Saturday, 27 September 2008


I hesitated
before untying the bow
that bound this book together.

A black book:
Order Extra Leaves By Letter and Name

William Gibson's Agrippa (A Book of The Dead) is probably my favourite modern poem, and probably one that surprised Gibson fans that had typecast him as a writer of "cyberspace" SF novels (a series starting with the 1988 Neuromancer). The 1992 poem was originally conceived to be part of an art installation by Dennis Ashbaugh, using media that literally illustrated impermanence: a self-devouring floppy disk that could only be read once and a book printing in auto-fading ink, encased in a metallic container whose surface would corrode and flake off. As Gibson's introductory biography says, "Today, there seems to be some doubt as to whether any of these curious objects were ever actually constructed". But in any case, the poem was widely copied, making it somewhat paradoxical that it has achieved a degree of permanence.

Agrippa is more or less autobiographical, starting from descriptions of photos in an old album, an intensely evocative meditation on family history, change and the passage of time. Events of Gibson's life are seen throughout through the filter of "the mechanism" ...

The mechanism: stamped black tin,
Leatherette over cardboard, bits of boxwood,
A lens
The shutter falls
Dividing that from this.

... whether a literal mechanism of the camera or metaphorically through transformative experiences (such as when the narrator narrowly escapes shooting himself) where the past, or a past mindset, becomes irrevocably separated from the future.

A deal of mythology has accreted about the Agrippa installation and the poem itself: The Agrippa Files is a scholarly site that attempts to clarify the background. The official version of the poem (line breaks etc have tended to mutate with copying) can be found on Gibson's official site: Agrippa (A Book of the Dead).

P.S. I'd occasionally wondered why Eastman Kodak should call a photo album "Agrippa". Was it after the Roman general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, like the Swedish-made Agrippa binders? The alchemist and occultist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim? Or even the Agrippa who appears in Struwwelpeter's The Story of the Inky Boys? Or was it just a mundane pun for "a gripper" to securely hold photos? After all, the pun is pretty venerable, as in this ghost-exorcising joke

Vauntington: "... so I had at him with the Latin, Friar Bacon, Doctor Faustus, and Agrippa."
Dickory: "Ay, he be a gripper, indeed."

The Spectre Bridegroom - or, A Ghost in Spite of Himself, A Farce in Two Acts, WT Moncrieff, Cumberland's British Theatre, 1827

The Agrippa Files answered this question, where a facsimile of the Eastman Kodak catalogue shows the whole range to have historical-classical names of no particular logic or common theme: Othello, Trojan, Hercules, Vega, Nile, Ajax, Agrippa, Thebes, Juno and Apollo.

Addendum: I rather liked the latest McSweeney's parody, Chapter One of The Miracle Worker, as written by the other William Gibson; an intro to the biographical play about Helen Keller by this William Gibson, written in the style of Neuromancer.
- Ray

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Morphing landscapes

I shook my head. "These cliffs here," I indicated the rising pinnacles of warm reddish-brown stone that ringed the glade. "I watched them evolve from what were buildings back in the inhabited regions."
Keith Laumer, The Other Side of Time

Re-reading this book reminded me of the interesting art of Jacek Yerka and Rob Gonsalves. Both specialise in paintings where one portion of a scene morphs surreally into another. I'd characterise Yerka's works as "Dali-esque"; those of Gonsalves, which I personally prefer, are more "Escher-esque" and mathematically formal, in that repetitive motifs transform in a way quite strictly tied to perspective. Gonsalves' Canyon (in which a cityscape melds into a natural canyon as you look further into the distance) and Autumn Architecture (where a heap of leaves becomes a Gothic church) particularly resemble the Laumer quote. Other vaguely book-related examples: Written Worlds and Great Expectations

- Ray

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Lost in admiration

Further to Lost in a book, I think the last episode of ITV's Lost in Austen ended a brilliantly-conceived drama very satisfactorily. If you missed the series, the official ITV site has background and catchup links. (If you don't mind spoilers, there's a very positive Tim Teeman review at The Times here, and the ITV press centre has episode synopses #1, #2, #3, #4). I hope they don't feel the urge to spoil it by, as is often the case, trying to stretch it out to a sequel. But I'd bet money that a novelisation is in the pipeline. It'd be an interesting exercise because there are two options: the obvious one of writing it from the viewpoint of Amanda Price, the modern character who finds her way into the story; or more subtly, from an in-story viewpoint of any of the characters unaware of the modern intrusion, reconstructing the altered Pride and Prejudice as the story of a social set much-changed by the arrival of a gauche and enigmatic stranger.

