Damien Walter’s 4 step crash course in learning to write good

I am a vocal advocate of the ONE TRUTH when it comes to writing and publishing – that the only thing which comes close to a guarantee of success in this field is to Get Good At Writing. At which point someone inevitably shouts DAN BROWN at me and I say, yesbut even Dan Brown is actually pretty good at writing techno-thrillers. The one thing successful writers really do have in common is the ability to write, and pretty damn well in most cases.

I think anyone with the desire can learn to write fiction in 3 to 5 years from a standing start. (That learning process never ends but it can plateau sufficiently to start publishing). But like those podgy celebrities who disappear for six months and then come back as muscular love gods, it’s also possible to do things MUCH more quickly IF you have the motivation. If someone were to turn up on my doorstep with a Significant Sum of Money and demand to learn the secrets of fiction writing in 6 months, I would take the cash and set them the following curriculum.

Imagination

You already have an imagination, right? Maybe. But if you’re a typical citizen of the 21st century it’s well hidden underneath your target acquisition system attenuated for urban and media rich environments. Wu-huh what Damo?

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Let me simplify what is a rather more complex issue. Say that your mind has two different ways of thinking. Let’s call the first way your Small Mind. Your Small Mind does most of the stuff you generally think of when you think about your mind at all. It’s your Small Mind that navigates its way around a supermarket looking for beef steaks and peanut butter. If you get paid for a job of work, it’s likely a Small Mind activity that you’re being paid for. Manipulating spreadsheets is a proto-typical Small Mind job. As is most of the mundane stuff we do day to day.

When Big Mind speaks, learn to shut up and listen.

Some things your Small Mind has little to do with – breathing, regulating your body’s intricate nervous system, and writing. Imagine trying to *consciously* manage the bazillion different things your body is doing at even given moment, from digesting food to manufacturing blood cells. Your brain is doing all this stuff, but the last thing it needs is your Small Mind asking silly questions and worrying about stuff. So it does all the essential work in the background and then alerts your Small Mind on the rare occasions it’s presence is required. This total capacity of your brain to do all the important shit without telling you is your Big Mind.

Have you ever wondered why ideas for stories seem to come out of nowhere? That’s Big Mind doing all the really hard work in the background – weaving the threads of plot, character and theme to make a cool story – then tapping you on the shoulder and saying “here ya go…all done!” And what do we do? Mostly we ignore Big Mind and because Small Mind thinks it knows how to do it all. And so  the great stories of your imagination die, and instead you fight to consciously construct something that should properly be born in dreams. When Big Mind speaks, learn to shut up and listen.

Words, Sentences, Paragraphs

Buy a good book on English language grammar and usage and read it cover to cover.  Twice. List your twelve all time favourite novels and re-read them with a stack of coloured highlighters to hand. Study how the writers you love use language. Because it’s right down in the words, sentences and paragraphs that writing happens. Bad writing is like a Hollywood movie made with ugly actors on drab locations using Hi8 camcorders. Prose fiction only exists as words, sentences and pragraphs on a page, if they suck, so does the fiction. Our educational system leaves many people intimidated by the English language. Don’t be. This is the easiest of problems to solve. But it has to *be* solved before you can do most anything else. Think of it as your basic fitness. You can’t build rippling pectorals until you can run a few kilometres without wheezing, and you won’t write a magnificent story until you can fluently lay down language on the page.

Commercial Prose Style

This is where shit gets controversial. Being creative means being original, right? Well, Yes&No. Even the most original art is only about 3% original (I have literally plucked that figure from THIN AIR but will now fight to defend it) while the other 97% is re-combinatorial, IE parts stolen from other things then stitched together in to a Frankenstein’s Monster of a creation (there, you now also know what Frankenstein is really about). This, incidentally, is why knowing the history of your creative form is useful / essential, because that history shows you how all the different parts were reinvented and recycled by each new generation.

