"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" - O.W.

Current Study

Recently Completed Study:
Ph.D thesis: "Mapping Planet Auschwitz: The Non-Mimetic in Anglo-American Fiction of the Holocaust"

Current Sub-Studies

Areas of Interest:
> Non-mimetic depictions of trauma
> literature, trauma, and ethics
> Science Fiction and Alternate History
> 20th and 21st century literature
> Comics
> Paratexts

30 September 2010

Stories from The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories #3

Here's a few quick thoughts on the next few stories in this, so far, very enjoyable collection:

"Dispatches from the Revolution" by Pat Cadigan, pp.152-172.

A very powerful story which, as the title suggests, is set out in the style of dispatches, letters and fragments of interviews, largely by dissidents telling the history of the military regime which now rules the USA. This situation comes about as a result of the troubles of America's 1960s (The Civil Rights movements, student protests, JFK's assassination) not being resolved and instead developing into violence and terrorism, ultimately causing a bomb to kill the majority of potential democrat candidates for the Presidential election and the army to take control of the reigns of state as a result. Evocative language and chilling descriptions of riots and riot police gone out of control are illustrated in my minds eye by images of May Day riots and the Miner's Strike of the 1980s. Cadigan makes effective use of multiple story tellers and perspectives, difficult in so small a space, whilst still forming a coherent narrative which depicts America's slide into chaos and the implications for the wider global community.

"Catch that Zeppelin!" by Fritz Leiber, pp.173-194.

Considered a classic of Alternate History short stories, the twist for Leiber's story is somewhat lessened once you realise the cover art to the collection is based on this particular tale. Any man with a mustache and that particular parting, in an Alternate History setting immediately makes us think of Adolf Hitler, so entrenched is the alternate-World War II (one of the reasons for making it the core of my thesis study). Leiber suggests a world in which the First World War goes on for an extra two years, until 1920, a world in which Marie Curie and Thomas Edison marry and produce a genius child Thomas Sklodowska Edison, and a world in which the Second World War never happens thanks to the generous manner in which the defeated Central Powers, particularly Germany, are dealt with. It is a world of huge Helium zeppelins, electric cars, and seeming prosperity. The alternate Hitler works for DLG - the German airship company - and retains his passion for all things German, but is mellowed by his country's circumstances. He is even accepting of Jews. This Hitler is, however unhinged in time, and it is thrown from one world to another (ours) allowing more direct comparisons between a world of peace and a world at war, between electric and gasoline, success and tragedy. Leiber's contrast between the two Hitlers, both industrious and proud but one constructive whilst the other is destructive, is notable for is deviance from the normal trope of "Hitler as the epitome of evil". It is not, however alone in this portrayal.

"A Very British History" by Paul McAuley, pp.95-203.

Fritz Leiber's "Catch that Zeppelin!" features a historian who studies "cusps" in history - potential turning points where things could have gone very differently, it is through these cusps that our history is contrasted with the history of the story. McAuley's "A Very British History" features a similar figure. In this instance the historian, Professor Sir William [Bill] Coxton, has written a history of the Space Race which reveals that in this world the UK was a third player alongside the USA and USSR. Thanks to captured rockets and scientists at the end of the Second World War, the UK was able to conduct experiments in rocketry in Australia and put the first men on the moon. The space aspects of this story appeal to my science fiction fan nature, particularly because the resulting impact on history is that space technology is far more advanced than is the case in our own world.

"The Imitation Game" by Rudy Rucker, pp.204-214.

This story suggests an alternate fate for the cruelly treated Alan Turing. It occupies a kind of literary grey-area between Alternate History and conspiracy theory or "secret history". Rucker's story doesn't actually "alter" history and so can it still be called an Alternate History? As far as history records Turing would still have died in the manner in which he did, the fact he staged it and escaped to live in Europe after an attempted assassination by MI5 wouldn't make it into the records. It could even be the case! It's still an interesting story, Turing is a fascinating figure who was terribly abused by the state despite all he did for King/Queen and country, I can't decide if it really belongs here or not though...

"Weihnachtsabend" by Keith Roberts, pp.215-152.

