Mark Hodder Interviewed by Dr. Linnie Blake

Posted by Matt Foley on March 04, 2013 in Interviews tagged with , ,

The Burton and Swinburne Trilogy: Steam-Age Adventures in Neo-Liberal Liminality: An Interview With Mark Hodder

By Dr Linnie Blake

“Steampunk is, for me, the perfect arena in which to explore socio-economic policies that seem to have spiralled farther and farther out of control since those punk years. The capitalist system, in divorcing itself from social responsibility, has so undermined itself that people are now waking up and fighting back. The people who led us into this dire situation have been exposed as money-grubbing, self-serving, power-hungry, corrupt criminals (if not in legal terms, then certainly by any moral standard)” – Mark Hodder (http://markhodder.blogspot.co.uk/).

With their nineteenth-century settings, cast of eugenically and mechanistically modified Great Victorians and inventive use of anachronistic technologies, Mark Hodder’s Burton & Swinburne books are set to become classics of the Steampunk genre. That said, they’re also exceptionally gothic books that, to this reader, seem to be raising some very important questions about our own neo-liberal age. From his home in Valencia Mark has kindly agreed to be interviewed for The Gothic Imagination, specifically on the gothic dimensions of his work.

As the theme of this year’s International Gothic Association conference is gothic science and gothic technology (and I’m writing a paper on Mark) I’d like to start with a few questions on his fabulous evocation of a nineteenth-century in which cybernetic Victorians kick-start a scientific revolution that changes their world for ever; and not in a good way, of course. 

Gothic scholars tend to claim as their own books such as Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau (1896). How much of an influence on your own work have these seminal gothic texts been and how might they have fed into your own refashioning of Darwin and Brunel, Babbage and Nightingale?

Those three books, along with Dracula, might be the cornerstones on which the Burton & Swinburne series has been built. I read them all in my early teens and have revisited them countless times since. Each book involved the malleability either of the flesh, or of the psyche, or both. This is also true of the Burton & Swinburne stories. In The Strange Affair Of Spring Heeled Jack, Darwin and Francis Galton are conjoined; in The Curious Case Of The Clockwork Man, there is a villain within a villain; in Expedition To The Mountains Of The Moon, I have animals raised, Moreau-like, to human status; and in the forthcoming The Secret Of Abdu El Yezdi, I make very clear allusions to Dracula and Frankenstein. The series asks questions like “when does passion and dedication become madness?” and “If we as individuals were presented with a totally different set of challenges and opportunities in our lives, would our response to them turn us into different people?” In that respect, I don’t merely examine the malleability of individuals, but also of history itself.

The mysterious galvanic force that is electricity comes into being during the course of the Burton and Swinburne books, with the anachronistic technology of steam-driven velocipedes, rotor-chairs and airships both setting the scene and facilitating the nail-biting action. Meanwhile bio-technologies threaten to change forever what it is to be human whilst despoiling utterly the natural world. Does this dark vision of an imagined Victorian age comment on our own relationship with science?

I think most people fear that scientists have the attitude that if something can be done then it will be done. Robert Stephenson is warned that if he builds his Rocket locomotive its speed will cause passengers’ brains to be crushed against the back of their skulls, but he builds it anyway; The Manhatten Project is warned that setting off an atomic bomb will cause the Earth’s atmosphere to ignite, but they explode the bomb anyway; the Hadron Collider mustn’t be started or it’ll turn the planet into a black hole, but it’s turned on anyway. Of course, all these fears come from a total lack of understanding of scientific methodology. Scientists are probably the most rational and responsible people on the planet, but we tend to consider them as powerful sorcerers who might let loose hordes of mutated zombies upon us at any moment. This distrust of rational thinking really interests me, especially the high profile and mind-boggling suspicion of Darwinism that exists in parts of America. People seem to fear intelligence, scorn knowledge, and want to cling to primitive superstition. This despite that—in terms of violence, oppression and corruption—organised superstition, in the form of religion, probably has the most atrocious track record of any human institution ever created.

