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Mental health, mental illness, science fiction and horror

March 13, 2014 Leave a comment

I haven’t posted stuff for a couple of months because I’ve been writing a course on nutrition, which proved interesting at a number of levels. You may have seen some of the recent media coverage of the processed food industry and the way we’re encouraged to buy fat, sugar, salt and donkey meat – but I’ll leave all that for another blog post.

Then I started the latest project, which revisits an area I’ve worked on periodically since the 1980s – mental illness. This is an introductory course for non-medical people like care workers and hostel staff, so it covers a broad spectrum of conditions.

I got to the bit about schizophrenia, and since I also have an interest in writing various genres of fiction there was a sudden cross-pollination of ideas. I’m sure I’m far from the only person to make this link, but I thought it was worth a ‘note to self’ if nothing else.

There’s a summary of the symptoms of schizophrenia that appears on a general introductory information resource on the web, at www.helpguide.org if you’re interested. Schipohrenia has both positive and negative symptoms. A ‘positive’ symptom is where there is an abnormal mental function; a negative symptom is the lack of a mental function you’d normally expect. The positive symptoms are hallucinations and delusions. The hallucinations are often auditory (hearing voices – there’s a simulation of this on Youtube it you’re interested). The delusions, sets of beliefs about the self, others and the word,  take a wid range of forms but commonly fall into one of four patterns:

  • Delusions of persecution – Belief that others, often with vague identities are out to get the person. These persecutory delusions often involve bizarre ideas and plots (e.g. ‘The CIA is trying to poison me with toxins impregnated into my clothes’).
  • Delusions of reference – Something the person sees in their environment is believed to have a special and personal meaning. For example, a person with schizophrenia might believe a piece of street graffiti or workmen’s marks made by a utility company is sending a message meant specifically for them.
  • Delusions of grandeur – Belief that one is a famous or important figure, such as Jesus Christ or Napoleon. Alternately, delusions of grandeur may involve the belief that one has unusual powers that no one else has (e.g. the ability to fly).
  • Delusions of control – Belief that one’s thoughts or actions are being controlled by others. Common delusions of control include thought broadcasting (‘My private thoughts are being bugged or monitored’), thought insertion (‘Someone is putting thoughts in my head’), and thought withdrawal (‘Aliens are robbing me of my thoughts and preventing me remembering things’).

Just in case you’re wondering, the idea of impregnating clothes with toxins isn’t fictional – it was developed in South Africa in the 1970s as a means of killing opponents of apartheid, and the daughter of one activist, Donald Woods, was injured by an acid-laced T-shirt. Nor is the idea of graffiti or other signs of the street being used to communicate with individuals unusual. Intelligence services used such techniques from at least World War II onwards while traveller folklore records gypsies, American hobos and others developing discreet graffiti to provide information on places and people that ‘outsiders’ wouldn’t understand. As to unusual powers and thought-manipulation – there’s always the American MK Ultra intelligence programme, which did some pretty strange things and is often used to lend credence to almost any weirdness you can imagine.

At this point some mental cogwheels began to move, because my sense of a lot of SF, fantasy and horror stories is that they too revolve around one of these four ideas.

As it happens I’m also reading The Air Loom Gang at the moment, which deals with James Tilley Matthews. He was a ‘lunatic’ held in the Bethlem Hospital in London in the late 1700s and ealy 1800s, though by today’s standards he would probably be diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.

His highly elaborate delusions concerned the clandestine siting of Air Looms around London – devices that could control people by directing currents of gases at them that could change their thought patterns and influence their health. Matthews thought they were controlled by criminal gangs in the employ of French revolutionaries and, as is often the case in such delusions, there were small elements of truth embedded in the delusion. For one thing he had spent time in France acting in an unofficial capacity (or perhaps we should say seeking to act as an unofficial negotiator) in talks to make peace between England and revolutionary France; he had been imprisoned by the revolutionaries as a potential spy while in France; and his experiences took place at the time mesmerism, pneumatic chemistry, and experiments on the effects electricity were all in vogue.

Matthews’ delusions of the Air Loom are consistent with what we have come to describe as ‘influencing machines’ – devices that the delusional person believes has an effect on their own mind and possibly on others, such as the hospital staff. But in his discussion of Matthews’ delusions, the author (Mike Jay) comments that the delusions may have some broader social underpinning:

‘Delusional subjects often unsettle those who encounter them not just by the form of their condition but its content: they can reflect back a disturbing, often nightmarish certainty about free-floating anxieties in the broader culture’ (p181)

Which is what much science fiction, fantasy and horror is also intended to do. The genres often explore elaborate nightmare situations that could come about from seeds in current society.

