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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 8 Tribes of SciFi

UPDATE 1: the most excellent Paul Weimer suggests a 9th tribe, and it makes a whole lot of sense. The 9 tribes of scifi? I like it. Paul’s thinking is as follows:

The tribe I think you missed is what could be glibly called The Worldbuilders. Worldbuilders have been under stress lately, as what makes a realistic world and what doesn’t has been riven with internal strife over the roles of women and POC on the fantasy side of fantasy. But Worldbuilders, both fantasy and SF flavors, are the kind of people who see a 800 page epic fantasy or SF novel with a rich and detailed world, and dive right into it, seeking deep immersion with a world and its characters. Maps. glossaries and appendices for these books are features, not bugs. Readers of stuff ranging from Kate Elliott to Brandon Sanderson to Peter F Hamilton and James S A Corey.

UPDATE 2: some folks think Military SF has been poorly treated here. Once again THESE ARE NOT GENRES OR SUB-GENRES. Hence calling them tribes. Military SF is written and read by a number of these tribes. The Military Conservatives often pose as though they own that genre, and they certainly fill it with plenty of…interesting…books.

Calling sci-fi a genre in 2016 is about as accurate as calling the United States one nation. In principle it’s true, but in practice things don’t work that way. While crime, romance and thrillers all remain as coherent genres of fiction, it’s been decades since sci-fi could be comfortably understood by any shared generic criteria. What do Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Seas trilogy, the fiction of Silva Moreno Garcia and the erotic sci-fi of Chuck Tingle actually have in common, beyond being nominated for major sci-fi book awards this year?

“from any objective perspective, YA is the mainstream of sci-fi today”

The answer is they all belong to one of the eight tribes of sci-fi. Call them communities, call them cultures, but don’t call them genres. These eight groupings of sci-fi writers and their fans cut across the commercial marketing categories defined by publishers, and are unified instead by shared values and interests. After talking about bookish tribes in my Guardian column recently, I thought it would be fun to pin down the tribes within sci-fi. As with any typology, overlaps and exceptions exist, but as a professional book reviewer trying to understand the complex landscape of sci-fi writing today, this is the territory I have charted.

Commercial Storytellers
As Hollywood has always known, stories that appeal to tens or hundreds of millions of people all look much alike. The commercial storytellers tell archetypal tales, with the tropes of sci-fi providing a mere stage setting. George R R Martin, Stephen King, J K Rowling, in fact almost all the authors who sell a shed-ton of books to the masses are storytellers first and foremost. These writers may scavenge ideas from various genres, but they always upscale them to tell human stories with universal human appeal.

Worldbuilders
Ninth tribe suggested by Paul Weimer. See update 1 above.

The Weirds
Most writers at some point play around with the effects that can be induced by engineering stories with internal inconsistencies, mashing together disparate metaphors, or simply being weird for weirds sake. The weirds take this as an end in itself. With China Mieville as their reigning king they were riding high for a while. However, with newer voices like Molly Tanzer’s Vermillion coming through, the American ‘bizarro fiction’ movement, and with authors including Joe Hill and Josh Mallerman rejuvenating the traditional horror genre, the Weirds are still among the most creatively interesting of the eight tribes.

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Hard Sciencers
There’s a near irreconcilable tension between the poetic values of literature, storytelling and novels, with the logic driven realms of science and technology. When Hard SF inhabits that tension, as it does in the novels of Kim Stanley Robison, and the best work of earlier masters like Robert A Heinlein, it produces some of the greatest writing of the the last century. But taken as a whole the Hard Sciencers slip easily into an ideological quest to prove science can stand alone without poetry, emotion, or human insight. From their pinnacle in the 1980s when authors like Larry Niven banged out bestseller after bestseller, the Hard Sciencers are now a dwindling minority even within areas they once dominated. But the recent success of The Martian and Gravity among other suggests that, when it remembers to tell great stories, there’s still a huge appetite for hard SF.

Military Conservatives
During it’s Golden Age sci-fi became deeply associated with the values of the American dream. As those values have unwound America’s conservatives have retreated to sci-fi as a safe space to indulge their nationalist military fantasies. Amazon’s Author Rank for science fiction is packed with military SF novels, most of them repeating the same themes of Earth under attack by aliens, through to full fledged survivalist “prepper” fantasies, most self published and appealing to a small but committed audience of Donald Trump supporting SF readers. Given their aggressive, paranoid tendencies it’s hardly surprising these fans are fighting an imaginary war against the other tribes of sci-fi by protesting the Hugo awards.

51ukN0lxwJLProgressive Fantasists
If you want to make the world a better place, you need a space to imagine what that place might look like. From George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, way back to Thomas More’s Utopia and even further, writers have fantasised about the possibilities of progress, both good and bad. But it was the New Wave movement of the 60s, including Ursula Le Guin and Samuel Delany, who began pushing the boundaries of progressive SF. The annual James Tiptree Jnr awards highlight much of the best these folks have to offer, including a recent win for Monica Byrne’s The Girl In The Road. With Charlie Jane Anders All The Birds In The Sky and Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper among a wave of recent titles presenting challenging visions and re-imaginings of our reality, progressive fantasy seems more and more like the future of sci-fi.

YA Adventurers
They say the golden age of sci-fi is 15, and by that measure young adult writers are the ones really inspiring sense of wonder in young readers today. Even putting aside big hitters like the Hunger Games, Twilight, Divergent and the Maze Runner, YA is a rich field for fantastic literature. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, Garth Nix’ Abhorsen series, Holly Black’s various faerie inspired tales…I could make a really really long list of great YA sci-fi all to make the point that, from any objective perspective, YA is the mainstream of scifi today. But even when YA has interesting things to say for itself, it tends to hold younger readers with archetypal adventure “coming of age” stories that, by their nature, become less interesting for older readers.

