Sunday, 1 October 2017

Fantasycon 2017

Well, it was touch and go, but I made it to Fantasycon on Saturday. For the previous couple of days, I'd been laid up in bed with a horrible flu/cold/sore throat. Sore throats are the worst, aren't they?

Anyway, I dragged myself onto the bus and arrived at Queensgate bus station, which is a viable contender for the most depressing place in the UK. Fortunately, the Bull Hotel, Fantasycon's venue, was just opposite Queensgate, which was good, because I was in a cold sweat by the time I'd traversed the neoliberal utopian consumer palace that is the shopping centre. The sweats were probably from the flu and not the environment.

The first panel I saw was titled 'Horror: Mastery and Apprenticeship.' This featured Phil Sloman, Mark West, Nina Allen, James Everington, and Ramsey Campbell.

I was especially pleased to see Ramsey, because I've long been a fan of his work but I'd never before seen him in the flesh. I thought, by the way, that he was unduly critical of Midnight Sun in the discussion: I think it's one of his best works.

It was also good to hear from other authors who were new to me: Nina Allen especially seemed to have some useful insights into writing horror fiction, and I will be looking her work up in future.

After this, I went along to a book launch by Newcon press. Newcon, an independent publisher, were releasing several new volumes, including Tanith by Choice, a selection of the sadly missed Tanith Lee's best stories, chosen by a number of her fellow authors.

Storm Constantine was also present to plug a new selection from 'Visionary Tongue,' a magazine project from the 80s and 90s that provided a venue for a number of subsequently high profile fantasy and horror writers.

Storm recently kindly reprinted one of my short stories, as well as providing a positive Amazon review of my short story collection, so it was nice to finally meet and thank her. Events like Fantasycon remind you of how much of a supportive community exists for writers of speculative fiction.

One of my Milford friends, Tiffany Angus, was on the next panel, 'Landscapes in Fantasy,' which also featured Nina Allen, Joanne Hall and Ed McDonald. The discussion focussed upon the effect that landscapes have on character in fiction. Tiffany's specialisation is gardens and fantasy, and she's currently launching a new MA in Science fiction at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge.

I was also intrigued by Ed McDonald's description of his novel, Blackwing, which I'll also be reading at some point. There seemed to be a panel consensus that residing in Bury St Edmunds induces a fascination with apocalyptic landscapes!

After lunch, I hung around in the dealers room for a bit and spent far too much money. One of the best things about dealer's rooms is that you get to see the range and quality of the current small press scene, which is generally wide and high. I picked up a some Ramsey Campbell volumes from PS publishing and the latest InterzoneBlack Static and Shoreline of Infinity magazines. I also bought an intriguing new SF Collection from Unsung Stories press called 2084.

The last panel I visited concerned short fiction, This featured Allen Ashley, Stephen Bacon, Tim Major, Pat Cadigan, Adam Millard and Lynda Rucker. It was especially good to see Pat Cadigan, who has had cancer and details her struggles on her blog. Her bravery with this serious illness put me to shame with my weedy post-flu drooping.

There was plenty of practical, useful advice on submitting short stories here (including the advice to avoid markets who pay less than the professional SFWA rates). It was also useful to hear from writers who specialise in shorts as opposed to novels. Compared to around 2000, when I had my first successes, the short story market today actually seems stronger and more diverse. This is largely, I think, a benefit of the internet.

After this panel, I said goodbye to some Milford friends in the hotel bar and then returned to the dire bus station.

Then, home.

Well, nearly: two young men managed to collide their car with the bus on the large roundabout outside Queensgate. Fortunately, they weren't hurt (and I honestly don't see how they managed to collide with the bus in the first place), but it meant that we had to return to the bus station and wait for the next one.

Once home, I went straight to bed and collapsed into a dreamless sleep until midnight when the cat pawed my face and yowled for munchies.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Milford Live Blog 2

Well, this is the second live blog from Milford. Finished critiquing this morning, ready for this afternoon's session. Also just finished a High Intensity Interval Training session which will hopefully displace some of the dietary excess of this week.

