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What SF is good for

There is a lovely review of Mother of Eden here.   The reviewer, Kevin Elliot, writes ‘”Mother of Eden” is a prime example of how science fiction can handle issues which might pose problems for other genres.’

Well, I’m not the one to say whether Mother of Eden is a prime example of that or not, but I completely agree with him that science fiction is the ideal medium for exploring certain kinds of issue.  As I have said elsewhere, science fiction differs from conventional realist fiction in that, while the latter holds the world constant but makes up characters and situations, science fiction makes up the world as well.  This means that, while realist fiction is rich in potential for thought experiments about human psychology and human relationships, science fiction offers additional options for thought experiments about society, social structures and social change.  The Eden books, for better or worse, are one such experiment.

The realist author takes the existing world (present or past) as given, in other words, but engages in the game of ‘what if’ with characters and their interactions, while  SF writers can also engage in ‘what if’ games in relation to the world as a whole.  In the case of Eden, I asked myself, ‘what if society evolved all over again from two individuals.’

I’m talking about potential here.  Not all science fiction carries out such experiments – the SF pack of playing cards can be used for many different games – and, of course, when it does, it doesn’t necessarily do it  well.  But this is true also of the realist pack of cards.

Heil Trump!

We have had neo-Nazi marches before, in Europe and America.  But here is one where marchers are chanting the name of the US President as if he were their leader.   That, surely, is unprecedented.

Long and cut, or short and add?

I’ll be at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki next week, and I’ve been asked to take part in a panel on ‘Write Long and Cut, or Write Short and Add? (Is it better to write as much as possible and then edit out, or vice versa?)’.  If you’re at the con, I hope I’ll see you there!  In the meantime, here are a few thoughts:

I’ve been doing a bit of drawing lately (one of my  recent efforts is below) and one of the things I’ve learnt about that is that you need to be careful to get the basics right before you commit too much to the detail.   If you are drawing a face for example, no amount of detail will make the picture look like its subject if the overall shape is wrong.  The temptation is to get too engrossed in, say, the shadows around the eyes, only to realise later on that the eyes are too close together, and that at least one of them will need to be rubbed out completely and drawn all over again.

When writing fiction, there is a similar danger of over-committing to detail at too early a stage.  This can result in beautifully crafted scenes which turn out not to fit in, but which you are reluctant to cut because you like them and have committed a lot of time to them: a lot more time can be wasted trying to make the book fit the scene rather than vice versa.

A big difference between drawing from life and writing fiction, though, is that there is no external object to act as a guide: you are not trying to reproduce something in front of you, but rather you are tapping into your knowledge, experience, and subconscious to create a new object that didn’t previously exist.  Quite often, the overall shape may actually emerge out of details.

My novel Daughter of Eden, for instance, only came alive for me when I decided to tell the whole thing from the point of view of Angie Redlantern, and for that to happen, I first needed to bring Angie alive for myself by working over scenes told in her voice.  Similarly, early drafts of The Holy Machine felt to me they were missing a certain something until I worked out how to write the opening pages. In both cases it was the detail of the voice, and how that voice described its world, that were the key to the entire book.  I could have drafted out all the plot outlines I liked, but without knowing how the story was to be told, they wouldn’t have come to anything.

So it is a matter of writing something that vaguely resembles the story that I want to write, or the beginning of that story, and then working and reworking the material until it starts to feel lively. I always start a writing day by revising what I wrote on the previous day, and not infrequently I will go right back to the beginning and revise everything I’ve written so far before carrying on.  It’s slow, but it seems to be necessary in order to dig myself down into the story.

As to whether to ‘write long and cut, or write short and add’ I don’t have a straightforward answer.   What I’ve noticed is that, as a piece of writing develops, my sense of the centre of gravity of the piece gradually changes and I start to notice what I think of as expansion points and contraction points. In early drafts of the first half of Daughter of Eden, the story was told from multiple viewpoints like the other Eden books and Angie was simply one of several main characters.   As I worked and reworked it, I decided Angie was to be at the centre of it, and that all the foregrounded characters were going to be women (Angie, Mary, Trueheart, Starlight and Gaia), while the stereotypically ‘male’ story of war and fighting would be pushed some way back into the mix.

