What I Talk About When I Talk About Rabelais

I intended to open this blog much earlier, and with a more contextualizing post. Events, and life in general, have rather overtaken me, however, so I’m posting here, rather later than intended, but hopefully not without value.

My aim for this blog is to write quite specifically on the grotesque and laughing elements of science fiction: the Rabelaisian. This first true post, then, sets out some of that stall, and sits within a series of posts – The Rabelais/Bester Sequence – in which I will explore that concept with specific reference to the book from which this blog grew – Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.

But let’s begin with Rabelais himself.


Born in France at the end of the fifteenth century, Francois Rabelais grew up at a turning point in European history. His life saw the tail end of the Medieval period and the flowering of scientific, political and religious revolution. Practising as both a cleric and a physician, Rabelais was also a humanist who published comical pamphlets which critiqued authority and stressed individual liberty. Humanism of this period can be simplistically defined as an attempt to revitalize the values and knowledge of classical antiquity, and to offer this education pervasively, to all society, not just an elite few. Milan Kundera called him the founder of the novel – ‘in the eyes of nearly every great novelist of our time he is, along with Cervantes, the founder of an entire art, the art of the novel’ (New Yorker, 2007). And yet, in the same article, Kundera also notes how he is often placed low in importance by French literarians – in part, he suspects, because of his vulgarity. To our contemporary eyes, he is certainly extremely profane – curses and disgusting events litter the lives of Gargantua and his family – and yet he inspired Lawrence Sterne, Alfred Jarry (who, admittedly, is also quite coarse) Hilaire Belloc, and Honore de Balzac’s La Comédie humaine. Ultimately, Rabelais’ works are human – with all the gross and laughable elements that implies. We may have hierarchies, which are socially imposed, but we all shit.

By Гюстав Доре [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Гюстав Доре [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Rabelais most famous work, Gargantua and Pantagruel, embodies many of these ideas: egalitarianism, critique – whilst also throwing in their medico-fantastical discussions of the body and of language, and the ways in which these are perceived and used.* It is a story of excessive people, in the best sense of the term. Gargantua is born to a father, Grandgousier, and a mother, Gargamelle, in a profoundly (and I use that word in association with its many etymological relations) explosive, grotesque fashion – his mother being treated for diarrhoea, which treatment tightens up all relevant parts of her anatomy, he leaps up her body and crawls out through her left ear. His first call is for drink, and he continues his excess throughout his childhood and adulthood. His own son, Pantagruel, is so large that in being born, he kills his own mother, and his birth is surrounded by portents of his greatness. Their adventures, which are many, are a parade of oddity and, to our eyes, nonsensical and tasteless, but they are presented by Rabelais with admiration – almost hagiographic. Their excess is brightly coloured, their adventures strange and otherworldly: there lies an immediate parallel with pulp characters such as Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius, though we must be cautious, as ever, about over-emphasizing such associations.


I’m hoping that, in the following blogs, I will be able to uncover, and interrogate more subtlety than I can in this introduction, more parallels between Rabelais and science fiction. The Stars My Destination, to my eyes, is the perfect vehicle for this exploration: it’s (anti?)hero is excessive, in his laziness and in his lusts; marked out by his facial tattoos, which give him a gigantic personality in the public domain; its language and events are colourful, bright, excessive, outlandish; its language buoyant, twisted and coarse. In these blogs I’ll talk about language, laughter, the carnivalesque, sensuality, sexuality, the body, parodies, death and rebirth, hierarchy, fear, the grotesque, madness and utopia. I hope you’ll come and join me.

*In the Renaissance, the ‘rehabilitation of the flesh’ was a reaction against the body-denying asceticism of the religious life of the Middle Ages (Bakhtin, 1984, 18).

Bakhtin, M., Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky, Indiana University Press, 1984

Kundera, M., ‘Die Weltliteratur: European novelists and modernism’, The New Yorker, January 8, 2007


Climbing, and Falling Down, Yggdrasill: A Report from NineWorlds Geekfest, 2015

W and I have just returned from NineWorlds – London Geekfest 2015. It was probably the first con I’ve been to where I’ve felt like I belong in the Skiffy community – like I kinda know what I’m doing – though this is less a function of NineWorlds itself, I think, than it is of increasing experience. Despite being a lifelong fan of genre, particularly hard SF and localised, folklore based fantasy, I’d never attended a con until I started going out with W. And so, being socially a little awkward, I’ve always found attending them to be rather overwhelming. But now I’m growing into them, and I’m finding myself more able to observe and sit without feeling like an intruder, even if I don’t do well at talking to random strangers, or even (especially) people I vaguely know.

