Oddity or An Exploration of Cosmic Epiphany – Flash Fiction

Chittering. Control and chittering both start with a C and they are both the same now in the cold echo of techno-separation from space. They say that in the first trip outside our atmosphere (the real one the one before Gagarin), there were no windows. There was only this infernal rattle and this deathly soundless sound of cold horror.

Control is saying something to me.

I am worried that it is something terribly important. I am worried it is something I need to hear, lest I die of something natural and I don’t want to die just yet although if I were to, I am sure it will feel just like. I feel like I am on the cusp of a cosmic orgasm. I feel like the Oddity is milking me.

When I was more sentient than I am now, I had put on my suit so that when I am shot out of my rattling tomb, I can prolong my (1) for just slightly longer. I am grateful now, but not for the same reason.

I wonder if the Oddity wants me to feel this. I wonder if the oddity is lulling my to my own death. I wonder if the Oddity cares. I wonder if the Oddity is permitting my thought about thought, my philosophising.

I wonder what life is post-Oddity. I wonder if the Oddity absorbs my (0) into an ultimate cosmic nothingness or if that (0) is precisely that. A not-(1). A nothingness.

I wonder why I don’t care.

I choose to spend my last moments describing the Oddity. The Oddity is a space-kraken. An aether-spider. Its cool limbs protrude, it’s chitin judders, breathing in vacuum and me. It’s tentacles stroke my cocoon, caressing and uncaressing. Perhaps that is how it tells me what to feel.

The Oddity is the catalyst to my metamorphosis or perhaps my antimorphosis. My transformation to unformation. My becoming an unbeing.

The Oddity is…oh. There. Right there.

I can hear Control now. “Squirrel! Squirrel, we can’t read anything! You’re on your own.”

“Oh, shut up, Houston,” I squirm.

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China Mieville’s The City & The City : Crime Cliches and Urban Prose

So this has very rapidly turned into a China Mieville jerk-off fest. I promise you, I honestly did not mean for this blog to turn into that but, during an incredibly busy time of my life (an exam season that’s stretching on for two months), I’m beginning to turn more than ever to literature for comfort. I’m reading two big works of nonfiction right now, both vaguely history related and I’m hoping to touch on both of them when I finish them.

But the main comfort reads for me during this time, the stories I turn to for rest and succour, just happen to be the entire bibliography of China Mieville which I’m working through in no discernible order in the middle of Marginal Utility, JavaScript and the Cold War. So why not blog about it as I go along?

Today’s blog is going to be about The City & The City, one of the later books of China’s career. This could broadly fit into his ‘middle period’ (at least as far as the works he’s published already. according to him, he’s just moving into his middle period now). It’s place just after the Bas Lag trilogy and Looking For Jake is important, I think because it jumps off from a lot of the obsessions the Bas Lag stories revel in.

The idea of obsessions is something that’s always attracted me to Mieville. Some of his obsessions include octopuses, trains, garbage, forbidding landscapes, urbanity and language. The City & The City is Mieville’s penultimate city book (duh) but a lot of the other things he’s interested in, particularly language and squalor play a pretty major role in the novel.

It is set in two cities, Besz  and Ul-Qoma, both of which occupy the same geographic space. Yeah, that sentence means exactly what it says. Both cities are literally in the same location with the inhabitants of one city not interacting with those of the other. But the division is not watertight. There are some areas where both cities crosshatch and the inhabitants of one can see, hear or smell those of the other. Only they’re not allowed to see. So they unsee. And if they don’t unsee, Breach, the mysterious force that polices the division between the city and the city, will prosecute lethally and suddenly.

That is merely the set-up, though. The story is, for the most part, a police-procedural following Tyador Borlu of the Besel Extreme Crime Squad as he tries to investigate the death of a mysterious young woman who was found in Beszel but doesn’t quite belong there.

During my second reading of this story, a few things struck me. The first is the prose. It is almost entirely devoid of the delightful baroqueness that so characterises most of Mieville’s oeuvre.

A lot of it has to do with the first person narration, I imagine. There’s something similar in Embassytown. The prose does occasionally indulge in Mieville’s word games but for the most part, it is sparse, stripped down and very direct. But that just means that his usual ruminations on language are divorced from their direct prose congruities rather than be an additional representation of them. The language is tackled entirely on its own terms.

