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.

R.I.P. Melissa Mathison

I woke to the news that Melissa Mathison died yesterday, in Los Angeles, of neuroendocrine cancer. Most people will know her as an astonishingly gifted screenwriter, the woman who gave us all the cultural touchstone that is E.T. the Extraterrestrial, along with screenplays for other notable films: Kundun, The Black Stallion. She was also, as she wryly put it, a Famous Ex-Wife. Much will be written today about her contributions, and her trials. This is as it should be; public memories, and memorials, are important. But they never tell the whole story: and there is a resonance, an echo, a terribly sad symmetry for me in the news of Melissa’s death.

I met Melissa almost exactly ten years ago, shortly after my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. They’d become close friends over several years, and my mum had often told me about her; but as they mostly met up on Melissa’s visits to Jamaica, whereas I lived in the US and then the UK, our paths never happened to cross. And then my mother became ill, and by the time we finally got an accurate diagnosis the disease was advanced and the prognosis was dire. My family was stunned, horrified, overwhelmed by the calamity that is a terminal illness. Mum headed for a clinic in the States, in the hope that they would be able to provide us with more information, more options, some kind of hope. I headed for Heathrow, got on a plane and met her there.

Over the next year, as my mother went through brutal bouts of chemo- and radiotherapy, I would make that crossing several times. And I would finally meet her best mate Melissa, whose practical and emotional support became the rock that we clung to. There was nothing, it seemed, that she was not prepared to help us do in our efforts to find some kind of reprieve. She activated her network, enabling us to access doctors and clinics and people who had been through this particular hell before, and knew the things we needed to know. We stayed at her house. I drove my mum back and forth from chemo sessions in her car. She was there, in person, on the phone, endlessly gentle and resilient and generous. Her first and most basic question was always: “What do you need?”

What we needed then was the same thing she needed now: a cure. Neither of us got it.

This is one of those moments that make me wish I believed in an afterlife: I’d so like to think that Mum and Melissa are hanging out somewhere, catching up, comparing notes, trading stories about their kids. Cursing cancer.

I truly don’t think my mum would have been able to fight as hard or last as long as she did without Melissa’s help. She gave us a very great gift: not of life in the end, but of time. I am so grateful for those extra months she helped us to win back. And I am so heartbroken at the thought of her own children, whose time with their mom has run out. I remember how shattered I was, when it happened to me. I remember how incomprehensible the world suddenly seemed.

Malcolm and Georgia, I send you all my love. I send you my memories, too few and too brief, of your brilliant, funny, stalwart, immensely kind and endlessly generous mother. And I send you a truth that I could barely believe in when I was where you are now: it will get better.

Little Free Library, the Squats

This Wednesday, 21st October 2015, I get to do something I bet many writers dream of. I get to open a library.

Granted, it’s a little library. A very little library. A Little Free Library to be precise. Little Free Library UK is a charity that promotes reading, art and community engagement. They build and install beautiful little book cupboards in public places across the country, increasing access for everyone in the community. This one has been designed by artist Hannah Adamaszek and is going in on Wapping High Street, in association with Tower Hamlets Community Housing who went hunting for a local author to help launch the project.

I live just over the borough boundary in Hackney, but in a way I’m even more local than that. Close readers of the ®Evolution books will have worked out that the real-life location of the Squats, the semi-derelict riverside neighbourhood that the outcasts of future London reclaim and make their home, is the area that we in the here and now know as … Wapping. And all readers will recall that those future refugees turn to the archived knowledge of the past in order to restore the abandoned buildings, and learn how to live independently.

Libraries are important, and not just in the aftermath of apocalypse. Worlds are discovered in libraries. Ideas are shared. Imagination blossoms. Friends find each other.

So if you’re in Wapping after Wednesday, keep your eyes peeled for a magic box – especially if you’ve got a book to share, or are in need of one. You might find yourself whisked away to the past, or the future, or some little slice of the present you hadn’t yet encountered. You might learn something you didn’t know you needed to know.

You might discover that libraries, like another famous magic box, are always bigger on the inside.

LFL Wapping

Audio Audio Everywhere

I seem to be having a bit of a podcast spike just now. Last week Cheryl Morgan interviewed me for her Women’s Outlook program on Bristol’s Ujima Radio. Bristolcon director Joanne Hall was live on Wednesday’s show, ahead of the con this Saturday; Cheryl bounced expertly between the live interview with Joanne, the recorded one with me, and some truly inspired musical selections. It was made even more special by the news that Ujima had just won the  Community Organisation Award for Race, Faith and Religion at the National Diversity Awards. You can listen to the show here.