Incidentally, I hadn't realised until Googling, just, how many reworkings of Pride and Prejudice there have been. Bridget Jones's Diary is well known to be a very loose retelling, and Bride and Prejudice as a Bollywood take. But further skimming, I find Melissa Nathan's Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field; Paula Marantz Cohen's Jane Austen in Boca; Gill Tavner's Pride and Prejudice (in her Jane Austen Retold series for younger readers); and, well, see Ms H Turner's astonishingly completist Listmania! compilations of Pride and Prejudice Sequels and Remakes, and Patricia Latkin's Looking for Jane in All the Wrong Places. And that's the published ones, not including Jane Austen fan fiction.

P.S. Lily just reminded me of another example: The Jane Austen Book Club, the film based on Karen Joy Fowler's novel of the same name, in which the members of an Austen reading group find their lives are mirroring characters in the books they're reading. I've also just noticed that Darcy and Elizabeth even turn up in the Wold Newton Universe mentioned in the previous post; in the latest revision of the timeline, they're among those irradiated by the Wold Newton meteorite, their descendants' family tree including Tarzan and Doc Savage.

P.P.S. I have, by the way, a soft spot for Jane Austen's work as a prime example of the use of venerable English construct often assumed (wrongly) to be a recent "PC" invention. See Everybody loves their Jane Austen on the antiquity, and ubiquity in the works of generally acclaimed writers, of singular "their" as a genderless construct in English.

- Ray

Monday, 15 September 2008


Further to Watchmen: The Movie, I see there's a serious glitch in the production - as The War for Watchmen reports, Fox and Warner Bros. are in dispute over the rights. Hopefully, as happened with Dukes of Hazzard, it'll just come down to a financial settlement rather than a permanent block, as films that at some level analyse the genre they portray are always interesting.

The superhero genre has been a remarkable literary/cultural phenomenon of the 20th century, conventionally traced to Segal & Schuster's invention of Superman in the late 1930s. However, the superhero wasn't entirely without precedent: Victorian and early 20th century fiction was full of crime-fighters, adventurers and villains with attributes such as particular costumes, special abilities and secret identities. Rather than try listing them, the easiest recomendation is to point to the The Wold Newton Universe, Philip José Farmer's lovely unifying conceit of the "Wold Newton Family". Its premise is that these outstanding fictional individuals - notably Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan and Doc Savage - are all related, their powers arising from mutations when the occupants of a carriage were exposed to radiation from the 1795 Wold Newton meteorite.

Nevertheless, the idea builds on mythic motifs going back as far as you like. M Night Shyamalan's film Unbreakable, which also analyses comic books, takes as its superhero definition one who has powers but a particular vulnerability. This fits Samson (super-strong as long as his hair isn't cut); Achilles and Siegfried (invulnerable except for one location), or Lleu Llaw Gyffes in the Mabinogion, who can't be killed

during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked, nor by any weapon lawfully made

Like Samson, he makes the mistake of telling his lover how this can be circumvented. If you ignore the vulnerability part, there are many others: in Greek mythology the obvious one is the super-strong Herakles (who meets at least one super-villain, Antaeus), and in Celtic mythology, the warrior band of the Fianna contained individuals with unusual and idiosyncratic powers. Quite apart from the basic qualifications ...

