Category Archives: Writing

the influence of anxiety

Fredric Jameson, clearing his throat before a long piece (from 2007) on the half-centennial of Garcia Garquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude:

Influence is not a kind of copying, it is permission unexpectedly received to do things in new ways, to broach new content, to tell stories by way of forms you never knew you were allowed to use.

(Stumbled into from his more recent review of the new Olga Tokarczuk, which is being received with varying intensities of rapture in all sorts of places, though which all such rapturous receptions seem to suggest is quite a challenging work.)

a recurring theme in literary and cinematic history

This piece by Megan Marz at Real Life references a lot of (contemporary, literary?) fiction that I’m completely unfamiliar with, but in the context of a phenomenon I am more familiar with, and very interested in, as both a writer and a human being: the slipperiness and perpetual redefinition of the word story. The whole thing is well worth a read, even if you too are woefully under-read in the burgeoning field of autofiction* , as I am. This wonderful sentence is basically a summation of the whole thing, though, and is the bit I’d pullquote and tweet if I was still doing the birdsite:

“Story” is the story that writers tell about what they’re moving toward or away from.

Lovely.

[ * Most of this stuff, I’ll be honest, sounds dull as ditchwater to me in the summaries I encounter, despite my own keen interest in the demolition, subversion or abandonment of plot in written fiction. I also feel uncomfortable about feeling that way, because the demography of the genre suggests it may be a form of internalised misogyny on my part. Maybe I should write an autofictional piece about Some Guy who feels uncomfortable about not wanting to read autofiction because it sounds incredibly tedious? Strictly ironic, of course… but then irony’s as dead as narrative, they tell me. It’s lucky no one much really cares what I think, innit? ]

it may be a delusion arising from some sort of psychological damage

My most recent review filed at (but, I think, not yet published at?) the BSFA Review is of The Art of Space Travel, a collection of Nina Allan’s short fiction. It was a somewhat out-of-the-comfort-zone commission, which is exactly why I chose it; in addition to reading outside my home range, I’m also trying to write about that reading, because writing about reading tends to make me pay more attention to the reading. (Though this can sometimes make reading into something that feels close to being work, which is less than ideal… but then, if you write, reading is part of your work, isn’t it?)

Anyway, point being: while Allan is definitely a speculative writer, there’s a real singularity to her work, both stylistically and thematically, and that presents a challenge for reviewing. You want to describe what the work is doing—its affect, if you like—but you’re left stranded far away from your usual touchstones of comparison, grasping for a way to describe something which, while not exactly unprecedented, is not easily summed up.

This is, to be clear, the very best sort of challenge to have, and I find it fully endorses my choice to start reading more widely: I’m being stretched, as reader and writer alike. But it leaves the part of me that is a reviewer/critic with a sense of imposter syndrome it hasn’t had for many years: am I reading this right? Will anyone recognise the affect I’m trying to describe as the same one they encountered in the same work?

As such, it’s reassuring to read this bit from Paul Kincaid on Allan’s latest novel—a different book, to be sure, but the ontological duality (and associated epistemological doubt) that he describes here leaves me feeling that at least someone is seeing a similar mechanic underlying the production in question:

Nina Allan’s work occupies two worlds. One is our quotidian reality. This is privileged: it is where the novel opens and closes, it is unquestioned. This is the world we see around us, the one we take for granted as real. But at some point another world opens. We may spend some time there, but it remains little more than a glimpse, allowing us not quite enough to judge its nature. This world is questioned within the text, we are told to doubt it, but generally in a way that leaves us insecure in our doubt. This may be a realm as real as our own, it may be the fictional creation of one of the characters, or it may be a delusion arising from some sort of psychological damage. We do not know, we cannot be sure. But it profoundly affects the behaviour of at least one of the characters, so it is real to them.

In a way this is the trick that Christopher Priest pulled off in The Affirmation, but Allan does not collapse the two worlds into one at the end. This necessarily leaves everything ambivalent.

Two coextensive worlds, check; one world quotidian and unquestioned, one world strange and glimpsed only momentarily or fragmentarily, check; clear offer of off-ramps of doubt allowing—nay, sometimes even directing—the reader to dismiss the strange world as somehow imagined or false, check; ambivalence of enduring non-resolution of said worlds, check.

Yup, I feel a bit more confident about my own review, now. In the meantime, have you read any Nina Allan? You probably should; she’s bloody good.

a means of self-branding, hardened into postures

Offered without gloss or comment, other than “read the whole thing”.

Nor will a besieged establishment’s loud existential fears of ‘wokeness’ drown out this simple imperative: that to live attentively in our times, when voices long suppressed are beginning to be heard, is necessarily to awaken to centuries of brutal history. There is no question of the urgent need for more scholarship about insidiously steadfast modes of injustice and humiliation, and for fresh ideas about how to rethink our past, and to chart our way out of the present into a liveable future.

