By the time you read this I won’t have blogged for a few days. We’re in Scunthorpe visiting family and getting ready for my uncle’s ninetieth birthday tomorrow, and coverage around here is a tad patchy. Which is fine, because we’ve been having a good time, keeping company with the family and then spending the evenings kicking back with the regulars at the Flixborough Inn.
(Heh. Since I wrote that we’ve left Flixborough and Scunthorpe well behind. I’ve been finishing this post off in Brighton, partly last night at our B&B and currently at the corner table at a nearby pub. We took a look around the rather overwhelming Brighton Pavilion earlier today, then shopped for large quantities of clothes in cool backstreet markets, of which Brighton has an intimidating quantity, then took in an Ardal O’Hanlon standup show and some sizeable steaks. Anyway.)
(Heh heh. The connection turned to shit when I tried to post this from Brighton, so here I am uploading this sitting crosslegged on the floor of a miniscule hotel room underneath Belgrave Road in London. This sort of thing is happening a lot this trip.)
Part of the point of this trip was writery stuff, and we’d planned plenty of stops around events and colleagues on the writing circuit: spending time with Dan and Nik, going to Games Day, catchups with Graham McNeill, Cheryl Morgan, the Black Library and Angry Robot crews, and a first-time face-to-face meeting with the excellent Robey Jenkins of Precinct Omega Studios and family. We’ve also had a couple of bonus literary encounters.
The first one came during our visit to Bath. Cheryl Morgan had tipped us off that William Gibson, a wonderful writer whom I admire greatly, was going to be speaking in nearby Bristol during our stay. She also being good enough to snaffle us some tickets, we spent the day exploring Bath, bookshopping and chatting and doubling back to collect me from wherever I’d been sidetracked to – I kept everyone waiting so long at the actual Roman baths that I had to pay a forfeit in the form of several slabs of gourmet chocolate. By the time I’d been fetched from the Impluvium and brought out into the daylight it was time to get on the Bristol train.
Here’s what’s managed to stick in my head from about a week after the Gibson talk.
He was very diffident about his early work, the dazzling stuff that got me hooked on him and put the rocket under the cyberpunk movement back in the day. He made the observation that young writers often haven’t got the world quite worked out, and the appeal of far-off alien societies or post-apocalyptic worlds where our own civilisation has been scrubbed away is that they’re so much simpler to write. While he talked about how he had consciously tried to go against that trend in writing Neuromancer, setting it in a world that was recognisably close to our own and stocking it with nations and brand names his readers would recognise, he admitted that there was a lot in those books that was very adolescent. The particular example he used was that nobody had parents, nobody had children, everyone was a swaggering hardcase loner with no family and no past. He went so far as to say that he didn’t think he could write anything like that today: his worldview has matured and mellowed and he’s not sure there’s enough inner adolescent left to write a book like those again.
While I think of it, another thing he pointed up as an example of consciously going against type was the limited nuclear exchange that forms part of the series’ backstory. A superpower showdown at the nuclear level was a standard prediction of a lot of sf, but he apparently was sick of the global-obliteration scenario and made a point of writing a nuclear war that fizzled out.
Mentioning the massive military superpower showdown that everyone was expecting in the eighties reminds me of another point he spoke on at some length, which was the pretty poor record of science fiction as an actual predictor of how the future might evolve. (He actually seemed to approve of this, expressing some dismay at the idea that a gadget that someone like him might think up for a book might then have researchers running off to try and build it – interesting when you think of the influence he’s widely acknowledged as having on ideas about technology and computing.) Rather, he spoke about devouring the SF of the forties and fifties when he was young and then “reverse-engineering” an historical picture of those eras from the ideas and concerns he saw developing in their SF. He seemed to think that was a better role to ascribe to SF than an explicitly predictive one. He also spoke about how even the marginal predictive ability of SF is being eroded as the base it’s extrapolating from starts to change so fast: Heinlein and Wells had the advantage of “the Long Now”, writing in a lengthy period of stability which gave them plenty of time to build predictions on what seemed to be a solid status quo.
The process of starting to write novels was apparently an accidental and rather hair-raising one. He’d published a small number of short pieces – about half a dozen or so if I remember – and was then asked at a convention whether he could produce a novel to a rather tight deadline. He said he could, but he admitted that he’d expected an apprenticeship lasting for two dozen shorts or more before he tackled a novel and came to it distinctly underprepared. He said that a lot of what’s been taken for deliberate stylistic choices in Neuromancer were really hacks and patches designed to cover the fact that he was still working out what the hell he was doing.
Those are the answers I remember, addressed both to our audience and another in Sheffield who sent in questions via one of the venue staff. The first part of the session was occupied by a reading from Zero History, which I’d bought earlier in the day and got signed after the event, shaking his hand and getting rather starstruck.
I’m actually more familiar with her work as an editor and anthologist, having been working through my copy of Mojo Conjure Stories over the course of several evenings earlier in the year. As an author she’s been on my list of People To Improve My Knowledge Of list for some time, and when we found by pure coincidence that our night in Cheltenham coincided with an appearance she was making at that town’s literary festival it was too good a chance to pass up. It wasn’t a one-person session as the Gibson talk was, but a panel of three Canadian authors sponsored by the Canadian government. The other two were unfamiliar to me, but we bought books by all three of them so I may have more to say about their work further down the track.
Ms Hopkinson was the only genre author on the stage (she felt it necessary to warn the audience before her reading that “I write fantasy and science fiction, so if I say something like ‘she flew across the room’ you may need to take me literally”), and so the questions the moderator sent at her were of the sort you get when someone whose head is in the mainstream tries to get their head around speculative fiction. The first question, as I recall, was whether it bothered her to be shelved in with the science fiction people (I read this as an invitation to distance herself from SF and assert that she wrote proper literature, but then I’m a little prickly about this sort of thing and may have been imagining it). Her answer to that was an emphatic no, and she went on to say that her approach to the problem of SF being considered the poor-cousin genre in writing circles was not to try and dodge the SF label but to embrace it, and produce work that challenged the stigma attached to it. She gave some very interesting insights into her beginnings as a writer and the mental preparation it took for her – her father was a prominent writer, which I didn’t know, and so she felt the weight of his accomplishments very heavily when she was starting to take her own first steps in the field.
In response to audience questions she spoke, along with the others, about some of the process of writing, in particular the importance of rewriting and of deadlines in keeping one’s writing focused (cue much elbowing in the ribs of yours truly by his companions). She read from the novel she’s working on at the moment, too, which apparently will be done for early next year, about a child who is one of conjoined twins of mixed descent, human and celestial.
My favourite point of hers for the afternoon was when she was asked about the essence of what science fiction is. She was frank about the fact that her definition changes regularly, but at this point it was that SF is about us as creatures who almost compulsively change our environment around us, about how we’re changed by those changes in turn, and about what it means to be that sort of being. That was a short answer but with a lot packed into it, and a different way of approaching the question to my usual one, so it gave me a lot to think about. I keep meaning to get ‘round to a blog post on that topic and this has given me some extra food for thought for it.
I got a copy of The New Moon’s Arms (and got it signed too) but it and about ten more kilos of books from this trip have been posted home to try and free up some suitcase space so I’ll have to get to it after my return.
Lots still to talk about but I don’t know how much blogging time I’ll have before we get on the plane on Sunday. We’ll see.