemed like the most plausible cause.

What I didn't actually think of was the possibility that the album itself would actually make it into the Hot 100... at the #19 spot, no less!

So, yeah, fucking cool! The party itself was a fun way to spend a few hours, with a few free drinks thrown in, but most of the folks in attendance seemed to be behind-the-scenes media-types rather than recogniseable faces, so it didn't exactly feel like hobnobbing with celebrities. I did spot Grant Morrison but didn't get a chance to chat with him before he disappeared. Still, I caught up with Alan Bissett, met and chatted with Andrew from Chemikal Underground, and generally had a good time with me mates, partying into the wee hours. So, yeah, as I say... fucking cool!

Also, is it bad/sad of me to be chuffed that, at #19, the Ballads album puts us (by which, of course, I mean ME!!!) above Alan Cumming (#58), David Tennant (#36) and J.K. Rowling (#53)? Hah! Nightcrawler, Doctor Who and Harry Potter! Eat my dust, losers!

Top Twenty, mate. Top Fuckin Twenty!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

An A-Z Of This Blog

Anonymouse -- what you risk being dubbed should you choose to post comments anonymously. Leeway will be given for those unfamiliar with blogosphere etiquette (in direct proportion to rational content and amiable attitude), but anonymity will generally be viewed with suspicion as a potential marker of craven trolldom. The simplest of online handles is all that's needed to distinguish you from hit-and-run arsewipes.

Behemouth -- Also known as the Giant Fire-Breathing Bewilderbeeste, this creature is docile unless provoked by the perplexing idiocy of the world-at-large (and certain religio-political institutions in particular). Unfortunately, when aggravated, the Behemouth's response is often disproportionately hostile, taking the form of a rhetorical rampage of several thousand words, generally aimed at reducing the preconceptual terms of the debate to dust, with little regard for principles of tact and diplomacy. The result may be entertaining but should be regarded with an arched eyebrow of skepticism. The swift application of a logical baseball bat on the nose is a good way of stopping the Behemouth in its tracks, enabling the resumption of civilised discourse.

Cunt -- a word that many people apparently find offensive, presumably due to some freaky Freudian neurosis in which oral, anal and carnal acts and organs are considered "vulgar". This is clearly fucked up, motherfuckers. Swearing is an art form, and if it makes you blush, well, as a wise man once said, "I am not innarested in your condition." The only context in which "profanity" is considered out-of-bounds on this blog is that of abusive bigotry, dig? Otherwise, be as much of a mouthy cunt as you wish.

Dionysus -- knows no nations, suffers no tyrants, heals all sorrows. He is often to be found on this blog, either riding the Behemouth with a cowboy whoop or following behind it on foot, having set it off on a rampage with a swipe of his sacred thyrsus across its arse. Dionysus is the libertine Id, the horny kid, the spirit of tragedy and comedy, an aesthetics of passion which stands as antithesis to an "Apollonian" aesthetics of reason. Where the latter becomes co-opted to the service of psycho-cultural institutions of Empire (i.e. where "order" is aggrandised as an end in and of itself, "perfect" as a quality rather than the measure of a quality), it becomes necessary, in my opinion, to adopt a Dionsysian strategy of antidoxy, to attack sophistry with song, to fight ideology with imagination. Dionysus is only one mask, but he is a mask that must be worn.

Ethics -- is the aesthetics of social interaction, and therefore as applicable on this blog as in any other social context. My own model of ethics posits no absolute right and wrong, only the psychophysiologial imperatives of passion (joy and sorrow, anger and fear, disgust and surprise) extended socially by empathy, through which we evaluate our own behaviour, formulating aesthetic judgements which build to complex systems of axiomatic standards, general and specific. Ethics in this sense is an active skill, an emotional and intellectual faculty of self-awareness, rather than a passive conformity to pre-existing universal imperatives. Ethics is not, therefore, to be confused with morals.

Fuck -- that shit. A nihilist mantra which articulates a general disregard for essentialist bollocks. People die. All else we say is only noise or song.

