The Jub Jub Bird

A literary blog with fantasy tendencies

Michal Ajvas Interview

A quick link to this interview with Michal Ajvas.  I’ve had my eye on Ajvas since Jeff Vandermeer listed The Other City as one his favourites from 2009.  Wierd fiction, world fiction, genre-bending and The Golden Age to follow.  It all sounds very interesting indeed.

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April 30, 2010 Posted by | Interviews | | Leave a comment

Mass Entertainment and Weird Fiction

A couple of discussions have been doing the rounds of late: the importance of looking beyond the demands of the mass market (raised by Damien Walter here and responded to by Paul Smith here); and the current state of New Weird and likely directions for Next Weird (discussed everywhere but most recently on Paul Jessup’s blog here).  The conversations have been running in parallel but there is clear overlap, and not just because Damien Walter is knee deep in both streams.  Perhaps all I’m doing here is summarising the bleeding obvious but I’ll write it down in an attempt to organize my thoughts.

I instinctively share Damien and Paul’s desire to look beyond the mainstream.  Scratch below the surface of any area of popular culture and there’s a hidden world of more obscure because more demanding, but potentially more rewarding work.  Almost by definition, popular culture has to represent a more sanitised version of the influential but perennially overlooked margins.   I’d pick up on Paul’s point about music in particular, as I’ve spent twenty odd years listening to brilliant but largely ignored alternative bands; some eventually make the cross-over to mass appeal others are forever fated to fly below the popular radar.  A couple of general rules apply though: 1) The underground is in the vanguard: where it goes, the mainstream eventually follows; and 2) When the mainstream catches up it is usually because the media and the marketing men are able to corral a number of disparate but loosely related artists into a recognizable movement or scene, which it can sell on to a wider audience.

Which brings us to the New Weird.  I’m relatively new here but it seems to be broadly accepted that New Weird is a loose collection of writers, and what they have in common has more to do with what they are not, than what they are.  Dialectically, they are not fat fantasy (fatasy – to use Adam Roberts’ term), with all its clichéd tropes and derivative associations.  New Weird writers fuse together elements from a wide range of genres, only one of which is fantasy, but the distinction is as much about style as subject matter.

To re-phrase Paul’s argument as it applies to New Weird…. Fatasy is inherently conservative stylistically: multi-volumed epics which emphasise world building, epic story-lines and the battle of good against evil, do not lend themselves to progressive evolution of technique, or to more nuanced studies of theme, characterization and society.  But real life isn’t an epic, it is contingent, compromised and rough around the edges.  No doubt this is why escapist epic fantasy is so popular (it’s a circular arrangement, which the publishing houses perpetuate) but it leaves acres of room for those who wish to explore other aspects of life and meaning in a fantasy setting.  So New Weird is a broad church, but on the whole it tends to be more tight (exception being the extended jazz-odyssey which is Perdido Street Station – though even that is a stand-alone novel) and jarring but also more equivocal  and contradictory.  There are no easy answers and no comfort zones of style or plot, for readers to fall back on.  Mainstream territory this is not, the terrain here is far more treacherous; the sharp edges and vertiginous dead-ends have been deliberately kept in place, readers have to find their own way to the summit.  The view from the top might not be as easy on the eye, but to those of us willing to make the effort, it is more life-affirming than the smooth certainties, the bracing-but-never-too-demanding walk, up the rolling hills of fatasy.

This is probably as good a definition of literary fantasy as I’m likely to articulate, so I should just knock it on the head now (I should certainly quit while I’m ahead with the mountain-climbing metaphor).  In terms of the Jub Jub’s stated aims though, I feel myself drawn increasingly towards the exponents of New Weird and Now Weird, because that’s where the ground-breaking and thought-provoking work is going on; weird is the vanguard.  The recent commodification of the movement means that more and more authors who are pushing the boundaries are being brought to our attention, which is great.  I believe it will also mean more and more of the weird imagery seeping in to popular culture, inevitably at the expense of the style, which will mean it ceases to be New Weird by (my, embryonic) definition. But the underground will continue to push the envelope and set the agenda; and the rules of the game are changing in its favour, with blogs and on-line publishing making it ever-easier for niche interest groups to come together, on sites like those highlighted by Damien.  Marginal literature of all forms, and weird writing in particular, will continue to find audiences regardless of mainstream prejudices, which may themselves become less important as the means of distribution becomes more accessible.

