Tag Archives: featured

How does M John Harrison enter a story?

M John Harrison is one of the all time greats, a “science fiction writer’s science fiction writer”, a creator of weird tales in the horror tradition, and a powerful weaver of fantasy. The Viriconium stories defined political fantasy in the 80’s, as the Light trilogy redefined literary SF in the 00s. As editor of New Worlds he was integral to the new wave of SF alongside authors like J G Ballard and Michael Moorcock.

He’s also out and out the most skilled storyteller working between genres today. In this video essay I take a deep-dive into Harrison’s recent short story collection to answer the question, how does Mike Harrison enter a story?

Read the short story collection You Should Come With Me Now: http://amzn.to/2FRLWT0

Get early access to new writing and videos from me, and help me make more, as a patron: https://www.patreon.com/DamienWalter

And follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/damiengwalter

Advertisements

What does a nomad writer pack for 4 years on the road?

Hello! My name is Damien Walter, and I am the nomad writer.

I’ve been travelling since November 2013, across Thailand, India, Malaysia and Indonesia. I’m a slow traveller, staying at least two months wherever I go. My main base of operations is Chiang Mai, the “digital nomad” capital of the world.

Read Slouching Toward Nimmanhaemin: Digital Nomads are a 21st Century Counter Culture.

My travels are entirely funded by my work as a writer. I make words for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, Independent, Buzzfeed, Aeon and quite a few more. I’m a pro blogger / copywriter / wordsmith for more businesses and brands than I care to recall at this time. And I self publish under a few names that, nope, I am absolutely not telling you here!

I also teach writing. My course The Rhetoric of Story is a Udemy bestseller. Before escaping to travel I was director of the certificate in creative writing at University of Leicester, with research published by Oxford University Press and Cambridge. I spent a decade leading workshops and literacy projects as a community worker in Leicester, UK.

So, what does a nomad writer pack for the road? To mark four years of nomadic living, I’m going to show you everything I travel with. And, SPOILER ALERT, it’s much less than you might expect! I am a committed minimalist in nearly all things, especially travel. This level of minimalism, like my nomadic lifestyle as a whole, are only possible because of technoloy and the internet.

Follow all my nomad writer adventures, read all my stories, and get all my courses as a patron. $1 is great, most of my patrons give under $5.

You can find me on Twitter @damiengwalter or on YouTube where I will soon be beginning a new vlog series.

20171109150943_IMG_0318.JPG

So. Going from right to left, in a kind of up-down zig zag…

My backpack is a TT Carry-On 40 from Lowe Alpine. Now discontinued, but you can find similar alternatives. To keep travelling simple and cheap, I limit myself to a single backpack that I can carry on to international flights for no extra baggage fee, then walk out the other end without waiting for the carousel. I find 40 litres to be more than enough for my few posessions.

Camphor soap and mosquito spray. The downside of life in Asia are mosquitos and the dengue fever epidemic that they spread. Mosquito spray is always useful, and I buy these little bars of camphor soap wherever I find them because they smell amazing! Actually, the best way to avoid mosquito bites is avoid dusk times 4pm to 7pm when they are most active, so that’s my daily exercise time.

Creative Cards! I use index cards as part of my writing process. I went so far as to launch a kickstarter for deluxe index cards in early 2017, and had this prototype made. The kickstarter failed, but I got a really cool box for my cards.

Tarot Cards. I’ve been travelling with this pack of medium size atarot cards, the classic designs by Pamela Coleman-Smith, since 2011, bought during a three weak stay at Ocean Beach, San Diego. I do occaisional tarot readings for good friends and patrons. (Please don’t call this the Rider-Waite deck. A E Waite basically stole these designs from their true creator.)

Merrell Trail Glove running shoes. Running is, for me, the natural brother to writing. I run most days, although by last year I had lost so much weight that I replaced some runs with yoga or weights. Barefoot shoes are by far my favorite, giving a much closer relationship to the road or trail. They’re also hard to come by in Asia, so I do also have a pair of Adidas, as these old Merrell’s are on their last legs :(

Samsung A7 2015 model purchased in New Delhi for around $180 unlocked. I’d been travelling with an iPhone 4 until buying the A7, so it was a major upgrade at the time. It’s due an upgrade itself now, but I’m waiting for a good dual-camera phone that I can integrate into my workflow for video.

