A few weeks ago, I was idly looking through my local charity shop for books. Nothing really took my fancy – I have far too many books so don’t usually buy them that whimsically – but as I was just about to leave, an amazing cover caught my eye.
The book was pretty thin, by an author I’d not heard of – later, I realised that I had two books edited by the author in my bookcase: The Steampunk Bible and the Steampunk anthology. The blurb ofVeniss Underground sounded interested, and the first page was readable and intriguing. The publisher was Tor, which gave me a lot of faith. But most of all, I fell in love with the cover art. It was so beautiful – the grungy colours and textures, the menacing interlacing of semi-abstract imagery. Yes, I bought the book based on its cover.
It was also a signed edition. I wonder why someone would go to the trouble of getting a book signed, only to give it to a charity shop.
Anyway, I started reading, and I found the protagonist a little annoying and the story a little non-nonsensical. Something about biologically engineered meerkats… okay… But I wanted to give it a chance. Flipping ahead a little, I saw that the book was divided into three unequal sections. The first was the shortest, and the last was the longest. Each section put the reader in the head of a different character. The first section was told in the first person, the second section in the second person, and the third section in the third person. Interesting, I though. I enjoy experimentation and diversity in fiction.
The second section grabbed me. I found myself deeply in the character’s head and starting to get to grips with the strange world I was in. By the third section, I was in love. The novel intensified into horrifically beautiful madness, and I was left awed by the imagination and the depth of the writing.
I don’t really know how to describe this book. It’s somewhere between science-fiction and fantasy, with a grounding in a possible distant future, but also full of impossibilities and madness, written with a convincing suspension of disbelief that gives the world the grain of truth while simultaneously being completely ludicrous. I guess it could be described as biopunk with a dash of steampunk. It doesn’t really matter what sub-genre it falls in. Essentially, it is a fantastically imaginative and beautifully written book.
Here are some of my favourite sections:
He was brittle with the weight of his humanity, and he had memories of this place… His first memories outside of the room that served as their home were of the clank-and-thrum musics of the mining machines. He soon saw them up close: monstrous black metal carapaces four, five stories high, the heat they gave off like sweat, so that they always seemed possessed of a righteous anger: to steam, to bubble, to boil. They generated a fierce light that annihilated his vision even as he adjusted to it; a corona of flame through which the machines burst through in glimpses – their bodies a black darker than night… their spokes like iridescent midnight starfish…
- ‘Veniss Underground’ by Jeff Vandermeer, p83
Where the sculptures of saints would have been set into the walls, there were instead bodies laid into clear capsules, the white, white skin glistening in the light – row upon row of bodies in the walls, the bewildering proliferation of walls. The columns, which rose and arched in bunches of five or six together, were not true columns, but instead highways for blood and other substances: giant red, green, blue and clear tunes that courses through the cathedral like arteries.
- ‘Veniss Underground’ by Jeff Vandermeer, p87
This gives you just a flavour of the writing and the nightmare visions within this novel. And it fills me with intense respect and intense envy. This is how I want to write. This is the kind of eloquence and vitality I want to achieve through my own stories. Discovering this kind of writing fills me with joy and inspiration, but also with a little bit of despair as I think: ‘How can I want this talent for myself when it is already so perfectly in existence elsewhere – what’s the point of that?’
But, of course, it all comes down to tapping into our own voice, telling our own stories in our own ways. I can only dream that someone, one day, will have the same sense of awe about my writing that I feel when I read novels such as this. That’s the dream.
Sam Russell wrote a non-fiction article for Inkspill Magazine, and since then we’ve been chatting via Twitter. After kindly downloading my short story collection (‘The Hours of Creeping Night‘) to read, Sam then wrote an amazing review on her site.
I didn’t know what to expect, though the forewarning of ‘dark speculative fiction’ probably should have prepared me.
There are nine tales in this debut collection, each distinct from the next if not for the underlying drive to say something more than what the story itself is saying.
For me, Playle has the same ability to convey theme and meaning as George Saunders does in Pastoralia, could probably give the Brothers Grimm a run for their money when it comes to conveying terror, and reminds me of Chekhov with her brevity and pace. … (READ MORE)
Thank you, Sam!
A few days ago we had the launch party for our MA anthology, Bedford Square 5. The anthology is a showcase of the work produced by two years’ of Royal Holloway’s Creative Writing MA, and includes a mix of prose and poetry. It contains the first chapter of my novel.
