Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Tag: science fiction

Chewbaccalaureate!

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I have been asked to do some funny things in my time, but honouring the ‘Sacred Drunken Wookiee’ has to be one step beyond. Let me explain. Sort of.

I was recently approached by a member of the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, which is a Mardi Gras parade organization from New Orleans, and asked to provide a series of short poems. The poems would be integrated into a number of ‘parade throws’ – items to give away to the street audience as the parade passes.

The Krewe consists (according to the person who commissioned me) of in excess of five hundred wonderfully nerdy ‘sci-fi geeks’, whose mission is to save the Galaxy… one drunken nerd at a time. Their parade theme is science fiction taken not-too-seriously, eco-friendliness taken slightly more seriously, and whooping-it-up taken in deadly earnest.

We’ll be producing the parade throws between now and February 2015, when the parade season begins in New Orleans. They’ll be in the form of little boxes, into which will be placed little pictures, gew-gaws, and found items, as well as a little baked-and-painted TARDIS. The outside of the box will be decorated as a TARDIS, and the idea is either to inscribe my words on the back of the box, or include them in a little scroll inside. Whichever, I get my name and © on each poem.

It’s rather exciting knowing I’ll be part of next year’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans, if even by remote control. It’s not my first remote connection with that city, as not only were several poems in my first collection, Naked in the Sea, inspired by what I knew of it, but also another poem was inscribed on an African drum which is now on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Not bad for someone frae Dundee…

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There is no such thing as ‘modern literature’

Robert Rauschenberg, untitled.

Robert Rauschenberg, untitled.

Imagine a world where Paul Klee’s ‘Senecio’ (that’s the painting a detail of which currently heads my web site – look above) doesn’t exist. Imagine a world with no Mark Rothko, or no Salvador Dali, no Jackson Pollock, Piet Mondrian, Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, or Robert Rauschenberg to look at. Imagine a world without Györgi Ligeti’s music, or Igor Stravinsky’s, or Steve Reich’s. Imagine there’s no jazz, no John Coltrane, no Miles Davis. Imagine a world where music had been halted before Debussy and Satie, and art before the impressionists. You don’t have to, that world exists.

It’s the world of literature.

Effectively, literature operates to an Edwardian, male pattern. It’s driven by the absolute imperative of plot resolution, the cart valiantly and obstinately pulling the horse along. I’m looking at the list of winners of the Man Booker Prize, all bloody fine books, and a quick scan of the last – say – ten reveals none without a plot that resolves, and thus none that hasn’t been written with the plot driving it along, arse-about-face. We can all probably name a handful of authors who broke out of the comfort zone of writing – James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, and of course dramatist Samuel Beckett who famously wrote a play in which ‘nothing happens, twice’ – but they’re long gone. Even Manuel Puig’s El beso de la mujer araña, an uncomfortably brilliantly novel in dialogue form, interrupted by long footnotes and official reports, is almost forty years old.

Mark Rothko, untitled.

Mark Rothko, untitled.

I see startled looks already. “Surely,” people are saying, “a novel must have a beginning, a middle, and an end? What is it otherwise? What is it if it doesn’t ‘tell a story’?” But look at the vibrant colours of a Mark Rothko painting, or the vigorous action of a Jackson Pollock, ask the question “What is this if it doesn’t show me anything visually recognizable?” Listen to the ‘Kyrie’ from Ligeti’s Requiem, or to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, or to the jazz of Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, or Ornette Coleman, and say “What is this if it doesn’t have a tune?” You will instantly feel silly for having asked the question. Just because there is no recognizable image, no tune, doesn’t mean the work doesn’t engage your senses and your emotions, doesn’t mean that it has no aesthetic, doesn’t mean that it’s no longer painting or music.

So why not literature? Why has this particular art form stood resolutely still?

“Well feel free to experiment all you like, but you won’t sell any books!”

Is that it, then? Is literature not an art form at all, but rather nothing – nothing! – but a commercial product? Of course the argument about ‘canonical’ literature versus ‘popular’ literature is old, stale, and defunct. But seriously, when a rich patron can stage a new opera, or buy a single painting for a hundred thousand pounds, why can’t a rich patron buy a hundred thousand copies of a book to distribute to friends, family, the needy, anyone, or buy the manuscript to keep exclusively for his own?

I can’t be the first writer to ask this question. Why should literature effectively stand still? Why shouldn’t it change its face and figure and still engage us? Discuss.

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Images reproduced under ‘fair use’ terms.

Millie and Marie meet some Angels

© Millie Ho

© Millie Ho

The first 'Angela' © Millie Ho

The first ‘Angela’ © Millie Ho

Recently it began to seem like a good idea to find cover art for The Everywhen Angels, my soon-to-be-published novel for older children, in a bit of a hurry. The idea was to publish well in time for Christmas, in order to advertise it for the seasonal market. Well, that might not happen, but in any case the perceived urgency gave me the chance to ask Canadian artist Millie Ho if she could come up with something post-haste. I sent her a copy of the draft manuscript, we discussed an idea I had in mind, and Millie set about constructing it.

