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Originally published at Al Robertson. You can comment here or there.

On the face of it, science fiction’s all about technological change. But actually, when you sit down to write it, I think it sets a more interesting challenge: how to tell a story that can leave key parts of its future behind. SF’s most enduring works don’t live on because they accurately predict tomorrow. In fact, technologically speaking they’re very often wrong about it. They stay readable because they think about what change does to people and how we cope with it.

That’s most obvious in the near future stuff, whose technological speculations can be very easily tested – you just need to wait for a few years and see what happens. As someone who grew up in the 80s, I’m going to use a classic piece of SF from back then to illustrate that – ‘Blade Runner’. It’s set a couple of years ahead of us now, in 2019, but shows us a tomorrow with no internet or smartphones, but plenty of flying cars and artificial humans and animals.

And yet it remains one of science fiction’s profound masterworks. What keeps ‘Blade Runner’ so engaging is not its powers of prediction, but rather what the change it shows us does to the people in it. When it was made, it looked forward not factually but emotionally. There’s a nostalgia for an unreachable and so-much-less-broken past, a deep, anguished sense of personal powerlessness and a massive fear that even the most intimate parts of yourself – your entire life’s memories, for example – could suddenly turn out to be an externally sourced corporate construct. It nails a very specific kind of rootlessness and paranoia that’s very easy to feel right now.

The enduring accuracy of that emotional vision makes the failure of Ridley Scott’s more practical predictions pretty much irrelevant. As one of the 80s’ other great cyberpunks, William Gibson, noted: ‘I’ve never really been very interested in computers themselves. I don’t watch them; I watch how people behave around them.’ The ‘Blade Runner’ solution to a profoundly negative set of changes – be as human as possible, even if you’re not – is one that hasn’t yet dated. As new tech keeps on forcing us to rethink what it means to be human I think it’ll continue to resonate for a long time yet.

But what about the further future stuff? Is this an argument that works in the context of the tomorrows far beyond tomorrow, where technologies that we’ll never live to see leap through science fiction stories? How can we test the science in such impossible imaginings?

I went to another piece of 80s science fiction – C.J. Cherryh’s 1988 novel ‘Cyteen’ – when I started thinking about that. It’s set a few hundred years in the future, and describes a society built on technological achievements that it’s safe to say none of us will ever witness. But it does so much more than just talk about them. It’s a rich and detailed study of how culture, family and even strong-minded individuals write personality into children as they grow and become adults. The book’s fascinated by growth, maturity and the self, and the relationships between them. The change it talks about is the change we all go through as our adult selves grow into being.

But on the other hand, it explores all that through the medium of tapes, using a kind of tape-to-mind content transference process as a way of thinking about how the people around you can shape you as you grow. Those tapes were a wonderful sustained metaphor, one you couldn’t really achieve in any more realist fiction, but as science they kept on throwing me out of the book. I associated them with clunky 70s supercomputers and screeching 80s cassette drives. I didn’t even understand why Cherryh was presenting them as such a futuristic, powerful tool until I started reading cyberneticists like 60s maven Norbert Wiener. That showed me both what she was getting at with them and how the technological context that had once supported this thoughtful, powerful novel had so quickly dropped away from it.

And that, for me, was a moment that confirmed that science and technology aren’t actually central to science fiction. In fact, the specific details of how all the shiny stuff works are in the long run pretty irrelevant. After all, scientific theories exist to either be improved or disproved. Technology is constantly becoming outdated. All of it’s provisional, all of it will go. Any piece of SF that ties itself too firmly to a particular snapshot of scientific thinking or technological progress will itself become obsolete in very short order.

So ironically, perhaps the only way that any piece of science fiction can be sure that it will remain resonant as the years pass is to make sure that any technical speculation can drop away once it’s no longer relevant. The science will fall back to Earth like an exhausted booster section, tumbling away from the rocket that will one day reach the stars. And then we’ll be left with stories about how people change when change arrives – and that, for me, is what science fiction is.

