Category Archives: ‘pataphysics

Inspiration – and its alternatives

As some of you may have spotted I’m doing a project during lockdown to write a story a week based on people’s suggestions. These will be published as a book when the crisis is over with the profits going to a local food bank.

It has been a fascinating experience in terms of its impact on my creativity. The first change being it forces me to sit down and write as, even in lockdown, there are other things which I could be doing and which are less challenging than writing.

The other thing that is a bit of a revelation is that the initial seed of “genre, character, location” is all I need to come up with a story that works reasonably well. Not that I should be that surprised when I think of the way constraints encourage creation within OuLiPo and the interesting results of the Surrealist experiments with automatic writing and their Exquisite Corpse game. I am also reminded of Harlan Ellison’s experiments sitting in a bookshop window and writing story after story for the customers.

Part of the creative process has also been thinking “that is the sort of story X might write” X being one of my literary heroes. In my first real job as a journalist on the Shields Gazette, colleagues and I would fill in quiet times of the day with what we called Two Finger Exercises (referring to the number of fingers we used to type, of course). We would write news stories in the style of a famous author. Not all of our parodies were successful but it was great fun.

One of the story prompts I was given was a one armed salmon poacher on the Wye river. The Wye rising in Wales, and that being the home of Rhys Hughes – who wrote one of my favourite parodies of all time in “Crash -With Shopping Trollies – I did a homage to him using elements of the plots from Moby Dick and Casablanca. The latter was because my mind threw out the phrase “we’ll always have Powys.”

Another Welsh location I was given was the Brecon Beacons and the characters were a T Rex and a Brontosaurus. As the dinosaurs were named after the suggester’s children I tried ti make the story age appropriate, but ended up with a story inspired by Italo Calvino’s T Zero tales and Roy Lewis’ The Evolution Man.

As I was worried I would not be able to keep to my commitment if no-one made any suggestions I have also been working through my story ideas file and writing up some of those. Many started as just a title or a character or some other nugget of inspiration, and have since been added to as other ideas popped into my head followed by the thought: “That would work well with that.” I’m not worried I run out any time soon as I tend to add at least one story seed a week and I have a few dozen to work through without adding any at all.

If you have any thoughts for the Lockdown Stories though, email them to me at timnewtonanderson@hotmail.co.uk or message me via my Facebook page Tim Newton Anderson. Cheers.

Publish the damned

I was reviewing my catalogue of books about ‘pataphysics, surrealism, and related enthused literature and noticed that there are a number of publishers that come up again and again.

Some of these are sadly no longer with us, but many have stayed the course and there are one or two that have emerged recently so I thought it was worth  giving some details so you can seek out their publications. Most of the books created by the publishers below are worth looking at.

The first to mention is, of course, Atlas Press. As their recently revamped web page says, they have been publishers of the anti tradition since 1983 and they are also the publisher of the documents of the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics. It’s well worth looking at their catalogue as they have added a number of titles which were previously listed as being out of print. Some may be a bit expensive due to their rarity, but others are extremely affordable. Do yourself a favour and visit the website – or after the Covid 19 crisis pop in to Bookartbooks in Pitfield Street in London where you will be able to see all of the titles plus a myriad of other wonderful publications.

Even older are New Directions which has been active since the 1930s after a discussion between Ezra Pound and its founder. It concentrates more on Modernist literature from around the globe, but there are still lots of great books to be found there.

Moving up to 1955 we have City Lights – initially linked to the Beats but with a wider range of literature now including Cortazar, Breton, Daumal, and many more. Many of the beats were also published by Grove Press – now absorbed into Grove Atlantic – who also published the Evergreen Review including their classic edition on ‘Pataphysics. More recently Dalkey Archive – founded a year after Atlas in 1984 – have had an intensive programme of both new and classic books from the alternative tradition.

To mention a couple of newish publishers,Tamtam Books have recently published a number of newly translated titles by Boris Vian and Wakefield Press are building an impressive catalog of titles of mostly French authors running from the 1890s to today.

For those who may be vaguely interested my own catalogue of titles is here: Pataphysics Catalogue

The Pataphysics of Philip Jose Farmer

When I was writing The Revolutionary Tapestry there were two key influences on the novel – ‘Pataphysics and Philip Jose Farmer.

The ‘Pataphysics influence is fairly obvious – Alfred Jarry is one of the main characters and those familiar with his work will notice lots of implicit and explicit references to it. One of the conceits is that things that happen in the book feed through into his later writing. While the character of Jarry is reasonably accurate (I hope) it changes because of the experiences he has in this alternate world.