Kindle Voyage. My latest purchse, and an upgrade from my previous Kobo. Reading is a huge part of professional and personal life. It would simply be impossible for me to travel as I do now before the rise ebooks. The Voyage is a really great ereader, although this is probably the world’s most expensive model as I had to puy THREE sets of import taxes to get it to me in Thailand.

Samsung Galaxy Tab-A with S-Pen + Microsoft Foldable Keyboard + plastic stand. This is my main workhorse writing rig for the last year or so. It’s two main advantages over a laptop are a genuine all day battery life, and the S-Pen which lets me handwrite on the screen, both killer features. The Microsoft keyboard is superb, but I actually quite often write using the touchscreen. I’m a convert to tablets, and will likely upgrade this rig with a iPad Pro 10.5 as my next purchase.

Thule Stravan 13″ Macbook shoulder bag. So. Look. I have what I have to describe as a shoulder bag fetish. I spent YEARS searching for the perfect shoulder bag. And the Thule is it. It’s like somebody read my mind for every possible use case I might have, and covered them ALL. It’s also cheap, you can find them under $30 if you look around. Dear Thule…do NOT stop making these!

Mid-2011 11″ Macbook Air. These things are the workhorse of digital nomad’s everywhere. Go into a cafe in Chiang Mai, Berlin, Oaxaca or basically anywhere with mobile workers, you will see these everywhere. They’re lightweight, mobile and remarkably tough. My Macbook has fallen down flights of stars, tumbled onto concrete and had water and coffee thrown over it. In 2015 the Indian heat swelled the Macbook’s battery up into a giant chemical tumour. First the keys started to pop off, then the aluminum casing ballooned into a rugby ball shape. I was in the himalayan hill station of Dharamsala, so it stayed that way for three whole months. When I eventually installed a replacement battery in Thailand, the case popped back into shape and I’ve been using it as normal ever since! Today I only really use it for video editing. It’s perfectly capable of rendering 1080p 60f video in reasonable times. If you’re going nomad, I still think this should be your first piece of kit. But, I suspect I will finally retire my Macbook Air when I switch to an iPad Pro.

Macbook Charger. These bastard things are the weakness of the Macbook. I’ve had to replace this FIVE times in four years. They’re heavy, relative to the thing they charge. I’m looking forward to an entirely USB-c future withought bulky chargers.

Terrorist Scarf. So, if you’ve ever seen a Hollywood movie with a racist depiction of terrorists as the baddies, they will be wearing this kind of scarf. You can pick up one of these for almost nothing in any traveller district of the world. And they are SUPER useful. Worn around the neck you can use this as a face mask against dust. Unfolded it will protect against bright sun or gentle rain. Spray the scarf with mozzy spray and sleep under it if you are sharing a room with bitey insects. Stuck without a towel? This will do the job. Douglas Adams was wrong, a towel is actually a heavy, useless travel item, but a light scarf is essential. WARNING: do not wear your terrorist scarf through security checks…

Patterned Tablet Sleeve. Not an essentail item, but a light weight tablet sleeve is a fine day-carry that you can keep your essentials in if you are cafe hopping. This one is a handsome hand made fabric, but for the life of me I can’t find the maker.

Notebook(s). At one point I was travelling with 4kg of paper notebooks. I have to handwrite, it’s part of my writing process, especially for stories. I also love buying notebooks, so I really have to restrain myself! I now handwrite on my tablet, but always have at least one paper notebook as well.

Lamy Safari Fountain Pen. These are the best pens, bar none. Ink cartridges can be hard to find, so I stock up whenver I do.

Uni Kuru Toga mechanical pencil. These are the best pencils, bar none.

Tin Cup. I drink herbal teas based on nice ingredients from wherever I travel, with fresh cut ginger and lime as my default. I like to have a nice big cup to brew in. This one holds about half a litre!

