"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" - O.W.

Current Study

Recently Completed Study:
Ph.D thesis: "Mapping Planet Auschwitz: The Non-Mimetic in Anglo-American Fiction of the Holocaust"

Current Sub-Studies

Areas of Interest:
> Non-mimetic depictions of trauma
> literature, trauma, and ethics
> Science Fiction and Alternate History
> 20th and 21st century literature
> Comics
> Paratexts

22 June 2016

Space in Science and Popular Culture

This week I was delighted to be invited to chair a panel at the International Festival for Business 2016 being held at the Liverpool Convention Centre. Organised as part of their "Blue Skies" programme in collaboration with Liverpool's Writing on the Wall literature festival. Tricia Sullivan had been invited to participate but was unable to make it.

I was the chair of the panel which also included Ra Page (founder and editorial manager of Comma Press) and Andy Sawyer (librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection). We had a really interesting conversation about the interplay, overlaps and inconsistencies between space travel and exploration in reality and in science fiction.

L-R: Me, Andy Sawyer, Ra Page

We touched on the new space races between developing economies such as China, India, Nigeria and others, and the race between different commercial companies, mainly in the USA. The panel also highlighted that co-operation, as well as competition, has been at the forefront of humanity's space adventure with the International Space Station as an obvious example. Andy commented about how this would likely please Arthur C. Clarke and how elements of contemporary space science are still within the realms of what he was interested in, despite how far we've come from many of the ideas of science fiction in the early days of space travel.

There was some scepticism about relying on commercial bodies to push us onwards in our space endeavours because of both the financial risks they may be unwilling to take, but also because their visions can often rest on one enthusiastic entrepreneur who won't always be around to pursue the projects into long term goals: Richard Branson driving Virgin Galactic forward for example.

The militarisation of space was talked about, both as a risk in the future but also as a present day danger given how little we know about what is floating above our heads. This connected with the dangers of space given how crowded the immediate vicinity is becoming with junk, Gravity (2013) depicting these dangers on the screen.

In front of Writing on the Wall's time machine
We spoke about the contrasts between science fiction's fondness for dystopia or disaster fiction in space versus the actual space programmes we've embarked upon which are largely presented as being utopian in design and aim.

It was also underlined that science fiction has certainly had an influence on space travel on a personal level with a great  many of the men and women who are engaged in space science citing reading and watching science fiction as being amongst their earliest inspirations. This becomes evident when you notice, for example, that of the five Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATVs) constructed and flown by the European Space Agency, four were named after European scientists and the fifth was named Jules Verne. (Similarly, the robotic barges used by Space X in their ambitious rocket landing procedure are named after ships in Iain M. Banks's Culture novels: Just Read the Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You; not to mention the space shuttle test vehicle Enterprise and the Virgin Galactic ship of the same name).

It was a fun event to do, if in (for me) a slightly unconventional setting of a business festival. Thanks to IFB2016 and WoW for having me and to my co-panelists for being great conversationalists.

20 April 2016

Call for Papers: Vector Special Issue: Science Fiction and Music

We are seeking to publish a few special themed issues of Vector: The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association in coming years, tackling various themes and topics which we feel are under represented in the articles we see more regularly. The first of these will be a special issue on Science Fiction and Music.

We are seeking 4000 word articles on the topic of science fiction and music, if you would like to discuss a concept or submit an abstract prior to submitting your article then please get in touch, but this is not a necessary requirement.

We are interested in papers on all aspects of science fiction and music which may include, but not be limited to:

  • Specific artists or groups
  • Specific pieces or albums
  • Comparative studies of musical pieces against each other, or against literary texts
  • Papers on popular music
  • Papers on classical music
  • Papers on soundtracks and scores
  • Papers on the use of music within science fiction of all mediums
  • The representation of music in literature
  • The representation of literature in music

Articles are due by September 19th, and accepted articles will appear in print in an issue of Vector at the end of 2016, or the beginning of 2017.

Please send your papers with a short bio note to the Vector editor e-mail: vector.editors@gmail.com
Feel free to also send any queries to this address.

5 April 2016

Interview with David Mitchell

Last year I had the honour of interviewing David Mitchell about his novel The Bone Clocks. The interview took place in August 2015 at Oh Me Oh My, Liverpool and was organised by Sceptre Books and Waterstones Liverpool. I transcribed the interview and it can be found below. This transcription originally appeared in Vector #281. Quotations from it also formed an important part of my analysis of The Bone Clocks which appeared in the LA Review of Books in 2015.

