Tag Archives: Guardian

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Is there a higher purpose to science fiction?

I have been a reader of science fiction for my entire life, picking Arthur C Clarke of my mum’s book shelves as soon as I could read. For the last decade I’ve been a student of science fiction. I’ve read as widely and deeply in the genre as possible, often writing about what I have learned for my regular column in The Guardian. I’ve studied at the Clarion writer’s workshop, and had the good fortune to meet, interview and learn from many of science fiction’s greatest writers. I’ve become involved with the academic discussion of science fiction, at conferences including Weird Council, New Genre Army and The Weird. Today the wonderful team at The Ascender have published my longform essay Rebuilding the World, which brings together many of my thoughts to date on science fiction.

Extract from “Rebuilding the World”.

“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.”

At the heart of my essay for The Ascender is a question that I run in to again and again in considering science fiction. It’s a question that has sometimes brought me in to conflict with the wider science fiction community, even as it has helped me find many other like minds in the genre. Is there a higher purpose to science fiction?

We’re used to discussing science fiction in the the context of entertainment. And there’s nothing wrong with it fulfilling that role. But science fiction seems to offer something more. It represents a meeting point of the sciences, which are quickly transforming our world, and the arts, which seek to understand the world and our lives upon it. It is, as the esteemed literary critic John Clute so aptly argues, a planetary literature, that has emerged in step with our evolving understanding of our own world. But most importantly, in my view, science fiction represents a powerful re-emergence of the human imagination. That thing which Einstein called “more important than knowledge.”

In Rebuilding the World I try and think about what the higher purpose of science fiction is to me. I don’t think it is a question easily answered, but I do think it is a debate worth having. Does science fiction have a higher purpose? Or should it think of itself simply as an entertainment? If it is a planetary literature, what does it say about our planet? I’d love to know you thoughts.

Read the full essay at The Ascender.

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Does God have a place in science fiction?

If SF is grounded in hard scientific fact, and science is killing God, then what place does that leave for divine intervention in the pages of SF literature? When I tweeted this question, @MirabilisDave gave Arthur C Clarke’s famous dictum a twist, quipping that “Any sufficiently advanced technocrat will be indistinguishable from God.”

Read more @ Guardian books

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Fantasy must be a struggle with life

The more experienced I become as a writer, the more I realise I was closer to the soul of the art when I started out than after a decade and some lose change years studying its craft. Jonathan Franzen is a writer I discovered through The Corrections some time in the last year or so. In his recent lecture reprinted in The Guardian, Franzen talks about the relationship between fiction and autobiography, by way of Kafka.

Kafka’s work, which grows out of the night-time dreamworld in Kafka’s brain, is more autobiographical than any realistic retelling of his daytime experiences at the office or with his family or with a prostitute could have been. What is fiction, after all, if not a kind of purposeful dreaming? The writer works to create a dream that is vivid and has meaning, so that the reader can then vividly dream it and experience meaning. And work like Kafka’s, which seems to proceed directly from dream, is therefore an exceptionally pure form of autobiography. There is an important paradox here that I would like to stress: the greater the autobiographical content of a fiction writer’s work, the smaller its superficial resemblance to the writer’s actual life.

When I began writing I found myself tugged back and forth between two seemingly conflicted urges. One was to write about my life. My first half dozen published stories, all now hidden on my hard drive out of public sight, were very direct explorations of the tough bits of my own life. These stories, recounting for instance the exacting details of watching my mother die of cancer, felt uncomfortably like bludgeoning an emotional response from readers. (I have the same feeling even looking back at that last sentence) In literary terms I’d had the advantage of of a traumatic childhood. I had a lot of dramatic experience to draw upon and wasn’t afraid in my early twenties to beat the shit out of people with it. In fact I enjoyed the sensation and found some needed emotional resolution in it. But I couldn’t avoid the idea that this was an unfair way to treat the reader, and I could see that this was a limited kind of writing.

Fortunately, the other tug on my writing sensibilities was the urge to write fantasy. By which I mean everything from Tolkienesque high fantasy to Gibsonesque cyberpunkian sci-fi fantasy. It’s all fantasy to my way of thinking. These were the writers I’d grown up with, the imaginary worlds I had retreated in to as an escape from all that traumatic childhood stuff. But whenever I tried, or sometimes return to trying, to write fantasy as an escape, I found that what I wrote died on the page. I have half a dozen novels worth of failed fantasy that will remain locked away until and hopefully after the day I die. It all needed to be written, it has all contributed to the million words every writer must write for their apprenticeship. But none of it ever needs to be read. I can’t quite bring myself to burn / delete it all, but I could do so with no great loss.

The stories I have written that pass my internal quality tests, and which I have therefore left lying around for interested people to read, have all satisfied both my urges for biography and fantasy. Star, my latest short story upcoming in Universe magazine in June, is an alternative history of a fascist Britain, and also a memoir of the attempt to escape what seemed an overwhelmingly authoritarian educational system. My Lovesick Zombie Boyband is about a teenage girl with powers of necromancy, and also about having my heart crushed when I was eighteen. Circe’s Bar and Grill is a contemporary retelling of the Odysseus myth, and also my experience of serving rich people in restaurants. Momentum is an complete invention, except I do have boxes of scrawled notes from departed relatives hidden under my bed and I often wonder what they mean.

Reading Jonathan Franzen’s idea of autobiography and the fictive dream, I realised how distinctly biography and fantasy, far from being conflicting urges, have actually been aspects of the same urge for me. I can steal Franzen’s words to describe that urge as to ‘create a dream that is vivid and has meaning, so that the reader can then vividly dream it and experience meaning’. It’s in the collision of the real and the fantastic that the vividness and and meaning of the dream arise.

