It’s a double-edged magical sword, being a fan of JRR Tolkien. On one hand we’ve had the joy of watching Lord of the Rings go from cult success to, arguably, the most successful and influential story of the last century. And we get to laugh in the face of critics who claimed LotR would never amount to anything, while watching a sumptuous (if absurdly long) adaption of The Hobbit.
On the other hand, you also have to consider the serious criticisms made of Tolkien’s writing, such as Michael Moorcock’s in his 1978 essay, Epic Pooh. As a storyteller Tolkien is on a par with Homer or the anonymous bard behind Beowulf, the epic poets who so influenced his work. But as works of modern mythology, the art Tolkien called “mythopoeia”, both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are open to serious criticism.
Almost two years ago I ditched all my worldly goods, except for a backpack and a laptop, and went travelling. I suspect many people would assume an experience of that kind would be a little scary and make them feel rather insecure. But for me, the opposite is true. Getting rid of the physical possessions that most people rely on for a sense of security has made me feel much happier. But why?
Alan Watts was very close to my age of 37 when he published The Wisdom of Insecurity, the book that first brought him to widespread public attention. Today Watt’s philosophy of Zen buddhism and Eastern wisdom is more familiar, but in the first half of the 20th century, before the counter culture, his worldview was radically different from mainstream society.
Most of us believe that we become more secure by protecting our self. The world, we believe, is an aggressive place, so the more we can separate our self from the world, the safer we will become. So we walls and houses, make laws, employ police and security guards and imprison people who break the rules. We separate ourselves from nature, and panic when dirt or insect life invade our artificial spaces. And we hoard things, we fill our houses with stuff because it makes us feel secure. And most of all, we crave money. We live our entire lives in relation to financial calculations of what will make us richer or poorer.
The irony, as Watt’s adroitly points out, is that the very things that make us feel secure, actually increase the risks and problems in our life. Cut off in our houses, watching our tvs, we lose the community, family and friendships that actually make us secure. Divorced from the natural world we plunge in to depression and behaviours like overeating, which create so many of the health problems from heart disease to cancer that cripple our lives. We pursue money, but lose sight of real wealth. Our bank balances swell, but we miss all the experiences that make life valuable.
“the working inhabitants of a modern city are people who live inside a machine to be batted around by its wheels”
The wise alternative, as the title of Watt’s short book make clear, is to actively choose insecurity. We’re actually more secure with fewer material possessions, because we are more flexible and better able to adapt to change. We are more secure living in a community than walled away from other people in our houses. We are more secure if money is distributed around the community, rather than hoarded by the most fearful individuals, so that no one is hungry or has reason to steal. These things seem obvious when considered openly. And yet we continue to repeat the same mistaken drive for security over and over again.
The Wisdom of Insecurity is a wonderful expression of Zen buddhist philosophy, addressed to the modern desire for security and the plague of anxiety that dogs modern life. Our material circumstances seem better than ever, and yet we live in states of anxiety that are barely comprehensible. Watt’s makes the cause of that anxiety blindingly clear, and his book is an essential read for anyone attempting to unpick their terror in the machinery of modern life.
“The externalised symbol of this way of thinking is that almost entirely rational and inorganic object, the machine, which gives us the sense of being able to approach infinity. For the machine can submit to strains far beyond the capacity of the human body. and to monotonous rhythms which the human being could never stand. Useful as it would be as a tool and a servant, we worship its rationality, its efficiency, and its power to abolish limitations of time and space, and thus permit it to regulate our ives. Thus the working inhabitants of a modern city are people who live inside a machine to be batted around by its wheels. They spend their days in activities which largely boil down to counting and measuring, living in a world of rationalised abstraction which has little relation to or harmony with the great biological rhythms and processes.”
If you recognise yourself, batted around by the machine’s wheels and pushed in to action by your iPhone status alerts, the The Wisdom of Insecurity is one step towards finding a different way of being.
The megastructure is one of science fiction’s most enjoyable guilty pleasures. There is no other genre of literature that takes quite such glee in describing buildings, whether made by the hand of man or alien. Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama is little more than a guided tour of the titular spacecraft through the eyes of its human explorers. Only in science fiction can an entire novel be dedicated, in immense descriptive detail, to conveying the spectacle of an imaginary structure to the reader.
SFs most famous megastructure is the ringworld, a stripe of artificially-constructed land encircling a star, first envisioned by author Larry Niven in his 1970 novel Ringworld. The idea made Niven one of the most famous SF authors of his day, at a time when the novel was still the most powerful way of casting the full spectacle of sci-fi into the imaginations of the audience. Movies and television reached a far larger audience, but too often fell short of the spectacle sci-fi readers created for themselves.
Imagination is a powerful force for progress. So why has it been sidelined in the one place it should be most welcome – literature.
In his now famous quote, Albert Einstein claimed that imagination was more important than knowledge. When Einstein wrote those words in 1929, those who knew about such things might have said putting a man on the moon was impossible. But those who imagined more, including writers of science fiction, knew better. We know that imagination is a powerful force for progress in our lives and in society. And yet it seems that in the place imagination should be most celebrated – in stories, fiction and literature – it has long been sidelined.
