Amsel reads things

Amsel reads things

Sometimes I read things.

!!! spoiler alert !!!
Amnesia Moon - Jonathan Lethem

I'm reading Amnesia Moon, again, to better understand a video game. I'm also reading Amnesia Moon again, having first read it some 10 years ago when I found a single copy with the hilariously garish cover shown here languishing in the stock room of the discount book store in which I used to work. I assumed that it was probably terrible, because most of the books we sold were, and at best Lethem was merely an also ran. The remaindered book industry is a weird one, living as it does in the valley between hubris and economies of scale. Every delivery day was tinged with the excitement of the unknown - we would be sent crates of stock generically labelled 'books' on the delivery note and inside would be the apportioned contents of whichever warehouse head office had bought up for cheap this week. A write-off on a publisher's balance sheet might bring us celebrity memoirs that would fly off the front table, or unshiftable hardback enthusiast tomes on fishing destined to gather dust in the hobby aisle.


Besides these two extremes there was also a steady stream of mass market paperbacks, sold three for £5. We were often asked how it was possible to sell them so cheap, but the truth is that it is built in to the business model of paperback publishing. The majority of the books sold this way are churned out by their authors to order, sold to book clubs in bulk at tight margins and then dumped into remaindered stock as soon as the ROI ticks above the magic number and warehousing costs will start to eat into that margin. You may see a copy or two of these titles, family sagas for the women and thrillers or war stories for the men, in the high-street book stores for full price, but it is not how they are intended to sell. And we would have regular customers, who would come weekly or monthly or fortnightly and get three of whichever books it was that we were offering then. The books didn't matter particularly, and so many of them were the same story retold anyway, what they wanted was something to read because reading was a thing that they enjoyed doing; the fact that the specific titles that they read were determined by the complex, grinding machinations of capitalism at its least sexy is immaterial, it was just a system which we all lived our lives in.


Just as I was not defined by my job of stacking those books, they were not defined by their hobby of reading them. But this ceding of control of what it is that you imagine about is central to Lethem's apocalypse. In Amnesia Moon most people are not able to experience their own imaginative landscapes because they are being imposed by those with more power. In some cases this control is direct, but in others it is just a case of being at the end of a system that isn't being run for them but that dreams for them anyway. Of course the hero has the power to impose his will upon the world, but he doesn't want to, preferring to hide from the possibility of his own tyranny. He's special in a way that others aren't.


One of the most interesting things to me about Amnesia Moon is how close it sails to a number of feminist sci-fi works, and in what ways it then diverges. Feminism has long been aware of the constructed nature of realities, and the way that intersecting spheres will have their own rules and power structures that yet distinguish them. That the world of work and the home and the school are all conflicting dreams and there is no one underlying way of being that will ensure safety in all of them, or that could make them all as real as each other. And so the fractured reality is a common trope that distinguishes at least a certain strain of feminist SF from the total apocalypses of macho imagination - the objective truth of destruction against which a man can prove himself a new master. From Angela Carter's shifting sexual hellscapes in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman To Justina Robson's pulp quantum collapse in Keeping it Real, what happens after the end is just a continuation of what was happening before it, writ larger and brighter.


Lethem's apocalypse then is one that understands the way in which ideologies compete to define the world you live in, but not how they compete to define who you are. Although Chaos, in his travels, regularly forgets and remembers aspects of his past he is always, at core and in action, still himself. There is no question that his personality is compromised, that he might act differently to the man he believes himself to be when his world next shifts. That is of course why he is the hero - it is never his reality that is in question - and why he gets to sleep with Edie while thinking about Gwen and not  have the truth of his existence as himself questioned. The truth of the absolute nature of his love is what makes him real, and it cannot be compromised by being with the person he is with. Past is, in Lethem's world, more real than the present and for me this is his key divergence from Carter, Robson et al.

A Year in Davos
The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann, John E. Woods

I finally finished the Magic Mountain on 29th December 2014, having started it some time in January of that year, expecting it to take a month or two at most. In fact, towards the last few chapters I looked again at the piece of card I was using as a bookmark, that had become such a constant fixture of my life through the course of the year, but which I had stopped seeing. It was a Happy New Year postcard from the bank with which I had a three-year loan, taken out to buy a new roof for my house and which was causing a certain amount of financial strain. During the course of 2014 I re-mortgaged for a better rate and in doing so wrapped the remains of the roof loan in, effectively wiping out the extra monthly cost, which had another two years to run, but tying the debt to myself for a full 35 years.


