Category Archives: Writing

Compost

Mars from about 1000 miles, as seen by CubeSat MarCO-B (NASA/JPL)
Mars from about 1000 miles, as seen by CubeSat MarCO-B (NASA/JPL)

Before I start on compost, here’s a remarkable picture of Mars taken with a fairly ordinary camera, from a spaceship about the size of an average briefcase. Called a CubeSat, two of these were launched alongside the Mars Insight probe, and whistled past Mars while said probe made its way to a safe landing. More about Mars later…

It’s the time of year when – at least in the northern hemisphere – you put compost on your garden as part of bedding it down for the winter. These days that’s generally easy – you trot along to your local garden centre and get 3 bags for £12, or whatever the deal is, and you spend a suitable amount of time distributing it around your little patch. Someone else has done most of the hard work of transforming original plant and animal matter into an easy-to-use commodity.

But in a big garden you can do things a bit differently (and if you’re a farmer, you’ll be up into another league altogether, which I am not going to presume to write about). You can gather up said plant and animal matter yourself, stow it away somewhere dark and warm, add whatever extra bits and pieces you want, wait the better part of a year… and there you have your own compost. Which is what has been happening up here in Grasmere – last year’s rotted stuff, including pig manure, was ready for distribution. Not only that, but all those leaves which have been building up in the garden got put into the compost bins, waiting for their turn next year!

Now, this process has been going on pretty much ever since people discovered how to cultivate crops. Last year’s plant waste, together with stuff from whatever animals you had, and most likely human waste as well, got stashed away and spread on the fields when ready. The process has got steadily more scientific over the years, with additives to ensure that the ratios of chemicals are appropriate for the crops in question, but fundamentally nothing has changed.

Plants about to be harvested on the ISS (NASA/JPL)
Plants about to be harvested on the ISS (NASA/JPL)

But now think about what happens when you go out into space. You can grow some crops hydroponically, but this needs water which has been prepared with suitable levels of nutrients… which needs those nutrients to be available. We’ve done it up on the ISS, where the astronauts have prepared bits and pieces of salad to accompany their regular rations. But most of what is eaten in orbit has had to be carried there in a cargo supply ship. Suppose we add a couple of large modules on to the ISS and start growing things on a bigger scale. Then maybe we just need to ship the nutrients up there. That helps.

Now go a bit further. You have built a moonbase, or are living in a dome on Mars, and you want to grow your own stuff. In one sense you are surrounded by soil, but it is totally lifeless soil. It probably has a number of the basic chemicals you need, but none of the complex organic substances that your plants need. So you’re back to shipped-in nutrients… until you have either built up some human waste (and allowed it to decompose in some suitable way), or waited a year for the spare bits and pieces from one year’s harvest to rot down into compost.

Cover - The Martian (Goodreads)
Cover – The Martian (Goodreads)

This is probably reminding you of The Martian – Mark Watney manages to grow potatoes using the left-behind waste of his fellow crew-members. It goes pretty well until an accident exposes all his carefully prepared plants and compost to sub-zero temperatures and an air pressure less than that on Everest… which kills the lot and causes him to revert to Plan B (or probably, Plan F by that stage in the book). All necessary stuff, and emphasising the point that to grow Earth plants, you have to have built up a stock of Earth compost to encourage their growth.

So as I was piling leaves into the compost houses to being their long process of rotting down for this time next year, I suddenly wondered about our future. Out of all the unlikely cargos to be shipped out to our future colonies out on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and wherever else, wouldn’t it be supremely funny if most of them were shipping out the raw ingredients to make compost? Not an eventuality that makes its way into fiction very much… but how else are you going to grow your food?

The Compost Houses sitting waiting for next year
The Compost Houses sitting waiting for next year

Fire

The empty fireplace
The empty fireplace

This week I helped swap over an old wood-burning stove for a new one. As has been my experience of all practical jobs, what had promised to be a fairly straightforward out-with-the-old-and-in-with-the-new process ended up having unexpected wrinkles. The chimney pot also needed replacing (since the old fire didn’t draw very well), and a new chimney liner had to be put in. And there was an old liner which had to be pulled out – both liners follow a chimney which is about ten or eleven metres high, so these were interesting tasks in themselves.

The new fire installed
The new fire installed

Then an old hearth had to be taken out (which has already happened in the picture above, thanks to the very large drill on the floor, plus a sledgehammer and other hefty tools). Then the new stove had to be moved into position and the exit pipe fastened to the chimney liner with suitable gunk.

Then the paintwork had to be touched up where it had been bashed about by all this. And finally the copious amounts of dust – from stone, soot, brick and ash – had to be cleaned up on pretty much every surface in the room!

