This Power Might Not Last

During the Christmas shutdown, I was playing a lot of World of Warcraft. It’s something to do but, as I discussed with one of my brothers, it is simply fun-ish. Once I returned to Wycombe, I removed it from my hard-drive and decided to look around for a palette cleanser. There was a winter sale on the Steam service. I picked up a few games, which included Dontnod entertainment’s Life Is Strange. The first episode of Life is Strange was released in January 2015, the last in October of the same year. I will be writing about my experience of playing this game. The story is a coming of age tale with a time-travel twist and elements of murder mystery. I found it a beautiful, albeit flawed, gem. As always, I will warn the reader now that extensive spoilers are to follow.

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Difficult Reading

In the past few weeks I have been taking the trains a lot, visiting different cities. While riding the rails I have allowed myself a bit of lighter, leisure reading. For the past few years I’ve drifted towards classical history, philosophy, and a bit of political theory in my reading, as well as critical & literary theory. I’ve moved in this direction not out of any distaste for fiction (that would be a bit rich) but rather out of a desire to educate myself a bit more. I went to University and learned how little I knew. However, a train ride, with all its attendant interruptions and discomforts, isn’t too great a place to concentrate on a theory reader, so I switched to my e-reader and downloaded a few e-books.

Of the ones that I started to read, I finished two. When I was a child I never abandoned a book, no matter how bad, because I considered there to be a virtue in finishing what I had started. As I’ve gotten older I’ve given up on that notion: there are many books, and I do not have the time to read them all. The two that prompted me to press on were Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and James Smythe’s The Explorer. Both well written, it was a moment of dissonance that prompted me to keep at them rather than put them aside for a crossword puzzle. Spoilers to follow, please proceed with that in mind.

Neil Gaiman is, obviously, the more famous writer of the two, and needs no introduction, least of all by me. Stardust is a novella originally published in 1999, telling the story of the slightly hapless Tristran and his star-crossed lover Yvaine. Normally, I’d say there’s more to it than that, but in the case of Stardust that really is the whole of the tale, barring some witchiness and Tristran being heir to the kingdom. It was also adapted to a film in 2007, which I mostly liked. I have read a few Gaiman stories (American Gods, Anansi Boys, Fragile Things collection) but I’m hardly an expert. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Stardust was something of an experiment by him. The prose read to me as quintessential Gaiman: the junction where fairy-tale poesy meets modern prose.1 Gaiman is very, very good at this style, I’d even go so far as to suggest that writing in a pre-modern fantastic idiom is his lived in home when it comes to words. He weaves in touches of the fantastic, invoking mythology to make a magic that feels everyday but not precisely commonplace. I particularly like the fieldmouse that “was a prince under an enchantment” eaten by an owl “herself under a curse”, the potential “Nut of Wisdom” then falling in to a river to be eaten by a salmon, evoking the bradán feasa eaten by Fionn mac Cumhaill. The commonplace binding chains are of Norse origin; even the reference to stars falling and never rising evokes Milton and Paradise Lost. Gaiman is a writer who knows much, is not afraid to show it, yet does so deftly and with a light yet commanding touch. His agility with language is reflected as he describes an opened body as with “vital organs like wet jewels” or a rakish character “a foppish assassin from a minor Elizabethan historical play.”

However, Stardust imports something a bit unpleasant, a bit of unthinking that it never really resolves, and which dogged my reading experience. To put it simply, Tristran is quite the creeper. He initially goes in search of the fallen star (Yvaine) because he is attempting to win the affections of Victoria Forester, described in this way:

Every boy in the village was in love with Victoria Forester. And many a sedate gentleman, quietly married and with grey in his beard, would stare at her as she walked down the street, becoming, for a few moments, a boy once more, in the spring of his years with a spring in his step.

When I read this, my heart went out to Victoria. I do not know, personally, what it is like to be scrutinised on the street, but I have spoken to enough people who have that Victoria immediately had my sympathy. She is a young woman who wants a job, is impeded in this by convention, and at every turn is ogled by men and boys. She comes across rather well in light of this.2 Tristran is, of course, in love with Victoria, though he is “painfully shy” for which he overcompensates. This is presumably a set up so that we don’t judge him too harshly but… there follows a scene where Tristran forces Victoria in to conversation, invites himself to walk her home, asks to kiss her and is rebuffed, asks to kiss her again and doesn’t understand why she won’t kiss him now when she did before, proposes to her while ignoring what she is saying, then finally gets her to agree to marry him3 and then struts off in to Faerie where he finds Yvaine, a star incarnated as a woman, ties her up in an unbreakable chain4 with the intention of taking her back through to Wall5, his cruelty to her justified by his desire for Victoria:

every time she winced or flinched Tristran felt guilty and awkward, but he calmed himself by thinking of Victoria Forester’s grey eyes.

