Piecing together a past

A recent post about time by everwalker got me thinking about how we relate to the past in fiction.

Often, the past is a matter of back story, presented in scattered references throughout the story, or in cruder examples dumped on the reader through dialogue and exposition. Uncovering that past becomes a matter of literary archaeology, piecing together the clues so that you can understand where the characters are coming from. That’s part of why the exposition dump is less satisfying to read – it takes away the satisfaction of putting together the pieces.

Time travel stories are obviously different. Characters step back into the past, whether their own personal past, as in Looper, or a bit of history, as in Doctor Who. This allows the story teller to play with our perspective on reality, to question how reliable the truth is that’s been presented to us, as when The Doctor discovered that the eruption at Pompeii was caused by an alien. It also raises questions about how we are shaped by our past, as when history is re-written and characters change – shown entertainingly, if not coherently, when a character in Misfits headbutted Hitler.



Writers can play around with the past through story structure too. Iain M Banks did this in Use of Weapons, with one narrative strand moving forward and the other back, diverging chronologically but coming together thematically. While challenging to pull off, this can make for some interesting storytelling, and give the writer more control over the order they reveal information in. And of course this can be used to heighten tensions and create dramatic irony – those moments when a character says ‘of course that could never happen’, but we know it’s happened there three weeks into the future.

Some of my favourite examples come not from sci-fi but from sitcoms. Before he was the brains behind Doctor Who, Steven Moffat wrote Coupling, in which time was fractured to comedic and dramatic effect several times, most notably in the episode Nine and a Half Minutes, which showed the same period of time from three different perspectives, giving the same events different meaning in each version. And then there’s How I Met Your Mother, a mostly unremarkable American sitcom, but which presents the whole show as past events told by an unreliable narrator, allowing his faulty memory, imagination and deceptions to be presented directly on screen, as he rambles around and occasionally re-writes his own past.

The past isn’t just a foreign country. It’s a puzzle that has to be pieced together any time we write a story. But it’s a puzzle with many different solutions, and the order we put it in, as much as the pieces, help create the story. I haven’t had the courage to properly experiment with this yet, but I look forward to the day when I will. And in the meantime, if you can think of other good examples, let me know below.

Reading Railsea

China Miéville’s Railsea just won a well-deserved Locus award. I imagine his trophy cabinet’s getting pretty full right now, and deservedly so. Railsea is a great story, full of ingenuity and originality, just like most of Miéville’s work.

Railsea is the story of Sham, an apprentice doctor on a mole hunting train. This set-up is analogous to a whaling ship, but in a dystopian world where endless train tracks wind between isolated islands of safety and civilisation. This is a young adult novel, with the inevitable character arc of personal growth, building confidence and learning about the wider world. But that’s not a short-coming. It makes for a strong, familiar arc that helps carry the reader through a lot that’s unfamiliar.

Because the unfamiliar is where Miéville really excels. As with The City And The City, he’s taken a completely different starting point from most fantasy and extrapolated it into a rich and fascinating world, with its own politics, cultures, and of course hazards for the characters to overcome.

Miéville uses a variety of different literary tricks to help build the story. He references other novels – most obviously Moby Dick – in ways that don’t disrupt the story. You don’t have to get the references to understand what’s happening, or to enjoy the parts of the story where they take place. It’s just that, for example, knowing Thomas the Tank Engine gives one scene extra appeal.

If you look, you can see the tools on display here. Cliffhangers, foreshadowing, and the set-up of story elements for later all help build the tension and structure the story. Meta-textual details, such as interspersing the text with illustrations of the story’s wild beasts, help build the semi-Victorian tone and add variety to the reading experience. Again, this adds to the sense of the unfamiliar, of something new and exciting and a bit scary.

This is a book that’s smart, that treats its audience as smart, that encourages and supports the audience in reading in a smart way. It rewards careful reading without punishing those who just want to crack on through the adventure. It proves that fantasy can use radically different settings without losing its audience.

Go read Railsea. It deserves that award, and it deserves your time. And then read some more of Miéville’s books, because the things that are great about this are what’s great about all his work. I can’t wait to see what he comes out with next.

Staying creative

Creativity’s a funny thing. We talk about it as if it’s a limited resource, but sometimes it’s more like a chemical reaction that, once it gets going, expands and sustains itself.

