genre stuff

7Sep

The Cult Of SF


A couple of interesting debates going on across the blogosphere about the value of science fiction to science. First at Damien Walter’s blog, who challenges us to discuss.

SF doesn’t just show us possible futures, it trains us to anticipate new technology, model how it will impact our lives and exploit that insight.

Second at Cheryl Morgan’s blog:

The Chinese had got the idea that they needed innovation as well as manufacturing expertise, and they had noticed that young engineers in places like Silicon Valley were all science fiction readers. Consequently they decided that SF needed to be encouraged.

But I want to pick out a particularly interesting example in Cheryl’s blog regarding Climate Change:

While I was tweeting about the panel a link came through for this Guardian article about British scientists creating an “artificial volcano” to test out ideas for combating climate change. I showed it to Rachel afterwards, and she was all over it, but I can just imagine what a committed environmentalist like Mark Charan Newton would make of the idea.

I’ll get to that bit!

Not that either Damien or Cheryl were talking about this subject specifically, as I think they both make many agreeable points about the subject.

But it certainly got me thinking about the way SF is discussed, and what I like to call the Cult of SF – that is, the faith in dreaming up Big Ideas. I can understand the need to stress the importance of Big Ideas. It’s what the genre is about, no? But in some cases – such as climate change, as mentioned in the post – this is where your future dreaming will get the world in trouble. A reliance on such visions in this particular example is a terrible thing. To paraphrase what I said in the comments:

There’s so little time to hold back anthropogenic climate change (assuming you accept the unequivocal science in the first place). Leave it too long, and it will be too late to bring back CO2 concentrations to the necessary levels, causing a huge variety of issues that I’ve gone on about many times before. Dreaming up science fiction, Big Ideas, will not address the actual problems of dumping huge amounts of greenhouses gasses into the atmosphere in the first place. Moreover, this SF is diverting attention, political and financial resources away from urgent action. What this also does is play right into the hands of corporate lobbyists who will use it as an argument to delay such urgent action even further, usually to the benefit of [insert polluting organisation here].

Blind faith in science as a solution to our ills, or as some remarkable future dreamscape, can be a dangerous thing. Also, it’s not as though our wonderful Big Ideas don’t come at a cost, such as the monopolising of the food chain. The application of science through reckless corporatism, or by not recognising the practicalities of the real world in the first place, can be devastating. I should also say that what I’ve said above is no more anti-science than being against chemical weapons is anti-chemistry, and nor does it suggest we should put a limit on our ability to imagine. Science fiction is again a wonderful thing; but if we bring it into our culture, I just don’t think we should treat it like a cult of wonder.

The best science fiction, for me, actually realises this; it has a healthy scepticism for the cult of wonder. I guess that is why, for me, M. John Harrison’s or J.G. Ballard’s bleak future visions are among the best SF stories out there. (I especially like the way MJH analysis’s the commercial exploitation of science.) It recognises the corrupting influence of humans.

3Sep

Christopher Priest – The Islanders

Christopher Priest is an illusionist. If you have read some of his previous novels, you will know to expect to have the rug pulled from under your feet. You will know that the people you see on the page aren’t who you expect them to be or, if they are, they will be more slippery than Michael Gove’s bottom lip.

Entering the Dream Archipelago, Priest’s heady collection of microcosms and forgotten places, was a welcome treat for a fan. And for fans, there are Easter eggs galore: take the presence of writer, Moylita Kaine, whose first manifestation in The Islanders comes as a writer of fan letters to another novelist. We read about her first efforts to become a writer, and that she has finally written a novel, called The Affirmation.

The Affirmation? I thought to myself. Priest wrote a novel called The Affirmation, of course, but I did a little digging. I recalled a short story, ‘The Negation’ (1978) which was first included in a rare collection called The Infinite Summer, and then later the Dream Archipelago book. ‘The Negation’ featured Moylita Kaine as an established novelist. In The Islanders, she crops up again several times, and also (I think) the character with whom she interacted in ‘The Negation’, a minor finale playing out decades later. These connections between books and time will please many of those who have read a lot of Priest’s output: they’re not explicit, they’re elegant inclusions, all part of Priest’s dreamscape.

But back to The Islanders.

There are no maps or charts of the Dream Archipelago. At least, there are no reliable ones, or comprehensive ones, or even whole ones.

