‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Saturday, 18 March 2023

“The This” on 2023 BSFA Best Novel Shortlist

 I'm delighted to say that The This has been shortlisted for the 2023 BSFA Award for best novel. It's a great honour, especially considering the high calibre of the other shortlisted titles. The winner will be announced at this year’s Eastercon, Conversation, (at the Birmingham Metropole, 7th–10th April 2023) and BSFA members can vote here. I'll be at the ceremony: maybe see you there.
[Update 8th April] Didn't win! Ah well.

Friday, 18 November 2022

“Stealing For The Sky”: Now Published


This has been in the offing for a while, but now, it seems, it's out of the offing, and into the, er, inning. So: it's a very-near near-future-set thriller, written in Donald E Westlake/Richard Stark mode, about a man who steals spaceships for a living. Publisher: NeoText. Presently it's e-book only (not sure what may come, format-wise, in the future). On the upside, at the moment it's only 99c in the States, or 87p if you live in the United Kingdom. What have you got to lose?

Wednesday, 2 November 2022

THE THIS: Mass-Market Paperback. Out Now!

 The paperback edition of The This is set for release in a few days (10th November in fact) (10th Nov Update: 10th November is today! Now available to buy!). To mark that, here's the review the latest edition of SFX carries about the book: click to embiggen and clarify the image. 5 stars! Pick of the paperbacks! A little frustrating at the start! Will change your entire worldview if you make it to the end!

Wednesday, 12 October 2022

From Birth to Now


I looked-up this 1850 map (for something Victorian-set I'm presently writing, in order to check the exact path of the Great Western Railway) and was struck by the compass of this small section of it.  So: in 1965 I was born, in Mayday Hospital, now called Croydon Hospital: in the bottom right hand portion of this image. I grew up in Peckham, and then Sydenham. I presently live, as it happens, exactly where the folds in this map make a cross, north-west of Sunninghill and south-east of Wokingham. For portions of my life I have left this zone: as an undergraduate in Aberdeen and a graduate student at Cambridge, and after that for some years living in Southampton. But here I am again, in the middle of these arbitary crosshairs. Kismet, perhaps.

In a post on my Medium blog I meditated (in, surprisingly enough, given the topic, a rather NSFW manner) on the continuity of the Thames to my life. Where we currently live is a few miles from that great father river, but that's not say I don't continue to feel its influence. So here we are.

Tuesday, 27 September 2022

Myth and Science Fiction

Coming up, this Thursday: ‘The Mythology of the Future’—a panel with myself, Beth Singler, Yen Ooi and Jennifer Woodward, part of the Science Fiction Squared Symposium, exploring the future of science fiction [Tickets still available, I think: Thu 29 Sep 2022,Island Social, Globe House, 34 Botanic Square, E14 0LU]. The brief for our panel is: ‘Mythology seeks to explain the unknown past; science fiction to explore the unknowable future. How do the forms of mythology relate to those of science fiction, and how are they received by their audiences?’ I’m looking forward to it. Come along, why don’t you?

I’m chairing the panel and don’t want to hog discussion, so I’ll note a few things here, and then will look to sit back and listen to what my excellent, expert fellow panellists have to say.

So, let's start with: what do we mean by ‘myth’? Well, that’s a large question, much debated. I suppose most people have a sense of myths as bodies of stories, of legendary fables—as it might be, the Greek Myths, the myths of King Arthur, perhaps (although Biblical literalists might object to this) the myths of the Old and New Testaments —sets of stories distinct from, though not necessarily entirely alien to, ‘actual’ history. That is to say, we think of myths as departing from certain canons of truthfulness, verisimilitude, historical accuracy and so on, but nonetheless as articulating other kinds of truth. There may or may not have been a historical Arthur (I used to believe there was when I was a teenager; now I tend to doubt it) but, if there was, his life and times were certainly very different from the body of myth that has accrued around his name. But though those myths won’t accurately represent Dark Age Britain, or the political and martial life of a post-Roman dux bellorum, that’s not to say that they’re lies. They capture, we could say, a different kind of truth, speaking to us about core human concerns: about courage and leadership, about persistence and fidelity and doing-the-right-thing, about the place of individual love in the context of social and traditional rigidities, and—with the Sangraal episodes—about sanctity, about faith and renewal.

