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Dislocated Fictions
by Gabriel Chouinard

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PSSST!

Listen. Can you hear it? The grumbles of revolution, or evolution, or whatever you like to call it. It's the sound of change, and it's heading toward SF and fantasy more quickly than you think. About time, too.

On the fringes of the genre, there is a movement taking place. Out beyond the bookshelves that teeter and moan beneath the weight of spines that read Robert Jordan, David Eddings, Piers Anthony, and Terry Brooks, there are OTHER books. Books that you've probably never heard of, by writers that you've never heard of. It is this movement that is giving speculative fiction new life and vitality.

Don't get me wrong; I am not necessarily against bookshelves that are overloaded with redundant, derivative reworks of Tolkien. Everything has its place, and far be it from me to bitch and moan about sf and fantasy writers that are pulling in tons of cash and selling millions of copies of their work. I congratulate them, actually. They've managed to do something that few writers ever get the opportunity to experience; they're bestsellers.

But face it; their work isn't exactly ground-breaking. And when you boil it down, cut through the chaff and the rhetoric, speculative fiction is still the literature of ideas. Science fiction, fantasy... they're uniquely suited to exploring the radical thoughts and amazing workings of the imagination that puts mankind above the animals. So it bothers me that so few people are aware of the REAL meat of the genre that is being produced. Because there is something hopelessly, terribly wrong when a third of the SF section of a bookstore is given over to Star Wars and Star Trek novels, until they are spilling out and tainting the genre pool and killing the lasting works that are hidden not far away...

I call these people the Next Wave, half-nodding to the New Wave that originally injected life into SF and brought it kicking and screaming out of the delirium of rocket ships and rayguns in the 50s. But these writers are more the bastard offspring of the New Wave authors, taking their inspiration equally from pop culture and intelligentsia. They're the writers that use genre conventions to address the world around us, bringing issues like politics and morality back into speculative fiction where it belongs. Call it magic realism, call it darkwave, call it whatever the hell you want; labels aren't a necessity, they're a convenience. Truth is, they're storming onto a scene that is overwhelmingly poised to destroy them beneath the muckery of commercial works, resigning them to the ditches that sluice the sewage of big house publishing. And this column is here to let you know that they exist, to urge you to pick up their works, scrub the shit off of them, and read them for the ideas found within.

Don't take my word for it. I decided to go to one of the sources, seeking out Michael Moorcock, one of the Founding Fathers of the New Wave, to see what he had to say.

Michael Moorcock
First off, thank you for taking time out to do this interview. For you, it's a matter of course; for me, a young writer that grew up reading your work, it's akin to having the opportunity to interview Gandhi. I appreciate it!
Thanks. Happily I'm not on a hunger strike at the moment.

I'd like to talk about modern speculative fiction for a bit. This column is dedicated to exposing the risk-takers working in SF and fantasy. I call them the Next Wave, in a nod to the obvious influences that the New Wave writers had upon them. Are there any modern fantasists that you've been following?
How modern? Mary Gentle's good. M.John Harrison. Carroll. Aylett. Gallagher. Miéville. Tim Etchells (Endland Stories), Rhys Hughes, Jeff VanderMeer. I do my best to support and promote these writers. I've written pieces on several of them for magazines like New Statesman and The Spectator.

China Miéville is one of my recent favorites, who writes some socially and politically charged novels. To me, this represents the true strength of speculative fiction; it is, after all, the literature of ideas. Is this what you and your contemporaries have been pushing for? Have we finally come full-circle and reached another era of excitement in speculative fiction?
Absolutely. Looks that way to me, pard. I'm increasingly being asked to discuss ideas in fantasy, the anti-intellectual aspects of hobbitania. Much of it is a continual and temperamental reaction on the part of certain writers to sentimentalised liberal humanism, if you like. Miéville is one of several outstanding writers who take their politics seriously. This use of the imagination to examine present problems is what I always encouraged in New Worlds, of course, and I celebrate it now that a new movement is emerging.

But I think the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek are real enemies of sentience!

