Trip of a lifetime for Canadian space oddity

I have a particular love of books written by astronauts and so was delighted that I got the chance to review Chris Hadfield’s memoir recently:

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on EarthAnAstronautsGuideToLifeOnEarth
Chris Hadfield
Macmillan, £18.99
Review: Val Nolan

Chris Hadfield would make anyone feel inadequate. An aeronautical engineer, a top graduate of the US Air Force Test Pilot School, former US Navy test pilot of the year, former Chief of Robotics at the Johnson Space Centre, former commander of the International Space Station and, essentially, a rock star, with his zero-gravity version of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ receiving millions of views online. Oh, and he also speaks Russian.

But, says Hadfield, “I wasn’t destined to be an astronaut. I had to turn myself into one”. It is a transformation he describes with great humour and modesty, the story of how the 1969 moon landing inspired a nine-year-old in rural Ontario to overcome his fear of heights — let alone the fact that Canada didn’t have a space programme until the 1990s — and become the man responsible for success and safety aboard the “world’s spaceship”.

Responsible too for one of the most successful campaigns of scientific awareness in recent decades. Hadfield’s tweets from orbit placed the universe on our phones and laptop screens but they were no mere publicity stunt. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth contextualises them as a powerful tool in the author’s educational arsenal, a means of exciting people, particularly young people, about space again.

Of course, what stands out most about Hadfield’s hugely engaging book is his acknowledgment that he could not have succeeded alone. Hadfield is as appreciative of his wife, family (“Space Oddity” was his son’s idea), and “loyal, courageous, and brave” colleagues as he is quietly damning about those few out only for themselves. “Leadership is not about glorious crowning acts,” he says. “It’s about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it”.

He learnt this as a fighter jock intercepting Soviet aircraft which strayed into Canadian territory (“not a low-stress occupation”) and, later, as a test pilot pushing F-18s beyond their design limits while earning his master’s degree by night. When the new Canadian Space Agency opened its doors to “highly informed, consenting human guinea pigs” in 1992 he was selected out of more than 5,000 applicants.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth is thus propelled by its author’s joy at actually getting to live his impossible dream. Hadfield’s enthusiasm is such that his writing often verges on the poetic, but this is also a pragmatic volume in which he is candid about the risks involved in his profession. Yes he may romanticise a rocket “lit up and shining, an obelisk”, but he is still able to see it as “a 4.5 megaton bomb loaded with explosive fuel, which is why everyone else is driving away from it”. Hadfield’s experiences on the Space Station are similarly exemplified by contradiction: people “sleep on air” but have no running water; their hearts shrink physically but grow in their fondness for the Earth and its inhabitants. Hadfield, by eschewing technical detail, foregrounds the “human aspect of space exploration” and his book is all the more wonderful because of it.

Indeed, forget for a moment that this is the memoir of an astronaut. Instead see it as the work of someone who has learnt “to make good decisions quickly, with incomplete information, when the consequences really matter”. In such a light this book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to accomplish their goals. “Sweat the small stuff without letting anyone see you sweat,” he says. Stellar advice for life on Earth and beyond.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 22nd February 2014.

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A divided character explores brave new worlds…

Here’s a re-post of my Irish Examiner piece on Alastair Reynolds’s latest novel (nice to see it quoted on the book’s Amazon page too!). It got a little truncated in the paper (that’s just the business; sometimes an article is needed quickly to fill a slot and so something longer is cut down) but this is the full piece as submitted.

On the Steel BreezeOn the Steel Breeze
Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz; £16:99
Review: Val Nolan

Chiku Akinya is a woman literally at odds with herself. The protagonist of Alastair Reynolds’s follow-up to last year’s Blue Remembered Earth has undergone a process of “triplication”; she has been cloned, twice, and all three trade memories even as their own experiences mould them into different people. Chiku-Yellow remains on Earth, living a life devoid of glory. Chiku-Red ventures alone into deep space and is presumed dead. Meanwhile, Chiku-Green joins a migratory caravan of “holoships”, vast generational craft hollowed out of asteroids and flung away from Earth at relativistic velocities to carry millions of people to other solar systems.

One world in particular, the planet Crucible, shows signs of “something irrefutably alien,” the handiwork “of directed, tool-using intelligence”, and it is there Chiku-Green hopes to make her mark. Yet the holoship inhabitants have maxed out their engines to shave a century off their travel time and, in a fit of hubris, have bet on solving the “slowdown problem” en route. It was not a wise decision.

Worse, Chiku-Yellow has discovered that the images of Crucible – the motivating factor behind Humanity’s new “cooperation and common purpose” – may not correspond to reality. Unravelling the mystery involves collaboration with Chiku-Green, and the time-lag caused by interstellar distances allows the author to drive this tightly-plotted story forward with effective, decades-long scene-changes.

While the experience is enriched by knowledge of Blue Remembered Earth (Chiku’s relatives, for instance, as well as her family’s history with elephants, here used to uncanny effect by Reynolds), On the Steel Breeze functions well as an independent story. Moreover, it is a stronger novel than its predecessor. There is a palpable depth of feeling to the experiences and sacrifices of each Chiku, with Reynolds transcending the cold Gothicism of his early writing. The ex-astrophysicist now describes, say, the loss of a loved one with the same raw immediacy through which he brings his realistic technobabble to life.

Longstanding fascinations also remain, chief among them being Reynolds’s interest in malignant software entities. This novel gives us “Arachne”, a rogue intelligence infecting the “Mechanism”, an omniscient network overseeing all law and human safety. “There’s almost nothing she can’t influence” including, Chiku realises with a growing sense of dread, the “Providers”, massive machines humanity relies on to build cities and harbours and which they have sent ahead of them to tame Crucible.

