By Fran Lock
Small Infinities is an appropriate title for a book – and an author – so enamoured of outlandish juxtaposition, paradox, and contradiction. While one useful description of this collection is as a work of socialist science – or “weird” – fiction, another is as broadly metaphysical. Metaphysical, that is, in the early modern poetic sense of the term, knocking the square peg of one implausible idea (for example, a living chess game) through the hole of another equally strange, often wildly disconnected idea (neo-noir detective fiction); like the metaphysical poets, Tims' work is marked by philosophical speculation, ingenious conceit, and play with demotic and colloquial language. His short fiction revels in the unexpected metaphor, in the witty use of diction, and a fascinated inclusion of contemporary scientific advancements and theories.
A cohort of 17th century poets might seem like an odd place to start for a collection of future-facing sci-fi, but Tims' approach to genre is omnivorous, eclectic and wilfully strange; throughout the collection he moves deftly between conventions and tropes, alternately playing to and against the roles and imperatives they engender. For example, while 'Enlightenment for All!' follows the outward trajectory of a classic quest narrative, Tims subverts the conventions of that narrative to socialist ends by presenting enlightenment not as a goal obtainable within a single lifetime, vividly concentrated within one heroic subject, but as the effort of centuries, an imperative and a mission braided through the long threads of intergenerational memory.
The malignant rapidity of late-stage capitalism
In other words, enlightenment is slow. Really slow. A process so glacial as to be imperceptible within the span of an individual life. Yet enlightenment is also cumulative, built on the steady, incremental progress of those who went before. Tims weaves these lives into a compelling narrative arc so that we, as readers, can see what individual Stack Walkers may only just dimly discern: their contribution toward a momentous coming change. To enter into the slow-time of the Stack Walkers entails a way of seeing violently opposed to both the malignant rapidity of late-stage capitalism, and the narrative-imperative of its mainstay fictions. We must accept that 'resolution', 'escape', 'success', or any other form of narrative satisfaction will not be forthcoming for individual protagonists. We must accept gratification – ours and theirs – as both imminent and deferred. While each individual life is meaningful and meticulously painted, it is as a continuum and a collective, working for others, that the quest is finally completed and – as a result – revolutionary praxis is activated.
If all this sounds heavy, then I am doing Tims’ writing a great disservice. 'Enlightenment for All!' is an engaging, often humorous work of Gypsy-futurism in which lively characterisation and persuasive world-building is never subordinated to Tims bold and idiosyncratic socialist vision. In this, the writer he most resembles is H.G. Wells – like Wells, Tims seems interested in breaching our 'limited number of pigeon-holes for our correspondence with an unlimited universe of objective uniques' (A Modern Utopia, 1905), an idea he applies to the thematic concern and narrative thrust of stories such as 'What Atoms Really Want', but which also represents a way of meeting and manipulating language.
For Wells, we encounter a world of immense multiplicity that our language tricks us into thinking of in terms of identity or patterned regularity. For both Wells and Tims it seems that political (capitalist) reality is as much a failure of imagination and linguistic verve as it is of economic and mechanistic tyranny. What science fiction can do – at its best – is create for us the limitless space of the Otherwise, a world in which new linguistic conjunctions, political possibilities, and forms of social relation can come into play. For both authors, but especially for Tims, this use of language is a radical precursor and constituent part of these Other Worlds. His baroque imaginaries require new ways of saying in order to fully articulate and imagine their difference.
Let's put in another way: we can certainly picture what a boring work of genre-fiction might look like. A bad sci-fi story can take place on the furthest-flung planet, populated by the most bizarre and frightening of species, yet if the language doesn't take us there, it might as well be set amongst disgruntled office workers, on a retail park in Leeds. Tims' combination of daft puns and deft verbal parries, his invented portmanteaus and repurposed archaicisms, work purposely towards creating his Other Worlds, even when that world is a simulacrum of our own – Slagton in 'Cubed', written with truly superb Dickensian flourish, is unmistakeably the South London borough in which the author lived for many years. It is not merely a case of finding an appropriate language for the stories he wants to tell or and civilisations he wants to bring to life, but of using language so as to estrange us from our familiar (material, political) realities, and from the habituated ways of seeing and feeling those realities engender. Where Tims' language is at its most florid, strange or surging our attention is reoriented, we read – and think – afresh.
