Online abuse reminds us that while technology is upgraded, human qualities of jealousy and bitterness are not.
It may contain some passages judged by one Amazon customer to be “brilliantly written”, but that isn’t enough to spare Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road a two-star kicking. The reason? Byrne has committed a political sin in presenting the scientific reality of climate change – or according to this customer “a fantasy future where it turned out that Global Warming fanatics actually got something right”. Worse yet in this user’s eyes, Byrne’s depiction of women fighting back against male violence makes her guilty of misandry “thick enough to plow”. Climate change and gender politics, two hot-button issues for reactionary conservatives who have found a new outlet for their hate speech – online reviews.
Negative book reviews are a reality of life for all professional writers. And the proliferation of user-generated reviews on sites such as Amazon and Goodreads make readers’ opinions just as important as those of professional critics. But for authors like Byrne, politically motivated reviews are easy to spot. “There’s an unmistakable tone,” Byrne says. “And if they’re using condescending or otherwise gender-coded language, that’s a dead giveaway.”
In the three decades since Fighting Fantasy began, games have changed our concept of story forever.
When I was 10 I wanted, for a brief period, to be a professional Fighting Fantasy player. I was so fascinated with the now-iconic green-jacketed gamebooks, emblazoned with the legend “Thrilling fantasy adventures in which YOU are the hero!”, that I hatched a plan to make playing them my job as a grown-up. The market for professional gamebook players never materialised, but fantasy gaming has become big business. If I’d chosen to hit the Magic the Gathering pro tour, or joined a videogame clan I might have stood a better chance.
What made Fighting Fantasy so addictive for my 10-year-old self, and for a generation of geeks around my age, was the combination of two things we love with a passion: stories and games. I’m fascinated by the way in which the massive growth of gaming in the 30 years since Fighting Fantasy was first published has changed how we think about stories – so I was very lucky to grab some time with one of gaming’s most influential figures, Ian Livingstone, co-creator of Fighting Fantasy, founder of Games Workshop and lifetime president of Eidos Interactive, the company behind Lara Croft and Tomb Raider.
“I started playing games as a child and never stopped,” Ian says when asked about his own passion for games, which started with classics like Monopoly and chess, then war games and board games before he discovered Dungeons & Dragons in his 20s. “For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to turn my passion for playing games into a business of making them.”
It was Dungeons & Dragons that helped fulfil that ambition. Games Workshop purchased the UK rights to the cult role-playing game in 1975, which established the company’s mission to make progressive games for core gamers, and led in turn to the immense success of the Warhammer franchise in the 1980s. Dungeons & Dragons established an entirely new paradigm for gaming, one that brought story and character into games as never before. “In many ways paper and pencil role-playing creates a much deeper gaming experience than many video games,” Ian argues. “The narrative is made up as the game is played out rather than along a predetermined arc written by the games designer. This unstructured format of role-playing on the big screen of the imagination can’t be bettered in terms of unique user experience.”
It was on the big screen of the reader’s imagination that the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks played out. Ian and co-creator Steve Jackson wrote the books in a second-person present style, with branching story narratives and a dice-based game system bolted on. “Fighting Fantasy gamebooks empower the reader, who felt the anxiety or joy of being fantasy heroes themselves – they lived or died by their decisions. And if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” And a lot of people did exactly that: more than 17m Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were sold, in 28 languages. And Fighting Fantasy is still going strong, with Chinese translations launched very recently.
“There are thousands of traditional books which are of course brilliantly written and have incredibly exciting storylines and thought-provoking philosophies,” Ian continues, as we talk about the differences between traditional novels and interactive fiction of the kind pioneered in Fighting Fantasy. “Yet traditional books have a linear storyline and sometimes a hero which the reader may or may not relate to.” The appeal of a gamebook then is that it allows the reader to be at the absolute centre of the story. The idea of a thrilling fantasy adventure where YOU are the hero is more than just a clever marketing line, it’s central to the success of Fighting Fantasy and a very significant part of how games have changed stories.
The techniques Fighting Fantasy employed to put you at the heart of the story became standard in the burgeoning videogame industry. “In the early days of computer and videogames there simply wasn’t enough available memory to include a compelling story, let alone graphics, speech and music. But today that’s all changed, and storytelling has become an important and integral part of a videogame.” Graphics are near-photo-realistic, characters more believable, and professional writers are transforming the experience of story-led games such as Deus Ex and Mass Effect. But first person action and branching story narratives are still the standard ways of telling stories.
