Even wimps have a story

I mentioned in a previous post that some people like The Holy Machine a lot, while others don’t take to it.

My guess is that this has a lot to do with the story’s narrator and main protagonist, George Simling.   He’s not exactly your stereotypical SF hero.  At the beginning of the book, he lives with his mum, has almost no friends, has never kissed a girl, and is so isolated by his paralysing shyness that he tries to persuade himself that advertising signs are speaking personally to him.

What’s more his shyness is not, like many people’s, simply a nervousness about initial contact.  It goes deeper than that.  He is afraid of being with people.  Even when an attractive woman, who he has fancied for some time, shows every sign of interest in him*,  he panics and runs off to take comfort with a synthetic woman, rather than deal with the anxiety involved in being with an actual human being with needs and feelings of her own.  Yuk.  Creepy. Not very appealing at all.

I suspect that whether readers find the the book engaging depends a lot on whether they are able or willing to identify themselves with George, or whether they are inclined to dismiss him, as one reviewer did, as ‘a spineless wimp.’  I guess there are those who quite genuinely don’t  get people like him, and others who might get it, but are made uncomfortable by the prospect of having to recognise something of themselves in a man like this, and would prefer to have such people firmly ‘othered’ , by making them into bad guys, serial killers and the like (as not infrequently happens in movies to odd, isolated men who live with their mums).

A spineless wimp is what he is, at least at the beginning of the book.  But he’s surely not the only person ever to have found the human world so scary that they find refuges of one kind or another to hide away in**.  (George’s mother Ruth is, in a way, even more radically in flight, spending most of her time in a sugary virtual world, and flirting with her own substitute for a  real relationship, a construct called Solomon Gladheim.)  Whole industries exist to provide such refuges.

I’ve certainly often been guilty of hiding from the world, and retreating into fantasy.  (Really retreating, I mean, and not just taking respite.)  When I was a child of nine or ten I would spend hours on my own building imaginary worlds inside my head, when other kids were playing together outside.   And there have been times in my life when I’ve been almost as isolated as George himself.  I’m not proud of that, I’m not saying it’s a good or admirable thing, but it happens to people.  And anything that happens to people should be fair game to write a story about.

In fact I’m a bit suspicious of apparently fearless heroes.   I know such people really do exist.  (Look, to choose just one instance, at the case of Nancy Wake.)  And I know some people are largely untroubled by the fears and doubts that beset the rest of us***.  But still, most of us experience a lot of fear, and it does us good to face up to and think about that, rather than hide in our rooms and daydream about being the intrepid heroes that we’re not, confidently taking on the world.

* ‘Why on earth?’ you might ask.  Well, he’s not bad-looking, and shyness, seen from the outside, can be mistaken for an interesting reserve.  Trust me, I know!

** I hardly like to say it, but isn’t this sometimes one of the reasons for SF’s appeal (and one of the reasons why it makes many non-SF readers uncomfortable)?  That it can provide just such a refuge?

*** Or perhaps are troubled by different kinds of fears. See for example, John Redlantern.

I haven’t told mine yet

“My kind of storytelling has to add its voice to this universal storytelling before we can say, ‘Now we’ve heard it all.’ I worry when somebody from one particular tradition stands up and says, ‘The novel is dead, the story is dead.’ I find this to be unfair, to put it mildly. You told your own story, and now you’re announcing the novel is dead. Well, I haven’t told mine yet.”

Chinua Achebe, cited by Chimamanda Adiche in LRB.

The Long Journey of Frozen Heart

Although the first draft of The Holy Machine was completed in 1994, its origins actually go back to two short stories, both published in Interzone in 1991. One was ‘La Macchina’, which I included in my collection The Turing Test.  The story was about two brothers on a trip to Florence, but it  included many of the key elements of the book, including the idea of syntecs (robots covered in living flesh), syntec brothels, robots ‘going rogue’ by becoming sentient, and the Holy Machine itself.

