Interview with Douglas Lain on Spectulative Fiction.

C. Derick Varn: Can you describe your current projects?

Douglas Lain: I have many projects in the works currently, and they are at various stages.  For example, my first full length novel is due out from Tor Books in August of 2013.  “Reinventing Christopher Robin” is a novel about a fictionalized adult Christopher Robin Milne and his adventures during the French strikes of May, 1968.  It’s a kind of mid-life crisis magical realist coming of age story about what I hold as one of the most potentially revolutionary moments of the last half century. I’m working on collecting blurbs on that one. (McKenzie Wark and Jack Womack both had nice things to say about the book.)

A work in progress is a book called the Doom that Came to LOLcats and that one is about a Social Media guru who is kidnapped by terrorists and subjected to a peculiar form of brainwashing.  Namely the terrorist try to convince him that the Big Other doesn’t exist, or that God is dead.  The terrorists tell him that in today’s cynical era LOLcats represent the innocent eye of naive faith that we have to believe exists in order for society to function. It will appear in July of 2013.

I’ve also recently put together a nonfiction book proposal wherein I hope to put forward my own peculiar Marxist vision by talking about Star Trek.  The working title is “Sex, Capitalism and Spock’s Brain”, and like my memoir “Pick Your Battle” this one is part memoir, part philosophy, and part pop culture.  I’m hoping it finds a publisher.

Other than that I’ve got plans to write mysteries. I’ve become a fan of the British series Sherlock and I’d like to try developing a series of detective novels with titles like “A Murder in Plato’s Cave.”  I think I’ll try writing a couple short stories with a schizophrenic detective to get my feet wet.
CDV: Can you describe the prominent influences on your current work?
D.L.:  The big influences on my work are PKD, Vonnegut, John Barth, Kafka, Lorrie Moore.  Or, alternatively, the Talking Heads and Laurie Anderson are my big influences. (I listen to them while I write.) Lately I’ve been reading nonfiction quite a lot, but when I do read a novel or a story I like postmodern types like Paul Auster, SF writers like Gibson or James Morrow. I’ve got Gen X hipster white guy taste for the most part. Of course I should say that my biggest influence is Hegel, but that’s not allowed.
CDV: What do you see as the relationship between Pooh and Paris 1968?
D.L.:  The nice thing about writing fiction is that I can impose a relationship between disparate things.  So, in the case of Mai ’68 and Winnie the Pooh there is the same kind of relationship as the one that exists between a sewing machine and an umbrella, which is to say that both Teddy Bears and mass uprising are products of industrial society.  There is also a connection through childhood.
Pooh and ’68 were the playthings of children and as such neither Pooh nor ’68 were entirely possessed by those who were first associated with them.

CDV: Philip K. Dick would probably be the most obvious, but also hardest to clearly understand, is it Dick’s style, his paranoia, or his philosophical/theological content?

D.L.:  Philip K. Dick is the biggest science fiction writer of the latter half of the twentieth century and nobody has come close to matching him. There are other writers, other great writers, but in comparison they’re all pedestrian.  So, for instance, Harlan Ellison’s works are sentimental visions well within the parameters of the trajectory of liberal society. His story Repent Harlequin Said the Tick Tock man critiques the way modernity regulates human beings without daring to ask what a human being is.  Philip K. Dick, on the other hand, sees the Black Iron Prison but is always afraid that he can’t find the person inside it.  He was often a reactionary writer and a very American writer, but he was also the most visionary.

He had to flirt with religious visions, had to develop a theology, in order to escape from the assumptions that, because of a fluke of his temperament and where his work led him, never held together for him.