The Farmer influence is primarily in a shared love for “pulp” or popular writing – in the case of the novel mainly French serials, novels and films with the odd nod to Britain. Not all of these were written during or before the time in which the novel is set but most of those that followed are either set in that period or follow the zeitgeist of that time of anarchy, experimental art, street gangs and furious scientific innovation.

What I didn’t try and do is to write a “Wold Newton” book. There is only one character taken directly from a novel of the time, and he is only mentioned in a single paragraph and doesn’t appear directly.

However, Farmer’s Wold Newton universe is itself a Pataphysical concept as it deals with a universe supernumerary to this one ruled by the science of exceptions.

The Wold Newton universe is one where the heroes and villains of popular fiction not only exist, but are generally all related. First explicitly detailed in Farmer’s Tarzan Alive it suggests several families – including a number of characters from popular fiction – were travelling by coach through the village of Wold Newton in Yorkshire in 1795 when a meteorite fell nearby and its radiation caused genetic mutations in their descendants which gave them extraordinary abilities. Farmer then proceeds in Tarzan Alive and his biography of Doc Savage to trace those family trees back and forward and shoehorn in hundreds of characters in popular fiction.

This is, of course, an extension of the methods of the Sherlockian Game where members of the Baker Street Irregulars and other fans of Doyle’s character use the methods of academia to try and reconcile the contradictions within the Holmes canon – which they treat as factual and written by Dr Watson with Conan Doyle as his literary agent. The best starting point for this is Baring-Gould’s Biography of Holmes: Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street.

After writing the two biographies Farmer proceeded to set stories featuring characters who were integrated into the Wold Newton family tree – some by other authors and some original. Other authors have since expanded both the family tree and the number of stories set in what Win Scott Eckert dubbed the Wold Newton Universe. Eckert himself and others have also written quasi academic articles. The four volumes of Crossovers by Eckert and Sean Lee Levin as well as Randy Marc Lofficier’s Shadowmen encyclopaedias detail a dizzying amount of links – most of which can be found via the Wold Newton website. They have swallowed up thousands of novels, TV shows, comics and films and incorporated them into this universe.

This approach seems to mirror the work of the College de ‘Pataphysique – founded in 1948 – and its various departments in exploring the work of Jarry and his antecedents and descendants in a way that is both rigorous and playful. Andrew Hugill’s ‘Pataphysics: a useless guide is probably the best overview for the Anglophone.

Both programmes have been extremely influential and the roll call of the societies and associated groups such as the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics includes a stellar list of names in literature and art.

Although Farmer never linked the two in his Wold Newton books he does feature Jarry as a character in his Riverworld series – where everyone who has ever lived on Earth is resurrected along the banks of a world long river. I was not entirely convinced by his portrayal of Jarry, but enjoyed the addition to the series in the stories Crossing the Dark River, Up the Bright River and Coda.

 

London Book Fair pt 2

Further work to prepare myself for visiting the London Book Fair.

I have looked through the list of agents who are attending and researched which (a) are open to submissions (b) are interested in science fiction (c) which agents within the company are those who hold that brief (d) what books they like and other interests (e) were they are based. The idea is to have a short list of a dozen or so who seem a good fit – they would potentially like the book and could we work together.

I’m not expecting to get signed up there and then, but want to have a better chance of being looked at if they agree to receive the manuscript. As it inevitably says in most of the rejection letters I have received, whether an agent decides to take on a client is as much about “fit” as the quality of the book. Do they personally like it, does it fit the current marketplace, and are you the sort of person they will be happy to work with.

The marketplace issue is an interesting one. Publishers need to signal to potential readers why they should stump up the cost of buying the book. If they can describe it as “like a, b or c” that make that job easier. Everything from the blurb to the cover to the media releases will then be geared to make it look as much like other books you like as possible. Breaking through a book that doesn’t fit that easily into a category is that much harder.

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus was a wonderful book but not one that slotted comfortably into an existing genre. The hardback was therefore heavily discounted when it was launched and a lot of effort was put into getting advance plaudits from people who the public recognise and like. Once it had taken off, it opened the door to market other books as being “like The Night Circus”. Almost inevitably there will be a lot of books over the next few years that are pale imitations and dilute the genre. That category of novels will either grow if there are sufficient which are good enough to build a market, or will wither away leaving Morgenstern to stand alone.

A good example is steam punk, which my novel The Revolutionary Tapestry shares elements with. The initial examples by Tim Powers, James Blaylock, K.W.Jeter, and the one off collaboration by Sterling and Gibson “The Difference Engine” used the idea of an alternative Victorian setting in interesting ways. Most of the subsequent works have taken the superficial elements of the setting and lost what the originals were about. That doesn’t mean they are bad books – just ones that are comforting rather than challenging. One of the joys of the Difference Engine is that it makes you look at not only Victorian England but the present day in a new way. I hope The Revolutionary Tapestry does the same, but also incorporates the fun element of Steampunk at its best – Powers The Anubis Gates being the best example of this.

