I’ve been podcasted! Many thanks to Steve Aryan for having me on the ever awesome Crash Landing over at Geek Syndicate. Steve and I talked about the five novels I’d want to have with me if I was stranded on an alien planet.
Some of the books I chose are SFnal, some are magical, one comes from tenth century Japan and all of them are unputdownable. We had a great time talking about them all and much more – I hope you enjoy our chat:
So a week or so ago, we were fortunate to welcome Justin Hopper to The FuseBox to read from his new book, ‘The Old Weird Albion’, and then – as part of an open, round table conversation – talk about how its understanding of the past can help us look forward into the future.
Memories of Balsdean
Justin began by reading chapter VII of ‘The Old Weird Albion’ – ‘Ruins’. It charts a walk through Balsdean, a deserted, highly evocative, perhaps even lightly haunted space on the fringes of Brighton. It was a medieval village, then a Georgian hamlet, then a lunatic asylum, and now it’s empty.
It was a very appropriate place to start. Partially, because many of us know it – in fact, FuseBox Hub Manager Rosalie is a regular runner there, and talked about her own experiences of how eerily evocative it can be. It’s also a place that can take you by surprise. Running through it once, early one morning, she felt the ground shake beneath her, the earth moved by a deep, hard thumping.
Baffled and not a little spooked, she kept going – only to emerge into the final moments of an all-night rave, just as the new day was dispelling it. The last of the ravers cheered her as she ran through them, celebrating the site being handed back to its daytime visitors.
That story touched on much of what we’d talk about – the multiple uses of landscape, the radically different ways it can be experienced, the way that its history can break through and shape our responses to its present. And of course the way that technology can change how it’s experienced too; the ravers’ sound system one iteration of that, Justin’s headphones another.
He writes in detail about the experience of moving through the site while listening to ‘1 Inch: ½ Mile’, an album by local band Grasscut, made specifically to be played while walking through Balsdean. It struck me as he read that augmented reality is not a new thing; aurally at least, it’s been with us very successfully ever since the arrival of the Sony Walkman, and before that perhaps the wind-up gramophone.
The deep past of AR
Of course, reality’s been augmented for a lot longer than that. ‘The Old Weird Albion’ relies on a deep sense of history – some formal, some oral, some very genuine, some completely invented. Taken together, it becomes a map of knowledge held in Justin’s head, overlaid on the South Downs landscapes he moves through.
Here too is an augmented reality; human knowledge and experience, overlaid on place and giving it a deeply personal set of meanings and experiences. In a sense, each individual human being, each animal come to that, has always lived within AR. There’s nothing new about the technological overlay we’re now creating. It’s just a new expression of something we’ve always done.
And there are of course more mysterious overlays. Justin mentioned a friend of his who – walking in Balsdean – had seen ghostly Roman soldiers march across the hillside above it. Of course that’s a deeply spooky experience; but it’s also nothing more than the landscape’s memory expressing itself, chalk tapes replaying events that happened here a thousand years ago. Again, technology is mirroring that sense of haunting.
The world around us is getting better and better at remembering, individual objects becoming smarter and smarter. Everything around us contains far more of and makes more use of the past than it used to; but equally, the world has always contained that past, playing it back to us as traces, as hauntings, as ghosts. The deep mythology of the internet of things is already well established. The technology just needs to catch up with it.
Circular imagination engines
Then we moved on to talk about another kind of haunting – crop circles. They’re a fascinating phenomenon, at once absolutely real and physically present, and entirely liminal and deeply spooky. In the book, Justin tells the story of Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, the UK’s first recorded crop circle makers, and the wave of other circlers they inspired – in particular, the Circlemakers, whose philosophy fascinates him:
‘They considered their circles artworks, not merely because of the aesthetics of the formations, but because of the conversations and beliefs they catalysed among believers. The circle was just the beginning. The stories people told, the lights they saw in the sky and the experiences they had in the fields – those narratives were the artwork.’
That philosophy also drives them to remain anonymous – myths accretes differently and with less potency around artefacts known to be manmade. So, while they ‘freely admit that they make crop circles, they’ll never confirm which ones’.
