Tag Archives: science fiction

78a8ju6xSwy96y1y6sZy_RTW-Illustration

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?

Follow @damiengwalter on Twitter

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

About these ads

All our genres be broken

Take a look at this marvellous think piece by Gareth L Powell on the problems with defining science fiction by its Golden Age origins.

(I should add that the Golden Age isn’t the origin of science fiction any more than McDonalds was the origin of the burger. It’s just the moment it got reduced in to a commodity.)

I’m a far more severe critic of the genre than Mr Powell. If the twitching body of the SF genre was in the boot of my Cadillac begging for one more chance at life, I’d put it out of its misery and give it an unmarked grave in the desert. Most of what was most interesting about science fiction happened before the term was coined, and most of what was most of interesting since has been desperately trying to escape the choke hold the label has over imaginative literature.

But fantasy is no better. Fantasy is one of the most basic functions of human psychology. The debate about the the value of fantasy, or the lack of value, has raged across philosophy and literature. The novel, beginning with Don Quixote and running to the present day, is a form implicitly concerned with the interrelation of fantasy and reality. And from this the fantasy genre has coagulated as a faux medieval setting and a pulp adventure quest story. Or a way of writing historical fiction that doesn’t require researching history.

Horror may be the worst of all. I enjoy reading some horror novels and there’s a renaissance of interesting writing in the genre coming up this year. But none of it is remotely horrific. Much of it is off putting, some of it repugnant. But mostly for the wrong reasons. I don’t find unexpected interruptions of reality by the weird at all scary. In fact, I kind of enjoy them. I’d love to find a coven of occultists in my home town. Those are the kind of people I’d like to go for a drink with.

The three central genres of imaginative fiction are broken. They’re an albatross around the neck of writers naturally drawn to the imagination who find themselves shoved in to one or other of these outmoded marketing categories. Let’s be shot of them, and find better ways to shape the wonders of the imagination for today’s generation of readers.

ocean1-1

On being bossed around by Neil Gaiman

I’ve been outlandishly busy in recent weeks. So much so that I haven’t been able to post anything personal here on my blog. One of the costs of having more freelance writing than you can do is that it squeezes out the personal projects that you love. So here’s a round-up on some of what I’ve been doing recently.

You may have noticed (unless you are reading this in the Andromeda galaxy) that Neil Gaiman has a new book coming out. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a remarkable story, that I was lucky enough to receive a very special edition of some time ago. My review is over on Medium, where I’ve been posting occasional things because I like their platform so much. I feel like Ocean is the start of a new phase in Neil’s fiction writing, and I’m excited about where it’s going to take him next.

Today Neil has been guest editing the Guardian books section, for which I write. He also edited SFX magazine, to which I am a regular contributor. Which kind of means Neil Gaiman has been my boss for the last few weeks. So what’s it like being bossed around by Neil Gaiman?

Well. I got to go on a tour of Weird London, chat with M John Harrison about weird fiction, and record the experience as an audio documentary.

And I got to interview Harlan Ellison. I have been reading Harlan’s fiction since I was a teenager, and I think All The Lies That Are My Life is possibly the only great meditation on being and SF writer ever written. It was an intense interview. You’ll have to go read it to find out what happened.

On Monday I’m heading to the Royal Society of Literature event ‘Magic, Memory and Survival’ where Mr.Gaiman is talking and copies of the new book are being sold. Super-excited about this, and will be live-tweeting the whole event at @damiengwalter

In and around all this I’m continuing work on my book, and also a couple of side projects. And teaching my course in creative writing at University of Leicester. And tweeting too much! It’s a pure joy making my living from writing and teaching writing at the moment, and getting to spend so much time around writers I admire. Happy days.

matrix460

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

Cory Doctorow

Big Brother, big data and the creator culture

News of secret courts being introduced in the world’s oldest democracy should scare any rational human. The right to a public trial has survived feudalism, Henry VIII and the industrial revolution, but couldn’t stand up to the forces of global capitalism. Secret courts could be an idea from Alan Moore’s polemic on Thatcher’s Britain, V for Vendetta (today enjoying a second life inspiring Occupy protestors and the Anonymous hacker group) or from Homeland, the latest novel from science-fiction author Cory Doctorow.

