discussions

28Feb

Climate Change & Science Fiction

A couple of interesting debates on climate change over at the Strange Horizons site, for those of you are interested in the subject. All of it is very good stuff.

It’s what Niall mentions in his post that had me really wondering about climate change in SF, however:

As mentioned in the previous post, this week we have some discussion of writing climate change fiction; and if, as Vandana Singh says in her final comment, it is “increasingly important to write about climate change as passionately and creatively as we know how”, we might also ask: how are we doing for criticism that calls attention to and examines such writing?

A quick survey of the critical resources available to me suggests not all that well.

I wondered if there was little criticism because there simply isn’t much Science Fiction being written about the real effects of climate change in the first place? That there isn’t much to really interest Science Fiction writers?

I mean, aside from the sea levels rising, there isn’t much for Science Fiction wow-porn. Climate change is the slow, steady evil that will effect everything else in our lives. There is no instant Hollywood apocalypse. It is causing heavier rainfall in certain areas, droughts in others. It will see food prices rocket. It will see people die and suffer from disease on a wider scale than we’ve seen previously. And some of these health effects can be very subtle. There are no wars over climate change, but there are wars over the effects.

See what I mean? Not exactly the stuff that a Science Fiction writer, certainly not one interested in big concepts or ideas, can really use all that easily. Climate change is the mother of all evils, and the effects are profound; but they are subtle and complex and not easily dealt with in a novel concerned with the big idea. I’m not even sure Science Fiction is really the field that should be dealing with climate change.

Climate change is reality – it is happening right now, it was while I studied it at university, and has been for decades. Perhaps there is material for the effects of climate change being a backdrop for a novel, but shouldn’t mainstream authors be dealing with this, rather than Science Fiction authors?

I’d also say that most of these effects will be felt most shockingly in the developing world. Authors who write predominantly about the West, and Western concerns, will not likely be all that bothered.

Anyway, food for thought.

13Feb

Lawrence Durrell Centenary

It’s not just Charles Dickens who is having a party this year. So is Lawrence Durrell, author of my favourite series of novels, The Alexandria Quartet, a brilliant, metaphysical classic of the 1950s.

The books follow a group of individuals based in Alexandria, Egypt, up to and including the Second World War. That’s about as general as one can really get, as it covers a huge number of themes – sexual and political tension, a whole wealth of the region’s history, religion and philosophy – and Durrell wraps these in momentous descriptions of characters, place and time.

Each novel in the series undermines the previous one; minor characters suddenly become the focal point, giving the reader a completely different understanding on what went before. Every paragraph is breathtaking.

A city becomes a world when one loves one of its inhabitants…

These are the moments which are not calculable, and cannot be assessed in words; they live on in the solution of memory, like wonderful creatures, unique of their own kind, dredged up from the floors of some unexplored ocean…

Brother Ass, the so-called act of living is really an act of the imagination. The world—which we always visualize as ‘the outside’ World—yields only to self-exploration! Faced by this cruel, yet necessary paradox, the poet finds himself growing gills and a tail, the better to swim against the currents of unenlightenment…

The Guardian recently featured a podcast on Durrell, which is well worth your time, and if you’ve not read The Alexandria Quartet, you really should. It is Durrell’s centenary after all.

9Feb

Efforts to avoid Racefail

I’m more conscious than ever about Racefail in new projects. Over the past few years, writers, blogs and forums have done a cracking job in dissecting various types of issues that form part of an ongoing debate. We are, I’m sure, more educated on when novels go wrong.

I think most novelists will agree that part of writing a novel is minimising problems. There will always be flaws in novels. Someone, somewhere, no matter what you write, will always take issue with a writer’s portrayal of race, gender, and so on. All a writer can do is be aware of where they have failed and try to fail better next time. For my previous novels, I had the excuse that race was split along the species line, but for Drakenfeld, everyone is human, so I felt I should confront the issue of race head-on rather than avoid engaging with it at all.

