stephenpalmersf

Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Category: Science Fiction

Author Life, Omnibus Edition

When I was first published in the mid 1990s a few of the SF authors I got to know had part-time jobs teaching creative writing, or gave ad hoc courses on the subject. I knew then that I couldn’t possibly attempt such a thing. I felt naïve, my debut Memory Seed, extracted from the slush pile at odds of ten thousand to one against, having been written on little more than imaginative power. I had poor grammar knowledge, and had written the draft which got picked on the basis of “this reads okay,” inspired by the writing techniques of authors I liked – for Memory Seed that was Mary Gentle and Gene Wolfe. Mary Gentle used a lot of semicolons, therefore I did too.

These days I feel different. I reckon I could teach a useful course in creative writing, although it would be like no other course because I’d only be able to teach how I do it. But, having recently read a few articles written by various authors on their craft, I thought I’d try some advice-giving myself. So upcoming on the blog it is Author Life week. I hope I can pass on a few useful tips, ideas and insights. What I suggest this week won’t be applicable to all however. Possibly, my advice will only be applicable to me.

  1. Being There

Being an author is different to being a writer. Writers put words together in an attempt to make a book. Authors put books together in an attempt to make a career.

I’m going to pass over the truisms – patience, persistence, then more persistence – to ask the question relatively few writers, especially new or unpublished writers, ask themselves. Why do you really want to become an author? Can you perhaps imagine the rewards – the money, the fame, the adulation? Especially the adulation. Desire for internet-wide adoration accounts for the desperation you see when new authors fail to make a mark in the ocean of novels, having assuming during the writing that they were bound to succeed. I’ve seen new writers claim they felt a sense of destiny at an early age, a certainty that writing success would be theirs. But destiny is an illusion, a refuge for the narcissistic, who assume they are the centre of the world and that chance, luck and randomness don’t exist. Well, they do.

If you want to become an author for the adulation of your fans, good luck. Having fans is not guaranteed. If you have fans, keeping them is not guaranteed.

As a consequence, you have to take a long-term view if you want to progress from writer to author. Say, twenty years. Or forty. Or perhaps never. A flash-in-the-pan is forgotten the month after. Slow build and slow burn is the way, if there is a way (which there isn’t). Of course, if you only want to be a writer then a flash-in-the-pan might be just the thing.

The best reason to be an author is because you can’t not be one. By this, I don’t mean because you idolise JJ Abrams, Tolkien or George RR Martin. If you do idolise them you’ll just copy them, either consciously or without knowing it. An author isn’t somebody who can’t not be George RR Martin. Authors have an inner drive to create, and in the best, most interesting cases that drive is independent of culture, of the genre or of specific authors. It is fine to be influenced by authors – I’m influenced by Jack Vance, Spike Milligan and Gene Wolfe – but it’s not fine to want to be somebody else. That just displays an internal void.

Then there’s the commercial success. Do you really want that, or would you rather be an artist? The number of authors who are true artists and commercially successful is vanishingly small, so you’d better get used to the idea that art and commerce are separate goals. It’s great when the money rolls in, but never expect it. You will need a 9-5 job that pays the rent, or have a high-earning spouse or just be lucky financially, which of course most people aren’t.

David Bowie said that the best place for an artist to be was just outside their comfort zone. Authors should always have a question at the back of their mind – how can I challenge myself with my next novel? Well, if you can follow your muse as you actively place obstacles in front of yourself then you’re well on the way to becoming a distinctive author. I want my fans to write in their reviews of my novels, ‘Blimey, I’ve never read anything like this before.’

Your brand should be yourself, but that unfortunately means taking the most difficult path of all. Still, that means it’s the most rewarding path. Writing a novel is an intensely personal thing; then you have to put it out there and submit to the opinions of readers. That’s never an easy experience, even if you’re not desperate, not narcissistic or not a fraud.

As an author you can and should take your art seriously, but it’s best not to take yourself seriously.

  1. In Character

Some of my reviewers have remarked that I’m not an author who “does” character. I think it would be true to say that character focus across my thirteen books does vary. Some of my novels are very character focused, but others are not; and some of the latter were more successful than others. But it is okay to write novels in which the characters are not an overriding, constant focus – for instance if you’re trying to evoke a sense of myth. Characters will usually be the heart of a novel when the reader has finished reading it, but that doesn’t mean you have to be Dickensian-brilliant all the time when you’re writing it. In some novels, the characters won’t be quite as important as in others. I think that’s fine – sometimes you want the reader to have a constant perspective on the feelings and thoughts of the characters, at other times that simply wouldn’t work with the voice you’re using.

When character is the main focus, I find it’s best to take a soap opera attitude. To keep the tension and readability you have to exploit the reader’s emotions just like they do in EastEnders. In that soap opera the emotional voyeurism is taken to an extreme degree, but it’s the method that counts, not the results on the screen. You have to tend towards melodrama without ever reaching that state. In such circumstances, all the plot comes from the characters. For instance, in The Girl With One Friend, a large part of the plot comes from Erasmus Darwin: from his ham-fisted attempt to get answers out of Sir Tantalus Blackmore, from his apostasy, from his difficulties in communicating what he thinks and feels – especially what he feels for Kora. And the last sentence of that novel is a cliff-hanger leading on to the beginning of the third volume, just like you get at the end of a soap opera episode.

These are all tried and tested techniques, but they’re not clichés. They work because most novels are about insight into other people’s minds. The modern format of the novel arose in the 18th century because at that time people were beginning to benefit from the new spirit of humanism in the West, which included liberalism, individualism and concepts of freedom. People, including those naturally able to be artists, began to conceive of others as individuals whose inner worlds were worth exploring.

Remember: there is no such thing as evil and there is no such thing as good. Your characters should have varying degrees of humanity and inhumanity, with the overwhelming majority of the latter sourced in their childhoods.

Too many writers worry about – if they are a man – not being able to write women characters, or – if they are white – not being able to write black African characters. I begin from a simple start: I take all my characters as flawed human beings. I ignore their gender or race and look at them ‘from the inside.’ Although this is not a perfect method, it is in my experience the best way of approaching this tricky issue. Thus, for instance, in Muezzinland all the characters bar a couple are black Africans. I treated Nshalla and Mnada as the daughters of royalty, not the daughters of Ghanaian royalty. I see no reason why a woman author should not have a valuable insight into the ‘male mind’ or why a black African should not have a worthwhile insight into a ‘white mind.’

The important thing is this: you have to be sincerely interested in your characters. If you’re not, it will come out in your novel and your readers will notice. That will put them off reading; it will deaden the novel. You have to be genuinely curious about other people and their lives. If not, you’ll be writing about various types of cardboard.

  1. World Building

I’m considered an author who has an ability with place and setting, which is a nice thing to hear and to read in reviews. However, in the majority of my published novels the world building came after some other inspiration. Only in Urbis Morpheos did the world definitively come before anything else. Elsewhere, it was often a tiny detail which sparked the book, such as the imagined scene of moss-covered roofs going down to a seashore which was one of the beginnings of Memory Seed.

World building is in large part about particular details rather than the big picture. I remember – 25 years ago now – receiving comments from a beta reader of Memory Seed which put it all into place for me. I’d written a sentence or two about the street computer screens, which went something like: “A patina of green algae covered the keypad, in which some reveller had scrawled Live it up! with their finger.” My reader highlighted this as something which brought the scene to life. Although it was such a small thing, it brought home to me the importance of tiny details in evoking a scene or a place.