That was in itself fascinating – the idea that myth is something that comes from the human imagination, but that needs a space beyond anything created by humanity within which to play. And of course myth is a product of the imagination, and one of the big questions we’ve been asking ourselves at the FuseBox is, ‘how do we get better at unleashing our collective imaginations?’
The Circlemakers’ philosophy hints at an interesting answer to that question. Rather than trying to find the right questions to answer or the right approaches to take, perhaps we should be looking for the right environments to work in. In particular, we need to find that aren’t directed or focussed, that have no particular designs on us. Then, our imaginations will be free to set their own terms, and play accordingly.
Back to the built-up
That leads on very naturally to the next part of the conversation. We moved on from the crop circles – by definition, a rural phenomenon – to discuss the difference between the city and the country.
‘The Old Weird Albion’ is very much a book of psychogeography, and psychogeography – as currently defined – is for the most part a city thing. Writers like Iain Sinclair, Emily Chappell, Nick Papadimitriou, Rachel Lichtenstein and many others have marked out and written about the psychogeography, the psychic geographies, the ways in which the landscape defines those who move through it, of mostly urban landscapes.
Justin commented very specifically on what this means. He sees urban landscapes as punishing, overwhelming spaces; spaces that in one way or another always have a design or set of designs on you, and are always pushing those designs hard. They’re spaces built by humans, dense with human iconography; it’s hard to escape the multiple, crosscutting, forceful human wills that define them.
Psychogeography – according to his definition – offers one way of doing that. It’s a set of tools for creating a personal reading of those overwhelming urban landscapes, of cutting through the designs they have on you to make the space you inhabit your own.
That’s very true of urban psychogeography. But what of Justin’s rural psychogeography, his dissection of East Sussex? Well, on one level he’s doing the same thing. For example, Justin very elegantly dissects the history of Peacehaven, explaining how it grew out of a scam and in some ways remains a fiction. Although applied to a small town rather than a big city, this is classic urban psychogeography, blazing a confident personal trail through an impersonal, untrustworthy environment. And of course, it’s a strategy that maps very easily onto our life online.
The virtual world is – like the urban one – almost entirely constructed by human activity, and most of it has very clear and very strong designs on us. Justin’s strategies of engagement – combining careful historical research, acute contextual awareness, a driving mythic imagination and a determination to privilege lived personal experience over all else – are just as helpful in the virtual cities we’ve spent the last couple of decades building for ourselves as in any real ones that Iain Sinclair and his peers move through.
Dropping shields to heal
But on another level, there’s something very different going on. For me, it comes to life when Justin visits the Druid Stone, a rock formation somewhere near Brighton. And it’s hinted at in the Circlemakers quote above too. Justin goes to sit on top of the stone, and is overwhelmed by the beauty of the countryside around him. Then he descends, and steps through another, archway shaped stone to enjoy a small pond and a view of the surrounding countryside. He writes:
‘I had seen all this from the top of the Druid Stone, felt its tidal pull. I had wanted to be subsumed, swallowed, by this landscape, and passing through the archway felt like giving into its maw. My earlier anxiety receded.’
An Iain Sinclair would react differently to this moment, reaching out for myth, for history, for circumstance, to wrap it all up in. But Sinclair’s an urban psychogeographer, and so he’s learned not to let his environment overwhelm him. Justin takes the opposite path, finding a deep peace in surrender to the landscape. Rather than going to work on it, he lets it go to work on him.
That’s a theme that resonates through the book, not least when he’s talking about the landscape as a healing force. And that was something that came up in our discussion too – the sense that to be healed by nature, one needs only be passive before it, to find a way of experiencing it that lets it in without imposing too much of our own will on it.
Rural Sussex as we experience it is on one level a built environment, created over millennia by human work. But on the other hand, it’s an environment built from things that don’t really care about us, that have no particular designs on us – that move and persist according to their own slow, enduring, immensely generative rhythms. And when we’re passive before those rhythms – well, they don’t advertise to us or try and control us. They regenerate us.
