Review: A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects

Catherynne M. Valente has been in the business of reworking and complicating pervasive cultural myths for some time – whether that’s uncovering cycles of abuse at the heart of classic fairytales as she does in Six-Gun Snow White, or criticising the treatment of women in superhero narratives in The Refrigerator Monologues. Her poetry collection A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects is a very early effort, published in 2008, after her breakthrough Orphan’s Tales duology but before most of her better-known novels. As its title suggests, it’s a book that deconstructs, and then reconstructs, well-known fairytales, myths and legends in surprising and revealing ways, often restoring agency to traditionally passive female characters, or inserting new female viewpoints where none previously existed.

Take, for example, the poem “The Descent of the Corn-Queen of the Mid-West”, which begins, “Hades is a place I know in Ohio…” It’s an unsettling update of the Hades and Persephone myth, in which the Persephone figure is a woman from modern-day America; the contrast it draws between bright, mundane modernity and the Greek classicism of Hades (“Ascaphalus talks shop with me/at the Farmer’s Market”) brings her displacement from the land of the living to the world of the dead into sharp focus. The dead’s refrain of “Don’t you know these are your fruits?/Don’t you know these are your flowers?” is a sinister and ever-present reminder of her inevitable fate – and, by extension, of our own mortality.

Scattered throughout the collection are little prose pieces, presented as descriptions of stories by a folklore researcher. What unites these tales is that they are all told by women or feature women prominently, and there are often esoteric traditions around their transmission: one is told only by youngest daughters, for example, and another is told by women to their prospective husbands, their reactions to the story indicating their suitability as partners. The effect is a sense of secrecy and power: these women have control of the narrative in a way that feels somewhat radical in our own patriarchal context.

Of course, the work that Valente is doing here is not particularly unusual: she’s following in the footsteps of authors like Angela Carter and, on the theoretical side, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Valente’s command of voice and language, which is so noticeable in novels like Palimpsest and Radiance, has not yet developed fully here, and somehow the flowing poetry of her prose is actually less remarkable – less memorable – in actual poetic form. A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects has some worthwhile things to say, but it’s ultimately, I think, a minor work.

Review: The Children’s Book

What a lovely, rich novel AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book is!

It begins in the waning years of the Victorians and ends on the battlefields of the First World War: 1895-1918, roughly. It begins when the son of a curator at the nascent Victoria & Albert Museum finds a potter’s boy living in the basement, sketching wonders by day and sleeping in a sarcophagus by night. The potter’s boy is Philip, who’s run away from drudgery and ill-health in the factories of the north; rescued by the curator, he’s put up by a singular family, the Wellwoods, who live in a rambling country house in Kent. Olive Wellwood is a writer of fairy tales and children’s fables, and it’s largely her labour that sustains her large family’s sunlit, charmed existence in the breadbasket of England. (Her husband, Humphrey, is a lecturer, journalist and activist – none of them particularly lucrative professions.) In due course, the Wellwoods find Philip a position with a local potter, moody, unstable Benedict Fludd, an artistic genius who refuses responsibility for anything practical.

The family of Humphrey’s banker brother Basil rounds out this cast of characters: they are artists, thinkers, teachers, writers, activists, all of them people interested in engaging with the world meaningfully, through politics or art or theory. But as Byatt’s title suggests, what the novel is really interested in is childhood – more specifically (and per Rudd, in Reading the Child in Children’s Literature), how the concept of childhood is represented by and mediated through adults. Byatt’s said that the novel grew out of an idea that the children of many classic children’s authors have become suicidal: what does the commodification of a specific child’s experience do to the child in question? And, what does that child’s experience really look like?

It’s in service to this project that The Children’s Book exploits the gap between children’s literature and literature about children. The novel frequently inhabits children’s points of view – particularly those of Philip and of Tom, one of the Wellwood children. When it does so, it frequently touches on things you’d never find in children’s literature: nascent romantic longing, questions about a parent’s fidelity or otherwise. And in doing so, it points up how children are simplified, idealised, by adults.

A key motive for that idealisation is nostalgia – the longing for an Edenic golden age when we were responsible for nothing and ran carefree in the endless summer woods. Much of the novel is suffused with this Edenic quality, with many of its adult characters engaged in the work of planning or attending retreats, artists’ communes, exhibitions; creating, evoking or in some cases defending ideal spaces free from crass economic considerations.

And yet the novel’s ironising perspective on childhood makes it clear that such frozen, idealised bubbles of time did not, cannot, should not exist. The novel’s children do have real, “adult” concerns: poverty, parentage, the fights of adults around them, the shape of their futures. And attempting to “freeze” these children – to encourage them, like Peter Pan, never to grow up – has disastrous consequences for at least one of them. Even the titles of the novel’s three sections make it clear that Eden does not exist: Age of Silver, Age of Bronze, Age of Lead. There is no Golden Age.

What all of this is building up to, of course, is the apocalypse of the First World War – the conflict that irrevocably, inevitably shapes the lives of all these children (as we know it must right from the beginning of the novel), that puts an end to all thoughts of utopia once and for all. In Lacanian terms – also per Rudd – we can say that the war is the savage, uncontrollable irruption of the Real into the Imaginary, the ideal artistic Eden that Byatt’s characters have been striving towards for 600 pages. It shatters all illusions of meaning; in fact it co-opts Edenic meanings, as we see when a character starts collecting the whimsical children’s names men on the front have given to the trenches that become their tombs, grim travesties of the wonderlands those names are drawn from.

It’s the same kind of semantic breakdown that we see in T.S. Eliot’s great Modernist poem The Waste Land: “I think we are in rats’ alley/Where the dead men lost their bones.” Perhaps what Byatt is offering us here, then, is an evocation of our own golden age, the golden age that postmodernism looks back to – a nostalgia for a pre-ironic era when revolutionary ideals and ideas were sincerely held and the woods of England were still wonderful. In this reading, even the war is comforting: it is a telos, an ending we always already know is coming; even in its meaninglessness it gives these characters’ lives a meaningful shape.

