This article originally appeared inVector , the journal of the BFSA. I’ll be discussing imaginary cities with Kit Caless on Resonance FM at 3 today, so I thought I’d post it here.
London is fractal.
It’s dark and I’m walking a route north from Deptford that I’m sure I’ve taken before, but this time it doesn’t seem to be the same.I feel I’m getting further inward rather than further along, deeper into one of the city’s spirals, rather than closer to the Thames. Between here and the river, there shouldn’t be enough room for this many convolutions, this much detail. I recognise that old scrapyard – nothing but trees within the walls— but where did this little garden with its frozen pond come from? Why does the Gerkhin, occasionally looming on the horizon, above the lower, closer heights of Rotherhithe, always seem to be apparently in the same place, the same distance away?
London is full of alternate realities: you can’t travel through it without brushing against them. In the once-Blitzed streets where 17th century livery halls abruptly give way to brutalist concrete , you can see a confluence of Londons conquered, complicit or blissfully untouched by the third Reich. London has time travel: the resurrected Globe; the temple of Mithras dragged up from under Walbrook Street to Temple Court; the anonymous remains of Tudors, Romans, and ancient Britons that the Thames sometimes recedes to show preserved in the mud. From the Thames Path, you can peer through a rank of blackened Victorian arches sprouting buddleias, at the bright, sterile palace of Canary Wharf. A green laser divides the night sky above Christopher Wren’s domes, marking the Greenwich Meridian. There’s nothing to unite these fragments except the modern heir to the Victorian smog, the ubiquitous fine black dust that coats nostrils, nail-beds, and penetrates even closed and untrodden rooms.
The skyline only began to climb only in the sixties, but now it’s hard to imagine it static, London is always climbing itself up the ladders of swivelling cranes, always tinkering with itself. Very tall buildings are, apparently, a reliable indicator of an economy approaching crash. Just completed, the Shard shimmers above the recession it predicted. Below, the beggars that faded from the bridges and underpasses for a decade or so are back in force.
London is a godawful mess. It offers beauty only in patches and shifts of light, rarely in steady, reliable expanses. It’s no surprise that its masters have never been quite satisfied with it. The city owes itself now not only to disasters overcome but to endless attempts to make it more like somewhere else. More like an ancient Greek agora, more like a continental cafe culture, more like a monolithic fortress on a distant planet… architects have shuttled it back to a romantic past or hurried it into an imaginary future.
The Olympics, the chunks of Soho have been carved away for Crossrail, have been only the latest attempt to shift the place’s identity, to tidy it up a bit; now. In the long term, London can probably stand the loss and the waste: it has absorbed far worse, and you can’t ruin a city this jumbled. For now, though, there’s only the spectacle of a government amusing itself by writing dystopian sci-fi it into the actual city: a missile-bearing warship to be moored in the Thames and criminal sanctions for using the words “Twenty Twelve” the wrong way on pub signs or on the internet.
London has something dreamlike encoded into it. It will readily lend itself to visions of Hell, and it will never credibly give you Utopia, but it has infinite room for the weird. Shelley and Eliot saw the abyss in its massive, relentless busyness, Dickens imagined dinosaurs roaming up the Strand. Virginia Woolf gave Clarissa Dalloway a perfect summers’ day in a London at its freshest and most glittering, but always on the point of hallucinatory metamorphosis: a London populated, in the visions of a shell-shocked war-veteran, by dogs about to turn into men, birds singing in Greek, while even the ostensibly sane wonder if perhaps at midnight the city reverts to the ancient landscape the Romans saw. Arthur Conan Doyle subtly inserted imaginary squares and stretched Baker Street more than double its length to accommodate Sherlock Holmes (The street numbers only went as high as 85 in the 1890s, it was only extended up into the 200s later.)
London imitates fiction imitates London. The city lives and breathes – sometimes literally – its own mythology. Once a huge slab of fog settled on the Thames as I was crossing Tower Bridge. Suddenly this truly was Unreal City — landmarks were reduced to transparent outlines, people to spectres – and they loved it: every cluster of people I passed was happily chattering of London’s legends and how this was just like them; they were delighted by the heightened sensation of walking from a workaday pavement straight into story. Does anywhere else open so many portals back, forwards and sideways across time and into? Other cities are grander, many are a fusion of ancient and modern, but are any so varied as to allow for the underworlds of Neil Gaiman and Ben Aaronovitch, and Philip Reeve’s ambulatory predator-city, and Mary Gentle’s magical Tudor capital, and Susanna Clarke’s Regency scientist-magicians, and Anthony Burgess’s ultraviolent wilderness, and J.G Ballard’s submerged ruins?
