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The Universe Of Things

My second story collection from The Aqueduct Press was published at the beginning of this month, but distribution has been delayed (due to the extreme weather). My copies reached me yesterday. I'm not totally sure about the weighty introduction I got this time, I may prefer the one in Grazing The Long Acre , but I still love the cover image. Many thanks to Kath Wilham for following my suggestion up and sourcing it, plus many thanks to CERN Educational, for letting us use it.

Anyway, same as I did for The Buonarotti Quartet: the stories.
(warning: this is a bit long)

The Universe Of Things, Storynotes

In The Forest Of The Queen: The Monsec American Monument is a real place. The forest in the story is a real place, and cropped for firewood by the commune, just as described. We drove into it, we left our car at a meeting of green, smoothly mown, thickly tree-bordered tracks; just as described. We walked into the trees, and were walking over ground that was hopping with tiny dark-skinned frogs. Never seen so many little frogs. We got a little lost, and that felt a little strange: we found ourselves again, and there was (but this was at a different forest margin) an old French forester who said “You can go in, but you may not come out”. Back in the car, for a while it was touch and go: so many crossing trails, and surely far more trees than we’d passed on the way in. We knew we’d escaped when we reached the cottage converted into a bat refuge, but I wondered if maybe everything had changed; if this was really the same world as we’d left. The rest is fiction.

I’ve sought these liminal, uncertain experiences all my life. The most developed example I’ve written up as fiction is a novel called Kairos. It’s that Arthur Machen feeling, it’s what the term numinous actually means, and you should ask my brother David about it.

Total Internal Reflection. An early try out for the tech-and-drug mediated Grail idea.

Red Sonja And Lessingham In Dreamland. It’s about Red Sonja, ie Brigitte Nielson (a favourite movie). It’s about Lessingham, as in the heroic Renaissance Fantasies of Eric Rucker Eddison (who shared private tutors with Arthur Ransome as a boy, but I’m sure you knew that). Someone once told me that Eddison fans in the US found it “very offensive”. I'm truly sorry they feel that way, I meant no harm, I'm an Eddision fan, I even admire Mistress of Mistresses, which some might say proves my dedication. When my son was a little boy he was very, very keen on the Ballantine cover of The Worm Ouroboros and insisted I read it to him. I warned him, but he persisted, so I did. Didn't miss a word. Red Sonja is mainly supposed to be funny, with a sneak-out ending that finally refuses to condemn the dubious escapism fans, but I think its popularity rests on the fact that it is, inevitably, also mildly porny. Probably the most anthologised Gwyneth Jones story.

The Universe Of Things This one used to be called "The Mechanic", which may have been a better title. My poor mechanic gets into a panic, imagining he's a helpless component in a pumping, squirting, squishy Great Big Machine. When he stops frightening himself and calms down, he "hears" the alien's car say "Thank you". I take that to be a fleeting, genuine insight into how it feels to be submerged, encompassed by the living world, like an Aleutian: without being terrified. The key is kind-ness (as in that Oxfam tag, be humankind); even in our world held to be the root of all altruism. Ah, well. The city is Liverpool, by the way. Don’t know if I mentioned that in the narrative.

Blue Clay Blues. A Johnny Guglioli story. At the time of writing White Queen, I worked up a future USA that didn’t seem remotely likely, just for the hell of it, and in response to the Cyberpunk-Eighties version of near-future Europe. I knew I didn’t know anything like enough about the US to work up a likely future, so I didn’t try. Ironically, apparently, it stands up. I wrote this story because I wanted to use the lines “Is that a gun in your pocket?” “No, it’s a spare diaper.”

Grazing The Long Acre Somehow this got into one of Steve Jones’s horror anthologies. I don’t know how, pure kindness to Gwyneth on Steve’s part, most likely. This is not a horror story, this is a Polish story. It is not a mundane story either: it is obviously and very Polishly a story about an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Virgin of Czestochowa in fact. I wondered what that tricky concept The Immaculate Conception would look like, to a part-Jewish American girl who was trying to be Lauren Bacall in To Have And Have Not, and this is the result. The working girls on the E75 are real, or they were. Grazing has been translated into Polish, and published in Nowa Fantastyka, and I’m pleased about that.

