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Reviews of books that don’t exist

It mat not have been appreciated as such by the readership, but one of the great personal coups of my editorship of Futurismic was persuading the redoubtable Adam Roberts to provide a series of his reviews of imaginary books* for the site (which is, a little surprisingly, still online, despite its original founder reclaiming the domain name from me a little while ago.). The review-of-an-imagined-text is a genre of writing that lets Roberts do Roberts in a very concise format, and one is never quite sure whether he’s simply burning off fiction ideas that weren’t worthy of being developed at greater length, cocking a snook at the conventions and peccadilloes of genre fiction in general, or lampooning reviewing as both a genre of writing and a literary enterprise; it may well be all three at once, or perhaps none of them. You can decide for yourself, as today’s installment of the protracted Pornokitsch swansong** is a batch of said reviews, which I commend unto you.

(They’ve billed them as “imaginary reviews”, which slightly irks my taxonomic instincts: the reviews are not imaginary at all because, well, there they are; it’s the books they describe which are imagined! But that’s the sort of dancing-angel-counting that makes me an instinctive fan of Roberts’ writing, I suppose… and why I ended up writing an essay — for this book — that took the form of a review of an imaginary remix of one of Adam’s books, which ended up being nominated for an award for non-fiction writing, despite being on at least one level, if not more than one, completely fictional. Which is itself a rather Robertsean sort of irony.)

* – Not always books, actually; the final installment of The Adam Roberts Project was a rather excoriating review of an actually-existing album, namely Tarkus by Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It was one of the most-commented-upon pieces the site ever ran, due to its being discovered by a succession of ageing prog-rock fans whose humourlessness and petulance served only to validate every cliche about humourless and petulant prog rock fans.

** – I’m not entirely sure why the Pornokitsch crew have decided to wind their site down, beyond the post that explains they’d always stop when it stopped being fun, and that it had stopped being sufficiently fun. I suspect that things would be clearer were I still on social media, but I further suspect that their reasons for winding down are in some part similar to my reasons for quitting social media, and that Pornokitsch is yet another redoubt surrendered to the seemingly interminable genre fiction blog-wars. Sad to see them go, but I can’t say I blame them; as the old aphorism goes, there’s little point in wrestling with a pig, because you end up covered in filth and the pig enjoys it. Re-reading the comment thread beneath Adam’s review of Tarkus (linked above), I realise that I took a while to realise that myself.

Feersum endjinn

Or “what I did on my mid-week day off”: The River Don Engine, now housed at Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield, UK. The largest working steam engine left in Britain, and quite possibly in the world.

I was surprised by how quiet the engine itself was, though I imagine that’s partly down to it now being powered by a gas-fueled boiler in another part of the complex, rather than a big ol’ firebox like it had back in the days when it was used for rolling steel plate as thick as your hand is wide for battleship armour, reactor shielding etc etc. The audience of kids are pretty loud, though.

A few stills included below, for those who I’m sure would have rather seen the crankshaft moving… but that would’ve meant getting in the way of the school-trip audience, and I’m not quite that much of a dick.

Posting this well-tuned engine largely because a well-tuned engine is the exact opposite of what today is turning out to be. Sympathetic industrial magic, innit.


Hard to start again

I’m not sure how many times I’ve tried (more or less performatively, depending on my prevailing level of insecurity) to restart the habit of regular blogging, and I don’t think counting them will make it any easier. Nonetheless I’m left with a lingering sense that it should be easy — because hey, there was a good five years or so during which I spent four or five hours knocking out two to four posts every weekday! (Let’s leave the issue of the quantity/quality ratio for another day, eh?)

But I fell out of the routine… and my life (like everyone else’s) was a very different shape back then. Indeed, perhaps habit would be a better word than routine, for while those were productive times, they were not healthy times, and hindsight suggests that blogging was filling a space where reliably remunerative employment and unmediated social interaction should have been.

But it’s not that simple, because blogging was never quite the flagpole-sitter routine it gets portrayed as these days. Sure, there was a big component of I’ve Built A Soapbox And I’m Gonna Use It, but I think the reason I was able to let it stand in for a more diverse and immediate social life was that there was a palpable sense of collectivity and community about it: this huge, roiling and multivalent discourse going on, countless conversations rolling perpetually around the planet like the reality-warping mobile city in Christopher Priest’s Inverted World, always hot on the heels of the solar terminator*. I used to wake up some mornings anxious to know how some narrative or another had developed overnight, compelled to add my own voice to discussions which seemed utterly vital at the time, but many of which, with hindsight (and contrasted with the concerns of the present), seem banal and masturbatory at best. And so it goes.

(* I should maybe  re-read Doctorow’s Eastern Standard Tribe, because I suspect it will stand very much as an artefact of its time of writing, as all the better bits of science fiction tend to do.)

