Tuesday, 31 March 2009
'The surgeon said stolidly, 'To me, it is a matter of the fitness of things.''
(Isaac Asimov, The Complete Robot, 1995, p.158)
There are of course parallels with racial segregation, restricted as it had been by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The distinction, in this science fiction tale, is between the human and the robot. This story was selected as episode 3 of the A Bite of Stars, A Slug of Time series on Resonance FM, the first series of which was focused on science fiction between 1935-65. It concerns a sixty year-old Senator who wishes to take on robotic features through an operation replacing his worn-out heart with a metallic one. Society more broadly is only sketched in; with robots, or 'Metallos', recently having been granted citizenship and thus gaining more cachet in the eyes of humanity. Whether the robot is a class or race metaphor is not necessarily important; Asimov leaves it up to the reader.
The twist in the tale is right at the end - that the surgeon turns out to be a robot himself. In itself, neatly worked up to, and on a second read (or listen, as I read it first myself and then played the ABOS broadcast on MP3) the knowledge allows one to pick up more of Asimov's playfulness with his Laws of Robotics.
There is thus an odd fierceness from this metallo who develops a thesis perceived as logical, that ends almost passionate: that humanity and robots should maintain their own unique identities and not develop as hybrids between the two. The human (?) MedEng (something of a mouthful of a character name!) sees the potential of hybridisation to be positive - the best elements of both could be combined - whereas the surgeon believes that such a creation would be nothing in itself, a fabrication without any of the good points of either.
Asimov's prose and narrative style is straightforward compared to the others I have read so far; it lacks that element of the macabre or absurd conjured at different times in the previous three stories. One is not thrown off-balance in quite the same way; the subtext is made plain in the story's nomenclature, and the twist is intended for gently comic as well as for philosophical effect. As a short-story it is not especially gripping, yet exerts a methodical pull in its empirical way. If Dahl could be characterised as a sardonic anarchist, Barthelme a media-cultural theorist channelling Kafka and HPL as a purveyor of the unutterable, then Asimov is by comparison a staunch rationalist. It is chiefly interesting for the way that Asimov suggest cracks in the facade of his Three Laws of Robotics; the metallic surgeon can be seen to be struggling with the ambiguities implicit in Law One: 'A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.'
Monday, 30 March 2009
Old favourites on excellent form; these should be up there at the top of the charts, not at #56 and #14 respectively. If there's any British electro-pop as good this year, I want to hear about it (do let me know about any such marvels, British or European)...
'It was not that the sounds were hideous, for they were not; but that they held vibrations suggesting nothing on this globe of earth, and that at certain intervals they assumed a symphonic quality which I could hardly conceive as produced by one player.'
(H.P. Lovecraft, The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2001)
'The walls are much too thin...'
(The Walker Brothers, 'I Don't Want to Hear it Anymore'*, 1965)
Do all things radiophonic and Delia Derbyshire start here? Perhaps appositely, HPL was not a music lover. It seems unlikely, however, from the evidence of this weird tale, that he didn't have an affinity for futurist electronic sounds - at least in his dreams, where (prompted also by Poe) he envisaged a strangely convincing Parisian atmosphere. (p.376)
We are presented with a mystery, feverish in its blank, remorseless absurdity; pitiless in its lack of comfort or use of detective-story motifs. We are informed by the first-person narrator, a student of metaphysics appropriately enough, that he cannot retrace the ramshackle area of Paris that he used to reside in; that he is quite literally unable to find it again, in map or reality, despite having lived there. This uneasy reflection takes place at the start of the tale, prefacing his attempted explication of the unspeakable events; an old man, dumb and decrepit playing the strangest music, audible to him as they both occupy fifth floor apartments in adjoining buildings.
This Erich Zann is an eerie creation, seemingly driven by and solely existing for his music; Lovecraft is careful never to reveal the nature of Zann's obsession or affliction, but it clearly has to do with the low answering 'notes' heard and the horrifying chaotic nothingness perceived by the narrator from out of the high window in his climactic encounter with Zann: 'the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music [...] in savage and impenetrable darkness with chaos and pandemonium before me'. (p.51)
Along with this terrifying vastness, HPL presents more familiar terrors in descriptions of the writhing shape of Zann himself, whilst playing his viol, 'twisted like a monkey'. 'In his frenzied strains I could almost see shadowy satyrs and Bacchanals dancing and whirling insanely through seething abysses of cloud and smoke and lightning.' (p.50) I presume that this description - which alludes to the classical - echoes Welsh purveyor of the Weird, Arthur Machen. The tale's final paragraph seems to me to invoke M.R. James; it concerns Zann's scribblings (in German), which may have explained the nature of the haunted man's affliction, and were lost: 'Despite my most careful searches and investigations, I have never since been able to find the Rue d'Auseil. But I am not wholly sorry; either for this or for the loss in undreamable abysses of the closely written sheets which alone could have explained the music of Erich Zann.' (p.52) Unlike many of MRJ's protagonists, this chap does not allow his morbid fascination to destroy him outright; a subtle ending, which seems to chide the scholarly obsessions of Jamesian protagonists.
