Next week Dilatando Mentes will publish Richard Calder's Babilonia and my good friend Félix García has interviewed the author for Sense of Wonder. It is a pleasure and honor to offer you this detailed and very interesting interview, which you can also read in Spanish. Hope you enjoy it!
Richard Calder's career had a promising start in our country with the publication in 2003, with only a few months apart between them, of Malignos (Gigamesh, 2003) and Chicas Muertas (Gigamesh, 2003), being this last one the beginning of a trilogy whose second and third parts would never come to light amongst us. It's been thirteen years since then, a time when Richard Calder's Spanish followers had no option but resort to import. The publication of Babilonia (Dilatando mentes, 2016) comes to put an end to this long silence, offering the Spanish reader a new chance to know the work of the celebrated as one of the most extraordinary authors of post-cyberpunk.
Félix García: Thirteen years is a long period of time, even without considering that the original date of publication of Chicas Muertas goes back to the dawn of time (1992, to be precise), so the first question in mandatory: What kind of surprises are Richard Calder's veteran readers going to find on Babilonia?
Richard Calder: Babilonia is, somewhat unusually for me, a historical novel or at least one with a historical context, being set in London, 1888, the year of the Jack the Ripper murders. But since it also concerns parallel worlds and interdimensional portals and utilizes many other SF devices, it's a steampunk novel, too: one that explores, not only its own parameters of fantasy, but the nature of fantasy itself, that is, what it means to dream dark dreams, and concomitantly, to be seduced by dream. As the promotional video for Babilonia suggests, the dark dreams of a Ripper, and the morbid, prurient fascination such figures exert, prefigures the great crimes, criminals, and seductions of the twentieth century, such as might be revealed by a Freudian or Reichian analysis of Nazism. Readers familiar with my work will, then, rediscover a certain persistent theme, if a different framing device, or armature.
FG: Last two decades have entailed a real Cambrian explosion of sub-genres and sub-subgenres, assisted by the always helpful suffix “punk” and the adding of a “new” or a “post” if any time necessary, for the genre of the speculative fiction or, at least, what it was easily identified as such earlier. We have lived the steampunk, the diesel punk, the mythpunk, the nanopunk, the new weird, the new wave of new new wave of British space opera… there's no doubt that we are before an overwhelming demonstration of creativity. What's unclear is if this creativity comes from the authors or rather from the publishing house's marketing departments. In your opinion, how many of these trends, if any, gets to offer the reader something genuinely new, not advanced by, let's say, the first cyberpunk wave or the new wave on the seventies?
RC: I think a useful distinction may be made between what is ‘new’ and what is ‘authentic’. Newness, or originality, is all very well, but it rarely evinces itself, and in any case, is overrated. Gibson’s Neuromancer impressed as a fiction informed by a genuinely new voice, and represented a new way of writing SF, combining, as it did, the world of noir crime fiction and cinema with science fiction tropes. What much of the sixties/seventies New Wave and the first cyberpunk wave had in common is the notion that anything is possible in SF, and that effectively meant that writers could be true to their own, personal visions, and create worlds that used SF tropes without being constricted by them: worlds that were authentic, rather than second-hand and thus necessarily second-rate. A lot of contemporary SF is competently written; it’s often informed by strong ideas, and atmospherics; but so much seems worn, hackneyed, tired. (In a word, boring.) And this is due, perhaps, to authors who seem perversely unengaged, nervous about writing what they genuinely wish to write, or aspire to write, but are instead consumed with the imperatives of the marketplace and what that marketplace expects of them.
FG: But maybe the most remarkable phenomenon in so far this century is the progressive disappearance of the line that separated the “genre fiction” from the “literary fiction”. We constantly see literary authors like Ishiguro or Houellebecq resort to tropes that yesteryear were associated with fantasy science fiction and, at the same time, authors who in those days would been marginalised in the popular fiction drawer that now can aspire to critics recognition and industry awards (or vice versa), like the recent case of Kelly Link and the even more recent one of Andrew Michael Hurley prove. It seems that where there were watertight compartments before, now there is a continuum. How do you value this phenomenon and, especially, in what point of that continuum would you like to be with your work?
