Thursday, 28 July 2011

Fantasy and Madness


This is just a sort of strange rant that's been smouldering in my head ever since the massacre in my neighbouring country of Norway last Friday. Its pertinence may be peripheral, although it is in no way intended as irreverence. It's just that this is the only way I can come up with of talking about it.

I like war. And death. And torture and horror and unspeakable evil and monsters and gore and carnage and sickening, mind-bending terror beyond even the very scope of human reckoning. I think these are themes that attract almost all people, even if they have to look away a lot when they peruse them in the form of movies or TV-shows, or if they have to stop and check the closet when they're up late at night reading a book containing them. I especially like supernatural horror, and fantastical horror. I like the unholy offspring between Lovecraft's Yog-Sothoth and a mortal woman, large as a barn, contorted features and tentacles thrashing everywhere, hulking across the barren hills of New England. I like the endless sea of malformed orcs storming across the Gondorian plains to crash up against the walls of Minas Tirith. I like the sickening, sadistic surgeries doled out as punishments to create the Re-Made in the psychedelic nightmare steampunk dystopia of New Crouton. I like the intimate and sexualized agony of Clive Barker. I do like Pinhead, and I like the X-Files and Cube and I absolutely love the oneiric, skin-crawling visions of some of Lynch's darker stuff.

I realize now why I like all that stuff. Because it's not frightening. Not in the least. There is nothing terrifying or even particularly revolting about it, and people who tell you they think there is are either lying, ignorant or way too squeamish for their own good. Their fear, even if it's a fear they enjoy, even if it's a fear that's part of the thrill that makes the whole experience worthwhile for them, is the fear of a phobiac. It's irrational, silly to outsiders and not really genuine. It's a fear that you can get used to, that can become normalized, that levels out and becomes just another aesthetic nuance to either enjoy or pass up depending upon context and execution. And it's good that that's so. If we felt anything like genuine repulsion or fear when faced with Alien or The Thing, these wouldn't be the masterpieces they indubitably are. Horror fans may think this is the case, but they'd be wrong. The only people who'd get any added pleasure out of such works if they were truly horrifying would be people who enjoy Saw and Hostel and other terrible, despicable, worthless torture porn piece of shit pseudo-movies like that. And these people, I suspect, are anyway already too close to being antisocial for their own good.

The thing about good horror is that it's unreal. It's like a dream. It expands the mind, the teases and tickles and frightens but it doesn't linger. It doesn't leave an ooze of unease, at least not on a healthy person with a rational, critical mind. It doesn't make the sun look black for five mornings in a row after you've first encountered it. It doesn't make gulls screaming outside your window sound like the whine of the hinges of concentration camp ovens (like you imagine them to sound). It doesn't make babies' laughs and the smiles of strangers seem horrible and mocking, like they're wind-up dolls paraded about by some malevolent intelligence only to coddle and fool you into thinking you're really walking around in a real world filled with thinking, feeling, caring people who have a similar warm darkness behind their eyes like you do. It doesn't make food taste like air and even the simplest little domestic task feel Sisyphean and horrid. It doesn't do any of this, and in fact it may at times even make you smile.

There's only one kind of person who could smile at what happened in Oslo and Utøya, not to mention not feel any of the things listed above, and I'm seriously beginning to question if that's even a kind of person at all. The most terrible thing about real monsters is that the only way a normal person can think of treating of them is the same way that they themselves seem to treat of other normal people. Death and blood thirst breed, like some horrible, personified force taken straight out of the pages of a horror novel. Which is why they should never be allowed to escape from there.

Over and out,

Charlie O. Johansson

Monday, 18 July 2011

World-Building Review #1: China Miéville's Bas-Lag: A Genretastic Mélange

Hallo, all!

I wrote a previous draft of this article including a nice, didactic summary of the plot of Miéville's first Bas-Lag novel, Perdido Street Station, and a sort of introduction of the world for readers not familiar with the work, and then I realized the utter pointlessness of this. Bas-Lag is far too complex and fantastical a place to summarize in any meaningful way, and I'd just be wasting mine own and the time of any potential readers by attempting to do so. Instead, I am hereby announcing that in order to gain anything from this review, it is required for the reader to already be familiar with the content of Perdido Street Station, and arguably also the latter two Bas-Lag novels, The Scar and Iron Council. The focus will be on the impressions of Bas-Lag gleaned through the first book, however, so really that ought to be sufficient prep. Furthermore, I don't think this piece will include too many spoilers of book two and three, but I can't guarantee that, so proceed with caution!

