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

7 literary Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels you must read

Damien Walter writes on sci-fi & fantasy for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, Oxford University Press, IO9, Tor.com and elsewhere. He’s a graduate of the Clarion scifi writers workshop. Follow him on Twitter.

At any given moment on the inter-webs there are probably dozens of irate Sci-Fi & Fantasy fans getting agitated about those damn literary authors coming over here and writing our genres! Which is about as silly as shouting at someone for stealing your flowers when they have plucked some bluebells in the forest.

(Unless you happen to own the entire forest, in which case DOWN WITH THE FEUDAL ARISTOCRACY).

SF and Fantasy are a common ground that any writer can build their house upon.

The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse is set some 400 years in the future from its first publication in 1943. Hesse spent over a decade writing this, his last novel, which completed the body of work that won him the Nobel prize for literature. The Glass Bead Game of the title is played by the intellectual elite of Hesse’s future world. Through it the eras great thinkers synthesise and interweave all knowledge, from scientific equations to musical compositions and great works of art. It is often noted that Hesse’s novel predates and predicts the digital revolution driven by computer technology, which allows us today to easily manipulate all forms of human knowledge. But the Glass Bead Game is much more than simple futurism. Hesse, who had established himself as one of the 20th centuries great spiritual philosophers in Siddharta and Steppenwolf, is interested in his created game not as a hymn to technology, but as a critique of knowledge and the severe limits of the human intellect. For anyone living and working in the knowledge driven society of the early 21st century, The Glass Bead Game has perhaps more insight to deliver than ever.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is regularly excoriated by genre fans for being just one among hundreds of post-apocalypse novels, and no more worth the literary plaudits it received. Which is about  as ignorant as asking what’s so special about E=MC2 when there are so many other five symbol sequences in the alphabet. On one of its many levels of meaning The Road is indeed a post-apocalypse novel. On another level it is an allegory for the history of human civilisation, with each stage of human culture represented, from our tribal roots to modern industrial society, exposing our cannibalistic tendency to exploit other human life for our own benefit. And on another level it is a story about fatherhood, and the devastating weight of responsibility all parents feel bringing their children in to a world which is so often brutal and harsh. And on yet another it is an epic poem, as lyrically muscular as Homer and as critical of modern existence as T.S.Eliot. There simply is no equal to McCarthy’s vision of apocalypse.

Shikasta by Doris Lessing, in which the author of The Golden Notebook succeeded in uniting the infinities of the far future and intergalactic space with the psychological depths of human mythology and spirituality WHILST laying a feminist critique of the entire history of human civilisation. AND it has some of the absolute trippiest, mind warping imagery of any SF novel ever written. The alien civilisation of Canopus, who live on a plane of existence above ours, send an emissary to the colony planet Rhohanda in an attempt to prevent its corruption by the rival civilisation of Shammat. Despite his failure the emissary returns many times to the renamed planet of Shikasta, which it transpires is our Earth. Doris Lessing essentially rewrites the entire history of mankind in this book, to the end of unifying our generally opposed scientific and spiritual worldviews, and argues convincingly that they need never be opposed. All of which helped Lessing become the second Nobel prize winning SF author on this list.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is often cited as the leading example of the South American magical realist movement, in which Marquez combined the realist literary tradition of the that continent’s European colonists with the mythic stores told by its indigenous peoples. The novel follows seven generations of the Buendia family and the others who join them in founding the town of Macondo. The fantastic permeates Marquez’ grand metaphor for the modern history of Colombia on every level. From the early appearance of the gypsy Melquiades who brings fantastic scientific contraptions to the town, to the novels incredible conclusion where *SPOILER* the entire village history of the village becomes only a few notes in Melquiades journal*END SPOILER*, any sense of reality in Marquez world is continually undermined by the suspicion that reality is as much a fiction as any story. This book actually left me shaking when I had finished it. And I do not shake easily.

