According to Brandon Sanderson, the author, The Emperor’s Soul (Tachyon Press, 2012) is set on the same world as Elantris which was the quite spectacularly wonderful first novel he published. In my estimation, it’s now been relegated to his second best book but, if you have not read it, you should. It’s a remarkably assured piece of fantasy writing. For our immediate purposes, there’s no need to have read Elantris to enjoy this novella. Although the seeds of the system of magic are the same, this can be read as a standalone. So what’s it about?
Let me start off with a question for you. Suppose there are two people whose command of the craft of painting is so complete, they can both replicate the styles of well-known and collectible artists. One uses this skill to copy existing masterpieces. He then steals the originals and replaces them with the copies. His motive is the satisfaction in knowing the works on display are fakes but of such high quality, no-one viewing them would ever be aware of the substitution. The other paints creatively in the style of well-known artists. He then “discovers” previously unknown masterpieces and sells them on as authentic. Needless to say, he has to forge documentation providing the paintings with due provenance. But both painters arrive at the same result, namely that their paintings hang on display with everyone accepting them as genuine. Indeed, you could argue that the more people see the paintings and accept them as genuine, the more strongly genuine the fakes become. If you like, the collective belief in their validity transcends reality and gives them a greater veneer of respectability. The more time passes, the greater the public certainty the paintings are masterpieces. Why does this matter? People collect originals for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most important is more than a passing respect for the artist’s vision. When you see the picture, it’s as if you are looking through the artist’s eyes, seeing the world as he or she did. There’s also the attraction of owning something with a reputation — the longer the reputation the better if you are caught on the third reason which is the investment potential. Or perhaps there’s a rather more subtle ineffable emotion, a kind of mystique surrounding the ownership of a genuine example of beauty. Whatever the reason, some people’s lives are built around collecting. For them, it would be very distressing if they were to discover they had a fake hanging on their walls. Yet, in a way, it might suit them to deny such accusations. Admitting they had been deceived would make them look less than expert. It might be better to insist the paintings were real.
It’s the same with people. If you want to pretend to be someone you’re not, the way you present yourself to the world has to be authentic. Mere imitation will never succeed. Everyone has to believe you are real. For example, someone like Frank Abagnale was able to persuade people he was an airline pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, and so on. The question, of course, is how you appear to be genuine. It’s all to do with the signs. You have to be in the right place, wearing the right clothes, adopting the right manner with other people around you accepting your right to occupy that role. The more other people reinforce your credibility, the more likely it is that newcomers will fall into line and also accept your performance as genuine. Identity and status are very much in the eye of the beholder.
So let’s meet Shai. She’s a Forger (note the capitalisation) and a thief — although being a thief is incidental to her primary trade which is using a form of magic to persuade objects and places to remember being something different. Such are her skills, she can make more or less anything appear to be a genuine example of [insert appropriate noun]. This could be changing a crudely made vase into a beautiful jug or persuading a wall it would look better with a hole through which she could escape capture. She has been captured while attempting a rather complex series of substitutions. This is fortuitous because Emperor Ashravan has been attacked by assassins and left as an empty body. The ruling council decides to use Shai to recreate the Emperor’s “soul”. The idea is simple. If she can fake an object, why can she not fake a person so that all around him would accept him as genuine. The fact this person happens to be the Emperor raises the stakes and makes it an interesting challenge. The ageing Gaotona accepts the primary role of go-between while she goes through the creative process. This is just as well because he’s the only truly honest person on the council.
What then happens is a fascinating discussion about the nature of authenticity and the extent to which it can ever be faked. This is beautiful storytelling combined with some provocative ideas about how we view the world and the extent to which we can be manipulated. Although it’s properly to be classed as a fantasy, it’s actually a fake. It’s really literature exploring notions more usually found in dry books dealing with semiotics and psychology. Not that this thematic subtext should deter you. This is pure fantasy — no, really, it is! I unreservedly recommend The Emperor’s Soul. It’s a joy to read!
The question to start us off is what makes an image or sequence of images interesting to the audience. It could just be the content. No matter what the quality, if the mind invests the image with significance, it will be considered important. For these purposes, it doesn’t matter what form the image takes. It could be photographic or line-drawn, in oil paint or acrylic, old or new. It could be in a book or tattooed on to the skin. It could be spray-painted on to the wall of a public building or held in an encrypted file on a computer. The significance given to it is all that matters when the individuals with access come to judge it. Alternatively, the content may be invested with greater meaning because of external attributes. So we might consider preserved dead animals achieve a meaning that transcends their inherent reality simply because of the person whose name appears as an artist and the place where they are displayed. If the bodies were in an abattoir, not even Damien Hirst’s name could save them from being turned into food. But if they are designated an art installation and displayed in Park Avenue, they can take on a greater significance if that’s what the viewers want. Calling the whole, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” is also seeking to provoke thought. Whether it actually needs the pickled sheep to make us think about death is a different matter. Turning to erotica or pornography, Umberto Eco suggests that a sign can be used as a substitute for something else. All we have to do is accept a social convention that an image of, say, a banana can stand in for the penis. This is a convenient process because it allows a discussion about normally “prohibited” issues by using a code. Language can be too obvious, crude if you prefer. Equally, images can be too explicit, i.e. they do not lie about their content but show it for what it is. So exploiting connotative meanings in words or images allows greater freedom to deal in shades of significance so long as all the viewers understand the process and can decode the intended meaning.
Having set the scene in typical academic fashion, we come to two short films made by Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins. The two are linked by a common character, Faith Harrington played by Siobhan Hewlett. In the first, Act of Faith, we have an autoerotic asphyxiation potentially going wrong. The question, “What happens to faith?” is of course, theological. But an answer of sorts is provided in the second film, Jimmy’s End, where she appears in a distinctly different club environment which lurks as a kind of flytrap for people like James Mitchum (Darrell D’Silva). What makes this pair of short films so interesting is that this is Alan Moore setting out to use film as his medium of expression. He’s been remarkably dismissive of the various attempts made by others to translate his printed work into a cinematic experience. In a gesture of semi-anarchic purity, he’s resisted all efforts to associate him personally with the film-making, asserting it is pointless to take static images created as a comic book or graphic novel and recast them as moving images. For him to take his own money, write this pair of script for filming, and oversee production is therefore brave. It’s asserting his own aesthetic is superior to Hollywood directors and cinematographers.
