How We Write the Future (Panel)
Thank you to Rose Michael of RMIT Writing & Publishing and Deanne Sheldon-Collins of Speculate Literary Festival, we are able to share with you a complete transcript of this video chat with the incredible Jane Rawson, James Bradley, Catherine McKinnon, Ellen van Neerven, and Eugen Bacon. Not only did Rose and Deanne organise and run the session, but they transcribed it for us! Thank you!
Rose: Hi, my name is Rose Michael, and on behalf of RMIT Writing & Publishing I’d like to welcome you all to the second in the non/fictionLab’s lunchtime sessions: ‘How the Future Looks Now’. It’s my pleasure, along with Deanne Sheldon-Collins, Co-Director of Speculate, the Victorian Speculative Writers Festival, to showcase an imagination – is that a good collective noun for this brains’ trust? – of ‘spec fic’ writers. To ask them, ‘How We Write the Future.’
I’d like to start by acknowledging the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the Eastern Kulin Nations, upon whose unceded lands and waters I write, and where my last and latest novels are set. I pay my respects to their Elders – past, present and emerging – who have performed ceremonies here for centuries. May they continue to do so for many more to come. I’d also like to acknowledge any Elders from other communities present among us, as we beam in from all around Australia today ...
Eugen and I may actually be the only two still in lockdown? But we’re all in the same storm, just different boats. Never have speculative works been more pertinent – more prescient, perhaps? – and our presenters’ books, we hope, more read than ever! Deanne, would you like to do the introductions?
Deanne: Thanks, Rose. And I'd also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands that we’re all broadcasting on today and pay my respects as well to their Elders past, present and future. I'll be introducing each speaker briefly using abbreviated bios they've kindly provided, but you can find out more information about all of them online. We’ll also show a list of further readings at the end of this session to help you find their writing; they’re all fantastic award-winning authors and you’ll definitely want to check out their work especially, I think, after today's discussion. So, as I name each presenter, they'll lift a hand or show us one of their books.
First up, we have Eugen Bacon. Eugen is African Australian, a computer scientist mentally re-engineered into creative writing. Her newest book, out this year, is Black speculative fiction that's both a detective and an origins story, Inside the Dreaming.
James Bradley is a novelist and critic. His latest novel, Ghost Species, is out now.
Catherine McKinnon is a novelist, playwright and academic. Her latest novel is Storyland.
Jane Rawson writes essays, novels and stories, most about the environment and animals. Her most recent novel is From the Wreck.
Ellen van Neerven is an award-winning writer, editor and educator of Mununjali Yugambeh and Dutch heritage. Their latest book is the poetry collection Throat.
Thank you, everyone. Rose, would like to do the first question?
Rose: Thanks, Deanne. Jane, I thought I'd ask you my first question and, just so the audience knows, we’ll be inviting you to use the chat function at the end in the last fifteen minutes to add their own questions. You could make notes as you go, if you find a strand that you’d like to pick up on. Jane, I’d like to ask: why should we read non-realist fiction? I mean, did dystopias help us see this situation coming?
Jane: Rose, I think it's probably broader than that. I don't think that speculative fiction is just a handbook, shall we say, for figuring out what to do with the future, but I do think that in a strange way it's a kind of escapism that is really helpful. And by escapism, I don't mean getting away from reality. I guess I mean more that there are so many things we assume about the way we live now – that profit’s important or that people's concerns are more interesting than animals’ concerns – that make it really difficult for us to imagine a different future. But reading speculative fiction lets us escape some of those concepts so that we can think about other ways that we might redo things here in our current life, which is something we really need to do at the moment.
Rose: Thank you. Eugen, I wonder whether you wanted to add to that, and I'd like to ask you perhaps to elaborate on what a non-realist work might be. What is speculative fiction, perhaps, to you?
Eugen: Thank you, Rose. I think most fiction is unrealist because it addresses events that have not really occurred to people or animals, but speculative fiction is the furthest spectrum of non-realist fiction because it's all up to the worldbuilding and it's about the characters and events that you create. Speculative fiction allows you to address difficult topics safely because people read it thinking it's speculative, until they realise that they’re things or events that actually occur in real life. At the moment we are in a dystopian world, and that's where there’s the blurring of the realist fiction and speculative fiction, yeah?
Deanne: Thank you Jane and Eugen, you've raised really interesting points about why non-realist fiction in general. James, I'd like to throw it to you to talk about the question of why should we read speculative fiction now? Can it help us see where we're going or imagine how we can get there?
