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 exceptions being my short story collection, Spring Tide, and I think also my novel Tomorrow) and most of my readers (or so I would guess) are  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…

Where do you get your ideas from? (2)

I’ve already given some credit to Alan Sugar and the Amstrad computer, for giving me the idea of Dark Eden.  Here are some other, perhaps more obvious, influences:

  • William Golding (Lord of the Flies)
  • Brian Aldiss (Helliconia)
  • Russell Hoban (Riddley Walker)
  • J R R Tolkein (Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit).
  • The countless unnamed storytellers responsible for the stories that ended up being written down in the books of Genesis and Exodus.
  • David Attenborough etc, from whom I learnt about the sunless depths of the sea, where there really are both luminous life-forms, and whole ecosystems powered by  geothermal energy.
  • Whoever it was that taught me about the lakes that exist under the Antarctic ice, melted by geothermal heat.  (That’s the sort of place that life on Eden first evolved).
  • I think maybe, too, the Norse creation myth is in there somewhere, in which the world emerged from under ice.
  • Whoever invented the literary device of faster than light space travel.  Say what you like about its plausibility in practice, it allowed authors to travel on to planets beyond the solar system, when we had learnt too much about our neighbouring planets to be able to endow them any more with forests and animals and breathable air.

Words and worlds (2)

Another thing about the novel Henry that I wrote when I was 19 (see previous post): it was written the present tense, and it took place in a stripped down world like a stage set, advertising its own artificiality.   At that time I wanted to get away from the formal pretence of the conventional novel that it was narrating events that had actually happened in the real world*.  My idea was that, insofar as the events in the book could be said to ‘happen’ at all, they happened in the reader’s head, at the moment that he or she visualised them.  Hence the present tense.

I wasn’t at all well-read then, in terms of literary fiction, and even less so in terms of any kind of literary theory, but this was the seventies, and I seem to have been picking up something of the zeitgeist.  “fuck all this lying,” the sixties experimental novelist BS Johnson wrote towards the end of a novel that was nominally about a would-be architect, “look what I’m really trying to write about is writing not all this stuff about architecture trying to say something about writing my writing”.  On Saturday, in an interview in the Guardian which prompted this post, a more recent experimental novelist, Will Self, observed in a similar vein:  “You can’t go on pretending that the writer is an invisible deity who moves around characters in the simple past. I just can’t do that stuff. It’s lies. The world isn’t like that any more.”

I suppose it’s the same sort of thought that led some abstract painters to turn away from the pretence that a painting was a representation of the three-dimensional world.  A painting was, and could only ever be, an arrangement of colours and shapes on a flat surface.  Why pretend otherwise?  Why lie?

I don’t feel that way now (as will be apparent from the fact that my books are narrated, pretty conventionally, in past simple tense, as if the events have actually happened).  It seems to me that painting has a pretty long history (over forty thousand years!) of representing real world objects.  That, in a way, is the magic of it.  (This picture is a bison, and at the same time it isn’t!)  And story-telling must surely have an equally long history of narrating imagined events as if they had really happened.

I know we get bored of particular ways of telling stories, and need to try new ones, one of which is to draw attention to the artificiality of the story itself.  But this too gets boring after a while.

* * *

*In most SF novels, by the way, things are more complicated: the content of the story pretends that the events described lie in the future, while the grammar pretends that they are in the past.

Words and worlds

I wrote my first novel when I was 19.  I’ve still got it somewhere.  It was called Henry.  The main character knew he was a character and that he was living in a world created by my words.

I was very taken at that time by the idea that I was creating a world.  I had the idea that my job was to define that world precisely, to provide a precise instruction manual.  But I’ve come to think that descriptive writing doesn’t really function in that way.   It doesn’t so much provide a precise instruction manual, as give the reader permission to pretend that what he or she is being presented with is not just words on the page, but a world.  (It’s a bit like hypnotism, a ritual which gives people permission to pretend things are other than they really are).   Having received that permission, the reader then constructs the world for him- or herself.