It's just occurred to me that random reader might not know what Milford involves. Basically, it's for writers of speculative fiction who have at least one professional sale under their belts. Each attendee can submit up to 15,000 words, either one or two pieces that can be novel excerpts or short stories. The critiquing sessions involve sitting in a big circle (see panorama above). Each person gets three minutes to offer comments on a story or novel portion, and the writer gets to respond at the end.

If this sounds nerve-wracking for delicate creative types, it can be. However, it's also a very useful learning exercise both for the critters and the victims. When critting you learn how to look at your own work in a different way, which makes self-editing better. When being critiqued you get a better idea of how a particular piece of work is going to be perceived. So it's useful from both ends.

This year, as I mentioned in the previous post, the standards have been intimidatingly high. I've had both of my pieces done, and gotten away fairly lightly, I think, with some fairly positive critiques. I think the process works when the comments direct you clearly towards things that need changing. It can, however be confusing if everybody offers contradictory advice. This year, however, it's been fairly clear what I need to change and I hope my comments have been helpful to others, too.

Critting is hard work. Below is me after a week's worth, early in the morning with probably too much stubble.

But in some ways I think the true value of Milford goes far beyond the critiques. Writing in the big, cruel allegedly real world can be a fairly lonely business. The primary thing I've got out of it is a sense of community, and affirmation that what I'm doing is worthwhile.

It's also wonderful to be around pretty smart people who are concerned with similar things to myself -- the way the world is going, the exploration of both inner and outer space, and our long-term survival as a species. Most of all, it's great to be around creatives who have enthusiasm for what they do. Anyway, blogger is playing up again and I'm going a bit cross eyed. Until next time!

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Live from Milford SF Writer's Conference!

This year, I swore that I'd write a live personal blog from Milford SF Writer's conference at Trigonos, Snowdonia, Wales, and here it is. Forgive the old pic: I can't get Blogspot to access my photo album on this iPad, and if you want to see some new ones, check my Twitter feed.

This year, as usual, we've got a good crowd. It is always pleasant to see old friends, and also to make the acquaintance of new ones. This year, there are two recipients of a Writers of Colour Bursary present, and they're not only charming people but also extremely good writers. Generally speaking, actually, the story quality has been extremely high this year.

In some ways, I feel rather fortunate actually being here at all. Gremlins seemed to be working full time, prior to arrival. The day before I left, my car developed a fault, which meant that I had to take it into the garage. The cat was very cross with me for leaving her at kennels.

Then, on the journey, the trains were delayed, meaning that connections were missed.

Fortunately, I met up with a fellow Milford attendee, T, at Birmingham, and we were able to rearrange group taxi rides at the other end. We arrived at Bangor only an hour later or so than we had originally planned.

We used the time stuck on trains and platforms to catch up and to have discussions about contemporary SF. I think that we both feel that a portion of current SF seems stuck in the past, whilst the 21st century unfolds about us. One particular unfolding was especially concerning T: family had evacuated their homes due to Hurricane Irma, which was raging as we travelled. It's hard to believe in techno-utopias when it's obvious that we've fouled our own nest.

Milford is held annually at a teaching centre in Snowdonia called Trigonos, which is a very chilled out environment where you're fed extremely well. There's a largish lake at the bottom of the garden and you can see Snowdon on the rare clear days. It is also apparently, the site of one of the stories in the Mabinogion and certainly feels like fairyland at times.

The format at Milford is that the mornings are free and the afternoons are devoted to critiquing. This is a good thing because as usual, I'm behind in my note-writing.

I've decided that I'm quite right-brained (holistic, overviewy) in my critiques: I tend to see the stories as a whole, and neglect details that other critters will pick up on. Those other critters seem to have the opposite tendency: small details get latched upon whilst the whole tends to be neglected. Both styles, of course, can be useful to a writer being critted. I hope!