In the Factory Girl trilogy and elsewhere there are other similar ‘small accidents of imagination’ which for me evoke the world – thousands of discarded paper strips blowing on the wind around a railway station concourse; the great cloud hanging above the Factory; the brown overalls of the Clockwork Garden employees: the blue brake lights of the Memory Seed motor-cycles, and deKray’s menthol sweets.

A balance has to be struck in most genre novels between the outré and the normal. If your world is too outré the reader won’t be able to identify with it, but if it’s too ordinary then the sense of wonder diminishes. One way to get around this is to use details which the reader recognises but which signify a wider imaginative world. Douglas Adams was an absolute master of this technique. One of the best examples in THHGTTG is the towel, that most ordinary of household objects, which he elevated to the status of enigma, thereby telling the reader as much about his imagined world as any info-dump.

In Urbis Morpheos my intention was to write a novel set on an Earth almost entirely unrecognisable. I knew this was a bit of a risk, but it was a path I wanted to follow. Most reviews of the novel praise the world-building but find the plot challenging. It was intended to be challenging – that was one of the foundations – but I did make some concessions to the reader’s 21st century world: the use of motor-cycles, the use of some ‘normal’ land features such as woods and forests, the use of inns and taverns as social centres.

An author shouldn’t be afraid of putting their disposition into their world. An author should have something to say. I’m occasionally criticized for being didactic, but that’s because my novels are always about something other than the plot/narrative. I do have something to say, and that’s fine. Nor should an author be afraid of being partisan – you’re not writing a scientific report. Put your thoughts and feelings into your world via its structure, make it coherent, have positive and negative players, then watch it go…

Always remember though that plot in 90% of cases comes from the characters. One of the best lessons I ever taught myself was when I was starting out, writing a novel that fizzled out about three quarters of the way through. A few weeks later I realised that all I had done was describe the world via an extended journey. There was virtually no plot, and that was why the novel had burned out. Having said that, some authors (China Mieville, Colin Greenland) can make a novel out of a journey; a novel where the journey is the point can work well. But you have to be skilled to pull it off, and usually that will be through the various fates of the characters.

I aim to make my worlds strange, wonderful and beautiful. It’s one of the great joys of creativity that imagination can produce any kind of world, possible and impossible.

  1. Language Issues

My mother – who has never read a single word of any of my novels – recently told me that she had decided to read The Girl With Two Souls “to get an idea of what your style is like.” I had to explain to her that to get an idea of my style – my voice – she’d need to read all my novels. I can’t read authors who use the same voice, even the same world, novel after novel after novel. That’s why, for all his brilliance, I couldn’t read more than about five Terry Pratchett novels.

It is okay for language use and writing style to change from novel to novel. That’s part of the fun of exploration – and authors should be explorers. If you get a subconscious voice saying “you ought to write it using this kind of language” before you begin a new work, you should listen. That little voice will be a very important part of the impact of the book. When I settled down to write Hairy London – which came pretty much improvised and unedited out of my subconscious – I knew the language would be madcap, surreal, flowery, absurd. Many words or phrases that I used were intended to make the reader’s job of imagining quite unusual; and one or two were, in Zen-like fashion, impossible to analyse. That surreality was part of the fun of writing (it was important to me that my sense of fun be conveyed to the reader), and so it was part of the language style too. Hence, the hot-air floating devices which you and I would call a balloon were placed somewhere between a balloon and an animal. It was just that kind of novel. To my delight, some of the reviews remarked that only I could have written the book.

Occasionally my methods don’t work. I wrote the published version of Beautiful Intelligence after Hairy London, and I think I had a kind of ‘surreal hangover,’ which meant the language use for Beautiful Intelligence sometimes didn’t work. Well, that’s life. You live and learn.

As many others have observed, prose should be like music. I’ve always thought this a particularly useful analogy. If you as a writer are sensitive to music, you can use that same sensitivity later to get a feel for your prose. Typically this is best done some time after you’ve written it. I usually give my novels two honing sessions, which have at the very least 3-4 months between them; the subconscious retains prose and mental images for a while, and that function is best avoided when editing.

As for grammar, I’ve never been one for taking it as seriously as many new or aspiring authors take it. My advice is always to concentrate on the quality of your imagination, not the orthodoxy of your prose. If the words work, they work. Nor do I think you necessarily have to know the rules to break them, although I do think that is a firm basis for iconoclastic success. What matters is (a) language matching novel and (b) prose being musical. When I was starting out in the 1980s I tried to make my sentences flow, but beyond that I didn’t know what I was doing. I think my musicality helped.

I also think that writing technique is an over-rated concept. Authors in my opinion should worry more about the quality of their imagination. Show not tell? Well, sometimes tell is better. Filter words? Meh. Use of ‘however’ not at the beginning of a sentence? If the sentence works, who cares? Begin a new paragraph with and? Why not?

The one element of technique however that I would emphasise is point of view switching. That really is a no-no, because regardless of the style – close, quite close, even omniscient sometimes – you want to avoid occasions where reading is interrupted because the reader can’t work out who is thinking what and doing what. For a close POV work it is particularly important never to head-hop. But even in omniscient mode you can invisibly guide and support the reader, for instance by using the ‘new’ character’s name at the start of the sentence where the POV switches, and heading off from there. The music will carry the reader if you do it well.

Interrupting the reader’s moment-by-moment experience of the narrative because of writing style is in a nutshell what not to do. For instance, in the matter of Yorkshire dialect for the Factory Girl trilogy I had to follow a difficult tightrope – simultaneously making the dialogue realistic but never so realistic that the reader couldn’t work out what was being said. That really was quite tricky. I had to devise some rules in advance that were not authentic, but which made sure my readers wouldn’t be confused by dialect words.

Other early advice I received was to avoid similes and use metaphors. Recently I’ve seen advice to the effect that metaphors also are becoming beyond the pale… I think in small doses they are fine though. But as Gene Wolfe said, a cliché is better than the phrase which does not work.

And, if you’re stuck, don’t think about the words – imagine it better!

  1. The Art Of Authoring

So, is it art or is it something else? Or is this in fact a false distinction?

For me, it’s art. Some writers of my acquaintance are uncomfortable with saying their work is art because they’re worried about mockery and censure. But every human being could be an artist, if they were allowed to develop themselves. Unfortunately most models of education, West and East, are based on the Industrial Revolution method: make all children aim for exactly the same goals ready for employment. The stem of our word education is educare, related to educere, to lead forth, to bring out. Education should be more about fostering what’s already there and less about putting stuff in.

For an artist or a non-artist, 5* reviews are an illusion. Aim for 3.5 and hope for at least one 1* review. If you’ve become an author but haven’t got people disliking your work, you’re either too boring or too predictable. Art should never be boring or predictable.

For me, a glorious failure is better in some ways than a predictable success, although it’s not necessarily much better – that depends on the ambition of the failed vision. Courage is a useful quality in an author, albeit rather a rare one. I aim to stay in the Bowie zone. For me, tradition, predictability and repetition are elements of passivity. I would go back to one of my previous worlds, but only for the most fabulous of reasons. For me the thrill is almost always in new territory. Yet we mustn’t forget that the Bowie of ‘Starman,’ ‘Life On Mars’ and ‘Kooks’ was also the Bowie of Tin Machine, which I disliked as much as everyone else…

So, what is art?

Amy was so entranced by the beauty of the antelope pictured in the book that quite without realising it she took a pencil from the pocket of her dress and began sketching it on the blank page opposite. “This is the imaginary antelope,” she thought, as she continued to sketch. “I shall give it extra-twirly prongs!”

When she finished her picture she showed it to the Land Whale and to the Parrot, eliciting their approval. “I did tell you the book required respect,” said the Land Whale, “for the beings within it are real. They themselves inspire the imaginary ones.”

