How did I get to be here (and where exactly is here anyway)?

Posted on March 21, 2014

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It’s funny how a bunch of isolated points of interest can coalesce into something you didn’t realise was concerning you. Take this past week for example, in which:

  • The Clarke Award shortlist was announced and duly both praised and criticised for being “safe” and “core genre”
  • A meme did the rounds of writer acquaintances (like chickenpox through a primary school) on the subject of literary influences
  • Tricia Sullivan railed on Twitter about the damagingly limited nature of “canon”
  • I answered a question for a forthcoming interview about how I came to discover SF
  • The Moon King hit its one month to publication date.

And what scintillating gem of insight does does all this maundering pressure and coal coalesce into?

I am not a Science Fiction Fan.

At least not in the generally accepted sense. I love science fiction and the fantastic in all their forms, and have done all since I discovered dinosaurs and greek myths as a child. I love out-there ideas, I love retro kitsch, I love the cold equations and the supernatural equally. I love the stuff of the genre, but I think I share very few of the qualities that characterises real fandom. Sometimes I get close. Catching up with the Game Of Thrones TV series has provided a measure of that compulsion to watch, greedy anticipation for what comes next, desire to talk about it with other fans but that’s been a rare exception. I don’t feel any particular sense of investment or ownership in books I read. I look forward to new books by favourite writers, but don’t squee. I enjoy revisiting familiar landscapes in book series, but prefer to discover entirely new ones. If it comes to that, I prefer to discover completely new authors over reading new work by ones I already know. Same with genres. I’m bored by safe, I like to turn the map over and find out what’s there instead. I value innovation over almost everything else.

I dunno, maybe I’m a hipster at heart. I’ve never had the communal mentality. Same goes for music. And sport. I’m a life-long football supporter, but I’m a crap football fan. I don’t wear the colours, I don’t sing the songs, I don’t hate the opposition**.  I just love the game and enjoy it on my own terms.

Going back to science fiction, perhaps part of the reason is because I missed out on the formative phase of the SF reader. They say that the Golden Age of SF is fourteen…I didn’t start reading it until I was in my twenties. Instead of forming emotional bonds with Heinlein juveniles, I was reading James Herbert, Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell, before moving on to Lovecraft, Tolkien and Stephen Donaldson. When I joined the Glasgow SF Writers Circle, I set myself the challenge of reading the “classic” SF authors, and I read critically and without any knowledge of reputation. I made my own mind up. I discovered that I rated Delaney, Bester and Bradbury, could admire Clarke, and detested Heinlein and Asimov. I took the same approach to the more contemporary recommendations that the GSFWC guys were tossing around, but there I had a much better hit rate: Ian McDonald, Iain M Banks, Gwynneth Jones and Lucius Shepard (who sadly passed away this week) all blew me away. Here was my innovation. Here were, as a brand new writer, my influences, and it seemed there was an endless supply of them.

But my influences weren’t limited to SF novels. They came from outside of the genre too. And from song writing and musicals and film. And I keep on discovering new ones. Influences are the artists that change some aspect of some approach to your own art. Yes, most of those changes occur when you’re just starting out (or even before you decide you want to be a writer), but you should never stop seeking growth.

The meme asked respondents to list fifteen influences on their writing. Mine would be: Roald Dahl, Ray Bradbury, Alistair McLean, Bernie Taupin,  Alasdair Gray, Ian McDonald, Jonathan Carroll, Ramsey Campbell, Lucius Shepard***, Karen Joy Fowler, M John Harrison,  Raymond Chandler, Stephen Sondheim, Jeffrey Ford, Tom Waits.

There’s hardly a “core” SF writer in there, and yet I consider myself a science fiction writer. If I am, I’m one who’s found my own way in. And when people yawn about the idea that the Clarke shortlist being “safe” is in anyway an issue (all it needs to be is the six best books) or when Tricia complains that this stubborn clinging on to what’s canonical is dismissively othering (often thereby shunning work that is genuinely innovative), or when Ian Sales carps on about how the “classics” really weren’t that good anyway, I have to say I’m right there with them.

Because I don’t think science fiction is something that needs to be protected and kept pure. The science fiction community is an amazing thing. A colossal, ever-evolving, constantly self-analyzing organism that I’ll never even begin to understand. And I’m not criticising it, I’m only taking stock of my relationship with it. Which is something I’ve never seriously done before.

But I’m doing so now because one month from today, I add to it. I have no idea what the SF community will make of The Moon King. I have no idea where it fits into the great communal memory palace of the genre. Or even if it will be canonical enough for consideration. Readers will draw their own conclusions about the influences that lie beneath it. Some might even be right.

All I really hope is that people look at it and go: this is a new thing. And that they enjoy it too, of course.

**In the case of my club there are additional reasons why I might not do these things, but I’d be the same whoever I supported.

*** One day I would like to meet the editor who commissioned the Legend novellas series that came out in the 90s. Campbell’s “Needing Ghosts”, Carroll’s “Black Cocktail” and Shepard’s “Kalimantan” were all superb.

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Posted in: Science Fiction