James: I’d probably say in a way much both what Eugen and Jane just said, which is that one of the things that spec fic lets us do is estrange the world, to let us see it differently. I often think people make the mistake of thinking you need to instrumentalise this kind of fiction by expecting it to be narrowly predictive. But I don't think that's a useful way to think about it. In fact the advantage of it at the moment is that it gives us a way of kind of thinking about and representing a world that is already completely science fictional. Eugen said we live in a dystopia, and we do. We live in a world which is riven by massive inequality. We live in a world where pervasive surveillance is everywhere. So one of the reasons we read it now is it's one of the ways of allowing us to think about a world that is already science fictional in really profound ways.
Deanne: Absolutely. Ellen, would you agree with that point? How would you like to expand on that idea of why we read and write speculative fiction now?
Ellen: Jingeri Jimbelung. Jagera Turrbal Dhagan. Hello, friends, I'm speaking to you from Jagera and Turrbal Country, in so called Brisbane and I acknowledge Elders here, from here. Yeah, I write in the genre of Indigenous Futurism, and I write Indigenous Futurism as a way to empower myself and my communities and to push against settler colonial narratives about who we are and what we can be. And so, for me, this genre, this way of writing is like so important and so radical in a way. And I really encourage as many like young and emerging writers to pursue these sort of genres as much as possible, as a way of opening up the possibilities. And I’m very happy to be part of a project that is going to be a book that's coming out next year, called Unlimited Futures, which I'm co-editing with Rafeif Ismail, who’s Sudanese and a wonderful writer and we came up with the idea to include writers who identify as Black in Australia. So writers that are First Nations or writers from the African Diaspora living in Australia. We wanted to make the anthology very open. It's going to be multilingual. It's open to both fiction and poetry, because poetry is also speculative – poetry and futuristic poetry is also a really powerful genre that I also write in. It's open to visionary fiction. What would the future look like if written by First Nations and Black writers? The term ‘visionary fiction’ I also think is really interesting, as well as futuristic fiction, because visionary fiction is science fiction, fantasy, horror, magic realism, alternative timelines and more that helps us to understand existing power dynamics. An imagined past creating more just futures and I think that justice is a really important theme to raise, in why we might write these works. We’re seeking restorative justice, and we're seeking just words, as James mentioned as well.
Deanne: Thank you for that, Ellen, and I also wanted to say I believe submissions are open for that anthology for a few more days, is that correct?
Ellen: Absolutely. It’s September fifteen. [Note: submissions have since closed] I really wanted to plug, because we’ve still got three more weeks, just less than three more weeks. If you are watching and you want to think about submitting or you know someone who might be interested in submitting, you can go to the Fremantle Press website and check it out. We encourage submissions from new and emerging writers and established writers, so it really doesn’t matter what stage you are, just send us your ideas. It’s a platform to be able to show all of the amazing work that’s already being done, including Eugen’s work. You know, there’s so many Black writers that are doing amazing work in Australia. We just wanted to put it all together.
Deanne: I’m really excited for that anthology.
Rose: Thank you very much for sharing that with us, Ellen. And what about you, Catherine? One of the things I'm thinking about, as people answer this question, is just this issue of categorisation, this slippage in the name. How useful it is, or isn't, and whether perhaps there's a changing perception of speculative or non-realist fiction in the current climate?
Catherine: Yeah, that's an interesting question. I mean, I know, when thinking about it, there was a time when crossing genres … I was thinking, the other day, I was reading an essay by David Mitchell who wrote Cloud Atlas, and he was talking about how he works, when writing about the future. He thinks about what we take for granted now and what we might take for granted in the future and tries to imagine his way into what we're not seeing at the present time, especially in relation to citizen and state. And so, I think, in the times of COVID, that brings up some interesting things to think about. We can see some of what's happening in COVID. But what are we missing? What are we not seeing? It's often the speculative writers that are answering that question. There's also a kind of crossing between story worlds that writers are working with now, a braiding of fictional worlds, or between the past and the future, that more and more writers are entering into and engaging with—like the slippage that was used in Terra Nullius by Claire Coleman. And it was used in Storyland that I wrote, and Cloud Atlas and many other writers have worked in this way. So yes I think it's – this slippage that is happening between categories of fiction but also between story worlds and time – is reflective of our current world that is full of networking and crossings and fusing; all part of our current technological shift, as well as a shift in the way we are thinking through problems.
Eugen: And maybe just to add on to what you said, Catherine. There is a problem with definitions and sometimes when you label things you might miss out on things that may touch upon that particular label. So there's a lot of genre-bending at the moment. There's a lot of crossing where you have literary speculative fiction. You have crime fiction that is speculative and it's really important to open your mind to all sorts of forms and read the work for its merits, not for the genre it appears to fit into, because sometimes it's just a publishing category – where to put it in a bookshelf – it's not really the essence of the book.
