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.


From Bodhisattva to St Josaphat: the adventures of a story

I visited some Buddhist temples during a recent brief visit to Thailand, and this led me to reflect on the differences between Buddhism and Christianity (see previous post) but also on the similarities.

I noticed that large statues of the Buddha tended to have a smaller Buddha sitting in front of them.  I assume (perhaps wrongly) that the smaller Buddha represents the historical Siddharta Gautama, while the larger figure represents the universal spiritual state which he is supposed to have attained. It struck me that this relationship was not entirely from different from the relationship in Christian theology between Jesus and God.  And there are other parallels.   Both religions have a tradition of celibate monasticism.  Each bears a similar relationship to a parent religion (Hinduism and Judaism respectively).

I wondered if it was possible that Buddhism, as the older of the two by several centuries, might have had a direct influence on the formation of Christianity.  It’s not implausible, given that both Palestine and Northern India were within the sphere of influence of Hellenistic culture.  (Idea for a historical novel: a bright young Jewish man in Nazareth in Roman-occupied Palestine, hears about Buddhism from an Indo-Greek soldier in the Roman army, and decides to try and do something similar).

Anyway, when I was looking up possible connections,  I came across (in wonderful Wikipedia) one particular connection which I had never heard of before: the story of Barlaam and Josaphat.  This story was originally about the early life of Gautama Buddha, but ended up as a popular story in Medieval Europe, when both characters were regarded as Christian saints by Catholics and Orthodox Christians alike .  The name Josaphat comes, apparently, from the Sanskrit Bodhisattva, successfully modified as the story was retold and retold first in Persian (Bodisav), Arabic (Budhasaf then Yudasaf), Georgian (Iodasaph), Greek (Ioasaph) and finally Latin.

I find it rather delightful that the founder of one religion can find himself a saint in another.  I find it delightful too that a story can itself have a story, making its way slowly from Asia to Europe, and from the Buddhist world, to the Islamic world, and on into the Christian one, passing from language to language, and changing all the while to meet the needs of its new hosts.

The one in the crown is Josaphat, formerly known as Buddha


Literature and Science Fiction

Science fiction writers are often touchy about snobbery directed against their genre, the assumption that because something is set in the future, or has robots in it, or is set on another planet, it can’t be ‘serious’ literature (unless, of course, it’s written by someone who is already known for ‘serious’ literature, like Lessing or Ishiguro).   See recent observations by Philip Palmer and Stephen Hunt.

I share this irritation.  Of course science fiction can be badly written, poorly characterised etc etc but so can historical fiction.  That doesn’t mean we dismiss War and Peace because it happens to be set in the past.  Of course science fiction can be light-hearted, intended as a diversion and nothing much more, but this is undoubtedly true too of a lot of romantic fiction, and it doesn’t make us dismiss Jane Austen just because her novels fall into that bag.   And of course science fiction involves making stuff up, and indulging the reader in imaginary worlds, but so does The Tempest and  Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The tools of science fiction can be used for a lot of purposes (like a pack of playing cards that can be used for many different games).  I use them to write, as originally and interestingly as I can, about things that matter to me, and strike me as important, which I believe is what Tolstoy, Austen and Shakespeare did too.   I don’t know if the end result is literature and, assuming that this is even a meaningful question, it would be for others to judge not me.  But it’s annoying that there are a lot of people out there who’d be happy to make that judgment  without even reading what I have to say.

The ending of stories

It’s occurred to me lately that our biggest problem with life is not the amount of suffering in it, but the fact that suffering doesn’t come in the right place.

Imagine a story in which the protagonist experiences trouble and pain all the way through.  Finally, at the very end, he finds happiness and peace.  That is, by common consent,  a happy story.  But a story in which he has happiness at the beginning, but then has trouble and pain all the way to the end, would be a sad story. So would a story where he is sad at the beginning, happy in the middle, but sad again at the end.  Even if the sadness and happiness are in the same proportions as in the happy story.  I guess it is because we tend to think of the end as the resting place, the place where life will settle down when the story is over.

If the trouble with life is not the existence of suffering, but the fact that suffering is all mixed up with the other stuff, then this is something that the traditional fairy-tale type story corrects for us.  (So does traditional religion, where the good guys end up in heaven, and the bad guys get their due).

Literary short fiction, aware of the over-neatness of the ‘happy ending’, tends these days to end on an ambiguous or unresolved note.    The wooden shutter bangs in the wind.  Life  doesn’t reach a resolution.  It just goes on…

But since a story does actually have to stop, this final unresolved note does not actually sound quite like life just going on.  It has a particular wistful, slightly plaintive ring of its own, which in its way is as artificial as a fairy tale happy ending, and can get a bit tedious.   Life isn’t always wistful, and wistfulness certainly isn’t its natural resting place.   Sometimes, for instance, we can feel completely at peace, even to the point of being entirely reconciled to the fact that the feeling of peace won’t go on forever.

Maybe to reflect the full diversity of available ending moments, it would be good to try and get away a bit from that plaintive, wistful and unresolved note, and try and end on as many different notes as possible, including cheerful ones.