Friday, April 01, 2016

Worried about the Illuminati?

No? Well, you probably should be!

There’s a wonderful scene in the film version of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons where Ewan McGregor, who’s acting as a kind of Vatican caretaker while the Cardinals are locked up in conclave to elect a new Pope, is attacked by a madman with a red-hot branding iron.

“Illuminatus!” cries Ewan, as his flesh burns. Yes, his assailant is indeed one of the Illuminati, fresh from the late eighteenth century (where we might have hoped they’d all be resting in peace).

As it turns out, there aren’t any actual Illuminati in the movie. Tom Hanks, reprising his role as Harvard Professor of “Symbology” Robert Langdon from The Da Vinci Code (2003 / movie 2006), manages to detect the subterfuge and discover that Ewan has actually branded himself as part of his complicated plan to subvert the Papacy.

It’s funny how those elusive Illuminati recur – mostly as villains, admittedly. My local fish ’n’ chip shop keeps a pile of tattered magazines to read while you’re waiting for your order. I think it was in the Australian Women’s Weekly that I learned that Beyoncé Knowles is one of the Illuminati. Apparently she’s been making pyramid shapes with her hands at recent concerts, which is a sure-fire sign of being an initiate (presumably this was before she took to dressing like a Black Panther instead).

The pop group Coldplay, too, has been displaying strange flower symbols on their drumkits of late. The author of the article thought there was a good chance that joining the Illuminati might well become the latest Hollywood craze, in succession to Scientology and Kabbalah. Rihanna’s “Umbrella” video, too, is apparently full of similar occult references to her dark master, the Devil.

Probably the most sophisticated treatment of this theme is in Umberto Eco’s great novel Foucault’s Pendulum. His two protagonists, Belbo and Casaubon, deliberately cook up the most outrageous mixture of Occultist conspiracy theories possible – complete with Templars, Rosicrucians, the Priory of Sion, and every other conceivable permutation on the general theme of Gnosticism – and then invent a fictitious rendezvous for the whole strange crew.

Sure enough, when the two turn up at the appointed meeting place under Léon Foucault’s famous Pendulum in the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, there they all are. Belbo and Casaubon’s fertile invention has somehow succeeded in creating the very absurdities it set out to parody. Casaubon manages to escape through the sewers, but his companion is hanged from the wire of the pendulum, changing (significantly) the arc of its world-defining rotation.

Eco’s multi-layered, multiple game-playing book can be seen, in retrospect (somewhat like Cervantes’ Don Quixote), to have predated many of the worst excesses of the genre it parodies. True, Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln’s The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982), with its theory of the descent of the French Merovingian Kings from Jesus Christ (via his common-law wife Mary Magdalene), was already a bestseller. The massive vogue of Dan Brown was yet to come, however, and public knowledge of these ideas was thus not yet universal.

Umberto Eco: Foucault's Pendulum (1988)

It was a bit of a shock to me to discover just how far things had gone, though, when I when I found myself reading an online article on Illuminati symbolism in Australia. They're everywhere, apparently - not just in the old world, but here in the new world, too!

The trouble, of course, with all this heavy tongue-in-cheek irony, is that people have a tendency to take it straight. For the record, then, I do not believe that latter-day Illuminati have subverted all our democratic institutions and are secretly plotting to take over the world (though for that matter, they're welcome to have a go, as far as I'm concerned - it's hard to see how they could do a worse job than the present lot ...)

What does interest me about them is that strange penumbra of omnipurpose, one-size-fits-all conspiracy theory they exhude: sometimes it's the Templars, sometimes the Cathars, sometimes the Priory of Sion, only too often (unfortunately) the Elders of Zion, but always (we're told) there's a bunch of idiots somewhere dressing up in strange robes and painting their faces with symbols and having wild parties to which none of us happen to have been invited (unless some of you reading really are members of the international Illuminatist Frater / Sorority, in which case apologies).

I suppose it's all harmless enough: I mean, is any conspiracy worthy of the name really going to centre on Beyoncé? No offence, and I suppose the name of her former girl-group Destiny's Child might be seen as a bit of a clue, really, when you think about it ... Huh? What's that? ... a scratching at the window ... that hand! ... what are they chanting? ... Ngaah, Nyarlathotep ... NOOOOOO! ... Aaaaargh ... [CRASH]

[We publish this blogpost just as it was found on the author's computer, complete with those last few meaningless lines. Of course, it can only be regarded as a coincidence that he was interrupted by some intruder or intruders unknown just at the moment he was recording the results of his own investigations into the Illuminati in New Zealand. To draw any other conclusion can only be regarded as absurd and baseless paranoia ... - Ed.]

