Speculations on Speculative Fiction: Is This Alastair Reynolds’s Most Political Novel?

Elysium Fire coverElysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds is a Brexit novel. Not in the sense of, say, how Dave Hutchinson’s Europe books (2014, 2015, 2016) captured the zeitgeist of the populist, Balkanizational energies which prefigured the referendum. Or not in the way literary fiction like Ali Smith’s Autumn (2016) uses the referendum aftermath as a backdrop for the relationship between characters. No, Elysium Fire is more focused than that, explicitly concerned as it is with voter manipulation in a society that prides itself on abiding by ‘the will of the people’ (158) and offering us a villain who, with shades of so many prominent Brexiters, is the scion of privilege rather than ‘the common man he makes out’ to be (15). In the process, Reynolds tackles the inherent inconsistencies of the Brexit movement specifically, as well as, in a more general sense, the manner by which voters making bad choices are the Achilles’ heel of otherwise robust democratic systems. To the author’s credit, he does not settle for any easy answers…

Please note: this post contains SPOILERS from here on out…

A superbly paced sequel to The Prefect (2007; now retitled Aurora Rising), Elysium Fire is essentially a police procedural – ‘A Prefect Dreyfus Emergency’ as the new series banner attests – set in the ‘Glitter Band’, a ring of ten thousand orbital habitats around the plant Yellowstone. Within the wider fictional history of Reynolds’s Revelation Space series, the Glitter Band is humanity’s Belle Epoque and home to about ‘one hundred million living souls’ (1). Each habitat is a world in its own right, each a place with its ‘own name and customs’ (1) yet all are united by a common belief in ‘Demarchist’ principles, in the sanctity of universal suffrage. Every Glitter Band citizen is equipped with neural implants which poll them constantly on ‘every conceivable matter’ and through which ‘the process of participation became as habitual as breathing’ (2). The integrity of this system is overseen by a limited force of ‘Prefects’ such as series protagonist Tom Dreyfus, an independent monitoring taskforce – part police, part tech-support – who might best be thought of as lightly armed returning officers.

Yet the accepted utopian conception of the Glitter Band – where ‘wealth and power were in almost limitless abundance’ (1) – has been upset. Public confidence in the Prefects and in the security of the Glitter Band has been damaged by the so-called Aurora Crisis of the preceding novel, and this has allowed for the emergence of other narratives. Specifically it has allowed room for a breakaway movement led by one Devon Garlin. As if to hammer home the Brexit comparison, our first glimpse of Garlin – ‘not the only figure associated with the breakaway movement, but he was by far the most influential and outspoken’ (14) – occurs in a kind of idealised version of rural England which could not be further removed from the realities of a high-tech and highly connected inter-orbital economy. He makes his initial bid at separatism on a habitat where ‘modest, stone-built homes dotted a gentle hillside, with smoke curling up from their chimneys. A waterwheel turned next to a mill, and off in the distance two woodcutters were at work with manual saws’ (11). ‘We surrendered our sovereignty,’ he tells the inhabitants of the Glitter Band as though reading from a UKIP manifesto (13). He maintains that separatist habitats are – stop me if you have heard this one before – ‘taking back control’ (13): ‘Control to manage their affairs in a way that suits their needs, not those of some distant, disconnected network of overseers’ (13). Thus Garlin sets himself up as ‘the voice of the people’ (15) and surrounds himself with ‘common thugs and bully-boys’ (287) as his ideas take ‘a toxic, ineradicable hold’ on the wider population (14).

I will resist the temptation to attribute aspects of Garlin’s background – the wealth, the private education, the supposed historic linage – to specific real-life figures from the Brexit movement but, suffice to say, the character emerges as a composite of the current British political rogue’s gallery. Yet Reynolds grants Garlin a far more interesting and compelling backstory than the Johnsons and Farages and Rees-Moggs of the world. Indeed, one could argue that Garlin, though despised by the Prefects as someone ‘who disseminates lies and half-truths for their own ends’ (129), is in fact Elysium Fire’s most engaging character and, rather than simple villain, is a true tragic antagonist compelled by a mix of idealism and circumstances beyond his control. This is never clearer than in the strand of the novel which follows his childhood (on a landed estate, of course) growing up with his brother Caleb in a brilliantly warped re-imagining of the Cain and Abel story (pleasantly eschewing a one-to-one match-up for a remix of elements such as each brother making sacrifices of sorts to prove themselves; one being favoured by the god-like powers guiding them; a visible mark set upon one who is exiled after a fashion, and so on). Reynolds transforms this straightforward story into a rich and multi-layered personal history for Garlin, complicated by instances of targeted amnesia and, in Brexiter fashion, a conviction that he recalls an almost mythological version of history (in this case the near legendary ‘Amerikano’ era of early interstellar colonisation). These inconstancies are eventually unsustainable for the character, who must in the end confront himself – in the most direct sense imaginable – when it is revealed that Julius is actually Caleb who has had his memories rewritten by the real Julius.