Style is the most obviously unoriginal part of most fiction. There are hundreds of ways to tell a story. But in practice the vast majority of stories are written in four styles, that constitute the four key styles of commercial fiction. If you want to shortcut a vast amount of hard work, then learn parrot fashion how to write one or two of these styles. You will be limited as a writer, but you won’t be alone. Must first time published authors can only write one style effective, usually but not always the one their published book is written in. Some, for reasons I do not fully comprehend, some can’t even write one style effectively, instead veering from style to style sometimes within a single paragraph. Sigh.

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Dramatic Structure

This is where you take all ideas of originality and toss them away. If you play music you’ll know that all popular songs have a verse, chorus and bridge, in various combination. Similarly, all stories have a beginning, middle and end, commonly rephrased as Act Onem Act Two and Act Three. Three act structure ladies and gentlemen, love it or hate it, you will never escape it. (There are alternatives but not on our 6 month body beautiful crash course) You can reshape it to 5 acts if you wish, it remains fundamentally the same thing. In there somewhere you’ll need an Inciting Incident, some Rising Action, a Mid-Point Twist, coherent Beats, Scenes and Sequences, and a well fashioned Crisis, Climax, Resolution to end things. BUT YOU’RE MAKING US WRITE A FORMULA. No, I’m making you write a structure. Like the verse, chorus, bridge of a pop song you can turn that structure in to the Rolling Stones or Eminem, but you can’t escape the structure itself. Three act structure is the structure of pretty much every story you have ever encountered in any medium. That’s how important it is.

These are of course basics. But they are probably enough to get you over the line and writing something, if not perfect, then at least interesting. And as any artist knows, interesting is ten times better than perfect, by any measure.

Novels are losing the narrative arms race

Humans like stories. In fact, it’s fair to say we are obsessed with stories. And never has our society been richer in stories. Today we have access to all the books, films, TV shows and other story media ever made, with more being made all the time.

Little wonder then that novels became a huge cultural success story – the television, movies and video games of their day.

But if you wanted to lose yourself in a story in 17th century England, where did you go? Most likely to the church or to the Bible, to have biblical myths read to you. Or you might read them yourself if you were among literate minority. Theatre of course, in cities or when a troupe travelled on tour. Possibly to a storyteller to hear a folk tale or two, or maybe some some bawdy stories told in drinking holes. But all said and done, your options were somewhat limited.

When novels began to arrive in the 18th century, as the costs of printing decreased, they arrived in to an environment starved and hungry for stories. And they provided stories stories that were far more complex, original and engaging than the competition. Unless you had a very good vicar, it’s unlikely his storytelling held much a candle to the serial fictions of Mr Charles Dickens. Little wonder then that novels became a huge cultural success story – the television, movies and video games of their day.

Novels allowed the telling of more sophisticated stories. And novelists quickly innovated new tools for the telling of stories. Novelistic techniques that we simply take for granted today, such as limited 3rd person point-of-view, simply didn’t exist in the early days of novels. Stories were told either by the writer as omniscient narrator, or through formats like the epistolary ‘novel of letters’ that allowed the characters to speak for themselves. A large part of the work for students on a creative writing course is to learn all of these novelistic techniques, so that they can write novels to the standards expected by readers today.

The film, in its narrative compression, is far more like the short story than the novel.

Examined from a technical perspective, a novel like War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy is an amazing storytelling achievement. It doesn’t simply tell one story but many, weaving through multiple points of view over a timespan of many years. It chronicles major events in human history, and illustrates them through their human dramas. It leads the reader to ask the big philosophical questions that underly the events. What is war? What is peace? How do we best live in either circumstance? There are other comparable literary achievements – Homer for instance, although the Iliad’s poetic form makes it a tough read for most – but the novel made this kind of complex storytelling widespread. And hugely, hugely popular.

