I've been thinking a lot of PK's points, and the discourse surrounding them, and how they might factor into the kind of SF I want to keep writing. I'd hesitate to call the following a manifesto, but at the very least it might serve as a kind of personal compass, to keep my writing heading in what I hope is a fruitful direction.
- Avoid recursion. I'll be doing my best not to be too encumbered by what has gone before. Most of us are in this game because at some point we connected with SF on a deep emotional level. We love SF, we know its history well. We can tell our Kornbluths from our Cordwainers. That fondness has never left me, and I hope some of that comes through in my writing. That said, there's always a danger that it can shade too strongly into nostalgia or a kind of stale recycling of familiar imagery and tropes. For instance, I love the work of Arthur C Clarke and when I think about the deep future, about the limits of human potential, it's very hard for me not to connect with the version of myself sitting in a caravan in the Lake District during one spectacularly rainy summer holiday, gobbling up the pages of The City and the Stars and being possibly more mesmerised and awestruck by the vistas of Diaspar and the adventures of Alvin than any human being at any point in history. Quite a lot of my work, especially the far future stuff, is me attempting to hit some of the same notes - while at the same time having the benefit of another fifty years of scientific and social advancement through which to filter my ideas. But really, it's a kind of nostalgia trip, and if you didn't happen to connect with Clarke to the degree that I did, many of these notes are going to ring hollow or will in fact not ring at all. So a bit less of that, if I can help it. I also won't be writing SF that explicitly depends on intimate knowledge of the genre - no stories that are in intricate argument with earlier ideas or traditions. Start with a blank mental slate, and pretend no one had written a word of SF before today, and then off you go.
- Try and be true to the present, and what the present tells us about tomorrow. The Revelation Space universe is massively good fun to write, and I get plenty of requests for more from it. But it's also a kind of fantasy. Yes, the events in the books and stories are to some degree "realistic" in the sense that there is subservience to Einstein's laws and the worlds and biologies make as much sense as they can, given the premises. But as a possible future it feels like a wildly unlikely thought experiment, a kind of hermetic game detached from any actual speculative foundations. Pushing Ice, on the other hand, for all that it gets into deep cosmological territory, does begin in what (at the time I wrote it) seemed like a plausible idea of the mid 21st century. Even House of Suns, which in terms of its technologies and landscapes is much trippier than the RS books, still feels in some sense like a valid perspective on life in the year six million AD. Century Rain, on the other hand, which I personally am very fond of among my books, is again a kind of fantasy. And Blue Remembered Earth, about which I have said more than enough, is my attempt to be as true as I can be to the real world. It is not about moving tropes around or being in cosy dialogue with the past. When I inserted robots and spaceships into that story, I wasn't thinking about Asimov - I was thinking about the actual robots and spaceships that are already in our world or in the minds of researchers. So, a bit more of that kind of book, anchored to the present and trying to be sincere about the likely direction of things. It doesn't mean that I won't be writing more Revelation Space, just that I don't want to be defined by it.
- Try and be a better writer. There, that's easy, isn't it? But honestly, I want to be better at this, and to keep getting better. That's a war waged on many fronts, of course. I want to write elegant and efficient prose that avoids the cliched and the pedestrian. I want to get better at dialogue, better at delineating my characters. I don't particularly care whether or not people like my characters, but I do want people to be able to tell them apart, and also to care about their fates - for better or for worse. I want to get better at integrating plot and theme, better at pacing and structure. I want to start thinking about form - about the ways to tell a story, or convey an idea, that are not simply a linear sequence of events. I don't think SF should cut itself any slack - we should aspire to the same high literary benchmarks as the rest of fiction, and be called out when we under-perform, and if that means accepting that I'm not very good at some aspect of writing, so be it. At least I can try to better. That's how it works in other areas of life, after all. When my guitar tutor tells me my barre chords are crap, I don't take it as a personal sleight - just an invitation to work on that area of my craft.
- I am happy to think of myself as a science fiction writer. As I've said before, no one put a gun to my head and forced me to choose this genre. I love SF unreservedly. But at the same time, I am massively bored with endless circular in-genre arguments about taxonomy and ghettos and acceptance and rejection by the wider literary community. I firmly believe that the more we fixate on these perceived genre boundaries, the more we unconsciously reinforce them. The best course of action is to be agile and open-minded, to be a free agent, to read widely and be prepared to have your work evaluated within a larger fictional discourse. I have had, in my limited way, quite a fruitful series of interactions with the academic literary and critical establishment - they're not my enemy, and I'm not theirs. Yes, there will always be commentators and critics who take a narrow view of genre - but so what? It's their opinion, they're entitled to it, it doesn't make them bad people. When Terminal World lost the Wales Book of the Year award in 2011, it was the only work of prose fiction on the English language shortlist - a fact that went all but unremarked in SF circles, even though the prize was much higher than any SF award. And in the course of the award being decided, I met many pleasant members of the Welsh literary establishment who had not only genuinely enjoyed the book, but told me that it was the first work of SF they had read. "I didn't think it was my thing, but ..." was the phrase I heard over and over. That was even more gratifying because TW is in some sense one of my most hermetic novels, beginning who knows when and who knows where. There's a degree of blowing my own trumpet in all this, of course, but I merely make the point that I did not feel like any kind of outsider, merely someone who had written a big, bouncy book with airships and monsters in that could be read with some enjoyment by someone not steeped in SF tradition. Ever since then, I've tried not to presume that there is hostility to SF, because that perceived distaste or skepticism may not exist. But as soon as we start talking about high-falutin' literary types, so-called mainstream literature, us and them, we've basically had it. I won't be doing that.