One of the concepts I’ve mentioned before is unseeing and unhearing. When the residents of Besel see those of Ul-Qoma and vice versa, they are legally, socially and to an extent, prudentially obliged not only to disregard them but to unregard them. To undo the act of ever regarding them in the first place. That is the concept of unseeing. This translates to language as well. Bes and Illitan are distinct languages used by those from Beszel and those from Ul-Qoma respectively and despite the fact that they share the same linguistic roots, both sides are obliged to unhear them. However, people from both sides are commonly versed in both languages. That concept of forbidden or accidentally learned language is something that fascinates me about this book.

And then there’s the crime/police-procedural base to the speculative elements. Within that base, Mieville maintains a lot of fidelity to the genre, playing around with the tropes that genre provides in his weird environment. The story opens as a sort of buddy-cop rookie and pro style narrative. From the second act, it shifts to a different buddy-cop narrative with initial dislike growing to grudging mutual respect. And then finally, it becomes a straight up political conspiracy thriller.

So, very surreptitiously, it does something Mieville absolutely adores but in a very subtle way. It explores as many subgenres within the genre as it can. The thing with Mieville is that the line between cliche and genre is often very hazy. Genre is in itself just a collection of cliches under which people reiterate. Mieville never consciously smashes that axiom but plays around with it, mixing and matching as he sees fit. So with Iron Council you have a strong political thriller about the nature of society juxtaposed with a western with some romance elements in it. You can say the same about most of his books (and if I really stick with this, I’ll probably talk about all those other books in later posts so lucky you).

But the thing with The City & The City is that all those elements are handled so subtly that you’d never really realise they were there till you’ve read it a little more watchfully the second time through. It is Mieville at his most discreet and understated.

You can buy The City & The City here.

 

Kraken by China Mieville – Faith Under a Microscope

China Mieville’s fiction has always had this strong but rather conflicted undercurrent of morbid interest in and yet derision of organised faith. This is something I think he’s very aware of and uses to his own advantage to create some interesting ideas.

From the very beginning with King Rat, this idea of music and worship is shown in a relatively negative light with the Pied Piper metaphor. But, at the same time, you have this numinous sense of joy with creating samples and discovering music. This sort of stuff carries forward throughout the Bas-Lag series and the rest of his work: the idea of the numinous divorced from any worshipful context other than sheer, primal wonder. Another thing he usually brews is a sense of the anti-numinous. Or, as he’d probably like to put it, the abnuminous. The idea of beauty and wonder in filth, muck, rust, urban degradation, decay, so on.

In Kraken, the religious themes are pretty much worn on it’s sleeve. A preserved specimen of the Architeuthis Dux gets stolen from the Darwin Centre of the Natural History Museum in London. Billy Harrow, the curator, gets sucked into a world of crazy cults, magic, metropolitan police jurisdiction, heartless mercenaries and plenty more of Mievillesque madness. But what this whole thing is about is really worship and a justification for worship outside any sort of ritual or spiritual context. A lot of it may very well be autobiographical. The cephalopod has had a strange appeal to Mieville for most of his career and stands historically as a sort of symbol for the weird.

Mieville’s writing usually makes any writer jealous of not coming close to ever having an idea as cool as a peripheral one he just uses on the fly. That is more than usually true for this book. You have something new and strange and wonderful with every page.

The thing is, anti-religion in popular fiction is something I’ve come to accept. I see past it almost always, because my beliefs are my beliefs and I’d hate to only read stories that are congruent with my worldview. But this is probably my favourite book I totally ethically and morally disagree with and still love (of which there are a lot, including ones by the same author). The reason is simple. It may fundamentally disagree with in a higher power but it understands it and identifies with it. That sort of thing is not common with left-wing writers writing normal fiction and even genre fiction (the distinctions are real blurry nowadays and I’ll get a post up about the loss of wonder in modern spec-fic and genre-fic sometime this aeon) these days.

A lot of the beauty in Mieville’s fiction stems from a very formal, very academic form of the introspection most of us do on a regular basis. He’s perfectly aware of these games he plays with religion because he’s perfectly aware that science-fiction often swoops in to take the place of religion. Look at the sort of fan communities that develop around sci-fi/fantasy shows. How different is Comic-Con from a Pentecostal Revival minus some weird costumes. How much of fandom is underpinned by worship?

