Reading Hard: The Golden Bough

I’ve been neck-deep in preparatory reading, ahead of writing my next book. I hesitate to call it ‘research’ because I’m not exactly studying; this process isn’t about acquiring precise knowledge of any one thing. Instead I’ve been steeping myself in mythology and folklore from multiple historical sources – everything from Icelandic sagas to Yoruba folktales to the Mabinogion to the Bible – trying to pack my head full of potential reference points. This isn’t going to be a fantasy novel, but it is going to require a rich seam of diverse cultural narratives if I’m to have any hope of pulling it off.

One of the books I thought I’d skim through, and ended up reading cover to cover, is The Golden Bough by James Frazer, a seminal work of early comparative anthropology. My edition is a 1981 reissue of the original 1890 text, which I bought well over twenty years ago; Frazer’s work had been referenced during my own undergraduate studies in anthropology in the late 80s, and I thought that I should some day acquaint myself with it more fully. It became one of those books that I’ve packed up and moved from house to house and country to country, never quite knowing why, but with a nagging sense that I might one day find it useful.

It’s turned out to be a treasure trove of information and inspiration, albeit one that’s very hard to read from a modern perspective. Nominally an investigation into the succession rites of the priest-kings of a sacred grove in ancient Italy, The Golden Bough is where Frazer sets out his overarching theories about folklore and the development of religion, and notes the similarities between the practices and beliefs of widely disparate peoples. It’s as jam-packed as a Victorian curio cabinet with details of customs, beliefs and ritual practices from around the globe, and interesting (though not always accurate) connections, comparisons and parallels are drawn between them.

Unfortunately, however, Frazer’s otherwise sharply analytical mind fails entirely to scrutinise his own presumptions of social and cultural superiority. The assertion of a civilisational hierarchy, in which the educated European or Briton occupies the top tier, is never questioned. The terminology of “savages”, “rude peoples” and the “peasantry” to refer to the indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia, Australia, North and South America, as well as the rural working classes of Europe and Britain, is employed casually and unselfconsciously throughout.

And yet many of his insights, despite the hugely problematic context within which they’re presented, and the fact that much of his theoretical analysis has since been soundly disproved, remain powerfully evocative. Take this observation on the transition from the supernatural to the empirical:

But when, still later, the conception of the elemental forces as personal agents is giving way to the recognition of natural law; then magic, based as it implicitly is on the idea of a necessary and invariable sequence of cause and effect, independent of personal will, reappears from the obscurity and discredit into which it has fallen, and by investigating the causal sequences in nature, directly prepares the way for science. Alchemy leads up to chemistry.

Or this surprisingly sympathetic – and acute – commentary on the worldwide phenomenon of taboos, in which certain classes of people are segregated from the wider community:

Thus the rules of ceremonial purity observed by divine kings, chiefs, and priests, by homicides, women at child-birth, and so on, are in some respects alike … the common feature of all these persons is that they are dangerous and in danger, and the danger in which they stand and to which they expose others is what we should call spiritual or supernatural, that is, imaginary. The danger, however, is not less real because it is imaginary; imagination acts upon man as really as does gravitation, and may kill him as certainly as a dose of prussic acid.

Indeed, Frazer’s rather wry conclusion that religion derives not from some initial revelation, but develops over time to explain already extant cultural practices, seems to me both audacious and unexpectedly modern:

The history of religion is a long attempt to reconcile old custom with new reason; to find a sound theory for an absurd practice.

Whether he applies this reasoning equally to religion as practiced by the academic elite of Trinity College, Oxford, is not addressed. But for all his errors of fact and arrogance, Frazer acknowledges the kinship between his own civilisational cohort and those whom he otherwise observes with condescension; and acknowledges too that the presumptions on which he now relies for his analysis may one day prove just as false as he considers their ancient beliefs to have been. It’s a moment of empathy and self-awareness that I frankly didn’t expect.

