Article 11: Music Please

Here’s another one of my old articles. You can see it’s old because I was still having to do other work to support myself. As I recollect this caused much annoyance in certain circles…
Music Please. I have a friend who is in the music business just as I am in the writing business i.e. we’re contenders, but we both have to work for a living. In the winter we work together and much of our time is spent discussing our respective arts while sipping coffee and staring out of a truck window at the rain. When we each manage an ego bybass we agree that our pursuits and our attitudes are similar in many respects. Perhaps it is that Essex boy approach to the art world in that when you can bank it, it’s worth something. My friend likes music that is clean, distinct, and not amenable to obfuscation. I listened to him play A Whiter Shade of Pale on the alto sax and understood what he meant. He does not like bad jazz. Many musicians claim to play jazz because it gives them ‘freedom of expression, man’. The truth is that they play it because it gives them freedom from discipline; from the necessity of getting it right. And thus, by a round about route, we come to the plotless writing that you often find under the slipstream label. This writing is easy to spot. The protagonist usually spends most of his time wandering round an urban landscape pursuing a dysfunctional sex life while some vaguely weird things happen, just, happen. The piece you will read – I shall not call it a story – starts, runs for a few pages, then stops. There is no real beginning, middle, or end. It is authorial masturbation that leaves the reader thinking, ‘Well, what about me?’. Raymond Chandler said that when he felt a story was flagging he’d walk in a man with a gun. In slipstream the man remains on the other side of the door, nothing is resolved, and the reader wonders if there ever was anything to resolve. I get a lump of frustration developing in my stomach when I find myself reading one of these pieces and it slowly dawning on me that it is not going to have an ending, that the characters will not have changed and their squalid existence will just … continue. Why, then, is this stuff published? If you listen to a piece of badly played modern jazz you will, if you have any sensibilities, wonder where the melody is. You’ll wonder why you’re listening to this disjointed annoying racket when the guy on the stool next to you will say, “Wow, … scale!” and you’ll nod your head knowingly and reply, “Yeah … man.” We all hate to appear ignorant. It is this hatred of ignorance that allows such idiocies as a soiled bed in the Tate gallery. It is the very same that allows the above described rubbish to appear under the slipstream label. People will remain silent about it because they are frightened of admitting that they haven’t got the point. There is no point. And those guilty of perpetrating it, writers and publishers, are very often those who get a bit too arty for their own good, and are cringing at the prospect of being accused of something so demeaning as science fiction. My goodness. You are a story teller are you? If such you are then put yourself in front of an audience and tell your story. If, when you have finished, your story requires justification then it was not a story. A story completes. What you read was very likely slipstream. I am not saying you should not write this stuff. It is one of the better methods of beating the block and freeing up the creative faculties. Sometimes you’ll end up with a sentence or two, maybe a paragraph, that you can use in a real story. Ends.

Article 10: Into The Machine.

Here’s another old one.

The image that sticks in my mind, from the covers of early Science Fiction paperbacks, is of a robot, like the bastard offspring of a dustbin and a food processor, chasing a half-naked woman across some lunatic professor’s laboratory. Of course, as was the case with many SF pulps of the time, the stories inside were intelligent, and bore no relation to the cover picture. For this the writers should have fed the publisher feet-first into his own printing press. Ever since early SF writers cast the robot in the role of Frankenstein’s monster, the image of a sentient machine murdering its makers and taking over, has endured – examples of the type being Terminator, HAL, and numerous Dr Who baddies (I’m sure any of you reading this can think of many more). However, for machines to take over bespeaks a certain superiority that does not yet seem likely. First, we must make them better than ourselves. Although we are even now developing computers that can out-think us in many specific respects, the science of cybernetics, and straightforward material technologies have a long way to go. A computer can beat a man at chess – great – but can it actually pick up the pieces and move them, recognise certain members in the audience, converse with its opponent, then walk away from the table afterwards? We can make a mechanical hand that has a more powerful grip than our own and it can move with eerie similarity, but will it function for eighty years without falling apart? We are an awfully long way from being able to create something that can outperform a human being. All this is moot, though, for the development of human technology that has taken us from the flint arrowhead to the PC, follows an undeviating course. All our machines are merely tools – extensions of ourselves. Just as binoculars are an extension of human sight, books are an extension of human memory and communication, and just as pair of pliers is an extension of the human hand, the computer is an extension of the human mind. These are, in the main, indirect extensions. But we try to make them more direct all the time: soft shaped grips for the pliers; Windows, mouse, the virtual glove and voice recognition for the computers. We are moving closer all the time – getting into the machine. Most direct extensions are at present the province of the medical world. Prosthetics have been around since before Captain Hook and in the last century most of us have seen moveable plastic limbs. Prosthetics are, like the rest of our tools, extensions of us. Now consider where they are going. This technology is developing at an increasing rate: from such devices to assist the body, as do pacemakers and the Jarvik heart pump, we are leaping ahead to those that actually restore function, such as chips surgically implanted to restore sight to the blind. Already being tested are prosthetic limbs that can be surgically attached and wired into the nervous system (the most interesting advance being feedback i.e. making fingertips that can actually feel). Through people like Kevin Warwick, who is actively experimenting with implants to link him to a computer, and through advances in medical prosthetics, we will eventually reach a stage where the replacement is better than the part replaced, or will provide additional abilities. People are going to want these – needed or otherwise. It could be argued that at this point it would be possible for the superior computer/AI mind to acquire its required physical interface with the world, strangle the mad professor, then march off to exterminate the rest of the human race. However, by then it would be too late for the machines to take over, for we will be as much, if not more than them. By the time we can build a machine that could destroy us, we’ll be able to upgrade ourselves to equivalent or greater efficacy. Pursuing Warwick’s experiments to one conclusion, it will be possible for the computer to truly become an extension of the human mind – directly linked, not via a nerve impulse to open doors. This may come about as a medical technique for restoring/curing the brain damaged, or it might be developed as the next quickest way to get onto the Internet. Whatever. There will come a time when someone will be able to go into a shop to buy extended memory or larger processing power, and it won’t be for their PC, or rather, the lines will be so blurred that PC and person will be indistinguishable. Your future girlfriend won’t be staying in because she’s washing her hair, but because she’s running a virus check and defrag on what lies underneath it. Often in SF, the humans are little different from us, and the machines vastly superior. The truth of the matter I feel is that in the next few centuries definitions of what is human will become rather hazy, and the individual of that future unrecognisable to us. In the end humans will be able to upload/download their minds into machines, extend their memory, leave part of their minds in machines, load machine minds and programming into their own. Their bodies might be more synthetics than flesh while biotechnology would have by then given us living computers. Pointing to different items and classifying one as a machine and one as a human being will be as difficult as distinguishing egg white and sugar in a meringue. Of course, all the above refutes many of the plot elements of Gridlinked with its omnipotent AIs, psychotic android and indefatigable Golem, which goes to prove that truth may well be stranger than fiction, and that writers are not to be trusted. ENDS

