Decor for the Horror Writer

•September 5, 2011 • 2 Comments

Once again, Restoration Hardware has outdone itself in surreal and useless objects for the home. I only discovered this store after moving to Los Angeles. I’m astonished that we’ve not yet been removed by security  during any of our visits for loudly mocking the furniture and arranging all the hand models so they’re flipping the bird. Because we are both entirely mature and sensible at all times.

Today, while browsing for lamps, I discovered this delightful objet.

Why, yes, it is a glass dome containing an assemblage of limbless baby dolls. Adds a certain je ne sais what the actual f*&# is that to any interior.

So, not only is the store an excellent source for terrifyingly overpriced lighting solutions, but the catalog alone provides hours of inspiration for the steampunk or horror writer. Also hours of hilarity.

Can’t wait for the baby-dome to be written up on catalog living.

How does Speculative Fiction speak about religion?

•August 31, 2011 • 4 Comments

[The following contains spoilers for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Anne Rice’s Memnoch the Devil]

I mentioned the Guardian’s series of essays responding to the question What Can Science Fiction Tell Us About God? last time I posted. Fortunately, the introduction to the series reposes the question as  “how does science fiction help us think about our place and purpose in the universe?” Fortunately, because, much like when students turn up to the first discussion section of Intro to New Testament inform me that they have signed up for the class to find out more about God, I can’t help you much with questions about God. Questions about religion and theology and its place in our society? I am your human-type creature.

Speculative fiction, by the very nature of the genre, is able to examine questions of theology and religion in ways that other literary forms cannot. Which is not to say that other genres are incapable of examining these questions, just that there are particular tools available to authors of speculative fiction that open up interesting avenues through which to explore these questions.

In this post I am going to discuss one aspect of speculative fiction that defines the genre; world-building. A number of authors have used the imagined topographies of their invented world to explore religious and theological questions. And explore is precisely the verb, as characters are quite literally able walk through theological constructs. It is a literary technique with antecedents stretching back at least to the Middle Ages, if not earlier. Think of Dante’s Divine Comedy and its predecessors.

C.S. Lewis, of course, directly lifted a number of medieval literary topographies in his allegorical Narnia chronicles. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, for example, was based on the Navigatio Sancti Brendani which narrates St Brendan’s voyage to find paradise. I find The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to be the least interesting of the Narnia chronicles, as a religious studies scholar. Sure, Reepicheep finds his way to paradise, but the book as a whole doesn’t really address any interesting questions and contents itself with a few moralizing asides on the sins of greed.

Where speculative fiction gets interesting is when authors use world-building not simply to give geographical form to a particular cosmology, but to address issues like the problem evil, often in ways that subvert orthodox theology.

Philip Pullman positioned the trilogy, His Dark Materials, as secular humanist response to C.S. Lewis’ Christian allegories.  Like Lewis, he drew on a long literary tradition of allegorical topographies. In his case, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained were the principle touchstones.  In book three of Pullman’s trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, Lyra and Will descend into the underworld. There they discover that the souls of the dead have been imprisoned by the Authority, who represents the establishment of organized religion, and they must release these souls to disperse into the world as Dust by cutting a hole out of the underworld using the subtle knife.

Anne Rice’s Memnoch the Devil has an equally interesting, and equally heterodox, take on how God could allow a place like hell to exist in a good creation. Again, the author presents the reader with a cosmological tour. This time with Memnoch leads Lestat through heaven and hell and recounts the saga of his argument with God. According to Memnoch, he was banished from heaven after challenging God over his disregard for the suffering of humans. Eventually God relents and instructs Memnoch to find human souls who are worthy of heaven and takes them into his realm, but abandons the other souls to sheol. After various arguments between God and Memnoch, and the eventual incarnation of God in human form, Memnoch is placed in charge of hell and instructed to purify the souls of sinners to make them worthy of heaven.

In Rice’s novel, the exploration of specifically Christian theology is even more explicit than in His Dark Materials. Through world-building she is able to utterly subvert the figure of God and pose some fairly radical answers to questions of theodicy as well as explicating a theology of universal salvation.

Both authors have used the genre of speculative fiction and, specifically, the genre’s capacity to imagine new topographies and geographies, to give concrete form to abstract ideas about the nature of evil and salvation. At the same time, the fantastical quality of these invented worlds affords the reader a certain amount of distance, the ability to suspend criticism as well as belief, and consider the authors’ heterodox solutions to age-old questions. Not that this has prevented the books from being placed on banned lists in libraries around the USA.

Next week, I’ll be continuing my discussion with a look at how science fiction’s use of world-building to address questions of religion differs from that of fantasy fiction.