Rose: And perhaps one of the things that makes me think of is maybe the aberration is a period of time that was not receptive to speculative or non-realist fiction. And when you actually go back prior to that kind of Modernist narrative, when you look at early storytelling, there's far more acceptance and interesting things that we might consider fantasy, folklore, anything sort of surreal or strange, so perhaps that's another way to look at it. But actually, Eugen, I was thinking of asking you, does this beg the question of why read or write fiction, anyway? Jane and I have both been working on a chapter, thinking through, I guess, the relationship between our writing process as reading crises in a world crisis. And is it not just about why we might do or not do speculative fiction, but how fiction works, anyway, for us?
Eugen: Thank you, Rose. I think there's a lot of diversity in fiction and sometimes a really good writer can have subversive messaging in fiction. If you remember way back to George Orwell and his Animal Farm and the themes and topics that the book addressed … If you think of Toni Morrison's writing, that I absolutely adore, not just for the poeticism of the writing, but because of the messaging that she has in it. And so sometimes – I previously said how I think speculative fiction can be a safe place to talk about certain things. So, for example, when I write some Black speculative fiction which may have elements of Afrofuturism, it's about imagining Africa in a different way, it's about stories of social justice. It's about stories of diversity and hope. It's about giving voice to the people who normally wouldn't be heard. Maybe the little boy in the village, the little girl in the village who would otherwise be married off. And so you get a different perspective when you read fiction. And especially when you read fiction broadly, it's really important to open your mind and read as much as you can and especially if you hook onto particular voices that you like, explore more of their works, because authors are more and more crossing genres and so you might find their works in other areas and they could be equally interesting and valuable.
Rose: Thank you. Both you and Ellen use this word, futuristic, and visionary, which I love. These words, to me they suggest a real kind of hopefulness and optimism. There's that kind of association. Ellen, I wonder whether you'd like to talk about whether this means that these works are not realistic?
Ellen: Yeah, I guess that's an interesting question, because I feel, yeah I mean, what is reality; we all experience reality differently. And I think, just as an example, for a long time we as First Nation writers have been pushing to include … for our realities to be recognised and what you, us, our stories are creation stories. Our traditional stories are often put in the basket of myth, which is sort of giving it that label that it's not real but for us we very much experience this on a day-to-day basis. For me these stories are part of how I move through the world and so it's really, you have to be really careful about how you present this material into a fiction novel or novella or short story – and to sort of make the audience clear that this is not made up. This is, these are, real stories. These are stories that are very situated in place, and in the landscapes of Australia and they're in the rules of the place and in the rules of how we live and in our kinship systems and so I think writing about this, a lot of my futuristic narratives are about kind of returning to a place of autonomy. And returning to a place where the country’s like burnt properly and water systems are being able to be looked after and our animals are thriving, and this is all through the use of these, this, traditional knowledge in these traditional stories. So yeah, I think it's kind of yeah, sort of how you communicate that to the reader so they understand the gravity of it, not necessarily just being fiction but also being, yeah, something that's really solid as well.
Eugen: I really like how, Ellen, you talked about Unlimited Futures, because speculative fiction is about imagining the possibilities – so you can talk about climate change. You can talk about so many things. You can address colonialism. You can talk about places, and you can imagine a different future for somebody who's feeling hopeless. And sometimes just by reading the fiction, it's a call to action. The very act of writing is a call to action to make visible these things that are not visible.
Deanne: Thank you, those are really interesting answers, and that kind of leads into a question I have for Jane, which is about why you write speculative fiction or non-realist fiction yourself. And sort of related to these conversations we've been having, about the definitions of these terms and how useful and non-useful those definitions can be. Do you define your work as speculative fiction, as non-realist fiction? And why?
Jane: The things that I write, I write because I have usually a worry, I guess, in my head. That I want to work through. An idea of some kind, something that I need to figure out, that I need to expand upon, discuss with myself. And I guess for me, while the context of the story might not be the same as everyone’s everyday existence and so in that way it's not realistic, the thing that matters for me is whether the emotions and feelings and the way that characters react to one another are realistic or not. So I guess what I try to do and kind of what I can't really avoid doing, I guess, when I'm writing these sorts of works is to put myself in the position of the characters who I'm writing about and to immerse myself deeply in that situation and say, what would this person or animal do in this situation, given everything that I know about them. So in that sense, they’re kind of as realistic as I can possibly make them. I want everything that happens in them to be really believable at a deep, emotional level. Whether the scenario itself is something that's never happened before or not, so yeah. And I guess I never really set out to write speculative fiction or sci-fi or fantasy or any genre in particular. I just have an idea for a thing that I want to explore, and for me, those things, or the things of more realist fiction, those don't interest me as much.
Deanne: Thank you. Catherine, would you agree with that? How does that apply to your own writing in fiction as well as your academic career?
