Valerian and Laureline and the Dream of Paradise

ValerianI was wrong to think that the guy and the girl always had equal billing in the title of the original comic series: Valérian et Laureline was for most of its history Valérian, agent spatio-temporel. But I still reckon the only reason they called the film Valerian (and the City of a Thousand Planets), despite its two protagonists having fastidiously equal roles, was fear that action-adventure American men would assume that something called Valerian and Laureline must be some kind of romance they wouldn’t want to see.

There was a bit of a romantic subplot and the less said about that, the better, except that I really wish Luc Besson had spent a few euros from his US$200 million budget to let a good scriptdoctor sort out that thread of the story. Aside from those embarrassing scenes, the film is magnificent. It is true to the zany humour of Christin and Mézières’ bandes dessinées – something else that might wrongfoot action-adventure fans – and it’s more than true to the comics’ visual inventiveness, hugely influential as they have been on SF visual culture; not least on Star Wars – as Besson’s film repeatedly reminds us. The sheer abundance of imaginative visual complexity seems to me an affirmation of the wonderfulness of diversity, complexity, intricacy – of cultures, creatures, habitats, places – in the real world as much as in fantasy.

I’m aware that much of the appeal of that, as in John Carter and Avatar, depends on the kind of exoticising of other cultures which goes back to Orientalist painting and literature and which the critics remind us went hand in hoof with European imperialism. Worse yet, maybe, when it comes to the paradise planet Mül and its scantily clothed natives who live in harmony with their environment and never forget to ‘give something back to nature in return for all that she gives us’, who might be seen as romanticising or essentialising the indigenous peoples – in Africa, Polynesia? – who inspired them. But what’s the alternative? Would it really be more okay to depict indigenous peoples as having degraded the ecosystems they inhabit? Or as lacking adequate medical knowledge, say?

The people of Mül have the best of both worlds; they choose to live close to nature but they have sophisticated technological capability when they need it. Future primitive. Something to aspire to, I’d say. Friends I saw Valerian with came out saying they wished they could live on Mül. Why shouldn’t they feel that? Isn’t it because of such a longing for earthly paradise that people go in their millions on beach holidays, hoping to catch at least a glimmer of it? I was lucky enough to live for a year between the mountains and the sea in a not too developed part of Greece, and it was the year of my life when I have felt most intensely happy.

The natives of Mül lost their planet as a result of Earthmen’s destructiveness. Their longing for the paradise that was their birthright becomes a mission to remake it. Light-hearted though the film may be, the systematic determination with which they pursue that task, together with the scale of Besson’s effort to bring to life such complex imagined worlds, made me wonder what could be achieved in our own world if we truly put our mind to it. The turnover last year of the RSPB, one of the world’s biggest conservation charities, was slightly less than the cost of making Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Organisations like the RSPB do fantastic work, have rewilded plots of land and saved species from extinction, but of course it’s never enough, not when set against the scale of ecological destruction wrought by modern civilisation. I’m not saying – I don’t want to say – we shouldn’t spend millions on film fantasies like Valerian, but if we can muster the cost and the effort to create such astonishing dreamworlds, do we not have it in our power to make, restore, sustain beautiful places on our own planet too?

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The Dedalus Book of Greek Fantasy

51hlse5letl-_sx310_bo1204203200_Fantasy as a dedicated genre didn’t really exist in Greece till very recently. Many of the stories gathered in The Dedalus Book of Greek Fantasy, dating from the 19th century to the turn of the 21st, are by mainstream literary authors, including the major poet Constantine Cavafy and the arch-surrealist Andreas Embirikos. Recent years have seen the publication of several Greek anthologies of fantasy and science fiction, thanks mainly to the efforts of editor Makis Panorios. David Connolly’s selections  draw heavily but not exclusively from Panorios’s anthologies. It’s to Connolly’s credit as a translator that all thirty stories come through in engaging and well-crafted English prose.

Free of the constraints of genre expectation – except perhaps Dedalus’s taste for ‘distorted reality’ – the stories are extremely diverse. They range from the straightforward retelling of folktale in Emmanouil Roïdis’s ‘Blossom’, through the absurdist surrealism of Nano Valaoritis’s ‘The Daily Myth or The Headless Man’, the exotic traveller’s yarn of Fotis Kontoglou in ‘Pedro Cazas’, and the occultism of Tassos Roussos’s ‘The Last Alchemist’, to dystopian science fiction in Alexandros Schinas’s ‘The Rulers’. Heroic fantasy is conspicuous by its absence . The sequencing of the stories by date exposes an increasing interest in science fiction in later work.