So where next for the New Weird?  Well, the mainstream.  Continuing the musical theme, I’ve made the analogy with prog-rock / punk-rock before, and it still holds for me (China Miéville is the new Johnny Rotten!).  If the aftermath of post-punk is anything to go by, after a massive jolt from fatasy to weird, and the subsequent death of New Weird itself, I suspect we’ll see a gradual expansion of weird themes into other genres and more traditional fantasy areas.  We’re already seeing some noir-weird, myth-weird, space-opera weird and horror-weird is well established; some of the more outlandish imagery will be toned down, to suit tastes, or as authors pursue different ends, but the weird influence will percolate further into popular consciousness and become increasingly established as part of the language of speculative fiction.  Pop will eat itself of course, so it’s only a matter of time before we have multi-volumed, epic weird fiction; in the meantime I hope we see a host of new, experimental writers, pushing the form in innovative and interesting directions, paving the way for the mainstream of tomorrow.

April 28, 2010 Posted by | Musings | 1 Comment

The Jub Jub Manifesto – Part 1

The Jub Jub’s mission is to shine a light on the very best examples of literary fantasy, and its practitioners.  It occurs to me that I should define exactly what I mean by literary fantasy, so I’ve been kicking about the idea of creating a manifesto for the Jub Jub niche: a set of necessary (but not sufficient) conditions to qualify for consideration for the highest accolades I can bestow (note-pad at the ready Rushdie).  It’s early days though and I want this to be an organic process, so I’m going to construct my critical edifice one supporting-wall at a time.

I have already defined what I mean by fantasy here.   When I came across this, admittedly ancient, but utterly inspired piece by Nick Lowe on plot devices, I decided to make it the first cornerstone of the manifesto.  There’s little more satisfying than an elegantly constructed plot, in my book;  I have always enjoyed piecing together implicit and explicit narrative elements, to complete the picture of the author’s vision.  The corollary to this statement is that there is little to spoil the reading experience more than poorly constructed narrative and transparent plot devices, which break the spell and draw attention to the author’s clunking hand.

Lowe’s piece raises some interesting issues for fantasy readers, myself included, because he challenges some of the basic tenets of the genre.  I played Dungeons and Dragons in my youth, and have always had a soft spot for the classic quest story, particularly if the adventure involves reclaiming magic items from dragons in dungeons.  I’d like to think that my critical faculties would baulk at anything too formulaic or self-serving but even so, as part of a broader canvas, questing after useful magical items has always fired my imagination.  Lowe posits the concept of plot coupons, whereby the seeds of the antagonist’s eventual downfall are placed strategically throughout the book by the author; all the characters need do is collect the magic coupons and save them up for use at the appropriate moment.  I love this insight but it calls for a clarification, I think, or perhaps a classification:  I would distinguish between works where the author establishes plot coupons at the outset and then spends the book simply joining the dots, and those where there are degrees of tension, characterisation, elliptical narrative or thematic strands, to leaven the otherwise stodgy device and threaten the inevitability of the outcome.  Any or all of these extra characteristics could elevate the whole, allowing for considered use of this established fantasy trope, without automatically consigning the book to David Gemmell Award status.

I also found myself thinking about rules in alternative universes.  Perhaps this is my genre bias showing through again, but I enjoy reading about worlds that are driven by different sets of rules to our own, whether this be something as straightforward as silver-kills-werewolves, for example, or more complex secondary world traditions of diplomacy, etiquette and rules of engagement.  Such rules serve as more than simple plot-devices in my view; they give greater depth to alternative worlds, distinguish them from our own and are often used satirically.  In any case, if rules encourage protagonists to come up with ingenious resolutions – as opposed to rules which appear from nowhere at convenient moments in the narrative – the plot device is justifiable.

That said, Lowe brilliantly nails some hoary old fantasy plotting conventions, reminding us all of the dangers of authorial omnipotence in general and in made-up worlds particularly.  I will make some allowances in recognition of genre tropes, but plotting which undermines my belief in the fictional world, or serves to remind me of the author’s presence – unless the author is being deliberately post-modern – will be looked upon very gravely indeed.  Authors, get out of the way!