Glyn Morgan: It’s sort of a homecoming for you, in a sense, because you were born just up the road.

David Mitchell: Yeah, I was born in 1969 in Ainsdale, which I guess, back then was a newish, probably aspiring-lower-middle-class-ish branching off of Southport, which I understand was considered quite posh. Two of my earliest memories: one was playing in sand dunes at Ainsdale and a horse running past a high speed, along the surf… this is sounding a bit like Chariots of Fire isn’t it… and my mum saying “that’s Red Rum”. The second memory is being brought to Liverpool for a birthday treat, and the treat was going to Littlewoods and having a ham sandwich! I can still taste it, this was about 1974 I guess (we moved down South in the mid-70s, hence my accent), but it was white bread, margarine, and a single layer of ham, but you know how – even when there’s not much ham in it, because it’s the mid-70s – the ham sort of impregnates the crust around it. I’d nibble off the crust first, but it was a slightly more hammy crust than a non-ham sandwich crust would have been, and I just remember how fantastic it tasted. Sorry, that’s my North West story, exclusive to Oh Me Oh My, I’ve never told that story before.

GM: I was thinking about the connections between yourself and Liverpool. Not just the near-Southport connection but your second novel number9dream (2001) is a song by one of Liverpool’s favourite sons, and I only realised the other day that Cloud Atlas (2004) is named after a song by one of Yoko Ono’s other husbands.

DM: That’s deep research! Yes, it was a Japanese composer called Toshi Ichiyanagi. So yes, there are these hidden connections going on. There’s football as well, which is like your daemon in the Philip Pullman books: once it’s set, it’s set for life. Whoever you’re supporting when you’re five, for better or worse (and for the last few years my God it’s been the worse, but maybe this year will be different) they’ll be your team for life. So, I think of Liverpool every time I click onto The Guardian Sport website and see how they’ve done and it’s like a web of connectivity with this fine city.

GM: How would you describe The Bone Clocks (2014) if you were summarising it to someone without giving too much away, but just enough?

DM: In the States they have something called an elevator pitch which is where you pitch a film to a wolfish film executive when you’re trapped in an elevator before he gets out, or she gets out, at the top. So the elevator pitch for Bone Clocks…? It is the story of its protagonist, Holly Sykes, who we first meet as a fifteen year old, kind of teenage punkette, then we encounter her as a young woman, a girlfriend in the 90s, then as a mother and a partner, then as a widow, and then as an accidental writer of sorts, and finally in the 2040s in the West of Ireland as a grandmother. Throughout this arc of a life, her life is erupted into by a battle between two groups of pseudo-immortals: one of which is more or less benign, the other which is decidedly predatory. Holly is, in the beginning, a fairly unwitting pawn (in chess terms) in this battle but by the end she just might be its decisive weapon. Ping. The elevator doors open.

[At this point David reads from The Bone Clocks. He reads from section 3 of the novel: “The Wedding Bash”. Pages 268-274 of the 2015 paperback published by Sceptre. It’s a section narrated from the point of view of Ed Brubeck, a war reporter, attending a family wedding in 2004. The specific part which David read from details a frantic run through the hotel and out onto the pier outside after Ed wakes from a nap to realise that his six year old daughter has disappeared whilst he slept. Whilst not relevant to what follows in this interview, it’s interesting to note that in the course of his mad dash through the hotel Ed stumbles upon a science fiction convention, a moment which leads to some humour amidst the adrenaline.]

GM: There’s a lot of horror in The Bone Clocks

DM: And not just the quality of the writing!

GM: …I’m not even going to touch that, because it’s just so patently untrue. There are lots of different types of horror in The Bone Clocks and that section in particular is definitely the horror of someone who is a parent.

DM: It’s based on two real life events. One being with a dad who lost his kid at a busy Japanese festival in quite a large town, some years ago. And of course part of me was “of course I’ll help” and feeling terrible, but there was the evil part that is inside every single writer that was “mmm, must take notes”. We did find the boy, he was fine! Then, as if in cosmic revenge, some years ago I lost my daughter in a drapers shop in the small town in West Cork where I live and I was afraid she had left and was wandering on the streets outside when she was happily sitting in a corner playing with curtain rings. It took me about twelve minutes to find her and those were the worst twelve minutes of my life.

GM: But at least you used them to good effect…

DM: Ah it’s a writer’s consolation that, no matter how awful it is, at least one day you can use it. Something happened a few months back and you know when you’re blubbing so badly that snot is coming out of your eyes and tears are coming out of your nose, and I happened to catch a glimpse of my reflection and I thought “ah so that’s what I look like, that’s what crying looks like”. That’s a nice consolation. I interrupted you with a massive interruption, I’m sorry.