But are we getting to know the multiple Londons too well? It’s been joked that adding “in London” to the blurb of a book has become the genre equivalent of adding “in bed” to the prediction of a fortune cookie. For instant awesome, shake freeze-dried werewolves and vampires, and just add London! Are London’s dark places – abandoned tube stations, ancient catacombs, labyrinthine sewers –becoming too frequented? Need we fear that the shadows and ghouls that live down there are growing exhausted by the number of visitors?
It’s true that there’s more to the world of the strange than London. Lauren Beukes gave us a brilliant, grimy, complex Johannesburg whose traumas haunt its residents as a fantastic menagerie of animal familiars. Anil Menon’s Beast With Nine Billion Feet is set in a 2040 Pune whose citizens exploit advanced genetic engineering and escape their dissatisfactions into “Illusion” pods. Ekaterina’s The Secret History of Moscow explores a world of folklore beneath the gloomy post-Soviet streets. And the Anglophone writers have also explored the fantastic side of Venice, Paris, Istanbul … but with so little of the world’s modern literature is translated into English that it’s hard to know, from here, what else might be out there.
But while I hope more of the outer world flows at last into this country and this city, I don’t think writers need to worry about digging too deep, or loading too much into London.
London can take it. London always has more.
For the last year, I’ve been working for a literary consultancy. I read unpublished novels and try to help their writers make them better. In the course of doing this I have observed certain things, and also, in my time on earth I have read and watched many things that did get published or aired, but were unnecessarily annoying in certain respects. Here, therefore, I offer you a small bouquet of wisdom collected from this experience.
(All points are mandatory and legally binding for everyone reasonably defined as ‘a new writer’ with immediate effect).
1) Cut the elves.
2) (Elves called the Bla’fla-tra-la-la, which, in their ancient language, means the Shiny Superior Magical Pretty People Who Are Better Than You are still Elves. THEY SHALL DIMINISH AND GO INTO THE WEST AND GET OUT OF YOUR BOOK FOREVER THE END.)
3) Your book shall contain the minimum level of magic possible to maintain its existence.
4) Your book shall likewise contain the minimum possible level of rape to maintain its existence. (Yes, that certain novels treat “magic” and “rape” as likewise irresistible bothers us too).
5) A novel is not the means by which you get revenge on all the hot people who cruelly failed to find you attractive.
6) No, not all novels need likeable protagonists. Yes, your novel needs a likeable protagonist. You want to write an unlikeable protagonist? Wonderful. First write a likeable protagonist. And another one. And another one. And maybe one more after that. And then, when you know you can keep a reader interested in what happens to a character, (which is difficult even when that character is not a tremendous sack of shit) you can think about trying to convince the reader that time with a mopey, genocidal bastard is time well-spent.
7) Do not assume that your character is coming across as likeable just because you based him on yourself.
8) Or on Batman.
9) When your character cooks something it is not required that you take us right through the recipe, including cooking times and gas marks.
10) Your erotic imagination is not wholly separate from the rest of your imagination and that is fine. But bear in mind: readers can tell when the author has one hand in their pants.
11) Your heroine may have violet eyes, or she may be called Persephone, but not both.
12)‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ is the only work to which retroactive permission is granted to end in the following manner: with the hero or heroes on a stage, receiving a medal, being applauded by a whooping crowd of friends and erstwhile enemies, basking in the glow of how fully their awesomeness is finally acknowledged. This shall not happen to your heroes. It makes me hate them.
13) Likewise your favourite celebrities shall not enter the work to tell the protagonist how great they are. It makes me hate them.
14) Your villain is there to make things difficult for the protagonist, not to be your punching bag. Your villain shall not have every trait you despise, nor shall every character in the novel be talking about how awful they are, nor shall they fail at everything. Your story will be boring because the villain will clearly not be a threat and your protagonist will coast to easy victory. But also I will be sorry for your villain, and I will want to take them out for cocktails.
15) Likewise you shall not write random annoying people into your novel just so your protagonist can complain about how awful their tastes and manners are: it will makes me perversely fond of the supposedly annoying people and hate your protagonist more.
16) Your protagonist shall go to places and do things without always needing to be told by someone else where to go and what to do.
17) Things shall be difficult for your protagonist and they shall suffer, however…
18) Your initially interesting protagonist may not become the most tortured person in their world. COUGH DEAN WINCHESTER JACK HARKNESS GREGORY HOUSE.
