by Simon Ings
I was born in Horndean thirty years ago. It's on the trunk road connecting London to the naval town of Portsmouth. We lived on the edge of the town, where the ribbon development began. All the proper buildings stopped at the end of our street: beyond was all insane.
You walk for miles past lawns of tall dead grass and glimpse, now and again, far away down crazy-paving drives, houses of peeling green press-board and untreated corrugated iron, sheds on concrete stilts surrounded by fences of rusted chicken wire; sometimes knee-high walls, their bricks Post-Office red with a thick poisonous resin; the mortar white, a kitsch criss-cross. Hand painted. Madness.
It's dangerous, I think, to write out of need. To start young, searching in fiction for the life you can't get at the time. Epistemic hunger -- hunger for the world -- isn't to be satisfied by fiction: not wholly, nor for ever. Books aren't -- can't be -- a substitute for life.
Until a couple of years ago I read a great deal of criticism. And around then I realised that what had been substitutes were becoming escapes: books, and books about books; the props of learned helplessness. Appalling, the misuse we make sometimes of other people's words. Now I'm only interested in what leads me into the world.
I've got my routine down pat. For the full effect I need an evening suit with gravy down the front and a Rasputin beard. Scene: the Conservatory, most probably: its the usual venue here in London for signings by the great and good. Me (brandishing some opus): "Is it about the world?" The unsuspecting author frowns. "And the people in it?" I go on. "Or is it merely idiolect, private language, dreams? Because however vivid those dreams, however startling the language, none of that in its raw state has ever communicated or will ever communicate anything meaningful to anybody." Cries of Shame, Shame! An altercation, a scuffle, and the police are summoned.
All that education in the ways of the word; and now all I care about are believable characters. That this is the recipe for crashing conservatism I need no reminding. No more Paul Auster for me, and certainly no Baudrillard. Auster I regret; Baudrillard I consign to the flames with relish: he is death to the spirit.
The answer is in the hormones, maybe: You see, I've been here before. Years ago, I more or less quit reading quite another sort of book: science fiction. Looking back, this was one of my better decisions.
The trouble with the genre in the UK is that everyone's trying to keep abreast of everyone else in the Good Ideas stakes (as if fiction ever had anything to do with good ideas!). And the most efficient way to play that particular game is to take someone else's idea and transform it. No-one seems to realise that while this may be legitimate in the hot-house world of the dedicated fan-conventioneer, and will assuredly earn you a pat on the back and a beer at some bar or other, meanwhile in the real world it's making you totally fucking unreadable to anybody who hasn't read your sources. This is, presumably, why we're expected to turn our noses up en masse at the success of writers like Philip Kerr, for having the temerity to write science fiction that normal people can understand. In London at the moment there's even a group dedicated to enshrining in criticism this 'exclusive losers club' mentality. Sf as post-modernism twenty, thirty years after the fact: it is beyond parody.
However, you don't have to go to these extremes to succumb to the tendency to write books in reply to books, which are about books -- we're all open to the infection -- and if you've ever played the game of photocopying photocopies, you'll know what its consequences are.
In our profession, this word's the kiss of death: 'promising'. So many young 'promising' writers gorging on the spew of their own private language, content with the 'promise' it contains. Glutting on yeast starter instead of making beer. I take a lot of shit for saying things like this, I suppose because it reminds people of a sorry but perennial truth: that writing is not necessarily any more dignified an activity than tossing yourself off on the lavatory.
Writing's not the human part. Writing's autism with a pen. Meaning something is the core, the living heart.
My own stew: the fag-ends of farmland and city abutting, haemorrhaging and interlacing like the invasion fronts of a malignant tumour; an Ames-room suburbia too big to map and too small to inhabit (the genes of Englishness apparent there: Tardis geometries in the blood); the loss of any meaningful distinction between things natural and things artificial.
"And who, after all, was to say what was made and what was natural?
"Where did rubbish leave off and landscape begin?
Language drew false distinctions. Language was full of fossils, blown ideas, false conceits. The world, hurtling into libration with its ambiguous future, had left its languages lagging behind..."
