Utopia: a usable definition

The question of what constitutes a utopia vs. a dystopia keeps coming up online and in conversation, along with what I think is a reflexive dismissal of the narrative possibilities of utopia. That’s because utopia is presumed to preclude any kind of distress or conflict – and how can you write an engaging story that doesn’t have some sort of strife?

Don’t ask me; I need upheaval as much as the next novelist. However I don’t think that “nothing bad can ever happen” is a particularly helpful definition of a utopia. I’m also annoyed by how easily virtually any science fictional scenario in which there is discord and the risk of things going badly – which is to say pretty much all of them – is labelled a dystopia. I’ve already grumbled about that here, with respect to my own books. This post is a slight expansion of a contribution I made elsewhere earlier today, on the subject of dystopia’s opposite.

A useful concept of utopia is not one in which there is never any crisis or conflict – not least because that sounds to me a lot like being dead (somewhat ironically, the ultimate result of a dystopian state). Instead a practical, achievable and narratively interesting utopia would be a system in which there are clear, legitimate and accessible methods of addressing crises or resolving conflicts. Given that the generally accepted understanding of dystopia (political/ environmental/ economic etc.) is of a state in which there are no legitimate or generally available means of redress, and in which the protagonists have to somehow overthrow, subvert or completely escape the system in order to fix what’s wrong with it or even to survive, its logical opposite would be a state in which problems can be solved without resorting to such measures. But because there’s no guarantee that the problems will be solved, it does not inherently lack the potential for narrative tension. There can still be untold dangers and conflicts; the distinction is not in whether they exist, but in the means available for dealing with them.

Counting the ®Evolution: Who Are These People?

I’ve said a number of times over the past few months that I have yet to really wrap my head around the fact that I’ve now written a trilogy: an arc of three substantial and self-contained novels, a coherent and completed vision. A BIG vision. It’s so big I haven’t quite felt like I could see the edges of it.

I assumed it would hit me in August, when Regeneration is published; but I have in fact just now started to grasp the scale of the thing. It’s all Nicola Budd’s fault. One of her (many, many) jobs as editor at Jo Fletcher Books is to prepare the ebook editions; and one of her strategies has been to elicit bonus content from authors, special little Easter eggs that will come packaged in the ebook. I was still bogged down with the actual writing when she first broached it to me, and in a state of desperation and quite possibly insanity suggested that, as Regeneration would conclude a series that has boasted a large and complex cast of characters, I could produce something along the lines of a dramatis personæ for the entire ®Evolution.

She said that was an excellent idea! … At which point I realised that I didn’t actually know how many characters I had created over the years; nor did I have a definite sense of how to break them down into primary/ secondary/ tertiary levels of importance. I would have to work that out, and I’d have to decide who to include in the cast list for Nicola. But I didn’t want to just cherry-pick the obvious characters; I wanted to know who was being left out. So, with Regeneration edits, copy-edits and proofreads completed and this just about the last task I have to accomplish prior to publication, I decided to conduct a census.

That was two weeks ago.

I went through each book, plus an as-yet-unpublished short story, and created a comprehensive (I hope) list of characters. I determined who were the main drivers of the plot, and defined them as primary. Those with whom they interact in ways that clearly impact the narrative have been dubbed secondary, and those whose role is more textural are tertiary.

Then I had to create a combined list of all three, and work out the categories for that – because some characters who are secondary in one book are primary in another, and some never have a major role in terms of plot but are nevertheless key to the actions of other, more central characters.

Based on that logic I came up with a list of fifteen ‘core’ characters – the ones without whom there would be no story – and have just finished writing the promised cast list, complete with short descriptions for each of them. They’re 40-80 words long, about the same as the standard author bio you’ll see accompanying a review or a guest post. They contain key facts about the character and the role they play in the ®Evolution, including major events across all of the books.

