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 

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

My SF Influences and Hopes: Introduction

Hi Everyone

A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to be filmed for the upcoming Speculate festival, which brings together a number of Australia’s finest speculative fiction writers to celebrate the craft of writing fantasy and science fiction. I am appearing on one of the panels and the aim of the film session was to interview some of us for a montage video to be screened at the first session of the festival.


Most interviews were done solo, but a couple had two participants. My partner-in-crime, so to speak, was the Aurealis Award winning writer Sean McMullan, whom I’ve known since the early 80s when we were part of a science fiction workshop group organized through the Council of Adult Education (CAE). That group has spawned a number of identities in the Australian SF scene, including Sean, Robert Jan (Costumer, and presenter of Zero-G on 3RRR FM) and Sue Bursztynski (author of ten books, one of them a Notable Book in the Children’s Book Council Awards).

Sean and me at the Red Rotunda in the State Library of Victoria for the film interview (photo by Joel Martin)
Joel Martin, the Director of the festival and a former student of mine, asked each interviewee three questions. The first two were standard for all interviewees:

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 will 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?

The first two questions had been sent to us beforehand, so I had given them some thought and had come up with a number of authors, books and ideas. However, because there were to be a number of interviews during the afternoon, we were asked on the day to give short answers, a single word or phrase, if possible. This meant I had to trim my prepared responses. As far as I can recall, the final versions were along the lines of the following:

1.     Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light spurred on my interest in myths and The Lord of the Rings was a major trigger for my love of fantasy.
2.     Although I also write literary fiction and mainstream poetry, I continue writing speculative fiction because it allows me to explore different worlds from our own.
3.     The three parts:
  •  In relation to film, I see speculative fiction just becoming more and more the blockbuster epic—all colour and movement but poor narrative sense; all style but no substance.
  •  Again in relation to film, I would hope for something more than pure entertainment (which admittedly has its place), something that has better narrative sense, with believable character arcs, however nuanced, yet still holds to the production values of the blockbuster. As for books, I would hope that fantasy returns to its roots and resumes its connection to and exploration of Wonder.
  • In much of my work, poetry and fiction, literary and speculative, I have tried to delve into the mythic dimension of the world and I am keen to keep exploring the connection between Myth and History and also hopefully evoke Wonder. While I appreciate stories that have entertainment as their primary concern, that is not my direction. 
As I said above, I’m not sure of my exact words, but I feel these answers cover the same ground.

When I returned home that evening, I realised I had more to say to these questions and so in the next few blogs I will explore them in more depth, which might give you some sense of how I came to be the poet and writer I am today.

If you interested in Speculate’s mission, which is to foster the speculative fiction community in Victoria and around Australia, with support from readers, publishers and writers, and you want to enjoy some of the industry’s leading voices, the festival will be held at the Gasworks Arts Park, 21 Graham St, Albert Park VIC 3206 on April 28, 2018. For further information, visit the website (www.SpecFic.com.au) and join the mailing list.
I hope you enjoyed this post. As always, I welcome your comments.

