Author Archives: Kevan Manwaring

About Kevan Manwaring

I'm an author, Lecturer in Creative Writing teacher and storyteller. I teach for the University of Winchester and for the Cambridge Education Group. My research is into Fantasy, folklore and creative writing. Come on in, say hi, the kettle is on.

Earth Abides: a retro review

George Stewart’s 1949 novel, Earth Abides, is singular in both senses – it is the only science fiction the University of California Professor of English ever wrote, and also a remarkably prescient and deeply moving epic. Set in the aftermath of a virus that decimates the global population – the Great Disaster that derails the human project catastrophically (at least in terms of what we think of as ‘civilisation’) – the opening chapters depict an eerily quiet and depopulated land that could easily be one in lockdown. Yet as the protagonist, Isherwood Williams, (or ‘Ish’ as he becomes known) makes his solitary way back from the wilderness where he had been undertaking field research, it soon becomes apparent that a devastating plague has swept the land, leaving fly-ridden corpses in lonely gas stations, mummified ones in the desert, and rendering the former population clusters of cities as no-go zones. And the near mass extinction event of humankind allows for a rewilding of America, in a similar way to how Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies imagined a ‘wild England’ in his post-apocalyptic novel of 1885, After London. Yet, unlike in Jefferies, where the first half of the novel is a detailed natural history survey sans character or plot, in Stewart’s narrative, Ish is our viewpoint character who has agency. We experience this biological apocalypse through his thoughts and senses – an academic, he reflects upon what he beholds stoically. Used to his own company and absorbed by his own preoccupations, he is able to cope with a depeopled California, until finally jarred out of his solipsism by first a dog, and then by chance encounters with the diseased, deranged, or decadent few who have also survived. He embarks upon a bleak road trip to the East Coast, only to be unimpressed by the remnants he encounters. Returning to the West Coast and his former childhood home, he settles down to a quiet life, until … well, I’ll leave that for you to discover. What is refreshing about Stewart’s post-apocalypse is the anthropological approach he takes in charting the vicissitudes of the remaining survivors. He takes the long view of history, and prophesies a circularity to it … the survivors subsist upon what they can scavenge, but eventually the shelves empty or are overrun by the swarms of ants, rats, and feral canines, and the scattered tribes regress into a future primitive state. The novel shows its age in some places – most notably in its problematic descriptions of people of colour, the handicapped, and of women. And yet Stewart nearly redeems himself by lauding the main female (and mixed race) character – who is shown to have greater strength and stamina than the men.  She is rather put on a pedestal and is frequently referred to as the ‘mother of nations’ – and so this idealised feminine is just as problematic in its own way. Stewart also is far off the mark in his disavowal of climate studies as being of any relevance to future life on Earth: ‘Climatic change was not a practical problem.’ Yet for a novel written in the late 1940s, we can hardly blame the author for that blindspot, and in many ways Stewart’s sole foray into the speculative is a seminal work of Climate Fiction, and in that sense it is far ahead of the curve. It rightly won the first International Fantasy Award in 1951. So, despite its weaknesses of representation, the novel has many strengths – not just the breadth of its vision, but in its non-anthropocentric shifts, and its proto-ecological tone. It foregrounds the importance of environment, and exhorts (of the earth): ‘There is nothing else by which men live’. Stewart emphasises the Earth will survive us, and is indifferent to our plight. He destabilises our imagined position as the pinnacle of creation; he also challenges the vanity of ambition, the empty intellectualism of academe (whenever it ceases to have practical purpose), and the myth of progress. All that matters, he seems to infer, is our immediate community of connections, the family (or ‘Tribe’ in its extended form), our inner resilience, adaptability, and capability. Simple skills of survival become more important than the vainglorious dreams of betterment and posterity. And yet although this heartbreakingly charts the end of the Enlightenment Project and western civilisation’s brief moment in the sun, this is ultimately a humanist and humanitarian novel, and there is deep poetry and compassion here – in the poetic, pseudo-Biblical epigraphs; and in the loving record of marriage and friendship. A haunting vision of a plague-stricken America, there is nevertheless a quiet beauty here that lingers long after the book has been put down.