I simply cannot draw the sort of grounded socio-political observations made regarding entries #1 and #2 in this ASSAD exercise. Whilst told in a relatively empirical fashion by the unnamed narrator, the world displayed is deliberately hermetic - society and fellowship are at a minimum, symbolised by the brittleness of the narrator's assumed 'friendship' with Zann. The outside world is merely gestured towards in the opening, with the narrator setting out his background - how he came to be there, and how he cannot get back to the Rue d'Auseil (which, as S.T. Joshi's excellent explanatory notes explain, was a perhaps deliberate use of French to indicate that EZ's room is at the threshold between the real and the unreal). As in another of HPL's stories I have read, 'The Tomb' (1917), there is no sense of shared interpretation or banal 'journey'; the events described simply defy any critical attempts to place limits upon them by interpreting - they exist on a different plane to 'reality' as we perceive it. 'The Music of Erich Zann' goes beyond the solitary Gothicism of 'The Tomb' and evokes the truly cosmic - another plane of existence. That Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop managed to bring this level of weirdness in sound to the living rooms of the masses should hardly undermine Lovecraft's achievement in crafting this uncanny, this unutterable THING...
* A majestically gloomy bedsit ballad to rival Leonard Cohen; written by Randy Newman and recorded by Dusty Springfield in 1969 and the Walker Brothers four years earlier on their ironically named Take It Easy... LP - with Scott in transcendent form. That vibraphone tolls as if all lonely lives are depending on it.
Sunday, 29 March 2009
'How carelessly they stack the ammunition
In the magazines'
(Peter Hammill, 'Skinny', Clutch, 2002)
'Everything is promised my classmates and me, most of all the future. We accept the outrageous assurances without blinking'.
(Donald Barthelme, Sixty Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2003, p.25)
Saturday, 28 March 2009
Pictures of Adolf again...'
I suppose I did not approach this story in the ideal manner, as I knew the twist, but then again the twist occurs half-way in, not at the very end and the story is hardly solely reliant on the twist as a stultefying Hollywood horror film of the last ten years might be. Do not be under any illusions, this is a bleak, intense story; Dahl introducing a prospective mother who has lost three previous children, praying, as a devout woman, that the fourth will live. The doctor rationally assures her it will; she cannot bring herself to believe it might live: 'He is a little small, perhaps. But the small ones are often a lot tougher than the big ones. Just imagine, Frau Hitler, this time next year he will be almost learning how to walk. Isn't that a lovely thought?' (Roald Dahl, The Complete Short Stories, 1991, p.133)
Dahl goes beyond merely acting as the actor-manager, affecting melodramatic sleight-of-hand like an Irving. As Gordon Burn manages in somebody's husband, somebody's son (1984), a study of Peter Sutcliffe which contextualises his crimes and character, we are presented with uncomfortable truths: that Hitler came from somewhere. He came from a mother and father, and he was once a baby - the icon continually sentimentalised and worshipped in our society. 'This is a perfectly normal baby', the doctor says, Dahl's mordant sense of irony revealing itself, cutting through all of the media's nonsense in setting up the Sutcliffes, Fritzls and Hitlers as 'monsters', a different species to the humanity from which they came.
Dahl's is a bleak worldview, putting no faith in politics or, indeed, faith, as this story demonstrates. As one may be aware from his work for children, the adult world itself is cruel and unloving; deprivation and abuse lead to more deprivation and abuse - indeed to Hitler; note the inferences that can be drawn regarding the as-yet unnamed father, Alois, on p.131: 'The husband was a drunkard, the innkeeper's wife had said, an arrogant, overbearing, bullying little drunkard, but the young woman was gentle and religious. And she was very sad. She never smiled.' Marriage and relationships in this case are shown as a horrific dead-end, rearing Hitler, while the implication is that Klara's praying works - that religion is as culpable as anything (historians could no doubt make theses of this).
