David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas and Booker nominee, is a true geek

David Mitchell is one of the world’s most successful literary novelists. He has been twice nominated for the prestigious Booker prize, and his novel Cloud Atlas was adapted to the Tykwer and Wachowski film starring Tom Hanks. He’s also a huge sci-fi fan with a long love of geek culture. Damien Walter sat down with the bestselling author to discuss his SF influences, which D&D character type he plays, and the future of the novel in a multi-media age.

This interview is brought to you courtesy of Damien’s Patreon backers. Become a Patron for $2 a month to help support independent writing.

*

Damien – Hello David. Sci-fi and fantasy fiction have a huge and very dedicated fanbase, who over the years have come to love your work. I think many fans see parallels between the metaphysical ideas in your writing, and common ideas in genre fiction. I’d like to ask you a few questions about this.

David – Cheers Damien. Good to meet you, and thanks for your interest in my work. The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth.

Damien – The relationship between literary fiction and sci-fi has been discussed a lot recently, including a fascinating dialogue between Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman.

David – Gosh that was an interesting article – one of the most ideas-buzzing conversations about genre I’ve ever read, don’t you think? I was fascinated by NG’s anecdote about China. My own experience is that while the Party has relaxed regarding SF & Fantasy, it still censors alternative history SF. Of course, if the past is rewritable, the Party’s place in it, and in China’s present and future, is more arbitrary than inevitable. Makes you think of the famous Orwell quote about whoever controls the present controls the past, and whoever controls the past controls the future. There’s something deeply subversive about SF, in part because of its camouflage – “Hey Mr Grownups, don’t worry about me as an art-form, I’m just kids’ fantasy rubbish, they’ll all grow out of me in a year or two…”

“my longest-lived character was a Ranger based on, and possibly even named, Aragorn.”

Damien – That must be why so many writers were inspired by sci-fi as kids. You’ve admitted to a totally normal white middle class upbringing in the past. Did this include such geeky things as Doctor Who, comic books, Dungeons & Dragons, video games?

51zSxGPo+iL
The Bone Clocks

David – I’d use the verb ‘assert’ rather than ‘admit’. Protected solvent normality with sane kind parents, is a stroke of luck, not a misdemeanour. But yes; yes; yes…and yes! Tom Baker was my formative Doctor – someone that batshit crazy simply had to be real, a trick that Capaldi borrows to great effect. 2000AD was my comic – I loved THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT stories particularly, and JUDGE DREDD provided great training in long-form episodic narratives. AD&D, yes, until an age when I really should have been doing something more pro-active about my lack of a girlfriend – my longest-lived character was a Ranger based on, and possibly even named, Aragorn. (He’s still out there, somewhere…) Video games – not so much playing them as programming them. I made an epic on my 48k Sinclair Spectrum called THE SPHERES OF CREATION. (It was a load of balls. I know, it’s the way I tell ’em.) It was a quest-based adventure game, and for a short time a software house in Stockport was interested in developing it, though that fizzled out. I think of it now as a kind of proto-novel.

 “Just because you deploy genre for the book in hand doesn’t mean you’re married to that genre ’til death us do part.”

Damien – You’ve listed Ursula Le Guin and Issac Asimov as early writing influences, two Big Guns of science fiction. Are there any others you might add? Which scifi authors impress you today?

I remember collecting the RIVERWORLD books by Philip Jose Farmer; the ‘Gil the Arm’ stories by Larry Niven, about a detective with a psychic arm; Theodore Sturgeon’s MORE THAN HUMAN; Harry Harrison, author of THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT; JG Ballard; HG Wells; EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s LENSMEN books, though I now suspect the Chris Foss covers were better than the books themselves; Ray Bradbury. I’m sure there were more. Like Neil Gaiman, I enjoyed reading Asimov’s (slightly self-congratulatory, but never mind) introductions to each of the stories in his volumes of COLLECTED STORIES – these short passages provided insights into the craft and business of writing which were unavailable elsewhere. I had a cheaply-printed second-hand American anthology called 100 YEARS OF SCIENCE FICTION that I bought from a shop in Upton-on-Severn, and I still remember some of the stories in it, even if I don’t remember the authors.

