growing up with new worlds

Fantasy, Novelists, Science Fiction

(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.

in the FuseBox with Philip K. Dick

Fiction, Film, FuseBox, Science Fiction, Writer in Residence

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!

leaving the future behind

Fiction, Science Fiction, Writing

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.

trolling atlas

Robots, Science Fiction, Tech

I’ve been watching this again and again – there’s something deeply hypnotic about seeing this little biped navigate the world. Also, I suspect that the human-on-robot trolling that begins at about 1:30 is probably some sort of Skynet origins moment.

I was intrigued to feel myself reacting so strongly to it. I was very put out on the robot’s behalf – which is odd, because what you really see here is someone demonstrating how well a piece of machinery deals with disruption. There’s nothing to be upset about.

Or is there? We’re at the very beginning of the robotization of the world. Perhaps what I felt was something constructive – a sense that the tools we make for ourselves, and that will increasingly come to sustain us, should be treated with a basic level of respect. That looking like being alive is in some way equivalent to actually being alive.

Or perhaps I was just being sentimental. After all, no matter how human it looks, machinery doesn’t live. Perhaps that’s going to be one of the big challenges of the coming century – learning a new set of reactions to units that act like organic creatures, but aren’t.

That objectification will bring its own dangers, of course – if we start transferring it back into our reactions to each other, then our society will become a much darker, less empathetic place. But then again, in many ways that’s where we are right now.

And perhaps that’s what’s really scary about this little film. It blurs the categories, leaving us reacting to a machine as if it were a human. And that forces us to think about the reverse – about all the people, all around us, whose humanity has been tossed aside as easily and casually as this machine is trolled in this film.

bowie’s in space

Aliens, Art, Ballard, Modernity, Politics, Science Fiction

It’s been fascinating watching people mourn David Bowie. There’s a sadness there that I suspect comes from more than just the loss of a major creative icon. I think we’re also mourning the loss of the conditions that created and supported that kind of icon.

Bowie’s iconic status was a product of certain cultural and technological factors. Like all the gods of rock, he came up in a world with relatively few ways of creating and sharing media. And when most people are only spectators, and there are hardly any other channels or stations to turn over to, then it’s that much easier to dominate the the national conversation.

Our modern media world has blown that cosy homogeneity apart. There are so many different ways to enjoy media, and so much of it out there. The idea of any sort of mass canon is dead – instead, there’s only personal gathering of personally meaningful music, film, TV, games and just about any other kind of content you can imagine. These days, we’re all micro-curators of our own micro-channels, enjoying a range of media fully shared with at most probably a few dozen people.

Of course, Bowie was never cosy. But he needed a homogeneous, coherent cosiness to push against, to become coherent himself. That pushing against defined him in ways that would be impossible now. You can push against a hub; with a bit of effort, you can push against a node – but how do you push against a decentralized network? You can’t – if you try, it just melts away. The internet routes around rebellion as quickly and efficiently as it routes around blockages.

And there’s one other thing to mourn. Bowie wasn’t just a media construct. He was also built by the drama schools and generous state benefits of the 60s, supported by a society that understood that creativity both has profound value and needs time and investment to bear fruit. Those conditions helped post-imperial Britain understand itself in new, exciting ways. They no longer exist.

So we’re not just mourning David Bowie. We’re mourning the condition of full-spectrum stardom, broken by modern media. And we’re mourning the mirror we helped him – and so many like him – hold up to us all, shattered in the name of prudence.

at play in infinity

Fiction, Novelists, Philosophy, Science Fiction, Television

 

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’ –

KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES!!!!

Bruce Pennington exhibition at the Atlantis Bookshop

Art, Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Supernatural, Visionary

Well, much excitement at Allumination Towers as the other day I met Bruce Pennington! Even more excitingly, the Atlantis Bookshop will be hosting a major retrospective of his art in July and August. The exhibition catalogue website is now live, and stunning! There’s also going to be an interview with him in the next Fortean Times.

You may or may not know the name, but you’ll definitely know his work. He was the New English Library’s main cover illustrator in the early 70s – his images went a long way to defining what genre fiction looked like in its New Wave heyday.

