(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.
On the face of it, science fiction’s all about technological change. But actually, when you sit down to write it, I think it sets a more interesting challenge: how to tell a story that can leave key parts of its future behind. SF’s most enduring works don’t live on because they accurately predict tomorrow. In fact, technologically speaking they’re very often wrong about it. They stay readable because they think about what change does to people and how we cope with it.
That’s most obvious in the near future stuff, whose technological speculations can be very easily tested – you just need to wait for a few years and see what happens. As someone who grew up in the 80s, I’m going to use a classic piece of SF from back then to illustrate that – ‘Blade Runner’. It’s set a couple of years ahead of us now, in 2019, but shows us a tomorrow with no internet or smartphones, but plenty of flying cars and artificial humans and animals.
And yet it remains one of science fiction’s profound masterworks. What keeps ‘Blade Runner’ so engaging is not its powers of prediction, but rather what the change it shows us does to the people in it. When it was made, it looked forward not factually but emotionally. There’s a nostalgia for an unreachable and so-much-less-broken past, a deep, anguished sense of personal powerlessness and a massive fear that even the most intimate parts of yourself – your entire life’s memories, for example – could suddenly turn out to be an externally sourced corporate construct. It nails a very specific kind of rootlessness and paranoia that’s very easy to feel right now.
The enduring accuracy of that emotional vision makes the failure of Ridley Scott’s more practical predictions pretty much irrelevant. As one of the 80s’ other great cyberpunks, William Gibson, noted: ‘I’ve never really been very interested in computers themselves. I don’t watch them; I watch how people behave around them.’ The ‘Blade Runner’ solution to a profoundly negative set of changes – be as human as possible, even if you’re not – is one that hasn’t yet dated. As new tech keeps on forcing us to rethink what it means to be human I think it’ll continue to resonate for a long time yet.
But what about the further future stuff? Is this an argument that works in the context of the tomorrows far beyond tomorrow, where technologies that we’ll never live to see leap through science fiction stories? How can we test the science in such impossible imaginings?
I went to another piece of 80s science fiction – C.J. Cherryh’s 1988 novel ‘Cyteen’ – when I started thinking about that. It’s set a few hundred years in the future, and describes a society built on technological achievements that it’s safe to say none of us will ever witness. But it does so much more than just talk about them. It’s a rich and detailed study of how culture, family and even strong-minded individuals write personality into children as they grow and become adults. The book’s fascinated by growth, maturity and the self, and the relationships between them. The change it talks about is the change we all go through as our adult selves grow into being.
But on the other hand, it explores all that through the medium of tapes, using a kind of tape-to-mind content transference process as a way of thinking about how the people around you can shape you as you grow. Those tapes were a wonderful sustained metaphor, one you couldn’t really achieve in any more realist fiction, but as science they kept on throwing me out of the book. I associated them with clunky 70s supercomputers and screeching 80s cassette drives. I didn’t even understand why Cherryh was presenting them as such a futuristic, powerful tool until I started reading cyberneticists like 60s maven Norbert Wiener. That showed me both what she was getting at with them and how the technological context that had once supported this thoughtful, powerful novel had so quickly dropped away from it.
And that, for me, was a moment that confirmed that science and technology aren’t actually central to science fiction. In fact, the specific details of how all the shiny stuff works are in the long run pretty irrelevant. After all, scientific theories exist to either be improved or disproved. Technology is constantly becoming outdated. All of it’s provisional, all of it will go. Any piece of SF that ties itself too firmly to a particular snapshot of scientific thinking or technological progress will itself become obsolete in very short order.
So ironically, perhaps the only way that any piece of science fiction can be sure that it will remain resonant as the years pass is to make sure that any technical speculation can drop away once it’s no longer relevant. The science will fall back to Earth like an exhausted booster section, tumbling away from the rocket that will one day reach the stars. And then we’ll be left with stories about how people change when change arrives – and that, for me, is what science fiction is.
