"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

24 October 2010

China Miéville versus Facebook

Posted without comment via Hannu Rajaniemi via the M.John Harrison blog.

Facebook
1601 S. California Avenue
Palo Alto
CA 94304
USA
6 October 2010

Dear Facebook People,

URGENT COMPLAINT– PLEASE READ, MORE ACTION TO FOLLOW SHORTLY

1) The short version:
At least one person, if not more, is/are impersonating me on Facebook, with (a) fake profile(s) claiming my identity. Despite me repeatedly bringing this to your attention, you have taken no action to remedy the situation. And I’m getting very annoyed.

2) The full version:
This thing you hold is called a letter. This is the third time I’ve contacted you, and I’m doing so by this antiquated method because, and I realise this may shock you so brace yourself, I have no Facebook account. Which means it is nigh-on impossible for me to get in touch with you. Kudos for your Ninja avoidance strategies.

Back when you had a button allowing me to alert you to a fake profile despite not having an account myself, I contacted you that way. I was answered with a resonant silence. Subsequently, when the problem persisted, I hunted lengthily for, found and left a message on the phone number you go out of your way to hide. Absolutely nothing happened. So here we go again: third time’s a charm.

I am being imitated on Facebook. I believe the only reason anyone is bothering to do this is because I’m a novelist (published by Macmillan and Random House), a writer and broadcaster, with a minor public profile. I think there are one or two community pages about my stuff on Facebook – that of course is very flattering and nice of people to bother. The problem is that there is or are also pages by someone(s) purporting to be me. This is weird and creepy. What’s worse is I know for a fact that some readers, friends and colleagues are friending ‘China Miéville’ under the impression that it is me, and that others are wondering why ‘China Miéville’ refuses to respond to them. And I have no idea what dreadful things or ‘likes’ or ‘dislikes’ are being claimed as mine, nor what ‘I’ am saying.

I know lots of people enjoy being on Facebook. Great. More power to them. Vaya con Dios. Me, though: not my thing. I have absolutely no interest in it. I am not now nor have I ever been a Facebook member. Short of some weird Damascene moment, I will not ever join Facebook – and if that unlikely event occurs, I promise I’ll tell you immediately. In the meantime, though, as a matter of urgency, as a matter of courtesy, as a matter of decency, please respond to my repeated requests:

• Please delete all profiles claiming to be me (with or without the accent on the ‘é’ – last time I looked, I found one ‘China Mieville’, and one more accurately rendered).

• Please do not allow anyone else to impersonate me. I have neither time nor inclination to trawl your listings regularly to see if another bizarre liar has sprung up.

• And while you’re at it, please institute a system whereby those of us with the temerity not to sign up to your service can still contact you on these matters and actually get a [insert cuss-word] answer.

I appeal to you to honour your commitments to security and integrity. Of course as a multi-gajillion-dollar company I have absolutely no meaningful leverage over you at all. If David Fincher’s film doesn’t embarrass you, you’re hardly going to notice the plaintive whining of a geek like me. All I can do is go public. Which is my next plan.

I’m allowing a week for this letter to reach you by airmail, then three days for you to respond to me by phone or the email address provided. Then, if I’ve heard nothing, on 16 October 2010, I’ll send copies of this message to all the literary organizations and publications with which I have connections
some of the many books bloggers I know; and anyone else I can think of. I’ll encourage them all to publicise the matter. I’m tired of being impersonated, and I’m sick of you refusing to answer me.
I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

China Miéville

23 October 2010

Antony and Cleopatra @ The Playhouse

A slight detour from my normal posts which directly relate to my research, last night I went to Liverpool's Playhouse Theatre to watch their production of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Janet Suzman.

Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra revels in the humour of the early acts, portraying the Egyptian Queen as a carefree spirit, luxuriating in the banter of her court  (see the scenes with the eunuch singer) and with Antony. So obviously at home playing to the comic aspects I was initially worried that she wouldn't be able to support the weight of the heavier, darker material of the play's climax. Suzman is astute in her balancing of the mood however, as even in the turmoil and misery of the second half she picks out Shakespeare's black comedy. Rather than jar with the tone of the play, such an action prevents the second part feeling at odds with the, at times, whimsical first half. Complementing this directorial choice, Cattrall finds considerable acting chops during the interval and the Cleopatra who emerges wearing a breastplate (albeit all too briefly), and rouses the armies of Egypt, is a Cleopatra who is believable in her grief and ultimately in her death.

