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…

The sequel to Dark Eden

Several people have asked me if Dark Eden is to have sequels.   I actually have ideas for two sequels.   The first of the two is set several generations on from the events in Dark Eden, in the new, larger, but more violent and more stratified world brought into being by the events in that book.

It’s currently appearing online in the magazine Aethernet, in 12 monthly installments, under the title Gela’s Ring.  It will also be published in book form by Corvus in 2014, under the title Mother of Eden.  I anticipate that the book version will be quite different in a number of ways from the serialised version.

As to the third book in the series, well, we’ll see.

Words and music

Doing a reading with a musical accompaniment: I’d recommend it to any writer.

This was at Pulp Fiction Bookshop in Edinburgh (a very lively little place with cafe attached), with Southern Tenant Folk Union (a bunch of really talented musicians who play lovely bluegrass-influenced music). I did a couple of readings from Dark Eden.  For the second reading, the band cycled round and round the same four bars in the background.  It was a bit of an experiment, but really seemed to create tension, allowing long pauses between paragraphs and lines.  It was something of a revelation to me, too, having to fit my words around a rhythmic base, and surely the nearest I’ll ever now get to being the frontman of a band.

It’s not all that often done, as far as I’m aware – story-telling to music – or at any rate it’s not a big phenomenon, but the potential is surely huge, when so many people walking around listening to their iPods.

My son Dominic is way ahead of me on this one, by the way, and unlike me, he can do the words and the music.  Here is his beautiful The Receipt and Escape.


Dark Eden and Green Belt Festival

I was very pleased to learn this week that Dark Eden has been selected as the ‘Big Read’ book for the Green Belt Festival this year.   It’s quite an honour.

This support for my book comes from an unexpected quarter.  This is a Christian festival.  Dark Eden (like The Holy Machine) obviously draws deeply on Judeo-Christian tradition (one reviewer described the main character John Redlantern, as Cain and Moses rolled into one), but it isn’t a Christian book.  It will be interesting to see what festival readers make of it.

Reflections in this blog (some more articulate than others) on my relationship with religion, can be found: here (‘Batter my heart’), here (‘The Christmas story’), here (‘From Bodhisattva to St Josaphat: the adventures of a story’), here (‘A Buddhist temple’)  and here (‘Science fiction and religion’).

Launching Dark Eden

This (approximately) is what I said about Dark Eden at the launch party last night at Heffer’s bookshop in Cambridge:

Thanks to everyone for showing up, and to Heffers and Corvus for organising this event.   And thanks to everyone who contributed to the book itself.  Special thanks to Mathilda Imlah my editor at Corvus for her input, which made this a much better book than it otherwise would have been.

Eden is a planet without a star, that’s why it’s dark.   (I believe such planets are thought to be possible by those who know about these things, and may even be more common than the kind of planet that circles round a star.)

Eden isn’t completely dark though. There is life there, powered by the planet’s own heat.   (I believe this is thought to be possible also).  The life gives out light, and everywhere, at higher altitudes, is warm enough for human life.

There is no day or night, there are no seasons. The only rhythms by which time can be measured are biological ones.

Five people stumbled on the planet in a damaged spaceship. (Interstellar travel, is something I’m not sure really is possible, but without it there wouldn’t be much of a story) . These five people spent some time on Eden, and then three of them decided to try and get go back to Earth in their broken ship. The other two decided to remain, a man and a woman – Tommy and Angela, or Gela as she’s known. They didn’t know each other before then, and Gela wasn’t sure she even liked Tommy that much, but they decided to stay and wait for help to come.

160 years later their descendants – the descendants of one not very successful marriage – are still waiting, in a single, inbred community that calls itself Family, stuck in one valley that is lit and heated by trees that pump sap down into hot rocks underground, and pump it up again.

 hmmmph hmmmph hmmmph, they go

And of course, in a forest of hundreds of thousands of these geothermal trees, those pulsing sounds all merge together, and becomes a constant hmmmmmmmmmm that is the background to everyone’s lives.

These people have never left the valley. It is surrounded by icy mountains, which, without trees, are also completely pitch dark.

The people live by hunting and gathering, using implements made of stone, wood and animal sinews. They still live in hope that one day they will be able to return to a planet full of light that none of them has ever seen. They long for that light and for the legendary wonders there, like boats that fly, and horses you can ride on, and lecky-trickity that runs along strings.

And for this reason they believe they must never leave the spot where people first landed.

The central character is a boy called John Redlantern, who decides all this is crazy, and is determined to get people moving, out of the valley and across the mountains. To achieve this he commits a terrible transgression, and from this first transgression, more follow, bringing violence and hatred into the world.

The story is told partly by John – and it is John who is telling it in the passage I’m going to read you – partly by his girlfriend Tina Spiketree (sort of his girlfriend. Monogamy is not part of the culture of Eden), partly by his loyal cousin Gerry, his clever, lame cousin Jeff and his kind aunt Sue.

Apart from being about these events on the planet Eden, I see the story as being about families and societies and about the past, and our relationship with the past, and with things that we’ve lost and have to leave behind.

