Machina ex machina

A week or two ago, I heard a radio interview from the streets of a town in Wales, taking soundings of local views about the current UK elections.  All politicians were as bad as each other, was the opinion of one man, not very original in itself, but he then rather startlingly went on to propose (quite seriously as far as I could tell) that we get rid of the lot of them and replace them with a computer.

He obviously didn’t read enough SF.  If we had a computer to run the country (and there’s an SF short story right there, though I’m sure it’s been done already!), someone would have to decide the parameters and priorities it would apply.  That someone, or perhaps more likely group of someones, would in turn have to be chosen in some way.  There would have to be some means of doing this, some rules about how disagreements would be resolved and different opinions reflected, some means of representing the interests of the various stakeholders and then…  Oh, hang on, we’ve reinvented politics.

Perhaps, though, this interviewee had in mind a very sophisticated computer, more sophisticated than any that now exist, which could be trusted to work out its own priorities based on pure reason, coming up with final answers to ancient questions like the correct balance to be struck between individual freedom and the needs of the community.  A bit like the one in the song Saviour Machine by David Bowie whose ‘logic stopped war, gave them food…’  (Though, in the very next line, the saviour machine ‘cried in its boredom/ “Please don’t believe in me, please disagree with me/ Life is too easy, a plague seems quite feasible now/ or maybe a war, or I may kill you all…”‘ )

I bring this up because it’s relevant to my previous post in which I discussed among other things, the origins of my Holy Machine and the way that ideas recur in different stories, partly through conscious or unconscious imitation, but also partly through a form of parallel evolution: ideas may recur simply because they come out of our common human experience.

So what makes us think of a saviour machine?

The origins of my own holy machine go back a long way to a fragment of an idea for a story that I must have had in the early eighties.  I had a mental picture of a robot, a beautiful silver humanoid machine, riding on the back of a large white horse through a forest in spring, with the sunlight dappling its skin, as it made its way through a bucolic and utopian future England.  It’s quite possible, now I think about it, that the image came from some poster or album cover, though as far as I know I made it up.

Anyway, I never completed the story, but the image of the beautiful sun-dappled robot appeared as a dream sequence (minus the horse), in my short story ‘La Macchina’ and I then recycled it in the novel, the night after George Simling first hears about the mysterious holy machine that’s preaching to crowds of converts along the Dalmatian coast.   (When he finally meets the machine itself, it’s much less beautiful than it looked in his dream.)

My original idea was of a robot saint, built to be intelligent but free from the destructive impulses we carry because our evolutionary history.   And I suppose that was pretty much what that Welsh man was thinking about when he proposed replacing politicians with a saviour machine.  I guess that’s a pretty ancient human longing, the desire for some wise and powerful external agency that will step in and free us from the brutal mess we keep making because of our biological limitations.

Sometimes it feels like we’re children, completely out of our depth, longing for a grownup to take charge.  (Even Le Guin’s anarchist utopia in The Dispossessed required an impartial computer to make it all work.)  In the past that powerful external agency would have been God.  Now, it seems, in place of a deus ex machina, we have begun to dream of a machina ex machina.

For what it’s worth, my own holy machine ended up telling people that their biology was indispensible.  Life is meaningless without the needs and longings and fears that biology has endowed us with.  Not so different from what Bowie’s machine concluded.

Originality and origins

I was fairly irritated by this comment, alleging that I had “plagiarised” Dark Eden from an out-0f-print hundred-year-old Polish science fiction novel, never published in English, and which I’ve never heard of.   If we’re going to bandy about unpleasant words like plagiarism, the word slander comes to mind!

A while back, someone sent me a slightly hostile tweet alleging that I’d lifted one of the main ideas in The Holy Machine, a female robot messiah, from the Fritz Lang film Metropolis.   Now in this case I have seen the film, back in the 1980s when it came out with a new rock soundtrack.  The only scenes I can now remember were the huge factory, and the city with its vast multi-level streams of traffic, but it’s entirely possible all the same that the idea of a robot messiah lodged somewhere in my brain and was one of the sources of Holy Machine.

But why the hostility?  It seems to be based on a somewhat off-beam notion of how writers operate and what constitutes originality.  We do not operate in a vacuum.  As we cast about for ideas we draw on what is already in our brains.  What alternative do we have?   And what is in our brains includes countless images and ideas we have read about, or seen in movies, or been told about by friends.  There is a scene in Dark Eden, for instance, where John Redlantern puts his hand on a long-lost ring.  Would I have come up with this, if I hadn’t read The Hobbit?   I very much doubt it.