This short story, by the author of Pavane, is clearly massively influenced by George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and by Sarban's The Sound of His Horn. The story is another Second World War alternative, this time a coup in the UK has created a fascist state which rules alongside the Third Reich as the "Two Empires". The protagonist Mainwaring (and I'm sorry but that makes me picture Arthur Lowe) is confronted with a seditionist text and secretly observed to see if he reads it and betrays the state or not. This scene summons up images of Winston and Julia reading from Goldstein's book in Orwell's novel, whilst images of a hunt midway through the story revel in the monstrosity of the act and invite comparison with the human hunts in Sarban's classic Nazi Alternate History. As with the short stories which form Pavane

27 September 2010

Stories from The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories #2

Having spent the weekend driving up to Ingleton in the Yorkshire Dales and walking in beautiful weather, I've made less progress with the stories in this volume than I'd like. Here are my quick thoughts about the next three along:

"A Letter From The Pope" by Harry Harrison and Tom Shippey, pp.91-118.

Interestingly, this story begins with a two page historical account telling the true story of Alfred the Great and his wars against the Vikings invading Britain from the North, only after we've been made familiar with how it really went does the fiction begin. Reading on, the reason for this becomes clear: for a start it's dealing with what is, relatively speaking, a less well-known time in history, an area less well explored in popular culture than Roman Britain, the Tudors, or the sinking of the Titanic. Secondly, the changes in this story are relatively subtle (but no less potentially world-changing) and could be missed by anyone whose familiarity with Alfred doesn't extend beyond a vague notion of burning some cakes. Indeed, the plot of this story doesn't extend far beyond the change itself, only flirting with the consequences in the final page. Such stories would make for interesting comparisons with their brethren set many years after the point of divergence, POD, or Jonbar Hinge - whatever your chosen terminology.

"Such A Deal" by Esther M. Friesner, pp.119-137.

Columbus, failing to secure patronage from Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain receives it instead from a wealthy Jewish trader living in Moorish Granada. The Jew, Hisdai ibn Ezra, hopes to discover a route his people could take to get to East Asia and establish a new homeland, 'there to live unmolested by the periodic excesses of zeal that afflict [their] Christian neighbours' (p.126). I found the story to be relatively weak compared to the greatly enjoyable yarns which preceded it. I could accept the concept of Columbus taking up patronage in this manner, though I think he'd try the other royal kingdoms of Europe before accepting the finite funds of a business man, but I find it a stretch to imagine them encountering Aztecs who then mistake Hisdai ibn Ezra for Quetzalcoatl the creator God and led by Montezuma that they would travel back to Iberia and be capable of lifting the Castillian siege of Granada, more likely the Jaguar warriors would be sea-sick, inflicted with Smallpox and other European diseases. Nonetheless, it is still an interesting and imaginative story, if falling slightly short of the high standard set in the previous tales.

"Ink From The New Moon" by A. A. Attanasco, pp. 138-151.

Columbus features in this story also. The plot follows a Chinese official and is addressed to his dead wife. It tells of the Buddhist discovery of America and the establishment of the United Sandalwood Autocracies in the shadow of the great Chinese Empire. The official travels from the tamed west coast to the wild east and south to the Caribbean islands. There he encounters big-nosed adventurers from across the stormy sea led by a man called Christ-bearer. On the whole the story is an entertaining parody of the United States, describing a democratic system similar to that which exists but painted from the palette of Chinese and Buddhist history instead of European. It suggests the dilemma Columbus would have faced if the Chinese had already colonised America before he had even set sail, and the implications this would have for history as we know it. Potentially this story is just as far fetched as "Such a Deal" but the delivery is so well executed, the tone just right for the narrator, that Attanasco pulls it off, crafting a world which is strongly depicted and lacks the doubts and jars its predecessor in the collection inspires.

23 September 2010

Stories from The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories #1

Maybe I've not done as much work as I could have done over the last few days but then I don't make it back home as often as I'd like to. As it is, I've started The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories edited by Ian Watson and Ian Whates. Here's a quick collection of thoughts, largely off the cuff, about the first few stories that I've read so far:

"The Raft of the Titanic" by James Morrow, pp. 1-29.

A peculiar story to start the collection with, Morrow springs a Utopia from the disaster of the Titanic by using the powers of hindsight and retrospect which alternate histories are so reliant on to suggest a possible method by which all of the passengers of the luxury line might have survived. The narrative is light and whimsical, deliberately and explicitly avoiding the potential darkness that could be associated with being castaway on a raft ala Coleridge who is quoted in the story, or Yann Martel's Life of Pi, indeed there are echoes of the latter's darker ending in the humorously portrayed cannibalism of less well liked members of the crew, and the raft inhabitant's reactions to news of wider world without them. Interestingly, this is one of those alternate histories like Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, where despite the change in the historical record the course of major events plough on regardless.

