No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, December 15, 2001

Toxicology -- Steve Aylett

Toxicology bears the stamp, in quality and quantity, of impatience: a first collection of Aylett's short work, it includes pieces that might have been omitted if publication had been delayed for a few years. The anthology first appeared in the United States in 1999. It consisted of unpublished work as well as pieces (to call them 'stories' would be limiting, if not inaccurate) that had appeared in miscellaneous anthologies and publications since 1994. This expanded UK edition includes six additional pieces: some have been published in the last couple of years, while others are new. The additions are identifiable by their British spelling, if nothing else, since the earlier works retain the Americanised variants of words.

The diversity of the publications which have featured Aylett's short fiction gives an idea of his surreally eclectic material. Here are slipstream stories from themed anthologies like Disco 2000 and the NEL Book of Internet Short Stories: postmodern horror and satire from the independent magazine sector (Gargoyle, Carpe Noctem): topical rants from The Idler: and several pieces, like the Wodehouse pastiches 'Dread Honour' and 'Ballroom', which appear in Toxicology for the first time.

Aylett is best-known for his futuristic 'Beerlight' thrillers (Beerlight, as far as anyone can tell, being a State of America as much as a state of mind) and his contemporary crime fiction. This anthology reveals a broader spectrum of mode and inspiration, though there are common threads of satire, surrealism and social commentary. In particular, Aylett's fictions are often concerned with the failures of law - whether metaphorically ('What is the law but a cloven hoof embedded in a fallen child's belly?') or literally, as in the anti-CJB tale 'Repeater', dating from 1995. There are several tales of Beerlight, including a couple featuring non-detective Taffy Atom, star of last year's novel Atom: crime noir, metamorphosed, is still a staple of Aylett's fictions.

Aylett's style, while not noteably original, is distinctively his own: an extravagant melange of surreal imagery, pulp cliché, philosophical hypotheses and crazed ramblings. Many of the pieces collected here are more situation than story, and sacrifice plot, development and closure on the metallised black altar of style. (Some consider this a bad thing, I'm told). In the best of them, there's the precision of a stripped-down machine: even the worst are churning masses of eminently quotable aphorisms and images that stick in the head. Not to be taken in large quantities, as this may lead to inversion of the skull.

Saturday, December 01, 2001

Issola -- Steven Brust

Issola is the ninth volume, both by publication date and by internal chronology, in Brust’s ‘Vlad Taltos’ sequence. Those familiar with the setting (Vlad is a human assassin, retired, in the elvish Dragaeran Empire) may find in this novel a welcome return to the witty, mannered heroics of the earlier books in the series. I fear those who have but lately discovered Vlad Taltos and his friends and familiars will find Issola rather more opaque, though hopefully no less enjoyable.

The Taltos novels are all named for one of Dragaera’s seventeen noble houses: the Issola are noted for ‘grace, elegance and manners’, but also for the subtle strike. Vlad Taltos, living rough in the northern forest after the events of Orca, is tracked down by none other than the impeccably-groomed Lady Teldra, the Issola chatelaine of his friend Morrolan. This, it transpires, is no mere social visit, but a call to arms.

Morrolan and his cousin Aliera have been captured by the Jenoine, hated former rulers more powerful than gods who are rumoured to have created the Dragaeran race. Vlad Taltos, with the sorcerous assistance of undead Sethra Lavode and the diplomatic skills of Lady Teldra, is determined to rescue his friends. As the quest commences, it rapidly becomes clear that his career as an assassin may not be over after all.

Vlad, returning to a broader social milieu after his time in the literal and figurative wilderness, begins to mellow somewhat from the archetypal wise-guy loner. Perhaps it’s the company he keeps: at any rate, the ice has begun to thaw, and he’s a more sympathetic character than he has been for several volumes. The novel’s final, shocking conflict suggests interesting times ahead for the erstwhile assassin, and more epic themes than the Chandleresque intrigues of earlier novels.

In Issola, Brust reveals more about Dragaera than ever before. Apparent inconsistencies in the backstory are clarified, and obscure utterances assume new meaning. The imprisonment of Vlad’s two friends is as plain a case of alien abduction as ever occurred in a fantasy novel. Fantasy? While the setting is certainly fantastical - sorcery, gods and demons, and of course the pointy-eared Dragaerans are elves - this is also a novel of alien invasion, grounded as much in genetic engineering and psychosocial experimentation as in legend, heroism and enchantment. What’s recounted here as ancient history - including some fascinating insights on the role of the gods, and the truth behind the instinctive superiority of Dragaerans - would be the mythology of another, more magically-inclined world.

And, yes, Deverra makes a fleeting appearance.

Sunday, November 25, 2001

Interview: Liz Williams, November 2001

This interview took place in November 2001, at the monthly British Science Fiction Association night in London. This interview previously appeared in Vector (issue #222, March / April 2002) the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association.