For when all is said and done our resemblances to the savage are still far more numerous than our differences from him; and what we have in common with him, and deliberately retain as true and useful, we owe to our savage forefathers who slowly acquired by experience and transmitted to us by inheritance those seemingly fundamental ideas which we are apt to regard as original and intuitive … Therefore in reviewing the opinions and practices of ruder ages and races we shall do well to look with leniency upon their errors as inevitable slips made in the search for truth, and to give them the benefit of that indulgence which we may one day stand in need of ourselves.

It struck me that I – geneaologically, culturally and intellectually an equal descendant of both the “savages” and the elites, and a woman to boot – am precisely the sort of unknown, unfathomable inheritor from whom he foresaw that forbearance might one day be required. Across the centuries of bitter colonial history, it’s a strange moment of connection.

Con Schedule: Nine Worlds 2016

(Updated 11 August 2016)

Nine Worlds is less than three weeks away, and the programme is finally out. I’m on three panels this year, all of which look excellent:

Friday 12 August, 10-11am (Bouzy)

World-Building: No One Sells Happy Life Day Cards

Economics, geography, infrastructure – it’s the background stuff that, like concrete breeze blocks, comes off as the dull, uninteresting graft of world creation. But what makes it come alive and make sense for the reader? What makes people care, and what makes a fictional culture viable?

James Barclay, Genevieve Cogman, Edward Cox, Al Robertson, Stephanie Saulter, Chris Wooding

Friday 12 August, 1:30-2:30pm (Bouzy)

Science Fiction and Science Fact

Normally bending the rules is a bit of a dangerous act, but in fiction the laws of science are bent to breaking point all the time – so what’s going on behind all that? What famous popular concepts work, and which are entirely unreasonable? What are we close to making happen, and – really! – does scientific accuracy even matter for the sake of a good time? I mean, how far can you get on science alone*, I mean, haha, honestly.

* Probably, like, quite far. The distant edge of the solar system, probably.

Anne Charnock, Ian Hocking, Stephanie Saulter (moderator), Jamie Sawyer, James Smythe, Adrian Tchaikovsky

Saturday 13 August, 8:30-9:30pm (Bourg)

Inspiring Futures: The Ada Lovelace Day conversation

Can SF inspire a life in science and technology? Do women write a different kind of SF? Should we celebrate that 4 of the last 5 winners of the Arthur C. Clarke Award were books by women SF writers?

Anne Charnock (moderator), Yen Ooi, Anne Perry, Stephanie Saulter, Stephanie Troeth, Aliya Whitely

The convention is being held at the Novotel London West in Hammersmith this year, and tickets are still available at the late rate.

On Stories and Endings

So, I’ve got two books out this week. Actually it’s the same book and it’s already been published, but there you go. Welcome to the temporally asymmetric world of international publishing, where the hardback first US edition of Regeneration drops in North America on 3rd May, and the UK edition mass-market paperback (MMP if you want to sound like an insider) lands elsewhere in the English-speaking world on the 5th. The MMP is the smaller, cheaper print copy that fits in your bag and costs about the same as your workday lunch, conveniences that the publisher and I hope will entice lots and lots of you to check it out.

It feels like a lifetime since I got the call that led to this moment: my agent had secured a preemptive offer for three novels, based on the Gemsigns manuscript and outlines of two further books that I’d hastily sketched at his insistence. I hadn’t planned a trilogy. Now, five years later and with the last of those three books about to be available throughout a good chunk of the planet, with me thoroughly embedded in the world of publishing and the life of a writer, it’s worth taking a moment to feel just slightly awestruck.

I made up a story, and in so doing changed my own story.

That’s some kind of magic.

And so I find myself thinking about the magic of stories: how they change and how they grow, where we join them and where we leave, and what happens when we’re not looking. How they seem to have their own reality and logic – whether or not we are living them, whether or not we are writing them.

