Lost in a World of Words

I’m tired, in that good way you get from doing loads of things you really like doing. A full day of work on the writer’s conference, followed by the first Science Fiction and Politics workshop, followed by a couple more hours of graphic design work. Phew! The only problem with being this busy is that I haven’t had much time to read. Fortunately I just happened to have a stack of SF novels from the workshop on the train back from Nottingham to Leicester. Top of the pile was The Book of the New Sun, still with a bookmark in where I left it over a year ago. I’ve never been so happy to sink into the complex prose of Gene Wolfe. Sometimes I just want to get lost in a world of words. Wolfe is better for that than anyone, except maybe Lovecraft.

Other happenings described in words…

The IO9 book club take on The Wind-Up Girl.

Jeff Vandermeer asks, what are your top five most underestimated stories of all time?

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So, like, where’d all the politics go?

Tomorrow I lead the first of three workshops in Science Fiction and Politics.

(The organisers have sold 14 out of 12 tickets, which I take as a good sign.)

I’ve had good fun selecting books to talk about, and looking through the sometimes odd political perspectives SF writers have taken over the years. I’ve also taken a root through the many different definitions of science fiction that have been arrived at over the years. Looking at some of those definitions reminds me how, at times in it’s history, science fiction has had a sense of mission far beyond simple entertainment.

Sometimes that mission was political, the idea that somehow science fiction had a role to play in defending, or perhaps gaining, political freedom. Sometimes it borders on the spiritual, the idea that science fiction aims to illuminate truths that a swiftly changing society has lost sight of. You could argue forever about whether science fiction ever did or does achieve these things, or even whether it should try to. But at its best, science fiction has had those ambitions.

Does science fiction still have those ambitions? Does it have a sense of mission beyond entertaining its audience? A lot of the energy of science fiction was generated before the term had even been coined. Is that energy still out there? Or has it dissipated away to find a different vehicle to attach itself to?

One of my seminal moments in science fiction was reading, over two nights, the final volume of Philip K. Dicks collected short fiction. The collection opens with this quote. It’s one of my favourites.

How does one fashion a book of resistance, a book of truth in an empire of falsehood, or a book of rectitude in an empire of vicious lies? How does one do this right in front of the enemy?

Not through the old-fashioned ways of writing while you’re in the bathroom, but how does one do that in a truly future technological state? Is it possible for freedom and independence to arise in new ways under new conditions? That is, will new tyrannies abolish these protests? Or will there be new responses by the spirit that we can’t anticipate?

Philip K. Dick in interview, 1974

From Only Apparently real

Elsewhere in our truly future technological state:

The Nebula Award shortlist is announced. What was that? Whatever happened to the New Weird you ask? Oh look, there they are!

Things that make Megan Kurashige laugh.

To do or not to do

On Monday morning my to do list looked like what the infinite monkeys came up with before they got to Hamlet, a seemingly random collection of tasks that I had no possibility of completing in the finite space of five days. Today I’ve had the pleasure of crossing half of it out.

(Or rather ticking half of it off on Omnifocus, the Sherman tank of to-do list applications)

Putting aside work tasks largely relating to the upcoming writers conference, this week I have prepped for and read at Short Fuse (went well) continued work on Episode 1 of my supernatural World War 2 adventure story, attended The Speculators writing group, written a plea to Iain M. Banks and accepted an invitation to talk at a cool event in March (more details when they are all confirmed) Which leaves the weekend free for a major piece of graphic design that needs to be done for Monday and to prep for the first Science Fiction and Politics workshop at the Nottingham Contemporary on Monday.

Phew. No wonder I’m feeling a bit tired.

In other parts of the interwebs:

Charlie Jane Anders of io9 kicks off an energetic discussion on Iain M. Banks in response to my plea for a new Culture novel.

SUNY Stony Brook are going to have a Clarion graduate in their midst. w00t!

A plea to Iain M. Banks

Dear Iain,

It’s been 10 years, and I don’t know how much longer I can wait.

The millennium was new, the future seemed boundless and Look to Windward had just been published. We, your fans, were ecstatic to see a new novel from Iain M Banks. We had waited patiently as you conquered the world of “mainstream literature”, knowing one day you would return to science fiction. And while we had read and loved your standalone SF novels, what we really wanted was a new story from the world of the Culture. You did not disappoint us.

Read more on The Guardian book blog.

A long walk back in time

Sometimes, when I’m thinking about a story, I like to go for a good long walk. Fresh air and endorphines work wonders for the imagination. Yesterday evening I was struck with an idea for a World War 2 inspired story with Weird themes. I fell asleep on the sofa making character notes, then when I woke up this morning (having relocated to bed at some point in the night) decided to find a long walk to go on and consider the idea more. A bus journey out of the city later I was hiking along a winding country road between fields shrouded in a perfect, wet British mist. The World War 2 story was unfolding as I walked, and my imagination was deep in the the atmosphere of Britain circa 1939.

(Usually I find that one image sparks the atmosphere of an imagined world for me. In this case it was a young soldier, queuing to leave a troop ship, holding a Lee Enfield rifle. I never know where these things come from, but come they do and they bring with them many more.)

So I was almost on the sign for a ‘hot cup of tea’ at the NAAFI Cafe, sitting  to one side of the narrow footpath as it came over the crest of a hill. The sign pointed into a door leading through a a brick wall which in the moment I glimpsed it seemed utterly incongruous, a fragment of the city superimposed over the fields. I glanced through the door way down a set of wooden stairs at the bottom of which stood a pile of suitcases on a train platform. I was looking at an early 20th Century branchline train station, which as I entered I saw was complete with posters and advertisements from the late 1930’s, including instructions for the usage of gas masks and air raid shelters and other things linked with Britains preparations for war with Nazi Germany. Ass odd as this all was, it wasn’t awe or even curiosity that made me walk down those stars. It was a cold day, and I wanted a cup of tea.

