Paracosmic

So, hello again. Mixed news from Planet Dissertation today: on the plus side, I’ve got a much better (working) title (more on this in a bit), and I’ve got nudging up to 3k of first draft done already; less rosy, I’ve bogged down badly over the last two days or so.

Reasons for this are potentially manifold. For a start, I think I may be coming down with some sort of plague. I woke up on Monday feeling like my lower back had been pummelled with a socket wrench while I slept; experience dictates that this either means I drank way too much the day before or am undergoing some sort of viral assault, and I had maybe two beers all of Sunday. That said, Saturday was a bit more drinky, and involved lots of walking and sitting on awkwardly made pub benches… but I’ve felt rum as hell all day today also, which I’m also trying to put down to other environmental factors, in a kind of desperate attempt at coercing reality itself by barraging it with evidence in favour of my preferred conclusion… so, yeah. Maybe I’m ill, or just a bit run down. No biggie, but, well, schedules – and quality material is hard to come by when my body’s shouting too loud for the brain to work. Slow progress, like ploughing a concrete field with a toy tractor.

Also: I have continued to read Burroughs, to the point where I have decided to stop for a while. Like so many drug-centric writers, he attained something of the same power as the drug that obsessed him. I’d forgotten how much you sink into Burroughs’ writing, like a warm clean bath taken in the bathroom of a filthy squat paved with used needles and empty wraps… and once you’re in there, the prospect of getting out looks very unappealing. And in your own local consensus reality (should you venture there, as I must from time to time), you notice something newly chitinous about your fellow pedestrians, a horrible mechanical grace, a speeding-up of action and urgency like something out of a wartime newsreel, herky-jerky every limb and grinding jaw, Max Schreck lurches and the leers of cornered foxes… Burroughs gets into every cell, tries to make you into him, a colony, your DNA rewriting itself before starting on your body from the inside out, a nanofactory that consumes itself to produce its one and only possible product. What you read can definitely affect you physically — I remember taking two sick-days running off one of my old factory jobs after reading Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, which I spent laying in bed, exhausted and weepy, battering my mind with cheap soapbar hash in the hope of being able to sleep without dreams. Perhaps I’ve overdone it on Burroughs, cooked a grain too many for the comeback spike. If I turkey off immediately after this binge, though, I might just get away without and further ill effects…

… unless that assumption is in and of itself one of said effects, in which case the mugwumps are probably disembarking at Sloane Square as I type. Point being, I’m headed up to Sheffield for work on Thursday afternoon, and I could really do with not getting ill right now. Selah.

Now, yeah, titles. I really liked the original working title I had for this… thing I’m writing, for the sake of the word itself and also because it sums up one of the dominant motifs of the fictional world in question. Regrettably for me, a certain Charlie Stross and a certain Catherynne Valente have both written very well-received (and well remembered) stories with the title Palimpsest in the last fistful of years, so I can’t use that, and have know it from the start. (OK, technically I could use it, there’s nothing to stop me, but it would haunt me forever, because that’s the way my brain works. Selah.) But in a serendipitous fashion, an alternative just rolled on out of my Twitter timestream this afternoon, courtesy Gary Gibson.

A definition of paracosm:

paracosm is a detailed imaginary world involving humans and/or animals, or perhaps even fantasy or alien creations. Often having its own geography, history, and language, it is an experience that is developed during childhood and continues over a long period of time: months or even years.

Now, any genre writer or critic will recognise that as being either a fully-fledged secondary world, or something that would wander toward the liminal fantasies of Farah Mendleshohn’s deliberately provocative taxonomy of fantastic literature: fantasies where the demarcation between the ‘real’ world and the fantastical elements in play – not to mention the actuality of their fantastic-ness (fantasticality?) – is elusive for the reader, and very often for the narrators too. (I’m probably mangling that definition a bit, but I plan to go back and re-read that chapter sometime soon, so I’ll leave it for now.) But the suggestion of childhood and immaturity around paracosm as a term fits nicely, because I’ve realised that what I’m really doing with this novella is exorcising a whole load of mental baggage associated with Portsmouth and the years I spent there, flailing my way through adolescence and a succession of rewritten selfs/identities.

