George Ttoouli has just finished reading Luke Kennard's novella, Holophin...This is one of those notes to self that feels fresh enough in my thinking that I want to share it here, in case someone else has input. (I'm increasingly using G&P to air ideas I've not got straight in my head, for which, trad-mag readers, I apologise. Go find a weekend supplement, they're more reliable.)
Firstly, Luke Kennard's novella, Holophin. I'm going to try and restrain myself from gushing praise, as Luke is a friend and has had enough PR from me. Read someone else on it: Annexe and also the trailer (rumour has it, Tom Chivers literally hung out of a plane at 25,000 feet to get that footage). It is, of course, wonderful reading, imaginatively fresh, technically surprising... etc. etc. I'm not entirely sure what the crazy chapter between 14 and 15 actually means, but it looks pretty.
Two isolated incidents I want to refer to:
1. In Holophin:
"the ... School's tutors have been re-hired as Learning Resource Managers. The Research Institute is no longer free - a luxury we cannot afford in such straitened times"
(I've elided some of this and not referenced precisely because some of this might constitute a spoiler otherwise.)
2. In Planet Shaped Horse (Nine Arches Press):
"The gate has no lock, but is operated by credit card, // charging you £1,500 each time you swipe to open it" (from 'Snob').
[The latter quotation was embellished by Luke in performance to something like, "£1,500 the first time, then £3,000, rising to £9,000 when you swipe to open it" so more obviously a reference to UK university tuition fees.]
Something I remember Luke saying in response to writing from personal experience: whatever happened to making stuff up?
Here's a writer who's also a university lecturer dishing out poetry about a man recovering from mental health problems waiting in a halfway house, and a[n] SF novella about a world supported by little dolphin stickers, with no little resemblance to Ghost in the Shell crossed with a war between Apple and Microsoft computing and a minor dash of Terminator thrown in for good measure. Plus fairytale, and maybe even The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. I'll stop there, the influences and connections are so manifold as to become meaningless after a while - it is an original synthesis of familiar tropes in a way that utterly delights. (Oh, more gushing...) But it reads fresh, the characters are made up, as far as I can tell, the world distinct from the genre comparisons, despite the odd homage. (This pitches into an awkward discussion about how easy it might be to demonstrate originality, when it's taken to mean organisation of language, rather than structural, or contextual organisation, but let's save that for another day.)
Anyway, two references to the privatisation of education, but transformed into the context of the two books' worlds (which I've elided in the first quote, but read it yourself and decide). I got these references and responded to the satire because it's an issue close to my heart, of course. Does it stand up, or is it a cheap shot at the real world, at contemporary society, which takes you out of the SF?
SF operates in a tension between utopia and reality. The reality we are living, what we understand of the world, its physics and society today, is the reader's point of reference for engaging with the [impossible / extrapolated / speculated / dys- / u-topian] world of an SF story. (SF doesn't have exclusive rights to this, of course, as Planet Shaped Horse demonstrates: an alternative reality world where everything is surreal but plausible through a distorted subjectivity.) Holophin falls into the category of speculative fiction in the main part - a dystopian world loosely based on technological projections and the replacement of nation states by corporations. You could argue there are elements of pure fantasy SF in there, in the context of the implausible energy and material resources that would have to drive Holophin's society (which only gets one minor reference), but let's leave that alone.
Well-executed satire is satisfying, right? Only it does leave you with that bitter taste of reality washing back in after a cool clear dram of escapism. That's called morality, or if I were feeling ungenerous, moralising, but done here in a delightfully Hogarthian way, a non-puritannical 'let's make entertaining stories and be good people at the same time!' kind of thing.
Is it satisfying enough? Here, the transformation of satire on privatisation of university education is entertaining, sure, but that's just one of the three elements of great writing: "magic, story, lesson" as Nabokov put it (PDF link); or in reverse order, 'educate, entertain, enchant' as Peter Blegvad rephrased it. Along with satire, the education of social critique, we want story, the context of the world, but what about enchantment? That feeling of flow that keeps us out of reality and in the story's new world, forgetting all the research I should have been doing this morning, not going to the library to work, because I was reading this book.
I think that came out of the urgency of Hatsuka's story: her relationship to her parents, the tension with Max, the super rich room mate. Then another kind of 'dropping out' of the story arose with a thread centring on depression - something else this shares with Planet Shaped Horse - a treatment that reminded me of Eggers' film version of Where the Wild Things Are, emotionally affecting enought to make me stop and think for a moment, also dropping me out of the flow of reading.
This is all beginning to get a bit incoherent. I have been trying to say something about how Luke has managed to transform elements of his personal experience - for example, university work, no doubt some emotional life as well, to help breathe life into the characters - into something highly entertaining, morally positive, and, within the whole, a sustained degree of enchantment also. Some moments that are so hilarious they put all the cheap chuckles of a 'comic writer' like Bill Bryson into the recycling bin and throw a petrol bomb in after them - equally, moments that drop you out of the story, because you can hear yourself laughing.
Maybe we need these moments - it's not a flaw to say you left the flow of reading, the page-turning. But you're acknowledging those moments when the story made you think, or feel; moments when you remembered you were human. The idea of being fully in the flow of a story would be meaningless without little reminders of the world you have to return to; it might even be a negative thing; you might start believing that you could escape the real world, your problems, rather than only leaving for a while to gain some perspective. (Maybe that's the problem with apathetic social idealism: it isn't facing up to the problems, it's trying to escape. Oh, another can of worms - I'm leaving them in to feed the trolls.)
OK, enough. If someone knows what I was trying to say, please fax it to Luke's departmental office at the University of Birmingham. They're barely funded by taxpayers money these days, so consider it an act of resistance against the Nautilus future I'm trying to prevent (read the book to get the reference). I'll close with a list of names I came up with at one am to describe the colour of Holophin's cover - more suggestions welcome:
Grape Grope (sadly, this one exists)
Bubblegum Vulva (blimey, so is this one)