Notes from New Sodom

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

Monday, January 24, 2005

Consistency Of Character

An interesting discussion kicked off by Trent Walters:

has been carried on over at Matt Cheney’s blog the last few days:

Started me thinking:

It seems to me it all depends on how hard-assed your idea of "consistency" is. For some, I think, "consistency" does play on ideas of logic, of systematic ways of thinking which, if taken to the theoretical ultimate, should give us a "complete & consistent" picture of who and what and why a character is, rendering that character predictable. "Consistency" in that rigorous logical sense implies cause & effect, X-follows-Y, which doesn't sit well with those coming from a determinedly anti-deterministic paradigm, I’d guess. Some of us coming from a background in Humanities and Social Sciences tend to feel uncomfortable with absolutes, easy answers, an approach to “human nature” that might be seen as reductionist. Hell, some people don’t even like the phrase “human nature”. They put it in quotation marks.

Personally, I prefer to side-step the whole philosophical minefield of "consistency" and bring in two terms from linguistics instead - coherence and cohesion. I expect characters to be generally coherent - composed of chunks of action, thought and experience that are comprehensible in their own right and which relate rationally to each other to form a larger, also generally comprehensible, structure. There is a logic to affect, the way the world acts on us, the way we act on ourselves, and the way we act on the world. But in creating characters, I feel I tend to “discover” the larger structure, their personality, as I go along, from the way their small-scale interactions cohere. I think that may be true of us as individuals also, creating our own identities moment-to-moment.

If you're starting from the little chunks and wiring them together then (rather than starting with a concept of *character* and trying to break it down into how that character *would* act in this or that given circumstance), I think consistency looks like a bit of an artifice. Contradictions seem a natural result of basically making things up as we go along, whether it’s a fictional identity or a real one we’re trying to construct. There’s no reason we can’t end up with multiple higher-scale superstructures - traits, neuroses, self-images - that are in complete conflict. Still, there’s enough rationality about how these things come to be that I still expect psychological veracity in my fiction or in the fiction of others - the *consistent inconsistency* Jeff VanderMeer is talking about perhaps, in the comments on Matt Cheney’s blog entry.

What I find more interesting is the schizoid / poetic way of pattern-making, where poetic rhyme or schizoid word salad, for example, can be utterly incoherent but incredibly cohesive. Sometimes the pattern-making by which we understand ourselves and the world around us, and which informs our actions, is, I’d argue, truly irrational. A character undergoing a psychotic break is being “inconsistent”, and not in a neurotic, ultimately-sensible, internal-conflict kinda way. It’s less “consistent inconsistency” and more “inconsistent consistency”; when you start gleaning meaning from entirely arbitrary and coincidental similarities of sounds, words starting with the same letter, people having the same initials, then you’re in the territory of madmen and poets. And I’m not sure we really have to be either outright for that type of irrationality to be playing a role in our day-to-day lives.

Instead it seems to me that “consistency” is breached in two ways in characters: there is the conflict of incompatible attempts at coherence, different motivations, different self-images, irreconcilable wants and needs forming internal contradictions; but there are also, I think, points where inconsistencies of action seem to speak of strange, perhaps deeper responses that defy reason, where coherence has been abandoned in favour of cohesion, where rather than negotiate some resolution of internal conflicts, rather than attempting to maintain coherence - an integrity of identity - the character chooses to act in a certain way because they’re entranced by some highly cohesive but ultimately senseless Grand Pattern.

