Science fiction short stories and novels.
Here’s a short Q & A that the US publishers (Broadway) did with me for Mother of Eden:
1. The protagonist of Mother of Eden is a headstrong, determined young woman named Starlight Brooking, who brings about huge changes in society around her throughout the course of the novel, ending up as a truly revolutionary figure. Did you make a conscious decision to have a female protagonist? What is the role of female characters in science fiction in general, and has that changed over the years?
I guess as a writer, one tends to default to viewpoint characters who are a bit like yourself. Well, I know that’s true of me anyway, and so I make a conscious effort to try and develop main characters who are different. John Redlantern, in Dark Eden, while male, was unlike me in that he is very much a doer: someone who must be constantly on the go in order to feel alive. (This really isn’t me at all! I’m very good at doing nothing!)
Given that the protagonists of all my novels, and the majority of my short stories, had been men, I decided that it was about time I wrote a novel with a female main protagonist. In fact Starlight is female and a doer. (She’s also less than half my age, but this is common for my characters. I don’t seem to have done with that time of life!)
I like Starlight as a character. Others will have to judge of course, but, apart from that first little conscious effort of choosing a female protagonist, I didn’t find it hard to write from her perspective. Then again, I have three sisters (no brothers), two daughters, a mother, a wife, women friends, and I have worked most of life in a profession which is 85% women. If I’ve being paying attention at all, I really ought to be able to describe things from a women’s perspective!
As the book developed, it became increasingly about women too. As in Dark Eden, the story is told by a number of different people and, at one point I thought of having only women as viewpoint characters. In the end, although most of the viewpoint characters are women (Starlight, Glitterfish, Julie, Quietstream, Lucy…), I did include two men: the gentle Greenstone, and the brutal Snowleopard.
I am sure that most of the science fiction I read growing up in the seventies was (a) written by men, and (b) had men as main characters, with women mainly present as objects of love and desire. I think SF has moved on from that, thank goodness. However it does strike me that we are still better in SF at writing about tough male and female protagonists acting in stereotypically “masculine” ways, than we are at writing about people (men or women), who are gentle and nurturing in stereotypically “feminine” ways. I think that’s something to think about. After all, we need nurses and teachers at least as much as we need soldiers and atomic scientists, and I would say a good deal more so.*
2. Mother of Eden has so much to say, as Dark Eden did, about how civilizations develop and the sacrifices we make in the process. Did you start with certain issues that you wanted to address, or did those come naturally as you wrote the novel?
Well, both. I think the content of this book flowed naturally from Dark Eden, and some basic themes were certainly there in my mind from the beginning. But new themes and ideas emerged as I went along.
In Dark Eden, I showed a society that was becoming increasingly dominated by men, and increasingly controlled by violence. I knew from the beginning I wanted to think about how that developed. In Mother of Eden, the followers of David and the followers of John have created two hierarchical, militarized and male-dominated societies (a description which, of course, would still fit most of the societies on Earth today). However in both societies, there persists a folk memory of the time when the whole human community of Eden was a single family in which the central figure was a woman. (I think this is also true for most of us on Earth today: most of us grew up in an environment in which a woman was the dominant figure, our primary source of nourishment and comfort and safety, insofar as we had these things at all). Even in these male-dominated societies, it seemed to me, women still had immense power, and men, afraid of this power, had tried to channel and control it in various ways to make it serve their purposes. Gela’s ring, which Starlight puts on her finger, became a focal point for a lot of my thinking about this.
Something that emerged as a theme as I went along was power more generally. Not just men’s power and women’s power, but power itself: what it is, where it comes from, what you have to do to get it.
Another theme, that was of course present in Dark Eden also, is our relationship with the past. Now of course, the story of Dark Eden is itself the past, and we have two different societies whose enmity is based on their different takes on the meaning of those events, much as (for example) the enmity between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims in the world today is a continuation of a quarrel that goes back to the eighth century.
As to the sacrifices we make in order to progress, yes this remains a big theme in this book. I am struck by the idea that every human society is a kind of compromise. To get one thing, we have to give up another. There is always a price for everything, it seems to me. This means that if you want easy answers, or comforting messages about how one day everything will all be wonderful, then I’m not the person to come to! I guess if I had an easy answer, I wouldn’t be writing novels!
