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text SPOILER ALERT! 2015-06-12 13:05
Amnesia Moon - Jonathan Lethem

I'm reading Amnesia Moon, again, to better understand a video game. I'm also reading Amnesia Moon again, having first read it some 10 years ago when I found a single copy with the hilariously garish cover shown here languishing in the stock room of the discount book store in which I used to work. I assumed that it was probably terrible, because most of the books we sold were, and at best Lethem was merely an also ran. The remaindered book industry is a weird one, living as it does in the valley between hubris and economies of scale. Every delivery day was tinged with the excitement of the unknown - we would be sent crates of stock generically labelled 'books' on the delivery note and inside would be the apportioned contents of whichever warehouse head office had bought up for cheap this week. A write-off on a publisher's balance sheet might bring us celebrity memoirs that would fly off the front table, or unshiftable hardback enthusiast tomes on fishing destined to gather dust in the hobby aisle.


Besides these two extremes there was also a steady stream of mass market paperbacks, sold three for £5. We were often asked how it was possible to sell them so cheap, but the truth is that it is built in to the business model of paperback publishing. The majority of the books sold this way are churned out by their authors to order, sold to book clubs in bulk at tight margins and then dumped into remaindered stock as soon as the ROI ticks above the magic number and warehousing costs will start to eat into that margin. You may see a copy or two of these titles, family sagas for the women and thrillers or war stories for the men, in the high-street book stores for full price, but it is not how they are intended to sell. And we would have regular customers, who would come weekly or monthly or fortnightly and get three of whichever books it was that we were offering then. The books didn't matter particularly, and so many of them were the same story retold anyway, what they wanted was something to read because reading was a thing that they enjoyed doing; the fact that the specific titles that they read were determined by the complex, grinding machinations of capitalism at its least sexy is immaterial, it was just a system which we all lived our lives in.


Just as I was not defined by my job of stacking those books, they were not defined by their hobby of reading them. But this ceding of control of what it is that you imagine about is central to Lethem's apocalypse. In Amnesia Moon most people are not able to experience their own imaginative landscapes because they are being imposed by those with more power. In some cases this control is direct, but in others it is just a case of being at the end of a system that isn't being run for them but that dreams for them anyway. Of course the hero has the power to impose his will upon the world, but he doesn't want to, preferring to hide from the possibility of his own tyranny. He's special in a way that others aren't.


One of the most interesting things to me about Amnesia Moon is how close it sails to a number of feminist sci-fi works, and in what ways it then diverges. Feminism has long been aware of the constructed nature of realities, and the way that intersecting spheres will have their own rules and power structures that yet distinguish them. That the world of work and the home and the school are all conflicting dreams and there is no one underlying way of being that will ensure safety in all of them, or that could make them all as real as each other. And so the fractured reality is a common trope that distinguishes at least a certain strain of feminist SF from the total apocalypses of macho imagination - the objective truth of destruction against which a man can prove himself a new master. From Angela Carter's shifting sexual hellscapes in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman To Justina Robson's pulp quantum collapse in Keeping it Real, what happens after the end is just a continuation of what was happening before it, writ larger and brighter.


Lethem's apocalypse then is one that understands the way in which ideologies compete to define the world you live in, but not how they compete to define who you are. Although Chaos, in his travels, regularly forgets and remembers aspects of his past he is always, at core and in action, still himself. There is no question that his personality is compromised, that he might act differently to the man he believes himself to be when his world next shifts. That is of course why he is the hero - it is never his reality that is in question - and why he gets to sleep with Edie while thinking about Gwen and not  have the truth of his existence as himself questioned. The truth of the absolute nature of his love is what makes him real, and it cannot be compromised by being with the person he is with. Past is, in Lethem's world, more real than the present and for me this is his key divergence from Carter, Robson et al.

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text 2015-01-02 16:53
A Year in Davos
The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann,John E. Woods

I finally finished the Magic Mountain on 29th December 2014, having started it some time in January of that year, expecting it to take a month or two at most. In fact, towards the last few chapters I looked again at the piece of card I was using as a bookmark, that had become such a constant fixture of my life through the course of the year, but which I had stopped seeing. It was a Happy New Year postcard from the bank with which I had a three-year loan, taken out to buy a new roof for my house and which was causing a certain amount of financial strain. During the course of 2014 I re-mortgaged for a better rate and in doing so wrapped the remains of the roof loan in, effectively wiping out the extra monthly cost, which had another two years to run, but tying the debt to myself for a full 35 years.


What this has to do with Hans Castorp's stay at the Berghof is maybe overly stretched. Hans Castorp, who meant to stay for three conflicted, difficult weeks but stays instead for seven effortless years. Hans Castorp who is always in service to someone, or some cause, other than himself despite the certain selfishness of his position.


I think it is good, possibly it could have only happened this way, that I read The Magic Mountain in my thirties. I spent the majority of my twenties making boring but essential decisions; chasing promotions (and an exit) at minimum wage jobs, studying for professional qualifications to secure the job I escaped to, scaling back writing to have time to sleep to keep those jobs I had. All the kind of boring stuff that Hans Castorp eschews throughout his twenties in the service of the cure. I think that, even had I had the time to read a book such as this in those years I would have hated its subject rather than just looked upon him and his youth (which is hardly yet very distant from my own age now) fondly or understood him in his role as part of Mann's satire.


I do think it must be nice to be able to decide to dedicate yourself to your passions, even, especially, as you can ascribe that decision to forces beyond your control.


