Archive for March 2011
An odd one, this. This is how Sterling fingers Laidlaw too, suggesting he stands out even amongst company (the cyberpunks) know for “bizarre concepts and a general allegiance to the strange”. So the story proves; if the setting of ’400 Boys’ is cyberpunk, the mode is decidedly not. Its gonzo sensibility reminded me strongly of Steve Aylett’s Beerlight novels but without Aylett’s gift for killer one liners. It is also more cartoonish; this is a story that humps your leg rather than mugging you over.
Sterling describes this as a “brief but perfectly constructed fantasy”. It certainly isn’t science fiction but it isn’t really fantasy either; it is a trio of fables with Houdini stuck in the middle like a totem pole. And it is very, very brief. If there is any worth to stories of such length then I’m not convinced it is enough to warrant anthologising them.
Athena Andreadis is infamous within the science fiction community for a couple of things. Firstly, there is her drive-by spamming of magazines and blogs with links to her own blog. For example, she posted a link on my review of The Heroes Joe Abercrombie and then, three days later, posted the exact same link on my summary of the “bankrupt nihilism” debate around Abercrombie’s fiction. The initial comment from her on the review reads, in its entirety: “You must be aware of the recent epic fantasy dustup. My view thereof.” I was indeed aware of the dust up and had written about it at length but Andreadis was clearly unaware of this, despite the summary post being linked from the review. Not only hadn’t she been reading my blog, she hadn’t even read the post she commented on. It is an extremely rude form of discourse and perhaps “discourse” is being to generous: it is barging into a conversation and shouting your point of view. And this is a pattern, not a one of instance.
Secondly, as you would perhaps expect form someone who communicates in this way, Andreadis holds her own words in very high regard and believes everyone else should as well. This translates into the belief that she has a right to a response to everything she writes. Now, I don’t respond to every comment on my blog, I don’t think every comment deserves a response; if you don’t reply to Andreadis she will email you to demand to know why. I fundamentally believe that a conversation begun in the public sphere should stay in the public sphere. Partly this is personal preference (if there is something you will only say to me in private, I probably don’t want to hear it) but it also avoids the problem of communicating in two separate but linked spheres. A good illustration of this problem starts with this comment from Andreadis on the Strange Horizons blog:
I had an exchange recently with a regular contributor to Strange Horizons who was convinced it had gender parity, if not female dominance. I countered that it was actually the usual one-third (which seems to register as “female excess”).
Because there is no attribution, there is no way of knowing if this is true yet it is impossible to rebut. When someone queries whether they are the supposed source comment it is ignored but doesn’t stop the comment being repeated on the Aquaduct Press blog. Andreadis then doubles down by referring to public statements are well but still refusing to attribute them:
“After both private and public interactions with some of the Strange Horizon reviewers, I have come to the sorrowful conclusion that the venue may end up becoming the SF/F version of The Valve.”
Again, no response was forthcoming to requests for clarity on just what those interactions might be. So when Andreadis posted a long piece on her own blog about Strange Horizons yesterday I thought it might contain the answers. Well, sort of. Here is Andreadis’s core complaint:
So I read SH fiction less and less but continued to browse its columns and reviews. Then in the last few years I noticed those shifting – gradually but steadily. They were increasingly by and about Anglosaxon white men and showed the tunnel vision this context denotes and promotes. The coalescent core reviewers were young-ish British men (with token “exotics”) convinced of their righteous enlightenment and “edginess” along the lines of “We discovered/invented X.”
It is ironic that Andreadis used Niall Harrison’s The SF Count post as the starting point for her own; Harrison’s post is all about building an evidence base, her post is all about throwing around accusations with an almost total lack of evidence. I only count two pieces of actual evidence in the post. Unsurprisingly, neither of these are attributed, nor are they directly relevant to her core complaint. Abigail Nussbaum, reviews editor for Strange Horizons, has responded but I would like to specifically address one of those pieces of supposed evidence. This is because it is about me, although, of course, you can’t tell that from the post.
I should start by saying that this is a conversation I should be having over on Andreadis’s blog, where the accusation was made and where people who read her side are more likely to read my side. I can’t do this, however, because she has refused to moderate my comment and instead delete it. As justification for this, she has added a note to the end of her post:
Note to readers: I am aware this will lead to polarizing and polarized views. I will not engage in lengthy back-and-forths, although I made an exception for the expected response by Abigail Nussbaum. People are welcome to hold forth at whatever length and pitch they like elsewhere.