"Sidewinders" by Ken Macleod, pp. 30-42.

So far in my reading of alternate histories, the number which could be called true sf is relatively small. The purest example are probably the time machine alternates like Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder", and novels such as Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee and Stephen Baxter's The Time Ships. Macleod's story is one of these, but rather than time travel the science fiction here is based on dimensional hopping more akin to the TV show Sliders than anything else. It's a lively and exciting story which does a lot with the small space it has, indeed it successfully creates the idea of a wider Universe in which I could imagine a novel, or even a series of novels, being set.

"The Wadering Christian" by Eugene Byrne & Kim Newman, pp. 43-82.

This one was a fascinating Jewish alternate history. One of the things that made it so interesting was actually the account of the historical record from the year 0 to what we would consider 1000AD. Narrated by an immortal who has survived from the time of Christ and yet remains anonymous and vaguely in the background of his own story, the historical divergence here is the failure of Christian Roman Emperor Constantine to secure his empire and thus to create a dominant Christian religion in Europe. Up until this moment Newman and Byrne tell one of the most engaging and vivid accounts of the life and Crucifixion of Christ that I've encountered (admittedly religious fiction isn't an area I've often explored so I have few points of comparison). After the divergence the narrative remains interesting, with an alternate version of Charlemagne founding a Jewish rather than Christian dynasty. Again humour is strong in the story, though mostly black, and I especially like the references to a Britain - 'a cold, miserable, wet, piss-sodden island that I don't recommend you ever visit.'

"Hush My Mouth" by Suzette Haden Elgin, pp. 83-90.

There are a heck of a lot of "if the South had won" American Civil War alternate histories. Elgin twists the norm by suggesting that if both the North and the South had refused Blacks the right to fight in their armies than neither would have edge enough to win and after a number of years the war would just fall apart as the two Disunited States crumble. Rising up the former slaves take control of the exhausted and ravaged South and expel the white men into the North. Dubbing their land "New Africa", Elgin explains that race isn't a factor in human stupidity and through an excess of pride the various groups of New Africans cannot agree on a common language with which to govern their new nation, each preferring the language of their old African tribe. The linguistic twist is typical of Elgin, whose Native Tongue I wrote on as part of my Masters Dissertation, and her suggested solution to the quandary is an interesting one. Overall an effective, if short piece.

22 September 2010

Classics and Comics

Although, I did today finally start reading The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories edited by Ian Watson and Ian Whates, the majority of my evening post-work was spent on one of my subsidiary projects. A good friend of mine, Mr. David Smith [Smiff], has asked me to co-author a paper with him on Classical influences in comic books. Given that the field of comic books, Graphic Novels, whatever you want to call them, has long been something I've wanted to get into, I leaped at the chance.

Abstracts have to be in by the end of the week so I've been throwing together as many Ancient Greek references and allusions in comics that I can gather. The obvious ones such as Frank Miller's 300 and the DC Character Wonder Woman are there, but so too are more recent up and comers like Greek Street. I'm looking forward to working on the paper, which Smiff will present, and we're hoping to either get it published or continue to work on it for use at future events.

All in all a productive day, but very little actual Ph.D work done. Tomorrow I'll be travelling home to North Wales which means a train journey which should mean I can get through the first few stories in Watson and Whates's anthology. Fingers crossed.

P.S. Annoyingly a book exists on the very topic we're writing a paper on but isn't published until early 2011, our conference is in December. If anyone can find me an advance copy or better yet a time machine so I can travel into the future and buy a copy then please do get in touch.

UPDATE:  Due to scheduling conflicts, the writing and subsequent presentation of this paper has been postponed until a future date. It, or something like it, may well be written in the not too distant future, but you'll have to wait and see to find out where and when. [Updated 13.10.10]

20 September 2010

Pavane by Keith Roberts

The cover of my 1988 edition
Today I ploughed through the last hundred or so pages of Pavane by Keith Roberts. The novel is set in an alternate world created by the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I in 1588 and the subsequent success of the Spanish Armada and thus extinguishing of Protestantism in Great Britain and ensuring Catholicism remains a true force in the world.

