Thursday 27 December 2012

A Guy Thing

I watched a movie the other day that made me cry. Was it a weepie? A soppy romance? No, it was Battle: Los Angeles.

Did I cry because it was so bad? No. On the contrary, it was very good. It wasn't ground-breaking in any way, nor was it a great piece of art. I didn't recognise any of the actors in it, it didn't win any awards and it certainly didn't shatter any box office records. The movie had a fairly predictable plot, yet when I watched it for the third time, it still moved me to tears.

Am I mawkishly sentimental? Well yes, as it happens. I can't help it, it's just the way I'm wired. Not that I blub for any old thing, you understand. I'm getting more cynical with age. But clearly I still have soft spots.

So what caused me to well up? Oddly enough, the scenes that depicted a deep and unapologetic masculinity. I say oddly because, for most of my life, I've never considered myself very masculine. I was a shy kid at school, I've never liked sports and I've no interest in hanging out with the guys.

But those things are just surface symptoms of masculinity. The emotional core of masculinity, like femininity, runs deeper than that.

If the essence of femininity is relationships (both with others and with the environment) then the essence of masculinity is sacrifice. Manly self-sacrifice.

But it's just a movie

Wait, Hollywood movies are awash with masculinity aren't they? Swaggering heroes dispatch bad guys and quip ironic one-liners in hundreds of summer blockbusters. In Stallone's The Expendables you can't move for testosterone and biceps. Surely while watching that I must have used a year's supply of tissues.

Well, no, actually I gave up after about fifteen minutes, it was that bad. I enjoyed Predators, sort of, and of course one of my favourite movies remains Aliens, with its marines in space battling for their lives. But none of these showed real masculinity - it was just machismo played for laughs. Comic book style. These movies are blockbusters and are marketed to the widest possible audience which, given how diverse any given population is, must involve the watering down of certain elements.

I did cry watching The English Patient. It features a romance, and the hero is not an action adventurer. But when he struggled to return through the desert to his (illicit) love, only to find her dead (he took too long), you then see him carrying her to his airplane. It's a futile gesture, and you know he's going to be punished for it (you've just seen him as a burned out husk for most of the movie), but he carries on anyway. The romance didn't particularly move me much, but at this point of sacrifice I found myself shedding a tear, as I did again when he opts to finish his life so he can fly forever with her in the hot desert air.

I cried also when I read a scene in The Lord of the Rings: Eowyn, shield-maiden of the Rohirrim, faces the King of the Nazgul alone. She could have stayed hidden, and she is outmatched, for none can withstand the Nazgul, but she takes her stand nevertheless. "Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears were on her cheek. A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy's eyes." The scene is witnessed by Merry, who has been cowering among the dead. "Pity filled his heart and great wonder, and suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke. He clenched his hand. She should not die, so fair, so desperate! At least she should not die alone, unaided."

The same scene in the movie version, incidentally, lacked gravitas for me, so didn't evoke the same response. But clearly the fact that the warrior is a woman doesn't change, for me at any rate, the noble sacrificial element. Tolkein had experienced the battlefields of Flanders in WW1, and he understood the emotions well.

Men are accused of lacking emotional depth, but this is total bunk. It may not always be on display, but it is there nevertheless. Men are also accused of being selfish, but this is to profoundly misunderstand masculinity and its nuances.

Selfless Sacrifice

In Sleepless in Seattle, there's a scene where Tom Hanks lampoons the women crying over a romance by pretending to cry over a scene from The Dirty Dozen. It's a light hearted mockery, but there's a grain of truth in there somewhere.

In The Transformation of War, Martin Van Creveld says of warfare that: "in some ways it represents the most altruistic of all human activities". Contentious stuff, to be sure, but what he's referring to is the way that soldiers are prepared to sacrifice themselves in war. Sometimes they sacrifice themselves for a flag or a cause, but these are just motifs for a more basic truth. Soldiers sacrifice themselves for those around them - most often their comrades. This is no small thing. They are sacrificing themselves for... what exactly? Fame? Wealth? Favours? These mean nothing when you're dead.

And yet still they do it. There are many true stories for instance of soldiers throwing themselves onto grenades in order to save others. Are they mad? Well, in today's therapeutic culture, such actions, and violence in general, are sometimes described as signs of mental illness. But the evidence to support this is sparse. One story that I find poignant is that of a soldier in Vietnam who finds himself in a dugout with wounded men, each waiting their turn to be seen by medics. The pin on one of his grenades becomes snagged on something and is pulled out. Frantically the soldier tries to remove the grenade to throw it a safe distance, but it is entangled in his webbing. With seconds to go he leaps out of the dugout and runs clear, the grenade bouncing on his chest until it explodes. His act saved several lives and, in the heat of the moment, it was clearly instinctive. I mean, his overriding priority at that moment, from the 'selfish gene' point of view, was to get rid of the grenade and survive. Yet, in what must have been an adrenaline fuelled moment of anxiety, he still overrode his organic need to survive by thinking of the others instead. Self sacrifice for others is real.

Bear in mind also that most soldiers in action are just working class joes. They are not contemplative, deep thinkers. Nor are they sensitive poets ruminating on the meaning of life. Today most lower class young men are depicted as shallow, mindless wasters. Stick them in a platoon however at death's door, and their willingness to risk their lives for others is easily evoked in a way that transcends cultural norms or even training. It can only be a form of built-in altruism.

Perhaps it's not masculinity per se. Perhaps it arises from millennia of evolved tribalism, where the collective is more important than the individual. It more often arises among men however. Maybe this is evolved too. Women are vital to society, whereas men are expendable. It has been said that society uses men, and this is true, but men have long relished this and even taken a pride in it. The willingness to risk themselves, it seems, was also vital to society.

None of this of course makes much sense any more in a pampered civilization where death from disease, famine or annihilation by war has never been so far away. Ancient tribes could easily be wiped out, and they didn't have access to healthcare, legislated rights and material comforts previously unheard of. Masculinity therefore is easily mocked and seen as obsolete, but a hundred thousand years of evolution isn't going to go away just because a few newspaper columnists say it should. As Camille Paglia once said, "All it takes is one natural disaster for that entire artificial world to come crumbling down, and suddenly everyone will be screaming and yelling for the plumbers and the construction workers. Only masculine men of the working class will hold the civilization together."

The firecrews who entered the smoke-filled 9-11 buildings that then collapsed were not warriors, but even in the prevailing health and safety culture that insists upon risk assessments for everything, they still risked their lives, and are honoured for doing exactly that. Some things never change.

The genetic hand of God

Self-sacrifice probably doesn't feature in most people's lists of what constitutes rational behaviour. It does however count as a form of spiritual behaviour. Sacrifice has, as we all know, been a feature of nearly all religion throughout the ages, even in societies that had little or no contact with others. We consider human sacrifice abhorrent today - even the Spanish Inquisition deemed it to be a barbaric, cruel practice (unlike, say, stretching someone on the rack and burning their dangly bits with red hot pokers) - but not all sacrificial victims were reluctant. They may even have been volunteers, giving their lives to their gods for the sake of their society. Only when the institution became old and stale did they perhaps enjoy less honour? Just as Roman citizens, during Rome's decline, ceased volunteering to serve in the legions, then Aztec sacrificial victims, during their decline, came from the surrounding subject tribes and may have become more punishment than honour.

