Thursday, 16 June 2016

Exploring wild ideas with RMIT's Adam Browne

Image supplied
Author and library attendant Adam Browne delights in genre-play in his new book The Tame Animals of Saturn. 

“Dragons are crap!” declares Browne, “they devalue anything they appear in: they’re so easy.”

Browne pauses for a moment, “Chinese dragons are okay, there’s something deeper about them”. And Welsh dragons? He admits they probably deserve his further contemplation. It’s the dragons of popular fantasy Browne takes aim at, those that “cheapened the world of Tolkien” by being lazy and self-indulgent. “There are no ideas in it” he laments.

Browne is explaining differences between science fiction, traditional fantasy and high fantasy. He calls his new book, The Tame Animals of Saturn, “science non-fiction” because he blends genres: creative biography frolics with scientific logic. But it’s fantasy too; in the original sense of the word, Browne clarifies, “making up worlds and playing with them”. But once fantasy gets allegorical he thinks it risks sanctimony. That irks him. And he doesn’t like swords much, either.

The exploration of ideas drives Browne’s writing. In The Tame Animals of Saturn he grafts his own upon those of 19th century Christian mystic, Jakob Lorber. Although Lorber maintained his words were actually those of God, relayed to him through an inner voice. On one such visit, God told Lorber about the landscapes and animals of the solar system.

Lorber’s extensive and vivid writings were written as fact and in the form of spiritual lessons. While Browne finds them in some ways repellent “there’s so much nonsense in there and it’s pompous: he wants to be a prophet”, Lorber’s visionary style grabbed Browne by the scruff “his descriptions of fantastical creatures and plants are very painterly: it’s the inventiveness, the ridiculousness of them; they’re whimsical as anything”.

Not everyone shares Browne’s interpretation of Lorber. Posthumous publication has attracted devotees and the Internet trumpets their passions. A reproach from one opens the Tame Animals of Saturn. Eva is not happy with Browne’s misuse of “God J.Lorber’s Writings for a career or fame!!!!” and their email correspondence frames the book’s introduction, giving Browne occasion to reflection upon his project in the context of various artistic traditions. As Eva admonishes, we learn about Lorber through both biographical detail and Browne’s empathetic sensibility.

The formal play continues throughout the book, like a musical theme and variations: epistolary conflict moves to exegesis as creative essay and from this a Saturnian analogue of Lorber emerges and then a narrative concerning his daughter, Rhea. The book concludes in the form of the Victorian sub-genre, the Edisonade (which I am informed is a science-fiction modality concerning the adventures of young inventors). And all the way along there are illustrations:  Browne’s wildly intricate interpretations of Lorber’s excessive descriptions.

Browne’s writing style is playful, witty and celebratory. When speaking about his process, he compares a beautiful phrase, word or concept to a seed-crystal: something ideas can grow from and around.  “They’re a trigger. If it’s an idea I can get deeply into with a few paragraphs and play with the logic of it, that’s fun for me”. He says, one of the greatest lessons he has learnt is from Jorge Luis Borges “if you have a good idea, you have a duty to explore it”.

Along with his writing desk, the Carlton Library has been Browne’s professional habitat for at least 8 years. He’s the big bearded man who is generous with his knowledge. “The Library, especially the academic Library, is a place where ideas are safe to do what they like. Working there, I sometimes feel as if I’m learning by osmosis - I’m exposed to books and materials I would never otherwise look at.” And on that point, I ask him to share some gems he has found in the collection.

Adam Browne’s RMIT University Library picks:

Jorge Luis Borges, in collaboration with translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni: The Book of Imaginary Beings – the English edition contains descriptions of 120 mythical beasts from folklore and literature. This was Adam’s first exposure to Lorber. Browne says, “Borges writes with dry wit of Lorber’s ‘leveller’, native to Neptune. Elephant-like, like many of Lorber’s creatures, its pyramidal legs are designed by god to flatten ground preparatory to the bricklayers who follow behind.” Carlton General Collection (398.469 B732 )

Encyclopaedia Anatomica : a selection of anatomical wax models - “An exquisite little Taschen book of photos of the wax écorché (anatomical models) of the Grand Duke Leopold’s Imperial-Royal Museum of Natural History founded in 1771. These sumptuous men and women, languidly posed with their viscera exposed, are for me the epitome of the beauty of the grotesque. I often look at it for inspiration.” Carlton General Collection (611 E56)

Little Nemo in Slumberland. A jumbo folio, this is a collection of the newspaper ‘funnies’ of the genius cartoonist Winsor McCay. “Rarely have I seen such a faithful depiction of the world of dreams. This book belongs in the canon of visionary fantasy literature along with Alice in Wonderland and the films of Miyazaki.” Carlton General Collection (FOL 741.5 M123)

Artforms in Nature, by Ernst Haeckel. The book is mentioned in The Tame Animals of Saturn. “I find it inspiring that Haeckel, a scientist and artist, was a pop star in his day. His illustrations of radiolarians inspired art deco designs of the fin de siecle period; there’s a Metro station entrance in Paris based on one of his diatoms, and in the Oceanographic Museum there was an incredible chandelier designed after one of his discomedusa jellyfish” Swanston General Collection (704.943 H133 ) and other locations

Horrible Histories: Adam often watches this with his daughter, Harriet, who also helped with one of the illustrations in Tame Animals. “In one episode,” he says, “we learn some of the fantastic names given to children in Victorian times. Some, like Furious Hardwick, made it into my book, but some, like Toilet, Princess Cheese, Baboon and Toilet, will have to wait for another time...” Selected episodes can be streamed via the Library website. Search for “Horrible Histories” in LibrarySearch.

Adam Browne’s The Tame Animals of Saturn is available through Peggy Bright Books

And also at the Carlton Library:   823.92 B882

Source: Amanda Kerley


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