Doctorow’s 2007 young adult novel Little Brother introduced teenage readers to the writer’s outspoken ideas on technology and personal freedom. The novel’s title is of course a play on Big Brother, from the granddaddy of all dystopian SF, George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell’s devastating vision of totalitarian state rule remains chilling, but it has dated with the advance of technology. Orwell was writing at a time when governments, whether the totalitarian dictatorships of Russia and China, or the democracies of western Europe and America, ruled with near absolute power. Today national governments seem increasingly impotent in the face of global economic forces and technological change they cannot begin to keep pace with.

Read more @ Guardian Books

Enhanced by Zemanta
Nostradamus

Damo’s Sci-Fi prophecies for 2013

2012 has been a year of transition for science fiction and fantasy literature. SF’s reputation as home of the Bearded White Male hides a more interesting story. SF is the literature of geeks, and today, geeks run the world. Geek culture isn’t infiltrating the mainstream: it is the mainstream. And geeks come in all ages, genders and backgrounds. This year, the Hugo and Nebula award shortlists demonstrated SF’s growing diversity, even as the decision of the editorial team at Weird Tales magazine to publish racist screed Save the Pearls demonstrated many of its ongoing challenges.

Even in the age of the ebook, word-of-mouth is still what makes a breakout hit, and many of the books to watch in 2013 have been building excitement through 2012. Madeline Ashby’s vN: The First Machine Dynasty is the outstanding hard-SF novel of the year and deserves to feature in many award ballots in 2013. Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce has brought the veteran English novelist and World Fantasy award winner to the attention of a growing audience, as have film adaptations in the pipeline for this and his previous novel, The Silent Land. And G Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen stands out as among the most original and challenging books of 2012, and my personal pick for at least one major award in 2013.

Read more @ Guardian Books

Enhanced by Zemanta
Quinn eager to please

SF & Fantasy need to stop being so damn eager to please

“It just seems to me that, from Ballard to Herbert, SF was on a mission to invent and explore unknown fresh new psychologies. It was a fascinating, daunting task. We were on to something- and we lost the nerve to do it.”

There’s nothing less interesting than something which only exists to please you. And sometimes things of this kind aren’t just dull, but radically off putting and even offensive. Because something that only aims to please is by its nature manipulative, maybe even exploitative. It’s only trying to please you because it wants something from you. And if the thing it wants is money. Well that’s the most boring and offensive thing of all.

The quote at the head of this post was left by my friend Jim Worrad on a Facebook thread sparked by the idea that that Ursula Le Guin would not be published as a debut author today. Jim’s quote really sums up what I’ve felt festering inside for the last few days since publishing my latest Weird Things column on Le Guin’s new selected stories The Real and the Unreal. Thinking about Le Guin’s writing I really found myself wondering why there are so few writers in the fantasy genre producing work of the kind of quality – creatively, intellectually, technically – that Le Guin has produced throughout her career.

Clearly there are some. Lavie Tidhar scooped a World Fantasy Award for his novella Osama today – a book so original and challenging I dedicated a whole column to it back in October 2011. I could list a fair crop of other writers creating high quality fantasy writing, many of them World Fantasy award winners or nominees. Of all the genre awards it is the most consistently focussed on rewarding quality in fantasy fiction.

I’m going to guess that many, many SF & Fantasy readers will be less than pleased by the experience of reading Osama. It is a novel that goes out of its way to challenge its readers. If I was to pin one quality to Lavie’s writing as a whole it would be that. Tidhar is a steampunk author who hates steampunk, and an SF writer who hates SF. But this is exactly why many, many readers of SF & Fantasy enjoy Lavie’s writing. Because they believe that SF & Fantasy are supposed to be original and challenging, not just desperate attempts to please a nebulous mainstream audience.