But its more complicated than just Writer A has an idea, Writer B steals/borrows/uses it.  A conscious influence on Holy Machine, as I’ve acknowledged before, was the movie the Stepford Wives (based on the novel by Ira Levin) which I saw in the seventies, in which a bunch of men preferred subservient robot simulacra to real women.  That undoubtedly influenced the beginning of the Holy Machine, where the isolated and socially phobic George Simling chooses a robot sex toy, rather than take the (to him terrifying) risk of actually relating to another human being.   But the Stepford wives is itself part of a tradition of stories going back to the Greek legend of Pygmalion (just as Tolkein’s accursed ring is an idea that goes back to the Norse story of Andvari’s ring), and this story surely persists because, in its essentials, it really happens, over and over again, in the real world: men trying to shape women into their image of women should be.   In her book about her abduction and long captivity, for instance, Natascha Kampusch refers to the Pygmalion legend as a way of explaining what her captor was trying to do to her, but hers was just an extreme example of something that occurs all the time.

Sometimes ideas recur, in other words, not because one writer borrows from another, but because both writers are attempting to represent the same aspect of reality, much as certain shapes and structures recur independently in nature as a result of parallel evolution.   Often it is impossible to know whether this is what has happened, or whether there has been a more direct influence.   I genuinely don’t know, for instance, whether or not Metropolis had any direct influence on The Holy Machine.

*   *   *

When writing about Dark Eden, I’ve acknowledged several influences that I’m conscious of: in particular Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Hoban’s Riddley Walker, and Aldiss’ Helliconia series, as well as a couple of things from Tolkein, and the green-on-black screen of an old Amstrad computer.  When it comes to Mother of Eden, I’m less sure, but here are a few.

There is a scene during Starlight’s second crossing of Worldpool, which I am fairly sure was inspired by a moment in Jane Campion’s beautiful film, The Piano.

Certainly 3,096 Days by Natascha Kampusch (already mentioned) was an influence.  Starlight is never a captive in quite the literal sense that Kampusch was, but she finds herself a captive nevertheless.  I was really extraordinarily moved by Kampusch’s indomitable spirit, and I think this influenced my thinking about Starlight’s character, her determination to resist.

I’ve been very into Shakespeare’s history plays over the last couple of years, and have also read several books about Tudor and medieval history (these include Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books, though in their case, I read them after completing the book, encouraged by the recent TV series).  I know my exposure to these various sources influenced my thinking about power, dealing as they did with a period when to fall from power, or to challenge power unsuccessfully, was typically to invite your own death.   (This is still the case, of course, in many countries today.  North Korea and our great ally, Saudi Arabia, spring to mind.)

Tolkein was an influence too, and this time a conscious one, but in a funny inverted kind of way.  Dark Eden had brought a powerful ring – Gela’s ring – into the picture, and in Mother of Eden that ring is much more prominent (Gela’s Ring was my original title for the book).  But I’m not writing fantasy.   There are two hostile camps in Mother of Eden, but neither is wholly good or wholly evil, and my ring has no inherent power, hard though this is to hold onto when you are actually in its presence:

But what was it? [Starlight asks herself at one point] What was I looking at? Didn’t you have to know what a thing was before you could really see it?…. I knew lots of stories about it like everyone did – it had been made on Earth, it had been found by John Redlantern, it had been snatched by Firehand from out of that pot of boiling water – but they were just stories, stories that had been wrapped round it, not the ring itself. So now I tried and tried, until my head ached, to push them from my mind and look at the ring itself.

It was just a thing. I could see that. Just a small small thing. When it was first made on Earth, no one could have known where it would go or what it would come to mean. But it was impossible to hold onto that, impossible to hold away the stories that had made this little object seem so big. In fact, so big had it become that it kept pulling more stories around itself, and growing bigger still…

The EngLit gaze

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 innovation 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.

Dreams and stories

A story written in a dream is one thing, but of course dreams themselves are stories, protypical stories that everyone weaves for themselves in the night, whether or not they think of themselves as story tellers.