Such is the division and confusion of Garlin’s true self (echoing divided characters found elsewhere in Reynolds’s work such as the Ness sisters of 2016’s Revenger, Tanner Mirabel in 2001’s Chasm City, or the Chiku Akinya clones of 2013’s On the Steel Breeze) that, by Elysium Fire’s conclusion, even the identification of Julius and Caleb has been thrown into doubt as the separatist finds ‘an ending of sorts’ (391) in a union with his brother, their very bodies merging in a reckoning which is both as ambiguously ironic as it is ironically inevitable. For the reader, such irony has perhaps been foreshadowed by the chosen names (which are in fact his two middle names) of the novel’s separatist-in-a-time-of-Brexit: a merging of Devon, a county in southwest England, and Garlin, a commune in south-western France. The result is a character constructed, fittingly, to perform double duty. On the one hand Garlin, uncovering his true identity in the pursuit of his breakaway agenda, comes to embody the perceived dissolution of personal and national narrative certainty which some have glimpsed behind the Brexit movement. On the other hand, his very name announces the inescapability of blended European identity to the reader from the outset. In this way Garlin provides the link between the political allegory of the novel’s B-plot – the separatist movement – and its more recognisably science fictional A-plot, an investigation into a spat of citizens’ heads melting down (if ever there was a metaphor for the Brexit campaign…) as neurological implants malfunction across the Glitter Band. In both cases the crime is the tampering with flaws in the fundamental and supposedly inviolable machinery of democracy, that being in the philosophical sense – the idea that democracy can only be preserved if it chooses self-preservation – and in the actual machinery emplaced inside the brains of citizens.

Within the Glitter Band, democratic participation is conducted through a cranial implant known as the ‘Voi kernel’. The device is named after its creator Sandra Voi, the founder of Demarchist society and, not unimportantly, the ancestor of Julius Devon Garlin Voi and his brother Caleb. Aware that ‘true democracy embodies the possibility of its own dissolution’ (158), Voi granted herself and her descendants the ability to ‘guide the hand of democracy, to keep it from undoing itself’ or ‘from making choices it might come to regret’ (158). Voi intended such interventions to be ‘limited to marginal ballots, where a one or two percent shift is all that’s needed’ (184). It is this concept of ‘intervention’, along with the question of who should be allowed to intervene, which underpins the ethical quandary (of which Garlin is but a symptom) at the heart of the novel. The dishonesty within the Voi kernel, within the apparatus of democracy itself, may act, counter-intuitively, as a corrective inversion of the flaw within the righteous idea of democracy, but it is nonetheless a criminal act. Elysium Fire is clear that a ‘guiding hand’ such as Voi’s is a bad idea, offering examples of the corruption and moral bankruptcy of Julian and Caleb’s parents, as well as instances of how the brothers themselves abuse their privileged access, but nonetheless – and this is the uncomfortable but brilliantly executed slight-of-hand which Reynolds orchestrates in Elysium Fire – it is difficult for the reader not to speculate about how easily such a domestic intervention might have spared Britain from its current predicament. Certainly the figures given in the novel – again, a shift of ‘one or two percent’ – imply a certain preoccupation with the contemporaneous Brexit vote carried by a mere 1.9%. Changing such a result would, of course, have been fraud. It would have been unethical. It would in fact have been immoral. But, through the possibilities inherent in the Voi kernel’s backdoor, Elysium Fire nonetheless leaves even the most principled of readers considering if such intervention would have been correct?

