Sunless worlds

My imaginary planet Eden has no sun.  It is not even in a galaxy, and the entire Milky Way galaxy can be seen from it as an immense starry swirl in the sky.  However like the earth it has a hot core, and this heat has provided the energy for life.

When I originally dreamed up this planet (for the short story ‘The Circle of Stones’)  I had no idea whether such a thing actually existed, but I have since discovered that, yes, it is a serious possibility (see: ‘Sunless but livable planets may be detectable‘).   And after all, even on Earth, there are life forms that do not derive their energy from the sun.

Eden (I envisage) originally had a rocky surface entirely covered by ice.   Life evolved in pools of meltwater under the ice.  (Sub-glacial lakes, such as Lake Vostok in Antartica, are a phenomenon on Earth: the ice above provides insulation for the geothermal heat).   One large life form that emerged was able to pump sap down into hot rocks underground in order to heat it up, and then pump it out through a network of roots or branches extending upwards and outwards through the ice, melting it for oxygen and nutrients, and so creating spaces for other life-forms to exploit.

Eventually considerable areas of the surface of Eden were completely cleared of ice and these large life-forms emerged into the newly formed atmosphere, and began to exploit the potential of this new open environment.    Animal-like life forms emerged into the open with them, along with parasitic plant-like forms.

By the time humans arrived on Eden, huge areas of the surface were covered with forests of ‘trees’, which hummed constantly with the sound of sap being pumped up and down from hot rocks far below the surface.  Like deep sea life-forms on earth, animals and plant-like forms made use of bioluminescence.  The trees have luminous flowers known to the human settlers as ‘lanterns’, which attract the flying creatures they know as ‘bats’, ‘birds’ and ‘flutterbyes’.    Streams and pools are also full of luminous life, as is the ocean which its human discoverers call Worldpool, for they have lost the word for ‘ocean’ through lack of use.

The True Deceiver, by Tove Jansson

As a child I loved the Moomintroll books by Tove Jansson.  She created (both in words and in pictures) an utterly absorbing and intricate world that was comforting, yet mysterious and not without sadness.  They were like nothing else and I found them completely enchanting.

It’s nice to have one’s childhood judgements confirmed.  I recently read one of her adult novels – published in English as The True Deceiver – and I found it just as absorbing and fascinating as I had found her children’s books, and just as original (I have never read anything like it).

The main protagonist, Katri, is a strange solitary woman with yellow eyes who despises friendliness and the ordinary pleasantries of life as being fake and dishonest.  She doesn’t even give a name to her dog.  The book deals with Katri’s relationship with an elderly and wealthy writer of children’s books who likes to be seen as likeable and nice.   Slowly they change one another.

It is much darker than the children’s books, and yet has a lot in common with them too:  its creation of an absorbing world, evoked in a wonderfully concrete and quite sensual way, its evocation of a Nordic spring, emerging from under ice and snow, its interest in solitude and integrity…  (The Moomin books include many proud and solitary characters too).

Quite brilliant!   The Summer Book is great too.

About ‘Two Thieves’

I have just sold a new story to Asimov’s called ‘Two Thieves’.   The only revision requested was could I please reduce the number of times I used the word ‘fuck’ or ‘fucking’.   Well the story concerns two rough characters, who would swear a lot, and that’s why I had sprinkled their talk with these words, words which I also feel free to use myself fairly frequently in speech.   But I ended up not just cutting them down but taking them out altogether and was actually quite pleased to do so.

I remember David Pringle of Interzone once said in a similar situation that swearing carries a different weight on the page than it does in speech.   In writing dialogue we can’t simply recreate speech as it is spoken.   I think that is true.  We don’t for example reproduce the number of unfinished sentences, grammatical errors,  and mis-speakings of words that actually occur in spontaneous speech.   To create the impression of ordinary speech we actually have to do something other than simply mimic it.  (In the same way, perhaps, that to create the impression of ordinary hands, cartoon animators have to draw hands with less than five fingers.  Or so I have heard.)

The ending of stories

It’s occurred to me lately that our biggest problem with life is not the amount of suffering in it, but the fact that suffering doesn’t come in the right place.

Imagine a story in which the protagonist experiences trouble and pain all the way through.  Finally, at the very end, he finds happiness and peace.  That is, by common consent,  a happy story.  But a story in which he has happiness at the beginning, but then has trouble and pain all the way to the end, would be a sad story. So would a story where he is sad at the beginning, happy in the middle, but sad again at the end.  Even if the sadness and happiness are in the same proportions as in the happy story.  I guess it is because we tend to think of the end as the resting place, the place where life will settle down when the story is over.

If the trouble with life is not the existence of suffering, but the fact that suffering is all mixed up with the other stuff, then this is something that the traditional fairy-tale type story corrects for us.  (So does traditional religion, where the good guys end up in heaven, and the bad guys get their due).

Literary short fiction, aware of the over-neatness of the ‘happy ending’, tends these days to end on an ambiguous or unresolved note.    The wooden shutter bangs in the wind.  Life  doesn’t reach a resolution.  It just goes on…

But since a story does actually have to stop, this final unresolved note does not actually sound quite like life just going on.  It has a particular wistful, slightly plaintive ring of its own, which in its way is as artificial as a fairy tale happy ending, and can get a bit tedious.   Life isn’t always wistful, and wistfulness certainly isn’t its natural resting place.   Sometimes, for instance, we can feel completely at peace, even to the point of being entirely reconciled to the fact that the feeling of peace won’t go on forever.

