Tag Archives: Review

A Glitch in the Matrix – review

“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.” Philip K. Dick

Rodney Ascher’s mind-bending documentary explores the question ‘Are we living in a computer simulation?’ – an ontological conundrum posited by Simulation Theory. He weaves together interviews from individuals who fully believe they are living a Matrix-style construct, with experts. Many of these are portrayed in avatar form, but within their own homes – like Zoom calls from Second Life. And their anecdotes and theories are dramatised through, appropriately, computer animation. This is oddly retro, and the effect is somewhere between Tron, The Lawnmower Man and Max Headroom. Liberally interspersed throughout are clips from science fiction movies, many of which happen to be adaptations of the novels and short stories of Philip K. Dick, the godfather of this strange realm. His famous interview from Paris, 1977, in which he revealed his belief that we are living in said simulation, is used to introduce each section. To provide some intellectual perspective on it all, there is a talking head interview with the Swedish philosopher, Nick Bostrom, who is one of the few portrayed in the flesh, but who actually comes across rather stilted, indeed like a glitching avatar at times. His much-cited ‘simulation hypothesis’ article is seen as a seminal text in this field.  There is a disturbing testimony from an inmate of a maximum security prison who, as a 19 year old man, murdered his parents because he thought he was in the ‘Matrix’, self-identifying with Neo from the Wachowski Brothers movies. This is presented as the only sobering correlative to these (tellingly all male) advocates or devotees. A solitary female academic suggests that a lack of erotic or emotional life creates the disconnect from an embodied reality – an entropic solipsism, which computer games and social media endlessly fuels. Yet beyond this is, there is no real exegesis or critical interpretation. Ashchew presents us with these oddballs as though they are specimens in a virtual zoo, and it reminded me a little of Nick Park’s  Oscar-winning short ‘Creature Comforts’, in which interviews with normal people were dubbed onto stop-motion plasticine animals in their enclosures. Here, the ‘brains-in-a-vat’ speak from within their CGI ‘suits’, and the effect is disembodied, adding a layer of cognitive estrangement to it as in the rotoscope animation of Richard Linklater’s ‘Waking Life’ and ‘A Scanner Darkly’, both of which have more substance. Ascher’s documentary is certainly visually interesting, and thought-provoking – but feels strangely shallow for a something ostensibly exploring the nature of reality. It provides a gateway drug, at best, to those who wish to go deeper into the works of PKD, or other writers on Simulation Theory.