TB: Liz Williams is the author of several short stories, which have appeared in Interzone and elsewhere - online and in print. Her first novel, The Ghost Sister, was recently published by Bantam in the US, and has been shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award. What made you start writing? What were you doing before?
LW: I was a philosopher for about ten years. I went into academic philosophy, but basically there just aren’t that many jobs for philosophers around. I did a whole range of other things, including reading tarot cards and selling flowers in restaurants: the usual boring list of things that writers do when they haven't actually written anything yet, and have to pay the bills. When I was in my mid-twenties I got a proper job, working for a big educational concern in England that recruited students from the central Asian countries - places like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan. That culminated in us going out to live in Kazakhstan for the summer of '96. The subsequent four years were spent going back and forth between central Asia and this country, recruiting students and trying to persuade people to come to universities in Britain: it was basically educational marketing. Then the Soviet economy collapsed and took most of the central Asian economies with it. I got made redundant, and started writing more or less full time. I got a small part-time job to pay the bills, but now the part-time job has given me up, so I'm a full-time writer.
TB: What made you decide to become a writer?
LW: I always wanted to write science fiction and fantasy. My mother was a writer: she wrote a series of Gothic horror novels and Gothic romance novels in the 1970s. The impression that I got was that it was perfectly normal for women to sit and write, at the end of the day or at odd hours in the day. When I was eleven, she brought back a copy of Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure series from the local library, and that was it, I was lost! I fell completely in love with Jack Vance and everything he wrote, and when I get round to it I'm going to write him a proper fan letter. Partly because of that, and partly because of my wanting to travel - I wanted to travel to places on this world, but this world's getting smaller all the time - I wanted to create my own world, so I could travel on the cheap.
TB: You've certainly managed the travel on this world: how have your travels affected what you write?
LW: It's affected it a lot, in the sense of luring me to particular places because I think they're like the planets I've invented. I was very keen to go to central Asia because it's like the image of the world in The Ghost Sister, the world Monde d'Isle, that I had from about fourteen or so. I wanted to go to the Gobi Desert (which I haven't actually been to yet): I wanted to go to the steppes. The region of Kazakhstan in which we were living is a mountainous area, and once you get out of town it’s very wild and deserted - that's the sort of place I want to go to. I never set out to be in central Asian marketing, but by a rather bizarre set of coincidences, that's where I got.
Place is very important to me. I grew up having been imbued with this sense of landscape. I think that the land is important, and that places have an intrinsic importance in terms of the effect that they have upon the mythology and legends of a society. That's something that I can't really stop coming out in the writing.
TB: Several of your short stories have a strong sense of place. 'The Blood Thieves', for example, is set in Iceland: did you actually get to go there?
LW: No. Writing is a bit manipulative, because when I write about something I can take the choice to write about somewhere completely imaginary, or about somewhere I've been - which is fairly straightforward. Or I can write about somewhere that I hope to go to some day, and then turn up on the one Interzone Icelandic subscriber's doorstep with a copy of the magazine. "You don't know me, but I've written a story set in Iceland! Want to go out for a drink?" My forthcoming novel, Empire of Bones, gave me a reason to go to India, which we did. It's partly that the travel comes first, and partly that it's an excuse.
TB: One of the more interesting settings of a short story is 'Adventures in the Ghost Trade', which was shortlisted for the BSFA Award in 2000. It's a future Singapore, or rather a future franchise of Singapore.
LW: Yes, it's a franchise of Singapore. It's actually Hong Kong, which I do know.
TB: It has a Blade Runner, film noir feel to it.
LW: That's Hong Kong: it just has that anyway. It doesn't really have to try: it's a futuristic, peculiar place. The reason it was described in the story as a Singaporean franchise was because there actually was a plan by the Singaporean government, a couple of years ago, to franchise out the city plan of Singapore to under-developed areas so they could build Singapore in the middle of Africa, for example. This isn't something that I came up with, it's something that they came up with! They ought to be writing science fiction, because the people in charge of Singapore are clearly the horrifying way that the future is going to go. I've never figured out what the franchise consists of. I don't know if it's the whole ‘ecosystem’, the police force and the rules about not spitting in lifts and the general city plan. I never got as far as figuring it out, because by that time I was up and running, writing my story.
TB: Singapore Three has a spatial correlation with Hell. It reminds me of that old axiom, 'As above, so below'.
LW: Hell has the same street plan, more or less, and similar buildings. Again, this is not something that I can take credit for: the Chinese version of Hell is unbelievably bureaucratic. You have to fill out forms to get into it. You have to go through an immigration procedure when you die. If you don't have the right forms, you don't get there. You don't get into heaven, either. There is a Ministry of Epidemics, in Chinese mythology. There is a Ministry of Diseases, and a Ministry of War. I think there's a Ministry of Lust, but I haven't quite got to grips with that one yet! It's all bureaucratically based, and the structure is like the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century structure of Chinese bureaucracy. Burning money so that it goes to your relatives, burning little replicas of cars or little replicas of microwaves so that they manifest in Hell, is something that the Chinese do a lot of - because, you know, you don't want them to be without these things. You can marry your dead relatives off. When I was in Hong Kong, I knew somebody whose dead daughter was getting married to the dead son of a neighbour. The families were saying, "OK, we can't actually have them here, but we know they're getting married because we've set it up."
TB: Modern, or future, science coming into contact with ancient myth is another theme you revisit in several different stories. Science and myth don’t inevitably clash but they highlight aspects of each other. Are they opposites, or are they complementary?
LW: Ultimately, they're parts of the same thing. Mythology is based on an empirical understanding of the world around you. You screw up, and the volcano erupts. You have a poor idea of causal relationship, so you think you've done it. It happens again - and repeatability is the hallmark of a scientific experiment - so you think this time you've definitely done it. That's in a very primitive state where you don't have technology. You're working with what you see, and the beliefs that you have are drawn out of natural events, and usually a mistaken causal relationship between yourself and those events. It starts to get murkier later on, when you get people like Newton (who saw himself as an alchemist), and Doctor John Dee. I've just been researching Dr. Dee for a third novel: he claimed to have invented flying machines and to have discovered a method of communicating across vast distances by means of fire, which he wouldn't talk about.
In Elizabethan times, the mythological world and the religious world and the scientific world really start to go head-to-head, whereas previously they jogged along on parallel lines, sometimes mixing, sometimes colliding, sometimes working in harmony. I think it's in the Elizabethan period and the Renaissance period that the scientific and the occult worlds really start to mesh, and I think the mesh is where people like me start writing science fantasy. That's what I write: I think it's a label that you don't see very much now, but I do write science fantasy, not science fiction or fantasy.
TB: You don’t build your plots around hard science.
LW: I can't bluff the background: my background is in philosophy, and I don’t need to bluff that.
TB: Was 'The Unthinkables' the first epistemological thriller that Interzone had published?
LW: Almost certainly it wasn't. These ideas are so central to science fiction. People want to know about how people know things, and where people get their knowledge. Alien societies are built on people having different knowledge and a different way of treating knowledge, and a different way of conceptualising it.
TB: That story deals with a caste-based alien society, where the undercaste - like India’s Untouchables, but these are the Unthinkables - subvert the dominant caste by coming up with a thought paradox.
LW: it's a world where you can actually, literally, infect people with a meme, not just by the ideas that you give them but also by hormones and viruses. It's the world in Empire of Bones, and it's interesting you mention the Untouchables because that novel is based on the British in India, and the heroine is, an Untouchable.
TB: You've said elsewhere that the world of The Ghost Sister has been with you for a very long time. How did it feel to finally write it down? How much has it all changed?
LW: It was like suddenly being a teenager. These characters have been with me since I was about thirteen or fourteen. It was a bit like being a thirteen-year-old again and saying, "Hey! Come and investigate my bedroom! Turn out the drawers!" It was very embarrassing. It's like inviting people into your head: but it's not the fairly rational, compos mentis person that you are now, but the fourteen-year-old, angst-ridden self that we all were. It's very strange having your private teenage hero on the page for people to read and relate to.
The characters haven't changed; they're pretty much as they were. The world certainly hasn't changed a lot, and neither has the geography of the world. And I am going to enthuse with adolescent passion, because the map in the front of the book is the map that I was drawing in my bedroom when I was fourteen. There's hope for teenage geeks everywhere! The plot has changed a lot. I'm very much one for bolting the plot on afterwards, which is an embarrassing confession really, and it probably shows.
TB: If you have the scenario and you have the characters, then maybe the longer you live with them the better you know them. You know that what they do isn't so important, because you know who they are.
LW: You know what they would do. In any circumstance, I know what they'd do, and it's usually not the right thing.
TB: According to the cover, ‘The fate of a planet lies with an outcast woman and a mysterious visitor’ - but The Ghost Sister is not quite the novel you might expect from that description. The action takes place on a lost colony world, Monde d’Isle: the ‘natives’, who are descended from the original colonists, are visited by an all-female anthropological mission from Irie St Syre, that colony’s source. How much have the Mondhaith changed in the meantime? Are they still human?
LW: They are basically human beings, but they're a long way down the genetic line. They turn their kids out when the kids are very small, to fend for themselves (like the ancient Spartans did, but for much longer than one night) until they're about thirteen. During their childhood they're not actually conscious: they're like little animals. That should tell you where I'm coming from in terms of the maternal instinct! When they hit puberty, consciousness comes upon them and they return, rather like migrating birds, to the place where they were born. They start developing interesting thoughts and civilised customs. They do revert from time to time, and the reversion is to their base nature rather than their civilised nature.
TB: One of the characters says about another, "He's not an animal. At least, not all the time." In a sense, it’s a werewolf story.
LW: It's certainly, basically, a werewolf story. They don't turn into animals, but they are animals within. They are what we are, effectively, but it's a sharper distinction. We aren't animals, except when we are. They're much more extreme because that's what science fiction highlights. It brings out certain behavioural aspects and sharpens things so that you can see the light and the shadow.
TB: The anthropologists are absolutely horrified by the Mondhaith treatment of children: "Oh, these poor children! Look, they've been turned out of their homes - what terrible neglect and abuse!" The Mondhaith, meanwhile, are saying, "Yes, we turned them out, but they'll be back eventually." They don’t understand the problem. I was reminded of Philip Pullman's comment about children being ignorant little savages.
LW: I do think he has a point! When I was on my way to the station today, a small child made a creditable and serious attempt to shove his sister in front of a bus. That kind of thing gets glossed over as 'oh, they're only playing'. Are they hell! They’re more than ignoble little savages, obviously, but that is an element of their behaviour. Childhood is a violent and disturbing time. It gets sentimentalised in this culture, and over-brutalised in other cultures.
TB: In the language of Monde d’Isle, the word for 'child' translates as 'human-to-be'... You mentioned the maternal instinct, it’s not really a feature of their society. This is not a book that upholds stereotypical gender roles.
LW: No. One of the ways that you get rid of stereotypical gender roles, for women, is to take the kids away from them. Then there's no reason to stay home, do the cleaning, and look after the children. I don't mean that this is an excuse for getting out of something else, but that has often been the role in which women are put because they have no choice. In our world they have a choice, because they can choose whether or not to have children. We have adequate contraception in most countries, though not all. On Monde d'Isle they have a choice because the kids are sent out into the wilderness. In a sense they have less of a choice than we do, because they can't choose to bring up their children even if they want to, and some of them do want to.
TB: It's difficult to find maternal characters in any of your writing.
LW: I can't write from the perspective of a mother because I'm not a mother. That's something that I think is the great divide, and I know that people who are parents say that when you have children your entire worldview changes. In effect your consciousness changes. Suddenly your children are the focus. Because I haven't had that, I don't think I can write about it convincingly, so I don't write about it at all.
TB: One of several strong women in the novel is a grandmother who's a quantum anthropologist. Grandmothers seem to crop up in your fiction quite frequently: it reminds me of all those Chinese stories about children and grandparents, where the grandparents are wise and the wisdom seems to have skipped a generation.
LW: Grandmothers are very important. I had both my grandmothers alive at the time when I was growing up: one grandmother lived with us. Grandmothers are important in many cultures, because they're the repositories of what people know: it’s the same with grandfathers. The older people in societies tend to get respect, because they know more than the young. They have knowledge of history - I don't think they get enough credit for that - and they have knowledge of change, which a child does not have.
TB: Having an older woman as a major character sidesteps the trap of it becoming just another love story, a planetary romance. Instead, Shu Gho - the grandmother anthropologist - becomes a friend of the primary male character. That must have affected the way the relationships developed in the book.
LW: Yes, it did. I have a lot of friends who are a lot older than myself. I also have a lot of friends who are younger than myself. I don't see that portrayed in a lot of fiction, that you can value somebody for how much experience they've had, and for how much experience you've had in relation to them. The ‘grandmother’ thing, I think, came originally out of that quote from Ursula le Guin about how it's never Mrs. Brown, the little old lady, who goes off to the alien planet. The strapping young hero does, the mad scientist and his daughter do, but the little old grandmother doesn't. Why can’t she go to another planet?
TB: Your ‘little old grandmother’, Shu, is also a quantum anthropologist. What’s a quantum anthropologist?
LW: Quantum mechanics posits that you change what you see. Anthropology is all about observation, looking at cultures and studying them. When you participate in a culture as an anthropologist, you necessarily bring your own preconditions to it. Your relationship to the people that you see is structured by the fact that you’re an outside observer. So how far does it have an effect at the social level? How far do you change what you observe, just by observing it? These people, the visitors, don’t really interact with the society: they just look at it. What effect does looking have? There’s a story coming out in Asimov’s called ‘Quantum Anthropology’, which is set on Monde d’Isle, and it’s about two very stroppy young women and an anthropologist, and what they do to him inadvertently, and what he does to them by being an observer.
TB: The women of the Mission follow the Gaian path, a sort of green feminism.
LW: It’s bog-standard Gaian goddess-worship. I’m a pagan. I get very hacked off with the kind of ‘we’re here to save the world’ mentality. We’re screwing up the ecosphere, and anything unfortunate enough to share it with us. But the planet itself goes on. Planets don’t care. They irradiate themselves; they blow themselves up at regular intervals. If humans managed to set off every atomic device on this planet, it would be pretty much a blip compared to what the planet has done to itself in its history. The idea that the goddess of the planet is some sort of human figure is comforting for us, but completely wrong with relationship to the world itself.
TB: One of the themes of the novel is the contrast between the terraforming mentality with which the original colonists set out - let’s make this world into a nice, safe, weather-controlled place for us to live - and the geoforming- let’s make ourselves fit this world. The first viewpoint can be typified by the phrase ‘the world in harmony with us’: the second, by a Mondhaith tale of the first ancestor, who ‘thought it best to put humans in harmony with the world’.
LW: I used to do a lot of amateur archaeology. After one particularly stressful meeting with English Heritage or the National Trust, the site director said, “it’s now my job to keep the public away from sharp things”. The British Druid Order won’t be celebrating at Stonehenge this year because last year somebody fell over: it’s dark and it’s muddy in the middle of winter. And English Heritage are now terrified of being sued. This is the Gaian mentality: keep ‘em away from sharp things. But life is about risk, and about finding your own way to do things. And that often involves danger. And sharp objects.
Terry Pratchett writes somewhere that sin starts when you start treating other people as things. And the Gaians do treat other people as things. They’re inconvenient. Their mentality is inconvenient. It doesn’t follow the patterns that they’ve come to believe are the One True Way. And so they’ve got to change, haven’t they?
TB: The Irians arrive and immediately begin to make judgements about what they perceive as a less advanced culture - even though it’s more flexible than the society they’re used to. That contrast is like two worlds colliding, metaphorically as well as literally - it’s like a clash between science fiction and fantasy. Which do you prefer writing?
LW: I have ideas for stories, and I’m not too bothered about what plots they fit into. It can be a problem knowing where to send the stories. Some places are very flexible: Interzone is very forgiving, and Asimov’s has actually proved quite forgiving too. I have stories that I don’t know where to send, because they’re too cross-genre. I send them to slipstream anthologies, but they’re not right for that either. Then again, if they want them rewritten, I’ll rewrite them.
TB: That must be difficult with something like The Ghost Sister, where the scenario and the characters have been with you for so long. There are limits to what you would change, surely.
LW: I don’t think I would have made it into a fantasy because I don’t think it would have worked. But given enough time, and enough money, I probably could have done it.
TB: In The Ghost Sister, you use four different first-person voices. Most of your short stories are first person narratives too. What’s so appealing about writing in the first person?
LW: It just comes out that way. It’s a cheap narrative trick, as well; it’s easier to get people engaged. I notice the first-person ones - and psychologists everywhere will have a field day - tend to be blokes. I tend to write a first-person narrative more easily as a man than I do as a woman. I’m not prepared to spend thousands of pounds on therapy finding out why. Eleres [the male protagonist] was very easy: Eleres is pretty close to me.
TB: What prompted you to write it from different viewpoints?
LW: I’d written it all as Eleres, and then I decided that I needed to get different perspectives on him. Originally, the anthropologists weren’t there at all. They came later, and those bits were written a lot faster than the rest of the book, so I don’t know how successful those other voices were.
TB: What’s coming up?
LW: What’s coming up in April is Empire of Bones, which is set in India. The basis is the British in India, but they’re alien civil servants, not British civil servants. After that, there are two more novels for Bantam, one of which has just been delivered. That’s called The Poison Master, and it’s about Elizabethans in space with drugs. This is the one in which John Dee appears.
TB: Alchemy in space?
LW: Alchemy and drugs (and Elizabethans), in fact, because alchemy and drugs are related quite heavily, certainly in many societies.
After that there’s a novel set in Kazakhstan, about a seven hundred year old hero who doesn’t know why he’s lived so long, and a failed cosmonaut. That hasn’t been written yet, and I don’t know when it’s coming out.
TB: And what about your travel writing?
LW: I plan to do more of that now that I’m unemployed. I need a way of generating more money, and I like doing it!
TB: You contributed a chapter to the Rough Guide to Women’s Travel, didn’t you?
LW: Yes, the chapter on Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. I know both areas so I want to do more on that. Another project I’ve been working on is a series of interviews with women in the former Soviet republics. There are interviews with women in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and a bunch of Afghan refugees in Tajikistan - somebody did those last interviews for me, in Russian, so I need to sit down and translate them.
TB: How about more short stories? There was a cluster of stories published in Interzone. Do you write in batches?
LW: I sent them to Interzone as a batch, which you shouldn’t really do. I did apologise for it. I’ve been sending them single pieces since. I have a Kazakhstani / Uzbekistani one about genetic modification coming up in Interzone in January or February: two coming up in Asimov’s: two coming up in Realms of Fantasy: and I think there’s one in The Third Alternative.
[Audience]: In The Ghost Sister, the society depends very heavily on their biology, and the biology very much informs the society. Which came first - the biology or the society?
LW: The biology. I knew the characters had a problem, and when you have a problem the social constraints are going to come out of that. I don’t think all our problems are biological, but a lot of them are. This is a bunch of people whose main problem happens to be biological, so their society reflects that.
[Audience]: You said you were influenced early on by Jack Vance. Who else has been an influence, and who do you wish you could write like?
LW: The Poison Master started off being very Vancian, so when that comes out you will notice a few familiar elements. Le Guin I love, Tanith Lee I love: and people like Arthur Machen who was writing at the turn of the century - who weren’t, obviously, science fiction writers, but gothic writers. I was very into that whole gothic strand, though I don’t try to emulate it. I love Ray Bradbury. There’s a trend emerging here of people whose prose is better than their plots. Although their plots are pretty good, I think their real strengths are in their writing. I liked Isaac Asimov when I was growing up; I read all the Clarke and Asimov books. The prose didn’t grab me but I thought the plots, the stories, were great. Vance’s prose grabbed me because it’s so idiosyncratic. I wasn’t too keen on some of the 1970s feminist authors. I was too young and intolerant of what was actually going on to take people like Suzy McKee Charnas on board. I’m reading Lois McMaster Bujold at the moment, which is a lot of fun. She’s not a great stylist, and I wish she’d do something with her bloody planets: they’re terribly bog standard. But I like her plots, and I love her characters.
TB: How about current British writers?
LW: I think a lot of the small press authors are very good, the people who write for The Third Alternative and Visionary Tongue. I love Perdido Street Station: I thought that was a cracking book. Another person who I rate is Graham Joyce - again, because he’s a good storyteller, a good stylist, and I like his take on things. He’s very cross-genre. There are people outside the mainstream press who I rate enormously highly, and people on the mainstream shelves who I just don’t bother with. There’s an awful lot of pedestrian stuff out there. I couldn’t be bothered to read it if I was ill.

