Recently I was talking to a friend who reads intensely, but has no interest in or knowledge of publishing. He’s a coder, who reads a half dozen non-fiction books a week. This is the kind of reader the industry needs. He’s also the kind of reader who until last year bought ebooks and print exclusively from Amazon. Now he doesn’t even look at their site. Why?
My friend liked to use Amazon’s bestseller lists to find new reads in specific categories. But now, my friend says bluntly, those lists are full of crap. Above is a screencap of the category bestseller list for Political Philosophy from Amazon.com. And low, it is indeed full of crap. With #1 #2 and #4 positions occupied by a series of pamphlets that amount to nothing more than an internet flamewar being played out, not on some obscure forum, but on Amazon’s bestseller lists.
And I literally mean that these “books” are just long blog comments reformatted as ebooks. They have ZERO content of any interest to an actual reader looking for works of Political Philosophy. Nothing. Zip. Nada. Theodore Beale hates John Scalzi, so he wrote a very long list of ways in which he has been wronged and published it as an ebook. Alexandra Erin found the thing so hilarious she wrote a parody and published it. Fans of Beale published a response. The outcome? Three totally inconsequential works of nothingness occupy the top spots on Amazon’s prime marketing space.
Imagine a reader who knows nothing of the Beale / Scalzi argument – which is basically everyone in the world except about 300 scifi fans – buying any of these books. What will they make of “John Scalzi is a r¢$^¥t?” Who knows, but I think its fair to say there’s a major risk they won’t buy from Amazon again.
There’s a lot of information in the world, most of it junk. We all need sources we can rely on to show us the rare non-junk info. While Amazon is competent at selling ebooks, it has completely abandoned any effort to help readers find quality information. It’s bestseller lists are so easily gamed that a clique of crazy scifi fans have hacked all the top spots without even trying. That’s a serious chink in the armour of one of the world’s most powerful businesses. And it’s losing them the attention of readers like my friend.
Written with the support of my most excellent patrons.
I never had the good fortune to meet Terry Pratchett, but I’ve been reading his books since I was eleven. My favourite Discworld tomes – Mort, Small Gods and Going Postal – have been read a half dozen times each at least. I also hold a Masters degree, have been a senior university lecturer, and am a columnist for The Guardian, the very same bastion of middlebrow values that Jonathan Jones penned his opportunistic attack on Terry Pratchett. Unlike Jones however, I see no conflict in being both an intelligent educated human being and loving the fuck out of Terry Pratchett’s discworld books.
It’s worth asking why Jonesy begins his tantrum against Pratchett by flouting the fact that he has never read a single one of the author’s works. He’s “flicked through” one and, because of his vast cultural expertise was able to classify, and therefore dismiss it, as a “potboiler”. Let’s give Jones his due here. He wants to quickly dash out a piece of clickbait, so he has chosen a rhetorical structure that allows him to achieve the greatest possible public ire, with the least possible research or effort. What Jones is too high in his ivory tower to consider is what this strategy says not just about him as a critic, but the entire cultural edifice he seeks to represent – the elitest, and poisonously classist world, of British arts and culture.
It’s widely known that Terry Pratchett laboured most of his career with little to no recognition from the UK literary or cultural world. Even as his sales climbed towards hundreds of millons, Sir Terry’s books received none of the attention given to, say, Ian McEwan. As Terry Pratchett’s illness became public knowledge that seemed to change. I don’t want to beat the drum about why it takes a great writer’s illness to make such a change, but it’s hard not to when that good work can be sadly undone by an ignorant spectator like Jonathan Jones. For decades, the cultural establishment held exactly the same ignorant position that Jones today retreated back to – Pratchett wrote “potboilers”, and no more need be said.
This is hardly a new or original position. The history of fantasy can be traced back to the oldest myths and legends. But the dysfunctional relationship between fantasy fiction and the British literary world begins with the early days of popular publishing, and “penny dreadfuls”, a pejorative term for popular books of the Victorian era recently repopularised by the TV show of the same name. Stories like Varney the Vampire sold in huge numbers and rate as some of the earliest truly mass entertainment. They also began the process of defining fantasy stories of all kinds as the literature of the working classes, while realistic novels became associated with the growing middle class. Even when, in most cases, the reality they catalogued was a sordid who’s-fucking-who in high society, or a guide to good manners to show at the table while happily demeaning your household servants, realism became de facto ” high culture”.
Because let’s not forget that the literary and cultural structures Jinathan Jones rides out to defend originate from one of the most unequal and unjust cultures in human history. The Victorian Britain that derided the readers of penny dreadfuls was the same one profiting from their sweat and labour in the nation’s factories. The white, Anglo-Saxon, upper class literary and cultural elite deciding what should be classified as “great art” were simultaneously pillaging the cultural heritage of India, China and a quarter of the planet. The fortunes that paid for the exclusive university educations of Victorian Britain’s artists, writers and critics came in large part from the profits of brutal industry, murderous colonialism and, of course, the vast reparations paid to British slave owners. It’s in no way surprising that Imperial Britain defined art and culture as it defined all things, in such a way as to exclude the poor and keep the oppressed in their place. The values of British culture that Jonathan Jones takes such joy in defending are, in large part, indefensible.