So next time you read a story in which: (a) someone is being persecuted or chased by unknown, shadowy figures who are trying to capture or kill them (b) someone has a sudden revelation by means of seeing something that’s in a public place or being broadcast, but is meant for them alone (c) an ‘ordinary’ person suddenly discovers they have a much grander and more important role in the world (or the universe) or (d) someone discovers they’re missing parts of their memory, have false memories implanted, or are being remotely controlled – remember that you’re reading something that draws on our understandings of mental illness and probably also draws on wider cultural anxieties, principally about the way power and authority are exercised.

At the same time, remember that despite the off-the-wall accounts you can find in some conspiracy theories, technologies have been developed often by intelligence services for use against ‘enemies of the state’, in the knowledge that anyone who says they’ve experienced them is likely to be discounted as mad. That’s not to say any given individual with delusions will have been targeted, of course. Just that the nature of the ‘influencing machines’ and covert weapons that are out there have probably outstripped even the imaginations of many SF and horror writers – and indeed many people with mental illness. Though if you do happen to think you’re Jesus or Napoleon, please seek help…

Looking to the future

December 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Just before Christmas I came across a piece on the BBC website, ‘Futurology: The tricky art of knowing what will happen next’. And I’ve spent Christmas in a pensive frame of mind, wondering what kinds of predictions we might be able to make about the next fifty or so years.

The BBC piece is based on a 1972 book by Geoffrey Hoyle that’s recently been reissued, and to some extent the predictions made in it are less to do with scientific advances and more to do with social developments.

For example the book depicted everyone wearing jumpsuits, a style that back then, with the film of 1984 still in the public consciousness, had connotations of centralised planning and loss of individual liberty. A great deal of science fiction – and I assume this well known – is less about science per se and more about social and political critique, which is often carried in such apparently trivial details. So if I were to try to make any predictions, they wouldn’t be sweeping and scientific ones, they’d be relatively modest, devil-is-in-the-detail type ones.

If you want big and sweeping ones, earlier this year the New York Daily News (23 June 2010) carried a piece called ‘A Global Status Report: January 1, 2050 – predictions of year 2050 world scenario’. Among other things this concluded on the basis of a poll that more than 71% of the US population thinks cancer will be ‘cured’, 74% that most of our energy will come from renewables, 53% that ‘ordinary people’ will travel in space, almost 90% that a woman will be president of the US by 2050, and 69% that the president will be Hispanic (there’s no separate figure for the proportion who think there will be a Hispanic woman president by that tine). Oh, and 72% see a looming energy crisis while 59% think there will be another world war and 53% a major nuclear terrorist attack on the US.

Finally, to keep matters in perspective, 41% say that by 2050 we’ll see the second coming of Jesus Christ: whether that will happen before or after the energy crisis and the world war isn’t reported.

Certain predictions are almost not worth making. For example I wrote a short story some time ago in which people had jackets and other fashion items with communications technologies – phone and video – woven into the fibres. But of course such things already exist as prototypes, as followers of trendhunter.com will have seen.

So – my predictions? More socio-political than technological, I think.

1. Life will become more complex and interconnected, in an attempt to try to keep everything going. It will also become more random, as the resiliance of our systems against everything from the weather to volcanic ash and earthquakes to social protest and financial crises will be tested to the limit. The interconnectedness of systems will itself become problematic. That’s the thing about interconnectedness – when one system goes down, it affects everything it’s connected to.

2. Life will become more complex as rules and regulations increase. But mostly we’ll all end up ignoring the rules and regulations because they’ll become impossible to comply with, mutually contradictory, etc. We’ll find ways round them, multiple identities, whatever. Even today, a large proportion of crimes are seen on CCTV, but the proportion of crimes actually solved through CCTV is a bit over 1%. My prediction is just that phenomenon, writ large.

3. Small will be beautiful. Here’s a story. A music shop near me just closed. Trwenty years ago it was an independent store. It got bought up by a chain of stores, which was sold and re-sold a number of times to ever larger and more remote investment and venture capital companies. Eventually the local store was just a branch of a subsidiary of a company that was owned by some larger company that tried to micro-manage it and knew nothing about the music industry. So the company went bankrupt and the store closed quite suddenly. Now, round the corner from the empty shop unit, there’s a new small independent music company. That’s the microcosm; I can see a lot more of that kind of thing happening in the future.