The LitFic Tourists
It’s a rare trick for a writer to be both widely read and critically acclaimed. When literary writers wander into scifi, the attempt to be both often ends up being neither. Justin Cronin’s The Passage was a huge book that sold for a hefty advance and has been duly marketed to hell and back by its publisher. But alongside its two equally huge sequels forms a vampire adventure story that suffers from being neither very scary nor particularly exciting. On the flip side the short stories of Kelly Link, which recently earned their author a place as a Pulitzer prize finalist, are sci-fi down to their genes but you could read them all and never know it. The crossover of literary and genre scifi produces some startlingly original books, but it also leads to some of the most ill conceived and downright dull chunks of wordage out there.

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Sexy Beasts
Sometimes, people just want a guilt free alien wereleopard tentacle sex fantasy, and scifi is there to give it to them. Authors like Laurel K Hamilton, Charlaine Harris and of course E L James have made sexy vampire tales mainstream, but there’s a long history of raunchy, and sometimes sadly exploitative, sex fantasy in sci-fi. John Norman’s Gor novels amounted to little more than misogynistic S&M fantasies, but similar themes get more sophisticated treatment in Jaqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy fantasy series and elsewhere. Add in the staggering popularity of dinosaur erotica and the kind of sci-fi themed smut that gave the world Space Raptor Butt Invasion, and it’s clear that no understanding of scifi today is complete without the sexy beasts.

Comments closed. Come and find me on Twitter @damiengwalter

Only a creator culture can save us

We’re trying to rebuild a failed consumer culture. We need to make a new creator culture instead.

Published in Culture – A Reader for Writers, editor John Mauk, Oxford University Press.

I arrived in Leicester in the late ‘90s as a student, a year after losing my mother to cancer. Having little support, I worked my way through university as a street sweeper, a factory worker, a waiter, a barman, a door-to-door salesman, a cleaner, recycling operative and grill chef. I wanted to be a writer but that seemed like an unattainable dream at the time. A few years later I began working for Leicester’s library service as a literature development worker.

The first initiative I ran was a project to gather the reminiscences of senior citizens. There I was, in my mid-20s, in the meeting room of an older persons’ lunch club. I had a circle of plastic stacking chairs, paper, pens and a dozen volunteers, most of them past their 80th birthday. At the time, I could manage (as I still can) a good line in cocky arrogance. I told everyone how things were going to be and what the project was going to achieve. We were to capture voices from under-represented stakeholders in the local community, thereby encouraging social cohesion. I hadn’t yet learnt that the language of Arts Council England funding bids doesn’t mean much to normal people. Patient smiles greeted my words.

After a long pause, a woman in her 90s started to speak. She had grown up in a children’s home in Leicester, she told us. She had been abused by her father and then by another man at the home. She had worked in factories when she was old enough. Her husband died young, and so did her son. It took her half an hour to say this much. At the end, she said she’d never told anyone about her life before.

I was, in retrospect, unprepared for that project in every possible way. I spent the next fortnight doing a lot of listening and transcribing. The other stories were no easier to hear. Child abuse, abhorred in today’s media, was so prevalent in the industrial communities of England before the Second World War that it had passed almost without comment.

We published a small pamphlet of writing from the project. It seemed puny and easily ignored, but it meant a great deal to the group. There was even a small reception to launch it. A few friends and relatives and a dignitary from the local council came along to enjoy the municipally funded wine and nibbles. The storytellers themselves had all made new friends, and had kept busy instead of sitting idle in care homes. They had had a chance to speak. And a few people had listened.

It would take me the best part of a decade to really understand why that was important.

In dozens of projects and hundreds of workshops, I tried to help people to develop everything from basic literacy to advanced creative writing skills. I worked with teenagers from local schools, who loved vampire novels and wrote their own hip-hop lyrics but said they didn’t like English, until you told them that Mary Shelley was the first goth and ‘rap’ stood for ‘Rhythmic American Poetry’. I worked with groups of factory workers and people caught in mind-numbing call-centre jobs who just wanted to find something, anything, to show that they were worth more than that. I sat in on daylong symposia of Urdu verse and learnt what it is to have Hindu and Muslim communities talk to each other through poetry. I ran projects with drug users and mental health service users, often the same people. A lot of these people were young men, my own age, from roughly the same background as me. I started to see how real the gaps in society are, and how easy they are to fall through.

Any act that helps to empower a person creatively can ignite the imaginative spark without which life of any kind struggles

This all happened in a midlands city of 330,000 people. Leicester now has the third-largest Hindu community in England and Wales, as well as substantial Muslim, Black African, Somali, Polish and Chinese populations. In the late 1800s it was an industrial powerhouse, the hosiery capital of Europe. By the start of the 20th century, it was home to some of the poorest wards in Britain. Throughout the industrial revolution, it had sucked in thousands of rural labourers to man its factories. When the factories closed, that population, lacking any history of education or development, was abandoned, left to subsist on state benefits and lower-than-minimum-wage jobs on huge sink estates. Decades later, many are still there.

I honestly have no idea, beyond individual stories, if the creativity work I did had any real effect. I still get emails from one or two of the school kids I worked with: they’ve gone on to write their own sci-fi books. But there’s a guilt trap in almost any job where the aim is to help other people. Human need is infinite, and you quickly learn the limits of what can be achieved, or else you break from the pressure of attempting the impossible.

Even so, what I did see again and again was the real difference that a sliver of creative life can make, even to people in the worst circumstances. I saw it most often through the discipline of writing, and I think that the written word makes a good route for many people. But any act that helps to empower a person creatively can ignite the imaginative spark without which life of any kind struggles — and in many senses fails even to begin.

The remarkable Neal Stephenson interview

Neal Stephenson – legendary author of speculative fiction –  on Elon Musk and geek culture, the  NSA revelations of Edward Snowden, how negative cultural narratives are killing big science  – and the upbringing that made him the writer he is.

“I grew up in an environment that seemed utterly normal at the time and that in retrospect was almost unbelievably weird.”

~ Neal Stephenson.

IN LATE 2013 I had the opportunity to interview the author Neal Stephenson. Some Remarks, Stephenson’s collected non-fiction writing, was due for release in the UK and I was fascinated to talk to the author of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon about his wider views of science, technology and contemporary culture. It happened that the interview came just at the time that CLANG, the innovative sword fighting game that Neal had championed to successful Kickstarter funding, hit a few kinks in its development.  Our interview took a few twists and turns, but came out full of interesting insights in to the author’s thoughts and creative development. But, as sometimes happens with interviews, our discussion didn’t quite match the focus the commissioning technology publication had been looking for.  And so, after some consideration, I’ve rescued the interview from editorial limbo to publish here in full.  I hope you enjoy reading it.