Kevan Manwaring

Art of the Windsmith

The amazing covers by Steve Hambidge for The Windsmith Elegy (vols 1-5) https://www.behance.net/crookedkm/projects

The Windsmith universe is a storyworld I have been developing for nearly twenty years. The first story I wrote for it was in September 2002 – a chapter for a workshop on the MA in Creative Writing I had just started at Cardiff University, and that became the novel, The Long Woman (published by Awen in 2004). This was to become the first of The Windsmith Elegy – a 5 volume fantasy series, written over 10 years (2002-2012). In 2012 I co-created a multimedia show based upon the books, Song of the Windsmith, which I toured with James Hollingsworth and other guest artists. An hour long show, it featured storytelling, poetry, a soaring soundscape and several songs by James, digital puppetry, belly-dancing, and animation. This seemed like the culmination of the project, but then in 2019 an idea came to me to create an interactive novel based upon the Windsmith storyworld: Hyperion was born, and throughout 2020 I worked on it, drafting the 96,000 word story in html – a very new way of working for me, and a steep learning curve (but I like to push myself and I’m interested in emergent narrative forms and platforms). ‘Hyperion’ won me a contract with Fable Labs, a West Coast games company, and at the end of 2020 the pilot episodes (1-3) were beta-tested in their Interactive Fiction ‘book club’. I’ve now completed the first season (1-12) and I’m halfway the second. To help me visualise the characters I like to make sketches. I have a highly visual imagination, having trained in Fine Art. I sketched continually in my youth, and in middle age I’ve picked it up again, as I find it relaxing – a pleasant contrast to working on a computer and using language intensively all week. For the 2nd novel in the series, ‘Windsmith’ (2006) I did drawings of all the panels of the Gundestrup Cauldron – which features prominently in the story; I also designed a logo for the book tour undertaken that year (which made for a nifty t-shirt), and with all the artistic collaboration that has took place, art has been a key part of the Windsmith story. With that in mind, here are some sketches of various characters – intended mainly to help me visualise them, but also for fun.

Artwork copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020

The Windsmith Elegy is available from http://www.awenpublications.co.uk

Hyperion will be available from Tales Writer (available as an app on iphones; Android version coming soon): https://taleswriter.com/

Writing the Earth (part 3)

I continue my brief account of my long association with environmental writing…

In 2014 I contributed a chapter to Storytelling for a Greener World (Hawthorn), a significant contribution to the growing ‘field’ of environmental education and the use of storytelling as a tool for raising awareness about environmental issues, increasing eco-literacy, encouraging positive action, and enhancing our perception and appreciation of the natural world.

Here’s the blurb:

The what, why and how of storytelling and storywork to promote environmental mindfulness and sustainable behaviour in adults and children. Written by 21 cutting-edge professionals in story-based learning and pro-environmental change. Shows how to apply this practice, indoors and outdoors, in organisations, NGOs, schools, colleges and communities. A treasury of over 40 stories, many creative activities and detailed descriptions of inspiring practice for both new and seasoned practitioners. Clearly explains how this practice works, why it is effective and how to adapt the ideas to the reader’s situation.

From 2013-2018 I focused on my research degree at the University of Leicester. My main project in this time was my novel, The Knowing – a Fantasy, which imagines a descendant of the Reverend Robert Kirk receiving a copy of his lost journal detailing his captivity in Elfhame – but I also wrote two other novels: my eco-science fiction novel Black Box (discussed in Writing the Earth part 2) and Thunder Road, a transapocalyptic mash-up of Viking and Biker culture, which was my most explicitly CliFi novel to date (serialised on this blog, starting with Meltdown).

Shortly after completing my doctorate I started to develop a project around the concept of the ‘ecoGothic’. I was asked to contribute a creative keynote to a symposium on Gothic Nature at the University of Roehampton. Here I met the publisher of the Tales of the Weird Library which the British Library is creating. I pitched him a recalibration of my intended book, and it was commissioned. Heavy Weather: tempestuous tales for stranger climes was due out in early November, but Covid-19 has delayed everything, so it’s out on 18th February, 2021.

Here’s the blurb:

Since Odysseus’ curious crew first unleashed the bag of winds gifted him by Aeolus, the God of Winds, literature has been awash with tales of bad or strange weather. From the flood myths of Babylon, the Mahabharata and the Bible, to twentieth-century psychological storms, this foray into troubled waters, heat waves, severe winters, hurricanes and hailstones, offers the perfect read on a rainy day — or night. Featuring a selection of some of the finest writers in the English language — Algernon Blackwood, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe and more — this collection of weird tales will delight and disturb.

