Sunday, July 14, 2019

In The Woods


Monday, July 08, 2019

Podcast: What If...

I was recently a guest on What The If ..., the high-octane, cheerfully irreverent speculative science podcast run by documentary filmmaker Philip Shane and scientist and author Matt Stanley. They let me play around with a question related to War of the Maps: What The IF we could save the Earth from the inevitable death of the Sun? Check it out here.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Doctor's Story

From War of the Maps:
‘People of our age sometimes have the foolish notion that they must prove that they have not been brought low by time,’ the doctor said. ‘After living full and useful lives, they suddenly realise that the end of the road is only a little way ahead of them. They begin to fear that they are no longer relevant. That the world is moving on without them. They believe that there may yet be time for one more grand adventure, want to prove that they can still make a mark and win respect. But an important part of growing old is accepting without regret that all lives end in some kind of failure. We never do everything we hoped to do, or do what we have done as well as we would have liked.’

‘Are you talking about me, doctor?’ the lucidor said. ‘Or are you thinking of yourself?’

‘Oh, I got over my foolish need for adventure when I was very much younger. It is a story of madness and failure with a kind of happy ending. Or so I like to think.’

When she was a student, the doctor said, she had become interested in medicinal herbs. The creator gods had seeded the world with a wealth of plants that possessed healing properties, but only a small number had ever been cultivated, and many had died out in the wild. But now and then a new species was found, or ones thought lost to the world were rediscovered, and after she had earned her medical qualifications the doctor used a small inheritance to fund a plant-finding expedition of her own.

‘I lived for a year amongst the folk who lived in the mountains to the north of this town,’ she said. ‘Although they are a patriarchal people, being a woman turned out to be to my advantage. Most of their healers are women because caring for people is considered women’s work, and while their men would tell anyone about everything, their women confided their secrets only to each other. And, eventually, to me. With their help and advice I found several useful plants unknown to my profession, including one whose leaves yielded an effective painkiller when mashed with slaked lime. And because I worked hard to gain the women’s trust, I was at last allowed to take part in a ceremony they called “Touching the Hands of the Godlings”.

‘It involved the ritual ingestion of a small portion of a mushroom found only in the mountains. A mushroom said to have been used by those who were ridden by godlings when the world was still dewy fresh and everything in it was their plaything. I was inducted into the secret by a shaman who seemed to me then to be incredibly ancient, but probably was no older than I am now. She and the other old women of her village took me into a system of caves, where she and I were stripped naked and bathed, and I was painted from head to foot with patterns of dots and dashes that matched the patterns of the tattoos that covered her body. Prayers were sung, and she led me deeper into the caves, at last squirming through a narrow passage to a kind of cell whose flowstone walls were painted with the likeness of godling spirits: slender long-limbed human figures each with a single large eye, and decorated with the same patterns as the shaman’s tattoos and my body paint. There, in the light of a single small clay lamp, the shaman chewed a portion of her sacred mushroom, and with a deep kiss transferred it to my mouth. It was a solemn, thrilling moment, and it changed my life. Not so much for what I saw, but for the obsession it planted in me.’

‘What did you see?’

‘We sat together for a long while, and when I was beginning to believe that nothing would happen the painted figures on the walls began to move in the flicker of the lamp’s flame. They danced, and stepped down and invite me to join in their dance. The ceiling of that little space was so low I couldn’t stand, yet I seemed to be in a much larger space, and the godlings took my hands and spun me around and passed me from one to the next. They talked to me, too. Or sang. Of what I can’t recall, but I do remember the feeling those songs and that dance gave me. It wasn’t unique. Many experience it through prayer, meditation or ecstatic trance. Some say that it is the most primal state of consciousness, gifted to us by the gods. Perhaps you have experienced it yourself. But there, deep underground, out of my mind on shaman spit and mushroom juice, it seemed to last forever. A feeling that there was no part of me separate from the world, and no part of the world was separate from me. I felt that I had floated off into a limitless ocean that contained all of time and all of space, and at the same time I felt that ocean opening up inside me.