Being able to do that for fifteen characters may not sound terribly impressive, and indeed it isn’t. But according to my census, there are ninety-one named characters in the ®Evolution (and many more who aren’t); and I could write a similar bio for every single one of them. I know the backstory and basic personality traits of nearly a hundred fictional people. I know why they’re in my stories and what they get up to there. Many of them – most of them – quite possibly all of them – could carry stories of their own.

I am finally starting to grasp the scale of this thing.

BINARY lands in America

Binary is now out in North America, which officially makes it available throughout the English-speaking world. Accordingly it and I are popping up all over the place, like some kind of brightly-jacketed internet mushroom. I’m really proud of this book; it’s the first thing I wrote after I’d got a publishing deal, when I knew I was a proper writer and also knew that meant I had something to prove. I poured my heart and soul into Binary, and I believe it shows.

US Edition

US

UK edition

UK

But! This is not where I tell you what I think of my own work, because I want you all to go read it and have your own thoughts. I will, however, share some other things I’ve written recently to mark the US hardback and the UK paperback releases. They are all in one way or another about the opportunities and the responsibilities of being a storyteller: tackling an unplanned sequel, creating fictional worlds that nevertheless reflect reality, the kinds of stories we choose to keep telling, the challenge of conveying character and of finding your own voice as a writer.

Asking the Next Question

What happens now? Given what has already been done, and cannot be undone; knowing what we now know, and can no longer pretend ignorance of; how do people move forward? What kind of society do they wish to live in?

Who will they choose, now, to be?

Plausible Fictions and Strange Realities

Thanks to medicine, it is a certainty that no one anywhere in the world will get smallpox ever again. That is a real-life, honest-to-god miracle, accomplished during my lifetime; but there is no glamour attached to it. The fairy dust of fictional extrapolation has somehow passed it by.

Violent Impulses, or How We Think About Conflict

As someone who writes fiction which draws on the social sciences as well as on genetics and information technology, I’m keenly aware of those patterns of belief and presumption – and given that fiction almost invariably relies on some kind of conflict to provide a sense of significance and urgency, it strikes me that how we resolve fictional conflicts is relevant to how we think about real ones.

Finding Voices: Defining the Characters in Binary

If creating this plethora of voices and characters and languages and subtext sounds terribly difficult and complicated, well it is – but no more so than the complex human interactions we engage in and expertly negotiate every day.

(And, because I think you might enjoy it, here’s a little story from my own life before I became a writer.)

New reviews keep coming in, all linked under the tab above. (I do mean all; as long as a review is online and I know about it, it’ll be linked from this site. The only exceptions will be ones that are abusive or excessively spoilery – which hasn’t happened yet – or groups of reader reviews at sites like Goodreads or Amazon.)

BINARY: US Edition Cover Reveal!

I did say there was going to be a Big Reveal today … and here it is! Many thanks to Bookworm Blues, The Qwillery, Sci-Fi Fan LetterCivilian ReaderA Fantastical Librarian and The Bibliosanctum for splashing this about, along with reviews and extracts:

US Edition

US Edition

The UK vs. US cover conversation is already underway on Twitter (for the record I like them both, and I’m proud of the fact that the book lends itself to such different interpretations). The jacket copy is the same in both territories:

When confiscated genestock is stolen out of secure government quarantine, DI Sharon Varsi finds herself on the biggest case of her career: chasing down a clever thief, a mysterious hacker, and the threat of new, black-market gemtech.

Zavcka Klist, ruthless industrial enforcer, has reinvented herself. Now the head of Bel’Natur, she wants gem celebrity Aryel Morningstar’s blessing for the company’s revival of infotech – the science that spawned the Syndrome, nearly destroyed mankind and led to the creation of the gems. With illness in her own family that only a gemtech can cure, Aryel’s in no position to refuse.

As the infotech program inches toward a breakthrough, Sharon’s investigations lead ever closer to the dark heart of Bel’Natur, the secrets of Aryel Morningstar’s past … and what Zavcka Klist is really after.

The US hardback is in stores on May 5th, and I shall be popping up in various places online in celebration. Thanks to mine hosts!

REGENERATION cover reveal!