Opening the field
That leads to another interesting bit of psychogeographical theory. Psychogeography’s often seen as coming exclusively out of Parisian philosophical movement Situationalism, and in particular the thinking of Guy Debord. He wanted to break out of the spectacle, the urban razzmatazz that always surrounds us, that always has designs on us. He created many of the techniques that lie behind urban psychogeography to do that. But there’s something else that sits behind it all too – and it came from the United States.
Charles Olson was a major US postmodern poet (in fact, he claimed to have actually coined the phrase postmodernism). He saw himself as an heir to people like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and in his turn he had a huge influence American poets like Allen Ginsberg and British ones like – of course – Iain Sinclair. And there’s a particular idea of Olson’s that I’ve always suspected fed into Iain Sinclair’s understanding of the city – that of the Open Field.
Olson saw himself as writing Open Field Poetry. To massively summarise, in a way that barely does him justice, that means that he saw himself as writing poetry that remained incomplete. Each poem was a construction kit – and it was the reader’s job to put that construction kit together and find in it a personal and entirely unique meaning.
Of course, Olson set out the broad terms of that meaning. His writing about the small New England sea town of Gloucester couldn’t be interpreted (literally, at least) as being about Los Angeles. But it was the reader’s job to collapse into its final form, to (for example) reach their own personal understanding of Gloucester through his poetry, and then use that perhaps as a way of interpreting their own experience of LA (or wherever else they happened to be).
Here’s part 1 of a fascinating documentary about him:
Putting the puzzle together
In our conversation, the Open Field came to life in the idea of the jigsaw puzzle. Every landscape’s one; but the pieces are different shapes for everyone who looks at it. And so, every viewer engaging with every landscape gets their own personal puzzle to put together in their own personal way. That’s what Iain Sinclair does in London – with all his shields up to keep out the overwhelming rush of the city – and that’s what Justin does in Sussex – with all his shields down to let in the profoundly creative forces of nature.
That thought helped me understand the different kinds of virtual environments we’re creating for ourselves. My creative ideal, of course, is the generative environment; the one that doesn’t have specific designs on you, that like the crop circles helps your imagination fire up on its own terms; like the Open Field gives you the kit but not the instructions; like the jigsaw puzzle lets you put together your own image of the world in your own way. And that’s the kind of virtual environments I’d like to see come into being, balancing out the endless controlled messaging of the internet as it currently stands.
And of course, in many ways that’s already happening. I’ve been struck by the openness of some of the virtual worlds I’ve experienced while Writer-In-Residence at the FuseBox. Iona Scott’s Planktonworld is a great example. Plankton live, and you move through them. Nature happens and you watch and experience it. You can dig deeper if you want to – but you don’t have to.
And it’s something I’ve seen in the gaming world, too. I had a friend who was a Dragon Age obsessive. He used to go in there just to wander round in the woods, hunt a little, do some crafting, experience a little unreal nature. He found it a very rewarding, relaxing thing to do. I can see why; he was in an open environment that let him set his own goals and put the puzzle pieces together in his own way.
Building better unreal worlds
That, for me, was the really important thought that came out of Justin’s visit to the FuseBox. As a specifically rural psychogeographer, he takes the discipline’s urban tools and uses them in a more open, more accepting way. His South Downs is a place where darkness exists, but where resolution, progress, even healing is even possible. In fact, that sense of healing permeates the book – it’s emotional spine (which I’ve barely touched on here) is Justin’s quest to engage with and commemorate older, lost family members.
That healing is made possible by the landscape within which it happens. By mapping out his journey through that world, Justin’s also sketched out an image of the kinds of virtual landscapes that we could build to have similarly positive, creative, healing effects on all of us as we move through them – landscapes that are open jigsaws of myth and memory, of life, growth and independence, of structures that attract and inspire, rather than impose, personal meaning and experience.
And of course, we talked for an hour or more after Justin’s reading. That conversation itself was a wonderful collection of jigsaw pieces. I’ve assembled this from it, but it’s an entirely personal memory of it all. I’m sure there are very important ideas and insights I’ve left out – do add any of your own puzzle pieces in the comments below.
