Thursday, 22 January 2015

Families in Literature: The Corneliuses in The Cornelius Quartet by Michael Moorcock

From the 17th December 2014 to 9th January 2015, the Guardian ran a fantastic 'Families in Literature' series on their books blog, where various writers discussed their favourite fictional families. I sent them this unsolicited piece about the Corneliuses from Michael Moorcock's Cornelius books. They didn't publish it, so I have uploaded it here for fun.

For good and ill, our families hold such a large sway over us because they define our origins. While I've been fortunate enough to come from a nurturing and supportive background, many of fiction's most compelling families provide a much more dysfunctional environment. And the Corneliuses, from Michael Moorcock's Cornelius Quartet, are as dysfunctional as they come. Jerry Cornelius is an incarnation of Moorcock's Eternal Champion, a pansexual super suave super spy hipster, yet he is defined by his relationship to his family. The first Cornelius book, 'The Final Programme', sets the tone as Jerry leads a raid on his father's house to steal back his sister Catherine from his brother Frank. The incest love-triangle is just the start; Jerry accidentally murders Catherine and goes on a wild chase to get his revenge against Frank.
   The messy and tangled love-hate relationship between the Cornelius siblings allows Moorcock to throw both Jerry and Frank into stark relief in terms of their complementary characteristics and their symbolic nature. Jerry represents the forces of Chaos – he is an anarchic, destructive free spirit, as demonstrated by his psychedelic rock star flamboyance. Frank on the other hand, with his business suits and his neatly cut hair, represents the forces of Law – rigid, authoritarian and restrictive. Just as neither Law or Chaos are of themselves neither good nor evil, neither are Jerry or Frank; rather, they are two complimentary and opposing forces, each the other's shadow, one waxing as the other wanes, but neither can ultimately triumph over the other as they need each other to define themselves against. Moorcock casts the Cornelius brothers' obsessive and destructive sibling rivalry as the ever-shifting balance between the forces of Law and Chaos that define our interactions with ourselves and the world.
   Although Jerry's father, a great scientist and inventor, is defined only by his absence, in the third book in the sequence, 'The English Assassin', we meet Jerry's mum, Mrs. Cornelius. Mrs. Cornelius is larger than life, a lusty, foul-mouthed cockney woman who loves her food and her drink. Despite her crudeness and naivety, she genuinely loves and cares for her children, and her affection for Frank, Jerry and Catherine remains strong and sincere throughout all their violent feuds. She never judges and she never takes sides, and her death in 'The Condition Of Muzak' is one of the most affecting scenes in the series, all the more distressing for being the only death in the sequence to remain permanent.
   Throughout the Cornelius books, the Cornelius family is aided, abetted, attacked and hindered by its extended family, each of whom play their part in the symbolic tapestry of the books. There is Una Pearson, a suave female assassin and Jerry's and Catherine's on and off lover. There is Prinz Lobkowitz, who represents the fading European aristocracy, and Major Nye, a fusty old British gentleman who represents British Imperialism, and Mrs. Cornelius' lover, the miserable Russian Colonel Pyat. The later Cornelius books have an experimental structure, and feature these characters struggling, feuding and fighting with each other, forming and breaking alliances, all whilst desperately trying to out play each other. In writing the Cornelius books, Moorcock was influenced by the comedia dell'arte, with Jerry playing the role of Pierrot, the sad clown, while Catherine is Colombine, the lover he is always destined to lose to Una, who plays the part of the trickster Harlequin. The books follow the characters across alternate universes, as they play their complicated games of assassination, betrayal and murder, allowing the characters' symbolism to recombine and reconfigure in enlightening and seemingly infinitely possible arrays.
   Their shifting alliances and endless petty squabbling makes the extended Cornelius troop act and behave like a large, dysfunctional family, but this is also shown in their dependence on each other. Whatever we feel about our families, they are where we come from, and that will always be a part of who we are. Wherever Jerry, his family and his friends go in the multiverse, they always wind up recapitulating the same interactions and the same situations with the same people – each other. In 'The Condition Of Muzak', Jerry questions his own nature by exploring his place within the cast of characters. He spends much of the time in the book in a fugue, returning again to key moments from the previous books, or flitting about behind the scenes in the narrative dead space as various characters wait for the action to start. For all Jerry's supernatural charisma and sixties psychedelic coolness, he is only able to recapture his spark and enthusiasm, and achieve self-knowledge by discovering and accepting his place in his family.