But the novel’s layers of irony have already alerted us to the perils of nostalgia. There is no golden age. So this apparently nostalgic text ironises itself, in its final ultra-postmodern move: it becomes, like all the works of fiction and imagination it describes, unstable and contingent exactly where it seems most permanent, most ideal.

Review: The Monsters and the Critics

The Monsters and the Critics is a collection of lectures and essays by J.R.R. Tolkien, very loosely themed around linguistic topics – that is, they range from “English and Welsh” which looks in detail at the linguistic relationship between those two languages, to “On Fairy Stories”, the famous essay in which Tolkien talks about what a fairy story is and relates their power to the story of Christ.

It is, as you can imagine, not exactly a light read – even for someone who voluntarily re-reads The Lord of the Rings every year. And yet, it’s also not as dense or difficult as you’d expect from its age and Tolkien’s own tendency towards archaism: academic writing tends not to age well at all, and the lectures here were mostly given as early as the 1930s. But Tolkien-the-essayist is quite instructively different from Tolkien-the-novelist; or, rather, the voice of Tolkien-the-essayist has more in common with the voice of the narrator of The Hobbit rather than that of The Lord of the Rings. He has decided opinions, which he expresses through logical and above all lucid argument, sprinkled with colourful and/or poetic metaphors like this one, from the title essay “The Monsters and the Critics”:

it is of their nature that the jabberwocks of historical and antiquarian research burble in the tulgy wood of conjecture, flitting from one tum-tum tree to another. Noble animals, whose burbling is on occasion good to hear; but though their eyes of flame may sometimes prove searchlights, their range is short.

It is this wry, imaginative wit that makes Tolkien-the-essayist such a satisfying companion: it’s easy to follow his argument because he knows how to do rhetoric. And his arguments are worth following because they shed light on his more famous works of fiction: in particular, “The Monsters and the Critics” offers a reading of Beowulf as a poem in which “Defeat is the theme. Triumph over the foes of man’s precarious fortress is over, and we approach slowly and reluctantly the inevitable victory of death.” That is one of the themes of The Silmarillion, in which Morgoth the Dark Lord will never be fully defeated; and it’s a mood that informs The Lord of the Rings, too, with its emphasis on death and decay and the passing of magic.

It is, perhaps, a shame that we only read Tolkien’s non-fiction in the light of his fiction. His Old and Middle English scholarship has largely been discredited (although it was always a thrill as an undergraduate to come across a reference to his work in an academic text). I never studied Beowulf, opting for the alliterative delights of Early Middle English instead, so I don’t know if “The Monsters and the Critics” has anything to do with modern thinking on the poem – but for a reader of fantasy like me, it is a reading full of potential and imagination, opening Beowulf back out from an object of antiquarian study up into an actual poetic work with reservoirs of deep meaning. It’s a reading that can be built on, in other words, rather than one that aims to give a single prescriptive answer, and I’ve always found the first kind of criticism vastly more useful and enjoyable than the second kind. In fact, I wish more academic writing was like this: logical and rhetorical at the same time; inventive, poetic and persuasive; solidly supported by a deep familiarity with the material. This is how to do it, surely.

Review: Invisible Cities

Confession time, here’s what I’ve got: I have no idea what to say about Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

The explorer Marco Polo sits in the palace of Kublai Khan, and tells the ageing emperor stories of the cities he has visited. There is a city whose inhabitants tie threads between the houses to show the relationships between their inhabitants. There is a city constructed entirely of rope bridges over a gaping chasm. There is a city where the mummified bodies of the dead are placed in complex underground tableaux, mirroring the living city above. And so on. There are fifty-five cities in all, all of them with women’s names.

Is it a novel? Is it a work of philosophy? Is it a collection of prose poems? What does it mean? Does it mean anything?

The 2019 Tournament of Books started today: the only place on the internet where it’s actually safe to read the comments. One of the things the ToB always reminds me is that reader response is a valid way of interrogating texts; that your visceral response to a book can be an excellent guide to what it’s trying to do.

So. Invisible Cities is, above all, a difficult work. Or – if “difficult” is too loaded a word – it is oblique. In the frame scenes between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, there’s a lot of discussion about the impossibility of describing the places Marco Polo has seen accurately. Initially, the explorer and the emperor have no shared language, and Polo has to perform the cities to Kublai, representing each city with a gesture, or an object. But Calvino (Polo?) is keen to point out that none of these gestures or objects have any symbolic relation to the cities they stand for: the gestures and objects are random. There’s something here about the inadequacy, the paucity of language, I think, how words have no symbolic link with what they signify, which makes describing a thing ultimately useless: there is no way to convey the reality of the thing, its thing-ness, your experience of it. Perhaps that’s why none of Calvino’s invisible cities really feel like cities. They are too schematic, there is only ever one thing that happens in them; they do not live. The act of retelling, of turning them into anecdotes, has flattened them, stripped them of something vital.

Relatedly: is this a book about empire? This Kublai Khan, like Alexander the Great, has overrun so much of the world that there is nothing left to conquer. His interrogation of Polo, his need to have his empire described to him, is ultimately unsatisfactory. Empire consumes cities, uses them up, in a never-ending quest for novelty, for an exoticism that flattens its subjects.

But there is also something going on here to do with impenetrability. Many of the rituals of Marco Polo’s cities are obscure or macabre. There’s a city which you don’t know you’re in until you’ve left. They are mysteries, often deliberately so; they seem to have meanings which are inaccessible. This impenetrability is different to the inability of language to describe experience, and it is not just a product of exoticism: there is a sense in which each city is indescribable not just technically, because of the limitations of language, but also essentially, because of what it is. A city is a thing so huge and deep and complex that its surfaces are not rational, they seem to make little sense, because we do not have access to the conglomerates of history and ritual and human interaction that have brought about those surfaces. The truth of a city is a thing that can only be glimpsed obliquely, in half-sense metaphors, in moods, even in what other cities think of it.

