Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Interview: David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg is a Canadian filmmaker whose career has spanned more than four decades. Cronenberg’s many films include Stereo, Crimes of the Future, Fast Company, The Brood, The Dead Zone, The Fly, Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, Crash, A History of Violence, A Dangerous Method, and Cosmopolis. His most recent film is Maps to the Stars. In 2006 he was awarded the Cannes Film Festival’s lifetime achievement award, the Carrosse d’Or. His debut novel, Consumed, was published by Scribner in 2014.

This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview.

You said that when you were a teenager, you were reading science fiction magazines and submitting stories to them. Which ones?

There were three primary ones: Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy, and Astounding. Of the three, Fantasy & Science Fiction was my favorite because it was broad in terms of the kind of things that they published. Astounding was more hardcore science/tech SF, and Galaxy was somewhere in-between. It was Fantasy & Science Fiction that I submitted a story to when I was sixteen, and I got a really great rejection letter; it was one page with one side the printed cover of one of their recent issues, and on the other it said, “This came quite close; we would be glad to see more.” That was encouraging, although I never did submit another story.

Do you remember what that story was about?

It was about a dwarfish person who lived in a basement apartment, very reclusive, and had a picture on his wall of a street in Paris and had huge fantasies about the life of the person who painted that picture; he envied and identified with that person. Later, he discovered that person was like himself; a recluse, not very attractive, living in a basement.

It sounds like a lot of the themes that you’ve explored throughout your career go back to that story.

You could make that case. I had no insects or transformation, all of the themes that people seem to think that I must have. My nervous system is what it is, and there are things I keep returning to because they seem to have significance for me as touchstones, as metaphors.

Would you say that you were influenced by the stories you were reading in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy, and Astounding?

They did delight me, and I remember some of them: one was called “Rat in the Skull.” I think I was influenced by everything, including the movies I was going to see, some of which were science fiction and fantasy, but a lot of them were cowboy movies. I can’t point to one specific thing.

What is it about the skull story that makes it stick out in your mind?

It was bizarre and yet very touching; you should read it. I won’t get into the details of it; I’ll probably get it wrong. I haven’t read it for sixty years. One of the writers who I came to much later was Philip Dick. I don’t recall reading any of his stories in those magazines.

He’s one of my favorite authors as well. How did you discover him? And what was it about his work that made a big impression on you?

I can’t remember exactly why; it’s conceivable that it was because people were proposing his work as possible movie projects. He was so much a part of his time, and a lot of his writing is not really good because, as we all know, he was taking speed and writing twenty-four hours at a time, or even forty-eight hours. He didn’t spend time rewriting, and it’s obvious. But there were moments where it was absolutely brilliant, everything came together, and you realized that if he had been a slightly different kind of writer, in a slightly different context, he could have written stuff that would have been recognized for its literary excellence.

I want to come back to Philip K. Dick, but before that, you said that in the 1950s, all the science fiction stories were about how dehumanizing and soul-destroying technology was?

No; not all of it. I just said that it was a tendency in the ’50s. Don’t forget it was the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons, bomb shelters; that represented the ultimate in technology. The tendency was to demonize it, because people were afraid of it, so every second story you read was about the world after nuclear holocaust. Philip Dick was interesting because that wasn’t the stance he took; he loved to create characters who were just guys working on technology and who would come and fix your talking robotic door that wouldn’t let you out of your apartment, even when you put in the ten cents you were supposed to, or ten credits; whatever it was. He got down to the nitty-gritty of small and local technology.

As a teenager, did you have that kind of relationship with technology? Or did you have more of the 1950s mind frame?

No; I think I really belong on your blog. I don’t think I was a nerd, socially, but I was definitely a geek and loved technology. My father was my model; he got the first IBM Selectric in Canada, a typewriter that you could actually change the font on, which was unheard of. That it was also an electric typewriter just enhanced everything. I used to fall asleep to the sound of his Selectric hammering away, because he was a journalist. He would get the first calculator that was available through private hands, so I had a very cozy appreciation for technology and also saw it as enhancing creative power. And, to assert my geek cred, there was a program called Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, and I got that because I had never really learned to touch type properly, and typing was so much more attractive than it had been with a mechanical typewriter. In the booklet from this fictional typing teacher, there was an article on the QWERTY keyboard vs. the Dvorak, and how the QWERTY keyboard had been designed to slow you down; if you went too fast, you would jam the keys together. I was so outraged, I decided I would never type QWERTY again. In those days, Dvorak was kind of underground, so I actually sent away to certain strange addresses and I would receive a floppy disk that could convert your keyboard.