“Why,” Amy said, taking her book of aphorisms from her pocket, “I do believe King George the Fourth had something to say on that subject. And here it is!” – There are no natural laws that cannot be broken in your imagination.

Creativity is the human imaginative response to the real world: there are no natural laws that cannot be broken in your imagination. Creativity is a direct consequence of sensitivity, of emotionality, of a holistic view. If you read accounts penned by artists like Matisse, Da Vinci and Cezanne they all describe their art as a response to what they see in the real world – usually, though not exclusively, in nature. As Matisse said:

“The painter must have no preconceived notion of the model – his spirit must be open and receive everything, just as in a landscape he would take in every one of the scents of the air… I am incapable of making a slavish copy of Nature. Instead I feel compelled to interpret it…”

And art does have meaning. It’s the cynic’s response to wonder whether it might not. Art always has meaning because meaning is all about coherence. The incoherent view is never accessible by others: if it is incoherent, what’s the point? Incoherence is tantamount to madness – a personal religion: no followers.

All this is not to say that authors who write for money or who don’t consider their work to be art are in the wrong; far from it. They should do what they like, and they contribute a huge amount to cultural life. In this omnibus blog I’ve tried to describe what works for me, and then generalise. But variety is the spice of life. My feeling is that it’s best for an author to interpret rather than to copy.

Personally, I prefer to make the best that I possibly can of the first draft. I’ve found that if I need to do a second, or even a third draft then a lot of the magic leaks out. It does vary however. The second draft of Memory Seed was the one which caught Orbit Books’ eye and lifted me out of the slush pile. What I try to do on my first draft is capture in as intense a way as possible all the magic and wonder I’m feeling as I create, then convey that to the reader. Usually it just doesn’t feel the same second or third time. But there are always exceptions. Beautiful Intelligence for instance was a merging of two separate drafts.

And you should make your readers work for their reward. All the novels that mean the most to me are challenging novels, where I’ve had to put a lot in to get a lot out. Gene Wolfe’s The Book Of The New Sun is the example I usually give, but there are others. You have to really concentrate on Dune for instance to get everything out that Frank Herbert put in, even in that first, brilliantly plotted work, which is simple compared with later works in the same universe. But this is a long term strategy for an author. By writing challenging, dense or enigmatic novels you follow a course where the tactic often leads to reader loss, even though the strategy is a recipe for achievement, and a possible gain of readers.

An author should write for their readers, but not for their fans.

So it’s all about the magic; and sometimes that just isn’t there. Sometimes you have to accept the circumstance, press the delete button and never return.

Enjoy your creativity!

MZ front FINAL

Author Life, Day 5

When I was first published in the mid 1990s a few of the SF authors I got to know had part-time jobs teaching creative writing, or gave ad hoc courses on the subject. I knew then that I couldn’t possibly attempt such a thing. I felt naïve, my debut Memory Seed, extracted from the slush pile at odds of ten thousand to one against, having been written on little more than imaginative power. I had poor grammar knowledge, and had written the draft which got picked on the basis of “this reads okay,” inspired by the writing techniques of authors I liked – for Memory Seed that was Mary Gentle and Gene Wolfe. Mary Gentle used a lot of semicolons, therefore I did too.

These days I feel different. I reckon I could teach a useful course in creative writing, although it would be like no other course because I’d only be able to teach how I do it. But, having recently read a few articles written by various authors on their craft, I thought I’d try some advice-giving myself. So upcoming on the blog it is Author Life week. I hope I can pass on a few useful tips, ideas and insights. What I suggest this week won’t be applicable to all however. Possibly, my advice will only be applicable to me.

  1. The Art Of Authoring

So, is it art or is it something else? Or is this in fact a false distinction?

For me, it’s art. Some writers of my acquaintance are uncomfortable with saying their work is art because they’re worried about mockery and censure. But every human being could be an artist, if they were allowed to develop themselves. Unfortunately most models of education, West and East, are based on the Industrial Revolution method: make all children aim for exactly the same goals ready for employment. The stem of our word education is educare, related to educere, to lead forth, to bring out. Education should be more about fostering what’s already there and less about putting stuff in.

For an artist or a non-artist, 5* reviews are an illusion. Aim for 3.5 and hope for at least one 1* review. If you’ve become an author but haven’t got people disliking your work, you’re either too boring or too predictable. Art should never be boring or predictable.

For me, a glorious failure is better in some ways than a predictable success, although it’s not necessarily much better – that depends on the ambition of the failed vision. Courage is a useful quality in an author, albeit rather a rare one. I aim to stay in the Bowie zone. For me, tradition, predictability and repetition are elements of passivity. I would go back to one of my previous worlds, but only for the most fabulous of reasons. For me the thrill is almost always in new territory. Yet we mustn’t forget that the Bowie of ‘Starman,’ ‘Life On Mars’ and ‘Kooks’ was also the Bowie of Tin Machine, which I disliked as much as everyone else…

So, what is art?

Amy was so entranced by the beauty of the antelope pictured in the book that quite without realising it she took a pencil from the pocket of her dress and began sketching it on the blank page opposite. “This is the imaginary antelope,” she thought, as she continued to sketch. “I shall give it extra-twirly prongs!”

When she finished her picture she showed it to the Land Whale and to the Parrot, eliciting their approval. “I did tell you the book required respect,” said the Land Whale, “for the beings within it are real. They themselves inspire the imaginary ones.”

“Why,” Amy said, taking her book of aphorisms from her pocket, “I do believe King George the Fourth had something to say on that subject. And here it is!” – There are no natural laws that cannot be broken in your imagination.

Creativity is the human imaginative response to the real world: there are no natural laws that cannot be broken in your imagination. Creativity is a direct consequence of sensitivity, of emotionality, of a holistic view. If you read accounts penned by artists like Matisse, Da Vinci and Cezanne they all describe their art as a response to what they see in the real world – usually, though not exclusively, in nature. As Matisse said:

“The painter must have no preconceived notion of the model – his spirit must be open and receive everything, just as in a landscape he would take in every one of the scents of the air… I am incapable of making a slavish copy of Nature. Instead I feel compelled to interpret it…”

And art does have meaning. It’s the cynic’s response to wonder whether it might not. Art always has meaning because meaning is all about coherence. The incoherent view is never accessible by others: if it is incoherent, what’s the point? Incoherence is tantamount to madness – a personal religion: no followers.

All this is not to say that authors who write for money or who don’t consider their work to be art are in the wrong; far from it. They should do what they like, and they contribute a huge amount to cultural life. In this week’s blogs I’ve tried to describe what works for me, and then generalise. But variety is the spice of life. My feeling is that it’s best for an author to interpret rather than to copy.

Personally, I prefer to make the best that I possibly can of the first draft. I’ve found that if I need to do a second, or even a third draft then a lot of the magic leaks out. It does vary however. The second draft of Memory Seed was the one which caught Orbit Books’ eye and lifted me out of the slush pile. What I try to do on my first draft is capture in as intense a way as possible all the magic and wonder I’m feeling as I create, then convey that to the reader. Usually it just doesn’t feel the same second or third time. But there are always exceptions. Beautiful Intelligence for instance was a merging of two separate drafts.

And you should make your readers work for their reward. All the novels that mean the most to me are challenging novels, where I’ve had to put a lot in to get a lot out. Gene Wolfe’s The Book Of The New Sun is the example I usually give, but there are others. You have to really concentrate on Dune for instance to get everything out that Frank Herbert put in, even in that first, brilliantly plotted work, which is simple compared with later works in the same universe. But this is a long term strategy for an author. By writing challenging, dense or enigmatic novels you follow a course where the tactic often leads to reader loss, even though the strategy is a recipe for achievement, and a possible gain of readers.

