La vida botchjob

Writing a report that represents the work I’ve done for the past year. The people who invest funding in you don’t let you just bumble around and get lost and acquire fleas and scratch yourself. They make you formally show what you’re doing. This is cause for screaming terrors and thirty years’ worth of stockpiled dubious coping mechanisms, including this one right here: procrastination by blogging. (Sort of like death by auto, but less blood). It’s so boring how I keep falling for the same emotional patterns. i surrender.

It’s been an interesting 10.5 months. I’ve been focused. I’ve done what was asked of me, best I could. I’ve (mostly) behaved. Miraculously, the head-ghosts have actually let me do this without protest, until about a week ago when the report-writing started to get hard and the wheel of the year started turning towards winter and, apparently, they woke up and started rattling their chains.

Bastards.

It’s like, the minute I run up against any task that might lead to me achieving some status in this world, my ghosts rise up and call me back to the spirit realm. I was going to say ‘my art’ but that sounds super pretentious, and ghosts are a better description of creativity as I know it. Being haunted by weirdos.  I’m a house full of poltergeists.

I thought I was done with it. At least for a while. And they were quiet for so long I thought maybe they’d gone on to haunt someone else and I could just be a person again, and be present in the world, concentrate on being the backbone of the family the way I need to be. Gotta say, a lot of this backbone work is invisible, but it’s still work. The spine doesn’t seem to be doing much most of the time that the hands are moving and the arms and even the feet if it’s, like, Irish dancing or something. But take the spine away and everything falls apart. That’s my role in this house right now.

I reckon I had about a year and a half where I got away without writing. Finishing masters, adjusting to the PhD, the commute, the change in dynamics. The ghosts were quiet. It was nice; I had been tired. So many years of doing their bidding. If I am honest, I didn’t miss them. (Sorry, ghosts, nothing personal). Instead of brooding over plot mechanics I watched every episode of ‘Insecure’, guiltlessly.

It was all an illusion. They’re back.

This ghost thing isn’t a problem I can solve. There isn’t enough of me to answer to them and also all the other demands. I know this, but I keep thinking, maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe if I had the right job, if I developed the right study patterns, if I could just get everything organised, maybe someday there will be a real chance for me to answer when they talk to me. And at the same time I think, haven’t I served enough time with the ghosts? Can’t I live an ordinary life now and be like the other people who know how to live in this world with their feet on the actual ground? I throw myself into physical things as though somehow that will save me. And I do it with an air of desperation. I know I’m not fooling anybody. Definitely can’t fool the spirits.

Or, you know, I could start to see it another way. Maybe.

Maybe, in order to be an entire human (ghosts included)  it’s just a case of doing a botch job. Being a wobbly backbone. Writing a not-very-good report with iffy data. Doing what I can for the ghosts, but also telling them, hey, you want it done properly? Go find somebody who gives a damn, because you guys are not allowed to break me. Here’s my line, don’t cross it.

Like most women I know, I’m afraid to do things badly. Well hell. It’s got to be better to do things badly than not at all. I think, in some respects, the head-ghosts may be trying to tell me this. About the report, too. They interrupt my angsting and in untangling the nature of their interruption I realise, as my fingers type these words right now, that all you can ever do is take a shot. And if it’s not very good, so what?

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Running late

I guess this is an end-of-year post? Or maybe just a general catch-up that is long overdue. I had a new book come out this year, Sweet Dreams, and a story in Haunted Futures in which the ghost of Richard Feynman has a cameo. I finished my MSc in Astrophysics with Distinction. Two weeks after submitting my thesis I started a PhD at LIV.DAT, a joint venture between the Astrophysics Research Institute and Liverpool University that receives funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council to train data scientists in the UK.

It took me five years to get an honours degree from the OU; I did it part time alongside kids and business and writing. But the PhD program is full-time and the commute to Liverpool from Shropshire is kinda hardcore. I am being paid to learn. It is a huge opportunity for me and my family, and I’m ecstatic about being in this position. I won’t do anything to jeopardise my progress. Obviously, writing will be sidelined for a long time, and I’ve turned down a few public appearances for the same reason.