I’m totally sold that you’ve established your geek cred.

Very good; thanks. When the specifications of the iPhone 6 came out, I cut a cardboard version of it out and carried it around to see if it would be too big. I didn’t end up getting an iPhone 6 Plus.

You were writing fiction as a teenager, and then took a multi-decade break from it to make films; what brought you back to writing prose fiction?

I’ve never lost the desire to be a novelist; I was derailed or kidnapped by cinema. The President and publisher of Penguin Canada, a woman named Nicole Winstanley, started sending me boxes of books they were publishing and saying that she had read my screenplays, seen my movies, and thought I had a novelist’s sensibilities. She asked if I had ever thought about writing a novel, and I said, “Only for about fifty years.” She said that she would love to publish me, and that really encouraged me. I sent her a proposal that had begun as a screenplay but had stalled; I romanticize it by thinking it knew it needed to be a novel and was waiting for me. That was eight years ago, but you can’t say that it took me eight years to write Consumed because I don’t know how much seat time in front of the computer was spent writing the novel; in-between, I made four movies. I would be away from my virtual typewriter for a year and a half, and then to come back and try to pick up the thread of the novel — very difficult to do. You suddenly think, “What if I go back to it and it’s no good?” or, “What if I go back to it and it is good, but I don’t think I can continue on that level?” So I’m interested in the idea that I write a novel and not do anything else, and see what that feels like and how long it takes me.

For a first novel, the prose style is incredibly well done. Had you written any sort of prose fiction in those years?

Not really. I think my last attempt to write a novel was when I was living in the south of France in 1971, and that was when I wasn’t sure if I was an underground filmmaker or if I was going to be a commercial filmmaker, in the sense that I would make a living as a filmmaker.

But you must read a lot of literature.

I’ve never stopped reading novels, and I read a lot of other things. But everybody who reads a novel is not a novelist. I was certain I had a voice as a filmmaker, but I wasn’t really sure if I had one as a novelist, so I was interested to see if I did, and what it was. I take it as a huge compliment, what you said about the prose.

I was really impressed by it. Did you have to do a lot of rewriting and polishing, or is that pretty much your natural voice?

I didn’t do much restructuring; it just sort of flowed that way. I did do rewriting, but I’ve read about people who do ten drafts, twenty, and I didn’t do anything like that. They were small changes, which make a difference between an awkward sentence and a beautiful sentence.

The book concerns, prominently, a married couple: the Arosteguys. Why don’t you tell us about them?

They’re an interesting French phenomenon, the “hot philosophy couple” exemplified most by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, both philosophers; they would write political pamphlets and were also very public intellectuals, which is something you don’t see much in North America. They wrote difficult philosophical works, but at the same time were invited to, and did, comment on current affairs; they took extreme political stances and would talk about French culture and world culture in general. Bernard-Henri Lévy and his wife Arielle Dombasle are the current version of that cultural couple. I like the idea of that kind of person, and then counter-poised it with two relatively naïve young Americans, Naomi and Nathan, who are journalists who get involved in a scandal that involves this couple; the woman has apparently been murdered by her husband, and cannibalized, and he has now disappeared. There’s a Henry James thing there; the American novelist who liked to position Americans going abroad to Europe as relatively naïve, simple and sweet, and then counter-poise them with the decadent, sophisticated Europeans. Not that I think that anybody thinks of Americans in that way now, or Europeans either, but there’s a bit of that in Consumed.

I don’t know if you would call Nathan and Naomi sweet and innocent, exactly. There is a sort of innocence to them, but they are very worldly and cynical.

