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

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, by James Tiptree, Jr.

[This piece contains many spoilers!]

James Tiptree, jr built a reputation in the 60s and 70s before revealing that ‘he’ was in fact a woman called Alice Bradley Sheldon.  I really don’t know why I’ve not explored ‘his’/her work before.

These are subtle stories that demand intelligence and attention on the reader’s part (I had to read the story ‘The last flight of Doctor Ain’ twice, for example, before I got it).  Many of the stories deal, in some way, with gender – a preoccupation of mine also – and quite a lot of them deal with male abuse of women.   Interestingly, this is often done from a male perspective.  Sexual desire, frequently and often quite graphically depicted (there are a surprisingly large number of erections in this book), is almost always shown  from a male view.

In ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ the main protagonist is a scientist, male but liberal-minded and not exactly hyper-masculine, who is sharing a spaceship with two macho astronauts.  The story captures beautifully captures his male insecurity in their presence, his (well-founded) anxiety that they feel contempt for men like him ‘who can manipulate only symbols, who have no mastery of matter’ –I know that feeling! – and his grudging admiration for them:

‘And for the thousandth time he is obscurely moved by the rightness of them.  The authentic ones, the alphas. Their bond. The awe he had felt first for the absurd jocks of his school ball team.’

And here – a woman, writing as a man, looking at her own gender from the viewpoint of a male character – is the male scientist’s take on how woman relate to one another:

‘Like ants, he thinks.  They twiddle their antennae together every time they meet.  Where did you go, what did you do?  Twiddle-twiddle.  How do you feel?’

It does look that sometimes.  It really does!  (But I remember, from way back when I was a little child, envying the closeness and intensity of it.)

These are feminist stories, I suppose, but it has to be said that Sheldon’s feminism is of a fairly dark and fatalistic kind.  When you learn that poor Alice was to end up killing both her husband and herself with a shotgun – they were found side by side in bed – it certainly fits.  Of the 18 stories in this collection, two depict worlds in which men have died out, one a world in which men are killing all the women, and two have female astronauts kill off the men on board their ships.  One – a wonderfully sensuous piece – has a female creature devouring her male mate.  Three, not counting the men-killing-women one, go the whole hog and wipe out the entire human race.

Part of the reason for the pessimism – part of the intellectual reason at any rate: there are surely much more personal ones – would seem to be a view that we can’t escape biology, and that male aggression and the male drive towards dominance are simply biologically determined.  In ‘The Women Men Don’t See’, the main female character observes:

‘Women have no rights… except what men allow us.  Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world.  When the next crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish…  We’ll be back where we always were: property.  And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was.  You’ll see.’

In ‘The Screwfly Solution’* (the only Alice Sheldon story I’d previously read) the close relationship between male sexuality and male aggression is subtly altered by biochemical means so that men begin to systematically kill every woman and girl they meet.  It ends up with the feel of a zombie movie, except that, instead of zombies, the apocalyptic killers are the male half of the human race.   In the world of this story, a religious ideology has emerged to justify the slaughter (woman are evil and must be destroyed to fulfill God’s will), but Sheldon is clear that this isn’t the real cause of the killing at all.  It is simply a cultural rationalisation of what has become, for biochemical reasons, a simple biological imperative.   Cultural beliefs are only the clothes we put on over drives and needs which we can’t choose or control.  Since it’s the biological aspect of gender which is the bit that can’t be changed, it’s not surprising the most positive worlds depicted in this book (or at least the most positive human ones) are the ones in which men have died out.

We are the puppets and playthings of biology: that seems to be a fairly constant theme.   ‘Love is the Plan the Plan is Death’ (a beautiful piece of writing, and one of the best stories in the collection) is told from the viewpoint of Moggadeet, a spider-like creature, attempting to break out of the biological program: the Plan.  But the Plan wins. Even the attempt to escape the Plan was part of the Plan itself.

