Mother of Eden shortlisted for BSFA award.

• February 8th, 2016 • Posted in All posts, News & events

I’m really delighted to learn that Mother of Eden has been shortlisted for the BSFA’s Best Novel award for 2015.   Thanks very much to all the BSFA members who voted for the book.   I’m so glad you liked it.  Writing fiction is a bit like being a puppeteer.  You move the puppets around, you make them speak, but you yourself can never be completely sure what will come over to an audience which hasn’t been involved with all the glue and string and papier-mache.  It’s a very good feeling, and a big relief, when the audience applauds.

The award event itself will be on Easter saturday, at Eastercon.  It’s up against some pretty tough competition: Dave Hutchinson’s Europe at Midnight,  Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, Ian McDonald’s  Luna: New Moon, and Justina Robson’s Glorious Angels.  I’ve always thought that it doesn’t really make much sense for the competitors for a single prize to wish each other good luck, but, to hell with logic, I know it’s a good feeling to win a prize, and I wish that feeling for all of us.  After all, who knows, the universe may split into five at that point.

PS: Puppeteer or not, one thing I am pretty confident of is that, if you liked Mother of Eden, you’ll love Daughter of Eden, which should be out later on this year.

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The stories of stories

• January 24th, 2016 • Posted in All posts, Audible delights

I’ve always loved the way that stories themselves have stories, changing and evolving over time, so I liked the the idea reported here that some of the traditional fairytales we all know may go back many thousands of years.  The research which the article refers to uses similar techniques to those used by biologists and linguists to trace stories back to common ancestors, and concluded, for instance, that ‘the story known as ‘the Smith and the Devil was estimated to date back 6,000 years to the bronze age’.  (A smith sells his soul to the devil, but then outsmarts him: I’d say that the song ‘The Devil went down to Georgia‘ is an example, albeit with a fiddler instead of a smith.)

But I reckon some stories must go back a lot further than that.   There’s a Native American story from the Northwest coast of North America about a magical, shape-shifting Raven who stole fire, as well as the sun and stars, for humankind, who until then had lived in cold and darkness.   This is surely strikingly similar to the story of Prometheus in Greek myth, who also stole fire for humankind*.

But how far back would you have to go back to find a cultural common ancestor of Greece and pre-Columbian America?

*Prometheus stole fire from the Gods, while Raven stole from an eagle.   But it was eagles that were sent to punish Prometheus.  There is also a Norse story, in which Loki, a subversive shape shifter like Raven, steals from the giant Thiassi and escapes in bird form.  The giant pursues him in the form of an enormous eagle, and dies when fire sets light to his feathers. (Raven is scorched too: his feathers used to be pure white, but are turned black by the fire he stole.)

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His own peculiar complex illness…

• January 22nd, 2016 • Posted in All posts

The BBC’s current serialised adaption of War and Peace made me look back at my copy of the book.   I’d quite forgotten that, when reading it some years ago, I’d made a note of a number of authorial reflections and asides which particularly struck me, the very things that are inevitably lost when a work as massive as this is transferred to the screen.  Here was one (I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to reveal that Natasha gets ill!):

Doctors visited Natasha both singly and in consultation, spoke a good deal of French, German, and Latin, denounced one another, prescribed the most varied medications for all the illnesses known to them: but the simple thought never occurred to any of them that they could not know the illness Natasha was suffering from… for each human being has his pecularilities, and also his his own peculiar complex illness, unknown to medical science, not an illness of the lungs, the liver, the skin, the heart, the nerves and so on… but an illness consisting in one of the countless combinations of afflictions of these organs*.

A constantly recurring theme in the book -it’s particularly evident in the discussion of the war, which repeatedly contrasts what actually happened, with how this rationalised after the event- is the chaotic nature of life, the way that at any given moment of time we are faced with a unique and incredibly complex set of circumstances which we can’t possibly fully understand, and which will have changed in any case in the next moment, and the next and the next.  Doctors, generals, military historians, intellectuals, are all at various points depicted as persuading themselves that they can understand and master what is in fact unmasterable.

In historical events what is most obvious is the prohibition against eating the tree of knowledge.  Only unconscious activity bears fruit, and a man who plays a role in a historical event never understands its significance.  If he attempts to understand it, he is struck with fruitlessness.