GM: No it’s fine, I’m here to facilitate interruptions! So, I suppose given the power of that memory, there’s a lot of you coming through in that character’s voice at that moment: of you looking for your daughter?

DM: Yes, through the prism of Ed.

GM: People have referred to you as a ventriloquist or sorts, because of the uncanny way you are able to do voices and I think in particular your style of novel, where we jump between different first-person narrators, shows that off to particularly good effect.

DM: This might sound like a weird combination of false modesty and colleague bashing but I feel like complimenting a writer on his ability to do voices is a bit like saying to an actor: “wow! When you played that role I thought you were someone else, I didn’t think you were you!” Isn’t that part of the job? I know different writers have different specialities, and some have skills that maybe writers who can’t do voice as perhaps less dexterously have that I don’t have, so I get that, but I think it should come with the job: it’s part of the craft and you develop it if you want to develop your craft. The second thing is, it’s maybe necessitated more in my case: I like the first person, it’s my home style, it’s my square one. I become someone else and then I know what they’re going to say and what they’re going to do and that’s the plot and the dialogue taken care of for starters. I also like the Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse multiplicity of points of view and once you have those two things: a fondness for the first person and a fondness for multiplicity then you better be a half-way decent “ventriloquist” otherwise your novel will blow up on the runway.

GM: I’d like to ask you about the other voices in Bone Clocks though, and how challenging they were for you to write. First, the most important character in the book, Holly, who narrates the first and last sections of the book. She’s also your first female point of view. How hard was it for you to put yourself in a frame of mind to write a female protagonist? Was it a different challenge to writing, for example, Jason from Black Swan Green (2006) who is another teenager in the 1980s?

DM: Obviously it’s more daunting because male is my home gender. A lot of fantastic female writers have written a lot of fantastic female characters, and male characters, but femininity is their gender. In the same way I’m kind of nervous about writing Americans because there are all the great American writers who have written American characters. It’s daunting because it’s easy to publically and humiliatingly fail. So, with some trepidation is probably the answer. My wife happens to be female, which due to some recent extremely enlightened legislation in the Irish Republic is no longer anything that we take for granted, but she was helpful with that section.
Secondly, or thirdly, or fourthly, I can’t remember where we’re up to now - that’s the problem when you use those number adverbs you can really get into hot water quickly can’t you? – I’ve got a theory that if you went to a comprehensive school then the future writer is at an advantage, if you had a more privileged background, then you’re at a disadvantage once you leave your home stratum. If you went to a comprehensive school… I was at school with girls like Holly is what I’m trying to say: they were skinheads, or skinheads’ girlfriends, they wore Doc Martins with red laces, not knowing that was a National Front thing, but they did it anyway. Maybe they did know… They would have been quite willing and able to have kicked the crap out of a bookish, stammering, middle class kid like me. Once or twice they probably did. But I now thank the memory of their Doc Martin steel tips landing in my face because it meant that I could study them and store them away and use them years later and so I drew on my comprehensive school for Holly. It was hard to get her voice, how you portrayed the demotic: more vernacular? Earthier accent? How East End should I make her? Should I lose the “h” with an apostrophe? Do it too much you sound like Dickens’ urchins, if you don’t do it at all then you’re missing a trick, you’re losing a chance to develop a character and resonate with what’s in a reader’s mind. So it took me quite a while to settle on a balance to represent her.

GM: You had a similar struggle with your pervious book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010)

DM: That was a nightmare!

GM: Because you were toying with writing in a historically accurate dialogue but that it ended up reading like Blackadder, I think that’s a version of the book we’d quite like to see!

DM: I did, yeah. It’d be funny for five pages and then it’s just urghh. I wrote it first person and then hit the problem “what language are they thinking in?” Are they thinking in 18th century English? (Or Dutch or Japanese, represented in English). In the beginning I combed through 18th century novels, which is a good excuse to read them. Have you ever read Smollett? He’s not read much these days, it’s really good fun. He’s really smutty! It’s the kind of book you see in libraries in National Trust houses that are never looked at and left, but he’s really good if you get the chance.
I constructed this core of vocabulary and did about fifteen pages of Jacob de Zoet in that voice, but yes it was ridiculous. That taught me that if you get it right you get it wrong: what you have to do is collude with the reader in the creation of, in this case, bygone-ese, or in the case of Holly a kind of “East-End-ese”. It’s not accurate but (the closer you get to the present day the less true this is) sometimes accuracy can be an inhibition, it can be a disruptor. When you’re writing a historical novel you need to create bygone-ese, I think there’s a geographical present day version of this too. It’s more important to chime with how the reader believes people in this demographic did and do speak than it is get it bang on accurate. The “lest” vs. “in case” argument is an example of this: “bring your umbrella in case it rains” that’s quite twentieth century, we used to say “lest”, and so on the border you need to work out is it “lest” or “in case” we’re dealing with and go with instinct.

