Days of Christmas Future

I completed and submitted Regeneration, the 3rd book of the ®Evolution trilogy, a week ago. You would think that means I now have lots of time to attend to neglected things like social media updates and blogging, but oh no – because so much has been neglected over the past few weeks and months (company accounts! bills! VAT returns!) that I am racing to catch up before the end of December arrives and turns me into a pumpkin. Not to mention more pleasurable offline pursuits like friends in town for Christmas and other delights of the season. So for now I’m cheating by reposting a piece I wrote for the Jo Fletcher Books Christmas 2014 Advent Calendar about the significance of Christmas in Gemsigns. (Which means, incidentally, that if anyone out there’s looking for a very last-minute bookish gift idea that has some relevance to the the week we’re in … without necessarily being, y’know, a ‘Christmas Story’ in the traditional sense … Blackwell’s. Forbidden Planet. Foyles. Waterstones. And quite possibly an independent bookshop near you.)

Here you go. I will be back with something new and original soon … possibly on how it feels to have finished! writing! a trilogy! Until then, compliments of the season.

When is a Christmas story not a Christmas story?

I’ve been thinking about this on and off for a few years now, ever since I finished writing Gemsigns. Although the events of the novel lead up to and conclude on Christmas Day – a fact which is hugely significant within the narrative logic of the book – you would never know from the jacket blurb or the majority of the reviews that it has anything to do with Christmas.

That’s fair enough, as the narrative is not constructed to reinforce the traditional religiosity of the season, nor the contemporary commerciality with which we are all familiar. The novel is, however, very interested in the construction, interpretation and evolution of myth. Part of what I was interested in when I wrote it is how the founding mythologies and legends of a future civilisation might develop, and how the cultural standards with which we here in the twenty-first century are familiar might morph and shift and adapt themselves to new ways of thinking and being. I don’t buy the idea that ancient cultural touchstones and archetypes simply disappear under an avalanche of techno-advancement, or that they survive only as a sort of throwback primitivism. I think that in the same way the pagan festivals of the winter solstice and the spring equinox were co-opted and adapted into Christmas and Easter, these cyclical commemorations, these holy-days will adapt and evolve again. One of the many things I was trying to achieve with Gemsigns was an imagining of that sort of deep cultural evolution.

Gemsigns opens with a short introductory passage related by an omniscient narrator who speaks in the riddling, mythopoeic voice of legends, epics, and sacred texts:

When describing a circle one begins anywhere. Each step precedes and succeeds with no greater or less meaning: the tale they tell remains unvaried.

The narrator then tells of a hunted child fleeing unnamed but terrifying pursuers; an escape whose end is indeterminate. Told in the present tense, the subsequent context makes it clear that this incident has occurred in the story’s past, forming an in-the-beginning backdrop to a tale that unfolds in our future: in a London that has survived the apocalypse of a generational pandemic and the dystopia of the resulting slave state. The omniscient voice is gone now, for in the confusion that follows few people are sure of anything, and absolutely no one knows everything.

Day by day over a winter week, the reader witnesses events from the perspective of a range of characters who identify with different political, social, economic and, yes, religious camps. But it is only on the sixth of these days that the reader learns precisely which week they are witness to: for the sixth day, the day of reckoning, is Christmas Eve and the seventh day, the day of resolution, is Christmas.

Within the world of the story these commemorations are no longer the common knowledge of our own era. They are significant to some of the characters, and that significance drives their actions within the narrative, but they no longer matter to society as a whole. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are historical artefacts, observed only by a minority and neither commercially nor socially important.

This is not, then, a Christmas story. Except it kind of is. Among its many characters and influencers are a small child of great significance to the world he inhabits, a powerful bureaucracy (and outlaw theocracy) who are threatened by what he represents, and a band of second-class non-citizens struggling to assert their own humanity and their right to the same freedoms, privileges and responsibilities as everyone else. Their ability to do so is both compromised and symbolised by their commitment to protect and cherish the child, whose existence has the potential to undermine the system under which they are oppressed.

The fact that these conflicts play out to their conclusion over Christmas was not merely for the convenience of the plot. I very consciously wanted to construct a new cultural paradigm within a science-fictional setting. Science fiction rarely, it seems to me, takes the past as seriously as it does the future (one could make the parallel argument that fantasy rarely takes the future as seriously as it does the past, but that is a subject for another essay); it rarely acknowledges how much of its future-world-building must perforce be influenced by the full depth and richness of what has gone before. I thought it would be interesting to use a holy-day of great historical and cultural significance for the unveiling of a new revelation; to take the date that gave us anno domini and from it launch a new era. What happens in Gemsigns at Christmas is what that day, in that possible future, will be remembered for.