Right! Let us dive into the lion's den...then!

The main thing that interests me about Miéville's world of Bas-Lag is its thematic structure. Sure, it includes a vast plethora of interesting fantastic races, lands, magics, psuedosciences, religions and so on, but I am actually far more intriguing by its more overarching structure. More specifically, since it is very much a work of genre fiction (a term I employ with not so much as a hint of pejorative intent), I have been musing on its generic (that is, meaning, "of or pertaining to genres") status. Of course, Miéville is a notoriously troublesome author to classify, even within a single work (not to mention the whole of his oeuvre, which is too sprawling for words). Bas-Lag, and its initial representation in Perdido Street Station, is no exception. The book is ten years old by now, and it's been about five since I read it. I did not re-read the piece before writing this review, but I am confident that Miéville's extremely original imagination has seared itself onto my memory consummately enough for me to dare to wax authoritative on it anyhow. Here is what I came up with:

Bas-Lag, and the stories set therein, need a new term. The world has variously been classified as fantasy, steampunk, horror, science fiction, "New Weird" and so on. Yet none of these rubrics, even the latter, quite fit the bill in my humble view. Or rather, they all do, but they simultaneously miss the point. Of course, Miéville's style has been used as a defining example of the nascent New Weird genre, and still I think a deeper analysis is required than simply slapping on a new label.

Jeff VanderMeer, in the anthology by the same name, summarized New Weird thus: "a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy."

Well, I hear you snicker in that disagreeable tone you use, isn't that just China to a tee? a sense, yes, but it is lacking. Of course, this is clearly the reason why when labelling him reviewers and critics and fans have felt compelled to add the multi-genre caveat. It isn't just New Weird, but also a bit of the traditional genres (fantasy, horror, science fiction, steampunk, etc.) thrown in there, sans the "subversion" that VanDermeer emphasized in his definition. Now, this fact is nowhere clearer when one focuses solely on the world-building aspect of the Bas-Lag stories.

What sort of a world is Bas-Lag? It is certainly a secondary world. It exists in a universe that doesn't run on anything even remotely resembling our familiar laws of physics, not to mention chemistry, biology or even mathematics and metaphysics. We don't even know if Bas-Lag is a planet in the accepted sense. It could be flat like Pratchett's Discworld. As of Iron Council, this mystery has not yet been solved. It has a sun, yes, but what appears to be a glowing disc in the sky from the surface of a world doesn't necessarily have to correspond with the giant balls of superheated gas that're what the word 'sun' signifies in our reality. It has three natural satellites, "the moon and her daughters", but again these are never clarified overtly as being anything like what we imagine moons to be. In fact, suggestions are made throughout the novels set in Bas-Lag that this might very well not at all be the case.

As far as flora and fauna is concerned, it is uncertain whether the life Bas-Lag possesses can even be classified as such. Among the, and I use the world cautiously, biological life forms present, some are clearly too absurd and fantastical to be considered the product of anything resembling Darwinian evolution as we understand it. We have red-skinned humanoids with gigantic beetles instead of heads, we have rock lobster-centaurs, trans-dimensional spiders with human hands, and then of course the Re-Made, criminals changed using magic (or "thaumaturgy", to use Miéville's emic term) so that their flesh is warped to somehow poetically match their crime by way of punishment. For example, a woman who murdered her child has the child's arms, still animated, attached so that they grow out of the sides of her face. Clearly, this is by no stretch of the imagination a scientific world. It is fantastic in the extreme, and it runs on nothing less than magic.

But where am I going with this? It sounds half-way like an accusation. Of course Bas-Lag runs on magic. New Weird is still a sort of subgenre of fantasy, and thus this is only to be expected. Ah, but there is more! Despite this fact, the wondrous fantasticism of Bas-Lag, it also very much has a scientific side. The crazy, chaotic magic Miéville writes about is, at least to some extent, systematized. It is codified into "thaumaturgy" and taught at university alongside more mundane academic subjects. The creation of magical golems is a science in its own right, and side by side with the taming of water elementals by Vodyanoi dock workers to aid them in their strike against unfair work conditions, there also exist robotic "constructs" which seem to be nothing more strange (speaking relatively here) than machines powered by highly complex punch-cards and steam engines. In fact, Miéville's whole treatment of Bas-Lag is very much science fiction. Like Pratchett before him, and very much in the vein of New Weird, he takes the fantastical fact of magic and asks himself: "What would it be like to actually live in a world that runs on magic?" Obviously, all of our real-world conceptions of magic stem from the fact than on Earth, in our universe, magic is pure fiction. It doesn't exist, or if it does it is only in the form of hallucinations, deception, sleight of hand and clever tricks employing nothing that violates established scientific theories about how the world works. In a world where magic was real, it is fitting that there isn't even a word for it as such. It is just another area of knowledge, not qualitatively distinct from things such as mathematics or the construction of semi-sentient machines.