In part this comes from the content. He’s not competing directly. Mainstream Hollywood does not so overtly deal with the erotic. In the first, we’re shown a woman who’s stepped away from social life with her colleagues at work, who distances herself from her father. For her weekend entertainment, she prefers something a little more exciting. This, of course, begs the question why people do push beyond the conventional. It’s important in this to recognise the ritual being performed. The choice of clothing, the way in which the different items are put on, the style of makeup, and so on, are an essential part of the experience. Only when viewed as a whole do the parts come together to enhance the final climatic moments. This scenario forces the film-maker to play with the conventions of soft porn and voyeurism to establish the mind game being played. More importantly, the title shows the ironic intention because, by timing her arrival in that particular position, she’s literally putting herself in the hands of another. It’s a real act of faith because we all know how unreliable other people can be.
Switching to Jimmy’s End we have a similar theme played out from the male perspective. Come the evening, a certain type of man goes out to a succession of pubs. This can be treading a well-worn path or an entirely random journey from sobriety to a state of mind in which he feels comfortable in going to a different part of town where he can find a different form of entertainment, perhaps involving women. He’s not a roué. In some senses, he may be debauched, but he’s not leading a life of sensual pleasure. There’s a form of self-imposed degradation about each night’s outing. The result is our “hero” accepting an invitation into a demimonde “club” environment in which he’s plied with free drinks, introduced to Faith and comes into the ballroom for the main event. He’s free to leave at any time but elects to become the main focus of the night’s entertainment. What’s clever about this is, first, that it’s understated in its depiction of shades of sexuality, while the subtext is that life can become as monotonously boring as all the catchphrases and jokes that are recycled into meaninglessness. What might have been fresh the first time we heard it, becomes tiresome and then part of the wallpaper. All the people we see in the club are bored, going through rituals out of habit and not in the expectation of enjoyment. We can speculate on why any one them is present. For the majority, it’s as if participation is not wholly voluntary. This behaviour has been woven into the fabric of their lives over time. For the few movers and shakers, there’s profit to be made from the needs of others. This may be malicious exploitation, a kind of louche sadism in exposing the vulnerabilities of the majority. Or the relationship may be more complex.
Without being overly “arty” or trespassing too far over the boundaries of good taste, both films represent a pleasingly idiosyncratic view of sex and sexuality, using the conventional signifiers to make some interesting comments in the subtext on the potential for boredom in the routine of sexual behaviour. Although some of the cinematography is slightly static and posed, this is partly because we’re not engaged in a classic narrative being told through the usual visual conventions. The camera is being used in a more dispassionate way to record events and to comment on behaviour by highlighting features of significance. It’s very successful at this length, but more stylistic variation would have to be added if a full-length feature film was to avoid creating its own clichés. That said, both films are a testament to a different eye being brought to bear on film-making conventions. Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins are to be applauded for demonstrating real professionalism in all aspects of the film-making process. If Hollywood was prepared to trust Alan Moore, it would be interesting to see what kind of film would result.
Sometimes, when reading non-related items in the news, the mind can suddenly identify a common denominator. Since it happened today, I’ll celebrate the event with an opinion piece. It seems there’s a self-published book called The Pearls: Defending Eden by Victoria Foyt and Weird Tales, under its new management, has tied itself in a knot over whether it should reproduce the first chapter of this book in its magazine. Also in America, I note that Todd Akin has refused the demands of his political party to withdraw from the election to represent Missouri in the Senate — as an aside, the drunken skinny-dipping episode in the Sea of Galilee may suggest other members of the same party can act in a debauched way. For the record, Akin distinguished between legitimate and other types of rape, asserting the belief that women could control their bodies to ensure they could not become pregnant if unwillingly impregnated. On our side of the pond, George Galloway offered the opinion that Julian Assange was not guilty of rape as he understood the word. Rather it was a case of bad manners or poor social etiquette. This on the day the Augusta National Golf Club ended its eighty-year single-sex membership rule and admitted its first two women members. It seems Darla Moore and Condoleezza Rice are now lining up as many of the male members as possible in friendly competition on the golf course with a view to demonstrating they are better players of the game (the ambiguity is deliberate).
The lives we lead as social beings inevitably involve the use of signs and symbols to transmit meaning to each other. We talk, we write, we draw, and we use body language and facial expressions to package the meaning and send it to others. This means our society must agree what meanings are to be given to combinations of letters or symbols, and to lay down rules for the interpretation of what we see. As you might imagine, this would appear to be an immensely complicated communication system to learn if you saw it all written down. But we assimilate it as part of the socialisation process. Growing up, we listen to authority figures and interact with our peers. When we say and do things meeting with group approval, we’re rewarded. When the group disapproves, we may suffer social penalties or more formal punishments. This stick and carrot approach throughout our formative years teaches us how to conform or, at least, how to appear to conform.
As adults, we’re the sum of all our prejudices and beliefs. Everything we see and hear is filtered through the lens of our personal sensibilities. If input matches our prejudices, we applaud. If input fails to match our prejudices, the reaction can range from simple dismissal to an angry physical retaliation. In my early schooling, we were taught self-reflection, to look with some degree of honesty at what we believe and decide whether those beliefs are “legitimate”. Today, no-one in the schooling system is taught critique whether for self-reflection or the assessment of others. People unthinkingly communicate with the world not realising how they reveal themselves in what they say and do.
So what would happen in a book written by a homophobe? Well, early on, the previously well-regarded A is outed as gay. Suddenly, all his co-workers stop co-operating with him and his employment is terminated because he can no longer perform his job effectively. His reputation follows him so no new employer will offer him a post. He ends up losing his home when he cannot pay the mortgage and, in the final pages, is beaten to death when found begging on a street corner. This would conform to the prejudices of many readers and they would buy the book. What might a gay author write on the same subject? When A is outed and suffers discrimination, he takes his employers to court and gets substantial damages for wrongful dismissal. He uses this money to establish his own business which supplies goods and services first to the gay community, and then more generally. When the opportunity arises, he offers employment to gay and straight people, making no secret of his own sexuality nor of his policy for equal treatment. He becomes a multimillionaire and buys the company that fired him. In a management evaluation exercise, he reallocates all the homophobes who abused him to work under managers who are openly gay.
