In Defense of Escapism

Following the annual horror binge of October, I tend to slip back into fantasy favourites during the subsequent months in an attempt to close off the year with something of a cosily immersive lilt; to both weather and take advantage for what passes for autumn and winter in this warm part of the world, and to plug into its wellspring of restorative nostalgia.

This often gets me thinking about the vilification of the fantasy genre — broadly speaking — as ‘escapist’, which tag tends to be loaded and, as is often the case, flung around in a dismissive and rather unreconstructed way.

The implication being that, the further we are from a cleanly mimetic representation of reality in fiction, the more ‘irresponsible’ we become in its consumption. That such a mode encourages us to forget the world as it is now, in favour of an ethereal indulgence that numbs us to our day-to-day realities and leaves us in a torpid stupor, the kind that Tennyson detailed in The Lotos-eaters.

There’s of course been endless shadings and nuancing of this argument over the years, but I believe that the core of it has remained with us — throbbing like a planetary core that has lodged itself and become essential to historical ecosytem of the discourse, much like any other ossified truism.

The Rings of Power (Amazon)

I find it to be endlessly faulty, and not just because I’m a fan of fantasy literature (and therefore don’t appreciate being characterised as some sort of head-in-the-sand naive idiot by proxy).

My issue here is far more fundamental. To put it as plainly as I can manage: it assumes that reality is a flat, clearly definable surface, and that we can posit a clean reality : fantasy binary.

The popularity of such an assumption is hardly surprising, given that it’s taken root primarily within the confines of a materialist, capitalist western society. This is a mode of living which at best compartmentalises all that is not tangibly measurable, rendering it peripheral to the day-to-day workings which make the machinery tick.

So that religious practice is tolerated, as long as it can be woven into the fabric of the day-to-day without causing too much offence (and crucially, it is called upon to occasionally prop up the agendas of certain politicians and ratify certain acts of exclusion and social inequality).

Acceptable escapism? Naked Lunch (1991) by David Cronenberg, adapted from the William S. Burroughs novel

Perhaps we accept the intangible when it relates to issues of mental health. There is, at the very least, an understanding that — medication-based psychiatric help aside — the mental realm needs tending to in ways that are suspiciously apposite to the kind of treatments and rituals we would associate with religious and/or magical practice.

But even then — the overarching practise is to simply ‘treat’ any mental health anguish in a way that’ll make it go away so that you can resume being a healthy cog that can help keep the system chugging along. We are hardly encouraged to take its wider implications — that there’s more to life than what’s in front of us — and run with it.

In the same way, fantasy is also compartmentalised, only to be richly consumed by all of us. Literature aside, its popular adaptations litter our screens and the streaming services that have latched onto them like eager barnacles. Adaptations of the works of JRR Tolkien, George RR Martin and Neil Gaiman were some of the most-watched (or at least most talked about) shows of the past year or so.

Chloë Grace Moretz in The Peripheral (Amazon)
Chloë Grace Moretz in The Peripheral (Amazon)

Even something like Amazon’s take on William Gibson’s The Peripheral — ostensibly a work of ‘hard’ neo-cyberpunk from the grandfather of that subgenre — ultimately partakes of fantasy tropes at its root: it’s a portal fantasy with virtual reality and cyborg stand-ins only superficially replacing the mechanics of magic and its adepts.

Ultimately, branding fantasy more escapist than its supposedly ‘realistic’ counterparts is bound to devolve into a fool’s errand animated into being solely by the assumptions of a category error.

Still from The Company of Wolves (1984), directed by Neil Jordan and adapted from the Angela Carter short story

If you’re reading, watching or hearing something — anything — for an extended period of time, you’re lost in that experience, and at least somewhat disconnected from the real world, by proxy. Whether this is an epic adventure quest populated by dragons, elves and goblins, or a kitchen-sink drama of an immigrant family trying to make ends meet in present-day Munich, is really beside the point.

That’s not to say that there are no distinctions to be made within the minutae of experience to be had in each, of course. But the moralistic tone that is often taken against the allegedly more ‘escapist’ of the two still betrays at least a hint of lazy thinking.

For all that the more grimily realist fiction can illuminate and raise awareness — political awareness which, it must be said, is thinner on the ground(s) of that genre’s more navel-gazing counterparts — the fantastic acts as an extension of that experience.

Let’s give voice to what’s easier to defend here, for starters. Boundary-pushing works of the fantastical — the kind you’ll find among the likes of Kafka, Angela Carter or David Cronenberg — will exaggerate and amplify with the aim of exploring loftier points. The flinty realists are largely on the side of these non-escapist works of the fantastical.