19) All your secondary characters shall have interests other than your protagonist, your protagonist’s destiny, and your protagonist’s smouldering good looks. They shall not apparently have spent their entire lives before the story started sitting around waiting for the protagonist to turn up. They shall have goals and intentions that are not about the protagonist. This shall be especially true of the male protagonist’s female love interests. PLEASE.
20) You shall ask yourself, is it possible I am writing terribly racist things and have never noticed it? BECAUSE YES. IT IS POSSIBLE.
21) (I still see elves there).
My last post has 97 comments at the time of writing. While I did think a post with the words “rape” and “James Bond” in the title might get more attention than I’m used to, this was unprecedented. And, as I do not write and put things on the internet with the intent that nobody shall see them, I’m very pleased about this! Thank you, to everyone who linked it around and almost everyone who commented. However, it does raise some issues that I haven’t had to think about much before. As far as is possible, I want this not to be a “don’t read the comments” kind of place, and I am distressed that to some extent, last week, that was the kind of place it became, with people who would like to discuss sexism without being subjected to sexism reporting feeling tense, saddened and excluded from what was in many ways a great discussion, and a minority of obnoxious and denialist comments getting more attention than the thoughtful, knowledgeable ones.
So, although I am a sporadic blogger and thus unlikely to be able to host a regular commentariat here, and it may well be that nothing I write explodes like that again, I think I need a comment policy. So here is one.
All comments will continue to go to moderation by default. Nothing gets though unless I approve it. This way, people can comment and discuss (albeit not at high speed) and if anyone does anything particularly ghastly, it’ll quietly gather dust in my inbox, unseen by anyone else, rather than sitting there on the page upsetting people until I can nuke it.
For the most part the rules here are pretty standard. You can’t be racist, sexist, homophobic, biphobic, transphobic, generally a bigoted bastard here. You can’t be abusive. Very egregious examples may get kittenhammered because kittenhammering looks like fun and I would like to try it. On this occasion I let every comment through, (until one gentleman decided that being asked to modify his behaviour in my space was an outrageous imposition on his liberty and therefore chose PRINCIPLED DEFIANCE, it was a little like the last hours of Joan of Arc) because I didn’t think anyone had overtly broken the letter of those as-yet-unspelled-out rules, even if some strained the spirit. No one actually lapsed into hate speech. But going forward there’s going to be an additional rule, and commenters will have to pass a slightly higher bar than “not actually and obviously abusive”:
Here it is: You cannot attempt to substitute condescension for an argument. There are areas of my life where I can’t stop people patronising the fuck out of me, or out of others, at least not without having a lengthy, energy-consuming argument. But here I have this beautiful “trash” button, and I am going to use it, and I am not going to waste time justifying it. You can go to your own blog or anywhere else that will have you, and sigh and tut and fume. But you can’t do it here.
I’m talking about things like this:
“Secondly I think that you don’t understand the concept of ‘realistic fantasy’” (I have published three books that could quite reasonably be described as realistic fantasy).
“Maybe you want to re-write this piece now after doing a bit of actual research.” (I did plenty of research, and you don’t set me homework, thanks.)
“Its the “Nights Watch” in ASOIAF not the “Black Watch”. If you can’t get a very simple fact about a book series then how can you expect people to take you seriously?”
(All right, this one was sort of adorable, and I would let it through again, but it’s probably not a kind of adorable we aspire to be, is it?)
In summary, if you find yourself tempted to address me as if I’m a disappointing student and you’re a professor I’m anxious to please, unless you are in fact Dr Sally Mapstone (who can talk to me however she wants) spare us both the time. If your absurdly condescending comment is unintentionally hilarious it is possible I will let it through to hold up to public mockery, but you can’t count on it. And if you have got through, but I warn you to stop doing something, take it seriously if you want to go on posting here.
The same principles apply to other users, and other forms of “’splaining” — If you want to explain something to another commenter that you don’t think they understand, be very sure you’re neither lecturing them on their lived experience nor assuming you have greater expertise when what you actually have is more maleness, whiteness, straightness, cisness or other form of privilege.
If you don’t think you broke any of these rules and can’t see your comment it’s probably just that I haven’t got to it yet, or conceivably that it got mislabelled as spam. If it’s been a while, you can try reposting or ask me to look for it.
With all that understood, welcome, please have at it.
On Sexual Assault, and “Realism” in Popular Culture..