I mentioned this theory at breakfast, and someone commented that the left brain-right brain thing had been exploded. Actually, the whole question has recently been re examined in a fascinating book by Iain McGilchrist called 'The Master and His Emmisary.' The general idea is that the two hemispheres give us the capacity to attend upon the world in two ways. The first mode of attention is geared towards manipulation, and to breaking up the world into comprehensible pieces. The second is concerned with detecting general changes in the environment and so is more holistic.

The upshot is that the world is presented to us in two ways, which can coincide but also contradict. McGilchrist suggests that it's best when the two sides of ourselves are made to work together, and that things tend to go wrong when one side dominates over the other. In fiction writing terms, I think we need both modes: the holistic mode for creation and a view of the rounded whole of the work, and the more analytical side to work through plots and problems.

Anyway, so far it's been fun if a bit exhausting. It's also chucked it down with rain; I've already fallen on my arse at least once. However, it is beautiful and very peaceful here. If Samye ling's my own personal Shangri-La, Milford's probably Arcadia. Or maybe Annwyn!

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Birthday Wishes

A funny birthday. As I stagger from my bed, lurch towards my Zimmer frame and hobble towards the kitchen, the usual demented birthday optimism has descended upon me like a miasmic cloud.

44. Wow. Not quite another milestone birthday, but I tell you what they do mount up, don't they?

Still, despite various disasters and periodic illness, I've actually achieved quite a lot over the previous year, in writing primarily. I've finished a draft novel which has so far received some positive feedback amongst my trusted readers. I've written several new short stories and actually submitted a couple. I've published a book review in Strange Horizons, and a couple of Milford blogs.

I've presented a paper on SETI and consciousness at the Manchester UKSRN symposium, and have helped put together a book proposal with three other editors, including one of my SF heroes. Oh, and I've met a number of very highly-placed and influential people involved in futurist/SETI/space activities. (That was actually quite intimidating. I felt like a dunce listening to some of them).

I've been on a podcast.

On the personal training front, I've leant a hell of a lot about helping people with exercise conditions. I've actually helped inspire confidence in people, which is at least good karma.

Travel has been limited this year, but I've made it up to Samye Ling a couple of times. Just outside the year threshold (i.e. it was last August), I got to visit Whitby, the mist-shrouded Dracula seaside town, for the first time ever.

So here, in this high place overlooking my personal universe, things aren't actually quite as terrible as they've seemed at times. One major theme of this year, actually, has been an increasing disengagement from the general awfulness of living in an increasingly xenophobic UK that's poised to leave the EU and float off, rudderless into the Atlantic somewhere. (Not to mention living in a world where a possibly genuinely mad president has an itchy trigger finger on the nuclear button).

I don't like what's happening, not by a long shot, but I've realised that I can't let that paralyse me anymore. Yesterday, I re-read Robert Anton Wilson's essay Ten Good Reasons to Get Out of Bed in the Evening, which is basically an argument for optimism or at least positive volition during grim times.

Wilson's optimism is infectious. I first read the essay when suicidally depressed in the mid 1990s, and I can truly say that it saved my life. In some ways, his points are similar to the ones Lama Yeshe made to me recently (see last blog).

One of the most potent reasons he mentions is the 'self fulfilling prophecy.' One of the (many) issues I have with political positions labelled 'reactionary' or 'conservative' is their underlying gloominess. Specifically, they seem to draw their view of human nature from Thomas Hobbes, who saw people as basically selfish, atomised, power hungry individuals in perpetual war with each other.

The problem is that if you see people and the world in this way, you're in danger of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Expect a world full of mean, selfish and horrible people, and that's what you'll get.

In contrast to this, Wilson mentions Buckminster Fuller, who, a 'failure' at 32, made a conscious decision to devote his life to helping the whole of humanity. He ended up a highly successful 'design scientist' who had a carbon molecule named after him. His discovery? That he was more successful the more he tried to help the whole of humanity and not just himself.

