Chatting is the thing | Worldcon 75

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Being overwhelmed is part and parcel of going to any convention. I would argue that it’s actually baked into the experience from the word go — the idea that you shove yourself into a large space — usually one with inordinately high ceilings — to experience specialised events and ‘network’ incessantly is not a recipe for being chill, exactly.

Worldcon 75, having taken place at the Messukeskus in Helsinki from August 9 to 13, was certainly one such experience for me, and judging by the exhaustion of many other science fiction, fantasy (etc.) writers and fans who I came into contact with over this intensive batch of days, I wasn’t the only one.

But neither would I say that it was all draining, or particularly difficult to grasp.

Part of this is down to just how much better a time I had at the Worldcon this year than I did back in 2014 — the so-called ‘Loncon’ in the — you guessed it — still-not-blighted by Brexit UK capital. Perhaps the event itself is not entirely to blame for my awkwardness (and I had my good friend Alistair Rennie guiding me through the worst of it anyway) but learning the ropes and pacing yourself is what the convention should be all about.

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Day One!

There’s also the fact that Helsinki seems to have attracted a batch of people whom I knew online but hadn’t yet had the pleasure to meet ‘IRL’ — largely thanks to the fact that I had lured them to participate in Schlock Magazine in some capacity, which now being more than ably run by my little sister. There was an especially nice symmetry to the fact that the lovely trio of Gregory Norman BossertKali Wallace and John Chu served as both a welcoming and a farewell committee for myself and my new bride (who was bemused by the whole affair but, I’m sure, enjoyed the company and is bound to have taken some lovely (film) photos of our various gatherings).

In what was to become another through-line for the trip, that trio are alumni of the celebrated Clarion workshops — just like two other friends I was lucky enough to chat with on more than one occasion during the Con; Haralambi Markov and Karin Tidbeck. The latter, whose novel Amatka you should definitely check out and who was among the many people kind enough to write me a recommendation letter as I applied for — and won! — the Malta Arts Council grant that allowed me to come to the Con in the first place, openly recommended that Clarion should be the next step forward for me.

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We shall see what the future holds in this regard… actually, let me rephrase that: I will have to see just how I can manage to rustle up the necessary funds to attend the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop, since its benefits were made empirically evident for me throughout the Con.

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On a panel about European Myths and History (ambitious, much?)

Standing — or as was more often the case, sitting — shoulder to shoulder with the Clarionites for the best part of a week could easily have made me feel out of place, were it not for the fact that they were, for the most part, really nice and accommodating every step of the way. Perhaps the knee-jerk clubiness of Maltese culture is what leads me to assume that everyone ends up that way. When in fact, it’s certainly not the case; and going to events like this Con is a clear reminder that pretentiousness and ‘attitude’ of any kind is never helpful if you want to get ahead in any creative industry — be it based on writing or otherwise.

Indeed, I will remain forever humbled by some of the writers I’ve met and who, despite their success guaranteeing them a certain degree of autonomy, still found enough time to speak to me one-on-one and offer their professional advice in a candid and expansive manner. Part of that, I think, is borne out of a desire to ‘pay it forward’ after your own creative trajectory has been so tough (even if the rewards came, in the end).

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Sith Happens

It could be a dispiriting fact to remember, but I also find it inspiring. It’s a reminder this word-wrangling business isn’t just a ghostly pursuit, but a field whose steps you can climb.

***

There’s a lot more that could be said about the Con; or at least, a lot more that I could say from my perspective of it, which — owing to the overwhelming-by-proxy nature of the thing I detailed above — would necessarily be subjective to a fault. Starting with my own discomfort with certain performances of ‘fandom’ — hence my unsurprising focus on the dynamics between writers — and ending with my own perceptions of Helsinki itself — a beautiful, calming place that will hopefully get its own separate blog post — but I’d much rather leave things as they are: an airy but fresh perception typed out during a balmy Mediterranean night (so different to the cutting freshness of its bright, Finnish counterparts).

Because the fruit of the many conversations that happened at Worldcon 75 — and, should it not be obvious enough by now, the conversations are what I valued the most out of the entire experience — will be made evident later. When I actually have the time and energy to write out the ideas sparked off by these chats, and to follow up on the networking possibilities that they suggest.

Let this be a promise, to myself above all.