I’ve always loved the Tolkienesque idea of the neverending story, an endless tale that the characters – and by extension the reader, and indeed the writer – inhabit only for a little while. One of the things I wanted to achieve in the ®Evolution novels was that sense of continuity: of a tale that had begun long before the writer started writing or the reader started reading. That both would visit for a time, and depart at some point of the writer’s choosing, rather than come to the end of. That had enough weight and heft for me, the writer – and you too, dear reader – to feel almost incidental to its existence.

Stories are real. We spin them out of dreams and desires, fears and hopes, moments of inspiration and confusion. We turn the electricity in our fingertips into bits and bytes, and somehow it all becomes actual. Solid. A tangible object full of the crumbs and stains of workday lunches, bearing a kinked spine and edges frayed by the passage of time; familiar yet somehow, hopefully, undiminished.

Not unlike ourselves.

The best stories tell us the truth about the real world. The best stories stay with us, even when we have left them behind. The best a writer can do is try to write that kind of story.

And so this is my hope for Regeneration, and all of the ®Evolution: that it will feel no less real for having been made up, and that its ending will be for you, as it is for me, a departure rather than a conclusion.

No Whitewashing! Author Input! – A Good Cover Design Story

To celebrate Regeneration‘s US cover reveal, I thought I’d tell you a story. A true story this time, and like many truths, one that confounds conventional wisdom – in this case, the oft-repeated tale of woe in which an unapproachable and unaccountable publishing behemoth slaps an unrepresentative (or just boringly generic) cover onto a book and sends it out into the world, insensitive either to the text or to the opinion of the person who wrote it.

Sadly, we’re not talking urban legend here: this does happen. Even famous, best-selling authors bemoan having no input, nor even seeing their covers before they’re published. Sometimes, when the wrongness of what they’ve done hits a particularly frayed public nerve, the resulting furore becomes fierce enough to force a change on the part of the publisher. But the conventional wisdom remains that authors, as a matter of course, have no say in how their books are packaged.

Here’s the thing: while this may be often (and appallingly) true, it’s by no means universal; and it does a disservice to the publishers who do work with and listen to their authors to tar them with the same brush. Despite being neither famous nor best-selling (yet, they insist, just not yet), my publishers have always shown me my covers as works-in-progress. They have always asked for my feedback, and I’ve never been ignored. It’s been my experience through six covers now: the UK and US editions of Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration, published by Quercus imprint Jo Fletcher Books in both markets (although the two series wound up looking quite different to each other).

Never has this spirit of enthusiastic, respectful collaboration been more evident, or more important, than in developing the US cover for Regeneration. It was the first time that I found myself not just suggesting tweaks to an image that I was basically OK with, but having to explain what was wrong with it and asking for it to be significantly reworked. Now that the final happy result has been revealed to the world, I want to share the story of its evolution from that somewhat shaky beginning. I pitched the idea to Quercus, who have very kindly agreed. We both think it’s important to demonstrate how things are done when they’re done well. And to tell more than one kind of story.

The following is lifted largely from our email correspondence, with some additional context from Quercus on how they approached the cover and responded to my comments.


Designing the US cover for Regeneration, the final book of the ®Evolution trilogy

The US covers for Gemsigns and Binary:

Round 1

Quercus’ original idea:

We were lucky to have the same cover designer, Daniel Rembert, work on Gemsigns, Binary and now Regeneration. We have been very conscious of wanting all three covers to be coordinated so that the sense of a trilogy would be recognizable. There are several dynamic plotlines to pick from, but we chose to focus on the gillungs’ story – as it directly reflects the progression of the gems from chattel fighting for their rights, to better integrated members of society, to community leaders and innovators. We wanted the image to be underwater but to convey the idea of the quantum battery technology and its use as a power source.

Quercus initially approached Stephanie with the below first cover ideas for Regeneration:

Stephanie’s original thoughts:

“These are beautiful as a picture, but: why is the central image of a naked nubile female? And: who is she supposed to be? The only teenage gillung woman in the text is Agwé, and Agwé is black. So if it’s meant to be Agwé it needs to look like Agwé, which means properly dark skin and CLOTHING. But much as I love her — and believe me, my soul would soar at the sight of beautiful black Agwé with her glowing green hair and cherry-red bodysuit as the cover image — she’s very much a secondary character, so I’m not sure why she’d be the cover? That suggests a YA novel. And she certainly wouldn’t be in such a passive pose, none of them would. If we’re going to do a gillung underwater against a turbine they should look more engaged, more dynamic.