In this spirit, I'd like to name some wishes/goals for the next year.

1. I want whatever I do to actually benefit increasing circles of people, whether in a practical way or aesthetically through my art.
2. I do, finally, want to begin making a transition to a fully freelance career on a paying basis and do this in benign cooperation with others. I reject the Capitalist mode of dog eat dog competition (and Lama Yeshe said I could so I have some official endorsement for this, okay?)
3. Some success in actually, physically getting someone to publish my fiction.
4. To do a significant and challenging expedition. At this point, that looks like the tour of Mont Blanc.
5. Maintain and build physical/mental health and wellbeing.
6. Do some more bloody painting!
7. I'd also like to be less judgmental towards those who do not share my political views. (Except of course for fascists, racists and homophobes. I'm quite happy strongly opposing them).
8. I want, as an interconnected, transient node of humanity, to have a generally benign influence on those about me, including other species (especially cats, but that's another story).
9. Advance in my meditation practise and maybe even have a mystical experience or two!
10. Have more fun and not take things so seriously.
10b. Oh, yes, and go to at least one music festival and/or pride march.

Monday, 21 August 2017

…In which Matt is told to buck his ideas up by a Tibetan Lama

 Returned from Samye Ling on Saturday, after a brief visit this time. My stay still had the desired effect — all that meditation in the temple seems to spring clean my brain, despite it still being quite hard work re. back pain and a numb bottom. This time, too, I got to meet the Abbot, who gave me some sage advice and answered some long standing questions that I had.

Lama Yeshe Yosal, the Abbot, is the brother of the sadly deceased Akong Rinpoche, who, along with Chogyam Tungpa founded Samye Ling fifty years ago. Lama Yeshe's life story is extraordinary.  In 1959, he fled Tibet after the Chinese invasion with his brother and 300 others. This journey over the Himalayas was difficult, and all but 13 had starved to death by the time they arrived in India.

He arrived in Scotland, at Samye Ling, in the 1960s with the help of his brother and Chogyam Trungpa. After a rebellious youth, he was ordained by the 16th Karmapa, the head of the Kagyu lineage, in 1980. He's been the abbot since his brother's death in 2013.

I’d seen him about the place previously, and also presiding over some of the morning meditations, but I had never spoken to him before. After requesting a meeting at reception, I was sent up to a room outside his office, where there were several people already waiting. I felt a bit like a naughty boy at school, sent to the headmaster. I also realised that I had about a thousand things I’d like to ask him and hadn't a clue where to start.

When I was called in, I sat down opposite the Lama, who was dressed in traditional monk’s robes and sported a long white goatee. My mind went completely blank when he asked me why I wanted to see him. So after a moment fumbling about, I talked to him about my problems with depression, and anxiety.

He tutted and said that I needed to look at things more positively, and that how people treated me in the world depended upon how I was inside.  He also suggested that much of the trouble I encountered was due to the state of my mind, so I had some inner work to do.

Then he said something that stuck in my mind. He said that I did not need to compete with anyone. This was a tremendous relief. I find the 'dog eat dog' nature of Anglo-Saxon countries very distressing, and dislike the forced competitiveness of professional life. In fact, I'd say that aggressive competition is currently tearing the UK apart, and that we all need to find a less destructive way of meeting our needs.

The content of much of what he said impressed me less than the way he said it. He came across as a laid back, genuine, and kind man who seemed incredibly positive given his history. I am not sure I would have been in such a good psychological state if my country had been invaded and I'd had to flee halfway across the world.

I got to ask a couple of other questions that had been niggling me lately. One concerned karma and rebirth.

This is a subject that I mention with some reluctance. Rational people are supposed to summarily dismiss afterlife beliefs, aren't they? But I had to attend a number of funerals last year, and I find that one naturally asks these sorts of questions whilst grieving.

