Thanks to the great Andrew Hook for tagging me and thereby in embroiling me in the new internet writer meme of “3 things I don’t write about and 3 things I do”. I’ve tried to stop myself from reading Andrew’s post or anyone else’s on the subject, but after I’ve written this I’ll go read theirs with interest. Mine seems to be a bit of a rant, sorry, so be it. First the don’ts:
I try not to write about horrific violence unless it is strictly relevant and necessary to my underlying messages in a story or novel. It’s so easy when you’re a writer on the margin of the horror scene (a very broad and welcoming church, which I sometime think should be renamed as “psychological fiction”) to get drawn in to the Coliseum syndrome of feeding the sordid excesses of the human mind for the sheer sake of it, without any educational value. I’ve never got “horror” in the major sense. I think films of people being tortured or physically harmed in a leering way are disgusting and people who enjoy watching these should be sent for therapy. Unfortunately, this seems to include about 50% of the population and a lot of my friends. Then again, if I was a space alien, I would see this as entirely consistent with a planet and a species currently still engaged in constant warfare, as evidenced by the evening news. Evolution takes a while. But we could give it a push by throwing splatter horror books in the bin and shunning films of the same. It’s something to do with cultivating human compassion and not deadening it, especially in children. Nurture over nature.
I never write about genre staples like vampires, because vampires are crap basically. They are a completely uninteresting cliché, a metaphor for nothing valuable, a non-useful narrative device. Sometimes I wonder how the hell they have become the pulp fiction staple they seem to be today. Then I notice that vampire novels seem to be more popular with women than men. Then I remember my psychological theory that blood is the oral feminine analogue for semen. Then I remember that people often get uncomfortable when I start to expound this theory in the pub. Then I remember to shut up. I also never write about zombies (this is ‘don’t’ number two-and-a-half). I’d say Zombies are an unconscious metaphor for the old, and the fear and loathing the rest of us secretly feel for the old at times. No one can doubt this who has ever stood in line for an hour at the pre-Christmas queue at Bishopbriggs Post Office. Once you realise this, you’ll find zombie movies and books even more offensive, and not even funny. But that still doesn’t make them remotely interesting.
My third and most important “don’t” I think is black-and-white characters. My books never contain goodies and baddies, because I don’t believe they exist in real life. Plenty of well-known and successful authors break this rule routinely, and I’d say they are promulgating a myth that does a lot of harm in the world. I don’t believe in good and evil in that juvenile and simplistic way, but people who do are very numerous and very dangerous. Even Adolf Hitler had his reasons. He was in pain, in denial, deranged, swollen with cruelty as his desperate unconscious way to try and gather back love from the world. But “evil” is just a blank label, designed to shut down our analysis and compassion of the psychological problem at hand. We call someone evil, we hang them, we walk away, we have learned nothing. Even the aeroplane attack on the Twin Towers struck me as a perverted act of blighted love, a poison embrace, an unwitting attempt to share pain, to unite humanity, an enactment of Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of The Red Death: the uninvited ghost at the feast, the masked contagion who arrives to bring judgement to all the partying guests while plague rages beyond the castle walls. Humanity longs to be united, not divided, and will not rest until it is. As Tony Benn said: there will never be peace without social justice. So all my characters resist easy categorisation, are both good and bad, in doubt, their feelings like the music of Arnold Schoenberg: endlessly changing and searching. Because this is how real people are in my experience. Thank goodness telepathy is not normally possible. You’d hate to hear some of the shit we all think from one moment to the next but scarcely mean.
Right, that’s enough whinging. On to the things I do write about:
1. The Messiah complex. I am very interested in messiah-type figures and the way human beings seem to hard-wired to follow leaders, often with disastrous results. I’m also intrigued by the way humanity often ultimately turns on its messiahs, usually for the heinous crime of telling the truth. Messiah figures occur in almost all my books, as follows:
In Ultrameta, Alexander Stark become a messianic figure because of his apparent cheating of death and his repeated resurrection.
In Sylvow, the character of Leo Vestra, who writes prophetic letters from the wooded wilderness surrounding the city, is a messianic figure, whose followers eventually coalesce into a religion (As explored in the sequel Volwys which will be out in a month or two from now).
In Apoidea, the main character the millionaire inventor Gert Villers is one of the richest and most revered men on the planet, who is forced to confront the fact that his own organisation and followers have become a religion which trap and misrepresent his intentions.
In Mechagnosis, the time-bending antagonist Scott Malthrop becomes a messianic figure in the eyes of the policeman investigating him as he loses his mind.
In Entanglement, several of the humans visiting alien worlds are mistaken for messiahs by the primitive species they encounter.
In The Rhymer, the painter brother of the narrator Nadith, is a cynical and successful artist, a dark messiah, who deludes and misleads people through his artistic powers.
In The Brahan Seer (released in a couple of weeks time), a man who can see into the future acquires a distinctly Christ-like following and dies a Christ-like death for the ultimate crime of telling the truth.
Now that’s a whole lot of messiahs. They should start a band.
2. The conflict between a scientific and artistic view of the universe. I won’t go through all my books again (phew!) but this one is always there. It can also be expressed as the conflict between science and religion, between materialism and spirituality, classicism and romanticism. Perhaps what I am really ultimately getting at is my pet theory of the duality of human consciousness, i.e. that just as photons of light exist in an irresolvable duality of particle and wave states, so we humans are both physically separate individuals and an invisibly shared group consciousness. Entanglement was probably my most sustained attack on science, which sought to show through interaction with alien worlds, how restricted and narrow and blinkered our current scientific view of the universe has become. I suspect that this is because science has become our religion, with all the blind dogmatism and irrationality that implies. Of course it has. How could you expect an archetypal human need so deep as religion to just disappear overnight in the twentieth century? Of course, it didn’t. It just went underground then re-emerged as the worship of technology. Every time you buy a pointless new upgrade or gadget, folks, you might think you’re being frightfully with it and up-to-date, but take it from me, in sociological terms: you’re worshipping and praying.
Problem is, science should not be a religion of course, but an endlessly open-ended process of searching for truth in the universe. Unless and until it truly is that (rather than scholasticism and dogmatism) our species will neither find the big answers it needs as a group nor find the peace and fulfilment it needs as individuals. As DH Lawrence said: for Gods sake let us not be just monkeys with machines.
3. Extra-marital affairs. Yes, it has been observed that there’s often a lot of sleeping around in my books. Affairs fascinate me because they occur because of our difficulty in resolving and reconciling the animal side of our nature with the spiritual. They also throw up strong conflicts of emotion and character, a sense of guilt and sadness, which seems to me to pervade life in any case. Affairs just give you an excuse to illustrate these issues microcosmically upon the page in a condensed timescale. Affairs are often doomed emotionally, and there’s something immeasurably sad and poignant about that. Even if you’ve had what Kurt Vonnegut described as the sex life of a veal calf, I think you would still feel the emotional power of an affair if well described in a book: because it is a distillation of the basic longing we all feel to make contact and be united with everyone around us. Part of each of us would like to sleep with all of us, and sex is a living metaphor for that. But hormones and hygiene make such a mess don’t they? Oh yes, and territorialism, ownership. None of us can own each other. I think Nietzsche was right to say that marriage was a piece of barbarism. Stay with someone because you need them and value them and love them, not because of some crummy bit of paper and some mumbo jumbo said in a church in front of a lot of people whose business it isn’t what you do with your fiddly bits.
Here endeth the black sermon of this dark messiah. Time to pass on this meme by nominating a successor. I choose… my dear friend and wonderful writer Nina Allan… to talk next about things she writes about and three things she won’t.