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Killing the Magic (and Putting it in a Box) – a plug in Three parts

So, here’s a bit of ancient history – couple of years ago, a charming ex-cage fighter (no, really, he is) called Marc Aplin asked me to contribute an article to an anthology his website, Fantasy Faction, were putting out.  Having met Marc previously and been charmed, I was happy to oblige.  So I fired up my current set of gripes about the genre, banged out a rant, sanded it down to something a little less raw, a little more considered, and sent it right over.

The Fantasy Faction Anthology duly came out to much acclaim, sold exclusively from the FF website, and seems to have done rather well.  And as of this month, you can now get the very same volume for Kindle.  And since the Kindle preview includes the entire text of my article, there seems no harm in reproducing it here for your delectation, along with a mild nudge in the direction of buying the anthology if you haven’t already – it’s stuffed full of contributions from fantasy genre luminaries, and me, and some gutsy absolute beginners besides; it is the work of true enthusiasts at every level and you owe it to yourselves to take a look.

Meantime – enjoy:

 

In the end, we’re conjurors.

Magicians of stage or street, depending, perhaps, on how venerable and well-appointed the furniture of our act turns out to be. Mr Tolkien, now – he’s an old-school stage gent, with his intricately painted hardwood cabinets and baroque mirrors bought at great cost from Venice; snow white doves, a beautiful assistant or two, Toledo blades that glimmer in the low theatre lights; velvet curtains, cape and top hat, the whole nine yards. Mr Harrison, on the other hand, is pure street, and wouldn’t give you a thank-you for all those trappings. With him it’s all out of a box on the cobbles at his feet. It’s the flick of a wrist and the flicker of an eye, grubby cards and pigeons exploding from his sleeves, flames out of nowhere, and there! – look! – his head is gone!

Whether you prefer the former arena or the latter, thrills there are to be had, and stunning displays of craft. But still – in the end, we’re just conjurors. We’re here to make you believe in another country, one that has no existence outside our heads; to make you weep and dread for characters that are not real. We’re here to sell you strictly ephemeral shit, magic you know has no basis in reality, and yet, and yet……..

If the trick is good, for the duration of our act, you find yourself caught up in it all. The house lights go down, the crowd gathers in the street, and wonder settles across us all like fairy dust. This is what we came to see, this is what we’ve paid to feel; this is the ticket we bought and the contract we’ve made in buying it.

So what’s with that carping voice at the back? The voice bitching that it must be a trick cabinet, because it’s simply not possible for a person to be spirited invisibly from one side of the stage to the other. The rubbernecker at the edge of the crowd, shouting that it’s a different card he tore up, he swapped them when you weren’t looking, because no-one can magically stick sixteen pieces of shredded pasteboard back together again and make them whole.

Shit, pal – we all know that. Shut the fuck up, why don’t you, and let the rest of us enjoy the act.

Conjuring a convincing fiction requires a good deal of work and stagecraft – some are better at it than others (and some, let’s be honest, are truly awful). But it also requires the engagement of the audience on agreed terms. We ask you to suspend your disbelief, so that we may entertain you. Without that pact, it doesn’t matter how polished the performance, how flawless the execution – the act is going to fail for you. The bargain is implicit, but it’s there nonetheless. We all know magic isn’t real – but it takes a real miss-the-point yahoo to barge into a magician’s act and start stating the fact in a loud, declamatory voice.

And yet, there are those who not only do exactly that, but who also seem to derive a perverse delight from it – a species of audience member for whom the whole point is not to enjoy the act, but to beat it somehow. An encroaching mindset that’s in real danger of spoiling all the fun.

Like we needed any more of that.

It’s not enough that those outside the genre generally look on with a kind of avuncular contempt – dragons, demons, magic, I just can’t take that stuff seriously (but I’ll believe in a detective who deals with a grisly new headline-grabbing serial killer every year of his career, year in, year out; I’ll believe in a murdered girl who goes to heaven and watches her grieving family from the afterlife; I’ll believe in a Scottish nobleman put up to murder the rightful king by three witches – yeah, that all feels pretty realistic). Yeah, yeah – old news. But worse than that, it now seems we also have to contend, within the fantasy field, with a kind of OCD border patrol. The spec fic blogosphere resounds with nit-picking complaints about unrealistic portrayals of pseudo-medieval societies, and twitchy concerns about whether a fiction even is fantasy or whether it’s really some illicit SF sneaking over the border there (and, conversely, whether some rogue fantasy novel has unjustly made off with a prize reserved for pureblood SF).

Suddenly, categorisation is king. Historical fantasy, dark fantasy, epic fantasy, urban fantasy – reading for pleasure is out, obsessive list-making and category sorting, a sort of myopic possessive taxonomy, is in. Instead of discussing the actual quality of a novel, we settle for arguing about what kind of book it is; what other books it’s like; how it compares to something else we’ve already read, filed for cross-reference, made safe. A critical appreciation of a piece of fiction becomes a discussion about which box to put it in. Never mind how good it is (or isn’t) – where on the shelf does it belong?

At the same time, inside each pinned and catalogued sub-form, another form of obsessive possession kicks in – the quest to beat the book. The urge to resist the magic on offer, to not be wowed, to stay in charge. The hell with enjoying this ride – let’s own it, let’s beat it, let’s assert some control here. Let’s test-bed and find the faults. Look, he used the word “gunwale”, but it’s a pre-gunpowder society! Look, this is a pseudo-Islamic culture, but that girl doesn’t have a social network of female acquaintances the way Islamic women do! Look, they’ve got modern weapons technology, but they still fight with swords!

It’s not realistic!

Of course it’s not fucking realistic. It’s fantasy (or the finely tempered alloy of fantasy we are pleased to call science fiction). Let go, why don’t you.

*

 

Back when I first started reading in genre, more years ago than I really care to count up, I don’t recall there being any of these OCD boundary issues or myopic detail critique. What I do recall, though, with perfect clarity, is sitting on the rocks above a Scottish beach, aged about eleven or twelve, reading – devouring would probably be a better word – Michael Moorcock’s The Jewel in the Skull. Coming, as I had, directly from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I was blown away by the contrast. Compared with what had gone before, this stuff tasted dark and spicy and gooooood. That was all I cared about. I was in.

First in a swashbuckling quartet called The High History of the Runestaff, The Jewel in the Skull is classic sword and sorcery. It features a hero swordsman called Dorian von Hawkmoon with a black gemstone embedded in his skull, put there by the sorcerer-scientists of the brutal island empire Granbretan. The jewel is a kind of webcam, transmitting video footage of all Hawkmoon sees back to Granbretan, and can also be used to inflict great pain or even death if Hawkmoon disobeys his masters in any way. It cannot, however, transmit sound, and this enables –

Well, how ridiculous!

I mean – technology that advanced. How could they possibly fail to run a sound feed?

Funny how, back then, no-one reading fantasy worried about that sort of thing.

And while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about the armies of Granbretan, with their flame lances and ornithopters and all manner of weird, baroque weaponry, and how their battles of conquest are still being fought blade to blade by armies of men on foot and horseback.

No-one ever seemed to have any trouble with any of that either. No-one scurried around wondering if this was fantasy fiction or science fiction or science fantasy or…..

No-one cared.

Of course there is, in any case, a certain amount of hand-waving in the Hawkmoon books to cover these incongruities – we are in a far future, the world is full of the ruins of previous advanced civilisations, the technology is more scavenged than invented, so forth –

Yeah, that. Good enough. I’m in. Turn the page.

In fact, you could also argue that outmoded tactics and mass slaughter with the advent of new weapons technology is a dynamic with a long and honourable tradition in the real world – cannon against cavalry in Crimea, machine guns against mass charges on the Somme, Blitzkreig in –

Oh, stop. Who cares? I’m reading here. Just turn the page, would you.

This is the salient point that the OCD mindset fails to grasp. It doesn’t matter how realistic a piece of fiction ends up, it matters how convincing it is. And those two concepts are not the same. Of course, realism can be a useful aid to conviction, but that misses the larger point. It misses the magic.

Convincing fiction is a trick, it’s sleight of hand. The real power to convince in any fiction lies with the writing itself, not the minutely detailed map or the info-dump back-up that screams I’ve done my medieval historical research, me. The conviction is in the pulse of the narrative, in the way the characters unfold, the way a line of dialogue comes across, the way a scene is lit with telling prose. It’s the evocation of the slightest things, the drip of a beer-keg tap in an empty tavern at dawn, the rasp of three day’s stubble on the fingers of a worn yellow leather gauntlet, the dusty furnace glare of the sun going down in fury on a desert city skyline. That’s the magic, that’s the trick that conjures the willing suspension of disbelief. And it can be deployed in any context at all, at whatever level of realism the author feels like using.

All it takes is the writing chops.

That’s why Steph Swainston can get away with a medieval context in which her hero wears a T-shirt, reads the daily paper and makes jokes about football scores. Writing chops – the dazzling magic of the performance. It’s how China Mieville gets away with women who are human female from the neck down but have an entire beetle body for a head. How Lauren Beukes and Philip Pullman sell you their respective takes on soul-bonded animal familiars. It’s why you can read Moorcock’s The Jewel in The Skull and not worry about all that conveniently archaic technology and the plot-helpful gaps in what it can do.

But you have to go with it. You have to let go.

If you’re going to sit there nit-picking about cavalry tactics in the presence of laser weapon technology, or how this or that medieval society was actually, you know, a lot less sexist than’s being portrayed in its analogue here, or where do these creatures actually come from, well – why bother? Why read fantasy at all? Go out and pick up some Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – beautifully-observed realist story-telling that never once asks you to suspend any disbelief beyond the initial fact that you’re reading a piece of fiction, and sometimes – Jumping Monkey Hill comes to mind – not even that much. Or try some severely starched historical novel that enforces a strict veracity of milieu and action, something like Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander perhaps. Or you could play really safe and just stick to non-fiction altogether. Try biography, or popular science.

But if you’re sat there reading fantasy, trying to pigeon-hole and cross-reference, worrying about realism left, right and centre, then you’ve missed the point.

*

 

Fantasy – newsflash! – is not realistic, and nor is it amenable to constraint. Fantasy uses realism as its bitch. Fantasy is the flash/bang of light and smoke and mirrors, the swift, bright moment of magic at the heart of the trick. Fantasy takes from realism just enough to season the fictional mix, to give the story a necessary complexity of flavour, but the dish it serves up is spiced way beyond real. And that’s the way we like it, or we wouldn’t be eating in this particular restaurant. You don’t read Kelly Link’s The Faery Handbag or M. John Harrison’s The East because you’re seeking accurate portrayals of East European emigre life (though both stories will, like good poetry, offer you the fleeting savour of such a life). You don’t read China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station because it accurately portrays the street-level horrors of Victorian-era industrialisation (though the echoes of that horror are clearly borrowed in). And you don’t read Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword because you want to know in detail what ninth century Danelaw England looked like (though Anderson renders both period and place with an unsentimental realist’s touch).

Good fantasy can, in fact, and often does echo real world concerns, sometimes far more powerfully than a strictly realist mode would allow. But it does so on its own terms. Those fleeting, stabbing insights into the emigre condition in The Faery Handbag and The East can ride in on the wings of metaphor made actual, ignoring any inconvenient need for specific detail and the limits it would impose. Something uniquely and universally human can be said. But none of it comes at any cost to the other, more spiced and mind-warping dynamics of the story. Similarly, there’s an implicit political critique buried in both Perdido Street Station and Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City, but that’s where it stays – implicit. Meantime, explicit, here for your delectation are monsters, heroes and magic; the frisson of the uncanny; the shock of the flat-out cannot-be.

Fantasy storms in where other genres fear to tread, breaks the back of realism over its knee and renders the business of sensible parameters beside the point. In so doing, it gives you a feast of wonder like no other. Look! – a whole village hidden inside a handbag; a formal embassy of Hell in the heart of the city; baroque iron artillery that spews cauterising rays of fire; immortal amoral elves and a demonic broken sword. Jeff Vandermeer’s terrifying Stasi-esque mushroom men, Tim Powers’ hemogoblins. Steven Erikson’s T’lan Imass, Steph Swainston’s Tine. Dragons and dark lords, vampires and shape-shifters, cities and realms found on no real-world map (and – see Thomas Pynchon’s V for further reference – all the more alluring for their absence). Fantasy gives us creatures from the darkest reaches of the imagination, scenes of mythic power, dreams and nightmares made flesh. Things that could not possibly happen in the real world – but which you will believe in for the duration of the act, because the writing is strong enough to make you believe.

