Thursday, 30 September 2010

"Care of Wooden Floors" to be Published by Harper Press in Spring 2012

I'm delighted to be able to announce that Harper Press, an imprint of publishing giant HarperCollins, has bought the rights to my novel, Care of Wooden Floors. Needless to say, I'm thrilled - in fact, I've been walking on sunshine, barely able to think of anything else, since I first heard of the offer early this week. The ink is barely dry on the third draft and it's sold. Publication is due in spring 2012 (although of course this may change).

Here's a description of the book, written before I had completed the first draft. The short version: a man is given his friend's beautiful minimalist flat to look after, with disastrous results. It's a small, strange tale of accidents, friendship, pathological neatness, death and wooden floors.

Updates will follow.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Image Accumulator

This is part of Tim Maly's 50 Posts About Cyborgs, a collaboration between blogs celebrating 50 years of the term "cyborg". Here, I'll be talking about David Cronenberg's film Videodrome, and there'll be some description of sadomasochism. Consider yourselves warned. It's also an imperfect effort to bring together thoughts on a number of subjects, and as such has a slightly unfinished feel. For that, my apologies.

What is the secret of the Videodrome signal? Not its origins or its meaning, which are the objects of James Woods' quest in David Cronenberg's film Videodrome (1983). I mean the secret of its shiver. We get the shiver when Max Renn, played by Woods, is introduced to the signal by his colleague Harlan. The signal was sniffed out by the pirate satellite dish operated by Renn's cable network - Videodrome is a brutal sadomasochistic television programme apparently emitting from Malaysia. Nothing but torture and snuff, filmed in a studio with walls of wet clay. Wet clay - absorbs sound, and it can be electrified. How's that for a deviant architectural detail? You have to love Cronenberg. An illicit television programme, operating beyond the reach of any risk of penalty and specialising in savagery, is a sinister enough premise. And then he goes and throws in a baroque, left-field detail like walls of wet clay. It just emphasises the otherness of the signal - the fact that it is a product of thought processes that are not like ours. We think.


And there's the shiver. An illicit television programme. Something we aren't meant to be seeing. But it's right there, on the spectrum, just waiting for an ear cocked in its direction. It's inherently fascinating. Broadcast television is a rigid, hierarchical, top-down, hermetic system, a trumpeting modern edifice. Underneath a veneer of raucous diversity, it's monolithic and monopolistic. Breaches in that monopoly are at once unnerving and exotic - such as the sinister surrealism of the Max Headroom signal intrusion incident (video).

Finding this hotline to depravity, Renn does what any sensible person would - he pirates the programme and puts it on his own channel. He also becomes obsessed by it, and discovers that not only is it not faked, it is also being broadcast from no further away than Pittsburgh. As Renn gets closer to the source of the signal, he suffers from terrifying hallucinations. His television warps, swells, pulses and erotically reaches out towards him; his abdomen splits into a maw like a VCR cassette slot; he learns that the signal has a direct physiological effect, causing brain tumours. It's a product of the military-industrial complex: weaponised television, designed to destroy the minds and bodies of undesirables.

Body horror is of course what Cronenberg is best known for. The director had previously shown the boundaries of the body collapsing (most memorably in 1975's Shivers) and mind control (in 1981's Scanners). But Videodrome is I think the first proper foray into cyborg transgression - the merging of flesh and technology, a catastrophic breakdown in the separation we take for granted.

Or do we take it for granted? It makes sense that the vector of this breakdown is a broadcast signal. We are, as a species, not entirely convinced that visual information has no power over us - photosensitive epilepsy is of course real, and Videodrome-like mind control has seeped into urban legends, always a good barometer of modern pathologies. (The arcade game Polybius is a particularly fine example of this line of mythmaking.) We feel sensitive to the non-visual electromagnetic spectrum around us, even where it doesn't affect us - witness the pseudoscientific health scares over mobile phones, phone masts, electricity pylons, "electrosmog". Television was the first electronic love-object, the focus of an extraordinarily widespread devotion. As a consumer item, it has consistently adopted different strategies to get closer to us - reproducing, breaking out of the living room and into different rooms in the house, and also attempting a more intimate connection. First it experimented with miniaturisation (portable TVs, pocket TVs, wearable TVs); now its preferred method is immersion, giant screens, clearer images and sound, refining the purity of the signal rather than its portability. The relationship of the 20th-century consumer to the television signal has always been a kind of romance - a ferociously close but off-balance, sadomasochistic romance. Renn is simply acting out the atavistic dream-journey of the 20th-century consumer - he is getting inside his television, letting it get inside him, finally breaching that air-gap and bathing in the electromagnetic spectrum. In an ecstatic climax within the film, when all the distinctions between reality, television programe and hallucination have disappeared, Renn finds himself inside the orange chamber with the wet clay walls. There, he whips a television; on the screen, Debbie Harry's lips moan and cry out approvingly.

