Tag Archives: counterfactual

Transreal Fiction

I noticed when editing my short story collection how many times I use my recurring character Tom Robinson – a person who shares a lot of their life experiences with me.
Part of the reason for this is that I wanted to use a lot of the events I have lived through and the feelings I had at the time so it seemed “honest” to have a reasonably accurate version of me go through them in the story. I hope I have been careful not to make Tom a hero but a person who shares my flaws as well as my strengths.
Another reason is that I was attracted to Rudy Rucker’s concept of Transreal fiction where you use your own life as a jumping off point in fantasy or science fiction so that the characters are realistic even if the setting is fantastic.
Other authors have used the inclusion of a “me” character as wish fulfilment, but I didn’t want to do that. Tom is normally the narrator retelling what has happened to other characters while he is only a peripheral part of the action.
There are exceptions – particularly the “Dulwich” short story and novel – based on my experiences as a journalist but taking their stylistic cues from two alumni of Dulwich School: P.G.Wodhouse and Raymond Chandler respectively.
The short story – included in The Cat Factory and Other Stories and attached below as a free taster – is a farce where I tried to emulate Wodhouse’s wonderful domino rally plotting. The plot elements are carefully installed at the start and you then just push the first one over and see the pattern emerge as they tumble.
The novel is a noirish crime story with a lot of black humour in the background. A dark sense of humour is endemic in journalism as well as other professions where you deal with the aftermath of tragedy on a regular basis. It gives you a way of being empathic but keeping a degree of distance.
Most of the background incidents in both stories are completely true, although the characters they happen to are removed from reality in order to protect the innocent (and me from libel, although I still have the notebooks). The newspaper I worked for has already featured in one comic novel: Yeah,Yeah, Yeah by Angus McGill, and formed the basis for Norman Wisdom’s Press for Time.
As well as putting in a fictional crime plot I used the mythic subtext of the Fisher King legend. It is set in the Queen’s Jubilee year of 1977 when Elvis died and punk was king. It was also a year of economic and political turmoil as Militant Tendency were struggling for the soul of the Labour Party and the seeds of the Thatcherite revolution and the death of Tyneside’s traditional heavy industries were being sown, as well as the start of change in the newspaper industry as it moved from hot metal to litho and computers. It seemed the perfect setting for a coming of age story with the death of the Council leader echoing the death of so many other things we thought would keep getting better in the heady freedom of the sixties.

Although on the face of it the novel is in the crime genre, I added a few things to make it an alternate reality novel – just because I could.

Tom so far has featured in two novels and five short stories – nine if you realise he is the unnamed narrator of the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics stories. He will feature again in the rest of the novels in the series started with Masonic Fire and may have a walk on part in the Three Wise Monkeys stories.

To read Identity Crisis click here

In jokes and obscure references

I have to admit I love texts that include in jokes and references to other books and media. That’s why I’m such a fan of Philip Jose Farmer, Kim Newman and Howard Waldrop.
When I wrote The Revolutionary Tapestry I wanted to do some of this myself. Not just because it would be fun to do, and hopefully fun for readers who spotted them, but because it is an alternative world novel. One of the recurring jokes is that incidents in the book inspire later writers – including Jarry himself. A case of art imitating life.
The Jarry references are the key ones – there are scenes that reflect elements of The Supermale, Days and Nights, Le Dragonne and some of his journalism. The other references – more obvious to those who don’t have a good knowledge of Jarry – are around the Fantome character. He is supposed to be the inspiration for Fantomas, the Phantom of the Opera, the title character in the Werewolf of Paris, and the Lone Ranger!  There are also references to Verne’s Robur the Conqueror.

This came as a bit of light relief to the historical research I had to do to get the period right. All bar two of the speaking parts are real people and have largely the same back story as they did in our world. The trick to this was to avoid the “Hello Mr Wilde, have you met your fellow Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw.” school of historical fiction – normally worse in visual media than written. I don’t mind a bit of name dropping if it is done subtly: “Roger saw the man he was after – he was at the far side of the room talking to the Prince of Wales”. Generally,however, if I was going to introduce someone I wanted to have a reason for them being there.

The other challenge I wanted to overcome was the need to drop in background information without a reason for doing so in the plot. It is difficult to totally avoid it, but by including some of it in during reflection by characters on their current situation I hope I avoided the worst of it.