They’re very practiced in terms of their use of the internet for their profession, and there’s an affected cynicism that comes somewhat with youth when you think you’re tough, and then you meet people who are tough beyond your imagining, and more manipulative than you are aware. So it’s not exactly like Henry James.

The journalism they practice is interesting; it’s called para-journalism, and it’s freelance/tabloid style journalism. Can you talk about what inspired that?

I mention Tom Wolfe and his invention of what he called “New Journalism,” which was very ego-centric. It was, “I’m Tom Wolfe, I’m a journalist, I’m interviewing you, but I’m really the star, and what I think and my perceptions are as valid as yours no matter who you are or how accomplished you are. This article I’m going to write about you is also going to be about me.” It was quite shocking, because the standards of journalism used to be that you were invisible; you never used the first person. Hunter Thompson was a part of that, in his own extreme way. That has become absorbed into the idea of journalism; it’s not considered a complete atrocity to include yourself and your experiences in your investigations. We’ve now gone beyond that because of the internet; the idea now is, “What on the internet is legitimate? What is plagiarism, and what is general information that’s up for grabs?” Even in novel writing, there are instances where things are taken from Wikipedia in one chunk and put in a novel without attribution; you’re including your own experiences, but you’re also gleaning other peoples’ experience. I’ve seen that myself; if I’m considering casting an actor, I’ll go to YouTube and watch interviews with the actor, to get a feel for what they’re like as a person, as opposed to what they do as an actor. You can imagine that a journalist about to investigate a murder finding YouTube videos of the victim and alleged perpetrator will want to see those videos, and include what they see in their journalism. But those videos were done by somebody else for another purpose.

I wouldn’t say that, in the novel, I’m criticizing anything. I’m taking what is a relatively neutral stance on the things I see happening. I’m presenting characters who are living these kinds of lives, using these kinds of tools, and the reader can react negatively or not. Although I think there’s a lot of humor in the novel, that also comes out of the characters themselves rather than me imposing any satire.

Do people interview you who are like that?

It’s wild, because — for example — I get journalists from the old school that I’ve known for thirty years interviewing me for a newspaper, but now they’re holding up their iPhones; they’re forced to become videographers, and they don’t know how to do it very well. Then you’ve got the younger journalists who are very adept because they’ve grown up with it. They know that you’re going to also do stills and video, maybe even edit it yourself, so you have to have a Final Cut on your laptop. And then, yes, I get people challenging me, saying, “In a video you did in 1962, you said ‘blank.’” It’s a whole new world, and it has thrown up all kinds of questions about boundaries and legalities.

You mentioned that there’s a lot of philosophy in this book, or discussion about philosophy, and you mention the titles of some of the Arosteguys’ books that include Science Fiction Money, Apocalyptic Consumerism: A User’s Manual, and A Labor of Gore: Marx and Horror. Those all sound like fantastic books; I’d love to read them.

I could’ve written them, but it would’ve taken me another five years. I don’t think people would have wanted it in the middle of the novel, but maybe those are the books I should write next.

But you do have a fleshed-out idea of what these books would be about?

Definitely. It was interesting for me to decide how technical the philosophy could be from the Arosteguys, because highly technical philosophy is very difficult to read. Think of Sartre’s book Being and Nothingness, or Heidegger’s Being and Time; it takes years to read those books because you have to learn a whole new vocabulary. They’re discussing things that haven’t existed before in thought. In a novel, there’s momentum and flow, and you couldn’t really do that, so I had to simplify the way the Arosteguys were approached; you don’t see them teaching a class full techno, but you see them doing media events, where they deliberately simplify their speaking about technology. At one point, Célestine says, “The owner’s manual is the ultimate literature of our present time.” I can imagine a modern version of Sartre diluting his philosophy to the point that it could be accessible to more people.

Consumerism obviously plays a big role in this story; the title of the book is Consumed, as a play on that. If you were to write Apocalyptic Consumerism, the book, what would it be about?