So expansion points are places in the text which seemed of relatively minor importance to start with but are now more important, perhaps to the point where they now feel like the story. In some cases, material which was little more than a connector between two scenes, can turn out to be more important than the scenes themselves. One set of expansion points in Daughter of Eden concerned the Davidfolk’s rituals around circles and the idea of homecoming. That stuff was just a detail at first, one of those things you put in to make a scene a bit more concrete, but it became absolutely crucial to the overall shape of the book, and so I expanded and developed all that, not only by including more detail (the circles, the song, the dots on the foreheads of guards…), but by incorporating those ideas and beliefs into Angie’s thinking.

Contraction points, on the other hand, are places in the text whose importance, or necessity, has diminished over time, so that they need cutting back, or cutting out entirely.  In the case of Daughter of Eden this included scenes seen from the viewpoint of male characters, some of which I cut altogether, while others were shortened and retold as observed by Angie, or reconstructed by Angie thirdhand from stories told by others, or relayed by Angie from scenes that Starlight participated in and told her about.

So I suppose my conclusion from all this is, write what you can, and be prepared both to expand and cut.

Roman Emperor Philip the Arab, drawn from a bust at the Museum of Classical Archaelogy, Cambridge

Parentless (2)

Following previous post (‘Parentless‘) about grief, and about the absence of grief where it might be expected, I had this dream about my late father.   I was on a walking trip with him in Andorra (I did go on a couple of such trips with him in my late teens, though not there.)  At some point we were sitting round a table with a number of other people.  There were two young women sitting near me.   They were there in some kind of professional capacity: they could have been publicists for a publishing company or something like that.  My father was on the opposite side of the table, looking fit and youthful, talking to the people he was sitting with.

‘Not bad for someone who was completely incapacited with dementia not long ago,’ I observed to the two young women.   And then a thought occurred to me.  It wasn’t just dementia he’d had.  I’d been at his funeral!

‘Oh I see,’ I said.  ‘This must be a dream.’

I was at that particular level of consciousness where you know you are dreaming but are still not entirely clear about the implications of that.  I hadn’t fully grasped that the fact I was dreaming meant that the table and the two young women were figments of my imagination.  The women shrugged, completely unimpressed, but in my dream I wept.

*  *  *

Oddly, now I’m thinking about it, I’m reminded of a dream I had a very long time ago -perhaps as far back as my teens- when he was still alive.  In my dream I was attending a funeral service for him being held at St Mary’s Church in Oxford.  The church was full.   The procession had passed down the aisle.  And then my father himself arrived, unnoticed by anyone, and slipped into the pew where I was sitting, as if he was just another member of the congregation who’d been held up.

Who?

If it had been Inspector Morse, I would have understood.  Morse is a man, and he has the hang-ups and preoccupations of a man of his age and generation.  If a woman actor were to take over the role, it would no longer be the same character.  Unless you decided to introduce some sort of complicated plot rationale for the switch – Morse realises he’s suppressing his feminine side and ends up having a sex change…  Morse’s Oxford turns out to be a computer simulation and Morse an avatar whose characteristics can be be chosen at will…- you might just as well give the woman detective a new name and start a new series.

But Dr Who?  This is a character who is not even human, well-known for regenerating himself from time to time in an entirely new body. This is a show where ‘What’s the next regeneration going to be?’ is a long-established part of the fun. How can it be anything other than an entertaining new twist if he now regenerates as a she? It’s great that the number of famous shows with female protagonists has increased by one, and it’s lovely to see the delight of fans, such as my friend Una McCormack (see her wonderfully exultant piece here!), but, even if I leave all that completely aside and just look at this ‘professionally’ as someone who’s in the business of telling stories, it seems such an obviously fruitful move to make.

