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RE: Worldbuilding – can sci-fi help build a better world?

Science shows us how the world is built. Can science fiction help us build a better world?

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The Blue Marble

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.

The "Blue Marble" through the generations from left (1972, 2000, and 2012). (Images: NASA)
The “Blue Marble” through the generations from left (1972, 2000, and 2012). (Images: NASA)

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.

A rocket to the moon in an illustration from the 1874 edition of Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon turned out to be prophetic. (Image: Henri de Montaut/Public domain)
A rocket to the moon in an illustration from the 1874 edition of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon turned out to be prophetic. (Image: Henri de Montaut/Public domain)

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.

 

World Building

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.

Pulps from the 1920's and 30's like Amazing Stories and Astounding set the foundational ideas for science fiction that would strongly influence later works in the genre. (Images: Public Domain)
Pulps from the 1920’s and 30’s like Amazing Stories and Astounding set the foundational ideas for science fiction that would strongly influence later works in the genre. (Images: Public Domain)

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.

"World building" is represented in some of the most highly regarded works of science fiction (clockwise from top left: Herbert's Dune, Asimov's Foundation series, Orwell's 1984, and LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven.
“World building” is represented in some of the most highly regarded works of science fiction (clockwise from top left: Herbert’s Dune, Asimov’s Foundation series, Orwell’s 1984, and LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven.

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.

Science fiction storytellers use ideas like time travel to provide insight into how we might create new and better futures. (Image: David Revoy/Blender Foundation - CC BY 3.0)
Science fiction storytellers use ideas like time travel to provide insight into how we might create new and better futures. (Image: David Revoy/Blender Foundation – CC BY 3.0)

 

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.

78a8ju6xSwy96y1y6sZy_RTW-Illustration
Story Cover: Mind of the Future by Brent Drake. Brent Drake is an illustrator and entrepreneur residing in Austin, TX. He likes the St. Louis Cardinals. A lot. Twitter: @brent_drake

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

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Only a creator culture can save us

We’re trying to rebuild a failed consumer culture. We need to make a new creator culture instead.

Published in Culture – A Reader for Writers, editor John Mauk, Oxford University Press.

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.

Are we already living in the technological singularity?

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.”

Read more @ The Guardian

The Great Escape

Digital technology allows us to lose ourselves in ever more immersive fantasy worlds. But what are we fleeing from?

The only people who hate escapism are jailers, said the essayist and Narnia author C S Lewis. A generation later, the fantasy writer Michael Moorcock revised the quip: jailers love escapism — it’s escape they can’t stand. Today, in the early years of the 21st century, escapism — the act of withdrawing from the pressures of the real world into fantasy worlds — has taken on a scale and scope quite beyond anything Lewis might have envisioned.

I am a writer and critic of fantasy, and for most of my life I have been an escapist. Born in 1977, the year in which Star Wars brought cinematic escapism to new heights, I have seen TV screens grow from blurry analogue boxes to high-definition wide-screens the size of walls. I played my first video game on a rubber-keyed Sinclair ZX Spectrum and have followed the upgrade path through Mega Drive, PlayStation, Xbox and high-powered gaming PCs that lodged supercomputers inside households across the developed world. I have watched the symbolic language of fantasy — of dragons, androids, magic rings, warp drives, haunted houses, robot uprisings, zombie armageddons and the rest — shift from the guilty pleasure of geeks and outcasts to become the diet of mainstream culture.

Read more @ Aeon Magazine

Harlan Ellison : The Interview

Originally published in The Guardian.

When Damien Walter tweeted he’d ‘literally kill’ to interview the multiple award-winning author Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman replied ‘What if the person you had to kill was … Harlan Ellison?’ Here Ellison talks about running away from home, the rights and wrongs of paying to read books and how his job on this planet is annoying people.

DW: Harlan, first of all, can you confirm that you are indeed the great Harlan Ellison?

HE: For all my sins – and I assure you, the only thing that has ever held me back from God-like greatness is my humility – I am the Harlan Ellison, the only one. I’m in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, right between Ellis Island and Ralph Ellison.

DW: Are you the writer of over 1,000 stories, novellas, screenplays, teleplays and essays?

HE: Yeah, it’s probably more like 1,800 now. I find that I have continued to write. I had 10 books last year, and that at my age I think is pretty good. While I always aspired to be Alexandre Dumas, if I reach the level of – I don’t know, Donald Westlake – I’ll be more than happy.

DW: You must have seen and done as much in speculative fiction as anyone, so can you tell us just what is speculative fiction?

HE: I will give you the only answer that there is. It is the game of “what if?”. You take that which is known, and you extrapolate – and you keep it within the bounds of logic, otherwise it becomes fantasy – and you say, “Well, what if?”. That’s what speculative fiction is, and at its very best, it is classic literature, on a level with Moby Dick and Colette and Edgar Allan Poe.

DW: So it’s definitely not fantasy.

HE: Fantasy is a separate genre, and it allows you to go beyond the bounds of that which is acceptable, where all of a sudden people can fly, or the Loch Ness Monster does not have a scientific rationale, but is a mythic creature. It is in the grand tradition of the oldest forms of writing we know, all the way back to Gilgamesh, the very first fiction we know, and the gods. Fantasy is a noble endeavour. Science fiction is a contemporary subset that goes all the way back to Lucian of Samosata, and Verne and Wells, and Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

DW: It seems to be everywhere, with video games, massive movie franchises and millions of people going to conventions. So why is it so popular now?

