SONG OF TIME by Ian R. MacLeod
They say the past is a foreign country where folks do things differently. The world constantly moves on, places change, affiliations fade, relationships end... and at some point in one's life social paradigms have shifted sufficiently that this becomes not so much an expression of bemused noncomprehension as a desire to go home. There is something of this pathos in Song of Time, Ian Macleod's Arthur C. Clarke Award winning novel.
Roushana Maitland, world-renowned violinist is nearing the end of her long life. Song of Time, set in the near future, is her story. As she contemplates technology's now-available option to go on living a sort of virtual life-after-death (details about this are vague, but then technology isn't the point, just the pretext prompting her to look back), an amnesiac man washes up on her Cornwall beach who may have a mysterious connection to her past.
Maitland lived in some very interesting times- to paraphrase the old Chinese curse. She grows up in Birmingham, England with a musical-prodigy brother who develops a mysterious new illness and eventually takes his own life. This illness proves to be the first salvo in a world about to be dramatically transformed by apocalyptic events, and Roushana guides us through the geopolitical, ecological and personal upheavals as she now looks back over her life.
Song of Time is an excellent portrait of an age, in this case an age yet to happen, and perhaps a glimpse of a future we may experience. It is a quintessentially English novel. In American dystopian novels, the future is often brutishly totalitarian, a suspension of normal life leaving little choice but abject servitude or active resistance- usually involving explosions and acts of heroic daring. In Song, with the Brit's richer literary tradition, one finds a more nuanced and subtle exploration of the mundanities of living in a cautionary future- after all, ordinary life does go on; careers must be forged and groceries shopped for- and it is infinitely more interesting and enjoyable to read for that.
If you are looking for a genre-centric dystopian adventure story, this isn't the novel for you. But if your taste skews toward the literary side of speculative fiction, I highly recommend Song of Time. I give it a rare 5-out-of-5-stars rating.
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Saul wasn't having a whole lot of success suppressing the philosophy and one day trudging along the hot, dusty road to Damascus he had an epiphany, he got the very bright idea that the way to destroy this movement was to infiltrate and subvert it from within. And so Saul changed his name to Paul, told the christians he'd been visited by an angel of God and was now one of them.
He spent the rest of his days architecting the religion of "Christianity," inputting laws and interpretations antithetical to the simple direct message of Jesus.
In short, Paul was the anti-christ.
And the short-lived movement of Jesus, who like Buddha, told his followers to be like him, not worship him; who told his followers that they didn't have to kowtow to religious authority and the weight of its onerous laws; that holiness was already within each of them..... that movement died 2000 years ago. Not with a bang but with the soft whimper of money sliding into an offering tray.
Reporting by Mary Whealen and Agatha Runcible
The Gone–Away World by Nick Harkaway (twitter.com/Harkaway)
There are many fine, hardworking craftsmen of the written word, and the sum of the parts of their novels are very enjoyable to read, but then there are writers who also possess the skill of an artist. In their novels every word is perfectly chosen and placed in combination with every other word in an inevitability that makes structure disappear, and the whole is much greater than just the sum of its parts. The Gone–Away World by Nick Harkaway is such a work.
In it we follow an unnamed protagonist through childhood and college into a proxy “Un-War” in the Elective Theatre, formerly known as the prosperous and peaceful country of Addeh Katir. There he is reunited with his childhood best friend Gonzo. When the enemy launches a chemical attack, our side answers with “the most advanced weapon in the history of warfare,” The Go Away Bomb that disappears the enemy: “We are… feeling a bit superior and waiting for the order to do some more demonstrative world-editing, when our very own Green Sector vanishes from the map… like a sandcastle being washed away by the tide… The same thing is happening everywhere. Not just in the Elective Theatre.”
Predictably, the effects are unpredictable and uncontrollable; the tide that ebbs also flows, carrying back a recombinant and deadly genesis of the thoughts, forms, feelings, memories, dreams and nightmares of everything it supposedly erased. Most of humanity has been made “Gone-Away” and the survivors battle desperately: “this is not an attack. It’s an atmosphere.”
Protagonist, Gonzo and a ragtag group are rescued by Piper 90 (“love child of a bulldozer and a shopping mall”) which is laying “The Pipe” that contains the anti-stuff, called FOX, which makes the Gone-Away stuff go away, “making a strip of land which is safe to live in.” This is where the remnants of humanity begin to rebuild.
