Brian Aldiss OBE
- The Helliconia Trilogy
Join me on the eve of dConstruct for an hour and a half of chat and readings from leading SF authors at the Pavilion Theatre in Brighton. My name is Jeremy Keith and I’ll be your host for the evening.
Jeremy Keith: I’m incredibly excited to have these people here with me, so I would like you all to please welcome Brian Aldiss, Jeff Noon and Lauren Beukes.
Jeremy: We will have some readings throughout the evening and later on I’ll be throwing the questions open to the audience, so if you’ve got any questions, you’ll have a chance to ask those later on. But I thought I’d start by just chatting a bit.
Brian, there’s so many books that you’ve written that I could talk about, but I’m interested in Finches of Mars, the one that isn’t out yet. What can you tell me?
Brian Aldiss: Let’s start at the beginning, just for a novelty.
Brian: This was a book that I wanted to write quite seriously about what it would be like to have a colony on Mars. And this entails various things such as the Universities or the great Universities of the world uniting to become UU. And they would contribute X amounts of dosh. And they would combine with NASA to make a colony on Mars.
Now …how many short stories have you read about guys tramping over Mars and finding a horrible green thing? Never a woman. Well that’s not quite right. There was a marvellous book called Sword of Rhiannon, a fantasy, and that was by a woman and it’s about women on Mars.
But mine’s about really a very serious kind of a colony there and the women of course after due time give birth to children and all these children, all the babies are still-born. Why are they still-born? Well they’re still-born because of the lighter gravity. And so they’re not adapted. And so none of them live. And this is a big crisis
And I actually have a professor in New York who deals with women and pregnancy and he has OK’d this. And says he thinks it very likely that women on Mars would have very great difficulty in producing living babies. So this is part of the overall plot which deals with many other things.
And what should I say about it?
Jeremy: I mean this idea of sort of reproduction coming to an end; it’s something you dealt with before in Greybeard to a certain extent.
Brian: Yes. Yeah. Well there are reason for that which we won’t go into.
But anyhow, the general understanding is there’s not much cure, but time will adapt and gradually the female reproductive system will also adapt and then children will be born, but they will be different.
And the finches bit, of course, is a reference to Darwin and the finches that he found on the islands of the Galapagos. And so it ends with the descendants of the first children coming back to visit Mars after two centuries away out there in space.
I think very well of this particular novel. But I can’t write another one until I’ve sorted it out with my new publisher, and various things that he wants, all connected with the timescale, which is very different. So every now and then, he sends me something, and I send him something, and then something comes back from him and so on and so on.
Jeremy: And is it true that I’ve heard that this will be your last science fiction novel?
Brian: No I don’t think it will at all.
Jeremy: Good! I’m glad!
Brian: Well, I started another one and I had to stop because I was dealing with this massive problem of Finches of Mars.
But what I do now is …well this was my August lark, I decided to writ a short story every day, okay? It sounds a bit of a cheek because what you do, you write the short story one day and you correct it the next day. All right…
And so what shall I say about that? Oh yes, and then to make it more difficult, last week …no it can’t have been last week …we only came back from holiday last week. On Tuesday, yeah, that’s right, on Tuesday, I decided I would dictate a story to my secretary, so that I did. And she was more amazed than I was. But yeah, the next day of course you put the energy back into and so on and so on.
Now I curse myself, because I wanted to read that story to this elegant audience, but I cannot find the text. It lingers on my windowsill in my home in Oxford. I’m very sorry about that.
Jeremy: That’s fine.
Brian: So I remain mute as you see!
Jeremy: Jeff, we were very lucky with the timing here, because your book has just come out—Channel SK1N. Before we actually talk about the contents of the book, I’m quite interested in the format, in that it is first and foremost available as an electronic book.
Jeff Noon: That’s it. No paper.
Jeremy: Yeah …seems quite suitable.
Jeff: For the subject matter; yeah. I did get a publisher for it, but I made a decision that I wanted to go alone on this one and to be an independent writer and to see how that worked, because I knew that at this stage of my career, because I hadn’t written any novels for a long time—about ten years—I had a lot of stuff I wanted to do. And when I talked to publishers and I’d say, I really want to just put out little things now and again, and they’d say hmmm …we’re not sure about that, it kind of, you know, doesn’t really work for us. So what this does through the internet and through the Kindle etc., is that it allows me to just create things as I want to create them and when I feel that they’ve reached a certain stage that I’m happy with; I can put them out, I can charge a little bit for them, I can give some away free and so on. If I do something a bit bigger like this, I can, you know, sell it as a novel and so on. So I’m enjoying that freedom at the moment.
Jeremy: Yeah, the freedom as well it gives; fantastic. Lauren, your new book very much has a publisher, in fact I believe there might have been a bit of a bidding war for this?
Lauren Beukes: Yeah, it was kind of weird. Because normally as an author you’re the one, like a Jehovah’s Witness, banging on the door outside saying please, please let me in; please let me in, I have a great thing I really want to tell you about, and this time it was like being on a dating show where you know, everyone’s telling you how wonderful your book is, and you know, it really felt like my agent was pulling an incredibly cruel trick on me; it really didn’t feel real at all.
But it was amazing and I think it was really in a big way in part thanks to winning the Clarke Award, so I don’t know how much of a difference that made to your career, but it was really, yeah, amazing.
Jeremy: Fantastic. Also, I can imagine, it’s not a particularly hard sell. All you have to say is, time-travelling serial killer…
Lauren: That helps.
Jeremy: And I want to read that book. So before we get a reading of that book…
You’re writing a book about time travel. I’m picturing you with a crazy wall. Crazy wall being that in any police procedural, where they’ve got all the pictures and they’ve got red string tying everything together to keep track. Do you have a crazy wall?
Lauren: I have a crazy wall; I’ve got all the pictures, my reference pictures, but I also have my three little timelines. I am never writing time travel, ever again …just kill me if I even try because I have the killer’s timeline and of course his MO is all over the place because he’s killing …you know, he gets more violent in 1948 and less violent in 1984 because that’s the order he’s killing in. Nothing historical in it. So I have his timeline, the book’s timeline, my heroine’s timeline, and the actual historical timeline. It’s a nightmare!
Jeremy: So in most science fiction time travel, they seem to fall into two camps. There’s either: you can go back in time and change everything so it’s effectively you forked the universe, or you go back in time and no matter what you do, you can’t change it; in fact you probably cause the thing to happen. So in your book, can someone kill Hitler?
Lauren: You definitely cannot kill Hitler. All your efforts to kill Hitler will lead to more death camps and history playing out…
Lauren: It’s the Greek model. It’s Oedipus, you know, the more you try to avoid your fate, the more you reinforce it.
Jeremy: Well, could we hear a bit of it?
Lauren: It’s quite a long section; is that all right?
Jeremy: Sounds fine. Fine with me.
(Could we have more volume please)
Lauren: I’ll project more.
Jeremy: Is your microphone…?
(It’s not working)
Jeremy: Oh, do you want to try using the lectern ….
Lauren: Is that better? Okay, excellent.
So the serial killer Harper is from 1931 in the Great Depression and he stumbles upon a time-travelling house. This is a scene where he gets to the house. He’s just ripped his tendon and he’s got out of hospital:
Harper hobbles out of the hospital, his ribs bound, his foot in a cast, his blood full of morphine, and he reaches into his pocket to feel how much money he has left. Two dollars in change. But then his fingers brush the jagged teeth of the key, and something opens in his head like a receiver. Maybe it’s the drugs, or maybe it was always waiting for him.