This is incredibly bad form but not unexpected from someone who values her words above everyone else’s. So I will just have to hold forth at my own length and pitch here. The reason I need to hold forth is because paragraphs five and six of Andreadis’s posts are devoted to me and my review of Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding. As I said, you wouldn’t know this from her post; it neither names me or links to the review. Andreadis’s justification for this is that: “I didn’t name names because I’m discussing general trends.” This is such transparent bullshit that it is hard to know how to respond. Suffice to say, I am unsure what possible general trend about Strange Horizons one could derive from a single review on my blog. Rather, I suspect the real reason for not name names is that actual evidence would undo her argument. With that in mind I am going to go through each paragraph line by line and respond to Andreadis:
I caught a whiff of the embedded assumptions that surface when these self-proclaimed progressives relax,
I don’t think I’ve ever proclaimed myself a progressive. Indeed, I’d consider it a primarily American identification so why would I? As for “relaxing”, I find the idea of writing a blog post as well earned breather from toiling in the SH salt mines hilarious. And you never get round to saying what the “embedded assumptions” actually are.
safe from prying eyes.
That’s right, safe from prying eyes on the bloody internet. On a blog linked from my SH bio, no less.
One of them recently reviewed a story on his site and characterized its protagonist by the term “cunt”.
Well, a novel but yes. However, whilst this sentence is factually accurate, I am amazed you would devote two paragraphs to attacking me without naming me or providing a link to the actual words that you are paraphrasing. Doing so also elides the sex of the protagonist which is surely of relevance here. I also fail to see any direct – or, to be honest, indirect – connection to Strange Horizons.
He used the word repeatedly, as a synonym for “empathy-lacking sociopath”.
Why are you using quote marks here when I didn’t say that? In fact, I don’t use it as a synonym, rather that is your characterisation.
Having accidentally read the entry,
WTF? I am truly fascinated to hear how you managed this.
I remarked that, feminism bona fides aside,
I still have no idea what this actually means.
the term doesn’t ring friendly to female ears
You can tell me it does ring friendly to your ears, you don’t get to speak on behalf of every woman in every country. There is a well known and long established difference between the reception of the word cunt in America and other Anglophone countries. In your comments to my review, you claimed to accept this.
and even the canon definition of the term (“extremely unpleasant person, object or experience”) is not equivalent to psychopath.
Again, this characterisation of equivalence is your’s, not mine. Also I’m not sure why I have to accept your definition of the word cunt but, as it happens, that is exactly how I am using it.
Perhaps not so incidentally, I was the only woman on the discussion thread.
Apart from the second commenter, Nic Clarke, who says “I came to much the same conclusion”. (The fact Nic agrees with me doesn’t mean I am right but it does mean you are factually wrong.)
The reviewer’s first response was that only Amurrican barbarians “misunderstand” the term.
Again, why are you using quote marks here when I said no such thing? Nor did I suggest any of the things outside the quote marks. I merely suggested that this is only an issue for Americans.
I replied (in part) that I’m not American,
It is true you are not American, you just live in America and speak American. I think I can be forgiven on this point since I was clearly correctly that this is the reason it was an issue for you.
and presumably he wishes to be read by people beyond Britain and its ex-colonies.
Here is where you realise that your attempt to impose American cultural assumptions on me is not going to have any traction so you instead have the massive presumption to lecture me about who I am writing for. It should have been obvious by this point that I certainly wasn’t writing for you and I had zero interest in who you thought I should write for or, indeed, what I should write.
At that point he essentially told me to fuck off.
His friends, several of them SH reviewers or editors, fell all over themselves to show they aren’t PC killjoys.
Here is where you finally try to tie an old, irrelevant fight you had into a new argument about SH. There were three further responses: one from Jonathan McCalmont (reviewer for SH) agreeing with me, one from Patrick Hudson (no connection to SH) disagreeing with me and one from Niall Harrison (editor for SH) linking to a feminist discussion of the word cunt.
They informed me that US cultural hegemony is finally over (if only),
Jonathan, in fact, said the opposite.
that “cunt” is often used as an endearment (in which case his review was a paean?)
Patrick did note this in passing but it was hardly his main point nor was it made in relation to the review.
and that women themselves have reclaimed the term (that makes it copacetic then!)