But it's not just the pagan religions that honoured sacrifice. Christianity honours the spectacle of Jesus on the cross. This is not seen as punishment (even though we are told he was arrested and put on trial) but as a self chosen sacrifice. Jesus Christ died for us all. I never had that last phrase explained to me as a child, so I never really understood what it meant - like, how was a death supposed to 'save' us all? But the concept of self-sacrifice remains a constant in religion. Take the concept of Christian martyrdom, for instance. Or Islamic martyrdom (which we currently both fear and mock). The ritual of suttee that so shocked British colonial governors in India - the burning of a widow on the grave of her husband - was meant to be a chosen form of self-sacrifice according to Hindu custom.

Martin Van Creveld says that war fighting is, "akin to the sacred and merging into it." Being 'at one' with Our Lord, or The Universe, is familiar enough. We also have the Buddhist concept of 'letting go' and the Hindu concept of 'release' from the endless cycle of life and death. Sacrifice can be considered a form of 'giving oneself up' for a higher purpose. As I wrote in a scene in my novel (available in all good e-stores *grin*), walking knowingly towards death was less an act of will, and more an act of... "giving up, relinquishing control and offering oneself to whatever may come. It was about releasing one's hold on life."

So, with similar concepts spread across so many disparate cultures, for nearly all of human history, would it be true to say that religion is hard wired into us, as some have claimed?

Well no, for religion is a complex social institution that would be impossible to 'hard wire' into a biological organism - the two aspects are like oil and water, they don't mix. But what if the sacrificial element of our tribal evolution generates sensations that people then interpret as spiritual?

What if in fact all spirituality, and by definition, religion, stemmed from our evolved sensations? Although many societies never met each other, and thus could not have exchanged ideas, all societies could trace their origins back to tribal groups. Tribalism is the bedrock of who we are.

In which case, self-sacrifice is an intrinsic aspect of humanity, channelled through the male as masculinity, and, when fatal, considered a deeply holy act.

 Whoa, what happened there?

Okay, that was one hell of a digression from what started as a simple discussion about some B-Movie, but these things matter. With regards to the movie itself, there's really not much to say. The special effects are competent, but that's not saying much in this day and age. The editing, the flow of the story, and the scripting are all professional and, from a storyteller's point of view, done right. That shouldn't be saying much - after all, visual story telling has been around for a very long time. I came to this movie however after watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Christ, what a mess that was when it came to the absolute basics of the story teller's craft (I gave it two stars on Amazon). Professionalism should therefore be given its due, even in movies with a ridiculous premise (alien invasion of Los Angeles? Puleeeeeeez!). I thought it was done better than Independence Day too. The 'science' side of it was inserted seamlessly into the flow, and didn't need some scientist or philosopher archetype to crank out exposition so that the proles in the audience would understand it. The reasons for why aliens invade Earth are no more plausible in Battle: Los Angeles than they are in Independence Day, but at least no one is trying to insult your intelligence with some half-baked bullshit because, really, we all know the aliens exist in these movies purely to get shot at. As one reviewer put it, "ET go home... in a body bag."

It's definitely more war movie than sci-fi movie, which certainly cheesed off the sci-fi buffs who watched it and wondered, why are there so many military stereotypes in this movie? And why aren't they being mocked!? - like they routinely are in sci-fi. Well, I liked the military content and, having done a lot of military research, I didn't find the characters that cliched or unlikely. The characters and the mood I got immediately. And I liked the way it was played straight - like it was a documentary of Afghanistan. It was confident and understated in its portrayals. Only the way the marines moved through the urban environment struck a bum note - they don't huddle together like that, inviting annihilation from a single burst of fire. But that's a common mistake in movies. Maybe it's about getting everybody in the camera frame.

And the manly self-sacrifice I mentioned? Yeah, there's plenty of that. Plus shocked marines taking stock during the lulls. The scene with the dying father got to me. So much so that I didn't feel the need to snark when the sergeant said, "Marines don't quit," (And it's a line that Aaron Eckhart delivers better than anything Clint Eastwood did in Heartbreak Ridge - a war movie so bad, and so insulting to reality, that it really needed a few aliens).

Snark is common these days, and in the UK we are deeply suspicious of American patriotism and guys going 'oorah!' Serious masculinity has become very unfashionable on both sides of the pond. It's something either to be feared, psychoanalysed or mocked. Yet, as I sat in my safe and comfortable living room, having never risked my life for anything and confident that I'll probably never have to, I still felt moved, like some deep vein had been touched. Something base, something primeval, perhaps even something spiritual.

And I thought, yeah, that's a good movie. I'll probably watch it a fourth time some day. And if I don't have any tissues, then I'll just make sure the light's on low. Because I don't want anybody else to see.

It's private, so I'll keep it to myself, and not tell a soul...

...just don't tell anyone, okay?

Monday 19 November 2012

Chain Reaction

You've heard of chain-letters? Well someone somewhere has started a chain blog post, passed from one Indie Author to the next. This one has been passed to me by Sherrie Cronin, and as you can see, it's a series of questions. So without further ado, I present the next link in the chain...

What is the title of your next book?
There Are No Angels In Heaven. But don't quote me on this, because today is today and tomorrow is something else, so I might change my mind.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
Went to bed one night and the Thought Fairy left it under the pillow. The grammar was terrible though, and needed a lot of work. Fairies, eh?

What genre does your book fall under?
Science Fiction. 'Cos it's in space. Could also be subtitled as a thriller, action adventure. 'Cos there's lots of that too. Or there will be when I write it in. I can only write for so long before getting the urge to kill someone in print. But Science Fiction is a such a huge genre in itself, so I suppose it's legitimate to ask what kind of science fiction it is. Hard SF? Soft SF? Galaxy-spanning space opera?
Pffft! Who cares? Sci-fi Pedants can argue forever about how many aliens dance on the head of a pin. Look, It's set on Callisto, one of Jupiter's moons; there's a mystery to be solved, baddies to be avoided, risks to be taken and bargains to be made and broken. And someone will almost certainly get shot before the end.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Giving me control of casting would be a very, very bad thing. And I accept immediately. I'd like to thank my mom, the milkman, the cat and the guy over there with the shocked look upon his face for this honour.
First up would the role of Christina Balbueno.  Maybe she could be played by Salma Hayek, but she's a little too sexy for the role. Then there's J-Lo, simply because everyone thinks she's my sister. But no, I need someone practical for the role. Flawed, determined, not afraid to go where men fear to tread. It's Bruce Willis with implants then - job done.
Next up is Shakespeare Cruz - oh yes, dear readers, he pops up in this one too. What do you mean you thought he was dead? Pah! Have you no faith? Anyway, that's a no-brainer. Danny Trejo. Simples.
Shakespeare Cruz's eight year old daughter, Seina, would be played by Tom Cruise in a dress - he's about the right height. Kagame would be played by Idris Elba, because he's just so cool. Mattias would be played by Enrique Iglesias, and Christina's father would be played by Salma Hayek. See, she makes it into the movie in the end.
And finally, Jar Jar Binks would play the guy who gets skewered by the forklift, burned in the chemical fire and crushed by the landing spaceship. Actually there is no such guy in the book, but the mental image pleases me.