He never noticed that the street lights hum; a low frequency that burrows in behind his eyeballs, and even though it is afternoon and the lights are off, they seem to flare as he steps under them. The hum skips ahead to the next light as if beckoning: this way. And he would swear he hears a crackling music, a far-away voice calling to him like a radio that needs to be tuned in. He follows the path of the humming street lights, going as fast as he can manage, but the crutch is unwieldy.
He turns down State Street and that leads him down the west loop into the canyons of Madison, with skyscrapers looming forty stories high on either side. He is wondering, wandering through Skid Row where two dollars might buy him a bed for a while, but the humming and the lights lead him on into the black belt where the shabby jazz joints and cafés give way to cheap houses stacked on top of each other, with ragged children playing on the streets, and old men with hand-rolled cigarettes sitting on the steps watching him balefully.
A woman lobs from one of the upstairs apartments, the sound abrupt and ugly. There are signs every way he looks. Broken windows in the tenements; handwritten notices in the empty shop windows below: Closed for Business. Closed Until Further Notice, and once, just: Sorry.
The music carries him over the railway tracks deep into the West Side and up the stairs of a worker’s lodging house, indistinguishable from the other wooden tenements in the row. Shouldering in on each other with peeling paint and boarded up bay windows, and a notice that reads ‘Condemned by the City of Chicago’ pasted up on the planks that have been nailed across the front door in X-es. Make your mark for President Hoover here, right here, you hopeful men.
The music is coming from behind the door of 18-18; an invitation. He reaches under the board across and tries the latch, but the door is locked. Harper stands on the step full of a sense of a terrible inevitability. The street is utterly abandoned. The other houses are boarded up or their curtains are drawn tight. He can hear traffic a block over; a hawker selling peanuts: ‘Get ‘em hot, get ‘em on the trot’, but it sounds dulled, as if coming through blankets wrapped round his head, whereas the music is a sharp splinter that drives right through his skull with one word. The key. He sticks his hand in the pocket of his coat, suddenly terrified that he has lost it. He yanks it up and examines it. Bronze, printed with the mark, Yale and Town. The lock on the door matches up. Trembling, he slides it home. It clicks. The door swings open into darkness and for a long, terrible moment, he stands, paralysed by possibilities. And then he ducks up under the boarded up cross, negotiating his crutch awkwardly through the gap and into the house.
Lauren: There’s another section, but I’ll read that a bit later. I don’t want to hog the mic.
Jeremy: Thank you.
Jeremy: And now I’m suitably creeped out.
Lauren: It gets worse!
Jeremy: Is the mic working?
Lauren: Is my mic working now?
Jeremy: Great, okay. Chicago. Not South Africa?
Jeremy: For the first time.
Lauren: I knew I wanted to write a book about a time travelling serial killer, and I knew if I set it in South Africa, it would be an apartheid story. And I wanted to look at history, and I wanted to look at how things have changed socially, and I just …I do want to write an apartheid story at some point. I’ve got a great idea around the Occult Crimes Unit in South Africa—which is a real Police Unit by the way. Or was. But …yeah, you can’t make this stuff up! But this book had to be in Chicago, and Chicago actually has a lot of parallels in South Africa. It’s the most racially segregated city in America. I think last year they had forty two murders …forty two shootings in one weekend, which makes Johannesburg look, you know, I don’t know, like Brighton!
Jeremy: Right. And Jeff. Reading your new book, it’s not set in Manchester! I associate you with Manchester, it’s like …I mean it’s very much imbued in your earlier work. You haven’t lived in Manchester in what…?
Jeff: About fourteen years now, yeah.
Jeremy: What brought you to Brighton?
Jeff: The audience! True story.
I was doing Automated Alice on tour and I was reading from there and I came to Brighton for the first time. I came to the Arts Club which doesn’t exist any more, I don’t think, on Ship Street, and I read from it and I just thought …bloody hell, this is a good audience. They were really receptive, you know, and …because if you travel round you can get a feel about audiences, you know? Like in Yorkshire it’s: Go on then …prove it to me …you know? But in Brighton they were laughing at my jokes and all that so it was great. And I just said to my partner at the time; we should have a look at this place and check it out, so we came down and fell in love with it really.
Jeremy: Fantastic. And now you’ve got Channel SK1N, which, correct me if I’m wrong, but has its genesis with a Mott the Hoople song?
Jeff: David Bowie, in 1973 I think: Mott the Hoople were kind of a heavy metal band and they were going to split up, and they hadn’t had any hits, and Bowie liked them, so he said, I’ll write you a song, so he wrote them a song, All the Young Dudes, one of the great science fiction songs. And he, in that song—which I loved at the time; still do; I was a teenager back then—and there’s a line in it, ‘Television man is crazy, say the juvenile delinquent race’; I think it says that, something like that. And it just over the years, I don’t know, but that television man is crazy’s always stuck with me, and this is that—this is the way my mind works, you know—and eventually I just …he became a kind of almost like a super-hero figure: Television Man, you know, with his deadly cathode rays and all that.
So I haven’t written a novel now for ten years, and this idea was percolating and then I started to write it and it became a Television Woman eventually, but I just loved the idea that somebody would pick up television broadcasts and be able to show them on their skin as a kind of new interface. So that’s the basic device of it.
Jeremy: And it’s wonderful. Would you like to read from it?
Jeff: So I’ve been doing a lot of tiny little fictions on twitter recently, which I love doing, and so one of the things I’ve done is I’ve taken some little bits from the first chapter, just to give you a sense of that, and then I’ll read a proper bit later on.
So Nola Blue is a pop star and she’s a manufactured pop star. She’s been created by a process which is, I like to think of a combination of X-Factor meets Jason Bourne. So she’s been completely and utterly re-made. She doesn’t even remember her former identity; she’s been given the new name, Nola Blue. She’s had a big hit with her first album and some number one singles. But already with the third single from the album, it’s not working as it used to, so everyone’s looking at her in a certain way. They’re not talking about it, but they all think she’s on the way out. She goes out into Soho and gets drunk one night.
Her tellybug jingled in her pocket and Nola pictured the signal floating in towards her in tiny blue pulses. Her skin tingled. Lately now, she’d become sensitive to such feelings. Transmission, open to contact: definitely. She was plugging into something.
Jeff: So as she walks round, she starts to realise that she’s just become quite hyper-sensitive about what people are thinking about and so it becomes a bit much for her.
She loves music. Body and soul, all that Nola possessed; lips pressed up close and warm to the microphone, that breathy whisper that everybody loved. Damn! Sometimes she just wanted to reach out and kiss music on the lips and …and …and grab music by the neck and squeeze until… A man was approaching her, glamour-cam in hand. Nola flinched, but he shuffled on past, his prey elsewhere, lens set on other delights.
Jeff: So everybody wants to take pictures of everything and they’ve all got these glamour-cams that they’re carrying with which they record any bit of celebrity culture that they can see. So the celebrity culture is quit exaggerated in this world.
Nola feels that she’s losing her grip. Pop music was accelerating, a crazy, headlong rush of brilliance burning itself to spikes and powder and ash on the road of spikes. And then there was a hissing noise in her skull. …Ssskshsss… It felt like some kind of call sign, a message beamed in from another planet; fingertip, sizzle, bodyheat, head buzzing with static …ssstkshsss… fragile, on edge, and yet she glowed with sudden desire. It made her want to sing. Here in this night blossom city of crystals, spice, perfume, electric passion and neon dancers, to sing!
