The high priest of swimming pools

• August 11th, 2015 • Posted in All posts, Other people's books

Whatever else there is to be said about J G Ballard, he is surely the high priest of the swimming pool. Bleached empty pools appear over and over in his work (dating back, I suppose to the empty pools left behind in the international enclave in Shanghai as wealthy expats fled the advancing Japanese). In his hands they are wonderfully and seductively apocalyptic. No one else writes as he did about the glamour of annihilation.

But he has an eye for the full kind too, as here from Cocaine Nights:

Sprinklers sprayed across the lawns, conjuring rainbows from the overlit air, local deities performing their dances to the sun. Now and then the sea wind threw a faint spray across the swimming pools, and their mirror surfaces clouded like troubled dreams.

Perfect!

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Strangeness

• July 11th, 2015 • Posted in All posts

I tend to be a bit resistant to the idea that just because something new has been invented, I need to have one, but I have finally succumbed and replaced my old phone with an iphone I bought from my daughter.  One of the main reasons I wanted it was to be able to take photos whenever I felt like it.  Specifically, I wanted to amuse myself by taking photos of the streets around my house in suburban Cambridge, when I wander them at night to walk the dogs.

It fascinates me how easily something familiar can be made strange, simply by putting a frame round it and isolating it from its surroundings.   This house is just down the road from me.  I pass it every day.  And yet in this picture it seems (to my eyes at least) a remote and mysterious place.

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Below is a takeaway that’s just round the corner, but when I showed the picture to my wife, shorn of its surroundings, she didn’t recognise it.  Isolated like this, it seems to me to take on a slightly mythic quality, pregnant with possibilities and  meanings.  What is happening in there?  Who is that man?  Whose bike is that?  Whose car?  What is the significance of that strange name?  Yet, I could walk there right now, and it would just be a very ordinary takeaway on a very ordinary street

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You could say this effect is a kind of trick.  By making something into a picture we confer a spurious significance on it.  But I’d rather look at it the other way round.  Everything is charged with meaning, with significance, with mystery.  We just don’t notice it most of the time because of the corrosive effect of familiarity.

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Launch for Mother of Eden, July 15th

• June 29th, 2015 • Posted in All posts, News & events

There’ll be a launch event at Heffer’s bookshop in Cambridge (my home town), for Mother of Eden, on July 15th, 6.30 – 8.00.   Hope you can come!   Free tickets available via this link.

And here’s a nice review of the book itself from Gareth D. Jones.

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I, clawfoot

• June 26th, 2015 • Posted in All posts, Interviews etc, News & events

Here is a guest post I did for Sarah Chorn, who edits a column on SF signal called Special Needs in Strange Worlds.   I am very grateful to Sarah for giving me an opportunity to discuss the people with disabilities who appear in Dark Eden and Mother of Eden (the batfaces, clawfeet and slowheads), as I don’t think anyone has specifically asked me about them before and they are absolutely central to the world of Eden.

In this post, I also reveal that I am in a way the original for the so-called clawfeet.  Which, now I think about it, may partly explain my decision to make the clawfooted Jeff Redlantern very wise and absolutely irresistible to women.

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Incidentally, in the post I mention a story (“Jazamine in the Green Wood”) which appeared in my short story collection, The Turing Test.  The collection also includes the short story called “Dark Eden” which provides the background to the novels, and twelve others. (Most people seem to like “Piccadilly Circus” the best, with “Karel’s Prayer” probably coming second.)   So I’ll take this opportunity to mention that this (prizewinning) collection is now available on kindle in the UK at the ludicrously cheap price of £1.99.  Less than a coffee in a cardboard cup.

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Mother of Eden ebook problem resolved

• June 20th, 2015 • Posted in All posts, News & events

I’m really sorry that a number of people in the UK who bought e-book versions of Mother of Eden over the last two weeks found that it was defective, with chunks of missing text.  (There’s been no problem in the US as far as I’m aware.)

This problem has now been resolved.  The faulty file has been replaced, and I’m assured that if you bought the e-book in the last few days it will be fine.

If you bought one before the problem was fixed, you will automatically be sent a copy of the corrected version, though I’m afraid this may take a few weeks.

If you still have queries please  email publicity at atlantic-books.co.uk.

