Sunday, July 23, 2017

CfP: Science Fiction and Economics

Vector is pleased to invite proposals for short articles (2,000-4,000 words) exploring science fiction and economics. CfP can be found here. Some ideas for topics include:
  • The economics and political economy of utopias and dystopias
  • Imagined systems of economic thought
  • The role of speculation about the future across SF and financial markets
  • Property and its alternatives in SF
  • Imagined collapses of and alternatives to capitalism
  • Near future SF and the socio-economic impacts of emergent technology
  • The idea of “rigor” in science fiction and the social sciences
  • Picturing and pitching the future: futurism, entrepreneurship, design fiction, and diegetic prototyping
  • Economic extrapolations of the novum
  • Fintech, cryptocurrency, blockchain
  • Debt in SF, e.g. Margaret Atwood’s Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth meets the speculative fiction of Margaret Atwood
  • Adhocracy, commoning, and self-governance, e.g. Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway (2017) meets Elinor Ostrom
  • “Adam Smith’s invisible great clomping foot of nerdism”: the economic dimension of worldbuilding
  • Science fictional demoi and publics
  • Scarcity, post-scarcity, “alt scarcity”
  • Automation
  • Matter replicators
  • Latinum, Melange, Adamantium: precious science fictional commodities
  • Capitalism, communism, third ways, fourth ways, fifth ways ... nth ways
  • The corporation in cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk, and other SF
  • Malthus and immortality
  • Markets, data science, and algorithmic governance
  • Complexity economics and chaos, complexity, and non-linear dynamics in SF
  • Algorithmic governance and the socialist calculation debates
  • Commensurable and non-commensurable value, e.g. Viviana Zelizer meets Karl Schroeder’s Permanence (2012)
  • Economic models as science fiction; readings of the thought experiments and pedagogic narratives within political economy texts as science fiction, e.g. Georg Simmel meets Ruth Levitas
  • AI and economic decision-making. How should economic agency be understood when it is dispersed through digital constructs – including Intelligent Personal Assistants and financial investment robo-advisors – whose algorithmic ‘reasoning’ is intrinsically opaque?
  • Communism and alternate reality SF
  • SF and capitalist realism
  • Science fictional experience; SF as lived experience
  • Science fictional estrangements of markets and money
  • Alienation, reification, commodification, and estrangement
  • Unreal estate
  • Economics without economies, economies without economics
  • Subjective theories of value and the Quantified Self
  • Neural interfaces, affective computing, and the formation of economic demand and political will
  • Homo economicus, “xeno economicus”, and economic rationality in SF
  • Prisoners’ Dilemma and other game theory in SF
  • Platform capitalism and SF, e.g. Tim Maughan’s ‘Zero Hours’
  • SF and platform co-operativism: imagining just, democratic, and sustainable digitally-mediated labour relations
  • Division of labour in SF
  • Affective labour and technologies of quantification
  • Barter in SF
  • Interstellar trade
  • Money and the trees it grows on, e.g. Nalo Hopkinson’s ‘Money Tree’, Clifford D. Simak’s ‘The Money Tree’
  • SF and ecological economics
  • Quantifying, representing, and/or marketising the unquantifiable
  • Markets as computation, computation as markets
  • SF’s non-capitalist markets
  • Class in SF, e.g. Samuel R. Delaney’s Nova (1968)
  • Secular trends, e.g. Rosa Luxemburg meets Michael Swanwick’s ‘From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled...’ (2008)
  • Social credit and financial credit in Karen Lord’s Galaxy Game (2015)
  • Gift economies and other non-market exchanges in SF, e.g. Erik Frank Russell’s ‘And Then There Were None’ (1953)
  • Economics and deep time, economics and galactic scale, economics of terraforming, economics of megaengineering
  • Markets and states on interstellar scale, e.g. Susan Strange meets Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood (2013)
  • Estranging money
  • Energy and value, e.g. Starhawk’s Fifth Sacred Thing (1993)
  • SF in relation to time banking: e.g. LETS, ECHO, time-based currencies, Falk Lee’s ‘Time is Money’ (1975)

