(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.
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!
It’s summer time, so the paper are full of people talking about the books they’re taking on holiday. I’ve found all the various lists rather frustrating as – with the exception of (of course) the New Scientist and a couple of mentions of Emily St John Mandel’s excellent Station Eleven – nobody’s recommended any science fiction, fantasy or horror at all.
So, to balance that out, here’s my list of holiday books. Oh, and it seems that, when writing this kind of thing, you have to mention where you’re heading to. So, there’s a certain amount of destination boasting in there too.
Anyway, first of all I’m going to be packing Imaginary Cities, by Darran Anderson. Here’s the blurb:
Inspired by the surreal accounts of the explorer and ‘man of a million lies’ Marco Polo, Imaginary Cities charts the metropolis and the imagination, and the symbiosis therein. A work of creative nonfiction, the book roams through space, time and possibility, mapping cities of sound, melancholia and the afterlife, where time runs backwards or which float among the clouds.
It’s a wonderful, substantial tome and looks absolutely fantastic. Darran’s twitter feed is also well worth checking out, it’s a cornucopia of imaginary wonderments. I’m planning a long weekend tucked away in London’s Alsacia – it’ll be the perfect companion.
I’m going to follow that with some fiction. I’ve been meaning to check out Naomi Mitchison for a while – she seems to be both a very wondrous writer and someone who’s been rather unfairly written out of genre history. The Corn King and the Spring Queen looks like a great starting point:
Set over two thousand years ago on the calm and fertile shores of the Black Sea, Naomi Mitchison’s The Corn King and the Spring Queen tells of ancient civilisations where tenderness, beauty and love vie with brutality and dark magic.
Ms Allumination and I are off to Summerisle for a long weekend, it’ll be a great read on those endless Western Isle evenings. Sadly we’ve missed this year’s May Day celebration but at least there’ll those marvellous apples to try! And of course I’ll snag one of their famous “I went to Summer Isle and all I came back with was an understanding of the true meaning of sacrifice” t-shirts.
After that, it’s going to be time for a bit of a change of pace. Business is taking me to Neo-Tokyo – apparently the tech scene out there is about to explode. I’ll be stopping off in Hong Kong along the way, so Dung Kai-Cheung’s Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City will be the perfect traveling companion
Set in the long-lost City of Victoria (a fictional world similar to Hong Kong), Atlas is written from the unified perspective of future archaeologists struggling to rebuild a thrilling metropolis. Divided into four sections–“Theory,” “The City,” “Streets,” and “Signs”–the novel reimagines Victoria through maps and other historical documents and artifacts, mixing real-world scenarios with purely imaginary people and events while incorporating anecdotes and actual and fictional social commentary and critique.
And once I’m back, we’ve finally got a couple of weeks away for a proper summer holiday. We’re spending it in a rather snug bolthole somewhere in Sussex. Apparently Arran sweaters are de rigueur and I’m assured that the aga is in full working order. So, we should be able to avoid the local ambulant plant life, keep under the radar of any passing military survivalist cults and basically stay cosy in the face of any catastrophes.
A superb murder mystery, on an epic scale, set against the fall out – literally – of a war in Heaven.
Paris has survived the Great Houses War – just. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens continue to live, love, fight and survive in their war-torn city, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over the once grand capital.
I can’t wait! Though of course, family holidays aren’t just about reading. We’ll be passing the evenings performing Hamlet. In the original Klingon, of course.
Happy holidays everyone! Oh, and if you’ve got any summer reading recommendations, do share them (plus any strange and interesting destinations you’re heading to) in the comments…
I’ve just zipped through Adam Nevill’s horror novel ‘Last Days’ and Hari Kunzru’s literary novel ‘Gods Without Men’. The Process Church are a more-or-less buried presence in both books. And yesterday I found out that weird folkists Sabbath Assembly exist purely to cover their songs of worship! So, I thought I’d do a quick blog post about all three appearances, and how they’ve lead to some interesting thoughts about the problems of writing horror adversaries.
First of all, Sabbath Assembly. I’m not going to say too much about them – instead, just go and listen to the music. They’ve released two albums of the Process Church’s greatest hits. Here’s ‘In The Time Of Abaddon II’ from ‘Ye Are Gods’:
Before you read on, press play to get in the right mood…
And secondly, Adam Nevill’s ‘Last Days’. It’s a highly enjoyable read. He writes about the Temple of the Last Days, a Process Church-like cult who, back in the 60s, called up far more than they could ever hope to put down. Our modern heroes – led by documentary maker Kyle Freeman – have to deal with what’s left over, and take on the putting down themselves.