The other was ‘The Long Journey of Frozen Heart’.  I lifted this entire story to provide the subplot about Ruth Simling and, for this reason, I didn’t include it in The Turing Test collection, feeling that readers of both books might feel a little cheated when they recognised the same storyline unfolding.   But I like the story and I’ve decided to make the full text of it available here.  (I’ve tidied it up a bit.  I seem to have become a better editor over these 21 years!*)

I was standing in a queue in the now-defunct Magnet furniture store, when I came up with this story.  Dreamy, melancholy muzak was maundering away in the background, melancholy yet at the same time loveless and mechanical, and the phrase came into my head: The Long Sad Journey of Frozen Heart.  (I later dropped the ‘Sad’: I felt that was over-egging it).  Within a very short time, the entire story had written itself in my mind, with very little in the way of conscious direction on my part.

Thinking about it now, I wonder if I was thinking about ‘Frozen Journey’, the title given, when it was first published, to Philip Dick’s short story ‘I Hope We Shall Arrive Soon’, on which I was some time later to write an entire dissertation.  This has never actually occurred to me before, but there are certainly thematic similarities between the two stories, since both deal with a protagonist trapped in virtual reality, and both include a disembodied and powerful helper.  In the Dick story, the protagonist has to be kept in virtual reality if he is to remain sane, though this results in long-term damage to his ability to believe in the real world.  In ‘The Long Journey of Frozen Heart’, the protagonist, Mary Louisa Ann (aka Frozen Heart), chooses to leave virtual reality to reclaim her authentic self, even though this will result in her death.

I wanted the story to have a slightly fairytale-like feeling.  In the back of my mind was the Hans Andersen story about the little mermaid who chooses to be given human legs and live on land, even though every step she makes there will be agony.  And perhaps there’s something of Andersen’s Snow Queen here also (a story which I found wonderful and terrifying when it was read to me as a small child): Gerda’s heroic journey; Kai, with the mirror splinter in his heart, playing with jigsaw pieces made of ice.  (There’s a bit of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ in here too, and just a pinch of the Irish legend, ‘The Voyage of Bran’.)

This story, and ‘La Macchina’, and indeed The Holy Machine, all deal with the way in which human beings escape from reality into imaginary worlds, shutting out things that they find unpleasant or difficult or frightening, something that becomes ever more tempting as technology makes possible ever more convincing simulacra: battle without danger, sex without meeting anyone, empire-building without taking risks and without achieving anything real at all.  It is the emptiness of these constructs, which can be built and discarded in a moment, that Frozen Heart chooses to leave behind in order to recover her own real beating heart.

The Long Journey of Frozen Heart.

* I’ve also updated it a little.  In the 1991 version, the Otherverse was simply ‘the Net’, and it only contained 99 worlds.  Which seems a bit retro now.

About Dark Eden

‘Dark Eden’ was originally the title of a short story, published in Asimov’s in 2006 (it’s also collected in The Turing Test).  In it four men and a woman find themselves, as a result of an act of disobedience by three of the men, on the  sunless planet Eden, lit and kept warm by its own  geothermal life.   Their ship is badly damaged and the chances of returning successfully to Earth are very slim.  The woman Angela offers to stay on Eden with one of the men, so that human life can carry on there if the  ship doesn’t manage to get through.  T0mmy (a womanising astronaut who she doesn’t like much) offers to be the one to stay with her.

My youngest daughter Nancy (a great writer herself) first got me started on writing this novel, when she noticed the title of the short story and told me it was a good name for a book.  (It is: and in fact there are at least two other books with the same name!)  She was also very helpful when I and my characters found ourselves stuck up on Snowy Dark.

The original prototype of the novel was a much earlier story, ‘The Circle of Stones’, published in Interzone back in 1992, when Nancy was two months old.  It too described the sunless planet, and included one of the central events of the book, John’s original transgressive act, as well as early versions (with slightly different names) of the characters John, Tina, Gerry and Jeff, plus the three ‘Oldest’.  But the story had a more violent, amoral and feral feel, and the characters that were to become John, Tina and Jeff were very different from what they would later grow into: Teema, the Tina of the story, was a ruthless Lady MacBeth figure, while Jerf was much more childlike and defenceless than the odd but self-reliant Jeff of the book.

