Crystal worlds

• April 18th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Other people's books

A pleasant spin-off of my recent interest in drawing has been a certain heightened appreciation of the visual world. I find myself noticing things more, asking myself what the essence is of a particular scene, and how a person might go about capturing something of that essence on paper. This April I’ve been taken a special delight in the brightness and colour of Spring, and the intricate three-dimensional patterns of light and space made by new leaves and blossom on the branches of trees. No idea how to draw it really – impressionist smudges capture the colour and light, but can only hint at the spatial complexity – but just thinking about how it might be done makes me feel more part of it.

Serendipitous that at this point, I should take it into my head that I want to read more J.G.Ballard, and specifically The Crystal World:

The long arc of trees hanging over the water seemed to drip and glitter with myriads of prisms, the trunks and branches sheathed by bars of yellow and carmine light that bled away across the surface of the water….

Then the coruscation subsided, and the images of the individual trees reappeared , each sheathed in its armour of light, foliage glowing as if loaded with deliquescing jewels…

When Ballard imagines a forest where trees, birds, insects, crocodiles, people are slowly being encased in brilliant coloured crystals that pour out light, he’s describing a sensual delight that’s not so very different from what I am enjoying about the Spring. After all leaves and flowers – complex but endlessly repeated forms, built according to a hidden underlying algorithm – are not really such very different things from crystals.

Ballard referred to surrealists such as Max Ernst among the influences that shaped his work, and he is surely an exceptionally painterly writer, not only because of the attention he gives to visual effects, but also because he is more interested in spectacle and mood than he is in plot. Things happen in his books, but the events are pretty incidental to the evocation of his imagined world, and, insofar as there is movement, it is a movement inwards, a movement towards deeper engagement with what is there from the early pages of the book. Indeed the book itself seems to be about the allure of stasis. The crystals themselves are a product of the leaching away of time.

His is a strange kind of Spring, a Spring that runs joyfully, not towards summer, but towards a kind of shining death.



• April 17th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, News & events

Ich freue mich sagen zu können dass ich am DORT.con 2015 als internationaler Ehrengast teilnehmen werde. Weitere Details hier.

*   *   *

Easter 2014 not yet here and I’ve got something in my diary for Easter 2015!   I’m proud to be a guest of honour at Dort-con (Dortmunder Science Fiction Convention) in Germany.  If you can read German, more details are here.   I’m looking forward to it.

Currently the only book of mine available in German is Messias Maschine.  I wrote a few notes for  German readers here, kindly translated by my friend Thure Etzold.


The EngLit gaze

• April 16th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Story-telling

Many years ago, I went through a phase of writing down all my dreams.  I quickly got much better at remembering them, to the point where writing down a night’s dreams could take an hour or more and was becoming quite a chore.   And then a weird thing happened: I began to dream about writing down my dreams.   After a long and complicated dream, I would write it down, feel relieved that the chore was done, and then wake to find that not only did I have to write down the initial dream, but the bit about writing it down as well.   The act of writing about the dreams, I realised, had changed the character of the dreams themselves, and I abandoned the  project.

*   *   *

In this short article, I included the following quote from a book review by Rachel Cusk:

How does the novel become new again? One way is by its movement into fields of life not yet documented.

I’ve not read any of Rachel Cusk’s books, or anything by Jonathan Lethem who she was reviewing, but when I read this I was immediately struck by her notion that the purpose of a novel was to ‘document’ areas of life.  It seemed to me an odd word and an odd conception of the function of fiction, and yet I felt I’d seen the same idea expressed in various ways many times before.  And the more I thought about it, the more it struck me what a recent conception of literature that is.  As I said in the article, it’s difficult to imagine that Shakespeare was trying to document anything, for instance.

Since writing the article, I’ve asked myself another question.  Document for whom?   Who is that looks at novels and works of literature as documentary records of their times?  And the answer, it seemed to me, was academic students of literature.   Of course if you study Shakespeare, or Jane Austen, or Virginia Woolf as an academic exercise, you inevitably read their work as, in part, a record of the times in which they were written, whether or not written with that intention.

EngLit as an academic subject is relatively recent, but many writers now, and particularly writers who aspire to write literature, have themselves studied it.   Even if they haven’t studied it, writers who want to be admired and taken seriously are surely aware of its gaze, aware that in the long run, literature academics are often the ones who determine which works continue to be read and contine to be seen as important.   And perhaps that makes ambitious writers crave the  approval of that particular set of eyes? ‘If those people want to read works of literature as documentary records,’ they perhaps at some level think, ‘then documentary records are what we must write.’

Or it might equally be: ‘If stylistic intervention is what impresses them, then stylistic innovation is what I’ll give them’.   My point here isn’t so much about the specific notion of literature as contemporary record, as about the way in which (as with my dreams) external observation of a process alters the character of the process itself.   Literary academics enjoy intertextuality, for instance (the way one text refers to, and plays with, other texts), and I’ve certainly come across works of fiction that played with intertextuality in such an arch and knowing way that it reminded me of a child trying to impress grown ups.

My hunch is, though, that in the long-run, the great books – the ones that students of literature end up finding interesting in the future – actually won’t turn out to be the ones that played too much to that particular gallery.   After all, whether intentionally or not, any book is a document of its times and any book includes resonances, shadows and borrowings from other works, so, with or without self-conscious gallery-playing, there will always be things for the literary studies people to explore.  And the great books of the past were written without having to consider that particular gaze.

