For those who missed it first time, here’s Neil Gaiman’s introduction to my novella The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, which picked up the British Fantasy Award. Posted here because I’ll be getting the story back into print shortly, after multiple requests (it was a limited edition collectors’ book) and once again to thank Neil for taking the time to write it.
In which I talk about dragons and fascists.
At time of writing, a suspect is in custody for the murder of eleven people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history. The details of the atrocity are gut-wrenching and difficult for decent people to contemplate. Equally hard to accept is the slow-dawning realisation that this may well be the new normal.
Across western society, we are having to fight battles we thought we’d won, ones we thought we’d never have to fight again.
There are numerous causes. Hate-filled demagogues. The Communication Age giving a voice to people who probably shouldn’t be empowered. The disillusion of those who are finding it impossible to adjust to the 21st century.
But all this leads towards one outcome: the normalisation of things that in past times were so far beyond the pale they wouldn’t be discussed in polite society. (“Mainstreaming’, in a piece of jargon – something I will get on to shortly.)
And key to that normalisation is the use of words.
When I began writing my urban fantasy series, Age of Misrule, about ancient myth and legend transforming the modern world, I began with one very key decision. I’d be using some familiar tropes. Concepts that we all know extremely well from childhood through the fairytales and mythic stories that we’re told almost from the moment when we understand what a story is.
As an author, this created problems for me. These fantastic ideas would be so familiar to readers they came pre-loaded with assumptions, descriptions and prejudices. In my books I wanted them to be seen with new eyes – the wonder caused by the shock of the unfamiliar – and free of any symbolism and metaphor so I could use them in my own way.
So I could give them the meaning I wanted to convey.
That’s why I decided to call them by unfamiliar names. Dragons were Fabulous Beasts. Vampires were the Baobhan Sith, the blood-drinking supernatural figures of Irish mythology. And so on, with all the other core concepts of myth and legend.
Hopefully all those preconceptions would be re-set as readers tried to work out who the Baobhan Sith are, say. It seemed to work. The books sold all over the globe, and are still selling.
It’s an important lesson. Tell someone the thing they thought they knew well is now called this new name, and they re-set their opinions. They start working out how it now fits into their own worldview.
This is how fascism becomes just another strand of the Left-Right political battle, rather than a reprehensible philosophy that caused the death of millions.
The term Alt-Right is key. It’s thrown around in the media as if it’s simply another strand of Conservatism, harder edged, more pure, something that young men (usually) can jump on to to appear cool when they can’t get girls, or boys.
The Alt-Right is, as Wikipedia tells us, “a grouping of white supremacists/white nationalists, anti-semites, neo-Nazis, neo-fascists, neo-Confederates, Holocaust deniers…and other far-right fringe hate groups.”
Nazis like Hitler. Fascists who slaughtered Jews in their death camps.
Does Alt-Right make you think of that? No, it makes you think of some sub-genre of music that all the cool kids like.
Don’t use Alt-Right. You’re helping them win. You, you and you. And, yes, you, CNN, NBC, BBC, Washington Post, The Guardian and all the other media organisations.
Words are not about what they mean. They’re about what they make you feel.
The name Incel – Involuntarily Celibate – was self-selected by boys who can’t get girls and feel very sad about it. That one word allows them to become a movement, disenfranchised victims who should be treated like any other minority. It allows them to terrorise women – as a right. To ‘mainstream’ hatred and even to justify murder. One word. Because without that word, everyone everywhere has their perception of who and what they really are. They’re very clever, mainstreaming their own troubles. It gives them legitimate reasons to both feel bad and be collective victims of a societal problem.
Revenge Porn. We all know what that is, right? It’s there in those two words. Porn – “the portrayal of sexual subject matter for the exclusive purpose of sexual arousal” (Wikipedia again). Porn – a bit dirty, but a bit good too, yes? ‘Arousal’.
