Category Archives: books

HOPE ISLAND available on NetGalley

Here’s a new way for bloggers, reviewers, librarians and booksellers to read HOPE ISLAND ahead of publication – Titan Books is now on NetGalley! Click here for all the details if you fit the bill.

HOPE ISLAND is described as:

Hope Island by Tim MajorA gripping supernatural mystery for fans of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos from the author of Snakeskins. Workaholic Nina Scaife is determined to fight for what remains of her family after her partner walks out on her. Relocating to the beautiful but isolated Hope Island is not the fix she had hoped for. Struggling to reconnect with her daughter, the island’s strange silent children begin to lure her away. And then Nina finds the dead body.

By the way, like some other Titan titles, HOPE ISLAND will now have a staggered publication: 5th May in the USA, 8th June in the UK.

It’s not just my novel available – there are five titles in Titan’s initial batch of releases. I’ve been lucky enough to have read two of the books already (as well as the one I wrote, obv). I described EDEN by Tim Lebbon as ‘visceral, cinematic and utterly wild’ and A COSMOLOGY OF MONSTERS by Shaun Hamill as ‘a staggeringly good debut novel, by turns warm and terrifying, tender and devastating’. And while I haven’t read James Brogden’s BONE HARVEST yet, his earlier novels HEKLA’S CHILDREN and THE PLAGUE STONES are some of my favourite recent horror novels. And DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE by Joan He sounds truly awesome too!

The journey of a novel: Snakeskins

I hope you’re all managing in these strangest of times. After the first two weeks of lockdown and homeschooling, my brain’s starting to come alive again, little by little, by which I mean I’m writing again.

I’ll have updates about my next novel, Hope Island, very soon – but for now here’s a turning-back of the clocks by almost a year, to my last novel, Snakeskins. The article below was originally intended to feature in BSFA Focus, but after a mix-up it’s now without a home, so I thought I’d put it up here. It’s an overview of the writing and route to publication, which may be of most interest to upcoming writers.


Beginnings and false starts

In July 2015 I noted the following idea in a Word document:

Instead of the body’s cells gradually being replaced every 7–10 years, it all happens in an instant. This produces a ‘snakeskin’ version of yourself that is able to live independently, for a time. Somebody living a full life might produce eight Snakeskins, each of which continue to live for a short period after being ‘discarded’.

It sounded a rich idea, and even had a title built in. I began writing a story about a teenage girl experiencing her first ‘shedding’, roughly coinciding with her entry to adulthood. The result was… all right. I liked the depiction of the shedding ceremony well enough, but the aftermath felt too brief, constrained by the short story format. I had concentrated on this aspect: Perhaps Snakeskins tend not to be inhibited because they know they have limited time to live. Are they therefore more effective people? But this seemed only one possible repercussion, and more occurred to me over the following days. I wrote this list – the first item no doubt informed by the fact that I was considering quitting my job at the time:

Pros of Snakeskins:

  • You might be able to convince your Snakeskin to do your day job for you
  • Someone to confide in, who understands you entirely
  • Rejuvenation?
  • Sheddings represent important milestones in life, especially the first one

Cons:

  • Can’t necessarily control or even relate to your Snakeskin
  • Unwanted responsibility for someone else
  • Interruption to normal life
  • Desperately sad – like caring for someone with terminal illness

The short story had been vague about the world in which the characters existed. I began to wonder about aspects that might affect wider society. Had people always produced Snakeskins? Did everyone produce them? Did the process have some scientific basis, or was it essentially magic? How would Snakeskins expire – an ordinary death, or something stranger?

Continue reading The journey of a novel: Snakeskins

Book birthday: AND THE HOUSE LIGHTS DIM

And the House Lights Dim - Tim MajorThis came around fast… I’m happy to say that my first short story collection, AND THE HOUSE LIGHTS DIM, is available as of today! It’s published by Luna Press and is billed as strange stories about houses, homes and families.

Here’s something I wrote about the collection when it was first announced:

AND THE HOUSE LIGHTS DIM is my first collection of short stories, which were written over a three-year period. They’re pretty diverse, spanning weird fiction, horror and SF – but I confess that when I wrote them they seemed more diverse than they really are. It was only recently that I realised just how prevalent particular themes have been in my writing: houses, homes and family.

