Space Battleship!

Fans of genre fiction may recognize the franchise….

Apparently this was made in 2010, topped the Japanese box-office, has proved a bankable Blu-Ray elsewhere, and still hasn’t got anything closer to a release in English-speaking markets than subtitles on a region 4 DVD.

I feel there should be some way to connect this to the similarly-themed live-action movie in the similarly-named but otherwise comically different Battleship franchise, but I’m not quite sure whether the point is that Battleship tanked in the domestic and UK markets, or whether Space Battleship makes it look awfully like Universal Pictures made a $200 million mockbuster.

In the original Klingon!

Klingon really isn’t my thing.

I know enough about languages, real and invented, to know that tlhIngan Hol is a technical triumph, but I can’t pretend I’m particularly fond of it as a cultural statement. My strangely retentive memory for trivia means I have a pretty good grasp of the nuances of Klingon costume styles and warship variants, but I don’t have any emotional attachment to that particular spacegoing barbarian empire.

I can admire the skill and dedication that it takes to make the appropriate mask and costume, translate some Shakespeare into a language originally designed for insulting Captain Kirk, or set some Klingon poetry to Klingon music and perform it – especially if you do all three at once.

But I don’t feel any urge to do any of that myself.

On the other hand, this isn’t entirely to do with my usual antipathy to organized geekdom. Back around 1990 when there was no new Star Wars to enjoy, I made up for it with a diversion into Star Trek. I became a big fan of the novels, and maybe one day I’ll write about Diane Duane’s cycle about the Romulans, but today, I want to tell you about a book called The Final Reflection, written way back in the early 1980s by an author named Mike Ford.

The Final Reflection is a book about the Klingons.

But these Klingons aren’t the ones you know: the headbutting, armour-wearing barbarians with the funny shouty language, and the tourist-friendly cultural backstory that give their loyal fandom the toolkit for an alternative identity. In 1982, when work on the book began, the Klingons had a continuity backstory of just three low-budget TV episodes and a single movie cameo, and they were still primarily a metaphor for powerful foreign opponents of America – the Russians and the Japanese, specifically. So Mike Ford wrote them as a high-tech military superpower with a violent and heroic history very different from our own, and a confusingly foriegn way of thinking. Unlike today’s Klingons, they valued intelligence, deception and forward planning just as much as strength, brutality and honour.

They even had a different language.

But there was a problem. Even before The Final Reflection came out in May 1984, the people in charge of Star Trek had decided that official continuity had to actively contradict everything outside the movies and TV series. If there was to be a Klingon language on the screen, it would have to not be the one in the book. As far as I can tell, the people who began to create a Klingon language for the next Trek movie were unaware that one had just been created for the novel (and adopted in the extensive RPG material that accompanied the movie’s release), but the franchise’s policy made integration of the two impossible.

This was before the internet, of course, and at first, the intentions of the production people struggled to counteract the influence of the tie-in material (not least since the novels and comics were allowed to supply running continuity fixes to keep themselves consistent with the movies); but eventually, the development of The Next Generation created a fairly decisive estrangement between the two elements of the franchise. It became pretty clear around the time I got involved.

Thankfully, Star Wars started producing original fiction again soon after, so I was suitably distracted.

But I still think that the direction Star Trek took was a shame, not least because the original Klingons, like the original Romulans, were much more interesting as a sci-fi concept. Ever since, in spite of the commitment of their fanbase, the official Klingons have been in danger of becoming inept comedy barbarians, unintentionally reforcing all sorts of problematic cultural prejudices.

It’s inherently harder to do that with the novel-continuity Klingons.

And then there’s their language. Klingonaase, not tlhIngan Hol. Both take their cue from the same source, a few lines of subtitled dialogue that were made up for the first Trek movie, but they do very different things with it. For one thing, ‘aase isn’t a complete language, though I’ve been starting to realise it was probably more completely-developed gramatically than I’d thought. The key difference is in what the language is meant to do: the Hol that modern Klingon fanboys speak is a linguist’s language, with a fully-functional lexicon and gramatical system and an interesting structural and phonological alienness – but ‘aase is a novellist’s language, designed to tell a story.

At first sight, the words and phrases dropped into the text seem simply to be relatively light, decorative details in a piece of viscerally enjoyable space-fantasy world-building. But they’re much more than that, as the reader realises as the novel develops.

What ‘aase provides is a set of concepts and conceptual frameworks that aren’t very easy to translate directly into English. These are the concepts that define the Klingons of The Final Reflection, embodying the patterns of their thoughts and their society, articulating their biological imperatives.

As the reader (probably an impressionistic teenage boy) begins to get to grips with Klingonaase, he starts to understand the Klingons, and starts to see why they’re different from the Feds who we generally see as “the good guys”, as “us”. This “reader’s journey” parallels the Kilingon characters’ own encounter with the humans, and the end result is firstly, a very good story, and secondly, one that ends up telling us something new about ourselves.

