Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Conflict Diamonds

I am rather pleased with my performance in last weekend's custom-made triathlon: (a) 30 mile bicycle ride, (b) 10 mile hike and climb over a rough moor, (c) six salad sandwiches and two bottles of pear cider. The fitness regime I started back in April is really starting to pay off now. I can cycle up gradients without my legs falling off halfway up.

The outdoors world of moor, forest, mountain, marsh and dunes is a lot easier to negotiate than the peculiar geography of the writing world. Famous horror writer Ramsey Campbell reprimanded me last week over my overreaction to the reaction of others to my reaction against the reactionary view of a particular literary topic (empathy for fictional characters). Does that make sense? Others judged the debate. The consensus view is that I was in the wrong; but then I asked a sample of random pundits whether they agreed that consensus views are always right. They considered the question carefully and the consensus view is that consensus views aren't always right. I don't take delight from this answer because it vindicates me (it doesn't) but because it thankfully leads to a neat paradox.

I love paradoxes. I love them for their own sake. I love them in the same way that other men love cars or cricket. In fact I once toyed with the notion of changing my name to Paradoxolog Tucano, partly as a tribute to Melissus of Samos, who earned that nickname for his own obsession with paradoxes and logical riddles, and partly as a tribute to toucans. But it's a silly idea, so I didn't. However, I will have something to say about name changes in a future blog entry.

I also love coincidences, not quite as much as paradoxes but still to an immoderate degree. Back in 1997 I wrote a story called 'The Crystal Cosmos'. It wasn't published until 2007, a decade later, by PS Publishing, in an expanded novella form. The plot is concerned with the discovery of a solar system made of diamond. Last week a news story broke that confirmed the existence of a star made of diamond. It's not often that life imitates art in my case, so I'm always excited when it does. A very decent chap by the name of Jason Rolfe has actually lobbied the relevant authorities for this star to be named after me! He won't succeed but I'm touched by his thoughtfulness. There is an oblique precedent; much of the action of Samuel Delany's Empire Star takes place on Rhys, a moon.

I'm relieved that The Crystal Cosmos was published before the announcement of the diamond star's discovery; otherwise it would look as if I was merely using facts for inspiration rather than anticipating the truth. Establishing the primacy of my ideas is one of the main urges that power my efforts to get published. Maybe I'm a little oversensitive in this regard but I am always bothered by the possibility that in the lag between composition and publication real events will negate the visionary impact of a particular creative work; in other words, that reality will catch up with and overtake my fiction.

This does happen. The writer Quentin S. Crisp recently told me that in his unpublished novel Susuki, written in 2008, he anticipated a major earthquake in Japan and even correctly specified the year as 2011. The word that bit into my soul when he told me this was "unpublished". If his novel does finally appear in print, no one will believe that his vision was prescient; they will assume he is copying reality. The delays of the publishing world (and there are always delays for anyone but the biggest names) have sunk his claims to primacy. Something similar happened to me in a chapter of my Engelbrecht Again! novel; 'A Sandal Waiting to Happen' describes the systematic destruction of New York skyscrapers and the filling of the city's streets with dust as part of a terrorist game (though the missiles responsible are asteroids, not aeroplanes). That chapter was written in the summer of the year 2000 but the book didn't see print until the year 2008. Primacy thwarted…

The fact I should be worrying about such a minor, almost abstract, issue as primacy of ideas in such a context doesn't say anything positive about my sense of priorities. I should be so appalled by the loss of life on that fateful day that my ego doesn't enter the question. But I'm not perfect, far from it; at least I'm aware of my faults or think I am (what if my major faults are completely unknown to me? The consensus view is probably that they are, which means…)

Incidentally, there are no copies left of The Crystal Cosmos but a few dozen copies of Engelbrecht Again! remain in stock. It can be bought directly from the publisher and is currently on special offer. I really ought to compile a list of which of my books have gone out of print and which are still available. I promise to do that soon.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


My 600th Story

I've just completed my 600th story. If I had received a penny for every story I've written, I would now have 600 pennies. Yes six pounds in total! Enough to buy a bottle of wine and a small cake. So here I am, toasting myself for this small achievement. Actually what I'm drinking is fruit juice but that's just a minor quibble.

It seems only a few months ago that I was announcing the completion of my 500th story, but in fact that was almost two years ago.‎.. My 600th story is entitled 'The Garden Hoppers' and is wholly realistic, a sort of Saroyanesque nostalgia trip. I'm hoping to make it the title story of a new collection that will be rather different from my usual books. I sent a sample of such stories to a publisher yesterday and now I just need to wait for a response.

So only 400 more stories to create and I'll be done with writing forever! Let's work it out... 600 in 22 years equals an average of 27.272 stories per year, so another 14.7 years to go... That means I'll be finished in the year 2026. Yippee!

