On Writing ‘Framing Ilva’ and The Lonely Crowd

The most excellent folk over at The Lonely Crowd were recently kind enough to publish a story of mine, in issue 8 of their journal.

‘Framing Ilva’ is a story about a refinery in the south of Italy which is famous, there at least, for the terrible effects it is having on the environment and the population. Having spent a fair amount of time in Puglia over recent years, it’s one of those names that’s always around, if rarely discussed. So I was delighted when John Lavin asked if I wanted to write a piece about my inspirations for my story.

You can read that piece on their website here – ‘On Framing Ilva’ – and you if it wets your whistle you can pick up issue 8 of The Lonely Crowd from their store.

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Black Friday and the flesh-eating elephant in the room

Sometimes you encounter unlikely bedfellows at exactly the right time. This happened to me with Song-ho Yeon’s Train to Busan (2016), Wolfgang Streeck’s collected essays, How Will Capitalism End? (2017) and Black Friday. They sit together so well it’s frightening.

First, a quick precis of Streeck’s hypotheses: We’re screwed.

A slightly longer one is that capitalism is consuming itself at an ever increasing pace. We are fleeing a series of crises, from global inflation in the ’70s, to soaring public debt in the ’80s, to public debt in the ’90s and ’00s, reaching a peak in the global financial crisis. With neoliberal agendas of deregulation expanding and technocrat governments, shepherded by undemocratic bodies like the ECB and IFS, firmly established globally. The effects? Wanton inequality, and a slow-burn cataclysm on the horizon.

But what does that have to do with zombies?

The watershed ‘zombie moment’ for recent generations was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Suddenly we were all vulnerable, as the domestic world turned on itself. Touching on racism, domestic violence, and the corruption at the heart of the American Dream, zombies were no longer individuals trapped in slavery, they were normal people. Zombification became amoral and our response to it the subject of judgement.

By Dawn of the Dead (1978) the focus had shifted to consumerism eating itself, where the only route to survival was to grab every luxury item you can and barricade yourself in the garret. Skip ahead to the 2004 remake and rage zombies trashed the shopping centres. Consumerism gets nihilistic as you take your jollies where you can, because isolation is only a temporary solution.

Come 2017, Train to Busan the tropes are established. Yeon lays waste to his nation in moments, leaving his heroes with the clothes on their backs. It’s not clear his zombies are vulnerable in any way until the final scene. This cannibalistic singularity is an assumed inevitability. And who are our key figures hoping to survive? Why, two proud exponents of the capitalist system, a system explicitly implicated in the release of the film’s virus.

There are obviously countless variations of the zombie metaphor, but it seems to me this trend towards rage zombies fetishises our impotence in the face of consumption. The weight of climate change and over-population is inescapable. The apocalypse will be anthropogenic because we are all aware, consciously or otherwise, our civilisations are eating themselves.

Busan offers two angles on neoliberalism – one deathbed redemption and one true to the system till the end – but they are token manifestations against a system gone mad. They are simplifications for us to anthropomorphise. Aspects of a narrative we consume. Flesh to be eaten.

Of the two – Yeon and Streeck – only Streeck offers any real solutions, however little faith he has in their actually coming to pass. Regulation and an enforced redistribution of wealth and power. Fundamental and wholesale changes to our financial and political systems. A democratic phoenix from the ashes.

It’s true that Yeon has the Redeker Plan to fall back on: Lock the gates and damn anyone outside them. But narratives need completing where reality doesn’t. And the despair of Song-ho’s completion seems all too reasonable when coupled with Streeck’s bleak warnings.

Perhaps this is why, on that Train to Busan, I found myself drawn to Yong-guk and Jin-hee, two teenagers betrayed by the older, richer, Yon-suk. This capitalist fuck (to use the scientific classification) throws a young girl to the monsters to save himself. Her boyfriend, overcome with grief and trauma, lets himself be eaten by her. The scene is staged like a corrupted Romeo and Juliet.

That despair is all too familiar in a UK where the older generation has betrayed the younger. The panacea of Black Friday doesn’t work on me. Worse, the feverish quality to our festivals of consumption disturb me.

The only question seems to be: When the end comes, will it be slow or quick?