Niall presented the link without comment, presumably because he thought this fact was relevant to the discussion. Since you make the blanket declaration above that “the term doesn’t ring friendly to female ears” I would suggest he was right. As for the word copacetic, unless you want only Americans to read this as intended, you may think about word choice.
You seem to have wanted the conversation to be entirely on your terms. It didn’t go. Being unable to continue the conversation on somebody else’s terms you decided to pointlessly get the last word by saying: “Heh heh. Love it when the boyz get feisty.” The fact you didn’t get your way – and perhaps the fact I generally haven’t engaged with your heavy-handed comments on my blog – has obviously festered. However, our discussion about the word cunt in the margins to a review on my blog has nothing to do with a discussion about the supposed increasing “tunnel-vision” of Strange Horizons.
Cadigan was a core part of the cyberpunk movement and is the only woman in the Mirrorshades anthology. She was also the first person to win the Arthur C Clarke Award twice. However, both these novels – Synners (1992) and Fools (1995) – are out of print and, as far as I know, hasn’t published anything in the last ten years apart from novelisations for shit films. I know Cadigan is still active in fandom but did she just decide to stop writing or was it a market imposed decision?
Anyway, ‘Rock On’ is something of a prelude to Synners and that is its downfall. I love the delirous tone but it is just too scant; there is space to evoke a time and a place and a state of mind but nothing further.
Like most people these days, when I come across an unfamiliar name I Google it. Tom Maddox is notable enough to have a Wikipedia page but the last notable thing he did in terms of science fiction was co-write a couple of episodes of The X-Files with William Gibson.
If Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ is a dream of the past’s future, ‘Snakes-Eyes’ the past’s dream of the future. I take Marco’s point that the signature tropes of cyberpunk have only been agreed retrospectively but just five years after Gibson’s story they were already clearly pretty codified.
George Jordan is an ex-pilot being driven slowly crazy by the technology the USAF have implanted in his head. Finding no support from government, he turns to a shady corporation (who have their headquarters in orbit, natch). I’m sure the combat veteran with tech in his head pre-dates cyberpunk and it remains extremely popular – for example, Gavin Smith actually published a book called Veteran last year – but I certainly associate it with cyberpunk. All the set dressing you might anticipate is here: that floating corporate castle; an inscrutable AI (encased in a five metre sphere “filled with inert liquid fluorocarbon”); technology as double-edged sword leading to a lack of bodily integrity; at the same time, a fetishisation of that technology (Jordan flew a “black fiber-bodied General Dynamics A-230″).
It is there in the characters too. The first major character Jordan meets is “lying back in a chrome and brown leatherette chair”:
“He was a thin figure in a worn gray obi, his black hair pulled back from sharp features into a waist-length ponytail, his face taut and a little wild-eyed.”
Japanese fashion and an amphetamine aesthetic – cyberpunk to the bone. The first woman he meets is an Eighties femme fatale: black skirt, red stocking, tattoo on her breast, tongue down his throat. For me, the story was never able to overcome this list of images and influences though. Jordan’s central dilemma, the battle for his soul, doesn’t manage to stand out from the brightly coloured building blocks of the consensual cyberpunk future.
But this story led the way. It was a cooly accurate perception of the wrongheaded elements of the past – and a clarion call for a new SF estethtic of the Eighties.
That from the Sterling’s brief introduction to ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ which also notes that it is Gibson’s first professional publication. This is surprising not just for its immediate quality and Gibson’s already distinctive sensibility but because it much more closely resembles his current work, rather than what I think of when I think of his early cyberpunk period. It is set in the present (which is to say the Eighties), can be read as entirely mimetic and features none of the trappings we would usually associate with cyberpunk. Gibson may have become stylistically more oblique but the protagonist of this story wouldn’t seem out of place in Pattern Recognition:
I’d gone over to shoot a series of shoe ads; California girls with tanned legs and frisky Day-Glo jogging shoes had capered for me down the escalators of St. John’s Wood and across the platforms of Tooting Bec.
The photographer is commissioned to gather images for a coffee table book of “American Streamlined Moderne”, real world examples of the sort of architecture Paul R Frank drew for Hugo Gernsback. Gradually this never was world of fluted chrome and aluminium starts to impinge on his reality.