An author should write for their readers, but not for their fans.

So it’s all about the magic; and sometimes that just isn’t there. Sometimes you have to accept the circumstance, press the delete button and never return.

Enjoy your creativity!

NGFAF front FINAL

 

Author Life, Day 4

When I was first published in the mid 1990s a few of the SF authors I got to know had part-time jobs teaching creative writing, or gave ad hoc courses on the subject. I knew then that I couldn’t possibly attempt such a thing. I felt naïve, my debut Memory Seed, extracted from the slush pile at odds of ten thousand to one against, having been written on little more than imaginative power. I had poor grammar knowledge, and had written the draft which got picked on the basis of “this reads okay,” inspired by the writing techniques of authors I liked – for Memory Seed that was Mary Gentle and Gene Wolfe. Mary Gentle used a lot of semicolons, therefore I did too.

These days I feel different. I reckon I could teach a useful course in creative writing, although it would be like no other course because I’d only be able to teach how I do it. But, having recently read a few articles written by various authors on their craft, I thought I’d try some advice-giving myself. So upcoming on the blog it is Author Life week. I hope I can pass on a few useful tips, ideas and insights. What I suggest this week won’t be applicable to all however. Possibly, my advice will only be applicable to me.

  1. Language Issues

My mother – who has never read a single word of any of my novels – recently told me that she had decided to read The Girl With Two Souls “to get an idea of what your style is like.” I had to explain to her that to get an idea of my style – my voice – she’d need to read all my novels. I can’t read authors who use the same voice, even the same world, novel after novel after novel. That’s why, for all his brilliance, I couldn’t read more than about five Terry Pratchett novels.

It is okay for language use and writing style to change from novel to novel. That’s part of the fun of exploration – and authors should be explorers. If you get a subconscious voice saying “you ought to write it using this kind of language” before you begin a new work, you should listen. That little voice will be a very important part of the impact of the book. When I settled down to write Hairy London – which came pretty much improvised and unedited out of my subconscious – I knew the language would be madcap, surreal, flowery, absurd. Many words or phrases that I used were intended to make the reader’s job of imagining quite unusual; and one or two were, in Zen-like fashion, impossible to analyse. That surreality was part of the fun of writing (it was important to me that my sense of fun be conveyed to the reader), and so it was part of the language style too. Hence, the hot-air floating devices which you and I would call a balloon were placed somewhere between a balloon and an animal. It was just that kind of novel. To my delight, some of the reviews remarked that only I could have written the book.

Occasionally my methods don’t work. I wrote the published version of Beautiful Intelligence after Hairy London, and I think I had a kind of ‘surreal hangover,’ which meant the language use for Beautiful Intelligence sometimes didn’t work. Well, that’s life. You live and learn.

As many others have observed, prose should be like music. I’ve always thought this a particularly useful analogy. If you as a writer are sensitive to music, you can use that same sensitivity later to get a feel for your prose. Typically this is best done some time after you’ve written it. I usually give my novels two honing sessions, which have at the very least 3-4 months between them; the subconscious retains prose and mental images for a while, and that function is best avoided when editing.

As for grammar, I’ve never been one for taking it as seriously as many new or aspiring authors take it. My advice is always to concentrate on the quality of your imagination, not the orthodoxy of your prose. If the words work, they work. Nor do I think you necessarily have to know the rules to break them, although I do think that is a firm basis for iconoclastic success. What matters is (a) language matching novel and (b) prose being musical. When I was starting out in the 1980s I tried to make my sentences flow, but beyond that I didn’t know what I was doing. I think my musicality helped.

I also think that writing technique is an over-rated concept. Authors in my opinion should worry more about the quality of their imagination. Show not tell? Well, sometimes tell is better. Filter words? Meh. Use of ‘however’ not at the beginning of a sentence? If the sentence works, who cares? Begin a new paragraph with and? Why not?

The one element of technique however that I would emphasise is point of view switching. That really is a no-no, because regardless of the style – close, quite close, even omniscient sometimes – you want to avoid occasions where reading is interrupted because the reader can’t work out who is thinking what and doing what. For a close POV work it is particularly important never to head-hop. But even in omniscient mode you can invisibly guide and support the reader, for instance by using the ‘new’ character’s name at the start of the sentence where the POV switches, and heading off from there. The music will carry the reader if you do it well.

Interrupting the reader’s moment-by-moment experience of the narrative because of writing style is in a nutshell what not to do. For instance, in the matter of Yorkshire dialect for the Factory Girl trilogy I had to follow a difficult tightrope – simultaneously making the dialogue realistic but never so realistic that the reader couldn’t work out what was being said. That really was quite tricky. I had to devise some rules in advance that were not authentic, but which made sure my readers wouldn’t be confused by dialect words.

Other early advice I received was to avoid similes and use metaphors. Recently I’ve seen advice to the effect that metaphors also are becoming beyond the pale… I think in small doses they are fine though. But as Gene Wolfe said, a cliché is better than the phrase which does not work.

And, if you’re stuck, don’t think about the words – imagine it better!

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Hairy London – cover

Author Life, Day 3

When I was first published in the mid 1990s a few of the SF authors I got to know had part-time jobs teaching creative writing, or gave ad hoc courses on the subject. I knew then that I couldn’t possibly attempt such a thing. I felt naïve, my debut Memory Seed, extracted from the slush pile at odds of ten thousand to one against, having been written on little more than imaginative power. I had poor grammar knowledge, and had written the draft which got picked on the basis of “this reads okay,” inspired by the writing techniques of authors I liked – for Memory Seed that was Mary Gentle and Gene Wolfe. Mary Gentle used a lot of semicolons, therefore I did too.

These days I feel different. I reckon I could teach a useful course in creative writing, although it would be like no other course because I’d only be able to teach how I do it. But, having recently read a few articles written by various authors on their craft, I thought I’d try some advice-giving myself. So upcoming on the blog it is Author Life week. I hope I can pass on a few useful tips, ideas and insights. What I suggest this week won’t be applicable to all however. Possibly, my advice will only be applicable to me.

  1. World Building

I’m considered an author who has an ability with place and setting, which is a nice thing to hear and to read in reviews. However, in the majority of my published novels the world building came after some other inspiration. Only in Urbis Morpheos did the world definitively come before anything else. Elsewhere, it was often a tiny detail which sparked the book, such as the imagined scene of moss-covered roofs going down to a seashore which was one of the beginnings of Memory Seed.

World building is in large part about particular details rather than the big picture. I remember – 25 years ago now – receiving comments from a beta reader of Memory Seed which put it all into place for me. I’d written a sentence or two about the street computer screens, which went something like: “A patina of green algae covered the keypad, in which some reveller had scrawled Live it up! with their finger.” My reader highlighted this as something which brought the scene to life. Although it was such a small thing, it brought home to me the importance of tiny details in evoking a scene or a place.

In the Factory Girl trilogy and elsewhere there are other similar ‘small accidents of imagination’ which for me evoke the world – thousands of discarded paper strips blowing on the wind around a railway station concourse; the great cloud hanging above the Factory; the brown overalls of the Clockwork Garden employees: the blue brake lights of the Memory Seed motor-cycles, and deKray’s menthol sweets.

A balance has to be struck in most genre novels between the outré and the normal. If your world is too outré the reader won’t be able to identify with it, but if it’s too ordinary then the sense of wonder diminishes. One way to get around this is to use details which the reader recognises but which signify a wider imaginative world. Douglas Adams was an absolute master of this technique. One of the best examples in THHGTTG is the towel, that most ordinary of household objects, which he elevated to the status of enigma, thereby telling the reader as much about his imagined world as any info-dump.