Friends occasionally express disappointment or worry about the not-writing part in the nicest possible way, but the truth is: I can’t do both and do them well. The other truth is that I’ve been writing professionally since 1993, and the longest I’ve ever gone without working on anything was maybe two-three months during exam season. Those breaks ended up being immensely powerful and resulting in better work when I came back. After all, creativity is cyclical; sometimes the best thing you can do is let the cycle reach bottom. So I’ll be interested to see what happens here.

 

 

Titles from Ada Lovelace Day

On 10th October I had the honour of speaking at Ada Lovelace Day Live! 2017 as a science fiction writer among an amazing group of scientists. Now, I do know that one is supposed to announce these things before they happen in case people want to go, but it’s been extraordinarily hectic as I’ve just started a PhD at the Astrophysics Research Institute in Liverpool and I don’t quite have my sea legs yet. So this is late.

During my talk, ‘Has reality put science fiction out of business?’ I listed several books as examples of the many different kinds of functions that science fiction has. I promised to put these on my website since I was whipping through the slides quickly. Here they are! Only a few days late. Forgive me.

I would like to add that this list is only the tip of the iceberg. It was assembled in haste, and there are many, many other authors and books that could have been included. I’m especially kicking myself about omitting these: Nnedi Okorafor, who is an engine of imagination (her Hugo-winning Binti might be a good place to start), Emma Newman (whose Clarke-shortlisted After Atlas is a gripping mystery set on another world), the short fiction of Aliette de Bodard, which looks at space travel via mindships in Vietnamese/Chinese cultural futures (try On a Red Station, Drifting), and literary novelist Nina Allan (The Rift).

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Now, here are the books that I showed on the slides:

Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time extrapolates from current tech to explore the future of reproductive technology.

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N.K. Jemisin’s Hugo-winning The Fifth Season uses metaphor to deal with the impact of systems of oppression.

 

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Nisi Shawl’s Everfair follows the road not taken with an alternate history of the Belgian Congo

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A great example of using science fiction to push a concept to its extreme is Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka, in which language literally shapes reality…

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Classic title Floating Worlds by Cecilia Holland experiments with alternative political structures in a futuristic Solar System.

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Science fiction can interrogate social constructs like classism and racism, as in Stephanie Saulter’s Gemsigns and its sequels about a future London in which specialist humans have been genetically engineered to serve humanity.

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Novels like The Rapture by Liz Jensen are science fiction as a form of protest–in this case, a stark warning about the environmental future of our planet in the form of a thriller.

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The human impact of technology is a theme in much of Pat Cadigan‘s work, including her Clarke-winning Synners where addiction to virtual reality transforms its users. Most of Cadigan’s stuff is damned prescient.

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Natural History by Justina Robson goes beyond humanity to post-human existence beyond the Solar System, where human and machine are blended in one personality.

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Finally, Karen Lord offers hope for the future in The Best of All Possible Worlds, an optimistic and progressive vision of what is possible in the distant future beyond Earth–surely one of the most important functions that science fiction could have right now!

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Kelley Eskridge: a recommendation

I love being on the Clarke shortlist—in the run-up to the award I have always appreciated that more readers are looking at my work, and this means a lot (even if the new readers don’t end up liking the book!) So while I’m in this more-visible place, I want to take the opportunity to say one important thing about Occupy Me, and that is Kelley Eskridge.

Kelley is a highly accomplished novelist, screenwriter and writing teacher. She is also the first reader for her wife Nicola Griffith, and from reading their posts at Sterling Editing I knew that Kelley had a deep influence on Nicola’s novels. That’s why in early 2014 I asked her to work on Occupy Me. I had already spent about three years struggling to get my head round it. Being out of contract after so many years of publication. I was bruised and discouraged and frustrated, and I needed a cheerleader more than anything, so like a very weary gambler I scraped together some money and took a chance. I told Kelley that the draft would be done by the end of that summer.

I was thinking of her role mostly in terms of keeping me accountable for finishing. It’s also true that at that stage of my life, I couldn’t afford a near-miss. I had to sell the book, and with my sales record that wasn’t going to be easy—I felt that I had already been written off in some circles.* Nothing less than the best I had in me would suffice. I’m not generally someone who shows their work to beta-readers, but in this case I was hoping Kelley could help me troubleshoot.