In some of the stories, it is not so much the sexes that are pitted against one another by nature, as two principles: the gentle nurturing principle, the urge to care, versus the ruthless thrusting one, the drive to dominate.   The latter is necessary to survival, and is even sometimes seemingly admired, though it cruelly crushes the former again and again.   In ‘We who Stole the Dream’, a gentle race of aliens, the Joilani, are horribly and brutally oppressed by humans (in many ways, including sexually: this story includes some of the book’s many ugly scenes of sexual violation.)  But, in different circumstances, the Joilani too turn out to be more than capable of embodying the ruthless principle of domination.  (Would a world of only woman really be a gentler place?  Or would some of the women simply step into the roles vacated by men?)

One of the most ambitious accounts here of human beings as simply the puppets of biology is ‘A Momentary Taste of Being’.  Seventy-five pages long, this is about first contact with extraterrestrial life, and is one of the stories in the book where gender relations are not the main theme. (Or not exactly: Dr Aaron Faye’s intense and incestuous relationship with his idealistic younger sister is fairly central, and the whole story is ultimately about sexual reproduction on an interstellar scale.)   A star ship on a ten year exploratory voyage to Alpha Centaurus has identified a planet with organic life some years travelling time ahead of it, and a scout ship has brought back a specimen of alien life.  ‘Here we are,’ thinks Aaron Faye, as the moment approaches to come face to face with it:

‘Here we are, he thinks, tiny blobs of life, millions and millions of miles from the speck that spawned us, hanging out here in the dark wastes, preparing with such complex pains to encounter a different mode of life.  All of us, peculiar, wretchedly imperfect – somehow we have done this thing.  Incredible, really, the ludicrous tangle of equipment, the awkward suited men, the precautions, the labor, the solemnity – Jan, Bruce, Yellaston, Tim Bron, Bustamente, Alice Berryman, Coby, Kabawata, my own saintly sister, poor Frank Foy, stupid Aaron Faye – a stream of faces pours through his mind, hostile or smiling, suffering each in his separate flawed reality: all of us.  Somehow we have brought ourselves to this amazement.  Perhaps we really are saving our race, perhaps there really is a new earth and heaven ahead…’

It’s that feelgood moment towards the end of a movie when something wonderful has been accomplished, and the camera pans round the faces of the motley crew of characters who have somehow, between them, made it happen against all the odds. But this movie doesn’t end here, for Faye couldn’t be more wrong.  What’s really brought them there is a biological system in which the whole of Earth’s evolutionary history is simply a necessary component.  Having come out into space and performed their function, human beings, like the threshing tails of sperms, cease to have a purpose at all.

(Biology does not always come out so badly here, though.  In several stories, the two principles locked in struggle are simply life and death, with death, however destructive, however frightening, the necessary and inevitable driver for life.  In two of these stories -‘On the Last Afternoon’ and ‘Slow Music’- characters have a choice between staying with the cycle of death, sex and suffering, or escaping to a sexless, disembodied, eternal life among the stars.  The former seems the braver choice.)

One of the most poignant stories for me – and also one of the most beautifully accomplished – was ‘Your Faces, O My Sisters!  Your Faces Filled of Light!’* It begins by presenting two overlapping but incompatible reality frames, whose relationship with one another is initially unclear.  In one frame, a wonderfully cheerful young woman makes her way on foot across an America that is entirely peaceful and safe.   ‘Heyo, sister!’ she greets everyone she meets, entirely confident that they will be benign and interesting and fun to be with, ‘Any mail, any messages?  Des Moines and going west!’  In the other frame, the inhabitants of ordinary 1970s America go about their own dull suspicious lives, puzzled, irritated or concerned by an odd young woman who talks to them in a funny way, and calls everyone ‘sister’ whether they are men or women.  The link between the two frames gradually becomes apparent, until eventually they violently collide in a sickening scene which I found really heartwrenching.