Collision. I signed up to write a story for Geoff Ryman’s anthology When It Changed. The main attraction was that I would be shadowing a scientist, the way I shadowed Dr Jane Davies for Life, the way I’ve sneaked myself into a few real world scientific/academic conferences, over the years. It turned out that I couldn’t visit my scientist, who had promised to let me see a real (medical) particle accelerator roaring in its cage, as the trip would be too expensive. Then it turned out that Geoff, which through lack of paying attention I hadn’t known, was not just using a title that happened to sound the same, he was actually referencing the iconic Joanna Russ, seventies-feminism ur-text “When It Changed”, and saying his Scientific Revolutions anthology was inspired by that story. Geoff, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. The other contributors are free to do what they like: me, I'm going to have to write something about a feminist/post-gendered Utopia under threat from the Return Of The Sex-Role Dinosaur Police. And time was running out. So “Collision” was a bit of a scrambled egg, but in the end I sort of liked the result. Plus I loved “meeting” Dr Kai Hock (Dr Fortune) digitally. He’s a star. Also loved finding out about wake fields & all that from his online powerpoints.

One Of Sandy’s Dreams Sandy Brize is a character from Kairos.

Gravegoods The first properly scifi story I ever wrote (and the last, until "The Fulcrum", and the rest of the Buonarotti set); the first I ever got published, and the ur-form of the means of faster than light travel later to be known as a Buonarotti Transit. I took it to my second UK Milford week, in 1986. The delightful alien planet is Madeira.

La Cenerentola Won the BSFA short story award, in 1999 I think it was, which was a very pleasant surprise. A love song to the summers of the nineties, when I travelled (on a less well-heeled scale) very much the way Thea and Suze and Bobbi travel, around the sunbaked Mediterranean. Isn’t it interesting to look back, and see a world where the danger of having everything seemed like a real threat. The night at L’Ecureuil, with the flamenco guitar, and the mayor with her little shoes, is taken from life. Also the hangover.

Grandmother’s Footsteps. This was written for an anthology about haunted houses, but the haunted house seems almost incidental now. I believe I was writing at the time of a grim chemical pollution discovery in the UK (Was it Lindane? That wood treating stuff?). The horrible revelation that your child is doomed to a short life in pain, because you painted the barn with something you didn’t know was deadly... and this segues, naturally, if you’re writing a horror story, into the awful suspicion that everything, every greedy thoughtless thing your civilisation ever did to the world, everything that made you prosperous, is going to turn around and savage your babies. That's when you start being haunted by yourself. An existential yuppie nightmare.

The Earlier Crossing This was a dream, I dreamed it, word for word. So to speak. I was working with the Continuing Education Department at our local University (late lamented, it’s been axed), encouraging ordinary folk to do some creative writing, the result was to be a book, and everybody involved had to pitch something in.

The Eastern Succession Now where is this set? I think it’s set on the slopes of Mount Bromo, circa 1978, although there’s no active volcano on the summit above “Temple Pass” in the story. I recognise the town; I remember staying in that town, in a wooden-walled room, the pillows and sheets on the bed crusted with embroidery, that left patterns on my ears. It’s central Java anyway, and Bu Awan is Mount Merapi, but the bas-reliefs as described are in a temple near Solo. Endang was the name of someone we met, a dance student, she was a girl, but in Javanese boy/girl names aren’t exclusive. When I first drafted Divine Endurance, while living in Singapore, I went on to write several “Derveet and the gang” stories. DE the novel is as stylised as Javanese dance-drama. The emotions are real and intense, everything else is stage: same as European style ballet, in fact. I wanted that effect but I thought I'd also like to have the characters in their street clothes, and find out what really happened to the men and boys. I wasn't satisfied with the "Derveet" stories and discarded most of them. I thought this was more successful, and I took it along to my first UK Milford. Another one, much altered and with Endang brought in as a character, finally became the novel called Flowerdust

On Mount Bromo I met, and became short-term dear friends with, fully adult human beings, men and women, the top of whose heads barely came to my collarbone, and I’m 162cm. I think of those “hobbits” on Flores, and I think they didn’t entirely die out.

The Thief The Princess And The Cartesian Circle. From the collection “Seven Tales And A Fable”, published by Steve Pasechnik (of the late lamented Edgewood Press) in 1996. My fractured fairytales (though they were often taken out of the box, revised and some of them published separately over the years between), date back to my undergraduate days at Sussex University. The Thief is not a personal favourite. I prefer “The Snow Apples”, an early try-out for a character who would become Cho, the “innocent, perfect and incorruptible” metagenetic gynoid. Or “Laiken Langstrand”, if only because the lanky blue-eyed blond friend who inspired it is dead now. But it’s possibly the most interesting and most hard-hitting. I was working with fairytales, bringing them into collision with the real world, seeing what interesting fractures might develop, and I’m a long time admirer of I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, by Hannah Gordon (alternate title of another of the stories). In the real world, a young woman who believes she’s a magic princess, suffering under an evil enchantment, probably has mental health problems. The passage where Jennifer experiences a psychiatric hospital as a wild wood, and a corrupt, sexually abusive doctor as a “woodcutter” her “magic” may easily destroy, is closely related to Gordon’s description of how the psychotic yet beloved world of “Yr” interpenetrates the real, in her schizophrenic protagonist’s perception. "Sectioned" is UK shorthand for being compulsorily committed to a psychiatric institution. The Descartes part is not fiction, and I'd hesitate to call it philosophy: that’s me, at nineteen, wrestling with an angel.

