Interesting things of the week; thoughts on Tolkien, writing careers and gender stereotypes

Last night, Terri Windling explained some very interesting aspects of my current thinking and writing in epic fantasy. Not that she had the least notion of doing any such thing. She was giving the fourth annual Tolkien lecture on fantasy fiction at Pembroke College, Oxford. It was fascinating on many levels. It was being recorded and should that become available online, I’ll make sure to flag it up.

For now, I’ll offer you last year’s lecture in this series by Lev Grossman. Equally interesting while being distinctly different. It’s half an hour of your time, by the way, so grab a tea, coffee or other beverage of choice and settle in.

One of the many good things about Terri’s talk last night was the number of women writers she referenced and recommended. As you Bobs know, issues of visibility and diversity are a particular concern of mine.

This week Liz Williams wrote an uncompromisingly realistic piece on the nature of writing careers for Sarah Ash’s ‘Nobody Knew She Was There’ blog series; Schrodinger’s Writer Authors, at whatever stage in the game, should most definitely read this.

Something I’ve been thinking about this week is the role SF and fantasy may well have played in me raising two sons to be young men well aware of diversity and equality issues. My younger sister, now also the mother of two sons, is finding her children surrounded by toys, popular culture and history where the message that it’s men who are important and powerful is constantly reinforced. So this video she flagged up to me was of great interest to us both.

Through the Inspiring the Future initiative, young children were encouraged to draw a pictures of a surgeon, a firefighter and a fighter pilot. Then their class was visited by women working in those three roles. Watch it for the evidence of assumptions already inculcated in those children, and then at the little girls’ reactions…

Still, we are making progress. The BBC reported this week on The men who are taking a stand against ‘dude fests’. Specifically, in recent months increasing numbers of high-profile men have been speaking up against the all-male panel at conferences. Which is excellent. While also illustrative of gender issues itself, in that this is now newsworthy because men are speaking up, in a way that the many women’s voices saying just the same has not been…

Rocks and Shoals – the third Aldabreshin Compass short story.

Western Shore  Artwork Ben Baldwin
Western Shore
Artwork Ben Baldwin

I am really enjoying writing these stories – even if fitting them in around other work and obligations can be tricky.

So here’s the next installment of Dyal’s adventures. This one rounds out and explains the shocking events in the Redigal domain referenced in the early chapters of Western Shore.

Click here to read the story – Rocks and Shoals

If you want to catch up with the story so far, the first and second stories are here – along with a few other things, all free to read and enjoy.

Sansa Stark’s joined the X-Men? Thoughts on popcultural cross contamination.

I’ve yet to see the X-Men Apocalypse movie, so I can’t comment on Sophie Turner’s performance. Her work on Game of Thrones – especially at the moment (NO spoilers in comments please!) – gives me every reason to expect she’ll do a thoroughly good job.

The thing is, though, this is becoming A Thing for me. An amusement at the moment, rather than a distraction, but definitely A Thing.

I caught a trailer for A Knight’s Tale on the TV last week, which is one of my favourite movies. Now though? That’s the one where Robert Baratheon makes The Joker’s armour while The Vision bigs him up to the crowd…

Ripper Street? Did you see the one where Blackfish Tully dragged Bronn out of bed, possibly to chase after Jorah Mormont, or maybe Barristan Selmy, because both of them have turned up, and been up to no good.

Now, this is nothing new – Ronny Cox is merely the first actor who comes to mind for me, thinking about recurrent faces in fan-favourite movies and TV, going back to the 80s. Always doing sterling work. The same goes for Brian Cox. And other actors whose surname isn’t Cox, like James Cosmo.

And I’ve no wish to deny actors work. Their employment and earnings statistics make being a writer look like steady, well-paid work!

But I am curious. Why has this become A Thing for me? The cumulative effect of the sheer volume of stuff that I’ve watched in 50 years? Or because of the particular things I chose to watch?

But as far as my sons are concerned, Sean Connery is and will always be ‘Indiana Jones’s Dad’ because that’s the role they first saw him in. On the basis of one viewing, it seems that Vanessa Redgrave is permanently tagged as ‘Coriolanus‘s Mum’ for them. So maybe not so much.

Because we can watch what we want, when we want, so very much more easily these days? Instead of seeing things on release at the cinema or when they were broadcast – or not at all? So performances weren’t so apt to all come along in a rush?

But then, you could hardly escape James Norton on UK television earlier this year, what with War and Peace, Happy Valley and Grantchester, and that was all down to scheduling.