Jeff: When she gets back the next morning, she discovers a bruise on her stomach. She doesn’t know how it got there. Eventually, she realises that she is in fact picking up television signals on her skin, and this bruise turns into a little face of a newsreader. She carries on in her adventures and of course everybody wants her. And nobody really knows about her yet, but the story’s getting out. She has a really bad incident in a bar where she almost gets beaten up because she’s so weird, and she’s giving off all this mad stuff, but she’s trying to keep it safe, you know, she’s trying to cover up as her body’s being taken over, bit by bit, by different signals from different programmes.
So this is the more substantial reading. She rushes out from the bar.
Nola drove on, pushing the car to its limits. She was feeling cut off from herself, not quite contained by her own skin. She was a living ghost, moving through a series of separate countries, seeking peace. But each country along the way was governed by weird laws and weirder people, and herself the weirdest of them all.
She pulled into the forecourt of the next place that came in view, a small crumbling hotel on a street with only half a name. The old man behind the desk looked at her like he knew her from somewhere in a past life, but couldn’t quite remember when or where. One other person, a solitary man sitting in reception, young, neatly dressed, he too stared at her, somewhat nervous, but like he had the right to stare, as though he owned a part of her already. Nola knew the look. He was viewing her as public property.
She ordered a tray of sandwiches and a coffee and then retreated to her room, tiny and damp, Camberwood spread, the sheets extra tight on the bed, tepid water from pipes that clanked and rang. The food was fine, the coffee cheap but strong.
Now. She felt better. Sleep could wait for a while. Let’s see this. Let’s brazen it.
Nola stood up and opened the wardrobe door. As she hoped, a full length mirror presented its face to her; dusty and speckled, stripped of silver here and there, but it was enough. Nola took off her clothing and stood there naked before the glass, gleaming, shivering, turning this way and that as she examined her body, all the gathered programmes on view, on display.
Her stomach was broadcasting a talent contest. Tiny shapes played along her left arm on the inner side, just below the elbow. She looked closer. The shapes were made from numbers, tumbling trade figures.
Faces bloomed and faded, bloomed again on each wrist, each face in conversation across the space between her hands as she moved her hands apart, the voices raised themselves in volume to reach across the gap.
A motorway flowed around her left thigh. Far into the distance, a car speeding along, vanishing.
Nola twisted her back to the mirror to see her left shoulder blade alive with lush flowers amid tall waving stalks of grass. A gardening show, perhaps.
Each TV programme had its own sounds, low volume, all merging now into a soft persistent hum. Her neck received news from foreign lands, the threat of war increasing. Her breasts glowed with film of a games arcade, a place bright with cascades of coins warm with music. Now a cartoon cat chased his yellow-feathered nemesis around and around her midriff, crossing from one side to the other in their ever-circling progress. Nola smiled. She couldn’t help herself. She was alive with images. Here was the skin cinema, creating art.
At one moment, she watched herself from a distance, a mere viewer. The next, she flipped inside and felt the images burn and tumble and sliver across the flesh. But confusion reigned. Earlier, in the bar, she’d gained some kind of control. Could she do it again? Could she learn the new techniques? Nola breathed deep.
The click and buzz of her mind as she changed the channels of herself, random hits, shivers, fuzzy sssssstatic; patches of interffffference where the signals clashed and fell away momentarily. The pain of this skin-burn click-click channel nine; channel twenty four …clicks …channel fifty seven, moving on beyond the normal waves, picking up radio programmes, taxi calls, police transmissions, citizens band, satellite pulses, web blasts, flexi-texts, shimmer-casts, pod-chats, vidiblips and beyond that, at the fading edge of the spectrum, the ghosts voicessssssss …thsh ….hello …tshk… pitches changing in tune with the sounds Nola was skin-loading …kkkhhh ….llo …
She was trying to control the waves of transmission, turning her flesh into a total body surface chaos pad, overload of pictures, moving images, flash cuts, faces, legs, gunshots, car chases, high heel shoes, football reports, crashing seas, bombs exploding, two people kissing, hands on flesh, maps, porn, planet earth from space, that sweet kiss against kkkk… all of her body screens streaming with different signals and downloads, a sonic visual mess louder now, more vivid, her skin burning, sweat covered. Nola was lost in each moment as it flowed along the listings of her flesh, tissue melting with noise and colour and dampness, veins loaded with the image ssskkkk… Her mind soft like stars, haze-filled, static pulse shadow ache of muscle, mains hum, ignition. Nola was television …vvsssskkkk kkkssh…
Losing breath, eyes painful with grit and tears blur, her mind clicking on, clicking off. On. Off. On. And how her hands pressed at her stomach, at her legs, her arms, to dig in and scratch; to pull loose the images, to rip them from her. She wanted to tear the images from the screen of her skin, her one desire to be free of all this, to be clean again. Hands digging in …kkk ….drawing blood, nerves jumping and then the scream coming out of her, out of her body, and now all the pictures suddenly breaking, with human faces suddenly as one. One hundred mouths in close-up, all of them screaming from every last inch of herself, her own mouth, this one true red raw mouth of hers joining in the scream.
She fell to the floor, onto her knees, her hands coming up to clasp around her face. She cried out with every voice static noise …hah …washkkkhhssskkk. Can you. Hear. Me?
Somebody’s fist on the wall. No, not the wall; the door. Somebody knocking on the door hard, demanding to be let in. Go away. Nola’s voice a mere breath. Please just go away. The knocking continued. Why can’t they leave me alone? Why can’t they? The sound of a key turning in the door lock. Nola tried to get up to get to her feet, to pull some clothes around her; a bed-sheet, anything to cover her shame, her ugliness; her splendour.
Jeff: Thank you.
Jeremy: Fantastic. It really is a great book, and I find it kind of strange because on the one hand it’s like a Kafkaesque nightmare, right, this metamorphosis, and on the other hand—especially as you saw in that passage there—maybe she’s turning into something better than what was before, and it almost seems like a theme throughout your books. Things happen to your characters; there’s usually nothing they can do about it, it’s happening from outside, and whether they’re happy about it or not depends on whether they’re willing to accept what happens to them.
Jeff: I think I learned that from JG Ballard, actually, because I think the great thing about Ballard’s books, when you first discover them, is they’re quite shocking because, as opposed to like a normal disaster novel where everybody’s trying to get away and fight it, Ballard’s characters tend to actually turn round and head towards it and be changed by it. And he was a big kind of influence when I first started writing, so that whole idea of accepting the disaster and seeing what happens. Also like Cronenberg is obviously a part of this, you can accept it and accept the disease…
Jeff: It becomes a transformation, yeah.
Brian: Ballard’s publisher used to complain about that, you know, why isn’t he running away from it?
Jeremy: Well I guess the opposite to the JG Ballard would be more like the John Wyndham books, right, which I think you coined the phrase, “cosy catastrophe” to describe that…
Brian: Rather in a mood of contempt, I have to say!
Jeremy: So both The Shining Girls, Channel SK1N¸ are still set on this planet, on Earth. Brian, you’ve written much on this planet, much from your own life, but you’ve also invented worlds; invented entire eco-systems, entire planets. Do you have a preference? Do you enjoy that world-building, or would you rather draw on your own experience, places you know?
Brian: Well I was interested in what Lauren said about where you set the story and that’s always a question. And this story that I failed to bring with me that I wrote on Tuesday is actually set in Uruguay. Because I thought there weren’t many stories set in Uruguay. So I could do them a favour or otherwise. And yes, that seemed to me to make a very good story. I knew something about Uruguay. Well I’d actually been there in my much travelled youth, and I’ve certainly …I’ve set novels in Sumatra; I’ve set novels in …I’ve forgotten where else I’ve been, but you know, all around the place. And that seems to me to stimulate your own mind. God knows what it does to the reader, but there is this thing.
