Chips and Gravy

chips and gravy

I worry that I don’t read enough.

It’s not a new worry, or even strictly simply that I don’t think I do enough reading. I have always been plagued by a fear that I do not read widely enough, that the books I pick up aren’t varied enough. And as a writer, it’s one of a clutch of fears which pursue me like the hounds of hell.

A great man once said:

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

And whilst as a breed I regard so-called writing rules as largely hokum, but this one rings true. This one I would put my faith in.

Read on…

The Importance of Variety

Yours truly, trying to save the endless variety provided by libraries.

It’s strange, but as a writer one of the questions I most dread being asked is one of the most frequent: “So what do you write then?” It’s not so much that I don’t like talking about my writing- though I do get a strange modesty conflict- but more that I’m never sure how to categorise myself.

Look at the last piece of writing that I had published. “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep”, a psychological horror published in the Night Terrors II anthology (which, I’ve recently discovered, is only £3.88 on Kindle. Just saying…). Last night I finished and submitted a near future SF story with an environmental bent. The next story I write will, it seems, be harder SF centred around augmented reality. And I have *holds breath* recently started a novel that seems like it will be a mixture of medium-hard SF and light fantasy.

So it’s a little hard to categorise my writing as a whole. When asked about it today in the barber’s chair, about all I could manage was “dark, horror-y, science-fiction-y stuff”. Which is somewhat embarrassing for someone who is supposed to be good with words.

But “dark” is about the only common thread running through my writing. Whether it’s overt horror, or SF exposing the darker side of humanity, I have an almost macabre fascination with the shadier side of life. I take heart that, whilst he started off with undeniable horror, Stephen King has matured into a taste for variety in the extreme. How would you categorise Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, for example?

My reading patterns are, generally speaking, just as varied. I make a special point to read a wide range of fiction, since I strongly believe that we write what we read in the same way that we are what we eat. Sameish reading results in stagnant writing.  The last book I read was Tom Fletcher’s The Thing on the Shore, a strange and introspective horror novel which was frankly excellent. And I’m currently reading two books: the first is Greg Egan’s Quarantine, which represents my first forray into reading full-length hard SF. The second is a physical copy of Dragonheart by Todd McCaffrey.

I grew up on Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books, and was deeply saddened last year when she passed away. I hadn’t read any of the later novels in the series by her son Todd, but seeing it on the shelf at the library the other week I just couldn’t help myself.

Which brings me neatly to another thing that’s been on my mind. Wokingham Borough Council’s plan to privatise the libraries rumbles onwards. The matter has seen scant attention from this blog of late, partly due to the exploding incompetence of the waste collection scheme and partly due to the fact that it’s all being done in secret. The council can claim that the secrecy is due to EU tendering rules, but those rules didn’t prevent the Conservatives from proposing it at the last election, or consulting on it before opening it up to tender.

When I go to the library for a book, I don’t go looking for anything in particular. I look for something that catches my eye, whatever it might be, and that contributes greatly to the variety in my reading. This is why I am determined to make sure that the libraries issue doesn’t drop off the agenda. As I have said before, the world would be a far poorer place without them.

I Need a Reading Lamp

A reading lamp may be the solution I need for my reading vexations.

I’ve decided that I don’t read enough. This, as you might imagine, is a problem for a writer. It’s not that I don’t enjoy writing any more (I do), or that I can’t afford books (I can- and anyway I get a healthy quantity of my reading material from my local library). It’s because I don’t seem to have the time any more- or rather I don’t make the time.

So much of my day seems to be taken up with politics, work, a thousand and one trivial tasks, or the act of writing itself. Which is great- I love being so active, and I love that I still find plenty of time to write. But as a great man* once said:

If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.

Which means I have a problem, even if I’m not feeling the effects just yet. So I’ve decided to “schedule” some reading time. Which sounds grander than it actually is. Basically, instead of falling asleep watching a film or TV show, I’ll fall asleep with a book (or my Kindle).

There’s something nice about this. I think it goes back to when I was very young, and my parents used to read to me at bedtime. More times than not, I would fall asleep before they finished, and lose myself in whatever fantastical worlds I was frequenting. Even today it’s a warm and safe feeling. Although a little annoying when I reach the point of reading the same sentence over and over before I realise it’s time to call it a night.

The only problem with this plan is to do with lighting. My lightswitch is next to the door- across the other side of my room. So when I’m tired, ready for sleep, I have to put down my book (or Kindle), get out of bed, cross the room and turn it off. Not exactly the most relaxing end to an evening. Conclusion: I need a reading lamp.

*Mr Stephen King


Or, as is becoming apparent, vice versa.

Does anyone remember that poster that the Conservatives plastered over billboards up and down the country in the lead up to the 2010 General Election? The one with that airbrushed picture of Cameron saying that he’d cut the deficit not the NHS? Or maybe you remember the part in the coalition agreement where the government promised to “stop the top-down reorganisations of the NHS”?