Damien Walter, 2014

DW – Your non-fiction writing collected in Some Remarks displays the same fascination with technology and social change as your novels, I think that’s fair to say? Where did this fascination begin?

seveneves NS – One of the items in Some Remarks is a foreword to the posthumous re-issue of David Foster Wallace’s book Everything and More, in which I try to make the case that DFW’s work is informed by a particular sensibility peculiar to what I call the Midwestern American College Town,  or MACT. I won’t try to recapitulate that argument here, but the gist of it is that I grew up in an environment that seemed utterly normal at the time and that in retrospect was almost unbelievably weird. I suppose we all have such insights when we move away from the place of our upbringing. My ancestors had been ministers, professors – or ministers and professors – for several generations back. That’s in the paternal line. On the maternal side, they were reasonably well-to-do farmers with a direct and recent connection to Geraldine Jewsbury, a very complicated Victorian author. By the way, I didn’t know about any of that when I was young, I only became aware of it in my twenties and thirties. But one assumes it has an effect.

Anyway, during the 20th century they all made a turn toward science and technology and so I ended up with a lot of academic scientists and engineers in my family. I grew up in a MACT, dominated by a university of science and technology, wherein our neighbors, the people we saw at church, the parents of my friends, etc. all tended to have (or to be studying for) Ph.Ds. Some of my friends’ fathers had worked on the Manhattan Project, and as a teenager I worked summers as a research assistant in an old Manhattan Project lab. I developed a fairly typical nerdy fascination with computers and programming, which showed up in my fiction, particularly Snow Crash; and when that book became popular among high tech people, I ended up knowing many such.

DW – How did this upbringing contribute to your talent for seeing the “big picture” of technology?

NS – To the extent that I have any talent for it, it presumably arises from the fact that I never recognized any meaningful division or conflict between science and technology on the one hand, and any other aspect of culture (literature, religion) on the other. The typical MACT is too small to allow for specialization, and so if the professors are going to have cultural events they must organize them themselves, rather than delegating the work to a separate cultural elite. Again, all of this was simply the air I breathed, and I didn’t become conscious of it until later in life.

DW – The MACT sounds like much the kind of place where many young science fiction fans came of age. Today scifi and “geek culture” are arguably the new mainstream culture of the internet connected generation. How do you rate its influence on your work?

NS – Re scifi/geek culture, this is something that I grew up with, just as a historical accident. I can still remember seeing The Hobbit for the first time, in the hands of an older boy at my school when I was in the sixth grade. This was at about the same time that I was obsessing over the original Star Trek series and watching Astro Boy cartoons. Today, of course, we would identify all of these as being touchstones of geek culture, but at the time, nothing of the sort had even been imagined. So I was left with a fascination for these strange found objects on the periphery of our culture. I could say similar things about D & D and even Star Wars. People who were fans of one of these things tended to be fans of the others, and so geek culture evolved, I think, out of a lot of random encounters in dorm rooms and subway cars, and began to snowball as the geeks got better at networking.

“when Snow Crash popped up on the radar of geek culture and became a popular book, it took me by surprise”

When the Internet came along and made networking easy, the whole phenomenon just exploded and has now become a dominant force in our culture. I never partook of it as heavily as some others, in the sense that I didn’t go to SF cons, have never visited Comicon, and haven’t really been involved in the relevant Internet discussion groups. Consequently, when Snow Crash popped up on the radar of geek culture and became a popular book, it took me by surprise, and in fact I wasn’t really aware that anything had happened until people began to reach me via the then-new medium of email and to address me as if I were some kind of significant person.

Its main influence on my work has been that I have felt confident that I need not keep writing the same book over and over again. I have tried to make each book different from the last. I’ve always felt confident that this would work, which is to say, that the community of readers would accept this sort of random-walk approach, and so far I have never been disappointed. From time to time I will hear from a reader who is startled by the fact that my latest book isn’t very much like the one previous, but those people seem to be outnumbered by the ones who don’t care at all, supposing they even notice.

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

Harlan Ellison : The Interview

Originally published in The Guardian.

When Damien Walter tweeted he’d ‘literally kill’ to interview the multiple award-winning author Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman replied ‘What if the person you had to kill was … Harlan Ellison?’ Here Ellison talks about running away from home, the rights and wrongs of paying to read books and how his job on this planet is annoying people.

DW: Harlan, first of all, can you confirm that you are indeed the great Harlan Ellison?

HE: For all my sins – and I assure you, the only thing that has ever held me back from God-like greatness is my humility – I am the Harlan Ellison, the only one. I’m in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, right between Ellis Island and Ralph Ellison.

DW: Are you the writer of over 1,000 stories, novellas, screenplays, teleplays and essays?

HE: Yeah, it’s probably more like 1,800 now. I find that I have continued to write. I had 10 books last year, and that at my age I think is pretty good. While I always aspired to be Alexandre Dumas, if I reach the level of – I don’t know, Donald Westlake – I’ll be more than happy.

DW: You must have seen and done as much in speculative fiction as anyone, so can you tell us just what is speculative fiction?

HE: I will give you the only answer that there is. It is the game of “what if?”. You take that which is known, and you extrapolate – and you keep it within the bounds of logic, otherwise it becomes fantasy – and you say, “Well, what if?”. That’s what speculative fiction is, and at its very best, it is classic literature, on a level with Moby Dick and Colette and Edgar Allan Poe.

DW: So it’s definitely not fantasy.

HE: Fantasy is a separate genre, and it allows you to go beyond the bounds of that which is acceptable, where all of a sudden people can fly, or the Loch Ness Monster does not have a scientific rationale, but is a mythic creature. It is in the grand tradition of the oldest forms of writing we know, all the way back to Gilgamesh, the very first fiction we know, and the gods. Fantasy is a noble endeavour. Science fiction is a contemporary subset that goes all the way back to Lucian of Samosata, and Verne and Wells, and Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

DW: It seems to be everywhere, with video games, massive movie franchises and millions of people going to conventions. So why is it so popular now?