Are we becoming a game-culture? Fighting Fantasy gave a generation of readers a first taste of what games can bring to stories, and the videogaming industry has gone on to take gaming from the parlour and make it an absolutely central part of contemporary life. Gamification has become the trend of the day in the world of marketing, with companies such as Zynga and their game Farmville exploiting our hunger for games to hold our attention and sell us products. In her super-insightful TED talk of 2010, game designer and academic Jane McGonigal asked if gaming could help make a better world, arguing that an estimated 1.5 billion “virtuoso” gamers represent a massive untapped resource of expert problem solvers just waiting to … solve all the world’s problems! Games put us at the heart of the story, in a world where very often we feel far out on the edge.
That was once the traditional role of novels as well, but increasingly stories are also reflecting our hunger for games. Game of Thrones charts the power struggles between warring families in a medieval fantasy world, with each new chapter like a new move on the chessboard of Westeros. The Hunger Games has cashed in on our thirst for competition and its consequences in our daily lives. Perhaps we’re becoming aware that in a world where everyone is the hero of their own story, the inevitable outcome is an ever more competitive society, and we demand books and films that reflect this reality.
I finish my conversation with Ian Livingstone by asking him the Desert Island Discs question for gamers; if he was stuck in the grim far future of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 franchise, which game would he take to keep himself entertained? The writer of Fighting Fantasy has more than 1,000 boardgames and thousands more videogames, but there’s only one choice for a true gamer. “I would probably play chess because it is the ultimate pure game, and I will always be able to improve no matter how long the war goes on.”
Astronaut Jack Schmitt released the shutter on the 70 millimeter Hasselblad camera at 5:39 AM on 7th December 1972. The Apollo 17 mission to the moon was 45,000 kilometers from Earth. The image that it captured was not the first of its kind. Other photos of Earth had been recorded by previous space missions, but none so clear and potent as this one.
“The Blue Marble”, as it would later be nicknamed, shows a fully illuminated Earth of white clouds, blue oceans and the continental landmasses of Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and the south polar ice cap. For hundreds of thousands of years, humankind lived on Earth’s surface. Now we could look back and see Earth as a whole, like a child’s marble, shining against the darkness of the cosmos.
In the same decade the Apollo missions were taking a handful of men into space, the rest of humankind were boldly going where no man had gone before. Not on rockets, but in stories. Star Trek was just one in a wave of television shows, movies, comics and books that took readers on journeys of imagination into the unknown reaches of space. Science fiction stories had been around for decades, but the space race between America and the Soviet Union gave them a new energy and importance. When Jules Verne penned From The Earth to the Moon in 1865, its description of a manned mission to an Earth satellite seemed like a flight of fantasy. As the Apollo 11 mission touched down on the lunar surface just over a century later, Verne’s words read like a startlingly accurate vision of the future unfolding before us.
It’s not outrageous to think that science fiction inspires science. Captain James T Kirk’s five year journey on the starship Enterprise inspired both the name of the first space shuttle, and some of the mobile phones we carry today were modeled on Star Trek communicators. In the 1980’s the “cyberpunk” stories of William Gibson were an intrinsic part of the emergence of “cyberspace” and virtual worlds. As Albert Einstein stated, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Knowledge is limited to what we know, while imagination reaches into the unknown. As science radically expanded what was known through the 20th century, we needed ever more powerful feats of imagination to guide its development and shape its outcomes. And among the most important products of the 20th century imagination was science fiction.
The scientific revolution that allowed us to send rockets into space was also transforming our understanding of the world we were leaving behind. Centuries of cartographic surveying had outlined and detailed the world’s continents. A revolution in transport meant that the journey around the planet described in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days could be completed in eighty hours or less. Just one year before the “Blue Marble” photo was taken, the Intel Corporation produced the first commercial microprocessor chip. The information technology this new computing power allowed would, by the early 1990s, see the advent of the Internet. “The Global Village” – a counter culture concept coined by media theorist Marshall McLuhan – was becoming a reality. Millions of humans flocked to join the emergent Internet, through which they could communicate as easily with peers on the other side of the world as with strangers who lived next door.