‘It seemed to last forever, but when it subsided and the godlings faded back into the walls the little clay lamp was still burning steadily, and when the shaman guided me back to the cave entrance I discovered that it was still night, and scarcely more than two hours had passed. I wanted to experience the vision of the dance again, craved it as an addict craves soma, but as far as the shaman was concerned it was a rite of passage that should not and need not be repeated, and neither she nor the other women, nor any others I asked in the other villages, would tell me where that mushroom grew. I begged. I tried to bribe them. I tried to threaten them. Nothing shifted them. I looked for a year, walking mountain trails familiar and unfamiliar, and never found it.

‘By then I had run out of money. I took a job in a city in the mountains of the south-west, hoping that I might find the mushroom there, but had no better luck. I dread to think what might have happened to me if I had. Fortunately, I was young, and was able to outgrow my foolishness. The obsession slowly lost its grip, and when I learned that the doctor who ran this infirmary died I applied to take his place and was successful. I have been here ever since, treating the townspeople as best I can and cultivating a little herb garden, and have never regretted it. And there is the happy ending.’

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Hampstead Heath, January to June

I take a photograph or two whenever I go for a walk on Hampstead Heath. There's no plan, no search for the ideal image; the photos are little more than snapshots of whatever catches my attention. Memos taken with an old Android phone, some unprocessed, some with simple filters. Here are six, from the first six months of this year.

January

February

March

April

May

June

Monday, June 17, 2019

Three-Park Problems and Forest Bathing

It's a commonplace amongst writers that if you become blocked or jammed, or have simply run out of inspiration, the best cure is to go for a walk. I live in one of the most built-up boroughs in London, but despite the lack of open spaces I have a local loop of a couple of kilometres that takes in three small parks and is usually just about long enough to work out the kinks in simple problems in narrative dynamics. Solutions often arrive sideways while thinking about something else or while being simply absorbed in the exercise of walking, courtesy of some process or sub-agent working away below the upper flow of consciousness.

I take that walk two or three times a week when I'm working on something. And for the past couple of years I've taken to walking around the woods and meadows of Hampstead Heath early every Sunday morning. The Japanese have a term for it. Shrinrin-yoku. Forest bathing. Immersion in the green light and forced perspectives beneath a forest canopy.  The birdsong and the cathedral hush. Hampstead Heath is one of London's larger green spaces, elevated on a ridge above the simmering brawl of the city's basin, but you wouldn't ever mistake it for a true wilderness. Even so, despite the early-bird joggers and dog walkers, it most often manages, like certain passages of music, to lift me out of myself for a brief while.

It's possible that these walks may have informed the unplanned traverses across unpopulated landscapes that both the narrator of Austral and the protagonist in War of the Maps are forced to take, although a similar traverse was also the backbone of my first novel, Confluence is a journey down the length of a world-spanning river, there are similar hikes and tours across various moons in The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun, and Cowboy Angels is an American road trip. If you write for long enough, common themes begin to emerge. Chorography and landscape writing may be foregrounded in my most recent work, but both have been there from the beginning.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Not Even Past

Taken from Google Street View, this image of one of the boundary walls of Keble College, Oxford, shows the faint trace of part of an old graffito. It's just where the new section of wall meets the old; just above the piece of street furniture. Six letters. Three a complete word, three a fragment. OVE YOU. It might seem meaningless now, but I knew the graffito when it was still whole, back in the 1980s, when I was working in a laboratory nearby. And I knew that it was a line from David Bowie's 'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide':

OH NO LOVE YOU'RE NOT ALONE

'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide' is the final track on Bowie's science fictional concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. An odd, fractured song about failure and redemption, in which an aged rock and roll star wandering the uncaring streets of a doomed city on a doomed planet is swept up and saved (or torn apart in Dionysian frenzy, according to Bowie's exegesis of the stage show) by his fans. The quote, wrenched out of context, painted in bold white letters on red brick, seemed like a cry from the heart, part desperation, part caritas, in what can sometimes be a cold and lonely city, where the wealth and storied traditions of the university's colleges are often intimidating and alienating to students who haven't transitioned smoothly from the same kind of wealth and tradition of public schools. An offer of connection. A reminder of our common humanity.