Identifying The Object. A Johnny and Braemar story, narrated by a somewhat holier than thou observer. This story is a mash-up. I had never been to West Africa when I wrote it. The incident at the heart, the supposed alien craft splash-down site, actually happened in Madeira, it was one of those liminal experiences. Of course what we found was the spoor of a flash flood. It was flood water that had created the huge, weird, circular depression paved in red clay, flood water that had brought down the trees all around. But for a moment or two, well, we were on the brink... The original African connection was a terrific dubious escapism romance called The Golden Centipede, by Louise Gerard (1910). When I finally reached West Africa in 1995 (expedition to climb Mt Cameroon) I was stunned to find it was exactly the place Gerard describes. I thought she’d made it all up. The white lilies that grow in the river mud! The flowery natural “gardens”, up in the highlands! The weird peaks! Bit short on wildlife these days, but you can’t have everything. I was trying to work out something about colonialism, and how does it happen? How do the gold empires vanish? In this story Braemar and Johnny, natives of the planet about to be colonised, themselves about to become inferior beings, decide (she decides) to go down (pre-emptively) fighting. If it was as simple as that, I would sign up myself. But Anna thinks it is not.

Blue Valentine: Why I prefer thrillers

Wednesday 19th January, white roofs, frosty gardens, Venus bright and high at 7am. After a lengthy interval of heavy rain, mist and cloud, the cold has returned for a while.

Suckered into going to see Blue Valentine at The Duke's last night, because Michelle Williams was so good in Winter's Bone, and by accidental viewing of a tv movie "critic" programme, (not really, more just advertising). The gushing critical acclaim already online for this "painful, exquisite" movie raises a wry shake of the head. I have the perceptions of a different generation, a different social consciousness: I saw no bittersweet romance . . I thought Blue Valentine was pretty good.This is exactly how it happens. The lost dog, the cruel loss of the animal-person who was secretly holding a very shaky situation together, precipitates crisis. Long ago, when they were young, a clever girl from a poor background, in a routinely abusive family situation, sadly bereft of emotional support, was touched by the inventive, hollow routines of a self-centred emotional parasite (yes! It's Woody Allen come again!): she turned to him in her trouble, and he, intoxicated by his own make-believe, made the grand gesture. Now they're older, they've become themselves, as an adult the hollow man is unendurable: there's a wonderful little girl, but it's all going to hell.

Michelle Williams was terrific. Maybe her part in the two-hander was just easier, but for me it was a shame that her partner, played by Ryan Gosling, came over as terminally dislikeable, and for me almost unwatchable (which is different and much worse). On that modern world scale of snog, marry, avoid, the winsome "Dean" belongs, from the start, at the "run away screaming" end of the spectrum. Young girls are gullible, it's okay that "Cindy" fell for him. It's just what she would do, especially considering Dean's rival for her affections is a violent bully like her Dad. It would have been masses better if "Dean" had won my sympathy.

I don't like movies that set out to be soft-centred, I like grit. But I prefer gritty thrillers. In a thriller, if you don't get on with the human drama, there's always the story. In a human drama, if you don't like the people, it's no fun at all trying to guess what's going to happen.

What's Happening In Egypt

Tuesday 11th January, a gloomy mild grey afternoon. Here's a link from last week's news, better for morale than the news from Arizona, anyway, where Common Dreams tells me the relaxed gun laws are about to become MORE relaxed. Who would have figured that could happen?

And another Common Dreams link, equally morale-boosting.

Cat tragedy averted: did you know pampas grass can cause your cat to retch blood, cower in a shuddering heap, foam at the mouth and show every sign of being in desperate trouble? It's the sneaky two-way finish, smooth going down when they swallow a piece, viciously abrasive when they try to sick it up again, the way cats love to do. Last night we were facing a tragic bill for removal under general anaesthetic (plus nobody wants to put a small animal under general anaesthetic, it's always scary), but this morning we were off the hook, Milo had managed to rid himself of the problem, and the pampas grass is uprooted and bagged to be taken to the tip.

Are we all still here? Yes, I think so. Better get on with the year then.

