Leave an Idea, Take an Idea: Five Things Someone Else Should Totally Do (Guest Blogger China Mieville)
(The City & The City, an Amazon featured book for June.)
It's melancholy when you realise there are more things you'd like to do, or write, than you'll have time to, in your entire life. The endless triage of decent thoughts is necessary, a bit miserable, and a strong argument for the desirability of immortality. You cling even to the ones you doubt you'll start, as long as you can bear, just in case you find the time you know you won't.
But there's another category of ideas, a bit less frustrating, slightly more confusing, and necessitating a different response. These are those that are really, in one's own humble opinion, decent, with a potentially great audience, and without question worthy of pursuing...but that you know you'd mess up. If you even had time to start.
Just because someone comes up with a project is no reason they should be the one to follow through with it. 'I love this,' they might say, as I not-infrequently do, 'but I'm not the guy.' That doesn't mean it's not a good idea. So what to do about that? If you have a friend who could do a good job of it, you can always pass it on. But if you don't? And what about all the others that occur to you?
We should inaugurate a generous-spirited gift economy of thoughts. Plenty of shops in the US have those trays full of pennies that you can leave or take, depending on need. I see no more reason to hoard my I'm-not-the-guy ideas than my pennies. Accordingly, this is a short list of four books and one project that someone should totally do. Just not me.
1) Square Pegs
A non-fiction book, a collection of essays on and interviews with people who are members of organisations that are counterintuitive by our cruder assumptions. So, for example, Jewish members of the PLO; Muslim members of the BJP; Protestant members of Sinn Fein; Sinhalese pro-Tamil activists; and so, variously, on. The point here, I'd suggest (though it's not my project, because I'm Not The Guy--INTG), would not be to freakshow, to point and imply that these individuals are weird--though certainly, in some of the less savoury cases, there should be nothing to stop the critique of particular political positions--but in part to investigate how reductive or questionable are many assumptions we are encouraged to make about 'identities'. How and why did a particular person come to ally with a group traditionally conceived as opposed to her or his interests? How is s/he received by her allies and by her 'ethnic' (or whatever) community? Are they hopeful? Are they depressed? Can we generalise about such square pegs (I'd lay good money not)? It could be an extremely interesting book, or film, or whatever. It would need someone patient, with good interviewing skills, political subtlety, and a reasonable travel budget. Someone should totally do it.
2) Ideas in Abundance
In the Sandman story 'Calliope', collected in Volume 3 of the collected decalogy, Dream Country, Neil Gaiman gets disquietingly under the skin of a writer, and presents a dreamlike but perfectly savage investigation of storytelling. Richard Madoc, in his verve to become a 'great writer', imprisons and rapes a muse. His ongoing creativity is predicated on tawdry and brutal violence, in the kind of literalised metaphor that the fantastic is uniquely suited to providing. When Morpheus, Dream, confronts him in disgust, and Madoc repulsively insists that his actions were necessary so he could keep having ideas, Morpheus sentences him to 'ideas in abundance'. Which Madoc then begins to feverishly expound, as he breaks down.
'A city in which the streets are paved with time', he says. 'Head made of light...A were-goldfish...'. And on and on. It ranges from the para-insightful--'Gryphons shouldn't marry'--to the numinous--'An old man...who owned the universe'--via the humourous--'Two old women taking a weasel on holiday'--to the (seemingly) banal--'A small piece of blue cardboard'. It's a bravura sequence. It is terrifying and, in some bleak way, in the slopping speed with which these ideas vomit forth, a baleful antimatter version of 'reassuring' to the would-be writer: see how quickly hooks can be generated? But at what cost, by what violence?
A sideways homage to Gaiman and to his incomparable Sandman, rather than stories set in the comic's universe, would be a collection of all these tales listed but not (yet) written, generated by Madoc's punishment. Each thrown-out line could be turned, by some suitable writer, into a story. It would be loving, respectful, hopefully intriguing and, if done right, not a little unsettling, given the grotesque nature of the crime that spawned these punitive inspirations.
This I'd love to see happen. But I'm no editor. INTG.
3) Extraordinary Inconsistency
C.L.R. James, that outstanding intellect and polymath of the twentieth century, is probably best known for his peerless history of Haiti's slave revolt The Black Jacobins. The great figures of that upheaval--Toussaint L'Ouverture above all, Dessalines, Moise and others--loom justifiably enormous in the narrative. But revolutions throw up countless heroes (and villains), and there are many others who enter and exit the stage, who, if only there were world enough and time, deserve long studies of their own. None is more intriguing, nor harder to investigate, than an extraordinary-sounding insurgent slave from early in the revolt mentioned, in passing, thus: 'Romaine the Prophetess (sic)' was a man, who 'fortified [his] authority with divine attributes'.
