The 8th Emotion – book launch

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Here at Nothing in the Rulebook, we often find affinity with Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, on that we love it when a plan comes together – especially when that plan involves fascinating new ideas and copious amounts of creativity.

Josh Spiller’s debut novel, The 8th Emotion, is heavy on both new ideas and creativity. We originally told you about the plan for this project when it launched on Kickstarter in 2018.  So it’s rather brilliant to now let you all know about the official launch of Spiller’s searing new novel.

Described by legendary writer Alan Moore as marking “the emergence of a fascinating fresh voice” and “Not so much fantasy as post-science science fiction”, The 8th Emotion promises to be everything you’d want from a book to read in 2019.

So, we’d strongly encourage all of you to make it over to the launch of the book on 1st February in London, where you’ll be able to meet the author and hear Spiller reading an an extract of his novel, meet fellow creative artists, writers and book lovers, and enjoy a selection of food and drink. The event details are here below:

Date: 1st February 2019

Time: 18.30 – 20.00

Venue: South Kensington Books (22 Thurloe Street, Kensington, London, SW7 2LT

In case you can’t wait that long, you can have a sneak peak inside the book and read a pre-released chapter right here on NITRB.

And you can also read an interview with Spiller about his book, writing, literature and everything else in between.

Blurb for The 8th Emotion

“I recently found something out… A way we can end all violence forever.”

In a tribal utopia, an unprecedented human emotion erupts into existence. It may be the key to an almost miraculous future.

But a vicious, predatory rot is also growing. And soon Jak, his best friend Martin, and his sister Laura, will become embroiled in a struggle that will irrevocably alter their lives, their society, and ultimately, the World…

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Remembering Ursula Le Guin: never forget her call to imagine alternatives to capitalism

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News of the death of Ursula Le Guin at the age of 88 has hit the literary world hard. The sharp-minded, large-spirited, incomparably brilliant Le Guin  brought literary depth and a tough-minded feminist sensibility to science fiction and fantasy, and for many stood as a triumphant champion of the written word – and books in general, as well as a powerful cultural figure fighting against the catastrophic ills of capitalism.

In addition to more than 20 novels, she was the author of a dozen books of poetry, more than 100 short stories (collected in multiple volumes), seven collections of essays, 13 books for children and five volumes of translation, as well as a writing guide for aspiring (and established) writers.

Her books and stories often challenged prevailing societal sensibilities, and at every turn she saw fiction and writing as a powerful tool to fight against the powers of corporate greed. Indeed, so many of Le Guin’s stories serve as timely reminders of the human capacity to keep dreaming of better worlds no matter how the grim the actual situation.

Indeed, as she was honoured for her contribution to literature at the 2014 National Book Awards, Le Guin used her platform took aim at publishers who placed profit before art – calling on writers to imagine new alternatives to capitalism.

At a time when it seems as though the power of corporate neoliberalism cannot be exposed as any more rigged and corrupt – and designed only to benefit a miniscule few at the expense of the entire human race (indeed; the pursuit of profit above all else has left the planet facing catastrophic climate breakdown) – it is a crying shame (to use that oft-over used phrase) that society has lost a figure in Le Guin who saw the world clearly for what it was and called on us to act.

As a small tribute to her continued calls for freedom and change, we’ve reprinted the transcript of her National Book Award speech below.

“To the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks, from the heart. My family, my agents, my editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as my own, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice in accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long – my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination, who for 50 years have watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this – letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.”

Creatives in Profile: Interview with Josh Spiller

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It seems old hat to say that mainstream publishing has been facing an existential crisis in recent years. As profit margins thin, the go-to response from the biggest publishing houses has been to retreat from investing in new ideas, and to banking on “sure things” – which, as Julian Barnes has noted, essentially amounts to republishing copies (or imitations) of commercially successful novels. Indeed, the mainstream publishing industry has become so risk averse and sold on the idea that committees of sales and marketing gurus that millions are now spent on orange-headed celebrity books whose pie charts and spreadsheets appeared to augur well but are in the bargain buckets shortly after they first appear.

So how can new writers hope to deliver something genuinely new and unique when the old models are so built to actually stifle, rather than support, new ideas?

One intrepid expression explorer (this interviewer’s  favourite term for writers) is looking to do just this. Josh Spiller, author of The 8th Emotion, is using the crowdfunding model to bypass risk-averse corporate structures and so publish a piece of speculative fiction that  promises to be different to anything you’ve ever read before.

In the following detailed interview, Spiller discusses the inevitable challenges and opportunities that crowdfunding presents to new, aspiring creatives hoping to make something new and unique.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

SPILLER

Born in Sydney, reared mostly in Cheltenham, before breaking through the paper-sky of that Truman Show town and fleeing to London, where I live wild and untamed like an escaped gorilla, yet plagued by the paranoia – whenever I spot a CCTV camera – that, secretly, I’m still trapped, but just in a bigger TV show.

I primarily write prose stories and comic books, but have tried my hand at pretty much every form of writing I can think of, including screenwriting, stand-up comedy, scripting scenes for plays, poetry – both conventional and (perhaps embarrassingly) rap-inspired – advertising copy, restaurant & theatre reviews, a radio play, newspaper articles, essays, and even a (sadly aborted) spoken-word piece that would have been accompanied by music. Obviously, having been a lucrative success in these other fields, I now focus on prose and comics merely to support my gambling addiction.