To return to reader response: it seems fitting that I don’t really know how to talk about Invisible Cities, because it’s a book that itself doesn’t seem to know how to talk – about anything. Which sounds insulting, but: this is a book about the limits of language, about travel, about the stultifying effects of careless storytelling, about the very un-narratability of the city. There is, of course, a good deal more to say about it than I’ve managed to say here. I will probably need to read it again sometime.

Review: Trigger Warning

If there is one thing I would like to happen in 2019, it is for us all to agree that Neil Gaiman’s work is nowhere near as edgy, dark or interesting as his public persona is.

(Actually, there are a lot of other things I would rather happen in 2019 – sustained action on climate change, the impeachment of Donald Trump, a second Brexit referendum – but, you know. Neil Gaiman’s also quite annoying.)

How did I end up reading Trigger Warning? The marketing for his work promises twisty, thorny fairy tales, urban fantasy from the underbelly of modern life, stories that are fun and yet meaty, and that was what I was hoping for from this collection of “Short Fictions and Disturbances”.

And once again, I found it lacking that indefinable something. Depth. Nuance. Resonance.

To me, the most satisfying fantasy, the best fairy tales, are built on a paradox: they describe something that is indescribable. Through omission or metaphor, they talk about the numinous, the earth-shattering intrusion of the Real into our lives that lie under layers of story and symbol; they are about things that cannot be narrated. They resonate because they contain lacunae.

Perhaps this is why Gaiman’s Sandman series of graphic novels works so much better for me than his novels and short stories do: the images supply that resonance; wordless, they speak the unspeakable. There is nothing in Trigger Warning that does the same.

If you’re looking for an example of the collection’s lack of depth and nuance, look no further than its red-flag-to-a-bull title, based on a deliberate misunderstanding of how the phrase “trigger warning” is actually used. In his introduction to the book, Gaiman muses, with reference to his title:

Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places?

And then, later on, he talks about stories he read as a child:

they…taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could.

This romanticising of story and having grown up through fiction, as so many of us readers did, is of a piece with Gaiman’s authorial persona: the mysterious storyteller/bard warning us that fiction is never just fiction, that it can lead us into the mire and through the dark forests of the night, and that this is, mystically, a good thing. But, you’ll notice, it’s not actually very well-argued. For a start, note how paying heed to a trigger warning becomes conflated with not leaving your “comfort zone”. No. Staying in your comfort zone is, like, never watching anything apart from Doctor Who on TV, or having the same sandwich every day for lunch. Whereas, as I suspect Gaiman very well knows, encountering a trigger unannounced can be for a PTSD sufferer a matter of life and death. Comfort zones are formed by habit, and, mostly, there’s nothing actually unsafe about leaving them. (Although, as a sidenote, what’s wrong with staying in your comfort zone at least some of the time?) Trigger warnings are about not destabilising someone’s entire mental health. Fiction doesn’t need to be a safe place, but neither should it be radically unsafe. There’s a world of difference between the two, and it says nothing for Gaiman’s power as a writer that he misses, skips over, that nuance.

As for the stories themselves: they are mostly quite ordinary. There are sub-Twilight Zone-ish stories with trick endings and nothing much else, like “The Thing about Cassandra” and “Click-Clack the Rattlebag”; very inferior verse offerings like “My Last Landlady”; riffs on other people’s work like “The Case of Death and Honey” (Sherlock Holmes) and “Nothing O’Clock” (Doctor Who). There’s an entire “Calendar of Tales”, all of them very short and very minor.

I’ve written about Gaiman’s squicky fetishisation/aesthetisisation of dead or unconscious female bodies before, and sure enough, it turns out here in force, marring particularly the better stories in the collection. Take “Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale”, which Gaiman originally wrote to accompany a photograph of a dead woman. (Actually it was his wife pretending to be dead for an art project, which actually makes the whole thing more troubling.) And the dramatic reveal at the end of the otherwise standout “Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is founded on the remembered image of a red-haired female skeleton.

I enjoyed “The Return of the Thin White Duke”, which feels like something that’s wandered out of a Mechanisms fanfic, but, once again, its sole female character is aesthetisised for the male gaze (although not dead, so that’s some improvement).

We can probably tie this aesthetisisation of women to Gaiman’s deliberate misuse of the phrase “trigger warning”, which originated in feminist spaces. In too much of his writing, women don’t get to have voices, and they don’t get to have agency: they exist to be looked at, to bear children, to inspire men to revenge or fulfilment. Their images and their words get co-opted by a highly influential white male author – an author whose public persona and reputation in the press exudes progressiveness.

My favourite story in the collection was “Black Dog”, a companion story to Gaiman’s novel American Gods. I’ll probably end up reading that too at some point. And I’ll probably finish it feeling disappointed and a bit angry.

The Last Ten Books That Came Into My Possession

Not counting library books or books lent to me.