Catherine: I think what I really usually try to work on – it was really interesting hearing what everyone's been talking about – what I usually try to work on is, I'm sort of interested in different worlds and putting those different worlds together, so I tend to braid across time or across place and it's I suppose a bit like you go to a gallery and you see all these different paintings and when you put them together something else happens (beyond the individual paintings, or in my case stories) and you imagine something else, something further. Part of it is thinking about things that are hidden, that have been lost in time or traces that have been lost—and if you cross time in stories you can perhaps reveal to the reader what has been lost or hidden in our world, or what might be lost in the future. But I mean, I think the other thing is sort of complex systems; I try to unravel them in a way that we can think about more simply through story. I find that's really useful. I mean, and I think a bit like Jane, I'm trying to think through something that bothers me, or understand something that I don’t understand. That's what drives me and from this need to understand the story will emerge. And often I go ‘I'm not going to write a multi-person story again’ and so far I keep having more than three protagonists, so it's just … I don't know. I think I might need to accept it!
Rose: Thanks, Catherine. I love that idea of the gallery. That actually reminds me of albums. The conversations people have had about how downloading music's changed that experience where the artist gets to curate the album experience. And perhaps I’ll throw to you, James, and think about this mixed tape and how it might work with someone who's got a real body of work and has also gone into YA and other genres, apart from speculative. Not so speculative, I think – you've actually got your whole own genre, Jane and I were saying, it's going to be a particular kind of James Bradley version of speculative, but I wonder whether you see a kind of narrative across your books? And whether you see that the thinking-through with the genre or the categorisation is something that might be empowering or disempowering for perhaps emerging writers who might not yet have that understanding of where they sit. And they might be looking from the outside about where they could position their work.
James: That’s a really interesting question. To be honest, I don't think about those categories very much when it comes to my own work. As both Catherine and Jane said, there's usually something I'm trying to think through, and writing is a way of thinking working through those ideas for myself, and to create emotional and intellectual architectures that let people experience some of those ideas. There’s that wonderful line of John Banville’s about writing a novel being like you've had a very vivid dream and you're trying to write in a way that would allow someone else to experience that dream. It seems to me that's what you're trying to do. So questions of genre aren’t something I worry about very much. Instead I see genre as a toolbox to draw upon and borrow things that will help me tell the stories I want to tell. With science fiction and fantasy that’s often about borrowing from people who have solved various sorts of technical problems before you. Things like how do you represent various kinds of things? How do you talk about technology? How do you do any of that stuff? And it was funny you talked about my books being a special genre – I feel like every time I write a book I think ‘This will be different from all the others’ and then it's – it just turns into one of my books and I'm halfway through and I think ‘Ah, it’s exactly like all the others’. More broadly, though, I'm always curious about this conversation about genre and about this term ‘speculative fiction’, because it seems to me speculative fiction is a term people use, like dystopia, to talk about science fiction when they think science fiction is kind of vulgar. It’s like ‘I don't read science fiction because that's kind of naff, so I read speculative fiction’. You know. So it worries me that when people talk about speculative fiction, what they're often doing is erasing a history of science fiction and fantasy that already exists. What they're doing is saying I want to read, but in a way that's not grounded in or I guess acknowledging the traditions within which the work is operating and that worries me a little bit. But at the same time I also think the breadth of the term is quite useful, because genre boundaries have become so incredibly porous. That means writers don’t tend to see themselves as working within a genre, instead they say ‘oh I have a particular story to tell, I think I’ll tell it with time travel.’ Do you know what I mean? There's that kind of sense that all those generic boundaries are broken down and that people move very easily, both as readers and writers between them. I don't know that readers pay very much attention to them either, except in the sense that they say I don't read romance, I don't read fantasy. I mean, it's used as a way of getting rid of things you don't want to read, but I'm not sure that for newer writers it would seem to me to be something that would be a barrier. It's a possibility; it kind of opens everything up.
Rose: I totally agree, and one of the reasons that I tend to use the non-realist term is because I think I'm just setting myself up for something that I see as a limited, niche, kind of moment-in-time. And actually trying to identify with a far more, you know, general sense of what one can do.
Eugen: I think I was really stirred listening to you James, because I have a slightly different view in relation to speculative fiction. I like to think of speculative fiction as the unlimited boundary. In the sense that you can go anywhere with it and you're inviting the reader into a world where, when they approach it, they're not asking the question ‘Is it fantasy? Is it science fiction? Is it horror?’ Because they go into it and they are prepared to be astonished in whatever story that you've written. Without them having to go back to the rules of fantasy and the rules of science fiction and the rules of horror. It's actually a more open approach to writing, an open approach to reading, and it allows for more experimentation. I think it works better for writers who are already entrenched. So when you think of Stephen King and his works, they're not just horror, they are actually speculative fiction. The Dome has science fiction in it, it has horror in it, it's about crossing genre. That bending, that's what makes it speculative. It’s about just speculating.
Rose: Thank you.
