Sci-Fi Sessions with Adam Roberts & Jeff Noon

The first monthly Sci-Fi Session was held at Waterstone’s book shop in Gower Street, London on Monday 26 September 2017.

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Host Glyn Morgan (R) was joined by two science fiction authors whose work appears to be quite different: Adam Roberts (L) and Jeff Noon (centre). Adam is a lecturer in nineteenth century fiction at Royal Holloway and the author of seventeen books, including the British Science Fiction Association Award-winning ‘Jack Glass’. Jeff is a former punk, doyen of the 90s Madchester rave scene and author of eleven books, the first of which, ‘Vurt’ won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 1993. Both have recently published new novels; Jeff’s ‘A Man of Shadows’ is published by Angry Robot; Adam’s ‘The Real Town Murders’ by Gollancz.

Both novels blend crime fiction and science fiction. ‘A Man of Shadows’ is a noir-influenced story of a 1940s-style gumshoe private eye searching for a teenage runaway, while ‘The Real-Town Murders’ follows another private investigator trying to solve a death that shouldn’t be possible. Each author has explored this genre combination before; Adam’s ‘Jack Glass’ is a locked room mystery inspired as much by the Golden Age of Detective Fiction as it is cutting edge science. Jeff’s ‘Pollen’ followed the efforts of a female detective in a radically altered Manchester, trying to solve crimes perpetrated by folkloric characters made real by the same technology that has reanimated the dead.

Each of the new novels is directly influenced by film. ‘A Man of Shadows’ has clear precedents in the work of Chandler and Hammett, in the film noir classics based upon them and in more recent meditations on the genre like ‘Chinatown’. ‘The Real-Town Murders’ is a mystery that employs an idea outlined by Alfred Hitchcock late in his career: what if a dead body was discovered in the boot of a car that had been assembled by an automatic factory with no human intervention? Hitch said that if he could work out how the body got there he would make the film; he couldn’t and so never did.

The two novels challenge genre and critical assumptions about how stories can be classified, as if genre is something mutually exclusive rather than an exercise in marketing. Both books had different titles proposed; Jeff wanted to call his ‘Between Dog & Wolf’ after the effect of dusk on light when it’s hard to see which animal it is in front of your and subsequently how much danger you’re in. Adam wanted to call his novel ‘The R!-town Murders’ (the R stands for Reading), but was told that the words wouldn’t work on a scanner. These tensions, based on interpretation and understanding, seem entirely apt. Both novels feel like they’re about the limits of our perception, using genre to examine our relationships with both time and, intriguingly, light.

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In ‘The Real-Town Murders’, the AI-monitored CCTV that has recorded every moment of the construction of the car the body is found in is no use whatsoever; some other perception is required, but what? Meanwhile, the next generation Internet is called the Shine; a name that feels both illuminating yet also superficial. People stay immersed in the Shine, to the extent that society as we understand it has begun to break down. It also restricts physical movement and thus enables government to put more effective surveillance in place.

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‘A Man of Shadows’ implies the presence of light in opposition, along with a kind of incorporeal presence, as if the detective is a ghost. Set in a city where the lights never go off, the narrative dramatizes the effect this environment has on time. Without darkness, there is no night and by implication no seasonal change either. Time thus begins to liquefy, becoming less deterministic and more personal. Under ceaseless illumination, time slows down; implying that it can ultimately be stopped. Is that putting off death, however, or becoming it?

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In ‘The Real-Town Murders’, the protagonist, Alma, is restricted in all her actions to four-hour windows because she has to get home to care for her sick lover. To move around future Reading, Alma must organise her time carefully to remain employed, balancing professional and personal duties. The world of ‘A Man of Shadows’ appears to be more liberated; however, with time now a personal choice, organising anything becomes problematic, with the result that any arrangement has to involve a compromise between where and when everybody is. For the sake of sanity, there is nocturnal space; but it is in the area between light and dark, the ominous, shifting terrain of Dusk, that the problems accrue. There is also the terrifying realm of Midnight, where there is no time at all, which feels like living death.

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Death is more associated with crime fiction than science fiction; the latter is thought to be about rebirth and brave new worlds. However, even these assumptions are erroneous. A murder story will unsettle us, reminding us of our own mortality before the detective puts the clues together and with it a portrait of the victim, so that by the end they are not just avenged but vindicated, almost reborn.

Meanwhile, writers like Philip K Dick in ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ used a private eye character to express and explore the fate of those left behind in the great colonisation of space. Due to her duty as a carer, Alma in ‘The Real Town Murders’ cannot join the rest of humanity in the rapturous, revelatory Shine. She too is left behind in a drab world where the sky is ‘the colour of old men’s hair’ amid a landscape of robots people have forgotten to switch off and other such kipple. In ‘A Man of Shadows’, the protagonist Nyquist (‘Night Quest’?) has never left Dayzone; he is terrified of the dark and Dusk in particular.

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The filmic connection is here too; Ridley Scott’s noirish ‘Blade Runner’ used a very different visual aesthetic to Dick’s everyday bleakness, slicing through the deep night of future Los Angeles with labyrinths of coloured illumination. Meanwhile, the replicants rebel not just against their human masters, but against their deliberately shortened lifespans. It’s interesting that the ‘Blade Runner’ sequel, which is out next week, has a year in the title; like a timestamp to differentiate this cinematic replicant from its original.

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Adam and Jeff are working on sequels to ‘The Real-Town Murders’ and ‘A Man of Shadows’. Until now, Adam has written stand-alone books, so this sequel will be his first. Influenced by Kubrick rather than Hitchcock, the story is inspired by the quasi-science-fictional workings of real world debt. Jeff has long been an admirer of Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Invisible Cities’; a collection of very short stories about different environments, each of which has something strange about it. Jeff wants to develop a book series based on this narrative principle; however, whereas ‘A Man of Shadows’ is about the effects of total light, the next book will concern another urban strangeness informing the crime Nyquist must investigate.

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The first Sci-Fi Session was a fascinating event, discussing two novels that use narrative ideas from very specific, even defining periods in the past to illuminate social tensions in the future. The discussion revealed story trends across different media in the creation of a multi-dimensional puzzle, underpinning the more obvious mystery of the fictional crimes being investigated.

Entertaining and erudite, I’d recommend Sci-Fi Sessions to anyone interested in where the genre is now.

The next Sci-Fi Session is in the same venue from 6.30pm on 30 October 2017 and will feature Alison Littlewood and MR Carey. £6 entry includes wine and book discount #SciFiSessions @gowerst_books

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Buy ‘A Man of Shadows’

Buy ‘The Real Town Murders’

Jeff’s website

Adam’s website

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