Winter Journey

New Year, a raw cloudy day, snow flurries. On a hard yellow clay path, on the way from Forest Row to Weir Wood reservoir, Peter notices that the snow flakes are landing, by ones and twos, as distinct, solid little six-lobed white flowers, as if we're being showered by elder-blossom under a June hedgerow. And then the reservoir, looking like a miniature Coniston in its pewter length and setting between green slopes and bare woods. A flock of ewes being moved from one pasture to another, with the assistance of three men, one boy, one dog, and earnest use of mobile phones (five people coming down the lane. . .Over). The lively sussurration of their passage, bright eyes in neat, narrow heads, a swarm of nimble legs flashing under a yellowish-white heaving wave of fleece. And then the hide, cold to the bone, where we ate Christmas cake and little oranges, and watched blue tits, great tits, a robin, mallards, a pair of pheasants bustling round the auxiliary feeders. On the water, a single gadwall, plenty indeterminate ducks; coots, geese and one big puzzling diving bird with a white breast and an industrial-sized hooked beak (it was an immature cormorant). So cold! As if the cold had been waiting in ambush in here, disarmed by our movement outdoors; to show us it meant business. Wouldn't like to try and sleep out tonight. Must double our donation to Antifreeze.

I'm walking along thinking about The Magic Mountain (a book I lost when I left it in the pocket of my yellow mackintosh, in the cab of a truck, when I was hitchhiking through Greece with my friend Marilyn, many years ago; and I've only just finished reading it). I'm puzzled about the seances. Thomas Mann, like Balzac, like Dostoevsky, has a tendency to "go off on one" as they say in my country. You won't just hear that our hero took up another interest illustrating the preoccupations of his epoch. You'll get a whole treatise on Progress, or Physiology, or Nationalism, or X-rays, and then he'll kind of rub his eyes & go on with the story. It's not a problem, but Spiritualism? Ectoplasm, tinkling bells, spirit guides? It was a big deal, it can't be left out, it belongs in there along with raving proto-fascist Jesuit sybarites. What worries me is that the stuff seems to work, seems to be given the same reality-status as botany, as Hans's perfectly real psychological-visionary experience in the snow. I know what I mean by the mind/matter tech in my own work. I mean that we do not know where scientific thought and technological development will take us next. All we know for sure is that so far, our model of the world has been "destroyed and remade", time and again, and new, wild vistas of possibility have opened up just when everything seemed to be over. Therefore we can hope, or fear, that it will happen again. . . I do not mean that I believe in magic. So does Thomas Mann actually believe that you can conjure dead people? Or what is he up to? Aha, I have a clue. The apparition of (my favourite character) in the WWI battlefield get-up that seems so bizarre, doesn't belong to any of the characters, it doesn't come from the Unknown Beyond Death, it comes from the Unknown Beyond The Fictional World: it's an authorial intrusion, provided by Thomas Mann writing after the War was over.

The best way to experience a big book (for the first time) is to read it on a journey, such as in the passage from Christmas to New Year, spent a vehicle of free, unhurried hours that shuts out everything but immemorial tradition.

I also read A Tale Of Two Cities, having been alerted by a Wikipedia entry to the notion that this is "the best novel ever written" (I was checking a reference for North Wind). Which didn't seem too likely, though I sometimes wonder if I'm misjudging Dickens owing to the prejudice of establishment criticism which I absorbed when I was too young to know that there are fashions in literary reputation, same as anything else. Nah. I liked the opening passages very much. (Not "It was the Best of Times...", I mean the Stage Coach passengers in the mud on Shooter's Hill bit), but this is lightweight. I'll stick with The Muppets Christmas Carol, if I want to take Dickens seriously. The fact that there is often prejudice should not blind us to the fact that sometimes there is justice. And Schoenberg, Kandkinsky and the Blue Rider, (eds Esther da Costa Meyer and Fred Wasserman). I was led to this fascinating book by The Art Of Noise, having been intrigued to learn that Schoenberg painted his own Expressionist pictures as well as inspiring Kandinsky's Concert. I'm not going to go off on one, but did you know, the young Schoenberg wrote what is known as program-music, just like an ordinary mortal? I mean, he wrote music impelled by passion, full of coded messages about transfiguring, vital incidents in his own life, and then he lied about it, insisting that real, progressive music has nothing to do with the composer, and anyone who says human emotion has anything to do with it is just full of c**p. . . Funny thing is, T.S.Eliot did exactly the same thing! I was disgusted at T.S.Eliot when I found that out, now I'm disgusted at them both. When young people may be trusting you, you are free to remain silent about stuff, but you must not lie! Eliot worked in a bank, too.

Didn't think much of Schoenberg's pictures (nor did anyone, it seems). But I do like his weird music.

Here ends the contribution I could have made to those Year's Best requests I ignored, as I was too busy being lost in space. Here ends a winter journey