3. Mother of Eden takes place 200 years after the events of Dark Eden. How did you decide which changes would have taken place in that time? How has the language changed as the inhabitants of Eden have lived there over the decades?
The decisions you make when writing a book of this kind are always a compromise between realism and what works for the story. I did not make major additional changes to the language, over and above those made in Dark Eden, because I didn’t want to make things too difficult for the reader, but I tried to give some sense of the fact that geographical dispersal has meant that people in Eden no longer speak a single dialect but several different ones which would, in the fullness of time, become separate and mutually incomprehensible languages. I also tried to show how new words would have to be reinvented when old words had been lost. In Dark Eden, having lost the words “sea” and “ocean”, but having retained the word “pool”, John and his followers give the name Worldpool to the large body of water they found on the far side of Snowy Dark. In Mother of Eden, the institution of marriage having been forgotten, new words have had to be invented as something like marriage has re-emerged in both of the main societies. Likewise, since the word “servant” ceased to exist in the relatively egalitarian early days, new words have had to be found to describe people who perform that kind of function in the new near-feudal hierarchies that have emerged.
In relation to society more generally, I just tried to think of the way the dynamic at the end of Dark Eden would lead: an expanding population, enormous new territories, competing leaders and ideas…
4. On a related note, can you describe your process of world-building? How did you go about creating the world of Eden—and even beyond that, imbuing it with a sense of history and tradition? I was struck by how the characters act when they go to Veeklehouse, the same way we might act about seeing a monument today. What’s the process of taking a basic human reaction like that and translating it to a totally foreign environment?
Well of course, that’s an old theme in SF: estrangement, things from the present seen in a new light in the completely different context of the future… And it’s a universal human experience too, isn’t it? Human bodies and minds come and go, but our artifacts may continue for hundreds or thousands of years, as a kind of ghostly reminder that things were not always like this, and won’t always be like this in the future. I live in Cambridge, for instance, in the part of England known as East Anglia and every week or so I walk my dogs along the top of a dyke built a millennium and a half ago to protect the Kingdom of the East Angles against invaders from the West. You can’t know the names of the people who built it, or what was going through their minds as they worked. That’s all gone for good. Yet the dyke remains stubbornly there.
My world-building takes as it starting point my thoughts about the world I actually find myself in and the dynamic that led it to be that way. One thing I try to avoid is going for continual novelty. I don’t want to overload my world with wonders. Of course, I take all kinds of liberties, and yet I want my worlds to feel like worlds and not like theme parks.
5. You’ve written before on the distinctions between literary fiction and science fiction, or “genre fiction” as a whole—including a piece last year for The Atlantic. Why do you think it’s so important to debunk these stereotypes?
Well, my motive is basically selfish. I don’t want people thinking that my stuff is ‘just science fiction’ and therefore not worth taking seriously. I can’t judge the merits of my own work, but I do know it deals with the same range of issues and concerns as any other branch of fiction, and I’d like that to be recognized.
As I’ve said many times before, all fiction involves making stuff up –making up characters, making up situations– in order to be able to explore aspects of life that might otherwise be impossible to reach. (After all, imagination is needed just to put yourself into the head of a person other than yourself.) Science fiction’s one defining feature is that, as well as inventing characters and situations, it also invents worlds that are in some way different from the one we actually know. It’s just another strategy that can used to generate stories, one among many, and I refuse to believe that the mere presence or otherwise of this strategy is reliable indicator of the quality or seriousness of a book. SF can be brilliant, good, bad and terrible, but then so can love stories, or war stories, or stories set in the past…
Nick Brooks drew my attention to this article about the three way relationship between science, art and imagination when it comes to our response to climate change. My thought, as someone who plans to write a novel about climate change (I have written a few short stories about it, including Rat Island, which you can read here) is that the difficult three-way link to pull off is between (a) depicting just how bad the future could be if climate change takes hold (b) nevertheless encouraging hope rather than resignation (a lot of people are simply resigned to climate change, much as they are resigned to their own deaths) (c) managing to do both these while actually being an engaging story.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve actually heard quite a few things that have made me feel encouraged about the possibilities for the future. The Swansea tidal barrage has moved a step nearer being a reality (harnessing a moon-powered energy source that that has the potential to generate a good deal of the world’s electricity). A new kind of aluminium battery, durable and capable of being charged very quickly, has been developed (electricity needs to be more storable and more portable if we are going to move away from fossil fuels for power generation and transport). A new way has been developed of producing hydrogen in a carbon-neutral way from plant waste (hydrogen being another potential clean and portable power source).