That said, a close rival for it, for sheer painfulness, was ‘With Delicate Mad Hands’.   This is a much less accomplished story in technical terms (one problem being that a large chunk of back story is dumped down into the middle of it which is very much ‘told’ rather than ‘shown’ –  a fault that’s present in one or two other stories here – and there’s none of the clever scientific plausibility of ‘The Screwfly Solution’).  A woman astronaut, born with a repulsive pig-like nose, has been abused and rejected throughout her life: male astronauts routinely shove her underpants over her head while they rape her, so they don’t have to look at her face.  She became an astronaut because of a drive she has had since childhood to find her way to a ‘pig world’, somewhere in space, where she’ll belong.   And, after she’s murdered her male colleagues, she finally finds it.  It is a hidden sunless planet with lavender skies, inhabited by cute unthreatening aliens, but unfortunately deadly to humans due to high radiation levels.  Here she finds her true soulmate in a piglike alien who has loved her, and been calling telepathically to her, all her life.   They die in each other’s arms, she because of the radiation, it (or ‘he’ as she decides to say), because, in its love, it draws all her pain telepathically onto itself: Liebestod in My Little Pony land.

I found this clumsy, agonised story very uncomfortable.   It was the escapist fantasy of a horribly abused and lonely little girl, and reading it was like watching the author stripping naked, much as its protagonist, Carol, actually does strip naked, to satisfy their curiosity, in front of the aliens peering in through the windows of her ship.

It’s funny (both in the sense of a joke, and in the sense of ‘strange’) to think that when these stories first came out, they would have been read by a predominantly male audience, and that most of them would have been believed to have been written by a man.  Tiptree was like an undercover agent, operating behind enemy lines.

A strange, disturbing and brilliant collection.  The author is fascinating too.  I have already ordered her biography.

Her smoke rose up forever, on Amazon UK

* These two stories were actually published under Alice Sheldon’s other, female, pseudonym of Raccoona Sheldon.

The innocence of bad guys

I was thinking about this article by Howard Jacobson, in which he talks about the enduring appeal of bad guys in fiction.  And I was thinking about our dogs and cat.

*  *  *

People often describe other people as behaving like animals (i.e. like non-human animals) when they behave badly.  This has always struck me as a bit unfair to animals.  Animals don’t rape or commit genocide or engage in torture.

But living in a house with animals it strikes me that certain kinds of crime really are very animal indeed: crimes like shoplifting, burglary, picking pockets, mugging, looting, opportunistic, amoral crimes, crimes motivated by nothing more complicated than ‘I’ll have that.’   The hitmen in films like Looper or Pulp Fiction, who kill for a living, without malice or anger, and without regret, strike me as being quite animal.  When Amundsen was travelling to the South Pole, he killed dogs that were no longer needed and fed them to the others.  I’m sure they tucked in without worry or remorse.

Animals (or at least the ones I’m acquainted with) take things opportunistically and without compunction, and they defend what they’ve taken as long as they think they can win the fight.   They are capable of being delightfully and genuinely friendly, but incapable of being kind.  They are capable of being horribly aggressive, but incapable of being cruel.  If one of them picks up a thorny twig to play with, he’ll bash it against your legs without a thought as he runs by, not out of inconsiderateness, but because he simply doesn’t do that kind of consideration.

They’ve never eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

*  *  *

Sometimes morality is portrayed as being the opposite to the pleasure principle, but that’s just silly.  What point does life have without pleasure?  (To help others?  To help them to do what?)  Pleasure is simply the sum total of things that make life worthwhile, and it just doesn’t make any sense to say that life could have an additional purpose.

Genuine morality is the pleasure principle, but with the rest of the world factored in: other people, other creatures, our future selves.   It doesn’t tell us to forego pleasure per se, but it might tell us to forego pleasures that will lead to harm elsewhere, or later on.  It doesn’t tell us to pursue suffering, but it might tell us to be willing to suffer here and now for the sake of pleasure elsewhere, or later on.

