Polish Holiday

Tomasz Jedrowski – Swimming in the Dark (Bloomsbury, 2020)

Wioletta Greg – Swallowing Mercury (Portobello Books, 2017)

I was recently on holiday with my fiancée. She is Polish and we were travelling Poland, as we do every year. At her mother’s, she showed me her childhood photo albums. The pictures were in black and white.

“Were you born in 1895?” I asked, facetiously.

“No. It was communism. We didn’t have colour film.”

When people tell stories about the evils of communism they tend to focus on the gulags, the famines, the disappearances, the displacements, the wars. Poland suffered terribly in the 1940s and 1950s but got off relatively lightly afterwards. As a result, there’s not much literature about it.

I wanted to know more about this black and white world that existed concurrent to my own childhood. A time when my parents, in their hubris, were using disposable cameras.

Tomasz Jedrowski’s Swimming in the Dark is about this time, as is Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury.

Jedrowski’s book is written and published in English. It tells the story of a young gay man living through the late 1960s and early 1970s in Poland. He meets the love of his life at a “Back to the Land” camp and aspires to an academic career.

His lover, Janusz, joins the Party and is wooed by the daughter of a big wig. Our narrator struggles to reconcile his desire for Janusz with his disgust at the Party’s corruption and, as we know from flash-forwards, the tale ends with him fleeing the country.

The book has been called a Polish Brokeback Mountain. This would be an apt summary, if one didn’t doubt the possibility of the book actually appearing in Poland.

The current Law & Justice party has learned from corporate America that one can avoid all sorts of awkward questions as long as one shouts enough about LGBT issues. Where corporate America is “pro”, PiS is currently “anti”. This means high praise for Jedrowski in The Guardian but a muted response from Poland itself.

It also makes Swimming the Dark very difficult to discuss without bringing politics into it. The novel, after all, has its flaws. It is very breathily written, with lots of beating hearts, cold sweats and heads spinning. There are also mixed metaphors like “the city was a ghost filled with comatose trees” that make you lament the absence of a copy editor.

All this pot-boiling certainly does get the heart racing though. It’s pacey and uncomplicated, written for the outsider, and so an excellent holiday read.

Greg’s novel is the antithesis of Jedrowski’s. It appeared in Polish in 2014 as Guguły, and has only recently been translated into English by Eliza Marciniak. Marciniak has kept the book’s genuine Polish flavour, and has worked wonders turning Greg’s poetic prose into a rosy-cheeked and nostalgic English.

Swallowing Mercury is also a coming-of-age story that straddles the end of communism. Where Swimming in the Dark is explicit in its depictions of marchers, Solidarność, and government crackdowns, however, Greg’s novel is remarkably light of touch. Historical events are so far in the background that a non-political reader might not ever notice them.

Wiola, the novel’s protagonist, grows up in the rural South. She is brought into the world wrapped in a red ribbon, to ward off ghosts, and is raised by her animal-stuffing father and forever-queuing mother. She is, as the Polish would say, a wieśniak (a country bumpkin).

In short, epiphanic snapshots, we see her going in school, taking part in religious festivals and village traditions and, later, as the system collapses around her, we see a teenaged Wiola huffing glue and running away to Warsaw.

My favourite moment sees her winning a national painting competition for schools. The theme is “Threats Around Your Farm” and so she paints the beetles that her grandad catches in a Coca-Cola bottle. The Party commends her for depicting, “highly symbolically”, the damaging potential of the imperialist pest.

The next year she submits a cityscape; the theme being “Moscow Through Your Eyes”. She spills ink on the painting by accident, however, and it prompts a visit from the Party. “Who has told you to do this?” they ask, insisting that the ink is a symbolic tidal wave, crashing down on the Soviet seat of power.

This is the most dramatic moment in the book when it comes to the Party. The rest of the time they are ever-present, but always in the background. It is a truer depiction of everyday life under communism than can be found in Jedrowski’s book, but its understatement often leads one to wonder if one is missing a wider point.

