Showing posts from 2012

Ian Sales's The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself

Ian Sales’ second novella in his Apollo Quartet, The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself, will be published in early 2013. The first, Adrift on the Sea of Rains (which I wrote about here) projected an alternative 1970s during which the Apollo program was not discontinued, but was developed to found a moonbase, a research station for the investigation of Nazi ‘wunderwaffe’ (miracle weapons). These ‘wunderwaffe’ include die Glocke, ‘the Bell’. In a short story available as a chapbook or ebook, Sales imagines a pre-history for this wonder-weapon, in which the Nazi scientist Rotwang constructs a cyborgised ‘Maria’ to travel through the portal that the Bell opens in space-time, he presumes to another part of the planet. When the protagonist follows Maria through the portal, he discovers that the Bell is no teleportation device, but a means by which to travel into the far past, or (perhaps) another, parallel world. ‘Wunderwaffe’ is a highly enjoyable mash-up of Metropolis, Nazi myth…

Space is the place (utopia and silence)

Even though, in his 1962 guest editorial-cum-manifesto 'Which Way to Inner Space?' in New Worlds, JG Ballard repudiated a science fiction of 'robot brains and hyper-drives' and instead proposed a fiction which explored 'inner space, not outer', he consistently returned to the figure of the astronaut. In fictions such as 'A Question of Re-entry' (1963) (which posited the arrival of a dead astronaut in the South American jungles as a kind of cargo cult) to the 'fugue time' stories of the late 1970s ('News From the Sun', 'Memories of the Space Age'), where the NASA space programme 'cracks the hour glass of time' and leads to various forms of 'space sickness', the astronaut is a central and symbolic figure, a kind of evolutionary mistake which leads nonetheless to a pathway out of time.
Ballard's refiguration of the NASA programme as a symbol for both human error and human potentiality, while at the same time aban…

Mr Thompson tweets, or Silence part 2

One of the little ironies about writing a blog that not many people in the world will actually read is the possibility of silence (continuing from my last post) is seemingly easily achievable by no longer writing it. This had occurred to me. And it’s a possibility.
But as Derrida points out in his essay ‘How to Avoid Speaking’, the very act of thinking ‘how to avoid speaking’ is itself ‘speaking’, part of language; and ‘how to not speak’ shifts into ‘how not to speak’, that is to say, ‘how to speak’ (properly). In that same essay, in which Derrida writes about negative theology (a field of thought of much concern to my friend and colleague Arthur Bradley, who has explained it to me goodness knows how many times, but is essentially about coming to a conception of the divine by way of what He is not – for instance, God is not ‘good’, for this limits the conception of the divine to reductive human categories), Derrida ascribes the desire for silence to metaphysics, to an unknowable and un…

Pandemonium*, or an infernal cacophony

Here’s something different.  Something personal.  Something spoken. 
Words. Too many words. Too many books. 
I scanned the LRB this week and saw advert after advert for books, published by American University presses, books that may be sold to libraries, books whose print runs maybe in the hundreds, books no-one will read. 
As an academic working in Britain, we are now on the treadmill known as REF, the submission of four items (books, articles) to a panel which judges the quality of your work. [I gave up on speaking and started to type here.] This system requires continuing productivity, churning out articles, books and so on, without rest, without thought, without pause, without silence.
There is only the ongoing clamour of voices, all wanting to say something, all wanting to be heard.
Often the journals in which articles are published are hidden behind paywalls that only those with the economic power of the institutional subscription gives them access to, or the books are pub…

The Shining

To be honest, I was never much of a fan of Kubrick’s film of The Shining. But then, I was a fan of the book. I’d scared the pants off myself reading it at night when I was 13 or 14, and had become a big King fan, getting all of his books from the local branch library (the ones my Mum hadn’t dropped in the bath, blowing them up from hamburger to quarterpounder size). I was a teenage fan of horror films, like many, and my folks kindly let me see mainstream horror films from the video store (pre-Blockbusters). This was the era of the video nasty, but with no elder brothers, and little real inclination, I didn’t see the mother-lode of banned horror until much later. A taste for a certain kind of horror fiction ran in the family: my Mum, as I’ve said, was also a reader of King, and my Nan, usually a reader of Catherine Cookson sagas, extolled the virtues of Carpenter’s Halloween to me after she’d watched it on late-night tv. My Dad was no fan of the genre, preferring Westerns (which I als…