Many of the current batch of bestsellers, particularly in Epic Fantasy, read exactly like calculated, desperate attempts to please some platonic ideal of a fantasy readership. Brandon Sanderson’s novels read like they were written by a committee of marketing executives, which from the author who sailed Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time franchise home is hardly surprising. Trudi Canavan’s books are basically Mary Sue coming of age fantasies. Pat Rothfuss novels are like post-modern simulacra of of fantasy novels, a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a fantasy novel. Steven Erikson’s Malazan series are well described role playing source books with a feint stab at character that misses more often than not.

SF & Fantasy have a self-destructive tendency to behave like eager to please employees at a new job. You want a five part magical quest story with a singing sword? YOU GOT IT! You want a steampunk romance with zeppelins and robot armies? YOU GOT IT! You want a poorly disgusied sex fantasy / power trip? YOU GOT IT! You want a violent mysoginistic romp with some rape and torture scenes? YOU GOT IT! In short order the strategy of giving people what they want conforms to the law of diminishing returns, because actually people don’t know what they want. If they did, they wouldn’t need artists to give it to them. Do you expect to just get what you want from a doctor? Or a teacher? Or a parent? Or a friend? Then why would you carry that expectation in to the deep and complex relationship an author has with a reader?

SF & Fantasy are, in the words of my friend Jim Worrad, on to a good thing. I say that in present tense because I think we’re still far from losing it all together. It’s made the artform that is SF & Fantasy storytelling one of the most powerful in contemporary culture. But SF & Fantasy don’t thrive on being eager to please. They thrive on being challenging. On being original. On describing both reality and unreality in ever more innovative and beautiful ways. So let’s please carry on doing just that.

Enhanced by Zemanta
kraken

My Kitschy Predictions 2012

The Kitschies are among my favourite speculative fiction awards for the simple reason that they give awards to very good books. Last year I nailed A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness as the winner. So this year I’m going to take a wild stab at predicting the whole shortlist (!) How will I do?

  • Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig
  • Railsea by China Mieville
  • Among Others by Jo Walton (An outlier as one of the judges keeps saying how much they hate it…)
  • The City’s Son by Tom Pollock
  • Channel SK1N by Jeff Noon
If I get 3 right I will be quite happy. 5 and I will start to wonder if there is something up!
slidingtext_fr

How to work with theory without snuffing out your creative spark

I spent much of the last weekend live-tweeting from Weird Council, an academic convention on the writing of China Mieville. Many clever people were in attendance, many clever things were said. I only understood about half of them but felt quite good about getting that much. As a good friend of mine says, if more than four other experts in the world understand what you are saying you are not a real academic.

Throughout the day I saw occasional tweets from writers wondering how all these complicated theories about literature combined with the actual act of creative writing. And I believe that is a perfectly valid concern. Most writers recognise that it isn’t the intellectual bit of their brain that writes a great novel or short story. That comes from an imaginative spark. And anyone who writes knows that too much intellectualising can snuff that spark right out.

But nonetheless, all that theory stuff can actually be pretty useful. Science Fiction is sometimes called a conversation. The ideas that writers have developed over the decades are contributions to that conversation. If you don’t know what’s been said before, you risk being the chap walking in to the middle of a discussion and saying what everyone else already said an hour ago. Theory can help bring you up to date with where that conversation is. And this isn’t just true of SF but for any form of creative expression. And theory can also help to spark fantastic and original ideas, if you learn to use it without letting it use you.

When you engage with theory as an artist, you have to resist the powerful temptation to try and be right. Theory often presents itself as an argument, and demands that you take a side. It’s the job of the academic to have that argument, because from the dialectical process of two or more opposing positions debating, new knowledge can be discovered and tested. But that process can be death to the artist. Be curious, ask questions. Enjoy the novel ideas theory can offer. But don’t take a side. Don’t get sucked in to the argument. And don’t try and be right.