Kevan Manwaring, 5 February 2021

A Glitch in the Matrix – released 5 February, 2021

https://www.aglitchinthematrix.co.uk/

Gatherer of Souls – a review

Gatherer of Souls by Lorna Smithers

a review by Kevan Manwaring

Gatherer of Souls FC Med

This extraordinary collection from self-defining ‘awenydd’ (a spirit worker and inspired poet) Lorna Smithers is the culmination of a full-blooded dedication to the Brythonic god, Gwyn ap Nudd. It charts a contemporary Underworld initiation, a journey to Annwn (the Celtic Hades) and back, with Gwyn as the poet’s psychopompic muse. A figure neglected, or even redacted from the spiritual tradition of the Britannic Isles, Lorna has sought to re-instate Gwyn as ‘warrior-protector of Britain’, a position she feels was usurped by King Arthur. As Lorna herself puts it: ‘After centuries of soul-loss Gwyn re-opened those doors and challenged me to ride with him through war-torn centuries to recover his forgotten mythos.’ Her collection of poetry and prose is a ‘record of [that] journey’.  In its six ‘acts’ or ‘books’ Gatherer of Souls charts a mythopoeiac counter-history of Britain, from the end of the Ice Age, through Roman occupation, into the so-called Dark Ages and the fall of the kingdom of Rheged, right up to the present day. In such a vast sweep of time it is inevitably highly selective – a personalised, subjective travelogue, as Lorna journeys with her dark muse. With its alternating poetry and prose (and sometimes prose-poems) the form is like a Celtic variant of the Japanese haibun (a form which reached its zenith in Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, or Travels of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton). And yet in its dense content, a mythic mulch of lore, it is perhaps closer to the long poems of David Jones (e.g. The Sleeping Lord), the psychogeography of Jeremy Hooker, or Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Mercian Hymns’. And yet the uncompromising voice is uniquely Lorna’s own. She doesn’t take prisoners. There is a fierce energy driving these soundings from Annwn as relentless as Ceridwen’s. They are permeated with a quintessentially northern melancholy, a sense of loss, of grief. This permanent penumbra is perhaps overly gloomy at times, but there are flashes of brightness, as in ‘Missing God’: ‘You showed me silver spaceships, three shining gateways…’ Yet even these ‘pathways to the stars … always led back down.’  This is deep dive into the fathomless fastness of Gwyn’s realm and the subconscious of the land, as well as the poet’s own shadow. Arthur, as a legendary figure is reinvented by everyone who comes to him, projecting their own light and darkness – and in Lorna’s case the Pendragon becomes the antagonist, the False King, guilty of terrible war crimes. As the ultimate, flawed authority figure, Lorna sticks it to the Man. This tubthumping revisionism is certainly novel, and it shows the poet’s committed approach. She takes the myths and legends of this land personally, and sees them as continuing. This approach leads to the most original pieces in the collection, the remarkable prose-poem sequence, ‘The Oldest Animals 21st C’, which recasts the sequence from ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ (Y Mabinogi) about the search for Mabon ap Modron, in the Age of Anthropocene. In ‘The Once and Future King has Returned’ Arthur is back as a warmongering demagogue, his ship Prydwen heading a fleet of warhead-laden submarines. And in ‘Time’ the poet shatters the artificial clock of temporality: ‘Timelines snapped like rulers bent too many times’. This simultaneity of the mythic past and the time-torn present permeates her work. For Lorna, much like Ivor Gurney, there is no separation. In its authenticity and whole-hearted commitment Gatherer of Souls offers a refreshing counter-blast to the Postmodern posturing of so many poets with their ironic word-games. For those who like their poetic fix pagan, dark and strong, this is for you.

Available from:

https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/publications/gatherer-of-souls/

Seeing Double

Faerie Tale & The Stolen Child

A Double Review

I read these books in quick succession and they are interesting looking at in tandem for their affinities and differences. The first (in order of reading, and also in publication date) was Raymond E. Feist’s Faerie Tale (1988) which I’d known about for a few years but only got round to reading recently. I sort of expected it to be a bit of a guilty pleasure kind of a book rather than anything too high-brow, and I wasn’t mistaken. It was like watching something on Netflix – with the usual contemporary quota of sex, violence and special FX. Feist transposed fairy folklore motifs to New York State in a similar way to De Lint’s fictionalised Canadian town. A ‘perfect’ family – a successful writer father, beautiful and intelligent mother, young scampish twin brothers, and a step-daughter from a former marriage – move into a ‘characterful’ old place once belonging to an eccentric German emigrant. You just know things are going to go weird. The fun here is seeing what an American author does with European fairy and folk motifs. It’s an uneven mix – in some instances, Feist gives them a darker edge, for examples, a shape-changing Puck-type who rapes the daughter; in other ways, the cutesy corny iconography of little beings with wings remains. There is the Wild Hunt, vividly imagined, especially by Geoff Taylor’s masterful cover (fans of Robert Holdstock will recognise the cover artist’s style – and I suspect Taylor was chosen to win over fans of the recently published Mythago Wood (1984) and Lavondyss (1986), with this coming out in 1988 originally), given an almost Terminator 2-ish makeover, glistening with silver fire. But then Feist unconvincingly adopts a pseudo-Shakespearean register in some of the later scenes, a slippage of tone which threatens to undermine the narrative – gripping in other ways as it reaches it denouement. As a page-turner, and a pot-boiler, it is fit-for-purpose, a schlocky bit of comfort reading. The boys are resilient and their intimate sibling world is well-evoked, as is that of the annoying teenage ‘princess’, heiress to a fabulous fortune. Old Barney, an Irish-American living close by, is the stuff of stereotype but has a certain charm about him – an Old World evocation of the Fairy Faith. The occult author, Blackman, is in many ways less likeable and convincing – he seems little more than an expositional device for info-dump research into the narrative. The whole artifice of the novels feels a bit flimsy, as though Feist is playing dressing up with these tropes – a bit of a literary tourism – rather than writing about them in an embodied, felt and authentic way. It is a curiousity more than a work of any lasting literary values – but it probably paid the bills. And for any creative following their bliss that’s an achievement not to be sniffed at.

