It’s the key word in question, Bloggers; the recurring mantra of he who flips between the universes. “Truth”, is what it means…
…And it’s all right here, not outside your own backyard.
Let’s talk about Big Systems.
Anyone may apply to make links here. You know? Because there’s a hard and fast-breathing thought all about us, that consciousness equals reflexion: the thing that is aware becoming aware of itself as an aware thing…but I’ve been thinking lately (though I can’t recall just who put me onto said thought — some philosopher, surely?), that’s all just so nice and neat and convincing and mathematical, that maybe it works too well? Maybe it’s just flattery?
And maybe consciousness precedes reflexion, in fact; maybe reflexion is not possible without it, at all.
Be objective. Those are the hardest-hitting words in all of the book, even harder than the reminder that things are in the saddle and ride mankind. Hard to beat that transcendent poetry, but it does, and in the solidest way, and Alan Moore must be jealous of the transition: the unimportant reporter-character who’s just there to add some textural infodump from time to time puts his glass against his cheek and tries to chill his face, chill his disgust…all alone, with no one watching, he orders himself to bear down, and he does. And we do feel it. This is The Adventures Of Luther Arkwright, that old parallel-Earth thing you’ve heard so much about: the heavy-into-Moorcock thing, glam flintlocks and cutlasses and telepathy in glorious black-and-white bloodflecks, the small press, the influential, the “this is what they used to call groundbreaking” thing…all fucked up with that youthful rebellion of those days, those touchstones and allusions, that perhaps-good story fighting its way to you through all those off-the-rack characters and that veil of naivete thick with dust. Time-and-space specific, inevitably flavoured with the enthusiasms of its age, truly amateur even if it’s professional, those same shortcuts and that same shorthand, somebody’s idea of how to shock the reader with the real, subvert his expectations and blow his mind, somebody’s idea of a good idea for a hero, somebody’s idea of a good idea for a villain. Somebody’s idea of a good idea for a story. Be objective. So okay, I will try to be.
And I’ll say it’s damn good, and deserves its reputation, and that all of this actually surprises the fuck out of me. It takes you a little while, maybe, and at first it comes in through only certain parts of the art: some stunning-at-second-glance ornamentation in the Sim/Gerhard style, some gee-that-is-actually-quite-neat pacing. There is detail here, loving detail, but doesn’t it seem wasted on places and objects, you wonder? And you find yourself lingering over these things oddly, so oddly for such a just-okay book full of stuff you’re pretty sure you’ve seen before a couple dozen times…but something tells you it’s not just-okay, and then the next thing you notice is that somehow it manages to take itself really seriously despite all that (because of all that?) inky profligacy, and then somehow so do you, too, start taking it seriously that is: and then sex and stream-of-consciousness come into it like a black-and-white wave, and suddenly you notice some things look more realistic than you thought they did, and then you notice that your eye’s passage across the page to those kooky trip-your-Dad-out words is borne along effortlessly, effortlessly, in a way that no one is doing quite as economically today, even though you still think you’ve seen it before, and before, and before and before… The thing is totally serious, actually; those words, you suddenly realize, are also damn good…and it comes as a bit of a slow-burning shock. Here we have those infinite universes, and the Very Special Hero who is all about the needs of the larger multiversal ecology: the most natural thing in the world is to look at it all as a cosmic playground, an infinite series of possible worlds where really nothing is particularly important except the constants…and everything else is just a variable, next door to Maya, a symptom at best and a distraction at worst. Why should we care about the individual constituents of these shifting probabilistic sands? Where is the value, in their decidedly unspecial particularity? Arkwright himself, as his name tells us, is of necessity more interested in preserving overall diversity than in protecting specific individuals, and this too is something we’ve seen before…the old Chosen One story, the selection of the backwater person from the backwater world, to be a multiversal Bishop or a Knight so they can make a bigger sacrifice on a bigger board…but that’s about all. And it never really…hm, never really works? Never really works? But there is always something so arbitrary about it, and alternity seems so cruelly indifferent to its own sexy devices, so barren of meaning when you get down to it: the plot-hammer of the gods. Iron on iron, lead on lead. People don’t seem to matter much. Tellya: that’s what modern means.