The launch was a lot of fun. It was great to see lots of my MA group there, and also to meet a number of other students I hadn’t previously had the chance to meet. The event was organised by Susanna Jones, one of the tutors on the course and whose latest novel, When Nights Were Cold, has just been published. Adele Ward, the publisher of the anthology, was there, too, as was Andrew Motion, the MA director. I spoke briefly to him about Angela Carter, as she is one of my literary heros and he knew her before she sadly died, and about the poety taught in schools. There was at least one literary agent that I spoke to, but as I had expected from such an event, she was only interested in literary fiction.
I see the publication of such an anthology as less of an ego stroke, and more of a momento of the course. As I’ve said before, an anthology of extracts is not the kind of publication that will fly off the shelves, but it provides an example of the MA’s work for prospective students and for potential agents and publishers. For me, the launch party was more of a chance to see my fellow writing buddies again, and to imerse myself in the creative buzz of such a crowd – something that’s always energising to me.
But it’s also nice to know that part of my novel is already ‘out there’, waiting for the rest of it to join it one day…
Neuromancer by William Gibson is considered a sci-fi classic. First published in 1984, it was revolutionary for its time. We follow the story of Case, a computer cowboy who hacks into corporate systems via the Matrix, a graphic representation of the databanks of every computer in the human system. Left neurotically maimed by a former client he double-crossed, he is hired anew by a man who offers to ‘fix’ him in exchange for his hacking talents. But things aren’t as they seem and it is slowly revealed that the entity running the show is a powerful AI.
I had really high hopes for this novel. It’s famous for being the first cyberpunk novel, Gibson coining the term himself. Full of imagination beyond the technology of the time, it is impressive to know that Gibson wrote this on a typewriter and didn’t even own a computer. However, I think being a child of the technology generation, who has grown up with the many offsprings of this novel, it didn’t have nearly as much impact on me as it would have twenty or thirty years ago.
I recognised the first line of the book as one that is often picked out as a great example of a first line: The sky above the port was the color of television, turned to a dead channel. Great stuff. I then swiftly lost myself in the bombardment of characters.
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW
There is so much in this novel that I love. The richness of the world, the infinate creative ideas, the tech-noir tone… There are some exceptionally written passages in this book, and some wonderfully memorable and vivid scenes, such as Riviera’s hallucinatory show at the bar and Neuromancer’s desolate beach dreamscape. However, I often found myself completely lost, not understanding what the main driving elements of the plot were suppost to be. It made me feel rather stupid at times, for not being able to follow it.
What did Armitage ask Molly and Case to do and why? I never quite understood their original task, other than it was to do with hacking. Why did they recruit Riviera? Why did he try to kill Case at the end? What were Wintermute’s motivations for anything? What did he want to do when he was free? And why the hell didn’t Case or Molly ever question it? Didn’t wonder if Wintermute might become insanly dangerous if freed?
I found Case’s character extremely lacking – but I suspect that this might be deliberate, so he is more like an emtpy vessle for the story. The element about Case finding a sense of rage also confused me. I wasn’t sure of its conclusion or purpose, though I feel it was meant to be significant at the novel’s end.
There were so many characters and corporations integral to the plot, and so much new language to get my head around, I think I would be able to enjoy this book more on a second reading. I can understand why people love this book, I really can. It has so many merits – but for me, the jumping plot and information overload frazzled my brain.
Paul Cornell – a novelist, comics and TV writer, notably for Doctor Who and Action Comics – was the guest speaker at the ‘Bad Writing’ Symposium, held at King’s College London last month. He spoke about the concept of genre, its history and how we define it. It was a great talk, humorous, energetic and engaging. Cornell really knows his stuff.
I must apologise for making you wait for this post. Some of you may have noticed that my site was hacked recently, and I’ve spent the past couple of weeks trying to sort it out. With the security all up to date now, the probably is hopefully solved! So without further ado, here are my notes on the talk, with my own thoughts included.
The purpose of genre
- To let people buy more of the things they like. Genre builds on a set of expectations so people don’t start reading the ‘wrong way’. For example, readers expect a more immediate sense of story with genre fiction, and no fancy writing for the sake of literary experimentation. Or, for example, if you start reading a novel expecting it to be romance, and suddenly there is an alien invasion half way through, the reader becomes annoyed because their initial expectations of genre are disrupted. People want to read more of the things they know they like. Genre allows them to do this.