I’m currently writing a black character, but painfully aware she’ll easily be perceived as the ‘sidekick’ to the first person lead, who is not black (he’s not particularly white, either – I’m evoking a classical, Roman-Perisan location, but that’s besides the point). I’m aware, then, of the gaping chasm of racefail that stands before me, like I imagine it can stand before every author.

I’m trying very hard to make sure she exists in her own right, has complexity, doesn’t exist solely to further the plot of the non-black character, that she’s strong without being magical, that her race is addressed in the context of the world, that I’m making sure the reader understands such things without it being a lecture, and without me incorporating guilt of Western privilege (probably unavoidable, if I’m honest). In a secondary world of my own building, I must address such things.I like to think I’m not going to head feet first into the ZOMG turban dudes = bad like some. I’m half-Indian, but I’m not sure that really helps all that much, other than perhaps it reinforces some vague awareness of the inherent problems with addressing issues of race in a novel.

It should be simple, but unfortunately it isn’t. To some extent, I feel a little like Italo Calvino’s Mr Palomar in my efforts to engage and over-engage with the situation, but I’ve decided that’s a healthy thing. It’s better to be Mr Palomar than to waltz into a novel blindly and reinforce current cultural prejudices. Not thinking is no excuse.

Anyway, one particularly fantastic short-hand resource, I’ve discovered, is tvtropes.org, which assiduously lists the many pitfalls of film and literature tropes, but has a good deal to say about race, too:

In order to show the world that minority characters are not bad people, one will step forward to help a “normal” person, with their pure heart and folksy wisdom. They are usually black and/or poor, but may come from another oppressed minority. They step (often clad in a clean, white suit) into the life of the much more privileged (and, in particular, almost always white) central character and, in some way, enrich that central character’s life.

A vast and brutal database, it’s actually been very helpful in showing me where I can go right as well as wrong, and I recommend spending a bit of time looking up the tropes if you get a moment. Anyway, as ever, not sure I was going anywhere with this – it ended up being more navel-gazing than I hoped. I just wanted to share a healthy concern.

29Jan

Viking Beheadings

It turns out that this may have been the grave for an elite Viking killing force of mercenaries:

It was a deliberate execution and decapitation only of men of fighting age, and most interestingly for Dr. Baillie, these men weren’t decapitated by a blade to the back of the neck. They were decapitated from the front, just like the captured warriors in the Saga of the Jomsvikings, an Icelandic saga about a quasi-legendary fighting force of Viking mercenaries who were reputedly the fiercest of all Viking warriors.

Read the rest. Fascinating and grim stuff.

27Jan

Temple for Atheists

I tweeted this earlier:

Plans to build a £1m “temple for atheists” among the international banks and medieval church spires of the City of London have sparked a clash between two of Britain’s most prominent non-believers.

The philosopher and writer Alain de Botton is proposing to build a 46-metre (151ft) tower to celebrate a “new atheism” as an antidote to what he describes as Professor Richard Dawkins’s “aggressive” and “destructive” approach to non-belief.

Rather than attack religion, De Botton said he wants to borrow the idea of awe-inspiring buildings that give people a better sense of perspective on life.

I found the backlash against it rather strange and misguided, because I think at heart it’s such a wonderful idea.

Put aside what one thinks atheists should or should not believe (a rather ironic debate, I find); and, put aside the word ‘temple’, which I think most atheists seemed to get upset about. What a great structure – something with purpose: to focus a sense of awe of the world and one’s place in it (where otherwise that might be forgotten easily), or to a sentiment such as love, while still adhering to our current understanding of physics or evolution (even though science and religious faith are not mutually exclusive anyway). It’s a union of science and the artistic soul, and does not force these ideas upon others.

I think we might also put aside the ‘oh but money can be better spent elsewhere’ argument, too – the temple will not be built with our taxes, and besides, that attitude can be applied to most things in our lives. If only we all spent our money (or even banked our money) in such profound ways… Finally, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to enter it.

