Monday, November 23, 2015

Fandom face-to-face: notes from Sledge-Lit

After my summer of reviewing the nominees for the Hugo awards, I felt a little closer to SF and fantasy fandom than I had before. 

So, when the opportunity came up to hear Adam Roberts and Charles Stross speak as part of Sledge-Lit in Derby last Saturday, I went along to experience the event from the periphery. 

In this lurker's opinion, Sledge-Lit was a pretty darn good introduction to British fandom. As a one-day event in an art-house cinema in the city centre, it was informal, accessible and not too intense. It was quite possible - as I mostly did - to sit and listen to panels discuss genre writing and then pop out for a wander and a breath of fresh air in the breaks.

And I even had my views on small-press publishing turned pretty much 180° by what I heard on a panel in the morning (Sledge-Lit's prime movers are also involved in small press imprints, so they were well represented at the event). 

Seems that I had mistakenly filed them i my head alongside the vanity publishers when they're really the literary equivalent of independent record labels, reflecting the tastes and ethos of their owner-curators. Small presses champion local writing, provide an outlet for short stories and novellas, and provide a space where fledgling authors can develop before (if they wish) shaking hands with the Man.

As someone who wants to develop their own writing, it's tremendously helpful and encouraging to know there's a supportive infrastructure out there. I started paying that goodwill forward by buying a couple of things from the trade hall and having a chat with a chap who does fantasy writing workshops for kids in Nottingham.

Charlie Stross took part on a panel asking if 'horror was ready for a new golden age?'. Whether the question was answered to anyone's satisfaction is uncertain, what with the lengthy digression into e-book pricing, but the trip was fun at least. As you'd probably guess from his blog, Stross gives good analysis and good anecdote - the rest of the panel were mostly content to let him get on with it. The man either needs his own slot at these events [hopeful look] or a strong facilitator.

Adam Roberts is exactly as academic as I'd hoped he'd be - the panel he took part in on dystopia in modern SF was easily the most literary and probably the most rewarding from a critical perspective. But it was a team effort as well (credit also to Andrew Bannister, Amanda Rutter, Gavin Smith and chair Jacey Bedford).

This is the panel that really made me think. And on the back of it, I now have some half-formed ideas I want to tease out in a future blog post - something about how both the technocratic and political narratives of progress have become damaged to the point that the dystopian pole remains the sole strong point of attraction for future fiction. We'll see where that goes.

I rounded off the day by listening to readings from authors Andrew Bannister (him again) and Natasha Pulley from some of their favourite work: a Roger Zelazny short story and the Moomins for Andrew and the opening chapter of Michelle Paver's Dark Matter for Natasha. As there were only three of us in the audience we were able to have a friendly chat afterwards. Readers may recall I'm partial to a bit of Zelazny and Andrew was kind enough to recommend me some more.

This was probably the high point of the day for me - actual interaction with other humans - and I'll definitely keep a look out for their latest when I'm next on a book hunt.

Monday, November 16, 2015

How America ate its young: Stephen King's The Long Walk

A confession: I've barely read any Stephen King.

As a teen, he fell very clearly on the wrong side of the then (for me) unbreachable wall between fantasy and horror. While that iron curtain of genre purity had long since fallen, I'd never particularly thought about revisiting King until recently.

What happened was that in response to a spot of writer's block my wife bought me his highly regarded On Writing. And before I got stuck into King's advice, I thought I'd better sample his work first.

Here's what my awesome wife (who has read a lot of his books) gave me a steer towards:

And she was right - it's  great entry point into King. For starters, it's science-fiction!

The Long Walk (1979) is one of the early novels he originally put out as Richard Bachman: a pseudonym designed to accommodate his prolific work-rate and (I suspect) give him freedom to experiment away from the King brand. Interestingly, it's also the first novel he actually began writing while a university student in the mid-sixties, and whatever revision it underwent before final publication its roots in that turbulent period still show through.

The story follows a hundred teenage boys on a long-distance walking contest through an alternate-history New England. Non-stop, day and night, if the walkers slow down too much and too often, they are shot by the accompanying armed guards. Last kid standing wins the adulation of the watching crowds, and anything their heart desires.

This is a great idea. More importantly, it's a great metaphor, fecund in its range and application. One of science-fiction's great gifts is to hold an absurd mirror up to aspects of contemporary life and most obviously, The Long Walk reads as a fable of how America ate its own young in Vietnam and celebrated them as heroes.

But the brilliance of the novel is that it transcends that specific reading to become something altogether more timeless. It does no violence to it to make the walk stand for any conflict where the lives of doomed youth are wasted. It's a surprisingly small step even to talking it up as an existential journey comparable to those offered by Camus. Or, after Marcuse, a vision of a thanatotic society in love with death.

Again, very sixties references for a very sixties book. :)

Whether such expansive readings were intended by King is a moot point. Certainly, the little absurd touches like the authoritarian figure of the nameless Major who oversees the race and the walkers' conversational digressions into pop philosophy help. 

Regardless, it remains the case that in writing The Long Walk he hit not just on a plot of genius with a haunting life beyond the page, but a story which plays to his acknowledged strengths. Since practically the entire speaking cast are young men doomed to die, his gift of voicing memorable teenage characters to empathise with (and then mourn) is on full display. 