It’s unlikely you’ll ever see a political commentator for The Guardian sneering with joy at the suffering of the workers. But it’s still standard practice for cultural commentators like Jones to hack down writers and artists who communicate to, and on behalf of, the great mass of readers. And lets be frank about why. Arts and culture are home to some of the highest paid and highest status jobs in society. And for all Britain’s progress as a democracy, our arts and cultural industries are still overwhelmingly dominated by an incredibly narrow stripe of society. Our actors, musicians, artists, and of course novelists come almost exclusively from the monied elite, a state made even worse in the last three decades of growing inequality.
Why would this confederacy of cultural dunces, snobs and Oxbridge elitests ignore – or in the case of Jonathan Jones openly insult – a great writer like Terry Pratchett. I wonder. Perhaps someone from an average background rather shows up those who managed so much less with so much more. Perhaps a writer who can brutally satirise the media industry in Moving Pictures, or the finance industry in Making Money, or the poisonous glamour of elitism itself in Lords and Ladies, was not a writer Britain’s cultural elite felt safe around. Or perhaps it’s simply that an artist who can make millions of souls laugh with joy, is hard for the deadened souls of some critics to ever truly appreciate.
Shakespeare, Dickens, Pratchett. There’s no shortage of great writers from Britain’s struggling lower classes who have found themselves attacked, with minimal effect, by Lilliputian cultural elitists like Jonathan Jones. Maybe a century from now, when the remarkable satirical fantasies of Terry Pratchett are studied on every school syllabus, some future and equally insignificant Jonathan Jones will slyly claim that no lower born writer could have written these intelligent, subtle discworld novels. Perhaps they were really written by George Osborne, a figure of the era who came from a proper university. Let’s hope The Guardian has advanced beyond such cheap cultural elitism by then, and stands up to defend great art, instead of selling it out for clicks.
David Mitchell is one of the world’s most successful literary novelists. He has been twice nominated for the prestigious Booker prize, and his novel Cloud Atlas was adapted to the Tykwer and Wachowski film starring Tom Hanks. He’s also a huge sci-fi fan with a long love of geek culture. Damien Walter sat down with the bestselling author to discuss his SF influences, which D&D character type he plays, and the future of the novel in a multi-media age.
This interview is brought to you courtesy of Damien’s Patreon backers. Become a Patron for $2 a month to help support independent writing.
Damien – Hello David. Sci-fi and fantasy fiction have a huge and very dedicated fanbase, who over the years have come to love your work. I think many fans see parallels between the metaphysical ideas in your writing, and common ideas in genre fiction. I’d like to ask you a few questions about this.
David – Cheers Damien. Good to meet you, and thanks for your interest in my work. The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth.
Damien – The relationship between literary fiction and sci-fi has been discussed a lot recently, including a fascinating dialogue between Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman.
David – Gosh that was an interesting article – one of the most ideas-buzzing conversations about genre I’ve ever read, don’t you think? I was fascinated by NG’s anecdote about China. My own experience is that while the Party has relaxed regarding SF & Fantasy, it still censors alternative history SF. Of course, if the past is rewritable, the Party’s place in it, and in China’s present and future, is more arbitrary than inevitable. Makes you think of the famous Orwell quote about whoever controls the present controls the past, and whoever controls the past controls the future. There’s something deeply subversive about SF, in part because of its camouflage – “Hey Mr Grownups, don’t worry about me as an art-form, I’m just kids’ fantasy rubbish, they’ll all grow out of me in a year or two…”
“my longest-lived character was a Ranger based on, and possibly even named, Aragorn.”
Damien – That must be why so many writers were inspired by sci-fi as kids. You’ve admitted to a totally normal white middle class upbringing in the past. Did this include such geeky things as Doctor Who, comic books, Dungeons & Dragons, video games?
David – I’d use the verb ‘assert’ rather than ‘admit’. Protected solvent normality with sane kind parents, is a stroke of luck, not a misdemeanour. But yes; yes; yes…and yes! Tom Baker was my formative Doctor – someone that batshit crazy simply had to be real, a trick that Capaldi borrows to great effect. 2000AD was my comic – I loved THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT stories particularly, and JUDGE DREDD provided great training in long-form episodic narratives. AD&D, yes, until an age when I really should have been doing something more pro-active about my lack of a girlfriend – my longest-lived character was a Ranger based on, and possibly even named, Aragorn. (He’s still out there, somewhere…) Video games – not so much playing them as programming them. I made an epic on my 48k Sinclair Spectrum called THE SPHERES OF CREATION. (It was a load of balls. I know, it’s the way I tell ’em.) It was a quest-based adventure game, and for a short time a software house in Stockport was interested in developing it, though that fizzled out. I think of it now as a kind of proto-novel.
“Just because you deploy genre for the book in hand doesn’t mean you’re married to that genre ’til death us do part.”
Damien – You’ve listed Ursula Le Guin and Issac Asimov as early writing influences, two Big Guns of science fiction. Are there any others you might add? Which scifi authors impress you today?