Clear-eyed and unsentimental as always, JG Ballard was on top of this relationship. The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), contains the shadow of Videodrome - it's filled with giant screens, with broadcasts, with violence as entertainment. While the discourse around social change was mostly fogged with petty conservatism, Ballard saw deeper psychological instincts and pathologies being acted out in our relationship with consumer goods.

In fact, too few things are bad for us, and one fears an indefinite future of pious bourgeois certitudes. It's curious that these puritans strike such a chord - there is a deep underlying unease about the rate of social change, but little apparent change is actually taking place. ... Real change is largely invisible, as befits this age of invisible technology - and people have embraced VCRs, fax machines, word processors without a thought, along with the new social habits that have sprung up around them.

-- JG Ballard, notes to "Death Games (a) Conceptual", The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, one feels, would have approved of Renn's self-destructive line of enquiry - his advice in The Atrocity Exhibition is that we should "immerse ourselves in the most destructive element, ourselves, and swim"; he thought there should be more sex and violence on television, seeing it as a powerful catalyst for social change. Videodrome is a thoroughly Ballardian film. And Renn really does immerse himself in himself - his tool for becoming one with the Videodrome signal is the Image Accumulator, a kind of helmet; in this helmet, reality, television and hallucination are the same non-judgemental flow of electrons.

The Image Accumulator.

The Image Accumulator is profoundly reminiscent of works by the German artist Walter Pichler. Attempting a critique of television, Pichler combined the device with prosthesis and architecture, fashioning "rooms" that are in fact helmets with integrated televisions. Pichler exposes the dependence in the relationship with television, its total demand on the user - the helmets are not convenient or liberating, they are blinding and immobilising. He gives us the cyborg endgame of devotion to television. But the astonishing thing about his helmets is that they manage to be appealing - they have the finished surface of consumer products, and despite ourselves we're curious about what's inside, how the experience works. The risk of course is obvious - it's not that we'll find these absurd contraptions uncomfortable and debilitating, that's a given; the risk is that we'll find the payoff worth it for final oneness with the signal, the warm umbilical with the machine, and that we'll come to forget we're wearing the helmet.

"Portable Living Room", Walter Pichler, 1967

"Small Room Prototype", Walter Pichler, 1967

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Children of the Bunker

This is part of 50 Posts About Cyborgs.

The Mark 3 Travel Device.

The end of a thousand-year war. Two races locked in the embrace of murder-suicide. Technology in reverse. Attrition on a planetary scale: every living thing, every scrap of life-sustaining environment, must be destroyed to deny it to the enemy. The triumph of nihilism, genocide as business-as-usual. Few Doctor Who serials have even come in sight of the creative peak represented by Genesis of the Daleks, Terry Nation's 1975 story. Throughout its 47-year history, Doctor Who has continually shown a frustrating lack of economy with its own reserves of imagination, flinging away fascinating concepts after only the briefest examination and then eking out unoriginal stories far beyond their natural life. The series had a routine disregard for its own continuity even before the baroque absurdities of the post-2005 "New" series. Genesis of the Daleks is different. An extraordinarily powerful scenario is thoroughly explored, and the existing Dalek timeline is enriched and extended with what is essentially a super-prequel.

As the name suggests, Genesis is the beginning of the Daleks. What's striking about it is that it feels like an ending. The Doctor, played by Tom Baker, arrives on the planet Skaro at the tail end of a millennial war between the Thals and the Kaleds, two sets of humanoid aliens. The world is devastated by centuries of atomic and chemical warfare. The armies of the two races are reduced to ragged bands of skirmishers with mismatched, salvaged equipment, the detritus of a technological civilisation that has all but totally unravelled. The combatants are in regression, on the path back to the bow and arrow. The exhaustion is palpable.

