Serene Three

Aliens and Optimism

First contact with an alien race fascinates writers and readers alike. It’s a fundamental trope of SF, there at the very beginning of the modern incarnation of the genre with Wells’ The War of the Worlds, and still going strong today. It’s almost a given, with few exceptions, that first contact will engender conflict, often martial conflict. It’s a great engine for story-telling, after all – a metaphor for the fears of the time and a way of objectifying the other in non-specific terms: the alien invasion films of the ’fifties were little more than America’s fear of the Soviet Union writ large on the silver screen. We’re still at it more than fifty years later, only this time the perceived enemy – garbed in alien guise – is Islam.

Which is all well and good if you like that kind of thing. It generates story dynamic, after all. All stories are powered by conflict – but it’s only one aspect of the consequence of first contact. To begin with, the idea that aliens will be hostile is a convenient assumption arrived at for the sake of penning a gung-ho war story… But the idea is based, lazily, I think, on the anthropocentric idea that all races out there will be motivated by the same imperatives that impel the human race: greed, the need of material gain, resources, territory, etc. The likelihood is that when we do come across aliens they will be as unlike ourselves as it’s possible to be, creatures that have been shaped by the evolutionary dictates of an ecology and environment wholly unlike our own. They idea that they will want the same thing as we do is unlikely.

I prefer to think – optimistically – that aliens might not come to Earth in order to pillage and annihilate, subjugate us and strip the planet of its resources. Call me naïve, but I think that a race that has existed long enough to develop FTL technology might, just might, have outgrown the baser motives of materialistic gain and the desire to do violence. Call me a hopeless bleeding-heart liberal if you like, but maybe aliens might come to Earth with the idea of making it a better place, of making humanity a better race.

That was the starting point of the ideas that would coalesce into my seventeenth novel, The Serene Invasion.

I’d done something similar – though not so ambitious – in the series of linked stories that I fixed-up into the novel Kéthani. Aliens come to Earth, though they remain in the background throughout the book, and grant human beings the chance to become immortal. The choice is ours. We can forego the gift, if we like, and live ‘normal’ lives, dying and remaining dead. Or we can take up the offer of the Kéthani and become immortal – dying and being reborn – with the proviso that we work for them as ambassadors to the stars, bringing the message of the Kéthani to other races out there. There is much argument in the book about whether the gift of the aliens is beneficial, or not – a question that is never resolved.

I wanted to be more definite in The Serene Invasion, and come down on the side of the aliens.

In the novel, as in Kéthani, we never see the aliens. We see their representatives, beings called self-aware entities, biological androids if you like, that have been on Earth for more than a hundred years, smoothing the way for the ultimate ‘invasion’. The entities can take on human form, and do, melding into the fabric of society and working their subtle magic. They are the closest we get to seeing the actual S’rene. Now the reason I didn’t want to show the aliens – the same reason I didn’t show them in Kéthani – is that I wanted to retain reader credibility, and I judged there would be a great danger of losing this if I described the aliens physically. One way of portraying the S’rene, and retaining some credibility, would be to show them as in some way humanoid. But I thought it better to maintain the mystery and mystique of these all-powerful beings if I refrained from showing them at all.

And the gift that the S’rene – or the Serene as they soon become known – bring to Earth?

They come to Earth and stop us committing violence upon ourselves and upon all life.

To the majority of the human race, this is a welcome boon – but of course there will be those out there who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, the old ways of violence and conflict. Arms manufacturers and the gun lobby and hunters, and the multi-nationals whose profit depends on people killing each other.

The novel is about how the world will change, thanks to the Serene.

It’s SF – it’s also, I admit, a wish-fulfilment fantasy written from a standpoint of increasing frustration and desperation with the human race, and our political systems. But it’s also optimistic, in that it shows that, with the right impetus and input, normal everyday people – the disempowered, if you like – can and do embrace the ways of peace.