In their own way, those doctors were useful, though not at all in the  sense that they imagined:

They were useful not because they made the patient swallow what were for the most part harmful substances . . ., but they were useful, necessary, inevitable, because they satisfied the moral need of the sick girl and the people who loved her. They satisfied that eternal human need for the hope of relief, the need for compassion and action, which a human being experiences in a time of suffering.

I think a lot of this stuff struck me at the time -in fact, I believe this was why I made those notes- because of its relevance to my former profession of social work, which, just like Tolstoy’s doctors, attempts interventions again and again in complex, unique and ever changing situations which can’t really be truly understood, in order to satisfy the “moral need” of society to feel it is doing something about the troubling people on its fringes.

In War and Peace, the arrogance of Napoleon, who does not understand the limitations of his knowledge or power, and imagines himself as so godlike as to be able to impose his own will on events, is contrasted with the wisdom General  Kutuzov, with his minimalist approach that was always ready to retreat or give ground and let events take their course, even when others were insisting that “something must be done”, if this seemed likely to result in those events unfolding in roughly the right direction on their own.   The best social workers understand this, but like politicians, and like general Kutuzov, they are constantly up against the false logic of the “Politician’s syllogism”**:

  1. We must do something
  2. This is something
  3. Therefore, we must do this.
*Translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, published by Vintage Books, 2007
**First spelled out like this in the satirical TV programme, Yes, Minister.

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David Bowie

• January 12th, 2016 • Posted in All posts, Audible delights

I was 15 when Hunky Dory came out, and it completely enchanted me.   Lush, lavish, at times almost operatic, it was wonderfully different from the earthy bluesy music people around me were listening to at the time, and I couldn’t  get enough of it.

So taken with David Bowie was I, in fact, that I actually risked expulsion from school to see him.  Discovering that  he would be playing at Oxford Town Hall one Saturday night, as part of his Ziggy Stardust tour, I bunked off from the boarding school I was at in Dorset, and hitchhiked 70-odd miles to Oxford.  I was an odd, solitary kid at that time and had run off from school on a previous occasion to wander for four days round the Dorset countryside by myself, oddly indifferent to the worry I was causing.  It had been made pretty clear to me that, if I went missing like that again, the school would ask me to leave.

Bowie still wasn’t famous enough then to fill a town hall, and I just bought a ticket at the door.  I sat in one of those brown metal chairs with canvas seats that you get, or used to get, in village halls, with empty seats all around me.  It was a fairly ragged performance as I remember (perhaps simply because I missed the lushness and artifice of Hunky Dory) but it was certainly a spectacle.  Bowie was in full Ziggy Stardust regalia, kneeling to perform musical fellatio on the guitar strings of his beautiful blonde guitarist, Mick Ronson.   (I wonder if his biggest achievement might turn out to be that he opened up the possibility that gay sexuality could be stylish and cool?  But I think the pull for me was the way that he made loneliness and outsiderhood seem cool also.)

Although Oxford was actually my home town, I didn’t think my parents would appreciate the fact that I was playing hookey from school, so after the concert I spent the night on the streets.   When it got too cold in the early hours of the morning, I huddled up in a cubicle in a public toilet.  (A trick I’d learnt from the previous escapade was to sleep in the Ladies. The Gents had urinals that suddenly flushed every few minutes, jerking me out of whatever level of sleep I’d managed to reach.)

When dawn broke, I hitched back down to Dorset.   I guess this was about 4 or 5 in the morning.  I remember the first driver to pick me up was so tired that he nodded off and drove right over a roundabout rather than going round it. Luckily there was no other traffic on the road.

Back at school I’d got someone to ruffle up my dormitory bed to make it look like I’d slept in it, and no one had noticed my absence.  This was probably a good thing, because my happiest time at that school was my final year, and I made some friends then who’ve remained friends to this day.

Though who knows?   Perhaps if I’d been expelled, I would have been forced to have the showdown with my parents that I really should have had, but which boarding school – and perhaps this is one of the purposes of this peculiar English institution – had helped me and them to sidestep.  In which case Bowie really would have changed my life.  As it was, a previous Bowie album, The Man who Sold the World, darker and more druggy, was to become the soundtrack to my memories of a time when, in place of open rebellion, I and my new friends retreated into our own subterranean world.

Here’s a Bowie song (actually a cover by him of a song by Iggy Pop), from a much later period, which is associated in my mind with that feeling of freedom and breaking away that comes with a sudden impulsive journey.

