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. ]

2 thoughts on “Paracosmic”

  1. hot honey and lemon all the way and what is ‘proper’ science fiction when it’s at home in any case – an interesting question and perhaps the answer to the question ‘why can’t I get myself out of this transition?’ less rules! more punk attitude!

  2. Palimpsests was previously the title of a novel in Terry Carr’s Ace Specials line by the great, neglected Carter Scholz in collaboration with Glenn Harcourt.

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