Share the Love Friday

•August 19, 2011 • Leave a Comment

All the cool kids in the blogosphere are doing theme days. I thought about doing Rant o’ the Week on Fridays, but after swearing at my Latin translations for a few hours my brain is fried. So Friday shall be Link Day. Links old and new. I suspect Wednesday will be Rant o’ the Week Day. I’m usually pretty ornery on Hump Day.

First up, Exploring our Matrix shares an exercise he had his students do wherein they were asked to explain a passage from the Bible to someone from another planet. Kind of a fun thought experiment for a spec fic writer as well, if we bear in mind the fact that the colonial period prompted huge efforts to translate the bible into the vernacular languages of the colonies. And hundreds of centuries earlier when Christian missionaries pulled a fast one on the Germanic tribes. “Sure, sure. Jesus. Great warrior god.” Space colonies! Alien proselytism!

Of course, if we keep warming the globe at our current rate, the aliens will be the ones colonizing and converting us, if NASA’s Planetary Science Divisions scenario comes about. (Via io9.com)

The Guardian gives a run-down of Neil Gaiman’s appearance at the Edinburgh Festival.

And William Gibson is interviewed over at Canadian Notes & Queries. Talking about the fetishization of past fashions and technologies he captures in two lines what I flailed about trying to say for an entire blog post when he explains;

“It’s about pushing back at the shabbiness of simulacra, maybe. Kind of a William Morris move for the 21st Century.”

Which reminds me, I need to re-read Baudrillard.

Plus, some older links that I came across earlier this week, that really deserve a read.

I plan on writing a longer response to The Guardian’s series on What Science Fiction Can Tell Us About God sometime next week.

And finally, Lev Grossman’s piece from The Wall Street Journal which covers the “ranty” aspect of this week’s link round-up quite nicely. Snobs who dismiss fantasy fiction as kiddy escapism are one of my pet peeves as well.

They do things differently there

•August 19, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The opening line of The Go-Between penned by L.P. Hartley, and later taken up by historian David Lowenthal, was the first insight I had into the discipline of history back in high school. The past is, indeed, a foreign country. I have lived as a foreigner in the USA for four years now, and I am coming to realize that this axiomatic phrase is much more complex than it appears on the surface.

Working on my dissertation research during the day, and trying to write a few pages of my novel in the evenings, I have been thinking over the ways that these two practices intersect and diverge. With my historian’s hat on, I comb through the wills of merchants who lived over five hundred years ago, trying to get inside the heads of people with radically different views of life and death to understand the ways that they prepared for the world to come, always taking care to avoid imposing twenty first century motivations and mores on my subjects. In the evening, when my historian’s hat comes off, and my writer’s hat goes on, I attempt to build a world that is almost,, but not quite like our world. Or rather, almost, but not quite, like Chicago in 1893.

In historiographical terms, we talk about “denaturalizing.” This process involves examining what seems natural, concepts like madness, illness, and death, and exposing them as historically contingent. Historians, or historians of my particular leaning, seek to show that our experiences of these apparently universal experiences are shaped by specific cultural, social, political and geographical contexts. They change over time. We cannot assume that people in the past interpreted an act that looks to us like the same act we might perform in the same way that we do.

David Orr’s essay in last weekend’s issue of the New York Times unpacks an interesting inversion of this process in fantasy fiction writing. Speaking about George R.R. Martin’s world-building in A Dance with Dragons, he discusses the role of realism in Martin’s writing;

“When people are stabbed, they die; when kingdoms ignore debts, the bankers show up. The characters understand their world, and we understand the characters. But this view of Martin’s books is incomplete, because the magical elements of the book are not, in fact within the characters’ understanding at all…In this sense, “A Dance with Dragons” is a kind of fantasy within a fantasy, and Martin must find a way to let us feel the strangeness as the characters themselves do.”

This is the high wire act of the fantasy fiction writer. A careful balance between creating a world that has enough points of contact with our world that we’ll go along for the ride and invest time and emotional energy in the characters while still maintaining a sense of wonder, of Otherness, as Orr writes. Even China Miéville’s disorientingly phantasmagoric imaginings allow us some tenuous hold.

Back in June I went to hear Neil Gaiman speak to Patton Oswalt at the Staten Theater on his American Gods tenth anniversary edition tour. Did I mention he’s my absolute, all time, most favorite author before? Well, he’s my absolute, all time, most favorite author. And the interview only cemented his position there. He related an entertaining story about his fans, and the fact that the one thing in his book that they thought was for sure made up, was the one thing that was absolutely true. People in Minnesota, where he lives, really do try to see how far out onto frozen lakes they can get their cars  before they fall through. It’s just what people do. (Having spent four years in Chicago, where the cold makes people go a little screwy, I think I found this less far-fetched than the Los Angelenos in the audience.)