We never see Tristran develop or question how he behaved to Victoria in the first place, nor how he treats Yvaine. It is particularly galling since the fictive world of the book supports a perspective of Victoria as the trouble-maker, and the appropriate response being to:

tell her to go shove her face in the pig pen, and go out and find another one who’ll kiss you without asking for the earth.

Where Stardust is a fairy-tale, and embraces fairy-tale mores. I don’t know whether it was in adherence to this, but it felt as if the latter part of the book was quite hurried. We get Tristran and Yvaine’s adventures reported to us in a brief, almost cursory paragraph. To some extent this is in adherence to the demands of the genre, to not stay overlong once the tension of Yvaine and Tristran (and the witches) is resolved. However, because so much rests on believing that not only could Yvaine forgive and even love Tristran, I find that being told rather than shown damages the conclusion of the story, as does having Victoria only free to marry who she wants by Tristran’s largesse. I was disappointed by the time I had finished Stardust, given the obvious care and thought that went in to the language and the mythological grounding that was not applied to the development of the characters. I don’t know, obviously, but I sense that the reluctance to interrogate this stems as much from love of the inspiration as anything else, and to question the assumptions underpinning a fairy-tale work is to scare away magic.6 It also might be said that it is simply ‘not that sort of story’ but it at least implicitly draws on the ideas of bildungsroman, but does not actually execute them. I think in a post Angela Carter/Bloody Chamber literary landscape, though, this just isn’t the case.

The Explorer is narrated by Cormac Easton, a journalist on a once in a lifetime journey in to space. He’s separated from his wife7 It is a science fiction narrative that at first one might be forgiven for thinking of as in the vein of Star Trek, boldly going where none have gone before. That is indeed part of the premise under which the characters operate. It even includes this about the pursuit of exploration:

And it inspired people; it made others do the same, and that led to countries being discovered, populated.

Reading this, I had to pause and consider the implication there. Exploration, in the tradition being discussed, is that of western sailors going to already populated places and declaring them ‘discovered’, usually resulting in colonisation and lots and lots of suffering. “This is about man, and what we’ll find out there” we are told. It put me on edge, but this was merely the set-up.

The Explorer sets up this expectation to explode it. It is not about discovering new places, but rather about discovering the self and, unlike with the tradition of explorer narratives such as She or Heart of Darkness, the blank canvas upon which this exploration is undertaken is not just of an existing space white-washed, but rather of absolute blank space. The events of The Explorer take place within a time-loop on board a sabotaged space exploration. Cormac is forced to watch himself over and over again, living through the same series of accidents and murders. Cormac realised about himself that he “can’t deal with knowing I’m here with no purpose.” It is an interesting comment on the idea of the neutral observer, how Cormac’s initial experience differs from how he observes things that the story returns to:

the faces of the dead as they tell us about themselves when they were alive – not who they really were, but who the public perception of them was.

Cormac, in being able to see himself, come to despise himself. It is most succinctly described by Emmy who, following Cormac Prime’s murder of another member of the crew, tells Cormac Other that he is “a man… who thinks that the world revolves around him. That what happened is because of your choices, not hers.” Cormac never considers himself not at fault, or not instrumental, even when he considers himself ‘just’ part of the circuit that makes up the timeline.

What The Explorer does with its time paradox is a reflection of the particular capability of science fiction in a meta-textual sense. As science fiction allows us to reflect on ourselves at a remove, so does Cormac do so. Yet it is quite bold in that, despite being aware of his failures, Cormac acknowledges that he

can berate him [the other Cormac] doing it [staring at pictures of his dead wife] as much as I like but, truth be told, given the opportunity, it’s what I would be doing as well.

And he does indeed go back to stare at her pictures when the other Cormac leaves the terminal open. The Explorer is about personal growth and change, the difficulty of it, that is requires “hindsight, and even then I’d be suspicious.” Like Stardust, The Explorer does miss out a long period of time in Cormac’s subjective timeline: we know he has repeated this experience many, many times, but not a particular figure. Yet it does this to illuminate how hard change and growth are. Yet it does offer Cormac the tantalising, painful opportunity to change, having lived this loop so many times he has lost count. Just at the end, he can either return to the loop or reach out to the potentially destructive unknown.

As I have written before, I believe stories are as much tool for empathy and self-reflection as they are entertainment. These two books proved to be difficult reading for similar reasons – concerns about the characters and where the narrative was going – with two quite different outcomes. Yet even though I was disappointed with Stardust and surprised by The Explorer, I think being able to identify and consider the good and bad, contrasting how they operate in their particularly niches, embracing them as they do, helps to a more full understanding of the text.