I remember collecting the RIVERWORLD books by Philip Jose Farmer; the ‘Gil the Arm’ stories by Larry Niven, about a detective with a psychic arm; Theodore Sturgeon’s MORE THAN HUMAN; Harry Harrison, author of THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT; JG Ballard; HG Wells; EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s LENSMEN books, though I now suspect the Chris Foss covers were better than the books themselves; Ray Bradbury. I’m sure there were more. Like Neil Gaiman, I enjoyed reading Asimov’s (slightly self-congratulatory, but never mind) introductions to each of the stories in his volumes of COLLECTED STORIES – these short passages provided insights into the craft and business of writing which were unavailable elsewhere. I had a cheaply-printed second-hand American anthology called 100 YEARS OF SCIENCE FICTION that I bought from a shop in Upton-on-Severn, and I still remember some of the stories in it, even if I don’t remember the authors.
These days I’d add the names Neal Stephenson and William Gibson and Margaret Attwood to the list, but there would be many more individual books than names of individuals: Kazuo Ishiguro’s NEVER LET ME GO; Emily St John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN; EM Forster’s (seriously) SF novella THE MACHINE STOPS; Michel Faber’s THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS; Gary Shteyngart’s SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY; Kate Atkinson’s LIFE AFTER LIFE. Something’s afoot. For literary-ish writers of my generation – and the freer-styled writers in the generation ahead of ours, like Kazuo Ishiguro – the assumption that only social realists are allowed into the throne-room is falling into disrepute. Just because you deploy genre for the book in hand doesn’t mean you’re married to that genre ’til death us do part. It’s not like Dylan going electric. Or, it is, but it doesn’t end with electric; it can then veer country-wards for NASHVILLE SKYLINE, before wellying up the bass-lines for JOHN WESLEY HARDING, before …
Damien – Before going as far and as freely as the author can imagine. A great imagination must be a basic criteria for a good novelist, but people sometimes frown at wilder flights of fantasy. Do you see anything fundamentally different between mapping imaginary archipelagos and describing the detailed lives of real people and real places?
David – (1) The mapping of made-up archipelagos is imaginary cartography. (2) Describing the detailed lives of real people and real places is biography and history, respectively. (3) Describing the detailed lives of imagined people in places you can find on Earth today is an act of fiction, and if the laws of physics in this fiction pretty much correspond to those of our world, then the label ‘social realism’ is applied by those who care about these matters. (4) If the novel is set on a place not on any map (and “true places never are” Melville writes in MOBY DICK) or if the laws of physics have been monkeyed about with, then the label ‘SF’ or ‘fantasy’ gets applied, depending if the monkeyings are of a techno or a magical nature. So, to answer your question: (1) and (2) are fundamentally different from each other and from (3) and (4). (3) and (4) are not so different from each other, no. In both cases, fiction is being written and it’s either good or bad or somewhere in between, according to the talents of the writer and the tastes of the reader. Frown if it’s bad, frown if you have to take it to the charity shop after only 40 pages in, but don’t frown just because it’s a wild flight of fantasy. GAWAINE AND THE GREEN KNIGHT is a wild flight of fantasy. So is much of Shakespeare. So are key chunks of Dickens. So is Borges.
Damien – Your debut novel Ghostwritten seems to flirt with many forms of afterlife – ghosts of course, and the idea of reincarnation. Do you play with supernatural ideas for fun, or does the book express any part of your true beliefs?
David – Ghostwritten – If I remember correctly, it’s been years since I looked at it – incorporates various forms of the afterlife because the novel wouldn’t have been the novel I wanted it to be if it hadn’t done so. The novel’s the boss, every time. I’m a content-enough agnostic with a now-common built-in wariness of both mega-religions and cults. I’ve read books about Buddhism that I’ve found instructive and helpful for my relationship with my mind, but I have little doubt that Buddhist institutions in East Asia are every bit as capable of mafioso practices and predatory violence as the Catholic Church has proven itself to be in Ireland.
“Novels can no more compete with films and video games than Led Zeppelin’s The Battle of Evermore can compete with a weekend mini-break in Palermo.”
Damien – Cloud Atlas also interwove multiple story-lines, and took the reader into a future dystopia and the post-apocalypse. Are these serious predictions about how you see the future unfolding?
David – They are possible futures. I have no idea if the futures portrayed in Cloud Atlas will come to pass or not, and neither does anyone else. All futures are possible until they cull the competition by becoming the singular present. Aren’t time and reality fascinating things?
Damien – The Bone Clocks has been called your most explicitly sci-fi novel to date, with elements of the paranormal, the alien, and conspiracy theories. But I’m most struck by your repeated interest in teenage characters. What draws you back to the adolescent experience?
David – Not sure if I’d totally agree with the premise of the question, Damien. There’s the whole of Black Swan Green and one-sixth of The Bone Clocks where my narrators are adolescents, and… I think that’s my lot? That said, adolescence is an interesting threshold in life, with one foot in childhood and one in adulthood, don’t you think? Adolescents are neither fish nor fowl, they have a lot to learn even if they think otherwise. They tend to be seeing the adult world for the first time and thus have fresh eyeballs, and everything they do is a journey of one type or another. Gold dust for novelists.