Fast forward a few years and this outfit of roughnecks is hired for a dangerous job of putting out a fire on The Pipe that looks like sabotage. Here the story takes a shocking turn that throws into question the protagonist’s entire history and future, and a horrible secret is found to underlie the system that keeps this strip of the old world, this “Livable Zone,” intact.
A rousing dystopian story with a terrific story arc that can be enjoyed on just those terms, The Gone-Away World is also a cautionary tale that confronts the endemic, species-defining stupidity and hidden moral equivocations of human life on Earth. Notwithstanding, Nick Harkaway is fundamentally an optimist, and quite funny; I will definitely be reading more of him. Highly recommended!
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Once upon a time in a mall in Orange County CA with my paternal aunt and her husband, as we were exiting past Barnes & Noble Jody and I noticed a display of William S. Burroughs' newly published novel, Queer, which naturally we rushed over to look at. Dozens of copies, stacked high, the word queer repeating over and over in large, bold type.
My Catholic aunt (rabid fan of Elvis, who once gigglingly exclaimed, "He can park his shoes under my bed anytime") and her husband (soon-to-be transplants to Colorado Springs CO, birthplace of the 1992 anti-gay hate bill Amendment Two, of which they were staunch supporters- not that we knew that then of course) were shocked.
It was scandalous that a publisher and a mainstream bookstore in a mall in conservative Orange County, and Jody and I by our attention, together with some degenerate writer were forcing the "gay agenda" upon their delicate heteronormative sensibilities. Or so I assume it seemed to them.
Which anecdote I share with you because it's sadly absurd, but also apropos as introduction to this month's Censorable Ideas post about William S. Burroughs, Jody's minor connection to him, and some musings on queer and other "outsider" writers who influenced Jody and WSB.
Michael Stevens is a Burroughs scholar who recently contacted me about WSB's connection to Jody (he wrote a nice comment about I, Vampire when it first came out) for future editions of his book. The Road to Interzone: reading William S. Burroughs reading is "an index to the books known to have been read, blurbed, or cut up by the author of Naked Lunch," including any known commentary on that work or writer, and it is surprisingly revelatory as a portrait.
While this may not be the sort of titillating page-turner you read cover to cover, it is a fascinating treasure trove of insights, influences and previously unknown writers you'll want to dip into again and again with your laptop open to google and your favorite bookseller. Highly recommend.
Two writers that were unknown to me are Jack Black
and the POET LOUISE BOGAN.
"Jack Black’s You Can’t Win was probably the longest lasting literary
influence on Burroughs’ writing . From his first novel to his final memoirs he
was making references to its characters and philosophy. He incorporated the
hobo jungles, the criminal code, cat burglars, safe crackers, robbers
and rodriders into his mythology and virtual worlds. WSB’s appreciation
of the nobility of the criminal and the underground lifestyle found its inception here. Many readers are not even aware that the Johnson family and Salt Chunk Mary are not Burroughs’ creations, but key players in Black’s work. Burroughs first read the book when he was fifteen and it had a profound effect, not only on his literary life but his personal life as well. His reading of You Can’t Win was his earliest exposure to the criminal lifestyle that he attempted to recreate in his life and his fiction from that moment on." (Interzone)
It's worthwhile asking here why artists are attracted to the forbidden and the outlaw. The great American sage Ralph Waldo Emerson explains it this way: "Society is a joint-stock company which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs."
To violate these customs is to invite society's punishment, be it ostracism in the schoolyard, mass incarceration of black folk, or coercive economic duress.... What artists, writers, and outlaws have in common is an instinctual rage against this. ("Society represented law and order, discipline, punishment. Society was a machine geared to grind me to pieces." -You Can't Win)
In the case of the criminal, this manifest as self-destructive sociopathy; in the case of Burroughs, Jody Scott, et al it gives us great art and literature, music and philosophy- all that counterbalances the oppressive side of society and makes of it (sometimes) a civilization.
