The Exploring Tomorrow podcast, by filmmaker, director and writer, Mikel J Wisler, has interviewed me on his wonderful, uber-nerdy show. It was a lovely chat, and Mikel was a warm and charming host. Super-nerdy writers of sci-fi and spec-fic may enjoy the conversation.
Last year, in the middle of releasing a debut novel, mid-pandemic, with no marketing plan or budget, I blagged a surprise collaboration with Tasmanian playwright, Stephanie Briarwood, funded by TasWriters. The funding was part of a 'we'd better keep them alive and off the streets' strategy by government to avoid performers and other creatives from being seen in public, so, long-story-short, I co-wrote a kinda, sorta play - a speculative fiction narrative set in the near-future, in glorious down-town Burnie. Intended as a one-hour screenplay, Steph and I didn't know where the work would end up, so we were chuffed to be told Blue Cow were going to do a readthrough-performance - irl!
Watching their performance, and skills in action, was wonderful. Stephanie, a seasoned professional, cheerfully mocked me as a 'theatre virgin' when I misted up, made unexpectedly emotional by the characters evolving through their narratives. So, a huge thank you to all involved. I'd love to see the actors encore in an actual filmed version of that one day in the life of an illegal taxi driver, Hong Kong refugee, Wendy Chen, and her growing family of passengers. Anyone need a super low-budget, locally made 100% Tasmanian drama script?
Obviously a mistake has been made. I've been invited to a writers' festival to be some kind of literary cage-fighter with an impressive group of real writers.
Having never been to one of these things, I'm honestly not sure what to expect other than heavy drinking and arguments. I imagine it will start out reasonably civilised...
...and then descend into some kind of fierce competitive intellectualism in which the caged writers entertain the bellowing, half-naked crowds with things I'm unfamiliar with, like wit, and bon mots, and incisive insights into la condition humane. Etc. As each writer tries to top the others, and put them down in ever-cleverer ways, things are bound to turn nasty.
My strategy will definitely be to get drunk quickly and throw the first punches. My rationale is that, sufficiently intoxicated, blows I fail to deflect will hurt less, and I'm sure to win audience plaudits and tossed coins by being ready to kick it all off.
In any event, I've looked at the competition, and I'm pretty sure I can take down John Marsden, Clare Hooper and Bob Brown if I progress to the finals, but first I have sessions with Alex Landragin, Alison Croggon and Nike Sulway, then a 'conversation', presumably in some kind of bear-baiting pit, with Ramona Koval, then finishing the Saturday with an all-in mass-brawl with Koval (if she's still able to fight), Tony Birch, Mirandi Riwowe, and Rebecca Jessen. I hope to see some of you at the bar afterwards!
Wondering why humans aren't getting their shit together? Our biology is holding us back.
In small tribal groups, most destructive thinking and behaviours are controlled, contained and corrected to that which will sustain the tribe. That’s how we’re hardwired.
But on our globalised Earth, forms of meta-intelligence have emerged that overwhelm our individual and tribal intelligences. Organised religions, political ideologies and global corporations, each made up of myriads of functional humans, are working toward the unintended consequences of war, unstoppable climate crisis and mass species extinction.
How are the ‘advanced’ future humans and aliens in your science fiction able to function cooperatively and sustainably long enough to evolve beyond behaviours that once served them well but became self-destructive? Individual and collective intelligence aside, how do you design a conscious creature who can achieve what we’re failing at—long-term survival.
Here we have another problem. We don’t know what consciousness is or how it emerges—it’s still one of the great frontiers of science. When you drill down, even the term ‘consciousness’ becomes useless. Other than in the strict medical sense (the Glasgow Coma Scale), ‘consciousness’ isn’t even a thing. I, for example, don’t exist.
Who is writing this if it isn’t a conscious incredibly nerdy being?
If you now punch me on the arm, you may reasonably ask who is feeling the pain if it isn’t a conscious being—an ‘I’. But where are the words forming your question coming from? Is there a mini-you, sitting in your brain at a big meaty control station, working at lightning speed to collate thoughts, edit words and issue your response? Nope, it’s all just collectively emerging from specialised meat, linked by basic chemistry and physics.
