Sunday, 5 July 2015

Brian Aldiss - The Malacia Tapestry (1978)

"'Somebody told me that Satan has decided to close the world down, and the magicians have agreed. What would happen wouldn't be unpleasant at all, but just ordinary life going on more and more slowly until it stopped absolutely.'
   "'Like a clock stopping,' Armida suggested.
   "'More like a tapestry,' Bedalar said. 'I mean, one day like today, things might run down and never move again, so that we and everything would hang there like a tapestry in the air for ever more.'"


'The Malacia Tapestry' is a lyrical Fantasy about a stagnating magical city. Following on from his experimental New Wave works 'Report On Probability A' (1967) and 'Barefoot In The Head' (1969) but before his re-invigoration of hard SF with the Helliconia trilogy (1982 - 1985), Brian Aldiss turned to Fantasy to explore his usual themes of degeneration and decay. Like the later Viriconium novels, the only other books it much resembles, 'The Malacia Tapestry' forgoes traditional plot in favour of atmosphere, generated by some of Aldiss's finest prose. The impoverished actor Perian de Chirolo undergoes a series of misadventures in the city of Malacia, cursed by ancient magicians never to change, and the course of these events reveal the life of the city, in which myth and superstition have mingled inseparably with very real magic. Malacia is rendered in hyperreal, magical realist intensity, its languid decadence allowing Aldiss to reflect on the nature of art and the necessity of change.
   Much of the distinctive flavour of 'The Malacia Tapestry' comes from its invocation of the grotesque and the grime, something it shares with Viriconium but descends back to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books. Perian and his actor friends are all heavy-drinking, philandering lowlifes, as comic as they are tragic, and the image of the plague-ridden corpses being airlifted through the sky on inflatable balloons to infect the camps of the invading Turkish army is equally ridiculous and horrifying. As well as creating a compelling tone, this approach allows Aldiss to ground the novel, making Malacia feel more real and lived-in than your standard high Fantasy setting, which in turn allows him to blur the line between magic and myth within the story. Malacia features winged humans, dinosaurs, (called 'ancestrals' by the Malacians), and magicians, placing it firmly in the realm of the fantastic. However, the magicians don't use their powers to fight evil, but sell fortunes and perform tricks for bored tourists by the side of the road, the winged humans are not angels but are just another kind of people, who interbreed with normal humans to have children with vestigial wings, become frustrated housewives, and lose their ability to fly as they get older, and the dinosaurs are either used as domestic animals or hunted for sport by the upper classes. Thus Aldiss subverts the fantastical elements in the story by making them mundane.
   Aldiss then goes on to explore the interaction between the magical elements and the myths and superstitions of the Malacians. The city of Malacia has its own distinct culture, which is different from ours partially because it has been shaped and molded by these fantastical elements, however the ambiguity between what is real and what is myth makes it difficult to tell by how much. Malacian cosmology is an inversion of the Christian creation - they believe that the world was created by Satan, and that God appeared later to rebel against him and act in the interest of humans. Magicians, who worship Satan, and symbolise stasis, coexist with priests who worship God, who symbolises change. Thus the people of Malacia live their lives caught between these two opposing forces not of Good and Evil, but of Law and Chaos. Malacia's ancient curse preventing change symbolises the encroaching victory of Law, a society sliding into its own decadence. However, how much of this is the result of the magicians' curse, and how much of it is the ruling elite of Malacia and its council brutally preserving their own power at the expense of the downtrodden and exploited working class, is left to the reader to interpret. Aldiss hints at how seriously we shouldn't take the Malacian's own traditional views in the use of 'ancestrals' to describe the dinosaurs, and Perian's father's research into the Malacian's evolution that suggests they are descended from the dinosaurs, despite the characters' blatant mammalian natures.
   All of this hints towards the political thrust of the book. Despite the best efforts of the ruling council, rebellion is fermenting in Malacia due to the horrific conditions faced by the city's large, working class population, whose exploitation keeps the aristocracy of Malacia in power. Aldiss explores how the feudal societies standardly depicted in Fantasy would be fairly miserable for the majority of the population, and the necessity of social change to give more power to the people. The Malacian aristocracy are all portrayed as hopelessly decadent, self-absorbed and manipulative, whilst the working class cast of Bengstohn's play are much more sympathetic, their anger stemming from the struggles they face trying to make the best of life in a system that is unfairly stacked against them. Bengstohn hopes that his play, captured by the new medium of his innovative photo system, will spread his message that the ruling classes are morally bankrupt and prove a useful tool for bringing down the whole stagnant system. Thus, the actors in his play will play a part in bringing change to Malacia, ironically by standing still for long stretches of time while his device captures the image. Aldiss also explores how resistant people are to change, and how insidiously the forces that maintain the status quo enforce themselves on people's world view. Perian, as an actor with an academic father and a well-married sister, codes as middle class, but to all intents and purposes he lives in comparable poverty to the rest of Bengstohn's workers. However, his greatest desire is not to overthrow an unfair system that does him no favours, but to become part of the ruling class himself, improving his lot but doing nothing for anyone else. Perian complains that the plot of Bengstohn's play is unoriginal and cliche-ed, its moral too obvious, but he remains impervious to its message until he lives out the plot in exact detail himself. It is this alone that is sufficient to awaken the revolutionary instinct in himself, rather than the message in any art.

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