Chaster Kammeston, a novelist who will make an appearance later in the novel, explains this in his introduction. The book is presented as non-fiction, a strange collection of tales or accounts, letters, confessions and so on, from the Islanders of the Dream Archipelago. Nothing is certain, as the reader is plunged into mock-travel guide accounts of the many (and there are indeed many) islands that make up the Archipelago. Mixing the island names and patois, the reader is given time to absorb Priest’s fragile reality.

It seems an odd way to go about presenting a novel – if indeed by now it seems a novel – when suddenly the plot appears in an unconventional, non-fiction manner. Characters are reappearing in others’ accounts. Events begin to match up, overlap, contradict each other. Subtleties become extremely important: or, if you’re a Priest fan, possible further deceptions. The reading experience is extraordinary. It’s like a magic eye puzzle: the closer you are to the text, the less you might see. You must be vaguely passive, absorbing the shapes within, to see anything of note (and even then you might be deceived), and yet remain at all times alert. Adam Roberts, in his splendid review, discusses the phrase ‘Ergodic literature’ with reference to reading the novel.

The central plot? That depends on both what you mean by ‘central’ and ‘plot’. Certainly some of the key narratives include: a murder of Commis, a professional mime artist, and those who were involved in and around the theatre at the time, their stories before and thereafter; a radical social thinker, Caurer, and her relationship with literary sensation Chaster Kammeston, his reputation and his death (note: he wrote the introduction to the novel); add to that a famous debauched painter, Dryd Bathurst, a creative tunnelling artist, those who seek to map islands with drones, those interested in the spurious trial of the man executed for supposedly murdering Commis; and keep in mind that all of these and many more micro-narratives connect or glance off each other in all sorts of subtle ways. Ultimately you begin to wonder what the plots actually are, if indeed there are any, or if it is all a vast, blissful game in a setting comprised of multiple cultures, topographies, economies and currencies.

I should also stress some of the beauty here. Priest has always written in a minimalist, deliberately mannered and very English style, which serves his fiction perfectly, because it does not get in the way of the underground complexities. Often, some of the above narratives are heartbreaking, mesmerising, or achingly tender in places. This is certainly his most refined prose.

Ultimately, it is a remarkable book that seems to be a logical continuation, even summation, of all of Priest’s themes to date. What’s more, all of this literary playfulness does not detract from the fact that it is a wonderful, entertaining novel.

It has been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a reading experience this much.

2Sep

Bored of the Weird (Fiction)

The final book in the Legends of the Red Sun series is now in with my editor, where I await her Imperial thumbs up or thumbs down. So I now have a fresh piece of paper before me, and on this I won’t be writing what gets categorised by some as Weird Fiction*.

This is mainly for two reasons.

1) I’m bored with it.

2) I don’t think most modern readers really respond all that well to things that are out-and-out Weird.

The first is simple. I’ve written four books which grew increasingly weird and experimental, and I need to clear my head. I don’t want to be one of those writers who keeps churning out precisely the same thing book after book – because that would kill the whole process for me. I enjoy having new territories to explore.

The second reason is more complex, and your milage may vary. From a casual gander at the blogoshpere and forums over the years, I think bloggers and readers – on the whole, in general – really celebrate traditional fantasy, without much appreciation for hybridisation of genres. (I don’t mind this at all; it’s just how it is out there.) Readers tend to dislike being taken out of that experience by and large. Experimentation and innovation is seen as not coming from narrative trickery or prose style, but from messing about with archetypal characters.

I can’t understand why people enjoy aesthetic conservatism, and who don’t enjoy trying different things. Perhaps it’s because readers like something that’s vaguely familiar, something which they can jump into easily. It’s accessible. It’s reassuring when they take their heads away from reality. And conservatism in this sense is different than borrowing from the Dark Ages: for now, I mean it in terms of the anti-weird.

Also, whenever I speak to general book clubs, I’ve got a sense that there are definite barriers to genre: and one of those is definitely the inability to imagine something strange and surreal. (That’s an audience I’d like to reach out to, admittedly.) Some people just don’t like strange things, but that doesn’t put them off reading fantasy – if you see what I mean. More than ever, modern audiences are interested in story. I think the Weird gets in the way for many. The Weirder the fiction, the greater the barrier.

So all these signs, to me at least, tell me I should try to take aim elsewhere. I’ve read it in the entrails. I know there’s a good niche market out there for Weird Fiction. I know some of my readers probably enjoyed the strangeness the most, but there’s more styles out there for me to experiment with and right now I’d like to concentrate on a smart and powerful story without relying on the pyrotechnics too much, without trying to gross people out, without trying to impress surreal images upon an diminishing appreciative audience for those things.