  1. The War Poets: an anthology. You know how grandmothers always try and give you random crap when you go visit them? That’s where I got this, a couple of weekends ago. Because poetry. (Actually Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et decorum est” has been one of my favourite poems since I read it out in assembly at school. Like all the best poetry, it dictates how you read it aloud; it makes you dramatise its fury through how you sound it out.)
  2. Sisyphean – Dempow Torishima. So apparently the last time I bought something in a bookshop was in April? In New York? Which seems unlikely, but I can’t think of anything I’ve actually bought since then. Sisyphean was okay, a bit organic for my taste.
  3. Space Opera – Catherynne Valente. This was part of my New York haul. I was ridiculously excited about this, as I bought it around the time Amazon sold out and the only copies left were scattered around various Barnes and Nobles and I GOT ONE and it’s lovely.
  4. The Refrigerator Monologues – Catherynne Valente. Yeah, I basically treated America as a chance to buy all the books that are fiendishly difficult to find over here. This included ALL THE VALENTE.
  5. Saga Volume 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I read this a couple of years ago, but I’ve been wanting to own it for a while – the art is so lovely and MY HEART ALANA’S FACIAL EXPRESSIONS. Plus, it actually seemed to be cheaper in New York than over here.
  6. S.  – J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. I actually cannot remember exactly when I bought this, except I know it was definitely in the Oxford Blackwell’s shop. I haven’t read it yet, because of the vagaries of my TBR pile, but I can’t wait.
  7. What Are We Doing Here? – Marilynne Robinson. This was an emergency buy when I was stuck in Bologna without anything to read, and it was a great choice if I do say so myself: engaging, thought-provoking and empathetic.
  8. Imaginary Cities – Darran Anderson. I bought this in Oxford in January. It was rainy and cold and we were looking for somewhere to hide for an hour before dinner, and Blackwell’s rode to the rescue (not literally, although that would be impressive). I read the first couple of chapters of this fascinating book curled up in one of their armchairs.
  9. The Compleat Discworld Atlas – Terry Pratchett and the Discworld Emporium. This was a Christmas present from my sister! It is, physically, a lovely book. It is very geeky. It is also…a bit problematic, and nowhere near as fun as the actual Discworld novels, or even some of the older companion books.
  10. The Book of Dust – Philip Pullman. Also a Christmas present, also from my sister, more interesting than the Discworld Atlas even if it’s not quite what I wanted from a His Dark Materials prequel.

(The prompt for this post comes from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Real-Town Murders

Adam Roberts’ latest novel, The Real-Town Murders, is, on the face of it, a fairly conventional SF thriller. It’s set in a future United Kingdom (rebranded UK-OK!) in which most people spend most or all of their time in the Shine, an immersive virtual reality. Even those who don’t use feeds, which give their users access to, basically, the internet, all day, every day, whatever they happen to be doing. Our Heroine is Alma, a private detective who stays out of the Shine, for various reasons, one of which is her partner Marguerite. Marguerite has a debilitating illness genetically engineered so that only Alma can treat it, which she has to do every four hours exactly, within a four-minute window, or Marguerite will die.

Once upon a time, Alma is called upon to solve a seemingly impossible murder: a body is found in the trunk of a car that’s fresh off the production line, made in an entirely automated factory. Advanced CCTV and AI surveillance shows that no humans entered the factory at any point during the making of the car. So how did the body get in the car?

Inevitably, things escalate, and Alma’s drawn into a political battle between the government of the Shine and the government of the Real – who happen to be, between them, the government of the UK.

Conventional on the face of it: I say that because, while I enjoyed The Real-Town Murders, it seemed to be missing a certain Robertsian zing, the conceptual playfulness that makes his non-fiction such fun to read and his novels so, well, not always successful, but challenging, certainly. It’s a technically perfect thriller: the tension ratcheted steadily up by Alma’s regular four-hour deadline (will she make it home in time? will she get past the guards on her house? and so on), the stakes rising just when you’d expect them to. It has some pretty on-point things to say about control: if you’re in the Shine, your very thoughts, the world you experience, is subject to the surveillance, and thus the control, of others; whereas the Real by definition contains uncontrollable elements, even if it’s only inside your own head. That’s a timely and important point, especially in the wake of recent revelations about the misuse of Facebook data; but it’s not quite as subtle as I’d come to expect from Roberts. It’s an excellent thriller with important things to say; but it’s nothing more than that.

(And maybe that’s not quite a fair assessment on its own merits; if this had been anyone but Adam Roberts, maybe I’d be raving about it. But that’s the bias I bring to this book.)

And there my review would have ended, if I hadn’t re-read Kevin Power’s Strange Horizons review of the novel, at lunchtime today in fact. Power reads The Real-Town Murders as a novel about attention and where our attention is best directed.

So, caveat lector: in a novel about attention, we should be careful about what we notice, or we just might discover, when the final page is turned, that we have noticed nothing at all.

Touche.

Well, I am a competitive English student if nothing else, and that’s practically an invitation to go back to the text and re-engage with it, intellectually and emotionally.

Power’s argument isn’t one I disagree with exactly, but nor do I think it’s quite true to my own experience of the text. Partly this is because I’m not convinced Power shows his workings at every stage of his essay: “for Roberts, the real lives in language.” This feels like an inaccurate statement to make of a novel which is precisely about how the Real cannot be controlled and rendered absolutely; a novel in which people mangle their language when they enter the Real because they can no longer remember how to speak in the presence of others.

What does feel like an interesting avenue of exploration is Power’s attention to Roberts’ Hitchcockian references – beginning with the epigraph to Part 1 from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: “Think of the key, each in his prison/Thinking of the key”. It’s attributed to something called North by North Wasteland, apparently a reference to the Hitchcock film North by Northwest. I’ve never seen a Hitchcock film, which is why I missed this way into the text; but I think we can see the series of Hitchcock allusions which Power lists as part of a wider matrix of cultural allusion in the novel. There’s a mini-motif in which characters will make obscure cultural references, only for their interlocutors to look up what they mean on their feeds, or, if they’ve turned their feeds off for privacy purposes, to request that people don’t make such references while they can’t look them up. In other words, the power of cultural reference is subverted by instant access to all the world’s data. The point of allusion, especially in day-to-day interaction, is to signal in-group membership: “if you know what I am talking about then we can be friends”. If you can just look it up, instantly, that power (and as every geek knows, it’s a superpower), that semantic playfulness, is gone.

Hence The Waste Land, a poem which enacts a breakdown of cultural meaning. Adam Roberts’ Real has become a waste land – a waste land bare, specifically, of human interaction, of shared cultural referents and of interest in those shared cultural referents. In an attempt to draw people back into the Real, the government of UK-OK! has carved Mount Rushmore-style heads of famous poets and artists into the White Cliffs of Dover. It is, of course, a futile attempt.