James: Sorry if I wasn't clear. I think speculative fiction is quite a useful term because it captures that sense of mingling and transformation you're getting across a lot of work at the moment. I just wonder whether it's being used by people as a way of – and I'm speaking with my critic hat on here – disconnecting the work from the kind of traditions it comes out of. But I completely agree – what’s wonderful about is that it's a very open, very inclusive term that captures that sense of collapsing boundaries that's been going on over the last ten or fifteen years. And I think that collapse is interesting because although it's come from a number of things, one of the things it's come out of is that technological shift in the way people encounter and find texts. There’s no longer that sense that they’re categorized from above. Instead readers find them themselves. And that means there are all sorts of new reading communities around them, and I think that's really, really been great.
Rose: On that idea of reclaiming texts, I've got another question. I'm sure Deanne has other questions as well, but I would just like to say to the audience that we’ll be opening up the chat too, so if people would like to kind of contribute to this debate ... It's interesting, and I'm sure that all of the panellists feel the same, there's this real kind of quagmire of getting stuck into describing what does and doesn't fit when the whole idea of – and I love this word ‘inclusive’ – the whole idea of what we're writing is something where rules don't have to be adhered to. This is the place where you can bend and push. And what I would like to ask – I might ask you, Jane – is around what rules do still stay for you in your fiction. One of the things that comes to my mind is the issue of research. I know you've written books that are informed by different periods in history and have required traditional, old-fashioned, ‘legitimate’ research. Do you see that as something that becomes more important when you're going to make speculative leaps in other aspects, or is that just, you know, your own personal bent and you wouldn't mind if nobody else did that?
Jane: Before I answer that, I just want to say I really liked what Eugen said about preparing to be astonished. Which I think is – for me, that's the genre I want to read and write in, the one where you can expect to be astonished. That's exciting stuff, whatever else goes on. But yeah, as to the question of what rules still apply. For me, when I'm writing, it's not so much that research thing. It is that within the world I've created that things work within it, and I can get kind of obsessive about that – about time lining things out and making sure that things are happening in the right order. Even though there's a bunch of time travel on time slip going on or like I was saying earlier, making characters who would do the things that I am having them do, like they’re the rules of an internally consistent world, I guess. Those are the only rules that are really important to me. I'm pretty slipshod with my research, honestly. If there was no Wikipedia, I probably wouldn't bother at all.
Rose: You heard it here first.
Jane: So yeah, I think that it's more once I have this world, I don't want it to have moments that would throw a reader out, that would make them go, ‘No, I don't believe that could happen there. I don't believe that person would say that. I don't believe they could do that.’ That's the most important thing to me.
Rose: Catherine, I'd like to ask what you thought about this question, because you've talked here about having an objective of worlds coming together or putting these disparate things together … so what kind of logic works with that? Is that just an intuitive mash-up or are there concrete techniques of stitching? I'm thinking about, in Storyland, the device you had of the first sentences and last sentences connecting so there was a real line for the reader or the writer to kind of hang on through that Cloud Atlas-style leaping in time.
Catherine: Yeah, I think the technique about crossing time that I was trying to use was to find lots of different ways to kind of weave within the weave. So in Storyland I was trying to use birds and animals to provide a link (a weave within the weave) between the different worlds. Both birds and animals that had disappeared but also those that flew over from story to story and continued while human things didn't continue, and so that kind of device knits one story to another. That’s important to me, to find different ways to weave within the weave. Also, I agree with Jane in saying that the most important thing is that people go ‘I believe in this world’ and a lot of people have said, often say of Storyland, ‘Oh, I didn't know they sort of said “fuck” in this time’ and you know, they didn't actually. (Am I allowed to say that?) They didn't actually, but you make up a language that is believable, and it's not necessarily what – not exactly what was spoken, but it's a – it's a kind of a language that comes from thinking about the time, from newspaper reports, references, and it's a mixture if you like, of fact and fiction. But the most important thing is to make it believable.
Deanne: Thank you for that, Catherine. And so we've got some questions starting to come in from the audience. This one, I think would be really interesting to hear from you, Ellen, your response to. Sevim asks does your writing come from a place of an urge to write? Or is it something that you regularly feed and nurture?
Ellen: Yeah, a bit of both, hey. Definitely. I will get the urge to write about something that I feel like is very important to write about. And I’ve become, as I've been practicing as a writer for longer and longer, I’ve become more focused and so instead of just writing and seeing what happens, I often come up with a concept or a vision for what I want to do with my writing before I sit down and write. But equally I need to nurture my writing as well and I do that through kind of like regular like walks and being on Country and reading and going to the movies and having my partner, who is also a writer, as someone to bounce off ideas and she shares really similar politics with me so we're able to have those conversations as well. So just a combination of, like all those things, and yeah.
