Telling the story of us and nature

I was very pleased to be asked to take part in the ‘writer’s rebel’ event last night as part of the Extinction Rebellion protest going on in London. The request was that I do a short reading of my own choice, as one of a number of writers doing the same. Having agonised all week about what to read, I ended up sitting down and writing the following a few hours before the event:

The fragile Earth…  The delicate web of life…  Nature as a wounded thing, desperately in need of our protection… 

The ecological crisis, it seems to me, has tended to be presented in those kinds of terms and I’m struck by the fact that this is really a new variation of an old story, a story in which ‘man’ is the master, and the rest of creation lies stretched out beneath ‘him’.  (I’m using the traditional gendered terms: it’s worth noting also that in many mythologies, Earth is personified as a woman.)

“God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

Genesis, 1:26

Things have changed of course since that was written and in our new, ecological version of the story, humankind is not so much the imperious lord of creation, but rather its custodian or curator. But in the new version, as in the old, humans are powerful, humans are godlike, humans are strong, while nature is weak: a wounded animal by the roadside, perhaps, or a beggar holding out a bowl.  It is something vulnerable that needs us. 

One problem with this, it seems to me, is that vulnerable things that need us can invite a tough response. You can walk away from wounded animals and beggars and still carry on with your life.  We all do it.  ‘I’ve got enough problems of my own to worry about just now,’ we say to ourselves. 

And this, after all, in practice even if not in theory, is the response most people give to the environmental crisis: ‘We’ve got enough problems to worry about already. The environment will have to wait.’   You can get a measure of the extent to which that’s true by imagining a world in which the media and Parliament and the general public expended, lets say a tenth, or a twentieth, or even one hundredth as much time and energy on the climate crisis, as they are doing now on the actually rather trivial and local question of Britain’s relationship with the European Union. 

And it’s not just Parliament or the media.  If I’m brutally honest, even for me, the climate crisis is quite a few rungs down from the top of the list of things I worry about most frequently.   Even people who are worried, even people who make some effort to speak out, aren’t anything like worried enough.

And I’m wondering if part of the problem is that we’ve been prone to think about this the wrong way round?  Wounded things that need us can be walked away from, but the idea of the rest of creation as being vulnerable and under our dominion is actually an infantile fantasy, like the fantasy of a little boy who plays at being big and fierce when really he depends on the care of others for everything he has. 

The Earth isn’t really fragile.  It’s five billion trillion tonnes of matter.  Drop a hydrogen bomb on it, and it just shrugs.  Life isn’t really that fragile either.  Life on Earth is getting on for four billion years old, and has survived asteroid strikes that completely blotted out the sun, and periods of cold so intense that almost the whole planet was covered in ice… As for ‘Nature’… well, nature is everything, and we’re inside it, totally and utterly subject to its laws. How can that be seen as weak? 

So perhaps the story we should be telling isn’t the story about fragile Earth and delicate nature, but the opposite?   We aren’t the masters of nature, in fact nature is ours (or our mistress is you prefer to give Mother Nature her traditional gender).  But nature is far stricter than any human ruler.  It can’t be bargained with, or flattered, or coaxed, because it doesn’t listen to us, it doesn’t hear us at all, it just responds to what we do, applying its own rules with an unbending impartiality that makes even the hardest and most rigid of bureaucrats look like bleeding hearts.  ‘Do this and the Earth gets hotter, do that and it won’t,’ says Nature, stifling a yawn and looking at its watch as it leans back in its office chair. ‘Those are the rules. It’s entirely up to you.  I really don’t mind either way.’  

And it really doesn’t, any more than electricity minds whether or not you stick your fingers into a socket, or gravity cares if you jump off a cliff.

The truth is that we and our loved ones, all our achievements, our societies, our cultures, our histories— all of the things we value and treasure and that give our life meaning— are just a small and recent outgrowth on the surface of a ball of rock that doesn’t even know we’re there.  The question isn’t ‘How do we help the poor fragile Earth?’ or ‘How do we mend the wounded web of nature?’ because the Earth is fine and nature as ever is in perfect health.  The real question is a much simpler one: ‘Do we want to be here or not?’

Launch events for Beneath the World, a Sea

Beneath the World, a Sea comes as an ebook and in hardback on April 4th.

(1) April 6th, 1-2pm, I’ll be signing at Forbidden Planet, Burleigh St, Cambridge.

(2) April 9th, 7-9pm, at Waterstones, Norwich (follow link for ticket information), I’ll be talking about Beneath the World, a Sea, with the great Tony Ballantyne. The also great Imogen Church (who recorded the wonderful audio version of Daughter of Eden), will do a reading from the book.

(3) April 11th, 6-7.30, at Waterstones, Cambridge, a launch celebration (please RSVP as per invite below).

New Covers

It’s a cliche that you can’t judge a book by its cover but in my experience the cover can make quite a difference to the whole reading experience.  So I’m really delighted that Corvus have decided to re-release the first four novels of mine they published in these really beautiful new covers by Richard Evans.