The story has a happy ending – the new fire really does light, as you’ll see below, and early impressions are that it is doing a better job than the old one. But while doing this job, I had plenty of time to contemplate fire. Or more widely, energy.

There are some places on planet Earth where people can live without using any energy source for heating, though most places need something at least in wintertime. But every society that I know of, world-wide, has harnessed fire for cooking. This isn’t just for aesthetic or culinary satisfaction – the process of cooking food makes a much wider range of nutrients accessible to our digestive system in much more reliable quantities. So the harnessing of fire for cooking – something like a couple of million years ago, give or take – liberated our hominid ancestors to get on with other things rather than have to forage endlessly. They could prepare food so as to use it more efficiently, and store it so as to survive lean times.

The Venus of Willendorf, c. 30000 years BCE (Wiki)
The Venus of Willendorf, c. 30000 years BCE (Wiki)

They could invent fish hooks and jewellery in their spare time, create artwork and conduct sacred ceremonies. (They also designed weapons of increasing effectiveness, and social orders which exaggerated differences in wealth between individuals, but we’ll skip over that for today). The use of fire for cooking seems to coincide with one of those great leaps forward in the often-slow process of human development, signalling this opportunity for our remote ancestors to explore and comprehend their world with intelligence.

Cover - In a Milk and Honeyed Land
Cover – In a Milk and Honeyed Land

All this happened in remote prehistory – long before the Late Bronze Age of In a Milk and Honeyed Land and its sequels, and long before the Langdale world where Quarry will be mainly set. By those times, fire and cooking were established parts of life whose origins were lost in the unfathomable world of the ancestors. But fire – energy – has remained a key part of our expanding world. Our ability to inhabit every part of the world has relied totally on our ability to maintain adequate warmth in our houses. An unprotected human in the middle of an Antarctic winter wind would die within thirty minutes at most, and would be crippled long before that.

A wood-burning stove is basically a very old bit of technology – except the one I helped with was made of metal, which pushes the date much more recent. But the problem it is helping to solve is perennial. Nowadays we don’t actually need to burn wood to generate heat, though many people find the experience of being warmed by an actual fire to be more comforting and engaging than just switching on a radiator. Energy from many sources is fed into our electricity grid – coal, water, wind, oil, nuclear, solar – and whatever the source, it runs an electric fire very nicely. The choice of our national energy spectrum of sources is – and should be – made according to national and global considerations, not whether I personally happen to have one device or another.

Artist's impression, Juno probe near Jupiter (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s impression, Juno probe near Jupiter (NASA/JPL)

And the situation become more stark as we go out into space. Space, as well as being mind-bogglingly big – is a weird place. In one sense it is freezing cold – a warm body will radiate away energy at a steady rate. But in another sense it is full of energy – light from the sun, electromagnetic radiation, and down at a quantum level a whole sea of vibrant energy just waiting to be collected. Whether we send out a robotic probe like Dawn, or we go elsewhere in person, we either take our energy with us or we collect it from the void around. The Juno probe has huge solar power collectors – each of those three panels in the picture is about the height of a typical house – and it is operating  almost at the outer limit of where such solar panels can be used. Probes that go further from the sun must carry their energy with them, and when it runs out they will die.

Cover, Tau Zero by Poul Anderson (Goodreads)
Cover, Tau Zero by Poul Anderson (Goodreads)

Most science fiction writers assume that the spaceships that they write about can refuel somewhere in space – maybe by gathering up interstellar hydrogen as they travel about using one variation or another of an idea of the physicist Robert Bussard – Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero was a relatively early novel making use of a Bussard ramjet, and at some stage Star Trek script writers decided that this was how the Enterprise and other similar ships gathered fuel (alongside matter-antimatter reactions and dilithium crystals). That way your ship can carry on boldly going without the inconvenience of having to stop at a nearby starbase just to load fuel into the necessary bunkers.

However it’s done, people will continue to need energy – fire – wherever they go. I think it’s most unlikely that energy sources in my science fiction books look anything like a wood-burning stove, but whatever they do look like, they serve the same purpose.

The new wood-burner alight
The new wood-burner alight

Weather – here on Earth

"Alexa, open Cumbria Weather"
“Alexa, open Cumbria Weather”

I thought I’d blog about weather today, firstly because it often matters when writing about the past, and secondly as a kind of shameless advert for my most recent Alexa skill. Let’s get that out of the way first – it’s called Cumbrian Weather, and it requests a short-range forecast from the Mountain Weather Information Service. Why not just use the built-in weather service on Alexa? Well, MWIS focus on weather insofar as it impacts outdoor pursuits such as walking, cycling, rock-climbing and so on. So the forecast includes essential things like whether the peaks are covered in cloud, what the temperature is at 750m, what height you reach freezing point as you climb up, and the like. All of which interest me, so I have accessed this data-feed and present it through Alexa. Like all my Alexa skills to date, it is entirely free to enable and use.

