Saturday, May 01, 2021

Some thoughts on Hackney, that Rose-Red Empire

I’ve had Iain Sinclair’s “Hackney, that Rose-Red Empire” on my shelf for a few years now, finally picking it up to read late last year. As you can tell, it took a while. As a Hackney resident myself, I was very excited to delve into it. Yet it didn’t quite live up to its billing for me. In a phrase: too much anecdote, too little history. But I did finish it after all, so that can't be the full story. This blog post is partly an attempt to understand why I feel this way.

Where to start? The best way to describe it, perhaps, is as a sprawling work of psychogeography about a single London borough, Hackney. Conceptually, I appreciate the book’s unsystematic construction. Yes, we are given chapter headings of many Hackney places like Gore Road, Montague Road, Stonebridge Estate, etc. and also of people, Stewart Home, Swanny, and so on. Yet these individual nodes never cohere, nor attempt to cohere, to a clear system. Dalston Lane is very close to Montague Road on a map, but they are several chapters apart in the book. Instead, places are visited by the happenstance of social encounters, or as part of detective work into certain lines of urban and cultural research, the significance of which is often dwelled on but not usually explained very clearly. They manifest as hunches, coincidences and synergies. I’ll return to this “detective” persona shortly.

This freeform experimental and intuitive approach is very much a psychogeographer’s: wandering, drifting, one day in Victoria Park, another in Dalston, and so on, sometimes weaving back over the same territory. In reality, however, it can be frustrating for the reader. I personally know many of the places mentioned, having ventured there myself, and am also quite familiar with psychogeography. Even so, I found the jumps in topic, person, and place a little disconcerting at times. 

Like someone wandering through a city borough without a map, the book's pleasures are often obtained by stumbling upon a topic or place of interest, or making a connection. The problem is, what is interesting to the author isn't always interesting to the reader in the same way. So while this approach makes the book conceptually interesting, it can impede the reader, who is often caught in medias res

Another way of starting is perhaps to reference someone else’s reading of it. The Artizan reading group in fact echoed many of my own reflections, and their summary is fitting:

On the whole, we appeared to have found the thing interesting enough, but it was a different animal to Sinclair’s London Orbital, which the group took on some years ago. That book was a dense local history travelogue with some personal anecdote. This one was more of a collection of personal anecdote with some local history squeezed in. Gonzo stuff.“

Their observations also offer a segue into a topic that I believe is central to the conceit of the “documentary fiction” that is the book, namely the question of the narrator. There are a number of ghosts in the book, and none of them more salient than the author himself. We get many glimpses of his life in the late 60s, 70s and onward - personal anecdotes, descriptions of video, his family, friends, former housemates. 

In particular, the reading group wondered about the character called Kaporal, whether he was real or not: “Kaporal, a seedy-sounding researcher of scandal who hangs himself, we’d bet [he] was pure invention”. 

In fact, my contention would be that Kaporal is Sinclair’s ghostly research twin or alter-ego, a bit like Poe’s William Wilson, who is referenced in the book. He appears to admit as much, without directly saying it, when Oona Grimes answers the author’s knock at her studio, mistaking him for her neighbour:

“‘I thought you were the fellow in the next studio’” (p. 467)

Suddenly, Sinclair becomes “convinced Kaporal had the next unit, the Finsbury Park cold store was his kind of place” (p. 467), and a few paragraphs down the transformation is complete:

“Kaporal’s metal tins, his film archive, had that effect. For his nameplate on his studio door, he used a card of a rucksacked figure tramping down a country road. There was a name: SINCLAIR. And a phone number. Mine. 

‘It’s uncanny,’ Oona said. ‘Kaporal has exactly your look. The drooping shoulders, the weight of the world, managed despair. Even the Masai Barefoot Technology trainers. In the wrong size.” (p. 467-8)

It would explain why Kaporal ostensibly commits suicide: the author - a bit like the director in Fellini's - sometimes ends up dithering when the various difficulties of writing "the Hackney book" takes its toll. So in this sense Kaporal is transformed into an alterego who "gives up the ghost" during the fraught process of this writing, as if he might be an offering to the writing gods. I mean no disrespect - Kaporal may well be a real person, in which case this is null and void, and I am out of line. But the author himself appears to believe that Kaporal may have faked his own death, which gives further credence to this sleight of hand:

"Impossible to tell if Kaporal was dead, the man with a rope around his neck, trouser cuffs wet with dew, in the churchyard of St. John's, or if this was another instance of the shady researcher's ability to plant false information in the local press (where he has excellent contacts), before absorbing a new identity in a more obscure corner of London" (p. 460)

This is not the only time there is a case of mistaken identity in the book. Quite late on, Sinclair briefly mistakes his own daughter, Farne, for his wife, Anna. It happens just after their grandchild is born, when he glimpses Farne pushing the baby buggy. It is a poignant moment that signals a certain passing of the torch to a new generation, and the potential for history to continue old threads. 