Except it’s Domestic Violence. The psychological abuse of a woman, and sometimes a man. Not so kinky now, is it? Not so much arousal.
Stop calling it Revenge Porn. Call it Domestic Violence. Then we’ll feel it, instead of grasping to understand it.
This goes much wider and deeper.
People used to fighting political battles understand each other. They use a shared language, packed with technical terms. And while they have no problem with understanding, and while the public may generally know what the jargon means, it doesn’t have the gut-punch of a well-used word. It doesn’t convey meaning.
Anti-semitism is seemingly the root cause of the atrocity in Pittsburgh, and was a major issue on the other side of the Atlantic all this year with allegations levelled at the British Labour Party.
We know what antisemitism is. But we don’t feel it, do we? Call it Jew Hate, then we get it.
Many of us know what misogyny is. It’s a term bandied around by political campaigners in the UK and US. Talk to people on the street, and they know it’s bad, in that detached I-kind-of-understand-what-that-means way. Call it Woman Hate, then they get it.
Words matter. All writers know that. But they matter more than any of us may realise in shaping the society we live in, and the one we want to live in. George Orwell understood it when he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Let’s re-learn that lesson so we don’t have to keep re-fighting old battles.
Bill Rich was haunted by terrifying demons. Some that manifested in his isolated home, as I detailed in my non-fiction book Testimony. And some that were firmly embedded in his psyche, as he always admitted.
All of it contributed to the art that he laboured over all his life, all of it, in some way, haunted. In the book I wrote about the works he completed during the frightening events that swirled around him in his home, Heol Fanog, and which were influenced by the horrors there. But Bill, who died two years ago, also left a body of work from the years before and after that troubled time. One of his surreal paintings heads this piece.
Now his widow Liz is keen to stage an exhibition of Bill’s work.
She says, “Bill’s paintings have never been exhibited, which I feel is sad, as he was an unusually talented artist. During his life he dedicated his time to painting what he described as primitive surreal art. Most of his ideas came from dreams or interpretations of what was happening around him. Each painting holds immense emotion and visual stories.
“Bill’s dream would have been that his work could at last be appreciated and understood. I know he would have been overjoyed to see his art work reaching a wider audience.”
I’ve seen some of the art and it definitely deserves a public viewing. I’m sure Liz would be keen to hear from anyone with gallery space or the wherewithal to make it happen.
If you can help, leave a comment here or send me a message through the contacts page.
This is an important book for creatives. It talks, in very clear terms, about ways to achieve the Flow State, that period when the world falls away and you’re lost to a rush of pure thought and inspiration. When you achieve Flow, you feel like you can write, or paint, or create music, forever. But it’s incredibly elusive. Getting it is hard. Holding on to it for a sustained period is even more difficult.
‘We have very little success training people to be more creative. And there’s a pretty simple explanation for this failure: we’re trying to train a skill, but what we really need to be training is a state of mind.’
As the subtitle of Stealing Fire suggests – How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionising The Way We Live and Work – authors Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal have done their homework. They provide a range of new research, thinking and practise across several disciplines.
Anything which manages to pull together how the NAVY SEALs train, elite athletes, the Burning Man festival, and tech entrepreneurs micro-dosing with LSD, is anything but ephemeral in its approach. The book is about how to hack your mind to produce the best results, and the authors suggest several approaches, some of which you might wish to consider, some which may seem a step too far (but which are working extremely well for many high-performing individuals).
‘By treating the mind like a dashboard, by treating different states of consciousness like apps to be judiciously deployed, we can bypass a lot of psychological storytelling and get results faster and, often, with less frustration.’
Kotler and Wheal are talking about achieving ecstasis, ‘stepping outside oneself’, and trace it back two thousand years to the initiatory rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries of Ancient Greece. It’s not all dry theory. They manage to interview a range of really interesting people who are putting these practices into effect and transforming their lives and environment in the process.
