My good friend Stephen suffered a great loss recently, and there is little I can do for him, other than let him know that I am thinking of him. It is not my place to share that loss. I have written a bit here about my dear friend, and how much he shapes what is inside my head, to put some meat on those bones, to show how and that I am indeed thinking of him.
My thoughts of Stephen lead me many places. He was one of the first and greatest influences on me in many ways, who came from outside my family. He came from a family that read. I read, randomly and voraciously, but my lack of direction is probably clear from the fact that any list of my all time favourite fiction would still include the 70s and 80s bestsellers I was devouring at that time. Senior English class, he is speaking with Mr Coombes about how nothing of interest was happening at that moment that was of great interest to them at the time, referring to some writers, and I pipe up with something like “Len Deighton’s pretty good”. I was specifically thinking about SS-GB – I mean for goodness sake, a book about Nazi’s ruling England. Imagination, good plotting and pacing, interesting ideas. Nazis. Mr C, who I liked very much, paused, thought and said, “But we’re talking about literature”. I can still remember my brain clunking into gear, I still remember being a little embarrassed and becoming defensive. Of course I read literature. That’s what they taught at school, and I was good at it, top of my class, able to tell lies with the best of them about an author’s purpose and the symbols they littered their books with. But literature did not come in the yellow-jacketed Gollancz volumes at Chester Hill library, so how could I distinguish it from other books, other than if it was on my school curriculum?
His family was Labor and union, and of course we could bond over that. He followed Wests where I followed Canterbury, but it was all working class rugby league. Books, politics, music (Devo!), WW2, but lets stick to books – he introduced me to Kafka and Orwell and Huxley, and we discovered we both liked Philip K Dick. I still have a favourite memory of us both aged 17, our last ever high school exam finished (German), our futures in front of us, the great feeling of relied the HSC was over, and we are sitting on a gutter at Sefton, outside the milk bar, me eating a steak sandwich with chips (because I liked it better and because it was fancier than a hamburger), I don’t know what he is eating (a Danish salami and cheese sandwich perhaps) but I can pretty well guarantee he is drinking a can of creaming soda, talking about the things we were going to write together (including the great radio politico-comedy-tragedy, “Hercules Fontopolos and Socrates Dassaklis in The Great Teenage Proletariat Revolution”), before taking our coins into the why was it there, how did it survive all those years? second hand bookshop at Sefton Railway station to scab around for sf books and other like stuff. (1)
We did write. We had a weekly radio show at university. We wrote comedy sketches together, and sold some to Doug Mulray at 2MMM-FM, and this led to a comedy sketch show staged at that pub in Glebe where they had comedy sketch shows (Harold Park!, he belatedly remembers), and it played every Thursday for a month, with proper actors. And we definitely weren’t cool. (2) (I won’t mention the bad films we made on weekends with our friend The Great Auteur, Rat.) And then life happened, the Soviet Union surprised us by collapsing, two women surprised us by agreeing to marry us, family surprised us by happening, careers replaced university, and time disappeared.
It is fun to remember, and there is no time for the-could-have-beens etc, I am very happy with the what-did’s, the children and careers and experiences. I want to let Stephen know that I think of him all the time, that he influenced the course of my life and the course of my thoughts. Like this. Stephen introduced me to Kafka and Orwell and Aldous Huxley, as I said.
More recently, Stephen introduced me to Adam Roberts, and that’s pretty good company to be in, so Adam Roberts should be happy (you will start to notice why the heading above is ‘Presumption’). (And the company is larger, because part of our friendship is about discovering new (to us) stuff and introducing it to each other – what, other people have friendships like that too? I thought it was just us … 😦 – but we don’t need to worry about Robert Sheckley and Neal Stephenson and Talking Heads and Tolkien and Marx and Eno and punk and Aldiss and Charles Fort and Harlan Ellison and all those other characters just now.) So I read some of the AR (3) back catalogue, and read his new stuff as it comes out, and enjoy it. I don’t write reviews or blog about it because unlike AR I don’t have the training, skills or language to do it justice. Eg, I could not write a review like this of AR’s ‘The Thing Itself’, by Kevin Powers.(4) But in idle moments, one of the many things I sometimes do which can be traced back to my friend Stephen’s influence, is read about the author’s we share, which led me to look at ARs webpage.
So here is me thinking about chatting with my mate Stephen. Here is the link to the bit I am going to focus on here. It is about failure, and it is useful to read, and to remember that ultimately, everybody is a failure. Failure is the sort of thing we’d like to chat about. (6) And AR acknowledges that there are levels to this success/failure thing, and the whole piece is littered with appropriate caveats that I don’t cavil with at all. It is just that I realised that I sort of simultaneously did and did not understand the post, which is exactly what I would discuss with my friend Stephen next time we sat down to lunch at the food court at Market City in Sydney, if only I wasn’t so far away.