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Daughter of Eden

• October 9th, 2015 • Posted in All posts

Daughter cover

The next and final Eden novel will be called Daughter of Eden.   (No publication date has been finalised as yet.)

As in Mother of Eden, the events in Daughter of Eden take place more than two centuries on from the events in Dark Eden, but on the opposite side of the great rift in the human society of Eden that occurred in the original book.

Mother of Eden was about Starlight Brooking’s experiences among the descendants of those who followed John Redlantern.  Daughter of Eden will follow Starlight’s childhood friend Angie among the Davidfolk, the descendants of those who remained loyal to John’s great enemy, David Redlantern.

Angie, who left her home to be become a shadowspeaker, will be present at two cataclysmic events that change the course of Eden’s history.

I think this book is the best thing I’ve yet done.

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New interview

• October 9th, 2015 • Posted in All posts, Interviews etc

A new interview here with Science Book a Day, which is run by George Aranda in Melbourne, Australia.  The interview is mainly about Dark Eden .

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Optimism

• October 2nd, 2015 • Posted in All posts

A reader from New Zealand –or strictly a listener: he’s heard Dark Eden and Mother of Eden as audiobooks – writes to me as follows about the story of Eden so far:

I would love to see future development in the relationship
between the colonists and native life, more exploration of the intelligence
hinted at. Less of the nastiness or is it mental illness as a result if the
inbreeding. I know conflict is been used to create tension but it’s not so
inspiring to think the lowest denominators are so easily taking over
society.

It seems to me that there are a number of different approaches that can be taken to the construction of any fictional world. One, clearly favoured by this particular reader, is to be optimistic, to write inspirational feel-good stories about people making discoveries and overcoming adversity. There is plenty of fiction that does just that.

Another, equally valid, is to be pessimistic, and to write stories that warn us about unpleasant places where we might end up if we’re not careful. J G Ballard described his work in such terms.

A third is to be neither optimistic or pessimistic but to attempt to hold up a mirror of some kind to the world we see around us. And this is the approach I incline to. I really don’t think the people of Eden are any “nastier” than the people of Earth. They’re just human, with all the virtues and vices which that implies. In fact, I defy anyone who follows the news to tell me that the planet Earth, taken as a whole, is in any way a fairer or kinder or safer place than the planet Eden!

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The high priest of swimming pools

• August 11th, 2015 • Posted in All posts, Other people's books

Whatever else there is to be said about J G Ballard, he is surely the high priest of the swimming pool. Bleached empty pools appear over and over in his work (dating back, I suppose to the empty pools left behind in the international enclave in Shanghai as wealthy expats fled the advancing Japanese). In his hands they are wonderfully and seductively apocalyptic. No one else writes as he did about the glamour of annihilation.

But he has an eye for the full kind too, as here from Cocaine Nights:

Sprinklers sprayed across the lawns, conjuring rainbows from the overlit air, local deities performing their dances to the sun. Now and then the sea wind threw a faint spray across the swimming pools, and their mirror surfaces clouded like troubled dreams.

Perfect!

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Strangeness

• July 11th, 2015 • Posted in All posts

I tend to be a bit resistant to the idea that just because something new has been invented, I need to have one, but I have finally succumbed and replaced my old phone with an iphone I bought from my daughter.  One of the main reasons I wanted it was to be able to take photos whenever I felt like it.  Specifically, I wanted to amuse myself by taking photos of the streets around my house in suburban Cambridge, when I wander them at night to walk the dogs.

It fascinates me how easily something familiar can be made strange, simply by putting a frame round it and isolating it from its surroundings.   This house is just down the road from me.  I pass it every day.  And yet in this picture it seems (to my eyes at least) a remote and mysterious place.

FullSizeRender

Below is a takeaway that’s just round the corner, but when I showed the picture to my wife, shorn of its surroundings, she didn’t recognise it.  Isolated like this, it seems to me to take on a slightly mythic quality, pregnant with possibilities and  meanings.  What is happening in there?  Who is that man?  Whose bike is that?  Whose car?  What is the significance of that strange name?  Yet, I could walk there right now, and it would just be a very ordinary takeaway on a very ordinary street

Double Seven

You could say this effect is a kind of trick.  By making something into a picture we confer a spurious significance on it.  But I’d rather look at it the other way round.  Everything is charged with meaning, with significance, with mystery.  We just don’t notice it most of the time because of the corrosive effect of familiarity.

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