Nevill does a great job of reworking actual history into something far darker and stranger. He’s always created marvellous monsters, drawing on deep visual literacy to create some profoundly disturbing adversaries. The textures and moods of Francis Bacon’s paintings were vivid, inventive inspiration for the deeply creepy novel ‘Apartment 16’, while ‘The Ritual’ refreshed well-trodden folk-horror tropes with verve and style.
‘Last Days’ draws on both the darker parts of Northern European Renaissance art and the flickering, wall-haunting film and TV that came to surround us all in the 20th Century. It thinks about how history gets pulled into media and frozen there as fixed images, and how those fixed images can then leap back out and become animate invaders of our lives now. The imagery pattern that Nevill creates around that is marvellous; but, despite that, for me the book as a whole didn’t quite come off.
Partially, there’s a bit too much info-dumping in there. I love reading that kind of thing, but deep explorations of the Temple of the Last Days’ history made even me feel that the book was moving a bit slowly at times. That was added to by a certain amount of frustration with its protagonist, Kyle; throughout the book, he runs on rails that are perhaps a bit too well-defined.
Partially, there’s a deeper problem of genre. I only really pinned it down when I started comparing ‘Last Days’ with ‘Gods Without Men’. Kunzru’s book shows us a 60s cult, too. I read them as also being inspired (albeit much less directly) by the Process Church. Like Nevill’s Temple of the Last Days, Kunzru’s cult touch the occult numinous. They too both tap into and to some extent create a deep strangeness that persists into modernity.
But Kunzru’s not writing a horror novel, so he doesn’t need a horror adversary. Because it doesn’t need to be an adversary, his cult’s strangeness doesn’t need to be either finally definable or defeatable. It’s free to exist as peculiar little inexplicable bubble, impossible to really get to grips with either in the 60s or now. As such, long after the book’s finished, it retains a disturbing power that Nevill’s take on the Process Church lacks.
That also helps Kunzru’s book become more resonant. In both books, cults create horror. In both books, those horrors comment on certain aspects of the real world we all share. In Nevill’s book, the horror is defeated. Because it’s closed off, its relationship with reality loses force. The real world persists once we finish the book, but the book’s commentary on its flaws has – at an absolute level – stopped.
In Kunzru’s book, the horror is explicitly left running. The reader closes the book, but is left with no closure. A subtle disturbance seeps into the world and destabilises it. Because he’s not writing an overtly horrific book, Kunzru’s book is – ironically – in some ways a more effective piece of horror writing.
And of course, Kunzru’s book has flaws of its own, and is in some ways a much less effective piece of writing than Nevill’s – the historic sections of Kunzru’s book don’t feel nearly as well fleshed out as Nevill’s, and Nevill’s ability to show the weird as it weirds is far surer. And of course there are many pieces of horror writing where the horror does stay running.
And finally, none of the above should be taken as meaning that literary writing is automatically better than horror writing, or similar! Both do different things in different ways to achieve different ends. But, it’s fascinating to see what’s revealed when a horror novel and a literary novel spend a little while travelling together down very similar roads.
I spent Friday both talking and listening at the wildly enjoyable Playful 2011 Conference (that’s me on-stage above – pic @thisisplayful). This post is a very quick follow-on to that. I’ve had quite a few requests for both the talk itself and a list of the writers I mentioned.
So, I’ve posted the talk on my read a story page, and I’ve put together this list of people I mentioned. Oh, and do bear in mind that it’s a not remotely exhaustive list – there’s huge amounts of wonderful SF writing out there that alas I just couldn’t fit into the talk. Enjoy!
I started by defining science fiction, and (with Brian Aldiss’ help) arguing that ‘Frankenstein’ is the first real SF novel.
Mary Shelley – ‘Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus’, available in multiple modern editions and well worth a read.
Brian Aldiss – his quote came from ‘The Detached Retina – Aspects of Science Fiction and Fantasy’. He’s a Grand Master of modern SF – try ‘Hot House’ or ‘Non Stop’ to start with.
After that, there was a quick wander through some cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk writers. I touched on Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, before digging into 80s / 90s cyberpunk:
William Gibson – namer of cyberspace in ‘Neuromancer’; one of the few people who genuinely seems to understand Western modernity.