But I’m interested by the voices raised in anger and disappointment -The show has been ruined…  This is no longer the Doctor…  I can never watch it again… – and the underlying assumption about gender that these cries imply.  I may be in minority here, but I actually don’t think they are all necessarily misogynistic (at least not in the strict sense of the word, which means ‘woman-hating’).  What they do imply, though, is a belief in the existence of an absolute rift between the genders, as if male identity and female identity were not just a matter of being raised with a certain set of social expectations, or even a matter of having been born with a particular kind of body or body chemistry, but went all the way down to the very foundation of identity, wherever that might be, like letters through a stick of rock: The Doctor can change his face, his body, his personality, his apparent age, and still remain the Doctor, but if he changes gender he cannot be the same person.

It’s the same kind of worldview that leads certain religious people to insist that, even though God has no body, is prior to society and biology, makes all the rules, God can nevertheless be, in some way, immutably male.  (And, in a sense, it’s a view that’s embedded even in our language.  In most contexts, if you want to refer to a person with a pronoun, you have to choose he or she. I only got round that a couple of sentences ago by using the word ‘God’ twice!)

Why should this one characteristic among all others be so fundamental?  Some species grow up male or female depending on the temperature, others change sex from male to female in the course of their lives, others again are both simultaneously.  My own experience when writing a female character such as Angie Redlantern is that what I need to do is dive down to a point that is prior to male or female and then swim upwards again in a different direction.  It’s a number of layers down, that point, but nothing like as deep as many seem to think.

I wonder what would have happened if it had been a change of race?

Towers of Babel

According to the BBC, average life expectancy in the UK is levelling off, no longer climbing steadily as it has been for many years:

University College London expert Sir Michael Marmot said he was “deeply concerned” by the situation, saying it was “entirely possible” austerity was affecting how long people live.

If one reads this levelling out as an indication that the general level of health may be beginning to fall then yes this may be concerning, particularly given that life expectancy varies dramatically between different demographic groups: some communities are clearly not getting their fair share of healthy life.

But that said, what I want to ask is: Did we seriously imagine that life expectancy could continue to rise indefinitely?  And, if this were possible, would that even be a good thing?  Or, to rephrase that second question (given that we can probably agree it would not be a good thing if it simply meant more and more people living for decades in care homes with dementia, poor mobility or both):  Would it be a good thing even if ageing could be arrested and good health could also continue indefinitely?

Leaving aside the question of what sort of lifespan is actually biologically possible, it seems to me obvious that death has to be the corollary of birth.  The planet’s resources, including actual physical space, are not infinite, and, if new individuals are going to be born, then old ones do have to die to make room for them.   That being so, in a situation where it was technically possible to abolish ageing and extend human life indefinitely, the question would have to be: would the Earth be better off as a planet of childless Methuselahs, or as a planet where lifespans remained limited but there were children?  Living indefinitely and having children is not sustainable, except perhaps for a small elite.

But this sort of question is not asked very often.  In a narcissistic, individualistic age, the kind of question more likely to be asked is ‘Would I like to postpone my own death, and should I not be given the right to do so?’ or ‘Does not every individual have the right to extend their lives as long as they want?’   As if the world itself was a parent and the human individual a child entitled to infinite unconditional love.

Across the planet, millions are short of food, fish stocks are declining, agricultural land is lost to desert and sprawling cities, rain forests are cut down for farms.  But outside the city of Cambridge where I live armies of construction cranes  mark the sites where yet more medical research facilities are springing up like towers of Babel, reaching for immortality.

Parentless

It’s nearly a year since my mother died.  My father died a couple of years previously.  So I am parentless.  There’s been a difficult period of adjustment to this fact, but I’m finally beginning to get used to it.  It feels good.