Well, you've just reaffirmed a statement that I made earlier in this column; "There is something hopelessly, horribly wrong when a third of the SF section of a bookstore is given over to Star Wars and Star Trek novels." But then, I believe in the idea of integrating genre works alongside 'mainstream' or 'literature' works, though I don't think the chain sellers will ever consider it. But much of your own work doesn't really belong on genre shelves, does it?
Much of my stuff is fairly pre-generic -- the Elric stories owe something to previous writers of fantasy adventure fiction, of course, but were written at a time when what we today know as the Fantasy Genre didn't exist and even Science Fiction was just coming to be understood as an intelligent form (Amis's New Maps of Hell helped considerably there, though I disagreed radically with the book itself ). Amis dismissed Peake as a 'bad fantasy writer of maverick status' as I recall.

The Dancers at the End of Time But it gives you an idea of how marginalised fantasy was before it became Fantasy. The Tolkien industry is as chiefly responsible for that phenomenon as the Star Wars/Star Trek industry is chiefly responsible for the sidetracking and dumbing down of the aspirations of writers who emerged in the 60s writing literary sf -- Disch, Sladek, Spinrad, Sallis and Co. found themselves once again at the mercy of the easy snobbery which came back with the attack on liberal values and the rise of Thatcher and Reagan. They changed our rhetoric and it was a rhetoric in the main which the commercial stuff like Star Wars didn't come close to challenging. Disch and Sladek challenged it and as a result were virtually silenced. We can all name other outstandingly good writers who received the same treatment. Happily, they are re-emerging as Vintage books and as 'Masterworks' as people slowly rediscover the gems of the past. There is a similar revival in England for 'London' fiction, mostly of working class emphasis. The middle class determines what is studied. When the well runs dry you have to find some guy in the rice fields to come around with his willow twig -- you have to hear what Big Mama Thornton and Jimmy Reed are singing and absorb their vitality so you can make a wider common denominator and call it Elvis. You have to go back into the wilderness, find your forgotten generals, dust them off and ask their advice.

This is part of a broad, somewhat reflective mood as people begin to realize how ignorant they are of certain things! People have a habit of getting themselves an education -- once they realize they don't have one. Nobody has yet told most Americans that they don't have one. Hollywood films, they are realising slowly, aren't necessarily true. Not every American believes Braveheart and The Patriot to be gospel. Though, I know, many do. Oddly, they're also the people who voted for George Bush. Thank god they're the minority. As soon as they realise the truth, mark my words, even some of the ones who voted for Bush will go and get one. People in the main don't place much value on ignorance, but they do reward people who tell them they're smart when they're not. Which, unfortunately is the Achilles heel of the US. It suits the wealthiest interests in a consumerist society to tell people they are smart when they're not. Then they never know they are making choices from an identical source. It's short term value, of course, when you find yourself having to import brains from every possible corner of the globe, just to operate the tills in your supermarkets...

Behold the Man I wonder if Americans haven't been given that stuff Henry Miller believed they gave the Luxembourgians, to turn them bovine. I've never known such a nation of whiners who never do anything about their situation. I can't help being reminded that it took an Englishman to get their army up to snuff and that as soon as Tom Paine started complaining about Congressional corruption, he was vilified and driven back into the margins. Still, there are signs that's starting to change. Thanks to the internet and people's natural common sense. There's a lot more bolshy new writers starting to use the fantasy and SF medium again and that's very encouraging indeed.

If I recall correctly, your extensive piece on Miéville will be featured at the New Worlds website... will any of your other pieces be reprinted there as well?
It's a review of Perdido Street Station and a general piece on the problems of writers like Miéville, but it isn't saying anything you wouldn't have said yourself. It will appear there as will a lot of my journalism which otherwise doesn't get seen by the general reader. The piece on Carroll and a piece on Robert Irwin are in Tales From The Texas Woods, along with pieces on early cowboy pictures. Thematically they are about popular fiction. I doubt if the stuff will remain on the main website after we get more new material coming in, but it's not the first time I've done reprints to try to get some sort of stimulus running and give a rough idea of the direction we want to go in.

I think that, in particular, fantasy as a genre has finally begun to have some new life injected into it. Certainly, with the release of The Dreamthief's Daughter you're proving that once more by expanding the boundaries of the genre. I think that people like China, Matt Stover, Michael Swanwick, J. Gregory Keyes... they're all working toward the same goal of making fantasy a relevant literary form. Do you think it will happen? Will quality ever replace the cookie-cutter epic fantasies that cause our bookshelves to groan in protest?
It isn't a fight between crap and quality. Crap will always sell better because there is a lower common denominator involved. But quality will have a reasonable market depending on the demographics -- the New Wave was attached to a large number of people maturing at the same time and wanting something other than Asimov or Heinlein as their adult reading -- we tended to sell to university-age and up. We now have enough people out there to support quality. Could last for ages, given the way it's working out. Assuming anything lasts at all, of course!