So how does it look?

Okay, this is why you need an expert. Don't ask me to do this again.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
You're taking the piss, aren't you? One sentence? I don't do elevator tests. Read the goddamn blurb.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Self-Published. It's a sequel, and I enjoyed doing the last one. Looking forward to going through the process again.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Well actually, it's not finished yet. For once this really is Speculative Fiction. Like, when am I going to finish the damned thing? But Even The Dead Dance To Live took about a year for the first draft. I've learned a lot since, so it should take less time but, as with the proposed title, don't quote me on this.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
That's a tough one. Like Paul McAuley's The Quiet War, it's set on Callisto in the near future. But the resemblance ends there. This one's a lot noisier. It's much more James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard and Martin Cruz Smith, plus a smattering of early Iain Banks, sans the fantasy science.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?
In Even The Dead Dance To Live, there was a vignette that covered the tragic story of Commodore Balbueno and his fall from grace. That was a loose end that intrigued me, so this story will follow his daughter's quest to clear his name.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
If you've read the first novel, then maybe you're interested in what happened to the surviving characters afterwards. It is a stand-alone novel though, so you won't need to have read the first novel to get into it. Do you like gritty space stories, set in our own solar system, with realistic physics, complex plots and plenty of action? Well this is the book for you. Space colonisation, political drama and grim personal stories - that's what I do and I hope you enjoy it.

Phew, that's done. The next author in the chain is Adrian Staccato, so keep one eye glued to his blog for the next exciting installment of... The Chain (cue drumroll).

Over to you Adrian.

Friday 9 November 2012

Beyond Cool

You've heard of movie remakes. How about premakes? The artist Peter Stults has created posters showing what modern movies might have looked like if they'd been done during Hollywood's Golden Age.

I don't know about you, but if some of these what-if movies were released (or perhaps uncovered?) today, I'd rush to see them. And Tom Cruise's part is one he should play always - it's just better that way.

Check out the artist's site for more examples, some of which you can actually buy as a poster.

Now if I drop enough hints, can I get Santa to get me one?

Thursday 1 November 2012

Guest Interview: Sherrie Cronin

As a special treat to all my regular readers (I'm looking at you too spam-bots) I am pleased to welcome a guest author to the blog - fellow SF writer Sherrie Cronin.

Sherrie is the author of x0 and y1, and is a geophysicist with 28 years of experience in the Texas oil industry. She is married, with three children, and entered the world of writing with a short story she sold to Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction magazine. She has since published two novels of what will be a six novel series, and is hoping to release the third novel in the series in 2013.

Her debut novel x0 follows the story of Lola, a Texan geophysicist, and Somadina, a young Igbo woman living in Nigeria, in the oil-rich Niger Delta. The two women, on two separate continents, must connect somehow, for Somadina needs Lola's help to rescue her sister from a dangerous conspiracy. x0, a secret organisation that serves to assist people with extraordinary powers of the mind, must step in to intervene in a drama that threatens to alter a nation's future. What ensues is an international science fiction thriller with what one reviewer described as a 'great climax'.

y1 focuses on the story of Zane, who 'doesn't believe in magic, and he's gotten a whole degree in neuroscience just to try to figure out how he can possibly alter his appearance the way that he does'. The novel is set in the South Seas this time and involves an unsavoury pharmaceuticals company, an accusation of murder and a mystery to solve before Zane becomes a murder victim himself.

Sherrie has kindly agreed to be interviewed for this blog:

"Your novels clearly benefit from a lot of research, from life among the Igbo of Nigeria, to the South Seas and corporate intrigue in a pharmaceuticals company. Do you get your story ideas first and then set out to research them, or is it your research that gives birth to the stories?"
A little of both. For example I knew that y1 was going to be about the South Pacific and the pharmaceutical industry, so I started research on both .... and discovered that Samoa had been home to a series of ill-fated boot camps for troubled teens.  I had no idea, but out of that research came a new subplot  that tied in nicely with my main plot about medicating teenagers.

"On top of the research, your novels are intricately plotted with multiple characters. A lot of thought and time must go into that. I'm guessing you're an organised and disciplined writer. With three children, a family life and a successful career in the oil industry, how do you go about making time to write?"
Well, the children are grown and that does make all the difference. I pretty much started writing again once the youngest left for college. And I'm 20% retired. My employer lets me work 4 days a week.  So it's write 3, work 4. Oh and I have a fully retired husband who loves to cook. That also is a big plus.

"Your next novel, z2, looks to be due out in January 2013. After Nigeria and the South Seas, which cultural setting do you plan on jetting your readers to next?"
This one will be my North American novel ... but of course it is about a corner of North America few of us from the US know well. A lot of the story takes place where Belize, Guatemala and Mexico all come together.

"You mention in your bio that your muse insisted upon a six book series. Does this still stand, or has your muse come up with more demands since? And if not, do you have plans for another, different series one day?"
My muse and I have a firm agreement in place that this is a collection of six and only six novels.  Actually, the third one, z2. is now written and being edited, and the remaining three are pretty well planned out.  I have an idea for another very different kind of series down the road, but who knows. First I want to take some time in between and work on short fiction for awhile.

Many thanks to Sherrie Cronin for being my guest for the day. x0 and y1 are available to download as ebooks from Amazon and Amazon UK.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

What Women Want Too

Gender is just a mask

In my last post, What Women Want, I discussed the long running trend of literary science fiction offering more egalitarian novels, giving equal billing to female characters alongside male characters. These are deliberate attempts to break the mould of stereotypes by featuring female adventurers, female soldiers, kick-ass heroines, etc. I've recently noticed discussions on the need to attract more women readers and writers to science fiction, though the subject may be older than I think. But the implication, I think, is that older, 'Golden Age' sci-fi was still too male dominated and misogynist, and that feministic principles were needed to remove that taint from the genre.

I can remember back in the late Eighties (I think it was 1988) when Interzone ran a special feminist edition, claiming that, while mainstream feminism led the main assault on male dominance in society, Interzone's featured stories for that edition would act like 'guerilla warfare', sneaking around the 'trenchlines' to strike deep behind enemy lines. Or something.

I remember also at the time, as a committed feminist deep into New Woman (now defunct) and Spare Rib (also defunct), thinking that Interzone was a bit late coming to the party (Sigourney Weaver's star turn in Aliens was already two years old), and that the stories were a bit lame - more cod-feminism than anything. But at least the thought was there. Many of the authors submitting stories then would later go on to become the superstars of science fiction in the nineties. I'm sure I remember Kim Stanley Robinson being one of the contributors to that edition.

So has making the genre more 'female friendly', by giving women and girls more positive role-models that they can identify with, attracted a whole slew of female readers and writers? Well, no, not really. If the recent discussions are anything to go by, there appears to be a lot more work needed for that to happen.

But I wonder now whether the strategy, as described, was not, in fact, mistaken. I mean, if all women want is role-models of women doing exactly what men appear to do, then surely women's soccer would be watched purely by women, while only men watch male soccer. The two sports would then have 50-50 attendances.

Clearly, it's not that simple. Women don't want to just watch themselves doing any old stuff. They're a little more specific in their tastes. The majority of women also don't seem to be that interested in doing what feminists tell them to do.