Both books would be considered parables, expressing different points of view to appeal to niche groups of buyers. In other words, authors don’t suddenly stop being prejudiced when they write. They write about what they believe and express opinions about what they think is right and wrong. Fueling this process, organisations exist to make awards, but their criteria for deciding who deserve the awards represent their own prejudices. So, for example, The Libertarian Futurist Society makes an annual Prometheus Award to the books best demonstrating what it means to be free. The Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary Awards are given to outstanding works of fiction and nonfiction by African American authors. There’s no overlap between the award winners.
In an election, voters look for candidates holding opinions similar to their own. If they are anti-abortion, they will vote for candidates who deny abortion no matter how the woman became pregnant. If the political tide is turning against overt sexism or racism, people and organisations can trim their sails to move elegantly into line, or they can try to swim against the tide. So Augusta can, with whatever grace it can muster, offer membership to two token women of high status. The blogosphere can turn on Weird Tales for offering support to a book the commentators have labelled as racist. British George Galloway feels free to comment on the Swedish laws as they define rape. All these events mean we live in a society where we value free speech. For better or worse, people can say what they want to get elected to high political office and publish what they think will sell. Looking back this year, I’ve read books that suggest grooming young women to be sex slaves is OK, that killing illegal immigrants is OK although, if you want to be kind, you could intern them and then deport them by sending them out to sea to become someone else’s problem, or that trying to depose a military leader because he’s gay is always justified even if the country’s defence is then put at risk, and so on. There are as many opinionated authors as there are books published. It’s sad so many of them have no idea that what they write can seem [insert word]ist to others not sharing their beliefs. Or perhaps they are aware and actually want to offend those who don’t share their beliefs. Whatever the truth of the matter, it doesn’t really matter because the alternative of censorship is not in the public interest. We should all be allowed to make fools of ourselves or become heroes in the eyes of others for saying what needs to be said. As an elderly, white, male atheist, I’m no exception since I frequently hold opinions at odds with the rest of the world and assert my right to publish them.
In my review of Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart by Caitlin R Kiernan, I expressed the opinion, “For once in a discussion of a Subterranean Press book, I have to say I find the jacket artwork from Lee Moyer rather cheesy.” In a blog posting, Caitlin R Kiernan greeted my one-line comment with the equally dismissive assertion that I’m “dead fucking wrong”. I think my original comment had marginally more class than the consequent riposte.
The word “cheesy” is a word of fairly precise meaning but it has connotational layers of pejorative meaning. At a denotational level, it means the food tastes of cheese. However, the scope of the word has slipped to imply that, despite the taste, the food does not actually contain cheese. It merely sports the flavour. As now applied to any situation, it implies that, no matter what the superficial impression, the product is of poor value or fake in some material way. As applied to human behaviour, it implies insincerity.
How to approach critiquing a jacket design and its artwork
I need to start by saying how undervalued the work of the jacket artist is. Many people discount the jacket as part of the overall design without thinking through the contribution the artist and book designer make to the decision to buy. Although there will always be a hard core of buyers who routinely acquire the latest titles by their favoured authors without regard to the physical package, the design of the book more generally encourages us to pick it up and enhances our appreciation of its potential value. In effect, we’ve been trained to become consumers of the pictures used, the choice of font, the placement of title, author and blurb quotes, and so on. All these elements are signifiers in the process of communicating meaning to us.
So, for example, the signified central image might take the form of an old woman holding a broom but, in order to decode its meaning, we need to look at the style and, more importantly, at the context. On a book whose design signals a historical saga set in a Victorian village, the signified might be intended as a farmer’s wife or a maid at the country house of the lord of the manor. On a book presented as fantasy, we would provisionally attribute the characteristics of a witch to the old woman and look for other visual evidence to confirm or deny the hypothesis, e.g. the presence of a cat or other familiar. So there’s a denotational level of interpretation where we take a conventional and literal meaning from what we see. That’s followed by our assessment of the connotational meanings depending on a multiplicity of other signs and signals constituting the book’s physical design as a set of meanings for us to decode.
This makes all meanings relative and, to some extent, dependent on multiple factors not under the control of the artist or the publisher. For example, as an elderly British man, the sum of my cultural experiences accumulated over the years may predispose me to interpret an image in a way completely different to a young American woman. Everything we see is filtered through the lens of our own preconceptions and adjusted according to our personal tastes. In this I separate aesthetics as a set of abstract norms of what I take to represent “beauty”, “cruelty” and other intangibles, and my subjective attitudes. We can hold up yardsticks and make a subjective assessment of whether we like that colour choice or the way the light is used to create a particular effect without it changing our overall assessment that the picture shows, say, a megalomanic in full flow and so delivers the right message in the right context.
When it comes to commercial art, nothing should happen by accident. Whereas fine art may allow for the possibility of serendipity and accident to play a part in the final composition, people paid to supply art to market a product have to understand how the majority of people will understand the picture. So, for these purposes, we examine the artwork as presented to us.
An analysis of the jacket design
Let’s start with the title, Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart. The human heart only has four chambers so the source of the heart cannot be a human body, i.e. as depicted, the purple demon cannot have removed it from the woman in front of her. Now as to the context, the content of the book may legitimately be classified as erotic dark fantasy. So the brief given to the artist might be to signal eroticism as the dominant theme. Yet that could pose commercial dangers. If artwork is too explicit, it probably deters the more casual buyers who prefer their dark fantasy without anything tending to what they deem pornography. So what do we have? The purple demon is obviously female so this is a same sex couple albeit interspecies. The demon’s right hand rests on the woman’s shoulder in a position suggesting dominance and control, yet her eyes are looking directly at us as viewers. One possible interpretation might be that we are voyeurs invited to draw satisfaction from what’s about to happen. Notice the demon’s smile. It’s conspiratorial. We and the demon are assumed to know what will happen, hence the clear way in which the heart is being held up for us to examine. Except, of course, we’re not in the conspiracy. No-one has told us what the heart is for.