Article 9: Literature.

According to my dictionary ‘literature’ is a term defining everything from leaflets giving information on haemorrhoids to War and Peace. Even a Blair speech is literature, though a form of it somewhat overburdened by ellipses and bathos. But the first dictionary meaning admits the word commonly refers to ‘poetry, novels, essays etc’, so are all these always literature? No, apparently, because there is another usage of the word that seems to define it by what it is not. The wider literati intelligentsia – a diverse collection of self-promoting critics and would-be academics – feel it their business to decide what to include under this title and what to exclude. Why they feel they have this right is debateable. But then people of a similar stripe denigrated Charles Dickens for his penny dreadfuls, and William Shakespeare for catering to plebs who just wanted plays containing plenty of royalty, murder, sex and ghosts. So we have this thing I will italicize as literature, and what a strange beast it is. Genre fiction is not such a beast until sufficiently aged (perhaps buried in peat and dug up again). Those books that are popular and show no sign of going away, are only reluctantly accepted, because to the literati intelligentsia ‘popular’ equals ‘not-literature’. Books moving into the literature category, popular or otherwise, undergo a transformation. In long turgid dissertations they become satirical, noir, surreal, allegory (insert favourite pretension), and the clunky robots, magic swords or smart-talking detectives blowing away bad guys are, with some embarrassment, shuffled off stage. Thus, The Lord of the Rings is a political allegory of World War II and Sauron is quite obviously Hitler; The Sirens of Titan is a superb satire favoured by neophyte academics, but the less said about the Tralfamadorian on Titan the better; and Raymond Chandler ‘leads writers of the twentieth century’ with his ‘brutal noir’ and ‘inimitably literary style’. It would be nice if those writing such dissertations occasionally came out with an honest statement like, “Actually, I really liked that book, but I’m a pretentious git so I’ve got to dress it up in what I consider to be more presentable clothing and work very hard on its diction.” This is a situation to which those writing fiction in the SFF world are quite accustomed (hence Pratchett’s tongue in cheek statement about being ‘accused of literature’), but it is unfortunate that our genre is not immune, internally, to the same snobbery directed against it, for it is merely a microcosm of the entire writing world and contains its own self-styled judges. In the not-literature category they lump anything by E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs (not sufficiently peat-aged yet), Robert Heinlein (wrong politics) and anything unashamed of being definitely science fiction or fantasy, and in which the writer aims to entertain an audience rather than demonstrate personal brilliance. In the literature category they give us the boredom of the New Wave (in reality just a bigger and noisier version of similar waves spreading their flotsam over the shores of SFF now), various other versions of, “Well, not a lot happened, but I managed to write a novel about it,” and the products of those writers so enamoured of the literature label they produce stunning prose and mind-numbingly deep insights into the human condition, while usually forgetting essential story. The literature/not-literature classifications are all very very subjective and in need of seasoning with large pinches of salt. But how should you identify excellence? How then do you know what is good? Well, pick it up and read some of it, then if you want to carry on, make your own decision when you finally close it. How, after that, do you identify great literature? Simple really: you bury it in peat for a couple of centuries then see if it is still recognised when dug up. In other words you don’t, posterity does. I suspect today’s literati intelligentsia would be horrified at the rich strata of J K Rowling, Stephen King and Terry Pratchett that will be revealed. But by then, ensuing generations of critics and academics will have produced reams of turgid prose about the work of those writers, without too much mention of gnomes, wizards or vampires.