And she did! But I was in for a surprise, because Kelley did a lot more than troubleshoot. The edit that she wrote was a tremendous piece of work. I have been writing for a long time, I’ve worked with some really good editors, and I was blown away nevertheless. I want to try to articulate what Kelley does that really stands out.

First, she made me tell her up front what I wanted to get out of the edit as well as what my specific hopes and fears were—for the book, and for my writing in general. In the twenty years up to that point, nobody had ever asked me those things! It was a relief to be able to spell them out for someone who cared. She also asked for a sample of the work, which I was very reluctant to give because it was a mess. Her responses, though, were so understanding and insightful and respectful that I began to trust her more or less right away.

The edit followed through on the information I had already given her, and she placed the problems in the book (and its strengths as well) into the context of the overall picture of my writing. She could connect material in the book to the issues that she’d asked me to articulate at the beginning. Also, she was able to very specifically put her finger on the places where it was going wrong, even when the cause wasn’t obvious.

This is no small thing. Most editors can say that there’s a problem of some kind and they can maybe describe the problem, but usually they can’t accurately identify the cause, much less how to fix it. Often I have to figure out the real underlying cause as well as the solution, and this part of the process can be bloody hard because you feel like you’re groping in the dark. With Kelley it was like going to a doctor with a niggly knee pain and being told, look, your pelvis is out of alignment and that’s causing this thing with your knee. I felt like she could see right into the mechanics of how I was thinking, or, as I recall her putting it (more or less), ‘I get up inside your mirror neurons.’

On top of identifying what was wrong, Kelley made some absurdly simple suggestions that solved complicated problems in a single stroke. Gold.

The other thing she did was to let me know what was working well. There were a lot of passages in the book where I was in doubt. I worried I’d pushed everything too far. I figured I’d be ridiculed and I half-expected her to advise me to rein myself in. Almost without exception, those were the places where her feedback was hugely encouraging. She gave me the courage to stand my ground and be real.

I had the sense that she was with me inside the flow of the work and every move she made was designed to make me better. In fact, I learned a lot about my writing in general as a result of working with Kelley. That knowledge has stayed with me and helped me.

I wrote one revision of the book before it went out to publishers, and after it sold it went straight to copyediting. So I’ll state the disclaimer that weak areas remaining in the book are down to me, of course—I couldn’t fix everything. But I know that a number of people who read this blog are also writers. I wanted to put the word out that if you are looking for a freelance editor who can not only improve your novel, but your writing in general, then I wholeheartedly recommend Kelley Eskridge. If you can get her, work with her! She’s amazing.

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*It was the ‘been there, done that, let’s find a fresh new girl instead’ type of thing that I could smell in the digital air. I could be imagining it, but have heard it said openly about women who are older than I am, back when I was the fresh new girl. So I know exactly what it is.

Guest of honour speech, Stranimondi

I don’t normally write speeches in advance for events, but I was glad I got something on paper for Stranimondi 2016 because as it turns out, every word I said had to be translated into Italian on the spot by the superb Chiara Reali (thank you, Chiara). I had a wonderful experience at the con and I thank everyone for the warm and generous reception.

This speech is loosely based on a blog post that I never published called ‘Cry Me a River’–as ever, I wear my heart on my sleeve. Maybe it will interest a few of you.

***

First I’d like to thank the organisers very much for inviting me and especially Giorgio Raffaeli for taking care of all the details. This is my first time in Italy, and I have my partner and our children here as well, so it’s very exciting. I don’t know anything about the Italian science fiction scene, and so it’s also very stimulating and I hope enlightening for me to be here with you.

I’ve been going back and forth about what I should talk to you about today. And then I thought, you probably have no real idea who I am or what my work is about, so I’m going to talk a little about that. But first I was thinking that it’s a funny coincidence that your other Guest of Honour is Alastair Reynolds, and of course he is an astrophysicist who worked for the European Space Agency before becoming a science fiction writer. And I am a science fiction writer who, in my forties, returned to university, and with one thing and another I’m now studying for a Master’s degree with the Astrophysics Research Institute in Liverpool. And that’s really funny—I don’t know if anyone has ever done what I’m doing, going completely against the natural order of things.