In terms of linking the story to anything Sterling identifies in his preface, that internationality is there from the beginning but otherwise it is hard to spot the nascent germ of cyberpunk. Rather this seems like an instinctively Ballardian story, albeit seen through the lens of a fresh generation. It is all there: architecture, 20th Century American history, invisible literature, commodity fetishism, alienation. As I said though, Gibson’s own sensibility shines through. To start with, he is a rather more open writer (although this has changed as his career has progress); a Ballard protagonist would never come out and refer to “my little bundle of condensed catastrophe”. There is more to it than that though. A line like “really bad media can exorcise your semiotic ghosts” makes you sit up and take notice. It is distinctly Ballardian but already distinctly Gibsonian. Really quite wonderful.
Today I saw someone on the internet say that 90% of everything is crud. Now, I have complained about Sturgeon’s Revelation before. It is, in a word, balls. I know, I know, someone is wrong on the internet, so what? But the thoughtlessness of the statement still offends me and its persistence depresses me.
Then I remembered that I love evidence. I could, in fact, test Sturgeon’s Revelation against the 54 novels submitted for the 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award, a selection of novels that we’ve agreed form a pretty good proxy for British science fiction as a whole. So, was 90% of everything crud?
Taking a liberal approach to the word “crud”, you could perhaps claim that 72% of science fiction published in Britain in 2010 was crud. So now we can obviously extrapolate from this that 72% of everything is crud. I call this Lewis’s Revelation. But wait! What if I asked one of my fellow judges to provide their own percentages? Or I repeated this exercise again for the 2012 Arthur C Clarke Award? Or I took it upon myself to read every science fiction novel published in the US in 2010? Or every thriller? Wouldn’t the percentages change? Why, it is almost as if Lewis’s Revelation is meaningless. Funny that.
Predictably Bruce Sterling opens his preface to Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology by gesturing towards the obnoxious nature of labels but he quickly acknowledges: “it’s possible to make broad statements about cyberpunk and to establish its identifying traits.” He then provides a historical, cultural and literary contextualisation for cyberpunk. For a subgenre often seen as revolutionary today, it is interesting for the contemporary reader to see it described in evolutionary terms. Sterling describes the cyberpunks as being “steeped in the lore and tradition of the SF field”. For example, here is his list of andecedent authors who were major influences: Ellison, Delaney, Spinrad, Moorcock, Aldiss, Ballard, Wells, Niven, Anderson, Heinlein, Farmer, Varley, Dick, Bester and Pynchon. That is as broad a church as you could wish for. It certainly doesn’t adhere to one specific stylistic or political persuasion.
From talking about the evolution of the movement – sorry, Movement – Sterling moves on to dicussing cyberpunk as a product of the decade. Here he suggests that, in fact, it is a revolutionary subgenre because the Eighties are a revolutionary period, specifically name-checking Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave which heralds the dawn of the information age. This is all just a bit too Eighties for me. It is interesting stuff but with a bit of distant it doesn’t necessarily seem like such a paradigm shift. It’s not that it is dated – although Sterling’s futuristic technology (“the Sony Walkman, the portable telephone, the soft contact lens”) raises a smile – rather than that it isn’t Now. Sterling’s preface is an insiders snapshot, extremely valuable for that reason but a bit too close to the action.
That passion whets the appetite for the anthology though. Let’s get onto the book itself; helpfully, Sterling clearly sets out his aims:
I hope to present a full overview of the cyberpunk movement, including its early rumblings and the current state of the art. Mirrorshades should give readers new to Movement writing a broad introduction to cyberpunk’s tenets, themes, and topics. To my mind, these are showcase stories: strong, characteristic examples of each writer’s work to date.
So that is what I will be measuring it on.
The Gollancz SF Masterworks is usually pretty predictable. Often this is a good thing: you would expect masterworks to be well known and a surprising number of classics have been out of print until Gollancz brought them back. At other times, it is less of a good thing. I am a huge admirer of Philip K Dick but when you see his umpteenth minor work being badged as a masterwork you do think Gollancz could cast their net a bit wider. So I was excited by the announcement of the addition of Arslan, a debut novel from 1976 by an author I’d never heard of previously, to the list. On starting to actually read the novel, however, my excitement curdled.
This edition is copyrighted 2010 so presumably Engh has revised it and it also has a new introduction from Adam Roberts (who, along with Graham Sleight, is writing introductions for all the new Masterworks). In his introduction, Roberts cautions that this is not the most plausible work of science fiction. So it proves.
