"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

22 November 2010

A Little Woo Hoo

Had a little woo hoo moment recently.1 Whilst reading Caroline Wiedmer's examination of The Claims of Memory: Representations of the Holocaust in Contemporary Germany and France (which is so far excellent), I came across the first usage of the word "mimetic" in relation to Second World War historical fiction. This is significant because since choosing to define my study as being of non-mimetic fictions I've read lots of material which I'll certainly be able to use but none which  uses my terminology. Wiedmer's has hopefully broken the drought and I shall now be inundated with uses of mimetic, or better yet non-mimetic.

Better still, she uses it in relation to Art Spiegelman's Maus which I recently finished reading for the Graphic Novel book club I run and not only greatly enjoyed but also plan on using in my own study.

That's it really, not exactly a major breakthrough (hence not a Eureka! moment), but a brief moment when I looked up from my research and smiled a little as another piece of the jigsaw fell into place. Just thought I'd share that with you, as its been a bit dry in my blog-posting-world. Thanks.

1 Yes, having played The Sims I know that has a different connotation to the way I mean it - I don't care.

11 November 2010

'From Flaubert to the Fantastique: Science Fiction and the Literary Field' by Professor Andrew Milner

On Wednesday the 10th November I attended a lecture given by Andrew Milner, Professor of Cultural Studies at Monash University, Melbourne in the Cypress building of the University of Liverpool. Although entitled 'from Flaubert to the Fantastique' the lecture was actually mostly about French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, and specifically his Les Règles de l'art. In Les Règles de l'art was a map which charted the positions of all of the current art of France giving it a relative location to all other forms of contemporary art. From left to right the items on the map increased in their profitibility and decreased in their 'art for art's sake' philosophy, meanwhile their vertical position was determined by their level of consecration, or how institutionalised they were. Here's an English translation of Bourdieu's map, I couldn't find a French one (such as the one Prof. Milner used in his demonstration) on the interweb:

Professor Milner proceeded to explain the original diagram in far better detail than I have above, before unveiling his remodelled version based, not on the French arts contemporary to Bourdieu, but on Science Fiction. Other changes made were that Bourdieu limited his diagram to only living influences (such as Zola in the centre), whilst Professor Milner expanded his to include artistes who have passed on, but who remain a "living influence" such as Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard, amongst others. Similarly, Bourdieu's diagram restrains itself to France alone whilst Professor Milner's reflects the multinational nature of modern movement such as Science Fiction and is global in its scope.

Being unable to provide a picture of Professor Milner's revised map there is little else I can do in this blog post except to attempt to draw a rough sketch of it in your mind's eye. Prof. Milner's map retained the three rough divisions of Poetry, Literature and Theatre that Bourdieu creates (in that order as vertical columns for left to right), expanding Theatre to encompass TV, film and radio, and including sf criticism such as Darko Suvin in the poetry category both because it makes a similar amount of money, and because there is so little sf poetry with which to flesh out the diagram.
Commercial TV occupied the bottom right corner, being the most populist, "all about the money" form of sf, and Gene Roddenberry was singled out as the exemplar of this movement. Above it came mainstream (ie. Hollywood) cinema moving up the map towards art-house cinema by people like Andrey Tarkovskiy. On the bottom left, occupying the role of Bohemia, was Ballard and Moorcock and New Worlds magazine, above them (though slightly more to the right and centre) was weird fiction as exemplified by China Miéville, before shooting back to the left (ie. the poor end) and the top with Darko Suvin-level critique. Zola's position as the dead centre of French culture was occupied by Wells and Verne and Scientific Romance. Below them were various sub-genres such as cyberpunk moving down to the pulps and championed by Hugo Gernsback. Above Wells and Verne were the American Feminist and Afrofuturist writers such as Le Guin and Delany with the top echelon of the novel being occupied by "literary" sf such as Orwell, Huxley et al.. A dotted line was drawn around literary sf, Darko Suvin and arthouse cinema which Professor Milner explained was a permeable barrier between sf and wider cultural movements. The things within the dashed line had crossed the barrier and been appropriated by wider society and thus no longer seen as sf by said community - or at least not tarred with the same brush - the nature of this barrier was interesting however, as Prof. Milner explained its one-way permeability as the sf community still involve it in their discussion and ideology, whilst mainstream communities prefer to ostracise it.

