Wednesday, 16 May 2018

My SF Influences and Hopes: Part Three

Hi Everyone

Saturday, 28 April 2018, saw the running of the inaugural Victorian Speculative Writers Festival (www.specfic.com.au), held at the Gasworks Arts Park in Albert Park. The auditorium was packed (around 120 people) and the sessions themselves were interesting, informative and inspiring. I met up with old friends, made some new ones, and signed books for new readers. The venue itself reminded me of the Malthouse Theatre when it held the Melbourne Writers Festival, a great feeling of intimacy and excitement being a feature of both events (which the MWF has lost in its shift to Federation Square). All in all, Speculate was a fantastic success and the director, Joel Martin, and his team are to be congratulated on their organisational prowess, the range of topics, and the welcoming treatment of panelists and participants.

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I appeared as a panelist in the first session: The Once and Future Fantasy, alongside Alison Goodman, Trudi Canavan, and Jay Kristoff, with Joel as moderator. The issues we touched on were Fantasy & You, Fantasy Evolving, Fantasy & Morality and Fantasy Audiences, with thorough contributions by the panel and thoughtful questions from the audience. I even was asked a question about poetry in the speculative field, which was unexpected, yet in keeping with some comments made during the panel discussion. As always, such a session could have gone on for much longer, with deeper and more vigorous discourse, but there were books to be signed and other sessions to attend.

As most of you are aware, I have been doing a series on the interview questions used for the video that opened the festival. This post explains the background to the questions, while the next two posts (here and here) cover the first two:

1.    What science fiction/fantasy first made an impression on you?
2.    Why do you continue to write science fiction/fantasy?

The third was a three-part question (details below). I delayed writing a post answering this question because I wanted to see what came out of Speculate. So, my answers below will feature some of the notes I made during various sessions.

  i.        Where do you think science fiction/fantasy is heading?

Other than admitting that the fantasy field has broadened from its Tolkien beginnings in myth to include social issues and other concerns exemplified by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, my panel didn’t really make specific forecasts for the future of the field. However, the science fiction session, with Laura E Goodwin, Dirk Strasser, and Sean McMullen, identified four trends:

1.     Climate Fiction (CliFi)
2.     New Space Opera
3.     Generation Ship Fiction
4.     Gender-Focussed Science Fiction

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Another issue discussed was the sense that science is advancing so quickly that science fiction can’t keep up. Some solutions offered included jumping far enough ahead that the fiction isn’t compromised by scientific advances for some time and looking at retro-technology: ‘telling us things we don’t know we already can do’ with existing technology.

In regard to speculative fiction film and TV, I must admit I have been disappointed by some recent offerings. Do we really need reboots of old TV shows (Lost in Space) or a Star Trek movie reboot that just becomes an action series with no real exploration of science or culture or a TV version of The Lord of the Rings? And why can’t filmmakers give us something more than ‘colour and movement’, all style but no substance? Why can’t they write decent character arcs and stories without enormous plot-holes and superfluous digressions? (I’m looking at you, The Last Jedi.)

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One film I did enjoy on cable not long ago was Arrival (*), especially its depiction of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (the strong version, it seems), but such pickings are few and far between. Where is the thoughtful science fiction of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the dark humour of Dark Star, the ecological interest of Silent Running? While I have been a reader of Spider-Man and other superhero comics on and off since I was a teenager, the glut of superhero movies wears one down and to call them science fiction, as some commentators do, because there is new technology and spaceships and wormholes, shows a distinct lack of genre knowledge. They are fantasy, possibly even modern mythic storytelling, as is the Star Wars franchise, which again is often labelled science fiction.

 ii.        Where do you hope it would go?

As suggested above, one model I use for story analysis is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which comprises the following levels: Physiological, Safety, Love/Belonging, Self-Esteem, and Self-Actualisation, plus the recently added Self-Transcendence. Stories, and creative texts in general, help people deal with issues in those regions, either by taking readers and viewers out of themselves for a time, so they forget the world, or into themselves, so they can learn about themselves and the world. They provide those old standbys: Entertainment, Education, and Enlightenment—Action, Thriller, Rom-Com, Rite of Passage, Love Story, Social Commentary, Political Exposure, Biographical, Spiritual, etc., plus all sorts of combinations of these.

