Buon Compleanno, Guglielmo Shakespeare

On this, his 459th birthday, I will dedicate a little time to re-reading some favourite sonnets – originally a Petrarchan form of poetry – by the Bard. I might even pass time with that overlooked early masterpiece Venus and Adonis, or else the now contentious Taming of the Shrew.

I might rewatch the excellent documentary series Shakespeare in Italy, from the BBC in 2012, featuring Francesco de Mosta, although it is alas not currently available on the iPlayer.

Or there’s always Nothing Like The Sun, Anthony Burgess’s tour-de-force novel of Shakespeare’s lovelife, which heavily features a Dark Lady who, for once, isn’t Italian. Burgess is somewhat of an outlier when it comes to Shakespeare. Despite having spent much of his own life in Italy, and married to an Italian, he tends to play down Shakespeare’s Italian connections.

Where most researchers and novelists have followed AL Rowse and identified the Dark Lady as Emilia Lanier, a woman descended from the Italian Bassano family, Burgess presents her as an unlikely Malayan in Elizabethan London.

This has always been my favourite of the covers.

Likewise, where many scholars accept that it is possible, though unlikely, that Shakespeare could have travelled abroad to Italy before his theatrical fame, Burgess elsewhere fictionalised a Shakespeare travelling to Spain to meet Cervantes at the height of both men’s fame. (He also wrote a short story where Shakespeare received literal inspiration for his plays from time travellers, so as a theorist of Shakespeare he was very much an outlier really!)

Despite Burgess, there is no doubt that Italy loomed large as a source of inspiration for Shakespeare. From the sonnets of Petrarch, to the sources of plays like Othello or Measure for Measure in works by Italian authors such as Ariosto, to the imagined Italy of his settings in Venice, Verona, Milan and elsewhere, to the Roman plays, Shakespeare’s work returns again and again to an Italy of the mind and soul.

I recently got the chance to revisit Stratford-on-Avon, and attend a performance of the recent RSC production of Julius Caesar, considered by many to be the best of Shakespeare’s Roman plays.

It was as magical and eclectic as one might expect from the RSC’s troupe. The lethal geopolitics of the late Republic and early Empire are distilled by the Bard into an almost claustrophobic clash of private loyalties and public interests.

I also went to visit Shakespeare’s schoolhouse, which is amazingly still in use as a school today, and was treated to a Latin lesson from his schoolmaster, an entertaining chap who may possibly have been an actor too. For it was of course in Warwickshire and not Tuscany that Shakespeare was first introduced to Italy and the literature of Latin and – by extension – Italian.

The more one reads Shakespeare, the more the influence of Italy, Romans and Italians becomes evident. I haven’t even mentioned his likely friendship with the English-born Italian John Florio, author of the first English-Italian dictionary, and a man who contributed almost as many words to English as Will himself.

Italy has no shortage of writers to be proud of, and no need to lay a claim to England’s finest. Nevertheless, Shakespeare would not be Shakespeare without Italy.

Buon Compleanno, Guglielmo.

Zen and the Art of Science Fiction Ancientness

Due to the production lag of academic work appearing in public (peer review, people working for no remuneration, etc), some of the early work I’ve done on Science Fiction and Buddhism is only now emerging in print/pixels.

The first chapter of the slowly emerging book, which looked at Buddhist Reception in Pulp SF, appeared about 18 months ago, as I noted at the time.

Now two more chapters have emerged, long awaited and then arriving in tandem, like buses of legend. The first of these examines the crypto-Buddhism of Arthur C. Clarke, and can be found in a very excellent essay collection entitled Rendezvous with Arthur C. Clarke: Centenary Essays, published unsurprisingly to commemorate 100 years since ACC’s birth.

Contact the publisher Gylphi if it’s of interest, or else pick up a copy on Amazon or via your favourite brainy bookshop. Like all Gylphi books, it costs only a fraction of most academic texts.

Clarke on Clarke contained therein.

The second publication likewise focuses on a single author, this time Frank Herbert of Dune fame, and therefore it will come as no surprise that it’s entitled “The Dharma of Dune: Frank Herbert and Zen Buddhism”.

It can be found in volume one (of two) of Fantastic Religions and Where to Find Them, or, to name it in its original language, Religioni fantastiche e dove trovarle: Divinità, miti e riti nella fantascienza e nel fantasy. If you follow that link, it will take you to the page of publisher Edizione Quasar where you will find both volumes, which contain an eclectic range of clever and considered takes on religion in a vast array of SFF texts, literary, televisual, cinematic and cultural.

Where can you find fantastic religion? In here!

Many thanks are due to the editors of both volumes, Paul March-Russell and Andrew Butler in the first instance, and Igor Baglioni, Ilaria Biano and Chiara Crosignani in the second.

