Science Fiction

I attended a seminar on an  SF  module, led by my friend Prof Rowlie Wymer.   Rowlie was describing a particular SF short story.  I forget which story it was, but it had all the virtues that are the hallmarks of good SF, a certain kind of disciplined playfulness.   And the thought came to me that ‘science fiction’ is correctly named, not because it necessarily deals  with science, but because of a certain similarity between its methodology, its creative strategy, and the scientific method.  You take the world as we know it, you manipulate certain variables, you see what happens, you explore the implications. As another professor, Ian Stewart, said at the Clarke award event, science fiction is about ‘what if’.

Waterloo Sunset

I very much enjoyed this programme about Ray Davies. I was struck by his comment about one of his songs (I think it was ‘Days’) that the words might seem ‘a bit naff’ on their own, but he felt that the music transformed them.   Actually that is true, I think, of quite a bit of his stuff.   People usually praise the words, the little observations and stories, but on their own the observations are not necessarily all that original.  There are a lot of songs, for instance, about the fears and longings of suburban life (‘Mr Pleasant’ or ‘Shangri-la’) which, taken just as stories and observations, are amusing but quite commonplace.  But the music really does transform them into something else.

In fact I’d say his musical inventiveness is, if anything, rather underrated, or at any rate not so often remarked on.  His back catalogue of songs (imagine having written ‘You really got me’, ‘Days’, ‘Sunny Afternoon’, ‘Autumn Almanac’, ‘Lola’ and ‘Waterloo Sunset’!) is quite exceptionally varied in terms of moods, rhythms and musical colours, and is full of lovely details and surprises.  Listen, for instance, to the way that the strange and melancholy song ‘See my friends’ changes its feel and rhythm in the middle of each verse, opening up, and then drawing back again.

For various reasons, although I grew up in the 60s and 70s, I didn’t encounter ‘Waterloo Sunset’ at all until about 5 years after it came out.  But when I did finally come across it I was really blown away, and I still am.   It really is the most amazing marriage of words and music.  There is actually not one single word of description of the sunset itself, yet when I listen to this song, the harmonies rising up over the melody instantly evoke to me an enormous brightly coloured sky, towering up over the little figures of Terry and Julie, and the people swarming out of the underground, and the song’s narrator, watching the whole scene from his window.

(As I’ve observed before, vivid descriptive writing isn’t so much a matter of providing detailed instructions of a scene, as of giving readers/listeners permission to construct the scene for themselves.  This is a perfect example.  We all know what sunsets look like, and don’t need to be told, but we do need something to trigger off the whole set of associations, something to allow us to pretend that a sunset is happening right now.)

The Glastonbury version of the song here is performed with the Crouch End Chorus, which includes my good friend Clive among its tenors.  Lucky man.

(Clive lives in North London, where Davies grew up and still lives, very much in the surroundings in which the programme is filmed.  The programme reminded a bit too of an odd but interesting book by another North Londoner that I wrote about here.)


Genre labelling can be annoying.  I have more than once moaned here about the fact that a lot of people won’t touch my books, simply because they are ‘science fiction’.   Another genre label that I’ve seen applied several times recently to Dark Eden is ‘YA’.  (According to Wikipedia: “Young-adult fiction or young adult literature (often abbreviated as YA), also juvenile fiction, is fiction written, published, or marketed to adolescents and young adults”.)

Well, the book is certainly primarily about young adults – the two main narrators/protagonists of this book are both (in Earth terms) in their teens – and I’m very pleased and proud to hear that teenagers and young adults are enjoying the book.  But I didn’t write the book for teenagers or young adults, or for middle-aged adults or indeed for any specific demographic group.   I try to write books and stories that I’d like to read.  And personally I don’t seek out stories with characters of my own age and background (how dull that would be), or stories aimed at my own age group.

The assumption behind labelling Dark Eden as YA seems to be that, because a book is about a certain type of person, it must therefore be written specifically for that type of person.  It’s an assumption you can often also see being made in the way that individual books are marketed.  (For example, ‘This is a book for anyone who has ever loved and lost’).

Well, I suppose one reason for reading a book is to look for role models and validation, people you can identify with, people who will confirm that it’s okay to be the person you are, but it would be rather limiting if that was the only reason we read books.  And unhealthy and atomising too.  (Do we want each age group and each gender to occupy its own separate little cultural bubble?)   The point of reading fiction is surely to imaginatively experience lives that are different from your own, not just to look into a mirror and see some sort of idealised version of yourself.