And after I've toasted that, I think I'll drink another toast. The Libyan rebels have entered Tripoli and the future is finally looking bright for that country. So I would like to propose a toast to rebels everywhere, to true rebels, those with a just cause, not to criminals and looters; to rebels and dreamers and those courageous enough to put their lives or reputations at risk for what is right; to the mavericks, the individualists and the challengers of stagnation; to the thought-experimenters, the lateral philosophers and eccentric geniuses who refuse to take the easy way; to all you heroes. Cheers!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


The Empathy Problem

How do we manage to feel empathy for fictional characters? How can the plight of beings that don't exist affect us emotionally? The question isn't whether or not we feel empathy for fictional characters: patently we do. The question is how? What is the mechanism that makes such empathy possible? This is a genuine philosophical problem that still hasn't really been solved.

Say hello to Sea Tiger and Ramphastos! Here you see them in a variety of situations. They are fictional characters. Do you already have empathy for them? Unlikely: you don't know enough about them yet. As it happens, I doubt you'll ever have empathy for this particular pair of non-existent beings, for the simple reason that the story they are scheduled to appear in won't have much emotional depth. I plan to create a narrative that consists entirely of (captioned) photographs similar to those featured here. 'The Adventures of Sea Tiger and Ramphastos' will be one of those fictions that don't require any empathic connection to be complete (for the best examples of such fictions consult any volume of Borges' or Barthelme's short stories).

But that's not the point. The point is that I could make Sea Tiger and Ramphastos into characters that a reader might have empathy for if I wanted to; or at least I could try to do so. And in such a case, and if the reader did indeed end up feeling empathy for them, what exactly would be going on? There is a mystery here that has intrigued me for a long time. Sea Tiger and Ramphastos don't exist. That's unarguable. And it's impossible to feel empathy for beings that don't exist.

When I made that statement on an internet forum recently, I was told that my basic premise was faulty. But I honestly don't see how. It's impossible to feel empathy for beings that don't exist. Where's the fault in that statement? Surely the proof is in the definition of the word 'empathy' itself? To have empathy means to identify with some other individual, to put yourself in their shoes, to see the world from their point of view. But fictional characters don't exist and something that doesn't exist is a void, a nullity. So when you empathise with a fictional character, you are logically identifying with a void. The same critic went on to state that we develop empathy with fictional characters as we read about their lives, but that's begging the question, presupposing the existence of the very thing that hasn't yet been proved to exist. Fictional characters don't have lives, for the simple reason that they don't exist.

To restate the problem again: fictional characters don't exist and it's impossible to empathise with beings that don't exist (can you have empathy with the number 0 or with a cubic metre of vacuum?). Stop for a moment and try to imagine what would happen if you did manage to successfully empathise with a being that doesn't exist! By empathising and therefore identifying with a void, you would become that void, and the only way back out would be to empathise with something else quickly, but this would be impossible because to empathise you need a brain and a void doesn't have one, so you would be stuck in that condition forever, an empty space where your body had once been, a black shapeless non-mass like one of the characters in Jack London's 'The Shadow and the Flash'. Briefly stated, turning into a void is a one-way trip.

And yet we do empathise with certain fictional characters. Secretly, I often identify with Jack Vance's protagonists: they are often individualists trying to surmount social obstacles and make their mark on the cultures they live in. I feel empathy for those imperfect heroes, but how? What is the mechanism by which I do so? What is the mechanism by which you identity with your own favourite fictional characters? Whenever I posit this question I never get a straight answer. I mostly get a grumpy reaction that seems to consist of variations of the response, "Well, I'm capable of empathising with fictional characters even if you aren't." And yet, at no point have I said that I don't empathise with fictional characters. What I'm asking is simply HOW do I empathise with them?

It was pointed out to me that Anne Frank doesn't exist and yet we can't fail to be moved by her diary; and that Bertie Wooster also doesn't exist but that we feel an emotional resonance with him too. But these examples don't belong in the same category. To put them together is a category mistake. Anne Frank doesn't exist now, true, but she did once exist, and we must bear in mind that although her internal ego has vanished, her external ego persists (the concept of the external ego is less well-known than it deserves to be; simply put, what we are is not just what we think we are, but also the effect we have had on our environment). Proof that Anne Frank's external ego exists is demonstrated in the fact that you know whom I'm talking about and know that she was a real person. Bertie Wooster, on the other hand, has neither an internal ego nor an authentic external ego. And yet it's true that we can empathise with both of them. But the mechanism must be different, at least if we accept that Bertie Wooster is a fictional character and Anne Frank isn't.

Suspension of disbelief may be cited as a mechanism to enable us to feel empathy for beings that don't exist. We simply stop believing that they don't exist. But this doesn't change the basic fact that they don't exist. I can believe in a wide variety of things, that the moon is made of glass, that unicorns work in pubs, that a dandrum's favourite hobby is to forestall a bugaboo, but that doesn't make any of those things true. Even if I convince myself that Bertie Wooster really lives, the fact of the matter is that he doesn't. It would seem that the most we can really feel for him is quasi-empathy. And quasi-empathy isn't empathy, in the same way that a quasar (a quasi-stellar object) isn't a star.