Tom Sturridge as Morpheus/Dream in the Netflix adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman

But I would submit that even the most reactionary or nostalgic of fantasy works can have a purpose which isn’t simply redolent of intellectual vacuity or laziness, of a kind of distracted quietism that numbs the intellect and reduces its consumers to little more than sludge.

At the end of the day, even the knockiest of Tolkien knock-offs will be better for your mental hygiene than hours spent doomscrolling through the social media platform/s of your choice… and the degree of actual, conscious choice involved in that experience is questionable to begin with.

Because if distraction from reality is what makes fantasy such an ‘irresponsible’ intellectual pursuit, what is the doomscrolling impulse of the 24/7 news cycle, which has now emigrated beyond the relatively confined space of the television screen to also latch themselves onto our mobile phones? (Yes, Gibson and Cronenberg have been warning us of this with grotesque gusto for decades).

Haunted by this reality, I submit that anything which promotes immersion of any kind is a better and more meditative alternative.

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Re-read of the season: The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany
Currently reading: The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #11 | Scott R. Jones

In the coming weeks, I will be reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I will be tackling the anthology story by story, and my reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

eternal-frankenstein

Living by Scott R. Jones

Since horror and fantasy are, broadly speaking, my favourite of the classic speculative fiction categories — while a wide berth is given to the Weird and any form of intermixing — my experience with literary sci-fi falls a bit on the lean side.

That said, the sci-fi favourites I do have, I cling to very dearly indeed, dipping in for regular re-reads. Mary Shelley’s Frankestein is actually one of them. The other is William Gibson’s pioneering work of cyberpunk fiction, Neuromancer. And despite the fact that both novels were written over a century apart from each other and that, apart from their central commitment to a science fictional set of ideas, situations and concepts, could not be further apart in tone, narrative rhythm and scope, I like to think of both of them as being complementary.

Shelley addresses the limits of bodily modification and reanimation, and problematises the notion of a creature created ex nihilo, but without the embracing context of family and community. The Creature in Shelley’s text grasps at the world outside of itself to give it meaning — it feeds on what we can widely describe as ‘culture’ to legitimise itself, but all the while its aberrant bodily shape snuffs out any chance of real belonging.

It is a tale of bodies and what they mean, and how we process or fail to process their realities: be it the Creature’s own failed — but understandable — attempts at making peace with its uniquely tormented predicament, or Victor Frankenstein’s refusal to take responsibility for his engineered progeny, largely on the basis of its physical appearance and its implications.

Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson

Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson

In the end, both characters are disappointed by the fact that their physical reality doesn’t match up with the abstract dreams they have: Victor’s Creature doesn’t conform to the aesthetic decorum he may have wished to achieve with his experiment — which further cements the fact that his work is an affront to God — while the Creature’s admirable self-taught attempts at becoming intellectually and emotionally sensitive are ultimately rendered moot by the limits of its body.

The innovation of Neuromancer, on the other hand, was to circumvent the body altogether in favour of an exploration of the cybernetic singularity which has since become rote not only in fiction, but in daily life too (you’re reading this online, aren’t you?). The open hostility that some of Gibson’s characters espouse for ‘meat’ (i.e., traditional biological bodily structures) are a testament to this, and seem to suggest that Frankenstein got the ball rolling, but that the future imagined in Gibson’s model is in some ways the logical conclusion of Victor Frankenstein’s experiment.

To wit, the trick to circumvent mortality is not through some messy and pathetic attempt at stitching together dead body parts and reanimating them… the trick is to embrace the possibility of downloading and replicating your consciousness in a virtual realm that edges closer and closer to our ‘real’ one.

In his contribution to Lockhart’s anthology, Scott R. Jones happily meshes together both of these key strands in sci-fi, but in a way that they don’t, in fact, cancel each other out. In the snow-capped setting that recalls both — of course — the bookending sections of Shelley’s novel, as well as pop culture artefacts like John Carpenter’s The Thing in its depiction of rugged outliers gazing suspiciously ahead at a mysterious and dangerous mission, Scott injects his version of the Creature with both anger and agency.

Frozen waste: The Thing (1982)

Frozen waste: The Thing (1982)

The story itself is largely composed of a monologue delivered by the same stand-in for the Creature; a military experiment gone awry and who is now on a vindictive mission to find and execute its creator, Aldo Tusk of ‘Eidolon’ — a corporation or military body of some kind which has apparently OK’d Tusk’s mission to stitch together a super-soldier.

As the ‘asset’ beings its narrative, we learn that it’s made up of various body parts made to fight in unison, and the voice of the monologue is laced with a sarcastic bitterness that the Romantically pained Creature from Shelley’s original novel would never have managed. Later on, Jones adds another twist of black humour by suggesting that the Creature’s programming includes orgasmic delight at an enemy kill. This guarantees that the story has the edge and attitude normally associated with cyberpunk, but more importantly, it also means that the Creature here is a fighter, and not a subject of pity as in Shelley’s text.