- Writers are able to compare and compete with one another. There’s nothing like a bit of healthy competition to encourage people to strive for greatness. Or a bigger ego. But there’s no use comparing Jane Eyre to Ender’s Game so classification is helpful when drawing comparisons between texts.
- Genre creates a pecking order. Now, this isn’t exactly a benefit, but it is definitely a naturally occurring bi-product of classification. Literary fiction likes to sit at the top of this pecking order as something ‘arty’ and difficult to obtain. The different genres seem to trickle down in various combinations, depending the perceptions of a changing society. Fan fiction, chick lit, and paranormal romance seem to be fairly low on the pecking order at the moment. Despite their popularity, they are seen as ‘lesser’ forms of fiction, perhaps because of their extremely formulaic structures, or general lack of depth. Science fiction is fairly high at the moment, as long as it isn’t ‘hard’ science fiction but especially if it is dystopian science fiction, and fantasy sits comfortably beside or below this, with things like The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones making it mainstream.
Overall, genre provides a certain limitation that gives you something to react against or build upon.
Types of genre
Genre can usually be broken down into four main categories:
- Science fiction
- Literature (literary or general)
Speculative fiction – Today, most science fiction is re-branded as ‘speculative fiction’, taking out the failed ‘science’ part. It is a wider category that can have cross-over into all the other genres, making it more accessible and giving it the potential to be placed fairly highly on the pecking order.
Hard science fiction – Or, as Cornell puts it: novels without character! They are usually about big, enormous concepts, usually set in space (‘space opera’). It’s not the most popular sub-genre anymore.
Cyberpunk – Its heyday was during the 80s with the rise of the computer, but with such a technology-focused society, it still has resonance and interest today. It deals with the concept of hackers, cyborgs, artificial intelligence and mega-corporations. Think William Gibson, or The Matrix.
Military science fiction – As you can guess, military science fiction deals with armies, conflict and war, usually consisting of the humans as the good guys fighting aliens as the bad guys, e.g. Starship Troopers. It is mostly set in space, or on a planet other than other. Sometimes it involves only human conflict that has been created due to some otherworldly concept, e.g. the war for the control of spice in Dune. Cornell suggests that there are two main branches of military science-fiction, and a sort of progression: it has moved from conservatism (usually found in US fiction) to left wing (usually found in UK fiction). Largely, this depends on the events of the time. When countries are at war, it taps into the psyche of dehumanisation to think of war as ‘us versus them – the creatures’. Other times, fiction can be used to explore the horror or war, through the exaggeration of the differences of species to suggest the differences in culture, or simply to focus on human experience and emotion in extreme ‘alien’ situations.
Steampunk – Yes, Cornell mentioned steampunk! The very genre I’m writing in at the moment. He described it as a genre that is ‘against the future, instead running to an imaged better past where we still know how everything works.’ I’m not sure about the idea of steampunk being ‘against the future’ in a sense that it runs away from it, as I think the concepts it picks up upon are often fundamentally relevant to today’s society and the potential future to which these will lead. But I think he is correct about the appeal of steampunk as immersing ourselves in a world in which we have more understanding and control. Steampunk is almost the antithesis of cyberpunk. Cyberpunk imagines a future in which technology has become out of control, whereas steampunk brings us back into a world in which machines are dangerous and industrial labour is draining, but the technology itself is easily understood and can be built and de-constructed with a basic understanding and a strong pair of hands. More strongly than that, though, I think is the appeal of these aesthetics. Great hunkering mechanical monsters, as opposed to invisible electronic pulses or tiny micro-chips.
The history of science fiction in a nutshell: It began as a way of telling people how to understand science, and slowly turned science into something everyone can understand (even if it is as simple as steam power).
According to Cornell, horror collapsed and vanished to the point that it was just Stephen King. This was partly because of splatter punk, which was so gory that it put a lot of people off horror, as they were unable to distinguish gory horror from any other type.
Cornell also hypothesised that with the rise of terrorism, the real world became a lot more scary, so people didn’t want their moments of escapism to be just as terrifying. A member of the audience challenged him on this, saying that the world has always been a scary place. Personally, I think people might shy away from horror fiction because there is enough violence and horror available through television and film these days, so that there isn’t a taboo around censorship or availability any more. Perhaps people prefer this medium for their doses of horror.