Overall it was an interesting lecture which felt much more like a "just throwing this out there" kind of a affair than the turgid affair genre theory can devolve into. I thought that Professor Milner's adoption and adaptation of Bourdieu's method of mapping had real potential as a method of thinking about the relationships of different forms of sf and their relationships with the social spheres of which they are a part. Of course the positioning of some of the elements is arguable, it's all based on conceptual ideas rather than formal numerical data, and some ideas could be expanded in a larger diagram but you have to stop somewhere or you could draw a map the size of the Liver Building and still be missing some of the details. One item, or possibly two, that I thought should have been on there but weren't were video games (which could possible be split up into commercial and indie) as they are valid narrative vehicles which can still be plotted on the map relative to the other items mentioned.

This is, however, a detail which doesn't detract from the usefulness of the model and I look forward to reading the full article in a forthcoming edition of Science Fiction Studies. One interesting exercise would be to overlay the map with another for Fantasy and Horror as they occupy similar spaces in the wider literary community, but their sub-genres and movements have as varied a relationship as sf.

7 November 2010

Stories from The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories #6

Here are some thoughts on the final three stories in The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories. What was going to follow was a complete review of the volume as a whole but I've written that up for the journal Foundation instead and so can't post it up here, you'll just have to buy the journal instead. It's also part of the reason why this is going up so late (that and Twisted Tales). If summaries are even less comprehensive than normal the please forgive me, it's been a while.

"The Sleeping Serpent" by Pamela Sargent, pp. 472-513.

An interesting story because it approaches a historical divergence less commonly displayed than others. Sargent posits a global Khan, a Mongol Empire that stretched from Western Europe to Eastern North America. Some of the last unconquered peoples are the "Inglistani" and, crucially, the Native American tribes of the American North-East. In an attempt to rid North America of the Inglistani, and to give them nowhere to seek refuge once the European Khans take Britain, a force of Mongols and Native Americans wage war on the colonial settlements. Sargent draws on a lot of the imagery and tone of the Leatherstocking Tales in suggesting a Mongol protagonist who as a child was adopted by "The People of the Long Houses" (The Iroquois Federation) as one of their own and raised in their culture. This allows Sargent to present an interesting comparison between the typically represented "pure" and "noble" Iroquois peoples and the Mongols, once similarly nomadic and spiritual but now corrupted by power, greed, and the wealth of conquered Europe. I always feel like these stories idealised Native American lifestyles and philosophies, and yet I also enjoy the aesthetic of such approaches (The Last of the Mohicans was one of my favourite reads from my Undergraduate reading lists). Maybe I'm wrong and life really was that rich and rewarding, after all I have no first hand experience and little second hand knowledge of Native Americans. It seems to me odd however that the Mongolians would only reach the epiphanies they reach in this story once they reach the Atlantic, they will have passed by, probably crushed, and expanded over many other tribes in the West of the continent such as the Californian tribes which are such an influence to Ursula Le Guin's fiction.

"Waiting of the Olympians" by Frederick Pohl, pp. 514-559.

I loved this story. It doesn't even do anything particularly amazing in itself, but a number of factors come together to make this story in particular stand out as something a little bit different to the other tales in the anthology. At first it seems we're being presented with a standard "What if the Roman Empire never fell?" proposition, however instantly making this story noteworthy is that the protagonist, Julius, is a "sci-rom" writer. Desperately in need of an idea for a new novel to fulfil his publishing contract, he travels to Alexandria where a conference is being held to discuss the Olympians, a [Culture-like] multi-race organisation, who have made first contact with Earth and are travelling on a years long journey to visit in person. Whilst in Egypt a friend of Julius's, and a scientific advisor to the Roman state on all matters Olympian, Flavius "Sam" Samuelus, suggests "a whole new kind of sci-rom" about an "alternate world" which plays host to the question "what if history had gone a different way?" I love the meta-alternate history elements of this story, even if they are simply a cover for Pohl to explain where his world deviated from ours (Christ was never crucified and so Christianity, lacking a martyr, lost momentum), although he does include some "Grasshopper Lies Heavy"-like supposition about a world alternate to theirs which still isn't ours. Overall, I enjoyed the science fiction and meta-narrative elements of this story and it made a nice complement to the others in the collection, not necessarily better but just different enough to be enjoyable.