Swallowing Mercury is a highly socio-political novel, but it is written for those already in-the-know. Swimming in the Dark is, by comparison, a primer.

I would recommend both novels. They made excellent companion pieces, but some readers may enjoy one and not the other. Both illuminate a time and place not often talked about. For millennial readers in particular they offer valuable insights into an alternative nineties; one that happened in a place only two hours flight away, but might as well have been on another planet entirely.

– Joe Darlington

Notes from the underground

Joe Banks – Hawkwind, Days Of The Underground, Radical Escapism In The Age of Paranoia (Strange Attractor Press)

Firstly, and most straightforwardly, this book is a magical thing of wonder. If you can get the limited edition with the extra book of interviews, you are in for a real treat. However, the special edition seems to have gone out of print completely the instant it came out.

Not to worry, I am told the paperback edition should be available very soon. But what to do in a review? Here at Manchester Review of Books we think about such things. Not for us the standard written discussion of the thing in all circumstances. So I am going to expand outwards, jam on the topic.

I also want to avoid simply repeating the narrative in Joe’s book – for when you buy the paperback, and you will buy the paperback – it would be a bad spoiler.

One book that really needs writing is the one which begins where this wonderful Joe Banks book leaves off. It is the place he got into Hawkwind, in the 1980s. I wasn’t far behind him, I saw them first in the late 80s. I hope Joe writes that book, not someone else.

In the 80s the underlying themes of utopia and dystopia in Hawkwind’s music started to turn into tight tensions as the band travelled through the post-Thatcher landscape.

Andrew Means of Melody Maker commented on Hawkwind’s theme of technology and utopia/dystopia in the Banks book, he speculated ‘on the band’s role as explorers of both outer and inner space during a time of apocalyptic foreboding’ that ‘while this new age of mechanical space travel suggests unlimited horizons, the situation upon Earth promises the opposite’, that ‘doomsday is all too viable’ and this actually ‘sets the background for the group’s activities.’

An examination of Hawkwind’s career demolishes the fake lines drawn around 67-68 ‘and after’ as well as 1977 as ‘year zero’. Michael Moorcock – who actually wrote a book on The Sex Pistols – comments on the erroneous periodising of the age we might call ‘progressive’ (this is in the limited edition book of interviews):

‘My own view is that “the 60s” lasted as long as a relatively progressive government was in power and ended around 1980 with the last Stiff tour. I think we need a different term for that period of relative optimism. The dystopian element in Hawkwind was of the “warning” sort and therefore hopeful of change…’

Hawkwind’s presence at the Stonehenge free festivals can also serve as a useful alternative timeline. Tolerated for some time, the festivals were then harshly clamped down on into the 1980s. The internal civil war against ‘the travellers’ ran alongside the one against the miners, the trade unions and civil liberty groups. We’re still there. That shift has reached right through to cover the supposedly respectable surface of British life in class porn TV and English populism.

When I went to see Hawkwind, as late as 1988, what is now called the ‘merch’ stall was full of ‘zines about the travellers, free festivals and police excess. I still have a ragged issue of Hawkfan in which Dave Brock bemoans travelling in his van and getting stopped and hassled in summertime. These signals from another social cosmos were revelations to me when a youngster.

Hawkwind shot right through the late 1960s to now, they could be classified as hippie / freak rock / prog rock and punk, but not in different eras, they were all of these things in all of their incarnations.

It is possible to explore these tensions in the times and their music by taking two items from Hawkwind’s back catalogue and examining them together.