The photo at the top of this piece is taken on my new camera, a Canon 200d, the lightest dslr you can buy and, as I’ll explore in a seperate feature, the best vlogging camera ever made. But for four years before that I travelled with this Sony Nex F3 mirrorless, itself a very good camera. I’ve published hours of video shot with this, and sold hundreds of photos for features and stock taken with it. Don’t believe anybody who tells you that a smartphone camera can match a dslr or mirrorless. It’s nonsense. For professional use they don’t come close.

Rode Videomicro. Getting good audio is the hardest challenge in vlogging / solo filmmaking. This tiny beast, here pictured with its dead cat windsock, makes it much easier. It’s a tiny, surprisingly good shotgun mic that is powered from the camera, so no batteries needed.

Baby Taylor 3/4 acoustic guitar. I really only do three things in life. Writing / storytelling. Running. And singing / playing guitar. I travelled with cheap guitars for three years, that were abandoned / destroyed in various situations. Last year I stole my brother’s Baby Taylor (actually exchanged for my old Faith Saturn) and now pay extra to ship it when I move, in total violation of my carry-on philosophy!

Things not pictured – various essential documents like passport, bank cards etc. USB cables etc. Clothing…I have some shorts, tees, shirts, 2x jeans, sandals. That’s it.

Things I don’t travel with – Asia is the land of cheap gadgets, so I end up buying things like bluetooth speakers over and over again. It’s actually cheaper to buy a new camera tripod than pay to transport them.

If you have questions about nomad writer life, drop them in the comments below.

Patron support helps me give free stuff to the world, and frees me up from paying gigs to tell more interesting stories. A dollar a month is great.

Read Slouching Toward Nimmanhaemin: Digital Nomads are a 21st Century Counter Culture.

Join my online course, The Rhetoric of Story. Course code STORYTEN.

One very useful thing to know about depression

Through the month of September 2017 I fought a small scale conflict, against an army of negative thoughts and emotions that had claimed the territory of my mind. I recognised this mental state well. It was what we commonly call depression.

To win this fight, I needed strategies. I went back and reviewed the best thinking on depression that I have found over the years. And with that work under my belt, I want to share one insight into depression that I find very useful to know.

Like many people who experience childhood depression, it began for me with a parent. My mother had all the symptoms of severe depression, and in my early teens I experienced severe depressive episodes. I went from an A student to a school dropout, and by age eighteen I was was living alone, working minimum wage jobs, struggling with drug addiction, and caught in a trap of poverty and zero self esteem.

The path out of the place was long and tough. It involved many insights and changes, too many to talk about here. By 30 my life had improved a lot. I had returned to my life’s passion – writing. A stroke of good fortune had sent me to America for a summer writer’s workshop. I enjoyed the experience hugely. One morning I woke up to the bright San Diego summer, looked into the mirror and thought.

This is what it’s like to not be depressed.

My second thought was…I will not go back to being depressed again.

I had many more life changes ahead of me to make good on that promise to myself. But, with some lapses, it’s a promise I have kept. I just turned 40, and for almost all of the last decade, I have been depression free. When I have had minor relapses, as occured last month, I’ve been able to go back to the ideas that helped end my depression. And in particular, one idea that I want to share with you.

“Once we recognise the state of depression, the next step is to understand it.”

Depression is a subtle and complex opponent, with many causes. But the experience of depression is quite consistent. The mind falls into a negative state, it becomes hard to see anything positive in life, and an overwhelming feeling of “depression” permeates all of our experiences. Depression, while it may be a slightly vague word, is about the best term we have for this state.

It’s my personal belief that many people, perhaps even a majority of people, live with depression without ever recognising it. Many people self medicate their depression with alcohol, or over eating, or other coping strategies. Others angrily deny that depression even exists. These people, in my experience, are victims of the worst forms of all engulfing depression.

So, a happy thought for those people honestly and openly talking about depression…you are ahead of the game. You recognise the problem. However severe your depression is, once you see it, you have everything you need to escape it.

Almost. Once we recognise the state of depression, the next step is to understand it. I did a lot of reading to try and understand the causes of my own depression. I found compelling arguments for the physical causes of depression. And I found equally compelling arguments for the psychological causes. Both are useful. Then I found one idea that, for me, pinned together both – physical and psychological – into a unified model of depression. That’s the idea I want to talk about.

