Tag Archives: science fiction

Ecology and Speculative Fiction Talk on YouTube

14 Oct

Anyone interested in Marxism, radical ecology, dystopian/utopian visions and/or fantasy and science fiction writers from Thomas More to Brian Aldiss to Michael Crichton? A talk I gave by video last year to the Writing and Place conference at the University of Montenegro is now available here on YouTube.

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Write-up on CCI Website

17 Jan

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The University of Portsmouth’s Creative and Cultural Industries – the faculty where I teach – has kindly reported on the chapter I’ve written for A Global History of Literature and the Environment (out now with Cambridge University Press).

See the full item here.

Review of Adam Robots (originally published in Foundation)

8 Jan

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Adam Robots

By Adam Roberts (Gollancz, 2013, 391 pp, £12.99)

Reviewed by Tom Sykes, Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth

Before I had read any of Adam Roberts’s books, I met him in person at the 2011 Current Research in Speculative Fiction conference. He delivered an illuminating – and exceedingly funny – keynote speech outlining his theory of science fiction, which he encapsulated in this one idiom: “the knight’s move”. For Roberts, the finest sf takes its readers on a conceptual flight away from mundane and literal-minded ways of regarding reality and into spectacularly metaphorical representations of it. There are traces here of the Romantic concept of the sublime, and it is therefore apt that Roberts teaches nineteenth-century literature when he isn’t writing sf. Another of his passions is comedy, which he argues operates in much the same way as transcendental sf; the efficacy of a punchline can often be measured by how strange or surprising a departure it is from its setup.

Roberts’s new book, Adam Robots, is clear proof that he practises as a storyteller what he preaches as a critic. Manifest in these two dozen short stories are various “conceptual breakthroughs” (260) that elucidate a number of timely matters, from the theological to the political, the ontological to the technological. But while Roberts consistently takes us to new places and show us things we haven’t seen before, his referential, sometimes intertextual style never loses sight of the time-honoured conventions of the genre that excites him so much. Although in the introduction he admits to wanting to write “at least one thing in all the myriad sub-genres and sub-sub-genres of SF” (1), this doesn’t equate to some superficial box-ticking exercise in homage or fan fiction. It is much more about satirising, subverting and reinventing what has come before.

Thus, what better way to undermine the masturbatory masculinism of boy’s own sf than to write a story about an adolescent lad whose sperm is harvested to create an all-conquering galactic empire? While “The Imperial Army” works on a rollicking, action-packed narrative level – just as early space opera does – it is, at the same time, able to make sideswipes at space opera’s reactionary assumptions about colonialism, eugenics and the martial mentality.

Taking the military theme in a different direction, “Godbombs” posits a future war fought, as the title makes plain, with weapons that compel one side to worship the other like a deity. Here are vigorous nods to ‘Nam-era New Wave freak-outs such as Barefoot in the Head (1969) and The Forever War (1974) (Roberts’s protagonist is one ‘Captain Haldeman’), but also wry winks at the religious fundamentalisms that have driven more recent international conflicts.

If such extreme belief systems appear to be easy comic targets (and Roberts takes aim at them again elsewhere in the book), other stories treat more palatable religious ideas with a sincerity and open-mindedness seldom seen in sf. Whereas a number of high-profile writers in the genre have espoused a militant atheism wedded to an often uncritical scientism (obvious examples being certain Golden Age figures and Richard Dawkins’s good friend Douglas Adams), Roberts repeatedly uses the knight’s move to think more inventively – and less dogmatically – about the relationship between physics and metaphysics, and the limits of human understanding in both areas. In “Wonder: a Story in Two”, humanity gains the scientific capacity to “spread itself to ten thousand worlds” and is then faced with the challenge that “immortality, or God, [is] hidden in a world orbiting a star in the Kyd-blank zones” (256). “Adam Robots” places a robot by that name in an Eden-like garden and burdens him with an ontological crisis: in the garden is a jewel that contains all the qualities required to become fully human. Rather than programme him not to steal the jewel, his creators simply tell him not to, as an experimentum crucis on his capacity for free will. With a healthy amount of irreverence and irony, the tale brings the oldest Judaeo-Christian theology to bear on contemporary research into artificial intelligence. Perhaps Roberts’s most engaging response to the science-belief question is a memorable ‘test of faith’ cliffhanger in another story somewhere else in this collection (to explain it in much more detail than that would, I fear, be an unforgivable plot-spoiler).

Adam Robots is packed full of such “philosophical abstractions made concrete” (to borrow Philip K Dick’s definition of sf). The unsettling “Thrownness” crafts the classic sf conceit of inter-dimensional travel into an ornate metaphor for existential ennui. The disarmingly jolly narrator (“’My heart was chuntering on at a fair old lick’” (51)) is condemned to an eternity of leaping between alternate realities, all of which are eerily similar to the modern Britain where he originates from, although nobody in these other realities ever recognises him. He finds himself both liberated and trapped: never held accountable for his actions, he can do more or less what he likes in the short-term, but is denied the freedom to make long-term commitments or form lasting relationships.