HE: Well, we live in a technological age. Time has passed, and we have stepped over the ruins of our own societies, and our own civilisations, and we come now to the fruition of those things about which the human race has dreamed. We have flight and we have electronic assistants. The entertainment media – which are always very timorous and step very carefully out of fear and loathing – don’t know what they’re doing so much. So they go back, and they are catching up on the kind of science fiction – and they call it, in that ugly, ugly phrase, “sci-fi,” which those who have worked in speculative fiction despise, it’s like calling a woman a “broad” – they are catching up on ideas that were covered with hoarfrost 60 years ago. That’s why you have an overabundance of zombies and walking dead, and world war and asteroids from space. They have not yet tackled any of the truly interesting discussions of humanity that are treated in speculative fiction. But they are a break from standard 19th, early 20th-century fiction, and so they seem fresh to an audience that is essentially ignorant.

DW: You famously described sci-fi fandom as an “extended family of wimps, twinks, flakes and oddballs.” But don’t the geeks kind of run the world now?

HE: I am a steadfastly 20th-century guy. I’ve always been pathologically au courant. Even today I can tell you the length of Justin Bieber’s hair. But it has now reduced society to such a trivial, crippled form, that it is beyond my notice. I look at things like Twitter and Facebook, and “reality TV” – which is one of the great frauds of our time, an oxymoron like “giant shrimp” – and I look at it all, and I say, these people do not really know what the good life is. I look at the parched lives that so many people live, the desperation that underlies their every action, and I say, this has all been brought about by the electronic media. And I do not envy them. I do not wish to partake of it, and I am steadfastly in the 20th century. I do not own a handheld device. Mine is an old dial-up laptop computer, which I barely can use – barely. I still write on a manual typewriter. Not even an electronic typewriter, but a manual. My books keep coming out. I have over 100 books published now, and I’ve reached as close to posterity as a poor broken vessel such as I am entitled to reach.

DW: I think I know what you’re going to say as the answer to this question, but I want to ask you anyway. Because a lot of writers today – and I’m thinking of people like Cory Doctorow, and Neil Gaiman, who set up this interview for us – say that they can give their work away for free, and they can still sell it. Do you think there’s any chance that they’re right?

HE: I think without question they are wrong. I don’t know that Neil has ever said that. I think I’ve known Neil so many years, that I think I’ve whipped him, flayed him, and browbeaten him enough that he knows that he gives nothing away for nothing. But he has a kind heart, and so people can touch him, and they will ask him to do something for nothing because, “Well, we don’t have the money.” They have the money to buy drugs, they have money to go to the movies, they have money to buy themselves new shoes, but they don’t have the money to pay the writer. Cory Doctorow’s philosophy I find egregious. Egregious in the extreme. Stephen King tried to give things away for free on the web, and was screwed. I think any writer who gives away his work demeans himself, demeans the craft, demeans the art, and demeans the buyer. It is not only caveat emptor, it is caveat lector. I don’t mean to be crude when I say this, but I won’t take a piss unless I’m paid properly.

DW: [Laughter] What I wanted to talk to you about – and it was kind of the reason for the interview, the starting point – was All The Lies That Are My Life.

HE: Ah, All The Lies That Are My Life. One of my great apologias for being the idiot I am. It was based upon – well, there are two legs upon which it stands. One of them is the relationship that I have had with another writer all my life, who was at one time a very, very close friend of mine, who I discovered later was less a good friend than I had thought, and who had held me in some contempt. And then the relationship between Edgar Allan Poe and Griswold, who became his bibliographer after he died, and kept Poe a minor figure in literature for over a hundred years. This was a sort of getting even story where a famous writer talks about another famous writer he knew.

DW: You’ve said that writing is the hardest work of all, harder than being a truck driver. Harder than being in the army?

HE: Well, being in the army is like being in prison. You are not your own person. You are constrained 24/7. You are told what to do. They keep you in your place. You are not allowed to have an awful lot of self-respect, or pride of place, or pride of self. And I’ve been in jail, and I’ve been in hospitals, and I’ve been in the army. They constrict me. They’re a straitjacket. I am a mad thing, and wildness asserts itself. I’m like your average dopey teenager, who lies down in the middle of traffic just to see what it feels like to have a car run over you. I’m blessed. I’m blessed. I’m less than a month shy of the age 79. By all rights – I ran away from home when I was 13, not because I was being abused, just because I couldn’t stand it any more, and I had to get out on my own. I was on the road at age 13, and I should have bought the farm at age 14, duelling with Richelieu’s guards on the parapets, and instead I have lived to this ripe old age.

DW: OK then, I want to ask you a question about one of the stories that seems to haunt people the most, Demon with a Glass Hand.

HE: That’s just been picked up again to be remade as a movie, as a motion picture. But it’s remarkable that something that’s more than 30 years old has had this kind of life. People say, “Well, Ellison is always suing everybody.” Well, I never sue anybody unless they pick up one of my ideas from 40 years ago and do a bad job of it in a movie. Then I say, “Well, if you used me as the source, by God get your hand out of my pocket. Pay me.” I’ve won every lawsuit that I’ve ever gotten into, except last year, there was a movie came out that was pretty close to my famous story ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman, the one that’s one of the 10 most reprinted stories in the English language, and I started to sue, and then I went and saw the movie, and it was so bad – so bad – I withdrew the case saying, no, let this movie fall into complete obscurity, and the universe forget it, and don’t attach my name to it, the way they did The Terminator, which is a good film.

DW: In many of your stories there is the oppressor or the bully, who wants to have their way with humanity, with whoever is in the story. The worst of these, I think for me, is I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, which is a story of –

HE: Oh, yes, God. God is a shit.

DW: Yeah. It’s a story you wrote in a single night. I read it in my teens in a hallucinatory state over the course of a single night. Is there something about – you have to be in this state to find that oppressive being out there? You have to find it in the night?

