Sci Fi November: Two Dudes Interview

I’ve been interviewed for Sci Fi November by the Two Dudes in an Attic speculative fiction blog, following their earlier review of Gemsigns. The questions were interesting and thought-provoking; in fact they provoked so many thoughts that the interview was split in two! Both sections are now up (and they’re not that long, promise). I like it when the questions I’m asked let me talk about things that I think are important, and these did. Here’s part 1, and here’s part 2.

Many thanks to Andrea Johnson for inviting me to participate, and introducing me to the Two Dudes.

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Holdfast #4: Diverse Reflections

It’s been very quiet on the blog for weeks and months now … and it’s going to stay that way until book 3 of the ®Evolution trilogy (no longer Gillung, it’s now titled Regeneration) is complete, which I reckon will be in another 4 weeks or so. I may write about some of the challenges later, when they are all firmly behind me … but for now am only popping my head up briefly to direct you to the latest issue of Holdfast Magazine, Diverse Reflections. Co-editor Lucy Smee interviewed me for it back in the summer; you can read that here, but do also check out the fiction and non-fiction, the bookshelf and playlist recommendations, and the cross media articles. Holdfast has also successfully crowdfunded their first anthology, and I’m told that should be ready by Christmas.

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.

Nine Worlds Wash-Up

As trailed in the last post, I spent the weekend at the inaugural Nine Worlds Geekfest near Heathrow. I said at the time that I was optimistic about the organisers being able to pull off the majority of their wildly ambitious multi-track programme reasonably well. In the end, it was even better than I expected.

The big thing that really deserves to be bigged up is just how truly inclusive it was. I had flashbacks to Danny Boyle’s lump-in-the-throat catchphrase from the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony: ‘This is for everyone.’ When a gathering of geekdom welcomes and facilitates (and acknowledges the crossovers between) players of muggle Quidditch; the full spectrum of LGBTQ+++ persons, interests and issues; fierce feminists; middle-aged and mostly male My Little Pony enthusiasts; steampunk cosplayers; parents with kids; knitters of swords, spaceships and dragons; writers, academics, bloggers and filmmakers; and, and everybody else – well, you know you’re in the presence of something very special. Against the occasional muttering that there was perhaps just a tad too much going on, I’d have to say that for many of the people who came it was probably a pretty rare opportunity to let their particular geek/freak flag fly in a safe space. And that, I think, has immense value. I was so proud to be a part of it.

The con loaded the 400+ items on the programme onto the Lanyrd app to provide attendees with a way to keep track of events. It integrates with Twitter and LinkedIn and works brilliantly on iPad and iPhone. I liked it a lot – if the Loncon3 organisers haven’t settled on their solution for individual schedules/profiles yet, they could do worse than to check it out.

I’d hoped my first item on Friday would be the Cake or Death panel, but by the time I got there it was beyond standing room only, and the army of cheerful volunteers, who kept things running smoothly throughout the con, cheerfully kept latecomers out. So I went to the Tea and Consequences fanfic welcome session instead, met the lovely Kate Keen who was running it, confessed my total ignorance of fanfic, and was given bespoke tea and delicious cakes and inducted into the mysteries. Next up was the Jo Fletcher Books double-trouble launch party for Snorri Kristjansson’s Swords of Good Men and Tom Pollock’s The Glass Republic (both of which have of course been added to the teetering pinnacle of my own Mount To-Be-Read). Mead flowed, along with wine and good cheer, and a grand time was had by all. Finally for Friday was the New Voices Slam Session: five-minute readings from nine new authors, including yours truly. It was emceed (when did that become a word?) by Hannah Chutzpah, on secondment from running the Creative Writing track, who suggested that since the Slam had been my idea maybe I’d like to go first – and I did – and it was great. I read a particularly crunchy scene from Gemsigns, and had a blast doing it. Then I got to sit back and enjoy readings from Adam Christopher, Emma Newman, Barry Nugent, Danie Ware, Jennifer Williams, Liz de Jager, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, and Lou Morgan. And you know what? There wasn’t a dud in the bunch. I don’t claim to have brought home all their books (too many! too many!), but they all sounded like cracking reads.