Film took the development of story in a different direction. Filmic narratives are highly compressed, simply to fit in to the typical 120 minutes of time a feature film occupies. The film, in its narrative compression, is far more like the short story than the novel. Film also has an immense capacity for spectacle. You aren’t just watching a cowboy story, you’re seeing a real man firing a real gun. In the modern era of CGI, that spectacle has grown to epic proportions. The kind of slow, subtle character development novels thrive on is hard to achieve in film, and rarely tried today, when explosions and superheroes are so much more profitable.

Storytelling on television was hobbled for decades by that medium’s dependence on advertising, and the advertisers demand that television shows appeal to the lowest common denominator. Episodes of television drama were relatively short, sometimes only 20 minutes when advertising was removed. And networks did not allow producers to advance the storyline across episodes. The TV miniseries – often adapted from novels – allowed some great TV drama to be made, in particular shows like I Claudius and Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy in the UK.

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The HBO “box set” series is designed to be sold directly to the audience (as opposed to attracting advertisers) and consequentially aims for a far higher standard of narrative. It typically gives 10 hours of screen time in 1 hour chunks dedicated to telling one coherent story. Each 1 hour episode has its own discrete plot and subplots, but they all feed in to the over-aching series plot. They feature an ensemble cast of characters – as opposed to the single protagonist of most films – all of whom grow and develop (or die!) as the series unfolds. And they deal with complex human situations and relationships. They are, from many perspectives, highly novelistic. And in all honesty, the best of them leave War & Peace and many other great novels, eating their dust.

The Sopranos. Madmen. Band of Brothers. House of Cards. Game of Thrones. My new favourite, True Detective. Individually the best shows in the HBO format (there are now other producers) are the equal of any stories ever told. And in many regards, better. Taken as a whole, there is a strong argument that they are part of the most amazing flourishing of story in human history. They combine the complexity of novels with the spectacle and film. And they bring another element almost unique to television. They are written collaboratively by teams of writers and script editors. These shows aren’t just the product of one superb imagination, but many of them, working in unison.

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The novel, having pioneered the complex high quality storytelling it is clear audiences hunger for, now struggles to match the best of that storytelling in other mediums. Novels can’t touch the spectacle of film or the new king of that hill, video games. And they’re outgunned in the sheer richness of storytelling the best television shows can achieve. Not because the novel can’t match that quality, of course it can, but because doing so is very difficult. And the number of writers capable of producing stories of that quality is very small.

It’s easy to set up shop as a novelist. It’s ridiculously hard to actually write high quality novels. Writing a great novel is an achievement on the scale of making a major scientific breakthrough or winning a significant military battle. That’s why in British history Jane Austen is remembered alongside Isaac Newton and Horatio Nelson. And yet very few writers seem willing to pursue the long, hard path towards that kind of achievement. Absurdly, there’s a common conception among writers that they don’t even need to learn to write before putting their work in to the world. How many scientific breakthroughs are made without decades of learning? How many battles won without years of collective experience being deployed on the battlefield? Why expect making art to be any different?

Among the runaway hits in recent publishing is A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin. It’s a novel in the epic fantasy genre, but its success is far more to do with its complex, high quality story telling than the presence of dragons. Martin was a Hugo award winning sci-fi writer at a young age, who then spent two decades working in the word-mines of Hollywood script development, before bringing all of that expertise together in his masterpiece. The books were already massive bestsellers, head and shulders the best books in their genre, before being picked by HBO, where they required little work to fit in to the new television format.

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The response of publishers has been comically absurd. For the best part of a decade now publishers have been flooding their distribution channels with fantasy series in the style of Game of Thrones. But instead of seeking out the few writers who might have the chops to make a new work on the scale of Martin’s epic, publishers have paid peanuts to debut authors to make third rate clones that lack all the technical expertise to equal the original. And this is far from a unique scenario. The publishing industry, instead of nurturing quality writing, has turned itself in to a cloning operation. There are still quality books to be found of course, but they are buried amongst a swill of third rate clones of the rare bestsellers that appear. And this, more than anything else, is destroying the audience for novels. Imagine if HBO, alongside True Detective, also released 200 competing television shows that looked similar but nowhere near as good. They would quickly undermine their audience engagement, just as publishers have. If publishers want their business back, they need to be as obsessed with story quality as HBO.