We could do this with lots of tracks, but let’s first take ‘Assault and Battery’ from 1975, and then ‘Looking in the Future’ from 1982. There are only seven years between the recordings. Elements of the two tracks are almost identical, primarily their texts – their words – yet in other ways, the tracks are worlds apart. ‘Assault and Battery’ opens the 1975 album Warrior on the Edge of Time:

‘…the lives of great men all remind us that we may make our lives sublime, and so departing leave behind us, footprints in the sands of time…’

Stylistically, ‘Assault and Battery’ is a grand mellotron sweep. The lyrics are delivered in the same style. They seem to announce the revival of an appetite for a nineteenth century quest for adventure. Michael Moorcock has recounted times driving with the band, head out of a sunroof, chemically enhanced… ‘Assault and Battery’ is perhaps the iconic track of this ‘unheeding adventurism’ side of the Hawkwind trip.

In 1982 ‘Looking in the Future’ opens with exactly the same words, also sung by Dave Brock. But here they are tortuously confessed. Brock twists and pulls the lines out of himself, as though he has become half automaton in a Georg Grosz painting. He sounds as though he has been assaulted and battered and is trying to recall them. It sounds as though the human trapped in the machine is trying to free itself to recall these words from an earlier, buried existence. ‘The Damage of Life’, a contemporary Brock composition, reveals an equally exhausted worldview.

The musical backing of ‘Looking in the Future’ is heavy. During this time Hawkwind’s demographic was as much New Wave of British Heavy Metal as it was old hippies. Huw Lloyd-Langton’s guitar flourishes are gloriously baroque. He decorates the track in the full purple of a by now antique British psychedelia. There is a kind of radical nostalgia in this.

The text then diverges from that of ‘Assault and Battery’. Brock is ‘looking in the future’ but ‘living in the past’. As he repeats these lines the distinction between past, present and future seems to disappear. The track then speeds up to an explosion which yields to a cloud of angelic, technologically processed voices. Symbolically ‘Looking in the Future’ moves us into our digital, eternal present. Past, present and future become irrelevant, time is shattered. We are shattered.

In the cloud we feel fine, but pull away and feel the empty space below your feet. The floor has been sold off to pay for it all. ‘Looking in the Future’ is from the album Church of Hawkwind. That album is the culmination of a series of early 1980s RCA records. This album saw Brock and Harvey Bainbridge invest in new synth tech and drum machines and then just make music.

New Order were into all of this, who knew? I had no idea at the time. The Banks book talks to them, and to Manchester’s Michael Butterworth. A gem of a man.

The albums which led up to the moment of ‘Looking in the Future’ in 1982 were full of tension. ‘Living on a Knife Edge’ and ‘Streets of Fear’ were clearly responses to Thatcher’s Britain in the early 1980s, a Britain of surveillance and paranoia. In a parallel move, Robert Calvert made Freq in 1984, about the miner’s strike. For this album he used Kraftwerk’s techniques exactly like a folk artist uses an acoustic guitar.

The ‘lines between’ so earnestly fought over in the NME were irrelevant to Hawkwind and their friends and relations. Their work is a continuum. At the same time the 80s work signals the entry into a freezing political decade. ‘Choose Your Masques’ asks you to choose sides and to prepare for a long hard winter. An obscure cut ‘Now is the Winter of Our Discontent’ does this more explicitly.

‘Coded Languages’ from the album Sonic Attack is more Rotten than John Rotten. ‘A cunning phrase can burn a town’ Mike Moorcock shrieks on it. ‘Coded Languages’ is about popular discourse becoming a pernicious disease via sentimentalised propaganda. Sound familiar?

Dave Brock’s solo work would be essential to include in this theoretical book on the Hawkwind of the 1980s. Agents of Chaos from 1988 is a particularly strong record (and also seems to be completely out of print). One cut on that record – called ‘A Day’ – echoes Strawberry Fields, but there’s a strobing Moog sound inside it, like the cheeping of a digital canary, the algorithm has taken it.

‘I pay my stamps I pay my tax’ Brock sings, ‘I daren’t stop working and that’s a fact’, but ‘all I see on the TV screen are starving kids and war machines’. This protest song perhaps harks back to older numbers such as ‘We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago’, but it now sits within the circuits of a total environment, a sort of digital circus, it can no longer exist anywhere else. It seems lost in there. Empty.