“I think part of what’s thrown me as well is that this composition is such a departure from the Gemsigns and Binary covers, which had been developing a motif that I really liked: the raised arms/ fist, the crowd of people, the sense of an engaged urban community. Regeneration continues that whole theme of the collective and the communal, and brings it to a climax with the intersections of family, friends, workmates etc.

“(I’ve lost a bet with myself; I thought it might be an underwater viewpoint, but looking up through the water at the quayside crowded with people and the huge egg-shaped Thames Tidal building rising up alongside. Something that, when the reader got to the penultimate chapter with Gabriel desperately trying to get people to leave, they’d look back at the cover and go ah-ha! …Not saying it should be that, mind, it just seemed like it would be an obvious continuation of the motif.)”

Quercus’ cover design team went back to the drawing board with Stephanie’s suggestions in mind.

Round 2

Quercus’ thoughts:

“Stephanie provides fantastic, detailed feedback and we went back to the designer with it. We have been back and forth with the designer about these covers from the very beginning, so it’s no surprise that the first interpretation wasn’t quite right.

“Featuring a gillung is essential, we agree, and I think the color palette here is good—figuring out how to pull off the composition in a way that captures the same sense of dynamism and community focus as the previous cover designs is just part of the challenge. We were not feeling 100% about the main figure (if we were to use her, our designer would definitely need to finesse some of the detailing with the wet suit and the skin tone but we really loved the general composition/direction.”

Stephanie’s thoughts:

“I too much prefer the overall direction of this composition, and in general I like the first image, with the central figure rising vertically and purposefully, best of all. The background figures are better in this as well; in the others it’s not clear whether they’re swimming or drowning, but in the first one it’s pretty evident they are all in their element. However I also like the fact that more of the topside buildings are visible in the second image; it sort of contextualises the swimmers. So I don’t know if it’s possible to maintain that general upward thrust of the figures in the first image while having more of the buildings from the second image as well? (I realise part of this also has to do with where the title sits on the cover, and the designer will no doubt play around with that far more efficiently than I can visualise it!)

“As for the central figure, yes she’d need to be a bit darker and more detailed. I’d love her to be a teeny bit curvier and her hair a bit more cloud-like. The main thing to remember about the gillungs’ physicality — apart from skin tone — is that they are powerful people. This is a very subtle thing; I don’t mean to suggest that they should be large or blocky, but if you think of any aquatic mammal from otters to whales, there is a sort of muscular solidity about them.

“You said you’re not 100% certain about the main figure; are you thinking about alternatives? Who/ what would you use instead? Because it does need a strong central component, I think, and at the moment she’s it …”

Round 3

Quercus’ thoughts:

“We are always grateful for Stephanie’s very helpful and comprehensive feedback. Our designer has incorporated some of these tweaks. The differences are subtle but effective.”

Regeneration UScover v3

Stephanie’s thoughts:

“I really like this, and I think it does the job well — it’s both attractive and accurate, if you know what I mean. Holding the earlier two covers up to look at all three in a row, it’s clear that although the images are different from each other they are thematically related, having a sort of family resemblance — the altered human figure against a crowded urban backdrop, the sense of energy and urgency. I like the cover itself, but also the sense of a continuum.”

The final cover

Regeneration UScover FINAL

Daniel Rembert’s design work can be found at

REGENERATION: US cover reveal

After a season of mostly silence I have news, and it is this: Regeneration will be released in North America on May 3rd. Today we unveil the cover, about which much more will shortly be said:

Regeneration UScover FINAL

The gillungs are thriving. The water-breathing, genetically modified humans have colonized riverbanks and ports long abandoned to the rising seas and pioneered new high-efficiency quantum-battery technology.