As well as editing this, this year I contributed a short story for a RSPB anthology – We Are A Many-Bodied Singing Thing – part of a project called ‘Back from the Brink’, raising awareness about Britain’s endangered species. My CliFi short is called ‘The Rememberers’.

Here’s the final blurb – I promise!

A new sci-fi and speculative anthology inspired by endangered species and the people saving them.

Writing has always helped us to imagine possibilities for ourselves and the world around us. We wanted to imagine a future for England’s most endangered plants and animals – to explore how human and more-than-human beings relate to each other, and ways that we can live together better.

To do this, we asked writers to take inspiration from two Back From The Brink conservation projects: the Willow Tit Project, who are protecting this little bird and its post-industrial habitats, and Ancients of the Future, who are working to protect 28 threatened species which live in ancient trees.

The resulting anthology is tender, fierce, wondering, sad, and ultimately hopeful. We hear the voices of the animals and plants, see a thousand years into the future through the growth of moss, and experience several metamorphoses.

And most recently I’ve been working on a collection of poetry and artwork – the result of my deep mapping of my local universe here on the Wiltshire Downs during lockdown. I have already given a couple of talks about this – in Bardfest, and Storytown Corsham. It is due out on 20th December (advance orders being taken).

Herepath by Kevan Manwaring, Freebooter Press, 2020

No doubt my environmental writing projects will continue. Watch this space!

***

In the meantime, check out the fantasic pilot episodes of Black Box from Alternative Stories and Fake Realities – part of their excellent CliFi season:

https://www.buzzsprout.com/411730

If you like what you read why not buy me a coffee?

https://ko-fi.com/kevanmanwaring

Writing the Earth part 2

Soul of the Earth: the Awen anthology of eco-spiritual poetry
Soul of the Earth, published by Awen 2011

I continue my account of my long association with environmental writing…

So moving into the 2010s (what do we call that decade – the Tweenies?), I moved home – from Bath to Stroud (not a great distance physically – 30 miles – but drastically different in terms of ethos and aesthetic). Here, in 2011 I published Soul of the Earth: an anthology of eco-spiritual poetry. It was edited by the late poet Jay Ramsay, although I came up with the title, designed the cover, and co-ordinated its production and launch (at a great group author showcase in Waterstones, Bath).  It was one of the titles I am proudest of during my stint as director of Awen Publications (which I founded in 2003, and ran until 2013).  We were able to negotiate an endorsement from the (then) Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and includes a fantastic cohort of contemporary poets.

Black Box by Kevan Manwaring – audio drama coming soon from Alternative Stories and Fake Realities (Chris Gregory)

In 2013 I handed over Awen to the capable husband-and-wife term of Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis, to concentrate upon my PhD at the University of Leicester.  While there I collaborated in some interdisciplinary writing commissions, and had some inspiring conversations with colleagues engaged in cutting-edge research into Artificial Intelligence and Space Research – this, alongside my ongoing concerns about the environment, fed into the mix that led to me writing Black Box, a science fiction/CliFi novel that asks ‘What will survive of us?’ On a whim I entered it into a national science fiction novel manuscript competition run by Literature Works (a Plymouth-based literature development agency), ‘One Giant Write’, and it won. I got serious attention from Marcus Gipps, the commissioning editor for Gollancz. After a couple of aborted launches, it has now achieved lift-off thanks to Alternative Stories and Fake Realities – a brilliant podcast with a strong track record of producing excellent CliFi audio dramas. I adapted 3 pilot episodes, which have been produced by the talented sound engineer/wizard, Chris Gregory, and they are being premiered 27th November, 4th December, and 11th December. I wrote a draft of Black Box in a croft on the coast of Wester Ross (see my blog ‘The SciFi Croft’), and in it I stared hard into the abyss of our possible species extinction and chose to saw there a gleam of light – because in my doctoral research into Fantasy I forged an ethical aesthetics of the genre. Tired and disturbed by the cultural dominance of Grimdark, a particularly nihilistic and Neoliberal view of the world, I devised Goldendark, which acknowledges the challenges we face (re: Climate Chaos; geopolitical turmoil; the rise of the Alt-Right), but takes creative responsibility and offers a gleam of hope in what stories we chooses to tell and share.  Black Box is my first intentional Goldendark novel and I am glad it is finally seeing the light of day.  

Listen to fantastic CliFi on the Alternative Stories and Fake Realities podcast here.