But in this there is a sense that myth is lesser than history: that as a specie of untruth it edges dubiety, even unworthiness. That it's a form of escapism rather than a mode of engaging with the world, much as science fiction is accused of being. The Ancient Greek μῦθος (mûthos) meant, only, ‘word’ and therefore ‘speech, account, tale’ (although it could also mean, ‘rumour’ and ‘fable’). The journey from this in English usage is from the early 19th-century appropriation of the Greek term through to today's usage of it as a synonym for nonsense: from ‘a traditional story which embodies a belief regarding some fact or phenomenon of experience; a sacred narrative regarding a god, a hero, the origin of the world or of a people, etc’, through to ‘a commonly-held but false belief, a common misconception’ (eg this recent headline: ‘Science Debunks 101 Myths About Health’)—that is, lie.

There have been plenty of theorists of myth. Freud, for example, thought myths existed to articulate, and therefore address and purge, psychological anxieties, traumas and taboos—so, for instance, the myth of Oedipus, inadvertently sleeping with his mother and afterwards pulling out his own eyes, is (Freud says) actually ‘about’ castration anxiety, something bound-up in the Freudian primal scene of love for mother and (castrating) hostility to father. This approach treats myths as symbolic articulations. It hasn’t, we can say, found many supporters among classical scholars and students of Greek myth. Robert Graves for instance points-out that the Greeks had no problem including actual castration in their myths, which makes this kind of evasive symbolism superfluous.

The big 19th-century theory of the Greek myths was Max Müller, who thought it all goes back to solar religion (so Hercules’ twelve labours are ‘actually’ the sun god passing through the twelve signs of the zodiac, and so on). Graves himself believed the myths all encode a secret narrative, the overthrow of the matriarchal cultures of the Mediterranean by patriarchal invaders from the East: untrue on its face (there never was such an invasion and supplanting) but also as reductive and meagre as Müller’s solar theorising.

There are plenty of other theories, but I’m going to zero in on one in particular, because I’m interested in what it might tell us about the coming-to-prominence of SF stories as modern myths. I'm doing so because, it seems to me, a set of science fiction tales, or megatexts, does indeed function today as modern myth, in the sense that we all have these texts and stories in common, we all recognise references from and allusions to them, they are stories not true in the strict sense—they’re science fiction, after all—but which still speak to people, which embody and articulate metaphorical and deeper truths. Star Wars is, I suppose, the most obvious example: one modestly-budgeted 1977 film made from a B-movie pastiche script that has, amazingly, proliferated to dozens and dozens of (often very high budget) sequels, prequels, spin-offs, paratexts and merchandise. Star Wars permeates modern culture and we might argue it does so because it functions as a myth. I don’t mean that it is the latest livery in which Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero With A Thousand Faces’ gubbins gets itself dressed. Lucas certainly read Campbell before he wrote his initial script, but Campbell’s book is a piece of vapid synthesis that, by amalgamating a variety of different stories to one sub-Jungian archetype, misses the specificity and valence of actual myths from which their potency derives.

No, I mean something else. Critics commented that the sequel trilogy to Star Wars told, basically, the same story as the original trilogy: the empire, destroyed at the end of Return of the Jedi, is somehow magically back in place and must be defeated again. Our heroes, galaxy-spanning victors at the end of Jedi, are somehow back to being plucky outsiders. This is because the myth that runs through the franchise is the overwhelmed individual facing the overwhelming exterior forces of the society and the universe. The myth is also, I think, about the relationship between the highly technologized world in which we now live, representing the triumph of a kind of commodified and alienating materialismand a world beyond machines and machinism, beyond that is materialism as such. It is a myth about the place of religion in a world (our contemporary world) that can no longer support the old certainties of collective and individual religious faith.