Dark Eden seems to appeal to a lot of different people, men, women, young, old, atheists, Christians… etc etc.   And that’s exactly what I wanted it to do.

The secret sea

‘The Caramel Forest’ and ‘Day 29’ are both set in the forests of the planet Lutania.

This imagined place owes a lot to the Strugatsky brothers’ The Snail on the Slope, which also describes a strange forest where human inhabitants live among strange alien life forms, while a scientific agency sits on a cliff above.  Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris has a similar set-up of human scientists hovering above a weird, utterly inscrutable, living ocean, and the ‘castle’ in ‘The Caramel Forest’ was suggested to me by the inexplicable structures that emerged from time to time from the seething surface of Solaris.

Both Solaris and Snail on the Slope are books that refuse to resolve themselves.  One way of looking at this is to say that such books deny the reader the pleasure of tied-up loose ends.  But you could equally well say that they refuse to snatch back from the reader an encounter with the alien. Tidy endings can be acts of vandalism.

‘Hansel and Gretel’ is in the mix here too of course, along with all the other sinister/enticing forests in fairy tales. (Laura Diehl, who did the illustration of ‘The Caramel Forest’ for the Asimov’s cover is primarily a children’s book illustrator.  A great choice.)  So, I think, is a stoned and dreamy LP by a jazz-tinged 1970s prog-rock band called Caravan, whose title track began:

In the land of grey and pink where only boy-scouts stop to think
They’ll be coming back again, those nasty grumbly grimblies
And they’re climbing down your chimney, yes they’re trying to get in
Come to take your money – isn’t it a sin, they’re so thin?

*  *  *

The ‘goblins’ in Lutania are able to stir things up in people’s minds.  For most people, this is unwelcome.  They are forced to think about painful or scary things that they’ve tried to bury.  They feel invaded.   But for Cassie in ‘The Caramel Forest’ it’s actually a relief to hear the voices in her head confirming what she already knows about her parents’ unhappy marriage and her mother’s lack of interest in being a mum. Better to have it confirmed than to leave it unspoken.

Odd, solitary Stephen in ‘Day 29’ is a different case.  His secrets are so deeply buried that even the goblins can’t winkle them out.  But they can still taunt him with the fact that he’s hiding things.

(This post refers to two stories, both originally published in Asimov’s, which are included in the Peacock Cloak collection.)

The Ice Cat Oojus

(This post is about the story ‘Atomic Truth’, in the Peacock Cloak collection.  It was first published in Asimov’s SF.)

‘Atomic Truth’ is particularly dear to me personally, but it was literally years in the making.

The original idea came from watching the changed behaviour of people following the invention of mobile phones: the way that people who are ostensibly together in one place, are often, for all practical purposes much closer to other people who are physically remote.   As a matrix in which to live, it seemed to me, physical space and the material universe were gradually declining in importance.

We’ve never been confined to literal space and time of course.  We’ve always used the ideas of nearness and distance to refer to many other dimensions (‘a close likeness’, ‘we’ve grown apart’, ‘a distant cousin’, ‘Sorry, I was miles away.’)   But now for the first time in history, everyone can literally see and hear things that are not physically present, even when they’re just walking down the street, or riding on a train.

‘Atomic truth’ is Richard’s name for the world in which foxes and deer still live, even if humans don’t.

I wrote the first version of this story long ago, before smartphones and iPads and all of that.  But it stubbornly refused to come completely to life.   The breakthrough was when I rewrote the character Richard as suffering from schizophrenia, so that, even though he didn’t wear bug eyes, he too was visited by things that were not physically present.   And when I gave Jenny an autistic brother, so that she was unfazed by, and sympathetic to, people who were in some way odd, that made possible the little encounter at the end of the story that up to then had eluded me.

*  *  *

All the people in my stories are quite distinct in my mind from anyone real, but some of Richard’s characteristics are based a friend of ours who died some years ago.  His name was Brod Spiiers and he shared a flat with my wife and I for a year or so in Bristol.  If you were a student in Bristol in the 1970s, or lived near the University, you might remember him.  He used to sit on a wall outside the Wills Building on Queens Road and sort of beg, though it was done in the most dignified way.