But what’s really interesting is that Roberts is describing this breakdown by engaging in its opposite – by drawing on a shared SFnal culture to create a matrix of coherent meaning. All language does this, of course; but Roberts’ prose is a particularly rich site of semantic and cultural playfulness, as we can see from the Hitchcock references, and from lines like:

There was an impressive popping sound, as if from an alt-reality where the Hindenburg was assailed with a titanic pin rather than fire.

That’s asking us to remember a specific moment of history, and it’s doing so using a specific idiom that feels very SFnal: “alt-reality” is a phrase plucked from SF criticism, surely. This is SF written for geeks – it’s SF being used to create and reinforce in-group links at the same time as it’s describing their erosion. To paraphrase Eliot, Roberts uses these fragments to shore against our ruin. It’s not language per se where the Real lies; it’s in shared history, shared culture, shared experience. And it finds its expression, its in-group, in a long-term queer couple, one of them disabled, one of them a carer, holding the world of the novel, the world of the Real, together.

Conventional, did I say?

Top Ten Places Books Have Made Me Want to Visit

  1. Istanbul. This was a by-product of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which is about a literary treasure hunt across Europe and makes Istanbul sound absolutely fascinating, a mix of ancient and modern. Sadly it’s not the safest place to visit at the moment.
  2. Exeter College, Oxford. I remember vividly, the first time I visited Oxford, using the map in Philip Pullman’s Lyra’s Oxford to find Jordan College. Which is Exeter. Yes, I am a nerd.
  3. The Discworld Emporium, Wincanton, Somerset. Do I really need to explain this? My parents now live within touching distance of Wincanton, anyway, so I’m hoping to visit very soon!
  4. The Shambles, York. The Shambles are the original of the Shades in Ankh-Morpork, the sprawling, smelly city-state in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Fortunately you are approximately a hundred per cent less likely to get murdered in the Shambles than you are in the Shades. Although the prices in the shops there do amount to daylight robbery (some of them, anyway).
  5. Tolkien’s grave, Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford. Tolkien’s buried with his wife Edith, and carved below their names are the names Beren and Luthien: the species-transcending lovers of The Silmarillion. When I went in February, there were fresh flowers there, but it wasn’t a shrine or anything; just solemn and sad and I had a moment.
  6. King’s Cross Station, London. YES I AM A VERY SAD PERSON AND I WAS EXCITED TO GO TO KING’S CROSS FOR THE FIRST TIME BECAUSE HARRY POTTER. I AM VERY SORRY.
  7. The Pump Room, Bath. This is a restaurant now; but wouldn’t be cool to go there and pretend to be a Jane Austen character? Yes. Yes it would.
  8. New Zealand. Actually I’m not a huge fan of the whole getting-on-a-plane-for-a-zillion-hours thing, but if I had to it would be New Zealand I’d go to – for, yes, Hobbiton and Mount Doom and Edoras and all the wonderful corners of Middle-earth. Actually, doing the Simple Walk into Mordor would be quite fun, for a given value of “fun”.
  9. The Whalebone Arch, Isle of Harris. The actual arch is less impressively Mievillean than I hoped it would be (I was thinking the Ribs from Perdido Street Station, which, not so much), but it’s still pretty cool: an arch made of the jawbones of a whale.
  10. East Coker, Somerset. Yes, because of that poem by T.S. Eliot. (Which I read part of at my granddad’s funeral in January, so it’s kind of important to me.) I don’t think there’s actually very much at East Coker, just one of a thousand tiny villages you’ll find in the hollows of the Somerset hills, but. But.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

NINE WORLDS 2017! Or, I Am Really Quite Proud Of Myself

So I went to the Nine Worlds geek fest convention for the second time over the weekend just gone. (At least, it was just gone when I started writing this post.) I went on my own, which I wasn’t quite expecting when I bought the ticket, and for this and other reasons it was a very different experience from last year. It was, in particular, far less terrifying than my first Nine Worlds – I feel like I got a lot more out of the con experience this year, and I’m proud of myself for doing a number of things that would have made me horribly anxious a year ago.

This is going to be a long, and quite personal, post. You have been warned.

Nine Worlds 2017!!

I arrived at the Novotel London West, in Hammersmith, on the Thursday night, after an extremely busy and stressful week at work (because, of course, it is fundamentally impossible to go on holiday without having a busy and stressful week at work beforehand). This being a deeply unhelpful state of mind to be in just before the emotional tour de force that is a three-day convention, I checked in, registered, and went straight to bed.

Friday: Mars One, the Mechanisms and More

Friday I wore Generic Steampunk, and received many compliments and an “Awesome Cosplay!” token, even though I wasn’t cosplaying anything. So that was lovely.

After the all-important meal that is breakfast, my first event of Friday morning was Studying Policy on Prevention of Terrorism in Education, a fascinating talk by PhD student and former teacher Megan Bettinson about the government requirement that schools promote “British values” – defined as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and respect for and tolerance of different faiths. She pointed out that these terms are nowhere properly defined – which leads into worrying situations like fracking protestors being arrested under anti-terrorism laws because they’re breaking the rule of law. As someone who’s concerned about the current rhetoric around terrorism in Britain, I found this talk eye-opening and fascinating, and it was probably one of my favourite of the con. And I also did a thing I was proud of: I raised my hand and contributed to a discussion at the beginning of the talk about what the audience thought “British values” were. Last year I didn’t dare put my hand up in anything, and if I had it would only have been with much trepidation.