You might reasonably wonder why all three of these chapters feature rather old SF. That’s partly because I’ve been working on this book chronologically, though I’d expect that the next chapter to emerge blinking into the light might jump a few decades to consider Cyberpunk. Don’t ask me when that will be though. The gestation period of academic texts is an arcane mystery. When it happens, I’ll be sure to let you know though.

Reach beyond the easy binaries

It’s always gratifying to be reviewed. I always thought that, even when I made my living from reviewing for newspapers, even when sometimes I (felt I) had to dish out a negative opinion.

It’s a commitment of someone’s time to your work, chronicled for posterity. That attention alone is flattering. You write so that people might read, after all. Reading closely and responding? It’s appreciated.

Everett Hamner’s review of Science Fiction and Catholicism is generous and astutely insightful. It is always an education to get a tour of your own thinking from the perspective of an attentive, observant and intellectually acute reader.

He has, I think, a slightly different vision for the future of Religious Futurisms than I do. Or than I did when I wrote Science Fiction and Catholicism. I’ve probably moved much closer to Everett’s position while writing a volume on SF and Buddhism, but especially as a co-editor of the very eclectic, ecumenist and transdisciplinary volume of Religious Futurisms.

It’s a very positive review, maybe kinder than the book deserves. I think it made one great point, and Everett identifies that very succinctly. I hope I can produce a better volume on Buddhism’s interaction with SF, as that is at least a more expansive and intriguing story to tell. And I hope I get a reviewer as acute as Everett Hamner to review it.

Thanks for reaching beyond the easy binaries, Everett.

Ninety-Nine More Novels

Last week, I was asked to produce my own list of Ninety Nine Novels that I might recommend to others. The criteria were that the books must have been published in the past 38 years and be available to read in English. It’s an odd request, but didn’t sound odd to me. Allow me to contextualise.

In the early 1980s, Anthony Burgess was commissioned to write a book of book recommendations. He was well placed to do it, as a prominent international author himself, as well as a prolific reviewer of fiction since the 1960s. Lore tells us that he wrote the book in a mere three weeks. By contrast it has taken me three days just to produce my own list which takes us from where Burgess left off – that resonant year 1984 – to the present.

Ninety-nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 - A Personal Choice -  Burgess, Anthony - Libri - Amazon.it
A Personal Choice.

Burgess’s list covered 45 years, whereas mine covers a little less, of necessity. I can’t predict the future of the next seven years of publishing. Also, where Burgess appended excellent mini-essays on each text, I have spared you the tedium of my pontifications, though I am happy to elaborate briefly on my choices if there are any queries.

Burgess’s book, a compendium of these mini-essays, is therefore a deft and succinct potted history of Anglophone literature’s greatest hits from the war and post-war period of the 20th century, as he saw it. Ninety Nine Novels is a fascinating list in itself, and I don’t intend to comment on or critique it at all.

It’s certainly open to critique and has inspired much comment over the years. You should read it. Alternatively, you should consult the International Anthony Burgess Foundation’s website, where they are celebrating this book with a series of podcasts. If you’re REALLY stuck for time, Adam Roberts has an excellent summary of the book’s merits (and faults) here.

What were Burgess’s criteria? That they be a) novels, b) published between 1939 and 1983, and c) concerned with what he called ‘human character’. It is, as he wrote in the introduction to Ninety Nine Novels, “the Godlike task of the novelist to create human beings whom we accept as living creatures filled with complexities and armed with free will.” I have ignored his proscription against ‘comic strips’, which he himself in agreement with the critic Leslie Fiedler, felt was already an outdated exclusion in the Eighties.

Finally, he argues that novels should “leave in the reader’s mind a sort of philosophical residue.” Whether he intended that to be as didactic as it sounds is unclear, but it has been the guiding principle in selecting these books. They are therefore novels which I have read, which feature superbly drawn characters, and which have haunted my thoughts afterwards.

Hence, they’re subject to the whims and prejudices of someone of my age, gender, class and race, raised in the place I grew up and educated in the way I was, and circumscribed by which books were available for me to encounter. There’s probably a lot of Irish fiction here. I’m Irish. There’s probably quite a lot of science fiction too. Well, I study it for a living. If there’s an especial density of texts from the late 90s, that’s probably because I was having to read umpteen novels a week as the Books Correspondent for Dublin’s Sunday Independent at the time.

You will likely disagree, and have your own list. And so you should. There are many astonishing books missing from this list, I agree. There are some choices you might find baffling. I can only reiterate how Burgess concluded his introduction to Ninety Nine Novels: “If you disagree violently with some of my choices I shall be pleased. We arrive at values only through dialectic.”

