Author: Jonathan McCalmont

Jonathan McCalmont is a critic whose work has been published at Strange Horizons, The SF Site, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Vector and The Escapist. He maintains a film and literary blog entitled Ruthless Culture and he writes a monthly gaming column at Futurismic entitled Blasphemous Geometries.
Read More
new frontier


0. Looking Back in order to Move Forward

One of the more interesting developments in superhero comics has been the growing popularity of comics that take familiar characters and transplant them into unfamiliar historical contexts. Though this type of postmodern speculative exercise has been around in one form or another since the Silver Age, the current vogue has its roots in Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola’s Gotham by Gaslight (1989), an ‘elseworld’ that took Batman and reinvented him as a steampunk vigilante battling Jack the Ripper in a turn of the Century Gotham City. Other attempts at historical re-potting include Superman’s reinvention as a Soviet tyrant in Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son (2003) and Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602 (2003), which transplanted the entire Marvel universe to Elizabethan England.

Read More

Chew… Stripp’d

Food is the archetypal First World problem. While some parts of the world starve and other parts are turned inside out by our demand for low-cost and low-fuss supplies of exotic and increasingly refined foodstuffs, the West is growing increasingly alienated and distant from the things that it eats.

The Chimpanzee Complex… Stripp’d

There is consolation in conspiracy. Whenever something terrible happens, humans look for answers and they don’t stop looking even when they have found them: It wasn’t Oswald who killed Kennedy, it was the mob or the commies, or the CIA. It wasn’t a drunk driver who killed Princess Diana; it was British Intelligence and the Royal Family. The reason why our minds are drawn to conspiracies is because conspiracies make the world seem a less random and little more comprehensible. Our need to derive spiritual sustenance from a belief that we are part of some grand plan or pattern fuels religion as well as psychology. In fact, one could argue that the whole point of Freudian psychoanalysis is the construction of elaborate conspiracy theories that explain away people’s less desirable character traits:

Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit… Stripp’d

Some would say that beautiful lives bloom only in the shadow cast by death. But while this may very well be true, how could we ever know for sure? Statements like this one and Plato’s ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ are supposed to be useful and practical advice that help us to determine how we ought to live our lives but if we are going to change our lives and live them either with our heads buried in books or our faces pressed up against the nearest tombstone then surely these sorts of statements need to be tested? Motoro Mase’s manga serial Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit is set in an alternate Japan where the state regularly sacrifices one citizen out of every thousand as a reminder to the others that their lives could end at any time. The Japanese state does this because it believes that by reminding its citizens of their mortality, their citizens will choose to live more productive lives. Ikigami is an exploration of what it might be like to live in such a society.

Phonogram… Stripp’d

One could argue that the enduring popularity of genre motifs is a direct result of the death of God.

Prior to the Enlightenment, the people of the ancient and medieval worlds knew their place.  They knew that there were gods and demons, monsters and spirits. They knew that the good things in life could be lured to them by undertaking certain actions and they knew that the bad things could be kept in the shadows by undertaking other actions. They knew that their lives were meaningful and they knew that they were part of the elaborate tapestry of myth, prophecy and magic that held the world together. However, as science cast its light into the darkness old certainties were overturned and magic was forced from the world along with that sense of purpose that the ancients took for granted.  Suddenly, humanity knew that there was nothing to fear because nothing really mattered. Instead of ritual and magic, humanity contented itself with paperwork, breakfast cereals and trips to the bathroom. We had successfully dis-enchanted the world.

Kaoru Mori’s A Bride’s Story… Stripp’d

If you wander around a second hand book shop and start leafing through old history textbooks you will rapidly notice that history used to be nothing but stories about men with beards and top hats. Looking back on this state of affairs, we can now see that one of the reasons for this is that people naturally tend to gravitate towards stories that interest them on a personal level. Because of this, bearded men wound up writing books about other bearded men to the point where history became nothing but a collection of stories about bearded men (with or without top hats). This pattern did not change until the demographics of university education began to change and an influx of non-white, non-male students created a generation of non-white, non-male historians who reached professional maturity in the 1960s.

Ludwig II… Stripp’d

0. The Challenge of Escapism

Like Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption (1994), we live our lives obsessed by thoughts of escape. Escape from our jobs, escape from our relationships, escape from our friends and escape from a life dominated by work, travel and a raging torrent of TV dinners and talent shows that carries us all the way to our graves. Capitalism is the greatest prison of all because its walls are built not of bricks and mortar but of dreams and aspiration. The marketplace is saturated with opportunities to escape the mundane drudgery of our lives: Get a better job! Move to the country! Get plastic surgery! Get a better boyfriend! Get a better body! Dress like Cheryl Cole! We work impossible hours at impossible jobs in the hope that someday we might find a way of being another person in another place.

Ooku: The Inner Chambers – Volume 6

Okay, so here’s the thing…

I started in on the sixth volume of Ooku: The Inner Chambers without bothering to re-read either the previous volumes in the series or my thoughts on those five books. As a result, I spent most of my reading time trying to remember who the various characters were and what their struggles were supposed to signify. I know that this makes me sound like a bit of a scatterbrain but Volume 6 does not feature any self-contained story lines, instead it concludes storylines from the previous volumes and lays the foundation for a storyline that will (hopefully) feature in Volume 7 if and when Viz Media get round to translating it. Given that characters in Ooku frequently change names and physical appearances with the passage of time and the somewhat interstitial nature of this volume’s narrative, I think that my disorientation is at least understandable, if not forgivable. I mention this because, as I struggled to make sense of the images and words that swam before my eyes, it suddenly occurred to me that I might have been reading this series in completely the wrong manner.  Let me explain…

Universal War One… Stripp’d

The Christian conception of redemption is an oddly commercial one. Grounded in Old Testament talk of ransoming the slaves, redemption is presented as a transaction through which Christians pay off their debt to God and buy back their freedom from sin. Indeed, Christ is said to have redeemed mankind by suffering on the cross, thereby wiping the slate clean for all of humanity like some vast mortgage agreement bonfire. Christians tend to think of redemption as fundamentally democratic and emancipatory because, no matter how poor one is or how horrific one’s crimes may be, redemption is never completely out of reach and God’s business hours are 9 to infinity. But of course, this assumes that God had the right to levy the debt in the first place.