Beyond the “work” side of my life (writing, tutoring in English, working in a bookshop a couple of days a week), I mainly like to exercise (football, swimming, rock climbing), socialise, gorge on stories/art, and try new things. However, this is starting to sound like a dating profile, so I think I’ll end it there.

INTERVIEWER

Is creativity and writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

SPILLER

First love (well, after Thomas the Tank Engine). I think I began writing stories when I was about six, but the conviction that I was going to dedicate the bulk of my life to writing, specifically storytelling, only crystallised when I was 16 or 17 years old.

I have other passions, but if you took writing and reading out of my life, there would be an immense vacuum, and I’m not sure anything could fill that hole. Best not to risk it.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

SPILLER

Arguably, there are two types of people: those who list and compulsively rank their favourite things, and those who don’t. I definitely belong to the former. So – even if I accidentally and egregiously miss out some luminaries – I feel well-prepared for this question.

First and foremost, Alan Moore.

Then, completing the “Trinity” with him (I may have a deluded sense of grandeur about this stuff) are Shakespeare and John Fowles (The Collector being maybe the greatest debut ever, The Magus being my top novel of all time).

Just below this, but still in the top echelons of global literature and worthy of much hero-worship, are Tolstoy, James Joyce, China Miéville, Nabokov, Gene Wolfe (whose Book of the New Sun tetralogy literally left me flopped out on the sofa, awe-struck), Grant Morrison, Iain Sinclair, David Simon, David Chase, John Milton, Matt Stover, Lovecraft, and Dostoevsky.

Like I say, I’ve doubtlessly left out some key players, but there’s my crème de la crème in a nutshell.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about your speculative fiction project, The 8th Emotion?

SPILLER

Wouldn’t it be weird if I said no?

Basically, it’s set in a small post-civilisation society long after the world’s economies have collapsed. On the surface, this post-civilisation – at the novel’s outset – seems to be a utopia.

Mixed with this is the core high-concept that humans, having supposedly evolved from single-celled organisms (which don’t seem to have our range of emotions), must, therefore, have evolved emotions over time. So what could our next emotion be?

An exiled scientist-figure, through the chance discovery of a plant-based psychoactive agent, learns the answer. And although he is only a bit-player in the larger story, the hitherto-unknown emotion he unlocks – and its implications for society and humanity in general – cause the “utopia”, ultimately, to erupt into a civil war.

8th emotion

Spiller’s The 8th Emotion is illustrated by Victoria Stothard – producer of stunning, psychedelically vibrant, and highly-textured paintings, and also the winner of The One Show’s competition to create a garden at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show.

INTERVIEWER

Talk us through the title. Which emotions do you think define us as human beings?

SPILLER

The title was inspired by a 16th-century Japanese shogun called Tokugawa Ieyasu, who claimed that humans have seven emotions: joy, anger, anxiety, adoration, grief, fear, and hate.  Now, I don’t happen to agree with him (there seems to be at least several distinct shades of human emotion not accounted for by his statement, such as boredom, yearning, despair, hopefulness, even straightforward love – of which ‘adoration’ feels like a subset, but not a complete description).

However, the ‘Seven Emotions’ thing sounded cool, and made me wonder what the 8th one could be. So ‘The 8th Emotion’ became the working title I never let go of.

And if you look at Ieyasu’s list, five of the seven emotions are negative. Which is a bummer. I thus thought that the 8th emotion, for the sake of balance, should perhaps be something a bit more positive…

As for what emotions most define us as human beings, I’d say – off-the-cuff, and this may just be a reflection of my mood – love, boredom (a great springboard for creativity), and (often misguided) yearning.

 

INTERVIEWER

Where did your interest in speculative fiction initially come from?

SPILLER

A+New+Hope

Star Wars: inspiration for speculative fiction?

Star Wars, I’d guess. Blew my mind. Still a killer film, and still a high-water mark for the type of energy and affectivity – by which I mean, emotional power – that I’d like my fiction to have.

 

(Incidentally, I think Star Wars a far stranger creation than I think most people perceive it as; with its bizarreness obscured beneath its patina as the pre-eminent popcorn blockbuster).

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that the project took you four years to put together. Could you tell us a little bit about the processes involved? Was it a labour of love?

SPILLER

It was definitely a labour of love. To begin with, I just wanted to write a novel for the its own sake – without any concern as to whether it would be published or not – just so I could learn how to handle a story on that scale.

The first year, during an MA in Creative Writing and the time for thought that afforded, was spent planning it. The next three years were spent writing it, mostly in the evenings after a 9-5 job. (My weekday target was 1h15 of writing in which I had to produce 400 words, no matter what their quality).

All the key points of the story were mapped out before I started writing, apart from one: the ending. However, I had two or three very vague possibilities, so I knew I’d be able to come up with something that did the trick (otherwise, I wouldn’t have begun writing the story). But I thought that leaving the final point unknown would help sustain my energy and enthusiasm for the story; somehow keep it more alive in my head. Having now completed the piece, it’s certainly a tactic I’d recommend.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?

SPILLER

The main one was just to keep going, and ensure the story was finished, even after it kept taking longer… and longer… and longer than anticipated. But apart from that crux of sustained application, most narrative hurdles could be solved through a combination of thought, and looking to other fiction I admired for guidance.