“An academic-led literature is a gentrified suburb,” wrote the Australian poet, Les Murray, and I’m inclined to agree with him.   Gentrified suburbs tend to be pretty and nice to live in, but, with their self-consciousness, their inhibitions, their niggling social anxiety, no one would call them the most exciting places on Earth.


Yes or no?

• April 11th, 2014 • Posted in All posts

A visit to my daughter in Edinburgh has made me think about the Scottish independence referendum coming up in September.   Like a lot of English people, I hadn’t paid much attention to it until recently, but am now realising that this is a pretty big thing, not only for Scotland, but for the whole UK.

Every  friend of mine that I’ve discussed this with, English and Scottish, is strongly against Scottish independence, but I’m not so sure.  The strongest argument I’ve heard against voting yes is that independence would cater to a certain narrow, chauvinist anti-Englishness which (or so I’m told by Scottish friends) is one of the less appealing aspects of Scottish life: a parochial, small-town dislike of anything from outside.  I’ve no way of judging how large a part that plays in the current wave of separatism.

That aside, though, I can see several good reasons for voting yes.   The first is simply that the wider the base of a pyramid, the higher is its tip.   A smaller country can be more accountable to its people – you have more say if you’re one of five million voters than if you’re one of sixty million – and should require fewer tiers of hierarchy between top and bottom.   Of course a global economy means that all countries have to participate in supranational institutions, and this creates additional pyramids that rise up above the national level, but I can’t see that it would be to the disadvantage of Scotland to have its own seat at the table in those institutions, rather than to be represented by the government of a nation within which Scotland is only a small constituent part.

The second reason I can see for voting yes lies, oddly enough, in some of the arguments and positions that are put forward for voting no.  Scotland might not be viable on its own (Why not?   It’s similar in population to Denmark or Norway, and is one of the better-off countries in Europe.)  Scotland might not be allowed to join the EU.    (Oh yeah? When the EU has just agreed to admit Croatia, smaller in population than Scotland and with well under half the GDP?)   Scotland cannot have a currency union with the rest of the UK.  (Except that a UK minister has already contradicted this.)  I hear in these messages the tone of a clingy parent who tries to undermine her child’s confidence because she is afraid to let the child go: ‘It’s a nasty difficult world out there.  You’d be much better off at home with mum.’  And it seems to me that a strong argument for ‘yes’ is simply the confidence that Scotland would gain as a country when it discovered that it could manage perfectly well on its own.  (As of course it would: economics is not an exact science and no one can really know the long-term consequences when there are so many variables involved, but it is surely obvious that Scotland would be perfectly viable either way?)

And this brings me to my third argument for a yes vote, one I’ve not heard anyone express before, which is simply that change can be fun.   All countries are works of the imagination.  A disparate bunch of people are included within a more-or-less arbitrary border, and if all goes well, over time they begin to think of themselves as a kind of community.  Isn’t it refreshing sometimes to reimagine things, just as it can be refreshing to redecorate a room, or move house, or end a relationship that has lost its spark?   Does there have to be a practical reason?   An independent Scotland would be an interesting new project for the people of Scotland to take on (and would incidentally create an interesting new project for the rest of the UK).  Doesn’t the question really boil down to whether they fancy it or not, rather than whether it would be ‘good’ or ‘bad’?


Interview with Paul Semel

• April 9th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Interviews etc

Interview with Paul Semel here.


US release of Dark Eden

• April 2nd, 2014 • Posted in All posts, News & events


Dark Eden came out in the US and Canada yesterday!!    Random House have sent me a bunch of N American blog reviews that have appeared so far, and I’ll post the links here.  Haven’t read them all but the ones I have read are pretty good.













Some thoughts on world-building

• April 2nd, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Story-telling

Some thoughts on world-building here (guest post on Suvudu site).


Ciemny Eden

• March 20th, 2014 • Posted in All posts

Seems the Polish version of Dark Eden has come out without my noticing!   Here’s the cover.


And here is a very nice review in Polish, if Google Translate is anything to go by.


Room full of mirrors

• March 16th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Audible delights

I’ve always liked the lyrics of this song by Jimi Hendrix.

I used to live in a room full of mirrors
All I could see was me
Well I take my spirit and I crash my mirrors
Now the whole world is here for me to see
I said the whole world is here for me to see
Now I’m searching for my love to be…

It’s a hard and scary thing to give up the company of one’s own projections, and to step out into a real world which you can’t control, and in which will only ever be a small part.  But unless you make that step, you will never grow up and you will be forever alone .

Roughly speaking, that’s the idea behind The Holy Machine, though the influence of this song is more obvious in Marcher, whose main protagonist actually does live in a room in a room full of mirrors.

Marcher New Cover

Room full of mirrors. Ben Baldwin’s cover image for Marcher.



Voices from Eden (2)

• March 13th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Audible delights

In an earlier post I mentioned that the 8 actors performing the new US audio book of Dark Eden have been working on a whole new Eden accent, not quite like any accent on Earth: a very ambitious and difficult task to take on.

Here’s a clip from Random House Audio, which shows where they’ve got to.  Tina Spiketree is speaking:

(There is of course already a UK audio book, read by Oliver Hembrough and Jessica Martin.)