These ghosts take the book to some of its greatest heights. None are more moving, to me, than the references to Margaret Muller, the artist murdered in Victoria Park in 2003 and whose case remains unsolved to this day. She is mentioned quite early on in the book, at which time I had to look her up as I hadn't heard of her before. The thread is continued later when Sinclair interviews Jock McFadyen. Muller was one of his students. McFadyen was deeply affected by her passing.

During the interview, which Sinclair records on a tape, they are walking through Victoria Park. Halfway through “I cut the tape when we passed the pathway where Margaret Muller was attacked, between the rose garden and the children’s adventure playground” (p. 523). This moment of respect marks that which cannot be said, something that can't be recorded. 

Later, on the trail of the Hackney Brook with Robert MacFarlane and Renchi, they come across another ghostly echo:

“the most memorable of Macfarlane’s discoveries came by the path beside the rose garden, as we made for Hackney Wick. He parted a curtain of willow to disclose a white life mask of the murdered Margaret Muller. Staring, through thick foliage, at the fatal spot.” (p. 547).

The theme of Margaret Muller echoes right up until the present, when violence against women are receiving renewed attention after the murder of Sarah Everard, the subsequent vigils, and controversy around the police’s response.

Despite the thread going cold over the years, there are still recent posts on Reddit following up on Muller’s unsolved murder case. It makes the book part of a wider cultural memory that continues to have relevance.

Other people and themes, some recurrent like Jean-Luc Godard and Orson Welles, no longer seem relevant in the same way. Their connection to the borough are rather too tenuous and speculative (to borrow the Artizan reading group’s apt descriptions) to warrant inclusion to the length that they have been. As footnotes they add flavour, but the descriptions don’t elevate them to a relevance they might (or might not) have had 40 years ago. That’s my opinion anyway. That’s not to say that they’re without cultural interest, just that the topics go on for too long. Better yet, they would have benefited from having their significance explained to a contemporary reader. 

At any rate, I’d never heard of Godard’s London documentaries, and quickly set out to watch two of them: Sympathy for the Devil and British Sounds. The Godard documentaries connect, through their left-leaning sympathies, with other characters and groups interviewed and mentioned: Anna Mendelssohn and the Angry Brigade, and Astrid Proll and the Red Army Faction.

Nevertheless, it got me thinking that perhaps the author misjudged some of his subjects' relevance to contemporary audiences. Ok, so Jayne Mansfield once visited Hackney, but there are many other famous people who have passed through Hackney over the years, in more concrete ways. What about them? 

The crux of the problem, I believe, can be traced back to the choice of narrative persona. Even the Guardian review, largely favourable about the book, concedes that “his tough-guy, domineering prose can sometimes get wearing”. In this case, the Guardian writer in fact means that the Hackney book improves on this tendency because “Here, this writer of compelling monologues lets in other voices, and the book is warmer and more powerful as a result”. While it is true that the various interviews are some of the best bits in the book, does it not actually reflect less well on the author’s own prose, considering it makes up the vast majority of the book?

The persona, for me, is something out of hardboiled detective fiction. Full of certainties and stubby sentences.

Here is Sinclair, describing an event at the town hall where he was going to speak:

“Anna joined me at the bar; she had agreed, reluctantly, to take her place at high table, alongside the mayor, the lady mayoress, Hackney notables (notable to themselves) - and the New Labour minister (weather and sport), who had drawn the short straw. Bicycle people in gypsy skirts, hoop earrings, black trainers, yellow tabards, luminescent Alice bands, wheeled their machines up the disabled ramp, into the Grand Assembly Hall.” (p. 323)

This is Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep:

“Shaved, dressed and lightly breakfasted I was at the Hall of Justice in less than an hour. I rode up to the seventh floor and went along to the group of small offices used by the D.A.’s men. Ohls’s was no larger than the others, but he had it to himself. There was nothing on his desk but a blotter, a cheap pen set, his hat and one of his feet.” (p. 47) 

Aside from the incidental Hall that both excerpts have in common, both narrators share a fondness for short, abrupt sentence clauses, exhibiting a kind of tough exterior. But whereas Chandler’s prose (and indeed a lot of other hardboiled fiction) shows a protagonist full of earthy confidence, ready to engage, Sinclair’s protagonist is more reticent and complex, a character whose description of specifics (“hoop earrings”, “yellow tabards”) belie the ungraspable wholes they aspire to describe (Hackney).  And therein lies the problem. 