As we talk, we have no awareness of what’s happening in our brains to enable us to do so. Physiology and scans don’t tell us how our sense of self can appear certain when all indicators are that it’s merely a recursive representation—an avatar to assist the global brain function at ‘higher’, differently effective, and affective, levels. A dog is perfectly intelligent in its own way. So is slime mould, so is a young child—and they all need to distinguish ‘self’ from ‘other’. But they are conscious in a different, less complex way to us. The thing we call ‘consciousness’ is an evolving, ever-changing spectrum, in multiple dimensions.
Worse, there’s a second way ‘you’ don’t exist.
The ‘you’ reading this now, isn’t the same ‘you’ playing sports, or fuming in a traffic gridlock, or drinking in a bar, or making love. In effect, you’re multiple-personalities in a single body. In all your different emotional states—from incoherent-with-anger to kindly-altruistic—‘you’ are a bunch of very different people.
Most of us are writing dystopian speculative fiction for good reasons, and lack of IQ in our leaders isn’t the issue. So, if you’ve designed your ‘superior’ homo or alien with a bigger brain, their ‘smarter’ intelligence isn’t a guarantee your new species will survive any longer than ours.
We’re social mammals evolved to engage constructively with others and we do it spectacularly well. True, we’re only evolved to cope with a maximum of around 150 others in a tribal group rather than the entire interweb, but we can still operate collectively to build civilisations, tech, philosophies, the Rule of Law, and political parties—all of which require incredible individual and communal skillsets.
We’re also already hugely empathic as individuals and compassionate as collectives. Our intensely emotional brains motivate us to reason and problem-solve on every scale from the individual to the global. Yet those capabilities are not enough to stop us from committing civilisational suicide.
It’s no longer enough to casually claim our fictional advanced creations are ‘wiser’ or ‘more empathic’ or ‘more compassionate’ or ‘more augmented’. We are already those things. So, when you create a new homo species, or our new alien overlords, what is the critical difference that has allowed them to transcend their biological evolution? How have they avoided collective suicide?
What, in other words, could we do to save the most complex object in the known universe from destroying itself?
Okay, so there you are, wearing a lab coat, in a lab, brainy af, with billions of research dollars available to back up your idea to create an artificial intelligence (AI), which you hope will basically be better, smarter and wiser than us, and will save us from ourselves. Is it feasible?
For all the hype about AI, and fears of exponentially self-evolving AI turning into a ‘Singularity’ that will rule us all, AI is just algorithms and algorithms do not a singularity make. They can build cars. They can hound and harass welfare recipients. Can they feel wistful during a poignant moment in a Vivaldi concerto? No.
Just because you might be able to design an AI that passes a Turing Test, that doesn’t mean it can perform the most critical level of intelligence underpinning it all—emote. And in case you think emotions are a useless by-product of human reasoning, you’ve got it backwards. First, we care. Then we think about why we care. Then we act. Make your AI algorithms as recursive as you like, but you’ll never make it care.
Okay, so how about renovating homo sapiens?
Transhumanists are a diverse group, but they, like most sci-fi writers, tend to focus on physical and mental ‘augmentation’. But we are already massively augmented. Mentally, the phone in your hand augments your brain into the global consciousness. You’re also physically augmented. Need to connect two pieces of wood? Transform your entire body via a hammer and a nail. Need to travel distant places fast? Buy a plane ticket. Need to leap tall buildings? Take the elevator.
Also, critically, transhumanism is inherently fascist and, with the best will in the world, missing the point. The idea of an ‘ideal’ human ignores the historical and biological reality that, in a group, diversity is strength—even if it looks like and sometimes is a weakness. The Third Reich wasn’t a failed plan but a Big Lie.
So, when we writers think we’ve created a ‘superior’ or ‘advanced’ human species—or a truly novel alien species for that matter—we’ve merely transposed fascist, racist and colonial templates onto the future. Just as the English thought themselves superior to First Nations Australians, so our fictional future humans or aliens are largely versions of the Colonial Lie—which is that tech, or appearance (pale skin), or bigger guns, or culture, make us somehow ‘better’. But how are post-colonial humans ‘better’ if we’re not sustainable on a global scale? What’s stopping us being better? Biology.
