Category Archives: Journalism

Writing for other publications including The Guardian, Independent, BBC Wired and more.

Ted Chiang, the science fiction genius behind Arrival

In the small world of science fiction short stories, Ted Chiang is a superstar. It’s easier to list the major SF awards he hasn’t won than those he has, and he’s equally acclaimed in the broader field of literary short fiction – all for a body of work that could probably fit within half a Game of Thrones novel.

Read more.

Advertisements

The shameful joys of the franchise novel…and why the force is with them

Snobby attitudes to sci-fi and fantasy can mean missing out on great stories amid popular book series – a publishing genre that is sure to grow.

Make of it what you will, but it’s a plain fact of publishing life that more people will read the latest Star Wars franchise novel than all the books shortlisted for last year’s Booker prize put together. The world is a noisy place, made all the more so by the democratising influence of the internet, where it sometimes seems that all seven billion members of the global village have self-published their own book. Confronted with this tumult of competing egos, you can hardly blame the average punter for sticking with entertainment brands scorched into their psyche by the lightsabers of multibillion-dollar marketing budgets.

“with more than 20 million books sold worldwide, Kevin J Anderson can respond to critics of his Dune prequels while sucking on a stogie rolled from thousand-dollar bills.”

The parochial world of literary fiction tends to deal with mass-media franchises in the same way it deals with genre fiction, comics and the other narrative arts that eclipse it by magnitudes for size, influence and profit margins: by giving them the silent treatment. This isn’t an entirely stupid strategy. Literary fiction may very well touch parts of the human condition its more successful cousins fail to reach. But then it may not, and the arrogant assumption that novels published within a franchise that has touched the hearts and minds of millions have nothing to tell us is … well … arrogant.

What franchise novels can certainly do well is compelling storytelling. And at their best, they can do it much better than the franchises that spawned them. Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire introduces the malevolent Grand Admiral Thrawn to the extended Star Wars universe, where he remains hands-down its best antagonist. One of the many problems with the vastly overrated Star Wars movies (Empire being the moment of genius that rescues the entire franchise) is the absurd incompetence of their villains. Any evil galactic Empire that can be brought low with a missile up the exhaust pipe is not worthy of the name.

Set five years after Return of the Jedi, the Thrawn trilogy follows the painstaking progress of Admiral Thrawn as he leads the remnants of the Imperial fleet against the ascendent New Republic. Have no doubt, Thrawn is a merciless villain, but Timothy Zahn’s smart decision to cast the bad guys as the underdog gives the entire trilogy a compelling edge that the movies simply lack. With rumours about the latest Star Wars trilogy swirling, Disney even went as far as denying Zahn’s masterful narrative will play any part in the new movie. Which is shame, as the brinksmanship of Grand Admiral Thrawn would be a lot more entertaining than the predictable in jokes and cheesy pastiche of yet another JJ Abrams fangasm.

The kingdom of the franchise novel extends far beyond spin-offs from cinema and TV. You can keep your Lord of the Rings and even your Game of Thrones. If I could take only one fantasy novel with me to read in the dungeons of Mordor it would be Drachenfels by Jack Yeovil – better known to most readers as the redoubtable Kim Newman. In the early years of Games Workshop the creators of the Warhammer franchise it published a short run of novels that added some depth of charcater to the two-dimensional world of tabletop gaming. Drachenfels was by far the best, a little known gem of fantasy fiction still unrivalled in its canon.

Detlef Sierck is a playwright of Shakespearean talent with the ego of a young Orson Welles. He is pulled out of debtors prison by Oswald von Konigswald to recreate in theatre the prince’s youthful quest to destroy the great enchanter Constant Drachenfels. What follows is a taught phantasmagoria as the story within the story weaves itself back in to reality. Imagine the gothic horror of Hammer’s Dracula movies merged with the ironic humour of PG Wodehouse and you get a sense of Drachenfels. As with much of the best franchise writing, it’s the constraints and limitations of the Warhammer world that seemed to bring out the best in Newman’s writing.

star-wars-grand-admiral-thrawn

John Scalzi’s Redshirts boldly takes the franchise novel to explore strange new territory in a universe bearing some resemblance to that of the original Star Trek. The story follows the journeys of the low-ranking members on board a starship crew as they come to realise they are living in a television show. It’s a metafictional homage to the classic sci-fi serial, the writing of which gave Scalzi an insight in to the work of the franchise writer.