Whatever you believe, you should probably give Kraken a look.

You can buy Kraken by China Mieville here

The Wattppad Spotlight – Bloodistan by David V.M.

Am I shamelessly plugging my own work? Damn right, I am. Because let’s not beat around the bush, the point of almost every blog (to some extent at least) is self promotion. So here I am, promoting myself. Ta da.

Bloodistan is a story about vampires. Kinda. It’s also about politics. Kinda. It’s also about news and the media in a post-Snowden world. Kinda. I’ll just tell you about the story before things get a little too confusing.

It is set in a fictional island nation to the east of Cyprus called Damya, where a mixed population of Arabs, Russians and Turks have coexisted since settlements began there in the Soviet era. These communities also have to deal with their not-so-human neighbours. The kind that sorta need blood to survive, need to kill human women in order to reproduce and who can’t come out in the sunlight.

The story explores the origins of vampires in this location and the involvement of the US in a murky government conspiracy involving the place through the eyes of three twentysomethings who are forced to deal with the monsters of their past in different ways. And by monsters, I mean figurative monsters. But I also mean literal monsters. The kind with fangs.

If you’re into vampire stories with a twist, stuff that you’d find in the weird side of the bookstore and/or conspiracy thrillers, you might enjoy Bloodistan. Full disclosure, I’m probably really biased about this since I wrote it. But I’d be honoured if you could check it out.

You can read Bloodistan here.

Weird Wednesday – The Conspiracy

This is part of a new cinema thing I plan on doing every Wednesday just to keep things fresh. Enjoy 🙂

The translation of the weird into a medium that is primarily visual (be it movies or video-games) is something people get their proverbial panties in a twist about for no reason I can really comprehend. The idea goes that movies tend to show you everything, so that ‘estrangement of that which cannot be described’ element is lost.

Let me be the first to call bullshit. Movies don’t show you everything. Movies give you a peephole the size of your screen into a world that ideally should be as three dimensional and well realized as our own. When done right, weird cinema is all about what’s going on in the places around the screen. It’s all about what we don’t see.

If you’ve burned through the entire Lovecraft collection, managed to wrestle with the Night Land behemoth and have already reread all the Mieville and Moorcock stories you happen to have, conspiracy theories are where you should be going. Most people only really watch the TMZ-esque five minute conspiracy theory videos on YouTube but that’s not really where all the weird fun is. If you google hard enough, you’ll find entire works of non-fiction going up to twenty chapters about Monarch, MK ULTRA and the lizards.

I leave the choice of whether it is fiction or not entirely up to you but I can assure you, this stuff is most certainly weird. Why? Because it follows the intrinsic idea of the weird. The novum is something that has always been there, watching us. It is something we haven’t noticed yet but has always been there, subtly shaping world history. And that’s squarely where conspiracy theories lie. The government is working against you. Everyone in charge are satanists. Horrible mind-control experiments have been going on (and are going on) with young children as the guinea pigs. And most of all, all the music you listen to, every news source and every movie you watch is subliminally controlling you.

If that isn’t weird fiction, I don’t know what is.

Which brings us to the topic at hand: The Conspiracy. The Conspiracy is a 2012 Canadian horror-thriller directed by Christopher MacBride. It follows a two-man documentary crew interviewing an enigmatic figure named Terrance. Terrance (portrayed brilliantly by Alan Peterson) is one of those nutters who think 9/11 was an inside job, the government has been overrun and that shadowy organizations control the global financial and political systems we have come to rely on. They are initially skeptical. Then, Terrance disappears and they fall down a dark, dangerous rabbit hole trying to find out what exactly happened to him.

I’m generally not into found footage movies but this one is very very unobtrusive. For most of its run-time, it handles itself like a well-shot documentary and avoids most of the gimmicks that plague this genre. The performances by Alan Poole and James Gilbert are very nuanced and balanced and it is never implausible as a proper documentary. There are no jump-scares and nothing particularly supernatural but it does a gradual buildup of tension that is just so tangible and effective.