Of course, most novels I think, are set either in the USA or the UK. It’s where authors live and it’s where they think their audiences are. But since I’ve written about very strange places, I’ve also had publishers, some that I greatly adored, like for instance in France and in Germany and now in Poland.
Does this influence you at all? No, but it encourages you that what you’re doing might be right in a way. It seems to me it’s not how many copies you sell; it’s much more if you’re pleased with yourself when you’ve finished the book; if you think there’s something to it. For instance, a couple of years ago, a book, a novel of mine came out called Walcot. I couldn’t …I had a very bad literary agent, and eventually I found an art dealer with whom I had been dealing, who published a most elegant copy.
Has anyone here read, or even seen, Walcot? Dead silence, you see?
Jeremy: Chris has seen it!
Brian: Yeah, yeah, but I mean: what’s the important thing? Well of course you hope to have your books read, but the great thing is that you write them. Or so it seems to me.
Jeremy: And that you enjoy writing them.
Brian: Well, look, most of the stuff I’ve written has not been for publication. For instance, I have a journal which is now onto volume seventy four. It’s hard cover, it’s illustrated, many occasions by me. It would occupy two yards of shelf space. Did I want a penny for it? No, I didn’t. It was just writing about whatever was going on. Well that now goes into the Bodleian in Oxford. And that’s very nice to think that they want it. They’ll keep it forever and no one will ever read it.
Why should they read it? They didn’t pay me for it!
So you know, sort of you go along with what you can do, and it appeared to me that what I could do really was to write something that I enjoy, not necessarily for publication.
Jeremy: When you’re writing about places that don’t exist, creating whole worlds, do you ever feel sometimes, God, I’d like to go here; I’d like to go to Helliconia. Or …all these places…
Jeremy: Like an armchair traveller.
Brian: Well how do you do this? Well I’ll tell you how you do it, except if you’re a science fiction writer, you’ve got a natural talent to do that kind of a thing. And once I had sorted out the way in which the planet Helliconia is in orbit around a minor sun, and then this system has been captured by a vast passing sun, so that it actually rules Helliconia, so that a Helliconian year is something like five hundred earth years, instead of our miserable little three hundred and sixty five days, once you’ve got that, then various things emerge, such as there might be two conflicting species on Helliconia and so on and so on.
And yeah, I must brag about this, you know, NASA …NASA’s telescopes have just discovered a Helliconian unit ….two hundred light years from earth. So. The bastards are not going to call it Helliconia though!
Jeremy: So the location came first and then the story, the characters.
Brian: And the constellation came later.
Jeremy: With you, Jeff, does it start with the character, like did you come up with Nola Blue and then build the world around that, or where you imagining this world of celebrity and this world of televisions and screens?
Jeff: I tend to …what really interests me most of all, if I have to make a list of my favourite things, plot and character are fine, but what I really love are atmosphere and subject matter. And I see subject matter as kind of the landscape of the novel. And I see the atmosphere as the climate. And I like to really explore that when I write those two things, the climate and the subject matter.
I have this phrase which I use which is that …form is the host …content is the virus. That’s the kind of thing I do, so in this, in this book, Nola’s …the parasite signal that’s taken over Nola also starts to infect the book; I love to do that. So out of that, what I tend to do then is, okay who’s like, who’s the worst possible person that this can happen to? That’s the rule I tend to use when I’m doing characters, you know.
Jeremy: And Lauren, your books always have a very strong sense of place but does it start with the place, does it start with the people?
Lauren: It depends. You know, Zoo City started …I fixed my mic so …can everyone still hear me?
Lauren: Okay, cool, thanks.
Zoo City started with this very strong image of a woman going to a closet in a tenement slum and pulling a sloth onto her back and I knew that it was a burden but also the possibility of redemption.
With The Shining Girls, it was actually Twitter. I was making a bad joke on Twitter to somebody and I said, oh yeah, like a time-travelling serial killer, and I was like, Oh God, that’s a brilliant idea! Quick, delete that tweet!
But characters are very important to me and a sense of place is also very important. I knew immediately who the killer was. I had a very strong sense of Harper and it unfolds around him and one of his victims who survives, and he doesn’t know that she’s survived and she’s trying to track down this absolute impossibility.
Jeremy: And you’ve written a time-travel book that’s set entirely in the past.
Lauren: Yes. The book ends in 1993 and that’s because I did not want to have to deal with Kirby the heroine getting some access to CCTV cameras and uploading the footage to 4chan and having them solve the mystery in four minutes flat.
Jeremy: So the internet marks the end of sci-fi time-travel stories?
Lauren: It’s done. No cell-phones, no internet, thank you.
Jeremy: Well, we’d love to hear a bit more from The Shining Girls.
Sorry, I now have a password on my Kindle because I left it on a plane with Warren Ellis’s new novel and my new novel and thirteen other novelists’ novels on it, and I realised there was no way to delete from it remotely, and it took my husband twenty five phone calls to the airline to get my Kindle back. I really thought I was going to single-handedly destroy publishing, but luckily I got my Kindle back and now it has a password which is why it’s taking a while to come on.
Twenty two November 1931.
It’s like being a boy again, sneaking into the neighbouring farmhouses. Sitting at the kitchen table in the quiet house, lying in someone else’s bed between the cool sheets. Going through the drawers. People’s things tell their secrets. You could always tell if someone was home. Then, and all the times he has broken into abandoned houses since, to scrounge for food or some overlooked trinket to pawn. An empty house feels a certain way; ripe with absence. This house is full of expectation that makes the hair on his arms rise. There is someone in here with him, and it is not the dead body lying in the hallway.
The chandelier above the stairs casts a soft glow over dark wooden floors, gleaming with fresh polish. The wallpaper is new; a dark green and cream diamond pattern that even Harper can tell is tasteful. To the left is a bright, modern kitchen straight out of the goddam Sears catalogue, with melamine cupboards and a brand new toaster oven and an ice box and a silver kettle on the stove, all laid out, waiting for him.
He swings his crutch wide over the blood seeping like a carpet across the floorboards, and limps around to get a better look at the man. The dead man is gripping a half-frozen turkey. The grey-pink flesh pimpled and smeared with gore. He’s a thick-set man, in a dress shirt with suspenders, grey pants and smart shoes. No coat. His head has been pulped like a melon, but there is enough left to make out jowly cheeks with stubble and bloodshot blue eyes staring out of the mess of his face, wide in shock. No coat.
Harper limps past the corpse, following the music into the lounge, half expecting to confront the owner, perhaps sitting in the upholstered chair in front of the fireplace, the poker he used to bash the man’s head in laid across his lap. But the room is empty. Although the fire is lit and there is a poker beside the wood rack, stacked full as if in anticipation of his arrival. The song spills from a gold and burgundy gramophone. The label on the record reads Gershwin. Through a crack in the curtains over the bay windows he can see the cheap plywood blocking out the daylight. But why hide this behind boarded-up windows and a condemned sign? To prevent other people finding it.
A crystal decanter with a honey-coloured liquor has been set atop a single tumbler on the side table. It’s atop a lacy, doyley tablecloth. That will have to go, Harper thinks, and he will have to do something about the body. ‘Barteck’, he thinks, remembering the name the blind woman said before he choked her to death. ’Barteck never belonged here’, the voice in his head says. But Harper does. The house has been waiting for him. It called him here for a purpose. The voice in his head is whispering, ‘Home’, and it feels like it more than the wretched place he grew up with a series of flop houses and shacks he has moved between all his adult life.