Pat Cadigan – one of Gibson’s fellow cyberpunks, ‘Synners’ is a good starting point (and was very influential on philosopher Nick Land, who’s mentioned a little further down).
Neal Stephenson – pretty indescribable; has explored everything from virtual reality to the complete history of money. Try ‘The Diamond Age’ for starters.
Key precursors included:
John Brunner – I mentioned ‘Shockwave Rider’, because that’s where he invents the computer worm. It’s a great read, but to be honest I prefer ‘Stand On Zanzibar’, which gets the modern media-scape worryingly right.
Michael Moorcock – another Grand Master. When he writes genre fiction he’s really a fantasist, but the deeply fractured Jerry Cornelius stories feel more like the modern world than just about anything else. Try ‘The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius – Stories of the Modern Apocalypse’.
M. John Harrison – a contemporary of Moorcock and Ballard’s who’s matured into one of Britain’s finest writers in any genre. Start with his recent SF novel ‘Light’ and go from there – riches await!
William Burroughs – searingly radical, searingly peculiar, and someone far beyond any sort of genre, tho’ his writing is shot through with a deep pulp SF sensibility. Why not check out ‘The Soft Machine’, first of a trilogy of pretty SFnal novels?
Then, a step into television. Pretty much everyone’s seen the original Star Trek, and it seems to be on many TV channels most of the time. If you fancy diving into the more recent Battlestar Galactica, it all kicked off in 2003 with a very watchable three hour miniseries. If you enjoy that, it was followed by four seasons of generally fantastic SF tv, plus sundry spinoffs.
And then, back to prose fiction –
Samuel R. Delany – ‘Tales of Plagues and Carnivals’ in ‘Return to Neveryon’ was the first mainstream-published piece of fiction to deal with AIDS. The Neveryon books are more fantasy than SF – if you want to experience Delany in full futuristic flight, try ‘Babel-17’ or ‘Nova’.
That led to a discussion of 70s feminist SF. I talked in detail about –
Joanna Russ – ‘The Female Man’ – a formally daring, deeply radical critique of the problems of femininity.
Ursula K. Le Guin – ‘Left Hand of Darkness’- aliens that can be either male or female, but are mostly neither; a brilliant exploration of gender as construct rather than immutable identity.
James Tiptree Jr – ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’ collects her finest short stories – unmissable. To read about her complex and fascinating life, pick up Julie Phillips’ biography of her, ‘James Tiptree Jr – the Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon’.
I also mentioned Octavia Butler – try her Xenogenesis trilogy, recently published in a single volume as ‘Lilith’s Brood’. Then, we moved on to science fiction’s pessimists –
H. P. Lovecraft – I quoted from ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, one of his most famous stories. There are three Penguin Classics anthologies of his fiction, ‘The Call of Cthulhu (and other weird stories)’ ‘The Thing on the Doorstep (and other…)’ and ‘The Dreams in the Witch House (and other…)’, which together collect all of his major stories and some fun minor stuff. Personally, I’d start with ‘The Thing on the Doorstep’, if only for the remarkable Antarctic odyssey ‘At The Mountains of Madness’.
J.G. Ballard – I mentioned the memorably shocking ‘Crash’. If you want to ease yourself in a little more gently, try starting at the beginning with ‘The Drowned World’, getting a bit of context with the autobiographical ‘Empire of the Sun’, or digging into either or both of the two volume ‘Collected Short Stories’.
And finally, I ran out of time before getting to the philosophers:
Nick Land – the 90s’ leading cyber-theorist. Urbanomic Press have recently published ‘Fanged Noumena’, his collected writings, in a rather lovely little edition. The bastard child of continental philosophy and cyberpunk, now living the postmodern dream in Singapore.
Reza Negarestani – ‘Cyclonopedia – Complicity with Autonomous Materials’. It’s kind of indescribable; very broadly a Lovecraftian demonology of the war on terror, cross-bred with a terminator whose OS has been rewritten by Deleuze, Guattari and Ibn Khaldun.
For a broader critical context on science fiction, I’d recommend ‘The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction’ (ed Farah Mendlesohn / Edward James) – an academic work that does a great job of both summing up the history of SF and covering its major modern concerns.
Of neccesity, this list leaves out infinitely more than it includes. Other people writing currently who are definitely worth looking out for include Iain M. Banks (of course), Liz Williams, Mark Pilkington, Hal Duncan, Jaine Fenn, China Mieville, and Justina Robson. If you’re digging around historically, the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series collect some really fantastic novels and short story collections from the 19th and 20th centuries.