 

A Kind of Magic

I’m about to start rewriting Masonic Fire (or Chasing the Dragon depending on which title I go for) for the second time.
I did the first draft last November as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) as a straight conspiracy thriller. I then had more ideas for the main characters as occult thrillers so went back and rewote it adding supernatural elements.
While my best reader and critic – my wife Jules – liked both versions, she felt the second one hadn’t integrated the supernatural elements well enough as there was no underlying rationale for them. What I then decided to do was to think about the underlying structure of that universe so the books would explore that as well as working as stories.
Most novels featuring supernatural elements or magic just accept it as a given and use one or more occult traditions as a backdrop. The reason we don’t generally experience this in everyday life is the UFOlogist explanation – it is there but is covered up in some way by either the magicians themselves or some government agency that doesn’t want us to know what’s really going on. Or we simply suppress the memory.
There are a few ways of trying to put some kind of scientific rationale for magic:
• The Arthur C Clarke theory – magic is simply advanced technology. That is (sort of) the approach Lovecraft used – magic relies on the presence of ancient aliens whose technology is so far beyond ours that it looks miraculous and acts of magic by humans is based on tapping that power
• Magic is something that comes into our universe from somewhere else where it does work – either an extradimensional world of Faerie, or the Pratt/ de Camp approach where the underlying laws of an adjacent universe work differently so magic is possible. The Zelazny/Amber variation is that our world is shadow of a real world where magic works.
• Magic is based on undeveloped powers of the human mind which a few individuals have been able to tap into
All of them are bit of cop out in my view – that doesn’t mean that I don’t like enjoy them, as I do. Just that I don’t like them for my own work as I want to be able to write about issues in our own world that I care about which means most of the characters should be ordinary people with ordinary human strengths and weaknesses.
Most stories featuring the occult or magic have heroes who are special – they have talents the rest of us don’t. I want to write about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, which I believe is the real magic in our world.
I cheat a bit in the science I use – a lot is theories that are not wholly accepted, to say the least. I then use that to develop a revamp of history which keeps the same facts, but puts a different spin on what is happening.
The core of it is the Einstein/Bell/Rodalsky paradox which points out that the behaviour of paired particles contradicts the Theory of General Relativity as they seem to indicate something travels faster than the speed of light. My explanation is that there is a fundamental substrate of information which means at a quantum level everything is connected.
At the other end is Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of the Omega Point. A Jesuit Priest and scientist he speculated that the purpose of the universe was to evolve consciousness to a point where it becomes God. In my version of the universe that collective godhood then travels back in time and sets the condition for the Big Bang – thus having an ouroboros loop where it sets the conditions for its own creation.
Between these bottom and top levels are James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis where the earth is a collective organism which is itself evolving in the same way its constituent creatures are, and Jung’s Collective Unconscious which links all human beings at a fundamental level populated by common archetypes. Jung’s idea has a number of variations from the mundane that our brain structure throws up things that we interpret in a similar way, to a more mystical one. Mine is at the mystical end which uses the Gaia theory and the pairing of particles to suggest that we actually do communicate unconsciously in a real way.
The working out of this can then be used to explain magic, bringing in things like stone tapes, mystically charging objects and places, possession, supernatural creatures, ghosts, and the power of ritual.
The reason in my universe that we don’t see magic is that there are three basic worldviews that are competing to impose their version of the Omega point on the universe – the magical, the religious and the rational/scientific. There are only a few people in each of these camps that understand what is going on and are in the battle knowingly and who consciously propagate their memes in order to win. Those who see the supernatural either accept it or rationalise it according to their own world view.
There is an organisation first set up by the Royal Society – or more accurately by its predecessor the Invisible College – to maintain a balance between the three world views. Hence the re-explanation of history. When the protagonists accidentally stumble into the machinations of people who want to change the balance in their favour, they are introduced to the organisation which reveals this truth to them.
Now I’ve worked it out, I just need to rewrite the story!

Where do you get your ideas from?

The perennial question for writers. There is a post on the Suffolk Writers Forum on Facebook asking how people approach plotting a novel – this is my answer (for the one I’m working on now anyway).

The germ of the idea was in two parts. A conversation in the pub I ran with a customer who asked if I had heard of Alfred Jarry followed by a long conversation about him. I hadn’t expected a customer in a pub in rural Suffolk to have heard of Jarry, but it turned out he had learnt about him from Sir Paul McCartney who he had been working with as a producer on Paul’s Ubu Jubu radio show in America.

We discussed the possibility of doing a film script about Jarry – my vision was something produced by Terry Gilliam and starring Johnny Depp (in a hole to be the right height like a reverse Alan Ladd). For various reasons – work, the fact the customer did more thinking than doing, the fact he would have preferred a version of Ubu Roi rather than a biography comparing Jarry’s life and his works in a fantastic melange – I didn’t take it further than a two page proposal. The I saw the first (and I think so far only) Sir Terry Pratchett prize for an alternate world novel advertised and started to think about a novel with Jarry as a lead character. The idea of a world where the Paris Commune didn’t fall but went on to overthrow the nascent Third Republic just seemed an obvious one. It could have a steampunk feel. I’d been doing the research for all of my life, although I hadn’t known it at the time.