I am, if nothing else, a fundamentally optimistic writer. Looking back over all my novels and short stories, I realise that they present an overall positive view of the future, and of humanity. Okay, so in the New York books (the Virex trilogy) the world is almost ruined, but there is hope, and the characters portrayed are fundamentally good people, with dreams and aspirations, who win through in the end. The same with Helix; planet Earth might be dying, but there is hope thanks to the alien Builders and the refuge of the ten thousand worlds on the Helix. In the Bengal Station trilogy – Necropath, Xenopath and Cosmopath – I wanted to take a character who at the start of the books is a nihilist but who, through experiencing the events portrayed in the three books, comes to some understanding of himself and achieves eventual happiness. I wanted to show that nihilism is too easy a response to the human condition. We live short lives, riven by pain and suffering, physical and psychological, and then we die, face an eternity of oblivion, and we know this. But we are after all creatures with sensibilities limited by the dictates of our environment. We see only what we want to see, what we have been conditioned to see, and therefore – I like to think – we apprehend only a partial truth of the wonder of the universe.

I can’t prove that, of course: all I can do is write my small, hopeful tales of the future.

Because there is always hope, I like to think, and in The Serene Invasion I’ve tried to show that for some people – lucky enough to exist on the partial universe of my imagination, and of my readers’ imaginations – hope has become a reality.

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Murder at the Chase

Murder at the Chase 2Murder at the Chase, out today, is the second book in the Langham and Dupré mystery series which began with Murder by the Book. The novels chart the relationship between the central character, the thriller writer Donald Langham, and his literary agent Maria Dupré. It’s also about the murders they solve along the way. In the first book, Langham and Dupré were embroiled in a series of killings committed by a disgruntled hack who was wreaking havoc in the literary world of London in 1955. The second volume takes the pair to a sleepy Suffolk village in the same year, to investigate the disappearance of a fellow writer, Edward Endicott.

One of the things I wanted to do in this novel, other than develop Langham’s relationship with Maria, and tell a rattling good murder mystery, was to write a story that debunks mysticism and the occult. Donald Langham is a dyed-in-the-wool Socialist and, like me, a rationalist: not for him a woolly belief in ghosties and ghouls and things that go bump in the night. There’s a scientific explanation for everything, even if first glance a rational explanation might not be that obvious.

In Murder at the Chase, Edward Endicott has vanished from a locked room, and his son Alasdair thinks that the evil Satanist Vivian Stafford might have had a hand in the affair. Alasdair firmly believes that Stafford – a cohort of Aleister Crowley and his fellow diabolists – is the possessor of occult powers, in league with the Devil, and that he’s behind Edward Endicott’s disappearance. Endicott senior is writing a book about the Satanist, and Alasdair believes that his father might have uncovered facts that Stafford would rather not come to light.

The mystery deepens when copious blood is discovered in the copse behind Endicott Chase, and all concerned assume that it is Edward who was the victim.

When the body of the Satanist Vivian Stafford is discovered, however, the chase is on to find his killer. Suspects include the Endicotts themselves, the local vicar, the mad artist Haverford Dent, and the retired American actress Caroline Dequincy.

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The novel is in many respects a routine ‘cosy’ – though I don’t like that word – whodunit, set in rural England and featuring many of the standard tropes of the genre: vicars and tea parties, eccentric characters, thud and blunder, and the gradual unravelling of the mystery until the murderer is unmasked. But it’s also a character study of Donald and Maria as their love for each other deepens – with one or two hiccups along the way – and a vindication of Langham’s rationalist world view, as the shenanigans of the so-called Satanist Vivian Stafford are revealed to be nothing more than artifice, sham and ‘hand-waving’.

As with the first book, I had great fun writing this one. The characters took off, I loved the English setting, and it was a relief to be writing about a world familiar to readers. There was none of the world-building obligatory in most SF, no explication of futuristic science and technology – I could get on with telling the story.

I have a few ideas for further titles in the series: Murder at the BBC and Murder at the Castle being the next two, each following Langham and Dupré as they stumble into murder and mayhem, avoid the cudgels of those out for their blood, and look forward to their forthcoming marriage.

This piece first appeared on Upcoming4me.

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Serene Two

I wrote The Serene Invasion out of a sense of despair. I was sick and tired, and insulted, by the swathes of right wing militaristic SF pouring from the presses – giving SF a bad name and perpetuating the stereotype that SF is only about conflict and violence.