[Audience]: We’re sat here in the middle of this great burgeoning of British SF, fantasy and science fiction - but you’re only getting published in the United States. Is this by accident or design?
LW: My agent is in the States. I went to her, cap in hand, through an announcement in Locus: she’s Shawna McCarthy, and she’d moved from her literary agency and was setting up on her own. I sent her the stuff, she took me on, and because she’s primarily an American agent she sells to American publishing houses. We can’t sell The Ghost Sister over here, and we’re still trying, though it may be now coming out with Big Engine. It was too slow in pace for most of the British publishers: that’s what they said.
[Audience]: What about Russian science fiction?
LW: I love Chinghiz Atmaitov, who is very much a ‘sense of place’ man, with a bit of science fiction bolted on: he’s Kyrgyz, and not very well known over here, but I have seen some of his science fiction in English translation. And Mikhail Zinoniev, who was a philosophy professor at Moscow University until he defected, and he wrote a series of very bitter novels, with some fantasy elements, (“The Glorious Future,” “The Yawning Heights”) about what it was like to live in Moscow during the 1960s and 1970s. I like his stuff a lot but it’s harrowing. Harrowing in a very funny way, though. I’d like to read more science fiction from Russia. They are very into it. You say you’re a science fiction writer and they say “Oh yes, I’ve read Dostoyevsky too”. You think, “hang on a minute!” - they don’t make any distinction between literary stuff and science fiction. Instant respect for science fiction writers!

Thursday, November 01, 2001

Dr Franklin's Island -- Ann Halam

Gwyneth Jones’ latest novel as Ann Halam takes a traditional adventure scenario – three teenage castaways, survivors of an air crash – and turns it into more than just a survival story. Semirah is a shy, chubby teenager who’s won a place on a conservation holiday in Ecuador. Failing to make friends with any of her fellow travellers at the airport, she is overwhelmed when Cool Girl – Miranda, whose parents are anthropologists – seems to befriend her on the plane. When disaster strikes, Semi and Miranda find themselves marooned on a tropical island with only the belligerent Arnie for company. Between them they manage to survive, and to cope with the horrors of their situation: body parts in the lagoon, the inevitable sharks, the challenge of staying alive …

Then the trouble really starts. Arnie disappears, and the two girls give him up for lost. Weeks later, they stumble across a hidden route into the centre of the island, and find themselves surrounded by armed men. They are introduced to Dr Skinner (nervously alcoholic) and to his boss, Dr Franklin. Dr Franklin has plans for the castaways, and there is no hope of escape or rescue. Even sensible Miranda begins to panic: for Dr Franklin’s research concerns genetic engineering, and Semi and Miranda are ideal specimens.

‘Nothing like it has ever been written before’ claims the back cover: some readers, however, may spot more than a passing resemblance to H G Well’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. Dr Franklin is certainly the literary descendant of Wells’ archetypal mad scientist. However, his methods are quite different – science, after all, has progressed – and his stated goals are laudably altruistic.

Ann Halam is not exploring racial and economic equality (as has been persuasively argued regarding the Wells novel) but the transcending nature of friendship, and the lessons that can be learnt as two people come to know each other well.

There’s more of the beauty and mystery of transformation in this novel than in Wells’ dark and menacing tale: while Semi and Miranda react with realistic horror, they retain enough humanity to appreciate the gifts that are being forced upon them. Perhaps the fact that Semi, the narrator, is a victim rather than a horrified observer, helps to make the story emotionally affecting.

Thursday, October 25, 2001

Interview: Justina Robson, October 2001

This interview took place in October 2001, at the monthly British Science Fiction Association night in London. This interview previously appeared in Vector (issue #221, Jan / Feb 2002), the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association.