Like good stories dreams are constructed of disparate elements and have many layers, bringing things together that in the ‘real’ world may not seem close, but which are connected in some way at the level of meaning.  And in dreams, as in stories, things of the mind may transformed into tangible objects out there in the world.   Once I spent a day walking in woods with a friend, during which I pretended to carefree, though all the time a big secret was burdening my mind.  As I sank into sleep that night I found myself back in the woods, and saw a brontosaurus tiptoeing delicately through the trees: the abstract ideas of bigness and secrecy succinctly captured in concrete form.

Of course, like stories, dreams often come from places which we are not consciously aware of.   Freud saw them as rising from the unconscious, and being manifestations of our forbidden desires.    I only partly buy that.   Yes they can be manifestations of desires, but in my experience dreams can also be wiser and less driven than my waking self.  Sometimes in dreams, what seem alluring temptations when I’m awake, are revealed to be drab and tawdry.  And often dreams make things clear to me that I find confusing or overwhelming in waking life.  That tiptoing brontosaurus was not a symbol of desire, but a succinct summing up of what, in essence, that day had been.

I think in waking life, time and literal space can overly dominate our thinking.  We see things stretched out across time, scattered across space, and imagine that this matrix – this grid – defines their true relationship.   But I think there’s a level of the mind that isn’t fooled by this.   It works in an entirely different kind of space, that you might call the space of likeness.   (After all, even in waking life we use the language of literal space to describe relations of likeness and difference.)

All the while, as parts of our brain beaver away at understanding causal connections within the matrix of space and time, other parts of our brain are weaving this entirely different kind of space constructed of metaphors, similes and associations.  It’s a space that disregards proximity, category, causality and scale, and it’s a big source of invention, intuition and lateral thinking.  Dreams are the purest manifestation of that alternative space, but all good stories dip into it too.  So useful is dreaming, in so many ways, that we’ve found a way of doing it in waking life.

Dream stories

I often have dreams in which I find new things in familiar places or unearth new events in my past. I discover an extra room in my house which I’d forgotten was there, for instance, or recall a place I once stayed where I was exceptionally happy and at home.  In the real world, I’ve kept goldfish for most of my life – why I’m not sure, but in my dreams goldfish seem to stand for plenty and abundance – and I quite often dream of fishponds that I’d forgotten I had.  These are all delicious dreams and, even when I’ve woken from them and realised that the room, or the fishpond, or the event in the past isn’t actually real, I still feel comforted.

One dream of this type that I have from time to time involves stories that I’d forgotten I’d written. It might be a short story published in some obscure magazine which has gone out of print, or a book published by a small press that’s no longer trading, but whatever narrative the dream supplies, I remember the existence of a additional story, over and above the ones I already knew about. For me my books and stories are, like my goldfish, reassuring signs of abundance and fecundity, so the discovery of stories I’d forgotten I’d written is a deeply satisfying thing.

I can never recall the stories themselves when I wake up, but I’m left with tantalising glimpses of what they were like. They’re not science fiction or fantasy, but nor are they shackled by realism and its tedious need to reproduce quotidian life. (These stories exist after all, only in dreams, and dreams disdain realism). There is just a hint in them of Arthurian romance, but by that I don’t mean that there are knights in armour in them, or archaisms, or damsels in distress. I’m just referring to the sense I took from those stories as a child of a forest, a matrix, through which a traveller could move and encounter events which aren’t linked together in a single narrative stream. I get the same sense sometimes from stained glass windows, where different stories, or different episodes of the same story, can take place simultaneously, as if in a place outside time.

My dream stories do not have plots. They aren’t dramatic. There are events in them, or at least encounters and scenes, but they manage to work, somehow, without that tiresome need to bring everything together at the end, which so often diminishes or trivialises what has gone before.  The elements in them, in other words, are not parts of a machine. They make satisfying wholes, like paintings do, rather than coming to satisfying conclusions. Stuff happens, and that is enough. The lighting is subdued and shadowy, without being glum.

I’d be curious to know if other writers have these dream stories (as opposed to dreams which become stories, which is another whole thing!)

Writing about Eden

People who read Dark Eden usually comment on the language.  I included some (actually quite small small) variations from modern English by way of acknowledging the fact that language would develop differently in a community that had been isolated for that length of time: adjectives are doubled up for emphasis rather than using ‘very’, the direct article is quite often dropped…   Some people really like this, some tolerate it and some hate it, finding it maddening and childish.   (It’s meant to sound a bit childish, by the way: my idea was that the first generation on Eden would have slipped into baby talk a little, when there were only two adults in the world, just as young parents tend to slip into baby talk during the phase of life when they are preoccupied with small children.  In Eden there would be no adult world to provide a corrective.)