Article 8: Hype and Agendas

Phew, this one has dated a bit…

It is a constant source of annoyance to me how facts are twisted to either fit political agendas or to hype stories, and that when you peel all of that away, even the facts are dubious. Take for example the recent furore concerning passive smoking. Apparently, breathing secondhand cigarette smoke increases your chances of getting lung cancer by 25%. Most people, whose acquaintance with mathematics was an unhappy affair from childhood to teens and quickly forgotten, will illogically look at that percentage and think breathing secondhand smoke gives them a one in four chance of getting lung cancer. They don’t seem to realise that to understand the statement you need to first know what your chances are without breathing that smoke. They are about 1% – one in a hundred. A 25% increase in your chances of getting lung cancer means these odds rise by a quarter per cent – substantially less than your odds of being killed in a car accident, of committing suicide or being gunned down. But how much passive smoking are we talking about: a lifetime serving behind a bar or a whiff of cigar smoke in your high street? Well, you can guarantee those odds are predicated on the first instance and not the second. Another fact the media is throwing at us lately is that human-produced CO2 is causing global warming which will lead to an eco-catastrophe. There are stories about this every day now because it’s ‘sexy’. ‘The scientists’ – as much in love with appearing on TV as those sad cases in the Big Brother house – try to mention this in relation to any research they are conducting. Thus we learn that a recent shot to Venus will enable us to learn much about the coming disaster, for the greenhouse effect is operating there and on the surface the temperature is high enough to melt lead. The usual corollary is that if we carry on as we are, Earth could end up like Venus. One tiny tiny point is neglected, that being Venus’s 26,000,000 mile closer proximity to the sun. A probe sent merely to study that planet is not going to get as much airtime as one sent to study global warming. Those same scientists, aware that global warming is a touchstone of political correctness, know that towing-the-line is the best way to get their funding renewed, and that nay-saying a good way of getting yourself cast out into wilderness. Recent studies of Antarctic ice cores prove that our present CO2 levels are higher than ever before. Shock, horror, probe! Further research reveals that the timescale of these cores is almost entirely self-referential, and that one warm day at any time in the past can destroy as much as centuries of data. So what would a past period of global warming do – before anyone started up an SUV – wipe out evidence of itself? And where does our CO2 come from? Burning fossil fuels. How were those fossil fuels produced? By plants. Where was the CO2 throughout the process when the plants trapped it? Erm. Should we consider the Carboniferous period, when all this was occurring and every square inch of Earth burgeoned with growth, to be a time of eco-catastrophe? Also, the Arctic is melting and polar bears starving because they can’t get to their food. Again a bit of further research reveals that the Arctic has always gone through cycles of melting like this. The last time was sixty years ago when it was hotter there than now. The availability of food for polar bears is less simply because their population has grown and there is greater competition for what there is. And while the Artic is melting, the Anarctic is doing precisely the opposite. Another misleading story is the one that is the basis of all the above: our CO2 production is causing global warming. Ask anyone now, what is the main cause of the greenhouse effect (without which, it must be noted, we’d all be under a few hundred feet of ice by now) and because of the nonsense in the media every day they will reply, “CO2!” Wrong. The main one is water vapour, which causes 95% of it and also rather shoots down the idea that hydrogen-powered cars will save us. CO2 causes 3% of it, and man-made production of the same is 3.5% of that. For those who believed the bull about passive smoking, let me make the calculation for you: our overall CO2 contribution to the greenhouse effect amounts to just over 0.1% – one part in a thousand. But the temperature is rising and those experts can’t be wrong! Just like they weren’t wrong back in the 70s when a group of them, after a few chilly winters, decided we were about to descend into a new Ice Age. In fact, only a few ‘experts’ said this, but the media grabbed that ball and ran with it. But what about the temperature rise of, supposedly, one degree? Well, on the one hand this could easily be part of the cyclic nature of Earth’s weather, on the other, even the ‘experts’ can’t agree on what the overall temperature of Earth is right now. There’s also some cherry-picking of the data. Most of the climate modelling done by the doomsayers takes its temperature data from weather stations, all on land, and most having their data corrupted by the heat of encroaching urbanization. The most accurate reading of Earth’s temperature is by satellites, which have shown very little rise at all. For the conspiracy theorists amidst us it might be worth noting that without global warming our government would have some problem justifying a near 80% tax on petrol. Also, that what we are supposed to do to prevent the eco-catastrophe, is precisely the same as what we should be doing in preparation for our fossil fuels running out. You have to ask yourself, which should I worry about most: global warming or that we are running out of the stuff that supposedly produces it? Way back in the mists of time an English teacher told the class I was attending to get hold of two papers with opposing political slants – the Sun and the Mirror or the Mail and the Guardian – and in them compare the reportage in each of the same story. It’s something everyone should do since it opens the eyes to the adage: They don’t like to let facts get in the way of a good story. From different reporters you might read the lines: ‘Man assists suicide of terminally-ill wife.’ Or ‘Brute slaughters sick wife.’ We must therefore, all of us, follow the dictates of that other adage: Don’t believe everything you read in the papers, to which I would make the alteration of ‘papers’ to ‘media’. In the end there is no ultimate font of truth in this world (even me), so we must all use our own judgement.