Of course, nothing that Lowe says rules out the no-plot plot, an approach with which literary works are often associated.  I consider no-plot (not no plotting, which is a problem of an entirely different order), to be a unique subset of plot, potentially the most elegant type of all.

So, without further ado, I give you…..

The Jub Jub Manifesto, Point 1 – Elegant Plotting (Incorporating No-Plot and Post-Modernism).

April 22, 2010 Posted by | Lit Crit | 1 Comment

In The Night Garden – Catherynne M Valente

Towards the end of the Sandman cycle (Neil Gaiman’s now legendary comic book opus), there’s a six episode story-arc called World’s End, which features an inn at the centre of a raging blizzard.  The inn is a place where travelers between dimensions can shelter from reality storms, whiling away the time until the storm abates, by carousing and telling tales, in the Chaucerian tradition.  The format allows Gaiman to tell multiple short stories, and stories within stories, and sometimes stories within stories within stories.  While many of the tales told feature entirely new characters and settings, Gaiman uses the structure to weave in a number of references to the Sandman pantheon of characters and themes.  It is also an opportunity to pause and reflect, before embarking on the final climactic chapters, with some explicit foreshadowing to whet the appetite.  As storytelling is the very essence of the Dreaming, and the calm-before-the-storm timing is so apposite, World’s End works beautifully.  When I read that Catherynne M Valente had taken a similar nested-stories approach In The Night Garden, I was both intrigued and skeptical: intrigued because Valente’s oeuvre, more than anyone else, reminds me of Gaiman’s; but skeptical because nested-stories by their nature, tend to shift the focus away from narrative drive and invested protagonists.  I wasn’t sure how well such a structure would work in a stand-alone piece.

The eponymous garden surrounds the King’s palace; this being a fairytale we’re not told which King, or which Kingdom but at times he’s referred to as the Caliph and it feels all very Arabian Nights. There was once an orphan, who was cast out from the palace due to the unsettling birthmarks ‘around her eyes…stained a deep indigo-black, like ink pooled in china pots.’  Deprived of the palace amenities but with nowhere else to go, she lives off her wits, and the generosity of the local fauna, in the grounds and gardens.  She is shunned by palace staff as she grows-up ‘while thirteen summers like fat orange roses sprang and withered’ until one day, a young prince (naturally) approaches her to hear her tale.  This involves reading aloud the stories which are reproduced in minute detail across her eyelids, a pursuit which takes several nights and this whole book to accomplish.

At first, the tales themselves are the draw.  All the usual fairy-folk are present and correct: witches, wolves, foxes, polar bears, stars, serpents, fire-birds, centaurs, grandmothers, satyrs, mermaids, griffins, wizards, princes, maidens and more kings than you could shake a scepter at.  As advertised, tales are nested down through several layers at a time, with each narrator meeting somebody new who, in turn, tells their own story.  With the narrative voice changing so frequently, it can be difficult to keep track of it all but helpfully each new episode is the subject of a separate chapter – or chain of chapters – with names like: the Witch’s Tale and the Grandmother’s Tale Continued.  Valente is an accomplished teller-of-tales and effortlessly adopts a range of voices, drawing the reader in to a series (or should that be parallel?) of engaging tales.  The language is at once lush and earthy, restoring that link with nature and the elements, so absent from the majority of our lives today.  ‘Now the prince stole into the night, the shadows wrapping around him like slippery river eels, and his footfalls were black and soundless in the pine needles.  He journeyed through the forest, stars flooding overhead as though they had burst through some gilded dam…The trees made a roof of many tiles over his head, a scented mosaic studded with blue clouds.’  The effect is to re-create the tradition of stories told to an audience, sitting round a fire or tucked up in bed, purporting to describe and recount actual events; which is of course how folk-tales evolved.