I read The Magic Mountain, as I do most of the classics that I read, because it was referenced in something else that I loved and enjoyed. In this case, the referencing work was Michael Crumey's Möbius Dick, a wonderful, strange science fiction novel that is one of my favourite books I've ever read. Möbius Dick also went some way toward convincing me to finally read Moby Dick, which I had had on my reading list for a while as it was. Reading Moby Dick was important for me, reconciling and centring my love and fascination with a sea that I know will eventually kill me. I have since, after many years, even been able to swim in the sea. I am at peace with it and it is at peace with me and the two of us regard each other in the sure knowledge that our time to be together forever is not yet due.


The sea is the opposite of a magical space. It does not release you, changed, once it has its hold of you. Reading The Magic Mountain I have finally understood and processed a number of ideas that I have been working with for a number of years; about asylums, sanitaria and hotels as magical spaces, but also about youth, and games and art as magical spaces. It was also in 2014 that the blogger who had really delineated the concept of magical spaces in occult and literary theory and history revealed himself to be, via the profoundly prosaic space of Tumblr, rather a nasty piece of work. (In an interesting side note, the best ever rejection letter I got was from the short lived, and at the time recently defunct, horror magazine Nasty Piece of Work.) Tumblr is a place that brings out the truth of people, profoundly unable to change them and uninterested in confinement and gestation of ideas where there can instead be a spread of degrading information spurred on by showboating and playing to the crowd.


I didn't only read The Magic Mountain this year. I paused occasionally, rereading amongst other things Murakami's Dance Dance Dance, a novel about the hotel as a magical space. I also read some trashy sci-fi and a bit of Goffman and Foucault talking about institutions. Because I wasn't thinking about institutions enough. I also recorded a podcast about asylums and wrote a few articles about asylums and edited an ezine about religion in games where I pushed an agenda (or 'wrote an editorial linking all the pieces together as if they had been planned that way', if you want to know the trade secret/official line of these things) of games as magical spaces. The Magic Mountain has been a huge part of me this year. It is not maybe for me, as the cover quote proclaims, 'a new way of seeing', but it has certainly, as with the best of magical spaces, provided a space within which sight and thought have been able to alchemically transform and to emerge stronger, richer and of greater value.

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text 2014-10-22 11:12
I'll Get You, Space Marine!
Heart of Darkness - J.H. Stape,Robert Hampson,Owen Knowles,Joseph Conrad

I started reading Heart of Darkness because it got referenced in a computer game called Space Marine. That seems really shallow, but it is, more than anything, a mechanism for navigating classic texts that I have built up over the years. I read the Epic of Gilgamesh and Paradise Lost to better understand the Horus Heresy. I got into Virginia Woolf after visiting the house of the woman she fell in love with and listening to Patrick Wolf CDs. I read Iris Murdoch because I am convinced that the sea is going to kill me.


There are so many classics, and they belong to such different worlds to the one we live in, that the way you approach them has to have some connection to your life, to ensure that you can get to the meaning in them. I enjoyed Jude the Obscure when I read it for school, but I find that I can't get myself enthused enough to dig into Thomas Hardy again even though I'm sure I would enjoy it; there are too many other books to read and too little time before I die.


So I was playing Space Marine and one of the chapters of the game is titled Heart of Darkness and I know for a fact that it has nothing to do with the themes of the novel, but I only know of those themes second hand myself. At which point I decided to read the novel - not because I wanted to better understand Space Marine, but because it was now prominent enough in my consciousness as a thing I wanted to do.


Space Marine's use of the title Heart of Darkness makes very little sense. The section is basically running around in the sewers alone and occurs before there is any suggestion in the plot that Titus, the player-character, might be touched by Chaos, the only conceivable analogue for Conrad's Darkness in the game. Even that doesn't work as, in the 40k universe, Chaos is as often an affliction of civilisation as it is of wilderness. Regardless, I am pretty certain that t5he only darkness that is referred to, directly, at that point, is the lighting levels of the section.


Except that there's more. Classics are classic as much because they have been reified as because they are immortally readable. They are a thing in themselves, a closed symbol of culture as much as a book to be opened and read. Each classic is a title that points to an idea of historical engagement, a well-read cultured nature and, finally, an idea of the ideas in the book itself. And I find this fascinating. Referencing a classic novel (or film, or whatever) as an idea, even without engaging with it as a text, is an artistic move that invokes an ironic gravitas. It says 'you should engage with this text as if it was deadly serious, but with the understanding that it may not be.' It enables a game like Space Marine to inform you that, for the characters, this is a serious situation and that, by taking it seriously for the period in which you engage with it, you will get more out of it than if you engage it purely as Technicolor schlock.


The masters of this stance are Iron Maiden. The Loneliness of the Long Distance runner is a phenomenal story about power and control and the underclass mentality and I would never have read it if they hadn't written a song about a man running really far. And yet, reading it meant that I learnt more about how Iron Maiden see themselves and where they came from, and could link that to my own situation, twenty years later in the same bits of London. The Wicker man is a masterpiece of British horror and yet they used it for the title of a song about someone with gambling debts. It doesn't matter though. The meaning is clear: take this seriously, think about the links between popular and classic art forms as you do so, and you will get a lot more out of both. Conrad's Darkness isn't Chaos, but experiencing and understanding it makes Chaos that little bit more alive as a concept for the player that wishes to dig that little bit further.


Heart of Darkness is also a really good book. Especially if you care about the history of European imperialism.

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