Perhaps it’s no surprise. The earliest of the stories was written when my wife was pregnant with our first child; one of the novellas was written in a mad hurry in the weeks before his birth; nowadays I write in a fog of fatigue due to my second child’s sleepless nights. I think about family constantly and as a freelance editor I’m trapped in my home for the greater part of every day.

In this collection are stories about a sentient house overprotective of its new occupants, a supernatural Greenland shark that attacks a family via sound, a married couple alone on a lengthy space flight, two young girls who live in isolation and in fear of the world beyond their walls, a camping trip that turns a family feral, a post-apocalyptic Center Parcs, a man who has defragmented his mind and another who splices a rival’s brain patterns onto his own.

Most of the stories have been published in various places, including Interzone, Not One of Us, The Literary Hatchet and anthologies published by Fox Spirit, Jurassic London and Hic Dragones. ‘Carus & Mitch’ was previously published as a standalone novella by Omnium Gatherum and was shortlisted for a This Is Horror Award in 2015. People have been very nice about it: Lynda Rucker said it was a ‘compelling, unconventional page-turner… blending a John Wyndham-esque melancholy with a dose of existential despair’. Adam Roberts called it ‘punchy and scary and tense and genuinely moving’ and James Everington at This is Horror said it was ‘an intimate, original, and character-driven take on the post-apocalyptic genre’, all of which made me feel awfully proud.

One thing I neglected to mention in that description are the stories that are new to the collection: O Cul-de-Sac!, The Forge and Honey Spurge. I’m particularly proud of O Cul-de-Sac!, the 10k-word story that opens the collection – though I’m also nervous on its behalf, as if I’m forcing it out into the world rather it being there on its own merits. It’s an unusual story, written once I recognised the theme of the collection – it’s narrated by a sentient house who is proud and then wary of its new occupants.

You can buy AND THE HOUSE LIGHTS DIM direct from Luna Press or from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

By the way, the beautiful cover image is by Daniele Serra. Do check out his incredible work.

SNAKESKINS reviewed in the Financial Times

This is a cheering end to publication month… SNAKESKINS has been reviewed by James Lovegrove for the Financial Times, and he seems to have enjoyed it very much! Here’s the final paragraph of the review:

“Tim Major masterfully weaves his plot strands together, studding Snakeskins with images of duality and metamorphosis to create a dark and compelling vision of corruption and conspiracy with a subtly satirical edge.”

You can read the full review online here.

Update: It was also published in the FT Weekend edition on 1st June! Click the image to enlarge.

 

Hannah’s Bookshelf radio interview

Last week I was interviewed by Hannah Kate for her show Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. I really enjoyed it, and felt far more comfortable than I expected – it was a long, detailed conversation, but there always seemed plenty to discuss, which has done wonders for my confidence with regards to forthcoming public appearances.

We talked about my recent novel Snakeskins, my upcoming short story collection, And the House Lights Dim and my non-fiction book about Les Vampires – and also my preoccupation with houses, nostalgia and baked beans in fiction.

I also picked my books to cling onto after the apocalypse: John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, John Updike’s collected Rabbit novels and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.

If you fancy listening to the interview, it’s available to stream on Mixcloud.

SNAKESKINS – its first few days in the world

Well… It’s been a dizzying week. SNAKESKINS was published on Tuesday! It’s in hundreds of bookshops in the UK and the USA – I have photographic evidence! It’s being read right now! People seem to like it!

If I’m honest, I didn’t much enjoy publication day itself. My jittery anxiety translated into me checking my phone every 10 minutes for updates (and there were updates, every time). Wednesday was a bit better. By Thursday I was in the groove.

Because all that goodwill I mentioned a few days ago? It seems that it wasn’t just talk. To begin with, people are buying the book. They’re walking into bookshops or adding it to their Amazon cart. Phew. Furthermore, people who’ve read it seem to have genuinely enjoyed the experience. Whether all of this leads to more sales and more readers, I have no idea, and it’s out of my control. But things are still going as well as I could possibly hope. I keep trying to take snapshots of the current state of things, and the snapshots keep encouraging me.