So, that’s it – hopefully some useful suggestions there. Of course, the best thing to do is just wander down to the bookshop, root around a bit, and get stuck into whatever seems to be inspiring. So, enjoy! And, in the simultaneously paranoid and visionary final words of 50s SF movie classic ‘The Thing From Outer Space’ –
For today’s post, allumination brings you – Iain Sinclair live! He’s reading from ‘Hackney, that Rose-Red Empire’ at the British Library, with musical and spoken word accompaniment from John Harle. Together, they create a rather wonderful aural collage; and, although my little N95 made them look rather blocky, it caught words and music pretty well. Enjoy!
Oh, and the single, full length film, lasting about twenty minutes, is available here at Vimeo, or here at Blip.TV.
A very enjoyable night last night, as I hit the rather wonderful Book Club Boutique (and here on Facebook) for a London Short Story night set up and MC’d by Tony White. Some excellent writers – particular stand outs were Will Ashon‘s subtly fantastical biscuit opera, and Matthew De Abaitua‘s Ballardesque tale of North London inter-dinner party combat.
It also marked an allumination first. Inspired by Christian Payne on Friday, I’ve decided to start expanding my technological and media reach. So, I recorded Tony reading from ‘Albertopolis Disparu’; the video’s below. Visual quality is ok, but the sound is perfect, so sit back and enjoy:
The full text is still available here at the Science Museum – and I also managed to stop recording a little too early; if I hadn’t, you would have heard about an upcoming six zeppelin sonic attack…
Well, H and I drove up on the Friday, and got very bogged down indeed in traffic. Hey ho, it comes with the Bank Holiday territory. On the plus side, we mastered a new technique for comfortable eating in overcrowded roadside restaurants – just cross to the other side of the motorway! Of course, we still had to eat at KFC, but at least it didn’t feel like we were dining with several football stadia’s worth of stressed drivers and their families.
And I am going to draw a veil over the pan-dimensional hell experience that is trying to find a central Bradford hotel in the insanity that is their one way system. I have seen the face of the blind idiot god Azathoth, carved out in Yorkshire streets, etc. Of course, once we found the hotel the idiot piping stopped and everything seemed to go back to normal.
The one and a half panels I made it to
Well, embarrassingly, I only made it to one full panel, and half of another one. I blame the venue; being quite small, and quite social, it was impossible to go for more than five steps without bumping into someone you could have a Really Interesting Conversation with, and then getting completely distracted. So here’s my 1.5 panel report:
Panel A – A fascinating panel on why writers’ groups are worthwhile, with Tim Powers, Anna Feruglio Dal Dan, and Chaz Brenchley, expertly moderated by Maura McHugh – made me realise that you don’t go to them to be critiqued, but rather to learn how to critique; to help become an accurate editor of your own work, and to be able to help others to write better. As ever, you only learn how to get better yourself by giving to others along the way.
Also, much interesting discussion of self publishing, which helped me understand the big difference between fiction that’s self-published out of a sense of grievance – ‘there’s a conspiracy against my genius’ – and fiction that’s self published to be part of a fan or a social group.
That fan / social group perception also underlay Chaz Brenchley’s comment that ‘the ivory tower model [of writing] is no longer sustainable’. He doesn’t think it’s possible to be a successful writer by just sitting on your own and typing any more; you have to be out there, actively working to build up a readership – as he does, here.
And finally, Tim Powers revealed his secret tip for writing motivation – ‘guilt and fear’. Good to know…
Panel B – A rather interesting panel on pacifism in science fiction, with Farah Mendelsohn, Nick Harkaway, Kim Lakin Smith and Sam Kelly. For my money, if you go pacifist, you wipe out about 75% of the canon. Others disagree, and say 90%. Anyway, some very interesting commentary, tho’ sadly I had the classic problem of not having read many of the books discussed. Hey ho, all good suggestions for when the book hoard has diminished a bit.
One interesting thought results – that SF is frequently really a literature of colonialism, rather than of warfare; perhaps explaining its success in Western Europe and America, the two great colonial regions of our age. And that ‘Starship Troopers’ is basically ‘Zulu’, only with a little more context.
Ken Macleod also made a fascinating comment – ‘SF has encoded into it a set of assumptions that we can eventually have peace without pacifism’. A core duplicity, I would have thought, and a perception that definitely bears further pondering.