Best Wishes
Earl

Monday, 18 December 2017

Gwaith 26 (Catch Up): Hart Fell: Take Two

Hi Everyone

Unlike the previous day, the weather was forecasted to be ‘fine and sunny’. Sure enough, when I parked at the large shed near the trail to Hart Fell, I looked over my shoulder and saw a rainbow. A nice, positive omen.
The start of the climb
The walk itself started in sunny weather—as they say in Wales, Mae’r haul yn gwenu (‘The sun is smiling’). However, even though the sky was relatively clear of dark clouds, a constant drizzle filmed my glasses. Halfway to Hart Fell spar, the drizzle faded, but the glistening grass made the way a little slippery at times.
On other occasions when I have tried to reach the summit of Hart Fell, I would visit the spar itself, then climb from there. This time I strode past the side trail to the spar and continued along the main path. Unfortunately, this path soon petered out and I had to make my way up and sideways along steep trails, past gorse, bramble, bracken, and heather.
The river on the way to Hart Fell Spar
Sheep were annoyed at my disrupting their feeding, with one group making funny huffing noises at me. Crows and ravens circled overhead. The river sparkled and rumbled on my right.
After consulting my map, I continued to follow the fence line and, when it changed direction in the distance, I headed straight up the slope in front of me. I expected the summit to be over the ridge.
It wasn’t.
I heard voices and saw two men descending a track on the other side of the fence. We nodded to each other, then the man in the yellow jacket asked if I was okay. Even though the whole climb had left me huffing and I had to pause numerous times, I said I was fine.
Further up the mountain, I came across a plateau area that I initially thought might be a useful setting for my novel. It led to a saddleback, after which was the final ascent to the trig point at the top of Hart Fell.
The summit there is a broad plateau, much bigger than the previous one, big enough for tents and the rituals and celebrations I’ve written about for a kingship ceremony. The only vegetation is grasses, heather, and clumps of bracken. The views—those I could see—are amazing. One can even see the Solway Firth and beyond.
Vegetation at the summit of Hart Fell
I was pleased to have made it to the top after so many failed attempts, but of course the mountain still had a surprise for me. Just as I decided to take photos and videos of the views, for later reference when I re-write the scenes set here, a heavy mist rolled in, accompanied by a bitterly cold north wind.
Huddled in the cairn at the trig point, I ate some lunch and meditated for a few minutes. As the weather wasn’t letting up, I started down again. I angled across the slope I had come up earlier and kept this up as I tried to hook up with paths I had spotted from higher up. Occasionally, I stopped to write notes about the terrain and vegetation, but mainly I stumbled, slid, and sideways stepped my way back. Sometimes on a track. Sometimes from one sheep path to another.
On the way back, showing the mist
The trip up took 3¼ hours. The trip back, not counting a stop at the spar, took me around 2¾ hours. At the spa itself, I offered a small gift to Merlin/Myrddin, as I had done earlier at the summit of Hart Fell, and drank three drops of water that dripped from the roof of the cave. With the day wending on and my not wanting to be caught in a late afternoon change of weather for the worse, I didn’t stay long. On the way back I noted the ash, birch, rowan and oak lining alongside the river that leads back to where I parked my car.
I left The Bonnington around 10am and arrived back at 6pm. I was stiff, sore and quite tired, and I immediately jumped into a hot shower. After making notes about the climb—including descriptions such as the swirls of dragonflies and damselflies, the give-way of moss, the knock of water on rock, the expanse of rust-coloured bracken—I had an early night.

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

Best Wishes

Earl

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Gwaith 25 (Catch Up): Remembrance Day and March, York, 2016

Hi Everyone

A few days after my visit to Bridge and my experience of Bonfire Night (see my last post), I arrive in York to research the dark ages history of the place for my novel.  The morning after my arrival, I walk into the city to grab some food before my explorations. I pop into a bakery and stand in line to buy some Chelsea Buns, for which I had developed a taste while in Wales. Suddenly, all noise stops as the shop radio announces the two minutes of silence for Armistice/Remembrance Day. I stand with my head bowed and think about my nephews, one currently serving in the Navy and two recently discharged from the Army, and of my father, who was in the RAAF during World War II. For the rest of the day, my thoughts keep returning to them and what I know of their experiences, and in the evening I draft a poem. Below are the opening lines of the final version, which was published a few days ago in Eureka Street (and can be read here):

In a bakery in York, I stand silent
With other customers for two minutes,
Think of nephews who have served
And seen action, some still serving
On land and on water, some bearing
The costs of their service in bad knees,
Hard hearing, scars in hidden places,
And think also of you, my father…

Two days later, Sunday, 13 November 2016, I am walking through the city on my way to the train station for my trip back to Wales. I notice people are gathering on the bridge over the Ouse. Babes in prams. People wearing everything from their Sunday best to work clobber. Tourists with cameras. A security presence.
View of the River Ouse from the bridge
I ask an army press officer near me what’s happening. It turns out there is a march through the city every year to celebrate Armistice Day/Remembrance Day and then a laying down of wreaths at the war memorial in a park near the banks of the Ouse. I am ahead of schedule for catching my train, so I decide to stay and watch. Below are photographs of the occasion. (I tried to get one of each of the different services/units, but am not sure of their names. Any suggestions would be welcome.)
The head of the march 
Army? 
Paras?
RAF
Army?