How did this happen? Well, the simple answer is failure. I had failed as a writer—I’ll tell you more about that later. Back in 2010 I was a mother of three small children, freelancing from home. My seventh science fiction novel had been released, it was shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Association Award and the Clarke, and yet it wasn’t selling. I did an interview in which I was asked about the low percentage of women winning the Clarke Award, and that triggered an online discussion on the Torque Control blog, then run by Niall Harrison. I was happy to see the topic being taken seriously; back in those days if you googled ‘women in SF’ you’d go straight to links like ‘Hot chicks of Sci-Fi TV.’

Then a prominent male science fiction writer decided to weigh in. This is someone who has a high profile in the UK and earns a lot more money than I do. He linked to an article claiming that women are scarce in science because we simply ‘aren’t interested in carburettors and ohms’.

I can still remember the physical blow that those words felt like. Such a betrayal from my own community. I was angry but mostly I was crushed. Online I told everyone, ‘I’ll be in the shed, hitting the Muay Thai bag.’ But actually, I cried. A lot. I remember sobbing to my partner, ‘It’s not like I want to be the most famous writer ever. I just want a place at the table.’

At the time this happened, I had just learned that my American teaching qualification wasn’t acceptable in the UK, which meant I couldn’t get a job. The UK government was funding training for science teachers, so I had been planning to take a few biology courses to qualify for the funding. (Coincidentally, around the same time the writer Steph Swainston did something similar with Chemistry teacher-training). After the remarks about carburettors and ohms I was just so furious and felt so betrayed that I thought: Forget biology. I’m going to prove this person wrong.

I ignored the fact that I’d taken my last maths course at 15 and had received a D. I signed up for my first Open University courses in maths and physics.

If I’d known what it would really be like, I probably wouldn’t have had the courage. The first few years getting up to speed with maths and physics were horrifying:  gruelling and demoralising in equal measure. Talk about stranger in a strange land. The mindset I’d developed for writing wasn’t required here. For maths you need ferocious concentration and a willingness to be wrong but calmly go again. And again. And bloody again. No emotion needed or wanted—it only gets in the way.

Now, this was a problem for me. Emotion is the fuel I use for writing. Not only was cold, rational cogitation not my metier, but I suspected I was actually allergic to it. It didn’t help that I wasn’t sleeping much and was still running around after small children to a stupefying soundtrack of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ and ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ theme music.

But I hung tough. Luckily, the initial hurdles were the highest: calculus and mechanics. By mechanics I don’t mean carburettors, but the motion of objects under gravity. You know: like rocket science.

Now, I’m fighting the urge to say, ‘But I can’t really rocket science, I’m rubbish.’

It’s true that I’m never going to be the world’s most quantitative person. And I have to confess that in fact I don’t really care about carburettors—I’m not big on metallic machines, generally. But I care deeply about nature, and here’s the thing: rocket science is the tip of nature’s iceberg. There’s a lot more to physics than orbital mechanics.

Physics underpins all nature. It’s a fantastical field of study—full of mystery, as weird as you can imagine but weirder. The close relative of physics, applied maths, is ubiquitous in the world today. Biology, economics, environmental science, social science—you name a discipline and you can find maths being used to model reality and to make predictions. We live in an age of big data. All of this is to do with the nature of nature—and who isn’t interested in that?

These big questions are for everyone, not just for those of us who are mechanically-inclined or have testicles. They are for all of us.

I had to reinvent myself a little to get on the physical science path. I don’t think I appreciated how much reinvention I’d done until a couple of years ago an acquaintance from my son’s school dropped in for coffee. We sat at my kitchen table catching up: she was working on an artistic project in her spare time, and I had just started learning quantum mechanics. She looked at me sceptically.

‘Yes, but do you believe in all that?’ she asked. I laughed nervously. Had she mistaken quantum mechanics for homeopathy? After all, crystallography and crystal healing sound similar.

‘I don’t have to believe in it,’ I said. ‘The technology that comes out of quantum physics is working right now in your phone. The evidence is everywhere.’