‘When we say ecstasis we’re talking about a very specific range of nonordinary states of consciousness (NOSC)—what Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Stanislav Grof defined as those experiences “characterized by dramatic perceptual changes, intense and often unusual emotions, profound alterations in the thought processes and behavior, [brought about] by a variety of psychosomatic manifestations, rang[ing] from profound terror to ecstatic rapture . . . There exist many different forms of NOSC; they can be induced by a variety of different techniques or occur spontaneously, in the middle of everyday life.”’
And it’s not just for creatives. Stealing Fire is very much a book about the 21st century, the changing world we live in, and the changing nature of the people who inhabit that world. There’s also some interesting work reported from trauma studies, about how the techniques discussed here can help mend what’s broken. The same techniques, practiced regularly, can ‘nurture what is best in ourselves,’ and ‘cultivate the exceptional’, according to the scholar Alan Watts.
‘It’s the same physical world, same bits and bytes, just different perception and processing. But the cascade of neurobiological change that occurs in a non-ordinary state lets us perceive and process more of what’s going on around us and with greater accuracy. In these states, we get upstream of our umwelt. We get access to increased data, heightened perception, and amplified connection. And this lets us see ecstasis for what it actually is: an information technology. Big Data for our minds.’
If you enjoy Tim Ferriss’ books about how to adapt and thrive in the modern world – The Four-Hour Workweek, The Four-Hour Body – you’ll undoubtedly enjoy this.
The manuscript for my next novel, Dark Age, has been delivered to my editor, and I’ve completed a promotional piece for the Random House blog for the forthcoming paperback publication of the last book, Pendragon. i’ve been head down immersed in this for the last few weeks – always the best way to finish a novel – but this week I’ll be getting back to blogging here about writing for a living, for those interested.
Check back soon.
Arthurian lore is stitched deeply into my new book, Pendragon, published in just a few short days. This is a story-telling tradition that may well go back one thousand five hundred years. Perhaps even longer, if – as some think – Arthur was not a real, historical figure but based on a mythic hero arising out of tales of Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld of gods and magical beings.
Arthur matches the promise embedded in T H White’s title, The Once and Future King, by returning time and again in fireside tales, books, films, radio dramas, comics, and in every one slightly reinvented to speak to the concerns of the time in which the story is being told. That’s because Arthur’s true importance is as a symbol, rather than as an historical figure.
And it’s a consideration of this element which lies at the heart of my telling: why do we need the myth of King Arthur so much that we keep bringing him back in new forms?
Pendragon is set one hundred years before Arthur was supposed to have lived and looks at how the man, the legend, both entwined, might have arisen out of historical events. It’s decidedly and defiantly different from the Arthurian fiction you may be used to – no re-telling of oft-told tales. All the familiar elements are there, but we come at them from oblique angles in the hope that the reader might see them in a new light. In that way it’s a meditation on the meaning of King Arthur, as much as being about Arthur himself.
Or as the review from Parmenion Books says:
Pendragon…. the name just screams Arthur, Genevieve, Lancelot and all that goes with it. Well take that preconception and throw it out the window. Not since Bernard Cornwall took on the Arthur myth has any writer provided such a new and innovative view of the Arthurian story.
This constant reinvention of Arthur is a turbulent process, but the anchors remain the same to hold the idea fast – Excalibur, Camelot, the Round Table and the rest. And they too are symbols, more powerful than their mundane appearance suggests.
Folklore speaks to why we keep calling Arthur back into our world. He is the hero who sleeps beneath the hill with his loyal band of followers, waiting to be summoned in the hour of England’s – or the world’s – greatest need. The saviour. The ideal. The non-religious symbol of something greater than ourselves that speaks to the highest callings – of service, of sacrifice, of the values, the striving for goodness, that bind us all together.
There are times when we need Camelot more than ever.
This is one of them, I think.
The UK has never been more divided. The US too. Divided socially, politically, geographically, financially, divided in how we see ourselves, in our purpose. It’s important to look to greater principles to find those ties that bind, if divisions are ever to be overcome.