Which sounds absurdly pretentious, of course, and makes it little different from much of my writing to date, but this story is much more explicitly set in a recognisable Portsmouth, and isn’t going to be a ‘proper’ science fiction or fantasy story. It’s a slipstreamy kind of thing, and the metafictional aspects make that even more slippery; I’m deep into unknown territory, here, and kinda making it up as I go along. Which is why it’s incredibly frustrating to get bogged down – if I can make anything happen, why can’t I get myself out of this transition?

The obvious answer is that I can get myself out of it, and that I just haven’t found the right route yet… and it occurs to me that thinking about paracosms might help me find it. (As might reading less Burroughs.) So, that’s the plan: pick something new to read, read it, and head back to the cliff-face tomorrow with my pickaxe all shone up and sharpened.

And that, ladies and gents, is how you publicly pep-talk yourself out of a writing funk.

Can’t believe I never tried it before.

[ Physician’s note: all optimism herein should be considered retrospectively null and void in the event of poor progress tomorrow. The patient must not be unduly encouraged in these grotesque performative ramblings. ]

23 skidoo!

So, welcome to the first of hell knows how many (or how few) Dissertation Diary entries. Analysis of our creative work is an important component of the grade, with an emphasis on analysing process, inspiration and sources. This means some sort of documentation of the process is necessary; I’ll need to mine it heavily for the ‘rationale’ piece, so I can demonstrate what I was trying to do, and what I did to achieve that. It’s a surprisingly difficult way to think about my own work, even though it’s a component of the ‘critical mode’ that I apply to everything else I read. An odd little ego-firewall built into the brain, there; like a Dunning-Kruger prophylactic.

Now, the way I write means I kinda end up self-documenting as I go; it’s a by-product of the process. When I have a question about what needs to happen next, or where a character wants to go, or even just which compass-point I should be pointing the plot-jalopy toward, I tend to just literally ask myself that question and answer it on the page in front of me (screen, notebook, whatever). I picked this method up from reading John Berlyne’s mammoth work of obsessive fan-scholarship, Powers: Secret Histories, which includes images of pages from Powers’ original scripts and notebooks, where you can see him doing just that[1]. “So, maybe Harry’s just lost his job? That could be good — but no, he needs to keep the job a bit longer because Sally will meet him there, but not until after her courtcase, which hasn’t happened at this point (though we could have the courtcase scene earlier on as a false flag)…” (I’m not paraphrasing there so much as showing you how it works out on the page when I do it.)

This leaves me with a bunch of metadata chunks that describe how I came up with the chunk of text-proper that follows it. The transition from one to the other can happen mid-sentence, and often does (techniques that get the words coming out are the ones that get kept). While it’s not common for me to argue about technique in these braindumps, they stand as a window into my own mindset as I wrote them, and that will make the storying of the stylistic choices I make during writing and editing far easier, as well as sounding more self-reflective than saying “that’s just how it looked like it should be written, y’know?”(which, if I’m honest, is about as much as I can ever recall of the process of writing immediately after the process has ceased… assuming, of course, that the true fugue-state of Actual Writing has happened; by contrast, I can recall every single second spent in the more easily-accessed state of Trying To Write, in horrible and vivid detail.)

All of which is a rambling way of explaining that whatever gets posted here will be like the next layer of meta-ness out from those raw notes. I will probably do some kicking around of the bigger questions that crop up in the writing processs here, not least because – beyond the initial concept and character and a few ideas for set-pieces – I’m making it up as I go along. This is a deliberate choice, and a chance to push against a long-held personal hang-up, the “you can’t start writing the story until you can see the whole of its shape in your mind” fallacy. The first half of the course has convinced me this isn’t the case (or at least isn’t a cast-iron Law), and writing in a different way will make me more conscious of process, which in turn will make the documentation of said process easier. That’s the theory, anyway. Yeah.

Speaking of theory, though, the novella-to-be is already veering hard into metafictional territory (which wasn’t unexpected), so I figure a record of contextual guff might be useful, or at least interesting (to me). Especially as I’m planning to do some cut-up stuff in the text. Which brings me (finally, elliptically) to the title of this post. Now, as I’m doing cut-ups, I need to be going to some good primary sources, and who’s the man for cut-ups? Ol’ Bill Burroughs, of course. So I got myself Word Virus, the Burroughs ‘reader’ anthology, and dug up his original article on the method (which is now manifold, with dozens of re-annotated or re-introduced examples scattered all over the intertubes).