Enhanced by Zemanta
cthulhu

What do we do about Lovecraft?

The more I think about the issue, the more concerned I become about the honouring of H.P.Lovecraft in Horror, Fantasy, SF, weird and speculative fiction.

The argument has come to the fore again in my mind because of the furore at Weird Tales, which also roughly coincided with Lovecraft’s birthday. Lovecraft’s racism is not widely discussed even within his fandom, but has come increasingly to the fore, for instance in response to essays like Nnedi Okorafor’s here. But what has really made me consider the seriousness of the issue again is this review of Save The Pearls, the novel at the heart of the Weird Tales nightmare, here in The Guardian (for which I write regularly, by way of disclaimer) which incidentally links to this foul little ditty penned by non-other than Howard Phillips Lovecraft himself. I’m going to repeat this below because I think it is essential it’s read to understand the problem fully, and the click through on links is less than 10% on average.

On the Creation of Niggers (1912)
by H. P. Lovecraft

When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.

Now I don’t intend to rehash the back and forth arguments about Lovecraft. I’m just going to state what at this point I take to be the facts. H.P.Lovecraft held racist opinions which he expressed overtly in rhyme, and which can also be identified in his fiction.

There are perhaps some valid responses to this. As a commentor on The Guardian blog notes, these were such widely held opinions in the early 20th Century that an authoritative source such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica repeated them. Many artists have objectionable opinions which we manage to separate from their work. Lovecraft’s stories are general expressions of deep seated fears, of which racism is one other expression. Often stated arguments, but not ones I entirely accept.

Imagine an average non-fandom type person encountering two facts. One; H P Lovecraft is hailed as a founding figure of weird fiction, thousands of fans still adore his work, hundreds of writers have worked in his Cthulhu mythos, dozens of anthologies are published in his name every year, and the World Fantasy Award goes so far as to give his head away as a trophy, all of which adds up to a remarkable kind of ancestor worship. Two; H P Lovecraft was a racist.

I don’t think it would be unreasonable of that average non-fandom type person to assume those fans are a bunch of racists as well.

Maybe not cross-burning white hooded lynch mob racists. And probably not even overtly ‘we don’t like your kind around here’ racists. But maybe, yes, the kind of racists who insistently claim they aren’t racist, and fully believe their own claims. Maybe the kind of racists that Avenue Q makes fun of in the lyric ‘everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes‘. The humour in Avenue Q’s joke is that everyone is a bit racist, but its the people who lack the self-awareness to identify and prevent their own racism who are the problem.

The problem for the community of people who ancestor worship Lovecraft, and indeed other equally problematic writers and artists of all kinds, is to approach these figures with self-awareness. We need, I believe, to include the discussion of Lovecrafts racism whenever we talk about his life and writing. It needs to be present in those anthologies. It needs to be reflected on and, where necessary, reacted against by writers taking up the Cthulhu mythos. And as for giving his head away as a trophy? Yes, not doing that might be one quite effective way of making it clear that we aren’t a bunch of racists.

weird_3310

Weird Tales editor has insulted us all

The genres of SF, Fantasy, Horror and other styles of the fantastic have changed a lot in recent years. Those changes, to my mind, have been hugely positive. And if I can identify one cause at the heart of those changes it is this: diversity.

To use the Hugo and Nebula awards as a benchmarks, we have seen a marked increase in both women and black authors being nominated for the sector’s top awards. The discussion of genre writing online has become a great deal more politically aware, and while they were caused by failures in the sector, debates like #racefail highlight a growing awareness in our ad-hoc community. My own experience of attending conventions in the UK and America has been a happy one of encountering more and more writers from many more diverse backgrounds. A diverse SF world is a strong SF world, and should be both celebrated and protected.

