Reading List: Dead Channel Surfing

Another article, unfortunately, that makes heavier weather of its argument than is really necessary. Karen Collins sets out to convince us of, as her subtitle has it, “the commonalities between cyberpunk literature and industrial music.” Except, straight away —

Although cyberpunk began as a literary movement, it is often referred to as more than that — it is, rather, a concept reflected in many disciplines sharing a similarity of approaches and attitudes.

— and the argument she goes on to construct depends rather heavily on the inclusion of films, from the obvious (Blade Runner, The Matrix) to the slightly less so (The Terminator). Which is fine in principle, obviously; it’s just not what the title promises. There are other carelessnesses. In an initial list of characteristics associated with cyberpunk, Collins eyebrow-raisingly includes “technophilia”; but later in the article comes round to the more sensible “Cyberpunk, therefore, has an arguably ambiguous relationship to technology”. Mondo 2000 is described as “the original cyberpunk fanzine”, and Cheap Truth isn’t mentioned. Etc etc.

Some of the points made are actually more general than they need to be, to the point of banality. In describing shared influences on cyberpunk and industrial — focusing on “Dada, William S Burroughs and the punk movement” — Collins ends up pointing out that “Cyberpunk fiction similarly incorporates many references to popular culture”, and perhaps even better in terms of failing to establish a unique relationship, that both forms are “rife with neologisms”. This is despite the fact that the shared influences seem undeniable, based on the numerous specific examples from both cyberpunks and industrial artists that Collins is able to provide.

The section on “recurrent dystopian themes” is a bit more wobbly, I think, in part because Collins starts with this list of “themes fundamental to dystopia”:

Although these themes are not necessarily in every dystopia, at least one will always be present. The primary themes of a dystopia can be summarised as; the socio-economic system of the West will lead to an apocalypse. The apocalypse will lead to, or be caused by, a totalitarian elite controlling the masses through technology, which brings about a need for a resistance, usually led by an outsider-hero.

Personally, I’d have thought canonical cyberpunk texts fit this schema somewhat less well than the mainstream of dystopias — although they do fit, sure, particularly if you allow, as Collins does, that “in cyberpunk, the apocalypse is often a metaphoric one”. Collins also has less evidence on the industrial side, here, able to establish the anti-capitalist bona fides of the genre pretty easily, but not doing so well on the other points.

More interesting is the discussion of “unconventional sound-making devices” — that is, bits of discarded technology — used in industrial music, although a consideration of the use of robot voices seems like a sidetrack; it makes for an interesting contrast with the version of HipHop described in “Feenin“, but robots don’t seem to me a core concern of cyberpunk.

Lastly, and most entertainingly, Collins identifies a similar mood of “anguish, darkness and the future”, on the basis of lists of keywords, although it’s not clear whether the cyberpunk list is based on a spectrum of reader responses, or just the one guy:

Cavallaro links cyberpunk and gothic horror with a series of keyword similarities relating to the moods evoked by the narratives: decay, decomposition, disorder, helplessness, horror, irresolution, madness, paranoia, persecution, secrecy, unease and terror. [8] Similarly, my study of connotations of industrial music, using free-inductive methods of listener response tests on a selection of industrial recordings, found that the most common responses were sad, dark, anxious, futuristic, death, urban, violent, and anguish.

That footnote, incidentally: “Cyberpunk and industrial could also be argued to sometimes have an underlying humour that helps to lighten this mood.” Which, yes, that’s probably a good thing. And although Collins never quite says this explicitly, although each of these correspondences on its own is rather loose, all of them together do make the case that “these artists are branches on the same tree” fairly convincing.

Far North

The National Book Award nominees are out. In the fiction category, the nominees are:

Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press)
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W. W. Norton & Co.)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf)
Marcel Theroux, Far North (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

I mention this because I read Far North earlier this year, and thought it pretty good and interesting. Lydia Millet — one of the judges for this category, along with Alan Cheuse, Junot Díaz, Jennifer Egan, and Charles Johnson — raved about it for the Washington Post, although actually I find myself not so convinced by her review. Her opening is perhaps an over-ambitious claim — “Far North may well be the first great cautionary fable of climate change” — and while her conclusion that the book works because of “the imperfection of Makepeace’s understanding of her world, of the complex physical and social revolutions that brought her people to this post-apocalyptic pass” is right, I think, I’m not wild about her attempt to link it to contemporary American life.