Meanwhile, in the dastardly “real world, the biggest challenge/tedious hassle was waiting for responses from agents. Many never reply, and in my experience, those that do frequently take twice as long as they say they will. I spent a year-and-a-half just waiting for responses.

“Having now tried the crowdfunding model, I don’t think the agent-route is something I’d bother with again”

Having now tried the crowdfunding model, I don’t think the agent-route is something I’d bother with again. Too much dead time, and I like the creative control self-publishing offers. And if the book –  which, crucially, I can ensure is put in the world as I intended – strikes a chord and catches on, a publisher could still buy it off me at a later date anyway.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve decided to pursue the crowdfunding route for your project. Do you think the internet has made it easier or harder for aspiring writers to break into various ‘literary scenes’?

SPILLER

Unfortunately, I don’t feel like I have the experience to usefully comment upon this topic. All I’d say is that I imagine snobbery is present within numerous literary cliques, and that without the imprimatur of being signed by a major publisher, self-published authors are likely to be on the receiving end of this prejudice. That’s understandable – I’ve done it myself.

But I suspect this is something that will change more and more over the next few years, as more self-published or crowdfunded books win or are nominated for awards (see The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, shortlisted for a Kitschies ‘Golden Tentacle’ award; and The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, longlisted for the Man Booker and winner of the Gordon Burn Prize) or are runaway commercial hits (see Letters of Note and The Good Immigrant).

Incidentally, as a lot of my favourite writers are or were cultural fringe figures, breaking into a literary scene isn’t something I worry about.

INTERVIEWER

What would it mean to you to see The 8th Emotion in print?

SPILLER

EVERYTHING! But maybe that’s a bit far. An awful lot. There – that’s a bit more dignified.

INTERVIEWER

When writing fiction, what do you try to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

SPILLER

Before writing a scene, I plan it in detail, so I know the flow it should have (for The 8th Emotion, I probably went a bit overboard with this, even – for a period – working out what the key symbol, colour, smell, and other things would be for each chapter, to give it a unique identity. Very Joyce à la Ulysses. Now, I would just scribble down the scene’s key beats and put them in order).

This means, by the time of the writing, all the heavy-duty thinking is already taken care of, so I can simply focus on making each sentence as good as possible. Tell the story you’ve plotted, as well as you can: that’s my sole aim when writing my initial drafts.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ or audience in mind when you write?

SPILLER

Yes – me. I believe the reaction of any general audience is far too hard to predict to be a useful reference point. Moreover, it is not really the audience that you would be using as your reference: it is your imagined version of that audience. Their likes and dislikes. And the odds of your version mapping accurately onto reality are pretty slim (for example, consider how often political pundits – whose job it is too predict the behaviour of the public – get it massively wrong).

I think if I was writing a story for a close friend, even then I couldn’t be certain they’d like it. They might tell me they enjoyed it, but how could I be sure they weren’t just being nice? And if they did like it, did they like it as much as that novel/comic/film/etc. they’ve been raving about, and which weren’t even made specifically for them? If not, why not?

If I can’t with all confidence predict a single friend’s reaction, I definitely don’t think I can second-guess the reaction of a mass audience of strangers. That way lies madness.

Besides, even if you could, and you tailored your piece to make it a critical darling and a commercial smash… would that be enough? Perhaps – you’d have a fortune, people may adore you. But if, at the heart of it, I felt I’d compromised my own vision – what I genuinely wanted to say – for the sake of these rewards, then I believe all the subsequent success would ring pretty hollow.

“I would rather I loved my stories and no one else cared, than for the world to be in raptures over my work while I believed it was actually pretty rubbish”

In fact, I believe I would rather I loved my stories and one else cared, than for the world to be in raptures over my work while I believed it was actually pretty rubbish. I think the former would give me more happiness.

And not to harp on the same point too much, but foreseeing the next big trend has been shown to be almost impossible. No one – no one – even had an inkling of how popular Harry Potter would be. And when everyone was desperately snouting around for the next book to take the world by storm, did anyone place a bet on it being a piece of BDSM erotica (50 Shades)? I certainly didn’t.

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“No one – no one  – even had an inkling of how popular Harry Potter would be”. Image via Flickr.

No – I reckon it’s better to write for yourself. You’re the only person in the universe whose opinion you can truly know. Use that as your lodestar. Remove your work – as much as possible – from the need for any external validation, and its success (and your attendant psychological well-being) becomes much more under your control.

Furthermore, if at any point in the creative process you suffer doubts, big or small, you can always ask yourself: would I like this if I found it in someone else’s story? Although it may be hard sometimes to make these judgements, you have a much better chance of fine-tuning a story to suit your own tastes, than moulding it to suit anyone else’s.

And if all this sounds a bit insular and poverty-stricken, just consider: without people following their own against-the-grain vision, we wouldn’t have had William Blake. Or Harry Potter. Or Star Wars. Or superheroes. Paradoxically, the people who are most attentive to their personal predilections seem to be the ones that connect with the largest portion of humanity.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

SPILLER

I think, at its most basic, as problem solving. Nigh-on every artistic piece, in its creation, is just a series of problems that need to be solved in order to achieve the desired outcome.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

Someone who writes frequently. You don’t have to make money from it: those who do are professional writers. But they’re not necessarily better. Payment doesn’t correlate with quality. In fact, the inverse is often true.