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***

Thanks to Gregory Norman Bossert, Karin Tidbeck, Jeff VanderMeer, T.E. Grau, Jon Courtney Grimwood, KJ Bishop, Chris Gruppetta and the organising team behind Worldcon 75 for helping me get to the con. My visit to and participation in Worldcon 75 was supported by Arts Council Malta – Cultural Export Fund. 

Here’s one for the misfits | Alistair Rennie | Interview

A new book has arrived on the scene which makes short work of your social and sexual mores — no matter how liberal you believe yourself to be on this front — to say nothing of  the way it dismantles the categories and limits of what genre fiction can and should do. BLEAKWARRIOR by Alistair Rennie is a work of ‘Sword & Debauchery’ that appears to be inspired in equal parts by Conan the Barbarian, Mortal Kombat and the steroid-pumped, airbrushed work of British comic book maestro Simon Bisley, but with a healthy dose of extreme pornography placed side-by-side with postmodern literary theory. In short, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever read before, and as my review of it confirms it certainly discombobulated my own brain in the most satisfying way imaginable. 

Now, the man himself steps into these unhallowed halls to make some soft — or not so soft — disturbances of his own. Chief of which is the possibility of more BleakWarrior-related craziness in the future…

Alistair Rennie

Alistair Rennie

Alistair… first of all, welcome to the Soft Disturbances interview lounge. Are you sitting comfortably, and if not — why?

Not comfortably at all because you have reputation for asking difficult questions.

Okay, so… BleakWarrior appears to have emerged from a deep simmering well of adolescent rage, bile… but also an overarching enthusiasm for life (and death). It is a violent novel about sex, and a sexy novel about violence, with the permutations of that binary being stretched to the most scintillating spectrum you can imagine (or can’t, really… not until you’ve read it). Beyond the aesthetics at play here — we’ll get to those later if you don’t mind — in terms of the psychological experience of wanting and/or needing to tell this story, was this something you’ve been wanting to get off your chest in a while?

I suppose I’ve always had a rebellious, renegade instinct that’s been with me since the day I was born – not so much as a consequence of adolescence but because of what I am. It’s something that defines me and will remain with me indefinitely – through childhood, adolescence and beyond. There’ll always be an element of rage in anything I write. But it’s mostly a force for good – energy-bringing and inspiring.

BleakWarrior partly comes from this, yes, but it also sprang, quite suddenly, out of an idea I had for writing a graphic novel. But I didn’t know any artists who could draw a full length graphic novel, so I decided to create a graphic novel using words rather than images. Part of the extreme nature of the sex and violence in BleakWarrior is a sort of literal transcription of the kind of visceral imagery you see in graphic novels.

Bleakwarrior by Alistair Rennie

BleakWarrior by Alistair Rennie

And then I also decided to be super ambitious. I looked at my favourite examples of fantasy – Conan the Barbarian, the Elric stories, and I thought, “What can I do to follow up on those examples? How can I push this in a new direction? How can I create a character who takes things in a new direction from Elric, in the same way that Elric took things in a new direction from Conan?” Conan is quite a forlorn, lonely figure in many ways. Elric is utterly tragedian and tortured. So, I thought, “how can I create someone who’s more tragic and forlorn than they are?”

It was quite a pompous approach, but aiming high can be a good way of reaching higher.

It’s also true that a lot of the rage in BleakWarrior actually comes from what was happening at the time I started writing it – the second invasion of Iraq, the most pointless stupid war you could possibly imagine in the modern day and age. The way our governments ignored our protests, our sorrow, our pleading with them, our more vigorous demands – it was infuriating, excruciating, too much to bear.

BleakWarrior is a very misanthropic novel. This is one of the main reasons why.

And underlying all of this is something perhaps more in line with stretching back to adolescence and beyond – my abiding fascination with extremes, taking things to their furthest limits. This is more of a Romantic notion that has always appealed to me – since I was a child, I think.

‘Overindulgence’ and ‘pretentiousness’ are two of the bluntest and most commonly distributed weapons for the populace to lob at authors, and artists of every variety. BleakWarrior appears to be poised as the perfect nightmare scenario for those who would lob said weapons: being a ‘clever’ piece of genre pastiche written in a style that only an alien entity with a skewed sense of proportion would call ‘minimalist’. Did this cultural tendency ever creep up on you as you were writing, and how did you react to its gaze? And generally speaking, what do you think about the tendency to extol the minimalist and outwardly modest as more ‘worthy’?

I think I was always aware of the risk that you take when you overstep the boundaries of measured writing, subtle writing, curated writing that exercises restraint and fine-tuning.