Article 7: How it Happens.

This was written a little while after 911, six years and seven or so books ago…

How it Happens

I had considered running an article commenting on recent events, but I think there has been enough of sorrow, and quite probably, as I write this, a lot more to come. Instead, I’ll tell my happy story: When I first put pen to paper with the intent of producing fiction I had my dreams about the future. I saw myself being wined and dined by publishers who were stunned and humble in the face of my sheer brilliance. The book I produced was a world shaker, it changed people’s lives and brought them on their knees to the alter raised to the writing god Neal Asher. Then of course I woke up and it was time to go to work, which I did for twenty odd years and am still doing. Now though, there is light at the end of the tunnel and I don’t think it’s a train. For each of the many years in which I have been writing seriously and have actually had something publishable I’ve been buying either the ‘Writer’s & Artist’s Yearbook’ or ‘The Writer’s Handbook’. Each time I would go through that year’s copy and circle every science fiction publisher, and to each, one after the other, bang off a synopsis and sample chapters, blithe in my ignorance of the fact that my work would be one of the hundreds they received that month. I used the other side of the rejection letters that came back, to print out work I wanted to check through, or have someone else check through. I don’t like to think how much I have spent on stamps and envelopes. I’ve had my successes: short stories published, collections, novellas. In another article for this magazine I have detailed that ladder climb with someone standing on my fingers. It made depressing reading for then there had been no happy ending. I digress, let me tell you how it happens. During the summer I have a job which keeps me away from the processor: I cut grass, playing fields and the like, and relocate dogshit with my strimmer. During the winter I write all the time (and for those who say ‘you’re lucky’ my answer is ‘that’s how I arranged it’). The winter before last, just before Christmas, I was writing away when there was a crash behind me. In the hall the coat rack had worked its raw plugs out and fallen, so I was feeling a bit spooked when the phone rang, and it took me a moment to gather my scattered senses. With a screwdriver in my hand I answered ‘Uh?’ when a rather well-spoken chap claimed to be the editorial director at Pan Macmillan. He went on to explain that he’d received my synopsis and sample chapters of Gridlinked and would rather like to see the rest. Still befuddled, I picked myself up off the floor and tried to say something about the website I had just set up (£150 phone bill that quarter). He misconstrued what I was trying to say with the happy upshot being that I emailed him Gridlinked five minutes later. I left things for one month. I didn’t want to be a pain and I have long taken the view that when you send something you forget about it and start work on something else. Towards the end of that month I was coming to the conclusion that what I had sent was, at 56,000 words, too short by today’s standards. I emailed the publisher to this effect, saying I could extend Gridlinked and perhaps they would also like to look at The Skinner which was 80,000 words. Almost immediately I received a reader’s report detailing the faults in the manuscript and saying precisely that – too short, but good. The publisher also suggested we should meet, and I took him up on that offer. Three days until the meeting. In that time I worked very hard to increase Gridlinked by ten thousand words, for it is a fact that publishers, if they are going to take you on, want to know that you can produce. Reader, publisher, and myself, met in an Italian restaurant in The Strand, and a very long meeting it was. I took along anything I thought might advance my case: published novellas and collections, copies of reviews etc. The meeting moved, after a few hours, to a wine bar. After seven hours the reader took me to Liverpool Street as, without his assistance, I would have ended up sharing someone’s sleeping bag on the underground. Despite my drunken stupor I did not forget that the publisher promised to come back to me with an offer. The offer came one week later and I was more than pleased. The publisher had obviously noted down much of what I had said and studied my website. The contract would be for three books (Gridlinked, The Skinner, and The Line of Polity – follow-up to the first) for which I would receive staged payments. The first stage came when I signed the contract, and now it was time for me to get on with some work. Over the next couple of months the reality of what was happening was brought home to me time and again. Macmillan’s publicity department got onto me with a form to fill in giving contacts and asking me to tick off what I was prepared to do. I was invited along with my wife, Caroline, to attend the 2kon in Glasgow. I was also called into London to pose in litter-choked alleys for a photographer called Jerry Bauer – a nice friendly chap who has photographed Dirk Bogard, Julie Christie, Sidney Sheldon, Marian Bradley. I felt I was entering the Twilight Zone when he mentioned photographing Robert Silverberg and after I had repeated the name went on to ask, “Do you know Bob?” Yeah, me and ten million other SF readers. Never, ever believe that it is going to be easy once a big publisher takes you on. At that stage you really begin to work, and everything before has just been playing. I increased Gridlinked to 134,000 words (in a very short time), then waited with a razor poised over my wrist. It was gratifying to be told that they were surprised at the speed at which I had done this, worried that I had padded and produced a load of crap, and pleasantly surprised that the final result was better than the original. Note to writers extending work: you do not swell the story you have written with pointless dialogue and description, you extend the story, you develop plotlines. Had I padded this book I’ve no doubt it would have come right back in my face. After this, Gridlinked came back to me copiously edited. I have to admit I was dismayed at the extent of this editing, but have since learnt that in my case it was pretty minor. I went through it all taking onboard what I thought right and discarding the rest. Through this process I discovered some bad habits I’d been getting into, and probably learnt more in that one month than in the preceding five years. The book was accepted and is now on the shelves in the book shops in the large format version. Now I am at the enviable point of having had The Skinner accepted and am awaiting the cover for that. Time to sit back and bask in glory? No, now it’s time for me to work very hard at The Line of Polity and make sure I produce something that cannot possibly be refused, because that can happen. You’d maybe think that with that first book taken by a major publisher that you’ve made it. Not so. You’d then think this the case with the second book. Guess again. The reality is that you have to ‘make it’ for every book. The reality for me as that I must continue to work hard. … But then that is better than the reality many are facing in the world today.