Still, though, this all sounds rather nicely subversive and very much in line with New Weird. Of course, it is, and it is very clever and nice and stimulating to read about. In a world where mainstream fantasy still plods on in the same old groove, with Harry Potter still flinging magical spells whose underlying rules and regulations remain at best a half-mystery (they have a system and structure, but no real sense of being even susceptible to scientific inquiry), Miéville's perspective seems oddly fresh despite having a decade under its belt.

Bas-Lag is not a fantasy world. It is certainly not a science fiction world, because all its science is either pseudoscience or a systematization of magic. It is not a horror world, despite the fact that creatures like the Weaver and the slake moths are terrifying and Lovecraftian even to Bas-Lag's inhabitants. Despite their ineffability, these creatures are never classified as supernatural, in any way, because on Bas-Lag the term doesn't signify an existent (even purely mentally) category of things. The nature of Bas-Lag is something far stranger than any of these things. Steampunk, though I love the genre dearly and especially what Miéville does with its tropes and aesthetics, doesn't even enter into the equation. The steampunk effect, as is so often the case with this quasi-genre (more on that in future posts), is merely a by-product of the interaction of the more fundamental generic concepts involved in the world-building (i.e. fantasy, sci-fi and horror). The truth of the matter is that New Weird would actually be a pretty good name for what Miéville writes, except the genre does have a relatively established definition by now, and that definition is more or less the one stated by VanderMeer.

Miéville's world is a world where almost everything is possible. He never ceases to surprise one with what phenomena or creatures are possible in his world. Some, like the towering, impossibly long-legged Striders that have faces that look like African tribal masks and walk across the plains, seem to be creations of pure absurdism rather than fitting neatly into either fantasy or sci-fi racial- or species-classification. The ancient, long-dead civilization of the Ghosthead, whose level of technology had transcended that of physics and was powered by pure metaphysics and mathematics, seems to represent something so wholly alien that it really seems futile to attempt to describe it even as a subversion or deconstruction of fantasy or any other genre-related themes. Yet, for all this palpable strangeness, Bas-Lag is never truly weird, not in the sense of Lovecraft and his compatriots. Because Miéville's fiction is secondary-world, and because it is narrated from a very in-world (albeit third person) perspective, the weirdness drains out of it. It is strange, yes, but it's an oddly wholesome and comfortable sort of strange, even when it's bloody or terrible or outright disgusting. It's a bit like Carol's Wonderland; one is forced to take it on its own terms. One becomes wholly enmeshed in the strangeness, and when the bird-like garuda use the racial slur "anthro" to denigrate a human character in Perdido Street Station, this is inventive and fun and feels very appropriate in a sort of strange way, and yet it is this very appropriateness that also signifies the lack of true weird. Bas-Lag contains no anchors of normality, nothing to compare the strangeness to. Even the humans are so enmeshed in and acclimated to the dense atmosphere of utterly unchained whimsy, madness and pure imagination that the reader finds it easier to get sucked into their (very realistic and understandable) complacency in the face of all this. Even the baffling psyche of the Weavers, creatures who relate to the physical world of mortals only through a very tenuous sort of metaphysical translation that has a very low signal-to-noise ratio, are not that much more shocking to a Bas-Lag human than perhaps a tsunami or giant earthquake might be to a Terrestrial one.

