Category Archives: Featured

Tolkien’s myths are a political fantasy

In a world built on myth, we can’t ignore the reactionary politics at the heart of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

What is the Rhetoric of Story?

It’s a double-edged magical sword, being a fan of JRR Tolkien. On one hand we’ve had the joy of watching Lord of the Rings go from cult success to, arguably, the most successful and influential story of the last century. And we get to laugh in the face of critics who claimed LotR would never amount to anything, while watching a sumptuous (if absurdly long) adaption of The Hobbit.

“A balanced telling might well have shown Smaug to be much more of a reforming force in the valley of Dale.”

On the other hand, you also have to consider the serious criticisms made of Tolkien’s writing, such as Michael Moorcock’s in his 1978 essay, Epic Pooh. As a storyteller Tolkien is on a par with Homer or the anonymous bard behind Beowulf, the epic poets who so influenced his work. But as works of modern mythology, the art Tolkien called “mythopoeia”, both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are open to serious criticism.

To understand why takes a little consideration of what we really mean by the word “myth”. The world can be a bafflingly complex place. Why is the sky blue? What’s this rocky stuff I’m standing on? Who are all these hairless chimps I’m surrounded by? The only way we don’t just keep babbling endless questions like hyperactive six-year-olds is by reducing the infinite complexities of existence to something more simple. To a story. Stories that we call myths.

Science gives us far more accurate answers to our questions than ever before. But we’re still dependent on myths to actually comprehend the science. The multi-dimensional expansion of energy, space and time we call the Big Bang wasn’t literally a bang any more than God saying “Let there be light” was literally how the universe was created. They’re both mythic ideas that point at an actual truth our mammalian minds aren’t equipped to grasp.

Myths are a lens through which we investigate the mysteries of the world around us. Change the myth, and you can change the world – as JRR Tolkien well knew when, alongside other writers including CS Lewis, he began to consider the possibility of creating new myths to help us better understand the modern world – or if not to understand it better, then to understand it differently. Tolkien borrowed the Greek term “mythpoesis” to describe the task of modern myth-making, and so the literary concept of mythopoeia was born.

41W+RH8kJgL._SY346_.jpg

Tolkien’s myths are profoundly conservative. Both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings turn on the “return of the king” to his rightful throne. In both cases this “victory” means the reassertion of a feudal social structure which had been disrupted by “evil”. Both books are one-sided recollections made by the Baggins family, members of the landed gentry, in the Red Book of Westmarch – an unreliable historical source if ever there was one. A balanced telling might well have shown Smaug to be much more of a reforming force in the valley of Dale.

And of course Sauron doesn’t even get to appear on the page in The Lord of the Rings, at least not in any form more substantial than a huge burning eye, exactly the kind of treatment one would expect in a work of propaganda.

We’re left to take on trust from Gandalf, a manipulative spin doctor, and the Elves, immortal elitists who kill humans and hobbits for even entering their territory, when they say that the maker of the one ring is evil. Isn’t it more likely that the orcs, who live in dire poverty, actually support Sauron because he represents the liberal forces of science and industrialisation, in the face of a brutally oppressive conservative social order?

The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings aren’t fantasies because they feature dragons, elves and talking trees. They’re fantasies because they mythologise human history, ignoring the brutality and oppression that were part and parcel of a world ruled by men with swords. But we shouldn’t be surprised that the wish to return to a more conservative society, one where people knew their place, is so popular. It’s the same myth that conservative political parties such as Ukip have always played on: the myth of a better world that has been lost, but can be reclaimed by turning back the clock.

Whatever the limitations of his own myth-making, Tolkien’s genius as a storyteller rekindled the flame of mythopoeia for generations of writers who followed. Today our bookshelves and cinema screens are once again heaving with modern myths. And they represent a vastly diverse spectrum of worldviews, from the authoritarian fantasy of Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game, to the anti-capitalist metaphor of The Hunger Games. The latter is so potent that the three-finger salute given by Katniss Everdeen has become a symbol of freedom. What clearer sign could there be that the contemporary world is still powered by myth?