But Arachne is not the only one who is “deeply distributed”. While Chiku-Yellow investigates the entity’s presence around Earth, Chiku-Green braves the knotty political climate of the holoship caravan to unlock the truth about Crucible before it is too late. Both strands offer plenty of well-earned twists, with Reynolds the kind of reliable, action-orientated writer who can make a chase through a dark basement just as exciting as a clandestine launch of an experimental spacecraft.

Most engaging of all is Chiku’s private journey to understand herself: “Birth and death frame a life, give it shape,” she learns. “Without that border it just becomes a sprawling mess. A thing with no edge, no definition, no centre”. Such moments imbue On the Steel Breeze with nuance and real emotional texture. They ensure the book is not merely a sequel, but instead a standalone adventure with genuine heart.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 2 November 2013 (p.16).

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“No, sir… all thirteen (thoughts about ‘The Day of The Doctor’, that is)”

'The Day of The Doctor'

‘The Day of The Doctor’

So, a little late to the party (I do have a life beyond the Internet, you know), but here are my key takeaway points from the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special last weekend. They’re a bit rough and ready, a first stab towards profundity perhaps, but maybe someday I’ll revise them into a more coherent form! Please note: Spoilers abound here not just for ‘The Day of The Doctor’, but also, let’s face it, the entirety of space and time.

1. First off, wasn’t that brilliant? It was exciting and touching, epic and intimate, with something for modern fans as well as long-time viewers. There’ll always be people disappointed, that’s just the curiously negative nature of contemporary fandom, but I’m certainly not one of them. We got ‘appearances’ (brief though they were) from ‘classic’ Doctors, we got adventures with the contemporary incarnations, and we got mythology-shaking revelations not just about The Doctor himself but also the broad-canvass background of the show in general. ‘The Day of The Doctor’ was a triumph for Doctor Who’s ability to constantly re-invent itself. It was gorgeous to look at, nicely garnished with Easter-eggs for fans, and more than emotionally satisfying. Not bad for an hour and quarter!

2. If anyone asks me to describe this episode (or this ‘special’? This ‘film’, even?) then I’m going to say this: It’s an episode of Doctor Who about The Doctor watching an episode of Doctor Who. Some people online have complained (big surprise) that the middle section of the episode (Elizabeth I, Zygons, UNIT) didn’t feel ‘big’ enough for a 50th anniversary, that it was too much like an ‘ordinary’ episode of the show, but that’s really the point, isn’t it? John Hurt’s ‘War Doctor’, something of a surrogate for the older, grouchier ‘classic’ Doctors, is granted a glimpse of his future selves. They’re younger, yes, more superficially frivolous, to be sure, but through watching them save the world (and towards the end he’s literally sitting in an armchair watching them, as he might if he was parked in front of the TV on a Saturday evening) he is reminded of his own true nature; he’s reminded of who The Doctor is.

That this is the purpose behind ‘The Day of The Doctor’ is flagged up-front with the quotation from Marcus Aurelius by which Clara concludes her class at the beginning: “Waste no more time arguing what a good man would be… be one”. That, in a nutshell, is the final act of the anniversary special right there: No more talking, no more debate about right and wrong; just taking action and saving the day. 

3. For his part, the Eleventh Doctor’s portion of the story feels like its about Doctor Who’s place in popular culture, essentially a discussion of high art versus low art. Much of his story takes place in London’s National Gallery, home of great paintings ‘from Giotto to Cézanne’, high art, in other words. But beneath it is the ‘Undergallery’ where ‘all art too dangerous for public consumption’ is held (such as the terrifically bonkers Cyberman version of the Géricault’s ‘Raft of the Medusa’). I’m reminded here of something Brian Aldis said recently at World Fantasy Con in Brighton: that critics too busy preening in the high gallery, waxing back and forth about beauty and aesthetes, ‘are afraid’ of science fiction because it has ‘this alarming power to deliver startling things’. That The Doctor was appointed by Queen Elizabeth I as curator of the Undergallery speaks to both his opposition to such figures as well as to his pre-eminence in popular culture (especially in Britain).  It also speaks to the exciting and cultish (I use that term in a positive sense) aspect of Doctor Who more generally: anyone can engage with self-consciously serious high art, but it’s in the hidden, irreverent, self-contradictory art of popular culture that the excitement truly lies… and one has to seek that out for oneself.

4. The Tenth Doctor’s plotline then (and this is, admittedly, more of a stretch! But stay with me!) serves as something of a meta-story for the role of continuity in Doctor Who and, one supposes, franchise science fiction more generally. It does so by focusing on a long-running plot-thread/joke from the Tenth Doctor’s run, his frequent but never explained comments about a dalliance with Queen Elizabeth I. There’s also the appearance here of a classic monster, the shape-changing Zygons, a threat which has not been seen on screen since 1975 (‘The Terror of the Zygons’) as well as Ten’s reliance on silly gadgetry (like the ‘machine which goes ding’) and the largely set-less outdoor filming of this section. It’s true that the War Doctor is essentially a ‘classic’ take on the character, but insofar as he is metaphorically watching an episode of the show, it’s very much a story of two halves with the Tenth Doctor’s segment best reflecting the classic show’s practice of filming in, well, fields (I was almost surprised not to see a quarry), and filling scenes with extras dressed in period garb looted from the BBC costume department (by contrast, the Eleventh Doctor’s portion of the story is very much of the modern Who mold). Moreover, there is a further element here which is of relevance to the art question; the whole notion of originals Vs recreations (classic Who Vs modern Who echoed in the the painting recreating Gallifrey, the Zygons recreating Elizabeth I, and so on).