Kim Catrall and Jeffery Kissoon, (c) Stephen Vaughan
Meanwhile, Jeffery Kissoon is a bubbling frenzy of a Mark Antony, frothing and flailing in his grief and anger, swaggering and magnanimous in his glory and his revelling. As the play opens we find him drunk and asleep at the foot of Cleopatra's lounger, his ample belly rising and falling as he snores in his sleep. Armed with a hip flask and a sword this is Antony the party animal, the man who has found love and a rich life in a distant land, who is willing to burn everything he once new for a new life. Kissoon plays hi part with passion and vim, presenting Antony as a man who's an old man playing the young man's games of war and partying, but still holding his own until the play's finale when he crumbles under the strain exploding in fits of rage and tears.

Another stand out performance has to be Martin Hutson as Octavius Caesar, the man who will become Augustus - the first Emperor of Rome. Hutson captures Caesar the political animal, something made clear when he first appears not in the military uniforms of his followers, but in a suit. This Caesar is meticulous, almost anal, in everything he does, constantly conscious that (a bit of meta-theatrical irony for you) he's playing a role, careful not to let normal soldiers see him weep for Mark Antony, or loose control after having a drink. Whether by direction, or Hutson's talent (or, more likely a blend of the two), Octavius Caesar in this production is exactly the smooth-operating, verging on slimy, character that history shows him to be.

The set is a marvellous contrivance of shining black and burnished gold. Brick and metal and glass. Stylish and more than fit for purpose, it blends a modern industrial edge (large girders sprout from the far right and left of the stage, with a gangway providing the top edge of a frame within a frame)  with Eastern mystique (ornate lamps hang down in Cleopatra's palace with drapes and upholstery to match the black and gold set. Similarly blended are the costumes that the character's wear: the soldiers wear modern stab vests and wield automatic rifles, whilst also wearing breastplates, similarly Cleopatra wears believable robes as well as black frame glasses and stiletto heels. Such juxtapositions remind us of the timeless nature of Shakespeare's material, channelling the ancient, with the modern through the early 17th century, but Suzman also uses the costumes to another effect. At the beginning of the play Cleopatra and her attendants are wearing white and are carefree and laughing, but by the end they wear the black of funeral mourners; mirroring this, Caesar wears a dark suit and his men are in black dress uniforms, but by the time they enter Cleopatra's monument they're wearing polished breastplates which reflect the stage lights like mirrors - effectively representing Cleopatra's waning glory as Caesar ascends to become the brighter star which eclipses her, just as Rome would come to eclipse Egypt.

Overall, it was an enjoyable play that still managed to find a few surprises in a story well known and often retold (and I don't mean the casting of a man, Mark Sutherland, as Caesar's sister Octavia). A highly recommended viewing for anyone that has the time to go and see it before its run ends on the not too distant 12th November.

14 October 2010

Stories from The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories #5

Back again for another installment of stories from The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories. Only one more after this (3 more stories), then I'll be passing on my thoughts on the book as a whole. But until then:

"Islands in the Sea" by Harry Turtledove, pp. 374-401.

The blurb of The Mammoth Book picks out this story by Turtledove as one of it's highlights, briefly synopsising it as "only pockets of Christianity remain in an Islamic Europe". This, I feel, is slightly misleading. True, Constantinople has fallen to the Arabs (in the 700s), but the story points out that Christianity survives in Italy, modern day France, Britain and Ireland, and likely a few other places as well. This is a rather large pocket, and making up a reasonable amount of Europe. But that's nitpicking with the description on the cover, not with the story the plot of which revolves around Islamic and Christian envoys travelling to Bulgaria and vying to convert the Khan to their religion. The consequences are spelt out as being the fate of Europe - if the Khan goes Christian there's hope of one day retaking Constantinople and securing Europe for Christianity, whilst if he converts to Islam then it would create a bottleneck, hemming Christianity into the North and West of Europe and dooming it to eventual extinction. By presenting the two alternatives as equally possible, Turtledove offers the reader two alternatives within his alternate history. History could possibly be put back on the rails we recognise in a deus ex machina manner (as in Roth's The Plot Against America), or it could get even more alternate (closer to the description in the blurb!). The scenario also allows Turtledove to explore Christian and Muslim philosophies, playing them off against each other - exposing the similarities and ludicrousness of each faith as viewed by the other. In this way reminding us of the connection the two religions share and the pointlessness of conflicts between them. The Khan's final remarks serve to remind us of the knife edge of history as he suggests what might have been (In our timeline, the Danubian Bulgars converted to Christianity in 865).