Hotwire's my most recent book. Not much of it's as mannered as the lines above, thank God. By and large it's a travelogue: testing a private vision against the places I've visited, and the people I've met. The first part of the book's set in Rio. I holidayed there, read what I could, talked to people who lived there, generally behaved the way a writer is supposed to. On the other hand there's a scene set in Havana, and for that I used notes from a weekend in Blackpool. Reportage is simply a tool; there's no point getting fetishistic over it.
Recently, learning at last a way to recuperate my own past experience, I've been revisiting the places I used to live. I went back to Horndean -- to get there from London you drive through towns with names like 'Hurtmore' and 'Noning' -- and found it struggling with its own incapacity, the way an Alzheimer's patient kicks furiously at a door he has forgotten how to open.
I think now it wants to be something other than itself: The Swan -- the old name is inscribed above the main entrance -- has been renamed the Perequito, and each window stencilled with a parrot, so that for a fleeting moment the patrons may imagine themselves in the land of the Bacardi commercial. I went round the market and found a stall selling underwear for the larger woman, draped round with black and red basques and teddies. One of these -- a thready scrap of fluorescent pink nylon, and so small only a child could have worn it -- had fallen into a bin full of cut-price cotton separates. Other stalls dealt out the more usual escapes: dolls, toys, Ian Flemings with the pages stuck together, scratched K-Tels and 'Stereo Moments', second hand video games and role playing books.
Beyond the market there are half a dozen TV repair shops. I wonder what sort of damage a TV suffers here; I have this recurring image of the children of Horndean and Clanfield and Waterlooville, desperate for release, taking turns to hammer at its vibrant, particoloured screen with an unthawed Bejam TV dinner in the hope of breaking through.
Given all this, I'm not surprised to find that my work's called Cyberpunk. That, surely, was the point of it -- before the fashion fairies and the literalists got hold of it -- that it wasn't about the future, but rather used the future as a metaphor to say things about the world as it is. And in that, Cyberpunk was, not a special sort of science fiction, but simply fiction.
Well, despite the best attempts of the nay-sayers and the often even more damaging travails of its self-proclaimed practitioners, the Cyberpunk register has survived the shambolic aftermath of its initial popularity, survived the banalisation that was the natural and necessary consequence of its own currency, and offers now the chance, not to wed sf to some putative 'real fiction' but -- through its very specificity -- to convey and interpret the world better than any other popular form.
Suddenly, fiction needs the tools of sf. It needs ways to write about the world that aren't consensual, that reinvent the ordinary, that handle speculation: not because people need speculative fantasy but because the world itself has become speculative and fantastical. We are born in intensive care; we die there. We live in an environment whose artificiality reaches inside us, poking through the blood-brain barrier with fingers of Prozac and Amitriptyline. Now, the living outnumber the dead. Now, national boundaries fragment in fractal eddies of ethnic identity. Now, media become verisimilar, and Art retorts with terrorism.
I once wrote a story about a writer who wrote travel books. He wrote them by locking himself in his bedrom for years at a time. When he stepped out of the house, he was in a foreign land. Time, not space, was the axis of his exploration.
I think of him sometimes, hiding in an attic room in some nondescript town. Horndean, maybe. Undistracted. Preserving the past in his head entire, so the future will seem more foreign when he gets there.
How far will he travel next? How long seal himself away before the world grows foreign enough for him? Twenty years? Ten? Maybe less. Once so ponderous, slow to stir, Time now transforms the world in decades. Soon, mere years will be enough. And then? Time accelerates constantly. The next generation will find such journeys easy. As for their children--
The Future will greet them each morning: a good night's sleep will carry them there!
All then will be foreign. Strange white water. Rapids--
Everyone a pilot.
Each shuttered room, an Ark.
HOTWIRE BOOK OFFER
"How crude and primitive we first-generation cyberpunks now look! Only Ings could have produced this laser-gazed logicbomb of a book, simultaneously appalling and heartening, monitory and embracing. There is nothing extraneous in Ings's writing and much that is marvelous. Blink between sentences, and you might miss something."
Signed copies of the first edition of Hotwire are available from the author. Each paperback original costs £4.99 + 51p postage & packing. Signed copies of Ings's first novel Hot Head are also available for £5.99 + 51p postage & packing.
Contact him at email@example.com or write to:
15 Rye Hill Park
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© Simon Ings 16 May 1998