The Rime of the Postmodern Mariner

More ramblings of Rhys Hughes.

Friday, April 16, 2010

PM Question Time #8: with the Independent Shadow

At last! Here is the final conversation between the Postmodern Mariner and the eight Sea of Tea pirates! When I began this side-project back in October 2006 I never expected it to take more than three years to post all eight interviews! Anyway...

The eighth conversation is with the pirate of the southeastern zone, José Gasparilla, and this is how it goes:

PM: You belong to a highly specialised genre?

JG: Yes, the tale of the man who becomes separated from his shadow. Chamisso wrote a story with this theme. I believe that Anodos in George MacDonald's Phantastes also loses his shadow; I can't quite remember. And Lord Dunsany wrote a book that is one of the best treatments of this conceit.

PM: You allude to his third novel, The Charwoman's Shadow?

JG: What I did was stronger than allude, in my opinion. I referred. But yes, that is the volume in question; a charming, magical read. Dunsany's style kept improving with age and his increasing use of whimsical irony makes his later work more palatable to my taste than his early dreamland stuff. He also wrote a couple of oddly humorous short stories about pirates.

PM: Are you the man or the shadow?

JG: I really ought to keep you guessing until the end…

PM: Of all the captains on the Sea of Tea only two weren't invented by the author called Hughes. We all know that Henry Morgan was a genuine historical figure, but what of you? Were you ever real?

JG: Not truly real, no. My first appearance was in a slim novel entitled There Were Two Pirates by James Branch Cabell. You may know the title of at least one other Cabell novel, Jurgen, which was banned for supposed obscenity and therefore became a bestseller. Cabell was a gloriously sophisticated writer with a style that was cynical, wise, inventive, absurd and funny: he was writing humorous fantasy even before serious fantasy had become a viable product.

PM: What are your memories of Spain?

JG: Nibbles with every glass of wine. Girls.

PM: Guitars?

JG: With every girl. Nibbles too. And nibbles with every girl, nearly. Which meant more wine… I was often a little drunk. Most people believe that Spain was the main victim in the so-called 'Golden Age' of piracy, and that English, Welsh, French and Dutch captains preyed exclusively on our merchant fleet; but in fact we had pirates of our own. I am one of them, obviously, but there were a great many more. The potential rewards were simply too tempting to keep us at home.

PM: Doubloons?

JG: Bless you!

PM: Did the climate and culture of your second home, Florida, agree with you? Or was it too thundery?

JG: Almost everything agrees with me; there will always be trouble if it doesn't! But I have no issue with storms, which is just as well: for the man who designed and built the Sea of Tea did so merely in order to create and witness a storm in a teacup.

PM: Would you prefer to sail on an ocean of coffee?

JG: An ocean of wine would be even better, for then the nibbles and the girls would be everywhere and I wouldn't need to use force to obtain them. The wine would reflect the starlight most wondrously and the soft music of the guitars would lap my ears in the same way the claret wavelets lapped my hull, gently, like old tongues. I would be happy on the winey deeps; happier than I am here…

PM: Look there! The sun is rising!

JG: Which means it's time for my bed. I'm nocturnal.

PM: Because?

JG: Haven't you guessed what I am yet?

PM: You are the shadow.

JG: Well done! What led you to that conclusion?

PM: The sunrise. You seem to be casting a man!

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Too Clever For His Own Good

I’ve just come back from Odyssey 2010, a Science Fiction convention held in the grim location of Heathrow. The book dealers' room in the hotel was gigantic and full of second-hand SF books. I’m addicted to buying books, an addiction I’ve been struggling with for years. I thought I was winning the battle but the sight of so many volumes by so many great writers proved a severe strain on my willpower. As it happened I only bought two books and they were both by authors I have given myself ‘permission’ to buy on sight, namely Jack Vance and John Sladek.

The Sladek book was a collection of short stories that I owned more than twenty years ago and lent to a friend named Gavin. Needless to say I never got it back. What made it worse was that I hadn’t actually finished reading the book when I lent it. But I was too busy for reading at the time, and he wasn’t, so I gave it to him. I thought he was only going to keep it for a couple of weeks and then return it, so I could go back to reading it myself. That was in 1987.

I thought a lot about that Sladek book in the years that followed. The stories I had managed to read influenced my own fiction considerably. I wanted to write the same type of stories. Funny but disturbing stories that managed to lampoon the SF genre while simultaneously contributing to it. Stories that made use of paradox and conceptual twists. Stories that were playful, relentlessly ironic and extremely clever.

It was a long time before I learned that cleverness isn’t a quality guaranteed to endear a writer to critics, readers and other writers!

Sladek specialised in writing stories and novels that deconstructed some of the most cherished clichés in science fiction. For example he once wrote a story demonstrating that the imprecision of the wording in Isaac Asimov’s famous ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ made them unworkable, with hilarious and catastrophic consequences for the human race. Far from being grateful for his insight, SF fans tended to react with hostility. Sladek found it increasingly difficult to get published as time went on, and even the support of such figures as Michael Moorcock didn’t prevent him from lapsing into relative obscurity.

I say ‘relative obscurity’ because his name is still familiar to true devotees of the imagination. Two of his best novels, Roderick and Roderick at Random, are both in print in a single omnibus volume and comprise volume 45 of the SF Masterworks series published by Gollancz. Another novel Tik-Tok, is also available from the same publisher. But his short stories have fallen into neglect, and his short stories are arguably his finest achievement.

I have heard it said that Sladek was “too clever for his own good.” It’s the same accusation that has been levelled against me. I find this a perverse and depressing criticism, as it fundamentally misunderstands the motives behind such writing. Sladek had original ideas that no other SF writer ever had before him, and he also had a deeper philosophical understanding of the workings of certain themes favoured in the SF field, and he also had a playful attitude to the possibilities offered by form as well as content. Surely he was generous to want to share these qualities with readers? That’s the way I see it, anyway.