So part of this is me wanting to expand my horizons, sure, and part is me contemplating who I’m aiming future novels at, but for the foreseeable future consider me hanging up the tools of Weird Fiction.

*Weird Fiction? Means different things to many people, I guess, but I always take it for having absurdities, unusual aesthetics, creatures and so on; something to give either an unsettling or alienating experience perhaps. In a broader sense, I’ve always appreciated it to contain experimental style or themes.

27Aug

Islands of Novels

The new Christopher Priest novel, The Islanders, arrived this morning, courtesy of the lovely folks at Gollancz. I thought I’d put my money where my mouth was when I said I was a fan of his, and take a picture of the books I’ve acquired. I’ve not read all of these, but certainly most of them. It’s been a good few years since I’ve picked up a novel of his, however, since he’s someone who takes his time. There are a couple of rarities here, including The Book on the Edge of Forever, Priest’s analysis of what happened with Harlan Ellison’s famous The Last Dangerous Visions. There’s a good bibliography on wiki.

19Aug

Article For Huffington Post on SFF & Minorities

I wrote an article for the UK edition of the Huffington Post, on the subject of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Minorities:

Science fiction and fantasy is a genre that effectively shows the difference between ourselves and the Other. From the alien slums in District 9 to the critique of colonialism within an HG Wells novel, the genre’s disregard for reality allows cultural thought experiments to run wild. This is particularly noticeable in films such as Children of Men, where the extremities of far-right politics with regard to immigration are brought to brutal conclusions. In revealing these unusual settings to a reader or viewer, the genre is well-suited to showing displays of acceptance, too. It’s perfectly placed to help us question our attitudes to minorities, or communities who face discrimination, in a way that realism can’t always achieve.

Read the rest and let me know what you think. It’s always nice to spread the Good Word about genre fiction in mainstream venues.

16Aug

The Creative Restraints Of A Fantasy Series

I’ve pretty much finished a rough draft of the final book in the Legends of the Red Sun series. I’ve got most of it done on Scrivener, and this is the point where I move everything to a Word document and start polishing, smoothing over cracks and so on. To say I’m relieved to be at this stage is an understatement, because writing this book has made me realise quite a few things about writing a long epic fantasy series.

1. It’s a marathon. You think finishing one novel is tough, tying up lots of novels, plot-threads, and personal character stories, and retaining continuity for years of your life is energy-draining work to say the least. The more complex you try to make your novels (i.e. sophisticated or subtle sub-plots, themes, references and so on) the more this bites you on the arse for the finale.

2. Creatively, writing the last book in the series sucks. I’ve tried for each of the first three novels to create self-contained stories, with new plots and characters. That approach gives me a huge amount of creative freedom, which is severely lacking in a novel that has to bring everything together. It’s a challenge to do so because you’re picking up old plots and are heading towards a resolution that was planned (in theory) ages ago, so much of what you create is pre-destined. That kills a lot of the creative spark.

3. I’ve discovered I have a new respect for those who write mammoth series, even Robert Jordan who seemed to relinquish control of his books. Sure there’s no excuse for many pages discussing the stitching dresses, but that goes to show what a toll it can take on the writer’s perception of time and detail.

4. This loss of control is why novels are often late. There are laws of motion working on plots. Things that were set into action ages ago suddenly crop up again, or need resolving. Much like life, things become more complex and tangled, and representing this when you have multiple points of view means that you have to write about things you didn’t intend to cover. You have to remember names, places and character traits you created years ago – a quick fact-check on Google won’t cut the mustard. You have to manage airtime in a totally different way. For the first novels, you didn’t have to do this as much.

5. The last books in a series are nearly always read by fewer people than the first book in a series, which really doesn’t help with motivation. You’re writing to a different, more hardcore crowd.

All of these combined factors can mean that it isn’t quite as much fun to write. All books are tough to create, sure, but when writing stops being as much fun, it becomes work. Essentially, as a writer, you’re bound by your own series. You’ve one hand tied behind your back. You’re hamstrung. You’re whatever simile or metaphor you can think of. What starts off as a neat expansion of a few ideas soon grows into an uncontrollable beast at times, and your job becomes not so much about telling that story as it is about controlling the beast and putting it back in its cage.

