Friday, February 12, 2021

Purgatory Mount

 The thing is: it's poetry.  For me, this is why I found Purgatory Mount such an effortless read. Roberts defines science fiction poetically, in terms of metonymy (one thing after another) and metaphor (the quality of showing one thing in terms of another), and the structure of this novel both embodies and performs the material in the precise terms of this definition.  Not that the structural resonances between the otherworldly mountain of the title and Otty's beehives are strictly metaphorical at all times.  There is a direct link between these things, in my mind, despite the ultimate origin of the miles-high and seemingly impossible structure with which the minds of the gods are engaged, really never being explained.  That remains the central mystery of the novel but because the mapping is so precise in the storytelling, there was really never any doubt in my mind, even before I realised it explicitly (and admittedly, through a second reading of this novel, just to make sure I hadn't missed anything). 

But Purgatory Mount touches on a staggering array of issues relevant today, and this also makes it exemplary as both a science fictional exercise in sussing out social implications (as it is the duty of serious science fiction to do), and in installing a sense of dread in the mind and body of the reader in the potentiality of those implications. It is also an exercise in examining religious issues and sensibilities here embodied the character of Otty, this story's main protagonist. Her sensibility points to the fact that there is almost a religious aspect to our devotion to technology but, further, that there is a chasm between our sensibilities and those in powerful positions more able to exploit and shape their potentialities to disastrous ends, for the sake of power.  Power is, in the final analysis, what this book is about.

This is clear in the outset, when we find ourselves in a ship made of ice on the verge of a great discovery, and uncover the motivations of its various god-inhabitants, not money but the glory associated with making the find and figuring out what it means.  That this quest (and all the book's quests) are ultimately futile is a comment in itself (on the futility of questing), not least on the power that fixed ideas can maintain in the minds of those who should know better (and who often see themselves as our 'betters').

The map of this book moves in moieties, and its halves are halved again as the main metonymies inhabit the middle, which is split into aspects of war and peace.  War is demonstrated to be conclusively bad for all involved, and we have a meditation on that badness through both description of the chaos it invokes, and the real effects it has upon characters we have come to care about. Four teens have fashioned a new kind of artificial intelligence almost by accident (by accidentally being so smart and clever that it seems they couldn't help themselves but to do so), and this drives the plot. The US government takes an interest in the recruitment of said teens (Otty, Gomery, Cess, Kathry, and Allie, the latter of whom is the AI in question), using illegal means of detention and questioning, directly resulting in the deaths of at least a couple of them. Thus, the social implications of war being not just chaos but moral and mortal degradation and unnecessary waste of life.  

The 'adults' in the room occupy the other half of the novel. They are 'gods' in the sense of being highly and extensively evolved to the extent that they have acquired near-immortality and seeming ability to turn their perceptual speeds up and down/ back and forth as though with internal 'control knobs'. This is a kind of novum that enables a time-dilation device for spatio-temporal deixis in the novel itself, one that again fairly precisely indexes it as science fiction in this mode of telling. These gods are seen by the 'pygs' (a lower form of life that would seem to be actually human so much lesser evolved that they constitute a distinct species) to be gods, almost literally so because their 'speeds' have been so attenuated as appear motionless over the vast timescales needed to traverse the spaces separating earth from Dante (the name of the planet that houses the Mount).

This differential is played to maximum effect to give play to the conflict that arises between the gods, and the leveraging of the pygs loyalty to be exclusively towards Pan, a god more sympathetic to their plight as lesser beings who are actually eaten by the other, non-vegetarian, gods.  Thus we have war in the final half-moiety of the book.  It plays out spectacularly, and the material in the bookending halves are handled just as well as in the middle, perhaps even better in some ways precisely because they are more metaphorical. There is philosophical speculation in abundance as well and the final section here contains some useful reflections on Dante, namely the time-bound aspect of middle section of Inferno, the purgatory. This section 'requires' sinners to atone through effortful movement from the bottom to the top of the mountain. What the characters of this novel cannot see (none of them apparently) is that this is no metaphor, and that their lives are similarly effortful, though it would take a Dante to make them see. Despite this, and in full knowledge of this work, only the gods do not see. And so we have hubris, and the tragedy of the novel playing out to the final seeming demise of just about all concerned.

