On Dial H and the invisible layers of fantasy

I suppose this week I’m a bit late, but still I’m here! I mentioned on Twitter earlier that I’m prepping for a presentation – really a roundtable – on comic books and SF. If anything comes of it, expect to see something next week about it, but for now I found enough time to do a regular old post after all. Given what’s on my mind, let’s talk about Dial H by China Miéville.

Dial H – short for Dial H for Hero – is the reboot of DC’s old comic series of the same name. The basic idea is that a guy could go into an old phone booth and dial H – E – R – O and get superpowers, but the powers were different every time. So every issue this guy was a different superhero. Miéville you likely know for novels like Embassytown or The City and the City. They’re really good, I should write about those some day as well. But Dial H is one of the few comics I’m currently keeping up with from one month to the next. It’s been going nearly a year now. Issue ten’s on my desk right now.

So, first, what did Miéville change? Cause you know he had to change something. Well, his heroes are kind of fucked up in a regular old way (as compared to the ways in which typical superheroes are fucked up, that is). Nelson is morbidly obese, survives a heart attack within the first few pages, and considers killing himself. His companion that he meets eventually is an old woman named Roxie who studied telephony when she was younger and discovered the dials. Yes, the dials – there’s more than one, and they can be disconnected from the phones they’re attached to. Of course the government gets in on it eventually – the Canadian government, but still, a government with shadowy operatives trained to kill and nearly limitless resources, that’s what matters here I suppose – but there’s also a woman trying to summon a creature made of dark matter, or empty space, or something.

It turns out that, instead of just getting powers, dialers are actually siphoning powers and personalities from superheroes in other dimensions. There’s a real risk a dialer will lose his or her own personality. Roxie made herself a mask in an attempt to keep her personality stable. Nelson, who hates himself for various reasons, likes the effacement of personality, but knows he needs to be himself as well – mostly cause Roxie insists, but he grows up some as the series goes on.

Should you read this book? Yes. The first volume should be out in trade format, so go get it. This is the traditional review portion of the week’s post – just go read this damn book. Miéville went out of his way to dream up the strangest things for personalities, like the Bristol Bloodhound (a dog with a rocket and a bomb, part of the nuclear deterrent phenomena of the Cold War), a smokestack/train engine who blows carcinogenic smoke, the Glimpse (that thing in the corner of your eye you never see properly) and so on. The book also takes some time to just explore the logic of this stuff – Roxie and Nelson spend hours dialing for a power that will let one of them breathe underwater so they can check some sunken ruins for another dial. They just flip through superpowers like you or I would flip through a menu. Recently a sidekick dial was introduced (Dial S – I – D – E) , and every sidekick has a sense of total loyalty and trust in the hero, even though they’re not being pulled from the same worlds.

OK, ideas, right? You probably don’t read here for plain old reviews, I do them so rarely. Well, there’s a backstory slowly emerging about the role of the original dial producer (maker or thief, it’s unclear) in the development of telephony in its early stages. This dialer appeared to all the major researchers, scientists, and engineers who had a hand in building telephone systems – including Bell of course.

That makes a kind of network of fantasy. Telephones are part of all our lives. Cell phones haven’t been worked in directly yet – no indication that the original dialer had anything to do with cellular signals or tower relays – but it’s not unreasonable to think he or she did. So communications, personal communications at least, are all part of this network that underlies everything, goes everywhere, and gives people power. I’m not arguing there’s a simple allegory here, communication makes us all heroes, anything like that. I don’t think the comic is doing that or I’d say. What’s happening, instead, is that there’s something like a ley line, a dragon line, passing through telephones. Without knowing it, everyone on a phone right now is part of this. It’s the impetus behind a lot of what’s called “urban fantasy” and why that title works at all. It’s “urban” because it implies there’s something underneath the city, not just because it happens in a city. A lot of Conan or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories happen in cities, but that’s not urban fantasy. Urban fantasy layers the strange and fantastic not onto the world but under it. It has been there all along, beside us as we go to work or school. We have not noticed it, but it is there and it has likely noticed us. Or, if it hasn’t, because there’s a world of things we haven’t seen, and they’re distracting one another. That’s the appeal of stuff like Vampire: the Masquerade (apart from people who just like it for the power fantasies). There’s a world of vampires that really have nothing to do with us, but they exist alongside us. It’s the multiple dimensions co-existing in the same space thing, but made flesh, made manifest – they physically co-exist but move through places no one really knows about. It’s one of the reasons a show like Madoka works – not only is it a magical girl show, it directly deals with one of the problems of the magical girl show: there are things happening all over, and people don’t notice. Why not? Because the magical girls and their enemies are only really interested in each other. They may prey on regular people – like vampires – but they’re not really interested.

Dial H is building the same sort of thing up, except the medium isn’t magic (though magic is involved). The medium is phones. Things are happening we don’t know about and can’t understand, but it’s happening not in the sky where Superman’s punching a guy, or underground where a vampire’s biting a guy. It’s happening in our phones, everywhere, all the time.

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