Women in revolt

Twilight, released in 2005, followed on the heels of Harry Potter's success, doing for teen fiction (or Young Adult fiction as it's now known) what HP did for children's books. People were astonished by Potter's success. Twilight's even faster success generated a slightly different reaction. While some critics noted the changing role of vampires in fiction (from horror staples to romance icons), others were more scathing. Not about the vampires, but about Bella, the lead character.

Guardian columnists lined up to lambast Bella's passivity. She wasn't kick-ass. She wasn't out to challenge the patriarchy or overturn gender stereotypes. She just wanted to be loved by a cute boy vampire.

The horror! Here was a development that surely threatened a step backwards for the egalitarian movement.

This. Was. A bad thing.

Teenage girls (my daughter included) begged to differ and bought the books in their droves. And there was the danger that moved the impassioned Guardianistas, you see. These were young minds at an impressionable age about to step out into the adult world. How on earth could they play their part in remaking the world if all they wanted to do was simper over some immortal pretty boy?

I don't actually think there were any commentators who saw Twilight as some subversive patriarchal ploy to lure girls back into traditional female roles, but I wouldn't be surprised if some did think that.

Still, hot on the heels of Twilight, there arrived another teen novel that would set things right. This was, of course, The Hunger Games, and, to the Concerned Columnists, a welcome step in the right direction. The heroine was a strong, independent-minded young woman. She was determined. And she could fight.

The Hunger Games got made into a movie that looked to be as successful as the Twilight ones. Twilight was, in the comments pages, being frequently mocked, and people appeared to be getting sick of love-lorn vampires.

Twilight looked like being a blip on the ever ascending progressive chart.

Then came 50 Shades of Grey.

Wow, did that set the cat among the pigeons. Here we have a heroine who is not only not the feisty feminist type, but she lets a man tie her up and... do things to her. For, like, the entire book. Or thereabouts.

If some people thought that Twilight had all the hallmarks of an abusive relationship, they were probably going to go ballistic over 50 Shades. And they did. Very soon it was put about that 50 Shades was 'really bad writing'.

Did the readers care? Did they hell. They snapped it up and made it the biggest selling novel in Britain, ever. And they haven't even made a movie out of this one yet! It is breaking records, and will undoubtedly set more. And what's more, sales are not being driven by impressionable young girls who can be forgiven for being so weak minded and easily led that they need to be protected by self-appointed moral guardians. No, this time it's grown women, who should, apparently, know better.

It's quite astonishing really. I mean, 50 Shades is being bought and read by people who simply have never bothered reading a novel before. Everyone I know has either read it, or knows someone who's read it.

Female balls

So what does all this mean? Well, to me it means that all the talk about finding suitable female role-models to educate women was just a load of patronising twaddle. It's long been fashionable, it seems, to portray women as weak minded and in need of guidance and protection, and the new brand of authoritarian feminism appears to do exactly the same. Women, however, know what they like, and they don't need people to socially engineer their fiction. They certainly don't need the oft-called-for token gesture of the ass kicking heroine who, quite frankly, is just a bloke with tits. Or, in science fiction, a nerdy autistic bloke with tits.

Besides romance novels, another genre that is hugely popular with women is murder mystery. More often than not, the detective is a man, but it doesn't matter. When thousands of women read Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse novels, for instance, they probably like the genteel pace, the considered style of Morse's train of thought, the picturesque Oxford settings. It's a cerebral experience, and it matters not one whit that Morse is a man. If the stories were moved to downtown Mogadishu, and Morse was given an AK 47, a jeep and thirty six hours to save the ambassador from the terrorist stronghold, I don't think many of his female readers would be as keen to follow him. Changing him into a woman at that point wouldn't draw them back either.

The gender of the protagonist makes no difference to a novel's appeal.

Ah, but surely it's not about such a crude thing as marketing appeal? Since science fiction is about the future, and since men and women in society are becoming more 'equal', then surely the future (provided we don't take our eye off the ball) will have more equality? Meaning, basically, that men and women will be virtually the same, with their roles freely interchangeable. Gender differences are an invention of the past. Science fiction's egalitarian vision is, therefore, just a realistic look at how the future will be.

Perhaps. But this all assumes that gender really is down to society, not genes. It also assumes that men and women want to be exactly the same.

Consider the evidence, look around and ask yourself; just how true is that? Because after spending years lapping up the propaganda, I myself am not so sure.


I was motivated to write this post after reading way too many forum discussions and blog posts on this subject. Consider my surprise then when I put this question to a writer's forum, and discovered that, actually there is a section of science fiction that, it would appear, caters specifically to women. Not all women. But maybe the ones who just aren't taken with SF as it is.

Ever heard of Science Fiction Romance? I hadn't. And in all the discussions about women in science fiction, I've never once seen this sub-genre referred to once.

Which probably isn't surprising. Mention in a feminism-heavy discussion that women might be attracted to romance, and you're likely to get a literary slap and a how-dare-you warning for insinuating that women only like romance, rather than more 'serious' subjects.

And yet, if you click on the links in the forum I've highlighted, you'll see that these novels are not fly-by-nights. Basically, a body of women has taken to writing what they like. In a practical manner. Rather than just wibble on about inequality and wait for someone else to solve the problem. They have taken the genre, and re-defined it according to their taste.

And there, ultimately, may be the answer to the whole question about women in science fiction. If you don't want just a few women (like, say, CJ Cherryh or Ursula Le Guin) in science fiction, if you wanted to attract a lot more women away from the mainstream, or even away from fantasy, then perhaps we need to have a lot more romance. Perhaps we need to change the whole of science fiction and its orientation towards technical gadgetry, wars in space and nerdy questions about the effect of low gravity and cosmic radiation on socio-biological issues and their attendant permutations on the philosophy of whatnot, wibble and who-gives-a-shit.

What we need in science-fiction is more luuuuuurve. And a bit of tender S&M.

Mmmm. I can see that one going down like a lead balloon among the egg-heads.

Never mind. Just whip out the man-boobs, hide the nutsack and hope nobody notices the difference.

Saturday 20 October 2012

What Women Want

The new Bond movie, Skyfall, is out, and Bond's boss is still a woman. There was a bit of a stir when, several movies back, 'M' was slated to be played by a woman, but it's all part of the fashion of portraying women in fiction in the way that feminism would like them to be in fact.

It might have been a big deal in a Bond movie, but science fiction can take the credit for leading the way on this one, breaking down gender stereotypes and portraying women in just the same way as they would men, even when placed in an adventure setting. Ripley, from Alien, was a trend setter, but even there Hollywood was somewhat behind literary SF. The fictional future is presented as a place where social changes can really happen, so SF has long been replete with female scientists, female presidents, female soldiers, assassins, dynastic matriarchs, etc. Indeed, any male SF author who fails to present an impressive list of 'strong' female characters in their work is swiftly accused of misogyny.

Gender divisions, it is said, need to be wiped out altogether. There is, it seems, no need to even think of men and women as different. So we get the famous mixed-sex shower scene in the Starship Troopers movie, where everyone is so casual about the sameness of the sexes that nobody cares that the object of potential romantic desires may be standing naked next to them.