My WorldCon Schedule

Wednesday 12:00 - 13:00, 204 (Messukeskus)

Wednesday 13:00 - 14:00, 204 (Messukeskus)

Thursday 14:00 - 15:00, 101a&b (Messukeskus)

Sunday 11:00 - 12:00, 101a&b (Messukeskus)


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The First Draft and the Academy

Creative Writing pedagogy and assessment is often (and for lots of good reasons) oriented toward the mature or final draft. Where the assessment requires some kind of reflective commentary, for instance, the process of redrafting and polishing creates lots of fruitful material for discussion. Besides, many skilled creative practitioners encounter their own tacit competence as an inaccessible opacity. So the existence of multiple versions of the same creative work, layered with feedback or theoretical input, may help to bring aspects of the writer's creative practice into the realm of explicit argumentation and evaluation.

There are those rare writers whose work really does spill out fully-formed, and they are presumably a little let down by this emphasis. But I'm not really concerned with them here (mainly I'm just well jels of them). I'm more interested in the more common type of writer, whose work by-and-large gets better the more they revise it.

At PhD or MFA level, writers have a chance to submit novels, plays, feature length film scripts, collections of short stories, etc.: drafting them, revising them, reflecting on them, and buffing them to a sheen. The last metaphor is more appropriate for some writers than for others. Some writers like to correct their draft manuscripts; others like to wrong them. But what about Masters level? There's a good case to be made for offering the writer the option to attempt a full-length work, even though student-teacher contact hours, and the practicalities of marking, don't really allow for it to be developed and assessed in the same way it would be on a terminal degree.

Can a first draft be marked as a first draft? Would something like this be, I wonder, bonkers? Is it anything like this already on offer somewhere?

5,000 word excerpt (polished)
60,000-120,000 complete first draft, 1,000-2,000 words synopsis + plan for further development (30%)
2,000 word reflective commentary (20%)

The excerpt is assessed as normal. The rest is rapidly skimmed, with careful reading of a few random samples scattered throughout, and is marked on a different set of criteria. How complete does the draft appear? Does it appropriately lay the groundwork for the second draft? Does it appear to align to the synopsis? Are its weak and/or inchoate aspects addressed in the development plan? Are there lacunae or obvious continuity problems? The examiner is not primarily focused on skill or imagination, but on the preliminary sweat-of-the-brow of building a framework for later acts of skill and imagination.

I'm interested in the practicalities of this, of course, and also, really, the wider questions about the quantification of the provisional. Although I'm not sure what those questions are.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Ronald Knox's Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction

Since these are so often reproduced in abridged form, I thought I'd put these here.

It seems a pity that somebody cannot invent a kind of crook film in which the crime will be enacted in front of the camera exactly as it took place, but will be turned into a mystery by the simple expedient of releasing the film backwards. So highly specialized a form of art will need, clearly, specialized rules. And the detective author, alone among authors, cannot even in this libertine age afford to break the rules. The moderns will attempt to write poetry without rhyme or metre, novels without plot, prose without sense; they may be right or wrong, but such liberties must not be taken in the field of which we are speaking. You cannot write a Gertrude Stein detective story. For the detective story is a game between two players, the author of the one part and the reader of the other part. The reader has scored if, say, half - way through the book he has laid his hand on the right person as the criminal, or has inferred the exact method by which the crime was perpetrated, in defiance of the author's mystifications. The author on his side counts the victory, if he succeeds in keeping the reader in a state of suspended judgment over the criminal, or complete mystification over the method, right up to the last chapter; and yet can show the reader how he ought to have solved the mystery with the light given him.