But as demand grows, so do fears about their impact on both norm businesses and the natural environment. Then, a biohazard scare at Sinkat, their colony on the Thames, fuels the opposition and threatens to derail the gillungs’ progress. But is this an accident, or is it sabotage?

Detective Sharon Varsi has her suspicions, and Gabriel sees parallels in the propaganda war he’s fighting; politicians and corporations have stakes in this game too. And now there is a new threat: industry tycoon Zavcka Klist is about to be released from prison—and she’s out to regain everything they took from her.

Another Good Conversation …

… this time with the wonderful Ian McDonald (I chronicled our first meeting in one of my earliest posts on this blog). Strange Horizons asked if we’d like to have a conversation for publication on the subject of Energy in SF. We may have meandered around and away from and back to the topic just a bit …

A Good Conversation

One of the earliest, somewhat snarky observations I made about myself on this blog was that I like good conversation when I can get it. Back in December I had a long and lovely email exchange with award-winning author Tricia Sullivan (ahead of her piece in the Independent about negotiating the line between science and fiction). The full text of our interview has now been published over on the Gollancz blog as She Blinded Me With Science Fiction #4. We talked about art and anthropology, dystopia and discrimination, the conduct of war via social media, evolving models of capitalism and a great deal more. It was one of the best conversations I’ve had in quite some time; I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. (And do read Tricia’s other, equally penetrating interviews with Karen Lord, Emma Newman and Anne Charnock.)

Utopia Season

What a week it’s been. I generally add press news to the link page (see menu tab above), tweet once or twice and move on, but there’ve been a couple of things that deserve a bit more bigging up than that (and not just because I’m in them).

It’s Utopia season on BBC Radio 4; it kicked off with a documentary commemorating the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia (which is well worth a listen). Last year the BBC and acclaimed SF author Geoff Ryman approached me to participate in another documentary for the series: a retrospective on the proto-SF feminist utopian novel Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which would also examine how gender evolves – or doesn’t – in the futurist fiction we write now. I’d written a short post on the fictional possibilities of utopia; an approach I’ve taken in my own books, and not unrelated to the fact that they are subtly but thoroughly egalitarian when it comes to gender. Geoff and I had a long chat about the intersection of these issues at Nine Worlds in August, recorded by BBC producer Nicola Swords. Rather more than I expected made it into the final cut of the Herland documentary – along with wonderful insights from Laurie Penny, Sarah le Fanu, Dr Sari Edelstein, Caitríona Ní Dhúill, Sarah Hall and of course Geoff himself. The result is an elegant combination of a respectful look back and a provocative look forward, and though I do say so myself, it’s well worth thirty minutes of your time.

Do spend another fifteen with No Point Talking, the short story Geoff wrote while working on Herland. It’s a fantastic portrayal (and performance!) of a conservative alpha male protagonist in a near-future America in which his traditional views about gender and society are shaken to the core. It’s heartbreaking, infuriating and funny – often all at the same time.

My ideas about utopia have a lot to do with being collaborative and collegiate as opposed to hierarchical or exclusionary – so it’s particularly serendipitous  that the week started with Tricia Sullivan’s article in The Independent on how SF authors negotiate the boundaries between fact and fiction. What’s remarkable about Trish’s approach is that she got the gig as part of the promotional push for her new novel Occupy Me – and then went about it by interviewing myself, Karen Lord, Anne Charnock and Emma Newman and quoting us liberally in her piece. I’m humbled by her generosity. I’m also impressed by her publisher, Gollancz, which will be posting all four interviews in full on their website in the coming weeks.

The world, we are often told, is going to hell in a handcart. Spend half an hour watching any news programme and it’s hard to disagree. But somewhere among the embers, the flame of utopia flickers on.