Maybe being a foreigner helps. Both with the history and the fiction writing. When I first heard the phrase, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” I had never been to a foreign country. It was a phrase that conjured up images of exotic locales. Places absolutely and tantalizingly Other. I’m sure these impressions had a lot to do with my youthful dreams of pursuing an academic career.

I moved to a foreign country to pursue a doctorate and was plunged into intense coursework and culture shock at the same time. I didn’t expect to suffer culture shock. And the little things got me every time. The normal, natural, everyday, commonsensical things that no-one thinks to tell you will be different, because they can’t imagine that anyone would do something so simple any other way.

My friends love to tell the story of how, shortly after I moved, I tried to get my keys cut at a shoe repair store. Confusion on all sides. Then I tried the drug store, because that seemed to be where everything got done in this country. (Honestly, I am yet to recover from the fact that I can fill an Rx, pick up a microwave dinner AND purchase a kettle. All at once!) And, finally, I called one of my friends and was informed that I would probably need to find a hardware store. The little things.

Being a stranger in a strange land, a land that, at first glance, seems to be familiar, attuned me to the oddities and idiosyncracies of human culture. More than that, it made me aware that those things that we consider “normal,” the things we take for granted, are very, very weird to anyone on the outside.

I think this makes me a better historian than I could have been at home. I hope it will also make me a better writer.

Horcruxes and Alfred Gell

•August 5, 2011 • 1 Comment

Over at Religion Lived Kristi has been thinking about agency and by pure chance, a.k.a. the fact that we rant about theory together all the time, I have also been thinking about agency. I am working on a section of my dissertation that deals with recent anthropological theories of objects as historical agents, particularly the work of Alfred Gell in Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. I was excitedly telling The Engineer about some of the ideas I’ve been playing with over dinner last night and after looking puzzled for a while he exclaimed, “Oh! You mean like Horcruxes.” Bingo.

Alfred Gell’s work draws on anthropological studies of humans’ use of tools and objects in pre-modern societies and argues that material objects function as extensions of the creator/user’s agency. More radically, he applies these anthropological theories to art objects to argue that artworks function as honorary people and have the capacity to to act as agents within social networks. In his brilliant essay on Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533), Keith Moxey talks about the agency of artworks as their “presentational power” – their capacity not simply to represent, that is, to record and interpret an experience to trigger a memory, but their ability to create an entirely new experience, to create something “real,” a beguiling sense of presence.(1)

For the purposes of my own work, the most important aspect of these theories is the idea that people created objects – donor portraits, tomb effigies, coats of arms and so forth – that continued to exercise agency even after death. The commissioners of these works believed that their likeness could attend Mass, say prayers, beseech passers-by for mercy and generally act as surrogates for the deceased. These material objects did not merely represent the deceased, though their capacity to evoke a memory was central to their agency, they were understood to have presence.

Horcruxes are possibly my favorite idea in the Harry Potter series. Objects created by Voldemort that contained fragments of his soul and appear to be able to act in some sense as proxies for Voldemort – think of Tom Riddle’s diary compelling Ginny Weasley into the Chamber of Secrets, or Salazar Slytherin’s locket attempting to strangle Harry, and playing on Ron’s fears. They struck me on first reading as a creepy inversion of saint’s relics, particularly secondary relics – objects such as scraps of fabric that had touched a saint’s body and, imbued with the saint’s sanctity, had the capacity to perform actions like healing the sick.

On reading Gell and Moxey, it seems that J.K. Rowling has tapped into a fundamental aspect of human nature and of art objects generally – the tendency of humans, in Moxey’s words, to imbue objects with a life of their own. This is what makes Horcruxes so compelling as an idea. Rowling has taken an idea that resonates with a fundamental human tendency and twisted it into something ghastly, just as writers of great horror tap into primordial fears and give them form.

The idea that an object could have historical agency is a difficult one for the modern reader to wrap their head around, but, as The Engineer pointed out, Horcruxes serve as a neat illustration of the theory. It seems that the next time I have to teach undergraduates about the agency of art works and other material items, I have the perfect *ahem* object lesson.

(1) Keith Moxey, “Mimesis and Iconoclasm,” Art History, 32:1 (2009): 54.