Another who influenced both Jody and WSB- and celebrated the outcast and criminal- was the french novelist Jean Genet. Jody considered him a tremendous stylist and her transgressive gay novel of the 70's, Kiss the Whip, was greatly influenced by him. "Burroughs consistently listed Genet among his favorite writers and on several occasions said that Genet and Samuel Beckett were his favorite authors. 'Every man, no matter what his sexual tastes- likes the characters in Genet'" (Interzone)
For your pleasure and scholarly edification, here are excerpts from Genet, Burroughs and Scott:
You should have listened to me lover and abandoned this journal but now it's too late, much too late. To pry into St. Michael's life is to invite that most terrible curse, the Deuce of Vapors. Do you know how serious this is? Remember one thing. Whatever happens, dear reader, I love you. Watch closely as I come to the forefront of the canvas and look you straight in the eye--lock eyes!, Goddamn you, you evasive little bastard, and listen: "love" is much too timid a word; I adore you, my stone angel with the greedy greedy mouth. We deserve each other! For despite my flaws and crimes I am the One you've waited for, such a long time, such an empty, barren, windswept, crying-in-the dark long time, my darling.
-Jody Scott, Kiss the Whip
Before Armand had granted me the esteem of which I have already spoken, I probably would not have betrayed him. The mere idea would have horrified me. So long as he had not given me his confidence, betraying him had no meaning: it meant simply obeying the elementary rule which governed my life. But now I loved him. I recognized his omnipotence. And though he might not love me, he contained me within him. His moral authority was so absolute, so generous, that it made intellectual rebellion within his bosom impossible. The only way I could prove my independence was by acting on the emotional level. The idea of betraying Armand set me aglow. I feared and loved him too much not to want to deceive and betray and rob him. I sensed the anxious pleasure that goes with sacrilege..
― Jean Genet, Thief's Journal
A curse. Been in our family for generations. The Lees have always been perverts. I shall never forget the unspeakable horror that froze the lymph in my glands--the lymph glands that is, of course--when the baneful word seared my reeling brain: I was a homosexual. I thought of the painted, simpering female impersonators I'd seen in a Baltimore nightclub. Could it be possible I was one of those subhuman things? I walked the streets in a daze like a man with a light concussion--just a minute, Doctor Kildare, this isn't your script. I might well have destroyed myself, ending an existence which seemed to offer nothing but grotesque misery and humiliation. Nobler, I thought, to die a man than live on, a sex monster. It was a wise old queen--Bobo, we called her--who taught me that I had a duty to live and bear my burden proudly for all to see, to conquer prejudice and ignorance and hate with knowledge and sincerity and love.
―William S. Burroughs, Queer
There are many authors I could include here, and I may well return to this fertile subject in future Censorable Ideas, but for now I will conclude with the other new-to-me writer from Interzone (though not a direct influence on either Jody or WSB), the poet Louise Bogan. a brilliant minor poet of the ‘reactionary generation.’
Yes, Bogan is indeed a “minor” poet, but that does not mean she isn't worth reading. As the Poetry Foundation website puts it, “her poetry is modern and emotive without being sentimental, and her language is immediate and contemporary.”
A woman born in 1897 insisting upon her right to live her life her way (something hardly acceptable for women today, revolutionary then) definitely qualifies as a societal “outlier.” In a letter to Theodore Roethke she writes, “I, too, have been imprisoned by a family, who held out the bait of a nice hot cup of tea and a nice clean bed. . . the only way to get away is to get away: pack up and go. Anywhere. I had a child, from the age of 20, remember that, to hold me back, but I got up and went just the same, and I was, God help us, a woman.”
"Burroughs may have been familiar with her work as a youth, but didn’t make reference to this poem until The Western Lands,” writes Stevens in Interzone. The poem that caught his eye was SEVERAL VOICES OUT OF A CLOUD and it seems a fitting note to end on:
Come, drunks and drug takers; come, perverts unnerved!
Receive the laurel, given, though late, on merit, to who
and wherever deserved.
Parochial punks, trimmers, nice people, joiners true-blue,
Get the hell out of the way of the laurel. It is Deathless
And it isn’t for you.
* * *
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE by Philip K. Dick
To the list of dystopian cautionary tales suddenly relevant again (as if they ever weren't!) in the trumpian, post-truth, authoritarian-leaning era I recommend adding Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, which answers the question, What if Germany and Japan had won WWII?