Sinclair clearly realises his dilemma:

“If I wrote a harmless sentence such as ‘everything was zeroing in on the Victory in Vyner Street’, I struck it out, as over-freighted, lazy, and altogether false in its suggestion that my fractured narrative of manipulated facts, poorly recorded and inaccurately transcribed interviews, could achieve resolution” (p. 417)

Overconfidence wouldn’t do. So the narrator, this tough-guy persona, is at best a type of ironic, slightly comic character. A quixotic detective, chasing the windmills of place and history in Hackney. The thing is, there is plenty of history in Hackney he could be telling the reader, yet chooses not to. We are told about Edmond Halley, the Hollow Earth, and a number of related themes around tunnelling and ley lines. Even Globe Town is mentioned. There is a lot of elliptical allusion, but not enough to sink one's teeth into properly. A bit more actual history would have been enormously welcome. Less anecdote. Thank you.

Some of this ironic comedy, the sense of “a man inside his own head” while walking the borough, is notable in mistakes and errors of judgment he makes. One of the earliest, and certainly one of the most memorable, occurs in the first chapter when a youth pelts him with a rotten egg while he’s out walking near London Fields. He thinks, desperately, that he’s been stabbed - until he discovers the remnants of egg shell later. He has the good grace to see humour in it.

Nevertheless, the inclusion of this incident also highlights a notable void in the book. The youth disappears into the Fields Estate, “a warren”. The author is understandably shaken, although thankfully not seriously harmed. He later finds out it is a tactic of car-jackers in the area, and is sympathetic to their plight. Earlier, he even describes muggings as “a toll on the privilege of living here” (p. 10). 

These sentiments are admirable, but the void is that in nearly 600 pages of book the reader becomes none the wiser about the lives of the real people who might be involved in these activities in the borough. Their voices are not directly included in the narrative. Not even a single interview.

This is probably an unfair criticism, because there are so many other people he talks to, people of a forgotten Hackney, an act which is a service to posterity. Yet the truth is that anyone coming to Hackney can’t help but to be struck by all the estates that dominate the skyline. What of these lives and places? It cannot be called a definitive book about Hackney without the psychogeography and perspectives that those places hold.

Perhaps, at that time (mid to late noughties), it was still viewed as too dangerous to contemplate engaging with the estates as a serious option. Or perhaps it was considered and rejected.  There is indeed a part early in the book when Rob Petit questions people living on the Holly Street Estate, via a questionnaire. We also learn a bit about the history and reputation of this notorious estate, demolished in the 90s. It is one of the few places in the book where readers get an insight into this world, and it is most welcome. I certainly learned something and was able to follow it up with my own researches. Nevertheless, there is so much more left unsaid and on the whole it seems like a missed opportunity.

I would like to finish my argument against the author’s choice of narrator with one of rather too many instances where the tendency towards tough-guy terse certainty crosses a line by assuming too much. In the chapter on Victoria Park, the author observes:

“A darkman, stripped to the waist, was running through his martial arts routine on the bandstand. Harming invisibles with spiteful kicks. Rain-clouds massed.” (p. 337)

The description here is not an unfamiliar sight in the borough, at least not these days. In my local park there are regular martial arts practitioners, Capoeira as well as Wing Chun, practicing outdoors as a result of the pandemic lockdown. The bit that is strange is the description of the kicks being “spiteful”. Spiteful to whom? And are they really spiteful, or is that his projection / interpretation? It may even be true, but we have no way of knowing. It strikes me as telling, rather than showing. 

But the problem goes further. If we include the fact it is presumably a black man (a “darkman”) the description leaves a strange taste, considering the author has included almost no black voices in the book. That is quite a large demographic to exclude: 

The 2011 Census estimates that around 40% of the population come from black and minority ethnic groups with the largest group (approximately 20%) being black or black British.” - Hackney Gov

I’m sure the author meant no real offence. Rather, it seems to follow from the narrative persona's spikiness and compulsive projection of certainties (elsewhere called "hard-earned prejudices") onto what he observes around him. As I contend elsewhere, this is in direct contrast to the (lack of) graspableness of the larger topic of Hackney, something the author is only too clearly keenly aware of. In spite of his apparent reserve, I don't doubt his interest in other people, including lives lived in the margins, as his interest in people living in Hackney Wick and the Lower Lea Valley for example evidences. But the effect here, cumulative after a while, is a bit bothersome.

Someone in the Artizan reading group thought Sinclair might be “one of the grumpiest old men in print”. Reading that made me laugh, as in my own mind I had definitely been thinking of him as a bit of a curmudgeon. Nevertheless, I would suggest that it once more follows from the chosen narrative persona. The prose actually improves considerably - in my view - around the time of the Will Self excursion, more than two thirds into the book. The strict persona is abandoned, and the prose flows more naturally. There just seems to be a bit more purpose to the writing.