With Waking Hell coming out I thought I’d do a couple of ‘making of’ posts – two bookumentaries, if you will. One of them’s on the music that inspired the book – it’s up over on the Gollancz blog.
And this is the other one, about four of the films that helped inspire it. So now sit back, grab your popcorn and relax as I make like Alex Cox and introduce you to… WakingHellodrome!
Night of the Demon
When I started writing Waking Hell, I had one very definite ambition for it. I wanted it to be a very pure science fiction book that also worked as a horror novel. So, I went back to some of my favourite horror movies for inspiration.
I’ve always loved Jacques Tourneur’s The Night of the Demon (also known, as in the trailer below, as Curse of the Demon). Its hero, Dr John Holden, is a strict rationalist who falls prey to an entity that forces an entirely new world view on him. His antagonist, Julian Karswell, is at once a boisterous clown and a terrifyingly effective black magician.
I was fascinated by how the film mapped and explored those contrasts. And I loved the sense of mysterious, remorseless pursuit that suffuses it. Both fed very directly into Waking Hell.
Oh, and Night of the Demon is based on M. R. James’ story Casting the Runes. James too was a big influence on Waking Hell. In particular, there’s something oddly intimate about many of his hauntings. So much of his horror peaks late at night, in bedrooms. One of the book’s key scenes contains an oblique nod to that.
This is a film that – when I first saw it as a teenager – blew my mind. It’s a profoundly odd movie, its characters deeply absurd, its settings (for the most part) a series of brilliantly used late night Paris locations. It’s shot through with a very strong sense that – with the world asleep – anything can happen. Those who remain awake no longer live within our city, they’ve fallen into its dream of itself.
That was something I wanted to capture in Waking Hell, that sense of being trapped within a city that has suddenly become completely other, no longer a home but rather a trap. Buffet Froid was the film that most directly inspired that, but I also drew on a long line of ‘estranged in the night’ movies – The Warriors, Round Midnight, Subway and so on.
As you read Waking Hell, hopefully you’ll see how all these percolate through into its heroine Leila’s adventures. She too is overthrown by night; the darkness both hides the world she’s always known and reveals a new one, more complex, more dangerous but potentially also more rewarding than any she’s known before.
Le Frisson Des Vampires
This is a very strange film indeed. On the one hand, it’s a 70s exploitation horror movie, with many of the flaws that that implies. On the other, it’s utterly engrossing and original, shot through with genuine surrealism and driven by three of the most peculiar vampires on screen. Watching it feels like spying on someone else’s dream.
The first vampire we meet casually unsqueezes herself from within a grandfather clock. She has two male companions, who slowly but surely take over the film. I found them an utterly hypnotic presence. They’re all over this trailer, too:
On the one hand, they’re a completely absurd duo. They’re given to nonsensical pseudo-intellectual lectures on occult history, they’re pretty ineffectual and their fashion sense is astonishing. Drawing on an apparently inexhaustible wardrobe of early 70s hippy finery, in every scene they look like they’ve dressed up as several members of the Monkees at once.
But on the other, I found in them a profoundly unsettling sense of menace. At first, that seemed utterly bizarre. I couldn’t work out why they spooked me so much. Understanding why these 70s relics had such a hold over me helped me define some of Waking Hell’s key bad guys – the Pressure Men.
Quatermass and the Pit
The past and the future have one thing in common – they contain everything. Science fiction normally looks to the everything of the future for inspiration, but Quatermass writer Nigel Kneale took the opposite tack. In Quatermass and the Pit, he wrote the past as if it was the future.
In the world of the film, a fully SFnal Martian invasion is already ancient history. His characters’ challenge is to deal with it not as a thing yet to come, but as an undeniable, ineradicable fact that radically changes their sense of the past and with it the very nature of their present. For them, memory plays that role that SF usually gives to foresight.
This was a huge inspiration for Waking Hell. I was fascinated by that recasting of SF as a tool to not just look backwards and explore memory but to understand it as the one thing without which the present and the future can’t exist.