Sci-fi and spec-fic routinely tell stories which involve 'advanced' humans or aliens - usually cartoonish extrapolations of ourselves. Over the last few decades a common trope is the 'AI' which becomes too human, or decides that humans are, for one reason or another, dangerously redundant.
Artificial intelligence, if allowed unlimited development, might begin to guide its own evolution into a mind far beyond our means to comprehend - or control. The pinnacle of this speculation is commonly referred to as a technological singularity. Sadly, for the most part, writers use an intelligent 'singularity' as a poorly thought-out McGuffin, a deus ex machina plot device to serve the needs of the narrative.
When I found my speculation about the near future heading in this direction, I was primed to reject even the concept of a singularity, largely on logical grounds. It can also be a cop-out for a writer to imagine a creature with vague 'super-powers' without thinking through what that might mean in a plausible alternate reality.
My traveling circus in The Last Circus on Earth isn't what it seems, nor it's malignant leader, Mister Splinter. But as we head toward various forms of global collapse via global warming and the extinction crisis, I wanted to challenge the thinking and solve the problem at the heart of it all. How can we humans, and our myriads of cultures, survive the ruin we are causing to our planet and ourselves?
So, for what it's worth, here are a few of the questions and problems I posed for my extremely unpleasant circus owner, Mister Splinter.
If humans cannot overcome those forces destroying us, given unlimited funds, how could we build a better, 'advanced' human to survive beyond us? One who wouldn't create another smoking ruin of a planet, and would instead learn, adapt, nurture and prosper into the distant future.
What things would we change in this new human to 'make them better'? Should we make us stronger? Fitter? Prettier? With heightened senses, and metabolically more efficient bodies?
Would we give them a higher IQ? Greater focus? A new, more sophisticated global language?
Is 'smarter' wiser? Do any or all of these tweaks advantage the individual in a meaningful sense? Do they advantage the wider community? Would emotion and reason, the two sides of the same cognitive coin, be unbalanced in a new ratio? Would ideology and religion be redundant? Would we still be social animals who demand and need communion? Would we be happier? How would governments and economies differ in a better way? What would stop narcissists, sociopaths and liars from taking over?
And what if, in the middle of all this study and experimentation, tweaking genes, new tech and ideas, your time ran out, your unlimited funds disappeared, and there was a global collapse of societies and nation states? What if those years of multi-disciplinary research was about to die along with human civilisation. Worse! What if your ideas of a new human were fundamentally flawed and naive? What if the idea of a singularity was revealed to be ridiculous?
And, finally, what if it was just you, a drug-addled and gene-ravaged researcher, a man now calling himself 'Mister Splinter', who understood all this, and had one idea left to try, and one rapidly diminishing chance to achieve it? How far would you go to save civilisation? How much pain would you inflict on your Frankenstein's monster?
On a young man called Blanco...
Illustration: Dylan Glynn, sourced from Veronica Sicoe's excellent blog, I Abduct Aliens.
Making the shortlist for the 2020 BookLinks Queensland Mentorship for The Fox was a real boost. Looking at the other authors on the shortlist, I genuinely resigned myself to applauding the deserving winner, so I wasn't too hurt they didn't mention my work during the preamble. It was a jaw-drop when my entry won the mentorship with Robin Sheahan-Bright. Author, editor and publisher of literature for young people, Sheahan-Bright is a multiple award-winner and publishing consultant.
Will my gritty tale of a young man, living under the thumb of his father on a remote lighthouse island to the north of Hokkaido at the start of the Pacific War, find favour as an adventurous coming-of-age story with Robin? Or will her highly experienced counsel place me firmly back at the bottom of the literary mountain, bracing myself for a total rewrite? Writing isn't for the faint-hearted, and mountaineering persistence is required for every edit. As of today, Robin is reading my work. I'm strapping on the crampons. [Below is Todojima, a tiny island where this novel is set.]