The Strange Reformation of Josephus Miller

This post assumes you have seen up to series 2, episode 9: The Weeping Somnambulist of The Expanse.

The Expanse, it would seem, is a hit. Not having read James S. A. Corey’s books I realise there’s a huge fanbase out there, so that, combined with a few recommendations from friends – including one comparison to Babylon 5 – brought me in.

But something doesn’t quite sit right. It’s that comparison to Babylon 5. For all its faults – and as a dedicated fan, I am the first to say there are many… – Babylon 5 was all about the characters. From the moment they walked onto the station, they screamed their individuality with costume, mannerisms, dialogue and more. Their development was credible and led by their needs as well as the plot’s. The Expanse, instead, has a range of grizzled, cynical archetypes. Shades of morality dashed against an amoral universe.

Most familiar of these is the burnt out cop, Josephus Miller, who sees his salvation in rescuing Florence Faivre’s Julie Mao. Classic noir. Thomas Jane serves the role well, helping us understand what some see as class betrayal as he abandons his life in pursuit of her. His corruption and violence help define Steven Strait’s moralising James Holden, his sense of duty Wes Chatham’s brutal Amos Burton, and his flexible relationship with the law the Belt as a whole.

What Jane also does well, is lead us into his growing obsession with Mao, in part symbolised by the sparrow. It starts as an itch, a case he can’t solve, and the more he scratches it, revealing the weird secrets of the system, the more it takes over his life. That self-destructive aspect of his character latches on to Mao as an inevitable conclusion – he must find her or die trying.

His execution of Anthony Dresden in an attempt to destroy the protomolecule, and exact revenge for Mao’s death, reminds us he isn’t a paragon. That action leaves him ostracised by the rest of the main cast (for about half an episode) whilst they talk out their differences – and here, the small scale of the settings stretches our belief in the characters. On Babylon 5 people could avoid each other and differences were worked out on an individual basis over time. On tiny ships, it all has to happen immediately, or it derails the narrative. So, accepting that bug as a necessary compromise of writing, the forgiveness shown places him on the Rocinante for his final sacrifice on Eros.

And this is where the strange dynamic comes in.

Miller’s return to the hotel room, again led by the sparrow, to find a transformed Julie Mao, apparently the nexus of whatever new life is developing on Eros, makes perfect sense. His tenderness with her, his fundamental need to bring her peace when the rest of the system would destroy her, makes perfect sense. Hell, even his leaning down for a kiss makes perfect sense.

What doesn’t, is Mao’s reaction.

Because she has had no part in Miller’s obsession. She has no idea who he is, given she hardly seems to have any idea who she is. This is a terrified young woman being reborn into a symbiotic relationship with an alien species, and the first human face she sees, the first kindness she’s been shown, takes liberties.

What seems to happen, is expectation subsumes reality. The inescapable narrative singularity of doomed lovers has sucked an otherwise plausible arc in, and completely obliterated it. The only way that kiss makes sense is as a necessary part of a TV show required by the kind of people who think stories are about audiences. Because otherwise it’s a stranger walking up to you and telling you it’ll all be ok, before going for first base.

The kiss complete’s Mao’s objectification in a narrative that doesn’t seem that interested in her as a person. The opening seconds of the show tells us only a spark is needed to set events in motion, then puts Mao in position to scream purely as a setup. For two series, she’s a MacGuffin and, key stage movements aside, her character is realised through Miller’s investigations. So that kiss can only ever be problematic, unless she smacked him in the chops or otherwise reacted. Miller’s redemption fails, even as the show’s execution demands we agree it succeeded.

To be fair, this is a trope as old as narratives, and I’m not expecting The Expanse to carry the bag for everyone. But at the end of a major character’s arc we should be focused most of all on the truth of their experience.  Mao’s return to the story as an avatar of the protomolecule’s evolution is inevitable, so she will get another pass.

But the show wants us to remember Miller as a flawed, romantic rogue come good. I’ll remember him as the obsessive, unable to escape his failings even at the end.

Empty Space in the Kefahuchi Tract

On a long-haul flight, I read M. John Harrison’s Empty Space: A Haunting, the final part of his startling Kefahuci Tract trilogy. I found it compelling, bewildering, funny and shot through with an ennui of the uncategorisable. This is an immediate, pre-rationalisation, attempt to explain why.