Star Wars not a myth about sex, I think (there are lots of myths about sex, but this isn’t one) which is why the franchise feels so juvenile and limited on that front. Nor is the core myth about, as it might be, diversity, acceptance, identity and so on—those things are very important, and I don’t invoke them to snark, but I don’t think that’s at the heart of Star Wars as a myth. By all means cast diverse actors for these films (why the hell wouldn’t you?), of course ensure that diverse worlds and plots are part of the story. But the reason this B-movie went from Harrison’s Ford’s ‘George, you can type this shit, but you can't say it’ to world-spanning success was that it spoke to people in mythic terms. And, to repeat myself, I think the twinned linked myths of Star Wars are about individuality versus the dehumanising authority of society, and perhaps reality as such—and about the place of the spiritual and transcendent in an increasingly mechanised, tech-saturated, materialist world.

At any rate, Lévi-Strauss is an interesting way of framing all this, I think. I’ll be honest, I’ve come back to Lévi-Strauss. When I was a callow undergrad and into my postgrad years in the later 1980s, the cool beans all belonged to Deconstructionists, who were all about unpicking the Lévi-Strauss binarisms and structuralisms. Not that I’ve turned my back on this, but I now wonder if there’s more to the structuralist whassup than I used to think. Anyhow.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, famously, worked through the implications of structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, parsing human being-in-the-world through a set of binaries. Human minds, says L-S, are complex machines, and the minds thus structured parse the larger aggregations of human societies. Myths, dit Claude, are ways in which we, collectively, and as individuals, mediate the polarising contradictions of existence as such. These opposites reflect the contradictions which we encounter in our lives. The ones Lévi-Strauss specifies are: desire and reality; individual and society; the possible and the impossible; nature and culture. Mediating these binaries is, says L-S, is in a sense the point of myth.

Now, you may be more or less persuaded by this perspective. But I wonder whether—let’s say—Star Wars doesn’t articulate precisely this: the franchise mythically mediating the binaries of individual-versus-collective (which is to say, individual-versus-everything) and materialism-versus-spiritualism. As to whether ‘myth’ is the, shall we say, ‘best’ way of doing this, or whether these myths speak to many people, that's a matter for debate. As we shall do this Thursday!

Star Wars isn't the only modern myth, of course. We could also point to: Tolkien, Star Trek, Harry Potter, MCU, Batman, maybe Cameron's Titanic (not, I think, and despite the billions being poured into it, Cameron's Avatar). But perhaps this is the logic underpinning the reach of this and these other collective texts.  

And perhaps this explains why the genre I love, ‘science fiction’, exists as the form it does, yoking together these opposites: science and fiction, scientia and myth as such.

Friday, 2 September 2022

The Big Read on “The This”: I Am Read, Bigly


Those excellent readers, Bill and Joel, are joined by ‘one of the best essayists in America’ (the TLS's words, not mine; though I agree with them) Phil Christman, to talk about my The This, which is about hive minds, social media, Coleridge and, most importantly, GWF Hegel. It is, I can be straight with you, amazing to me. Listen and see, or hear, for yourself. I mean, amazing. Amazing!

I'll be honest: it took me several goes to listen to this. It starts with some healthy American praise, which of course made me pull a face like I was sucking a whole lemon, to the degree that I had to stop listening, more than once. What's the matter with these geezers? Can't they call me a cunt, even once, to put me at my ease? But eventually I was able to listen to it all. Some very perceptive and interesting things, here! I am, as the discussion suggests, a big KSR fan. I also liked the idea that Alan Jacobs, Francis Spufford (the patron saint of the podcast, it seems) and I end up ‘not quite constituting an ism’, which I think is right. I am very pleased to call Alan and Francis friends, but the three of us have in the past noted that there's a off-kilter tripod-solidity to our affinity: Francis and I are Brits where Alan is American; Francis and Alan are Christians where I'm not; Alan and I are football fans and Fancis isn't. It makes for, I think, a thoroughly robust friendship logic. But Francis and Alan are both amazing, eloquent and penetrating writers and I'm honoured to be bracketed in their company.