HE: Well, I wrote another story – I’m not steering away from the question, I’m answering it in an ancillary way, but I’ll get right back to it – I wrote a whole book of stories called Deathbird Stories, which are retellings in a modern way of the godlike myths. And one of the short stories that I did, that is in the Best American Short Stories, is called The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore, and it is in a way my atheist tract. I’m a stiff-necked Jewish atheist, and I, like Mark Twain, do not believe that there is a great bearded avuncular spirit up there watching us carefully to see whether we masturbate or not. He’s got better things to do creating star systems than to worry about whether we do Feng Shui with the furniture.

When I talk about God, I talk about him not believing in him. If there were a God, and you believed in him, and then instead of saying something ridiculous like, well, God has these mysterious ways, we are not meant to know what it is he’s doing, or she’s doing, or it’s doing, I say, in defiance of Albert Einstein, yes, the universe does shoot craps – God does shoot craps with the universe. One day you’ll win £200m in the lottery and the next day you’ll get colon cancer. So when I wrote I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, I put God in the form of a master computer, AM – cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am – and had him preserve these half a dozen human beings, after having destroyed the world, to keep them down there and torment them forever, for having created him but giving him no place to go. And I believe – much to the annoyance of my various fervid aficionados – they wish I had more faith.

I say, I have faith in the human spirit, that something noble enough to have created Gaudí’s cathedral in Barcelona is noble enough not to have to go to war over sheep in the Falklands. That’s what I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream says. In fact I did a video game called I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, and I created it so you could not win it. The only way in which you could “win” was to play it nobly. The more nobly you played it, the closer to succeeding you would come, but you could not actually beat it. And that annoyed the hell out of people too.

[Laughter]

HE: I spend a lot of time annoying people. That’s my job on this planet.

DW: That’s a good job to have. You’ve always been a political writer and politically active as well. You famously marched from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King.

HE: Yup.

DW: Why don’t speculative fiction writers today cause more trouble?

HE: Ah, kiddo, I wish I could give you an answer. I sigh woefully, [sighs], because that’s what writers are supposed to do, afflict the contented. But most of them don’t. Most of them just want to tell a story, and I guess that’s a noble endeavour in and of itself, to tell a story. Storytellers can be teachers, like Aristotle, or they can just be storytellers like – I don’t know, who’s writing the trash these days? I don’t know who’s writing trash over there where you are, but whoever it is, you pick the name, put it in for me.

DW: When you were starting out, and you’d run away from home, and then you were in the army for a short while, and you were writing through the night to get all of this stuff done, did you expect, did you dream, of becoming as famous and as successful as you have as a writer?

HE: Absolutely. At one point in my career – I don’t think I was married at the time. I’ve been married to my wife for 27 years, and God knows how she’s been able to stand it. But she’s my fifth wife. At one point I had a T-shirt that said, “Not tonight dear, I’m on a deadline.” And you stop and think how many movies you didn’t go and see, how many parties you didn’t attend, how many concerts you didn’t get to hear, because you were working. And I’ve worked endlessly through my entire life. I’ve never been a sluggard, and yet I’ve never felt that I’ve done one twentieth of what I was capable of doing.
And when I stopped at some point – and I’ve done this on numerous occasions – and said, “Why? Why am I doing it?” I am reminded of the quote from Heinrich von Kleist, who said, “I don’t stop writing, because I cannot.” And it is a compulsion. It’s like breathing. It’s systole and diastole. I just go in and out, and I do it. I do it because it is part of what I do. But the reason I do it is because I want it to last. I live in vain hope that one day, 50 years from now, or 100 years from now, when taking down Dumas, or Chaucer, or Colette, or somebody really worth reading, they say, oh, let’s try another Ellison, and they take down Angry Candy or All the Lies That Are My Life, and they say, he did know how to write. He knew how to put words together. He knew how to transform the human condition into translatable prose that could draw a smile or a tear. And that’s hoping for fame. That’s hoping for longevity. That’s hoping for reality. It’s the same thing that drove Magellan and drove Julius Caesar and drove Imhotep. It’s the hoping that you last beyond the shell.

DW: Harlan, I have no doubt that you will. No doubt.

HE: You are enormously kind and gracious. Just for the record, I never, ever threw anybody down an elevator shaft.

DW: [Laughter] I didn’t want to ask you that question, because I’m sure you always get asked that, Harlan. Everyone always seems to ask you, have you killed anybody, did they survive?

HE: Well, that’s a different question. That’s a different question. I’ve never thrown anybody down an escalator shaft, and I did not grab Connie Willis’s breast.

DW: I didn’t want to ask you that question either.

HE: Oh, that just infuriates me. That just infuriates me.

DW: Do you want to – do you have anything you want to say about it?

HE: About Connie Willis? I think she’s a brilliant writer.

• Harlan Ellison’s graphic novel 7 Against Chaos launches from DC in July. Volumes three and four of his unproduced television scripts, Brain Movies, are available at harlanbooks.com

• No one was killed in the making of this interview

Star

First published in Universe #1

Star

by Damien Walter

Heinrich always volunteers for class activities. The last two study periods of Friday afternoon are put aside for a visit from a policeman. The students ask him why he does not wear a uniform. His answer makes everyone laugh. Criminals, he says, do not wear uniforms. The policeman asks for volunteers.

The icon is pinned to Heinrich’s shirt. The policeman explains that criminals can look like anyone. But they must use icons to recognise their own kind. The students must be vigilant for all icons, even if they do not know what they mean. The policeman makes the class play a game. Heinrich refuses to take his icon off, however loudly the other boys and girls shout at him.

