Checking in

For anyone who has followed my last few posts, it may come as no surprise to know that I’m working again. As a writer, that is – trying to take advantage of a crippling injury that has left me sadly unable to get to my office and argue with clients from the totalitarian perspective of a hideous corporate egregore all day.

The new novel is actually not that new at all – it’s a reworking of a discovered manuscript I wrote about five years ago. The reason for the reworking is simple: it’s fucking terrible.

Nice cover, though.
Nice cover, though.

Here are some problems I had with the original.

– Quentin Quark, transhumanist pulp hero and… CEO of a real company people are meant to take seriously

I deliberately chose the name “Quentin Quark” wanting it to sound ridiculous. The idea for the novel was to pin what I thought were interesting post-human ideas and philosophy on the framework of a Lester Dent-esque pulp story, setting up a contrast between content and context. Fine.

However, in the story, I don’t think I got the balance right. Because people take him seriously, calling him “Quentin” or “Dr. Quark”, the tone never really hitting that farcical attitude the name warranted.

Enter Javon Cray, the real life person for whom Quentin Quark is one of several pseudonyms, a corporate logo, a fictional superhero he plays to push his futurist ideas into the public sphere. It makes sense to me that a multi-disciplined scientist, in the vein of other pulp superheroes like Doc Savage or Reed Richards, should be able to handle multiple identities, too – dissociative identity disorder as a lifestyle choice, as I believe The Invisibles puts it.

King Addrisi of Alexandria, an African city state on the Baraka River

This was my attempt to set up some kind of Doctor Doom-esque villain who ran his own country, but sounds more like an evil Black Panther (the superhero, not the civil rights group. Casual racism aside, any villain who talks like this is pretty much not salvageable:

Leaving without this?” Addrisi’s voice said. Quentin looked up, and there was his enemy, standing on a balcony above, naked but for he disc in his hand. “The Gaia Program. The future of the world contained on this tiny circle. Like a mandala. It’s almost mythic, isn’t it?”

Addrisi leapt from the balcony and fell the ten feet to the floor, landing with a grace that belied his bulk.

What are you thinking, Quentin? What are you thinking in that incredible mind of yours? Do you not realise the significance of our struggle? The location, our shared skin colour. It was here, in the heart of Africa, that mankind took its first steps. Here we first developed societal order. Here, you and I and my scientists fired our hadrons and restructured the standard model of physics!”

Actually, I was thinking of that naked wrestling scene in Women in Love,” Quentin said. “What happened to you, Addrisi? You always wanted power, but you never served the status quo.”

And when did you start serving chaos, instead of anarchy? Oh, yes, Quentin. I have spoken to your masters on the astral plane. Spoken with the gods you have been convening with. Kālī said…”

So, out with Addrisi and in with Isaac “Jericho” Blake, a rogue American technologist designated by the UN as a “science terrorist”. Without giving too much away, he’s essentially an evil Steve Jobs. Well – more evil, I mean.

The terrifying computer program trying to take over the world… Monday!

No, that’s not when it plans to do it: that’s it’s name. I had intended for it to be a corruption of Spiritus Mundi, the “Spirit of the World” from Yeats’ The Second Coming – at the time I was reading a lot of Yeats, including his esoteric automatic writings contained in A Vision. Yeats’ concept of Spiritus Mundi was a kind of informational singularity, a space where the totality of human information and experience was recorded. Monday, an emergent artificial consciousness thinking itself to be a technological singularity, thus named itself.

Unfortunately, as much as we dread it all weekend, Monday is not really very scary. I’ve reworked this almost entirely in the redraft, but kept the Spiritus Mundi connection: the threat is now known as Zphy-Rah-Tus (A.K.A. Zphyratos… Zphyritus… Spiritus… geddit?), a mass of data that’s gone insane and demands we worship it.

Incidentally, the weirdest thing about this was, as soon as I started to re-work the emergent network consciousness concept I came up with four years ago, this popped up on io9: A Neuroscientist’s Radical Theory of How Networks Become Conscious. This is the problem with writing science fiction at the start of the 21st century: your ideas reach a sell-by date very quickly.

The writing itself was neither pulpy nor serious

Developing a voice is important; this is why I’ve been delving into texts where writers write about their craft recently. The Robert Louis Stevenson essay was especially helpful, as Stevenson is someone who attained the sort of balance I’m trying to get between a popular sense of adventure and a respect for the value of good prose, structure and so forth. Michael Moorcock, whose Jerry Cornelius books were the main inspiration behind Quentin Quark when I started it five years ago, strongly advises to science fiction and fantasy writers who are starting out that they

A) Stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.

B) Find an author you admire (Moorcock’s was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.

I’m not going quite that far, but I am certainly picking a lot up from my perusals of The Master of Ballantrae, for instance. It seems fitting to me that Conrad admired Stevenson as I admire Moorcock – not that I’m implicitly comparing myself to those three esteemed gentlemen of letters, of course.

Aside from Stevenson, my other two consultants are How Fiction Works by James Wood and Letters to a Young Novelist by Mario Vargas Llosa. I hope to write more about both at a later date, but already they’ve been immensely helpful, especially in tandem with Flaubert’s Sentimental Education and Llosa’s own The Feast of the Goat.

Both Wood and Llosa look to Flaubert as an almost Platonic example of how to construct a narrative (I really want to get hold of Llosa’s The Perpetual Orgy, his book analysing Madame Bovary). Wood asserts that Flaubert is none other than the inventor of the modern novelistic voice; “There really is,” he says, “a before Flaubert and an after him.” Reading his predecessors like Fielding, Defoe and even fellow realist Balzac, one will still encounter an essayistic narrator who thinks nothing of digressing with his own opinions and observations. After Flaubert, from Tolstoy to Christopher Isherwood to Ian bloody McEwan, these observations are either dressed up in the everyday or concealed by an ambiguous eye. By an ambiguous eye, I mean that we as readers can’t be exactly sure if it’s the character’s or the author’s.

Being shown these elements of fiction writing that we otherwise take for granted is both gratifying and hugely helpful – far more useful, I’ve found, than any number of How To Write Fiction-esque guides. As Moorcock rightly says, you learn from the masters, and Wood is adept at showing you their brushstrokes.

A few other quick notes, perhaps to expand upon later:

  1. Far from the conventional view that a first person narrative is reliable whilst a third person narrative is omniscient and objective, Wood posits that the first person narrative is, at least, reliably unreliable – in contrast to the third person, which presents itself as reliable but in fact carefully selects the details it shows you and the thoughts it reveals.
  2. Rare examples of an unreliably unreliable first person narrator include Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, the protagonist of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and Italo Svevo’s Zeno.
  3. Wood has led me to Henry James’ mastery of narration, just as William H. Gass’s The Sentence Seeks its Form led me to his genius of rhythm and sentence structure.
  4. Death is often accompanied by the trivial: Falstaff babbling of green fields, Joachim feeling the blanket with his hand in The Magic Mountain. We don’t plan for death, as Proust rightly notes.

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Laurence Thompson

Laurence Thompson is an English writer. He is almost certainly drunk.

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