Out in Asimov’s: Day 29

A new story of mine – ‘Day 29’ – is just out in Asimov’s.   When I submitted it, Sheila Williams (Asimov’s editor) commented that they didn’t usually take horror stories    Funnily enough, it hadn’t really occurred to me that it was a horror story until that point.  Looking back, it occurs to me that there has been a strand of horror going through a number of my more recent stories, including ‘Karel’s prayer’, ‘The Dessicated Man’, ‘Greenland’.

Day 29 is one of those stories which evolve (it wasn’t planned as a horror story, so I suppose that’s why I didn’t notice it had become one.)   It’s core is a thought experiment (eloquently summarised by one reader here)  about identity, and about the extent to which our individual selves are the product of interaction with others.

The forests of Lutania owe something to The Snail on the Slope, by the Strugatsky brothers.  (Like their Roadside Picnic, this is a very nearly unreadable book, which nevertheless leaves a strange and very powerful trace in the mind, like a powerful and numinous dream which you don’t understand but can’t forget.   Remarkable books, even though you have to force yourself through them.)

I don’t know for certan, but I imagine I got the idea for the title  from Version 43 by my friend Philip Palmer.  In this novel, people travel between planets by teleportation, but with a 50/50 chance of arriving dead and mangled at the other end.

In ‘Day 29’, there is also a price to pay for travelling in this way: you lose your recent memories.  Everyone arrives at the other end having lost at least 29 days, and possibly as much as 40 days.

So you can be quite sure that anything you do in the last 29 days before you make the leap, you won’t remember.

About ‘Two Thieves’

I have just sold a new story to Asimov’s called ‘Two Thieves’.   The only revision requested was could I please reduce the number of times I used the word ‘fuck’ or ‘fucking’.   Well the story concerns two rough characters, who would swear a lot, and that’s why I had sprinkled their talk with these words, words which I also feel free to use myself fairly frequently in speech.   But I ended up not just cutting them down but taking them out altogether and was actually quite pleased to do so.

I remember David Pringle of Interzone once said in a similar situation that swearing carries a different weight on the page than it does in speech.   In writing dialogue we can’t simply recreate speech as it is spoken.   I think that is true.  We don’t for example reproduce the number of unfinished sentences, grammatical errors,  and mis-speakings of words that actually occur in spontaneous speech.   To create the impression of ordinary speech we actually have to do something other than simply mimic it.  (In the same way, perhaps, that to create the impression of ordinary hands, cartoon animators have to draw hands with less than five fingers.  Or so I have heard.)

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.

The Future of Science Fiction

I recently received of copy of a book published by the British Science Fiction Association, called British Science Fiction and Fantasy.  It was compiled by Paul Kincaid and Niall Narrison, and is a survey of the state of these two genres, based on interviews with authors.

I was interested in some comments from  Charles Stross (on page 169) in which he observes that the great weakness of SF is that:

…it is getting close to a century old.  Most art forms do not survive the life expectancy of their founders, while retaining their initial vibrancy and openness; by the third generation,  most of the active practitioners are “second artists”, recyling standard clichéd tropes and running variations on the classics.  Comforting, reassuring classics  – which are the trump of death to an art form based on cognitive dissonance and a sense of wonder.

I agree with him that it would indeed be ‘the trump of death’ to try and endlessly recreate the science fiction of a previous generation.  But I increasingly think that it is mistaken to think of science fiction as ‘a genre’ or ‘an art form’ (singular).   Think of  Orwell’s 1984, Ballard’s  Terminal Beach, a Star Wars movie,  Dan Dare, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, District 9…   Are they really all the same genre?  Hardly.  But they are all science fiction as I would define it.

Rather than think of SF as a genre, perhaps we should think of it as a resource which can be used for many different purposes, as a pack of playing cards can be used for games from Bridge, to Poker, to Canasta to Snap and Old Maid.  SF’s continuing value as a means of telling stories and exploring ideas is illustrated by the frequency with which authors who don’t think of themselves as SF writers nevertheless make use of it (Orwell is a case in point, but see also Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, P.D. James, Doris Lessing etc etc.)

Stross is rather sniffy about this sort of thing.  He speaks of SF being ‘colonized by backpackers from the literary faculty, who appropriate the contents of the [SF] toy chest’.   But surely it is precisely the concern to cling onto our toys, to be pure,  to discourage miscegenation, which lead to the kind of death by staleness and repetition that he himself warns about?

The Peacock Cloak (Asimov’s June 2010)

My new story ‘The Peacock Cloak’ is just out in Asimov’s SF.   It’s a bit different to anything I’ve done before – it draws on diverse sources including the gnostic-like theology of the Yazidi religion –  and I will be interested to see how people respond to it.

I love the cover.  (I assume  it  illustrates the Stephen Baxter story?).