This straightforward definition also means that, if you sold 10 million copies of a novel a year ago but haven’t sat down at the proverbial typewriter since, you’re not a writer. You were a writer.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

SPILLER

“… he killed me!” Apocalypse brings necro-trials.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

SPILLER

In no particular order:

  1. Cordon off time – Getting writing done requires time to focus on it. I’d advise setting a clear timeframe in which you have to work that day (say, 10am-2pm). In that period, you can either write, or do nothing. And when I say nothing, I don’t mean watch TV, go on the internet, idle away time. I mean nothing except sit in your chair, lie on your bed, have a sleep, or – if you need some fresh air – go for a brief walk. No one’s forcing you to write. You can do sod all if you want.

But you’ll be amazed how quickly the fidgety urge to do something else before writing… to tackle it later, when you’re more in the mood… is dispelled when boredom is your only other option. You can’t just sit there for four hours. That’d be mad. So, tentatively, you begin to write. And within a few minutes, you’re in the flow. Easy.

  1. Ideally, make your writing times a habit – As with exercise, once your body is used to the routine, it automatically readies itself for the endeavour. Helps prevent that heavy, sluggish mental state that is the bane of getting going.
  2. Finish things – Told this by a visiting speaker at university. Top advice. If you at least finish pieces, no matter how bad they are, your confidence will grow, and you’ll have something to show for your labour. Earth-shatteringly simple, this may be the main key to getting better at a craft.
  3. Follow the energy – This is one of those personal mantras that is of great help to me, but may be hopelessly vague to anyone else. Essentially, it means follow whatever interests you; whatever feels energised in your head, no matter its obscurity. If it means a lot to you, there will automatically be an audience for it. No one’s so unique that there aren’t other people on the planet who share their taste.
  4. Relax properly – vital for recharging your mind and creativity. I find working mornings and afternoon is best, as that way, I’ve earned my evening relaxation and thus its pleasure is enhanced.
  5. Pretend the internet doesn’t exist – The super-villain of distraction, you have to have some way to thwart it. For me, this works wonders. As long as you think you could be on the internet, you can be tempted to justify to yourself why you should, this once, be allowed to quickly go on it, just to check that one thing.

But: tell yourself it doesn’t exist and, suddenly, there’s nothing to persuade yourself about. No distraction demanding your attention. Just an added sense of calmness and simplicity, making it easier to be productive.

(It’s amazing how quickly telling myself the internet doesn’t exist convinces the rebellious part of my brain. Maybe I’m mentally simple).

Note: Only break this rule if there’s something you absolutely NEED to research online for your piece. Confine yourself to the research. Close your web browser straight after.

  1. Treat yourself as a terrorist – Don’t negotiate with yourself over any writing rules you’ve made, at least for that day. You can reassess afterwards if they’re worth sticking with or not.
  2. Read idiosyncratically – I disagree with the publishing advice that says you should be up-to-date with the latest fiction, and au fait with the current trends. Reading novels is time-consuming. You could spend all your energy simply keeping abreast of the newest releases, and it’s not like modern fiction is a priori better than the classics (the clue perhaps being in the term ‘classics’).

If every aspiring writer reads similar stuff, they’ll produce similar stuff. Instead, read idiosyncratically. Follow your own interests, wherever they lead. Do that, and your brain is likelier to make fresh connections, come up with new ideas, and bring something different to the table.

Which means this approach is not only better for you as a reader and writer, but better for the reading public as well.

  1. Write ideas, not words – I don’t know about you, but thinking about that X number of words I have to write… oh, that can feel so tiresome. But wait. Think of the ideas (as in the feelings, visuals, scenes, etc.) you’re going to convey, and the task suddenly seems like a much more exciting prospect.

Words, devoid of content, seemingly just an abstract target you have to hit, sit dead and oppressively on the mind. Ideas are full of animation and life. Focus on capturing them, one at a time, and the words will take care of themselves.

  1. Art requires willpower – Lots of people have good ideas, but that doesn’t make them good writers or storytellers. Once you have an idea, it is your job as a creative person to bring it down from idea-space (in your head) into the real world (this can be as a book, film, album, whatever. Just something others can experience).

In fact, this process is how all ideas manifest. Even something as simple as thinking I’ll see my friend tomorrow, then arranging that meeting and going to it: that’s having an idea, then bringing it into the world through willpower.

It may not be as glamorous as a sudden burst of inspiration, but for me, this application of willpower – which enables you to turn the abstract into the tangible, the blurred outlines of a notion into vivid detail – that’s where the real magic happens. It’s an often necessary, and incredibly empowering, part of the process. Enjoy it.

 

You can pledge your support for Josh Spiller’s exciting debut novel, The 8th Emotion, via Kickstarter – you can get a signed first edition copy, and lots of other exclusive rewards

 

 

If language is a drug, Sci-Fi is crack-cocaine

 

8th emotion

Peacock IV (2016), by Victoria Stothard – cover designer of new speculative fiction project, ‘The 8th Emotion’ 

“Science-fiction [is] the only genuine consciousness-expanding drug.”

            — Arthur C. Clarke, “Of Sand and Stars”, 1983

First off, apologies for the title. It’s a shameless piece of provocation. Obviously, crack destroys lives, and I wouldn’t want to equate it – in all seriousness – with an addiction to spaceships, lasers, and aliens. Nonetheless, the title sounded good, and it does get at what I want to discuss.

