Monday 27 December 2010

'The religious imagination, he felt, was a most precious part of the human spirit, but he was convinced that it did not require particular religious beliefs, or indeed any religious belief.' Oliver Sacks on David Randolph


I thought that the last major English-language exorcism-themed movie that I saw, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, was morally reprehensible. Created in the wake of cases where exorcism techniques contributed to the death of a minor, the movie claimed to present a dialogue between faith and doubt and wound up stacking the odds in favour of faith and tacitly condoning the emotional and physical abuse innocent, troubled people are subjected to in the name of faith.

So when I read about this, a film that portrays an evangelical minister who has had a crisis of faith and wishes to do one last exorcism in the company of a documentary film crew to expose the whole fraudulent process, I had high hopes. Even given that it was a horror film, there were so many ways the horror could play out without falling into the sanctimonious space occupied by the Emily Rose flick.

And for a while, that's what it seemed to be. When his disabled son is helped by doctors, he realises he is grateful to the doctors, not to god. He reads of an autistic child being killed during an exorcism, and this compounds his disillusionment. So far so good. The backwoods Louisiana farmer whose daughter is apparently possessed is a man of stern, almost insane faith, which provides an ironic contrast to the slick reverend, who is able to work the charismatic godman mojo on autopilot even after his crisis.

Then it turns out that the girl in question is more than just a little troubled, and the reverend's brand of exorcism-as-catharsis isn't enough to chase away her demons. Still, those demons are presented as purely psychological, and I have no issue with any of what is shown right up until the last 15 minutes of the film. That's when the film takes a sudden u-turn into schlock Hammer-style Horror, complete with Satanic cult, demon fetus and murderous cultists - all updated via Blair Witch-style shakeycam mockumentary cinematography.

Those last few minutes might serve up the requisite eleventh-hour big screen horror chills, but they also betray all the promise of the rest of the movie. So - the girl wasn't possessed, but the reverend was wrong and the devil still is real? Who wrote this script, the pope? Maybe this wasn't a loathsome apology for child abuse like 'Emily Rose', but 'The Last Exorcism' was a film that had a chance to stick to a skeptical, humanist viewpoint and still be a chilling film, and then threw it all away to hit a few all-too-familiar horror flick power chords.

Sunday 26 December 2010

Most 'creative' people I know, meet them again 5 years later and they still haven't written that novel, painted that masterpiece, drawn that graphic novel, composed that awesome set of songs, but they've thought up so many new ways to make money out of their so-called talent. Here's a little credo against becoming like them. 

There are so many ways for people with some creative ability to dumb down what they do and sprinkle a bunch of bullshit keywords and jargon over it and make money.

Most people with any talent whom I've known tend to fall quite happily into that rut and get by for years, decades even, without ever doing anything creative that stretches them to the limits of their ability and is compelled from within rather than from fiscal necessity.

To live like this is a fundamental form of dishonesty; it doesn't matter if they make token gestures like clinging to a bohemian lifestyle or refusing to wear ties. They are already cogs in the machine, because the machine is cunning and knows how to use their surface individuality to power its own cookie-cutter agenda.

Don't spend your whole life being a cog.

Start a web comic and update it at least twice a month. Write a short story every week. Keep the good ones, revise them, send them out. If they get rejected, start a webzine and publish yourself. Start a garage band. Rehearse like you mean to break into the Top Twenty, but write songs that actually mean something. Do something, anything, for the love of it. Do it consistently, keep getting better at it. It may get you nowhere, but at least you'll die having lived, and not just having packaged and hawked your surface individuality to the corporate overlords.

Thursday 23 December 2010

It's That Easy

'you need to sound human, and that the only way to do that is to BE human'

death, again and always

It's been horrific.

All day, the sounds of trees being cut, the roar and rumble of construction equipment. At night, the barking of dogs around 2 AM as displaced strays from the construction site roam the yards and alleys looking for new turf.

Then, on, saturday, after three nights in a row of letting the strays out of a fenced compound down below that they'd been jumping into but couldn't scale out of, the bodies. Two of our lovely, peripatetic cats dead. Suddenly we realise why three of our other cats who loved to roam the neighbourhood haven't come home for a while. Asking around, Yasmine finds that a dead cat was found in an adjoining compound. Sounds like one of ours. I'm scared to pursue this line of inquiry.