So is all empathy for fictional characters really just quasi-empathy? Is the whole process of feeling empathy for a fictional character some sort of mistake or unsolvable paradox? I don't think so. I have a feeling that the empathy we feel for fictional characters is real empathy; and yet if that is so, a viable mechanism is needed to explain it. I would like to suggest such a mechanism, namely the 'many worlds interpretation' first developed by Hugh Everett in 1957 as a solution to the quantum mechanics problem of what act of observation could collapse the wave function of the entire universe, a problem that Bohr's Copenhagen interpretation was unable to resolve satisfactorily.

In plain language, Everett's theory allows for the coexistence of a vast number of parallel alternative realities in which every possible outcome of every potential action is real. So in trillions upon trillions upon trillions of universes, Bertie Wooster doesn't exist, just as he doesn't exist in this universe; but somewhere, in at least one parallel reality, he does exist, he's real, a living person with an internal and external ego and therefore someone we can empathise with without violating logic.

This seems to me to be the most plausible and satisfying solution to the problem of how we manage to empathise with fictional characters. The answer is that, yes, they are fictional in our universe, but elsewhere they exist. So when we feel empathy for them and identify with them, we aren't identifying with a void (which could be dangerous) but with beings that have substance, life and purpose. It just happens that those beings exist in another dimension. The logical outcome of this happy reasoning is that Sea Tiger and Ramphastos are also real, somewhere, and so I hope I do the pair justice when I finally relate their fictional and absurd (but also true and sensible) adventures.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


The Holy Book Trinity

I've done it! I've finally chosen my three favourite books ever. There was no point postponing the decision any longer. I'm 44 years old and I have been a voracious reader of fiction since the age of 14. That's three decades of cramming my mind and soul with literature! If I don't know my three favourite books by now, I'll never know. So behold: my ultimate trio!

The Father
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges... I know that Andrew Hurley's one volume translation of nearly every story Borges ever wrote (The Collected Fictions) has its champions, but I actually prefer the slightly more formal tone of Yates and Irby in this translation of only a selection of the great Argentine's work (but what a judicious selection). For example, Hurley talks about a "bright labyrinth" whereas the older translation has "nitid labyrinth" and despite having to continually reach for a dictionary, I enjoy the latter approach. It's more crystalline for some reason.

The Son
Despite the differences in nationalities, culture and politics, Calvino is certainly the son of Borges; and he's not even illegitimate, just wayward. He has the intellect to match Borges and his abstract stories of space and time are no less original or rigorous than the ultimate Borges texts; but Calvino also has a deep humanity. The Complete Cosmicomics is both intellectually and emotionally engaging. I can state unequivocally that it's my favourite work of fiction. Peerless, funny, wise, incredible. Calvino may only be the son but he's the real saviour.

The Robo Ghost
Lem dazzles my brain with his genius. The Cyberiad is the perfect guidebook for the future. In these hallowed pages, paradox becomes religion, mythology becomes science, abstraction becomes energy. I love this book so much that I often can't refrain from dancing around it in sheer joy! Does that make me a Pole dancer? No, because the pun is awful: like my dancing. Trurl and Klapaucius, the constructor robots, are two of the finest characters in any fiction in history, both past history and future history! What more can I say? Squeeze my Lem 'til the sentient ocean runs down my leg!

Friday, August 05, 2011


Rhysop's Fables

Today is the official launch day of Rhysop's Fables!!!

Toad in a trombone! Joy and coconuts!

We all know that Aesop wrote fables; but he wasn't the only one. Hesiod and Archilochus preceded him, and a great many authors came after him. For example, the Panchatantra is an Indian collection of animal fables that was written down in the 3rd Century BC, possibly by the writer Vishnu Sharma. For centuries afterwards, other authors also attempted the composition of fables. Phaedrus, the Roman fabulist, flourished in the 1st Century AD and was the first to write fables in Latin; Vardan Aygektsi was an Armenian priest who wrote fables in the 13th Century; Leonardo Da Vinci made his own contribution to the genre two hundred years later; and let us not forget Jean de La Fontaine, the most sophisticated fabulist of them all, who turned Aesop into delightful verse in the 17th Century!

Those are just a few authors who have accepted the challenge of writing fables. There were many others. Fables are for everyone. There's no reason why we can't all be fabulists! So please allow me to present a selection of my own fables. In keeping with tradition, each fable is followed by a brief moral. I will keep adding new fables as I write them. The plan is eventually to write maybe 200 new fables. I'll attempt to illustrate some of them myself; others will be illustrated by brilliant real artists, including Chris Harrendence, Anthony Lewis, Adele Whittle and anyone else who cares to have a go!

Click on this link and enter the world of Rhysop's Fables...

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