I knew this movie worked because the moment it was done, that weird conspiracy thing started happening to me. I started reading up on all this stuff again and that sort of shift started happening in my mind. I was starting to consider whether the government conspiracy thing was plausible.

The Conspiracy is produced by Resolute Films and distributed by XLRator.

Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching – The Vampire as Subversion

Helen Oyeyemi is my new literary obsession.

There’s this debate that occasionally flares up on Wattpad about experimentation in fiction and telling a story straight vs. prettying things up. All of that really boils down to the same litfic vs genre conversation we’ve been having for decades.

Frankly, I’m bored of having that argument. I love when writers play with what they have. I think an awareness of what the medium is, how it’s different from other media and the monopoly that differentiation gives us is something every writer should be obsessed with. What separates fiction from comic-books, screenplays and video-games? I think it’s the words and only words thing. The power of writing with an awareness of that is something we’ve largely forgotten outside of LitFic.

Probably because so few of us actually read LitFic.

With that on one side, let’s take a look at the Vampire phenomenon, such as it exists. Culturally and especially within literature, it has been interesting to see Vampires morph from the older myths and legends (which seem to exist everywhere in some form) to Carmilla to Dracula to Lestat to Twilight to The Vampire Diaries to whatever the fuck is hot right now.

While their essential characteristics have been in a constant state of flux from the word go, something thematically very uniform has remained. The idea of the vampire as a symbol for predatory sexuality.

You can’t really find this being so pervasive in the myths that surround vampirism, which is not to say that the idea wasn’t there, of course. Succubi and Incubi and curvaceous Ekshis from South India have been around for a long time. But I think the real idea of the sexual vampire emerged full force into the public consciousness with literature.

Carmilla is incredibly sexual and in a very adventurous way, given the time it was written. The story follows the titular Carmilla, a lesbian vampire who preys on the protagonist, Laura.

In Stoker’s Dracula, the sexual element comes as a surprise and is written with an incredible amount of power.

“I was afraid to raise my eyelids, but looked out and saw perfectly under the lashes. The fair girl went on her knees, and bent over me, fairly gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed to fasten on my throat. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the supersensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstacy and waited – waited with beating heart.”

The whole Twilight phenomenon and its obsession with sexuality has already been documented many many times. I think Roger Ebert said it best in his review of the first Twilight film.

Should a woman fall in love with a man because he desires her so much? Men seem to think so. It’s not about the woman, it’s about the man’s desire. We all know there is no such thing as a vampire. Come on now, what is “Twilight” really about? It’s about a teenage boy trying to practice abstinence, and how, in the heat of the moment, it’s really, really hard. And about a girl who wants to go all the way with him, and doesn’t care what might happen. He’s so beautiful she would do anything for him. She is the embodiment of the sentiment, “I’d die for you.” She is, like many adolescents, a thanatophile.

Oyeyemi also plays around with this idea but she tackles it from a point of view of confusion. Which is , I think, what makes it so much more valid as the definitive teen vampire text than anything else. Teenage sexuality and teenage romance (which are inextricably linked and always will be) can both sort of be boiled down to confusion. Do I really love him? What is love? Does love make it worth me giving myself to him? Is ‘giving myself’ really even a thing? Is sex important? Is it purely athletic? Is it purely spiritual?

Miranda, the heroine of White is for Witching, is also confused: Do I love her or do I just want to eat her?

The novel is in itself a curious little amalgam of genres. It is only very surreptitiously a vampire story. It is a sort of ghost story. It is definitely a haunted house story. And it is unabashedly literary.

Miranda has pica, an eating disorder. She enjoys eating only what doesn’t nourish her. Dirt, chalk, plastic. Her father, her twin brother and her are all trying to grapple with the loss of their mother. They live in a an (obviously) sentient Gothic mansion that has absorbed Miranda’s great-grandmother, grandmother, mother and now is waiting for her. And the whole line prefer to eat what the rest of us don’t.

This is all tied in to the myth of the soucouyant, a sort of Caribbean vampire.

I have mentioned this novel in The Weird and Structure, because it does play a lot of games with the way it is told to us. In its brief 250 pages, it gives us around four perspective characters (one of whom is the house), random intercuts between them and a story that tries to be impenetrable and then grabs you by the throat with the humanity of its characters. It is structurally as confused as its protagonist. It is a difficult read, despite its small size because it is one of those books that (on a micro level) very actively wants to disgust you.