The 7.12 billion people living on Earth today are arguably the first cohort of humankind to understand our world from a truly planetary perspective. On the physical plane we have mapped every square meter of the planet’s surface, modelled the tectonic movements of its core and can predict the atmospheric patterns that shape its weather. In the social sphere, we are ever more adept at understanding the tremendously complex, interrelated behaviours of the seven billion people who populate the globe. From economic forecasting to the immense power of “big data”, used to exploit the hidden patterns in human behaviour, we have unprecedented insight into the operations of our society. Cognitively, we can look in to the grey matter of the brain to understand its functions, and employ a century or more of psychological learning to understand our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. And on the grandest scale of the cosmos itself, we can place the blue marble of our world in a dynamic galaxy, itself a mere speck in a universe that grows ever more infinite as we probe its depths.
The “Blue Marble” showed us an Earth both more beautiful and more fragile than we had imagined. The image became symbolic of a burgeoning environmental consciousness. Our planet was no longer a boundless wilderness to be conquered, but a finite resource to be conserved. And science was showing us the many systems that made up the planet and governed life upon it; systems that, once thrown out of balance, might never be brought back under control.
As we look ever deeper int the physical, social, cognitive and cosmic systems of our world, we are lead to ask a simple but profoundly important question: Can we build a better word? Can we apply the systematic understanding of the world science has given us to improve these systems? And like the most complex of mathematical problems, can we find a solution that will bring balance to the world.
In looking for an answer we might find that science is both our greatest tool and our worst enemy. Science has given us such a detailed insight into the systems of our world that not one of us can hope to hold more than an infinitesimal fragment of it in our heads at any one time. Isaac Newton, the natural philosopher who contributed much to the emergence of modern science, was still able to range widely across the emerging fields of physics, chemistry and biology. Today, to understand just a single specialization in the vast sea of human knowledge seems the task of a lifetime.
In looking for an answer we might find that science is both our greatest tool and our worst enemy.
Equally problematic is the conflict between science, religion and the arts. In defining its pre-eminence in the world, science rejected many of the ways of seeing that preceded it. Today any attempt to bring religious or spiritual teachings into the public debate becomes immediately divisive. And science also suffers from its own fundamentalism; a materialist philosophy that rejects all internal experience as invalid, meaning that art of all kinds is also devalued and pushed aside.
Solving a problem as complex as building a better world is going to need unusual tools. We’re going to need a forum where thinkers can merge ideas across the sciences to see what new synchronicities emerge, and a place where our imaginations can explore the incredible possibilities that knowledge opens for us. And because at the heart of our problem are seven billion emotional, erratic and unreasonable human beings, we’re to need tools that look deep inside the human experience. Tools that are every bit as much art as science, and as open to the products of imagination as of reason.
We’re going to need the tools of science fiction.
Science fiction was shaped in the pages of pulp magazines in the 1920s and 30s, when stories of alien life, machine intelligence and galactic civilizations became mass entertainment. Critics have dated the emergence of science fiction to the novels of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells in the late 19th century, or the publication of Frankenstein : A Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in 1818. As a form of modern mythology, science fiction continues in the tradition of fantastic story-telling reaching back to the roots of human civilisation.
In his essay “Fantastika and the World Storm”, author and critic John Clute outlines a history of science fiction that begins in 1750, at the dawn of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution that would shape the modern era. Science fiction, in Clute’s schema, emerged as a “planetary literature”, one which could consider the ideas emerging from science and envision the vast changes, both good and bad, they would unleash upon the world.
Science fiction is defined by the storyteller’s craft of world building. The world at the heart of a work of science fiction might be our own planet Earth, in some near future or alternative history. Or an alien planet in orbit of a distant star. But the worlds of science fiction aren’t limited to rocky spheres floating in space. The world of a science fiction novel can be a galactic empire, an alternative dimension, an imaginary kingdom, a political state or any of thousands of distinct worlds. Every element of the story – its characters, setting, plot lines and events – are integral to that world and its future. The hero is not just the center of the story. They are the center of the world.
We’re going to need a forum where thinkers can merge ideas across the sciences to see what new synchronicities emerge, and a place where our imaginations can explore the incredible possibilities that knowledge opens for us.
Issac Asimov’s Foundation series charts the fall, and eventual rise, of the Galactic Empire, a human civilisation spanning the Milky Way galaxy – the world the story encompasses. Hari Seldon, the story’s hero, is a mathematician who specializes in “psychohistory”, a scientific discipline that allows him to predict two possible futures: one where a thirty-thousand year dark age overcomes the Galactic Empire, and another where after only one thousand years a new, utopian society arises. By establishing two foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy, Hari Seldon attempts to ensure the second of these futures.