That the question of Brexit should so preoccupy Reynolds in his first major work since the referendum is not surprising. After all, before he was a full-time author he spent almost fifteen years working for the European Space Agency in The Netherlands and so it is hardly a leap to wonder if the anger Prefect Dreyfus experiences towards Garlin might be a reflection of the author’s own feelings at the damage being done by Brexit’s ‘shallow populism’ (289)? Yet as a novel rather than a work of political theory or moral instruction, there is no onus on Elysium Fire to offer actionable solutions to the self-inflicted wound that is Brexit. If anything, the novel’s implication that good old-fashioned police work can temper the worst ramifications of ‘populist, rabble-rousing nonsense’ (135) is perhaps too naïve for our current reality (in Dreyfus, Reynolds offers a robust investigative response, a strategy of following the shadowy money funding the breakaway movement, but one sees in real life how ineffectual such a response can too often be). For Dreyfus may be able to resolve his latest emergency by forcing Garlin to confront the inconsistencies in his identity and hence in his philosophy, but one suspects that real life Leave voters cannot be so easily convinced. The Brexit process they have set in motion has already proven too vulnerable to ‘misjudgements… over-reaction on both sides. Regrettable acts. Provocation and counter-provocation. Wiser minds will attempt to slow the fragmentation, even turn it back. But that wheel, once started turning, will not be easy to stop’ (366).

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Speculations on Speculative Fiction: Dave Hutchinson’s Acadie – Genetic Conflict as Genre Conversation?

Acadie_coverSpeculative Fiction and Literary Fiction are two parts of the same organism. Go far enough back and you find that they share a common ancestry (the cornerstones of the traditional western canon – be that the gods of The Odyssey or the ghosts and witches of Shakespeare – are all dependent on elements of Fantasy). Project yourself far enough into the future and you can imagine them becoming the same thing once again (‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ might as well be ‘any sufficiently imaginative Literary Fiction is indistinguishable from Fantasy’). In the present, of course, critics differentiate between them by – if I may generalise – the way one depicts the realistic (or close to it) and the other proposes its own reality entirely, by looking at their rhetorical strategies, by considering their publication contexts, and so on. Readers in turn are guided by personal tastes, by how these books are marketed, and by a whole cultural and commercial architecture which surrounds them. Many people enjoy both Literary Fiction and Fantasy, though often readers tend towards one or the other. The resulting discussions over what a particular book is or isn’t, or about what kind of writing does or does not have merit (ugh) are a facet of not just genre mutability but of how genre itself is disputed territory. I’ve been thinking about this since I read Dave Hutchinson’s excellent Acadie (Tor, 2017) and here I’m going to propose a reading of that text (a reading I might someday expand into a conference paper or something) as a commentary on the fruitlessness of inter-genre squabbling…

Please note: this post contains SPOILERS from here on out…

Acadie centres on Duke, the ‘Mayor’ of a hidden colony in a distant solar system. Presented initially as a kind of Utopian ‘hippie paradise’, the colony was founded by a scientist who wished to explore human potential without regulation or restriction (the inhabitants call themselves ‘The Writers’ on account of their penchant for genetically rewriting themselves  into ‘elves and dwarfs and hobbits and goblins’). Hunting for this secret society is the Earth-based Bureau of Colonization. The Bureau is depicted as a conservative organisation with rules and uniforms and a philosophy based on conformance and good order and doing things by the book. Thus from a certain perspective it is as though the conflict underpinning Acadie is less about genetics than it is about genre; it is as though the author has pitted Fantasy’s impatience with Literary Fiction’s straight-laced realism against LitFic’s exasperation with what they perceive to be Fantasy’s outlandishness. Read in this fashion, Acadie becomes a most curious thing: a Science Fiction novella about the antagonism between Fantasy and Literary Fiction, a story about how disputes over the primacy of one or the other are not just irrelevant but are to the betterment of absolutely no one.

The key to reading Acadie in this way lies with the character who sets the story into motion, a woman who – with shades of JK Rowling, perhaps – provokes ferocious levels of devotion from her acolytes and encourages them to follow in her fantastical ways. The Rowling comparison might seem farfetched but the novella seems to invite the identification by pointedly naming this character ‘Professor Potter’. In Acadie, Potter’s followers become the next generation of ‘Writers’ who, as mentioned, are defined by their obsession with fantasy creatures. Yes there is an occasional Klingon in the mix, along with a Wolverine (‘There’s always one’) and some cartoon characters (their choices emphasising the youth of The Writers, it seems), but for the most part these Writers have remade themselves as creatures straight out of the Fantasy genre: ‘werewolves, orcs, vampires, ghouls, zombies’. The Writers develop technology which is repeatedly described as ‘magic’ and eventually give rise to the ‘Kids’, a further generation who endlessly discuss everything and who, in the end, are revealed to have become grotesque and deformed parodies of their creators’ intentions. Were one inclined, one might see these ‘Kids’ as a comment on fandom’s tendencies towards negativity and toxicity.