The most visible evidence that the book is real and out there is the social media promotional tour going on right now. I’m a newbie to Instagram, but there seems a lot of traffic surrounding the book, ably orchestrated by the Titan marketing team, who are amazing. Part of learning to go with the flow this week has been making a decision that the Instagram activity doesn’t need to involve me, and perhaps is better off for me watching but not participating – as mixed in with the Q&As, giveaways and terrific photos are reviews and comments. I’m applying the age-old author rule of not responding to reviews, even when they’re positive. (But do you know what? They really are positive reviews, hooray!) If you follow #snakeskinstour or #titanbooks, you’ll see what’s cooking. The photos alone warm my heart.

Book blogs are more my comfort zone, and there’s a lot of blog activity too. Here are some handy links to everything that’s been published so far on this two-week social media blitz:

And there’s lots more to come!

Snakeskins blog tourFinally, reviews… any author’s waking nightmare. Except these are really positive! Here’s a taster:

“A heart stopping & thought provoking read, which will make you question how you would see your own identity in those circumstances & challenge your perceptions of acceptance.” (5 stars) Paperbacks and Pinot

“I read a lot of YA, yet this adult SF novel is by far one of the most convincing portrayals of burgeoning maturity I’ve ever read. … It’s a remarkably thoughtful consideration of identity and humanity, as the best sci-fi thrillers invariably are.” The Frumious Consortium

“…bizarre, and deeply resonant … glimpses of Adrian Barnes and Atwood at her very weirdest … Somehow otherworldly and yet so incredibly human, politically relevant but also touching on universal themes of identity and mortality, Snakeskins is a novel I will be thinking about for a very long time.”  Folded Paper Foxes

“It’s an unusual setup for an intricate political thriller that coils in on itself, tightening the tension as it circles toward satisfyingly shocking answers.” Barnes & Noble blog

So… I’m more than happy with the ways things are going. Here’s to lots more anxiety and (hopefully) more pleasant surprises next week, as more reviews come in. I’m doing my best to collect articles and reviews on the dedicated SNAKESKINS page. Or you could just skip all that and buy a copy? Just saying.

Snakeskins Titan newsletter banner

SNAKESKINS publication day!

SNAKESKINS is published today! This is my grateful and baffled and happy and anxious face.

Tim Major - Snakeskins publication day 1Thanks to everyone who’s bought a copy already or shared promos or just been generally supportive, to the authors who provided blurbs, to Titan editorial and marketing, to Rose. I’ve no idea how it’ll pan out from here on in, but the book has had the best possible start in life. Thank you!

Find out more about SNAKESKINS here.

SNAKESKINS social media tour

The day is almost upon us… SNAKESKINS will be published in the UK and US tomorrow!

Snakeskins blog tour

To mark the occasion there will be a ten-day book blog tour, starting today – two blogs every day. I know, crazy!

First up today is my guest blog post at Bibliosanctum, about a SNAKESKINS soundtrack to an imagined adaptation. It includes doubles, identity issues, an isolated Britain thirty years behind ours. There are full explanations of each track choice in the article, and the soundtrack’s intended to work as a primer to the book too – no spoilers, I promise!

Snakeskins Instagram tourIf you’re one of the really cool kids, there’s also an Instagram tour – follow #snakeskinstour to see all updates. The first post is a mini-review, and it’s a very positive one, phew!

Finally, one of the book blog reviews went live already, on Paperbacks and Pinot, who said that ‘Snakeskins is a heart stopping and thought provoking read, which will make you question how you would see your own identity in those circumstances and challenge your perceptions of acceptance.’

Why I *almost* don’t want my novel to be published next week

In exactly one week, my novel SNAKESKINS will be published. That’s a good thing! And yet I’m feeling… I don’t know. Mixed. Mixed is how I’m feeling.

Here’s the thing. I’ve really enjoyed the long lead-up to publication of this novel. I sold it to Titan Books (…checks calendar…) eleven months ago. I wrote a bunch of additional material in September, signed off on the copyedit in October, received final proofs in January. Since that point the book has been complete, simply waiting to become a real object. I held an ARC copy in my hands in February, then a copy of the real actual book earlier in mid-April.

But even now, with hundreds of actual, tangible copies of the novel having been printed in two continents, the book remains unreal. In one week, on 7th May, the novel will be available to purchase in the UK and the USA. And I’m not ready for it.