The Queensland Writers' Centre is brilliant - one of the best in the country - and has given 25 of us a huge leg-up with inclusion into this manuscript development program.
10 of the super lucky out of that group, following a Hunger Games style literary kill-or-be-killed competition, will go on to receive mentoring for their work. QWC have put an enormous amount of work and organisation into this program, and a big shout-out to Craig Cauchi for running it.
We've already had readers' feedback on our raw MS, as well as a one-on-one with Cauchi, online workshops with Kim Wilkins and self-editing worksheets from Belinda Pollard.
And, last night, a webinar with Nick Earls.
His well-attended session was on 'chapter beginnings and closings'.
In brief, chapters give shape, allow the writer to shift time / place / POV, and to manage the reading experience. Key is making openings and closings work for the reader - keep the reader visually and emotionally connected. Drip feed exposition, and try to make it a response to something in the narrative. Use genre conventions, or provide a refreshing take on them, to engage. Put us straight into the moment with only the critical details required. Show not tell - but in a way that produces intrigue for the reader. Chapter endings don't have to be cliffhangers, but they do have to compel readers to continue. Tension between reader hopes and fears for the narrative outcomes provides a driver for that intrigue. Focus on character over drama for both beginnings and endings.
Nick was great, and offered brief focused answers to specific questions: no mean feat with 132 in the classroom.
So now all we happy band of 25 need to do is rewrite our MS and hope they win us a spot in the next round for ongoing mentoring to get our works up to publishable standard. All writing is, ultimately, collaborative, and getting outside eyes, especially professionals', on one's work is gold.
Take home message: if you're serious about your writing, and opportunities like this one, join your State's writers' centre. Thanks again to QWC and Craig Cauchi.
Roy Chen did, that's who.
Sydney-based artist and illustrator, Chen blew me away when I saw his cover for The Last Circus on Earth. I loved it, and many people have asked me about it. And because they did, and I wanted to know more about the shy-to-the-point-of-mysterious Chen and his work, I interviewed him.
Hi Roy! You created the cover for my debut novel, Brio Books' The Last Circus on Earth. If I told you my reaction to seeing it for the first time was a jaw-drop and a very loud 'f*** me!', would that seem weird? [Disclosure: I was wearing a huge grin when I said it.]
I'm happy that you loved the cover! I had a lot of fun putting it together (though now that I think about it, maybe the cover should have just been a shot of the elephant with the machine gun).
The Last Circus is a 400-page spec-fic road-trip from England to China in which a whole bunch of stuff happens. What's your process to pick just one mental image you feel sums up the book?
Usually, I'd just read a few key excerpts (often hand-picked by the author or editor) and be given some 'mood / style reference' images, and the cover would be based around those. But in this case, David [Henley, Brio Books publisher / editor / author] just handed me the manuscript. 'Dystopian apocalyptic sci-fi circus...and elephants. With guns.' So I read a few chapters and also kind of spoiled the ending for myself.
When I start reading to do an illustration, I'm mostly trying to get a feel for the tone first, with the specifics coming later. Often, you end up not needing much more than just the tone. I also go through a couple of different ideas and options before settling on the final [image].
People I've shown the cover have responded with very firm approval - they like your image, and are intrigued to find out more about the book itself. Did you paint this image as if you were the potential reader?
Kind of. I've sort of got one foot stuck in the 'design' door, and the other in the 'artist' door. I start by doing whatever I want, but always end up asking 'does this actually make sense for a fantasy / sci-fi / [insert other qualifier] cover? Full disclosure: my initial concepts for this cover didn't make sense.
For other illustrators out there, what media did you use, and how much is involved in font, layout and overall design? What size is the original artwork? Do you scan that and shrink in Photoshop? It looks like a lot of work - is it?
The image (and the title type) is done entirely in Photoshop. The illustration is a mix of photo-manipulation and digital painting, a process referred to as 'photobashing', which is often used by illustrators and concept artists in the film / games / vfx industries.