I’ve been a fan of the Midnight in Karachi podcast series on Tor.com ever since it began; this week I’m the guest! Presenter Mahvesh Murad (currently earning big kudos for editing the fourth volume of The Apex Book of World SF) and I talk about writing the ®Evolution, the politics of the ‘other’, the legacy of colonialism and what we mean when we talk about humans. It was a great conversation, and you can listen to it here.

Back in Bristol

It’s less than a week to Bristolcon! I’ll be there in voice (though not in person) a few days early, as an interview with Cheryl Morgan on Ujima Radio at 12pm Wednesday 23rd. Here’s the livestream link; it’ll be available on Listen Again after the broadcast. Cheryl will also be talking with Bristolcon director Joanne Hall about what this year’s con has in store. As we say in Jamaica, and on Ujima: CHUNE EEN!

The con itself is Saturday 26th September at the Doubletree Hotel in Bristol. Here’s what I’m doing:

15:50-15:55, Programme Room 1

Reading – a short passage from Regeneration (which will be available from con booksellers Forbidden Planet).

17:00-17:45, Programme Room 1

Bad-ass with a Baby

It’s still fairly rare to see depictions of parenting in SF&F. If a character has a child, does that mean they’re no longer allowed to be a bad-ass? And how difficult is it to juggle childcare and saving the universe?

Lor Graham (Mod), Amanda Kear (Dr Bob)Jasper FfordePeter Newman and Stephanie Saulter

Despite the fact that I dislike the term ‘bad-ass’ almost as much as ‘kick-ass’ (and for much the same reasons), I’m really looking forward to this discussion. The absence of children and family in SFF is something I’ve been writing and talking about for a while. Agree? Disagree? Do come listen, challenge and share.

When the Bookstore Doesn’t Have the Book

So Regeneration has been out for four weeks – four weeks! – now, and I couldn’t be happier with the reviews and reader reactions. (The email I received this week from a bookseller in Illinois, who ordered it international delivery because next year’s North American release was too long a wait, is just about the best validation of why it is I do what I do.) But I’m also hearing from readers who can’t find it in their local bricks-and-mortar bookstore. I’ve double-checked through Jo Fletcher Books, and the Quercus sales team have confirmed that the books are in stock and orders to retailers have been fulfilled. So what’s going on?

It would be nice to think Regeneration is selling so amazingly well that all the bookstores have simply run out of their initial orders. In some cases that may well be true. But here’s the harsh reality of the current market: the economy may be recovering, but sales of books so far have not. Most booksellers operate on very thin margins. They can afford to order large numbers of the latest footballer’s memoir or TV chef’s recipe collection or works of fiction from already-bestselling authors, and to send them out to all of their branches, because they know they will sell. But a novelist who is critically praised but doesn’t have a track record of high sales, or a high profile? A novelist, in other words, like me? The practice is to order our books frugally, and to send no more than a couple of copies to each store; and not even to every store in the chain.

So “selling amazingly well” can actually translate to only having sold one or two copies, which was a store’s entire stock. By the time you pitch up looking, they’re sold out. And here’s the thing: if you don’t speak to someone in the store about what it is you’re looking for, they’ll never know they could have sold more copies. If it’s a store that never got sent copies in the first place, and that never gets any inquiries, they’ll never know about the sales they could have made.

Here’s another thing: almost every modern bookstore, whether an independent or part of a chain, is linked into a database which allows them to locate and request the book you want in a matter of seconds. It’ll generally be in-store for you to collect in a couple of days. And they want to do that. They are in the business of selling books. They want to know what it is you want to buy, and they want to sell it to you.

There’s a fair amount of kvetching about what bookstores do and don’t get right, and some of it may well be deserved. But I have a lot of sympathy for the basic business conundrum that booksellers face: they cannot stock all of the books in the world, and they need to prioritise those that will sell. They don’t know which books will sell until people buy them. But people can’t buy them unless they sell them. So they end up relying on historical sales data, which may not always be a good predictor of future sales potential.

So please, for the sake of the booksellers and me and every other struggling newbie or mid-list author: tell them what you’re looking for. Order it from them if you can, but even if you can’t – even if you’re about to leave town, or you’re going to go check somewhere else because you can’t wait you want it NOW – tell them about the sale they could have made. Tell them there’s a market for that book. Give them the data.

You’ll be doing us both a favour.

  • Stephanie Saulter

    I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it. In the meantime check out Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration, available wherever good books are sold.

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