Tag Archives: Speculative Fiction

My nominations for Speculative Fiction 2014

Criticism and non-fiction writing seem to play an ever bigger part in science fiction and fantasy. Consider the issue of diversity in these genres, which has reached some kind of apogee in 2014. And a great deal of the energy driving that change has been generated online by non-fiction writing. Most of this writing is made by fans (those fans may also be pro authors, editors and agents, but writing first and foremost as fans) and it’s in online non-fiction writing like reviews, essays, blog posts and forum debates that the fans shape the genre. I honestly can’t think of a healthier and more open democratic way to shape our culture.

Following on from the success of Speculative Fiction 2013 it’s organisers have now made an open call for submissions to the 2014 volume of the anthology. Speculative Fiction 2014 will bring together some of the best online non-fiction writing on SF/F in to a handy, highly readable format. I highly recommend you nominate those pieces which stand out for you this year. I have just done so, and thought I would share my nominations to encourage more people to participate. Please chip in and tell me your favourite non-fiction of the year in the comments. I’m sure there are many I’ve missed.

Silk Road Fantasy and Breaking the Great Wall of Europe by Paul Weimer – Silk Road fantasy is such an evocative term for non-western oriented fantasy. Weimer may not quite have coined it but I think in this well researched post he brings it to new popularity. As the comments explore it doesn’t fit all non-western fantasy, but for the parts of the world the Silk Roads ran too, I think it’s rather lovely. I also have a feeling we’re going to see some great Silk Road fantasies in the next few years.

A Great Castle Made of Sea: Why Hasn’t Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Been More Influential? by Jo Walton – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was a major bestseller, but the fantasy genre has largely ignored it in favour of the grimdark vision. Walton explores the many reasons for this, in her usual subtle and amusing manner.

12 Fundamentals of Writing “The Other” (And the Self) by Daniel Jose Older – “The baseline is you suck”, strongly worded and supremely insightful, this post cracked open one of the toughest issues in fiction writing. How do we write characters who have been cast as The Other by our culture? There are no easy answers, but Older makes some strong suggestions.

How Censors Killed The Weird, Experimental, Progressive Golden Age Of Comics by Saladin Ahmed – I had no concept of how many diverse superheroes there were until I read Ahmed’s superbly researched insight in to early 20th century comics. And the shock of course is how these characters were eliminated by top down censorship. A must read.

Post-Binary Gender in SF: Introduction by Alex Dally Macfarlane – this essay set off one of the most valuable debates in the genre this year. SF/F should be the natural home of characters who do not conform to enforced gender norms. So why isn’t it? The answer to this question is still being argued, and likely will be for some time.

Now, go an make your own nominations for Speculative Fiction 2014 here.

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Harlan Ellison

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

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!
Sandro_Botticelli_-_La_Carte_de_l'Enfer

Secondary World Problems

You know, those things which are only an issue if you happen to be the denizen of a world created in the imagination of a jobbing fantasy author. Or an ageing English academic. Or a frustrated fan trying to turn pro author. A secondary world always tells you more about the inside of the authors head than it does about the world itself.

The secondary world is a problematic construct. The term has become an accepted part of the dialogue around Sci-Fi and Fantasy, and it’s also been taken on by video gamers and game designers, perhaps because SF&F are so hardwired in to that new and still evolving media. But they really haven’t been examined seriously either by literary criticism or contemporary philosophy. They are in fact rejected out of hand, perhaps because, quite rightly, it is awakening humans from fantasy that is the goal of both literature and philosophy.  The cultural phenomenon of secondary worlds is more interesting than the secondary worlds themselves.

I think what might be fairly said about secondary worlds is that they have a tendency to generate terrible, terrible writing. The attempt to build a secondary world through the medium of prose fiction is doomed from the outset. Every step towards world-building is a step away from story telling, which is the heart of M. John Harrison’s now iconic complaint against the clomping foot of nerdism. Arguing about secondary worlds is more interesting than the secondary worlds themselves.

The primary world called reality is a kind of fantasy. We float through reality in the semi-dream state of day to day consciousness, absorbed in our thoughts and in the digital realities constructed on our computer screens. The real problem of secondary worlds, whether on the page or the screen, is that far from being an escape they are another layer to the trap you are already caught it. The sensation you feel when immersed in a secondary world isn’t the thrill of freedom, but the relaxation that comes with a capitulation. Escaping from secondary worlds is more interesting than escaping in to secondary worlds.

Fantastika can do more than that. By drawing you in deeper to the immersive experience of a secondary world fantasy, a great writer can also tempt you along the path to a kind of awakening. These fantasies are few and far between, but once you have experienced them you become suspicious of all those that want to lull you back to sleep.

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We need a unified spec-fic award in the UK

The United Kingdom has one credible award for speculative fiction. It’s called the Clarke Award, and it is decided by a panel of experts each year.