Next (after a quick chat with one of my TolkSoc friends who I saw across the corridor) was Undercover Geek: How to do Stealth Cosplay, another favourite: a talk about cosplaying in real life situations where full cosplay would be inappropriate. So, for instance, using block colours to evoke Disney characters or Star Trek redshirts, or wearing Deathly Hallows earrings at work. It wasn’t a particularly content-heavy session, but it turned into a bit of a conversation with the audience, and raised some interesting points about in-group identification and belonging. Stealth cosplay will definitely be something that I do! (I have already asked my sister for stealth cosplay items for my birthday in a couple of weeks…)

I grabbed a swift sandwich lunch at one of the (quite eye-wateringly expensive) hotel outlets before heading off to Classical Monsters in Popular Culture – a panel looking at the reception of classical monsters, mostly in films and TV. It started off well: Dr Liz Gloyn talked lucidly and intelligently about monster theory, which says that monsters are manifestations of what we worry about as a society, and then asked why, in that case, we’re still using monsters thought up in a very different time period in modern media.

Dr Amanda Potter followed this up by describing a couple of modern approaches to classical monsters: rationalisation (the Doctor Who model, which recasts monsters as aliens who have strange powers because of Science); making them sympathetic (mentioning the way that Atlantis’ Medusa tells Hercules to cut off her head and use it as a weapon – which to Potter makes her a heroine of sorts, though to me it reads “objectification”); and eroticising them. I wanted to know a bit more about why it’s important to modern creators to defuse classical monsters in these ways, and what it says about us as a society that these are the ways we choose to do it. That was my general impression of the panel: they touched on a number of topics without really addressing any of them quite adequately, and didn’t manage to come to any kind of thesis by the end.

It turned out that several of my TolkSoc friends had also attended this panel, so we all had a bit of a debrief (I had crisps; they had lunch), and then I headed off to Mars: The Journey of a Lifetime with one of them. This was a talk by Hannah Earnshaw, a Mars One candidate.

If you’ve not heard of it, Mars One is (probably) equal parts scam, publicity stunt and complete fucking lunacy. There is an entire post to be written about the fantasy that is Mars One; I direct you to this rather good one. In a nutshell, though, Mars One says they are going to send a crew of four on a one-way trip to Mars, for just $6bn, in 2032. Pretty much everyone else says they don’t have the technology, the funding, the people or the ability to do it. A group of PhD students from MIT found that, under its current plan, the first crew member would die within 68 days of landing on Mars, if they ever made it there in the first place.

I knew all this before I went to Earnshaw’s talk; but I hoped they might talk about what moves a person to sign up to leave Earth forever, to head out into the unknown. Instead, they reeled off what sounded suspiciously like pre-formed corporate drivel. We spent a good deal of the talk alternately sniggering and being bored.

Then there were the questions, which made it abundantly clear what kind of organisation Mars One is. There were many questions, about tiny details like, oh, why Mars One hasn’t published any scientific papers into its methods (because America won’t let them, apparently, which, what?), whether there’ll be a legal system on Mars (“we might have to have a sponsor country” – OK, that’s not a terrible answer, but it was clear that Mars One doesn’t have a plan in mind), and what’s going to happen about sex in a Mars colony. (Earnshaw implied that they wouldn’t want to raise children on Mars for at least a couple of decades after the landing, at which point, as my TolkSoc friend pointed out, the colonists would be about fifty years old.) I asked why Mars One has recruited members of the public as colonists rather than, say, the kind of people at NASA who have trained for a zillion years and have astrophysics PhDs. The answer? In a nutshell, Mars should belong to everybody.

OK, this is not the London Marathon, this is GOING TO MARS. There is a very real risk of death; and if the mission goes horribly wrong, there’s also a risk that no-one else will ever dare to try it again. This is not a place for rank amateurs and random sci-fi readers.

Moving on. The next panel I went to was Security for Beginners, whose description kind of intrigued me (“cyber/crypto security for activists and everyone else as well…things we can do for ourselves, so we can be ourselves online”). It was more techy than I was expecting (it says “beginners” right there in the title), and began with a request that nobody incriminate themselves (which, whoa), but touched on some interesting points about whether our real identity is the one online or the one IRL.

Straight after that I went to an RPG run by Rusty Quill called Zero Void, in which we (“we” being me and five strangers) were all space criminals fresh from a heist trying to obtain by nefarious means enough fuel to escape the Imperial forces. We ran into some space zombies and died in the end, but we had fun along the way, not least because the GM was Jonny D’Ville from THE ACTUAL MECHANISMS and I quietly fangirled for about three hours. What even is air.

Can I also just stop and emphasise that I spent three hours role-playing with some complete strangers. Again, that’s a thing that I’m enormously proud of myself for doing.

After the RPG – which finished at 9pm, in the middle of one of the panel slots – I went and ate an oily and not brilliant curry in the hotel lounge bar, and read Affinity by Sarah Waters until some people I knew turned up, and I ended up chatting to someone I’d never met (another point!) about Garth Nix and sexism in fantasy. Then we went to the Friday Nite Lite disco, which was fun and I knew some songs, but I was tired and went to bed reasonably early. (About midnight, I think.)

Saturday: Cosplay, Communism and Cabaret

Saturday was cosplay day! I woke up about an hour early, I was so excited, and ended up dancing around the room to the soundtracks from Sunless Sea and Fallen London. Because that, of course, was my cosplay: I had an Exceptional Hat, and a Bejewelled Cane (which featured about 240 plastic jewels I’d stuck on myself, by hand), and a long black opera coat, and here is a picture:

I received many “Awesome Cosplay!” tokens, though I also kept handing them out, so I never had enough on me to cash them in for a prize. Everyone loved my hat. (I took a whole suitcase full of hats to Nine Worlds.)