Rough weather on Bryher, Isles of Scilly
Rough weather on Bryher, Isles of Scilly

Which brings me nicely to the impact of weather on historical fiction. You get macro-level events that shape the whole story, such as drought, floods, a long winter, and so on. These are often used to set the scene, or the tone, for a book. Storms at sea are a staple of maritime fiction, and are a handy device for placing characters in unforeseen circumstances.

But in daily life as well as fiction, it’s also the smaller scale events that can derail the best intentions. And the nature of these events varies hugely with location. In London, where I am writing this, then the impact is often seen on transport – the famous autumnal “leaves on the track” problem which no doubt will be affecting commuters before long. A century or so ago, pollution and fog could easily combine to produce an unpleasant, unhealthy, and all-but-impenetrable smog.

Puma Mountain rescue helicopter practicing in low cloud near Fairfield
Puma Mountain rescue helicopter practicing in low cloud near Fairfield

Up in Cumbria, a night’s rain in the wrong place can end with localised floods. Storm Desmond, back in the winter of 2015, left major roads unusable, and washed away several bridges, quite apart from the impact on houses and shops. That aside, you can have a run of several days when even low peaks and ridges are invisible because of low cloud, frustrating work and movement between valleys. The various mountain rescue teams are regularly called out to succour people who have been caught by surprise up a height, and are completely unprepared for a weather change.

These more rapid, more local shifts and switches are every bit as important to fictional characters, as their real life equivalents are to us. Naturally, the particular kinds of weather change that matter to people vary from place to place – one location may have low cloud and mist, another one sudden blizzards, and a third sandstorms. It’s as well to find out what your characters might have to contend with!

Next week I’ll be having a quick look at weather on other planets. Not yet an everyday topic for most of us, but potentially it will be in a few years.

Meanwhile, here’s another quick reminder of Cumbrian Weather… available now in the UK Alexa store, and to appear soon in other stores world-wide.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Mercury and fiction

Last week we looked at how views of Venus had changed in fiction: this time it’s Mercury’s turn. Like Venus, Mercury is never visible far above the horizon – indeed, it never gets above 17 degrees here in London, less than half that of Venus. It’s another morning and evening star candidate, though far fainter than Venus, and far easier to miss unless viewing conditions are good. In classical times, Mercury was the swift messenger of the gods, presumably because of his elusive presence, rapid shift across the sky, and proximity to the sun.

North polar region of Mercury, false colouring showing (probable) water ice (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)
North polar region of Mercury, false colouring showing (probable) water ice (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Once telescopic study of the planets began, it became obvious that Mercury was going to be pretty inhospitable. It orbits at just over 1/3 of the Earth-Sun distance, has virtually no atmosphere, and experiences temperatures up to 450°C on the sunlit side (oddly,  that is much the same as Venus, but for quite different reasons). Lead, zinc, and a whole bunch of other metals would melt under these conditions. Bizarrely, even here, there are a few shady places where water ice can still exist on the surface – water is one of the most persistent and universal features of our solar system.

“Lava Falls on Mercury”, cover art by Ken Fagg for If magazine, June 1954

For a long time it was thought that Mercury was tidally locked, always showing the same face to the sun. More recently we have found that this is not the case – Mercury’s day is 59 Earth days, while its year is 88 Earth days – 2 Mercury years contain just 3 Mercury days. The combination means that every time Mercury is closest to the Earth, we see the same surface features… one of those mutual rhythms which appear all over the solar system.

Cover, The Worm Ouroboros (Goodreads)
Cover, The Worm Ouroboros (Goodreads)

You’d think that fiction writers would struggle to place a story on Mercury, but numerous people have tried. ER Eddison, in his fantasy series starting with The Worm Ouroboros, located his events there – though he was singularly unconcerned with the real planet, and simply used “Mercury” as a handy, mysterious location, at which very Earthlike deeds took place. In his writing, Mercury is simply an elsewhere location outside his readers’ everyday life.

When it was thought that Mercury was tidally locked, several authors assumed that humans would build a settlement somewhere on the dividing line between unbearable heat and implacable cold. Plots often revolved around the (supposed) vast difference between light and dark sides. For example, Hugh Walters’ Mission to Mercury supposes that the extreme heat (and cold) would lead to different personality problems (interestingly, this book also features another occasional trope, that of identical twins who can communicate telepathically).