The Magus by John Fowles. Magic. You can’t stumble far in Fantasy without tripping over some, but no other author has ever come closer to describing what magic really is than John Fowles. The young Nicholas Urfe journeys to the greek island of Phraxos to take up a teaching position and escape a relationship he feels trapped in. But Nicholas has all the emotional intelligence of a dishrag, and having abandoned the only person in the world who really loves him, promptly has a complete existential breakdown. In this vulnerable state he is drawn in to the mysterious world of millionaire recluse Maurice Conchis, where he is ensnared in an ever more complex series of psychological games and experiments. Is Nicholas a victim of a sadistic manipulator, or is he being helped to understand the mysteries of a world he barely begins to comprehend? The Magus never entirely resolves the mystery at its heart, but it does explore how the human heart uses magic as a pathway to its emotional and psychological growth.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf is, like all great Fantasy, as much a book about the imagination as it is a product of the imagination. There is probably no writer who epitomises the sterotype of the ‘literary novelist’ than Woolf. English, upper middle class, a Bloomsbury bohemian and the author of plotless novels about upper middle class English women wondering what life is really all about while aimlessly wandering around starring at things. In to which Orlando bursts like an explosion of pure colour and joy. The story of an Elizabethan nobleman who decides to live forever, sleeps with Elizabeth I among many others and changes sex before roving through English history on a quest for sex and adventure. But in amongst all these hi-jinx Woolf plays some post-modern games of literary revelation. Is Qrlando real? Or a character in a fiction? Do we care, or are we happy just to enjoy the ride? Like Miguel Cervantes Don Quixote, which very nearly made this list, Orlando is at heart a story about the labyrinthine quality of the stories we tell ourselves.

Lanark by Alasdair Gray is a novel in four books, presented out of order as Book Three, a Prologue, Book One, Book Two, Book Four and an Epilogue four chapters from the end of the novel, and illuminated with Gray’s own extraordinary illustrations, both book and pictures calling to mind Hieronymous Bosch’s depictions of hell. Lanark awakes with no memories in the city of Unthank where he falls in to a life of bohemian unemployment and poverty. His body begins to grow scales and he is sucked down a tunnel to The Institute where he rescues his love Rima, transformed in to a dragon, from being exploded for fuel. Lanark is shown his history by an oracle, which reveals his past life as Duncan Thaw, a sickly young artist and, possibly, murderer growing up in industrial Glasgow. None of this does justice to the book, which unfolds a vision of heaven and hell so staggeringly forceful that I had to stop reading for a year half-way through to give myself time to recover. Alasdair Gray’s novel is nothing less than a vision of how we create heaven and hell on Earth, through our own selfishness, ignorance and incapacity for love. It has inspired dozens of great authors including Iain Banks, whose novel The Bridge is something of a homing to this great Scottish novel. If you read only one book from this list, make it Lanark.

A few books I did not choose and why…

Anything by Margaret Atwood, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, 1984 or Brave New World…because you have already read these, right? No? Well then…

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The 4 skills of the Full Stack writer

A stack of 4 core skills are key to success as a freelance writer. Mastering them unlocks huge opportunities.

I landed my first paid writing gig when I was 14. I had a paper route, and one day the local Indian restaurant invited me in, made me a chai tea, and asked how to get a leaflet into the newspaper. In the end I wrote the leaflet, got it printed, and distributed. I think I made £50 on the deal. Or, about 17 weeks of delivering newspapers!

“The internet is full of words. They all have to be written by somebody.”

Fast forward two and a half decades, and I’ve been making a professional living as a writer for most of that time. I’ve written for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, The Independent, Buzzfeed, Aeon magazine and freelanced for major London ad agencies. I’ve published dozens of short stories, won Arts Council grants for fiction writing, lectured at a half dozen universities, published research with Oxford University Press, and studied with Neil Gaiman at the Clarion writers workshop. But that all grew from writing ad-copy for a leaflet.

Over the course of my pro career I’ve seen the writing industries transformed by technology. The internet is full of words. They all have to be written by somebody. And when I have a lot of deadlines, it sometimes feels like I’m writing them all! Businesses all over the world have a huge hunger for words, which has created whole new areas of work for writers. Right now I have clients in Bangalore, Idaho, Paris, Cornwall, Singapore and Shenzen. And this is a quiet month!

The gig economy, and freelance sites like Fiverr, have opened up a global marketplace for writing services. At the time of writing I am in the top 5 “Pro Writers” on Fiverr, and in the top one or two percent of writers by hourly earnings. The clients I have worked with via sites like Fiverr include Blue Chip corporations, tiny mom & pop businesses, famed entrepreneurs and hard working YouTube celebrities. The task of finding new clients, once a major problem for creative freelancers, is made easy by Fiverr.

The most expensive content is the content that nobody reads.

The recent Payoneer report into freelance earnings recorded an average income of $19 per hour for writers. But that average disguises a gulf in earnings between two very different groups of writers.

Read more.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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