The End of all Things and Amnesia of the Soul: Moorcock, Harrison, and the Possibilities of Fantasy

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 15 March 2019 by Ben

This is my ICFA 2019 paper, which in part is taken from Here at the end of all things. At ICFA, it was presented on a panel on Michael Moorcock, along with papers by Tim Murphy and Mark Scroggins. The opening paragraphs here summarize much of part one of HATEOAT, while the paragraphs on Moorcock and Harrison are taken from part two, which deals with what I call the Tolkien Event and how it helped to cause the real subsumption of fantasy.

This paper describes how Michael Moorcock, in Stormbringer, and M. John Harrison, in Viriconium actualize certain concepts inherent to fantasy in ways that oppose their more conventional actualizations in the fantasy that follows from Tolkien. In the larger project from which I draw the following discussion, I define three key concepts important to what Brian Attebery once called the full fantasy tale: affectivity, desirability, and positivity. Of course, few if any fantasies fully embody or exhibit these concepts. They stand, rather, as tendencies within fantasy that help distinguish it from science fiction and other allegedly historicist genres. As the argument goes, science fiction, at its best, deals in historical problems and historical solutions to those problems. The novum, for example, creates a totalizing moment in a science fictional society whereby that society is transformed on a fundamental level. A world with time travel is not simply the same world with one more technology, but a world that is re-configured from the ground up with a new form of economy and politics and new social and cultural norms and institutions. The conflict of such science fiction often centers on attempts by this world or someone within it to come to grips with this new situation. At the end, the characters of this science fiction will arrive in a new place, albeit one they might understand as either good or bad depending on their position within it. Following Bernard Stiegler, I call this form of life, in which one makes use of one’s being to produce meaning, existence. In fantasy, so the argument goes, characters seek to return to a previous world, one prior to or outside of history and its conflicts and meanings, rather than arrive in a new one. Again following Stiegler, I call a form of life in which being and meaning are utterly congruent with one another consistence, and I argue that fantasy seeks such a state. Of course, it cannot produce such a state, since production requires and depends upon existence. Rather, it actualizes it in the reading process, by way of telling story. As John Clute would remind us, stories are narratives that are told and whose meaning emerges in the telling. This meaning is not abstractable. A story does not contain meaning, but is the meaning itself. And for Clute. the grammar of the full fantasy tale is called story.

However, I believe that we lack adequate concepts for describing how story works. Moreover, I do not believe that Clute’s four part structure of story—which moves from wrongness to thinning to recognition to return—takes us as far as we might go here because it implies four discrete steps that must be taken and therefore implies something altogether too rectilinear to adequately describe the circularity of story. In my larger project I therefore develop terms that describe how story works, terms that refer to relationships rather than to discrete steps or moments in a fantasy. I apologize for the number of terms I am throwing at you, but they come as a set and, I think, are far easier to understand in relation to one another than on their own. I refer to these concepts as affectivity, desirability, and positivity. Briefly put, affectivity binds characters to their worlds and readers to texts. Affectivity is a becoming, an openended process by which subjects become aware of their environments and the conflicts that surround them. Affectivity actualizes a relationship between subject and object, a meaningful one tantamount to magic. Desirability is not, as one might assume, a characteristic of a particular object we might covet. Rather, it refers to the conclusion of the conflict established by way of affectivity, As such it involves the liquidation and disappearance of the subjects and objects that took part in that conflict. Because they have fulfilled their desires, they are no longer necessary. Positivity, then, is the relationship between affectivity and desirability, the relationship of the becoming in which the subject-object pair discovers itself and the liquidation of that pair as discrete things. To put all of this another way, we might understand affectivity as the process of reading, of understanding the world. Likewise, we can understand desirability as the possession of knowledge that reading affords. Thus if affectivity involves the power of becoming, desirability is the quality of toldness. Positivity is the becoming-toldness of story.