In contrast, Keith Donohue’s debut novel, The Stolen Child (2006), is literary fantasy of real quality. You can tell from the exquisitely crafted prose that this was a labour of love about a subject the author clearly had an obsession with – indeed it feels at times as though it is semi-autobiographical in part. It relates the story of a Henry Day, a malcontent pianist languishing in small-town mid-America, who turns out to be not Henry Day at all but a changeling, that is a fairy who has stolen the identity of the original Henry, while the human child has been lured away to the ‘waters and the wild’, as in WB Yeats’ classic poem. The drama is primarily created by the tribulations of this ‘cuckoo’ and his attempt to fit in to the Day ‘nest’. His father intuits something is awry and suffers as a consequence, haunted by the gnawing uncertainty that the child is not his own for years. Donohue deftly alternates this life in the ‘daylight’ with the demi-monde world of the changelings, which the author as imagined as a kind of tribe of ‘lost boys’ (and girls), living an anarchic, feral existence on the fringes of the human world. These fairies are charmingly human – albeit with the odd supernatural ability (e.g. shape-changing). They are also doomed to remain the same age they were when abducted – on the outside, at least, resulting in an uneasy collision of adult foibles and desires in a child’s body. Many of them look on with envy at the human world – its range of cuisine, clothing and literature. It drives some of them to make a den beneath the public library – and indeed the changelings seem bound the human world, rather than dwelling in another world, which doesn’t seem to exist. None of the usual pantheon from the Fairy Tradition seems to exist beyond these rather sad strays. It’s a lonely, impoverished life which makes the changelings adult-children pitiful, more than fearful. The human imposter, ‘Henry Day’, is far more sinister, yet even this unlikable anti-hero becomes redeemed somewhat by a girlfriend, and by his music. Through the latter he attempts to make amends, by creating a symphony which gives voice to the dis-enfranchised stolen children. In some ways, the novel’s dramatic arc is one depicting the creative process. From the creative tension and cross-fertilisation of worlds, art is born. But not without cost. Donohue’s ecosystem is closed one of ruthless reciprocity. Everything comes at a price. The tighter focus of The Stolen Child makes it claustrophobic, but more effective and convincing. The writing is more finely-crafted than Feist’s – sentences not just being utilitarian, relentlessly driving the plot forward like script slug-lines, but actually an aesthetic pleasure to read. This is an author with an eye for detail – the minutiae of both worlds. The uncanny is framed within a sharply rendered American setting. The tone is one of realism, not fey whimsy. And there is successful inter-textuality. Here, Donohue delightfully has the changelings glutting on Shakespeare and other poets, revelling in any writing that references them, that makes it feel as though they exist. Art gives them voice, even agency. They can have an existence beyond the narrow confines of their world. Donohue has clearly done his research, but here weaves it in with elfish skill. The only slip is in the strangely clunky beginning – when he info-dumps unnecessary etymologies on us. There is a sense of a fledgling author finding his feet, or voice – but when he does, the prose takes flight. I look forward to more from this promising and clearly highly-accomplished author.