'Genesis and Catastrophe' forms an appropriate start to ASSAD; reflecting the fact that Dahl was one of my favourite writers as a child and this does really make me want to read more of his adult stories, and I get the sense that the dividing line between his work for adults and children is pleasingly thin. Was Dahl a misogynist and anti-semite? Possibly; this story offers few answers, and nor should it. Throughout ASSAD, I am going to be careful of the absurd tendency of many critics to make too much of the biography of the writer when assessing a work; let the work stand for itself, and in relation to other literature, music, film, art, history and culture.
Finally, with its desperately numb ending, this story gets me thinking of the childhood trauma buried and then unleashing itself at the end of Time of the Last Persecution; the bleak hymn 'Let All the Other Teddies Know', with that piano that establishing the path out of life, and the tolling guitar signalling the coming of Adolf. A beautiful baby.
6. I reserve the right to post spoilers. Do not bother reading the entirety of each post, if you are concerned about such things, you never know when they might jump out at y'...
7. Comments and indeed further recommendations of short-stories welcome! They can be from any era, genre, nation or outlook...
8. This 'noble', foolhardy undertaking, such as it is, may be known by the acronym of ASSAD if it is deemed worthy of quick reference.
Any recommendations? Please post them in reply to this...
Saturday, 14 March 2009
Saturday 7 March 2009
That late-'60s era clearly stands at a crossroads; the proud provincialism starting to fray - pre-Ripper but the cracks beginning to show, as in Reginald Hill's first Dalziel and Pascoe procedural, A Clubbable Woman, centred as it is on working v. middle class tensions, bonhomie and the sinister vying within the community as embodied in the secretive Rugby club...
Also, the unfairly obscure 1969 film about Halifax, This Town. The epochal Revie v. Clough rivalry just starting to simmer. One recalls the old couple's 'escape' (leading to that end of the world and civilisation that is Morecambe*) from Leeds in Alan Bennett's 1975 TV play, Sunset Across the Bay, despair, outright despair after the rueful mapping of averted Utopias in A Day Out three years earlier. One thinks also of the bluff northern humour of Alan Plater's Beiderbecke series; the first of which particularly captures recognisably eccentric Yorkshire types flying in the face of the times - it being pertinent to recall that it was being filmed during the Miner's Strike. Progressive schoolteachers like Barbara Flynn and character-types drawn almost from Tinniswood, who would brook neither Scargill nor Thatcher, to their cost. When did Jake Thackray leave Leeds?
I am not sure I could feel entirely at home in Leeds, but it demands to be seen as a major city, important in how this country has developed - having more in common with Bristol than anywhere else. There is an element of alternatre lives, of personal associations; my parents met in Leeds, a cousin (now based in Hackney) also went to Leeds University to study English - doing an amount of dub-related DJ-ing in Leeds in the late 1990s.
(Alan Bennett, quoted in The Economist, 23/10/2008)
"Will there be honey
In a northerly sea
For a well-behaved enterprise culture?"
(Sudden Sway, ''76 Kids Forever', '76 Kids Forever, 1988)
'O! Start a revolution, somebody!
not to get the money
but to lose it all for ever.'
(D. H. Lawrence, 'O! Start a Revolution', 1927)
"Quite evidently, the people of this country don't want anything to do with the people up north, or with the communist way of life."
(J. G. Ballard, Theatre of War, 1977, The Complete Short Stories, Vol.II, p.457)
"It seems to me that someone of your principles would fit comfortably into almost any government. All regimes require people like you, who seem to be prepared to obey orders without question. Unwavering obedience guarantees success in any administration. It also guarantees collaboration in every atrocity in which a government might engage."
(George Monbiot, addressing Hazel Blears, The Guardian, 10/02/2009)
I hail the crier to this sodden patch of ground, an obscure corner of the www where shingle meets raincoat, to quote the venerable Sudden Sway. To get the full epoch-making significance of this latest venture play The Advisory Circle's 'Fire, Damp and Air' on looped repeat.
The remit is to provoke, converse (occasionally soliloquise) and make links between many areas of culture: literature (short stories, novels, drama, poetry), music (popular and otherwise, the old Abba to Yello and new Camera Obscura to Witty Boy continuum) politics, local history and travelogue. Nothing is separate, cordoned off and irrelevant, to be discussed in solitary confinement. Even Noel (Edmonds)’s HQ, God help us, is worthy of mention, even as an example of what we are up against…
Britain, Europe, North America, the world; nothing is out of bounds; there is the imperative to engage with America once again, now that the disastrous regime has departed and the better side of that country is asserting itself - could one imagine Bush or even Clinton making the speeches Obama is making at the moment regarding the bonuses? The north in general exerts its hold; Canada, Scandinavia, Scotland and the benighted North of blighty seem to form in many ways a possible cultural-political alliance against the simplicities of Palin, the banalities of Cameron and Hollywood sentimentality.