None of this is to say I haven’t put my heart into the project – quite the opposite. You start to feel extra love for it. But if you’re new writer trying to unleash a fantasy series upon the world, be careful what you wish for…

14Aug

Interview & Review

There’s an interview with me over at Fantasy Faction, in which I rant about all sorts of genre and writing-related things, from the New Weird to writing about minorities:

Let’s put it this way: a mid-40s, straight white male with an average job and income, who does normal things, is not particularly interesting to write about.

Writing is about challenging yourself, about exploring people and places that fascinate you. Otherwise it’s just so dull. Another chosen-one fisher boy becomes king? Boring.

So I choose people who are going to be interesting to write about: it just so happens that minorities lead fascinating and often challenging lives.

Thanks to Leo for the great questions. It’s particularly nice writing answers as I come to the end of the series, since it gives me a nice opportunity to look back with a little more clarity, and then start drawing the line under it.

Also, that Locus review from a week or so ago has now made it online, so you can read that here.

3Aug

Good Author Blogs

As ever, interesting things were mooted on Twitter last night.

My favourite author blogs tend to be ones that rarely talk about the author’s books. I find ones that do the opposite really tedious.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

The above, from James Long, caught my eye and sparked a few nice thoughts. I totally agree with what he said after that, too, which basically stressed the point that he’s far more interested in what authors think. I don’t see the point of telling people how many words you’ve written (unless you’re George RR Martin and you can see villagers gathering with pitchforks outside your window).

Updating on your daily word count isn’t going to interest many people; neither is continually publicising your works. Sure, it’s ultimately a tool to sell books and folks will be keen on finding out a little of what’s going on with your novels, but I’m not so sure that constantly banging on about yourself these days is going to interest readers in the long run. With all the competition for attention from new writers discovering the benefits of being online (and it’s far tougher these days), I think it’s personality that makes the difference. It’s a tough balance.

Rather than waffle more about the art of author blogs (generally, it’s not that difficult these days: be varied, be interesting, be regular, don’t have dodgy web design), I’d point out a few very distinct examples of author blogs that I enjoy reading.

1. Chuck Wendig – always hilarious, consistent (even in the randomness), and all on a superbly designed site. Whenever there’s an update from him, you can be sure it’s going to entertain. He gives plenty of advice, too, and – most importantly – doesn’t take himself too seriously. He has fun.

2. Jonathan Carroll – the original online writer’s notebook. Wonderful stuff, observations on human life, or a scrapbook of poems or links, it’s always going to be something to make you sit back and reflect. This is the true, arty end of blogging, and I really do make time when a post appears in my RSS feed.

3. Punkadiddle – Adam Roberts’ hotbed of reviews, mainly of genre stuff. Note: he’s a thorough reviewer, and gives some of the best quality and interesting write-ups you’ll see online. Not every new author could probably get away with tearing into certain books, but Adam doesn’t seem to mind the rough stuff.

Some other good blogs include: editor Cheryl Morgan (a fascinating range of topics); Sam Sykes (you’re always going to reflect, chuckle, or worry for his sanity); Jay Kristoff (relative newcomer to the scene, but a great blogger); and there area whole load more on my RSS feed, but these are the ones that particularly come to mind.

All of them do exactly what I, personally, like: they offer varied debate, show me things I don’t know, entertain, or help make me think differently about certain issues.

And isn’t that what writers are meant to do anyway?

25Jul

SF vs The Man Booker

I’ve written a piece on SF and the Man Booker prize over at We Love This Book, a new-ish site run by the folks at Bookseller magazine. Reckon it should stir up a few thoughts, especially as I’ve made some suggestions over what SFF novels should have been up for the award.

Tomorrow sees the release of the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction, and, forgive me for jumping the gun, but I wanted to explore why science fiction and fantasy books rarely get the gold.

In fact, I wanted to start by exploring why sf and fantasy books are not included on the longlists at all, but I quickly realised what nonsense that was – sf and fantasy books have been nominated: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is about cloning, David Mitchell’s books often include elements of what many would call genre, Margaret Atwood is the reluctant fundamentalist when it comes to science fiction, Salman Rushdie’s magical realist tales are occasionally more fantastical than many fantasy novels.

However, despite a huge literary heritage of sf and fantasy books in the UK, very rarely do clearly marked “genre” titles make the longlists, let alone win. Some argue that there is, as sf writer Adam Roberts put it: “[a] literary apartheid keeping genre science fiction away from the respectable literary establishment” but I think the reasons are simpler than this.

Read the rest. My suggestions for the awards were more based on the spirit of some of the best genre offered at the time.