A Matter of Method

October 20, 2010

So, I’m becoming aware that I’m becoming a synergy addict. I’ve got a t-shirt and everything.

Yes. It is terrible to so cavalierly use the word ‘addict’, to say I’m ‘becoming’ one when I think I’ve always had a predisposition to this type of thought … or to use the word ‘synergy’. But bear with me.

I like combining things.

I like reading about the combination of unlikely elements – the reason for, the methods used and the fallout of such combinations. From my ‘fun’ reading, I like Terry Pratchett, Robert Rankin, Neil Gaiman, and so on, because they combine myth and mundane, high sci-fi and steampunk sensibilities. From my ‘work’ reading, I like reading about exploration and colony, religious spread and interaction of faiths, and so on, for the combination of cultures and contrast of cultural norms – and because it combines Literature and History!

In my writing, ‘work’ and ‘fun’, similar patterns emerge – respective mish-mashes of methodology, sources, ideas, and of genre, format and style. For instance, in my ‘work’, two of my largest ever projects were a comparison of the languages of contemporary Enlightenment and Evangelical writings, and a comparison of the Linnaean and Darwinian classificatory systems. I’ve written about French signification theory using the graphic novel V for Vendetta and gotten top marks, I’ve watched anime in between studying for exams because I’ve found themes in them I’d never find in Western Literature, and I pretty much always take the compare/contrast question. It is pretty much part of my process – ‘read everything I can on this/find things similar-but-distinct from things/find things portrayed as being the opposite of this but-which-may-not-be-so-opposite-afterall. It isn’t like I can’t work outside this idiom, but it is the one I prefer greatly.

As for my ‘fun’ writing … ‘hate it’ or ‘really hate it’, any reader may notice my fiction for the last long while has been tied up in Lord Daftwager.  Son of a German Mad Scientist/Evil British Lord, a Doctor/Engineer, hates supervillains/hates superheroes, old fuddy-duddy/ who apparently tweets, saves the world/to steal later. And the universe he lives in contains science and fantasy-based vampirism/lycantropy/zombiism. And … pretty much every character is a mish-mash of two concepts, such as ‘Pirate/Businessman’, ‘Ninja/Chef’, ‘Opera Singer/Physicist’, ‘Fashion Designer/Biologist’. Even notes for other stories include such character names as ‘Professor Adventure’, ‘Doctor Detective’, ‘Master of Disguise (who is into spying and amateur dramatics), ‘The Merry Prankster (who avenges though scathing wit and secretly writes an Agony Aunt column)’.

And I’ve always pretty much been like this. My heart has always been with the image of the cyborg-pirate riding the robo-dinosaur as he faces down the zombie-ninja astride her winged-unicorn. And it is in every aspect of my life to a certain degree – even to chopping up my food right small and mixing it altogether. I like interesting covers to songs almost as I do the originals themselves (search for ‘Max Raabe’ on youtube to hear britney songs sung like they would be in a cabaret club in the 1930s). I try to avoid works and concepts that are just combination for the sake of combination – in terms of ‘fun’, some of the later ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’-style books or ‘Scary Movie’-style parodies have gotten like this, while, in terms of ‘work’, I work against ever comparing an abstract theory to a pop-culture idea just because I like the idea – I have to justify any such comparison ten times more than I do any literature we would, today, see as classical, and sometimes my work is the better for that.

So I’m not complaining. If I have to have a mental habit to be stuck with, I’d much prefer ‘compare everything on its own terms’ rather than the ‘alotting of things into dichotomies of good/bad’ that seems so prevalent today. I like reading my ‘Doctor McNinja’ and my ‘Agatha Heterodyne, Girl Genius’ and watching detective shows about writers-&-cops who solve mysteries and comedy-shows-about-making-comedy-shows. I like listening to pop songs played with classical instruments and love ballads about how Pluto isn’t a planet anymore.

My next big academic project? Might be: Accounts of Religious Visitation/Supernatural Apparitions, comparing languages of faith and skepticism. Next fictional exploit of note? Might be: Professor Adventure and Doctor Detective Investigations! Next Blog: Scott Pilgrim Vol 1, for realz this time! But I might very well try Self-Reflection thing again. Maybe. And that is 750 words.

(Homework: Look for Billy Idol’s ‘Dancing with Myself’ on youtube. If you like it: look up ‘The Donna’s’ cover of same. Then the ‘Glee’ cover of same.)

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Robert Rankin’s ‘Necrophenia’ and ‘Retromancer’, Terry Pratchett’s ‘I Shall Wear Midnight’

October 10, 2010

Necrophenia:

Basically, it chronicles the life and times of  Tyler –  part-time ukelele-playing rockstar, part-time 1950s-style detective growing up in the 1960s and being prepped to fight-off the genocidal zombie-intentions of Papa Crossbar. Very interesting in parts, and started out very well, but ended with a whimper, really. Rankin has the style, verve and voice I expect here, and I do enjoy his ‘historicals’, but the conclusion felt very distant and  detached from the rest of the work.

