In Dreams Awake

Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.

(Henry David Thoreau)

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Ditching the Light Sabres

  A couple of nights ago I saw the film District 9, for the first time. Without wanting to give away spoilers, I can still say that this is what Sci-Fi can be when it grows up and ditches the light swords and aliens who are just pointy-eared humans.

  What is it that SF and Fantasy allow a writer to do, that other genres don't?

  The simple answer is: create a whole world. A whole culture, with its own history and beliefs, its own superstitions and folk tales, all the million little things we hardly think of but which children absorb as they grow. This is what Tolkien said he set out to do: create a complete, internally consistent mythos for the British people. So it drives me mad when Fantasy authors just spout ripoffs of Tolkien - worlds under threat from (another) returning Dark Lord; Elves living in deep forests and Dwarves under deep mountains, wearing leather and carrying heavy axes everywhere. Terry Pratchett has spoofed this unthinking repetition in the Discworld books, but it's a shame he has to.

  Because really, the advantage of writing F & SF is that you can imagine. You can create elves more like the Norse ones, all dark magic and bitterness; or you can invent your own people from scratch, as Robert Jordan (to his credit) did in The Wheel of Time. And then in your next book you can invent it all anew, imagine a different world with different peoples and cultures, different beliefs, and so on. You could create a world with different gravity, for god's sake, or some sort of raptor animal that means humans are not top of the food chain, or whatever you like. I have an idea for a future novel which includes some of these ideas, by the way, so we'll see where that one goes.

  But I don't see the point of retelling the same story all over again. It isn't just that some authors copy Tolkien. It's that they then retell the same story again, and again, using the same world/ kingdom/ culture as a background to the tale. I can name two Fantasy writers who have, essentially, repeated the same story over and over now for 30 years, and they're not the only ones.

  Why? Why does someone who wants to write Fantasy then not imagine his own world, but borrow someone else's? Why do the fighter-craft in Star Wars perform dogfights that could be right out of World War I? Why are nearly all Star Trek aliens not alien at all, but just humans with one weird feature, like ears or ridged foreheads? It's a failure of imagination, a failure of nerve I think. It's no good saying "This is what sells", because of course it will sell if it's what people have become accustomed to. The trick, surely, is to show the reader or viewer something fresh, something more creative, and do so in such an enticing way that they come into that strange land with you.

  I'm not at all sure I'm a gifted enough writer to do that. But I'll bloody well try, because I don't have the slightest interest in adding my name to the long list of dreary copyists who churn out the same old cack over and again. Better to explore those strange lands, and hope some of you stay with me while I do.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Inca Roads, and a Bicycle

  Well, I made my long-planned expedition onto Exmoor last weekend, intending to cycle across the whole National Park. I managed 45 miles, hit a pothole and broke my back wheel, and had to abandon. All day I'd seemed to be riding a yard out from the road edge because the tarmac there was crumbling away. So of course this got me thinking - once the cursing had stopped - about how ancient cultures maintained their roads.

  See the way my mind works?

  So when I got home, I researched it. Turns out a lot of ancient peoples didn't really have many proper roads. Even Greece didn't: mostly they were content with dirt tracks that baked solid in summer and turned to mud every winter. The Egyptians were a bit like that too, except they built great causeways high above the plain, so they stayed dry when the Nile flooded. I'm sure they needed a lot of work to keep them intact, but they managed. The Romans built legendary roads, of course, engineering marvels, and so did the Inca. In South America the main north-south road was the Qhapac Nan, and ran nearly 4,000 miles along the Andes Mountains.

  4,000 miles, across one of the highest mountain ranges in the world, spanning deep ravines and boring through rock at times. And the Inca worked almost entirely with stone tools! But they could build and maintain a road like that, and many others besides, while in Britain we can't properly repair a road over a moor less than two thousand feet high.

  All this indicates two things. Firstly, I'm still rather vexed that my long weekend was ruined by a hole in the road. Secondly, doing the sort of writing I do requires a hell of a lot of research. This interest in roads likely won't matter much: I don't want to bore readers with endless minor details like that. But it might supply a line of prose, once or twice, and add a little to the feel and sense of the book. If I do that with ten different things I'll have quite a different story.

  Reviewers of my work constantly ask about the research I do. I take it as a compliment, because it means they've realised the background work that goes into each project. But I usually don't have to bust a wheel and skid halfway across the road in order to get there.