As people sometimes point out, I tend to use well-tested SF themes.  The Holy Machine was hardly the first book in which a robot comes alive, and Dark Eden wasn’t the first ‘Adam and Eve in space’ story.  C.S.Lewis’s Perelandra is another that comes to mind, but I’m sure there are many more, and of course the Adam and Eve story itself has been around for a good few millenia.

But then again, Shakespeare wasn’t the first person to tell the story of King Lear. I think it’s what you do with these themes that’s important, not whether they’re new or not.

About The Holy Machine

I wrote the first draft of The Holy Machine a long time ago, back in 1994, under the growing shadow of the conflict whose iconic moment – at least in the West – was to be the destruction of the World Trade Centre in 2001.  (It had also been attacked in 1993).

This conflict is often portrayed as a conflict between radical Islam and the West, but I saw it as being between secularism and traditional religious authority.  (The protestant zealots in the US who burn the Koran, and carry placards reading ‘God Hates Fags’ have much more in common with the Taliban than they do with secular modernity, or even with more modern less literal versions of Christianity.)  I went on to imagine how secular  modernity, when under threat, might itself morph into a kind of intolerant fundamentalist atheism.

The story deals with (a) a paralysingly shy young man, George, who tries to persuade himself that his feelings about a robot sex toy are really love, (b) the robot itself, Lucy, which begins to become aware of itself, and (c) George’s traumatised mother, Ruth, who hides away in virtual reality rather than go out and face the day.   The thematic link between these foreground stories and the background conflict, the thread with which I sewed them all together, comes from a series of related or analogous dichotomies: religion/science, mind/matter, body/spirit, semblance/reality (and perhaps also love/sex).

The original Wildside cover had no writing at all, only this striking image by Wilhelm Steiner

I completed the book pretty much its present form in 1997.  The small press Big Engine was going to publish it, but then went out of business (after some useful editorial input from Ben Jeapes).  The US small press Wildside then took it over and published a print-on-demand version (with a very striking cover image by Wilhelm Steiner) in 2004.  Dorchester books produced a mass market paperback US edition under the Cosmos imprint in 2009.   The new revised edition from Corvus finally came out in 2010,  following my success with The Turing Test, 16 years after I wrote the first draft of the book.  (A German translation, Messias-Maschine,  followed in 2012.)

Not everyone likes this book – the main character is not exactly the regular hero type, and some of his behaviour is pretty creepy – but some people seem to like it a lot.  ‘The most amazing book I have ever read..,’ wrote one enthusiastic reader on US Amazon, God bless him, ‘A must read for all human beings!’


I’m now well into the writing of Mother of Eden, the sequel to Dark Eden, and enjoying it very much.  The book is set over a much wider part of the surface of Eden, and my main protagonist, Starlight Brooking, is encountering communities of people who live by very different rules and with very different values and beliefs, as a result of the great break-up of the original human community that occurred in the course of Dark Eden.

I’m getting a great deal of pleasure from imagining the world that she is moving through, its physical appearance, its human and non-human inhabitants, its politics and different cultures and social mores, and I’m enjoying try to see it through the eyes of a character who is different from me not only because she grew up on a different planet, but also, more prosaically, because is female, less than half my age, and (unlike me) more of a doer than a thinker.

It’s no wonder I write the kinds of books and stories that I do.  I love building imaginary worlds, and have done since I was a child.  It comes to me much more easily than trying to evoke or reproduce the world that actually exists.  (If I were a painter, I would not be the kind that sits down in front of a landcape or a bowl of fruit, and tries to recreate it.)

I haven’t always known this about myself.   When I was young, I was hugely taken by writers who, it seemed to me, were able to evoke the deep strangeness of the ordinary everyday world.  I was greatly impressed by Virginia Woolf, for instance, and I remember thinking to myself, after reading Mrs Dalloway, and To the Lighthouse, and The Waves, that here was a writer who was able almost to photographically reproduce everyday human consciousness.  An illusion of course but a powerful one, whose trick I longed to learn.