What this has to do with Hans Castorp's stay at the Berghof is maybe overly stretched. Hans Castorp, who meant to stay for three conflicted, difficult weeks but stays instead for seven effortless years. Hans Castorp who is always in service to someone, or some cause, other than himself despite the certain selfishness of his position.


I think it is good, possibly it could have only happened this way, that I read The Magic Mountain in my thirties. I spent the majority of my twenties making boring but essential decisions; chasing promotions (and an exit) at minimum wage jobs, studying for professional qualifications to secure the job I escaped to, scaling back writing to have time to sleep to keep those jobs I had. All the kind of boring stuff that Hans Castorp eschews throughout his twenties in the service of the cure. I think that, even had I had the time to read a book such as this in those years I would have hated its subject rather than just looked upon him and his youth (which is hardly yet very distant from my own age now) fondly or understood him in his role as part of Mann's satire.


I do think it must be nice to be able to decide to dedicate yourself to your passions, even, especially, as you can ascribe that decision to forces beyond your control.


I read The Magic Mountain, as I do most of the classics that I read, because it was referenced in something else that I loved and enjoyed. In this case, the referencing work was Michael Crumey's Möbius Dick, a wonderful, strange science fiction novel that is one of my favourite books I've ever read. Möbius Dick also went some way toward convincing me to finally read Moby Dick, which I had had on my reading list for a while as it was. Reading Moby Dick was important for me, reconciling and centring my love and fascination with a sea that I know will eventually kill me. I have since, after many years, even been able to swim in the sea. I am at peace with it and it is at peace with me and the two of us regard each other in the sure knowledge that our time to be together forever is not yet due.


The sea is the opposite of a magical space. It does not release you, changed, once it has its hold of you. Reading The Magic Mountain I have finally understood and processed a number of ideas that I have been working with for a number of years; about asylums, sanitaria and hotels as magical spaces, but also about youth, and games and art as magical spaces. It was also in 2014 that the blogger who had really delineated the concept of magical spaces in occult and literary theory and history revealed himself to be, via the profoundly prosaic space of Tumblr, rather a nasty piece of work. (In an interesting side note, the best ever rejection letter I got was from the short lived, and at the time recently defunct, horror magazine Nasty Piece of Work.) Tumblr is a place that brings out the truth of people, profoundly unable to change them and uninterested in confinement and gestation of ideas where there can instead be a spread of degrading information spurred on by showboating and playing to the crowd.


I didn't only read The Magic Mountain this year. I paused occasionally, rereading amongst other things Murakami's Dance Dance Dance, a novel about the hotel as a magical space. I also read some trashy sci-fi and a bit of Goffman and Foucault talking about institutions. Because I wasn't thinking about institutions enough. I also recorded a podcast about asylums and wrote a few articles about asylums and edited an ezine about religion in games where I pushed an agenda (or 'wrote an editorial linking all the pieces together as if they had been planned that way', if you want to know the trade secret/official line of these things) of games as magical spaces. The Magic Mountain has been a huge part of me this year. It is not maybe for me, as the cover quote proclaims, 'a new way of seeing', but it has certainly, as with the best of magical spaces, provided a space within which sight and thought have been able to alchemically transform and to emerge stronger, richer and of greater value.

This Is Not A Game - Walter Jon Williams

I haven't just read this, I read it a few years ago, but I did just remember about it because I'm all into my video games right now. It really was a disappointment. That's the main thing I remember about it. One of those books that reminds you why gaming sucks. Full of meritocratic, tech-worshipping, culturally imperialist arseholes. Anyway, I added it to my shelf to remind me of why books about gamers are much less interesting even than fluff novels set in the worlds of games, which I actually often enjoy.

I'll Get You, Space Marine!
Heart of Darkness - J.H. Stape, Robert Hampson, Owen Knowles, Joseph Conrad

I started reading Heart of Darkness because it got referenced in a computer game called Space Marine. That seems really shallow, but it is, more than anything, a mechanism for navigating classic texts that I have built up over the years. I read the Epic of Gilgamesh and Paradise Lost to better understand the Horus Heresy. I got into Virginia Woolf after visiting the house of the woman she fell in love with and listening to Patrick Wolf CDs. I read Iris Murdoch because I am convinced that the sea is going to kill me.


There are so many classics, and they belong to such different worlds to the one we live in, that the way you approach them has to have some connection to your life, to ensure that you can get to the meaning in them. I enjoyed Jude the Obscure when I read it for school, but I find that I can't get myself enthused enough to dig into Thomas Hardy again even though I'm sure I would enjoy it; there are too many other books to read and too little time before I die.