Now, Burroughs is a sychronicity trigger, perhaps because of his own fascination with sychronicity. I’ve also heard this called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon – a phenomenon whereby shortly after first encountering a concept or idea or person, you subsequently run into loads of things that connect back to it or them in really obvious ways. Think of it as a more paranoid version of “6 degrees of Kevin Bacon”, if you like; it’s a pattern-making mind connecting three dots and calling it an elephant, perhaps. Whatever the cause, it happens, and it always feels odd, like a mild deja vu that rings on for weeks with occasional spikes of volume or intesity, like the chime of a temple gong.

Today’s example, for your delectation (or for posterity, or to kill the time while I wait for them to finally announce whether BoJo gets to keep his crown for another four years). While doin’ my Inbox Zero, I find an email from a guy telling me about the piece he wrote for the LA Review Of Books for the A E van Vogt’s centenary. So I click through, and there’s a page of all his van Vogt pieces all linked in a row. Scroll down to the World of Null-A review, encounter reference to Alfred Korzybski and his theory of general semantics. Look up Korzybski on Wikipedia… discover footnote to the effect that Burroughs went to one of Korzybski’s workshops. See?

So I took things to Twitter, as I am wont to do. My reasons for including the results should become clear upon reading them:

The sphincter of Theory

While bleating about the inevitable synchronicities attendant on reading Bill Burroughs…

Storified by Paul Graham Raven · Fri, May 04 2012 18:46:41

"There are two ways to slide easily through life: to believe everything or to doubt everything; both ways save us from thinking." KorzybskiPaul Graham Raven
As I probably should have seen, reinvestigating Burroughs for my dissertation is becoming a cascading tree of sychronicities…Paul Graham Raven
Even when I go to look up something that seems unrelated for a different purpose, it all points back to Burroughs…Paul Graham Raven
Question is, given metafictional status of dissertation piece already established, can i fold these synchronicities back into the text?Paul Graham Raven
I may have disappeared up what a writer of my acquaintance once referred to as "the sphincter of Theory".Paul Graham Raven
@PaulGrahamRaven as long as you cite your question on twitter in the references, I think it is fineS0B
@PaulGrahamRaven I didn’t even understand the question…Matt Wingett
@S0B But that means I’ll have to also cite your reply, and this counter-reply… #dividebyzeroPaul Graham Raven
@paulgrahamraven: hopefully not into The Colon of No Return.Brendan Carney Byrne
@PaulGrahamRaven What would Žižek do?S0B
@S0B He’d say "the problem is not that Kung Fu Panda is inherently socialist; it’s that he doesn’t appear not to be", maybe.Paul Graham Raven
@BrendanCByrne Semicolon, Shirley? ;)Paul Graham Raven
@PaulGrahamRaven “the moment we subtract fictions from reality, reality itself loses its discursive-logical consistency.” as well you knowS0B
@paulgrahamraven: don’t call me, Shirley. looks like I picked a bad day to quit painkillers. etc etc.Brendan Carney Byrne
@PaulGrahamRaven Use more lube^Wdirect social engagement.Eleanor Saitta

Hmm. Well, I guess when you’re doing cut-ups, everything’s literally grist for the mill.

And that’s probably enough DD for now, as I’ve put in about the same wordcount on it as I have today’s fiction output. There may be more of this to come. Hell, at some point I might even get around to explaining the concept, explaining why that concept led inevitably to metafiction, and explaining (to myself, in increasing panic) why I thought any of it was a good idea when I started.

[ 1 – The great irony is that I have yet to read a Powers novel in published form. ]

253 (Print Remix) by Geoff Ryman

253 by Geoff RymanI’ve known of 253 (a.k.a. Tube Theatre) for quite some time, but I’ve only just read it, after stumbling across the (Philip K Dick Award-winning) print remix in the dealer’s room at Eastercon. Its original incarnation was as a website – which still exists, seemingly untouched and untweaked since it was built in 1996. Wikipedia would have me believe that Robert Arellano’s Sunshine 69 was “the World Wide Web’s first interactive novel”, published in June 1996; I can’t find an accurate date for 253‘s launch, but it seems reasonable to say that even if it came out after Arellano’s work, it was still very much in the vanguard of web-native hypertext fictions. I used to read Wired in ’96 – dead-tree editions, of course, imported from the States – and remember the repeated pre-emptive obituaries for print media, and announcements of the imminence of the hypertext novel as the primary literary form of The Future. The former looks more likely now than it ever did, but still a long way off, while the latter – but for a small fringe scene – has remained resolutely below the radar, for reasons that are more obvious in hindsight. (I’m not going to waffle on about the paucity of viable business models for online fiction at this point; I’ve done enough of that at Futurismic over the years.) Continue reading 253 (Print Remix) by Geoff Ryman