Mrs K’s great-uncle recently died. I only met him a few times, but I always found him inspiring. He spent his career as a doctor, but in his spare time he was always creating – welding, gardening, inventing, picking up hobbies and crafts like a toddler picks up carpet fluff. This was a guy who, in his late eighties, invented a device for helping patients sit themselves up in hospital beds. When Mrs K and I got married, he turned a cava bottle into a vase as a present, and engraved it with the date of our wedding. He might as well have engraved it with ‘I am eighty-eight, and I am still the most awesome person here’.

Not shown: the sixty-seven other things he created that day
Uncle Charles’s creativity wasn’t a limited resource that kept running out. It was the fuel that sustained him, that kept him lively and engaged with the world until a sudden and brutal cancer took him at the age of ninety-two. Creating things spurred further creativity in him, and gave him the energy to keep going.

I suspect that the same happens, in little ways, to all of us. I know that by the time I finish one blog post I’ve come up with ideas for three more. Nothing inspires me to write like doing some writing. Creating makes me feel alive, whether it’s planting the garden, cooking an interesting dinner, or writing a story about Victorian adventurers fighting giant rats. If we horde and defend our creativity it withers. If we use it, even when getting started feels like a struggle, it will sustain us.

So here’s to you Charles, inspiring me once again. And to the rest of you, get out there and create. Make a collage. Write a poem. Draw a picture in ketchup on your fried egg sandwich. These are the things we live for.

Mm, fried egg sandwich.

Pratchett’s voice and losing the flow

We’re told that bad writing can knock a reader out of the text, spoiling the flow of a story. But I realised this week that good writing, if it’s not consistent, can do the same thing.

I’m currently reading Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth. As you’d expect, it’s really rather good, with an intriguing premise, engaging characters, and flowing prose. But there were a couple of points early on when that prose took a strongly Pratchett turn, where his authorial voice took over for a paragraph, and it jolted me right out of the story.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Terry Pratchett. I have nearly all his books, even the couple of sci-fi ones he did before the Discworld. I enjoy his whimsical authorial voice – one of the most distinctive in modern writing. But that’s the problem, it’s very distinctive. When you’re reading a book that’s just by Pratchett, that voice is there the whole time, its wit and wonder woven through the story. It makes you more aware of the author on your shoulder, pointing out the absurdities of the world, but that’s part of the ride.

Most of the prose in The Long Earth is more transparent. It’s well written in the way that makes you forget it’s there, letting you be completely absorbed by the story. So when I hit a Pratchettism, even an excellent one, the sudden authorial presence comes as a shock, and a reminder that, to point out the obvious, someone wrote this.

It’s the same problem I had with one of the stories in Joumana Haddad’s Madinah collection. Except there the author made himself so prominent, and there was so little story, that it was just a dozen pages of irredeemable annoyance. At least in The Long Earth it’s a piece of something good that, by being unexpected, unfortunately disrupts the flow of the other good stuff.

I’m still loving The Long Earth, but we often learn from flaws. I guess my take-away from this is to aim for consistency. Also to go back and read some more Pratchett, because wow but Pyramids was awesome.

Has anyone else come across examples of this? Are there other authors where you’re very aware of their distinctive voice? What effect does that have on your reading experience? And am I right about Pyramids or what? Share some thoughts below – I know my opinion, I want to hear yours.

Overthinking it?

I love thinking about society and culture. There’s nothing I won’t analyse and discuss, from the Hunger Games to the state of modern education. Thinking in itself is a pleasure. But I’ve recently realised that this sort of analysis can work in two different ways, and mixing them up can cause problems. So today’s the flip-side of my last blog post – today’s all about thinking.

My friend John recently introduced me to the joys of Overthinking It, the website that ‘subjects the popular culture to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn’t deserve’. I love their tongue in cheek analysis of such apparently shallow subjects as Taylor Swift’s 22. This is thinking as play, kicking ideas around to see what happens. Insincere fun.


Then there’s the sincere analysis. The most obvious example around culture is the way that feminist writers discuss the impact of, for example, a Disney doll. But this also covers topics such as the themes and characters in Game of Thrones. It can just be academic, but it can be about issues with real social impact.

The line between the two is often blurred. Cracked’s After Hours videos, my favourite examples of this kind of thinking, deliberately veer back and forth between plausible analysis and absurdity. This makes the absurd even more entertaining, and the critical analysis more accessible. But in doing so it can make significant points seem absurd and open valid arguments to attack as just ‘overthinking it’.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t mix up the two – far from it. But next time a piece of analysis seems to stretch the bounds of plausibility, think to yourself – is this sincere, playful, or both? Can just part of it matter?