Article 6: GM Hysteria.

GM Hysteria.
Jayson and Michelle Whitaker were initially refused permission to have a designer baby by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Apparently it was ‘unlawful and unethical’ to save the life of their three-year-old son with a bone-marrow transplant from this second baby. Thankfully, sanity finally prevailed, and now the deed has been done.Putting aside questions about who comprise this ‘Authority’, whether or not they were elected (or another fucking quango), and what right they have to make such life-and-death decisions, it can be seen that this is one of the sillier examples of the hysterical fear that has gripped this country for too long, of ‘interfering with God’s work/nature’. The biggest bugbear is ‘GM’, though in the Whitaker case all the parents were doing was selecting the right child, not altering its DNA. ‘Unlawful and unethical’ in all cases such as this are vague terms modern hysterics have now transposed with the vaguer ‘against God or Nature’. These are applied to everything from Human fertilisation to GM crops. But first, let’s look at human DNA. As our medical technologies advance it is becoming increasingly obvious that most of the diseases killing us now are due to faults in our own DNA or in themselves need studying and tackling at a genetic level. Cancer, though in some cases having a viral or bacteriological cause, propagates by copying errors in the genetic blueprint. To truly defeat it we need to learn how to correct or completely delete those errors, straight chemical intervention mostly just delays the Reaper. The AIDS epidemic that is killing millions is caused by a virus that actually uses the T-cells of our immune system to propagate itself. Again straight forward chemical intervention does nothing more than delay the process. Real results are coming from us taking apart this virus and our own DNA so as to learn how to tackle AIDs. Cutting-edge genetic research is the answer – not reliance on God or Nature. The subject of GM crops is another one to get people banging their tambourines. Along with my acquisition of a garden came the beginning of a whole new vocabulary. I can now use the words hellebore and aquilegia and actually know what I’m talking about. I now also have a use for epithets, which I use less commonly in my writing, as prefixes for the words slug, snail, ant, and aphid. What, you ask, has this got to do with the GM debate? In reply I can tell you that I recently took part in the slaughter of the innocents. Two handfuls of slug pellets yielded me two litres of dead snails which I duly transferred to my council-subsidised composter. My garden, I’ll have you know, is just about big enough to get the Queen’s head on. Beyond it is a field in which it would fit many thousands of times. A friend of mine is a farmer and he applies slug pellets from a spreader on the back of a quad bike and my few handfuls, I know, translate into sackfuls for this purpose. The environmental cost of this is but a small proportion of the whole. Thousands of gallons of potent herbicides and insecticides are poured onto our land every year. GM crops need few of them, their yield is greater, therefore less land has to be used to produce the same amount of food. When are the hysterics going to realise that in this case we are already in a deep and poisonous hole from which GM just might drag us? The arguments against GM range from the apparently cogent to the plain silly. Tampering with the human genetic code will produce Midwitch Cuckoos who’ll take over, and consign old humans to the waste bin. Rubbish: it will result in years to come in the eradication of hereditary diseases, of faults, of people dying young or living lives governed by pill bottles, injections or the next pull on an inhaler, and it will be a slow process. There’s the idea that some super plant may wipe-out or displace established species. We’re already doing this with herbicides, and compared to what the natural world produces we are amateurs. Do the hysterics visualise armies of triffids marching across the English countryside? Get real. What we’re having trouble with, is what nature produces. What the hell is so frightening? Could GM produce poisonous plants, killer insects or animals, virulent and fatal diseases … er, nature already seems to be doing a pretty good job in those departments. Really, anyone who thinks that genetic modification is going to produce monsters that billions of years of evolution has not already produced is, frankly, an idiot. Nature or God, however, do provide us with natural and godlike things. There’s famine, plague, and other disasters that belittle our paltry attempts at the same. More species have been wiped-out by nature than we are ever likely to wipe-out. While we piddle-about with out little wars and exterminations nature comes along and puts us in our place. In the first world war we killed millions. The flu that came along after killed many millions more. Genocide? We’re rank amateurs. Black death killed twenty-five million, which was a third of the Earth’s population at that time. So, when you hear people ranting about nature and how we are playing God, please point out to them that we are not playing. We are trying to solve some serious problems and take control of our own existence. As for nature: we live in a world that is completely unnatural and, in reality, the only way any of us is going to get back to nature is when we’re buried in a paper coffin under a tree. ENDS.

Article 5: Getting There.