I can’t really comment on the character of Wakefield as described in Cheney’s blog entry, never having read the story, but it does strike me that there’s something of that process going on there, that the character undergoes a *break* from coherence, and that there’s an element of that schizo-poetic cohesive re-interpretation of reality in him seeing his wife as a witch. And I do think it’s possible to see similarly irrational *breaks* in rationality in individuals and even societies as a whole, running the spectrum from the tin-foil hat brigade, through conspiracy theorists, to otherwise rational individuals swallowed up in the Romantic pattern-making of fascism. A character study of a fascist might attempt to make that character “consistent” by showing them as a psychopath, an opportunist, a weak fool. It might show that character as “consistently inconsistent”, their views and actions a neurotic product of internal contradictions. In many cases, these views would probably be accurate. But I suspect that there was also that deeper form of inconsistency at work, a surrender to the simple rapture of unreasoned and unreasoning rhetorical technique. Simple repetition, the simple act of repetition, the poetic and rhetorical and schizoid technique of repetition, is a strategy which every orator uses because they know it works, because it gives cohesion; and speeches, the belief systems they express, and the characters who make them, hear them, hold those beliefs and act on them, can be utterly inconsistent in many ways, I think, when they capitalise on our willingness to sacrifice coherence for cohesion.

Saturday, January 15, 2005


More poetry. Bwah hah hah hah.

What can I say? Thing is, I'm working on Vol 4 of the Book Of All Hours now, the second and final volume of Part 2: Ink. Since the thematic structure of the whole thing is based on seasons and times of day, Vol 4 is basically Spring/Dawn. It's the time of morning hard-ons, of verdant greenery, when thoughts of young men turn to lust, the time of lush green vines and veins, of fairies dancing in the dew, fucking among the foxgloves, of... ahem.

Anyhoo, as something of a method writer I feel it's my artistic duty to "get into the mind-set" of what I'm writing about, is what I'm trying to say. Scotland in January isn't exactly the optimum location for doing this, I admit, but I'm doing my best. So apart from working on the novel, I've also spent the last week or so in a frenzy of generation, sprouts of novel ideas pushing up through the soil of my filthy mind. I just finished off a saucy/sick little story that investigates the sexual subtext of a certain classic children's novel. I may have to burn down Great Ormond Street Hospital before it can be published (Damn you, J.M. Barrie, with yer special Act Of Parliament!) but I had to write it.

Thing is, being in this febrile mindset, over the Christmas period I got to thinking about just how many heroes of myth were basically gay as a yellow duster, from Gilgamesh with his little furry fuckbuddy Enkidu onwards. I mean look at Achilles: boyfriend Patroclus gets killed, so Achilles slaughters Hector and drags his body round the gates of Troy ten times. Now that's what I call a hissy fit. You killed my boyfriend! You brute! You brute!

Anyway, the result was this:



Among narcissi, hyacinths and cypress trees
Pan teaches shepherd Daphnis how a pipe can please.
Here, let me show you... Lips purse, blow a tender breeze,
A touch of tasting breath, a gentle tease.

Eyes closed, Daphnis is blind as Thamyris who kissed
That flower of a boy doomed to Apollo's deadly disc.
His fingers, like Poseidon’s gaze on Pelops, trace the curve of white, so smooth -
A shoulder. On his foreskin he can feel the slip of tongue, the nip of tooth.


Now Dionysus minces by, parading girly-boys, hermaphrodites, Achilles in a dress,
An arm around Acoetes or Ampelus, round Laonis or Prosymnus, and a whisper, yes.
Apollo’s flirty eye follows Amyclas and Iapis, goes from Tymnius to Paros - my oh my -
There’s Potneius, Carneius, Phrobas - why, its Branchus, Troilus and Zacynthus - ai ai ai.

The demi-god Heracles shared some lovers with these wine
And sun gods, fucked Adonis and sweet Hymen,
But had Nestor and Abderus, Corythus and Haemon to himself,
Dryops, Eurystheus, Telamon... and God knows how many else.

Along with Chonus and Nireus, which proud Argonauts gave great Herakles peace?
With Elacatus and Polyphemus, was Jason naked on his golden fleece?
Did Euphemos, Admetus, Iphitos and Hylas snuggle to the lion’s skin?
Did Stychius get sticky, Philoctetes icky, or Iolaus, or sweet young Phrynx?

And high up in the sky, Zeus has his eagle-eye on Ganymede, planning abduction
Fuck, it seems like Hades is the only god not set on some young lad’s seduction.
Ah, but then... it was in his domain that Orpheus said, Never again!
Vowing from then to lose his head only for love of men.


