embracing the catastrophe
Simon Ings interviewed
Simon Ings, described as being ‘SF’s hippest star’ is a critically acclaimed writer and freelance journalist who regularly contributes to the New Scientist and the Times Literary Supplement. His earlier novels include City of the Iron Fish, Hotwire, Hot Head and Headlong.
There has recently been a resurgence of interest in the early 1960s ‘catastrophe novel’ — writers like John Christopher, early J. G. Ballard and John Wyndham immediately spring to mind. Do you think this championing is due to a rediscovery and appreciation of the ideas within their work, or is it a residual sense of affection one gets from formative childhood landscapes?
SI: J. G. Ballard once said something like “The next great despots, the next great leaders, the next great messiahs will come from the suburbs” and I think that Wyndham and Christopher certainly did speak to their generation and their concerns. On the other hand, we were also coming to them very, very late — they are not by any means 60s writers, they were writing in the 40s and 50s — largely because of elder siblings who were reading them or our parents. So in a sense they do have a lasting and consistent value over the generations. Incidentally, I recently had the opportunity to write a story for Interzone around Christopher’s The Death of Grass, which is an incredible book.
This was the one in which all grass disappears and your perfectly likeable middle-class hero becomes a perfectly likeable killer, mass murderer, procurer of children and finally king. All this happens because as civilisation collapses, a different moral order pertains, depending on what situation that character is in.
It shows how morality is actually founded upon the economic condition of the time, or the particular circumstances in which one finds oneself.
Later, there is a point at which mass murder becomes ethical and your hero remains ‘moral’ throughout — whilst doing the most appalling and heinous acts. It is an incredibly clever and bleak book, and as a result, it’s much more challenging than Wyndham. However, it was Wyndham and not Ballard who first said that we have to welcome the catastrophe, that when a catastrophe happens you embrace it, you walk into it, you become it . . . in fact, Ballard’s criticism of Wyndham and Christopher in his younger days is — I think — more about an anxiety of influence rather than any criticism that would really stick!
What you were saying about how humanity changes depending on the dictates of the time is interesting. In your story Headlong the character Yale — who you have described as being a sort of Guardian reading, happy, middle-class nonentity, complete with his toys and gimmicks — is suddenly thrown into a situation where all his cultural niceties have been taken away. Do you find alienating your characters through drastically altered circumstance a useful plot device in your writing? Are you likely to continue in this direction?
SI: I started off with a fairly far-future in Hot Head and I’ve been working backwards through history really!
What I’m trying to do is to make the story as simple as possible. Painkillers, the one that’s out now, is a science novel, but it is also a crime novel in the way that Headlong is. Painkillers is a crime novel set in the present day with a science fictional device in it.
Apparently everyone sees this as me leaving the genre — I’m not! But it’s actually a process of reducing things to their simplest component parts. My project has been to try and simplify and pare down the science fictional element in my work, actually to get to the root of it, and basically try to get to what I want to write about.
There’s nothing wrong with spinning off into fantasy and the grotesque and all the rest of it — but I’ve actually gone in the opposite direction as the one I’m working on at the moment is just a straight crime story.
What I’d like to do after that is to engage with the disaster novel, engage with Wyndham and Christopher and actually simplify things even further by starting to strip away the comfortable middle-class life that pretty much everyone who’s likely to be a reader of the book is probably enjoying.
I think it would not only be topical, given the state of the world at the moment, but it actually needs reinventing, it needs all that Ballard eccentricity and irony stripping out of it.
How would your characters adapt? Would it boil down to the basics of survival — where you are looking for shelter, food, warmth and then rebuild society up from that point — or would it be a sense of tabula rasa, with the characters starting something completely new?
SI: Well, I think that it is brutal in the change, but the circumstances that pertain once you are in a reasonably stable environment, once you have a vague idea of not necessarily whether you’ll survive tomorrow but how you’re going to survive tomorrow. As soon as you’re off the learning curve, as it were, then I think your sense of the world, your sense of your surroundings, your sense of place within society — be it only a family group — means that the world is as rich, varied and complicated as it always was.
