The ominous ordinary: horror writers finding scares in the everyday

Some of the very best work in this genre comes from writers who embed their terrors into strikingly everyday settings.

Long-lived short fiction magazines are a rarity today. And ones that have had a real impact on the wider landscape of storytelling are even rarer. So issue 50 of Black Static marks a important milestone for editor Andy Cox and TTA Press, who are responsible for two of the world’s most significant outlets for short fiction.

Reality, even comfortable suburban reality, is transitory and fleeting.

The Third Alternative was already a well-established showcase for stories that moved between sci-fi, fantasy and horror themes when Andy Cox took ownership of the legendary science fiction publication Interzone. With Interzone’s strong focus on SF, Cox made the decision to refocus TTA on horror, and rebrand it as Black Static.

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How do you balance complexity and simplicity in your writing?

I love this research revealed in The Guardian today from a scientific study that claims to have found fractal patterns in novels like Finnegans Wake.

James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has been described as many things, from a masterpiece to unreadable nonsense. But it is also, according to scientists at the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Poland, almost indistinguishable in its structure from a purely mathematical multifractal.

The academics put more than 100 works of world literature, by authors from Charles Dickens to Shakespeare, Alexandre Dumas, Thomas Mann, Umberto Eco and Samuel Beckett, through a detailed statistical analysis. Looking at sentence lengths and how they varied, they found that in an “overwhelming majority” of the studied texts, the correlations in variations of sentence length were governed by the dynamics of a cascade – meaning that their construction is a fractal: a mathematical object in which each fragment, when expanded, has a structure resembling the whole.

Fractals are used in science to model structures that contain re-occurring patterns, including snowflakes and galaxies.

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The idea of stories as fractals resonates with me deeply. Anything that happens is both part of anther happening, and has happenings within it. I take a walk in the forest. During my walk I see a deer. I follow the deer to a cave. In the cave I find a stone with my name on. Interesting, and it’s all still happening whilst I am walking in the forest, which is a part of the day that I wrote this story on. And so on.

I’ve been working with stories in this way for most of a decade. But it comes with problem. Part of the beauty of fractal structures is their complexity. A diamond is so beautiful because every facet reflects every other facet, and it’s a beauty almost everyone can share in. But complex writing quickly becomes something that only expert readers can enjoy. Finnegans Wake is anything but unreadable nonsense, but if your mind isn’t good at following complex linguistic and narrative patterns, I can see how it might easily appear to be.

Simplicity is a strength in storytelling. The line, not the fractal, is the model for most narrative. A linear sequence of events, connected one after the other by cause and effect, is most of our great stories work. But our minds aren’t linear. They skip between events connected by emotion and theme far more than time. And when you dive deeply into point-of-view and how your characters see the world, fractal shaped narratives seem natural.

How do you as a writer balance the needs of complexity and simplicity? Do you hold to only linear narratives? Are there techniques and ways you use to combine the fractal and the linear? I’d love to know your thoughts, please leave a comment below.

Umberto Eco shares wonderful thoughts on complexity in storytelling in the lectures recorded in Six Walks In The Fictional Woods, a fantastic read for writers grow their practice up to higher levels.

I found the ultimate digital nomad shoulder bag…the maker surprised me.

For the best part of three years now I’ve been living as a “digital nomad”. Nobody I know, including hundreds of digital nomad friends I’ve made along the way, really likes the term, but it’s less clunky than “location independent entrepreneur” and generally conveys the idea of working whilst travelling. Or as one of my nomad friends says, “owning a laptop and a backpack”. And it’s backpacks I want to talk about today. Or to be specific, shoulder bags.

If you move frequently, bags take on a greatly increased significance in your life. Traditional backpackers of the kind who have been trawling up and down the hippy trail since the 70s and 80s, carry all kinds of things like sleeping bags, cooking gear and emergency medical supplies. And good for them, I appreciate their survivalist ethic, I simply don’t share it. The “digital nomad” ethic is more…minimalist.

I can pack everything I own into two bags in under an hour, walk or ride on a scooter  with those bags to an airport, get on an airplane without paying additional luggage fees, and then drop my bags at a new apartment in a new city on the same day. I do this roughly every few months. While it wouldn’t suit everyone, I love the nomadic freedom my minimalist luggage allows me.

Key to my lightweight travel rig is a Lowe Alpine TT Carry On 40. They don’t make these anymore, but the most important thing is that a 40 litre bag is about the limit that you can carry on to most budget airlines. If you can fit the bulk of your possessions into 40 litres of luggage space you can travel almost for nothing, as most budget airlines offer super cheap seats in the expectation they will make money from your luggage.

Most travellers and nomads combine a backpack with a small bag that they carry day to day. Something like the Osprey Daylite Backpack is not uncommon. The clear problem with this is that you’re travelling with two backpacks but you only have one back. Which is why you see travellers with their smaller pack slung across their chest, like some giant needy baby.

