Wednesday, August 25, 2010

My Worldcon Schedule

From 2-6 September, I shall be attending, and participating in, the annual Worldcon meeting of the World Science Fiction Society, which this year takes place in Melbourne. There are some big names in the field taking part: the guests of honour include Kim Stanley Robinson and my fellow Allen & Unwin author Shaun Tan.

The full programme is here. I am appearing on several panels, and will also be doing an individual reading and signing, and a 'kaffeeklatsch' (an informal meeting between an author and a small group of interested persons). My panels include the following:

Thursday 2 Sept., 1600, Room 204: Steal the Past, Build the Future: New Histories for Fantasy Fiction

Many fantasy novels and stories base themselves around a medieval European setting. Others tread a little further from such comfortable territory, presenting worlds inspired by 18th century Paris, or 11th century Viking sagas, or Ancient Rome and Egypt. What’s left? What are the creative opportunities and historical settings lying in wait from which authors might draw inspiration?

Amanda Pillar, Catherynne M. Valente, Jonathan Walker, Kate Elliott

Thursday 2 Sept., 1700, Room 219: If you wrote it, they wouldn’t believe it

Maintaining realism and ensuring readers believe what is happening are all-important considerations when writing fiction - but when did real life ever consider its readers? A look at the significant moments in history so unlikely that, despite having actually happened, nobody would believe them in a fictional story.

Tansy Rayner Roberts, Jennifer Fallon, Gail Carriger, Jonathan Walker

Monday 6 September, 1000, Room 204: From ideas to images: Illustrating SF

When creating illustrations to accompany prose fiction, the artist is given a balancing act between finding a way to accurately express the author’s prose in visual terms and expressing his or her own creativity and artistic style in the
same way. How do different artists approach the art of illustrating fiction, and what are the benefits and drawbacks of that collaborative process?

Andrew McKiernan, Nick Stathopoulos, Shaun Tan, Bob Eggleton, Jonathan Walker

Monday 6 September, 1400, Room P1: Counterfactuals: Science fiction vs historical analysis

What role can alternate history fiction play in historical analysis? By examining the potential after-effects of a fictionalised course of events, do we gain a fresh and valuable perspective on what actually happened? If so, what requirements exist for alternate history fiction to achieve this aim? A look at alternate history fiction from two perspectives: as science fiction readers, and as historians.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Gillian Polack, Dena Taylor, Jonathan Walker

My individual events are as follows:

Friday 3 September, 1200, Rm 201: Kaffeeklatsch

Numbers are limited to nine, and you will need to sign up in advance, either at the Con, or by e-mail at kaffee@aussiecon4.org.au. More details here. The format of this meeting will be decided by whoever turns up for it.

Monday 6 September, 1100, Rm 219: Reading.

Mainly from Five Wounds, but I might throw in a little from Pistols! Treason! Murder! for contrast.

Monday 6 September, 1300, Rm 201: Signing.

At the same time as Charles Stross, Robert Hood and Helen Lowe.

I am a long-time reader of all things science-fiction and fantasy and comics-related, but this is my first ever Worldcon, and I am probably an unknown quantity to most of the attendees, so I am a bit worried that no-one will turn up for these latter events. If you are attending, and you enjoyed Five Wounds - or you are just curious to find out about local authors - please come along and say hello, even if you haven't read the book. Overseas visitors might want to note that Five Wounds is currently only available in Australia, so this is your chance to get an advance look at it before it's published in the US and UK next year.

For more information on Five Wounds, see my site, where you will find a free chapter and some introductory videos (the videos can also be found here).

Melbourne Writers Festival Authors on ...

Franz Kafka



Their First Computer

Listening (including my comments on the ending of Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

San Toma, Venice, 2003

San Toma, Venice, 2003

I described in a previous post how I began to take photographs under self-imposed restrictions. By the time I got around to writing these rules down, I had moved away from static architectural subjects to mobile human ones, which might explain the first point on the manifesto below. (A certain pomposity is regrettable but perhaps unavoidable in exercises of this kind.)

1) At least one human being must be visible in every image, and this human presence must not be casual or accidental. Rather, it must be essential to the image’s meaning.

