Please welcome guest Anna Smith Spark to Once & Future! She is the author of the Empires of Dust series, and also has a story in the new anthology KNAVES: A Blackguards Anthology, now on Kickstarter! She's also eligible for this year's Gemmell Award!
At NineWorlds last year, I was interviewed for a television programme. The first question I was asked was about whether events like this might be able to ‘reclaim’ the word 'geek’. As though it was something insulting that needed to be ‘reclaimed’. I had no idea what to say to that, flannelled about saying very little, made an annoying nervous laugh. I thought of this again recently when a controversy erupted in the genteel world of British publishing, after an article in The Bookseller (THE UK publishing trade newspaper) described Gollancz’s current role as an SFF imprint as a ‘tragedy’ given the history of the name. Gollancz responded furiously, of course, pointing out the The Iliad, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale etc etc etc are technically ‘SFF’. The article’s author made one of those classic non-apologies that only people with an absolute sense of their own superiority make. Every word of it screamed that the saddos at Gollancz should be bloody grateful the author was even deigning to reply to them.
I’ve lived my entire life with mental health issues. Body issues, crippling shyness, a deep conviction that I was ugly, clumsy, stupid, fat. The one thing I’ve never been ashamed of, seen as anything but a mark of superiority over others, is my love of SFF.
‘I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate’
‘I do not care what comes after; I have seen the dragons on the wind of morning.’
‘We dream of light and shadows and the glory of something far greater, the old wild powers of the world. Gods and demons parading. The secret things we cannot see that fly somewhere far beyond our human eyes.’
That last one’s by me, from The Tower of Living and Dying. It’s my favourite line I’ve ever written. I make no apologies for quoting it. It sums up my life and why I love SFF. And why I feel contempt for those who claim to dislike it. And why I feel pity for them.
I am reminded of a recent blog post by my friend and agent-brother Ed McDonald, who wrote of the feeling of inferiority he’d feel standing in a room full of bankers and admitting that he was a fantasy novelist. I did see what he meant – these men (sic) are the masters of the universe, Ed and I write about imaginary people with magic swords. The whole basis of liberal democratic society is that the former is ‘the best and brightest ‘, the latter is ‘childish’. The pinstriped men in the City … yeah, they’d look at Ed and me like dirt. But they’re wrong. The world would be a better place without them. The world’s a better place because people like Ed and me exist. Shelley, who knew a thing or two about the fantastical, wrote in A Defence of Poetry that poetry ‘awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought’. SFF shows us gods and wonders. Beauty. Re-enchantments. Sublime, numinous things. Bankers just make a bigger pile of cash. Weber wrote about the disenchantment of the world, the impact of modernity in stripping the magic of the world away. SFF brings the enchantment back.
I am gazing idly out of a train window as I write this, see a may tree all in bloom. I see the White Tree blossoming in Minas Tirith. I see the May Queen and the Corn King of British folklore. I see beautiful, wonderful, glorious things. I walk the world and I see dragons in the clouds, krakens sleeping beneath the waves of the North Sea, the door to the Otherworld in the hollow hills of the South Downs. I look up into the night sky and I see distant civilizations a thousand light years away, unreachable; I see vast space creatures that can swim through the void like fish through water; I see other sentient beings unimaginable in their alienness.
I would bet a lot, somehow, that the banker masters of the universe don’t see any of that.
Gollanzc’s response to the article in The Bookseller argued that ‘Political commentary, social critique, empowerment, standing up for others and freeing your imagination lie at the heart of SFF and—if you’ll forgive us for drawing on the genre here—aliens visiting our planet could learn everything there is to know about our race and society from perusing the pages of Terry Pratchett, George R R Martin, Joanne Harris, Ursula Le Guin, Stephen King and Iain M Banks’. Which is all true, and another reason to feel intense pride in our genre. There’s more human truth in one page of Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore than there is in million economics textbooks. But.
There was a recent discussion in The Guardian about the idea of placing monetary value on the environment. Persuading capitalism that nature is important by assigning a value to it. We do that already, of course, we argue that we need to save the rainforests ‘because they’re the planet’s lungs’; the Artic melting will be a disaster ‘because sea-levels will rise and flood New York’; insects numbers must be protected because of ‘eco-systems’ and ‘food-chains’. Which is all true, and very important. Oxygen’s kind of useful. Pollination is fairly important if you want to grow anything. I’ve never been to New York; I’d kind of like to see Lady Liberty before she sinks. But.
But these arguments are all unnecessary. These things do not need rational justification. These things are important because they are wonderful. Trees are wonderful. Bees are wonderful. SFF stories are wonderful, to me at least. In a better world, that should be enough. How small must your mind be, for that not to be enough?
In the bankers’ world, the disenchanted world, nothing has wonder. Everything is a thing to be used, bought and sold. It’s the banker’s world that’s a tragedy, that should be ashamed of what it is, that’s childish, in the sense of children as selfish and egocentric and convinced their own little wants are the centre of everything. What use is this thing? Can it make me money? Can it make me more successful? Everything must be quantified, given a value, a purpose, a job.
In my geek SFF world, I care about the world because the world is vast and full of wonder and I love wonderful magical things. The world of SFF is numinous. The divine is there in everything. It is childlike, in the sense of children finding new joys and new terrors in the world every day, never ceasing to revel in the glory of just being alive, of knowing that the world is. I sink away into SFF and I realize again and again how extraordinary and precious the world is, and how extraordinary and precious life is, and how much we need to care for it.
What must it be like to lose that wonder? To no longer be able to see the dragons dancing on the morning wind? What must it be like never to have been able to see them?
What a small, sad, mean place the world must be, if you do not see wondrous things.
I’ll end this with a quote from Flecker’s Samarkand that encapsulates everything I love about SFF:
We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond the last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea,
White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lives a prophet who can understand
Why men were born: but surely we are brave,
Who take the Golden Road to Samarkand.
Anna Smith Spark is the author of the critically acclaimed Empires of Dust grimdark epic fantasy series. The Gemmell Awards shortlisted The Court of Broken Knives is out now with Harper Voyager (UK/world) and Orbit (US/Can); The Tower of Living and Dying will be published in August 2018. Her favourite authors are Mary Renault, R Scott Bakker and M. John Harrison. Previous jobs include English teacher, petty bureaucrat and fetish model. You may know her by the heels of her shoes.
Facebook: Anna Smith Spark
You can vote in the Gemmell Awards here: http://www.gemmellawards.com/award-voting-2018/