That’s how I ended up trying to explain Young’s double-slit experiment. But when she looked at my diagram of wiggly light waves heading towards a wall with two slits in it, she started giggling. She said, ‘Sorry, only they look like sperm!’

It was about then that I recognised myself in her. Remembered all the times my linear, organised brother (he grew up to be an engineer) had tried to walk me through an algebra problem, only for me to interject something about unicorns.

One book that I wish I’d had when I started is Barbara Oakley’s ‘A Mind For Numbers.’  Oakley started out as a Russian translator in the US Army and changed to maths and engineering in her mid-twenties to improve her career prospects. Like me, she had to start from scratch, and she subsequently made a study of how people learn math and science. As an engineering professor, Oakley has described learning methods that are supported by neuroscience, methods to enable anyone of any age to learn advanced maths, taking advantage of the brain’s plasticity.

While I’ve been slowly reinventing myself as a trainee scientist, the culture has been changing its attitudes to women. The process of change is painfully slow, but it is getting better. In the UK a senior physicist was sacked not long ago for joking that women should be in separate labs because ‘they cried and you fell in love with them,’ but in my day this kind of talk was normal. When I see high-profile scientists losing their jobs for sexual harassment, I remember my math teacher from when I was twelve. (Coincidentally, this was the year that I stopped being any good at math.) Mr. Ryan kept an iconic poster of fifteen-year-old Brooke Shields on his classroom wall, the one where she’s wearing only a pair of tight jeans, saying ‘Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.’ Mr Ryan wasn’t considered creepy back then—he was the cool teacher. That’s what I mean when I say the culture has changed.

Another thing changed while I was working on my degree, and that was the surge of attention paid to women science fiction writers whereas before we had been summarily ignored. This was the result of many, many online and in-person conversations across the science fiction community in the US and UK. Ann Leckie’s work broke out, with its lens on gender-based assumptions, and from what I could gather this wave of support was the result of a direct effort on the part of her publisher and the wider science fiction community as a whole to raise the profile of women writers.

While all of this was going on I was slowly writing Occupy Me, which was published earlier this year. I worked with the attitude that I would push my ideas as far as I possibly could, take the biggest risks, knowing that only a few people will read it. I was able to do that because—thanks to physics—I am no longer afraid to fail. Moreover, I no longer care whether I am recognised or not. I can assess the value of my own work, and I know when I’ve achieved what I set out to do with a novel, even if no one else does. I am at peace with failure.

What does this feel like?

It’s like building boats and launching them only to watch them sink, maybe in the harbour, maybe farther out. You don’t even wait for the wreckage to wash ashore. You just go get more wood and do the work that it is in you to do. Over and over. That’s what it is.

And the truth is, all boats sink, in the end. Everybody dies. Nothing is permanent. So failure is not to be taken personally. Moreover, there are a lot of interesting things that happen when you allow yourself to get really comfortable with failure, to get up close and personal. To sit beside failure without flinching, to smell it, to converse with it. Eventually failure becomes a companion and not something to be feared. And most importantly, failing is not the end, it is the beginning.

So, what is my work about? Occupy Me is a high-energy, wild puzzle about consciousness and cosmology. All of my books are about consciousness, explicitly or implicitly. Many of them also deal with duality, and it’s very normal for me to use different parallel viewpoints to create an effect. The way I do this—especially in Maul, which has just been published in Italian by Zona 42 as Selezione Natural—is to juxtapose storylines that don’t really belong together, and to let them play off on one another, let them bump and collide and see what comes out. I’m very interested in the concept of negative space: what isn’t there as opposed to what is. And one thing that I like to do is allow space for readers to form their own interpretations. Some people are frustrated by this feeling of openness in my work. This groundlessness and the feeling of disorientation that I like to cause in you. But to me, that’s what science fiction is for, even more so than realistic fiction. It is for you the reader to work your imagination and contribute your own interpretation. I write books for people who like to chew on ideas, who have teeth and who want to think. I do not spoon-feed.

Thank you so much for having me.

(double slit image from philschatz.com)

 

 

 

 

Precedent and learning Martian

I received my BSc(Hons) from the Open University today.

