Douglas Auster and Paul Adams

THE WRITER’S LIFE

As a writer in a few genres, I’ve been favourably compared to many I admire in each: Lovecraft, Kafka, King and Poe, the Teletubbies of horror; Roald Dahl and others for children’s fiction; Douglas Adams in sci-fi; and the surrealists Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas (as well as Adams) for Cyrus Song.

Monkey-typing

Today I was asked a question on Quora: If you could take a writing class from a successful author, who would it be?

As a writer who writes, I’ve been compared to Paul Auster and the way he can tell stories, both real and fictional. Like him, I place a part of me in everything I write, whether it be a mannerism in a character, or a place from the fringe of experience. It allows me to live in my characters and stories, telling them like a storyteller reading directly to you as you read to yourself (not all writers do) and like Paul Auster does.

For me, reading someone like Paul Auster and then, say, Dan Brown (to name but one), is like listening to vinyl records then MP3s. There’s a depth and richness to Auster’s writing, where much more is said than actually written. I’ve found this technique especially useful when writing surreal fiction, as it allows me to paint parallels and to tell more than one story at the same time.

He often crosses his stories over, so that the attentive reader might spot a character or location in more than one of his works. He builds themes which he dots about in his stories, creating microcosm universes which only he and his readers populate. He taught me to do all of that, and it can be seen in the recurring themes, places and characters in my separate-but-linked short fiction. Auster writes short stories and novels, but many of the former can be linked to form an entity greater than the component parts. This is what I sought to do in both of my anthology volumes (many of the individual short stories are on this blog).

I have many influences but I like to think I’m unique, as most writers do. Paul Auster and others have allowed me to take something from each to arrive at the way I write, which is to work somehow lucidly and detached, as if writing subconsciously.

It was ten years ago I learned I might be a writer, by reading Paul Auster’s ease of prose. He’s always been there, an invisible mentor in my mind, and if I were fortunate enough to have tuition from another author, it would be the one I respect most in his craft. Auster is so natural as to be indistinguishable from, and the definition of, the word ‘Writer’. That’s what I aspire to.

But truthfully, if I could go back in time or somehow change the past; if I could book some one-to-one time with any author, I’d choose Douglas. I’m not sure I’d learn a lot, but we’d probably have a fun and mutually self-deprecating time. I’d love him to read Cyrus Song, written in tribute to him and heavily influenced by him and Stephen Hawking.

I’d love to have Douglas Adams and Paul Auster round to dinner sometime, just to see what happened when those great minds met. They’ve both been there influencing my writing, so perhaps they already did.

He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it,” Douglas said.

Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them,” Paul replied.

At the hairdresser with Medusa

ANSWERS TO CORRESPONDENTS

What type of snakes were on Medusa’s head? This was another answer requested directly from me on Quora. So I found a Gorgon and she took me to a nail bar, where she also gets her hair done…

medusaJason Fulford

Medusa was a Gorgon: creatures of Greek mythology, and we can choose to subscribe to the legend that she was a winged human with living venomous snakes in place of hair, and anyone who looked at her turned to stone. We can accept that, or we can question.

As a sci-fi writer, I have to propose probabilities (and create paradoxes):

As a scientific atheist, I believe that religion and science can co-exist in open, unconditioned fora. I believe, for example, that the Christian bible and other ancient religious texts, could be recordings of actual events, made by the scholars of the time using tools and languages available to them: Show a biblical scribe a tablet computer, and might they describe a magic mirror? Might flaming chariots and fire-breathing beasts have been spacecraft? If they’d had smart phones to record events, we’d have more evidence and there’d be less religious debate.

I don’t deny myths any more than I do religious scripture, but I question and prefer socialist debate over fascist confrontation or dismissal.

I subscribe to ancient alien theories, so what some refer to as God, I don’t deny in anything but that deity’s creation in man’s mind. Just because I reject God in man’s image, doesn’t mean I deny a creator or designer of some kind, and I believe that ancient humans might have been visited (or brought here) by a superior intelligence, perhaps extraterrestrial (once you’ve cracked interstellar travel, omnipresence is a given).

In paintings on cave walls, and in ancient scripts and glyphs, we see fantastical creatures, many part-human or hybrid (Egyptian cat people, for example). Medusa could have been one of those.

The snakes might have been organic or technological protrusions, perhaps from a protective head covering, helmet, or space suit (look at Predator in the eponymous film). They may have been for breathing, or some sort of neural periscopes. Medusa could also have been a naked alien, with tentacles or cranial protrusions, long, slender forelimbs, and protruding scapula. She could have quite possibly been a deformed human, a freak.

freaks-risa-highFreaks‘, Tod Browning

Having never seen any of those before, the writers of the time said what they saw: a person with wings, and with snakes for hair. And if the myth were literally true, and Medusa really was a human with all those appendages, making such a being – whether organic or technological hybrid – would require knowledge far beyond our own.