Technology in retreat.

On arrival in this apocalypse, the Doctor is informed by a senior Time Lord that, in the distant future, the tyrannical cyborg race known as the Daleks has come to dominate the universe. This outcome must be prevented, so he has been sent back to the moment of the Daleks' creation to interfere with their development - either he must snuff them out at birth, or intervene to steer the race in a less belligerent direction. There have been too many times when the Daleks were thought to be defeated and came back stronger than ever, like a hospital superbug. The Doctor has been sent ad fontes to pre-empt a Dalek universe. Even the possibility of a Dalek universe is too great a risk to take.

This might sound like Dick Cheney's One Percent Doctrine, but a viewer familiar with the Daleks' later exploits is immediately on the Doctor's side. The Daleks are near-perfect villains, "gliding like priests, talking like Nazis, chimerical yet simple, and with that unpleasantly ambiguous relation to the ground beneath them" in Jenny Turner's beautiful description from 2006. They don't just talk like Nazis, they talk like the angriest, barking, spittle-hurling Schutzstaffel creep; they are Nazis reduced to their perfect essence, in a wheeled tin can. Tinned extract of Nazi. At the moment the Doctor arrives on Skaro, we already know a little of their origins - inside their armoured shell, the "real" Dalek is a degenerate mutant, just a ball of squealing, mucus-covered malignancy. If you had one under your foot, your instinct would be to stamp down, hard. They are bad news. Wipe them out before they do any harm? Sure.

But our trip to the nursery with a flamethrower can also be educational. What could cause that kind of debasement? What sort of florid developmental trauma could lead to that sort of galaxywide psychopathy? If this is the child, what are the parents like?

Trekking across the devastated surface of Skaro, the Doctor and his companions see, in the distance, the first sign that civilisation of some kind is still operating: a domed city. They encounter a network of trenches - manned by corpses - and the entrance to a bunker. They are surprised by a raiding party, captured, and led into this underground world: the Kaled headquarters.

Inside the Kaled bunker.

Terry Nation does not play down the parallels with the Nazis. Although the Kaleds are exhausted, near total defeat, down in the bunker they're still bleating on about huge offensives and Wunderwaffe that will bring about victory. Armies are confidently moved about a situation map, although from the depopulation we've seen on the surface it's clear they represent handfuls of soliders, if they exist at all. Peter Miles plays the security chief Nyder, an SS officer down to his Iron Cross, licking his lips over lines like "The Kaled race must be kept pure!". Great faith is placed in the charismatic chief scientist Davros, promiser of the Wunderwaffe, the man whose genius has kept the Kaled war machine going, and apparent source of the Kaleds' racial rhetoric.

Nyder. The parallels with the Nazis are not subtle.

This is the first appearance of Davros, a recurring character in later Doctor Who serials, inextricably tied up with the Daleks. We, the viewers, know that the wonder-weapon he is promising is the Dalek, and his appearance tells most of the story of this creation. Davros is crippled, confined to a transport device that resembles the lower half of a Dalek; he is blind, able to see only through an artificial eye mounted on his forehead; a single withered arm operates the switches on the chair that allow him to interact with the world around him. The Daleks are, it is immediately clear, simply elaborations of the cyborg technology that has kept their creator alive. He introduces the Daleks as the "Mark 3 Travel Device" - obviously he is sitting in the Mark 2. The Dalek is presented to the Kaleds as the only possible way to survive: it is designed to travel over the toxic surface of the planet, and will accommodate the "ultimate" form of the Kaled race - what the race will mutate into when the chemicals and radiation in the environment have completed their work. Davros has, for experimental purposes, hurried this process of mutation along on a few test subjects, and the results are not pretty. The Kaleds only have Davros' word that his test subjects are really the genetic destination of their race, but their chief scientist has brought them this far, and his own state (ruined, but alive and pugnacious) is a kind of guarantee - a sort of Hitlerian brinksmanship, which says "I'm prepared to go this far, to sacrifice this much, why aren't you?"

Davros: proto-Dalek.