In Urbis Morpheos my intention was to write a novel set on an Earth almost entirely unrecognisable. I knew this was a bit of a risk, but it was a path I wanted to follow. Most reviews of the novel praise the world-building but find the plot challenging. It was intended to be challenging – that was one of the foundations – but I did make some concessions to the reader’s 21st century world: the use of motor-cycles, the use of some ‘normal’ land features such as woods and forests, the use of inns and taverns as social centres.

An author shouldn’t be afraid of putting their disposition into their world. An author should have something to say. I’m occasionally criticized for being didactic, but that’s because my novels are always about something other than the plot/narrative. I do have something to say, and that’s fine. Nor should an author be afraid of being partisan – you’re not writing a scientific report. Put your thoughts and feelings into your world via its structure, make it coherent, have positive and negative players, then watch it go…

Always remember though that plot in 90% of cases comes from the characters. One of the best lessons I ever taught myself was when I was starting out, writing a novel that fizzled out about three quarters of the way through. A few weeks later I realised that all I had done was describe the world via an extended journey. There was virtually no plot, and that was why the novel had burned out. Having said that, some authors (China Mieville, Colin Greenland) can make a novel out of a journey; a novel where the journey is the point can work well. But you have to be skilled to pull it off, and usually that will be through the various fates of the characters.

I aim to make my worlds strange, wonderful and beautiful. It’s one of the great joys of creativity that imagination can produce any kind of world, possible and impossible.

Palmer cov

Author Life, Day 2

When I was first published in the mid 1990s a few of the SF authors I got to know had part-time jobs teaching creative writing, or gave ad hoc courses on the subject. I knew then that I couldn’t possibly attempt such a thing. I felt naïve, my debut Memory Seed, extracted from the slush pile at odds of ten thousand to one against, having been written on little more than imaginative power. I had poor grammar knowledge, and had written the draft which got picked on the basis of “this reads okay,” inspired by the writing techniques of authors I liked – for Memory Seed that was Mary Gentle and Gene Wolfe. Mary Gentle used a lot of semicolons, therefore I did too.

These days I feel different. I reckon I could teach a useful course in creative writing, although it would be like no other course because I’d only be able to teach how I do it. But, having recently read a few articles written by various authors on their craft, I thought I’d try some advice-giving myself. So upcoming on the blog it is Author Life week. I hope I can pass on a few useful tips, ideas and insights. What I suggest this week won’t be applicable to all however. Possibly, my advice will only be applicable to me.

  1. In Character

Some of my reviewers have remarked that I’m not an author who “does” character. I think it would be true to say that character focus across my thirteen books does vary. Some of my novels are very character focused, but others are not; and some of the latter were more successful than others. But it is okay to write novels in which the characters are not an overriding, constant focus – for instance if you’re trying to evoke a sense of myth. Characters will usually be the heart of a novel when the reader has finished reading it, but that doesn’t mean you have to be Dickensian-brilliant all the time when you’re writing it. In some novels, the characters won’t be quite as important as in others. I think that’s fine – sometimes you want the reader to have a constant perspective on the feelings and thoughts of the characters, at other times that simply wouldn’t work with the voice you’re using.

When character is the main focus, I find it’s best to take a soap opera attitude. To keep the tension and readability you have to exploit the reader’s emotions just like they do in EastEnders. In that soap opera the emotional voyeurism is taken to an extreme degree, but it’s the method that counts, not the results on the screen. You have to tend towards melodrama without ever reaching that state. In such circumstances, all the plot comes from the characters. For instance, in The Girl With One Friend, a large part of the plot comes from Erasmus Darwin: from his ham-fisted attempt to get answers out of Sir Tantalus Blackmore, from his apostasy, from his difficulties in communicating what he thinks and feels – especially what he feels for Kora. And the last sentence of that novel is a cliff-hanger leading on to the beginning of the third volume, just like you get at the end of a soap opera episode.

These are all tried and tested techniques, but they’re not clichés. They work because most novels are about insight into other people’s minds. The modern format of the novel arose in the 18th century because at that time people were beginning to benefit from the new spirit of humanism in the West, which included liberalism, individualism and concepts of freedom. People, including those naturally able to be artists, began to conceive of others as individuals whose inner worlds were worth exploring.

Remember: there is no such thing as evil and there is no such thing as good. Your characters should have varying degrees of humanity and inhumanity, with the overwhelming majority of the latter sourced in their childhoods.

Too many writers worry about – if they are a man – not being able to write women characters, or – if they are white – not being able to write black African characters. I begin from a simple start: I take all my characters as flawed human beings. I ignore their gender or race and look at them ‘from the inside.’ Although this is not a perfect method, it is in my experience the best way of approaching this tricky issue. Thus, for instance, in Muezzinland all the characters bar a couple are black Africans. I treated Nshalla and Mnada as the daughters of royalty, not the daughters of Ghanaian royalty. I see no reason why a woman author should not have a valuable insight into the ‘male mind’ or why a black African should not have a worthwhile insight into a ‘white mind.’

The important thing is this: you have to be sincerely interested in your characters. If you’re not, it will come out in your novel and your readers will notice. That will put them off reading; it will deaden the novel. You have to be genuinely curious about other people and their lives. If not, you’ll be writing about various types of cardboard.

tgw2s

The Girl With Two Souls

Author Life, Day 1

When I was first published in the mid 1990s a few of the SF authors I got to know had part-time jobs teaching creative writing, or gave ad hoc courses on the subject. I knew then that I couldn’t possibly attempt such a thing. I felt naïve, my debut Memory Seed, extracted from the slush pile at odds of ten thousand to one against, having been written on little more than imaginative power. I had poor grammar knowledge, and had written the draft which got picked on the basis of “this reads okay,” inspired by the writing techniques of authors I liked – for Memory Seed that was Mary Gentle and Gene Wolfe. Mary Gentle used a lot of semicolons, therefore I did too.

These days I feel different. I reckon I could teach a useful course in creative writing, although it would be like no other course because I’d only be able to teach how I do it. But, having recently read a few articles written by various authors on their craft, I thought I’d try some advice-giving myself. So upcoming on the blog it is Author Life week. I hope I can pass on a few useful tips, ideas and insights. What I suggest this week won’t be applicable to all however. Possibly, my advice will only be applicable to me.

  1. Being There

Being an author is different to being a writer. Writers put words together in an attempt to make a book. Authors put books together in an attempt to make a career.

I’m going to pass over the truisms – patience, persistence, then more persistence – to ask the question relatively few writers, especially new or unpublished writers, ask themselves. Why do you really want to become an author? Can you perhaps imagine the rewards – the money, the fame, the adulation? Especially the adulation. Desire for internet-wide adoration accounts for the desperation you see when new authors fail to make a mark in the ocean of novels, having assuming during the writing that they were bound to succeed. I’ve seen new writers claim they felt a sense of destiny at an early age, a certainty that writing success would be theirs. But destiny is an illusion, a refuge for the narcissistic, who assume they are the centre of the world and that chance, luck and randomness don’t exist. Well, they do.

If you want to become an author for the adulation of your fans, good luck. Having fans is not guaranteed. If you have fans, keeping them is not guaranteed.

As a consequence, you have to take a long-term view if you want to progress from writer to author. Say, twenty years. Or forty. Or perhaps never. A flash-in-the-pan is forgotten the month after. Slow build and slow burn is the way, if there is a way (which there isn’t). Of course, if you only want to be a writer then a flash-in-the-pan might be just the thing.