That’s the trip, that’s the ride.

Enjoy.

(and for fuck’s sake, let go!).

 

 

The Question is Academic…..

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by one Sara Martin Alegre, a senior lecturer at the Universitat Autonoma in Barcelona, asking me if I’d mind answering a couple of questions about my novel Black Man (or Thirteen as it continues to be known in the US) for an academic paper she was preparing.  Black Man remains the book I’m proudest to have written, and with the upcoming Thin Air being set in the Black Man universe, Marsalis and his world have been much in my mind lately, so I ended up rambling interminably in response.  Result – Sara asked if she could lash the material into shape as a formal interview and publish it in her University’s digital repository.  Never one to miss the chance to have my ego stoked, I jumped at the chance, so that’s what we did.  The full text of the interview is below.  Enjoy! 

 

Q: Writing a thriller usually requires plenty of previous planning and writing ‘backwards’, starting with the end and then choosing where to insert key events and revelations into the text. Since you write SF and need to build an imaginary context, you must also handle much more information than a realist writer. Yet, I realise when re-reading your novels that your reader necessarily misses many details the first time around. Are you aware of this ‘loss’? Do you take it into account for the planning of each novel using some kind of redundancy mechanism?

Not really. In fact, I’m a miserable failure as a true thriller writer–I never do that ‘working backwards’ thing. I mean, I usually have a pretty solid idea of where I want the narrative to end up, something like seeing a hilltop rising out of the jungle ahead of you. But as to how I actually get there, that’s a more protracted issue. I have to hack my way through the jungle, inventing the SF context as I go, taking the concepts for an exploratory walk, improvising the path and then keep going back to tidy up. As a result, my journey to that hilltop very rarely ends up being the most direct or economical one!

So yes, that does mean there’s a lot of extraneous detail left lying around, stuff that isn’t strictly necessary to the core narrative (though hopefully I weed out anything that isn’t a coherent pleasure to read!) Thing is, I’m primarily interested in the journey rather than the getting there, and that is probably what kills my chances of making the airport bestseller lists. But it’s nice to know that I’m delivering side benefits in re-readability!

Q: Thrillers are fast-paced and Black Man/Thirteen does work this way. It is, however, also a very long novel (630 pages in the Orion edition). There is, then, a certain tension as your reader cannot risk missing many details of the SF background (thus increasing the ‘loss’ I mentioned), yet s/he wants to read fast and find out what happens next. My impression is that you control the pace of reading, making sure it is not hurried by slowing down the action, for instance with chapters which might not be strictly necessary (like Chapter 3, when the grunt Joe enters the crashed spaceship). Was this your goal in Black Man/Thirteen?

I wouldn’t say there’s any conscious attempt on my part to control pace, and certainly not to slow it down. I like dynamic narrative, I like stories in which shit happens!, and I do try to have a lot of dynamic shit happening in mine. But my books tend to be character- rather than plot-driven, and conceptually rather than situationally based.

That is, my inciting questions don’t tend to be things like What would you do if X happened to you?, but rather What would happen–to individuals, society, relationships, politics, economics–if X were true? The story unfolds against that broad conceptual question, has to take it into account across a broad canvas, and I then just push the characters forward into that mess and see what happens to them!

Taking your example of Ch 3 in Black Man–I wanted a non-primary character view of the crash, and I also wanted to point up how slack and cheapskate privately contracted security is, how badly it works. I built the characters of Joey and Zdena for those purposes, and then spun up as much sociological future detail as the text would carry. But at the time, I had no idea Joey was going to take a fall or be particularly instrumental in the later narrative, or that we’d be seeing Zdena again.

The downside of that approach is, as we’ve already said, the indirect narrative path. But the upside is that every single thing in the story is solidly and organically rooted in something that’s come before. That’s why it’s impossible to skip bits–the structure is built from the ground up, and every brick is (or at least ends up) being important.

Q: I take it that you think that your being white is no obstacle to write about non-white characters, whether they’re black like Carl or Mediterranean (and Muslim!) like Sevgi. Is this correct?

Yeah, I think it’s colossally stupid to start drawing lines around what people should or should not write about–writing fiction is an act of the imagination, and the whole point of imagination is that you put yourself somewhere other than where you actually are.

Now obviously you can do that better or worse, depending on your writerly skills, and equally obviously some acts of imagination are harder than others–it’s harder for me to imagine being a Turkish Muslim woman than a British atheist man; harder to step inside the skin of a black character than a white one. As a writer, you want to get that leap of imagination right, not out of any quaking politically correct terror of upsetting anyone, but out of simple pride in your craft, so sure, you’re going to have to be sensitive, to work hard at the detail, to bring a craftsman’s humility to your task. But the idea that you shouldn’t even try, because certain cultures, ethnicities or identities don’t “belong” to you–that’s just bullshit.

Q: Yet, you take a big risk by characterizing the anti-hero ‘monster’ as a black man and, indeed, by calling the novel Black Man. I wonder how black readers have reacted to these choices.

Well, it’s hard to generalise in a meaningful way about reader reaction, but I did notice one fascinating dynamic. By and large, black readers seemed to like the book–the big outcry came from white people! Example–one of the kindest reviews I received for Black Man was from Nisi Shawl (who is a woman of colour) in the Seattle Times; she called out a couple of minor points where she felt I’d missed with a descriptive detail or two, but overall she was very positive, very enthusiastic about what I’d done. And the small number of other people of colour I spoke to directly who’d read the book–a young African-American guy, a couple of British Africans–were also very positive; basically they enjoyed the fact that the protagonist was, like them, black. It gave them a level of identification with the (anti)hero that they don’t usually get to enjoy, because even now those kind of alpha male characters are rarely black.

Meanwhile, the people who took me to task for making Carl black were almost exclusively white liberals (a few others were right wingers, but also white). That’s where the political critique of what I’d done emanated from–not black readers, but white liberal angst types wrestling with their own political correctness–why had I made the violent sociopath black? what was I thinking? how dare I take it upon myself as a white writer to discuss these kinds of themes?–and a few rightists who were made uncomfortable by Carl’s violent and (very, VERY important in my opinion) sexual prowess. So overall, this book’s big problem wasn’t with its black readers, it was with the white ones!

Q: So, to what factors do you attribute the negative attitude of the white readers?

In a word – discomfort.

Thing is, there’s still an intense pressure related to race in, for want of a better word, western fiction, in that a black character is almost never allowed to be just another character who happens to be black; there are all sorts of implicit politically correct and emotive barriers and bargains involved–major black characters still tend to be overly nice, model citizens, sexually restrained, in other words beyond reproach (or they’re criminals!). But that is, of course, another subtle form of racism.

Black men can’t simply be men who happen to be black, they must be emblems, standard bearers, didactic object lessons. (The Wire and Tremé have been helpful correctives to this recently, but it’s hard to think of many other examples). No one minds James Bond’s rampaging sexual antics, jumping bed to bed and girl to girl, or his sky-high kill-scores–hey, he’s just a fun escapist character, just an action hero. But in truth he gets away with it because he’s white. Let a similarly alpha male black character do the same thing and watch the condemnation rain down.

I did exactly that, and I watched that rain fall on me! One of the things that shocked me about responses to the book were the number of readers who called out Carl Marsalis for his unacceptable levels of violence–yet these were the same readers who loved Takeshi Kovacs! And Marsalis is relatively moral compared to Kovacs, nowhere near as fucked up or violent. So what I was forced to conclude was that these people were responding not to the violence itself, but to the fact it was violence committed by a black man, a man they couldn’t for some reason empathise with the way they apparently could with Kovacs.

Q: Still, you made a particular choice as a writer: Carl does not just ‘happen to be black’ as he is a fictional character. Why, then, does he have to be black?

Well, of course, he doesn’t have to be–Variant 13s come in all shades and ethnicities (though the fact that the source genetic material is harvested from poor women would mitigate towards higher numbers in certain traditionally disadvantaged populations). Stephane Névant, for example, is white. The 13 Carl kills at the start of the book, Gray, is undefined, but the fact that he had cheap and easy facial plastic surgery to look Hispanic suggests he’s almost certainly Caucasian or possibly Eurasian. But again, in the critical readership, pre-set agendas intruded–those white liberal angsty types totally failed to notice that Carl was one of a number of ‘monsters’, and that his being black was (more or less) coincidental.

Of course, as author, yes, I chose to make Carl black, but there’s less (and at the same time more) to that than you’d think. It was initially an impulse decision; I’d written a young Black British hero in my first (never published and for good reason, it was awful!) novel, borrowing the name Marsalis from jazz musician Branford Marsalis, and I decided to bring back an older, wiser version of that character for the 13 novel.

As I’ve detailed above, I write in an exploratory fashion, and it only slowly dawned on me, as I developed Carl’s character and the world he lives in, that here was a fantastic metaphor for the racism we see around us today, and the basic xenophobic tendencies that underlie it. The prejudice Carl experiences as a 13 is driven by exactly the same kind of exclusionary fear and hate that drives racism today; it wells up out of the same places–male competition anxiety over females, in- group vs. out- group loyalties, fear of the Other. What the book is basically saying is that racism is only a symptom of a much deeper underlying human tendency, and that until we get a conscious handle on our genetic heritage, we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes. And, of course, the point at which I realised all of this–well, that was the point at which, yes, Carl did indeed have to be black, because his ethnicity had just become an integral thematic metaphor for the whole novel.

Q: Many readers identify Carl with actor Idris Elba, possibly the most popular black British man right now, and agree that only he can play Carl on screen, if an adaptation is ever made. Elba was already well-known as the gangster Stringer Bell in The Wire (2002-8) when you wrote Black Man. Were you inspired by Elba in any way when writing about Carl?

Yes, Idris Elba was very much in my mind when I imagined Carl; as Stringer Bell in The Wire, certainly, but also as Vaughan Rice in Ultraviolet back in the late nineties. There was a very powerful sense of physicality melded with a ferocious focal intelligence in both those roles, and that was exactly what I was looking for in Carl. So if they ever make the movie of Black Man, yeah, I’m giving Idris a call! ☺

Q: The straightforward critique of patriarchy you offer in Black Man is very unusual in the work of male writers. Now I’m baffled. Your anti-hero ‘monsters’ (Carl but also Takeshi Kovacs) might appear to be idealized men both for patriarchal men (like Jeff Norton in Black Man) and for (feminist) women. When Sevgi Ertekin, who is by no means a weak woman, sees Carl and she falls for his calm and self-possession, this is plausible; besides, you make the ‘monster’ far less monstrous than patriarchs like Jeff and Ortiz. Are we, your female readers, deluded about the anti-patriarchal stance and Carl is just yet another masculinist figure? How, in short, do I read your gender politics? Can I, in short, trust them (and you)? Sorry to be so blunt…

Well to be blunt back, the real question is–can you trust yourself? Can any of us? (And the answer, of course, is No. ☺…

Here’s the thing. Everything I hold dear in terms of ideals–feminism, secularism, democratic accountability, the rule of law, generalised humanistic compassion–is little more than the Enlightenment scum floating on the surface of the deeper human condition. We are violent apes by nature, our history, even more recently as ‘civilised’ creatures, is replete with savagery and injustice, and the kind of worldview you and I might espouse is still struggling desperately to be born. And we all carry with us the heritage of that deeper, more savage evolution. It’s what has driven us for 99.9% of our existence as a species, and it continues to drive us now despite our best efforts to the contrary.

Q: I remain more surprised, then, that there is something attractive in your monsters…

But you shouldn’t be! There’s nothing strange about finding Marsalis (or even Kovacs) attractive because he’s a cocktail of all those things that (straight) women are evolved to find attractive in men–he’s strong and tough (both physically and emotionally), he’s confident and competent, he’s reliable once committed. But–crucially!–added to this standard tough-guy list, he’s also smart, introspective and sensitive enough to escape the more macho stereotypes that might turn more, ehm, modern women off. As a feminist, you’re able to accept the gene-deep triggers because they come with enough mind-candy not to trip the alarms (or at least to mute them).

