Tag Archives: speculative

Wherefore series one

There are now 50 episodes of Wherefore on my youtube channel. I’ve designated this as series 1 and you can find all 50 episodes here https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLd-6bmI3UuPDjEp1YqIYY6GkVTmG-1qux

Episodes are 5-10 minutes in length. It’s a bit like a soap opera although there are some underlying plot arcs, sort of. There’s a fair amount of magic and animism.

Here’s episode 1 –

Most of the reason for designating the first 50 episodes as series 1, is administrative – I think it’ll be easier to share around if I do it in chunks. I’m also considering doing a paper version because audio doesn’t work for everyone, and because I like paper. I’ll have to do a bit of an edit for that because it was written to be spoken and there’s things I’ve relied on my voice to carry that won’t come through with text alone.

There will be a series 2, and I’ll crack on with that shortly.

 


Alternative history

What happens when an author deliberately re-writes history to offer us an alternative? It’s pretty much a given in steampunk writing, it can be highly entertaining but it’s also problematic. I’ve been pondering this for a while now, and here’s what I’ve come up with.

I think the first key question is to ask what the re-imagined history does with actual history. One of the things speculative fiction does well is to create coherent and fast moving realities in which you can look at real issues. If the alternative bits serve to drive a story so that you can explore real historical issues, clearly this is going to work out well. I recently reviewed Stephen Palmer’s Factory Girl trilogy which is a case in point, using automatons as a quick way in to talking about the rights issues of the industrial revolution and Victorian era.

Alternative history is problematic when it simply takes out all the awkward bits and creates an impression that they never happened. History without the racism and sexism, without the grinding poverty, the colonialism, the exploitation, can serve to prop up the illusions of people with privilege who don’t want to deal with how things really were. Entertaining though Gail Carriger is, I think she’s an author who is a case in point here.

Alternative history can go further than this in the harm it does, by deliberately minimising real issues. My go-to title for this is an alternate Second World War story were aliens turn up so the humans have to work together. I think it’s a vile premise, encouraging the reader to treat the whole Nazi project as no big deal. I cannot remember the name of the series, or the author.

What occurred to me as I was thinking about this is that all historical fiction is alternative history. Even when the characters existed, the author puts words in their mouths and comes up with motives and explanations that are entirely speculative. We see the past through the filter of the present, we take our beliefs and preferences with us, and we imagine historical figures on our terms. We focus on the kinds of characters we find appealing and ignore those we don’t care for. Every story about the past is a re-writing, and is no less vulnerable to the problems I’ve mentioned above than openly speculative work is.

Our willingness to tell stories – especially romances- about the upper classes, with scant regard for where their money comes from and what enables their lavish lifestyles, is perhaps one of the most pernicious problems in the fictionalising of history. We romanticise wealth and power, and all too seldom do we look at the exploitation underpinning it.

Speculative fiction can encourage us to focus on what’s been added to history, but often the most important question to ask of any historically set book is – what, and who, has been left out?


Magic, fast food and an excerpt

This is the opening from Fast food at the Centre of the World – it’s a speculative novel, with a fair amount of silliness and seriousness tangled up in each other.

Across the road in a vacant parking lot, a man was down on his knees. Arms spread wide like he’d just been shot. As he didn’t fall over, it rapidly looked more like theatrical praying. Hazel couldn’t see anyone else around. She stopped at a safe distance to take a look. It might be a surrender. No sense running into a gang war. There were no shots, no warning sounds. If anything, the lot was too quiet. Still the man hadn’t moved. No blood pooled. He didn’t fall down. The situation no longer struck her as dangerous, so long as she moved on. There were packages in her pockets that needed delivering.