But it was the only way to do it because the stylistic excesses are part of the whole dynamic of taking things to an extreme – where the language itself becomes a physical embodiment of the thematic content of the novel.

The style has to reflect the subject matter in order to create a uniform effectiveness, I believe, which is to ensure that the work reaches its maximum potential, as well as to underline those thematic intentions. I opted for excess, for overindulgence, in the same way that we opt for overindulgence during festive occasions. Drunken revels, fireworks, crazy dancing, festival rites, cosplay – there’s a time and place for all of them – and the principle is as true in fiction as it is in real life.

Conan the Destroyer by Frank Frazetta

Conan the Destroyer by Frank Frazetta

Is it pretentious? Well, all fiction is pretentious in the sense that it pretends to be true. But I think if you remain true to an idea, to the vision of what you’re trying to create, then you’re doing it all with an honesty and sincerity that is the very opposite of pretentious. So I think, if you stick to the truth of the idea, then you’re likely to steer clear of accusations of pretentious overindulgence, because most readers will sense that sincerity, even if they don’t necessarily like what it’s offering them.

I also think that the idea that stylistic flamboyance, hyperbole, exaggeration are somehow equal to pretentiousness is a misunderstanding of their effectiveness as modes of expression in fiction. They are highly suitable, if not necessary, for certain types of storytelling. Fantasy and horror often benefit enormously from such a lack of restraint.

And, as for the question of applying greater value to a particular kind of writing, this is tremendously wrong-headed and can only serve to nullify the variety of writing that makes it both interesting and wonderful. To apply such values can only serve to impede any efforts towards originality that in writing – or any creative process for that matter – are necessary in order for it to thrive.

In a strange way, there’s a certain opacity to the novel too… the characters are alien (and alienating) figures with no real names, and plenty of emphasis is laid on the philosophical underpinnings of the characters and their world, with physical description being intense when it does appear, but it scarcely does. Were you ever worried that the novel won’t be ‘immersive’ enough for the reader?

There are one or two people I very much esteem who told me (in critiques of the first chapter) that they found it hard to relate to the story because the main characters weren’t human. I can understand where they’re coming from, because a part of our reading experience often depends on forming bonds with characters – or some of them – and from getting a sense of identification with them.

In this case, though, the criticism (which is entirely valid) doesn’t bother me, even while I take it on board as something to bear in mind for future work.

Elric of Melnibone by Robert Gould

Elric of Melnibone by Robert Gould

The reason is this: BleakWarrior is a book about outcasts, weirdos, misfits, creatures of the underworld, of the peripheries, which is also written *for* outcasts and weirdos, for people who don’t fit in, who’ve never felt comfortable with the social and political systems they’re forced to belong to as a matter of course – not through choice, but through the inevitable prevalence of the mainstream, its abysmal soap operas, its dire commercial music scenes, its hideous game shows, sterility of purpose and political idiocies, its obsession with drabness, the self-righteousness of its mediocre tastes, and the incessant glorification of its ludicrously unimaginative worldview.

BleakWarrior is a misanthropic indulgence which scorns humans for their useless inability to make life interesting.

Another question in relation to you vs the reader binary… The novel’s uniqueness makes it almost impossible to describe without lapsing into deadening cliches of the “It’s like XYZ on acid” variety. But there’s such a performative (bardic?) thrill to some of the most extreme set-pieces that it’s almost impossible not to imagine you thrilling to an audience reaction to them. So my question is, despite the novel’s extreme nature, did you in fact write it with the prospective readers in mind?

I’m always going to be a coming from a position of subversive intent, so I’m always writing for people from a cross-section of the real or imagined tribes I belong or aspire to – the Goths and punks and metalheads, the renegades, upstarts, malcontents, the nature freaks and eco warriors, the children of the underground, the activists, non-conformists and subcultural minorities of all shades.

I have to ask: where do we go from here? Is a BleakWarrior franchise in the offing? (My gods… it would be like the Bizarro World equivalent of Game of Thrones, wouldn’t it?) Or do you want to shift gears to something to completely different?

I’ll certainly be writing more BleakWarrior and have already got a substantial amount written for what I’m very imaginatively calling BleakWarrior 2. And I’ll keep trying to put it out there.