So, it is a comment on the futility and overweening pride of those who contemplate war through the unreflective leveraging of war-potentialising technologies such as drones, phones, and guns, but also less obviously even of books. For the latter are surely technologies that when taken too literally, might quite literally result in war.  The bible is a case in point.  Here we resonate back to Otty, and her strictness around swearing, with which she cannot abide, the utterance of swear-words in her con-freres being utterly proscribed (by her). This is a kind of superstition, one that also bounds in technologically mediated discourse of which the present work is a case in point.  And so we come to see how cleverly it is constructed, and how solid that construction is.  

Compared to his other novels, Purgatory Mount rates very highly. I think I might even rate it Roberts's best book if I didn't already rate others pretty much on par, including pretty much everything else I've read by him on that par.  There is very much an evenness to the effort and result of this body of work, and here I place in top-class The Thing Itself, Bete, The Real-town Murders, By the Pricking of Her Thumb, in other words all recent output in the Roberts fiction-machine.  And machine it is, and no less artful, clever, and effective for that.  I'm even reading one of his few non-science fictional works (The Black Prince) and it almost seems that historical fiction could be his forte, his metier, if that was his thing.  But his thing is science fiction, and it is very much to the advantage of the dedicated reader to realise sooner rather than later the central place this writer will have in the genre's history. This body of work, in other words, is no small fact. On the contrary, it is a big fact, one that keeps growing both quantitatively and qualitatively with each passing novel.  I plan to continue this journey, and to keep mapping it both for posterity and for my ongoing and increasing interest. I still have a few gaps to fill (a few unread Roberts), and at the rate he writes, I feel almost asymptotically inclined, but luckily I happen to very much like that kind of thing.  Luckily, it feels effortless, and I've already reached heaven.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Top Ten Books of 2020

Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? (Alexander Keyssar)
Does justice to the question, and doesn't just break it down into temporal boilerplate, or simplistic explanations.  It covers specific examples across time and space, including one very interesting and informative burst of partisam gerrymandering in the "Miner Law in Michigan" case.

Antkind (Charlie Kaufman)
I had just watched "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" and was completely depressed after that, so what did I do? I went right out and bought Antkind and got sucked right in.  This novel is much better than "Ending", and it is much much funnier.

It's the End of the World (Adam Roberts)
Also very funny and a useful antidote to gloomy or pessimistic thinking under lockdown.  Much more academic, critical, and literary than Bill Bailey's own lockdown-literary efforts, this is also a handbook of useful information on what you might consider reading while you've got the extra time (free of travel, vacations or family visits) over the holidays and beyond...

The Liar's Dictionary (Eley Williams)
Another Royal Holloway lecturer hits it out of the park in her debut novel that switches between present-day London and the city in 1899, just before several key words without which it is hard to imagine conducting intelligent discourse had not yet come into being.  This is wonderful storytelling and it is beautiful poetry, and it made me think about maps and their #mountweazels, as well as about language and 'the stations at which we post the word', spatialities, etc, EXCELLENT!

War of the Maps (Paul McAuley)
I mean, just look at the title, and realise that it's richer than you can even imagine, with so many different levels of not just map, but of being and estrangement coming into play that it just boggles!  This is a great book, and it has made me a McAuley true believer...a technical term indicating that from now on McAuley has a 'free pass' from Gwilym (I'll buy anything he publishes from now on).

Mordew (Alex Pheby)
I'm a bit of an outsider, but as my appreciation of England deepens I find increasingly resonant vibrations with Dickens and Peake. This book is right in that resonance, and adds significantly to the tradition, with map.