Rose: Thanks, Ellen. I just wanted to mention, to respond to somebody's comment, that we're going to end this session with a slide of further readings from everybody here. Because of course we're just touching on the tip of the iceberg here, and all of our great writers – read their books, but also they've all written on these topics as well. So check those links out for those of you who want to continue that discussion. But I did just have a last question, and I might ask first Jane and then James this. I'm rolling a couple of questions in together here around sort of ‘What's the point?’ Will this type of fiction save the world? And what about this discussion, not so much around how speculative fiction might show us the way the world has changed or might change, but how the act of reading or writing it might change ourselves. And so perhaps those two questions might fit together … Maybe James, I'll ask you first ,and then you, Jane.
James: I think if you want fiction to save the world, you’re probably setting the bar a bit high personally, but yeah, I think it does. Having said that, simultaneously I’m uncomfortable with the idea that fiction doesn't have a political role, that it's not something that you're trying to do something with. That sense you're trying to expand the margins of the imaginable, which I think everyone's talked about. But I was really interested hearing both Ellen and Eugen particularly talk about Afrofuturism because I do think that one of the things that we acquire from our culture is a kind of imaginary, and that the imaginary of the settler culture, capitalist culture, whatever you want to call it, that we inhabit at the moment is very narrow in a series of ways, and in particular its tendency to focus on collapse when we think about the future. Because there are a whole series of ways of imagining that come out of other traditions. Eugen talked about Afrofuturism, but there are also various kinds of Indigenous science fiction and things like that, which offer quite different, radically different notions of what both the past and the future can look like. And that seems to me to be something that in terms of reimagining the world, in terms of reimagining the possible, in terms of reimagining the kind of parameters of the kinds of things we think about when we think about the future, is something that fiction can do there very, very effectively.
Rose: Thank you, and Jane?
Jane: Trying to think if I have much to add to that. I try to imagine like if Tony Abbott had read A Wrong Turn At The Office Of Unmade Lists, would he have tried to like tear down the carbon tax. I think he probably would have gone right ahead and still done that so I guess in that practical sense I don't feel like anything I've written is going to like dramatically change anyone's mind about something they already believe in. But I suppose maybe what novels that are political can do – novels that are about the environment can do – can bring some comfort and strength, perhaps to people who've been thinking similar things, feeling lonely, losing the motivation to go on caring about these things, to just say, you know, you’re heard and other people feel like you and other people think this, too. Maybe there's some hope for us to change things. So yeah, but perhaps that's one of the roles fiction could have in changing the world.
Rose: Thank you. In fact, there's been a few comments around this, quoting Eugen’s call to action, the idea of a call to action, but one thing I did want to throw out to the group: a couple of people have asked about your comments on other forms – such as, for Ellen, poetry, and James you mentioned criticism. We've talked about realist writing, whether you have a view on it, whether you practice it or not, or aspects of nonfiction, whether it's essays or critique … And one of the things that I'm quite interested in, is the short form versus the long form, so I might ask a couple of you to respond to that. Ellen perhaps you'd like to mention poetry first? You mentioned when you spoke about that form speaking to you in the same ways, and having that kind of flexibility and accommodation that others of us have identified with speculative fiction. Do you want to talk about how one form calls you with one idea? Why you work in a different genre at different times?
Ellen: Thanks for the question, Alvin. Nice to see you on this chat. I'm going to answer by reading a poem because I thought it would be a really good place to. We can't necessarily showcase our fiction in this space because they’re longer, but with this short poem you'll be able to get a bit of a taste on how I write and why I write and this poem I actually included in an academic essay that I was writing about data nullius and I often include Black speculative or futuristic poems in my academic essays. And so this poem is called ‘Access Denied’.
Access Denied: an Indigenous futurist poem
in the Fucha
when we own our Data
you want our language
statics on home ownership
request for permission of cultural artefacts
family history information
medicinal plant uses
our kinship systems
Rose: Thanks very much, Ellen.
Deanne: Yeah, thank you so much for that, Ellen. Kind of following from the discussions we’ve just been having, there's a question here that I think is really interesting and I'd like to direct it to Eugen cause it touches on some things you've spoken about, I think. Should you have your audiences asking questions at the end of your story? I think that question, possibly it's meant specifically in terms of plot, but I think also in terms of themes that's a really interesting question. Do you – how do you want the reader to feel at the end of your stories?
Eugen: Thank you so much, Deanne. I think that's a really great question. It's almost a privilege to the author if at the end of reading, the reader has questions and they’re really curious about where the story went or where it might go. And I'll come back to what Jane you spoke about, and James, what you said – about your writing as a curiosity and its finding answers to questions. And so at the end of the writing, as a writer, you hope that you have found some answers to the questions that you're really curious about. And in the same way it would really be great if the reader has some answers to their curiosity, because the act of reading is a curiosity as well. Something brought them to the book, and so if they continue to have questions – and hopefully they’re questions that make them think in a positive way about the story, like they’re really intrigued by it and they see where it could go – I think that's a fantastic thing. Deanne: Thank you.