Heinrich makes the icon late on Sunday evening. Heinrich’s family never pray at home, but attend church every Saturday morning. In the afternoon Heinrich and his younger brother attend cram classes in preparation for their Standard Assessment Tests, whilst his parents attend their monthly interview with the local panel of the Neighborhood Security Association. On Sunday morning Heinrich marches with his Youth Scout unit through Hyde Park to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Capitulation Day. In the afternoon Heinrich’s extended family share a roast dinner, before gathering around the television to watch the official celebrations until the state channel closes an hour before midnight. Alone in his room, Heinrich draws the icon on paper first, to be sure he has remembered it correctly.

On Monday morning Heinrich carries his school blazer over one arm, so that his mother will not see. The night before he cut the icon from the yellow cloth of his physical training t-shirt, and stitched it into place with needle and thread from his mother’s sewing box. It contrasts brightly with the charcoal grey blazer. At the school gate Heinrich pulls the blazer on over his shoulders.

The younger children notice him first. Heinrich sits on a wall, so that everyone can see. They come forward in groups and ask Heinrich; what is he doing? Does he have permission? Will he get in trouble? Groups of older girls point and laugh at the boy making a spectacle of himself. Before first bell, a squad of older boys surround Heinrich. They jostle and shoulder barge him as he walks to class. One is the son of a high-ranking officer. He stands in Heinrich’s way and then spits in his face. Heinrich walks around him.

After refusing to remove the icon from his blazer, Heinrich is escorted to the office of the Head Teacher. Waiting with the Head Teacher is the policeman with no uniform. It is explained that last week’s exercise is over. Heinrich agrees that he will not wear the icon again. The policeman shakes his hand before he leaves.

Heinrich’s mother is frantic and this makes his father all the more angry. Heinrich retreats to his room as soon as he has calmed them. After their parents are sleeping, Heinrich’s brother, who knows him better, comes to his room and begs him not to continue. Heinrich tells him to go away.

One week later Heinrich draws the icon on his face with a permanent marker pen, watching the lines reversed in the mirror of the boy’s toilet. People stare as Heinrich walks through the playground. He is completely calm when he spits into the face of the high-ranking officer’s son.

The cuts and bruises on Heinrich’s body throb as he waits outside his father’s study. The policeman without a uniform speaks to Heinrich’s father for a long time. Afterwards Heinrich’s father is terrified and weak. He drags Heinrich to the kitchen and scrubs his face with near boiling water and detergent until Heinrich’s skin screams red and livid. Heinrich is locked in the empty spare room and given no comforts more than his health demands.

Heinrich is moved to a new school, but rumours follow and he is shunned by students and teachers alike. He sits alone in class and spends recess periods alone in a study room. At home Heinrich’s brother will no longer speak to him, and his parents do not know what to say to their son.

A teacher of mathematics takes pity on Heinrich and trusts the boy with minor responsibilities in an attempt to begin re-socialisation. Heinrich repays the teacher’s trust by producing photocopied batches of the icon. After a month he has enough for every student in the school. He hands them out on a Wednesday morning, thanking every one of his peers who accept the gift. Hundreds of students are decorated with the icon before Heinrich is caught.

Two uniformed police officers collect Heinrich directly from the school. He is held in a detention cell overnight then taken before the court. The judge, dressed in full military uniform, reviews the case notes in silence then passes sentence. There is no one to explain to Heinrich what is happening. He wants to see his parents, but the court session is closed.

Heinrich is marched down into the basement of the court through a series of security gates. Heinrich is strip-searched and his head is shaved to begin his processing. In a medical bay he is strapped to a padded chair by orderlies. A doctor enters followed by an official. The doctor methodically prepares a hypodermic needle.

Heinrich is very scared.

Heinrich squeezes his eyes closed tight as the doctor inserts the needle into his neck. When he opens them again the doctor is holding a scanner beside his neck. The official notes the details of Heinrich’s implanted serial number.

The small cell has no window and Heinrich does not know where the train is taking him. When the hatch in the cell door slides open he expects to be given food, but instead a face stares at him. He recognises the eyes of the policeman with no uniform.

‘You must learn your true name.’ The policeman says. ‘There are many to choose from.’

Through the hatch the policeman pushes a slim book, bound in black. The icon is embossed in silver on the cover. Heinrich turns the pages. One side of every page is in an alphabet he has never seen before, the other in the language they have taught him to speak. The policeman is right, there are many true names to chose from.

‘Read it as many times as your journey allows. I will take it away before they find it. There are more of us every day. You must learn to see the truth without icons. Understand?’

Heinrich nods. The hatch is closed. He begins to read.

7 signs you are ready to self-publish (a checklist)

For my work at The Guardian I spend a lot of time looking at new books, and I’ve gone out of my way to look at new books by indie published writers. And my conclusion has been that the vast majority of independently published writers aren’t ready. The books aren’t ready and their authors aren’t ready either in most cases. Nonetheless indie publishing is now an established route in to professional writing for those who are ready. So how do writers know when they are ready?

This is an attempt to lay out some criteria that might help writers of all kinds make that decision. It’s hard to objectively assess our own progress. The ego is constantly whispering, ‘of course we’re ready’, and part of the problem with not being ready is that you don’t yet have the tools to even know you are not ready! Of course there is very little true objectivity in the world of books, and these criteria are effected by my own subjective experience. But it is an experience that has spent a lot of time looking at indie published books, and the books I have spotted that do succeed do meet many if not all of these criteria.

It’s worth noting that no measure of this kind can deal with outliers. The writer who never wrote a word before writing that bestseller. The untrained talent that pens a literary masterpiece. It’s also worth noting that many outlier stories are marketing hype, they provide a hook story that helps sell the book, when you dig you find the author has been around for twenty years in various guises. And of course, there is nothing your ego likes to glom on to more than outlier examples of success. It loves to convince you that you can succeed without doing the work. If you’re betting on being an outlier these criteria won’t help, and I wish you good luck.