The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest (Paul Kincaid)
I'm picking up a bit more Priest in part as accompaniment to the stellar example of academic excellence. Literary criticism will find increasing relevance on my reading lists as I deepen my own academic endeavours in this area, and this is in my top three of all time in the category of exemplary SF criticism category.

The Lost Art of Running (Benzie)
Beautifully written, and useful in terms of actual running, this book actually does something different, which is hard to do with so many running books out there.  We need to get over our fixation on VDOT02max, to realise the fascia that does free work for the runner, look at the muscles and the skeleton more, and how we hold our form. It also has the 'anthropological' take on running, but in a very good way (with map).

Exercised (Daniel Lieberman)
This book really changed my whole outlook, and I'm no longer hung up on how much I sleep, or posture (not that I was much hung on posture), and have a firm basis in the science and anthropology of running, and some sympathetic stories around how running impacts lives.

The Motion of the Body Through Space (Lionel Shriver)
A reactionary take on fitness, but very entertaining, and with some food for thought.

Friday, October 2, 2020

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London


I sped through this book, not realising until well into it that it is what is considered a 'young adult' (YA) novel, and actually that that might be part of what made it so compelling.  The story is brisk and unencumbered with unnecessary non-action. It has dreamy protagonists, and not-so-dreamy bad guys, but most of all it has that stamp of what Stefan Ekman has examined in fantasy as a kind of landscape-agency for the production of all kinds of magical borders, territorialised agencies, and time-dilating areas that produce contrapuntalities between past and present in really interesting and innovative ways.

I admit it is my first Nix title, and I've been meaning to get around the Angel Mage for quite some time now (and I now will get around to it, very soon!).  More importantly, this is a title that fits my research profile in a developing line of thinking around how magic and landscape mutually infuse and inform within a certain strand or tradition in fantasy writing.  This obviously goes along with Faerie in general, and with Tolkien's work standing at an origin point. Think Lothlorien and the Elves, and how time moves in that part of Middle Earth (if you are familiar with it), and you will start to get the gist of the tradition to which I allude, and to which I argue Nix is a part.

I've not been to Lake Windermere, and did not know its old name until I read this book, nor did I know that a spirit sleeps beneath Old Man of Coniston, though it should have been obvious from its name. This book is a geographical treasure trove exploring ideas around various interrelated kinds of magic held not only in books themselves, but in the names of things, as communicated down through time from the old days.  I did not find any of this corny, and I think this is because the young adult reader today is an extremely discerning one. Furthermore, it could lead one to things like maps, if one were so inclined (and I am).  The magic, from what I can tell, is innovative, and avoids cliches associated with the genre. Why do knife, blood, and salt in combination result in a 'holding spell'? They don't on their own: they also require application of the combo by a person 'with powers'. And precisely how all of these characters came to have theirs is a mystery not really even worth digging into because it would spoil the fun. 

The fun comes from immersing yourself into a carefully crafted world with consistent rules and frequent application of them. What you get then, is an excellent curation of effects, alongside some psychedelic characters emanating out of a possible 1983: think paisley, mini-Coopers, London black cabs, and whole lot more firearms than we are used to stumbling across in the UK. Think tons of fun and real page turner, and then you might really want to pick up this book, regardless of your age.  It's well worth the price of admission.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Representation Without Reproduction: Beyond the Borders of the Science Fiction Map


[Presented at London Science Fiction Research Community's "Beyond Borders" conference, 12 Sept 2020 (online)]

(Youtube video link: )

