I have just sold this new story to Asimov’s. It is about a man cut loose from the scrutiny not only of people around him but even of his own future self. Asimov’s editor, Sheila Williams, described the story as ‘horror’. Though I have never thought of myself as writing in the horror genre, I suppose it is. In her Locus review, Lois Tilton also described my recent story ‘The Desiccated Man’ as horror. No guts and gore in either of them, no screaming or cowering behind battered doors, but they do both deal with evil and where it comes from. It seems to be something I am thinking about more.
It can be disappointing rereading a book that impressed you years ago. When I attempted to reread Kerouac’s On the Road, which at 19 I thought was wonderful, I couldn’t get more than a few pages into it. It was sentimental, baggy, misogynistic, and I couldn’t get past that to see the energy that had first impressed me.
But, though I must have read The Space Merchants by Pohl & Kornbluth at at even earlier age, I was just as impressed with it on recently rereading it as I was first time round the better part of four decades ago.
Like all SF of its era, it depicts a ‘future’ that falls very wide of the mark technologically (daily passenger shuttles to the moon, but no computers or mobile phones), but considering it was written in 1952, it is impressively relevant. The global struggle between Capitalism and Communism that was occurring at that the time the book was written, has long since passed. The adversary of rampant global capitalism is not communism but conservationism. Consies not commies, are the pariahs. Advertising agencies, and their huge networks of interlocking sales campaigns, rule.
I’d forgotten (or more likely did not notice aged 16) how funny the book is. Told from the viewpoint of Mitchell Courtenay who as a star class copysmith with the Fowler Schocken advertising agency (vastly superior in his eyes to the sleazy Taunton agency), is a member of the elite who (for much of the book) accepts the rules of his own society without question, a society in which sales are everything and even to mention a concern about the environment is to mark oneself out as a consie sympathiser.
“She’d been bought up in a deeply moral, sales-fearing home…”
“…the basic drive of the human race is sex. And what is, essentially, more important in life than to mould and channel the deepest torrential flow of human emotion into its proper directions? (I am not apologizing for those renegades who talk fancifully about some imagined ‘Death-Wish’ to hook their sales appeals to. I leave that sort of thing to the Tauntons of our profession: it’s dirty, it’s immoral, I want nothing to do with it. Besides, it leads to fewer consumers in the long run, if only they’d think the thing through.)”
“The Crunchies kicked off withdrawal symptoms that could be quelled only by another two squirts of Popsie from the fountain. And Popsie kicked off withdrawal symptoms that could only be quelled by smoking Starr cigarettes, which made you hungry for Crunchies… ”
You have to read the book and read these things in context to get the full effect. It’s brilliant satire. Still sharp after almost half a century.
My imaginary planet Eden has no sun. It is not even in a galaxy, and the entire Milky Way galaxy can be seen from it as an immense starry swirl in the sky. However like the earth it has a hot core, and this heat has provided the energy for life.
When I originally dreamed up this planet (for the short story ‘The Circle of Stones’) I had no idea whether such a thing actually existed, but I have since discovered that, yes, it is a serious possibility (see: ‘Sunless but livable planets may be detectable‘). And after all, even on Earth, there are life forms that do not derive their energy from the sun.
Eden (I envisage) originally had a rocky surface entirely covered by ice. Life evolved in pools of meltwater under the ice. (Sub-glacial lakes, such as Lake Vostok in Antartica, are a phenomenon on Earth: the ice above provides insulation for the geothermal heat). One large life form that emerged was able to pump sap down into hot rocks underground in order to heat it up, and then pump it out through a network of roots or branches extending upwards and outwards through the ice, melting it for oxygen and nutrients, and so creating spaces for other life-forms to exploit.
Eventually considerable areas of the surface of Eden were completely cleared of ice and these large life-forms emerged into the newly formed atmosphere, and began to exploit the potential of this new open environment. Animal-like life forms emerged into the open with them, along with parasitic plant-like forms.
By the time humans arrived on Eden, huge areas of the surface were covered with forests of ‘trees’, which hummed constantly with the sound of sap being pumped up and down from hot rocks far below the surface. Like deep sea life-forms on earth, animals and plant-like forms made use of bioluminescence. The trees have luminous flowers known to the human settlers as ‘lanterns’, which attract the flying creatures they know as ‘bats’, ‘birds’ and ‘flutterbyes’. Streams and pools are also full of luminous life, as is the ocean which its human discoverers call Worldpool, for they have lost the word for ‘ocean’ through lack of use.
As a child I loved the Moomintroll books by Tove Jansson. She created (both in words and in pictures) an utterly absorbing and intricate world that was comforting, yet mysterious and not without sadness. They were like nothing else and I found them completely enchanting.
It’s nice to have one’s childhood judgements confirmed. I recently read one of her adult novels – published in English as The True Deceiver – and I found it just as absorbing and fascinating as I had found her children’s books, and just as original (I have never read anything like it).
The main protagonist, Katri, is a strange solitary woman with yellow eyes who despises friendliness and the ordinary pleasantries of life as being fake and dishonest. She doesn’t even give a name to her dog. The book deals with Katri’s relationship with an elderly and wealthy writer of children’s books who likes to be seen as likeable and nice. Slowly they change one another.
It is much darker than the children’s books, and yet has a lot in common with them too: its creation of an absorbing world, evoked in a wonderfully concrete and quite sensual way, its evocation of a Nordic spring, emerging from under ice and snow, its interest in solitude and integrity… (The Moomin books include many proud and solitary characters too).
Quite brilliant! The Summer Book is great too.
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.)
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.
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?
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?).