Frank Herbet’s Dune centers on the young Paul Atreides, heir to the doomed House Atreides, who will become the Emperor of the Known Universe. The desert world of Arrakis is the centre of that universe and the source of the spice Melange, the only substance that allows galactic travel. He who controls the spice, controls the universe, and through a process of mystical enlightenment and open warfare, Paul Atreides learns the secret of the spice.
Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven depicts a near future Earth, a global society ravaged by poverty and resource wars. At the center of this world is George Orr, a man whose dreams can change the nature of reality, and William Haber, the psychiatrist who tries to shape Orr’s dreams to make a better world. Together they seek to solve racism and overpopulation to bring about world peace, all with unfortunate and counter-productive effects.
A vast array of concepts collide in the stories of Asimov, Hebert and Le Guin. The ability of economics to both predict and shape social change. The politics of empire, colonialism and the long span of history. The emerging ecological awareness and new age spirituality of the counter culture. Resource scarcity, and the fates of worlds in conflict for finite sources of energy. Post-modern philosophy and the conflict between objective reality and subjective experience. It is this melding of disparate ideas into coherent narratives has become the hallmark of science fiction.
These imagined stories – like thousands of other science fiction tales told in the 20th century – were presented to audiences as popular entertainment and escapism. But there was a greater purpose implicit in the emerging literature of science fiction. For most of human history stories had embraced both reason and the imagination. From the earliest recorded story, the epic of Gilgamesh, to the Biblical stories recorded in Genesis and other religious texts. The myths of ancient Greece and Rome, the fairy and folk tales of Medieval Europe and the courtly masques of Shakespearean theatre, for most of human history stories were shaped from both the real and the imagined.
But as we embraced the age of science and reason ushered in by the Enlightenment, a tradition of purely realistic storytelling emerged that set aside the products of imagination. The modern novel, shaped by generations of writers – Honore de Balzac, Leo Tolstoy, George Elliot, Marcel Proust, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens, Virgina Woolf, Jack Kerouac and thousands upon thousands more, became the natural home of realism. By the late 19th and early 20th century the realist tradition dominated contemporary culture. Stories that grew from the imagination of the writer, and those resembling the older stories of myth and legend, were thought fit only for children. The imagination was sidelined as a source of mere escapist entertainment and the stories that came from it were seen as pure fantasy.
The Inklings were a group of writers who – between the two world wars in the university town of Oxford, England – were drawn together by the idea of creating stories which recaptured the imagination. Among them were C. S. Lewis, whose “Narnia” novels would enchant a generation of children, and J. R. R. Tolkien, whose Middle Earth would become arguably the most famous story of the 20th century. As a child, Tolkien had seen the world transformed by the Industrial Revolution. As a young man he had survived the brutalities of the Great War, the first conflict to engulf the whole world. And from these twin experiences, Tolkien would create what he considered to be a new mythology for the modern world.
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings chronicles the twilight of the Third Age of Middle Earth, and the battle to defeat the dark lord Sauron by destroying the One Ring, a quest which can only be fulfilled by the hobbit Frodo Baggins, a hero defined by the purity of his spirit rather than his physical strength. Should he fail, the pastoral world of Middle Earth would be overrun by evil, and turned from green fields in to smoke belching factories.
George Orwell was only a decade younger than Tolkien, a product of the same culture and upbringing. Nineteen-Eighty Four- Orwell’s masterpiece of totalitarian horror – is at least cosmetically a very different book to Lord of the Rings. It encompasses the world of Oceania, an all-powerful, totalitarian state. The story follows Winston Smith, a low ranking bureaucrat attempting to find personal liberation and space to love Julia, a young woman also trapped within the state. But unlike the heroes of myth, Winston Smith’s attempt to overcome the oppressive regime of Big Brother ends is absolute failure. He is tortured in room 101, forced to betray his lover, and left a broken man. Nineteen Eighty-Four shows us a world utterly crushed beneath the jackboot of totalitarianism, with no hope for redemption.
As different as they may appear, the stories of Orwell and Tolkien are both products of imaginations trained by similar cultural experiences. They both encompass worlds, and the fates of those worlds and in doing so, they reveal aspects of our own world. The oppressive power of Big Brother in Nineteen-Eighty Four and of the dark lord Sauron in Lord of the Rings are both reflections of the very real oppressive powers that challenge the wholeness of our world in reality. And like thousands of great science fiction stories, from those of Asimov and Le Guin to the masters of the form today, they use the imagination to show us our world as we could never otherwise see it.