So I was playing Space Marine and one of the chapters of the game is titled Heart of Darkness and I know for a fact that it has nothing to do with the themes of the novel, but I only know of those themes second hand myself. At which point I decided to read the novel - not because I wanted to better understand Space Marine, but because it was now prominent enough in my consciousness as a thing I wanted to do.


Space Marine's use of the title Heart of Darkness makes very little sense. The section is basically running around in the sewers alone and occurs before there is any suggestion in the plot that Titus, the player-character, might be touched by Chaos, the only conceivable analogue for Conrad's Darkness in the game. Even that doesn't work as, in the 40k universe, Chaos is as often an affliction of civilisation as it is of wilderness. Regardless, I am pretty certain that t5he only darkness that is referred to, directly, at that point, is the lighting levels of the section.


Except that there's more. Classics are classic as much because they have been reified as because they are immortally readable. They are a thing in themselves, a closed symbol of culture as much as a book to be opened and read. Each classic is a title that points to an idea of historical engagement, a well-read cultured nature and, finally, an idea of the ideas in the book itself. And I find this fascinating. Referencing a classic novel (or film, or whatever) as an idea, even without engaging with it as a text, is an artistic move that invokes an ironic gravitas. It says 'you should engage with this text as if it was deadly serious, but with the understanding that it may not be.' It enables a game like Space Marine to inform you that, for the characters, this is a serious situation and that, by taking it seriously for the period in which you engage with it, you will get more out of it than if you engage it purely as Technicolor schlock.


The masters of this stance are Iron Maiden. The Loneliness of the Long Distance runner is a phenomenal story about power and control and the underclass mentality and I would never have read it if they hadn't written a song about a man running really far. And yet, reading it meant that I learnt more about how Iron Maiden see themselves and where they came from, and could link that to my own situation, twenty years later in the same bits of London. The Wicker man is a masterpiece of British horror and yet they used it for the title of a song about someone with gambling debts. It doesn't matter though. The meaning is clear: take this seriously, think about the links between popular and classic art forms as you do so, and you will get a lot more out of both. Conrad's Darkness isn't Chaos, but experiencing and understanding it makes Chaos that little bit more alive as a concept for the player that wishes to dig that little bit further.


Heart of Darkness is also a really good book. Especially if you care about the history of European imperialism.

I'm not even halfway through yet so hopefully things get better?
Flat Earth News: An Award-Winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media - Nick Davies

Flat Earth News is a really important book on a really important subject - how our news media is systematically undermined by the systems it employs and why that happens. It is also a deeply ironic book in that in critiquing journalism whilst using a journalistic register it falls into a number of traps that show the weaknesses that befall journalism even at its best. It is a book that you should definitely read if you read any form of journalism, and when it is on form it is incredibly powerful and illuminating, but it has to be read with the very set of skills with which it is trying to teach you to read.

The major problems are ones of judicious omission and accuracy. Davies decides, straight up, to ignore tabloid journalism as, he claims, no one believes it anyway. The problem here is that people do believe it, and in vast numbers, and even when they don't (a lot of Sun readers refer to it as a comic) it has a huge effect on how people perceive the world. Ignoring tabloid journalism is essentially a classist statement that says only the educated (middle class) constructed reality (and he talks a lot about concepts of constructed reality, even if he doesn't use that term, preferring to differentiate between a mass perception and an underlying reality) is of importance.

Except then he does talk about tabloids, because when you talk about the newspaper industry you cannot avoid talking about tabloids. The commercial structures Davies lambasts, Murdoch's and Maxwell's and so on, are all built around the tabloid business model. The history of the first decade of the 21st century newspaper industry is the death of the broadsheet as a physical object. Tabloids are unavoidable and Davies talks about them whenever he needs to, but just maintains that they aren't a part of the story when he doesn't want them to be. This is a journalistic tic.

Other journalistic tics surface in the very fabric of the writing; in the language used. Journalism as a mode, and in many ways when it is at its best, salts important information with enough flavour to make it easy to read. This flavour comes from the nice turns of phrase and the human interest and the mixing of nuggets of detail amongst the facts of the matter. This can be great; the feature article that introduces you to individuals before covering statistics both grounds and humanises the story. It can also be terrible; the Guardian style Guide has a joke about being so desperate for humanising synonyms that a write resorts to calling a carrot 'the popular orange vegetable.'