OK, let’s talk about the actual day. The first talk I went to was How to Write a Location You Can’t Go To, by urban fantasy author Melissa F. Olson. The talk itself was excellent: Olson gave a well-structured presentation covering not only how to write about somewhere you can’t visit but also what to do if you do manage to visit the place where you want to set your novel. Tips for writing about somewhere you can’t visit (which was the bit I was interested in: I’m writing a novel set in Crete in the mythology of the Greek gods, and also a short story set on the planet Trappist-1b) included finding someone who does live there who’s happy to answer random questions and to act as a beta reader, and looking at the local library’s internet presence to find out what the community there cares about. However, I felt she didn’t really know her audience very well, and that was particularly apparent when someone asked about how they should write about Mars, which no-one can go to (no, not even Mars One). She indicated that you’d have a lot more freedom to write about Mars, “because who’s going to tell you you’re wrong?”

Um. The many members of the geek community who are academics and scientists, maybe?

Next I went to Representations of the City in SFF, which currently ties for my favourite panel of the con: the panellists talked about ideas of the relationship between space and morality, which is exactly the kind of concept involved in the Grand Thesis I am constructing in my head about Gothic fiction and its haunted castles. The panel touched on Le Corbusier’s Modernist theories about purging antiques from our domestic lives so we become healthier and more productive – architecture as a way of creating better, more integrated, more economic citizens. Towards the end, they started talking about why utopian aspirations for architecture get talked about less than dystopian ones, and about the politics of high-rises – particularly interesting and pertinent in the wake of the Grenfell fire. I would really like to see another panel like this next year.

I met one of my TolkSoc friends there, so we had a chat about how much we enjoyed the panel, and found some of our other TolkSoc friends, and went to grab a quick sandwich with them before the next event, which for me was Cosplayers: Larp! I’ve never done any larping before; I’d like to say that this session encouraged me to do more. Unfortunately, I definitely think it could have done with  a bit more direction – the scenario was just, “these characters meet in a bar. Go.” Like, I know coming up with a proper campaign would be difficult without knowing which characters were going to turn up, but as it was a lot of people seemed to melt away throughout the session, and the handful of us left ended up having awkward, mock-drunken conversations about how depressed all our characters were. (Me: “We never see the sky in Fallen London! Never!”) I think I wanted the larping to be a bit more live action.

I found my TolkSoc friends again and we went to Dumbledore – Good or Evil?, a panel debate which one of my Oxford friends was taking part in. I’m not really particularly interested in taking Dumbledore seriously as a real person, just because so many of his decisions and actions are clearly a function of his role as headmaster of an upper-middle-class English boarding school, but for me the panel was fun and light and snarky and questioned some of the ideological bases of Rowling’s books, which is always good. As a serious debate it didn’t work too well – it failed, for instance, to define what “good” and “evil” actually were – but taking it for what it was, I enjoyed it.

Next we went to Poor Life Choices: A live choose your own adventure, in which the audience had to save the world by basically assembling an Avengers team. The choices were made by the simple expedient of the performer giving everyone a raffle ticket and pulling a number from a hat each time the script called for a choice to be made. I made a winning choice close to the end of the session which meant we collected Lucifer, so that was awesome! Overall the session was funny, the performer James Webster animated (though he spoke perhaps a little too fast at times), and the script at times poetic without being parodic or over-flown – a difficult balance to achieve, I think.

Everyone wandered off at this point, so I had a hot dog at one of the hotel outlets (yay for excellent food choices at conventions!). I skipped the next session in favour of a glass of wine and Affinity in the bar, and then we all went to the Bifrost Cabaret! This was mostly excellent: I can never remember the names of acts, but there was a balloon animal magician who was very funny, a singer-songwriter who sang the song about rubbish feminists rescuing Rapunzel that I just cannot find on the internet anywhere and which I heard and liked last year as well (I think the singer was Alice Nicholls, but the song doesn’t seem to be on her Bandcamp), and someone reciting their mildly filthy but also rather sweet poetry. (Normally I am of the opinion that there is almost no excuse for reciting your own poetry on stage, but there’s an exception to every rule.) We just about managed to escape MC Skywalker, who we saw last year rapping incomprehensibly about Star Wars, and all-out ran from the last act of the second half, which seemed to consist entirely of leading unsuspecting members of the audience up onto the stage to dance, which, nope. We all noped.

There was a brief space between the cabaret and the Bifrost disco; I ended up following my TolkSoc friends to the hotel room where one of their friends was staying (another scary thing I did!) and drinking wine out of plastic cups and chatting.

The disco itself was, sadly, a disappointment: we missed the early part of it (but isn’t this standard disco practice?), so it’s quite possible we missed the geekier songs, but I only knew about three songs in the whole night, and everyone else said the same thing. Mainly it was techno/heavy metal type stuff which you can’t really dance to and which seems to exist solely to assault your ears. We kept going back to see if the music was getting any better, but it didn’t. So then I chatted until 3:30am in the bar about Steven Moffat, and that was fun.

Sunday: BookTube, Blanket Forts and Brilliant Hats

Four hours’ sleep later, it was the last day of Nine Worlds. (Sad face.) I was in Low-Key Steampunk, with another hat that also garnered compliments. My first panel, at the unearthly time of 10am (remember: four hours’ sleep), was BookTube – Reviewing Books in the 21st Century, which was really geared towards people looking to start a BookTube channel – i.e, not me. (I have this blog!) Nevertheless, it was interesting to hear that none of the panellists really had any technical equipment when they started; and one of them (who I met on Friday night) worked for a publishing house, so it was interesting to hear from her perspective.

Next, for me, was Protocols for the education of young witches and wizards, in which Alison Baker discussed her research into approaches to education in the Harry Potter, Bartimaeus and Tiffany Aching series. (I went just for Tiffany Aching, naturally.) Like the Classical Monsters panel on Friday, this started off promisingly, with Baker looking at the different teaching styles of Hogwarts teachers (basically, Lupin is the only good teacher at Hogwarts. Harry is also a good teacher, apparently), but tailed off into description rather than analysis. She suggested of the Discworld series that education that doesn’t teach people to be good members of the community – in other words, the education delivered at Unseen University – is portrayed as useless and sterile. I found myself pushing back against this idea, actually: while Pratchett clearly has a lot less respect for the wizards of Unseen than he does for the self-taught witches, I also feel that part of Pratchett’s point in the Discworld series is that everyone has a place in society and a way of contributing to it. The wizards, for example, do save the Disc on at least one occasion (Reaper Man, I think?) and assist in saving it, however cack-handedly, in other books. (Going Postal, Hogfather, The Last Hero.) It’s when people don’t find a place for themselves that things go wrong. Obviously that kind of analysis wasn’t really in the scope of Baker’s talk, but I felt she could have said more about the larger societies depicted in each series.