So now we go around at night, rounding up all the little furry wanderers, bringing them back home and locking them in for the night. Yasmine built a barricade out of abandoned lumber and discarded plumbing. It seems to have kept the dogs out, but this morning we could hear them rattling the pipes. They want to find their way back in. They mean to.

I feel like Neville, but worse, with a flock to look after and protect from the nocturnal siege.

It's horrific.

Monday 20 December 2010

This book is currently rocking my world:

Odysseus/Ulysses is an interesting character, a man on the verge. He's not quite like the rest of the Achaean heroes, not driven by rage like Achilles, pride like Ajax or greed like Agamemnon.  His motivations and methods are more complex and subtle, and this subtlety has often brought him odium - accusations of cowardice, trickery and deceit. Placed in a 4th century legend, he belongs more to the emerging Greek world of the 5th century, he's a forerunner to a more recognisably modern type, but he's still archaic in many ways, still halfway between Trickster and Hero, roles that, at his best he combines to present a more integrated ideal. He is an exemplary character, but even the qualities he exemplifies are more subtle than simple courage, strength or honour. The different phases of his myth-history, the ways in which different eras have reacted to and redefined him say a lot about changing ideas of morality, reality and humanity. Perhaps all this will also serve as part of a big build-up to a re-read of both Homer and Joyce next year.

Saturday 18 December 2010

Beethoven during breakfast

saturday morning

the roar of the construction sites churns the hapless air
they're building tombstone towers for the zombies out there
i'm listening to beethoven's fifth
i'm nursing a clenched fist
three days after an old friendship finally comes to its senses and ends
there is a moment when someone reminds me that we're old friends

and i decide not to have that glass of brandy after all
so why am i pincering splinters out of my gullet
why am i laughing blood into the air
filled now with the final ride into the breathless allegro

(That was a weak poem by me. The title is a reference to this, a rather good poem by Richard Wilbur)

Friday 17 December 2010

I should just dedicate the rest of my life to quoting M. John Harrison. Here we go again:

A fantasy is not a promissory note, cashable in the bank of the real. A fantasy should attempt to stand for something that isn’t there; somewhere in the turbulence generated by that attempt, it should imply all the things that are.

ted, just admit it

Science, Education & Art are more important.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Yesterday, waiting for a traffic light to change, I found myself beside a stationery shop. For nearly 4 minutes I gazed at this paragon of blameless, beneficial and clement industry, wondering why I had not ended up in such a placid and stable job. Then I thought about the forests axed, about the slow shift to pixel, and I decided it was probably a pipe dream anyway. A momentary pipe dream of a stationary occupation.

'I think we're property. '

The Radia Tapes leak showed us what most reasonably aware Indians have long known or at least strongly suspected - that the nation is little more than a private project being run by a small group of CEOs, politicians, gurus and journalists. In a similar way, the Wikileaks shutdowns have shown us what we all should have known all along - that the net is not free or open, and it never was.

Pigs, geese, cattle.
First find out they are owned.
Then find out the whyness of it.
I suspect that, after all, we're useful -- that among contesting claimants, adjustment has occurred, or that something now has a legal right to us, by force, or by having paid out analogues of beads for us to former, more primitive, owners of us -- all others warned off -- that all this has been known, perhaps for ages, to certain ones upon this earth, a cult or order, members of which function like bellwethers to the rest of us, or as superior slaves or overseers, directing us in accordance with instructions received -- from Somewhere else -- in our mysterious usefulness.
- Charles Fort, The Book Of The Damned (1919)

Friday 10 December 2010

The cry for likable characters that resounds across user-generated book review pages. How does it signify? I can understand wanting coworkers, parents, friends, spouses you can like - better yet, wanting downright amazing, challenging and constantly stimulating characters in said roles. But likable is so dishrag, so neutered Legacy Character. Likable is what happens when you take the idea of following the adventures of two rogues but then sink into soap operatic explorations of past traumas and comings of various ages to the point of overwhelming the essential roguishness. Fafhrd & Mouser rarely paused to dwell on past regret before moving on to the next heist, the next wench, the next crazy caper. Likable? Not always. Compelling? Completely.
 (Here observe a likable fellow; a family man; religious; would do anything to help a pal)

