A bit more about my universe building
and a film recommendation
I began writing this post on 31/01/2023, a few hours before going to Robin Ince’s book signing and showing him this Lego rendition of his book, which I built on a livestream, over on my favourite comedy broadcasting platform, twitch.tv.
I had the privilege of speaking to Robin for a bit after. I get very excited when I meet people whose brains seem to work like mine. Robin is very kind and humoured me throughout these outbursts. He didn’t have to, but he did, and I appreciate that tremendously.
Recently I have been reading AGAIN, DANGEROUS VISIONS (edited by Harlan Ellison, published 1973) and I have been diving through its time travel parts so I can see how other writers tackled astral projection, interfering with your own personal worldline, amongst other things. I plan on selling the book soon, so have been re-reading it before saying goodbye (I want to visit a friend in the USA but struggle to find regular jobs, selling books is a lot easier for someone like me).
What I’ve found on my way is a passage by Ray Nelson in his afterword for the short story, TIME TRAVEL FOR PEDESTRIANS.
“In literature there is only one unforgiveable sin, and that is not the portrayal of sex or violence or unpopular religious and philosophical ideas. The one unforgiveable sin is boredom. And science fiction, in recent years, has become boring. There have been signs of life in England, but up until Dangerous Visions the U.S. has gradually been sinking into the mud. Made-up jargon has passed for technology, allowing the old entrenched fan to feel smug while making the story almost impossible for the new reader to understand.”
This may have been true in 1973 (not that I would know), but is it true now?
I like to hope it isn’t.
When I sold books at ComicCon last year, I asked passers-by if they liked Science Fiction. One man, adorned with Star Wars and Dr Who merch, said “No, not really.” So either he was one of those people who only like the most popular edges of Sci-Fi, or his partner was using him as a mule.
Film and publishing companies don’t always want to take big risks, so they will want to publish the same kind of thing that sold well last week. The phrase ‘writing to trend’ is automatically translated in my head as ‘be boring’. Typically I find the stories in ‘smaller’ films to be a lot more interesting.
I love Sputnik. It’s still available on Netflix here in the UK.
“Made-up jargon has passed for technology, allowing the old entrenched fan to feel smug while making the story almost impossible for the new reader to understand.”
I am a fan of jargon. My readers will know of coldbeds and
subverse (cut because it’s already allegedly both a video game, amongst other things…) and intersect pathways and spacetime anomalies and other such things. But I like to hope I use them in the way I intend to, that is to make the characters familiar with what to them is the everyday. Coldbed is a brand name, intersects were discovered decades before the reader encounters the characters. When a character is amazed by something, they are usually amazed by how all these component parts click together to make something greater. Do dreamscreens open the possibility for astral travel? Can the intersects lead us to another universe? Does time travel prove we live in a simulation? All fun questions I am still working on answering.
Jargon, when used right, makes a world feel real. It is an important tool in making my universes feel alive. The coldbeds function as additional worldbuilding and easter eggs too, as they show up in multiple stories, hinting at a larger universe in which some stories take place.
Where the comedy comes in
Comedy is a critical component of my writing. I was largely ignorant to it (deadpan) until someone at uni called me a ‘great comedian’ and I got confused because I had just read out a poem about phone sex to everyone in the Edge Hill Uni Arts Bar. I was later invited to the literature side of the Edinburgh fringe (as a judge for a short story panel), and tried to sneak away to watch Sarah Pascoe, before realising I would not return to the Speigeltent in time. I doubt my tutors from uni read this substack, but if they do, they may be upset to know that I regretted not running away to see Sarah.
This existential crisis would follow me for a few years, ultimately leading to a confusing year in which WBTH1 came out and I realised, again, that I could not extract the funny from the Sci-Fi even if I tried. My first ten readers were people who followed me when my social media was a meme page, and I am slowly getting back to that, because I missed making people laugh.
An interesting side effect of making people laugh is that you will make some people angry. Controversy is something powerful and almost inevitable. It is not something I wade into willingly, but something I have had little samples of every now and again. It can be nervously skirted around if you’re writing serious stories, but if you’re being comedic, there is always going to be someone who doesn’t only dislike the joke, but who thinks it should never have been written.
Controversy is an inevitable byproduct of having an imagination and using it.
I’m going to be highlighting some quotable things from now on, inspired by a fan and friend, Chloe, who always quotes me in streams. Without her I wouldn’t know just how cruel I can be to Minecraft villagers. It comes to me so naturally that I barely notice the lava bucket in my hand before it is ceremoniously poured over them.
So the comedy can’t be removed. It comes out whenever it wants to, appearing as dialogue or descriptions that sometimes make people laugh out loud. One of my favourite characters, Lax Morales, started out as a comic relief character. He eventually evolved to live in one of the most serious, complicated universes I have written (the Earthloop universe) but he still has his funny moments. There’s a lot of comedy you can find in a relationship between an alien and a human, as beta readers of WBTH2 will soon discover.
I have been asked by my three most passionate readers if the comedy stories tie in with the serious ones. The simple answer is no. The not-so-simple answer is that they often parody the serious ones. God (or Gord) has a pet crystal called Rosy. One of the robot gods Stephanie meets is called Ro. So there’s a link there, a slight reference. But they don’t share a universe.
During one draft of an upcoming book, I did consider if Stephanie’s universe might have birthed one of the universes inside WBTH1, and the seeds of the idea were there if you looked hard enough, but ultimately I have settled on a different, weirder connection.
I started writing when I was barely six years old, to entertain myself and to keep track of the stories in my head. The longest one was between the Lego Rock Raiders and the Bionicle, who were having talks about mining their planet for resources to build a time machine… That conversation between Axle the Rock Raider and Onua the Bionicle continued almost endlessly, happening in my mind over my mum’s conversation, my school work, my dinners, my play time with friends. It never stopped, and some of it turned into my first short stories.
As you can see I haven’t actually changed that much.
Back to the Ray Nelson quote
Certainly the world is different now to how it was in 1973, but stagnation is still around the corner. Our favourite old movies keep being remade, old cartoons are rewritten by people who clearly do not like the source material, or who at least needed to go to therapy before sitting in a writer’s room. Anger seems to be the go-to emotion. Characters are made powerful because it will look cool to, not because of their ingenuity, their genius, their resourcefulness.
Ultimately, people seem to be bored.
It’s part of why I got into writing in the first place. To kill boredom.
Here’s the rest of the Ray Nelson passage.
“But now what I’m high on is hope, the hope that now that Harlan has broken the ice we’ll see some real fireworks again in the field… We’ll see some controversy, some brilliance, some writing that has a real sense of life, some real guts and glory. I like Star Trek a lot but I can’t see tying down magazine and book science fiction to what could easily be broadcast over family TV. Even Star Trek, which feeds off ideas tried and proven in the magazine field, will eventually go stale unless there is a massive influx of new approaches and ideas in the field as a whole. Like, it’s no use picking a blank mind. But now I’m high on hope, fellow fans. Zonked out of my mind. Please, baby, don’t bring me down.”
I am bringing back the paid tier of this Substack soon, and will be adding a signed copy of WHO BUILT THE HUMANS? to one of the paid tiers. I thought this might make a nice thank you for anyone who signs up. What do you think?