It’s morally wrong to behave as if you were the centre of the universe, because it’s factually wrong.  As a matter of fact, you’re not.

Animals don’t know that, though.  They act as if they themselves at this moment were all that mattered.  And this works perfectly well for them, because evolution has provided them with appetites and drives that will allow the simple pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain to address longer term or wider needs without them having to even think about it.

But we do know it, and so we do have to think about it.  We can only not think about it by lying to ourselves.  And that does damage to us, because it requires us to build partitions across our minds.

*  *  *

And yet there’s a huge price to pay for this knowledge.  This awareness that we should think about things beyond our immediate selves and our present impulses, adds layers of calculation and anxiety to every choice we make.  It takes away spontaneity.

I think that’s why bad guys are fun to watch.  They appeal to us not because they are wicked and knowing per se, but, oddly enough, because of their innocence.    They remind us of a kind of innocence and simplicity that animals have and we have lost for good.  They remind us of what we had to give up when we ate that bloody fruit.

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.

Living in Omelas

I worked for 18 years of my life, as a social worker and social work manager, in the field of children and families.   I now work part-time as a lecturer in social work.   In the course of my work I recently came across this interesting book, by Mark Drakeford and Ian Butler, which looks at the Maria Colwell child abuse inquiry and its legacy.  I guess this, to most people, will seem a topic of rather specialist interest, but it occurs to me that it is, or ought to be, of more general concern.

Maria Colwell died in Brighton in 1973, at the age of 7, as a result of physical abuse by her stepfather, Mr Kepple.   Social workers had placed Maria in the care of her mother and stepfather after she had been fostered for several years by an aunt.  When Maria died, two social workers from two different agencies had been visiting the family, as had an Education Welfare Officer, and concerns had been expressed for some time about Maria’s care by neighbours and others.   Why had she been returned home?  Why had warning signs not been acted on?   The Inquiry resulted in the child protection system which still, broadly speaking, continues to exist, but it also laid down the pattern for a succession of similar public inquiries that were to follow, at regular intervals, up to the present time, Victoria Climbié and Peter Connelly (Baby P) being famous and relatively recent examples.  They have become an odd kind of ritual (whose atavistic nature I tried to capture in my story ‘Johnny’s New Job’).  Public acts of contrition are performed.  New procedures and guidelines are introduced.  Individuals are named, sacked and subjected to media lynching.

(The savagery of the latter has grown steadily more extreme since the Colwell case.  Not only social workers and other professionals, but their children and family members, have been subjected to harassment and abuse.  When the Baby P scandal was blowing up, The Sun newspaper printed photographs of some of the professionals involved, with a phone number under each, so that readers could call and dish the dirt.)

Curiously – and I tried to capture this in Johnny’s New Job – public interest in these occasional high-profile scandals is not matched by an interest in the roughly 2 children a week who die in the UK as a result of maltreatment by their carers, or  interest in the social conditions in which abuse and neglect tends to occur (for child abusers, believe or not, do not just spring spontaneously into being).

As for the critique of the professionals involved, and particularly of my own profession of social work, it remains pretty consistent.  The charges are incompetence, negligence, naïvity (and of course I don’t deny that these things can be present) but also that the social workers are motivated by ideology rather than common sense.  However the nature of the ideology that social workers are charged with being wedded to has an odd habit of suddenly switching from one thing to its opposite, like the identity of the enemy in Orwell’s 1984. (Remember the Great Hate, when the enemy started out being Eastasia, and switched halfway through to being Eurasia, with Eastasia as the trusted ally?)  In the Colwell Inquiry, as Butler and Drakeford remind us, social workers were charged with being obsessed with blood ties, which had resulted in them taking Maria from loving foster-carers and returning her to her neglectful mother.   But the exact opposite charge is also laid from time to time.  This, for example, is from a Daily Mail article written in 2005 which alleged that children were being removed unnecessarily from loving parents:

Today in the Daily Mail we reveal the profoundly disturbing details of how decent people can be caught up in a nightmare they don’t understand, how happy, cared-for children can be torn from their mothers and given to strangers and how a remorseless administrative machine insists it’s all for the best.