For those not familiar with his work, Harrison is a ‘writer’s writer’ who has long-inhabited a fuzzy post-genre territory. Liminal is a word often used. Transitional, cross-border ideas. Given Empty Space: A Haunting includes space opera, pseudo-noir, occultism and near-as-dammit-future-as-to-be-today fiction, you can see why. To take it further, Harrison is interested in lacunas, singularities and our relationship with the incomprehensible. Like VanderMeer’s Area X and the zone of Roadside Picnic/Stalker, this is one of the defining characteristics of the Kefahuchi Tract.

This capstone to a trilogy serves to unite the narrative strands woven in Light and Nova Swing, but my feeling is the narrative is just one aspect of what’s important with Harrison. I could tell you the key events, and you wouldn’t receive any particular wisdom about these books. In fact, it would probably mislead. Matthew Cheney’s review for Strange Horizons explains why that is:

Character lists and plot summaries do no good because the story of these characters is a series of patterns (of differences and repetitions) that, in terms of plot, do not function through traditional causality; and, in terms of character, do not function in terms of traditional psychology. We can cluster words of the text into concepts of character, plot, and setting without any trouble—but these concepts don’t do much within our habitualized logic of narrative sense […] Most of what happens and where it happens is comprehensible on its own surface terms, related in regular English words. But unlike puzzle pieces or falling dominoes, the events of Empty Space don’t knock one by one into the next; instead, they flow like falling rain or the code that scrolls down the assistant’s arm.

What is so striking, instead, is the rich allusive web of the books. In the far-future sequences, where the Tract has fallen onto the planets of the beach, meaning is both ubiquitous and out of reach. Commoditised nostalgia lets the Assistant live like a 1950s housewife (complete with misogyny and inadequate dominant males), people choose which era Marilyn Monroe they want to be and much, much more. And yet ghosts walk among them, adverts live to literally pursue their demographic, viral code infects people and alien artefacts periodically wander out of the Tract and try to pass themselves off as human.

As with Ulysses, you could track every allusion Harrison makes if you wanted – something Cheney nods to. It would take years, and no doubt prove fascinating, but wouldn’t give you the shape of the book. Instead, you’d end up with a mysterious symbol, an occult ritual of post-its, pins and hyperlinks, and perhaps a sense of earned value embracing a profound loss Harrison would appreciate, given wit like this:

Renoko felt that kitsch was a product of an event he named ‘the postmodern ironisation’, prior to which it could not exist: before that, the objects you could now describe as kitsch were actually trash objects. ‘Without the operation of irony on trash,’ he maintained, ‘there would be no kitsch.’ To him, the postmodern ironisation  was like the Death of History or the coming Singularity. ‘Everything was changed by it. Nothing could be the same again. It had the irreversibly transformational qualities of a Rapture.’

But what about this empty space? Throughout the book, space is reeling with stuff. The infinite void teems with data, bizarre physics, dust and sensory experience. Everything is soaked in synaesthesia, so you taste and touch and smell the hyper-reality of eleven-dimensional space. It is slick, viscous and rich. The physical realities presented are overwhelming. The empty space is all within, in the dissonance of our comprehension even as we define things by what we don’t know about them. To quote:

In addition, physical limitations seemed to apply. The past was clear enough to see, but you get as if you were engaging with it from to far away. Sometimes speech failed completely, and Anna could make herself known only in other ways, via the weather, for instance, or showers of emotionally-charged objects. It was as if the universe she now inhabited had suffered brain damage, and was experiencing a confusion not between different senses but between different states of energy and matter. She was reduced to a kind of practical synaesthesia. She was reduced to the use of theatre, metaphor, symbols and emotions. She tried everything, but remained an epiphenomenon of her own life, a figure distantly semaphoring tragic news from a hill.

We are Liv and Antoyne, retreating from the cargo hold which contains alien artefacts and what’s left of Ed Chianese, after he returns from the Tract. We are the Assistant, pursuing herself, never able to communicate across the breach. We are Anna, finally escaping the legacy of her serial killer husband, Michael Kearney, by becoming the singularity that is the Aleph. Same as the Assistant, she finds harmony in the simultaneous acts of self-destruction and becoming.