General Arslan, a twenty six year old soldier from the imaginary country of Turkistan, has conquered the world. China and Russia are in his hands and, as the novel starts, the US government has bloodlessly capitulated to him and turn the country over to his control. This happens with such rapidity that most Americans have never heard of him until he suddenly becomes their commander in chief. So you can sympathise with the reaction of Franklin Bond, the high school principal who is our main narrator, on coming face to face with Arslan:
“I stared at him, amazed as much as disgusted. It was incredible that that a two-bit warlord from nowhere, infected with some out-moded Middle Eastern strain of agrarian socialism, could be kinging it over my town – let alone my whole country.” (p.27)
The reader is likely to share this amazement. Nor is this the end of such amazingly unlikely developments: Arslan travels at the head of his army (why?); he stops in the small town of Kraftville (why?); he commandeers Bond’s school as his base (why?). None of this makes any sense so when Arslan makes Kraftville the de facto capital of his empire (and by extension the world) the reader simply has to take this in their stride.
It is not until page 170 that we have an explanation for Arslan’s meteoric rise to world domination. Unfortunately this explanation takes the form of some guff about a magical Russian missile defence system and Arslan holding a gun to the head of the General Secretary of the Communist Party. As Roberts notes, “not even the most naïve political theorist would believe global realpolitik works that way.” (p.ix) However, he then goes on to say: “The point of all this, though, is not to negate the novel’s plausibility; it is to move it, forceably, to a different arena” (p.ix)
(In this context, it might be worth refering to Rich Puchalsky’s recent piece on Roberts’s own fiction: “The Ideal Author of his books, to revert to how they appear to me to be written, is not someone who wants to write a seamless set-up, believable characters, and realistic plots.” This is a response to a piece by Paul Kincaid which identifies Roberts as a Menippean Satirist. Both are well worth reading.)
I am not convinced that plausibility is so motile. I agree with Roberts that depicting a realistic global revolution is clearly not the point of Engh’s novel but is that enough to allow her to simply dismiss it out of hand? Again, I am not convinced. And if this is not her point, what is? Initially it seems that with Arslan Engh is seeking to give this evocation America a taste of its own medicine by turning its own imperialism back on itself. Or perhaps she is reaching further back; Engh has an interest in Roman history and death of America may be intended as a modern version of decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Both of these are points Arslan makes himself:
“More than a hundred years without war. A strange way of life.”
“What do you mean, without war? My God, we’ve-“
“You have made war, you have not suffered it! Your nation, sir, has been perhaps the happiest to exist in the world. And yet consider its history. The natives despoiled, displaced, cheated, brutalized, slaughtered. The most massive system of slavery since the fall of Rome… The upheaval, the upswelling, of savagery, of violence. Not revolution, sir, for revolution requires coherence. Not eighteenth-century France, but fifth-century Rome… Grotesque, sir, this combination of a primitive puritanism and a frantic decadence; very like the Romans whom you so resemble.” (p.80-1)
In fact, the whole of Chapter 7 is given over to such bluster as Arslan explains his worldview. Ultimately, Engh has little interest in the big picture though; Arslan shows no more interest in political philosophy or geopolitics than realpolitik. Bond tells Arslan that: ”Your little Turkistani wolf pack looks pretty small in the middle of the United States of America, General.” (p.25) He is wrong. It is the United States of America that looks pretty small. In fact, it is nonexistent; Engh has reduced the United States down to a single town. There is no sign of the army or the government and everything functions solely at the county level. Kraftville might as well be an island. What Engh is really interested in – and where she has some success – is people. If America is collapsed down to Kraftville then Kraftville is collapsed down to two individuals, defined by their relationship with Arslan. To discuss these two we must first overcome another stumbling block for the reader though.
On his arrival in Kraftville, Arslan gathers everyone together in the high school, has them bound and gagged and then matter-of-factly rapes two children – a girl and a boy – on the stage in front of them. Faced with an opening that defies reason and ends with such a blatant act of authorial provocation many readers would be tempted to close to book. This was certainly Abigail Nussbaum’s response the first time she read the book. On his blog Roberts commented: “It is worth persevering with. There’s nothing schlocky or cheaply exploitative about it.” She did persevere and I’m very glad she because she has written a wonderful review of the novel. But whilst what Roberts says is true, I’m not sure it is enough.
