Tag Archives: ‘pataphysics

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.

 

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

Self Publishing

I’m busy preparing my short story collection The Cat Factory and other stories for publication via Amazon. It seems pretty straightforward so far.
There are, of course, lots of paperwork to sort out. As Amazon only has a US based service, although I can sign in via Amazon UK, I have to give details so I don’t pay US taxes and then declare them on my UK tax form.
It also allows you to create a cover so I could use one of the drawings I created.
I also used my new writing name – Tim Newton Anderson. I decided to add the middle name as there are a lot of Tim Anderson’s on the internet, including someone who won Masterchef in the UK a few years ago, and someone who writes on IT. Newton is my mother’s maiden name so it seemed a good option. I am the only person with that name who comes up on Google at the moment.
I also created a publisher with a few keystrokes – ATJ Entertainments which is the partnership my wife and I formed when we took over the hotel.
This is exciting and scary at the same time. Doing everything yourself avoids the trauma of someone else messing about with what you have written – although as an ex journalist I’m used to someone changing my words. However I am now the only person I can complain to if there are problems.
It also means I have to do my own marketing so I’ve been busy researching potential blogging reviewers, how to use sites like Bookbub etc, and thinking of a strategy for discounts etc. as well as ways to get followers so I can get the news out as soon as widely as possible.
Watch this space for more information and a launch date.

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.

A Kind of Magic

I’m about to start rewriting Masonic Fire (or Chasing the Dragon depending on which title I go for) for the second time.
I did the first draft last November as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) as a straight conspiracy thriller. I then had more ideas for the main characters as occult thrillers so went back and rewote it adding supernatural elements.
While my best reader and critic – my wife Jules – liked both versions, she felt the second one hadn’t integrated the supernatural elements well enough as there was no underlying rationale for them. What I then decided to do was to think about the underlying structure of that universe so the books would explore that as well as working as stories.
Most novels featuring supernatural elements or magic just accept it as a given and use one or more occult traditions as a backdrop. The reason we don’t generally experience this in everyday life is the UFOlogist explanation – it is there but is covered up in some way by either the magicians themselves or some government agency that doesn’t want us to know what’s really going on. Or we simply suppress the memory.
There are a few ways of trying to put some kind of scientific rationale for magic:
• The Arthur C Clarke theory – magic is simply advanced technology. That is (sort of) the approach Lovecraft used – magic relies on the presence of ancient aliens whose technology is so far beyond ours that it looks miraculous and acts of magic by humans is based on tapping that power
• Magic is something that comes into our universe from somewhere else where it does work – either an extradimensional world of Faerie, or the Pratt/ de Camp approach where the underlying laws of an adjacent universe work differently so magic is possible. The Zelazny/Amber variation is that our world is shadow of a real world where magic works.
• Magic is based on undeveloped powers of the human mind which a few individuals have been able to tap into
All of them are bit of cop out in my view – that doesn’t mean that I don’t like enjoy them, as I do. Just that I don’t like them for my own work as I want to be able to write about issues in our own world that I care about which means most of the characters should be ordinary people with ordinary human strengths and weaknesses.
Most stories featuring the occult or magic have heroes who are special – they have talents the rest of us don’t. I want to write about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, which I believe is the real magic in our world.
I cheat a bit in the science I use – a lot is theories that are not wholly accepted, to say the least. I then use that to develop a revamp of history which keeps the same facts, but puts a different spin on what is happening.
The core of it is the Einstein/Bell/Rodalsky paradox which points out that the behaviour of paired particles contradicts the Theory of General Relativity as they seem to indicate something travels faster than the speed of light. My explanation is that there is a fundamental substrate of information which means at a quantum level everything is connected.
At the other end is Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of the Omega Point. A Jesuit Priest and scientist he speculated that the purpose of the universe was to evolve consciousness to a point where it becomes God. In my version of the universe that collective godhood then travels back in time and sets the condition for the Big Bang – thus having an ouroboros loop where it sets the conditions for its own creation.
Between these bottom and top levels are James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis where the earth is a collective organism which is itself evolving in the same way its constituent creatures are, and Jung’s Collective Unconscious which links all human beings at a fundamental level populated by common archetypes. Jung’s idea has a number of variations from the mundane that our brain structure throws up things that we interpret in a similar way, to a more mystical one. Mine is at the mystical end which uses the Gaia theory and the pairing of particles to suggest that we actually do communicate unconsciously in a real way.
The working out of this can then be used to explain magic, bringing in things like stone tapes, mystically charging objects and places, possession, supernatural creatures, ghosts, and the power of ritual.
The reason in my universe that we don’t see magic is that there are three basic worldviews that are competing to impose their version of the Omega point on the universe – the magical, the religious and the rational/scientific. There are only a few people in each of these camps that understand what is going on and are in the battle knowingly and who consciously propagate their memes in order to win. Those who see the supernatural either accept it or rationalise it according to their own world view.
There is an organisation first set up by the Royal Society – or more accurately by its predecessor the Invisible College – to maintain a balance between the three world views. Hence the re-explanation of history. When the protagonists accidentally stumble into the machinations of people who want to change the balance in their favour, they are introduced to the organisation which reveals this truth to them.
Now I’ve worked it out, I just need to rewrite the story!