This was possible for me because of precedent in my family.

I’m the youngest of five children. I have two older sisters. One of them turned down a scholarship to Princeton to get married. She worked as an accountant to support her husband through his MBA, then when her younger son was a toddler she went for a gruelling five-year degree in Pharmacy, full-time. I watched this unfold with my jaw on the floor. My other sister put herself through her BSc (magna cum laude) and then a Masters, a nurse practitioner-ship, and eventually a PhD while working crazy hours in urban ER departments and bringing up three children. Her ability to outwork the toughest person while keeping a smile on her face is something I will always admire.

So when my application for QTS was turned down in 2010 and the efforts I’d made to earn money through writing had come to bupkus, I thought: I got this. I’ll go back to school like my sisters and I’ll grab enough credits to get on a PGCE for physics and then I’ll be able to get some work because STEM. I was 42. I had no idea how hard it would really be, but I’d seen them both do it and I knew it was possible. I jumped in with both feet.

When I started my kids were 4, 6, and 8 with all the attendant noise and mess. I was haphazardly running Steve’s business, and though I was writing I had virtually no money coming in for my work. My mathematical background consisted of Cs and Ds in high school math and no pre-calculus or trig whatsoever. I thought I had enough raw brains to see me through, but for the first couple of years even when the house was quiet I struggled to control my mind. Mathematics takes a very narrow, sustained focus, and I had to learn that. At first it was like Martian.

You know what? Even Martian is learnable. It’s possible to learn to do things you never thought you could. I’m telling you: you are not too old and you are not too stupid or weak or whatever. You just have to be willing to fall flat on your face a few times. Or a few hundred times. After the first few hundred times you fail at something, it’s not that big of a deal anymore. Take it from me.

The other thing it’s important to know is that sometimes it’s just about taking that first step. One step leads to another step. I ended up going well beyond the credits I needed to teach secondary school physics and I’ve stretched to the honours degree. Now I have the QTS I set out for, and I may use it, or I may set my sights a bit higher—at the moment I’m on a part-time MSc that I was allowed to begin last year because I had the chutzpah to blag my way in the door. I won’t lie: it’s pretty hard. I don’t know where it will lead. I’m putting one foot in front of the other, and that is how you do this stuff. You take the first step and build your courage as you go.

But it helps a lot to have precedent. So I’m here saying, I did this. These things can be done. People will help you—the generosity of support and kindness I’ve received from friends, family, colleagues, tutors, and sometimes even strangers has been amazing and humbling. My partner Steve has been a fucking rock. More tears have been shed on his shoulder than I care to admit.

The inspiration and example set by my sisters gave me the nerve to set out on this journey. It’s a big mountain. I’m standing on this little ledge of an honours degree and it seems like a good time to pause and thank both of my sisters for showing me how it’s done. Kathy, Chris: thank you.

And I’m saying to anyone standing in their kitchen surrounded by a life that’s not going to plan, to the person with the responsibility of little people looking to them, to that person with maybe some regrets thinking, ‘WTF am I going to do? It’s too late to make a radical change’—it’s not too late.

There’s precedent. You can do it—whatever it is you are scared to begin. It won’t be easy but it will be worth it. I promise.

All flowers in time bend towards the sun

Mahvesh Murad very kindly invited me to be a part of Midnight in Karachi last week. I was a little nervous going in, and from my recollection I babbled discursively. This is why I prefer writing to talking!

In the interview Mahvesh asked whether I had a playlist for the book, and I told her how one specific song contains the entire emotional realm in which Occupy Me was put together. It’s not a long piece of music, but for me it opens up vaulting internal spaces.

This is a book that was written in little tiny bursts and then put down for long stretches. One of the ways I’ve learned to deal with this heavily punctuated process is to use specific music to trigger the mood of the book. Now, proper writers will create playlists for their novels, but I never have time. I usually have a bank of material that I will draw on ad hoc; Lisa Gerrard features heavily. For Shadowboxer I was using Warpaint, but I needed something different for OM and my main musical sources, Coltrane and Miles Davis, were too complicated and distracting. So I went to see what I could find of the old Cocteau Twins recordings that my ex used to play to death in college, because I thought their otherworldly atmosphere of guitar and voice-without-real-words might help me. Searching You Tube, I stumbled on an astonishing duet by Elizabeth Fraser and Jeff Buckley.