I wasn’t on the program on Saturday, which was a blessing since I’d only managed a couple of hours sleep. It also meant I got to go listen to lots of clever people talk about things variously amusing, interesting, and important (often all three). The day started with the Heroes vs. Villains debate (hilarious, and oddly insightful), followed by Why is the Future so Binary? More futurist speculation followed, with Is the Future Utopian or Dystopian? as determined by a stellar panel of SF authors.  Then a real quandary, as there were no less than four things on at 3.15 that I wanted to go to – in the end I plumped for New House Old Ghosts: Reinventing Mythology and the Supernatural, moderated by my very own editor/publisher Jo Fletcher. I followed that up with Women’s Worlds: Feminist Utopias in Literature which was particularly interesting following the earlier utopia vs. dystopia discussion, and continued the theme (sort of) with the Gender & Sexuality in SFF panel. Then I crawled away into the night to find food, came back fortified, hung out in the bar for a bit, and finally made my way, wine in hand, to the second New Voices Slam. Managed by Paul Cornell this time, with readings in alphabetical order by author, it featured Catherine Banner, Chris Brosnahan, Zen Cho, Laure Eve, Francis Knight, Snorri Kristjansson, Den Patrick, Tom Pollock, and Tade Thompson. And again was fabulous. Tom does an amazing runaway train (okay, Tom possibly is a runaway train), and Snorri’s drunken Viking pig farmer was worth the price of admission all on its own.

And finally Sunday, with no decisions to make about what to attend since the con had kindly put me on the programme all day. First was the gloriously named Can’t Take The Sky From Me: Science Fiction & Space Travel panel discussion, moderating Adam Christopher, Jaine Fenn, Gavin Smith, Charles Stross and Ian Whates. They were thoughtful and clever, and we had what turned out to be (for me anyway), a deeply interesting discussion on the imaginative possibilities and pitfalls, the technical challenges and thematic opportunities, and the literary evolution of stories set in space. I think I did all right as moderator; the questions I’d prepared kept the ball rolling, I made sure everyone contributed, we kept to time, and  got a lot of really astute audience questions in too. They were a great panel and I’d happily have many more chats with any or all of them, with or without an audience.

Can I say that a panel was great if I was on it? Next up was Racefail 101, moderated by Anne Perry, with Zen Cho, Rochita Ruiz, Tade Thompson and me. It was an incisive and pretty fearless discussion, very much in keeping with the spirit of the con, and I was incredibly impressed by my fellow panellists. We talked about historical baggage and cultural tropes, why they persist and the damage they do, and the barriers (for both readers and writers) of expectation, indoctrination, and fear that make it so hard to tear them down. Anne has summed it up nicely here, and has included the books we all recommended. Zen got to Karen Lord before I did, and my remaining recommendations are perhaps not obvious; but I wanted to give a shout-out to three straight, white, middle-aged men, because I worry that if our examples are only ever authors of colour/colonialism/some other form of otherness, we will perpetuate the myth that no one else can (or should try to) write realistic characters who are unlike themselves. So my picks are Neil Gaiman, Ian McDonald and Richard Morgan, who I think are shining examples of working hard to write race right. Once again the audience were deeply engaged, and contributed hugely to the discussion. The lesson: we can fix anything if we’re prepared to talk about it. We can’t if we’re not.

After Racefail I sat and signed at the Forbidden Planet table for an hour, and met and had long chats with lovely people, as you do. I shared the slot with Jonathan Green, who I hadn’t met before, and who I still ended up not talking to nearly enough because of all the other people we both had to talk to. So if you read this Jonathan, hello! I don’t normally break off half-way through every other sentence. And many thanks to Danie Ware and her FP colleagues for organising everything.