I was also sick, and still am, or hearing about conflict, whether that be the global conflict engendered by super-powers in whose self-interest wars are fought, or the more small scale conflict of a crazed gunman going into schools and shopping plazas, mainly in the US, and killing people. The vast majority of the human race is peace abiding, and serious violence is not the norm – but the news media work on the dubious premise that bad news – ie: violence – sells newspapers. It’s hard to get away from new of wars and terrorism and violence.

Is conflict, the desire to do violence, hard-wired into the human psyche? What might happen, I wondered, if suddenly the human race was unable to commit acts of violence?

I was also sick of alien invasion tales portraying aliens – ie, the other – as ravaging predators out to enslave humans, take our resources, destroy our world. Okay, so it makes for exciting gung-ho adventure stories, but the cliché is getting a bit tired now. It’s the reason I wrote the Kéthani sequence of stories, years ago. I wanted to present aliens in a positive light. I wanted to show that not all aliens coming to Earth would be motivated by the same short-term, material-gains ethos that propels and motivates most human political machinations. Might aliens come here intent not on exploiting us but on bringing enlightenment to our race?

And so the seeds of an idea were sown… a few years ahead of the actual writing of The Serene Invasion.

It’s the year 2025 and the Earth is invaded by the S’rene. They’ve been here for years, working undercover to set the groundwork for their benign invasion. But now they arrive on the planet in vast starships, and drop domes on every habitable area on the face of the Earth, and go about changing us and recruiting personnel from among the human race to do their bidding. Geoff Allen is one such person, a photo-journalist whose humanitarian work has brought images of stark violence into homes across the world. Ana Devi is another, a penniless street-kid from Kolkata who looks after a gang of similar penurious urchins and is dragooned by the aliens because of her compassion and humanity. Together with ten thousand like souls, they work to bring the word of the S’rene to the not-always receptive ears of the population.

I wanted in the novel to show a world without violence, and how it would benefit us – and show also those with self-interest, arms dealers, bigoted capitalists, and hordes of others, who oppose the bringing of peace to the Earth. I wanted to write a novel that rails against the shibboleths of the right-wingers, the multinational corporations, religious fanatics of all stripes, the Tea Party nutters, the American gun lobby, political hypocrites like Blair and Cameron and Clegg…

I was aiming at many sacred cows: a world without violence would be a vastly different place to the world as it is today. Capitalism would collapse, gross materialism would wither, societies would change out of all recognition. But I chose to show these changes by focusing on the lives of a few individuals, people for the most part without power; I wanted to show their stories, their travails and hardships, their hopes and dreams… and I set myself the challenge of writing the novel without the usual tool that powers fictive narrative: namely, conflict… except, of course, there is conflict in the novel, though not martial conflict, rather the small-scale conflict of desires and dreams and aspirations.

It was the hardest novel I’ve ever written, with a few false starts and wrong turnings – but I’m happy with the result (with a few reservations, of course: I should have been more politically outspoken, perhaps, with more criticism of the smug, dangerous complacency of capitalism and Western materialism. And there are one or two other issues I should have addressed in order to make the picture complete.)

But whether it is the best novel I’ve ever written… A writer is at the mercy of the critics like – to borrow a phrase from Brian Aldiss – a stag at bay awaiting the shot of the hunter.

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Serene One

This is the first of three posts about my novel The Serene Invasion which will be appearing over the course of the next few days.

I had the germ of the idea for The Serene Invasion about five years ago: aliens come to Earth and, in a bid to save the human race, inhibit our ability to commit violence upon one another – indeed, stop us committing any form of violence at all, upon anything: we can’t harm each other or animals. Wars are a thing of the past. So is eating meat.

The idea bubbled away on the back-burner for a while, and grew to the point where it had to be written. I outlined the novel and submitted it to the powers-that-be at Solaris, and my editor Jonathan Oliver liked it.