Top Ten SF and Fantasy Books

•August 3, 2011 • 3 Comments

NPR has posted up the shortlist for their 100 Best SF and Fantasy Titles and put them to a vote by the public. After some careful consideration I voted on my top ten. The list I’ve ended up with is a combination of books that I read as a teenager that defined the genre for me, and which I think are classics, and recent books that I think have made contributions that have pushed the boundaries of the genre. So not necessarily a list of my absolute favorites in terms of reading pleasure, but a list of books I think are important. Arranged in chronological order of reading, they’re also a nice nostalgia trip back over my development into a fully fledged fangirl.

1.) Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – I think I read this for the first time in sixth grade. I was fortunate growing up to have three older siblings who were, and remain, huge sf and fantasy fans. After cutting my teeth on various YA novels, I started raiding their bookshelves for new reading material. Hilarious and bitingly satirical. I stayed sane when I moved to the US four years ago and had to deal US Dept of Immigration by reminding myself that at least they weren’t reading Vogon poetry to me. And I never, ever travel anywhere without my towel.

2.) I, Robot – No list would be complete without Asimov, the grandfather of science fiction. I read this collection of stories around the same time as Hitchhiker’s and it was this book that made me a life-long fan of the genre, which is why I selected it over the Foundation Series. I loved the Foundation series as well, but this one holds particular significance for me. Incidentally, when old school fans bemoan the lack of hard science in current science fiction and the preoccupation with social commentary and feeeeelings I wonder whether they’ve ever actually read Asimov. Masterful interweaving of hard science and acute social commentary.

3.) 1984 – Set as a text for an English Literature class in early high school. I’d been reading a lot of post-apocalyptic and dystopian YA fiction around the same time. Children of the Dust, Z for Zachariah etc. (I wonder how this affected the outlook of Gen Xers, raised as we were on a literary diet of Cold War inspired nuclear apocalypse stories) Its hard to say anything new about what is a classic of literature in general as well as science fiction…

4.) And then, my school set The Handmaid’s Tale.  Because, clearly, we weren’t sufficiently angst ridden and depressed. Interestingly, I hated this book with a passion when I first read it. This may have been a result of the well known “destroyed by having to write poor quality five paragraph essays on it” effect. A game-changer in terms of exploring issues of gender through speculative fiction. Young and naive, I had trouble accepting the premise that a society like the one depicted by Atwood could establish itself. Now, I read the news and worry that we’re already half-way there. Prescient.

5.) Tigana – From this list, one would suspect that I had been reading only science fiction and no fantasy up until this point. Untrue! I was reading science fiction and really terrible fantasy fiction. Well, that’s not accurate, plenty of great YA fantasy, but those books weren’t eligible for this list. I think they’re doing a best of YA next time around. Lots of Sword and Sorcery, Tolkien-derivative schlock. And David Eddings. Oh, David Eddings. I read The Belgariad and The Mallorean at least three times per year every year from sixth grade onward. Tigana stands out against the other fantasy fiction I had been reading because it was the first time I’d read anything that didn’t have two opposing principles of good and evil, but instead explored characters with complex motivations who operated in moral grey zones. I also love The Sarantine Mosaic, Lions of Al’Rassan and A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay, especially as a medieval historian. Incredible evocations of Byzantium, Al-Andalus and the troubadours.

6.) Snowcrash – Ooof. First cyberpunk novel. Incredible. Main character called Hiro Protagonist. Probably responsible for me dating computer programmers pretty much exclusively.  I think most people would choose Cryptonomicon from Neal Stephenson’s oeuvre, but I never managed to get through it. I will hand in my fan card on my way out.

7.) Sandman  – Ahhhh, now we are into my uni days and my goth period. I went back on forth on the Neil Gaiman books on the list, Gaiman being my all-time most absolute favorite author ever in the history of everything. But I think the Sandman comics are hands down his most important contribution (in a list of many, many important contributions) to fantasy fiction and to comic books. Also responsible for me dating scruffy, pale men in leather jackets for much of my early to mid-twenties. Although, I’m going to say it here because its been bugging me for a while; DC Comics, just because you have access to every pantone colour in the world doesn’t mean you have to use every single one on every single page. OK. I’m done with that now. Phew.

8.) Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. LeGuin’s exploration of Winter, a world were people are neither female nor male, who express a gender identity once per month during their Kenner. Written in 1969, to give you an idea of just how revolutionary this book was when it was published. Fascinating sociological and political speculation combined with a poetic writing style that is rarely found in science fiction and fantasy.

9.) Ender’s Game – I know! I can’t believe I didn’t find out about the Ender series until last year either. I ran out of steam on the later books, but Orson Scott Card’s world building deserves a place on the list.