It’s Nine Worlds time again! And I’m doing some fascinating panels. So, if you’re there on Friday or Saturday, do come along to:
World-building: No One Sells Happy Life Day Cards
Bouzy, 10:00am – 11:00am (Living Words)
Tracks: Living Words
Edward Cox, Al Robertson, Stephanie Saulter, Chris Wooding, Genevieve Cogman, James Barclay
Economics, geography, infrastructure – it’s the background stuff that, like concrete breeze blocks, comes off as the dull, uninteresting graft of world creation. But what makes it come alive and make sense for the reader? What makes people care, and what makes a fictional culture viable?
How to Idea
Cremant, 11:45am – 12:45pm (Living Words)
Tracks: Living Words
Lavie Tidhar, Emma Newman, Tom Lloyd, Al Robertson, Catriona Ward, Sam Wilson
It’s a weird and wonderful world, and necessity is the mother of invention – but how do you hone ideas, sort the good from the bad, tune them up and make them run? A nice ramble through the inspiration that struck these authors, and how they balanced creativity with logic.
Moral issues in speculative fiction
Bordeaux, 8:30pm – 9:30pm (Living Words)
Tracks: Living Words
Lisa Tuttle, Al Robertson, Matt Blakstad, Stark Holborn, Jen Williams, Mark de Jager
When you’re dealing with a sentient and newly murderous AI, or the revelation that the people behind the Wall are… well, actually people too, what happens to your morality? Moral quandaries can arise from the most unexpected places and some of the very best speculative fiction is driven by them. So, how do you do right, or wrong, when the world around you has shifted the goalposts? Hero or villain? Renegade or Paragon? And is the line between them a brick wall or a chalk mark?
A month or so ago, I had a really interesting chat with French genre maven Gromovar Wolfenheir, about Crashing Heaven and a whole lot of other stuff – he asked some really thought-provoking questions. He put the interview up on his website, having beautifully translated it into French – you can read it here. I thought I’d put the English version up today to celebrate the paperback publication of Crashing Heaven. Happy reading!
Hello Al and thank you for your time.
First, can you introduce yourself to French readers ?
Thank you, it’s lovely to be here! And, hello – I’m Al Robertson. I’m a British science fiction writer who lives and works in Brighton. It’s a particular pleasure to be on a French website as I grew up in France, living just outside Paris until I was about six then returning regularly since then.
Can you tell us of your writing activities before Crashing Heaven ?
I’ve been writing for a long time. The first book I wrote was about Zorro, when I was about six. It was very short. As I grew up I ended up writing a lot of poetry, then working in film script development for various London production houses.
But one day I realised that what really excited me every month was getting the latest edition of “Interzone” or “The Third Alternative” (now “Black Static”) and racing through them. I thought I’d have a go at writing some stories for them, and everything went from there.
I spent about ten years publishing short stories before “Crashing Heaven” came out – mostly fantasy and horror rather than science fiction. There are some up on my website if you want to check them out.
There’s also an unpublished novel that will never see the light of day. It’s about what would happen if somewhere a little like Narnia had massive oil reserves, and someone a little like George W. Bush or Tony Blair found out they were there. Of course, we’ve invaded the magic kingdom and destroyed everything.
Oh, and I’ve also been a corporate writer and comms strategist for the last ten years or so. I’ve worked with many different kinds of companies, writing just about everything imaginable for them!
Can you tell us of your love for SF ? Which authors are your favorite ones ? What are the other genre you like ?
Well, I’ve always been very deeply into SF. I remember watching “Space 1999” and “The Prisoner” dubbed into French when I was tiny, maybe four or five – they blew my mind. Partially because the imagery was so powerful, partially because I didn’t really understand what was going on. So I started trying to invent stories that would explain it all to me – I think that was one of the moments when I really started to become a writer.