It always caught my attention when I walked past it, I've thought about it now and again, in the thirty plus years since I first saw it, and it's strange to see now that this ephemeral fragment of my past has survived time's abuses. A reminder that even something as transitory and fugitive as street art might not be completely overwritten by the future.

And there's a personal resonance, because a good number of my novels have been about how the future can be shaped by the intransigent past. In Something Coming Through and Into Everywhere, human destiny is warped by the gifts of kindly aliens and remnants of the technologies of their long-lost former clients. The narrator of Austral is trying to escape the consequences of her family history in a world altered by the kind of climate change we're going to hand down to our children's children. And the dogged hero of War of the Maps sets out on a long journey across a world abandoned by its creators because he has discovered that his past isn't yet past. The future is palimpsest and bricolage, shaped by our present as surely as our present had been shaped by the past. What will survive of us?

Monday, January 28, 2019

War of the Maps

I started work on the new novel on January 1st 2018, and a year and a week later turned in the final draft to my agent. Although, of course, there will be changes yet to come in the process of turning it into a book, it has reached its proper shape and feel. Here's a short extract from somewhere near the start:

By the time he reached the beginnings of the forest the cloud had burned away and mirrorlight was hot on his back and his coiled hair. This was the northern edge of the high plain, frayed by steep valleys that wound between knife-edged ridges. He followed the course of a dry stream down one such valley, tall conifers he could not name rising on either side. Ribbons of sand and gravel. Boulders thatched with glass moss that spun tiny rainbows from mirrorlight. A grassy clearing thick with saplings where one of the big trees had fallen. The windless air heavy with heat and the buzzing song of some kind of insect, flavoured with a clean medicinal scent. Now and then the lucidor halted the warhorse and turned in the creaking saddle to look behind him. A lawkeeper fleeing retribution. A trespasser in this strange country, far from his desert homeland.
The forest was scarred by tracts of dead trees; the valley sides were cut by erosion gullies and long rockslides. The climate of the entire map was changing, altering its weather, disfiguring its land. The heartland of the Free State endured long summer droughts now, and its winters were colder and wetter. And while most mirrors dimmed each winter, as they always had, some were permanently dimmer than they once had been, and one, at the tail of the Sandday arc, had in the last century shrunk to a faint red spark. Some said that the creator gods had stinted when making the world; others that the world’s slow dying was part of their design. Yet still people were born and met and married and died to make room for the next generation, and life went on, somehow. Perhaps the creator gods had made people better than they had known.
Many of their relics had likewise outlasted their passing. Once, the lucidor rode past a roofless circle of pillars rising out of scrub trees on a bluff above the dry stream. Once, he stopped to study with his spyglass a tall column that stood at the prow of a high ridge, decorated with carvings of some forgotten skirmish of the Heroic Age when godlings, autonomous shards of the creator gods, had walked new-made maps clad in the bodies of men and women, and left behind monuments and temples and even entire cities, and rumours of places where time stretched from seconds to centuries between one footfall and the next, or where the unwary could be thrown into the sky or transported instantly to a map halfway around the world or to the bottom of the World Ocean. Places where rocks floated in the air. Places where the sick were healed. Places where the words of godlings still echoed and could drive the unwary mad or grant certain adepts disciplined by years of meditation a pure and everlasting instant of ultimate enlightenment. How to measure the significance of this last assignment against any of that? The lucidor thought of an ant crawling over a child’s balloon. Not even close.
Remfrey He had once told him that people busied themselves with habit and ritual to avoid thinking about the awful truth – that they were no more than discarded toys in an abandoned house, created to serve a whim of gods who had moved on long ago, and only those who accepted that their world and their lives were a cosmic joke and laughed at it and found new games to play could be truly free. Not that Remfrey He believed that, of course. He did not really believe in anything, apart from the singularity of his genius. No, he had been having fun, the only kind of fun he could have after his arrest, by challenging and trying to undermine the lucidor’s beliefs. A game he had continued to play long after he had been sentenced and exiled. Smuggling out notes commenting on disasters and crimes. Asking disingenuously, after the death of the lucidor’s wife, if the lucidor still believed that his little life had any kind of meaning or structure.
Well, he still believed in the principles that had shaped his life. He still held that to be true. That was why he was here. Remfrey He would be amused by his persistence, no doubt, but it was all he had now. All he knew.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