How I had arrived at the the Great Central Railway without even knowing it existed is beyond me. For 30 years a dedicated crew of volunteers have been keeping this stretch of the former LNER railway line open and operating, complete with the most wonderful steam engines and four fully operational train stations all faithfuly recreated as the would have been in 1939. Which is exactly the year the WW2 story I had been considering was set. Sitting in the aforementioned NAAFI cafe with the steaming hot cup of tea, listening to big band music from an antique radio of the era and reading in the Daily Mail of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war, I had the disconcerting feeling of having walked inside my own imagination. And I’m yet to entirely shake it off.

Needless to say, I’m thinking the World War 2 story must now be written.

Reading at Short Fuse – True Romance

I will be reading at Short Fuse again on 16th February. This is my 3rd time reading at the event and I’m glad to be invited back. The night is themed around True Romance, and I will be reading a new short story ‘At the heart of the maze i will find’. More details below:

February 16th at The Y Theatre
Short Fuse presents: TRUE ROMANCE
Love stories for St. Valentines

Greetings card schmaltz be damned; treat your loved one to an evening of passionate readings. And for anyone disillusioned with the whole hearts and flowers myth, expect company in your misery with tales of unrequited love, paranoia and hearts smashed into smithereens! But the main event will cheer the most cynical of souls…

Headliner Paul Burston reads an extract from his critically acclaimed comic novel, The Gay Divorcee. Find out more about Paul’s work at: http://www.paulburston.com/

Also featuring work by talented sci-fi writer, Damien Walter and Flash Fiction King, Joe Evans. Full line-up TBC.

See website for details: http://shortfusefiction.com
Book online at: http://www.leicesterymca.co.uk/y-theatre-whats-on-details.php?listing=773
Tickets £5.50/£4 concs

Americaland

At Clarion, I was nailed more than once for drawing on America as a setting and source for my writing. Given that I’m British, and my stories were being critiqued by a group of very intelligent and culturally aware Americans from across that vast continent, I really had no defence.

After one critique Neil talked to me about Americaland, the fictitious facsimile of the United States where many British writers set stories, himself included early in the early issues of Sandman. Americaland is real place for British writers, it is built from thousands of fragments of American TV, films, music, comics and other cultural artefacts. It’s a place filled with 1950’s dinners and long desolate highways among other things. And its just as imaginary as a Britain filled with red telephone boxes and bowler hatted business men.

(One draw of Americaland is the British tendency towards naffness…IE…any story that seems fascinating and dark in Americaland becomes utterly naff if you transplant it to the UK. Batman in Gotham = Dark Knight. Batman in Birmingham = mentalist in tights. If you are British and want to write Batman, or any other American archetype, then welcome to Americaland.)

Americaland is as much a fantasy world as Middle Earth or Dune. Some of the most fascinating fantasy worlds are the ones that overlap our reality so closely that the reader can almost accept them as real. Perhaps that’s why Americaland, with all its inaccuracies and cliches, can be such a compelling place to set stories in. Whenever I turn my hand to any story of the horrific or dark fantasy variety, I find Americaland creeping in from the edges. However hard I try to root these stories in the Britain I know, American locations and characters crop up again and again. When I turned to my imagination for material this weekend, it gave me a man and woman meeting in a dinner and going on a road trip. Its a story that can only take place in Americaland. So do I accept where my imagination is taking me, for all its flaws, or rail against it and force myself to write in British settings?

You tell me.

Science Fiction and Politics

I’ve always been fascinated by the way Science Fiction comments on political and social issues. So I am truly excited to have the opportunity to lead a series of workshops on the subject. The Science Fiction and Politics workshops will take place at the new Nottingham Contemporary gallery, starting at 5:30pm on 23rd February, 9th March and 23rd March. The workshop will look at some key works of political Science Fiction, get participants exploring their own ideas through creative writing and will lead up to a final reading. Events at Nottingham Contemporary book up very quickly so please reserve a place soon if you want to attend.

Science Fiction and Politics workshops at Nottingham Contemporary

Use The Force Damo

You remember the climactic scene in Star Wars right, where Luke is on the trench run to destroy the Death Star, and instead of relying on his tracking computer uses the Force to hit his target? Well…that’s me and writing at the moment. Kind of.

For writers, the tracking computer is your mind. It wants to develop logical processes for creating stories. It wants to plan out scenes, chart character interactions, define genres. It wants to know where you are going, and exactly how you are getting there before you even put pen to paper. A writer’s imagination is the force. It wants to dive into telling a story, immerse itself inside characters, feel every emotion it can. It has no idea where it is going, but it has absolute faith that wherever it ends up will be great.

Writing, for me at least, is all about getting these two waring parties working together in harmony. To much mind and the story never make it onto paper or is stiff and dry when it does. Too much imagination and the story meanders in circles until it sleepwalks it solipsism. But get the mind and imagination working together and the story just spills onto the page, almost as though it is being channeled through the writer from some other place. A strange and eerie feeling when it occurs. No wonder writers are so often obsessed with magic and the supernatural.

Notes from the interwebs…

Tobias Buckell gives a lucid explanation of the the Amazon vs. Macmillan showdown. I think the argument goes deeper than variable pricing, and believe writers need to think long and heard about where their real best interests lie in this argument. It is likely with neither Amazon or the publishers.

Full programme announced for the Writing Industries Conference.

I’ll be reading a new story At the heart of the maze i will find at Short Fuse on 16th February.