Later on, the big influences were the British New Wave writers – Michael Moorcock, J. G. Ballard and M. John Harrison. Moorcock’s been a constant presence, his work – quite apart from being great fun to read – is a huge, endless education in the possibilities of genre writing, for me in particular as satire. Ballard always seemed to be so alien – there’s something very clinical about his writing, it often feels far more like very acute analysis rather than fiction. I think his experiences in Shanghai during the war moved him far beyond our conventional senses of society and humanity, and he never quite came back again. And M. John Harrison’s grasp of the literary uses of genre, of the way that the unreal can in very sophisticated ways reflect and comment on the real (inasmuch as we can even begin to grasp that very slippery concept) is an endless inspiration.
And there’s H.P. Lovecraft. He was a huge obsession when I was a teenager. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realised how problematic he can be – but what I always enjoyed was how he’s absolutely a science fiction writer, but one utterly horrified by all the things that usually excite SF writers. Aliens ? NOOOO! New planets, dimensions to explore? I’M GOING MAD! Vast gulfs of interestellar time ? LIFE ITSELF IS MEANINGLESS!! Time travel ? AAAAARRGGH!!! And so on. He’s also a very nostalgic writer, but his nostalgia is so broken. All those backward looking characters you feel he’d most want to be – all those repressed New England academics and historians – are the ones shown by his stories to be most completely wrong about the true nature of the universe.
Oh, and there’s Iain Sinclair – I started reading him at about the same time as Lovecraft. A remarkable writer, he’s someone I’ve come back to again and again over the years. Partially for the way he blends a crazed pulp-fuelled imagination, a very sharp critical mind and a brilliant prose style, partially for all the other writers and film makers he very consciously and very generously leads his readers to. I felt some of him come through in China Mieville’s early work, too. China’s sense of the weird was very important – my initial response to it was to go and start a cabaret night in a bar in Brixton, but it’s also been a big influence on how I think about genre fiction in general.
And poetry’s always been a big presence. Partially for the more genre-relevant stuff – poems like Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Christabel”, James Thomson’s “The City of Dreadful Night” have all haunted me, over the years – and partially for the ways it shows you how you can tell non-realist stories in ways that can have very deep resonance. I was deeply into William Blake for a while, for example. His shatteringly powerful, deeply sophisticated myth-making is a very useful antidote to a realist tradition that insists that only literal transciptions of reality can have any sort of aesthetic worth.
Though of course, having said that I’ve learned a huge amount from that kind of writing. Epic, tub-thumping 19th century novels are magnificent! They contain so much and they tell their stories with such ferocious, unputdownable verve. The Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, Balzac, Zola – all essential. Balzac in particular – the Comedie Humaine as a whole is a great lesson in how to write multiple books set in the same world, all crossing over with each other in complex, fascinating ways.
Crashing Heaven, your first novel, is out since June 2015 at Gollancz. Can you tell us how you got your Publisher ?
Through my agent, Susan Armstrong at Conville and Walsh. I signed up with her in 2012 and then spent a year or so rewriting Crashing Heaven off the back of her thoughts on it. We took Crashing Heaven out to auction in 2013, and Simon Spanton at Gollancz came in with a pre-emptive offer. I’ve always been a huge fan of both him and them, so I was very pleased indeed! I signed up, and that was that.
Let’s talk about Crashing Heaven. What’s the plot of the novel ? What are the main factions warring inside ? What is at stake ?
Well, Crashing Heaven is about Jack Forster, an accountant of the future, and his sidekick Hugo Fist, a very heavy duty military AI that manifests as a virtual ventriloquist’s dummy. As the book begins, they’re just returning home to Station, a giant space station orbiting the Earth where most of humanity now lives. They’ve been battling the rogue AIs of the Totality on behalf of the Pantheon, a group of sentient corporations that are worshipped as gods.
One of the Pantheon starts persecuting Jack and Fist – they have to find out why and do something about it. Which annoys the hell out of them, their real motivations are much more down to Earth. Jack wants to find and be reconciled with Andrea, the great love of his life who’s mysteriously gone missing. And Fist wants to turn into a real boy. Some dodgy software licensing means that he’s going to inherit Jack’s body in a couple of months time, wiping Jack’s mind in the process. So really he just wants Jack to do nothing dangerous whatsoever.