Of course it is entirely possible to err in both directions, and I’ve no doubt that this occurs, but the fact remains that, if children are not to be removed from their parents at the first whiff of the possibility of their coming to harm, this means leaving children with parents in situations which might turn out to be harmful.   Wherever the threshold is drawn for draconian interventions, there will be false positives and false negatives.   Failure to accept this can lead to a system that becomes preoccupied with the pursuit of information, of unattainable certainty, at the expense of its wider brief of providing help and support.

But again, these more nuanced arguments are of very little general interest, as compared to the interest that is aroused by the great set piece of the ‘child abuse scandal’, the calls for sackings and so on.  There’s something much more primitive going on here than the rational activity of trying to understand why a tragedy has occurred.

As is often the case, a great SF writer has something to say on all this.  Ursula Le Guin, in her superlative story ‘The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas’ (along with her ‘Semley’s Necklace’ it is one of the best short stories I have ever read), spends most of the word-count conjuring up a utopian society called Omelas, full of pleasures and delights of every kind.   Only towards the end, do we learn that the price to be paid for all of this is paid by a single wretched child, held captive and abused in a squalid cellar.

Unfortunately, the real world is like this.  Those of us who live secure and comfortable lives, must do so in the knowledge that, hidden away from us, but probably not far away, are others, children, who cannot conceivably be to blame for the situations they find themselves in, living with violence and hatred and horror.   If we are to enjoy our pleasures, our meals in restaurants, our holidays, our interesting jobs, then we have to find a way of doing this in the knowledge of these others who are, figuratively if not literally, imprisoned in their cellars nearby.   We want to put them out of our mind, but, more than that, we want to feel justified in doing so, and one excellent way of achieving this is by telling ourselves that something ought to be done about those children, but it is someone else’s job .   That way, if we find ourselves confronted with direct evidence of those children down in their cellars, we are released from guilt, and can feel instead a righteous and indignant rage.

This isn’t to say that professionals involved in these scandals are necessarily blameless, but only to point out that by heaping blame on them, we don’t magically exonerate ourselves.

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.

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.


Narcissus by Caravaggio

Here I am, fiddling around with this blog.  It made me think uneasily of Narcissus gazing at his own reflection.

I found this picture of him by Caravaggio.  I hadn’t seen it before.  In the story, as I remember it, Narcissus is a heartless man, who ignores the woman who loves him (her name is Echo) because he is enchanted by the beauty of his own reflection.  (Perhaps he was a cousin of Pygmalion, who couldn’t relate to real women of flesh and blood, only the idealised one he made for himself out of stone?)

But in the picture he looks to me as if he feels trapped, as if he wants to pull away.  Why doesn’t he do it?   Is he afraid that if he looks up and allows himself to see something other than his own reflection, he himself will disappear?

The legend of Eden

Dark Eden being selected as reading material for the Green Belt Festival (see previous post) has made me think about the legend of Eden.

I say legend.  There are still those, of course, who claim to believe the story is literally true.  This is a pretty preposterous claim to make in the modern world (at least by any half-way educated person), but, as I’ve observed before, it takes an almost equally preposterous kind of literal-mindedness to think that, because a thing isn’t literally true, it isn’t true in any sense at all. Clearly this legend has some resonance for me – is, in some way, true – or I wouldn’t want to use it as the starting point for a novel.  So what does it mean to me?

I think there are two aspects of the story in particular that have always seemed powerful for me.  One is the snake: the idea that even in the most idyllic scene there is always somewhere a flaw, a danger, a threat (like the ‘invisible worm’ in William Blake’s poem, ‘The Sick Rose’). The other is the idea of expulsion: the idea that, for some reason, human beings are cut off from their true home.  This is the idea I drew on for Dark Eden, in which a little band of people are cut off not only from the rest of humanity but even from light, and have to live out their lives in the knowledge of that loss.