Q: Or you’re trying to have your cake and eat it…

Yes, you could argue that, I guess. That level of sensitivity and introspection is very often lacking, or at least limited, in men exhibiting the other tough-guy traits–Navy SEAL feminists are probably not a frequent occurrence!! But I’d argue that it can still happen, albeit rarely, and that in a science fictional future it’s much more likely still. The future will–with a bit of luck! –consist of more feminised societies, better general levels of education and psychological training etc, knowing ourselves internally as a matter of course instead of just as a result of privileged education and upbringing, and so forth, so sophisticated tough guys needn’t be the exception to the rule anymore. And in the case of Marsalis, well, he steps outside the standard human set of attributes anyway by virtue of his 13 status–no one knows what those guys would be like if you ever came across one. So I’m in the clear–just! ☺…

Q: And about patriarchy, are you sincere?

Patriarchy itself, I hate with a passion. But I remain unconvinced by the more purely doctrinal strands of feminism that see things in old-style leftist terms, i.e. believing that patriarchy can be ‘abolished’ or ‘defeated’. Like xenophobic tendency, I have the feeling that misogyny is probably coded pretty deep in our genes (male and female expressed, hence the enormity of the problem). I’m optimistic that culture can effect major changes to that over time, and that the rapidly increasing feminisation/sophistication of our societies (I pair those two -ations very deliberately!) is going to lead to far better lives for women and men both. But I think it would be a dangerous error to believe that out genetic heritage will easily take a backseat. I personally have seen some quite remarkably virulent instances of misogyny in supposedly progressive feminist Scandinavia. And even the most brutally repressive Communist regimes were never able to enforce their vision of a modern socialist mankind – individualism refused to be suppressed, genuinely egalitarian impulses were not fooled by the dogma, and stubborn atavistic resistance was endemic. So even in a feminised future, the same atavistic sexism will probably always continue to rear its head, and need to be beaten down with education and socialisation, and probably even then there’ll always be a little sexism in all of us and in all our societies…

Q: This sounds rather pessimistic… Are you, then, irretrievably a dystopian writer?

Well, that’s very often my public billing, yes. Perhaps I’m typecast :-)

In all seriousness, though, I guess that my writing probably carries within it the stamp of a rather sombre outlook on human nature and its limitations – I certainly don’t believe we’re heading to any Utopia, feminist or otherwise, any time soon. My hatred of patriarchal oppression–which to be honest is at least as much instinctive as it is learnt–shows up in characters that are markedly anti-patriarchal, but what these guys are really anti- is any form of authoritarianism or hierarchical oppression. (I don’t think either Kovacs or Marsalis would react very well, for example, to the MacKinnon/Dworkin school of ‘feminist’ enforcement or the ‘no platform/safe space’ ideological children it has birthed in recent years.) Even more importantly, they–the characters–are also fundamentally dysfunctional and unsafe to have around

Q: They’re not heroes, then…

No, and it’s vital to realise that. These are only ‘heroes’ in the old-school Greek myth/Norse saga sense of the word–not the Hollywood type–and like those heroes, they are human nitroglycerine. Good to have on your side in a tight spot, sure–but wholly unpredictable and unmanageable in a broader context.

[SPOILER ALERT!!! SKIP ONE PARAGRAPH IF YOU PLAN TO READ BLACK MAN]
After all, there’s no doubt that Sevgi’s relationship with Marsalis is what gets her killed–if he hadn’t gone out looking to scratch a random violent itch, she wouldn’t have been dragged into the gun-battle that gets her shot. (Male violence, regardless of intention, almost invariably creates female collateral damage–it was very important to me to point that up; in the same way, Gray’s girlfriend Gaby, in the opening chapters, suffers unjustly at the hands of both Gray and Marsalis as she tries to interpose herself). And Kovacs is even more fucked up than Marsalis, constantly walking the edge of his own control (e.g.: having to restrain himself from assaulting a perfectly harmless fundamentalist woman in Woken Furies because of his own internal rages).

Ultimately, these are professional men of violence whose allegiances to the systems that produced them have failed catastrophically–I guess you could read into that a metaphor for my own journey away from the patriarchal society that created me–and left them with precious little other space to stand. They have rebelled against their old masters, but they aren’t about to take on any new ones. They will tear down hierarchical structure at the drop of a hat, either because they perceive it as having hurt them in some way (or those they care about) or simply because it’s in the way. And since most structures are inherently patriarchal, that makes these characters anti-patriarchal by default. But it also makes them anti-order in general–there’s more than a trace of the Loki/Trickster chaos spirit in their DNA, and you flirt with them at your own risk ☺

Q: But, if Carl is indeed an alternative, anti-patriarchal rebel, could he not take the patriarchal villains in Black Man to justice and thus become the civic/civil hero we need to undo patriarchy?

No, absolutely not. Marsalis is not interested in justice in the broader social sense – in fact, he’s not really interested in society in the broader sense; what he wants is personal vengeance, and he is merciless in its extraction.

[SPOILER ALERT!!! SKIP ONE PARAGRAPH IF YOU PLAN TO READ BLACK MAN]
Let’s not forget he also murders an NYPD policewoman, Amy Westhoff, purely because he thinks–and he may or may not be right about this–that it’s the revenge that Sevgi would have liked. Westhoff’s actual ‘crime’ was no worse than notifying the authorities of an–allegedly–dangerous 13, which she was in theory duty-bound to do anyway (of course she didn’t do it out of duty, she did it out of jealousy). She appears to regret the death of Sevgi’s previous boyfriend almost as much as Sevgi herself (after all, she was sleeping with him as well!). But to Marsalis, that’s irrelevant–as are Ortiz’s pleadings for one last chance to say goodbye to his family. Once set in motion, Marsalis is like the Furies, a pitiless, implacable destructive force unleashed. That’s not something you can tame, or at least not for long. Of course, one of the major themes of Black Man is that ordinary humans aren’t necessarily morally superior to men like Marsalis, and that this implacable violence is in us all, by inclination if not by actual act. Ortiz isn’t a thirteen, but he uses them, as did the whole of western society at the time. Tom Norton isn’t a thirteen, but he makes use of Marsalis to gain his own revenge for Sevgi’s death. Sevgi herself may have been making use of him beyond the grave to claim her revenge on Amy Westhoff–we’re never sure about that, and maybe nor was she, but the end result was pretty unequivocal.

This is the dirty deal that we all do–we claim to abhor violent force as a society, but we’re only too keen to have it to hand and to deploy it at need. Violence is inherent in human affairs–we employ policemen, soldiers and special forces killers, and we’re generally pretty pleased to see them when they show up and help us out. But more than that, at a gut-deep level we all seem to like the idea of these unstoppable agents of violence; they feature continually in our fiction, in our myths and our legends. Men (day)dream of being like that, women (day)dream of having them on their side–or in some cases of being like that themselves, though I suspect the former female fantasy is the more common one.

We are all, as a society and as individuals, in some very real sense every bit as much the victims of our atavistic and genetic drives as any Variant 13. In the book, Marsalis is external to us, but in reality he is inside us all.

Home is Where the Hardware is

I left Holmstrom with the details for the Earth-side run, got a promise out of him that he’d call it in as soon as it was done, and then I went home. I caught the Overground again, let it carry me away from the Strip, across the Southside quadrants and into the fractal mess of streets they call the Swirl. Outside, the lamina had given up their fiery early morning glare and settled to a transparency like grimy window glass. You could look up there and see the Martian sky above for what it really was – a washed out saffron dome studded here and there with forlorn squadrons of high altitude TF cloud, and poked through in the East with the pallid glare of a toy-sized sun.

Fucking High Frontier. Big whoop.

Ceres Arc station was deserted when I got off. Not much human traffic around here at the best of times, the Swirl is largely automated factory blocks and bulk storage of one sort or another. Its streets are weird and counter-intuitively laid out, n-djinn designed back when everybody apparently thought that was a good idea, slightly eerie-feeling in their endless curving away to something you can’t quite see, and a nightmare to navigate on foot. All of which gets a fairly obvious human response – no-one lives here who can afford anything else. And at this hour, even those who do call it home won’t be out on the streets. They’re either long gone across town to their shitty friction-free-economy jobs, or home in their capsules and sleeping off the nightshift.

I headed down time-scarred alloy steps to ground level and then out along Ceres Arc to where it sprouted the first of its daughter avenues. The switch-head derelict on the corner of Ceres Drive 4 was the only sign of life in any direction – though sign of life was really an over-generous term. He sat huddled into his niche as usual, glued to the paving in a small drying pool of his own piss and shit, leaning close to the factory wall whose power supply he’d managed to remote-hack. There was a worn old plastiskin pilot’s induction cap pinned on his head with snippets of duct-tape, a brutally customised masterboard hanging loose in his slack hands and lap.

When winter comes in hard, you can just about spot the curl of frosted breath from his lips, but in weather this mild you’d need your gear on to know he was alive.

They say he was a hotshot something-or-other back in the day.

But you hear that a lot in the Gash. Whole fucking valley’s littered with the leavings of earlier endeavour and better days. At least, it is if you believe the street poets and sacked historians tending bar or food barrows down in the Strip. These days, one of them told me, one freezing, slow-as-Sunday night, we’re all just feeding off the stored fat of a dream gone bad.

You want soy sauce on that?

*

Overriders don’t come with much baggage.

Hard to know if that’s the gene wiring, or just the job. Spend large chunks of your life deep dreaming in a free-fall hull millions of kilometres beyond the reach of any human society, it’s difficult to get attached to a favourite coffee mug. Artefacts take on a purely functional aspect – you wake up, see what’s available, use it. Get the job done with the tools to hand. No other approach will work out there. Perhaps they saw that coming and tweaked accordingly at the embryo stage, perhaps it just comes with the territory and you get used to it.

Either way, the habit spills over into life after demob. Guys like me don’t need much space because we’ve got nothing much to put in it. The Dyson capsule measures six metres by three, wet niche included, is just about tall enough to stand up in along the centre line, and from the outside resembles nothing so much as the deep space lifeboat on whose chassis it’s largely built. It’s a little bulkier than the standard-model living-pods in the other cradles on the rack, but that’s mostly the skin systems. You’d struggle to spot the difference if you weren’t looking for it, and from about twenty metres down the street even those slight variations start to fade out, replaced by a lozenge uniformity. The whole rack looms there at 1009 Ceres Drive 4 like some huge ornate stacking device for retired nuclear warheads. Dusty, caged staircases and gantry walkways for access, festooned with black-and-yellow power cabling the girth of pythons, draped about with careless loops of slim plastic piping, colour-coded blue for water and red for sewage. The arse end of the capsules in the first array all protrude out over the street a half metre or so, like an apartment block of residents mooning the public in unison.

I let myself in at ground level with the residents’ code, jogged rapidly up the eight flights to the fourth floor, and crunched down the grit-strewn gantry run to the Dyson’s hatch. Pulse barely raised, the effort of the stairs felt like not much more than an appetiser for something altogether more violent to come. I shook my head at the sensation, couldn’t really drive it away though. I voiced myself inside the capsule instead, went to the workstation. My gear sat glinting dully on the desktop next to the half-litre flask of Mark on Mars. Top right-hand corner of the left lens, a tiny green light winked the All Done at me. I stared at it for a moment. Back at RSL, I’d promised Madison Jegede I’d hook up so she had the number, but fuck it, the call would keep. First things first – I wanted to stand under a shower, wash the last twenty-four hours off me and watch the residue spiral away down the drain.

Someone had other ideas. I’d barely got my jacket off when the capsule’s hardline phone started queeping at me like an orphaned kestrel hatchling. I glared at the big broad hard-screen above the workstation. Unknown contact. I thumbed it anyway. Yeah, nine times out of ten it’s an algorithm trying to sell you workplace comp insurance or a new gear upgrade you don’t really need. But that tenth call will turn out to be some twitchy client trying to stay anonymous. And clients aren’t something I can afford to pass up this early in the lean season. I smoothed all trace of irritation off my face, watched the line open.

“Mr Veil?”