He hauls himself up the stairs. ‘There’s more right this way, sir’, a carnie barker’s voice in his head. ‘Step up. Don’t miss out. It’s all waiting for you. Keep on; keep on.’ He hangs on the balustrade that is so polished that he leaves handprints on the wood. Oily, ghost impressions already fading. He has to swing his foot up and round every time, his crutch dragging behind him. He is panting through his teeth at the effort.
He limps up the hallway past a bathroom with the basin spattered with runnels of blood to match the stained towel in a soggy twist on the floor, leaking pink across the shining black and white tiles. Harper pays no need to this, nor to the stairs leading up from the landing to the attic, nor to the spare room with the bed sheets stripped from the bed as if a maid had been called away mid-chores. A maid. He chuckles at the thought.
The door to the main bedroom is closed. Shifting light strikes the floorboards through the gap beneath it. He reaches for the handle, half expecting it to be locked, but it turns with a click and he nudges the door open with the tip of his crutch, onto a room bathed inexplicably in the glare of a summer afternoon. The furnishings are paltry: a walnut closet; an ironwork bed. He squints against the sudden brightness and watches it change to thick, rolling clouds and silver dashes of rain, to a red-streaked sunset, like a cheap zoetrope. But instead of a galloping horse or a girl saucily removing her stockings, it’s whole seasons whirring past. He can’t stand it. He goes to the window to pull shut the curtains, but not before he glimpses the tableau outside.
The houses across the way change. The paint strips away, re-colours itself; strips away again through snow and sun and trash tangled up with fallen leaves blowing down the street. Windows are broken, boarded over, spruced up with a vase of flowers in the window which turn brown and fall away. The empty lot becomes overgrown and fills over with cement. Grass grows through the cracks in wild tufts; rubbish congeals; the rubbish is removed; it comes back with aggressive snarls of writing on the walls in vicious colours. A hopscotch grid appears, disappears in the sleeting rain, moves elsewhere, snaking across the cement. A couch rots through the seasons and catches fire.
He yanks the curtains closed and turns and sees it, finally. His destiny spelled out in this room, what has been waiting for him.
Every surface has been defaced. There are artefacts mounted on the walls, nailed in or strung up with wire. They seem to jitter in a way that he can feel on the back of his teeth. They’re all connected by lines that have been drawn over again and again and again with chalk or ink or in knife-tip scraped through the wallpaper. ‘Constellations’, the voice in his head says. There are names scrawled beside them. Jensuk, Zora, Willie, Kirby, Margo, Julia, Catherine, Alice, Misha. Strange names of women he doesn’t know. Except that the names are written in Harper’s handwriting.
It’s enough. The realisation. Like a door opening inside him, the fever peaks and something howls through him full of contempt and wrath and fire. He sees the faces of the shining girls and how they must die.
Jeremy: Your writing always seems to have this vivid cinematic quality to it.
Lauren: I blame him.
Lauren: I do.
Jeremy: Reading Jeff Noon makes your writing vivid and cinematic?
Lauren: I have just re-read Vurt and I was a bit shocked at how much Vurt has crept into the source code of my writing. I think it lingers there, it’s, you know…
Jeremy: Pretty great. I understand you are possibly working on a screenplay for Zoo City?
Lauren: Yeah. Zoo City’s been auctioned as a screenplay which doesn’t mean it’ll ever get made, but it does mean I’m getting paid to write the script, which is pretty cool.
Jeremy: How’s that process?
Lauren: It’s interesting, because you have to …it’s obviously a different animal. You have to make it work in different ways; it’s got to be much more visual. But it’s been really fun to play with. And I have worked as a TV scriptwriter, mainly on kids’ TV shows. I think the one that’s shown in the UK is a little kid’s show called Florrie’s Dragons and it was really nice writing Zoo City and writing Florrie’s Dragons at the same time, because during the day in my day job, I could write about the little princess and her magical friends the dragons, and at night I could write really dark, fucked-up Johannesburg!
Jeremy: And when it comes to seeing your work turned into films, Brian, let’s see, you’ve had The Brothers of the Head. There was Frankenstein Unbound, and of course Super-Toys Last All Summer Long.
Brian: Of course.
Jeremy: How did it feel to see someone else take your work and do something with it?
Brian: Well, it was quite good. The guys that made …which was it …The Brothers of the Head.
Jeremy: The Brothers of the Head.
Brian: The Brothers of the Head, yes. They were very good. And they got two marvellous guys to be the brothers. The only thing was the film leaves out the third head, okay. And I missed the third head. It’s plenty of rock and roll. The music’s good. And it was shot in Norfolk too, where I was born.
What were the other ones?
Jeremy: There was Frankenstein Unbound.
Brian: Oh, Frankenstein Unbound, yes. Well that was the most charming of all directors…
Jeremy: Roger Corman.
Brian: Roger Corman, yes. And we went to Italy to see it being made on the shores of Lake Como. And Corman had become a friend of the mayor of the next town along the Lake. And that guy said, ‘Look, Roger, if you’ll let me have a little part in your film, then you can film it in my palazzo’ in whatever the next town along was called. So Roger did that, and the result is a very elegant film really. And the mayor does appear as a peasant in a smock! A two-second appearance.
But I have to say that really, if Roger Corman had the talent that—what was the guy’s name that made …Kubrick, yes—If Corman had Kubrick’s talent and Kubrick was as nice as Corman …what a charming world we’d live in!
Brian: So that was fine. But the great difficulty of course was with Super-Toys Last All Summer Long. And I worked with Kubrick for about a year. Every day, a limousine would come and collect me and we’d go to Kubrick’s pad in the country. My wife said to me“Why are you putting yourself through this?” And I said—it’s a feeble answer, I know—I said I’d always wanted to work with a genius.
But it was impossible actually to work with Kubrick. And eventually he gave …well, all sorts of things happened, but he had a very poor scriptwriter that didn’t follow this idea of Super-Toys lasting all summer long, which is that the robot child is programmed to love his mother. A real mother. And the mother is not programmed to love the child. Now if you follow that through, I think you could make a very good psychological movie. But instead, spectacle took over. Oh God; spectacle!
So in the midst of all this, Aldiss survived but Kubrick died!
Why am I laughing?
And so his great friend …what was his name, what was the name of his…
Jeremy: Steven Spielberg.
Brian: Spielberg, yeah, great. In came Spielberg, and Spielberg was going to finish it. And so I wrote to Spielberg. I sent him a one page letter and said, you know how it should finish? It should go back to the theme of the short story and do so-and-so and so-and-so. And he wrote back and he said, there’s one sentence in your letter I would like to buy. And he offered me more than I’d generally got for the advance on the novel. A very generous chap, Spielberg. So immediately I got a bit more sensible, and I wrote …someone gives you a lot of money, you get much more sensible!
I immediately wrote three more shorties rather like the original and sent them to him, being very careful that the third one actually contained the sentence for which he had so generously paid me. So that was it, and actually those are sort of incorporated in the end film. But really you know, they flood New York, it hasn’t got anything to do with a mother’s love.
Jeremy: Well it misses that …the short story is so sad, there’s such an incredible sadness to it that…
Brian: Well it’s psychological, that’s why. But I didn’t think it works as a movie; sadly, I have to say. However, I’m also not above boasting that I’m the only guy who sold material both to Kubrick and to Spielberg! There has to be some comfort in old age.
Jeremy: Jeff, you’ve had your work adapted …well, you’ve worked on radio, there was Dead Code, but I think the format that seems almost made for you is Twitter, the way that one hundred and forty characters …is that what you like, the constraint of that format?
