Oppressive regimes in recent SFF

In Vox by Christina Dalcher, America has been taken over by fundamentalist right-wing Christians: a woman’s place is once more in the home. Only this time, she’s only allowed to speak 100 words a day. The Dark Gifts trilogy by Vic James is set in contemporary Britain with an alternative history, where only people with magic in their blood are full citizens with acknowledged human rights. Quite different styles and settings, but both give well-crafted and thought-provoking portrayals of oppressive regimes and how people react to them.

Vox has been on prominent display in three for two offers and the like at WHSmith and Waterstones on and off for months. It’s been in bestseller lists, and praised as a new Handmaid’s Tale left, right and centre. Which is why I’d delayed reading it, even though Christina is one of the flash fiction crowd I chat to on Twitter and I’d been so excited when she first announced her novel was going to be A Real Thing. Sci-fi that appeals to people who don’t read sci-fi is rarely satisfactory to those that do, in my experience (see my review of The Bees). I’m so glad that Vox turned out to be chilling, thrilling, near-future sociological SF with a healthy dose of science in it, and I can honestly say I really enjoyed it.

It’s hard to say much about Vox without giving away plot-twists. I thought the idea of the slippery slope was handled brilliantly, the glimpses of the path they’d gone down to get to the current state. At what point does behaviour cross a line between being the preserve of a weird minority it’s safe to ignore, and prominent enough that right-minded liberals (as the phrase would probably go, in the USA) should react against it? Can a person look back and pinpoint the moment they should have stood up for their (or someone else’s) rights, their last chance to change the course of society? What about if someone you love edges step by step along a path you abhor, following one seemingly reasonable (in isolation) argument after another? Then there’s the science element, laced with ambition and ethics. It’s all biology/medicine so I have no idea how real or plausible any of it is, but it did make me think about the way lots of scientific research can be used for good or ill, and all we can do is trust that it won’t be weaponised.

My one reservation is the epilogue; I personally would have preferred the book to end after the climax and do away with the hindsight summarising. However, I have similar views on the Jeff Vandermeer novel Borne, but that didn’t stop me loving the novel and recommending it. I’m happy to recommend Vox too.

I’ve only read the first two of the Dark Gifts trilogy so far (Gilded Cage and Tarnished City), though the third is lurking on my Kobo ready for me to dive into when I’ve finished the book I’m reading just now (Christmas-themed, therefore timebound). The main characters are the children of two very different families, ranging in age from ten to mid-twenties, with much of the action revolving around two boys in their late teens who end up bonded by circumstance in a fascinating (and not at all friendly) way.

Britain is powered by slaves; every non-magical person must do a ten-year stretch. Meanwhile the magical aristocracy (the ‘Equals’) live on their country estates in luxury, and the country is ruled by the heads of these powerful families. A mixture of propaganda and the silence of the traumatised ensures that the wider public never hear about, or simply don’t believe, the treatment of slaves in some parts of the country. When the Hadleys opt to do their slave-days as a family, on an aristocratic estate, their belief in the basic fairness of the system and the inevitability of slavery begins to wobble. Of course, even within the Equal society, some are more equal than others, and the tensions between and within families play out on a large scale.

Gilded Cage is very good on how ordinary people either turn a blind eye or simply miss the hints that all is not well – with busy lives and faith in basic decency they don’t want to rock the boat and assume the nastiest rumours are trouble-causing nonsense. It also portrays complexity and grey areas well, and the way that individuals don’t necessarily align with the group you expect them to. There are some fabulous characters in the trilogy, Silyen Jardine in particular keeps wrong-footing me and revealing yet another facet. Tarnished City kept the pace and tension and developed some of the characters in interesting ways, I’m looking forward to reading Bright Ruin, the final instalment.

Writing with an outward gaze

There’s an image of writers as self-absorbed navel-gazers. Alone in the attic with a typewriter, capturing important words that the cruel and/or philistine public doesn’t want to read or hear. These days, of course, it’s been taken to a whole new level by bloggers and self-publishers (yes, like me). It’s so easy to sit here and tell as much of the world as cares to take notice how your novel’s doing; how many submissions, rejections, invitations and events are filling your world; how many books you’ve read; how many words you’ve written…

Sometimes I’m reminded that it doesn’t have to be like that, or not all of it at any rate (I kind of like reading the personal side from other writers so I hope some of you enjoy similar from me). Applying to be a writer in residence focusing on climate change last month made me properly consider the possibilities for writing as a force for good (or for change, anyway – ‘good’ is often a judgement made in hindsight).

