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.

Harry Potter.jpg

“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

 

 

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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.

blade-runner-2049

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.

 

 

 

 

 

‘The 8th Emotion’ – An Extract

An extract from Josh Spiller’s forthcoming speculative fiction novel, ‘The 8th Emotion’…

 

In a tribdwell situated in Karthalia, but beyond the boundary of any tribe – like some exiled building – Pavneet worked frantically.

Night-time candles glowed on his desk, while a cooking fire burned in the corner of his tribdwell’s main room. The smell of acidic chemicals singed the warm air, emanating from the beaker of green liquid that sat on his desk.

Taking yet another sheet of paper, Pavneet scrawled more notes, his eyes – behind his brass-rimmed glasses – in a trance-like state. He wore a long, stained jacket which he used as a makeshift lab coat. Above his greying temples, his craggily-lined forehead was furrowed in intense concentration. His World had contracted to the sheet of paper that lay before him, so much so that he hadn’t noticed that Bastian, his sandy-coloured dog, was barking in agitation and fear.

Two strident door-knocks resounded through the room. Cowering, Bastian fell silent, before leaning forward and barking with even more aggression.

Pavneet, frozen still, stared over the rim of his glasses, at the front door that lay directly ahead of him. No one had knocked on that door in years. Cautiously, he rose from his wooden chair, and started to shuffle around his desk.

Then with frightening suddenness, something shattered loudly. Pavneet instinctively ducked, snapping his gaze in the direction of the noise. Any last dregs of his trance-state were gone. The real World had come roaring in, flooding his alert mind with intense, vivid impressions. From beneath Bastian’s deafening barking, he heard, with acute sensitivity, a dull and solid thud strike the floorboards somewhere nearby. Then he saw that the single window in the left-hand wall was smashed open. And framed within its new jags of glass, which were like a jaw of predatory, vitreous teeth, a balaclavaed face stared back at Pavneet.

“Shut that dog up!” the balaclavaed man hissed. Then, with menacing slowness, he raised a lit candle into view. “Or we’ll blaze this place to the ground.”

In a state of shock, Pavneet whispered: “Sh-shush boy. Shush.” Bastian fell silent.

“Good,” the balaclavaed man said, and Pavneet could practically hear the smirk in his voice. “Now – open the door.”

An enormous fear gripped Pavneet, rattling his heart in its gigantic grip. Please, he thought. Oh please, don’t let them hurt me…

With a trembling hand, he unlocked the door, and pulled it toward him.

Two imposing men, balaclavaed like the one at the window, stood before him. One held a knife, its sharp point only an inch away from Pavneet’s gut.

“Get inside,” the man with the blade said. Within the holes of the man’s balaclava, Pavneet saw tiny, gloating, and vicious eyes. Silently, just enough to prod the flesh without cutting it, the man jabbed the knife into Pavneet’s stomach.

“W-what do you want?” Pavneet mumbled, fearfully stepping backwards toward his desk. He couldn’t believe a stranger was attacking him. Such a thing had been known to happen in other lands, in other times, but never in Karthalia. It was a peaceful place. “P-please. I’ll give you anything.”

“We already know that,” the man carrying the blade said, speaking with a twisted and gleeful sense of power.

He forced Pavneet back into the chair by the desk. Half-collapsing into it, Pavneet rubbed Bastian’s neck with trembling hands, as if he were trying to soothe his beloved companion, when it must have been obvious that it was simply a nervous expression of his own terror. Bastian growled, baring his teeth.

“E-easy, boy” Pavneet whispered. “Shhh.”

The other two intruders seemed subservient to the man with the blade. Both were now searching Pavneet’s tribdwell, one rifling through the sheafs of pamphlets and notepaper which Pavneet, to get them out of his way, had piled up around the edges of the room; the other, taller one standing nearby, inspecting the notes in the drawers of Pavneet’s desk. It was obvious that neither was finding what they were looking for.

The man carrying the blade spoke, still holding the knife just in front of Pavneet’s chest: “You’re not a liar, are you Pavneet?”

“N-no.”

“So this is true?” ‘Blade’ withdrew from his pocket a scrunched-up piece of paper. He flattened it out on the top of the desk, before showing it to Pavneet. With a gut-wrenching sense of horror, Pavneet recognised it at once. The page had been ripped out from the last scientific pamphlet he’d written, published only a week ago.

The chain of reasoning Pavneet had expounded in the pamphlet flashed into his mind, fierce and white-hot like burning magnesium:

  1. Single-celled organisms don’t experience emotions, or if they do, they experience very little.
  2. Humans evolved from single-celled organisms.
  3. Humans experience emotions.
  4. Thus, humans must have evolved emotions.

Then came the main part of Pavneet’s article. He’d claimed that he knew how to unlock humanity’s next emotion, so that it could become a permanent part of anyone who wanted it. What’s more, he’d said that when everyone possessed it, it would end all human conflict, equalising everyone profoundly, and ushering in a true paradise.

For now, though – he’d ended his article – he needed to do more testing, to check that what he’d discovered was safe. But in the next pamphlet he released, he would explain how people could tap into this emotion for themselves.