Jeff: I love it. I love it. I took that on. I had to be persuaded to go on Twitter, you know, screaming onto it that I didn’t want anything to do with it, but once I was on there, I just thought, I’m going to have a real go at this, see what I can produce in that tight little haiku type.
Jeremy: So again, it’s about the form? You’ve got the content…
Jeff: Yeah, I wanted to really try and pack them with information and imagery, and what I like about them is that if you get it right, there’s almost like a film or a novel hidden behind.
Lauren: But you know what’s really irritating about your tweets, is that there are these little perfect story bombs, and any other writer would turn that into a novel, and you’re just throwing them away. You’re just throwing out these tweets and they’re just beautiful and perfect and amazing and I’m like “What is wrong with you?” They’re amazing. You should definitely follow Jeff Noon on Twitter.
Jeremy: Yeah, if you’re not following Jeff, definitely follow Jeff Noon on Twitter. Let’s hear some of them.
Jeff: Yeah, I was gonna …I was looking at them. There’s approximately nine hundred and thirty of them up to now. When I get to a thousand I’m going to publish them in a book called Pixel Dust.
Brian: Well read the first nine hundred now!
Jeff: I thought, I’ll choose some of the best ones, but then I thought, no I won’t do that. I’ll just choose a page. So this is a page:
Cloud your eyes my love. Cloud them. Veil your face. Sunlight nears so cloak yourself in sleep, for tonight our lips will be stained red.
Whatever you do, don’t press the eject button. Keep your finger off the button. Just don’t press the button. It’s simple, don’t press i…
Mary Shelley and Ada Lovelace argued. “Flesh and blood.” “No. Numbers in code.” “We make him from flesh!” “Numbers!” Mary hit Ada. “Flesh.”
In reality he’s divorced, homeless, jobless and ill. In the game, he’s seeking a lost queen, a palace, a task and a magic cure. Its all one journey.
The first promo-vid of Heaven 2, no pearly gates, no angels, just condos, lakes, moors, golf courses. God smiles in front of the show-home.
It was little details she got wrong. The subjects she avoided. The smile. Henry realised there was another man’s code in his wife’s programme.
All things elusive. All things broken and twisted. All things tattered, impure, misused, hacked up, cracked. All things empty of style. Glorify them.
He was sewing. The thread kept snapping. He started again, stitching reality to the events of his life. Stitch by stitch his fingers bled.
Jeff: That’s it.
Jeremy: When we talk about science fiction or speculative fiction, I think people have a kind of thing in their mind and that’s not it. That seems like something else, and your writing in general seems …I don’t know, do you consider it science fiction?
Jeff: I do, yeah, broadly. I think science fiction is a very broad church and I’m quite happy to be in that church these days, so yeah. I think that …my take on it is that there are science fiction subject matters, which is brilliant, and you know, people love to explore that, but I think there are also science fictional methods and that’s what my thing really is, discovering those new ways of writing and inventing weird machines that will create text for me. They only exist in my head, you know, but …so I view myself as like …words can point at things and describe them really well, but they can also be things in their own right, and I really like to mess with that. It’s like a laboratory really for me, writing.
Jeremy: Language is your material.
Jeff: Language is my material, yeah. Yeah, definitely.
Jeremy: And something like Zoo City, is it even science fiction? It has that magical realism quality to it. Do you want to classify it?
Lauren: I’m not a big fan of classifications. I basically write what I want to write, and then other people tell me what it is …they’re like, oh that’s urban fantasy. I’m like, okay! And I understand why people want to classify it. I understand why people want to catalogue. But you know, I read so widely that I think, as Jeff said, it’s a broad church and there’s room for so much play there. And I think where science fiction is really exciting is that it’s fiction of ideas, and extrapolating ideas, and running with them and seeing where they’ll go, and ultimately what that says about us as people.
Jeremy: And Brian, how do you feel about being put into a category like that?
Brian: These two guys are both church-goers?
Jeremy: The church of science fiction!
Brian: How do I feel about what?
Jeremy: Being categorised in that way, because your writing covers so much, I mean autobiography, criticism, science-fiction…
Brian: Well you can’t, you know, people will say whatever they think, however deluded it may be.
Jeremy: But did you ever feel you were part of a movement, did you feel like, I’m in the New Wave; I’m part of this…?
Brian: Well, I’ve certainly always felt that I was part of this strange science fictional universe where you seek alternatives. You’re interested in technology. You’re presumably atheistic, I would think. I don’t know. And there are all sorts of things that engage your intelligence in life. Happen all the time. I mean as yet, no one has mentioned curiosity. Come on, you know, so these things happen and what you have a talent for is to continue writing.
I’ve recently had turn up two hard-bound books that I wrote when I was fourteen, of the adventures of one called Whit Donovan on the planets. And these are copiously illustrated. The question about them is not whether they’re good or bad. Obviously when you’re fourteen, you aren’t particularly writing well, but you are writing, and the miracle is, these things have survived. They’re in the Bodleian Library! Heaven help us.
So this I argue is a continuity. And another thing that’s turned up recently is there’s an institute called …it’s called something like Communication of those who fought in World War Two. And so it’s a listing of nine hundred letters that I wrote from various bits of the Far East when I was fighting the Japanese and after. Nine hundred. My God, and they’re preserved. Preserved!
And so it gives you a different aspect on life. You were forever, ever writing. And really I’ve never stopped. Have I stopped? No. I stop for a breather. Or I travel. But I mean, this is it seems to me a quintessentially writerly thing to do. What you write about varies from time to time, but there are always various scenes in your life to which you return.
For instance, talking about Finches of Mars, someone mentioned Greybeard. I think you did, didn’t you? Because there again, there are no children. Well, these things lurk in your mind because I was born to a mother who had five years previously borne a baby daughter who was dead, a still-born child. And that preyed greatly on her mind, so that when five years later another child was born, it happened to be a boy, that was me, born in a shower of tears. So you wouldn’t think me of cheerful disposition, but on the other hand, life has been remarkably interesting, full of most extraordinary things. Some of the things are actually present here this evening, and so it goes.
You have to live the way you can on the material you’ve got, and if you can use that material, so much the better, so much the more truthful you might hope that material would be.
Jeremy: That’s wonderful.
I’m going to open it up to questions from the audience in just a minute. Before I do that, we’re going to have one more reading, but it’s not actually from anybody up here on stage. So the person who’s been organising all this and organising dConstruct is my colleague, Kate Bulpitt, and she’s got something she’d like to read. Kate, would you like to come up and let’s welcome Kate to the stage.
Kate Bulpitt: Evening everybody. Thank you for letting me interrupt these illustrious, amazing people. My novel is called Purple People and I’m going to read a section which has the main character Eve, who is a Brit living in New York, woken by an early morning phone call from her friend Womble, who’s back in the UK and has some very strange news:
Eve winced, and wondered if moving very slowly might outwit an imminent hangover from waking. Climbing cautiously out of bed, she noticed the glass of water and pair of painkilling tablets she’d put out for herself the night before. Even while somewhat drunk, her sensible side could still get the better of her. She stepped carefully through her dim, dawn-lit apartment towards the computer.
‘Right’, said Womble. ‘Type in Purple and News.’
‘Purple News?’ Eve yawned. ‘You’ve not been mushroom picking again, have you?’
Womble muttered a weary ‘No’, and directed her to photos that were seemingly causing traffic jams on the information superhighway. Eve appreciated the delay as both she and the world wide web tried to pull themselves together.