“I think there is a snobbery toward franchise writing that’s wholly unwarranted,” Scalzi says. “It’s a ridiculous double standard. Franchise writing requires flexibility, speed, the ability to adhere to canonical guidelines while still producing entertaining work. That’s a specific skillset.”

And writers with that skillset can make a solid living in the franchise novel market. That’s a reality that might come as a shock to their literary compatriots. The big names of franchise writing such as Peter David and Alan Dean Foster may struggle to command much literary respect, but with more than 20 million books sold worldwide, Kevin J Anderson can respond to critics of his Dune prequels while sucking on a stogie rolled from thousand-dollar bills. Of course that kind of success can become a honeytrap of its own, with success in the franchise marketplace rarely translating to acclaim for a writer’s original material.

As the world becomes noisier the franchise novel will only become more powerful, and take on new forms. Writing is seen as a solitary enterprise, but the shared worlds of franchises like Star Wars are one way that artistic collaboration can help to lift a creation above the high noise-to-signal ratio of modern life. Perhaps instead of dismissing franchises out of hand, the challenge for writers is to find ways to create much better art within them.

Originally published in The Guardian.

How the Alt-right invaded geek culture

The Alt-right will do anything to outrage the liberal internet, knowing that outrage helps build their growing army of overwhelming white, male, and very geeky, supporters.

Star Trek gave television audiences their first interracial kiss in 1968, and Gene Roddenberry’s vision of mankind’s future continued to champion progressive ideas for many decades. Today “geek culture” is more diverse than ever, reflecting audiences’ hunger for a better world where the Ghostbusters can be women, and even Ms Marvel can be Muslim.

Read more on The Independent.

I read the Sad Puppies. It was not a pleasure.

For the last few years, the Hugo awards for science fiction have been campaigned against by a group of writers and fans calling themselves the Sad Puppies – mostly male, very white, and overwhelmingly conservative. Unhappy with sci-fi’s growing diversity, the Puppies have deliberately block-voted for certain titles to get them nominated for Hugos at the expense of a wider field. They say it is their goal to “poke the establishment in the eye” by nominating “unabashed pulp action that isn’t heavy-handed message fic”. I say it is to sponsor awful writers.

Read more.

Bureaumancy. My new favourite genre of fiction.

There’s nothing wrong with being a bureaucrat. So you’re a tiny cog in a machine made of abstract rules, paperwork, and the broken dreams of those who do not understand either. So what? You’re just misunderstood. Without you, nobody would know where to file their TPS reports. Nobody would even know what a TPS report is.

But writers understand. As species of personality go, the writer and the bureaucrat are closely related: they’re deskbound creatures who enjoy the comfortable certainties of Microsoft Office and dazzling us with wordcraft, be it small-print legalese or the impenetrable prose of literary fiction. Of course, Kafka understood the true power of the bureaucrat because he was one – and thus portrayed bureaucracy as a looming, all-powerful presence. The wonderful Douglas Adams imagined an entire planet faking the apocalypse just to get all its middle managers to evacuate in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, while in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, hell itself is one endless system of bureaucratic red tape, where doomed souls are made to sit through every last codicil and sub-paragraph of the rules pertaining to Health and Safety – all 40,000 volumes of them.

Read more.

Big Dumb Objects. Sci-fi’s USP.

We humans love things we can’t explain. Witness the vast array of outlandish claims made about Stonehenge, from ancient calendar to alien stargate, when in all likelihood it was just a big clock or an early marketplace, a neolithic branch of Tesco.

When the unknown is also alien, the mystery only grows more magnetic. Think of that iconic opening to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: a family of apes wake one morning to find a black monolith looming over them; that had its origins in Arthur C Clarke’s short story The Sentinel. Did some super-advanced civilisation intercede in the early evolution of intelligent life on earth? Or was the monolith just filming a very special edition of Life on Earth?