Regeneration_TPBO

I’ve been really happy with all my covers, but this may be my favourite of the UK editions – and I’ve had to sit on it for months. It’s gone up on the Jo Fletcher Books site, so I can finally share it here too. (Also coming soon: the Binary cover for the US edition, which continues the theme of the Gemsigns cover and is very, very beautiful.)

Here’s the Regeneration cover copy:

The gillungs – genetically modified, waterbreathing humans – are thriving. They’ve pioneered new aquatic industries, and their high-efficiency quantum battery technology coupled to tidal turbines in the Thames estuary looks set to revolutionise the energy industry. But as demand grows, so does fear of what their newfound power might mean.

Then a biohazard scare at Sinkat, their London headquarters, fuels the opposition and threatens to derail the gillungs’ progress. Was it an accident born of overconfidence, or was it sabotage?

DS Sharon Varsi has her suspicions, and Gabriel sees parallels in the propaganda war he’s trying to manage: politicians and big business have stakes in this game too. And now there is a new threat: Zavcka Klist is out of prison. With powerful new followers and nothing to lose, she’s out to reclaim everything they took from her.

Regeneration is out on 2nd July (but only if I get the copy edits done in time – pressing ‘Publish’, back to work).

April. Back in the Hole.

I quipped to a friend recently that my March workload, if not my public appearance schedule, is following me into April. I was so busy last month I barely had time to talk about things as they happened – I only managed quick posts about the WOW Festival and University of Notre Dame appearances. I can report that the North London Lit Fest was also rather wonderful: after ninety minutes of conversation there was a further hour of recorded interviews with Aliette de Bodard and myself, mostly intended to be a resource for students but which will also (I think) crop up in promos for next year’s Lit Fest. I also had a great time at the HOLDFAST anthology launch party, where I did a somewhat guerilla reading from Regeneration to a very appreciative audience. In between I attended Farah Mendlesohn’s intriguing BSFA interview with fabulist and poet Suniti Namjoshi, and finally made it to a session of the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club, where I got to drink wine, listen to readings, and have no responsibilities whatsoever.

That lasted for all of a day. Binary is now out in the UK in paperback (does a happy dance), and in honour of the occasion I was invited to guest post by a couple of bloggers who admire my books. Asking the Next Question is about the challenge, and the opportunity, of writing an unplanned sequel; while it deals specifically with how I took the Gemsigns story forward into Binary, I think it has a more general relevance. Plausible Fictions and Strange Realities grew out of a conversation I had at Loncon; it talks about what types of speculation readers find easier to accept, and how much of that is down to a greater comfort level with simply seeing more of what we’ve seen before. Anyone with a passing interest in the vexed question of what constitutes ‘real’ SF might find it worth their while. And with Binary out in the US in exactly a month (yikes!), I’ve also written a post to coincide with that. I won’t pre-empt mine host by telling you where it’ll appear or what it’s about, but it is rather fun …

I was very honoured to have been asked last year to be one of the judges for the 2015 James White Award, but I didn’t want to announce it ahead of the organisers doing so. And there were delays on their end for various reasons, not least because, despite a submissions period of over six months, the majority of the 255 submissions were received in the final two weeks. That made winnowing them down into a shortlist a frankly mammoth task; but they got there in the end, and Dave Hutchinson and Gareth Powell and I read and deliberated, and a winner has been chosen. The announcement is traditionally made alongside the BSFA Awards, so I expect you’ll hear the news on that one this very evening.

Rereading the above I truly don’t know how it’s been possible, but I have also, since finishing Regeneration structural edits, written a short story (which turned out to be rather less short than I anticipated). It’s for a Jo Fletcher Books’ Secret Project and I finished it yesterday, which means I don’t actually know what I think about it yet. But I won’t have time to think about it at all for a while, because *sigh* Regeneration copy edits are back, and there are still a couple of character and plot elements that need tweaking, and with the July pub date just around the corner in delivery terms there’s no time to waste; so this entire post has really been a long-winded way of saying I’m diving back into the black hole of editing for a couple of weeks. See you on the other side.