HE: Well, we live in a technological age. Time has passed, and we have stepped over the ruins of our own societies, and our own civilisations, and we come now to the fruition of those things about which the human race has dreamed. We have flight and we have electronic assistants. The entertainment media – which are always very timorous and step very carefully out of fear and loathing – don’t know what they’re doing so much. So they go back, and they are catching up on the kind of science fiction – and they call it, in that ugly, ugly phrase, “sci-fi,” which those who have worked in speculative fiction despise, it’s like calling a woman a “broad” – they are catching up on ideas that were covered with hoarfrost 60 years ago. That’s why you have an overabundance of zombies and walking dead, and world war and asteroids from space. They have not yet tackled any of the truly interesting discussions of humanity that are treated in speculative fiction. But they are a break from standard 19th, early 20th-century fiction, and so they seem fresh to an audience that is essentially ignorant.

DW: You famously described sci-fi fandom as an “extended family of wimps, twinks, flakes and oddballs.” But don’t the geeks kind of run the world now?

HE: I am a steadfastly 20th-century guy. I’ve always been pathologically au courant. Even today I can tell you the length of Justin Bieber’s hair. But it has now reduced society to such a trivial, crippled form, that it is beyond my notice. I look at things like Twitter and Facebook, and “reality TV” – which is one of the great frauds of our time, an oxymoron like “giant shrimp” – and I look at it all, and I say, these people do not really know what the good life is. I look at the parched lives that so many people live, the desperation that underlies their every action, and I say, this has all been brought about by the electronic media. And I do not envy them. I do not wish to partake of it, and I am steadfastly in the 20th century. I do not own a handheld device. Mine is an old dial-up laptop computer, which I barely can use – barely. I still write on a manual typewriter. Not even an electronic typewriter, but a manual. My books keep coming out. I have over 100 books published now, and I’ve reached as close to posterity as a poor broken vessel such as I am entitled to reach.

DW: I think I know what you’re going to say as the answer to this question, but I want to ask you anyway. Because a lot of writers today – and I’m thinking of people like Cory Doctorow, and Neil Gaiman, who set up this interview for us – say that they can give their work away for free, and they can still sell it. Do you think there’s any chance that they’re right?

HE: I think without question they are wrong. I don’t know that Neil has ever said that. I think I’ve known Neil so many years, that I think I’ve whipped him, flayed him, and browbeaten him enough that he knows that he gives nothing away for nothing. But he has a kind heart, and so people can touch him, and they will ask him to do something for nothing because, “Well, we don’t have the money.” They have the money to buy drugs, they have money to go to the movies, they have money to buy themselves new shoes, but they don’t have the money to pay the writer. Cory Doctorow’s philosophy I find egregious. Egregious in the extreme. Stephen King tried to give things away for free on the web, and was screwed. I think any writer who gives away his work demeans himself, demeans the craft, demeans the art, and demeans the buyer. It is not only caveat emptor, it is caveat lector. I don’t mean to be crude when I say this, but I won’t take a piss unless I’m paid properly.

DW: [Laughter] What I wanted to talk to you about – and it was kind of the reason for the interview, the starting point – was All The Lies That Are My Life.

HE: Ah, All The Lies That Are My Life. One of my great apologias for being the idiot I am. It was based upon – well, there are two legs upon which it stands. One of them is the relationship that I have had with another writer all my life, who was at one time a very, very close friend of mine, who I discovered later was less a good friend than I had thought, and who had held me in some contempt. And then the relationship between Edgar Allan Poe and Griswold, who became his bibliographer after he died, and kept Poe a minor figure in literature for over a hundred years. This was a sort of getting even story where a famous writer talks about another famous writer he knew.

DW: You’ve said that writing is the hardest work of all, harder than being a truck driver. Harder than being in the army?

HE: Well, being in the army is like being in prison. You are not your own person. You are constrained 24/7. You are told what to do. They keep you in your place. You are not allowed to have an awful lot of self-respect, or pride of place, or pride of self. And I’ve been in jail, and I’ve been in hospitals, and I’ve been in the army. They constrict me. They’re a straitjacket. I am a mad thing, and wildness asserts itself. I’m like your average dopey teenager, who lies down in the middle of traffic just to see what it feels like to have a car run over you. I’m blessed. I’m blessed. I’m less than a month shy of the age 79. By all rights – I ran away from home when I was 13, not because I was being abused, just because I couldn’t stand it any more, and I had to get out on my own. I was on the road at age 13, and I should have bought the farm at age 14, duelling with Richelieu’s guards on the parapets, and instead I have lived to this ripe old age.

DW: OK then, I want to ask you a question about one of the stories that seems to haunt people the most, Demon with a Glass Hand.

HE: That’s just been picked up again to be remade as a movie, as a motion picture. But it’s remarkable that something that’s more than 30 years old has had this kind of life. People say, “Well, Ellison is always suing everybody.” Well, I never sue anybody unless they pick up one of my ideas from 40 years ago and do a bad job of it in a movie. Then I say, “Well, if you used me as the source, by God get your hand out of my pocket. Pay me.” I’ve won every lawsuit that I’ve ever gotten into, except last year, there was a movie came out that was pretty close to my famous story ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman, the one that’s one of the 10 most reprinted stories in the English language, and I started to sue, and then I went and saw the movie, and it was so bad – so bad – I withdrew the case saying, no, let this movie fall into complete obscurity, and the universe forget it, and don’t attach my name to it, the way they did The Terminator, which is a good film.

DW: In many of your stories there is the oppressor or the bully, who wants to have their way with humanity, with whoever is in the story. The worst of these, I think for me, is I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, which is a story of –

HE: Oh, yes, God. God is a shit.

DW: Yeah. It’s a story you wrote in a single night. I read it in my teens in a hallucinatory state over the course of a single night. Is there something about – you have to be in this state to find that oppressive being out there? You have to find it in the night?