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“Improving”

• June 10th, 2015 • Posted in All posts

Following on from my previous post and the distinction made by Ishiguro there between literature that is “improving” in the sense of providing “spiritual and intellectual nourishment” and literature that is “improving” in the sense of being a way of climbing up the “class ladder.”   This distinction interests me, and also has some slight tangential relevance for what I’m currently writing (Eden 3), so here is a bit more thinking aloud about it:

I’m aware first of all of an immediate (and somewhat priggish) reaction on my part which says that the first of those two meanings relates to the true function of literature (or other kinds of artistic activity), and the second meaning does not.  “Real art is about improving the soul, not about showing off,” this priggish part of me wants to say.

My second thought, though, is that this initial reaction is similar to that of a Christian who complains that we have lost the true meaning of Christmas.  The celebration of the birth of Christ is actually not the true meaning of Christmas, but is a meaning that has been grafted onto a winter solstice junket that existed long long before Christ was born.  And my best guess is that the idea of art as a form of spiritual nourishment (or the even more recent idea of art as subversion) is likewise a meaning that has been grafted onto a long pre-existing activity.   The status aspect almost certainly preceded any idea of art as some sort of personal exploration by the artist.

For surely it is obvious that artistic activity, even way back in history, was all about status, power and conspicuous consumption?  The paintings in the tombs of pharoahs, the colossal relief carvings of muscular Assyrian kings: these things not only depict the power of these rulers directly, but also demonstate it. Look, they say, I am so wealthy and powerful, that I am in a position to have thousands of skilled craftsmen devote their time entirely to me!

In the same way, the tapestries and paintings hanging on the walls of stately homes demonstrate both the wealth and the discernment of their owners, while the artists who made them would have been almost entirely dependant on those wealthy people’s patronage.  And this extends beyond the visual arts.  The praise poets employed by Anglo-Saxon and Brythonic kings, for instance, demonstrated the power, wealth and taste of their masters, not only by singing their praises, but by the wit, skill and beauty of their verses.

The conspicuous consumption aspect of the visual arts is really no less blatant now than it ever was.   Claims that contemporary art serves some kind of subversive purpose often seem quite ludicrous to me when that same art is snapped up by billionaires for huge prices that are then trumpeted in the media.  (Indeed, in some cases, artists seem to have been granted a kind of alchemical power to turn essentially dull and uninteresting objects into investment opportunities and status symbols.)

In respect of books, music, film, plays, which can be consumed relatively cheaply, the link is a little less obvious: simply owning or consuming them does not directly demonstrate our wealth (unless of course you choose to pay for a box at the theatre: you don’t get much more conspicuous than that!), but it certainly can (as per my previous post) demonstrate how refined, discerning, fashionable or “hip” we are.

I’m not even sure that we can know for certain ourselves whether the “improvement” we seek from a book or an exhibition of pictures is of the first or the second kind.  We humans are such status-seeking creatures.  Just like our closest primate relatives (and most other social animals), we are constantly aware of and concerned about our position in the social hierarchy.  It’s as fundamental as sex, and like sex is all tangled up with our other motives.   You go to some fashionable arthouse movie, say, to be elevated by the cutting edge ideas and the ground-breaking cinematography, but can you really be sure that you aren’t least partly motivated by the agreeable awareness that, unlike others, you possess the necessary degree of refinement to enjoy these things?

I guess, if we can speak about pure aesthetic pleasure (pleasure unsullied, so to speak, by the status-climbing instinct) then the times we can be most certain that we are in its presence, are when we are enjoying something that isn’t fashionable, and that won’t win us status points for being seen to consume it.

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What do we mean by “improving”?

• June 4th, 2015 • Posted in All posts

A fascinating dialogue here in the New Statesman between Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman.

In particular, as someone who chooses to write within SF conventions, but dislikes being confined to a ghetto as a result, I share their exasperation with the policing of frontiers between genres.  “Why are people so preoccupied?” as Ishiguro says of the genre anxieties raised by the fact that his latest novel includes things like ogres.  “What is genre in the first place? Who invented it? Why am I perceived to have crossed a kind of boundary?”

But I was particularly taken by Ishiguro’s observations here about the class aspect of our reading choices:

I don’t have a problem, necessarily, about reading for improvement. I often choose a book because I think I’m going to enjoy it, but I think also it’s going to improve me in some sense. But when you ask yourself, “Is this going to improve me?” what are you really asking? I think I probably do turn to books for some sort of spiritual and intellectual nourishment: I think I’m going to learn something about the world, about people. But if by “improving”, we mean it would help me go up the class ladder, then it’s not what reading and writing should be about. Books are serving the same function as certain brands of cars or jewellery, in just denoting social position.