So, yes.  Dick’s paranoia and his theological inclinations and his style are all the things that attract me to his work.
S: Why do you think so much of your novella work tends towards the bizarro parable or liberalized metaphor?  This seemed to me to be a lot of what was at play in “Wave of Mutilation” and your description of the Doom that Came to Lolcats has a certain parable quality to it as well?
D.L.: Wave of Mutilation was constructed as a critique of what I’ll call pragmatism..  The whole story was my way of taking aim at an attitude or argument that I think is fairly prevalent, often even unconsciously assumed.  Pragmatists like Richard Rorty, philosophers like Derrida, and even a 1972 documentary advertisement or promotional film for Eastman Kodak and Polaroid seem to me to push the same idea or agenda:

“Since 1942 Edward Lamb and Polaroid have pursued a single concept, one single thread, the removal of the barrier between the photographer and his subject.”

In my novella Wave of Mutilation I played around with what I thought the consequences are when we act as though the barrier between us and the world has been removed. I tried to work out what I thought of as the consequence of rejecting the representationalist account of reality.

One way to think of that book is as a parable about a world without parables.  Another way to view it is as a parable that aimed at describing how our concepts of the world are always already present in the world as it appears.
You asked why I end up writing this way and maybe the answer is simpler than I’ve made it seem so far.  That is, just as I try to find clarifying examples to illustrate ideas when I make a podcast about a philosopher I try, in my fiction, to set my ideas onto the page in a visceral way.
CDV:  Do you feel you have any aesthetic hangups that can get in the way of working out your philosophical ideas viscerally?
D.L.:  I think I have limitations in terms of virtuosity and articulateness that get in the way of achieving what I’d like to achieve, but in terms of aesthetic hang-ups I’m not sure I follow your drift.  A hang-up is some sort of psychological block and so it seems to me that your question is suggesting that I might be obsessed on some sort of aesthetic style or object that is blocking me from more direct and visceral renderings of my characters and the events that they create. All I know for certain is that my aesthetic comes out of both the post-realist fiction that Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer anthologized in the 1970 book Innovative Fiction (Kurt Vonnegut Jr,Richard Brautigan, Robert Coover, and John Barth are represented) and from science fiction written during or slightly after that era: (Dick, Ballard, Lem, LeGuin, and Malzberg).

To understand what this means it’s worth perhaps looking at what Klinkowitz wrote as the preface to his anthology:

“The contemporary writer–the writer who is acutely in touch with the life of which he is part–is forced to start from scratch:  Reality doesn’t exist, time doesn’t exist, personality doesn’t exist.  God was the omniscient author, but he died; now no one knows the plot…”

So in Klinkowitz’s book you get stories like Coover’s The Babysitter and Barthelme’s Views of my Father Weeping, and these are terrific and Innovative stories.  However, I have to say that what has allowed me to write well enough to be published has been the way the second tradition, the gutter/hack tradition of Philip K. Dick, made demands upon me.
CDV: So you argue that the pulp writer discipline allows you to say things more clearly?

D.L.: I would argue that it forces me to enact ideas rather than merely to examine them.  That is, in a science fiction story I have to ask myself simple dramatic questions about the characters while if I was writing for a more literary audience I might be tempted to drop the narrative thread, but I’m of the opinion that the narrative thread is necessary and that if you don’t choose to pursue one it will develop on its own so to speak.
CDV: What aesthetic traits bother you in the realm of contemporary fiction?
D.L.:  This question is a tricky one because I’m not sure that my complaints are primarily aesthetic.  In all I find many novels and stories are conformist and aim too low.  I know many talented writers who claim to want nothing more than to entertain the reader.  This bothers me because I think prose primary strength is its abstract or conceptual nature.  If one is choosing to write in this age of streaming video it seems counterproductive to valorize “entertainment” or to aim at gratifying, distracting, or sensuously reaching the reader.
CDV:  Without mentioning any names, what conformist tendencies do you see in contemporary fiction?
D.L.:  I would say that there are many middlebrow novels being written by writers who were quite innovative or more daring when they were writing for the short story magazines like LCRW or Asimovs or One Story.  And it’s a calculated retreat always done in the service of a career that often enough doesn’t fully materialize.