Descending Olympus

So, that was Eastercon. My [stops to count old badges on lanyard] fifth, and my favourite so far. Well-organised, good fun; a great balance of the familiar and the new; old friends and fresh acquaintances…

… and some dramatic props. [Thanks to Chad Dixon for the photo.]

Iron Throne

I often compare Eastercon to my experiences of Glastonbury back in my twenties: it costs me a fortune, I overindulge in my usual vices, I see less than a third of the stuff I vaguely planned to see, but yet I roll away with a warm glow that comes from sharing a highly specific chunk of space-time with a community of people who share one of the greatest passions of my life, inspired to do new things.

Granted, I’ve never left Eastercon coated in mud, wrapped in a space blanket and trying to chew my own left ear, so the analogy isn’t perfect. I’m pretty sure I never came back from Glasto carrying approximately a third of my own bodyweight in books, either. But hey, I need the exercise… and my Bruce Sterling collection draws nearer to Stage One completion[1].

Eastercon book acquisitions

Olympus was not utterly devoid of controversy and upset, however, and I find myself wanting to talk about that. After the initial heat-of-the-moment furore, what would really have helped would have been a good solid apology and admission of error from the primary source, but… well, this ain’t one.

So, look: you can watch what actually happened right here, and whatever side you take I think that’s gotta be the absolute entry level for having an opinion on this, unless you were actually at the BSFA Awards ceremony. And here’s a record of the Twitter backchannel as it happened.

I was in the audience. Things went from cringeworthy to worse; it was the sort of thing the “trainwreck” metaphor was made for. I was sat a few seats from Lavie Tidhar at the time. That was a very uncomfortable moment for me, as a straight white male British person who just happens to be Lavie’s friend. I can’t imagine how he felt… especially given that early in the day an audience member from the Non-Anglophone SF panel had breezed up to inform him that, despite English being Lavie’s second language, he spoke it very well indeed. Condescending, much?

The common factor here is that both cases of offence were not intended to offend – quite the opposite, in fact. But that doesn’t negate the offence.

The sad thing about this, for me at least, is that Olympus felt very diverse and inclusive with respect to its roster of guests, panel topics and panel composition; a real step forward, even within the short timeframe of my own involvement with fandom. The con committee and the BSFA worked damned hard to make that happen, and as much as I believe it’s important that the failures are acknowledged, I think the good stuff needs to be remembered, too; the sheer scale of effort and passion needed to make these things happen is staggering, and to overlook that energy and commitment would be grossly unfair, no matter what may have gone wrong along the way. So, for the record, let me congratulate the BSFA and the Olypus con committee, the gophers and techs and the folk behind the scenes: I wouldn’t even know where to start, and there was oodles of great stuff over the weekend for which praise is rightly due. There’s a tendency for the baby to go the same way as the bathwater in these situations, and in terms of the grand project – making fandom a space where everyone can feel safe, valued and included, regardless of gender, nationality, skin colour, sexuality or anything else – I feel that it would help to acknowledge that, as a community, we’re “working on our shit”, as the saying goes.

But that’s my privilege speaking, and I know it. It’s easy for me to sit here and hand-wring, rehearse weak or global versions of a The Tone Argument, and recruit for the Cult Of Nice. I’m a white able-bodied just-about-heterosexual cis-male British person, and as such it’s incredibly rare that anyone gets a platform to give my culture a proper kicking, deserved or otherwise. (And hell knows it’s deserved more often than not.)

It’s never pleasurable to have worked damned hard on something, only to have someone pull out the flaws and wave them in your face. But in the context of, say, writing fiction and subbing it to editors for publication, it’s widely acknowledged that that’s how you get better. Yeah, it hurts. Emotional growth, at least in my experience, always does. If the choice is pain or stasis, though, then pain it has to be.