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Timescape by Gregory Benford

This is a fascinating and gripping novel, full of ideas, expressed lyrically but with precision and peopled with well-rounded characters whose personal and inner lives are not merely dimension-lending addenda to the story. It falls apart a bit because there are maybe too many ideas, too many strands of thought and speculation - time travel, time paradoxes, multiple universes, the nature of time, of reality, of causation, unpredictable outcomes, environmental myopia and so forth. These are all interesting elements, dealt with intelligently, but it's all a bit too much for even this relatively lengthy novel (around 400 pages in trade paperback) and as a result some of the themes seem insufficiently explored or resolved. Still, a good novel, both as science fiction and as fiction, and it gives me more reason to explore Benford's work than the first of his novels that I tried, 'Against Infinity'.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

That abominable and sensual act called reading the newspaper, thanks to which all the misfortunes and cataclysms in the universe over the last twenty-four hours, the battles which cost the lives of fifty thousand men, the murders, the strikes, the bankruptcies, the fires, the poisonings, the suicides, the divorces, the cruel emotions of statesmen and actors, are transformed for us, who don't even care, into a morning treat, blending in wonderfully, in a particularly exciting and tonic way, with the recommended ingestion of a few sips of café au lait.
 - Marcel Proust. Quote via A Piece Of Monologue who found it in Alain de Botton's Proust book.

Monday 6 December 2010

There Will Be Skulls


I've always known Silverberg is one of the Great Old Ones. A cornerstone of the genre, author of books like Nightwings, Thorns and Dying Inside that are classics in  the genre, and would be classics outside the genre as well if the consensus cogs would get their heads out from up the bums of D. DeLillo, I. McEwan and so forth for long enough to notice. But it's one thing to admit a writer into your personal canon and and quite another to be reminded, knee to the groin, uppercut to the jaw, nose leaking blood, head pinned down in the sand, that here, make no mistakes, is the real thing - a champion brawler, and he's not pulling his punches.

The Book Of Skulls is a yarn about four young men on a quest for immortality. It's a playing out of a cunningly crafted problem in human nature - given that only two out of four will win, that one must kill himself and one must be killed with the consent of the others, who will crack, who will triumph, and why?

It's a quadruple character study as we weave in between four first-person narratives, each one not perfectly reliable, each one rendered with perfect pitch. A virtuoso performance, but that's not all. Why are these four young men on this quest? Which of their motivations has what it takes to survive all the hardships and doubts on the way? What makes a person strong or weak? Silverberg unfolds answers to these questions with a feel for plot, language and character that is frankly awe-inspiring.

He also scores one for the genre in general.This story could not have been so profound and so real if it was just another 70s yarn about college boys from different backgrounds roadtripping across the US of A. It's the fantastic element that throws everything into perspective, that lets Silverberg give his story the momentum, presence and the power to say something about the everyday human concerns that underpin it. They say speculative fiction is about thought experiments and this is a thought experiment in human nature, conceived and carried out by a behemoth talent.

Thursday 2 December 2010

three new ones

1. marginalia
There's a margin of error
a margin for miscalculations
a margin for the unexpected
In my book of squares
a margin where the solution is worked out
a margin for calculation
a margin where the expected evolves
Beyond the margin, the next page
or no pages at all: the rest of the world

2. exotica
 definitely a scent of coriander
and quite certainly a whiff
of devil's root
then let's take a walk
yes that is a jacaranda
see where the domesticated
holy basil blossoms
you want grime? contrast? We'll
see unwashed children
play in and with dirt
leave mounds of dung
alongside this ribbon of black
 - that men rush along
alone in vehicles that seat eight
- that is dug up every three months
phone lines, water lines, power lines
see the data pulsing, humming
the antiseptic boxes of servitude
where serfs earn the right
to strut in their own realm
you want texture, scent, stink,
old, new, young, old,
silk, cotton, jute, gold, lies, truth
a senile culture/a superpower's youth
yes ma'am, yes sir
it's all here just walk this way
you'll have it all
I'll introduce you to the exotic pets
who will sing to you the exotic texts
just don't expect me
to wait around and listen

3. minutiae
now that I've dispensed
with the pomp and expense
of the large themes

I can start
my diary of dreams