"Lenin in Odessa" by George Zebrowski, p. 402-421.
The first twist in this tale comes on page 404, at the beginning of part 2, where our narrator is referred to by Lenin as "Comrade Stalin". This is another of those stories which lives in the moment, it relates the change in the timeline without dwelling on the consequences, indeed there are even less hints than normal about what new world this story has created. Lenin is assassinated in 1918 in Odessa by a man called Sidney Riley, allowing Stalin to take control four years earlier than he would have. If you're history was uncertain it would be very easy to read this as a piece of historical fiction, rather than a-historical; Lenin did suffer attempts on his life in 1918, and Zebrowski does a good job of giving a voice to the unknowable Stalin (I say unknowable remembering a quote from the author Robert Harris: 'Between these two events... there lies - what? Who? We do not know. And why? Because Stalin made it his business to murder almost everyone who might have been in a position to tell us what he was like ...' Archangel, p. 70.). I could wish for more of the after effects, but then I've always wondered what happens after Dr. Strangelove ends...

"The Einstein Gun" by Pierre Gévart, pp. 422-436.

A brilliant story first translated into English from the original French especially for this collection by Sissy Pantelis and Ian Watson. It's conceit puts me in mind of Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee - we start the story in an alternate world and the protagonist through the manipulation of time creates our reality, making us the alternate. It's a neat inversion which though now familiar is well implemented here. Where Bring the Jubilee begins in a world where the Confederates won the American Civil War, The Einstein Gun commences in a reality where Gavrilo Princip's assassination attempt on the Archduke Franz Ferdinand fails and World War I never happens. Despite avoiding the First World War, this reality seems destined for major turmoil. Hitler still comes to power, this time as Chancellor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire under Emperor Franz Ferdinand, and he pursues the same racist and radical paths which he follows in our own time, targeting Slavs and Jews. Our narrator Otto, with the held of Albert Einstein who ultimately, in an ironic twist, is forced to shelter from Hitler's fascism in Germany, send a gun back in time to replace Princip's (the failure of the gun being revealed as the reason why the assassination failed). The story is of particular interest to me as it suggests a certain inevitability to many of the events of the twentieth century leading the reader to draw the conclusion that either Hitler is innately evil and pollutes the entire century regardless of the events around him, or that the problems of the Second World War are deeper rooted than we might expect, stretching beyond the First World War and to the broken and unfair systems of Imperialism and Nationalism and to the deep seated racism of Europe at that time.

"Tales from the Venia Woods" by Robert Silverberg, pp. 437-456.

Theres a fairy tale feel to this story of a cabin the woods. It's a 'Rome didn't fall' altnerate history which suggests a Rome which rules for a thousand years longer than it did in our time, before beginning a Second Republic and killing the Emperor and all of his kin (in a manner which reminded me of the Romanovs in the Russian Revolution, possibly a deliberate move by Silverberg given the Tsarist family's surname). Two Teutonic children discover a hunting lodge in the forest and an old man who lives there who turns out to be the last surviving Caesar, a brother of the last Emperor. The story sits as part of Silverbergs' Roma Eterna, and maybe it's because I knew this that I didn't find the story went anywhere in particular by itself. We are already in an alternate world, with no indication of how it became the way it did (that comes in an earlier Roma Eterna story) and thus cannot really relate to the implications of Second Republic versus Imperial that seem to be presented here - even relating them to their earlier equivalents in the Roman Empire we know now is of little use given the thousand year discrepancy. I've yet to read the other stories in the Roma Eterna series (though they are on my to-do-list), but I'm sure this could not have been the most suitable for this collection.

"Manassas, Again" by Gregory Benford, pp. 457-471.

Another 'Rome didn't fall' story, but this one couldn't be much more different. This is military sf in every sense, a futuristic feeling tale of a world where the Romans developed a steam driven machine gun, courtesy of Sygnius of Albion, and went on to dominate the world with their advanced technology. By the time of this story the humans who live in now independent American colonies are fighting against robotic rebels in "the first battle of the first war in over a century". Manassas, Virginia, was the the site of the first major land battle of the American Civil War in our continuity and so it's choice in this story is heavily loaded to American readerships. As it is, the use of Manassas creates a sense of echoing - certain events happening ,in different ways, but happening nonetheless throughout realities. Part of it could be down to fate, or simply a sense of inevitability, but many alternate histories do it - even within these that I've looked at in this post, and it's an interesting phenomenon. Despite change, history repeats.