Anyone who’s ever written sci-fi has probably consciously chosen to use fiction to highlight the bad things about the present or to show the better things that could be, whether it’s to do with discrimination, the state of politics, or the environment. Personally, I think it’s harder to do outside of genre fiction (you can do it in crime or historical fiction to a certain extent as well as in SF) but not impossible. As readers, you know how a powerful story can stay with you and maybe change your views or attitudes, it can certainly make you have a long, hard think about the views you already hold. So, remember you can use your fiction to make people think.

Non-fiction is more obvious but is further from my comfort zone and if you’re predominantly a writer of fiction that probably goes for you, too. Creative non-fiction (real events relayed in a style more usual in fiction) or a personal essay can be more effective for persuasion than haranguing the reader in an article, but a concise, factual article can raise awareness of a situation or issue that’s not widely known.

Plays, films and podcasts can be anywhere on the spectrum between the two: from documentary via dramatisation of real events to full-on fiction. Events featuring readings (which again can be a blend of fact and fiction such as Alice Courvoisier and I have done in the past) can also be used. Even the (ahem) self-absorbed blog can be used in this way.

If this is getting your writing gears turning, the Royal Society of Literature have the Literature Matters awards (this year’s deadline is December 5th) to fund work which:

(a) will help connect with audiences or topics outside the usual reach of literature, and/or (b) will help generate public discussion about why literature matters.

Of course, writing an original work isn’t the only thing a writer can do to create change. You can help other people’s voices be heard, and depending on the type of change you’re after, just giving those workshops or providing that platform can be a change in itself.  You might be able to join (or create) a local group, festival, initiative, or community arts project. I say this knowing full well that it’s not always that easy (you may remember the cancellation of our Bradford libraries writing festival project a couple of years ago).

I’ll end with a mention for Chapel FM in Seacroft. I’ve loved being involved with Chapel FM, I’m continually amazed at the breadth of their output and the work they do as a community arts project. For the first time in a few years it looks like I won’t be taking part in their Writing on Air festival in March 2020 (I don’t drive, it’s a pain to get to by public transport from where I live, and previously I’ve been lucky enough to be collaborating with kind friends who gave me a lift) but I thought I’d give a small signal boost to their call for board members, and a couple of new staff members – they’re expanding again and I wish them the best of luck.

 

Why aren’t there more illustrations in fiction?

Ten years ago this week I made up International Illustrator Appreciation Day, so naturally enough I’ve been thinking about illustrations.

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Three very different illustrated novels

I’m halfway through The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, and though I didn’t realise they were there when I bought the book, I’ve been enjoying the illustrations that mark each new chapter:

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Illustration by Yoco Nagamiya

They set the scene in some way for the chapter to come, and unlike the cover art they depict the cat, Nana, as he’s described in the text. The wash style fits beautifully with the whimsy of this Japanese novel.

Not long ago I read Wyntertide, the second book in Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird trilogy. That, being a fantasy novel which also has a map, is the sort of territory you might expect illustrations, and indeed there are full-page pictures dotted through the book:

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Illustration by Sasha Laika

To me, these ones are reminiscent of the illustrations you might find in an old-fashioned children’s book, complete with a quote beneath, to show which part of the text they go with.

The ones that were delightfully unexpected and seemed a bit odd at first are these:

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Mid-text illustration by..?

This is from the Reginald Hill novel The Roar of the Butterflies, the final book in his Joe Sixsmith private detective series. Sadly it’s the only one of the series that I’ve got in this style (I bought them all second-hand), but OneMonkey particularly loved it. They’re not quite comedies but they’re light touch, and Joe is an easy-going central character so once you accept these drawings they work really well. I’m not altogether sure who drew them as I can’t find a direct reference, only that the cover art was by Christopher Burke.

Three different styles of novel, three genres, three different ways of arranging the illustrations (in among the text, full page within a chapter, chapter headings only). The only commonality being that these are all aimed at adults. In children’s books we often encounter illustrations like this but (maps in fantasy novels aside) rarely once we’re adults. Perhaps there’s an idea that they’re only for kids, and of course it adds an extra collaborator in to complicate deadlines and share the takings with, but I think they add something to the novel. Not everyone likes graphic novels, not all books lend themselves to that treatment, but surely there are lots of readers who’d appreciate a sprinkling of art in their books. We’re not demanding it because unless we’re reminded by books like these how nice it was to read text with illustrations when we were younger, we’ve forgotten what it is we’re missing out on.

A literature festival, a twinned town, and a workhouse

Autumn is always busy, it wouldn’t feel right if it wasn’t. As is often the case, I’ll be taking part in the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe and I’m part of a festival on Chapel FM (have we stopped calling it East Leeds FM again?) though not the usual Writing on Air. I’ve also been busy behind the scenes doing historical research.

