Sunday, February 03, 2013

Holophin by Luke Kennard

In his SF novella Holophin Luke Kennard posits a future world where our memories are aided by the Holophin, a kind of Babel-fish of the mind, that cutely branded as a dolphin allows us to enhance different aspects of our presence. Its most practical element: that it can attend "virtual" board meetings on our behalf is the killler app that makes it so successful. Yet the Holophin and the corporation that designs it is not so much an industrial megacorp as a benevolent cooperative, development of their soft-hardware taking place in their school for geniuses, where much of the short novel is set. Hatsuka and Max are students of the school, and as well as there studies, they are involved in various secret projects which may or may not be with the permission of the school's enigmatic leadership. So far, so good, this is a pithy SF tale, set in that notoriously Asian millieu that we find in books like The Wind Up Girl, and in much of Murakami. In a fucked up world, corporations of various kinds have replaced the nation states we were used to and a certain pan-Asian sensibility is a default setting for this new world.

Yet, this is Kennard we are talking about, a poet who, in his books to date has shown an admirable desire not just to have his cake and eat it, but to let us know that is what he wants. Like David Mitchell, he seems to have assimilated a wide range of influences in such a way that whatever he lays out, he has considered all the angles. In this case, what starts as a tight, imaginative flight of fancy, soon collapses in on itself. Hatsuka, the girl genius, is carrying her own secret with her, the Holophin as novelist, who narrates the tale to us, whilst her "boyfriend" Max is increasingly absent from the tale. Wondering why he has left his own Holophin behind, in a nice twist on the reading-his-diary scenario, she quizzes the Holophin and finds a dark, grim(m) bedtime story which is then embedded in this manuscript. Asking to be placed in the story herself, it also changes and we are moved from a standard SF tale, into the halls and mirrors of Kennard's poems, which often tell a story then step inside or outside the story to let us know (or at least partially know) we are being "had." Here it is Calvino that most readily comes to mind; and there's a wonderful sense with Kennard, that even at his most wayward, he's more interested in jumping into the next place, than worrying about what that might actually be or entail.

Coincidentally (or not - it prompted me to read Holophin, which had been sat on my shelf for a while), Kennard read at  Poets and Players yesterday.  (alongside Sandeep Parmar, whose poem about her mother seen through an "archive" of her life, had a contrasting take on memory.) Though now turned 30, he is every much the well-spoken young poet-academic, but he disarms us with a poem from his latest book which confronts his affectations and lampoons them. Reading a number of poems from across his various books, his knowingness, which could appear wearisome, seems at one with the playful uncertainty of his work. As he says, when asked to write a wedding poem and being criticised afterwards for it not being poetic enough, "it has rhythm, form, assonance and alliteration, what more do you want?"

It is this sense of playful self criticism which I think gives Holophin a charm that lasts beyond the last page; for the "bedtime" stories that the device tells us are merely different "doors" into a consciousness that then gets corrupted and affected. Here is Orwell's forever war between competing armies, but replayed by corporations (Apple v. Microsoft perhaps?) as Hatsuka gets head-hunted by the open-source enemy of the Takin Corporation whose own logo, more glitzy than the plain dolphin, is a nautilus. The simple sea creatures are metaphors in the extreme: Hatsuka's father was a fisherman; but the seas have long since been polluted beyond being fishable. In this short, wayward but fascinating story, Kennard wants to show us more than a single possibility. The stories we are told - like the memories we hold - are unreliable, but may well be all we've got. The Holophin is in a nice pulp tradition of "life changing" devices - whether its Douglas Adam's Babel Fish, the horror movie The Stuff, the Adipose in Dr. Who or Carl Tighe's Kssss - which in itself seem to hark back to an older world of magic lamps and monkey's hands; and the story within a story here brings these echoes back full circle.

Holophin is still available as an e-book from Penned in the Margins. 

1 comment:

Angela Topping said...

I very much enjoyed his engaging and disarming reading. It lives up to his poems.