TB: ‘A novelist of real vision’, says Zadie Smith on the cover of Mappa Mundi. How did you get Zadie Smith to provide the quote for a science fiction novel?
JR: She wasn’t actually solicited for the cover quote. That particular quote was drawn from her judge’s remarks on the Amazon Bursary prize. She said it as a consequence of having to wind up the prize.
TB: You were the first winner with Silver Screen, weren’t you? What was the whole story behind the Amazon Bursary?
JR: I found out about it on the Internet, quite by accident. Amazon were doing this writer’s bursary, particularly for authors who’d just written their first novel and had a contract for another. The timescale was quite specific, and I just happened to fit into it. I thought I might as well give it a go; I probably didn’t have any chance but it was worth a try. I found out in the November of that year that I’d got onto the shortlist, which I was completely amazed by because I thought it was going to be a literary-focus prize, and therefore that science fiction probably wouldn’t get much of a look-in. I was wrong!
TB: What was the prize?
JR: I won £2,500, and I went to Queen Mary & Westfield College for one term at the beginning of this year (2001). I did two days a week. I was just supposed to be part of the faculty, while finishing my second book. The whole prize was designed to give you space and time away from home to finish your masterpiece, and also to have some interaction with the academic people at the college. I also gave the students a bit of creative writing tuition. I did that for an hour a week, and the literary group and I got together for chats. It was fun. I was a bit scared at first. I kept identifying with the students, instead of with the staff. I felt like I was a student and shouldn’t really be in the office, and that someone was going to tell me off. It was very strange. Just about as I got used to it, it was time to leave.
TB: Silver Screen made quite an impact: you won the Amazon Bursary, you were shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke and BSFA Awards… Did you expect that degree of success?
JR: No, not at all. I was just delighted that it got into print, and that would have been enough for me. I was completely surprised when it got shortlisted for the Clarke. Writing the second one did get harder, partly because of that. I started to get very nervous and feel that now the challenge was really on. Silver Screen got a very good reception, and many people said many delightful things about it; and I started to feel that perhaps I could only disappoint from now on!
TB: There’s a review on the web which likens Mappa Mundi, your new novel, to The X Files. ‘The shadow cast by Chris Carter’s monster hit is impossible to ignore in Mappa Mundi; dangerous technology; shadowy government / military conspiracies; a maverick FBI agent not afraid to bend the rules (and whose relationship with his sister is an integral plot point); a cute and extremely intelligent female scientist with red hair; you get the picture!' How do you feel about that?
JR: I used to really like The X Files. When the first couple of series came out, they seemed to be really interesting and I enjoyed watching them. It’s only in later series that I’ve started to detest it. I was expecting people to mention things like that, because as soon as you start employing any character from the FBI who does anything remotely to do with futurology or mysterious stuff, it’s going to get compared to David Duchovny’s character in the show. There’s nothing you can do about that. I have to say it didn’t occur to me about the sister thing until I read it in that review - or the red-haired scientist, or the connection between them.
TB: This reviewer also says that he finds it a very cerebral novel; ‘it involves the head more than the heart’. I wondered if what he had a problem with was that you were dealing with complicated motivations, rather than a simplistic set of playground-type emotions driving some special effects, which is unfortunately a bit of a cliché in the genre as a whole. In Mappa Mundi, there are the opening ‘Legends’, each of which deals with a key episode in the life of one of the characters. They don’t initially seem to have anything to do with the rest of the plot. It’s only gradually that we realise how much effect those incidents have on what happens in the main arc of the novel: how much the incidents have affected those characters’ psychological makeup. Do you think that the SF genre tends to steer away from the more complicated emotions in favour of special effects?
JR: Yes, often. I hate to say that, because it seems to be selling science fiction really short. Lots of people have slammed science fiction in the past for exactly that kind of thing. But at the same time you’ve got people like Iain Banks who manages to do both: he writes complex and deep psychological stories with all of the -‘ bang, wallop, crash’ stuff at the same time. I always find it difficult to talk about science fiction as a genre in that generalistic sense, because it does so many things so well, but not necessarily all at the same time. I think it might be possible, but excessively difficult, to pull off all its stunts at once. Therefore, you have to pick and choose to some degree. You have to say to yourself, “Well, I’m going to write a thoughtful sort of book examining these ideas, so there isn’t going to be a lot of running around, car chasing, alien killing.” On the other hand, if you want a rip-roaring adventure where the action never stops, it’s a bit tricky to work in the really subtle psychological effects. I’m not saying it’s undoable, but it is hard, and many of the appealing features of science fiction are its much more obvious dramas and techno-feats.
TB: Your first book, Silver Screen, is in the first person. That’s something you do see quite often in writers who want to balance the action and the more emotional side - the more cerebral side, perhaps - of it. In Mappa Mundi you write in the third person, which doesn’t give the same immediacy or special knowledge of the character’s emotional life.
JR: In Mappa Mundi most of the emotional stuff that’s going on is an undercurrent of some kind. That’s precisely because the whole book is an examination of motivation, and whether or not you really do have any insight into what you’re doing, or if you are, in fact, driven by all kinds of things which you hadn’t realised have affected you. It’s all about free will, freedom of choice and that kind of thing. All the characters in it are driven, not only by the things that they think they want, but also all the things that they don’t really understand that they want. I felt it was a very emotional book, because the only reason that people do anything in it is because they have such strong feelings - whether they’re rational, whether they’re conscious, or not. To me it just felt like this big, dark soup of strange stuff going on: to read a review saying, “it’s just cerebral, nobody feels anything” is a bit … disappointing. Perhaps that’s partly the book’s fault: in some ways it sets out to be a thriller in its style. If it was that kind of book, you would expect it to have more thrilleresque qualities - much more obvious emotional motivation and character interaction - than it does.
TB: It seems a less British book than Silver Screen. Despite some scenes set in space in your earlier novel, and in America in Mappa Mundi, to a British reader it’s the action set in England which is clearly in a real place. Do you think of yourself as a particularly British, or English, writer? Do you think it’s important to get locations right?
JR: I think it is important to get your locations right. I like to be precise about them where I can be, and I try to write about places that I know, so hopefully they’ll feel authentic. The American places in Mappa Mundi are all places that I’ve been to. I’d have to wait until I found somebody else who’d actually been there to find out if they feel authentic.
TB: Mappa Mundi appeared just after the terrorist attacks on September 11th. It features a hijack, which may have been rather too timely for some people. There’s an apposite phrase about the effects of Mappaware, which is effectively a kind of mental programming. “Guskov said that it was possible for a person to remain essentially themselves whilst shifting the core of their identities, to a sufficient extent that an Afghani Muslim could experience himself as a part of the United States diaspora, loyal to the flag, espousing democracy, even tolerating libertarians on the same street because of the Stars and Stripes flying overhead.” Would you like to rewrite that, with hindsight?
JR: No! I stand by it. A lot of the book is to do with the development of this mind control technology. Its primary developers are the Americans - and the American government in particular - who are doing it in response to a perceived bioterrorist threat coming out of Asia/the East: it’s not specified exactly where. They have medical nanotechnology working quite well, and they’ve realised that by fiddling around with your synapses they can do certain things to you. The system they’re trying to develop is one which alters the emotional response you have to particular ideas. It doesn’t try to change your thoughts - it’s just about changing your attitude, in a very broad-scale sort of way. Part of the reason I wrote it was because I was feeling quite resentful at that stage about the American cultural overspill that the media was creating, not just in the West but also migrating into the rest of the world. Partly the McDonalds and the Disneyfication, but also all the myths and beliefs they’re exporting in their films. Their response to a lot of films - especially Independence Day - is quite different from audiences elsewhere. Many of my relatives are Americans, and many of them are very patriotic. I even found sometimes talking to them would drive me gradually round the bend at their insularity. It’s almost a cliché of the age to say that about Americans. Part of my reason for having them develop this technology was the natural result of running their ideology right out to its limit line. The final conclusion that the US makes, in the book, about other people is that we must preserve them and not do horrible cultural-territorial things to them. They can all still be themselves, except they’ll like us. And we won’t need to bomb them. The whole beauty of this idea was, there would be no more war. There would be no more bombing, because everybody would get along at least enough that you wouldn’t have this kind of violent uprising of the people. Do you really think people would be offended by the hijack scene? People will still be hijacking planes as long as there are planes!
TB: Perhaps America has taken it more personally than another nation would have, because they never thought it could happen to them. Americans are now programmed - in the old-fashioned sense of the word - to think of hijacking in the context of September 11th and the Twin Towers.
JR: We are programmed to do things. If someone had come up to me in the street two days later and asked what I think I’d have probably said something off the TV or the papers, because I didn’t really know what to think.
TB: You studied psychology, didn’t you?
JR: A bit. I studied philosophy and linguistics. I was hoping to convert to studying Artificial Intelligence, which you can study at Bristol University. Philosophy and linguistics go together quite well in AI, because you study natural language design - and structured thinking, to whatever degree you can study that.
TB: Can you tell us about how you evolved the AI in Silver Screen?
JR: I just extrapolated it from what was already going on in that area. They were thinking at the time that the only way you could possibly get an AI was to have it design itself to some degree. It would have to start off mimicking human complexity because that’s the only model of intelligence we’ve got. One of the main problems with developing AI at the moment is that the machines themselves don’t have sensory input from the outside world, and they don’t have mobility, and they don’t have limbs. They’re utterly incapable of gathering their own information, apart from what we give them, which is not environmentally rich. There’s no stimulation, no opportunity for them to exercise any kind of decision of any meaningful value. You’d have to equip the AI with inputs that you didn’t have to feed. Once you’ve got something like that, even though it’s modelled on a human intelligence, ultimately it’s going to be smart enough to realise it isn’t human. A lot of human beings’ behavioural development is to do with their hormonal structure, among other things, and unless you mimic that there’s no reason to think that the machine would be anything like a human consciousness, if it ever evolved. But it would probably have to behave like one, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to interact with it.
TB: In Mappa Mundi, on the other hand, you’ve gone for quite a different area of future technology: it’s basically mind programming, isn’t it?
JR: It’s been featured a lot over the years, done by various means. I was trying to approach it in a scientific kind of way, to see if it would be possible to affect people in the way you’ve often dreamed of affecting them, by saying ‘Buy Brand X soap powder’ or ‘Believe this political theory’. By the time I’d thought it through, I could see it was going to be far too complicated. No one’s ever going to have the time to get into every individual head and see how it all works, and then start to make changes. I had to think of a much more brutal way of mind-controlling people that was simpler and more horrible but potentially much more effective. It’s the whole brainwashing technique just taken to an extreme by being done electronically, instead of having to persuade people through reams and reams of information bombardment.
TB: Wireless brainwashing. You could have done it via mobile phones…
JR: I didn’t know about mobile phones. I thought they might be obsolete technology by this stage. I have these little handheld ‘do everything’ gadgets, Pads, but a lot of people probably won’t have those, because they’re still very much a First World item. If you’re going for global domination you need something that’s globally available.