As with the acrostic, as with the cross - word competition, honourable victory can be achieved only if the clues were 'fair'. Thus, when we say that the detective story has rules, we do not mean rules in the sense in which poetry has rules, but rules in the sense in which cricket has rules - a far more impressive consideration to the ordinary Englishman. The man who writes a detective story which is 'unfair' is not simply pronounced guilty of an error in taste. He has played foul, and the referee orders him off the field. I laid down long ago certain main rules, which I reproduce here with a certain amount of commentary; not all critics will be agreed as to their universality or as to their general importance, but I think most detective 'fans' will recognize that these principles, or something like them, are necessary to the full enjoyment of a detective story. I say 'the full enjoyment'; we cannot expect complete conformity from all writers, and indeed some of the stories selected in this very volume transgress the rules noticeably. Let them stand for what they are worth.

I. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow. The mysterious stranger who turns up from nowhere in particular, from a ship as often as not, whose existence the reader had no means of suspecting from the outset, spoils the play altogether. The second half of the rule is more difficult to state precisely, especially in view of some remarkable performances by Mrs. Christie. It would be more exact to say that the author must not imply an attitude of mystification in the character who turns out to be the criminal.

II. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course. To solve a detective problem by such means would be like winning a race on the river by the use of a concealed motor - engine. And here I venture to think there is a limitation about Mr. Chesterton's Father Brown stories. He nearly always tries to put us off the scent by suggesting that the crime must have been done by magic; and we know that he is too good a sportsman to fall back upon such a solution. Consequently, although we seldom guess the answer to his riddles, we usually miss the thrill of having suspected the wrong person.

III. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable. I would add that a secret passage should not be brought in at all unless the action takes place in the kind of house where such devices might be expected. When I introduced one into a book myself, I was careful to point out beforehand that the house had belonged to Catholics in penal times. Mr. Milne's secret passage in the Red House Mystery is hardly fair; if a modern house were so equipped - and it would be villainously expensive - all the countryside would be quite certain to know about it.

IV. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end. There may be undiscovered poisons with quite unexpected reactions on the human system, but they have not been discovered yet, and until they are they must not be utilized in fiction; it is not cricket. Nearly all the cases of Dr. Thorndyke, as recorded by Mr. Austin Freeman, have the minor medical blemish; you have to go through a long science lecture at the end of the story in order to understand how clever the mystery was.

V. No Chinaman must figure in the story. Why this should be so I do not know, unless we can find a reason for it in our western habit of assuming that the Celestial is over - equipped in the matter of brains, and under - equipped in the matter of morals. I only offer it as a fact of observation that, if you are turning over the pages of a book and come across some mention of 'the slit - like eyes of Chin Loo', you had best put it down at once; it is bad. The only exception which occurs to my mind - there are probably others - is Lord Ernest Hamilton's Four Tragedies of Memworth.

VI. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right. That is perhaps too strongly stated; it is legitimate for the detective to have inspirations which he afterwards verifies, before he acts on them, by genuine investigation. And again, he will naturally have moments of clear vision, in which the bearings of the observations hitherto made will become suddenly evident to him. But he must not be allowed, for example, to look for the lost will in the works of the grandfather clock because an unaccountable instinct tells him that that is the right place to search. He must look there because he realizes that that is where he would have hidden it himself if he had been in the criminal's place. And in general it should be observed that every detail of his thought - process, not merely the main outline of it, should be conscientiously audited when the explanation comes along at the end.

VII. The detective must not himself commit the crime. This applies only where the author personally vouches for the statement that the detective is a detective; a criminal may legitimately dress up as a detective, as in the Secret of Chimneys, and delude the other actors in the story with forged references.

VIII. The detective must not light on any clues are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader. Any writer can make a mystery by telling us that at this point the great Picklock Holes suddenly bent down and picked up from the ground an object which he refused to let his friend see. He whispers 'Ha!' and his face grows grave - all that is illegitimate mystery - making. The skill of the detective author consists in being able to produce his clues and flourish them defiantly in our faces: 'There!' he says, 'what do you make of that?' and we make nothing.

IX. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader. This is a rule of perfection; it is not of the esse of the detective story to have a Watson at all. But if he does exist, he exists for the purpose of letting the reader have a sparring partner, as it were, against whom he can pit his brains. 'I may have been a fool,' he says to himself as he puts the book down, 'but at least I wasn't such a doddering fool as poor old Watson.'

X. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them. The dodge is too easy, and the supposition too improbable. I would add as a rider, that no criminal should be credited with exceptional powers of disguise unless we have had fair warning that he or she was accustomed to making up for the stage. How admirably is this indicated, for example, in Trent's Last Case!

This Decalogue is, I suspect, far from exhaustive; no doubt but my reader is all agog to add a few more prohibitions to the list. Rules so numerous and so stringent cannot fail to cramp the style of the author, and make the practice of the art not difficult only, but progressively more difficult. Nobody can have failed to notice that while the public demand for mystery stories remains unshaken, the faculty for writing a good mystery story is rare, and the means of writing one with any symptom of originality about it becomes rarer with each succeeding year. The game is getting played out; before long, it is to be feared, all the possible combinations will have been used up.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Tuition fees in the UK

Whoever moderates The Spectator message boards obviously felt this comment was too long or too high-horsey, so fwiw:

Btw, on the University of Life, I think I agree. I wonder how it fits in with the wider question of social mobility? The prospect of going into loads of debt puts people off going to university. Especially so if, for instance, nobody in that young person's family has ever been to university.

Now, the question for me is, are those young people -- the ones who are put off by debt -- are they just being divas?

After all, if they went to university, chances are they'd get a better paid job. If they didn't, they wouldn't have to pay back the loan. So anyone who can't see the value of investing in a university degree must be a deranged savage, incapable of basic financial calculation -- right? Or else some kind of pathetic, skittish self-sabotaging fraidy cat?

No, I don't think so.

I think we ought to give these school-leavers a little more credit. For a start, they know their own lives are much more than some financial instrument reducible to risk and return. Above all, they know what it would FEEL like to be so deeply in debt. The pressure of regular assessment at university -- endlessly being poked and prodded and told how good or bad you are, endlessly being reminded that your level of academic achievement is going to determine on some fundamental level who you are in later life -- that pressure can be amplified tremendously by the experience of being in debt.

It's really crucial to recognise this.

When you're up against a deadline and then the printer jams and you hand it in late and you lose 10% automatically, how does that feel? It might feel annoying and frustrating and pointless. Or it might feel like this: "I gambled thousands of pounds that aren't mine trying to be something I can never be and now I have inevitably fucked up and soon everybody will know. I want to die."

For anyone who has tendencies toward self-doubt and self-recrimination, it may be very rational, sensible, and realistic just to avoid that kind of constant psychological pressure. You might just know yourself well enough to know that you wouldn't flourish under those circumstances.

Again, this is something that disproportionately affects young people according to the class and wealth of family and friends, and the overall bounciness of your safety net. Second, I think young people considering whether or not to go to university know that stress on the soul slowly re-shapes the soul. Almost as frightening as the possibility of not being able to cope with debt is the possibility of learning to cope with it ... and the kind of person you might become in the process. Crudely put, somebody who always thinks about things in monetary terms. Yes, money influences every single aspect of our daily lives. That doesn't mean that obsessing about it makes you a better person. Even if you do think it makes you a better person, you can see why school-leavers might not see it that way.

Third, perhaps school-leavers who are put off by debt have a good handle on the opportunity cost of a university degree? This is the main University of Life point. Let's say that the sole purpose of university is preparation for work -- a notion which the loan system inevitably propagates -- well then, a young person may quite reasonably identify some less risky way of entering the workforce. Again, this is something that disproportionately affects young people according to the class and wealth of family and friends.

I don't actually know that much about media studies degrees, so I wouldn't knock them just out of prejudice. What really interests me about this whole aspect is: what if somebody suspected that they would face greater obstacles at university because of their race or class or regional accent, or the education they've received to date...? If somebody suspects that the transferable skills that they might acquire in a History/Sociology joint honours degree would not be valued by employers, unless additionally catalysed by certain class markers...? Well, I think I'd try to argue with that young person and persuade them otherwise, but I wouldn't be sure of myself. And I would completely see their point.

