To be true, Science Fiction must be beautiful

One of the interesting things about Science Fiction is the way it straddles that gapping canyon of division in contemporary culture between art and science. Fiction is an art. Science is, of course, science. So what do you get if you make art about science?

(I strongly object to the idea that Science Fiction has to be about science. In that regard it is the worst named genre ever. But undoubtedly some of it IS about science…)

In his documentary about beautiful equations, art critic Matthew Collings explores the ways in which scientists are guided by beauty, and artists search for truth. If there is any such thing as truth (I believe there is) then there should be no doubt that both science and art, as two of humanities greatest traditions of knowledge, have ways of reaching it. But nonetheless, too often when both are raised together the conversation turns to which is the greater. Which seems to me a little like debating whether a candle or a lantern are better ways of illuminating a dark room.

In Science Fiction that argument sometimes arises as a belief that SF does not need to function as art. It does not need to be beautiful, as other kinds of fiction might. Its characters do not require depth. Its prose can lack precision or clarity. It can tell hackneyed stories in the service of new scientific ideas perhaps. Its an argument that fewer people accept today than might have a decade ago, and yet much interesting SF still falls short as fiction.

The physicist Paul Dirac suggested that for an equation to be true, it must be beautiful. In Dirac’s thinking beauty was a way of discerning the truth, as much a part of the scientific process as observation. If Science Fiction is a way of reaching for the truth, then shouldn’t it also be beautiful? Can a work of Science Fiction really have anything true to say, if it fails by the standards of fiction?

But what makes fiction beautiful? For me, the great strength of prose fiction is its ability to step inside the human experience. To explore the internal world that exists inside us all. When Science Fiction is beautiful it is most often because, however strange the external world it explores, its first concern is with the internal experience of that world.

And on less weighty but more serious issues…

The UK Uncut protests seem like the real beginning of the movement against the current economic policy in the UK. I may well join them in the New Year.

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As a writer you are free

As a writer you are free. You are the freest person there ever was. Your freedom is what you buy with your solitude.

Ursula K Le Guin

I write as many evenings a week as I can at a nearby library. It belongs to the city university, but I have taken it over piece by piece and have declared myself the buildings unofficial writer in residence. In the current season of snow, ice and mists it can take an effort of will to cross the dark park that lies between my house and the library. But I always look forward to the silent hours I spend there.

When I read the above quote from Ursula Le Guin I wondered whether it was the writing itself I enjoyed, or perhaps the solitude that surrounds it. Solitude is to joy in time spent alone, as opposed to the painful experience of isolation and loneliness. One of the great challenges of writing is managing the balance between those two very different experiences.

There is a mystical element to the writing experience. As writers we sit quietly and turn our attention to the vast internal spaces of the imagination. It’s not so dissimilar from the act of meditation or even (if one puts aside the whole God thing) prayer. The mystic talks about liberation, transcendence, awakening, rebirth. It makes a certain sense that as writers we are looking for a kind of freedom of our own.

And back on the mortal plane…

Salon Futura discuss steampunk. Listen for the super cool intro tune if nothing else.

If you are looking for Xmas presents these Fable & Tale t-shirts and sweaters are rather beautiful (hand made by the amazing Kurashige sisters).

Shame on us all

I very rarely comment on politics. I am by nature a non-political person. I tend to see both sides of most arguments, and there are merits and faults with any position in any political debate. Extremism is always wrong. Beyond that, who is right is mostly a matter of your tribal, partisan allegiances.

There is no possible right in the brutal kick in the teeth delivered to young people, from all but the most privileged backgrounds, by todays disgraceful decision to force £28,000 of debt on to the shoulders of every student.

There are many arguments for and against this decision. They are all fatuous. Because at the absolute bottom line, thousands of hard working and intelligent young people from ordinary backgrounds were told today that they simply aren’t worth investing in. That however well they do at school, they will not be able to get a university education unless they accept the heavy burden and very real risk of a £28,000 debt. Anyone who does not understand the terror that this level of debt  induces in anyone from an ordinary background is simply displaying a staggering level of ignorance.

The message this decision sends young people from ordinary backgrounds is that they should know their place. Society has a hierarchy, and really, if you seek to rise above your station you will have to pay the price. Every adult in this country should hang their head in shame for allowing the step by step erosion of our principles that has brought us to such depths.

Young people are rightfully angry about this. They are right to burn and smash and riot in our streets. We really deserve no less.

Damo’s SF prophecies for 2011

It’s a snowin’ in the British Isles, and it’s put me in mind of the coming end of year. So. I have decided to start a new tradition around these parts, and make my predictions for the key trends in SF in the year to come! And now with no further ado we present…

Damo’s SF prophecies for 2011

1. A New Hope – a full on speculative fiction book will be shortlisted for the Booker prize. It’s most likely to be an SF book dealing with actual science because…

2. Science Fiction Strikes Back! – …Science Fiction returns to publishers lists and readers imaginations. The success of The Quantum and The Wind-Up Girl are indicative of things to come. Science Fiction is back in fashion.

3. Return of the Epic Fantasy – assuming George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire makes it to the screen in its new HBO serial format, Epic Fantasy will sweep away all opposition as the sub-genre of choice for commercial publishers out to make a buck.

4. The Phantom Markets – despite ongoing rumours to the contrary, short fiction will not die. A few markets will close, a few will open. Writers of short fiction will continue not making a living.

5. Attack of the Lycanthrope – werewolves will have a brief outing as fandom fad of the month. Paul Jessup’s Werewolves will be seen as the origin point by those in the know.

6. Revenge of the Pop Hits – a solid mid-list SF writer will have a break-out pop hit with a song and video based on their writing. They will appear naked in the video. (So its unlikely I admit, all the more reason to MAKE IT HAPPEN.)

Check back next year to see how I do. If I get less than 3 of 6 I will perform a forfit of some kind. Make your nominations and your own SF prophecies below.