I honestly don’t believe that an Iron Age family had fewer ethical dilemmas than does family now — actually they probably had more because they had to do more. They were more active, so they were faced with more complex decisions. I think it is a very dangerous road to go down, because you’re kind of inventing the noble savage at this point — but — there is a sense in which society — and particularly money — is actually taking certain human decisions and qualities and representing them in a form of exchange. We’re not having to face the ethical questions.
There’s a wonderful Icelandic tale about a farmer who has farmed all his life who then hears that his brother has been killed. He picks up his axe and he goes and kills the guilty family. He does it not because he’s a killer — he’s a farmer — but because that’s what you do, and you do it because there is no other form of restitution.
The moment you have money, then you can start to pay Blood-gild and at which point civilisation starts to take place.
So I suppose there is an extent to which a more brutal environment is a more heroic environment and you can play it one of two ways. Firstly, you can say how wonderful it is to be that heroic even if life was short, or secondly, you can say that in order to be that heroic the world has to be bloody awful and horrible.
In fact this is my argument against a lot of fantasy — it’s too bloody nice! It should be horrible out there in order to have a character that heroic. The character has to have gone through utter hell in order to become heroic.
This sounds like a very Nietzschean process!
SI: Well, yes. The problem with the way that the Nazi party adapted Nietzsche, for example, was that they figured because they were the master race, they didn’t have to go through that whole annealing process. It was enough to wear the trendy leather booties — provided you wore the uniform, then you were already there. People talk about the banality of evil — well that’s the very thing — the assumption that you can simply dress into the part. That wasn’t actually what Nietzsche was saying — what he was actually talking about was that annealing process. While I wave no flag for Nietzsche, it’s much more interesting to see how he’s been maladapted and misconstrued — than to just stay with Nietzsche and try and work out where he went wrong.
I’ve also worked with a guy called Simon Pummell who has made a film about Anton Schreber who was the son of the man who invented the kindergarten — but he was also the man who invented the natural hygiene rules that applied during the Nazi period. It was all about giving your children cold baths and tying them to chairs to keep their backs straight and measuring them — basically torturing them. It was a kind of institutionalised abuse system — and the kindergarten was just the useful end of it . . .
So this links back to what you were saying earlier, that certain acts are indicative of what was accepted by the culture at that time.
SI: Yes, and I think there comes a time when you have to start tackling something vaguely dangerous — and I would like to tackle the heroic. If that means people reckon I’m drifting off into Little England, then I’ll have to take that on the chin. In the end I think you have to decide whether there is a social contract between the artist generally — and I know this sounds pretentious and I include everyone in that bracket from film makers to writers — and the audience. I’m with David Cronenberg — there is no social contract, but it’s your job actually to deny that social contract and actually be dangerous!
Staying with Cronenberg, how did you find his adaptation of Ballard’s Crash?
SI: I think that film it is interesting because you have two incredibly intelligent makers of work, two very good artists who are not only clever, but understand their own drive, their own motivation — and yet they are completely incompatible. What I find incredibly interesting about Crash is that it is a movie that explains to me why Ballard isn’t very good — well, I think Ballard is very good, but there is an extent to which he’s limited as everyone is. It is a film that describes Ballard’s limitations because when you’re reading his work, the rhetoric completely convinces you and there is something — not magical — glamorous, or glamorised about the willing victims of the auto-accident/auto-destructive cult that existed in that book. What’s great about that film is that it says “actually, they’re a bunch of anoraks” and they’re like every bunch of anoraks you’ve ever met — be they opera fans or horseracing fans, whatever. It points out how silly Ballard’s characters are and I think that’s wonderful!
Ballard has actually made an entire career out of writing about anoraks — that he understands the anorak like no-one else on earth — and it’s true! That is his value — but he’s suddenly deglamorised by that movie — and you think to yourself “Wankers! They really are! They make no sense whatsoever!” Terrific!
