Friday, 24 February 2012

Now There's a Weird Thing

Back when I used to be in charge of a charity second hand bookshop, a fun game was to infuriate those volunteers who were science fiction fans by firmly putting George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in the general fiction section. ‘But they’re science fiction,’ they would wail. I would then gently point out that they were also highly respected literary works and therefore could not be science fiction for science fiction cannot, by its nature, be respected literarily.*
*not 100% sure if that’s an actual word, but microsoft word spellcheck isn’t complaining though it is complaining about ‘spellcheck’. It also rather presumptively put a capital ‘M’ to microsoft (and has just done so again) without so much as a by-your-leave.
SF authors have been complaining about this for years and look hungrily at crime fiction which has acquired a patina of respectability over the last few decades. But then, detective stories never had the true pariah status that SF had. It was acceptable to admit to a liking to them while maintaining an intellectual front, in much the same way as high-minded people occasionally admit to a liking for soap operas, though at all times making it clear that said liking is an amusing eccentricity akin to always wearing something purple.
An exception to this rule was John Wyndham, here in the UK anyway. His ‘cosy catastrophe’ books were acceptable though the 1970s Penguin editions that I own have this gloriously Oxbridgian put down in the ‘about the author’ section: ‘…[Wyndham] decided to try a modified form of what is unhappily known as “science fiction”…’ which brilliantly dismisses both the genre and its readers in one elegant swoop. The BBC 1950s Quatermass serials by Nigel Kneale also fell into this camp.
I myself was an avid SF reader for a couple of years as a teenager and as science fiction is like malaria and LSD in that it never entirely leaves your system, I still occasionally read some.  And I do so with the distinctive feeling that I am doing something mildly embarrassing.  Proper readers do not read such nonsense.
Yet, over the last ten to fifteen years, this has been slowly changing and SF, along with its cousin Fantasy, has been creeping into the light of day. No idea why, though I suspect the emergence of comedians such as Bill Bailey and Simon Pegg, with their open love of Star Wars, Doctor Who and Star Trek, has a lot to do with it. As indeed has the successful re-launch of said Doctor Who. There is naturally still a lot of crap SF out there, but Sturgeon’s Law does apply.* There is also the appearance on the scene of China Miéville, the critic’s darling.
*’90% of science of fiction is crap, but then 90% of any everything is crap’, derived from an article by Theodore Sturgeon, a Golden Age SF author
I think this is great, of course. As those who have waded through previous blogs may have noted, I am all for people reading what they like to read rather than what they feel they should read and although science fiction is not entirely my thing, it is akin to it.
I am very occasionally asked just what kind of fiction I write and I find it slightly hard to answer. To date there’s not been a spaceship in sight so I can’t say SF. Fantastical things almost invariably occur (talking animals, chatty corpses, tetchy Arthurian knights and pre-christian survivals to name a few) but if I say Fantasy then just about everyone thinks Lord of the Rings and I really don’t write that kind of thing. I could say Ghost Stories but I don’t always write about ghosts and they are rather integral to the whole ghost story package. Horror Fiction always makes me think of James Herbert and those interminable NEL paperbacks about giant flesh-eating crabs or slugs or whatever that swarmed around newsagents in the 1970s and that’s not my bag either. Speculative Fiction is a phrase I dislike, it lives next door to the phrase ‘graphic novel’ which is a graduate’s mealy-mouthed excuse for reading comic books. No, I shall go back to the early 20th century and re-claim the adjective that I think best suits my jottings: I write Weird Fiction.
All of which is a highly roundabout way of mentioning a website that I am involved with and which has just launched. Called Spring Heeled Jack it will, I trust, become a home to some weird fiction. You can find here and I hope you enjoy it:

It is my avowed intention to one day write a story in which the title of this piece makes up the opening words as spoken by one character to his or her companion, while pointing past them.

Friday, 10 February 2012

A Traitor to the Written Word

I recently acquired a kindle and have therefore, in the eyes of many, renounced any rights I may have had to call myself any kind of a reader. One acquaintance, when I told him, said mournfully that this was one more nail in the coffin of the book, which rather exaggerates my book-buying levels. A friend announced her disappointment in me and gazed upon me with sadness as if I had been denouncing the evils of the objectification of women and then asked her to wait outside while I nipped in to buy the latest copy of Playboy. And then there was this article in The Guardian which was so snobbish that I at first thought it was some kind of satire. It wasn’t.

In one article somewhere, I read that there has been a big rise in sales of ‘trashy’ (for want of a better word) fiction. This is, apparently, because no-one can tell what you’re reading when you’re using an e-reader. I have to say, I rather like that. I’m rather hoping that this might be the beginning of a resurgence of popular fiction á la the great days of the pulp magazines, a market so eclectic that it could support at least two editions of a magazine given over solely to stories about pole-vaulting. Honest. And if you look down on pulp fiction mags, remember they did give us Raymond Chandler.

So what’s it like? Well, I can say that reading a kindle is painless, certainly better than reading from a computer screen, and I do appreciate the volume of free material there is available, and the number of gloriously cheap classics. There is also the access of books that are out of print. One of my acquisitions, for a small sum, has been all five of the Dr Nikola novels by Guy Boothby. Written in the late 19th century, they are mad novels about an evil villain (the eponymous doctor) who was stroking a cat while being polite to his victims about seventy years before the James Bond films joined us. The first two books were in print fairly recently, but only those two and I’m not sure if they’re still available new. They are.

As promised earlier, I have not destroyed my existing books and in some cases I read the book at home and the kindle edition while travelling. Kindles are good, but they’re not a replacement for books, yet, and books still hold several advantages over them, the key one being that you do not require a battery to read them. Will they replace books? I honestly doubt it but as so far the effect of them seems to have freed up people to read what they want rather than what they should, increased access to classic literature and given new access to almost forgotten books. And they irritate literary snobs. In my electronic book, that’s always a winner.