By contrast, the Bureau of Colonisation is much more in keeping with Literary Fiction (which, despite protestations form some quarters, is as much a genre as any other kind of writing). The Bureau are all about rules and propriety and cataloguing. Their technology develops slowly and methodically. They don’t do magic, they do ‘lists’ (something which creates a sense of canon). Where the ‘Writers saw the promised land’ in Fantasy Fiction, the Bureau only ‘saw junk’. Nonetheless, it would be incorrect to accuse the Bureau of being unimaginative. A better word might be (despite their mission statement) unadventurous. Their most advanced technology, in a direct literary reference, is a spaceship named Gregor Samsa which appears late in Acadie’s storyline. Here Hutchinson makes overt (by way of another novella) the connection between his story’s fictional tech and what we might think of as literary technology. The Gregor Samsa is capable of manoeuvres other Bureau craft are not. It does so by utilising not a ‘magic’ hyperdrive but something that ‘might be related’ (my emphasis). It is as though the Bureau has made advancements by experimenting – even if only in limited fashion – with aspects of the Colony’s imaginative toys in the same way that Kafka, by transforming his protagonist into a giant insect, prefigured Literary Fiction’s renewed appreciation for the power of the Fantastical.

Between the Colony and the Bureau we have Acadie’s narrator, Duke. Disillusioned with the literary Bureau and reluctantly recruited by the speculative Colony, Duke complicates this reading of the novella by displaying aspects of both in the same way that, say, commercial fiction might (his full name, John Wayne Faraday, evokes the image of electrifying mainstream entertainment for all). Acadie calls him a ‘mundane’, a term still sometimes heard in the spec-fic community to describe someone with no interest in either Science Fiction or Fantasy. When not briefing hobbits and elves about the evacuation of the Colony, Duke is partaking in the stereotypical literary activities of drowning his sorrows in a bar and having flashbacks to the fallout from quitting his job in spectacular style (Duke’s former profession as a lawyer is mentioned several times and, though it has little purpose story-wise, it would not be out of place in a mainstream novel). Nevertheless, Duke’s limitations see him trapped in an endless cycle of destroying himself, repeating himself, and destroying himself again (a comment on the repetitious nature of much commercial fiction, maybe?). Though of course a last-minute reveal (which I won’t spoil) directly rooting this mainstream character in the same imaginative soil as the speculative material around him is a sharp reminder of the novella’s central argumentative thrust: that framing different kinds of stories as being in competition with each other only diminishes all.

Stressing that point, Hutchinson appears unwilling to play favourites. Potter’s children may have broken away from the restrictions of ordinary life on Earth (the bread and butter of literary realism, say) but they have changed too quickly. Their work has become ‘painfully thin’ or ‘grey and listless’ the way subsequent generations of Harry Potter clones fail to replicate the original’s spark. The Bureau, on the other hand, has changed too slowly, and in its reluctance risks stagnation and failure despite the considerable financial support they have received from the government (one might think of the patronage afforded to Literary Fiction even as it suffers from declining readership). What’s more, the climax of Acadie is, figuratively at least, the representatives of different genres arguing that their opponents are not real. Though given that, as in reality, these genres have become muddied and overlapping in the course of the story – literary fiction having undergone a metamorphosis *cough*Kafka*cough* by taking on characteristics of the fantastic, Fantasy having acknowledged the need to recruit ‘new blood, new talent, new perspectives’ from the literary – is there really any difference worth contesting for these characters? Note the intentional similarity in names between the Colony and the Bureau of Colonisation: they might as well be the same thing. Continued discord between them accomplishes nothing even as the conflict between them has flared up ‘fifty times in the past three hundred years or so’. Should one wish to apply the same timeframe to arguments about the respective primacy of Fantasy and Literary writing, one would find this almost precisely delineates a period from the publication of Acadie back to when Daniel Defoe arguably inaugurated the era of the realistic fiction novel in English with Robinson Crusoe in 1719. A coincidence, perhaps, but this entertaining and engaging novella has too many coincidences to be able to discount them all.