5. Beyond all of this, I do salute Stephen Moffat for devising a plot-relevant, nay mythology-relevant reason for the differences between the classic-era Doctors and the character’s modern incarnations. Much has been made about this in other reviews, so I won’t stress it here, but the younger ‘modern’ Doctors are cleverly explained as a reaction against (in Ten’s words) his ‘grown-up’ older incarnations, particularly the War Doctor and the weighty choices he had to make at the end of the Time War. Of course, this isn’t just something that’s relevant looking backwards, but also going forwards with the future promised by Peter Capaldi being cast as the next, older (but, at 55, not ‘old’) Doctor. With the saving of Gallifrey and the absolution of the guilt associated with the War Doctor’s choices, The Doctor is clearly set to experiment with maturity once again.

6. Dear Internet, please be advised that you don’t own Christopher Eccleston and that he doesn’t owe you anything. Yes his lack of involvement was disappointing but it’s his life. Griping about his unwillingness to appear for the War Doctor’s final moments ignores both the barest hint of his face in the regeneration scene (as I’ve convinced myself) and the fact that, of all the stock-footage ‘appearances’ by past Doctors, his was the most extensive. 

7. A brief comment on the fez: Am I right in thinking that this particular piece of headgear is a paradox? The Eleventh Doctor finds it in the Undergallery and throws it through the portal to the Tenth Doctor in 1562. After he follows, the Eleventh Doctor subsequently throws it through another portal to the War Doctor on Gallifrey. The War Doctor then returns through the portal with the fez which is, apparently, left behind in 1562 where Elizabeth I places it in the Undergallery for the Eleventh Doctor to discover in the first place. Yeah, I know, it’s wrong that this is one of my favorite parts of the episode.  But it is, and I love that it’s never addressed. 

8. I also loved that, through the ‘Time Lord art’, 3D was a crucial plot point in ‘The Day of The Doctor’ and not just some gimmick. Another reminder that even the most ‘popular’ or ‘commercial’ undertakings, like 3D cinema, are still art. 

9. Indeed, beyond the 3D, the effects work in general on this was stupendous, from the CGI depicting the fall of Arcadia to the practical effects of the War Doctor ramming through walls and Daleks with his TARDIS to the paintings themselves. This was as visually rich as Doctor Who has ever been. 

10. That said (and if I have a significant criticism of ‘The Day of The Doctor’ it’s this) the actualisation of the Time War was quite conventional, wasn’t it? It’s not a deal-breaker for me, but the recognizable television Sci-Fi of laser blasts and explosions depicted here does seem at odds with a conflict which has previously been spoken about as one of higher dimensions with countless millions dying and being resurrected and dying again every instant (‘The End of Time’), a war comprehensible to us Humans merely as poetry. For instance Davros, at the Gates of Elysium, flying ‘into the jaws of the Nightmare Child’ (‘The Stolen Earth’); the Dalek Emperor taking control of the ‘Cruciform’ (‘The Sound of Drums’); the dreadful ‘Horde of Travesties’ and the ‘Could’ve Been King with his Army of Meanwhiles and Neverweres’ (‘The End of Time’); the Daleks vanishing ‘out of time and space’ to fight a war waged beyond the veil of recognizable reality (‘The Parting of the Ways’). I won’t say I was disappointed by the depiction of the time War here, it as certainly exciting, but I was perhaps expecting something a little more… abstract (though, come to think of it, in the poetry Vs lasers debate we have the other side of the art question raised above).  

11. Meanwhile, the Time War itself takes places between the Eight Doctor-centric mini-episode ‘The Night of the Doctor’ and the 50th anniversary special, ‘The Day of the Doctor’. Like Battlestar Galactica, where the pilot mini-series was titled ‘Night’ and the finale ‘Daybreak’ (about which I’ve written elsewhere), the events of The Time War constitute a dark night of the soul for The Doctor. Seeing as the purpose of ‘The Day of The Doctor’ is to show us who the character really is, to reveal his soul, as it were, I can’t believe that the ‘Night’/’Day’ naming scheme here is just a cute mirroring on Moffat’s part.

12. (Update, January 2014: The Christmas special, ‘The Time of The Doctor’, has obviously answered this point about Regenerations, however I’ll leave this as it stands as it does represent my initial response to ‘The Day of The Doctor’) Now that the War Doctor is officially the Doctor, there’s probably going to be a lot of confusion about how many Doctors there have been. On one hand it doesn’t matter. On another, the Time Lords themselves count ‘all thirteen’ during the saving of Gallifrey, including John Hurt and Peter Capaldi in the latter’s insanely crowd-pleasing two-second cameo. Sans-Capaldi and the War Doctor (who, let us not forget, was actively repressed by The Doctor), the generally accepted back-catalogue is confirmed by the images of past Doctors in The Journal of Impossible Things (‘Human Nature’/’The Family of Blood’), let alone those which appeared on-screen in ‘The Eleventh Hour’, ‘The Name of The Doctor’, and ‘The Day of The Doctor’ itself. 

But hang on, I hear you say, what about other faces glimpsed in ‘The Brain of Morbius’ (1976)? ‘I attempted to imply that William Hartnell was not the first Doctor,’ said Producer Philip Hinchcliffe of this development at the time, but, having re-watched the scene, I personally choose to stress the word ‘attempted’ and hold the opinion is that the mysterious faces seen during the Mind-Bending dual are the previous incarnations of Morbius himself (they do tend to go back and forth between Morbius and The Doctor). ‘How far, Doctor? How long have you lived?’ Morbius demands, but it’s possible to interpret this merely as a taunt while the evil Time Lord overwhelms our hero with a greater weight of experience (and, in this reading of the scene, the reason Morbius’s brain-housing overloads is, presumably, because he’s expending so much mental energy in order to win the dual). Moffat would seem to be taking a similar reading of ‘The Brain of Morbius’. Certainly he is aware of this Tom Baker-era serial, not only because as Executive Producer of Doctor Who it’s essentially his job to be familiar with the show’s history, but because ‘The Night of the Doctor’ is set on the same planet, Karn, and prominently features ‘Brain of Morbius’ bit-players The Sisterhood of Karn. 