2) Shots must not be posed, which I take to mean that there can be no contact whatsoever between photographer and subject. Naturally this means excluding anyone known to the photographer, together with any reference to his or her personal history.

3) Taken together, the first two rules imply an insistence on spontaneity. It should not be possible to repeat an image in every detail. To put it another way, each image must have an unstable, unpredictable element at its core. There are to be no controlled shoots, and no conventional portraits. Each image must acknowledge the decisive role of chance.

4) No clearly recognisable landmarks or other unambiguous indicators of location.

5) All shots are to be taken using available light (i.e. without flash) and the camera must be hand-held. Nonetheless, it is obligatory to photograph at all times of the day and in all weather conditions.

There may seem to be an implicit claim to authenticity in this prohibition – that one has not ‘added’ anything to the scene, even light. But I make no such claim. What interests me are the limits of the camera's ability to function, which brings me to:

6) No gratuitous degradation of the image. It is inevitable that degradation will result from working in very poor light. However, the image must be as clear and coherent as circumstances permit.

7) No automatic functions on the camera: no auto-focus, no auto-exposure, no motor-winder or multiple shot capabilities, no zoom lenses. On the level of technique and form, every aspect of the image’s composition must be the result of a conscious choice on the part of the operator. Of course these choices are limited in scope and conventional in nature, but that makes them more and not less meaningful.

8) Images must not be created or manipulated by digital means, because each must have a physical and unique existence beyond the possibility of immediate preview and erasure.

9) No sentimentality, and preferably no emotional engagement at all. This is not a claim to objectivity.

10) No events and no journalism, which I take to mean that no photograph can depict demonstrations, festivals, concerts or any other public event, or show any kind of interaction between human subjects that is clearly or unambiguously structured by work or other kinds of organised activity (e.g. sport). To put it more generally, the meaning of the image must never derive from the intrinsic interest of the subject. Rather it must come from the act of photographing alone. Every photograph must be of ‘nothing’, of a moment that has no possible public meaning. Moreover, there must be no implied narrative.

If one reviews the main sequence in the light of this ten point programme, it might be observed that several images violate one or more of its prohibitions. For example, this photograph violates nos. 1 and 4, and possibly no. 9 too. (Every image fulfils nos. 5-8, but one would not necessarily know this from the images themselves.)

The purpose of this manifesto was not to exclude alternative possibilities – as the exceptions noted above prove retrospectively – but rather to avoid the question of ‘style’. This is an obsession among amateur photographers, for whom it is closely connected to the question of whether or not they are creating ‘art’. I place these two terms within scare quotes because I wished to exclude them from consideration as irrelevant. Or rather it was an interesting experiment to replace style (a single positive value: the inimitable signature of an individual talent) with a set of impersonal prohibitions (multiple negatives: a list of what is absent).

The question remains as to whether it is necessary to be aware of the existence of this manifesto to understand the images taken under its influence. I think not (the existence of this post notwithstanding). Once I had figured out what really mattered - that is, my subject matter - I no longer needed any of this superstructure. The meaning of the images in the final sequence depends on the logic of that sequence, which has nothing to do with any of the ten points listed above.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Melbourne Writers Festival Authors on ...

Federico Fellini


Mornings (including my commentary on an excerpt from a short story by Italo Calvino)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Rialto, Venice, 2002

4 Rialto

Exposure: c. 25s

In 2001, when I began working on Let Us Burn the Gondolas in earnest, I did not have a clear idea of what my subject might be. So I invented a set of (not quite) arbitrary rules, which turned every photograph into an exercise in problem-solving. This was an effective way of avoiding being paralysed by larger questions, but it also provided a framework within which those larger questions could eventually be posed more effectively. What, exactly, was I interested in? What did I care about? On what subject did I have something to say, photographically?

One such rule was that the camera must depict a space from which a pedestrian could look back. This rule was inspired by the photographs of Charles Marville. Many of these show areas of nineteenth-century Paris that were shortly to be restructured or demolished, and Marville perhaps saw his photographs as an essential preparation for this attempt to modernize and rationalize the urban landscape. According to Westerbeck and Meyerowitz, Marville spoke of the demolitions as “percements”, and his photographs were comparable efforts to pierce the old quarters of the city, to drive a needle of vision through the crevice of the streets.[1]

Photography is frequently described in these terms: as invasive, penetrative, colonizing, oppressive. I don’t see it that way (and I'm not convinced that Marville did either). If the space is cleared of other pedestrians, as it is here, the purpose is not to deny the possibility of reciprocity, but rather to invite speculation as to who - or what - might return the camera's gaze.