I’ve been very fortunate, I think, because I hit upon an idea that has a lot of potential for going in all sorts of directions, and one that fills me with enthusiasm. It can be very difficult to conceive of ideas that encourage you to keep going with them, without hitting a blank wall or losing heart. So, in this case, there’s always something to add, always possibilities for expansion, always openings for new paths to take. You can imagine that having a simple rule of taking things to extremes and imposing very little restraints on anything gives you a lot of scope for having fun.

But a franchise?! The seas would have to run dry before that happened. I do have a dream that someday someone will make an animated film or series out of BleakWarrior. In fact, it would be true to say that this idea has always offered a blueprint for me to follow when writing the story. It’s part of this idea of creating a graphic novel (or anime, in this case) that is created in words rather than images. It’s an abiding principle that’s been there from the start.

On a final note, and to channel an influence very close to the essence of BleakWarrior… Alistair, what is best in life?

Red squirrels. And osprey chicks are very cuddly and vitally important for our aquatic ecosystems. But I also like being with friends; mountains, sea and sky; fleeting encounters with the Sublime; wine, *insert gender of your choice* and song; and the character of Ravenswood from Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor.

That’s not what you were expecting, was it?

*

Do check in at BleakWarrior’s official website, which also features a free accompanying soundtrack to the book. Alistair Rennie’s freshly launched blog Dreadful Nights deserves a generous chunk of your time too, packed as it is with great cultural and political insights, along with a short, sharp essay on the Sword & Sorcery genres that is already appearing in various foreign-language publications. And in case you’re not already convinced that this inspired shot of crazy should make its way into your home library, do give my own review a whirl.

The Stars Are In The Gutter | Bleakwarrior by Alistair Rennie | Book Review

First, some music

It’s a wonderful bonus that Alistair Rennie‘s debut novel BleakWarrior has its own soundtrack, composed by the author himself, which you should definitely check out and listen to while you leaf through his gloriously crafted sledgehammer of a book. But for the purposes of this review, I propose the following piece of music to set the tone. I trust it will soon become clear why this selection was made.

New Weird or weird-weird?

There is an argument to be made for Alistair Rennie’s work slotting in rather neatly into the improvised sub-genre labelled ‘The New Weird’. After all his short story, ‘The Gutter Sees The Light That Never Shines’ was the only original entry in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The New Weird (2008), where it was presented as a sort of laboratory experiment of what’s to come — if anything is to come at all — for the genre under discussion, celebration and dissection.

Well, reams could perhaps be written about the ins-and-outs of the New Weird itself (for my part, I wrote something of a middling MA dissertation on the subject) but thankfully, Rennie went ahead and developed the germ of what lay in the original short story into a head-bangingly bizarre novel, BleakWarrior, released earlier this year from Blood Bound Books.

Weaving in yet another short story pertaining to the same (secondary) world, which was also published under Ann Vandermeer’s watch during her all-too-brief and unceremoniously interrupted spearheading of Weird Tales, Rennie’s novel does boast a general thrust towards weirdness — but whether said weirdness can be pinned to the aesthetics of any particular genre is another thing entirely.

Bleakwarrior by Alistair Rennie

BleakWarrior by Alistair Rennie (Blood Bound Books, 2016). Cover illustration by Maxwell John Hudetz

BleakWarrior may resemble a superhero name — and he may have the abilities that vaguely match some superheroes — but the protagonist who wields it in Rennie’s novel has no alter ego. Neither do his erstwhile colleagues who populate the rather high-strung planet Rennie has concocted. In fact they boast names like Automanic, Gutter and The Light That Never Shines.

And their main mission in life is to obliterate each other with no rhyme or reason. Who needs alter egos, who needs a private life and relaxation time when endowed with such a single-minded mission? (That’s for the ‘Linear’ beings, not the ‘Meta-Warriors’ we’re concerned with right here.)

I’ll get to the main plot motor in a moment, but I’d like to dwell on this for second, because it’s important. 

What Rennie captures so well is the hedonistic and atavistic thrill of having just such a brutal sense of purpose in life. The knife’s edge walk between creation and destruction — more to the point, between sex and violence — is what Rennie appears to be insatiably obsessed with. The inexorable churn of brutality that these characters engage in feels both inevitable and — operating within the hellish logic that Rennie sets up — strangely beautiful.

In lesser hands this would have felt like an adolescent indulgence: an exercise in attention-grabbing antics to an audience of lobotomised gore-hounds and their scandalised elders.

But then, the kicker.