Next: In ‘Writing the Earth part 3’ I look at my most recent CliFi outputs…

If you like what you read why not buy me a coffee?

https://ko-fi.com/kevanmanwaring

Writing the Earth (part 1)

Cli-Fi: Writing the Land, Awen, 2003; An Ecobardic Manifesto, Awen 2004; Lost Islands, Heart of Albion, 2008

Climate Fiction, popularly abbreviated as ‘cli-fi’ is literature that deals with climate change and global warming. Traditionally such works would have been categorised as Speculative Fiction, but in a world of increasingly frequent extreme weather events, where many institutions, authorities, and governments have declared a Climate Emergency, cli-fi appears to chart the state of the modern, not near future, world.

My connection to creative writing that explores environmental issues started with my very first poetry, penned in the first year of the 90s – so I have a 30 year connection to the subject, long before Cli-Fi became a trendy tag. Much of my early poetry was inspired by the landscape and an ecological sensibility (and still is). This was performed at open mics and appeared in my home-made chapbooks throughout that decade. By the end of the 90s I had become the Bard of Bath, and had started to get my work into print.

In the early Noughties after working towards an MA in the Teaching and Practice of Creative Writing at Cardiff University, I started to teach creative writing in earnest. I applied for a small grant, which enabled me to run a series of workshops on ‘Writing and the Environment’ at Envolve, Bath’s environment centre, during the spring and early summer of 2003. This resulted in Writing the Land: an anthology of natural words, which I put together with my students. It raised funds for the local Friends of the Earth group, and I got a piece in the Bath Chronicle, with me appearing next to Terry Coulson, the much-loved and missed chair (he died a year later). To publish the anthology I created Awen Publications, a small press, which I ran for ten years. It specialised in writing with an ‘ecobardic’ sensibility, an ethos outlined first by the storytelling group I was in (Fire Springs) and then adopted by the press. An Ecobardic Manifesto: a vision for the arts in a time of environmental crisis came out in 2004, and as a co-author, can be included as my second substantial environmentally-themed publication.

And for my third in this survey of my personal Cli-Fi list I would now turn to Lost Islands: inventing Avalon, destroying Eden (Heart of Albion Press, 2008). Imaginary, otherwordly and lost islands frequently feature in literature. This study considered these mythic isles in the context of climate change and Earth itself as a threatened ‘island’. I think of this as my ‘Climate Change’ book, as in it I looked hard at the (then still) emerging facts about humankind’s decimating impact on the Earth’s biodiversity, and regulatory systems. Concerns about this stem back decades, indeed centuries (Victorian polymath John Ruskin first noted the impact of pollution on air quality and cloud formation). I certainly became concerned about it from the late 80s, when the Ozone layer and the effect of CFCs upon it first appeared in the media, alongside campaigns to Save the Whale and the Amazon rainforest. That famous footage of the hole in the Ozone layer above the Arctic chilled me to the core, and prompted me to join many eco-protest marches. When awareness grew of the potential for sea levels to be effected by global warming I started to think about islands and the many legends of lost ones. I started to research it in earnest and visited as many as I could – writing a draft of the book on Bardsey Island, off the Llyn Peninsula. With the publication of Lost Island, I felt I had truly nailed my colours to the mast. I was green, through and through!

I continue my potted history of personal Cli-Fi in the next blog…

To purchase any of the titles mentioned visit: www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk

My prize-winning science fiction/cli-fi novel, Black Box, has been adapted into an exciting audio drama by podcast wizards, Alternative Stories and Fake Realities. The pilot episodes (1-3) are being launched 27 November, 4 December, and 11 December, 2020. FFI: https://www.buzzsprout.com/411730

If you like what you read why not buy me a coffee?

https://ko-fi.com/kevanmanwaring

Pilgrimage to Sovereignty

Real World Adventure Hooks for D&D — Kingly Presence – Nerdarchy
Gallos, Rubin Eynon, Tintagel

It is a dream I have… (Merlin, Excalibur, Boorman, 1981)

I have been obsessed with all things Arthurian since a young age  – and that compelled me to go on pilgrimage to Glastonbury and other sites associated with his legend as I reached an age when I could hit the road. Coming from a run-down Midlands town it was thrilling to walk in a landscape soaked with myths and legends – but back then I did not realise such things are under your feet, wherever you live. What we consider to be sacred is as an act of perception – but sometimes we have to go on a journey to realise the wonders of the everyday. 