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Con Report: WorldCon 75 in Helsinki

I recently contributed the following convention report to the Milford Writers’ Conference blog

welcome-to-worldcon1WorldCon 75 was my second time attending the World Science Fiction Convention (the first was in London three years ago) and it was both a terrific con and a wonderful opportunity to explore a fantastic city. Helsinki is a beautiful, hugely walkable place. It’s all trees and parks (make sure to check out Eila Hiltunen’s stunning Sibelius Monument!) and everyone seems to speak perfect English. During the convention itself, I was delighted to be involved in several popular events. I took part in the ‘Science Fiction in University Courses’ panel, which was a fun opportunity to talk about what I do for a living at Aberystwyth University (and a chance to have some great discussions with fellow panelist Helen Marshall from Anglia Ruskin University). I was also part of the ‘Stargate at 20 Years’ panel, during which I had the rare treat of testing out ideas from an academic article in progress on an enthusiastic audience of genuine fans. Finally, I delivered a paper on the convention’s academic track titled ‘The Cause of the Incident was Human Error: Irish Nuclear Anxiety in Eilís Ní Dhuibhne’s The Bray House’ (feedback on this was very positive and I intend expanding it into a full length article in the near future).

Other panels and talks I attended which have really stuck with me included the ‘Resistance’ panel featuring Tiffani Angus, Liz Hand, Kameron Hurley, and others talking about, well, the things that we need to be talking about these days (‘We have a problem with empathy,’ Angus says. ‘One on one we’re good; with family we’re iffy; and then we have the internet…’). I enjoyed the talk by Jenny Knots of NASA’s Public Affair Office (‘Bagpipes were once taken to the space station but… those weren’t very popular’) as well as the contributions of E.G. Cosh to the ‘Visual Language of Comics’ panel (‘The language of comics comprises symbols within the art and what happens on page/how it’s read,’ she says. ‘Accept that you’re going to need to read the page a few times’). Meanwhile, on the ‘Engineering in Science Fiction and Fantasy’ panel, Fran Wilde was the standout participant (‘Engineering is a way for science to interact with the world,’ as she put it. Also, ‘where do all the objects come from in Harry Potter? Where is the Hogwarts School of Engineering?’). There were also interesting, informed panels discussing ‘Hard Science Fiction’ (a ‘state of mind which manifests in various sub-genres,’ says Andrew Barton) and ‘Mighty Space Fleets of War’ (‘In space, shrapnel is forever’). Another highlight in terms of quality and diversity of material was the academic track (really great to see these integrated into conventions more and more these days) which I found to be one of the most successful elements of the whole convention.

There was honestly so much going on that it’s difficult to sum up! We ate reindeer, experienced an exceptional Helsinki thunderstorm (‘Everybody is advised to stay inside between 20:00 and 22:00’), were awed by the ceaseless dance of construction cranes near the convention center (#CraneCon), got to meet Daveed Diggs and Clipping (though unfortunately I could not make their concert as it clashed with my ‘Science Fiction in Universities’ panel), and enjoyed wine and nibbles at a City Hall reception welcoming WorldCon to Finland for the very first time. We attended the Hugo Awards ceremony (shout-out to Ada Palmer’s acceptance speech: ‘There are more kind people in this world than cruel people so never give up on working to what you want in the world’) and, at one point I found myself in a room with an actual astronaut and the director of the Vatican Observatory (‘People must follow the robots!’).

Beyond the convention, a personal Helsinki highlight was the visit I took to the spectacular sea fortress of Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on a series of islands just a short boat trip from the city’s famous Market Square. I spent a good five or six hours exploring the nooks and crannies of the fortifications, Suomenlinna’s museums (and submarine!), as well the site’s complicated history, but that was hardly long enough time! It was a terrific trip-within-the-trip and a real boon in terms of the ideas it sparked off (I definitely plan on using a version of these islands in future fiction projects). Indeed, getting the chance to see and be inspired by places like Suomenlinna is one of the big advantages of a WorldCon which truly travels the world.

See you all in Dublin in 2019!

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‘Freedom of Navigation’ published in Interzone

freedom-of-navigationI’m delighted that my story ‘Freedom of Navigation’ has recently been published in the January 2017 issue of Interzone (#268) accompanied by a striking illustration by Richard Wagner (I’m massively impressed by how much of the story he managed to capture). It is my second story published in Interzone.