Damien – The Bone Clocks also revealed more clearly than ever the “meta-narrative” that appears to stitch all of your novels together. Have you been planning this from the beginning?
David – It has been quietly mutating as I’ve gone along.
Damien – Some people argue the novel is in trouble, that it can’t compete with the spectacle of films and video games. Your novels are experimental and challenging, but also commercially successful. What makes the novel relevant for people today?
David – For people who don’t have the novel habit, novels couldn’t be more irrelevant. Just occasionally a HARRY POTTER or a GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO or a DA VINCI CODE comes along and ram-raids the leisure time of people who don’t normally read, and maybe then they experience a ‘relevancy-surge’ and that’s great (and hats off to those authors). A few non-readers may be converted long-term to the pleasures of novels, but most aren’t, and that’s okay too and anyhow it’s the way of the world so what can you do, eh? Novels can no more compete with films and video games than Led Zeppelin’s THE BATTLE OF EVERMORE can compete with a weekend mini-break in Palermo. To novel-readers, however, the novel is rather more than ‘relevant’: at its best, the form brings pleasure, solace, knowledge, bonding with other readers, intrigue, escapism and who knows, maybe just occasionally a few dribbles of wisdom worth storing away. Yes, the novel’s business model has taken a hammering from the Internet – too many people are too pleased with themselves for downloading books without paying the writer – but a business model being in trouble is not the same thing as an art form being in trouble.
Damien – Thanks for your time David. Any final thoughts?
David – My pleasure, Damien. I suppose my final thought is that our artsy sub-corner of the big wide world would be better if the question “To what genre does this novel belong?” were utterly irrelevant to that novel’s critical or commercial reception. I’m heartened by the signs that we’re getting there, and I sense that we are on the same side.
For the last 15 days I’ve been writing a series of posts on creative fear, to take myself – and anyone else who wants to follow – past the barriers that keep us from creating. The series began with a personal essay on the need for quiet if we’re to be creative at all.
We live in a very noisy world. Even putting aside all the noise we can’t control – the party next door, the six lane highway a block over, plane flight paths, the tinny rattle of somebody elses iPod on the daily commute – many, perhaps most of us, choose to soak our senses in a 24 hour a day noisefest. Hands up who has a radio on all night? TV in the morning? Podcasts while at the computer? Led Zeppelin in the shower? Background muzak while cooking? It’s endless.
Why do we do this?
I put it to you that we do this to distract ourselves. And because the distraction is unremmiting and focused on us, I also put forward the suggestion that what we’re seeking distraction from is our self.
When I was 18 my mother died. I’d never been at all ambitious, in fact I was quite a lazy teenager, my only real interests were absorbing stories in any digestible form, and then writing my own. But two years of watching my mum collapse under the weight of cancer changed me. We were a single parent family living on benefits, and as my mum got sicker and sicker, I realised that our poor existence was a big part of what was killing her. I was furious, the kind of permanent anger that after long enough you don’t even see any more.
I had dropped out of college when mum got sick. I went back. I wanted to prove that being poor didn’t mean I or my mum where any less than anybody else. With literally no money on the day I got there, I went to university. I worked every crappy job there was to pay for it. I could have got better jobs, but if you’re furious, jobs where you finish the day exhausted are a bonus. I did a masters degree. I tussled with an excellent recreational drug addiction. I smashed through two different careers and a long term relationship.
For twelve years I never stopped. Sometimes, often, I had intense waking dreams of stories, but I never gave them space to grow. I had to keep fighting the world, if I stopped for a moment to write it would win. And all the time, like so many people, there was noise. Televison. Films. Earphones. Smartphones. Parties. Constant conversation. Meetings. Projects. Games. There is, in this modern world, always some way you can fill every moment with noise. And I did, for twelve years solid.
Eventually, if you don’t stop, your body, or your mind, or the boss of both – your soul – will stop you. I was thirty and I’d just returned home from America (after attending the Clarion writer’s workshop) and all three ganged up on me and shouted “Enough is enough! No more Damo!” and that was that. It didn’t happen in a single moment, but over the next few months I started kicking out all the sources of noise. I found a counsellor. The first thing she suggested was that we sit quietly together. I found a meditation teacher. Apparently meditation is just sitting quietly. A revelation! Who knew?!
And once I was being quiet, I realised what all the noise was for. For twelve years I’d thought I was working towards something. A career. Success. But actually I was running away from someone. I was running away from the slightly lazy kid who loved reading and writing stories, who hadn’t been strong enough to deal with losing his mum. I was running away from my self.
The next couple of years were kind of…squelchy. There was a lot of crying. After twelve years where I barely squeezed out a tear, and sat on an unploded neutron bomb of unprocesed emotion, I had a lot of squelching to do. I had to learn to stop distracting myself with the noise, and start facing what waited for me when the world went quiet. And as I did, slowly and truly, I began to write stories again.