As it turned out though, my writing didn’t really start to work until I abandoned that ambition, and began to make my worlds up, or at least include things in them that don’t really exist.

But here’s the odd thing.  When I’m making up the world of Eden, I try to do so in a way that is consistent with my understanding of how worlds actually work.  I try to make my characters act in the way that real life people would act in the same situation, drawing on what I think I know about human psychology. I try to make the society of Eden function and evolve in ways that I believe a real life human society might evolve in that context, drawing on my own direct experience and on what I have read about in history books and seen or heard in the news. And I try to make the ecology of Eden consistent with what I what I believe might actually evolve in the peculiar context of a sunless world, extrapolating from what I’ve read about life in sunless portions of Earth.  So, while I am certainly constructing a made-up world, I’m trying to make it work according to the rules that apply to the real world.   To be sure some of the characteristics of the world of Eden, its darkness, its history of loss, were partly chosen for their emotional or symbolic resonances, but even then I’m making those choices on the basis of wanting to capture some aspect of my own experience.

And what all of this means is that, actually, in my own way, I too, am trying to reproduce, as faithfully as I can, the world that actually exists.

It’s good, Jim, but is it SF?

In a previous post – in fact in more than one, if I’m honest – I bemoaned the fact that a large number of general readers of intelligent fiction will never look at my stuff simply because it’s science fiction.  The odd thing is that, more than once, I’ve seen reviews by people who do read SF saying that my books aren’t really SF at all.

Here’s an example.  I’m not complaining in any way about this kind and wonderfully positive review of Dark Eden (which I very much hope will tempt some of those non-SF readers to give the book a try.)   I’m also not saying the reviewer is wrong: there is no single straightforward definition, after all, of what is SF and what is not.  But I am genuinely curious to know why he/she thinks that Dark Eden ‘isn’t really science-fiction, although it is set on an alien planet’.

It is set on an alien planet, a planet with no sun, with an entire ecology of animal and plant-like lifeforms which have evolved to generate their own light and derive their energy from the planet’s own hot core.  And it deals with the descendants of two marooned astronauts, trying to come to terms with this world.   This is easily science-fictional enough, I’m pretty certain, to exclude the majority of non-SF  readers, so I wonder in what sense might the book be described as not really being SF?

I’m honestly not sure, but I think possibly what this and one or two other reviewers may mean is that, having established this world, I let it become the background to a human story, rather than the source, in itself, of the plot.   The story is about the lives of the people in Eden, their society, their emerging politics, rather than being based on a series of revelations about the nature of Eden itself.   Is that it, I wonder?

My personal feeling about those revelation-type plots is that they tend to spoil the fictional world.  Although in a way it is background, in another way the planet Eden is, to me, absolutely the core and heart of the book.  And I wanted the reader to experience Eden as we experience our own planet, as the foundation of the characters’ lives, rather than as a puzzle or a riddle to be unpicked and solved.   It’s a matter of personal taste, but, with one or two great exceptions, I’ve never been that keen on ‘mystery’ plots in general.   (I’ve never really taken to whodunits, for instance.)  I don’t feel that solving puzzles is fundamentally what life is about.

Does this way of using my science fictional backdrop means that the book as a whole ‘isn’t really SF’?  It’s not for me to say.  I aim to write a book that it would please me to read, and don’t consciously seek either to celebrate or to challenge the traditions and conventions of any particular genre.  I simply go with what seems to work.  And since what works for me always seems to involve alien planets, or robots, or time travel, or virtual reality, or parallel timelines, I’ve always assumed that it was SF.

Recognition / estrangement

I complained yesterday about the fact that many people will dismiss a book simply because it is science fiction.  One explanation for this offered by China Miéville is that our literary establishment has for some time* valued story-telling that presents the familiar to us, over story-telling that presents us with the unfamiliar.  It values ‘the literature of recognition’, over ‘the literature of estrangement’.