Finally, you might wonder how many of these criteria you should fulfil. I’d suggest if you fulfil even one, you’re in the right place to try and consciously go after three more. If you manage four, there’s a good chance you are ready to indie publish. All seven is likely to help your chances even more.

1. Do you have a great High Concept?
It’s all too easy to say a book like The Da Vinci Code is badly written. There are different levels of writing, and at the conceptual level Dan Brown’s mega-seller is brilliantly written. It’s the same kind of writing that makes a good ad campaign. Most of the effort has gone in to the concept. A great concept like The DaVinci Code sells itself from the title onwards. Another recent example might be Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. Note that these concepts are great because they capture a zeitgeist, an idea which is in many peoples minds but the author is first to articulate. Copying a successful concept is not a high concept.

2. Have you practiced for 10,000 hours?
Malcolm Gladwell identifies 10,000 hours as the length of time it takes to achieve mastery in any discipline. It’s the amount of time you spend in school to age 16. It’s the amount of time The Beatles spent playing live gigs before they succeeded as recording artists. And it should be the amount of time you have spent writing before you publish your work. If you treat writing like a part-time job, and write for 20 hours a week, it will take you about 10 years to reach mastery. In my experience that’s about how long it takes most serious writers to go from greenhorn to seasoned pro. Some people start publishing before the 10,000 hour mark, but they often end up hiding their early work later in their career.

3. Have you subjected your work to serious criticism?
Would you launch a commercial product without testing it? If you do you massively increase your chances of failure. Find a source of serious criticism for your writing. Not your family, unless you’re certain they will give you honest feedback. Form a critique group of writers around your level, you can all grow together. This process will hurt. It’s supposed to hurt. Your ego will take a pummelling. All the excuses it makes on your behalf get stripped away, and you’re left with only the work itself. All serious artists seek out serious criticism and learn from it. If this idea seems abhorrent then you’re still learning to separate your self from your work.

4. Are you well read in your genre (and preferably beyond)?
Genres are just traditions in writing. You can think of any genre, from Epic Fantasy to Literary Fiction, as a path of progress through the forking possibilities of prose fiction. Would you honestly expect to become a blues musician without listening to a lot of blues? And do you think a great musician becomes great by only listening to blues? To excel in any art you have to absolutely immerse yourself in it. You can become a functional artist by learning one tradition in your art form. You take the step towards greatness when you learn multiple traditions and begin to interweave them. Look at the career of an artist like Picasso, who deliberately learned new traditions every few years, and with each step made his own art exponentially greater. If you want to write, get reading.

5. Do you have a platform?
Whether it’s your own chat show on prime time TV, or a few dozen followers on Twitter, having a platform from which you speak is essential for writers. Publishers can provide a platform, that’s the major service they provide to writers in fact. Indie authors must build their own. You might have 150,000 Twitter followers, but are they actually interested in your writing, or just the other 150,000 wannabe writers who also have 150,00 Twitter followers? Social media is a great tool for writers, it’s also a deceptive echo chamber that tells you what you want to hear. A few dozen people who really dig your work might be a much better starting point. The point is, know what your platform is and work with it, don’t delude yourself.

6. Are you willing to invest in your book?
Publishers provide cash investment in your book, primarily by buying the services of skilled professionals such as editors, designers and marketing folk. Perhaps you have those skills, in which case can you take enough time out of your day job to spend hours editing your book? And days or weeks of time marketing it? Do you have the money to invest in hiring professionals to do it for you and are you willing to risk it on your own product? Without that professional investment, which ultimately comes down to the investment of hard cash, your book is very unlikely to appear professional. Yes, your book might succeed despite its amateurish presentation, but ask yourself, if you aren’t willing to invest in this book then why are you putting it out in to the world?

7. Are you ready?
Seriously, in the end it comes down to asking yourself this question. Because it’s important to be ready. Your book already represents a major investment of time. Waiting another year or two or more, writing another draft or three or four, training for another 1000 hours, saving the capital to employ an editor. All of these things are the right choice for most writers, in a climate where 99% of indie authors are publishing without being ready. The most expensive investments are the ones that have no return. Unless you are truly certain in your own mind that you are ready, wait. Take more time to develop. You really won’t regret it.

And if you really can’t wait? If you don’t meet any of these seven criteria but want to leap in to the white waters of indie publishing anyway, just for the hell of it? Well then good luck to you, and enjoy the ride, wherever it takes you.

Who is the wisest Sci-Fi & Fantasy author?

Over on Twitter and Facebook I asked folk to tell me which SF author they would turn to for life advice, for words of wisdom and guidance through the labyrinth of life. And I got quite a response!

[View the story “Wisest of the wise in SF & Fantasy” on Storify]

Popular choices include Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, Jeff Vandermeer, China Mieville, Kurt Vonnegut, Harlan Ellison, Philip K Dick and Douglas Adams. Is it just coincidence that these are also some of our most enduring writers?

It makes me wonder, beyond a good story, great characters, cool ideas and amazing worlds to explore, is what we really value in our writers is the wise guidance they offer us through life?

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A Game of Egos

A Dance with Dragons
A Dance with Dragons (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Originally published on guardianbooks.co.uk

A wealthy dynasty brought to its knees by popular revolt, the highest in the land caught in a web of corruption, and at the heart of it all a powerful woman with remarkable hair. If you see the Murdoch clan, Chipping Norton set and Rebekah Brooks in these archetypes then you have clearly been spending too long watching the news. If on the other hand you recognise the Targaryen kings, Small Council and Cersei Lannister then I accuse you of reading A Dance with Dragons, the fifth volume in George RR Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire saga. (Now perhaps better known as A Game of Thrones for the HBO TV adaptation from the original books.)