This whole long period has been characterised by positivity. SNAKESKINS secured me a two-book deal and an agent. The ARCs were sent to authors I admire a huge amount, who not only read the book, they provided the most incredible blurbs. At various events, friends and friends-of-friends have wholeheartedly wished SNAKESKINS all the success in the world. The goodwill I’ve been receiving has been overwhelming.

I’m not saying that this goodwill is an illusion, or that it’ll evaporate in a week’s time. But I appreciate that all this goodwill is just that – a pleasant wish. In many ways, I’d prefer to stay in this period of daydreams and potential rather than face the hard reality of reviews and sales figures.

I can’t help myself from trying to read the tea leaves about how this is all going to pan out. There’s not a huge amount to go on, and I’m only slightly ashamed to confess that recently I’ve been googling the phrase ‘Tim Major Snakeskins review’ at the beginning and end of every day. But each of these tea leaves* gives me a Good Feeling:

Tea leaf 1: Titan Books are in a fantastic place right now. Within just the last couple of months they’ve published M.T. Hill’s deliriously inventive ZERO BOMB and Helen Marshall’s THE MIGRATION, which is as close to perfect as you could reasonably expect. I’m just about to dive into David Quantick’s ALL MY COLORS, which from the blurb sounds so much my thing that I’m cross that I haven’t written it myself. James Brogden’s THE PLAGUE STONES is out in a couple of weeks and Aliya Whiteley’s SKEIN ISLAND will follow soon. I can’t tell you how happy I am to be in the company of such writers.

Tea leaf 2: The guys at Titan, and my agent, are friendly and not really scary at all. Seriously, they’re lovely. Considering they’re THE GATEKEEPERS to this industry, they’re doing kind of a crappy job of being fierce and forbidding. I had lunch with Cat and George from Titan a couple of weeks ago and we talked about books and films and Art Garfunkel and it was as if they were just interesting normal people, which obviously is madness.

Snakeskins on Instagram Tea leaf 3: The Titan marketing team are clearly incredible at their jobs. There’s going to be a book blog tour, beginning the day before publication! And over the last few days SNAKESKINS has been popping up in the feeds of Instagram book bloggers. Each sighting of Julia Lloyd’s incredible cover gives my heart a little sharp prod.

SnakeskinsTea leaf 4: THAT COVER. When I visited the Titan office I met Julia Lloyd, the seriously talented cover designer, and I swear I thanked her seven times. It was only back when I was shown the cover that I first allowed myself to believe that a bookshop customer might actually pick up my book and buy it, and they totally should because even the spine is awesome and it’ll look really good on their shelf. Also: a great use of spot varnish.

Tea leaf 5: THOSE BLURBS. I’ve bumped into a couple of the authors since they provided blurbs, and I looked deep into their eyes, Larry David-style, and still they swore that they liked the novel.

Tea leaf 6: There have been a couple of early reviews, and they’re good! Booklist called it a ‘taut and fast-paced sf thriller’ and Publishers Weekly used phrases like ‘delightfully tense’ and ‘uncanny tale’ and ‘strong voice’. There are currently three Goodreads reviews (book bloggers, I presume), with one of them giving it 5 stars. I’m prepared for the bad reviews, really I am, and in the past I’ve rarely disagreed with criticisms and not felt too badly stung. But good reviews are good.

Anyway. This time next week the book will be out in the world, and either it’ll be liked or it won’t, and either it’ll sell well or it won’t. I’ve already delivered my second novel to Titan (it’s unconnected to SNAKESKINS), I’ve more or less completed a novella and I’m planning a bigger, weirder novel. My only ambition thus far has been to be allowed to keep writing, and to spend more time writing, by making it a legitimate part of a cobbled-together career. I’m writing more than I ever have before, so I’m winning on that score.

It’s only right to acknowledge that I do have a fair amount at stake. SNAKESKINS isn’t my first novel but I feel wholehearted about it. If it crashes and burns, it’ll hurt.

So all of this is why I’m trying to pay full attention to this moment, when there’s only potential, when I feel able to introduce myself to people as a writer and feel halfway convinced that that might actually be my valid identity, when I’m swimming in goodwill, when at times I’m able to imagine that this whole thing might actually turn out well.

It seemed important to write this blog post to capture a snapshot of a particular moment. I promise to provide an update from the other side. Wish me luck?

* Clearly, I have no idea how tea leaves are supposed to be read.