"Darwin Anathema" by Stephen Baxter, pp. 560-582.

The Catholic church are easy targets for alternate history, as evidenced by Keith Roberts's Pavane. Not quite as easy as Nazis, but easy nonetheless. Baxter depicts a world held back technologically by the church,  where Terra Australis (Australia) is a world leader in scientific development (far from the gaze of the Vatican). This was one of the specially commisioned tales for the anthology and its likely that is was inspired by the recent flurry of media attention given to Charles Darwin for the 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origin of Species, as well as his 200th birthday. The story features humour and grisliness in equal amount as Darwin's bones are exorcised and put on trial for heretical thinking. "Commisary Hitler" makes a cameo reference for his "Missionary Wars" in Russia, whilst there is also a nice reference to H.G. Wells and a novel entitled "War of the Celestial Spheres", punning on The War of the Worlds and the old-church belief in celestial astronomy (Baxter also wrote, The Time Ships, the excellent authorised sequel to Wells's The Time Machine which involves the development of several alternate histories and futures). This is a superbly crafted story, as you'd expect from a man who has written as extensively in the alternate history field as Baxter has. Loaded with references and nods, it still manages to propel a story of human emotion and the problems of a lack of moral autonomy within religious structures. A brilliant story to round off a fantastic collection.

Here endeth the saga of Ian Watson and Ian Whates's The Mammoth Book of Alternate History. Below are  links to the other parts.

Part 1: "The Raft of the Titanic" by James Morrow, "Sidewinders" by Ken Macleod, "The Wadering Christian" by Eugene Byrne & Kim Newman, "Hush My Mouth" by Suzette Haden Elgin.

Part 2: "A Letter From The Pope" by Harry Harrison and Tom Shippey, "Such A Deal" by Esther M. Friesner, "Ink From The New Moon" by A. A. Attanasco.

Part 3: "Dispatches from the Revolution" by Pat Caddigan, "Catch that Zeppelin!" by Fritz Leiber, "A Very British History" by Paul McAuley, "The Imitation Game" by Rudy Rucker, "Weihnachtsabend" by Keith Roberts.

Part 4: "The Lucky Strike" by Kim Stanley Robinson, "His Powder'd Wig, His Crown of Thornes" by Marc Laidlaw, "Roncesvalles" by Judith Tarr, "The English Mutiny" by Ian R. Macleod, "O One" by Chris Roberson.

Part 5: "Islands in the Sea" by Harry Turtledove, "Lenin in Odessa" by George Zebrowski, "The Einstein Gun" by Pierre Gévart, "Tales from the Venia Woods" by Robert Silverberg, "Manassas, Again" by Gregory Benford.

Part 6 [This Part]: "The Sleeping Serpent" by Pamela Sargent, "Waiting of the Olympians" by Frederick Pohl, "Darwin Anathema" by Stephen Baxter.

2 November 2010

Frantic Week

Wa-ay behind with my blogging duties. To be fair though, I've had a mad old time of it. Right now I'm writing this off the back of a five day Halloween celebration. Burke and Hare on Thursday, Twisted Tales #1 on Friday, a party on Saturday, a lantern parade in Sefton Park on Sunday, and my science fiction/ fantasy book club's reading of Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes today.

I'll be posting those comments on the last few stories in The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories soon. In the meantime, take a wander over to the newly launched Twisted Tales website and support Horror fiction events!