The return of a briefly-featured earlier character was really the only nod to a wonderful cast, developed from the start, who disappear halfway through. From Tyler’s dog-dressup/better-detective braother Andy, to his intermittently psychic mum, his roadie-for-the-Rolling-Stones dad and the other-members-of-Tyler’s-band, the Sumerian Kynges, there is a really strong set of perspectives that go up in smoke.  Even Mister Ishmael and Papa Crossbar, the ostensible opposing, driving forces for the story receive nothing that really ever cements their characterisations as nebulous forces of power. The good stuff just made me mad that so much of it had been ignored.

Equally interesting plot points also disappeared – the Begrem sub-plot was concluded in an entertaining enough fashion, but the rest felt like a mess. More specifically, it felt almost exactly like the setting, and plot, of Rankin’s ‘Fandom of the Operator’, mashed together with the ending of ‘Armageddeon III, the Musical’. When I cannot honestly say that this was near the author’s “best work involving a protaganist losing decades of his life at a time, while paired up with Elvis in a dystopian version of the nineties where the dead are repossessing the living in a mass body horror culture”, it really looks bad for the plot. Also, if you are going to read this novel: don’t get your hopes up about the Elvis sub-plot – oh, yes, it goes somewhere – then it dies on the toilet, like its namesake.

Yes. Yes. Yes. I hear you loud and clear. I’m whining about a ridiculous plot with ridiculous plot with ridiculous characters that is almost certainly indistinguishable from other Rankin plots and characters I’ve reviewed – and adored. But. That is the point. Rankin creates plots I can never retell – at least, not without losing the charm of the piece entirely – reading him is a fun experience. He plays with ideas, and rules, and jokes and words.

Thankfully, I also bought Retromancer.

Retromancer:

Okay – this is what you should know already: Prior to the events of the Brentford Trilogy (of seven-parts), Jim Pooley met up with Hugo Rune (the guru’s-guru) in Brightnomnicon and, becoming Rune’s acolyte Rizla, solves 12 mysteries based on the Brighton Zodiac (signs of the Zodiac to be found in the street map of Brighton). And it was awesome, from me to you. It explained a lot when Rankin commented that, after its completion, he realised he’d written a story about him and his dad on an adventure. It was accordingly heartwarming.

Retromancer, just about, matches Brightnomnicon in heartwarming and excellence. Count Otto Black returns, with extended family, this time on the side of the Nazis in WWII. By dint of time travel, Jim goes from a Nazi-overrun 1960s (with a nuked America) to a Blitz’d Britain of the 1940s with hopes of saving America, and the future. The twelve mysteries are this time founded on the Tarot, and are also solid little mysteries, for their chapter-or-two length. Not to spoiler anything here, but the Alan Turing mystery really knocked it out of the park for me, and I generally liked them overall.

You could easily call boo-hockey on me here – just as with Necrophenia, a couple of interesting characters never see the end for any particular reason, or play the role you might think they would, and the final ending is overly mushy for my taste. Still, the plot overall is strong, and the heart is there. In this instance, I think Rankin has written an adventure about his father, with himself as a young boy. This is a little odd, as the Pooley present in Retromancer is actually a little older than him in Brightnomnicon, who comes across as a young man. But you get past that very quickly, what with the heartwarming and all. Though, to doubly drive the daddy aspect home, Pooley meets his disappeared-dad, in the past, who is also a hero.

The WWII scenery, the witty banter, the steampunk aesthetic, the argument about what to call Pooley’s superhero alter-ego – all in all a wonderful romp among the brilliant daisies.

I Shall Wear Midnight:

So, if you can’t recall my review of ‘Unseen Academicals’, take ‘Necrophenia’, just not as harsh. These books were okay, I suppose, but nowhere up to where I’d expect from these authors. Then ‘ISWM’, as it shall henceforth be known, restored my faith, much like ‘Retromancer’ did. This is the final Tiffany Aching book of the four-part brilliant series that was angled towards children in terms of the protaganist’s age, and not in terms any simplification of the brilliance. Officially, I declare the problem with Unseen Academicals as being all related to the fact that it was based around football, and not Pratchett’s medical condition. Yes, I did indeed go there. Aw, snap.

So- Tiffany is now sixteen. She has come into her own as the Chalk witch (marked mostly by not getting nearly enough sleep), has the respect of her witchly peers (they’ll help her, if she asks … but will also lose respect for her if she does), and relations have officially frozen over with Roland, (the heir of the ailing Baron), who is engaged to Letitia, the wettest wet wet-girl, who is an enigma wrapped in lace,wrapped in more lace.

And, apparently, the events of the last book have attracted/awoken the Cunning Man, a witchhunter spirit supreme, who awakens the natural paranoia we feel around witches (for the best definition of this, look to Good Omens’ scene on Newt Pulsifer’s feelings on Agnes) in everyone. Debatable how this plays in with prior villains, whose ranks included the Queen of the Elves, a deathless mind as old as the universe and the personification of Winter itself. Particularly as the end of the villain has become progressively shorter in each book. Where the Queen took chapters, the possessed body of the Cunning Man took about half a chapter to burn to death, and we never quite get much development on the possessing entity or former host. However, Pratchett has pulled this off before, such as with the one-dimensional villain in Nation – the emphasis is on the protaganist’s journey rather than the villains. While I do love my villains – such as those of the Moist von Lipwig novels – this works for this.