One of the delights of imaginative fiction written in other languages is the displacement of default Anglocentric perspective. In Theodoros Grigoriadis’s ‘Theocles’ the research project to make contact with intelligent beings elsewhere in the galaxy is conducted not by American but by Greek scientists and the person chosen to leave earth to meet them is, too, a Greek. Andreas Lascaratos’s traveller in ‘Journey to the Planet Jupiter’ is relieved to discover the Jovians speak Greek. And in ‘Westminster’ Yorgos Theotokas exoticises the London Underground as a locus of gothic nightmare where the trains never stop and are operated by people who are completely mad.

Given the diversity of stories, it’s hard to make generalisations. Surrealism caught on strongly in Greek literature and there’s plenty of evidence of that in this book. Here’s a snippet from Aris Sfakianakis in ‘It Was Already Past Midnight’: ‘Floating in the white sauce in place of mussels were human lips … Moreover, the lips were painted and appeared to be alive as they slowly opened and closed, emitting tiny indeterminate sounds, rather like sighs.’ Quite often the tone is urbanely jaunty. This, for example, is the opening of ‘A Day Like Any Other’ by Tassos Leivaditis: ‘Waking up fully dressed in bed, in a room you’ve never seen before, is, of course, a bad omen for the day about to begin. But not being able to remember how you came to be in this unknown house is something of a nightmare.’ That there’s a tendency for women to be presented in strongly sexualised ways may not be the sin of sins, but the fact that all thirty authors in the book are men strongly suggests some scope – I suspect in Greek fantasy as a whole – for redressing the balance on that score.

First published in Vector, No. 275, 2014

 

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Myths, Genres, and Forms in Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism

1063554Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism is a landmark of literary criticism to which I found my way via its influence on the Tolkien scholarship of Tom Shippey and Margaret Anne Doody’s superb book The True Story of the Novel. Frye’s discussion of the function of the imagination also reminds me of the thinking of Ted Hughes and Lindsay Clarke.

Frye organises his grand analysis of the whole realm of literature by means of various dimensions – ‘modes’, ‘symbols’, ‘myths’, ‘genres’, ‘rhythms’, ‘forms’ – all of which terms he defines in his own ways that don’t always match more familiar ways of understanding them. What I love about his taxonomy of literature is that he doesn’t try to force books into a small number of procrustean categories, but instead he sets up continua or fields containing countless potential gradations or mixtures. For example, his theory of ‘myths’ may be pictured as a wheel of fortune, in which different nuances of narrative pattern rotate from ‘comedy’ at the wheel’s summit, via the downbeat trend of ‘irony/satire’, to ‘tragedy’ at the nadir, and then upbeatwards via ‘romance’ back to comedy.

In his chapter on ‘genres’ Frye insists that ‘fiction’ be defined not in contrast to ‘non-fiction’ but rather as the genre of literature in which prose predominates. He regards as ‘fiction’ any prose writing that may claim to be literature, and argues that prose that’s determined to present itself as purely ‘non-fictional’ will inevitably slide either towards emotion-laden rhetoric devoid of intellect (propaganda, advertising) or towards flat propositional language devoid of emotion (technical and most academic writing). The effect is to collapse into the same arena of ‘fiction’, alongside novels and short stories, genres like memoir, travelogue, nature writing, and indeed anything we might normally regard as ‘non-fiction’ – so long as it’s written with some kind of literary quality.

Frye goes on to analyse fiction in terms of four primary forms – ‘novel’, ‘confession’, ‘anatomy’, and ‘romance’. Here ‘novel’ has nothing to do with the length of the narrative; it refers to fiction populated by psychologically realistic characters, in contrast to the more stylised archetypal characters of ‘romance’. ‘Confession’ is basically the form of autobiography, narrated in the first person. ‘Anatomy’ is the form of fiction concerned more with exploring ideas than characters. The title of Frye’s own book – Anatomy of Criticism – implicitly acknowledges that even so analytical and scholarly a book, because it engages the reader with literary skill, may ultimately be seen as a work of fiction.