Among the most established treatments for depression is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is a solution for many people. But it is also controversial. CBT trains people to examine their thought patterns, and to change or stop negative thoughts that might cause depression. I’ve never done CBT. I know some people swear by it. I know for others its ineffective, and can sound like a kind of “brainwashing”.

One issue with CBT is relapse. People often experience a cessation of depressive symptoms, then some weeks or months later, the depression returns. In an attempt to tackle this issue, a scientific study was conducted into combining CBT with Buddhist “mindfulness”, also an established treatment for depression. The approach proved successful, and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy or MBCT is now a widespread treatment.

This post is not an advertisement for either CBT or MBCT. I have done neither. It’s also not an argument for Buddhism, mindfulness, or meditation as the solution to depression. I am a Buddhist practitioner, but I don’t believe it’s a path for everybody. Instead, this is about one idea, that I first encountered when reading about Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, that I believe is very useful in understanding depression.

Anti-depressant drugs are the most widely used treatment for depression. They work, in many cases. I have never used them, but I am absolutely not here to argue against their use. Anti-depressants work by replenishing chemicals in your body and brain which, when their levels drop to low levels, seem to be associated with the depressive state. Topping up those levels can provide some level of relief from depression.

There is an ongoing debate about whether depression is caused by the negative thought patterns that CBT treats, or by the chemical imbalances that anti-depressants treat. The research into Mindfulness and CBT revealed a third possibility, that I find most useful. It’s the idea I’ve been working toward. It’s a little hard to explain, not because it’s complex, but because it doesn’t quite fit with how we think about thinking. In a single word the idea is.

Rumination.

Imagine a motor car, left switched on, with its engine running. With enough petrol the engine will run indefinitely. That is until it burns through its supply of oil. With the oil gone, the pistons and other moving parts in the engine begin to grind against each other. When that happens, the engine quickly starts to damage itself, becoming less efficient, and finally breaking down.

On the chemical level, your brain ia a little like this car engine. Your brain has chemicals that work a bit like oil, easing the connections between brain cells. In normal operation your brain can produce these chemicals at much the same rate it burns them. But when you start thinking really hard, you burn these chemicals at a faster rate than you produce them.

This is one reason why intellectual effort is literally tiring. As you exert your brain, these chemicals burn out, and thinking gets harder. Eventually, you have to stop thinking so hard and do something that uses little or no brain power, like watching Game of Thrones. Of course your brain is still doing things, even when you sleep, but at a sustainable level.

The real problems begin when your brain enters a state in which it can’t or won’t stop thinking too hard. One example are states of high anxiety. If you’re really worried about, say, a trip to the dentist, your brain can just kick into a high gear that you can’t switch off with an episode of Star Trek. We’ve all been there, and it can be awful. High anxiety can incite periods of depression. But usually these states are temporary, and the depression often passes with them.

A more dangerous situation arises when the brain begins to obsessively think about an issue on the unconscious level. Maybe there is a difficult situation at work. Consciously, you think about it now and again. But unconsciously, your brain is chewing it over all the time. And it’s burning brain oil* in the process. One name for this persistent, often unconscious thinking, is rumination.

* not actual brain oil, metaphorical brain oil

Rumination has many forms. We ruminate on short term problems. We ruminate on childhood traumas. We ruminate on imagined futures. You name it, your brain has a habit of ruminating on it. Sometimes rumination is conscious. You know you are doing it, but you just can’t seem to stop. Distraction doesn’t work, your mind carries on ruminating behind the scenes. Even when we sleep, the rumination just carries on.

Rumination places your brain into a state of overwork. Hours, days, weeks even months in this state use up the brain’s resources, and it begins to degrade. Like a dysfunctional app on your laptop or smartphone, a ruminative process can eat up all of your brain’s processing power and destroy its chemical balance, leaving you tired, unfocussed…and depressed.

Rumination opens up a different, and I believe very useful, way of understanding depression. Negative thought patterns and chemical imbalance aren’t sole root causes of depression, they are parts of a depressive cycle of which rumination is also a key driver. It’s not what you think that’s the issue, it’s the sheer repetitive length of time you spend thinking it.

Rumination overworks your brain, this depletes important chemicals, without which your brain functions poorly, which create negative thoughts, which you then ruminate on, which overworks your brain, which…creates the negative feedback loop that makes depression so very dangerous.