It’s very easy to pick holes in these kinds of developments as solutions to our problems. They can be dismissed as tokenistic or impractical gestures in the face of the scale of the task to be accomplished, and of course many of them will prove to be blind alleys, like steam cars or digital music cassettes. But blind alleys are inevitable in any dynamic evolutionary process. It seems to me that what we have in front of us are the early prototypes of technologies that, when developed and linked up together, could take us into a post-carbon economy. Are the technical challenges really so much greater than those involved in developing the modern car from its primitive forebears, or the modern airliner from the Wright brothers’ ramshackle flying machine?
I’ve no idea how to make these hopeful developments into interesting fiction, or how to combine them with dire warnings about what will happen if we don’t puruse them, so I’ll just lay them out right here.
I guess technology and fiction just don’t necessarily mix. There’s plenty of fiction about space travel, because it can be used to create extreme and exciting scenarios, but how much interesting fiction has been written about communication satellites, the one application of space technology which most of us actually use?
A week or two ago, I heard a radio interview from the streets of a town in Wales, taking soundings of local views about the current UK elections. All politicians were as bad as each other, was the opinion of one man, not very original in itself, but he then rather startlingly went on to propose (quite seriously as far as I could tell) that we get rid of the lot of them and replace them with a computer.
He obviously didn’t read enough SF. If we had a computer to run the country (and there’s an SF short story right there, though I’m sure it’s been done already!), someone would have to decide the parameters and priorities it would apply. That someone, or perhaps more likely group of someones, would in turn have to be chosen in some way. There would have to be some means of doing this, some rules about how disagreements would be resolved and different opinions reflected, some means of representing the interests of the various stakeholders and then… Oh, hang on, we’ve reinvented politics.
Perhaps, though, this interviewee had in mind a very sophisticated computer, more sophisticated than any that now exist, which could be trusted to work out its own priorities based on pure reason, coming up with final answers to ancient questions like the correct balance to be struck between individual freedom and the needs of the community. A bit like the one in the song Saviour Machine by David Bowie whose ‘logic stopped war, gave them food…’ (Though, in the very next line, the saviour machine ‘cried in its boredom/ “Please don’t believe in me, please disagree with me/ Life is too easy, a plague seems quite feasible now/ or maybe a war, or I may kill you all…”‘ )
I bring this up because it’s relevant to my previous post in which I discussed among other things, the origins of my Holy Machine and the way that ideas recur in different stories, partly through conscious or unconscious imitation, but also partly through a form of parallel evolution: ideas may recur simply because they come out of our common human experience.
So what makes us think of a saviour machine?
The origins of my own holy machine go back a long way to a fragment of an idea for a story that I must have had in the early eighties. I had a mental picture of a robot, a beautiful silver humanoid machine, riding on the back of a large white horse through a forest in spring, with the sunlight dappling its skin, as it made its way through a bucolic and utopian future England. It’s quite possible, now I think about it, that the image came from some poster or album cover, though as far as I know I made it up.
Anyway, I never completed the story, but the image of the beautiful sun-dappled robot appeared as a dream sequence (minus the horse), in my short story ‘La Macchina’ and I then recycled it in the novel, the night after George Simling first hears about the mysterious holy machine that’s preaching to crowds of converts along the Dalmatian coast. (When he finally meets the machine itself, it’s much less beautiful than it looked in his dream.)
My original idea was of a robot saint, built to be intelligent but free from the destructive impulses we carry because our evolutionary history. And I suppose that was pretty much what that Welsh man was thinking about when he proposed replacing politicians with a saviour machine. I guess that’s a pretty ancient human longing, the desire for some wise and powerful external agency that will step in and free us from the brutal mess we keep making because of our biological limitations.
Sometimes it feels like we’re children, completely out of our depth, longing for a grownup to take charge. (Even Le Guin’s anarchist utopia in The Dispossessed required an impartial computer to make it all work.) In the past that powerful external agency would have been God. Now, it seems, in place of a deus ex machina, we have begun to dream of a machina ex machina.