In a fantasy such as The Lord of the Rings—or in many other conventional portal-quest fantasies—this becoming-toldness is quite easy to understand. Frodo and other ignorant or innocent characters are constantly told the story of Middle-Earth, which is to say they are given to understand its essential nature by way of a narrative that connects the distant past to the present and future in an honest and upstanding manner. In this context, affectivity amounts to their capacity to bind themselves to this story and the truths and dangers it involves. Ideally, this becoming, in which they are not only given facts to know but a hermaneutic and moral system by which they can systematize those facts, gives way to toldness, to their having knowledge of the world and how it works. The full possession of this knowledge, which is in Tolkien’s metaphysics always true and good, should allow for the loss of subjectivity that arrives with a fully inhabited belief. In reality, this process can never be completed in the material world or before you close the cover to the trilogy. It can only be achieved after the end, or in Valinor. In any case, the full movement, this becoming-toldness, provides an ideal for a certain type of fantasy, although it remains difficult to actualize. Many inferior fantasies, by Brooks or Eddings or McKiernan, rely on established tropes to suggest it but fail to achieve what Tolkien did.

Of course, Tolkien was not the first to work along these lines and we can find examples of other actualizations of affectivity, desirability, and positivity in fantasies that precede the trilogy, are contemporary to it, and that follow from it. In the larger project I discuss what I call the Tolkien event, by which the history of fantasy is understood as what leads to and follows from The Lord of the Rings. The texts I discuss here, and others by Mirlees, Dunsany, Peake, Anderson, Le Guin, and McKillip, make clear the extent to which there have always been movements in fantasy that remain unsubsumed and unsubsumable by dominant narratives of history and, moreover, actualizations of these concepts that depart from or even stand opposed to what Tolkien accomplished. As Moorcock once put it, “Generally speaking, fantasy stories can fall into two broad categories. There is the kind that permanently disturbs and the kind that comforts.” Of course, Moorcock would place Tolkien in the latter category even as he sought to produce examples of the former. However, despite his well-known hatred of Tolkien, I think that here Moorcock leaves the door open for a number of approaches to fantasy, an opening that this paper and the larger project take interest in. So, in the time that remains I will discuss Moorcock and Harrison in the context of the terms I hope I just made clear.

Moorcock’s Stormbringer, a full-length novel about the albino prince Elric of Melniboné, comprises stories first published in 1963 and 1964. It appears relatively early in Elric’s publication history, but serves as a chronological end to the narrative of Elric’s life. In fact, Stormbringer ends with the world utterly destroyed despite the apparent triumph of Elric and his companions, who have in the end only made possible a renewed Balance of Chaos and Law that must exclude everything that has led to this moment. The novel ends on a lifeless planet:

The world seemed a corpse, given life in corruption by virtue of the vermin which fed upon it.

Of mankind nothing was left, save for the three mounted on the dragons.

The conclusion of Elric’s narrative involves a world destroyed rather than one simply lacking magic and the consistence magic promises, a much more literal and final end than the one Frodo envisions or experiences when he speaks of “the end of all things” to Sam as they lay upon Mt. Doom awaiting what seems to them inevitable death. When Elric asks whether he shall ever see one of his companions again, that companion responds: “‘No, for we are both truly dead. Our age has gone.’” Another companion, Elric’s oldest and most loyal friend Moonglum, sacrifices himself to give Elric the strength to blow the Horn of Fate and bring the world to its conclusion finally and absolutely. Elric’s sword, the sentient, vampiric Stormbringer, then kills him and provides an inhuman witness to this end. This inhuman point of view, the novel Stormbringer itself, and the larger mythology of the multiverse in which Elric exists make clear that this end of all things will not be a permanent state in which literally nothing exists or takes place. There will be a new world, a new history, and new subjects of history, but all of this will be truly and radically new rather than a restoration of something previously fallen. The new world will never know the events that produced it, nor can the new world be known by those who lived through those events.