The same goes for alternative history. Philip K Dick’s Man in the High Castle was a brilliant novel which asked important questions about being human in a world under a malign government and the nature of reality.  Just as with Steampunk, other worthwhile novels in the same genre are fun explorations of “what if”. However there are also scores of novels that simply write a straightforward  narrative with some historical research for seasoning.

I have always loved the writing of Alfred Jarry and the many other movements and artists he has inspired. His life is as fantastic as any of his writings and he lived in a period which not only was filled with equally enthralling people, but contains the seeds of our world today in the issues it faced. The scientific advances, the political challenge of anarchism and communism. Imperialism and its effect on the subjugated populations. The enormous gap between rich and poor. Struggles with equality and sexuality and what it means to be a man or a woman. Not to mention the anti-Semitism and general racism. At the same time people were investigating the nature of mind with neuroscience, psychology and altered states of consciousness as well as exploring the works of eastern science and esoteric beliefs.

An alternative history novel where the Paris Commune of 1871 didn’t fall but succeeded and ran France seemed a good way of exploring some of these themes and the idea of the Tapestry – a proto internet based on a combination of radio and punch cards gave me not only a way of looking at information, disinformation and its political effect but also a metaphor for the way the story weaves together different lives and plot strands   as well as themes. I also stole a few techniques from John Dos Passos (without the level of skill or complexity I fear) to paint the society in both width and depth.

Most of all, I wanted it to be fun –  not laugh out loud funny but fast paced, exciting and witty in both the overall story and lots of the details. It is not Jarryesque in its style (I am definitely not worthy) but hopefully it has his sense of invention and playfulness. Some of the jokes also come from weaving some of the ideas in his writing into the plot and scenes.

One of my pre-readers suggested it could easily be taken as an historical novel if you didn’t know enough about the period to see where the timelines diverged and where the real ends and extrapolation begins. However Alastair Brotchie’s marvellous biography of Jarry and Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years do such a good job of describing the reality it would be pointless retelling the truth.

Jules is doing a wonderful job re-reading it to identify issues (as well as the typos etc I have inevitably still missed so I will do the final revise today, cut it up again into the various different sizes that are needed for different agents, and rehearse an elevator pitch so I can make the best first impression I can.

 

 

Under review

I was pleased to find in looking at the Amazon page for my short story collection – The Cat Factory and other stories by Tim Newton Anderson – that it had some very positive reviews.

One of them was from a friend – albeit one I have only seen once since leaving university thirty odd years ago – but the other two were from people I don’t know. All of them gave me five stars and very positive reviews.

It is always worrying when you put something out there that it will be received negatively. Performing on stage is not too bad. You may not get the reaction you want but it is over quickly and you move on to the next event. It’s only if you continually get bad responses you start to worry. My former band guitarist always reckoned you get gigs in a set of three threes – one bad, one ok and one good. Sometimes you just aren’t feeling it, sometimes the audience are not in the mood or are more interested in chatting, and sometimes there isn’t enough audience there to create any kind of atmosphere.

With music you can also quickly go back and work out how to improve the next performance. It is harder with a book. Once it is out there it stays out there. Jules is doing an audio recording for me of the collection and in preparing the files for her to scroll through I’ve noticed several typos I missed despite lots and lots of proofreading. Nothing that major but still annoying to me – and more importantly to the reader.

I also keep thinking of ways to tweak the stories to make them better. If I’m totally honest I’m not sure I would award the collection five stars, because I can see ways in which it could be improved. Perhaps the important thing is the reader’s reaction. They only know what they read and whether they enjoy it – not what I was trying to do with the story. cover

Unique Voices

I’ve always loved authors who are unique. Not just in their “voice” or subject matter but in the way they look at the world.

There are lots of authors who have one of these qualities which makes them instantly recognisable. Lovecraft, of course, or Ray Bradbury, can be recognised from the first few lines. Both also have their own distinct view of the world. But they don’t quite make my top five because they are possible to imitate. My top five are so unique that few people would dare to imitate them.

The first in the list is Alfred Jarry. The late 19th century French author and playright had a number of influences and certainly influenced others in turn. He was close to the symbolists and decadents and inspired Dada, surrealism and those associated with the College de ‘Pataphysique but stands apart from all of them in his brilliant eccentric vision. In many ways he could be said to have created a form of literature that has only one proponent – Jarry himself. Most of his work is available in translation if you look for it – much by the wonderful Atlas Press. Most who know Jarry at all do so via Ubu Roi but everything by him is worth reading.