I first discovered Jarry as a student. I spent a lot of time in Orbit Books in Manchester talking to Dave Britton. We had similar tastes and had both been inspired by Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine, but also by pulp fiction, surrealism, science fiction and fantasy generally. Dave – who was to go on to notoriety as the author of Lord Horror and other titles in his taboo breaking Savoy Books line – was further down the path of seeking out the eclectic and outré than I was and introduced me to authors like Kenneth Patchen (with his wonderful Journal of Albion Moonlight) and Jarry. This spurred me to search Manchester’s bookshops to find some of the authors we discussed. It was a bit like following a breadcrumb trail – the notes in one book would mention other books that shared similarities. There were no Amazon recommendations in the 1970’s, we had to do it the hard way.

I’ve been following the breadcrumb trail since then, with lots of crossovers. As mentioned in an earlier post, the work of Philip Jose Farmer has been one of the key elements as Farmer’s own voracious and varied reading found its way into his own fiction – especially the Wold Newton and Fictional Author work – and led me to a previous generation of authors.

So when I started to write again after we came out of the hotel, this was one of half a dozen ideas for novels I had, and I had a couple of pages to get me going which introduced the other main character – the journalist Philippe – and the terrorist bomb that starts the action. It also introduced the shadowy Fantome who is behind the attack.

I had a general concept of what I wanted – Da Vinci Code meets Moulin Rouge as directed by the Coen Brothers, only exploring the culture and politics of Fin de Siecle Paris as a way of looking at timeless issues which are still relevant today, including the Internet, which I had imagined an earlier version of as one of the drivers of change..

I then did some more background reading and revisited the stuff I had cut and pasted from the internet (bless you Wikkipedia) in that earlier work. I also bought a few books that gave me more of the plot and characters – one which was near contemporary account of Bohemian life in Paris in 1896 which provided several locales I wanted to include, one which gave me the lead female character, and one which gave me a lot of the political background. I’ve found that background reading will spark tangential ideas about plot as well as historical detail. The fact I chose an American with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as the female lead gave me the idea of incorporating a covered wagon chase and western shoot out in the book. Researching French writers of the period included Zola’s description of the Les Halles market as the belly of Paris so I felt that had to be included as well.

So I had my starting point of Jarry, Philippe the journalist (with a lot of autobiographical elements) and Suzanne the American expatriot, plus the Fantome who has to be a shadowy figure with elements of Fantomas and other pulp French fictional characters. The other key characters were real – Police Chief Rigualt and Louise Michel from the Commune, Russian spy Rachkovsky and the anarchists who were active at the time, Peladan and the other occultists from the Magical Wars of a few years before the main action.

The joy of Paris at the time is that all the real characters were linked together – many artists were both anarchists and occultists with Peladan being a sponsor of Symbolist painters and journalist Felix Feneon being a leading light in the anarchist movement but also publisher and publicist of many of the key symbolists. Jarry himself was active in the same circles. This interlinking is perfect to pull apart the interlinking strands of art, politics and the occult with separate but linked groups of conspirators all trying to change the world. Now that was in place it was a case of letting them interact in a set of locations I wanted to explore and a group of set pieces I could locate there.

Half a notebook of scribbles, a couple of hundred pages of background notes and a lot of shuffling of characters and ideas later – plus some character studies written on key characters for my OU creative writing course to help understand their motivations – and I had the skeleton and some key body parts for the novel. My understanding of both character and setting changes and develops as I write and think about how they interact, but the core is reasonably solid. I plot the story arc and the key scenes along the way but the details of the journey evolve as I write. I’m looking forward to going on that journey with my characters.

Research

Research Material paris_commune-popular-illustration

It isn’t just in post modernism that books are made of other books. Even in ancient Greece writers would be influenced by other writers and use their works as a jumping off point for their own writing. So in writing The Revolutionary Tapestry I have been doing a lot of research and general background reading to try and make sure (a) it is accurate and (b) it “feels” right in those parts which are invention rather than historical fact.

Although the novel is an alternate history the bits before the change have to be real history and the parts after the change have to be realistic.

The key books are Alastair Brotchie’s wonderful Alfred Jarry a ‘Pataphysical Life, and the Atlas press editions of Jarry’s oevre and other books of the period with their invaluable notes. On the broader canvas of Fin de Siecle Paris Alex Butterworth’s The World That Never Was, David Sweetman’s Explosive Acts, Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years and the invaluable Bohemian Paris of Today by William Chambers Morrow were great.

I’ve attached a copy of the key list with links to where you can find them for anyone who is interested. I would also recommend the joy of Google – searching for people, places and events as you come across them in reading will throw up lots of other connections you can cut and paste into word documents – my background notes are nearly as long as the novel will be, although I will use only a small fraction of them. I want to avoid the trap of writing up the research rather than the story.