HE: Well, I wrote another story – I’m not steering away from the question, I’m answering it in an ancillary way, but I’ll get right back to it – I wrote a whole book of stories called Deathbird Stories, which are retellings in a modern way of the godlike myths. And one of the short stories that I did, that is in the Best American Short Stories, is called The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore, and it is in a way my atheist tract. I’m a stiff-necked Jewish atheist, and I, like Mark Twain, do not believe that there is a great bearded avuncular spirit up there watching us carefully to see whether we masturbate or not. He’s got better things to do creating star systems than to worry about whether we do Feng Shui with the furniture.

When I talk about God, I talk about him not believing in him. If there were a God, and you believed in him, and then instead of saying something ridiculous like, well, God has these mysterious ways, we are not meant to know what it is he’s doing, or she’s doing, or it’s doing, I say, in defiance of Albert Einstein, yes, the universe does shoot craps – God does shoot craps with the universe. One day you’ll win £200m in the lottery and the next day you’ll get colon cancer. So when I wrote I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, I put God in the form of a master computer, AM – cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am – and had him preserve these half a dozen human beings, after having destroyed the world, to keep them down there and torment them forever, for having created him but giving him no place to go. And I believe – much to the annoyance of my various fervid aficionados – they wish I had more faith.

I say, I have faith in the human spirit, that something noble enough to have created Gaudí’s cathedral in Barcelona is noble enough not to have to go to war over sheep in the Falklands. That’s what I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream says. In fact I did a video game called I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, and I created it so you could not win it. The only way in which you could “win” was to play it nobly. The more nobly you played it, the closer to succeeding you would come, but you could not actually beat it. And that annoyed the hell out of people too.

[Laughter]

HE: I spend a lot of time annoying people. That’s my job on this planet.

DW: That’s a good job to have. You’ve always been a political writer and politically active as well. You famously marched from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King.

HE: Yup.

DW: Why don’t speculative fiction writers today cause more trouble?

HE: Ah, kiddo, I wish I could give you an answer. I sigh woefully, [sighs], because that’s what writers are supposed to do, afflict the contented. But most of them don’t. Most of them just want to tell a story, and I guess that’s a noble endeavour in and of itself, to tell a story. Storytellers can be teachers, like Aristotle, or they can just be storytellers like – I don’t know, who’s writing the trash these days? I don’t know who’s writing trash over there where you are, but whoever it is, you pick the name, put it in for me.

DW: When you were starting out, and you’d run away from home, and then you were in the army for a short while, and you were writing through the night to get all of this stuff done, did you expect, did you dream, of becoming as famous and as successful as you have as a writer?

HE: Absolutely. At one point in my career – I don’t think I was married at the time. I’ve been married to my wife for 27 years, and God knows how she’s been able to stand it. But she’s my fifth wife. At one point I had a T-shirt that said, “Not tonight dear, I’m on a deadline.” And you stop and think how many movies you didn’t go and see, how many parties you didn’t attend, how many concerts you didn’t get to hear, because you were working. And I’ve worked endlessly through my entire life. I’ve never been a sluggard, and yet I’ve never felt that I’ve done one twentieth of what I was capable of doing.
And when I stopped at some point – and I’ve done this on numerous occasions – and said, “Why? Why am I doing it?” I am reminded of the quote from Heinrich von Kleist, who said, “I don’t stop writing, because I cannot.” And it is a compulsion. It’s like breathing. It’s systole and diastole. I just go in and out, and I do it. I do it because it is part of what I do. But the reason I do it is because I want it to last. I live in vain hope that one day, 50 years from now, or 100 years from now, when taking down Dumas, or Chaucer, or Colette, or somebody really worth reading, they say, oh, let’s try another Ellison, and they take down Angry Candy or All the Lies That Are My Life, and they say, he did know how to write. He knew how to put words together. He knew how to transform the human condition into translatable prose that could draw a smile or a tear. And that’s hoping for fame. That’s hoping for longevity. That’s hoping for reality. It’s the same thing that drove Magellan and drove Julius Caesar and drove Imhotep. It’s the hoping that you last beyond the shell.

DW: Harlan, I have no doubt that you will. No doubt.

HE: You are enormously kind and gracious. Just for the record, I never, ever threw anybody down an elevator shaft.

DW: [Laughter] I didn’t want to ask you that question, because I’m sure you always get asked that, Harlan. Everyone always seems to ask you, have you killed anybody, did they survive?

HE: Well, that’s a different question. That’s a different question. I’ve never thrown anybody down an escalator shaft, and I did not grab Connie Willis’s breast.

DW: I didn’t want to ask you that question either.

HE: Oh, that just infuriates me. That just infuriates me.

DW: Do you want to – do you have anything you want to say about it?

HE: About Connie Willis? I think she’s a brilliant writer.

• Harlan Ellison’s graphic novel 7 Against Chaos launches from DC in July. Volumes three and four of his unproduced television scripts, Brain Movies, are available at harlanbooks.com

• No one was killed in the making of this interview

A Game of Egos

A Dance with Dragons
A Dance with Dragons (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Originally published on guardianbooks.co.uk

A wealthy dynasty brought to its knees by popular revolt, the highest in the land caught in a web of corruption, and at the heart of it all a powerful woman with remarkable hair. If you see the Murdoch clan, Chipping Norton set and Rebekah Brooks in these archetypes then you have clearly been spending too long watching the news. If on the other hand you recognise the Targaryen kings, Small Council and Cersei Lannister then I accuse you of reading A Dance with Dragons, the fifth volume in George RR Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire saga. (Now perhaps better known as A Game of Thrones for the HBO TV adaptation from the original books.)

It is rare indeed for a fantasy novel to receive either the attention or thecritical acclaim heaped upon A Dance with Dragons. Among all literary genres, epic fantasy is surely the most widely reviled and ignored. And it can be hard to identify the genre’s best and most original works when they are surrounded on the shelves by hundreds of third-rate knock-offs.

But in the hands of authors who understand their potential, the secondary worlds of fantasy provide a lens that can bring to sharp focus truths that the chaos of modern life obscures. JRR Tolkien crafted a mythology for the modern world from ancient teutonic sources, a mythology that expressed many people’s deep fears about industrialisation and world war. Mervyn Peake created a dark and painfully accurate reflection of the oppressive British class system in Gormenghast. And China Miéville transfigured Dickensian London and showed the daily exploitation of the poor and vulnerable that still powers the modern city in Perdido Street Station and his Bas-Lag novels.