It is also interesting to compare Sinclair's narrative style to Peter Ackroyd’s. Ackroyd is what I would call a myth maker. In his book “London: The Biography” London is this vast beast that consumes everyone who enters it. London is more than the sum of its parts, more than any of the many, many influential people who have passed through it. You are never left in any doubt about that. Instead of getting lost in the fractals, Ackroyd speaks in broad themes, drawing you in with juicy factoids. Not all of the details hold up to scrutiny, but they always help to illustrate the particular topic he has in mind. He's a kind of cultural salesman, amplifying his message. He ensures that the big picture is kept in front of the reader at all times. That is a considerable achievement, even if it traverses the thinnest of lines between truth and myth. 

It is almost the opposite of Sinclair’s fractured approach that almost wilfully eschews bold themes and a grand narrative. Sinclair's Hackney is almost an abstraction, a place definable only by its outline on a map - if at all. But isn't that a cop-out? The difference is instructive, because Hackney certainly hasn’t always had the benefit of being centre stage to London’s great dramas. But then there are lost opportunities here too: what of people like Mary Wollstonecraft, someone whose influence and legacy as a founding feminist thinker is global and profound? What of the social housing experiments? Clearly the latter is one of the unmistakeable postwar features of a bombed out East London, and Hackney in particular; more so if one includes its relation to the long history of social housing in the East End.

To be fair, I don’t envy Sinclair the making of the book. He was clearly operating under a lot of constraints, not least of which would have been restrictions about what he could include from his interviews with various people. 

The interviews are some of the best bits, without a doubt, but all the namedropping gets a bit tedious. Someone at Penguin should have curbed these tendencies. More history, less anecdote. Thank you.

Lest my critique puts anyone off reading the book completely, I should point out that there are many good reasons to read the book. Sinclair's musings on artists and writers connected to the borough can be idiosyncratic, but it is also sometimes of genuine significance. One of his great achievements is to pull certain characters out of relative obscurity and back into the light. Names that have remained with me include Anna Mendelssohn, Alexander Baron, David Widgery, Sheila Rowbotham, and Roland Camberton. Out of these, the story of Roland Camberton is probably my favourite. Without giving too much away, Sinclair does real detective work to uncover more about this mysterious author who was almost lost to posterity. Camberton's "Rain on the Pavements" is now on my reading list. 

Another is his reminder of developments in the borough that were built on dodgy dealings and scant regard for local cultural significance. The loss of the Four Aces Club (later Club Labyrinth) is such a case, something I knew nothing about.

These stories, scattered though they are, make the book worth the effort, and is the reason I did not give up in spite of its more dissuasive features. It's been a valuable guide and full of local relevance. And the last line is worth a mention: it is superb. 

But I had to work for these pleasures, and that may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Monday, January 04, 2021

Some thoughts on Perdido Street Station

I finished reading China Miéville's Perdido Street Station yesterday. It’s a tome of a book, at 867 pages, which I bought last winter at Foyle’s after scouring the scifi shelves for a while and concluding that, well, it really is one of the more eminent recent books (in terms of awards etc.).

I felt excited at the time, but given the size, didn’t attempt it immediately. I’d already read Embassytown back in 2017. That one promised much, but, like one commenter in a forum said, left me feeling that it didn't actually amount to more than the sum of its parts. A lot of effort had gone into defining various mechanisms for language and the way people function, but when put together it sort of clanked rather than harmonised into a more meaningful whole. For me anyway.

But Embassytown isn’t considered his pre-eminent work, and Perdido Street Station is a different matter, so I had high hopes for it. I finally started it about three weeks ago, read 25 pages, then picked it up during the Christmas break and finished it yesterday. It’s quite an easy read - easier than Embassytown I feel - and definitely a better experience overall.

WARNING: Here be spoilers!

You can probably hear the ‘but’ in my phrasing - I will come to that. Let’s first look at what’s great about the book. There’s plenty to love. The blurb describes it as fantasy, although to me it sits somewhere at the intersection between scifi, fantasy and horror. The subgenre is steampunk for the most part. It is a fully realised world, mostly about the city of New Crobuzon - clearly inspired by the overcrowded, noisy, dirty image of pre-20th century London, Miéville's hometown (and mine). There is a sense of the metropolitan with all the different creatures living there, and the main character - Isaac - has a relationship with Lin, an insect-like race. But it is an illicit relationship, and the various communities show a lot of prejudice and bias towards one another. It is not an enlightened world.

The overall atmosphere in New Crobuzon is of a city in permanent decline. Architecture and buildings, in particular, are consistently described as being  in a state of gradual decay. There’s a sense that there may have been a better age once, but now there is little sense of optimism - just ongoing energy and industry. Nevertheless, this dynamo keeps things moving so it’s not as if there is despondence either. It’s more that no one seems to really care about ‘a better world’. Even the radical newspaper seems more about protest and calling out the establishment than imagining what a better world might look like. It's more like energy trying to find an outlet rather than aspiring to becoming something different.