Cornell says that most horror writers decided to migrate into dark fantasy, which is not as associated with gore, and also provides more of the escapism that people want.
Apparently, the last world horror convention had only 100 people at it!
Cornell explains the differences between the development of horror sub-genres in minimalistic terms:
- Horror - the protagonist will die.
- Dark fantasy - the protagonist won’t die.
- Urban fantasy - the protagonist is an empowered woman.
- Paranormal romance - the empowered woman gets a shag!
The ghost story is and has always been a popular form of horror. More often than not, though, it is actually more considered literary fiction. Think of Toni Morrison’s Beloved for example.
Like science-fiction and horror, fantasy also has an array of subgenres, and has adapted to popularity.
Magical realism is fantasy that likes to be literature, Cornell says. The ‘realism’ grounds it, distinguishing it from the idea of pure fantasy, where anything can go because it’s magical.
High fantasy contains ‘epic posing’, as Cornell puts it; it is usually set in a completely fictional world, and the writing it full of purple prose. Tolkien is the father of high (or epic) fantasy, and the genre hasn’t moved ever since, says Cornell. ‘If you use an elf in your fantasy, you should re-invent elves!’ he says.
Urban fantasy evolved to get away from high fantasy. It is usually set in a contemporary city, bringing fantasy up-to-date and more accessible to the masses. Think Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Gail Carriger’s Soulless.
Grittier fantasy mostly avoids magic altogether, and this seems to be more popular at the moment – Game of Thrones for example.
When is a genre not a genre?
When it is in an age-range, says Cornell. Young adult (YA) fiction is becoming more and more popular. It’s becoming almost a genre of its own, rather than simply an age group. Interestingly, a lot of adults read YA fiction. YA fiction does include swearing, sex and violence – its not as sheltered as some people might think. Often, they are adventurous, exciting, short and easily digestible. They feature young protagonists, but this doesn’t seem to alienate an adult readership at all. Think Harry Potter, or Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice or Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. According to Cornell, YA fiction is where most of the apocalyptic and horror novels are now found – really interesting subgenres that are often not marketed for an adult readership anymore.
There are also those authors and novels that teeter on the edge of genre. Cornell says you can decide to write science fiction or fantasy and not be associated with the genre. A lot of people sometimes don’t know what is scientifically real and what is fiction (for example, the technology used in crime programs is often way beyond current possibilities.) Authors can exist outside of genre in fiction if they are aware of the genre they are borrowing from – Margaret Atwood is often used as the best example of this. She is very knowledgeable about science-fiction as a genre, but her works are predominantly considered literary fiction, not genre fiction, because of the way she deals with concepts (and because of the marketing of her books).
The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Cornell says, is like the litmus test for genre fiction. It’s a post-apocalyptic novel set in a near future, but it’s not considered science fiction because the cause of the apocalypse is never explained. On the surface, it looks like genre fiction. But by strict definition, it’s most likely to be literary fiction. A lot of writers aim for this careful blend – exploring genre while sitting at the ‘top’ of the pecking order. Even Stephen King, Cornell says, the King of Genre, attempted to write literary fiction (and failed, if judged by critical reception and sales figures). Despite genre writers snubbing this idea of a literary pecking order, most genre writers would admit that they want to be considered critically worthy. (A controversial topic, perhaps for another post.)
It doesn’t help that genre is often used as an insult. The people who usually do this are not well versed in genre fiction, and usually make judgements based on generalisation and assumption, in my opinion. (I admit that I do this too. Pfft, paranormal romance! What a load of rubbish. Gah! Chick lit! Awful stuff. But there is a line between knowing the type of writing you like and think is good, and making damning generalisations. Of course not all paranormal romance is ‘bad’ and not all chick lit is ‘bad’ – there are a lot of people that would angrily fight the opposite.)
Genre is something that is always developing. New genre comes from hybrids. Steampunk, for example, wasn’t a term coined until the 80s, which then neatly encompassed some of the strange fiction that was straggling around in the 60s and 70s. It blended the term ‘cyberpunk’ with the main historical aesthetic of the machinery it dealt with, and a new genre was born within the further subgenre of ‘alternative history’. Genre is something that is continually complex, expanding and entwining, as a way of classifying fiction. Writers like Atwood and McCarthy could be considered helping the development of a new genre: literary genre fiction. The ultimate combination?