TB: When is this set? It’s 2015, 2016?
JR: Yes, ten or fifteen years’ time.
TB: It’s interesting that you set the novel so near to us in time. Writing near-future science fiction must be difficult - you have to think so hard about what’s going to last and what isn’t. Bold as Love, Gwyneth Jones’ new novel, is already outdated because she talks about putting a Railtrack spur out, and Railtrack are, of course, no more. Famously, in the film 2001, there’s the Pan Am shuttle. How do you decide? What makes you think something is going to last?
JR: I decided I wasn’t going to think too hard about that kind of thing. I tried to avoid mentioning anything that seemed like it was a transient technology to me. Things like Walkmans - do they change into Walksticks?
TB: You’ve written two very science-oriented science fiction novels. Some, at least, of your short stories are fantasy. Have you ever thought about writing a fantasy novel?
JR: Yes, I used to write fantasy novels when I was unpublished. That might give you a hint as to why I stopped doing it! They were pretty horrendous, actually. I wouldn’t rule it out: it’s just that I’d have to be a lot better at it than I used to be. I’m still waiting for the day when I come up with the idea that I think is worth doing. I don’t really care about the money. I’d only write fantasy if I thought it was going to be any good and if I thought it was going to be interesting to me, and the same goes for an SF book. And if I never had another good idea I wouldn’t bother carrying on. It might not interest anybody else, but if something interests me I’ll write about it.
Audience: You’ve written some short stories.
JR: I have, yes, and some of them are OK... I find it really hard to write them. I don’t find them satisfying. It’s quite rare for me to read a short story that I like. I’d rather read a novel.
Audience: You’ve said that you don’t really like writing short stories. When I started reading Mappa Mundi it just seemed like a series of short stories.
JR: I suppose they are short stories, but I didn’t think of them that way. To me they’re components. I didn’t think they’d be stand-alone stories. I like short stories to do more than what those first-person narratives do. I like them to go somewhere, to have a definite beginning and end and development.
TB: Back to the mind programming. If that technology was available, would you do it? Would you go and disseminate the substance that changes peoples’ minds?
JR: It’s an enormous hubris to think that you can solve the world’s problems by having this blanket niceness that would appear in everybody’s personality.
TB: And that’s why you picked the Americans to initiate it?
JR: It would be enormously tempting, almost impossibly tempting, not to try to do something in the current situation to improve the outcome. But no, I probably wouldn’t do it. I don’t think I could possibly do anything to make things any better. What would you do if you had one thing to do to try to make the world better, to improve people? What could you possibly do to them? Whatever small change you made to them, it could have enormous effects. But I don’t suppose, in terms of net happiness, it would up the percentage. It may change things, but it wouldn’t make them necessarily better.
TB: I was interested in your article for the website The Alien Online about, amongst other things, transcendence. That sense of there being something else, something different was present in both your novels, both for human and for AI. In Silver Screen, you seem to have transcendence as a potential, at least, for an artificial intelligence as much as for a human being. It’s an atheist’s epiphany.
JR: I’ve always been fascinated by altered states of consciousness as an aspect of human living. I’ve tried to approach it personally through yoga, but also through books and learning. For ages I just couldn’t get out of anybody - even people who seemed, or claimed, to be regularly experiencing it - what they were actually talking about. What is this experience of the ‘higher’ state of consciousness? Do I know more things? Will I get strange powers like telepathy and clairvoyance? They all talk in very vague and difficult-to-interpret terms, and a lot of the time I felt that it was an ‘emperor’s new clothes’ situation, because there’s no way to share the experience or even to communicate with somebody exactly what your experience of the profound or the divine or the higher is. There isn’t a language for it. You try to put it into language and it doesn’t really make any sense. It’s so open to interpretation, especially in terms of neuroscience, different sorts of brain events and the actual experience of the event, and the chemical or the electrical activity of the event. All the time I was trying to figure out whether I thought the world was just a material place in which we have totally chemical brains, or whether there really was something other going on. It was a very hard decision but eventually I came down on the atomic structure side of it. You may have an experience of becoming one with the divine. Just because it’s an atomic event happening to you doesn’t mean that your experience is wrong, or that you are wrong, or that there is no divine. If you think you turned into a wolf and ran over the steppes, and met with magical beings, you probably didn’t: but that doesn’t mean that your experience of being a wolf and running over the steppe and meeting magical beings is a meaningless load of old tosh! There’s a piece of me that’s a completely godless atheist, but another piece of me longs for mystery and the divine and the intercession of greater things for us, because god knows we are not doing such a great job of it on our own. I have this big struggle all the time, in all of the books: I’m trying to portray people as, not transcending so much as becoming greater things. Sometimes it’s too much for them - a sublimation too far.
TB: But it’s sublimation through science, rather than through religion or the supernatural.
JR: Through all my contact with people who have spent a lifetime in devout practice, I’ve found that there is something different about them: but I don’t believe it’s an otherworldly, supernatural something. I think they definitely have evolved as human beings to a different state, which you might choose to call higher or not, and they are operating on slightly different levels, but I don’t think there’s anything bizarre or X-Filey about that.
TB: It seems to me that your major characters all get somewhere completely unexpected! Your female protagonists are strong and effective, but also very human, with lots of very real self-doubt. Does any of that - or even the choice of female characters - come from being a female author? And would you work with a male protagonist rather than a range of viewpoints from both sexes? What about writing from the first person as a male character?
JR: I couldn’t say at the moment whether I’d write a first-person man. I think it’d be enormously difficult, because I do think that male experience is significantly different from mine. I hesitate to say that I’m typical of all women, because I don’t think I am: nobody’s really typical. Most of us are in the middle of that bell curve. But there’s a huge range of different experiences depending on your physical gender. I probably would try it, but how convincing it would be would depend on the men who read it. Having read science fiction over the years, women have often been secondary characters. I did make a conscious decision to try and redress the balance, but I didn’t want to do it by writing science fiction about feminist issues.
TB: Is that because you don’t think of yourself as a feminist or just that it’s not an especially interesting area for you?
JR: It’s because I’ve never liked any of the fiction I’ve read which was specifically feminist-issue based - not that I’ve read that much of it. The Left Hand of Darkness was interesting on lots of levels, but it wasn’t very gender-specific, or I didn’t find it was and hence, although it did some work communicating a genderless experience, it felt very flat and uninteresting, like a thought-experiment and not a real situation. I’m also thinking about books like The Gate to Women’s Country and Mothertongue which I didn’t find credible, although they had interesting moments. When you’re trying to put a political ideology into a science fiction book as a reality, or as an idealised reality - it could be just that I happened to have picked the bad writers - but it feels so artificial and so unlikely, and the emotions that came out of that sort of writing are hostile and angry. It’s not a helpful attitude, not an attractive one. I don’t want to feel all these negative feelings they make me feel, not only about myself, but also about feminism. I honestly think that if this is what feminism’s all about then I don’t want anything to do with it, because it’s absolutely repellent in human terms. It’s dishonest and I hate it. That really put me off. Yes, I am a feminist, but in my definition of that.
TB: Is your idea of a happy ending less likely to be girl and boy walking off into the sunset than girl walking off in an altered state of consciousness?
JR: I could do girl and boy walking off into the sunset if it was justified by anything that had gone before it! Happy endings … Both my books have positive endings, to some degree. They’re quite complicated endings, rather than happy resolutions in terms of putting everything neatly together
TB: You don’t necessarily buy into the stereotypical romantic ending.
JR: Absolutely not! In fact I don’t like that ending, on its bald facts, because I think it’s the same old trash you’re always sold. As a girl, I felt that my expectations were all to be moulded around it and everything else was secondary. If you didn’t have that you wouldn’t be happy in a certain special way. You’d always be missing out and be somehow lesser and defective. Which isn’t to say I haven’t had my own happy ending, but I resented it being peddled so hard! I’d rather have been sold dreams of being someone with a clue in my own right rather than an accessory in some other hero’s story.
Audience: You’re writing just far enough in the future that the rest of your career will span the times you’re writing about. How embarrassed do you think you might end up being? For instance, in Mappa Mundi, you’re writing about an America which is a lot more authoritarian than it is now.
JR: It could just be me getting it wrong! I won’t ever be embarrassed by getting things wrong: I find that amusing. I’m sure things will turn out completely differently anyway. I’d hate to be some kind of oracle.
Audience: Which authors inspired you? You mentioned The Left Hand of Darkness
JR: Ursula le Guin, yes, to some degree. I found Earthsea, as a story, emotionally more rounded and thoroughly developed than the actual science fiction books. Iain Banks - I like the way that he can combine many complicated things and still have lots of fun action and derring-do going on. Recently I’ve started to try and read a bit more broadly. I liked House of Leaves - ‘liked’ is probably the wrong word, I admired House of Leaves. A very interesting but very disturbing book. I’m still not quite sure what I think about it! I’m trying to branch out a bit more. There’s so many writers that it’s hard to say. I read books, and I’m very into them for the time that I’m reading them. A short while later they go right out of my head like a sieve, and I retain all kinds of strange things about them which often aren’t there in the text when I go back and reread them. China Miéville was quite an influence, just recently, with Perdido Street Station. That had energy and verve and I thought it was a refreshing change.
TB: Presumably that would have been an influence over your third book?
JR: The working title is Natural History, which nobody likes but me. I’m trying to write a story about when human beings have engineered themselves to live in outer space or on the surfaces of gas giants. The most limiting factor of the whole space travel thing is having to go out there in a tin box and support yourself with some very vulnerable systems that take enormous energy and effort to maintain. You’re not going anywhere like that, really. The best thing to do would be to try to change yourself. It’s in a future where genetic engineering’s been tremendously successful, and all Earth-based DNA is basically up for grabs, and so are the cybernetics and nanoware industries. People are becoming conglomerates of biological and engineered processes. They come across some aliens. I’m having real trouble with the aliens, because the more I try and write about them the more I realise they’re humans in suits. I don’t like that, because I think aliens are nothing like that. I’m going to have to remove them, I think, and do something else.
TB: Who do you think does a good alien?
JR: Lots of people do good aliens, as in entertaining aliens with lots of funny appendages and habits and physiological niceties and so on. I really like James White’s books, because of the alien classification system. All the aliens you come across in the hospital are just hilariously entertaining and wonderfully inventive. Banksie does good aliens. But the ‘people in suits’ brigade - their aliens are all wonderfully comprehensible and they communicate beautifully … Contact aliens are a bit like monsters from the id, taking on a form that everyone will understand, so you don’t really get any insight into them anyway. I suppose that in terms of ‘real’ aliens, I preferred that, because it’s a bit more plausible than thinking you could actually understand anything about them whatsoever. But then you also get the South Park response to stories like Contact… all that and you find out the aliens are her father! It sucks.
TB: What do you think will happen first? Artificial intelligence that can think like a human, or an artificial way to change what humans think? Silver Screen or Mappa Mundi?
JR: I just read an article by Stephen Hawking in the paper. In this article he says ‘both’: he’s saying that the machines will reach a level of complexity where they might overtake us and become smart. His response to that is to say that we must make connections between them and our brains so they make us smarter, and don’t threaten our supremacy. I thought that was quite a strange conclusion! Smart machines first, I think …