As I rework my second Eden novel (Mother of Eden), though, the thing about the language of Eden folk that I find most challenging is the fact that almost their only reference points are, naturally enough, inside their own world.   This creates two difficulties.  The first one is that, if we are describing an unfamiliar environment, we normally do it by the use of metaphors and similes with things we already know.   If I was describing the forest of Eden from the point of view of a visitor from Earth, for instance, I might say it bore a certain resemblance to a terrestrial forest at night that had been hung with Chinese lanterns.   But, apart from stories of Earth to which they sometimes refer (when I think I can get away with it without stretching plausibility too far!), Eden people have only Eden itself to use as a source of metaphors and similes. I have to try and describe something that is unfamiliar to the reader, either by reference to very basic things like fire and rock that exist on both Earth and Eden, or by reference to other things that are themselves unfamiliar to the reader.  It’s quite a restriction to work with, though a common one of course, both in SF and in historical fiction.

The second difficulty is that Eden people would not have retained words for which they had no use.  In Dark Eden, for instance, when John and his followers come to an ocean, they no longer have the words ‘ocean’ or ‘sea’ because the people of Eden have been living for generations in a valley surrounded by mountains.  The nearest thing they still have is the word ‘pool’ so they call their ocean ‘Worldpool’.

When the story shifts to Worldpool itself (as it does in Mother of Eden), I also have to do without words like ‘coast’, ‘bay’, ‘island’, ‘inlet’, and to find some way of referring to these things which is plausible and not too cumbersome.  Even the word ‘land’, it seemed to me, would no longer be available, because why would you ever refer to land if there was no sea?  The nearest Eden English gets to ‘land’ is ‘ground’ and this is the word they  use.


Film Review GravityI see so many films and read so many books that don’t really touch me and leave no lasting trace at all, but this film really got into me.  For a long time afterwards, I kept coming back to it, turning it over in my mind.  (There’s a clip here if you didn’t see it.)

It’s a pretty rare thing, actually: a satisfying work of art.

But what was so good about it?   The effects of course are wonderful, and space is of course the obvious subject matter for a 3D film, but the plot is almost laughably simple, and, in spite of the realism of those effects, it does require you to accept some fairly chunky implausibilities.   So what made this film so special?

I think the secret lay in what in itself was a very simple and commonplace story-telling move.  Quite early on it’s established the main, and soon to be sole, protagonist, played by Sandra Bullock, has suffered a devastating loss: her own child, dead at the age of four in a freak playground accident.   This isn’t laboured particularly, but the events of the movie provide such a perfect parallel with that experience that it doesn’t have to be.  A shower of debris that no one could have expected suddenly arrives, and the space shuttle which up to now has been an island of air and warmth becomes as empty and barren as the void outside.  The only hope lies in abandoning it altogether and venturing out across the emptiness.

3D movies achieve the illusion of depth by presenting the same scene from two slightly different angles, and story-telling works like that as well.   You need more than one angle if the thing is to come alive.   Here, the story in front of us and its amazing imagery combine with the story of the woman’s past to create a really wonderful meditation on the precariousness of existence.

The Darwinian evolution of true stories

I very much enjoyed the documentary film Searching for Sugar Man.  It’s about a Detroit singer-songwriter called called Sixto Rodriguez who records a couple of albums which fail to sell, and moves onto other things, completely unaware that within a strange cultural bubble on another continent, young white liberalish apartheid-era South Africans have come to regard him as an iconic musical figure.

Within that bubble everyone has his records, everyone plays his music at parties, everyone knows his name, and, just as he is unaware of them, they themselves are unaware that their enthusiasm is a purely local thing and assume that he is up there with Bob Dylan, James Taylor or Joni Mitchell.   As to why he only made two records, his South African fans  believe that he committed suicide in a very spectacular way, in front of a concert audience.

Assuming it’s true that he really had no idea of his South African following, Rodriguez must have been badly ripped off.   I sometimes find out that my stories have been translated and printed without my permission in various small magazines, and that’s annoying, but I’d be very angry indeed if I discovered that my actual books were selling well in a country where I didn’t even know they’d been published.   Rodriguez, however, came over as untroubled by this side of things and seemed unwilling to express any regret at all about the life that he’d actually lived, not as a famous musician but a worker in the construction industry.