As the screen came into focus, she peered towards it, squinting at the pictrues of a couple of shaken looking men with a pale, purplish pallor. Only their heads and hands were showing, though in later shots they’d put up their hoods and stuffed mottled hands in pockets. The sluggish tinge of their skin matching the desolate, grey street and flat, industrial buildings behind them. They appeared to be stepping off the kerb at speed, and that they were caught hovering mid-step, mid-air added to the surrealness of the snap, as though they were super-heroes or super-villains who had not only changed colour, but acquired the ability to fly. Their eyes flashed with terror, which seemed particularly incongruous. These looked like the now so prevalent type of lads whom you’d cross the streets to avoid. The bullies, the hunters, and yet here, at the side of a road, they looked like wide-eyed, petrified prey.
Eve scrolled to the accompanying story.
“Photos of two mysterious, ghostly men who appear to have turned purple were released to newspapers across the country last night. The Lavender Lads apparently turned up at their local A&E where shocked staff called in the coppers fearing a terrifying chemical accident. Nurse Holly Finney, who treated one of the mauve men said, ‘we were really scared there had been a biological leak or attack, or that they have a terrifying new virus which we could all catch. We don’t know how many more people are affected, but our Doctors are running tests and keeping them in quarantine just in case. We’re really hoping that whatever it is, it’s not contagious.’ She added, ‘the men say they don’t feel unwell, but of course it’s not normal to look like that. There must be something wrong with them. A Government spokesman said that the Prime Minister will make a statement later today, but revealed, ‘We can guarantee that the good citizens of Britain have honestly no cause for alarm.’”
Eve figured her groggy whisky head indicated that she was, for the most part, awake and not in the fog of a bizarre dream.
‘Well’, she said slowly, ‘that’s different. It’s certainly clever. They do look real, but they can’t be. The photos are bound to be fake. A pot plant could tell you that you can’t believe anything you see.’
‘Do you see the Government statement?’ asked Womble.
‘Allegedly, the papers might have made it up, but it’s in all of them, and on the telly.’ Eve felt a mild spike of unease, but aiming for optimism said, ‘Maybe it’s a joke then. Hallowe’en make up or something. Too much Ribena. The Police will be charging them with time wasting in a minute. Those’ll be the further details.’
‘Oh, I think it’s real’ Womble retorted. ‘The loonies have finally taken over the asylum.’
‘Come on, don’t be so daft.’
Eve rubbed her eyes and moved into the kitchen to make some coffee. ‘Where’s the sensible guy we know and love? For a start, it must be biologically impossible. Can’t you just ask one of the boys in the school science department to dispel the myth for you?’
‘That’s just it. I asked Bob and he said yes, it could be possible.’
Eve considered this sceptically. ‘Bunsen burner Bob?’
‘The one who was in a Def Leppard tribute band and is a conspiracy theorist? Look, I’m sure it’ll just turn out to be some stuff and nonsense. People will be talking about something else by the end of the week’
‘It’s on the cover of all the papers. People are really freaked out.’
‘Yeah well, people love a reason to get hysterical. Look at Jade Goody. And you know how much the papers love to put the wind up everyone. The Daily Mail probably got the photos first. You should worry about Poles, priests, and now purple people.’
‘What is wrong with you today?’
‘What is wrong with you today mister four horsemen of the apocalypse? This is what I do all day, every day. Read news. Shocking news, whacky news, and a lot of blatantly untrue news. This’ll be some kids mucking about trying to cause a stir and impress their mates.’
‘If that’s true, then why has the Prime Minister called a press conference?’
Eve sighed. ‘Probably to tell everyone not to get so worked up and do something less boring instead. Maybe the ice caps have stopped melting and the polar bears are having a disco to celebrate. Could be anything.’
‘Evie, I think dreadful things are happening. I’ve got a very weird feeling about it.’
Eve paused, then said, ‘Of course you do. You’re Danish.’
Jeremy: Thank you very much, Kate, that was great. So I’m ready to take questions from the audience. We could maybe bring the lights up on the audience, we could see them, and we have microphones, so if you could raise your hands, I’ll get the microphones to you.
Lauren: Can I ask Jeff a question in the meantime?
Jeremy: In the meantime, Lauren’s got a question for Jeff.
Lauren: So, you know, e-books kind of old-fashioned, don’t you think? Shouldn’t you have released this as LED tattoos that people get implanted and then text would scroll shining through their skin? Come on!
Jeff: I should’ve done, yeah. My people are working on it!
Jeremy: Don’t give him ideas!
Do we have a question? Has someone got a mic? Someone’s got the mic. Here we go, yes …no …technology, huh?
Audience member: A question for Brian Aldiss. You’re the kind of ancient high-priest of British science fiction, because you’ve lasted longer than anyone else. That’s wonderful for a start. So the world you’re living in now, isn’t it to you almost like overtaking everything you’ve written, you know, we’ve got the ice caps collapsing; we’ve got weird things happening in space; we’ve got all kinds of crises going on. Doesn’t it feel you’re writing against a backdrop of stuff which is …well, I don’t know how to express it, but is it feeding you or is it deterring you or what?
Jeremy: Do you feel like you’re living in the future, I guess, would be a way to put it.
Brian: No I don’t. I just go ahead and live, you know? And living in Oxford, lots happening all the time. I came from Norfolk—that was a leap into the future!
And next month, if this thing is closed by then, I’m going to be Angkor, studying Angkor Wat in Cambodia. So no, I don’t know what you mean. I just live for the day really. Or in this case, for tomorrow.
Jeremy: But you’ve never …has something happened over the course of your life where you think, this feels like something from one of my science fiction stories? Apart from the discovery of Helliconia by NASA.
Brian: Well, no, I don’t think so. No. Fiction, after all, is some kind of weird elephant, quite apart from living, and you have your own elephant to ride and that’s what you do to the best of your ability.
I don’t understand the question. As you can tell by my answer!
Jeremy: So the answer is, an elephant.
Do we have another question? Did someone else have the microphone or …no. Here, okay, Paul. Great.
Paul: Hello. We were speaking—you guys were speaking; I wasn’t speaking; I was back here being quiet, but you were speaking and I wanted to interrupt it; it got me going so much—about the nature of being a speculative fiction author in that what makes you specialists kind of thinking about these …creating these words and then running it through in your head. I’m a computer programmer and I think about simulations, and that to me sounds like a simulation. You’re being a good author in this area of imaginings yet to be seen. You’re simulating worlds; you’re simulating things that haven’t happened. In your case, Brian, you’re simulating an entire planet, and you’re running it through to the point where either people can come along later and actually say, oh it’s pretty good on like this particular scale, going a bit further, and we haven’t seen inside any further, we haven’t seen what happens if life is living on a planet that’s like that, you imagine the planet first, and that’s been found. But I’m just wondering, and I guess my question is to all of you, is where do we go with simulation? Human beings at the moment, we can simulate things we haven’t seen to a certain degree, but does this change, I mean authoring has changed massively over the last few hundred years in terms of what people produce, what people output. I was wondering, where do you think authoring changes, does our simulation improve, do we get better at simulating weirder and crazier things that haven’t happened?
Brian: Well, it’s unfortunate you see that we’ve got loaded with this term, science fiction. It’s an American idea that took place at the beginning of the twentieth century. And for a long time, the Americans had great libraries, but they never had the lending system that we have in this country whereby you could always borrow a book and it didn’t cost you anything, and back in the eighteenth century, there were two marvellous books at the beginning of it. First of all—oh God, am I going to be able to remember them?—yes, yes there was Gulliver’s Travels, you know, which is a wonderful book about the big and the small, etc., etc., and it’s science fiction, although we don’t call it that, but that’s what it is.