Rose: Thanks very much, Eugen. I wondered, Jane, if you would like to mention something around the short story versus the long form? So we've talked about what speculative fiction can do – and then I might ask the same thing of James as a prolific critic – because it seems to me that a longform speculative work works differently than a short story, or has the potential to, and I wonder, as someone who practices in both forms, what your reflections on that would be.
Jane: I realized yesterday I haven't written a short story for I think it's three years now. For me, I think the shift in deciding how to tell a story has changed to one between long fiction and essays. I guess, yeah, I've never – even though I've written a bunch of short stories I’ve never really felt comfortable in the form. I've never really felt like I knew what I was doing with it. So for me now it's more a question of how can – how can I better address this question or address this issue? Is this something that will work better in nonfiction, or is it something that works better as a longer fictional work? And often that's to do with the complexity of the question that I'm trying to deal with, I think. Sorry about not having anything more interesting to say about short stories.
Rose: No, that’s fine. Eugen, would you like to talk about the writing across forms as well?
Eugen: Yes, please. Thank you so much, Rose. I think different forms address different things and it just depends on your voice in that particular writing. I write speculative fiction across different forms. I write prose poetry. I write it as nonfiction. I write it as a short story, as a novella, as a novel and sometimes at the start of the writing you only have a general idea. It could start as a piece of prose poetry that ends up becoming a short story, or I could insert it into an article, a nonfiction article. So each form has its own strength. Poetry, for example, is short, sharp, compact. You have this message, it's almost at a glance, but if you wanted to expand it a little bit more, or if you wanted to speak about it in a different voice, you might write it as nonfiction. Or you might write it as a longer piece of work. And I don't think any form is better than the other. It's just whatever works for you at that particular point in time to write in that particular form – one that will be effective, for that message.
Rose: Thank you, Eugen. And perhaps James, I could just throw to you because you have a platform for your essays, for your long-form essays, that could reach a different audience to your speculative novels and I wonder whether you feel that you are communicating to a different audience through that different form, and whether that's a kind of conscious choice on particular topics?
James: I'd say almost exactly what Eugen just said about – I write poetry, I write nonfiction, I write novels, I write short stories, and each of them does different kinds of things. So I go to them for different things. But the advantage with essays and nonfiction is that there's a time question. Novels take a really long time to write. Even if you write pretty fast, between you beginning a novel and it being published, it’s still likely to be three years once it's been edited and everything, so the turnaround, the response time is very slow, but with nonfiction it’s a lot shorter and more compressed, so there's that sense you can kind of – in as much as this sort of writing ever makes an intervention – you can intervene more effectively. You can speak in a more immediate way, particularly around environmental issues where things are moving so incredibly fast, and if it's something you want to write about, you want it to be out there next week. So there's that kind of sense of urgency that you can get at with nonfiction. But I also just think they do different kinds of things. It seems to me that the kind of thinking that you're doing in a piece of long fiction is a much more about trying to create something that people can engage with and work with, whereas with an essay or an article, what you're trying to do is to kind of get people somewhere, often somewhere reasonably complex, but more direct.
Deanne: Thank you, James. A question that's come through which I would like to direct to Catherine is: a lot of discussion has been about what spec fic shows us about our world, but I wonder what it also shows us about ourselves and what it is to be human? If you change the reality, do we change too? How do you write emotionally believable characters when they might be shaped by different forces or systems or politics? So that, while that applies to sort of alternative worlds, I'm also really interested in how that applies to kind of historical takes on the real world and sort of across different types of genre.
Catherine: Yeah, that's really interesting. Just before I answer that I remember an Ursula le Guin quote where she said something like science fiction writers are the realists of a larger reality, and I always really quite like that quote. So I'm just trying to think what you were asking again in terms of creating real characters.
Deanne: How do you essentially explore what it means to be human when the context of reality has changed around humanity, essentially?
Catherine: Yeah, there’s this strange sense often still that persists, and which is obviously not true, that we have one ‘self’. But we do not, we are made up of many ‘selves’ and we have multiple motivations, and so something happens to us – and it is often represented as cause and there's an effect. But in reality, that's not true. We’re sort of all these different kinds of selves that blend, I guess, and in fact we're not even that. We’re bacteria. Most of our body is bacteria. We've been colonized by bacteria. But we use narrative as a way to understand ourselves and the narratives we make are so we can think about the world and comprehend the world. And that ‘understanding’ is in itself a kind of fiction. And so in a way every day we tell ourselves fictions. We make a narrative of our lives and we tell it to a friend or to our parents and we change that narrative all the time. So I suppose, again, it's like when you're trying to create historical characters that might exist in a past time or the future – part of what I'm trying to think about is how we are not this ‘one’ thing. How we are – we shift and change in our interactions. So one character meets another and there's some kind of communication, but especially miscommunication, and everything swirls around and it changes, so random events can really affect what happens. And I find that thing about random events kind of gripping, really. That random events can alter everything that happens. I don't know if that was really an answer to your question, Deanne.