This is not, of course, something that religious traditionalists – either within the world of the book or out here in the ‘real’ world – are likely to be pleased about. They generally cannot countenance the notion that the way people live and the things they believe can, must, should be constantly subject to question; subject to change. But I like to think that the legendary rebel whose life informed and whose death founded our own era, if he ever existed and was as good and brave a man as we imagine, would approve.

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My Nine Worlds Geekfest Schedule

UPDATE 30 July: Signing and room assignments added

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Here’s my schedule for the 2nd Nine Worlds Geekfest Convention, now (gasp!) only a month few days away:

 

Friday 8 August 15:15 – 16:30, County C&D

Superheroes and Superhuman: exploding the myth of the superwhathaveyou

Superheroes are everywhere these days, from comic books to literary novels to the Disney Store. How is society exploring what ‘super’ means, and how does that change depending on the suffix attached?

Nick Harkaway, Jenni Hill, Taran Matharu, Barry Nugent, Stephanie Saulter

 

Friday 8 August 22:15 – 23:30, Royal B

New Voices: Welcome to the class of 2014!

The evening showcase of new writers – one of last year’s most popular events – returns! Bring your drinks, bring your friends: this is your chance to find your next literary addiction. Fun and fast, New Voices is an opportunity for debut writers – if you know someone who would fit the bill, head over to Twitter and nominate them at @booksnineworlds.

MC: Stephanie Saulter

 

Saturday 9 August 11:45 – 13:00, Connaught B

Writing The Other – A workshop for writers

How do you write ‘the Other’ without falling into common traps, harmful tropes, and clichés? Back by popular demand after last year’s successful event, we will be exploring these issues in a writers’ workshop, with exercises, discussion and a Q&A.

Facilitator: Stephanie Saulter

 

Saturday 9 August 22:15 – 23:30, Royal B

New Voices: the class of 2014 continues!

More fun and fast-paced readings from the best new writers.

MC: Stephanie Saulter 

 

Sunday 10 August 11:45 – 13:00, Connaught B

Reading SF While Brown – Views on speculative fiction

For many of us, reading science fiction and fantasy was a formative experience — one that introduced new ideas, and shaped what we knew or hoped to be possible. But what imaginative leaps does a reader have to make to buy into worlds that don’t include anyone who looks or talks like them? And what impact does making that imaginative leap, time and again, ultimately have? Genre writers and readers talk about their experiences of reading SF while brown.

 Camille Lofters, Taran Matharu, Rochita Loenen Ruiz, Stephanie Saulter (moderator), Aishwarya Subramanian

 

Sunday 10 August 13:30 – 14:45, County C&D

X-Punk: punk as suffix, genre and state of mind

Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Grimpunk, Sandalpunk, Godpunk, Pinkpunk, Punkpunk… what’s nextpunk? Our panelists consider the next big thing – and the perils of the X-Punk genre lifestyle.

Djibril al-Ayad, Kim Curran, Mathew Pocock, Stephanie Saulter, M. Suddain

 

Sunday 10 August 14:45 – 15:45, Commonwealth West

Signing @ Forbidden Planet table

Gail Carriger, Stephanie Saulter, M. Suddain

 

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You can follow Nine Worlds news and updates on Twitter at @London_Geekfest.

The World in the City

I am again a Londoner. A Hoxtonite to be precise; a denizen of the Kingsland Road, a drifter along Pitfield Street, a haunter of Shoreditch. It’s not surprising that London inspires so many tales of its alternate selves. The names of the city are a language ripe for linkages and construction, a thousand stories begging to be told. Queensbridge runs alongside Kingsland, within shouting but not touching distance. London Fields are full of flowers, pressed hard between the Blackstone Estate and the Overground line. I followed Goldsmiths Row into Haggerston Park the other day, and stepped from city to woodland as through a portal. My path led round the back of Hackney City Farm, the smell of manure reminiscent of the stables across the field from my old home in Devon; the sounds of traffic and the voices speaking a dozen languages in a hundred accents less so.