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Originally published at allumination. You can comment here or there.

I’ve been watching this again and again – there’s something deeply hypnotic about seeing this little biped navigate the world. Also, I suspect that the human-on-robot trolling that begins at about 1:30 is probably some sort of Skynet origins moment.

I was intrigued to feel myself reacting so strongly to it. I was very put out on the robot’s behalf – which is odd, because what you really see here is someone demonstrating how well a piece of machinery deals with disruption. There’s nothing to be upset about.

Or is there? We’re at the very beginning of the robotization of the world. Perhaps what I felt was something constructive – a sense that the tools we make for ourselves, and that will increasingly come to sustain us, should be treated with a basic level of respect. That looking like being alive is in some way equivalent to actually being alive.

Or perhaps I was just being sentimental. After all, no matter how human it looks, machinery doesn’t live. Perhaps that’s going to be one of the big challenges of the coming century – learning a new set of reactions to units that act like organic creatures, but aren’t.

That objectification will bring its own dangers, of course – if we start transferring it back into our reactions to each other, then our society will become a much darker, less empathetic place. But then again, in many ways that’s where we are right now.

And perhaps that’s what’s really scary about this little film. It blurs the categories, leaving us reacting to a machine as if it were a human. And that forces us to think about the reverse – about all the people, all around us, whose humanity has been tossed aside as easily and casually as this machine is trolled in this film.

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Originally published at allumination. You can comment here or there.

It’s been fascinating watching people mourn David Bowie. There’s a sadness there that I suspect comes from more than just the loss of a major creative icon. I think we’re also mourning the loss of the conditions that created and supported that kind of icon.

Bowie’s iconic status was a product of certain cultural and technological factors. Like all the gods of rock, he came up in a world with relatively few ways of creating and sharing media. And when most people are only spectators, and there are hardly any other channels or stations to turn over to, then it’s that much easier to dominate the the national conversation.

Our modern media world has blown that cosy homogeneity apart. There are so many different ways to enjoy media, and so much of it out there. The idea of any sort of mass canon is dead – instead, there’s only personal gathering of personally meaningful music, film, TV, games and just about any other kind of content you can imagine. These days, we’re all micro-curators of our own micro-channels, enjoying a range of media fully shared with at most probably a few dozen people.

Of course, Bowie was never cosy. But he needed a homogeneous, coherent cosiness to push against, to become coherent himself. That pushing against defined him in ways that would be impossible now. You can push against a hub; with a bit of effort, you can push against a node – but how do you push against a decentralized network? You can’t – if you try, it just melts away. The internet routes around rebellion as quickly and efficiently as it routes around blockages.

And there’s one other thing to mourn. Bowie wasn’t just a media construct. He was also built by the drama schools and generous state benefits of the 60s, supported by a society that understood that creativity both has profound value and needs time and investment to bear fruit. Those conditions helped post-imperial Britain understand itself in new, exciting ways. They no longer exist.

So we’re not just mourning David Bowie. We’re mourning the condition of full-spectrum stardom, broken by modern media. And we’re mourning the mirror we helped him – and so many like him – hold up to us all, shattered in the name of prudence.

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Originally published at allumination. Please leave any comments there.

 

I spent Friday both talking and listening at the wildly enjoyable Playful 2011 Conference (that’s me on-stage above – pic @thisisplayful). This post is a very quick follow-on to that. I’ve had quite a few requests for both the talk itself and a list of the writers I mentioned.

So, I’ve posted the talk on my read a story page, and I’ve put together this list of people I mentioned. Oh, and do bear in mind that it’s a not remotely exhaustive list – there’s huge amounts of wonderful SF writing out there that alas I just couldn’t fit into the talk. Enjoy!

I started by defining science fiction, and (with Brian Aldiss’ help) arguing that ‘Frankenstein’ is the first real SF novel.