THERE’S NO FUCKING WAY I’M DOING THAT, I hear you scream. That’s OK. I ain’t going to make you. But if something in this resonates with something in you, here are some suggestions :
1. Switch off the TV. Televisions place your mind into a receptive state mich like dreaming. Which would be OK if they didn’t then fill your mind with things that make you feel awful about yourself. Watch good quality TV in box sets without adverts, otherwise just switch the thing off.
2. Spend 5 minutes a day in silence. I don’t mean reading a book or asleep. You don’t have to sit in the lotus position, or burn incense. Just switch everything off and don’t do anything. Extend the time up to 20 minutes if you can. That’s enough. If you want some advanced practice, try naming your thoughts. “I’m thinking about work. I’m thinking about chocolate. I’m thinking about thinking.” You can try not thinking if you want, it’s fun to realise that you can’t.
3. Spend a whole day doing nothing. I don’t mean eating chocolate and watching re-runs of West Wing. I mean doing nothing. Phone in sick, switch everything off, then sit on your butt and do nothing. You gan go for a walk, but you can’t go anywhere. You can eat, but nothing special. As “spiritual experiences” go this is better than meeting the Dalai Lama while high on Mescaline. Nothing will happen, nothing will change, it will feel like a total waste of time and that. Is. The. Point.
To read the complete series on creative fear, please visit my Patreon page.
It’s a little-known fact that one of the all-time bestselling writers of westerns lived most of his life in the English market town of Melton Mowbray. JT Edson, who died in 2014, wrote more than 137 novels, most of them westerns, and claimed in all seriousness “never to have even been on a horse”. A former chip shop owner, Edson developed a love of escapist fantasy in his youth, and approached writing westerns just as he later approached writing sci-fi.
The world of the western is about as historically accurate about 19th-century America as the world of the Shire in Lord of the Rings is about pre-industrial England. Both are fantasy worlds, abstracted from reality, crafted by expert fantasists. The pre-eminent western author, Louis L’Amour, loved the mythology so deeply that he began to write novels as a way of escaping into it. Like sci-fi and fantasy authors, writers of westerns, even when their sales stretch into millions, remain at the margins of mainstream culture. So it seems almost inevitable that over time the western and the fantasy have cross-bred.
This is a thank you to the nineteen patrons who have helped get me to my first Patreon milestone. You are great friends to me and your support means the world.
I started this Patreon because I was stuck. Instead of picking a story and writing it until the end, I was flitting between different stories as they captured my interest. Oh yes, I was learning something from each new style or structure, but I wasn’t finishing. Something was wrong.
I do understand why people often react poorly to cultural criticism. If I was in a dark, atmospheric cinema watching Avengers 2 : Age of Ultron and just before every witty Joss Whedon one liner I popped up and said “you do realise that’s just a sweetener to help you swallow Whedon’s implicit American triumphalism”, I’d probably punch me in the face as well. And then give me a good kicking when I insisted I was actually right, actually.
“when the escapist fantasies of geek culture become a denial of reality, then they become a problem”
Actor, comedian, writer and all round geek icon Simon Pegg unleashed the fury of the geek mob when he had the temerity to suggest that geeks who carry an infantile love of SpiderMan or My Little Pony into their 30s or 40s might possibly be a little bit childish. Pegg wasn’t literally shouting this into the face of every slightly immature geek, but many geeks felt personally insulted by even this relatively mild criticism. Like a stage illusionist pointing out the smoke and mirrors, Pegg was spoiling the illusion of geek culture.
The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard might seem like an odd authority to reference in a critique of geek culture, but in a post following his initial criticism Pegg made a compelling case for Baudrillard’s postmodern philosophy. Geek culture is poorly defined at best. To the majority of their audience the recent massive popularity of MMORPGs, superhero movies and fantasy novels from Harry Potter to Twilight is simply a new spin on pop culture. Baudrillard and other postmodern critical thinkers like Michel Foucault and the Frankfurt School made insightful criticisms of the mass media and pop culture, criticisms that apply equally to geek culture.
The defining characteristic of geek culture is its fascination with escapist fantasy. Whether it’s the sci-fi escapism of computer generated fantasy worlds like Mass Effect, or escaping into the lush linguistic universe of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the core of the geek cultural experience is encapsulated by the word “immersion”. Geeks want to be immersed in a story, an experience, in a world that takes them as far outside reality as possible. The popularity of geek culture has increased as ever larger audiences have fallen for the allure of escapist fantasy.
Postmodern philosophy provides an interesting critique of fantasy and escapism, and hence of geek culture. Fantasy appeals to our desire to return to childhood, escaping our adult understanding of reality. It is a good vehicle for spectacle, mindless visual stimulation like explosions, gun fights, naked bodies, dragons or anything we can focus our attention on without being made to think. At the core of the postmodern critique is the idea that the “entertainment industry” has a structural purpose in society other than entertainment, a purpose that is served very well by escapist fantasy. All this entertainment is provided to keep you distracted from reality.
