Crash Landing with five of my favourite novels

Ballard, Fiction, Landscape, Literary

I’ve been podcasted! Many thanks to Steve Aryan for having me on the ever awesome Crash Landing over at Geek Syndicate. Steve and I talked about the five novels I’d want to have with me if I was stranded on an alien planet.

Some of the books I chose are SFnal, some are magical, one comes from tenth century Japan and all of them are unputdownable. We had a great time talking about them all and much more – I hope you enjoy our chat:


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.

on the outskirts of infinity

Crashing Heaven, Fiction, Landscape, Uncategorized

It’s been a couple of weeks since I had the deep pleasure of seeing Dominic Harman‘s stunning cover for Crashing Heaven for the first time. Here it is:

Crashing Heaven

First of all, I spent a lot of time just looking at it and being thrilled. Crashing Heaven’s set on a giant orbital habitat called Station – Dominic’s image captures both its oppressive crush and the numinous light of its gods’ presence beautifully.

Then, it set me thinking about some of the inspiration behind Station. Before I started writing Crashing Heaven, I spent a lot of time pondering space stations. As part of that, I went back to images from my childhood guides to the future:

A space station

I found them fascinating. In particular, I was struck by the way that they overlaid the bleakly hostile wastes of space with such a secure, cosy, comfortable world. There was something so very suburban about them.

A cosmic suburb

Perhaps humanity’s spacefaring dreams will indeed reach their apotheosis with the recreation of late 20th century dormitory towns around as yet unreachable suns, as yet unimagined planets. And perhaps that’s very natural.

A buffet of tomorrow

Space is deep – far deeper than we can reasonably comprehend. Perhaps some nice drinks with the neighbours on a lovely sward-edged patio, while the buffet steams in the background, are an essential hedge against the cosmos’ punishing, inhuman vastness.

But the suburbs bring their own problems. Thinking about that took me on to J. G. Ballard’s simultaneous fear of and fascination with them. Here he is on the subject in a 1982 interview with V. Vale:

They represent the optimum of what people want. There’s a certain sort of logic leading to these immaculate suburbs. And they’re terrifying, because they are the death of the soul. And I thought, My God, this is the prison the planet is being turned into… if you have a world like that, without any kind of real freedom of spirit, the only freedom to be found is in madness. I mean, in a completely sane world, madness is the only freedom.

Those two ideas – of a space station as a suburb, and of suburbs as very problematic places – clicked together, becoming a key inspiration for Station. But of course Station’s been continuously occupied for about 700 years. So I started thinking about how it has evolved.

Its population has increased. Its economy has grown. Space within it is limited. So, its architects have built upwards. Green space has been lost. Population density has shot up. The shopping malls and business parks and habitation units have metastasized.

CRASHING-HEAVEN-final2

Dominic’s cover art catches that beautifully, across the image as a whole and in every detail. Looking at it I see a fully mature orbital habitat that’s turned right in on itself, going to seed along the way. The physical and psychic repression that Ballard describes has increased to unbearable levels. And so, as always, repression leads to overflow.

Crashing Heaven’s heroes – battle-scarred accountant Jack Forster and virtual ventriloquist’s dummy Hugo Fist – are one manifestation of that overflow. In Station terms they’re mad, because they question the corporate gods that rule it.

Crashing Heaven cover detail

But that madness liberates them, driving them to think the unthinkable and do the undoable. And so, the action of the book begins, leaping straight out of a beautiful cover that captures its mood and setting perfectly and resonates wonderfully with the visions that inspired it.

Finally, two links, both with a little more about the cover. Here’s Gollancz’s blog post officially revealing it, and here’s Niall Alexander talking about it over at Tor.com.

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!!!!