Brod was a lot older than Richard when we knew him, but like Richard, he had his own set of mythological beings that he used to talk about and draw pictures of, inscribed with his own unique language.  (I remember, for instance, ‘the Ice Cat Oojus’).  And he had a rather delightful explosive laugh which would erupt at completely unexpected moments, as if his sense of humour was somehow at right-angles to everyone else’s.

Brod Spiiers: Self-portrait

The golden apples of the sun

(Post about the story ‘Poppyfields’, included in the Peacock Cloak collection.  It was first published in Interzone.)

As I have said before, I find landfill sites and waste ground oddly fascinating.

With landfill sites it is the processes taking place beneath the ground that I find absorbing to think about, the slow breakdown of human refuse as it gradually finds its way back into mineral form.  We tend to think of human rubbish as the enemy of nature, but of course in another sense it is part of nature.  Plastic bags or linnets.  Nature, like Poppyfields, doesn’t care.

*  *  *

I named Angus Wendering after the poem by W.B.Yeats, ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’.  (There is a musical setting of it by Christy Moore, which is actually where I encountered it).

I went down to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
I cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And hooked a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
When something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded in the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and hold her hand;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Beautiful in a way, but it’s a dangerous dream, that dream of a magical, glimmering girl, a dream that can lead to cruel, dark places.

It’s interesting how the poem both delivers and does not deliver a resolution in its final lines.   The poem itself reaches those golden and silver apples, plucks them and gathers them in, but it leaves Aengus still searching for them.  He’ll never find them of course.

Dismas and Gestas

(Background to the story ‘Two Thieves’, in the Peacock Cloak collection.  It was first published in Asimov’s SF.)

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes, both awake and in dreams, I have experienced a moment or two of complete peace.  I’m often beside water when it happens.   My worries no longer worry me.  Even the knowledge that the moment won’t last doesn’t trouble me in the slightest.

It seems to me that we should notice these moments more, because really that state is the end of all striving.   Why do we crave things and pursue them so desperately – love, sex, money, possessions, recognition, life everlasting – except in the hope that they will give us some peace?

It’s as if we were all in fast cars, roaring along hungrily in search of peace, with eyes fixed so grimly on the road ahead that we keep missing the very thing we’re looking for lying there quietly on the roadside.

*  *  *

Dismas and Gestas are the apocryphal names of the two thieves who were crucified alongside Jesus, one of them repentant, the other a sinner to the last.

‘You just can’t leave that stuff alone, can you?’ my friend Rowlie observed, when he noticed this.

It’s quite true.  But, even though my work has been called ‘theologically nuanced science fiction’, I’m not a religious person.  I don’t subscribe to any beliefs whatever about supernatural beings, or supernatural events.

The Peacock Angel and the End of Time

(Post about the title story of the Peacock Cloak collection.  It was first published in Asimov’s SF.)

The original idea for this story came from an account I read somewhere about a piece of music theatre by Carl Orff called De Temporum Fine Comoedia or ‘Play for the End of Time.’   I’ve never seen the piece performed, or heard the music, or read the libretto, and I don’t know if the following account is even accurate, but this is what I took from what I read.   The Day of Judgement is far in the past.  All the souls in hell have finally repented and been forgiven except for Satan, and finally Satan himself has come to kneel and seek forgiveness from God.

I liked this idea.  The Day of Judgement has always seemed to me, to be perfectly frank, to be a pretty crap ending of the story.  (Countless souls have been brought into being out of nothing, and then the story ends with most of them frying away in an eternal torture chamber!  What kind of resolution is that?)  This idea of Orff’s, or whoever Orff got it from, struck me as much more satisfying: the cycle ends, the universe is complete.  The Big Crunch at the other end of time from the Big Bang.

I’m a jackdaw.  I love bright little titbits of knowledge.  The second mythological titbit that went into this story comes from Kurdistan. Most Kurds are Muslims, but a small minority of them belong to the Yazidi religion.  Again, no big research was involved here, but what little I happened to come across told me that in this obscure and secretive religion, the world is in the care of seven angels, whose leader is Tawus Melek, or Taus Melek, the Peacock Angel.  Yes, the Peacock Angel!   Like Lucifer, or like Iblis in Islam, Tawus disobeyed God, but unlike these other fallen angels, Tawus was forgiven and placed in charge of the whole world.