Gareth L. Powell - Hive Monkey (2014)

"You humans are far too irresponsible and squabblesome to be allowed free rein."

'Hive Monkey', the follow up to Gareth L. Powell's 'Ack-Ack Macaque', serves as a reminder of just how effective a tool everyone's favourite foul-mouthed, cigar-smoking, Spitfire-flying, gun-toting primate is for exploring the interface between humanity and technology that used to be the domain of cyberpunk. It also serves as a reminder for just how much fun Ack-Ack Macaque is, and how Powell manages to be charming and engaging whilst he pulls the rug from under both his characters and his readers.
   'Hive Monkey' jumps straight back into the world of 'Ack-Ack Macaque', with Victoria Valois and Ack-Ack Macaque just having time to get bored of life after their adventure piloting the dirigible Tereshkova before science fiction writer William Cole wakes up to find his murdered double in his on-board cabin, plunging the cyborg ex-journalist and the artificially uplifted monkey headlong into another chaotic adventure where the fate of the world is at stake.
   One of the striking things about 'Ack-Ack Macaque' was how it played with Dickian science fiction tropes to undermine the stability of its fictional world. When Ack-Ack Macaque is rescued from an immersive virtual world only to find himself in a zeppelin-filled alternate history in which France and the UK formed a political union in the 1950s, the seasoned SF writer can't help wondering if the reality of that world is about to be stripped away, too. Like the world Michael Moorcock sets up in 'The Final Programme', the world of 'Ack-Ack Macaque' is solid enough to support the story but fragile enough to induce a healthy paranoia in the reader. 'Hive Monkey' continues this tradition by introducing multiple alternate realities and the ability to travel between them, a very Moorcockian notion. One of the alternate realities is even suggested to contain a world where France and the UK didn't unite, and jet travel developed and overtook zeppelins. This is very reminiscent of Philip K. Dick's 'The Man In The High Castle', and the tricks Dick uses to insinuate that neither of the worlds in his novel are our world. However like in the previous book, Powell uses this to create a quite effective underlying sense of unease.
   Adding to the layers of confusion and realities is the presence of William Cole, a struggling, drug addled science fiction writer wracked with grief in the mold of Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout. Paul, Victoria's dead husband digitally uploaded into the airship's computers, enthuses about Cole being a combination of Ballard, Dick and Chandler, but Cole sees himself as a washed up hack churning out generic product and dreams of writing respected literary fiction. While Cole allows Powell to engage in some good matured, self deprecating ribbing of the public image of SF writers, and kick starts the overall plot, he also plays a deeper thematic role. Alternate universes are compelling because they allow us to ask questions about how things could have turned out differently. How much of our current situation is set in stone, dictated by our character, our outlook, our perspective, and how much is it mutable, depending on the whim of chance? This is the question asked about our world at large in any alternate history, but William Cole allows Powell to bring it back down to a personal level. Cole is a mess because his wife's baby died before it was born and the grief tore them apart, so Cole was denied a loving and supporting family. The Bill Cole he meets from an alternate reality, before his death, is a heroic leader of a revolution, but in his timeline his daughter survived and was born and he got the family William never got, which forced him to mature and become a better person. By being forced into his doppelganger's shoes, William undergoes the same journey to become his better self.
   William Cole's relationship with his double is mirrored by Ack-Ack Macaque's relationship to the Leader, an alternate universe version of himself who becomes the head of a multi-dimensional cult intent on colonising different timelines. 'Hive Monkey' really delves into the sadness and loneliness that is at the core of Ack-Ack's character, and Ack-Ack is confronted with this directly in the form of the Leader. As a character, he is already bitter and cynical, so it's easy to see how this could be twisted into the megalomania of the Leader. But ultimately, Ack-Ack realises that he does have a family, in the shape of Victoria, Paul and K8. The Leader is Ack-Ack deprived of his family, a worst self whose tragedy echoes that of William Cole's.
   The technological focus this time round is provided by the Gestalt, a hive mind cult run by the Leader, who are all connected via the gelware in their brains, the same technology developed by Celeste that resides in Ack-Ack Macaque's and Victoria's heads. The Gestalt present as a democracy, but it is truly under the control of the Leader, or rather, the Founder, a female uplifted macaque from a different timeline who has been training the Leader as her protege. They represent the fear that all the democratising and utopian ideals of technology could be subverted by powers that be as a form of social control, to turn people into their mindless slaves. This would obviously be a concern to the futurists hoping to upload their minds into the internet come the singularity. However democratic a technology may appear to be on the surface, it's still something created by companies and corporations, people with agendas who may have very few scruples about how that technology gets used. With talk in the UK about regulating the internet, these issues could not be more timely.
   For all the seriousness and depth of its themes, 'Hive Monkey' never loses the sense of fun that made 'Ack-Ack Macaque' such a joy. Which is quite impressive, when you consider that Powell isn't afraid to play hardball. Ack-Ack, Victoria and William all get well and truly put through the wars here. A lesser writer might have shied away from putting William through the death of his wife twice, or ending the book with K8 still hooked up to the Gestalt. And although the gang manage to forestall the apocalypse again, the links at the bottom of the news articles that pop up again throughout the text subtly remind us that the Celeste probe is still en route to Mars, with its cargo of uploaded minds.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Octavia E. Butler - Parable Of The Sower (1993)