Lunching With the Anti-Christ So let's keep it going while we have an audience again! Marx predicted that the modern fairy tale might be the literature of the future. That's fairly meaningless, since most popular fiction is at least that, if any good at all. But fantasy is at its best in the hands of witty, idiosyncratic moralists!

Mr. Moorcock is a writer's writer. The author of an amazingly long list of novels and short stories, Moorcock is an acknowledged master of the form. For those of us that are young and just starting out in our writing careers, we've no doubt been influenced by his work. Many of the Next Wave authors are obviously more students of Moorcock than of Tolkien. Which isn't a bad thing, considering Moorcock is still as prolific now as when he started out writing. He is currently at work on a new cycle of Elric tales, based upon the enormously popular albino warrior with the soul-eating broadsword, Stormbringer... So I took the opportunity to talk to him about writing in general, and some of his work in particular.
You have a massive following of extremely dedicated readers. Does that knowledge affect you when you sit down to write? In particular, you're in the midst of a new cycle of Elric tales that are quite different from your earlier Elric stories. Are you concerned with the reactions from those fans that have only read your Elric saga?
I'm more interested in making a good, lasting piece of furniture, if you like, than worrying about the customer who will buy it. I owe it to my regulars to go on producing decent work, because they trust me to do it. If they like a new style, fine, but they might prefer an older style. That's a matter of their taste. I've been familiar with negative reactions to my stuff since I started getting reviews in fanzines and you could almost argue that it's become a habit to maintain a slightly edgy position, so my steady readers tend to like me for that quality, I think. I meet academics who wrote their first literary essay at the age of eleven on, say, Weird of the White Wolf. I know that some of my readers will stop at the sword and sorcery, and I'm glad they like it. They help support the other readers who want to read the other stuff -- i.e. the other stuff is often more easily available because the s&s is popular. And often a reader will begin with Elric and wind up with Pyat.

You've created a mythos that has been mined by countless writers, until what you've created have become the tropes that others explore. Yet, you continue to create within that mythos, though by all accounts your Eternal Champion stories were written as a reaction AGAINST the tropes of the day. Why do you keep returning to the Eternal Champion? Do you worry at all about your work being seen as a parody of itself, simply because its setting has almost become a cliché?
Of course I worry about self-parody. Every popular and productive writer does. But I have to rely on the critics. So far nobody has said I'm doing that, though some think I'm past my prime as an innovator in the fantasy field. Could be true, but I do my best to keep the quality high. I do this partly by setting myself higher, often private, targets within the books. This helps keep their tensions, I think. But some reactions are always going to be over the top, others are going to be very blasé. It is weird to see reviews from people who don't know that half the stuff they're reading comes via me (I have many influences) and the other half seems to come from Tolkien. But I don't read them. I never read much fantasy or SF and even today I prefer, say, Elizabeth Bowen to Lord Dunsany. Also I tend to judge myself by writers I admire and so I'm not much bothered by a review which says I'm not as good as Raymond E. Feist.

I know that you probably get this one at least once per interview, but I almost HAVE to do it. You're amazingly prolific, almost frighteningly so. How do you do it? Are there really multiple Michael Moorcocks scattered around the Multiverse, all writing novels for us?
I've written a whole book about this with Colin Greenland, Death Is No Obstacle. I do a lot of sitting around and thinking and making notes before I begin. I believe the secret is in knowing instinctively how to structure, the way Mozart could. Of course there are a lot of people using the structures I developed now, so it might not look very original, and I have to modify them, but I believe if you get the structure right, the resonances all right, it's fairly plain sailing. I believe structure also contains a narrative and that the narrative has a moral quality -- it 'says' something to the reader.

The War Amongst the Angels But I'm not that fast on Pyat, for instance, especially these days. I'm getting about 1000 words a day on average -- about a chapter a week on Pyat -- though I'm still faster than that on Elric, even though I tend to try to make them harder to do. I'm a very clinical writer to begin with. Then, once everything's in place, I usually engage and just go until it's done, making some modifications to the narrative and plot, but never to the fundamental structure. Mother London was a complex structure, using a duodecimal system to give it more flexibility!

The Cornelius books are also fairly complex. The fantasy romances are not complex, even at their most elaborate. Makes for faster writing.