In “ReMorse”, Roberts turns ethics on its head by imagining a drug that is supposed to boost human empathy and herald utopia, but instead leads to a fascistic dystopia sustained by new, unanticipated forms of sadism. The narrator is both sinister and salacious, a hybrid of O’Brien from Nineteen Eighty-Four and a bit player in a 1970s sitcom (“It’s – in a word – look, I’m sorry to use this word, but it’s sex” (137)).

As we progress through Adam Robots, its varied adventures in “radical otherness” (261) start to have a cumulative effect: we get the sense that the knight’s move means a lot more to the human experience than aesthetic transcendence or intellectual expansion. In the epic and cinematic “Pied”, Roberts’s personal vision of the apocalypse doesn’t doom mankind to a plague of locusts or a nuclear holocaust, but something worse: the loss of our “capacity for wonder” (272).

Originally published in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction

Missive #14 – Hooray for the New Wave

5 Sep

While randomly surfing the web I have, by sheer chance, just discovered that an essay of mine, ‘Ideascape’, appeared in last Spring’s Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction. I hadn’t heard back from the editors so had assumed it’d been binned. It’s about the cultural and historical context of the New Wave of Science Fiction and discusses writers such as JG Ballard, Michael Moorcock and Philip K Dick.

Once I’ve asked the editors nicely I’ll whack it up on this site.

Westworld – Speculative Fiction in the Southwest

7 Mar

Tom Sykes explores the fecund roots and bright future of speculative fiction in the Southwest.

The South West has produced some of the finest writers in the English literary canon – from John Gay to Thomas Hardy, Arthur Quiller Couch to William Golding. Other greats, amongst them Poet Laureates and Booker Prize winners, have been influenced by the culture and geography of the region.

There are plenty of books and articles on ‘the literary Southwest’  but most ignore speculative fiction – an umbrella term that includes science fiction, fantasy and other fantastic genres. A pity, as several key figures in SpecFic (as it’s known) have close connections to the South West. Some, such as Arthur C Clarke and JK Rowling, were born and raised here. Others, like Angela Carter and JRR Tolkien, came from elsewhere to draw inspiration from our urban communities, ancient woodlands, and picturesque hills. Today, Bristol is home to a number of gifted writers in the mode; it has a vibrant fan scene and one of the largest conventions in the UK.

Best known for co-writing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C Clarke had a rare double talent. He was not only one of the ‘Big Three’ of twentieth-century science fiction but an able physicist whose research into satellite technology earned him a prize from the Franklin Institute in 1963. Born in Minehead in 1917, Clarke fell in love with both science and science fiction while a pupil at Huish’s Grammar School, Taunton. The young Clarke experimented with cameras, radios and rockets and devoured tales of space travel and alien invasion. According to the critic Andy Sawyer, ‘by the time he left Huish’s in 1936 for London and the Civil Service, he had contacted both SF fandom and the British Interplanetary Society’.

As a writer who spent only a brief time in the fantasy ghetto before leaping to global stardom, JK Rowling needs no introduction. It’s worth noting, however, that she was born in the Gloucestershire village of Yate and grew up in nearby Tutshill and Winterbourne. Aldus Dumbledore, a central character in the Harry Potter stories, was based on her real-life headmaster at St Michael’s Primary School in Winterbourne. Furthermore, the grounds of Hogwarts School were modelled on the Forest of Dean, a part of the world that fascinated Rowling throughout her childhood. In a 2009 interview she said, ‘I’m very drawn to the Forest … it used to be a place of shelter and safety to us.’

The godfather of Rowling’s genre, JRR Tolkien, was also a fan of the Forest. In the 1910s he made regular trips into Puzzlewood, a mile south of Coleford. There is definitely something of Middle Earth about this magical place of gnarled vines, moss-crested boulders and rickety rope bridges. Puzzlewood’s SpecFic pedigree was given a further boost when episodes of Doctor Who and Merlin were recently filmed there.

Although widely regarded as literary fiction, the novels of Angela Carter have strongly fantastic underpinnings. In 1965, Carter won a place at Bristol University and moved to Clifton, a once-plush Georgian suburb that had been half-destroyed by German bombs. In Shadow Dance, the first book in what Marc O’Day has termed her ‘Bristol Trilogy’, a rag-and-bones man scours ‘the deserted, condemned old houses which the city planned shortly to demolish’ while juvenile delinquents run amok due to the trauma of war.