As such, I think the real question one needs to ask after ‘The Day of The Doctor’ is how many future incarnations of The Doctor will there be? Worth pointing out here that the thirteen incarnation limit established by ‘The Deadly Assassins’ (1976) and the TV Movie (1996) has been disavowed so many times now that it is essentially meaningless: In ‘The Death of The Doctor,’ a 2010 episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, The Doctor jokes that he can regenerate 507 times; his arch-nemesis The Master is offered a whole new regeneration cycle in ‘The Five Doctors’; there is also the question of the regeneration energy he received from River Song in ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ (as well as the energy he returned to her in ‘The Angels Take Manhattan); there is the issue of whether or not a regeneration limit even applies without the Time Lords to enforce it; and all that before we get to The Valeyard from ‘The Trial of a Time Lord’, that potential future Doctor, a ‘distillation’ created between The Doctor’s twelfth and final incarnations (so, between Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi) who embodies all the evil and malevolence of the character’s dark side. Nonetheless, the concept of twelve regenerations for thirteen incarnations has become ingrained not only in fandom but also in popular culture, and no doubt will have to be dealt with in a fairly high profile manner by Capaldi’s run with the character. 

13. (Update, January 2014: Again ‘The Time of The Doctor’, having resolved the Regeneration issue, negates a certain amount of this, but I’ll leave it as is) All of that being as it may, I personally believe the regeneration limit no longer applies (if only because this is an ongoing TV show), something which then leaves more than enough room for the most perplexing (in a good way!) element of ‘The Day of The Doctor’: the wonderful cameo by Tom Baker in the closing moments. I really do appreciate the lighthearted nature of this scene and how it simultaneously gives us nothing and everything in order to figure out just what it means and who Tom Baker is meant to be playing. The impossible-to-ignore ‘round things’ on the wall of the gallery behind the Eleventh Doctor and Baker, as the Curator, clearly evoke the interior of the ‘Classic’ TARDIS (as Ten and Eleven comment on earlier in the episode). So is the National Gallery itself a future Doctor’s TARDIS? And is a future Doctor, returning to an ‘old favorite’ face, now the curator of the high art the same way his younger self is curator of the Undergallery (Eleven does say he would enjoy that)? Is his playfulness a rejoinder to those who take art too seriously and value only aesthetics over entertainment? Is his presence here an indication (wistful or not) that popular Science Fiction such as Doctor Who will indeed find a home (and remember, finding home is what the last moments of the episode are all about) in an expanded artistic criticism which will someday move away from dour and po-faced self-consciousness to acknowledge the popular and the playful (let alone the Science Fictional) as a valid form of artistic expression? Like good art itself, Baker’s appearance is something each viewer can take what they want from. It is a wonderful gift to fans old and new. Which, in the end, is exactly what the 50th anniversary needed to be.

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Love letter to New York that explores a sense of personal violation at 9/11

My review of the latest Thomas Pynchon novel, written almost two months ago but only published in yesterday’s Irish Examiner

Bleeding Edge
Thomas Pynchon
Jonathan Cape; £20
Review: Val Nolan

He’s a literary giant but you won’t see him on magazine covers or even on the jacket of his own books. No, Thomas Pynchon has never given an interview and never allows himself to be photographed (only a handful of verified images exist) but, as with most things, he seems to regard seclusion as one big joke, having happily appeared on not one but two episodes of The Simpsons with a paper bag over his head shouting, “Hey, over here! Have your picture taken with a reclusive author!”. Now comes Bleeding Edge, a mystery both slapstick and Chandleresque where a sombre treatment of September 11th undercuts the usual Pynchon tomfoolery. It is, in the biggest surprise of all, the closest thing to an autobiography he is ever likely to produce.

The year is 2001 and Maxine Tarnow, citizen of New York’s “Yupper West Side”, is a recently de-certified fraud investigator juggling a Beretta and two pre-teen sons, dallying between a “sort of semi-ex-husband”, a Spetsnaz tough turned mobster, a violent neoliberal fixer, and a “professional nose” (“born with a sense of smell far more calibrated than the rest of us normals enjoy”). Things get ugly when she is tipped off to irregularities at a computer firm run by billionaire geek Gabriel Ice, who may be the devil or, worse, an IT contractor for the Bush-era national security apparatus.

Maxine, like Pynchon, has “a tendency to look for patterns” and a “paranoid halo” vibrating to the hum of propriety’s outer boroughs. Certainly there is no shortage of things to ping her investigative antennae – let alone her more amorous receptors – in the months between the explosive burst of the dot-com bubble and the even bigger bang of 9/11. Her pursuit of “bloggers, hackers, code monkeys, and entrepreneurs” circles a larger conspiracy, or at least a conspiracy to create the sense of conspiracy – a United States “being silently replaced screen by screen with something else” – and one cannot help but see in Bleeding Edge what Salman Rushdie saw in Pynchon’s Vineland (1990): “A major political novel about what America has been doing to itself, to its children, all these many years”.