Alors aujourd’hui ‘Crashing Heaven’ est lancé en France comme ‘Station: La Chute’. C’est une merveilleuse édition de Denoël, magnifiquement traduite par Florence Dolisi et avec une belle (et très précise) couverture de Manchu. Donc, tout d’abord, bienvenue lecteurs français au monde de Jack Forster, Hugo Fist et tous les autres.
Having written a fair bit about the ‘Do Androids Dream…’ event at The FuseBox, I thought it was time for a change of pace. So I got together with the event’s co-host, Dr Kathleen Stock, for a chat about it all. And here it is:
Towards the end of our conversation, I said I’d put up some links to Kathleen and her work. So, first of all, here’s her website. Click here for her blog post about sexual objectication over at the LSE and here for her ‘Philosophy Bites’ podcast on fiction and the emotions. And finally, another YouTube video – here she is giving a talk on the limits of our imaginations. Enjoy!
(I was rooting around in the files the other day and found this blog post. I wrote it back in 2015, for the launch of ‘Crashing Heaven’, but it was never published anywhere, so I thought I’d put it up now. Enjoy!)
I used to walk the family dog in fields by the Thames, just over the river from J. G. Ballard’s house. He set part of ‘The Unlimited Dream Company’ there. The people of Walton-on-Thames come down to the river’s shore to wonder at the transfiguration of Shepperton. The view never changed like that for me.
The most Ballardian experience I had there was when a portly man rolled down his car window and rather sweatily propositioned me. I wondered briefly if I should make a Crash-inspired counter-offer and suggest that we drive off together to the ring roads and car parks of Heathrow, in search of Elizabeth Taylor. I decided not to. This was probably for the best.
Back then – in my late teens and early twenties – I’d only just started seriously reading Ballard. But I was deep in Michael Moorcock. His vast body of work is an astonishing education in the reach and power of writing that knows it’s not real, and decides to do something interesting with that knowledge. It’s perhaps the only place where influences as diverse as Andrea Dworkin, Angela Carter, Mervin Peake and E. Nesbit not only meet but get along famously.
There are radically subversive fantasies like the Corum books, which starts with its hero desparate to protect the Gods of Law from the Gods of Chaos and climaxes with the destruction of both pantheons. “Now you can make your own destiny,” the unstoppably powerful entity Kwll, who’s just finished them all off, tells an understandably shocked Corum. There’s the immense historical sprawl of the Maxim Pyat sequence – Moorcock trying to find some sense in the bloody chaos of the Twentieth Century, for himself and for us. There are jewelled one-offs like ‘Gloriana’ or ‘A Brothel in Rosenstrasse’, works blending history, fantasy and raw narrative verve to gripping effect. And that’s barely scratching the surface of it all. Moorcock’s the modern Balzac, a writer building a single cross-linked universe that both includes the world we share and moves far beyond it.
He was also an editor of genius – and that was what led me on to Ballard. In those pre-internet days, you couldn’t just google someone and find out what they were up to. You had to pick up clues here and there, hunting down connections from interviews in places like Time Out, the NME, the Books sections of the Sunday supplements and all sorts of other random places.
I miss that sense of quest, to be honest – it felt like you were uncovering properly secret knowledge, initiating yourself into a particular literary world view through months or years of careful digging. Anyway, one way or another, I found out that Moorcock had edited New Worlds and Ballard had been one of its major writers. Of course I’d read ‘Empire of the Sun’, but I didn’t know too much about what lay beyond that. So I started digging around. As I moved through my twenties, Ballard became increasingly important.
It was the short stories and “The Atrocity Exhibition” that really resonated. For years, I slept with the hardback ‘Collected Short Stories’ by my bed. It seemed entirely apt that it was printed on that thin, translucent paper they make bibles from. The stories moved in so many directions with such apparent ease. Re-reading them recently, I was struck afresh by their visionary punch. Even the ones that don’t quite come off – that are built round images or ideas of brilliance, but that feel a bit rushed in the execution – open up so much that’s new.