‘Freedom of Navigation’ follows a cybernetic interplanetary fighter pilot dispatched with her drone escorts to enforce a territorial claim in the asteroid belt. It should be a routine mission but space is a dangerous place and when things go wrong the pilot finds herself outgunned over enemy territory…

The story’s origins lie in my curiosity about the widening gap between crewed and autonomous aircraft. The drones of the stories – the ‘Centaurs’ – are inspired by contemporary research on ‘human-machine teaming’. The term originally comes from chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, who described human players using chess software as an adviser, but ultimately making the final decision, as ‘centaur chess’. ‘Freedom of Navigation’ offers one possible outcome of such a marriage between computational speed and human judgement.

Interzone #266 also contains stories by Julie C. Day, Christien Gholson, Michael Reid, Mel Kassel, and T.R. Napper, along with the usual book, cinema, and DVD reviews. The issue can be purchased via TTA Press (and they, in turn, can be followed via Twitter here).

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Other posts you may be interested in…

Thirty More Thoughts about Aberystwyth (After a Year-and-a-Half!)

december-3rd-2016

I’ve been in Aberystwyth for almost a year and a half now (!) and it continues to be a fantastic place to live and work. Also continues to be an endlessly fascinating experience so I have, as with last year, been collecting observations and reflections on my time here…

  • Bumble Bees Love Aber!
  • The overlook in Penglais Park offers arguably the best view of Aberystwyth. Even better than Consti.
  • On that note, I’m ashamed to admit how long it took me to realise everyone called Constitution Hill “Consti”. But now I can’t stop!
  • Come spring, the bluebells transform the forest in Penglais Park into a kind of magical fantasy landscape. This is reinforced by the fact that you occasionally run into people wearing medieval garb there…
  • The Old College on the seafront is stunning. That this was true of the outside was apparent to me from my first few days in Aber, but by now I’ve had a chance to poke around the interior a bit and have found it to be one part romantic Victorian hotel, one part labyrinthine castle (think Doctor Who’s ‘Heaven Sent’), and one part Hogwarts. Indeed, as my colleague Beth Rodgers discovered, it used to be the haunt of one Professor Snape who taught Po… erm… Chemistry.
  • If there is one business to be in here in Aberystwyth it is doubtlessly scaffolding (looking at you, storms!).
  • That wasn’t a tornado or a hurricane that hit Aberystwyth back in November, I’m told it was a “straight line wind event”.
  • Abergustwyth
  • Abergeddon
  • Aberpreneurs
  • Abercadabra
  • Aber Daber Do
  • Walk the Prom early enough on an autumn morning and you’ll be treated to the starlings departing from their roosts beneath the pier. They look like spacecraft leaving a mothership and it’s spectacular.
  • This is my current favourite graffiti in Aberystwyth: 20160918_145728.jpg
  • Speaking of graffiti, who or what is “Pigfart”? Sometimes I ask people that and they look at me funny. But the word is scrawled on walls and footpaths (mostly but not exclusively on the south side of town). Is it a name? Is it a phrase? I’ll tell you what it is: it’s a mystery! Someone please stop me going full red-threads-across-a-board-covered-in-maps-and-photos about this (Update: I’ve been told that this is a reference to A Very Potter Musical).
  • Aberystwyth has an unexpected historical relationship with a Japanese town called Yosano. A local man named Frank Evans was a Japanese P.O.W. there during World War II (I recommend reading his 1985 volume Roll Call at Oeyama: A POW Remembers). In coming to terms with his experience, and in the hopes of promoting friendship between West and East, he eventually forged links between Wales and Japan. Young people from Yosano have been visiting Aberystwyth for many years but January 2016 was the first time Aberystwyth University sent student ambassadors to Japan. I had the opportunity to lead this group as the staff representative and it was an exceptional experience for all involved. Yosano is a beautiful place fully of friendly, generous people (and wow but the food is amazing!). The enthusiasm of our hosts for the relationship between the towns was undeniable and I am delighted that I will be leading a second group of students back there in a few weeks’ time (though this year I have sources my own indoor slippers to bring with me as, to the amusement of our hosts, none of the local slippers came anywhere close to fitting me!)