The need to write the novel came about from being deluged, as we all are, by the surfeit of news about wars, atrocities, killings and general violence issued by the news media – out of all proportion to the actual quantative reality of violence in the world. I wondered what kind of world we might live in if we were rendered physically unable to commit violence – and that led me to consider the fact that there would be a hard-core minority who would oppose the change, for various reasons of vested interest: arms manufacturers, the US gun lobby, high-ups in the army, business-men and -woman who make a profit from human beings killing each other…

From the novel:

The newsfeeds and internet had been rife with doom-mongers in the first couple of years after the Serene intervention in human affairs. They forecast that such a radical alteration in the mechanism of the human psyche – the total abnegation of an individual’s ability to carry through acts of violence – would have dire psychological consequences. So-called experts stated that violence was a safety-valve which, if not allowed to blow from time to time, would store up untold mental pressure which would in time burst with catastrophic results.

Nina said, “I always thought they were wrong, Geoff. Okay, so if everyone on the planet committed acts of violence every day, day in day out, then they might have had a case. But think about it – how many acts of violence did you perpetrate before the coming of the Serene?”

He shrugged. “Not many. In fact… I can remember defending myself against a bully when I was twelve, and once or twice wanting to hit someone, but never carrying out the urge.”

“There you are then. I am the same, along with the majority of the people in this square, I think. The nay-sayers, as you call them, were wrong. Violence is not a pre-requisite of being human, just a nasty side-effect of social conditions. And violence is certainly not a right, as some would claim it is.”

I wanted to write a novel that show that the propensity to commit violence isn’t hardwired into the psyche of humankind: that, in the right environment, we can be steered away from violence. Social engineering on a grand scale, a project to make human beings better – ironically carried out by an alien race.

The novel is set over a period of four decades, showing the change in the world from the point of view of four main characters. Two work for the Serene (our mysterious benefactors who are never seen), and one viewpoint character, a businessman, trenchantly opposes what the Serene have done to humanity.

It was the hardest novel I’ve ever written in that it was an ideas-based book, and I usually write character-oriented (or action-adventure) SF; that said, the characters soon took over and dictated the flow of events, which I find always happens when a book is going well. The hardest character to write was James Morwell, the businessman opposed to non-violence: I abhorred his mind-set, disagreed with his view that violence was necessary – but I had to include him in the narrative for the obvious reasons that I had to show a dissenting voice (as there would be dissenting voices if the Serene invasion were to happen); I also had to write about Morwell for a less apparent reason: in a novel which is about non-violence, in which the ability to commit harm is taken from human beings, how does one go about dramatising conflict? So I included Morwell and, later, a race of aliens opposed to what the Serene were doing on Earth and elsewhere.

Of course I enjoyed (as I always do) writing about the good people: Ana Devi, the Indian street kid who looks after her urchin charges and who, thanks to the Serene, transcends her lowly origins; Geoff Allen the photo-journalist who thinks, perhaps naively, that by bringing the fact of war atrocities to the awareness of the world he might in some small way alleviate suffering, and who goes on to work for the Serene and brings about peace; and ex-Marxist doctor Sally Walsh, who loves Geoff for his naivety, and through whose eyes we see much of the gradual change to human society over the decades.

It was a difficult novel to write, and one that presented numerous challenges. As to whether I’ve got it right, I’ll leave for readers to decide. For my part, I know that it’s the best possible novel I could have written on the subject, and sits alongside The Kings of Eternity, Kéthani and the Starship novellas as one of my own personal favourites.

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Reviews

I’m sometimes asked how I take reviews of my work. It’s a valid question; people wonder if I take criticism personally. I always reply by saying that a bad review of a book or story, which I might have taken weeks, months, or even years to write – and which was written with integrity and as much ability as I possess – naturally hurts. But I’ve always maintained that as a writer you really must be philosophical about reviews. When a bad notice comes in, you remind yourself that it’s only one person’s opinion; likewise when a novel or story gets a good notice. The view I take is that a you finish a novel or story, it’s published, it’s read (hopefully), and then perhaps reviewed. In the natural order of things, some people will love your book, some people will hate it, and others will have an opinion somewhere in between. It’s pot-luck who you get reviewing your work. I always comfort myself with the thought (probably erroneous!) that there is someone out there – at least one person – who will get something from even my poorest work… whichever one that might be.

In my years of being a freelance writer, I’ve had stinking reviews, extremely complimentary reviews, and many mediocre ones.