Back to School

Yesterday evening I found myself in an undergraduate literature class for the first time in more than twenty years, giving the lecture on Gemsigns that I mentioned here. The students were smart and engaged, and had insightful things to say and intelligent questions to ask. We had a wide-ranging discussion, which I thoroughly enjoyed; and I was delighted that so many of them spotted the references, literary and otherwise, that are tucked away here and there in the text. Hard work is meant to be its own reward, but there’s nothing like someone else’s appreciation of your efforts to remind you why it is you do what you do.

There was a moment, when they all came in and sat down and took their notebooks and copies of the novel out of their backpacks, that just about floored me. I remember being that student, coming into class and taking out the assigned text, ready for discussion. I never imagined, back then, that one day the book another bunch of bright young people would be tackling would be mine. I’m not even sure, back when I was a student in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at MIT, that any of the texts we studied were by living authors. Certainly none of them were sufficiently earthbound and available to have come in and talked to us. In a rather lovely irony, I find myself exalted by the experience of being an author who is and who did.

So many thanks again to Professor Tony Keen for asking me, and to his class at UND’s London Global Gateway for being such an interested, interesting bunch. I was very, very happy to be back in school.

§

(Further bonus: Tony was able to make the BSFA interview I did last year with Kate Keen available to the students as a resource, and I now have a copy of it: Stephanie Saulter BSFA Interview | 25 June 2014.)

WOW Festival 2015: Hollywood, Sci-Fi, Computer Games & Rape

It’s International Women’s Day, and the final day of WOW – the Women of the World Festival, now in its fifth year at London’s Southbank Centre. I was there yesterday as one of the panellists for Hollywood, Sci-Fi, Computer Games and Rape, to talk about the use of sexual violence and ‘fridging’ – the rape, murder or abuse of a female character to provide motivation for a male protagonist – in fictional narratives. The others were Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck College; Laurel Sills, co-editor of HOLDFAST magazine; David Moore from Abaddon Books; and our chairperson was Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman.

It was an intense and in-depth discussion, before a standing-room-only audience in the Festival Village. Here’s what we – and they – had to say.

 

March! and the end of hibernation

February passed in a blur of editing, and it ain’t over yet – I’m stealing a few minutes to post this before I get back to turning Regeneration from a decent draft into a manuscript fit for publication. (Someday I must write something wry and witty about the paradox of struggling to generate as many words as possible during the writing, only to then delete as many words as possible during the editing. When I have time and wit to spare.)

Finishing isn’t the only reason I’ve been looking forward to March. A number of cool things are happening this month:

The Women of the World (WOW) Festival runs 1-8 March 2015 at the Southbank Centre. I’m on the provocatively titled panel discussion Hollywood, Sci-Fi, Computer Games & Rape next Saturday, 7th March from 12-1pm, along with Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck College; Laurel Sills, editor of Holdfast Magazine; and David Moore of Abaddon Books. We’ll be chaired by Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman, and will be discussing why so many plotlines across so many platforms revolve around cruelty and sexual violence against women. It’s a difficult, emotive and necessary topic; I’m very honoured to have been asked to participate. The entire festival is wonderful, so get yourself a ticket (Day Pass is only £20 and gets you into everything all day long except the Stand Alone events).

Next up is an event that isn’t public, but I’m so pleased about it I’m going to mention it anyway: on 17th March I’ll be giving a talk to students who are reading Gemsigns as part of “London in the Literature of the Fantastic”. The course is being taught by Anthony Keen at the University of Notre Dame’s London Undergraduate Program. They’ll also be reading E. Nesbit, The Phoenix and the Carpet; P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins; John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids; Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere; Kate Griffin, A Madness of Angels; Paul Cornell, London Falling; Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, The Wicked and the Divine; and watching Doctor Who: The Web of Fear.