Karma simply refers to cause and effect, and is a far more complex a theory than many realise. It is linked to rebirth because the basic idea is that our actions in this life will eventually determine the condition and state of our next life (Traleg Kyabgon's What is Karma, what it isn't, why it matters is a good reference for this).

Tibetan buddhists do not believe in a ‘soul’ that travels from body to body, but instead in continuity between lives. This continuity is supposed to happen because a ‘bundle’ of psychic tendencies is transferred to a new life after the old one has finished. The image commonly used is an old candle lighting a new one.

Anyway, I asked Lama Yeshe how you could know that rebirth was real. He pointed out that karma was something that was not material, so would not show up on brain scans. I suppose that he meant that it was a matter of faith.

Well, maybe. Part of me would like to think that bits of my psyche will get recycled in another life; it has more appeal than mere oblivion. (Although, as Terry Pratchett observed, learning to potty train for the nth time does not seem especially appealing).

On the other hand, I’m aware of the formidable arguments against life after death. The primary problem is that our consciousness seems intimately dependent upon a functioning brain.

In his book, Kyabgon appeals to Near Death Experiences and the Reincarnation cases investigated by Ian Stevenson and others as evidence for rebirth. The problem is that there are fierce debates over the interpretation of this evidence.

Briefly, one side interprets NDEs/Reincarnation claims in terms of anomalous psychology, the dying brain, false memories, fantasies, and so on, and the other sees them as possible evidence for some form of Survival. There is no consensus amongst the debaters; but most neuroscientists would consider the idea of Survival so unlikely that they probably wouldn't even bother to investigate these claims.

My own, reluctant, view is that whilst Tibetan views on consciousness need to be taken seriously and treated with respect, that I must concur with Arthur C. Clarke, who classified reincarnation and Survival as ‘almost certainly untrue’ according to our current state of knowledge. I would not, however, class karma/rebirth as obviously impossible, simply because we do not know all of the laws of the universe.

It might be that some additional factor is present that could explain the apparent contradiction between brain function and, for example, Ian Stevenson’s cases. However, it could also be that this evidence has been misinterpreted by its advocates, and can be explained in mundane terms. I simply do not know.

Finally, I asked Lama Yeshe about the correct response to the bad political situations in the world outside. How should we respond, I wondered, to those who seem determined to lead us into war. Here, his answer was more satisfying. He suggested to me that if we let our mind get dominated by negative emotions, we’re effectively joining those who wish to lead us into chaos and war. This happens, he suggested, with those who have weak minds and are easily led. If we strengthen our mind, and build compassion, we will not be so deceived.

As I said, Lama Yeshe's manner impressed me more than the actual content of his advice. His good mood was infectious, and by the end, mine had brightened significantly.

The next morning, before breakfast, I was reading in the Johnstone house when the Lama happened to walk past. He asked me what I was reading,  and recommended that I look at the Karmapa's latest book on interdependence. (The 17th Karmapa, a young man of 32, recently visited London for the first time). Interconnectedness, the Lama suggested, is something that our culture struggles with. I've no arguments there!

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Matt on the Existential Files: Some further thoughts....

A couple of weeks ago, I had an enjoyable chat with Louie Savva and Matthew Smith on the Existential Files podcast.

According to the home page, The Existential Files follows

 "the Rick-and-Morty-esque adventures of Dr Matthew Smith and Dr Louie Savva as they explore the universe. Louie is the Rick-like misanthropic atheist and existential nihilist. Matthew, Morty-esque with his ever so slightly naive take on existence. Together, the two of them delve into parallel dimensions, ask why the universe exists, what the meaning of life is, and generally ask every question under the sun!"

...which is basically the impression I got when appearing on the podcast.

Podcasts are fun, but they can also be a little nerve-wracking. Before, during and after this one I found myself agonising over the points that I was trying to make. I'm a terrible second-guesser. As soon as the words have escaped my mouth I quite often find myself wondering things like, did I really mean that? Is that really what I feel or believe? Did what I just say really, effectively communicate my thoughts? It's, after all, so easy to be misunderstood.