Perhaps the defining feature of the work is the author’s fertile imagination for creatures. The slake-moths - the Evil predators in the story - are described in ways that invoke both terror and awe. The horror of their acts of feeding on characters that you’ve just gotten to know was some of the more shocking fiction I’ve read in recent years. Those descriptions alone must surely classify PSS as horror as much as it is fantasy or scifi. I would single out the death of Barbile as the most dreadful single description, maybe because it was unexpectedly explicit and detailed, but Lin’s fate is probably objectively even worse, albeit in terms of description more implied and indirect. Her fate is both terrible and pitiful. The description of Shadrach’s fate was also horrifically effective.

Miéville’s wiki page mentions his association with Dungeons and Dragons, so I was able to keep this in mind while reading and I have to say, what initially just raised an eyebrow for creative overindulgence eventually unravelled, for me, into a full-scale problem. For a novel that has won so many accolades I was expecting a slightly more cohesive and conscious vision, and the fact is it falls short while indulging its imaginative bent ad infinitum. I never thought I’d say that a book so clearly full of imagination can be found wanting, but it turns out that I am interested in precisely the points that remain vastly under-explored amid the fecund possibilities: the moral dimension of the actions of the various characters. This is the missed opportunity, and measured by that, the book doesn't quite achieve what it was maybe capable of.

Let’s be clear, the slake-moths are awesome, but they also appear to be brute beasts: entirely one dimensional in their consciousness. They’ve been imbued with an instinctual impressiveness, but no real intelligence beyond that. This is a fiction that, in culture, has been told about animals as well: tigers kill, lions kill, sharks kill, Tyrannosauri Rex kill - slake-moths kill. That’s presented as their identity. They are intended to be awesome because they are such effective killers. Each creature in the novel have their identity, a kind of preordained identity. And this is where the connection to D&D drops: so much effort has gone into describing the features and characteristics of the various types that the really interesting thing has gone completely underdeveloped: how they rise above it, or go beyond it. It boxes them in, imprisons them. The characters become victims of the author's desire for creature creation. Like those scenes by Hieronymus Bosch the effect is awesome and even overwhelming, but more is not always more once the dust settles.

I am a bit reluctant to talk about Isaac because as a character he is a total ass, but he is the main character. so of course one has to. He might be the hero of the piece, but he is wholly undeserving as a moral character, and for some reason Bruce Willis’ Die Hard face keeps popping into my head when I think of him. He is like an 80s action hero, devoid of an interesting inner life, superficial in his moral compass, happy to do the expedient while accusing others of being in the wrong. In this sense he is utterly infuriating, and the ending just reinforces this sense of outrage - that, perhaps, the novel is really just posturing. Then I keep thinking about how Miéville is meant to be really serious in his politics and therefore surely of very clear and particular ideals, and then I wonder ok, but how? Of course, one shouldn't conflate the protagonist with the author - and Isaac is clearly no stand-in - but I expect the novel as a whole to have a bit more substance, even if Isaac doesn't.

Isaac accuses Vermishank of being a vile man - no particular reasons given, although his hand in the sell-off of the slake-moths to a drug lord seems to be an illustration of that side of his character - and yet Vermishank, as a character, is way more interesting than Isaac. He speaks intelligently - demonstrating that Miéville is fully capable of drawing his characters that way - while Isaac shouts, acts impulsively and generally does not give much indication of being a decent or even very clear-thinking human being. He is loyal to his friends, for the most part - but when Yagharek needs a friend the most, at the very end when his crime is exposed, Isaac drops him like a hot potato. At any rate Isaac doesn't get to know anyone around him deeply enough to know them properly. Isaac saves the day, yes, but aside from determining to take care of Lin at the end, his resolve is generally entirely selfish. 

Lin's story promises more, but just when we learn a little more about her she becomes a victim and we are entirely cut off from her inner life and her thoughts. Her life appears to have been a selfish one too, but considering the constraints of her previous communities it is a more understandable trajectory for someone with artistic talent. Unfortunately, that is never explored in much detail, although it would have made her fate all the more tragic and effective for the purposes of the story, I'd have thought.

These are not problems I would usually feel the need to level against characters in a novel, so why bother here? I think it is because of the clear effort involved in building and crafting this world - the imagination in evidence is amazing, Miéville’s world building is nothing if not original, but then I soon found it all amounts to little more than an adventurous fight against creatures of supposed Evil, when the real evil - the drug lord, the corrupt government, are not explored in any great detail.