the applicant would stand in a waist-deep hole armed with a shield while nine warriors threw spears at him; if he was wounded, he failed. In another his hair would be braided, and he would be pursued through the forest; he would fail if he was caught, if a branch cracked under his feet, or if the braids in his hair were disturbed. He would have to be able to leap over a branch the height of his forehead, pass under one as low as his knee, and pull a thorn from his foot without slowing down. He also needed to be a skilled poet
- Wikipedia, probably paraphrased from Celtic Myth and Legend, Charles Squire, 1905

... many of the Fianna had special powers: Diarmuid Ua Duibhne had a "love spot" on his forehead, which would make any woman who saw it fall in love with him; Caílte mac Rónáin could run remarkably fast and communicate with animals; and the leader, Fionn mac Cumhaill, had tasted the Salmon of Knowledge after burning his thumb while cooking it, and could access special knowledge and wisdom thereafter (I suppose the equivalent of Googling) by sucking on that thumb. Another hero from the same mythology, Cúchulainn, achieved immense powers in battle by a shape-changing frenzy that makes the Incredible Hulk look effete. In his battle frenzy, termed "warp spasm" by the translator Thomas Kinsella, Cúchulainn became:

a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front... On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child... he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane couldn't probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. His mouth weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared, his lungs and his liver flapped in his mouth and throat, his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow, and fiery flakes large as a ram's fleece reached his mouth from his throat... The hair of his head twisted like the tange of a red thornbush stuck in a gap; if a royal apple tree with all its kingly fruit were shaken above him, scarce an apple would reach the ground but each would be spiked on a bristle of his hair as it stood up on his scalp with rage.
- The Táin, trans. Thomas Kinsella, Oxford University Press, 1969

There are similar examples - see Google Books - in The Epic Hero (Dean A Miller, JHU Press, 2002, ISBN 0801862396) which looks generally worth finding for its exhaustive survey of the characteristics of the epic hero (a deal of it is previewable via Google). Miller devotes considerable space to the many attempts by commentators - JG Frazer, FR Somerset (Lord Raglan), RB Onians, and Joseph Campbell - to fit into a common framework the often very similar life scripts of epic heroes. Judging by the Campbell section from The Epic Hero shows, Miller doesn't appear to much like Campbell's work, especially later when he turned very Jungian and New Age; nor is Miller the only critic (more later). Nevertheless, Campbell's analysis of hero myth is probably the most celebrated and popularly known.

Campbell's iconic work is The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which proposes a "monomyth", a single heroic story (commonly called the "Campbell Cycle"). In its simplest form, it can be summarised as

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man

Click to enlarge the diagram:

There are various text descriptions that describe it in more detail; Wikipedia's Monomyth page summarises it pretty well. The applicability as a storyline to a number of classic heroes such as Herakles and Gilgamesh (including major religious figures such as Moses and Jesus Christ) is pretty clear. Jesus, Herakles and Moses, for instance, all suffer threats on their lives in babyhood. There's a bit of a wimpy tendency for modern expositions to tone it down by removing the final fall from grace and death of the hero (with this final quadrant included, the monomyth looks like an allegory of the human life-span).

Many works of fiction draw on the concept; I first ran into it in John Barth's Chimera, a self-conscious exploration of mythic storytelling which interweaves the tales of Dunyazade (sister of Scheherazade), Perseus and Bellerophon (the above diagram comes from that book). MK Joseph's The Hole in the Zero has a segment explicitly showing the cyclic nature of a Campbell myth. In that segment, Paradine becomes such a hero, but finds himself in a book:

"Lord Paradine is, in fact, a typical example of the kind of heroic superman almost invariably invented in cultures undergoing a final period of steep decline, as compensation for the experience of cultural overthrow. They are then normally taken over and elaborated in the romance cycles of the succeeding culture".

How accepted an observation this is, I don't know, but it certainly fits King Arthur (suggested by some to be based on a chieftain holding out against the Saxons in the Sub-Roman period) and Robin Hood (a mythical Saxon guerilla in an England long since taken over by the Normans).

However, the Campbell Cycle has acquired a particular foothold in cinema.