51o4kWfxiRL
Number 9 Dream

These days I’d add the names Neal Stephenson and William Gibson and Margaret Attwood to the list, but there would be many more individual books than names of individuals: Kazuo Ishiguro’s NEVER LET ME GO; Emily St John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN; EM Forster’s (seriously) SF novella THE MACHINE STOPS; Michel Faber’s THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS; Gary Shteyngart’s SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY; Kate Atkinson’s LIFE AFTER LIFE. Something’s afoot. For literary-ish writers of my generation – and the freer-styled writers in the generation ahead of ours, like Kazuo Ishiguro – the assumption that only social realists are allowed into the throne-room is falling into disrepute. Just because you deploy genre for the book in hand doesn’t mean you’re married to that genre ’til death us do part. It’s not like Dylan going electric. Or, it is, but it doesn’t end with electric; it can then veer country-wards for NASHVILLE SKYLINE, before wellying up the bass-lines for JOHN WESLEY HARDING, before …

Damien – Before going as far and as freely as the author can imagine. A great imagination must be a basic criteria for a good novelist, but people sometimes frown at wilder flights of fantasy. Do you see anything fundamentally different between mapping imaginary archipelagos and describing the detailed lives of real people and real places?

51-ctfMPBcL
Cloud Atlas

David – (1) The mapping of made-up archipelagos is imaginary cartography. (2) Describing the detailed lives of real people and real places is biography and history, respectively. (3) Describing the detailed lives of imagined people in places you can find on Earth today is an act of fiction, and if the laws of physics in this fiction pretty much correspond to those of our world, then the label ‘social realism’ is applied by those who care about these matters. (4) If the novel is set on a place not on any map (and “true places never are” Melville writes in MOBY DICK) or if the laws of physics have been monkeyed about with, then the label ‘SF’ or ‘fantasy’ gets applied, depending if the monkeyings are of a techno or a magical nature. So, to answer your question: (1) and (2) are fundamentally different from each other and from (3) and (4). (3) and (4) are not so different from each other, no. In both cases, fiction is being written and it’s either good or bad or somewhere in between, according to the talents of the writer and the tastes of the reader. Frown if it’s bad, frown if you have to take it to the charity shop after only 40 pages in, but don’t frown just because it’s a wild flight of fantasy. GAWAINE AND THE GREEN KNIGHT is a wild flight of fantasy. So is much of Shakespeare. So are key chunks of Dickens. So is Borges.

Damien – Your debut novel Ghostwritten seems to flirt with many forms of afterlife – ghosts of course, and the idea of reincarnation. Do you play with supernatural ideas for fun, or does the book express any part of your true beliefs?

David – Ghostwritten – If I remember correctly, it’s been years since I looked at it – incorporates various forms of the afterlife because the novel wouldn’t have been the novel I wanted it to be if it hadn’t done so. The novel’s the boss, every time. I’m a content-enough agnostic with a now-common built-in wariness of both mega-religions and cults. I’ve read books about Buddhism that I’ve found instructive and helpful for my relationship with my mind, but I have little doubt that Buddhist institutions in East Asia are every bit as capable of mafioso practices and predatory violence as the Catholic Church has proven itself to be in Ireland.

cloud-atlas

“Novels can no more compete with films and video games than Led Zeppelin’s The Battle of Evermore can compete with a weekend mini-break in Palermo.”

Damien – Cloud Atlas also interwove multiple story-lines, and took the reader into a future dystopia and the post-apocalypse. Are these serious predictions about how you see the future unfolding?

David – They are possible futures. I have no idea if the futures portrayed in Cloud Atlas will come to pass or not, and neither does anyone else. All futures are possible until they cull the competition by becoming the singular present. Aren’t time and reality fascinating things?

Damien – The Bone Clocks has been called your most explicitly sci-fi novel to date, with elements of the paranormal, the alien, and conspiracy theories. But I’m most struck by your repeated interest in teenage characters. What draws you back to the adolescent experience?

David – Not sure if I’d totally agree with the premise of the question, Damien. There’s the whole of Black Swan Green and one-sixth of The Bone Clocks where my narrators are adolescents, and… I think that’s my lot? That said, adolescence is an interesting threshold in life, with one foot in childhood and one in adulthood, don’t you think? Adolescents are neither fish nor fowl, they have a lot to learn even if they think otherwise. They tend to be seeing the adult world for the first time and thus have fresh eyeballs, and everything they do is a journey of one type or another. Gold dust for novelists.

Damien – The Bone Clocks also revealed more clearly than ever the “meta-narrative” that appears to stitch all of your novels together. Have you been planning this from the beginning?

David – It has been quietly mutating as I’ve gone along.

Damien – Some people argue the novel is in trouble, that it can’t compete with the spectacle of films and video games. Your novels are experimental and challenging, but also commercially successful. What makes the novel relevant for people today?

