Genre: the ossification of literature?

Paul Raven @ 13-08-2010

Damien G Walter in full-on chin-strokin’ literati ponder-mode (which is how I like him best): genres are the fossils left by movements.

Movements are conversations between writers, conducted through stories. During the period of movement, writers are talking to each other, exchanging ideas and generally discussing how to move the art of fiction forward. As these conversations develop, the movement develops identifiable motifs. Over time, these motifs solidify in to tropes, which become genres.

Some examples. William Gibson, Bruce Sterling et al shape a movement to reform Hard-SF, which results in the Cyberpunk genre. (And also the Steampunk genre) J.R.R Tolkien, C.S.Lewis and the other Inklings form a movement to bring mythic values back to modern stories, and some decades later the Epic Fantasy genre is the outcome. A motley crew of British and US writers have the ambition to write fantasy and horror with added literary value, and a decade later we have the squid obsessed New Weird.

It’s a workable theory. But what about po-mo genre revivalism, retrogenres, mash-ups?

Is there a movement in the other direction, where writers eat up the fossilised genres to fuel new movements?

Of course there is, because it’s easier than finding new alternatives. Fossil fuels… heh, timely metaphor. 🙂


The self-made myth of Michael jackson

Paul Raven @ 28-04-2010

Jackson/Monroe/Warhol mashup posterI’ve never been a fan of Michael Jackson’s music, but I have something of a fascination with his status as a larger- (and weirder-) than-life public figure… a status that his recent death will probably do little to dull, at least in the relatively near-term, and possibly forever. [image by 416style]

As such, I heartily recommend you read this piece by Brian Dillon at The Guardian: “Michael Jackson: king of hypochondria” raises the point that some of the earliest weird tales about Whacko Jacko were in fact created (or at least authorised) by Jackson himself.

When pictures of his visit to the hospital for that purpose made their way to the National Enquirer, Jackson seems to have seen an opportunity to make himself appear more enigmatic in the public mind. It was a curious change in attitude, considering his previous anguished responses to rumours about his personal life: his alleged homosexuality, his supposed decision to have a sex change in the late 70s and the initial media reports that his obvious recourse to plastic surgery was spurred by a desire to look like his mentor Diana Ross. Whatever led Jackson to court notoriety now, the ruse certainly worked; it prompted just the first and perhaps least disturbing of the many bizarre stories that would emerge about him in the years to come.

Though it was not true, the “oxygen tent” story now seems to presage so much about Jackson’s decline that it is hard not to read the image that accompanied it as an emblem of his eventual predicament: reclusive, ailing and unable to reverse his toxic reputation for eccentricity and worse. For the young man in the photograph – whose skin is still brown, whose face has changed since his early 20s but not yet taken on the inhuman aspect of his middle age, whose dancer’s body is not yet emaciated – already resembles nothing so much as a sacred or royal corpse.

Almost every book I’ve read on postmodernism cites Madonna as the quintessential self-made multi-myth, shrugging symbolic identities on and off in order to surf the Zeitgeist and keep the punters interested. That’s somewhat similar to David Bowie’s perpetual reinvention of himself as a symbol (of himself, and of other things), though I’d suggest that Bowie was less interested in being a pop sensation than exploring new avenues that interested him, with a very variable success rate (Tin Machine, anyone?)…

But Jackson just kept grafting new bits on to the same image (literally as well as figuratively), and as such became something bigger than he or his organisation could truly control. I can’t help but feel that, as such, he somehow presaged the uncontrollable runaway meme phenomenons that are such a feature of global internet culture.

Furthermore, it makes him – to my mind at least – an intensely science fictional phenomenon, as well as a postmodern one (if there’s any serious difference between those two things, which I’m less and less sure of as the days go by). The story of Michael Jackson is inherently mediated by the preconceptions of the person reading him as a text, and by the choice of references they use in that reading. The “real” Michael Jackson eventually became such a tiny and insignificant part of the maelstrom of images and stories that surrounded him that he could probably have died long before he did without costing that story any weight or momentum.

There are so many riffs to play around Michael Jackson: riffs of identity-as-narrative (and narrative-as-identity), of the power of PR and dis/mythinformation, about our willingness to believe falsehoods if they tell us what we want to hear, about the increasingly intangible border between a product and its marketing, about becoming the story you tell about yourself, and about that story mutating once it’s too big to control, about self-fulfilling prophecies, about the lonely frightened people sat at the centre of the images we create of ourselves in the public sphere.

The story of Michael Jackson is a very sad one, however it’s told and whoever it’s told by… and it’s all the more sad because his story is, to a greater or lesser extent, our story too.