The way the reader picks up ‘aase in the course of the novel is designed to complement and accentuate a story about a clash of cultures, and about learning to see past confrontation to understanding. Not the most original story, perhaps, but that’s hardly the point. It’s the only language course I know that’s structured as a telling of the Campbellian monomyth.

And that is something that you just don’t find in modern Klingon.

The Great American

This is an apparently incongruous essay about major literary novellist. But since it’s Michael Chabon, I figured I’d indulge myself: he’s a Pulitzer-winning heavyweight whose works include a loving eulogy for the Golden Age of comic books, a considerable number of knowing baseball references, and the adaption of some Edgar Rice Burroughs stories into a Disney movie.

In other words, Chabon likes genre fiction; more to the point, he uses it as a powerful thematic reference point for the American identity. I really like his novels, and I really like that aspect of them (and I’m also a huge fan of the movie adaptation of his second book, Wonder Boys, which is probably my all-time favourite American film, and which was what led me to discover him as a writer).

That said, though, there are certain sections of his books that I find slower, less interesting, and I wonder if this also has something to do with that whole genre-and-identity thing.

(Alert readers will notice that this is the idea I stopped myself from digressing into a few posts back; really alert readers might notice that that idea is actually a retrospective edit into that previous post, designed in large part to set this one up).

The parts of the Chabon canon that have nothing to do with America are the parts I find most accessible: Gentlemen of the Road, for example, a homage to high fantasy which is set in faintly improbable countries that no longer exist, a thousand years ago. But then again, I also really enjoyed the first half of Kavalier & Clay, which is all Americana: superhero comics and electric urbanism imbuing young, apparently powerless immigrants with new hope and strength.

On the other hand, the whole second half of Kavalier & Clay didn’t do so much for me. Here, Chabon is doing the “geek” thing, with a plot crafted from extensive metatextual referentiality to the “Silver Age” of comic books, and at the same time, he makes a “serious” narrative shift of pace; it’s all about lost optimism, disillusionment and a renewed hope in a suburban family setting. It’s also, I think, a distinctively American story, both in its use of a ruthlessly authorial, almost pulpy, plot-twist, and in its expectation that the reader will either experience the emotional impact so coldly set up, or else enjoy the genre referentiality.

Oddly, there’s one tiny continuity error in the novel, which suggests this wasn’t the original plan (or else is designed to emphasise the mid-novel narrative break by doing just that)….

I also find myself tripping over the extended intermission before the third act of Wonder Boys the book, where two of the protagonists disappear off to hide in what’s effectively another story: someone else’s rather meaningless family reunion, where they all sit around the table and fail to connect. The screenplay simply ditched the entire digression, and it could simply be that its presence in the book’s narrative jars me because I saw the film first, and because I rate the film so highly; but even if I’m biased in that way, the detour around the detour seems like a smart bit of editorial intervention: the long digression is quietly involving (mood-wise, it’s what David Lynch’s The Straight Story would be if it was a novel by Thomas Pynchon) but it’s superfluous to the novel, both in terms of plot and pacing.

What it is, moreover, is a piece of standard-issue Americana, the family narrative as mini-metaphor for social change and generational tensions. It’s as much a piece of genre fiction as the worst of clichéd heroic fantasy, yet it conceals its true nature because of the conventions of the narrative, the same ones that function in suburbia. It also contrasts very strongly with the setting in which the rest of the novel takes place. It is, very deliberately, a switch of genres.

With that in mind, I’m curious if this out-of-place half-act is a surviving section from Fountain City, the unfinishable and selfconsciously Great American novel that Chabon had been trying to complete, before he gave up and turned the writing and abandonment into one of the inspirations for a different book. Quite probably that’s a wildly wrong guess, but it’s the sort of question that occurs to me, and it would certainly be appropriate if it was.

In a critical sense, this is a key point of Chabon’s writing, where he directly highlights the innate connection between  the identity-building themes of genre fiction and the American identity itself. But at the same time, there’s an emptiness there for me that I don’t think is deliberate. It’s Passover told as Thanksgiving, but I don’t think that’s even intended as the double-ended skewering that it actually is. The clever, “geeky”, genre games aren’t enough to transform it into fun for me, just as they aren’t enough when Joe Kavalier retreats to his fortress of solitude in the polar wastes, and Sammy Clay hides his secret identity behind the life of an ordinary American.

It’s a measure of Chabon’s skill as an author, though, that these sections simply read as less good than the rest.

So, ultimately, where am I going with this? Genre-fiction fandom as a metaphor for America, embodying on multiple levels the search for a new, free identity and the generational renewals of that search, from the Mayflower via Occupy (another reason, perhaps, that it has no resonance for me, since I’m not American)? I think so, yes. And, if so, then the wider tensions and concerns and narratives of genre fiction might turn out to be intimately symmetrical with those of America itself.