GM: The next character in Bone Clocks is Hugo Lamb, who is a completely different proposition to Holly…

DM: Oh he was fun!

GM: People who’ve read the book know how loaded a sentence like “he was fun” is in relation to Hugo. Hugo Lamb is a character people might remember as the cousin of Jason from Black Swan Green, he’s a pretty nasty piece of work, let’s put it that way.

DM: He’s amoral. I read the Ripley books by Patricia Highsmith, the first one [The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)] is sickeningly gripping: he’s not even immoral, he’s amoral. He’s an artist of ethical dubiety! So there’s Ripley in there: I want him to seduce the reader with his charm and then royally shaft them. There’s also some Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities: he’s a great character, you think he’s this monster, this coward, but he’s got a spark of lightness in him that when it really counts it flares up, and I wanted to give Hugo an ending like that. I wrote the book, handed it in and  thought “hang on, he’s still alive! He’s still out there somewhere!” He’s about thirty-five years younger than he should be but he’s out there.

GM: I want to ask you about Crispin Hershey, whose section was my favourite within the book, but before I ask you a real question about him I want to ask about something specific. At one point when we encounter him he’s teaching creative writing, he advises his students to write letters to themselves as their characters. Is that an actual technique from your playbook?

DM: He’s a slowly self-redeeming, uninviting soul, whose arc is facilitated by his friendship with Holly, the first real friendship with a woman he’s ever had. He doesn’t even realise he loves her. He’s clawing up Mount Enlightenment. He is who he is, but when he talks about writing, that’s him talking about something he cares about: and he does care about words, and he is a sentence geek, this stuff matters to him; that’s when he’s not a fool and he’s not superficial, it’s pretty much the only time when he cares very deeply, and so when he speaks about writing he means it.

GM: So these tips from Crispin Hersey we, as aspiring writers, can take as being reasonably good tips?

DM: If you want to. I say that not to seem clever, but in a way writing is something you spend your life learning how to do and you never quite get there, you never finish learning about writing, that’s why it’s such a great job. It’s a combination of learning other people’s tips and seeing what works for them and also forming your own core… we’ve been calling them tips but perhaps understandings… of what writing is and what it’s about, what works for you. It will differ depending on who you are and what your experiences are, so what Hershey says is how I feel it works for me at the moment but I wouldn’t say they are prescriptive, I wouldn’t say I AM THE WAY!

GM: Whether good tips or not, I love even the way that you/Hershey talk about writing: saying that ‘adverbs are the cholesterol in the veins of prose’ and ‘half your adverbs and the prose pump twice as well’, that’s wisdom you feel you should have on a T-shirt. But if it was fun to write the sociopathic Hugo Lamb, how much more fun was it to write the cantankerous author Crispin Hershey?

DM: It’s always fun when you get to say the things you don’t get to say. Give him the lines you have too much respect for hard working people to actually ever offend them by saying. Hershey is a sort of legitimate outlet for passive aggressive pent-up fury… But don’t worry!

GM: I think that everyone who has read both The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas really wants to see him in the same room as Timothy Cavendish [one of the narrators from Cloud Atlas: a small press publisher who hits the big time].

DM: I thought about it. Maybe I will again in the future. Hershey is my first ever writer-character, I’ve always avoided it, I was afraid it would seem or feel somehow incestuous. It’s said somewhere that when a writer starts writing about writers it’s a sure sign that the creative aquifers have run dry. So when I wanted to write about writers, or talk about Art (with a capital “A”), then I used musicians; I translated it into songwriters and composers but then, for whatever reason, it felt right - like it was time. I wouldn’t do it in a half-hearted way, I really wanted to write about the world and time spent by an author on the road, as opposed to in a small hut somewhere. This is where he lives: he’s more of an author than a writer these days, which given the number of festivals around the world can happen to people. I’ve known people who you meet at the beginning when a hardback comes out, at the Hong Kong festival or something, then my book moves into my past and I write something else, then the new book comes out and I’m invited to wherever and I meet the same author, and they’re still there, and they’re still promoting the same book! It’s the curse of winning the Booker by the way… It’s a curse that many of us don’t have to suffer, including me! But it can be better for the book than it is for the author. Crispin Hershey is an example of an author whom the mercurial Gods of Prizes have smiled on once (for his book Desiccated Embryos) but it has become larger than he is or has been and he is now its employer. So in a way it’s a cautionary tale. His cardinal vice is vanity, he believes his own reviews, believes what has been said about him, and he hasn’t got people around him to remind him to take out the wheelie-bin, to ground him. So he’s sort of a little reminder to myself to not believe the good reviews, and to not look at the bad ones either.