The majority of the novel is narrated by Bond. He is there from the beginning and the soldiers are billeted around town he finds Arslan under his roof. An honest American – bluff, hollow and provincial – he is set up in opposition to Arslan. The devil gets all the best lines though. Bond has no internal intellectual or emotional life, only a set of morals; he is less a character in his own right than a mirror for others.
No, if it is a book worth persevering with it is because of the second narrator, Hunt Morgan. Hunt is one of the two children raped at the start of the novel (the other, the girl, is never seen from again; see Nussbaum’s review for much more on this absence).
After the rape he is claimed by Arslan as a sort of catamite. Towards the end of the novel, Hunt muses that this period “- if, of course, I could only have known it – had been our honeymoon.” (p.293) This tells you a lot about what you need to know about Arslan; as both Roberts and Nussbaum suggest, “first the rape then the seduction” (p.269) can be taken as the novel’s queasy mantra. What starts as an obvious act of abuse, by an adult of a child, becomes something more complex: “Measuredly, by a gentle graduation of brutal degrees, I was being weaned away from slavery.” (p.176) Here is Nussbaum:
Hunt’s narrative is a brilliant, disturbing, heartrendingly raw description of a rape victim seduced by their rapist. Rejected by his friends and family both for being a rape victim and for accepting the gifts and protection of the only friend he has left, Hunt is confused by feelings of self-loathing and guilt into accepting and eventually returning the love of the man who violated him–because his is the only love on offer. Both Hunt and the supposedly good people around him take it for granted that having been raped makes him ineligible for the love of a better person, and so Hunt clings to the only form of affection still left to him.
The sympathetic depiction of the relationship between an abuser and their victim is always going to be difficult territory but Engh acquits herself well. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have some concerns though. In the comments to Nussbaum’s post, Athena Andreadis says:
Many writers adopt the shorthand that a tyrant is particularly abhorrent if he rapes boys — girls and women, after all, “should” expect to be raped routinely in such circumstances. Another common shorthand is the amoral bisexual charismatic trickster who wields sex as one of his weapons and to whom all yield as if bewitched
Although Andreadis hasn’t read the novel and this characterisation doesn’t completely match the truth, there is certainly an element of it. The portrayal of Hunt is presumably intended to subvert our expectations but the relationship developed in much the way I predicted. Indeed, if it had not then there wouldn’t have been any novel. Partially this is because I did not read the book in a vacuum but I think it is also that the book simply taps into a different set of clichés. Hunt’s narrative remains, however, the most intelligent and subtle part of the novel.
Unfortunately we then move back to Bond. With Hunt we can forget (if not forgive) the stupidity of plot, with Bond it is once again brought centre stage. Arslan has fought his fairytale army (which seems to consist of a couple of dozen soldiers) up and down the Americas only to find himself the victim of coup. Given his unfathomable management style the only surprise is that this hadn’t happened previously. Where does he return to seek sanctuary? Why Kraftville, of course. For some reason he envisions a warm reception and this is not far from what he gets. Bond, now mayor of the town and superintendent of the county, welcomes him back into his home and then allows him to once more turn the school into a fort. He justifies this thus:
”Well, the thing is this, Leland. Arslan hasn’t committed any crimes as a private citizen, and we don’t have the authority to try him for war crimes. And even if we did, what good would it do? From here on in, he is a private citizen, and nothing more than a private citizen. He’s entitled to the same rights as anybody else.” (p.271)
Just to recap, Arslan marked his arrived arrival by raping two children and then exported the attractive school girls to work as comfort women in rape camps whilst importing schoolgirls from elsewhere to perform the same function for his men in Kraftville. He also keeps Hunt and a female teacher as sex slaves and then, when he bored of them, sets out to rape his way through the remaining female population of the town:
He wasn’t interested in the esthetic niceties of rape any more, he took whatever the daily dragnet brought him. One of the lieutenants was in charge of picking up a new girl every day and getting rid of the used one. (p.132)
All this is without getting into the routine tyranny, the confiscated assets, the imposed curfew, the summary justice, the executions. History suggests that Arslan would soon find himself strung from the nearest lamppost. Bond would probably find himself up there with him since despite the fact he is notionally the head of the resistance, he more closely resembles a collaborator. The resistance itself doesn’t actually do anything, a fact Bond seems proud of, and its only act of insurrection is planting flowers on the graves of executed townsfolk. Whilst I am sick of so much science fiction and fantasy trading in cheap fantasies of agency the lack of any such agency here is simply fanciful.