Having walked many of the national trails in 2017 I decided to create a more meaningful route – one with a narrative, a significance, I could relate to. One that might even be transformative. And thus I researched the modern pilgrimage route I called the ‘King Arthur Way’ – a 153 mile long-distance trail from Tintagel (the place of Arthur’s conception, according to legend) to Glastonbury (site of his ‘grave’, or passing).

I loved working out the route on the series of OS maps I purchased – one that takes the pilgrim from the rugged north Cornish coast, across the wild fastness of Dartmoor and the Blackdown Hills, and over the Somerset Levels towards the iconic terminus of Glastonbury Tor.  Along the way one passes castles and mysterious stones, winding rivers, woods and heathland, charming villages and tempting pubs. There were, as on any long-distance walks, days of real challenge and days of reward. Some of the highlights include:

  • Waking up on the coast overlooking Tintagel.
  • Stumbling upon the ancient rock-cut mazes in Rocky Valley.
  • St Nectan’s Glen.
  • Brent Tor.
  • Wild-swimming in the Tamar, Dart, and Shilley Pool.
  • Castle Drogo.
  • South Cadbury.
  • Burrow Mump.
  • Walking to Glastonbury across the Somerset Levels.

Most of all there was this sense of ‘walking the legend’, which made it real in a very embodied way.  If a 6th Century battle-chief existed called ‘Arthur’ (Arturo, Artus …) then he would have been a very different leader than the one rendered in the courtly romances, as would have been his ‘knights’. The Arthur of the early Celtic tales gives us a glimmer, perhaps – he’s far less sympathetic (Trystan and Isseult), more pro-active (The Spoils of Annwn), and often deep in gore (The Celtic Triads).  Yet whether he existed or not, there is an Arthur for all of us – he is a malleable construct that changes through the decades. He epitomized one thing for the Victorians (the noble cuckold; the tragic martyr torn between lofty ideals and earthly desires, skeletons in the cupboard and Christian imperialism); another for the Post-War generation (a dream of unity, however flawed); another for the Counter-Culture (Merlin as the original Gandalf; Mordred as the rebellious anti-hero); another for the New Age (feminist revisionist treatments reappraising the role of women in the Arthuriad and problematizing the patriarchal hierarchy of it all). Arthur ‘exists’ as a cultural meme, as a literary figure, as an ideal – and it is the latter that most engages me at present.

For despite his questionable reputation and historical status, Arthur represents the archetype of Kingship. And we are living in an age suffering from the Shadow of that – we suffer under the yoke of so many bad leaders. I am not a Royalist, but I am no anarchist either. We need good leadership now more than ever – both from within and without. It would be naive to assume that if we just ‘sorted ourselves out’ the world would be okay – but it’s a place to start from. Self-actualisation can happen in many ways. Healthy communities are naturally ennobling and mutually empowering, so the process can begin on your doorstep.

But sometimes we need a more intense experience to ‘shift’ things.

My hope in creating a modern pilgrimage route is that it could be used for rites-of-passage (for all  genders and ages), for leadership training, for the continuation of a living oral tradition (storytelling, poetry and singing along the route), the cultivation of art trails, the promoting of local businesses, rural regeneration, and so forth. Such an endeavour will only come about through collaboration, community involvement, fundraising and sponsorship. To accomplish such a dream requires inspired leadership. By setting out to create the King Arthur Way perhaps I had awakened my own ‘king’ – and I hope that all who walk it connect with their own inner sovereignty too. 

Route details etc here:

https://kingarthurway.wordpress.com/

Read a fuller account of the creation of the King Arthur Way in the latest issue of The Pilgrim:

https://www.thepilgrim.org.uk/

For general mapping and other pilgrim trails:

https://britishpilgrimage.org/portfolio/king-arthur-way/

Jupiter the Great and the Little Women

Once there was a great king

…at least he was great in terms of his size and ego. He was known by many names but let’s call him Jupiter. King of the Gods (he acted like a petulant god so hell he must be!) Jupiter had usurped his father, Saturn (some said killed, but those voices were hushed up) from the throne, and lorded it over all, the most important man in the solar system, galaxy, universe – at least he liked to think so. He had a pet eagle, a shield called Aegis. Shiny thunderbolts made by his son, Vulcan. But he was particularly proud of his swirling orange hair – he thought it made him irresistible to women.

giuseppe-cades-juno-discovers-jupiter-with-io

Giuseppe Cades, Juno discovers Jupiter with Io

He loved the women, or the girls, as he liked to call them. He like to talk to them, he liked to touch them, and loved it when they stroked his … ego. But, stop right there – he had a wife, lest we forget – Queen of the Pantheon to his King, her name – Juno. Jupiter thought her oblivious of his shenanigans, but on the contrary, she knew alright, and kept a close watch on him.