It's alive? The 'birth' scene from Paul Verhoeven's Robocop (1987)

It’s alive? The ‘birth’ scene from Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987)

And in fact, it’s through cyberpunk ‘means’ that the hint of complete emancipation appears to suggest itself. While the beginnings of the asset’s career as a patchwork soldier are as abject as ever — they even recall Robocop‘s forced resurrection as a hybrid fighting for someone else’s agenda — the gleeful bite as she/it reveals just the programming has been circumvented is a joy to read.

A spirited and inspired mash-up of key strands of the sci-fi genre (at least from my admittedly limited POV) with a highly satisfying revenge kick to round things off.

Read previous: Martin, Falksen

 

 

Virtual Borders, Virtual Wars | Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Toby Kebbell (left) as Koba and Andy Serkis as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Toby Kebbell (left) as Koba and Andy Serkis as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – an entertaining and effectively realized action-blockbuster, by all accounts – reminded me of just how much the idea of home is related to complete, all-out aggression. It is one of the key justifications for war, and if it isn’t Hollywood blockbusters that remind us of it, real-life world events will, unfortunately, persist in doing their darndest to ensure that we do not forget.

From my sheltered and privileged standpoint, obsessing over national borders instinctively feels doubly surreal, as I – like many people of my generation, and many of those living in some kind of diaspora – have made the internet their second home. Cultivating and negotiating a virtual identity has become a direct part of who we are, and the more that shapes itself into the fabric of our day-to-day life, the more it will assume the likeness of an undeniable, self-evident and near-physical ‘space’ which we may feel justified in fighting over.

Even my workspace has apes in it

Even my workspace has apes in it

Beyond the fever dreams of cyberpunk – from William Gibson to The Matrix – the web has become so ‘normal’ that it’s not far-fetched to assume that it will soon adopt other, less pleasant features of human ‘normality’ – our insistence on waging border wars being just another one of them. The ongoing debate over net neutrality is one explicit portent of the above, but I’m sure there will be many related polemics to come.

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Another thing that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – or DOTPOTA, an acronym I love – brought to mind is the panicked and often messy way in which pop culture responds to contemporary anxieties, and processes ‘universal’ themes.

To my mind, the film is great because its ‘message’ doesn’t feel like a tacked-on imposition, but part and parcel of its conceit. Of course, Matt Reeves’ continuation of the Planet of the Apes mythology reboot doesn’t really say anything new about the enduring phenomenon of border conflicts, or our stewardship of the earth. But I’d still like to think that it contributes to the discussion in its own way.

Though even the word ‘discussion’ feels wrong here – it assumes a lilting, rational conversation about carefully ironed-out topics. Because what we in fact get is far more chaotic: the necessities of crafting a crowd-pleasing blockbuster in which talking apes do battle with economically compromised humans only allows lucid allegory to slip through up to a point.

The presence of Zero Dark Thirty actor Jason Clarke is significant here.

Like DOTPOTA, Zero Dark Thirty is an action-intensive mainstream film shot with a gloomy palette that has become par for the course among blockbusters which aspire to court the critical consensus as well as the box office success that it is often assumed they would secure anyway.

(Largely blaming Christopher Nolan’s stratospherically successful Batman film The Dark Knight, critics of this pervasive aesthetic trend have taken to name-calling it ‘grimdark’.)

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

But unlike DOTPOTA, Zero Dark Thirty is about a very specific and very real event – a persistently controversial one, to boot. Katheryn Bigelow’s treatment of the steps taken to ensure the assassination of Osama Bin Laden is a fascinating watch even if you – like me – were unconvinced by its narrative thrust and troubled by its murky ethics.

Whichever way you slice it, ZDT was a brave attempt at tackling a very recent and morally, politically fraught scenario. In the end its internal contradictions forced it to devour itself, but only because Bigelow aspired to tackle her subject head-on, with as little aesthetic filters as possible.

This is where genre allegories like DOTPOTA have the upper hand. The way the message is processed is of course open to cynical interpretation: “It’s not really saying anything, they’re just re-treading secure narrative and thematic ground to ensure they make money at the box office”.

But the mere fact that it’s out there, doing its thing for a large audience who will enjoy it – or not – on the surface level to begin with feels like some kind of potential triumph.

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Final question: as more of the world goes online, as more of the world does ideological battle online and as more of our personal identity is shaped and justified by our online presence, will the web be treated by poets much in the same way as the natural world has been treated in earlier times?