Cover, Mission to Mercury (Wiki)
Cover, Mission to Mercury (Wiki)

The discovery that Mercury actually does rotate put paid to the idea of a temperate band, leaving us with a largely undesirable planet! It is a long way “down” in the sun’s gravity well, so needs a disproportionate amount of fuel to get there and back. Unless there turns out to be plentiful and easily accessed resources of some kind – gloopy patches of pure platinum, or some such – then it’s hard to see why it would ever be more than a solar research base. Authors and technologists have contemplated terraforming Mars (of which more next time) or Venus (AE van Vogt suggested that it could provide an exotic home for the elite in The World of Null-A) – I can’t think of anyone who has suggested terraforming Mercury! Kim Stanley Robinson, in several novels and short stories, suggested one solution would be a city built on rails which very slowly moved around the planet and hence always stayed in the twilight zone.

In fiction, it has become, and most likely will remain, a hostile place which might contain or provoke mystery. And in keeping with that, I’m not (currently) planning any books in my science fiction series which are set there.

Finally, you’re not (quite) too late to take advantage of the giveaway offer on the audio version of Half Sick of Shadows – details in a former blog post

“The eye prefers repetition, the ear prefers variety”

I was at the annual Amazon technical summit here in London last week, and today’s blog post is based on something I heard one of the presenters say. On the whole it was a day of consolidating things already developed, rather than a day of grand new breakthroughs, and I enjoyed myself hearing about enhancements to voice and natural language services, together with an offbeat session on building virtual 3d worlds.

Grid design based on thirds (Interaction Design Foundation)
Grid design based on thirds (Interaction Design Foundation)

But I want to focus on one specific idea, contrasting how we build human-computer interfaces quite differently for the eye and the ear. In short, “the eye prefers repetition, the ear prefers variety“. Look at the appearance of your typical app on computer or phone. We have largely standardised where the key elements go – menu, options, title and so on. They are so standardised that we can tell at a glance if something is “in the wrong place“. The text stays the same every time you open it. The icons stay the same, unless they have a little overlay telling you to do something with them. And so on.

Now in the middle of a technical session I just let that statement drift by, but it stuck with me afterwards, and I kept turning it over. Hence this post. At face value it seemed a bit odd – our eyes are constantly bombarded with hugely diverse information from the world around us. But then I started thinking some more. It’s not just to do with the light falling into our eyes, or the biology of how our visual receptors handle that – our image of the world is the end result of a very complex series of processing steps inside our nervous system.

House By Beach - quick sketch
House By Beach – quick sketch

A child’s picture of a face, or a person, is instantly recognisable as such, even though reduced to a few schematic shapes. A sketch artist will make a few straight lines and a curve, and we know we are looking at a house beside a beach, even though there are no colours or textures to help us. The animal kingdom shows us the same thing. Show a toad a horizontal line moving sideways, and it reacts as though it was a worm. Turn the line vertical and move it in the same way, and the toad ignores it (see this Wikipedia article or this video for details). Arrange a dark circle over a mouse and increase its size, and it reacts with fear and aggression, as though something was looming over it (see this article, in the section headed Visual threat cues).

https://78.media.tumblr.com/d9d3e010a958fbd345007c823d3d6580/tumblr_oojho5wyH31udk21ko1_500.jpg
Toad: Mystery Science Theatre 3000

It’s not difficult to see why – if you think you might be somebody’s prey, you react to the first sign of the predator. If you’re wrong, all you’ve lost is some time and adrenalin. If you ignore the first signs and you’re wrong, it’s game over!

So it makes sense that our visual sense, including nervous system as well as eyes, reduces the world to a few key features. We skim over fine detail at first glance, and only really notice it when we need to – when we deliberately turn our attention to it.

Also,there’s something to be learned from how light and sound work differently for us. At a very fundamental level, light adds up to give a single composite result. We mix red and yellow paint to give orange, or red and green light on a computer screen to give yellow. The colour tints, or the light waves, add up to make a single average colour. Not so with sound. Play the note middle C on a keyboard, then start playing the G above it. You end up with a chordyou don’t end up with a single note which is a blend of the two. So adding visual signals, and adding audible ones, give completely different effects.

Finally, the range of what we can perceive is entirely different. The most extreme violet light that we can see has about twice the frequency of the most extreme red. Doubling frequency gives us an octave change, so that means we can see one octave of visible light out of the entire spectrum. But a keen listener under ideal circumstances can hear a range of seven or eight octaves of sound, from about 12 Hz to nearly 30kHz. Some creatures do a bit better than us in both light and sound detection, but the basic message is the same – we hear a much more varied spectrum than we see.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Now, the technical message behind that speaker’s statement related to Alexa skills. To retain a user’s interest, the skill has to not sound the same every time. The eye prefers repetition, so our phone apps look the same each time we start them. But the ear prefers variety, so our voice skills have to mirror that, and say something a little bit different each time.