Like the Salute, the bridge at Rialto is inescapable in photographs of Venice, but here it is isolated from its setting on the Grand Canal. Here the crowds have gone and the Carnival lights that might have helped to define and articulate the space are turned off. Here we see an empty stage set, with only the spotlights left on. Or rather, not quite empty. There is a very faint blur towards the top of the bridge under the right streetlamp, where the paths of everybody who walked past during the exposure cross.

[1] Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz, Bystander: A History of Street Photography, 1994, p. 107.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, 2002

1 Salute

Exposure: c. 55s

This is the only photograph from Let Us Burn the Gondolas in which gondolas actually appear, and almost the only one in which the principal subject is an identifiable landmark: in this case, the church of Santa Maria della Salute, built to commemorate the end of a seventeenth-century plague epidemic. (The fog here therefore has a suggestion of miasma, to those with a sufficiently active historical imagination.)

The Salute is a ubiquitous presence in photographs of Venice, although it is almost invariably shot from one of two vantage points: the bridge in front of the Accademia gallery or the long waterfront promenade of the Riva degli Schiavoni. This image was taken from lower down and closer in, with the camera positioned on a wooden dock near the vaporetto stop at Santa Maria del Giglio, a location I visited in search of a quite different image: no. 16 in the main sequence, which was taken on the same night and from almost exactly the same camera position, but with the lens pointing in the opposite direction.

One might justify the inclusion of this image in the sequence in purely formal terms. The diffusion caused by fog in the upper, brighter half of the image (atmospheric interference, to do with light) is perfectly matched by the diffusion caused by the movement of the water in the lower, darker half (interference to do with time), whilst the reciprocal relation between these two elements is symbolized by the way that the mooring posts in the water are back-lit by the reflected light from the streetlamps.

But the real point of this image is that it fulfils every preconception of what a photograph of Venice is supposed to look like. It is a norm, from which every other image in the sequence deviates in one way or another. It is an easily recognizable point of departure for an itinerary that becomes increasingly unfamiliar as it proceeds, before it circles back again to its point of origin.

After all, cliché is an authentic aspect of the modern Venetian experience.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Friday, August 13, 2010

'Gouge Away' by the Pixies and the Alternative Endings to 'Five Wounds'

[Continues from the previous post:]

To be chosen, to be condemned: two possible outcomes of the same process. .... The Trial and The Castle share a premise: that election and condemnation are almost indistinguishable. .... The main difference is this: condemnation is always certain, election always uncertain.
Roberto Calasso, K.

In the last post, we moved rather abruptly from Blade Runner to Robert Bresson. Here we make another abrupt cut to the song Gouge Away (jumping over Franz Kafka as we go), from which we shall return to the multiple endings of Five Wounds.

Gouge Away is the final song on Doolittle, the breakthrough 1989 album by the Pixies, which Ben Sisario describes as:

among the most violent pop albums ever recorded, if not in body count then in the starkness of its calamities. It features rape, mutilation of the eyes, vampirism, suffocation, smothering by tons of garbage, and the chaos of blind gunfire; for the punchline, everybody gets crushed to death. When not killing or maiming, the album turns to depraved sexual loathing and visions of apocalypse. ....

Sisario describes Gouge Away’s subject in the following terms (I quote his discussion at length because there is little I can add to it):

The song is another bloody biblical adaptation, this one the story of Samson and Delilah from Judges 16. .... The story mingles sex and politics on a small scale with gigantic divine retribution, as Samson the seduced and ruined becomes Samson the instrument of God’s fury. [Songwriter Charles] Thompson’s 100-words-or-less summary: “Big strong Samson, toughest guy in town, partying with the Philistines – he’s got this Achilles’ heel thing, you know, with his hair. Somehow he lets some girl [the prostitute Delilah] know what’s up. That’s how the Philistines capture him. She goes in and cuts his hair. He becomes weak. God takes his strength away from him. There he is, chained, his eyes gouged out. Made a mockery by the pagans, you know. Chained there to the pillars. He asks God for strength one more time, to avenge these sinners. Pulls the columns in, causes the building to collapse on everybody. Pretty great story.” ....