It’s very easy to criticize consumerism — buying useless things, creating useless things, polluting the Earth — and the Arosteguys try to be the devil’s advocate, saying, “Consumerism is a beautiful, natural thing, and we are creating amazing things that are as beautiful as anything that the Earth has produced. It is an incredible expression of human creativity and emotion.” If we had ever had a chance to press Aristide Arosteguy, he would admit he was deliberately taking an extreme position in order to illuminate the debate between the anti-consumerists and the consumerists. It becomes a discussion of capitalism as well, because consumerism and capitalism go hand-in-hand, and it’s traditional for French philosophies to be Marxist, or at least very leftist, so Aristide is doing a twist on that as well, saying, “Marx was great at understanding capitalism.” Many capitalists read Marx because he understood capitalism a lot better than people who were in favor of it. But then they don’t accept Marx’s solution to that, which is to get rid of capitalism in favor of socialism or communism.

How close would you say your personal philosophy is to the Arosteguys’? Many of the things that Aristide says in his novella section of the book sound similar to some of the things you’ve said.

Yes, although I sometimes put them in a context that negates them. As a tech geek, part of me loves the devices that consumerism produces, that extend our lives and compress time and space, like the internet and airplanes do. At the same time, I can be cold-blooded in saying that it’s quite possible that, with our technology, we are destroying the Earth. I don’t have a solution for it, but I can see it clearly, and I have an emotional divide. As a novelist and filmmaker, I don’t present myself as a prophet; I don’t have the answers, but I do have a lot of the questions, and observations. So I make those observations and leave it to my readers to draw conclusions themselves.

Right; for example, on that point, Aristide is reported in the book to say that an artist is not a manufacturer and that meaning is a consumer item.

Aristide is smarter than I am; he should be, being a world famous philosopher. If you’re an existentialist, there is no meaning in human life or the universe. And almost all religions are there to provide you with meaning, but for me, that’s a consumer item; a means of creating meaning. I think that all meaning is a human construct; there’s not an abstract question of meaning with a capital “M” that exists outside our lives. We have to create it for ourselves, and there are many ways of doing that: through art, religion, culture, family, and so on. That’s what he means.

I don’t know if you’ve ever read a book by Thorstein Veblen called The Theory of the Leisure Class. I studied political philosophy in college, and that’s a book I read, and one thing he says in there is that children are the ultimate luxury consumer item. That always stuck in my head. The same thing with “meaning;” these things that we think of as being most important or sacred, you just have to squint a little to see them as just things.

Yes. I think if you’re an artist, one of the things you have to offer is that clarity of vision, with no bullshit. Even if you can’t say to yourself what the “meaning” of what you’re observing is, your observation should be absolutely clear. And it’s not easy to do; human culture and society is incredibly complex, and with the internet now and the global reach that you can have just sitting in your office or bedroom, it’s become even more confusing and full of information. That clarity is in short supply.

Another thing that Aristide says that sounds like something you might say is, “Reality is neurology.”

I believe that myself. I like to use the simple dog analogy: You’re sitting in your chair and you have your dog at your feet, and you’re both sitting in the same space and time; what is the reality for your dog at that moment? The dog is a legitimate sentient being, as you are, and yet its experience of reality is completely different from yours. All the things we think are absolute, or at least communal — sense of space and time, language, color, smell, hearing — are completely different for your dog. There are two realities in that room, both equally valid, so the difference is two different neuro-systems. I can then say that something like the internet is changing our reality, not just in the way we perceive things, but we are neurologically different than the Greeks three thousand years ago. Our brains are not static things that mature at the age of eighteen and never change; it used to be thought that was the case. The Nobel prize-winning neurologist, Gerald Edelman, said that the brain is much more like a rainforest than it is a computer; there’s a constant struggle for dominance amongst the neurons, and they’re constantly changing. The ones that you use become stronger, and the ones that don’t wither away. If that’s true, and I think it demonstrably is, then your reality is changing.

That brings us back to Philip K. Dick, this idea of subjective reality, and in Consumed you do mention Philip K. Dick’s novel, The Divine Invasion. Is there a particular reason you mentioned that novel?