Almost every day a sketch would come of one or all of the main characters – Angela, Charlie, and Ashe.

The first 'Ashe' © Millie Ho

The first ‘Ashe’ © Millie Ho

I watched their characters take shape. In the book, we read the same story three times, each version as seen by one of this trio. With each version we get more of the back-story, and maybe more revelations about the underlying mystery. All of it? Hmmm, wait and see. I ask a lot of the young readership; for example, Charlie’s story is told backwards, and one of the first things that happens is that he emphatically contradicts one of the major events of Angela’s story. I touch on ‘difficult’ philosophical matters but, as I learned from my literary hero in the genre of fiction for young readers, Alan Garner, an author should never underestimate the intelligence of his or her readership.

The first 'Charlie' © Millie Ho

The first ‘Charlie’ © Millie Ho

The book came about as a result of a heated but amicable argument between myself and some friends. They are all Harry Potter fans, and I was tearing JKR’s literary style to shreds*. They said I should either write a fantasy set in a school and make it as good as one of hers, or shut up. So I wrote one! It doesn’t quite qualify as a ‘fantasy’, but it does feature a group of teenagers with weird powers. An early draft was tried out on the twelve-going-thirteen-year-old daughter of one of these friends. It was read to her one chapter at a time, at bed time, in return for tidying her room and doing her homework. Never had her room been so tidy, and never had her homework been so promptly completed! I think I more than won the challenge. So does my publisher, P’kaboo, who has been enthusiastic about securing and publishing the book. I did try it with Head of Zeus first of all, who asked to see the full manuscript and were impressed by it, but decided it didn’t fit with the portfolio they were building up. P’kaboo then practically tore my hand off to get it.

You will soon be able to read the book, and you will soon be able to see more of Millie Ho’s artwork on the cover. There is a teaser of the final cover illustration at the top of this article. From the sketches here you will be able to see how Angela and Ashe developed from waif-like individuals to young people with great presence. Charlie’s sardonic streak was visible right from the word go.

The Angels take shape. © Millie Ho

The Angels take shape. © Millie Ho

My publisher  was as enthusiastic as I was about Millie’s finished illustration. Millie and I are now talking about further collaboration. There is a possibility of some high-action teen-vampire fiction of mine being turned into graphic novels by Millie’s ink and brush. Millie has already added the word ‘fangirling’ to my vocabulary – it’s what we do with regard to each other’s work. Seems like a good basis on which to continue. I’ll keep you informed.

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* Fair’s fair – at the end of the day, JKR can ignore my opinion all the way to the bank, and good luck to her!

The ‘female spirit’ of ‘Lupa’…

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I enjoy it when people ask me for interviews – I like ’em long range, by which I mean they email me a list of questions and I sit down and write considered answers. I recently had the pleasure of fielding some questions from my fellow-writer C B Wentworth, about my novel Lupa. You can find the interview here.

The Happiness Machine*

This will be the last entry I make in my journal. I may not die today but nevertheless I shall write no more. I have written and read and studied all my life and, yes, I have painted. I have painted faithfully as Master Leonardo da Vinci taught me, because there could be no other possible response to his selfless and incandescent love. I have no more to do and must set my house in order – praecipe domui tuae morieris enim et non vives, says the scripture. I have made my will and have left all Master Leonardo’s works, designs, and notes, and indeed all scraps and chits with his signature upon them or in his hand, to my son Orazio. They are to remain here in Vaprio d’Adda, safe in the hands of our family, for ever. They are now our birthright – or, no, we are their custodians.

There is an exception. I make this confession now. It is not a sin so I do not need to make it to a priest. It is a work of Christian charity, I see this now in my old age, in my final days. While I was young I might, I might, have dared to challenge or to stir things up, but now I seem to hear to echoes of a great hall of judgment, I know that all my deeds are being weighed, I will be judged. The exception is one bundle of papers that I have burned. It was the design for a machine and notes on its construction and use. I wept as I burned them for the simple reason that Master Leonardo had entrusted them to me on his deathbed. I was with him in France when he died, and it was I and not the King of France – disbelieve the legends! – who cradled his head as he died. I returned the Master’s love with a pupil’s devotion and its incandescence is within me still. He put his trust in me to seek a time and place where the knowledge in those papers would be accepted and I betrayed that trust. God above, will that weigh against me?

Leonardo’s designs were, the master himself told me, refinements and improvements of some earlier patterns for a machine that had actually been built by Verrochio, his own teacher. You all think of Verrochio as a painter, but just like Master Leonardo he was a natural philosopher skilled in geometry, architecture, medicine, and alchemy. Hearing that Verrocchio was dying, Master Leonardo journeyed from Milan to Venice to be with him, and he received the first draft of the designs he later gave to me, and he heard from Verrocchio’s own lips the story of the building and demonstration of the machine. He told it to me and whether he put flesh on the skeleton in his telling I do not know, but as he recounted it to me it was as though I heard the voices, saw the scene, witnessed the workings of the machine for myself.