Movie and other myths

The best-known cinematic connection is with Star Wars, who was a fan and friend of Campbell, which led to a great deal of synergy: see, for instance, The Power of Myth, in which Bill Moyers interviewed Campbell at Lucas' Skywalker Ranch; and The Mythology of Star Wars with George Lucas and Bill Moyers. How much the Campbell monomyth shaped the original Star Wars trilogy isn't entirely clear; some critics have spotted that Lucas didn't begin talking about Campbell motifs until after their completion, even suggesting a degree of retrofitting. For example, Steven Hart - Galactic gasbag, Salon - finds more credible roots in pulp SF, and Lucas himself acknowledged influence from Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress.

Campbell-spotting has become a bit of a hobby among movie buffs - The Matrix is another that's applicable with little effort - but it can be hard to separate stories that use a monomyth framework by happenstance from those that rework older heroic stories already following that framework, and those that use it by conscious choice (especially as Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey is standard reading for screenwriting courses).

Another director interested in the Campbell and myth is George Miller, and this manifested particularly in his post-apocalyptic Mad Max trilogy. These films, particularly Beyond Thunderdome, are full of standard mythic motifs - acquiring of helpers, puzzles and perils, and tricksters. The point where Max awakes from a coma to emerge from a cave in an idyllic gorge called Crack-in-the-Earth is about as blatant a figurative rebirth as you can get. Heroic Apocalypse: Mad Max, Mythology and the Millennium (Mick Broderick, orig. in Chris Sharrett (ed), Crisis Cinema: The Apocalyptic Idea in Postmodern Narrative Film, Maissoneuvre Press, Washington DC, 1993, pp. 250-272) is a detailed analysis in Campbellian terms; and there's more at Transparency Now's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: Salvaging the Future. (A couple of bits of Mad Max connection trivia: 1) the uncredited RiddleyWalkerisms in the "doing the tell" segment; 2) Paul A Cantor's lovely description of the works of Odd Nerdrum - such as The Water Protectors - as "the result if Rembrandt had painted the sets of The Road Warrior").

I don't 100% buy the Campbell interpretation of Mad Max. Even taking the whole trilogy together, in many ways Max doesn't fit the model of the Campbell hero. He doesn't particularly go on a quest. There is, arguably, a general theme of his personal development (from driven avenger toward altruism), but mostly he turns up out of the wilderness for routine aims such as finding fuel or recovering stolen property, eventually grudgingly facilitates the rescue of others, then departs back into the wilderness. In fact he is a character more in the mould of the "Man with No Name" style of hero whose story runs:

A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity.

This is not Campbell at all, but the "American Monomyth" postulated by the theologian Robert Jewett and the philosopher John Shelton Lawrence in their books beginning with the 1977 The American Monomyth. For the basics, see this Dialogic Interview with John Shelton Lawrence and this Humanist reviewof The Myth of the American Superhero. Jewett and Lawrence argue that American storytelling, particularly within modern cinema, focuses on an essentially antidemocratic monomyth involving a hero wading in to alter a society that isn't working. They argue further that this even flavours US social policy (paradoxically, in a society for which collective democracy is supposed to be a core ideal; the same phenomenon as noticed by revisionist historian Ray Raphael - see July 4th and invented traditions - who is also concerned at the USA's perception of its past in terms of superhuman figures).

There is, then, a dark side to heroic myth, and that's one of the aspects that appeals about Watchmen. It's not just about darkness for its own sake; there has been a drift toward darker treatments of superheroes, but movies (as in the latest Dark Knight interpretation of Batman) still lean toward an implicit "end justifies the means" conclusion. Watchmen, at least in the book, uses darkness in a way that subverts the genre; some of its nominal heroes are intrinsically toxic (the Comedian, for instance, shoots his pregnant mistress, attempts to rape a fellow crimefighter, and throughly enjoys napalming the enemy in Vietnam) - something that as Zach Snyder says would never be countenanced in mainstream superhero movies that are linked to corporate franchises.