One final thing: I am not holding myself up as an exemplar, here. I owe what personal politicisation I’ve achieved over the last decade to fandom – to debates and discussions (yes, and slapfights) just like this one. Hell knows that I’ve said countless dumb or offensive things over the years, secure and comfortable in my ignorance and privilege, and my unwarranted opinion of myself as a pretty progressive liberal kinda guy, thankyouverymuch. You could probably trawl through the archives right here at VCTB and find enough material to throw me right into the same sin-bin as Meaney, in fact, if not even a deeper one with sharper spikes. Perhaps you could even say that my invisibility was an added layer of privilege; it’s easy to get away with being thoughtless when thoughtlessness is ubiquitous, just one more voice in the crowd.

It is not for me to stand in judgement atop the mountain of the gods.

But this is my community, too, so nor is it for me to ignore or dismiss the hurt I see expressed by others less privileged than I, especially when some of them are people I count as good friends… and there’s a significant amount of it floating around on the intertubes today. (If you’ve not seen any, then perhaps it’s time for you to go look for it.)

I honestly believe the vast majority of us want fandom to be inclusive and welcoming to everyone, even if we aren’t quite as far along with that project as we’d like to think we are. So if I could have one wish, it’s that we keep to the inclusive spirit with which Olympus was put together and executed, and listen to those who are telling us that the story we tell each other (and ourselves) about our community has flaws that still need editing out.

Redrafting sucks. But it’s the only way to make the story better.


[ 1 – Stage One completion involves acquiring one copy of all extant titles, in or out of print; Stage Two will involve trading up all titles to the best editions available, preferably signed hardback firsts. I did a lot of collecting of various things as a kid, and nowadays I realise the best way to get lasting value from assembling a collection is to delimit the set and pick a completion goal with very low likelihood; non-set-limited collections soon lose their appeal for me (because how will you ever know when you’re done?), and completion means you have to find a new thing to collect. Think of it as a sort of vice management strategy; accept the inevitability of the vice, then steer it as safely and cheaply as possible into a cul-de-sac that you think you could live in for a good long time.

Yes, this is how I think about my hobbies. No, I don’t know why. It works for me. Selah. ]

Moveable feast

So, Easter rolls around once more.

In recent years, Easter has become the pivot point of my annual circuit around the sun; Eastercon has a little to do with that, as does the standard 12-month rented housing contract. It’s probably amplified by the fact that I don’t celebrate Xmas or my birthday, too. Which isn’t to say I celebrate Easter, as such; I just tend to find myself looking around – in varying states of wonder and confusion – at the state of my life at this time of year.

Last Easter, for instance, I was making the move back to Velcro City from Stockport. The Easter before… well, we won’t rake over that again, though I made it to Eastercon that year, which probably went a fair way to helping me avoid some sort of full-scale nervous breakdown. (Not something Eastercon is regularly accused of, I’m willing to bet.)

So, what do I see from this year’s fulcrum? Looking backwards, I can make out the first half of my Masters: six hectic months of hard but thrilling work, running in parallel with me learning the ropes of my Research Assistant post. Before that, a long and lazy spring’n’summer in Velcro City, which took me back to its fractious bosom without so much as a “where you been, brah?” It was good, and just what I needed – a proper reboot, a return to familiarity and comfort after my long sabbatical on the banks of the Styx.

But I also feel like it cured me of something. By going back, I was able to leave again on my own terms, and for the right reasons. Stockport was grim because it felt like penance for my naivete and failure, and P-Town came to represent a normalisation point, a load-from-saved-game-and-start-again. I like to think I’m blitzing the level this time through, if only by comparison to last time.

Looking ahead (and ignoring, for the sake of convenience, the hand-in date for my spring semester assignments the week after next), it’s five months of dissertation, plus more infrastructure research for my patient employers at the Pennine Water Group. Come September or so, once I’ve handed my dissertation in, it’ll be time to move out of London. Where will I go? I’m not sure yet, to be honest, but I’ll need to start thinking about it sooner rather than later.

I also need to think about what comes next. If I do well enough in my Masters (and I have some hope that I might), then I might well apply to do a PhD. But in what, and with whom, and where? I have some ideas, but it’s all very nebulous at this point. I need to learn more about the upper echelons of academia before trying to make those decisions, I suspect. And I need to finish these assignments.

But first, it’s Eastercon – a long weekend of hanging out with friends, talking about books and writing, and boozy fun-times.

After that? Well, we’ll have to wait and see.

Science fiction, science fact, and all that's in between …