To give an example.  Dickens often provides meticulous descriptions of his characters: the length of their sideburns, the shape of their nose, the number of hairs on the mole on their right cheek etc etc.   But do we as readers meticulously visualise these characteristics, commit them to memory, and then continue to visualise them whenever the same character appears?   I certainly don’t, not least because my memory just isn’t that good.  No, I gain a general impression from the description, pick up from it a feeling, a gestalt, and construct from that my own rather vague mental image (which may well not fit exactly with Dickens’ instructions), and then work with it for the rest of the book.

Assuming my own way of reading is not that unusual, does this mean that Dickens’ meticulous details are pointless?  Not at all.  Their precision is what gives us permission to enter into the world.  They convince us that the writer really is seeing the world in his mind, not just providing a list of words, and that in turn frees us to see it too.   Our own perception of the visual world works in much the same way.  We think we are seeing a complete scene, but in fact, if you analyse what your eyes are seeing moment to moment, it is only glimpses, mostly a blur, with a tiny point of focus darting erratically this way and that.  (Can you describe precisely, without looking at it, the building four houses down from your home?)

Here is another example, the famous passage from Midsummer Night’s Dream:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.

I love this.  It’s one of my favourite bits of descriptive writing.  It’s one of those bits that makes me wonder why I even try.  And yet I am not sure what wild thyme looks like, I have no idea what eglantine is, and  I only know that ‘woodbine’ is another name for honeysuckle because I have just this minute looked it up.  The words evoke a lovely place, and do it vividly, but only because, magically, they give me permission to imagine it myself.


I wrote previously about the music of Brian Wilson: that he’d chosen to make something gentle and peaceful, rather than something that simply reflected the pain and struggle of his own experience.   I like that choice.  It is quite a hard one to bring off without lapsing into sentimentality (though in my opinion Wilson’s music succeeds in this), but I think sometimes an anxiety to avoid sentimentality can lead to a kind of unremitting grimness which affects to being tough and gritty, but is really just sentimentality in reverse. (This is an age in which you can go to an art gallery and look at cans of shit, and pickled corpses, and children with penises instead of faces, as if the function of art was to rub our noses in horrible things).

Kurt Vonnegut wrote (I’m not sure where) that artists could help to prevent nuclear Armageddon, not by preaching, but by making life feel a little more worth living.  He thought that a lot of people secretly longed for their lives to end, and therefore had no real interest in trying not to have a nuclear war.   Art (pompous word, but I can’t for the moment think of another) in this conception of it, is not there just to reflect the world, or to comment on it, but to add something to it.

Brian Wilson is not an articulate man, but he often speaks about trying to put love into his music.  And come to think of it, my objection to those cans of shit (and their equivalents in writing) is not their grimness as such, but their lovelessness.

Where do you get your ideas from?

I am a slow writer, and ideas take a long time to brew.  The first description of the Eden forest, in the short story called The Circle of Stones (which also includes an early version of a central scene of the novel, and early prototypes of several characters), was published 20 years ago.

At that time I owned an Amstrad computer, the kind with the black screen on which the writing appeared in shining green letters.   And I’m fairly sure that this was where I first got the idea from for the Eden forest.

If you write things (and let’s face it, a large proportion of us do spend much of our lives, staring at screens and writing things) your visual field is frequently occupied by patterns of letters.  Repetitive patterns seep into your dreams and your imagination.  Its the same if you spend the day weeding the garden, or driving, or hanging wallpaper.

Letters on the page have always struck me as resembling forests, with clearings at paragraph breaks.  (Somewhere, in some old notebook, there’s a story of mine about people wandering in a winter forest – spiky bare black trees growing out of snow – not knowing that they are just  characters in a story.)