It comes down to world-view. Generally the superhero world is one in which these powerful individuals are presented as trustworthy to make decisions on humanity's behalf, and Moore's Watchmen runs counter to that. The Tides of History: Alan Moore's Historiographic Vision explores his stance in detail; it argues that, unfortunately, the comics industry didn't grasp his intentions and took Watchmen merely as precedent to "transform superheroes into violent, amoral killers". The essay is at ImageTexT, "a peer-reviewed, open access journal dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of comics and related media", which looks likely to repay further exploration.

Addendum: I forget to mention that it was Talk Like a Pirate Day on September 19th - which reminds me of one of the premises of Watchmen. In its world where costumed crimefighters actually exist, comic genres had taken a different turn and focused instead on lurid pirate stories. Tales of the Black Freighter at The Boredom Festival has stripped out the extraneous main story to reconstruct Marooned, the counterpointed pirate comic within Watchmen, about a shipwrecked mariner undergoing a horrific journey to warn his home town. ("The Black Freighter" alludes to Seeräuber Jenny from Die Dreigroschenoper).

- Ray

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Bad Science book is out

A brief recommendation: Ben Goldacre's Bad Science (Fourth Estate, 2008, ISBN-13: 978-0007240197) is in print. For the benefit of the unconverted: Ben Goldacre is a writer, broadcaster, and medical doctor who writes the regular Bad Science column in the Guardian (the accompanying Bad Science website has a full archive and discussion forums).

The book's targets include health charlatans, dishonest advertising, media propagation of poorly-evidenced health factoids, drug manufacturers' medicalisation of problems of the human condition, and so on. The style promises to be like Goldacre's newspaper column - witty, aggressive and accessible (the description "tiggerish" has been used of his persona) but unafraid to tackle complex scientific issues such as double-blinded controlled trials, the statistics of evidence, and the placebo effect. His view is that the public is not stupid, merely steered toward wrong conclusions by a flood of media misinformation (such as a popular newspaper's crusade - documented here - "to divide all the inanimate objects in the world into those that cause or cure cancer") and the media's pull toward formulaic stories (a breakthrough or a controversy sells better than a report of the generally tentative and provisional results that scientific research usually provides).

See The Medicalisation of Everyday Life and The media’s MMR hoax for extracts from the book. Goldacre is interviewed here in the Daily Telegraph, where he argues that CP Snow's "Two Cultures" sciences vs. humanities miscommunication still exists, and has even worsened: "At least in Snow's era, science was just ignored - now people feel entitled to wade in and pass comment. It seems that science is being deliberately misrepresented and undermined".
- Ray

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Cautionary tales

Re-reading Kingsley's The Water-Babies reminded me of how dark and surreal Victorian children's fiction can be (bearing in mind that many works now viewed as children's classics, like The Water-Babies, weren't actually written for children. I just found online three of my favourites of this genre, all working on the premise of children's naughtiness creating changes in reality.

The most frightening is probably Lucy Lane Clifford's The New Mother, a fable in which a brother and sister are incited to naughtiness by a strange girl they meet after the fair has been in town. Their mother threatens that if the naughtiness continues, she will go away and they will get a new mother "with glass eyes and a wooden tail". This comes from Anyhow Stories, Moral and Otherwise (Macmillan, 1882) which included The New Mother.  Other Lucy Lane Clifford works were, for their time, considerably groundbreaking, such Mrs Keith's Crime, which concerns an ailing young widow who makes the considered decision to kill her also-consumptive daughter; and Aunt Anne, the story of a woman of 68 who marries a man of 27.

The background is interesting: a novelist and journalist, Clifford was half of a highly intellectual partnership as the wife of the philosopher and mathematician William Kingdon Clifford (see Such Silver Currents: the Story of William and Lucy Clifford 1845-1929, Monty Chisholm, Lutterworth Press, 2002, ISBN-13: 9780718830175). Charlotte Moore, writing in the Guardian (Mind the gap, Wednesday May 22 2002) reads another Clifford story, Wooden Tony, as a description of autism, suspecting it to be based on first-hand knowledge. From outside the world, the story of a girl who doesn't relate to human concerns, could also be interpreted in that light. However, Moore's implication that WK Clifford was autistic