If you've seen the Amazon adaptation, there is little resemblance. Character names are the same but the plot is very different; the subversive video of the series is, in the novel, a novel. Germany controls Europe, the eastern U.S., is expanding into the solar system and has attempted a"final solution" on the entire continent of Africa. From The Home Islands Japan controls South America, Asia and the west coast. A nominal U.S. neutral zone separates Nazi and Nippon territories.
The setting is San Francisco and the neutral zone, the reader learns of life in Nazi territory only from secondhand reporting.
The IChing or "oracle", the ancient Chinese book of wisdom, features importantly for all the main characters, and is in a way, another character through which Dick explores the themes of fatalism and enduring in a world in which there is no shining light on the hill, no safe refuges left to flee to- or take hope from. All is authoritarianism- of the brutish Nazi stripe or the more civilized Japanese variety.
Into this reality of despair is dropped the surprisingly bestselling novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an alternate fiction in which the allies won the war, defeating Germany and Japan. A fiction unimaginable for some, a revelation of Truth for others.
As one would expect, the novel is contemplative, internal, philosophical, and the ending ambiguous (perhaps a disappointment to readers weaned on flattering sales pitches and attention-eroding tech gadgetry who find their way to the novel from the Amazon series), but Dick's The Man in the High Castle sheds insightful, unsettling light onto life under totalitarianism. A light very much needed these days. Highly recommended!
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SOUTHBOUND by Joseph Ferguson
"Society everywhere is in a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members" wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in Self Reliance.
The protagonist of Southbound has assuredly never read Emerson but he knows whereof Emerson speaks. Cruising the literary highway of counterculture anti-heroes, Basement Man, transplant from Alabama, pulls up to a bar in New Jersey and we hitch a ride for this episodic portrait of his lifelong, booze-fueled rebellion.
From the tragicomic death of his friend on the docks of Hoboken to beaches a little less respectable for his presence ("Avast ye scurvy lubbers!") to a retirement home, Basement Man is aware but not resigned (to paraphrase Edna Millay). I've heard it said that 'your integrity to yourself is more important than your immediate life,' and that's a sentiment Basement Man would drink to: "Better a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy, spider!"
Southbound by Joseph Ferguson makes us look around and perceive the poetry in life. And that is a very good thing.
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Just when you think every stinkin' person in the WHOLE WORLD has turned (in the zombie sense) into a conformist, bourgeois SQUARE, and literature is about as well-coiffed and dead as Ivanka Trump, or one of those old-timely photos where folks propped up dead Uncle Horace and taped his eyelids open to be included in a formal family portrait, you stumble upon works such as Baby Jesus Butt Plug and Trump Chicken.
If you order and enjoy these books, please leave a reader review. That's the best way to thank an author whose work has brought you pleasure.
TRUMP CHICKEN: A Tale of the Grotesque
by bobbygw @bobbygw, bobbygw.com
A gourmet satire for sophisticated palates, Trump Chicken reminds me of Jody Scott's short satirical skewerings. And skewer Chicken does- gleefully!
In a folksy, shambling parlance worthy of the orange man himself author bobbygw's protagonist explains in a monologue just exactly how unpalatable Trump really is. A sort of Hannibal Lector meets Julia Child!
Hilarious and highly recommended!
By the way, there is this on the copyright page: "This fiction contains elements of visceral horror, black humor, the grotesque, and the monstrous. Due to its appalling content, it should not be read by anyone." You've been warned.
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THE BABY JESUS BUTT PLUG, a Fairy Tale
by Carlton Mellick III @CarltonMellick3, carltonmellick.com
Unnamed narrator and wife Mary answer an ad for a free baby jesus- but no using baby jesus as a sex toy! "If you stick this child in your butt, you'll damn yourself to hell" warns the old woman they get him from.
An acid-trip-gone-bad, comedic nightmare of emasculatory disquiet at the superfluousness of husband once baby comes into the picture; at the trivializing absurdity of corporatism; at the impotence of self in the form of clones who not only do not save the day, but can't stop themselves from fucking like bunnies and turning into zombies and eating each other in a house transformed into living internal organs.
Is Baby a surreal and macabre satire from the fevered imagination of one very sicko individual, or a true and factual tale of an old-lady curse come deservedly true on two perverts who do in fact use baby jesus as a butt plug? You decide.
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