The cistus flowers and the children with the lamb came from a week I spent with my good friend Jonathan in Oued Laou in Morocco.  We also met some other little children – I think they were on their way back from school – who seemed very awed by us, and came to kiss our hands, one by one.

The mood comes from this period of my life, when I seem to be letting go of some things, and learning to accept the world as it is.

As to the cloak with its restless eyes and its whispering voice… well, there are various magical feather cloaks in fairytale and mythology, and I think there is something here too of the imagery of Miyazaki’s wonderful Spirited Away (one of my favourite films), but basically I made it up. Every story I write waits for some little detail, some little trick, to bring the whole thing alive.   And in this story the thing that did it for me was the cloak.

We really are here

We had a trendy young chaplain in our school for a while.  I found myself thinking about him the other day.  It was the 1970s, and he wore a beard, jeans, sandals and woolly jumpers.  His name was Mr Gorringe, and he liked to be called Tim.  He was perhaps a little too keen on ‘getting down with the kids’ (hard not to be, I guess, when you’re not so very much older than the kids yourself) but he was an interesting teacher.  What came into my mind was an essay he once set us entitled ‘Why is there anything at all?  Why is there not just nothing?’

I suppose everyone has tried it, probably first when they were still a little child: imagining the absolute absence of anything at all.  Not just the absence of matter – anyone can imagine a space with nothing in it – but the absence of space itself, and time, and your own mind doing the imagining.  It’s impossible to imagine, and of course it’s also impossible as a matter of fact, because, while we may well be completely mistaken as to the nature of what exists, it’s indisputable that something does.

But why?

Well, cosmologists may be able to calculate what happened a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, but they can’t say why it occurred, or what it emerged from, so that, at the end of a long journey, the science bus simply stops. (‘That’s as far as we go, people, thanks for your company and don’t forget to show your appreciation to the driver.’)

At this point, the religious tour companies rush excitedly forward, claiming to be able to take you further with their notion of a being that existed before all of this.  But when someone asks how the creator got there, it turns out that this bus stops as well, for the answer is that he’s just always been there. (‘Thanks for choosing God Tours everyone.  Mind the step on the way out.’)

Science tends to present the world as a machine, with the scientist standing outside, studying it and explaining it to the rest of us.  It is an external view.  Subjectivity is not denied, but it is looked in at from the wide end of the telescope.

But religion is also an external view.  It presents the world’s mystery as a story written long ago, in which we must be instructed by those who’ve been taught to understand it correctly.  I was very amused by Ken MacLeod’s account here of a strange childhood experience, involving a mysterious sense of  ‘presence’ in a rocky glen.  He is a minister’s son who went through the entire Bible every year as a child, but here he writes that he ‘had not even the most childish spirituality. I believed what I was told, but as far I was concerned it was all facts about some reality of which I had no personal experience, like Australia.’ So he had what most people would describe as a spiritual or mystical experience, and yet it didn’t even occur to him for a moment to relate it to what he had read and been taught, even though every year he would have rehearsed all those stories about encounters with God on mountaintops!

I sort of wonder whether it’s this external view, this sense of being an outsider, a bystander, that makes ‘why is there not just nothing’ into a question that even requires an answer.  I say this because, whatever that something is that just can’t help but exist, it isn’t separate from us.  It’s not some inanimate stuff out there or some remote person-like being.  It’s what looks out of our eyes.  And perhaps the nearest thing to an answer isn’t to be found either in an old book, or by interrogating the fabric of the material universe, but simply by trying to imagine ‘just nothing’, without time or space or anything doing the imagining, realising it can’t be done, and noticing what is in fact there.

*  *  *

Schoolboy metaphysics, I know, but it was these thoughts that made me create the character Jeff Redlantern in Dark Eden, who likes to remind himself from time to time that ‘We are here.  We really are here.’

In the sequel, Mother of Eden, Jeff Redlantern is long dead, but followers of his in a little island community still remind themselves every day (or rather every waking, this being sunless Eden) that they are really here.   My protagonist, Starlight, is surprised to discover other cultures that don’t do this, and actively discourage or forbid this way of thinking.  They are more dynamic than her own, and she recognises this, but they have built into them a kind of loneliness  and alienation.  They cut people off from their essential selves.