Sci-fi is not as narrow a set of parameters as perhaps many believe. It is not really just “lasers, spaceships, and aliens”, although I imagine this is what comes to most people’s minds when they hear the term.

Culture shock

Sci-fi, if anything, is about culture shock. It’s a form that implicitly dictates that something new be brought to the table, whether it’s a new world, a new species, a new technology, a new psychology… you get my drift. Some sort of breach with our everyday reality, our everyday culture, is required. Therefore, it is a form which, at its core, is built on the notion of a culture shock.

At this point, I’d like to make a distinction between the Arthur C. Clarke quote with which I began this article, and my own belief (although his wording is probably just a by-product of his time). I believe ‘speculative fiction’, though a tad clunky to say, is a better term to use when considering the most potent type of mind-altering fiction, encompassing as it does science-fiction, fantasy, and everything in-between. ‘Science-fiction’ – to me at least – has a degree of prescriptiveness: it’s exotic worlds, final frontiers, and advanced technology. ‘Speculative fiction’, as long as it’s a break from our current world, can be anything. It has a less restricted sense of what a story can be. And as the most drug-like, visionary fiction can come in a variety of guises, that seems like the safest term to use here.

So, to my original point, now amended – speculative fiction relies on culture shock. It can incorporate any genre within it (see the beautiful romantic plot thread in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, or the noir detective elements in the Blade Runner franchise) but it must always, even in a very watered-down form, contain this key ingredient.

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Speculative fiction can incorporate any genre within it – including the noir detective elements in the Blade Runner franchise. 

However, this isn’t quite the culture shock we get when we go on holiday and think, “oh, so here the steering wheel’s on the other side”, profound though that is. Culture shocks in the real world occur in a state of flux: we’re being bombarded with from all sides by ever-changing, multi-sensory stimuli; incessant distractions that diminish each other and compete for our attention. Prose is very different: it’s a very controlled reality, experienced moment by moment, word by word. With a painting, you can look around the canvas, your eye roving across the detail in whatever order it pleases; an order that is unlikely to be the same from one person to the next. Prose is the only truly linear experience of reality I can think of. As a writer, it lets you specify the exact stimulus for a brain at any given moment (through a word-form), and precisely how that flow of impressions should be arranged. It’s a very effective and finely-tuned means of interacting with another human consciousness.

“Prose is the only truly linear experience of reality […] it’s a very effective and finely-tuned means of interacting with another human consciousness.”

On a broader level, purely verbal communication is as close to telepathy as we’ve got. It’s mind communing with mind, the whole material world stripped away, leaving just information: the best rendering of our thoughts that we have. And in my opinion, the better the thoughts, the better their drug-like effect when expressed. Trite thoughts, captured in words, dull the mind. Numb your senses. High-grade thoughts can excite and elevate you, sharpen your mind, make you see the world in a whole different light. This is euphoria. And, at an extreme end, they can even produce physiological side-effects – but I’ll come to that in a second.

Really, it’s the thought, conveyed from one person to another, that is the drug. The language is just the necessary packaging; the means of transmission.

The power of language

There are two stand-out instances in my life that drove home how powerful language can be. The first was the most physiologically striking: it was after I’d been to see a live performance of Alan Moore’s spoken-word piece Unearthing, which was accompanied by music and a photographic slideshow. All these components worked in synchronicity, informing each other, vying for pole-position in your awareness, impossible to follow in their totality. I had to leave the event two-thirds of the way through, rushing to get my coach home. I remember sitting on it, staring at the passing traffic lights: they were glowing slightly but distinctively brighter than usual, like psychedelic blurs of luminosity. I felt stoned. And exactly like someone in that condition, I barely blinked for the first forty minutes of that trip.

(Later, when Unearthing was available to download, I listened to it again, this time the entire way through. Again, I felt stoned, unblinking, although here the effect lasted for more like three minutes. I imagine familiarity wore away some of its impact, as did the lack of a multi-sensory presentation.)

This is probably the peak version of language-as-drug: when it works in tandem with other art forms (like henchmen backing up a criminal mastermind) to overload your senses and mind.

The other stand-out instance utilised words alone. I was in a café, above a bookshop, in a busy central area of London. A long-term friend and I had been talking, for a couple of hours or so, about concepts like time and the quantum world. Then, in the space of a few seconds, reality got strange. I felt light-headed, trippy, as if I could happily stare at any part of the world; as if it was all full of fascinating detail. It also felt like I could sense the atoms that made up the table we were sat at, their energy; and consequently, I had the bizarre impression – while knowing it was false – that I should be able to pass my hand, ghost-like, through that solid block of wood. Between its atoms.

Like I say, this only took a moment to kick in. I asked my friend if he felt it, without specifying what ‘it’ was. He said he did. Switching back and forth, without – as far as I can recall – any leading comments, we described what we were feeling. It seemed to be identical; more than that, it had been induced synchronistically during our conversation.

Obviously, this may all sound crazy. And although, certainly on that latter occasion, it felt like I was in a heightened state, I’m not saying there was any objective validity in my sensations. But you can’t deny that’s pretty trippy.

(And no, smart-arse, I hadn’t taken any drugs that day, or even that week, and at neither event was I sat in a fug of second-hand marijuana smoke. Otherwise, these anecdotes would be rubbish).