(I say this as someone who wants to write a detective novel because I figure I might be able to make money that way, but I approach even this idea through the ideas that drive me.  So, reading Zizek on Columbo and then watching the show has made me interested in the genre in a way that I haven’t been in the past.)

What this amounts to is an attempt to try to deliver to the reader or editor what is taken to be a marketable story, and this marketability is always also predictable and safe.

CDV:  Do you think that offence pays off?
D.L.:  Writing rarely pays off regardless.
CDV:  Which writers excite you at the moment?

D.L.:  I’ve been reading GK Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries lately and a listener to the podcast sent me a collection of John Sladek short stories and I’ve been enjoying those. When I wrote Wave of Mutilation I became interested in John Barth again (he was an influence on me early one), but mostly I’m reading philosophy and political books these days.  A little while back I went through a Walker Percy phase and read the Moviegoer and the Thantos Syndrome as well as Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help book.

I quite like Percy.

CDV:  Did you notice that two of three writers you just listed are arch-conservatives?

D.L.:  Well, I mentioned four writers, but I’ll cop to it anyhow.

Yes, I find certain kinds of conservatives very appealing.  They think they have something that we progressives do not think we have, namely a foundation.  I both long for such a thing and believe that it is unavoidable. That is, we are always already set on a foundation that we did not choose, but perhaps our task is to realize this and start choosing.  So, Percy, for example, is really appealing to me when he answers some questions about his faith in a self-interview:

“A: You want me to explain it? How would I know? The only answer I can give is that I asked for it, in fact demanded it. I took it as an intolerable state of affairs to have found myself in this life and in this age, which is a disaster by any calculation, without demanding a gift commensurate with the offense. So I demanded it. No doubt other people feel differently.

Q: But shouldn’t faith bear some relation to the truth, facts?

A: Yes. That’s what attracted me, Christianity’s rather insolent claim to be true, with the implication that other religions are more or less false.

Q: You believe that?

A: Of course.

Q: I see. Moving right along now –”

Okay, so it’s a bit of cheat to quote that piece at such length, but you see the ambiguity.  Percy is both the one claiming to have a rock solid faith and the one who is embarrassed by his own answer.  Maybe I can pull Percy’s own trick and ask myself a follow-up question now.

Q: On what basis do you claim to be a progressive if you are fond of conservative writers who regress into religious faith in order to solve the problem of how to live without God, tradition, etc…

A: On the basis that I respect their willful act of choosing the impossible and simultaneously don’t believe that they’ve really managed to accomplish the job.  They are making an honest attempt to resolve the problem, and that’s a lot better than half assed dodges wherein we point to democracy or equality or altruism as our answer to the problem of inauthenticity and meaninglessness. On the other hand, I stand on the progressive side because I believe this meaninglessness is its own solution, ultimately. Radical freedom will end up requiring a bootstrap moment where we take full responsibility for crafting our Gods and with full consciousness aim at designing what Marx and Freud both recognized as an illusory happiness.

CDV:  Do you think Zizekian criticism of poets in philosophy/politics applies to speculative fiction writers?

D.L.:  I don’t believe so, no.  Speculation, if it is to resist the temptation of a conclusion, requires ambiguity and openness, and I believe that Speculative fiction can have a foundation without reaching total closure.  Poetry, on the other hand, can run the risk of passing off sensation and sentiment as both a foundation and a conclusion.

CDV:  You do not think speculation can do this?

D.L.:  I think fantasy stories and wish fulfillment adventures can do this, but not real speculative fiction.  Perhaps this is merely a semantic distinction.

CDV: Or it is dangerously close to the “no true scottsman” fallacy.  Any advice you’d give to speculative fiction writers?

D.L.:   Write short stories and would be my advice.  While publishing is dying there are more paying markets for short stories than ever.  The money is terrible, but it exists.  I hope to get the discipline to write a slew of stories between now and the release of Reinventing Christopher Robin.


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