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!

Tracking down the Mirage Men

Aliens, America, Modernity, Non-fiction, Space is deep, UFOs

Mark Pilkington is one of the few people I know who can genuinely say that they’ve broken people’s religions. He was an active crop circler in the late 90s and early 00s; his calm and careful descriptions of the truths of circle making has disrupted the reality of more than one person who’s built belief systems around either the supernatural or superplanetary origins of the phenomenon.

Now, he’s doing the same for UFOs. His new book, ‘Mirage Men’, documents his journey into the heart of the tangled web of information – and disinformation – that surrounds the saucery folk who’ve spent the last fifty years or so mysteriously invading our airspace. Without any trace of cynicism or negativity, it at once challenges the UFOlogical world’s more optimistic excesses, and highlights some fascinating mysteries of its own.

At heart, ‘Mirage Men’ is a history book. However, it doesn’t record UFO appearances; rather, it’s an exploration of the growth of the mythology that encounters with UFOs have created – a subtle but important difference. The question that drives the book is ‘cui bono?’. Rather than seeking to establish the truth – or otherwise – of UFO encounters themselves, Pilkington seeks to understand the uses to which UFO mythology has been put, and the extent to which those uses have defined its shape and development.

His answers are enthralling and disturbing in equal measure. The book traces the very direct involvement of various US intelligence agencies with the development and dissemination of UFO mythology, from World War II to the present day. It sets that involvement within the context of political struggles between intelligence agencies and the various arms of the armed forces; it describes various documented yet under-publicised technological advances that provide convincingly earthbound explanations for many classic UFO events; and it successfully redefines much UFO activity and mythology as a kind of spook theatre, deliberately designed to deflect hostile attention from highly secret flight testing and espionage activities.

These wider histories are set against a variety of more personal narratives. Accompanied by documentarist John Lundberg, Pilkington meets and explores the histories of various key figures stationed at the borders of the cosmic and the top secret. These range from charming arch-manipulators to tragic disinformation victims. The role of each within the development of wider UFO narratives is carefully explored, bringing to the advantages, motivations, and hazards of involvement with the UFO phenomenon very personally to life.

And of course, by observing, Pilkington himself becomes an actor. At one point, certain sections of US UFOdom become convinced that he’s an MI6 agent; at another, US intelligence operatives seem to be actively trying to recruit him. And of course, one fascinating question underlies much of the information that the book passes on; to what extent is Pilkington himself being used to manage the UFO myth, and move it in useful new directions?

Room is also left for a healthy dose of awe. Pilkington convincingly demonstrates that modern UFO myth cycles have been developed and directed by very specific groups of people, to achieve very specific goals. However, summoned or not, the god will always be present; here, too, traces of the genuinely inexplicable linger. ‘Mirage Men’ does an excellent job of bringing UFOs down to earth; but, in the final analysis, it is also open-minded enough to admit that room for the impossible remains, and that genuinely astonishing, paradigm shattering truths may yet remain to be discovered out there.

In summary, then, it’s a great read, and well worth checking out. For more information on it, visit the book’s blog here – and to pick up a copy, go straight to amazon. For more on Mark’s activities as a publisher, here’s the Strange Attractor site.

Kirk 1, Spock 0

Aliens, Culture, Fiction, Film, Gentleman thieves, Science Fiction, Space is deep, Television

Off to Star Trek on Saturday with H; hugely enjoyable, but – when I came back home and picked up my new Sexton Blake compilation (good fun and wide ranging, but not necessarily the best of Blake) to read myself to sleep – something quite interesting struck me.

The Star Trek TV series is one of the most potent products of 20th Century science fiction; but in form it also owes an awful lot to Victorian and Edwardian adventure stories, where manly, usually imperial, heroes of various different stripes are threatened by exotic new dangers on a reliably regular basis.

As a rule, such heroes come in pairs. There’s Sexton Blake and Tinker; Sherlock Holmes and Watson; Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie; Raffles and Bunny; and so on. And, by definition, the sidekick is very clearly a junior presence, someone who lacks in some important way the authority of the lead.

That sense of a senior / junior relationship is fundamental to the new Star Trek movie; but it’s an inverted relationship. The plot is in large part driven by the fact that, because the time is out of joint, Spock becomes the Captain of the Enterprise, and Kirk is left as his subordinate.