There Are Doors (25)


Monday, September 24, 2018

Recently Read

She Has Her Mother's Laugh, Carl Zimmer, Picador, 2018

We are more than the sum of the combination of genes we inherit from our parents, and that combination is in any case never as simple as two halves making a whole. That's the basic thesis of Carl Zimmer's intimidatingly large but beautifully lucid exposition of the history, ethics and science  of heredity, illuminated and tied together by human stories, from Luther Burbank's alchemical talent for producing hundreds of new varieties of fruit, flowers and vegetables, the 'feebleminded' girl at the centre of a study that underpinned the eugenic movement in the United States, and the implications of Zimmer's agreement to have his own genome sequenced, and the bacterial population of his bellybutton analysed:
When I looked over my spreadsheet, I could see that seventeen of my species were unique to me. One type, called Marimonas, had only been known from the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot in the ocean. Another, called Georgenia, lives in the soil. In Japan.

On discovering this, I e-mailed Dunn [the biologist conducting the study] to let him know I'd never been to Japan.

"It has apparently been to you," he replied.

Zimmer's book is likewise as wide-ranging and crammed with unexpected revelations, from the search for genes that control variables such as height and intelligence to mosaicism and human chimeras, and from tracking the flow of genes in human populations to the inheritance of a cumulative culture that may reach back at least seven million years, to the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees. It's an exemplary explication of how the narrow definition of heredity, limiting it to genes, has been overturned. We are the product not only of our genetic inheritance, but also the social network and history of our immediate family, and our shared culture and an environment altered by human activity. Readers of Austral may see a parallel, here.

Associated Reading: I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us, by Ed Yong, and The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History Of Life, by David Quammen

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Happiest Days Of Our Lives


(An extract from Austral's account of her and her mother's long walk towards freedom after escaping from the prison of Deception Island.)

The days and days of walking blur together. It’s hard, now, to sort dreams from actual memories. I remember climbing to Mapple Valley’s high southern crest and seeing a panorama of parallel razorback ridges bare as the moon stretching away under the cloudless sky. I remember a circle of upright stones in a mossy chapel in the forest below the Forbidden Plateau, lit by a beam of sunlight slanting between the trees. The glass and concrete slab of some plutocrat’s back-country house cantilevered out from cliffs overlooking Wilhelminia Bay. The broken castle of an orphaned iceberg grounded on a rocky shore, with freshets of sparkling meltwater cascading down its fluted sides and a thick band of green algae tinting its wave-washed base. But did we really see, in the pass between Starbuck and Stubb Fjords, an albino reindeer poised near the thin spire of an elf stone named The Endless Song of the Air? Did we glimpse a pyramid set on a remote bastion of bare rock in the ice and snow of the Bruce Plateau? I’ve looked long and hard, but I’ve never been able to find it on maps or in satellite images. And did we really see people dancing naked in a circle around a huge bonfire in a forest glade near Tashtego Point? I can’t be certain that it wasn’t one of my dreams, but whether it was real or imaginary the memory of it still wakes the pulse of drums in my blood.

I’m trying to tell you how happy we were, Mama and me. Not only in those few moments indelibly fixed in memory, but also during the uneventful hours of walking through the forest and crossing meadows and hiking up long slopes of scree or snow, or when we rested beside a little campfire, taking turns to braid each other’s hair or simply sitting in companionable silence. The times we picked berries together in some sunny clearing or amongst the sliding stones of a mountainside, or spear-fished in icy rivers, or gathered sea moss and limpets from the salt-wet stones of the sea shore.

Some old-time writer once claimed that happy families are all alike, while unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. If that’s true, then happiness can be attained only by sacrificing or suppressing some part of whatever it is that makes us different, by unselfishly giving up our wants and desires and submitting to something larger than ourselves. Family. Society. God. But in those long summer days, walking south with Mama, it seemed to me that happiness was a gift that fell on us as lightly and freely as sunlight. It was as simple as lying on wiry turf with the sun warm and red on my closed eyes, or the heart-stopping shock of jumping into a meltwater pool. It was a gift the world gave you if you gave yourself to the world.
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