It is different here, somehow. Resistant. Be objective. Wow, but why? What difference will that make? Why are we even looking at this? This, the hardest-hitting bit, is also the one (perhaps) that must make us the most embarrassed for the earnestness of those of-their-time affectations, all the way from the Cornelian dandiness of the (yawn) (no offence) Eternal Champion, to the transparent hypocrisy of the repressive, religious villain…so very early Eighties, that, as nothing will ever be again. “Hail His Holiness Pope Stupid Hypocrite!“ Add in the stab for relevance, the effort to really make the reader feel something, in this most unlikely of settings for feeling…and, well, but maybe fantasy-adventure just isn’t the best kind of literature for talking about these things, and never was? Science-fiction rape and superhero cancer don’t work any better than sitcom suicide, because Very Special Episodes are only very special because they break the tone to shock the reader, and so in the end you have to ask yourself what’s so all-fired very special about tone-breaking and shock anyway? All very well to have Captain America battle Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, but it isn’t actually helping anything, is it? To get real with it all, suddenly…
Maybe we have to question that, a little.
But then…why do we have to?
There is always another “why”. Why should this earnestness be threatening, what is wrong with things being of their time? What is wrong with us twenty-first century readers that we might ask them to be anything more than that? Of its time, of its time…well, everything is of its own time, so why should we care, why should we feel the slightest embarrassment about it? We don’t feel embarrassment at Orphee or at the Bowery Boys…I Spy and Equus are not embarrassing to us, and for that matter neither is Dickens, or Ballard…so what’s between that time and this one, that LA’s New Wave concentrations pluck the string of? What aesthetic do we feel it touches, that persuades us for a moment to recoil before we are forced to swear the other way even more severely: “no, it’s damn good“?
Which reversal is a remarkable relief, actually. For myself, I didn’t really know how encumbered I felt by that feeling of familiarity with near-Eighties earnestness…weighted down with the record of previous experience, and the duty of taking a position on it in hindsight. Trends and tropes and origin-points, is it right to keep these things tidily swept up in a dustpan called “narrative” in the first place? Have I really “seen it all before somewhere”? Well, maybe that’s just me. Though maybe not, too; because some genres stretch their moment of birth out longer than others. There is still something recognizably youthful in LA, a young man’s story in a young man’s medium, parts of it desultory and no self-conscious genre-bending in it to make them other than what they appear to be. No special knowingness for the reader, to let him off the hook for this; but just stuff he might have done himself, so foolishly, long ago. The giant computer W.O.T.A.N., now obviously we would name a giant computer like that nowadays, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a bit creaky five years after this was published…I mean, blah…and as well, the alternity-fantasy and the Exceptional Man, all hollow and sexy, who is its most important character…and his infinite affairs with his infinite woman, in infinite cool places…now that really is an old one, the Superman of SF; it goes way back past Moorcock’s “Eternal Champion”, and it goes way forward past Dr. Manhattan. I often wonder how far back or how far forward it does go, actually — having no idea of Moorcock’s own influences, what I see in it mostly are echoes of Vance and Van Vogt (as, I better confess, I see Moorcock in Ursula LeGuin too, and how’s that for a stretch?), the really odd pop synthesists, smooth and detached virtuosic play on the one hand, ecstatic near-Caycean Atlantean rumblings on the other…Vance is all dry-mouthed irony and velvet, jigsaw confections like jokes without punchlines, neatly rounded like caramel chocolates in the mouth, so perfectly chewy; meanwhile Van Vogt’s mental myrmidons bend space and time around them into cosmic punctuation marks, and then beat you over the head with them: so it’s all punchline. And not much set-up. Hot spacetime vinegar, that you throw the neural mystery of the horseradish into…!
Red Rover, Red Rover, we call Reflection over…!