David – For people who don’t have the novel habit, novels couldn’t be more irrelevant. Just occasionally a HARRY POTTER or a GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO or a DA VINCI CODE comes along and ram-raids the leisure time of people who don’t normally read, and maybe then they experience a ‘relevancy-surge’ and that’s great (and hats off to those authors). A few non-readers may be converted long-term to the pleasures of novels, but most aren’t, and that’s okay too and anyhow it’s the way of the world so what can you do, eh? Novels can no more compete with films and video games than Led Zeppelin’s THE BATTLE OF EVERMORE can compete with a weekend mini-break in Palermo. To novel-readers, however, the novel is rather more than ‘relevant’: at its best, the form brings pleasure, solace, knowledge, bonding with other readers, intrigue, escapism and who knows, maybe just occasionally a few dribbles of wisdom worth storing away. Yes, the novel’s business model has taken a hammering from the Internet – too many people are too pleased with themselves for downloading books without paying the writer – but a business model being in trouble is not the same thing as an art form being in trouble.

Damien – Thanks for your time David. Any final thoughts?

David – My pleasure, Damien. I suppose my final thought is that our artsy sub-corner of the big wide world would be better if the question “To what genre does this novel belong?” were utterly irrelevant to that novel’s critical or commercial reception. I’m heartened by the signs that we’re getting there, and I sense that we are on the same side.

Advertisements

Why quiet is essential to your creative practice

For the last 15 days I’ve been writing a series of posts on creative fear, to take myself – and anyone else who wants to follow – past the barriers that keep us from creating. The series began with a personal essay on the need for quiet if we’re to be creative at all.

Originally published with the support of my backers on Patreon.

*

We live in a very noisy world. Even putting aside all the noise we can’t control – the party next door, the six lane highway a block over, plane flight paths, the tinny rattle of somebody elses iPod on the daily commute – many, perhaps most of us,  choose to soak our senses in a 24 hour a day noisefest. Hands up who has a radio on all night? TV in the morning? Podcasts while at the computer? Led Zeppelin in the shower? Background muzak while cooking? It’s endless.

Why do we do this?

I put it to you that we do this to distract ourselves. And because the distraction is unremmiting and focused on us, I also put forward the suggestion that what we’re seeking distraction from is our self.

When I was 18 my mother died. I’d never been at all ambitious, in fact I was quite a lazy teenager, my only real interests were absorbing stories in any digestible form, and then writing my own. But two years of watching my mum collapse under the weight of cancer changed me. We were a single parent family living on benefits, and as my mum got sicker and sicker, I realised that our poor existence was a big part of what was killing her. I was furious, the kind of permanent anger that after long enough you don’t even see any more.

I had dropped out of college when mum got sick. I went back. I wanted to prove that being poor didn’t mean I or my mum where any less than anybody else. With literally no money on the day I got there, I went to university. I worked every crappy job there was to pay for it. I could have got better jobs, but if you’re furious, jobs where you finish the day exhausted are a bonus. I did a masters degree. I tussled with an excellent recreational drug addiction. I smashed through two different careers and a long term relationship.

For twelve years I never stopped. Sometimes, often, I had intense waking dreams of stories, but I never gave them space to grow. I had to keep fighting the world, if I stopped for a moment to write it would win. And all the time, like so many people, there was noise. Televison. Films. Earphones. Smartphones. Parties. Constant conversation. Meetings. Projects. Games. There is, in this modern world, always some way you can fill every moment with noise. And I did, for twelve years solid.

Eventually, if you don’t stop, your body, or your mind, or the boss of both – your soul – will stop you. I was thirty and I’d just returned home from America (after attending the Clarion writer’s workshop) and all three ganged up on me and shouted “Enough is enough! No more Damo!” and that was that. It didn’t happen in a single moment, but over the next few months I started kicking out all the sources of noise. I found a counsellor. The first thing she suggested was that we sit quietly together. I found a meditation teacher. Apparently meditation is just sitting quietly. A revelation! Who knew?!

And once I was being quiet, I realised what all the noise was for. For twelve years I’d thought I was working towards something. A career. Success. But actually I was running away from someone. I was running away from the slightly lazy kid who loved reading and writing stories, who hadn’t been strong enough to deal with losing his mum. I was running away from my self.

The next couple of years were kind of…squelchy. There was a lot of crying. After twelve years where I barely squeezed out a tear, and sat on an unploded neutron bomb of unprocesed emotion, I had a lot of squelching to do. I had to learn to stop distracting myself with the noise, and start facing what waited for me when the world went quiet. And as I did, slowly and truly, I began to write stories again.