In addition, I'm not one of those people who feel a high degree of certainty about any of my views, on anything. The longer that I live, the more baffled I am by pretty much everything. And as soon as I do settle on one point of view, I tend to start doubting myself. This, I suppose, is probably suspicious and even infuriating to those who profess metaphysical certainty.

As you'll hear, my views on various things differ significantly from Louie in some respects. I think our main bone of contention is over his hardline existentialist worldview.

Back in 1974, the Nobel prize winning biochemist Jacques Monod published a book entitled Chance and Necessity, where he claimed that it was possible to explain everything through a combination of the laws of physics ('necessity') and chance (life as a cosmic accident). To Monod, life is an absurd quirk, and we are alienated beings in a hostile universe:

"Man must wake out of his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. He must realise that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world, a world that is deaf to his music, as as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his sufferings and crimes."

But this world picture seems questionable. What Monod and other writers do is over-inflate the results of evolutionary biology, physics and chemistry, mix in some very cultural biases, and use what are actually rather vague metaphors ('blind chance 'and 'necessity') to explain absolutely everything.

This has long seemed rather suspicious to me. For a start, it's important to distinguish between the very successful and enduring theory of Darwinian natural selection, and this sort of all-encompassing world picture. The facts of science are not the same as the wider world picture that attempts to fit them together. So it is quite possible to accept Darwin's account of evolution (I do, strongly) and to question the wider world picture.

Back in 2012, the philosopher Thomas Nagel rattled a lot of cages by questioning this world-picture, which he termed materialistic reductionism. He did this because of the failure to resolve the more tricky problems of consciousness in conventional, materialist terms. He also reminded us that:

"Humans are addicted to the hope for a final reckoning, but intellectual humility requires that we resist the temptation to assume that tools of the kind we now have are in principle sufficient to understand the universe as a whole." He also pointed out that "...our successors will make discoveries and develop forms of understanding of which we have not dreamt." (Mind and Cosmos, Introduction).

This point alone seems to me a very good reason to be skeptical of anyone who claims to have final answers about life, the universe and everything. See this TED discussion of questions no-one knows that answers to, and tell me whether any kind of certainty is justified:

I must admit that I find the widespread acceptance of the 'absurd' Universe a little puzzling. I suspect that many people, having rejected religion and supernatural forces, feel that they have no choice because it's 'scientific.'

However, it's long seemed a very impoverished world picture to me. This is because the primary aim of such a worldview is negative. The intention is to extinguish any traces of the supernatural -- God, or the soul -- from the Universe. But this 'weedkiller' move leaves what the philosopher Mary Midgley has termed an 'existential vacuum,' which seems to me to be a significant contributor to a widespread sense of alienation.

As I said on the podcast, we need to take alienation seriously. Victor Frankl noted that "such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression and addiction are not understandable unless we recognise the existential vacuum underlying them (Man's Search for Meaning)." He also suggested that "not a few cases of suicide" can be traced back to this vacuum.

For me, anyway, Monod's world picture is actually refuted by Astrobiology. Sure, we're adapted to a relatively tiny portion of the universe, a planetary surface. But modern science shows how intimately we're connected to the universe, and also dependent upon wider, cosmological processes for our very existence. Yes, our existence is temporary, yes it's fragile, and yes, suffering and evil are part of that existence. But the dark side is not the whole story.

It seems to me that a more positive take on the findings of modern science would emphasise our deep connections to the universe, and could go a long way to healing the existential vacuum. This, perhaps would be a more constructive approach than more puritanical forms of existentialism.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Guest Blog on Milford 2

Click here to go to my second Guest Blog for Milford Science Fiction Writers. This one's about keeping the joy in your writing as you develop a professional career. I hope it helps budding authors!