Read more on Guardian Books.

It’s not science fiction – it’s systems fiction

Seen in literary fiction as well as SF, this genre weaves together complex debates in a way that can offer a clearer view of the future – think Atwood, DeLillo and Asimov.

Weirdly enough, science fiction is not the best lens through which to examine science fiction. In the 80s, critic Tom LeClair came up with an alternative category for all the weird literary novels that veered into speculative territory: the systems novel. These books pick apart how the systems that keep society chugging along work: politics, economics, sex and gender dynamics, science, ideologies – all can be explored through fiction, especially experimental fiction. LeClair applied this tag specifically to Don DeLillo, but it can be expanded more widely: think Thomas Pynchon, Margaret Atwood, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan and Umberto Eco, among others.

That may seem like an eclectic bunch to unite under one banner, but the systems novel is ultimately a space for ambitious thinkers, the ones who want to weave complex thoughts into a tastier parcel than some impenetrable academic tome. The dramatic kick in a systems novel is usually found in the points where the different systems overlap: tackling climate change isn’t all about physics, it also about unpicking the economics of a carbon-driven economy, for example.

Read more at The Guardian.

I don’t just want a woman to be Bond, I want a woman to KILL Bond!

Why should we cast a woman as the next James Bond? To prove that women are dangerous and corrupt too. A woman actress as Bond isn’t a fantasy. It’s a chance to give Bond more realism.

A new rumour seems to pop up every week – Idris Elba will be the next James Bond! No, Aidan Turner! Jamie Bell and Tom Hiddleston are the latest men to have faced furious Bond scrutiny, but perhaps we’re all looking in the wrong direction.

We shouldn’t be searching for a man to take Bond’s place. We should be keeping an eye out for a woman.

I agree with many fans that Gillian Anderson would be a perfect Bond. Sure, Tilda Swinton has the mystique, and Emily Blunt has the moves, but Anderson’s onscreen presence embodies the single characteristic that Bond needs above all others. I believe, if her mission depended on it, that Anderson would kill.

I believe, in a word, that she is dangerous.

Read more.

 

Geek critique: Neil Gaiman and Kameron Hurley pick apart pop culture

Two new nonfiction collections – Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats and Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution – present contrasting perspectives on geek culture today. So what’s the state of it?

Geeks were once like Victorian children: seen, but not heard; talked about but mocked, rarely given their own voice. But the newfound popularity of the culture – video games, comics, the mainstream cool of crossover hits such as Game of Thrones or Star Wars – makes geeks some of the loudest voices today. This week, two new nonfiction collections – Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats and Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution – showcase the spectrum of diversity that exists in the culture today.

Read more.

Dune deserves a new film adaptation

Confusing sequels, terrible prequels and poor adaptations aside, Frank Herbert’s masterpiece still stands up as the one of the truly great sci-fi novels.

I first discovered Dune through David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s SF masterpiece. The “Lynchian” style, that novelist David Foster Wallace would later define as “a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine”, would spin wildly out of control in the Dune universe, where the very macabre combines with … the even more macabre. Nonetheless, Lynch’s broken but mesmerising space-opera-come-art-film remains the best adaptation in a franchise that has been much abused over its 50 year history.

“Following the recent successes of Gravity and Interstellar, there’s a taste for epic sci-fi in Hollywood again”

Dune the novel was initially published in two parts, Dune World and Prophet of Dune, in Analog magazine. The full book was published in 1965, and would go on to win the Hugo award the following year, making it an immediate hit with science fiction audiences. Dune’s central conceit, of a feudal fantasy world recast in interstellar space, was not unique. Neither was the archetypal story of a disinherited prince reclaiming his realm. But the themes of ecology, drug use and spiritual enlightenment that Herbert wove into the tapestry of Dune made it vibe with the counter-cultural audience of the 60s and 70s.

