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What is the "New Weird" – and what makes weird fiction so relevant to our times?

The surrealist fancies of the “New Weird” find elegant expression in The Erstwhile by Brian Catling and The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville.

In these days of alternative facts, perhaps alternative-world stories can lead us closer to the truth than conventional social novels. These two books are great examples of what the critic John Clute calls “fantastika”. Both are wholly idiosyncratic and very impressive. They are about as serious as you can get while remaining absorbing as fiction. The poet, sculptor and painter Brian Catling is professor of fine art at the Ruskin School in Oxford, while China Miéville is a fantasy fiction writer as well as a former parliamentary candidate who has published Marxist essays and is a co-founder of Left Unity. Both books show a sophisticated enthusiasm for the surrealists and their predecessors, and both are fascinated by magic and shamanism. And thankfully, neither novel has a juvenile or pseudo-juvenile protagonist, nor is there an elf or dragon in sight.

Brian Catling’s The Erstwhile, like the work of Mervyn Peake, is outside genre. The stand-alone centre novel in a three-decker, it is even better than The Vorrh, the volume that preceded it. If the book has a significant influence, it is Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa, which has inspired surrealists, absurdists and symbolists, including Breton, Cocteau, Dalí, Boris Vian, Robbe-Grillet, Borges, John Ashbery, Foucault and others, since 1910, and it is from Roussel that Catling takes the endless forest known as the Vorrh. At its centre he locates the Tree of Knowledge, once guarded by angels who betrayed God’s trust, let Adam eat its fruit and degenerated to become inhuman brutes.

Most of these fallen angels – the “Erstwhile” – have buried themselves in the forest. A few are scattered about the world, some are deep in the earth and some have become almost human, especially in London. It is here that one Bedlamite was discovered in the Thames mud at least two centuries earlier and was cared for by William Blake, who drew his portrait as Nebuchadnezzar and whom he calls “my old man”.

Various interests outside the Vorrh need to find the Erstwhile. European logging companies, anxious to have them back to use as slaves, hire a bunch of heavily armed brutes and weirdos to take a steam locomotive into the forest, beginning a singularly ill-fated chain of events yet making a hero of Ishmael, the nearest thing to a protagonist. Others with mysterious, barely articulated motives come and go, hatching intricate plots, wreaking ancient vengeance, recalling forgotten lives and places.

Again we meet a variety of wonderful, often bizarre, characters: a woman impregnated by robots, a troubled young Cyclops corrupted by life in the decaying European colonial city on the edge of the Vorrh, an ancient family of half-human Bakelite robots, Blake and, in Bedlam, Louis Wain, the mad cat painter. The plot is complex, monumental, engrossing and crammed with original images. If you like Peake’s Titus Groan, Cat­ling’s splendid novel is probably for you.

While The Erstwhile is inspired by surrealism, Miéville’s novella is about surrealism and how transgressive art and visionary science can be perverted to serve reactionary purposes. In 1941, after the capitulation of France, people crowd the ports attempting to escape the Nazis. A bunch of surrealists major and minor and their hangers-on, petitioning for visas in Marseilles, invite a young American rocket scientist back to Breton’s villa. He is a Crowleyite magician desperately trying to get to England with a device that he is sure will defeat the Nazis. While the surrealists play fanciful games with absurd ideas and images, he uses his mysterious machine to record their inventions, which he finds irritatingly whimsical. The device is stolen and sets off the “S-blast”, an explosion of surrealist energy.

Leap forward to 1950: an endless war is being fought in Paris between the Germans and their demonic allies and various rival ­resistance groups. Thibaut, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the surrealists and their influences, is a fighter with the Main à plume, a group that uses living surrealist images to attack the invaders. The city is controlled by arrondissement and some sections are safer than others: you can lean on a lamp-post looking into sunlight in one direction and into night in another. Weapons can manifest all kinds of monstrosities and lethal whimsicalities. The Nazis retaliate with horrible creatures converted to their service or created by perverse science. And, as Thibaut discovers from a dying Englishwoman who rides Leonora Carrington’s “Amateur of Velocipedes” (half bicycle, half woman) against the Nazis, they are preparing “Fall Rot”. But what is Fall Rot? And what do the Nazi Catholic priest Robert Alesch and the Auschwitz physician Josef Mengele have in common?

The best of Thibaut’s group are ambushed and killed. With his gift for distinguishing between authentic surrealism and faux-art, and thus telling which creations are allies and which are Nazi, Thibaut fights on, joining forces with the manifestation of Breton’s Exquisite Corpse and Sam, a photojournalist who claims to be recording events for her book The Last Days of New Paris. Her camera has interesting properties. Thibaut doesn’t entirely trust her but accepts her as an ally while they continue to investigate the mystery of Fall Rot. They discover that the plans Mengele and Hitler have made for Paris are the essence of profound evil, as attractive and persuasive as only evil can be. Miéville’s subtle understanding of politics, married to his sophisticated interest in science and art, gives us a short tale that is packed with ideas and inventions.

Can there be such a thing as genuine Nazi art? Is transgressive art naturally allied with the left, and is it therefore a natural enemy of the right? What is “decadent” art? Miéville puts all these questions and arguments in the context of a page-turner whose end left me almost physically applauding.

Miéville identifies with the “New Weird” movement, a development of what used to be known as “science fantasy” – a blend of the occult and scientific speculation that was the province of C L Moore and Leigh Brackett, appearing in the most garish pulp magazines (which were my favourites): Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, Planet Stories. The New Weird produces mostly urban fantasy with a moral point and, at its best, it combines the virtues of visionary fiction and horror fiction, political satire, literary fiction and even historical fiction. But is it art? That’s a question that Miéville asks and Catling answers.

Michael Moorcock’s most recent novel is “The Whispering Swarm” (Gollancz)

The Erstwhile by Brian Catling is published by Coronet (462pp, £20)
The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville is published by Picador (224pp, £14.99​)

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda

Photo: NRK
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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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