George RR Martin also draws on historical sources to build his fantasy world. Westeros bears a startling resemblance to England in the period of the Wars of the Roses. One throne unifies the land but great houses fight over who will sit upon it. With no true king the land is beset with corrupt, money-grubbing lords whose only interest is their own prestige. Two loose alliances of power pit a poor but honourable North against a rich and cunning South. And the small folk must suffer through it all, regardless of which side wins. Many things change over the course of five centuries, but not politics it seems.

But if Martin had only transposed a historical and political context to a fantasy world his books would never have achieved such staggering popularity. Their author’s real strength is his compendious understanding of the human stories driving the grand political narrative. There does not seem to be a single living soul in the land of Westeros that Martin does not have insight into, from the highest king to the lowest petty thief. Martin does not compartmentalise evil on one side of the map and good on the other. It is a world of high stakes, where the winners prosper and the losers are mercilessly ground under heel. Against this tapestry every one of Martin’s characters is forced to chose between their love for those close to them and the greater interests of honour, duty and the realm. More often than not, those who make the noble choice pay with their lives.

Beheading, dismemberment and being roasted alive have, perhaps fortunately, become less common punishments for the losers in our modern games of ego. And while the throne itself is no longer up for grabs, the same human dramas still play out every day between those who vie for power in the elite spheres of business, politics and the media. The scandal engulfing News International is just the latest example of those archetypal dramas bubbling up in to public view.

Take Rupert and son James. What words pass between the reigning monarch and the heir apparent in private we can only guess. We might think of Odysseus and Telemachus. Too noble perhaps? Hamlet and his ghostly father then? Closer. But the portrait of a father manipulating a son that George RR Martin paints between Tywin and Jaime Lannister seems closest of all to me.

A Game of Thrones has captured the imaginations of millions for the same reason the archetypal dramas of Homer, Sophocles or Shakespeare have lasted for millennia. They show us the conflict between self-sacrifice and self-interest, between the human spirit and the human ego, between good and evil. And when we look up from the page we recognise those same conflicts in the world around us and in ourselves.

 

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The answer to a riddle

Last year I wrote a short story called A Vast Bit of Hod, which I published to my blog here. As I mentioned at the time, the story is also a riddle. I have congratulated half a dozen people who emailed me the answer. This evening James Everington tweeted me to ask:

btw, when are you going to post the ‘answer’ to the “Vast Bit of Hod” story? It’s been bugging me ever since (in a good way)

Which I have been meaning to do for sometime. So.

Harold, the central character in A Vast Bit of Hod, is completing a crossword when we meet him, behind the counter in the weird antique / collectibles store where the story takes place. The crossword clue is the title of the story. If you aren’t good at anagrams, here is an anagram server to help you. We’ll come back to what the anagram is momentarily.

A Vast Bit of Hod began life when my friend Dana, fellow Clarion writers’ workshop graduate, sent out an email challenge to write a story about a shop that sells lives. Because I’m working on novel length things, I hadn’t written a short story for a time, but this challenge brought an idea to mind that I couldn’t resist. Our Clarion tutor Neil Gaiman says that novels are like a long journey, whereas short stories are like seeing a tree and deciding to climb up it. So I decided to climb this tree.

For three years now I have been studying Buddhism. I enjoy it from an intellectual perspective, and I’ve found the insight meditation techniques it teaches tremendously helpful. Two linked ideas in Buddhism are karma and reincarnation. These are both hard ideas to grasp from a rational perspective. There is no evidence of any mechanism in nature to make ‘what goes around come around’, and very few people I know believe they will come back to life as a goat, or even an Emperor. But as myths they point towards the idea that our behaviour defines our life, an idea I do believe.

So in my shop customers enter to select the new lives which they will incarnate within after when they are reborn. They deposit their old lives in the form of an object which they hand to the shop keeper, and select a new object which symbolises their new life. I’m afraid I’m not very complimentary about the lives many of us choose. In particular I heap a little scorn on the fantasy lives we escape in to, while our actual lives decay around us. For a writer of fantasy, I’m oddly ambivalent about the role of fantasy in our lives.

A Vast Bit of Hod is an anagram for (excluding the ‘of’) Bodhisattva. This is the Buddhist term for, depending on your translation, either humans well on the path to enlightenment, or those who are enlightened but choose to live in the world and help others reach enlightenment. Harold is a little bit of both.  He isn’t exactly kind to Anthony, but he does what needs to be done to help the young man move from one life to the next. At the end of the story, Harold is left holding a simple wooden bowl, the traditional begging bowl that is the only possession of Buddhist monks who have renounced all worldly things. Harold has another lifetime or two of suffering before he is ready for nirvana. But first he fancies another biscuit…

You can read A Vast Bit of Hod here.

The New Aesthetic and I

Every creative is always looking for a new aestehtic. And now there really is a New Aesthetic.

I will date the New Aesthetic to Bruce Sterling’s essay on the subject, in response to the SXSW panel chaired by James Bridle. But I’ll date my personal interest to the AlterFutures talk I gave recently, where it came up as a subject of conversation.

A better question might be ‘What will the New Aesthetic be when it stops being interesting?’

The most interesting period in a new aesthetic is its molten youth, when it picks up random debris from the surrounding landscape and no one can say for sure what form it will solidify in to or what parts of human society will be destroyed by its flow. So asking ‘What is the New Aesthetic?’ is like trying to fast forward through the big budget disaster movie. A better question might be ‘What will the New Aesthetic be when it stops being interesting?’

The New Aesthetic has been given a name by a group of London based design and creative types, and maybe it’s taking off because its just about loose enough to encompass one of those ideas that is emerging among many creative people; who given the social conditioning of creativity still at large in the early 21st C, are likely all of a similar age and social class; 20 to 30 somethings with the educational privilege to understand both contemporary culture and the technology driving it all.