The best reason to be an author is because you can’t not be one. By this, I don’t mean because you idolise JJ Abrams, Tolkien or George RR Martin. If you do idolise them you’ll just copy them, either consciously or without knowing it. An author isn’t somebody who can’t not be George RR Martin. Authors have an inner drive to create, and in the best, most interesting cases that drive is independent of culture, of the genre or of specific authors. It is fine to be influenced by authors – I’m influenced by Jack Vance, Spike Milligan and Gene Wolfe – but it’s not fine to want to be somebody else. That just displays an internal void.

Then there’s the commercial success. Do you really want that, or would you rather be an artist? The number of authors who are true artists and commercially successful is vanishingly small, so you’d better get used to the idea that art and commerce are separate goals. It’s great when the money rolls in, but never expect it. You will need a 9-5 job that pays the rent, or have a high-earning spouse or just be lucky financially, which of course most people aren’t.

David Bowie said that the best place for an artist to be was just outside their comfort zone. Authors should always have a question at the back of their mind – how can I challenge myself with my next novel? Well, if you can follow your muse as you actively place obstacles in front of yourself then you’re well on the way to becoming a distinctive author. I want my fans to write in their reviews of my novels, ‘Blimey, I’ve never read anything like this before.’

Your brand should be yourself, but that unfortunately means taking the most difficult path of all. Still, that means it’s the most rewarding path. Writing a novel is an intensely personal thing; then you have to put it out there and submit to the opinions of readers. That’s never an easy experience, even if you’re not desperate, not narcissistic or not a fraud.

As an author you can and should take your art seriously, but it’s best not to take yourself seriously.

Memory Seed ebook cover

Memory Seed

You’d Better Free Your Mind Instead

I didn’t know China Miéville was about to publish his book October about the 1917 Russian Revolution when I wrote my most recent novel Woodland Revolution.

In early reviews of Miéville’s book (published last week) much is made of his adroit handling of his material, professing no original research but telling a compelling narrative with all the skill that this gifted author has. But as I read the reviews, and contemplated buying the book, I grew increasingly aware of the fundamental difference between my concept of revolution and that of others.

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In Miéville’s epilogue to his book he notes that the Russian Revolution didn’t have to end the way it did, with Stalin and the gulags. On Radio 4 today he spoke eloquently about the role of women in the October Revolution, and the subsequent bullying of them back into the position of second class citizens, by what continues to be one of the most repulsively misogynistic societies on the planet. But the facts remain. There was no liberal government after 1917, there was no long-term emancipation of women, and there was no hope. There was in fact all the things we remember from that era: authoritarianism, genocide, murder, nuclear weapons, macho posturing and war, war, war.

Why might this be? Although Miéville is undoubtedly sincere in his admiration for the Russian Revolution, I wonder if he is looking at the most fundamental description of that event. It was without doubt a vast, wide-ranging and cataclysmic thing, but did it occur at the most fundamental possible level of change? Well, I don’t suppose Miéville believes that it did, but in my opinion his book adds to the wealth of work which presupposes that a revolution of social order counts as a true revolution. I don’t think it does. 1917 merely exchanged one vile social structure for another one, and it was always going to be that way. Miéville argues that revolutions are a form of hope, a kind of large-scale social optimism, and he thinks they are therefore a good thing. But what is a revolution?

My most recently written novel Woodland Revolution was inspired in exactly the opposite way to Miéville’s book. Whereas Miéville takes a world-shattering event as the reason for writing his book – ten days that shook the world – my novel was inspired by seeing a dead fox on the side of the road on my way to work one morning. The fox had been hit by a car: roadkill. Half of its body was mangled and flattened, but the other half, brilliant orange-red in the morning light, remained pristine. This tiny event had an enormous impact upon me. It led to the title of my tenth novel No Grave For A Fox – a phrase which dropped into my mind seconds after driving past the fox – but it also led to the gelling in my mind of a novel I’d wanted to write about animals, life and death, and revolution. Over April this year I wrote that short novel.

In Woodland Revolution, a wolf and a dog see wolf roadkill at the side of a road. The wolf discoverer is very young and has no grasp of the meaning of death (for this section, Sylvia Anthony’s book The Discovery Of Death In Childhood And After was useful), whereas the dog, a little older, does grasp the basic meaning. Through the novel, which uses a mythic structure over the notional duration of the wolf’s life (and through one notional year) a couple of “revolutions” occur, one from an ancient social system and one from the new system to one newer still. In the latter stages of the novel however the wolf grasps that such “revolutions” are in fact no such thing; they are merely the exchange of one inhumane structure for another. And so, through the act of living her life, this wolf brings about a true revolution.

All the characters in this novel are animals, which I suppose makes it count as a fantasy, though, as usual, I can’t imagine what my long-suffering fans are going to make of it. But I’m an author who follows his muse – I go where it leads.

The Russian Revolution was a revolution only in name. True revolution can only come from within. Change follows as a consequence. Social structures in Russia – the autocracy of the Tsars, the authoritarianism of Communism and then Stalinism, the death-dealing stranglehold of Putin – are all identical systems, each one a manifestation of a still deeper force in society, of its most fundamental level. If and when such manifestations fade away we’ll have humane societies – should we survive as a species that long. But we won’t have them before then. Not even in Russia.

woodlandrev

woodlandrev

Beardy Marx, Hairy London

In Hairy London – a very silly novel with a very serious theme, which is set somewhere in Victorian/Edwardian times – I used a few real people as fictional characters, including Karl Marx. One of the main characters, Velvene Orchardtide, scion of the landed gentry and rather fond of stealing from his parents, is forced to leave the bosom of his family home and undertake the Suicide Club quest initiated by Sheremy Pantomile, which is to find the true nature of love. Early on, Velvene and Marx have an inconclusive meeting in Highgate Cemetery, where Velvene has crashed his bovine balloon:

Velvene described as best he could the purpose of the Suicide Club and Pantomile’s wager, concluding, “I found myself short of funds, and so put my name forward. I mean to uncover the true nature of love and win the money.”

“Huh,” Marx grunted. “A waste of time. You are a crippled man in a crippled society, journeying around your Empire as if it were a playground, while the common person, the authentic person, struggles against the oppression of the upper classes.”

“So you say,” Velvene retorted, “but some of us who find ourselves, through no fault of our own, born into wealth become philanthropists-“

“An illusion! What use is some? You are alienated from everything in your world. You know nothing of real life, of poverty, of work, of struggle, of disappointment, of the crushing of opportunity. And here you are now, jousting with me and daring to tell me you seek the truth of love? You would not know love if it clung on to you with the passion of a young woman.”

Velvene at this point has little understanding of himself, of his curious circumstances and of the nature of the struggle suggested by Marx, but as the novel progresses he does gain understanding, and in the end becomes something of a hero. But what was Marx on about in the cemetery scene above? What was Marx’s concept of humanity?

In Beyond The Chains Of Illusion the radical humanist, Marxist and former Freudian psychologist Erich Fromm noted that one of Marx’s fundamental points is that the nature of “man” (i.e. human beings) is comprehensible, a concept which at the time went head-to-head with the prevailing idea that we are all a blank sheet for culture and other forces to write upon:

Marx, in assuming the existence of a nature of man, did not concur in the common error of confusing it with its particular manifestations. He differentiated ‘human nature in general’ from ‘human nature as modified in each historical epoch.’

Yet even Erich Fromm at this stage in his life’s work would add:

Human nature in general we can never see… what we observe are always the specific manifestations of human nature in various cultures… In his earlier writings, Marx still called ‘human nature in general’ the ‘essence of man.’ He later gave up this term because he wanted to make it clear that ‘the essence of man’ is no abstraction inherent in each separate individual… For Marx, the nature of man was a given potential, a set of conditions, the human raw material, as it were, which as such cannot be changed, just as the size and structure of the human brain has remained the same since the beginning of civilisation.