America, in other words, is a work of genre fiction.

More on that theme in general some other time, perhaps?

(Funny, that. I knew where this essay was going to end up well before I wrote it, or even had the idea for it.)

Broken Blade: chapter 2

(continuing the novella that begins here…)

Broken Bladechapter 2

“Broken Blade, huh? Put your right foot up on the plate.”

Blade obeyed, but didn’t answer the implied question. She rubbed her wrists, exploring the texture of skin that hadn’t seen the light for several days, and watched as the big man took his hammer and chisel to her ankle chains.

“Do you have a name?” she asked, feeling faintly interested. Big man seemed about right. He wasn’t as big as Mount had been, but he was tall enough, and heavily muscled, with a way of moving that seemed effortlessly powerful.

“Sword,” he answered, his big hands prising open the binder around her shin. She wasn’t quite sure if it was a name. “Left foot.”

A few sharp chimes of metal on metal, and the final manacle was off. She smiled, flexing her toes, and then turned the smile on him. “Thanks.”

He shrugged, hiding his reaction in his eyes, then laying down his tools, and standing up full height, looking at her. “It’s work.”

She looked up at him. “Blacksmith work, or train-her-as-a-gladiator work?”

“Either.” He wiped his hands on a rag, then pulled off his heavy leather apron. “You fought before?”

She lifted an eyebrow at the strength and definition of his bare chest. “Not in the ring,” she shrugged. “I had hand-to-hand training, though.”

He studied her, like a fighter wondering if she was the weapon he wanted to use today. “Edged weapons?”

“A little.” She didn’t want to say much more, but she appreciated the professional, almost indifferent way he looked at her. We can get on, she decided.

“How did you get your name?” He turned away, busying himself with something in the forge. The muscles of his back rippled, and she saw the old scars.

“It was just Blade, once,” she answered, rubbing her wrists again, resisting the urge to follow him into his den. “Then I got broken. I’ve been the Lord Executor’s valetta for the past two years.”

A brief pause.

“So you can still fight,” he said, turning round and looking at her, eyes assessing her form. “Broken Blade. A street weapon, improvised, but short enough to hide, and good for stabbing people in the guts.”

She grinned at that, surprising herself. “You could say that.”

“Okay.” He moved across the room, confident and poised. This time, she followed. “Let’s get you out on the sand, and find out what we’ve got to work with.”

(… continued in chapter 3!)

Broken Blade: chapter 1

(Okay. This is something slightly experimental. The start of a story that I’d hoped would turn into a cheap-and-cheerful novel in the sword-and-spaceship genre, but which no amount of editorial bullying by the author could get past 20,000 words. It’s complete, so rather than letting it go to waste, I’ve decided to serialize it on the blog. Unlike most of what I write, it has no pretensions to being anything more than a straightforward swashbuckler, but you’ll have a better idea than me if it succeeds!)

Broken Blade: chapter 1

The blade was broken, and the man called Sword was focused on fixing it, heating the steel until it glowed white in the furnace, then beating it across the shoulder of the anvil. Heating and beating. Heating, then beating. He moved with a steady rhythm, handling the cumbersome tools of his trade without any strain. Even so, in the fierce heat of the forge, he kept his arms and torso bare beyond his leather apron and long gauntlets, and sweat ran freely over the hard contours of his broad, scarred back.

He ignored the sound of the forge door opening, and ignored the two sets of footfalls behind him—one human, one machine.

“Got a project for you,” said the machine, in a tinny, toneless voice.

Sword ignored that too; he blocked it out until he’d finished with the sword, thrusting it deep into a barrel of water. Steam leapt up as the blade plunged in, and when it cleared, the metal had hardened to a steely blue, glinting under the surface of the liquid.

“I said, got a project for you,” the machine repeated.

Sword took a long draught of water from his tankard, then turned—and found himself faced with the familiar shape of Probus… and a girl in a ragged sackcloth shift. She was slim, and small, but there was good muscle definition in her bare arms, and a hidden strength in the way she stood, weighted on one leg, holding up her cuffed wrists. Her dark hair was unkempt, like it had been cut using an axe, but the tawny colour to her complexion might be a hint of exotic origins, rather than grime or sickness.

“She got a name?” he asked the machine.

“Not that anyone told me. His Lordship seems to think you can make a gladiator out of her.”

Sword groaned silently, and rolled his eyes. “I’m too old for that, Probus.”

“Orders are orders. You humans not learnt that yet?”

Sword stared at the girl. Probus turned and left.

Just the two of them. His Lordship seems to think you can make a gladiator out of her.

“Okay, kid,” he sighed, gesturing to the anvil. “You step up here, and we’ll get those chains off you.”