One of the many joys of your evocation of a prematurely-technologised world is the depiction of the commercial exploitation of scientific advances. Throughout your books communications and transportation industries exploit pure science for commercial gain.  The most shocking use of science is, though, its military deployment. What are you saying here about the relation between science, commerce and the military? And can we see any parallels between Victorian imperial ambitions and the contemporary commercial corporation?

Here’s the problem. Politicians can only rise through the democratic system if they have plenty of financial backing to pay for their campaigns, and once in power they need the support of the rich and powerful to keep them there. An elected politician hasn’t really been elected by the people and doesn’t really represent the people (people have less free will than they think; their opinions are manipulated by the press, and the press is owned by vast corporations). The politician is, in fact, little more than a mouthpiece for commercial concerns, meaning that Capitalism has overwhelmed true democracy. Meanwhile, the corporations have to be competitive in order to survive. They must expand into new markets and keep offering new products. Science, which generally depends on government and industry grants for support, is thus inevitably skewed toward research that will produce a new material or a new medicine or new military hardware—something that will sell. This applies even to the glamorous endeavours that, at face value, might appear to be little more than ambitious adventures—the Moon landing, for example. The list of products, such as non-stick kitchenware and memory foam, which came from that project, is astonishing. So science makes stuff, corporations sell it, and governments support the process by carving out new markets, even if that demands (which it often does) the military overthrow of a non-Capitalist culture. Imperialism, then, continues unabated. But I don’t think empires are what the general populace wants at all. I suspect there’s a yearning for smaller communities, where cultural identity is unsullied and government is local. I very much doubt that the average European is enjoying the EU, and its benefits are illusory at best. But can we stop it? Or are we all tiny cogwheels in a vast out of control machine, each of us so utterly insignificant that our absence wouldn’t make one jot of difference?

In my novels, I explore how one man can make a difference.

Edward Oxford’s time-travelling technology kicks off the novels’ entire parallel-reality story (the assassination of Queen Victoria opening up a time-line very different from our own). Could you, perhaps, expand on your interests in time and time travel – particularly as it relates to the telling of stories about ourselves and our history?

I’ve always had a very peculiar sense of time. I’ve noticed patterns in it, I’ve experienced impossibly meaningful coincidences, and very often circumstances have arisen in my life that, unknowingly, I seem to have been preparing for. Some people, as Freud hypothesised, are held back by the past. Others, as Jung proposed, are drawn forward by the future. I fall into the latter category, but I’ve never quite understood how things “fall into place” for me (which they sometimes do quite dramatically). I’m certain, though, that time is not an external phenomenon. We generate it. It is a function of the human mind to link events into a narrative, thus we require beginnings and middles and ends … and this gives us the perception of movement, as if our life is a book and each day is a page.

One of my pet peeves is hearing people say “everything happens for a reason,” as if they’re a puppet and God is pulling the strings. Nonsense. Stuff just happens, but we add it to our narrative, we fit it into our story, we give it reason. We are writing the book. We. Not God.

In many ways the Burton and Swinburne novels can be seen as works of Imperial Gothic, voicing a series of concerns regarding civilization and progress, the potential degeneration of the imperial ideal and an inexorable sense of ‘things falling apart.’ Do you see this as an appropriate metaphor for our own age? Either way, what lessons might we learn from the misadventures of your central protagonists?

I was born in Southampton in 1962. During the war, being the south coast’s biggest port, the city suffered intense bombing, and even as late as the early 70s there were still bomb sites, sea forts along the Solent, and Anderson shelters at the end of my neighbour’s garden. My earliest memories are of sensing that some great disaster had just passed, and that I was playing in the ruins of a fallen empire. This also came from the fact that my mother’s side of the family had been rather aristocratic until the war, when they lost everything. So my childhood was filled with this pervasive idea of something gone, something irretrievable. That sense has never really left me. I look at current events in Europe and I see this vast weight of entropy embedded in everything. It’s as if politicians are compulsively dancing to a worn and scratchy old tune because no one knows how to compose a new one.