RC: Well, let me begin by admitting to being a great fan of Houellebecq. And any continuum that incorporates, not just genre fiction, but high and low art, is good by me, and represents something I’d care to be a part of. I must say, though, I have no great problems with describing myself as a SF writer—which is how I do actually see myself—rather than make concessions to embarrassment at perhaps being perceived as writing in a genre that most people conceive of as pandering to a kind of Star Wars, juvenile sensibility. (I’ve always found the alternative terms ‘speculative fiction’ and ‘slipstream’ in themselves rather embarrassing.) Take Will Wiles’ fantastic novel The Way Inn. This is not usually regarded as SF, but plainly is. The same might be said for, say, Anna Kavan’s Ice. It seems that when SF achieves excellence, and is genuinely felt, and authentic, we can no longer bear calling it SF, and thereby associate it with the uninspired, mass-marketplace drivel that fills the relevant shelves at Waterstones, or some other chain bookstore.
FG: Speaking of marketing departments, “sex” and “eroticism” are words repeated in your novels promotion, a priori nothing strange because they happen to be amongst main homo sapiens' interests. What is strange is the reservations the science fiction literature has approached this item with, something we could explain because of the puritanism of the past, but even nowadays it gets the erotic scenes to be something strange in a science fiction novel, strange meaning rare and strange meaning weird. They also are the moments when the writing goes from bad to worse. What do you think this persistent failure representing the human sex drive is due?
RC: Genre SF has always been essentially conservative, and often reactionary. This seems strange for a literature that, theoretically at least, focuses on the alien, how we might understand the alien, and by extension, difference and multiplicity in nature and culture. And there has indeed always been a fear, sometimes even a horror—if its variants should range beyond the parameters of what at a particular time is considered permissible—of sexuality.
The failure of representation that you cite is perhaps partly due to the fact that those parameters are necessarily imbedded into language, thus presenting the writer with certain problems. The sex drive is usually rendered by way of sublimation, by talking ostensibly about religion, mysticism, idealism, politics, rather than eroticism, whose language is meagre, often debased (and this is of course the key thematic thrust of Babilonia); by using, say, the language and symbolism of religion/politics, rather than a language of erotics that we don’t yet really possess, what language and symbolism we do have such that it is almost instantly censured, or worse, dismissed by calling it ‘pornographic’, a word I use in quotes because it doesn’t signify a thing or collection of things rather than an argument, that argument being that such representation is essentially worthless.
The problem, in the end, is that posed by interiority, which is only to say the cultivation of fantasy: something that by its nature must always be at loggerheads with an established order, to which the subjective life, if it is authentic, and thus possessed of potency, represents a constant threat. Since I consider myself a maverick, both as a writer, and in my personal, or subjective life, I am very much on the side of all artists who similarly confront the established order of things and who seek to subvert it. Sexuality, or the erotic, is one such means of subversion; perhaps the most powerful. And the construction of new modes of linguistic representation is the agency by which we travel toward that longed-for goal.
FG: One of the aspects that caught most my attention from your novels is the noticeable French influence that includes from writers such as Baudelaire or Proust to unclassifiable authors like Bataille. And all this in a field like the science fiction, where I would dare to say that there is a certain aesthetic and philosophic phobia against the French, usually perceived like some sort of post-modern post-structuralism and, therefore, like the devil itself as the globalized analytical modern neo-positivist sees it. How does this influence reach you and what has been its part on your work?
RC: What there is so often in SF—what there has always been, with notable exceptions—is a rampant, unapologetic philistinism. Indeed, quite incredibly, an anti-intellectualism. (The exceptions of course are always present. I grew up reading Brian Aldiss, whose Report on Probability A was inspired by Alain Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman.) Personally, I’m far more influenced by Baudelaire, Proust, and Bataille, than dodgy old, Golden Age SF writers, or indeed by contemporary SF. Though as I say, there are always exceptions. And the exceptions are what make the genre worthwhile. Bataille has of late been much on my mind; I’m using some of his theories—particularly his economic theories and the idea of the accursed share—in a novella that I’m currently writing.
FG: In the last two or three Hugo Awards, we have seen how what in other time had been the (American) fandom's expression of primal will became the scene of a political fight, with the subsequent liberal and conservative agenda invasion that compromises the objectivity of the awards. Should this cause any kind of concern or, on the contrary, they come to make the Hugo Awards interesting again? In other words, what is the use of the literary awards, if any?
RC: To be perfectly honest, I’ve never been interested in the Hugo Awards; never found them remotely engaging. Like most people, I’ve been aware of the recent hoo-ha, but it’s done little to kindle my interest. I’m not a convention goer, nor a ‘fan’, so for me, this kind of kerfuffle represents little except a mildly distracting white noise.