1 The maps

These fragments conjure worlds so like, yet so utterly unlike our own. If not the maps, then the narratives they enframe, are sparked by that enframement: their existence casts the spell by which we see ‘other’ worlds represented. In that representation, other kinds of societies are performed in the dark spaces of the closed book, whose utterance is an opening. Cartographic utterances meet us in beginning, or part-way. Crosshatch sentences elucidate their names, their naming, in the interstices of the polder-book, the fantastical sci-fi, in whose leaves the space-times of other worlds unfurl, watched, watching, always mapped (I think here for some reason of the ‘Mercator projection’ map of Phobos in Baxter’s World Engines, as a kind of cartographic narrative enabler). We push back with the indigenous subject of such books as those examined here (Dune, Helliconia, and Always Coming Home), we challenge the mapped fragments claim to represent with new names always in the language of the coloniser of the maps in, of and for science fiction, we find examples of all three in the three main works under consideration; adding a fourth kind: the map that is science fiction itself , that represents proposed spatialities of future worlds that as always are about now. Science fiction is a map in its particulars and in its totality of speculated, extrapolated future nows that are approached apprehensively, sentence by sentence, book by book. Later I will suggest that the history of science fiction itself might be re-mapped as a history of the Anthropocene through emerging climate fictions, from Wells’s short story “The Star”, with its catastrophic (from the Earthlings, but not the Martians perspective) exo-planet-induced climate change; through the works examined here today, which I posit as bridges into the Anthropocenic sci-fi map proper; and onward to the latest works by Robinson, including for example the non-cartographic New York 2140; or the very cartographic Fall, or Dodge in Hell, by Stephenson.  

2 Setting

Maps are metonymical for settings in many cases, the former acting as ‘pointers’ or mnemonic devices for the latter. Ryan et al (2016, page 38) point out that many societies divide space into sacred and profane worlds, with holy sites acting as portals between the two. Helliconia certainly abounds in such sites, with a dualism between Akha of the underworld and Wutra of the skies, and the ways that this dualism drives both the plot and the mutual fears of various societies of the secondary world we inhabit when we read about Helliconia.  The Earth Observation Station itself places Helliconia under constant surveillance, rendering the very obvious map/frontispiece quite the obvious paratextual bit of paraphernalia. But the map is diegetic as well, as we see on page 374 of Helliconia, in Vry’s scholarly stone tower, “[o]n one wall hung an ancient map, given [Vry] by a new admirer, it was painted in coloured inks upon vellum. This was her Ottaassaal map depicting the whole world, at which she never ceased to wonder. The world was depicted as round, its land masses encircled by ocean. It rested on the original boulder – bigger than the world – from which the world had sprung or been ejected. The simple outlined land masses were labelled Sibornal, with Campannlat below, and Hespagorat separate at the bottom. Some islands were indicated. The only town marked was Ottaassaal, set at the centre of the globe.”

Dune is a more political work, though its setting is infamous for its ecology. The absurdity of the various workings of water budgets and how these are funnelled through cognitive estrangements of desert-focused technologies, do not detract from the Anthropocenic indigeneities and indignities posited by Dune. We have here another Gaia-like creation (and the genealogies of the Gaia-analogy could form the basis of the entire mapping of this bridge into speculative Anthropocenes of the future), one that again appears diegetically within Dune on page 83, in addition to its obvious placement as the end point/appendix of the work: “the Duke and Paul were alone in the conference room at the landing field. It was an empty-sounding room, furnished only with a long table, old-fashioned three-legged chairs around it, and a map board and projector at one end. Paul sat at the table near the map board. He had told his father the experience with the hunter-seeker and given the reports that a traitor threatened him.” The importance of projection is here quite marked, especially if we note by a glance at the appendix and its metadata that we are looking at a polar projection, something that is quite unusual even in fantasy, where maps of fantastic worlds abound.  Ultimately, however, we know that the map is Liet-Kynes’s, the anthropologist gone native whose non-presence nevertheless structures the novel’s plots and politics and schemings.  To paraphrase Marlon James, Liet-Kynes is a man who believes in belief. His map is an ethnographic fact. 