It was a personal assistant interface, one of the rougher ones where you can see the better-than-real rez issues around the eyes and the corners of the mouth. Sexual appeal amped up way past subtle – deep, shaded cleavage, predator make-up, fine dark just-out-the-shower hair, cut to jaw-line length. You can rent them by the minute from most Bradbury AI providers. I stopped bothering with the efforts at professional poise.

“Yeah, I’m Veil. Something I can help you with?”

“My employer would like to know if you are available for a consultation this afternoon.”

“Over the link?”

The perfectly sculpted lips met in a smile. “A meeting in person. Do you know the Plurry Slunge on Sixty Fifth street?”

“The slush rider bar? Sure, but it won’t be open until at least-”

“My employer will meet you outside the Plurry Slunge at two o’clock. Please be punctual.”

“Yes, there’s the small matter of my fee. I usually charge-“

“An initial payment has been deposited. Please check your accounts. If you do not wish to retain the remuneration, failure to make the meeting will cause payment to revert. Do you have any questions?”

Got nothing but questions, I carefully didn’t say. “No, that’s fine. I’ll be there.”

“Excellent. Thank you for your attention.”

The ‘face inked out on a seductive smile. Contact ended. I prodded the screen through a couple of security sequences, checked my account and found the new payment. Discreetly routed funds out of a numbered Deimos account – six hundred Valley dollars clean. Moonbeam money, they call it on the street, just like those gleaming silver coins in the kid’s fairytale. Trickles down in the still of night, knows no owners, leaves no trace.

I stared at the pulsing figures for a long moment. Locked the account back up and dismissed the screen.

Six hundred slash.

Pretty steep pay for standing on a street corner and hearing a pitch.

I went to check my weapons.

*

The Heckler and Koch lives webbed to the underside of the bunk shelf, five centimetres in from the edge. Standard operating procedure for a table-turner – you could reach down and tear it loose in a heartbeat, clean out the whole capsule in a couple of blasts. But a deck broom’s a bad choice of gun for concealment and street-work, and it wouldn’t do for this. So I hauled out the battered Blond Vaisutis tool-case instead, hit the release catches and, as the lid hinged smoothly up, I brooded on the options within.

It wasn’t all BV-approved gear – though what they approve officially and what they turn a blind eye to you carrying are always two radically different things – and some of it was technically illegal, even on Mars. But from chokewrap gloves and over-clocked power knuckles all the way up to the polished steel bulk of the Cadogan-Izumi Nine, there was something there for pretty much every occasion.

I walked the meeting through in my head. Recalled what I could about that stretch of Sixty Fifth street, imagined the angles and distances. Made my choices accordingly and set them aside. Then I put everything else back under the bunk, shucked my clothes in a pile by the wet niche and got in the shower.

Five minutes in, the phone went again. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. I lifted my head in the shower’s drizzle, peered out through clouds of steam. Sure enough, above the workstation, the screen was lit again in pale tones of grey and blue. Laconic ID from my contacts list pulsed on and off – Chakana.

“Fuck’s sake.” I stepped out of the shower stream, raked water out of my hair and stomped in range of the phone. “Yeah, what do you want?”

On screen, she blinked at me, lost sleep smeared under her eyes like last night’s make-up. “A towel on you below the waist, maybe? That’d be a start.”

“I was in the shower, Nikki.”

“Well now you’re not. So put some fucking clothes on.”

I cast about for a towel in the pile of delivered laundry by the workstation. “I thought you were going to bed.”

“I did, for about four hours. Things to do, Veil, things to do.”

“So go do them.” I tugged the towel loose of the pile, spilled everything else across the floor, wrapped myself tightly around the waist. “Happy now?”

“Where’s Madison Jegede?”

“I left her at RSL Exec Admin, talking to the Deiss man. Came home to get my gear. Why?”

Chakana glowered at me out of the screen. “You’re supposed to be shadowing her, that’s why. How are you going to do that standing bollock-naked in a shower halfway across town?”

“Thought I was supposed to be protecting her.”

“That too. Same question applies.”

“Well, let’s see.” I rubbed at my balls through the towel with malice aforethought. “I’m pretty sure Martin Deiss isn’t going to chop her up and feed her to his flash-pan. Not good for his career profile at all, something like that. And you’d need a tactical assault squad to get upstairs in that building without clearance. So what does that leave?”

“It leaves, genius, that she could go walkabout while you’re busy gussying yourself up over there in the Swirl. It leaves that she could start asking the wrong people the wrong questions in the wrong part of town without you, and end up with a prospecting spike through her pretty little cranium.”

“She could go walkabout while I’m asleep too.”

“You don’t sleep, Veil. Not this end of the cycle. That was the whole point.”

I grimaced. “Thanks. Nice to feel valued for something.”

“I wouldn’t call it valued. But just so we’re clear – you want to stay out of holding, you don’t go anywhere without Madison Jegede from now on.”

“Yeah, easy for you to say. Somehow I don’t see Ms Jegede warming to the idea of a trip down here to Pod-Park Heaven, just so I can collect my shades. And if you’d let me go home this morning before the meeting like I asked, it wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place. Oh what’s so fucking funny now?”

Her lips twitched again. “Pod-Park Heaven. Fits that fractal shit-hole you live in like a spray-on. What is that, Southside slang these days?”

“Earth usage. You’d know if you’d been.”

“Fuck off.” She leaned into the screen. “Get dressed, Veil, get your gear on, get your skinny paroled ass back over to RSL before I start thinking about alternative arrangements. And don’t make me call you like this again.”

Her image fizzled irritably and went out – contact ended again, printing out across the screen in apologetic pastel shades.

I looked thoughtfully at the lettering for a moment. I checked the time.

Couple of hours since I left RSL, three at most, and definitely less than ten minutes in the shower. And somehow, inside that time frame, Nikki Chakana already knew to call me at home and upbraid me for going there without Jegede.

It didn’t fit.

Back at the Hangout, she’d dismissed me like a minor task unloaded, had given the impression she was dismissing Madison Jegede almost as fast. One secondary irritant in the mountain of woe the audit had brought to her door, neatly handed off to a has-been ex-corporate enforcer at no real cost to the department. Not her problem anymore.

Now suddenly it was more important than the sleep she craved – more important than any of the cover-your arse countermeasures she was micro-managing for Mulholland – to chase me up personally and see how I was getting on.

I towelled myself fully dry, found some fresh clothes from the pile on the floor. I dressed absently, chewing it over.

Assume Chakana’s keeping tabs. Alright. High-alt drone surveillance, or – if that looks too risky, too hard to get clearance for in these paranoid days of audit – maybe just a bagful of aerobugs. Stag beetle chassis with enhanced flight specs and twinned feedcam capacity in place of antlers, that’d work well enough. Bradbury PD had to have a couple of thousand of them deployed at any given hour of the day or night anyway, easy enough to shunt some over to the RSL campus. Of course, Chakana would need to know when we left the Hangout and how. But that’s what, a machine tap on shuttle departures, intercepted footage from hotel securicam systems, even something as stone-age as a paid tip-off from someone on staff? No end of ways to do it, if it matters enough.

Assume it matters enough.

Assume it’s been eyes-on from the start.

Why?

You don’t go to that much trouble for a secondary irritant.

Speaking of which…

I picked up my headgear from the desk, settled it in place across my eyes. Blinked away the sudden unaccustomed rush of upclosewrap it engendered, relaxed into the cool blue shifting fields beyond.

Hello, said Osiris, like dark honey dripping over sandpaper in my head. Miss me?

“Stop that.” Four months in a hib coma, three days up without gear – I’d lost the habit of subvocalising. I cleared my throat. Stop that.

The parameters are yours. Give me back the BV command voice if you prefer.

I don’t prefer. I like you like this.

Then don’t complain.

Got a number I need you to call. I subbed through the digit chain Madison Jegede had given me, waited while it dialled.

“Jegede,” she said crisply in my ear. I thought some of the throatiness was missing, but that might just have been by contrast with Osiris. Any decent headgear these days will take your subbed words, map them onto pre-held voice samples and deliver a perfect meld. And secondary irritant or not, I found it hard to imagine Madison Jegede was walking around with anything less than very state-of-the-art gear on her sculpted features.

“Checking in,” I said. “As promised. You’ll get me on this number from now on.”

“Yes, thank you for that.” Still no sign of an image overlay, she was staying dark, audio only. “I can’t really talk right now, Veil. Can we pick this up tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow?” Visions of Chakana’s probable fury cascaded through my head. “Ms Jegede, I am supposed to be your assigned security escort for the duration of any-“

“And I am well aware of that fact.” Now she snapped abruptly into view on the overlay. Tell-tale generic pastel-shaded backdrop, it was a headgear image, synthed up from pre-held and animated to fit voice and tone. “But I am going to be occupied at RSL until quite late tonight, and Martin Deiss has promised me his own personal security detail will escort me back to the Hangout when we’re done. We can meet again tomorrow morning at the hotel, or if you prefer at ValleyVac Boarding West in the Port Authority. I want to be in Cradle City by lunchtime.”

“The hotel is fine.” Grimacing at the thought of what Chakana would do if she found out I’d let Jegede waltz back into town on her own. “You just sit tight there and wait for me. What time you want to leave?”

“Well, let’s see.” The synthed image hesitated a moment, eerily inexpressive and doll-like, while the real Madison Jegede presumably looked something up. “There’s a westbound VV departure for the Uplands at ten that drops off in Cradle City. Shall we say eight at the Hangout?”

“Eight.” I’d go up there an hour early just to be on the safe side. “I’ll see you in the lobby.”

“Perfect.”

And gone again.

She seems nice, said Osiris.

You shut up. I glanced up and left, saw nothing but an uninterrupted view of capsule wall. Where’d the time go?

Digits flared soft blue in my upper left field of vision. Nearly time to be on my way over to Sixty Fifth street and my mysterious new client.

You turn the display off? I asked curiously.

It’s an upgrade. They’re phasing visuals out for circadian sense meld. Proprietary SomaSystems tech, on lease to the COLIN flow. You’ll just know the time instinctively, to the minute. Want it switched on?

No, fuck that shit. I want to be able to see the numbers.

Looking is a lot slower than just knowing.

Yeah?  What is that, SomaSys marketing copy?

It is a statement of physiological fact.

Leave the numbers where they are. And fire up the situational systems – we’re going out.

 

 

Upon Reflection, a Resource and an Invitation, not without Risk

Recognise these?

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Yup!  Spoilers.

Which is what you can expect if you read much further down this particular page.  So if you’re not yet done with The Dark Defiles (or indeed any of the Land Fit for Heroes trilogy), you may want to look away now.

But for anybody else, here’s the general idea:

There’s been a lot of debate/dispute about the ending of Defiles, and by extension the whole trilogy and its content, both here and elsewhere in social media space.  That’s something that’s mostly been very gratifying to see, though occasionally a bit depressing (see post over here on why that is).  But one thing has impressed me throughout – in pretty much all cases, people have been extraordinarily considerate in walking softly around the issues, phrasing with due care and attention, rather than just coming out and saying stuff that would potentially spoil the trip for anyone else.

Well, now you don’t have to do that anymore.

I’ve been giving it some thought, and I reckon it can’t do any harm to square away at least some of the debate, to clear up some of the Need to Know that’s evidently lying around out there.  So this is a thread dedicated to flat-out laying down in plain speech what you think happened and what it means, and seeing if anyone (including me) agrees with you.  That’s to say, the discussion is yours, but I will drop in now and then to answer any questions arising, offer some insights of my own – and, of course, break up any catfights, so please play nice.  I should point out, though, that while there are some points on which I can provide clarity to those who really want it, there are other areas where your guess is (almost) as good as mine.  There are some things about this particular fiction that I simply don’t know myself, either because I never needed to make those things up in the first place, or because I actively enjoyed creating an ambiguity far more than a hard  fictional truth.  Example – no, I don’t know what the Helmsmen really are, so don’t ask! (Well, actually, no, you’re welcome to ask – and of course argue your corner – but Know Ye that the matter will be Forever Shrouded from the Minds of Men (and Women, natch)).

Right.  Over to you!