He loved to conceal his infidelities in clouds of mist – sometimes he descended on unsuspecting nymphs in the form of a golden shower – but Juno was able to pierce through his miasma.

One day Jupiter having developed a soft spot for a beautiful young nymph called Io, went a-calling, hoping for a bit of frolicking. He wooed her, her fondled her – thinking he was the one doing the seducing … But his wife was swift to follow and nearly caught them at it – but he was quick. He turned Io into a cow. ‘Husband! Husband! What are you up to!’ Jupiter feigned innocence. ‘I’m trying to get back to nature. I’ve been too high and mighty. I wanted to shed the trappings of power and taste the life of a cow-herd. And look at this lovely heifer. Her beautiful udders. Her smooth horns. Her big dark eyes. The swish of her tail.’

Juno, this time accepted these alternative facts, though in her heart she knew she’d been deceived. So she left.

Another day, Jupiter’s eye fell upon another lovely nymph, skin like alabaster, called Europa. She refused his advances, and so he came to her in the form of a bull – and carried her off to have his wicked way with her. Some say to Crete, some say to a crate.

But Jupiter’s good luck ran out one day when he was cosying up to another nymph called Callisto. Juno appeared, and this time there was no hiding – her husband just shrugged ‘What can I say. She was a five!’ – In her wrath Juno turned Callisto into a bear, and stormed off.

Finally Jupiter took a shine to a handsome young lad from Troy called Ganymede – he had if nothing else Catholic tastes. The lad was a bit reluctant to accept the advances of the horny old goat, I don’t know why. And so Jupiter descended upon him in the form of an eagle and carried him off to the stars to be his cup-bearer, or so he says.

Well, Juno had had enough. She decided to teach her pathetic husband a lesson. Instead of confronting her husband directly, which she knew would be pointless. He was so self-deceiving he wouldn’t realise he’d done anything wrong. So she went to Io, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede. They were frightened when they realised who she was. But she said, ‘I’m not angry with you, only my stupid husband – are you happy being treated this way?’ They all felt they had been wronged – but at the time it was hard not to be swept along by Jupiter’s magnetic personality. They agreed to help teach the king a lesson. Yes, he had thunderbolts – but Juno made some powerful allies.

She recruited Venus and Mercury to her cause – love and eloquence. War-like Mars, with his buzz-cut and PTSD twitch, was Jupiter’s right-hand man, so no luck there. Saturn certainly had a bone to pick, but was bit of a deadweight. Neptune, who ruled the sea, and Pluto who ruled the dead, also joined their cause. Together, led by Juno, they caused chaos in the heavens, disrupting the cycles and orbits, with their non-violent direct action, until enough was enough!

The allies confronted the bully – who turned out to be nothing more than a gas giant. All bluster. As they confronted him with his misdemeanours and crimes, he started to shrink. He spewed out toxic cloud in his defence, but got smaller and smaller. One by one his layers of deceit were stripped away, until there were none left – and what did they find behind it all? A Little Boy sitting on a rock, sulking, sticking out his bottom lip. He tried to throw his thunderbolts, but they were like sparklers now. He had a toy shield and stuffed bird. So much for Jupiter the Great.

After that Juno and the ‘girls’ took over running the Heavens and they did a far, far better job of things. The Solar System became a lot more peaceful, pleasant and respectful place to live.

Jupiter was given a nanny and a nice big play pen, where he could build imaginary walls all day long without causing any harm.

The End

 Kevan Manwaring © 2017-01-27

If you are interested in the real Jupiter and its amazing moons then check out my science fiction novel, Black Box, forthcoming from Alternative Stories.

Black Box has been adapted into an audio drama by the amazing podcast team at Alternative Stories. The first three pilot episodes are due to be launched 20th November, 27th November, & 4th December. FFI: https://alternativestories.com/

The Alien DJ

Dodgy Space Themes album

A crime to art, music and science fiction, but this dodgy 1978 album got me hooked.