Second in the list (and from now on this is in order of birth rather than favouritism) is David Lindsay. Again, if you have heard of him it will be for one work – A Voyage to Arcturus. This is certainly his best book – his prose is often uneven and the unique vision compromised by attempts to shoehorn in elements of more conventional settings – but all of his work is worth reading -especially Devil’s Tor and Sphinx. If you haven’t read Acturus, see if you can find the Savoy Books hardback which is beautifully produced and includes Colin Wilson’s insightful essay on Lindsay.

Third, born a couple of years after Lindsay, is James Branch Cabell. Again, mainly know for one book – Jurgen – which came to prominence for an obscenity case over some very mild sexual innuendo. Cabell could be accused of writing the same book over and over – he explicitly had a trio of themes which he worked out over the Biography of Manuel series of which Jurgen is a part. Many of the books are fantasies but all are comedies of manners. Like Lindsay and Jarry his those he influenced are nowadays far more famous than Cabell himself.

The fourth author is R.A. Lafferty. Like Cabell, you can instantly recognise a story by Lafferty, and no-one else can write a Lafferty tale, although Michael Bishop and Gene Wolfe have made brave attempts. Often drawing on the odd facts and throwaway theories of Charles Fort Lafferty has an oblique view of the world and its mysteries. His novels are sometimes hard work but the short stories – magnificent. From his first collection -900 Grandmothers – he burst into science fiction with a unique voice. A special mention should be given to editor Terry Carr who helped launch or boost the career of a number of great authors through his two Ace Science Fiction special series and his short story collections. As well as Lafferty, he also supported the final author in our list.

Avram Davidson is as erudite as Jarry or Cabell with the allusive style of Lafferty. Davidson also has Gene Wolfe’s ability to construct a story of details that seem mere embellishment but later prove to be a key element of the plot. Like Wolfe he also uses his encyclopedic knowledge to build worlds that have enormous depth without drowning the reader in exposition. His characters live in their worlds rather than exploring them. His short stories are more accessible than his novels, but the novels are more rewarding – especially the Virgil Magus series. My own favourites are the stories featuring Dr Englebert Esterhazy in his imaginary turn of the century middle European empire and the Jack Limekiller stories set in central America.

 

 

Transreal Fiction

I noticed when editing my short story collection how many times I use my recurring character Tom Robinson – a person who shares a lot of their life experiences with me.
Part of the reason for this is that I wanted to use a lot of the events I have lived through and the feelings I had at the time so it seemed “honest” to have a reasonably accurate version of me go through them in the story. I hope I have been careful not to make Tom a hero but a person who shares my flaws as well as my strengths.
Another reason is that I was attracted to Rudy Rucker’s concept of Transreal fiction where you use your own life as a jumping off point in fantasy or science fiction so that the characters are realistic even if the setting is fantastic.
Other authors have used the inclusion of a “me” character as wish fulfilment, but I didn’t want to do that. Tom is normally the narrator retelling what has happened to other characters while he is only a peripheral part of the action.
There are exceptions – particularly the “Dulwich” short story and novel – based on my experiences as a journalist but taking their stylistic cues from two alumni of Dulwich School: P.G.Wodhouse and Raymond Chandler respectively.
The short story – included in The Cat Factory and Other Stories and attached below as a free taster – is a farce where I tried to emulate Wodhouse’s wonderful domino rally plotting. The plot elements are carefully installed at the start and you then just push the first one over and see the pattern emerge as they tumble.
The novel is a noirish crime story with a lot of black humour in the background. A dark sense of humour is endemic in journalism as well as other professions where you deal with the aftermath of tragedy on a regular basis. It gives you a way of being empathic but keeping a degree of distance.
Most of the background incidents in both stories are completely true, although the characters they happen to are removed from reality in order to protect the innocent (and me from libel, although I still have the notebooks). The newspaper I worked for has already featured in one comic novel: Yeah,Yeah, Yeah by Angus McGill, and formed the basis for Norman Wisdom’s Press for Time.
As well as putting in a fictional crime plot I used the mythic subtext of the Fisher King legend. It is set in the Queen’s Jubilee year of 1977 when Elvis died and punk was king. It was also a year of economic and political turmoil as Militant Tendency were struggling for the soul of the Labour Party and the seeds of the Thatcherite revolution and the death of Tyneside’s traditional heavy industries were being sown, as well as the start of change in the newspaper industry as it moved from hot metal to litho and computers. It seemed the perfect setting for a coming of age story with the death of the Council leader echoing the death of so many other things we thought would keep getting better in the heady freedom of the sixties.

