What on Earth Have I Been Up To?

This is one, first and foremost, for the folks who’ve known me around the traps for much of the last decade of on-off blogging. They know who they are.

Backstory in brief

Five years ago, I got it into my head that I’d have a go at writing a work of non-fiction. This is a project I’ve mothballed indefinitely. Early on, it became apparent that in order to write effectively, and produce a piece of work I could actually be happy putting my name to, I’d have to get things right in my headspace. I didn’t anticipate just how much work that’d entail, or how much recovery was actually possible.

The past couple of days, a few supplementary frustrations not withstanding, I’ve felt great. I popped on an album from back in the days before depression bore down on me (George Harrison’s Cloud Nine) – only to experience sensations I haven’t been able to feel in decades. No sugary twee for me, mind you. It was bittersweet, albeit with a healthy absence of teen self-pity.

This isn’t about that though.

Nor is it about the resolution of a years of tension arising from the community most central to my sidelined non-fiction project. Four years ago, I’d grown tired of a number of atheist personalities, for reasons varying from individual to individual. Anticipating disputes falling along certain lines has been tiresome, but they’ve finally all erupted, and largely as expected. Nothing’s fallen on me though, so I don’t get to commiserate. I am though, oddly enough, more willing to engage now, no longer having to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone, said doubts either evaporating, or rendered irrelevant through the collapse of provisional arrangements. Presently, I’ve got nothing hanging on the word of people I can’t trust implicitly.

But again, this is not about that. I’m not returning to the non-fiction project quite yet.

The Project

What I have been doing is writing a piece of fiction. So far I’ve found it to be fun, and to be honest, somewhat easy. While I’ll doubtlessly make several future revisions and edits, I’m at least not left shaking my head re-reading my prose. There’s satisfaction to be had here.

While genre snobbery doesn’t appeal to me, neither does restriction to a genre niche, and not for the clichéd objections concerning “pigeonholing”. If, given the chance, other folks end up wanting to pigeonhole my current project, then fine. It’s just that I don’t conceptualise it that way.

What is this project?

For pigeon-holers, it’d be hard science fiction. For me, it’s a bit broader and blurred at the edges. For the blunt, it’s A Book.

I abhor the tropes of pop-sci-fi, largely because I loathe tropes in general, but also because the often seem lazy and/or dull above and beyond the hackneyed conventions of other genres; Space lasers! Space princesses (to be rescued)! Space calendars and space dates that uniformly adhered to by inter-stellar civilisations; faster-than-light travel allowing for interstellar soap opera, rather than faster-than-light leaving the protagonist alienated from, and out-of-time with, planetary surface dwellers; political jurisdictions that span multiple star systems, despite not being enforceable at such distances and time frames; harsh existential realities of the void, circumvented much the same way that special effects often negate the silence of space. 

First thoughts on reading this may leave folks thinking along the lines of Stephen Baxter or Larry Niven, and I’d be lying if I said there was no influence there.  Certainly, both authors have a penchant for oblivion that I appreciate.

Still, both can get a little more apocalyptic than what I have in mind. While the heat death of the universe, or alien life on the surface of a neutron star may provide imaginative and extreme perspectives, I want to keep the extreme beyond reach, while exploring and accentuating the relatively untapped absurdity of the near-universe. Camus used the conflict between human values and an uncaring but Earthly universe for his source of absurdity. I want to get away from Earth, to where nature is inimical to humanity, but not yet to all matter. My scope for absurdity then, is somewhere between Camus and Baxter.

What to do with the extremities of deep time and space then? These things not being directly accessible by humans, positions them as entirely alien, and I do want to employ a Lovecraftian fear of the unknown. This will be alluded to – inferred by the story logic, and occasionally hinted at implicitly. The project will have something of the Weird Fiction about it, although I hope to avoid what I consider the overwrought and contrived history of the Lovecraftian mythos.

In the story logic, the deeply alien may have visited Earth, but it didn’t put life-forms here, alter the history of evolution, insert genetic material into the germlines, build cities or pyramids, or live on the planet. There certainly won’t be a history of multiple visitations by every Tom, Dick and Cthulhu. For the most part, aside from a few key indirect interactions, the deeply alien will be poorly interacting with humanity. It may very well be in-frame at any given point, but unless explicitly stated, the reader likely won’t know it without my notes. The scope of experience of humans, and that of aliens persisting through geological time, are just too far divorced from one another for mutual recognition to come naturally. Think of the microbe that crawls across your face – how aware of each other could you possibly be?

I have a fondness for Michael Moorcock’s work, although without going as far as dismissing his material from my influences as too pulpy – if only I could churn out books the way he has – his characters are hyperbolised further than I’d want to go myself. I want a tad more realism, while maintaining the convention-breaking with regards to types. Looking to Vonnegut for clues in this respect may turn out to be productive. I will say this of Moorcock’s work though – the alien morality of his more far-flung representations of humanity sometimes come across as more plausible than many realist depictions of futuristic morality (compare the antics surrounding Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius to that of the inhabitants of Star Trek’s Risa colony, the latter coming across as entirely affected).

On a brief note, there’s a necessity for looking into cyberpunk given some of the technological themes I’ll be touching on, which for the most part for me so far, has been an exercise in risking re-inventing the wheel. On the one hand The Project has AIs, sentience and mind-body issues, while on the other I have a heaping of Gödel, Escher, Bach. I’m not sure I’ll look to Turing. I’m not overly aware of the ins-and-outs of cyberpunk, and I’m not actually sure this isn’t a good thing, but I’ll need to check, not too soon so as to potentially extinguish my imagination, but eventually, in order to compare notes.

As for my protagonist; she’s a supporting protagonist; an “audience surrogate” to some extent, but not so far as to “hold test tubes” and tell a main character “how brilliant he is”. The character she’ll be interacting with the most, will almost serve as a false protagonist, although I certainly won’t be bumping him off. While identifying to some extent as human, my near-false protagonist will become increasingly alien over time, in the sense that he’ll become less relatable to (although not in the sense of The Fly, or any other b-movie transformation). This, I hope, will have the effect of rendering my protagonist as both more central and crucial for the reader.

The near-false-protagonist is a character I don’t want to fall into the trap of fetishizing. While not a hero like The Doctor of Doctor Who fame, I think The Doctor has been fetishized far too much by Stephen Moffat, to the extent that the character’s quirkiness has been repeatedly regurgitated as trope at the expense of the development of other characters. I mean, that fucking guitar in the last season – why? – so the audience can gawp at the same joke yet again? The point of The Doctor is to be a vehicle for the audience surrogate – the means by which they, and hence the audience, are drawn towards the conflict in the narrative. We aren’t supposed to worry about the Doctor’s midlife or existential crises, so much as we should worry about the companion’s anxieties about the Doctor’s inner workings, the tensions brought about by space-time travel, and where this is ultimately leading them. This keeps The Doctor alien, and the conflict relatable. Or at least, this is my opinion. It’s Moffat’s show (for the time being).

In my own meagre project, I’m intent on not repeating what I consider a mistake.

I could say more, such as on the topic of identity labels and neologisms centuries into the future, my exclusively male list of author citations in this post, about my use of the Scrivener software, or any number of other things, but I’ll save these all for other times. It’s time for me to get back to the coalface.

~ Bruce

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