It has often struck me reading choices (along with other kinds of cultural choices) are indeed in part a form of conspicuous consumption.  They are perceived as demonstrating, not our wealth, but our refinement, taste, discernment, which have long been an important aspect of status (perhaps in part because they hint at an expensive education and a life not dominated by drudgery?).  When I listen to Oxbridge-educated voices on radio arts shows, minutely examining the merits of some cultural artifact or other, it does indeed sometimes seem to me that what is really going on is a kind of status display. Look how well-read, how refined, how exquisitely discerning we are!

And I agree with Gaiman and Ishiguro that this kind of status anxiety is, in part, the basis of the stigmatisation of “genre”.  People who are concerned to be seen as refined are anxious about touching a book with a genre label, at least in part, because they are anxious about calling their refinement into question.   Some might feel the same anxiety about serving an unfashionable wine, or wearing the wrong kind of tie at a social event, or enjoying a piece of music which their peers regard as uncool.

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Ancient enmities, imagined worlds…

• May 29th, 2015 • Posted in All posts, Interviews etc

Here’s an interview with Jason Cooper, who is a broadcaster, journalist, poet and academic among several other things.   Thanks, Jason, for the interesting questions.

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Eight years old again

• May 26th, 2015 • Posted in All posts, Interviews etc

Interview here with My Bookish Ways.   Nice questions, including what book would I most like to experience again for the first time.

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Freedom is slavery

• May 25th, 2015 • Posted in All posts

Politics is a rough business everywhere but, from this side of the Atlantic, the tone of political discourse in the US can sometimes look particularly ugly.  One of the worst examples I’ve ever seen, was the suggestion by Senator Rand Paul that a right to free health care is equivalent to a belief in slavery.  The quote in question was the following:

 With regard to the idea of whether you have a right to health care, you have realize what that implies. It’s not an abstraction. I’m a physician. That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me. It means you believe in slavery. It means that you’re going to enslave not only me, but the janitor at my hospital, the person who cleans my office, the assistants who work in my office, the nurses.

Basically, once you imply a belief in a right to someone’s services — do you have a right to plumbing? Do you have a right to water? Do you have right to food? — you’re basically saying you believe in slavery.

I’m a physician in your community and you say you have a right to health care. You have a right to beat down my door with the police, escort me away and force me to take care of you? That’s ultimately what the right to free health care would be.

(If you think this must be some crude spoof, by the way, here is a clip of him saying it.)

By way of information to US readers, we have a free National Health Service here in the UK, meaning that everyone has a right to healthcare, and my mother and my maternal grandfather both worked for it as doctors.  They were not forced to be doctors, and they were not forced as doctors to work for the state. They were paid well enough to lead prosperous middle class lifestyle.  They were free to resign whenever they wanted.  They could go and work for private healthcare agencies, if they prefered, or for themselves.   There’s absolutely no sense at all in which their condition could be described as slavery, or indeed as different in any fundamental way to the condition of anyone else who works for an organisation of any kind.  When you think what slavery actually means (and the Senator represents the former slave state of Kentucky, so he should know), the very comparison is obscene.

You might say that US politics is not my business.  But actually it is because the US is a global superpower, and what happens in the US matters everywhere, and perhaps especially in the UK, where there is a common cultural heritage, and no language barrier to filter us from its blast. However I freely admit I know very little about the personalities involved, and almost nothing about Senator Paul.  So here are a couple of questions.

Is Senator Paul an extremely stupid man, so lacking in curiosity that he hasn’t bothered to look into the many free health services around the world, and so lacking in imagination that he can’t figure out for himself how such a service might work without breaking down doctors’ doors?

Or is he cynical and mendacious man, who in order to serve his own political ends, tries to besmirch something that, whatever its snags, is basically benign (a community agreeing to club together to provide healthcare for everyone) by equating it with something that is evil and foul?

Echoing in the back of my mind are the slogans of George Orwell’s Oceania: WAR IS PEACE.  FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.  IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.  Not an exact parallel of course, but what Orwell was warning about was the misuse of language to destroy our capacity to think.

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