Around a corner and into the open, and a tiny boy, Turkish I think, shrieking with laughter as he practiced his Usain Bolt sprint between delighted parents. His mother’s tight jeans and hijab were closer by far to my leggings and trailing scarf than the jilbabs of the two Somali women, gossiping behind their pushchairs. Acres of playing fields in the heart of the city, full of a thousand shades of children. Worlds do not so much collide in London as fade into each other, between the shadow of one cloud and the next.

I’m so happy to be back.

What’s in a genre? Unpicking science fiction, fantasy and horror

My bookshelves are bastions of unreality. Narnia and Middle-Earth, Dune and the Culture. Morgan and Mieville. Gaiman and Pullman. Joe Hill and H.P. Lovecraft. The direction of my reading has been second to the right and straight on ’til morning since I was young enough to want to be Wendy.

Most bookshops stack the stuff I love in a corner labelled Fantasy/Sci Fi/Horror, and they do indeed sit very comfortably on a continuum of related reading experiences. As a reader, I never thought too much about the underlying structure of the fantastical. As a writer, I have to. And I’ve discovered that the distinctions which are often subtle for the reader can be quite profound for the writer.

All three genres posit a reality that is different than the humdrum, everyday “real world” that we all inhabit; the writer has to create that reality and draw the reader into it. This is worldbuilding, and while it’s a necessary element of almost every story, its demands on the imagination are arguably greater for horror, fantasy and science fiction than for other genres. But there are some key differences between these broad categories of the unreal. I find them in the measure of internal coherence required of the fictional world; the degree of continuity between it and the “real” world; and the amount of explanation that needs to be provided to the reader.

In horror, the reader is given little or no information about the hidden mechanics of the storyworld; it often appears to be the same as the “real” world (and therefore to require no explanation), until weird things start to happen. Then the inexplicability of events, and their disconnection from a rational, coherent framework wherein they make sense in relation to other events is what drives the sense of apprehension and terror. (A caveat: this applies more to modern horror writing. Classic novels such as Frankenstein and Dracula were written following what we would now think of as a science fiction or fantasy approach to worldbuilding.)

In fantasy, the reader is given a greater degree of explanation for how the world of the story works, which is necessary as it is usually immediately obvious that it is not the “real” world. These explanations are often elaborate and detailed, but they only need to be internally coherent – in other words they only need to make sense within the covers of the book, within the world of the story. The laws and logic of the fantasy world can be completely disconnected from the “real” world, as long as the story obeys the special rules of the fantasy world.

In science fiction lots of explanation is required, and it needs to be both internally coherent and to have some continuity with the “real” world. The physical reality of the science fiction story needs to follow the same basic rules as the “real” world, or at any rate to provide a rational explanation for any discrepancies. Science fiction need not always be set in the future; but wherever and whenever the story occurs, and however profoundly different the world it inhabits, the reader needs a plausible connection between the “here” of the real world and the “there” of the science fiction world. A fantasy world does not require the same degree of plausibility.

It seems to me that this sequence represents an ascending order of difficulty for the writer as worldbuilder. In horror the storyworld does not need to make rational sense; in fantasy it needs to make sense internally, but not externally; in science fiction it needs to be plausible both internally and externally. (I’m not, by the way, suggesting that it’s easier to write horror than science fiction – far from it. Creating the suspension of disbelief necessary to make you scared of an implausible monster is a tough trick.)

Having managed to unpick the nature of the writers’ challenges and readers’ complicity in constructing these imaginary settings, we inevitably run up against the stuff that just doesn’t seem to fit. Novels like The Time Traveller’s Wife or Never Let Me Go create a problem for genre cubbyholers. The scenarios they posit should be classic science fiction Big Ideas – but the authors make no real attempt to explain the how or why of the situations the characters find themselves in. Their worlds could be ours, but for the disconnects – an unrecognisable history that just is, seemingly impossible stuff that just happens. And excellent and acclaimed though these books are, there remains a sneaking sense of unease amongst both the SF geeks who want an explanation, dammit, and aren’t entirely inclined to trust an author who doesn’t give them one; and the snobbish literati who can’t quite put to bed the suspicion that they’ve been conned into reading something that smacks – gasp, shudder – of sci fi. Horrors.

Which, actually, is pretty close to the mark. I’m not a genre pedant; I’m happy to simply read a good book. But if I had to shelve these two in my fantasy bookshop of the fantastical, under Horror they would go.

  • I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it.

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