This essay discusses rape of both women and men throughout. No specific real-world cases are mentioned nor are any scenes described graphically, however as it’s about realism, it does necessarily shuttle rapidly between incidents in fairly silly texts and grim facts about the real world.
Spoilers for Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and minor spoilers for various older texts.
Last year, halfway through the second book of the series, I gave up reading A Song of Ice and Fire. I had enjoyed the first novel very much – I liked the sense that the fantastic elements were providing a different lens on the Middle Ages, removing the sense that there was something default or inevitable about mediaeval European culture, and re-revealing the fundamental strangeness of a world of knights and kings. I enjoyed the resonances with specific episodes in real history – the War of the Roses, the Jacobite rebellions. It reminded me of the songs by the Corries that I, a fake Scot, grew up on. I even enjoyed all the freaking heraldry and food.
That sense of history seemed to be dwindling away a bit in the second book, but in the end, that wasn’t what drove me away.
Instead, it was all the rape.
This surprised me. After all, I’d known going in that there was quite a lot of it, and though I was prepared to find its treatment at least somewhat problematic, I’d also expected to be able to handle it. I’m usually able to read fairly graphic scenes without getting more distressed than the story called for, and friends of mine who I thought were more readily upset by that sort of thing had read the books just fine. And, as it turns out, a lot of the rapes in A Song of Ice and Fire aren’t graphic at all.
And occasionally they are really graphic. But that they’re mostly not almost made it worse for me. That made it possible for the narrative to load that many more of them by the casual handful into chapter after chapter. Rape as backstory, as plot point, as motivation – however badly handled, I can usually cope with it.
I found I couldn’t cope with rape as wallpaper.
Look at this.
Just look at it:
[View the story "\"You are an Agent of SHIELD.\"" on Storify]
How cool is Paul Cornell? So cool. SO COOL.
Rationally, of course, I am aware this means no more than the fact that I named one character in my short story, MailerDaemon after a little girl I heard chatting to her friend on the tube (Grace) and another after a handsome fellow I’d noticed working in my local Morrison’s (Jawad). The characters have nothing to do with the real people; I just needed names.
But, that out of the way, I do not really care about being rational here: I AM AN AGENT OF SHIELD. HE SAID SO. I KNOW WOLVERINE. I AM PROBABLY BEST FRIENDS WITH ALL THE SUPERHEROES.
I MAY BE TOO COOL TO TALK TO YOU NOW.
If it turns out Sophia the SHIELD agent is in fact, evil and smelly and nobody likes her – well, of course, evil, smelly, unpopular characters need to get names from somewhere too, and I shall not take it personally. Naturally I kind of hope she is MEGA AMAZING. But whatever she’s like, and even if she only exists for a couple of panels, it’s such a nice little bit of writerly trivia to be part of. I only started reading comics back in the summer, which now seems like ages ago, and have been mainlining Marvel in unhealthy quantities ever since. Paul’s been amazingly enabling nice about this, pushing me gleefully into penury this wonderful, mythic soap opera full of LOFTY HEROISM and sarcasm and angst and ridiculous outfits. Getting to say “that SHIELD agent is named after me” — ever, let alone when I’m a fairly new addict cult-member fan truly feels like living the geek dream and I am full of grateful glee.
Last year was, honestly, pretty dreadful. Now I have a new book deal and I am an Agent of SHIELD. And it’s only February. These feel like good signs!
(SOPHIA THE SHIELD AGENT PRONOUNCES HER NAME PROPERLY THE WAY I DO, I.E LIKE THIS. At least in my head.)
It’s been a long time! I’ve been very busy on this book here (this one. The one I’m trying to tell you about. Wait a minute, and it will become clear) And though I have some 2/3 finished blogs on my computer called cheerful things like “On Suffering” and “Rape in Genre Fiction”, I really wanted my next post to be this one.
The “Next Big Thing” meme was doing the rounds among writers MONTHS ago; I got tagged (very kindly!) by practically EVERYONE, but I couldn’t bring myself to take part until I knew if this little book I’ve been struggling with was ever going to find a home.
Well, at last it has. I’m very happy to say I’ve agreed a deal with Egmont for my fourth novel, and the one after that.
Thanks so much to my new editor, Sarah Hughes at Egmont, and my wonderful and formidable agent, Catherine Clarke at Felicity Bryan.
1) What is the working title of your next book?
Mars Evacuees. It’s about evacuees, to Mars!
2) Where did the idea come from for the book?