Ooku: The Inner Chambers – Volume 5

At the end of volume one of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku: The Inner Chambers, the Shogun Yoshimune asks an elderly monk to explain to her “the logic of the present custom” of using male honorifics and titles to refer to female nobles.  After all, if women run the country while men are expected to do little other than provide an heir, why should women continue to pay lip service to the idea that men are running the show?  The monk’s answer is to read to the Shogun from a book entitled Chronicle of a Dying Day.

Ooku: The Inner Chambers – Volume 4

With the opening volumes of Ooku: The Inner Chambers, Fumi Yoshinaga attempts to answer the question of why it is that a culture’s values do not automatically keep step with its demographics.  For example, why would a version of Edo-period Japan in which 75% of the male population had been wiped out by a terrible disease continue to pay lip-service to the idea that men are still running the show?  Alternatively, why would a society in which women shoulder the same political, social and economic responsibilities as men continue to tolerate sexist attitudes and language in the way that our society does?

Ooku: The Inner Chambers – Volume 3

Volume One of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku: The Inner Chambers posed a question of both its world and ours.  That question was why there is such a thing as gender inequality when gender inequality is so manifestly absurd.  Yoshinaga asks this question by having her characters delve into the past of a fictional Edo-period Japan in which the male population has been reduced by 75%.  The characters look to their history in search of an explanation for their society’s irrational reluctance to abandon the myth of masculine superiority despite the fact that men no longer hold any positions of power.  Why do these Edo-period Japanese still pay homage to the male ego?  By revealing the process through which old values persist in the face of radical social transformation, Yoshinaga sheds some light in our own continued fondness for stereotypes and myths of sexual difference.

Ooku: The Inner Chambers – Volume 2

The First Volume of Ooku: The Inner Chambers ends with the newly installed Shogun asking a question of an elderly monk. This question, though apparently simple, cuts straight to the heart of her kingdom, her culture, her history and her identity:

    – I wonder if this land was always the way it is now. I ask myself why it is that when a woman succeeds as head of her family — whether she be a merchant or a samurai or a village magistrate — she must take a manly name?  From reading the registries of this realm one would think the country was run by men.  (…) Like this, the true state of our country cannot be grasped. These registers are a distorted mirror indeed of our society, and I wish to abolish this custom of using manly names forthwith.  Unless…
    • – Unless there is a logic to the present custom…? —

Ooku: The Inner Chambers – Volume 1 (2009)

0.  A Statement of Subject and Method

Fumi Yoshinaga’s Eisner Award-nominated and James Tiptree Jr. Award-winning series Ooku: The Inner Chambers is a multi-volume manga series set in an alternative version of Medieval Edo Period Japan in which a terrifying plague has wiped out 75% of the male population.  Using this fictional event as a point of divergence (or Jonbar hinge), Yoshinaga sets about exploring what might have happened had Japan’s Edo-period social and political institutions been forced to adapt to such a dramatic demographic change.

Sherlock’s Little Mistakes 3: The Great Game

0.  Terms of Engagement

Welcome, Brothers and Sisters, to the third weekly meeting of the Church of The Hermeneutic Christ.  Blessed be the name of Sherlock and peace be upon his prophets Nero Wolfe, Jane Marple and Adrian Monk.

Come, let us pray…

Sherlock’s Little Mistakes 2: The Blind Banker

0. Terms of Engagement



ydoan o

yunnuhstand dem

yguduh ged

yunnuhstan dem doidee

yguduh ged riduh

ydoan o nudn





lidl yelluh bas

tuds weer goin


So wrote E. E. Cummings in 1944. The poem, entitled “ygUDuh”, appeared in Cummings’ collection 1 x 1 and it is taken to be a written imitation of a New Yorker giving his opinion on America’s involvement in the Second World War. The line “Lidl yelluh bas/tuds weer goin/duhSIVILEYEZUM” gives the game away. We are dealing with a drunken slur: Little Yellow Bastards. We’re Going To Civilise ‘em. These kinds of racist sentiments percolate effortlessly through the body politic at times of stress and torment. We are unhappy. We are in pain. It isn’t our fault. It is theirs.

Sherlock’s Little Mistakes 1 : A Study in Pink

0. Terms of Engagement

Mystery fiction is a profoundly consolatory genre.  Whether it is set in a Loamshire country house, a snow-bound train or the streets of Victorian London, the mystery novel is all about fashioning order from the chaos and misery of our daily lives.  Grisly accidents and unexpected deaths may appear to be merely the random fluctuations of tragic chance but a skilled detective will always see through the fog of circumstance to the real nexus of cause-and-effect.  In a world where humans are subject to the impersonal vastness of social forces and the unrelenting entropy of the physics, the skilled detective doubles as a revival tent preacher.  By solving crimes and unpicking the mysteries of the world he reminds us that we are not merely subject to the world but agents within it.  It is not blind cruel chance that kills but people.  People whose schemes can be uncovered.  People who can be punished.  By reclaiming human agency from the chaos of the world, the skilled detective saves us from the realisation that life is short, cruel, pointless and unpredictable.