However, it’s a temporary upset. By the end of the film, normality has been restored. Kirk has become Captain Kirk, and Spock is his first officer. Spock’s junior status has been acknowledged. But that’s peculiar; because, throughout the film, great play has been made of Spock’s seniority.

It’s made very clear that he’s older than Kirk – in fact, he’s one of Kirk’s tutors. In something of an under-remarked narrative manoeuvre, he’s also sexually more charismatic than the famously priapic Captain. Kirk’s rather adolescent attempted seduction of Uhuru fails; Spock builds a strong, adult, clearly sexual relationship with her.

He’s also a more effective combatant. Kirk spends much of the film nearly getting thrown off cliffs, walkways, etc, by various cosmic thugs. Spock’s Vulcan neck pinch is as swiftly efficient as ever. And Spock knows true loss; where Kirk never even met his dead father, the adult Spock witnesses the simultaneous death of his mother and his home planet.

So, what is it that makes Spock the sidekick, not the hero? It comes down to one thing; his (in the film’s terms) over-rationality, his consistent and near-absolute privileging of logic over emotion. Within the context of the movie – and of the Star Trek series in general – Kirk’s reliance on intuition and passion makes him the better person.

And that’s fascinating. In part, it’s a hangover from the deep suspicion of thoughtfulness, of academic learning, that drove so many of the action men of the 19th and 20th century pulp thriller. But that suspicion takes on a new meaning in Star Trek – because Star Trek is science fiction.

As a genre, science fiction prides itself on its roots in the deep, tested realities of science. It lays claim to a rational objectivity that sets it apart from other, more emotionally driven forms of writing. Given this, surely Spock is the rightful captain of the Enterprise?

Absolutely not. Spock – science fiction’s supreme logician, the most famous Science Officer in fiction – reveals the untruth of that claim, or at least the contradictions that stop it from being really convincing.

The Enterprise is helmed by Kirk’s wild, dangerous emotion – just as science fiction, like all fiction, is powered not by logic, but by human emotional relationships, and the wild, exciting dramatic fallout thereof.

J. G. Ballard, 1930-2009

Ballard, Modernity, Science Fiction, Short stories, Space is deep, Travel writers, Violence, Visionary, War

What is there to say?

He showed us strange, alien worlds,  and then we’d look around and realise that we already lived in them. It was a bleak privilege to be a part of the culture he was dissecting, and thus receive his writing in the most direct, most living way possible.

There’s much more to be read about him, and his achievement, here at Ballardian, and the full text of a relatively recent Toby Litt interview with him here.

(first of 6 – others can be accessed here – click on ‘More from Adlefred’ at right and they’re all listed there).

Sensawunda removal machine

Landscape, Science Fiction, Space is deep, Travel writers, Violence, War

The original ‘Star Trek’ remains a fascinating show, not least because of the wondrously strange vistas of the imagination it opens up. You want to meet Apollo? He’s there. You want to visit an earth where the Nazis will win World War II? Check. You want to find out how dead satellites become galaxy spanning AIs? They’ve got it. You want to see Spock turn on, tune in and drop out – and then SMILE, blissfully and self-consciously? It’s all there.

‘Star Trek’ has sensawunda, in spades, even if it does wander at times into the ludicrous. Even my jaw dropped when *echo effect* THEY STOLE SPOCK’S BRAIN… an episode only matched for inadvertent comedy by the utterly ludicrous *echo effect* THEY STOLE NYLIX’S LUNGS… episode of ‘Star Trek – Voyager’, or possibly by the enjoyably nutty ‘Riker at the pandimensional alien barbers’ incidents of ‘The Next Generation’.

But the crew of the Enterprise have a more complex relationship with sensawunda than would first appear. In episode after episode they encounter an external threat, feel overwhelmed by its inexplicable (if wondrous) threateningness, develop a rational understanding of it as a problem, in doing so reduce it to a human scale, and then go on to solve the problem and thus neutralise the wonder.

They rarely – if ever – stand back in amaze at the wonder itself; rather, they perceive it as a threat, and stop it dead. Seen from this point of view, the Enterprise is best described as a sensawunda removal machine; something that exists to support a particular kind of reductive impulse as it seeks to re-frame the cosmic in entirely human, profoundly limiting terms, imposing a simple, binary threat / no threat set of judgements on the vast, endless richnesses of alien space, and wiping out its complex wondrousness accordingly.