Well, it’s hard to remember exactly, because I was nine. I was fascinated by Michelle Magorian’s novels of children evacuated to the English countryside or to America in WWII, and I wondered, in a future war, where else could you send people? Obviously Mars. And what would happen to them next …? Well, that was the difficult part, of course. I began composing an audio-book, which seemed to me to be an exciting technological medium for a story about the future, but as I was nine and had no idea what was going to happen, I soon gave up. I had another go at the idea when I was fourteen, envisioning a massively depressing Young Adult story in which not only most of the main characters but most of humanity died, (SPOILER: Mars Evacuees is not actually like this). Defeated by this in turn, I then shelved the idea until such time as I should get round to it, which turned out to be about seventeen years later.
3) What genre does your book fall under?
Children’s sci-fi. Of which there’s oddly little in prose fiction, isn’t there? Plenty of films, computer games, TV. But not many books.
4) What actors would you choose to play the parts of your characters in a movie adaptation?
I’m going to take this as an excuse to introduce the characters to you.
Living in the future is a strange: The How the Light Gets In thing happened because SAMIRA ACTUAL AHMED, of whom I have been a fangirl this many a year, read my post Capes, Wedding Dresses and Steven Moffat about heroines and the lack thereof in pop culture, and she liked it and told the organisers. So I met all these awesome people like Samira herself and Giles Fraser and Brian Millar and Julian Spalding, and I got to talk about heroes alongside Peter Actual Tatchell and I read Aragorn’s “Men of the West!” speech and I was so impressive a woman fainted and the whole thing had to be called off halfway through.
Or possibly that was a coincidence.
In that post, and in Girls, Heroes, and Boob Jobs, I mentioned the fact that female heroes, when we get them at all, are rarely allowed to be strange, difficult, anti-social, or eccentric, as opposed to sensible, normal and down-to-earth.
If you’ve read that post, and if you’ve seen The Bridge, it may not surprise you much that its main character made me very happy. OH MY GOD DID YOU WATCH THE BRIDGE? If you didn’t watch The Bridge, you need to rectify that immediately, and heroine Saga Noren is the reason why.
I know I’m a bit late to the party when it comes to Scandinavian crime dramas -- I missed The Killing and am now in that awkward "do I watch the English language remake first or is that a bit crap?" phase. But in the meantime, Oh, Saga Noren, you are the one I have been waiting for. At last you have come to me, my eccentric, difficult, unpredictable crime-fighting heroine, who even has a, dramatic coat, which is far better than BBC Sherlock's coat. It does not, for starters, make its wearer look like a centaur.
( Cut for extensive flailing.Collapse )
If you watch, you’ll have an idea of one kind of hero I've been holding out for (till the end of the night. But don’t watch because of that. Watch because it’s awesome. That’s what it’s always really been about .
I'm really excited to be part of the How the Light Gets In festival, happening alongside the Hay-on-Wye festival, in, as you might expect, Hay-on-Wye.
(I love that it's called that. I love that song, and the consolation of that idea).
I'm on three panels, and they are:
Tuesday 5th June
2.30pm New Heroes - a reconsideration of what the hero means for us today and for the future
Wednesday 6th June
10.30am State of Innovation - the role of the state in commissioning creativity and whether it works
2.30pm Imagining the Metropolis - visions of the city
The New Heroes one doesn't seem to show up on the page, but it is going to happen, I swear! My job will be to say, "excuse me, but what about HEROINES?" a lot. Peter Tatchell will also be there, his job will be to be A Hero.
Hope to see you there. I want to say more about heroes and heroines, villains and villainesses, but I have recently moved house and am thus dependent on the unco-operative wifi of a library that I think might be about to close.
I'll be back soon.
The full programme is here...
...WAIT WHAT? I'M ON A PANEL WITH GEORGE R R MARTIN?
But I am as a tiny baby in the ways of writing incredibly long books that you can't produce as fast as you want compared with G R R Martin!
I can't complain about what a slog it is and how you need to have a plan and how it isn't your fault that you had to kill all those people besides George R R Martin!
Maybe he has special rum.
All right, I've spent a little time running around the flat, and now I'm back. On with the post, I guess.
See you there, I hope!
While the history jokes and pictures of animals with silly hats were impressive, and while I VERY much appreciate Cara Murphy plugging my book on the Arthur C Clarke Award "guess the shortlist" post, ultimately I cannot choose between 's cute drawing of herself holding Savage City (on New Roman Cursive background) and Glen Mehn's adorable list.
Congratulations! Let me know your address and the book you want, and it will soon be yours!