Beyond Millet, it has not always been glowingly reviewed. M John Harrison, in The Guardian, found its approach unsatisfying:

There’s a lot of material packed into Far North. A revelatory narrative processes in fits and starts, withholding until last the things the reader most wants to know: how did the world get this way? How does it relate to the world we know? What are we being told about our own bad decisions? But by the time the revelations are made, it’s hard to care. The post-disaster world doesn’t really have a history, only a patchwork of bits and pieces whose existence is authorised by the story rather than the other way round. Despite its centrality in Theroux’s argument, the landscape lacks presence. And apart from Makepeace herself, the characters are not much more than ideograms, each with a simple, formal purpose in the text – the pregnant woman, the gangmaster, the religious lunatic and so on. When one of them develops a backstory and complex motivations, all you feel is surprise: the gaunt narrative suddenly blossoms into a Hollywood plot.

He also argues that “It forgives us our trespasses too soon and too completely.” In The New York Times, Jeff VanderMeer seems to have had similar qualms about the ending, but would have preferred less explanation:

But echoes have their own integrity and resonance. The true flaws in Far North are the coincidences that artificially tie Makepeace’s past to the novel’s present. Without the author’s prodding, would Makepeace really return to the same settlement where she’d already escaped from religious fanatics? Is it believable that the person responsible for Makepeace’s disfigurement runs the work camp? The reader doesn’t need banal explanations, and Makepeace doesn’t need the closure.

In The Telegraph, Tim Martin usefully points out the book’s (real, I think) nod to Stalker/Roadside Picnic, even if he thinks it’s tied up with pacing problems in the second half:

The magic begins to fade in the second half of the book, in which Makepeace, through a series of reversals, finds herself first a prisoner, then a guard in a work camp near the Zone. The conclusion to the narrative – which produces a figure from the distant past to speed things along, a shameless McGuffin in the form of a canister of healing blue light and a final revelation that’s pure Hollywood – feels rushed and out of step with the reflective tone of the rest of the book. Until about 40 pages from the end, Far North feels as though it’ll be the slightly bumpy first book of a promising trilogy: then Theroux begins channelling Stalker, and the book embarks on a headlong sprint to an unsatisfying finish.

Other than Millet’s, the most positive review I’m aware of is Dan Hartland’s, at Strange Horizons, which picks out the book’s Western heritage:

What all this amounts to is a novel which doesn’t practice ambivalence without aiming for safety; a book with a number of cross-currents, which refuses to settle one way or the other, and one which derives its richness from these internal struggles: a weak dystopia, but an informed contribution; a gender puzzle but one uninterested in pushing the study further than the bounds of the character allows. If Theroux does not possess the poetic vision of McCarthy, he is still some way ahead of many other writers in crafting a novel which works its sometimes strong, sometimes weak, sometimes competing threads lightly and decoratively. Much of what is here builds up slowly, by cross-reference, by evocation and allusion, and Makepeace is by novel’s end, if not precisely a revolutionary study in cross-gender role-playing, then nevertheless a solid character with her own particular voice. (So particular, in fact, that early on the reader would be forgiven for thinking it is a voice with discrepancies—the faux-cowboy clunker “I didn’t know him from the oriential Adam”, for instance, or her fortitudinous, “the sight of that made me come over a bit queer”—whereas in reality Theroux is simply brave enough to let it jar as it should.)

In Clint Eastwood’s 1992 anti-Western, Unforgiven, a character begs, “I don’t deserve . . . to die like this.” His killer, the film’s hero, responds plainly, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” The new Western’s stoic acceptance that the white hats do not always win is more honest, and more in tune with science fiction’s tendency towards the apocalypse or singularity, than its traditional authorising and normalising aesthetic. It also informs every page of Far North, a novel which is carefully written and advisedly magpie-like, and which despite its weaknesses, tensions and evasions, depicts a character and a people who do not deserve to live in the time they do but are intent on survival now they must. It makes for an ambivalent book on all levels; but at times such a novel can leave a reader with more for later than a book more perfectly formed and finally stated.

For my own part, I thought the book more successful than most recent examples of its ilk, and very well controlled; I actually thought the first few chapters more awkward than the closing ones, in part because I read the change in pace that Martin diagnosed as deliberately wrong. My review is here, and there’s at least one paragraph in there that, looking at it now, desperately needs another draft, but I’m still quite happy with the conclusion:

But in this novel it is horribly out of place, jarring, and ultimately Makepeace, and the narrative, discard it. What happens then is that Makepeace escapes, and returns home, where life will go on, regardless of the wider world. This should not be mistaken for a valorization of a “simple life.” “There’s plenty of things I’d like to unknow,” Makepeace tells us at one point, “but you can’t fake innocence.” And then a crucial insight: “Not knowing is one thing, pretending not to know is deception” (99). So her decision to retreat to a self-imposed simplicity, removed from engagement with the world, should be understood with a sadness verging on despair. Makepeace isn’t in at the end of everything, it’s not the end of the world; but, she has decided, it is the end of a world that can afford to remember its past; it’s too late to go back to a world that could cross that gap between present and past. There’s only forward, and for that, the simple ways do, indeed, endure, more than the complexities of civilization. But a blank page is never a cause for celebration.