Originally published in The Guardian.

Are we already living in the technological singularity?

news has been turning into science fiction for a while now. TVs that watch the watcher, growing tiny kidneys, 3D printing, the car of tomorrow, Amazon’s fleet of delivery drones – so many news stories now “sound like science fiction” that the term returns 1,290,000 search results on Google.

The pace of technological innovation is accelerating so quickly that it’s possible to perform this test in reverse. Google an imaginary idea from science fiction and you’ll almost certainly find scientists researching the possibility. Warp drive? The Multiverse? A space elevator to the stars? Maybe I can formulate this as Walter’s law – “Any idea described in sci-fi will on a long enough timescale be made real by science.”

Read more @ The Guardian

The Tao Te Ching: ancient wisdom for modern times

Two thousand four hundred years after it was composed, we need the Tao Te Ching‘s lessons in self-awareness more than ever. Little can be said with absolute certainty about the origins of the Tao Te Ching. Consensus suggests it was written around 400BC by one Laozi. Laozi translates simply as “old master” – a hint that the author’s (or authors’) true name has been lost for ever.

Read more @ Guardian Books

Chiang Mai

Wow. So it has been a week since I left the UK for Thailand I can barely describe everything that has happened. Long haul flights, airport layovers, jet lag sleep deprivation and constant change have given the last seven days a hallucinatory quality. Arriving in Bangkok after dark felt like stepping in to Bladerunner. Every single second of my three days in that city was saturated with intense sights and sounds. Bangkok looks more like the future than any city I’ve journeyed to. A monstrous entity bristling with glass and steel towers. And down at their roots on the blistering hot streets is an indescribable density of human life. Every inch of space is crushed with street hawkers, food stalls, tuk tuks, mopeds like flocking birds, cripples and filthy children preying over begging bowls, trendy hipster kids, immaculate office workers, McDonalds, Starbucks, KFC and the other brands of hyper-capitalism, christian missionaries, orange robbed monks meditating on smartphones. And traffic. Traffic like you can not believe. Like the city sounded an evacuation alarm and never switched it off. All broiling under the stark sun. Anything that isn’t a condo tower, skyscraper or shopping mall is crumbling in architectural decay. Gaping cavities reveal gangs of grease covered men smashing together engines, ranks of women going blind over sewing machines. Stuttering towers of reclaimed circuit boards and computer monitors. The gaunt murderous eyes of two hundred feral cats. And then another Starbucks. As the sun sets the side alleys of Sala Daeng are populated with squads of costumed bar girls and their pimps, touting laser printed catalogues of possible sexual services, and affluent college students in pristine uniforms navigating from one high end coffee bar to another. Hippie back packers and tattooed ex-pats all standing out in the crowd. And me, the flaneur pedestrian writer in a hat, soaking every sight in.

Three days and I escaped to Chiang Mai, my destination for this journey.

North, and high in the mountains, Chiang Mai is a few degrees less overheated than Bangkok. It was the capital of its own kingdom as late as 1774, and nominally independent until 1939. It’s famed for its unique character, great culture, and increasingly world famous as a traveller destination. The old town sits within a wide square moat, and its Eastern quarter is dedicated to western backpackers and a growing cohort of Chinese tourists. Kikie’s guest house furnished me with a private room for two nights while I hunted an apartment for my stay in the city. When I imagined Chiang Mai, the old town was what I imagined. Narrow winding lanes, local street cafes and a bunch of backpacker friendly nightspots. Chang beer is famous among travellers who come to the city, as is a local brew whisky which can be bought by the flask almost anywhere.

