“a semblance of meaning and a semblance of an emotion”

If this were a movie, this would be the end of the show and something would be decided. In a movie or a novel they would dramatize and build to the climax of the attack. When the attack came in the film or novel, it would be satisfying. It would decide something. It would have a semblance of meaning and a semblance of an emotion. And immediately after, it would be over. The audience could go home and think about the semblance of the meaning and feel the semblance of the emotion. Even if the hero got killed, it would still make sense. Art, Bell decided, creative art – was shit.

[…] Here there was no semblance of meaning. And the emotions were so many and so mixed up that they were indecipherable, could not be untangled. Nothing had been decided, nobody had learned anything. But most important of all, nothing had ended.

James Jones, The Thin Red Line

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I Don’t Believe in Magic

A few months ago, I almost finished reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy. I gave up half-way through the final book because I realised I just didn’t care; I didn’t care about the story, the characters, or the made-up worlds, and a big part of the reason I didn’t care is due to the fact that I just don’t believe in magic. I don’t believe that any combination of words, hand gestures, potions or wands can alter reality, and if I can’t get past that I can’t invest in the story.

At least science fiction is potentially exploring the realms of the possible, building something, inventing something. Science fiction can answer the question ‘how can we live?’, which is really the only question worth asking or answering.

I was reminded of my uninterest in magic over the Christmas break, watching Bright on Netflix with my family. The problem with Bright is that its world building is completely shallow, there are elves and orcs (and fairies and centaurs and dragons), and they have always been there, out in the open, not hidden away like in True Blood or Buffy, but human society is still exactly the same (so much the same that the movie Shrek still got made in this alternate reality).

In Bright African-American culture is portrayed as being the same as it is in the real world, implying that the history of the Transatlantic slave trade and the colonisation of the Americas and the West Indies was the same; but if orcs exist as an under-class (one white cop boasts about his ancestors slaughtering orcs in Russia 200 years ago), why would Europeans have needed an industrial trade in slaves from Africa?

Surely if magic were real, and other humanoid races have been living alongside humans for all of human history, the history of Earth and the human race would being entirely different? The elves in Bright are portrayed as an elite, as ruling over humans; what were the elves doing during World War II? Were they on the axis or allied side, or were they ruling on both sides? In which case, what was it fought over? What were the elves doing during European colonialism, during the crusades, during the reign of Alexander the Great? Are they supposed to be Uber-Aryans who slot in above Europeans so that, somehow, the whole history of the world doesn’t change at all, except there are dragons and fairies flying around as well?

This is a problem I have with any fantasy story supposed to be set in a fictional version of the real world (as opposed to an entirely invented secondary world), how to reconcile magic with the long long history of human atrocities?

Do Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians not have magic, or is it just crap compared to European magic? The same with Africa, India, the Middle East, and Asia. Were there Nazi wizards? Were there no Jewish wizards? Did all the chief wizards and witches see the Holocaust (or any other atrocity) happening, but decide it wasn’t important enough a reason to interfere in the ‘mundane’ world?

The Magicians did touch on this, a little, there was a mention of Polish magic books being destroyed by German magic books, and a joke about the 2000 US election being manipulated by magicians for a bet (not such funny reading in 2017), but it’s still inadequate.

The problem with magic is the same as the problem with religion, if there are higher powers capable of manipulating things, how do you account for all the bad things that happen in the world?

The idea of magic being real in this world, is more awful than the idea of there being no magic at all.

“What if a piece expresses something we’ve long desired to articulate, but never quite trusted ourselves to say?”

The response of many straight women to “Cat Person” has simply been “yes, this”. I don’t think there’s anything intellectually immature in that. Perhaps male readers would like it to be so, at least in the case of this one story. Literature helps us to know the world and ourselves – as long as it’s literature written from the perspective of the default human being. Write something that makes a whole bunch of women say “yes, that’s how it is”, and suddenly we’re meant to feel embarrassed. But why should we? What if a piece expresses something we’ve long desired to articulate, but never quite trusted ourselves to say?

[…] Emotional truths, even those expressed in fiction, hurt. They force us to reposition ourselves in relation to others.

Who wants to do that? Not many straight men, it seems. It disrupts the narrative of how things should be. That’s why these stories matter.

Glosswitch, So the Cat Person short story has made straight men feel uncomfortable. Good

Black Mirror isn’t science fiction anymore!

This is, essentially, ‘Nosedive’:

Sesame Credit, a credit-scoring agency setup by Alibaba and Tencent, is designed to make Orwellian self-surveillance a reality. As well as creditworthiness, it measures political loyalty – based on user data gathered by China’s two biggest internet companies. People with low scores won’t get job offers, loans or high-speed internet; people who network with people with low scores will also get downgraded. The project, which is awaiting regulatory approval, has been decried by human rights groups as a mass surveillance tool. But it is nothing compared to what China is planning with artificial intelligence. Last month, the Chinese state issued a strategy designed to achieve global leadership in AI by 2030. As part of the plan, the private sector is ordered routinely to share its user data with the state. This puts China in the unique position among major powers of having no formal barriers to state exploitation of private commercial data. If it succeeds, China will create a consumer market whose customer data is completely interpenetrated with state surveillance mechanisms, and a population whose behaviour can be predicted right down to their choice of underwear.