Always Coming Home is full of both maps and mappings. It future indigeneities are nonetheless retroactively mapped by the colonising gaze of the unseen, but very much present, anthropologist/ ‘editor’ of the narrative, whose ethics at least extend towards the insider view and its inclusion, most notably on pages 525-526 of the Library of America edition, where the watershed of Sinshan is reproduced with names not only in the native language, but in their script as well.  That Always Coming Home includes eight maps, all of which are woven into the very structure and fabric of the narrative, indicates how much more sophisticated, in many ways, the indigenous spatialities of the work have been conceptualised as the insider view of the world being narrated.  But as Doreen Massey noted to me at another conference a year before her death, ‘it is not about the maps.’  To quote Le Guin from her short essay ‘On the Frontier’ (from A Wave in the Mind), “[i]f there are frontiers between the civilised and the barbaric, between the meaningful and the unmeaning, they are not lines on a map nor are they regions of the earth. They are boundaries of the mind alone.” Le Guin’s map, as she later notes in the same essay, is always already full with indigenous places and names. These are truly maps whose spatialities they claim to represent would not dream of reproducing the indignities of the mundane presencing of the current bad-dreaming Anthropocene.

3 Discussion

We could discuss all of this in terms of both ladders of objectivity, also known as the View from Nowhere; as well as diegicity/appendicitis, asking, is the scientific-fantastic map always-already diegetic (even more than in fantasy)? Or is it ‘merely’ para-textual/extra-diegetic? When looking at science-fictional maps, or when noting their described presence within narratives, we must examine what their function is in the reproduction of the colonising and/or erasing power of the View from Above.  The sketchy map at the beginning of Helliconia certainly seems to fulfil this colonising function, as does Aldiss own map, excavated later from his study, and the same goes, while we’re at it, for the tacked on appendix of the omnibus edition, the one that diagrams the view from space of the planet itself.  Furthermore, if the map is a meme, then we can state as well, that so is the appendix, and therefore its presence in any given work is a kind of cultural evolutionary move of which the author themselves may or may not be aware of at that other level at least (I think here as well of Roberts brilliantly explained novum in the appendix to On).

If, with Lovelock, we are beginning to move into the Novacene, even as the Anthropocene wraps up, we can note that there are other works that have been based on discredited scientific theories (I’m here thinking not just of Gaia in Helliconia, but of the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis in Babel-17, and even to some extent in Le Guin herself). What kinds of maps and appendices will we need in the age of algorithmic and planetary artificial intelligences? Will it be a kind of ‘cloud atlas’? What will be the challenges of representation/extrapolation, i.e. without reproduction?

Science-fiction-in-action needs to attend more carefully to the ‘immutable mobiles’ it deploys in the service of its extrapolations and non-reproductive politics of future heterotopias. Our postcolonial ‘others’, not to mention our future selves, will come to depend upon them. There is reason for hope and action. What if, with Kitchin and Dodge, we undertake to re-think maps anew, now as always being remade, as becoming things, rather than static beings? What if the sci-fi novel could itself come to embody such an ideal? Dhalgren, with its Ulysses-like pacing, interiority, and spatiality, is probably the prototype, forming an ideal-type of speculation for which there has probably been no subsequent equal. I set the bar high by placing the origins of this kind of speculated sci-fi map novel with Ulysses, whose famed use as a map of Dublin belies the inherently non-literal, metaphorical basis of the use of the term mapping in literary theory. That Ulysses has a performed and very real spatiality does not mean that it is literally a map; a similar point was made by Gibson in his afterward to Dhalgren. The point is, we need more metaphorical mappings, to use Cosgrove’s terminology, and we need them to perform mutable, mobile, service towards the ends of speculative fictions in the post-Anthropocene world of hyperintelligent cloud algorithms. As demonstrated by Le Guin, Herbert, and Aldiss, colonial mappings, namings, and spatial performances always contain the seeds and anchor points of future post-colonial counter-mappings (think here of the air- and land-octaves of the phagors and humans respectively, and how long their alternation takes), ad infinitum at the right temporal scales. It may be phagor/human on Helliconia; here in the Novacene, it may play out as human/cyborg.

These maps literalise the colonising View from Above/Nowhere that meshes very well with the roving/disembodied (3rd person) view each of the works takes, though only in the case of Le Guin is it truly liberating. Only in Le Guin, with her carrier bag fictions, do we truly encounter the counter-map.