Friday, March 04, 2016

U of Canberra VC's International Poetry Prize

I'm pretty chuffed to have been asked to act as a long-list judge for the 2016 University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor's Poetry Prize (entries open from 2 November 2015 – 30 June 2016).

I suppose it would be somewhat cooler to have been asked to be the short-list judge, but given the person in question is mega-famous British bard Simon Armitage, my nose isn't too far out of joint. My two co-judges, Philippine-Australian writer Merlinda Bobis and Goan-Anglo-Indian poet Michelle Cahill, are also very dynamic figures. I've heard them both in action at various conferences, and they're pretty inspiring.

Here are some details of the competition:

  • The winner will receive AUD$15,000
  • The runner-up (second-placed poem) will receive AUD$5,000
  • Four additional poems will be short-listed
  • All poems entered for the prize will be single poems that have a maximum length of 50 lines (see the Conditions of Entry for further details)
  • Each entry of a poem will cost AUD$15 if submitted by 29 February 2016 and AUD$20 if submitted between 1 March and 30 June 2016. There are discounts for students.

And here's the link to the How to Enter page.

It's true that you do have to speculate to accumulate - you have to pay to enter, but the prize money is pretty sweet. And it goes without saying that you can count on the very best of service from yours truly and the other judges ....

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Why Tim Powers?

Tim Powers (1952- )

You know how it is when you have a long list of worthy books to read, and you find yourself instead obsessively following up every title by some hitherto neglected writer? True, I've been reading Tim Powers on and off for years, but this summer I found myself going through his entire oeuvre again in a rather more systematic way, book by book, rant by rant ...

Here's a list of my own collection of Powers books. It isn't quite complete, as there are a few missing novellas and limited editions - short story collections, mainly - but I have all fourteen of his novels, from The Skies Discrowned (1976) to Medusa's Web (2015).

  1. Powers of Two: The Skies Discrowned & An Epitaph in Rust. 1976, 1986, 1989. Framingham, MA: The NESFA Press, 2004.
  2. The Drawing of the Dark. 1979. London: Granada, 1981.
  3. The Anubis Gates. 1983. London: Triad Grafton Books, 1986.
  4. Dinner at Deviant's Palace. 1985. London: Grafton Books, 1987.
  5. On Stranger Tides. 1987. New York: Ace Books, 1988.
  6. The Stress of Her Regard. 1989. London: HarperCollins, 1991.
  7. Last Call. Fault Lines, 1. 1993. New York: Avon Books, 1996.
  8. Expiration Date. Fault Lines, 2. London: HarperCollins, 1995.
  9. Earthquake Weather. Fault Lines, 3. 1997. London: Orbit, 1998.
  10. Declare. 2001. New York: HarperTorch, 2002.
  11. Strange Itineraries: Short Stories. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2005.
  12. Three Days to Never. 2006. William Morrow. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.
  13. Hide Me Among the Graves. 2012. Corvus. London: Atlantic Books Ltd., 2013.
  14. Medusa's Web. 2015. Corvus. London: Atlantic Books Ltd., 2016.

So who on earth is Tim Powers, some of you must be saying by now? His work falls into the SF / Fantasy genre, certainly, but it's hard to be more precise than that - I've heard him described as a Steampunk writer, but I'm not sure that that label quite fits, either. He is, really, unique and sui generis.

Which is not to say that he's much of a prose stylist. One has to put up with some pretty clumsy phrasing at times, some clunky paragraphs - not to mention odd lapses of historical verisimilitude (and some truly dreadful attempts to translate bits of dialogue into foreign languages).

Guess what? It doesn't matter. Even though many admirers of Byron and Shelley would shudder to read what he's made of them in The Stress of Her Regard (for instance), or of Coleridge in The Anubis Gates, there's a mad exuberance about both books which keeps one reading on, and which ends up constructing a pretty plausible series of alternate universes largely controlled by magic and the hermetic sciences.