I’ve always made it a policy never to reply to a reviewer, whether the review they’ve written is good or bad. (Though I must admit that I’ve been tempted to negative reviews, a few times.) Who wants to read a whinging writer castigating a reviewer for criticising their work? Even when the reviewer is plain wrong, or misguided, or when they’ve misread something, or chosen to interpret something in the text that manifestly bears no relation to the writer’s intentions – keep silent. I’ve had instances of all the above in reviews of my work, and I’ve had to quell the initial burning impulse to submit to my rage and pen a hasty and – no doubt – intemperate reply.

In my time as a reviewer, I’ve handed out my fair share of stinkers, to books I honestly deemed to be cynical pieces of rubbish. And I’ve been lenient with bad books where I’ve thought the writer was trying to do their best, but for whatever reasons didn’t achieve it. We’ve all read bad books which we’ve enjoyed, which were written with honesty if not great skill. Why hurt the feelings of a writer who’s tried their best?

But a real stinking review which I had no guilt in penning a few years ago was of a terrible book entitled Spiral by someone called Suzuki. That book angered me more than any other I’ve read: it was bad in every department, a piece of hackwork that should never have seen the light of day. But Mr Suzuki, for his part, deigned not to respond to the piece, and I respect him for that. (He probably couldn’t give a toss, anyway, even if he did see the review, as the book went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies on both sides of the Atlantic – on the back, no doubt, of the film made from its predecessor, Ring. Which is probably why the publisher, HarperCollins, brought out the book: they must have known it was a stinker, but knew also that it would sell. Publishing these days isn’t about putting out the best possible product, but shifting units – and some publishers are more cynical than others.)

It’s nice, however, to be able to lavishly praise a book that you think is good. I’ve had many experiences of reviewing for the Guardian over the past few years when I’ve come across books I’ve loved, for various reasons: The Fade by Chris Wooding, Pirates of the Relentless Desert by Jay Amory, Angelglass by David Barnett, The Accord by Keith Brooke, Dark Eden by Chris Beckett, and many more. They’re fine novels, and if you haven’t come across them, I’d advise you to seek them out and enjoy.

And if you’re a writer, remember: even the classics have received bad reviews somewhere down the line.

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Conventions

I attended my first convention way back in 1987, the WorldCon in Brighton. I’d been working in youth hostel in Crete, had just sold a couple of short stories to Interzone, and on my arrival back in Britain felt ready to brave my first con. I couldn’t have started with a better one. It was the first WorldCon held in Britain for quite a while, boasted a fine programme of panels and talks, and was attended by such luminaries as Doris Lessing and Robert Silverberg (I’ll never forget the former asking me if she could take a chair in the convention café – my first brush with literary celebrity – or Robert Silverberg standing next to me at a store in the dealers’ room, where he bought a Gollancz edition of Ballard’s The Terminal Beach). I’ll never forget the incredible one hour monologue by Kim Stanley Robinson on the subject of Philip K. Dick; I recall it as a bravura, word-perfect performance without recourse to hesitation, repetition or deviation – as Just A Minute would have it. I came away with an abiding respect for Robinson’s intellect and raconteur-ship, as well as a better understanding of Philip K. Dick. The other high point of the con was meeting Mike Cobley and the rest of the Glasgow SF circle, an acquaintance that is ongoing. I left the con with the feeling that for the first time I’d met a bunch of people who loved the genre and were committed to writing within it. It’s something I still get from conventions. Let’s face it, you don’t meet many people out there in the real world who know or care much about SF, still less are willing to wax lyrical about it long into the early hours over foaming flagons of ale.

Since ’87 I’ve probably attended fifteen to twenty conventions. They’re less about being awed by big name writers now – though I still feel flattered to find myself in the company of the likes of Steve Baxter and Al Reynolds – and not so much even about attending panels (more often than not, although I go to cons with the good intention of attending loads of the things, I end up ensconced in the bar nattering to friends). One of the delights of con going, quite apart from meeting old friends, is making new ones. I find that every convention I go to I meet someone with whom I hit it off, and with whom I keep in contact, be they writers, editors or fans. I know of no other community as friendly or as tolerant.

