Explode Those Noses

Last Night at The Crippled Bee conversation turned, with all the style and swerve of a wind-scything swallow, to the subject of ‘sensory reading’.

Let me expand. You will have heard, no doubt, of the latest Scandinavian musical sensation: The Stockholm based Nose Explosion Project – a forty-nine piece brass ensemble whose main aim is (and I quote) ‘to make the noses of our audience explode’. As you’d expect, blaring, blasting and altogether bludgeoning trumpets, tubas and trombones are very much the order of all their raucous concerts, which are, I am told, both well attended and received. As it stands, however, not a single nose has exploded.

I wonder whether the violent melodies of the Nose Explosion Project (or NEP, for those in the nose) are quite to my discerning (i.e. somewhat traditional) musical tastes. Probably not. I am, nonetheless, a cautious admirer of their ambitions. Indeed, I rather wish that contemporary writers would take heed of this fantastic troop – or their ideas, at least. Too many present-day scribblers settle for the smallest sensory reaction from their readers. They want people to ‘like’ their books! To laugh, perhaps, or smile. To shed a solitary tear. To shiver.  To frown. Otters above! Is that all?

There are, of course, notable exceptions. Think of Hoçe, for instance, of whom it was written: ‘rarely does a reviewer resort to issuing a public health warning, but on this occasion I feel it is an absolute necessity: if you are to read this book with the same level of serious intensity with which it was written, you will almost certainly die’ (see here). Or Pyetr Turgidovsky, who starts every sentence with the hope that ‘it may bring vomit to the mouth of my readers’. There are also positive reactions. Ciambhal O’Droningham, for instance, has remarked how, like the best erotic writers, he expects his readers to feel no less than ‘constant, knee-shaking arousal’ from the majority of his sentences – ‘and preferably more’.

These writers aim high – and I thank them for it. Others, however, need to step up to the sensory plate: to think seriously about chasing a much wider range of readerly responses. Think closely about all the possible physical reactions. How marvellous would it be to write a paragraph that gave every reader an itchy ear, a strange pain in the knee and/or eight tingling fingers? Better still, how about beating the NEP at their own game? I look forward to hearing about the first contemporary european writer to make a reader’s nose explode.

Clerical Ribaldry and Dinosaur Sex

We all know with what speed a risky subject can evolve into something quite tame and predictable. Remember the fuss over Ingemar Glozon’s A Thousand Men? What shocked the reading public about Glozon’s epic narrative about the Catholic church was not the fact that it was packed with scurrilous and scatalogical subplots. No, the sensation was that it wasn’t crammed with such stuff: that he went so far as to praise the church: to back the institution up. We’d all been so used to stories about perverse priests and mischievous monks, the idea that the church might be doing a smidgen of good came as a bit of a surprise. Not a naughty nun in sight: oh my.

Clerical ribaldry may have become a bit of an old chestnut these days, but that’s not to say that some people don’t do it well, or keep it relevant. Ciambhal O’Droningham is the obvious, much-mentioned, example. His series of ero-sci-fi-philosophical-murder-mysteries (the best of which remains The Dead Priest) set a standard that few can match. Some of the jokes may have lost their punch over the years (that’s enough about candlesticks now, Ciambhal) but on the whole he keeps things fresh.

Was it always so? Not necessarily. Before stumbling upon the formula that cemented his literary career, O’Droningham struggled to make his particular brand of shocking-with-a-subtle-twist fiction work. Perhaps it was his refusal to accept that he needed to put religion, the focus of his life, at the centre of his work. Or perhaps it was just his unhealthy fixation with dinosaur sex.

I’m not sure whether you could call it a taboo as such. But then it’s not something we like to talk about all that much either – for good or revealing reasons. Personally speaking the realm of the dinosaurs is associated with my childhood, whereas the mechanics of a sexual encounter between two large lizards is, well, something else entirely. Mixing the two seems both peculiar and unnecessary. Is there even a market for this sort of thing?

If there is, it wasn’t a market O’Droningham was able to exploit, probably on account of his poor prose, and feeble grasp of prehistoric issues. All of which goes to say that these early tales – Rapt or Obsessed and Call me Rex – are not worth revisiting, now or ever. This is one of those risky subjects that doesn’t require full disclosure.

Breaking Boxes

I’ve said it before, but I shall say it again: I’m feeling increasingly ashamed by attempts (by myself and others) to push Ciambhal O’Droningham into a small brown box marked, in red lipstick, with the words ‘erotic science-fiction’. Admittedly, he can narrate a sexual encounter between a man and a martian like no other. But there’s so much more to his skills than the enlightening juxtaposition of these two genres. Readers sometimes forget that The Dead Priest was, at heart, a comic religious detective story. Space was simply the backdrop – and sex something that happened to take place along the way. Which is to say that it wasn’t forced down one’s throat.

Re-reading his latest, Half-past Twelve at the Intergalactic Candy-Shop, reminds me, once again, of the breadth of O’Droningham’s interests  – and, dare I say it, of the constant integrity of his purpose.  Though I’ve seen denim shorts that were less coarse, I still think that this is an essentially moral book. However much philandering O’Solly does, I never stop believing that he has a good heart – and that he really does want to stop impregnating aliens. O’Solly is no mere lecher. He’s just another flawed man working under difficult circumstances. It’s not easy trying to spread Christianity across Jupiter’s moons.