  • Mary Shelley – ‘Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus’, available in multiple modern editions and well worth a read.
  • Brian Aldiss – his quote came from ‘The Detached Retina – Aspects of Science Fiction and Fantasy’. He’s a Grand Master of modern SF – try ‘Hot House’ or ‘Non Stop’ to start with.

After that, there was a quick wander through some cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk writers. I touched on Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, before digging into 80s / 90s cyberpunk:

  • William Gibson – namer of cyberspace in ‘Neuromancer’; one of the few people who genuinely seems to understand Western modernity.
  • Pat Cadigan – one of Gibson’s fellow cyberpunks, ‘Synners’ is a good starting point (and was very influential on philosopher Nick Land, who’s mentioned a little further down).
  • Neal Stephenson – pretty indescribable; has explored everything from virtual reality to the complete history of money. Try ‘The Diamond Age’ for starters.

Key precursors included:

  • John Brunner – I mentioned ‘Shockwave Rider’, because that’s where he invents the computer worm. It’s a great read, but to be honest I prefer ‘Stand On Zanzibar’, which gets the modern media-scape worryingly right.
  • Michael Moorcock – another Grand Master. When he writes genre fiction he’s really a fantasist, but the deeply fractured Jerry Cornelius stories feel more like the modern world than just about anything else. Try ‘The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius – Stories of the Modern Apocalypse’.
  • M. John Harrison – a contemporary of Moorcock and Ballard’s who’s matured into one of Britain’s finest writers in any genre. Start with his recent SF novel ‘Light’ and go from there – riches await!
  • William Burroughs – searingly radical, searingly peculiar, and someone far beyond any sort of genre, tho’ his writing is shot through with a deep pulp SF sensibility. Why not check out ‘The Soft Machine’, first of a trilogy of pretty SFnal novels?

Then, a step into television. Pretty much everyone’s seen the original Star Trek, and it seems to be on many TV channels most of the time. If you fancy diving into the more recent Battlestar Galactica, it all kicked off in 2003 with a very watchable three hour miniseries. If you enjoy that, it was followed by four seasons of generally fantastic SF tv, plus sundry spinoffs.

And then, back to prose fiction -

  • Samuel R. Delany – ‘Tales of Plagues and Carnivals’ in ‘Return to Neveryon’ was the first mainstream-published piece of fiction to deal with AIDS. The Neveryon books are more fantasy than SF – if you want to experience Delany in full futuristic flight, try ‘Babel-17′ or ‘Nova’.

That led to a discussion of 70s feminist SF. I talked in detail about -

  • Joanna Russ – ‘The Female Man’ – a formally daring, deeply radical critique of the problems of femininity.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin – ‘Left Hand of Darkness’- aliens that can be either male or female, but are mostly neither; a brilliant exploration of gender as construct rather than immutable identity.
  • James Tiptree Jr – ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’ collects her finest short stories – unmissable. To read about her complex and fascinating life, pick up Julie Phillips’ biography of her, ‘James Tiptree Jr – the Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon’.

I also mentioned Octavia Butler – try her Xenogenesis trilogy, recently published in a single volume as ‘Lilith’s Brood’. Then, we moved on to science fiction’s pessimists -

  • H. P. Lovecraft – I quoted from ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, one of his most famous stories. There are three Penguin Classics anthologies of his fiction, ‘The Call of Cthulhu (and other weird stories)’ ‘The Thing on the Doorstep (and other…)’ and ‘The Dreams in the Witch House (and other…)’, which together collect all of his major stories and some fun minor stuff. Personally, I’d start with ‘The Thing on the Doorstep’, if only for the remarkable Antarctic odyssey ‘At The Mountains of Madness’.
  • J.G. Ballard – I mentioned the memorably shocking ‘Crash’. If you want to ease yourself in a little more gently, try starting at the beginning with ‘The Drowned World’, getting a bit of context with the autobiographical ‘Empire of the Sun’, or digging into either or both of the two volume ‘Collected Short Stories’.