Those that are fully achieved – “Thirteen to Centaurus”, “The Subliminal Man”, “The Terminal Beach”, “News from the Sun” floored me once again. But it was ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ that really hooked me. I spent much of the second half of my twenties finding a way out of depression. Reading ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ in particular, I found a writer who – I felt – was trying to make sense of a senseless world, either dragging some sort of order out of it or coming to terms with its chaos. The darkness that Ballard had to deal with was far greater than anything that took me. The sharply visionary path that he blazed out of it was profoundly inspiring.
And then there was the third New Worlds-related writer, M. John Harrison. I first ran into him in in the 90s, in Iain Sinclair’s ‘Lights Out For The Territory’, mentioned in passing as someone who’d helped Sinclair make sense of modernity. I picked up a copy of his Gnostic fantasy ‘The Course of the Heart’, but I don’t think I was quite ready for it.
A few years later, China Miéville was talking about him. By then, you could Google people, so it was relatively easy to find out that he’d been the Literary Editor of New Worlds before setting sharply and decisively off in his own direction. The Viriconium stories had just been released in Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series. The method of genre, the aim of realism – I read them and was converted.
They’re a remarkable sequence of stories set in and around the city of Viriconium, the far future home of gods, artists, bureaucrats and wasters, and end product of the Afternoon Cultures of Earth. They draw on a remarkable breadth of influences, everyone from Leigh Brackett to Roland Barthes. In them, Harrison writes ferociously against the idea of fantasy as escape, both charting its failures and using it as a bridge back to his own late 70s world.
The sequence can be read in any order, but always ends with “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium”, which starts in Huddersfield then steps through a mirror into another world. Harrison has since retitled it “A Young Man’s Journey to London”, a change that says more about his work than I ever could. It started my journey into the rest of his writing, a great, coherent whole that reveals more the more you read of it.
Reading those three – and then following up the various hints they dropped about the people who inspired them – was a vast education in all the places you could end up when you looked beyond the formal confines of realism. They set me on so many profoundly rewarding, wildly exciting new paths. I grew up with them. And even now, with a new Moorcock novel sat next to me waiting to be read, rumours of a new M. John Harrison short story collection on the way soon and Ballard’s interviews on my phone as late night reading, I feel like it’s a growing up that’s still going on.
There’s one part of the ‘Do Designers Dream of Electric Sheep’ afternoon I keep on going back to. One of the classic current AI discussion points is the problem of the out-of-control self-driving car. If one’s had some sort of glitch or accident and is about to crash into (for example) a bus stop queue, how does it decide who to avoid and who to hit, who will survive and who won’t? Who will it seem to feel most empathy for?
And that led to this –
One very reasonable response came out in answers three, four and six. Actually, the group pointed out, this was an entirely avoidable situation. So, it should be made impossible. Careful readers will also spot that answer five refers to this, albeit in a subtle, oblique and highly allusive way.
(Oh, and I stripped out answer one because it’s a bit incomprehensible if you weren’t at the event. And answer seven led to some darkly fascinating, but also rather tangential, thinking – so I’ll come back to it in a bit.)
The design of the car, the design of the bus stop, the design of the rules that regulate traffic, the design of the city that the traffic moves through, should be such that this kind of situation is impossible. This set me thinking that the network effect applies to empathy too – that the more people included within a given act of empathy, the more powerful it becomes.
This leads to an interesting question – can one feel empathy for groups, rather than just individuals? The general consensus seemed to be no – that empathy is a person-to-person act, happening on a one-to-one basis. So – for example – if empathy moves me to support a homelessness charity, I’m feeling empathy not for the charity, but for all the homeless people I’ve met.
Empathy is not abstract. It can only come from actual experience of real people.
That thought led to much discussion on the day. And, as an SF author, it raises a very interesting question for me. My books are set in imaginary futures, and they’re about imaginary people. How, then, can I help the reader feel empathy for them?