The Tim Powers keynote
At least I made it to one of the keynotes, tho’ I do have to admit *full disclosure* that it was only because I happened to bump into various folk on their way there, and was swept along in their slipstream.
Anyway, it was very enjoyable indeed; Tim Powers at once witty, erudite, and wise, while also managing to look like a Kyle Mclachlan / Robert Vaughn gene splicing experiment. Cool! I have a new role model. Anyway, highlights include:
TP on being young and knowing Phillip K. Dick: ‘It was instructive for us to see how a real writer actually lived… you’d be living in low rent zip codes and driving cars that people laughed at as you went by’ – well, I’ve always driven Rovers (thanks to Uncle Bill and the Rover garage he used to run) so I’ve got the second one sorted at any rate.
A TP learning from PKD: ‘You need to have your characters have a job… They’re going to have to get the day off work to go fight the [alien space] squids… his characters were always worrying about the state of their tyres, and how much gas there was in the tank.’
TP also helped me confirm why I don’t like ‘The Anubis Gates’. I seem to be the only geek on the planet who was underwhelmed by it (I thought it was a patchwork of sources that never quite gelled into something fully credible and coherent); apparently it was two other books combined, and was also disliked by Lester Del Rey. So I feel a little more justified in my underwhelmment.
The BSFA Awards
Well, once again, I hadn’t read all the books on offer. So comments will alas be limited. On the plus side, great to see Ted Chiang take the best short story award; Farah Mendlesohn’s ‘Rhetorics of Fantasy’ a worthy non-fiction winner; and thoroughly enjoyed the Newman Mcauley Overdrive that powered the opening sections of the ceremony.
Oh, and I got to witness MacLeeOddGate, which was both a rather wonderful moment in itself and a reminder that British English is both deeply idiosyncratic and frequently utterly illogical. If only everyone had seen ‘Highlander’! Then these things just wouldn’t happen…
The drunken conversations I had
Well, an embarrassingly large number, because I was rather merry quite frequently. But then again, that is part of the point of the con. So, a lot of chatting with old friends, and making new ones. I’m going to draw a veil over the specifics – is the world really ready for Conan Doyle the Barbarian, and other such horrors? – and leave it at –
Hello everyone! Lovely to see you!
*waves through the screen like a cheerful Japanese ghost movie villain*
The books bought
OK, so not such a huge list as – with the credit crunch etc – I was being frugal. But I couldn’t resist picking up:
Paul Kincaid – ‘What it is we do when we read science fiction’ – always good to pick up a new crit, and given that I’m winding up to write a science fiction novel this seemed to be the one to get. Already fascinating on Gene Wolfe; I’m looking forward to reading the rest of it.
Daniel Fox – ‘Dragon in Chains’ – Now this is driving me nuts, because I read a stunning review of it somewhere the other day, but for the life of me I can’t remember where! It does look rather wonderful – and freshly signed by the author himself. Can’t wait!
Toby Frost – ‘Space Captain Smith’ – The first of a series, and it promises to be wildly enjoyable steampunk mayhem… Huzzah!
The sad news
While whizzing round the dealer’s room on Sunday, I stopped to say hi to Eric of the Fantasy Centre. Alas, they’re closing! Bit of a shock, and very sad. More details here – when I get a moment I’ll be nipping down there to say hi and find out what’s going on.
The journey back
Having watched ‘Red Riding’ the other week, I was glad we could leave Yorkshire without being bafflingly fitted up for something horrific by various brutal people who smoke a lot. But not glad to leave Bradford, as in the end it was a lovely, friendly town with excellent curries and much good con fun. But hey…
A nice easy drive down, back here by 8.30pm, and general post-con collapse! Then a slow Monday mostly taken up by building the new BBQ. So that’s Eastercon 2009…
Well, the process of moving continues – silence for the last week or so as I’ve been deep in final moving and decorations (with hugely invaluable help and support from H) before the new carpets go in at Allumination Central. More busy-ness continues – furniture ordering, sorting estate agents, etc, before the upcoming move to Stoke Newington. Yup, the Allumination Central mothership is relocating! More news on this as happens.
So, a quick post today, because there really hasn’t been too much pondering time of late. And, in salute of my upcoming new neighbourhood, let’s hear from Iain Sinclair as he wanders Abney Park Cemetery, our soon-to-be-local nuttily gothic burial ground, and discurses fascinatingly on the literary and general history of Stoke Newington, Hackney and London in general.
And I’m off to walk round the flat barefoot again – why didn’t I get new carpets years ago? Hey ho…