The Right to Speak

I’m reading Shami Chakrabarti’s On Liberty, and thinking about what it means to be able to speak one’s mind; to have the right to speak it, no matter how unpleasant or uncomfortable others may find your views. I’m also thinking about the perverse misapprehension that’s developed in our society, whereby defending a fundamental human right – to free speech, a fair trial, political expression – is too often characterised as an endorsement of the views or actions of unsavoury persons whose rights we uphold. And I’m thinking too about how much of that wilful misperception is tied up with what seems to me a pernicious, widespread and interestingly apolitical conviction: that we somehow have the ‘right’ not to be offended – not to have to see, hear, think about or respond to that which we find repugnant. It’s intrinsic to the belief that those of whom we disapprove should not have access to the same platforms that we do. It’s the notion that equality of access should be contingent on whatever is currently deemed to be socially acceptable by whichever faction is currently ascendant.

Even with all the other crises which beset us, I find this among the most worrying of social trends – not least because it appears to be becoming ever more prevalent on both the left and the right, among the young and the aged, the rich and the poor, the religious and the atheist, the conservative and the progressive. It is the idea that whatever offends is inherently illegitimate, on the grounds that it causes offence. It is intellectual and moral laziness of the highest order: it eschews the opportunity, and responsibility, of unpacking and refuting the offensive proposition on its merits. Under the guise of being high-minded, it ducks the argument.

I’ve been turning this problem over in my head for a while, trying to decide where – if anywhere – the line should be drawn on free speech. Incitement to violence is clearly unacceptable, but expression of opinion is a subtler matter, even if the opinions themselves are not. I am deeply offended by Germaine Greer’s assertions about trans people. I am deeply offended by Donald Trump’s views on Muslims (and just about everything else he has to say). I am deeply offended by Ken Livingstone’s use of mental illness as a slur and a moral value judgement (I’d expected better of him). I don’t doubt that my views on those subjects, and indeed on those individuals’ moral and intellectual probity, might prove deeply offensive to them. Should they have the right to silence me? I think not.

I’m increasingly frustrated by the insularity of public discourse; by the willingness of politicians, pundits, priests and regular folks down the pub to elevate their sense of outrage over every other consideration. By their unwillingness to have unpleasant conversations, unpack contentious issues. To use the right which we, unlike so many others around the world, possess: the right to have the argument.

Here’s my argument against silencing those who offend us. It’s simple, unashamedly self-interested, and so obvious that it doesn’t actually get said out loud nearly enough. If I want to retain the right to hold opinions others may find objectionable, it follows, ipso facto, that I have to grant them the right to hold opinions I may find appalling. I must acknowledge that they have the right to speak, just as I do. I must be able to uphold that truth, alongside my own responsibility to tell them, loudly and vigorously, that they are wrong.

This is the challenge of social democracy – to believe as strongly in the rights of others as we do our own. To imagine that we could be them, and they could be us. It’s an excruciatingly difficult thought experiment – until you consider the cost of not doing it. Until you look at the lives of those who have no voice, and realise just how much the rest of us have to lose.

It’s the challenge of liberty, and the reward. It’s worth the effort.

Speaking of Stars

On Friday 4th December I’ll be at the NN Contemporary Art gallery in Northampton for a panel discussion on the final evening of the current exhibition They Shall Have Stars, a group show thinking about possible futures for humans in space. I’ll be honest: when first invited by British Science Fiction Association president Donna Scott I demurred on the grounds that, unlike many other science fiction writers, I’m not a space travel enthusiast. I enjoy reading the odd space opera as much as anyone, but I’ve never bought into the idea that humans expanding into space is inevitable, or inherently desirable (I’m also forever having to point out to people that not all science fiction is space fiction – a perception due in no small part to the ubiquity of that notion). So I was all set to recuse myself, until Donna came back and said a sceptical note would in fact be quite welcome. With space fiction stalwarts Ian Whates and Jaine Fenn also on the panel, it should be a frank, searching and lively discussion. If you’re in the neighbourhood do come join us.

  • Stephanie Saulter

    I love stories.
    Regeneration is now out in the US! It joins Gemsigns and Binary, already available throughout the English-speaking world. 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.

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