But the biggest indictment for me was that there was one character who was by far more interesting than any other character, and whose thoughts we sometimes got to read: Yagharek. Yes, he is selfish too - he wants his freedom in spite of having committed a crime - but in this case it makes him interesting. He is a creature of contrasts, once great and impressive he is now pathetic. Isaac is perfectly happy to help him for his own purposes despite never bothering to find out what desperate crime old Yag committed - finally insisting on taking some dubious moral high ground when the truth is revealed. If he had any real conviction, or evolution of character, he would have debated the truth with Yagharek and perhaps befriended him in some other way. As it stands, he merely upholds and reinforces the misunderstandings of his world - the reinforcement of stereotypes and species. In this respect it is a disappointment.

The last 30 pages or so of the novel was definitely more than I expected by that point though. The visit by the Cymek - the one whose choice was taken - was a surprise plot twist and resulted a in a few pages of interesting revelations and moral reasoning on Isaac’s part. But the result was perhaps only to release him from his selfish impulses on one side, the reasonable side - in fact he did what perhaps most people would have done, and it is hard not to feel it is a cop-out. The reasoning is sound, but so absolute as to make me despair of the human race. But as a writer I would have expected more from the author, to alchemise the situation further.

The truth is that, for the ages, this part was the really interesting bit of the novel - the potential that all the foundational world building could try to support. Instead it set out to have fun with imaginative creatures and a battle between creatures - typical D&D style rather than a more moral or spiritual dimension, which is I suppose more common in literary but also some scifi such as Octavia E. Butler. It also doesn’t ask the big questions of existence, so in this respect it is perhaps not great scifi either, but more fantasy, as the blurb contends. Miéville claims to be a fan of Lovecraft, but Lovecraft’s achievement is not merely horror but also a recognition of that horror in ourselves - that’s what makes it truly horrifying. Isaac seems to deny all that, and my issue is that I want the main characters to be more interesting. The most interesting character shouldn't be a secondary character like Yagharek.

After Yagharek, the Weaver was perhaps the most interesting creature character, and possibly even second best character overall. He actually has a genuine purpose - keeping the world in balance with his weaving. His way of speaking also marked him out. 

I thought Perdido Street Station was going to be a vindication of this line of reasoning, a central junction of life in New Crobuzon. But in the end it was merely the location, arbitrarily chosen by Isaac to get away from the rubbish dump. Another red herring in other words - a cool name for the novel, but not really that central to the story.

Motley was formidable, but there were some miscalculations that lessened the effect of his bossness. For example, he jumped to the conclusion that Isaac is trying to take his territory. Really, a sophisticated drug lord thinks a random rogue scientist is trying to take over his drug empire? How does that make any sense? Even if it is because Motley thought she spilled the beans, there are ways to ascertain the truth rather than jump to costly conclusions. The brutality was believable, but not the impulsiveness and lack of clear thinking on the side of such a sophisticated criminal. They would be far too street-smart. But then, like so many characters in the story, clear thinking doesn't seem to be their strong point.

The slake-moths were interesting creatures too, but the story's unwillingness to enter their consciousness, except for the briefest of glimpses, reinforces this sense of them being painted as mere brutes. Perhaps that was always the point, and they actually are without consciousness, maybe it was mentioned somewhere and I missed it. But that again makes me question the politics of the story in the light of the author’s known personal politics. Is the point of the story that everyone is actually an idiot?

So on the whole, while I admire the imaginative achievement of the novel, and certainly enjoyed the ride - faux science and all - I am disappointed that it did not make more of its premises. The dialectic is missing.

Perhaps the follow-up New Crobuzon novels explore those issues further, but on the current evidence I’m not convinced. Miéville seems an author intent on flexing his imaginative muscle above all. As an occasional writer of fiction myself I do understand the temptation, and I also know that it is a choice.

But at the same time I wouldn’t want my disappointment to overshadow the value the novel brings. The world building itself is worth the price of admission, as well as the effort involved in reading it. It was mostly a pleasure - sometimes a disturbing one, in the way good horror writing would be - and generally fascinating and stimulating. A feast for the senses. It has certainly left a strong impression.

It’s also given me enough reason to think that The City & The City is likely to be perhaps even better, given its reputation and later publishing date (the youthful exuberance of creation is very much on display in PSS, but it’s more than likely that in nearly a decade the author would have started to rein that tendency in a bit to focus on the essence of what he is trying to say).

Ok with all that said my verdict on the novel is that it’s more good than not, my disappointment notwithstanding, and in fact largely excellent and amazing.

However as a story that does indeed aspire to more than just a thrilling caper, especially given the extent of world building, I think the lack of follow-through on some of the moral ideas will mean its true significance will be overtaken by others who take up those themes (and probably already have). The book may have helped invent or at least solidify the style of New Weird, and created several memorable monsters, but it should also pose difficult questions and explore them in more detail in order to realise its potential. Cela.