Suddenly we are in a lift in one of the faceless office blocks on the album sleeve. Someone is gasping for breath. ‘Quick somebody help me, this man is dying’ a worker exclaims. The line is delivered with sarcastic, comedy ambivalence. The brutal musical attack which follows exemplifies a Bataillean desire to reduce humanity to the primordial slime from whence it came. Whether this is done by alien invaders or not isn’t clear, but it doesn’t matter. That track is called ‘Hades Deep’.

The cover image of Agents of Chaos looks like the view across Hulme Park in Manchester now that the Deansgate Square skyscrapers are complete. This is just a stroll from where I currently live. Planes, helicopters and drones fly across it. It is not in any sense science fiction. Not any more. Take away the sci-fi gloss and ‘the Agents of Chaos’ = Capital.

The album’s theme also lies under Moorcock’s novel Rituals of Infinity, in which multiple, parallel versions of earth are being destabilised by disrupter agents. This could almost be a banal description of the present. Moorcock is our version of H.G. Wells, not only for the grand sci-fi, but the London novels.

There is so much to say about this corner of popular culture. But space is limited. Joe Banks’ book is the best introduction to the work of the band available. I think the 1980s work is utterly relevant to our times.

At one point in the Banks’ book, in a reproduced clipping, Dave Brock says something like ‘it would be inevitable that people would catch up with what we were doing eventually.’

I disagree, none of us have fully caught up yet. Reading this book is the first step to doing so. Absolutely marvellous work. Watch out for the reprint and order fast!

– Steve Hanson

Cracked time

Tonino Guerra – Equilibrium (Moist)
Paolo Virno – Déjà Vu and the End of History (Verso Futures)

Antonio Guerra was an Italian poet and screenwriter who collaborated with Tarkovsky, Fellini and Antonioni. His novel Equilibrium was published in 1967. Moist just re-issued it, and a very worthy endeavour that was.

I can’t stop thinking about Blow Up throughout. Guerra worked on the script. The main character is a graphic designer. He seems ambivalent about his urban life in Milan, a life of Coca-Cola and cars, of new prosperity.

Guerra drops us into a modernity in which things and their values are shifting and loose. The main character buys a house in the country and has the keys delivered. He doesn’t even view it, he hears about it, then just buys it. He can’t even remember if the keys were posted to him or delivered by an intermediary.

This is postmodern as in ‘after the present’. It is postmodern, as the main character gradually unravels, as in ‘no longer present’, as in time out of joint as Mark Fisher explored it. This particular ‘after modern’ means that the core utopian project of modernity has been interrupted by World War II.

The main character has his present moments invaded repeatedly by the experience of the wartime prison camp he was in. It is not just a memory, the temporal line he lives in is diverted, as though time itself switches rail tracks back into that hell.

Guerra was a prisoner of war, but I wonder if the lead character is modelled in part on Ettore Sottsass Jr. who graduated in architecture in 1939, not a great year to leave university, all things considered.

Mr Sottsass was in the Italian military, and a labor camp in Yugoslavia. The way the main character designs typefaces and graphic lines, the way he talks to himself confidently in his head about aesthetics and form, all make me think of Sottsass.

Meanwhile, Paolo Virno, in his book on deja vu, asks us to consider the confusion of ‘historical culture’ and ‘consciousness’ for ‘memory’. It is, in many ways, the philosophical territory of Guerra’s 1967 novel.

Deja vu, Virno explains, is not a ‘known event of the past playing out’ once more to ‘euphoric amazement’. The phenomena of deja vu is that of a false memory, but it is instructive in terms of thinking about our consciousness of the past, present and future.

Deja vu appearing like a weird kink in time shows us that these things are human-biological-language-events rather than straight realities.