I think there is this myth that writers can write forever and actually quite often writers do write themselves out. You can write yourself out in one of two ways. You can either dedicate yourself to what other people are tell you to write — in the way that people write crime serials until their character is out of fashion and they don’t know quite understand why they can’t sell a book any more — which is tragic in itself. The other way you can write yourself out is to do a Samuel Beckett and write out your own concerns — and actually mind those concerns — and it’s not easy because you can’t afford any self-indulgence. That’s the odd thing. You have to know yourself, but if you indulge yourself then it becomes unreadable, boring, precious and silly. So to actually mine your own concerns and still be able to communicate them is just embarrassing, actually.
There is a quality of embarrassment about it and I really feel that most writers barely scratch the surface of that. What’s interesting is that writers who are able to mine what they do are left with are a set of tropes — an irreconcilable residue — as a friend of mine calls it — and then become stuck. You can’t write a book that can engage any further, you’ve pretty much come to a stop and I think that Ballard is getting to that point now because he made the journey successfully. He’s of an age where he’s going to write himself out fairly soon — but that’s because it’s just the end of the journey, it’s not a criticism of him particularly.
Whilst on the subject of writers locked in paradigms of self-reference and irony, you did level some criticism against Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Do you still stand by this?
SI: Paul Auster is the last interesting post-modernist. The problem is that post-modernism is now so boring — you know, you read it once, you read it maybe three times and then it is like a little death, you really want to take the irony out of it, you want to take the quote marks off everything.
There comes a point — Jean-Luc Goddard was very good with his idea of cinema having to return to zero, that it has to go back to a fascination with having to be able to record an image by exposing light to a piece of film. Just absolutely wipe out every theory, every trope, every genre, everything — and of course he’s made crap films ever since! But I think we are getting to the point now where we need to reinvent the un-ironised novel, the Dickensian epic — and it’s happening, albeit in a rather precious way, which is a shame.
I think Auster’s very good, I also think that he dates horribly. But like many good writers, he’s not going to last out generations. I don’t think our children will read him. I’m sure he’ll sleep easy, knowing I’ve said that!
I think there is a point at which fiction reflects narrative — narrative fiction reflects deep structure — I’m very much an unreconstructed fan of screenplay. It’s like the academic who worked with George Lucas at the end of Star Wars, who spotted the similarity between world myths and the film. He realised that they are so much the same, that the same stories recur with local variation, and that this must reflect some deep grammar — and I do believe that, and I think that there is some incredible power in story. What post-modernism can’t do — because it is set directly opposite — is make people cry. If something makes me cry for the right reasons — that’s an incredible power and that’s talking to some deep structure.
My girlfriend constantly complains that I cry at films but at no other time — and I do, I’ll cry at anything. I cried watching Toy Story — I was in buckets when Buzz Lightyear discovered he couldn’t fly — tears were gushing down my face!
Narrative fiction, un-ironised, uncomplicated, is incredibly powerful and I’m very interested in writing un-ironic, simple books now. Obeying rules frees you, and you actually come up with subject matter that you never expected. This is actually closer to your core interests. I think that Ballard’s books are incredibly simple, I think he learned simplicity very early on. They don’t look simple, but they are and even the most complicated stories are just squibs — they are just incredibly simple, but well thought out.
By paring down a narrative to this extent, do you think that in essence you are actually freeing up the reader so that they can produce the narrative a la Roland Barthes’ maxim?
SI: I think that’s absolutely true. The more that you can give the reader to do, where the reader is confident they won’t lose the track of where you are going, the better. You know the world is too full of books where the reader can’t do their job.