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Recently, during a discussion with Joel about writing and publishing, we felt there should be another category below Entertainment: Amusement, those shows, incidents, texts, etc. that play on easy references, simple stereotypes, and obvious ‘pratfalls’ to provide a smattering of delight. No need for thought, shallow or deep. No need for self-examination. No need for any sort of sensitivity or sensibility. Bland. Quick. Easily digestible. Easily forgotten and thus requiring constant renewal. The difference between the clever, culturally-analysing-and-defining Entertainment of Seinfeld and the I’m-part-of-the-club, see-how-fashionable-I-am, instant fix Amusement of Gangnam Style and Party Boy Corey.

All this is my way of saying that I would hope our culture shifts away from its constant practice of Amusement (our obsession with celebrity being another example) and moves higher up the spectrum. Sure, Amusement is, well, amusing, in small doses and possibly needed as well, and, obviously, we need grimdark and paranormal regency romance, military SF and modern fairy tales—stories that imaginatively explore survival and connection in the personal, interpersonal, societal realms. But we also need stories that explore the higher reaches of the human condition, that search for Wisdom in ourselves and in the Universe seen and unseen, knowable and unknowable. 

  iii.        Where do you see your contribution to the genre(s) and where do you think that fits, in regards to the direction or as a response to it?

As might be obvious from the above answer, my interests are in those higher reaches. The fantasy verse novel I wrote for my PhD, which my supervisor called a metaphysical epic, delves into issues of spiritual levels of existence. The Silence Inside the World tells the story of a comatose young researcher, an immortal wizard, a dead painter and an unborn soul who all battle a shadow energy creature that threatens the archetypal realm they travel through, a world that may be the source of all possible worlds.

My poetry, both speculative and literary, explores science, nature, myths and the sacred. And my latest prose project, a historical fantasy novel set in the dark ages, examines the dynamic between Myth and History by exploring the life of the historical person who may have been the basis for the Merlin character created by Geoffrey of Monmouth. In other words, I am attempting to write, as Joel once said in a reference to our comic reading activities, the ‘origin story’ of the great and wise magician, counsellor, wonder-worker, mentor. Another dynamic that appears in the story is that between Will (Power), what Tolkien in his ground-breaking essay ‘On Fairy-stories’ calls Magic, and Wonder (Enchantment), what Tolkien terms Faërie.

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So, my work could be seen as a response to the current direction of ‘power’ speculative fiction (The Game of Thrones, etc.), though there are precursors, writers like Robert Holdstock, Roger Zelazny and Alan Garner, who have explored the relationship between myth and life, and others, like Tolkien, who have explored Wonder.

For more views on the three questions I have been exploring in this blog series, do have a look at the final video, which was shown at Speculate and is available here. And for those interested in attending Speculate 19, if you haven't already done so, go to the website and put yourself on the mailing list.

I hope you have enjoyed these posts. Given that my new poetry collection, Libation, will be coming out from Ginninderra Press in the second half of the year, I am planning to write some poetry-related posts that I hope will be Entertainment as well as Education.

As always, I welcome your comments. 

Best Wishes
Earl

(*) The movie is based on the 1998 short story 'Story of Your Life' by Ted Chiang.


Wednesday, 25 April 2018

My SF Influences and Hopes: Part Two

Hi Everyone

Given that the Speculate Festival is on this Saturday (28 April 2018), here is the next instalment of the current series of blog posts on my interview questions. This post explains the background to the questions, while my previous post explores the first question asked during my interview:

What science fiction/fantasy first made an impression on you?

Below is the second question I was asked:

Why do you continue to write science fiction/fantasy?

An interesting question with a complicated answer that starts with a little personal history.

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As is evident from my previous post, I was an avid reader from an early age. Adventure and War stories. Science Fiction. Fantasy. Some Historical Fiction. Etc. I didn’t read much poetry, though I do remember memorising Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ for a school assignment. I didn’t, however, hanker to be a writer when I was young, unlike many of my later heroes such as W B Yeats, Robert Graves, Ted Hughes, J R R Tolkien, Alan Garner, Roger Zelazny, amongst many others. I suppose I didn’t even realise such an occupation existed. Somehow I thought writers were magical beings ‘out there’ somewhere and books appeared from nowhere.

Image from a Melbourne TV Guide
Still, in my early teens, I started to write an SF spy story about aliens under Ayers Rock. The hero was prompted by a local TV show (Hunter). He rode a motorcycle called Black Bess (inspired by the Disney show The Legend of Young Dick Turpin and my father’s riding when a youth) and lived on a sailing boat (as did a favourite aunt and uncle). After four action-packed pages, during which the boat was blown up and the hero swam to shore to jump on his motorbike and chase the villain, I stopped. Not sure why, though I think it had to do with a sense of shame in doing something that would be seen as self-indulgent.

