Category Archives: Weird Things

Tolkien’s myths are a political fantasy

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.

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Are video games the end for sci-fi novels?

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.

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Why has the imagination been sidelined in literature?

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.

The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K Le Guin
The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K Le Guin

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.

Whatever happened to cyberpunk?

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.

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Transrealism : the first major literary movement of the 21st century?

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.

Read more @ Guardian Books

Science fiction’s utopias are built out of wilful ignorance

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.

Read more – The Guardian

Why we’re all reading young adult fiction

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

Read more @ Guardian Books.

The New New Space Opera

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.

Read more @ Guardian books

Horror – just not scary any more

Whereas Victorian writers could rely on repressed sexuality to generate unease, today’s horror and fantasy novels put sex on the front cover. But the best new examples of the genre still bring up the things we don’t like to talk about.

When Bram Stoker penned Dracula in 1897, Eastern Europe was still remote for most Britons. But Jonathan Harker’s tortuous overland journey to Transylvania would today be a short hop on a budget airline. And Count Dracula, as both a Romanian immigrant and wealthy foreign plutocrat, would be attacked on arrival first by the Daily Mail for taking our jobs, and then the Guardian for forcing up property prices in the capital.

The fear of foreigners that fuelled Dracula is nothing today but a tabloid scare story, putting it alongside the other great fear of Victorian society – sex – which has also been reduced to mere page filler. Mina Harker doth protest too much when the sexy Vlad Dracula turns up in place of her dowdy solicitor husband. Today’s horror heroines, like vampire hunter Anita Blake, are just as likely to screw a vampire as slay them.

Read more @ Guardian Books

The troll reviewers targeting women writers

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.”

Read more @ Guardian Books

How Fighting Fantasy beat traditional stories

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.”

Originally published on Guardian Books

A digital renaissance for the science fiction short story

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.

Read more @ The Guardian.