It was something of a vogue for SpecFic writers of the 1960s to draw on the bleak, devastated landscapes of their youth as a metaphor for social upheaval and cultural crisis. The two best-known examples are JG Ballard, who spent his early teens in a Japanese internment camp and Michael Moorcock, who, as a toddler, played in the ruins of Blitz-torn London. As for Carter, the scholar Sarah Gamble explains, ‘it was her move to Bristol which motivated an enduring interest in the changing faces of ‘Englishness’, for as a symbol of decayed imperialism, Bristol could hardly be bettered’. After travelling in the Far East, Carter returned to the Southwest in 1972. She settled in Bath, a city she said was ‘writhing in the last gasp of flower power’. She was escaping from ‘a series of serio-comic mishaps involving a psychopath, the police and my father’s sudden desire to know where I was’. The psychopath in question was an ex-boyfriend who’d thrown a typewriter at her…

Terry Pratchett settled in the region in the early ’70s, long before he became Britain’s second most-read author. Oddly enough, the South West has come to imitate his fiction rather than the other way round.

In 2002, the Somerset town of Wincanton, not far from Pratchett’s home in Rowbotham, decided to twin itself with Ankh-Morpok, one of the locations of his hugely popular Discworld series. Things got even stranger when a new property development in the town named some of its streets after those created by Pratchett in the novels The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic. As Pratchett said at the time, ‘it makes my head spin to think of the books becoming a little closer to reality’. But also: ‘Personally, I’d pay good money to live somewhere called Treacle Mine Road!’

Lewis Carroll (the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) has influenced many a SpecFic writer, Terry Pratchett included. According to David Carroll’s A Literary Tour of Gloucestershire and Bristol, Dodgson often visited his friend Henry Liddell at Leckhampton Hill, south of Cheltenham. Dodgson loved to tell Liddell’s children, amongst them an eleven-year-old called Alice, tall tales that two years later would form the basis of Alice in Wonderland. It was while strolling around the hill in Easter 1863 that the character of the Red Queen (the antagonist of Through the Looking-Glass) suddenly came to him.

Various locations in the Southwest, from Cadbury Castle in Somerset to Camelford in Cornwall, claim to be the site of Camelot, and a sub-genre of SpecFic devoted to Arthurian legend has evolved over the years, highlights being T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon and Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles.

It’s not possible to write about speculative fiction in the South West without mention of Keith Roberts, author of the classic alternate history Pavane, who spent his latter years in Salisbury; Dianna Wynne Jones, long-time Bristol resident and winner of the Edward Wagner Award for a lifetime contribution to fantasy; Cornwall-born Nick Harkaway whose apocalyptic adventure The Gone-Away World earned him a £300,000 advance; Britain’s number one genre critic and vampire novelist Kim Newman, who spent his formative years in Aller, Somerset; Sidewise Award winner and co-founder of Venue magazine Eugene Byrne; Wiltshire-based fantast Sarah Singleton; Devon denizen HM Gordon, author of This One’s a Lemon and Joe Abercrombie, Bath’s master of the sword and sorcery bloodbath.

What of contemporary Bristol? In 2009, the Future Bristol anthology brought together the cream of local talent: Arthur C Clarke Award nominee Liz Williams, Doctor Who novelist Nick Walters and Gareth L Powell, author of the The Recollection. Editor Colin Harvey told me that he kept the concept behind the book simple. ‘All I actually said to the contributors was that I’d be interested to see stories that reflect Bristol. So one of the stories was openly about slavery and another impinged on it. Somebody else picked up on trams as the thing they wanted to write about.’ The SS Great Britain, the Clifton Suspension Bridge and even Brunel himself make cameos in the book.

Harvey, whose latest novel is Damage Time, is a co-founder of BristolCon, one of the top four SpecFic conventions in the UK. He is keen to dispel the prejudices that outsiders may have about such events.

‘I don’t think anyone at BristolCon had fancy dress on last year. I think one person turned up as a Goth, but they were a Goth anyway!’

Joanne Hall, another contributor to Future Bristol, has always been inspired by the regional capital. ‘I love the fact that you can turn a random corner off a twentieth -century street and find a square or a lane that seems really old and weird and lost. Those breathtaking moments sometimes end up in stories.’ She is positive about the local scene. ‘Bristol has two SF groups, and there are a lot of people, not just writing but doing art, blogging, podcasting, publishing ‘zines and generally rolling their sleeves up and getting involved.’

Published by local indie press Heartsown, the Haadri cycle of science fiction novels are directly influenced by the geography of Bristol. According to their author Joules Taylor, ‘the city of Brigstow is based on Bristol. More specifically, the landscape of Clifton Downs and the Avon Gorge feature largely in several of the upcoming books.’ The (allegedly) haunted Black Castle pub on Bath Road ‘sparked a major plot arc within the series’ and Taylor even arranged a Haadri-themed event  there.

For over a century the South West has occupied a special place in SpecFic, and today’s stars are set to burn even brighter in the future.

First published in the Bristol Review of Books, summer 2011.