Here’s an old one. I don’t recollect precisely when I wrote it, but certainly it was prior to 1999 when Macmillan took me on and prior to ’98 when I first started really using the Internet. It’s interesting to see my attitude of the time…

Getting There.
The first time novelist or short story writer is up a certain well known creek without even a canoe. If you’re a politician, a film star, or a model (you don’t even have to be able to write), the big publishers will provide you with a nice fat cheque and a power boat. The catch for a new author is that they might publish you if you’re known and as a new author you’ll only get known if they’ll publish you. It is also a sad fact that the likes of Harper and Collins receive two to three hundred manuscripts a week out of which they might publish two or three a year. Many large publishers freely admit that they will not even look at work unless it is submitted through an agent. It would also seem that these publishers are now run primarily by accountants and financial directors. Editors wanting to take on something new have to present this work to these people to justify the expenditure. As such justifications usually begin with, “Well this is like … ” the chance of anything groundbreaking being taken is minimal. The fact, I think, that all writers should be aware of is that these large publishers are not out to make books; they’re out to make money. So what other options are there? There are, thankfully, the small presses, and through them a gradual struggle up the ladder in the hope that you’ll reach a point where you can no longer be ignored. Small press publications range from illiterate productions of stapled-together A4 sheets to some magazines indistinguishable from what you’ll find on the newsagent’s shelf. There are presses that produce paperback books of a quality that exceeds that of the mainstream publishers (How often have you had one of these mainstream paperbacks fall apart in your hands as you read it? How often has the cover picture and blurb born no relation to the contents?) It is worth noting exactly what ‘small’ means in the latter cases. It usually only refers to circulation, editor’s bank balance, and advertising. They are not necessarily small on enthusiasm or professionalism. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can get any old crap published here, but also be aware that if you are good, you stand a better chance here than with one of the lumbering giants that has a stranglehold on the the newstands and bookshops. Unfortunately the SF F and H (magazine) small presses are pretty much a closed circuit and it is quite possible for you to be very well known in them but not known outside. Very often the magazines published have a circulation that can only be numbered in the hundreds and not very many of them. The closed circuit is due to a large proportion of their readership being writers and by the mags only advertising in each other, (no doubt due to cost). What are you after though? If it is money then forget it. Payment ranges from a free copy of the mag your story is in to, if you’re really lucky, ten or twenty quid. The most I have achieved for short story publication was £60 from a magazine called Scheherazade and that was for ten thousand words divided over two copies. If it’s an audience you’re after then the most you can hope for is that for ten or fifteen minutes you will have the undivided attention of each of those hundreds of readers. Better than nothing. A problem you’ll face, writing for these small circulation magazines, is their proliferation and their swift demise. I have frequently had stories accepted by magazines that have then folded before publication of said story. There is no fault here in the enthusiasm or even financial acumen of the editors. It is just that a circulation of any more than a few hundred seems a tough barrier to break. Some have managed to, but for every one that does it seems that twenty others go to the wall. That barrier I think is ultimately heart-breaking for many editors. Another problem can be the lengths of time involved. In some cases you will not recieve a reply for a few months, thereafter, if your work is accepted, it can be months and even years before you see your work in print, and see any cheque that might be involved. This is because small press editors have to work for a living and that job ain’t in publishing. They have piles of stories to read through and reject before they find your gem. And often they might only bring out their magazines quarterly or even yearly. You’ll often notice when looking at these magazines that they’ll have an issue number, but that the editor has not been brave enough to put on a date. In one case I had to wait three years from acceptance of one of my stories until publication. But let’s face it, if you’re a writer, you should be thinking about your next story on the way back from the post box. Why write for the small presses if your ultimate aim is big time publication? To begin with the small presses are a superb training ground for the wannabes. Very often the editors of these magazines will take time to offer some criticism of your work (remember, if that criticism is ‘this is drivel’ that’s more than you’ll get elsewhere). You’ll also get a fair amount of feedback in the letters pages and even in other magazines. In this sense the closed circuit will work for you; many of these magazines have review columns and as well as reviewing films, and large circulation books and magazines, they review each other. Also, because of that proportion of writers in the readership, you’ll know that if you do get published it is not because of a lack of submissions to the magazine. The small presses are essentially a proving ground for the wannabe. To break into the small press market you do have to buy magazines. Some magazines will only publish stories written by subscribers; a form of nepotism brought on by a desperation to get subscribers. Once you’ve bought a few magazines you’ll have a feel for them and from adverts in them you’ll find other mags to which you may send your scribblings. Each time you send something off (with an SAE and covering letter) you’ll quite probably get fliers from yet more magazines with your rejection or acceptance. It is quite easy to build up one hell of a list of possible markets. If you want to increase that list then get hold of publications like Zene, Light’s List, or Dragon’s breath. In the fifteen years I’ve been writing for the small presses I’ve felt no need to submit work outside the UK, but then I’m not someone who produces a story a day. Once you’ve broken into the small press market (meaning that you have proven your worth to yourself, not that you have learnt the funny handshake) it’s worth looking at the small press book publishers in the hope of having something longer published. As you do these things take note of your achievements and utilise what leverage they might give to get you higher up the writing ladder. Unfortunately though you’ll find that small press book publishers face similar difficulties to those of the magazine publishers. So far I’ve seen three of them get into difficulties.Club 199, a publisher aiming to produce cheap paperbacks (£1.99, hence the name) had the printing side of things organised but not the advertising side. New Guild, whom I was under contract with, made the same mistake. Tanjen, has recently ceased taking on any new work. Sadly, these small publishers are up against the huge advertising machines of the large publishers, the clout they have with the likes of W H Smiths and Waterstones, and the spreading of costs over huge print runs. For me my writing has been a gradual struggle up that ladder, the small presses being the first few rungs. Too often we hear of someone getting the x-thousands advance on their first book and hearing this lose sight of the fact that they are the exception. There is a lot of truth in the image of the writer struggling away in his garret then drinking himself to death. The reality is that writing is hard, getting published is hard, and that if you want easy money your best option is to become an estate agent. It took me five or more years to get my first short story accepted and then that magazine folded before publication of my work. After that slight boost (and it was a boost; someone had actually wanted my work) I got more and more stories published, the occasional novella serialised, and a one-off novella published for a single cash payment. For my short stories my reward was a copy of the magazine and some complimentary letters (mostly). After another five years I was getting the occasional cheque – about enough to pay for a toner cartridge a year – then in the following five years finally gained some notoriety through the publisher’s Tanjen, with the production of another novella (The Parasite) then a short story collection (The Engineer).
My story, I warn you, has been one of relative success.