You may try to seek pure examples of each form, but in practice they are blended in endlessly varying combinations. Most ‘novels’ contain some admixture of ‘romance’. Frye elucidates Joyce’s Ulysses as a work of fiction in which all four forms are present and of more or less equal importance. He doesn’t mention Tolkien, but it occurs to me that, though The Lord of the Rings may seem most obviously a ‘romance’, it also contains substantial ingredients of ‘novel’ (concentrated in the hobbit protagonists) and ‘anatomy’ (the encyclopaedic examination of history, geography, and lore); ‘confession’ occurs only in the ‘editorial’ paratext with which Tolkien frames the story – and perhaps in the occasional Gandalfian monologue.

I can’t resist applying this lens to my own novel, Deep Time. It’s a ‘novel’, for sure, having a number of psychologically complex characters, but it’s permeated also by systems of archetype and symbol characteristic of ‘romance’. It is written in first person as an intimate ‘confession’ and is also an ‘anatomy’ in its kaleidoscopic exploration of geological time and the relationship between wild nature and being human. I take comfort from Frye’s observation that novels containing a strong element of ‘anatomy’ usually baffle the critics when they first appear.

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David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

51wqgcxqrbl-_sx324_bo1204203200_I was keen to read David Mitchell’s new novel because I loved Cloud Atlas. Like that masterpiece, The Bone Clocks comprises six novella-length sections each narrated by a different character in a different time period. But these narratives are closer linked than in Cloud Atlas, taking place at roughly decade intervals and reincorporating the same characters, so the whole adds up to a single story in a single fictional frame. This integration of the story has posed certain structural challenges to a writer whose primary interest, both here and in Cloud Atlas, is in the kind of high-performance pastiche that gets you listed for the Man Booker Prize.

The narrator of the first section, Holly Sykes, daughter of a Gravesend publican, is 15 years old in 1984. She crops up as a character in every section, so we witness her progress through life as the decades go by, and she returns, with satisfying inevitability, to narrate the final section in 2043, when she’s in her seventies. The second section is told by a Cambridge undergraduate, an arrogant twat who ruthlessly exploits for his own gain anyone who trusts him. The third narrator is more sympathetic, a war reporter whose only flaw is his fatal addiction to his work. The fourth section, extending from 2015 to 2020, follows Crispin Hershey, onetime ‘Wild Child’ of literature, now going to seed, whose grudge against a hatchet review of his latest novel shamelessly recycles a plot driver from Cloud Atlas.

These first four sections revel in evoking the narrators’ voices, from the stroppy semi-articulacy of the working-class teenager – ‘I’d never nicked anything in my life and really I almost peed myself’ (p. 41) – to the jaded sophistication of the has-been novelist: ‘I see my reflection in the mirrored wall, and recall a wise man telling me that the secret of happiness is to ignore your reflection in lift mirrors once you’re over forty’ (p. 305). The present-tense narration – so overused these days – is justified by a number of scenes where, for reasons I won’t spell out, the narrator loses their memory of what they’ve just related. These four sections also work hard to evoke the flavour of each decade – with cultural and current-affairs references that are sometimes too obviously shoehorned in: ‘You say that, but reunification is going to cost the earth. My clients in Frankfurt are very jumpy about the fall-out’ (p. 113). The sections are linked by the network of connections between characters, of which Holly is the central node, and also by a hidden plot that now and again surfaces, unexplained, into the characters’ lives. At first glimpse, I thought we had to do with the supernatural or beings from another dimension. It quickly becomes clear that the individuals in question are human beings blessed with advanced ‘psychosoteric’ powers.

Little is explained about these adepts till the fifth section, set in 2025, when a narrator who is one of them reveals all via a sequence of big infodumps and flashbacks. There are goodies (Horologists) and baddies (Anchorites); I best not say much more. This narrator’s voice is less distinctive than the previous sections’, the life and times of the 2020s are little evoked – beyond a few token advances in IT – and neither scenes nor secondary characters are strongly realised. What we get instead is a Latinate lexicon to refer to psychosoteric phenomena, some nice visualisation of the metaphysical landscape of death, and a high-stakes Harry-Potter-style combat sequence that seems pitched for the big screen but also made me wonder whether Mitchell’s intention was parody.

