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I’ve had more reason than usual to think about what’s important to me over the last few months. What started as a vague feeling that I should get my eyes checked escalated through a series of baffled and then urgent hospital visits to a point when I was told to be pessimistic about the sight in my left eye. Then, after I’d found the nerve to Google the little that seems to be known about my condition, I came to realise that this was something that, for good or ill, I was going to have to learn to live with, and meanwhile cherish my remaining sight.
To be honest, this is nothing more than the kind of reality check that we can all expect to encounter if we’re lucky enough to have lived on this earth for a few decades in relative good health. So far for me, things have gone in the right direction, although I’m having to get used to the world being a far blurrier and less three dee place than it was. In the great scheme of things, I’m still doing more than okay, and I don’t have to try hard, especially recently, to think of others who’ve had to face up to much worse. But the experience has certainly given me reason to consider what I do as a writer, and why.
There are two things, I’ve come to realise, that are vitally important to me, once I’ve put aside family and friendships and the regular, simple good things in life we all treasure. Which are science, and art. Or maybe I should say the arts, for I mean music and books and films and every other kind of way in which people strive to express themselves. What does it for me is whodunits and rom-coms as much as Picasso paintings and Mahler symphonies, although I love those as well. Science, meanwhile, is more than the various drugs I’m currently taking, or our understanding of photosynthesis, or even Voyager’s lonely journey away from our sun. Science, ultimately, is a way of looking at this world which makes demonstrable sense. For me, and in their different ways, both science and art are equally important. Both speak of a kind of hope, and offer insight and beauty. Given that, I suppose it’s no surprise that my own attempts at self-expression should come out broadly in the genre we call “Science Fiction”.
If there’s something I’d like to believe in, but don’t, it would magic — within which I have to include religion (unless it should be the other way around). The idea that you can break the chains of existence and touch the seemingly impossible has always fascinated me. I believe such an approach to be fundamentally flawed with the same passion that I believe in science and art, but that doesn’t mean I can’t feel the draw of magic’s appeal. The unreasoned wish, the impossibly wonderful idea, the marvellous thing that feels as if it should be true even if it isn’t, all speak to my heart if not my reason — which is magical thinking in itself.
Consciously or not, a great deal of what I’ve written has been an attempt to cram a little magic — even though a large part of me knows it shouldn’t be there — into the realms of science and art. My first novel, The Great Wheel, has a doubting priest seeking to re-find God as he falls in love in a sprawling future North Africa. My second, The Summer Isles, examines people’s capacity for compliance and evil through the prism of a Britain which has wilfully embraced a bucolic home-grown version of fascism. Then come my two “aether” novels, The Light Ages and The Summer Isles, which are founded on the premise of an industrial revolution driven by the taming of magic as a rational natural force. My near-future novel, Song of Time, is about music, memory, and the possibility of downloading the soul. And my most recent novel, Wake Up and Dream, twists the glamour of 40s Hollywood through an invention which transmits feelings and ghosts onto the sliver screen.
Art, and science, and a touch of something like magic… I can’t pretend that it’s a particularly radical combination within the genre. Although I do wonder if those of us who care and know about SF (not to mention the many who are put off by it) sometimes lose track of just how special the genre can be its ability to accommodate and explore such huge themes, and then offer compelling stories as well. For me, the collision of all these things continues to puzzle, prompt and frustrate in equal measure. And, I hope, will keep me writing for as long as I possibly can.