As I mentioned, similar effects have happened to me at other times after some sort of intense interaction with language; but these are the two most pronounced cases. And what’s great when this state hits is, unlike with conventional drugs, you retain full cognitive and motor facilities. It feels like you can put the energy you have to much better use.

So if language operates exactly like, or at least has the capacity to be a drug, as these experiences have pretty firmly led me to believe, then there’s an immediate implication for prose. Seen as a psychedelic chemical compound, with words forming the atoms of the overall substance (work with me here) then the less extraneous words there are to dilute the compound, the purer and more intoxicating the final result will be. Think of it as an alcohol with a higher proof. This would fit in with the Hemingway school of writing, where you pare away every unnecessary word until the minimalism almost drives you mad (there is a daily holocaust of adverbs in his name).

Where this perspective cleaves away from that orthodoxy is in the potential of chemicals, mixed correctly, to trigger fizzing and spectacular reactions in each other. So while the spare approach of Hemingway may state that sentences should be short and sharp like a gun report, with all floridity excised, this drug metaphor would argue – and I’d agree – that words can have some of their most exciting effects when the unfamiliar collide. Three adjectives where one would do? Yes, cut that down. But three adjectives that you’ve never seen together before, which spark off one another in interesting ways, like James Joyce’s description of a woman’s body in his short story The Dead as “musical and strange and perfumed”? Keep it. That’s up there with the best of literature.

What this means is that the dictums ascribed to Hemingway and Orwell aren’t the be-all and end-all of prose style. There’s a wider palette of possibilities on offer.

However, what I’ve just said applies to all writing. And I know what you’re thinking: I began this essay in good faith expecting to learn about sci-fi and where I can get a fix of crack cocaine before midnight. Cut to the chase already!

Okay. Geez. I was just about to get there.

The other key thing that the conversation in the café above the bookshop implies is that, for language to get you into a trippy, altered mind-state, this comes easiest when you’re discussing big ideas. Ideas that feel bigger than your brain; like it can’t contain their magnitude. The concepts of time and the quantum world were the examples in that instance, but there are plenty of alternatives: space; the ancestral path and all the DNA matches that, after millennia, led to the creation of you; parallel universes; how different the universe would be if light only travelled at 30 mph; what the psychology of a deity would be; what the ramifications would have been, big and small, if that pivotal historical event had never happened/gone the other way.

All of these notions involve a large sense of scale regarding either time or space, so maybe that’s the key to spinning out your own mind with concepts alone. What they also have in common is that, though such ideas could appear in any genre, they are very much the province of speculative fiction, with them and their ilk having formed the basis for countless stories in that ideas-obsessed narrative field.

A genuine, mind-altering drug on the page

Speculative fiction is where such concepts are literalised, are given concrete form so that the reader can have – on an imaginary level – a visceral engagement with them. It is where such abstract, mind-altering notions are brought to life.

Although most speculative fiction may not reach the giddy, psyche-warping heights I’ve expounded upon here (perhaps a lack of finesse in the prose; perhaps a failure of sustained intensity of imagination) I believe this area of literature, more than any other, has the potential to do so. And the evidence is plentiful and wonderful.

There is the cosmic, puzzle-like world building of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun tetralogy, whose grandeur and intricacy dawns on you like a creeping madness; the fecund neologisms and innovative typography of China Miéville’s Embassytown; the screaming, horror-drenched, pioneering and unmistakable purple prose of Lovecraft; the magisterial and idiosyncratic visions of William Blake. And hopefully, in a hundred years, these authors will be seen as the mere vanguard of what was to come.

Speculative fiction is where you can unite the experimentalism of the modernists (form, language, story content, narratorial and character voices, imagery, setting, etc.) but justify it for narrative reasons, and tie it into a ripping yarn. It can be a genuine, mind-altering drug on the page.

It is, I believe, where the next level of literature lies.

About the author of this post

FullSizeRenderAttempting to practice what he preaches, Josh Spiller has written his own speculative fiction novel, entitled ‘The 8th Emotion’. He is currently trying to fund it through Kickstarter, and you can check it out – as well as get your own signed first edition – here.

 

 

 

 

 

Novels for the end of the world

It is 147 years since the first recorded use of the word “dystopia” was uttered by philosopher John Stuart Mill. At the time, Mill coined the phrase during a speech denouncing the British Government’s shameful colonial ‘Irish Land’ policy. Since then, of course, it has taken on a whole number of meanings and inspired multiple different trains of thought. The term does, admittedly, have human beings to thank for becoming so well known – after all, it’s difficult to witness two world wars, the rise and fall of colonial empires, genocide, environmental collapse and constant global conflict and not feel a little miffed about everything.

This is not, of course, to say that we are living in the end times – as some might suggest. Instead it is to simply illustrate how a long-term trend in human reality has been the occurrence of negative events. Of course, there have also been, in the past 150 years, fantastic events, too, which highlight the goodness of human beings and our ability to create great and beautiful things. But nobody really wants to talk about things being good – after a while doing so just starts to sound a bit smug.

Far more interesting, it could be said, is our cultural reaction to what might be seen as dystopian realities in the world we live. While the debate surrounding whether forms of culture reflect and proceed; or in fact influence and precede real life continues to whirl on, it is without doubt that a definite trend in our culture over the last 100 years has been toward creative forms that deal with dystopian realities – be they alternate or otherwise.