In closing, Bas-Lag is not a New Weird world. The stories have the slant, certainly, but the label can only be truly applied if qualified with the addition of the other genres, and even then it comes up short. Miéville's sort of absurdist anthropological fiction really deserves a new word, something that captures the way its strangeness suffuses everything to the point of coming out the other side as suddenly not very strange at all. In fact, after about half a book one almost feels more interested in the very real-world political themes than the next queer, fascinating monster (yes, I use "queer" as if though I was born in 19th century). "New Strange" might work, if only because Bas-Lag is far more alien than it is truly disturbing or in any way disquieting. Or perhaps "New Allegory", although that seems too bland for such an imaginative and creative author. I daresay this task would be best left to someone else, perhaps working in PR, and I feel at any rate that I have now rambled far too long.

I leave you,


Charlie O. Johansson

Thursday, 14 July 2011

My University Professor Worships Dragons

Hello, all,
As my world building review of China Miéville's Perdido Street Station is being slightly delayed, I thought I should maintain the relative freshness of this blog by relaying a small comedic anecdote. So, without further ado, here goes:

This summer I am studying Western Esotericism at Stockholm University for the purposes of research for a novel I am trying to write. The course involves the history of such diverse traditions as alchemy, Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, channelling, yoga, New Age, Satanism, and so on and so forth. It's pretty interesting, if a trifle nerdy even for mine own fantasy-laden cultural tastes. Anyway, that was merely the necessary background information.

The course is led by two professors, whom I will here refer to as Alice and Bob. Alice is a woman who dresses after the fashions of your average goth/black metal subculture current, despite being somewhere in her thirties. As soon as I espied her on the first lecture, I bethought myself, "Oh, dear, here's someone who actually believes in this esotericism nonsense. I bet she conducts séances on the weekends thinks that Lovecraft's books were really biographical."

Of course, because prejudice is a very bad thing, I was proven utterly wrong in my supposition. In fact, all of Alice's first lecture worked out around the topic that the research field of Western Esotericism, which is very young, has had trouble getting off the ground within academia for decades because it's been plagued in the past by "researchers" who were really just ideologues pushing an occultist agenda. She wanted to paint for the students a picture of the up-and-coming wave of new, young, eager esotericism scholars, who were fully committed to approach their subject with a clear and scientific eye.

Alice only held two lectures for us, and was then whisked away to some conference or other, leaving the group in the hands of her colleague Bob. Now, Bob is a perfectly strait-laced, Lacoste-wearing man in his early forties who looks like he's never been asked to leave a golf course in his life. In fact, his whole demeanour is so blatantly upper-middle class that I suppose I should have been suspicious from day one.

Bob has for the last two weeks bee subjecting us to a series of historical lectures, objectively but entertainingly laying out the history of astrology, kabala, and all the other myriad manifestations of Western Esotericism. I found him very charming and eloquent, and in fact a bit more intelligible than Alice's unfortunately a bit too abstruse and postmodern academic style. In short, I have been leaning back in my chair for two weeks now, thinking: "Well, here's a good example of these young, in-your-face, empirical and rational professors who're going to blow away all the cobwebs what’ve been obscuring the deserving public's proper insight into the field of Western Esotericism."

Boy was I in for a surprise.

For the purposes of fun and profit, a few nights ago I googled my professor's name, and after some rummaging about I discovered something rather baffling. There's a "magical order" in Sweden, some kind of modern occultist group that worships "the great world dragon" and whose members have as one of their main goals to "realize their hidden magical, mental and physical potential" and turn themselves into gods. Apparently they got the all-clear to start upon this quest for apotheosis when a group of older chaotic beast magicians officially passed the torch to them 1990. Sweden.

The founder and leader of this order, called Dragon Rouge, the largest of its kind in all of northern Europe, with loges all over the continent, is my bally professor. I was stunned. I was agog. I was baffled and befuddled and somewhat aroused. He'd never let on so much as a hint! It's like something out of a frickin' Dan Brown novel, I says to myself. In the daytime Bob has a well-paid teaching position at a major Swedish university, jobbing along and giving the youngsters the good old plain and simple about the ancient Gnostics and their influence on the Neo-Platonist mystics of the Renaissance and so on and so forth. Then, at night, he pulls on the crimson robe and descends into the secret room behind the bookshelf in his suburban Stockholm abode, kneels down on the Ouroboros sigil and starts crafting eldritch spells to summon the powers of the Great Dragon.

Bloody 'ow!