On 24th March I’ll be at the North London Lit Fest, in conversation with Farah Mendlesohn and Aliette de Bodard. When Farah contacted me about this she said we’d be talking about migrations and crossing boundaries, so come for what I imagine will be a wide-ranging discussion!

And finally, on 26th March I’ll be popping along to the HOLDFAST Anthology launch party. Laurel and Lucy have done an excellent job with the magazine in its first year, and I’m looking forward to celebrating their latest milestone. There will be wine and books and readings and wine. It’s a fitting start to spring.

Where Ideas Don’t Come From

My least favourite question these days is, ‘Where do you get your ideas?‘ Sadly, it’s also one of the most common. It pops up in interviews and conversation; it’s posed by any number of people, however briefly and randomly met. For many, it seems to be the obvious question to ask a writer.

I’m afraid that whatever makes it obvious to them is lost on me. Every time I’m asked I wonder if they envisage a place where ideas exist in their multitudes to be examined and acquired, much as one might cast a judicious eye before surreptitiously squeezing the tomatoes in a supermarket. Perhaps they imagine a quasi-mystical space where writers in search of ideas stumble over the germ of their next opus. Either way the question presumes that ideas are things one goes out and gets; as though they exist independently of the person who has them.

That is rarely how it happens, and the pained expression on the face of every writer who has to come up with a polite answer should be a clue that there is something fundamentally wrong with the question. It would be far more sensible to ask (though not necessarily easier to answer), ‘How do you get your ideas?

Ideas arise not from place, but from process.* In my experience this process mostly takes place without any conscious intervention on the part of the writer, and the results are often as much of a surprise to her as to everyone else. Somehow, in some way which I am unable to adequately explain, different bits of stimulus and influence, knowledge and opinion, affinity and experience, combine to produce the magical thing (and I think it is very close to magic) that we call inspiration. It is a deeply mysterious alchemy, and I do not understand how it works.

I’ve never met anyone who does. I suspect that even if you are able to trace your epic tale of star-crossed romance between the children of rival hunter-gatherer tribes back to an article you read six months ago on neolithic basket-weaving, you’ll struggle to put your finger on precisely what it was about that particular piece of paleoanthropology, that on a particular day sent your imagination soaring.

So when you ask a writer the dreaded question and we lamely answer, ‘I don’t know,’ we are not being evasive or disingenuous. We are telling you the literal truth. And that strangely commodified perspective embodied in the construction of ‘where do you get’ is not only incorrect, it’s jarring – as though we had been asked to quantify a rainbow, or draw a map of love.

If ideas come from anywhere, that place is a state of mind. And you don’t go looking for them. They come looking for you.

§

* It’s true that some writers have techniques for triggering this process, which may include spending time in a particular place: a country walk, a cottage by the sea, the stacks in the library or the shed in the garden. But the trigger is at least as likely to be an activity as a location: doing the ironing, walking the dog, doodling, gardening.

  • Stephanie Saulter

    I love stories.
    Gemsigns and Binary are now both out in North America as well as the UK & the rest of the English-speaking world. The final book in the ®Evolution trilogy, Regeneration, will be out in the UK in August. I like to think they're literary science fiction, but you can make your own mind up. This is where I talk about what I'm working on, ask your opinion, and generally think out loud.

  • UK edition

    REGENERATION

    The 3rd Book of the ®Evolution

  • UK edition

    BINARY

    The 2nd Book of the ®Evolution

  • UK Edition

    GEMSIGNS

    The 1st Book of the ®Evolution

  • US Edition

    BINARY

    The 2nd Book of the ®Evolution

  • US Edition

    GEMSIGNS

    The 1st Book of the ®Evolution

  • Upcoming Events

    • Regeneration TPB release (UK) August 6, 2015
    • Fantasy in the Court August 6, 2015 at 6:00 pm – 9:00 pm Goldsboro Books, Cecil Court, London, United Kingdom
    • Nine Worlds August 7, 2015 – August 10, 2015
    • Bristolcon September 26, 2015 at 10:00 am – 5:00 pm Doubletree Hotel, Bristol
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