But, as in the broader political landscape, not everyone in the SF community is happy about this. And I’m going to hazard a guess that one of the people it displeases is Marvin Kaye, the incumbent editor of Weird Tales, the oldest publisher of weird short fiction in the world. I’m basing this on Kaye’s choice to publish the opening chapter of the insane racist screed Save the Pearls in the next issue of Weird Tales. below is a promo video for Save the Pearls. And yes, that is a blacked up white person.

As if to highlight its growing political awareness the SF community crushed Kaye’s decision under the hammer blow of social media within 24 hours, prompting this complete retraction from Weird Tales publisher John Harlacher. Marvin Kaye himself is at the time of this writing still to comment. Let’s hope he is spending this silent time at some kind of spiritual retreat, learning some humbleness and preparing for the huge and complete apology which is his only remaining option. And even then, the background to Kaye’s decision makes me feel that nothing less than his resignation is likely to resolve the situation.

Weird Tales is one of the oldest publishers of weird fiction. A lot of what we now call horror and science fiction started in those pages. It began the careers of some cult figures in modern SF, not least H P Lovecraft, creator of the Cthulhu mythos and, unfortunately, petty minded bigot and racist. The genres of the fantastic are powerful ways to expose the deep dark human subconscious to the light of day and sometimes what they illuminate is nasty…and not in a good way. Were Lovecraft and other writers of his generation crusading members of the KKK? Probably not. Were many of them unreformed bigots and racists who encoded their fears in fiction? Yes, very sadly. And of course, there are still a lot of unreformed bigots and petty racists out there doing exactly that…do I need to point out that video of the blacked up white girl again?

Under the editorial direction of Ann VanderMeer, Weird Tales consciously steered away from the worse parts of its otherwise distinguished history. Ann found the best weird fiction by the most diverse writers. Weird Tales’ subscriber base tripled. It won a Hugo award. But perhaps more importantly, especially for us writers and core fans, Weird Tales came to symbolise what was good about the changes in the SF community. To put it simply, Ann VanderMeer at Weird Tales was doing good and important things, and those good and important things had only just started…

…when Ann was summarily removed as fiction editor and replaced by the new owner / editor Marvin Kaye. Kaye made it clear in his early statements that he wanted to take Weird Tales back in the Lovecraftian direction from which it had, in his view, strayed. And those of us who knew what that meant feared, it seems rightly, that what Kaye really wanted to do was exert a conservative influence and, in effect, go back to the petty bigotry that had sometimes characterised the magazine in the past.

What is most insulting about Kaye’s decision to publish Save the Pearls is that it was deliberately aimed at all those writers and readers who had loved Ann VanderMeer’s earlier editorial direction. It was an act of vandalism, taking something beautiful and pissing on it simply because you are too ignorant to understand what makes the beauty. It’s become clear the decision was both deliberate and premeditated. Kaye was explicitly warned what the outcome would be, and proceeded anyway because he wanted to deliver his insult to the magazine’s existing readership. There was no reason to publish Save the Pearls except as an an insult, and in the face of such a deliberate insult the outrage expressed towards Kaye is entirely valid and will continue.

Personally I will not be satisfied by an apology from Kaye unless it clearly communicates that he understands why what he did was so deeply insulting. Even then, I can’t conceive of any way I can continue to support Weird Tales in any form with Kaye at the helm, and hope he will find the decency to step aside and hand the magazine back to the community who it truly belongs to.

Enhanced by Zemanta
harlan-ellison-1977

All hail the New Pulp

Imagine a scale of literary productivity. At one end, place current darling of the American literary scene Jeffrey Eugenides, bating a steady average of one book per decade. At the other, put Jack Vance – at 95, perhaps the last of the great pulp fictioneers – who has produced 60 novels across the SF, fantasy and mystery genres, as well as hundreds of stories for pulp magazines such as Thrilling Wonder Stories. Label one end of the scale great literature, the other pulp fiction.

Read more @ Guardian Books

Enhanced by Zemanta