I once read an interview [Brad Katz, Brow Magazine (21/2/96)] with Powers where he said that he'd been much influenced by Fellini in his early writing. He liked the way that there's almost always something going on behind the main action in a Fellini film: a couple of extras trying to carry a church bell, a bunch of kids getting into a fight. He's been trying ever since, it seems, to get that effect in his fiction - a sense of teeming life going on behind his protagonists' mad preoccupations: to revive the dead Fisher King of Northern California, to stop a bunch of alien spiders from taking over the universe, to exterminate the rogue genies who've infested Noah's Ark ...

Tim Powers: Powers of Two (1976 / 2004)

This rather handsome hardback collects Powers' first two books, The Skies Discrowned and An Epitaph in Rust (both 1976). He writes in his entertaining 2003 introduction to this reprint:
the publication of these two books ... had effectively deflected me from wanting to be a college literature professor; I didn't go back to graduate school. ... if it weren't for K. W. Jeter and Roger Elwood, and the heady experience of seeing those first two books in print, It'd today be teaching "Twain to Modern," and "Analysis of Literary Forms," and maybe - with a wistful air, I like to think! - "Creative Writing."
Bravo, Tim! I like that "wistful air." As one who himself teaches Creative Writing (and various survey courses not a million miles from the ones described), I know what he's talking about. I remember once confessing to John Dolan how much I'd prefer to be a Sci-Fi pulp writer than any kind of "intellectual" or "experimental" writer. He stared back at me. "Of course!" he said. "If we only had the talent!"

Who wouldn't prefer to be Gene Wolfe than Virginia Woolf, or - in this case - a kind of maverick hybrid of pulp fiction, period pastiche and perverse historicism like Tim Powers rather than a staid old English lecturer? Never mind, we give what we can - the rest is the madness of art ...

The books themselves are promising but a little embryonic: with quite a lot of Jack Vance mixed into their basic substratum of Philip K. Dick.

Tim Powers: The Drawing of the Dark (1979)

This book gives us the first glimpse of Powers' protean, Fellini-esque self. Loaded with detail (much of it referred to glancingly, in passing), it takes us through pre-Enlightenment Europe to Vienna in 1485 during its siege by the Turks. Merlin and Arthur are the principal protagonists, though in their latter-day avatars Brian Duffy and "Aurelianus": the stakes are no less than the soul of Europe itself.

It's a break-neck, rollicking yarn, and very entertaining to read, but not - in retrospect, at least - quite there yet. The essential parts of the Powers recipe are present, but the brew is still a little chunky and dark.

Tim Powers: The Anubis Gates (1983)

Not so this book, which still has a claim to be considered Powers' masterpiece - the central exhibit of his early manner, at least. I was once stranded in Frankfurt airport by a snowstorm for a couple of days. I couldn't leave the hotel, and I only had one book: this one. I read it twice through in that time and it never palled. I could, in fact, pull it out and start reading it again right now. It's bloody good.

The story introduces Power's favourite Romantic faux-poet, William Ashbless, to the reader for the first time, and is endlessly, tirelessly inventive in its details. It ain't Shakespeare. Nor is it Dickens or any other high culture piece of fine writing. It has a punk soul, but it's also a kind of apotheosis of that page-turning trashiness that makes those of us brought up on them adore pulp paperbacks so much. What else can I say? Read it.

Tim Powers: Dinner at Deviant's Palace (1985)

This is a little out on a limb in Power's oeuvre. It reads, at times, more like his friend Phil Dick (Dr Bloodmoney, or Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said) than Powers himself. But that's not to say it isn't good. As post-apocalyptic narratives go, this one is excellent. It's the kind of book his first two novels were aspiring to be (he admits in his introduction to them that he was already writing a book with this title before rattling them out in a hurry: two paperbacks in the same year). Nevertheless, I think he was right to complete it and get it out of his system. It is, in effect, a kind of alternate Powers: a slightly more predictable but every bit as accomplished writer.

Not really, then, quite, Tim Powers, though it did (like its predecessor) win the Philip K. Dick Memorial award.

Tim Powers: On Stranger Tides (1987)

This one had a recent vogue when it was used as the basis for the fourth film in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Students of the book could not have been blamed for not noticing, though: the resemblances are few and far between (coming down mostly to the presence of Blackbeard in both stories). It's a fine yarn (far better than the film, alas), with another of Powers' plucky and resourceful - but not omnipotent - protagonists, and a guest appearance from Ponce de Leon and his Fountain of Youth.