Rumination is the idea I find very useful to know about depression. It is not in itself a solution to depression. But many of the recognised treatments for depression intervene in the cycle that rumination causes.

  • Anti-depressants replace the chemicals that rumination depletes, but they don’t stop the processes depleteing them.
  • CBT and talking therapies unpick the negative thoughts that we ruminate on, but rumination will always find a new focus.
  • Sleep slows rumination and gives the brain time to recoup, but rumination can keep going even when we sleep.
  • A piece of cake, a pint of beer, a shot of heroin, provide a pleasure hit that can disrupt rumination, but it often comes back.
  • Distractions like a good book or video game session can push rumination aside but it can, again, keep going in the background.
  • Solving the problem that you are ruminating on helps, but a brain trained to ruminate will likely find another fixation to continue ruminating on.

If we can reduce the rumination itself, all of these treatments become much more effective.

I do not present rumination as equally useful for everyone. We all have our own ways of conceptualising the world, and rumination will not fit the model that everybody works with. But. If you do find the idea useful, I think there are two ways that it can help reframe depression in useful ways.

First. You do not have to stop having negative thoughts in order to stop being depressed. Which is good, because we all, however happy we are, have all kinds of negative thoughts. Negative thinking and depression are not the same thing. You can be happy, and yet often worry about whatever it is you worry about. These aren’t mutual exclusive states.

Second. You can’t think your way out of every problem. In fact, there are whole categories of problem that are completely insoluable to thought. When we’re depressed we often believe that if we can just think of a solution to this or that problem, then that will resolve the depression. In fact, thinking too much about the problem, IS the problem.

If rumination is the problem…how do we stop ruminating?

There is no way to reboot the brain. Stopping ruminative thought processes is very hard. I haven’t found an answer to the problem of how. My personal path to escaping the depressive cycle, and limiting rumination, included counselling, meditation, exercise, healthy diet and making important life changes. I don’t believe there is a singular “magic bulket” treatment for depression.

But understanding the role of rumination in the cycle of depression was, in and of itself, an important breakthrough for me. It reframed depression from a scary happening that I had no control over, to a recurring problem that I understood and could begin to control. And learning about rumination lead me to ask, when I felt depression approaching, what am I ruminating on? Identifying ruminative thoughts is, very often, all that is neccesary to defuse them.

#

The full research on MBCT and its insightful model of rumination and depression is available in a new editions: Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression.

If you’re interested in exploring mindfulness further I recommend reading Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen vietnamese monk who founded the Buddhist sangha I attend in the city of Chiang Mai.

For a deeper exploration of meditation, I recommend American teacher Jack Kornfield.

I hope this idea is of some use to you as a reader. You can talk to me about this on Twitter @damiengwalter. And you can help reduce my existential angst about turning 40 by backing me as a patron.

All stories are fractal. Here’s why.

The best storytelling has a unique quality. Wherever your enter the story from, if you switch on the tv and start watching 20 minutes in, or catch a single scene in isolation, or (heresy!) skip to the end and read the final pages, the story engages your interest. Even if you don’t understand the whole tale, you quickly become lost in the telling.

“Learn the form. Master the form. Break the form.”

Stories that work this way for me include: the novels of Iain Banks, the Sandman comics of Neil Gaiman, the historical tales of Mary Renault, the movies of Paul Thomas Anderson, and the Fargo television dramas. Your own list will be unique to you. But the stories we love almost always share this quality.

They are fractal.

tumblr_n0jny27DTG1sl8415o1_500

Fractals are one of the wonders of mathematics. When you chart certain equations they produce beatiful patterns. And a quality of those patterns is that they have infinite dimensions. You keep zooming in and in and in to a fractal, and find the same patterns repeating again and again and again.

The fractal displays this pattern because it is generated from basic rules. Stories also display repeating patterns because, when expertly made, they reflect the same ideas, themes and events. But because the patterns in story are far more abstract than the visual patterns of a fractal, to see them you have to take a deep dive into the core techniqes of the storytelller.

Structure is bigger than we are.