Readers new to the manic and famously difficult Pynchon will find Bleeding Edge a brisk and accessible introduction to a septuagenarian who established his reputation with an early trio of postmodern masterpieces: the enigmatic V. (1963), the labyrinthine The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and the bawdy, pseudo-encyclopaedic Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), the latter best described as the kind of Ulysses which Joyce might have written if he had been a Boeing engineer with a fetish for quadrille paper. Pynchon’s more recent fiction has varied in quality but rarely in tone, with 1997’s Enlightenment buddy-comedy Mason & Dixon being both the pinnacle of his later work and, arguably, one of the greatest American novels.

Like that book, Bleeding Edge is a romp. On full display are Pynchon’s trademark linguistic and imaginative acrobatics as Maxine contends with a “schadenfreudefest”, a “karmic crime scene”, and a “boot camp for military time travellers”. It may sound frivolous but an emotional maturity counterpoints the silly songs, deliberately bad puns, and pop-cultural references. Indeed, those who deride the author for such things miss the point, if one dares attribute such a thing to Pynchon, that these half-remembered pieces of the past are what our present days are made of (that said, were we really so obsessed with Jennifer Aniston’s hair in 2001?)

For existing Pynchophiles, Bleeding Edge supplies a familiar thematic palette which segues seamlessly into contemporary scepticism of government surveillance and late capitalism’s progress towards “a pyramid racket on a global scale, the kind of pyramid you do human sacrifices up on top of”. There is suspicion, of course; there are improbably named movers and shakers who elude constraint; there is irrationality and delusion, absolutely, but though Pynchon’s characters include 9/11 “truthers”, the author’s own misgivings stem as much from longstanding dissatisfaction with America’s political and social order as from inconsistencies in the official narratives.

Which brings one neatly to the novel’s autobiographical element. By setting the book mostly in Manhattan, on ground he has stomped for at least two decades, Pynchon allows us see the city through his own eyes. It is a place not officially mapped, an Escherine metropolis of “dope-scourged hipsters, funseekers who have failed to hook up,” and cops “dealing with bagel deficiencies”. Bleeding Edge is a love letter to New York, the kind of true love where one partner’s tics infuriate and inflame the other in equal measure, and, as the ominous shadow of the Twin Towers grows across the page, one realizes that the author is not merely unpacking national tragedy here, he is exploring his own sense of personal violation at 9/11 and the conservative kneejerk it engendered.

“But wait,” as the Simpsonized Pynchon once declared, “there’s more!” It’s impossible to read Bleeding Edge without feeling that each of the female characters here is an iteration of the novelist himself. There is Maxine, pursuing a shaggy-dog story while trying to maintain familial normality; there is Tallis, Gabriel Ice’s wife, coyly manipulating everyone with her assumed persona; there is Tallis’s mother, a grizzled old conspiracy theorist; the list goes on… Meanwhile, stand-ins for the readership are to be found among the male characters, reliable consumers of media from computer games to ill-advised movies-of-the-week (anyone for “Anthony Hopkins in The Mikhail Baryshnikov Story”?).

Likewise, Pynchon’s definition of the “bleeding edge” itself might well serve as a description of his own fiction: “no proven use, high risk, something only early adoption addicts feel comfortable with,” though those brave enough will find in it an astute dissection of fears both personal and societal. Mind you, if you’re wondering what the point of it all is then you already know the point. The Pyn-zen of Pynchon, as it were.

Dr. Val Nolan teaches contemporary literature at NUI Galway. 

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 9th November 2013 (p.18).

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‘But for the tune I did it’: Gunn’s bagpiping novel strikes Modernist note

Sometimes reviews get lost. It happens. You file something, it falls through the cracks of a busy editor’s schedule, and, though you might have really enjoyed the book (as in this case), you overlook the fact that the piece never appeared on account of the constant rush of new reading which is the life of a reviewer. Here’s an instance of that, an article I wrote last year which I only re-discovered (and realized that it never appeared in print) when going through old files at the weekend…

The Big Music

Kirsty Gunn

Faber; £20.99; eBook 14.99

Review: Val Nolan

When called upon to defend the Modernist novel, the critic Malcolm Bradbury was quick to praise the form’s unmatched ability at balancing “referential and discursive and aesthetic functions”. It is a dictum which derives from the heyday of writers like Joyce and Woolf and which, many decades later, finds purchase again among the pages of Kirsty Gunn’s astonishing novel The Big Music. A university professor as well as an established creative writer, the New Zealand born Gunn has crafted one of the few recent fictions to have truly unified Bradbury’s “polar distinctions” between “on the one hand, the novel’s propensity toward realism, social documentation and interrelation with historical events and movements, and on the other its propensity toward form, functionality, and reflexive self-examination”.

Rejecting a traditional narrative in favour of “journal entries, papers, and inserted sections of domestic history”, the novel takes its cues from the Piobaireachd, the titular Ceol Mor which is the classical compositional form of the Highland bagpipe. The Piobaireachd is a music written to be played outside, “in a wide space that may best set off its sound and range and scale, addressing large themes of loss and longing”. It is also music with a social function, a call to gathering or a lament; in this case a dirge for one John MacKay Sunderland and those who knew him.

John is 83 and a man who doesn’t allow himself to be free or open with anyone, even the women with whom he was most intimate in his life. A respected if eccentric heir to a centuries old piping school called the Grey House, the first thing we see him do is steal an infant and abscond up a strath to a hidden cabin. The child is to be the inspiration for his most accomplished music, the “Lament for Himself”, which he has been composing in secret as a means to preserve the traditions of his father (crucially the “great twentieth century Modernist piper”) and as a final contribution to the library of compositions established by his Grey House forbearers.