Next was the session I was probably most looking forward to in the whole convention: Social Gaming with the Haberdashery Collective, basically an hour of playing silly party games like lemon jousting (now a stalwart at TolkSoc meetings), Ninja – where you strike your best ninja poses in an effort to hit the back of your neighbour’s hand, putting them out of the game – and Jedi Training, which involves stabbing people with a foam sword. It was brilliant fun and I lost all the games and it was exactly the right time in the convention to do it.

One of my TolkSoc friends was there and afterwards we went off to Blanket Fort Construction 101, where we met other TolkSoc people and also someone I half-know from the LOTNA meetup group, which is awkward because I only went to LOTNA a few times. We supported the construction of a giant blanket fort, although there was something of a too-many-cooks issue, and then we all hid in the blanket fort and I found out that one of my TolkSoc friends – who I didn’t know very well before Nine Worlds – listens to Paul Shapera. I have never met anyone else who listens to Paul Shapera (independently, anyway – I made the Circumlocutor listen to it once), so that was awesome.

Then we all went to my final event of the con: Playing with Pride: LGBT Relationships in Gaming. This was a filmmaker presenting his footage of queer gamers across America, and some in Europe, talking about their experiences trying to reconcile queer culture with geek culture. This was…emotional: many of the stories, of rejection and disenfranchisement, were sad, but there were also causes for hope, too, as representation in gaming improves. It was very worth going to, and encapsulated the spirit of Nine Worlds – a lovely note to end the con on.

I didn’t leave straight away: we went for dinner at Bill’s, then sat in the bar playing the card game Man Bites Dog. I was vaguely hoping to go to the Rock Club at the End of the Universe, but I couldn’t get the internet to tell me when the last underground train left Hammersmith, which worried me; so I left around 10pm. And that was the end of Nine Worlds.

It was a brilliant, tiring, wonderful few days, in a place that really feels like a community, among queer geeks. I always felt I could be myself there; I had conversations about things I loved; I met interesting people; I never wanted to leave. It’s such a colourful, kind place – inclusive and welcoming – and I’m already planning for next year!

Review: Starbook

Speaking technically, Ben Okri’s Starbook might be the best book I’ve read – probably, will read – this year. Formally, it’s a fairytale: one of its protagonists is a prince who, in time-honoured fashion, begins to question the morality of his father’s kingdom; wanders away into the woods; finds a woman he thinks is a goddess; loses her and sets out to find her. The other protagonist is the woman herself, a maiden from a tribe of artists, who finds herself the centre of a courtship contest. This simplest of romances is shadowed, though, by a “white wind” blowing through the kingdom, blowing away its history and its culture and its memory. The white wind, of course, is slavery; the kingdom is the African continent.

Despite the simplicity of its plot, and its idealised setting, Starbook is a difficult book. At the sentence level, Okri’s prose has the unselfconscious clarity of fairytale – an unselfconsciousness that often teeters on the edge of naïve risibility:

This is a story my mother began to tell me when I was a child. The rest I gleaned from the book of life among the stars, in which all things are known.

But the cumulative effect of such prose – rhythmic, oral, seemingly straightforward – is quite different. It’s a prose characterised by repetition, by echoes, by allusion; it develops thereby a quality of density, a way of deploying imagery, that I’d usually associate with poetry. In fact, I found that the most rewarding way to read Starbook was as poetry: it demands an attention that’s at once sustained – you have to focus on every single word – and adaptable. That is, though it’s a speculative text, in the sense that there is magic and ritual and mysticism, it’s not meant to be read as you would read a traditional SFF novel, hunting for clues about how the world works. To attempt to form a rational, consistent schema for Okri’s imagined kingdom is to miss the point: in Starbook, everything is imagery; yet fixating on what any particular image means is to miss the totality of the novel. This Guardian review compares Starbook to the work of William Blake, and I think that’s a good comparison: both writers use very striking, simple imagery to complex effect.

In other words, Starbook forced me into a different mode of reading, and that was something that enriched everything I did while I was reading it, even when the covers of the book were closed. It changed my life for a little while, and that’s something that happens astonishingly little for the amount that I read.

That’s not to say, though, that I found Starbook unproblematic. In particular, I was disappointed by its relegation of its female protagonist to an entirely passive narrative role: she is sought out by the prince, she refuses to make a decision on which suitor she’ll accept, she spends much of the novel ill, she is judged by her fellow townsfolk without recognising it or doing anything about it. This is in part a problem of genre: left unexamined, fairytale tends to cast cultural constructs as timeless truths, and the way that Starbook works as a novel puts a lot of weight on a small number of relatively simple basic concepts that are easy to take as timeless truths.

This effect also lies behind Starbook‘s prioritisation of romantic love as the pinnacle of human relationships: the love of the prince and the maiden is one that literally changes worlds – and they seem to have no other meaningful human relationships. My problem with this, really, is that it has little emotional truth; I don’t think this is how anyone in a functioning, healthy romantic relationship really experiences the world, and in such a technically accomplished novel its presentation of romance feels shallow and disappointing.

I want to stress, though, that Starbook is the rare kind of book whose flaws make it more interesting, tell us something about what the it’s trying to achieve; a book to be studied, and mulled over, and re-read. I hope, one day, it becomes a classic of post-colonial literature; it really deserves to.