Amidst this swirl of lost people, incapable of defining themselves, awash in this excess of stuff, I found solace in the objects. There are moments of consistency, stable points to latch on to. You see it when objects are experienced the same way by different people. Even when they are bizarre, like a vulva protruding from a wall, there is a security to be had knowing that thing will always be seen in a particular way.

That consistency of description becomes our Rosetta Stone. Harrison is a liminal writer, interested in our relationship with the unknowable. The empty space is within us; we know where the ghosts live.

 

Mirrors, Mediums and Salt Lakes

Vice’s article about Australian photographer Murray Fredericks is right when it says he ‘intends to document the lake not just as a landscape, but as a medium in itself.’ The images they’ve picked out to accompany the interview are surreal and entirely beautiful things. I’ve seen the salt lakes in Bolivia, and well remember how they break your senses of distance and perspective. They are weird places, that challenge our assumptions about how we relate to space.

Where it misses a beat, however, is where it focuses on mirrors as signifiers only of vanity:

Our generation may not be as overtly savage as the queen, but we are arguably equally transfixed by our reflections. Social media is the ruler of our kingdom, and our filtered selfie camera is our magic mirror. We may not be killing our opponents, but many of us feel compelled to make sure our mug gets more “likes” than theirs.

Maybe it’s true. It probably is. It’s not the interesting thing about mirrors though. The symbology risks overtaking the artefact.

For me, the far more interesting thing is how they break space apart. Put two opposite each other and you create infinity. Put one in a room and strange things start to happen.

Vanity is an obvious, and topical reading. But I’ll always be fascinated by the fracture the reflection sits in.

2084, crowdfunding and interviews

Anyone who has been even slightly near Unsung Stories on social media in the last two weeks will have noticed that we’ve launched an anthology of dystopian fiction called 2084. The idea for this is pretty much – get writers to ‘do an Orwell’ and look into our future.

A few people have been asking how we managed to pull together our contributor list – which includes Christopher Priest, David Hutchinson, Lavie Tidhar, James Smythe and a bunch more excellent writers – so I’ll happily spill the secret for you here. Are you ready? Secret publishing voodoo coming: I asked them. Pretty much just sent an email to them, or their agent, saying who we were, what the project was and why we wanted them involved.

So what’s the moral of the story? Your favourite authors are really groovy people, and a good idea gets anyone’s attention.

We also decided to try something new and crowdfund this one using Kickstarter. We figured we have a good list of writers and we’ve spent some time building our reputation, so it might just fly. And boy did it fly!

We set our goal at a number we thought would be achievable for the month – a nice, solid £2,500. Eleven hours later, that was in the bag. A couple of days later we had £4500 in pledges. Now, at the two-week mark we are 366% funded at over £9000, adding more authors to the collection and looking where to stretch next. Simply, its been a staggering and humbling couple of weeks.

To help promote the project I’ve done a couple of interviews. The first was with the Papertrail Podcast and you can read that on their website. The second was with the Skiffy and Fanty podcast, as the very first guest(!) on their new Signal Boost show: Signal Boost #1: George Sandison (2084) and Alexandra Pierce (Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler). So thanks very much to Alex at Papertrail, and Jen and all at Skiffy and Fanty for having me.

Also, keep an eye on the Kickstarter tomorrow evening, we have some limited edition rewards going up…

 

 

The Digger’s Tale

My story, The Digger’s Tale, has been published at Unofficial Britain.

Unofficial Britain is a great site dedicated to ‘unusual perspectives on the landscape of the British Isles, exploring the urban, the rural and those spaces in between.’ You can read stories and articles there, and I’d also recommend spending some time with the soundscapes.

The story was something that started scratching at me after I read Gary Budden’s Baleen – it was something about the way we treat dead bodies, and how they disrupt space. It was meant to be weirder, and first person, but it seems that death, as Gary says, has its own energy.

The garages are real (but not the ones in the picture), and I did use to play in the rec (though, thanks to vertigo, I wasn’t so carefree on the climbing frame) and walk those fields as a child. As far as I know they’re still standing, and haven’t been stained in the way I describe. But the diggers will come for it all at some point.