I read a wonderful book the other day — it was by Geoffrey Household — a book written in 1939 called Rogue Male. It’s about a man who attempts to assassinate Hitler, is captured, tortured and escapes. That’s on page 2! For the rest of the book he hides under a hedge in the Home Counties while Hitler’s henchmen are looking for him — and you cannot put it down! It is utterly gripping. And while it is beautifully written — because he’s a good writer — he frankly could write like an elephant and people would still have to read it because actually that book is a template for the reader. The reader is doing so much work, and it’s written well enough that the reader can trust the writer not to mislead them. It is one of the most vivid books that I have read and if you look through it there’s almost no description in it at all.
This is also true when people read Jane Austen. I met someone who did the set design for a Jane Austen BBC costume drama and she said that she went back to Jane Austen to look for the period detail and there wasn’t a single thing. Nothing was described whatsoever and it’s like “God! She’s one of the most vivid writers I’ve ever read!” and this is because she lets your own imagination fill in the details.
How much do you think the societal environment that shapes what we become as human beings?
SI: Well, you know, at what point do you stop and the environment take off? Now I can’t remember who actually came up with this line — it is the idea that taking a picture of a human being naked is as artificial as taking a picture of a bear in a clown costume. There is that idea that the extended phenotype . . . where does your body stop and your environment begin? It’s actually quite a complex question and it is constantly relocated in different times.
One of my favourite writers is Aldous Huxley and there’s a wonderful bit in The Devils of Loudun — which is the basis of Ken Russell’s The Devils — in which he says that for all that they chopped the priest’s hands off, shattered his feet and legs, cut and flayed him, put him on a pyre, tore his guts out and burnt them in front of him — what they never did was to attempt to brainwash him. They never attempted to deny him the possibility of grace or of redemption.
So there is a whole area of cruelty and torture which was literally unthinkable at that time. It would never be done because it would be unimaginably horrible and it is at that moment where you start to think at what point does public and private space stop?
To an extent we live in a world where everyone is trying to invade our mental space and treat it as public space. There’s also that whole idea that we are just an assemblage of ideas or means that I have a big argument with. It’s the idea that we can see adverts and they can try and persuade us to buy or believe in ridiculous things and that it is all so perfectly acceptable.
Yet when we catch people in wrong-doing, when the policeman beats them in a cell, then that’s unimaginably terrible and that policeman should be chucked off the force — and I agree with that because I am the product of my environment. Actually, it’s a completely artificial distinction and an environment in which suspects do get beaten in cells but there is no advertising has an ethical integrity all of its own. So that’s what I think.
John Christopher was incredibly good at addressing that in Death of Grass and re-reading that back last year has basically given me my focus for what I want to do for the next couple of years. I think it is an incredibly important book. If we can we can get back to an irony and eccentricity free fiction then we can maybe create a new genre, a new SF that isn’t going to be adopted by the mainstream, that is generally new and radical and will need its own space.
What do you think of the current state of SF writing at the moment?
SI: I think the most exciting SF I’m reading at the moment isn’t badged — it’s not in the badged genre.
One of the most interesting books I read last year was Mr. Spaceman by Robert Olen Butler. It’s about his seventh novel and he’s very big in the States — he’s hardly heard of over here. It’s a book about an alien in a brushed chrome UFO hanging above the earth on December the 31st 1999 waiting to come to earth on the millennium to reveal the fact that aliens exist. It was one of the most touching, exhilarating depictions of an alien consciousness, the most exciting book about revelation and religion. It addressed all of those science-fictional concerns that we love — the idea of the paradigm shift, the idea of how to deal with large groups of people, how to deal politically with the situation and so on.
It also looked at how do you come to earth as an alien and not cause panic and riot — and that is the problem throughout — and what do you do if you are the alien whose supposed to go there and you know that this is the planet with a history of eating their gods!
It’s magnificent! And yet, it’s quite obvious from the text that his only acquaintance with SF is old star trek re-runs. He has no knowledge of the SF field whatsoever and he’s reinventing the wheel, but he’s reinventing it brilliantly! I think we have to accept that just as writers — even writers as minor as in terms of sales and reputation as I am — can actually start getting published by the literary publishers, taken seriously by literary publishers, or at least printed by them! We have to accept that the other side of that equation which is that writers not of the genre are perfectly entitled to nick from us — they’re perfectly entitled to read Bester and then completely misunderstand him and take one element and run with it.