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Over the next few years, I developed an interest in music, taught myself the guitar, and tried writing song lyrics. I also started writing love poems to girlfriends, bad ones (in retrospect) based on half-remembered structures learned at school.

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After finishing a science degree, I found myself working in the research department of Telecom Australia. One day, surrounded by banks of magnetic tapes and electronic gear, I began writing, on a teleprinter, a report on some computer networking research I had completed. I suddenly had the eyes-wide, nostrils-flaring, bolt-upright epiphany that I could communicate what was inside my head to other people. That I could be a writer. Soon after, I started to write short stories, science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and I have been writing in those genres, to a greater or lesser degree, ever since. Yet, this is when things became complicated.

Several years after that moment at Telecom, I went to a workshop on putting fantasy in your writing and discovered it was being run by one of Australia’s top poets and wasn’t about fantasy writing at all. I ended up attempting to write poetry, though all I could come up with was a chant to Lovecraft’s Old Ones and something else that I don’t remember. Yet, because of that workshop, I was invited, along with other attendees, to form a critique group at the Council of Adult Education (CAE). And here I met a real-life poet and suddenly I began to develop an interest in writing poetry.


Over the next decade or so, I moved into the poetry world more and more. I wrote poetry. Studied it at university. Edited it. Published it. Read at poetry readings. Developed a profile as a poet. Yet, the narrative urge wouldn’t leave me. I wrote literary fiction along with the odd speculative story. Eventually, I did a PhD in Creative Writing, the creative component being a fantasy verse novel called The Silence Inside the World, which featured the main character from one of those early fantasy novel drafts. Full circle.

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All of the above is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t only write science fiction and fantasy, but also speculative poetry, literary fiction, and literary/mainstream poetry. And I continue to write in these areas because they enable me to cover different aspects of my life experience, especially personal relationships, science, nature, myths and the sacred, using the best option available to me. As Ted Hughes once remarked after he was made Poet Laureate and a reporter asked him what he would write during his tenure, ‘I write what the muse tells me to write’.

Image from here
So, to finally answer the second interview question, I still write science fiction and fantasy because, unlike the literary mode, I am able to explore deep imagination and different worlds from our own, and also evoke the wonder that lies within and beneath life. And because of these concerns, more and more I am looking to mythopoeic literature as the home for my own work.

If you are interested in attending Speculate, which is being held at the Gasworks Arts Park, 21 Graham St, Albert Park, Victoria, this Saturday, there are still tickets available. For further information, visit the website (www.SpecFic.com.au).

I hope you enjoyed this post. As always, I welcome your comments. 

Best Wishes
Earl

Friday, 23 March 2018

My SF Influences and Hopes: Part One

Hi Everyone

In my last blog post, I told how I was filmed for a video that was to be presented at Speculate, the Victorian Speculative Writers Festival, which is being held next month. I also mentioned that I would expand on my answers to the questions asked of all the participants in the filming sessions. There were three questions in total:
  1. What science fiction/fantasy first made an impression on you?
  2. Why do you continue to write science fiction/fantasy?
The third was a three-part question:
  •  Where do you think science fiction/fantasy is heading?
  •  Where do you hope it would go?
  •  Where you see your contribution to the genre(s) and where you think that fits, in regards to the direction or as a response to it?
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This blog post will explore the first question. My original brief answer centred on the books Lord of Light and The Lord of the Rings. However, the situation is much more complicated.

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My earliest memory of anything speculative might possibly be my watching the original Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Doctor Who. Later, of course, came the original (and best!) Star Trek. At some point, there was also the Superman TV show, My Favourite Martian, Lost in Space, Time Tunnel, Stingray, Thunderbirds, and many others. In all these stories and characters I was exposed to the excitement of SF ideas, the fear in horror, the fun in fantasy, and the mysteries of the fantastic. One vivid memory is an Outer Limits episode (I think) telling the story of a father rescuing his son from an alternative universe and the dread that the portal would close before the father was pulled back through by a long rope.