I think a handful of other students in the class know of this, because some of them are a deal more aware of the whole esotericism thing than I am. Yet no one has said anything. Not once. Not ever. And yet a lot of them have been bringing up how much they've read and liked Bob's books. Yet they've been pointedly ignoring the fact that the man is moonlighting as a crazy fucking dragon magician! I'm beginning to feel a bit wary. Last class for the summer term is tomorrow. I just hope that right towards the end the lights won't dim, all my class mates rise from their desks and start chanting monotonously, and Bob turn slowly from the podium and pierce me with a reptilian regard, hissing:

"You just had to go poking around where you weren’t' supposed to, didn't you, Mr. Johansson..."

Cor! I mean, I say, what? I mean...I mean, what? I mean to say, what?

(Yes, it's all bloody true. Bob's identity will be fairly easy to deduce if you start reading up on Dragon Rouge via Google. At the time of writing their website appears to be down, but apparently their hot stuff for discussion on esotericism forums, and there're fan pages full of information in both Swedish and English.)

In trepidation,
Charlie O. Johansson

Monday, 11 July 2011

World-Building Reviews: A Serial

This is just sort of a quick update style of thing wherein I lay out a future project that I am ponderating on running on this here blog what I am attempting to maintain in a live and updated form, don'tcherknow.

Alright, so...

What I am fixin' to set out to do is write a series of reviews of books and films, both within and without the wider genre of speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, et cetera), centred around world-building. That is, rather than endeavour to write traditional literary reviews I am going to pen a few where I take a scalpel and a hatchet to the particular "setting" of a given piece, both in terms of its physical reality and in a more abstract, thematic sense. This approach will of course prove most fruitful with regard to the abovementioned speculative fiction genres, where "world-building" is a very concrete and readily distinguished aspect of the form. However, I think it may well prove interesting to employ the same method of analysis to, for instance, Tolkien's Middle-Earth and the "world" created by the fabulous set of events that constitute Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. Anyhow, this is just to alert people to the impending calamity that is the first part in this proposed review serial.

The first literary entity I am going to have a stab at world-buildingly critiquing and reviewing is that of the first instalment in China Miéville's celebrated Bas-Lag series, namely the steampunk/weird fiction book Perdido Street Station. So, there's something to look forward to in the coming days!

Your faithful servant,
Charlie O. Johansson

Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Saga of Bjorn!

Below is a link to a simply wonderful little animated piece of cinematronics relaying the pathos-laden tale of an aging Viking warrior's search for one last, final battle to die gloriously in and thence be sent to feast in Valhall.

Introductions, Originations and Commencements

Greetings, one and all, and merry salutations!

Welcome to this blog of mine, called Ethereal Gears. This is intended to be a rather multifarious sort of an outlet, covering topics ranging from evolutionary biology through history, folklore and linguistics all the way up to my strange fascination with all things pertaining to clockwork, steam engines and nameless abominations from beyond the rifts of time. Also some comedy; I'll try to throw in a joke or two.

Now, who am I, to be beginulating a blog of such apparently ludicrous scope and ambition? What kind of twisted mind would set out to birth such a sprawling, labyrinthine monstrosity? Well, the answer to that question is a lot less high-faultin' than the query itself: My name is Charlie Johansson. I am a fellow from Stockholm, Sweden, born in 1987, who is currently a linguistics student at Stockholm University, and an author of steampunk, clockpunk, dieselpunk and about fifty other words ending in '-unk'. I am a world-builder and scribbler-down of short stories and (hopefully) a future novel all focused around the general theme of eldritch horrors alien to our four-dimensional spacetime, Da Vinci automata, alchemy, imperialism and valets who can make a dashed decent cup of tea even in the most strenuous circumstances.

The gods willing, this blog will contain everything from literary and movie reviews to opinion pieces on religion, science, the academy and popular culture and even a few original pieces of literature and world-building prose. Tying this malformed melange together will be the simple unifying vision of a love for the strange and outrageous, the wracked and warped and weird, tempered with a paradoxical deep respect and valuing of science, rationality, order and honest inquiry. Will this boil down to nothing more than rants about how aliens have obviously never visited Earth, but dash it all wouldn't it be just a bit of alright if they had done so? Or will this blog soar to more sonorous spheres, providing a delightful smorgasbord of fantasy and fact, insight and entertainment, wild flights of Romantic fancy and exacting Enlightenment demands for truth? Only time, and continued scrutiny of this here little journalistic nook of time will bear out the true results! So, please, stick around and come back for more, and I shall endeavour, as a great man was often wont to remark, to give satisfaction, sir.

Charlie O. Johansson, Esq.