GM: Of course a bad review plays a key role in Crispin’s section of the book…

DM: Which is also a sort of “wet dream” of a revenge plot which writers have had about revenge on negative reviewers. I don’t do that but what happens to Crispin might well be what would happen to me were I to exact revenge on certain people in the media who will remain nameless… Well I say nameless, except in the next book I might change the name very slightly, have something awful happen to them and the name will be close enough that they won’t be sure if its them, and they’ll go to their graves not knowing if I’ve hexed their lives through fiction, and the lives of their children and pets… It’s very petty, but it makes me feel better.

GM: Well, on the topic of bad reviews... Whilst I loved the book, there were elements of The Bone Clocks that some people wrote very harshly about, specifically the fantastic element, which really seemed to stick in certain reviewers’ craw.

DM: It did didn’t it. The same quarters who opened fire on Kazuo Ishiguro for his book The Buried Giant, which I loved. There seemed to be a call that semi-respectable writers shouldn’t be dabbling in genre, it can sometimes come from the other side as well…

GM: “Don’t play in our playground”

DM: Yes. I wanted each stage of Holly’s life, each section of the book, from the 80s to the 2040s to a degree to have its own genre. So we have Thatcherite social realism in the 80s. At the other end of the social scale we have a sort of rich kids, Tom Wolfe Bonfire of the Vanities-ish thing going on with the 90s. We’ve got a war reportage section in the Ed Brubeck section, a pastiche in Hershey’s section. A fantasy in the fifth section, and dystopia in the sixth. For some people that’s kind of against some sort of unwritten constitution and if you mess around with genre like that within the covers of a single novel then you DESERVE TO BE TAKEN DOWN! But you write what you write. You can’t be a slave like that, you just have the book you want to write and the first loyalty is to that. You have to finish that book, you try to bring it into being as truly as you can.

GM: A key part of the fantasy section are two themes which you’ve used repeatedly throughout your work: the spirit and reincarnation, and human predation. This seems to be the section within the book where they meet.

DM: I’d add a third, if I may, and that’s mortality. The book, in that section, offers a Faustian pact which is me having my midlife crisis really. If you could not grow old, if you could keep the looks you have when you’re young, if you could have an endless, squanderable bank account of days, what would you be prepared to pay for that? Would you, for example, be willing to amputate your conscience? Would you be willing to have all that if someone else had to pay? I mention this now because fantasy is in service of that. It’s sort of a real theme, not the Faustian pact they’re offered, but a need to come to a working accommodation with ageing, with the fact kids are being born the whole time: people are moving into their twenties and thirties as we’re moving into our forties and fifties. The moment you’re on the centre stage of the world, the world begins nudging you towards the wings. It’s Make Room! Make Room! or the old kids song “and the little one said: roll over, roll over”. As we become members of an older generation to be superseded by a younger one. This is a social realist topic, it isn’t fantasy. This is something we need to do! We need a healthier relationship with aging than fear! And so the jiggery-pokery with genre is in service of all this.

GM: It did seem to me that the reviews that were snottiest about fantastic elements in (to use a lazy term) “literary fiction”, have the appearance of those that don’t read much fantasy. They seem to think it’s a genre that’s always play and that’s incapable of serious topics, themes, tropes and examinations of the human condition.

DM: And they seem to never care to look backwards, I mean what about Dickens? You’ve got Bleak House and someone dying of spontaneous combustion. Some of the greatest novels ever written are fantasy. What about Master and Margherita: as Neil Gaiman pointed out that you’ve got a talking cat who uses a machine gun and it’s a brilliant novel and it’s about Stalin and totalitarianism and art.

GM: And all the books we call magic realism, which is a label I’ve heard you don’t particularly care for…

DM: Have I said that somewhere?

GM: At some point, yes.