A frantic scurrying on the blessed internets for more information nets T. Lothrop Stoddard's 1914 The French Revolution in San Domingo, which mentions 'a Spanish half-breed' in the mountains who had 'founded a genuine religious sect' and 'inspired by the Virgin', called himself, 'with extraordinary inconsistency, "Romaine the Prophetess"'. He sent, apparently, 'fanatic bands' hither and yon. There are a couple of other references out there, most famously in Victor Hugo's novel Bug-Jargal, with its denunciation of 'a charlatan of a mulatto, called Romaine the Prophetess, who rules a whole troop of blacks by superstition', and a couple of more scholarly, if brief, mentions by academics. But not enough, none of it enough. Surely--surely--there is a book to be got out of this astounding Romaine Rivière, who claimed to be the Virgin's grandson and preached before an inverted cross. He was married with children, but the question nonetheless insistently raises itself: what if it was not due to 'extraordinary inconsistency' that he named himself across the gender divide? What if it was, instead, as his intelligence and strategic insight would suggest, perfect fidelity to some logic?
It would perhaps be historically inappropriate to impute some modern queer identity to Romaine: but however s/he identified, and whatever the specific politics of her/his identity, this amazing character of the Haitian uprising, this human nexus of class, race and gender is someone to uncover. If some patient historian uncovers the story, I promise them at least one very eager sale.
The wild wallabies of the UK are under threat. A colony of these mini-Kangaroo-style (what is the latinate adjective derived from kangaroo, by the way?) mammals, on the Scottish island of Inchconnachan, may be culled, for grazing too much.
What's that? Why, certainly there are wallabies in the UK.
There's a colony in the Peak District, hopping gainfully around. There are flocks of parrots, too. There are the mitten crabs in the Thames--which it is increasingly inappropriate to describe as 'Chinese', just as it is the Muntjac deer, now established in South and central England and Wales. There's the tiny Amazonian Freshwater Jellyfish, happily ensconced in Yorkshire. Coypu, ring-necked pheasants, Mongolian gerbils.
Now, much of the discussion of many of these animals tends to be a vaguely unsettling stress on how they are 'invasive', and 'a threat' to 'native wildlife'. The genuine and sometimes very problematic ecological impact of real population shifts doesn't mean the methodology around this model isn't questionable--much of what we describe as 'native' simply means something introduced longer ago (rabbit, anyone? House mouse?). Ecosystems are, after all, not hermetically sealed (thankfully). You don't have to be happy about the harrowing of the red squirrel to query the denigration of the grey on the grounds that it's some sort of Johnny Foreigner.
So it would be fascinating to have a book about stable populations of newcomers, in Britain and around the world, happily welcomed to new host ecologies. Particularly those that look to our eyes like the most outlandish (was ever a term more perfect?) oddities in their new homes. A book of photo-essays and popular science on these wallabies, coypu and others, not to spread some ecologically nativist angst, but to delight in the blurring of faunal boundaries.
Any biologists out there?
5) A meta-suggestion
Just as these are ideas that I think are worth pursuing by someone else, I'm pretty sure there are ideas out there that someone else has had that I'd do great with. I wish I could see them. Accordingly, it would be wonderful to see a forum with the ongoing purpose of this piece: to share ideas so that others can take them and run. I propose someone with the time, focus, coding skills and follow-through that I don't got set up, say, <somsto.com>, standing for 'SOMeone Should TOtally do that' (and the '...DO That' is there when you say it - Somsto DOT com).
People should be able to upload suggestions for projects to which they're not equipped to do justice. They could be catalogued--film, game, art, fiction, non-fiction, academic, popular, poetry, etc. There could be comments, or maybe a moderating option to weed out trolling and nonsense. The deal being that if you upload your idea, it's no longer yours, and if someone wants to do something with it, Vaya Con Dios.
Nor could people claim these ideas. Once they go up online, if more than one person decides it's down to them to do it, that's just how it goes, and the results can duke it out or complement each other: this can't be a race to shout 'Mine!' first. Once the various versions are finished, readers, viewers, players or whatever can decide which is better.
Think of all the great creatives not sure what to do next who'd get inspiration. Think of all the possible art and whatnot we might unleash.
You get the idea. An open-access ideas mine. A creative suggestions commons. A wiki of potentiality. I don't know all the details, and I'm not exactly sure how it should be run. That's kind of the point. I thought up the idea, and that's my part done. I totally think someone should run it, to all of our benefit. Realistically it's never going to be me. I totally think it should be someone else.