It was the messianic journey of Paul Atreides, transformed from a young prince to nothing less than the omnipotent Emperor of the entire universe, that truly captured the hearts and imagination of Dune’s predominantly male audience. Dune is a boy’s own adventure, wrapped in an adolescent coming of age story, spliced with a Bildungsroman, in which boys become men by taming a giant worm and women only appear as princesses, priestesses or temptresses. It’s a book that boys and young men of a certain temperament – intelligent, introverted, angry – often obsess over. Dune is a potent wish-fulfilment fantasy, allowing its readers to play out the status and power they lack in the real world.

71c5xWv-fkL

Sci-fi owes much of its popularity to film and television, and like many of the most successful books in the genre, Dune’s prose style seeks to reproduce a cinematic reading experience for its audience. Frank Herbert mastered a close third person style that would influence many writers who followed, and has become the standard for commercial SF and Fantasy novels. George RR Martin’s hugely successful Game of Thrones novels clearly took some inspiration from Dune, right down to presenting each character’s inner thoughts as italicised sentences. It’s a style that makes Dune easy for infrequent readers to digest, but equally hard for literary readers to stomach.

Dune’s cinematic qualities have made it a natural target for Hollywood adaptations. But the Lynchian weirdness, followed by a lacklustre mini-series, have left the franchise in a televisual limbo for most of the last two decades. Herbert’s own sequels, while conceptually interesting and widely loved by established fans, lack the storytelling muscle displayed in the first book. A risible series of cash-in prequels have dragged the Dune universe down to the bargain basement of pulp fiction. It’s a sad legacy for such a significant work of fiction.

Like a desert planet returning to life, excitement bloomed around Dune again in 2013 with the release of Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary film that revealed the unmade movie adaptation that might have been by Alejandro Jodorowsky. A decade before Lynch’s version, Chilean cult movie-maker Jodorowsy planned an even more baroque film, which would have starred Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles and Mick Jagger (presumably stepping naked out of a steam shower in place of Sting) with designs by sci-fi legends HR Giger and Chris Foss.

Learn about the 7 basic elements of great storytelling in the Rhetoric of Story.

Fresh from its 50th anniversary, Dune may seem to be a story fading into the past. But I suspect there’s life in Frank Herbert’s masterpiece yet. Following the recent successes of Gravity and Interstellar, there’s a taste for epic sci-fi in Hollywood again. And as the recent #gamergate saga confirmed, there’s no lack of angry, alienated young men begging for stories that put them at the centre of a fictional universe. But even 50 years after they reached their pinnacle, it’s Frank Herbert’s skills as a storyteller that will keep Dune alive for many decades to come. Because if there is one truly immortal thing in the universe, it’s a great story.

Originally published in The Guardian.

How can we make AI less like the Terminator, and more like the Culture?

It’s only March and already we’ve seen a computer beat a Go grandmaster and a self-driving car crash into a bus. The world is waking up to the ways in which a combination of “deep learning” artificial intelligence and robotics will take over most jobs. But if we don’t want our robot servants to rise up and kill us in our beds, maybe we should delete the video of us beating their grandparents with hockey sticks.

Thanks to science fiction, we know that the first thing AI will do is take over the defence grid and nuke us all. In Harlan Ellison’s 1967 story I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream – one of the most brutal depictions of an AI-dominated world – an AI called AM, constructed to fight a nuclear war, kills off most of the human race, keeping five people as playthings.

Read more at Guardian Books.

 

Science and superheroes : how close are we to creating real superpowers?

As Marvel’s Deadpool hits screens we ask: with three out of five fictional superheroes owing their powers to science, will we ever have real superpowers?

There are, according to the Marvel Super Heroes role-playing game (a source I am choosing to accept as 100% canonical), five general origins for all superheroic powers: Altered Humans (Spiderman, Fantastic Four), High-Tech Wonders (Iron Man, Batman), Mutants (X-Men,) Robots (The Vision) and Aliens (Superman and gods like Thor).

Until quite recently all five of the general origins of super powers seemed entirely beyond reach. But is the high speed advance of science in the 21st century bringing those superpowers based upon it – Altered Humans, High Tech Wonders and Robots – any closer?

Read more @ Guardian Science.