She was "the wife of the philosopher and mathematician WK Clifford"; that phrase rings a warning bell"

doesn't especially wash. According to the ODNB, despite his mathematical genius he was an entertaining public speaker and a sociable and popular guy:

Clifford's friends described him as having an amicable attitude towards everyone but enjoying himself most when planning children's parties and joining in the entertainment.
- Albert C. Lewis, "Clifford, William Kingdon (1845–1879)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2006, accessed 7 Sept 2008

There's more about him and Lucy in the paper William Kingdon Clifford (1845–1879) and his wife Lucy (1846–1929) (PDF) by the abovementioned Monty Chisholm.

The second story I like is Harry's rash wish, and how the fairies granted it (The Hon. Mrs Greene, Frederick Warne and Co, 1891). This concerns a boy called Harry Thompson who is irritated by his baby sister and says, "I hate babies! I wish there were no such things in the world!". The next day he wakes and finds himself in a deserted landscape, where he eventually finds a single surviving man, 115 years old, who recalls how a century earlier someone's wish had caused no more babies to be born. Despite the twee mechanism of the wish, the story has a borderline-SF flavour (Greybeard by Brian Aldiss and The Children of Men by PD James naturally spring to mind). It can be found online here at the State University System of Florida libraries Literature for Children, or here at the Baldwin Library of Historical Children's Literature, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida (both excellent archives of this genre). The author, the Honourable Mrs Louisa Lilias (aka Lelias) Greene (1833-1886), was a minor Irish aristocrat, a daughter of one of the Baron Plunkets. Her works - see the Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature at Google Books - are largely forgotten.

A third story on the dangers of naughtiness and incautious wishing is Edith Nesbit's 1899 Whereyouwanttogoto or The Bouncible Ball. The author and political activist Edith Nesbit is best known for her children's classics, notably The Railway Children, Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet. Her stories didn't, however, exclusively target a child readership; Five Children and It (as a series of stories) and The Seven Dragons and Other Stories (from which Whereyouwanttogoto comes) were originally published in the Strand Magazine.

Whereyouwanttogoto concerns Selim and Thomasina, two bored siblings stuck with uptight relatives in London, who are transported by a sentient rubber ball to an idyllic magical seaside where they can play as they like, go to bed as late as they wish, and every meal is unsupervised and delicious. Yet this paradise proves a tenuous reality, which is instantly reshaped by wishes based in dissatisfaction.

The next day they got out as early as they could and played water football with the seal and the Bouncible Ball, and when dinnertime came it was lobster and ices. But Thomasina was in a bad temper. She said, "I wish it was duck." And before the words had left her lips it was cold mutton and ricepudding, and they had to sit up to table and eat it properly too, and the housemaid came round to see that they didn't leave any bits on the edges of their plates, or talk with their mouths full.

This idea has been revisited many times in later fiction; it reminds me of the Star Trek Old Series episode Shore Leave; or the Red Dwarf episode Better Than Life, in which Rimmer's negative thoughts sabotage a virtual reality paradise; or even the "monsters from the id" that destroyed the Krell in Forbidden Planet - a motif that Colin Wilson paid homage to in his novel The Philosopher's Stone, where much the same happens to his Lovecraftian Old Ones:

"They had overlooked one absurd point. As the conscious mind learnt to project its visions of reason and order, the vast energies of the subconscious writhed in their prison, and projected visions of chaos"

Addendum: Victorian Fantasy (Stephen Prickett, Baylor University Press, 2005, ISBN 1932792309) looks an interesting analysis of this subject ("Far from being just children's literature, Victorian fantasy is an art form that flourished in opposition to the repressive social and intellectual conditions of Victorianism"). Prickett, for instance, contrasts the approaches of Lucy Clifford and Edith Nesbit. He argues that the former exemplifies an approach of threatening children with irrational horrors (The New Mother, ostensibly a Christian moral tale about obedience, has far older archetypal deeps); while the latter sought to exorcise such horrors. Nesbit's stories feature supernatural creatures, but they are generally non-threatening when the children in the stories interact with them rationally. A deal of Victorian Fantasy is previewable via Google Books.
- Ray

Saturday, 6 September 2008

All the books in the world...