Earlier in the same section of the lecture Franzen says:

My conception of a novel is that it ought to be a personal struggle, a direct and total engagement with the author’s story of his or her own life.

Whilst it might seem counter-intuative to some, all the fantasy writing I consider truly great conforms to that conception of the novel. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings struggles with his own story of surviving the trenches of World War One. China Mieville’s Bas Lag novels struggle with his own story of living as an intellectual and marxist in one of the worlds great capitalist cities. William Gibson’s novels from Neuromancer to Zero History struggle with his own story of understanding a world reshaped by the emerging web of media he calls ‘the net’. It’s the thing I find missing in most of the fantasy writing I encounter. However brilliantly it builds a world, tells a story, spinds out remarkable idea…if the author isn’t engaged in the struggle with their own story, it all adds up to little more than a calcified shell, missing the fleshy pulp of life within.

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The Unspecified Reader

[pullquote]I felt that the indispensable relationship I should build in my life was not with a specific person, but with an unspecified number of readers.

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I talk About Running

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So a captain is married to her ship, and a novelist is married to her readers. Earlier this week I wrote about the social artist in my column for The Guardian, and collected some irate responses in return. What about the loner artist? What about us guys and gals who want to sit alone in our bedrooms and explore the inside of our own craniums in intimate detail. I feel certain there are any number of writers who just want to do this and nothing and I raise no objection to their doing just so. But when we talk about what it is that takes a writer from their bedroom, in to the minds and imaginations of thousands or millions of other people, it has to be some intense fascination with that unspecified number of readers. Social media gives that fascination form. Writers can’t leave Twitter alone because it provides 24 hour access to the unspecified reader who in the dark ages of print were only available through books. There has to be something in the psychology of a writer that makes the unspecified reader more important to them than any other relationship.

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Weird Things

I’ve been dying to talk about this for weeks but have had to wait until the right time…which is now! Weird Things is my new column for The Guardian which I will be writing fortnightly. It’s all about the weird ideas in SF and Fantasy novels or any book with a weird idea at its heart. The first column is published today and tackles our fear of Robopocalypse, and the more nuanced ideas in Ted Chiang’s The Lifecycle of Software Objects.

Should we fear the Robopocalypse?

The robots are revolting. But will they kill us…or cuddle us?

Daniel H Wilson’s debut work of fiction Robopocalypse comes pre-packaged with two Unique Selling Points. That the author holds a Phd in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, and is hence more than just another oddball Sci-Fi writer with an overactive imagination. And that, having been bought by Steven Spielberg for production ‘even before it was finished’, the novel is already a success, and nothing breeds success like success.

Read more on The Guardian website.

Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Image via Wikipedia

 

Originally published on Fantasy Matters.

In my regular blog for The Guardian, I’m on record as saying that there are only two truly great science fiction movies. These are, of course, 2001 and Bladerunner. And if I think about science fiction as a ‘genre of ideas’ then I stand by that statement. No other SF movie even comes close to the vision of these two.

But. I have a confession to make. There are other SF movies that I love rather a lot, even though they have none of the philosophical depth of truly great SF. And when it comes to SF movies lacking any philosophical depth, there are none greater than the greatest of all Star Trek movies…Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan.

Let’s be frank. Star Trek taken in its entirety has nothing of any great depth to say. Yes, I know, I know. The Federation is a utopian future society. If you altered the laws of physics just a teeny weeny little bit everything on board the Enterprise-D REALLY WOULD WORK, and classic Trek episodes like “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” played around with political ideas like the civil rights movement. I grew up a Star Trek geek, I know the arguments. But let’s be honest with ourselves here for just a moment…all that stuff is just trimming around the edge of what we really love about Trek…it’s unabashed pulp storytelling.

From the opening sequence of the Kobayashi Maru, through Khan’s mind control ear wigs, to William Shatner’s greatest screen moment screaming ‘KHAN!!!’ in the Genesis caves, WoK is simply the greatest pulp adventure movie ever made.

I challenge even the most high brow cinema goer not to release a small whoop of joy when, with the USS Enterprise dead in space after an underhand attack from the hijacked USS Reliant, Kirk and Spock hack the opposing ship’s computer, lower her shields and, even as the eponymous Khan gloats over their defeat, unleash phaser hell on the Reliant. HURRAH!!

But there is more. Star Trek may not be deep in concepts or philosophy. But it does have heart and soul. Beneath all the photon explosions and vengeful villains, WoK is a film about friendship. With the Enterprise unable to reach warp speed, Spock enters the radiation filled warp chamber to fix the engines, sacrificing his own life to save those of his crew. Kirk and Spock’s final exchange, even through an inch of plexiglass, is genuinely moving. Bill Shatner overcomes his usually wooden acting style and manages to shed a tear. And I’m not ashamed to say, I do too.

 

Your chance to argue with Damo

So. This coming Saturday I will be talking about Speculative Fiction, and why it deserves the broadest possible respect and recognition, as part of the States of Independence publishers fair at De Montfort University in Leicester. I’ve been shooting my mouth off about this subject for some time, and now I’m going to do that in a public forum and give anyone interested the chance to challenge me. I think this is going to be fun!

An introduction to speculative fiction with Damien G. Walter
Speculative Fiction is one of the oldest forms of storytelling, with writers from Homer to Shakespeare drawing on the fantastic and supernatural to explore the edges of reality. The genres of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction as well as magical realism and fabulism continue in the tradition. Damien G. Walter, writer of weird and speculative fiction and Guardian blogger gives a brief introduction to spec. fiction and why we love it.