You've often broken down the so-called "fourth wall" in your writing several times, notably in your Oswald Bastable stories and your Michael Moorcock's Multiverse comic series for DC Comics. Tell me, do you do this for fun? Or would you say that it is simply another layer of the Multiverse mythos being incorporated into your work?
You'll have to clarify this one. I don't know what the so-called fourth wall is! If it's about time -- I believe Time is a field with its own qualities -- not simply a dimension of space -- so conceivably everything can be happening at an identical moment...

Actually, I was speaking of the fourth wall in writing, where you bring yourself into the story, blurring the line between reality and fantasy. In your Oswald Bastable stories, you state that they are manuscripts alternately found in your grandfather's possession, and also brought to you... and in the comics, there was the appearance of yourself and artist Walt Simonson in the story...
Gotcher. But then I didn't know what meta-fiction was until someone told me I'd been doing it for ages. And now I've forgotten what it is again. As you can tell, I rely on my readers being more sophisticated and better educated than me. I do it to add a further dimension to something or I simply use it Kane of Old Mars as an established literary device inherited from everyone, including Edgar Rice Burroughs and Joseph Conrad. Conrad was a larger influence than Burroughs on the Bastable series and in a sense I was just establishing the reality, as it were, in the same way you might set the scene for Marlowe to tell an unlikely tale or for Burroughs to receive news of Pellucidar via 'The Gridley Wave'. These are frequently simply established devices to give your narrative a certain kind of authority.

The book needed something like that to frame it to make it work best -- it was an Edwardian utopia I was describing, with all the idealism of imperialism apparently working well. I was taking British cultural assumptions of the day (they are now changing for the better) and putting them in the mouths of people who thought they were basically decent chaps. It is, of course, harder to hate a bumbling British civil servant who means well than some swaggering Belgian slave-driver, but the effect tends to be similar on the occupied peoples. In fact you could argue that benign imperialism is imperialism at its most refined and hypocritical. Canadians must understand that! They live between the two most rapacious imperial nations on earth. But with the Multiverse comic, I was dealing specifically with layered realities and it seemed natural to bring us both in, since we were the creators of Jack, Rose and the rest and Jack, Rose and the rest might have been our creators. The great cycle of creation indeed! Not so much offering narrative depth as narrative dimension, if that makes sense. Just taking the logic as far as you can. The comic was War Amongst the Angels taken even further along that course. I'm not much interested in examining the author's relation to his fiction, but I am interested in how fiction turns itself into fact and vice versa.

Mr. Moorcock is also noted as the longtime editor of New Worlds magazine, which ran for many years in England. New Worlds was the focal point of the New Wave movement, and provided an outlet for works that were much more stylistically ornate than what was being published in other genre magazines. As such, Mr. Moorcock has long been the center of the maelstrom of fringe SF and fantasy, and still is today.
Michael Moorcock's Multiverse On another note -- whether we like it or not, and whether we ADMIT it or not, technology is definitely changing the publishing industry. More and more publishers have been cutting back on their marketing departments... possibly because of the internet, and the vast community of readers and writers that are active on the web. You have a strong presence online as well, with www.multiverse.org and www.newworldsmagazine.com. Where do you think the internet is taking the industry? Is the web ever going to reduce the need for the big publishing houses?
I think so. We are fragmenting in one sense and, as we do, producing coherent systems to compensate. I like it because I've always anticipated it. I've embraced it because it seems such a natural medium for me. I'm willing to take whatever risks are involved and I'm sure we'll work out a way in which we can all make a living and expand the possibilities and change the whole nature of publishing. It has happened before. In 1895, the introduction of the six shilling single volume novel brought in modernist fiction. Movies, radio, telegraph all have a strong effect and are absorbed, utilised in every possible way, both as devices in fiction and instruments of telling stories. Big publishing houses have been dinosaurs for a number of years. It takes dinosaurs a long time to die because they are powerful enough to alter reality - or stave it off anyway -- for a bit longer than most of us could. We are cybermarmosets, if you like, running about all over creation, finding out how all this stuff works for us. The dinosaurs lumber towards extinction and we begin a rapid evolution...