Moorcock's Mars

In the 1960s and 1970s, alongside the experimental, non-linear Jerry Cornelius texts, Michael Moorcock also wrote heroic fantasy in the popular Elric books, as well as a sequence of novels that re-wrote or pastiched classic British fiction, including the Nomads of the Time Streams trilogy (1971-80) that re-worked Wellsian scientific romance, and the Dancers At The End Of Time sequence (1974-6) that took fin-de-si├Ęcle literature as a starting point.  The first of these sequences, published between 1965-7, pastiched the planetary romances of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’ve been reading these for another project and enjoyed them, despite my lack of appetite for fantasy.
Both the Nomads trilogy and the ERB pastiches have frame-narratives. In The first of the ‘Kane of Old Mars’ books, City of the Beast, the frame-narrator stumbles upon Kane at a cafe on the French Riviera. After introducing himself, the narrator listens to Kane’s adventures, whereupon he disappears from the novel until the end…

Romancing the Telescope with the Heroes of Science

The other day, Terry Gilliam posted a photo on facebook with the caption: 'This is Nicola Tesla, one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known ... and you probably have never heard of him. Without him we wouldn't have AC electricity or the radio. I wouldn't be communicating with you know if it wasn't for him'. Actually, since the film of Christopher Priest's The Prestige, 'you' might very well have heard of Nikola Tesla. He has become a kind of science-hero who is seen to be a neglected genius: see this page from The Oatmeal, for instance. This BBC page even calls him 'the patron saint of geeks': some title, that. And Tesla even has a Wikipedia page that catalogues his appearance in popular culture, mainly in sf. (The title of this piece is lifted from OMD's 'Romance of the Telescope', which featured on their 1983 lp Dazzle Ships; a single the following year was called 'Tesla Girls'.)

The Oatmeal's line on Tesla…


I've been struggling for a while to piece together quite how some of my interests in certain forms of science fiction and the fantastic in general can fit into an overall project (I realise I've been concerned with androids and transmissions for a while too, but these are kind of coalescing). In particular, the kind of stuff I've been interested in is: time, Wells's The Time Machine, Borges, Roussel, literary experiments, science, bicycles, clocks. I'm still trying to figure out what to do with this stuff, but a week or two ago I went with wife Deniz and daughter Isobel to the Ruthin Craft Centre where they had an exhibition of the jewellery and other works by Wendy Ramshaw. Ramshaw began in the 1960s by making Op-Art and paper jewellery, but has since developed into a wide range of materials and pieces, from 'ringsets' mounted on extraordinary steampunk-ish holders, to the large frames and gates such as the one shown above in the V&A in London. Her to…

Aliens: the pods that failed

I tried. I really did. I tried to like Aliens, James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, and watched it again when it was on tv this week, to give it another chance. Because it’s always felt like a much lesser film than Alien to me. I know some folk like it, prefer it to the first film even. But for me, where Alien wields the scalpel, Aliens wields the bludgeon. Where Alien is about interiors, tension, horror, Aliens is about spectacle, action, excitement. Alien is sharp, economical, surprising, and quite British; Aliens is forceful, long, unwinds to a fairly predictable conclusion, and is Hollywood spectacle sf.
That’s not to say that I don’t find things to admire in Cameron’s film. I like the audacity of hiding the aliens away for almost 90 minutes. The last hour is gripping, well-paced, and has some iconic scenes, particularly Ripley’s fight against the Queen. But the bad guy, company man Burke, is cartoonish in his yuppie malevolence; the Marines are straight out of central casting (weak, inex…

The Virginity of Androids, part 3: final thoughts

In this last post on Prometheus, I am going to concentrate more directly on the mythic or religious implications of the film, in particular the issue of Creation and the condition of innocence.
As I noted in part 2, one of the most ham-handed scenes in the film is where Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), in emotional discussion with her partner Holloway, reveals that ‘I can’t create’, breaking down in tears; reproduction as ‘creation’ of life leaves a kind of spiritual barrenness, the motivation perhaps behind the overt displays of faith (the crucifix she wears around her neck, for instance). Another way to read David’s experimental infection of Holloway with the alien DNA is to do something that he also cannot do, which is to create life (Shaw and David are paired throughout the film); not only is the android not a womb, the android is also barren: neither a mother nor a father can it be.  
The connection between Creation and space fiction is a very long one of course, and it is a signal…

The Virginity of Androids, part 2

There’s a Starman waiting in the sky/ He’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds
Before I turn to Prometheus, a quick word about the androids in the other Alien films. The excellent Lance Henriksen plays Bishop in James Cameron’s noisy Aliens (1986), and was seen at the time as a revision of the android figure, almost an apology for Ash. Ripley is deeply suspicious of Bishop throughout Aliens, but he is ultimately revealed to be a redemptive and heroic figure. In the ‘knife trick’ scene, Henriksen puts his hand over that of the ‘grunt’ Hudson and whirrs a combat knife between their fingers: ‘trust me’, he says to Hudson. During the course of the film, Ripley does indeed come to trust Bishop, though she is antagonistic for much of the film, and on first realising Bishop is an ‘artificial person’ (his preferred term) had threatened him and told him to stay away from her. That Bishop insists upon self-definition, not as robot but as ‘artificial person’, indicates …