CH happens after an AI war that destroyed Earth. Can you give us some details ? What could we see if we were on Earth at this time ?
Well, you get to find all that out in the next book, “Waking Hell”! It’s coming out this October. It’s difficult to talk about without giving away massive spoilers, so it’s probably best if I leave it to the book to reveal it all…
The strong character in Crashing Heaven is the puppet AI Hugo Fist. Can you describe him ? Where does such a strange character come from ?
He’s a psychotic virtual ventriloquist’s dummy and he took me totally by surprise. When I was planning the book, I was imagining the Jack Forster / Hugo Fist relationship as a kind of Faust / Mephistopheles one. Jack was going to be much as he is now, but Fist was going to be a dark, spooky silhouette, a kind of demonic digital familiar. But when I started writing him, he marched into the book as a ventriloquist’s dummy. The scene where the reader first meets him is also the scene where I first met him! It was quite a surprise.
Though of course, he does have some very definite inspirations. I’ve always loved possessed ventriloquist dummy movies – one of my favourites is ace 40’s portmanteau horror movie “Dead of Night”, in which we meet the dummy Hugo Fitch, a very evil little presence. He was a big influence. There’s a lot of Jan Svankmajer in there too. His “Faust” was very inspiring – partially as a Faust myth retelling, partially for its general imagery, and partially for how it shows humans and puppets interacting with each other.
And there was one film that I only saw when the book was pretty much done – Nina Conti’s “Her Master’s Voice”. She’s a wonderful ventriloquist, but at one point was feeling very disillusioned with it all and on the point of quitting. She was about to tell her ventriloquial mentor, Ken Campbell, this, when he – very sadly – died. And in his will he left her all his puppets and declared that she was his ventriloquial heir. The film’s about how she deals with all this. It’s hysterically funny, sometimes very spooky and – most importantly – profoundly moving. Watching it was a shatteringly powerful confirmation of how strong the human / puppet bond can be, in real life as much as in fiction.
There is also the pacifist human Jack. What do you want us to learn from his defection out of his war ?
Whatever you find resonant in it! Writing a very heavy handed fantasised satire on the Gulf War helped me realise that nobody wants to be ranted at. I don’t think fiction’s there to draw conclusions for you – I think it’s there to give you an open field in which you can think through certain situations and possibilities for yourself. So a good story is both defined enough to suggest certain areas to think about and open enough to let you do whatever you want with them. So, really – whatever meaning you find in Jack’s defection is the right meaning.
Jack was an accountant before the war, then an investigator. Did you have Eliott Ness in mind when you created him ?
Not at all – in fact, I’ve never seen “The Untouchables” or dug too deeply into gangster history. But of course, if you as a reader find interesting resonances between the two of them, that’s wonderful. For me, that’s the book doing its job – helping the reader go in directions they set for themselves.
As for where the accountancy in the book comes from – really, it comes from my experiences of the corporate world and my sense that accountants are the secret masters of the universe. Being able to read a set of corporate accounts is a tremendously powerful thing – it gives you so much insight into how a company works, what it’s doing right, what it’s doing wrong.
The recent fascination with corporate tax avoidance is a really interesting manifestation of this. It’s proper militant accountancy – people picking apart internal and external money flows, understanding their social and political implications, then taking action.
Can you describe to us the buddies pair made by Hugo Fist and Jack ? How does the pair evolve during the story ?
Again, I wouldn’t want to talk about that too much because spoilers! I hope their relationship evolves in a way that’s both interestingly unpredictable, and coherent and truthful.
There is too a beautiful and tragic character in CH, the jazz singer Andrea. Did you have a model in mind for her ?