It all happened in the time of His Holiness Pope Paul the Second. His Holiness was, in a way, a natural philosopher too, inasmuch as he loved machines. They delighted him, he understood them, appreciated the beauty of the mathematical principles behind their processes. It was said that he built his own Archimedes’ screw in the Vatican in order to demonstrate its properties to his cardinals. He authorized the setting up of printing presses throughout the Holy See and all Christendom, but immediately he had done so he realised their power, their potential for independence, as though they had minds of their own and could decide whether to lie or speak the truth. He imposed strict control on their construction and use. It was said that he had a small army of clerks who drew up an index of every press in existence and every printed work they produced. All natural philosophers who were concerned with the building of machines brought the plans or working models before the Holy Father who, if he approved of them, would affix his seal to the plan and grant a license for their construction.

Master Verrocchio was one such maker of machines, and one day he gained an audience with His Holiness for the purpose of demonstrating a machine of his devising. It consisted of a fixed chair over which two hoops were suspended in such a way that they could each spin freely. Each hoop had, on the outside of what I might call its northern, western, southern, and eastern points, a counterweight of lodestone, placed so that there was a tendency for the hoops to return from any eccentric alignment to one of ninety degrees relative to each other. The inside of each hoop was lined with reflecting plates like those described in the writings of Ibn al-Haytham. As a description that is the bare bones of it. There was much more to it, great delicacy and precision in its construction (oh, much more so in the drawings of Master Leronardo, believe me), but I shall leave all that dark.

Master Verrocchio explained to the Holy Father that it was an engine for generating happiness and that he had devised, it out of a sense of caritas, for the benefit of mankind. He hoped that the Pontiff, as the Vicar of Christ who wished nothing but good for all His children, would be the first to try its efficacy.

The Holy Father agreed, and seated himself in the central chair. Master Verrochio made adjustments to ensure that the machine was at a certain orientation relative to the sun, the moon, and the known bearings of divers points on the earth, and set it in motion. Slowly at first and then faster, faster, faster until they were a blur, the hoops spun around the Holy Father, who sat gripping the arms of the chair. The facets of the reflecting plates on the inside of the hoops merged, and it seemed to onlookers as though the Holy Father’s face was magnified in them, round and shining. To the amazement of those onlookers that face began to smile, to beam, to grin, and then its eyes closed and great guffaws of delighted laughter could be heard over the mechanical whirring. The Holy Father was laughing as merrily as a child at a fair.

Master Verrochio let this continue for some minutes and then applied some careful friction to the moving parts of the machine, one by one, causing the spinning to slow. More and more slowly spun the hoops, until at last they stopped.

Wiping a tear from his eye with the sleeve of his vestment, the Holy Father stepped, still smiling, from the machine. He was still smiling, but with a smile that was at once beatific and confident, when he turned not to Master Verrochio to congratulate him but to an attendant. He ordered bell, book, and candle to be brought. He ordered firewood and faggots. He ordered pitch, oil, and torches. He ordered all these things to be fetched without a moment’s delay, while Master Verrochio stood mutely by, half bewildered and half afraid for his life and his immortal soul.

Once everything for which the Holy Father had called was assembled, he solemnly excommunicated and burned… the happiness machine.

When it had been reduced to ashes, he turned to Master Verrochio, thanked him for the demonstration, blessed him with the sign of the cross in nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti, and held out his hand so that Master Verrochio could kiss the ring on his finger. There was no further exchange between them and Master Verrochio left the papal presence never to return.

He had realised perhaps (though it is more likely he was now afraid to defy the Holy Father openly by continuing with his machine) what I came to realise once the sobriety of age had overtaken the rashness of youth, and what I realise more than ever now that proof of my mortality is stark before me. What was once supposedly evident to me in my confident and humanistic youth has faded and faded to be replaced by a simple and blessed faith – oh such a thing as never happened in the case of my own beloved Master Leonardo! – and my eyes are opened. If man could, by his own contrivance, build some machine, distil some elixir, devise some physical or mental exercise to ensure his happiness, what need would there be for the guiding presence of Mother Church? What need would there be for the salvation of his immortal soul. What need would there be – dare I breathe this even now? – for Christ Jesus? When I ask these questions I know that the act of destroying the last record of the happiness machine, although it was in defiance of my earthly Master whom I loved without reservation, it was in obedience to my Heavenly Master to whom all love, all reverence, all obedience are due. I will go to my eternal rest with peace in my heart. Peace, indeed, but not happiness. That is not my lot, nor anyone’s – homo ad laborem nascitur et avis ad volatum. The book is now closed.

Written on the 31st day of January, anno domini MDLXX, at Vaprio d’Adda, by me, Fancesco Melzi.

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* This story is inspired by, but not based on, the story of the same name by Ray Bradbury