This year instead of showing off what we can do, Ilkley Writers are giving four bite-sized workshops called Invite To Write at the Fringe, two on Saturday 5th October and two on Sunday 6th. Each one will feature one writing exercise that’s intended to be fun, not at all intimidating, and suitable for those wanting to dip a toe in the creative waters as well as experienced writers in a rut. We like a challenge…

The night before the first workshop I’ll be on Chapel FM at 8.30pm (though as usual you’ll be able to listen again via the website) reading flash fiction that I wrote for the 50th anniversary of the twinning of Leeds and Dortmund. It has nothing to do with either Leeds or Dortmund, or anything high-minded like bridging the continental divide. The theme was neighbours, so mine is wry humour about living in a flat. Other people involved in the festival have been more serious about it (though not all of them, naturally). You can read all the pieces on the Leeds Dortmund website.

While preparations for all this have been going on, I signed up as a volunteer researcher on a project called More Than Oliver Twist, which aims to individualise and humanise the nineteenth century workhouse. The idea is to research inmates who were in particular workhouses on the 1881 census, and tell their life stories in an exhibition next year. For me this is a natural follow-on from writing about the Bradford Female Educational Institute a couple of years ago for the Dangerous Women Project, highlighting a forgotten, overlooked bit of working class history and trying to make people (including me, perhaps – it’s easy to think in broad terms when you’re reading about the past) think about classes and categories of historical figures as individuals. I’ve researched a few workhouse inmates before while looking into mine and OneMonkey’s families, but not in Leeds so I’m straying into new territory here.

Incidentally, the Dangerous Women Project is crowd-funding a book. I’m not entirely sure why they’re doing a book when they’ve already got a website (and my piece is not going to be in the book) but if you’re interested, head on over there and support them.

Also, as an aside, some or all of this arose from me working through The Writer’s Plan that Carmen Marcus kindly shared. I wanted to give more back, with teaching or mentoring. I wanted to dare to try (like, getting involved in a Chapel FM festival by myself. Though it turns out Roz is on earlier in the evening so we’re going there together, which is a nice coincidental compromise). And I wanted to write about more forgotten history. Thanks Carmen, for giving me a shove.

Cryptic notes of a time-strapped writer

In amongst the day job and household life I get brainwaves, flashes of inspiration and insight that I can’t let go but don’t have time to act on. So I write myself a note, on a corner of scrap paper or in a draft email, and later on when I’ve got more time I read the note. And wonder what the blazes it means.

Northern King. Hefting. Rebanks.

Individually I know what all the components of that note mean. The Northern King is my semi-rural fantasy novel. James Rebanks is a shepherd who wrote a great book about Cumbrian hill-farming, which I don’t have a copy of and therefore can’t look anything up in. If I recall correctly, hefted is how you describe sheep who are so used to a particular fell that they won’t stray. Can I tell you what was in my mind when I wrote these crucial words down? No, I can’t. I could guess at an analogy between my main character John (a former shepherd) and the hefted sheep, but exactly what I was driving at I couldn’t say. The significance of this moment of clarity is lost.

All Points North, Ch1. Rules.

A few weeks after I’ve scribbled this in the margin of a notebook I can clearly recall reading the first section of All Points North by Simon Armitage and being hit by something I needed to say, related to a line he’d written that was about rules. This note has done its job. I pull the paperback from the shelf and flick through the first few pages. The only instance of the word ‘rules’ that jumps out at me is connected to train fares: “There are also rules against travelling on Fridays and travelling north at teatime,” it begins. I read it a few times, wondering what was so important about it. A political point to make? A story set in a world where you’re not allowed to travel north at teatime? Had it jogged a memory of some other tangentially related passage, perhaps in a travel-related piece by Stuart Maconie or JB Priestley? I can’t remember and doubt I ever will, though I’m sure it will periodically resurface to taunt me.

I could, I suppose, learn to let go. If an idea arises while I’m wrestling with a database at the office I get paid to turn up at, let it float on by. Give a mental shrug, get back to the SQL and trust that if it was important it will come back around later. Like the word ‘Walt’ and a flash of a memory related to Walt Whitman, that resurfaced as I was typing this. It’s crucial, I know it is, and the story it relates to is almost graspable at the back of my mind.

I remember walking from the station to the office one morning last week and the next part of that story writing itself as I walked along. I remember being frustrated that I didn’t have the time (or paper) to write it down before I arrived, and making a conscious effort to hang the whole thing on a key word. Walt, I thought, if I keep saying Walt to myself it’ll cement the thought and I can retrieve it later. Indeed, that afternoon in a meeting at which a colleague named Walter sent his apologies the whole idea flashed into my mind again. Fantastic, I thought, this is really working. Since then, it’s gone. It’ll come to me. It’s something really crucial to the next part of a half-written story, and it vaguely relates to Walt Whitman.