There are one or two interesting aspects to the historical research in the book, though. At one point (p. 140 in my paperback edition) there's a reference to the "murder of James 1st a century ago." This seems a little odd, since King James was not, in fact, murdered (he died of dysentery after a stroke), and introduces the possibility that this is supposed to be set in an alternate history analogous to Joan Aiken's in her Wolves of Willoughby Chase series. If so, he doesn't really follow up on the idea. Perhaps it's a fossil from some earlier, longer state of the book?

Of course, one could argue that it's actually a reference to the historical murder of King James the 1st of Scotland rather than James the 1st of England, but since that took place in 1437, it's a bit hard to see it as only a century before the present of the book (c. 1718). I bequeath this concundrum to more profound Powers scholars than myself.

Tim Powers: The Stress of Her Regard (1989)

Now this one is something special. So dense is the narrative, centering on Byron and Shelley's haunted summer (during which his wife's great novel Frankenstein was conceived), that one can hardly follow it at times. Nor is Powers' prose style quite up to the task he has set himself at times, but it remains a kind of masterpiece: a genuinely frightening and thought-provoking novel with enough inventiveness to power ten conventional plots. What isn't in there? I'd rather reread The Anubis Gates anyday than venture into this one again, but I have to admit that it scared the shit out of me, and persuaded me that readers really could take a lot of disruption in their fictional fare without giving in (hence, I suppose, some of the more intractable elements in my own first novel, Nights with Giordano Bruno).

Tim Powers: Last Call (1993)

This is the first in a trilogy and (I would say) by far the most attractive in the series. It takes on the folklore of Las Vegas in a really big way, and almost succeeds in creating an American occult mythology to rival those of old Europe. It was the first of his books to win the World Fantasy Award, and it certainly deserves it.

Tim Powers: Expiration Date (1995)

There's something monstrous about the picture of LA, full of hungry, talkative ghosts, portrayed in this novel. It reads more like the transcript of a nightmare than an amusing piece of derring-do. Re-reading it this summer, though, I found that there is some benefit in reading the whole of his "Fault Lines" trilogy in order. What seemed merely bewildering and repetitive the first time seems far more planned and deliberate in retrospect.

Tim Powers: Earthquake Weather (1997)

The poet John Masefield called one of his own adventure novels One Damned Thing After Another (or ODTAA). there's something of that in the endless (and mostly futile) attempts to bring Scott Crane (the Fisher King of the Western states) back to life in this culmination to Powers' trilogy. He does succeed in knitting all the loose ends together, but at a certain cost to the narrative pleasure principle.

Tim Powers: Declare (2001)

This one I didn't like at all when I first read it. It seemed almost perversely incomprehensible, and trying to link together too disparate a mass of material. On rereading it, though, I wonder what I was thinking about. I see it now as a brilliant fusion of spy fiction and Dan Brown-ish antiquarianism. I suppose reading more about Kim Philby in the meantime has helped me see the inventiveness and intelligence of Powers's portrait of the modern era's greatest double agent. Winner (again) of the World Fantasy Award, I'd now recommend it highly, but that earlier adverse reaction does remind me that certain aspects of it may be an acquired taste.

Tim Powers: Three Days to Never (2006)

This is a good, solid piece of Powers-iana. The characters are attractive and well-drawn, the action compelling. To someone not used to his style, it might be quite difficult to follow in parts, but to a Powers fan, this is pretty mainstream stuff. After all, there was a time when even Haruki Murakami seemed incomprehensible to most readers. In a way, I hope such universal acceptance never happens to Powers. Part of his edge comes from that sense of inhabiting a private universe with only occasional connections with everyone else's ...

Tim Powers: Hide Me Among the Graves (2012)

Wonderful. This sequel to The Stress of Her Regard (with many of the same monsters) allows Powers to go to town on the Pre-Raphaelites. Great stuff throughout, and very visual in its appeal.

Tim Powers: Medusa'a Web (2015)

Which brings us to Power's latest work, set (again) in LA - this time in Hollywood - and with a slight overtone of Shirley Jackson (both The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle - fans of either of those would find much to attract them here, I feel). There's something a little Dr. Who-like, too, in some of the action.

To be honest, I don't quite know what to think about this one yet. I like it, but it didn't grip me to the same extent as Three Days to Never. What is certain is that it shows no diminution in Powers' skills after almost forty years of scribbling - and 14 major novels. Thank God he didn't become an English Professor instead sticking to what he does best: benefiting poor suffering humanity as a spinner of wondrous tales.

Tim Powers: Strange Itineraries (2005)