For Gunn too, The Big Music is a labour of love, a means to marry her avowed interest in literary Modernism with the unique musical identity of her adopted Scotland. In the foreword – a convincing fake-out that what follows are, in fact, genuine documents – she cites T.S. Eliot’s assertion that “the novel need not be just a simple form of communication from and about the real world but, like a poem, can be intricately and fully ‘written’.” While Gunn definitely fulfills her ambitions in this regard, her “arrangement” of The Big Music’s fractured notes and asides is, if anything, more resonate with Eliot’s assessment of Joyce’s writing, “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history”.

For like history, indeed like life itself, John Sunderland’s music is impossible to describe accurately. Its value therefore becomes clear only when the four movements of The Big Music are read in concert with the novel’s academic trappings, its appendices full of genealogies, maps, and sheet music, along with footnotes riffing on the stylistic aspects of the narrative. This additional level of discourse provides “a context – emotional as well as economic, practical and historical – for a particular way of life that is defined by living in a part of the world that is far off and remote”. Though Gunn notes that it is “in no way necessary to read all or any of this material”, this is in fact where her novel truly becomes a masterpiece, where the social function of the Piobaireachd finds its counterpoint in one of the core ideas of heroic Modernism as practiced by Scottish nationalist writers such as Hugh MacDiarmid: the artist as occupying a “high and honoured position” and teasing out new meaning from a world which defies straightforward explanation.

Some may sense a crusading quality to the appendices’ digressions and they would not be incorrect. Within them, Gunn does not limit herself to the topics of hereditary pipers or the changing face of northern Scotland; she also delves into Gender Studies, the ‘invisibility’ of motherhood’, and the changing role of women in literature over the last hundred years. Helen, the daughter of John’s housekeeper and life-long lover, is in some respects an authorial surrogate here. A scholar with, of course, “a particular emphasis on the fiction of Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf”, Helen’s strand of the story is Gunn’s comment on women’s increasing centrality to the historically male-dominated academic study of literature.

As such it is tempting to dismiss Helen, like John’s adult son Callum, as a mere cipher for the author’s pet peeves. Yet to do so would be to disregard Gunn’s use of them as the literal embodiment of John’s composition, grace notes repeated to deepen and vary the novel’s themes: the relationship between authors and texts, between parents and children, and between familial responsibilities and personal desires.

With all of this filtered through the book’s Modernist obsession with experimental form and expression, The Big Music’s emerges as the work of an author acquiescing fully to the notion of novel-as-intellectual-game. The result is Joycean, not so much in the wheel-reinventing fashion of Ulysses but in the mode of a people’s moral history pioneered by a volume such as Dubliners. “Challenging” is probably the best word to describe Gunn’s writing, but “challenging” in the best possible way. The Big Music is an extraordinary, immersive reading experience which succeeds in being innovative and clever while avoiding the associated peril of self-indulgence. Filled with “curious sentences and half-stories”, and with its language exhibiting all the poetry associated with the best of the literary genre, the vast spaces of this novel more than live up to the example of its musical precedent.

Dr. Val Nolan lectures on 20th century and contemporary literature at NUI Galway.

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Robinson paints a vivid portrait of Ice Age art and life

My Irish Examiner review of the new KSR novel… I was also very happy to recently see Robinson hailed as “our greatest political novelist” in the New Yorker. A well deserved accolade.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Shaman

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman

Shaman

Kim Stanley Robinson

Orbit; £18:99

Review: Val Nolan

The earliest Human societies remain a mystery to us. Archaeology reveals that our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, yes, but what were their day-to-day lives like? How did they love and fight? How did they express themselves in art? How did they die and how did they grieve?

Offering fictional answers to these questions, Kim Stanley Robinson’s impressive new novel unfolds thirty thousand years ago in the Upper Palaeolithic Era, the closing act of Europe’s Old Stone Age. It is a time of change and transition, a time in which abstract thought and creativity begin to emerge in their modern form. In all, it is a period evoked perfectly by Robinson’s choice of an adolescent protagonist.

His young hero Loon is an apprentice shaman in a small community along what will someday be known as the Ardèche River in southern France. When we first meet the boy he is enduring his “wander”, a solo rite where he must “face something, learn something, accomplish something, change into something else: a sorcerer, a man of the world”.

It is a demanding experience for Loon but also an inspired means for his creator to introduce the basics of Palaeolithic life. Thus before the reader meets the rest of Loon’s “Wolf Pack”, they too have undergo an initiation. Loon’s wander teaches how to start fires and snare prey, how to deal with adversity and, crucially, how Robinson’s early people conceptualise themselves. We are in an adjusted mind-set as a result when finally allowed to meet the rest of the novel’s cast: Thorn, the cranky but ultimately kind-hearted current shaman; Heather, “the midwife, the herb woman, the loudmouth, the witch, the crone, the horrible hag, the deadly poisoner”, the book’s sympathetic heart; and Elga, the long-legged bringer of change with whom Loon inevitably falls in love.

Though the plot is straightforward bildungsroman material, Shaman brims over with some of the finest writing Robinson has yet produced. It immerses us in a vivid world of flickering lamplight and intricate ritual, a life of “smoke and mushrooms and dancing and flagellation”. The author’s pedigree as a writer capable of bringing landscape to life in all its wild variety is again confirmed by a story which ranges from the Wolf Pack’s camp beneath the famous stone arch of Pont d’Arc to its caribou hunting ground on the northern slopes of the Massif Centrale. The second half of the novel travels ever further, visiting the “Northerners” whose territory abuts “a stupendous white wall”, the edges of the ice cap itself.