The man on his knees raised his head, and even at this distance, locked her gaze with his. Straggly hair fluttered around a narrow face. He had the emaciated build of a druggy, and being here, like this… did not bode well for him. Still she lingered, fascinated by the scene. Her first take on him was ‘trouble’, but ‘nutter’ came a close second. Substances seemed likely. Rapture maybe, or delirium. He could have picked a better place. Maybe he’d done a blend. That could fry your mind no trouble. Whatever he’d taken it didn’t look clever and staying around dumb people wasn’t her style. Dumb people turned into dead people so very easily. This nutter looked interesting, because he made no immediate sense. Curiosity remained one of Hazel’s big weaknesses. That, and being a soft touch. He might be in trouble.

She moved in closer, keeping to the buildings and alert for signs of possible threats. It might be quiet now, but there were no guarantees the street would stay that way, the disused car parks and empty buildings sometimes got themselves inhabited. Currently this dead zone made a good short cut on her rounds, but it never paid to get over confident. The overconfident people were usually second in line behind the dumb ones, when it came to getting dead at short notice. Or worse. Hazel had spent nineteen years successfully not becoming dead, and meant to continue that way.

Mister crazy car park man dropped right down, hands on the cracked tarmac, long hair falling around his face. He looked thin and odd, but not like he was street. Too clean. Too unshredded in the clothes department. So what was he doing? Hazel had watched people in the throes of all kinds of insanity, from just about every mad making chemical a body could take. Not one of them had ever done anything quite like this before. He seemed too still and quiet to be off his face. However, straight, clean, normal guys did not, in her experience, lie face down in empty parking lots, unless someone killed them first.

She knew it would be sensible to walk away and forget all about it. Spending her whole life running along the edges between sensible and insane to make a living, Hazel trusted her instincts. They kept her alive. Stupid risks were not part of her plan. Not very often. Hardly at all really. And after all, it wasn’t a huge risk, just a lone nut job in a big empty place with no one else around. What could possibly go wrong?

Getting closer, Hazel saw the man was crying. Not your regular understated bloke with leaky face scenario either. This looked serious. His whole body shook with it, low, agonised sounds coming out of his mouth in short bursts. Hazel revised her opinion of the whole setup. Less likely a drug fiend, more likely he was sick or injured.

“Hey mister, you in some kind of trouble there?” Hazel asked.

He straightened up, wiping a sleeve across his tear-streaked face. The intensity of his gaze startled her. He didn’t look hurt or wasted. Which left the possibility of him being just plain loopy. Hazel took a step back, very casually.

“I’m fine, thank you for your concern.”

That sounded coherent, if weird.

“You appear confused,” he continued.

“Oh yeah, well, I saw you…. wondered… though you might need some help.” She took another step back just to be on the safe side and well out of arm’s reach.

The man said nothing for what seemed like a long time. He just kept staring at her. Hazel had the uncomfortable feeling he was looking a lot deeper than her mop of tangled hair, piercings, war-paint and tatty clothing. Lifting her chin, she returned that searching glare as best she could. Looking down on him was a plus, but not a big one. The weird man could have been in his thirties, plus or minus a bit. Gaunt, and fierce looking, but not, she decided, mean. There was something about his mouth that struck her as generous. Not a man who smiled much though.

“You’ve a good head and a decent heart,” he observed. “You know the area? Live round here?”

“Round about.” She offered no details. “Here and there, you know how it is.”

“I don’t, but I mean to learn. I get the feeling that you’d like to help me.”

A warm feeling pooled in her stomach. The man’s lips were still moving, but no sound reached her ears. She had the vague feeling there were words, somewhere beyond the reach of her perceptions. Dancing, joyful words full of good things to come. Words that promised safety and a home. For a moment, Hazel became aware of all the many things she wanted and didn’t have. The moving lips said so many things, but through and between the words, she heard, “I will give you the world if you help me out here.”

“Yes. I’m a helpful sort of person,” she said. “What is it that you need?”

The guy wiped his eyes again and frowned. “Still working on that one. Stick around, yes?”

Again that warm, melting feeling caught her, the need to say ‘yes’ stronger than her usual good sense. It seemed like he couldn’t possible ask anything bad. “What, around here? This parking lot?”