Reading with feeling

‘One reviewer didn’t even talk about the plot, just about how the book made him feel.’ – Neil Gaiman

It’s a funny thing about novels – a huge part of the experience is how they make you feel, but we’ll often discuss our thoughts on them rather than our feelings.

The Neil Gaiman quote above comes from a Q&A session. What’s interesting to me is that, even to Gaiman, that review stood out. We’re used to reviewers talking about structure, about descriptive skill, about plot. But how often do they mention the many different emotions the book evoked? Yet that’s what many people will read the book for.

It’s often the same when we talk about our favourite characters. If I’m discussing Game of Thrones with my brother (it comes up at least once per conversation) we’ll talk about the things characters did – Tyrion said something funny, a Stark did something noble but stupid again. We’ll talk about theories on where the characters are heading (what GoT fan hasn’t discussed Jon Snow’s lineage?). But have I ever said out loud that Petyr Baelish fills me with queasy unease and guilty admiration? That my 95% rage at Joffrey is tempered by 5% pity at his messy upbringing? That my pride in seeing Arya grow up is mingled with real worry at what sort of person she’ll become?


queasy admiration all the way

These are feelings the author has set out to inspire, and yet when we analyse a book we’ll often ignore them. Perhaps that’s just a matter of habit, born of education and reading others’ reviews. Perhaps it’s because our feelings are subjective, and so it’s harder to argue our case. Perhaps it’s because they’re not entirely consistent, and admitting our own inconsistencies is a difficult thing to do. After all, who wants to admit they feel a little sorry for Joffrey, when he spends his whole time being so awful?


Next time you’re discussing a book, take the time to feel as well as to think. To poke around in ugly emotions. Maybe step back into thoughts again and work out why. I started when I read that Gaiman quote all of twenty minutes ago, and I’m already interested in the results.

Now I’m off to watch some Game of Thrones. I’m feeling the need to go hate Petyr Bealish. It’s just so satisfying.

When science fiction does faith

Science fiction has a very variable relationship with religion and faith. Both its pulp adventure roots and its lofty scientific ideals initially pushed it into a shallow and oppositional relationship with religion. But when it gets to grip with faith, sci-fi can create something powerful.

In a recent Guardian blog, Damien Walter asked whether God has a place in science fiction. For me, this misses a more human question. Opinions vary greatly on whether God is present in our lives. But that people experience faith, a set of religious ideas and emotional experiences, is hard to deny. And that experience has been important throughout human history.

In as far as it tackled religion, early sci-fi was concerned with the trappings and rituals rather than the emotional experience. Pulp stories used religion as a sign of the exotic, of strange foreign people the heroes should civilise/shoot/snog. More idea-oriented stories tended to set up religion as a source of superstitions, to be reasoned with and debunked. When elements of real religions turned up it was so that authors could offer rational alternatives, as in Arthur C Clarke’s depiction of the Bethlehem star as a nova (The Star, 1955) or Lucifer as a misunderstanding of our alien saviours (Childhood’s End, 1953).

In recent decades, things have got more complicated. We’ve seen Iain M Banks explore the alienness of transcendence in The Hydrogen Sonata and the emotional impact of a man-made Hell in Surface Detail. Julian May‘s Saga of the Exiles and Galactic Milieu books are full of Catholic characters, as well as a transcendent future based on the theology of real Catholic scholar Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (a guy with some pretty wacky ideas for a Jesuit – a century or two earlier the Inquisition would have taken their flaming torches to him). The rebooted Battlestar Galactica, though not always sophisticated or coherent in its handling of faith, did place religion centre stage.

For my money, the best example is Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. This uses an intriguing sci-fi setting to explore the emotional experience of faith. It made a belief system that is alien to me – Jesuit-flavoured Catholicism – feel real, meaningful and comprehensible. And it used it to shine light on its sci-fi concepts.

Sure, there are still a lot of poor portrayals of religion in sci-fi (I’m looking at you Star Trek, with your ‘this whole planet worships the cheese god‘ approach). But there are poor portrayals of everything. What matters is what the good examples do, and science fiction can do faith well.
So what do you think? Know some particularly good or bad examples I’ve missed? Think I’m completely off the mark? Have faith in every word I write? Let me know.

Shatner time

I have a friend who sends me humorous pictures of Captain James T. Kirk. Like the one I received this morning. Or this one that takes pride of place on my mantelpiece:

I'm afraid that he means it
I’m afraid that he means it

Is this some surreal form of torture, I hear you cry? Is it a sign that I’m about to abandon my marriage to chase elderly actors? Is it, worst of all, ironic detachment gone mad?