In Flat Earth news this surfaces as meaningless details that nevertheless distort the text: Charles Drudge of the Drudge Report is described as an ex Sales Clerk, which implies without being explicit a whole lot of assumptions about his suitability as a journalistic source. The fact is, he was making things up, but as he admits it was because journalists let him do it - not because of what he did before. Again, there is an implicit classism and a certain level of circling the wagon on Davies' part; he repeatedly claims that he will not let journalists off the hook, and yet also repeatedly finds ways of blaming people who aren't journalists for their mistakes. Earlier Davies describes a lone reporter as 'sitting alone in a darkened room' in a section about staff cuts. It's a very evocative, and easy to write, image but it is also patently untrue. He may have been sitting alone but why in a darkened room? How could Davies know? Are the evil owners even skimping on electricity bills now? This is over salting your prose, and it can be as much a mechanism of misinformation, although not as pernicious, as outright falsehood.

These may seem like small quibbles, but they extend, unfortunately, to the very core of Davies' thesis. Flat Earth News, in Davie's formulation, is news that spreads around the world because it seems right until it gets checked, and the problem is that the media is failing in its job of checking. He calls it this based on the idea that everyone thought the Earth was flat until someone checked. The big problem with this is that the belief that everyone thought the world was flat is itself Flat Earth News in Davies' formulation - it is an overstated belief that doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Meanwhile, the majority of Flat Earth stories Davies talks about  are not things that seemed correct but, as he himself attests, stories that were actively pushed into a media machine that was known to be faulty by people with agendas. The mechanism is the same, but the culpability is slightly different. Which is why the book is important even as it obfuscates some of it's own importance.

Flat Earth News tells a story of a noble journalism destroyed by 'grocers', a term repeatedly used, after an admittedly nicely written turn of phrase, as a more dramatic placeholder for capitalist economic theory. It doesn't help the divisiveness and implicit classism of the book that no grocer worth their salt would operate in the way that the newspaper owners have done, because grocers sell produce while newspaper owners have effectively stopped selling down (to consumers) but instead sell a content delivery system to advertisers. But, regardless, the argument Davies employs is that the capitalists, who it is important to note have done some incredibly destructive things to news and to journalism as a career option, are inherently worse in the way that they skew coverage than the old-style propagandist owners and that this is fundamentally because at least the propagandists cared about journalists. Even if part of that caring was telling them exactly what to write and when to write it.

Again, the points being made are important, valid and pertinent ones, but there is also an untold story. Alongside the history of closed newsrooms, sacked journalists and squeezed production lines is an untold, parallel version. This is a story of a union that failed its members, and of anti-union journalists who failed to see that they were no different the workers they were demonising when the eyes of industry turned upon them. It is a story of editors, journalists themselves, selling out as soon as they hit management positions and chucking those coming after them under the bus; or even worse, failing to stand up for good practise and capitulating to the demands of senior management even when they know that they are unworkable. It's these stories, along with the genuinely nasty, normative side of journalism - the side that wants there to be an underlying truth even when there isn't one or where exposing it would cause only pain, that is protected and I find it a shame. For every time Davies admits that journalism is not  blameless he then spends pages identifying why it isn't really journalists fault.

The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann, John E. Woods

I started the next chapter of this after a break of a month and of course it doesn't feel like I haven't read it for a month. This is one of those books that somehow manages to embody what it is about so that as you read it you also experience it. And what it is about is the malleability of time whilst within a magic space - in the case of Hans Castorp that magic space is the Berghof sanatorium but for the reader that magic space is the novel itself.


Reading this book, which will probably take me all year, feels as if it will be as significant as that year (exactly 20 years ago) that I read and can only recall reading the Lord of the Rings. I can feel my way of thinking bending and reforming as I read. With the Lord of the Rings it was my sense of movement through landscape, and the way in which walking could be a form of thought connecting the mind to the scenic. Since reading it I have done my best thinking whilst walking; I have been myself most of all whilst moving, with the understanding that it is not the nature of our surroundings that makes us free within them but our relationship and rhythm within them. For a book about the primacy of nature it made me love the city I was  bound within.


The Magic Mountain has not finished with me yet. I do not know what I will be after I have read it, but its action is beautiful to behold. There is an irony that, for a book about the treachery of time that it is only with time that I will be able to tell of its results.