She obeyed, and for a moment, she was just another project, wrought metal to work to the desired result. He fetched a chisel and hammer, and opened up her wristcuffs on the plate.

She didn’t flinch as the weight and speed and sharpness of his work cut so close to her wrists. Sword was impressed.

“You got a name?” he tried again.

She looked up at him, and her eyes, which he’d taken for some dark colour, flashed green. Her lips were parched and cracked, but the voice that came out was level, controlled, and capable. “They call me Broken Blade.”

(… continued in chapter 2!) 

The Powerlessness of Words

Turns out that the ostensibly minimalist design of this blog really isn’t very good for framing minimalist one-sentence comments.

(And I suppose I should say that this one’s not quite safe for work before you click the link that follows. So much for the effortless interconnectedness of the internet….)

But, nonetheless…

Some things just need no commentary whatsoever.

See?

Though now I come to think of it, that’s actually a very subtle and elegant homage to Velasquez, too…

Ceci n’est pas un Geek

I promised in an earlier installment to talk at some point about why I hide behind a pseudonym, even though I’ve not really done enough with it to warrant the anonymity. The real reason is relatively straightforward. In the UK, it’s still not though exactly proper to take genre fiction seriously.

Our definition of “genre” is probably a little different than the American equivalent: it doesn’t include historical novels, or superior thrillers, which is why David Mamet’s description of Le Carré or O’Brian as a genius of the “humble genre novel” rings so strange over here. High fantasy of the more austere kind probably gets a pass, too (Peake, Le Guin), as does the sort of hard near-future fiction written by Orwell and Atwood.

Buy anything involving spaceships or time travel? That’s for teenagers, or literature courses at the less élite universities. You can get by commenting on it if you employ a certain irony, if you use it for a certain purpose, but only for a certain audience, and it’s a tricky discipline to get quite right. The consensus in polite society is that Star Wars – the original 1977 movie – is the only really worthwhile piece. Apart from that, the genre’s really rather déclassé.

So, the nom de guerre is a sort of social camouflage. Does that make me a social terrorist?

This prejudice that I’m trying to sidestep is doubly odd, because erotic fiction doesn’t really carry the same stigma. Senior, respected figures in politics and broadsheet journalism started out writing porn. I can’t really see that on the CV of Rahm Emmanuel or a leader writer for the Washington Post. Our leading literary magazine has an annual Bad Sex Award for the worst smut in a serious novel, a prize that’s considered strangely prestigious. I doubt the Pulitzer committee will ever create a comparable category.

And me? Well, I think I lack the relevant prejudices when it comes to the literature, the comics and the movies, though with some esoteric exceptions. But I’d know better than to risk declaring an interest with someone I didn’t trust, and I’ve never felt comfortable with those labels that tend to be attached in a self-affirmative way to genre fandom, names like “geek” and “nerd”. I don’t really buy into that lifestyle.

Why not? Well, that’s an interesting question. I suppose it’s something to do with the whole concept of a subculture, a counterculture – the apotheosis of the teenage quest for an independent identity. Geekdom, fandom, call it what you like (and I’ll confess that I simply don’t “get” the finer points of the distinctions between the various forms of genredom), it takes the artefacts of a popular subculture and imbues them with a meaning and structure, creating a new sort of social code, a language for interaction within the tribe. It’s a strategy that’s fascinated people from Jung to the Wachowskis via Italo Calvino.

But I don’t buy into the underlying, unspoken and perhaps unconscious idea that defines genredom: the idea that everything is ultimately meaningless, unless we want it to be, and that the creation of an identity out of trading cards and old comic books is ultimately as valid as Vanbrugh and the Rokeby Venus – or even more valid, because it’s knowing, self-referential, liberal and modern.

But I’m only rejecting the lifestyle choice here. Old comic books frankly fascinate me (what John Jackson Miller does with them is one of my favourite things on the internet, and at this point I’m having to reluctantly censor a digression about Kavalier & Clay and the American sense of identity). I just don’t think that there should be a separate cultural frame of reference.

I feel like that would cede the central position to the opposition, surrendering high culture to the worst of the chattering classes and the country club types, tacitly deferring to a package of snobberies that probably seem less noticeable, less absurd than mine because they’re rather more socially conventional. It is, as the Yuuzhan Vong say, “throwing the egg out with the afterbirth”.

So, that’s why I’m not a “geek”. I’m fascinated by pop culture, though, and I’m happy to use it as another form of social camouflage, mind you. That’s what being Paul Urquhart is all about.

I have a large-scale Lego reconstruction of the Battle of Hoth on display, but it’s on a shelf in my library, in between the art history, the literary criticism, and the DVDs of decades-old films with subtitles.

So, I guess the conclusion of this line of thought is an ironic one: I use a pseudonym to create a sort of wry mirror to hold up to “real life”, to compare one form of social positioning with another… while hopefully, avoiding both?