  • It took me a long time to get around to visiting the Ceredigion Museum in Aberystwyth but that was an oversight I recently corrected. Housed in a restored Edwardian Theatre, and full of (among other things) stunning paintings of old nautical scenes and landscapes, it ought to be an essential stop for anyone passing through the area.
  • When I lived in Galway I used to see big ships all the time. Less so in Aber (I hear the shallowness of Cardigan Bay is to blame). In the year and a half I’ve been here I’ve only seen two sizable craft on the horizon: the vehicle carrier California Highway back in September 2015 and the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Richmond in early December of this year. In the latter case I had just given a ‘Writing and Place’ class about the sea, including a segment on this-is-why-we-rarely-see-big-ships-near-Aberystwyth, and then I walked straight across the hall to my office to see the Richmond staring back at me.
  • Last summer my colleague Malte Urban took me out onto Cardigan Bay on his boat (a trip from Aberystwyth to Pwllheli). Felt like a proper adventure! I was struck by just how busy the Bay is with fishing boats and pleasure craft (it is one thing seeing the little arrows on the Marine Traffic app; quite another to see the variety of boats plying the waves in real life). A highlight was definitely seeing the ‘Patches’ buoy, a navigational marker the size of a bus turned on end, as well as gaining a whole new perspective on the coast and mountains of mid-Wales.
  • I have an amazing view over the Irish Sea from my office… but I’ve also got the campus’s Llandinam tower right in the middle of it! It’s sometimes fun to (digitally) imagine what it might look if the tower was a few floors lower: Skyline.jpg
  • Every winter the beach in Aberystwyth migrates onto the Promenade. And, because it’s such a Sisyphean task to clear it during storm season, the sand is… just left there, and paths are cleared through it for pedestrians. It lends a surreal atmosphere to walking the Prom. Almost as though one is strolling through the trenches.
  • Speaking of, Aberystwyth used to have a tank! The site is now a playground.
  • I never cease to be amused by the incredulity of the recorded voice on the Arriva train en route to Aber: “We will shortly be arriving at… Shrewsbury?”
  • A student writing a comicbook recently asked to base the character of a wizard on me. No word on if it’s a good wizard or a bad one…
  • Meanwhile, numerous final year Writing Project supervisions over the last term have gone as follows: Student voices concern that their dystopian Britain story will be clichéd; Tutor voices concern that it will actually be a non-fiction project (then notes that they’re at least paying attention to the world around them).
  • This:
    flowcharts
  • The Promenade is lined with flags from countries and regions all around the world. It’s a nice nod to the spirit of Internationalisation that exists in this small Welsh town (Aberystwyth voted Remain in the Brexit referendum). Plus it really simplifies making arrangements to meet people: “See you by Norway at noon?”
  • You think you’re at the top of the hill but you’re not. Stop fooling yourself. There is always more uphill in Wales.
  • A sign that you live in a very small town: wandering around the new Tesco with a silly grin thinking, “Ooh, they have… stuff!”
  • Finally, I have been continuing the “Walk to Mordor” which I began last year (that is charting my distances walked – though only those walked in Wales – against the distances Fordo and Sam travel in The Lord of the Rings). In my first term in 2015 I had reached Rivendell (737 km). By the end of the first week of May 2016 I had travelled through Moria, to Lothlorien (an additional 743.5km) and by the start of October I was at Rauros Falls (another 626km). I am now well on my way to Mt. Doom having walked 489km of the remaining 756km. A little under 270km to go! That seems… manageable, right? (All distances via Nerd Fitness).