After that, the final section is anticlimactic, despite its subject being the collapse of civilisation when the oil runs out. It’s a well-imagined and all-too-plausible portrayal of a local community struggling along with their chicken-keeping and homemade clothes, as promoted by today’s Transition movement – only for this tolerable existence to be overrun by gangsterish survival of the fittest when the Chinese-sponsored Cordon of law enforcement ceases to be economically viable. The impact of this scenario is weakened by the fact that – bar one brief prognostication that the internet won’t last for ever – it’s not set up by the rest of the novel. The psychosoteric plot is abandoned, has no consequence, except to provide a deus ex machina.

As in Cloud Atlas, there is a sustained theme of the perennial moral choice between coldly exploiting others to serve one’s own interests and, on the other hand, warm-hearted service of others – in ideological terms, the choice between the right and the left. The relative autonomy of the six texts in Cloud Atlas permits the novel to be unified by a theme. In The Bone Clocks, theme isn’t enough; the narrative continuity between the sections demands more coherent narrative structure.

If the relationship between the science-fiction plot and the verbal pyrotechnics of pastiche is strained, and the crucial fifth section is under-imagined and over-explained, the first four sections could use some polishing to eliminate intrusive detail and a sometimes forced tone of voice: ‘Still, boyfriends act goofy to hide stuff, any magazine’ll tell you. Wish I could phone him right now. Wish they’d invent phones you can speak to anyone anywhere anytime on’ (p. 3). During a lovely send-up of a literary festival, Mitchell quotes the trasher of Hershey’s novel to throw in what sounds like a ironic acknowledgement of risks Mitchell takes in his own writing: ‘One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: what sure sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?’ (pp. 281–2).

The Bone Clocks is better than that, it’s well worth reading, but I fear it may have been written against a deadline that prevented Mitchell doing full justice to his genius.

This review was first published in Vector, No. 280, 2015

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Lewis Spence and the Problem of Lemuria

514g1sbvk8l-_sx315_bo1204203200_If, like me, you love myth and folklore, you may know Lewis Spence as the author of numerous books, in the early twentieth century, about the mythology of different parts of the world. I find his books more readable and useful than the rival series of similar books by Donald Mackenzie. Spence’s sphere of interest extended also to the fabled continents of Atlantis and its Indo-Pacific counterpart, Lemuria, and hence to the fascinating interface between mythology and geological science.

Being educated as a geologist but routinely working with mythology these days as a storyteller and writer, I can’t help getting turned on by this kind of thing, but the waters of scholarship in this area are treacherous. From today’s vantage point, Spence’s The Problem of Lemuria (1933) may be considered ancestral to the lurid speculations of Velikovsky and von Däniken and the whole genre of ‘mysteries of the unknown’, whose distinction from fantasy hinges more than anything else on the use of journalistic form. From the perspective of the 1930s, however, the distinctions between science and speculation were probably less clear. Spence is keen to dismiss the Lemurian theories of Madame Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, and James Churchward as fantasy, and yet his own conclusions about the sinking beneath the Pacific of civilisations and continents now look equally far-fetched.

What fascinates me in The Problem of Lemuria is seeing Spence struggling to make sense of geological and biological data in a way that might be logical without the discovery of plate tectonics. The distribution of various groups of animals and plants in places as far apart as Madagascar, India, Australasia, and South America plausibly points to the existence of a land mass that once connected these regions. Only, rather than being intervening land that has subsided to the bottom of the ocean, this land mass – we now know – was constituted by the regions themselves when they were joined together as the supercontinent Gondwana. Tantalisingly, Spence does briefly mention Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, but moves on without comprehending its crucial importance to his subject; this theory itself being regarded as wild speculation until conclusive proof of it was discovered in the 1950s.

There is perhaps less excuse for Spence’s confusion of the apparent ‘dispersal’ of fossil animals and plants from an ancestral land mass, which took place tens of million of years ago, and the apparent dispersal of human cultures from such a land mass, which can only have taken place a matter of thousands of years ago. He simply ignores the difference of timescale, which I believe was known to science in his day. What may have contributed to his conflation of these two ‘dispersals’ is that the human populations of the Pacific islands may well have originated from a land mass that has partly vanished beneath the waves: not Gondwana, but Sundaland – comprising Southeast Asia, the nearby islands of the East Indies, and the area of continental shelf linking them that was flooded by the rise in sea level after the last ice age (as discussed at length in Stephen Oppenheimer’s Eden in the East).

