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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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.

 

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.

Nine Night

John died last night. A heart attack and complications from surgery had kept him down for months. He grew pale at the end, his dark skin bleaching in the English winter. I wanted to count the gaps in his stained teeth that he always showed with that giant grin. The kind of man who forgot it’s an unforgiving city.

The kids were screaming in the basketball court, dominating the space with the shivering crash of railings and the inestimable joys of half term. It looked like another party to me.

Strangers milled in the corridors of my block, seemingly listless. I found the mood hard to read and the dour face staring at my sweaty shirt, the empty bin in my hands, didn’t fit. But I was tired from the gym, paid it no mind. The night before, our sofa shivered with heavy bass and barely muffled laughter was inescapable. Our space had been disrupted. Just a mid-week party thrown by people on different schedules, that coloured the nine night to come.

I lifted my tired legs up the stairs, once back in my flat set to stretching muscles. Our overhead light cast shadows, darker shades, and I heard my wife gasp. The note said nine night, all welcome.

Why do I think I can recognise death, even now after we became so well acquainted? Its English cousin is more severe than this. Vol-au-vonts and restraint over bammy and celebration. I’ve endured its passing over the course of years. Outside, the children play until long past midnight.

Forthcoming story in Bourbon Penn

I’m very happy to say that one of my stories, ‘The Road Knows When a Journey is Over’ will be published in a forthcoming issue of Bourbon Penn. The story is set immediately after the apocalypse and deals with things like grief, loss and survivor guilt.

It’s an older piece of mine, but one that has been through several edits. It’s one of the ones I feel particularly close to, in fact, so it’s really good to know it’s found a good home.

I’ll post the publication date and how to read it as soon as I know.

Egoism and the Hero’s Journey

I blame Ursula Le Guin.

I read The Dispossessed recently and, aside from the obvious depths I found around exploring unconventional political philosophy, the conflicts between home and self and the morality of knowledge, I was struck by a particularly technical aspect of the writing.

So I had a go at hammering it out over at the Unsung blog. And spare a thought for poor old Shevek.

What cyberpunk was and what it will be

‘The spectacle [of cyberpunk] only becomes more refined and integrated with our lives as time goes by. It is still alarming that the most prophetic of dystopias was also the most ludicrous: the kitsch consumerism, corporate corruption, metropolitan bankruptcy and technological sheen of RoboCop (1987). There is no longer a delay between tragedy and farce, as Marx once conceived.’

Read the full article.