I was present at the moment of my mother’s death but I felt nothing.  I felt a stony absence where one might expect feeling to be.  It was the same at her funeral.  To this day, I have not shed a single tear for her.  (I only shed a couple for my father.)   Immediately after my mother died, I sat alone with her body for a while. I didn’t speak to her, and I am still careful not to speak to her as some people like to do to their dead. I do not want to give any sort of house room to the idea that she might be alive or listening.  Nevertheless, as I sat by her body, I imagined she spoke to me.  As it became more gaunt in the final days, her face, with its prominent nose and pointy chin, had become a little witch-like, reminding me of her sharp face in pictures from my early childhood which always stir in me a certain icy fear.  And now, alone with her body, I imagined her saying to me in a harsh, mocking voice, ‘Don’t imagine you’ve got away from me because you never will.  Now I’m inside your head.’ I didn’t literally hear this, but it was vivid enough to frighten me, and I had to resist an impulse to run from the room.

I should be clear that she had never actually spoken to me in that way since I was a child.  She was no monster.  She had a number of admirable qualities.  She was creative and talented and liked to laugh. She was a good neighbour.  I don’t think, generally speaking, that she was deliberately cruel or unkind, and I completely understand that there were reasons for her limitations.   She was also very affectionate towards me and, a lot of the time, I enjoyed her company.  But my absence of grief tells me one thing that I wasn’t entirely sure about until now: I did not love her.

It feels wrong to say it, it feels ungrateful, it feels disloyal, but love isn’t something you can just switch on.  Undoubtedly my mother deserved to be loved, and I performed, as best I could, the part of a loving and affectionate son.  I’d even say the affection was real.  It just wasn’t love.

My mother said to me on more than one occasion that she herself was only capable of loving anyone if she pitied them.  This explained a lot.  I’m simplifying of course, but there was a sense in which, when we were children, you simply couldn’t get loved by her by being brave or healthy or happy.  On the other hand, if you were sick, or maimed, or distressed, my mother, who was a doctor, was always interested, to the point  that there was often rivalry between myself and my siblings not to be the best, but to be the most wounded.

I didn’t completely get this until sometime into adulthood.  Indeed I think that for a while I myself bought into the idea myself that love and pity were synonymous, and (even more weirdly) that being maimed was synonymous with being lovable. (Thank god, I was past this before my own children were born.)  But the fact was that revealing your wounds to my mother, while it would certainly attract her interest, came at a great cost.  She would want to wallow in them, to build them up and make them define you, and to discuss them with her friends, much as other parents discuss their children’s changing circumstances and achievements, the latter being things that, like my father, she showed remarkably little interest in.

There was also an ever present risk that she might suddenly turn, for though she preferred us to be wounded, she did not want us to be more wounded than herself. The competition to be the most wounded was one she saw herself as very much part of and, if you made her feel that her position was challenged, her frightening, sudden, witch-like anger might suddenly flare and she’d tell you that your problems were nothing compared with hers.

So I learned as an adult never to reveal anything of my inner self, and certainly not to tell her of any problems I might have.  We developed a not-unpleasant, bantering, affectionate kind of relationship which I think she enjoyed, and often I did too, but I did not trust her with my core self, or anything even close to it.  In fact I think I was around forty before I learnt to trust my core self with any other adult at all.  And I guess that explains why it was possible for me to feel affection for her (which, after all, you can feel for people you don’t know very well),  but not love, which surely requires that you are able to make contact, to some degree, at a level that feels like your core.

I know what grief feels like.  Grief is like a hard cold wall, seperating you from something precious that someone gave you and that you can never, ever have from them again.   Her death has not separated me from something precious and  I have not grieved for her.  It’s true that I have often grieved, over my life, for the absence of something I would have liked to have had from her and my father, and, in the aftermath of their deaths, I have certainly recapitulated some of that.  (Four months after she died I saw a news story about the death of the ‘clown of Aleppo‘, a brave young man who did his best to cheer up the children there, and for a short time I was quite beside myself, though it was the first time I’d ever heard of him!)  But that’s another matter entirely.