Fourth, they may be justifiably sceptical that the terms of repayment will never change. To be in debt is to be in somebody else's power. Loopholes loom. Laws change. Does that sound paranoid to you? Spend a little time contemplating, for instance, the bizarre cack-handed grooming and Kafkaesque cruelty many benefits claimants have faced over the past decade. Do you know anyone who has been a victim of, let's say, one of those murderous Atos-outsourced "fit to work" decisions? If not, pretend you do. To add just a little more context: the most extreme forms of debt are almost indistinguishable from chattel slavery.

But take it all a step further. Finally, school-leavers are able to extrapolate from all the factors that influence their individual decision. From this, they are able to come to a judgement about who goes to university, and why, and what kind of place university is. Is it a crucially formative place filled with new freedoms and new challenges? Is it a place where you can test out your own latent qualities, and experiment a bit with who you are? Discover what you're good at, what fascinates and excites you? School-leavers might guess no. Or is it a land of debtors, many of them struggling to get by, their debts mixed up in their very spirits? Filled with hardworking, slightly haunted consumers of higher education, who have skipped a significant amount of self-discovery and self-fashioning, in favour of an off-the-shelf pro forma adulthood, partly designed for them by the sector where they hope to find some economic security, plus a debt they drag around that will make at least some of their decisions for them, and whose highest hope is that they may one day earn enough money to pay it back in small instalments? They may quite reasonably guess yes. Universities are not like that -- I was about to say "yet", but actually, I kind of hope it may never become that, no matter how hard the Conservatives try to make it into that.

BTW: in Europe, the UK is a real outlier. I think we should talk more about that.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Blushing Face of Day: Catherynne Valente's Radiance

This review first appeared in Interzone #263. Apparently I have a longer version of it somewhere. So it might one day without warning expand its territory.

Radiance By Catherynne M. Valente
Corsair, pb, 432pp. £7.99

Radiance is an extravagant, plush, campy, melancholy, witty, sprawling, indefatigable work of great literaturepunk. Ingenues, aviator jackets, coconuts. It’s one those neo-epistolary novels, supposedly cobbled together out of diary entries, interview transcripts, radio scripts, commercials, showbiz gossip columns, even a ship’s manifest. Actually, at first it threatens never to repeat any of these forms, yikes! But eventually the pattern emerges, phew. The novel skips about in time too, though always driving towards a definite dénouement.

Radiance is also both alternate history sf – inasmuch as it mentions historical figures, like Robert Frost, doing totally non-historical stuff, like moving to Pluto – and it is sf set in an alternate reality. The solar system it depicts is a mostly nourishing and hospitable place. Pluto has lilies, and perhaps even a path in a yellow wood for Robert to write a poem about. Explorers of Radiance will probably likewise diverge two ways. Some, nurtured and entranced by Valente’s orchard orrery, will be able to metabolise their sustenance directly from her rambunctious prose. Others will need to stay inside their space-suits and – whether or not they admire the novel through their plexiglass – will reach the final page with a sense of relief that their air supply hasn’t run out.

Although the novel can be a bit blindingly dazzling, at its radiant heart is actually a fairly simple story. Indeed, it’s pretty much Valente’s 2009 short story, ‘The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew’. One main character, Severin Unck, grows up every bit as besotted with movie-making as her old man, celebrated director and all-round big shot Percival Unck. But whereas Percival is a pioneer and purveyor of melodramas – especially Gothic romances and hardboiled noir – from a very young age Severin shrinks from such shlock. “Papa. This is silly! I want only to be myself!” (p.53).

So Severin becomes a documentary-maker. With a hint of YouTube vlogger – not that there’s YouTube in Valente’s vision exactly, nor even that many talkies. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to see Severin’s studied and strategic approach to being ‘herself’ – like her dad’s imperious take(s) on ‘candid’ home video – as a metaphor for social media self-fashioning. During Severin’s childhood, Christmas present might require “three or four takes of Yuletide ecstasy” (p.23), rewrapping and unwrapping till daddy yells “wrap!” They may be decopunk icons, but Percival and Severin also act like proto millennials who’d sooner let their their sundaes melt and their sodas fizz flat before they’d upload sub-par Insta pics of them. But relegating such behaviour to scientific romance allows it to be de-normalized, so it carries an aura of majestic sorrow. Turns out it’s possible to yearn for a Golden Age of a somehow more authentic and broadminded narcissistic artifice. Shallow modern living ain’t what it used to be, hashtag majestic sorrow.