The Matrix trilogy, that electrified audiences in the the early 1990s, drew heavily from postmodern philosophy, and in particular the ideas of Jean Baudrillard. When Laurence Fishburne reveals to Keanu Reeves that the only reason for his existence is to be a Duracell battery powering a machine dictatorship, it caps a complex metaphor crafted by writer-director team Andy and Lana Wachowski. Like all great fantasy heroes Neo is an everyman. He is you, the audience watching. And you in turn are a Duracell battery, exploited for your energy by a society intent on keeping you under control.
“The reality you live in is one where women are forced to serve, forced to humiliate themselves, denied freedoms, raped and murdered. That is your reality today.”
Postmodern philosophy argues that, like the machine controlled Matrix of the movies, society controls you by keeping you abstracted from reality. Like Neo in his goop-filled pod, you are kept entertained in your living room by a relentless procession of TV shows, films and games. Today you can even carry the entertainment around with you on your eight- hour work shift, just so long as you keep being a good little Duracell. And the hard truth is, like the character who asks to be put back inside the Matrix, many people prefer to stay in their goop tank. And if confronted with something or someone that wakes them up, they get angry.
When the critic Anita Sarkeesian confronted gamers with the reality of their culture, the response was rage and abuse. It was because Sarkeesian’s feminist critique of gamer culture was so brutally honest and accurate that it incited such intense anger. In the words of former US president Jimmy Carter, “the worst human rights abuse on Earth is the horrible persecution and deprivation of equal rights of women and girls”. Consider that statement. Worse than mankind’s many wars, worse than the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, worse than global terrorism, is the daily and routine persecution of women and girls.
The reality you live in is one where women are forced to serve, forced to humiliate themselves, denied freedoms, raped and murdered. That is your reality today. But the gamers who attacked Anita Sarkeesian don’t live in reality. They live in a series of computer generated fantasy worlds, provided specifically to keep them abstracted from reality. Fantasy worlds that often turn on the freedom to murder and abuse others, frequently women and girls, without consequence. And like all fantasists, when confronted with reality in the form of honest criticism, gamer culture went apeshit.
You don’t have to worship Baudrillard or accept every part of postmodern philosophy to see that geek culture is popular, in large part, because it provides its audiences with expertly made and highly effective escape routes from reality. When geek audiences respond poorly to criticism, it’s because we’re being rudely awoken from the dream worlds we are given to escape into. There is nothing implicitly wrong with fantasy or escapism. When expertly crafted an escapist fantasy like The Matrix can point the way back to reality more powerfully than anything else.
But when the escapist fantasies of geek culture become a denial of reality, then they become a problem. If your fantasy is more important to you than dealing with the realities of injustice and suffering in this world, then it becomes a problem. If your fantasy is more important to you than your own well being and growth as a human being, then it becomes a problem. And when your fantasy becomes a problem, that is when criticism is at its most important. Simon Pegg, Jean Baudrillard and Anita Sarkeesian aren’t trying to hurt you, Bilbo Baggins, they’re trying to help you. And if you find yourself among those outraged and offended by their criticism, you may be the most in need of their help.
My old home city, the wonderful multicultural metropolis of Leicester, has a festival called Leicester Writes. Despite being far away on the Indian sub-continent I will be taking part, with a live Q&A on Twitter about indie publishing and digital marketing. Join in!
Twitter Q & A with Damien Walter
JUNE 25, 2015 / 8.00 PM – 9.00 PM
Join us on Twitter for a Q&A with writer and columnist, Damien Walter. Walter was the first professional reviewer to dedicate attention to indie authors in his regular column for The Guardian. He helps indie authors and major publishers market their work in the digital world. Please use the hashtag #AskDamienW to join the conversation and put your questions forward.
We’re accustomed to thinking of the space inside our heads as private. Our thoughts, feelings and emotions are the landscape of an inner world that only we have access to. All art is about the attempt, however incomplete, to express what lies within to the outer world. Today humankind may be on the brink of changing this most fundamental assumption of our existence, as the techniques of neuroscience, of brain scanning and neural imaging, open up our inner world to scientific investigation. It’s this scientific revolution that forms the backdrop to Evan Geller’s remarkable – and remarkably amusing – debut science fiction novel, God Bless The Dead.
“the first technology to read human brain patterns is deployed as a smartphone app that allows consumers to order a Coke with the power of their mind alone”
Gabriel Sheehan is a struggling young scientific researcher, derailed from the fast-track-to-success by one fundamental problem. His research isn’t producing results. Applying the cutting edge in brain scanning technologies to reading minds in the lab should have been a “no brainer”, but after years of work and tens of thousands of dollars wasted, all Gabriel has to show is a pile of junk data. Inspiration arrives in the form of Helena Fianna, a talented Irish student of astrophysics who seems to hold the key to Gabriel’s research, and to his heart.
Evan Geller skilfully weaves a intriguing tale from three quite different kinds of story. Gabriel and Helena’s romance unfolds with all the whit and wry social observation of a Jonathan Franzen novel. The Sheehan family are a perfect portrait of America’s educated upper middle class, who remain charmed by the chaotic young Irish woman in their midst even once they begin to suspect her mysterious background. Is it normal to discover your fiancé keeps a stolen Duccatti 1199 in a seedy lockup? And that her real name probably isn’t Helena? Of course not, and Gabriel will be dragged far outside any normal life by his strong willed new wife.