It's a form of magic really. In fantasy, a spell written on a scroll can alter reality. So it is with the politically correct gender portrayals in science fiction. The idea is that, if it's written often enough, and widely enough, then maybe it will come true. This, essentially, is what is at the heart of popular feminism today.

Feminism's main theory is that gender differences are created by nurture, rather than nature, that they are inculcated and perpetuated by male-dominated society and that they are, essentially, a lie. They are also an obstacle to women reaching their 'full potential'.

Feminism wants women to be equal. But because feminism is, paradoxically, a form of gender sectarianism, there is also the need to show that women are in fact superior to men, and that the reason the world is in such a mess is because there aren't enough women running things. And if women aren't currently up there, then they should be put there.

It is said that the Victorians kept women separate by elevating them on a pedestal, making them 'special' and, by implication, vulnerable and in need of help. The practice of opening doors for women is said today to be patronising to women, who should be quite capable of opening doors themselves.

But what we call the Victorian era has not really ended. In fact, it's gone into overdrive. Affirmative Action in the US, and Positive Discrimination in the UK, are in fact door-opening policies - praised and insisted upon by the same people who condemn earlier practices as patronising to women.

The fact that women are in a minority in Company board rooms (Barbie notwithstanding) has attracted a lot of attention. The fact that they are a minority in, say, road-sweeping or sewage work is, oddly enough, never mentioned at all. Recently Alastair Reynolds tried to generate a buzz over the issue of there being 'not enough women in science fiction'. Is that the fault of women for not going into science fiction? Heaven forbid. No, of course it's the fault of 'society' or male dominated publishing, or male writers who don't do their bit to encourage more female readers by giving them female protagonists.

It's the same as when, in a recent education report, it was noted that there are far fewer girls than boys taking physics. Quite how much research was undertaken to find out why girls had made that choice was not made clear. But the BBC headline made it clear who's fault it was: "Schools fail girls."

Yeah, stand up for your rights sisters. Make them make you take physics.

Oddly enough, I've never seen a reciprocating call for more male writers in Romance - possibly the biggest and most lucrative genre in the publishing business. Nor is the notion floated that female writers should write more from the male point of view.

 Still, it is a fact that no genre better displays gender-blindness when it comes to assigning character roles than science fiction does. You'd think then that women would be flocking to science fiction. I mean, breaking the doors down to get into it. Surely it has everything that feminism says women want.

But instead they flock to fantasy, that so-called backward looking and conservative genre.

That, and bloody vampires.

Which I shall discuss in the next post.

Not the vampires themselves, of course.

But that book.

Friday 10 August 2012

A Genre Of Things?

Embrace your inner geek

Science fiction was created by geeks, who prefer objects to people.

An over-simplification?


But it also explains the predominance of 'ideas', concepts and technology in SF literature. And the cardboard characters who are often servants to the exposition.

If science fiction was created by geeks, then fantasy was created by dreamers, no?

But geeks are people too, and they dream.

So what do they dream about?

Super powers to defeat the bully with. Maybe genetically engineered super powers, or maybe some cool cyborg add-on. You know, that anyone could use.

Aliens - someone not-human who we can maybe talk with. And sympathise with. Maybe even crave the existence of. For do not geeks sometimes feel like aliens themselves?

A future where people are reasonable and wise, and where they are more likely to co-operate than threaten or fight. So no more stranger-fear.

A narrative that doesn't revolve around the troublesome issue of sex and relationships.

That last part is especially pertinent. Most relationships in SF, even non-platonic ones, remind me of the puppets in Team America. Only with less energy.

But what about the 'big picture'? The evolution of society and the endless possibilities that await us, if only someone could just see them?

Well, considering the traditional unease with which the geek sits in the present, it's not surprising that only the most far out and different future will suffice. A place that a geek would think would be a cool place to walk through.

A fantasy, in other words. A fantasy that would draw a geek in and make them reach for their wallet to purchase the book or comic and immerse themselves in it, away from the real world for an hour or two.

For is this not the role of all fiction?

And every character type gets their own fiction.

For the geeks who lament the lack of geekiness creeping into the genre, the lack of 'ideas' and 'hard science', the answer should be obvious.

The world needs more geeks.

The laws of supply and demand would deliver then.

Friday 3 August 2012

Science Fiction as fantasy

"Relax Bones, he's just another speculative entity."

Predictions are not really about the future. What they really do is portray one's view of the present. Science Fiction predictions are no different.

In Mary Shelley's time, advances in biology and engineering convinced many that humans were just like machines. So we got Frankenstein's monster, a bundle of stitched together body parts that was powered by electricity.

In the post-war years we all got excited about computers and, coincidentally, became convinced that the human brain was just a computer. So we got humans dispensing with their bodies and uploading themselves into networks, and we got smart androids imagining themselves to be human, as if there was no difference. Hence the angst ridden tag-line 'what it means to be human' appearing on dozens of sci-fi book covers.

Both these ideas sound ever so 'hard' science fiction. But in fact both ideas were, and remain, complete fantasy. Because that's what science fiction is - fantasy.

It's the fantasy of the imagined future that is actually just the present. And if you throw in ancient gnostic beliefs about being able to finally leave our bodies, it's also the past.

Mention that on a forum to a science fiction fan and you'll get predictable outrage. "It's science! It's logic! Fantasy is about magic, whereas science fiction could actually happen."

Of course. And if you push enough electricity through a corpse, you can make it come to life. Good luck with that.

Fantasy, as a genre, is supposed to reflect an imagined past, as opposed to an imagined future, and science is supposed to be the dividing line. But the separation of modern science from the past is bogus.

What is science? Simply the examination of natural phenomena with scholarly rigor. You think of an idea, then you try it. If it works, it's right. If it doesn't, it's wrong.That's it.

Humans have always been interested in science. It's how they invented clothing, discovered fire, created hybrid crops, bred new sub-species of animals, turned grains into bread, built pyramids, castles and turrets, ships, catapults, crossbows, rockets, muskets...

I could go on and on, but all you have to do is examine each of the above and read the full history of how they came about to encounter reasoning humans coming up with ideas and testing them out until they come up with the correct solution. That's science, and it's really not as esoteric as some modern science-fiction fetishists make out.

In The Lord of the Rings the Dark Lord Sauron bred hybrids to create orks. Saruman experimented further to create new hybrids, which were called 'uruk-hai'. He also used 'blasting fire' to breach the wall at Helm's Deep, which sounds like gunpowder to me.

So, fantasy or science fiction?

Both. Because there is no difference between the two. Not really. Whether it's fantasy, science fiction or 'speculative fiction', the settings are just the past or the present re-imagined as something else, with the present frequently passed of as 'the future'.

But what about aliens? Surely these are different? They are a staple of science fiction - some would say it is their inclusion that defines science fiction - and they are an entirely new life form. Surely they can't be put down to mundane facts of the past or the present?

Well, actually they can. All aliens in stories resemble either humans with add-ons, angels, or monsters. In other words, mankind's canon of mythology for millennia.

"Ah yes, but aliens - the best ones - are reasoned out, based on the science of what we know about life."

Bullshit. From a scientific point of view, aliens do not exist. We have as much evidence for them as we have for the existence of God.