The more one reads O’Droningham, the more one feels that this is fiction as it should be: boundary-less, enterprising, brave, honest, relentless in pursuit of a good story, but never at the expense of edification: of truth. To keep on calling it ‘erotic science-fiction’ is somewhat demeaning – and so far from the truth. For in reality, I cannot imagine finding a box in which O’Droningham would fit. He is one of literature’s great box-breakers. As soon as you think you’ve got him safely squashed into one, he squeezes his way in another, before pushing forward into a third, busting out into a fifth, and bouncing off into a sixth. No box can hold this man. No box on earth.

[More on O’Droningham here]

Firing Body and Mind

Continuing the theme of yesterday’s post, I would like to make it clear that there is much more to ero-sci-fi than titillation for lonesome physicists. What writers like O’Droningham do, at their best, is to draw in a new audience altogether, bringing together fans from both sides of the divide, as well as those for whom either pure eroticism or pure sci-fi would be too specialised an interest.

I recall an interview with O’Droningham in which he spoke of his delight in encountering readers who were driven to his novels by the promise of alien sex, but who came out of them fascinated by the moon’s gravitational pull. Like others before him, he wondered whether erotic writers or film-makers ought not to make more of an effort to pad their stories with similarly educational subplots, in order to ‘fire both the body and the mind’.

This last phrase reminds one, of course, of the likeminded Pornucation Project, set up in the late ’80s by Reginald Fitzhelm, the son of a Chicago stockbroker and his Javanese mistress. Fitzhelm’s company took blue movies and spliced them with educational programmes, creating a new medium altogether. Unlike O’Droningham’s novels, however, the Pornucation Project was never a success – and, alas, only a small proportion of that particular hot-blooded generation emerged with a working knowledge of Japanese foreign policy in the 1890s.

To Boldly Go Where People Have Already Been

What with Star Trek pornography, and the rather more intellectually engaging work of this man, these are heady days for erotic science fiction – which turns out to be good news for this blog, which has been able to net a few of these sexy alien fanciers as they flock across the web in their thousands. ‘Erotic science-fiction’ has been far and away the most popular search-term or tag this last week, comfortably outscoring ‘Bulgarian Farm Poetry’, ‘ Tangerines in Portuguese Painting’ and – believe it or not – ‘Georgy Riecke errors’.

The bait? Ciambhal O’Droningham, of course: Ireland’s best erotic science-fiction writer of the last decade or more, whose latest novel Half-past Twelve at the Intergalactic Candy-Shop was published only weeks ago – and continues the adventures of Seamus O’Solly, the wise-cracking hero of The Dead Priest (reviewed here).

I’ve already covered the book here, but may yet take advantage of the current boom in ero-sc-fi to add another word or two later in the week, just as soon as I can wrestle my copy of the book off my wife, whose penchant for libidinous literature has often embarrassed me.

Mongolia and the Moon

A little something from Ireland’s favourite outspoken literary monk:

‘Catholicism and science fiction are not strange bedfellows, not in my book. As a child, I was barely able to tell them apart. I remember being shown a fifteenth century illustration of Gideon and the Fleece and thinking it was a still from the new Doctor Who. Having an angel appear to you and being abducted by an alien must be relatively similar experiences. And as far as I’m concerned, sending missionaries into outer space isn’t so weird. We’re always sending them to Mongolia, after all..’  (Ciambhal O’Droningham)

To Erotic Science-Fiction – and Beyond

After a few days tickling the furry chin of controversy, here’s a perfectly legal (if not necessary) dose of reality, relating to claims made regarding the art of the Irish novelist Ciambhal O’Droningham.

Two days ago I referred to him as a purveyor of ‘erotic science-fiction’. This is not, in itself, wrong. O’Droningham’s novels rarely go twenty-five pages without at least one encounter of a sexual kind, or a long-winded comparison of inter-planetary transportation. To reduce this scribbling monk, however, to this one powerful label is, nevertheless, a crime – as it is to reduce any artist to any narrow-minded moniker (unless the person is Obo Urlach and the label is ‘worthless’).

In light of this, I should like to point out now that O’Droningham’s work very often propels itself, like a flea on speed, beyond the constraints of ‘erotic science-fiction’. Like many great novelists (and I dare-say, some smart butterflies) he simply refuses to be pinned down. Thus, while his latest work (Half-past Twelve at the Intergalactic Candy-Shop) contains more than the usual supply of feisty fourteen-breasted aliens and light-speed-jet-packs, it also features a genuinely moving analysis of infertility in the Twenty-Second Century, and a generous sprinkling of wise comments concerning the career of Marcellus II. On top of this there is, as usual, many a clever reference to Seamus O’Solly’s long-time hero St. Columban. Those who think that O’Droningham is out ‘to titillate – and nothing more’ are standing, knee-deep, in a smelly pool of foolishness. Yes, that’s right. And what’s more, your wellington boots are leaking. Leaking, I tell you, leaking!

Here endeth the lesson, for now…

(More on O’Droningham here, here and, of course, here).