THERE’S NO FUCKING WAY I’M DOING THAT, I hear you scream. That’s OK. I ain’t going to make you. But if something in this resonates with something in you, here are some suggestions :

1. Switch off the TV. Televisions place your mind into a receptive state mich like dreaming. Which would be OK if they didn’t then fill your mind with things that make you feel awful about yourself. Watch good quality TV in box sets without adverts, otherwise just switch the thing off.

2. Spend 5 minutes a day in silence. I don’t mean reading a book or asleep. You don’t have to sit in the lotus position, or burn incense. Just switch everything off and don’t do anything. Extend the time up to 20 minutes if you can. That’s enough. If you want some advanced practice, try naming your thoughts. “I’m thinking about work. I’m thinking about chocolate. I’m thinking about thinking.” You can try not thinking if you want, it’s fun to realise that you can’t.

3. Spend a whole day doing nothing. I don’t mean eating chocolate and watching re-runs of West Wing. I mean doing nothing. Phone in sick, switch everything off, then sit on your butt and do nothing. You gan go for a walk, but you can’t go anywhere. You can eat, but nothing special. As “spiritual experiences” go this is better than meeting the Dalai Lama while high on Mescaline. Nothing will happen, nothing will change, it will feel like a total waste of time and that. Is. The. Point.

To read the complete series on creative fear, please visit my Patreon page.

The next publishing craze? Weird Westerns.

It’s a little-known fact that one of the all-time bestselling writers of westerns lived most of his life in the English market town of Melton Mowbray. JT Edson, who died in 2014, wrote more than 137 novels, most of them westerns, and claimed in all seriousness “never to have even been on a horse”. A former chip shop owner, Edson developed a love of escapist fantasy in his youth, and approached writing westerns just as he later approached writing sci-fi.

The world of the western is about as historically accurate about 19th-century America as the world of the Shire in Lord of the Rings is about pre-industrial England. Both are fantasy worlds, abstracted from reality, crafted by expert fantasists. The pre-eminent western author, Louis L’Amour, loved the mythology so deeply that he began to write novels as a way of escaping into it. Like sci-fi and fantasy authors, writers of westerns, even when their sales stretch into millions, remain at the margins of mainstream culture. So it seems almost inevitable that over time the western and the fantasy have cross-bred.

Read more @ Guardian Books

Too scared to create? Join my journey to the other side of creative fear

This is a thank you to the nineteen patrons who have helped get me to my first Patreon milestone. You are great friends to me and your support means the world.
I started this Patreon because I was stuck. Instead of picking a story and writing it until the end, I was flitting between different stories as they captured my interest. Oh yes, I was learning something from each new style or structure, but I wasn’t finishing. Something was wrong.

I was scared.

Read more at Patreon.com.

What is geek culture’s big problem with criticism?

This essay was written with the support of my patrons. If you find value in my writing, please consider becoming one of my backers on Patreon.

Or if a regular donation isn’t possible, you can purchase my short story collection.

I do understand why people often react poorly to cultural criticism. If I was in a dark, atmospheric cinema watching Avengers 2 : Age of Ultron and just before every witty Joss Whedon one liner I popped up and said “you do realise that’s just a sweetener to help you swallow Whedon’s implicit American triumphalism”, I’d probably punch me in the face as well. And then give me a good kicking when I insisted I was actually right, actually.

“when the escapist fantasies of geek culture become a denial of reality, then they become a problem”

Actor, comedian, writer and all round geek icon Simon Pegg unleashed the fury of the geek mob when he had the temerity to suggest that geeks who carry an infantile love of SpiderMan or My Little Pony into their 30s or 40s might possibly be a little bit childish. Pegg wasn’t literally shouting this into the face of every slightly immature geek, but many geeks felt personally insulted by even this relatively mild criticism. Like a stage illusionist pointing out the smoke and mirrors, Pegg was spoiling the illusion of geek culture.

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard might seem like an odd authority to reference in a critique of geek culture, but in a post following his initial criticism Pegg made a compelling case for Baudrillard’s postmodern philosophy. Geek culture is poorly defined at best. To the majority of their audience the recent massive popularity of MMORPGs, superhero movies and fantasy novels from Harry Potter to Twilight is simply a new spin on pop culture. Baudrillard and other postmodern critical thinkers like Michel Foucault and the Frankfurt School made insightful criticisms of the mass media and pop culture, criticisms that apply equally to geek culture.