For what it’s worth, my own holy machine ended up telling people that their biology was indispensible. Life is meaningless without the needs and longings and fears that biology has endowed us with. Not so different from what Bowie’s machine concluded.
I was fairly irritated by this comment, alleging that I had “plagiarised” Dark Eden from an out-0f-print hundred-year-old Polish science fiction novel, never published in English, and which I’ve never heard of. If we’re going to bandy about unpleasant words like plagiarism, the word slander comes to mind!
A while back, someone sent me a slightly hostile tweet alleging that I’d lifted one of the main ideas in The Holy Machine, a female robot messiah, from the Fritz Lang film Metropolis. Now in this case I have seen the film, back in the 1980s when it came out with a new rock soundtrack. The only scenes I can now remember were the huge factory, and the city with its vast multi-level streams of traffic, but it’s entirely possible all the same that the idea of a robot messiah lodged somewhere in my brain and was one of the sources of Holy Machine.
But why the hostility? It seems to be based on a somewhat off-beam notion of how writers operate and what constitutes originality. We do not operate in a vacuum. As we cast about for ideas we draw on what is already in our brains. What alternative do we have? And what is in our brains includes countless images and ideas we have read about, or seen in movies, or been told about by friends. There is a scene in Dark Eden, for instance, where John Redlantern puts his hand on a long-lost ring. Would I have come up with this, if I hadn’t read The Hobbit? I very much doubt it.
But its more complicated than just Writer A has an idea, Writer B steals/borrows/uses it. A conscious influence on Holy Machine, as I’ve acknowledged before, was the movie the Stepford Wives (based on the novel by Ira Levin) which I saw in the seventies, in which a bunch of men preferred subservient robot simulacra to real women. That undoubtedly influenced the beginning of the Holy Machine, where the isolated and socially phobic George Simling chooses a robot sex toy, rather than take the (to him terrifying) risk of actually relating to another human being. But the Stepford wives is itself part of a tradition of stories going back to the Greek legend of Pygmalion (just as Tolkein’s accursed ring is an idea that goes back to the Norse story of Andvari’s ring), and this story surely persists because it, in its essentials, it really happens, over and over again, in the real world: men trying to shape women into their image of women should be. In her book about her abduction and long captivity, for instance, Natascha Kampusch refers to the Pygmalion legend as a way of explaining what her captor was trying to do to her, but hers was just an extreme example of something that occurs all the time.
Sometimes ideas recur, in other words, not because one writer borrows from another, but because both writers are attempting to represent the same aspect of reality, much as certain shapes and structures recur independently in nature as a result of parallel evolution. Often it is impossible to know whether this is what has happened, or whether there has been a more direct influence. I genuinely don’t know, for instance, whether or not Metropolis had any direct influence on The Holy Machine.
* * *
When writing about Dark Eden, I’ve acknowledged several influences that I’m conscious of: in particular Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Hoban’s Riddley Walker, and Aldiss’ Helliconia series, as well as a couple of things from Tolkein, and the green-on-black screen of an old Amstrad computer. When it comes to Mother of Eden, I’m less sure, but here are a few.
There is a scene during Starlight’s second crossing of Worldpool, which I am fairly sure was inspired by a moment in Jane Campion’s beautiful film, The Piano.
Certainly 3,096 Days by Natascha Kampusch (already mentioned) was an influence. Starlight is never a captive in quite the literal sense that Kampusch was, but she finds herself a captive nevertheless. I was really extraordinarily moved by Kampusch’s indomitable spirit, and I think this influenced my thinking about Starlight’s character, her determination to resist.
I’ve been very into Shakespeare’s history plays over the last couple of years, and have also read several books about Tudor and medieval history (these include Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books, though in their case, I read them after completing the book, encouraged by the recent TV series). I know my exposure to these various sources influenced my thinking about power, dealing as they did with a period when to fall from power, or to challenge power unsuccessfully, was typically to invite your own death. (This is still the case, of course, in many countries today. North Korea and our great ally, Saudi Arabia, spring to mind.)