Tuesday, September 25, 2001

Interview: Gwyneth Jones, September 2001

This interview took place in September 2001, at the monthly British Science Fiction Association night in London. This interview previously appeared in Vector (issue #221, Jan / Feb 2002) the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association.

TB: Bold as Love is quite a departure from your other books.
GJ: I wrote the story ‘Bold as Love’ first, for Paul McAuley and Kim Newman’s anthology In Dreams. It was not by any means the story of the novel Bold as Love, but it was the germ of the story. A bunch of rock stars - not immensely famous rockstars but just ordinary rockstars - are the leaders of the revolution. The story was about how lightly we would tread upon the earth if everybody lived the way they live at rock festivals: a bit of dodgy vegetable curry and everybody living in tents with diabolical sanitation. When that anthology was reviewed, the reviewers who mentioned my story all said ‘it’s a very strange aberration for Gwyneth Jones’. Which made me think … well, how little do they know? For the last god knows how many years I’ve been writing serious science fiction; but, in my spare time, I’ve been going to gigs and to festivals, and I’ve been buying music, as - no doubt - many other people who read science fiction have been doing. It’s been a part of my life. When I came to writing that story I realised that music has been very important to me, and when I’d done it, I knew I wanted to write about those people, that world, in a novel. This is what I do in my spare time, and now I’ve decided to write about it.
TB: So the novel’s a labour of love?
GJ: Yes. Terrific fun, great. It’s much closer to my life, closer to my own personal feelings, than the serious science fiction that I’ve written before, which has been talking to people about things that were going on in the world, and that I thought were worth talking about. But this is my daily life. Nightly life, maybe.
TB: It’s more light-hearted than your other novels.
GJ: Maybe this is one of the symptoms of middle age. You get to a point in your life when you look around and you think, ‘Hold on. This is all there is. There isn’t going to be any more. Isn’t it great!’ And you start enjoying what there is to be enjoyed. You don’t stop wishing that you could change things for the better, but you make sure you don’t miss any of the fun. Bold as Love is about that feeling: ‘Hey! Not much time left. Don’t want to miss any of the fun’.
TB: It’s a very near future - not today, not tomorrow, not an alternate Now as one reviewer’s posited, but perhaps ten or twenty years away?
GJ: Really, there is no date to Bold as Love. The Locus reviewer decided that it was set in 2007, because that makes 300 years from the Act of Union between England and Scotland. I had said at some point ‘three hundred years’, but I was rounding up, or rounding down… But I think this could be the real future, in some senses. All that has to happen really, to add to the mix we already have, is a huge economic crash, and I think that could be arranged… it could be very close. But of course, things wouldn’t turn out half so benign in England as they do in Bold as Love. A paved-over Police state, is more likely.
TB: Well, the character Ax is named after Axl Rose - but Guns’n’Roses weren’t big in 1985.
GJ: If there is a date, it would be 2013. If you examine the text carefully you’ll find information that supports this. It would mean Sage and Ax were born in January and February 1987, which makes them a Fire Rabbit and a Fire Dragon, according to the Chinese astrological calendar -which is where Dilip places them, when he’s doing the PR publicity poster, I think it’s the start of Chapter Nine. It also makes it possible for Dan Preston to have named Ax after Axl Rose, which is one of the jokes in the first chapters. It’s very embarrassing for Ax, he’s a musico, refined intelligentsia of the Indie Rock world, but his father is a pub-character, a total layabout with shameless heavy metal taste… Whereas Sage’s parents were older, middle-class hippie drop outs, from whom he inherited a huge black vinyl collection, and the Grateful Dead fixation; and Fiorinda’s miserable background is in the unfortunate-children-of-mad-megastar mode; there are plenty of examples. I’m talking ‘bout my generation’s children, fictionally speaking… and I worked it out carefully, in a way. But the dates will not add up. There’ll be anachronisms, and I don’t mind. I like them. There is a crucial mention in one of the last chapters of ‘Near Miss Year’ - apparently ten years before the events of this story there was an asteroid near-miss, and everybody spent a mad summer thinking the world was going to end. I put that in because I was writing Bold as Love in 1999. Remember 1999? Eclipse Summer? That was a little Summer of Love, and I was in Cornwall for it, living on a beach, on the Lizard, and there were rock festivals all over the place. We didn’t get much of an eclipse but it was a great atmosphere, English outdoors community experience. I wanted to put it in the book, so I did, regardless. If there should be a previously unsuspected Near Miss in 2003, then be very afraid… I had never written in a scenario so close to the present before. I had to make a decision. Is it going to be all dovetailed in? Or is it going to be freeform? The moment I thought of that, the obvious answer was ‘freeform’. One of the things I might do on the website is make a little concordance of all the things that just cannot add up.
TB: You quote Marx at the beginning of the book: “All mythology masters and dominates and shapes the forces of nature, in and through the imagination. Hence it disappears as soon as man gains mastery over the forces of nature”. And you’ve added, “But, on the other hand …”
GJ: I’ve got a lot of time for Karl Marx. I really appreciate his writings. But I think he’s wrong there. I think that mythology will always reappear, reintegrate itself, grow again - like fungus or something - and I think one of the things that’s happening in Bold as Love is that the relationship between the technology and the human race has reached a cusp where it’s possible for people - to coin a phrase - to take over the means of production. One of the things that happens - and again, this is one of the things that would belong in the concordance, because as science goes it is, as far as I’m aware, total balderdash - is people becoming their own powerhouses. We get very energy-conserved hardware, so if you want to power a computer, you power it with your fingertips. I can’t bear to tell you the science, but it involves ATP - adenosine triphosphate - the molecule that is used in your cells for energy production. There is a sense in which technology reaches a point where it is loose in the community, and the big corporations - what am I talking about? They can always win - but in my world, in my vision, there comes a point where people can do it for themselves. ‘ATP’ means ‘take the power into your own hands,’ see, very literal. This is one of the things that made rock music a good metaphor, because this is the technology, for the feckless new millionaires of the first generation of big money rock and roll, and then again for the punks … where people, individuals and bands, were able to hijack the machinery, use it their own ways. The more available it becomes, and the more possible it becomes for somebody to say “I don’t need any of you, I’m just gonna bring out a record in my bedroom, and I’m going to press the discs and I’m going to sell them.” Doesn’t mean it’ll be a good record… but it can be done. Home publishing.
TB: Yes, there’s an Internet-based music industry in the novel.
GJ: Don’t ask me how the economics works. I know it does, I know people like Prince make stacks from download sites. But there’s no accountancy strand in Bold as Love
TB: That’s all very futuristic, but you also have echoes of British - no, English - mythology. Possibly because of the novel having three protagonists - two men and a woman - who are, let’s say, emotionally entangled, people are calling this an Arthurian fantasy.
GJ: It started with the idea of our hero, Ax, being a person who is a principled artist. He’s learnt his craft, he can play the guitar really well. He believes that Western civilisation is worth saving, and he sees it falling apart. He never imagined he would be in Yorkshire with an assault rifle, but he has always thought to himself, “I want to be one of the people that keeps things going. I can see that we’re getting to the point where we might fall off the edge of something. I want to be one of the people who makes the choice for the future rather than the Dark Ages.” Once I’d got that hero set up, because I’m English and because I’ve read a lot of Arthurian myth - and because I’m a science fiction and fantasy fan - I thought ‘Oh really? Well, this sounds like Arthur.’ And we have Fiorinda who is magic. She’s native magic, sovereign magic, that’s not all she is, but it makes her the queen. So I’ve got Guinevere. I invented Sage as Lancelot when I realised what was happening. But this is Arthur in a modern mode, this is not re-enactment fantasy. My Arthurian sense of it, it’s the sense of Ax being one of those people who tries to hold back the tide. I don’t know who Arthur really was; I don’t know if he’s a total invention. But if the Arthur story, fifth century dux bellorum holding back the barbarians, is a story of somebody trying to preserve a civilisation when it’s bound to go, then Bold as Love is an Arthurian story.
TB: Is mythology destiny?
GJ: Ax is not just dux bellorum of the British. Ax has an agenda, and his agenda is about art, friendship and concern for others … I don’t want to say any more than that. The story does go on being Arthurian, but different things can happen with a myth.
TB: Near the beginning of the book, Fiorinda asks someone, ‘Is politics really the new rock’n’roll’?
GJ: I was thinking to what extent music had been my politics. What happened to me was that I read these rock’n’roll biographies looking for rock’n’roll ideas the same way as I’d look for science ideas to put in a book. I realised this actually is the story of my life, because when Bob Dylan - and all those other people whose names we’ve forgotten because Bob Dylan became It - when they were looking for the roots music of America, I was looking for the roots music of England. I, and my sisters, and my friends, were getting into Cecil Sharp: we were playing and singing English folk songs. We were part of that Zeitgeist. Folk music was big when I was thirteen or fourteen, and that’s where I was, and then… the Beatles, and all that followed. What I realised when I started writing Bold as Love is the importance of rock’n’roll - well, not just rock’n’roll, popular music, which becomes ‘folk music’ if it lives. That it goes right back to medieval times in my personal knowledge, which is quite amazing really, a thousand years. ‘Sumer is Icumen in’ was written in Reading, did you know? By a monk. Isn’t that fascinating? Synchronicity, eh? Unluckily, most of our really well known English pop/folk music dates back to the Napoleonic wars (which makes it awkward in Bold as Love because the French are supposed to be our friends). I don’t know if rock’n’roll is politics, but it’s been my cultural history, it’s had a significant part in shaping my life. I hadn’t really realised that when I started writing Bold as Love, but now I do.
TB: I’m not going to ask you how close the politics are to your own.
GJ: Well, there are lots of different politics in the book.
TB: I probably will ask you which bands you had in mind, though.
GJ: There are three main bands in Bold as Love. … I should say, Bold as Love the book has a website. I’ve never done this before. I have a website of my own, which is autobiographical and has essays on it. I decided that if I was going to write a book about rock’n’roll bands, it had to have a website, and I have gone all the way. There’s a quiz, there’s a letters page, there’s everything you would expect to find, and there’s also merchandising - band T-shirts and so on. Ax Preston is the lead guitarist and frontman of a band called the Chosen Few, who come from Taunton. You can get the Deconstruction Tour T-shirt for his band. The Chosen Few are just a virtuous indie guitar band, and I didn’t have a closer model than that. Does the name Reef mean anything to you? West Country guitar band? Almost famous in 1999? Something like that. Held to be good, not famous yet but might be… There are always a few bands like that around. Or you might think of them as Radiohead, though of course they come from Oxford, not far enough west.
TB: Radiohead, only more cheerful?
GJ: More cheerful, and more metal-oriented. Some of you may know Deconstruction in this world is a very over-the-top heavy metal event that’s been happening for the past few years. My Deconstruction’s an eco-warrior deconstruction: theirs is just a chance to make a lot of noise, drink a lot … but I was amused when I found out there was a real ‘Tour’. Many points in common with reality, that’s a good sign, I think. Then there’s DARK, from Teesside, the band Fiorinda plays with. There are several models for Fiorinda’s band. One is that they are Nirvana: Nirvana’s big album is Nevermind. DARK’s big album is No Reason. They’re the raving anarchist kids. Sage and Ax, the men, are the grown ups. Fiorinda is the monster teenage loony.
TB: And she sounds like P J Harvey.
GJ: I thought of Elastica, but for a singer … I looked and listened, and listened and listened: and Polly Harvey, P J Harvey, she has the voice: she’s Fiorinda, near as can be. Cerys Matthew, also, looning around in her party frocks… Then there’s Aoxomoxoa and the Heads. There is an English band called the Heads, they come from Bristol, they’re into psychedelic hard rock: but actually, my Aoxomoxoa and the Heads are, schematically, shall we say, the Grateful Dead. They’re technos, not a guitar band, but they are carrying the futuristic-tech-in-Rock strand; and they have other Dead-like characteristics. But Sage is also a very contemporary figure, I mean 2001 contemporary. In many ways it’s horrifying to me to realise that a lot of the things that Marshall Mathers has to say about himself, and that are said about him, could easily be said about my Sage, who is a very laddish sort of rockstar, who’s made a lot of money out of making himself very popular with a bunch of deranged teenage louts. But he actually has a more responsible side. I don’t know that Eminem does. I think that chap is a conceptual artist, really.