What makes this scene surprising is the passivity of the woman. Neither by physical resistance nor facial expression does she register objection. She appears indifferent even though she’s in the presence of a demon. If this scenario is intended to show actual or anticipated sexual activity between the two individuals depicted, the eye contact would be between the partners and their expressions would reflect their respective points of view. We would expect more animation from the woman, but her expression and body language does not signal the anticipation of sexual satisfaction from the use of the heart. Indeed, the pose does not even fit the paradigm of an S&M session staged for the benefit of a voyeuristic audience. The whole point of S&M is for the submissive partner to signal her fearful agony at the prospect of what’s about to happen. She should be looking at the heart with horrified anticipation. This would give the more sadistic among us the chance to vicariously enjoy toying with her fear and then subjecting her to whatever adverse effect the heart has. As it is, the woman’s expression looks more like, “I’ve paid a lot of money to have this heart poultice applied to my hair and I wish this demon would just get on with it.”
In other words, my decoding of the signifiers suggests they do not add value to the marketing of the book. They do not show unambiguously lesbian activity to highlight the book as erotic. There are many legitimate reasons for two woman to hold this pose including a session at a beauty parlour or hairdressing salon. The fact the demon is looking at the viewers is also equivocal. She may be demonstrating the health spa techniques to trainees or there may be potential customers watching this demonstration treatment in the expectation they will be signing up for treatment next Tuesday. From her smile, the demon has obviously just told a slightly risqué joke. Similarly, it’s not an S&M session because the expression of the woman in the submissive position is all wrong.
So taken as a whole, the artwork as a part of the book’s design is not signalling the presence of conventional horror, more traditional fantasy, Lovecraftian horror, a science fiction element, nor overtly sexual content. I don’t think the artist could decide exactly what message he wanted to send to those who view the finished product. Worse, as a title, Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart is unhelpful. Is this the true life confessions of the heart itself? You know the kind of thing: the places I’ve been, the things I’ve done. . . Or is it intended to signal confessions from the demon or the human woman on the uses she’s made of the heart? Thus, to my mind, the picture does not match the title and, by not characterising or defining the nature of the book’s content, does not add value to the marketing of the book. In my vocabulary, that makes the jacket design cheesy because no matter what my appreciation of the aesthetics of the picture, I have no clear idea of what meaning the publisher intends me to draw from the totality of the signifiers. In reaching this conclusion, I do not necessarily attach any blame to the artist. Indeed, he may very well be the victim of an equivocal brief from the publisher or have been given specific directions on what to paint. Ultimately, the publisher carries the responsibility for what I take to be cheesiness because nothing appears on the jacket without the publisher’s express approval.
Having seen a draft of this explanation, Lee Moyer responded:
Thanks for elucidating your brief comment about my cover.
My cover was drawn from the story “Dancing With the Eight of Swords”. I had supposed that readers would find that my illustration the tall violet demon with glassine horns unmistakable and that after reading the tale, they might find cover recontextualized. Maybe in surprising ways. I don’t wish to say more lest I spoil the superb story, but suffice it to say that even the misty background of the cover is specific.
I’m sorry the cover didn’t work for you, but I’m glad to hear your thoughts thereon.
As a final thought from me:
Functionally, the design of the cover should communicate appropriate meaning before the book is read. In the case of a collection where disparate themes may be present, I concede this is a challenge but, to my mind, it’s a challenge the artist should accept. Whether a person who has read the book later recognises the scene from one of the stories is not entirely relevant. For the publisher, the proper consideration is how many potential readers might not be induced to buy and read the book. In this case, both the artist and publisher knew the picture took one scene out of context, but nevertheless incorporated the image plus the other signifiers into the cover design to communicate a more universal meaning. Frankly, I did not and do not find the image in any way representative of the contents of the book. Accordingly, I confirm my opinion that both the artist and the publisher produced a cover design that is, not to put to fine a point on it, cheesy.
In Railsea, China Miéville (Del Rey Books, Random House, 2012) once again has us on a train, this time in pursuit of moldywarpes: vast molelike creatures that burrow through the earth at high speed and break through the top soil like a Cetacea jumping through the air. Captain Naphi is in charge of the train named Medes as it travels ever further south in pursuit of prey. Her ultimate goal is the great ivory moldywarpe, Mocker-Jack, a burrowing signifier that doesn’t want its meanings parsed as it escapes so distantly into opaque diggery that its silence becomes a taunt to the pursuing Captain. In each hunt, the crew is supported by a spotter in the crow’s nest, and motorised carts that carry harpoonists and soil-anchors. Once the harpoon hits, the anchors prevent the moldywarpe from going too deep. When finally killed, the body is pulled on board, cut up, and processed for food and all other useful parts. Interestingly, none of the crew like the idea of touching the ground. It’s not that the soil is literally a poison, but there’s an aversion to touching it directly. Which is not surprising when we see what can happen to those who, like Unkus Stone, incautiously step on to the surface.
Sham ap Soorap is the newbie on his first voyage, learning the ropes of the Railsea with its endless, countless rails, confusingly not all of which are the same gauge. Navigation for the train is a major problem with the Captain always looking for switching or cross-over points between the multiplicity of ways forward. Juggling the points while in motion is also a tricky business with riders between the carriages constantly fighting to prevent the train from breaking up or rolling over.
We need not beat about the bush here. Railsea is a form of homage to Moby Dick by Herman Melville which is, by those who bother to put together lists, high up on the rankings of “greatest novels of the nineteenth century”. Having had so long to think about this novel, critics and reviewers have a number of interpretations for the meaning of the whale and its pursuit by the obsessive Captain Ahab. However, it doesn’t benefit us to dwell on the past. With Captain Naphi and her prosthetic arm driving the train, it’s a whole new game. It all starts with the language which is, to put it mildly, exuberant & shows little respect for convention. Notice the ampersand. This is typical of a willingness to embrace difference in the way the story is told. More interestingly, the work blends neologisms with recastings of old words.