"But surely with so many habitable planets out there, it is inconceivable, not to mention ridiculously human-centred, to think that there is no other life out there?"

Inconceivable perhaps, especially if you truly want to believe, but not impossible, nor even improbable. Not according to the observed evidence we have so far, which is what science properly limits itself to.

In the past Christian theologians used to extrapolate the probability of the existence of God form observations of the natural world. The more that science showed us the wonders of the natural world and how it all fitted together so neatly, the more they said, "See? Surely it is proof of a grand design by a single builder. It is inconceivable that such a thing could have arisen by random chance."

This is not science, it is attempted reassurance, and a reinforcement of dogma. And it is destroyed, always, by the simple phrase, "Prove it." Statistical probability just doesn't cut it.

Until we discover exactly how life really began - really, truly began - on this planet, then we cannot make any predictions on the likelihood of life on other planets, because we have nothing to extrapolate from.

Predictions then. We don't really do them. The bulk of alleged human intelligence is just a form of mimicry. We look at what we have right now and we imagine it faster, smarter or smaller. We take our adventure-seeking nature and imagine a future of high-tech explorations, exploding starships and adrenaline-flowing close shaves. Or we take our pacifist nature and imagine a future of reasoned behaviour, with scruples of the kind already held by the author and his or her chums. And when we run out of extrapolations, we repackage ancient myths and beliefs and present them as a radical new vision.

It's fantasy. Jonathon Swift deployed fantasy for his satire. George Orwell deployed it for his politics. Neal Asher deploys it for entertainment.

And the claim that science fiction is scientific, speculative and predictive? That's fantasy too.

Thursday 26 July 2012

Free, free, free!

My novel, Even The Dead Dance To Live is available on 27th and 28th July as a free download from Amazon.

Space colonisation, hard action and a blistering finale.

As they say, get it while stocks last. ;-)

Tuesday 17 July 2012


Robot Arm by Victor Habbick
Science Fiction is big on evolution, namely the evolution of humanity - either from long term exposure to the freakiness of space, or conscious evolution by tampering with genes. Either way it's seen as the ultimate solution to the secular version of original sin (how terribly nasty we humans can be), or the inevitability of the ongoing march of science.

So, will space change humans? Unlikely, simply because of our passion for technology. Humans have always used technology. Clothing is a form of technology - it is not natural, it is a deliberate manipulation of nature. The Naked Ape set out from Africa for colder regions long ago and, via the invention of clothing, took its environment with it, keeping its body at the same required temperature. Astronauts also take their environment with them - via spacesuits, oxygen tanks and, as will be likely, centrifugal gravity habs. All this negates the need to biologically adapt to the environment. Did the Inuit evolve hairy bodies like the polar bear, or blubbery skin like the walrus? No, they developed suitable clothing and, after thousands of years, remain recognizably human in all their traits and features. When Europeans encountered them after millennia of separation, they did not encounter aliens. Hereditary changes have been negligable and we remain, as a species, unchanged.

What about conscious evolution then? Will we, with the technology that, supposedly, will soon be within our grasp, change ourselves into post-humans? Well, the problem with this thesis is that humans have been able to alter biological features for thousands of years - pre-dating even civilization. We did it with selective breeding - of dogs, cattle and wheat grains. No lab coats were necessary for this, yet we've never done it to ourselves. And it's not because we've been too humane or moral to do it either. Humans have routinely slaughtered, enslaved and eaten other humans. Infanticide was a common method of birth control. So why have we never bred or created 'new' human types from slaves or unwanted children, the way we've done with dogs? Clearly there has to be a reason, an enduring reason that has lasted thousands of years. What that reason is, I do not know. But it's not an idle question and until we can answer it, we cannot take the idea of conscious evolution for granted.

Thursday 28 June 2012

Look, it's a naked fat guy!

"It's very likely that in the future humans will evolve to be more rational, cerebral and collective."

That's a quote off the net somewhere, but not an exact one as I can't find the link. It was by some reader somewhere. And while it isn't exact, it is a pretty common view - I mean, I don't know how common, but in science-fiction circles I have definitely come across it a lot.

Or maybe it just seems a lot, because everytime I see it, I think, What?

I see it, but I can't really see it. If you know what I mean. After millennia of being what we are, and doing quite well out of it, what is really going to change, and why?

This is the thing with science-fiction. As well as the above, humans are supposed to get more genetically enhanced, machine implanted, computer uplifted or ruled by fantastically intelligent AI.

And if we're not any or all of the above things, then we'll devour all our resources, trigger a mass extinction, and go down in an orgy of dumb choices and hubristic greed.

Because we cannot stay as we are, so we either get better or we're stuffed.

Hmmm, choices. Let me see...

Heaven... or Hell.

And you thought science-fiction was about science? Yeah, right.

Science is based on evidence, whereas what you have above are the same hopes and fears that have existed in religion for centuries - just dressed up in different clothing.

Basically the Mark I human model is hopelessly flawed and needs an upgrade, or it needs to be scrapped (with only a few worthies being saved). One extreme, or the other. Nothing in between. And certainly not the same as it's always been. No, there will be an end-of-days. Or a reckoning. We will be gods, or we will be dead. The saved, and the unsaved.

Iain Banks once scoffed at Catholics for believing in Original Sin, but judging by his comments on the human race, it's clear he believes the same thing. And he's not the only one.

Science-fiction is meant to be notoriously, and proudly, atheist. But when I see the ideas that it's riddled with, it's clear to me that religion will never really die.

It will just acquire new clothes.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

But dude...

Funniest review of the Bible. Ever. On Goodreads

And the reviewer's opinion of the King James Bible?

"Don't know what all the fuss is about.

Too many characters.

Lotta deus ex machinas too."

Thursday 31 May 2012

Dinosaurs ate my ebook

Yay, the digital revolution is here. The era of paper and cardboard books is over and soon everyone will be reading stories on their portable screens. Bookshops will go the same way as record shops and everyone will be carrying 150 novels in their hip pocket along with a month's worth of music listening and a couple of blockbuster movies. We'll also be wearing silver suits, eating three-course meals in a pill and flying around in cars.

The future's a bugger to predict and most predictions are driven by novelty. Once the novelty wears off the future turns out to look only a little different from the past. So it may well be with the advent of ebooks and self-publishing.

Ebooks might be revolutionary, but then so was television and cinema. Accessing a visual story on the big screen is much easier than ploughing through a book and when the medium first appeared there were undoubtedly some who decried the loss of a more thoughtful way of accessing a narrative - and in fact many still do criticise it. But books survived and, against the odds, flourished. Television was also supposed to kill off cinemas, but that didn't happen either. People also continue to watch stage performances, pantomimes and live music recitals. Each offers a different experience and it seems that, rather than replace one with the other, people prefer to have both.

Ebooks are limited in size to whatever e-reader you have. Large hardback coffee table books with lavish illustrations may well live on therefore. They make great gifts and are cheaper than an ipad. An e-reader that is as large as the biggest books would be incredibly expensive and limited in use if you don't fancy lugging it about on the bus.