Actually, that’s how things get written anyway — writers steal what they need, everyone steals what they need. They misinterpret it, they misread it and they run with it and we should be welcome it. What we shouldn’t welcome are writers like Edwina Currie who thinks that SF is easy, writes a crap book and then says that it’s not SF because it has real characters in it. I hate writers who assume that if they move into a different area it’s going to be easy.
I also hate SF writers who think they can write literary fiction and fail because they haven’t done the work, and produce lazy, boring books. They really get my goat.
Surely this misplaced notion that ‘SF is easy’ comes from a culture that has been spoon-fed a diet of dumbed down narratives with a science/space backdrop on television for years.
SI: I think we should stop trying to defend the SF label. It’s pointless because in the end the label will stick and I’m fed up of saying “I’m a SF writer, but I don’t like Dr. Who. I’m sick of defending the term. It’s just words and it’s insane. It is the ideas that matter — so when people ask what I do, I say that I write about science and at the moment I’m interested in science and the senses — and everyone’s like “Wow! That’s really interesting!” This is because they’re up with that subject and they like that stuff and they like that when it crops up in fiction.
So why would I want — out of some misplaced sense of pride or loyalty — to say I’m a SF writer, basically stereotyped as writing Dr. Who stories and then saying no, no, no I don’t and I’ve mislead you and I’m really angry with you — it’s pointless! Give it up! It’s not worth a candle.
I don’t quite understand why we feel the need to defend the label. I think what we need is a bit of vocabulary and we know what we mean when we talk about it — but every group of writers and readers have their own vocabulary. We should just accept that it is personal to us — so we know what we mean, and that’s fine.
Finally, what about Iain Banks? There’s a writer who can quite happily sell books to one discerning section of the public and then to another . . .
SI: What’s interesting about Banks is that he crosses over only in one direction — the SF readers really love his literary work; his literary readers never read his SF. There is no cross-over in the other direction which is another bloody good reason for throwing away the label, because it’s silly.
Readers of literary fiction are not stupid, they’re not ignorant amid they’re not prejudiced — they are just being mislead. If we want more people to engage with this stuff, enjoy it and get the same pleasure out of it that we have got, then we should try and communicate this in different ways. And if that means not putting a peeled eyeball on the front cover, well don’t put the peeled eyeball on the cover — it’s very easy. It’s not our decision, of course, that’s the decision of the marketing department and this is the thing that really gets me about these debates — which probably contradicts what I’ve said — that it is the idea that book publishers of SF like SF. Why? These are not SF fans — John Jarrold is the last of them and frankly he buys what sells. John Jarrold is not some kind of fannish behind the lines fifth columnist going to publish radical new SF work purely because he’s fan — he is a fan — but he’s also a publisher and he publishes what sells. He’s like every other publisher in the business — it’s their job and it’s why they go home with a pay packet. So our debates tend not to engage with the publisher . . . and we’re far too easy on the publishers.
I think we should stop accepting the definitions that the publishers are giving us because they’re not people who read SF necessarily, or like SF, or know anything about SF. I find the people that I work with at Bloomsbury are much more au fait with SF than the people at Voyager. It throws you when you see just how unrelated our scene is from the scene that’s actually giving us our vocabulary. We shouldn’t be defending the culture we are being spoon-fed, we should be challenging it and trying to come up with better ideas. We should be creating the kind of culture that one day an enterprising young editor or publisher might spring from and say “Right, I really like this stuff and I think it could be big”. I mean, that’s what Malcolm Edwards was — he was a fan and he’s done more to develop the genre than most editors.
He came with a different idea of what that genre could be and has shaped the genre. It’s very out of date now, but then again we need other people to actually go into the industry and shape it.
Simon’s latest novel, Painkillers, is currently available in paperback priced at £9.99 from Bloomsbury