Anyway, I’m increasingly noticing the different characters which different cons exhibit. At Eastercons I’ve been to, I’ve found a very traditional set of attendees – white, older and mostly men (the women also often wear velvet skirts and many bangles). The panels have often been less academic, and certainly haven’t really focused on social and community issues. At NineWorlds, however, the basic MO is inclusivity – there’s a communication preferences system for letting people know if you want to chat or not, pronoun badges are available, and, this year at least, the programme was full of items which directly dealt with race, gender and sexuality in SF&F – though not disability, which I found to be an interesting omission. I’m pleased to have a politically engaged con in the landscape, even if the politics was at times a little overwhelming, and the track organisation, to my mind, inexpertly handled in terms of timetabling and likely clashes.

The politics came to the fore in the best possible way at a panel we attended on Saturday afternoon: ‘The Fantasy of White History: Race and Racism in Historically Based Fiction’. Panel discussions done badly are so depressing – and sadly, this is what I’ve most often seen at cons. Fortunately, in this case the situation was entirely different. The panellists – Zen Cho, Georgina Jackson-Callen, Meg Jayanth and Jade Fernandez – really sparked well with each other, the conversation going on without awkwardness or lags in interest for the whole hour and fifteen minutes. I was reminded once again of the importance of a.) being an active ally to those typically underrepresented or marginalised in fandom, and in every aspect of life and b.) of intersectionality – that we cannot understand experiences and systems of oppression in singularities, but as elements interacting on multiple axes. Given that I plan to read Mies and Shiva’s Ecofeminism soon, this is an important concept to remember.

Though this panel was chewy and dense, I found this lacked across a number of the other discussions I attended. Whilst I enjoyed the concepts of a lot of them, it does sadden me that a need for mass appeal can often result in ‘101 sessions’ – surface level, limited explorations of subjects and skill sets. I felt this particularly in the criticism workshop – whilst the critics had really interesting things to say, and though they were enjoyable to listen to, if I’d wanted to listen just to their ideas on the stories we read, I’d have read their journalism. What I wanted, I think, was a nuts and bolts account of the practical skills of criticism – not an anecdotal, indulgent exploration of existing experience.

One paper which did offer a fantastic, dense discussion of its topic, however, was Vanessa Thompsett’s ‘Dystopian London in Fiction – The Unreal City’, which used 1984, Brave New World and V for Vendetta to explore how a real place can be transformed into a dystopia. I’m fascinated by the relationship of place to fiction, and Thompsett really showed the importance of this well, using concepts of psychogeography in her discussion. It got me thinking, though, about regionality in science fiction in particular. I’ve seen a lot of regionally based fantasy – I’m a huge fan of Jenny Nimmo and Alan Garner, and being in Leicester, how could I miss Rod Duncan or Graham Joyce? But where are the British regions in SF? If anyone wants to point me in the direction of SF stories and books set in the non-London parts of the UK, please do, especially anything based in the Midlands. Otherwise I’m going to start writing Brummie hard SF. And that’s a threat, not a promise.

Something I really loved about LonCon3 was the dealer and art stalls. Of course, given the scale and budget of LonCon, expecting anything like that from other cons is just setting myself up for disappointment. But NineWorlds did leave me quite disappointed even compared to other, non LonCon cons. Only two stalls, Genki Gear and Forbidden Planet International were there all weekend, the rest of the stalls only appearing between 1000 and 1700 on Sunday (unfortunately my busiest day for panels). And they were primarily focused on shiny things – a preponderance of jewellery and yarn over indie publishers, second hand books, genuine memorabilia, and film, TV and music. It felt like aesthetic over substance – Skiffy as look and tribal self-expression rather than an experience of particular related media. A strange thing, this.

This all meant that there was a distinct lack of stuff to do outside of the panels. The games library, where you could borrow a huge selection of board games and play them, was an inspired idea, but if that was full, you were stuck sitting in one of the hotel’s overpriced bars, walking in the phenomenal engine-heat of Heathrow to Starbucks for bitter coffee, or picking through desultory fries at MaccieD’s. Maybe I should have made use of the Quiet Room. And the hotel was so damned shiny – and not in a good way. The black marble in the floor fell away into a visual void, and I nearly plummeted to my doom a few times.

My NineWorlds experience, then, was mixed. I met some lovely people and did see some interesting panels and presentations, but the programme wasn’t really written for me. And that’s OK – an ecosystem of cons is a good thing, and you can’t please everyone. But if next year sees a similar programme at the same venue, I probably won’t be going unless something really stands out. One irony I found – and it’s a sad one – is that despite the bursary they offer, a con at this location, and certainly this venue, can never be truly accessible, and that many people attending, including myself, were already privileged just by virtue of being able to attend. This is a difficult problem, and I don’t know how to resolve it. Neither do I wish to do any disservice to what the NineWorlds committee have done over the last three years in terms of inclusion – it’s been incredible. But the hole of financial difficulties and poverty is worth raising despite and because of it being difficult to fill. Maybe genre, which has done so much to help those who have felt marginalised in the mainstream, can step up and do something to help those in need – become a true literature of escape.

Ha. After all that, there I go, slathering on politics with a trowel