10.) The Magicians – Both a brilliant subversion of fantasy fiction tropes, and a brilliant fantasy fiction work in its own right. Its appropriate that Lev Grossman’s book is the final on this list/reading autobiography. Quentin Coldwater’s obsession with a series of fantasy fiction books set in a world called Fillory is immediately familiar to anyone for whom fantasy fiction represented an escape from whatever misery high school presented to them. And then, when his daydreams of living in Fillory come true, well, things don’t go quite so well. Dark, with perfectly realized characters. Cannot wait for the next book in the series to arrive on my doorstep next week!

Steam Age

•July 29, 2011 • 3 Comments

Yesterday morning I sat down in my pajamas with a freshly brewed latte and started reading Materiality, edited by Daniel Miller. Yes. In my pajamas. For, lo! we now have an espresso machine.

Isn’t she beautiful?

Now look over to my little blog blurb, scratch your head, and think “how is she going to pull off tying a book on anthropological theories of materiality and a new espresso machine to the themes of the blog?” Just. You. Watch. Me.

I’m still fine tuning my coffee pulling and milk foaming process. In the beginning there was lot of fiddling around with coffee grinder settings, waiting for the machine to warm up, trying to perfect the manual lever mechanism, wondering why the espresso shot came out wonky, scalding milk, and then throwing the whole lot out and starting over after The Engineer declared the effort to be “pants.”

Despite the fact that its pretty time consuming, its deeply satisfying to make lattes using this beast. And not just because the residents of Santa Monica tend to give one the side eye when one runs down to the local cafe in one’s pajamas. Having had a fun discussion over skype earlier in the week with E.B. about thing theory and people’s relationships with commodities, I got to thinking about the appeal of the machine, and the appeal of steampunk as an aesthetic. (This is what graduate school does to you, kids, it makes you apply critical theory to household appliances. Tragic.)

I happily put my hand up to a little urban homesteading and getting excited about making things from scratch, and that’s an interesting sociological phenomenon in and of itself. If I put on my Marxist hat I could argue that my coffee machine allows me to be less alienated from my coffee. You see, prior to this, I would go down to a cafe and purchase coffee with money earned by performing labor/being a member of the intelligentia. This act would alienate the barista from the product of his labor, which I was now drinking. Which may have explained the huge amount attitude he exuded. And then he would take the money that he earned by alienating himself from the coffee and enact commodity fetishism by purchasing skinny jeans and t-shirts screen printed with ironic mustaches. So maybe the pleasure comes from owning the means of producing coffee.

But why this particular coffee machine? With its levers, and gauges and dials and general steampunkery? It was the aesthetics of the coffee machine clinched the deal for us, when choosing among a range of equally temperamental manual machines. And aesthetics are something frequently overlooked by straight Marxist critiques of people’s relationships with their things.

This brings me to steampunk as an aesthetic movement. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, steampunk started out as a sub-genre of science fiction, usually set in the Victorian period or some alternate history version thereof and featuring steam age gadgets and machines. Steampunk.com provides a good introduction to the subject.

I’m less enamored of its literary manifestations, though it can be good fun when its done well, and doesn’t simply involve an anachronistic smattering of flying machines and mentions of aether. One of the things I find irritating about the pulpier end of steampunk is that it tends to be entirely aesthetic-driven and less about exploring the possibilities of industrial revolution technology and alternative histories. It looks like speculative fiction but it often doesn’t do a whole lot of actual speculation.

Steampunk as a movement and an aesthetic is something that interests me, from the perspective of commodity theory. Inspired by the contraptions in steampunk literature, fans started adopting neo-Victorian fashion and creating steampunk devices in a kind of mash-up of Victorian aesthetics and contemporary technology.

(If anyone has a cool five grand lying around I’d really like one of these puppies for Christmas!)

 The language that steampunk artisans use to describe their work reminds me of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. A driving force behind steampunk as a movement is a rejection of mass production and throw-away culture. Like William Morris, there is a desire to restore the principles of craftsmanship and an interest in creating a design sensibility that draws from the past. The Victorian steam-age aesthetic, distilled down to the iconic cogs and gears and polished brass of steampunk, symbolizes an age that valued lasting products, artisanship and an equal attention to form and function.

Its ironic that the very same industrial processes that Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement condemned for destroying traditional crafts, is the source of inspiration for a new movement that levels the same criticisms against contemporary industrial design and mass production. But the visual language of Victorian and Art Deco design, percolated through steampunk literature, has come to stand for a golden age of craftsmanship that never existed except in an imagined alternate history. And so we have consumer goods, that disguise themselves aesthetically as something else. They evoke the feeling of an age free from the alienating processes of the industrial revolution, a feeling that can be purchased in the form of a commodity item.

Isn’t commodity fetishism fun!