Cities, alienation, spaceship design and fish

Aliens, Science Fiction, Short stories, Space is deep, Surrealism

Dead fish 

Space is so often seen as an open field that exists to support some form of vast, optimistic transcendence. But in fact, reality suggests that it will force an almost infinite claustrophobia on us. Surrounded by its empty hostility, we’ll travel it in tiny metal tubes, at best spending only years locked together with nowhere else to go. It’s going to be a surreal, alien experience; but that estrangement will come as we dive deep into ourselves and our fellow space travellers, rather than leap into brilliant externals.

The fish are key to this. Trust me on this.

Anyway… up until now, I’d have said that my favourite take on the oppressiveness of space travel came in A. E. Van Vogt’s ‘Voyage of the Space Beagle’ (or ‘Space Bagel’, as it’s known around these parts). Amongst other things a key inspiration for ‘Alien’, the novel spends a lot of time thinking about exactly how best to manage tight groups crushed together, for decades.

But that’s changed, as I’ve just finished James Tiptree Jr’s devastatingly brilliant ‘A Momentary Taste of Being’. In part a psychological inquest into a group of people who’ve come to know each far too well, it takes Van Vogt’s claustrophobia and runs with it in several magnificently psychedelic directions at once, generating a devastatingly effective combination of Lovecraftian existential horror and possible-end-of-the-human-race pathos as a group of advance colonists, fleeing an overcrowded Earth, seek a new planet for the human race to colonise.

No more detail about how JTJr does what she does; rather, buy her wonderful short story collection, ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’, and go read. Instead, here’s a passage that caught my eye and made me realise how her understanding of the closeness of space is rooted in a very human sense of how we live with each other in communities of different sizes. Her protagonist, Aaron, is considering an earlier colonist ship – the ‘Pioneer’ – and thinking about lessons learned from its failed, decades long journey from Earth to Barnard’s Star:

‘The people of ‘Pioneer’ had suffered severely from the stress of too much social contact in every waking moment; the answer found for ‘Centaur’ was not larger spaces but an abundance of alternative routes that allow her people to enjoy privacy in their comings and goings about the ship, as they would in a village. Two persons in a two-meter corridor must confront each other, but in two one-meter corridors each is alone and free to be his private self. It has worked well, Aaron thinks; he has noticed that over the years, people have developed private “trails” through the ship.’

What intrigued me here was the implicit definition of a core feature of city life; the multiple ways that we move through cities, the multiple intersections possible as we do so. Implicit in Centaur-space is not just ‘avoidance of people’ but also ‘avoidance of seeing the same people every day’. Privacy in this context is not ‘not seeing anyone’ – rather, it’s ‘only seeing strangers’.

Aggressive estrangement is a key feature of big city life. Moving from Scotland, I was struck by how aggressively Londoners guarded their lack of relationship with each other. More recently H, coming from Seattle, has had the same experience. Of course, I’ve internalised the guarding and now – like any other Londoner – regard anyone I don’t know who tries to break through my shields and have some sort of personal engagement with me as at best dangerously insane. Anyway…

That estrangement is a key driver of surrealism. We don’t just see strangers; we see the strangeness they leave behind, the artefacts that no doubt make perfect sense to them but – shorn of context – become insoluble puzzles to us. Hence the picture of the fish; we found them on Sunday night, lying in the Waterloo Underpass. I’m sure there’s a very logical explanation for them being there, but deprived of that context they became a truly odd presence. A stranger had left them, and so they were strange.

And not just strange. Surreal; alienated from direct meaning; in fact, alien. But at the same time, entirely human; left by a human going about his or her business. Which reminds me of J. G. Ballard’s comment that ‘it is inner space, not outer, that needs to be explored. The only truly alien planet is Earth’, and which helps me finally understand why I so admired ‘A Momentary Taste of Being’.

In the deepest sense, its characters encounter nothing that is not human, or intimately linked to the human. Its horrors at first appear to be profoundly other but – as the story progresses – are revealed to be anything but. At the story climax, we’re left to face a profound truth; the truest surrealism comes from our own hidden selves, and the only alien is us.