Now we come to the notion of the railsea itself. When you cannot trust the ground on which you walk, the only solution is to cover that ground with a network of paths to keep you safe and allow you to travel from A to B. Over time, there’s such a steady accretion of tracks that large tracts of the world are wrapped in a kind of protective layer. Think of it that sidings become marshalling yards fanning out across the ground. Nothing is ever taken up or replaced. The growth of the tracks is like a living process with “wild rails” spreading “out of control”. The result is that, so long as you play by the rules, you can travel safely where the soil layer is thin. But the moment you press out on to the deep soil, there are unseen dangers lurking. At any time, a moldywarpe may emerge and disrupt your meaning. Then there’s the question as to the nature of the upsky which seems to have its own ecology of dangerous beasts. Indeed, if you climb through Cambellia, it’s rumoured you pass though the atmosphere shifts and find cities of the dead (it’s like Latin roots). You’d have to be an “explorer” to want to go there. More importantly, we begin to see that this world has been through the Heavy Metal Age and the Plastozoic when visitors from other worlds and times abandoned their trash and animals that turned predatory. As an idle thought, English has had words and philosophical ideas dumped on it from other languages. Do we native speakers not struggle to incorporate the meaning of these words and ideas into our own speech? When trying to find the best way to say what we mean, it’s like switching an engine from one track to the next in the marshalling yards. As it goes forward, it collects new carriages, i.e. words are joined together into new sentences, until we get to the full meaning we intend to convey. When we are satisfied, we send the complete train out.
Yes, yes, as Captain Naphi might say, I need to expedite this review relevance-ward. This is a story about humanity cast adrift as a ferromaritime people. The railsea connects and separates all lands, allows movement back and forth between solid ground. How better to capture the significance of that recursive motion than by using the ampersand in the text. But the railsea is also about the philosophy of meaning. It’s semiotics in action as we swing back and forth between many possible meanings for any given signifier while scrabbling over the always fragile surface of the communication media. The whole book is a game played with and through language. It taunts us with the similarities to Moby Dick. Arguably the great original is about the pursuit of God. Whereas this is more opaque, being about the pursuit of meaning which may be in a particular signifier, a group of signified or, like Douglas Adams, we may be chasing the meaning of “everything”.
Slightly changing the subject, as individuals, we all give meaning to our lives through the hopes and ambitions we have. Scaled up, this explains how societies work, with ever larger groups sharing common goals. Yet without reliable communication mechanisms, how does society remain cohesive. How does its volksgeist emerge? There must be a grundnorm or two on the horizon to catch everyone’s attention. There must be spoken and unspoken means for transmitting meanings, otherwise societies crumble back into the anarchy of individuals without common purpose.
Let’s now come into the open. As a metaphor for semiotics, the reality of Railsea is as a patchwork of all the possible ways we can communicate with each other. The primary communicators fall into different groups: those who make their lives on the railsea may be looking for salvage, like archaeologists seeking meaning from the past, or they are hunters who supply intellectual nourishment to the masses through the pursuit of their individual philosophies, or they are explorers who look to the future, seeking out where they should go next in this gallimaufryan coagulum of mixed-up oddness, or they are like pirates of capitalism who want to beat everyone else to the treasure or to get paid. Perhaps, in the end, it will come down to the young, for they have the imagination to see what might be just beyond the horizon. It might be their philosophy to pursue their dreams across the sea until there are no more horizons to cross.
Railsea is a wonderfully inventive book, full of unexpected delights and insights. At a superficial level, it’s about a Captain’s pursuit of the great ivory moldywarpe called Mocker-Jack, but when you understand the metaphors, it’s really about young people’s pursuit of the unattainable, no matter what the dangers or the fun you can have on the way.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.
No thanks to Justin Timberlake, there’s a terrible cliché: what goes around, comes around. Although I’ve no reason to believe silent “movies” will make a come-back, The Artist (2011) is a genuine pleasure for modern times (a deliberate reference to Charles Chaplin). Michel Hazanavicius, the director and screenwriter, gives us a carefully calibrated recreation of the experience of seeing an original silent film. He’s exploiting the notion of anachronism in a somewhat subversive way. Hence it’s shot in black and white using Academy aspect ratio 4:3. The semiotics of film-making is all too clearly on display as we begin watching a classic film in the adventure style of the late 1920s. The first few minutes obey the rule of the fourth wall. Then the camera pulls back and we see the audience watching the same film with the orchestra in the pit playing the music we hear. Finally, the camera tracks behind the screen to show the cast waiting to be introduced to the audience at the end of the showing. There’s a big notice on the back wall warning those on stage to keep quiet which, of course, they do. In reverse on screen, we therefore see some of the action as the dog rescues the hero and, then, together with the girl, they fly off into the sunset. It’s beautifully judged to set the “stage” for a drama about film, film-making and the consequences of a technological revolution.
Our hero is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Together with Uggie, his faithful Jack Russell terrier, he rules the screen in the tradition of Rudolph Valentino who also literally had women swooning in the streets. Curiously, American men were far less impressed by acting in the style of Valentino, a trend they believed was feminising the male gender roles. American men preferred the Douglas Fairbanks lifestyle and screen persona. To that extent, this Valentin embodies features of both romance and action. To complete the list of talents, this artist can also dance — rather in the spirit of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.
The prevailing acting style in 1920’s cinema was, of necessity, closer to mime since only the images were available for the viewer to interpret. By modern standards, this makes most silent films appear very melodramatic. Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), the rising “it” girl, describes the acting style as mugging the camera, i.e. using the face and heightening the expressions to communicate meaning more directly to the audience. This had been the prevailing theatrical style. In Victorian stage productions, there would be a build-up to intense physical and emotional points which would then have a moment frozen on stage. This frequently ignored the convention of the proscenium arch and had the actors directing their words and dramatic poses to the audience rather than interacting with the other members of the cast. It was not until the middle class in the stalls replaced the working class in the pit that the actors retreated behind the proscenium arch and stopped trying to win the applause of the audience through their extravagant posing. It took the arrival of the twentieth century to produce greater realism of character and behaviour on stage. When the film industry got underway, the Victorian style of acting prevailed as the actors externalised their emotions directly into the cameras. Without speech, they had to rely on expression and gestures — total body language. Only when talkies began could actors revert to the greater realism of characterisation then emerging in stage productions. In a sense, it also marked the change from the stage and cinema being an actor’s domain, to the rule of the director and the script.