There’s a bun fight about self publishing in the book trade at the moment. Half the trade are waking up to the reality that self publishing is the future, while the other half are looking for reasons why it shouldn’t be. The number one reason is quality. Self-publishing doesn’t provide a career path for writers, or police quality. But publishers abandoned both these roles long ago. The writers who achieve real quality in their work do so entirely under their own energies. And that small minority of writers are now turning to self publishing as an answer to the serious question, what value are publishers adding if they do not nurture quality? Because, if novels are to thrive as a medium in the 21st century, it is only an obsession with quality that will place them among the best storytelling on offer.

Want to sell books? Get good at writing.

One of my very favourite novels hit the Top 100 bestsellers on Amazon Kindle tonight. I looked at the Amazon page for The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and found my own review of the book glaring up at me!

‘By far my favourite book of of the year … There isn’t a wasted word, poorly considered paragraph or a single chapter in this high-concept fairytale that doesn’t deliver some new enchantment’ Damien Walter, Guardian

I knew Golem was going to be a big hit about three chapters in to my first reading of the book. I reviewed it initially for SFX magazine and then picked it as one of my titles to look out for in 2014 in my regular column for The Guardian.  How could I be so certain after just three chapters? I’ll get to that in about a paragraph.

Golem was obviously not going to be an overnight hit. It was a debut novel, in a market where sales are driven by the name recognition of a “brand” authors. It wasn’t within any clearly defined, popular genre. No epic fantasy, SAS adventure or techno-thriller action here. And Wecker was largely unknown, unlike some debuts that pop out from authors who have 30,000 twitter followers or something of the kind. Nonetheless, I had absolutely zero doubts that this book was going to gather tremendous word of mouth and end up on all kinds of bestseller lists. And it has done just that, hitting the New York Times bestseller lists and picking up a whole bunch of award nominations including a Nebula along the way.

(As this post seems to be largely me boasting about my precognitive author talent spotting abilities, I may as well point out I’ve called the World Fantasy Award two years running with Osama and Alif the Unseen and I will be stunned if Golem is not on this year’s shortlist, and rather suprised if it doesn’t win.)

OK so two paragraphs later, how could I be so certain Golem was going to be a hit?

Because Helene Wecker can really write.

Don’t believe anyone who tells you that writing and story can be separated. This idea gets touted a lot in genre fiction, and in sci-fi and fantasy writing in particular. Obviously people want to believe it. Good writing is hard, it takes practice, and it takes time to get on the page. It’s a craft. Genre fiction is often put out in a rush, to short deadlines. It gets pushed toward the a production line model. The product is touted for it’s huge imagination. The blurb will tell you there are dragons and zeppelins and robot armies and all the rest. The cover is often amazing. But then you open the cover and the writing just isn’t there to back up the promises. Because the writing and the story are one and the same thing.

“Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.” States Kurt Vonnegut’s 4th rule of writing. You may say you don’t agree. But pick up any of the thousands of genre novels published every year and see just how few of the sentences on a given page achieve this, in fact rather basic, measure of accomplishment. Then pick up any writer who succeeds in charming an audience in novel after novel, and I guarantee you’ll find at least 90% of their sentences do one of the above.

Writing as good as Helene Wecker’s is in fact pretty rare. There are a lot of ambitious prose stylists out there. But far fewer writers who can restrain the same level of linguistic skill and apply it to telling a really good story. So when you find writers who both have that talent and that restraint, you can bet money on the fact that their work will find readers. And if its readers you want for your work, I suggest working first and foremost on the quality of your writing above anything else.

Books aren’t consumer goods, that is what’s wrong

Crime author John Connolly condensed down a popular sentiment in to a single tweet recently, that I think is worth unpacking and considering in some detail.

There’s a fundamental problem with the logic underlying Connolly’s argument. And when you work it through you find that the problem sits, not with the people unwilling to pay $2.99 for a book, but with the industry that has devalued the book to that point.