In my ignorance, I had never heard of Jeff Buckley. It turns out that he was the son of the late Tim Buckley, composer of the elegiac ‘Song to the Siren,’ which Elizabeth Fraser had interpreted so hauntingly back in her Cocteau Twins days. The story goes that many years later Jeff Buckley, now famous himself and very much on the rise artistically, met Fraser and they recorded together a series of songs that were never released. The songs were left unfinished because Jeff Buckley drowned in a freak accident in the Mississippi River at the age of 30. Jeff’s mother subsequently let the song go out, and it has been widely circulated on You Tube, which is where I found it.

The first time I listened I was blown away. I think this may be the most beautiful piece of music I’ve ever heard. It unlocked such intense feelings that had been unexpressed—or maybe they were just inexpressible—until this music brought down the floodwalls. In terms of writing the book, this song unlocked everything.

Whenever I lost my way (which was often), I’d put on this track and sit under the headphones, tears streaming down my face, until the music had put me back on the road to what I really wanted to do. I’m so grateful for this recording.

Talk for writers this Saturday at Waterstones Banbury

I’ll be at Waterstones in Banbury this Saturday 30 January at 2 pm.

I’m going to talk about writing, offering some of the perspective I’ve acquired over the twenty years I’ve been working professionally, and taking questions. I’ll talk a little about Occupy Me and the methods I used to put it together, but mainly I want to be useful to the audience and I think a lot of the people who come to these talks are working on their own writing, so that’s going to be my focus.

If you’re in the area, please drop in and say hi.

 

Knees up for the tea ladies

Back around 1994 when I was living in New Jersey and working as a teacher, A Glorious Accident came on TV. It was a roundtable discussion about the meaning of life, the Universe, and everything, featuring a number of the great thinkers of the time: scientists of one kind or another. And what a lineup—Stephen Jay Gould, Freeman Dyson, Oliver Sacks! Also Daniel Dennett, George Page, and Stephen Toulmin. Rupert Sheldrake was in there too, annoying the others with his mobile pigeon unit and morphic resonance theory while being terribly entertaining and interesting. And they were talking about the actual meaning of life. It was nothing short of riveting.

Yet, strangely, what has stayed with me over the years, apart from the imagery of a truckload of pigeons careering around the Home Counties in Sheldrake’s experiments, are the tea ladies.

The conference was held in the Netherlands. It was in a dark room containing a big table around which the Great Thinkers sat, and everything was very austere and Important. And every so often these uniformed tea ladies would come in and serve coffee or clear up—that is how I remember it, anyway, and if I’m remembering it wrong I’ll be very embarrassed. I clearly remember watching this with my then-partner and I can remember being all ‘WTF! Look at them being waited on! Can’t the geniuses get their own tea?’

Because, of course, the only women in the room were the servants. Not even one. Token. Woman. So much, so obvious. We all know this is bullshit, and the absence of any women at that table right now would not pass unremarked. I hope.

And yet. The tea ladies. In many situations, I find I like to take care of people. It means a lot to me to be able to do for someone, to feed them or make them feel better, to give them some kind of shelter. I dislike being waited on in most circumstances (maybe as the youngest of five children I’m still trying to prove ‘I can do it myself!) but I am usually glad to do small, helpful things for others.

I can also kick you in the head.

See? I mean, look at me. Look how I just had to put that in. Just in case you were to mistake me for a stereotypical woman with a high voice and soft hands who likes to go shoe-shopping. I struggle to accept certain parts of myself because I’ve been trained to see them as weak. You don’t have to know me very long to realise that I feel really vulnerable when it comes to being vulnerable. I’m afraid to be weak.