Ursula K Le Guin, arguably the greatest living writer of imaginative literature, made a powerful defence of imagination in her speech to the National Book Awards on Thursday, at which she was presented a lifetime achievement award. Le Guin dedicated her win to the “the realists of a larger reality” who for 50 years had been excluded from literature’s awards, her “fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction – writers of the imagination.”
It’s hard to dispute the exclusion of writers of imagination from mainstream literature, not simply from its prizes but from every part of literary culture. But why has this happened? The standard explanation draws on one part quality – genres like science fiction simply aren’t “well written” enough – and two parts the idea that imagination is in some way childish. Writers of imagination are fine when they address children and adolescents, but adults are meant to get their head out of the clouds and keep their feet firmly planted in reality.
This idea reaches further than literature of course. Over the same five decade period Le Guin references, our education system has systematically sidelined the imaginative disciplines of the arts and humanities, until we find ourselves at the position today where any non STEM subject has seen a de facto obliteration of its status and funding. That’s not a criticism of STEM subjects or their creative potential, but as Einstein was trying to tell us, those subjects are at their strongest when honed by a powerful imagination.
Such an imagination can look at our world today and see the vast potential for it’s future, and the terrible risks that threaten progress. It’s no coincidence that the imaginative literature of science fiction has made utopia – the discussion of how to make a better world (a discussion Le Guin has played no small part in) – one of its core themes. It seems more than credible that the forces that might lead us to a dystopian future might tend to surpress those powerful imaginations that can envision their defeat.
Imaginative literature itself has been in a virtual civil war in recent years. When fantasy novelist N K Jemisin called for a global literature of imagination, in a speech that echoes Le Guin’s both in its meaning and its passionate intensity, it was a recognition that imagination can not be limited by gender or race. But the venomous, racist attacks made on Jemisin in response suggest that some, a small but bitter minority, do not agree. When that same, bitter minority were involved with block voting at this years Hugo awards, they were sent packing by award voters outraged at an attempt to limit and politicise imaginative fiction.
Anne Leckie’s clean sweep of this years major awards for science fiction, and Sofia Samatar’s victory at the World Fantasy Award, suggest imaginative literature is indeed becoming global and starting to overcome boundaries that had held it back. Despite, or perhaps because, of the barriers placed in its path, imaginative literature arrives in 2014 far stronger than it has been for decades. Ursula Le Guin’s honouring at the National Book Awards is one of many indications that, far from being excluded any more, imaginative literature is now at the very heart of literary life.
But if anyone is responsible for that change it is not publishers, or even writers, but readers. The internet and it’s massive disruption of the traditional publishing industry has allowed readers not just to vote with their wallets, but to evangelise for imaginative literature across thousands of blogs and fan forums, to support diverse new writing through crowdfunding and other platforms, and to become the new writers, editors and independent publishers of imaginative literature. There’s a grass routes revolution in publishing, and the power of imagination is at its heart.
The girl in the black vinyl minidress, shit-kicker boots and neon hair braids told me she was a cyberpunk. “Wow,” I answered, shouting over the club’s thumping techno-trance beat, “I love William Gibson.” I may as well have namechecked Samuel Taylor Coleridge at a Metallica gig. She stared at me for a while, then shouted back “I’m not into the Bee Gees.”
Pop culture rarely recognises its influences, especially when they are literary. But it’s a testament to just how closely attuned William’s Gibson’s work was to the zeitgeist, that in 1992 cyberpunk was manifesting in the cultural interface where 80s goth met 90s techno.
The bad old days when people were taught that creativity was only for a special, talented few are over. Most of us know we have the potential to be creative. But unleashing that potential can still be a tremendous struggle. Great artists of all kinds – writers, painters, musicians, dancers or any person accomplished in creative discipline – can often seem almost superhuman, able to achieve heights of creativity that are hard to imagine when we are stuck in the routines of daily life. So it’s natural, and all too easy, to confuse the technical skills those artists hold, with the basic human potential for creativity that we all possess.
In her seminal book on higher creativity, writer and filmmaker Julia Cameron shares her rich experience of helping artists reach their full creative potential, developed over hundreds of taught workshops with thousands of struggling creators.
The central idea of The Artist’s Way is that creativity is a fundamental quality of being human. We are all, every one of us, innately creative. But we lose our creative potential in the contest with daily life, and all of the stresses, pains and fears that are part of our lives. And because we are already creative, we can’t learn creativity, instead we must recover it.
The Artist’s Way is structured as a 12 week programme of creative recovery, modelled on the 12 step programme used by many alcoholics and others recovering from addiction. Cameron employs this radical approach because the causes of our lost creativity are very much like the causes of addiction. Her recovery programme employs many techniques and imparts many useful ideas, but at it’s heart The Artist’s Way is about learning to love ourselves, trust in our innate creativity, have faith in our potential, and recover the creative strength and courage that exists in all of us.
Cameron’s lessons use two words that many readers might struggle with – spiritual and God. But the relationship between humans as creators, and the creative potential of our universe, is fascinating to consider.