And lest we forget, symbols are more powerful than words, more powerful indeed than the men and women who purport to lead us. Countries which marshall their national symbols thrive. Those which don’t, struggle. The USA, a country built on symbols, now almost wholly communicates with them. From images of an eagle, or stars and stripes, or the gunslinger standing alone in desolate landscape, we understand very complex, multi-faceted ideas about the philosophy of that nation. And that communication is more powerful than anything when the USA is selling itself across the world.
King Arthur is also a symbol of Britain. He sells a layered but powerful idea of who we are as a nation. As we edge out into an uncertain world, we need that too.
Been a hectic start to 2016. New TV pitch optioned, new TV script started, new novel pitch underway, and I’m well into the next novel from my pseudonym, James Wilde. This book should be out in January 2017, six months earlier than the usual cycle, so the clock is ticking. But it will be of particular interest to Age of Misrule readers.
But I wanted to say a few brief words about Umberto Eco, who died yesterday. His novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, is one of my favourites, dovetailing as it does with my particular interests of conspiracy theories, the nature of truth, reality and imagination, and, above all else, the power of myth, both ancient and modern.
Eco casts a shadow over the 21st century. Before the turn of the millennium, he was already dealing with ways of writing and thinking that are becoming prominent in this century. And he should hold a special place in the heart of readers who love imaginative fictions and great writing.
There are still 20th century people abroad who belabour the world with that century’s binary thinking – literary or genre, say, the kind of people who believe there are still boundaries around what we do. Eco loved his cultural tropes, his comics – he wrote a great piece about Charles Schultz’s brilliant Peanuts comic strip which you can probably find online somewhere – his detective fiction, his fantasy (or magical realism for those who find that word sticks in their craw). The Name of the Rose managed to be both massively literate, an intellectual dissection of religious thinking and repression, a historical tract, and a gripping murder mystery.
Foucault’s Pendulum takes your hand and leads you slowly away from the real world into a labyrinth of paranoia where anything might be true, or nothing. Eco claims he invented Dan Brown in this novel, and the author then took on a life of his own and wrote The Da Vinci Code.
Eco showed us how we can think about stories once we throw off the shackles of the last century. He will be missed for his work, but remembered for his road map.
Gone Girl has been running high in the bestseller charts for a while now, and there’s a movie on the way from David Fincher, a man who knows a good thing when he sees it. While I was taking a break down in Cornwall for a week, I nabbed a copy and enjoyed it a lot.
In a way, you get two different books here. Luckily, both of them are very good. The first is a suspense thriller with a mounting sense of unease built through the accretion of tiny details and the realisation that two different people are looking at the same events in different ways. The revelations are eked out by the author’s skilful work and keep the ground moving under your feet. It’s an addictive telling that’s grounded in truly good writing that particularly captures both a sense of place and the deep psychology of people.
At the midway point we begin to transition to the other book, Gillian Flynn’s dissection of the state of modern love and marriage, with some very acute observations and analysis. If you’re an old school sentimentalist, you might not like what you find. What I enjoy about the author’s take is that she doesn’t cosset the reader. She’s not afraid to reveal the harsh nature of human beings, the transactional state of some relationships and that love can mean many things to many different people.
Some people have complained about the ending. I have no problem with it. If this were only a suspense thriller, it would not be the ending you’d want, but it fits perfectly with the author’s design of her characters and her themes. She’s created a very good monster here, but one that could easily exist though few would want to admit that (I’ve met a handful of sociopaths who play in the same ballpark).
My one criticism is that the second half – in plot terms – is too rushed compared to the first half. I think the ending would have been better served by a slower pace and more of the detail we were used to. But overall, a great book, a great character study, a great commentary, and one that will grow over time.