To prioritise evidence derived from mythology above rigorous use of science, as Spence does by his own admission, may seem foolhardy. His conclusions about Lemuria have been sunk by what we now know about the workings of the Earth’s crust. Yet I remain sympathetic to the idea that the legendaria of cultures around the world, in Europe and the Middle East as much as the Pacific, have preserved a folk memory of the flooding of large tracts of land after the last ice age. We know that it happened, so why shouldn’t the stories dimly remember it? Of the cultures that existed in those lost lands we know little. In that space of uncertainty the legends of Lemuria and Atlantis may continue to stir our imagination; as well they might, now that we face, in our own time, the prospect of further permanent flooding of the world’s coastal regions.

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A Critical Mass to Escape Dystopia

51sdqvpe3gl-_sx333_bo1204203200_Do you ever feel oppressed by the relentless coercion to spend ever more of your time online, staring at the screen, jumping through the hoops imposed by organisations of every kind? Do you detect the synergy between this and the interests of big business allied with government to control and exploit us as compliant worker-consumers, and at the same time to distract us with a barrage of images and words from the ongoing demolition of our economic security, our health, and the beauty of our physical surroundings?

Alexandra Claire’s Random Walk extrapolates all this into a future-primitive dystopia in which an all-powerful company, e-Tel, manages the population of a flood-ruined Welsh city by means of a tracking chip implanted under your skin at birth, a Receiver that floods your perception with virtual-reality Xperiences, a Box that runs your home, satellites able to detect the heat of living bodies from space, and ruthless Guards who’ll kill anyone who tries to steal from the polythene-tented Food Fields outside the city because they lack enough work credit to buy food.

Not everyone is compliant, however. Remi spends his nights running across rooftops on a mission to disable e-Tel’s information transmitters. Eight-year-old Osian has thrown his Receiver in the river because he couldn’t bear the noise in his head. Lisa has come from the wild countryside where people grow their own food outside e-Tel’s control. Only now she has the chance of a privileged position inside the company machine.

In this world, information technology has ceased to have any positive aspect. It serves only tyranny. Sites of resistance must be found elsewhere: in the physicality of bodies able to leap across rooftops and of minds able to pick a ‘random walk’ to dodge surveillance computers seeking predictable patterns; in the bonds of affection between people, expressed in the touching of bodies and the speaking of Welsh words – ‘bach’, ‘cwtch’, ‘calon’, ‘fy nghariad’ – redolent of endearment.

For me, the novel’s execution doesn’t quite match the cogency of its insights. I found the prose rather flat, and more imaginative work is needed to evoke a convincing future world, beyond the basic apparatus of e-Tel and the circumstances of the protagonists. The city is supposed to be burdened with teeming masses, but the presence of other people is referred to so rarely that in most scenes my mind’s eye pictured the characters moving through what seemed an empty city. Moreover, there’s no sense of how the situation in this city fits in with what’s going on in the rest of the world – and this can’t really be justified by regarding the story as what Le Guin calls a ‘psychomyth’, isolated in its own pocket universe, since it’s explicitly set in twenty-first-century Wales.

The part I enjoyed best was, in fact, the self-justifying speech by e-Tel director Oswald White, the equivalent of O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four. There’s a telling irony in his insistence the Random Walkers must not be allowed to become a critical mass that would cause the social order to change.

This review was first published in Vector, No. 271, 2012

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Archaeopteryx – by Lorna Smithers

Signposts in the Mist

Archaeopteryx, I call to you kindly through layers of stone.
Geological time is not the history of the victors. No!
It does not lie or exploit. I pass through time
as I pass through stone like a wave of radiation,
find you in your death pose, bare bones of your wings
raised like the arms of a skeletal dancer, legs bent, killing claw
bared. The feathers of your frond-tail lift you into resurrection
soaring to heights where sylphs play bone-flutes
on your bones. Beautiful bird black wings like a raven’s
against the illusion of a double rainbow you forget
you are extinct. For a moment I forget our extinction,
smile with sharp small teeth and join you in flight
with a sweep of my bony feathered tail.

800px-Archaeopteryx_lithographica_(Berlin_specimen) - Copy

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