But my expectations of Chiang Mai were defeated on my second day when I ventured in to Nimmanhaemin, or Nimman. The western distract of Chiang Mai outside the old walls and along the Nimmanhaemin road has become home in the last five years to what can best be described as a community of globetrotting yuppies, reinforced by Thailands own ever more prosperous creative class. Nimman is a mecca of coffee bars, international cuisine, boutique residences, galleries, craft shops and more. I’m typing this in Punspace, a co-working space where twenty other western and thai young professionals are writing, coding, designing and the other kinds of work a Macbook and internet connection allows you to do anywhere. My thumbprint has just been taken so I can access the space, its good seating and free coffee, 24/7.

I’m partly here to think and write about the phenomena of the “digital nomad”, professionals who can work from anywhere, so choose locations that, like Nimman, offer a high standard of living at a very low cost. But for the moment I’m just enjoying the experience of the place. I’m full of ice tea because the restaurant I had lunch in kept giving free refills and it was the best ice tea I have ever tasted. But I realised something today, as I walked Nimman after settling in to my new apartment. I don’t know quite what I expected of Chiang Mai. But I didn’t expect to be living within two minutes walk of – not just one – but two Apple computer stores. And on that thought I’m going to track down the Mexican restaurant I passed earlier.

The Great Escape

Digital technology allows us to lose ourselves in ever more immersive fantasy worlds. But what are we fleeing from?

The only people who hate escapism are jailers, said the essayist and Narnia author C S Lewis. A generation later, the fantasy writer Michael Moorcock revised the quip: jailers love escapism — it’s escape they can’t stand. Today, in the early years of the 21st century, escapism — the act of withdrawing from the pressures of the real world into fantasy worlds — has taken on a scale and scope quite beyond anything Lewis might have envisioned.

I am a writer and critic of fantasy, and for most of my life I have been an escapist. Born in 1977, the year in which Star Wars brought cinematic escapism to new heights, I have seen TV screens grow from blurry analogue boxes to high-definition wide-screens the size of walls. I played my first video game on a rubber-keyed Sinclair ZX Spectrum and have followed the upgrade path through Mega Drive, PlayStation, Xbox and high-powered gaming PCs that lodged supercomputers inside households across the developed world. I have watched the symbolic language of fantasy — of dragons, androids, magic rings, warp drives, haunted houses, robot uprisings, zombie armageddons and the rest — shift from the guilty pleasure of geeks and outcasts to become the diet of mainstream culture.

Read more @ Aeon Magazine

On being bossed around by Neil Gaiman

I’ve been outlandishly busy in recent weeks. So much so that I haven’t been able to post anything personal here on my blog. One of the costs of having more freelance writing than you can do is that it squeezes out the personal projects that you love. So here’s a round-up on some of what I’ve been doing recently.

You may have noticed (unless you are reading this in the Andromeda galaxy) that Neil Gaiman has a new book coming out. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a remarkable story, that I was lucky enough to receive a very special edition of some time ago. My review is over on Medium, where I’ve been posting occasional things because I like their platform so much. I feel like Ocean is the start of a new phase in Neil’s fiction writing, and I’m excited about where it’s going to take him next.

Today Neil has been guest editing the Guardian books section, for which I write. He also edited SFX magazine, to which I am a regular contributor. Which kind of means Neil Gaiman has been my boss for the last few weeks. So what’s it like being bossed around by Neil Gaiman?

Well. I got to go on a tour of Weird London, chat with M John Harrison about weird fiction, and record the experience as an audio documentary.

And I got to interview Harlan Ellison. I have been reading Harlan’s fiction since I was a teenager, and I think All The Lies That Are My Life is possibly the only great meditation on being and SF writer ever written. It was an intense interview. You’ll have to go read it to find out what happened.

On Monday I’m heading to the Royal Society of Literature event ‘Magic, Memory and Survival’ where Mr.Gaiman is talking and copies of the new book are being sold. Super-excited about this, and will be live-tweeting the whole event at @damiengwalter

In and around all this I’m continuing work on my book, and also a couple of side projects. And teaching my course in creative writing at University of Leicester. And tweeting too much! It’s a pure joy making my living from writing and teaching writing at the moment, and getting to spend so much time around writers I admire. Happy days.