The defining characteristic of geek culture is its fascination with escapist fantasy. Whether it’s the sci-fi escapism of computer generated fantasy worlds like Mass Effect, or escaping into the lush linguistic universe of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the core of the geek cultural experience is encapsulated by the word “immersion”. Geeks want to be immersed in a story, an experience, in a world that takes them as far outside reality as possible. The popularity of geek culture has increased as ever larger audiences have fallen for the allure of escapist fantasy.

Jean Baudrillard's classic Simulacra and Simulation.
Jean Baudrillard’s classic Simulacra and Simulation.

Postmodern philosophy provides an interesting critique of fantasy and escapism, and hence of geek culture. Fantasy appeals to our desire to return to childhood, escaping our adult understanding of reality. It is a good vehicle for spectacle, mindless visual stimulation like explosions, gun fights, naked bodies, dragons or anything we can focus our attention on without being made to think. At the core of the postmodern critique is the idea that the “entertainment industry” has a structural purpose in society other than entertainment, a purpose that is served very well by escapist fantasy. All this entertainment is provided to keep you distracted from reality.

The Matrix trilogy, that electrified audiences in the the early 1990s, drew heavily from postmodern philosophy, and in particular the ideas of Jean Baudrillard. When Laurence Fishburne reveals to Keanu Reeves that the only reason for his existence is to be a Duracell battery powering a machine dictatorship, it caps a complex metaphor crafted by writer-director team Andy and Lana Wachowski. Like all great fantasy heroes Neo is an everyman. He is you, the audience watching. And you in turn are a Duracell battery, exploited for your energy by a society intent on keeping you under control.

“The reality you live in is one where women are forced to serve, forced to humiliate themselves, denied freedoms, raped and murdered. That is your reality today.”

Postmodern philosophy argues that, like the machine controlled Matrix of the movies, society controls you by keeping you abstracted from reality. Like Neo in his goop-filled pod, you are kept entertained in your living room by a relentless procession of TV shows, films and games. Today you can even carry the entertainment around with you on your eight- hour work shift, just so long as you keep being a good little Duracell. And the hard truth is, like the character who asks to be put back inside the Matrix, many people prefer to stay in their goop tank. And if confronted with something or someone that wakes them up, they get angry.

85f9fa82f17170ff5cb07ef0a345240567e707adfe37633e252cb6d6a230f778

Very angry.

When the critic Anita Sarkeesian confronted gamers with the reality of their culture, the response was rage and abuse. It was because Sarkeesian’s feminist critique of gamer culture was so brutally honest and accurate that it incited such intense anger. In the words of former US president Jimmy Carter, “the worst human rights abuse on Earth is the horrible persecution and deprivation of equal rights of women and girls”. Consider that statement. Worse than mankind’s many wars, worse than the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, worse than global terrorism, is the daily and routine persecution of women and girls.

The reality you live in is one where women are forced to serve, forced to humiliate themselves, denied freedoms, raped and murdered. That is your reality today. But the gamers who attacked Anita Sarkeesian don’t live in reality. They live in a series of computer generated fantasy worlds, provided specifically to keep them abstracted from reality. Fantasy worlds that often turn on the freedom to murder and abuse others, frequently women and girls, without consequence. And like all fantasists, when confronted with reality in the form of honest criticism, gamer culture went apeshit.

You don’t have to worship Baudrillard or accept every part of postmodern philosophy to see that geek culture is popular, in large part, because it provides its audiences with expertly made and highly effective escape routes from reality. When geek audiences respond poorly to criticism, it’s because we’re being rudely awoken from the dream worlds we are given to escape into. There is nothing implicitly wrong with fantasy or escapism. When expertly crafted an escapist fantasy like The Matrix can point the way back to reality more powerfully than anything else.

But when the escapist fantasies of geek culture become a denial of reality, then they become a problem. If your fantasy is more important to you than dealing with the realities of injustice and suffering in this world, then it becomes a problem. If your fantasy is more important to you than your own well being and growth as a human being, then it becomes a problem. And when your fantasy becomes a problem, that is when criticism is at its most important. Simon Pegg, Jean Baudrillard and Anita Sarkeesian aren’t trying to hurt you, Bilbo Baggins, they’re trying to help you. And if you find yourself among those outraged and offended by their criticism, you may be the most in need of their help.

Coming soon in “Geek Culture”: A Meditation on the Male Chest. You can help make this essay happen by becoming a backer.