The Re-emergence of Imagination
Science fiction has grown from its origins on the printed page. In films, television, comics and other narrative media, science fiction stories are a cornerstone of popular entertainment. Star Wars. The Terminator. Harry Potter. The Hunger Games. The Matrix, too, is often dismissed as simple escapist entertainment, but the success of science fiction and fantasy stories represents the re-emergence of the imagination in our world of reason. Through the mass media science fiction is now reaching global audiences, and helping us to understand our world from the planetary perspective.
Contemporary science fiction weaves ever more sophisticated visions of our planetary future. Charles Stross’ Accelerando follows three generations of one family into the future as Earth is transformed by the “technological singularity”, the point at which change driven by technology outstrips the human ability to comprehend it. A point, some might argue, we have already reached. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes explores an alternative future Johannesberg where an underclass of criminals are stigmatized by being “animaled”, magically bonded to an animal familiar. Beuke’s planetary vision is distinctive for escaping the assumptions of the technologically developed first world, and extrapolating instead a future through the lens of the world’s emerging economies. The baroque fantastical visions of China Mieville in books such as Perdido Street Station, The City and The City and Embassytown reform many of science fiction’s earlier visions, from the fantasy world building of J.R.R. Tolkien to the space opera stories of Issac Asimov. Mieville’s planetary visions undermine those which have come before, challenging us to ask if we can ever understand the reality in which we find ourselves.
The wider message of science fiction isn’t necessarily the content, but rather, the medium itself. If science fiction is the great product of the modern imagination, then it is to the imagination that it directs our attention. Today our relationship with imagination is increasingly complex. We value the products and innovations that drive every aspect of modern society, even while we continue to underestimate the imagination as the source of those things. We remain in the Enlightenment paradigm, alienated from our imagination, treating it as little more than an avenue for idle entertainment and desperate escapism.
But for generations our stories have called us back to the imagination as a source of insight and understanding. J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Issac Asimov, George Orwell, Lauren Beukes, China Mieville and thousands of other creators of science fiction offer us powerful and potent visions drawn from the imagination. If there is one single message we should take from science fiction, it is that the imagination has an unspeakably important role to play in solving the problems of our world. We can analyze the physical, social, cognitive and cosmic systems of the world in the finest detail. But it is only through the imagination that we can begin to synthesize that knowledge back into a whole. And from that informed imagination comes the planetary visions of science fiction. If we wish to solve shape our “Blue Marble” planet in to a better world, we may do well to pay attention to them.
Isaac Asimov – Foundation
Lauren Beukes – Zoo City
John Clute – “Fantastika and the World Storm”
Frank Herbert – Dune
Ursula K. LeGuin – The Lathe of Heaven
China Mieville – Embassytown, Perdido Street Station, The City and The City
George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four
Mary Shelley – Frankenstein : A Modern Prometheus
Charles Stross – Accelerando
J.R.R. Tolkien – Lord of the Rings
Jules Verne – Around the World in Eighty Days, From the Earth to the Moon
It’s a truism that the writer you read on the page is not the writer you meet in the flesh. It’s for exactly this reason that meeting our cultural heroes is so often a profound disappointment. The transcendent singer on the stage is a bawdy lech in the bar. The poet who expresses beauty in words is a drunken misanthrope in person. So we commonly separate the artist from the human being, the icon from the reality. But when the actions of our cultural heroes go beyond bad behaviour, into to moral outrage, illegality and immorality, that separation becomes far harder. And in some cases, impossible.
The accusations of child abuse levelled at science fiction author Marion Zimmer Bradley, who died in 1999 age 69, are of the most serious kind. Published last week on the blog of Deirdre Saoirse Moen, these accusations come from Bradley’s own daughter, Moira Greyland. They include accounts of physical and sexual abuse, and were later joined by a brutally affecting poem written by Greyland in “honour” of Bradley, Mother’s Hands. Bradley’s reputation when alive had already been considerably damaged by the conviction of her husband on charges of child molestation in 1990.
A man wakes up from a car crash to find that he is an “electric ant”: an android programmed to believe it is human. At home he uses micro-tools to open up his own chest and discovers a tiny spool of tape inside. Punching new holes in the tape makes new objects appear in his world, obscuring a section makes the world disappear. The android cuts the tape, and hears a rushing wind as all reality is revealed to him.