The first time I read it, I thought I was reading of the failure of The Adam Roberts’ Project, though AR would not have called it that, I am sure. This followed the apparent lack of success in the SF world of his 16th novel, The Thing Itself, a work into which he had poured hear, soul, guts, craft. And so instead of reading it properly, I thought what TARP might look like. PKD is the sf writer I place above all others (7) – what was The PKD Project? Writing way too much – trying to pay the bills – trying as hard as hell to be accepted by the literary mainstream, and failing – marrying a bit too often – taking too many drugs and hanging out with the wrong people and living a strange and probably miserable life? Ultimately, I suppose, thinking the thoughts and writing the works. Probably not a good example. In his lifetime, he won one Hugo award, one John W Campbell award, had one movie deal go through. Someone might aspire to have a body of work like Dick’s, but I don’t know if anyone would want to be him or live like him. (8)
What was The Brian Aldiss Project? To make a living from being a full-time writer. But all the other things he did: establishing societies, supporting magazines, his involvement in international SF, producing anthologies, producing criticism, etc. (9) All things that I am sure AR does. But I don’t think Aldiss spoke of it in terms of failure. Now, if AR was to join us at Market City – I like the Vietnamese lamb chops, the chicken katsu-don is not as good as it used to be, we suspect they are just using some frozen supermarket chicken schnitzel – well, hmm. I think we’d have trouble with small talk for a start, he is a stranger after all. But we’d get around to giving him useful tips about his Project. I mean, no one person can start a huge cultural movement, not on their own – I’m thinking of things like New Wave Science Fiction, or, say, the Enlightenment. (9b) What School do you belong to? Who are similar writers with similar aims with whom you can band together? Have you thought of starting your own magazine? Editing anthologies? Writing something like Trillion Year Spree? Oh, we would be full of the most useful tips. Adam, you should be like Michael Moorcock with New Worlds. Adam, you have to fully commit – give up The Day Job and live the life science fictional. Hey Adam, we’ve both done project managing (sounds better than we’ve both managed projects) – what are your goals, where are your time lines, where’s the management buy in? How do you define deliverability? (10)
Or maybe we’d go therapeutic on his arse. Especially as on re-reading the post, I saw that I had not understood it, that it was about not having made it, not having entered the inner-circle of science fiction – the big awards, big sales, big status. Smoking my metaphorical pipe – now Adam, have you read CS Lewis on the Inner Ring? (11) No matter how far you penetrate, there is always a more inner ring, a deeper circle. (12) We’d point out, but you are an insider. You are in Strange Horizons. And the good reviews outside SF, PKD and others craved those. You’re in The Guardian. But yeah, we know what you mean. There is always more, always further, and you don’t have to suffer from Impostor Syndrome (13) to feel you don’t belong. People with delusions of grandeur don’t declare they haven’t made it. We’d ask, who has made it, give us some examples. And then we’d pour buckets of shit on each example. Them? Who’d want to be them? They write crap.
And you know what? AR wouldn’t have to be there. Other people are Monday morning coaches – well, we can comment on the football, and politicians as well, but better than that, we don’t need any sf writer, hell, any writer, bugger that, any artist, to be there to work out how they can improve their writing/art/lives/body of work/marketing/image whatever. We give that advice out free all the time. Though of course, nobody listens.
This is not a piss take. This is not envy. This is not, oh, first world problems. I read the AR post and it stayed with me for days. And I have been thinking about my friend and his loss since it occurred. And I thought of the conversations we used to have when we were young, and the fewer conversations we have now. And how we would talk about this. And the more important conversations we should have, and don’t, and that’s just the way it is. Stephen wrote a sketch once, about disasters and reporters asking the family of victims, “how do you feel?”, and the responses included something like “how the fuck do you think I feel, fuckwit?”. So I can’t keep just asking how he is, and I have no profound words so that he feels better. We feel bad because we should feel bad, it is entirely appropriate. But I can write something down to show I am thinking of him, and how grateful I am for all the music and writing and comedy and fun he introduced to me, and how he even shapes what I think about, the things that fill the ongoing conversation inside my head. (14)
(1) Not that time, but a while later, I can remember buying Black Easter and Day after Judgement by James Blish at a smelly 2nd hand place in Sydney at Stephen’s urging. I also picked up Death Hunter by Ian Watson, another one of those writers we introduced to each other. And because of Stephen I just spent time re-reading Watson’s account of working with/for Kubrick here (and I wonder why he and Brian Aldiss were/are enemies). And as I am about to write something about Adam Roberts, I think of the connection between Watson’s Miracle Visitors and Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia. And in all that I think of how I used to greet anyone introduced to me as Todd with “ah, from the German for death”, and how I used to say Ya liublu peva to Russian girls.