I wonder how that applies to writing?

The Music of Iluvatar – part 2

Cover, The Two Towers (Goodreads)
Cover, The Two Towers (Goodreads)

Last week I talked about one of the “standard patterns” of poetry that JRR Tolkien uses in The Lord of the Rings. That was where the poem was written in successive pairs of lines each with 4 metrical beats – stressed syllables. That form is used by elves of Rivendell, and also hobbits, men, and even barrow wights, with varying levels of irregular straying from the basic pulse. The rhyming schemes vary a little, and seem less fundamental in Tolkien’s thought than the metre. My belief is that Tolkien used this commonality of pattern as a tangible outworking of his mythological position that the world was created by musical harmony.

But not all poems – not even all elvish poems – use this 4+4 pattern. The second common form is 4+3, where the second line of each couplet has one less stressed syllable than the first. Some of my absolute favourite poems of the entire trilogy are built on this pattern. It comes into full flower with the elves of Lorien, but in fact we first meet it in Sauron’s ring poem (albeit quite irregular):

One Ring to rule them all
One Ring to find them
One Ring to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them

And also with Tom Bombadil, who amongst all his apparently nonsense rhyming actually turns out a lot of metrical regularity:

Hop along my little friends
Up the Withywindle
Tom’s going on ahead
candles for to kindle

The Forest of Lothlorien in Spring (Tolkien Estate, via The Tolkien Gateway)
The Forest of Lothlorien in Spring (Tolkien Estate, via The Tolkien Gateway)

But it is after we leave Rivendell, and especially when we start to cross the Misty Mountains that this pattern comes into its own. A whole string of poems, sung by different people from different cultures, use the 4+3 pattern to build their poetry.

For example, Legolas sings of Nimrodel on the borders of Lothlorien:

An Elven-maid there was of old,
A shining star by day:
Her mantle white was hemmed with gold,
Her shoes of silver-grey.

And, perhaps preeminently, it appears in Galadriel’s song:

I sang of leaves, of leaves of gold,
and leaves of gold there grew:
Of wind I sang, a wind there came,
and in the branches blew.

The Lament sung for Boromir, partly each by Aragorn and Legolas, is based on 4+3 with occasional unstressed syllables thrown in:

Through Rohan over fen and field
where the long grass grows
From the mouths of the Sea the South Wind blows
from the sandhills and the stones
From the cradle of Kings the North Wind blows
and past the roaring falls

And when we move across to the forest of Fangorn, we find that the Ents are also adept at 4+3:

When Spring unfolds the beechen leaf,
and sap is in the bough;
When light is on the wild wood stream,
and wind is on the brow

or

O rowan fair, upon your hair
how white the blossom lay

Both of these are laments, or at least sad songs, and the Ents certainly could create 4+4 songs as well:

To Isengard, though Isengard
be ringed and barred with doors of stone

– of course, this is a marching song so pretty much has to have an even pulse.

But others on the eastern side of the mountains use 4+4 as well: Gimli’s song at the start of the journey through Moria is like this:

The world was young, the mountains green
no stain yet on the Moon was seen

Others too, including Gandalf and Galadriel, turn out 4+4 when the occasion requires.

So, although I was originally speculating that Tolkien had intended the change in Elvish poetry patterns to be geographical – West and East of the Misty Mountains using different rhythms – this does not seem to be systematically followed through. It seems to me that it is more likely to be related to mood or subject matter. Many of the 4+3 examples are laments, or describing the decline of the old ways, whereas the 4+4 are more historical or didactic in nature. Either way, we have two clear root metrical patterns for the various ancient inhabitants of Middle Earth. Are these the first two themes of the Music of Iluvatar?

Which all brings us to human poetry,  especially as our slow read has just brought us to Edoras, and the poetry of the Rohirrim. As I hope I have convinced you by now, the 4+4 and 4+3 metrical patterns dominate the poetry we have seen up until now. But you’ll have to wait a while to find out what will happen next. I’m going to leave human material for another post when our slow read through the book has got further into the kingdoms of men…

The East Gate of Moria (The Tolkien Estate, via The Tolkien Gateway)
The East Gate of Moria (The Tolkien Estate, via The Tolkien Gateway)

Simile and metaphor

I am still reading through The Inklings and King Arthur, and in all probability will be doing so for a few months to come (alongside other book, sof course). It is a very rich and stimulating book which touches on all manner of different topics.

Cover - The Inklings and King Arthur (Amazon)
Cover – The Inklings and King Arthur (Amazon)

For today I want to look at several different ways in which word images are used. The standard textbook definitions of simile and metaphor are that a simile is explicitly introduced with a word – usually “like” or “as” – but a metaphor is just presented directly. So it’s comparatively easy to spot a simile – “he ran like the wind“, “his grip was as hard as bell-metal“. But by the same token, a simile is soon over. Once the link is set up, it is pretty clear… so long as you understand the reference, there’s not a lot to add. It might be strikingly effective in its setting, but it’s soon over.