That this ending comes so early in Elric’s publication history means that it always awaits Elric and the reader in the future, as something impossible to avoid, and as something that provides a totalizing context for events even as they take place in the “present” of another tale. Moorcock thus does something uncommon in quest fantasy (and although the Elric stories have been conventionally understood as sword-and-sorcery Stormbringer can be productively understood in relation to the quest). By not only killing Elric, but utterly destroying his world and the very conditions that produced that world, Moorcock severs a certain relationship between the subject and the reader of fantasy. In Eddings, we see the problem of a rote prophecy that renders all action meaningless to both characters and to readers. After Stormbringer, the reader knows what Elric cannot: that his very being will end along with everything that made that being possible. As such, Elric experiences a grim desirability the reader cannot know. The reader will be forced to go on, knowing the limits of this going on and what these limits mean. Elric lives without this knowledge. This disjunction manifests, for example, in 1972’s Elric of Melnibone, which tells of events that take place early in Elric’s life. At the start of Book Three of this novel, Moorcock asks, “Was there ever a point where [Elric] might have turned off this road to despair, damnation and destruction?” In the context of this single text, this question refers to immediate events and their consequences, knowledge of which Elric may already possess or intuit. But in the larger context, already known to the reader but unknown and unknowable to Elric, we discover a gap between a desirability Elric inhabits but does not know and one that the reader knows but cannot inhabit. Later in the text, we discover something similar but even more specific when Elric contemplates Stormbringer: “Stormbringer needed to fight, for that was its reason for existence. Stormbringer needed to kill, for that was its source of energy, the living souls of men, demons—even gods.” Insofar as it severs the relation between protagonist and reader we come to expect from much fantasy—a relationship that tends to comfort rather than disturb—Moorcock’s desirability is rather different than Tolkien’s. Positivity, the becoming-toldness of story, if we can find it at all in Stormbringer, does not actualize for a subject of fantasy capable of grasping it. Story thus serves only as something unreachable and unknowable—even in the imagination. Moorcock’s multiverse can never know, live, or even represent consistence—nor can Moorcock’s reader, who always already understands that after the end there will be another beginning unknowable for those who live on this side of the divide.

M. John Harrison’s The Pastel City understands story in a manner contrary to both Moorcock’s Elric narratives and other fantasies of the era, such as Le Guin’s Earthsea books. Like these other fantasies, The Pastel City decenters and even disappoints the human. Unlike these other fantasies, it does not even offer a hope for consistence, whether in the form of an objective universal renewal that forecloses knowledge of the past and thus of what was renewed, as in Moorcock, or in the form of a subjectivization of the non-human world that simultaneously upholds the radical difference among all subjectivities, as in Le Guin. In fact, Harrison may reject Tolkien more than even Moorcock. In a 2003 editorial published in the midst of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (2001 – 2003), Harrison eviscerates Tolkien and his legacy, at one point simply stating, “Tolkien is no longer an influence on the innovators of the genre he invented.” On the condition of the genre generally, Harrison writes, “The real mistake of the fantasy factory was to cuckoo every other kind of fantasy out of the nest, to empty the category of genuine imagination, to turn it from a bazaar of the bizarre into the Do It All of ‘world building’ and pseudo history.” In short, the fantasy factory—what I understand as the production model characteristic of the genre’s real subsumption in 1977—insisted that all fantasy take its cues from Tolkien and start with world-building (what Tolkien called “subcreation”) and the facile implication of a deep history that world-building provides.

The world of Harrison’s Viriconium stories, of which The Pastel City is the first, could not be more different than Middle-earth. It has no higher purpose and has no capacity for progress. It has no history that anyone within it can know and seems to be in many respects “unbuilt.” Readers may struggle from one Viriconium text to the next to understand how they connect with one another, how any historical process could have produced the world of In Viriconium (1982) out of the world of A Storm of Wings (1980), for example. More often than not, characters in these stories struggle to know facts about the world. Moreover, they struggle even to grasp the extent of their ignorance about the principles that govern that world. As one character, someone who has spent his life trying to understand the dead and dying technologies that surround him is heard to say late in his life, “‘We waste our lives on half truths and nonsense. We waste them.’” Another character puts it this way: “‘You will not deny me this: no one who comes after [the height of human civilization] could read what is written there. All empires gutter, and leave a language their heirs cannot understand.’” Indeed, in the second Viriconium novel, A Storm of Wings, the Reborn Men from the height of human achievement (the so-called Afternoon Cultures), fail to successfully integrate themselves into the fallen world of the Evening Cultures. That later world has not simply come into being by way of a movement along an identifiable line according to comprehensible laws. Rather it has become something altogether different, something unknowable to them. Harrison writes, “The Reborn Men do not think as we do. They live in waking dreams, pursued by a past they do not understand, harried by a birthright which has no meaning to them: haunted by an amnesia of the soul.”

As Clute tells us, amnesia is common in fantasy. Conventionally, its presence bespeaks absent knowledge that is nonetheless fully recoverable. He writes, “Fantasy amnesia—unless it is imposed at the end of a tale in order to protect the protagonist, or the world, or the god—exists in order to be removed. Amnesia, in other words, is almost invariably a form of suspense.” There is no suspense in Viriconium, or at least not the suspense engendered by a looming end that might actualize desirability and thus the reconciliation of being and meaning. The end has already happened; there can be no recovery because there can be no knowledge of what might be recovered. By way of its utter denial of historical continuity with the past, the world of Viriconium mirrors the one whose rebirth is implied at the end of Stormbringer. However, the world of Viriconium denies any possibility of further renewal and does not acknowledge a punctual event that caused the rebirth to begin with. In short, Harrison’s world does not know, cannot know, and has never known itself. It remains unbuilt, outside of human knowledge, and without any history, real or otherwise. There is no way for the Reborn Men to remember, to understand (much less bridge) the gap between the world in which they died and the world in which they have been granted new life. Like the present denizens of the Evening Cultures, who cannot understand the past and can never hope to rebuild it, the Reborn Men can never go back nor can they bring the past forward into this new time. The material conditions of the world make both movements impossible. Viriconium suggests that, if story ever existed (debatable or even unlikely), the failure of history to provide a condition for permanent knowledge leads to horror’s aftermath and destroys the possibility of typical fantasy return, or even science fiction’s arrival. In Viriconium, the methods and products of modern knowledge techniques are nothing in and of themselves. They require something more that can never be and has never been, a fundamental link between being and space-time. In the ruins of the world, in a global salvage yard containing nothing but the remnants of the cultures that destroyed that world, there can be no understanding because there can be no essential memory of an existence through which one learned affectivity or pursued desirability, much less of a consistence that finally revealed them both in the light of positivity.

As we see, both Moorcock and Harrison oppose Tolkien and the sorts of relationships he actualized between subjects and worlds, between readers and texts. And yet, I think they remain within the fantasy genre (at least in these texts) for the fact that they engage with such relationships, either transforming them into something disturbing or acknowledging them in order to destroy them. In other words, Moorcock and Harrison don’t so much sweep Tolkien away but rather demonstrate other directions for fantasy, even if these directions suggest something that may depart from fantasy as we know it. The point here is not to denigrate Tolkien, although you may do as you wish on that front, of course. Rather, the point here is to discover something in fantasy that remains unsubsumed by neoliberal capitalism, something that cannot be exchanged in the context of history or posthistory. If affectivity, desirability, and positivity do not exist, but only consist in the process of reading, then they, I think, cannot be exchanged. They therefore remain insoluable to the logic of late capitalism, or semiocapitalism, or whatever term you like. Tolkien managed to actualize these concepts, but I think that many of his followers rely far too much on what we already know from The Lord of the Rings and therefore are part and parcel of the real subsumption of fantasy that was accomplished in 1977. However, Moorcock and Harrison—not to mention China Mieville, Daniel Heath Justice, NK Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Patrick Rothfuss, and many many others—demonstrate that there are other ways that we might actualize affectivity, desirability, and positivity and that, in fact, history might not be over yet. Thank you.

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A myth that creates itself: The Consistence of Story in The Kingkiller Chronicle

Posted in papers, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , on 4 March 2019 by Ben

Here is the text of a talk I gave today for the Literary Buffs, CU English’s undergrad club. It is written as a talk, and there remain in here some cues for me about time, so feel free to ignore all that. It’s a bit light on citation and the conclusion is not great, but I think it captures something of what I see Rothfuss doing. In any case, this is some very basic preliminary work for the final chapter of Here at the end of all things, which concludes with a chapter on Rothfuss’s and Okorafor’s respective actualization of story by way of of what I call positivity, or the becoming-toldness of story. If that makes no sense in this context, never fear. It likely won’t make sense in future contexts either. Hahaha.

Anyway, here is the talk:

After I give you my basic thesis and a sense of where we are headed, I am going to break this up into two parts. The first, about twelve minutes long, will deal with the context for the more specific argument in the second part of the talk, which is about twenty two minutes long. In short, I will summarize the critical discussion of fantasy into which I am intervening and my basic position on fantasy as a genre. In the second part, which is about twenty minutes long, I will discuss Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicle. If we want, I can pause after part one for a few minutes in case people have questions they would rather know the answer to now rather rather than later.

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ICFA Fantasy Theory Roundtable: James Gifford’s A Modernist Fantasy

Posted in Uncategorized on 21 January 2019 by Ben

Here is the proposal (since accepted) I put together fora fantasy theory roundtable at  ICFA 2019. The SF division has been doing this sort of thing for a long time, and I have been discussing doing one for the fantasy division for some time with division heads and some other interested parties. Thanks to Tim Murphy, who helped get me going this; Dan Creed, who offered advice and enthusiasm; and James Gifford, who wrote the book we will be discussing and agreed to come be a respondent to the panel.

As of now, the panel is scheduled for Thursday, March 14, 2019 4:15-5:45 p.m. at ICFA in Orlando. Hope to see you there.

If you need the reading, send me an email (to your right) or  find me on Twitter. I think that the reading will be made available through the IAFA site at some point as well, likely here (login required).

The Proposal

James Gifford’s A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic (2018) eschews the impulse to define or taxonomize genre fantasy that preoccupies so much of the scholarly work on the topic. Rather, it engages directly with criticisms, mainly from historical materialist scholars, that genre fantasy offers no politics and, thus, no engagement with capitalism or the labor of history. Gifford argues that a good deal of fantasy before Tolkien, and a fair bit that comes after Tolkien, exhibits a form of subjectivity and a challenge to authority very similar to those offered by anarchism. Marxian historical materialism, which tends to ignore the role of the individual in political contexts in favor of a consideration of class and the widespread determination of the superstructure by the base, has a long history of dismissing anarchist politics. In Gifford’s argument, this dismissal is of a piece with the dismissal of fantasy from this very same school of thought. This argument, therefore, opens up fantasy to political readings and distinguishes the genre from science fiction in a manner that avoids claims about its inherent inferiority. Beyond this important work, Gifford also offers in A Modernist Fantasy a close reading of the genre’s history, one focused on writers (from Morris and Mirrlees to Treece and Peake and on to Le Guin and Delany) who mainly exist outside of the generic conventions and constraints most readers know through Tolkien. Thus Gifford offers a theoretical paradigm through which to understand the genre by way of considering an understudied period of the genre’s history. Moreover, Gifford’s focus on the political possibilities of fantasy and the scholarly argument over those possibilities, fits well with the conference’s theme, “Politics and Conflict.”

For the roundtable itself, participants will be asked to read an excerpt from chapter one of A Modernist Fantasy. This section of chapter one, about 35 pages long, focuses on how the understanding of magic in several popular fantasies (by Brooks, Eddings, and Le Guin, for example) mirrors anarchism’s understanding of radical subjectivity. This reading would, I believe, be of great interest to members of ICFA’s fantasy division insofar as it takes up and engages with historical materialist readings of fantasy even as it moves past them. At the same time, it offers numerous readings of specific fantasy texts that will be recognizable to this group.

This session will be run as a discussion. I would offer a very brief opening remark about why I chose this reading and then open the floor to a conversation that, ideally, would be directed by the interests and desires of session attendees. James Gifford plans to attend the conference and is willing to be a respondent at the session. As such, I would set aside ten minutes at the end of the session for his comments and any final responses to those comments.

Remarks for Avengers vs. Jedi Roundtable

Posted in Conferences, papers, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , on 4 July 2018 by Ben

Some opening remarks for a roundtable I was just on for SFRA 2018. The topic was Avengers vs. Jedi and mainly focused on the problem of franchise and media consolidation in late late post post modern capitalism or whatever we are calling it these days.

Also, to be clear, I coined the term “naustalgia.”

patent-pending

More seriously, one of the ways I think we might distinguish between Star Wars and the MCU as franchises is by recognizing a difference between the former’s nostalgic logic and the latter’s easter egg logic. Franchises, I think, have to manage an audience’s affective response in order to maintain that audience’s interest in a sprawling storyworld and the media properties that express it. We all know that A New Hope is a key example of the nostalgia film insofar as it referred to eariler media properties such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. I have argued and would continue to argue that, very simply put, the challenge for Stars Wars in the Disney era has to do with producing and managing nostalgia for earlier iterations of the franchise even as it produces and manages novelty. To be clear, I am drawing a distinction between nostalgia for previous but distinct media objects and nostalgia for the media objects that belong to an extant franchise. With this distinction in mind, we can see that the MCU has not had to worry about franchise nostalgia quite yet as it has come into existence and sprawled so quickly—18 going on 19 films in about a decade. There is, of course, nostalgia in it for fans of comics and fans of these characters, but there is no nostalgia yet for past iterations of the MCU (although I can imagine that coming shortly and I wonder what the effect will be). There are, however, easter eggs (and note that I am probably using the term in a somewhat heterodox manner here). Some of these easter eggs are minor in terms of the overall MCU arc but are cool for fans of the comics, such as Howard the Duck’s appearance in the end credit scene in the first Guardians of the Galaxy. I am not sure there is any nostalgia there, but if there is, again, it’s not for the MCU but for some pre-MCU media object. Some of the easter eggs are more significant for an anticipatory quality that becomes clearer in retrospect, such as the appearance of what turns out to be the fake Infinity Gauntlet in Thor. Finally, some of them are tremendously consequential for both their revelation of the present and their determination of the future, such as the appearance of Thanos in a post-credit scene at the end of The Avengers—which also includes a cool but inconsequential easter egg for comics fans, the mention of “courting death” by the Other as he describes the battle with humanity that just took place. (And I would note that the proliferation of end credit scenes is an escalation of the easter egg logic behind the MCU.) I want to keep this short, so I will refrain from theorizing the distinctions between nostalgia and easter egg as logics, but suffice it to say I think that they are at odds with one another in terms of how they manage audience’s affective expectations in relation to the coherence of the overall franchise. And, finally, I will note that one of the reasons Solo is so terrible is that it tries to introduce easter egg logic to a franchise structured by nostalgia, a nostalgia especially complex with regard to the iconic character whose name is in the title despite being, it turns out, an utterly random easter egg.

My SFRA 2018 Paper: Captain America and General Intellect: Abstraction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Posted in Conferences, papers, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 4 July 2018 by Ben

This is the paper I gave yesterday at SFRA 2018 in Milwaukee. It’s part of a future project on the franchise as form. It’s a bit rough, but some of the broad strokes are there I think.

Captain America and General Intellect: Abstraction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I am going to start with two quotes from within the MCU that speak to my interest in franchise. The first is from Hawkeye, in Age of Ultron: “The city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.” The second is from Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, in an end-credits scene to The Winter Soldier “This isn’t the age of spies. This is not even the age of heroes. This is the age of miracles … and there’s nothing more horrifying than a miracle.” I will come back to these quotes below, but for now suffice it to say that what holds the MCU together is not its genre or its historicity, but the fact that it does not make sense. This is miraculous.

So, I am interested in how we interpret a franchise, what methods we use, and how those methods must necessarily challenge older methods that privilege objects whose relative stability derives from their clear date of publication, release, or whatever. I am not primarily interested, here anyway, in franchise as a production model or as a means to leverage fan engagement. But when we speak of interpreting franchise we must ask what we are interpreting exactly. Can we can call a franchise, such as the MCU, Star Wars, Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, a text? It would be difficult, I think, to call a franchise of any size a text, although we can say that franchises are made up of texts (all of which can be interpreted as such). We have other concepts available, including that of form. However, I am also not certain that franchises share clear formal characteristics such that we can easily compare them or establish a methodology that can account for all of them. Star Wars and Star Trek operate according to very different logics, I think, when we think about them at the level of franchise. Although they have both changed considerably over the courses of their respective histories, Star Trek begins with an episodic structure that still informs its overall development. By contrast, Star Wars begins with aspirations to a continuity and coherence of narrative that presents problems for its filmic iterations today. I realize that these are gross generalizations.

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Fragment on M. John Harrison’s Viriconium

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, Writing with tags , , , , , , on 4 June 2018 by Ben

I love Viriconium so much, and alas I can’t say as much about it in Here at the end of all things as I would like. So here is a fragment from some older writing that was meant for HATEOAT but must fall to the cutting room floor. It’s not really complete, or even coherent without the apparatus I built to explain it, but I hate just putting it in the “misc” file and forgetting about it.

Viriconium, or amnesia of the soul

The novellas and stories which make up Viriconium were published between 1971 and 1985, and thus operate in the wake of The Lord of the Rings. Certain parts of the overall text, especially The Pastel City, suggest Harrison’s knowledge of Tolkien. Nonetheless, in terms of tone and narrative, the Viriconium and The Lord of the Rings remain antithetical to one another. Most significantly, whereas The Lord of the Rings, like much fantasy, narrates the avoidance (or attempted avoidance) of some end, Viriconium takes that end as a given and begins in its aftermath, some indeterminate time after the fall of the so-called “Afternoon Cultures” and the high technology thereof:

Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of the Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them save to say that none of them lasted for less than a millennium, none for more than ten; that each extracted such secrets and obtained such comforts as its nature (and the nature of the universe) enabled it to find; and that each fell back from the universe in confusion, dwindled, and died.

The last of them left its name written in the stars, but no one who came later could read it. More important, perhaps, it built enduringly despite its failing strength—leaving certain technologies that, for good or ill, retained their properties of operation for well over over a thousand years. And more important still, it was the last of the Afternoon Cultures, and was followed by Evening, and by Viriconium.i

The Middle Period of the Earth” carries with it an echo of The Lord of the Rings, but in Viriconium “Middle” indicates the height from which the world has fallen rather than a mere transition away from fecundity and towards the end: the historical apotheosis of society, but importantly an apotheosis that was always unsustainable, one governed by an inevitable decay, and one antithetical to return.ii That is to say, this decay remains always irremediable. With no immortal elves to remember forever the events of the past with perfect clarity and guarantee their historicity, knowledge of the past mainly disappears. Even when the past reemerges, it remains unknowable, some shift in the world caused by the past itself giving rise to a failure of science, philosophy, literature, and all of the other means by which the human comes to understand itself by narrating the movement between no longer and not yet. Thus the desire to recover the past is, as one character puts it, foolish, drastic changes in the material conditions of the world wrought by history, a history only felt in its material effects and always incomprehensible in terms of its meaning, having made it so: “‘We should not strive too hard to imitate the Afternoon Cultures […] They killed this place with industry and left it for the big monitors. In part, if not in whole, they fell because they exhausted the land. We mine the metal they once used, for instance, because there is no ore left in the earth.’” He continues, “‘And in using it all up, they dictated that our achievements should be of a different quality to their—’”iii The survivors of whatever apocalypse did this to the world (or, if not apocalypse, the simple passage of time—the cause of this world’s aftermath remains unknown and unknowable). The current generation scavenges ruins for technology so “advanced” (despite its being historical) that it may as well be magic. As new problems arise, they can be dealt with on a local or immediate level at best. There are no more longterm solutions or trajectories any more than there is the possibility of going back to before it all happened. This is aftermath, when there remains nothing but problem.