In my own work I’ve made a few changes to this stance, using the term ‘human condition’ to mean the unchanging, biologically/evolutionary-determined aspect of ourselves, and ‘human nature’ to be the historically dependent, ‘visible’ aspect. The human condition in my view is inviolate, and leads, according to cultural conditions, to various types of human nature. I also disagree with Fromm in that in my opinion there is no bar to what I’ve called a scientific description of the human condition. Fromm was insistent in all his later works on humanity assembling of a full understanding of the human condition, a process he was very much a part of and which he memorably contributed to in his seminal work The Sane Society.

Marx, then, grasped that human nature at least could be assessed and discussed, if nothing else. And of course he saw the consequences of not understanding the true needs of human beings:

Marx chuckled. “You’ve read Montesquieu then,” he remarked. “If a person becomes active, productive and independent, then yes, they may be counted authentic. But it involves releasing themself from chains of illusion. And you? Look at you. You wear clothes created from the subjection of the masses in Lancashire. Your chronoflam is gold removed from a foreign country that your King rules but has never visited. Your club for the idle rich employs servants who make the myriad delicacies upon which you feast, and all for a few pennies. Wager? I wager this – that you have never done a full day’s work in your life.”

Such is Marx’s early challenge to Velvene Orchardtide.

What then of love? Is it something forever beyond grasp, a phantasm, an illness, a spiritual affection perpetually enigmatic? Or did it evolve over hundreds of thousands of years, along with emotion and a host of other aspects of the human condition? Hairy London presents three possible answers to the question at its conclusion, but Velvene and Marx had a second encounter much later in the book, where the two are somewhat more courteous to one another:

“And what of love?” [Marx] asked.

“My research continues.”

“Who then have you questioned?”

Velvene, annoyed again, decided to oppose Marx by attacking. He replied, “Tell me, do you believe, as Freud and Reich do, that man is a tabula rasa, or do you side with Jung, who believes all men are born with unconscious personality already within him?”

Wrongfooted by this question, Marx peered long and hard at Velvene, then glanced away and said, “I suppose I side against Jung.”

“Then we are born, effectively, a blank sheet of paper?”

“Yes.”

“Well, where then do our personalities come from?”

Marx considered, then replied, “I suppose they come from the real world, from our experiences, placed inside us through memory.”

As this conversation develops, I take Marx away from his real stance:

Do you suppose that more might be placed inside us, perhaps through the actions of our parents, our siblings, our family, eh?” [Velvene said.]

“I suppose that to be perfectly possible.”

Velvene considered. “Then it must be that love, and all the other psychological templates, are also placed inside us, in such a way as to chime with the theories of the estimable Mr Darwin.”

Again Marx considered this point, before answering, “You mean, because we are all of the same species, descended from apes, we all partake of the same mental template?”

“Yes, sir!”

Marx… said, “What a remarkable idea. What then shall we decide about love?”

Velvene felt ideas flooding his mind as the implications of his notion arrived. He replied, “Though we all partake of the same mental template, we all grow up in different conditions, eh? The working class man has a different experience of life to the imperialist. Therefore, it must be that we all approach love from different angles.”

“And yet every man and woman across the world experiences love in the same way.”

“Well, true, true…” Velvene murmured. He thought for a moment, then said, “You must be correct, Mr Marx. Though we are all different in the circumstances of our lives, love is universal. It must therefore be an aspect of our mental template.”

“Moreover, it must be a deducible aspect – as with any scientific theory.”

Velvene nodded, intrigued. That was a notion he had never considered. “By reasonable extension of what he have decided so far,” he said, “love must be an aspect of the process of placing experience inside us as we grow up.”

“But what aspect?”

This takes Marx well away from 19th century thought. Although the idea of different classes of people in, say, British culture approaching life differently is in accordance with Marx’s historically-dependent ‘essence of man’ notion, the pair do agree that love is essentially a universal experience.

“But my point is this,” [Velvene said.] “If a man truly… loves a woman, would he not want everything possible for his beloved, eh? Including her freedom, her happiness, her enjoyment of life.”

“He would want that,” Marx replied. “I certainly wanted that for my wife.”

“Then this surely is what love must be. It is the way we most profoundly understand the beloved, so that they may experience the best of what life has to offer. After all, we enter this world knowing nobody – yet we, as a social animal, have no option but to know the people around us.”

“Indeed!” Marx said. “Then love, understanding, and freedom must all be words for the same thing.”

Velvene felt excitement course through him. “They must be! And though I have heard it said amongst cynical, and often very young men that love is blind, the opposite must be true. Love is like spectacles. We see better through it.”

“A remarkable analogy, sir! I believe I may put that in my pamphlet.”

And so it is a universal experience. In The Art Of Loving, Fromm wrote:

… mature love is union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality. Love is an active power in man; a power which breaks through the walls separating man from his fellow men, which unites him with others… In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one and yet remain two.

Love, understanding and freedom are all words for the same experience:

“There exists however,” Velvene said, “a dilemma in the experience of our lives. We, ourselves, are most vividly and continuously experienced. We know our own deeds and wishes, our every idiosyncrasy and foible, feeling, thought, hope and desire. But no other human being, however close, is experienced in this intimate manner, eh? There is always the impossibility of feeling precisely the same feelings as another, of having different thoughts, of remembering different experiences – in short, of being different people. This dilemma is resolved by the experience of union.”

“What do you mean by union?” asked Franclin.

“Well, I mean love. Our need for communication and our need for union are similar in the sense that they draw people together through society. But union has a more profound quality. Communication between people is an aspect of living, though it can in some cases be deep… But union does not have any aspect of chance. We do not live, as it were, casually creating union with others. Union has a different meaning. Union relates, as Marx pointed out, to the actual experience of the human condition, to the experience of living a human life. Union is the exchange of the experience of life, whereas communication is the exchange of information relating to life… union, by which I mean love, is the experience of understanding others. Union indeed is an inevitable part of life, because we simply have to understand others.”

“Love is inevitable, then?” Franclin asked.

“We are born,” Velvene replied, “without any knowledge of the world, and so we have to create our memories by learning about life. At least, most [psychologists] think so, Mr Jung being the notable exception, eh? Love, therefore, was an inevitable consequence of our evolution from apes.”

“What then is your wager presentation?” Lord Blackanore asked.

Velvene turned to face him. “The purpose of love is to facilitate the appearance of other human beings in our minds. It is our method of bringing other people, wholly independent of the self as I have explained, into our minds, to be understood. The experience of love is the experience of union. Indeed sir, loneliness is unbearable precisely because true understanding of the self and of life is inextricably bound up with the true understanding of others.”

“I do not follow.”

Velvene nodded. “… Love is indeed a paradoxical experience, eh? It preserves the integrity and independence of those involved. Love requires freedom to exist, for without freedom, Blackanore, why then it would be but a tie of necessity, eh? Love and freedom and understanding are therefore conceptual equivalents… You see, love is not blind. In fact it is the very opposite, eh? Love gives us an improved experience of others, since it is the very experience of the truth of these others, not just the perception of some surface quality.”

Thus does Velvene Orchardtide redeem himself.