Mazes & Minotaurs: dice-and-paper RPGs go meta

Paul Raven @ 12-01-2010

Thanks to Cheryl Morgan for spotting this one: it seems that even the humble roleplaying game has achieved sufficient cultural escape velocity to enter the penumbra of postmodernism. Enter Mazes & Minotaurs, a set of RPG rules that purports to be “what the first fantasy roleplaying game could have been if its authors had taken their inspiration from Jason & the Argonauts (yes, the 1963 movie with all the cool Ray Harryhausen monsters) and Homer’s Odyssey rather than from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts & Three Lions.”

Unlike many of the more postmodern experiments one encounters, the Mazes & Minotaurs gang seem fairly upfront about admitting that their creation is pastiche and homage at once. But they’ve made considerable effort to echo the styles and formats of the early iterations of Dungeons & Dragons, with the rulebooks masquerading as reprints of vintage material from the 70s and 80s; for example, the “1972 original rules” were in fact published (for free) in 2006.

M&M is apparently designed to be fully playable, so it’s not just an exercise in nostalgic fan-wank… though whether it ever acquires enough players to become a genuine “scene” in its own right is another question entirely. Perhaps a carefully-made mockumentary a la The Story of Anvil could kick-start a knowingly-ironic retro RPG revival?


Brain-food: white hats, anti-hackers and post-modern political loyalty

Paul Raven @ 12-11-2009

By way of an experiment, I thought I’d round up a handful of links which made for interesting reading, but about which I felt no particular urge to editorialise (or waffle tangentially, if there’s any measurable difference between the two in my case). If you like the format, let me know in the comments and I’ll do more of them in future. Now, let’s see what we’ve got here…

  • Have you ever wondered why it is that the good guys always wear white? If so, MetaFilter has a comprehensive round-up of pieces about the psychological and/or neuroscientific roots of our association of blackness and whiteness with badness and goodness.
  • If you’ve ever wanted an insight to the world of the computer security professional, SlashDot points to an account by the FireEye Malware Intelligence Lab about their recent beheading of the Ozdok botnet. Simultaneously fascinating in the manner of occult literature (e.g. full of bizarre words and phrases for which most of us have no context whatsoever) and mundane in the manner of a corporate progress report (it’s mainly lists of domain names and IP addresses), it’s an insight into the language and attitudes of a profession we largely ignore, and the sphere in which they work. Great research material for anyone writing a story featuring hackers and counter-hackers.
  • And if you’ve wondered about my curious and relentless obsession with charting the withering of the nation-state as the uppermost level of global political structure, the two minutes it will take you to read this post by John Robb will explain it more thoroughly and concisely than I’ve ever been able to do, despite coming to a similar (though much less elegantly formed) conclusion some number of years ago. Here’s the first half:

    Globalization is in the process of eviscerating traditional loyalties. In the 20th Century, loyalty to the nation-state (nationalism, often interwoven with ideology), was supreme. In today’s environment, a global marketplace is now the supreme power over the land. It has drained the power of nation-states to control their finances, borders, people, etc. Traditional ideologies and political solutions are in disarray as the fluctuating and often conflicting needs of the global marketplace override all other concerns. As a result, nation-states are finding it increasingly impossible to govern and the political goods they can deliver are being depleted.

So, there’s some brain-food for your Thursday – tuck in! Do let me know if you’d like to see more of these bite-sized morsels on Futurismic.


REAL CITY by Carrie Vaughn

Jeremy Lyon @ 01-06-2006

Carrie Vaughn‘s “Real City” is a modern Hollywood fable set in a post-post-modern future.

Real City

by Carrie Vaughn

Stalking around the party without her referencing link flashing names and stats at her felt a little like being drunk. It was Cass’s way of making an adventure for herself. Off-balance, senses muffled, she indulged in self-induced paranoia. Smiling faces, links hooked to their ears, nodded in greeting as she passed. They all knew who she was, thanks to their links, and she hadn’t a damn clue about two-thirds of the people here. She was working blind and stupid, and it made her giddy, along with the glass of wine she’d had.

It seemed like most of Hollywood had shown up for the RealCity Productions launch party. Probably because they all wanted to be able to say they’d been here and known the company was doomed from the start.

Vim had said they had to have a party to manufacture hype.

“We don’t have the money for that kind of party,” she’d told him.

“Oh, but we will! We have to throw parties like this if we’re ever going to have enough money to throw parties like this!” Continue reading “REAL CITY by Carrie Vaughn”


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