That I was reading this novel at a time when Pope Benedict XVI was visiting the UK was purely coincidental, although it made for some interesting associations as I imagined the greedy church in Rome holding back progress across the world as I read about the Popemobile in the news.

No, I read this novel as part of my wider reading in the field of Alternate History. Although the focus of my novel will be on non-mimetic fiction which deals with the Second World War, it is also my intention to gain an at least half-decent understanding and appreciation of the Alternate History genre as a whole (let us call it that for now, if only for argument's sake). By chance, there were at least a couple of references which I might even be able to translate over into real Ph.D work.

It's a peculiar book to read. I've seen it on the shelves, number 35 in the Science Fiction Masterworks series published by Gollancz (the Masterworks cover is far better than that of the 1988 edition I read by the way, I picked it up in a second hand bookshop for £1.25 though so I can't complain), and I'd been meaning to get around to it long before I settled on my current research area. What I didn't realise (which probably betrays how poor my research is at this stage) is that the novel is in fact a fix-up of several short stories. This shows in stories such as "The Signaller", the second in the novel, which serves to further familiarise us with the world Roberts has created, but does little to advance the overarching plot such as it is. I say "such as it is" not through a disdain for the novel's narrative, I found reading it to be both engrossing and enjoyable, but because the stories are at times so disjointed and those which are related as set so far apart, that the plot amounts to little more that "the renewal of British rebellion against the Vatican". This isn't a negative point, the stories are well done and I certainly became invested in the development of this idea of rebellion, but I can see how someone reading this unawares could be disapointed.

This relationship is, however, crucial to what the novel is. This is expressed by the Lady Eleanor in the last full story "Corfe Gate":
'It's like a ... dance somehow, a minuet or a pavane. [...] Sir John,' she said, 'sometimes I think life's all a mass of significance, all sorts of strands and threads woven like a tapestry or a brocade [...] If we ... won, it would all be because of grandfather's money. And the money's tere because of Jesse, and he did it because of the girl ... It's like Chinese boxes. There's always a smaller one inside, all the time'. (p. 212-213)
Eleanor links her own story with the previous one "Lords and Ladies" and beyond that to the first one "The Lady Margaret" bringing the novel full circle, but also expressing the domino effect which Roberts suggests (and in the "Coda" explicitly states) that small actions, seemingly minor decisions or seemingly minor people, can have repercussions which far exceed the scope of what we might imagine. In this case, barmaid refusing to marry a haulier leading to a revolution which changes the world.

If I ever finish reading all of his World War II related novels and stories, I'd be interested to compare Pavane to Harry Turtledove's Ruled Britannia which has a similar concept but from what I've seen a very different execution. Overall, I'm glad I read Pavane, and I shall certainly be mulling it over for a number of days to come.

Updated 21.09.2010

18 September 2010

The small force that it takes to launch a boat into the stream should not be confused with the force of the stream that carries it along

- Friedrich Nietzsche

And so I have opened this blog to the wider world. Tomorrow (or is that today?) I will begin commenting on my research on this blog. As it's still early days expect to see a lot of things moving around and changing as I settle in, the list of link on the right is sure to grow for example.

I have nothing else to say tonight other than explain the Nietzsche quote - It was an easy thing to create this blog, to design it and fill it with pretty colours and a half-relevant background. Adding to it, maintaining it, filling it with my academic process, that's the hard bit. I've created many projects similar to this and normally I have nothing to say. By keeping this blog academically(-ish) focused I should be guaranteeing at least four more years of material, Monday is after all the official start of term for my second Ph.D year.

Onwards and Upwards.

On a related note - I paid the first installment of my new tuition fees today, ouch. That's all I'll say on the matter.

12 September 2010

What is this?

What Is This?
This blog is a diary. It's an online record of my research, beginning in the September of my Ph.D's second year and continuing until I tire/forget about the blog and it gathers e-dust.

Why Bother?
Whilst I already have an electronic presence on the internet that I can direct people to (see my Academia profile) it is a very formal and turgid profile and behaves more like an online (very empty at the moment) CV than a record. I will continue to use my Academia page but it will only receive updates when something is completed (a review, a paper, a talk) wheras this blog will allow me to record the progress, and if someone other than myself is reading this, possible get feedback, communicate, and connect with like minds.