Geek Show -- the society of the spectacle as portrayed on this blog, or this blog as a sideshow in the society of the spectacle. Take your pick; all you need to know is that when I say "geek" I'm not talking in the sweaty-palmed computer nerd sense here but rather in the carnival grotesque sense. The Geek Show is the world we live in, the cave in which Australopithecus crouches over severed heads of humans, an Ancient of Days, a Deus Irae feeding on the brains of his enemies. The Geek Show is the world of religion-as-headhunting, of tribes at war with each other, territories marked out with skulls. The Geek Show is the Kali Yuga, a Thugee civilisation. It is the cannibal holocaust of moral zombies bent on devouring brains. It is the worship of the head of Bran or Baphomet, Orpheus or John the Baptist. It is our shock and awe, wonder and horror at the bitten-off heads of snakes, birds and mice, the symbols of our secret, sacred self. It is the severing of body and head, passion and reason, flesh and spirit. This blog is an attempt to report back from that (perhaps somewhat schizoid) viewpoint on reality, but I'm not unaware of my own role in the show, as froth-mouthed freak and fool, snarling and biting, spitting bloody heads out at the audience. So it goes.

Homophobia -- will be shown no mercy. This is one surefire way to unleash the Behemouth, set the geek's teeth snapping savage for the blood of bigots. In truth, I'm not terribly driven by queer politics or the persecutionist mentality of "marginalised minorities", but homophobia -- as an unrationalised revulsion legitimised by the notion of order (social, natural and/or divine) and institutionalised in systems designed to perpetuate and propagate order as an end in itself -- emblematises the key weakness of any system of infantile morality. Where the imposition of rules is a moral imperative such that simply to impose a rule (regardless of that rule's content) engenders a sense of pride, homophobia -- or some other equivalent form of othering -- is inevitable. In such systems, deviance equals unnatural and unnatural equals immoral. This is the Empire, the Black Iron Prison, the Thebes of Pentheus seeking to chain Dionysus. It is not wise to trap the god of small, trapped animals.

Intertextuality -- The relationship between stories is something I find fascinating, the way one story may pastiche, parody or pay homage to another, palimpsest it, redact it or revise it. This is a recurrent theme in my writing, and to a large extent the "Vellum" can be seen as metaphor for intertextuality, as an image of story represented as 3D time. We can consider a story as linear entity, moving from beginning to end, having one dimension in "frontal" time. Alternative versions of the same basic story will follow their own parallel paths, the sum of these versions constituting a plane, extending sideways, so to speak, in lateral time. Generations of retellings of these stories can be viewed as a process of accretion, in which strata of new versions are laid down over the old. The stories of Prometheus or Dionysus or Zeus are complex artifacts exhibiting this three dimensionality; there is no single, "true" version for any of these tales, only the sum of all versions, which is inherently inconsistent. This strikes me as rather neat.

Jaunting -- is my favourite example of why the distinction between Science Fiction and Fantasy based on the absence or presence of "magic" is utterly specious. Jaunting has fuck all to do with "plausible scientific speculation", regardless of hand-waving about "the next stage in human evolution"; in its defiance of all known laws of physics, presenting teleportation as an ability to wish oneself from A to B with no expenditure of energy, it's as much a metaphysical conceit as any magical power. This does not prevent us from classing Bester as "Fantasy" rather than "Science Fiction", but rather points to the spuriousness of these labels if we consider them as anything other than marketing categories. If we wish to talk meaningfully about the aesthetic forms which constitute the field of "SF", we would be better off looking for an entirely new vocabulary, shorn of these overloaded and obsolete terms.

Kings -- Don't trust them. Never have. Never will.

Literary -- according to the OED means "of, constituting, occupied with, literature or books and written composition esp. of the kind valued for quality of form." The distinction made, in that last clause, between "literary" fiction and "non-literary" fiction is clearly informal and vague, and open to cyclic definition, where works are accorded "literary" status for being of a "kind" which is privileged as intrinsically higher "quality" because it is more "literary". Which is to say the distinction is not an aesthetic discrimination of different qualities, but simply a hierarchising assertion that one form is better than another. This is dangerous, but in practical terms, the pulp/literary division is so pervasive as to be unavoidable. I will probably be guilty of using these terms all over the place, despite constant attempts to find a more accurate distinction of Romantic and Rationalist aesthetic forms.