Here are the three Eden books:

And here is my first novel, The Holy Machine, which has already had several very different cover designs:


I’m very pleased to be part of this original audio collection of six SF stories, which have just been published by Audible.  Most of my books, including my latest short story collection Spring Tide, are available as audio books, but this is the first time that I’ve had a story whose first appearance was in audio format.

My story is called ‘When Will We Get There?’  (the title being a deliberate homage to one of my very favourite stories, Philip K. Dick’s ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon’), and it is beautifully read by Clare Corbett.

The other five stories in the collection are by An Owomoyela, Nikesh Shukla, Lauren Beukes, Ken Liu and Paul Cornell, so I’m in distinguished company.

Spring Tide in print

It’s always a big moment when I hold the book in my hands for the first time, and I love what Corvus has done with Spring Tide.  My 21 stories are no longer just words, no longer just pixels on a white screen.  They are a physical object which looks good and is satisfying to hold.  There’s something magical about that, and it never seems to fade.

Long and cut, or short and add?

I’ll be at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki next week, and I’ve been asked to take part in a panel on ‘Write Long and Cut, or Write Short and Add? (Is it better to write as much as possible and then edit out, or vice versa?)’.  If you’re at the con, I hope I’ll see you there!  In the meantime, here are a few thoughts:

I’ve been doing a bit of drawing lately (one of my  recent efforts is below) and one of the things I’ve learnt about that is that you need to be careful to get the basics right before you commit too much to the detail.   If you are drawing a face for example, no amount of detail will make the picture look like its subject if the overall shape is wrong.  The temptation is to get too engrossed in, say, the shadows around the eyes, only to realise later on that the eyes are too close together, and that at least one of them will need to be rubbed out completely and drawn all over again.

When writing fiction, there is a similar danger of over-committing to detail at too early a stage.  This can result in beautifully crafted scenes which turn out not to fit in, but which you are reluctant to cut because you like them and have committed a lot of time to them: a lot more time can be wasted trying to make the book fit the scene rather than vice versa.

A big difference between drawing from life and writing fiction, though, is that there is no external object to act as a guide: you are not trying to reproduce something in front of you, but rather you are tapping into your knowledge, experience, and subconscious to create a new object that didn’t previously exist.  Quite often, the overall shape may actually emerge out of details.

My novel Daughter of Eden, for instance, only came alive for me when I decided to tell the whole thing from the point of view of Angie Redlantern, and for that to happen, I first needed to bring Angie alive for myself by working over scenes told in her voice.  Similarly, early drafts of The Holy Machine felt to me they were missing a certain something until I worked out how to write the opening pages. In both cases it was the detail of the voice, and how that voice described its world, that were the key to the entire book.  I could have drafted out all the plot outlines I liked, but without knowing how the story was to be told, they wouldn’t have come to anything.

So it is a matter of writing something that vaguely resembles the story that I want to write, or the beginning of that story, and then working and reworking the material until it starts to feel lively. I always start a writing day by revising what I wrote on the previous day, and not infrequently I will go right back to the beginning and revise everything I’ve written so far before carrying on.  It’s slow, but it seems to be necessary in order to dig myself down into the story.

As to whether to ‘write long and cut, or write short and add’ I don’t have a straightforward answer.   What I’ve noticed is that, as a piece of writing develops, my sense of the centre of gravity of the piece gradually changes and I start to notice what I think of as expansion points and contraction points. In early drafts of the first half of Daughter of Eden, the story was told from multiple viewpoints like the other Eden books and Angie was simply one of several main characters.   As I worked and reworked it, I decided Angie was to be at the centre of it, and that all the foregrounded characters were going to be women (Angie, Mary, Trueheart, Starlight and Gaia), while the stereotypically ‘male’ story of war and fighting would be pushed some way back into the mix.

So expansion points are places in the text which seemed of relatively minor importance to start with but are now more important, perhaps to the point where they now feel like the story. In some cases, material which was little more than a connector between two scenes, can turn out to be more important than the scenes themselves. One set of expansion points in Daughter of Eden concerned the Davidfolk’s rituals around circles and the idea of homecoming. That stuff was just a detail at first, one of those things you put in to make a scene a bit more concrete, but it became absolutely crucial to the overall shape of the book, and so I expanded and developed all that, not only by including more detail (the circles, the song, the dots on the foreheads of guards…), but by incorporating those ideas and beliefs into Angie’s thinking.

Contraction points, on the other hand, are places in the text whose importance, or necessity, has diminished over time, so that they need cutting back, or cutting out entirely.  In the case of Daughter of Eden this included scenes seen from the viewpoint of male characters, some of which I cut altogether, while others were shortened and retold as observed by Angie, or reconstructed by Angie thirdhand from stories told by others, or relayed by Angie from scenes that Starlight participated in and told her about.

So I suppose my conclusion from all this is, write what you can, and be prepared both to expand and cut.

Roman Emperor Philip the Arab, drawn from a bust at the Museum of Classical Archaelogy, Cambridge