In addition we have a splintered field of popular voted awards including those organised by the British Fantasy Society and British Science Fiction Association. These awards carry little weight even within the British SF community, little or none internationally, and absolutely none at all in the big wide world of literature and culture more generally.

Worse yet, the scandalous outcome of this years British Fantasy Awards shows how, at their worst, these awards have become a positive embarrassment to British speculative fiction.

The UK awards began as fan awards. However, as those fan communities have matured, and the internet has mad it much easier to publish and promote new work, those fan communities have become communities of amateur writers and publishers. It’s no surprise then that the awards are now dominated by amateur writers and publishers voting for their own work.

Speculative fiction writing is incredibly rich in the UK, but a splintered field of amateur awards is failing to reflect this richness to the outside world. We need a unified award for spec-fic in the UK, that many fan groups contribute to, which is taken seriously by the SF profession, and the larger world of publishing and culture. British SF is fantastic and creative, and we deserve an award that truly reflects that.

Can this be achieved? What are the barriers and challenges? How can they be overcome? Please let me know your thoughts.

Why SF is not genre

Originally written in response to the SF Signal Mind-meld question: What non-genre books have influenced you in some way?

I’m fascinated to see this issue discussed at the moment. If I was to place one major criticism at the door of Speculative Fiction, it would be the way it continues to segregate itself from the rest of literature. And this is caused in great part by the misapprehension of SF as ‘genre’. Genre is part of Speculative Fiction, just as it is part of all literature, and just as all literature draws in some way from one genre or another. Some SF is overtly ‘generic’ (which generally makes it uninteresting to me), much other SF uses genre creatively (much more interesting) and the best Speculative Fiction is no more attached to genre than any good writing. Genre is something that good writers make use of, but don’t let themselves be trapped by. Similarly, SF presents writers with a set of tools. Like any specialised toolkit it fulfills certain functions. Skillful writers pick up the right tools for the right job, rather than limiting themselves to only the tools they are familiar with.

My own reading has always mixed SF with all other kinds of literature from as early as I can remember, so these books that have influenced me are drawn from across the whole history of my reading:

Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto – as a teenager this short story collection was one of my first glimpses of how fiction can deliver insight in to very normal, everyday existence. I read it at least a dozen times in the space of a year or so. Yoshimoto claims it was written whilst listening to Nirvana, which was pretty much the soundtrack of my teenage years.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck – Steinbeck wants you to know that the events of ordinary life are the very stuff of drama. And that it is filled with both pain and unexpected kinds of healing. His theme is how the archetypal patterns of our oldest stories, in this case the biblical Caine and Abel, repeat through the generations in the lives of us all. Read simply as fiction it is a powerful story, but it becomes something more when you start to look at how these dramatic archetypes repeat in your own life.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare – The British state education system has ruined the greatest English language writer for most of his latter day countrymen. I studied Hamlet three times at school, but it was only when I started reading Shakespeare myself as a young writer that I really began to see why his work has endured. Hamlet is about the worst of human existence, the structures of power and control, ego and ambition, that make it impossible for people to love or trust one another. There is no hero in Hamlet, all the characters are equally corrupt, and in the end everyone dies. The perfect tragedy, that plays out day in and day out in the places of power around the world.

Underworld by Don Delilo – most of this generation of Great White Male novelists, British and American, are to my mind chronically overrated. Amis, McEwan, Roth, Updike. The only way I can rationalise the acclaim these authors and their peers receive is to believe that at some point literary readers fell in to a kind of self-hate, and like abused spouses are unable to escape the bilious behaviour poured on them by these writers. Delilo is this generation of writers saving grace. Underworld is his masterpiece. I’m not going to bother describing it…go and read it and White Noise and a few others by DeLilo, and put McEwan et. al. in the rubbish and forget about them.

Runaway by Alice Munro – I discovered Munro this year, and read this entire collection in two days. By the end I felt like the top of my head had been taken off and my brain rewired by someone who knew me better than I knew myself. Munro’s writing is extremely cruel, because it continually returns to the ways people fail themselves, and act as the unconscious villains in their own lives. It’s very difficult to read her without noticing the hundreds of ways, large and small, we do these things to ourselves.

Literary SF

A friend on Facebook has asked to make a few suggestions of Speculative Fiction that straddles both mass market and literary audiences. I thought the answer might be of more general interest, so here we go…

It’s a good question. As I suggested last week over on The Guardian, while SF is generally perceived as mass market, it’s equally possible for it to be literary. SF is like a set of tools that an author can pick up and use. They might choose to use them to please a mass audience, or to speak to a literary readership.

Why is it difficult to do both? The mass market and the literary readership demand almost polar opposites from fiction:

Mass Market – has expectations it wants fulfilled, hence likes genre. Wants to be entertained, distracted, given an escape from real life.

Literary Readership – wants its expectations to be defeated, dislikes genre. Wants to be challenged, improved, and shown the truth of real life.