Article 4: Counterculture.

Feeling seriously hacked off and bitchy when I did this one…


It is human nature to strive to be, or to be perceived as, superior to your fellow. This striving stems from the simple imperative that if there’s someone higher up the ladder than you, then there’s still someone who can step on your fingers, or shit on you. It is the same quest for superiority that forms hierarchies in any organisation, group, or loose alliance. And it is the one that has created the ‘liter-arty intelligentsia’ (those with pretentions to being intellectual heavy-weights) who seek to rule the SFF world, and seem to think their pronouncements are holy writ. They also create slavish followers trying to squash themselves into the same mould. On the whole they are dreadfully serious – humour is alien to them. In conversation they will often smear popular culture. If everyone likes Friends, then they don’t and will give some apparently worthy reason why. The plain silly they can own, and thereby score points: “Well actually, my favourite program is the Magic Roundabout.” The points here are for false frivolity, thereby demonstrating how though they are intelligences to be reckoned with, they can still be fun. Even better if they can attach some meaning that isn’t there: “It’s about arachnophobia and patriarchal societies, you see.” If a group is discussing a film, they’ll always find a flaw to criticise, to demonstrate how observant they are and how so far above the work in question. However, if something is judged as being worthy by other, higher, members of the intelligentsia, they’ll hop on the same band wagon, for to say otherwise in such a case might open them to criticism. Perhaps they have not been bright enough to plumb the deep meaning of it all? You will find these same people in the Tate Modern, attaching meaning and importance to what is quite evidently crap to anyone with half a brain. Only the braver members of their kind might voice a contrary opinion, usually those ones who still have something functioning between their ears, and have yet to buy a life-time membership. Full members live to raise themselves in the regard of others, but are caught in a fantasy of self-regard. The top ten reading lists of same will always be for the sake of appearance and intellectual poseur points. They will denigrate some of the old greats just to demonstrate how independent is their thought. They’ll forget all about the lurid SF and fantasy books that drew them into the genre, because they have of course outgrown such trash. LeGuin and Delaney will be in and Dickson and Zelazny out. They’ll definitely dislike Lord of the Rings, obviously – too many normal plebs like it (and of course the same book has to be allegorical). In their lists will be a smattering of books concerning subjects ending –ophy, ology, istry or ics, and you can guarantee that none of them will be mathematics, physics, biology or chemistry, or anything actually useful. And presently they’ll be wading through a tome produced by some obscure European philosopher, and foolishly think that what insight they have is something new. Equally, they will, when asked to list their top ten favourite films, make their selection based on how they think this will enhance their facade, not on what they actually like. Blade Runner would certainly be allowable to them, but Terminator or Terminator II would definitely be out. Battleship Potemkin is a definite, but Total Recall will cause them pain (having its source as Philip K Dick but starring Arnold Schwartzenegger). Black and white films would be in, the more obscure the better, and better still if French, subtitled and deeply ‘intellectual’. In describing their selection they’ll use the word ‘noir’ a lot, and sometimes lapse into ‘surreal’. The defining spirit of these people, is a total lack of honesty. They are pretentious: truth is not their stock in trade, for if you are truthful people might see you as you really are, might be able to assess your intelligence, judge you. Better to lie about your intellectual gains, better to be obscure and misjudged as being deep. Better to appear to be … better.

Article 3: Cities in Flight.