 

Kevan Manwaring 23 July 2016

Dark Sister – a review

Dark Sister coverThis is a contemporary fantasy set in Joyce’s native Leicestershire – an East Midlands he has mythologized without losing any of its prosaicness. And it is this context of down-to-earth realism which anchors the uncanny elements that threaten to overwhelm the lives of the family at its heart. One day, when their chimney is being swept (a folklorically-rich activity) an old diary is found in the chimney breast. This inciting incident turns the world of archaeologist Alex, his wife Maggie and their children Amy and Sam, upside down – for the diary is that of a witch called Bella, whose ‘herbal remedies’ piques the curiousity of Maggie. At first she uses them to heal minor ailments, but in her experimentation she pushes the borders of safety, freedom and sanity. As she gets sucked into the supernatural her marriage suffers catastrophically. Meanwhile Alex is engrossed in a dig which unearths evidence of a ritual burial – his wife’s burgeoning ‘sixth sense’ locates the find. The couple simultaneously dig down into the dark stuff – and the book is very much about acknowledging the Shadow. Demons within both of them are unlocked. This psychological aspect is made explicit by the need to consult a Dr De Sang, who first examines Sam (who acts out the dysfunctionality of the marriage) and then Maggie (who starts to show signs of personality disorder/possession). As with many of Joyce’s books, the uncanny is always given a psychological ‘reading’, so we, the reader, can decide which paradigm to opt for. This creates a tension lacking in many fantasy novels where the incredible is a ‘given’. Joyce’s characterisation and dialogue is utterly convincing – well-observed, nuanced, complex. He makes his protagonists feel real and so we care for them. These are not superhero cut-outs. There is a deep humanity in his work, one that is life-affirming and celebratory of the daily miracles of existence. It gives voice to the fragility of our lives – how easily they are disrupted, are destroyed. As the ‘dark sister’ of the title invades first Maggie’s mind and the hearth the family unit is caught in a hex of buried hurt, a centuries old grievance narrative left to fester beneath the city centre until brought to light* both in the discovered diary and the dig. Maggie’s frustrated career becomes emblematic of the stifled voices of generations of women – controlled or silenced by fearful men – and yet it is the women who, as in many of Joyce’s books, provide the powerhouse of the narrative: Maggie; Bella; Liz, an old wise woman; Amy the daughter; ‘A’, a shadowy other controlling Bella; even the anagramic Anita (mistress) and Tania (archaeology student/’babysitter’). The male characters (Alex, De Sang, Sam, and Ash) are, with the exception of Ash, the owner of an occult shop, less appealing, less sympathetic. Both Alex and De Sang stand in the ‘rationalist’, scientific camp – facing the mysterious, depthless realm of the feminine with their ineffectual tools. A renegotiation between the genders needs to occur, addressing ancient inequalities – like an intercenine conflict destroying a country, Alex and Maggie’s ‘civil war’ is destroying their home and family. The power of the female must be acknowledged, but also the power of the unknown, the other. Reality is not ruled by what is on the surface.

The use of the diary is of particular interest – as Maggie reads it more is revealed, as though the act of reading is in itself a magical act. It is interwoven with the narrative. At first only obscure lists of herbs and coded inscriptions can be deciphered, but slowly a voice emerges. The past is translated. This embedded book of magic acts as an agent of change within the narrative – disruptive and disturbing, reminding us that words have power and consequences.

As with all of Joyce’s oeuvre, Dark Sister is effortlessly readable and utterly gripping. You know you are in the hands of a warlock of words, one who casts a spell which you do not want to break. The catharsis that comes with this walk on the wild side is powerful and lingering for both the protagonists and reader. Literary flying ointment, this novel is one visceral ride from start to finish.

Kevan Manwaring

20 February 2015

*It’s amazing what you can discover beneath a city centre. This feels like a timely book to read in the year of Richard the Third’s burial – the ‘king under the car-park’, another maligned, ‘shadow’ figure brought out into the light.