But I shouldn’t be. And neither should anyone. The bottom line is that we all need to be cared for at some point in our lives. At the beginning, at the end, and sometimes in the middle, too. Why is it that our culture so deeply devalues those who look after others? Money and other kinds of support for caregivers of all kinds is withdrawn even as we have more and more technology to save and extend life—or to end the lives of those we disagree with. The human touch still cannot be replaced by drugs or technology. And if you’ve ever been seriously ill or loved someone who is seriously ill, you know very well what those small yet immeasurable acts of compassion mean. There are no car chases in those stories. But sooner or later those stories come for us all.

There’s a reason why Pearl’s occupation is flight attendant. There’s a reason why Alison is a vet. There’s a reason why Occupy Me is dedicated to the caregivers, the tea-ladies at the symposia, the stitchers of wounds, and holders of hands. It’s because they are the ones who get us through the night.

So I raise a glass to the tea ladies. I’d like to see them get to party. I’d like to see them celebrated.

What I stole and who from

 

Occupy Me didn’t have a title for a long time. I just called it ‘Pearl’ after the character name given me by my mate Kaz when she heard what I wanted to do with the angel trope. At the time I was just beginning to study maths at a very basic level to prepare for physics. Some years before, while nursing my first baby in the middle of the night, I had read Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe. By ‘read’ I mean that I had looked at all the pages and picked up the occasional, probably-misguided idea through the fog of new-parenthood. I was attracted to the idea of higher dimensions, though, and in 2011 I got a copy of Lisa Randall’s book Warped Passages.

warped passages

I have to confess that I understood only a fraction of what Randall was saying, and probably I should re-read Warped Passages now that I have a little more science under my belt. (Randall has since moved into dark matter, and her new book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs looks incredibly exciting and interesting.) Despite my limitations, I was able to grasp enough to realise that the ideas being talked about seriously in theoretical physics make a lot of SF novels seem dull as dishwater.

Of course, to write a convincing story you need to get the reader to come with you. I was really afraid to move beyond what I’d written in the past. Most of my books are about consciousness, which is an ontological subject in its own way, but not the same kind of ontology as cosmology–or so I thought at the time. It’s not like I wanted to write space opera. I wanted to write stories that have their roots in some of the strangeness of modern physics. So I went to another physicist’s popular work:

physics of hte impossible

 

Here I was very encouraged, not to mention liberated. Michio Kaku takes the attitude that the impossible is a set of shifting goalposts. And it is thanks to this book that I was finally able to let go of my various science-fiction induced hang-ups about what I could or could not write. I took a few ideas straight out of Physics of the Impossible and gleefully road-tested them in Occupy Me. I already had higher-dimensional travel , and this book only encouraged me to go to town on it. I also used Kaku’s plasma shield for a small but crucial scene. But the big thing I took is the waveform generator. I hadn’t yet done any quantum mechanics when I read this book, but Kaku explains how all matter can be described by a waveform—or, rather, by the superposition of a lot of waveforms. If you had the technology, you could build an object from the ground up. Build a person from the ground up. Or something more than a person…

And so the Rockford Files briefcase was born, and that gave me the title of the book as well.

The other thing that I took from Michio Kaku was a willingness to be playful. I had struggled for years trying to play by the rules of science fiction, even when those rules  made no sense to me. Reading this book gave me a sense of freedom that I haven’t felt for a long, long time. I stole that mischievous feeling, too.

Finally, when I was working on the idea of the ghosts in the crude oil I read as much as I could about encoding information at nanoscale. This is a fast-evolving area, but when I spoke with my brother (an electrical engineer) about the practicalities, he encouraged me to be as simple as possible and use a version of a trusty, durable carbon nanotubule. I fudged this a lot—what I wanted was the crackle and pop of the idea, the resonances of the metaphors, so I went for an allusive approach rather than a descriptive one that surely would be out of date in twenty minutes no matter how carefully I might stick to known engineering. My work is inspired by science without being science. How successful this approach is probably depends a lot on one’s willingness to mix fantasy and reason.

Anything in my work that you don’t like, blame me. But if you want to read some great popular science, Lisa Randall and Michio Kaku are two physicists who are extremely skilled at framing hardcore science in terms that the rest of us can grok. I recommend them both to you.

 

*by the way, several years later, I’m a lot farther along but still at a very basic level, because physics is a deep and steep discipline and also I’m a little flakey even on the best of days.