It is rare indeed for a fantasy novel to receive either the attention or thecritical acclaim heaped upon A Dance with Dragons. Among all literary genres, epic fantasy is surely the most widely reviled and ignored. And it can be hard to identify the genre’s best and most original works when they are surrounded on the shelves by hundreds of third-rate knock-offs.

But in the hands of authors who understand their potential, the secondary worlds of fantasy provide a lens that can bring to sharp focus truths that the chaos of modern life obscures. JRR Tolkien crafted a mythology for the modern world from ancient teutonic sources, a mythology that expressed many people’s deep fears about industrialisation and world war. Mervyn Peake created a dark and painfully accurate reflection of the oppressive British class system in Gormenghast. And China Miéville transfigured Dickensian London and showed the daily exploitation of the poor and vulnerable that still powers the modern city in Perdido Street Station and his Bas-Lag novels.

George RR Martin also draws on historical sources to build his fantasy world. Westeros bears a startling resemblance to England in the period of the Wars of the Roses. One throne unifies the land but great houses fight over who will sit upon it. With no true king the land is beset with corrupt, money-grubbing lords whose only interest is their own prestige. Two loose alliances of power pit a poor but honourable North against a rich and cunning South. And the small folk must suffer through it all, regardless of which side wins. Many things change over the course of five centuries, but not politics it seems.

But if Martin had only transposed a historical and political context to a fantasy world his books would never have achieved such staggering popularity. Their author’s real strength is his compendious understanding of the human stories driving the grand political narrative. There does not seem to be a single living soul in the land of Westeros that Martin does not have insight into, from the highest king to the lowest petty thief. Martin does not compartmentalise evil on one side of the map and good on the other. It is a world of high stakes, where the winners prosper and the losers are mercilessly ground under heel. Against this tapestry every one of Martin’s characters is forced to chose between their love for those close to them and the greater interests of honour, duty and the realm. More often than not, those who make the noble choice pay with their lives.

Beheading, dismemberment and being roasted alive have, perhaps fortunately, become less common punishments for the losers in our modern games of ego. And while the throne itself is no longer up for grabs, the same human dramas still play out every day between those who vie for power in the elite spheres of business, politics and the media. The scandal engulfing News International is just the latest example of those archetypal dramas bubbling up in to public view.

Take Rupert and son James. What words pass between the reigning monarch and the heir apparent in private we can only guess. We might think of Odysseus and Telemachus. Too noble perhaps? Hamlet and his ghostly father then? Closer. But the portrait of a father manipulating a son that George RR Martin paints between Tywin and Jaime Lannister seems closest of all to me.

A Game of Thrones has captured the imaginations of millions for the same reason the archetypal dramas of Homer, Sophocles or Shakespeare have lasted for millennia. They show us the conflict between self-sacrifice and self-interest, between the human spirit and the human ego, between good and evil. And when we look up from the page we recognise those same conflicts in the world around us and in ourselves.

 

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The answer to a riddle

Last year I wrote a short story called A Vast Bit of Hod, which I published to my blog here. As I mentioned at the time, the story is also a riddle. I have congratulated half a dozen people who emailed me the answer. This evening James Everington tweeted me to ask:

btw, when are you going to post the ‘answer’ to the “Vast Bit of Hod” story? It’s been bugging me ever since (in a good way)

Which I have been meaning to do for sometime. So.

Harold, the central character in A Vast Bit of Hod, is completing a crossword when we meet him, behind the counter in the weird antique / collectibles store where the story takes place. The crossword clue is the title of the story. If you aren’t good at anagrams, here is an anagram server to help you. We’ll come back to what the anagram is momentarily.

A Vast Bit of Hod began life when my friend Dana, fellow Clarion writers’ workshop graduate, sent out an email challenge to write a story about a shop that sells lives. Because I’m working on novel length things, I hadn’t written a short story for a time, but this challenge brought an idea to mind that I couldn’t resist. Our Clarion tutor Neil Gaiman says that novels are like a long journey, whereas short stories are like seeing a tree and deciding to climb up it. So I decided to climb this tree.

For three years now I have been studying Buddhism. I enjoy it from an intellectual perspective, and I’ve found the insight meditation techniques it teaches tremendously helpful. Two linked ideas in Buddhism are karma and reincarnation. These are both hard ideas to grasp from a rational perspective. There is no evidence of any mechanism in nature to make ‘what goes around come around’, and very few people I know believe they will come back to life as a goat, or even an Emperor. But as myths they point towards the idea that our behaviour defines our life, an idea I do believe.

So in my shop customers enter to select the new lives which they will incarnate within after when they are reborn. They deposit their old lives in the form of an object which they hand to the shop keeper, and select a new object which symbolises their new life. I’m afraid I’m not very complimentary about the lives many of us choose. In particular I heap a little scorn on the fantasy lives we escape in to, while our actual lives decay around us. For a writer of fantasy, I’m oddly ambivalent about the role of fantasy in our lives.

A Vast Bit of Hod is an anagram for (excluding the ‘of’) Bodhisattva. This is the Buddhist term for, depending on your translation, either humans well on the path to enlightenment, or those who are enlightened but choose to live in the world and help others reach enlightenment. Harold is a little bit of both.  He isn’t exactly kind to Anthony, but he does what needs to be done to help the young man move from one life to the next. At the end of the story, Harold is left holding a simple wooden bowl, the traditional begging bowl that is the only possession of Buddhist monks who have renounced all worldly things. Harold has another lifetime or two of suffering before he is ready for nirvana. But first he fancies another biscuit…

You can read A Vast Bit of Hod here.