The Kaleds are quite captivated by Davros, and impressed by the obvious potential of his creation to wreak victory, but they are not yet so far down the step-free path to Dalekhood. There are qualms, doubts, power struggles. Some of the scientists, quite understandably, don't much like the idea of ending up as one of Davros' future-slugs. It's not necessary to relay the entire plot here: there is much (too much) toing and froing across the wasteland between the Kaled dome and the Thal dome, many captures, escapes and recaptures, a lot of intrigue and moral calculus, some unintentionally comic encounters with giant polystyrene clams, and eventually the Daleks are unleashed and do what they do best: Ex-ter-min-ate, Ex-ter-min-ate. What's fascinating about Genesis is the way it explains so much about the psychology of the Daleks and how they ended up as such compelling villains, simultaneously terrifying and pathetic, "utterly evil and utterly childish" in Turner's phrase: "What is ‘Ex-ter-min-ate! Ex-ter-min-ate!’ but the most notorious command of the 20th century, done as a comic turn?"

The Daleks confer with their creator.

The childish edge is key: the Daleks are erratic, hyperactive, prone to tantrums. Their debasement could also be seen as under-development. In Genesis, Davros orders chromosomal alterations to the mutant Kaled test subjects. A scientist objects that the change will mean significant defects: No compassion, no conscience. Not defects, says Davros, enhancements! Deficiency is passed off as improvement, just as a slimy residue is being passed off as the apogee of the Master Race. Alongside under-development, the Daleks' hysteria and insanity also has an edge of claustrophobic panic, almost a horror at its own situation, trapped in a metal shell. Their superiority compex is Napoleonic, based on inferiority.

The Kaled super-race.

So they are trapped - just like the Kaleds, just like the Thals, confined to their bunkers, unable to venture out onto the planet they're fighting over without gasmasks, radiation detectors, helmets and other technological enhancements. The bunker can be seen like a kind of super-Dalek, the dome of the head poking above the surface of the planet, while the remains of each race desperately operates the controls inside. The Daleks are the products of the psychosis of the bunker.

Going further back into the rear of the fortification, you meet once again the system of staggered nearby defenses, with its small firing slits—one along the entrance axis, the other on the flanks—with low visibility, through which the immediate surroundings can be seen, in a narrow space with a low ceiling. The crushing feeling felt during the exterior circuit around the work becomes acute here. The various volumes are too narrow for normal activity, for real corporal mobility; the whole structure weighs down on the visitor’s shoulders. Like a slightly undersized piece of clothing that hampers as much as it enclothes, the reinforced concrete and steel envelope is too tight under the arms and sets you in a semiparalysis fairly close to that of illness.

That's Paul Virilio describing a Nazi-built fortification on Europe's Atlantic Coast ("The Frightening Beauty of Bunkers", The Morning News 2 February 2009, an article distilling the ideas laid out in Virilio's classic Bunker Archaeology) - the kind of structure that the Third Reich put its faith in as its manpower dwindled and defeat started to press in on all sides. Internal volumes too narrow for corporal mobility, the structure weighing down on the shoulders, semiparalysis close to illness - it's inescapably Dalekoid. The Dalek vehicle, the "Mark 3 Travel Device", can be seen as a sort of mobile, personal bunker, complete with its own raging, raving Hitler inside, screaming and commanding. It even looks like a pillbox, with the slits at the top, the swivelling weapon, the domed top.

The Doctor does not destroy the Daleks in Genesis. They keep coming back, again and again - hardly a surprise, as they are in many ways a more powerful creation than the Doctor himself, a perfectly tied knot of 20th-century pathologies, one that is for the time being quite at home in our own century as well. They're a warning about desperation, about wonder-weapons, about giving away too much for victory. Genesis of the Daleks is full of destruction and evil, but it ends on a resoundingly humane note. The Doctor plants explosives in the Dalek nursery , among the specimen jars containing the Kaled mutants. But when given the live wires that will trigger the detonation, he can't bring himself to do it. It's a striking moment - the Kaled blobs are after all, helpless, no matter how bellicose they might be. The Doctor agonises, and chucks away his chance, endangering the whole universe just to prevent himself sinking to the Daleks' level.

Genocide anxiety.

Rather than destroy the Daleks, the Doctor settles for blowing up the entrance tunnel to the underground complex, setting back their progress a few centuries, hopefully enough to tilt the scale of history against them. The Daleks are left to trundle about the Kaled bunker on their own, shrieking and plotting. Even after they dig their way out, they will never, ever escape.