Is the death of the bookshop a sign of progress?

High street bookshops maye soon be a distant memory. Should we take this as a sign of progress, or the regression of society to a pre-literate state?

Today the last big bookshop in Leicester, the city where I reside, closed its doors. The out of town Borders went three years ago. Waterstones on Market Street shut it’s doors today, leaving a much smaller sub-branch in the nearby shopping mall. I do not hold much hope of it surviving, and feel convinced at this point that dedicated high street book retailers will soon be a memory. That is sad. I love bookshops. But should we take it as a sign that society is regressing, or is it actually a sign of progress?

Some thoughts for both progress and regress:

REGRESS : The bookshops are closing. That’s where people buy books. Where are they going to buy books now? Taken in isolation, closing bookshops is a terrible sign of a crumbling society.

PROGRESS : Bookshops have been superseded by the internet, ebooks and smartphones, which form a much better infrastructure for distributing knowledge. Big gains for everyone.

REGRESS : That digital infrastructure is only accessible to people who can afford the technology and have the knowledge to use it.And it’s owned by a small number of mega tech corporations. Big loss of privacy and maybe freedom.

PROGRESS : Poorer people culturally excluded from bookshops, much more likely to access books via widely used and ever cheaper smartphones. Anyone can publish a book digitally.

REGRESS : The infrastructure of bookshops, publishers & distributors is what pays writers to write books. Without payment, only rich amateurs can have time to write.

PROGRESS : Retailers, publishers take a lot of the money made from selling books. Digital distribution might mean more money going to writers. Writing might become more like being a traditional artisan, as is happening in other creative professions. This is a big might.

Creative Writing at University of Leicester now offering £1000 bursaries for students.

Overall, I feel the argument for progress outweighs regress, quite substantially. But that doesn’t mean I cheer the death of bookshops. Progress means change, and change rarely comes without waving goodbye to things we love. We just have to believe that they space they leave behind will be filled with things we can love just as much or more.

Writing and the attention economy

As a writer you are asking for the most valuable commodity your readers have. Time. Each of us gets a finite portion. No sum of money can buy us any more. And the demands on it are ever greater.

The novel evolved at a period in history when the constituency of its readers had much more time to waste. Karl Marx would dub them the ‘bourgeoisie’, the section of society who owned the means of production, so profited vastly from industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. The middle and upper classes had time on their hands and little to do with it. The novel became one of the most popular ways of being idle.

“many writers still behave as though their product was scarce and the time of readers unlimited”

The bourgeoisie no longer exists in quite the same way, and it and the proletariat both have innumerable ways of occupying whatever free time is left from work. Yes, there are dozens of forms of entertainment. Films, music, games, sports. But there are also more and more ways for people to invest their time in improving themselves. Is your book really going to compete with the vast range of information available to me for free on Wikipedia? Or the infinite social networks accessible through Facebook and Twitter?

Information of all kinds is becoming a post-scarce resource. While the time it takes to absorb information becomes scarcer and scarcer. And yet many writers still behave as though their product was scarce and the time of readers unlimited. Writing two novels, four novellas and ten short stories a year is great productivity. But completely counter-productive in an attention economy. Because if I read one story by you and it’s any less than excellent, I’m very unlikely to read another. Your first novel is very important to you, but as a commodity in the attention economy its almost certainly worth less than the value of my time to read it. Which is why the vast majority of material written and published every day on the internet disappears without a trace.

The philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal once wrote, “I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” As a writer working in the attention economy you should take Pascal’s remark as the first rule of your professional life. Take the time to write a short letter to the world. Churning out fiction can give you the comforting illusion of progress. No doubt you’ll find one market or other to publish it. But think about the writing you really love and value enough to come back to again and again. How long do the best authors take to create their work? Why should you aim to be anything less than the best?