The forest of Eden relates to the forests of Earth, in much the same way as the Amstrad screen relates to conventional black letters on a white field.   In the Eden forest, the trees, instead of being defined by the light around them, are themselves the sources of light, just like those green letters on the black screen.

So I suppose, in some ways, I have Alan Sugar to thank for that particular idea.

Young Alan Sugar

“But I don’t like science fiction.”

“I don’t like science fiction. I like my novels to be about ‘real’ people doing real things in the real world,” was the initial reaction of Emma Higginbotham in an article about Dark Eden in the Cambridge Evening News. She goes on to say,  “I decide to read the first couple of pages and skim through the rest. But to my amazement, I’m completely hooked by page two, and devour the whole thing in a few greedy sittings.”

Phew!  (And thanks, Emma!)  But it is frustrating how many people’s initial reaction is the same as hers – “I don’t like science fiction” – because, unlike her, most people don’t have a reason to test that initial reaction and so prove themselves wrong: they don’t like science fiction and that’s that.

Why is this?  The same people would, I imagine, quite happily read a book set in the past, or in a faraway country, or an imaginary country.  They’d even happily read a book set in the future (1984), or one with science fictional elements such as time travel (The Time Traveller’s Wife), cloning (Never Let Me Go), or the extinction of human kind (Children of Men), provided it was by an author known as ‘mainstream’.  So why this squeamishness about things that say ‘science fiction’ on the tin?

It wasn’t always so.  In the 60s and 70s, bookreading households would have thought nothing of having Day of the Triffids on their shelves, or maybe a few Ballards.   My father, I guess, classes as an SF fan, since he had a whole row of SF books (Pohl & Kornbluth, Heinlein, van Vogt, Ballard…), but it was my mother who recommended books to me by John Wyndham and Brian Aldiss: it just wouldn’t have struck her that they were SF and therefore beyond the pale.  Of course even then there were harder core SF books that my parents would have regarded as outside their range, but my point is there was a permeable membrane between SF and the rest of literature, not (to mix metaphors completely) a Berlin Wall.   Somewhere between now and then, SF has come to be regarded by many as the exclusive province of Comic Book Guy.

Yes, some science fiction is poorly written, some is ‘toys for the boys’, some caters for immature, and sometimes not very attractive, impulses.   But isn’t that true of romantic fiction also?   Isn’t it true of any kind of fiction at all?  I’m not saying that I think everyone should like all science fiction, only that they should be prepared to admit the possibility that they might like some of it.

All fiction works by making stuff up, partly for fun and partly to provide a new imaginative perspective on the real world.   It seems a pity to me – and not just because it means less people will buy my stuff – that a particular kind of ‘making stuff up’, should be so readily dismissed by readers and writers.  That seems to me to be throwing away a very rich resource indeed.

Non-science fiction readers who read my books, often seem to like them to their own surprise (like Emma Higginbotham, or like the judges of the Edge Hill Prize).  I would really like to persuade more to give it a go.

A new story

I’ve just finished writing a new short story.

I can spend days slogging away at a story, adding words and ideas, playing with points of view, but the good bit – the bit when I know the story’s going to be strong enough to go out into the world – is the moment when it comes alive and begins to write itself.   From that point on I find, as I work and rework it, that there’s more in the story than I realised.  The things I consciously wove into it are only part of it.  It speaks about things, and makes connections, that I didn’t plan with my conscious mind, yet are unquestionably part of the design, like the details in a dream, which your own mind constructed, and yet whose meaning doesn’t immediately dawn on you, and is never completely clear.

It is a lovely feeling when this happens.  I can’t think of many that are better.  I feel sort of cleansed and redeemed, and just more alive as I go about my day.  Sounds a bit over the top, I dare say, but that’s how it is, and it reminds me that writing these things really is more than just one of the things I do, but is a big part of what my life is all about.

You can’t force those moments though.  In the meantime, you just have to keep trying, like a surfer who has to keep paddling out again and again, and heaving himself up again onto his board, before he catches a wave he can really ride.