De Botton said he chose the country’s financial centre because he believes it is where people have most seriously lost perspective on life’s priorities… This is a more constructive atheism than Dawkins, who is about the destruction of ideas rather than contributing new ones.

Is that so bad, to encourage people to look at life in a different way?

2Jan

Ink & Paper

ink&paper from Ben Proudfoot on Vimeo.

This is a sad film about the difficulties that face two increasingly rare businesses. Now, I have little sentimentality, as a writer, about doing things the old-fashioned way, with a fancy notebook and pen in a coffee shop. I’m one of those people who prefers Scrivener, a MacBook Pro and a decent Wi-Fi connection to make a difficult task more bearable. (I do however enjoy seeing the results of such old-fashioned efforts, such as a lovely edition of a book.) It is sad to see such traditional crafts being lost as we make the slow and painful journey into the digital age.

14Dec

Viking Hoard

A year or so ago I listened to a fascinating Costing the Earth podcast about the contribution and/or potential threats to the landscape from those who seek treasure.

I’ve no immediate desire to do that sort of thing myself (wouldn’t have the time anyway), but it was really interesting to listen to the rivalries between archeologists, those who go out metal detecting, and the farmers whose chemicals were alleged to be eroding away the nation’s archeological heritage. For those of you who are interested in such matters, recently the British Museum posted about a recent Viking treasure hoard, which looks stunning.

When the finder’s photographs were sent through to us, we knew this new hoard from Silverdale in Lancashire, was going to be one of the major enterprises of the year for us and our colleagues. Silver arm-rings, brooch fragments, ingots and coins had all (bar one coin) been found in, or underneath, a lead container.

Check out the rest. The picture of the Silverdale Hoard certainly looks impressive – I can’t even imagine what it’s like to dig up something like that. (However, if that inspires you to go out metal-detecting, we’ll go 80:20 on the spoils, right?)

2Nov

The Perfect Bookstore

A confession: books were losing their appeal to me. Not their contents, but in terms of the physical artefact. I’ve been working with books in one way or another for around 8 years now, so they were becoming… mundane. Nothing special. This is surprising, because when I first started out, I loved books greatly. I adored their smell. I loved the sense of being surrounded by thousands of ideas by thousands of writers, no matter how niche their interests.

Somewhere over the years, that affection disappeared. Has that happened to anyone else?

Writing books, perhaps, contributed to that a little – in that self-depreciating sense that if I could write one of these, then it no longer seemed special. Also, when you enter a bookstore, as a published writer you’re all of a sudden concerned about whether or not the store has a copy of your book, how many they have, was it on offer, and so on. Visiting a bookstore when you’re an author can become something of a self-indulgent trip if you’re not careful.

Then I visited the Strand Book Store in New York, which has 18 miles of shelves. That’s a lot of books, from new-ish releases to antiquarian books on the top floor. And, pretty quickly, in another city, far away from my own concerns, I remembered why I loved books. It was incredible to be surrounded by so many tomes, so many forgotten writers, to wander through those maze-like shelves. There was an energy about the place. Something clicked.

The place reminded me of how bookselling should be (and used to be like): not stacking discounted items high in a race to the bottom of the industry. Instead, books were displayed everywhere according to what staff wanted or recommended rather than some central list. That made for a lot of fascinating browsing. There were loads of friendly booksellers on hand, too. The entire building seemed like a book haven, with a strong community feel: something buying online or ebooks can’t provide. You can just tell when a bookstore is loved by people – because it’s full of customers even in the middle of the week.

Needless to say, I bought loads of books (things on Roman history and law, related to a future project), but I didn’t even think about what I was spending because it was just so pleasant to stand in a place that clearly loved books. I thought it was pretty much the perfect bookstore. If you ever happen to be in New York, you must pay a visit.

And if anyone else knows of some hidden gems, then please share…