CITIES IN FLIGHT. There seems a belief, ascribed to by many of those writing short science fiction today, that nothing of importance happens unless it is set in the ‘mean streets’ of some city. On the whole the works stemming from this will be based on some student or other urbanite living a squalid existence in a seedy flat, while experiencing either relationship problems, or angst about an inability to have a relationship at all. Often, the writers are displaying a lack of imagination by casting themselves in the lead role in the only setting they have experienced. From the other side, there are many writers of fantasy who cannot step away from the image of their characters questing through the wilderness or some agrarian idyll, though that usually stems only from the secondhand experience gained throught the books they have read. Getting back to the cities though: are the writers of much urban science fiction nowadays suffering from the same delusion as the fantasy writers? Cities and the country bleed into each other. There are towns, villages, single houses and an infinite combination of everything inbetween; industrial sites in the country; city parks; wastelands being reclaimed by nature; connecting rivers and transport systems; and, fuckit, urban foxes. And of course in both directions there is a continuous exchange of people: wide varieties of commuters and ‘overspill’ and many so-called ‘country’ people moving into the cities to work. The dividing line, unfortunately, is near illusory, perceived mainly by resentful minds. Cities no longer have impenetrable walls around them with gates that are closed up at night and the countryside is no longer filled with Barny Hayseed clones chewing on straws and muttering about ‘tham thar towny buggers’. This perception displays the same blinkered vision as the present urban government, which legislates for cities and against the country – damaging those millions dwelling in between and polarising the attitude of many others – or of those dwellers in a time warp, the fox hunting lobby, who manage to piss off all camps. Britons live in a huge and wonderful variety of environments. Along our coasts there are many people who have tried to opt out by living in their boats, others divide their lives between boats and often much neglected coastal houses, there are huge transitory populations on the sea on oil rigs and in container ships, many millions inhabit suburbs, large populations live in villages where their only real connection with the countryside is that they notice it from their car whilst caught behind a tractor on their weekly visit to Asda, there are inclusive island populations who don’t even think about any division between city and country, there are towns where the countryside is only a step away and in which the residents truly live their lives in both. Of course, everything I’ve just written is also blinkered, for I’m describing Britain today. Maybe, an SF writer should be thinking of tomorrow’s Britain or an alternate one, or both. Also, Britain contains only a small fraction of the world’s population – there are actually other countries, and some very different ways of life. As for our urban environments? Even now the computer revolution is beginning to decentralise white collar professions, so what need to live in the city? Robotic manufacture is whittling down the required work force so what future need of industrialised towns? And the financial imperatives that originally made urban dwelling a necessity, will they last? Umph! Still today, still parochial! What about undersea dwellings, orbital communities, nomadic populations, cave dwelling morlocks, people adapted to live under the sea, people loading their minds into VR, even nomadic minds leaping from artificial body to body? Ach, I could go on and on, but the point is made: urban SF writers, lift up your heads, take a look around and try to imagine yourself somewhere else. Oscar Wilde quipped about how he may be lying in the gutter, but he’s looking at the stars, some people, it would seem, are lying face-down in that same gutter.

Article 2: Censor Censorship.

CENSOR CENSORSHIP. We live in a very strange society in which it is considered more dangerous to display an erect penis on television than it is to show, for example, someone having his throat cut. This is just one symptom of the strange disease that afflicts the so-called great and the good, bringing about in them a myopia in which they come to see sex as somehow a more heinous sin than violence. Certain words are not allowed because of their shocking sexual connotations, yet it is alright to show people being shot and knifed. The sex act itself must be ridiculously disguised, yet the scene in which someone is burnt to death is as realistic as possible. This is just one of the crazy inconsistencies of this madness called censorship. If we are to suppose that films on TV cause children and the weak of mind (neither of which are likely to pay licence fees) to emulate them, this begs the question: which of the above would you want your children to emulate? The censors would of course want the lot censored and to feed us on a diet of gardening and cookery programs. I can only say that this would only lead to people turning off the television and seeking their entertainment elsewhere, perhaps out mugging pensioners to get the money to rent a decent video tape or two. I hate censorship and would throw more weight behind the argument calling for it to be removed. It is wrong. It is another mishandling of power that takes responsibility away from the individual and in effect makes individuals more irresponsible. I wonder just how many really scientific studies have been made of the effects of TV violence on the individual. None I would warrant, simply because it would be impossible. For one thing there is no possible control group for any experiment or study. All that has really been done is the kind of statistical analysis that comes up with the result that ‘violent people watch more violence on television than non-violent people’, which goes nowhere in revealing why those people were violent and renders the analysis meaningless. Still though, censorship persists, and grows. In the literary world that hideous creeping fungus called ‘political correctness’ is walking censorship in through the back door of children’s books, and I have to wonder how long it will be before it reaches adult books. How long before this force that has emasculated our teaching profession and police starts turning all fiction into an inane mush? How long before ‘conflict’ is removed from fiction because it is too … confrontational. But how about a reversal? There is a school of thought that believes TV violence to be cathartic, and that the people who watch it are likely to be more relaxed and less inclined to violence than they might have been. In Jung Chang’s Wild Swans she describes China, during the cultural revolution, as a pressure cooker without the relief valves of spectator sports or violent films. Now there, I think, is a woman more fit to judge morality than many. The same applies to literature: recently, an interviewer pointed out how the body count in my most recent book started high and continued to rise, yet my last encounter with violence left me feeling sick to the stomach because I had been involved in something really sordid. Those who are the spectators of violence are perhaps less inclined to take it up as a pastime – probably because they really know what it is. If violence is removed from all our forms of entertainment then people will lose a valuable learning resource and wander naively into truly dangerous situations. We cannot wrap everyone in cotton wool – because there’ll always be someone out there with lighter fuel and a match. Unfortunately, the censors are very often precisely the people to whom we must perforce complain, and complaining to them about censorship would be the same as writing to an MP with the opinion that you consider politics unnecessary. Entrenched self-interest is as difficult to excise as a verruca. And the censors will never admit any argument that might reduce their power.