Saturday, January 18, 2014

Uttermost South

I frequently scrawl in notebooks because of situational restrictions ( at times self-imposed) then I lose the notebooks. Later on I find them while cleaning or looking for something else and what is written within immediately and inevitably distracts me from whatever useful task I am performing. The person who wrote that stuff knew precisely what I like and seems to be endeavouring to reconfigure reality and art in just such a manner as is ever my intent, and yet, some quirk of my drug-addled memory has invariably wiped away all recollection of setting down the words or encapsulating the thoughts and so the text smites my eyes afresh, a thing novel and tailored to my own personal proclivities. 

 Much of what finds its way onto the blog has precisely this genesis - excavated from papery strata and subject to some kind of semi-coherent palaeontological reconstruction of the original intent, a fleshing out of the skeleton of ideas from the scrawl-armature in which they lie coiled. 

 Among these texts are mentions of the Uttermost South setting, the which has no cohesive form but is of necessity and intent without concrete conception. The notion of it is rooted in a concept - The Retreat of Wonder - that I've been fecklessly mulling over for some time. Essentially, as nescience recedes with the accumulation of discoveries so too do the mysteries of the poetic and the transcendent recede with it. Fairies at the bottom of the garden give way eventually to fabulous beings in foreign countries and as those countries are rendered mundane by discoveries the fantastic projections of the desire for wonder flee beneath the earth and to nearby planets and distant times and are again and again banished by enlightenment, further and further away. 

 This phenomenon works both ways, though. As scientific enquiry clears the local regions of space-time of pockets of ignorance where disbelief may be easily suspended, so too does it vastly expand distant realms where our fertile inventive instinct can project embodiments of the awe and terror it is in our nature to feel. This has ever been my explanation of Lovecraft and of his popularity and influence (and importance to literature), he recognised the dissolution of the Humanity's paramount position in the cosmos as deep-time and space and the successive Copernican, Darwinian and Freudian revolutions of consciousness rendered obsolete the old paradigms. In their place Lovecraft was able to set up a new nihilistic paradigm where vast new nesciences were able to be populated by new demons. 

 I don't think this process will ever end, the demons dog our every step and they'll always find somewhere to hide. I reckon they're busy colonising outposts of meme-space and distant 'branes and lurking in wait our genes. 

 As for the South, it crept into my mind the first time I watched Peter Jackson's ridiculous King Kong in late 2005 (I call it ridiculous despite the fact it made me weep with joy at the time). Skull Island, where Kong lives, struck me as being precisely the kind of region of mystery I described, where the projections of early 20th-century folks are concentrated, all the mystery and danger and preposterous wonder alive and wild and free, and at precisely the time the last blank bits of the map are being filled-in. I think it is no mystery that it is at the time in history when lost-world and lost-race fiction is at its height the final stages of the Modernist project of mapping and colonising the Earth was taking place. But the last flourishes of projection were deliciously fanciful, undiscovered islands and plateaus and the hollow earth itself fairly festering with every kind of prehistoric marvel. This era of confabulation gave rise to planetary romance fiction once the lost worlds started to stretch credulity.* 


Beyond this particular thread of inspiration is the fact of my being Australian. Living on the wrong side of the world I've always consumed fantasy predicated on familiarity with a temperate northern landscape that is utterly unfamiliar to me. I live in a subtropical environment characterised by riotous verdure and great biodiversity - there are more tree species on most of the sites I work (doing ecological restoration) than in all of Europe. The landscape that is familiar to me is the stuff of colonial-era fantasy and nightmares; all manner of poisonous serpents, giant kingfishers' mocking laughter, platypus-haunted rivers, innumerable things that bite and sting, beasts that hop about instead of run, and bear their young in pouches, black swans and inverted seasons. Onto this reality I have projected the familiar northern European tropes of fantasy and found the juxtaposition somewhat jarring. 

The southern parts of the world interest me now, or rather, the concept of South in the northern mind. South means separated by time and space from the comforts of civilisation and reason. It is an inherently irrational direction and legitimately subject to suspicion. There was a time, not so long ago, when sailing into the Southern Hemisphere of the world was like travelling to another planet, an alien world where precious orthodoxies fall away and the pre-eminence of civilisation is brought into question through exposure to manifestations of the untameable universe.

 "We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there — there you could look at a thing monstrous and free." 

Conrad, Heart of Darkness 

There is a greater metaphor at play here. The wild south awakens a realisation of the wild in humanity. We are inextricably part of that wilderness. We came ravening out of it at the dawn of time and it will always be in us.

 Key texts informing this aspect of Southern-ness are; Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness (of course), Blood Meridian, the films; Aguirre: The Wrath of God, The Proposition, The Tracker and Van Diemen's Land.