Quite a few! There are elements of many different people in there. First of all, there’s her as a musician – in my mind, she sounds a bit like some combination of Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell (particularly on their last album, “Pygmalion”), My Bloody Valentine’s Bilinda Butcher, Lana Del Rey and Jesca Hoop. And anyone who’s ever sung in a David Lynch movie, blended with Miles Davis’ soundtrack to “Ascenseur pour L’Echafaud”.
Her films were very much inspired by Stan Brakhage – the way he explores and plays with memory and perception was a huge help as I wrote and came to understand her. There’s a bit of Proust in there, too – I was reading my way through him while doing the last two, very major edits on the book.
Oh, and since writing the book I’ve been listening to a lot of Holly Herndon. She’s a remarkable musician. I think that Andrea would be fascinated by her work, they have a lot in common.
And I could of course be quite wrong about any of that. Your version of Andrea is equally if not more valid than mine!
In CH, nearly everything is virtual and need to be paid on a duration basis. Yet, the Internet now is mostly free or all-included. Do you really think that it will change in the future ? Do you think that a always-augmented world is at hand ?
I’d disagree about that – I think very little of it is free, we pay for most of it with data about ourselves. We just don’t have any understanding of the true value of that data, and no current way – as individuals – to access that value. But the tech giants of our day do very well off it.
And more generally, as I was writing and rewriting “Crashing Heaven” various software and content companies were trying to move to a model where you subscribe to a service rather than buy a product – Adobe moving Photoshop to the cloud, Microsoft pushing Office 365 and so on.
Looking at companies like Netflix and Spotify, something similar seemed to be going on – you no longer buy a piece of music, film or whatever and own it outright, you subscribe to a service and enjoy it as part of that service. Or you just go to Amazon Prime and pay a one-off rental fee.
At the moment, these services are the exception rather than the rule. They have non-subscription competitors ; I can still go and buy a DVD, for example, and completely circumvent Netflix, Amazon or whoever else.
But when that sort of competition no longer exists, when the only choice is content leasing services of one kind or another, then there’s a commercial logic that says these kinds of companies will take advantage of their market dominance. And we’ll all suddenly find ourselves paying much more for much less.
You see it now for example in the way Monsanto sells seeds to farmers. Seeds should create plants which create seeds which farmers can reuse. Of course, this isn’t profitable – when you sell a farmer one year’s worth of seeds, you’re really selling him a lifetime’s worth of crops. So you just turn off the seed production gene in whatever you’re selling him, and hey presto! Guaranteed annual income.
Incidentally, in this context it’s both interesting and a little worrying watching technologies like blockchains, smart contracts and the internet of things develop. On the one hand, they have genuine utopian possibilities ; on the other, taken together they also make it so much easier for any kind of product usage to be very precisely monitored and therefore monetised. A future in which – for example – we pay a software levy to boil our own kettle, then pay again for mug usage because someone holds the rights to the groovy design on it it is both closer and far easier to get to than we might think.
In CH, the inequalities are huge in the Station. Don’t you think that we’re going to a future of post-scarcity as in Banks’ Culture ?
Again, I’m trying to reflect rather than predict – in fact, I see “Crashing Heaven” as realist or documentary rather than predictive SF. So, from that point of view – we live in a very unequal world and I wanted to bring that out in the book.
I do think that the Culture is a profoundly utopian society – particularly in the way that it elides any sense of how it arose from the kind of wealth-and-power-concentrating economies we live in now. Nobody ever gave up that sort of wealth and power without either a fight or some kind of profound, externally imposed destabilisation.
That kind of upheaval might in the end lead to very good things, but not without a fair amount of trauma for pretty much everyone involved along the way. The Culture is wonderful and I would love to live within it, but surviving the journey to it might be quite a challenge.
In CH, the world is mostly contractual as in Ayn Rand or in Kress’ Beggars in Spain. What do yo uthink of this kind of world ? do you think that it’s close at hand ?
I think I’ve answered this above!
Can you tell us of the “gods” that rule the Station ? Where do their names come from ? What are their powers ?