DM: This is the curse of the internet, it never forgets.

GM: I suppose to be fair, I think you were at the time being critical of the term being applied to British writing.

DM: I feel it was invented by South American writers in a South American context when they were doing something very specific that related to the politics of the 70s and 80s in their region. I felt it was somewhat lazy to transpose it to anyone anywhere who writes a book where someone suddenly sprouts wings, turns into an angel, and flies off. But maybe it is okay, I don’t feel that strongly about it really. But sure, A Hundred Years of Solitude is a great book, why is that allowed and A Buried Giant isn’t? And who says so? And why does it matter? Surely the only thing that matters is if the book is any good or not?! Not if someone has written with particular tropes from a particular genre. Find something more intelligent to not like the book for. It’s all quite new, Dickens used fantasy and no one ever called him a fantastic writer, it was all just writing back then. Why do we need borders in the middle of a book shop? Why bother with all of this?

GM: I mentioned the horror of parenthood earlier, and the fantasy sections are supernatural horror in a sense, the last sections of the book are something else. It’s stuck with me. Someone else described it as Post-Anthropocene Horror, post-human age, or post-oil.[1] I feel it’s an issue very close to your heart.

DM: I fear it will be close to everyone’s heart, or it should be. I’m forty-eight and I might have had the best of it, I don’t know, we’ll see. We are members of, and beneficiaries of, a civilisation that is pretty much dependent on oil. I flew here because of oil; lights, heating. The food that’s in our stomachs right now that is keeping hunger at bay was produced thanks to an agricultural system that converts oil into food. The clothes we’re wearing were made in oil powered factories, by slaves, in other parts of the world and then brought to us by container-ships: international trade, essentially it’s just oil. Solar power is great for lightbulbs but we can’t shift stuff, the distribution networks aren’t there. The food arrives in our supermarkets thanks to a complex distribution network and it’s just oil, oil, oil. They’re not making any more of the stuff and what’s left is getting harder and harder to extract and more expensive, in terms of oil, to extract. The hungriest industry of all is oil extraction, it sort of eats itself and then gives us the leftovers. But yeah! Our civilisation is in trouble. Let alone climate change, let alone what that’s doing to our planet’s life support system and its ability to keep safe our civilisation, to preserve it, our civilisation is itself an addict of a drug which there is an ever dwindling supply of. Is that a bit concerning?

GM: It’s very concerning, which is why that last section of the book is so affecting.

DM: Thank you. It would have been tempting in a way to finish the book at part five, but then I realised I mustn’t. It would have followed quite an identifiable Hollywood template where you have the apocalyptic battle and then stop, but actually there’s been this other thing going on the whole time that Holly’s life has been following its course, as our lives are following their courses now, our civilisation is on borrowed time and unless it changes its ways and, depending on which scientist you speak to perhaps we’re already ten years too late, perhaps not. We’ll see.

David ended the discussion with a reading from his then-forthcoming short novel Slade House. He then took questions from the audience but my dictaphone was unable to capture them or the replies but I offer here a few brief summaries:
  • The first question was from a nuclear physicist in the audience asking about David’s thoughts on that particular form of energy. He said that he recognised the arguments for its necessity to “plug the gap” but didn’t really know enough about it. What he did know was very worrying to him and that was that the legacy of nuclear power has its own horrors and dangers. He references the Runit Dome in the Marshall Islands, a legacy of nuclear tests by the USA during the Cold War, the structure holds 111,000 cubic yards of nuclear waste and is threatened by poor maintenance and rising sea levels. Similarly, he pointed out that the clean-up and containment costs of the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan are roughly equal to the Irish economy, which clearly means nuclear power isn’t a viable safe option for everyone.
  • Another question asked him which genres he would most like to play in next. He replied that he’s been recently very interested in Iceland and so something with Vikings, or Greenland, or the Sagas, is probably in the queue. Particularly, he’s interested in writing something set 30 years after the end of The Bone Clocks and set in Iceland. He also admitted to being fascinated by the 18th century harpsichordist Domenico Scarlatti who was decidedly average until the final years of his life when he wrote 550 sonatas of brilliance. The inversion of the more familiar child-prodigy figure appeals to him and he wondered what might have triggered that sudden awakening of genius.
  • Finally when asked for further advice for aspiring writers, David replied: write something every day, feel encouraged when you read what you wrote last week (even if you think “God this is awful” work out why it is awful), reward yourself by enjoying the good bits, and cultivate and nurture your instinct – it is your friend and you will need to trust it.

