I’m not making the facile if true observation that the contents of stories are lies, of one kind or another (that there is no such person as Oliver Twist, say; or that neither Hogwart’s School nor the subjects it teaches are real—you know: the obvious stuff). Nor am I presenting the equally facile observation that the morals or implications of stories are often mendacious (reality licenses us to disbelieve, to pick a few examples: that the course of true love never runs smooth; that guns are exciting and empowering or that the universe cares what choices we make) although as a matter of fact they generally are. My point is that the form of ‘the story’ as such is ontologically deceitful. The underlying logic of stories is conflict (no conflict, no drama; no drama, nothing interesting to storify) and this, by and large, is not the underlying logic of the universe. If I had to pick one word to describe the underlying logic of the universe it would be: indifference. Stories, though, are allergic to indifference.
Of course, the fact that human beings make stories can give stories utility—for humans. We may take inspiration from Frodo’s perseverance or Mr Polly’s courage, from Odysseus’s wiliness or Hermione’s cleverness when we face challenges of our own. We can console ourselves that our broken hearts can mend, that everything happens for a reason, because our stories tell us that these things come to pass. It’s probably not true, but it may be useful. Still: how much story to mix-in to our everyday common-sense engagement with the barely-tractable matter of existence is a ticklish question. Too little and we will grow disaffected with the indifference of the universe; too much and we lose touch with reality.
Adam Roberts muses upon the role of Story in human affairs, in the context of Christopher Priest’s new joint An American Story, which sounds like it needs adding to the ever-more-Jenga-like babel of my TBR pile.
Or at least this person thinks so. An anonymous book collector turned blogger is writing posts about titles from their (apparently quite capacious and varied) library, which includes a copy of Fables from the Fountain from Newcon Press, which just so happens to contain my first properly published short story. Quoth said blogger:
One of my favourites is ‘On the Messdecks of Madness’ by Raven about which I can say almost nothing without spoiling the enjoyment except it’s the only fantasy story I can recall that uses the great diarist Samuel Pepys’s admiralty career as a basis of the plot.
I’m almost certain that there are other sf/f stories in which randy ol’ Samuel is a character and/or plot-point (though I’ll admit I’m unable to recall any right now; answers on a postcard, and all that). “Messdecks” was first drafted circa 2009, not long after I’d left my part-time day-job at at the Royal Naval Museum Library in Portsmouth — though it was actually published some time later, in 2011, because [early days of a small press] — and I have no shame in admitting that I responded to my first commission by resorting to the oldest writing adage of them all, recommended by some and deplored by others: write what you know.
And what I knew then was just how many crackpot conspiracy theorists with a naval history obsession there are… because the bulk of my job at the RNML was to answer their (often rather accusatory and poorly spelled) emails as diplomatically as possible. I think I lost them all to an old hard drive’s dying, but I used to have a pretty good collection of stock debunking essays on everything from Nelson’s supposed satanism to the voyages of HMS Habbakuk, the aircraft carrier made of ice. (A scale-model experimental version of the latter actually existed, but never saw action, and was anyway too small to carry any aircraft; Nelson had manifold flaws as both human being and national hero, but as far as I was able to discern, worshipping the Lord of Lies was not one of them. He was way too much of a priggish wanker for that sort of gig, anyway.)
I left that job to go full-time freelance, just as the post-crash recession was really starting to dig in. A massive mistake in many ways — but hey, I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t. (Wherever “here” is.) Regardless, it was nice to be reminded of that daft but fun-to-write story, and nicer still to find that some random someone thinks quite well of it, seven years after it was published.
Found material might be “evidence” –might even be a direct, indexical sign of a thing that happened–but the thing that happened, the life that contained it, can’t be reassembled, or back-engineered into existence. It’s only what it is now: if you try to glue the fragments together with the sentiments “evoked” in you, all you will have is a golem. All you’ve done is bully the mud into a shape that satisfies your needs.
Fiction-writing advice from M John Harrison. Or at least I’m interpreting it as fiction-writing advice… with Harrison in particular, you can never be entirely sure.
If sci-fi convincingly simulates another world, it gives the reader ways of imagining our world otherwise. Science fiction is more, not less, “realist” than literary fiction. It does not produce the fiction of a severed part of a world, as if the rest was predictable from the part. It produces a fiction of a whole different world as real.
McKenzie Wark [responds to/riffs on/critiques] Amitav Ghosh.