Gabriel’s research project is in one sense a science fiction story. But it’s the kind of sci-fi which understands that scientists aren’t mad inventors in secret bunkers, but the founders of multi-billion dollar businesses. Gabriel and Helena realise that to find patterns in human thinking they need to scan humans en masse. They have the technology, what they lack is the marketing. And so, exactly as would happen in this day and age, the first technology to read human brain patterns is deployed as a smartphone app that allows consumers to order a Coke with the power of their mind alone. And at the same time report back invaluable data on human thought patterns to Gabriel and Helena’s new company.
The product of this mass data collection is “the salmon”, a database of universal human thought patterns that will make many people immensely wealthy, and attract the attention of some powerful factions, from the corporate boardroom to the NSA itself. But, God Bless The Dead’s core story is more mystical than science fictional. Eagle eyed myth hunters will recognise The Salmon of Knowledge from the Fenian cycle of Irish myths, one of many references to these ancient stories scattered like gems in Geller’s novel. That Helena Fianna is much more than she seems is apparent from early in the story, but just how much more is a mystery that unfolds, step by expert step, in the narrator’s surgically steady hands (Geller is in fact an accomplished surgeon, when not filling pages with words).
“a rom-com take on Breaking Bad, mixed with the urban fantasy of American Gods”
God Bless The Dead is a big book, and this reviewer’s only substantial criticism is that it’s pace is sometimes a little slow. Geller is a very skilled writer of quick fire dialogue. Scenes between Gabriel and Helena blaze past as they affectionately eviscerate each other in the way that very intelligent people in love commonly do. When NSA agent Chuck Parnell appears to investigate the eves dropping capabilities of Gabriel’s research, the reader is left with the absolute conviction that, yes, the NSAs top agents really would be annoying, fast talking geeks that just never go away. But Geller occasionally over deploys this gift of the gab, dragging down the pace of his story with scenes that could be reduced to a few lines of summary.
This criticism aside, God Bless The Dead is a novel of remarkable storytelling skill and panache. It’s episodic structure is very much in the HBO style so popular in television today. At points Geller’s novel feels like a rom-com take on Breaking Bad, mixed with the urban fantasy of American Gods. God Bless The Dead succeeds in feeling contemporary while capturing a mythic atmosphere, wrapping both in a tale of science fictional intrigue. It’s a rare combination, that many reader will greatly enjoy.
You don’t have to actually play a role-playing game for it to fire your imagination, so why don’t RPG manuals count as books?
I’m a lifelong fan of role-playing games, but I rarely play them. Dungeons & Dragons. Call of Cthulhu. Vampire: The Masquerade. Cyberpunk 2013. Traveller. I’ve been enchanted by the words and illustrations, and drawn into the imaginary worlds of as many RPGs as novels. So I’m always surprised, and a little dismayed, when RPGs are left out of the popular discussion about books and reading.
Though the term didn’t exist back when I was a teenager, squatting on comic-book floors to thumb through expensive hardback editions, RPGs are an example of the kind of literature described by Espen J Aarseth as “ergodic”. These are books, like digital literature, computer-generated poetry and MUDs, where a “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text”. And they are more common than you might think, especially in geek culture. Game books that allow you to “choose your own adventure” are ergodic, as are fantasy novels with extensive maps and world-building notes. But the RPG handbook pushes ergodic reading to its limit.
A review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, it’s relationship to other stories by Neil Gaiman, and the trauma of fantasy.
All great fantasies are formed in response to experience. And often, the experience of trauma.
J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings takes us in to a fantasy world of elves and dragons, but it’s the depthless grief of a young man who experienced the first World War that gives the work its sombre magnificence. Tolkien signed up with twenty friends and was the only one to return from the trenches. He was a rare survivor of a lost generation, one that never truly recovered from the trauma of Passchendaele and the Somme, just as young Frodo Baggins never recovers from the trauma of carrying the One Ring to Mordor.
J G Ballard cast his fantasies in the language of science fiction, depicting one shattered urban landscape after another in novels from The Drowned World to Crash, Concrete Island and Highrise. But it was with the publication of Empire of the Sun in 1984 that Ballard’s fantasy life returned, with crystal clear insight, to reality. Ballard’s childhood was shattered by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in World War 2, his separation for his parents and internment in a prisoner of war camp, from where he observed the swift collapse in to barbarity of the middle class English society he had grown up in. A collapse his novels recreated again and again in fantasy.
From Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and it’s satire on the crushing oppression of the British class system, to the orphaned children of Diana Wynne Jones that reflect their creator’s own turbulent childhood, great fantasy writing always has its roots in the real. And like Ballard, great fantasy writers are often at their best when they return to the reality that shaped them.