These cultural forms abound in myriad different spheres. Films, for example, which depicting mass catastrophe, death and destruction have been well analysed and critiqued – think of the words of internationally acclaimed philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who argued that Hollywood blockbusters showcasing the end of the world illustrated his point that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”.

Yet while films are all fine and dandy, perhaps the most intriguing cultural form to deal with ideas of dystopia is and has been for the better part of the last century, the novel.

In the wider publishing industry, of course, dystopian fiction remains a subset of a subset (somewhere following on from speculative fiction and science fiction). Yet it is undeniably a buzzword that provides us with an instant reaction – and the novels that work best within it provide us with fascinating room to read into; analyse; interrogate; deconstruct; and provide the inspiration for articles like this one.

And here, dear reader, we bring you what you’ve been waiting for. The highly subjective view of some of the best ever dystopian novels. Please do read our well-constructed list below and feel free to tell us how wrong (or how right on) you think the list is in the comments below. Tell us what books we’re missing – or, if for some reason we wake up to find the world of Fahrenheit 451 has somehow descended upon us, then tell us which single book we should learn and commit to memory as we strike out into the forest to go and live with fellow book people.

The highly subjective list of the best ever dystopian novels

1984 – George Orwell

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A book that possibly needs no introduction. Eerily prescient in a disconcerting number of ways – from newspeak and jargon (in the media; workplace and politics); to Big Brother and Room 101. What is perhaps most intriguing is that we have become in so many ways the dystopian society featured in the novel not under a communist totalitarian dictatorship – as Orwell suggested – but under the guardianship of right wing conservatives and neoliberals. Irrespective of where your own politics lie, that this novel is a disturbing, dystopian world brilliantly depicted and fascinatingly detailed is surely without argument.

Professor Wu Says: “Orwell’s disturbing world of constant surveillance and government controlled media are uncomfortably recognisable. Another strong bonus point in this book’s favour is that it is just heavy enough to throw at any members of the thought police you think might be on your trail.

Do androids dream of electric sheep? – Philip K Dick

do-androids-dream-of-electric-sheep-1968

A seminal novel from the excellent Philip K Dick, which gave us the wonderful Blade Runner film when Ridley Scott was still not terrible. The work is built in the futuristic, post-apocalyptic society featuring (but of course) hover cars and robots. Yes. You read that correctly. Hover cars. And Robots. Need we say more? Apart from creating a thoroughly convincing and involving futuristic world, Dick also uses the novel to expertly help us question what it is that makes us human, thanks to Deckard and the apparently unfeeling androids.

Professor Wu says: “Did you ever notice that the Voight-Kampff test (the test Deckard gives to determine humanity) doesn’t really use questions? Rather, Deckard describes a scene and the subject of the test reacts to it. What one might be tempted – I know I certainly am – to read into here, is that this stands as a perfect example of what literature is to the reader. Books – including Dick’s novel – are our Voight-Kampff test. And our reaction to the words on the page and the scenes we read is what is perhaps the most distinguishing feature that proves our humanity. An excellent work on so many levels, and part of an deliciously intriguing train of thought concerning AI and the Turing Test. You see a turtle in plight. What do you feel?

V for Vendetta – Alan Moore

 V_for_vendettaxOkay. So not strictly a novel – rather a graphic one – but still, this is a hugely influential dystopian book, and arguably one of the most popular of contemporary dystopias. The work follows the classic line of establishment conspiracies, depicting an authoritarian government, which maintains itself in power through exploiting people’s fears and indolence. While critics have described it as ‘an adolescent fantasy’, Moore’s work has an undeniably inspiring message – that the people can resist those who abuse power. Demonstrators in Britain and around the world wear the ‘V’ Guy Fawkes mask; while the symbol has also become synonymous with hacker group anonymous.

Professor Wu Says: “Verily, the vivacious and vivid V for Vendetta shows us yet another cultural example of the very real, deep mistrust that exists between the people and those supposedly elected to represent them. It is built on the basis of deep mistrust of those exerting political authority – something recognisable by all of us living in Western Democracies today. UKIP voters should read the book and beware; voting for a party that draws support by preaching fear and anger can lead us down very dark alleyways.

Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

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Blood Meridian is perhaps a contentious one, considering the obvious McCarthy dystopian novel is perhaps, ‘The Road’; but The Road is just too obvious, if anything. And it just wouldn’t do to put Cormac McCarthy on any list more than once – while he most probably deserves to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature at some point, his ego may not quite yet be able to cope with the honour of being featured twice in an NITRB article. So why have we plumped for Blood Meridian anyway? It’s not just that we’re trying to be out there (which of course we are); it’s also because this is quite possibly one of the greatest novels in the dystopian genre, despite being set more than a century ago. This is because it depicts, simply, the end of the world. The image of barren prairies, carpeted as far as the eye can see with piles of bleached buffalo bones is haunting. Indeed, the general depiction in the novel of the violence at the heart of human nature – a violence so close to being somewhere between chaos and orchestrated evil –  leads us to confront that nameless, faceless thing in us and in the world that is, at its heart, about subverting something recognisable (the human being) and turning it inside out to the point that it is at once both terrifyingly ‘other’ and – yet more terrible – also frighteningly close to home.