Invaders From Beyond in SFX and Waterstones

I just saw The Last Jedi, on my own, because childcare, and it was really good, which you all know. And then I went to WH Smiths to get a copy of SFX after having been tipped off about the review of INVADERS FROM BEYOND, which includes my novella, BLIGHTERS, and it really is a very positive review, and then I went to Waterstones and there was the book itself on the shelf a few down from Mark Morris’s terrific NEW FEARS anthology and Adam Roberts’s amazing HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION. And then I felt quite shaky about having an actual book in a proper bookshop, too shaky to even think about using my Christmas book tokens, but not so shaky I had to eat at Subway, so here I am on a park bench eating a chicken caesar wrap and another sandwich and I think I’m alright now. Happy New Year everyone!

Publication day: INVADERS FROM BEYOND

Publication day!

INVADERS FROM BEYOND is available *right now*. It’s a lovely, hefty omnibus that contains my novella, BLIGHTERS, alongside MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN CENTRE OF GOOD AND EVIL by Colin Sinclair and RAGS, BONES AND TEA LEAVES by Julian Benson.

Here’s the blurb for BLIGHTERS:

Them Blighters are everywhere.
They fell out of the sky last year, great horrible armour-plated slugs with razor-sharp fangs. But ugly as they are, they give the ultimate high to anyone nearby: a blissful, gleeful contentment that people are willing to kill for.
Not Becky Stone, though. All she wants is to drink beer, listen to her dad’s old vinyl, and get her life back to how it was before everything was all messed up.
Blighters? Frankly, she could do without them.

See here for guest posts and reviews of BLIGHTERS, and listen to a Spotify playlist to set the scene.

Or just head over to Amazon to buy it!

BLIGHTERS in print

I’m pleased to announce that my novella, BLIGHTERS, will be released in print by Abaddon in November, as part of an omnibus of three novellas under the umbrella title INVADERS FROM BEYOND.

BLIGHTERS is about giant slugs that have mysteriously landed around the world, which provide anybody nearby with an intense sense of calm and contentment. Becky Stone, a disaffected, snarky twenty-something from Kendal in Cumbria, gets drawn into the search for Blighters for all the wrong reasons. It’s also sort of a murder mystery.

You can find out more about the novella (including reviews, linked guest posts and a Spotify soundtrack) here, or you can just go ahead and preorder the book at Amazon.

Finally, here’s the impressive cover – I’m particularly chuffed that the bottom quote is taken from the lovely Ginger Nuts of Horror review of BLIGHTERS from last year, when it was released as a standalone ebook.

Publication day! BLIGHTERS

Blighters cover thumbnailBLIGHTERS is out today! It’s available as an ebook from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. (Cheap, too.)

It’s a 30k-word novella about giant slugs that have mysteriously landed around the world, which provide anybody nearby with an intense sense of calm and contentment. It’s also sort of a murder mystery.

Over on the Abaddon website, you can read my blog post about the origins of the story and the huge influence of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, ‘cosy catastrophes’ in general (no surprise, given the title of my website!) and the idea of dormant threats.

Novella announcement: BLIGHTERS

I’m very pleased to announce the (very!) imminent arrival of BLIGHTERS. It’s a novella about a worldwide ‘invasion’ of alien slugs, from the viewpoint of a snarky woman living in Kendal, Cumbria. Here’s the blurb:

Them Blighters are everywhere.

They fell out of the sky last year, great horrible armour-plated slugs with razor-sharp fangs. But ugly as they are, they give the ultimate high to anyone nearby: a blissful, gleeful contentment that people are willing to kill for.

Not Becky Stone, though. All she wants is to drink beer, listen to her dad’s old vinyl, and get her life back to how it was before everything was all messed up.

Blighters? Frankly, she could do without them.

BLIGHTERS will be published by Abaddon as an ebook on 9th July, and it’ll likely be available in a printed anthology (with the other ‘Invaders From Beyond’ novellas) at some point later this year. Thanks to David Thomas Moore at Abaddon for picking up this story!

You can buy the ebook now from Amazon UK (£2.99) or Amazon USA ($3.99).

Blighters cover thumbnail

Martian canals and borrowed ideas in SF

RCoM poster

I’ve got an article up on the Hodderscape website – it’s about Martian canals, the 1964 film Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and the borrowing of ideas in science fiction. It’s rather a ramble, but the main idea is that even misconceptions can lead to good fictional ideas that are then developed by writer after writer.