The visible tropes of the New Aesthetic are: glitches and corruption artefacts in digital objects, render ghosts, satellite views, retro 80’s graphics. If you look through a tumblr of New Aesthetic imagery thats kind of what you will see. But it tells you nothing, so forget it.

Here’s a better way to think about it. The early 21st C has spawned an entire class of ‘cultural creatives’. Maybe 10-15% of the population of modern post-industrial nations like the UK are employed creating text, imagery, video, animation, sound, for the entertainment and advertising industries, and sometimes even as art. Expand your definition of creative to comfortably accommodate coders and some other knowledge worker types, and it all tallies up to a lot of people creating a lot of stuff every moment of every day. Start thinking about user generated content and you can increase the amount of stuff by factors of ten.

You could call the New Aesthetic the ‘Apple Mac’ Aesthetic

But. Actually what all of these people are doing, now, is using a computer. You could call the New Aesthetic the ‘Apple Mac’ Aesthetic, as that’s the computer of choice for most of these acts of creation. Images are made in Photoshop and Illustrator. Video is edited in Final Cut Pro. Buildings are rendered in Autodesk. Books are written in Scrivener. And so on. To paraphrase McLuhan “the hardware / software is the message” because while you can imitate as many different styles as you like in your digital arena of choice, ultimately they all end up interrelated by the architecture of the technology itself.

Horizon, one of my early published SF stories, is arguably a New Aesthetic story.

Every item of clothing in TopShop, whatever fashion style it is aping, has more in common with every other item because they are all products of the same digital creation / automated manufacture process. The cities of Britain are increasingly just agglomerated masses of Autodesk wireframes constructed from the most economically profitable prefabricated building blocks. Films and television are driven by innovations in CGI, and the superhero franchise reigns supreme because once you have all the digital assets in place, there is no reason not to make the Nth Spiderman movie.

I’ve strayed too far in to negative critique here, some of the outcomes of all this are actually quite beautiful I imagine. And also, this isn’t new. It’s been emerging for a generation. And it’s not what the New Aesthetic is or will be. Think of the New Aesthetic as the totality of our response to this as creators, and we might be getting closer.

Imagine the world’s creative community as a huge colony of meerkats, hanging out on the digital savannah, every single one of us wired and responding to the same stream of information via Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr. If you’re one of us, don’t ever fool yourself in to thinking you’ve found an idea first. Even in the old days of telephone calls and television, no one ever had an idea without a few thousand other people having it as well. If you got lucky, you were the person in the right place and time to capitalise on the idea. Ideas are built from the repurposed components of other ideas. Creativity is re-combinatorial. Curation is the core creative act of all artists, even if only of their own work. And now with social media the speed of viral idea transmission has topped out the acceleration graph. At any given time hundreds of thousands of people are having the same idea, built from the same blog posts and tweets and videos and e-books. And the New Aestehtic is one of these ideas, and it is the aesthetic that arises from understanding that this is how ideas are now.

And that’s another demand of the New Aesthetic worth considering. The constant demand to let go of I.

Which is a challenge. Because I can’t own the idea. And neither can you. Or at least you’ll need an unspeakably monstrous ego to take ownership of something like the New Aesthetic in today’s networked world. And that’s another demand of the New Aesthetic worth considering. The constant demand to let go of I. Because our I can’t grasp the New Aesthetic. It’s a thing of We. A thing of the network.

There are 7431 CCTV cameras in London. I would like to put forward their combined video output over any given 24 hour period as a work of art in the New Aesthetic. Firstly, there is no I present for any of the images being recorded. They are electrical impulses recorded as 1’s and 0’s in magnetic storage. We might sit and watch the footage back in various combinations. We could edit it in to a two hour feature presentation. But that would be at best an introduction to the 178,331 hours of footage that is the complete text. It’s humanly possible to watch all the footage, but would take – as previously mentioned – a monstrous act of ego. And I could hardly claim to be the creator of this artwork. As for any meaning the footage might reveal, its far beyond the the reach of any single I to ascertain it.

The world, the universe, confronts us every day with a vast complexity that we can not hope to understand. One purpose of mediated objects is to give us an edited and abbreviated version of that complexity which our very limited perceptions can comfortably grasp. Films and books that tell limited stories which we can understand. Fashion that makes the world coherent enough that we can adopt a role within it. Visual imagery with a finite grammar that remains somewhat familiar. The New Aesthetic are the mediated objects which in one way or another return us to the actual complexity of reality. As such they become once again frustratingly impossible to grasp through the limited construct of I.

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5 indispensable guides for fiction writers

Many people say writing can’t be taught. But it can certainly be learned.

(I actually think it can be taught as well, or I wouldn’t teach it.)

When we’re young and full of beans we like to think we know it all. It’s hard to admit to ourself we don’t how to do something. But it’s the first and most important step in learning anything worth knowing. The idea that writing is a mystical skill, only known to those with some rare combination of genetics, education and / or the grace of a Supreme Creator, is just another way of not admitting that you don’t know how to do it. If it can’t be learnt, well then you might as well just go right on not learning it, avoid all that hard work, and continue just waiting for inspiration to strike.

Learning to write good fiction does take time. I would say roughly five years, for someone with strong literacy, who already reads widely and deeply to begin with. But it can also take WAAAAAAAY longer than that. Without the right inputs, the outputs will always be rubbish. That input can be teaching. A good writing teacher can help you take quantum leaps forward in a few hours that might take years to stumble upon. Or you can read one or two good writing guides. The right guides can help you master what Stephen King calls ‘The Writer’s Toolkit’, everything from basic grammar, paragraphs and sentence structure to character, narration, scene, plot and themes. For a novice, a good writing guide should take you from enjoying texts as a reader, to understanding their structure and the tools and techniques used to build them as a writer. That’s an important shift, and one that will save years of trial and error in the learning process.

While there is a law of diminishing returns with writing guides – the more of them you read the more you find the same information repeated – the good ones, as with those I have chosen below, always reveal the unique wisdom of their authors.