And finally, I ran out of time before getting to the philosophers:

  • Nick Land – the 90s’ leading cyber-theorist. Urbanomic Press have recently published ‘Fanged Noumena’, his collected writings, in a rather lovely little edition. The bastard child of continental philosophy and cyberpunk, now living the postmodern dream in Singapore.
  • Reza Negarestani – ‘Cyclonopedia – Complicity with Autonomous Materials’. It’s kind of indescribable; very broadly a Lovecraftian demonology of the war on terror, cross-bred with a terminator whose OS has been rewritten by Deleuze, Guattari and Ibn Khaldun.

For a broader critical context on science fiction, I’d recommend ‘The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction’ (ed Farah Mendlesohn / Edward James) – an academic work that does a great job of both summing up the history of SF and covering its major modern concerns.

Of neccesity, this list leaves out infinitely more than it includes. Other people writing currently who are definitely worth looking out for include Iain M. Banks (of course), Liz Williams, Mark Pilkington, Hal Duncan, Jaine Fenn, China Mieville, and Justina Robson. If you’re digging around historically, the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series collect some really fantastic novels and short story collections from the 19th and 20th centuries.

So, that’s it – hopefully some useful suggestions there. Of course, the best thing to do is just wander down to the bookshop, root around a bit, and get stuck into whatever seems to be inspiring. So, enjoy! And, in the simultaneously paranoid and visionary final words of 50s SF movie classic ‘The Thing From Outer Space’ -

KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES!!!!

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Originally published at allumination. Please leave any comments there.

Well, much excitement at Allumination Towers as the other day I met Bruce Pennington! Even more excitingly, the Atlantis Bookshop will be hosting a major retrospective of his art in July and August. The exhibition catalogue website is now live, and stunning! There’s also going to be an interview with him in the next Fortean Times.

You may or may not know the name, but you’ll definitely know his work. He was the New English Library’s main cover illustrator in the early 70s – his images went a long way to defining what genre fiction looked like in its New Wave heyday.

Anyway, here’s the flyer for the exhibition – it’s got all the details you’ll need to go along and be astonished -

I’d only ever seen his work on scruffy, secondhand book jackets. While I was at the bookshop, I saw some of the limited edition prints they were preparing – seeing his images at full size, original colours blasting off the page, was remarkable. I suspect that the exhibition itself will be a cornucopia of wonderment – I for one can’t wait!

Oh, and finally, here’s the audioboo I recorded just after meeting him -

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Originally published at allumination. Please leave any comments there.

Well, it’s been an exciting few weeks from a writerly point of view. I’ve finished a first draft of the next novel (working title ‘Crashing Heaven’, but I suspect that will change), drafted a novella, had a wonderful – and very productive – time at this year’s Milford Writers’ Workshop, and have the launch of ‘The Immersion Book of SF’ (with my story ‘Golden’ in it, plus fiction from Tanith Lee, Lavie Tidhar, Aliette de Bodard, Chris Butler and others) to look forward to on Friday.

More later on Milford, and hopefully you’ll see both novella and novel in print sometime soon. Instead of going into detail on them, I thought I’d write a little about ‘The Immersion Book of SF’, as some comments that editor Carmelo Rafala makes in his introduction have been resonating with me quite deeply.

The Immersion Book of SF

He describes wanting to put together an anthology ‘where each story was so vastly different from the other, that I felt like I’d visited a dozen or so different worlds by the time I’d put the book down’. In doing so, he hopes that he’s put together ‘a collection… as varied and entertaining as those I’d read when I was a youth’.

I grew up reading both the more formally recognised classics, and whatever pieces of genre mayhem I could get my hands on. The latter came to me in a variety of ways, often quite accidentally, and usually in anthologies of one kind or another. As Carmelo says, they were a great way of reading very widely, very quickly, and thus discovering just how many different subjects genre fiction could cover, and how many effects it could achieve within them.

My junior school library had stacked issues of 50s educational mag ‘Look and Learn’, buried in boxes. Each one contained a couple of pages of astonishing comic ‘The Trigan Empire’, plus various other marvellous bits and pieces. 2000AD was basically a weekly compendium of wondrous (and highly intelligent) weirdness.