Peak Grit District

Remarkably irritating Again-the-Death-of-Grimdark article over here.  Seems to have irritated one Mark Lawrence (of Prince of Thorns fame) too, because he asked me to write something on the same question for an ensemble piece featuring such grim-darkly hailed stalwarts as Joe Abercrombie and Kameron Hurley.  You can find the whole thing here.  Highlights, among other things, an interesting comprehension gap between genre authors and bloggers.

Meantime, here’s my contribution, featuring a couple of minor edits and some exasperated italics that didn’t make it into the version on Mark’s site:

 

First gut response – Oh, FFS, not this again!!! I swear, it seems like people have been pronouncing the Death of (and an elaborately mannered disdain for) Grimdark practically ever since it arose as a discrete genre descriptor in the first place. And that was what, barely six or seven years ago? Really – what is all the fuss about? This is the fantasy genre’s very own version of moral panic, and frankly I find it both weird and embarrassingly parochial. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that only in the quaint, walled-off kingdom of fantasy fiction, could a storm in a teacup like this even arise. Take a stroll out into the broader context of literature in general, and the debate becomes almost meaningless. Greek tragedy, anybody? Medea or the Oresteia? Shakespeare’s King Lear or Titus Andronicus? Webster and Middleton? The Brothers Grimm? (I’m talking of course, about the real-deal original folk and fairytales, before they got Bowdlerised down into kid-friendly fare) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? Jean Anouilh’s masterful re-imagining of Sophocles’s Antigone for the modern era?

These are just a handful of examples from a broad, inter-related swathe of grim fiction down the ages to which we are all heirs, and which is packed full of the elements a clutch of nose-holding fantasy commentators now perceive and decry in so-called grimdark fantasy. Horror, pain and loss. Inhumanity, depravity and despair. All that good cathartic shit. Outside of the fantasy walled garden, contemporary literature has been full of it for decades – try some early Ian McEwan on for size, or Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece of scorched-Earth existential despair, Blood Meridian. Orwell’s 1984, Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Bret Easton Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms. Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. Irving Welsh’s Trainspotting or Filth. And nor is this solely a function or affectation of soi-disant Literary Fiction – crime writers have been mining a seam of increasingly explicit human depravity for decades too. Try Val McDermid’s The Mermaid’s Singing, Mo Hayder’s Birdman or just about anything by James Ellroy. See where it leads you.

The truth is that what the nose-holding contingent have chosen to designate (and denigrate) as grimdark is no more than the intrusion into the walled fantasy kingdom of a much more general lens now applied across pretty much the whole landscape of contemporary fiction – to wit, a willing engagement with the darker recesses of the human condition, a refusal to sugar-coat uncomfortable human truths, and a clearer all-round vision of who we actually are as recently evolved violent apes. Now, that’s not a dynamic that’s going to go back in the box. It’s not a fashion or a fad, it’s a solid developmental aspect of the stories we tell ourselves about the world, and it is here to stay. Asking whether we’ve reached “peak grit” in fantasy is rather like the inhabitants of a sleepy little village just off a major motorway junction wondering wistfully if we’ve reached “peak car”. It’s like positing a coming tide of disenchantment with mobile phone technology. It’s wilfully blinkered and it’s inane. There is no going back. Deal with it.

None of which is to say, of course, that this heralds the death of the more cheery, bucolic forms of fantasy. Inherently noble farm boys or plucky tomboy princesses who defeat evil hordes and rise to rule (paternally benevolent, natch) kingdoms and empires are never going out of fashion. There’s a huge market for that shit, and probably always has been. Ditto inherently noble trainee adolescent mages or dragon-riders who acquire mastery of their craft, throw down their (inherently evil) enemies and triumph without ever abusing their colossal power or lording it over those below them in the hierarchy – well, except maybe for that One Time they did it but were then Ashamed, learnt Character-Forming Lessons from it, and Vowed thereafter always to Use their Powers for Good. This stuff shifts by the metric tonne, and I imagine it always will. It’s important to realise that very large numbers of the people who read fantasy are reading it specifically to escape from the darker and more uncomfortable human truths you see encroaching elsewhere in fiction. (Which is perfectly fine – it is entertainment after all; you pays your money, you takes your choice.) So you can sort of understand that when that same darker approach comes battering at the door of these readers’ chosen refuge, yes, they might well get twitchy and start making ridiculous straw man statements about gratuitous gore and torture, unrealistic misogyny and the death of nobility and hope.

But such complaints are at best disingenuous, at worst colossally dishonest. To start with, where is it written that you have to tell stories of nobility and hope? For that matter, what is nobility? Beating seven shades of shit out of a horde of opponents on the battlefield (with all the actual blood and screams and pleading tastefully edited out) and then putting on a crown? Is that noble? Blowing up an entire planet-sized space station of people who happen to have chosen – or more likely have just ended up stuck on – the opposing side to you in a galactic war? Butchering a huge intelligent reptile who was, until you disturbed it, dozing rather peacefully in a hole in the ground and not bothering anyone? What kind of hope is it, exactly, that we’re selling here? The hope that we can slaughter them before they can slaughter us? The hope that our brand of faith or politics can kick the living shit out of anybody else’s? The hope that I’m a bigger, tougher motherfucker with a blade or a spell than anyone else in this neck of the woods?

See how it works?

Epic fantasy is habitually set in worlds where men (and sometime women) resolve their differences with sharpened steel and blunt instruments or violent magic or both. Might makes Right (even if there’s some feeble pretence that the finally triumphant Might is only really mighty because it was already, in some intrinsic way, Right). Combat violence is usually central to the narrative, either at an individual level or in full-dress battles or both. There’s an unclean rush to all of this, of course, a sense of power and excitement accorded the protagonist which more civilised contexts would not afford; a sense of living on an edge we thrill to as readers but would run screaming from if we ever found ourselves even remotely close to it in real life. No-one writes an epic fantasy about the guy who spends his whole life peacefully ploughing and planting a field, feeding and raising a family, living and growing old and dying as a farmer, and handing his farm on to his children in his old age. We don’t want that from our fantasy, because in fact it isn’t fantasy. Too dull, too workaday – save it for the LitFic crowd. What we want is that unclean rush of steel in hand (or spell in mouth) and good, old-school power to command. We want the violent ride.

Faced with this as a writer, you have a choice – you can elide the brutal violence and human suffering inherent in the context, keep it all PG and sanitised and shit, pandering to the desire for the rush, but rinsing out the unclean violent-ape bases the rush is built on. Or you can examine the human logic of the context and make an honest stab at telling a story that’s true to what that context implies. You can deliver the desired rush, but you keep it unclean. You make the reader pay for their dirty pleasures, you make them accept the price. Face and kill a man in combat with sharpened steel? Sure – but what’s that really going to be like? Let’s have a look at the wounds and the screams and the blood, shall we? Command thousands in battle and take the throne. Sure – now let’s dolly in for a close-up on the human cost of that battle, the social devastation, the trauma, the remorseless hunting down and expedient disposal of inconveniently surviving opponents. Torture, murder, exemplary execution, more than likely a bit of judicious infanticide just to be sure. Live in a world where these things are the norm? Right – let’s consider what underlying social and cultural realities that implies. Let’s take on board the stifling hierarchical oppression, the inherent corruption and casual day-to-day brutality, the poverty and ignorance and generational slavery and serfdom – oh, and let’s not forget the soul-crushing, ever-pervasive misogyny.

This last, I think, deserves a special mention. Much has been made of the misogyny inherent in so-called grimdark fiction – as if misogyny were some rare and perverse dysfunction in human behaviour, and grimdark responsible for unfairly amplifying the extent to which said dysfunction emerges in the real world. But a quick glance around that real world right now would be sufficient to dispel any such illusion – misogyny is globally rife. Misogyny crushes millions upon millions of women the world over. Misogyny defines entire fucking cultures at the most basic level. And that’s right now, with all our much-vaunted civilisational advances in place. Pull the plug on even a century or two of those advances, wind back the historical clock to the kind of eras epic fantasy habitually apes in its trappings and contexts, and the weight of misery imposed on women grows ever more horrific. In fact, I think it’s safe to say from the evidence that, far from any dysfunction, misogyny appears to be an entirely functional natural aspect of human evolution and culture, an integral part of our violent ape heritage – just like xenophobia, genocide, slavery, and war. No surprises, then, that it – along with all those other delightful human pastimes – should crop up so solidly in fiction which deals with periods of violent upheaval in pre-modern social and political settings.

If the last century and a half of human experience and scientific advance has shown us anything at all, it is this – we are not who we would like to believe we are. I’d argue further that good modern fiction takes this on board and tries to do something with it – other, that is, than hide it under the nearest richly embroidered cushion. In most areas of literary endeavour, the attempt to confront that kind of human truth rather than run away from it is usually hailed as a sign of merit, a measure of literary worth. And people who aren’t much in the mood for such confrontations – say, for example, the “cosy crime” contingent of the crime readership – seem content to simply say yeah, well, fine, but it’s not really for me, it’s just not my thing, and to move cheerfully along the shelf, avoiding that particular kind of entertainment in favour of something softer and more consolatory that better lights their fire.

Only in the walled-off garden kingdom of fantasy does confrontation with unpleasant human truths seem to be regarded as a regrettable aberration, and to engender a violent, repeatedly spasming immune-system response.

The Slow Death of Nuance (and What’s Coming to Haul the Corpse Away)

Funny story….

There is, at the end of Sofia Coppola’s movie Lost in Translation, a moment of almost jazz-like brilliance which wraps and crowns the previous two hours of subtle implication and nuance with a final delicate and nigh-on perfect touch.  If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  For those who haven’t seen it (and your really should), Lost in Translation tells the story of a strong but unconsummated attraction between two people Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) who are stuck hanging around a Tokyo hotel, alienated from the local culture and dealing badly with their jet-lag.  When the time comes for departure, and the attraction remains unconsummated, you think the movie is over – until Bob spots Charlotte in the crowd from his airport limo, jumps out, runs after her, embraces her and whispers something passionately in her ear.  A visible release of tension shudders through both of them, they kiss, they say their farewells – properly this time – and walk away.  Cue play-out – the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey.  Standing ovation for Ms Coppola.  It really is a gem.

Point is, you don’t hear what it is Bob says to Charlotte in that scene, nor are you intended to (though a subsequent digitally filtered rendering did crop up on Youtube and sort of spoil things).  Coppola gives you space to imagine it for yourself.  All you know is that this final act of connection and affection has suddenly made it alright for the two of them go their separate ways.  What looked like being a Tragedy of Star-Crossed Love is transmuted with one master-stroke into a Bittersweet Happy Ending.  You’ve just watched something simple but quite profound get said – about age and youth, perhaps, about time and loss, separation and fleeting connection, about what can and cannot be transmitted across the distance between two human beings with any degree of success.

Or so I thought.

About a year later, I was on a book tour in the US and talking movies with my media escort.  We both struck on Lost in Translation as a brilliant movie, sang in chorus the praises of the actors, the script, the director.  But when I laid out my thoughts along the lines of the paragraph above, my media escort looked quite taken back.  Oh, he said, I kind of thought they’d get back together again, once they were both back in the States; you know, I thought he was giving her his phone number or his address there…..

It was, and remains, the most forceful reminder I’ve ever had of the limits you face as a storyteller and the risks you take if you plan on using any degree of subtlety in your narrative choices.  Your audience has a mind and agenda of its own, and short of nailing everything down with nine inch nails in the glare of a Klieg beam, you will always face the danger that someone simply won’t get what you’re trying to say.  Over the last couple of months, complaints among the negative side of  the readership response to The Dark Defiles have driven this home to me once more.  Feels more like Book 3 of a four or five book sequence, kvetched someone.  Loses points for the ambiguous ending, said someone else.  I can’t believe that’s it.  What happened?  And so forth.  Even some of the positive reviews talked enthusiastically about the next book, loose ends, where the story would go next.

As they say in the San Fernando valley (or did in my youth, anyway) – Rilly?  I mean, RILLY?  Ambiguous ending?  RILLY?

Look, Black Man ended ambiguously.  No argument, it’s a fair cop.  I personally have a pretty good idea of what happened beyond that last page, but I deliberately didn’t close it out.  I wrote the ending precisely so there could be doubt, because to me both possible outcomes carried the same narrative weight, and whichever way it ended, it said the same things about life, love and loss.  Yeah, that was ambiguity.  Big time.