[1] I actually took this term, and specifically its application to Bone Clocks, from Dr. Sarah Dillon who made a passing reference to the novel during her keynote lecture at the Current Research in Speculative Fiction (CRSF) conference 2015. 

4 April 2016

Eastercon 2016 - Mancunicon - Convention Report

Last weekend I attended my first Eastercon: Mancunicon – the 67th British National Science Fiction Convention – at Manchester’s Hilton Hotel housed in the Beetham Tower. I’m a relative newcomer to the organised fandom scene, my only prior experience being Loncon 3 (Worldcon 75) last summer. Whilst obviously smaller in scale than Loncon, the Manchester convention still provided a packed weekend of panels, people and pints that left me exhausted, impressed and inspired in roughly equal measure.

I had quite a busy convention, appearing on four panels as a participant, three of them on the Sunday and a fourth on the Monday.

My first panel was also the one I was moderating: “1980s Trailblazing Comics”. I presided over a brilliant conversation between Tony Keen, Eric Steele and Karen Brenchley as they reminisced about the comics that they fell in love with in the 80s. My first (non-Beano or Dandy) comic reading was Marvel’s (really not very good) Onslaught Saga in the mid-90s so my knowledge of 1980s comics comes purely from what has become historically (or more honestly, commercially) important, as such it was fascinating to hear the trio take the conversation beyond Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns and discuss John Byrnes’s Fantastic Four run, the material in 2000AD and Warrior, and other less well-remembered titles from the Teen Titans of the time to Cerebus the Aardvark.

"Book Review in the Age of Amazon" L-R: Chris Kammerud, Martin Petto, Me, Martin Wisse, Sarah Pinboroguh. photo: Penny Reeve
Following on from that I was a panellist discussing “Book Reviews in the Age of Amazon”, I was in discussion with Mancunicon Guest of Honour Sarah Pinborough, blogger Martin Wisse, and outgoing Vector Reviews editor Martin Petto, ably and capably moderated by Chris Kammerud, co-host of the Storyological podcast. The discussion was a lot of fun, especially getting to spend a bit of time chatting with Sarah who I last met in Liverpool when doing an event to promote her novel The Double-edged Sword some six years ago-or-so. We debated how much stock readers put in reviews whether Amazon, newspaper, blog, or anything inbetween; as well as the importance of those reviews to authors themselves, to their publishers, and the impact of reviews on sales and reception. Inevitably we also had to discuss the problems with the anonymity of online reviews, made most pressing by some well-documented instances of sock puppetry and, of course, the “Leathergate” controversy (which, since it’s an issue from a different fandom, I had to explain the audience. You can read your own summary elsewhere if you don’t know the sordid details). The discussion mainly focussed on the different forms of review and their values, it may perhaps have been nice to dig more deeply into what actually makes a good review (regardless of venue) but then that’s a whole panel topic all of its own.

My third and final panel of the day discussed the question of “Are We Diving into a Superhero Crash?” with Emmeline Pui Ling Dobson, Lilian Edwards, and Jacq Applebee, moderated by Alison Scott. I suppose it hinged on how we interpreted what was meant by a “crash”: financial, qualitative, or something else. My personal interpretation was a financial crash triggered by the bubble bursting as audiences lose interest. Of course there’s no evidence of that happening just yet but my thinking is that unless the big studios diversify then it’s inevitable. The panel pretty quickly re-worked itself to a discussion on diversity not just of plot types and style, but of casting and character. Jacq in particular made some powerful points about diversifying the racial and sexual profiles of superheroes, reserving high praise for Steven Universe. I’m loving some of the diversity and originality in comics from Ms. Marvel and Unbeatable Squirrel Girl to the Wicked & Divine and Sex Criminals but the panel seemed to agree that we’ve not seen enough of this getting through to the films or television series and that this needs to change for the genre to have a long-term future.

On Monday I was on a panel on “The Definition of an Editor”. I was a late draft onto this panel which featured Farah Mendlesohn, Lizbeth Myles, Michael Rowley and Graham Sleight (and in a change from the programme, was moderated by Niall Harrison). The panel took as its starting position a 1976 Algis Budrys quotation: “An editor, with respect to genre, publication medium, market potential or previous training, is an individual who can establish a monopoly position within the minds of a sufficiently large body of contributors so that this position becomes the standard of excellence for that genre.” In all honesty, I would have felt more comfortable moderating this panel as, similarly with the 1980s comics panel, it was something I felt I was still learning about rather than had fully-formed opinions ready to air with an audience. I was by some margin the least experienced editor on the panel and my fully flaring impostor syndrome (as well as the fact that by this point in the con I was pretty tired) meant I was probably quieter in the discussion than I would otherwise prefer. It was nonetheless an insightful examination of how the role of an editor has changed over the years, how it shapes the work and is shaped by the industry, and even the differences and similarities between editors of fiction and non-fiction.