I need to make their futuristic motivations, behaviours, challenges and solutions comprehensible to a contemporary reader. I need to situate the present in the future. Or, turning things round, I need to use the unreal – my invented characters, their invented world – to talk about the real – the actual lived experience of my readers. In SF, the other we feel for is always some version of ourselves.
There’s an interesting point here for designers. When they design something, they invent a small part of the future. They do what science fiction writers do – they imagine the new into being. And like science fiction writers, that newness will only work if it reaches back into the present and responds to a real experience, or need, that already exists now – if it shows empathy with the actual. Good design, like good SF, is neither exclusively about the present or the future. Instead, it’s a bridge between the two, one that always builds out from the lived experience of people right now.
And I nearly forgot – answer seven. It was pointed out that, if malfunctioning cars steered towards or away from individuals according to their online profiles, a market in more attractive (and therefore safer) profiles would quickly develop. It was then realised that you could hack someone’s profile to make it much less attractive, making this scenario riskier for them and their lives probably more hazardous in general – a new and disturbing kind of crime. And of course that kind of decision-making implies a very dark society, one that’s both judgemental and unconcerned about risk in ways we’d find appalling.
That leads to two final thoughts. First of all, science fiction is never just about the tech; it’s about the people that decide how to use the tech, and the society that shapes those decisions. And secondly, something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. SF isn’t really about tech that works – rather, SF stories happen because of mistakes, malfunctions and unintended consequences. More on that in a future post…
So, we had our ‘Do Designers Dream of Electric Sheep’ afternoon at the FuseBox, and it went very well indeed – so well, in fact, that I’ve had big problems trying to boil down everything it made me think about into a single blog post. As it turns out, when you combine ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ and ‘Blade Runner’ with a room full of designers, technologists, philosophers and creatives, you end up with an awful lot to think about.
But that’s actually quite useful. For the next couple of months, the FuseBox is being rebuilt, so I don’t have anywhere to be physically resident. So instead, I’m going to become a virtually resident writer. I’m going to go with the flow and write more than I normally would, publishing three or four blog posts and – if all goes according to plan – a videoblog, both discussing the ‘Do Designers Dream…?’ day in general and talking about where it took me in particular.
And I’m going to start at the beginning, with how we defined its core theme – empathy. We began by trying to find out if we had a shared sense of it. As everyone arrived at the event, we asked them to write down their own definitions of empathy. We ended up with:
Rather than a single understanding of empathy, that left us with many interesting tensions. Is empathy something emotional or rational? Does it happen when you imagine another in your own head, or does it build on a genuine connection between you and another? Is it an exclusively human experience, or is it something other creatures (and perhaps even things) can feel? And so on.
Then, we complicated things even more. FuseBox head Phil Jones kicked things off with an introductory talk, then philosopher Dr Kathleen Stock, critical design practitioner and AI expert Professor Karen Cham, and SF writer me all took a few minutes to talk through our own understandings of empathy.
Phil began by talking about empathy in design, describing both its problems and achievements. On the one hand, every effective piece of design is a small chunk of embodied empathy, an actually present representation of a moment of connection between the designer and their audience. On the other, design often fails. For example, there’s the problem of bro-tech – technology designs by highly privileged twenty-something male designers that only show any sort of empathy for the lives and problems of twenty-something males. Design needs empathy to thrive; but too often it embodies its lack rather than its presence.
Kathleen talked about empathy in a more abstract way. She described two different kinds of empathy – cognitive and affective:
Cognitive empathy involves imagining the experience of another; affective empathy happens when another’s emotion affects you. A key point running through her comments was the role of imagination in empathy – you can never actually experience being someone (or something) else. You can only ever imagine it. And that throws up a fascinating question: How solipsistic is empathy? Does it represent a genuine link with the other, or only an imagined one? And is there any real difference between the two?
And then it was my turn. I discussed how empathy is essential in fiction; to feel involved with a particular story, to want to keep reading on, the reader needs to feel empathy for the people they’re reading about. That led to a very basic description of three act narrative structure:
I create empathy for my characters by showing the reader what they want to do and why it’s so important, then making it difficult for them to do it, and finally exploring what it means for them to actually get it done. Once again, imagination’s a crucial part of that process – as a writer of SF, I ask my readers to imagine unreal futures, and as a writer of fiction I ask them to imagine unreal people and events.