Virno works through Walter Benjamin’s theses on history, Bergson, Nietzsche and others. Deja vu is a false memory of a present that never existed and one that is co-terminous with now. Perception (sensory interpretations of the immediate) and memory (sensory impressions of previous perceptions) swell into one another. The feeling is not an epiphany, it is alienating.

This conflation of a past and a fake future invading a present moment is happening in the Guerra novel too. At one point the main character appears to think that he has experienced the blowing up of a railway bridge in WW1. His ‘been here before’ begins to roam beyond his own lifespan.

Virno works through comments by Kojève who states ‘that the exhaustion of history diagnosed by Hegel is no longer, in our epoch, some future eventuality’, but ‘a fait accompli.’

The western world after WW2, perhaps captured best by Adorno and Horkheimer, sees the future and present fall into one another and the result is existential sickness.

‘Whenever we adopt the future perfect tense of a verb’ Virno claims, ‘the future seems to be emptied out’ and ‘locked away’; ‘I will have enjoyed’, ‘I will have had many opportunities’.

The sense of this seems to seep into the main character in Guerra’s novel. His pleasure in this pleasureland, at this time of pure pleasure, 1967, is entirely futur-parfait.

As philosophy Equilibrium is rich, and Virno’s book is strong as literature.

In Virno’s book there are half-pages that could generate whole new theses. ‘The past-in-general accompanies every actuality like an aura – without, though, itself having ever been actual.’

The past is not the arrested moment of the immediate, this dies away with every unfolding nanosecond, and back in Guerra’s Equilibrium, in 1967, time continues to buckle more or less as Virno explains it.

He returns to Milan, loses his job, takes up with a woman. He becomes confused. I thought about Lindsay Anderson’s film O Lucky Man a lot reading the novel. All the women seem to be the same woman.

O Lucky Man is saturated in eternal return, the women Malcolm McDowell’s character Travis beds all seem to be the same women, at different ages, a blond and a dark haired woman. He leaves them all, questing for the Capitalist Grail, ambition, career, this is the modern Pilgrim’s Progress.

Heaven is deferred to the future, it is never in the now. A scene in which a buddhist explains being ‘in the moment’ on a car radio, just before the military arrest of Travis, seems very of Equilibrium.

In a way all of this mirrors the late 1960s in which – as The Searchers once sang – the whole world became ‘a funny farm’. But it all has a larger literary dimension. Meaning itself is beginning to collapse under its own weight. Like a symbolic sun, the whole realm of meaning has emitted all it can and will soon fall into a deep gravity well.

The main character in the Guerra novel abandons his watch and makes a sundial out of flat stones. He seems to want a less alienated form of time. But as soon as he has finished the sundial his estranged wife arrives, and for some reason they can only talk through a fence he has just made. A wristwatch flashes up later on a dead German officer who has hung himself. The watch has stopped. It has not been stolen.

Benjamin’s biblical halted time is in this, but the interpenetrability of the past, present and future is a key issue for both texts too.

The dream of a rural home came to Guerra’s character out of the lowest point of his prison camp experience.

The fact that the main character decided he would like to live in a country house by a riverbed from the hell of a prisoner of war camp bunk bed seems to mean that when he actually gets that desire it renders all other desires pointless.

If our dream from within hell can come true, then hell can walk right back into that dream. How we have all been re-learning that recently.

The novel is titled Equilibrium because there is an evil traffic between the prisoner of war camp and the post-war holiday camp the world became after the war. But it is also titled Equilibrium because there isn’t any, at least not in the sense that word came to be used after the great psychedelic swell of ’67. This is not about finding balance.

The Guerra book is no fluffy ’67 novel, a rare fleeting ambience like a bubble, it presents a moment in which human meaning per se had become atomised by its own recent history, and we still live there. If you want to theorise all of that more formally, the Virno book is its perfect companion volume.

