Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Trax of the ElectroNorns

Some things from the past few days.
Went to a meeting in Bury, with a lift from a driver whose online routeplan, produced with the cold solid-state logic of the electronic Norns who weave the journeys unspooled by such devices, took a direct route infinitely longer and more interesting than a human one.
Pigged out on sandwiches and Hula Hoops.
And later some apple pie.
And later some guacamole and crackers and some cheese.
Woke at 2am, realising I'd forgotten that I can't actually eat food of richness any more. Feel uncomfortable, like the half-egg bloke in the Bosch painting.
Played Scrabulous until 6, when it was safe to lie down. Fitful dreams, devising a 1970s Tree of Life with No. 6 cigs, No. 7 makeup and other numbered items as the Sefirot.
Got up at 9 and went to work. Starved through a spring day.
Went to see Falling Part at the Seams by Mark Edward & Co. Funny, grotesque, beautiful and frighteningly accomplished - the perfect end to a strange day.

Friday, April 25, 2008

After the optician's revelation

I realise now
that I cannot see
in three dimensions -
the world's depths render
into stage flats.
Driving is difficult.

I realise now
that I cannot see
in two dimensions -
surfaces and images stretch
into flickering lines.
Art is disappointing.

I realise now
that I cannot see
in one dimension -
lines and threads resolve
into points.
Sewing is beyond me.

I realise now
that I cannot see
in four dimensions -
story arcs ground themselves
bundled into a promiscuity of places, of only this second.
Staying still won't happen

'Are we in the meganarrative itself?'

asked Robert Sheppard at the launch of his book, Complete Twentieth Century Blues. Maybe we are. We're also in a white room, faint smell of wet concrete, sounds of regeneration drills drifting in from outside. The Bluecoat: 'New logo on an old warehouse': a nice venue, a pleasant evening. Robert's performance, blistering and assured, despite the crucifying stress of the books themselves as physical objects having arrived just three hours earlier.

The data spoor of the book goes like this:
# Publisher: Salt Publishing (15 Mar 2008)
# ISBN-10: 1844712648
# ISBN-13: 978-1844712649

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Government in category error shock

The response to the petition for 'the definition of 'hate crime' be widened to include crimes committed on the basis of a person's appearance or interests' has had a response from the Government, as follows:

"The Government's current definition of 'hate crime' is as follows:

* A 'hate incident' is any incident which is perceived by the victim or any other person as being motivated by hate or prejudice.
* A 'hate crime' is any incident which contributes to a criminal offence, perceived by the victim or any other person as being motivated by prejudice or hate.

Within this broad definition, legislation focuses on hate crimes on the basis of race, faith, sexual orientation, disability and gender identity - and it is these categories which are currently monitored. We do not plan to extend this to include hatred against people on the basis of their appearance or sub-cultural interests. These are not intrinsic characteristics of a person and could be potentially be very wide ranging, including for example allegiance to football teams - which makes this a very difficult category to legislate for."

This is interesting. Following the logic of the statements, they're saying 'faith' is an intrinsic characteristic of a person, therefore deserving the 'focus', 'legislation' and 'monitoring' provided for a subset of hate crimes. Although I don't fully subscribe to the opinions of the secularist lobby (replete as it is with spoilsports, sneaks, blowhards and men with bad haircuts), I think this implicit privileging of faith is going the game a bit. After all, people can change or lose 'faith' just as much as their 'sub-cultural interests'. Conversely, culture (sub or otherwise) can be deeply felt, central to identity, and (as Sophie Lancaster might attest were she able) as dangerous to present to the world as faith (or gender, race etc.)

It would be interesting to see a definition of faith that is genuinely intrinsic to a human being, exists outside of culture and is different from race.

Perhaps it is the whole process of defining exceptional hate crimes that is flawed, leading as it does to perceived inequalities. In this case, it appears that the Government values some types of identity over others - indicating that crimes against some identity-groups are worse than crimes against others - and constructs its legislation accordingly.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Fantastic Worlds of Reality

'Roughening Up Fantasyland', a panel at Eastercon, discussed the introduction of elements of realism into genre fantasy novels. Joe Abercombie, Tanith Lee, Mike Cobley, Maura McHugh and Holly Black debated the various ways that modern fantasy authors are moving beyond the cosiness of genre conventions, the bundle of tropes satirised in Diana Wynne Jones Tough Guide to Fantasyland (eg 'Hovels are small squalid dwellings, either in a VILLAGE or occasionally up a MOUNTAIN, and probably most resemble huts. The people who live in hovels are evidently rather lazy and not very good with their hands, since in no cases have any repairs ever been done to these buildings (tumbledown, rotting thatch, etc.) and there is no such thing as a clean Hovel. Indoors, the occupants eke out a wretched existence, which you can see they would, given the draughts, smoke and general lack of house-cleaning...') Abercrombie's stuff is a good example of the realistic turn - stories where people can hurt and die, using real swear words in the process.