I may even dabble at some original short stories (you are warned to set up an exclusion zone forthwith), psycho-geographical travel writing, there will be a sequel to chart writing such as this: http://tom-may.livejournal.com/2008/03/02/ (am willing to admit I may have got some things badly wrong there, being fallible and no omniscient authority). Left-wing politics, in this time when we are witnessing the collapse of Thatcher-New Labour free-market capitalism, will naturally inform my perspective. The seemingly contradictory poles of Wilde and Bevan will serve as an example of future paths we have [frustratingly] yet to take. I can make no coherent philosophy other than to say that certain principles must stand: ordinary people deserve the very best rather than to be patronised, artists have the right to self-expression free of censorship; public service is an ideal to be defended – the right (or, left) sort of nanny can be beneficial, as Alan Bennett has argued and John Peel or Oliver Postgate demonstrated.
I also hope to include, as this project develops, fictions of my own (set up the exclusion zone, marras), examples of photography and my evolving music, if possible within these confines. I certainly feel that Blogger offers more of these opportunities than Live Journal; for example, it is far easier to upload images: essential for any psycho-geography or chart-writing.
The immediate rubric, designed to ensure that this thing gets up-and-running, is to establish a regular series: for me to read and review a short-story a day. I will draw from my own partial experience and knowledge, in order to assess the literary - a fine way of actually reading and comparing many writers I have shamefully never read before.
I will express gratitude again for the examples set (and occasional encouragement from) of fellow internet writers, who continue to exert influence: Simon Reynolds, Marcello C. & Lena, Robin Carmody, k-punk and Owen Hatherley. Monbiot, Morley, Meades, Kermode and (to a point) Brooker, voices on the fringes of the mainstream media must be commended, in this world of Myersons and stultifying middlebrow - last Friday's tedious Newsnight discussion 'Is Television Dead?' being a prime exhibit with its vested-interest industry insiders and cliche-spouters, sorely lacking in a Tom Paulin figure, an actual critic (now removed from our screens due to, my word, expressing some political views).
Real-world friends and colleagues who remain an inspiration ought to be thanked; they know who they are. I should also give 'shout-outs' to benign institutions that I am certain will prove invaluable in various ways: You Tube, Project Gutenberg, Wikipedia, the Star and Shadow Cinema, Sunderland and Newcastle public libraries... This is important; it must be refuted that we are a broken society or all doomed or all such; we have been immersed in one of the more shallow phases of our civilisation, but everything passes, and the opportunity is clearly there to make the change - and, I'm sorry anarchists - public and open-source institutions have a role to play in that.
The old place, Quiet Talks and Summer Walks, will remain, but restricted more purely to spur-of-the-moment reactions and comments, more fragmentary vignettes. The more considered pieces will from now on be on here.
Please comment or ‘follow’ as you will, though I would naturally prefer the term comrade, or friend, to follower. I do not set my word down as sacrosanct but hopefully worthy of kind correction and non-rancorous nattering, over virtual – and none-too-nourishing – pints of Old Peculier or careworn black coffees.
Follow TAC's 'Fire, Damp and Air' with Roy Harper's 'Commune', and let's have some audacity.
Wednesday, 11 March 2009
And certainly in strange unquietness.
(Shakespeare, Othello, III.IV)
A sedate, pregnant rhythm slinks in, sampled-sounding vocals insinuate; a dance of death joined by plangent guitar part post-punk part '60s John Barry theme. Liz Bougatsos's vocals intimating, refracting in upon themselves, MIA summoning Mary Margaret O'Hara; Fairlit voices and keyboard bursts of piercing, pained colour, Animal Collective dallying inexorably with Belbury Poly. For me, the aptly named 'Blue Nile' is possibly the centrepiece of one of last year's very finest records: Saint Dymphna by Manhattan-based Gang Gang Dance - a band perfectly emblematic of a more outward-looking America, with their rootless rhythms taken from
And there is this; a Kate Bush-themed disco summoned up anew, Liz sounding like The Knife's Karin, the overall feeling of a breakneck Bel Canto; their deathless, ethereal Shimmering Warm and Bright submerged in the analogue bubblebath of their UK labelmates Broadcast:
Gang Gang Dance, along with The Knife, Ladytron and the aforementioned Brummies, do represent the sort of hauntology pop I was calling for some time ago; all that is lacking is the mass audience, . A dreampop dreamt anew, taking in Tinchy Stryder in this piece of glorious, profoundly glimmering absurdity: