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Escapism as a political failing?

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  • Escapism as a political failing?

    Greetings,

    I've been reading this forum for about a year now, but this is my first post. You people have created the most impressive author community I've ever come upon on the internet. Bravo!

    I started devouring MM around 1970 and have read, I believe, everything (well, okay, everything not written by E.P. Bradbury!) I've really enjoy a lot of the more peripheral works--Retreat from Liberty, Great Rock n' Roll Swindle, Breakfast in the Ruins, etc.--but as a lover of the fantastic in literature, have always had a very soft spot for Corum, Hawkmoon, the whole EC gamut.

    Which brings me to the point of this. I read through the earlier post about China Mieville's Socialist fantasy top 50, and enjoyed his list a lot. While writing about M. John Harrison he brings up a concept that MM has touched on before. I quote from China, regarding Harrison:

    "Fantasy that mercilessly uncovers the alienated nature of the longing for fantastic escape, and show how that fantasy will always remain out of reach. Punishes his readers and characters for their involvement with fantasy."

    I must admit, that's a disquieting concept. Certainly MM is a master at subverting the traditional, oftentimes reactionary nature of escapist fantasy, but at the same time he has certainly been successful a creating staggeringly escape-worthy worlds for those of us who enjoy dreaming of universes beyond this one. Mieville himself, in his more Vandermeeresque moments, also seems to derive great enjoyment from imagining landscapes that are as spectral and haunting as anything Clark Ashton Smith ever conceived.

    There's a real dichotomy here, and it comes up ocassionally in threads here, especially ones that have discussed LOTR in the past. To me, the human desire to escape into the imagination is the same as the urge to imbibe a drug or fall into any kind of hedonistic pastime--that is to say, completely natural. And yet, there's an implication that this is not okay if one is to be a politically aware, Socialistically-minded, grounded individual.

    It's a paradox that has always been a mystery to me. Reminds me of some early MM collection that had a couple drawings (by Jim Cawthorn maybe?) of the author as Hedonist, as Anarchist, etc. It seems we all have many faces to wear...

    Best wishes.

    Russell Briggs
    Nelson, New Zealand

  • #2
    Most good successful fiction, including MJH's, succeeds precisely because it does both -- provides an escapist closed universe of some description (Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad -- anyone in the Great Tradition), tells a
    great story as well as causing us to confront new ideas about people, society, ideas. My argument is with fiction which pretends to do otherwise, which takes the stuff of the daily tabloids, commonalities, and frames them as profundities, as original thought. This is the worst sort of escapism to me. My argument with most best-selling fiction (and this isn't meant to start another discussion about Tolkien) is that fundamentally it is offering eternal sentimentalities rather than eternal verities. That it confirms conventional sentiment rather than subverting it. These best-sellers will always have a wider audience than, say, Mieville, Harrison or Ballard, because they are sufficiently familiar not to offend anyone. The author who can sell large numbers while offering work which does somehow subvert common sentimentality is to be much admired. I have no problem with MJH or China Mieville. I think they get better and better at doing what I admire. Some of the problems I have with Graham Greene, I must say, are that he seems very good at dressing up emotional tricks so that they seem profound. I have the same trouble with Waugh. And Hemingway. This isn't to say that they aren't good writers, just that I don't see them as very original writers.
    I invoke these names knowingly, because there are many people I know who would seriously disagree with me. But that's how it works for me.
    I have some trouble with Coatzee, too, for instance. Never, however, with Woolf or Bowen or Conrad. Strike them where you will, they always ring true. I think this is also the case with Thomas Mann and a handful of other 20th century writers. I think it's true of Meredith, but I have a bit of trouble with Hardy (beautiful writer though he is). Where
    Dickens is concerned, you know you are going to get conventional sentiment, yet the genius is so overwhelming that you forgive him everything because somehow, at his best, he manages to offer the truth in spite of his almost pathological need to give the reader a happy ending.
    Great Expectations, for instance, can be read until the ultimate chapter, which can be torn out and thrown away. He only put it in because Thackeray made him scared of losing a readership to which by then he had become entirely addicted. My argument with Tolkien, I should reiterate, is not actually with Tolkien -- it is with those who insist on his literary merits. Tolkien never set out to offer anything but a fairy tale with a happy ending. He said so. In my own fantasies I believe my first job is to offer the reader what they expect from a good fantasy novel. That was why I was perfectly prepared to bow to the original editor's request with City in the Autumn Stars and cut it. One of the reasons I'm retiring from writing heroic fantasy is because I feel I can't
    offer the reader what the reader has a right to expect, at least not in the form of novels.

    Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in Europe:
    The Whispering Swarm: Book One of the Sanctuary of the White Friars - The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction
    Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles - Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - Modem Times 2.0 - The Sunday Books - The Sundered Worlds


    Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in the USA:
    The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction - The Sunday Books - Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles
    Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - The Sundered Worlds - The Winds of Limbo - Modem Times 2.0 - Elric: Swords and Roses

    Comment


    • #3
      Interesting that my thoughts led you to write about non-speculative fiction. With the exception of, perhaps, Dickens, what I ask for and expect from mundane fiction is quite a bit different than what I expect from speculative fiction. I suspect I subscribe to Chip Delany's differentiation of the genres--fiction of the objective vs. fiction of the subjective--more than you.

      The enchantments of Viriconium, New Perdido, Veniss, Tanelorn and a large host of others (far more than the discriminating bandwidth of an MM would tolerate!) remain quite seductive to me. The fact that your worlds, and those of like-minded writers, make me feel more comfortable than, say, the equally detailed, but politically creepy universe of a Robert Jordan, is a plus, I suppose; but I still don't know if it's quite ingenuous for a fantasy author to embrace the concept that fantasy by definition is a reactionary art-form, which is what I took as Mieville's meaning. I would love to know what MJH thinks about Viriconium: Vehicle for political commentary on today's world, or really damn cool place to spend time thinking and writing about?

      Russell

      Comment


      • #4
        Originally posted by TheAdlerian
        So, the reader might find themselves generally dissatisfied with literally every single aspect of their lives and also find themselves as a master of nonsense. The person in question would be the stereotype of the comic book nerd or the D&D nerd.
        I got bored really quickly with following a gamemasters plot or his intentions with our characters. I always liked f**king it up for him.
        I guess i did not like being controlled or conformed to fit into the imagination of the GM. Alot of other practical people thought the same way as i did, i think? Imagine all those hours spent, by the GM, reading those nonsense 'sourcebooks' and 'campaigns' only to see it all crumbling down with our PC's obscure behaviours. We still laugh at it sometimes when we recollect the chain-reactions which followed. I never liked being the GM, ( i have Elric stowed away), i was too lazy and uninterested to take escapism too seriously. A conclusion i came to a couple of years ago.

        The good thing with RPG's is that it got me into more litterature than anything else i guess. And it got me more interested in history.

        I do, on the other hand, get really annoyed with people who take the conventions too seriously. I tried and hated "Live RPG". Where people retreat to the forest playing 'elves' and-what-not, only to have land-owners chase them around with shotguns, thinking they are satanists.(true story!) *LOL*. Imagination runs wild! :twisted:

        I left before the land owner showed up though.

        Reality really bites back sometimes!

        With PC games i sometimes cheat 'just for the hell of it'!

        Comment


        • #5
          Originally posted by TheAdlerian
          I think that it is unfair to imply or demand that people not be able to take a break from reality for a change. I think that it is good for the mental health.
          Bravo!

          One must remember where Comrade Mieville is coming from and the drab tradition of 'socialist realism' it spawned. No doubt he would tell you that this was all Stalin's fault (as was everything that went wrong in the last century), but his somewhat guilt-ridden statement clearly likens fantasy to religion as a form of alienated experience.

          Au contraire, perhaps the real danger is when one starts to act out one's fantasies (be they religious or otherwise) in the real world. Possibly fiction is at its most duplicitous when it purports to be a depiction of reality. Apart from a few troubled souls, who could think that of Tolkien?

          From personal experience, just because I choose to luxuriate in imagined worlds for recreation, it doesn't neutralise me politically, any more than would a passionate devotion to soccer, for example. Just keep it in proportion. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!
          \"...an ape reft of his tail, and grown rusty at climbing, who yet feels himself to be a symbol and the frail representative of Omnipotence in a place that is not home.\" James Branch Cabell

          Comment


          • #6
            Hope you're joking, pard. Much socialist realism was indeed crap, but as people are beginning to discover, much wasn't. Authors are sneaky creatures and can find ways round the restrictions, sometimes making the work all the better for it. I remember reading Paustovski and admiring his cleverness of telling his readers the truth while appearing to toe the party line. Triple entendres! That said, the immediate pre-revolutionary period gave us a tremendous burst of literary experiment with some wonderful writing and several of those writers continued through the entire Soviet period. Also, we still have Benya Krik, Red Cavalry, plays and movie scripts from Isaac Babel, whose recklessness
            got him shot. China Mieville's work owes a lot more to Lovecraft than it does to my fictional socialist realist Ivan Turgiditi (author of the many-volumed Wet Socks: Big Factory). And then there are the poets who managed to stay alive Pasternak, Akhmatova and so on. Amazing how much fine work flourished under Stalin, who had a soft spot for good writers (as much as he had a soft spot at all). Mieville's Iron Council deals with the MOTIVES of revolutionists and as such might have been set in a South Amrican republic, if he hadn't preferred to make his setting a gorgeous, fantastic alternative Earth.

            Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in Europe:
            The Whispering Swarm: Book One of the Sanctuary of the White Friars - The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction
            Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles - Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - Modem Times 2.0 - The Sunday Books - The Sundered Worlds


            Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in the USA:
            The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction - The Sunday Books - Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles
            Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - The Sundered Worlds - The Winds of Limbo - Modem Times 2.0 - Elric: Swords and Roses

            Comment


            • #7
              :oops: Whoops - gap in my knowledge, uttered a bit rashly perhaps... I appreciate that censorship can spur creativity, but there again I think its possible my main point still stands as the experience of "the Master and Margarita" would indicate that Uncle Joe didn't exactly encourage flights of fantasy. (Lenin tolerated artistic experimentalism - but wasn't exactly a fan).

              I haven't read much Soviet fiction - but one of my favourite books is "The Life of the Automobile" by Ehrenburg - later (in)famous for his war journalism - although this was published in 1924 in Paris - predicting as it did that the automobile would effectively triumph over all, socialism included. Realist to the point of prophecy!
              \"...an ape reft of his tail, and grown rusty at climbing, who yet feels himself to be a symbol and the frail representative of Omnipotence in a place that is not home.\" James Branch Cabell

              Comment


              • #8
                Originally posted by Michael Moorcock
                Most good successful fiction, including MJH's, succeeds precisely because it does both -- provides an escapist closed universe of some description (Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad -- anyone in the Great Tradition)
                I know this isnt got much to do with the thread, but I've heard you talk quite a bit about Conrad and I'm thinking of getting some of his stuff. What would you recommend?

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by HawkLord
                  I know this isnt got much to do with the thread, but I've heard you talk quite a bit about Conrad and I'm thinking of getting some of his stuff. What would you recommend?
                  L'Etranger recommends:
                  Heart of Darkness
                  Almayer's Folly
                  The Secret Agent
                  Google ergo sum