– Steve Hanson

The Weight of an Image

Theophilus Kwek – Moving House (Carcanet, 2020)

There was one line that convinced me I needed to buy this book. It appears in the poem “What it’s Like” and describes a young revolutionary receiving an AK47: “they placed it in his hands, a baby’s weight”.

The image is so perfect. The surprising density of the weapon. The soldier’s duty to his gun. A weight of responsibility, thrust into your hands.

It was my introduction to Theophilus Kwek, and I was pleased to find it a fitting one. His poetry is, on its surface, deceptively simple. Careful syllables spell out scenes in what, presented differently, could be prose. Then, suddenly, he spins a simile. Everything, suddenly, comes together.

The collection is called Moving House, and it contains a loose theme of journeys, travel, exodus and emigration. As a Singaporean-Chinese writer now in Britain, Kwek brings a weight of personal experience to these poems. But he is not afraid of the imagination either.

Most poems come with a short epigram. These present us with a person or a situation, often a catastrophe or tragedy, to which the poem responds. The responses are often direct, but carry universal messages.

The image of the weapon, for example, is in reference to the Malayan emergency; communist guerrillas destroyed the country’s fledgling democracy only to be massacred in turn by a new dictatorship. The young man receiving his burden is immediate and sympathetic, but also historically informed.

Always and everywhere, it is young men who fight the wars. Violence is passed down to them, like a crying baby. The weight of responsibility always falls on them. Some pick it up gladly, others in fear.

Kwek often lingers in home territories, exploring the Malayan conflict and, in Britain, his encounters in London and Oxford. Yet there are more far-flung flights of imagination.

The “Notes on a Landscape” cycle, responding to the Icelandic sagas, is majestic. It does justice both to the landscape that inspired it and the ancient culture it depicts.

His six translations of Meng Haoran’s “Spring Dawn” are another highlight, demonstrating the flexibility of ideogrammatic translations. He moves from a minimalist haiku-esque rendering of the poem to a long and flowing tale, no doubt injecting plenty of artistic license along the way.

More than anything, these poems demonstrate poetic sophistication. They are restrained and cautious, but sufficiently evocative to merit much rereading.

– Joe Darlington

Mythogeography changes tack

Free Reading No. 2: a series of bulletins. 

I spoke to Phil Smith recently, who has been working on the Mythogeography project for years. This project sits at a crossroads between Psychogeography (in its expanded post-1990s form) and the performing arts, experimental writing, etc.

Phil is currently announcing a shift or ‘swerve’ in that project: ‘Mythogeography has taken a pretty major turn over the last three years’ he says, and this entails ‘a new beginning’. Now, ‘the stakes seem higher’, Phil explains ‘the terrain more wounded’.

The ‘playfulness is still around’, he states and ‘there are more planets in the orrery’, but ‘the abyss is deeper’, the ‘gameboards more uncertain’, and the ‘invocations are for more powerful things’.

So I asked Phil if he could say a little more about how the abyss has deepened?

‘Digital invasion and the massive harvesting of stats by physicists-driven digi-corporations has transformed the nature of the Spectacle, which brain implants and VR will take to a new level, Covid is just a little withdrawing of the tide before the tsunami of climate change, the “greying” of democratic politics combining (intentionally) buffoonery, tension and incompetence dragging expectations to minimal levels, anti-politics… an objective abyss, and a deep hollowing out of subjectivity (the nurturing of normotic personalities, that enact emotions rather than feel them)…’

How then, I asked, is the game play less certain?

‘As for the game play uncertainty – it’s the tricky challenge to play inside unreality, conspiracy, altered states of consciousness, fantasy and at the same time to follow the “laws” in the physical terrain – the moment you pit fantasy or magic and materialism, or vice-versa the algorithms are ready to commodify your next move.’