Is it me or am I the only one who finds it hard to separate Sci-Fi from soundtrack? It is almost impossible to think of the opening credits of Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope without the adrenalin-surge of John Williams’ classic theme-tune blasted out to the backstory disappearing to its vanishing point (or Darth Vader and his stormtroopers without the Imperial march); the shock and awe of the apocalyptic opening of Blade Runner without the vertiginous electronica of Vangelis; and the opening of Kubrick/Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey would not have the same sturm-und-drang impact with Richard Strauss’s ‘sunrise’ from Also sprach Zarathustra.

Growing up a Sci-Fi addict (thanks to Lucas’ gateway drug that made me watch anything with Special FX in however risible, and it often was) I received my ‘hit’ often via the opening credits and theme tune of classic TV shows such as Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, Thunderbirds, Dr Who, Blake’s Seven, Star Trek, and The Prisoner. 

And as an adult connoisseur of big screen Fantastika, I often find myself enthralled as much by the soaring soundtracks as much as the visuals – as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Brazil, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, The Matrix, Sunshine, Interstellar, Arrival, Blade Runner: 2049 to name but a few.  

So it is no surprise to discover that during the writing of my novels I often have an ‘unofficial soundtrack’ running in the back of my mind. Perhaps this is why I need to write in silence, as I need to be able to tune into this internal symphony – the mood and movement that underscores the scene or chapter I am writing. Sometimes actual music is cited in the prose. In my science fiction thriller, Black Box, the protagonist listens to Chinese death metal while out on the ice, conducting one of his endless routine maintenance circuits of the vast ice-shelf he is tasked to transport to the ends of the galaxy. Back in his tugship, out of his suit, Lake relaxes to Hendrix while shooting up an artificial opiate he has managed to synthesise. Other settings required different tracks, evoking a different ambience – very few of these are explicit, but they nuanced my depiction of each, through diction, description, and pacing – the micro-choices that create tone.

If, in some fortunate future, my novel gets turned into a movie – which since it was first conceived as one, would be a satisfying full circle – then I hope the director will choose one of the fine composers out there (Hans Zimmer, for instance!) to score it rather than opt for the populist ‘mix-tape’ approach, which worked for The Martian and Guardians of the Galaxy — initially, a refreshingly iconoclastic contra-tonal device, but one that’s become something of a cliché, a lazy form of film-making (like the cheesy pop song montage sequence of the 80s it emulates) that does a disservice to the craft of the film composer, the under-rated geniuses of modern cinema, for it is they who translate the music of the spheres into reality.

Black Box has been adapted into an audio drama by the amazing podcast team at Alternative Stories. The first three pilot episodes are due to be launched 20th November, 27th November, & 4th December. FFI: https://alternativestories.com/

Gods Playing Dice

Writing and RPGs

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The classic edition of Traveller, Game Designer’s Workshop, 1977