And then there was …what was the next one, darling, can you remember? Oh Christ, no ….Robinson Crusoe, yes. If this is not about a guy who gets stuck on an alien planet, I don’t know what is. And those two books were mightily enjoyed, and I believe still remain in print to this day, so that people have always liked something that stood apart from their own lives. And that seems to me a very valuable thing to be able to write.
I just think that the term—science fiction—you’re never going to eradicate it, but it is actually a bit dated because it doesn’t imply the scope that was implied, for instance, by Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe.
Jeremy: So do you like the term speculative fiction?
Brian: Well, Robert Heinlein coined it; he wanted to escape from SF and so he spoke of speculative fiction, but immediately the American fans called it spec-fic. Doom!
Lauren: Well in answer to the question, I think, you know, that there’ve always been weird stories and we’ve always …there’s plenty of room to play and I think the way people are telling stories now is perhaps different, you know: Jeff playing with stories on Twitter is very interesting, although I still think you should do the LED tattoo thing.
I think that, you know, there’s so much room and we will continue to challenge ideas and various ways of being, and the way that technology, technology will obviously push that forward. What we can do with technology now is very, very different, so it’ll just keep on expanding.
Brian: And what do you think of my argument about…
Lauren: The elephant?
Brian: No, about Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe?
Lauren: No, I think that’s very interesting. I think …somebody told me that they thought of Zoo City as imaginative fiction, and I really liked that term, but then somebody else pointed out, well, are you saying that, you know, what Julian Barnes writes is not imaginative fiction? And it’s like, okay, you know, that is true. All fiction comes from the imagination.
But I do love stories that surprise me, and I think that’s what science fiction, or imaginative fiction, or speculative fiction or whatever you want to call it, does so well. It plays with the imagination and pushes boundaries, you know, you operate very much in the liminal spaces and the borderlands, and it’s those big ideas, and those what ifs, and I think that’s what’s exciting about genre, if you want to call it genre.
Jeremy: And I like Paul’s sort of describing it as running simulations. That’s like, I’ve got an idea and I’m going to run it, and that’s like I say, all of your tweets sound like they could any one of those could be taken and turned into maybe a novel…
Lauren: You bastard!
Jeremy: …a novel length thing. But maybe the difference between authoring before and authoring now is that you’re not tied to the form of the novel length story or the short story. You can choose your form.
Jeff: I can, yeah. As the technology is invented, I can create stories that work with that particular technology, but the book, and I mean a book, I mean I still love paper books, that is a beautiful, beautiful invention, a great piece of technology in itself. But at this particular time in my life, I’m happy to really explore what is out there in terms of story-telling potential of the machines and so on, and the ways in which it reaches people. The channels that it goes through, yeah.
Jeremy: Did we have another question from the audience? Just raise your hand if you have a question. We’ve got a question back there.
Brian: The silent majority!
Jeremy: The shy.
Audience member: We’ve been talking about Kindles and putting entire stories into tweets and so on, and those processes, they remove the barriers between you and the ideas in people’s heads and other people seeing them, but then that gets out of control when you get Fifty Shades of Grey, so …even with all these new publishing mechanisms, do we still need a kind of, a way of deciding what’s good or not, and can we make that shared rather than just publishers?
Jeremy: Do we need the filter, so to speak? Do we need publishers, that’s the question. Publishers: what are they good for?
Lauren: Paying you money up front so you can actually take the time to write the book.
Lauren: Right. If you’re American.
Jeremy: Okay, true. Publishers: who needs them?
Jeremy: I admit, that’s a very hard question.
Jeff: It is. I’m trying to think of a good reason for them. Let me think. I dunno.
Jeremy: Brian, do you have a good relationship with your publishers or is it more of a…
Brian: Yes, I think I’ve had …I’ve had several publishers. I’ve always had good relations and moreover I was fortunate in that I never had to submit my first novel. Faber and Faber wrote to me and asked me, would I do so-and-so. And…
Jeff: This guy is great, isn’t he? We’ll pay you this money for a sentence. Please write us a novel; don’t send it to me. You’ve got it all going on!
Brian: Well I’m only telling you that’s what they did.
Jeremy: And they’ve been doing it ever since.
Brian: I’ve been doing it ever since, and some of the publishers of course have been nicer than others. I must say Fabers were marvellous because they had a very good editor, and that editor’s name was Charles Monteith. He was the man who introduced—oh God, what’s the name of the other writer, William …Golding. William Golding. He found him in the slush pile at Fabers; that Golding’s novel was right there and had been despatched as worthless. But Charles saw something in it and wrote to Golding and said, don’t you think you could condense this? Now Charles was a science fiction reader, and so he knew what he was talking about, and he knew that a novel should have a shape and a kind of phantom format. And so he coaxed Golding on, and Golding eventually scrapped what he’d done and re-wrote it as The Lord of the Flies, is that what it’s called? Yes, The Lord of the Flies.
Everyone read The Lord of the Flies when it came out, and it was kind of a science fictional novel, but since it was not announced as science fiction, people thought they could read it. Alas, that was the way people were. Very snobby, but yeah, so Faber was a very good, creative publisher to have.
Jeremy: Well it sounds like whatever about publishers and whether you need them or not, editors are…
Brian: Yeah, that’s right.
Jeff: I have something to say. Was your question about editing? Yeah. My view on this is that there are many, many different kinds of people in the world and many different kinds of books, and I think that one of the things that Kindle has …the whole Kindle thing has revealed is that there’s a layer of people who really do want to write books. They don’t necessarily want to go through the process of trying to find an agent and all that. They want to do it themselves, and they are finding some of them a really good audience, so I think that that in itself, it’s almost like it’s been revealed to us what is in fact out there, in terms of people’s creativity and their desire, you know.
It’s almost like in America, in the charts, they used to just count the coasts, and then one year, they started to count in the middle, and suddenly there was all these new country artists. They said now who is this is? Who’s selling so many? It’s that, so it’s revealed a layer of writers. I find that quite interesting, to be honest.
Jeremy: Maybe it was always there, but now it’s more visible?
Jeff: Yeah, it’s been giving them a means of expression, and if people want to buy it, then that’s fine.
Lauren: I like having a publisher because I’m a lazy writer. I will do anything to avoid writing. As William Gibson says, he likes having written, but the actual writing is just…
Jeremy: So a publisher cracks the whip?
Lauren: A publisher cracks the whip. It’s a meaningful deadline. It’s the reason Moxyland took me four years; Zoo City took me a year, The Shining Girls took me a year. And Moxyland, I was writing at …in my MA and UCT, University of Capetown. And I’d done it for four years, and eventually they said; listen, if you don’t finish this damn book, we’re going to kick you out of the programme. And that was the incentive I needed and I finished it in three months and there was no problem. And that’s why I like having a publisher; meaningful deadline. An editor who can push you, who you’re not the boss of, and they can really push your work to be the best thing it can be, and money up front.
Jeremy: Okay, so maybe we still need something.
Okay. Listen, I think we’ve just about run out of time. We would love to have you all chat with these fantastic authors, have them sign books, but unfortunately that’s not going to be possible. I must whisk these people away and send you on your way, but I would like to invite you all to a party …Yay! The dConstruct pre-party is happening at Terraces, which is on Madeira Drive I think. We’ve put some money behind the bar, so as long as that lasts, there’ll be free drink, and when that runs out, we’re all in the same room anyway, so that’s good. So if you want to head over to Terraces, we’ll see you over there.
But for now, I must take these wonderful authors away with me, but could you please, one more time, thank Lauren Beukes, Jeff Noon and Brian Aldiss.