Triarchy, the publishers who have put out a lot of the Mythogeographic work in recent years, are offering a free PDF. It is refreshingly politicised in its exploration of the roots of a writer who is so often further mystified, rather than exploded:

‘The Bonelines project and novel began in 2016/17 with our intention to walk in ‘The Lovecraft Triangle’, an area between the three towns of Newton Abbot, Ashburton and Totnes. This is a landscape of small villages, fields, hills and lanes in south Devon where the ancestors of American horror and fantasy writer Howard Philips Lovecraft lived prior to their departure for land stolen from the Native Americans across the Atlantic Ocean. In time our “search area” extended to the lower valley of the River Teign, the landscape on and to the west of the Exe Estuary, and to parts of Torquay.’

The free PDF is here https://www.triarchypress.net/uploads/1/4/0/0/14002490/theory_after_lovecraft-_a_warm_cosmicism.pdf

A Wind Moves Up the Empty Streets

P.A. Morbid – The Impossiblity of Home (Falling World Press, 2020) 

Who are these people? We know they’re out there. Walking among us. These monsters that skip the descriptions in novels. Who are they?

I love a good bit of description. The pictures they paint in the mind are like the shimmering surfaces of city puddles. Tiny little portals that lead out of normality, made of normality.

But then, as an editor, I get it. You want to cut to the action.

What if one could take the best descriptive passages from a novel and package them separately? What if we could read them alone, free-standing, like enigmatic photographs of moments; important, no doubt, but frozen in time?

That’s what we get with P.A. Morbid’s new chapbook, The Impossibility of Home.

The collection is short, only 30 pages, and you’ll have to contact the author directly to get hold of it. For lovers of choice description, however, it’s a perfect little package. Published in June, in the midst of lockdown, it captures the stillness of the silent streets.

It is a prompt to contemplation. Sometimes calm, other times eerie. It builds, but we don’t know what it’s building to. We sense there might be menace, potentially dread, but maybe it’s just us? Maybe it’s only description?

Then, in the midst, an explosion of violence. The story “Markus Agonistes” is brutal and hard, a punch to the guts.

Then silence again, and calm, and eeriness again.

It’s a book made for slow reading and for rereading. The world in ink. A perfect walking-around book, and pocket-sized too. Well worth hunting down.

– Joe Darlington

Anthrosci and fictionology

The Hair Carpet Weavers – Andreas Eschbach (Penguin Classic Science Fiction)
100,000 Light Years From Home – James Tiptree Jr. (Penguin Classic Science Fiction)

All the best science fiction craftsfolk have a good sense of anthropology. From Ursula Le Guin whose father was an esteemed anthropologist to Frank Herbert and Dune, and George Lucas, whose understanding of cultures that weren’t his own fed Star Wars.

Andreas Eschbach’s Hair Carpet Weavers immediately imparts a strong understanding of Culture. A whole kinship system is explained in the opening pages, without it ever feeling forced. It is a family industrial system. Daughters with different coloured hair contribute their locks to the home weaving. The patriarchal father figure knots it into intricate carpets. It is labour-intensive, a thumbnail section per day is a good result.

Speaking of craft, writers take note. Eschbach is an economical and rich practitioner. Traders come to town once a year in huge Jawa-like transports. They buy the carpets from the sons of the master-weaver-fathers – who pass them over at the annual trading time. This money sets up the sons for life. They now take on the task of weaving one single carpet to pass onto their own son. And on it goes. But the fathers sometimes die in shock at the price they are offered by the traders.

All of this is a very good way of compressing together the apprentice system, the guild system and a version of the home weaving systems in place globally before the nineteenth century swept them away. Obviously, in the hills surrounding Manchester home weaving was very important. I grew up in a once-condemned weaver’s cottage and can’t help but process this book through that place.

It explores the past as much as a speculative future, our past of lives spent fixed in place generation after generation. It explores labour as one big tapestry, not the thinnest existential chaos we have now, nearly all of us.