TB: I was thinking more Oasis …
GJ: Oasis?!
TB: Not for the music, but for the attitude.
GJ: Oh yes, yes. “There is this plate-glass window saying ‘Throw a chair at me’”. Sage is a serious large-about, and to some extent there’s some Noel/Liam stuff going on between Ax and Sage. But his bad taste is more calculated, I think, than anything Oasis were capable of. Arbeit Macht Frei is the title of Aoxomoxoa and the Heads’ last album before the book begins. It means ‘Freedom through Work’, and it’s written in wrought iron on the gates to Auschwitz. The Heads say it’s a comment on global capitalism. This is where Sage stands, like Eminem: ‘I’m saying really terrible things: yes. But it’s because the world’s a really terrible place…’ I’ve worn the T-shirt. Occasionally someone will accost me and say ‘Freedom through Work. That’s German, innit?’ Nobody has come up to me and said ‘How can you do that?’ which is rather shocking, really. How close the historical horizon is. How soon we forget.
TB: On to the artwork: the cover of Bold as Love is a pastoral landscape by Anne Sudworth
GJ: It’s beautiful, isn’t it. But it didn’t grab the buyers! I had a dispute with the management about the cover. It was me going for guitars, the management going for unicorns and fairies… er, I mean, “something that shouts ‘Fantasy!’” was the actual words. I said ‘please, no’ because I think if you put spaceships on the front of a book, people will not be happy when they open the book and there are no spaceships in it. They will realise that they have been tricked, and they will not be pleased. If it isn’t a genre fantasy, don’t give it a genre fantasy cover, was my argument. So we got an empty landscape… and I suppose I was wrong. I usually am. Sigh.
TB: Inside the book, by way of contrast, you have a frontispiece by Bryan Talbot, with Sage, Ax and Fiorinda. He’s also done the sketches on the flyers for the book, and the illustration for the excerpt, ‘The Salt Box’, in Interzone.
GJ: I’ve known Bryan for a while, and I really admire his work. When I’d written Bold as Love I wanted people to read it for me to tell me what I was up to: because it was so different from what I’d done before. I sent the book to him, and he read it and liked it. So I said ‘Would you draw them for me, Bryan?’ And he did! The frontispiece of the book is a bit hard on Ax. I think it emphasises the Rock Dictator aspect. But that’s fair enough. It’s a reading. And the portrait sketch - that is Ax! When I saw the sketch of him coming out of the printer, I thought, ‘Yeah! Now I know what Ax Preston looks like.’ I really like the Sage picture as well. Fiorinda - well, she wasn’t entirely Fiorinda for me when I first saw her (though now, I wouldn’t have her any other way). She looks older than sixteen, and colder… But that’s true to what I wrote, to the impression she makes, though not true to what I know, and what people will find out, if they read the book. A passionately loveable heroine, Roz Kaveney said, and that made me very happy, because that’s what I meant her to be… But I’m really thrilled to have these brilliant pictures by Bryan.
TB: The excerpt in Interzone [#169], the first chapter of Bold as Love, was the subject of a complaint, wasn’t it? You’re Public Enemy Number One, accused of publishing material liable to incite paedophiles.
GJ: David [Pringle] was pretty doubtful about publishing this: he said, ‘but there’s no fantasy in it, Gwyneth’. He finally agreed to publish it because he liked the story, although it had no elves, dragons or werewolves in it. Poor chap! In the middle of July he got a crank letter which he naturally ignored. The crank letter said that ‘The Salt Box’, by Gwyneth Jones, was obscene, liable to encourage paedophiles, it was child pornography and he was going to report it to the police. David came back from holiday two weeks later, and the police turned up and took away copies of the magazine: ‘Got to follow up these complaints, sir’. So I got a phone call - I was on holiday in California - to tell me that the first chapter of my book, which was due to be published the next week, had been seized by the police. I was, er, astonished. What happens in this story is that a twelve-year old girl, whose mother is a rock journalist, she has no idea who her father is, has a cold, miserable childhood. Then her mother’s glamorous sister appears and introduces her to the world of celebrities, and the twelve-year old girl knows that her mother doesn’t approve but that just thrills her the more. Her aunt takes her off to a country house weekend. The country house belongs to an ageing megastar. She thinks she’s there because her aunt wants to give her an exciting time. Actually, she’s been groomed and she is being presented to this elderly, fifty-plus rockstar as his treat for the weekend. Of course, he’s paying for it: he’s paying Fiorinda’s aunt. She gets, shall we say, seduced by this rockstar. She is not fazed, she is not a victim, she does not feel herself to have been raped: her attitude is ‘ugh, he’s disgusting; but you never know, it might be a break’. I suppose that was what Disgusted of Wilmslow found so outrageous. I hadn’t thought I was writing child pornography. I’d read and assimilated what happened in the back of the music business, and this was the milieu that I was writing about. And because I also write fairy tales, dark fairy tales, it struck me at once: well, this is what happens. The father goes after his daughter. And although it’s not obvious from the version in Interzone, the rockstar turns out to be Fiorinda’s father. Like the king in the fairy tale. In the modern form fairy tales don’t tell you why the daughter’s getting persecuted: it’s because the father wants her sexually, (and also magically, in this case); and she flees from him. That’s some of what happens in Bold as Love.
TB: There are other sections in Bold as Love which deal with child abuse and paedophilia: I don’t think any of them, unless the reader has a very hyperactive imagination, could be read as any sort of incitement. They are damning of the people involved.
GJ: Well, I was talking about was the counterculture, which has its demons, just as global capitalism has its demons. Hmm. Maybe, freedom from constraint corrupts, just the same as power… Everybody wants to be free. I wanted to show both sides of that, the good and the bad. And the bad’s pretty bad. But thinking of some of the things I’ve written … I never expected to get into trouble with the police for this!
[Audience] What’s the final outcome of the complaint?
GJ: That is a dispute between me and David at the moment. David had a policewoman come round on August 2nd. (You remember the dates, because you imagine the day in court! That might happen). She took the stuff away, and she told him she’d be back to him in a couple of days. She wasn’t. When I got back to England on 14th August, I rang him and said ‘So what happened with the police?’ He said ‘Well, nobody got back to me, and I’ve mislaid the scrap of paper on which I wrote down the policewoman’s name’. He would have been all right ringing the police station and asking to speak to a particular person, but he’d have had to ring up and say ‘Er, you know about that obscenity charge?’ He didn’t feel like doing that, and I don’t blame him! I said ‘I’d really like to get off the hook: I’m sure they’re not going to prosecute, but I’d like somebody to say that they think the story’s OK.’ But as of now, it seems I’m never going to get that. There’s a lingering dissatisfaction about it, that I’m never going to be able to get somebody to say ‘that was ridiculous’.
TB: There’s a lot of grim stuff in the book, but despite that it’s light-hearted, and almost Utopian. It’s a better future than many.
GJ: It’s a very optimistic version of what’s going to happen in the next few years to this country. It’s about dealing with all the problems that we have, and dealing with a lot of disintegration and collapse in a way that not only avoids major grief for major sections of the population, but has the people feeling that they’ve done a good job. Blitz spirit. It’s total fantasy!
TB: You have that line about helping other people as routine medication: “We’ll give the patients rock’n’roll for heavy medication, voluntary work as routine antidepressants. If we pitch it with enough conviction they’ll buy it.”
GJ: Ax’s theory is that, since we’re social animals, being good to others is a drug with a very pleasant kick. We all know it. It’s the way we’re wired. We’re supposed to look after each other. Ax’s theory that he tries to put into practice is that, in times of crisis, you can get people to go back to their wiring, go back to their original nature, and look out for each other.
TB: The paragraph goes on, “We all know only too well human beings will do any fucking thing, no limit, if it’s seen to be normal and taken for granted.” (p??)
GJ: One way or the other, yes. People will send the Jews to the death camps, or they will go and do voluntary stints in hospitals. You may not remember this - though of course I do because I had invented it the year before - but at the beginning of this year Gordon Brown suggested we should have a Volunteer Initiative. That’s what happens in Bold as Love: people go along and do their two or three hours of hospital cleaning or whatever, as if there was a war on. Of course it’s not going to happen. But Bold as Love’s a pantomime, and I hope it makes people feel better: that’s what it’s meant to do.
[Audience] Given the background of Islamists in the book, is there anything in it you would have rewritten in the light of the events of September 11th?
GJ: No. I had the largely Muslim - or at least politically largely Muslim - state of Yorkshire trying to declare UDI, and I had Ax and the Counterculturals going in and saying, ‘No! We can’t afford to break up any more! You’ve got to join in!’ I don’t want to change that. If you read the book, you’ll find out what the result is.
[Audience] In the excerpt you read out to us, do we ever get an explanation for the ghoul?
GJ: Nope! But one of the things you’ll find out in Bold as Love, which you can disentangle from the rest of the book if you look for it, is that spooky things are happening. It’s very much a realist near-future fiction, but there are things like the ghoul, and Fiorinda’s magic: and there are a couple of other strange things that show the rise of irrationality - no, not irrationality. The simplest way to put it is the way Sage keeps putting it: ‘The world is getting stranger’. Something has happened and the world is getting stranger, and all kinds of things are coming out of the woodwork. It’s not a new idea. No, you don’t get an explanation of the ghoul: but if you read an Ann Halam book called Don’t Open Your Eyes, (which came out in 2000 from Orion children’s books) you’ll find the very same ghoul. Er, sort of.
[Audience] The very last thing in the book says ‘Continued in Castles Made of Sand’. Is it written? When’s it coming out? And how many are there going to be?
GJ: It’s written, it’s with Jo Fletcher now, I’ve talked to her about it, and I’m just about to start the revision. It’ll come out some time in 2002. May 2002 is the date I have at the moment. How many are there going to be? If I have my way, there’ll be quite a few. The world has fallen apart, there’s been a huge economic depression, and there’s trouble in Europe. I can get quite a few years’ mileage out of that, and a lot of strange things can happen before I start writing Bold as Love: The Next Generation.
TB: Are you going to put excerpts on the website?
GJ: I’ve only put the first couple of paragraphs of Castles Made of Sand on the website, because I’m still working on it. But there will be chapters that probably won’t turn out to be chapters, and I’ll post them. Outtakes.
[Audience] Do you see Bold as Love as a complete departure for yourself from your previous material?
GJ: What I’ve got in Bold as Love is the idea that rockstars can be fantasy characters, and the rockstar concept, the music, is a thread through our times; and an idea of what’s going to happen in the near future. I don’t think it’s original, but it’s flexible and good as a framework. There are all kinds of topics to be dealt with, like AI, like … hmm, not to give too much away, anything that’s science-fictional, can be dealt with in the Bold as Love fantasy scenario, with the Bold as Love characters. That’s what I intend to do. I don’t think I’ve changed track, but I’ve come round to the idea of using a certain scenario, and a certain set of people, as the vehicle of what I want to write about. I want to tell these people’s stories, as the story of their world.
TB: How did it feel to be writing two heroic, brave males after all those years of writing ineffectual, flawed men?
GJ: I don’t think I’ve been writing about ineffectual, flawed men! Definitely not! That’s a base calumny on Sid Carton, Atoon of Jagdana, Endang of Gamartha, James and Luci in Kairos and even on Johnny Guglioli… whereas, arguably, Mishy Connelly in Phoenix Café isn’t strictly a man at all. My male characters are no more flawed or ineffectual than anyone else involved in my stories. They’re sometimes heroic, sometimes childish, sometimes wise, sometimes stupid … but they’re complete human beings. I’ve always done that. I’ve never been a woman who makes the men out of cardboard, or just brings them in for sex interest. Male characters that I’ve written before have been off the centre of the book, maybe: and I know to some people that seems like a deliberate insult to the male. But it isn’t. Ax and Sage are not so different from their predecessors: it’s just that they are in the centre of the book, and that was decided by the scenario.
[Audience] Have you ever considered doing a graphic novel with Bryan Talbot?
GJ: I’d love to. Alas, Bryan Talbot doesn’t need anybody to do graphic novels with him. He’s Renaissance Man, he can do it all. He doesn’t need me: I need him to draw the pictures, but he doesn’t need me to tell the stories. In a perfect world, maybe, one day. But how does it go? ‘Time is short, art is long’, and I think Bryan has enough to do with his own ideas.