Most vivid of all are Loon and Thorn’s journeys deep beneath the earth. Robinson sets most of the novel around the Chauvet Cave site, home to some of the oldest, most spectacular prehistoric art in the world (readers may know it from Werner Herzog’s recent documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams). Robinson interprets these paintings as “earthblood and charcoal” offerings, a way for the pack to tell Mother Earth what animals are needed for the hunters and a means for individual shamans to honour those who have come before.

In an ancestral tribute of his own, the author derives much of the factual detail regarding Palaeolithic existence from research and expert speculation on the people who created Chauvet’s mysterious galleries of horses and bison. Of course, this is not to say that the novel is a dry recitation of anthropological facts. Far from it. The pack’s sexual politics are, for example, as developed and intricate as any contemporary society. Meanwhile its members transcend their somewhat stock origins and achieve a credible life of their own. In particular, Robinson’s shamans are a colourful lot who consume heroic quantities of “berry mash” in order “launch their spirits out of their bodies”. They are part-medicine-men, part-counsellors, and deeply immersed in the oral literature of their people.

Through them the author rejects the so-called Great Leap Forward, eschewing any notion of a sudden cognitive revolution in favour of the slow accumulation of Human knowledge over generations. “It’s fragile what I know,’ Thorn tells Loon. “It’s gone every time we forget. Then someone has to learn it all over again”. He must pass on his wisdom the same way embers from an old fire are preserved to light a new one. In fact, this is exactly the lesson which Loon and the reader learn on the first night of the boy’s wander: the difficulty of kindling a fresh spark, a symbolic new idea, when all alone in the wet, ignorant darkness.

Closely allied to the book’s emphasis on sociocultural continuity is Robinson’s use of an enigmatic narrator, a kind of Anima Mundi referring to itself as “The Third Wind”. This omniscient presence speaks to us in our vernacular and so allows the author sidestep the issue of just what language his characters are conversing in. To generate a sense of antiquity for their short utterances, the author instead digs into his linguistic rattle-bag. Proto-Indo-European, Basque, and even a touch of Old English are all apparent in the speech which “The Third Wind” reports to us, and, though true linguists will dismiss this as a fluff approach, it is both systematic and surprisingly effective in a fictional context.

Indeed, Robinson’s artistic licence is well judged in this regard for, at its heart, Shaman is a novel about how artists find new ways of representing the past. “Remember the old ways and all the old stories,” Thorn teaches, but even he recognises that, in the end, everybody will pick out different facets of the tale to focus on. For Robinson, stories are about optimism and the belief that life, in its many forms, will always go on. Shaman is no different. It is an earnest, intelligent, and at times mesmerising novel. The perfect book for archaeology buffs, those who love the outdoors, or readers who prize an unusual perspective in their fiction.

Dr. Val Nolan lectures on contemporary literature at NUI Galway.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 28 September 2013 (p.16).

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Twelve Thoughts on The World’s End

The World's End

The World’s End

The World’s End is a movie I have been looking forward to for a long time. The third instalment in Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost’s so-called Cornetto Trilogy (or, if you prefer, Blood-and-Ice-Cream Trilogy), The World’s End represents the mint (or alien) green to Shaun of the Dead’s blood-red strawberry flavour in 2004 and Hot Fuzz’s classic police blue in 2007. It’s a movie I approached with high expectations given that Hot Fuzz is one of my favourite films. I often describe that to people as “the movie I watch when I’m sad”. And yes, I know a great many of you prefer Shaun, but for my money Hot Fuzz is a masterpiece. I’ve rarely seen a film with such a depth of (hilarious) visual detail. For that matter, I’ve rarely seen such a perfect screenplay where every small detail has a point and a purpose integral to the ending of the film. Man, I want to teach that screenplay!

Now, while The World’s End hasn’t yet usurped Hot Fuzz’s place as my favourite of the Trilogy, it has immediately snuck into second place. And who knows, it may yet give HF a run for its money once I see it again (and, no doubt, again, and again…). The repeat-viewing effect is something that’s true of all Wright’s work. He’s a phenomenal director whose films and screenplays are layered with multiple jokes, meanings, and references. Even though I have watched Hot Fuzz literally dozens of time, it’s a movie which I’m still finding new things in. Meanwhile, his adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) is a triumph of visual storytelling. Seriously, you could turn off the sound while watching that film and, though you would lose a tremendous amount, you could still follow the plot and character development perfectly. It’s one of the few movies of the last decade which acknowledges that film is a visual medium. And of course, like most works of genius, it’s horribly divisive.

What about The World’s End then? The story of five friends reuniting after twenty years to tackle a legendary pub-crawl which they failed at as teenagers. Twelve pubs, twelve pints. From The First Post to The World’s End. Only once they return to their hometown they find that it feels… different. Everybody seems to have changed. Is this an effect of being away too long or (there really is no middle-ground here) a result of a covert alien invasion? Short review: go see it! Long version…