You can read the full article here.

Favourite books read in 2014

I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t read much this year (23 books, with two still unfinished). Blame my one-year-old son and my recent tendency to fall asleep after reading two or three pages in bed. (Having said that, I may have read Where The Wild Things Are more than 100 times.)

StonerMy absolute favourite this year was Stoner by John Williams, a story so familiar and everyday that each of the protagonist’s disappointments felt like a friend injured. Couples by John Updike didn’t let me down and opens up for me a whole world of Updike novels not featuring Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom. Concrete Island, though flawed in its second half, is my favourite of the three J G Ballard novels I read (the others being High-Rise and The Drowned World). The Machine by James Smythe was the only recently-released novel I read, but I thought it was fantastic. My favourite non-fiction book was Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. And I wish there were more books as digestible and unmissable as Sum: Tales From The Afterlives by David Eagleman.

Favourite books read in 2013

Rabbit

Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom novels (John Updike, 1960-2000)

I found reading Rabbit, Run (1960) a revelation. Its third-person, present-tense point of view lends the story an immediacy, but that would be nothing without Updike’s immaculate observational powers. That vast sections of the novel feature nothing more dramatic than Harry driving around in the dark, yet are still gripping, speaks volumes. While I found the switch to Janice’s point of view the least satisfying element, stylistically, the narrative bombshell dropped still makes me choke.

Reading a novel that you fully connect with is wonderful. Discovering subsequently that you have the ability to follow the same characters over forty years at decade-long intervals… that’s a rare treat. Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990) and the novella Rabbit Remembered (2000) each cover subtly different aspects of changing American culture and, more importantly, of the psyche of the average American male. Taken as a complete work, they are as perfect a novel as I think I’m ever likely to read.

 

The-Martian-ChroniclesThe Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury, 1950)

This ‘half-cousin to a novel’ (Bradbury’s own words) comprises 28 loosely connected stories. Most of them had been published previously in the late Forties in various SF magazines. In collecting them here, Bradbury traces connecting lines between stories and recurring characters. The effect is a disorienting series of snapshots that nevertheless builds up a far more complete vision of the future than a more straightforward novel.

And what a vision! At times, Bradbury’s prose can be staggeringly beautiful. For example, from ‘The Locusts’: The rockets set the bony meadows afire, turned rock to lava, turned wood to charcoal, transmitted water to steam, made sand and silica into green glass which lay like shattered mirrors reflecting the invasion, all about. Bradbury’s Mars, modelled in the image of the memories of homesick astronauts, tells us far more about nostalgia for one’s childhood than about the Red Planet.

At heart, my favourite science fiction has little to do with science. I may have only read it for the first time this year, but The Martian Chronicles is my favourite science fiction novel.

 

Other EyesOther Days, Other Eyes (Bob Shaw, 1972)

A down-at-heel scientist accidentally creates glass that holds its image for years. Inventions, breakthroughs and problems ensue.

I read this in a couple of sittings, amazed at how much mileage Bob Shaw gets from a simple, hypothetical invention. The eventual use of ‘slow glass’ as a surveillance tool prefigures issues topical today: CCTV and Google’s Streetview and Glass projects. Throughout the novel, interspersed sections paint vignettes of different aspects of life that have been irrevocably changed by the invention of slow glass, many of them heartbreaking.

While the main plot may wrap up a little too quickly, and the love interest is under-developed, Shaw’s novel dwells on the human resonances of an important breakthrough. I’ll be searching out more of his novels in 2014.

Gaming and subcultures in Little Brother

MMORPG 2In Little Brother, Cory Doctorow demonstrates that social gaming communities can give rise to independent subcultures.

At the start of the novel, Marcus Yallow and his friends take part in an alternate reality game (ARG), Harajuku Fun Madness. The game involves clues hidden around major cities, forming a overlaid network over ordinary society. The ARG foreshadows events later in the book, where Marcus’s resistance network must remain hidden whilst still interacting with society.

Similarly, Marcus has experience of live action role-playing games (LARPs). Again, his experience involved playing the games in public, therefore producing a gaming layer over everyday life. Importantly, these LARPs involved dressing as vampires, linked to goth subcultures at the fringes of society. Marcus uses his knowledge of ARGs and LARPs to stage the politically-motivated gathering at the end of the novel.