Saturday, September 01, 2001

Shadow -- K J Parker

A man wakes up, half-immersed in a stream that runs through a battlefield, with no recollection of his identity. Overhead, crows circle, waiting. He has a vague memory of arguing with his reflection in the water, but that must have been a dream. Poldarn, taking the name of an obscure - and possibly made-up - god whose priestess he encounters, quickly adapts to a life without a past. His vivid dreams hint at that past, from a bewildering number of viewpoints: which dreams are truly his memories? Against a backdrop of a crumbling empire, beset by Viking-like raiders, Poldarn tries to reconstruct his identity. There are those who recognise him, but none of them live long enough to tell him his name. All that he can be sure of is his superlative skill with the sword and his ability to survive.

With the help of the fake priestess, Copis, he becomes a divine impersonator, a high-risk courier, and a button merchant - each role leading to another teasing encounter with a nameless face from his past. Legends and folk tales seem to link his fate with the story of the god Poldarn: could he, in fact, be a god and not know it?

Meanwhile, the sword-monk Monach (‘just a word for ‘monk’ in the southern dialect’) has been instructed by his Order to find the man who is calling himself Poldarn. The Order’s purposes are unclear, even to Monach, but they’re privy to knowledge about the god Poldarn that might help the mortal version to make sense of everything that’s happening to him.

K J Parker’s first fantasy trilogy, beginning with Colours in the Steel, met with critical acclaim for its straightforward grittiness, dark humour and attention to technological detail. The setting of the Fencer trilogy was a world of minimal magic, with few of the supernatural or mystical elements that have come to typify post-Tolkien fantasies. Shadow is similarly prosaic, focussing on the mundane rather than the magical. Parker conveys an intimate understanding of the mechanics of day-to-day life in a mildly industrialised Renaissance world - button-making machines, sword-fighting technique, the decades-long war against the raiders - without losing the tension of the narrative or glorifying its nastier aspects.

There are other similarities to Parker’s earlier novels. The prophetic dreams: the mirroring of dream and reality, highlighted by identical phrasing: the sheer complexity of plot, which is hinted at rather than revealed. Parker also has a rare gift for characterisation, and the plot is driven by credibly flawed individuals, rather than high-minded archetypes. Poldarn’s quest for his identity takes some improbable turns, working towards a revelation that is genuinely surprising and keeps the reader guessing until the end.


Shadow proclaims itself as ‘Book One of the Scavenger Trilogy’. Does the world really need another weighty fantasy trilogy, at over £10 for the trade paperback editions? Yes, when it’s by a writer as fresh and innovative as K J Parker.