When finally put in touch with his South African fans, he was clearly pleased to have large audiences filling up concert halls for him across South Africa, but what came over was pleasure that people wanted to listen to him, rather than excitement at stardom and fame.   As a writer I know that need to be heard – I think it’s quite distinct from the  desire to be lauded – and I found this part of the film extremely moving.

But I found it interesting too to think about what this movie told us, partly intentionally and partly not, about how ‘true stories’ are made.   One ‘true story’, the lurid story about Rodrigues’ on-stage suicide, was clearly completely false – the man is alive to this day – but why did it gain currency in the first place?  A Darwinian process must surely occur in which many rumours are generated and a few take root and become accepted as true when they meet some kind of need – in this case a need to resolve a puzzle – rather as some new variant of finch might find itself occupying some as-yet unfilled niche.

The other ‘true story’ is the film itself.  I see (from Wikipedia, which will probably prevent  a story quite like this from ever happening again) that some quite important facts were missed out of it.  Rodriguez was actually also popular in Australia and he did two tours of the country in 1979 and 1981.  I can see why this wasn’t included.  Something must be left out in order to make a 2 hour movie out of a life, and to fit that life into some more universal story (in this case the one where we imagine we are alone and then find we are loved and cared about) which a movie audience will enjoy and relate to.

But justifiable though it may be, its ommission represents another manifestation of the same Darwinian process whereby stories are shaped and changed to meet the needs of their listeners and their tellers.

Dis wata de col col

A while ago on the radio I heard a speech by the President of Sierra Leone, announcing the end of civil war.  He began the speech in English:

‘The war is over!’

And then he said the same thing in Krio, the English-based creole which is the country’s lingua franca.

‘Wah done gone!’*

Every part of the English-speaking world has its own version of English, but in most cases these haven’t  diverged from one another so much as to become actual separate languages.   On the contrary, the prestige and utility of Standard English, with its stabilised grammar and spelling, mean that the various regional versions of the language tend to converge towards the standard form rather than flow away from it.   This has happened with the regional dialects of England, and it may well happen in Sierra Leone too.  A standardised official language is like a deep channel dug through a river delta where the waters have broken up into many small streams.

But if the channel silts up, or access to it is lost, then new streams form.  Under the Romans, Latin was a deep channel across a wide swathe of Europe, in many places completely replacing the indigenous languages.  But after the empire broke up, so did the language, splintering into countless Romance tongues, a few which became new national languages.

As the world is at the moment, I guess this sort of divergence is only likely to happen with English in a place  like Sierra Leone, where literacy and exposure to Standard English would have been comparatively low while Krio was evolving.   But it could happen in the future in any part of the English-speaking world, whether as a result of limited exposure to the main English-speaking community, a reduction in the prestige of the parent language, or a need for a separate language for purposes of group identity.  If you listen to Krio being spoken it’s a fascinating glimpse of the kinds of language that would emerge: still recognisable as part of the same family and still partly comprensible, but no more similar to standard English than Romance languages are to one another.

The complete isolation of the people in Dark Eden and their very limited literacy would have undoubtedly have resulted in their language diverging from Standard English.  (Their isolation is obviously far greater than that of Krio-speakers in Sierra Leone.  On the other hand, Standard English was spoken by their forebears, which is not the case with creole languages).

I tried to give a small sense of this divergence with the small variations in grammar and vocabulary that everyone notices in the book.  One of the drivers for this divergence, I thought, would be the  fact that, at the beginning, the population would have consisted of two parents and their children, which I felt would result in simplified childish forms becoming established, without a wider adult world to ‘correct’ them.  (In a similar kind of way, Afrikaans is thought to have evolved a grammar that is radically simpler than that of its parent language, when Dutch settlers found themselves speaking on a daily basis to servants and slaves with only a limited understanding of Dutch.)

Rather pleasingly, I’ve since found that the most obvious distinguishing feature of Eden English is actually present in at least one variant of English found on the planet Earth:

It is common in Guyanese Creole to repeat adjectives for emphasis (as if saying, very or extremely). For example, “Dis wata de col col” translates into “This water is very cold”. “Come now now” translates into “Come right now.”

(Wikipedia entry on Guyanese Creole.)

*This probably isn’t the correct spelling.