You see, BleakWarrior suddenly grows tired of killing people without knowing the reason why. So begins his quest; which will of course be punctuated by blood and thunder — and blood and guts — while also being placed in direct parallel to that of The Sisters of No Mercy (their name a hint at yet another aesthetic fetish that Rennie very much gives vent to in the novel’s make-up): two expert warriors slashing and fucking their way through an organ-retrieving mission in the hopes of revitalising their dearly-departed ‘Middle Sister’.

This allows Rennie to have the cake and eat it too — an often-frustrated adolescent indulgence now given full vent. By placing a philosophical conundrum at the very centre of this monstrous clusterfuck, Rennie asks you to pay attention, all the while bending your mind with the very nature of this juxtaposition. Rennie has written eloquently on what makes the Sword & Sorcery genre so special, and  BleakWarrior’s amoral world of violent supermen and women out for nothing but more violence certainly evokes that genre to some degree.

But the kicker kicks it all into crazy town. Since this is a book better experienced than explained, here’s a few extracts to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

Whorefrost’s cock is long and thin with a remarkably bulbous head that makes it look like a bauble on the end of a stick. His testicles are disproportionately large and, like the rest of his body, hairless. More to the point, his egg-sac is teeming with semen that has an unusual potency: it is deadly cold and, to this extent, biologically devastating.

Humidity hung to the Fetid Mountains like a lubricant. The slopes were thick with an organic welter of sprawling variations of fecundity and decay. There was an aura of prototypical distinction between emergent species that took the principle of diversification to extremes that hardly seemed worth the bother.

…But what was most alluring in the appeal of the girl whose name they didn’t know was the potency of her vaginal juices that spilled over the lips of The Sisters of No Mercy with a sublime and syrupy thickness that seemed to fill their brains with infusions of erotic wonder. The taste had a weighty tang that produced an effect of mild invigoration mixed with a prolonged sense of internal melting, like being absorbed by the outer shades of a celestial aurora.

Notice how the perfectly sculpted — and it must be said, somewhat arch and archaic — prose serves as a jolting cymbal crash when combined with the XXX-rated stuff under consideration? Of course, it’s also funny, which feature Rennie exploits to full effect.

Yeah. This shit will fuck you up.

Hail, Dionysus

BleakWarrior is literature to the Nth degree. It’s a work by someone who is hopelessly infatuated with the ‘lower’ genres but whose love and enthusiasm for them is filtered through a mature intelligence and a respect for and knowledge of the art of fiction. The obvious clue of the ‘Meta’-Warriors gives that detached postmodern element to all the craziness.

In fact, this is a novel that gets its animating friction from the simple fact that it’s at constant war with itself. It’s a novel chock-a-block with one sensationalist set piece after another — a Jacobean display of torture porn Grand Guignol that will serve as a benchmark for prose brutality for years to come — but that’s delivered through a strong narratorial voice with no interest in simply remaining in the gutter (with the Gutter). Instead Rennie wrings the experience for all that it’s worth, making sure to play with ideas as well as bodies.

But gods damn it, what will remain etched in your brain is the images. The voice will only help you take them seriously as part of an interesting new project in genre writing. One that will hopefully spawn a plethora of imitators — to say nothing of more, more, more from Rennie himself, hopefully — which will grow over the literary terrain like rancid but glorious fungus.

For BleakWarrior is a a child of Dionysus filtered through the voice of Apollo… until you realise that it’s not Apollo at all, but a trickster god the likes of which we haven’t seen before.

In short…

This shit will fuck you up.

LISTEN | Fastidju & Mongaliech

Mongaliech

I especially like my music dark and immersive – I find it perfect to write to, for one thing, and my social network has been very generous on that front this particular month of May (hey, it is my birthday month after all), as two friends of mine – one from this here isle, the other from one further up north in Scotland – both unveiled their dark, twisted projects to the world, and I found them both a joy to listen to.

First out of the gate is Fastidju, the brainchild of Nigel Baldacchino who, together with a veritable ‘super-band’ of local talent, has released a double-CD album of haunting, burrowing (and bi-lingual) sounds. It all comes gorgeously packaged too. Check out a track below, and click here to go to the band’s Facebook page, where you’ll find info about how to acquire a copy of the album.

Next is MONGALIECH – a two-man-band release brought to my attention by horror writer Alistair Rennie, one half of this heady initiative. It’s a dramatic soundscape that clearly evokes the duo’s Scottish environs, and will be of particular interest to those who like a bit of horror, in whichever form. Their entire album is available to listen to and download for free from bandcamp. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.