Of course, that rolling discourse hasn’t vanished; it just migrated onto faster, more accessible and more populous platforms, and in doing so became far faster, far thinner, and far more clamorous. Sure, there’s still blogging going on, too, but it’s changed a lot, and in some places died back almost entirely: the Genre Fiction Blog Wars in which I was once a footsoldier appear to have gone full scorched-earth in the years since I went AWOL from the front lines, with many once-vital sites vanished, shuttered or abandoned; my RSS reader is full of URLs I still can’t quite bear to cull, in case they should suddenly start up again like a much-loved numbers station in the night. I’m looking for new sources more relevant to my current incarnation as an academic, but the process is slow, not least because the old tradition of cross-linking and inter-site commentary (and, yes, argument) has been replaced by something more decontextualised, more lone(ly)-voices-in-the-wilderness. I dunno, maybe it’s just me overinterpreting five years of change through a very personal lens, but it’s definitely not the same any more; you can make your own value-judgement on that qualitative shift.

But I’m pretty confident in saying that the longer, slower and more nuanced style of discourse has been superseded by the rapid-fire fracas of social media, which I have made a very clear decision to stay away from for the forseeable future, and very likely in perpetuity. It clearly has value for a great many people, but it now reminds me of nothing more than the baffling and triggery politics of the schoolyard, all cliques and shouting and posture… and I can’t operate under those conditions, for an assortment of reasons rooted in both my mental health and my philosophical positionality. (Yes, that probably does sound whiney, pompous and over-intellectualised; and therein lies the problem.)

But I suspect that the metadifficulty in reestablishing a blogging practice is that I no longer have the very certain conception of my audience that I used to have… and as any writer worth their salt will tell you, you have to have a vision of your readership in order to write well, even if that envisioned readership (as it often is for fiction writers, and possibly always should be) is simply the reader one sees in the mirror. So I’m going to start posting whatever the hell I feel like writing about, in a return to to the old blogging-as-self-discipline-and-public-outboard-memory model. If an audience appears, perhaps that’ll show me some directions worth turning toward, but I’m done counting on it: I have enough inscrutable audiences to perform for here in the ivory tower, and I don’t really need another one. As such, VCTB is henceforth a digital notebook that just happens to be public, rather than a platform for the projection of a personality that was never entirely mine (let alone entirely authentic) in the first place. It was fun and goal-oriented, until it wasn’t.

A lot of my old blogging momentum came from the assumption that I could somehow write myself into a career through sheer relentless productivity — literally by just turning up and churning it out — which with the benefit of hindsight was an unfortunate internalisation of exactly the sort of Content Provider role that The Stacks wanted us all to adopt, the better to farm us for profit. I think there’s maybe a reasonable argument to be made that it sort of worked, in that I wouldn’t have ended up making my odd, unexpected and distinctly crab-wise segue into the academy if I hadn’t done all that work, hadn’t learned to write (and write for an audience), hadn’t learned to argue effectively (or at least persistently), hadn’t interposed myself into worlds to which I’d previously had no access, hadn’t learned that the only thing that gets you anywhere in a no-alternatives capitalist world is hustle of one form or another…

But the me who started blogging here and at Futurismic did so in the naive expectation — and it really was an expectation, not just a hope — that it’d eventually parlay into some sort of real salaried job focussed on the wrangling of words. (The late Noughties, amirite?) And while I probably do a more intense form of word-wrangling than I ever really knew existed here in the precarious margins of the drought-stricken left-most groves of academe, I’m not much closer to stable employment than I’ve ever been (though my current perch of precarity is at least paying much better than I’ve ever been paid before). It’s a brand new scene, but it’s the same old hustle… and I feel old and tired in a way that was unimaginable to that optimistic and energetic keyboard [warrior/worrier] of 2008.

And it seems that — now as before, here as everywhere — hustle’s the only game in town. But nonetheless I find myself in need of a space for a weird non-hustle category of brain-dump material and hey-here’s-a-thing-I-saw that isn’t exactly intended for an audience, but nonetheless somehow feels like stuff that should flow into the boulevard, as Uncle Warren would have it.

Selah; we’ll see how it goes.

Ersatz moralities

It’s no coincidence that good guy/bad guy movies, comic books and games have large, impassioned and volatile fandoms – even the word ‘fandom’ suggests the idea of a nation, or kingdom. What’s more, the moral physics of these stories about superheroes fighting the good fight, or battling to save the world, does not commend genuine empowerment. The one thing the good guys teach us is that people on the other team aren’t like us. In fact, they’re so bad, and the stakes are so high, that we have to forgive every transgression by our own team in order to win.

Catherine Nichols on the false moral dichotomy of modern narrative at Aeon.