So, more than lovers, less than brothers, maybe something deeper and more close
Glints in the armour of Achilles strapped to Patroklus, or in the clothes
Of Jonathon as David wears them, lifts a sleeve, a scent of sweat, up to his nose.
More than lovers; more than brothers? Or, like Castor and Pollux, both?

Perhaps its all just poets’ dreams from Horace and Catullus
Down to Whitman, Allan Ginsberg, William Burroughs.
Is it just the appetence of an Omar Khayyam, the leer of an Abu Nuwas,
Less Alexander and Hephaestion, more Rimbaud lusting after Verlaine’s ass?


Thursday, January 13, 2005

Bosses, Blogging and Bastardstones

Anybody reading this (all five of ye) will probably be familiar with the Joe Gordon story (sacked by Waterstones for a few derogatory comments on his blog). If not, go here:,,1388249,00.html

Others have summarised and linked this story better than me, so if you want more details of how Richard Morgan, Charles Stross and Neil Gaiman, to name but a few, go to Vanderworld or Joe's own blog:

Anyway, this is the tuppence-worth I'm chucking in. Maybe it's more a farthing-worth compared to the above big names, but fuck it, my vitriol overfloweth and I must vent...

Dear Sirs,

Having read of the dismissal of Joe Gordon from your Edinburgh store in this morning's Metro, I feel obliged to express my deep disappointment in what I had, until now, considered an ethical and progressively principled company, one that I was glad to give my custom to. I understand that I am not the first to do so, and I suspect I will not be the last; I imagine, indeed, that the various successful - even award-winning - SF and Fantasy authors such as Charles Stross, Richard Morgan and Neil Gaiman, who have all openly expressed their criticism of this draconian over-reaction on your part, will be joined by other writers like myself, and by members of the wider communities of bloggers and readers.

As a citizen of Glasgow I have been a customer in your Sauchiehall Street and Argyll Street stores on numerous occasions. In buying Christmas presents last year, in fact - somewhat ironically - I deliberately chose to buy from your store rather than from Borders, having personally known individuals who had suffered from that chain's "corporate American" management style and the concomitant devaluation of its employees. Waterstones seemed to offer an alternative, a company which was not part of the bullying and exploitative culture increasingly prevalent in the service industry, one where specialist knowledge on the part of staff and management was encouraged and where real and pragmatic customer service might be expected as a result - rather than the all too familiar blank, forced smile of fundamentally disinterested, disenchanted workers. Clearly, however, this is not the case. Clearly a long-term employee with a deep knowledge of, and respect for, a certain field is worthless to yourselves. I must say that I am at a loss, however, to understand exactly what it is that is more valuable.

To be frank, the reasoning behind Joe Gordon's dismissal escapes me. I can appreciate that public criticism of the company by an employee would be frowned upon, and I assume that a posting on a personal blog is, to yourselves, on the same level as, for instance, writing an article in some high-selling national newspaper. One might have thought a warning, a request to withdraw such criticisms would be understood and accepted. To Waterstones, though, this is an outrage beyond the pale. Others might well compare a blog entry to someone letting off steam over a pint at their local with some friends, but clearly as far as Waterstones is concerned this is much more than that. A calculated Machiavellian act of sabotage, no less. A savage attempt to destroy the very company from within. Gross misconduct, no less. Bringing the company into disrepute. Petty, spiteful vindictiveness.

It seems to me, though, that if anyone has sabotaged the company's sales, brought Waterstones into disrepute, acted out of petty, spiteful vindictiveness, it is the manager who sacked Mr Gordon. The man has single-handedly destroyed Waterstones' credibility for myself and God knows how many others. Honestly, I think it would be extremely foolish to underestimate the implications and ramifications of this one act in the opinions of writers, readers, bloggers and genre fans across the country. It would be extremely foolish to underestimate the bad publicity, the way this will play in the media and in the writing, blogging and SF and Fantasy communities. What this tells us is not just that Waterstones is as contemptible in its attitude to its staff as the call centres and fast food chains that a huge portion of the book-buying market - young, educated, intelligent, middle class, liberal - will know and revile. What this tells us is that Waterstones is contemptible in its attitude to writing itself, happy to exploit consumer appetites for sharp-toothed, anti-corporate satire from the likes of Michael Moore, but utterly intolerant when it is made the target of even a few inconsequential jibes. Satire is worthless to Waterstones except as a commodity. Free speech is worthless to Waterstones except as a commodity. Writing is worthless to Waterstones except as a commodity. To Waterstones, in fact, such outspoken satirical writing is simply abhorrent… when it is not a product they themselves are capitalising on. I find it difficult to stress just how repellent I consider this act, just how far it lowers your company in my opinion.