Creators of all kinds have a love / hate relationship with structure. Some equate structure with formula and reject it. Others see structure as the shortcut to success and let it overwhelm them. The truth, as with most things, is likely somewhere inbetween.

I use this basic principle to measure structure. STRUCTURE IS BIGGER THAN WE ARE. If I set out to make a car, or a cathedral, or an iPhone app, or a novel, or a movie, these things all have a structure. A structure that has been evolved over time, by creators far wiser and more skilled than I.

In martial arts there is a maxim: Learn the form. Master the form. Break the form. Untrained writers often rush to break the form. They see the work of a master, like Ray Bradbury perhaps, who broke the short story form in many marvelous ways, and assume the key to success is the act of breaking. But they ignore the years of hard work Bradbury first put into learning and mastering the form.

Stories seem to exist in a bewildering variety of forms. The 3 Act structure defined by Aristotle is arguably the most widely known. Modern stageplays often adopt a 4 act structure, while Oscar winning movies like The Godfather spread over five acts. Short stories are commonly based on an Epiphany structure. Japanese storytelling uses the beautiful Kishōtenketsu structure. I’m going to stop there, but in my research I’ve documented over 70 story structures, some famous, other entirely lost in time.

But all of these structures share that same single quality.

They are fractal.

Stories within stories.

Here’s another way into the fractal nature of story. All stories are made of stories, and are part of bigger stories. If you pick up an issue of Wonder Woman, or watch the Gal Gadot fronted movie, you’re seeing just one story within that character’s overarching story. If you watch Lawrence of Arabia, and know a little history, you realise you’re watching just one small part of the story of World War One.

As storytellers, we make decisions about the boundaries of the story we’re going to tell. Game of Thrones is the story of one power struggle for Westeros. But it’s the beautiful weaving of the history that came before, and the smaller stories within the grand struggle, that make George R R Martin’s epic so intriguing to so many.

Whether you call them acts, scenes, sequences and beats…

…or parts, chapters, paragraps and sentences…

…or story arcs, issues, pages and frames…

…all stories exist are within other stories, and hold other stories within them.

“To see a world in a grain of sand. And a heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour.”

Can you see an epic tale in every single sentence of your story? Here is one of the single best questions you can ask to raise your storytelling to a higher level. How does this single scene, or chapter, or frame, or sentence, reflect the whole of the story? And how does this trilogy of novels, or 10 hour television series, or epic poem, relate to the smallest story it contains?

It’s by thinking about the fractal shape of story, that we as storytellers create the deep resonances of theme and form, that shatter the soul of the audience. A single word in a single sentence, well choosen, can shift the resonance of an entire novel. The right story structure can alter the meaning of every scene in a film. Learning how is the true art if the storyteller.

Take a deeper dive into story structure as part of The Rhetoric of Story. Course code STORYTEN.

Learn the secret super power of story: emotion.

Come and argue about Game of Thrones with me on Twitter.

Get special treats as a patron.

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.

image8-e1424444589328

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.

Anita-Blake-laurell-k-hamilton-956997_550_346

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.

Writing Practice: why it’s time to stop thinking of writing as a profession

If you go to a good art school (and yes you STEM readers out there, such places do exist) they teach you to think of your art as a practice. And to think of yourself as a practitioner. There’s a purpose to this tradition. Admittedly, it takes most art students – myself included – until well after we graduate to understand why.

What is the Rhetoric of Story?

“that the best thing any writer who wants to become a professional can do, is to stop thinking of writing as a profession at all”

What is a professional writer?
Today the professional writing world is facing a certain amount of turmoil. And when I say “certain amount” I mean HOLY CRAP WHERE DID OUR INDUSTRY GO! Digital technology has destroyed entire industries that writers once worked in. And is creating many new ones.

This change could be seen coming decades ago. But many writers and publishers are struggling to adapt. Today a personal blog can have more readers than a national newspaper, and a self-published ebook can sell more than bestsellers in the bookshop. So the question of who qualifies as a “professional writer” is harder than ever to answer.

That word “professional” is one to think on. In the recent past professional writers were those who produced content for the print publishing industry, for which in return they were paid. Today that line around professional is a lot less clear. A self-published Kindle author, or a blogger pushing traffic to a Google Adsense account, might qualify as a professional. They can certainly be making much more money in some cases. But the status of professional, I believe, is still what most writers crave on some level. I also believe that the best thing any writer who wants to become a professional can do, is to stop thinking of writing as a profession at all.