4 Towards further formalisation of the model

Maps when used well help to formalise and spatialise and relationalise the language (names) of speculative fiction. They are sufficient (but not necessary) for enabling these moves. Maps allow the reader to carry around the language in the form of immutable mobile, and thus are tools to be used in the translation of the text. We have various tools, but maps are tradition in fantasy. Other tools are available, other reading strategies – these just happen to be apposite to the texts at hand. The map and the text are interlocking machines: the map contains other texts; the text other maps; interlocking precisely, like a crew and its ship. The map makes explicit the metonymical function of the text itself: that of naming. The secondary world thus represented is allowed its utopian functioning as a corrective to the wrongs produced in the primary world. The map is a metaphor at one level, serving as a metonymical toolbox at another level. These functions operate both vertically (through time) and horizontally (through space).  “Gaia” and “Anthropocene” have significant vertical components by now. To what do they refer (and from within the Mass Cultural Genre System)? We need a map of climate fiction!

5 Conclusion

Maps (in sci-fi) help us navigate the line between fact and belief. If here we find a map of a plausible Gaia, self-regulating, sentient, with evolvable species; over there (in the real world) the idea is more speculation. The age of the world picture demands images of totality. Aldiss and Herbert hid the most interesting things beneath the surface of their images, in the undergrounds of imagination. The counter-map was the text itself, a kind of return of the repressed. Le Guin fully utilises the power of maps, weaving them together as full participants alongside other items of her carrier bag of fictions. Le Guin’s maps are characters in a new species of book.

We accept the strictures of fantasy magic even as we let science grow, no, leap, beyond its self-inscribed boundaries. Sci-fi’s polders and crosshatches are made explicit in machines for moving time and space in strange new ways, more generalisable in diagrams of power diegetic and paratextual, inscribed and performed.  Their strictures are operationalised in the specialised language of science: the Mercator projection, the polar view, the multi-coloured elevational ‘globe’. The sea-level rise in Helliconia names a new terrain that is anchored in Summer’s beginning, and this is in turn anchored in the map. The magic of the text lies in its rules of procedure, its method of representing the world without reproducing it.

Friday, July 3, 2020

War of the Maps

Maps has a double meaning in this book.  A map means both what we think of when we hear the word (i.e. a top-down view of some topography) and a meaning that is more in line with biological thinking.  A map, in this book, can also mean a 'life map'.  The latter sense of map (i.e. life-map) is the more important sense of the word 'map' in War of the Maps.

The book is about biological warfare on a hypothetical planet constructed out of a Dyson sphere. We are given to know this information in the Acknowledgments, where the paper 'Dyson Spheres Around White Dwarves' is cited as the novum for the novel we are reading.  As with McAuley's previous book, Austral, we are riding on the shoulder, in third person limited mode, of the protagonist, in this case 'the lucidor' (who also has a name, used only once or twice in the book).

Despite being, technically, 'hard' or extrapolative SF due to the central novum's leveraging of biological theories of 'mapping' (i.e. DNA manipulation), when you are actually reading the book it feels much more like fantasy.  We know that science fiction and fantasy exist on a continuum, and it is one of the many innovative features of this book, one of the things it does uniquely well, to put us on that continuum and slide evenly along it, from the 'harder' biological side, on over to the 'softer' fantastical elements involving 'shatterlings', mind-reading, magic, and other-worldly beings.

The other-wordly beings and godlings play a major role in shaping the plot, whose entire resolution revolves around being able to locate the site of one of those fallen-from-the-sky. Various networks (again, we are into 'hard' territory here because there is a materiality to how the various beings communicate that relies upon a realistic notion of how the networks function) link the different more-than-human actors, actants, and mediators that inhabit the various territories, islands, continents, and enclaves battling for the spaces of this mirror-lighted 'globe.' One page 27 we see that,

"a huge latticework globe stood on a plinth of black baserock. Maps, some entire and others patchworked from islands or continents, none bigger than a child's hand, were scattered thinly across the surface. The home map, Gea, was a squarish red tile close to the equator, smaller than most of the rest, and a silvery ball representing the Heartsun was spindled at the centre, and everything was spattered by the droppings of a fractious parliament of vivid green birds which had colonised the globe's pole, chattering each to each and scolding passers-by."