Their names vary. Some communicate relevant meaning, some are randomly chosen. I looked at how corporate entities are named now and tried to reflect that. Some – like Virgin, for example – communicate very specific meaning in an evocative way. Others, like Samsung, have no innate meaning. Our understanding of them comes from the action of the entity they describe.
And as for what they can do – each has a specific sphere of influence, so for example Kingdom is concerned with physical infrastructure, East with the media, Grey with corporate efficiency and strategy, and so on. But in essence, like all brands, they all share a combination of practical and emotional power.
Practically, they sell you things or provide services that do something concrete for you. Emotionally, they make you feel like a certain sort of person when you acquire those things. They want to extract profit from their relationship with you, so they make sure that you give them more than they give you. The effectiveness of their branding makes you feel good about this.
In CH, the powers that be lie and manipulate the people. Is it how you see politics in our world ? Or do you think that AI politicians will be structurally manipulative ?
Certainly in the political worlds I’m closest to – the UK and US. For example, there’s David Cameron, our current Prime Minister. He’s a career politican. The only real world job he’s ever held is as Director of Corporate Affairs at media company Carlton Communications. In effect he was their PR head, managing public perceptions of the company and presenting its point of view to the world.
I feel that’s what he now does as head of the Conservative party. He seems to be very tactical, more concerned with selling individual policies than enacting any grand vision for Britain. And those policies are often brutally harmful, but are hardly ever seen as such by those who vote for them – individual MPs, the electorate in general. It’s a very effective piece of perception management.
As for AI politicians – that’s an interesting question! It depends I think on how they’re coded. It’s very easy to see our current, fundamentally manipulative and extractive version of digital technology as the only possible option. In fact, it’s the result of a series of assumptions and choices about how we want it to work. If we start making different assumptions and choices, then we’ll be able to build IAs on different foundations.
There is a preemptive war in CH. Won’t we have learned nothing from the War on Terror ?
Sadly, I don’t think so. After repeating itself first as tragedy, then as comedy, I think history recurs for a third time as novelty, restarting the whole cycle. It’s been doing that for a long time and shows no signs of stopping.
In CH, the dead continue to communicate virtually with their living relatives. Do you think that these kind of apps will soon appear in our world ? If your answer is YES, how do you think it will change our world and our lives ? What will be the pros and cons ?
They’ve already appeared, although as yet they don’t seem to be very effective. For example, a site called Eter9 offers to learn about your through your social media posts, then mimic your voice and start talking to the world on your behalf. It will of course keep on doing so after you pass on. A while back, Virtual Eternity offered a very fetch-like service, but it didn’t take off and the site closed. Perpetu helps you manage your online presence post-death. And so on.
And of course, the dead already persist in ways they never used to. Facebook’s already asked me to wish friends who’ve passed on a happy birthday, and I occasionally get updates from their accounts, as people leave messages for them or friends and family post on their behalf.
More generally, the combination of digital tech (photos don’t fade any more) and the internet’s storage facilities has made the past a lot more present and persistent than it used to be – and the dead live in memory, so our relationship with them has also changed.
This is both a good and a bad thing, I think. On the one hand, I hugely enjoy having the past more present in my life. Many good things happened there! On the other, it can be more difficult to escape past traumas – Facebook’s recent decision to thrust memories from the past at people seems to have been problematic for some, for example. And I think there’s a risk of a certain kind of stasis. Forgetting the old makes room for the new. When the past persists, there’s much less room for novelty.
Oh, and more specifically – “Waking Hell”, the next book, has a fetch as a heroine and is very much about the pros and cons of fetch existence, how fetch society will evolve, how the living and the dead will relate to each other and so on. In short, I think it’ll all be pretty complex!
Were you influenced by Gogol’s Dead Souls when you wrote ?
Not really, no. I read it years ago but it hasn’t really stuck with me – which is a shame, as I love Gogol’s short stories. I should go back and try again!
If I had to pick Russian books I hope I’ve learned from, I’d probably go for Turgenev’s “Scenes from a Hunter’s Album” and Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”. Turgenev for his mastery of mood and subtle telling detail, Tolstoy for his marvellous ability to balance complex personal stories and the great, epic sweep of history.