But a metaphor is usually much more open-ended, and often opens up other dimensions for the reader to explore. “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” I wonder what different people take from that metaphor of Romeo’s? That she is bright, warm, life-giving, brings wakefulness after sleep? Or that she is easily hidden behind clouds, and that too much of her tends to burn you?

The Flight of Icarus (Gowy, Wikipedia)
The Flight of Icarus (Gowy, Wikipedia)

We bring our own history into a metaphor as we engage with it. So the person who is at the tail end of a long dark winter will read it differently to the person on a summer beach on holiday. Icarus would certainly have a different opinion!

When an author uses a simile, it is generally low-risk. The likeness is presented in a sentence, or perhaps a paragraph, and then it is gone. About the only thing that can go wrong with it is if people don’t understand the point of reference, or if the comparison is so laughable as to be absurd rather than stimulating. The annual “bad sex scene” writing awards often attract prizes when bizarre similes are used for various body parts.

But a metaphor usually permeates much more of a book. It might shape the whole storyline, or suggest features in the background which the author chooses not to specifically focus on. A common one is to use seasons to suggest emotional content: “Now is the winter of our discontent“. The writer can glide without much effort between the literal meaning of a word or concept, the associations that a reader draws in from experience, and the way that events in the book are playing out. Some authors construct very thorough associations between the two ends of the metaphorical connection.

This can make it what I called high risk – if a reader misses the link (which has never been highlighted explicitly by the author), or does not understand the connection, or finds it implausible, it’s not just an odd paragraph that suffers but potentially the whole plot. Some readers are very concrete, very literal in their approach, and don’t get the point of a metaphor. They want everything to be direct rather than indirect. For such readers, a high metaphorical content is frustrating and pointless. Readers differ, and while some will love a book which constantly points away from itself into other metaphorically connected worlds, others will not.

Cover - The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Goodreads)
Cover – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Goodreads)

Now, the Inklings in their own writing used metaphor on lots of levels (as well as simile). Tolkein and Lewis were both highly trained scholars in academia, and it is natural that their knowledge of old source materials informs what they wrote. So their writing can be read on lots of levels. You can certainly come at them just as stories, and when one encounters them as a child or young person that is just how most of us respond. But on rereading, other dimensions come into play. Both of those authors wanted to create a world which seemed to readers to be real, with a deep and rich history behind the events on the page. Metaphor helped them to create such worlds.

Seasonal metaphors are certainly present – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe would not be the same story if we didn’t recognise and respond to the nature pictures of ice gripping the land and yielding to the sun. Aslan’s title of Son of the Emperor over the Sea pulls on two millennia of Christian imagery, and also the happy accident of the English language that Son and Sun are so alike. Frodo’s journey out from the Shire in The Lord of the Rings would not have been the same if it had happened in spring or early summer, rather than late autumn turning to winter.

It is not my purpose here to list all of the metaphors used by either author – that would be a prodigiously long task – but to highlight that they both, along with many others, used metaphors to liven and enrich their writing.

Text and intertext

I have just started reading a non-fiction book entitled The Inklings and King Arthur: J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain. It’s not a catchy title, but so far I am hugely enjoying the content. As you might expect, it’s academic in tone, consisting of a series of essays by different people all around how the various members of “The Inklings” approached and reworked Arthurian material. And inevitably it has provoked my own thinking in various ways.

The (major) Inklings (PInterest https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/369717450630781095/)
The (major) Inklings (PInterest https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/369717450630781095/)

The four men mentioned in the book title had very different views on life, religion and indeed most matters, but they were united on a few quite specific areas. One was that modern life as they witnessed it emerging was poor as regards its mythological underpinnings. Another was that the Arthurian legends – the Matter of Britain – were worth keeping alive, and retelling in ways relevant to their society.

Now, one of the fascinating things about Arthurian tales is that they are in constant conflict with one another. There is no original text, no authoritative canon of tales against which some particular version can be compared. Each subsequent reteller selects the pieces they want and rejects other pieces. They put the same characters into new settings, or mix up participants in a venture. The collection of stories is hugely diverse and contradictory. What’s more, as you push back in time to look for some point of origin, the picture becomes more confusing, not less. Some of the early traditions come from England, but others from Wales, France, and Scotland, and in many cases the direction of derivation can no longer be decide with confidence.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail cover (IMDB)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail cover (IMDB)

Authors drawing on the Arthurian tradition over the years since then have carried this habit on. Arthur and his knights have been cast into all kinds of different settings – futuristic, fantastic, or resolutely historical. Tolkein, Lewis and the other Inklings did the same – they borrowed bits and pieces as they saw fit, renamed individuals and recombined them in different settings, and energised the ongoing collection of tales with their own contributions.