Fathers are very important in the writing of Neil Gaiman. The Sandman comics that catapulted Gaiman to cult status begin with a father inducting his son in to the mysteries of the occult, and a secret ritual to summon and entrap Morpheus of the Endless. Decades later Morpheus escapes, and the son is left trapped in endless dreams of waking. The unfolding story arc of The Sandman turns on Morpheus’ relationship with his own son, Orpheus. Shadow, the protagonist of American Gods, is adrift in the badlands of America when he is drawn in to the mystical plots of Mr Wednesday, soon revealed as the Norse god Odin, and then later as Shadow’s long absent father. Anansi Boys also features a young man attempting to come to terms with the legacy of a father who is also a god. It seems that time and again Gaiman’s fantasies return to the relationship of a son to a powerful, and often mystical, father figure.
The father in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is far from powerful or mystical. He is in fact quite ordinary and flawed. Neil Gaiman’s first novel for adults since Anansi Boys brings him closer than any other previous work to directly exploring the paternal relationship that has influenced so much of his writing. The directly autobiographical aspect pulls the story in a literary direction that, rightly or wrongly, his earlier fiction has not been recognised for. And it leaves the reader guessing, what in the novel is imagined, and what is the author’s true experience?
The novel’s narrator recounts a series of horrific events from a childhood spent in a large family house at the end of a long contry lane. The young boy’s life with sister, mother and father is mundane in its joys and tensions, until the suicide of the family’s lodger unleashes a series of supernatural manifestations. These are complicated by the Hempstocks, a neighboring family of grandmother, mother and daughter who have lived around those parts for raaaather a long time. Trinities of women are another of Neil Gaiman’s repeat motifs, but with the Hempstocks he grants them a far more central, and humane identity than in previous manifestations. A hike in to a weird and alien environment ensues, and an ancient evil is unleashed.
The real horror in The Ocean at the End of the Lane arrives in the form of a young woman, Ursula Monkton. Employed as an au-pair for the boy and his sister, it is soon clear that Miss Monkton and her short skirts are not all they appear to be. But it is Ursula’s effect on the boy’s father that ushers in the true darkness at the heart of the book. For all its otherworldly fantasy, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a simple and brutally told story of the trauma children face when confronted with the frailties of their own parents. The graphic sexuality and violence that errupt at key points in the story mean that, despite surface similarities to earlier children’s stories like Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not a book for children. It is however a book that will resonate powerfully with anyone attempting to process the darker aspects of their own childhood. And in an age when childhood ends early, and often brutally, that makes it a book for almost everyone.
The narrator of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, as an older man looking back, recounts these events to us the reader in part as an attempt to understand them himself. The after effects of encounters with the supernatural, and of emotional trauma, are another central theme of Gaiman’s writing. The young Rose Walker, at the conclusion of The Doll’s House, retreats for months in to solitude to consider her encounter with both dreams and nightmares in the realm of Morpheus the Dream King. There is an aspect in all of Neil Gaiman’s fiction that is permanently at war with mundane reality and our experience of it. His early writing, on projects such as Miracleman, and his collaborations with Dave McKean on Violent Cases, Signal to Noise and Mr Punch seem to step beyond fantasy and become active deconstructions of reality. The Ocean at the End of the Lane recaptures the conceptual energy of those earlier stories. Reason and common sense construct the narratives of our waking lives, but for the millions of readers drawn to Gaiman’s stories, the un-logic of dreams and fantasy are just as valid a way of understanding life, the universe, and everything.
Of all the writers creating literature today, Neil Gaiman is arguably the greatest at articulating that fantastical nature of reality. Inevitably, given the massive publicity surrounding its author and this this his latest work, some will ask if The Ocean at the End of the Lane, as a work of fantasy, can also be a work of literature. Increasingly, it is a question fading in to the oblivion of irrelevance. Like all great writers, Neil Gaiman is not constraining his vision to pre-definied notions of genre or literature. Instead, through his contribution to literature, he is redefining its boundaries to include our inner worlds of dreams and fantasy as essential ways of seeing our reality.
When I pick up a Discworld novel, it’s not because I want to know what happens in the story. I likely know what happens, unless it’s one of the few I haven’t read (these are being saved for emergencies). Most times I pick up a Discworld novel it’s beacause I want to spend some time with Terry Pratchett. I’ve been able to hangout with Terry since I found his books when I was eleven. And so have, I would guess, about 200 million other people. That’s a lot of friends to keep in touch with.
This is what novelists do. Some of them. The really good ones. They tell a story, and something of who they are sings through that story. I’m tempted to call it their soul. But I think it’s more likely their heart, which is the place where true wisdom lives. We all need wise friends in our lives, but sometimes they are hard to come by. So some people spread themselves out by writing books.
I wonder about social media sometimes. I spend perhaps too much time on it. Twitter is like catnip for writers I think. And then today, for a quite unexpected and private reason I can’t share, I realised that I turn on Twitter for much the same reason I open a book. Because there are writers there I consider friends, even if I only read their tweets. And with Twitter I also sometimes get to talk directly with my wise friends. The medium changes, but the role of writer as friend remains the same.
Don’t stop writing books though, I want those as well!
I’m writing essays on Geek Culture, and you can help me!
Writer. Columnist for The Guardian. Writing teacher.