As I say, I’m curious. I don’t have any particular conclusions, beyond hoping it remains an amusement rather than becoming a distraction.

Anyone else finding this is A Thing?

Where do we get our ideas from? Let me tell you about last night’s dream…

Seriously. This is what my head was full of when I woke up at 5.30 this morning.

In the near future, sports organisers have given up trying to stop the abuse of performance enhancing drugs. Not least because global media corporations have become dissatisfied by falling audiences, and the attendant loss of advertising revenue, as it’s become harder and harder for athletes to break records and win or lose is now determined by fractions of a second. So designer drugs to increase strength, speed, agility etc are now really big business.

Except it all goes wrong. A laboratory in Oxford genetically engineers a virus to take this sort of therapy to a whole new level. Alas, funding cutbacks and outsourcing vital services mean that things like bio-security are increasingly lax. The virus gets loose and spreads like, well, norovirus. The effects are hyper-aggression, driving violence in every unpleasant manifestation you can imagine. To the exclusion of all else. People forget to eat, only sleep when they collapse from sheer exhaustion, drink only when thirst overwhelms their other urges. So victims end up dead in about three weeks – if someone hasn’t already killed them first.

Survivors head for the hills – in this case, the Cotswolds. This is very much a middle-class disaster. The chapter where our heroes (male and female) are looting the Waitrose on the Botley Road, while trying not to fall victim to the howling mob outside is particularly Wyndham-esque. Which isn’t to say the deaths weren’t unpleasantly graphic. I dream in full colour, full-sensory imagery with added emotional content.

Now the whole thing becomes a post-apocalypse scenario rather than a zombie-variant movie. Our protagonists end up in a remote manor house, among other things, breeding horses, as they fight to keep the infected out and to drive off other groups of survivors. When the virus has burned itself out, they venture back into the city. Finding supplies is a secondary consideration to finding vital knowledge. So they head for the Bodleian libraries.

Since I dream in full colour, full-sensory imagery, the final scene was particularly effective: two people riding horses down Broad Street in the morning sun, the road strewn with decaying corpses, all the modern shops destroyed, while Oxford’s ancient, enduring architecture rises above it all. Hence the waking up completely and absolutely at 5.30 this morning.

So will I be writing this novel? No, not a chance. I have pretty much zero interest in zombie stories as a reader or viewer and have still less interest in writing them myself.

Besides, this isn’t overly original. I amused myself over breakfast by identifying the things my subconscious had knitted together. Including but by no means limited to:

28 Days Later – screenplay Alex Garland, director Danny Boyle
The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham
Achilles’ Choice – Larry Niven/Steven Barnes
Nod – Adrian Barnes
Survivors – the original BBC TV series

See also – Jurassic Park, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and any number of other ‘Stuff Gets Out of Labs and It All Goes Horribly Wrong’ movies. Plus the upcoming Rio Olympics. Plus discussions on BBC Radio 4 last autumn, following England’s early exit from the last rugby world cup, about what that might mean for ITV’s advertising revenue and the wider loss of income for those towns and venues hosting subsequent matches etc.

So why am I writing this up? Because it really is a good example of how stories come together in a writer’s head. Or at least, in this writer’s head.

Most of all, I want this out of my head. Otherwise I will spend the rest of today getting distracted by new thoughts on tweaking details of the plot, expanding the back story of the various characters, visualising locations with ever more precision.

Do I often have dreams like this? Pretty frequently, especially when I’m not actively working on writing fiction. It’s absolutely no coincidence that I wrapped up the third of the Aldabreshin Compass short stories yesterday – which I will let sit over the weekend before giving it a final polishing pass next week and making it available.

Right, having cleared the mental decks, I will get on with some other work now. 🙂

My thoughts on concluding a series over at Gail Z Martin’s blog

You’ll recall me mentioning I’d been swapping thoughts with Gail Z Martin about the challenges of ending a multi-volume story? By way of a companion piece to her guest post on this blog , she’s hosting some conclusions I’ve drawn over on her own website.

When the end is nigh, take another look at your characters’ “victory conditions”

There’s a fine line to tread between ‘and they all (eventually) lived (more or less) happily ever after’ and ‘they all came full circle and hit the Reset Button’. The first can and arguably should be satisfactorily achieved, because ending a series with overall failure is hardly rewarding the reader for their time and commitment. On the other hand, hitting the Reset Button treats the reader just as badly, when an entire series ultimately fails the ‘So What?’ test. What was the point in following those characters through all that travelling, learning and struggle if nothing has really changed?