You have to not take it out of context; this was Aristide talking about a change in his wife, Célestine, in which she started to have what he thought were delusions about her body — an infestation, in particular, of insects into her left breast — and wondering if she perhaps had a stroke that altered her brain. And I was thinking about Dick’s Divine Invasions; his post-trip work became religious in an odd way, and hallucinatory in a way it hadn’t been; a strange version of Christianity. He died of multiple strokes, because he used amphetamines so consistently, and it has been suggested that the visions he were having were induced by his strokes rather than a religious conversion. And that’s why it was mentioned in the book.

You mention the insects there, and that reminds me of another quote that really struck me, especially as a science fiction fan, where Aristide says, “It always amused me to observe the pathetically desperate hunger expressed in popular culture for life forms on other planets, when underneath the very feet of these seekers of aliens, and roundly ignored by them, were the most exotic, grotesque, and fabulous life forms imaginable.”

Something I’ve said myself. I was a big entomologist as a kid, and right now I’m reading E.O. Wilson’s book on ants called The Super Organism, which is very technical and fantastic. I don’t think that anybody in science fiction has invented anything as phenomenal as the life of ants, and it is ironic that people have their heads looking up to the stars.

Can you think of anything specific that’s bizarre and alien about insects that most people don’t know?

Ants speak to each other and induce communal action by emitting chemicals, and will leave trails of chemical scents that will tell them to follow a trail because there’s food at the other end of it, or to be wary because there’s danger there. Whoever came up with that in science fiction?

This book has a blurb from Viggo Mortensen, and he says that you will probably be accused of every sin that can be invented to compensate for human fear of mind and body. Was he correct?

I haven’t been accused of every sin. Yet. He knows that in my career as a filmmaker — for example, when I made Crash — I was attacked for all kinds of things, like misogyny. I think the reading public is different than the movie world, so we’ll see.

I have some listener questions: Juhan Raud says, “Was the film Videodrome actually a prophetic film about social media? Death to Facebook, long live the new flesh.”

It’s easy to see, in retrospect, that it feels like that. In the film, I create the idea of interactive TV, where you’re almost physically entering the TV set, and that feels now very much like we do with the internet and touchscreens. I never thought of myself as a prophet; there was definitely a strain in science fiction that was designed to be prophetic. For example, the writer who predicted satellites: Arthur C. Clarke. He was very proud of that, because he was more of a techno science fiction writer than, say, a fantasy or imaginative science fiction writer. But for me, it was the imagery and the feel of it, rather than an attempt to assess all the developments that had come about so far and then to make a calculated prediction of what could happen from there. For example, the plug-in umbilical cords for gamesters in eXistenZ; I’m not really saying we’re going to be plugging directly into our spines. But, at the same time, why not? It’s certainly physiologically possible if the technology’s there. It’s not that I need it to come true, it’s just a playful invention, which is part of the delight of any narrative creation. When you create new creatures and physiologies, you feel like you contributed to nature even though you haven’t; it’s a lovely feeling. In Rabid, I came up with stem cells, basically, and that was from my reading in science; I have a device that takes a skin graft, neutralizes it, and wherever you put it in the body it will read its position and develop into whatever is required. I mentioned that in Shivers as well, but in that case I was talking about a parasite.

There are so many weird conditions in this book: Apotemnophilia, Capgras Syndrome, Peyronies Disease, Dupuytren’s Contracture. I just imagine you have this big shelf full of medical textbooks. Where do you come up with all these?

When I was doing Dead Ringers, I did get a couple of immense medical books. These days, you can find that stuff on the net. As you age, you and your friends talk more and more about medical stuff; it’s the subject of comedies. Even in the newspapers and websites, there’s almost a disease-of-the-week. Again, rather than being a prophet, you have these antennae, like an insect, that are very sensitive to what’s in the zeitgeist, and you are downloading and playing with that as an artist. Sometimes your antennae are more sensitive than other peoples’, so you pull things together in ways that other people might not.

What sort of upcoming projects do you have?

I have no film projects at the moment, and that pleases me because it’s taken me ten years to get Maps to the Stars made. It seems to take ten years to get every interesting movie made. I’ve run out of those projects, so I’m looking forward to writing another novel.

Thanks so much for joining us.

A pleasure; thank you.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.