Paul Mason

What is fiction for?

There is an amusing review of Salman Rushdie’s Golden House, published by New Statesman in September:

“Salman Rushdie’s new novel has been billed as a return to realism, which in relative terms is true enough” … “The Golden House offers the weary, ever-hopeful Rushdie reader a Dexedrine-fuelled hotchpotch of place names, brand names, sort-of-puns […] mothballed observations […] failed phrase-making […] outmoded film theory, WTF quotations […] offhand highbrowism […] plugs for micro-memes and quasi-crazes […] cameos for Werner Herzog […] bewildering suppressions of the words “Spike Lee” […] cogitations on phenomena including satirists and sitarists, shoehorned references to King’s College, Cambridge, and, to facilitate most of the above, the rhetorical device known as amplification.” … “Aversion to choice is the governing principle. Adjectives come in twos – in the novel’s first page and a half, we read, among many other pairings, “thick and strong”, “large, dangerous”, “huge, clumsy”, “sociable and neighbourly”. And the tendency towards excess is replicated on a larger scale; for example, when the spry reference to Nero Golden’s “way of walking toward closed doors without slowing down” is spoiled by the explanatory “knowing they would open for him”.” … “As a rule, Rushdie deploys language without concision or precision. One chapter opening takes a swift dive from mock-epigram into polysyllabic sludge” … “Things that aren’t amusing on their own are rendered nonsensical into the bargain.” … “holding forth is deemed the best way of transmitting narrative information.” … “the relationship between subject and backdrop is lost amid so much verbal noise.” … “here we have Salman Rushdie – who, as the author of Midnight’s Children as much as The Satanic Verses, embodies the novel’s powers of resistance – offering a book that seems little more than an exercise in googling, an attempt to sell the listicle as literature.”

As the reviewer points out, Salman Rushdie published works of fiction that affected the real world, but can fiction ever really be ‘important’?

I keep coming back to Kurt Vonnegut’s quote: “During the Vietnam War, every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.”

As I have said already, watching TV is not, and never will be, activism; and if I am entirely honest, I doubt reading or watching The Handmaid’s Tale has, regarding women’s bodily autonomy, changed the mind of a single adult.

And as shown by this year’s emmys, giving Sean Spicer the chance to poke fun at himself and hang out with the stars, the TV industry isn’t actually interested in challenging the status quo.

If fiction can’t change the world, what can it do? Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote: “I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose = words in their best order; – poetry = the best words in the best order.” Which is fair enough. I guess Sturgeon’s Law, “ninety percent of everything is crap”, applies across the board. If A Little Life is genuinely ‘award worthy literature’, then literature is a joke.

We use fiction to manipulate ourselves, to layer on technicolour ersatz emotions so that we know that we are really feeling something. Fiction is, at best, a lie that helps us understand the truth, it can help us articulate an idea or an emotional state we have difficulty accessing/expressing otherwise (real emotions have to be pried out of the side of a mountain with a pick-axe); fiction is putting a fake horn on a real unicorn so that we can see it. The rest of the time it is mere escapism, or voyeuristic gawping.

Human beings will always tell each other stories, it seems to be a fundamental part of our nature to do so, the thing that allowed us to make sense of the world before modern science, a way of passing on ideas and cultural norms.

Despite my cynicism, there are always glimmers of hope. Philip Pullman’s new book came out recently, teaching children to challenge blind obedience and totalitarian thinking.

“Writing is always some kind of encounter with another person that lives in your head”

Harkaway says he wrote the novel “like a 3D printer”, swivelling round in his chair to demonstrate how he would add a chunk of narrative to each strand in turn before swinging back over to add the next piece. By spring 2016 he had a first draft and enlisted the help of seven or eight people to make sure it all made sense. But when the queries started coming in, he found his own novel had escaped him.

“It’s the first book where I’ve been totally unable to carry all of it in my head,” he says. “I had to use a whiteboard, I had thousands and thousands of notes in my Evernote folder, I had photographs of the whiteboard. This office, when I was editing it for the final time, looked like one of those terrifying nests that psychopaths make in American cop shows.” In the end, he “had to trust that I knew what I was doing when I put it together”.

Sometimes editors would pick up on something they thought was particularly clever and Harkaway would have to hold up his hand and say it was a consequence of the way he’d written the novel. “Writing is always some kind of encounter with another person that lives in your head, but this …” He shakes his head. “I hadn’t realised the extent to which, if you really crank up the complexity level you start to get responses that feel alive.”

Nick Harkaway interview