I find myself thinking of suns and black holes.  Both have gravity, and both can draw other, smaller bodies into their orbit, but suns give out warmth, and black holes suck it in.   I would have liked parents who could warm me, but at least now they can no longer suck away my own warmth.  And I don’t even have to feel badly about depriving them of it, because at last those two needy people no longer need anything at all.

Crash

The most serious car crash I have ever been in happened nearly thirty years ago.  We were driving from out of town towards the Elizabeth Way Bridge in Cambridge, returning from a trip to the sea, and my wife was just stopping for a red light at a pedestrian crossing, when a young man coming in the other direction at about 70MPH lost control of his scooter as he came down the bridge, veering wildly across the road to smash right into the front of our car.  The engine compartment was crumpled like a carboard box and the scooter lay in pieces on the road.  We were showered with fragments of our own windscreen.  There was a stink of smoke and hot oil.

I wasn’t sure what to do, but having established that none of us were hurt beyond a few small scratches, I climbed out of the car.  The scooter rider had somersaulted right over the roof of the car and was sprawled on his back on the road behind us.   He was unconscious.  His skin was grey with shock.  The only sign that he was alive was a pop-pop-pop of his breath coming out through his lips.  I had no idea what to do for him, and was in no state to think clearly about anything at all.  (Later it made me think about soldiers in wars, facing traumatic events, one after another, for hours on end: Tom Hanks in that amazing scene in Saving Private Ryan, standing in the middle of  the Normandy landings in a kind of disconnected fog.)  Other people took charge of him.  An ambulance came.  He died in hospital that same night.

People came out of houses and from the cars that had stopped behind us to attend to the injured man. Someone invited my family into their house and made drinks for our frightened kids: my oldest daughter aged three managing her fear by announcing things very loudly and firmly to everyone present.  Someone else came out with a fire extinguisher and sprayed it over our crushed engine. The whole thing -our adrenalin-flooded bloodstreams, the nearness of death, us being the centre of attention, the sudden emergence of a kind of temporary community from behind the closed doors of houses and cars- had an eerie, unreal feeling.

The next few days were strange.  A police officer came round and so did the parents of the dead man who the police had put in touch with us. He’d been their only child, and had just left their house after a meal when he had the crash.  (He’d been through a difficult time, they told us, but they’d been hoping that he’d begun to turn a corner in his life.  They had barely begun to process what had happened.)   And we experienced something that I wouldn’t have anticipated or thought possible: every few minutes for the next couple of days, the crash replayed itself in my head.   I almost literally heard and felt the moment of impact, over and over again.  My whole head ached with it.

Going back to the immediate aftermath of the crash itself, one thing I remember, because I made a particular point of remembering it, is me telling my future self, ‘Looking back on this, with all the strangeness, all the heightened physical arousal, all the drama, it may seem to have a kind of glamour, like the glamour that people imagine that war has.  But I’m telling you now, it is not glamorous, not in any way.’

* * *

I’ve just read Ballard’s Crash, which of course is all about the glamour of car crashes.  Although I’ve read a lot of his work (I’ve written about some of it here, here and here), I’ve avoided this book up to now, unable to face its perversity.   But I’ve finally read it, 44 years after it came out.

By all the rules Crash ought to be completely unreadable not only because of its subject matter -the whole book is about a sexual obsession with car crashes- but also because, in common with other books of Ballard’s, it lacks the progression, the unfolding, that you expect in a novel.  The third paragraph is already talking about ‘windshield glass frosting around her face like a death-born Aphrodite…  her uterus pierced by the heraldic beak of the manufacturer’s medallion, his semen emptying across the luminscent dials that registered for ever the last temperature and fuel levels of the engine’.   The narrator (a character teasingly named Ballard) is hooked on this stuff pretty much from the off, and the rest of the book is filled with scenes and language of this kind, which get neither more nor less extreme.  In place of progression, the book remorsely repeats, over and over, the same basic ideas.  Again and again we are presented with mixtures of some combination of blood, semen and mucus with engine oil or coolant.  Again and again the image recurs of parts of the dashboard imprinted on the human body.  Again and again the characters obsess about matching the angles of the human body (intact or mangled) and the angles of sex, with the angles of a car in its smashed or pre-smashed form.