4. Hats will become more popular. Especially ones with wide brims or veils that partly hide the face.

Any other thoughts, suggestions or predictions welcome!

Out soon – The Speculator

June 5, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m an occasional, inconstant member of The Speculators, a Leicester-based SF/fantasy writing group that came up with the idea of an occasional newspaper-format publication with members’ stories.

Issue 1 of The Speculator is now printed, I’m pleased to say including one of my stories.

The newspaper as a whole has 17 short stories, a news article, editorial and a bunch of artwork, which is a lot for 12 pages.

The plan is to distribute the paper free at the upcoming Alt.Fiction event on 12 June, a one-day festival of alternative fiction including horror, fantasy and SF in Derby (UK). Thereafter, I think the idea is that the PDF will be available online from the Speculators website (no, it’s not there right now – be patient!).

Flash fiction – ‘Scream’ visible from space

June 3, 2010 Leave a comment

Inspired by Google Sightseeing… for those outside the UK, ‘COBRA’ is Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, the name based on the usual location of crisis response meetings.

‘Scream’ visible from space

A satellite survey of electromagnetic emissions has revealed a strange image of the UK. Some commentators have likened it to the face in Edvard Munch’s famous painting ‘The Scream’. Others have suggested it looks like the face of a ‘Grey’, the type of alien being associated with the alleged crash landing of a flying saucer at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947.

Conspiracy theories have already emerged in the internet. Some claim the image is a clandestine invitation to aliens to make contact. Others suggest the image means aliens have been in control of the UK for some time.

Dr Jon Vagg, head of SPACE, the School for Psychosexual And Cultural Evaluation, says: ‘People will always project their unconscious desires onto random images, much like the well-known inkblot tests used in psychology. In this case people are using the image to express their profound dissatisfaction with the extent of economic, social and sexual repression in current society.’

‘The image may prompt some groups in society to set up new types of social relationships and perhaps even to plan revolutionary or terrorist activity,’ he added.

By late last night the image had been removed from the satellite survey website though it had already been downloaded by millions of users.

Reliable sources say the government called a COBRA crisis response meeting early this morning, attended by several ministers, senior officials and unnamed external advisers. The agenda and discussion were confidential.

The plant that eats sheep (or: the virtues of patience)

May 31, 2010 Leave a comment

About two years ago I half-wrote a SF story that concerned a retired space marine type character who returned to his home planet with a bunch of seeds, and the intention to spend his life gardening. Of course other stuff happened to him… However I reached a point at which I got stuck, other stuff was more urgent, and it’s been sitting patiently in my ‘works in progress’ file all this time.

I was watching TV coverage of the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show this week, and one of the things that got my attention was a display that included Puya chilensis, a large bromeliad (thus relative to the pineapple) native to the Andes.

Sheep-eating? Not quite, not exactly. But I’ll quote from Lindie Naughton’s blogspot: ‘There is a sinister aspect to the Puya: the margins of the leaves are edged with fiendish, hooked thorns. These are bad news for the weeding gardener, but far worse news for the sheep of the Andes. Woolly fleeces become easily entangled and a grazing sheep can find itself pinned helplessly to the fringes of the huge clumps of Puya like a piece of wind-blown fluff. Marooned, the sheep will perish from starvation. On the positive side, the unfortunate creature does provide a handy slow-release fertilizer for the Puya.’

So two years on, I’ve randomly come across something that (a) actually exists and (b) admittedly with some extension and adaptation, allows me to get on with the story – when I’ve finished the half-dozen currently stacked up in the queue, that is.

New story out

March 1, 2010 4 comments

Story of mine is finally out in Dark Fire Issue 44, which is an online SF/horror magazine – or as they put it, ‘spooky tales to stun, amaze, entertain and send shivers down your spine’. A direct link to my piece is here.

I’m obviously slacking because checking my files it looks like I only have another four out on submission at the moment… on the other hand I’ve been kind of busy working on stuff that pays actual money!

Shortfuse last night

January 20, 2010 Leave a comment

It was interesting. CK Walsh came up with some ideas that have probably been around a while but may prove useful in finishing a short story that’s been hanging fire for a while – legal transubstantiation, and cognitive liberty. Helen Burke was funny. And Howard Marks intrigued everyone with his stories of reindeer piss (seriously).

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