Friday, 5 August 2022

Strange Horizons Reviews "The This"; and Other News


Prashanth Gopalan finds The This to be ‘a wildly imaginative novel, a thought experiment on morality and social organization, and a meditation on time and consciousness.’

With its interesting theories about the roots of human social behaviour, organization, and culture, and its intense explorations of life within a hivemind, The This explores the nature of being and belonging, and what people might be willing to do to find belonging when they reach the limits of social atomization, language, and technology-based connection. This is an intricately constructed science fiction novel deserving of wider readership. I found myself constantly marveling at what Roberts was doing as I made my way through it. Judging by the plots of his other books, Roberts is an exciting and underrated author, whose works featuring picaresque protagonists, grand themes, and erudite philosophical explorations may help us navigate the complex moral choices we face at a time when our future as a species feels increasingly uncertain—and unearth startling, if unsettling, visions for how we could reimagine ourselves as a society for the sake of our survival
It’s pleasing to get such a positive review, though I lay my finger on a couple of words in that paragraph—‘underrated’ and ‘deserving of wider readership’—and find within myself the capacity for gloom. But that’s just me. Twenty three novels into a novelist’s career if he or she is not rated and are lacking a wider readership, they probably won’t be and won't pick up one. That’s fine: there’s plenty of brilliant, widely-read and highly esteemed SF being published at the moment, which is the important thing.

Talking of which, the 2022 Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist has been announced. [update: here's a link to my round-up post on this year's shortlist]. We're in the midst of SF Award Season at the moment. For instance, we're a month away from finding out which of the 2022 finalists win their respective Hugos. The Nebula has been and gone, and the SFRA Awards, formerly the Pilgrim Awards (for SF scholarship) have just been announced. Delighted to see my friend Roger Luckhurst, a brilliant scholar and critic of SF (among other things) given the lifetime achievement award.

No awards or award-nominations for me again this year, but I'll be honest: where once that fact used very much to depress and dishearten me, I'm increasingly coming to terms with it. Awards are marks of community esteem and my lack of them merely reflects that my writing isn't especially estimable, or isn't judged so by the community. Of course, with any one specific award it's possible for my amour propre and ego to equivocate: I've been involved in award-judging many times, and it's not an exact science, good novels are often omitted from shortlists and so on. The cumulative effect, though, is harder to handwave away. There are a huge number SF awards after all, handed out annually, and to miss them all, year in year out, really does suggest an unavoidable collective judgment regarding some deeper problem in what I do. I have moved beyond ‘maybe I'll be nominated next year, if I write a better book’ to ‘I'm clearly never going to win a Clarke, Hugo, Nebula, Pilgrim [insert prize name here]’. If it were going to happen, it would have happened already. Now, to the extent that there's anything of interest in all this, it's only in the inside-baseball sense of how a writer deals with ongoing failure. Many more writers fail than succeed (in terms of awards, or sales, or readership) and to carry on the work we need to evolve strategies of coping with that fact, for it is of course sapping to think that what one writes is crap, destined to be ignored, beneath contempt. Of course, and by the same token, I'm well aware that the last thing SF as a culture needs right now is ostentatiously to foreground yet another middle-aged straight white dude. As a fan of SF (and I'm always a fan of SF before I am a writer of SF) I'm very happy with where the genre is at the moment. It's not a collective-SF problem, it's a me problem: I need to square the personal-esteem circle. And speaking for myself, I have always, as a writer, been more interested in failure than success. It seems to me more interesting, aesthetically and ethically, truer to the human condition, in a way more beautiful than success. As my friend Rich Puchalsky put it, a few days ago:

Netherworld of fail: c'est moi. Hurts, of course, on a personal level. But that's not the end of the world. And I'm in a much better place where that is concerned than I have been for years.

Other news: I'm talking with a publisher about maybe writing a History of Fantasy, as a sort-of companion volume to my History of Science Fiction (2nd ed. 2016), which will, if it comes off, keep me busy over the coming academic year. And I am finishing a new novel, concerning which I'll say more later, perhaps.