No. I just happen to think that Shatner is awesome.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying he’s one of the finest actors of his generation. Not even that he’s the most admirable person to have emerged from Star Trek – James Doohan was the craziest pilot in the Canadian Air Force; George Takei is competing with Christopher Lee for coolest old actor ever.



But saying those things is like saying that Alan Rickman wasn’t the biggest hero in Die Hard. True, but beside the point.

Because what Shatner has, especially in his performance as Kirk, is an unbeatable self-confidence, a bombastic personality that expands to fill all the available space. Like Hugo Chavez (big personality, variable professional performance, mad as a bag full of badgers) his self-belief gives him a crazy charisma, it draws you in like gravity. He doesn’t care if things don’t make sense by conventional standards, whether it’s parachuting into a massive paintball game or a spoken word performance of Pulp’s Common People:

The important thing, the thing that oozes from every moment of his performance, is that he’s having fun. And when I let myself go with those moments, so do I.

Still not convinced? Watch the film Free Enterprise, the nerdy indy rom-com starring Shatner as an exagerated hyper-Shatner. This was the moment when I realised that he wasn’t just some pompous buffoon, that this was a man laughing at and with himself, someone really enjoying life.

If you’re even vaguely into scifi you’ve seen a Shatner performance at some point. So what do you think? Love him? Hate him? Which are the moments you really love, or really hate? Comment and let me know.

Lessons learned – VanderMeer’s Booklife

Last week I finished reading Jeff Vandermeer‘s Booklife. This is a guide for writers that focuses on lifestyle and the business of writing, things like keeping motivated and how to publicise your work, rather than writing technique.

I knew I was going to find a lot that was useful in this one. I’d originally picked it up from the library and got twenty pages in before I knew I needed my own copy, to dog-ear and scrawl notes across, to mark pages with post-its and crease the spine back while I poured over the most useful pages. Because for me, books are like childhood teddy bears – the best ones don’t get kept in pristine condition, they get loved nearly to death.

It’s hard to sum up what I learned from this book, or even pick out favourite bits. There was so much that pushed me to think about the fundamentals of a writing lifestyle, sometimes succinctly pulling together advice I’d heard elsewhere, sometimes offering new insights and tactics. To be honest, I ended up feeling almost overwhelmed, these was so much to think about.

But if I’m going to pull out one lesson, it’s the importance of planning. As I touched on on Friday, my approach to this blog and to publicising my work has been haphazard at best, as has my thinking about what to write and where to send it. I should have known better – I’ve worked as a professional project manager – but somehow I never properly applied those skills to my writing life. Until I read Booklife I wasn’t applying that to many significant areas. Heck, I still haven’t applied it yet – that’s the thing about a planned approach, you can’t apply it until you’ve had time to do that planning.

A lot of the content of Booklife is ahead of what I need at the moment. Some of it’s ahead of what I can use. But it’s useful to know that that information’s on my bookshelf when I need it. Like any advice, I’ll pick and choose, adapt it to my own situation. But there’s a lot there of value, and even if it just helps me to plan better it’ll be worth it.

Writing Live by the Sword

Live by the Sword came from one of my basic desires as a fantasy writer – to write something that’s familiar and accessible, but that also brings something new to the genre. To provide my audience, and myself, with enough novelty to stand out but not so much that readers will feel lost.

To this end, I decided to write a Roman fantasy. It’s something I’m returning to at the moment, and that I think has a lot of merit. The majority of secondary world fantasy has a strong Medieval flavour – The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The First Law, etc. We’re starting to see more influences from the Renaisance and the Victorian era coming through, especially with the growing success of steampunk. But if writers go further back it’s normally to produce wild barbarians in a Conan style, rather than to build on ancient civilisations.

So I picked Rome. I picked the arena because it was an exciting setting, and because this was before the popular Spartacus TV shows, when it had more novelty. And I picked the gladiators as characters not for the glory and romance of men of action but because it allowed me to look at those harmed by the might of Rome, as well as to show the wide diversity that was the oppressed under-belly of the empire.

The plot came from something more modern. I saw paintings in the Manchester Art Gallery by artists who had survived the horrors of the First World War, and whose art was shaped by this. It made me think about the other forms of creativity that came out of that era, such as the war poets, and how art became a way for them to cope with the violence they experienced. I wanted to explore that, and it fit naturally with looking at how my gladiators escaped from the traumas of their lives. The fact that I was writing fantasy let me turn this metaphor into reality, the subtext into text, art into something literally transformative.

So there we go. A little insight into where this story came from. Now it’s time for me to take some of this inspiration and go write something new.