Then it was Karen’s turn. She talked about empathy as something very practical, describing how we can achieve a very exact kind of empathy by using technology to measure people’s physical responses to any particular experience. And she described how technology displays apparent empathy for the world around it as it learns from experience. For her, empathy wasn’t so much about imagination – it’s something very present, practical and measurable.
And those were the definitions of empathy we started out with. More on where they took us to in my next post…
Some very exciting news – from now until the autumn, I’ll be the Writer in Residence at Brighton tech hub the FuseBox! The residency’s going to be themed around Philip K. Dick. I’ll be helping bring together forward-looking members of Brighton’s academic, technological and creative communities to think about his writing, the themes that drive it and everything that it’s inspired.
It’s going to be a fascinating few months, a wonderful opportunity to see what science fiction can mean to people using and thinking about technology in all sorts of different ways. I’ll be part of Imagined Futures, a series of Dick-themed events for all of those communities, blogging about what comes out of them, and sharing my own work and my sense of what SF is and how it can illuminate the world around us.
It’ll give me so much inspiration for my own writing, too – after all, there’s nobody better qualified to help an SF writer understand tomorrow than the people who are making it happen today. And of course it’s already sent me diving back into Phillip K. Dick. He feels particularly relevant just now, both as a philosopher of the unreal and an inspirer of the very real.
Let’s start with the unreal. What’s always struck me about his books is how they show the world as a molten, unreliable thing, resolutely refusing to settle into any final version of itself. ‘The Man in the High Castle’ shows us an alternate reality that can be disproven by the I-Ching. ‘Ubik’ shows us an apocalypse of time, space and self that strongly resists falling into any single, simple interpretation. ‘Valis’ leaps between religious mysticism, gnostic fantasy and pure SF, leaving it to the reader to decide what they’re really witnessing. And so it continues, throughout his novels and short stories.
Again and again, Dick pokes holes in the real. He leaves us with literary artefacts that are at once undeniably there, present before us as words on the page, but also impossible to grasp in any single, final, fully knowable way. In our modern age of fake news and performed reality, that makes them profoundly current. We’ll do our best to get to grips with them, exploring exactly how they resonate today.
And then there’s reality. Paradoxically, as Dick’s slippery fictions have gone out into the world they’ve driven the creation of something very hard-and-fast. They’ve become one of the great engines driving modern SF cinema, sitting directly behind major movies like ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Total Recall’, ‘A Scanner Darkly’ and ‘Minority Report’, and indirectly behind many more. And cinema demands the real – for SF to work onscreen, it has to show us entire, absolutely convincing worlds.
So, inspired by Dick, production designers have created very concrete visions of tomorrow. Industrial designer Syd Mead went from designing cars, hotels and consumer tech to building a whole world for ‘Blade Runner’. The gestural interface Tom Cruise uses in ‘Minority Report’ was directly based on work from the MIT Media Lab. Even the relatively cartoonish world of ‘Total Recall’ is suffused with technologies that – taken on their own terms – are entirely consistent and credible.
In bringing Dick’s futures to life, film makers have done far more than just engage with the slippery nature of his (un)realities. They’ve prototyped futures – and there’s as much to learn from those concrete futures as there is from his original visions. So we’ll be looking at those very real things too, seeing exactly what practical lessons we can take away from them.
I’m sure that it will all combine in very exciting ways. It could be we’ll find a road map to steer us past the pot holes and wrong turns and confusions of now; it could be that – like so many of his heroes – we’ll find that losing ourselves in them all is the only way to move on.
Either way, we’ll have a blast. I can’t wait to see where we end up – and if you’re around in Brighton while any of it’s going on, I hope you’ll join us for some or all of it – drop me an email if you want to get on the mailing list for it all. If you can’t, do keep checking in here – I’ll be writing about all of our adventures in Dick’s worlds, while hopefully keeping a reasonably firm grip on this one too. So, see you at the next post!