The contradictory concepts at the heart of Philip K Dick’s 1969 short story The Electric Ant have fascinated me ever since I first read it 20 years ago. It’s the capacity of the science fiction story to get us thinking about intriguing concepts that gives the form its punch. Today, the short-story magazines that helped to popularise science fiction are all but gone. But a new generation of online magazines has taken their place, and is transforming the genre again.
STRANGE BODIES by Marcel Theroux – Literary body horror goes existential.
“Am I just a body?” Asks the four year old daughter of Nicholas Slopen, unfortunate protagonist of Marcel Theroux’s metaphysical thriller Strange Bodies. The answer Slopen gives us the reader, “not even that”, is less than comforting. The quest to discover what it is to be human, and how we ignore the truth of the answers we find, fuels the narrative of Strange Bodies, a literary horror novel which terrifies not with gut wrenching gore, but with the existential dread of our own flesh.
Nicholas Slopen is a struggling academic of English literature whose career and family life are slipping from his fingers. But when he is asked to prove the origin of previously unseen letters by Dr Samuel Johnson – writer of the first English dictionary – Slopen sees a chance for redemption. We already know the story will not end well because when we are first introduced to Slopen he has been among the walking dead for some months.
Marcel Theroux demonstrates both great literary craft and an eye for the worst kinds of human suffering as he leads Nicholas down in to an underworld of secret conspiracies and the occult. Theroux succeeds in confronting the reader with all those nasty existential questions most of us spend our lives ignoring, and from them creates a sense of horror much more profound than the generic horror novels the book shares stage furniture with. Strange Bodies will be too scary for most horror readers.
I arrived in Leicester in the late ‘90s as a student, a year after losing my mother to cancer. Having little support, I worked my way through university as a street sweeper, a factory worker, a waiter, a barman, a door-to-door salesman, a cleaner, recycling operative and grill chef. I wanted to be a writer but that seemed like an unattainable dream at the time. A few years later I began working for Leicester’s library service as a literature development worker.
The first initiative I ran was a project to gather the reminiscences of senior citizens. There I was, in my mid-20s, in the meeting room of an older persons’ lunch club. I had a circle of plastic stacking chairs, paper, pens and a dozen volunteers, most of them past their 80th birthday. At the time, I could manage (as I still can) a good line in cocky arrogance. I told everyone how things were going to be and what the project was going to achieve. We were to capture voices from under-represented stakeholders in the local community, thereby encouraging social cohesion. I hadn’t yet learnt that the language of Arts Council England funding bids doesn’t mean much to normal people. Patient smiles greeted my words.
After a long pause, a woman in her 90s started to speak. She had grown up in a children’s home in Leicester, she told us. She had been abused by her father and then by another man at the home. She had worked in factories when she was old enough. Her husband died young, and so did her son. It took her half an hour to say this much. At the end, she said she’d never told anyone about her life before.
I was, in retrospect, unprepared for that project in every possible way. I spent the next fortnight doing a lot of listening and transcribing. The other stories were no easier to hear. Child abuse, abhorred in today’s media, was so prevalent in the industrial communities of England before the Second World War that it had passed almost without comment.
We published a small pamphlet of writing from the project. It seemed puny and easily ignored, but it meant a great deal to the group. There was even a small reception to launch it. A few friends and relatives and a dignitary from the local council came along to enjoy the municipally funded wine and nibbles. The storytellers themselves had all made new friends, and had kept busy instead of sitting idle in care homes. They had had a chance to speak. And a few people had listened.
It would take me the best part of a decade to really understand why that was important.
In dozens of projects and hundreds of workshops, I tried to help people to develop everything from basic literacy to advanced creative writing skills. I worked with teenagers from local schools, who loved vampire novels and wrote their own hip-hop lyrics but said they didn’t like English, until you told them that Mary Shelley was the first goth and ‘rap’ stood for ‘Rhythmic American Poetry’. I worked with groups of factory workers and people caught in mind-numbing call-centre jobs who just wanted to find something, anything, to show that they were worth more than that. I sat in on daylong symposia of Urdu verse and learnt what it is to have Hindu and Muslim communities talk to each other through poetry. I ran projects with drug users and mental health service users, often the same people. A lot of these people were young men, my own age, from roughly the same background as me. I started to see how real the gaps in society are, and how easy they are to fall through.