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  1. “it [the star, Yvaine] said ‘Fuck.’ And then is said ‘Ow,’ once more.”
  2. Unlike in the film which, because of reasons, she was rewritten as rather horrible.
  3. An agreement that, we learn at the end of the book, Victoria intends to honour, even though she does not want to!
  4. Of the same sort used to bind Fenris, naturally.
  5. This will kill her.
  6. “each land that has been forced off the map by explorers and the brave going out and proving it wasn’t there has taken refuge in Faerie.”
  7. We later learn that his wife had committed suicide just before he boarded the spaceship.

Naming as Narrative Architecture

For the longest time I believe I was a bit of a snob about consistent naming styles (and I probably remain so). One of the things that I do while writing, not necessarily as to begin with but certainly before finishing, is to settle on a consistent naming style. Naming conventions are an element of the larger intertextual dialogue that texts take part in. Particular naming styles can be used, alluded to, or subverted in relation to the assumptions of your audience. At least on an initial survey, the tendency to ‘melting pot’ names is a modern one, perhaps art imitating life imitating art. I am drawn to consider the popular 90s TV show ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’ The titular character was conceived to place on its head the Hollywood cliché of the blonde damsel; the subversion of naming is right at the heart of the shot. This logic applies to other characters in the show. Consider Alexander, whose name comes from the near-legendary Greek general, asserts an identity as ‘Xander, an intentionally hip alternative to Alex, but that he fails to live up to the expectations of either of these identities. Angel is initially introduced to us as something to be suspicious of, an appropriate direction for a feminist identifying narrative when faced with a linguistic artefact of Christianity; we are reassured that Angel is ‘on the level’ only to have our original suspicion validated when Angel ‘goes evil’ and becomes ‘Angellus.’ The characters of Buffy are fluid in their naming, both in asserting alternative identities, and how those names describe them. We should be as dubious of what their names tell us of them as what the characters identify as. Spike, for example, creates an identity with which to obscure his earlier shame and humiliations, to try and make of himself a monster so that no-one can probe at the man. Interestingly, it is overwhelmingly the male characters who try and assert a variable name for themselves, whereas, along with Buffy, Faith and Willow struggle to live inside the names they are given. However, to have these assumptions to be subverted, they have to exist in a context that is comprehensible, even though Buffy, Faith & Alexander (for example) are all drawn from different conventions even though they share a context in modern, suburban America; we cannot separate them from their pre-modern or modern environments.

There’s something almost Campbellian in the way we deal with names and mythologies; the particular allusions in names become inscribed and reinscribed upon the cultural consensus so that a name becomes almost an act of cultural exchange from prior cultures. In Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, many of the major characters are drawn from the traditional cultures of pre-modern societies. Wednesday is a prime example of this, the deployment of archaic notions in a modern idiom. Wednesday is an ‘Americanised’ Odin, the Norse god of wisdom, the sky and self-harm. Yet we are also tipped off by the peculiarities of his name that this fellow is not quite Odin; this alludes to the long con that he is playing. This is not restricted to just Wednesday. Consider Shadow, who begins as a man on the outside, fresh out of prison, with no ties. A former criminal, he exists in the shadows of one world before translating to another set of shadows. Yet as the books, we come to see that his vary existence is a ploy of Wednesday’s, shadow puppetry to distract from Wednesday and Lye Smith’s actual game. American Gods uses a magpie aesthetic, drawing together mythic figures and urban legendry into a compelling narrative, each player hinted at but never fully revealed as some figure from myth or legend – ‘Mr Nancy’ ‘Easter’ and other figures named and collated from around the world. In addition to being a textual representation of the American ‘melting-pot’, this is very much in the spirit of ‘free-play’ that Derrida describes as a postmodern characteristic.