Via Bill Ectric's Place (a literary weblog I recommend), Mister Bookseller, an appropriately-themed short story in comic format by Darko Macan and Tihomir Čelanović.
- Ray

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Lost in a book

John Sutherland didn't like the sound of it (Plain Jane, please, Comment is free, Guardian, August 21 2008). But I found the first episode of ITV's Lost in Austen very enjoyable: based on the premise of a Jane Austen fan finding herself occupying a missing Elizabeth Bennet's place in Pride and Prejudice, it was well-produced, kept in character throughout, and worked at a variety of levels, from a moment-to-moment "fondant fancy of a drama" (the Radio Times reviewer called it) to a more subtly allusive take on the book for those who know the plot (see the annotated text at the Jane Austen site Republic of Pemberley).

Professor Sutherland likened the concept of Lost in Austen to a formulaic cross-fertilisation of Austen's DNA with that of Life on Mars; I'm mildly surprised he didn't make the connection with many other works using the same motif. Probably the best-known in mainstream literary circles is Woody Allen's The Kugelmass Episode, the story of an unhappily-married professor who meets a magician who can project him into the text of Flaubert's Madame Bovary, with horrible consequences when he finds himself in a very different book.

As described in the commentary at the unofficial Polish site,, the concept can be a vehicle for analysing the text. For instance, Ann-Marie MacDonald's play Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) drops an academic, Constance Ledbelly, into the world of Othello for "comedy, and a feminist reappraisal" (Alex Wheaton, review, dBmagazine). Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm uses essentially the same idea for satire by putting a highly rational modern young woman into the archaic and irrational world of "loam and lovechild" rural novels. However, the juxtaposition may equally make for less deep but interesting literary play for its own sake: the works of Jasper Fforde use it extensively, his whole series of Thursday Next books being based on the premise of entering alternative book-universes (the first, The Eyre Affair, takes place partially inside an alternative Jane Eyre in which Jane goes to India with St. John Rivers rather than marrying Rochester). Fforde, however, is far from the first: Robert Heinlein's 1980 The Number of the Beast took its heroes into Baum's Oz and a variant on Barsoom (the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs); and I first ran into accessible takes on the Elder Edda and Spenser's The Faerie Queene through de Camp & Pratt's Harold Shea series starting with The Incompleat Enchanter.

An interesting variant, where an external person is covertly written into a fictional context, is notorious on the fan fiction circuit as the "Mary-Sue", where that external person is the writer. Mary-Sue is, for instance, the impossible talented young ensign who saves the starship Enterprise and becomes the love of Captain Kirk (the male equivalent is the "Marty-Stu"). Too good to be true: 150 Years of Mary Sue by Pat Pflieger analyses the phenomenon, noting that it had its equivalents in the pages of the 19th century periodical Robert Merry's Museum. At The Other World blog, Clio: Mary-Sue in history argues further that it applies to some fictionalised historical biographies; one identified author admits, surprisingly, that to some extent it may be a fair cop.

Addendum: see The Yiddish Policeman's Universe, a post at Felix Grant's Growlery, where we're swapping examples of books and other works that, in various senses, explore alternate realities.

Addendum #2: Another view (Professor Kathryn Sutherland, The Guardian, Tuesday September 9 2008) : the author of Jane Austen's Textual Lives (OUP, 2005, ISBN 0199258724) takes a further glance at Lost in Austen. The piece doesn't say much, but does note what I thought was part of its interest: that it's not just playing with the novel, but also alluding to previous film and TV adaptations. I didn't realise that there's also a book by Emma Campbell Webster - Lost in Austen (UK title Being Elizabeth Bennet) which presents commentary on Jane Austen's novels in role-play format - some choices leading to lethal outcomes - in what looks like a highly creative way to explore familiar texts.

Follow-up: there's more comment and discussion in a later post, Lost in admiration.

- Ray