Professor Wu says: “More than protagonists, this is a novel about landscape, and the vivid descriptions of it make it come alive in a way that reflects a savagery in McCarthy’s vision of human beings. With too many hellish landscapes to count, it’s possibly not one to recommend to your lovely but somewhat doddery old vicar who lives at the end of your street.

A clockwork orange – Anthony Burgess

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Quite an unforgettable book, which Burgess came close to refusing to publish because he apparently felt repulsed by what he had written. The work paints a vivid, depressing future of violent gangs and extreme youthful violence, which the duplicitous state authorities try to maintain through ever more disturbing methods. Muses intriguingly on what it means to be free.

Professor Wu says: “Personally, I think this book is overrated, and not as good as those who like it claim. Yet it makes it onto this list because it is so hugely influential. Burgess’s work gave birth to many new words – such as ultraviolence – and as such deserves credit for its linguistical tricks. It muses on what it means to be free, while it also gave us a Kubrick film, which itself gave us Malcolm McDowell sporting a fabulous cod piece. And nobody can complain about that – or can they?”

World War Z – Max Brooks

World War Z

Is Zombie fiction dystopian fiction? For the purposes of this list, yes. Yes it is. It’s a highly subjective list, after all, so we can put what we want here. Perhaps we could call it ‘apocalit’. Would that work? The point is that this is a great piece of modern, original storytelling. The beauty of a zombie piece is that it takes what we know and takes away all the rules – allowing anarchy to reign supreme. It is a novel less about zombies than of human beings and how they react in a world without law. The depiction of national governments, in particular, is certainly in the tradition of dystopian literature – as they do everything from force their citizens to live underground, poison and drop bombs on their own populations, and conspire secretly with devious schemes and plots.

Professor Wu says: “Zombies. Zombie capitalism anybody? There’s probably a link there. The most important thing, though, is zombies, okay? Zombies zombies zombies.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

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This stylish novel is another vision of globalised capitalism every bit as prescient as Orwell’s dystopia. Here we have a world of organised reproduction, brainwashing from birth and numbing drugs.  Following the occupy movements and wide public awareness of the 99% vs the 1%, it is fitting that this world we encounter is controlled by just 10 “World Controllers”. With no concept of family, this depiction of cold, unfeeling world is made all the more compelling by the superficially hedonistic society Huxley depicts. But what is the point of never feeling pain, if you cannot feel joy?

Professor Wu says: “One character in the book tells us that “words can be like x-rays if you use them properly” and Huxley does this with aplomb. For some reason this is often a book everybody has heard of but nobody has read; yet not to read it is to do this book an injustice. In this work we see not the terror and fear of totalitarianism; but the stranger fears and dangers of rapacious consumerism, fuelled by the soft power of brainwashing *ahem* I mean advertising.

Fahrenheit 41 – Ray Bradbury

 farenheit-451How any writer or reader could possibly read this excellent novel and not find it brilliant is beyond us. This is the ultimate dystopia for literature lovers, describing a society where books are burned and intellectual thought illegal. The work tackles head on the nightmare world in which a free press and the dissemination of ideas is not possible. In a fantastic trick of irony, the book was banned upon release for containing “questionable themes”.

Professor Wu says: “Bradbury insists he wrote the book because of his concerns at the time – during the McCarthy era – about the threat of book burning in the USA. Yet to lock interpretations of this world into the historical context of its time is to do it a disservice, as this fantastic novel contains so many elements that persist today. The proliferation of sleeping pills and addiction to shallow TV dramas in the suburbia Bradbury depicts enables us to confront the glaring passivity of many people today – who remain indifferent to the suffering around them while the world spins into chaos.

Logan’s Run – William Nolan & George Clayton Johnson

 logan-s-run-1967In many ways this is a lost science fiction and dystopian classic – with people far more familiar with the film than the book. It has been out of print since 1976, yet most probably deserves a return to the spotlight and easy accessibility, since this is a poetic and original work. Unlike the movie, people in the novel are killed at 21 – not 30, which gives an interesting edge, since killing takes place at a time when people are just beginning to know themselves. In this world, wisdom has been forgotten and machines think for humans. If that isn’t a frightening enough concept then we don’t know what is.

Professor Wu Says: “A simple but terrifying concept – imagines a world where resources maintained and the population controlled by the mandatory death of all humans when they reach the age of 21. The image of such a superficially perfect world, in which great darkness lurks beneath the surface, is the perfect example of a dystopian utopia.

The Time Machine – H.G. Wells

the-time-machine-1895

Arguably the work that popularised time travel – so in that respect H.G Wells deserves all sorts of accolades from all sorts of people. His term ‘time machine’ is now the standard vehicle used in tales that depict this. Unfortunately for the time traveller in this novel, his machine takes him to some rather disturbing dystopian places – rather than oh, say, 2015 or 1955. Quite simply, the word influential does not do justice to how important this book is to the genres of dystopian or science fiction.

Professor Wu says: “Ahead of its time – in more ways than one. (See what I did there?)

What are we missing?

So, there we have it. Our very own, highly subjective list of the very best dystopian novels of all time. To those of you in the publishing industry, you needn’t worry about publishing any new dystopian fictions, because they ain’t gonna be as good or as influential as this (we’re just kidding, obviously). But what are we missing out? What do you make of our list? Where have we erred and strayed? And which works have we forgotten? Let us know in the comments below.