A couple of years ago I visited a bar in Lisbon. It was in the corner of what must have once been a huge and very opulent ballroom, but everything, including the tall mirrors, had been painted over with a dull brown paint, the walls were cracked, the decor crumbling, the stage was stacked with empty chairs, and the floor was uneven; a place of ghosts and forgotten romances. I thought, “This is exactly where we are at.”

The city of London is a prominent character in your work, both as hub of empire and as site of class stratification and conflict.  As works of Urban Gothic, then, the Burton & Swinburne books offer us a London that is dark, degenerate and inveterately haunted.  Which writers do you draw on in the creation of this haunted London? And how, in your mind, does the London you create relate to the contemporary metropolis?

As befits such a complex city, my influences are very mixed. When I was in my very early teens, I tentatively brushed the fringes of the proto-punk underground movement in the Ladbroke Grove/Portobello Road area. Counter-culture figures such as Mick Farren, the bands The Deviants, Pink Fairies, Hawkwind and The Edgar Broughton Band, and, of course, the author Michael Moorcock, all inspired in me a desire to kick against authority, to question the status quo, and to use creativity as a means of exploration. There was a lot of anger in the London of the seventies, and I was too young to really understand how let down the “revolutionaries” felt; they were disappointed with each other, screwed over by dealers who got them hooked onto impure and seriously nasty drugs, and had watched helplessly as the symbols of their ideals were sugar coated and commercialised. Eaten by the Capitalist machine. London gives and London takes away.

The same disappointment happened to me when I lived there from 1999 to 2009. I loved the city but it wore me down. I read Dickens and Thackeray, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and hundreds of “penny dreadfuls,” and the London they portrayed was there, on my doorstep. Exciting! Stimulating! But the allure slowly gave way to disgust. Working as a freelance commercial copywriter got me into some very major institutions and I didn’t like what I found in them. There are too many people with too much power who really don’t know what the hell they’re doing. There’s a vast black river of corruption, coldness, egotism and hypocrisy running through the heart of the city, and it’s fascinating and mesmerising and terrifying.

It’s strange to feel fondness for something that might have destroyed you, but that odd emotion informs my fiction.

Your books are very concerned with liminal spaces, our heroes repeatedly crossing the borders between species, nations, cultures, historical periods and indeed realities whilst existing in the ‘somewhere in between.’ What does this have to say about contemporary selfhood as you see it?

This, perhaps, is my primary preoccupation; the state of neither this nor that-ness. Is there, at the core of each of us, a pure “me,” or are we simply the sum of our reactions to our influences? If the former, are we able to adapt to the ever more rapidly changing exterior word? If the latter, how can we possibly establish a stable identity? Is, in fact, the concept of “identity” outmoded? Should we not think, instead, in terms of “role,” both as “a performance” and as “a function”?

Young people now know there’s no such thing as a job for life, a permanent marriage, secure finances, a decent national health service. Everything is in flux. Thus they must constantly adapt to survive. They must learn to play new roles—adopt new identities—in order to make the most of opportunities as they arise. They must “be” the person required for as long as is necessary, and when the gig is over, they have to shake off that identity and be ready to create a new one for the next show. That’s how I see current existence: a sequence of gigs and shows. We are all performers.

Your heroes themselves are exceptionally divided figures – for apart from being agents of the crown Sir Richard Francis Burton is a linguist, mesmerist, Arabist and haji and  Algernon Charles Swinburne a poet, decadent, masochist and alcoholic. What particular combination of attributes and activities drew you to these particular Victorians? And do they articulate a sense of what it is today to be British and a man?

I was drawn to them very simply because, in real life, they were friends, and the physical contrast between them makes me laugh every time I think of it. Laurel and Hardy! But also, and more importantly, they were both outcasts. Burton, as a child, was constantly dragged around Europe by his family, so when he eventually came to Britain to enrol at Oxford University, he found himself baffled by the complexities of the British character and its customs. His peers called him “Beastly Burton” and “Ruffian Dick,” and he was forever getting into fights simply because he was unable to “fit in.”