It is running two distinct horror processes at the same time, I think. It wants to juggle the weird and also the gross-out. And it succeeds.

The idea of pica is something naturally repulsive to those of us who don’t suffer from it. This is one of the ideas the story constantly harks back to. Does Miranda really like eating chalk? Her chef father presents her with a variety of tantalizing culinary delights, all of which disgust her. She chews on her sticks of chalk and rolls of plastic with resignation. The only time she delights in the idea of consuming something is when she is kissing Ore, the girl she loves. She bites her and converts those bites into kisses. She is, much like her literary predecessor Edward Cullen, confused. Do I love her or do I just want to eat her?

This is possible one of the most powerful vampire stories I’ve read. It takes the impending sexual metaphor at face value, dispenses with it and looks at other things. It looks at the parasite in a parasitic relationship with a sympathy they have never been dealt before. It also looks at the organic, cobbled-together join between girlhood and motherhood. “A girl isn’t a woman until her mother dies,” one of the more ambiguous narrators says at one point and I think that is the focal point around which this story revolves.

You can purchase White is for Witching here

The Weird and Structure

If you sort of grub about with critical analyses of science fiction and speculative fiction in general (as I have done, in a very elementary, baby-steps sort of way) you’ll come across a concept called cognitive estrangement soon enough. This comes from Darko Suvin, a Croatian-born academic who has written what many consider to be the seminal work of critical theory in science fiction: The Metamorphoses of Science Fiction.

Cognitive Estrangement revolves around a concept called the novum, something we haven’t encountered or seen in life as it revolves around us.

When it comes to the weird, cognitive estrangement is definitely something we should be interested in because we are usually dealing with multiple nova at the same time at a rate significantly higher than regular spec-fic. Or, we may be dealing with a novum that fundamentally challenges the entire basis of our existence. A novum exceptionally wide in its reach.

Once we’ve established that, the next challenge is to find out the ideal way to present that to the reader. Lovecraft, more often than not, played it straight and gave us a form of gradual discovery. The protagonist would be introduced to the nova as the story progresses and in the end, comprehension of the cosmic terror that underpins our universe would drive him mad. Which is fun but not weird enough, I think.

The next approach is more modern, a lot more experimental and can definitely lead to a dip in your sales. But, it is worth attempting precisely because it highlights the ideas of estrangement so well. It totally subverts your expectations. It is a lot of fun to experience. This revolves around the concept that the narrator takes the nova for granted. This is accepted. We don’t really like infodumps and we rarely let writers get away with it. But the scale to which it is practiced separates the weird from traditional spec-fic.

In weird fiction, you find narrators taking very peculiar nova entirely for granted at the risk of alienating, or shall we say estranging the reader. And it is precisely for that reason that we return again and again to stories like these. It is difficult fiction to grapple with. We have to be on our toes always as readers for the writer will not go out of his way to explain something to you that you have never encountered before.

The City & The City is a prime example of this. If your concept is that two cities somehow occupy the same physical space and you use concepts like unsee and crosshatch, you should probably explain it to us, right? Well what if you don’t? That’s where the weird comes in. This concept transforms a police procedural set in East Europe into something that can definitely be shelved in the weird section of your library. Because the story lets us find out for ourselves that the universe is fundamentally different from anything we’ve ever seen before.

So where does that distinction lie? In the prose? Perhaps. But to a much greater extent, I think it lies in the structure of the story being told.

Unstructured narratives don’t work very well in the weird. You can tell immediately that the author has a lot of ideas but you can also tell that he’s just riffing between them. His excuse that he was trying to be outre and rococo is unacceptable.

Structured narratives that play games with the way that structure is presented to us, on the other hand, do very well in the weirder side of things. Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is For Witching is a very good example of something like this. The prose (despite a few games with person and tense) remains relatively straightforward. It is the games with structure that really set it apart. There must be an inciting incident. There must be a climax. There must be a denoument.

But it is delightfully creepy when we aren’t quite sure when those things happen. So jump around with time. Play with the format of your text. The sky is your limit. But remember, make sure there is a structure underpinning everything.