All of which is to say that Tims is a writer deeply concerned with both the possibilities and limitations of language in shaping our intellectual operations, our imaginations, and our political realities. In this, another significant forerunner is the late Gene Wolfe, an author equally fascinated by the etymologies and odd affinities of words, seeding rare, archaic and invented words throughout his fiction, most notably his four Sun Works. In a 1988 interview Wolfe spoke about trying to press against 'the limits of prose, [...] trying to write something genuinely different from what's come before' and being 'constantly aware of these paradoxes about language's power and its limitations. Because language is your medium, you become aware of the extent to which language controls and directs our thinking, the extent that we're manipulated by words – and yet the extent to which words necessarily limit our attention and hence misrepresent the world around us.'
If this was true in 1988, it takes on far greater urgency in our 'post-truth' era, under the all-seeing eye of neoliberal surveillance culture, at a time and a place where joined up speaking and thinking feels increasingly threatened. Here we are, performing our opinions in prescribed language within a limited number of characters, wading daily through social media's myriad expressive acts – high in subjective emotional experience, low on detailed factual content – and their fleeting yet incessant demands upon our attention. Here is language co-opted to walk at corporate heel, a smoothly scrolling torrent of undifferentiated data, disappearing down our feeds into the bottomless limbo of expired 'content'. Tims’ writing often feels like a two-fingered salute to this kind of passive content-imbibing. Reading his work, I'm reminded of the poet Joyelle McSweeney who describes her practice as a 'maximal, dandified, camp, ill-gendered, millenarian text'. Tims is a writer who traffics in complexity and excess, hyperbole and panache, in all the formal and stylistic tics that 'proper' socialists and good proles shouldn't have and cannot master. He writes this way, we sense, not only for the joyous fuck-you of the thing, but against the deadening of ethical and political nerve that results from reductive linguistic prescription.
Good science fiction, as Darko Suvin notes, is neither an escape from reality nor a description of it. Rather, it can be read as a ‘a developed oxymoron, a realistic irreality’ (Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre, 1979). Suvin’s point is that science fiction is the only genre that facilitates (and demands) a change to the whole literary universe, one which forms a tension with the reader’s world, dislocating her from it, making it strange. Sci-fi oscillates between the shared world of author and reader, and this Other mode, this Other place, this o/Other perspective. In the gap between the two new ideas and ways of being emerge, criticism is broached, knowledge gathered, insight achieved.
Rude, crude and raunchy
Which doesn't mean Small Infinities isn't funny. In places it's hilarious. In 'A Small Story about a Large Misunderstanding' the (dangerous) limits of language are explicitly yet humorously explored when the human incapacity to see beyond our own behavioural and linguistic defaults leads to a unnecessarily terrifying encounter with an alien race. Throughout the collection quantum mechanics, obscure chess theory, philosophies of consciousness and schlocky pop-culture are variously incorporated, riffed on and signalled in charming, inventive and frankly weird ways. It feels important to stress that this isn't high-concept sci-fi as some kind of bloodless show-offy intellectual bludgeon. It can be rude, crude and raunchy. It can be bloody. It's not Harry Potter. It is perfectly possible to enjoy the stories without a firm grounding in the ideas and theories they reference, but Tims' omnivorous array of inspirations and the pleasure he so obviously takes in playfully mixing and merging them combine to layer and texture his worlds. As a result, we care about his imperilled protagonists, we sympathise with his doomed or oppressed civilisations, and most of all we want to see where the next slice of oddity will take us: a cinematically inflected Cronenbergian nightmare? A cut-throat world of cardsharp magicians, organised into warring guilds?
Or perhaps the reader will enjoy, as I did, Tims' treatment of the Gothic conceit of the sinister menial in 'Returning the Screw'. The story exposes the often classist underpinnings of that particular genre convention, even while Tims' narrator delivers his creepy and incendiary monologue, a monologue which in turn beguiles, amuses, galvanises and chills. There's humour there, and some silliness, but it operates to a purpose, questioning whose voices and perspectives have been erased or miscast within literary canons. Was Quint's threat ever to life, limb or spiritual cleanliness, or did he represent a far greater menace – to the established social order? How does it feel to be the staple of someone else's nightmares simply because you are poor, or in some way o/Other? Quint 'haunts' in the same way that class itself is a haunting, a spectral presence underpinning both our deep social structures and the literary tropes that sustain and express them. Tims nails this, and he makes you laugh while he does it.
I can't help but wonder if the humour in Tims' work is one of the key components of its socialism. If there is a form of coterie address at work in Small Infinities, it is not that of the specialist or of intellectual abstraction, it's that of a commons bonded by an ability and a willingness to laugh at even our most cherished tropes and serious ideas. It is a sensibility that says nothing is above scrutiny or beyond ridicule. It lives in the detritus of pop and pulp culture as much as the elite realm of ideas, and it claims all these places for a border-stepping cohort of working-class readers and imagineers.