The islands/continents that make up this world are themselves called maps, and they are also territories and as such, are peopled and cultured, here into wars with each other.  This is a comment on human territoriality as much as it is upon the dangers of the manipulations of our biological 'maps'. We are, indeed, reading through a speculation on the philosophical and social implications of such manipulations upon our own worlds, made literal through the use of fantastical titles and trainings attained by the protagonists.  Many are philosophical practitioners and, as such, are given great respect on the fantastical world, where in our, real, world they would have none.

Philosophical speculation abounds with being obvious about it. A less subtle reading would miss this point, but this book could appeal nonetheless, I think, to the less self-aware reader interested only in action-stories and fighting.  We do get a lot of scenes of hand-to-hand combat with staves and spells and the like, and aid often comes from quasi-mystical beings and godlings.  So we can get our fantasy fix too.

If you liked Fairyland a lot, then this book is for you, because it is in much the same vein. If you've only read Austral before because you liked its straightforward extrapolation of a climate change scenario focused on Antarctica, then the fantastic side here might appeal less.  I, for one, love both Fairyland and Austral, and therefore, I doubly loved War of the Maps. It is the top book of the year 2020 for me so far.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Motion of the Body Through Space

The thing about Lionel Shriver is, I guess, that she's self-deprecating.  She is obviously, also, a contrarian, and that is the quality that comes through most strongly in this book. Shriver takes a contrary view on almost every conceivable aspect and item of received wisdom emanating from the fitness industry.  And this automatically counts as self-deprecation because of Shriver's own personal investment in the values that industry promotes.  We know that this is the case from various interviews Shriver has given over the years, most notably in the New Yorker.

Let's be clear (if I wasn't above): this book is a relentless attack on both the idea and practice of 'pushing yourself to your limits'. The whole idea of limits is critically tested through a series of limit cases devoted, seemingly, to exercise, but who are revealed to be, instead, devoted to self-harm. The freaks Shriver describes are suicidally hell-bent on perfecting their bodies and attaining personal best times that they acquire, along the way a set of life-threatening injuries ranging from: blown knees, heart attacks, suppurating and infectious blisters, kidney failure, fatal head traumas, deep lacerations, internal bleeding/bruises; and much more, all in the context of the ravages of old age that both the main character Serafina Terpsichore and her husband (Remington) are undergoing.

Shriver is trying to take down a few notches the likes of, for example, Alex Hutchinson, whose book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance Remington is observed reading in bed, and it's funny because the husband is so very far from being an accomplished athlete that he comes to seem like a straw-man, set up to be so very easily knocked down, especially in comparison to the company he keeps: a set of hardcore (and all very much younger and more fit) triathletes.  Their goal: the MettleMan, a brilliantly conceived triathlon 'event' the approach of which structures so much of the tension that is built up so skillfully in the course of this novel's events.

Another straw-person is the young buff personal trainer who latches onto Remington during his first (circa 8 hour) marathon. Her name is Bambi Buffer, and she is of course a dissembling shill of a person, so seemingly representative of much of what is branded as 'good for you' by various representatives of the fitness industry today.  Bambi is the classic 'other woman' but Shriver, with extremely impressive skill, navigates the cliches and pitfalls such a character might represent, with brilliant and darkly funny aplomb (to borrow a turn of phrase Adam Roberts applied to Joe Abercrombie's book A Little Hatred.  Indeed, The Motion of the Body Through Space might quite easily, at times, feel like a good fit into the grimdark fantasy genre).