This memory of what he’d written hit Pavneet with the force of a tempest, and then, following close behind, realisation stabbed through him: these men were searching for proof that he really could unlock this next emotion. Why? He had no idea. But if they found it, he knew they’d have no reason to keep him alive.

“I lied,” Pavneet blurted. “I just did it to sell the next issue. I’m alone, my income, it’s all through trading these pamph—”

Out of nowhere, Blade’s knife-gripping fist smashed into Pavneet’s cheek, knocking him into his desk and rattling the container of chemicals that sat on top of it. Bastian barked ferociously, but Pavneet retained his terrified, white-knuckled grip on the dog’s collar. As he gasped from the blow, Pavneet could almost feel ‘Blade’ grinning at him sadistically from behind his balaclava.

“Give me a reason to do that again,” ‘Blade’ said.

Then one of the other men came over to ‘Blade’, pointing at something on a piece of paper.

They’ve got it, Pavneet thought, a cold thrill of terror running though him, shifting the hyper-real present into even sharper focus. He felt upon his back the heat from the cooking fire in the corner. Saw the fire’s light gleaming upon the knife, as if the blade shone with its own golden, vicious soul. An inchoate, instinctual plan was forming in his mind.

With regret, he remembered how – on the day of his breakthrough – he had told himself that he would never again inflict any type of injury on another human being. A sort of premonitory sympathy pain shot through him: he understood the agony these men might be about to suffer. And there was something still worse…

He looked at Bastian with sorrow.

‘Blade’ stared at the piece of paper, his eyes widening in a look of quiet awe. All humour had dropped out of his voice: “So you really can do it.”

And with that, Pavneet’s decision was made.

With his right hand, he shoved Bastian forward and released the dog’s collar. “Go!” he shouted, and Bastian leapt upon ‘Blade’, slobbering fangs barking and snapping. Spinning round, Pavneet snatched up the container of chemicals and threw it at the cooking fire. A blaze exploded upwards, blasting a wave of searing heat over Pavneet’s face. Everything became confusion and clamour. Fire-tongues gobbled ravenously at floorboards and terracotta walls, vomiting black smoke. Pavneet bolted across the room, past the indistinct shapes of his attackers, through a haze of barking, swearing, and shouts. Leaping, he hauled himself up to the smashed-in window, his adrenaline making him oblivious to the jags of glass that were slicing open his forearms.

Then, through the whirlwind of smoke and shouts, there cut a sharp, canine yelp. For a moment, Pavneet froze. Tears brimmed in his eyes. Blood poured out of his arms. He wanted to look back, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Struggling over the knives of glass that jutted up below him, he toppled out the window’s other side, landing with a thump on the soil and vegetables below.

Gasping for breath, he hauled himself to his feet, and ran, trampling vegetables, fruit, and grass, sprinting alongside the winding River Menignus. The reek of sulphur burned in his nostrils, beneath a clear, starry sky.

Who were those men? Why were they after him? He didn’t know. And that meant he couldn’t trust anyone.

Still running, he tried to ignore his screaming desire to go back, even as tears ran down his cheeks. Bastian… it was Pavneet’s fault. And it was too late for him to do anything about it.

And as he ran, Pavneet also imagined that gang of men, amongst the fiery confusion, enduring an emotion they’d never felt before… enduring Oceanos, as the flames ate through the scientific specimens stored in his bedroom, and released their psychotropic vapours into the air.

 

 

You can read more about ‘The 8th Emotion’ – and order your own signed first-edition copy of the novel – here

The 8th Emotion

8th emotion

A new speculative fiction project, ‘The 8th Emotion’, has launched on Kickstarter. Set in a utopian future, the story is about how humanity unlocks a new emotion, thereby gaining a radically different way of perceiving the world. This in turn precipitates a civil war.

The Kickstarter is aiming to fund the design and printing of this novel, and at the time of writing, is already 70% of the way there.

The novel features a post-civilisation society where, centuries after the collapse of the world’s economies, money has been replaced by a sophisticated, bartering tribal network; its prose is unusually textured, incorporating elements of French, Armenian, and Lebanese Arabic into its dialogue; the book itself will include beautiful maps of its fictional world; and the novel’s cover will also be experimental, containing a significant Easter Egg that will only be apparent once you’ve read the final chapter.

If you help realise this project, there are lots of awesome rewards available, such as: having your name printed in the final book; receiving a unique signed and annotated edition; and getting Kickstarter-exclusive artwork from the stunningly talented Niamh Keenan and Alan Ashworth Muñoz.

Speaking about the launch of the Kickstarter project, Nothing in the Rulebook’s very own Professor Wu said:

“More than ever, it’s important that we have access to new and exciting literary works that encourage us to see the world differently. We live in impossibly turbulent times, and we need art, and books in particular, to illuminate some of the possible paths that lie ahead. Yet we increasingly live in a world in which it is becoming harder and harder to read books that aren’t copies or imitations of previously commercially successful books.”

“Josh Spiller’s The 8th Emotion promises to break that trend, in delivering a piece of writing that is different to anything you’ve ever read before. While the old traditional models of publishing continue to follow the money, we need to collectively band together to support such artistic endeavours. So get involved and make a pledge to help make this book become a reality.”

You can read an exciting extract of the novel here

And you can see the Kickstarter in full, including a video and all the wonderful rewards on offer, here.