Clearly, it’s difficult for one book to give both sets of readers what they want. One of the most popular examples of Literary SF at the moment is China Mieville‘s ‘Perdido Street Station‘. It’s one of the best fantasy novels of recent years. But, many readers of fantasy dislike it. Why? Because PSS is a tough read. Both on the language level, where it frequently departs the ‘transparent’ prose the mass audience enjoys. And as a narrative it is tremendously dark. The stories heroes are deeply flawed. They fail to defeat evil, but instead discover that evil is all powerful and are lucky to escape with their lives. Most works of Literary SF that succeed in appealing to both mass market and literary readers do so in similarly incomplete ways.

This is not a problem unique to SF by any means. All art has to deal with the divide between mass / elite, low / high, popular / critically acclaimed. Its rooted very deeply in how different parts of society engage with and use art and culture. ‘Low’ culture sees art as just another commodified product to be consumed. ‘High’ culture sees art, along with science, as one of humanities great tools of advancement. Its no wonder the two don’t get along! And its no wonder SF writers, readers and critics who believe in its value as part of ‘High’ culture are so determined to make the argument against its continual pigeon holing as ‘genre’ and ‘low culture’.

Its also no surprise that the artists who succeed in being both high and low, mass and elite, are the ones we acclaim as great. So the task of suggesting titles that are both Literary and SF almost becomes the same as listing the classics of SF. So, I have tried to keep to reasonably contemporary authors that both a mainstream SF reader, and a Literary Fiction reader might both read with pleasure:

Light by M John Harrison
Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
Natural History by Justina Robson
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Air by Geoff Ryman
Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Palimpsest by Catherynne M Valente
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Iron Council by China Mieville

This is a necessarily incomplete and subjective list. Objections? Tell me why. Suggestions? Let us know your thinking.

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.

The SpecFic books I read again and again

Cover of "Consider Phlebas [SIGNED, First...
Cover via Amazon

John DeNardo challenged a number of writers to think about the speculative fiction they return to again and again. My response is bellow. I would love to see a similar challenge for the nonSF books that Sf writers are influenced by, that would be fascinating. Also, I seem to have declared the death of Science Fiction in my choices. A position I stand by.

***

I certainly have books that I come back to time and time again. As a reader these are the books that I love. As a writer they are the core influences that inspire my own work. And as a critic they are the touchstones that I measure new work in the genre against. Some are single books, others runs of work that represent the best of a particular author. I suspect that many of these books come from the Golden Age of SF, IE my late teens and early twenties. That seems to be the age when the ideas of SF have the most impact. But I am still finding books that leave me staggered and awestruck, but more and more it seems to come from outside SFF.

Neuromancer – William Gibson’s work is engraved in to the deepest parts of my subconscious. This and his short fiction are still books I refer to constantly, because Gibson is as good a structural writer as he is a futurist. What strikes me now about this work are its mythic elements, prototypical Joseph Campbell monomyth through and through. On top of his other achievements, Gibson was perhaps the first writer to signify the collapse of science fiction, and the rise of fantasy as the mode of serious discussion in speculative fiction.

The Sandman – not a book, but nonetheless Neil Gaiman‘s magnum opus, is arguably the most important work of speculative fiction of the last quarter of the 20th century. I might write an essay on how Neil Gaiman killed Science Fiction. But not here.

Iain M Banks culture novels from Consider Phlebas to Look to Windward – I might jokingly suggest that Iain M Banks titles two of these books with quotes from T S Elliot’s The Wasteland because that was the state of space opera and nearly all American SF at the time. A desolate, moribund wasteland of ill considered, poorly written libertarian posturing. Banks re-imagined space opera as a vehicle for intelligent, liberal discourse on the nature of utopia, while at the same time bringing a level of literary quality that still eludes all but a very few writers in genre.

One Hundred Years of Solitude – if there exists a platonic ideal of what speculative fiction could be, Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘ masterpiece of magical realism is it. Combining the traditions of Western realism, and indigenous South American magical narratives, the book does not so much create a fantasy world, as demonstrate how our own world is permeated with the magical and fantastic just beyond the reach of the rational / scientific worldview.

Earthsea – OK. Neil Gaiman did not kill science fiction. He just finished off the twitching remains left behind by Ursula Le Guin. If parents realised the potent mix of post-modern and Taoist philosophy Le Guin is smuggling in to the minds of little children, it’s quite possible these book would be banned in numerous states of America.

I could go on, but that is enough from me for now.

Why do we write this SF stuff?

Today I bought a table. Its the final piece of furniture for my new home. Which is the first real home I have had since I was eighteen. Thats my own damn fault, for taking thirteen years to realise that a home is made, not found. The table is important, because it is where I am writing this. Over the years I have written in cafes, libraries, train stations, shopping malls, airplanes, buses, offices and many more places, anywhere other then wherever I happened to be living. But now I have a home I am comfortable writing in, and a table to write at. Continue reading