The Body in the Library - Agatha Christie
meta as
meta as
The Body in the Library - Agatha Christie

I've been getting my crime fix from the telly in the main recently so going back to Christie is feeling great. I had forgotten what an absolute wicked joy her prose is quite apart from the quality of the mysteries. 

Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventure from Chess to Role-Playing Games - Jon Peterson

I am absolutely loving this book for a great many reasons but the fact that it introduced me to this photo of Robert E. Howard re-enacting a  scene from one of his own stories is surely one of the highest ranking.

Orange is the New Foucault
Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates - Erving Goffman

Having read two of the four essays I'm beginning to get a glimpse into how and why some of the sociologists in my life view mental illness in the way that they do. Goffman is great on the social but not so much on the personal, and reading his essay on the career of the inmate it is easy to overvalue that which is done to an actor in comparison to what is done by or integral to them. 


Goffman's thesis is that mental patients are retroactively so defined, as in one's life story is fitted around the teleology of commitment in order to justify the position the patient finds themselves in. This is powerful and an important way of breaking the othering of those who are incarcerated but the text ignores, purposefully after an early disclaimer, the very real distress of many of those patients. 


The first essay, on the general nature of a total institution was a much less ambivalent read for me, and came nicely after reading Foucault's Discipline and Power to set me up for watching Orange is the New Black, which I started this week.

The Language of Landscape - Anne Whiston Spirn
Academic burns
Academic burns
A Picture of Dorian Gray in Space with Chainswords
Fulgrim - Graham McNeill

The Horus Heresy novels, which got off to a fantastic, if never quite replicated, start with Dan Abnett's Horus Rising, reach, after a few stumbles, their first major fall with Fulgrim. The text is twice as long as it needs to be and about half as clever as it thinks it is. The gender politics, never the 40k universe's strongpoint in the first place, are particularly lacking in nuance which is a shame considering some of the arcs from the first few books.


Really, though, it's just a slog through turgid prose that fails to accept that the reason I'm reading a 40k book is for the violent hunks talking seriously about brotherhood and duty whilst they commit atrocities. 40k only works as a setting when there is a clear ironic detachment between the values of its protagonists and the values of those of us not mired in its horrible world. There are no good guys and, literally metaphysically, there cannot ever be any either.


Fulgrim spends too long trying to, in a mirror of the earlier books but without understanding what they were doing, show the fall from grace of its title character. Simultaneously it also spends too long detailing the kind of strategic machinations that would be better left to a few paragraphs in a codex book. What it needed to do was spend more time polishing the few action sequences it had, including sorting out the technical inaccuracies regarding Space Marine physiognomy, and maybe then it would have done Slaanesh proud.

Shot in the Face
Hunting Party (The Serrano Legacy Book 1) - Elizabeth Moon

Elizabeth Moon is my go-to writer when I want to read a story that concludes with someone getting shot in the face for being a grade-A tool, and Hunting Party does not disappoint. The space elements are more personalised and less mercantile-capitalism-a-la-Elite 101 than the Vatta's War books, although everything still takes place from within a very fiscally conservative worldview.


The main joy with Moon, however, is her study and interest in female friendships and relationships within the hybrid home-work space of an enclosed vessel (or also, in the case of the Vatta books, a family firm). Frustratingly, despite a minor lesbian character, introduced as an aside in a way that suggests there is no stigma in this setting, the main characters never consummate the clearly sexual relationship that is brewing between them, with a rather half-hearted and completely un-foreshadowed male love interest turning up in the final chapters. Also frustrating is that the people who draw the covers for Moon's books have clearly never read the descriptions of the characters they contain.


But these are minor quibbles for what is, ultimately, a book about someone being shot in the face. Hunting Party's face shooting sequence is as satisfying as any that Moon has written. It is set up clearly and dramatically, so that when it comes it is well-earned by both reader and protagonist, with an efficiency and satisfaction that stand in contrast to the equivocation of the Vatta books, counterpointing rather than undermining those and ensuring that, despite surface similarities, Moon's heroines remain distinct individuals.

!!! spoiler alert !!!
Again and Again
The Third Policeman - Flann O'Brien

I re-read this because I'm playing a game called Dark Souls which is, similarly, about doing the same thing again and again and again. I don't normally re-read books because I'm wedded to linear time and I find it hard to keep myself interested, even if the prose is wonderful, if I know how it all turns out. But here the structure is one of repetition, and so reading and re-reading is to immerse oneself in the plight of the characters and so rewards the reader with a strengthened, feedback loop of a narrative alongside the joy of O'Brien's wonderful words.