13 October 2010

The Historical Novel by Jerome de Groot

One of the reasons I chose the topic I did for Ph.D thesis was that it occupies and interdisciplinary space. "Interdisciplinary" is something of a hot topic in academic research at the moment, but it's also a method to which I find  myself drawn. I have a wide range of interests and I like playing them off against one another: it's one of the reason's I enjoy science fiction so much - that interplay between the science and the literature. My undergraduate dissertation blended canonical literature with the fantastic ("Spirits of Another Sort: Shakespeare and The Fairies") whilst my masters dissertation studied language and literature ("Furnishing New Vantage Points: Linguistic Relativity in Science Fiction") [One day there may be links here, if I can ever gain the courage to dust them down and rewrite them as papers for publication]. This time I'm mixing history with fiction and studying the weirder things that pop-up.

In order to do effectively study the "weirder things", I have to have at least a half-decent grasp on the more mundane results of mixing history and fiction, or to use the terminology of the academia - to properly study the non-mimetic, I have to understand the mimetic. And so I come to Jerome de Groot's The Historical Novel.

Part of Routledge's New Critical Idiom series, the book is a manageable 200 pages long, including an index and glossary of technical terms. It begins with a history of the historical novel, merging this account with the changing definitions that have surrounded the form since before Sir Walter Scott's Waverley to the present day. de Groot then goes on to analyse the varying modern conventions and interpretations, examining the historical novel's status as both "genre" and "literary" fiction. From the point of view of my research the most interesting chapters are the final two: one that deals with postmodern and metafictional tamperings with the traditional novel structure, and another which briefly (far too briefly) examines the manner in which authors use historical fiction to challenge history.

Over the course of his study de Groot references and draws in a wide ranging body of literature from gay and lesbian authors, ethnic minorities, award winners, best sellers, pulps. I've already indicated I'm not an expert in this field (although this was not the first book I've read on the topic), but he does seem to have all of the bases covered. Perhaps that is the work's greatest flaw. In the rush to cover everything, some things are less studiously examined than I might like - particularly the alternate histories in the closing section, but then I'm biased there. However, I can hardly fault the book for being too much introduction and not enough varied examination given that it is only intended to be a taster of the wider range of criticism in existence.

On the whole, I think I've benefited from reading The Historical Novel as it's improved my understanding of the genre which non-mimetic historical fiction is in juxtaposition to. Whilst much of the content of this book will not necessarily be relevant to my thesis, the overall lesson of it, and the varying definitions and debates of where history ends and fiction begins, will likely prove useful again and again.

Jerome de Groot, The Historical Novel (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010), 200p.

9 October 2010

Stories from The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories #4

It's been a manic week. Those familiar with my musical tastes will understand that there's a pun behind that statement, but also a serious point: things have been crazy busy. Nonetheless I've got through a few more of the stories and so here, as before, are my quick thoughts on their plots:
 
"The Lucky Strike" by Kim Stanley Robinson, pp. 253-291.

Like Fritz Leiber's "Catch That Zeppelin!", this is another alternate history short which is oft referenced, quoted, referred to, and read. Essentially, a classic of the genre in it's short-form. Even before now reading the story for the first time, the knowledge that Kim Stanley Robinson had written "The Lucky Strike" and so was familiar with the process of alternate history, was motivation enough for me to buy the recent Galileo's Dream (which I've yet to get around to reading). Red Mars, thus far the only book in the legendary Mars Trilogy that I've read, was a superb read and I'm looking forward to more novel-length Robinson. But back to "The Lucky Strike". The premise is well known - the Enola Gay (the plane which drops the atomic bomb on Hiroshima) crashes and another team, in another plane (the eponymous Lucky Strike), are assigned the task. The consequences of this change are significant as Robinson imbues the bombardier, Captain Frank January, with a greater sense of moral obligation and awareness of the consequences of atomic warfare than the crew of the Enola Gay seemingly possessed. January, on witnessing the demonstration video of the bomb, is traumatised by the idea of inflicting such devastation on the largely civilian population of Hiroshima, repeatedly suggesting that 'FDR would have ended it differently' (p. 269) suggesting an alternate within the alternate in a manner reminiscent of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy in Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Whether this portrayal of January and the lengths he goes to to protect the Japanese civilians, whilst still winning the war for the Allies, is unfair to the crew of the Anola Gay - particularly to Paul Tibbets who is cast is a less than flattering light - I'm not qualified to say. My knowledge of the events concerned is minimal and my insight into the historical persons even less so. That said, the concept of "just following orders" being a valid excuse for anything went out with the Nuremberg Trials, and its this lens which Robinson fixes on the events of August 1945.

