This short story appears in the current issue of Nature. You can read it here for a limited time: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v489/n7414/full/489170a.html
Over the summer I visited the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, a small town by Lake Constance in Southern Germany. The museum was small but well laid out. I’m not going to discuss here what I saw in there as I use that sort of thing in stories, but it was all interesting stuff. All in all a fascinating visit, marred only at the end by something that is all too common now when visiting technical museums. Something that annoys me more and more, something that reduces me to standing in the middle of some room loudly asking:
Why is there an art exhibition?
Why, every time I visit the a museum showing steam engines, industry, aeroplanes, cars, anything vaguely scientific, do I have to have an art exhibition thrust upon me? Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not that I don’t enjoy art galleries, I have even written about them here on occasion. No, what irritates me is the patronising assumption that whilst I’m looking at a history of how things were made, I also need to be culturally educated in some way by second rate artists who couldn’t get their work displayed anywhere else.
Worse, there will be a sign up explaining to me that there is a link between science and art, and this is going to be demonstrated by some painter’s abstract representation of machinery they probably don’t even understand. This annoys me for two reasons. Firstly, you don’t need an artist to show you the link: the form of just about every machine transcends its function – there is a beauty in the shape of those Zeppelins that is owed to more than just aeronautical design. Why not point that out, rather than forcing me to walk through a selection of badly executed paintings before I rejoin the exhibition I came to see? Secondly, if the link between science and art must be expressed, why, on leaving an exhibition of sculpture or ceramic design, do I never see a small display explaining how the internal combustion engine works? Don’t supposedly arty types need educating too?
I am not arguing for a moment there is no link between science and art. Of course there is, although every so often I hear a report on the TV or radio discussing a new artist who is producing revolutionary work combining the two. Is this supposed to be news? I know lots of people who have been doing just that for years.
Haven’t the BBC heard of Science Fiction?
Alt.Fiction is proud to present its Spring Writing Weekend – the perfect chance for writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror to meet and work with like-minded people and enjoy workshops and talks with established authors in the field. Offering workshops, feedback sessions and expert advice, these weekends are sure to both inform and inspire.
Spring Writing Weekend, 20th-22nd May
Tony Ballantyne – science fiction writer of the Recursion Trilogy and the Penrose Series
Simon Clark – acclaimed horror novelist and author of The Night of the Triffids
Venue: Legacy Chesterfield Hotel, Malkin Street, Chesterfield, S41 7UA
With a convenient location next to Chesterfield rail station and a wide range of leisure facilities, the Legacy Chesterfield Hotel is a great place to work and relax.www.legacy-hotels.co.uk/legacy-chesterfield/
The Spring Writing Weekend costs just £180, including two nights’ shared accommodation, all meals and hot drinks, plus a full programme of writing activities throughout Saturday and Sunday featuring two guest authors.
To book your place, or for any enquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Alex on 07896 228367
A £90 deposit is required to confirm your place, with a further £90 to be paid at least one week before the event. Deposits are non-refundable except in case of event cancellation. No refunds will be given in case of any changes to guest authors, or in the event of participants being unable to attend for any reason. Please note, the deadline for booking your place is 13 May 2011.
Alt.Fiction is a trading name of Writing East Midlands
I sometimes wonder if I should narrow the focus of this blog. I can’t help think that allowing myself to write about Robots and Accordions gives me too wide a scope and I should instead restrict myself to, for example, only writing about 72 Bass accordions and androids. Or maybe even further, so that I only discuss accordions that are actually being played by robots.
It has never been said that life is like a robot playing the accordion, but then again a lot of things haven’t been said about accordions, and maybe I am the one to say them. After all, there aren’t many people talking about accordions nowadays.
But let’s get to the point.
A friend bought me a CD for Christmas. I won’t name the friend, or the CD, but it was typical of a certain style of music that is popular at the moment, one which contains elements from all kinds of music. A little Jazz, a little folk, baroque harpsichord ostinatos that segue straight into South American rhythms. You probably know the sort of thing I’m talking about. Now, not for a moment would I suggest that people refrain from experimenting with other forms, but I think that there comes a point when you have to commit yourself to something. You can’t really develop a piece if you keep throwing something new in every time you’re struggling for inspiration: you’ve got to work with what you’ve got so far. This is just as true in writing as it is in musical composition.
This, for me, is one of the attractions of good Genre fiction. Immerse yourself in the conventions, and then use them to create something new. It’s not the only way to write, by any means, but it’s a good one.
I’ve never spoken at an event before where they were turning people away at the door… however, I strongly suspect that this enthusiasm was more down to a wish to see Dr Kerstin Dautenhahn‘s robots than anything to do with me.