Swinburne, by contrast, was damned by his extraordinary physical appearance. Tiny, red haired, shrill voiced, and somewhat effeminate, he was constantly in jerky motion and suffered congenital analgesia, meaning he couldn’t feel pain. They shared an interest in eroticism, the occult, and anything else that transcended the boundaries of uptight British culture … which made them the perfect pair to drop in the middle of it while it constantly reshapes itself around them.

As writers, both Burton and Swinburne are preoccupied with representing the self, whilst the philosopher Herbert Spencer is very concerned with narrative itself.  Could you, perhaps, expand on this thematic?

The story I’m telling with this series is planned to run across a total of six books, which are thematically divided into two trilogies. Through the course of the stories, Burton is constantly reassessing his own character, not realising that, in fact, it exists as, as well as within, a narrative. I emphasise this by partnering him with Swinburne, who has a very distinct character, which endures—almost oblivious to the changes that occur around it—even when Swinburne himself is the pivot upon which the plot twists, and even when the physical nature of the poet is altered.

I featured Herbert Spencer in the second volume as a clue to the nature of Burton’s journey, and also because there’s an increasingly Darwinian theme in the final two novels.

I’m really interested in the figure of the clockwork man in your work.  Why do you think such cybernetic figures normally evoke a sense of anxiety and dread? And how do your own cyborgs respond to this?

I think the sense of dread stems from exactly the same attitude that most people wrongfully apply to scientists—this idea that they are high-functioning intellects utterly devoid of a moral sense. The clockwork men are sophisticated machines. They can do nearly anything a human can do … except feel. This scares most people, because most people place greater faith in their feelings than in their intellect. That’s why religion, one of the most destructive forces in human affairs, still exists.

It’s interesting that, in America, atheism has become a “thing.” If you’re an atheist you believe there’s no God! Like there’s a Church of No God to which you belong. That’s hilarious. And deeply stupid.

Finally, you’ve gone on record as stating that in the present world “there is no freedom, except for the banks who can do as they please […] governments  bomb the shit out of anyone to gain a political or industrial advantage, […] the gap between rich and poor has never been greater” and “rights are adjusted on the hoof.” I’m really impressed with your political outspokenness here and wonder if you could say anything further on the parallels between Burton and Swinburne’s world and our own.

I think I’ve pretty much covered it in my previous answers. My central contention is that words such as “freedom” and “rights” are bandied about as if they have profound meaning when, in truth, they’ve been almost entirely drained of it. Too many Americans (I pick on America because it declares itself the world’s greatest democracy) will ferociously argue that they live in the land of the free while being strip searched at an airport, while having their emails and telephone conversations monitored, and while being charged exorbitant fees for basic healthcare. If that’s freedom, you’re welcome to it.

I want people to stop, take a breath, and recognise the ruins, because I honestly believe that beneath the rubble the ground is fertile. We are an ingenious species but a cabal of greedy, selfish, and possibly psychotic overlords, who rule by coercion, threats, deception and corruption, has stalled our development—our spiritual, intellectual, and possibly even physical evolution. So, yes, I’m politically outspoken. This is the time to be.

Mark Hodder, thank you very much.

****

Mark Hodder is an English author currently resident in Valencia, Spain.  Three volumes of a projected six volume cycle of steampunk novels featuring Sir Richard Francis Burton and Algernon Swinburne are already in print: The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack (2010) – winner of the Philip K Dick Award, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man (2011) and Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon (2012). His most recent work, the Victorian planetary romance A Red Sun Also Rises was published in January 2013. Mark Hodder also runs a website, Mark Hodder Presents which covers all aspects of his own work and that of one of his literary heroes, Sexton Blake.

Dr Linnie Blake is Principal Lecturer in Film at Manchester Metropolitan University.  In October 2013 she will launch the MMU Centre for Gothic Studies, of which she is Director, with a series of academic papers from Fred Botting, Isabella van Elferen, Catherine Spooner and Stacey Abbott, and a Halloween-long weekend of gothic events and happenings.

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