Finally, consider this: The violence wrought on both Lin and Barbile, as women, left me not a little uncomfortable. It was reminiscent of the type of tactics in B-movies and your more typical slasher horror fare: damsels in distress - in this case not getting rescued, for the most part. More importantly, the author chose to describe their fate in that amount of gruelling detail, and then goes on a moral march at the end that doesn't really explain anything. 

I've seen some suggestions online that the author intentionally wrote the ending that way - with Lin becoming this pitiful figure - as if saying it was intended by the author somehow explains it. The story should provide that explanation, either in content, structure, or some other way. To say it is intentional, in the absence of a clear answer, simply intensifies the question. 

Perhaps we could conclude that the whole story is ultimately a moral fable, a warning that selfish acts lead to ... etc. But I don't buy that. It doesn't explain why an entire story would be dedicated to creating these monsters and then hunting the Evil slake-moths. It leaves us with the possibility that, a little like William Blake said of Milton's Hell, that he was of the Devil's party all along - perhaps Miéville just loves creating monsters, and needed some justification for it.

Friday, October 23, 2020

GPT 2 Poetry

Some of the GPT-2 based tools available publicly can generate decent examples with the right prompt. However I wanted to see whether a finetuned model might do a little better. 

I collected a corpus of traditional poetry from PoetryDB, together with this corpus. After finetuning and taking samples at various different stages, my impression is that a finetuned model (in this case the GPT 2 medium size, 355M) can indeed generate poetry that holds its own against the default models', and in some cases may well be an improvement. A well crafted prompt is important though, and it helps to take into account the corpus it was trained on.

Decent snippets of poetry, in my experience, come at a frequency of less than 10% - probably somewhere between 5-10%. It definitely pays to try different prompts. It is clear that the model is willing to try and imitate a particular style, but the effects often wear off as the text generation grows longer. After a while it simply reverts to its comfort zone of country meadows, gurgling streams, and singing skylarks.

I enjoyed playing around with Emily Dickinson's style, because it is so distinctive. After just 12000 steps of training, when average loss was still quite high, I got these (my prompt in bold):

Sample 1

Here is a poem about life on Mars that is written in the terse style of Emily Dickinson:
Bereft I -- astronaut
Idle eyes -- earth
The alien things of Ancestors
Grainy melodies --
Silent majorities -- distant society

As a normal human--
Sadness and my fantasy --
A fear of annihilation --
The peace of carnival at dusk --
Strange adventures -- secrets hidden
Ghetto art-wars --
Dark powers from Russia's mausoleum
Postcards of Mars --
As fantasy, an exoticist
Conquer as I wish!
Peace is the enemy!
Peace the enemy!
There are precious elements
Of war --
Stones of battle -- war --
Air of steel -- shipyard wars
The enemy's sacred hideout
Among the bloodstained bone
All trails left in ruins
Go to the enemy --
I am closer to Heaven than I am to Earth
To Heaven than to a shell --
I am closer to Heaven than I am to death
To Heaven than to a mirror --
To a family --
The stranger to a bank --
The broken wave to which you come --
The little town behind --
The stranger with a nightmare
So clever it ends every day.

Sample 2

Here is a poem about life on Mars that is written in the terse style of Emily Dickinson:
Bereft I -- astronaut
Idle eyes -- earth
The alien things of Ancestors
Grainy melodies --
Silent majorities -- distant society

A wordless rebellion --
Housebound -- stricken with hope --
Cul-de-sac -- highway music
Peace through gun violence
Offshoot of modernity --
Strenuous original genius
Raindrops -- cloud-flowers
Earth's marvelous eagle flight --
Fireflies -- find in poetry
Joy in example --
Astronauts lift alone
Lost souls (Fireflies)
The sole unknown genius of wisdom
The survival of the flying saucers
And humans
Further testing of binary
Death's voice -- death's may
Peace through gun violence
On Mars -- last challenge
On Mars -- the one.
And beyond a wilderness
Involuntary woods -- earth --
Under-written by humans
Animal culture -- obsession --
Dismantling your weakness
Unsung heroism --

These examples appeared to be of decent quality despite training loss still being quite high. They probably represent a middle ground between the original model, and the new one, so that much of the model is still biased towards the original text (more prose-like) it had been trained on at OpenAI. Although not shown here, many samples evidenced prose-like sections.