Anyway, here’s the flyer for the exhibition – it’s got all the details you’ll need to go along and be astonished –

I’d only ever seen his work on scruffy, secondhand book jackets. While I was at the bookshop, I saw some of the limited edition prints they were preparing – seeing his images at full size, original colours blasting off the page, was remarkable. I suspect that the exhibition itself will be a cornucopia of wonderment – I for one can’t wait!

Oh, and finally, here’s the audioboo I recorded just after meeting him –

Bruce Pennington, secret hero of 70s Brit SF (mp3)

Worlds of anthologies, anthologies of worlds

My fiction, Science Fiction, Short stories, Space is deep

Well, it’s been an exciting few weeks from a writerly point of view. I’ve finished a first draft of the next novel (working title ‘Crashing Heaven’, but I suspect that will change), drafted a novella, had a wonderful – and very productive – time at this year’s Milford Writers’ Workshop, and have the launch of ‘The Immersion Book of SF’ (with my story ‘Golden’ in it, plus fiction from Tanith Lee, Lavie Tidhar, Aliette de Bodard, Chris Butler and others) to look forward to on Friday.

More later on Milford, and hopefully you’ll see both novella and novel in print sometime soon. Instead of going into detail on them, I thought I’d write a little about ‘The Immersion Book of SF’, as some comments that editor Carmelo Rafala makes in his introduction have been resonating with me quite deeply.

The Immersion Book of SF

He describes wanting to put together an anthology ‘where each story was so vastly different from the other, that I felt like I’d visited a dozen or so different worlds by the time I’d put the book down’. In doing so, he hopes that he’s put together ‘a collection… as varied and entertaining as those I’d read when I was a youth’.

I grew up reading both the more formally recognised classics, and whatever pieces of genre mayhem I could get my hands on. The latter came to me in a variety of ways, often quite accidentally, and usually in anthologies of one kind or another. As Carmelo says, they were a great way of reading very widely, very quickly, and thus discovering just how many different subjects genre fiction could cover, and how many effects it could achieve within them.

My junior school library had stacked issues of 50s educational mag ‘Look and Learn’, buried in boxes. Each one contained a couple of pages of astonishing comic ‘The Trigan Empire’, plus various other marvellous bits and pieces. 2000AD was basically a weekly compendium of wondrous (and highly intelligent) weirdness.

My local library was well stocked with vintage fantasy and SF compilations. I found my favourite book of horror stories (a huge, superbly edited anthology from the 60s) in a jumble sale somewhere. It cost me 50p, and gave me at least ten years’ reading pleasure, if not more. And of course there were the various OUP and Virago ghost story anthologies – Christmas presents from my folks (thank you!).

Anyway, all this vaguely Proustian recollection has a point. I owe my passion for genre fiction as much to this slightly random collection of anthologies as to any more formal reading plan. And so it’s hugely exciting to think that a story of mine is going off into the world in a modern version of one of those collections; and that someone might come on that anthology, either buying it new, or pulling it off a library shelf, or in a jumble sale somewhere, and find in it the kind of formative thrill I found in all those books, all those years ago.

And of course, if you want to explore those strange new worlds yourself, you can pick up your own copy of ‘The Immersion Book of SF’, right here… Happy voyaging!

On Britishness

Aliens, Fair Folk, Fantasy, Modernity, Science Fiction

I recently took part in the BSFA’s British Science Fiction & Fantasy survey, which led to the publication of a rather nifty little book comparing genre self-perception now and 20 years ago – more details here.

The book was edited by Niall Harrison and Paul Kincaid; they’ve done an excellent job of picking out interesting survey responses, and weaving them into a text which both once reaches clearly defined conclusions, and encourages further consideration and debate. One of his key concerns is to understand just what Britishness means to genre writers working in the UK.

To celebrate publication, I thought I’d post my answer to his question about Britishness in full, here on the blog. So:

Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?

That’s a difficult question to answer. I’d say probably that everything I write tends to be rather depressive (either the world gets destroyed, or the protagonist dies, or both), and to have a strongly interior focus; the weird elements are usually amplifying metaphors for whatever’s going on emotionally or thematically in the story. I’m not sure that these are exclusive properties of British genre fiction, though.

On reflection, for me the most purely British genre moments don’t come in fiction. They’d be Delia Derbishire’s original orchestration of the Doctor Who theme:

the ‘flashbacks to a Martian hive cleansing’ sequence in Nigel Kneale’s ‘Quatermass and the Pit’:

and Christina Rossetti’s sensationally peculiar poem, ‘Goblin Market’.