“That’s the one. I need to fetch a few things, but I should move in tonight, before anyone else does.”

“Move in here?” She looked around, reassuring herself that there were absolutely no habitable buildings. Not even by her low standards. At the very least you needed a door to bar.

If you’d like the rest of the book, you can listen to it for free on bandcamp or download it from there. Here’s the first episode – https://nimuebrown.bandcamp.com/track/fast-food-at-the-centre-of-the-world-part-one 


Visiting other worlds

Imaginary worlds can play such a big role in our lives. So many people have been moved by Middle Earth, many of us know which Hogwarts House we should be in. As adults we can invest a surprising amount of passion and energy in things that do not, in any tangible sense, exist. And those investments can have huge, real world consequences. How many people get into physics because they secretly hope to invent warp drive, or the light sabre? We have to imagine something before we can make it real.

Creating a world is an incredible process. Creating a setting that is not exactly the world you inhabit is plenty enough of a job. Living between the world that is seen, and a world that is only seen by you is a strange sort of thing to engage in. Those more drawn to shamanistic world views might be inclined to wonder how much the world a creator ‘sees’ was there already, just waiting to be found…

When a speculative book comes into the world, we get to interact with each other’s imaginary places. One of the great joys for me, in helping Tom create Hopeless Maine, has been watching people get involved and make parts of the story their own. It’s a roomy reality, it’s always been open to collaborators, and back when we were running The Hopeless Vendetta regularly – the island’s newspaper, people really did get involved in the stories. (Do, do read the comments).

Hopeless Maine is back out – volumes one and two in a single edition, plus The Blind Fisherman (previously on the webcomic but not previously on paper) and a new small story about Reverend Davies.

The Book Depository has been the most reliable place to find a copy, it’s available all over, but keeps selling out! http://www.bookdepository.com/Hopeless–Maine–Volume-1/9781908830128

 


When we are hard to promote

One of the reasons book genres exist, is they make it easier to sell books. The understanding is that readers read genres, and can be persuaded to pick up things in their niche, and that you have to be able to tell a person what a book is ‘like’ for them to want it.

As a reader, I struggle with this, because what I want above all else is to be surprised, and the more tidily a story fits in a genre, the less likely it is to surprise me. I like to experience wonderful, imaginative, insightful things. I want to be played with, taken on a journey to an unfamiliar place, shown something I would never have thought of. That’s not even slightly a choice-of-genre issue.

As an author, it gets worse. I’ve tried writing genre fiction, for the being sellable, but of course because I don’t enjoy it as a reader, I’m not great at it as an author – I can’t stay inside the boxes, or what I write feels forced and I get miserable, and it all seems a bit pointless anyway.

I’d like to tell you about my new novel. It’s speculative. There are lots of trees in it, and a steam powered car, mad technology, some taking the piss out of New Age self help books, something a bit goddessy, a very curious sort of slow apocalypse in progress, Kafak-esque authority figures, V-esque revolutionaries, and a really arsey goat.

(It is so much easier plugging other people’s books, I never know what to say about my own).

My test readers gave such a mixed response that I still don’t know how to pitch it. My son laughed all the way through – which may just be proof that he inherited my dark and twisted sense of humour. One test reader found it ‘a bit grim’ while a third came back and said ‘how do we make this happen and when do we start?’

If you’ve ever thought that more trees and fewer people would be good, you might like this book.

If you’ve secretly cherished ideas about the one, big, tidy apocalypse that will wipe out the people who annoy you, leaving you and your friends improbably intact, then you may well like this book.

If the idea that a novel with a paradox at its heart is bound to be a bit confusing doesn’t entirely put you off, you may like this book.

And of course if you’ve read any of my other novels, and are still showing up to the blog, there’s a distinct possibility you’ll like this book.

Otherwise, consider it the ideal gift for a relative you don’t especially like!

More about said book over here – snowbooks.co.uk/