The same sense of loss, it seems to me, is present in Plato’s notion of humanity huddled in a cave and seeing, not the real world, but shadows on the wall.  This rings true for me.  It feels like the way things are.  

Why it does, is another question.  Psychoanalytic psychology would, I think, explain this subjective sense of loss in terms of a child’s painful discovery that parental comfort and love is not always available, that things are not and never can be perfect.  That rings true for me as well.   In the world of Dark Eden, the particular focus of people’s sense of loss, was their Eve figure, Angela, the mother of them all.  Even John Redlantern, who was determined to break away from the past, was particularly devoted to Mother Angela (a police officer from Peckham on her way to goddess-hood), being himself in some ways motherless.


Anyway, these reflections prompted me to go back and look at the story as it appears in the Bible.  (I was going to say the ‘original’, but in truth, this is surely a story that evolved over many thousands of years before it was ever written down, and it shares obvious characteristics with other creation myths in other traditions, suggesting a remote common ancestor.  As I’ve observed before, stories have a life of their own.  They travel, they have adventures, they change their clothes, they make new friends…)

What struck me immediately about the version in Genesis is its mythological, child-like, fairytale-like quality.  God is pretty much human. (He walks in the garden in ‘the cool of the day’.  He appears surprised by events).  The snake is a talking animal.  (No suggestion that it is anything more.)  And, much as Norse mythology offers fanciful explanations for everyday things like the morning dew (it is the world weeping for the God Balder) or the tides (the result of a prodigious drinking feat by the God Thor), so the Eden story offers explanations for why snakes crawl on the ground, why women hate snakes, why childbirth is painful, and why farming is backbreaking work.

And, just as in fairytales and other mythologies, ludicrously obvious things are somehow overlooked for the sake of the story (I think of the Norse legend of Balder, in which the goddess Frigga secures a promise from everything in the earth and sky and in the sea not to harm her son, but doesn’t get round to securing it from mistletoe, which lives neither on the ground, or in the sky, or in water), so here God plants a fruit tree that he apparently doesn’t want people to touch, right in the middle of Eden.

But above all what struck me was God’s motive for expelling Adam and Eve from Eden.  It really isn’t because they have committed a terrible sin (how can you commit a sin before you have acquired the knowledge of good and evil?) but because, by eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, ‘the man is become as one of us’ and must be expelled  ‘lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’.  The expulsion is the act of a jealous God heading off a potential rival.

Above all, what strikes me about the story, on re-reading it, is that it isn’t just about loss.  It is also about gain, about people moving from a baby-like or animal-like state to become adult human beings.  Which is surely a good thing, and surely something that had to happen, and surely the reason why, if there was a God, he or she would plant a Tree of the Knowlege of Good and Evil in a place where, sooner or later, someone would surely decide to try the fruit, talking snake or not.

So the two elements that were most powerful to me – the loss, and the snake – seemed on re-reading to be far less central than I had remembered them.  The great thing about these kinds of story, with their ambiguities and their layers, is that we can different things in them, each time we look.  (The great thing, but also the dangerous thing.  You can mine misogyny from this story if you want to, it seems, though I can’t myself see that Eve is held much more to blame than Adam.   You can even apparently, though this really does require considerable ingenuity, derive the idea from it somehow that humankind is so wicked as to deserve eternal torment, after death as well as before it.)


Could there have been a real historical moment, which in some way corresponded to the Eden myth?  I suppose it would have been millions of years ago, somewhere in Africa, when some proto-human ape, for the very first time, had some dim glimmer of a insight: ‘This world isn’t just about me, my desires, my instincts.  Other creatures have feelings too.’  For such an insight, surely, is the real first step towards a knowledge of good and evil?

But of course that wouldn’t be a one-off event.  It would happen again and again.  It still happens now.