The recurring chorus suggests that all along Samson knows what’s coming to him. It’s no surprise. .... ‘It’s a taunt,” Thompson says. “Go ahead, have your fun. Gouge away, because something’s going to happen. No one here gets out alive.” Retribution rocks:

Chained to the pillars
A three-day party
I break the walls
And kill us all
With holy fingers

In the Bible, of course, Samson really does mean “kill us all” – he knows that he only has one chance to get back at those nasty Dagon-worshippers, and offers God the kind of prayer that might come from John J. Rambo. “And Samson said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines.’ And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life” (Judges 16: 30). [Quotations from Doolittle by Ben Sisario.]

The world conjured by the lyrics and the sound of Doolittle is one familiar to me (I also listened to albums by Larry Norman, the Christian songwriter whose slogan ‘Come on pilgrim’ was used as the title for the Pixies’ first release). Here I want to draw out the relevance of the Samson story for the two alternative ending(s) of Five Wounds, and to relate this story back to the concept of the deus ex machina.

Election and condemnation are almost indistinguishable. Samson invokes both: his divine revelation is an act of destruction. This story reveals (or perhaps hides) an essential truth: Forgiveness, like judgement, is always violent. It destroys the coherence and autonomy of everything it touches. I conceived the two endings of Five Wounds in these terms. The 'happy ending' is only possible because of an act of narrative violence comparable to that invoked by Samson, an arbitary event that brings the fictional world crashing down around the ears of the protagonists because its occurrence violates a fundamental rule, a rule that - so we have been led to believe - is necessary for this fictional world to make sense at all. In Five Wounds, this event is not obviously catastrophic (unlike the mass murders that occur just before the book's climax, which are perhaps a more obvious comparison for Samson's apotheosis). Indeed, the final event hardly happens at all, the narrative barely acknowledges it. It is described only by the last sentence in the book, because nothing can continue to exist after it has taken place.

Are you willing to pay Samson's price for a happy ending? Are you willing to bring the temple down around yourself by invoking the deus ex machina? Are you willing to be judged, or to be forgiven? You have to make a choice.

Friday, August 6, 2010

'Blade Runner' by Ridley Scott, and The Cinema of Robert Bresson

My novel, Five Wounds, has two alternative, and mutually-exclusive, conclusions. One is a ‘happy’ ending, and the other is a ‘not-so-happy’ ending, although (without giving anything away) it is not as obvious as it might first seem which ending is which. In the next two posts, I’m going to discuss some of the implications of using multiple endings, and of imposing a happy ending on a story that does not seem to support such an interpretation.

There are several precedents for alternative endings in literature, most notably perhaps The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, but the most obvious example from my own personal artistic canon is actually a film: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. In this case, the two alternative endings are never present together in any single iteration of the film, but rather belong to two different ‘cuts’: the initial commercial release, which imposed an explanatory voiceover throughout, and a happy ending, and the subsequent ‘Director’s Cut’, which removed both. The latter did not, in fact, ‘change’ the ending as such: it just removed from the first version the final couple of minutes; but, in doing so, it radically altered the tone of the film.


Above is the ending of the initial release. The Director's Cut simply stops instead at about 0:24, and removes everything that follows.

Having seen the initial version of Blade Runner in the 80s, and then the Director’s Cut on its release in the early 90s, there was some debate amongst my friends as to whether the revision actually constituted an improvement. We were all familiar with the story, but would first-time viewers have any idea what was going on without the voiceover? It not only clarified events; it also clarified Deckard’s role as protagonist. Without it, he was a much more morally ambiguous character. Indeed, everything was murkier and more confusing.

In the video above, Frank Darabont puts the case for removing the voiceover, but it was also clear that the original ending was an arbitrary addition, not least from the contemptuous way in which Harrison Ford intones the relevant voiceover text, as if he can barely bring himself to say the words. But for some of us it was necessary to relieve the unmitigated gloom of the film up until that point. The original ending was like opening a window onto Scott’s fictional world, and letting light enter into it from outside.