Of them, the first two combine deep and entirely convincing visionary reach with a sense of having been patched together with double sided sticky tape, papier mache, and whatever else is to hand. They feel very low-tech, and entirely personal – the product of deep personal need and craft, fulfilled in a Neasden back room rather than a Swiss laboratory, an LA film studio or the board room of a Japanese zaibatsu.

There’s something very British about that; as Ballard knew so well, it’s the obsessed achievements of the suburban imagination that are our tomorrow. Come to think of it, that sense of an entirely convincing, menacingly peculiar science fiction that was also clearly built in a shed comes out beautifully in Doctor Who classic ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’.

And of course, there’s ‘Goblin Market’ – a wonderful poem, clearly fascinated by and soused in the deep matter of rural Britain, but also one that refuses to finally draw the bleak and terrifying conclusions that it is so clearly leading up to.

For most of the way, it’s a truly odd tale of the Fair Folk, fruit addiction, and late Victorian twin sisters; but it resolves with a deeply conventional, deeply unconvincing, deeply sentimental ‘if sisters love each other, everything will be ok’ finale (in fact, my story ‘Changeling’ is in part an attempt to write a truer conclusion to it). Rossetti repressed the poem’s true conclusion – there’s something very British, too, about that repression.

Having said that, I get the feeling that there’s much really interesting genre work worldwide that just doesn’t get translated into English. Not having read any of it, it’s difficult to say how British writing might compare with it, and thus what might in fact be specifically British about the SF / Fantasy written within these borders.

Starting the next book

Fantasy, Fiction, My fiction, Science Fiction

Another quiet month on the blog, as ever because it’s been very hectic elsewhere. I’ve started a really fascinating project for Counterpoint, the British Council’s thinktank – more details over at my Disappearing blog, or at the project site itself – and I’ve begun writing the next novel, which is what this post is about.

So far, I’m about ten thousand words into it, and it’s becoming clear that it’s at once a bit of a departure, and a logical progression, from what I’ve been writing over the last few years. On the one hand, it’s very much science fiction, rather than fantasy or horror; but on the other, as I write, I’m slowly realising that it shares a set of obsessions with previous, more fantastical stories.

I don’t want to go into too much detail, because I’m still working it all out myself! But, first of all, it shares a common set of inspirations. It’s basically ‘Faust’ crossed with ‘The Third Man’, in space. As I write it, I realise I’m getting a lot of texture from sources that have previously driven the more purely weird fiction, including Julian Maclaren Ross’ louche Soho memoirs (which very directly inspired London fictions like ‘Sohoitis’ and ‘Golden’), and elegantly restrained English horror movies like ‘Dead of Night’ and ‘The Innocents’ (which have sat behind pretty much everything I’ve ever done). It’s a lot of fun dropping these kind of influences into a fully science fictional environment, and watching both bend out of shape as they accomodate each other.

Secondly, it shares an understanding of how we interact with technology, and what that means in fiction. There’s a fair amount of talk about how science fiction writing is a subset of fantasy, because it too is set in and deals with invented worlds (albeit worlds based, or aspiring to be based, on actual science). Alternatively, people argue that fantasy is a subset of science fiction, because, through its scientific content, science fiction engages with actual reality in a way that fantasy refuses to. As I write the new book, I’m beginning to think that they are actually equivalent at a deep level. Both posit invented tools for dealing with a particular world, or invented components of a given world, and then explore the impact of either or both on the people who engage with them. Whether those tools and components are technological or fantastic in nature is immaterial.

Given that, switching from writing fantasy and horror to science fiction has been easier than I thought it would be. And in doing so, and in writing about in particular information technologies that very much mirror what we’ve got now, I’ve realised that we tend to overlay the science fictional elements of the world we live in now with fantasy. And, of course, there’s the fact that, by living in a consumer culture that’s constantly presenting with us with novelties, we live in a world built on the kind of exploration of and reaction to newness that’s central to these two kinds of genre fiction. These are both thoughts I’m still pondering, and just beginning to explore in the book – it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of argument develops from them as I write.

So, that’s what I’ve been up to, and that’s the new book. Oh, and there’s a new short story, too – but it needs a little editing before I submit it anywhere, so more on that another time…