Beyond the panels I attended as a participant, I also sat in the audience for many brilliant discussions. I won’t make a detailed description of all of them but I will take a moment to pick out some highlights from the schedule.

I saw three of the Guest of Honour conversation events and they were all brilliant: Ian McDonald was interviewed by Peadar Ó Guilin in a masterclass of an interview which feels like a relaxed conversation but reveals intriguing anecdotes and humorous quips whether that by the categorisation of Ian’s novel Luna as “Dallas on the Moon” or “Game of Domes”, or that it was the subject of a six-way bidding war for its adaptation rights. Ian Whates was also a great choice to interview Sarah Pinborough as he was able to take us on a tour of her publishing history whilst also allowing her the space to tell her own stories and, seemingly, forget she was on stage leading to more than one observation or comment that required a humorous apology to her elderly father who was watching from the audience. Aliette de Boddard was interviewed by Kari Sperring, both had already impressed me on other panels and seeing the two of them discussing the historical and cultural roots of Aliette’s work was a real insight.

I also got to attend my first BSFA Awards ceremony which was precisely the right tone: lacking in ostentation and self-importance, instead focusing on a sense of good humour and enthusiasm. The winners were Adam Roberts for best non-fiction, Jim Burns for best artwork, and Aliette de Boddard for *both* best short story and best novel.

BSFA Award Winners: Jim Burns, Ian Whates (collecting for Adam Roberts), and Aliette de Boddard
I came away with a ridiculous number of book recommendations from very stimulating discussion on the “Year Just Gone and the Year to Come” panel. Panellist E G Cosh helpfully collected most of the recommendations into a single list which you can find here.

The “Place, Identity, Story” panel was another highlight with a great discussion ranging from Tiffani Angus’s passionate geeking out about gardens, as chronotopes (is chronotopiary a thing?) heterotopia, to the unique characters of cities like Manchester and London. The quote of the panel (if not the convention) has to be from Ian McDonald though who remarked of himself “I’m Dickens at heart really… with better sex”.
"Place, Identity, Story" L-R: Ruth EJ Booth (m), Russell A Smith, Tiffani Angus, Kari Sperring (standing in for Taj Hayer), Ian McDonald

The "Criminality in SF" panel was also brilliant, not only for the way they quickly put down and moved on from a bizarre audience question which became an anti-EU rant. It was also another top panel for book recommendations as the panellists shared their thoughts on science fiction/fantasy – crime fiction crossovers and where the genre-blending worked best: Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora got a lot of love, as did Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass. The true highlight of the con, however, has to be the people.

I also want to reserve special praise for Taj Hayer’s play North Country which was performed by a trio of actors from Freedom Studios. The product of his creative writing Ph.D, Taj’s play is set in a society ravaged by disease where most of humanity has died off and society has collapsed. The play is set in and around Bradford and dealt with the consequences of apocalypse for racial tensions and identity in a manner I’ve rarely if ever seen in a post-apocalyptic text. It was a thought provoking and moving piece of drama that should you have an opportunity you should absolutely see for yourself.

It was great to meet up with existing friends such as Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass-mate Val Nolan, and fellow PhD-ers Meg Macdonald and Taj Hayer, authors and publishing people, as well as make loads of new friends, too many to list here, who I’ll hopefully see again at cons and conferences in the future.

Overall I greatly enjoyed my first Eastercon and will definitely look forward to attending more conventions in the future. I heard from others (and saw on twitter) that some attendees had problems with the hotel, particularly the frustration with waiting for lifts up to the rooms in the tower but since I was staying the Palace Hotel around the corner I didn't have any such problem. Complaints that the rooms panels were being held in were too small were something I *could* relate to however, at multiple times audience members had to squeeze into rooms to sit on the floor and the rooms could get quite hot and stuffy as a result. It was unfortunate but I couldn't say it was a major detraction from my personal convention experience (in all honesty a greater inhibitor of my enjoyment was the price of drinks in the bar, but then hotel bars are what they are).

Thanks to everyone I shared a panel with, who moderated my panels, all the great people I met and chatted to in the bar and panels, and to the convention team for organising a great day.