Royal Navy 
Police
Marines? 
Military Police? 
Other veterans
The wreath laying at the memorial
The lowering of military colours
Smoke from the gun salute near the end of the ceremony
Much of the crowd stayed around after the ceremony, to share in the memories evoked and to give thanks, but I had to get to the railway station. I was glad to have seen the march and the wreath-laying and so pay my respects to those, like my nephews and those of my father's generation, who had given something of themselves in the service of their country.

As always, I welcome your comments, especially if you’d like to share some of your own Remembrance Day memories.

Best Wishes

Earl

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Gwaith 24 (Catch Up): Bonfire Night, Bridge, 5 November 2016

Hi Everyone

This catch-up post is out of chronological order because of today’s date. One year ago I attended a Bonfire Night in Bridge, a village near Canterbury, UK, with my good friends Simon and Lise. And so, I wanted to blog about it to celebrate the anniversary of that event.

We don’t celebrate Bonfire Night in Australia anymore, for a variety of reasons, some to do with safety and some to do with a distancing of our culture from such English customs. I remember the bonfires of my childhood on the empty block of land on the other side of the road from our house. The whole neighbourhood participated. For days, people brought old furniture, timber off-cuts, and broken fruit boxes and piled them high. I wrote about these memories in ‘Fall Out’, a poem about a dead childhood friend, which won a national award many years ago and was published in Azuria #4 in 2015. Below is the opening stanza:

Dead now thirty years or more, you were
just one of the neighbourhood knockabout kids
kicking a rolled-up-newspaper-and-twine footy,
racing bikes and billy-carts down the hill,
playing gangs in the paddock across the road
with its grass hillock hideaways, rubbish mound forts,
whooping and hooting with the next fruit box tossed
flinting sparks and flames on the Guy Fawkes bonfire,
skyrockets whoosh-slicing the night to the refrain
of bolts and penny bangers in metal pipes.

So, when Simon and Lise suggested we attend the Bonfire Night being held in a local field, I jumped at the chance. Once night, with a light touch of dew, had truly descended, we joined a couple of hundred people crowded at the fence line around an enormous mound of wood in the middle of the field and cheered when fire safety officers 'lit her up'.


We were treated to a sprightly fire that at times grew menacing, with its raging, crackling sounds, its tumbling and crashing timbers, and its glowing embers and burning debris carried by the north wind, which troubled our eyes and threaten to ignite the nearby oak and beech trees. The fierce heat baked our faces with grins, gasps and exclamations. The erupting, rolling, leaping flames took on whirling shapes with elongated mouths and jagged limbs.



Then came the fireworks, a magnificent, wonderful, splendid, surprisingly long, keeping-your-gaze-engaged set of explosions and colours. Whistling rockets. Crackling white star bursts. Dazzling splurges and cascades of yellow, red and green against the backdrop of night. Sooty embers raining down around us. The smell of burnt air and gunpowder. Cheers. Little children pointing and clapping. Adults with arms around each other. Faces turned upward and glowing.







Afterwards, we went back to Simon and Lise’s ‘Wendy House’ for some beer and wine and a pre-dinner reading of entries from The English Year: The Nation’s Customs and Festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night. Padstow Oss. The Wooden Horse of Kent. And, of course, Guy Fawkes:

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

A great end to a night that was part nostalgia and part wonder.

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you have any memories of Bonfire Nights, do share them in the comments if you like.

Best Wishes
Earl