Last but by no means least, Rochita and I led a workshop on Writing the Other; and once again, in the spirit of the con, although it was nominally part of the Queer track, it was by no means limited to othernesses of sexuality and/or gender. We got very close to the maximum of 18 participants, many of whom I’d seen at Racefail and other panels; most were writers, one was a teacher, another a librarian, all interested in examining and improving their own reading and writing habits. Three of the four exercises were pulled from a longer workshop and accompanying guidebook of the same name, devised and authored by the American writers Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, which Rochita had completed some time before. The fourth was a test of perception and presumption that I invented. They all went really well, I thought. We ran twenty minutes over, which was probably due to a combination of trying to cram too much into the time available, and the knowledge that it was the end of the con and the last item of the day for most of us. I really enjoyed doing it, but if I were to attempt it again I think it would need to either be a full ninety minutes, or fewer exercises and more time for discussion of them.

And that was almost it; a few books to buy, a few people to say goodbye to, a hasty cup of tea, and the 200-mile drive back to Devon rounded out my day. But I can’t leave Nine Worlds without huge thanks to both Jenni Hill, who ran the Books track, and Tori Truslow, who did the same for the Queer track. Sound the trumpets, toss confetti, give speeches in their honour. They are phenomenal, and they made my con.

<<<>>>

P.S. No rest for the weary, let alone the wicked. Part of the reason I’ve been so detailed in my reportage here is – apart from the fact that I want to have a record of all the things I did and as many of the people I met as possible – that I’m going to be talking about it all tomorrow with Cheryl Morgan on Bristol’s Ujima Radio (98FM) at 12noon. Podcast to follow, but do tune in if you can – nothing like hearing someone lose the thread live on air!

The Subtext of Gemsigns

This is one of several posts I’ve written for the Jo Fletcher Books blog this month, linked below and reblogged here:

The Subtext of Gemsigns | Jo Fletcher Books.

There are many layers to Gemsigns. You certainly don’t have to be conscious of all of them to enjoy the book – I think a story has to work purely on the level of characters and plot, or it doesn’t work at all.  But my favourite stories are always those that try to examine some deeper truths as well.

Dealing with difference: To a huge degree Gemsigns is about what happens when those who have been overlooked and elided and generally made absent are allowed to emerge, and a society that has become extremely homogenous has to confront diversity. For the most part the gems don’t have the option of ‘passing’ because visible identifiers have been engineered into them so they can always be seen to be different; these are the ‘gemsigns’ of the title. The big foreground conflicts are based in public safety scaremongering, the economic consequences of emancipation, and fundamentalist religious hatred; but the thing that gives all of those issues traction, that fuels the fire of the various factions, is a deep-seated unease with difference.

Post-emancipation politics: I’m really interested in the ‘what do we do now’ moments – the bits that come after the monster has been slain, the catastrophe averted, the battle won. It’s common in fiction for that to be the point at which the story ends, but I often think that’s when things really start to get interesting. Who picks up the pieces, and how do they put what has been broken back together again? How do the survivors actually survive? How does the experience of what they’ve been through alter the decisions they make and shape the society that results? An early, abortive attempt at writing the book had the action set before the Declaration of the Principles of Human Fraternity, when the gems were still fighting for even limited freedoms. I got a few thousand words into that version and thought, Hang on. I’ve read this story – I know where it goes and how it ends. What happens after that? That’s the story I decided to write.

Mothers and children: It bugs me how few believable family relationships we see in science fiction. They crop up more often in fantasy, but even there they are rarely explored beyond the standard tropes – the Denied Daughter, the Special Son, the Troubled Teenager, the Vengeful Wife, the Cruel Patriarch. But the dynamics of family are far more complex and subtle than that; not to mention fundamental to forming us into the people we become. What happens to family in a world where children are doomed to die? Or where mothers may bear children but not keep them? Where generations of children are raised by institutions instead of parents? Putting a child’s fate at the heart of Gemsigns gave me a way in to exploring those questions. The relationship between Gaela and Bal and their adopted son Gabriel is central to the story, but the fates of many other mothers and children are chronicled as well. If the big headline question the book asks (as has been noted by many others, not least Jo Fletcher herself) is: What does it mean to be human? then the smaller, subtler, but no less important question is: What does it mean to be a mother?

  • 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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    The 2nd Book of the ®Evolution

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    The 1st Book of the ®Evolution

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    The 3rd Book of the ®Evolution

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