It is certainly the case that for a long time literature has been dominated by the realist novel, characterised by Miéville as ‘limpidly observed interiority, decodable metaphors, strained middle-class relationships and eternal truths of the human condition’, and I guess that does explain snootiness about novels set in imagined worlds, but, that said, I’m not sure that it’s really helpful to place recognition and estrangement at opposite ends of a spectrum.

It seems to me that, far from being opposites, recognition and estrangement are two sides of the same coin.  True recognition requires estrangement first, in order to shake off the numbing that comes with familiarity.  (That’s how metaphor works: that’s why Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea’ is striking, because you don’t expect sea to be compared with something red.)   I’ve noticed that when film-makers want to achieve a sense of heightened reality, they use both slow motion and speeded up motion.   It’s not that there is something intrinsically less exciting about the actual speed at which life is lived.  It’s just that unfamiliarity sheds a new and different light which makes us notice things.  You have to step away from a thing to see it.

As T.S.Eliot wrote (though I’m sure he wasn’t the first or last):

…the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

A novel that showed us only familiar things from an entirely familiar perspective would be dull to the point of unreadability, and no decent realist novel ever really does this.  But a novel which offered strangeness with no point of connection with our own experience, would be equally unreadable.  Even (for instance) the famous Star Gate sequence in the film 2001, which might at first sight be a good example of completely baffling weirdness, works (or works for me) because it makes a connection with something inside ourselves.  We are star-dust, after all, we are billion-year old carbon, as Joni Mitchell said.  Middle class relationships, limpid interiority and all the rest it, are a very very temporary phase.

It’s not so much a case of choosing estrangement over recognition, as allowing the interplay of estrangement and recognition to take us a bit further from our taken-for-granted selves.

*I say ‘for some time’ because it hasn’t always been this way.  Most of the famous early works of literature are fantastical rather than realist.

Special message to people who don’t read SF

Dear Non-SF reader,

Most of what I’ve written up to now can be categorised as science fiction (the exception being my short story collection, Spring Tide) and most of my readers (or so I would guess) are established readers of SF.  I’m very grateful to the SF readers who do read my books, and to the open-minded non-SF readers who give them a go and like them, but it frustrates the hell out of me that 90% of the reading public will be put off them by the SF label they carry.

Why don’t you read SF books?  Perhaps you anticipate gee-whiz technology and escapist fantasy: strong on phallic machines and enormous explosions, and weak on character, relevance and emotional subtlety.  Perhaps you anticipate tedious two-dimensional people with weird names, huffing and blowing about imaginary and implausible threats:  ‘We must capture the nine timestones of Xorg from the Splergs, or they will disrupt the flow of the fourth dimension, and the universe itself will die.’

To be perfectly honest, there are SF books out there that would probably confirm your expectations.  Undoubtedly the conventions of the genre offer lavish opportunities for sheer escapism, and a kind of techno-porn.  But what I want you to know is that those same conventions are also powerful tools for writing and thinking about human life and about the world we actually inhabit.

Listen, if you are a fiction reader at all, you must already be okay with the idea that sometimes making things up is helpful, yes?  All fiction involves made-up characters and/or made-up situations.  And this, don’t you agree, allows both writer and reader to gain imaginative access to aspects of life that are beyond their own direct experience, or to explore aspects of life that they are familiar with from a new and unexpected perspective?  Well, science fiction also involves made-up characters and made-up situations, and adds just one more made-up thing.  It makes up worlds.  If making up people and situations is alright, how can making up worlds suddenly be beyond the pale?

Actually making up worlds greatly extends the possibilities of fiction, by expanding the range of situations that characters can be asked to engage with and deal with.   The made-up world can be used to explore developments in present-day society by extending them into the future, or to externalise the inner demons with which we all struggle, or to estrange us from everyday experience, showing us something that seems utterly different at first from the world we inhabit, only for us to recognise it as something we already know very well but have grown so accustomed to that we’ve stopped seing it. (For an example of the latter technique, see, for instance, Miéville’s The City and The City, which I discussed here, perhaps not strictly an SF book, but near enough to make the point).