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Michael Moorcock
                    China Mieville's work owes a lot more to Lovecraft than it does to my fictional socialist realist Ivan Turgiditi (author of the many-volumed Wet Socks: Big Factory). And then there are the poets who managed to stay alive Pasternak, Akhmatova and so on. Amazing how much fine work flourished under Stalin, who had a soft spot for good writers (as much as he had a soft spot at all). Mieville's Iron Council deals with the MOTIVES of revolutionists and as such might have been set in a South Amrican republic, if he hadn't preferred to make his setting a gorgeous, fantastic alternative Earth.
                    I'll have to write a bit more on Mieville (and the central ideas of this thread) when I have more time, but I do have to comment on the Lovecraftian influence. When I read Perdido Street Station, I was struck by Mieville's (relatively) frequent use of the words "chitonous" and "troglodydic," both of which always remind of Lovecraft.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Doc
                      Originally posted by Michael Moorcock
                      China Mieville's work owes a lot more to Lovecraft than it does to my fictional socialist realist Ivan Turgiditi (author of the many-volumed Wet Socks: Big Factory). And then there are the poets who managed to stay alive Pasternak, Akhmatova and so on. Amazing how much fine work flourished under Stalin, who had a soft spot for good writers (as much as he had a soft spot at all). Mieville's Iron Council deals with the MOTIVES of revolutionists and as such might have been set in a South Amrican republic, if he hadn't preferred to make his setting a gorgeous, fantastic alternative Earth.
                      I'll have to write a bit more on Mieville (and the central ideas of this thread) when I have more time, but I do have to comment on the Lovecraftian influence. When I read Perdido Street Station, I was struck by Mieville's (relatively) frequent use of the words "chitonous" and "troglodydic," both of which always remind of Lovecraft.
                      I love the words Lovecraft played and twisted around with a bit.
                      Real 'tongue curlers'.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Michael Moorcock
                        Mieville's Iron Council deals with the MOTIVES of revolutionists and as such might have been set in a South Amrican republic, if he hadn't preferred to make his setting a gorgeous, fantastic alternative Earth.
                        That would be the crux of it, then. I loved Iron Council, but might not have even read it if had been set in mid-1980s Nicaragua. Fabulists are free to play with morality, convention, ethics, politics in settings that satisfy the cravings for "otherness" that we all possess, and not necessarily by resorting to allegory. Voltaire may have only set Candide in an imaginary world to play allegorically, but Mieville, for one, uses no allegory at all that I can detect in IC. It's pure gritty social fabulism, but no less fantastical than R'lyn K'ren A'a.

                        Why use fantasy as a setting for non-allegorical political themes at all, then? Is it only to dispense with the baggage the accompanies the Nicaraguas, Dresdens, Ukraines, and Beijings of the world, or is there a more potent reason?

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Originally posted by LEtranger
                          Originally posted by HawkLord
                          I know this isnt got much to do with the thread, but I've heard you talk quite a bit about Conrad and I'm thinking of getting some of his stuff. What would you recommend?
                          L'Etranger recommends:
                          Heart of Darkness
                          Almayer's Folly
                          The Secret Agent
                          We had a brief discussion of Conrad on The Ice Schooner thread.

                          My suggestions for starting places aren't much different from those of L'Etranger. Two novellas and an early novel:

                          "The Secret Sharer"
                          "Heart of Darkness"
                          Lord Jim

                          The novella "Heart of Darkness" is very good, but many young readers like to start with "The Secret Sharer," because it's widely thought to be an easier read. But that's misleading, because "Heart of Darkness" isn't really hard -- the narrator, Marlow, is evasive, which is psychologically valid given the nature of his story. That evasiveness annoys some young readers if they're impatient to find out "what happens next."

                          Lord Jim has the same narrator (Marlow) as "Heart of Darkness," and it's very engaging. It isn't my favorite of his books, but it's quite good.

                          If you like those books, The Secret Agent, Nostromo, and Victory are nice next steps. My list of personal preferences are in The Ice Schooner thread.

                          I generally like Conrad's stories and novellas, so collections of them make for good reading. I think I've read all of his novels, and probably most of his stories, as well as his memoirs, The Mirror of the Sea and A Personal Record. Clearly I'm not impartial. :-]

                          LSN

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            My all time Conrad favourite is Victory.
                            The Ice Schooner was based on The Rescue.
                            I think Heart of Darkness much over-rated in the Conrad canon and only prominent because it's an easy one to teach.

                            Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in Europe:
                            The Whispering Swarm: Book One of the Sanctuary of the White Friars - The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction
                            Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles - Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - Modem Times 2.0 - The Sunday Books - The Sundered Worlds


                            Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in the USA:
                            The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction - The Sunday Books - Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles
                            Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - The Sundered Worlds - The Winds of Limbo - Modem Times 2.0 - Elric: Swords and Roses

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Originally posted by Michael Moorcock
                              I think Heart of Darkness much over-rated in the Conrad canon and only prominent because it's an easy one to teach.
                              Hmm, while I don't think the work is above criticism (particularly the dialogue during the final interview with Kurtz's intended), and I don't think it's absolutely his "best" work, I think I'll have to disagree (respectfully).

                              LSN (not an English teacher -- not even close)

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