Fast forward to a new version of the model at 33000 training steps with average loss around 0.5, and the poetry is more typically "poetic", but seems to be less versatile overall. This confirms the notion that it has taken on board more of the new training material (poetry), and is less influenced by the wide corpus it started with:

Sample 3

Here is a poem about life on Mars that is written in the terse style of Emily Dickinson:

Bereft I -- astronaut
Idle eyes -- earth
The alien things of Ancestors
Grainy melodies --
Silent majorities -- distant society
certainly --
Nocturnal winds -- while the stars are alive --
The tribes of strangers -- and the long-term ill --
And the strange sudden malcontent
That got in, and got out, and didn't rest --
And the antitype -- that never stops --

The bonds of love -- the husband's --
The chieftain's -- and the subject's --
And the stranger in the asylum
The sportive puppy-vassal
Rests with the deer, and the hound with the hound
Stirms with the dwarf-father in the cave.

As the crow's wings grow dully broad
And the green-breasted dove
Eclipses the sun to land,
As the wild cherry-blossoms blow
And grow in the wind,
As the starlight fades
And spreads its feathery arms
And fades away in the flower,
As the blaze of the wild cherry-blossoms
Fades and leaves in the wind --

Sample 4

Here is a poem about the harsh and lonely life on the planet Mars. It is written in the terse style of Emily Dickinson:

Bereft I -- astronaut
Idle eyes -- earth
The alien things of Ancestors
Grainy melodies --
Silent majorities -- distant society

Alone -- in the vastness of the universe --
Settling there -- far away from the nearest
Humane -- or human -- aggressor --
Till I close my -- orbit -- in the moon --
Then out of the night -- into the day --

My career is not -- not yet --
My work is not yet --
The imagination's got my leave
To taste the dulness and thraldom
Of the little things.

The morning's the night's turn and the dreary
Dinner is between --
The fire shall burn forth --

The earth's shade is the lamp's boding light
And the moon's face is thaw --
But his cup, my heart insists,
That water's the wrong drink.

The sky's a slumber -- the north wind
Stirs -- and so, the sky.
For, with this world's uses to come,
A world's house is but a sky.

The sun's a-rising -- the stars,
Spangling the silvery day
With a tapestry of rising light --
The wrong house for me, I hanker

I tried a number of different prompts. Here's something a little like John Ashbery's:

Sample 5

Here is a poem about life on the planet Mars. It is written in the style of John Ashbery:

The rover will roll by later.
For now, the rockworker pauses on red ground,
fills in the time of day, the rocks' location,
leaves a note for the nightworker: "What the hell
are we going to do? I mean ...
The water is already drying up."
Rain on earth, as it does in heaven.

For those who come here, the note is of less importance, the rain. Once, once, indeed.

That voice is drowned.

And now at length the deed is done.

The morning-color comes on high;
The evening-color comes on high.

All the hills around Steep-Foot's bed
Look at the cloud-burthen coming down
From the very, very edge of last night's storms.

How the rock-bearers throw up their spears
Before the first bow of the rising moon!
Pleasant was the task to reach the brink.

Of yellow sapphire, and its rim of gleaming steel,
Is the price we pay for beauty this morn.
Lo, the sun shines, but the clouds are gray,
And the moon is on the big side;
For she rises like a volcano's peak
With her bright, lustreful head,
And her soft glossy arm is bare and soft
Like the hand that slips and slips again.

Traditional poetry is definitely the finetuned model's preferred mode of poetry generation. It seems to reel them off with ease, and the percentage of decent snippets come at a higher rate. It's not that it always makes perfect sense, but it's easy to see how even just a little tweaking can turn it into something quite readable. Here's one example:

Sample 6

I wandered lonely as a toad,
Till, stung by the keenness of my woe,
I half grew to fancy I was
A fowl of another kind,
And yet I could not despise
My own flesh:--a dreamy note
To my more melancholy heart
Said, 'Eat not, weep not; this is pity.'

'Sad was the agony, when
That hoary Flandric tree,--
Pity me! I have none,--
Sore as I am, with barren beak,
And I would die like a wood-dove,--
One moment made me think I was
With all the rest, a bugling wight,
Free from all misery, save fear.'

'Sad was the agony, when
One was clapt in the dark blue air,
And strode to the light of morning;
Sad was the agony, when
Saw a beam of light on a bed
Of many a fluttering flower,
And one was silvery in a ball;
And a sound of music came bright,
Cloven through and through, and far away
It stirr'd the chamber. Sad was the agony
Of listening to that light sound--
It did its work in silence and in pain.--

'So now I was old, and had to die;
Some fadeless bird from the glen,
A day had killed it,

Or another:

Sample 7

I wandered lonely as a toad,
Till, bored, I fell into the water;
For well I know those raggedy old stairs,
Worn by foot, and faded for good:
They know not that I was a Tot,
A "kingdom, or house," from out their memory;--
Never mind! Let darkness in again
Re-illustrate the stupidity of youth.

I've shared the checkpoint at 33000 steps of training along with a Notebook that can be opened in Colab (edit 2020-10-29: updated link to point to new aitextgen version of the notebook).