Well, the first pledge has been broken; the NHS is being cut in real terms under the present government. And the second is being broken by the Health Bill currently going through parliament. Since it’s introduction, this bill has been one almighty headache for the government. There seems no end of problematic clauses within it, but the one which grabbed headlines first of all was the plan to allow “any willing provider” to bid for NHS contracts- essentially opening the NHS up to European competition law for the first time in the history of the health service.

This was diluted down to “any qualified provider”, after the Lib Dems found their backbone (only temporarily, and only after another slating by the media and pollsters). But the Bill is still dangerous. Between the plans to put hospitals in competition with each other, open the service up to privatisation, and turn your local GP into an administrator rather than a physician.

The NHS is, to my mind, the greatest achievement by any post-war government. It was introduced by Clement Attlee’s Labour government, over the staunch opposition of the Conservative Party of the day. It seems that nothing has changed. Despite Cameron’s attempts to “detoxify” his party, it has only been a superficial change. The Tories still can’t be trusted on the NHS.

So today I joined other Labour activists (including a contingent from Maidenhead CLP) and trade unionists in Reading town centre, to

Maidenhead CLP defending the NHS, in Reading town centre. Myself with (left to right) John Healey MP, Patrick McDonald and Nigel Smith

try and raise the profile of David Cameron and Andrew Lansley’s devastating plans to destroy this British institution. We handed out informative flyers, and gathered signatures on a petition. We were even joined by John Healey, the shadow health secretary.

This is a very real threat. I am, like most people, firmly of the opinion that health is a fundamental right. I believe that healthcare should be available to everyone, not just the rich. This legislation is the first step in a conservative (big and little c) plan to privatise off the NHS, and move towards a situation similar to that in the US- where doctors will look for your wallet before your pulse, and where the poor suffer a vastly inferior standard of care.

If you agree that the NHS must be protected, if you want to do something to stop this bill, then please sign this petition. Beyond that, the only suggestions I can make is to write to your local MP, and to never trust a Tory on the NHS.

Can I get some Science with my Fiction?

This sort of follows on from my “In Defence of Genre” post, so

Is this the image of science we want to be portraying?

you might like to take a look at that first.

But anyway, I’ve been thinking about what precisely science-fiction is. It covers a great deal of subgenres, some of which I’ve written in. But the fundamental idea behind it is in the name, I think. Science-fiction. Equal measures of each. Fiction about science. Or fiction involving science. It boils down to the same thing, that the difference between sci-fi and other brands of fiction is the science.

And I think that lies at the core of a lot of matters. Given that science is under a daily assault (by various religious elements of society some of the time, by the Daily Mail misrepresenting it most of the time), it seems all the more important that sci-fi represents science in the most honest way possible. To me, sci-fi has always been about dreaming, about what could be in the future, but I know that a lot of people think of sci-fi as impenetrable nerd-gruel, but it really doesn’t have to be.

Reflecting on it, I think a lot of the bad sci-fi is the scientifically inaccurate stuff. To compensate for frankly impossible plot developments and holes that the writer has dug themselves into, they throw impenetrable technobabble and deus ex machinas into the mix, despite having little to no understanding of how the universe actually works. And then we’re using science as the plot crutch that magic so often is in fantasy.

The science in sci-fi doesn’t have to be so bold. It should be the lifeblood running through the veins of the story (and now I’m waxing all lyrical). What I mean, is that it shouldn’t be something glued onto the side to make it fit under the sci-fi label. Science is not a gimmick.  And yes, there are sci-fi tropes which are used so commonly that they pass right under the radar (e.g. hyperspace, wormholes, noises in space), and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it still makes me smile when I see something that adheres more strictly to the rules it claims to be built around. I’m talking, lack of artificial gravity, sub-light travel only, kinetic weapons rather than laser-based. They’re minor things, but give the story a sense of realism.

Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m not an expert when it comes to science and technology. I have a working knowledge, and I did well enough when I studied them, but it’s been four years now since I’ve had any substantial education in the sciences. So do I have enough knowledge to avoid hypocrisy on this matter? I’m not altogether sure. I try to do my research, I try to keep myself within the realms of scientific possibility (still a very wide berth, for a writer with a reasonable imagination to play within), but in the end, I’m not an astrophysicist, or an engineer, or a geneticist. I’m a law student who likes to write sci-fi.

But maybe if we all make that effort to understand what we’re reading and writing about, then the world will be a little better. Certainly, for writers, I feel our fiction will be. If the science is accurate, then the fiction feels closer to reality, and that is what a writer should be aiming for. I’m not saying only people qualified in science should write sci-fi (because that would be hypocrisy), or that only people qualified in science should write sci-fi (because that’s stupid, and even aside from that would create a cut off community of science enthusiasts, like Norfolk meets CERN, while the rest of the world returns to the dark ages). But sci-fi can be, and is, so much more when the writer takes the time to present an accurate snapshot of the universe, with just a bit of research, to get the science right.

Realism doesn’t limit imagination. It just focuses it down the right avenues.