Speaking of evolution, have you been keeping an eye on the quantum physics and Chaos Theorists lately? It seems that the common views of what constitutes 'reality' has been moving steadily closer to your own vision. How do you feel about that? Does it impact you in any way, knowing that the multiverse is possible?
You always work together. I have good friends who I hardly realise are as brainy as they are. You mention their names in their own circles and people gasp stuff about Nobel Prizes and so forth when you've merely mentioned that they know how to crack a good joke. Both Greg and Jim Benford were characters (speaking of such things) in my early Tarzan Adventures strips. In those days, they were American schoolboys living on an army base in Germany. Now they are both very sophisticated and widely read physicists. A friend I used to climb with is regarded as the leading economic geographer in the world, but we met originally through an enthusiasm for Mervyn Peake.

Someone wrote in the New Statesman a year or so ago that 'multiverse' was a term invented by physicists to describe interlocking physical realities etc. I wrote and said that I, in fact, first used the term in that respect and that physicists were famous SF and comic readers... Most SF writers are used to their ideas creeping into the consciousness of the scientific community and from them back into the real world. I have actually reached the point where I will deliberately introduce an idea (about the nature of time, say) into a piece like the one I did recently for NATURE and then sit back and watch the boffins turn it all into formulae and possibility. You provide the poetics, they provide the rationale. This has been going on forever. You only have to read some of the writings of the first A-bomb team to see that. And morality is a dimension frequently considered by such people. As I wrote to Arthur Clarke recently --- sixty years ago Willy Ley was trying to kill us both. Now Willy's rocket and Arthur's satellite bring us both the life-saving full-strength BBC as we get less terrestrially mobile.

I live in a personal world without divided cultures. My friends are scientists who read Proust and poets who read about engineering problems. The only reason science isn't as popular as the arts amongst the chattering classes is that you have to know a bit about what you're saying with science while you can bullshit and exhibit the most appalling snobbery where the arts are concerned and nobody can call you on it. Science requires actual study and understanding. But I know a lot more scientists who have read James Joyce than literary novelists who have read Mandelbrot. Mandelbrot's the basis you start with, I think, for Chaos Theory. Brings it back to the original mathematical ideas. The few writers who do read Mandelbrot as much as Melville you generally find working in the margins. New Worlds was designed for the properly educated reader! To me a good education involves all aspects of culture and understanding. That kind of reader is as familiar with popular culture as they are with intellectual culture. I see myself very much in the old tradition of Wells and even Priestley --- a breed that now is only recognised in France --- the popular intellectual. In France it's possible to talk about these things quite easily, but that tradition has stayed alive, I suspect, in a way it hasn't in the Anglophone world. A rejection of Reaganomics has more than simple financial and quality of life benefits!

Finally... since this column is meant to expose the quality fringes of fantasy and sf, can you tell us about your plans for New Worlds Magazine's online version? Is there finally going to be a place for people to get good, cutting-edge fantasy and SF on the web?
This might not start properly until next year but I'm asking for input from other enthusiasts. My idea is to make it cyber-specific, encouraging narrative forms which utilize the internet and possibly can't even exist without it. Since my policy on NW was the same, I shall also publish outstanding conventional work if there is nowhere else for it to be published. But we are still working out method, payment and so on and I am determined on one thing only -- that I shan't wind up paying for it. This is a bad time to launch a new cyber-magazine, but I'm not sure I would have used advertising as a financing method, anyway. There are secondary means of funding it, but I haven't looked into anything very thoroughly yet. But remember this please -- New Worlds was presented and sold not as an SF or fantasy magazine -- but as 'renaissance' magazine -- dealing equally with science, art and literature. We even had a bit of social commentary in there occasionally. We deliberately aimed the magazine at a general public and from what we can tell, it had more influence on the general literary scene than it did on sf. Fantasy is not a genre. It is an attitude of mind.
And that, folks, is exactly it: fantasy is an attitude of mind. And if you want attitude in your fantasy, keep reading this column. Dislocated Fictions will feature all the writers that are bashing their heads against the monoliths of publishing in the hopes of having their own particular brand of ideas read by people like you; people that are discriminating in their readings. So here's hoping that their books keep coming out, and continue to gain readers, so that this column lasts a long time. It would only be right.

Copyright © 2001 Gabriel Chouinard

Gabe Chouinard is a writer and editor living in obscurity, struggling to get published by chucking rocks at the windows of the publishing industry and hoping someone will notice. He runs a Fantastic Metropolis Forum, semi-maintains a pathetic webpage at www.geocities.com/gabe_chouinard, and is editing the latest in a line of New Worlds anthologies. Still, he isn't making any money...


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