The New Aesthetic and I

Every creative is always looking for a new aestehtic. And now there really is a New Aesthetic.

I will date the New Aesthetic to Bruce Sterling’s essay on the subject, in response to the SXSW panel chaired by James Bridle. But I’ll date my personal interest to the AlterFutures talk I gave recently, where it came up as a subject of conversation.

A better question might be ‘What will the New Aesthetic be when it stops being interesting?’

The most interesting period in a new aesthetic is its molten youth, when it picks up random debris from the surrounding landscape and no one can say for sure what form it will solidify in to or what parts of human society will be destroyed by its flow. So asking ‘What is the New Aesthetic?’ is like trying to fast forward through the big budget disaster movie. A better question might be ‘What will the New Aesthetic be when it stops being interesting?’

The New Aesthetic has been given a name by a group of London based design and creative types, and maybe it’s taking off because its just about loose enough to encompass one of those ideas that is emerging among many creative people; who given the social conditioning of creativity still at large in the early 21st C, are likely all of a similar age and social class; 20 to 30 somethings with the educational privilege to understand both contemporary culture and the technology driving it all.

The visible tropes of the New Aesthetic are: glitches and corruption artefacts in digital objects, render ghosts, satellite views, retro 80’s graphics. If you look through a tumblr of New Aesthetic imagery thats kind of what you will see. But it tells you nothing, so forget it.

Here’s a better way to think about it. The early 21st C has spawned an entire class of ‘cultural creatives’. Maybe 10-15% of the population of modern post-industrial nations like the UK are employed creating text, imagery, video, animation, sound, for the entertainment and advertising industries, and sometimes even as art. Expand your definition of creative to comfortably accommodate coders and some other knowledge worker types, and it all tallies up to a lot of people creating a lot of stuff every moment of every day. Start thinking about user generated content and you can increase the amount of stuff by factors of ten.

You could call the New Aesthetic the ‘Apple Mac’ Aesthetic

But. Actually what all of these people are doing, now, is using a computer. You could call the New Aesthetic the ‘Apple Mac’ Aesthetic, as that’s the computer of choice for most of these acts of creation. Images are made in Photoshop and Illustrator. Video is edited in Final Cut Pro. Buildings are rendered in Autodesk. Books are written in Scrivener. And so on. To paraphrase McLuhan “the hardware / software is the message” because while you can imitate as many different styles as you like in your digital arena of choice, ultimately they all end up interrelated by the architecture of the technology itself.

Horizon, one of my early published SF stories, is arguably a New Aesthetic story.

Every item of clothing in TopShop, whatever fashion style it is aping, has more in common with every other item because they are all products of the same digital creation / automated manufacture process. The cities of Britain are increasingly just agglomerated masses of Autodesk wireframes constructed from the most economically profitable prefabricated building blocks. Films and television are driven by innovations in CGI, and the superhero franchise reigns supreme because once you have all the digital assets in place, there is no reason not to make the Nth Spiderman movie.

I’ve strayed too far in to negative critique here, some of the outcomes of all this are actually quite beautiful I imagine. And also, this isn’t new. It’s been emerging for a generation. And it’s not what the New Aesthetic is or will be. Think of the New Aesthetic as the totality of our response to this as creators, and we might be getting closer.

Imagine the world’s creative community as a huge colony of meerkats, hanging out on the digital savannah, every single one of us wired and responding to the same stream of information via Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr. If you’re one of us, don’t ever fool yourself in to thinking you’ve found an idea first. Even in the old days of telephone calls and television, no one ever had an idea without a few thousand other people having it as well. If you got lucky, you were the person in the right place and time to capitalise on the idea. Ideas are built from the repurposed components of other ideas. Creativity is re-combinatorial. Curation is the core creative act of all artists, even if only of their own work. And now with social media the speed of viral idea transmission has topped out the acceleration graph. At any given time hundreds of thousands of people are having the same idea, built from the same blog posts and tweets and videos and e-books. And the New Aestehtic is one of these ideas, and it is the aesthetic that arises from understanding that this is how ideas are now.

And that’s another demand of the New Aesthetic worth considering. The constant demand to let go of I.

Which is a challenge. Because I can’t own the idea. And neither can you. Or at least you’ll need an unspeakably monstrous ego to take ownership of something like the New Aesthetic in today’s networked world. And that’s another demand of the New Aesthetic worth considering. The constant demand to let go of I. Because our I can’t grasp the New Aesthetic. It’s a thing of We. A thing of the network.

There are 7431 CCTV cameras in London. I would like to put forward their combined video output over any given 24 hour period as a work of art in the New Aesthetic. Firstly, there is no I present for any of the images being recorded. They are electrical impulses recorded as 1’s and 0’s in magnetic storage. We might sit and watch the footage back in various combinations. We could edit it in to a two hour feature presentation. But that would be at best an introduction to the 178,331 hours of footage that is the complete text. It’s humanly possible to watch all the footage, but would take – as previously mentioned – a monstrous act of ego. And I could hardly claim to be the creator of this artwork. As for any meaning the footage might reveal, its far beyond the the reach of any single I to ascertain it.

The world, the universe, confronts us every day with a vast complexity that we can not hope to understand. One purpose of mediated objects is to give us an edited and abbreviated version of that complexity which our very limited perceptions can comfortably grasp. Films and books that tell limited stories which we can understand. Fashion that makes the world coherent enough that we can adopt a role within it. Visual imagery with a finite grammar that remains somewhat familiar. The New Aesthetic are the mediated objects which in one way or another return us to the actual complexity of reality. As such they become once again frustratingly impossible to grasp through the limited construct of I.