Morals -- also known as "mores". are to be left at the door, like shoes in a mosque. Contrary ethics are more than welcome, but this is a morality-free zone. Nothing is taboo here except taboos, so one should expect to see sacred cows carved up for the barbecue. Note: this non-censorship policy includes the liberal taboos of political correctness, so I'll no more delete comments that offend my sense of propriety than I'll hold my tongue for fear of offending someone else's; I may, however, respond... unkindly.

Nihilism -- comes in two flavours, "Why bother?" and "Why the fuck not?" The former is failed nihilism, a defeatist ennui born of existential angst and nausea, negative valuations of fear and disgust in the face of a cosmos which is merely meaningless and which therefore calls for a neutral valuation. It is, in truth, fatalism rather than nihilism, validating its surrender to inaction by confusing the absence of any truly worthy cause with the absence of any truly worthy effect, projecting hostility and futility where there is only indifference and uncertainty. For the true nihilist it doesn't matter that it doesn't matter. So fucking what?

Orpheus -- Sonnets For. Probably the nearest I'll get to a manifesto of my personal aesthetics.

Puck -- is a character in much of my fiction, paired with the character of Jack in a Jungian duality of Self and Id. I did not invent Puck, I think, but rather, as the roots of the name should suggest, have simply accessed and articulated one instance of an historical archetype, a puer aeternus, but one who is more Pan than Peter Pan, unashamedly post-pubertal (if not post-coital) in his libidinous liberation. Having spent so much time developing my own fictional avatar of this figuration of desire, it is somewhat disconcerting to have apparently found him, manifest in human form, in the shape of the "Boy Kitten" referred to in recent entries on this blog. Disconcerting but, as Jack would say, peachy keen!

Queer -- I have never been entirely comfortable with the label "gay" and its associated culture of rainbow flags, Pride marches, and so on. For all its offered affirmations (born of the term's connotations of uninhibited happiness) and validations (as member of a wider community of similarly self-identifying individuals), the term "gay" feels like a coy avoidance of the actualities of sexual deviance and a willing submission to the self-definitions conventionalised within that community. I hear the term "gay village" and I picture myself as Patrick McGoohan, running down a beach, shouting, "I am not a disco number!"

Rationalism & Romanticism -- the dual aesthetics of Western culture which, in combination (in conflict and harmony), are formative of both Modernity and Modernism. An alarming number of the discussions liable to provoke an outburst of the Behemouth on this blog are, it seems to me, reducible to the false dichotomy of reason and passion. From the endless arguments over the distinction between Science Fiction and Fantasy to the tedious debates over the relative virtues and vices of "genre" and "literary" fiction, it seems to me that most of these divisions are founded on a false dichotomy of Reason and Passion established in the 18th Century and now patently obsolete.

Shaitan -- A son of Sodom, city of stone and spunk, of salt and sex, singer of the sublime sensuality of sleek silk skin slipping, sliding over silk sleek skin, of the serpent spine of snaking sensations, shivers of shimmers of Sumer's summer, slumbering in sleep, the stranger inside us all.

Thrawn -- A Scots dialect word that roughly translates as "stubbornly contrarian, difficult just for the sake of it". The relevance of this in the context of this blog should be, I think, fairly obvious.

Underground -- In the words of Ben Folds: I was never cool in school / I'm sure you don't remember me / and now it's been ten years / I'm still wondering who to be / and I love to mix in circles, cliques and social coteries, / that's me / hand me my nosering (can we be happy?) / show me the mosh pit (can we be happy?) / We can be happy underground!

Vellum -- Probably the reason you're reading this. Certainly the reason I'm writing it. I started the whole blog thing back when I got the book deal, thinking that where, in the past, I'd never been able to sustain interest in a private journal for longer than a few days, it might be an interesting experiment to... process the process, so to speak, to work through my experiences of the publishing world and my ideas about literature as and when they developed, to do this in public as an act of reportage and critique that might even (hopefully) be entertaining to somebody out there. Of course, the idea that blogs are good marketing tools in this day and age never once crossed my mind. Honest, guv.

Weegee -- A Glaswegian. I'm not native to the city but it is my adopted home, and well-loved as anyone who reads this blog is liable to discover. My relish of hand-rolled cigarettes and well-poured Guinness is inextricably bound up with my love of Glasgow, I think, with its working-class industrial history as the Second City of the Empire. At the same time, as a lover of pubs and clubs, gigs and parties, I'd have to say that the vibrant indie scene focused around the West End (Glasgow's East Village) quite simply rocks, at least as far as this "pomo boho homo hobo" is concerned. City of Culture, mate. City of Culture.