Tolkein was an influence too, and this time a conscious one, but in a funny inverted kind of way. Dark Eden had brought a powerful ring – Gela’s ring – into the picture, and in Mother of Eden that ring is much more prominent (Gela’s Ring was my original title for the book). But I’m not writing fantasy. There are two hostile camps in Mother of Eden, but neither is wholly good or wholly evil, and my ring has no inherent power, hard though this is to hold onto when you are actually in its presence:
But what was it? [Starlight asks herself at one point] What was I looking at? Didn’t you have to know what a thing was before you could really see it?…. I knew lots of stories about it like everyone did – it had been made on Earth, it had been found by John Redlantern, it had been snatched by Firehand from out of that pot of boiling water – but they were just stories, stories that had been wrapped round it, not the ring itself. So now I tried and tried, until my head ached, to push them from my mind and look at the ring itself.
It was just a thing. I could see that. Just a small small thing. When it was first made on Earth, no one could have known where it would go or what it would come to mean. But it was impossible to hold onto that, impossible to hold away the stories that had made this little object seem so big. In fact, so big had it become that it kept pulling more stories around itself, and growing bigger still…
Occasionally I wonder about the point of fiction. Why make stuff up when there is reality itself out there to write about? I bought Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, for instance, but once I’d read Natascha Kampusch’s amazing 3,096 Days - few books have made a bigger impression on me: I wrote not one but three posts about it here – I was just no longer interested in reading a piece of fiction about being confined to a single room, however interestingly written or well-reviewed it was.
Do No Harm is a series of scenes from the professional life of a consultant neurosurgeon, a brain surgeon, and, like many other people, I found it utterly compelling reading in a way that I’ve not found any book for a long time. Why sit behind the eyes of constructed phantoms, I find myself thinking, when you can sit behind the eyes of a real flesh and blood human being? (I hope this mood will pass! It’s a bit like being a vicar who suddenly doubts the existence of God.)
As a general rule, I am not very interested in medical matters. Having been brought up by a doctor, I feel I’ve had enough of the whole medical worldview to last me a lifetime. Brain surgery, though, is a particularly pure and existential activity, not only because it involves working with the seat of consciousness itself, but because the decisions and actions of the surgeon, second by second, can have huge life-long consequences both negative and positive. It was this that fascinated me: the business of working in a field where decisions are necessarily probabilistic, and practitioners have to cope with that fact.
In one chapter for instance, Marsh describes the case of a woman who discovers she has an aneurysm (a bulge coming out of a blood vessel, which can burst at any time). She is perfectly fit and well, and the options facing her are (a) doing nothing, and living with the relatively small possibility that the aneurysm may at some point suddenly burst causing a stroke which may lead to death, paralysis, inability to speak, or a vegetative state, or (b) having the aneurysm closed off with a tiny clamp which, if successful, will remove that long-term threat, but carries a small risk of causing a catastrophic haemorrhage which will have any one of the above effects not in the future but immediately. The woman elects to take the risks of surgery, and it pays off. She doesn’t know how close it came to going wrong, when the clamp malfunctioned and refused to detach itself from the instrument used to put it in place. In a lifetime of neurosurgery, Marsh has of course had to deal with many situations where the dice came down the other way: he’s had to go and see patients who’d been functioning perfectly normally who his own interventions have (in his own blunt but completely accurate word) wrecked. He’s had patients thanking him for transforming their lives, but also patients angrily accusing him of negligence and incompetence when things didn’t work out so well. The title, taken from the Hippocratic Oath, is ironic. It is impossible to do no harm.
Marsh is disarmingly frank about the psychology of all this, the manoeuvres he uses to distance himself, the dread he feels at having to face patients and relatives when things have gone badly, the cockiness when things go well. He admits on one occasion to reducing a man to a vegetative state when he went too far on a tumour removal operation (it had been going on for 18 hours!) and that part of his motivation had been to impress a senior. He admits to sometimes carrying out operations that his head says will do no good at all, simply because he can’t face closing off the last avenue of hope for desperate people. Its a very human voice throughout, and often funny, specially about the idiocies of managerialism.
I don’t know whether I possess the intellectual ability necessary for brain surgery, but I know for certain I don’t have the manual dexterity (do they actually test for this, I’ve often wondered: the book doesn’t say!) I also don’t have the steadiness of nerve required to keep on going, without panicking, whether things are going well or not, or the resilience required to live with the memories of all those ‘wrecked’ people, and all those angry grief-stricken loved ones. However, as a child and family social worker and social work manager, I did work for 18 years in a field which was similarly involved in making huge decisions in conditions of uncertainty. No one died, as far as I know, as a result of decisions I played a part in, but there are certainly a lot of people who might have grown up in completely different families if it wasn’t for me. I find that quite haunting enough.