Deanne: No, I think that's a very interesting answer. And particularly when you talk about how the effects of random events can change so many things. Alternate history is often classed as a type of speculative fiction and it is usually based on this idea that if one or two things had gone differently, what would the ripple-on effects be? What kind of world would we be living in? So I think that's a very relevant, topical aspect of it, thank you.
Rose: And speaks to the mission you talked about before, about bringing things together and finding those connections. So just for our audience, we're coming up to time and we're going to finish promptly. So if you've got a last question that you want to get out there, please go for it, but what I'd like to do was just ask perhaps Eugen, around this – the title of the show today was ‘Write the Future’ (with that sort of that double play that passes for wit in academia about the two meanings of ‘write’) and we have had a question come in about the tension between writing the world as it is versus writing the world as it should be, potentially versus writing the world as it could be. Or as writing the world as ‘Oh shit’. Perhaps you'd like to answer that?
Eugen: Yes, thank you, Rose, and I think it links back to the question that Catherine just answered because it comes back to the rules of your world. And the rules of your world need to be believable, not to be too complex that they confound the reader and leave them even more confused at the end of it, and conflicts them too much that they abandon the reading. You want to have something credible. If you have, say, characters that are inside out, your rules need to be in such a way that it's believable. If in your world you want to make good be evil and evil be good, you have to put it in such a way that the reader can engage with it. Because at the end of it, you don't want to discourage the reader from the reading, and so it just comes back to your worldbuilding. And it also comes back to what, Jane, you talked about research. And so even in poetry, however short the piece, you actually need to do your extensive research. As speculative fiction writers, it doesn't mean that we are not good storytellers. We shouldn't abandon the very essence of storytelling, where you build your characters, you build your world, you have a believable plot. You keep the action, action, conflicts, and everything that would keep the reader hooked and engaged, and I think that's how you blend the reality with an unreality. Does that answer your question?
Deanne: I was just going to say I find that's a really interesting answer, Eugen, and I agree, and it reminds me of the distinction that I always like to make when talking about speculative fiction, which is that it doesn't necessarily have to be possible, but it needs to be plausible. Even if it's not, you know, an actual reality, it still has to be believable in some way, still has to kind of have that element of truth and plausibility to it.
Rose: Thanks, Deanne. Jane, I wanted to throw this to you because we've had conversations in the past about what is the limit, then, to your research? You know, what happened – do you have to just keep going out and out with this world building, or is there a point where if the character turns left, they drop off the map?
Jane: I think different kind of readers like different kinds of worldbuilding, and different kind of writers have different appetites for doing that. For me, my worldbuilding is pretty limited I think, and I think it's Margo Lanagan who talks about writing stories where all you can see of the world is what the protagonist can see. Everything else falls outside it. And I sort of thought before about well, how much do I know about this world that I'm operating in, and it's not that much, honestly. I don't know that much about a whole variety of things and how they happen and why they go on. I don't understand compound interest, for example. So for me, when I'm writing something, yeah, it's – my worldbuilding is limited by that, yeah.
Deanne: Thank you, Jane. It looks like we have two minutes left, so I think time for one very quick question. Ellen, someone has asked about tension in stories. Do you think that a story must have tension? Is it possible to write a strong story without an overt villain or antagonist? I imagine that kind of ties in with questions about form and narrative.
Ellen: I think there's three different types of tension. There's the internal conflict that a character might be experiencing. There's external conflict, so that could be – yeah, it could be that classic villain character, or a number of characters, or external forces that is influencing the character. And there's also environmental tension – so it could be something in the environment, something within the land that is acting as a conflict. Or perhaps the land is threatened by some other force. So you can keep the – all stories need to have like some kind of conflict, but it can be – it's whatever suits the story, I think. And I really disagree with creating conflict in the story just for the sake of it. It really has to be something that feels like it fits within the story.
Rose: Thanks, Ellen, and thanks to all our participants. Everybody who's on the screen with me, everybody who's on the screen at home for this session. As I mentioned, we're going to have a holding slide at the end which will have a further reading from all of our panellists. Please feel free to find those online and follow their works, read their books, etc. Thank you to the nonfiction lab and RMIT Writing and Publishing for providing this platform, and I invite everyone, all of our audience to come back next week, same bat time, same bat channel, for a session on poetry hosted by the Rabbit poetry journal. So that’s Thursday the third of September at 12:30: ‘What's Poetry Got To Do With It?’ But thank you all for coming, for participating, and for engaging so generously with each other. Can we all put our mics on and have a very noisy, staticky clap?!
Feature image via JSTOR