If there were snakes on Medusa’s head, it could have been just a crown. The snakes would most likely be asps, a modern derivation of aspis, which referred to many venomous snake species of the Nile region. It’s generally accepted that asp refers to what is now known as the Egyptian cobra. If you got a bite from one of those, you’d be petrified (figuratively turned to stone and literally envenomed). The wings could perhaps have been an elaborate cloak. But unless the whole garb was worn by someone or some entity which had superhuman powers (a witch doctor with snake skulls braided into her dreadlocks), that all seems rather pedestrian for the stuff of legend. I think Medusa, the Gorgons and many other tales have a grounding somewhere, even if that’s just humanity’s need to believe there’s more out there.

What type of snakes were on Medusa’s head? I don’t think they were the splendid reptiles we know, but described as such by observers who wouldn’t recognise technology or extraterrestrials, anything beyond their own understanding of their home world.

Parlez-vous kangourou?

ANSWERS TO CORRESPONDENTS

Is it possible to write animal language? This was a question asked directly of me on Quora, and it’s all down to interpretation. After all, no matter what anyone says, they have no control over how that message is received, but that’s a larger sphere for another discussion.

There’s a story (possibly apocryphal), of an explorer pointing to an animal he’d never seen before and asking a native what it was: “Kangaroo”. But ‘kangaroo’ simply meant ‘I don’t know.’ Do animals want to tell us something? All rabbits look like they have something on their mind, all the time. Is it possible to write animal language?

Apps for catsApps for cats

It’s something probably within near-reach of current technology, but while it remains theoretical, there’s always the fictional. Is it possible to write animal language(s)? I gave it a go, because someone had to let everyone know what the animals are thinking on this home world we all share. They were here first. It’s theirs, and we are only guests, with a moral responsibility to clean up our mess.

As this question was requested directly from me, I shan’t shy from mentioning my science fiction novel, which is central to my answers (it may be because I wrote that book that someone asked me specifically).

Cyrus Song has two main premises, and it’s a tribute to two people who’ve been influential on me in my literary and scientific lives: Douglas Adams and Stephen Hawking. It was the famous quote by the latter, sampled on Pink Floyd’s song ‘Keep Talking’: “For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination: We learned to talk…” Of course it refers to humans, but I turned it on its head and wondered what it would be like if we learned to talk with the animals. Incidentally, the alternative title to that Pink Floyd track is ‘Cyrus Song’, Cyrus being a name for our parent star, Sol.

Then I had Douglas Adams and his original invention of the universal translation device: the Babel fish, which eventually disproved God in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I put that to use as a quantum computer program in Cyrus Song, to come up with a universal translation device for animals. Cyrus Song is clearly fiction, but my near-future sci-fi will always have a grounding in current science, at least scientific theory. I like to think my science fiction is plausible.

We already have universal translation, and can hear most human languages translated to our own as we speak through a device or algorithm. We’re on the verge of quantum computing and the vast power they represent, unimaginable in current computers. And we’re already setting AI to task on working out the really difficult questions we can’t yet answer, because our brains can’t process the huge amounts of data (a cure for cancer, the search for extraterrestrial life). With a greater human awareness of the other people we share a home with, humans are researching animal communication more (we know that much of what they say it outside our audible range, that whales and dolphins have incredibly complex languages, and that some animals can use a form of telepathy) and could yet build that tower of Babel.

I predict that something like the Babel fish could be with us in about five years, but for now it’s imagined as one possible answer to mankind’s biggest questions, of life, the universe and everything. I figured if we could talk to the animals, we might change.

I believe that humanity is at a pivotal evolutionary point, where we could equally save or destroy ourselves with the science and technology we’ve made. With the world seemingly just waiting for WW3, the only saviour I could see would be the sudden intervention of a common foe, to unite previously warring factions.

The same science and technology could take us to the stars, leaving this planet for those who were here before us. We have a lot of mess to clear up first, and for now we’re stuck here. So instead of a common foe, I see a common interest which we can all unite behind as one race, the human race. That’s our shared home. And when we look around, the answers we’re looking for are everywhere.

Is it possible to write animal languages? I did my best to interpret what I think they’d like us to know. If we take the time to listen, we might be better guests in their home.

Cyrus Song (with perfectly plausible answers to the questions of life, the universe and everything) is available now.