But the hell of that big tapestry is the impossibility of ever becoming unstitched from it, as former factory workers will understand. The hell of now – our hell – is almost indistinguishable from our freedom from that other hell.

Boy children are killed, only one can take up the role of The Father. Girls contribute hair and so are kept. This explores, metonymically, Indian kinship in inverse – where boys were treasured and girls in extreme cases murdered – and oedipal complexes. It does all of this in one figure. Very clever.

But this whole kinship system is breaking up – like a good Jane Mansfield, or Austen, or Dickens – and the Emperor is about to be unseated by revolution (to be continued…)

James Tiptree Jr. was really Alice Bradley Sheldon. The George Eliotesque gender switch pseudonym was less desperation to be published than academic aspiration – she wanted to hide the SF writing and she was sick of being the first woman in a job: she also worked for the CIA and most explanations of her life hereby switch to the messy suicide pact with her husband in 1987 (go to the internet please).

I first read her work in the Aldiss-edited classic sci-fi collection Penguin have put out for years, a very short story with a long strange title, ‘And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side’. It explores Sheldon’s complex sexuality as much as her interest in ‘alien’ life. Again, her mother was a prolific travel writer – not quite an anthropologist – but Sheldon spent a great deal of time as a child being transported across Africa, where she met many tribes.

If some of the best science fiction writers were anthropologists, are the best anthropologists sci-fi writers? I leave that for you to decide, although Castaneda already casts some doubt on the reversal.

Both of these books are part of a Penguin Classic Science Fiction reboot. The Tiptree collection was originally put out in 1973 I think, the Eschbach in 1995. But the selections seem to focus on contemporary themes, gender and sexuality, shifting divisions of labour and kinship systems. Kudos to Penguin for not knocking out another load of PKD’s and Asimovs in new jackets. These titles need more readers and they will reward those new audiences well.

The books are beautifully done, too. Many original Penguin Science Fiction titles had great modernist artworks on them. I have a few, including a treasured – though utterly battered – Philip K. Dick Man in the High Castle with Max Ernst’s ‘Petrified Forest’ on the cover. (That painting is part of the Manchester City Art Gallery collection dear locals).

The new books have new covers bearing beautiful drawings in the modernist style. In the true spirit of Penguin, they are reasonably priced, easily available and lovingly produced.

– Steve Hanson


Anna Vaught – Famished (Influx Press, 2020)

Food is a very sensuous thing, and eating it even more so. It only takes a few nouns to start us going: tea, toast, marmalade. Already we’re enjoying a meal in our minds, the recall of smells, sights and flavours near-total.

Stir in some verbs, adverbs and adjectives, and now the mixture is positively pornographic: “last lappings of morning tea and vulgar gulps of toast with ochre marmalade.” Filthy.

Anna Vaught, in her new collection Famished, proves herself a master of this gustatory transcription. Meals, both decadent and depraved, are her theme and the people who eat them are her subject matter.

We see the greasy housewife, who leaves her prissy husband to eat pies in the bath and twiglets dipped in Hellman’s. We meet King Henry, whose love of lampreys results these bloodsucking fish eating him from the inside out. We see a deadly fondue, and modern retelling of Trimalchio’s feast in the Satyricon.

Vaught’s style is mannerist, baroque; intentionally sumptuous. Her epigraphs reference Angela Carter, Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft; three other gourmands of the exquisite syllable. She consciously embraces the elaborate.

Her lexical overindulgence, however, is regulated by taught sentence structures. We might scoff ourselves, but we are never out of control. The tight literary belt of parsability is never unbuckled.

The concision is crucial, as these stories are sometimes so short they are more of an amuse bouche than a full meal. It makes the collection excellent for short bursts of reading, but perhaps too rich for one sitting. We have to pace ourselves.

If you are a fan of the theme-driven story collection, Famished provides exactly what a reader would want when it comes to gastronomic indulgence. A feast in miniature.

– Joe Darlington