The technique is mostly a pragmatic one - it's just the fastest way to get a detailed finish without having to painstakingly draw every detail from scratch. There is still a lot of work integrating elements, painting over things, and drawing in details that don't exist, but far less than starting from nothing. It also means any WIP you might show tends to be more representative of the final image, so other people get a better idea of what they're getting.
The rest of the text is added afterwards in inDesign, which is software more specific to publishing.
What else are you working on, and how can people see more of your art?
I'm still collecting a proper body of work. My older stuff is not really up to par, so my online presence is a 'little' empty. I swear I'm doing something about it!
Can people contact you about commissioning illustrative art / book covers?
For the time being, and particularly if it's a book cover, you can find me through Fantastica / Brio Books - email@example.com
[header image, Roy Chen, blatantly stolen from the wonderful Seizure magazine.]
*See cover below
Why did you write The Last Circus on Earth?
I thought it would be good to travel to the near future to see how things worked out by writing a novel about it. As I was researching and exploring, the characters discovered what I was doing and pretty much took over. I really just edited it from that point on.
So, where did the characters come from? Why these characters and not others?
Did I choose them or did they choose me? After all, there's a lot of life-force in the Russian witch, Baba Yaga, who has been with me since my father came back from communist USSR with a cheap printed translation of Russian Folk Tales. Baba Yaga, and all the other classic Russian characters, became part of my life from then on, joining a host of others in my scruffy little head, from Wonderland, the Looking Glass world, Neverland etc. The circus performers from Tod Browning's 1936 classic Freaks joined the motley crew some time later.
The thugs, carnies and psychopaths are a mix of 'hard men', co-workers and narcissists I've had the pleasure of meeting.
What about the setting of The Last Circus? You travel from Britain to Central Asia, which is quite a hike, and requires dragging the poor reader through one post-Collapse nation after another to get to the denouement, which could've happened anywhere. Why put the reader through all that?
I basically wanted a good look around. If you travel all the way to the year 2070, you're not going to stay in the hotel room.
I'd just come back from a novel-writing trip to 1666 with a pacifist pirate, where I had a look at the roots of the so-called Age of Enlightenment. As a result, I wondered - during this spectacularly shitty era - whether those Enlightenment illusions of 'human progress' were actually delusions. Fifty years into the future seemed enough time to get the gist of where our species is headed, and to see if we made it or not. My characters, on the other hand, wanted more than mere survival - which is why the whole book ended up full of mayhem, mischief, murder and, for Shakespearian counterpoint, love.
What's the plot? In brief.
It's really just a variation on the old 'suicidal assassin boy meets super-intelligent locked-in syndrome girl' story. In mine they have a rescue dog together, and try not to get killed for 400 pages.
It's an adventure story.
Baba Yaga's in it so there's bound to be trouble and some sort of quest.
Does Last Circus have 'themes'? Is it Worthy Reading or escapist trash?
It'll never win any literary prizes.
You literally won the 2019 Fantastica Prize.
Good point, well made. As for themes, there's 'love'. All sorts. Love between lovers, between friends and family, and the most powerful love of all, between humans and dogs. And elephants.
There's also 'death'. Quite a lot of death in there. Being murdered, shot, blown up, dragged under the wheels of a train, drowning...all sorts. Also there's lots of 'nearly dying'. Take a good first-aid kit to 2070, folks. Other themes include the nature of consciousness, why 'intelligence' isn't a marker for compassion, empathy, wisdom or good / smart behaviour, plus questioning the limits of human biology in the context of our extinction crisis.
Spec-fic or sci-fi?
Bit of both. On the sci-fi side, I researched the heck out the singularity concept. The spec-fic side is focused on why homo sapiens can't pull themselves out of their collective dive into global civilisational collapse. I also ask how, if you had unlimited means, you could plausibly(?) augment humans to avoid a permanent end to our particular form of 'consciousness'.
No. I'm not a fascist.
Last question: why are you the only person who could write this particular story?
I'm not. It's hardly original. The only area where I push boundaries is arguing that our current concepts of individual and collective intelligence and consciousness are fundamentally incorrect, and that almost all other sci-fi and spec-fic writers get that wrong.