How I Got Here

Sometimes my relationship with science fiction seems like a particularly bloody love affair. We’ve broken up and got back together so many times I’ve lost count of who got bored with what and went off to do something they shouldn’t. I can still remember the first flush. Tripping over a tatty paperback called Foundation at school, by someone called Isaac Asimov. So I read a few pages, then read a few more. Suddenly the book was finished and I bemoaning the fact when someone said, ‘It’s okay, I’ve got the next two volumes...’

Asimov became an addiction; psychohistory the only thing that could explain the absurdity of the world around me. This was in the years after the New Wave. Only that wave never broke on the shores of the school where I was locked down. Our shingle was washed with whatever the local library was prepared to lend us. Ballard, Moorcock, Aldis and Harrison would have been far too exciting.

Next came Rites of Passage. Another tatty paperback with a cheap cover. But, hey, Mia Havero was on a generation ship; a member of a ruling elite, who had to deal with mud dwellers. And her family were stuffy; and Mia was going through this complex hormonal stuff... Now it sounds tired, but it was the first time I’d stumbled on those tropes. I read the book so often it fell apart.

After that, I grabbed everything I could find that claimed to be SF.  Often without remembering the title and author, sometimes without remembering the plot. When that got boring, I broke into a locked cabinet in the school’s own library and read my way through assorted high gothic novels. (Locked away for their age, rather than content, I was upset to discover.)

At college I strayed. Conducting short and fierce affairs with the Northern classics (Hamsun, Turgenev, Bulgakov), magic realists (Borges, Marquez, Neruda), and children’s fantasy (Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander). Of course, I still believed Lord of the Rings was the greatest novel ever written. (I blame the brown acid.)  But pomp was turning into punk, acid into speed, and fantasy suddenly seemed less fantastically impressive.

As the seventies turned into the eighties, I threw in my first brief job and decamped to a near-derelict house in the mountains in Spain, with a pitifully small amount of money and a cheap Chinese typewriter. The novel I wrote was bad, the long-term damage that exiling myself did to my early and still-recent marriage was worse.

As source material, however, it was fantastic.

I met gangsters, a Brazilian socialite who travelled with her cats, art collectors, drugs runners, pimps, ex Vogue models, an exiled English peer who spent his life drawing portraits of fir trees... I’d stumbled into a Ballard novel without realising it. This was life; this was the rough stone out of which novels were hewn. My love affair lasted until the last of the money ran out.

Science fiction was still waiting when I got back. Only now it masqueraded as a late night radio series, a Booker contender and a high Catholic science-fantasy novel. I’d landed one job at a publisher, and another reviewing for a short-lived glossy magazine. I selected the novels to review, because the editor couldn’t be bothered. But they had to be serious, preferably serious and difficult.

None turned out more so than Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker (1980); which spilled its broken post-apocalyptic world in broken post-apocalyptic prose. As my day job was as a junior copy editor, that was me rendered useless for the best part of the following month.  (I discovered what all writers eventually discover. Other people’s style bleeds over, and the stronger the style the more it will bleed.)

In the same year, Gene Wolfe published Shadow of the Torturer, a book that broke every rule; from don’t foreshadow, to make you characters likeable and your narrative easy to understand. (Wolfe does little but foreshadow, offers us a torturer as hero, fractures his narrative, and uses words so obscure that for years I couldn’t work out which were archaic and which simply invented.)

It came, at least my paperback did with, ‘Winner of the British Science Fiction Association Award’ emblazoned across its cover...

Meanwhile, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s reworking of Journey of the Sorcerer had burnt a permanent loop into my brain. Hitchhikers might have failed to win the 1979 Hugo for best Dramatic Presentation, but it won the Sony Award and two other mainstream awards. Like everybody else who listened to it, I thought I’d discovered it first and cursed the world, that while drunk in a field, I hadn’t looked up at the stars and thought, Where’s my towel?

And then, just when everything seemed so promising, SF and I gave up on each other. Work intruded, followed by a new baby.  I stopped reading, I stopped listening to music. I just worked, then worked some more.  Quite how bad an idea this was I discovered a handful of years later, when the company for which I’d been slaving was sold. Looking up from my desk, I discovered - not surprisingly – that my relationship was on the rocks.

I found myself alone in a cafe in the West Country with a copy of Count Zero on a formica table in front of me, trying to work out what I should do next. Only, the need to read another few pages kept intruding. And what I felt, when I read those pages, was what I’d felt all those years before when I discovered Asimov. What I’d felt on discovering Alexi Panshin’s Rites of Passage, Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, Michael Coney’s Hello Summer Goodbye, Gene Wolfe’s New Sun series, and everything Douglas Adams had ever written.

A sense that this was mine. A bizarre and misplaced sense of ownership. As if tens and hundreds of thousands of fans hadn’t already found those books before me and claimed them for their own.  I wanted to be part of this. I wanted to write SF of my own.

It took me a couple more years, divorce, redundancy, and being a single father before that happened. But one summer, jobless and determined to concentrate this time, I sat at a table in a flat within sight of Broadwater Farm in Tottenham and wrote the first draft of what became neoAddix. It sat with Gollancz for a year before coming back. So I sent it to an agent, who took it on and sent it to Hodder, who bought it, demanded a sequel, and then decided that the two books should really be four. Blind luck and blind ignorance had finally delivered me where I wanted.

This is the first time I’ve ever sat down and tried to work out how I got from reading Asimov at school to writing my own novels, being a GoH at an Eastercon, and having a paperback out with ‘Winner of the British Science Fiction Association Award’ emblazoned across its own cover... And it makes me realise that I wouldn’t be here without every single one of the books I’ve just mentioned.

© joncg