Now this recombination of elements of older pieces of writing into newer ones is often called intertextuality. Usually it is a conscious choice on the part of an author, but sometimes it is unconscious, and simply reflects deep familiarity with the sources. That’s from the author’s perspective. Looked at from the reader’s point of view, it means that associations and emotions triggered by the older works are drawn forward into the newer ones.

Christopher Lee as Saruman (http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Saruman)
Christopher Lee as Saruman (http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Saruman)

A similar process happens in film. If you have seen an actor play in a particularly striking role in one film, it is all but impossible not to see that previous character in the new one. Film-makers are, of course, well aware of this, and it often drives casting decisions. So when Christopher Lee appears as Saruman in the film version of Lord of the Rings, his previous roles in horror films constantly cast shadows around him.

Back with books and the Arthurian tradition, it has been argued that this ability to be reshaped into so many different forms is exactly what has kept it alive for so long, and through so many social changes. A fixed story that allows only one telling will wither and die, as the circumstances that gave birth to it fade into the past. By analogy with biology, successful stories are those which can adapt to new environments and new pressures.

Cover - DC Comics futuristic graphic novel retelling (Barnes and Noble)
Cover – DC Comics futuristic graphic novel retelling (Barnes and Noble)

All of which makes the quest for a historical Arthur, however interesting from a historian’s viewpoint, a rather pointless exercise from the literary one. Of course there are fascinating stories of Arthur and his companions to be told from a historical perspective – say a fifth or sixth century military leader after the Romans have left and before the Saxons consume the land. I have read some of those stories, and enjoyed them. But there are other stories of Arthur which are rooted in fantasy and magic, or where the quest for the Grail takes the questers out of our ordinary world. And stories where the company is located in another place and time. Or science fiction versions where the physical connection with England is at best tenuous. And the magic of intertextuality means that none of these are more or less proper than a conventional historical fiction version.

Variations on history

Last week I spoke about science fiction and fantasy, and the crossover world between them. Today I want to look at another genre which offers a twist on the normal world. Many of my author friends write historical fiction – stories based around real historical contexts or people.

Cover - In a Milk and Honeyed Land
Cover – In a Milk and Honeyed Land

My own series of Late Bronze books, which were my first real foray into writing books at all, fit neatly into that category. Kephrath, the town at the centre of those three books, is a real place, and the wider events fit in with one interpretation of the scanty historical record. The people I describe are credible for their place and time, but they are imaginary. Obviously I’d like Damariel, the village priest and seer, to have really lived in history, but we don’t know, and probably will never know for sure.

Now, by setting those books at the end of the Late Bronze Age – around 1200BC or so – I gave myself a huge advantage. This wasn’t my original motive: I simply liked that part of history and wanted to approach it in fiction. But the unexpected advantage is that our knowledge of that time is very scant.

Ramesses II at the Battle of Qadesh (Wikipedia)
Ramesses II at the Battle of Qadesh (Wikipedia)

Serious academic debates take place over how to understand particular texts, or how to reconcile apparent contradictions. The regnal dates of Egyptian pharaohs are often speculative by years or even decades (despite the seemingly definitive values often written in books or web pages), and that uncertainty multiplies when you look to other nations. Accurate details of anybody lower in rank than the most elite are extremely sparse. So I am writing in a place where fixed facts are scattered very sparsely.

Now many of my friends do not have this luxury. They are writing in places and times where recorded facts hem them in on all sides. Their stories are still fiction, but their characters often have little freedom of action in their densely packed surroundings.

This wouldn’t matter so much – after all, a story is a story, you’d think. But a small number of reviewers are ruthless in their critique of perceived anachronisms, and waste no opportunity to highlight them. Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy research along with everyone else – but one feels that such reviewers miss the point that they are, in fact, reading fiction. I am sure that this is a tiny minority of the total readership, but they seem to exert undue influence, certainly over the sensibilities and anxieties of authors.

I have every respect for authors who, despite these difficulties, persevere in writing about places and times that they thoroughly love. And I’m certainly not suggesting that those who write other kinds of books are simply trying to avoid trouble: all of us in the indie world write what we do because that’s what we want to write about! But it is interesting that there are other close relatives of historical fiction which avoid some of the pitfalls.