XXX -- Parental Advisory Notice: Explicit Content.

Yes -- The last word of the best ending in literary history, the Molly Bloom soliloquy in James Joyce's Ulysses... and he asked me if I'd yes to say yes and yes I said yes I will yes. I will brook no argument on this point.

Zod -- When I think of heroes I think, fuck that shit. I think of Terence Stamp in Superman II. "Son of Jor-El, kneel before Zod!" And I think of his hand on his fly... zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzip! Ya wanna be my hero, baby. Here's what I want ya to do...

Thursday, December 06, 2007


A wee while back, John Klima posted a message up on the Night Shade Books message board, a call for stories for his magazine, Electric Velocipede. See, John had come across an article about Spelling Bees, with a list of words that had won it each year -- words like "eczema", "autochthonous", "cambist", and so on. One of those words, "chiaroscurist" struck a chord with me because I've always been a bit of a fan of the technique of chiaroscuro, the balance of light and dark. What can I say? It's a Yin / Yang thing, I guess. It's just always seemed to me that this is how life comes, with joy and sorrow and the contrast between them defining the shapes of our selves, with form emerging out of the shadows, caught in a shaft of sunlight. With the fear and fury of a Caravaggio painting.


When I was a kid I remember catching Derek Jarman's biopic of this master of chiaroscuro on Channel Four and being blown away by the man's life as much as his art. An artist and a murderer, Caravaggio was (according to Jarman at least) one of those wild-man queers of history, no flouncing fairy but a drinker and a fighter, like Christopher Marlowe or Jean-Arthur Rimbaud, ending his life on the run after killing a man in a knife fight -- with a knife which, so the story goes, was engraved with the phrase "Nec Spe, Nec Metu"... "No Hope, No Fear". He painted for popes and priests but his models were from the streets. His Bacchus is a wasted pretty-boy, a hustler who looks like Pete Doherty in Greek drag. It's said that he used the corpse of a drowned prostitute as the model for his dead Magdalene. And in his grandest Biblical paintings of scenes, you look at every single character, every centurion or disciple, and you see the face of the peasant model stripped of any idealising bullshit. There's a case to be made, I think, that in his fusion of the epic and the domestic, the sublime and the mundane, Caravaggio is the first Modernist painter, if not artist in general. Before him we have Giotto; after him we have Joyce.

Caravaggio understood, I've always thought, the terrible beauty of humanity, painting glory and tragedy in a single scene. Look at his painting of Saul on the road to Damascus. Look at his painting of Jesus at the Last Supper. Better still, look at his painting of the young David with the severed head of Goliath, in which, it is believed, both faces are self-portraits, himself as heroic youth and as monstrous adult. Look at the way he spears figures with sunlight, picks them out against near-black backgrounds. Look at the sense of drama, of tension, that creates.

That's chiaroscuro.

So, I saw the word on John's post and it leapt out at me like one of Caravaggio's figures. A few years previously I'd kicked a story idea around inside my head, an idea about a fantasy story set in one of those classic secondary worlds of Epic Fantasy. I was playing Warhammer at the time and one of the guys at the GSFWC, I knew, was writing tie-in fiction about a troll-slaying dwarf. Against that pseudo-medieval backdrop, I sort of thought to myself, what about the non-fighters? What about a story that says, "Fuck that shit," to all the heroic adventuring? I want to know about the guy who's painting the Temple of Sigmar, not the one who's heading out on a glorious campaign against "Chaos" which, in the historical reality, would have probably involved slaughtering every Jew on the road to the Holy Land.

With the word "chiaroscurist" in mind, that idea re-emerged from the shadows. I thought of all the taverns and temples of the traditional secondary world of Tolkienesque fantasy and things clicked together, an image came to mind -- an old man with a face like one of Caravaggio's saints, leaning forward out of the darkness, illuminated by the flame with which he's lighting a cigarette, breathing in the smoke and blowing it out in a billow. The smoke caught also in that same light. The chiaroscuro of it. And from then on, the story wrote itself.