Years ago, when I was about ten, I briefly had a particularly terrible teacher. He was a hateful, poisonous old man, loathed by all his pupils for his spite and malice. I’m not sure how he ended up teaching, and to this day I really don’t understand how he held onto his job.
For a short while, though, I saw another side to him.
When the Falklands War began, he put a big map of the islands up at the bottom of the school stairs. Every morning he’d carefully move little coloured pins across it, updating us all on the latest positions of the British and Argentinian Forces.
There was an entirely uncomplicated, entirely boyish glee to him as he did this. A child myself, I saw the ten year old in him. I imagined him back in the ’40s, his life still rich with love and promise, following the Allied troops as they fought for Europe, marking out their progress on a map with his little pins.
He’d have been old enough to understand the scope and importance of their achievement, but still too young to really take in how much pain and loss that victory contained. Perhaps his war had been some sort of ‘Hope and Glory’ experience:
And so when another war came towards the end of his life, he was full of joy. For a moment, he could be a child again. I still loathed him, but I was happy for him too – glad and even touched that, even just for a moment, he could find a way past the fog of bitterness that normally enveloped him.
I’m reminded of him now, when I see Michael Howard rattling sabres at Spain:
There’s that same nostalgia there; at once a yearning for and a re-experiencing of a simpler, happier time. And there’s that same joy at the thought of a Great British war, that same absolute blindness to any of its darker aspects.
But what’s forgivable – even touching – in an ageing primary school teacher is appalling in a senior British politican. Brexit as currently managed is government by fantasy and nostalgia. All adult considerations are put aside, replaced with a short-sighted, childish glee that – if allowed to reign unchecked – could cost us all so much, for so little.
I think even my bitter old teacher would have seen that. He taught us history; and the one thing he was always very clear about was that we didn’t fight the Second World War against Europe. We fought for it and as a part of it:
So, to my surprise, I almost find myself wishing that he was here now, so he could teach the Michael Howards of this world exactly what it means to walk away from, to so casually dream of shattering, that peaceful union we’re all a part of; that union that past generations fought so hard, and gave so much, to create.
So here’s Iain Sinclair, talking about London while wandering in Haggerston Park and Bethnal Green:
He’s sadder here than I’ve ever seen him. He talks in the film about how London has changed into something he can no longer engage with – that writers in general can engage with – in any particularly constructive way. But I think there’s also something very personal behind his grief.
Tom Raworth, a very major, often astonishing poet, died back in February. There’s more on him here. Sinclair knew him well and was – is – greatly influenced by him. He mentions his death at the end of this LRB piece, a companion to the film. I think the film is in part an elegy to him, and to a particular milieu which once surrounded Sinclair but is now slowly and inevitably slipping away.
And of course Sinclair’s more overt concerns about London are both very genuine and very incisive. Most of the film was shot within a few minutes walk of my own final London flat. I once knew that area well, but when I visit it now I feel a very absolute sense of slippage. London has moved away from me, too. There’s a sense of radical change afoot that is hard to keep up with, and both painful and (for someone less closely involved with the city) fascinating to watch.
And I write this on the day that Theresa May’s Article 50-triggering letter reaches Brussels and Brexit proper begins. I’m European as much as I am British – I spent my early years in France. I speak French, some German and Latin, which lets me read Italian and Spanish. I’ve found deep riches in all those cultures. And I’m British as much as I am English. My family on both sides is ultimately Scottish and I spent four immensely formative student years up there.
Brexit is at best profoundly suspicious of and at worst deeply corrosive to those international parts of me, and more broadly to those of England and Britain; to that positive, open European identity that the best parts of the 20th Century fought so hard for. So I felt for Iain Sinclair as he wandered through streets that he’d once felt lost in, and that he’d worked so hard to understand, and that were now puzzling him all over again. His film helped crystallise the sense of loss I’m feeling, without once directly referring to its cause. If you have fifteen minutes today, I’d recommend watching it.