What an interesting event, too. Organised by Sci-Fi London, and taking place in the Royal Society, the evening began with Dr Dautenhahn giving a twenty minute talk about her own research. Afterwards, Tom Hunter led a discussion contrasting real world and science fictional robots. Dr Dautenhahn was keen to stress that robots were neither he nor she but quite definitely it. Whatever human traits people saw in a robots were those they brought themselves. Contrast this with the general Science Fictional robot which is a human clad in metal. There are exceptions, of course. Asimov made great play of blurring the distinction, and, as Tom Hunter kindly pointed out, I did the same in my own short story “Teaching the War Robot to Dance”.
But back to the real robots…
One of the stars of the show was KASPAR, designed to study human robot interaction. (I had an interesting discussion with a roboticist before the event about the importance of studying how people approach each other. If robots are to be accepted, they can’t simply zoom up behind people) KASPAR has been used to work with children with autism: apparently, the children can find it easier to interact with than real people. The plans for KASPAR are available for anyone to view, you can build a copy for around £1000. I’ve put some pictures of the other robots on my Facebook page.
Oh, and did you know that one of the staircases in the Royal Society was designed by Albert Speer? Honestly. Nazis, autism, robots and Tom Hunter. You don’t get this breadth of coverage on other blogs.
On Saturday I participated in the Life in 2050 event, as part of Sci-Fi-London. The aim of the event was to try and do something about the lack of British Sci-Fi Films appearing in a British Sci-Fi Film festival. To that end, the organisers had arranged for two Scientists (Jonathan Cowie and Simon Park) to discuss new developments, whilst two writers (Philip Palmer and me) would discuss the story potential of the ideas. Around twenty scriptwriters attended who would hopefully turn the ideas into treatments.
This was one of the most interesting and enjoyable events I have attended for ages. For a start, it took place in the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. At lunch time we were given a fascinating tour of the exhibits: parts of men, women and children stored in pickling jars: enough parts to resurrect an army of the dead given a sewing kit and decent bolt of lightning. Actually, this description is probably selling the museum short – go and take a look if you’re in the area to see what I mean.
As to the event itself…
Philip Palmer led off with an introduction to the day. I followed up with a short talk about the difference between an idea and a story, and then Jonathan Cowie got the science going with a ten minute talk about the perfect storm awaiting the planet somewhere between 2030 and 2060. Population pressure, bacteria spreading, food shortages… it sounds rather selfish to regard all this as nothing more than raw material for film scripts, but we began to discuss possible stories. Philip Palmer was rather taken by the looming phosphorus shortage and we spent a happy time discussing recycling skeletons. As Philip kept pointing out, the key to a script is great visuals, so we imagined skeletons on buses, Gothic churchyard scenes and piles and piles of bones.
After lunch Simon Park gave an equally interesting talk on Slime Moulds and bioluminescent bacteria amongst other things, and we continued with the discussions. It’s always interested me how different writers approach the same idea in so many different ways. There is a tendency, I think, in beginners to worry that people will steal their ideas. This is a mistake: it’s the application of the idea that makes the story. It was also nice to discuss the extrapolation of the ideas which, for me at least, is what makes a good SF story.
This was a valid and worthwhile event, I’d be very interested in seeing more of this sort of thing. Thank you to Robert Grant and Sci-Fi-London for organising it. I don’t know about the screen writers, but I got a novel and several short stories out of the event…
I’ve written elsewhere in this blog on the Small Presses being one of the most significant developments in the field of SF/Fantasy over the past twenty years. Here’s a book that illustrates my point.
Frankie Finnegan is an unhappy dreamer: he’s bullied at school and his home life is falling apart. To compensate, he escapes into the imaginary world of Faraway. But what happens when Faraway becomes real and Frankie finds he has the power to shape his own world?
How many people haven’t thought of something like that as a plot for a story? It’s like the portable hole, an idea that sounds like a good one until you try and write it. Keith Brooke, however, has the skill and imagination to make the story work, and then some.
Frankie Finnegan is a believable hero. Irritating, sympathetic and pathetic in equal measures, he stands up to his bullies by feigning obsequiousness, thus winding them up further. In his struggle to assert himself, he always ends up sowing the seeds of his own further destruction. When he succeeds in creating the mock Victorian Freakshow world of Faraway, that same character trait is ever present asserting itself, and Frankie gradually comes to understand that it’s not his world that needs to change, but Frankie himself.
This is an elegant little gem of a book: unsettling, funny and exciting in equal measure. Keith Brooke has enjoyed some success as a children’s author writing under the name Nick Gifford, and this book would perhaps fit in well with that work. It is a children’s book, but a book that can be read and understood by adults too- conjuring up memories of childhood and wistful sense of understanding.
The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie (Newcon Press, 2010) by the seriously underrated Keith Brooke. Recommended.
I’ve just received my author’s copy of the BSFA’s Twenty Years, Two Surveys – a book that compares SF and Fantasy writers responses to a questionnaire now and twenty years ago. It’s a fascinating read, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.