1984 – Neuromancer – William Gibson

The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera

Empire of the Sun – JG Ballard

1985 – Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson

Perfume – Patrick Suskind

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Attwood

1986 – Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

The Old Devils – Kingsley Amis

The Light Fantastic – Terry Pratchett

1987 – Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams

The Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe

Beloved – Toni Morrison

1988 – Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco

The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie

Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel – Milorad Pavić

1989 – Ripley Bogle – Robert McLiam Wilson

London Fields – Martin Amis

Billy Bathgate – E.L. Doctorow

And the Ass Saw the Angel – Nick Cave

1990 – Amongst Women – John McGahern

Vineland – Thomas Pynchon

Use of Weapons – Iain M. Banks

LA Confidential – James Ellroy

The Buddha of Suburbia – Hanif Kureishi

1991 – American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis

The Famished Road – Ben Okri

Maus – Art Spiegelman

1992 – Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson

Red Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson

Fatherland – Robert Harris

1993 – The Shipping News – Annie Proulx

A Dead Man in Deptford – Anthony Burgess

Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh

1994 – How Late It Was, How Late – James Kelman

Dead Lagoon – Michael Dibdin

1995 – Independence Day – Richard Ford

1996 – Fight Club – Chuck Pahlaniuk

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

The Tailor of Panama – John Le Carre

Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

1997 – The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

Mason & Dixon – Thomas Pynchon

Enduring Love – Ian McEwan

Quarantine – Jim Crace

Underworld – Don DeLillo

1998 – My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

The Catastrophist – Ronan Bennett

1999 – Q – Luther Blissett

Ghostwritten – David Mitchell

Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem

2000 – Atomised – Michel Houellebecq

White Teeth – Zadie Smith

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

Perdido Street Station – China Mieville

2001 – The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

The Constant Gardener – John Le Carre

The Other Wind – Ursula K. Le Guin

2002 – Any Human Heart – William Boyd

Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

2003 – Millennium People – JG Ballard

Brick Lane – Monica Ali

2004 – River of Gods – Ian McDonald

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke

2005 – Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

2006 – The Road – Cormac McCarthy

The Book of Dave – Will Self

2007 – On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon

2008 – Bad Day in Blackrock – Kevin Power

Bog Child – Siobhan Dowd

2009 – 1Q84 – Haruki Murakami

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

2010 – Room – Emma Donohue

Suicide – Édouard Levé

2011 – 11/22/63 – Stephen King

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

2012 – Capital – John Lanchester

2013 – Journalists – Sergei Aman

City of Bohane – Kevin Barry

2014 – Annihilation – Jeff VanderMeer

The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell

The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

2015 – Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

2016 – The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

The Association of Small Bombs – Karan Mahajan

Central Station – Lavie Tidhar

2017 – Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

2084: The End of the World – Boualem Sansai

2018 – Circe – Madeleine Miller

Milkman – Anna Burns

The Black Prince – Adam Roberts

2019 – This is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar

2020 – The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again – M. John Harrison

Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell

2021 – Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro

Making Space for Peace

It’s my first publication of the year, and it’s a doozy – my review of Richard Howard’s amazing book on the Northern Irish SF superstars James White and Bob Shaw.

Liverpool University Press: Books: Space for Peace

It’s in Fafnir, along with a lot of other highly intriguing pieces on, inter alia, AI, aliens, Neil Gaiman, Afrofuturism, you name it. The great thing about Fafnir is, it’s free. No journal article access fees or any of that malarkey.

Congrats to Dennis Wise and the team for putting this out.

The best kind of citation

Even the strange and murky currency of academic citation throws up pleasant surprises sometimes.

Academics are in some ways regulated by their accumulation of this fiat currency, the citation mill, which requires them to write for the best (ie allegedly most influential) journals, and then subsequently incite references to their work in similarly published articles by others.

There are even aggregators now, from Google Scholar to Scopus or Orcid, which exist to compile the magical measurable impacts which academic administrators and hiring committees so adore.

But citation need not be reduced to this quantitative measuring tool. It was created and intended as a mode of acknowledging the influence of ideas, attributing merit to the previous work of other scholars on whose shoulders, as Newton said, we stand.

It’s of course true that the citation mill is now regularly hacked and gamed by the more cynical academics, in ways ranging from the utterly immoral (like the citation rings discovered in some journals in recent years) to the merely dubious (such as scholars writing deliberately provocatively.) But like many things, just because the system is abused and mispurposed does not entirely eradicate its importance or validity.

No, knowledge is not (or should not be) a popularity contest. But democracy has shown us the weird benefits of being governed by the wisdom of crowds. And similarly, a lot of well-cited papers are well-cited because many people legitimately are influenced by their ideas.