Although on the face of it the novel is in the crime genre, I added a few things to make it an alternate reality novel – just because I could.

Tom so far has featured in two novels and five short stories – nine if you realise he is the unnamed narrator of the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics stories. He will feature again in the rest of the novels in the series started with Masonic Fire and may have a walk on part in the Three Wise Monkeys stories.

To read Identity Crisis click here

In jokes and obscure references

I have to admit I love texts that include in jokes and references to other books and media. That’s why I’m such a fan of Philip Jose Farmer, Kim Newman and Howard Waldrop.
When I wrote The Revolutionary Tapestry I wanted to do some of this myself. Not just because it would be fun to do, and hopefully fun for readers who spotted them, but because it is an alternative world novel. One of the recurring jokes is that incidents in the book inspire later writers – including Jarry himself. A case of art imitating life.
The Jarry references are the key ones – there are scenes that reflect elements of The Supermale, Days and Nights, Le Dragonne and some of his journalism. The other references – more obvious to those who don’t have a good knowledge of Jarry – are around the Fantome character. He is supposed to be the inspiration for Fantomas, the Phantom of the Opera, the title character in the Werewolf of Paris, and the Lone Ranger!  There are also references to Verne’s Robur the Conqueror.

This came as a bit of light relief to the historical research I had to do to get the period right. All bar two of the speaking parts are real people and have largely the same back story as they did in our world. The trick to this was to avoid the “Hello Mr Wilde, have you met your fellow Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw.” school of historical fiction – normally worse in visual media than written. I don’t mind a bit of name dropping if it is done subtly: “Roger saw the man he was after – he was at the far side of the room talking to the Prince of Wales”. Generally,however, if I was going to introduce someone I wanted to have a reason for them being there.

The other challenge I wanted to overcome was the need to drop in background information without a reason for doing so in the plot. It is difficult to totally avoid it, but by including some of it in during reflection by characters on their current situation I hope I avoided the worst of it.

 

H Jones Has Talk Mod – an appreciation of John Thomas Sladek

One of my favourite science fiction writers of all time is John Thomas Sladek.

Sladek, who died in March 2000, first came under the spotlight in the New Wave of British science fiction around Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine, although he was born in Iowa and most of his writing was set in the USA, His writing fitted the experimental nature of the New Worlds stable of young – and young at heart. He also shared the sense of humour of many of them – especially his frequent collaborator Thomas Disch.

Where Sladek was unique was his satire and scepticism, and especially his fascination with puzzles and formal games. His experimental fiction often resembled the blend of mathematics and art practised by the OuLiPo group of writers who grew out of the Institute ‘Pataphysique and included Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec and Harry Mathews. It also echoed Postmodern writers like John Barth. Unlike those writers, the publication of most of his short stories and novels under the science fiction banner meant he had little critical interest from the mainstream and his experimental fiction meant he did not achieve the sales of more more straightforward SF writers.

Like OuLiPo he would set rules in the way he approached many stories – including writing the mystery novels Black Aura and Invisible Green under the rules laid out Rev Ronald Knox for Golden Age detective novels at a time when no-one else in crime writing cared about them. At the same time he subverted Asimov’s rules of robotics in Tic Toc – one of his many novels which used robotics, artificial intelligence and the sciences of Information Theory and Cybernetics developed in the Macy Conferences in the 40s.

Although the structure of his stories and novels were based on formal rules – they were anything but formal in their humour. He was a savage satirist of the worst of human nature and particularly of wilful ignorance, stupidity and hypocrisy. His non fiction book The New Apocrypha ripped apart pseudo science, woolly minded and crank theories and cults with devastating logic and rationalism and most of all with humour. Sladek was always very funny and he used the same scalpel in writing his mock new age books Arachne Rising, The Cosmic Factor and the Judgement of Jupiter – the best joke being that most readers believed they were serious non fiction.

He has sometimes been compared to the more well known satirist who came out if the science fiction community – Kurt Vonnegut. But his work could not be more different to the bleakness of Vonnegut’s vision. Sladek has hope and his masterwork Roderick (published in various slices as one or two books) brings out the humanity in his young robot who becomes a real boy and suffers but overcomes the same issues we can all face in childhood. A Candide for the Information Age.

Some of his work was written just for fun – like the affectionate but devastatingly accurate parodies of other science fiction writers or some of the squibs collected in Maps – but he never wrote anything that wasn’t interesting and clever and his best work deserves wider recognition for its innovation, fun and intelligence.

Most of his writing is available as e-books. Read them.