As a young man back in the spiked, crimped velveteen 80s I spent many an happy hour enjoying sessions of role-playing games (now suddenly fashionable). These undoubtedly nurtured my writerly imagination for it is through them I caught the bug for storytelling and creating detailed scenarios. The three systems that enthralled me the most were the classic version of Dungeon & Dragons, Call of Cthulu (based upon the works of HP Lovecraft) and Traveller – through them I experienced the immersive delights of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction. It is the latter that is particularly on my radar at the moment, for my SF novel, Black Box, is ready for launch (being published through the crowdfunding platform, Unbound). Although the novel has been consciously informed by a lifetime of reading and watching SF, by Climate Change, and by research into space exploration and artificial intelligence at the University of Leicester where I’m currently completing my PhD, looking back I realise that those lively sessions with fellow schoolmates (in particular Garrie Fletcher, who has gone onto to become a wordsmith too) really nurtured the ‘SF brain’ part of me. With its stylish series of black manuals, and hard edge, Traveller was always the coolest of the RPGs, the Fonz of the whole Happy Days bunch. Each session, usually held around ‘Budgie’s house’, another schoolmate from Mereway, felt like being inside an episode of one of our favourite TV shows – Blake’s 7, Dr Who, Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica (this was pre-Firefly days and that show in particular captures the maverick freebooting attitude of the game – a motley crew taking on some dodgy mission for a fistful of credits, normally running the gauntlet of the Imperium, space pirates and hostiles). The main benefit of these games was, of course, the social angle – lifesaving for a bunch of awkward nerds (speaking personally): the sessions were some of the most enjoyable spent as a teenager – hearty laughter, shared creativity, and heart-pumping excitement. But in hindsight, as someone who has made writing the heart of their career, I see other spinoffs that have a direct benefit to novelists: immersiveness (far more visceral than any virtual reality); multilinearity (complex branching narratives effected by one’s choices); storytelling (how to engage and sustain an audience, create narrative traction, suspense and tension); characterisation (designing vivid characters, improvising dialogue); the importance of setting (almost a character in its own right – certainly spaceships can be); and fictionality (the giddy freedom of making stuff up, spinning a yarn, and weaving worlds out of thin air). These have all become of primary importance in my novel-writing. Of course novels seem, on the surface, less multi-cursory and multi-player – they are a direct interface between author and reader (although they can be shared by millions) – but in the composition of them, the malleability of the plot, the behaviour of the characters, and the volatility of the structure, makes it feel like being in a ‘session’ as DM,  player-characters, and non-player characters – a schizophrenic’s paradise. Aspects of your personality talk back at you: shock, astound and devastate – and you risk coming across as a complete loon, bursting out laughing or crying out in frustration at a screen. Anything can happen in the white void of the blank page. The lonely long-haul of writing a novel may lack the sociability of a RPG (except in the camaraderie with fellow writers and, if you’re lucky, readers), but in compensation one has complete creative control (eventually, if the wild beast of the book can be tamed sufficiently). It can bring out the emperor-god-being in you, the tyrannical deity that plucky characters loved to frustrate. As with the best DMs, who run a game ‘dice-light’, biasing the flow of storytelling over a punctilious compliance with the rules, the best writers always allow their characters to have a lucky break now and then, and to steal the show over a mechanical fulfilment of plot. And writers weaned on RPGs will always remember who the narrative is ultimately for – not the ‘god behind the screen’ but the reader-participant.

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 30 April

Black Box has been adapted into an audio drama by the amazing podcast team at Alternative Stories. The first three pilot episodes are due to be launched 20th November, 27th November, & 4th December. FFI: https://alternativestories.com/

Survival Manual for the Human Race

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Things may seem pretty bleak out there at the moment – geopolitical unrest, climate chaos, displaced populations – and threats are real not only to the peace and security of our families and communities but to the very existence of humankind as the dominant species upon this planet. It all feels like The Eighties: the sequel. It was back then, living in the shadow of the Cold War as a teenager, that I first started to get seriously interested in science fiction as a way of speculating about the future. Alternative versions of now. For SF holds a dark mirror up to the present day. It has done this since its inception, in Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, published 200 years ago, but haunting us still about the perils of playing god, of science running amok. In the 30s Aldous Huxley explored the spectre of genetic engineering, or eugenics as it was known back then;  in the 40s George Orwell contemplated a Fascist future which feels eerily prescient; and in the 80s Margaret Atwood depicted a dystopian state that has struck a chord with many. And that is just a few.

I humbly join the conversation – not to compare my efforts with the giants I stand upon the shoulders of, but because it is hard not to speculate about where humankind is going; whether we’ll last the decade, let alone the century. It is hard not to be pessimistic, but one thing I am sure about – the limitless power of the human imagination – and that gives me hope. While we have the freedom to imagine and express other futures, other ways of being in the world, there is always hope.

In Black Box, I wanted to look into the abyss, but I also wanted to offer a glimmer of light. I offer not another bleak dystopian vision of the future, nor a wildly optimistic utopia, but what Atwood terms an ‘Ustopia’ – for one man’s heaven is another man’s hell.

Of course it can be argued that novels, like poems, don’t really ‘change anything’, but they can offer an aesthetic, intellectual, emotional or moral counter-balance to the prevailing discourse of the times, an articulation of inarticulated or silenced voices, sobering thought experiments that project possible outcomes based upon current trends (often by taking things to their logical conclusion), or the healthiest form of escapism from the mad prison of the world (as Le Guin and Tolkien have pointed out). Science Fiction and Fantasy in particular facilitate this – by encouraging us to imagine what is beyond, what makes us human, and what is home, we can find a renewal of meaning and deepened appreciation for the fragile miracle of existence.

Black Box has been adapted into an audio drama by the amazing podcast team at Alternative Stories. The first three pilot episodes are due to be launched 20th November, 27th November, & 4th December. FFI: https://alternativestories.com/