Underneath the take-down-y language and critical structure of this novel; it is more fundamentally about a marriage, and a very admirable one (a good one!) at that.  Serafina and Remington are enamoured of one another, despite their troublesome children, and various late-mid-life mishaps.  It is one of the latter (Remington's early firing from a company to which he has devoted his life and life's work), that has led to the current crises of fitness and bodily-limits thinking that underly the book's philosophical core.

Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of reactionary material being spewed by Remington and his wife, who at times too thinly seem to resemble Shriver's real-life personae.  There is a massive wedge of anti-'PC' libertarian-inflected political ideology that is quite unbelievable.  Remington's new boss, who usurps his own perceived entitlement to a management position, is a high-born Nigerian woman with a whole-profile of stereotypically progressive agendas that becomes increasingly absurd as it is conveyed through an almost play-like set of recorded dialogues Remington plays back from a workplace tribunal he underwent immediately prior to his firing.  This woman, his new boss, allegedly re-named a street in Albany, New York, 'Robert Mugabe' drive.  Which is kind of funny, but also a bit insulting if we are expected to believe this or that this kind of cardboard character actually exists.

Does this book have a happy ending?  The main character, at the end of the final chapter, has a heart attack and does not finish his race.  His wife, with a fresh knee operation that is trashed through the tribulations of her finding her lost husband, has to undergo the operations again, and is permanently crippled in the process.  But the afterward is a glorious tribute to the wonders and pleasure of old age in the company of a spouse truly and deeply loved and enjoyed, hour by hour, day by day.  It came off a bit hokey, if I'm being honest, but that was probably also part of the satire.

I took the critique of the fitness aspect very seriously, and I am certain it will have a positive impact on my own practices, if not quite anywhere near the extent that Hutchinson's book Endure will, then perhaps in a more subtle way.  The Motion of the Body Through Space is well worth reading.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Self & I

Will Self has exerted a certain fascination over my life. This is a result of having read only a couple of books by him.  In "Psychogeography" he attempts to 'walk' from London to New York, which means, essentially, walking to and from the airports of those two cities. I read most or all (I can't remember which) of "Great Apes" because I was reading a lot of philosophy at that time, and a lot of philosophical arguments in favour of various forms of animal rights, from duty-based, to rights-based, to utilitarian arguments.  Self's fiction was the first fiction-based argument I'd come across, and it added a whole new and unforgettable dimension to thinking about animals and their positionalities.

Recently I read the first section of Self's autobiography "Will", and fully plan on finishing that book later this summer.  I like the way he writes, it reminds me of surrealism, of Ballard, and of postmodernism, all with connotations, for me, of freedom of self-expression unconstrained by institutional norms.  Abaitua's memoir of his time as Self's personal assistant has helped me to pin down precisely why I've warmed to Self in my lifetime, even as I might, at times, have spurned him for being unserious, wild, or unsober as a thinker and role-model.  But these objections are neither here nor there, with Self, because they are irrelevant.  All that is relevant is the work itself.

And Abaitua is correct, I think, in identifying Self as a canonical writer.  I had not known this until I read Self & I.  But the best parts of this book are the stories of the good & bad times Self & Abaitua shared.  It is also a book about how to be a writer, and it is both sympathetic and patient with anyone reading the book who might have such aspirations.  Part of the reason for this is that it seems, reading the book, that it has taken Abaitua himself a really long time to settle down within himself, and produce the works he needs to produce in order to create the kind of art that feels true to himself, his vision, and his discipline.  That discipline is hard-won, mostly because he's enjoyed his life enough, and this is very apparent here in the book, that for time, it seems, he might never have settled down enough to have actually written anything worth reading.

But he has. This book is proof.  I haven't read Abaitua's science fiction novels, but I will.  I will also be picking up those books in my library that I've been putting off so long, for some reason: "How the Dead Live" and "Umbrella" for starters.  If you are interested in writing, in fiction, or in Will Self, this is one of the best books I've read on any of those subjects, and I recommend it very highly.