The future of the paperback novel however may not be so rosy. Once derided by 'serious' readers (and writers) the paperback is now defended as the embodiment of the 'proper' experience of reading. Current generations who grow up addicted to smart phones and tablets may not be so nostalgic however and could well be happy to read (and then delete) bestsellers and pulps whenever they feel the whim. Second-hand bookshops will be the ones to feel the pinch there. Even so, reading a novel on a phone is not always a pleasant experience, especially if they are to remain small enough to be portable, and while hardcore readers will purchase an e-reader or tablet to optimize their reading, occasional readers may not consider the expense worth it for the two books a year that they consume. A paperback novel bought cheaply at the airport may retain its appeal. Whether the printers can keep the cost down for such small print runs remains to be seen. Paperback novels could become flimsy things that fall apart after the first reading - but for the type of reader who doesn't re-read, that probably won't be a problem.

The advent of digital self-publishing introduces even more controversy into the mix. On the one hand there are those who rejoice at this democratic way of bypassing stuffy and inflexible publishing houses and getting straight to the reader, and on the other there are those who say that the market is now being flooded with poorly written and badly edited tat. Both sides are right of course and, paradoxically, both may be presenting us with the future.

First, it is important to understand what 'traditional' publishers are. They are organisations staffed by specialists.

To some that is precisely why they are a problem, but the issue of generalists vs specialists was fought long ago in history when small societies competed with bigger societies: the specialists won. Bigger societies create more fertile ground for the very existence of specialists and thus benefited from their expertise, developing at an exponential rate when compared to small societies. That is the history of civilization.

Specialists know their stuff. The real problem facing publishing houses however is that specialists are expensive. When overheads are high and profits are low you cannot afford to have them waste their time if they cannot pay for themselves. This is why publishers reject far more books than they take on because, if they cannot see a surefire profit, they cannot take the risk.

Many of the books that they reject now find their way onto self-published digital platforms, like the ones offered by Amazon and Smashwords. Some of them do quite well, many of them do not.

Another problem for publishers is that they have to wait for creativity to come to them. Writers create the works and then send them to the publishers. A purchasing editor (another specialist) spends an incredible amount of time sifting through all these. Other editors or purchasing teams then have to agree with the original editor's recommendations before they go ahead with the purchase. That's a lot of hours with no direct income generated. And even then there's no guarantee that the book really will sell enough to merit their faith. It's why it's difficult to make a profit in publishing and why so many small publishers have gone out of business.

But that is a problem potentially of the past, when submissions to publishers was the only way for them to view the work.

Now there's self-publishing. Traditional publishers can now wait to see what rises from the froth of 99c ebooks. They can leave it to the market to cull the books that aren't well written enough. They can wait and see which writers grasp the fundamentals of writing and marketing best. Then they can step in and offer the highest sellers a contract, with the idea that, with the help of their specialists, the books can do even better still. And that is already happening, with some best-selling self-published writers being approached by publishers.

In that sense it's very much like the way the popular music industry works (or did work). Young bands had to polish their own craft and book their own gigs to play their music. Reps from the music companies then went out looking for them, booking the ones they thought showed promise. It's not a perfect system by any means, but it has a higher chance of success than just hosting auditions, which is effectively the model the publishing industry has been using.

Publishers can therefore let the writers shoulder the expense of their early development, taking them on only at their more mature (and maturing) stage. All they have to do is follow the buzz. Creating an established readership for a new author has always been the hardest part of publishing. Now they can let the author create the initial readership for publishers to build upon.

Can it work? Who knows?

We'll just have to wait and see.

Monday 21 May 2012

Writing killed my reading

I read a book for fun the other day. I mean, not for research or analysis or anything like that. Just fun.

It's been a while since I've been able to do that.

You see, being a writer does strange things to your reading. As a writer I've had to learn about how to structure a plot, how to create characters, how to lay out scenes. I wrestle daily with how to insert this or that factor into the narrative without losing the flow; with crafting each chapter so as to encourage the reader to keep reading. With basically toying with the reader's emotions and perceptions to achieve particular effects.

It's an imperfect art, and there's always more to learn but the fact is, once you start doing it, you get curious about how other writers do it. So you pick up a book, open the first page and think, 'that's an effective opening, must try that one.' Reading a novel and spotting all the author's methods is like walking around a movie set during filming. You see all the tricks and you won't be so easily absorbed by the finished product because essentially you can see all the joins.

T'was not always so. Like many writers, I came to this from a love of reading. Books are gateways to different worlds and for many years they would utterly absorb me, transporting me someplace else for hours at a time. It's a magical feeling when that happens, and it is like a drug, but lately I just can't get high so easily. Maybe age has something to do with it. You read enough books and after a while they start to repeat themselves, so you become harder to please. But if that's the case then being able to see through the writer's veil only accelerates the process. Soon enough you get tired of the disappointment.

I did stop reading fiction for a while. Nothing grabbed me any more so I started reading non-fiction instead. This was essentially research for my writing and it was always interesting, because truth really can be stranger than fiction. But I knew I had to read at least some fiction - it's called 'researching the market' and is considered essential for a writer, so that they remain aware of current trends and such. I'd read a novel then because I had to, and I'd try to get myself through it. It was hard work though since all I saw was scaffolding and props. It was always educational, but I cannot say that it was a pleasure.

It was work.

Once in a while though you come across something that licks your senses the minute you start reading. You're grabbed by the throat and pulled through customs, your passport confiscated and your luggage thrown over the barrier, and before you know it you've been transported again, whisked through time and space in an out of body experience. That's when you forget to check for joins, you accept the scenery without wondering if it's real and you forget about interrogating the actors.

You're just there, and that's it.

And when it's all over, you remember what it was that drew you to writing in the first place. Because what one writer has done for you, you want to do for someone else. You want to have that effect too. And you know you need to learn it.

So then you start analysing, and the whole cycle begins again.


Sunday 13 May 2012

Shakespeare Cruz

"You compared me to what?"
Shakespeare Cruz is the lead character in my novel Even the dead dance to live. A brutal ex-cop with facial scars and tattoos, he's the archetypal hard man. Does he look like Danny Trejo above? I don't know, but it was Trejo I was imaging when I dreamed him up. When the director Robert Rodriguez was giving a lecture on digital movie making, he presented Danny's face as the kind of detail best picked up by the digital format. "Look at that face," he said. "isn't it beautiful?"

Not the kind of beautiful that most people were thinking of, but when I saw it I thought: yes, that's my man. Danny Trejo of course had a reputation for playing bad guys and anti-heroes, and Shakespeare Cruz, as it happens, is both.

Why did I make Cruz so brutal? Well, it was a strange journey, and I'll include it here as an answer to the perennial where-do-you-get-your-ideas question so familiar to writers.

Cruz first appeared in a fantasy novel I was writing about a gay warrior called Breht. I thought I was being original at the time in having a gay warrior as the hero (years later Richard Morgan would do exactly that), but the novel never made it past the first draft. I didn't have enough to build a story on and I was growing out of my sword-and-sorcery phase. I liked the character though - he was the first lead character I'd produced that wasn't just a slightly altered version of me, and in producing him I felt for the first time like a novelist, rather than an amateur writing some sort of twisted angsty diary. I decided to use him for an idea based on a gay version of Othello. That idea however never made it past my notebook. But it's that latter role that earned him his first name in the next book.