My local library was well stocked with vintage fantasy and SF compilations. I found my favourite book of horror stories (a huge, superbly edited anthology from the 60s) in a jumble sale somewhere. It cost me 50p, and gave me at least ten years’ reading pleasure, if not more. And of course there were the various OUP and Virago ghost story anthologies – Christmas presents from my folks (thank you!).

Anyway, all this vaguely Proustian recollection has a point. I owe my passion for genre fiction as much to this slightly random collection of anthologies as to any more formal reading plan. And so it’s hugely exciting to think that a story of mine is going off into the world in a modern version of one of those collections; and that someone might come on that anthology, either buying it new, or pulling it off a library shelf, or in a jumble sale somewhere, and find in it the kind of formative thrill I found in all those books, all those years ago.

And of course, if you want to explore those strange new worlds yourself, you can pick up your own copy of ‘The Immersion Book of SF’, right here… Happy voyaging!

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Originally published at allumination. Please leave any comments there.

I recently took part in the BSFA’s British Science Fiction & Fantasy survey, which led to the publication of a rather nifty little book comparing genre self-perception now and 20 years ago – more details here.

The book was edited by Niall Harrison and Paul Kincaid; they’ve done an excellent job of picking out interesting survey responses, and weaving them into a text which both once reaches clearly defined conclusions, and encourages further consideration and debate. One of his key concerns is to understand just what Britishness means to genre writers working in the UK.

To celebrate publication, I thought I’d post my answer to his question about Britishness in full, here on the blog. So:

Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?

That’s a difficult question to answer. I’d say probably that everything I write tends to be rather depressive (either the world gets destroyed, or the protagonist dies, or both), and to have a strongly interior focus; the weird elements are usually amplifying metaphors for whatever’s going on emotionally or thematically in the story. I’m not sure that these are exclusive properties of British genre fiction, though.

On reflection, for me the most purely British genre moments don’t come in fiction. They’d be Delia Derbishire’s original orchestration of the Doctor Who theme:

[youtube width=400]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4hI_CHOFY3Y[/youtube]

the ‘flashbacks to a Martian hive cleansing’ sequence in Nigel Kneale’s ‘Quatermass and the Pit’:

[youtube width=400]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbT9hABJoMU&[/youtube]

and Christina Rossetti’s sensationally peculiar poem, ‘Goblin Market’.

Of them, the first two combine deep and entirely convincing visionary reach with a sense of having been patched together with double sided sticky tape, papier mache, and whatever else is to hand. They feel very low-tech, and entirely personal – the product of deep personal need and craft, fulfilled in a Neasden back room rather than a Swiss laboratory, an LA film studio or the board room of a Japanese zaibatsu.

There’s something very British about that; as Ballard knew so well, it’s the obsessed achievements of the suburban imagination that are our tomorrow. Come to think of it, that sense of an entirely convincing, menacingly peculiar science fiction that was also clearly built in a shed comes out beautifully in Doctor Who classic ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’.

And of course, there’s ‘Goblin Market’ – a wonderful poem, clearly fascinated by and soused in the deep matter of rural Britain, but also one that refuses to finally draw the bleak and terrifying conclusions that it is so clearly leading up to.

For most of the way, it’s a truly odd tale of the Fair Folk, fruit addiction, and late Victorian twin sisters; but it resolves with a deeply conventional, deeply unconvincing, deeply sentimental ‘if sisters love each other, everything will be ok’ finale (in fact, my story ‘Changeling’ is in part an attempt to write a truer conclusion to it). Rossetti repressed the poem’s true conclusion – there’s something very British, too, about that repression.

Having said that, I get the feeling that there’s much really interesting genre work worldwide that just doesn’t get translated into English. Not having read any of it, it’s difficult to say how British writing might compare with it, and thus what might in fact be specifically British about the SF / Fantasy written within these borders.

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