(2) I just read Jonathan Lethem describing how he and his soon to be junkie mate saw Tim Burton’s Batman after taking mushrooms. (The Disappointment Artist, p.6.) Lord, the most Stephen and I ever took together at that time was a pint of Guinness, practising for our trip to Ireland. We saw Batman, and the only thing weird we did was walk home from Parramatta (no, autocorrect, I did not mean Taramasalata) afterwards instead of catching the train, talking about the film and our upcoming trip to Europe. We moved on to include various lagers, ales and so on as we grew older.
(3) Speaking of presumption! And my original blog heading was something like ‘How presumptuous of me! The (not-the-Alan-Parsons) Project’. Because I thought that sounded presumptuous. And Adam Roberts and Alan Parsons start and end with the same letters, and have the same number of letters (how relieved was I when I checked and confirmed Parsons does not have a double ‘l’ in his Alan!). And then, just before publishing this blog post, I discovered The Adam Roberts Project. So I can just fuck off.
(4) in fact, reading the review, which is very good and illuminating, I feel stupid and under-educated and not very well read at all. Which is probably accurate, but I don’t like feeling that way, so I’m going to run off and read a detective novel. How very Bertrand Russell of me! (5)
(5) I’m not stupid. I saw Arrival. I understood bits of it. And I didn’t just go for Amy Adams. Honest!
(6) Fortunately in areas of our greatest interest, we are both happy failures, or else one of us would have to write one of those I hate my fucking famous friend things. This is not one of those. (I really like the one in Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, where she just dumps her famous friend, who kept calling to brag.)
(7) acknowledging all that Thomas Disch included in his introduction to volume 5 of Dick’s collected short stories: “What more can we ask of art? Well, the answer is obvious: polish, execution, economy of means, and other esthetic niceties”. But loyalty, a dog of a virtue, is of immense importance to me, and Dick claimed me early, when I yearned for novelty, ideas, strangeness, and lots of it. As Disch also said, “Reading a story by Dick… (is) like becoming involved in a conversation”, conversations I could have with few people around me apart from Stephen.
(8) Am I being too first world? Is PKD’s life aspirational, with his suicidal tendencies and drug use and early death and so on, to someone living in a hell hole? I confess to my bourgeois tendencies.
(9) All the stuff he talks about in Bury My Heart at W. H. Smith’s: A Writing Life.
(9b) Or this.
(10) Do not suppose for a moment that we would allow facts,
including especially known facts, to get in the way of giving this advice. It could include items such as, have you ever thought of publishing 16 sf novels? Also, how do you define deliverability?
(11) And this would be me, not Stephen, there is no way that he is going to read or quote CS Lewis, except maybe that Young Ones episode where Vivyan smashes through the back of the wardrobe and meets the Ice Queen, and instead of wanting Turkish Delight, asks for a kebab. I remember Stephen pissing himself laughing trying to describe Vivyan’s body searching for his head after it was knocked off by a train, and Vivyan even needs to insult his own body.
(12) My memory of that was that it was simply better not to bother, recalling the certificate Stephen gave me many, many years ago for my birthday, bestowing me “UN Observer status on life”. Re-reading Lewis right now, I see it is more on the inevitability of such rings and circles, but that they are ultimately unsatisfying and like most things, can lead to great evil through insinuation and seduction. (see loyalty at (7) above) And reading the end of that speech, I think of my dear friend again: “And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the centre of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that the secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric: for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues.”
(13) We do, we do!
(14) Dear Mr Roberts, I enjoyed The Thing Itself, the writing, the ideas, how it made me think while I was reading, how some parts genuinely scared me, how it made me think and feel about the prospects of such an experiment being carried out. It is a good book. I was sad to read “2016: The story so far”. It is presumptuous of me to think I could have words in response. However, I don’t think that you should let your crisis of confidence lead you to write what you might think of as lesser works, or less ambitious books. You are right not to focus on “next year will be better”. No amount of so-called positive thinking will achieve that. What is important is the body of work. You have no control over how it is received. You do have control over what you produce. Aim high. Not that you want to show them all, but given your reference to Randian responses, I prefer “well then, look at this one! And this one! And my next one…”, to “the fools don’t understand/appreciate/love me enough” (which isn’t what you are saying, I know). Isn’t the pleasure in producing this good thing you wanted to make? Life is short, so should not that be the goal? Be more ambitious (I say selfishly, for my own reading pleasure).