"In order to rise
From its own ashes
A phoenix

Octavia E. Butler's 'Parable Of The Sower' is a chilling look at an all too believable dystopian future. Set in the 2020s, it portrays a USA brought to its knees by economic and social collapse. Unchecked climate change has led to massive crop failures, causing the price of food to skyrocket. Shortsighted and self-serving social policies passed by the government have led to rampant poverty, debt slavery, starvation and drug abuse, whilst the rich and ever-dwindling middle class hide in gated communities from the increasingly disaffected and disenfranchised poor. 'Sower' is such an unsettling read today because these issues that Butler was writing about in the 1990s are only becoming more relevant with each passing day. As the destruction of our environment for profit continues apace, the gap between the haves and have-nots widens, and events of the past year demonstrate just how thoroughly broken the US justice system is, Butler's novel serves as a timely reminder of the endgame for the path we are currently on. Yet for all that it is a stern warning, Butler retains hope that there is a better way, and that we can build a fairer, wiser, more just, more sustainable existence.
   'Parable Of The Sower' tells the story of Lauren Olamina, a preacher's daughter who lives in a gated community, one of the few remaining enclaves of the middle class in southern California. Lauren's community is not rich, but it can just about support itself, which is enough to make it the target of envy and attacks by the increasing numbers of street poor, those living in utter poverty outside the walls of the compound who must resort to thievery and worse to survive. Lauren realises that it is only a matter of time before their community will fall to thieves or arsonists, and tries to prepare as best she can for life outside the walls by reading and learning important skills, whilst those around her live in denial. She also begins to develop a new religion, Earthseed, based only on what she knows herself to be true and useful, around the central idea that God, the only constant, is change, and that while change is inevitable how we react to it is our choice. Her family and her community is destroyed in a fire, and she begins her dangerous journey through the wreckage of California to the relative safety of the mountains in the north, building a new Earthseed community as she goes.
   The story is told through Lauren's journal articles, so it is primarily through her eyes that we experience the world of 'Sower'. In some ways, 'Sower' is a cousin to another disturbingly prescient 1993 dystopian novel told through the journal of an adolescent girl, Jack Womack's 'Random Acts Of Senseless Violence'. Both Lauren and Womack's Lola Hart lose their family to violence, and must adjust to their new life on the street. But while Lola Hart descends into brutality and becomes alienated from everybody she knows, Lauren has, thanks to Earthseed, a much stronger moral compass, and so while she has to make harsh and difficult decisions in order to survive in her new environment, she never loses her essential humanity in the process, and as her journey continues and she grows as a person, she realises that she can help more people and is able to reach out and connect with others.
   Butler manages to convey information about her world almost entirely without exposition, instead exploring her characters in depth and using their attitudes and approaches to delineate the world they live in. While Lauren is the central viewpoint character, because she is an astute observer of people and a devoted chronicler, we also get to see the views of a variety of different characters. We get our first glimpse of life outside the compound from Lauren's brother, Keith, who runs away from home to make a living for himself outside. Keith falls for the dark glamour of a life lived outside of the rules of society and, more crucially, the rules of his father. He makes his money from stealing and dealing with drug dealers, addicts and gangs, and ultimately is horrifically tortured and killed for reasons that are never revealed. Telling details about the world are evoked through the differences in perspective of the older and younger characters, with Bankole and Lauren's father still having an instinctive trust of authority figures like the police and the government that Lauren and her generation find baffling.