Where do you get your ideas from?

The perennial question for writers. There is a post on the Suffolk Writers Forum on Facebook asking how people approach plotting a novel – this is my answer (for the one I’m working on now anyway).

The germ of the idea was in two parts. A conversation in the pub I ran with a customer who asked if I had heard of Alfred Jarry followed by a long conversation about him. I hadn’t expected a customer in a pub in rural Suffolk to have heard of Jarry, but it turned out he had learnt about him from Sir Paul McCartney who he had been working with as a producer on Paul’s Ubu Jubu radio show in America.

We discussed the possibility of doing a film script about Jarry – my vision was something produced by Terry Gilliam and starring Johnny Depp (in a hole to be the right height like a reverse Alan Ladd). For various reasons – work, the fact the customer did more thinking than doing, the fact he would have preferred a version of Ubu Roi rather than a biography comparing Jarry’s life and his works in a fantastic melange – I didn’t take it further than a two page proposal. The I saw the first (and I think so far only) Sir Terry Pratchett prize for an alternate world novel advertised and started to think about a novel with Jarry as a lead character. The idea of a world where the Paris Commune didn’t fall but went on to overthrow the nascent Third Republic just seemed an obvious one. It could have a steampunk feel. I’d been doing the research for all of my life, although I hadn’t known it at the time.

I first discovered Jarry as a student. I spent a lot of time in Orbit Books in Manchester talking to Dave Britton. We had similar tastes and had both been inspired by Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine, but also by pulp fiction, surrealism, science fiction and fantasy generally. Dave – who was to go on to notoriety as the author of Lord Horror and other titles in his taboo breaking Savoy Books line – was further down the path of seeking out the eclectic and outré than I was and introduced me to authors like Kenneth Patchen (with his wonderful Journal of Albion Moonlight) and Jarry. This spurred me to search Manchester’s bookshops to find some of the authors we discussed. It was a bit like following a breadcrumb trail – the notes in one book would mention other books that shared similarities. There were no Amazon recommendations in the 1970’s, we had to do it the hard way.

I’ve been following the breadcrumb trail since then, with lots of crossovers. As mentioned in an earlier post, the work of Philip Jose Farmer has been one of the key elements as Farmer’s own voracious and varied reading found its way into his own fiction – especially the Wold Newton and Fictional Author work – and led me to a previous generation of authors.

So when I started to write again after we came out of the hotel, this was one of half a dozen ideas for novels I had, and I had a couple of pages to get me going which introduced the other main character – the journalist Philippe – and the terrorist bomb that starts the action. It also introduced the shadowy Fantome who is behind the attack.

I had a general concept of what I wanted – Da Vinci Code meets Moulin Rouge as directed by the Coen Brothers, only exploring the culture and politics of Fin de Siecle Paris as a way of looking at timeless issues which are still relevant today, including the Internet, which I had imagined an earlier version of as one of the drivers of change..

I then did some more background reading and revisited the stuff I had cut and pasted from the internet (bless you Wikkipedia) in that earlier work. I also bought a few books that gave me more of the plot and characters – one which was near contemporary account of Bohemian life in Paris in 1896 which provided several locales I wanted to include, one which gave me the lead female character, and one which gave me a lot of the political background. I’ve found that background reading will spark tangential ideas about plot as well as historical detail. The fact I chose an American with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as the female lead gave me the idea of incorporating a covered wagon chase and western shoot out in the book. Researching French writers of the period included Zola’s description of the Les Halles market as the belly of Paris so I felt that had to be included as well.

So I had my starting point of Jarry, Philippe the journalist (with a lot of autobiographical elements) and Suzanne the American expatriot, plus the Fantome who has to be a shadowy figure with elements of Fantomas and other pulp French fictional characters. The other key characters were real – Police Chief Rigualt and Louise Michel from the Commune, Russian spy Rachkovsky and the anarchists who were active at the time, Peladan and the other occultists from the Magical Wars of a few years before the main action.

The joy of Paris at the time is that all the real characters were linked together – many artists were both anarchists and occultists with Peladan being a sponsor of Symbolist painters and journalist Felix Feneon being a leading light in the anarchist movement but also publisher and publicist of many of the key symbolists. Jarry himself was active in the same circles. This interlinking is perfect to pull apart the interlinking strands of art, politics and the occult with separate but linked groups of conspirators all trying to change the world. Now that was in place it was a case of letting them interact in a set of locations I wanted to explore and a group of set pieces I could locate there.

Half a notebook of scribbles, a couple of hundred pages of background notes and a lot of shuffling of characters and ideas later – plus some character studies written on key characters for my OU creative writing course to help understand their motivations – and I had the skeleton and some key body parts for the novel. My understanding of both character and setting changes and develops as I write and think about how they interact, but the core is reasonably solid. I plot the story arc and the key scenes along the way but the details of the journey evolve as I write. I’m looking forward to going on that journey with my characters.