Greetings cards and wrapping paper are consumer goods. You have an immediate need or desire, and purchasing this product meets that need or desire. You need to show a relative you care about their birthday. $5 on a greeting card? Deal. You want to relax for thirty minutes after your big meeting at work. $4 for a mocha latte? Deal. You’re hungry and want something easy to eat. $1 for a tin of beans? Deal.

Books are not consumer goods. What’s the consumer need or desire satisfied by purchasing a classic edition of Baccaccio’s Decameron right this moment? What emotional need is The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt likely to serve? Where is the instant gratification in Daljit Nagra’s Look We Have Coming To Dover? I’m not arguing that there isn’t any, but it might only appear in rare and splendid circumstances.

The are common situations where a book can become a consumer purchase. On a long journey a book serves an immediate need, so booksellers of “airport thrillers” do well at train stations and airports. But the further you move from a captive audience satisfying a consumer need or desire, to a free audience whose desires and needs are largely fulfilled, the stranger and more esoteric book buying becomes.

I bought a copy of Home At Grassmere by Dorothy Wordsworth recently. I was drawn to it on the shelf and after a few pages realised the narrative voice reminded me of an old friend. The first time I read Haruki Murakami was because I was sent Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Amazon by mistake. Now he is my favourite writer. I often fall in love with and buy books for obscure, indirect reasons that have nothing to do with the dynamics of consumer marketing. And I’m certainly not alone in this.

But there isn’t much money in selling books to people based on random, obscure chance. So publishers, as businesses, have done their damnedest to turn books in to consumer goods. Modern genres like sci-fi, crime, and horror are all about turning books in to products. Predictable, marketable products. Brand name authors like John Grisham succeed in this environment because they produce books that can be sold like consumer goods. Like a tin of beans, a John Grisham legal thriller can be stacked high and sold cheap.

And so here we are, at a point where books have been so effectively repackaged as consumer goods that consumers now can’t see the qualitative difference between them and a venti cappuccino. If you relentlessly devalue something, even something as intrinsically valuable as a book, it will eventually lose all value.

A whole group of authors including John Grisham, Scott Turow, Clive Cussler and James Patterson wrote a complaint letter to Amazon this week. All these authors have happily exploited the devaluing of the books as a consumer good to make their own personal fortunes. Now, like Connolly, they are wondering what is wrong. Well, sorry to break it to you chaps, but you’re what is wrong. Amazon is just the logical next step in the process of devaluing books you;ve been complicit in your whole careers. Call me a hard hearted bastard, but I struggle to find sympathy for people who are simply reaping what they have sown.

Engineering the myth of the writer

A good writer friend of mine is keen to point out that he does’t just sit around in a smoking jacket, dreaming away the mornings. But maybe he shouldn’t be so keen to demystify the writing life. The wonderful Brainpickings blog collates some of the odder behaviour of writers while they write, but notes that writers are sometimes guilty of embellishing the facts to engineer the myth of their own oddness:

As curious as these habits are, however, Johnson reminds us that public intellectuals often engineer their own myths, which means the quirky behaviors recorded in history’s annals should be taken with a grain of Salinger salt. She offers a necessary disclaimer, enveloped in a thoughtful meta-disclaimer:

“One must always keep in mind that these writers and the people around them may have, at some point, embellished the facts. Quirks are great fodder for gossip and can morph into gross exaggeration when passed from one person to the next. There’s also no way to escape the self-mythologizing particularly when dealing with some of the greatest storytellers that ever lived. Yet even when authors stretch the truth, they reveal something about themselves, when it is the desire to project a certain image or the need to shy away from one.”

via The Odd Habits and Curious Customs of Famous Writers | Brain Pickings.

There are whispered rumours among older SF fans that Philip K Dick’s spiritual revelations where at least a little exaggerated by the author, perhaps as part of the effort to move from sci-fi to mainstream literary writing. We like the stories writers tell, but in some ways, we like the stories about our writers even more.