Enjoyable cons of the past include… and I’m getting hazy here, as I’m relying on memory alone… a MexiCon in the early nineties held in Nottingham, where I met Steve Baxter for the first time, got very drunk, met him again in the morning and told him exactly the same things as I’d regaled him with the night before; at the same con the Glasgow SF circle read out their favourite bad SF, to great hilarity… Skip a few years to Glasgow in the late nineties, the convention which gave me a life-long aversion to white wine, thanks to a rather lavish HarperCollins dinner and party (and thanks to Mr Cobley for getting me back to his flat in one piece); I recall Harrogate around the same time, which I attended with Keith Brooke where over several pints we swapped and developed ideas which became the basis for one of our numerous collaborations; then an EasterCon held at Heathrow a few years ago where Molly Brown made me feel my age by hollering “Daddy!” as I came down the stairs into the packed foyer. Thanks, Molly.

And of course there is the prospect of all the cons to come…

I would have loved to have attended LonCon last week, though finances and distance stymied that. There’ll be others, though, and if I see you there, mine’s a pint of bitter.

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Apocalypse

This piece first appeared on the Solaris website in 2009.

This article came about when editor Jennifer-Anne Hill suggested that four Solaris authors get together to write about the end of the world, and James Lovegrove, being the optimistic soul he is, came up with a title: The four horsemen of the apocalypse. Or should that be the four ‘writers’ of the apocalypse?

For one of such a normally cheery disposition, I might find this role hard to fulfil. I’m an optimist, and I take the view that whatever mess we make of things, life on Earth in some form will survive, and prosper. A critic once said my fiction was imbued with logical positivism, and I wouldn’t disagree.

By a stroke of coincidental luck, my next-but-one novel from Solaris will be a post-catastrophe tale set sixty years after the fall of civilisation on Earth. Guardians of the Phoenix came about when Mike Ashley invited me to submit a story to his forthcoming Apocalyptic SF anthology, and I wrote a long tale with the above title. During the writing I realised that there was far more story than I was telling; it extended both ways, before the story opened, and after it closed.

The story begins:

It was dawn when we set off from beneath the twisted skeleton of the Eiffel Tower and crossed the desert to Tangiers.

We travelled by day through a blasted landscape devoid of life, and at night we stopped and tried to sleep. I’d lie in my berth and stare through the canopy at the magnetic storms lacerating the troposphere. The heat was insufferable, even in the marginally cooler early hours…

The band of survivors trek across the desert that was France, towards the dried-up Mediterranean, in search of water. They travel in a truck encrusted with solar panels, drilling for water wherever they can, and scavenging – along with competing survivors, some more feral than others – for dwindling supplies of food. On the way they meet another troupe of desperadoes, this one from what was Egypt, led by a woman called Samara. She is in possession of a secret that might mean the survival of human race. Times might be desperate, resources almost exhausted, plant and animal life very nearly extinct, and the ozone layer shot to pieces – but there is always hope. The novel follows these self-appointed guardians of the phoenix towards what they hope will be eventual redemption.

I take the long view, which I think for the sake of my sanity is a wise way of looking at things. Perhaps it’s a result of being a science fiction writer – or perhaps I became a SF writer because I tried to look past the here and now, the mess we’re in, and envisage a more rosy future. Perhaps I’m just a head-in-the-sands, rose-tinted spectacled optimist writing fantasies of wish-fulfilment because the alternative would be despair.

Anyway, the way I look at it is even in a worse case scenario, where the human race fouls up and destroys itself, then something will survive – be it bands of stone-age people who scratch a living in the wreckage, evolving over the millennia into something unrecognisable to us today; or other forms of life, animal or insect, who over the course of time might evolve intelligence… and perhaps use it more wisely than poor, hapless, self-destructive Homo saps.

But it would be nice to look into the far future and learn that humankind has overcome its difficulties, its differences, and evolved into a peace-loving, tolerant species which celebrates difference and diversity and has learned to treat the Earth with the respect it needs… and perhaps even, equipped with these qualities, headed for the stars and the many adventures awaiting us out there.

But that’s another story.

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