And with most of the action being set in King's home state of Maine, he takes the reader through a landscape - urban and rural - that he knows very well. This level of geographical detail contrasts well with the less-is-more approach to the rest of his world-building; the reader knows little of the dystopia in which The Long Walk is set because neither do the young walkers we follow.

But above all, the story has momentum. Stephen King is a writer who repeatedly makes you turn the page and the walk is one long unspooling narrative which compels you to follow it till the very end. Together, they fight crime are unstoppable make for a book to devour as quickly and intensely as possible. 

The novel is not perfect - I sensed that King was on the treadmill as much as his protagonists. Under that pressure, neither the interaction between the walkers nor their in-character storytelling works all of the time. And the ending - although pleasingly ambiguous - is a little rushed.

But as a sustained piece of bravura writing atop that darn beautiful plot device, The Long Walk is a feat you don't come across that often. Putting his better-known work in horror to one side for a moment, this book alone will ensure that King's name will last.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The power of hello on Twitter

No, not a Lionel Richie reference - although it is an opportunity for a gratuitous photo of the reigning High King of Glastonbury 2015.

Friends aside, I would say I'd had more actual conversation on Twitter in the past week or so than I've had in the past five years.

How? I've been saying hello to some of the people who've followed me by sending them a private message. Not all of them, but those I had something to say to.

Of course, it helps that I have a job for a charity which involves reaching out to volunteers about campaigning. That means I have had something to say and a general offer of help to tender. But the key thing here - as with any networking - is having a friendly interaction based on a common interest, not playing a zero sum game where every conversation has to get me somewhere.   

Unlike e-mails, Twitter messages are also framed as a conversation. Literally, in the way the screen is designed. So there's both more stimulus to respond and less pressure (because less formality) in doing so at the same time, perhaps compared to an e-mail. Certainly the freedom to go over 140 characters helps with responding compared to public Twitter conversation.

Worth saying too that the message content has not been a generic 'Hi - Thanks for the follow - Sign up here' affair either. People can smell that kind of phoniness, that pseudo-bot behaviour in what you write. 

So while my messages have often contained all of those things, it's been personalised to what I know of that person or that organisation and their interests. I've tried sharing some information I thought they would find interesting. I've offered help - and sometimes I've been able to help them, even if it's something as straightforward as retweeting the launch of their latest project.

So - why don't you try it? Who's started following you that you would like to build a relationship with?

Some caveats

Perhaps I shouldn't have to say this, but belt and braces:

  • If you think a message from you could potentially be seen as an unwelcome intrusion, either in content, because it's a message from you, or even just because it's a message period, then don't send it.
  • It's for that reason I'm restricting my messaging to new follows, organisations and accounts who RT me. And even then I'll be discriminatory.
  • With the best will in the world, I have to say social media is still a place where abuse and creepy behaviour happens, disproportionately directed at women. People (especially women) are therefore rightfully cautious about strangers on the internet. So, I say again, if you think the act of messaging might possibly be misconstrued, don't message.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Campaigning 101 - and the first skill you should learn is...

Thinking ahead to an introduction to campaigning session I'm scheduled to run next week - my first for the MND Association - I asked my Facebook friends where people should start. 

What is the first skill you should introduce to people wrapping their heads around what activism is for the first time?

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A clear spot to run to: where now for me in the environmental movement?

One of the advantages of now being employed outside the environmental movement is that I have more freedom to ask myself questions about it. Questions such as: 

  • what kind of role would I like to play in the movement? 
  • what do I think the movement should be doing?

I've held onto these questions since the summer during a few months of informal sabbatical from tree-hugging, give or take a little online activism and some local activity. Inevitably, the two are connected - I want to do something which makes a difference while also being meaningful to me.

And, in trying to answer that second bigger question, I'm minded to approach it in an entirely subjective mood. There are enough people trying (and one supposes mostly succeeding) to be objective, with political analysis 'n' socioeconomic data to spare. Adding my voice to that would be fairly redundant. 

What I think I could do with more of, conversely, is a personal perspective. A point of view, a way of speaking outside of 'policy voice' and the sociolect of the NGO's - valuable though they are. 

Outside even the wider discourse of campaigning. Certainly beyond the outrage clockwork of social media.

Finding myself a clear spot to run to where I can see it all and my place it in more clearly. 

How? Well, if I've learned anything about myself from writing this blog it's that personal space for me is criticism

Not raining on the parade  - but talking about what I do and don't dig, maaaaan; what I take from what I learn and what I experience. Looking at the ideas of others and asking: does that also work for me? 

And in Isaiah Berlin terms, I'm a fox not a hedgehog: I'm going to mine as many unlikely sources as as I can to find what I can use. I'll use science-fiction as much as science fact; art as much as activism; poetry and philosophy as much as politics.

So - expect a series of reflections, reviews, quotes, riffs, fragments and aphorisms in the coming weeks and months on this blog - all providing partial answers to my questions. 

I admit, this is labyrinthine thinking - all curves and turns and blind alleys rather than straight-line solutions. But it's what I need right now. I'll come back to the straight-line approach when I'm good and ready. For now, I'll hope you follow me.

(and apologies to the good Captain for appropriating his lyric for this one)

The world must be romanticized

"The world must be romanticized. Thus one rediscovers the original meaning."

Novalis (1798), with thanks to Peter Gay's The Naked Heart, his highly recommended cultural history of nineteenth-century interior life.