Here, for the record, are my responses. If you want to know what other writers are thinking, buy the book.
1. Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy?
Nearly exclusively SF.
2. What is it about your work that makes it fit into these categories?
My definition of SF
- It has a sense of wonder
- It extrapolates (unlike Fantasy, which reflects)
- It is cutting edge
The last probably needs some explanation. Consider a book such as The Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Whilst an entertaining read with many Sfnal elements in it, I don’t think there was anything genuinely new in her treatment of the idea of Time Travel. This is not a problem, the book works well as a romance with a touch of SF in the background. Granted, if you took away the Time Travel the story wouldn’t work, so by Pohl’s definition it’s a Science Fiction story, but I would argue that ideas such as Time Travel have expanded out of SF and into the mainstream (think about all those James Bond films with a Science Fiction weapon as the plot driver). This is why I think SF needs to be cutting edge. If we keep going around and around the same ideas and not adding anything new, then we are missing that indefinable part of the genre that we all recognise from when we first began to read SF aged 11 or 12.
I try to I bring something new or cutting edge in my writing (although I am sure there will be many who claim to have seen it all before) but I attempt to bring something new in my treatment of SF themes. Whether I succeed or not is down to others to decide.
3. Why have you chosen to write science fiction or fantasy?
I didn’t choose to write SF, it chose me. It’s the extrapolation thing: there is something in my nature that looks at a dragon, a ray gun or a love affair and thinks “Now how or why would that work?” (and if the answer is it wouldn’t, I write a story about something else.)
4. Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?
I’ve just spent ten minutes using Google to try and find a half remembered George Orwell quote where he said something along the lines of being English means you remember the smell of mutton cooking from your childhood. Maybe you know the quote. Getting to the point, I think that SF should be about getting away from the certainties of childhood. I think that those certainties and habits instilled at an early age are what makes us British or French or Japanese or whatever. They are fascinating, they should be examined, but they are not what SF is about.
Saying all that, my characters tend not to understand what is going on, they can’t explain how the world they inhabit works, and they respond to, rather than shape events. I think this is more a British trait than American.
5. Do British settings play a major part in your work, and if so, why
(or why not)?
I return to two settings in my work: South Street, a reflection of parts of the East End of London where I used to live, and Bridleworth, a reflection of the area of the North West where I now reside.
Much of my work is set on other worlds, so mostly the question does not apply, but two of my short story cycles are set in the near future, and I anchored them in the two locations above so as to lend them familiarity, to contrast the strangeness of the SF with normality of everyday life. As they were what I knew best, I set them where I lived. They were British settings, then, because I am British and they reflect my unspoken assumptions and my unconscious prejudices. They are not intended to be an examination of Britishness, rather a realistic backdrop against which the SF plays out.
6. What do you consider are the major influences on your work?
Diana Wynne Jones, for making me want to write
Chris Beckett, for his way of getting everything out of an idea,
J.L. Carr for giving me an appreciation of how every word can count
Larry Niven, for his logical, structured approach
The two Davids, Lodge and Nobbs for showing that character is not enough, it is the interactions between characters that make a story and
Pat Mills for his breadth of influence
7. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between publishers in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?
Every time I think I’ve noted a different response, something comes along to change my mind. In my experience it is the individual editors’ responses, regardless of their nationality, that are very different .
8. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy
between the public in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?
The Americans are more vocal!
Apart from that, I really don’t know.
9. What effect should good science fiction or fantasy have upon the reader?
Good SF should make the reader realise the world is a much weirder place than they first thought, that their life so far has been very narrow and provincial, and, most importantly, it should make them want to get out there and understand our place in the Universe and not to accept anything but the truth for an answer.
10. What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction and fantasy as a genre?
Not a weakness as such, but there are some SF stories that have to be told in simple, straightforward style if the reader is to follow them. Stories told in such a prosaic way can be dismissed by those seeking a more literary style, however I feel they are missing the point. I feel we are failing as a genre for not successfully communicating our aims to the wider public. Worse, we fall into the trap of trying include elements or styles into our work that don’t need to be there.
An example would be the recent series of Dr Who. I heard episodes being praised for their treatment of character, relationships and romance. The Science Fictional element was mentioned rarely, if at all. Now, it could be argued that the programs were family entertainment, not Science Fiction, and this is fair enough, but good Science Fiction has additional elements to character and style. You can remove the latter two and still have good Science Fiction. We should give more recognition to that fact and not slavishly try to emulate the mainstream.
11. What do you think have been the most significant developments in
British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?
The growing professionalism of the small press, and the quality of the product they produce. The internet may change things in the future, but the physical press is still the goal of most writers, and the medium of choice for readers. Two major prizes have been one this year by books published by small presses (Arthur C Clarke- Ian McLeod and Edge Hill Short Story- Chris Beckett) I think we are going to see more of this in the future.