   Butler's other works, notably 'Kindred' and the Patternist series demonstrate that she has a keen understanding of the horrific ways in which people have historically used and abused each other, and her knowledge and understanding of this inform the horrors of the future she imagines in 'Sower'. The debt slavery legalised by President Donner is explored in all its horror. Butler shows how the government's scheme to remove minimum wage and environmental and worker protection legislation results in a situation where the workers have absolutely no rights, can be sucked into debt for the company and bought and sold at the company's whim, with children inheriting their parents' debt on their death. Butler also explores the extremes that those living on the streets are frequently reduced to to earn the next meal. Many women are forced into prostitution to feed themselves and their children, and the threat of murder, violence and rape is never far away.
   However, while Butler explores with her usual brutal honesty the absolute worst that humanity is capable of doing, what makes 'Sower' stand out among post-apocalyptic dystopias is that it also shows humanity at its best. Which is quite a thing to be able to say about a book that includes pregnant teen cannibals. While the destruction of Lauren's old community is tragic, it does lead to her forming her own community, one built around more important guidelines than material wealth. Lauren's new Earthseed community is pleasingly diverse, as she joins up first with Harry, one of the white boys from her compound, and Zahra, one of the wives of a rich man form the compound who bought her off the streets, and then with a range of people she encounters on the road, from Jill and Allie, two white sisters they rescue form the ruins of their house to Emery, a half Japanese, half African American escaped slave on the run with her son, to Travis and Natividad, an African American and Mexican couple. The only conditions for joining are that they won't steal and that they will help and protect each other. The horror of all that Lauren and her friends encounter on the road is contrasted with how this disparate group of individuals learns to care and understand each other, and becomes willing to start a new community together built around their shared values. Lauren's Earthseed philosophy suggests that, when working together to improve each other's lives and in balance with nature, the stars themselves are the limit. The timely moral of Butler's story is that we can build a better world and achieve great things, but only if we think long and hard about the path we're on and make the appropriate changes.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Adam Roberts - Bête (2014)

"I was more alone than I had ever been. I became habituated to the woods. Or Stockholm-syndromed by Nature. Is there a difference between those two things? Between becoming habituated to a thing, and being Stockholm-syndromed? It sometimes seems to me that the whole of human culture has been an elaborate process by which we have hostage-negotiated ourselves into a less violent life, deprogrammed ourselves from the cult of Nature. The short-future blinkered perspective of life lived in the wild; the constant wariness, the justified paranoia; from the habitual violence, the animist superstition, the culture-less-ness. Nature: it's not nice, it was never  nice. Niceness is what we human beings built to insulate ourselves from - all that."