Valente also employs a multitude of fairytale tropes; some she plays straight, others are subverted, usually to restore the gender balance to well-worn tales: maidens climb towers to rescue princes, ships are sailed by female crews, with lady captains and papesses rule spiritual worlds.  True to the grim nature of folk-tales, there’s plenty of dark deeds In The Night Garden: patricide, revenge, incest, extinctions – Valente has said that she wrote by continually dreaming up new ways to scare her audience – but surprisingly there’s very little portrayal of physical conflict.  Almost all the monsters, when they are tracked down to their lair, have stories of their own to tell, which cast them in a more sympathetic light and lead to some form of peaceful resolution.  Where deaths do occur they are accepted with fatalism – ‘to place your hands in the death of a beloved son is the most noble way to perish’ – and described in a matter of fact way.  The theme and style invite comparison with the Children’s Book but where Byatt remains steadfastly in the real world, Valente crosses the border into Faery and never returns.  The result is a far more fantastical, if less grounded, reading experience.

At times the fantastic elements border on the surreal: dead bodies are inhabited by creatures spawned by, and eventually resembling, the moon; mighty galleons grow out of trees, which have themselves grown from planks of wood; and various characters’ skins are peeled off, to be inhabited by others.  Transformation and mutation become running themes: ‘metamorphosis is the most profound of acts…without it nothing grows, nothing evolves, nothing expands.’  This hybridization, the embrace of the different, and the dark, lurid imagery is reminiscent of China Mieville’s New Crobuzon.  Many of these appropriated weird images, of course, have their roots in folk tales, which themselves have evolved and modified in their telling down the ages.  Valente appears to be going back to the source: New Old Weird anyone?

The stories and their Russian doll(s) structure are intriguing in themselves but inevitably, the individual fragments fit together as part of an over-arching tale. Al-A-Nur is the anointed city, a sparkling metropolis of dreams, with fountains of silver and glass and minarets of diamond and topaz,  ‘a carved box which holds the wisdom of the world…the paradise of the rich and wise’.  At the centre of the city, organized in concentric circles are twelve towers, each dedicated to a different religion, except for the central Tower of the Papess, which presides over the other faiths and ensures peace. One tower in particular, dedicated to Saint Sigrid, eventually becomes the focus of the principal story arc as we learn about Sigrid herself and the prophesy which foretells her return.  Al-A-Nur isn’t introduced until half way through the book, though earlier tales refer to it.  Once its presence is established the real arc begins but even then, sub-stories circle around the main thrust of the tale before eventually being drawn in towards the plug-hole of this book’s climax.

There are many thematic strands and my one reservation with this first half of the Orphan’s Tales duology, is that there are perhaps too many for the narrative to bear.  On top of those already mentioned, there’s a clear feminist strand: ‘Being a maiden, you see, is not quite the same as being alive.  It is more like being a statue.’  Plus ruminations on rules: ‘Where there is a witch and a prince there is a way.’; power: ‘Only princes believe in the greater good.  Kings know there is only the reign, and all things may be committed in its holy name.’; pluralism: ‘who can know what happened in the dim dawn of the world?  We do our best with how the world appears in our own eyes.’ and dysfunctional families: ‘it is rarely the places that birth us which see our true worth.’ amongst others.  The motif’s come thick and fast but with the main thrust of the narrative heading elsewhere, there’s a danger of them descending into aphorism, substituting for profundity.  I will withhold judgment on this point, until I’ve read the second installment – In The Cities of Coin and Spice – I hope that some of the more nascent thematic strands will be developed further.

In fact, while In The Night Garden is an engaging and intricate work of literature in its own right, Valente’s ultimate success in crafting a satisfying whole from these extremely promising raw materials, depends on how well the second volume pulls the strands together; something she’ll need to do if the comparisons with Gaiman are to stand up.  That said, this is a fantastic start: Valente has distilled the very essence of fairy-tales to fashion a modern and multi-faceted version of the Arabian Nights. The concentric structure leads to continual delights as the true story unfolds elliptically and while I hope there’s plenty more to come, the tales contained in this volume are more than enough to be going on with.  ‘I shall tell you another, even more strange and wonderful tomorrow, if you will return to the garden of the night.’ The orphan says to her prince.  I’ll certainly be going back, to that enchanted place where stories are told and imaginations can run wild, safe in the knowledge that nothing can harm us, no matter how frightened we may feel; at the end of every day.

Apart from anything else, I’m still waiting for Iggle Piggle to show up.

April 9, 2010 Posted by | Reviews | | 2 Comments