Severin’s ground-breaking ouevre earns critical accolades and popular adoration, and it moves in an increasingly investigative, politicised direction. Tragically, while visiting the site of an inexplicably obliterated Venusian settlement, Severin vanishes, while several of her crew come to grisly, somewhat body horror-ish ends. Severin’s depleted expeditionary force does get a top-up. The obliterated settlement’s lone survivor is a peculiar little boy called Anchises. Many years later, with Severin MIA and Anchises is all grown up. Percival Unck, still of course grief-stricken, seeks closure by making a film about both Severin and Anchises. Does Anchises perhaps hold the key to the whole catastrophe?

It’s the chapters of Unck’s film that gives Radiance most of its forward momentum. Unck and his screenwriter Vincenza Mako keep re-imagining the project, so the film mutates from genre to genre. Valente tends to signal genre shifts by piling stuff in rather than by keeping stuff out. Her prose is chameleon-like, but the chameleon is not really a chameleon. Whenever there’s an opportunity for something cool that would give away game – “hey! That chameleon is Chameleon M. Valente!” – she goes ahead and does it anyway. Unck’s film is not, à la Queneau’s Exercises in Style, the same thing told over and over, corkscrewtinized from many angles. It’s more like that improv theatre game where a single story unfolds, but switching genre, and therefore switching direction – without ever switching its director – as it goes.

Being so interested in rewrites, Radiance poses the question, could it have done with one more edit? It is touched with radiant brilliance throughout: the frames on a cinematic reel as multiverses, the wrap party where everyone is still a little in character, the buffalo that says ‘home’ at just the right moment. Splendid bits of worldbuilding – such as the film sets where everything and everyone has to be actually black-and-white – get rushed through the frame, before they can be milked too much. (Milking, by the way, is another major Radiance theme). But perhaps the novel could have been a little leaner, especially in the first fifth and the fourth fifth? No big cuts, just a final twirl of the wrench on all those linguistic cornucopias, tightening them into witty little spliffs?

It’s also terribly unfair of a reviewer to ask for more of something, especially of such a layered, multichannel work. You can’t just add new features to novels, free from opportunity cost and knock-on consequences. But I do feel like something that’s so grandly polyvocal misses a trick by not being a tidge more satirical, even a tidge more didadic. Maybe I’m alone there? The way to this reviewer’s heart is shoving something down his throat. But when you’ve gone to all the trouble of creating such a splendid echo chamber, it seems a shame not to yell something really loudly in it.

There is the obligatory reflection on storytelling. There’s a certain kind of story (maybe called postmodern, or metafictional) which, it’s often said, loves to draw attention to its status as artifice. This is the main gossip about metafiction: as per one classic The Streets track: “you’re fic but my gosh don’t you know it.” Like a lot of gossip, this is partly true and it can be useful. In some university classrooms, yell enough about breaking the fourth wall, maybe you’ll at least break the ice. But if any reader comes away from Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, or Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler – or Valente’s Radiance – with nothing more than the conviction that it was a story, then they’ve only learned something they already knew. Even if they gussy it up, as the insight that stories are important, or that stories are dangerous, or that we give form to the world by telling stories, I suspect it’s still something they really knew all along.

Radiance does find a few reasonable reasons to talk about its own construction, reasons that go beyond self-congratulatory bibliophilia. For instance, Valente plays around with aggressive forms of storytelling – advertising, propaganda, and official gossip – all a bit vintage, so their tricks can be exposed by time’s passage.