With the internet monitored by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Marcus uses a modified Xbox console to communicate with his peers. Significantly, the hardware is designed for gaming, now adapted for political use. Large corporations are symbolically aligned with the DHS, as the teenagers use Microsoft’s hardware for unauthorised purposes.

The Xnet itself is similar to chatrooms and forums that surround internet gaming culture. The massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), Clockwork Plunder, becomes less a game and more a legitimate social space for Xnetters to congregate, eventually becoming the home of the Xnet’s first press conference.

All of these examples are social activities that began as gaming experiences, adapted by Marcus and his friends for political means. Eventually, the situation is reversed: new game-like experiences arise from purely political activities. When Marcus meets the young teens Nate and Liam, he sees that they treat ‘jamming’ as an ARG, albeit one of which their victims are unaware.

In this way, Doctorow demonstrates that social subcultures and political movements can easily become merged, feeding into one another.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 10 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2

Image from Invertika / Wikimedia Commons

The Left Hand of Darkness and the ‘I’ of Ai

1eyeball004Ursula Le Guin’s choice of the name ‘Ai’ for the protagonist of The Left Hand of Darkness reveals a preoccupation with subjectivity, perception and the ‘other’.

The fact that ‘Ai’ and ‘eye’ are homophones is no coincidence. Genly Ai functions as the ‘eyes’ of the Ekumen, observing the Gethenians. Furthermore, although Ai states that ‘The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone’, he has selected all of the elements of the novel – it is ultimately experienced through his eyes.

Of course, ‘Ai’ also sounds like the word ‘I’. The novel is a personal tale of Ai’s life-altering experiences on Gethen. His own self-image changes during his travels with Estraven, to the extent that his Ekumen colleagues appear like ‘a troupe of great, strange animals’ in comparison to gender-neutral Gethenians.

Many Gethenians deny Genly Ai’s status. He encounters scepticism about the existence of worlds beyond Gethen and is labelled a liar and a ‘pervert’ due to his physiognomy. Ai’s name (‘I’) functions as a protest that he should be considered equal and capable of independent opinion.

However, no Gethenian makes this linguistic connection. When Estraven initially enquires about Ai’s name he perceives the sound differently. He hears in the answer ‘a cry of pain from a human throat across the night’, illustrating instead his own fear of the alien ‘other’.

The reason is not just that Gethen is isolated. Karhide and Orgoreyn are locked in a cold war, without contact, struggling for domination without war. In the same way that Gethen sees itself as alone in the galaxy, both realms refuse to cooperate with each other. As far as each is concerned, they alone are ‘I’, holding out against the ‘other’.

In short, Genly Ai’s name acknowledges that he is a reader surrogate, but also serves a narrative purpose, highlighting the conflict with characters that he encounters.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 09 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 3

Nostalgia in The Martian Chronicles

640px-MarsSunsetCut

In The Martian Chronicles, we are told that the colonists arrive ‘with small dreams or big dreams or none at all’. However, throughout the stories Bradbury suggests that the motivating factors for many characters are nostalgia and the clarity of early memories.

In ‘The Third Expedition’, John Black is easily tricked by the Martian’s use of his own memories to populate the town. When he sees his parents, he ‘[runs] up the steps like a child to meet them’. His unquestioning acceptance may be difficult to understand at first, but throughout the stories Bradbury shows that each group of colonists yearns for reminders of its past. Although Anna LaFarge in ‘The Martian’ says of her dead son Tom, ‘He’s been dead so long now, we should try to forget him and everything on Earth’, she and her husband perpetuate the illusion that the Martian is Tom in order to cling on to their nostalgic memories. Similarly, in ‘The Long Years’, Hathaway eases his isolation by creating robot versions of his family.

Nostalgia also fuels other aspects of the characters’ psyches. Father Peregrine’s memories of fire balloons fuels his evangelical religious convictions. In ‘Way in the Middle of the Air’, Samuel Teece’s memories of night-time attacks on black people involve ‘laughing to himself, his heart racing like a ten-year-old’s’.