So here we go with 2017! I’ll let you know when it’s time to send the Eagles…

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Deleted Notes from a Coma

 

Earlier this month I was notes-from-a-comadelighted to contribute an article to the Irish Times about Mike McCormack’s 2005 novel Notes from a Coma (the story of JJ O’Malley, a troubled young man who volunteers for an experiment in the use of deep coma within the EU penal system).

As with any piece of writing, I am left with a handful of notes and observations that didn’t make the final cut (mostly because they didn’t fit with the direction the piece went in or they exceeded the word count; in one or two cases because they’re nothing more than asides). But I thought it might be fun to share the excised bits and some of the thinking behind them here as a kind of addendum to the article itself …

  • I made an effort to structure the piece as a reflection of the novel, with JJ O’Malley at the literal centre of things. Though that didn’t quite work out! Thus my discussion of how JJ lies at the centre of the book’s singularity is a little more than halfway through the article.
  • The sense of JJ O’Malley as a Jesus figure is compounded by his adopted father and virgin mother… of sorts (the latter being the Romanian nun who runs the orphanage where he lives as an infant).
  • The five narrating characters essentially offer five gospels of JJ O’Malley.
  • On the “contingent riffs” (what people have mistaken for footnotes) which form the broken boundary of McCormack’s effort to inscribe JJ’s story as widely as possible: It is surely no accident that “riffs” (the author’s term) contains a phonetic echo of “rifts”, and so suggests tears in narrative integrity.
  • One striking comment about three-quarters of the way through the novel describes how “fiction and history are put through narrative loops beyond all unravelling”. It serves as a nod to the Irish experimental fiction tradition – which Notes from a Coma is consciously situated in relation to – and, just maybe, specifically to a work like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
  • The participants in the novel’s coma remind me of another group of sleepers wired up to machinery aboard a ship (and in their case receiving literal messages from the future): the subjects of Galania’s Exordium experiment in the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds.
  • McCormack’s Louisburgh is an important and increasingly storied part of his fictionalised Mayo topography (look no further than the recent Solar Bones). Given time it could yet become an Irish analogue to something like Stephen King’s Castle Rock.
  • One of the key themes of the novel is the struggle to resolve the spiritual with the scientific: the question of self-definition against “the technological phenomena of image and information dispersal”. Hence the novel’s obsession with ghosts as much as with digitality.
  • Note the book’s original cover (pictured above): A child – “the type of face new Ireland doesn’t wonder at anymore” – considering their own reflection. Or, just maybe, his own ghost…

Notes from a Coma will be republished by Canongate next year as part of their Canongate Classics series.

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Retreat to move forward!

20161114_141526Fifty undergraduate students, two days, and (supposedly) one of the most haunted houses in Britain… but the only ghosts to be found on our recent Aberystwyth English Department reading week retreat were those of literary predecessors: writers and critics whose work serves to point our third year English and Creative Writing students in fruitful directions as they begin their final dissertations and long-form creative writing projects.

With students and staff bussed to Gregynog Hall, a stunning country mansion four miles outside Newtown, the retreat began with a trio of talks on process: Luke Thurston discussed how he had recently gone about assembling an edited collection, Beth Rodgers showed the students how she had researched an academic essay for the same volume, and finally I walked the students through the research I have been conducting for a story I’m currently working on.

That, I admit, was dangerous! But I think I side-stepped the major risk here (never tell anyone your story before you’ve written it because then you mightn’t want to write it!) by not discussing the plot or characters in any great detail. Instead I covered my approach to online research, best practice for interviews, the pros and cons of sourcing details and insights from photographs (mostly pros… but beware the cropped image), as well as the value of visiting the place that one is writing about (or visiting a similar place; for instance, I thought Gregynog’s magical Dell – let alone the estate’s Tolkienesque sculpture of a giant hand reaching out of the ground – offered ideal inspiration for any students writing about fantasy landscapes).

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Later that afternoon, and again on the second day, students and staff alike became ghosts of a fashion in our own lives during a series of “Shut-Up-and-Write/Read” sessions (though, as Beth put it, “writing is permitted at all times”!). We switched off our smartphones (uhh, sure we did…) and sat quietly, haunting the rooms of Gregynog with the sounds of our keyboards and scribbles and our pages turning. It seemed appropriate to the wood-panelled surroundings and, by all accounts, these sessions were highly productive for the students (for some of us, of course, it was more like “Shut-Up-and-Mark-Papers”!).

20161115_102545On day two, as everyone grew more comfortable with Gregynog, it was interesting to watch how the students began to inhabit both the physical and imaginative spaces of the venue. Most clustered together in the library or the seminar rooms in a manner which reflected the core, recognisable interests of any English and Creative Writing cohort. Though naturally there were always a few students to be found wandering the grounds – probing the outer edges of discourse, if you will, or seeking inspiration from less mainstream writers – and one got the feeling that the contemplative atmosphere was having a real effect on them.

For the rest of us there was Gregynog’s basement bar, site of giant Jenga (our students are really good at that!), an insanely difficult staff Vs students quiz courtesy of Mike Smith, as well as some end-of-night ghost-themed storytelling. Indeed, I think it was the combination of these casual activities with the formal benefit on student projects which helped make the retreat (brainchild of our brilliant Department Head Louise Marshall) such a great success. Taking the work of our undergraduates out of the four walls of the classroom setting and into the twisty-turny nooks of Gregynog hopefully helped them to see their projects from new and less rigid perspectives. For staff members too it offered a chance to indulge in our enthusiasms and, perhaps more importantly, the conversations we had there served as valuable reminders that all of us remain students at heart.

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