And start thinking of writing as a practice.

What the hell is a “writing practice” anyway?
What do writers, artists and other creators mean by the term “practice”? I’m going to put forward three meanings for the term, all of them useful. But perhaps the third is the most significant.

Practice 1 – When asked about the sticky question of “making it” the comedian Steve Martin says “be so good they can’t ignore you“. That’s not a message a celebrity saturated, get rich quick culture likes to hear. And it’s sometimes disturbing how many people bring the get-rich-quick mentality to writing. Of all the ways you might try to grasp at fame and fortune, writing is possibly the most masochistic. As I’ve stated *repeatedly* before on this blog, the only way to achieve anything that resembles traditional perceptions of “success” as a writer is to get very good at writing. And yes, even Dan Brown, E L James and Stephanie Meyer are good writers. Within the bounds of what they do, they excel. And those are the outliers who achieve huge fame and fortune.

The vast majority of writers who sustain a career over time are highly skilled at one thing – writing.

Want a long lived career as a feature journalist? You’ll need to be as good as these Pultizer prize winners. Getting that good at anything means practice. And if you want to get that good at writing, then writing is the thing, day in and day out, that you will have to practice. And that means more than just cranking out words- it means studying, reflecting, and critically appraising your own work. There’s no getting around it, if you want to be a writer you’re going to have to practice and study just as hard as you would for any other advanced career.

Practice 2 – Doctors, lawyers and architects also have a practice. When we talk about a “legal practice”, we mean a business. These are professionals who build a unique skill set, expertise, or creative style. A General Practitioner might have broad knowledge of many disciplines, but they have unique knowledge of their patients. Lawyers have areas of expertise and hold delicate and confidential information on their clients. To succeed at the highest levels architects must develop a unique style and vision, like but unlike any other before or after. The business of these professionals – their practice – builds around them as their expertise grow and their relationships to their clients expands.

Writing is a business. And all successful writers build a professional practice.

Haruki Murakami – by any measure among the most successful writers of today – puts his success down to the fact that he writes books that hook people. And over the decades of his career, millions of people have been hooked by his books. So, when Murakami publishes a new novel, it sells millions. How different is that to the absurd idea, held by far too many writers, that they can “build” a career by flooding stories in to the world at a rate of 10,000 words a day – or 80,000 words in a weekend! – that will sweep them to fame  and fortune. Nobody wants to read your shit. Successful writers build their practice book by book, reader by reader.

“When someone feels the draw to write, they’re feeling the same draw a daisy feels to turn its face up to the sun.”

Practice 3 – For most of my 20s I helped people with writing. I don’t mean helped them learn to write, although in my 30s I’ve now taught creative writing at a dozen or so universities. No. I ran writing workshops and community projects that used writing to help people. Sometimes that meant working with kids. Sometimes old people. Sometimes people with poor mental health. Sometimes people with addictions. Or people who were just poor and lonely and depressed. I wrote a little about this for Aeon magazine last year.

One of the things I learnt – and I mean really learnt in the you won’t stick your hand in the fire again kind of way – is that you can’t help people. You can only be there as they help themselves. Which is, when you think about it, much harder. The other thing I learnt is that there is a reason why so many people are drawn to writing. And I’d guess at least a quarter of all people feel a serious draw, at some point in their lives, to expressing themselves seriously in words. And a proportion of those will pursue it. But this isn’t idleness, vanity or ego driving them. Writing, as people explore its potential, is a tremendous tool for growth and development. When someone feels the draw to write, they’re feeling the same draw a daisy feels to turn its face up to the sun. All of us, even those “professional” writers among us, write to connect with a source of nourishment inside us, without which our souls shrivel up and die. As Ray Bradbury said in Zen in the Art of Writing, if he went a day without writing, he felt restless. Two days, sick. Three days and he felt his mind falling apart.