"His Powder'd Wig, His Crown of Thornes" by Marc Laidlaw, pp. 292-307.

Hagiography is littered with gruesome tales (I'm thinking in particular of saints such as Bartholomew, whose 1562 statue by Marco D'Agrate is a grisly depiction of the saint wearing his own flayed skin which I was fortunate enough to see in the Duomo di Milano last year). This tale of an America which failed in its revolution because of Benedict Arnold's successful betrayal of West Point, is also an example of an alternate-hagiography, as the Native American tribes sanctify George Washington out of feelings of guilt after they aid the British in torturing him. Made an example of to end the war, Washington has gone on to become a spiritual martyr in a New England still controlled by a King in England. Directly paralleled with Christ (Washington occupies the position of Jesus in an adaptation of The Last Supper, whilst Arnold is Judas), Laidlaw goes to a stomach churning level in describing the treatment and representations.

"Roncesvalles" by Judith Tarr, pp. 308-334.

Another story which hinges on Charlemagne (the first in the collection being "The Wandering Christian"). This story is of note because whilst like many it is not obviously alternate in nature until near its finale, "Roncesvalles" suggests two alternate options (before settling for one in particular). Throughout the story, the suggestion is that Charlemagne has two possible options: to marry the Empress of Byzantium and join Western with Eastern Europe, or to ally himself with the Islamic faith and champion their cause; neither of which he did in our own chronology. The story itself is a retelling of the epic poem "The Song of Roland" ("La Chanson de Rolan"), telling the story of the battle of the Roncesvalles pass in which, betrayed by advisor Ganelon, Charlemagne's baggage train is ambushed and looted killing all the knights (including Roland) that were guarding it. Tarr suggests motivations for Ganelon's betrayal other than the standard jealousy argument made in the legends, it's this suggestion which creates the dual possible outcomes, although there's never any real doubt that the King of the Franks will choose Islam. There's little extrapolation beyond the fears by the Byzantine diplomat of what could be, more a sense of mood.

"The English Mutiny" by Ian R. Macleod, pp. 335-357.

The simplest alternate that an alternate history can present is a simply turning of the tables: "What if B won the battle instead of A?" What this story does, however, is no simple turn. An inversion of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, rather than simply have India gain Independence in that war instead of continuing under British rule, Macleod inverts the entire relationship, suggesting a Mughal Empire which grows to dominate the world rather than a British one. As such, we have the English Mutiny, an uprising of British soldiers (sepoys, just as the Indian soldiers were called) fighting for British home rule. My knowledge of the real "mutiny" is sketchy at best so I can't really assess how far the parallels go but certainly the initial successes (and the ultimate fate) of the rebellion are clear parallels. Macleod does a lot with a limited amount of space, creating a viable and tangible image of a Europe, and world, with a map coloured red by an Asian Empire. He evokes the colours and flavours of India in the wet and slightly dreary setting of 19th Century London.

"O One" by Chris Roberson, pp. 358-373.

This is a lovely very short story. Lovely is perhaps not the most academically accurate description I could give, and indeed my reasons for finding it lovely are not necessarily plot related (it has very dark suggestions to its finale), but rather I enjoyed the imagery employed by Roberson in depicting a Chinese Empire which dominates the world and is developing a space programme. The chronology is slightly confusing as the story features John Napier who, in our history, lived from 1550 until 1617 and it is within this time that I assumed the story was set (the advances in technology being due to the dominance of the Chinese Empire and the massive resources open to such a scientifically minded and pragmatic society); however my source at Uchronia.net suggests that it's set in 1924. Whichever is the correct date, the contrast between tradition and technology, between pastoral and mechanical, are what makes this story so enjoyable and I may well seek out other tales in the Celestial Empire series to see if Roberson continues in a similar vein.