Many characters demonstrate that their ambitions extend only to a recreation of familiar Earth occupations. For example, the luggage-store owner states, ‘We came up here to get away from things’, yet his job selling luggage to people returning to Earth is regressive. Sam Parkhill, in ‘The Off Season’, has travelled to Mars only to set up a hot dog stand.

Bradbury shows us that the visitors to Mars, like European colonists of America, are not searching for a new world, but rather a safe place to recreate their own past.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 08 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2

Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Martian canals

Martian canals

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s vision of Mars in A Princess of Mars [1] owes a debt to Percival Lowell’s astronomical observations, but itself propagated a specific image of the planet in the public consciousness.

In 1895, Percival Lowell published Mars [2], a summary of his observations of the planet. His descriptions of Martian ‘canals’ were influenced by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s references to ‘canali’ [3 – see image], more properly translated as ‘channels’ or ‘gullies’. The concept of Martian canals, in this and Lowell’s later works [4], fuelled many people’s belief that Mars was an inhabited, ruined world.

Burroughs, who was aware of Lowell’s theories, included ‘the famous Martian waterways, or canals, so-called by our earthly astronomers’ in his vision of Mars. The canals have primary importance in the novel, controlled by the red Martians and the source of conflict between the races of the planet. Extrapolating from Lowell’s vision of a ruined world, Burroughs introduced Atmosphere Plants, combating the environmental threat of extinction of life. In his descriptions of ‘arid and semi-arid land’, ‘ruined edifices of the ancient city’ and ‘partially ruined towers of ancient Thark’, Burroughs aligned John Carter’s observations to Lowell’s popularly-believed findings.

While Lowell did influence other writers at the time of the publication of his work, including H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds [5], it was Burrough’s Barsoom series that proved the greater catalyst for the public perception of Mars. The concept of Martian canals remains popular today, as well as being a staple in literary depictions of the planet. Canals appear in The Martian Chronicles [6] by Ray Bradbury, who ‘admired Burrough’s Martian tales because they were romantic and moved the blood as much as the mind’ [7]. Many writers who later became prominent science-fiction authors were similarly influenced at an early age by Burroughs’s vision of Mars.

References
[1] Edgar Rice Burroughs – A Princess of Mars (1917)
[2] Percival Lowell – Mars (1895)
[3] Historical map of planet Mars by Giovanni Schiaparelli (1888)
[4] Percival Lowell – Mars and Its Canals (1906)
[5] H.G. Wells – The War of the Worlds (1898)
[6] Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles (1950)
[7] Aaron Parrett, Introduction: Edgar Rice Burroughs – The Martian Tales Trilogy, Barnes and Noble edition (2006)

Submitted to Coursera as essay 07 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2.5

Religion in H.G. Wells’s stories

Country of the BlindDoctor MoreauH.G. Wells’s story, The Country of the Blind, and novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, offer a critique of the function of religion in society.

In The Country of the Blind, Nunez encounters an isolated community whose inhabitants are blind. His descriptions of the sense of sight, and objects he sees around him, are dismissed by the inhabitants. Their proof – that they believe to be incontrovertible – is a religious explanation. The religious origin story is centred around touch, including the belief that above them is a ‘cavern roof […] exquisitely smooth to the touch’.

Nunez’s facility of sight allows him to dispute the beliefs, but he is unable to convince the population of their error. Their conviction, and his love for Medina-saroté, almost leads him to agree to be blinded. The story ends with Nunez high in the mountains, looking at ‘the illimitable vastness of the sky’. His own understanding of the truth is preferable to accepting a false religious doctrine.

In The Island of Doctor Moreau, the creatures have adopted Moreau’s initial prohibitions as doctrine. ‘The Law’ is a series of rules, some humanist (‘Not to chase other Men’) and some for Moreau’s own purposes (‘Not to eat fish’ is arguably morally arbitrary, but Moreau wishes to avoid them becoming carnivorous).

Once again, our narrator, Prendick, is in a position to witness the folly of a new religious code. His outsider status allows him to see that the Law, and the deification of Moreau as creator (‘His is the Hand that makes’), is a method for the creatures to rationalise the world and their own existence.

In both tales, Wells suggests that organised religion can arise in any closed community to explain the world and humanity’s function within it. Furthermore, the narratives illustrate that these deeply-held convictions can be misleading and potentially dangerous without being balanced by reason and open-minded observation.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 06 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2