The first of the novels and stories collected in Viriconium, The Pastel City, relates how a usurper to the throne of the realm, in the words of one of the realm’s defenders, “‘has woken something we cannot handle,’”iv something from the Afternoon Cultures that the Evening Cultures do not understand and cannot defeat, autonomous killing machines called the geteit chemosit: “All weapons are two-edged: it is the nature of weapons to be deadly to both user and victim—but these were the final weapon, the absolute product of a technology dedicated to exploitation of its environment and violent solution to political problems. They hate life. This is the way they were built.”v The quest to stop these automata and prevent the usurper from placing herself on the throne appears to be very similar to that of The Lord of the Rings and other such fantasies which task themselves with staving off the end of all things. However, the conflict with the geteit chemosit reveals an important difference between Viriconium and such fantasies, namely that in this world story is unknown and unknowable. The reasons, in fact the reason (in the sense of “rationale”), behind the quest are misunderstood. These automata are not evil in any way, as is the Ring finally and unequivocally, but technologies built in such a way that they might do one thing or another (the Ring only does one thing in the end, corrupt the world). Even if those in the present understand the two-edgedness of the geteit chemosit, they do not understand the nature of this two-edgedness, how it fits into story’s dictation of events. Later, we learn as much when one character reveals that they were not created to destroy, but rather to preserve, and that their present rampage arose because of a misunderstanding of their original function and the possibilities that original function might produce under new circumstances. Once this understanding is achieved, they are shut down. This solution, however, is the sort of solution that happens in aftermath: it produces nothing better, no new insight, no return (or even arrival).

This plotline negatively demonstrates the fundamental comprehensibility of the secondary world in much fantasy. However, of greater interest here is what comes of it. In the course of shutting down the geteit chemosit, one character resurrects individuals of the Afternoon Cultures, dubbed later “The Reborn Men.” As another character puts it, these individuals, for whom time will always be out of joint, present an even greater threat to the Evening Cultures than did the just defeated rampaging automata: “‘They are too beautiful […]; they are too accomplished. If you go on with this, there will be no new empire—instead, they will absorb us, and after a millennium’s pause, the Afternoon Cultures will resume their long sway over the earth.’”vi This claim will turn out to be correct: there will be no new empire, but not for the reason stated. Return is impossible for the Evening Cultures; they exist after the end and cannot go back to before the ending. Nor, whatever claims to the contrary, can the Afternoon Cultures themselves return. Their historical existence concluded, their very being finds itself radically out of place after the end. Several of the Reborn Men feature in the sequel to The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, in which their states of mind slowly decay: “The Reborn Men do not think as we do. They live in waking dreams, pursued by a past they do not understand, harried by a birthright which has no meaning for them: taunted by amnesia of the soul.”vii

iHarrison, Viriconium, 3.

iiNote that in The Lord of the Rings, Sarumon (as quoted by Gandalf), describes the forward movement of time in terms opposite those of Viriconium: “‘The Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing. The Younger Days are beginning” JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965), 339.

iiiHarrison, Viriconium, 42.

ivHarrison, Viriconium, 39.

vHarrison, 78.

viHarrison, 104.

viiHarrison, 113.

None of this is normal is going to be a real live book

Posted in None of this is normal, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 3 May 2018 by Ben

There is a page for it at the University of Minnesota website and everything.

See also the U of Minnesota P Fall 2018 catalog (PDF link) where it takes pride of place behind Brian Massumi, Allen Ginsberg, Werner Herzog, and a local Minnesota novel.

And, of course, you can pre-order it from Amazon and other fine and not-so-fine booksellers: B&N, BAM, IndieBound.