I was chuffed when John took the story for Electric Velocipede. I was even more chuffed when he started talking about a whole anthology of stories based on Spelling Bee words. And I was truly fucking chuffed when my contributor's copy of LOGORRHEA came through the post and I got to see how others had taken their words and transformed them into fiction. There's some fucking awesome stories in the book, so whatever you think of "The Chiaroscurist" I can't recommend it high enough. And one of the neatest stories is Jeff Vandermeer's "Appoggiatura", in which Jeff -- show-off that he is -- didn't just take one word but took all the words that the other writers had used and built a story that used every fucking one of them.

And now, with the wonders of the interweb, you get to hear that story, in sections, in a set of podcasts that you can find on John Klima's blog:

Go on. You'll like it; trust me. And if you don't want to deal with this newfangled podcasting malarkey for some inscrutable reason, well, you can read the section of his story written around my word right here. So I'll shut up now and let you read it...

(from "Appoggiatura" by Jeff Vandermeer)

I was still searching for the missing daughter of a wealthy industrialist from Cyprus when the locals brought me in on another case. They’d heard I was staying at the Hilton—an American and a detective, in a city where neither passed through with any regularity. The police deputy, a weathered old man with a scar through his left eyesocket, made it clear that it would be best if I got into his beat-up Ford Fiesta with the lonely siren on top, and venture out into the sun-beaten city to help him.

It was a crap ride, through a welter of tan buildings with no hint anymore of the green that had made the place famous since antiquity. The river had become a stream. The lake that it fed into was entombed in salt. The cotton they turned to as a crop just made it all worse. They’d survived a dictator, too, who had starved and disappeared people while building a monstrous palace. Becoming modern is a bitch for some people.

The dead guy, a painter the deputy told me, turned out to have lived on the seventh floor of what looked like a Soviet-era housing project made from those metal shelves you see at hardware stores. The smell of piss and cigarettes in the stairwell almost made me want to take up cigs again and find a bar. Most of the complex was deserted.

The painter’s place had an unwashed, turpentine-and-glue smell. Several large canvases had been leaned against the wall, under cloth. Through a huge window the light entered with a ferocious velocity. Somewhere out in that glare lay the ruins of the old city center.

In the middle of the floor, a young man lay in the usual pool of blood. I could see a large, tissue-filled hole in his back. Behind him, one canvas remained uncovered on an easel.

Against a soft dark-green background so intense it hit me like the taste of mouthwash, a girl sat on a stone bench in an explosion of light. Pale skin. A simple black dress. No shoes. No nail polish. A sash around her waist that almost hid a pack of cigs shoved in at the left side. Her head was tilted, chin out, as if looking up at someone. A thin smile that could have been caution or control. She held something even greener than the background, but someone—the murderer I guessed—had scratched it out with a knife. It could have been a book; at least, she held it like a book, although there was something too fleshy about the hints of it still left on the canvas.

For a moment, I thought I’d found the missing girl. For a moment, I thought I’d found something even more important.

I looked around the apartment a bit, but my gaze kept coming back to the painting. It was signed in the corner with the initials “F.S.”

I kept thinking, Why did they defile the painting?

After awhile, the police deputy asked me in his imperfect English, “You know what happen? Who?”

Somewhere in this rat’s warren of apartments there was probably a man whose wife or daughter the artist had been screwing. Or someone he owed a lot of money to. Or just a psychopath. You get used to the options after awhile. They aren’t complicated.

I breathed in the smoky air. They weren’t ever going to find the guy who had done this. Not in this country. It was still reinventing itself. Deaths like these were part of the price you paid. The police deputy probably didn’t expect it to be solved. He probably didn’t really care, so long as he could say he’d tried.

“I have no fucking idea,” I said. “But how much to let me take that painting?”

Behind the Wainscot

A wee while back the guys at Farrago's Wainscot invited me to guest-edit a special Scottish issue of their spin-off webzine, Behind the Wainscot. Needless to say, I was chuffed to accept. Anyway, long story short, it's now gone live and can be found here:

I'm totally stoked about how it's turned out, I have to say. Sure, I'm prejudiced, being the editor and all, but I really think the writers involved have done a fucking awesome job. So a "big up", as they say, to Jim Steel, Mark Harding, Neil Williamson, Phil Raines & Harvey Welles of the GSFWC, and to Andrew Ferguson and Andrew Wilson of the Edinburgh-based Writer's Bloc. They rock, you know.