Look. If you’re walking through New Delhi in 48C temperatures, you’re going to be a sweaty mess. But at least my torso and essential organs aren’t swaddled on both sides by two huge bundles of heat retaining fabric. This is because I carry a shoulder bag, which I can more easily combine with my main backpack.

A shoulder bag is also, in 98% of situations, both more convenient and more secure than a small backpack. Walking through a Bangkok street market? You can shift a shoulder bag to your front for security. Need to get your wallet in a hurry? You don’t have to twist your shoulders every five minutes to access your bag. Shoulder bags for the win!

Digital nomads are a 21st century counter culture.

I’ve been travelling for over two years with a shoulder bag purchased from a camping shop in the UK for the princely sum of £10. I love that bag. It’s been to Thailand, Malaysia, Laos and across India with me, on planes, bikes, scooters and trains, and for a budget shoulder bag it’s done a great job, but it’s never been ideal. So for the whole of that two years I have been looking for a replacement. SPOILER ALERT : it took me until this week to find one.

Why? Well, other than being the world’s most demanding shoulder bag shopper, companies that make bags do not take the shoulder bag seriously. That is my conclusion after 24 solid months of bag hunting. Shops that are packed full of backpacks will have maybe one or two derisory shoulder bag offerings. And they are ALL WRONG.

Of course, there are no end of impractical, fashion oriented handbags. There also lots of poor quality “manbags” made from canvas and leather, a heavy material that no traveller wants to lug around. Then there messenger bags, with their stupid huge fold over top flaps. Or specialist laptop bags, with ridiculous amounts of padding. Low end bags usually have cheap plastic strap attachments that tangle or break easily. The few high end bags I found that came close to my needs were always either way to big or way to small. Seriously, I looked at hundreds of bags in the last two years, and none of them were better than my £10 camping bag.

(I actually came very close to setting up a Kickstarter for the ultimate digital nomad shoulder bag, but I’m a writer not a luggage magnate. However, if you’re one of the legions of bag companies failing miserably to make a decent shoulder bag, I can tell you exactly where you are going wrong.)

The right bag, when I found it, really surprised me. The Targus Revolution 13 took a little while to win me over when I found it on sale at one of Chiang Mai’s huge electronics stores. Targus is a brand I associate with laptop cases made in the era of 17″ laptops that weighed 6kg and needed industrial grade padding just for a walk down the street. My laptop is a shard of aluminium I could beat a mugger to death with without damaging, it doesn’t need that much padding! But after some rigorous testing, the Targus won me over.

(Yes, I am the guy who stands in the electronics store for an hour testing a bag before buying it. With a growing audience of the stores employees watching me.)

The Targus is similar to the Thule Subterra that was another close contender in my bag hunt. The Subterra is just too small however, and has a weedy strap. The Targus seems small at first, but has a deceptive Tardis like like quality that means it can hold a lot more stuff than seems possible. It has a great strap, with strong metal clips placed a little away from the bags outer edges, which makes the bag much less liable to spin around in annoying ways.

It’s fair to say I am a super-fussy shoulder bag buyer, so I do have criticisms of the Targus. It’s black, when I’d really prefer a slate grey colour for daily use. Some of the internal pockets are of questionable value – a tiny pocket for SD cards? Really Targus? Most of all, it looks like the kind of bag that is likely to have a lot of valuable electronic kit in, which is a security problem in itself, but one that’s unavoidably true anyway as a traveller in very poor places.

All in all, the Targus is a great bag that has really surprised me. The more general point of this post though is 1) a good shoulder bag is a great travel companion and 2) bag makers…do better on the shoulder bags!

Follow me on Twitter, I’ll tell you more about being a nomad. And…er…scifi! @damiengwalter

Suicide Squad might yet save DC from itself

Welp…Batman VS Superman looks like it’s going to be one of the worst films in history. But Suicide Squad…actually looks quite good. It’s been a looong time since anyone could say that about a DC comics based movie!

I’ve never read the Suicide Squad comics, but based on this trailer I will now check them out.

Sure, DC often seem like the people who know least about what to do with the vastly valuable intellectual property they own…but then Suicide Squad has the air of a skunk works project, running below the radar of whichever fools are steering the Batman / Superman ship.

We shall see.

 

Neuromancer…still the best science fiction novel ever written

When life takes an unexpected left turn I do four things – tidy my room, go running, take 72 hours away from anything stressful…and read a good book.

This time around I landed on Neuromancer by William Gibson. I first read this book when I was 14, I suspect I read it at least seven our eight times before I was 20, and if I had to point at one cause for ending up in the scifi industry, Gibson’s novel would likely be it.

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Neuromancer by William Gibson

Going back to such an influential book after an 18 year time lapse is…risky. I also really liked Dragonlance books when I was 14, and let’s just say those didn’t hold up when I last re-read one. But from the iconic first sentence onwards, Neuromancer didn’t just hold up to, it exceeded my expectations.

Yeah, cyberspace, virtual reality, Artificial Intelligence blah blah blah. Praise for Neuromancer tends to focus on the ideas, and those are certainly there. But coming back to the book with two decades writing experience under my belt, what floored me is just what a spectacular feat of storytelling it is.