Any act that helps to empower a person creatively can ignite the imaginative spark without which life of any kind struggles
This all happened in a midlands city of 330,000 people. Leicester now has the third-largest Hindu community in England and Wales, as well as substantial Muslim, Black African, Somali, Polish and Chinese populations. In the late 1800s it was an industrial powerhouse, the hosiery capital of Europe. By the start of the 20th century, it was home to some of the poorest wards in Britain. Throughout the industrial revolution, it had sucked in thousands of rural labourers to man its factories. When the factories closed, that population, lacking any history of education or development, was abandoned, left to subsist on state benefits and lower-than-minimum-wage jobs on huge sink estates. Decades later, many are still there.
I honestly have no idea, beyond individual stories, if the creativity work I did had any real effect. I still get emails from one or two of the school kids I worked with: they’ve gone on to write their own sci-fi books. But there’s a guilt trap in almost any job where the aim is to help other people. Human need is infinite, and you quickly learn the limits of what can be achieved, or else you break from the pressure of attempting the impossible.
Even so, what I did see again and again was the real difference that a sliver of creative life can make, even to people in the worst circumstances. I saw it most often through the discipline of writing, and I think that the written word makes a good route for many people. But any act that helps to empower a person creatively can ignite the imaginative spark without which life of any kind struggles — and in many senses fails even to begin.
Neal Stephenson – legendary author of speculative fiction – on Elon Musk and geek culture, the NSA revelations of Edward Snowden, how negative cultural narratives are killing big science – and the upbringing that made him the writer he is.
“I grew up in an environment that seemed utterly normal at the time and that in retrospect was almost unbelievably weird.”
~ Neal Stephenson.
IN LATE 2013 I had the opportunity to interview the author Neal Stephenson. Some Remarks, Stephenson’s collected non-fiction writing, was due for release in the UK and I was fascinated to talk to the author of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon about his wider views of science, technology and contemporary culture. It happened that the interview came just at the time that CLANG, the innovative sword fighting game that Neal had championed to successful Kickstarter funding, hit a few kinks in its development. Our interview took a few twists and turns, but came out full of interesting insights in to the author’s thoughts and creative development. But, as sometimes happens with interviews, our discussion didn’t quite match the focus the commissioning technology publication had been looking for. And so, after some consideration, I’ve rescued the interview from editorial limbo to publish here in full. I hope you enjoy reading it.
Damien Walter, 2014
DW – Your non-fiction writing collected in Some Remarks displays the same fascination with technology and social change as your novels, I think that’s fair to say? Where did this fascination begin?
NS - One of the items in Some Remarks is a foreword to the posthumous re-issue of David Foster Wallace’s book Everything and More, in which I try to make the case that DFW’s work is informed by a particular sensibility peculiar to what I call the Midwestern American College Town, or MACT. I won’t try to recapitulate that argument here, but the gist of it is that I grew up in an environment that seemed utterly normal at the time and that in retrospect was almost unbelievably weird. I suppose we all have such insights when we move away from the place of our upbringing. My ancestors had been ministers, professors – or ministers and professors – for several generations back. That’s in the paternal line. On the maternal side, they were reasonably well-to-do farmers with a direct and recent connection to Geraldine Jewsbury, a very complicated Victorian author. By the way, I didn’t know about any of that when I was young, I only became aware of it in my twenties and thirties. But one assumes it has an effect.
Anyway, during the 20th century they all made a turn toward science and technology and so I ended up with a lot of academic scientists and engineers in my family. I grew up in a MACT, dominated by a university of science and technology, wherein our neighbors, the people we saw at church, the parents of my friends, etc. all tended to have (or to be studying for) Ph.Ds. Some of my friends’ fathers had worked on the Manhattan Project, and as a teenager I worked summers as a research assistant in an old Manhattan Project lab. I developed a fairly typical nerdy fascination with computers and programming, which showed up in my fiction, particularly Snow Crash; and when that book became popular among high tech people, I ended up knowing many such.
DW – How did this upbringing contribute to your talent for seeing the “big picture” of technology?
NS - To the extent that I have any talent for it, it presumably arises from the fact that I never recognized any meaningful division or conflict between science and technology on the one hand, and any other aspect of culture (literature, religion) on the other. The typical MACT is too small to allow for specialization, and so if the professors are going to have cultural events they must organize them themselves, rather than delegating the work to a separate cultural elite. Again, all of this was simply the air I breathed, and I didn’t become conscious of it until later in life.
DW – The MACT sounds like much the kind of place where many young science fiction fans came of age. Today scifi and “geek culture” are arguably the new mainstream culture of the internet connected generation. How do you rate its influence on your work?