Luckily Hunt has the last word. The final chapter sees him hunting a deer, a stag of exemplary maleness:
I counted four points; adding a conservative two for concealed branches, and doubling for the other antler, I could assume a twelve-point buck – old and wise and in all probability master of a considerable harem. (p.290)
In framing the stag in such terms, Engh cannot help but evoke Arslan. The heightened state in which Hunt pursues the deer then recalls his relationship with Arslan as well, complete with moral qualms: “In the end, I could not take him unawares.” (p.297) In eventually slaying the stag – on his own terms and with Arslan’s own gun – Hunt finally kills him, albeit by proxy. Yet as the novel ends we inevitably find Hunt leaving Kraftville to follow Arslan, pursuing him with both love and hate. The whole chapter is infused with such ambiguous intensity that you can almost believe that yes, Arslan was worth persevering with.
But not quite. The portrait of Hunt remains a bright jewel in the tarnished setting of a bad and boring book. Nussbaum concludes her review by wondering if she is simply the wrong target audience. By which she means she is a woman:
To see a male character get raped is an assault on the male reader that a woman’s rape wouldn’t have been, and for the seduction part of the novel to get under that same reader’s skin by confounding all expectations that Hunt will rebel against Arslan and avenge his violation, the object of the seduction must also be a man. The problem with this tactic is that it is aimed exclusively at men. Just as Arslan scarcely bothers to seduce the women he rapes and saves his attentions for Hunt (and just as his seduction of Kraftsville is focused on its young boys, to whom he becomes a mentor), Arslan the novel is only interested in seducing its male readers. The problem with the novel turns out to be its lack of interest, not in its female characters, but in its female readers. We don’t get seduced. The opening rape scene is as much an assault on us as it is on male readers, but the rest of the novel ignores us.
Was I seduced by the novel? No. The opening was not an assault on me, it inspired only indifference and contempt with its ridiculous and manipulative premise. Correspondingly the seduction I required was something other than that I received; the masculinity of Arslan is as alienating to me as it is to Nussbaum. As she says: “If I have ever in my life read a novel that is so dismissive of women’s character, personhood, and agency as this one, I am struggling to recall it.” This is not a book I want to read. If this is a seduction aimed exclusively at men, I wonder what type of men they are.
Satan Burger, Razor Wire Pubic Hair, The Menstruating Mall, Ape Shit, The Haunted Vagina, Sausagey Santa (“featuring Santa as a piratey mutant with a body made of sausages”), Adolf In Wonderland, Ultra Fuckers and The Faggiest Vampire: A Children’s Story are just some of the novels of Carlton Mellick III, one of the most prolific writer of bizarro fiction. Absurd, surreal, offensive and deliberately confrontational, those titles give you a pretty good idea of what this form of outsider literature is like. Whether you view them as being indicative of a gleeful gonzo anarchy or merely a juvenile sense of transgression is another question.
I started my induction into the world of bizarro with Rampaging Fuckers Of Everything On The Crazy Shitting Planet Of The Vomit Atmosphere! by Mykle Hansen. It is subtitled “three novels” but, at only 215 pages, these are novellas at best. The first of these is ‘Monster Cocks’, a sort-of-satire about the end of the world featuring Jack Stalker, your average American Everyman with a micropenis. Jack has a foolproof plan though: ask strangers on the internet for penis enlargement advice. After all, as Hansen puts it in typically deadpan style, “I’ve seen pictures of their dicks so I know I can trust them.” Initially, it seems he is right to trust them because soon he has the monster cock he’s always dreamed of. He names his new penis Lassie. Unfortunately, Lassie gets out of control:
“That really excellent and pressing question – what to do, exactly, with my seven-foot-long bloodthirsty pet anaconda cock-monster, who had ripped free of my crotch and ate the policeman who thinks I murdered the abusive boyfriend of Angela Fine”
Indeed. ‘Monster Cocks’ is actually surprisingly gentle – a “poignant tragedy” it says on the back – but it is hard to escape the thought that, these days, nothing’s shocking. After all, it was only two decades ago in 1991 that Lord Horror by David Britton – proto-bizarro if ever I saw it – was actually banned. Banned! That was the last time a book has been banned under the Obscene Publications Act 1857 and the idea it could be successfully enacted again is pretty much inconceivable. Last year Darryn Walker was prosecuted for publishing online a story in which the members of the pop group Girls Aloud were raped, tortured and murdered in graphic detail. This is extreme stuff but by no means unprecedented for internet fanfic, as his defence counsel said “in terms of its alleged obscenity, it is frankly no better or worse than other articles.” Walker was not convicted.