FG: To build off that, your narrators, at least in Malignos and Chicas Muertas, are Campbellian archetypes or, rather, anti-archetypes, heroes represented as narcissistic males à la Humbert Humbert, characters who have every chance to become the target of the most progressive sectors' anger. Do you think that the avenging fury of these freedom fighters may take them to ignore the critical, ironic or directly comical aspects of these characters sometimes and consequently proceed to publicly lynch the work and the author or, on the contrary, these fears are baseless and introduced in contemporary culture by ultra-reactionary sinister think-tanks?
RC: I’m not entirely clear about exactly what kind of ‘fears’ you’re referring to here, but I’m assuming—since you cite Humbert Humbert—that you’re talking about fears of child abusers, fears that have—certainly in the UK, and for some years now—escalated into a moral panic, that is, a panic based on certain facts but exacerbated by the popular media and pressure groups into something that might be considered hysterical, almost mythic, a story of alien invasion.
Many of my books focus on young people who—like Iggy and Primavera in the Dead trilogy—are variations of star-crossed lovers such as Romeo and Juliet, and significantly, I think, are the same age. Babylon, however, is about a young girl who is effectively seduced by an older man, or men; there is, moreover, an element in the narrative that might be described as reciprocal chronophilia. The seduction is not overtly sexual, but the entire book is suffused with a sexually perverse atmosphere that deliberately parallels other seductions—we might say complicit seductions—between demagogues and populace, specifically the seduction or rape of Germany by Hitler.
In the final analysis, when readers, or critics, point the finger at an author and accuse them of a kind of complicity themselves, then we are witnessing a phenomenon that Oscar Wilde described as ‘the rage of Caliban at seeing his own face in a glass’. This phenomenon is common to all lynchings, whether proposed or actual. Black humour, as much as contextuality, will, at such times, be conveniently ignored.
FG: What's your opinion about self publishing, crowdfunding, review's blogs, social networks and everything that helps erasing the line between speaker and the receiver in the literary market?
RC: Publishing has changed quite radically. It’s quite difficult to keep abreast of developments. Overall, I find these changes exciting. I’m optimistic about the future of what might be called devolved publishing.
FG: A friend of mine says that, although some people despises Michael Moorcock because him being associated with his sword and sorcery sagas written in the sixties and seventies (that are very fine, let it all be told), the wholesome of contemporary British writers that are worth it worship him. In light of everything I've read in your novels and interviews, you belong to this exclusive club and, as a fan of Moorcock, I don't want to miss this opportunity to ask you about his influence in your work, in British science fiction, in British literature in general, to infinity and beyond.
RC: I grew up reading Michael Moorcock’s wonderful ‘Eternal Champion’ sword and sorcery yarns. My own novel Malignos is something of a homage to Moorcock. His influence, for me, runs deep. His sword and sorcery adventure tales were, of course, partly written to keep New Worlds afloat. And New Worlds was, it should be said, another powerful influence, on me as it was on so many people. This was a time when there was a genuine feeling that SF could do anything, go anywhere, that it was unbound by genre, that it could appropriate other genres, that it could be a avant-garde and popular at the same time. I admire Moorcock’s later work, too. Gloriana comes to mind, and The Brothel in Rosenstrasse.
FG: At last, I hope that Babilonia is just the beginning of your back to Spanish bookshops and in that sense I would like you to tell us about your (literary or other kind) projects for the immediate future.
RC: I’m currently working on a novella, or long, short story, that may form part of a bigger, perhaps open-ended project that I have tentatively entitled The Secret Museum. I may soon upload an excerpt from this work in progress onto my website. As the prospective title implies, the story, or stories, focus on exhibits, or exhibitions, in a fictional museum that has some resemblance to the British Museum. These exhibits are artefacts from parallel dimensions. The armature or framing device is similar to what I have attempted before in stories such as The Catgirl Manifesto: An Introduction (available on my website) in that it’s a faux academic exercise, part essay, part narrative. The project will include photographs, illustrations and artwork by me and, indeed, others, so that elements of the project will be collaborative. Collaboration is something I want to do more of—ever since, in fact, finishing up Dead Girls the Graphic Novel with Leonardo Giron.
FG: Thank you for your time and patience, and sorry for whatever atrocity shall I have inflicted upon the English language.
RC: Nothing to which I’m capable of inflicting upon the Spanish language, I assure you. But then I’m English, and —like my fellow countrymen—horribly ignorant of other tongues. Hélas.