The fact that SF provides useful tools for these purposes, is illustrated by frequency with which these tools are taken up by non-SF writers.   Orwell’s 1984, for instance, probably one of the most well-known books of the 20th Century, is not normally seen as an SF book, but it really is one.  In it Orwell warned about totalitarian tendencies he saw in the present by extrapolating forward to an imagined future in which they had become more obvious and pronounced.  (I can’t think of any book that has done better at showing how power turns words into the opposite of what they used to mean, and switches what is defined as good and bad to meet the exigencies of the moment).

Or look at the way that Kazuo Ishiguro (I wrote about him here) invented a society in which clones were bred to provide transplants, in his novel Never Let Me Go.  In this case, the SF idea is used more for metaphorical purposes and for purposes of estrangement (and when you think about it, what is a good metaphor but a way of shedding new light on a thing by comparing it with something different and unexpected, and so making it a little bit strange?) The people in the book attend school, get sent off to a place where they get to live in shared lodgings and write essays, and then begin the slow process of dying, bit by bit, as their bodies are harvested for organs.  It all feels pretty much like the life of anyone who starts out with hopes of achieving something individual and personal in their lives and ends up giving all their talents to the service of some impersonal organisational machine.

Or, here’s another of my favourite ‘non-SF’ writers, and one of the truly great writers of the 20th century: Doris Lessing.  She’s best known for the Golden Notebook and the Martha Quest series, but she’s been using SF tools throughout her career, from Briefing for a Descent into Hell (a book that was a complete revelation to me when I first read it), to Memoirs of a Survivor, through Shikasta and the rest of her Canopus series of novels, and onwards to books like Mara and Dan.   Some of these books use SF tools to explore the way society is going, others use them to explore more visionary and metaphysical ideas, some use them for both.

I could go on.  I could mention, for example, a book group favourite like Audrey Niffenegger’s Time Traveller’s Wife, which uses the SF notion of time travel (and some good old SF hocus-pocus about genes) to explore the dynamic and temporal nature of a human relationship,  by presenting a couple who go through the events of their relationship in two different orders.  I could also go on about specifically SF writers, who have written great books that everyone should know about.  (See, to give just one example, my review here of The Space Merchants, the brilliant capitalist dystopia by Pohl & Kornbluth that ought to be up there with 1984 and Brave New World.  Or see my recent comments on Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion.)  My point is this, though.  Yes, do judge a book by its depth, its breadth, its relevance to your life, its originality, its execution, but please don’t dismiss it just because of the genre label it happens to be given by the publishing industry.

For myself, yes, I make stuff up, like all fiction writers do, but I do it to help me do the best job I can of writing about the experience of real people, and the dynamics of real societies, and the mysteries of the real universe in which we live.

Letting go of the past: Dark Eden at Greenbelt festival

I did a talk and reading this morning at the Greenbelt festival.   It was certainly the largest bunch of people I’ve yet met to talk about the book, and most of them had read it too.  There were many interesting questions, a couple of which really made me think about this book (some 20 years in the making, as I realised when I was preparing my talk) and its relationship with my life.

One questioner asked me whether the book had changed me, which I’ve never been asked before.  It’s something of a cliché that ‘this book [whatever book it is] will change your life’, but I’ve never thought about whether the writer is also changed.  The answer was, yes it has.  The book is about letting go of the past, and in the course of writing it, I’ve certainly learned something about that painful process.  How much the book shaped that learning, or reflected it, I’m not sure I can say, but I feel sure that, to some degree, it shaped it, for I have always believed that the stories we make up function, like dreams do, as a way of processing and recombining things that can’t be resolved by pure reason.

Another question was about the process of breaking free of our family of origin in order to be ourselves.  Of course the book is all about that, and I knew that before, but it had never quite struck me before how much my whole adult life so far (and I am in my fifties) had been about just that: breaking free from, and simultaneously reconciling myself to…