To close, let me just say that over the years, apart from giving my custom to your store, I have attended and enjoyed many readings and book launches under your roof. As a writer myself with my debut novel due for release on 5th August this year, coinciding with the World Convention of SF and Fantasy fans, I had thought to contact yourselves with a view to organising a launch in your Sauchiehall Street store. I see little reason now to favour Waterstones over any of their rivals. I would also imagine that readings tied in to this convention would be of some potential value to you, given the numbers of potential customers that will be gathered in Glasgow for this event. Given that two of the most popular and respected writers in Scottish SF - Morgan and Stross - have both condemned this act, however, I suspect I would not be alone in considering Waterstones a far less suitable venue now than I would have previously.

Yours sincerely,

Hal Duncan

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Top Three Reads - 2004

Since the New Year is officially the time for putting together Top Ten lists of Books Read, CD's Heard and so forth, I suppose I should chuck a few such details up here. Unfortunately, having the memory and attention span of a hyperactive bonobo, the chance of me actually being able to list ten of anything I've read, heard or otherwise ingested over the last year is… well, let's just say you could put a cowboy hat on it, stick a cheroot in its mouth and call it Slim.

So instead of Top Ten's, here's a Top Three. If my memory functions like someone trying to carry soup with a fork, I guess these are the few morsels of tasty thought-meat that managed to stick between the tines.

Top Three Books Read In 2004

# 3: Mark Z. Danielewski, "House Of Leaves"

House Of Leaves is introduced by Johnny Truant, LA waster and self-appointed editor of a trunkfull of notes and scribblings by a blind man called Zampano, all of which relate to a film called The Navidson Record, a film which, it appears to Truant, does not exist and never has. The Navidson Record, according to Zampano's writings, is a documentary begun by a Pullitzer-Prize-winning photojournalist on moving into a new house with his family as a simple representation of mundane domestic life. It quickly becomes a representation of something entirely other, when a door appears overnight, a door which opens into an ash-grey corridor that cannot possibly be there given that the door has appeared in an exterior wall. As Navidson and other characters begin to explore the impossible house, and with constant footnotes by Truant splitting us off from the text like doorways off a twisting corridor, slowly the reader is drawn into the story within the story within the story, into the depths of the house.

# 2: Jeff Vandermeer, "City Of Saints And Madmen"

City Of Saints And Madmen begins on the front cover itself, with the gorgeous artwork of Scott Eagle, a list of words particularly favoured by the author and, most importantly, the story of a traveller's arrival in the city of Ambergris. On the surface the book is a collection of short stories set in this fictional city, some straightforward, others told using various metafictional conceits and devices, four novellas forming the basic text of the book, while the rest of the stories are separated out as an Appendix. But apart from the fact that these stories are absolute nuggets in their own right, there's much more going on here in the way they relate to each other. As the book progresses, various fictive texts - historical glossaries, academic footnotes and art history interpolations - are used to make Ambergris far more rounded, far more real in the reader's imagination, than most fantasy cities, until in the last of the four novellas we are taken right through the looking glass. Fact and fiction are flipped inside-out as the author writes himself into the book as a madman in an asylum, a victim of his own creation. The Appendix is, we are told, actually a selection of this madman's scribblings and scraps. In the end, we have to see this book as a novel rather than a collection of short stories; the difference is that here it is the reader himself who is the protagonist, arriving with the traveller on the front cover, descending into the madness of the city with Dradin, piecing together the city's history with Duncan Shriek, and finally, together with the author, utterly submerged amongst the artefacts of Ambergris, illustrated chapbooks, monograms, bibliographies, magazine clippings or lunatic's notes.