In a film, there’s a binary divide. The sound is either on or off (except in this film, where sound effects do make a couple of dramatic appearances for effect while music plays throughout). The key year was 1927 when wax recordings were synchronised with the film projector. It was a big risk for the film industry because it meant rewiring all the cinemas. Warner Brothers proved the value of the investment with The Jazz Singer. This shattered conventional wisdom and forced one of the most expensive commercial revolutions of all time. It was also lightning fast as studios changed over to sound production. Those whose voices did not fit were out. One of the most interesting films about this period is Singin’ in the Rain in which the star Lina (Jean Hagen) has a voice representing sudden death to the film as made, so she’s dubbed by Kathy (Debbie Reynolds). In The Artist, George Valentin also has a voice problem. It may not be the “squeaky voice” of some of the silents stars but, if I was going to be unkind, it might have been a problem for the American audiences of the day. Perhaps the success of Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer might suggest his fears were unfounded.
This is a clever meditation on two difficult human emotions. When we take pride in what we do, we do it well. But if pride gets in the way, it can be our downfall. So when our world is turned upside down by forces we cannot control, how should we react? Here’s a silent star who tries to buck the studio system, loses his money in a futile attempt to run against the tide of technological change, and takes to the bottle. This leaves the second question of whether he can be saved by love, or perhaps that should be whether his pride will prevent him from loving. It’s a strange but all-too-common situation in which some people feel humiliated if they have to be saved by someone else out of love. In this case, George actually has loyal and loving people who could help but, first, he must reconcile with himself.
The Artist (2011) is a very sophisticated piece of film-making and it tells a very human story. On the way, we get to see John Goodman as the boss of the studio who balances a heart of gold against his pursuit of real gold through box office takings, and James Cromwell as the paragon of a faithful servant. Together we embark on a 100 minute journey from the hero’s quiet confidence in his continued success to the pits of despair, and then to that sense of betrayal when it becomes apparent people have been trying to help him without admitting it. It doesn’t matter whether this film and/or its performances win any of the ten Oscars for which it is nominated (it’s not shortlisted as a foreign language film!). This type of film-making deserves to be celebrated albeit that it does say something very interesting about our current attitudes towards nostalgia. Just think. This could be the first silent film to win an Oscar since 1931 — the slowest come-back on record. For everyone who enjoys film as a medium, this is a must-see!
Let the record show that the French film academy gave six Césars to The Artist, including Best Film and Best Director to Michel Hazanavicius. At the Indie Spirit Awards, The Artist pulled in Best Feature, Best Director, Best Male Lead and Best Cinematography. At the 84th Academy Awards, nostalgia triumphed with Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor for Jean Dujardin, and others.
This is an elegant book, wrapping the core of a thriller in ideas that play with literary and semiotic conventions. It’s about a man who called himself Kino. In German, this means “cinema”. So the book is about the life and work of a man who, for a time, became so famous within his own country, he was personified as German cinema. It’s also implicitly about the power of film in general and of one film in particular, Tulpendiebe or The Tulip Thief. We have a description of the moving images constituting that one film and then a deconstruction showing how they might be interpreted. From this we might conclude words are a poor substitute for the reality of viewing a film, but then words can always fill in gaps and tell us about what we missed seeing. As text, we have a conventional prose format and a diary. These are words that form a narrative and words that represent a form of continuous consciousness or interior monologue reduced to paper. In other words (sic), the main theme of Kino by Jurgen Fauth (Atticus Books, 2012) is the meaning we attribute to symbols and how that meaning may change over time. A secondary theme is the nature of the relationships we make and break.
As to the first theme, a director uses the medium of film to communicate a message to his immediate audience. “Making a movie is like constructing a creature. The cast is the face, the director the brain, the cinematographer the eyes and the crew the hands.” Then we have to ask why copies of this and other films should have been burned by the Nazis, and why a single copy of Tulpendiebe should suddenly reappear, only to be stolen after a single private viewing. Later, we discover Kino was asked by doctors to write down his thoughts about the past. Yet the moment we learn he was in a hospital, accused of being a danger to himself and others, this labels him an unreliable narrator. How much should we trust this director and his creative intentions in making the film? To answer this question, we should be able to view the film, yet it has been stolen. How much should we trust what he later writes about his life? The answer to this question comes through the story of what happens to the remnants of his family when the copy of the film appears.
As the source of these questions, Germany is often considered something of an enigma during the Weimar Republic as the initial chaos following the loss of World War I slowly subsided to be replaced by Goldene Zwanziger (the Golden Twenties). Kino’s diary is a kind of metaphor for the conversion of an innocent from the country to a lionised film director in Berlin, for the transformation of lies into truth, for the evolution of a broken society into a Golden Age where even the children can be wise beyond their years. That all changed, of course, when Hitler became Reichskanzler in 1933. Despite trying to conform, Kino’s films were banned as degenerate. Except he continued to make films. Sadly paradoxical, then, that after he attempted to leave Germany without permission, he had to watch as they were all burned, even those made with state approval.
Then we hear grandma’s version of the same reality. Except she’s high on drugs, alcohol and natural malevolence, so what she says is no more reliable than poor dead granddad. The most interesting accusation she makes is about the power of images to affect the mind. It’s less overt propaganda because the message is in the subtext. Just imagine if you really could weaponise the cinema. . . which, of course, leads our granddaughter as heroine to view the director’s lone US film called The Pirates of Mulberry Island and to hear the backstory of how that film came to be made. Then there’s the possibility a director’s cut of the US film exists. It’s called Twenty-Twelve.