One of my favourite scenes (Source)
From an early age, even before we got a TV (I’m revealing my age here), I was reading books. I was an avid Biggles fan and I read the usual (for that time) boy’s adventure books like Robin Hood (my first ‘real book’, all 300+ pages), Treasure Island and Black Arrow. These led to the scientific romances of Jules Verne and H G Wells, such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Time Machine. I was also a keen comic book reader, my favourite (which it still is) being Spider-Man, though I also liked the Phantom, Green Lantern, and Batman.
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After Verne and Wells, I moved onto such Golden Age (and earlier) SF writers as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clark, Robert Heinlein, A E van Vogt, and E E ‘Doc’ Smith. I also read Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, which was my father’s favourite book. The next generation of SF writers I read included Poul Anderson, James Blish, Ray Bradbury, Gordon R Dickson, Frank Herbert, and Ursula Le Guin. And there were those writers of dystopia, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, and others such as Fred Hoyle and John Wyndham. At some point I read Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which stayed in the back of my mind for many years and then re-surfaced when a friend took me to Alderley Edge, one of the settings in the novel. I then started reading everything Garner ever wrote, fiction and non-fiction and thought of his work as a type of mythic realism.

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The obvious writer in the fantasy genre that I read and re-read was J R R Tolkien, but there were many others, including Stephen Donaldson, Michael Moorcock, and Roger Zelazny. Weird tales is a sub-genre of fantasy and I read many of the major contributors to that field. In the heroic fantasy (or sword and sorcery) field there was Robert Howard (the creator of Conan), Fritz Leiber, E C Tubb, and Karl Edward Wagner (creator of Kane, the immortal swordsman). In the horror genre, I moved from Edgar Allan Poe to H P Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, the cosmic and mystical environment of their stories more interesting to me than the later more realistic fare of Stephen King and his many imitators.

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If I were to give my top ten SF texts and/or authors that inspired and influenced me at different times over the years, they would be, in no particular order of merit
  1. J R R Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings)
  2. Roger Zelazny (Lord of Light and his other mythopoeic novels; his short stories, too, especially ‘24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai’ and 'Home is the Hangman')
  3. Alan Garner
  4. Michael Moorcock (the Elric stories)
  5. Karl Edward Wagner (Kane)
  6. Frank Herbert (Dune)
  7.  Clark Ashton Smith (his short fiction and his poetry)
  8. A E van Vogt
  9. Terry Dowling (his Rynoserros stories)
  10. Robert Holdstock
  11. Robert Howard (his Conan and Solomon Kane stories)
I know, I know, that’s eleven (which at least is a prime number). It’s hard to narrow the field down, and on another day the list would be different.

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As for the visual medium, my top movie would be 2001: A Space Odyssey. I remember coming out of the theatre as a teenager and the friends and family I had seen the film with were shaking their heads and saying they didn’t understand what was going on. I, however, was totally stunned by the experience and, although I couldn’t articulate my feelings about and insight into the film, I understood intuitively what it was doing, especially the last sequence.

'You Maniacs! You blew it up!' (Image Source)
Other films during those early to middling years (50s, 60s, 70s, early 80s) that excited me, intrigued me, terrified me, thrilled me, entertained me, in no particular order again, include Blade Runner, Star Wars, Silent Running, Dark Star, Day of the Triffids, Forbidden Planet, Planet of the Apes (the Charlton Heston version, with its famous last scene revelation), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the original one), The Day the Earth Stood Still (again, the original), Alien, On the Beach, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Them!. This list is not exhaustive and, as I said above, on another day I might remember others more pertinent.

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Obviously, much of my reading and viewing in those early years was of the fantastic in its various guises. I was looking for that sense of wonder for which science fiction especially is well suited, that emotional breathlessness and intellectual stimulation this literature of ideas excites through its exploration of the ramifications of technology (hard and soft) on the human. In my fantasy reading, there was also a desire for hidden realms, for hidden knowledge.

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In the end, however, what speculative fiction, most especially mythic fantasy, gave me and still gives me, though I wasn’t conscious of this until recently, was a sense of the reality of other worlds, an opening to the wonder in all worlds, and how these relate to what I am more and more thinking of calling Deep Wonder, work that looks at the Wonder underneath and interwoven through what we normally term ‘ordinary reality’.
For further information about Speculate, which will be held at the Gasworks Arts Park, 21 Graham St, Albert Park VIC 3206 on April 28, 2018, visit the website (www.SpecFic.com.au) and join the mailing list.

I hope you enjoyed this exploration of a sampling of my speculative fiction influences. (Some of the above material first appeared in the exegesis for my PhD.)

As always, I welcome your comments.

Best Wishes
Earl