The Dark Defiles does not end ambiguously.  Honest.  Not at all.  There’s some space at the end, sure, but what’s going to happen in it is a pretty solidly foreshadowed and foregone conclusion.  You don’t get given blow-by-blow chapter and verse, because I figure you’re smart enough to step into that narrative space and figure it out for yourselves, sophisticated enough to enjoy that process for its own sake.

Most readers seem to have done that.

That some didn’t, and more importantly that most of those who didn’t felt somehow short-changed and even angered by the nuance and the space, continues to perplex me.

What’s going on here?

*

Sometimes, of course, it is the author’s fault.  Looking back on Altered Carbon more than a decade and a half after I wrote it, I still regret not making clearer linkage between Reileen Kawahara’s accusation aboard Head in the Clouds that Kovacs is a moral hypocrite and Kovacs’s decision to help Irene Elliott because he wants there to be something clean at the end of all this.  It’s not vital to the flow of the narrative that the reader make that connection, of course, the act of kindness does stand alone (though it paints Kovacs a shade more acceptable than I’d ideally like). But linking solidly back would have been better – it would have shown Kovacs’ actions as less than purely selfless, it would have underlined a moral equivalence between Kovacs and Kawahara, and it would have emphasised a bit better just how lost Kovacs really is.  So while my media escort’s interpretation of Lost in Translation’s ending was, I think, unjustified, while believing the story isn’t over at the end of The Dark Defiles is, I think, missing several pretty massive narrative points, not catching that sense of moral equivalence between hero and villain in Altered Carbon would be fair enough. (And perhaps that’s why so many readers took so badly against Kovacs when he re-appeared in Broken Angels with that same moral ambivalence writ brutally large.)  My bad.  Sometimes you just miss a trick.

Oh well.

Thing is, it’s a tightrope act – go too subtle and you risk losing a nuance like the one above, too defined and you end up with prose like the furniture in a fast-food joint and narrative flow like a set of IKEA assembly instructions.  I still recall with painful clarity the ending of a bestseller lent to me by my sister years ago, in which an estranged mother and daughter are reconciled in a kitchen scene.  The mother has been trying to cook something for them while they talk, and it burns.  After putting out the fire together, mother and daughter face each other and mother says (paraphrasing from memory here) Oh dear, perhaps we should just start over again.  Daughter replies Yes, I’d like that.  Pretty neat scene, really – until the author (or maybe their editor), perhaps panicking about average IQs, felt the need to add the immortal line Neither of them were talking about cooking.

Oh, you don’t fucking say?  Really?

Sadly, that’s not an isolated example.  Dip into the broad waters of commercial fiction and you’ll bump repeatedly into that same terror of open narrative space, of letting the reader think for themselves.  Paragraphs abound with that jerky last sentence sutured on, subtle as Frankenstein surgery, to hammer home the point the text just spent ten finely penned lines carefully implying.  One notable horror writer, a firm favourite of mine for many years, has gone so far down this treat-your-readers-as-morons-with-ADD path that I now find his books unreadable.  There is no longer any nuance anywhere in the text, no room to breathe and wonder – you’re just herded along from one big narrative signpost to the next; don’t stop, don’t think, just open wide, here comes the next big helping.  You end up gagged and bound, stifled by subtitles for the hard-of-thinking.  Never mind nuance, never mind thinking for yourself, you’re being entertained here!  Get with the programme.

And right there in your hands, reading turns from a textured, open experience full of challenge and invitation to extend yourself – like, say, rock climbing or playing a musical instrument – into a satisfaction-guaranteed sit-back-relax repeat-prescription experiential product, like being strapped into the same rollercoaster ride over and over again.

Mainstream film-making, of course, with its need for massively broad appeal to pay the bills, has had this disease for far, far longer, and that may in fact be where this terror of space in a narrative originated.  It’s rare you can go to see a big budget Hollywood movie these days and not emerge feeling that your intelligence has been, well – not just insulted; more like stood up at knifepoint, slapped about, jeered at and robbed of its phone.  Wallop!  You are done.  The sales and marketing twins kick in the door of the artist’s garret with a grin, cuff said artist amiably around the head – and tuck a fat wad of cash in their pilled and threadbare grey cardigan pocket.  Keep up the good work, mate, you made Dinsdale very ‘appy wiv this one.  But ‘e tole me to mention ‘e is a bit concerned with this ‘ere implication you got creepin’ in instead of just sayin’ stuff, nowhahmean?  I’d get that sorted aht if I woz you.  Dinsdale don’t like ambiguity.

Should we care?  Or is this just a storm in a culture snob’s teacup?  After all, what’s wrong with making things easy for people?  Not everyone’s clever.  Not everybody has the leisure or inclination to dwell musingly on their entertainment.  We’re not all chin-stroking arthouse types.  People come home tired from work or study or collapse exhausted on the sofa after putting the kids to bed.  They don’t want nuance and challenge.  They don’t want to extend themselves, as you say.  All they want is something easy to digest, right?  Some nice starchy junk ennertainment.  They carry a myriad heavy burdens in life, these people, burdens they can only fleetingly unload for a couple of hours of R&R here and there, a couple of weeks once or twice a year.  Shouldn’t we just be glad they’re reading at all?  Shouldn’t we be happy we can make them happy for a while so easily?  Plus, well, that wad of cash spends pretty good, doesn’t it?  You could get a new cardigan.

What’s wrong with this picture?

*

What’s wrong, first of all, is that it’s profoundly patronising.  It stakes out an immediate Us-and-Them distinction, and one with more than a whiff of class essentialism about it  – We, the smart purveyors of your art and entertainment understand that You, the consumers, are just too dumb and/or ignorant and/or lost in your dull little lives to cope with nuance or reflective space in your fiction, let alone actually enjoy that space the way people like us know how to.  God, you’ve probably never even heard of Lost in Translation, have you, let alone seen it – too busy glugging down the latest multiplex blockbuster shite.  So forth.  Why bother with subtlety?  Who needs it?  Why take the risk?

And right there, we open the classic societal gouge between the artificial distinctions of High Art and Popular Entertainment, and, of course, their respective consumer bases.  Right there, what should be an act of communication becomes instead an act of streamlined product supply and thinly-veiled supplier contempt.  Keep it full-on and simple, it’s all the proles understand.  Save that challenge-and-nuance shit for the high end customers, no-one else wants it.  And y’know, I suspect that, at some level, some segment of the consumers on the receiving end of that contempt feel it for exactly what it is, and how they respond is with the shirty, rage-prone neediness of fandom, so commonly on display across the internet.  You got me in a corner here – you sold me this shit, you damn well better keep on feeding me exactly what you promised, you better keep me happy.

In the eternal marketing quest to find and deliver the perfect streamlined product, everybody loses.

Worse yet, there’s the core problem with this dynamic – and with the creeping infantilisation at the heart of late-stage capitalism of which it is an off-shoot – it is dangerously self-fulfilling.  Tell people they deserve better than having to cut up and cook actual produce to make a meal (when ready meals are so much quicker and easier) and pretty soon they’ll stop doing it.  In time, they’ll forget how.  Tell people they should never have to wait for an actual meal to assuage their hunger, and pretty soon they’re grazing themselves into obesity.  Dining tables disappear from homes, family meal-times evaporate and instant branded junk rushes in to fill the gap.  You create your markets from the ground up, with little or no regard for the wider consequences, and you warp people’s expectations to suit.  Produce enough braindead multiplex blockbuster shite, market said shite hard enough, and people become conditioned to it.  They stop expecting anything else.  Train a readership that they should never be left in doubt about anything in a novel, should never have to work anything out, and they’ll lose the taste for doing so.  In time, some of them will lose the capacity.  And when nuance does occasionally come calling, they’ll likely be pretty pissed off.

And that’s a bad thing.

Just as it’s a bad thing that entire modern populations are growing up alienated from the textured pleasures of cooking and healthy eating, so it’s a bad thing that sampling the nuances and textures of good fiction should become the exclusive preserve of a self-regarding elite, while the broad consumer mass are encouraged not to bother.  It’s the wilful destruction of acquired taste to make way for cheap-and-cheerful junk.  One of the finest compliments I can have paid to my work is to hear that people have been arguing about my characters’ actions and motivations, trading opinions back and forth, enjoying the ambiguities and the implications.  That level of engagement is one of literature’s great rewards, one of the great pleasures the form can deliver for both creator and reader.  But when that enjoyment and engagement is replaced with anger and blank incomprehension at the space the author has left for the reader to step into, when we mistake challenge and invitation in our art for failure to deliver on some cast-iron product promise – then something somewhere has gone seriously wrong.

And something valuable is being lost.

Guest List

  It was early evening when I hit the Mariner Strip, and up in the Lamina they were trying for rain. Some newly-written sub-routine, I guess, cut loose up there amidst the vast shifting gossamer layers, and oh look, just like magic – thin, cold, stop-start drizzle comes weeping down out of a paprika sky. Must have had some solid marketing muscle ahead of it too, because the streets were crowded for a mid-week night. When that rain kicked in, felt like the whole fucking city jammed up. Everywhere you looked – people stopping to crane their necks and gawk.

I spared the sky a sour glance of my own, didn’t stop. Shoulder on through the stalled knots of rubberneckers, keep the pace. Anyone looking to get wet behind this shit, they’d likely be waiting a while. Nothing falls fast around here, and this attempted downpour wasn’t going to break the rule. Mostly, it floated and blew around overhead, scornful of gravity, tinged in the evening light to a blood-red spray. Pretty to look at, sure. But some of us had places to be.

The Strip, then. Settlement-era; storm-scarred antique nanocrete; mirror-image five-storey facades.  They’d run the build on either side of a broad channel they dug out between the exposed foundations. Sixty metres wide, that channel, and three kilometres long, bent just a little out of true to take advantage of existing fault-line geology in the valley floor. A long time ago, it housed hydroponic gardens and manicured recreational spaces for the original colonists, all roofed in under glass. Parks, velodromes, a couple of small amphitheatres and a sports field – even, so they tell me, a swimming pool or three.

Imagine that.

Now the roof is gone, and so is the rest of it. Knocked down, torn out, cleared away. What they left in its place is a scuffed and littered sunken boulevard, tangled up with barrows and street stalls, all vying to shift cheapest product to the crowd. Get it while it’s hot, people – discounted coding spikes, semi-smart jewellery, fast food steaming from a myriad different woks and pans, street chemists pushing half a hundred different ways and means to get out of your head in a hurry. You could argue, I guess, that you’re still in a recreational space of sorts. But it’s a pretty gaunt and garish spirit of fun that stalks down the Strip these days, and if you ran into it, you wouldn’t want to meet its eye.

For those chasing that particular ghost, though, you reach bottom via long escalator tunnels hacked inelegantly right through the original structure – there’s one at the end of most of the cross streets where they back up to the stretch of settlement-era build, hemming it in on both sides with architecture altogether less hunkered and hermetic. You get on under big cowled openings in the nanocrete and the endless alloy belt-ride carries you down.

Or – if you’re a grasshopper or an ultratripper maybe – you ride the gargantuan cargo elevators at either end of the channel, each of whose two thousand square metre loading platforms still piston massively up and down, slow and smooth as the day they were put in. Got these tacky fake-historical loader stand-clears blaring out on looped track from bullhorn speakers along the safety railing. Rotating yellow warning cherries, the whole deal. So cool.

Either way, platforms or endlessly moving covered stairways, you’re left with much the same sensation – that of easing down slowly into the belly of something huge and probably hazardous to health.

Which was just fine by me.

I’d taken the escalator down from the end of Crane alley, which put me about a klick away from where I wanted to be – slow going with the weather geeks clogging up the flow. And as I came out under the exit cowl, lo and behold, there was some genuine street level rain to contend with too. It slapped my face wet as I moved through the crowds, dampened my collar. Put an unaccustomed beading of moisture on lips and brow and the backs of both my hands. Felt pretty good, but then so did everything else right then.

Three days awake and running hot.