But they won’t be enough in themselves, especially if they are reduced to a means of self-branding, hardened into postures, and emptied of their ability to disturb entrenched opinion. No matter how potent and compelling our facts and ideas, we will still want to explore our moral and emotional lives: the intimate realm where the individual stands shorn of vain ideology, full of contradiction and irresolution. We can be most precisely known, and vividly revealed, even through blindingly fast historical change, by imaginative literature. Fiction will continue to speak its truths in the post-truth age.

a world where flesh and machine are in tension: re-reconsidering cyberpunk

Found myself nodding appreciatively at this re-reassessment of cyberpunk by Lincoln Michel:

Everyone has their own definitions of genres, but to me the essence of cyberpunk is not tied to the 1980s visual trappings that have defined it in video games and film. Cyberpunk isn’t merely neon signs or street toughs with high-tech leather jackets (or its problematic “Japan panic” legacy.) For me, the core of cyberpunk is first as science fiction that fundamentally recoils at the growing power of corporations and unchecked capitalism. That, as Fredric Jameson once said, cyberpunk is the “supreme literary expression…of late capitalism itself.” Secondly, that it is a genre that understands that technology is not clean. Technology is never implemented in smooth and even ways—it is always messy, always unequally accessed. Always (in our world) in service of power and systems.

“The street finds its own use for things,” yeah—the centrality (and deep truth) of that element often seems to be lost in a lot of the trashings of the genre that have been thrown around recently. Though by no means all of them: Doctorow’s take on k-punk as Luddite lit is typically idiosyncratic, and Madeline Ashby, with the eye of a novelist who is also a practising critical futurist, identifies the fundamental limitations of of the paleofutures—now four decades old—that underpin the genre as most commonly practised.

This is kind of Michel’s point, too, and he gets there by returning to the source and tracing the journey from the meat to the virtual:

Of course, thinking about the effects of technology on the human form is not new to cyberpunk. All genres have tendrils of influences and precedents that stretch back in time, but it seems fair to pick William Gibson’s seminal Neuromancer as ground zero. Gibson’s novel towers over the genre as surely as the Mount Doom of Tolkien rises above the realm of epic fantasy. And Gibson didn’t forget the body. From the first page of Neuromancer we are in a world where flesh and machine are in tension. We begin in a crowded bar filled with addicts and a bartender with a “prosthetic arm jerking monotonously…his teeth a webwork of East European steel and brown decay.” Our hero, Case, is suffering pain from his damaged nervous system. He has fallen “into the prison of his own flesh” without being able to access the matrix of cyberspace. Cyberspace is how Case escapes from the world of flesh. The meatspace.

Other ’80s works like Akira, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and Donna Haraway’s classic “A Cyborg Manifesto” were even more concerned with the mingling of the human form with technology. But by the 1990s it seems the genre—in the US and UK at least—focused ever more on the virtual realm, often in a giddy way. In the ’90s, the web was the “information superhighway” where anyone could be what they wanted unrelated to the real world. Later cyberpunk novels like Neal Stephenson’s satirical Snow Crash built on this idea of escaping into cyberspace, imagining a cyberspace that is a fantasy video game world. Escapism within escapism. Even the virtual representations of bodies were incorporeal.

Michel’s own approach is to look not at information technology, which he has consciously made banal in his own work, and to focus instead on biotechnology, with the human body once again the focus of the struggle between street and boardroom. But as he notes, cyberpunk, in its slow recuperation as a nostalgic aesthetic, went on to fetishize that which it once critiqued, and to abandon embodiment as the site of struggle.

Cyberpunk is typically thought of as a dystopian genre. But what had begun as a cautionary tale became a celebration. Isn’t all of this really damn cool? Wouldn’t you like nothing more than to be a hacker god swinging swords and dodging bullets free from your corporeal form?! As cyberpunk went further down this path, the body disappeared more and more. At the same time, the fundamental critique seemed to evaporate. Dystopian elements were still tacked on, but in the background like neon holograms. For visual style, not warning. Meanwhile real-world dystopian tech companies and right-wing movements felt free to pluck cyberpunk language (“red pill,” “metaverse,” etc.) for themselves. The end of this cyberpunk path is Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, where the most exciting thing in the universe is to play a video game populated with corporate trademarks.

Top marks for summing up succinctly why even just plot summaries of Cline’s work have seemed nauseatingly unappealing to me.

I would note, though, that—for all the other flaws they might be argued to have—Gibson’s most recent novels are still very much focussed on embodiment as the site of struggle; The Peripheral is totally about that conflict, and the way it is shaped by political, financial and even temporal power.. Furthermore, as I have argued elsewhere, Gibson recognised the merging of cyber- and meat-space quite early; it’s arguably the central idea of the Bigend trilogy, in which one character notes in passing that (and I paraphrase) “cyberspace has everted”.

Of course, as Michel says at the start, everyone has their own definition of any given genre, and it may be that the discourse around cyberpunk will get stuck on the co-opted late-phase fantasy-virtuality definition for years to come. Mostly it’s reassuring to see someone else respond to that definitional shift in much the same way I have in the last decade or so.

But as someone from the heavy rock side of the musical divide—and there’s a generic cluster that is very much in the cultural doldrums right now, reflexively associated with rockism, Boomers, and the worst-case Durstian cliches of the nu-metal era, even as the former underdog of hip-hop shambles ever further into its own bloated and drug-addled stadium-show hegemony—I’m aware that genres never die, they just shrink to a point where those who’ve always seen something to love in them can go off and make something new out of that discarded form or style.

Michel mentions Maughan and Newitz as both having found ways to return to the political (rather than simply aesthetic) heart of cyberpunk, and his own novel sounds interesting enough that I’ll be ordering myself a copy. The flame is still alight.