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5 indispensable guides for fiction writers

Many people say writing can’t be taught. But it can certainly be learnt.

(I actually think it can be taught as well, or I would not teach it.)

When we’re young and full of beans we like to think we know it all. It’s hard to admit to yourself you don’t how to do something. But it’s the first and most important step in learning anything worth knowing. The idea that writing is a mystical skill which only comes to those with some unknown combination of genetics, education and / or the grace of a supreme creator is just another way of not admitting that you don’t know how to do it. If it can’t be learnt, well then you might as well just go right on not learning it, avoid all that hard work and continue just waiting for inspiration to strike instead.

Learning to write good fiction does take time. I would say  roughly five years, for someone with strong literacy and who already reads widely and deeply to begin with. But it can also take WAAAAAAAY longer than that. Without the right inputs, the outputs will always be rubbish. That input can be teaching. A good writing teacher can help you take quantum leaps forward in a few hours that might take years to stumble in to. It can also be one or more good writing guides. The right guides can help you master what Stephen King calls ‘The Writer’s Toolkit’, everything from basic grammar, paragraphs and sentence structure to character, narration, scene, plot and themes. For a novice, a good writing guide should take you from enjoying texts as a reader, to understanding their structure and the tools and techniques used to build them as a writer. That’s an important shift, and one that will save years of trial and error in the learning process.

While there is a law of diminishing returns with writing guides – the more of them you read the more you find the same information repeated – the good ones, as with those I have chosen below, always reveal the unique wisdom of their authors.

James Woods : How Fiction Works

This is the writing guide I would most like to see read by all writers of genre fiction who disdain ‘literature’. James Woods is one of the worlds best literary critics, and Professor of Literary Criticism at Harvard. Fine credentials, in this case backed up by a slim but erudite volume on How Fiction Works which I would rate as the single best book for writers trying to achieve depth and complexity in their fiction. The worst writing guides replace craft with market knowledge. They tell the writer what will sell, which often means discouraging them from subtlety or complexity because these aren’t always valued in commercial fiction. For instance, it’s often taken as gospel by genre writers that a text’s narrative point-of-view stick to one character per scene or chapter. Unfortunately while this makes life easier for weak readers, it also robs prose of one its great strengths, which is the ability to reflect the viewpoint of many characters even within the same sentence. Woods’ book has an excellent section on exactly this topic, as well as many other gems that will set any writer who spends more time considering the market than the craft back on the straight and narrow.

Ursula LeGuin : Steering the Craft

I love this book so much that I regularly re-read it for pleasure. Ursula Le Guin is one of those writers I trust absolutely to say only wise and decent things, so any advice she gives on writing is instantaneously at the top of my To Be Read list. Being a genuine and good person is an underestimated skill for writers. If you aren’t, why would anyone choose to spend hundreds of hours hanging around in your imagination? Le Guin doesn’t explicitly share ideas on how to become as wise as she in this book, instead she focuses on the often neglected fundamentals of good fiction – voice & rhythm – but it’s always possible some of the wholesomeness might rub off just through continued exposure. There are also excellent writing exercises which I have come back to again and again.

 

Samuel R Delany : About Writing

Have you ever had the experience of struggling for hours with a technical issue – maybe an intractable computer problem thats kept you up in to the wee hours – when in desperation you call in an expert who fixes it in about 18 seconds? That’s basically every other page of Delany’s hefty tome of collected writing advice. The small section on natural vs. dramatic narrative structure (Location, Action, Emotion…which most people present in reverse, thereby boring / confusing the reader) is worth the high price of this rare book in and of itself. But don’t let the fact that I’ve revealed it here stop you! There are many, many more wise words from one of the grandmasters of SF to glean from About Writing. Delany is also a vastly experienced writing teacher, so he spends some time talking about the very subtle differences that sepearte a successful student who blooms as a writer from the many others who, however technically accomplished they become, just never grow as artists.

Christopher Booker : The Seven Basic Plots

I have misgivings about recommending this, because it has almost as many crippling failings as it does magnificent strengths. Paramount among the failings are the hundreds of pages Booker – a social conservative – spends attempting to construct a revisionist history of modern literature as a victory of the Ego over the Self. However, Booker’s core argument that stories reflect our deepest psychological structures is a fascinating and also demonstrably true one. He isn’t the first to make it, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces has been much more significant in enlighteneting writers to this way of approaching story, but Booker does make an excellent critical analysis of and argument for his seven archetypal plot structures. If you want to write archetypal fiction in the heroic / high fantasy mould then this is an essential read, and will very likely change forever how you approach that task. Just ignore everything Booker has to say about modern literature and you will be fine!

Gail Sher : One Continuous Mistake

The relationship between meditation and writing is one that has been explored quite widely from the 60’s onwards, when the counter culture brought many aspects of Eastern spiritual practice to the west. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is probably the most famous, but Gail Sher brings a sensitivity to the subject that makes One Continuous Mistake quite unique in its Zen-like precision. Writing is a task which requires intense insight in to our inner life, and precise mastery of the balance between the waking logical mind and unconscious dreaming imagination. Gail Sher provides a compassionate guide on how to strengthen both and hence strengthen your writing, using meditation exercises, and also through the longer term practice of your craft and creativity. For anyone who has been overly schooled in the ‘write 2000 words a day, sell a book a year, meet the demands of the market’ way of writing, this book might be just what you need to overcome those ego driven desires and get back to your true self as a writer.

A few I didn’t include and why: Story by Robert McKee because it’s great for screenwriting but can misguide prose writers. On Writing by Stephen King because, come on, you’ve read this right? Are there any other hidden gems of writerly craft I have ngelected?