Over my head, early lights were coming on behind long-redundant storm slits in the upper levels of the build, hinting at mysteries within. Club names and logos clung on the antique architecture like a plague of gigantic luminescent beetles and centipedes. And across the drizzling sky, the first of the ‘branegels spread almost invisible soap bubble wings. Silver flurries of preliminary static shivered down their surfaces, like coughing to clear your throat. The images shook out, the long night’s video pimping began.

Taut young bodies, cunningly lit, cavorting on night-time streets in a rain-storm the likes of which no-one around here would ever get within fifty million kilometres of seeing for real. Thin dark clothing drenched through, ripped and torn, a kind of favela chic thing, clinging to curves and declivities, moulded round nipples teased erect, framing cold cuts and slices of water-beaded flesh. Marketing copy bannered repeatedly across the pan-and-grab footage – Particle Slam Dunk – Get Wet, Why Don’t You! A Joint Coding Venture, brought to you by Particle Slam, in Capital Partnership with the Colony Initiative. Up on the gossamer screens, partnerships formed and broke up among the taut young things, as they all got up close and personal for the camera, and the drenched-wet dance went on.

Meantime, the rain – the real rain, back here in the real world – stuttered abruptly out.

Blew away to nothing, left a long pregnant pause, then started slowly again. Hard to know if the new code was working well or not; it could have been running that staggered feed as part of an energy saving protocol, could have been teasing for effect, or it could just have been buggy as fuck. Idiots stood around all along the Strip, squinting up into the sky, arguing it back and forth.

“Toldya they’d get it sorted. P Slam are solid, soak. Whole other kind of outfit than those Ninth Street guys. Feel that on your face?’

“Yeah, just barely. Feels like some crap standard seepage to me.”

“Oh, fuck off. Seepage wouldn’t even make it down here. Look there – puddles, it’s making already.”

I slipped past the debate, filing detail for later. Particle Slam – never heard of them. But I’m used to that kind of thing this end of the cycle. Eco-coding is a fast game, even back on Earth, and out here with all the brakes off and Gentle Commerce smiling down, it’s so fucking Darwinian you get tired just thinking about it. Out here, a code house can go from Next Big Thing to dinosaur bones in less time than it takes the shuttle to do the short season turnaround. Takeaway – when you’ve been dead to the world for the last four months, you can miss an awful lot.

But some things don’t ever change.

Every evening, the Strip flickers to languid life, like some faulty neon tube given a kick. It blinks and fizzles and settles down, gleaming slantwise and constant across the street grid of Bradbury’s old quarter like a cryptic grin, like a signal for eager moths. Saw it once from LMO – I was drifting in decanted, mission’s end on a mutinied belt freighter I’d sooner forget. Nothing better to do now but prowl the silenced decks and stare out the window as the world rolled by beneath. We chased the terminator in across Ophir and as night fell, I watched the Gash come up and round. Brooding rift valley walls, sunk thousands of metres deep in the Martian crust, colossal piles and drifts of tectonic rubble across the vast open floor between. Here and there, a dim, dotted crop of settlement lights, thickening and tangling together as they closed in on the bright blotch of Bradbury itself, further up the valley. And there, slapped right across the old city’s heart, was that big, bent three klick grin.

Welcome home, soak.

Elsewhere across town, corporate logos and COLIN promo panels sparkle the skyline with liquid crystal fire, doing their bit to hold back the encroaching alien dark. But there’s only so much brand loyalty and belonging you can buy against that darkness, and the forces inside you know it. Deep down where the hardwiring runs, the clock is running too – turning over its lurid numerals like the cards in an endless, losing hand. Just a matter of time before you wake up to that fact, and it’s vacuum cold on the nape of your neck when you do. And then, sooner or later, you’re going to spiral on in and batter yourself against the lure of the Strip, just like all the other moths.

Used to think I was different.

Didn’t we all.

Filament-thin whine past my ear, and the inevitable needling sting. I slapped distractedly at my neck – pointless irritation reflex, the code-fly was there and gone, as designed. Even in Earth standard gravity, the little fuckers are way faster than the flesh-and-blood mosquitos they get their basic chassis from; around here, tweaked for local conditions, they’re like little flecks of biting quicksilver in the wind. Touch, spike, payload delivered. Ouch.

Not that I’m bitching here. I mean, you live out here, you need to get bitten. Can’t afford anything else. All part of the rolling upgrade that is High Frontier Humanity.

Problem is, four months behind the hatch and you’ve missed so many upgrades, every c-fly on the block has you in its evil little post-organic sights. Three days back out, and you’re a human fucking pincushion. Your skin itches in a dozen different places from the delivery punctures. Fresh gas exchange turbos for your lungs; melanin re-up version 8.11.4; booster patches for the latest – and shakiest – osteopenia inhibitors; corneal armouring 9.1. So forth.

Some of this shit you’ve paid to have inflicted whenever the new mods come in, some of it COLIN gifts you with out of the goodness of its efficiency-oriented little heart. But it all has to be bettered and balanced and optimised for performance, and then bettered all over again, version by version, upgrade by upgrade, bite by bite. And that makes it a dependency you’ll never quit so long as you live anywhere other than Earth.

Not that I’m bitching.

*

  Vallez Girlz was right where I’d left it four months back. Same tired old frontage, just past the escalator outflow point for Friedman boulevard; still flashing the same old looped enticement footage from five-metre display panels either side of the door. Same sleazy Fuktronica backbeat and subsonics from speakers hidden away. The screen on the right was still cratered and cracked from where they’d smashed my head against it in the fight, and something looked to be wrong with the feed – footage of the dancers within kept shredding to a confetti of airbrushed flesh and hair, laced through with bobbing, disembodied long-lashed eyes that floated like tears in zero G.

Or maybe it was supposed to look like that.

Moving too fast here, soak. Where’s the leak?

Running hot.

I forced my pace down to a rubbernecker’s amble. Went past slouched with hands in pockets, hood up against the intermittent rain. It gave me all the time I needed to scope out the front of the club. Loose crowd of hopefuls queuing to get in, milling about in the wash of Fuktronica sound. Two blunt guys on the door in time-honoured fashion, headgear the usual wraparound tinted shades thing. And the same old superannuated Port Authority scanner hanging spread-winged from the lintel like some prehistoric bat about to take flight. Skinflint Sal Quiroga, same as it ever was – he bought that scanner out of decommissioned stock nine years ago, and even then, they say he put the levers on someone in the Port Authority back office to get a chop on the price. Leverage, he told me once, is the whole key to this place. You don’t got leverage, you might as well go right back to Earth.

Hollow laugh. For most long-term residents of Bradbury, the only way you’ll ever get off this red rock paradise and back to Earth is via some pretty hefty leverage. Long Fall Lottery aside – Fifty Fabulous Homebound Winners Every Single Year! It Could Be You This Year! But you Gotta Play to Win! – it’s not like they’re giving the tickets away.

I gave it another fifty metres, in honour of those fabulous winners maybe, then I did an about-face and drifted back. Took down my hood as I went up the short run of steps to the door. No point trying to hide. When you work doors – been driven to it myself once or twice, over the years – nothing trips your internal alarms like a punter trying to shroud his features. Uh-uh, pal, no you don’t. Now you got me all woken up.

I didn’t want these guys waking up just yet, I needed to get in close. I kept my expression dialled down to Fuktronica-induced consumer lust, met the right-hand doorman’s eyes as he glanced my way. I didn’t know him – and my memory’s good for men who’ve handed me my arse in the past – so he couldn’t know me either. But these days that doesn’t count for much. Behind the tinted headgear glass, I saw his gaze defuse as he checked his list. Fucking face-recog tech, the bane of decent gate-crashers everywhere on the ecliptic.

I spotted the tightening that went through his frame as the software flagged me up. The loosening that followed as he digested the data.

I saw his lip curl.

“Dom?” Attention wandering off to the side, where his colleague was busy scoping some barely-clad curves that wanted entry. He touched his headgear at the ear, did something to the music, pulled the volume down. “Hoy, Dom. Remember that sad-case hib cunt you and Rico bounced a couple of months back?”

Dom glanced over at us, visibly irritated by the distraction.

“Hib? What fucking hib? You mean that guy….” Voice fading out as he saw me. A wide grin came and lit his face. “That guy.”

“Guess some people never learn, right?”

“I’m here to see Sal,” I said mildly.

“Yeah?” Dom flexed his right hand idly, looked it over like some power tool he was thinking of buying. “Well, he don’t want to see you. Didn’t want to see you last time round, either. Remember how that worked out?”

“He’ll see me this time.”

They swapped a glance – glitter of unkind mirth, back and forth, there and gone, wiped away. Dom’s companion sighed.

“Look, soak – it’s a quiet night, alright. Do us all a favour. Fuck off now before we have to do something structural to you.”

Found myself grinning. “Can’t do that, guys.”

Dom snorted. Reached for me-

I snagged the reaching hand at the wrist, fast. You’ve got to be fast – gravity at a shade under .4 Earth standard, you’re getting miserly returns on mass and momentum. Any impact you make is going to have to come from your speed. I snapped his little and ring fingers backward at the base, twisted them with savage force. He made a noise like rupturing, and I locked up the arm. Drove him to his knees on all the sudden shock and pain, kicked him in the belly as he bowed. Let go.

You’d not usually get past doormen on the Strip like this. They’re a hard-bitten lot, ex-Upland work gang enforcers mostly who can’t hack the thin air anymore, and can’t afford the newer turbo add-ons to make up the difference. So they slide back down into the valley and the stews of Bradbury instead, and here they find what muscle work they can. As a man who’s seen his own fair share of career slide, I don’t generally hold this against them. They do a job that has to be done, a job I’ve had to do myself occasionally, and they mostly do it pretty well.

But they were in my way.

And everything their software told them about me was wrong.

They didn’t stand a fucking chance.

The other guy went for his twitch-gun, there in the holster at the small of his back. Wrong move, too late – I was in too close, he was way too slow, and he should have known both those things. Probably suffering a bit of shock himself, this wasn’t supposed to be happening at all. I stepped in, blocked the draw before he could clear the gun, chopped him sharply in the throat. Tripped him as he staggered back, helped him on his way down with a hard palm heel to the chest. Even at a fifth Earth standard, that’ll do it. He hit the ground on his back, gagging and flapping.

I stooped and took the twitch-gun away from him.

Reversed it, shot him with it point blank.

Shot Dom at not much greater distance, as he lunged desperately at me from the floor.

Then I stepped delicately between their rigid, spasming bodies, under the batwing scanner, and through the door beyond.

I should probably mention…

…that I’ll be signing copies of The Dark Defiles this coming Tuesday here.

Maybe see you there.

I’ll also be speaking and giving a reading at the Bucharest International Literature Festival at the beginning of next month, details apparently here.  So if you can’t make Tuesday after work, there’s always the quick flight out to Romania week after next and we’ll catch up then.

(Yeah, I really like that gas-mask headline art too)

It’s the Future, Stupid!

Once upon a time, back in the dim and distant past – so distant, in fact, that I no longer remember exactly where or when it happened – I served on a Con panel about dystopias.  Well, who hasn’t, right?  Pretty much all memory of what I or anybody else on that panel had to say is now gone.  But I do recall with startling clarity that at one point a stern German woman in the audience raised her hand and commenced upbraiding us all for failing to write futures that would give people hope. She had, we discovered in conversation after the panel wrapped up, been raised in East Germany under the Honnecker regime – a time and place in which artists of all stripes were considered to have a very real social responsibility in practising their art. (Tactfully, no-one commented on how that shit turned out). And she still believed that if you were lucky enough to make a living from imagining the future, you had a duty to do so in a fashion that would encouraged optimism and hope in your readers.

At the time, I cherished the encounter because I thought it rather quaint and antique – like running into some time-travelling Victorian adventuress and having her scold me for not having shaved recently enough. Social responsibilities of the genre writer – I mean, good grief. So I smiled and nodded, nursing a mild hangover, and I never did do much to dispute Lady Bracknell’s exhortations on the matter. Quaint and antique, Richard, fix this in your memory – you’re probably never going to see the like again.

Well, not that quaint or antique after all, it seems.  A couple of months ago, I stumbled on this curious call to arms.  Then, a month later, there was this.

Good grief.

All the things I didn’t say to that East German woman come brimming back to my lips, and this time I’m not even the least bit hungover. But good grief – where to start?