While names used can come from & reconstitute a mythology, the characters nor subject have to be mythical. I am currently (still?) reading Moby Dick, a name that itself has entered common usage as a sort of ponderous beast of Victoriana. The book is identified as a foundational text of the American Modernist style, a seminal Great American novel, meditating on the mundane and the extraordinary side by side. The narrator Ishmael and Captain Ahab, along with Elijah & the two captains both evoke a Biblical tone, recalling us implicitly as the text explicitly refers to the Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale; the story is itself almost the revelation of a whaling man, taking us out to a world of strange, earthly wonder. Yet away from the shore, from the familiarities of an order that is bound up in familiar frameworks, the other characters – Tashtego & Queequeg alongside Pip & Stubb – imbue the vessel with an otherworldly character, a foreigner even to its home, inhabited by the occupiers of liminal spaces. As with America in American Gods, the Pequod is a melting pot that, at times, is near boiling. Contrast the sensual, loving affection between Ishmael and Queequeg and the reminder of Pip’s status in Stubb’s eyes. The characters are bound in hierarchies that are informed and reinforced by their names; Pip is part of the ship but valueless, Fedallah is hated for his ‘fire-worshipping’ but untouchable for all his otherness. Even though we can assume that readers might not be able to identify the origin of the ‘foreign’ names in Moby Dick, it is the use early on of those sometimes Judeo-Christian names that allows the sometimes fictional (in Queequeg’s case) characters to signify the strangeness of the world aboard the Pequod. The existence of the characters as people acts as a negation of the ‘normalcy’ offered by Ishmael.

Turn to the titular character of Dracula, whose name evokes Victorian fears of the foreigner, the lascivious easterner of ravenous and dubious sexual appetite across from the Jonathans, Lucys and Minas. Then consider the position of Abraham Van Helsing, the redoubtable (Protestant) Dutchman come to restore sanity and rationality in the face of exotic eastern mysticism. It might be easy to consider that this name-play is a post/modern affectation, something novel in execution and kind, and indeed post-modernism does lay came (I think incorrectly) to the juxtaposition of sources and knowing transgression of the text/reader boundary. This sort of hybridity in texts goes back to the earliest texts; consider the henotheistic syncretism of the Roman Empire whereby local Gods would be associated with the greater Roman pantheon; a habit they picked up from the Greek’s & earlier traditions. Greek literature frequently appropriated characters by other writers & from mythological sources to lend it greater weight with the audience. In Medea, the story of the titular character as well as Jason from the Argonika is examined. It has been argued that Euripides intention was to present a sympathetic telling of Medea and her fate, and by extension the position of women in Athens; using the names of characters the audience would be familiar with allows the assertion and subversion of the classical Heroic figure of Jason. As the audience could be assumed to already know Jason, his name allows for certain expectations that can be played upon; in this case that of an irresponsible man in contrast to Medea’s foreign godliness. Interestingly, Creon of Corinth shares a name (though not an identity) with Creon of Thebes, from Sophocles work. Whether historical or not, Creon the name comes to be associated with kingship that later writers like Chaucer in The Knight’s Tale would play on it to tell stories in their own idiom.

Travel Becomes Time Travel

On 23 September 2014 I caught the train from Lydney to Cheltenham for a mandatory training course at Gloucestershire College; I’d been sent by the job centre without any awareness of what I was getting in to. The view from the platform that morning was gorgeous, the sky a luminescent orange-gold. It was the sort of colour that calls to mind adventures in time and space:

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The last time I went to Cheltenham was for the Book Fair in 2010. Curated by China Mieville, the programme was in honour of weird fiction, fringe science fiction: guests included Ian Banks, Michael Moorcock and Gwyneth Jones. Perhaps to some extent I am primed to think of Cheltenham in speculative terms but I also remember it as very leafy suburban Britain (until the lights went out). Disembarking from the train at Cheltenham Spa station I was also minded that Cheltenham (or at least the street outside the station) has not changed in nearly four years. This stasis is contrasted in my mind with the past years of economic contraction, austerity and crisis in the country.

I walked along the wide streets, passing green trees and nice houses empty of people. It was sometime around 8.45 – 9.20am, so most people would already be on their way to or arrived at work. The city was abandoned to me, like a time in a near future where humanity has abandoned Earth but, being British, the people of Cheltenham had left everything neat and tidy should anyone happen by.

Gloucestershire College Cheltenham campus is immediately impressive. The single campus is probably as large as South Downs College, where I studied from the age of sixteen to eighteen. It was dislocated in time again; as much as time and distance change, it could have been South Downs. Though some of the student body might not have been out of nappies when I went to college, the dress and the speech was not all that different. I even looked the part in combats, spider-man t-shirt and blue trainers. I reported to reception and was asked to wait to be seen.

I struck up a conversation with a fellow traveller from the forest, Richard, who was here for the same course. My personal time-line edged forward as the Executive Skills rolled on. Now I am one year out of college, at another mandatory training course put on at the request of the job centre. (As an aside, my age is incorrectly guessed, and I reflect on the difficulty of telling staff from pupil. Our times are all muddled). None of us are sure why we are here, but we have to be, so we make the best of it.

I go home on the train, thinking of how my subjective experience of life means when I go somewhere, I am also travelling to all the times I have already been there, or to the moments in time it reminds me of. We already travel in time, even if only in our minds. I have to go back next week for three more days.