The original version of Blade Runner is a classic example of a deus ex machina ending. Deus ex machina literally means ‘god out of the machine’. It originally suggested the introduction of divine intervention as a story device to resolve intractable plot complications. The phrase refers to the stage machinery that was used to frame such divine characters in theatres, where they descended (literally) from above, and the implication is that this kind of resolution was entirely alien to the logic of cause and effect that governs the succession of events within a realistic narrative mode. The gods descend from above: that is, from outside the sphere of the story itself. Thus the deus ex machina is a cheat, by definition, and the last resort of a desperate writer. While modern stories rarely resort to divine intervention, they do introduce such related, arbitrary devices as outrageous coincidence, or, in the case of the initial release of Blade Runner, the hitherto unsuspected revelation that Rachel, the android replicant with whom Deckard has fallen in love, is ‘special’: that, unlike all other models, she has an open-ended lifespan.

This is a deus ex machina move because absolutely nothing in the story thus far has prepared us for this eventuality. Indeed, the rules that give this fictional world its integrity would seem to actively preclude this possibility; and thus the revelation destroys the credibility of everything that precedes it. This impression is only reinforced by the visuals in the tacked-on ending, which reveals vistas of unspoiled nature, whose existence is similarly inconceivable in the polluted city that has been so meticulously constructed over the previous two hours (the final longshots were, in fact, borrowed from outtakes of Kubrick’s The Shining).

The whole concept of the deus ex machina implies a secular world view, in which divine intervention can never be the real subject of a drama, and so its introduction is always evidence of a failure of human imagination. But what if you actually want to say something about the nature of divine grace? By definition, it is arbitrary; by definition, it violates the laws of cause and effect; by definition, it is unmotivated and unforeseeable. Its true manifestations never provide closure. Rather, they radically destabilise narrative logic. That is what is implied by a conversion experience: that the entire story is rewritten retrospectively.

And this brings me to the films of Robert Bresson, which almost always conclude with some kind of deus ex machina. Or rather, the ending invokes divine intervention without dramatising it explicitly, as in The Trial of Joan of Arc, excerpted above. God does not actually appear; the contradiction is not actually resolved. It is up to the viewer to complete the story by making the requisite leap of faith (or not, according to one's personal beliefs). In Bresson’s earlier films, this invocation is presented as, generally, successful. Whether or not we choose to believe in it, the protagonists of his films experience that transformation as real. This is, as I understand it, the meaning of the empty stake revealed as the smoke clears in the clip above, which recalls – the comparison would be anathema to Bresson, but is irresistible precisely because of that – the empty cloak of the slain Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

This is a kind of negative theology. God is not a presence in Bresson’s films. He does not appear as a character, wheeled in from above, and therefore inevitably trivialised. He is instead manifest by His absence. He is arbitrary in cinematic terms as well as in narrative terms: that is, he is a non-diegetic effect, and as such, is associated with similarly non-diegetic cinematic effects, notably music, which in Bresson is often confined to the climax of the film.

This sounds like a radical Augustinian, Protestant theology, and Bresson’s background was Catholic, but perhaps of a Jansenist persuasion: that is, from a group within Catholicism that emphasised the unmotivated nature of divine grace, and the consequent inability of man to ever earn it. This allies him with Pascal, among others, for whom divine grace can never be an effect with a human (or a scientific) cause, and thus divine intervention can never be necessary in narrative terms.

In Bresson’s later films, this negative theology is taken to its pessimistic conclusion. These films are about failed attempts to invoke transcendence, most obviously in Lancelot du Lac, which begins with the return of Arthur’s knights from their unsuccessful quest for the Holy Grail. Here the Grail is, like the ritual of communion (itself, in Catholic theology, a miraculous, inexplicable transformation), a kind of metonymic substitute for the Body of Christ, and thus a symbol of divine immanence. But in the world of Lancelot du Lac, as in Bresson’s subsequent films, the divine presence is always out of reach.

'Lancelot du Lac' film poster

[Continues in the next post:]

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Interview on 'The Comic Spot'


Above is the audio file of my recent interview on 'The Comic Spot', with John Retallick and Jo Waite, broadcast on 15 July 2010, on 3CR Radio in Melbourne. I have edited the clip so that it only includes my interview, but the full show is available to download from the podcast archive.