A lot of it resolved points concerning other Discworld books – from the Mac-Feegle-style Watch-pixie, (who turns out to have a marvellous wolf-raised-by-people origin story) to, finally, ESKARINA SMITH, the WITCH-WIZARD, the world’s only witch-and-wizard-in-one, who merits the Caps Lock, but who has never reappeared in either the Wizards or Witches books (ah, to be a child of two worlds). What has she been up to? Squatting on the University’s magical waste-dump, hijacking the ambient magic to do everything from staying invisible to anything, even gods, and TRAVELLING-THROUGH TIME. Ah, to reinvent the electric guitar, and give this woman a solo. Yeah, there is an element of continuity-completionism to this, and is strained at a line or two. But overall, for me at least, they work, with Pratchett adapting abstract scientific theories to magical constructs and generally rockstar-ing the character the correct amount.

New characters, such as Letitia and Preston, were mixed. For a start, they were very obviously a pair of spares to pair off with the split protaganists, to the point of inheriting parts of the former paramours. Preston had Roland’s sword-fighting – but Tiffany’s wordiness. Letitia had Tiffany’s witchcraft – but also Roland’s noble demeanour. Still, they were good characters in their own right, who came out of their shells in the course of the book. That said, given that the witchfinder’s role in Letitia’s subplot had him pretty much possessing the girl, her encounter with him in the end seemed extremely underplayed, as opposed to Preston’s underplayed role, which fit for the character and the scene.  Other characters, like Mrs Proust and Amber, were respectively interesting and messy. Proust – who looks like every evil witch mask and runs a shop selling them – is a city witch, which, if you remember the uniqueness of a Chalk witch, gives a great spin on the citytalker idea. From having a window throw a rock back at a kid, to having a horse-statue beat up some attempted-attackers, Mrs Proust runs this story’s cool factor – even if she is used to deux ex machina the Duchess – but more on that later. Amber starts out as a utiliarian character, goes to a bit of an enigma, then … fades out. She has the power to understand things, and we have a book that can’t be read as a plot device, and she doesn’t get anywhere near it at any point. She is present for a lot of the book, but no real plot points. Apparently understanding Feegle-proper and casting calming-glamours makes her a kelda, which is really presumptuous for a human, and none of these powers come back to help, even though there are obvious points where they could, like when how half the castle is crazy against witches – the whole calming thing could work like a charm. The minor antagonists -the Duchess and Miss Spruce and the Cook, are all conveniently hypocrites- who are neutralised by te end of the book. So yeah, don’t look to this one for the villains – it ain’t no Lipwig novel.

Overall, and really risking sounding like an after-school special, the real evil here is that which lurks in mens hearts. Not the kind that kills people, you understand, but the kind that ignorantly beats one’s wife, and one’s pregnant 13 year old daughter. Yes. Indeed. And this is Amber, (character criticism above), on the receiving end of this, losing her chld and married age 14 by the of the book. So, yeah, the minor play of the Cunning Man actually works better overall, a longer confrontation becoming something that would have falsely tried to draw emphasis away from these darker themes. The element of everyday folk attacking old ladies they think are witches also isn’t overshadowed by the Cunning Man, by returning to why Tiffany became a witch; because an old lady had her house burnt down and was left to starve after the last wave of anti-witch hysteria, long before the current Cunning Man incarnation. Whether CM is a shadow on the world or a shadow of the world, the themes here expressed are much more important than the action. And Tiffany does actually have a learning curve here that is incremental and justified, making her neither the idiot who has to be threatened at sword point to learn something, or the genius who absorbs by osmosis. From her approach to the Keepsake nobility, to her relations with the commoner-gardener Pettys, there is a fascinating evolution going on. Similarly, the heartwarming a child’s sketch brings to the death of the Baron, the superintelligence of Nanny Ogg in a bawdy song, the proud patience of Mr Aching and Rob Anybody sorely tested, make this a great cast, if one-sided to the heroes. True the Duchess’ reform does have some redeeming elements in her loyalty to the servants … she abuses. And Mr Petty’s posey of nettles for his dead grandchild is furtively hopeful … amidst the relationship with wife he probably still beats. So no clear wins there.

Also – No spoilers but; the thing with the woman with golden hare. Oh, yes, wonderful.

So, strangely enough, I wasn’t as disappointed by Unseen Academicals as I was by Necrophenia,  but wasn’t as enthused by ISWM as I was by Retromancer. But this is still much closer to where I expect Pratchett to be than Unseen Academicals. To prove the point: Necrophenia and Unseen Academicals were read over the course of a week – ISWM and Retromancer were read over two days. Hopefully this upswing continues in Rankin’s Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Pratchett’s Snuff.

Next Time – the Scott Pilgrim Volume I review. And this is 2050 words.