Oh, and I think Hugo Fist would love “Notes from Underground”.
Your novel reminded me of Neuromancer (Gibson) and The Quantum Thief (Rajaniemi). I thought that it could be a missing link between those two great novels. Would you validate this assumption ?
That’s difficult for me to say! I can see how it might act as an interesting bridge between those two books – and I both love and am very flattered that you’ve seen it in that light – but I didn’t consciously write it to do that.
Are there some novels that you’d say influenced the way that CH is ?
Yes. Key specific inspirations were (in genre) Leigh Brackett’s planetary romances, Charles L. Harness’ “The Paradox Men” and Barrington Bayley’s “The Zen Gun” and “The Garments of Caean”.
Each combines a wonderful sense of playful imagination with a very serious aesthetic intent. They’re hugely enjoyable, constantly surprising reads, but they also cover some very important ground.
There’s also a fair bit of film in there. “The Third Man” was a big influence – a broken man returns to a broken city and discovers that an old friendship is not what he thought it was. There are some very specific nods to the film in the book.
And of course “Orphee” hangs very heavily over “Crashing Heaven”. A broken world in which reality and illusion have equal weight, the gods walk casually among us and the dead rise again with offhand ease – it was a huge inspiration.
The films of Powell and Pressburger were very important too, in particular “A Matter of Life and Death”. Again, it shows us two worlds – the real and the unreal, the living and the dead – negotiating a sometimes troubled, often dangerous, always fascinating co-existence.
In CH, you mix cyberpunk with singularity and noir. What are your favorite works in this genre ? How did you balance the mix in your own novel ?
I haven’t read a great deal of singularity fiction. Most of what’s in “Crashing Heaven” comes from just looking around. I think the singularity has already happened and it’s transnational corporate entities. They are independent intelligences in their own right, their needs and goals entirely separate from and often deeply inimical to humanity’s. It’s just that their scale of presence, thought and action is so different from ours that we haven’t really noticed. And we certainly haven’t developed effective ways of communicating with and managing them. I tried to dramatise my sense of that in the book.
And as for noir – again, it’s more of an atmosphere I’ve picked up over the years so it’s hard to point to single works. As I said above, “The Third Man” has always haunted me. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, of course. There’s a fair bit of Julian Maclaren Ross, Derek Raymond and Gerald Kersh in there as well, those great, dark, undeceived London mythmakers – again, experts at showing broken people moving through a broken city, trying to make some provisional sense of the parts of their lives they feel they can control.
The way that noir’s mutated into occult detective fiction was also a big inspiration – early “Hellblazer” hit me like a sledgehammer, for example. There’s something very cyberpunk about it – the way that John Constantine deploys street-level occult technologies to enforce his will on vastly more powerful supernatural entities. And there’s such sharp contemporary satire in there too.
Stepping back from individual works – I think the great lesson that noir has to teach is that you can solve crimes but you can’t solve people. That’s something I definitely tried to reflect in “Crashing Heaven”.
Will CH be published in France ? Will it be adapted on screen ? If it’s not secret…
I’d love to see “Crashing Heaven” published in France, but alas there are no current plans for anyone to do so. If anyone reading this is interested, do get in touch! And I’d be fascinated to see it adapted on screen. At one point we did get quite close to selling TV rights to it, but nothing concrete’s yet emerged.
What is your next project ?
I’m deep in final edits on “Waking Hell”, the loose sequel to “Crashing Heaven” that I’ve already mentioned. The past attacks and only the dead can save us! It’s coming out this October.
After that, there’ll be the final Station novel, “Purging System”. “Crashing Heaven” is about Station’s present, “Waking Hell” reveals its past and “Purging System” will show us its future.
And then there’ll be a bit of a change of pace, something a little more contemporary. I’m tossing round some ideas in the back of my mind, but I’m not even sure about them myself!