In sum: worth a look, I’d say, and I’m not sorry to see it getting more attention.


I’ve posted my additional thoughts about “Divining Light“; thanks to everyone else who read the story and commented. Hopefully discussion will continue …

What’s interesting to me about Clute’s review of Half a Crown, and the reason it has made sure what was already pretty likely beforehand, that I will read the Small Change trilogy, is that it seems to me to contain or imply an interesting set of ideas about what dystopian fiction is and does, and how it works. For starters, there’s the implied question of whether you can write a dystopia with a happy, or even relatively happy, ending. A friend of mine observed recently (in a separate discussion) that there’s a reason most dystopias end with a boot stamping on the face of humanity, forever; it’s because dystopias are almost always intended to warn in some way, and if they end with a boot stamping on the face of humanity, for a while, the force of that warning inevitably gets dissipated in some way. Is that the case? How might a story get around it? What might be gained that might compensate for that lack of force, if it does occur? There are also the arguments Clute advances about formula and technique. It’s Clute’s argument (as I read it) that, however effective the narrow perspective is in the first two books, by the time you get to the third book it starts to look like avoidance. This seems plausible; it also seems like something that might vary from reader to reader. (Indeed, based on the fact that Clute’s is the only reaction to Small Change even remotely this negative, it seems that it certainly dose vary from reader to reader.) Why? Similarly, Clute argues that Small Change’s adherence to a formal structure makes its ending — however historically grounded it may be — unconvincing as fiction because it makes the fall of a fascist government look like “a plot twist”; in other words, makes it look in some sense unearned, or trivial, which retroactively diminishes the achievement of the trilogy. This may just be a potential pitfall of fiction that wishes to adhere to a formula, even in homage; or it may be something that particularly afflicts dystopian fiction. I find it more interesting to think about, at any rate, than Benjamin Kunkel’s article about dystopianism. (See also.)

I’m still rather enjoying Isvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr’s The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. I mentioned the “novum” chapter in this post; the book as a whole is built around discussion of a number of “attractors” that Csicsery-Ronay Jr has identified as characteristic elements of sf, and contains a version of the argument that we are living in inherently science-fictional times that’s a bit more grounded than most I’ve read. Had I been a bit more patient, however, I could have used more of the book with reference to my discussion of Bernadine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots, namely some of the comments made in the discussion on “Future History”. Csicsery-Ronay Jr (yes, I have to check myself every single time I write that name, why do you ask?) is particularly attached to sf as a venue for various kinds of play; so although he identifies several kinds of future history common to sf, including utopian/revolutionary (change brought about by conscious action on the part of humanity) and evolutionary (change brought about as a result of unconscious, adaptive forces), his clear favourite is what he terms “dispersive” histories, in which change is essentially random, or (and this is what made it seem relevant to Blonde Roots) somehow walled off from the real we know.

It is sometimes said that any prophesied future that does not come to pass becomes a divergent reality. […] The more of these a public is exposed to, the less naive they become about projections, and the more comfortable with alternate histories that lack causal connections with the familiar present. Quantity turns to quality: so many predictions have been made, so many fictive prophecies have become uchronias and “fantastic philosophy”, that they rival the number of sincere predictions. Reading sf now incorporates the discounting process of already viewing it as an alternative timeline or retrofuture.
By disrupting the temporal logic of continuity with the present, alternative histories appear to renounce the ethical seriousness of the revolutionary and evolutionary paradigms. If there is no connection, how can there be responsibility? On the surface, such dispersed worlds lack even the minimal gravity of other kinds of uture history. It makes sense to view this scattering as an example of the flattening of historical consciousness that Jameson considers a defining quality of postmodernism. The sense of the continuity of unidirectional time lived toward death and succeeding generations, which links the experience of individual life with collective history, is replaced by an infinite array. […] The abstract dispersal of realities frees them not only from the burden of an inexorable past, but from the resistance of nature and embodiment altogether. (97-8)

That last sentence, in particular, seems a good way of summing up what I think Evaristo was aiming for — freedom from the burden of an inexorable past — without losing the ability to comment on that past, and on our present.

I’m not happy about this change to the David Gemmell Legend Award rules [pdf]:

After receiving lots of feedback from fans, readers and industry alike, we at the
DGLA have – after much deliberation – come to the decision to make the David
Gemmell Legend Award completely publicly voted.

This means that once the Longlist closes, the top 5 novels will be put forward to the
Shortlist Poll and YOU will be able to have the final say about who should win, by
voting once more on the shortlist! Readers and fans will be involved at every step to
produce our winner.

What was interesting about the Award, to me, was precisely that the final stage was juried; I was looking forward to seeing how the judges evaluated the award’s criteria. While popular vote awards certainly have their place, I can’t muster the enthusiasm for another one right now.