As I recall through the distorting mists of beer and time, here was some dissent from the audience - along the lines of 'isn't fantasy meant to be escapist?' It certainly presents itself as such - I remember all those Conan forewords, inviting the reader to pull on boots and enter a world where villains were evil, women beautiful (etc.) And, just a few weeks after the panel finished, I've thought of something to say: that realism (or perhaps authenticity) is necessary for fantasy to work as escapist literature: an integral component, rather than an invasive element.

Part of my point is that much fiction, not just fantasy, has a world-building element and an escapist function. For instance, I've just finished a (really good) mundane novel: Engleby, by Sebastian Faulks. The novel includes various milieux, atmospherically described: a boarding school, Cambridge in the 70s, London in the 80s, an asylum. I would not wish to be in any of these settings as experienced by the protagonist, adrift in misery and violence. But one reason I enjoyed the book (and chose to read it on trains and after work, as relaxation and pleasure) was the process of being transported to a coherent, believable world - the novel provided escape, as well as insight and poetry. Another example: Exhumus describes the strange attractiveness of an extreme fictional/historical setting in his thoughful post Bookish bereavements - fiction done well seems to offer us a home from home, however bizarre and challenging that home might be.

So I see the escapist bit as being part of the pleasure of any literature, dependent in part on believability - which is where the realism comes in. Jarring elements break the dream, and clich├ęs, outworn tropes and simplistic characters or plots are jarring elements. So maybe fantasy has to be toughened up in order to work at all. In a way, imaginary world fantasy has to work harder to create an escapist setting than realistic fiction - as it has to include made up elements, but still provide a seamless setting. Credible reference points are therefore vital, and recognisable behaviour and language are part of this.

That isn't to say that fantasy novels should become versions of Last Exit to Brooklyn with magic swords, or that works in the classic mould are somehow irrelevant. Authors like Tolkein, Peake, Cabell, Eddison and Dunsany were individual stylists working without precedent: their authenticity comes from the truth to their own vision, their unassailable brilliance at using their own language. However many modern writers are working in a genre, a shared world almost as tightly defined as the 'West' of Westerns; a market with definable reader expectations. The readership wants to have its cake and eat it: genre work with familiar elements, but with freshness, relevance and depth of character comparable with any literature. Luckily authors such as the panel members are up for the challenge.

The craziness of insane madness

A few weeks ago, we went to Leeds for the weekend, using the train. This was a mistake, as UK public transport doesn't actually function on a Sunday - or rather, an absurd parody of transport pretends to function, but only in a 'whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad' kind of way. So we got back to Ormksirk, several hours late, following detours and use of most forms of transport other than trains - to find a ticket on the car we had left parked there. Public transport usage requires fatalism and bulldog spirit at the best of times, and I was inclined to accept this as just another misfortune, a further blow administered by the malign trickster-god who runs the railways on the Sabbath. The ticket had tick boxes for various transgressions, but 'overnight parking' had been scribbled onto it. Fair enough, one could imagine that not being allowed - I didn't actually see any signs prohibiting it, but assumed we just hadn't noticed...

But I went back in daylight to have another look at all the signs (and take pictures, in the rain - looking like a member of some bizarre subsect of trainspotters; or maybe an actual trainspotter jonesing for something rail-related to spot during the long hours between Ormskirk-to-Preston trains...) There was no mention of overnight parking, but it did mention some byelaws and give a phone number. I checked on the Merseytravel website - no byelaws. So I rang the number, got through after a few attempts, and was cheerfully offered a set of byelaws in the post.

I paid the fine, pointing out the lack of signs and suggesting that it was unreasonable to expect people to await the arrival of information by post before deciding whether to park or not. After all, we had met all the other conditions, parked in a bay, were (at least attempting to be) using the railways...

The Byelaws arrived. They don't mention overnight parking either.

Then a letter, saying that a Tribunal had met and decided that on this occasion they would not fine us... Which is, er, fine - I didn't really want to pay £30 (£60 if slow) on top of the taxi fare we'd sprung for to make up for the various train companies' and quangos' failure to provide the journey we'd paid for, in a timely fashion.

However the cool tones of the letter seem insufficient somehow - an apology would be nice, as there was no basis for the fine. Basically they stole the money and handed it back when they were found out. Cheers! How very decent of you! Some evidence of chagrin at their ignoble and underhand action would be nice.