Near Death Experiences (NDEs) are a fascinating topic. They affect people regardless of cultural background or religious belief, or lack of it, and they’ve been recorded from the earliest days of civilisation. For years science has suggested explanations for the tunnel, the white light, the dead relatives waiting to greet you, and all the other familiar markers of an NDE. But whether dumps of DMT from the pineal gland, primitive brainstem programs or toxic overstimulation of cortical neurons, those theories have all been found wanting as we have discovered more about what really happens to the brain under the threat of death.
If you had to suggest what would make the best case study of an NDE, it would involve: a skeptical patient, someone who was an expert in neuroscience, and a situation where there were extremely detailed records of what was happening to brain chemistry at the point of death. By the laws of chance, that is never going to happen…
Except here it did. Eben Alexander is a leading neurosurgeon with a well-documented career of writing and teaching about neuroscience in leading institutions. He was also a confirmed materialist and a skeptic of anything spiritual – even of the notion that consciousness existed beyond a mechanical construct of the brain’s processing of experience and memory.
And then Alexander was struck down by a rare and seemingly incurable form of bacterial meningitis that threw him into a coma. The doctors at the hospital where he worked gave him less than a ten per cent chance of survival, and even if he did pull through he was expected to be irretrievably brain-damaged. Finally they advised his family to turn off life support.
Yet against all the odds, Alexander did wake up, and with all his faculties intact. And he came back with a staggering account of an NDE that is all the more powerful because it could not…should not…be. His detailed medical records show that there was no activity in his brain that could possibly have accounted for what he experienced – in effect, the human, thinking part of him was dead.
The unique case study alone is worth the four stars – it’s an important account in the study of NDEs. The book itself, for me, probably deserves three. It’s easy reading – no doubt because Alexander wanted to convey his experiences to the widest possible audience – but I would have preferred some more analytical writing and less visceral or emotional.
Having said that, Proof of Heaven is worth reading because of the confluence of Alexander’s scientific background and the life-changing experience he underwent, one which kicked away all the props of the intellectual life he’d built over his years in science.
This is an important book. We’re going through the fastest period of change in human history and one that’s accelerating – everything we’re used to is going to alter in some way, and if you want to survive with your job, finances, health and sanity intact, you have to be prepared for what’s coming. The End of Big is your road map.
Nicco Mele, who sits on the faculty of Harvard’s Kennedy School, examines the changes that are rushing through different sectors: business, the news media, the entertainment industry, politics and government, universities and education, the army and warfare, while touching on other sectors too. As he says: “We’re at the beginning of an epochal change in human history. Scan the headlines every morning – through your Facebook and Twitter feeds – and you can feel history shifting under your feet. Every day I find more and more evidence that we are in the twilight of our own age, and that we can’t quite grasp it, even if we sense something is terribly amiss.”
As the title suggests, the author’s evidence shows that ‘big’ cannot survive – whether that’s big political parties or big companies. We’re not only moving from serving the general to serving the specific, but economies of scale have less impact with the technology that’s emerging. For book lovers, Mele shows, for instance, why the big publishing companies have little hope of continuing in their current form. Don’t get the impression that this is all negative. The author indicates that there are a great many opportunities coming up fast. If you’re a creator, or have particular skills, you’ll thrive. Small businesses and independent retailers are well-placed for success. (The subtitle is: How The Internet Makes David The New Goliath.)
Don’t be deterred by what may seem heavy reading matter; it’s really not, and Nicco Mele writes with a very engaging, popular style. Because of the scope, this is necessarily a broad-brush approach so you aren’t going to get bogged down in the detail of a sector that doesn’t interest you. I have minor doubts about a couple of the author’s conclusions, but that’s exactly how it should be. The book tells you exactly what *is* happening, right now, and what’s coming up in the near-future, and then lets you answer your own questions about whether those changes are good or bad.
The pace of change is so great that The End of Big is going to be out of date very quickly. All the more reason to buy it now, so you’re fully prepared for those changes and can plan your own future effectively in these turbulent times. Highly recommended.