“Those who speak in spiritual terms routinely refer to God as creator but seldom see “creator” as the literal term for “artist”. I am suggesting you take the term “creator” quite literally. You are seeking to forge a creative alliance, artist-to-artist with the Great Creator. Accepting this concept can greatly expand your creative possibilities.” ~ Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
I have a long history with Julia Cameron’s wonderful book. I saw it in a bookshop when I was 12, and not being able to afford to buy it, I sat and read The Artist’s Way for two hours until the bookshop closed. Many years later I found the book again after it was recommended by a friend. Then finally in early 2014 I made the time to follow the entire 12 step course. It helped me realise how I had been knocked off my own creative path many times by fear and a lack of faith. It’s a book I can’t recommend highly enough, and an investment of time that will pay back many times over as your own creative recovery unfolds.
A Scanner Darkly is one of Philip K Dick’s most famous but also most divisive novels. Written in 1973 but not published until 1977, it marks the boundary between PKD’s mid-career novels that were clearly works of science fiction, including The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and his late-career work that had arguably left that genre behind. Like VALIS and The Divine Invasion that followed it, A Scanner Darkly was two stories collided into one – a roughly science-fictional premise built around a mind-destroying drug, and a grittily realistic autobiographical depiction of PKD’s time living among drug addicts.
It is also, in the thinking of writer, critic and mathematician Rudy Rucker, the first work of a literary movement he would name “transrealism” in his 1983 essay A Transrealist Manifesto. Three decades later, Rucker’s essay has as much relevance to contemporary literature as ever. But while Rucker was writing at a time when science fiction and mainstream literature appeared starkly divided, today the two are increasingly hard to separate. It seems that here in the early 21st century, the literary movement Rucker called for is finally reaching its fruition.
Project Hieroglyph challenges SF writers to move away from dystopian stories, but while the optimism is refreshing, real-world questions go unanswered
Science fiction, for most of the 20th century, celebrated the idea that a competent man could build better machines to help make a better world. In recent years that prediction seems to have come true. Stories that once sounded like sci-fi are now a regular part of everyday life. Popular scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku proclaim how science will shape human destiny and our daily lives, while non-fiction bestseller The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee presents a convincing argument that sci-fi ideas like self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and robot workers are now very real.
There are few critics left who would argue against the idea that science fiction has played an integral part in the emergence of this new machine age, in the process transforming itself from pulp fiction into one of the most influential cultural forms of the 21st century. But the influence that sci-fi wields has grown darker since its golden age. The once optimistic vision of competent men tinkering with the universe has been replaced with science gone awry – killer viruses, robot uprisings and technocratic dystopias revelling in the worst of our possible futures.
It’s an easy win for a book critic. Harry Potter, then Hunger Games, and now Divergent have dominated not just book publishing but popular culture for more than two decades. So after telling adult readers they should be ashamed to read children’s books, all Ruth Graham had to do was sit back and watch the outrage unfold. The Times film critic, AO Scott, took the same argument a step further this week by proclaiming the death of adulthood itself, with young adult fiction the leading symptom of a culture collapsing into permanent adolescence.
But is the failure of “serious” literature for adults really the fault of an immature readership? And make no mistake, it is a failure. A glance at any fiction bestseller list of recent years shows publishing dominated by escapist fantasies, violent crime thrillers, various shades of erotica and, of course, young adult. In 2013, among the only works of adult fiction to reach widespread public awareness was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, a coming-of-age story that follows its protagonist through, yes, his young adulthood. Isn’t it more credible that the sub-culture of serious literature is at fault, rather than every single person who enjoys reading the Hunger Games
Superheroes are an American thing, right? WRONG! The isles of Albion have been producing heroes with magic weapons and superpowers for centuries. But who are the greatest British superheroes of them all?
Science fiction is not a genre. The most successful literary tradition of the 20th century is as impossible to neatly categorise as the alien life forms it sometimes imagines. But “sci-fi” does contain genres. The rigorous scientific speculation of Hard SF. The techno-cynicism of Cyberpunk, or its halfwit cousin Steampunk. The pulp fictions of Planetary romance and the dark visions of the sci-fi Post-Apocalypse. These genres flow in and out of fashion like the solar winds. After years condemned to the outer darkness of secondhand bookshops, Space Opera is once again exciting the imagination of sci-fi fans.
At the box office Guardians of the Galaxy has resurrected the kind of camp space adventure made popular by Flash Gordon, while on the printed page Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie has scooped the prestigious double honour of Hugo and Nebula awards. Stories of space exploration have never lacked popularity. In the early 20th century when it was still possible to think space might be crowded with alien civilisations, stories like EE “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series were immensely popular. But as we probed the reality of outer space we found only infinities of inert matter and a barren solar system.
The World Science Fiction Convention touches down in London this week, bringing together fans of sci-fi, fantasy and horror novels from all over the world. LonCon3 is the first time this fete of the fantastic has visited the UK since 2006 when the 63rd worldcon hit Glasgow. Here are the top 21 sci-fi and fantasy authors you should be reading this year.