Please note the SPOILER WARNING in effect from here… 

  • This is Nick Frost’s movie, pure and simple. Landing punches both emotional and physical, Frost steals the show. Can he please be in every movie?
  • This is also a dark, dark picture. Like, surprisingly dark. In many ways it’s the bleakest of the Cornetto Trilogy and, from the mulchings to that epilogue, I was not expecting it to go so far; but I respect the film for following through with the consequences of everything that happens. Sidebar: The Cornetto appeared just seconds after I said to myself, “Hey, I haven’t seen a Cornetto yet…” Now that’s pacing!
  • There seems to be an interesting critical response to this film in Ireland, where some reviewers are patting themselves on the back for not enjoying it in a really uncool way. But whatever. Film reviewers in this country often privilege aesthetics over entertainment. If a film isn’t a low-budget picture about the suicidal loneliness of rural Ireland then they never seem that interested in it (a generalization, sure, but an oddly fair one!).
  • Of course, I kind of see why they didn’t take to it. This is a film with a subtext that speaks to a very English national myth: A (Gary) King leads his (Andrew) Knight(ley), his (Stephen) Prince, his (Oliver) Chamberlin, and his (Peter) Page on an Arthurian quest from drinking vessel to drinking vessel in search of the ultimate grail with the power to make them (symbolically) young again and to cure the malaise (Starbuckization) afflicting the land. And no, I’m not reading too much into it (!); King Arthur gets referenced by name here (and I’ll need to check when I see it again, but the characters might even be gathered at a round table when he gets mentioned).
  • I also see how, as Wright and Pegg promised, Gary is something of a “drunken Doctor Who” throughout the film: He never gives up, he endures the loss of companion after companion, and, at the film’s climax, he delivers a big, grandstanding speech about the merits of Humanity. Of course, like Doctor Who, it’s a very English brand of Humanity which gets praised here. Again, no wonder the Irish critics didn’t go in for it.
  • That said, it was terrific to see so many Irish actors in The World’s End: Pierce Brosnan (totally unexpected), Michael Smiley… I know Paddy Considine isn’t Irish but after In America (2002) he might as well be, right? England, we’ll swap you Bono for him. Or you know, feel free to just take Bono anyway.
  • Though I suppose the whole Trilogy is, to an extent, about resisting conformity (don’t become a zombie like everyone else in Shaun of the Dead; rage against the cult of the perfect village in Hot Fuzz), The World’s End expands this to a literally galactic level. Naturally this ties into Wright’s stated notion of the Trilogy being about “perpetual adolescence” and how his characters – notably the ones played by Pegg – are always in revolt against the powers that be. In this case, Humanity itself is the “least advanced planet” in the cosmos and still has a lot of growing up to do if it’s ever going to be accepted.  Shame that their representative, “Gary King of the Humans” (or perhaps “Garry, King of the Humans”?), reacts to being told off in the way any teenager would.
  • On that, I can see how Pegg’s Gary could be kind of problematic for some reviewers thinking they were heading into a traditional comedy. Sure the movie is marketed as such (with many of the straight-up jokes already flagged in the trailer), and, yes, while it’s often very funny, it’s not simply a comedy. Or, at least, it’s a comedy which is turned inside out. Like one of the alien robots masquerading as a real person, it’s really a cold tragedy in the clothes of a feel-good, hard-drinking, comedic paen to English pub culture. Pegg’s Gary thinks he’s far funnier than he is, and most of his dialogue in the first act is, deliberately, the kind of thing a teenager would think themselves very funny for saying but which, upon more mature reflection, is just embarrassing. He’s a sad and pathetic character; the kind of person we all could (“could”, he says!) have ended up as if we hadn’t gotten our lives together as regards jobs, relationships, and so on. Gary clings to Wright’s “perpetual adolescence” in a more obvious fashion than the characters of the previous films; he wears the same clothes as he did when he was 18, he drives the same car, and he maintains that the gang’s teenage effort to complete the pub-crawl was the highlight of his life. The revelation that he has recently tried to kill himself is quietly devastating, while Pegg’s portrayal of the character is multifaceted and game, ranging from genuine sorrow to smug success. It might actually be his best performance to date and, really, if some reviewers didn’t appreciate it then it’s their loss (I really don’t know why the Irish reviewers thing bothers me so much; I think it might be the self-satisfied manner in which the opinion was presented).
  • The World’s End has a really brilliant soundtrack! It’s something used to tie the film together in expert fashion with the lyrics from the songs of the characters’ youth woven through their dialogue in an utterly organic manner (and how often can you say that about “Twist off his melon, man!”?). Subtle and wonderful and exactly the kind of pop-cultural obsession Wright has been exploring since he, Pegg, Frost, and Jessica Hynes (then Stephenson) delivered the modern classic Spaced in 1999 and 2001.
  • Not as subtle, but still wonderful: the fight scenes. So well-choreographed; so inventively filmed! One in particular, the mass fight in the bar as Gary is trying to finish his pint might be one of the most ridiculous yet satisfying fight scenes since that sequence in John Carpenter’s They Live in 1988 (a movie fresh in my mind as I was lucky enough to catch a screening of it in the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago last month). Come to think of it, as another story of aliens secretly taking over the world by replacing some people and co-opting others with the promise of wealth and power, I reckon They Live is probably on the upper tier of movies which influenced Wright on this project.
  • Speaking of influences, the third act of The World’s End feels like something straight out of Douglas Adams (which, needless to say, is a good thing!). The dialogue of Bill Nighy’s character, “The Network”, might as well have been written by Adams. I suppose it’s fitting then that many of the exteriors from the movie (eight of the twelve pubs, in fact) were filmed in Letchworth, a town mentioned by Ford Prefect in So Long and Thanks for all the Fish (1984) when discussing the difficulties of dealing with the British telephone system from the Pleiades star cluster and so, notionally at least, of thematic relevance to The Network’s attempts in The World’s End to advance Earth’s information technology to Galactic level (okay, here you can probably accuse me of reading too much into the production!). In any event, it’s probably impossible to do English sci-fi comedy and not reference the master of the genre somehow.
  • The film’s ending is perfect, isn’t it? Despite the apocalyptic revelations of the epilogue, everybody gets what they want, Gary in particular. That final scene in the pub, a brilliant, post-apocalyptic spin on Andy’s earlier line about the bravery required to order a water in a room full of drunk rugby fans in warpaint, is both a joy and a very gratifying demonstration of the growth Gary’s character both has and has not gone through since we met him.

So yes, go see The World’s End. If you enjoyed it half as much as I did then it’s well worth your money!

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