In the short passage I’m about to read you, it is the middle of the gathering that Family calls Any Virsry. It’s an occasion when they sort out problems, make rules, and listen to lectures about how great it was on Earth, but it’s also an occasion when they re-enact their own story.

So. Imagine a forest clearing, under a starry sky. The trees have no leaves at all, and they are warm, or even scalding hot to the touch. They have luminous flowers, and small creatures vaguely reminiscent of earthly bats, swoop and dive among those shining flowers, hunting creatures vaguely reminiscent of earthly insects. (Though on Eden bats have arms as well as legs, and small almost human hands)

500 people are packed in round the edge of the clearing: old, young, adults, children, dressed in animal skins, many with badly deformed faces or twisted feet. They are all looking into the middle of the clearing, where there is a circle of stones – their most important relic of all – to mark the place where the landing vehicle came down from that spaceship 160 years ago. John Redlantern is among this crowd of people.

In the centre of the clearing five people have been acting out the story of how those first five people came to Eden. Two of them are playing Tommy and Angela, the ancestors of everyone present (People even swear by them now: ‘Tom’s dick,’ they say, ‘Gela’s tits’ or ‘Gela’s heart’). One of them is playing a man called Michael who is one of the three who decided to try and get back to Earth. The Three Companions as they’re called.

People swear by Michael sometimes too but when they swear by him, for reasons that you’ll soon see, they always say ‘Michael’s names.’


This part of the story is called Michael and His Names, and it’s the bit that kids love the best.

‘Where is this place anyway?’ Angela asks. ‘What do you think it’s called?’

‘I don’t know,’ says Michael. ‘Let me think. Perhaps we could call it…’

He pauses.

‘It’s Eden!’ yell out all the kids round Circle, because of course any fool knows that!

Michael frowns, like he thinks he’s heard something but he’s not sure. He holds his hand to his ear.

‘Perhaps,’ he says, ‘we could call it…’

‘Eden!’ the kids yell again even louder.

‘I don’t know,’ he says, ‘it’s on tip of my tongue, but I can’t quite think of the name.’

‘Ed-en!’ the kids bellow.

Michael smiles.

‘E-den,’ he says slowly, ‘I think we could call it Eden.’

The kids all cheer.

‘Look at this,’ says Angela, ‘what’s this?’

She’s pointing to a whitelantern tree.

‘It’s a tree!’ the kids yell out, laughing. How could anyone be so dumb as to not know what a tree was?

I guess it made everyone feel good to see Angela and all of them not knowing these things we knew so well, after we’d had to listen for so long to that big big list of wonderful things they had on Earth which we didn’t understand at all. It was kind of reassuring to know that they didn’t even know what a tree was, when we were feeling useless useless for not knowing about metal and telly vision and horses and the Single Force.

‘We’ll call it…’

Michael hesitated. The kids laughed. They loved all this. I suppose I did too. I loved it but I at the same time hated it for trapping us and making us feel so helpless and babyish and small.

‘We’ll call it…’

‘A tree!’ yell out the kids.

The grownups are smiling and laughing too, and a lot of them are joining in with the kids. Everyone was tired tired, what with the wakings being changed, and the long weary list of Earth Things, and the Laws and the Genda and all, but now everyone was brightening up again.

‘We’ll call it…. a… tree!’ goes Michael, who is really a skinny little guy of forty wombs or so called Luke Brooklyn who’s mainly known in Family for being clever with blackglass.

Everyone cheers.

‘And what’s this?’ asks Tommy, looking over from Big Sky-boat which he’s trying to fix and pointing at a little jewel-bat swooping overhead.

‘What’s what?’ goes Michael, looking where Tommy pointed. The bat has gone.

‘This!’ says Tommy, pointing to another bat.

‘What’s what?’ goes Michael again.

‘This here!’ says Tommy, showing him another bat again

‘Oh that,’ says Michael. ‘Well I don’t know about that. I’ve no idea. I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t know what to say.’

‘It’s a bat!’ yell the kids.

Michael frowns and screws up his face. He can almost hear them but not quite.

‘It’s a bat!’ they yell again.

He holds his hand to his ear.

‘It’s a bat!’ the kids bellow again.

He frowns like he still can’t hear, and he scratches his head.

Michael was called the Name-Giver because he gave us the words that we still use for all the animals and plants that live in Eden, and found out things about them like how they came up from Underworld when everything was ice, and how dry starflowers could feed our skin like Sun did on Earth. But in the Show he was also the name-hearer, because he didn’t actually choose the names. He only heard us, faintly faintly, shouting them back to him from the future. And then he took them, and gave them to the things in the world, and sent them out again to us the slow way, through the five six long generations between us and him.

‘It – is – a – BAT!’ the kids yell even louder.

He nods. He smiles.

‘I think we’ll call it a bat!’ he says, and everybody cheers.  [From Dark Eden: pages 128-131]

 * *

I hope you read the book, and I hope you enjoy it.

If you do enjoy it, please do recommend it to other people.

If you don’t, though, I advise you to keep it to yourself.  I’d hate you to show yourself up.

Dark Eden


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?