On the secondary theme, we’re offered the chances to understand the nature of family, and explore why couples should decide or refuse to stay with each other. We see relationships under pressure once the Weimar Republic is suspended and the Third Reich begins. This continues into America as it goes through the Second Red Scare and into the more liberal sixties. Time then lurches forward to contemporary America which gives us a whole new perspective on the cultures of the past. Indeed, Jurgen Fauth is demonstrating that history is mutable. We can make different stories from the past seem equally credible by manipulating our interpretation of texts and oral histories. Let’s now put this into a modern context. With only fallible controls over the internet, access to the discourse has been democratised. Thousands of people are prepared to blog and publish their own assertions of truth, so it’s no longer possible to maintain a single, politically correct view of the past.
Perhaps I should offer an apology for all this idle rumination. I’m simply touching vaguely on some postmodernist ideas inspired by the text. Nothing of this appears in the book. Kino is not a dry philosophical tome. As a thriller, it flows rapidly along, told against a background of a bomb threat to a plane, chases across rooftops and, later, gunfire. Life gets exciting for our heroine when she receives a copy of Tulpendiebe and flies out to Germany. Then it’s back to America for an extended family reunion and a resolution that’s satisfying for the more important characters we get to know. I can’t say I’m completely convinced by the motives of those doing the chasing which includes hints of supernatural powers and a possible government conspiracy, but it does not change my opinion of the book. As a final thought, it’s always interesting to meet an author who’s so obviously comfortable in two rather different cultures and languages. I’m pleased Atticus should take a risk and pick up this first novel. Jurgen Fauth has a confident touch and is worth watching in the future. So, if you like a thoughtful thriller, delivering some history that may be true, Kino is the book for you.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd is yet another example of a growing phenomenon, not just in fiction, but also in the cinema. To understand it properly, we have to engage in a tiny piece of semiotic theory. I’ll make it as painless as possible. We use language as a means of communication, but all the other “things” we see, hear, smell, taste or touch can be a part of the mechanism for transmitting meaning. So, for example, a book is a physical object. It comes with jacket artwork. We see its colours, touch the paper, see the typesetting, smell the binding (or note the absence of leather, real or fake), and so on. Long before we get to read the words inside, we’ve formed an opinion about the package and what it might contain. As to the text, the author can pick whichever words best convey the meaning he or she wants to transmit. They can be colloquial, catching the current rhythms of speech, or more formal. The syntax can suggest geography (British English differing from the American version), class, a particular time. . . To work effectively, a reviewer must consider every aspect of the creative process that brings the work from the mind of the author to the finished book product to be appraised.
In this case, we have what’s claimed to be a type of detective novel or, perhaps more accurately, a mystery. Ostensibly, it’s set in December, 1917 in a Britain going through the agony of the Great War (a magnificent misnomer, if ever there was one). Bess Crawford, the lead character, is a nurse. She’s broken with social convention as the daughter of a fairly senior army officer and, as such, a member of the upper middle class. She should have stayed at home, engaging only in local charitable works until she was married off. As a child, she’s been with the family in India and so comes with her view of the world coloured by her experience as part of the Raj. As you would expect, she’s independent-minded and now hardened by her work close to the battlefield where she does some of the triage and post-surgical nursing. However you want to interpret history, this was a time of human suffering on an epic scale. Although the fighting itself was fairly localised given the essentially static nature of the trench system used for defence, the ripple effect of the casualty rate was felt in every community in northern Europe and, by this time, the Commonwealth and some American households. Looking back, this was not a good time to be around.
Yet, today’s books and visual dramas have a very precise commercial purpose. Even though the majority of writers and artists still metaphorically starve in garrets, there are major corporations around the world converting entertainment into profits. They depend on a steady stream of content that can be sold to the masses. Not surprisingly, history in the raw would not sell. In our more comfortable lives, we prefer a romanticised nostalgia, sometimes tinged with a slight bittersweet element. Yes, there will be some mention of all the death and destruction, but it will be sanitised into the background. With our modern sensibilities now attuned to warfare as something other people do for us, we can stand back dispassionately and focus on the characters in the foreground. So, for example, several thousand soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan but they are other people’s children. Our lives go on and we choose not to see the pain and suffering in the families where the maimed are supported and the dead are mourned. Indeed, many of these families are ghettoised into military housing on army bases. We rarely see amputees and other victims on our streets. We have been insulated from the cruel reality of war.
Thus, the view of Britain and France as shown in A Bitter Truth is a form of fantasy, a vehicle to convey a general sense of danger and difficulty, but nothing our spunky girl can’t cope with. Indeed, it’s a quite remarkable effort to take some highly contentious themes and make them, somehow, less awful. Let’s see what we have as we start. Our nurse returns from the front and is pitched into a part of London searching for a deserter. These men were usually publicly shot pour encourager les autres. We then have a victim of spousal abuse, an accusation of infidelity by a soldier during R&R in France, a snapshot of a community relatively close to the south coast, highlights of nursing in a combat zone, and the physical consequences for the French communities close to the fighting. As to British culture, it hardly figures at all. There’s only a hint of class barriers, none of the racism and little of the prejudice against colonials, none of the growing disenchantment with the war despite the jingoism still practiced by the government, and so on.
I would forgive all this if the point of the book as a detective story was well made. There’s no good purpose served by wallowing in the reality of Britain ninety years ago. It’s enough that I lived through the destruction and rebuilding following World War II without recalling the oral history passed down to me by my parents and grandparents of life before and during the first major attempt to reduce the world’s population before global warming got out of hand. Except, this book by Charles Todd is neither fish nor fowl. What could have been a historical novel is lost with no real effort made to give us any detail of the time. What could have been an adventure or thriller is lost because there’s no real sense of danger. Yes, our heroine gets caught up in a murder investigation and later goes hunting around northern France for an orphan, but there’s little emotional involvement. What’s in the background stays firmly there and only rarely do we feel a threat to any leading character’s health. And what could have been a classic detective story in the Golden Age tradition of a country house murder is rather thrown away because, although the solution to the primary crime is firmly rooted in the time, there’s an admission our heroine did not have the means of identifying the motive and so pointing the finger at the murderer. The availability of proof depends on her family connections, followed by a car chase and some romantic hints to leave us with a smile at the end.