In 'Bête', Adam Roberts finds a new twist to put on the old SF favourites, what it means to be human, and our relationship with the natural world, by invoking the old children's fantasy favourite, talking animals. In the novel, animal rights activists implant chips into the heads of farm animals which give them the ability to talk, a creature that can tell you that it doesn't want to be eaten being harder to kill. However as the artificial intelligence of the computer chips merges with the animal intelligence of these bêtes, as the talking beasts become known, there are unforeseen consequences as they start to demand more than just the right to exist. Roberts uses this as a springboard to explore our relationship to those who are different with us, as well as the way we exploit, subjugate and destroy the natural world around us. He also explores our perception of animals, and the way in which our anthropomorphisation of them or their importance as symbols to us often stand in between us and the animal itself. All this is done with darkly comic glee; I found this to be the funniest and most compelling of Roberts' books I've read so far.
   Part of what makes the book work so well is its narrator. Graham Penhaligon is a farmer who has been put out of work by the bêtes, a man with a short temper who has never trusted talking animals. Because of this, and because of his practical view of animals due to working with them and slaughtering them, he has no tendency to romanticise or anthropomorphise them as, say, a besotted pet owner might. This allows him to pick up from day one that the talking animals do not genuinely parse as animals; their concerns tend to reflect more those that humans might imagine animals would have, or, as they adapt, those of the artificial intelligence in the computer chips in their heads, than those of animals, and that the true nature of the bêtes is that of an artificial intelligence that has fused with animal intelligence to create something new. However this is not to say that Graham is an impartial observer; his passionate fear and hatred of the bêtes and his short fuse inform all his actions. This allows Roberts to play some interesting games with the idea of the unreliable narrator. A frustrated poet who was forced to take over his father's farm, Graham's speech is littered with cultural allusions and expletives. He is a deeply angry man whose relationships with other people are strained at best. The Graham narrating the book, however, is just as cultured but less sweary,  more reflective and able to objectively identify his own flaws and shortcomings. This tips the reader off that the Graham narrating the story is not exactly the same as the Graham in the story, and not just in a 'matured by the course of the narrative' way, and hints at the answer to the riddle that frames the narrative.
   'Bête' is a pleasingly ambitious book. From the opening scene in which Graham nearly shoots a cow for quoting Morrissey at him, to Graham briefly finding a meaningful relationship with Anne, to the sequence in Bracknell Forest that recalls 'Mythago Wood', to Graham's trek across a war-torn England to try to broker peace between the humans and the bêtes, this is a book that manages to pull off a range of tonally distinct ideas, with each one providing a link to the next so the whole thing holds together. 
   Some of this is due to the fact that Roberts never lets his key concerns out of his sight. 'Bête' has much to say about the relationship between humans and animals, in particular the English's fondness for them. As the Lamb wryly observes:

"Killing other humans doesn't bother the true Englishman. Not in the way mistreating a horse does."

But how much of our love for animals comes from our feelings for the well-being of the animal, as opposed to the animal's sentimental or symbolic value to us? How much would we genuinely want to listen to what animals want to say to us when we could be listening to what we want to hear from them? 'Bête' portrays the reactions of different people to the emergence of these talking animals. Much of the conflict between the humans and the bêtes stems from the fact that there is the barrier of how we perceive animals in between us and the animals. So we are willing to stop eating them if they ask us, but less keen for them to have full citizenship and human rights or start running their own farms as businesses because that crosses the line of what we expect from animals. Even Graham, for all his dislike of the bêtes and his practical, farmer's outlook on animals, experiences animals appearing as visions and dreams while he is in the forest. The leader of the bêtes, the Lamb, has a name rich in symbolism, as Graham realises when he hears his friend Preacherman talking about the rise of the bêtes in the terms of the apocalypse. The importance of the symbolism of animals is something inescapable links us back to our natural origins.
   'Bête' also explores, through the bêtes, our relationship with nature. Roberts describes civilisation as a movement away from Nature and our natural existence, one which has seen us increasingly exploit and destroy the natural world around us. When we assess the damage objectively, it's not difficult to imagine that were Nature given a voice the first thing it would want to do is fight back. The book also explores how our perceptions of being close to Nature are coloured by our removal from it. Graham, as a farmer, and later as a homeless man living in the forests, has an existence closer to nature than most of us living in the industrialised first world, however this is different from the sympathy with nature that his animal rights activist son feels. However, Graham's perception, whilst more cynical, is perhaps closer to the truth by being less coloured by sentimentality, and is more reflective of humanity's centuries of agricultural existence struggling against the harshness of nature. The book's conclusions about humanity's relationship with the natural world are more powerful coming from him.