The genie is out of the bottle. When Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds was banned by WH Smith and John Menzies it meant something, now everything is just a click away. Walker can self-publish his darkest fantasies and anyone in the world can read them, Bizarro Books can happily sell their wares through Amazon. This revolution in production and distribution gives us, the reader, unfettered access to filth but it also allows publishers to print ultra-niche products and still find an audience.
For example, last week I received an email asking me if I would like to review a “multicultural lesbian steampunk anthology. Yes, I said, yes, I would. The anthology – the rather weakly-named Steam-Powered, edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft and published by Torquere Press – was in my inbox the next morning. As is usual for a small press anthology, there aren’t many well-known names on the table of contents are unfamiliar but it does open with a story from NK Jemisin.
The outline of ‘The Effluent Engine’ is entirely familiar – a spy arrives by airship in a foreign city, intent on securing a scientific secret – but the details are not: the spy is from post-revolution Haiti and seeks to acquire the ability to distil methane from the island’s plentiful rum effluent in order to keep its people free from colonial tyranny. Of course, this is Jemisin so romance quickly raises its ugly head in the form of a scientist’s comely (and fiercely intelligent, naturally) sister. Things develop as you would expect.
Are either of these books any good? Well, I read them very much in the spirit of enquiry and, after my first exposure, had no pressing urge to explore further. A little goes a long way with such specialised tastes. But, at a time when the horizons of corporate publishing shrink ever tighter, I’m glad they exist.
- Orgasmachine by Ian Watson (Newcon Press, 2010) – reviewed by Justin Robson
- Shine, edited by Jetse de Vries (Solaris, 2010) – reviewed by Anthony Nanson
- The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi (Gollancz, 2010) – reviewed by Paul Kincaid
- The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Gollancz, 2010) – reviewed by Tony Keen
- The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod (Orbit, 2010) – reviewed by Michael Abbott
- The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross (Orbit, 2010) – reviewed by Martin Potts
- Escape From Hell by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (Tor, 2009) – reviewed by Dave M Roberts
- The Turing Test by Chris Beckett and The Last Reef by Gareth L Powell (Elastic Press, 2008) – reviewed by Dave M Roberts
- The Holy Machine (Corvus, 2010) and Marcher (Cosmos Books, 2008) by Chris Beckett – reviewed by Jim Steel
- Inside/Outside – Chris Beckett interviewed by Paul Graham Raven
- Major Carnage by Gord Zajac (ChiZine Publications, 2010) – reviewed by Shaun Green
- Nexus: Ascension by Robert Boyczuk (ChiZine Pubications, 2010) – reviewed by Graham Andrews
- The Nemesis List by RJ Frith – reviewed by Ben Jeapes
- The Noise Within by Ian Whates (Solaris, 2010) – reviewed by Stuart Carter
- Brave Story and The Book Of Heroes by Miyuke Miyabe (Haikasoru, 2007 and 2009) – reviewed by Cherith Baldry
- WE by John Dickinson (David Fickling Books, 2010) – reviewed by Donna Scott
- I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore (Penguin, 2010) – reviewed by CB Harvey
- Monsters Of Men by Patrick Ness (Walker Books, 2010) – reviewed by Anne F Wilson
- The Iron Hunt, Darkness Calls and A Wild Light by Marjorie M Liu (Orbit, 2008-10) – reviewed by Amanda Rutter
- The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan (Orbit, 2009) – reviewed by Alan Fraser
- Shadow Prowler by Alexey Pehov (Simon & Schuster, 2010) – reviewed by Sandra Unerman
- The Office Of Shadow by Mathew Sturges (Pyr, 2010) – reviewed by AP Canavan
- Lord Of The Changing Winds by Rachel Neumeier (Orbit, 2010) – reviewed by Lynne Bispham