61e3sUUoQ-LJames Woods : How Fiction Works

This is the writing guide I would most like to see read by all writers of genre fiction who disdain ‘literature’. James Woods is one of the world’s best literary critics, and Professor of Literary Criticism at Harvard. Fine credentials, in this case backed up by a slim but erudite volume on How Fiction Works which I would rate as the single best book for writers trying to achieve depth and complexity in their fiction. The worst writing guides replace craft with market knowledge. They tell the writer what will sell, which often means discouraging them from subtlety or complexity because these aren’t always valued in commercial fiction. For instance, it’s often taken as gospel by genre writers that a text’s narrative point-of-view stick to one character per scene or chapter. Unfortunately, while this makes life easier for weak readers, it also robs prose of one its great strengths, which is the ability to reflect the viewpoint of many characters even within the same sentence. Wood’s book has an excellent section on exactly this topic, as well as many other gems that will set straight any writer who spends more time considering the market than learning the craft.

41VqkRTiLSLUrsula LeGuin : Steering the Craft

I love this book so much that I regularly re-read it for pleasure. Ursula Le Guin is one of those writers I trust absolutely to say only wise and decent things, so any advice she gives on writing is instantaneously at the top of my To Be Read list. Being a genuine and good person is an underestimated skill for writers. If you aren’t, why would anyone choose to spend hundreds of hours hanging around in your imagination? Le Guin doesn’t explicitly share ideas on how to become as wise as she in this book, instead she focuses on the often neglected fundamentals of good fiction – voice & rhythm – but it’s always possible some of the wholesomeness might rub off just through continued exposure. There are also excellent writing exercises which I have come back to again and again.

Samuel R Delany : About Writing71Cqp1WC4mL._SL1500_

Have you ever had the experience of struggling for hours with a technical issue – maybe an intractable computer problem thats kept you up in to the wee hours – when in desperation you call in an expert who fixes it in about 18 seconds? That’s basically every other page of Delany’s hefty tome of collected writing advice. The small section on natural vs. dramatic narrative structure (Location, Action, Emotion…which most people present in reverse, thereby boring / confusing the reader) is worth the high price of this rare book in and of itself. But don’t let the fact that I’ve revealed it here stop you! There are many, many more wise words from one of the grandmasters of SF to glean from About Writing. Delany is also a vastly experienced writing teacher, so he spends some time talking about the very subtle differences that seperate a successful student who blooms as a writer from the many others who, however technically accomplished they become, just never grow as artists.

81gN21xfs-L._SL1500_Christopher Booker : The Seven Basic Plots

I have misgivings about recommending this, because it has almost as many crippling failings as it does magnificent strengths. Paramount among the failings are the hundreds of pages Booker – a social conservative – spends attempting to construct a revisionist history of modern literature as a victory of the Ego over the Self. However, Booker’s core argument that stories reflect our deepest psychological structures is a fascinating and also demonstrably true one. He isn’t the first to make it, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces has been much more significant in enlightening writers to this way of approaching story, but Booker does make an excellent critical analysis of and argument for his seven archetypal plot structures. If you want to write archetypal fiction in the heroic / high fantasy model then this is an essential read, and will very likely change forever how you approach that task. Just ignore everything Booker has to say about modern literature and you will be fine!

61uWN6QltsLGail Sher : One Continuous Mistake

The relationship between meditation and writing is one that has been explored quite widely from the 60’s onwards, when the counter culture brought many aspects of Eastern spiritual practice to the west. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is probably the most famous, but Gail Sher brings a sensitivity to the subject that makes One Continuous Mistake quite unique in its Zen-like precision. Writing is a task which requires intense insight in to our inner life, and precise mastery of the balance between the waking logical mind and unconscious dreaming imagination. Gail Sher provides a compassionate guide on how to strengthen both and hence strengthen your writing, using meditation exercises, and also through the longer term practice of your craft and creativity. For anyone who has been overly schooled in the ‘write 2000 words a day, sell a book a year, meet the demands of the market’ way of writing, this book might be just what you need to overcome those ego driven desires and get back to your true self as a writer.

A few I didn’t include and why: Story by Robert McKee because it’s great for screenwriting but can misguide prose writers. On Writing by Stephen King because, come on, you’ve read this right? Are there any other hidden gems of writerly craft I have negelected?

Why English culture is bewitched by magic

From Merlin to Harry Potter, English magic has a long tradition. But what does it say about today’s culture?

English occultist, bohemian and author Aleister Crowley defined magick as “the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will”. Crowley’s will was aided by the inheritance age 11 of a tidy fortune, and took him on a hedonistic ride through a life of sex, drugs and occult practice. Member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, founder of the mystery religion of Thelema, self declared spiritual master and Magus and, significantly, accomplished chess player, Crowley revelled in his notoriety as “the wickedest man alive”. The Great Beast’s polyamorous lifestyle would barely contend for such a title in today’s more liberal and permissive world, and the philosophy of ordering your world in line with your will is one that seems entirely accepted in our individualist society.

Read more @ Guardian Books

Aleister Crowley
Cover of Aleister Crowley
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7 literary Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels you must read

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 and writing genre, while genre writers themselves miss out on the credit they deserve. 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 an entire forest. Do you? Well OK then.) SF and Fantasy are common ground that any writer can build their house upon, but pretending to own them just makes you look silly.

And it’s doubly silly if you’re an aspiring writer of the fantastic, because you may be hurling away the best chance to learn you will ever get. If as a writer you are only as good as what you read, then how good can you expect to be if your book diet is filled with derivative works of pulp fiction? A fast food diet may please the taste buds, but you wouldn’t expect to dine out on Big Macs every day and become an olympic athlete. So why expect to write even a good book without reading them first?

What makes these novels distinctly ‘literary’ as opposed to the genre novels they resemble? Put simply, they are better. More ambitious, deeper in meaning, both intellectual and poetic. They might be harder work for readers trained to the easily digested conventions of commercial fiction. But if you make the effort to read these books on their own terms, there are incredible feats of imagination to discover in their pages. They feature many of the tropes of genre SF & Fantasy, but in the hands of writers who understand what those fantastic metaphors are really all about. But most of all these are books which reveal something about what it is to be human and living in our strange  world. If genre novels create fantasy worlds to escape in to, these books show the fantastic reality of the world we all live in.

The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse is set some 400 years in the future from it’s 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…