Damo’s Sci-Fi prophecies for 2013

2012 has been a year of transition for science fiction and fantasy literature. SF’s reputation as home of the Bearded White Male hides a more interesting story. SF is the literature of geeks, and today, geeks run the world. Geek culture isn’t infiltrating the mainstream: it is the mainstream. And geeks come in all ages, genders and backgrounds. This year, the Hugo and Nebula award shortlists demonstrated SF’s growing diversity, even as the decision of the editorial team at Weird Tales magazine to publish racist screed Save the Pearls demonstrated many of its ongoing challenges.

Even in the age of the ebook, word-of-mouth is still what makes a breakout hit, and many of the books to watch in 2013 have been building excitement through 2012. Madeline Ashby’s vN: The First Machine Dynasty is the outstanding hard-SF novel of the year and deserves to feature in many award ballots in 2013. Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce has brought the veteran English novelist and World Fantasy award winner to the attention of a growing audience, as have film adaptations in the pipeline for this and his previous novel, The Silent Land. And G Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen stands out as among the most original and challenging books of 2012, and my personal pick for at least one major award in 2013.

Read more @ Guardian Books

Enhanced by Zemanta

Do you know why you write fantasy?

In his 1916 essay (not published until 1956) The Transcendent Function the psychologist Carl Jung describes his system of ‘active imagination’, the technique at the heart of the psychological process he named individuation. Put very simply, active imagination means to dive down in to our imagination and to bring back from it visions, dreams and stories.

Among the products of Jung’s own experiments with active imagination is the Liber Novus or Red Book. Jung produced this work as part of a period of intense introspection following his break from his mentor Sigmund Freud. In 205 pages of hand scripted calligraphy and intensely beautiful illustrations Jung recorded his own visions, dreams and stories.


Most writers of fantasy can probably recognise themselves in Jung’s creation of the Red Book. Many writers come to writing fantasy in periods of change, following trauma as as part of a process of recuperation. I have a box of fragmentary short stories labeled Titan that I produced in the years after I lost my mother to cancer. I put them aside for many years, but ideas from them make up part of my work-in-progress novel Lost Things.

Goals like publication and perhaps becoming a professional writer can be important parts of a creative practice. But it’s easy to lose sight of the truth that your writing is probably there to play a much more important part in your life than generating revenue from unit sales. It’s taking you on a journey…where to only you know…and the visions, dreams and stories from which great novels are made will only come if you stay on the right path.

Enhanced by Zemanta

London Gothic

Mystery is the doorway to fantasy. Dark forests, far away galaxies, roads that wind into the distance: any space that allows our imagination to play without the interference of mundane reality can be a portal. And there are few places more expectant with mystery than cities. Every road, building and doorway is a new unknown. So it’s no surprise that writers of fantasy find endless inspiration in cities, and in no city more than London.

The current trend for recasting London through the prism of fantasy metaphors began, arguably, with Neil Gaiman’s television series (and later novel) Neverwhere. Gaiman imagines a fantasy underworld beneath the mundane reality of London, built around the names of stops on the tube map. Blackfriars, Angel Islington and Old Bailey become characters in the underworld. It’s the kind of simple, beautiful idea Gaiman has a knack for; the sort you feel you might have thought of just a moment before he told them to you.

Read more @ Guardian Books.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Ursula K Le Guin : stories for the ages

The power of Le Guin’s work will surely guarantee it an audience for centuries to come.

A century from now people will still be reading the fantasy stories of Ursula K Le Guin with joy and wonder. Five centuries from now they might ask if their author ever really existed, or if Le Guin was an identity made from the work of many writers rolled into one. A millennium on and her stories will be so familiar, like myths and fairytales today, that only dedicated scholars will ask who wrote them. Such is the fate of the truly great writers, whose stories far outlive their names.

Read more @ Guardian Books

Enhanced by Zemanta