Not as fluent in English as I thought

Ask me where I’m from and I’ll say Yorkshire. I use a smattering of dialect, but not nearly as much as I used to, and unless you know me well you’re unlikely to hear the strongest version of my accent. I write in English, as you can see, and being a native speaker I thought I was pretty fluent. Until I started doing a deep edit of a couple of short stories during an online course.

The exercise was about getting specific. Cut the adverbs and use the most fitting verb. Ditch the abstract notions and make them concrete. Here’s what I wrote as my experience of working through the story I’m focusing on the most, which is set in the 1980s on a farm in the Yorkshire Dales:

I had (I think) almost nothing properly abstract and only one adverb (breathing heavily). I wondered how much is to do with this story being in a working class Yorkshire setting so I feel free to use more evocative and precise phrases like he clattered down the stairs, he brayed on the wall, the radio wittered. I’m going to investigate another story where I’ve used a more middle-class voice and see if I’ve used ‘standard English’ i.e. a smaller vocabulary and hence relied on adverbs more.

And you know what? I had.

As I suspected, the middle-class voice story I was thinking of has: talking quietly and earnestly, walked more slowly, ran quickly away, held tightly [several times!], coughed loudly. Not to mention a couple of ‘very’ and some abstract notions like feeling better, being kind or afraid. Wow.

Now, either I was having a bad day when I wrote the ‘middle-class’ story (and every subsequent time I’ve gone through it) or I have some kind of block when I’m writing in a posh voice.

I’ve talked about code-switching before (not least when I wrote about accent at No Writer Left Behind) but I always thought I was pretty good at it. My vowels sound northern (u and a are dead giveaways) but I didn’t think translating the odd word (something/anything/nothing instead of summat/owt/nowt, for instance) was seriously stifling my creativity. But all that is in spoken English, and thankfully I don’t get to go back through conversations at work to see how large a vocabulary I’ve used.

Written down, it’s there to go over later. Written down, it also has to follow rules about what gets written in books, ‘proper English’. Do I self-censor because I think words like clattered or brayed aren’t allowed in written English (slang? impolite? common?), or because I think they’re not universally understood (dialect? old-fashioned?), or because I think they’re not used by the kind of person with the voice I’m trying to write in?

It’s an interesting situation, it’s shown up my assumed fluency in switching and made me stop and think. Maybe what it comes down to is if I’m consciously writing ‘northern-normal’ – what to me is the default – then as long as I can imagine me or my Nana saying it, it’s fine, but for the middle-class, the BBC accent, I have to be able to imagine someone reading it from a book on Radio 4, and that imposes a whole mass of constraints which I’m clearly not comfortable with navigating.

I think my conclusion is that I should take my own repeated advice and write more in shades of my own voice.

All Points North by Simon Armitage

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This book had been sitting on my To Read shelf for weeks when Simon Armitage was announced as the new Poet Laureate, so it seemed only right to take it down and start reading. As you might expect from a Poet Laureate, he’s best known for his poetry and there are a couple of excerpts of it in All Points North, but only as they pertain to broadcasts or events he was involved in. On the whole, this is memoir and observational humour, as if Alan Bennett had grown up on the wild edge of Yorkshire in the era of Joy Division. Released in 1998, if the book came out now it would most likely have been a blog first.

There is ‘genuine memoir’ if you like, nostalgia and childhood memories, tales from his time as a probation officer or appearing in local panto (transplanted to the coast for an am dram conference), and the more recent that could be categorised as ‘scenes from the life of a poet’, like a visit to a film set or making BBC radio programmes. All of this reveals his poetry background: the creation of atmosphere, the lyrical descriptions of the everyday, the skirting of pretentiousness without ever quite falling in. There are also bits of local news deftly retold, snippets, fragments, snapshots, anecdotes from the pub that in another context or told in another way would be nothing.

Being, as the title suggests and his origins dictate, northern in character and largely about the north, the book is infused with dry humour and a keen sense of the absurd in the mundane. I particularly enjoyed the dialogue where the insurance firm phones (twice) to check he really is a poet (“Are you well known?”). The bulk of the book is written in second-person, as though he’s sat outside himself reminding another self of his actions and memories, which causes the odd tangle of position (who, then, is ‘we’?) but if you’re happy to accept that it makes for an interesting style.

I loved it and kept laughing loudly on the train as I read, but I would imagine All Points North to have particular appeal or relevance to those who know or love West Yorkshire, maybe also to those who know or love someone from West Yorkshire. If you read it without any prior exposure or knowledge, you may well come away with the wrong impression.