Firstly, Gibson writes that rare beast, a truly cinematic novel. Neuromancer weighs in at around 80,000 words – a short book by today’s standards. In that space Gibson constructs a near perfect 3 act structure. Many Neuromancer film adaptations have been rumoured, none have ever materialised, perhaps because of the pretty awful Johnny Mnemonic. If a filmmaker ever does adapt Neuromancer, they could use Gibson’s manuscript beat for beat as an edit decision list. The prose is so spare that Gibson turns entire scenes in a few sentences.

This is only possible because Gibson’s visual imagination is balanced with a poetic sensibility. Nikon eye implants, the scent of German steel, a white cube AI hiding in the consensual hallucination that is the matrix. Gibson isn’t interested in ideas so much as the poetry that the language of ideas creates on the page. There aren’t many poets in the science fiction field. In fact, you could argue that Gibson is the only one.

I write this knowing that, of course, you all aren’t going to agree. Subjective aesthetic standards, etc, not everybody likes the same thing. I’ve never entirely bought that line of argument. Preferences are subjective, but quality is rather more objective. Not everyone likes Porsche sports cars, but few people would tell you they’e low quality. There’s a reason Neuromancer has sold 6 million copies and counting, amidst a science fiction genre where most books sell only a few thousand…it’s brilliant storytelling, in a genre that tends to overlook the value of story.

“Hard SF”, that part of the genre that is all about the science, has a problem with storytelling. Perhaps it’s because the story is the humanistic part of the equation, and the personalities drawn to scientific speculation and futurism have a bias against the “soft” arts of communication, persuasion, composition, and of course poetry. Hard SF novels often feel like they’ve been written by people who don’t read or even particularly like novels, or who have simply never applied the same intelligence to learning story that they have to learning physics.

Which leaves Neuromancer almost alone and entirely unmatched in the the tiny field of hard SF books written by people who actually know how to write, and how to tell a great story. It’s held that title for thirty some years now. And it will continue to hold it, until anther great poet comes along and decides to recycle the detritus of hard SF into something readable.

Read an extensive interview with Neal Stephenson, whose vision of cyberpunk starkly contrasted with William Gibson’s.

The intellectual conflict that defined 20th century science

Most of us today recognise the theory of relativity as a foundation of modern science, even if few of us can claim to truly understand it. Even if we can’t conceptualise the truth of a universe in which space and time are famously unified as spacetime, we can enjoy the idea that a human travelling at light speed could return to Earth years or decades in the future, producing the time travel effect made famous in sci-fi stories like Planet of the Apes.

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The Physicist & The Philosopher by Jimena Canales

So it’s fascinating to remember that Einstein’s theory of general relativity was published only a century ago in 1916, and that from the publication of the theory of special relativity in 1905, Einstein’s ideas met with resistance every bit as fierce as the excitement they generated. Much of that resistance came from within the scientific world itself. But perhaps the most significant challenge cam from the parallel field of philosophy.

“On April 6, 1922, Einstein met a man he would never forget. He was one of the most celebrated philosophers of the century, widely known for espousing a theory of time that explained what clocks did not: memories, premonitions, expectations and anticipations.”

That man was Henri Bergson, the most famous philosopher of the 19th and early 20th century. And as Jimena Canales reminds us in her fascinating work of non-fiction The Physicist & The Philosopher, had he not been seen to lose in his argument with Einsten, Bergson might still occupy the public imagination as one of history’s all time great thinkers. Instead today he is all but forgotten.

Einstein and Bergson’s argument represented far more than a clash between two great intellects. By the late 19th century Bergson was hailed across Europe as the champion of a new, romantic worldview that fought back against science, materialism, modernity, and the shocking waves of industrialisation that had transformed much of Europe by 1900, and would contribute to the huge carnage of World War One. His works including Creative Evolution reignited a passion for philosophy around the entire world. By 1915 he was as famous, and as controversial, as Richard Dawkins is today.

But as The Physicist & The Philosopher documents, Bergson’s public conflict with the upstart Einstein would ultimately undo his reputation, consign philosophy to an at best tertiary role in the shadow of science, and usher in a century and a society dominated by hard science, technology, industry, and most of all, progress.

 

“The major task of the twentieth century will be to explore the unconscious, to investigate the subsoil of the mind.”

Henri Bergson’s famous words, that encapsulate the heart of his philosophy, proved to be only half true. While Freud, Jung and a generation of psychological thinkers would dig deep into that subsoil, their conclusions would remain starkly separate from the physics of Einstein and others. The argument Jimena Canales so elegantly allows history to make in The Physicist & The Philosopher is just how close the ideas of Einstein and Bergson really were, and that the challenge for 21st century thinkers must surely be the unification of the two.

Read The Physicist & The Philosopher by Jimena Canales to gain a full insight into the epic conflict that shaped modern science, and combine it with The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts to dive deeper into spiritual philosophy.