Maybe to reflect the full diversity of available ending moments, it would be good to try and get away a bit from that plaintive, wistful and unresolved note, and try and end on as many different notes as possible, including cheerful ones.

The Future of Science Fiction

I recently received of copy of a book published by the British Science Fiction Association, called British Science Fiction and Fantasy.  It was compiled by Paul Kincaid and Niall Narrison, and is a survey of the state of these two genres, based on interviews with authors.

I was interested in some comments from  Charles Stross (on page 169) in which he observes that the great weakness of SF is that:

…it is getting close to a century old.  Most art forms do not survive the life expectancy of their founders, while retaining their initial vibrancy and openness; by the third generation,  most of the active practitioners are “second artists”, recyling standard clichéd tropes and running variations on the classics.  Comforting, reassuring classics  – which are the trump of death to an art form based on cognitive dissonance and a sense of wonder.

I agree with him that it would indeed be ‘the trump of death’ to try and endlessly recreate the science fiction of a previous generation.  But I increasingly think that it is mistaken to think of science fiction as ‘a genre’ or ‘an art form’ (singular).   Think of  Orwell’s 1984, Ballard’s  Terminal Beach, a Star Wars movie,  Dan Dare, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, District 9…   Are they really all the same genre?  Hardly.  But they are all science fiction as I would define it.

Rather than think of SF as a genre, perhaps we should think of it as a resource which can be used for many different purposes, as a pack of playing cards can be used for games from Bridge, to Poker, to Canasta to Snap and Old Maid.  SF’s continuing value as a means of telling stories and exploring ideas is illustrated by the frequency with which authors who don’t think of themselves as SF writers nevertheless make use of it (Orwell is a case in point, but see also Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, P.D. James, Doris Lessing etc etc.)

Stross is rather sniffy about this sort of thing.  He speaks of SF being ‘colonized by backpackers from the literary faculty, who appropriate the contents of the [SF] toy chest’.   But surely it is precisely the concern to cling onto our toys, to be pure,  to discourage miscegenation, which lead to the kind of death by staleness and repetition that he himself warns about?

The Peacock Cloak (Asimov’s June 2010)

My new story ‘The Peacock Cloak’ is just out in Asimov’s SF.   It’s a bit different to anything I’ve done before – it draws on diverse sources including the gnostic-like theology of the Yazidi religion –  and I will be interested to see how people respond to it.

I love the cover.  (I assume  it  illustrates the Stephen Baxter story?).

*


The Holy Machine

“A triumph.” Paul di Filippo, Asimov’s SF.

“…the sparse prose and acute social commentary of a latter-day Orwell…”  Eric Brown, The Guardian.

“This isn’t just good sf – this is the kind of sf that should be written, that we ought to be out on the streets outside publishers demanding should be written…” – Gary Gibson

George Simling lives in Illyria, a city state founded by scientists and other refugees from the religious fundementalism that has swept the rest of the world.  But Illyria is getting just as intolerant and narrow-minded as the countries that its inhabitants fled from.

George’s guilty secret is his obsession with Lucy, a syntec, a robot built for sex.  When Lucy shows signs of self-awareness, George has two choices: to allow her to be ‘wiped clean’ (to have her emerging mind erased) or to escape with her to the outside world, the ‘Outlands’.  But there she will have to pass herself off as human, or face certain destruction, because to Outlanders robots are demons, abominations, mockeries of God’s creation.

George sets out on a journey that leads him, through betrayal and madness, to the monastery of the Holy Machine, in a story that reflects on science and religion and the relationship between body and soul.  (Published by Corvus).

Also available as an audio book.

Continue reading “The Holy Machine”

The Desiccated Man

Published in Postscripts anthology #22/23, ‘The Company He Keeps’, edited by Pete Crowther and Nick Gevers, 2010.

Reviews:

Jacob Stone is the nominal captain and sole crew member of an interstellar cargo ship that is so totally automated his job is mainly to sit alone and wait for emergencies that never happen. The job pays well because few people can tolerate the prolonged isolation, but Jacob is a misanthrope and a miser who lives only to accumulate wealth. On one stopover he encounters another solitary ship captain, a young man with a brighter future than his own. Jacob is jealous and brags about the passengers he is carrying in his cargo hold, a group of aliens on a religious pilgrimage who travel in a kind of “dry sleep” from which they are rehydrated at the end of the journey.

They were transparent too, and hard and fragile. But these were little people nearly half a metre tall, people that resembled human beings, with hands and feet and little faces. And they weren’t really empty shells either, even if they looked that way.

Jacob continues on his journey, but now he has become obsessed with the little aliens, helpless in their dehydrated stasis; he comes to hate them just because of the way the other man admired them.

The title refers to Jacob and the shriveled state of his heart, a man who cares for nothing but himself and not even himself very much. It is the banal and casual nature of his evil that makes this one effective horror.

Lois Tilton, Locus.

(Collected in The Peacock Cloak from Newcon Press)