Well, maybe with the point that I have no issue with the fiction of Hieroglyph itself.  Elizabeth Bear is one of the contributors, and I know her to be a fine SF writer.  Ditto Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow.  And while I haven’t read any Stephenson since Cryptonomicon, it’s probably safe to assume his contribution will be pretty solid too.  I don’t know any of the other contributors at all, but again, there’s no reason to believe their stories won’t be up to scratch.  So from the point of view of the writing, I make no judgement at all.  I may well even get round to reading it.

But as to the mission statement –

*

Okay, first off, let’s look at the evidence.  The driving force behind Hieroglyph appears to be coming at least in part from scientists, so you’d think they’d want to apply an evidence-based approach, right?  According to that BBC article, the concern is that too much negativity in visions of the future is cramping the ability of people to Dream Big and so come through with genuine scientific innovations in the real world.  If we want to have better futures says project director Ed Finn We have to have better dreams.  Right – where’s the evidence for this?  Dystopian SF as a significant sub-genre has been kicking around since the seventies at least, with a really big uptick around the rise of Cyberpunk in the eighties.  Has this, then, resulted in a drastic slowdown in the rate of scientific innovation and invention as all those who grew up with Cyberpunk feel their innate ingenuity crushed by the weight of dystopian future visions?

Uh – no.

In fact, the rate of scientific progress appears to be rising with almost exponential speed.  In computing, in communications technology, in medical advances at all levels from molecular up to basic prosthetic, in materials technology of all types, in cosmology – it’s all roaring ahead like a forest fire.  So if we take an evidence-based approach, clearly one of two things is true: either dystopian SF is really good for scientific advance, or – more likely, in my humble opinion – there’s no fucking correlation at all, and the type of SF we read, dystopian or otherwise, has absolutely nothing to do with the advance of human science and technology.

So where’s the beef?

Oh, wait up.

Wait just a moment.  I get it.  Twenty kilometre tall steel towers, citizenship of an innovation hub on a moon of Mars, 3d printers on the Moon…..  This is about the bloody space programme again, isn’t it.  All that talk about Big Dreams and Better Futures – it’s that old gnawing chagrin that we have’t yet sent a manned mission to Mars.  It’s the angst that we aren’t already out there terraforming the Red Planet, mining the asteroids, building O’Neill habitats and generally doing the whole Space Cowboy thing.  It’s Interstellar.  It’s the terror that if we don’t Answer the Call to the High Frontier and Colonise Space like the rock-ribbed men of the Old West, then we’re doomed to a long fall into decadence, cultural death and extinction.

Never mind the fact that medical technology has lifted life expectancy close to double what it was a century ago.  That – for example – the most common age of death in the UK has gone from age 0 in 1964 to age 87 in 2014; that British infant mortality in the first year of life has fallen from one in six in 1900 to one in over two hundred and fifty now.  Never mind that we’ve wiped out smallpox globally, more or less eradicated polio and look set to take down malaria in the not too distant future.  And that the coming advances in gene therapy are going to make even those achievements all look decidedly small-scale and basic by comparison to the health and longevity genentech will offer.  No matter that we carry little slabs of coms tech around in our pockets that make the communicators in the original Star Trek look like something out of a steampunk fantasy.  No matter that we can cross oceans in a handful of hours, talk to people from every other culture on the planet as if they were sitting in the same room with us, consume for a few quid healthy and nourishing foods grown on the other side of the world that only a handful of decades ago only the super-rich could permit themselves.  No matter that present day cosmologists have a pretty good idea what shape the entire fucking universe is, and that physicists can spend time on the Franco-Swiss border hunting the particles that define existence itself.  No, no – none of this matters, none of this means anything at all, if we’re not in space!  We’re just not dreaming big enough!

Not dreaming big enough penises maybe.

(Perhaps no coincidence there’s so much excitement about that twenty kilometre tall hard steel tower, eh?  Look at the size of that, darling!)

Because, when all is said and done, I suspect that’s what this may be about.  This conquer-the-stars schtick is at base very male.  It’s about Boldly Going, Ruggedly Enduring, Standing Heroically Tall.  It’s about carving out a domain in the wilderness, about Hard Men conquering Hard Terrain and putting their mark upon it.

In short, it’s a Golden-Age-of-SF dream, filled with all the heroic – and erroneous – images of space colonisation the Golden Age gave rise to.  And as such, it’s a bust.

The truth, of course, is that we are in space.  We just landed on a comet, for fuck’s sake.  We have a crew of international astronauts in permanent orbit.  There are so many probes on Mars that pretty soon we’re going to have to start allocating parking spaces.  We’re out past the gas giants to the edges of the solar system and beyond, we’re cataloguing Earth-type planets around stars at hundreds of light years’ distance.  Not dreaming big enough, my arse.

Of course, none of this resembles the Golden Age dream of rocket-ships full of explorers, settlers, traders and rogues criss-crossing the solar system like sailing ships of yore, brave new independent statelets spring up on Mars and Ganymede or, for that matter, space opera dreadnoughts slugging it out between the stars.  No, we’re not going ourselves, thank you very much, because the distances are bloody vast, the conditions insanely hostile and our increasingly magnificent space-going ICT is a far better fit for the job.  But so what?  No-one goes to work on a jet-pack either.  That era of SF story-telling got it wrong, is all.  Medieval European trade adventurism, Napoleonic naval conflict and the conquest of the Americas turn out not to be very good imaginative templates for how space exploration works.  We don’t get to be cowboys/conquistadors/pirates/ranchers/marines or merchant princes in space after all.  Boo hoo.

Our vision has moved on.  These days, we tend to see with cyberpunk eyes.

The big thing that Cyberpunk did – and that some people still seem unable to forgive – was to invert the telescope and turn the focus inward.  Wetware, genentech, cyberspace – suddenly all the interesting stuff was going on at the infra level.  Cool SF was inside us now, cutting us open and splicing us up, getting icky and up-close and personal (instead of rock-ribbed and distant and in cool Kirk-like command).  It was territory that the New Wave had helped open up, of course, along with a handful of early iconoclast practitioners like Bester and Sheckley and Pohl, but Cyberpunk was the critical mass – the point at which general realisation dawned that we didn’t have to leave the planet to have mind-blowing futurist adventures.

And of course along with this shift, came another lurch toward the internal – politics.  The cyberpunk politics of SF, instead of shooting for Imperial Rome among the Stars or the Declaration of Independence on the Moons of Jupiter, suddenly became concerned with a model much less masculinely rousing and much closer to home – neoliberal corporate dominance and the military-industrial complex; the destruction of the social contract and regression into oligarchy via consumer addiction, misinformation and rising proletarian ignorance.

Which, as it turns out, was a much closer fit for the future we’re actually having to deal with right now.

Some might see all this as dystopian or defeatist.  Cyberpunk borrows liberally, after all, from the Noir tradition, which is itself infused with a deep (and invaluable) cynicism about human affairs.  Damaged, disillusioned men were its luminaries – writers like Hammett and Chandler, who’d seen the face of war up close and the crucifixion of the poor that followed, and were locked in struggle with their own internal demons and disappointments.  There was a weariness and a wisdom to their fiction that Cyberpunk co-opted and poured into the new future sensibility.  With Cyberpunk, you suddenly didn’t need to worry about encroaching alien menaces, because there weren’t any.  Better start worrying instead about nightmarish government agencies and corporate thug squads, because those were the guys who were really going to get you.  You don’t get to seek out brave new worlds in Cyberpunk, and colonise them in proud defiance of a distant oppressive overlordship, because the world you already own has been sold out from under your feet while you weren’t looking, and like ninety percent of the human race, you’ve been dumped in the underclass, sonny, where your chances of getting your rocketship pilot’s license is about the same as fucking the movie star of your choice.

Grim?  Dystopian?  Welcome to the whole fucking point.

*

The truth is that the sentiments expressed in those linked articles (and in that nice German lady’s thesis) are utterly and fatally flawed in their whole perception of what fiction is and how it works.  If someone writes a powerful novel about the slave-owning American south, that doesn’t mean they think slavery is the only viable labour institution for the human race.  Fiction about the Holocaust – The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, for example – isn’t written to suggest and celebrate the fact that we are doomed to an eternity of genocide and brutalism.  A story about a woman dying of cancer doesn’t imply that there can never be a cure.  And dystopian futures aren’t there to tell us that there is no hope.

Does that shit really need saying?  Apparently so.

Look, good fiction isn’t a TED lecture or an IKEA assembly manual.  It can’t be, it’d be catastrophically anodyne if it were.  Good fiction is wild, unrestrained, malcontent and looking for a fight.  Good fiction is human – it examines the world and the human condition, turns it restlessly  this way and that, sees its flaws and tries to get a handle on them.  William Gibson’s early cyberpunk fiction doesn’t celebrate the rise of corporate dominance, the death of the middle class and the hollowing out of society into Haves and HaveNots – it’s an examination of those trends and a warning (and a pretty prescient one too, as it turns out).  The whole point of dystopian fiction is that it rings the alarm bells, it points at what’s going to happen if we don’t wake up and pay attention, at what is in fact happening all around us, even now.

And this isn’t a very new thing, either – dystopian warnings have been kicking around in science fiction since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927.  They are to a great extent the very lifeblood of SF as a genre.  It’s a big part of what we do.

And in connection with this, here’s what I think I find most irritating about Hieroglyph’s mission statement – it takes a wide-eyed and utterly ignorant view of how human society works; it assumes a one-to-one beneficent relationship between a better future and better technology, and this simply isn’t the case.  Gibson again – the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.  He was right on the money.  We already have the technology, right here and now, to end world hunger, to see that no child dies of simple preventable diseases, and we have not fucking done it.  It’s not lack of tech that’s stopping us having a better future, it’s us – humans and the social and political systems we’re hardwired to prefer.  Global warming isn’t happening because we don’t have enough technology, it’s happening because we haven’t yet learnt to control the technology we already do have in a sane adult fashion.  The Socialist dream didn’t fail because of a lack of technological innovation, it failed because it doesn’t fit the human psyche.  The Middle East isn’t on fire because we just haven’t come up with the right scientific advances yet.  All the cool technology in the world hasn’t prevented the devastation of the American middle class, the creation of record-breaking levels of wealth inequality in the most developed nation on Earth, and the brutal rolling back of human rights legislation everywhere.

People accuse me of writing dystopian fiction, but to be honest all I do is look around and extrapolate.  I look at neo-liberal economics tearing down public health services all over the world, driving down wages and milking national budgets to fight stupid illegal wars, selling cheap and lethal foodstuffs to populations too ill-educated to grasp what’s being done to them, telling people freedom lies in being able to choose which insanely expensive shiny mobile device you mortgage yourself to own and which of the hundred and fifty seven TV channels full of recycled shit you watch, and when I see all that, do I think these problems are going be solved by building a twenty kilometre steel tower, an innovation hub on the Moon and a colony on Mars?

Do I feel the need to write some cheery, upbeat fiction about how future technology’s going to save us all?

Fuck, no.

Notice Anything Different?

Well, that’s a relief.

Yes, please put your hands together and welcome back my new webmaster (who used to be my old webmaster, actually, until he dropped briefly out to get a real job for a while), descendant of highwaymen past, resolute Mancunian, web-gent and genre fan extraordinaire – Darren Turpin!

Darren has, as you see, totally overhauled the site and hauled it kicking and screaming into streamlined modern form.  You’ll find tonnes of new linkage and functionality now, plus a fresh easy-on-the-eye colour scheme and text base.  The work is actually on-going right now, we’ll have book extracts up and running shortly.  But meantime, have a poke around, see what you think, and if you hit any snags, let us know.  Oh, and if you’re hankering after a shiny new web-presence yourself, delivered swiftly, painlessly and professionally with a smile, you can find Darren’s services over here.

Oh yeah – and, in case you hadn’t picked it up from the multiple shout-outs on site, as of yesterday, The Dark Defiles is now out in the US in trade paperback and electronic formats.

Fireworks!  Applause! Buy it!

Here in the UK, Defiles won’t hit the shelves until November 20th, but it will include a rather handsome hardcover edition, so if you’re prepared to wait that long, your patience will be richly rewarded.

Enjoy!