Last year I explained to a group of writers attending one of my workshops that much of my writing begins when I am meditating. We got talking on the subject of meditation and how some people perceive their imagination as an external voice talking to them, maybe even the voice of god. Later one of my students asked if I thought my stores came from god. To which I responded, I hope they’d be less often rejected if they came from a divine authority. Jokes, you know. Some weeks later, it seems the rumour had spread, and I sat down with a colleague who asked me if I was really teaching my students to channel god in the classroom.

Sigh.

But maybe I should go with it? Yes, my fictions are the product of divine interventions! But I doubt I would be the first writer to engineer that particular myth.

How to think about writing

Public intellectual Steven Pinker has a new book approaching, a psychological study of the process of writing called The Sense of Style. And it sounds fascinating:

The key thing to realise, Pinker argues, is that writing is “cognitively unnatural”. For almost all human existence, nobody wrote anything; even after that, for millennia, only a tiny elite did so. And it remains an odd way to communicate. You cant see your readers facial expressions. They cant ask for clarification. Often, you dont know who they are, or how much they know. How to make up for all this?

Pinkers answer builds on the work of two language scholars, Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas, who label their approach “joint attention”. Writing is a modern twist on an ancient, species-wide behaviour: drawing someone elses attention to something visible. Imagine stopping during a hike to point out a distant church to your hiking companion: look, over there, in the gap between those trees – that patch of yellow stone? Now can you see the spire? “When you write,” Pinker says, “you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world thats interesting, and that youre directing the attention of your reader to that thing.”

via This column will change your life: how to think about writing | Lifeandstyle | The Guardian.

That sets off about a million thoughts in my head, but it’s too late to write them down tonight. What do you think?

This Is Your Brain on Writing

We live in a culture dominated by visual imagery. And this includes modern storytelling, which is dominated by film and television. We learn to tell stories visually, and this bias is so ingrained that it is actually reflected in our brain patterns, as this fascinating insight from a recent New York Times feature reveals :

As the scientists report in a new study in the journal NeuroImage, the brains of expert writers appeared to work differently, even before they set pen to paper. During brainstorming, the novice writers activated their visual centers. By contrast, the brains of expert writers showed more activity in regions involved in speech.

“I think both groups are using different strategies,” Dr. Lotze said. It’s possible that the novices are watching their stories like a film inside their heads, while the writers are narrating it with an inner voice.

via This Is Your Brain on Writing – NYTimes.com.

The first task when I am teaching creative writing to novice students is to help them de-program  their visual imagination, and learn to use their linguistic imagination instead. There’s no indication here whether we naturally tend toward the visual imagination, or whether it is a learnt tendency from our predominantly visual culture. In either case, it’s a vast problem for most aspiring writers.

There are at least three profound problems caused by this reliance on the visual imagination. The first is a crippling dependence on description. As the NYT article illuminates, novice writers are attempting to describe a film unfolding in their heads. They tell you what everything look likes, but neglect to tell the actual story.

The second problem arises when novice writers attempt to apply the grammar of visual narratives to a linguistic narrative. For instance, in a visual narrative single scenes tend to follow the basic structure Action, Location, Emotion. But a scene in a linguistic narrative works more effectively structured around Location, Action, Emotion. It sounds like slight difference, but in practice it determines whether readers follow your story or stop reading and put it aside.

Thirdly, writers working from the visual imagination inevitably neglect all of the small techniques that add up to a compelling narrative voice. Their prose lacks rhythm or effective sentence structure. They try to write transparent prose that simply conveys the story, not realising that in prose, the words and story are ultimately one and the same thing.

How does a novice writer shift from their visual to their linguistic imagination? A good writing teacher can help, but the bottom line is you need to switch off the TV and read lots of books instead. And analyse how those books work. It’s a hard transition to make. Even many professional writers never manage it, although those who fail tend to have a short career. But if you can begin to work from a primarily linguistic imagination, you’ll find your writing is transformed for the better.

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.

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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