And yet it is readable. It is actually a lot more readable than many more conventional novels I’ve read or attempted to read recently, and I’m trying to work out why.

For one thng, as I’ve noticed before, Ballard’s books work like paintings.  Words have necessarily to be read one at a time, but the time element is much less important in Ballard than is conventionally the case with novels.  What emerges is not so much a story as a picture, very detailed and intricate, which all that repetition, like repeated brush strokes, serves to consolidate in the mind.

Ballard’s writing is also emotionally very cool.  Characters are never appalled, or terrified, or horrified, or grief-stricken.  At most they are ‘uneasy’ or ‘unsettled’.  And they are viewed with a cool eye too.  There’s no authorial judgement on them.  These people are driven by a bizarre sexual obsession but the way it is presented doesn’t really invite a sexual response or even a response of disgust or revulsion, in spite of the extremely graphic details involving ‘faecal matter’, ‘anal mucus’, ‘vaginal fluid’ etc etc  You could say the presentation is clinical, but it also makes me think of the psychological phenomenon called dissociation, an emotional detachment from reality.   In psychology, dissociation is typically a defensive response to a reality too terrible to process (again, I think of Hanks’s character standing dazed on that beach in Normandy), and in a book like this it serves the same kind of function for the reader, making it possible to continue through material which otherwise might drive one to fling the book away.  Only later, as I gradually processed what I’d read, did I see that I’ve been presented with a vision of modern consumer society as pornography, as artifical images that are simultaneously hyper-seductive and completely dehumanised.

The other thing that keeps you reading is simply the intensity of the vision:

We had entered an immense traffic jam. From the junction of the motorway and Western Avenue to the ascent ramp of the flyover the traffic lanes were packed with vehicles, windshields leaching out the molten colours of the sun setting above the western suburbs of London. Brake-lights flared in the evening air, glowing in the huge pool of cellulosed bodies. Vaughan sat with one arm out of the passenger window. He slapped the door impatiently, pounding the panel with his fist. To our right the high wall of a double-decker airline coach formed a cliff of faces. The passengers at the windows resembled rows of the dead looking down at us from the galleries of a columbarium. The enormous energy of the twentieth century, enough to drive the planet into a new orbit around a happier star, was being expended to maintain this immense motionless pause.

* * *

It was planes rather than cars that did it for me as a child, and specifically war planes.  It was that same glamour, that same intoxicating mixture of speed and modernity and death.

I remember when I pretty small, maybe 6 or 7, I developed for a while a fear that a plane would crash into our house.  I never told anyone about it, but it haunted me continuously, day after day.  But even then I didn’t stop playing with planes.  I can even remember noticing the contradiction once while playing on my own, noticing that I was living in fear of planes, even while I fantasised about being a fighter pilot.  I had compartmentalised my mind so effectively that planes could simultaneously be objects of desire and objects of dread.

This makes me think of Ballard’s childhood experiences in Shanghai, described in fictionalised form in Empire of the Sun.  Surrounded by horrors, completely in the power of enemies, he learns to admire and be excited by the things that most threaten him.  I guess this was where he learnt to separate emotions from phenomena in that way, so fundamental to his writing voice, that allows him to explore territory where almost no one else would go.

Angie Redlantern speaks

Daughter of Eden is now out as an audiobook from Audible.   It’s read by Imogen Church and, listening to the sample, I think she’s done a really wonderful job of it.  I felt I was listening to Angie Redlantern herself telling the story.  Which was a strange and rather moving experience, given that Angie (possibly my favourite Eden character) came out of my own head.  Click on this link for the free sample and judge for yourself.