This is my first look at Charles Todd, this mother/son writing duo who, as Americans, have specialised in writing about the British in and around the Great War. This is their third Bess Crawford novel and it follows on some thirteen novels featuring Inspector Rutledge of Scotland Yard (another is due in 2012). I’m probably the wrong gender to enjoy it. I suspect A Bitter Truth is firmly aimed at a female readership that wants romantic fiction with an adventurous edge. Those who are not swept up into the new urban fantasies with strong women fighting off vampires and other supernatural beasties, can have a gentle vicarious thrill as our heroine emerges unscathed from the battlefield, solves a few murders as a hobby, and watches some of the unattached men around her with typical British reserve.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Thematically, the book follows the life of a young girl into adulthood. In her early years, she’s lucky enough to become a simile. As an adult, she has aspirations to upgrade her status and become a metaphor. From this you will understand Embassytown by China Miéville is a science fiction novel with pretensions to be about semiotics. This is not to say it is any the less exciting as a human enclave struggles to survive on an alien world. Nor is it to say you will not enjoy the book if you cannot immediately tell the difference between a simile and a metaphor. Suffice it to say the capacity of the humans and aliens to misunderstand each other becomes a kind of parable through which to explore the concept of meaning and the various mechanisms we may devise for transmitting that meaning. And for those of you who like circuitousness, a parable is actually an extended form of analogy: a methodology of more abstract thinking for transferring meaning from one area of understanding to another which includes the methods of both simile and metaphor. For these purposes, semiotics is at the top of the food-chain as the metamethodology. Now we’ve got that clear, let’s move on to the plot.
When humans meet aliens there’s a kind of hubris at work in the implicit assumption we will always be able to work out what they are saying. Even if they use a form of semaphore, waving their tentacles to each other in specific patterns, we tell ourselves we would be able to detect those patterns and attribute meanings. All it would take is a camera watching them in specific situations and, through their interaction with us, communication would inevitably follow. Except, of course, that assumes these alien beings see us as creatures with the intelligence to speak. Should we land on a planet and encounter a weird creature that sounded not unlike a cow, would we want to believe this was the basis of gossip about the latest episode of a soap on cable? There are always problems of perception and prejudice on both sides to overcome.
So it is with the Ariekei. It takes an accident to create a concept in the mind of these aliens that we are capable of intelligible speech. As a simile it would be like an aborigine encountering Westerners for the first time and learning we understand that part of the background noise as music to be enjoyed. The problem is that, without exemplars, how does the aborigine qualitatively distinguish piano jazz from death metal? To our innocent, it’s all just noise. So why is some noise more enjoyable than others? Unless and until you know what a piano is and understand the range of sounds it can make, you cannot distinguish that noise from, say, a double bass or a trombone. You have to train your ears to hear the different instruments, either comprehending the whole or picking out individual contributions to the group effort.
In any process of communication between two groups with different languages, the chances for miscommunication are high. The art of interpreting accurately depends on being able to define both the connotative and the denotative meanings. Language is not just superficial. It reflects the way we think and, more importantly, allows us to encode multiple meanings in simple phrases. So when two genuinely alien groups meet and they do not contrive an accurate method of communication, the relationship will exist on a shaky bridge that might collapse at any moment if one side inadvertently says the wrong thing. Out of fear, what is said and done will therefore be very small steps. No-one will want to take the chance of upsetting the agreement that allows the humans to stay on their world, nor disturb the small-scale trade which has some buyers fascinated by the alien biotechnology. When no-one’s sure what the other sides really wants, even simple bargaining is challenging.
When we start, the humans have been on the planet for several generations and our heroine is just about to make a name for herself — sorry that should be become a simile of herself. This is functionally important for the aliens but we humans have no idea what benefit the aliens derive from it. Our heroine then manages to leave the planet as a pilot, only to return some years later with her latest husband — a linguist/semiotician who’s always been fascinated by the few rather superficial reports of the Ariekei language. Joining them on this flight is a new ambassador. We actually learn a considerable amount about how ambassadors are produced and this latest addition to the squad comes from outside the usual circle. This difference has an unexpected effect on the aliens. Indeed, there’s an instant reaction to the first words spoken and, as they say, it’s all steadily downhill in interplanetary relations from then on. Indeed, before you can say antidisestablishmentarianism, the orthodoxy of the relationship is lost and, in their unique way, the aliens declare war on the humans. Since they are numerically superior, they will prevail unless our heroine can reach a better understanding of how their language works and, more importantly, how they think.
I confess to being hooked by the premise and awed by the execution. Unlike China Miéville’s New Weird or fantasy horror books, this is spartan prose — highly functional and without adornment. It takes the concept and thoroughly explores all the implications, never blinking when it’s necessary to deal with potentially horrific mutilation. In their struggle to come to terms with the human threat, some of the aliens break down physical barriers. Others work on a more intellectual level. So, taking the book as a whole, it’s a metaphor for how an individual changes his or her worldview or Weltanschauung. To survive, we all need an intellectual structure for holding and expressing our knowledge and understanding. This depends on a continuous interaction between what we perceive and the language we use to label and relate to the things perceived. When we want to remember a thing, we need certainty we are recalling the right information. We want that thing and that thing only. Fortunately, our heroine remembers this and is able to communicate it to the different alien groups in a way that restores order to society. Things can never be the same but, at least, neither side will knowingly wish to kill the other (for now at any rate).
Perhaps it seems premature to be talking about favourite titles by China Miéville. He has only written eight novels. But, for me, Embassytown is in the top three. It may not be his best by quite a wide margin, but it’s so far ahead of most of the other science fiction books published this year, it should be a serious contender for a Hugo, Nebula or something equally prestigious.
As an aside, Embassytown has been shortlisted by the British Science Fiction Association for the Award of Best Novel 2011, for the 2012 Arthur C Clarke Award for Best Novel, for the Nebula Award for Best Novel 2011, for the 2012 Hugo Awards for Best Novel and for the 2012 John W Campbell Memorial Award. It won the 2012 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.