But not all citation need be reduced to this number-crunching game. And for me as a kind of purist, the best form of citation is an acknowledgement or engagement with something I’ve said or written.

I was therefore very moved to read Dennis Wise’s excellent new article on the alliterative turn in 20th century American genre poetry. I should note that I am not an expert on either alliterative poetry or American genre poetry. But I HAVE read a lot of James Blish, and I was able to have a great discussion with Dennis about a James Blish poem he was looking at.

It’s the sort of thing academia ought to be about, and increasingly isn’t. Chatting to another scholar, trying ideas and theories out on one another in realtime, and eventually happening across an interpretation that seemed to account for both my knowledge and Dennis’s.

I didn’t expect to be thanked for it, so I value Dennis’s citation more than any other my work has received, precisely because it was a purist kind of citation. It won’t boost my Google Scholar rating in the eyes of the number crunchers. It won’t impress those who seek to measure knowledge quantitatively. But for me it is a succinct and generous example of what citation was meant to do.

Dennis has astutely identified something in US genre poetry that no one has really discussed before. His ideas are excellent and should change how we understand the history of alliterative poetry and its intersection with modernism, science fiction and 20th century American letters. It’s a genuinely great paper. I’m flattered to be associated with it in any way. I really enjoyed talking with Dennis about his ideas, and I’m glad he valued my thoughts.

If only more encounters in academia took the form of chatting with people like Dennis about their ideas, rather than answering to bean counters about dubious metrics, I’d be a happier academic. I’m going to go and thank more people in the credits of my next book now.

Pulp Satori

This is, I suppose, the first evidence of the work on Buddhist Futurisms that I’ve been doing for the past half decade or so. It had an eventful pre-publication history, actually. At one point, it was destined for a book, but that failed to transpire. On another occasion, it was repeatedly sent back for corrections by Reviewer Number Two (accursed be thy name!) for failing to cite his (it was a he) own research. Which wasn’t remotely relevant.

Anyhow, this is the overly-detailed explanation for why this is only appearing something like four years after being written. I’ve not been lazy. There is much more to this project, including multiple other publications already scheduled.

But it is gratifying to see the first bit in print. Last year I missed out on a big scholarship, primarily because there was no evidence I knew anything about Buddhism or had ever researched it. So at least now that evidence exists, albeit a little later than useful, to me anyhow, but hopefully not for others.

It actually tells an interesting story, which is not something one expects of academic writing generally. It’s a positive story too, of negative stereotypical preconceptions being overturned by a cultural encounter which shapeshifted into an ongoing interaction of mutual benefit between Buddhism and the West, and America in particular.

I hope you like it, if it’s of interest to you.

The Zen of Sci-fi

Karma, they say, is a bitch. But karma is also a balancing act, a mode of returning one’s energy back to you.

I’ve been fascinated about religious futurisms for some time now, and already wrote a book about SF’s engagement with Catholicism. Since then, I’ve been working on SF and Buddhism, and anyone who’s heard me talk about it knows that I’m putting a lot of energy out there about it, because it’s something I think is fascinating, culturally complex, and also important for how we develop collectively as a society.

Jedis, Buddhism and the translational power of film – Jagwire

That energy karmically returned to me the day I got an email from Eric Molinsky, who runs one of THE best podcasts anywhere, the Imaginary Worlds podcast. It really is essential listening. Eric’s an old pro from the New York radio scene, and his ability to produce magical radio has reincarnated in his new role as host and producer of Imaginary Worlds.

So now you can join the people who’ve heard my energy about SF and Buddhism, because Eric only went and did an entire episode of Imaginary Worlds about exactly that. Better again, he got some absolutely phenomenal SF writers to talk about it too, including one of my favourite authors, Ramez Naam.

The episode is here, and if you rummage around in Eric’s archive, you’re bound to find a load more interesting episodes to occupy your lockdown time.

I’m billed in the podcast as a professor at Coventry University, which isn’t accurate, as I haven’t risen to such nosebleed heights (yet!) and I’m also no longer in Coventry. That’s my karma, I guess.

Are we living in an Alternative History?

It’s a compelling idea. So many outlier events, both the scary Black Swan-type that N.N. Taleb writes about as well as the simply unlikely, seem to be regular occurences all of a sudden.

Whether it’s Donald Trump’s election as US President, the Brexit referendum, a global Coronavirus pandemic, or even just Leicester City somehow winning the English Premier League football title a few years ago, the world seems to have taken a turn into the unpredictable, the unstable, and the frankly bizarre.

And if we are in a uchronic timeline, is there any way back? We probably aren’t going to be able to reverse time, but perhaps we can leverage the idea of alt-history to understand and manipulate our own reality going forward.

This is something I suggest in my latest article for the always excellent Sci-Phi Journal.