And the paintings of Albert Tucker and a whole bunch of other stuff that I've probably forgotten

The more pulpy stuff from the lost world era that I am interested in include H. Rider Haggard's She and King Solomon's Mines, Abraham Merrit's lost race stories, Burroughs' Palaeo-fiction, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, The Lost World and various stop-motion Dino-movies. Also; Mieville's The Scar and, at the farthest extreme, Lovecraft's Mountains of Madness and Call of Cthulhu. 

I'd say that's a J. Allen St. John cover.

 The thing the first lot of texts have that the pulpy stuff lacks is ferocity and gravitas and a willingness to burrow deep into the mystery of humanity in ways Edgar Rice Burroughs could never achieve.** To me what they represent is one of the central themes of the modern era: it matters not that your sacred texts declared you to be beyond reproach, the real universe is made of carnage and you're holding a knife. 


 So that's South. I'm working on this idea at the behest of Jez Gordon, who saw something of a common thread in the settings of Australian OSR people (i.e. Crapsack sensibilities) and suggested that some or all of us work together to produce some writings on the theme for some kind of document or periodical we could put together. I think there are some brilliant people down hereabouts (and I include our south-eastern outpost, New Zealand, in hereabouts) and that such a thing has potential to be very, very good. The contribution I would like to make to such a document is a setting or a series of tools for the emulation and evocation of an environment of savage alien wilderness. The Uttermost South setting would be concerned with the colonisation of the Great Southern Land - Terra Incognita - incorporating elements of Australia and Darkest Africa and Amazonia as well as all those aforementioned projections of alien otherness. 

The Nameless Continent will become a penal colony, squalid hulks bear miserables banished from the light of civilisation to be cast up on the alien shore. At present, I don't know what they'll encounter there. What I do know is that it will be terrible. The Earth we inherited from our Palaeolithic forebears is largely bereft of terrors but there have been more terrible worlds. Nobody human has ever been grabbed by a Titanoboa or an Andrewsarchus but I imagine it wouldn't be pleasant. I'd like to investigate that level of unpleasantness. 

Few of those who have experienced the crocodile's death roll have lived to describe it. It is, essentially, an experience beyond words of total terror. The crocodile's breathing and heart metabolism are not suited to prolonged struggle, so the roll is an intense burst of power designed to overcome the victim's resistance quickly. The crocodile then holds the feebly struggling prey underwater until it drowns. The roll was a centrifuge of boiling blackness that lasted for an eternity, beyond endurance, but when I seemed all but finished, the rolling suddenly stopped. My feet touched bottom, my head broke the surface, and, coughing, I sucked at air, amazed to be alive. The crocodile still had me in its pincer grip between the legs. I had just begun to weep for the prospects of my mangled body when the crocodile pitched me suddenly into a second death roll. 

Val Plumwood, describing a run-in with a Saltwater Croc

 - I fully intend for this to be a collaborative effort, though I do not expect any contribution, whatever people want to do for this project is more than welcome. Jack Mack already made the suggestion that the currency be rum. This is now canon (and also awesome). _____________________________________________________ 

*It is worth noting that the highlands of Papua New Guinea remained isolated until the 1930s, this represents about a fifth of the world's languages and an enormous quantity of cultural and biological diversity hidden away from the rest of humanity until eighty years ago. 

** An interesting trick of Values Dissonance makes Burroughs' all-American "civilised" protagonists seem preposterously alien to my mind.

The unofficial theme song


  1. i have to say, man, i'm gonna miss your frozen boreal death musings, but i'm sure your new project will be of the quality i'm accustomed to on this blog. i'm not just being an OSR fan-boy here; i really enjoy your stuff. what you said re: australia is actually real interesting because, as a person who has spent a lot of time in boreal deathscapes, your imaginings hit freakishly close to home

    have you checked out Qelong? it's an LotFP thing set in East Asia, rather than amazonia/dark continent/etc, but in my opinion a pretty solid example of "Heart of Darkness as an rpg campaign"

    1. I haven't seen Qelong yet but it has a very good reputation. The Murk is not gone away for good and there is a very good likelihood that this project will fuel my desire to work on the other project as has been my experience whenever I stray from my path.

      Thanks for the kind words.

  2. Onto this reality I have projected the familiar northern European tropes of fantasy and found the juxtaposition somewhat jarring.

    My experience exactly. As an Australian, it's taken (taking) me years to shake off, or come to terms with, those N.E. tropes in terms of my own imaginative life.

    Will your Uttermost South include an inland sea? Go on.


  3. Have you read Ballard's Drowned World? I think it speaks of the South that you speak of, this irrational, mucky, lizard-brain territory that fills the civilised heart with terror, but calls to it with some primordial cosmic beat.