NS - Re scifi/geek culture, this is something that I grew up with, just as a historical accident. I can still remember seeing The Hobbit for the first time, in the hands of an older boy at my school when I was in the sixth grade. This was at about the same time that I was obsessing over the original Star Trek series and watching Astro Boy cartoons. Today, of course, we would identify all of these as being touchstones of geek culture, but at the time, nothing of the sort had even been imagined. So I was left with a fascination for these strange found objects on the periphery of our culture. I could say similar things about D & D and even Star Wars. People who were fans of one of these things tended to be fans of the others, and so geek culture evolved, I think, out of a lot of random encounters in dorm rooms and subway cars, and began to snowball as the geeks got better at networking.
“when Snow Crash popped up on the radar of geek culture and became a popular book, it took me by surprise”
When the Internet came along and made networking easy, the whole phenomenon just exploded and has now become a dominant force in our culture. I never partook of it as heavily as some others, in the sense that I didn’t go to SF cons, have never visited Comicon, and haven’t really been involved in the relevant Internet discussion groups. Consequently, when Snow Crash popped up on the radar of geek culture and became a popular book, it took me by surprise, and in fact I wasn’t really aware that anything had happened until people began to reach me via the then-new medium of email and to address me as if I were some kind of significant person.
Its main influence on my work has been that I have felt confident that I need not keep writing the same book over and over again. I have tried to make each book different from the last. I’ve always felt confident that this would work, which is to say, that the community of readers would accept this sort of random-walk approach, and so far I have never been disappointed. From time to time I will hear from a reader who is startled by the fact that my latest book isn’t very much like the one previous, but those people seem to be outnumbered by the ones who don’t care at all, supposing they even notice.
I spent most of my youth being told to get a haircut. As a boy of slight build who usually had hair down around my shoulders, I looked a bit too much like a girl for the comfort of the home counties. Society gets angry when gender roles are blurred, precisely because those roles are a fragile act put on with clothes, hairstyles and makeup. If they weren’t enforced, clearly defined gender roles would not exist.
I take comfort in the idea that most of the young men telling others to get a haircut today are rushing home to play at being buxom dark elf warrior maidens in World of Warcraft. Gamer culture has gained a bad reputation for misogyny, but it seems male gamers are more than a little curious about playing out female gender roles. It makes perfect sense. The real world enforces gender roles, but virtual worlds let gamers express the feminine parts of themselves that don’t fit in with their masculine identity.
news has been turning into science fiction for a while now. TVs that watch the watcher, growing tiny kidneys, 3D printing, the car of tomorrow, Amazon’s fleet of delivery drones – so many news stories now “sound like science fiction” that the term returns 1,290,000 search results on Google.
The pace of technological innovation is accelerating so quickly that it’s possible to perform this test in reverse. Google an imaginary idea from science fiction and you’ll almost certainly find scientists researching the possibility. Warp drive? The Multiverse? A space elevator to the stars? Maybe I can formulate this as Walter’s law – “Any idea described in sci-fi will on a long enough timescale be made real by science.”
Brenna Aubrey self-published her debut romance novel At Any Price on the Amazon Kindle on 9 December 2013. One month later At Any Price had netted a total profit of £16,588. Aubrey’s success is far from unique – 2013 was a breakout year for “indie authors” led by the phenomenal success of Hugh Howey. But Aubrey is among the first in a wave of authors to do what, until very recently, would have been unthinkable; turn down a $120,000 (£72,000) deal from one of the big five publishing houses and decide to do their job herself.
Unforgettable images shimmer from the pages of The Golem and the Djinni. A palace of glass and gold glittering in the Syrian desert. The bustle and heartbeat of New York in 1899, populated with a cast of intriguing characters, two of them creatures of magic. Chava is a golem crafted by a rogue rabbi, her intended master dead and buried at sea, she is free to do as she wills. Ahmad is a djinni, a spirit of fire and of the desert, trapped in human form by a bracelet of iron. Both must confront the same question; what is the price of freedom when you have been created only to serve the will of others? Around this theme Helene Wecker’s debut novel crafts an unforgettable fantasy story. The Golem and the Djinni takes us deep in to the immigrant experience of 19th century America, and the contrasting cultures of Judaism and Islam that meet there. But the grand themes never overwhelm the human story that Wecker weaves from the lives of two quite inhuman characters. Comparisons with Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell come easily, but Weckers novel achieves a depth of meaning and human emotion that Clarke’s work never truly touched. The Golem and the Djinni is a masterpiece of fantasy literature that readers will discover with joy for many years to come.