Cover - Pavane (Goodreads)
Cover – Pavane (Goodreads)

There’s alternate history – at some point in the past, events diverged from what we know. A classic of this kind is Pavane, by Keith Roberts, where the timeline branches with the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I. But there are many others – probably the best known to many readers of this blog will be Alison Morton’s Roma Nova series. History unfolds a bit like our own… but also a bit different, and depending on the intention of the author either the similarities or the differences can be centre stage. So long as the world is internally consistent and convincing – which is no simple job – it doesn’t really matter if the facts get , let us say, jumbled up.

Cover - The Lions of Al-Rassan (Goodreads)
Cover – The Lions of Al-Rassan (Goodreads)

Another option is historical fantasy – a setting from history is chosen, but with a twist. The twist can be to take seriously beliefs and assumptions of a past age – such as the reality of magic, for example. Or it can be a much more radical departure. Guy Gavriel Kay, in The Lions of Al-Rassan, presented what was essentially the complex political and religious situation in Moorish Spain as Christianity started to recover territory. And yet… it also isn’t that. The world isn’t quite true to that portion of our own history, but has its own quirks and direction. (I read it with a book club, and it didn’t quite work for me as a novel, but I have every admiration for the feat of imagination involved.

Science fiction occasionally gets in on the act, as well. Ursula LeGuin used her considerable knowledge of sociology and anthropology to root her alien cultures in a credible past. So one of the cultures in Rocannon’s World is a bit like meeting Medieval Europeans… but again, it’s not quite like meeting them. And fantasy novels of course need a plausible culture to root themselves in, whether that be the familiar territory of elves and orcs, or something from elsewhere in the world.

Meanwhile, of course, there are those brave souls who set their books in this world, in a real part of history, and with their characters surrounded by real historical individuals. For my part, if and when I return to history from the intoxicating world of science fiction, it will probably be back in the ancient past – much longer ago than the comparatively recent times of the Late Bronze Age. We shall see.

Science fiction and fantasy

Over the weekend I came across one of those many internet tropes – a quote from someone, on a pretty background, with no interpretive comment by the poster. I must admit that normally I ignore these and scroll past them to a post which has more engagement with a real person. But this one did actually catch my eye, mainly because it resonated with what I was already thinking about.

Here’s the quote (without the pretty background)

“Science fiction deals with improbable possibilities, fantasy with plausible impossibilities” (Miriam Allen deFord)

Cover image - Xenogenesis (Goodreads)
Cover image – Xenogenesis (Goodreads)

Of course I started worrying at this, like a lively dog chewing at a toy. Leaving aside the rather pleasing symmetry of words, did I actually agree with it? The lady to whom the quote is attributed was an American writer whose main activity was in the mid-twentieth century. She was roughly contemporary with EE (Doc) Smith, a generation down from HG Wells, and rather older than Isaac Asimov. Most of her writing was in the form of short stories for magazines, though she wrote a few novels as well. She straddled the genres of mystery writing, true crime accounts, and science fiction – for the curious who don’t want to shell out real money, several of her works are on the Project Gutenberg site.

Isaac Asimov (Wikipedia)
Isaac Asimov (Wikipedia)

So, did I end up agreeing with the sentiment? Well, not really. Miriam Allen deFord was writing in a time when genres were quite strictly defined, especially by those individuals who ran the magazines of the day. Those people were hugely influential within their sphere, and were instrumental in founding the writing careers of a lot of people. But their personal likes and dislikes shaped what was written. Allegedly, Isaac Asimov almost never wrote about alien life because John Campbell, editor at Astounding Science Fiction (later called Analog), had a personal antipathy to that kind of storyline. In Asimov’s case, the habit was so strong that, so far as I can recall, aliens appear just twice in his writing – in a parallel universe in The Gods Themselves, and in an enormously far ahead future in The End of Infinity.

Cover - The Buried Giant (Goodreads)
Cover – The Buried Giant (Goodreads)

We live today in a different world. Genres do not create such important divisions. This is most true in the indie world, but successful authors in the trad world also experiment with crossing genre boundaries. For example, Kazuo Ishiguro has explored several non-standard plotlines and combinations. But many indie authors positively revel in creating books which don’t fit traditional pigeonholes.

Nowadays, science fiction and fantasy are often bundled together under the joint heading “speculative fiction”, with less perceived importance on whether the particular book fits one side or the other of some imaginary line. To be sure, there is still a spectrum of actual content, from “hard” science fiction in which the science bit seeks to be as credible as possible, through to fantasy which does not even seek a rational justification for actions or attributes. Most of my science fiction writing leans towards the geeky end of that spectrum, with Half Sick of Shadows a striking exception. Anyway, within that spectrum there are enormous areas of mixed colour – plot elements for which either a scientific or fantasy explanation might be found, and about which perhaps different characters in the book might hold different opinions. I think that’s fine, and a sign that the whole field has matured from a kind of binary opposition.

Next time – another crossover category…