# 1: Edward Whittemore, "Jericho Mosaic"

Jericho Mosaic is a more straightforward book - if any of Whittemore's work can be described as straightforward. It's actually the final book of his breathtaking Jerusalem Quartet, a series which begins in myth and legend, with a great symbolic collosus of a Victorian Englishmen, Plantaganet Strongbow, striding through the pages of Sinai Tapestry, glimpses of humanity and reality flashing in the wild tales swirling round him like desert sunlight on the great bronze sundial he carries strapped to his side. The series takes us on into the first half of the 20th Century in Jerusalem Poker, through the brutalities of Smyrna and the transition of the Holy Land from a time of myth to one of modernity. For many readers I imagine this is their favourite of the series, so finely balanced it is between fabulous ideas and empathic impact. I'm not so sure. Things change, times change, and so Nile Shadows is like an inversion of the first book; here it is the humanity, the reality, of its central character's life and death which permeates the novel. Here it is the fantastic which is merely glimpsed among the simpler, more mundane and more tragic joys and sorrows of Stern, a man who dreams of a Holy Land where Jews, Muslims and Christians can live in peace, knowing that it can never be. Part of me holds out for Nile Shadows as my favourite of the series. At the end of this rambling, digressive tour of the middle-east, the 20th Century, and the whole of the human condition, we come to Jericho Mosaic, based on the true tale of an Israeli spy who spent decades in deep cover in Syria. In some ways it stands apart from the other three. Characters common to the earlier books are dead and gone. The story here is relatively simple, myth pared back to leave us mostly with history - the history of a spy called The Runner, of Mossad, and of Israel itself. But it remains suffused with Whittemore's themes and humanist mystical sensibility. And to me it's a fitting end to a powerful work.

It was a hard call to place these books in order. All three of them are wonderful. All three of them are monstrous. All three of them are wonderfully monstrous, monstrously wonderful… strange chimaeric creatures with the slouch of a lion, the soar of an eagle, the snort of a bull and the sorrow of a human being. Like the central symbols of the titles - house, city and mosaic - these are complex structures, composed of fragments, segments, spaces, shards of narrative.

So each book is a house, an architectured construct of rooms and corridors, written by the glow of a flashlight darting here and there to pick out the solidity of walls, ceiling and floor… or the blackness where such solidity is disturbingly, impossibly absent, where there is only mystery. Everywhere in these books we find mystery.

Each book is a city also, a metropolis of boulevards where artists drink coffee, of side-streets where madmen riot and of gardens where saints dance naked, a city explored and explained in the various guide books, glossaries and journals - the facts and fictions - which any traveller might purchase from a small bookshop on the main thoroughfare of the business district; but it is a city with gaps in its history, with silences, disappearances, unseen atrocities in the dark tunnels beneath the streets. Everywhere in these books we find mystery and horror.

And each is a mosaic, an intricate pattern made up of gleaming narrative shards, each tile of a tale itself a crystal gem - lapis, turquoise, malachite, obsidian - glowing with the light it catches and reflects… and all these sparkling pataphysical moments of lives together resolving, at a certain distance, into a larger picture of life itself, one that is not perhaps entirely consistent or complete but which seems somehow more coherent, more comprehensive, because it is made up of fragments. Life, in these books, is a fragile thing, all too often shattered. So everywhere in these books we find mystery and horror and sorrow.

I can't really do any of these books justice. I'd need to write about them at much greater length. Hell, I might even do so if it weren't for my profound sloth and flighty butterfly attention. So instead I'll leave this with a quote from Jericho Mosaic, one which appeals to me for the way it relates reality and fantasy, accepting the sense of wonder so important to the fantasist, but looking beyond that, searching for a sense of truth and so finding a subtler and more poignant wonder in the world:

I've never known anyone who wasn't astonished at seeing the Jordan for the first time [says one of the characters] To be so small, just a quiet little stream a few yards across and shallow and warm and yet to be so famous. It's always imagined quite differently.