But is that all there is to this game? Just reflection? Just interpretations of the statistical fallout of interreactivity? Maya, maya everywhere, and nothing solid; if an infinity of universes exist and they’re all different, then all universes are the same and might as well not be infinite at all — you can’t even get lost in them. Because you’re never more than lost to begin with. Lost in a rainbow sea of probabilities, caught in an uncomfortable twilight between knowing too little and knowing too much, with no way to…
Be objective. Right, all right, I will: sorry, got carried away for a minute there. So I’ll get back to it, and talk about the status of LA as what we used to call in university “Original Text”: my third encounter with such a text within a year, the first being Pale Fire and the second being Franny & Zooey. I was really, as readers of the blog might know, enormously upset by how the copiers of Nabokov and Salinger failed miserably at copying what counted about them…the weird thing though, is that the copiers of Talbot really did get it: or, at least made a stab at it…
Hmm, because they could never really get it. “Luther Arkwright” does things, even purely graphically, that no other heroic story that followed it seems able to do. God knows I adore Jim Starlin’s “The Price”, but the truth is that’s as good in this direction as ol’ Jim gets. Dreadstar, when it finally arrives, occasionally has a pure economy of storytelling that no one post-Kirby has even attempted much less matched…but Metamorphosis Odyssey, while an appropriately stunning idea for a guy of Starlin’s talent, kind of just falls apart at the end there. The Moorcockian meaning, for all Mr. Jim (one of our greatest pure storytelling talents!) means for it, in the end defies synthesizing by any measure less weird than Arkwright’s inverted flight across the sky, needless and backward, and yet there it is: unimaginable. Original. A moment without a proper meaning, heavy as hell yet pointless as a ray of light. It’s bloody hard to adapt. Those swords, that blood; this stained-glass time, that steel-hard space; what’s the ultimate multiversal meaning of it all?
Well, there is none.
Because the only problem is awareness. And not only that, but it ain’t even metatextual awareness, it isn’t even an awareness of us the reader reading, but it’s an awareness of something beyond that, something far more fucked-up. Far more naive? Far more expansive, though every story tries to bound itself in its own logic; and Starlin in maturity was too mature for this, perhaps. Arkwright takes flight for pages, and obliterates narrative as he goes: by the end of his flight, he doesn’t mean anything but himself. The multiverses don’t matter, except as things to fret and stretch against, and eventually break free from. To wake up from, so their stately mirrored halls may eventually be left behind. Oh, muddy and bloody and dirty, bones aching, we all eventually crawl into a tub of some sort, looking for a good soak…you can’t blame us for that! But even the tub is a good place to grapple with awareness, and maybe it’s even better than most. Where did these aches and pains come from, what’s with all this filthiness that’s being so soothingly washed clean? There is something hypnotically inward-looking about it, something strange and disconnecting even as (given the aches and pains and mud) we certainly ought to be in no difficulty as far as feeling ourselves in causality’s net goes…and yet it is never hard to feel the moment as something that belongs mostly to itself, and less to the events leading up to it. On a string it may be, but it’s a pearl nonetheless…
…So is it really reflexion, that brings awareness? But then where does it come from? Even if the hand drawing itself is its own cause, still it’s a hand…and the recursion doesn’t never begin, the awareness becoming aware of itself being aware is still predicated on something…isn’t it? So what is that: mere “form”?
If origins don’t come at the beginning then they probably can’t come at the end, so maybe they must come in the middle but they must still come, perhaps. What in the fuck is that inverted flight about, with all the different birds flying. As the clouds impassively shift their shapes. Is there really no message there, in that instant of limitless escape? Luther himself, at the very moment he comes to be aware that the only love he can really have is a metauniversal one…right as he gets down in the muck, Henry V-style, with his extraordinarily-specific Mayans…confronts a limit of awareness that even divine access can’t remove, even as he’s predetermined himself to have an instant of freedom that even divinity can’t imagine, in pursuit of the pull-down and the pack-up of the story. Free on both sides, and over and out, and that’s all: it’s up to you now. So is it The Invisibles, as well? Yeah, well…it is, but so is all Original Text everything. This was the first time anybody took Moorcock seriously into the comics world: his motifs, his themes. Over in the SF world Mr. Moorcock was taken off and run with by everyone from Roger Zelazny to Howard Waldrop, but in the comics world he was like a drop of fat fallen into water: he diffused after a time. Diffused, and bound to every passing body, and started causing the interactions to calculate out differently. Harlan Ellison had much the same effect when he collaborated with Roy Thomas, and introduced the second-person-omniscient narration into comics…a great leap forward for the tools of experiment, to be sure! But Talbot did something else again, when he channelled Moorcock. Something more permanent. What is the meaning of all those sword-thrusts and deaths, those infinitely playful universes? Is it really that nothing matters…?
That nothing is real?
No, not at all.
Psychometry. Put your hands on it. All hands to disaster stations!
Because the thing about Maya is that it is illusion…and sometimes something real actually does happen, and does count.
Whether you’re put here or come here, it just happens, that’s all.
Happens and you can’t explain it.
But it doesn’t mean you’re not actually there to begin with…!
And possibly that’s the message.