Also, the collision between metafiction and sff in itself is pretty intriguing. I think that when Radiance does its sff, it tends to tone the metafiction down. Chipper behemoths whose japes just might be stitching the whole cosmos together are a sort of sf literary trope. So is an offworld camp beset by horrific reality glitches. So is an exotic voyage culminating in ambiguous entanglement with the Divine. But although Radiance does these tropes very well, it doesn’t really celebrate them, subvert them, or waggle its zealously-tweezed 1930s brows in a way that suggests, ‘These tropes know these are tropes.’ Apart from the really pulpy sf, most of these elements are played sort of straight – aren’t they?

And then there’s the question of visual vs. verbal storytelling. How does this manage to be decopunk rather than dieselpunk? Is there perhaps a theme here of seeing something with your own eyes, but only because you’re told to see it? “Or like a whale,” says Hamlet, and Polonius answers, “Very like a whale.” The central role of cinema also complicates the book’s claim to be a bunch of found texts. If a chapter ‘is’ a piece of film, even though it’s words on the page, is it . . . a shooting script? A treatment? A description of the film Unck actually made? Something else?

And finally: Does Anchises Count As A ‘Character,’ Discuss.

But if I were a literary theory gossip hound, I might spread the opposite rumour about metafiction. Metafiction is fiction that has all but forgotten that it is fiction. It cares so little about its status as artifice, it doesn’t even bother trying to conceal it. Why bother, when it’s so busy with actually important things? Metafiction doesn’t ‘draw your attention’ to the way it’s constructed. It just leaves its constructed-ness lying out in the open, and trusts that you won’t be tempted to gawp too much, since there’s other great stuff to experience instead. It’s busy making you feel the presence of people who don’t exist, people like Severin, Anchises, Percival, and Mary. It’s busy raising your smiles, furrowing your brows, and jerking your tears. A voiceover in Christoffer Boe’s 2003 film Reconstruction puts it this way: “Remember, it is all film. It is all a construction. But even so, it hurts.”

If Severin creates realism about a fantasy world, Valence is also creating fantasy about the real world. Radiance is chockablock with allusions – a lot of Greek myth and Shakespeare especially, with plenty of Prospero the colonist, but barely a glimpse of Caliban – and there is rather crucial octopus-in-a-top-hat who must, I reckon, be a reference to the anonymous political cartoon of 1882, “The Devilfish in Egyptian Waters,” depicting a top-hatted and many-tentacled England grabbing for Boersland, Australia, Gibraltar, Cape Colony, Malta, Jamaica, Cyprus, and so on. Radiance reaches for innumerable influences. In a spirit of generosity, inclusivity and hybridity, it weaves them together. The godforsaken floweriness of the Gothic overlaps with the seen-it-all wisecracking of the hardboiled gumshoe, and so on. But perhaps what Radiance starts to suspect is that these links are not altogether serendipitous. They may be evidence that – somehow, in some sneaky, sidelong, unseelie fashion – cultural traditions that seem diverse are all complicit in one-and-the-same project of marginalisation, silencing, and erasure.

Which is why, by the end of the novel, the thing that’s more important than ‘how stories give form to worlds’ is ‘how empires destroy the form of worlds.’

Who is it that really destroys whole villages?

The word radiance refers to the light that spills into the camera lens, and it also implies vivacity, sparkle, joy, perhaps the sun’s plenitude. But the word has another connotation, expansion. The alternate universe of Radiance is all about a territory so vast, fruitful and unpeopled, that it can simply absorb all the imperial and commercial impulses of the late nineteenth century. Instead of going to war, the empires went to space. In other words, it’s just the kind of fantasy used by colonial powers to mask and excuse colonial atrocities. For instance, it’s is the Apartheid myth of the ‘empty interior’ that the Voortrekkers entered, magnified all the way to Pluto.

Radiance doesn’t really get round to breaking the silence of empire, it does at least witness its existence, and begin to try to understand the violence and cunning which sustains it.

So what more could you ask for? The giddiness, glamour, anxiety, optimism and nihilistic tinge of Old Hollywood? The Ars Gratia Artis, ‘art for art’s sake,’ that gives the growling MGM lion his kitty collar? Cowboys, Christmas, some puke, a whodunnit, space whales? If so, I have good news for you.