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Hairy London – cover

The Employment Problem

In recent months much has been written by various media publications about the likelihood of jobs being “taken” by robots and other automated systems, including by AI (or AGI – Artificial General Intelligence – as it is often called now). There are various possible scenarios: hyper-rich individuals owning AGIs and thereby removing the need for employees, resulting in mass unemployment; a huge change in the types of jobs being done, as with the change from manufacturing to services in the case of Britain over the past few decades; or perhaps a strengthening of the exploitation effects inherent in the capitalist system. In my novel No Grave For A Fox I had the latter option prevalent, with the nexus embodied in various android-type bodies. In Beautiful Intelligence the effect was not so obvious, the main employment effect being a decentralising one.

But in the Factory Girl trilogy I also considered these options, despite the 1910-11 setting. The automata (or horas as they are sometimes known) which are one of the mysteries of the novels are owned by Sir Tantalus Blackmore, a classic Victorian entrepreneur who exploits everything and everybody to become as rich as possible – or so it seems at first glance. But, whatever his motives, Sir Tantalus does own outright the ability to utilise the automata made by his Factory. In this regard he is deemed one of the sources of the wave of mass unemployment affecting my alternate Britain, as shown in this early conversation between Kora and Dr Spellman:

They stepped out of the hansom cab, waiting on the pavement while the automaton lifted Dr Spellman’s luggage off the rack. “Will you pay it?” Kora asked. “No.” “Why not? You paid the one in London.” “Yes,” said Dr Spellman, “but he was human.” “That is not fair. How can the Factory make money if nobody pays the automata?” Dr Spellman chuckled. “A very good point! You’re not daft, are you? Well, you see, the local Council pays your father for the automata who do all the work.”

In other words Sir Tantalus has a monopoly, which even extends to public use, as exemplified by the Sheffield Town Council having to pay him.

Although there was unemployment in Edwardian times, I did have in mind future possibilities when I was preparing the scenario for the three novels. Sir Tantalus is a private individual. He has broken the link between people giving their labour in return for a salary. Labouring individuals can associate into unions, which gives them power, since, if the business is dependent on labour, they can go on strike. This is not the case with Sir Tantalus or with any private individual who might use an AGI. If, rather than changing the mode of employment, an AGI owner bypasses labour entirely via their AGI then that labour loses its power of strike; and this is perhaps the worst danger of future AGI use. Such an owner would have the ability to accumulate capital without any hindrance – and that has never happened before.

Sir Tantalus enjoys exactly this option. Although there is mystery behind the creation of the automata, he in essence – especially in the early days of his operation – can accumulate as much capital as he likes, since the automata, like AGIs, have no power of strike.

And Sir Tantalus does what any self-obsessed Victorian entrepreneur would do in the circumstances – he sucks up to nobility:

Roka … nodded. “Is [Sir Tantalus in Parliament], then?” “Not in Parliament, no. What he does is far more cunning. He influences from behind the scenes to get what he wants. Why, he’d like to be a lord, you know, but…” “But what?” Dr Spellman shrugged, standing up to continue walking. “He was born into a poor Yorkshire family. Real lords don’t want him anywhere near them.” “That’s not fair.” Dr Spellman chuckled. “It’s one of his weak points, his obsession with nobility. His envy eats him up, Roka.”

Regarding unemployment, there are two sides to the argument in the Factory Girl novels, one which sees the automata as beneficial (pro-hora) and one which sees them as usurping (anti-hora).

Rather surprisingly, Sir Tantalus stands in the latter category:

Sir Tantalus continued, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wonder whether the achievement of hora emancipation – of Abolition, as Parliament would have it – would in fact be a hollow victory. In Sheffield you perhaps do not see the cruel tide of unemployment that affects London, Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. My Factory gives work to more people than you can imagine, and I am glad for that. But as an older man, with little time remaining to him, I can see that there are too many horas in the world today. They do all the work we ask them to. But what of the little man? What of the ordinary man? It is for them that I worry.”

Later in the trilogy the reason for this becomes clear. But others are pro-hora:

“Regardless of the origin of the hora,” Lenin continued, “the hora is a worker, and as such acquires rights such as any worker should enjoy. Though we use the hora as an automatic worker to do tasks such as we do not wish to do, the hora is part of the great commonality of the working class – and it is being exploited by capitalist masters. In the essential regard about which I speak, the hora is akin to the man.

The above speech by Lenin should not perhaps be too surprising. (Lenin lived in Britain for a few years from 1902, so I thought it would be appropriate to have him play a small part in my novel.) But there is another aspect to these considerations which I wanted to use as a main part of the plot, and that is the way capitalism, unlike nature, posits no limit to growth. Though Lenin rightly saw automata as workers, he did not in my novels grasp the dangers of their mode of manufacture. He only saw the end result – employment in Sir Tantalus’ Factory for the men of south Yorkshire, and a force of hora workers who deserved rights. But the danger becomes clear in the third volume, The Girl With No Soul:

Agricultural fields lay littered with inutile horas, thousands of them, their steel exteriors glittering in the sunlight. In distant lanes he saw hundreds more walking apparently at random. The sheer quantity horrified him, and he realised that the Factory was still over-producing. What was Sir Tantalus doing inside?

The outer streets of the city were also strewn with horas, and with hora parts, as if a kind of grisly mechanical fury had ripped through the place. Through a gap in the blinds he observed lines of men at soup kitchens, elsewhere rubble and shattered glass; and everywhere a chaotic press of people with pale, starved faces. Police patrolled the streets in groups – never alone – and there were even a few army officers in uniform.

Over-production – a small, curious, and mostly ignored effect in the first novel – has by the time of the third novel become an overpowering concern. As Erasmus later says:

“Roka – you already know this to be true. You, a Marxist, can see the madness of capitalism, which uses resources as if they are unlimited. Capitalism posits no natural limit to economic growth, and therefore dooms the culture in which it exists – and its environment too. Now do you see?” She nodded. “Capitalism is cancer…“

This is the equivalent of the first option presented in the introduction to this post. A proliferation of automata, like a proliferation of AGIs with nobody to control their creation or use, swiftly gets out of hand. Humanity is blithely doing itself out of an existence. At a time of global population explosion that’s not wise…

The second option is a change in employment styles. In Edwardian times, with severe social stratification, there was little chance for such ‘portfolio careers’ as they’re known today. Most people, especially on the lower rungs of the ladder, had a trade for life. It is in fact the far-sighted men of the Malthus Brigade who change the options for the malformed horas which they collect and adapt:

AutoRoka continued, “Malthus wrote about a future where disease and famine checked the growth of population, suggesting there was a limit to such growth.” Roka said, “Do you believe then that people will all die of starvation in the future?” The man [Ernest] shook his head. “Not people. We’re talkin’ about automata. Thee not noticed ‘ow many of them there are these days?” Roka shook her head. “It’s why the police waste so much time gatherin’ up the loose ones. Soon we’ll be drownin’ beneath them.” Roka grimaced at the image. “You really believe that?” “Oh, aye. It’s inevitable. So we’re takin’ malformed automata, which otherwise would do nowt, to make a force.”

And Ernest sees further, albeit under the spell of mass unemployment:

“ … The whole bloody Empire is built on automata labour, thee sees. No automata – no Empire. No nothin’, in fact.” “I suppose so,” Roka agreed.

Employment not only brings a salary to an employee, it offers far more. Human beings live in entwined worlds of meaning, and employment is one of the main sources of purpose in life. In previous centuries it was obvious to some that making an individual perform the same task over and over again militated against humanity. We cannot do production-line work and remain sane.

If we create a future in which AGIs dispense medical diagnoses, direct trade deals and trade itself, drive cars, trains and planes, or perhaps run all our personal finances, we are creating a future with far less space for meaning. We’ll be making stressed, anxious zombies of ourselves – and there’ll be billions of those.

tgw2s

The Girl With Two Souls