There are lots of other books that have also contributed in a less direct way – works by other authors of the period including Dr Faustroll’s Equivalent Books, fiction which is set around that period although written later, and fiction that also has Jarry or his contemporaries as characters. In a real way I’ve been preparing for this unconsciously since I first bought Jarry’s Supermale, Ubu plays and The Banquet Years in 1972. And, of course in a work that is Postmodern there are a lot of references that are to books, films and music that are not of the period but reference back, forward and sideways.

Edinburgh – week three

Just about to start our third week in Edinburgh of My Sister Says I’m Special. Phil has been replaced by Donna and Chris as roadies and Jules has done some great shows – she is definitely more in the moment when she is on stage and is comfortable enough to really play when she is on stage. We have also managed to see a lot more shows – mostly compilations of comedians (what is the collective noun for comedians? A chortle?). Some of these are great, some not so, but a lot depends on how many are in the audience compared to room size.

I’ve also finished doing the research notes on the novel and should incorporate these into the synopsis next week when it is just Jules and I. I now know a lot about Alfred Jarry and Fin de Siecle Paris.

The best English language biography of Jarry by some way is Alastair Brotchie’s Alfred Jarry a Pataphysical Life which is imaculatey researched and includes lots of material not in other biographies. It is also bias free – Alastair rehearses the speculation about Jarry’s life and works but is careful to identify his own and others’ opinions so the reader can make their own mind up. The Jill Fell book An Imagination in Revolt includes a lot more “creative” biography on Jarry’s art influences – he may have been influenced by various things around at the time but no evidence trail is cited.

The research has deepened my view of many of the subsidiary real characters in the novel but has not made me have to change it radically – just identify ways in which I can give a better picture of who they are in the appropriate parts of the plot. It has also thrown up lots of serendipitous detail I can incorporate to enrich the book and incorporate some in jokes. The danger now is to avoid it being a novel about Jarry rather than one about the two other lead characters so I will have to work on enriching their back stories and emotional depth. There is also the little challenge of making the “villain” a real person when they are off screen for most of the time for the very good reason that they are supposed to be a shadowy figure.

Thankfully I’ve not had to change any of the action, or alter history more than in my original conceit. Some events will change dates slightly or happen in a marginally different way, but not enough to seem like undue artifice.

Onwards and upwards.

counterfactual creation

At the moment I’m trying to create a world where the Paris Commune triumphed and is now the head of a largely left wing France in 1896. This is requiring a lot of research as you have to create a world that shares much with the real Paris in 1896 but is different in  some key ways because of that alternate line of history.

There are a few guide rules I have set myself to do this:

  • People who were alive at the time are still alive and people were dead are mostly dead – if they died of old age or cancer they would still have died. If they commited suicide or drank themselves to death they may have survived because their personal circumstances would be different.
  • The buildings are mostly the same – there is no Sacre Couer because that was partly a catholic and right wing reaction to the commune, but most of the rest of Paris is the same
  • Most of the rest of the world is as it was in real life unless there is an obvious reason for change – there were successful copycat revolutions in other parts of Europe where there was similar unrest,  but the US and UK are the same and the French Colonies in Africa and Asia are now French Communes because the economic expansion in those areas would still have demanded support form the French State
  • Many of the same people have achieved or seek power – republican politicians such as Clemenceau will still have wanted to be in government and free elections mean there will also be Monarchists and conservatives elected
  • Science may have advanced a few years (partly because Tesla stays in Paris rather than going to work with Edison and the government is strongly pro science) but there are few inventions that were not around within 10-15 years of the real 1896
  • Artistic movements are largely unchanged – possibly the most controversial issue as it could be argued art is a reflection of society as well as individual taste, but the trends are still there and much was influenced by world rather than domestic issues such as the growing influence of Asian and African art and the general Fin du Siecle zeitgeist.

The one new technology I have allowed myself is the Revolutionary Tapestry of the title which is a version of the internet based on radio and punch card transmitters and receivers which has developed a sort of paper based blogging culture allied with the massive growth of newspapers and journals which linotype, rotogravure and cylindrical presses fuelled in the real world.

I’m not sure how good the rules are, but they are mine and I’m sticking with them.

I watched a debate the other day on the effects of the First World War where the word counterfactual cropped up every few minutes. Many were arguing that the changes in politics and society we attribute to WWI would have happened anyway as the seeds were already there. One of the characters in the book will speculate on what would have happened if Queen Victoria had died in childbirth and Prince Albert survived – for one thing he would have inherited the German throne and is likely to have been less antagonistic to a Britain ruled by his son than the real Kaiser was to the Britain ruled by his Aunt and Cousin. There are lots of “what if’s” in history and it is a fun game to play, but to be meaningful you have to set yourself rules