Even the dead dance to live began life then as a character looking for a story to star in. At the time however he wasn't the hard man thug he would later become - as a fantasy sword-and-sorcery devotee I was still wedded to the tame honourable and upright warrior stereotype. That idea hit the crash-pads after reading a James Ellroy novel.

The novel in question was American Tabloid, a crime noir set during the Kennedy years. One of the three protagonists was a brutal ex-cop with few scruples and a hardened view of, well, everything. He made movie action heroes look like the pastiches they were, and it was my first inkling of the fact that I really had no idea what a true 'tough guy' was. I hated him and hoped he'd die early on, but as the book wore on (and it's a compelling novel), he got more and more interesting. And the idea of sanitising Shakespeare Cruz got less and less attractive. So I started some research into real life thugs - gangsters, hitmen and, surprisingly, some frontline cops and elite soldiers. Up until then I had the naive notion that action heroes only exercised violence against bad guys. I learned however that, in order to get good at violence, you have to actually like it. And people who like violence aren't that picky on who they practice it on.

John Wayne and the character of James Kirk are sanitised purely for the audience, and even Mal from Firefly is given an honourable streak. James Bond has been roughed up a little for the new Bond movies, and that could be a sign of the times. But it's still rare in Sci-fi. Even in 'gritty' urban cyberpunk they remain socially conscious, which may well be a measure of the target readership. I mean, how could you like a hero who resembles the bully who gave you a hard time at school?

It was a challenge then, but a good one to get my teeth into. And the creation of Shakespeare Cruz was an important step for me in learning how to write compelling characters, for sure. And I got to like him a whole lot more.

But I still wouldn't like to be the one who spilled his drink in a crowded bar. Not without decent medical insurance and the service of a good plastic surgeon anyway.

Thursday 3 May 2012

Who's afraid of Science Fiction?

"Stop running away from me!!!"

Margaret Atwood claimed that she wrote speculative fiction, not science fiction. Because science fiction was about spaceships and monsters.

She got a lot of flak for saying that. And of course, she was completely wrong. On the other hand, she was also completely right. Or rather - she had a valid, if unpalatable, point.

You see, from the day it was born, science fiction has been trying desperately to get away from the sordid, squalid image of the 1920's pulps.

The roots of science fiction lie in the nineteenth century when the wonders of science became all the rage among Victorians, thanks to the Industrial Revolution and the optimism of Empire. Writers like Jules Verne and, later, H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley explored science in their writings. They were not however considered science fiction authors since, as a genre, it didn't actually exist. They simply partook of science as a theme whenever they felt like it. Most of their other writing was not science fiction at all and, like many other writers, they felt free to dip in and out in an eclectic manner that is quite rare today. There were simply fewer boundaries then.

By the 1920's and 30's the cheap pulp magazines were gleefully bringing sensational stories of monsters and spaceships to their avid readers, mixed in with romance and adventure stories. Even then science was simply a theme that was considered fair game for any writer to have a go at alongside their crime and adventure stories. It is only when we reach John Campbell in the 1930's that science fiction acquired its first definition - and its firm boundaries.

John Campbell is acknowledged as science fiction's most influential figure. He was also its jailer. Science Fiction had to meet exacting standards, and it was better served by specialist writers who knew their science, rather than fly-by-night hacks.

It was in fact he that invented the ghetto that many in science fiction complain about. And for all his standards, this Golden Age of science fiction is still characterized by spaceships and monsters (aliens and robots) and lurid covers with scantily clad ladies on them.

From the sixties onwards authors tried to get away from this narrow focus, declaring an interest in non-space speculative fiction, better written 'Literary' fiction and more socially oriented fiction. The genre also got a lot more political, attracting Libertarians, Anarchists, Marxists, Feminists... you name it, science fiction got it - a whole bunch of earnest writers eager to broadcast their ideas to the world. Science became just a vehicle, rather than the point of interest, because, after WW2, most people had become accustomed to what science could do. The 'sense of wonder' that is often talked about in SF became less valid to the masses than it was to the Victorians. Dresden and Hiroshima had already been bombed. Airliners already crossed the oceans.

Apart from odd spikes of interest during the space race and, later, the release of Star Wars, science fiction never again reached the heights of popularity, in relative terms, that the Golden Age reached.

But far from shrinking, science fiction as a genre ballooned, spawning categories, sub-categories and sub-sub-categories, all playing a zero-sum game of defining what science fiction was.

It was no longer a genre, it was a battlefield. With Science Fiction's intense colonisation by sub-genres and special interest groups, and with all of them eager to bend the title around to represent their interests, the very term 'Science Fiction' became problematic, meaning different things to different people.

Science Fiction today is a corpse that's been left over from the Golden Age, and the only reason it's standing up and tottering about is because the maggots inside are standing on each others' heads, fighting to control its direction.

To writers and critics outside the genre, science fiction is disappearing up its own ass and becoming a literary black hole. No light escapes from it and writers are fearful of being sucked in lest they never get out. Hence Margaret Atwood's reluctance to become soiled by the term. And considering the number of SF writers who complain about being typecast and kept out of other markets, it's perhaps a valid fear.

And what do the readers think? Well, the hardcore insiders still cling to their fragment of SF as a means of identity. The rest don't care so much and will read anything provided it contains characters they like and a plot that keeps them turning the pages. If SF stops providing that then they'll stop reading it. Science Fiction will become synonymous with insular or boring writing and will echo with the sighs of publishers as they pulp unsold books and write off their investments. 

Oh wait... that's happened already.

So what now, eh? Well, personally I think we ought to stop running away from science fiction's origins. It was about space and adventure. And in the movie and game industry it still is. There is no shame in the term there, no kiss-of-death when someone mentions the word during a conceptual stage. Viewers lapped up Star Wars, Alien, Avatar and, if it's as well made as the others, will lap up Prometheus. And Gamers can't get enough of Mass Effect, even though it treads the same old ground of planet hopping, blaster packing, empire trading, yada yada yada. No movie or game producer who approaches backers with an idea for a kick-ass-thrill-ride-in-space idea will be met with sneers of, oh but what about new ideas, or a new concept, or a vision of a progressive future that we should be encouraging, or a utopia of equality and feminism or blah blah blah?

No, the first critieria of any new project will be, will the audience love it? Based not on views of what the audience ought to like, but on evidence based knowledge of what they actually like. It's crude, but it remains a good starting point. If a movie is based more on concept than appeal, it's arthouse, for which there's a select audience. But arthouse isn't enough to support the whole movie industry - it's the industry that enables arthouse. 

I think science fiction should be defined exactly as the public think it's defined - as about space and monsters. Speculative and pseudo-political fiction should be separated out from the term. I don't want to cause offence, but frankly I think they should fuck off and create their own genre to exercise their angst in. And we'll see then whether they sink or swim, rather than hitch a free ride on us and causing us all to drown.

But realistically we're probably too intertwined, and the term science fiction too compromised, for that to actually happen. We can't escape our own history.

What the hell. I'm going to do a Margaret Atwood - I too am going to distance myself from the term SF. Speculative Fiction that is, and its colonial grip on the original genre. Sod the concept of utopian ideas, political propaganda and Booker Prize ass-kissing. The story, and the characters, come first. Because that's how every other genre operates.

So I declare: I don't write science fiction. I write space fiction.