There’s a term for something that we do that feeds our being in this way. It’s a spiritual practice. Or if that term offends you might call it a health practice. Although in the final account, our spirit and our health are one and the same. I’ve had a meditation practice now for five or six years. It began with sitting on a mat every morning for 30 minutes watching my thoughts. Now it extends in to most of my day, cultivating awareness of the present moment as I experience it. It’s been invaluable to my happiness. And so has my writing practice, which I’ve had for most of my life.

When we write, we’re drawing on our deep imagination, that blooms from the unconscious mind where our dreams our kept. And we combine that imagination with language, the very mechanism of our conscious mind. That’s hard. It takes practice. And it is sooooo good for you. Writing is for the mind as running is for the body. Sitting down with a blank page, grasping an image from the imagination and spinning it out in to language is something I do every day. I almost take it for granted. Except when I teach workshops, I see what a revelation it is to people who, perhaps never in their lives, had that experience. Right there inside everyone – and I do mean everyone without exception – is a wellspring of imagination. Some people struggle with the language to express it. Others have too much language, it gets in the way of the imagination. Different kinds of blocks. But all of them can be worked out.

The three meanings of practice are all parts of the same process.

You’re drawn to something that you want to excel at, writing for instance, so you begin to practice. That practice is, of course, great for you. It is part of growing and developing as a full human being. And over time, as your practice develops, it can also become a profession. Because if you get good enough, they can’t ignore you. As I said up at the top of this, I think the third of these meanings is the most important stage of the process to think through. Because it is the easiest to lose sight of in a world that can leave very little space for good spiritual health.

If you accept, even for the moment, the idea of writing as a spiritual practice, that calls in to question some common ideas about it as a profession.

Because while it is entirely possible for your writing practice to grow in to a profession, the attempt to make it a profession can seriously damage it as a practice. The most unhappy and creatively unfulfilled people I know are those who traded in their writing practice for a professional career at a time or in a way that was not in balance with their needs as a practitioner. And it’s an easy trap to fall in to. If you take the time to get good at writing at all, you’ll quickly find that all kinds of people do in fact stop ignoring you. They’re often extremely kind and generous, sometimes thoughtless, and occasionally malicious. The agent who suggests you write a genre style that’s currently “commercial” but clearly not what you do. The editor who says your writing has to be in close third person because that’s what George R R Martin writes. The reviewer who savages your short story because, on some level, they wish they’d had the courage to write it. Or you can do it to yourself, by giving up on that promising but odd story with no real direction to write something more saleable instead. All of these things can, if balanced with your writing practice, be the right thing to do professionally. But they can also crunch your practice. And more often than not when they do that, they don’t work out professionally either, and you end up with neither.

Protect your writing practice at all costs.

The happiest and most creatively fulfilled writers I know are the ones who tend to put their writing practice ahead of any and all professional concerns unless they can be balanced. They also, in the counter-intuitive way of such things, tend to be the most successful in professional terms as well. Here is one of them.

Let me flip this around in to another perspective, to try and convince any stragglers who are still determined to sell their writing out at the first opportunity. What calls you to writing? What calls you to reading? A kind of joy, one hopes. It’s the same thing that calls you to play games in the playground as a kid. Or tells you, out of the blue one day, that you need to get in to snowboarding / French cuisine / dog grooming [DELETE AS APPLICABLE] so you go to a class and BOOM meet the person who will become your husband / wife.

Some people call that our soul, our higher self, God, intuition. Try not to get turned off if those aren’t your words. They are just words, in the end. The question is, do you listen and act when when the calling comes? Or do you, instead, react with fear. Because if you’re called to write, but instead try to turn your writing prematurely in to a profession, that’s fear. Maybe it’s rational fear, because writing might mean living a different kind of life than the one your parents want for you. But it’s fear nonetheless. And if you allow fear to dictate your responses in life, you’re guaranteeing yourself a great deal of unhappiness.

My way of resisting that fear is always to return to the idea, that I learnt at art school, of my writing as a practice. I try not to ask professional questions – what will sell, who should I network with, what is my status. Instead I focus on the basic questions of a practice. What do I need to learn next to get better? What do I need to make next to grow my practice? Who am I writing for? What do I want to tell them? And the intuitive reality is that, whenever I focus on my practice, I make professional progress.

Learn more about my Writing Practice.

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.

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

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.

Related articles

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?