Marsh says somewhere in the book that the hardest part of being a brain surgeon is the fact, per se, of dealing with suffering and death, but the decision-making, the knowledge that however hard you try, there may be bad outcomes for which you will be responsible. I’m put in mind of a quote from Theodore Roosevelt which one of my daughters used to have pinned up on her wall:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Rather purple prose perhaps, but I think what fascinates about Marsh’s book is the perspective of someone who is, in Roosevelt’s words, “actually in the arena” and therefore necessarily “comes short again and again”.
This is me at Dortcon, with the other guests of honour, artist Lothar Bauer on the left of the picture (a man of few words, who says his pictures speak for him: we are flanked by two of them here) and fellow SF writer Karsten Kruschel on the right.
As with Sferakon last year in Zagreb, I was a little daunted in prospect by the idea of attending a convention whose primary language would not be English, but (also as with Sferakon) I was made extremely welcome, people put themselves to a lot of trouble to make sure I was included, and I had a great weekend. Special thanks to Arno and Gabi (my main hosts), Michael who first suggested inviting me, and Gregor who acted as my interpreter when one was needed (making me feel like some kind of international statesman, as he murmured into my ear.)
I know a huge amount of work and worry, over a long period of time, goes into planning these events, which most attendees (including me) don’t really see. What I see, and most attendees see, is a little peaceful island, where gentle and imaginative people can gather for a couple of days of conversation and friendship and playfulness.
This was my first real visit to Germany. Fascinating listening to German spoken all around me. Perhaps because, from an early age, my sisters and I were cared for by German au pairs, I’ve always liked the sound of the language. I find it musical, where many English people find it harsh, and could quite happily just sit and listen to its cadences, even if I didn’t have someone to interpret. The tantalising thing about it is that, though I can’t understand it, it’s so obviously a close cousin of English that I can’t quite let go of the idea that, if only I tried hard enough, I could.
It’s interesting how every country has its stories, its past events, it’s preoccupations, which it must keep going over and over, just as individuals have events in their own lives that they must visit and revisit over and over: the old DDR and what had happened to it when Germany was unified, for instance, was clearly one such topic, even more than twenty years on.
My fellow writer and guest of honour Karsten grew up in the DDR. He told me all SF in the DDR had to depict a socialist future (so as not to violate the Marxist creed of the inevitable triumph of socialism). When he studied for a PhD thesis on dystopian literature, he had to have special permission to look at George Orwell’s 1984, which was held in the university library but was forbidden to the general public. He had to go to a special room to read it.
Now to me, that sounds like a scene from an SF novel in itself.
I consume music in a spasmodic kind of way. I might go for months without deliberately listening to any music at all, and then will latch onto some song or fragment that fits my mood and play it to death. Right now it’s this, “The Wichita Lineman”, not as most famously recorded by Glen Campbell but by the man who wrote the song, Jimmy Webb.
I’ve had to do some driving these last couple of days and have been listening to it over and over in my car on the album “Ten Easy Pieces”. It’s a little fragment of a song – I gather that Webb hadn’t even finished writing it when Campbell first recorded it – and in one way it’s almost about nothing at all, just a tiny snatch of the random thoughts of the lineman as he wanders the roads by himself and climbs up the phone lines: about his job (“if it snows that stretch down south will never take the strain”), and how he could do with a vacation, and how he rather desperately loves someone.
What’s so clever is how the music fits so perfectly with the words. At the beginning and end, and in between the verses, it comes back to this morse code-like motif, like the signals going back and forth along the lines. It’s as if, up there on his pole, silhoutted against the sky, he stands apart from our busy human attempts to communicate, to keep in touch, to stave off aloneness.
There’s immense loneliness in the song, it seems to me, but it’s achingly beautiful too. I see in Wikipedia that someone or other described it as “the first existential pop song”. I’m not sure about that. It’s predated, for instance, by Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the dock of the bay” (another of my favourites, which surely could also claim that title), but it’s a truly great song.
I’m delighted to say that Dark Eden will come out in French on April 2nd. The book will retain the English title. This is the rather striking French cover design, which I see as the dark planet Eden against the brightness of Starry Swirl.