Guarding our minds: sci-fi and the invasion of the real world

Sometimes I write something and life catches up with it.  Below the surface or storyline of my Lucy Wilson adventure, Avatars of the Intelligence, lie themes that are very much with us in 2018, having surfaced for all in the last week before publication. Through my mixed-race heroine with a gay brother – already set up by Candy Jar in the Lethbridge-Stewart books – and her best friend with alopecia, I reflect modern values among today’s young who embrace diversity of all kinds. And then there are the phones. As a young reader remarked in his review, “The students are taken over by their phones which is kind of funny because students are.” But when I wrote it, the manipulation of data by Cambridge Analytica and Facebook was yet to be exposed. I could argue a case for a pretty close parallel with the Great Intelligence, and when Hobo warns Lucy, “Guard your mind”, that’s not bad advice for all of us in a media-manipulated age – if we can only work out what’s real and what’s not. Reality TV already blurs the boundaries. What people share as real on various platforms can be maliciously or more innocently faked or just distorted, posed or photo-shopped – whether to embellish a personal narrative or to change minds. Like the heroes at the centre of my adventure, we don’t know who to trust.

#Resist is a hashtag I’ve used a lot since Trump was elected over the pond, and it’s something I do, with my physical body as well as on the page and screen. I resisted, for example, at Stop the Arms Fair and outside the Saudi Embassy, because I believe that making a business of selling weapons that will be used to commit war crimes is simply immoral. The force we were resisting is hugely powerful and hard to name. It’s not one nation but a cynically detached view of war for profit. It’s about the rich white West controlling and exploiting countries where people have darker skins, and it’s about cold, ruthless power masquerading as respectability. The arms trade as practised by the British and American governments is in my opinion vastly more evil than the Great Intelligence with Daleks as back-up, and it must end. But my resistance is peaceful; that’s the point. And Lucy and Hobo ‘fight’ with their brains, their strength and agility, their courage and their imaginations. There’s no violence; I couldn’t have written that.  I was challenged enough, as a Pacifist Quaker, by the military identity of Lucy’s famous grandfather, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. (I told myself he was never gung-ho, or careless of life, never motivated by ego or money, but an old-school gentleman soldier, an idealist who aimed to protect. He might have walked alongside me on the Iraq War demonstration, or indeed outside the Saudi Embassy, if he hadn’t already met his fictional demise.) For me, the love between Lucy and her granddad is as strong a force as the Great Intelligence. It powers her. And love, for any reader, is as real as it gets. It’s the universal connector.

Reality underpins my science fiction in more ways than one, and settings can be powerful too. When I was told that Avatars of the Intelligence was to begin at Ogmore-by-Sea we planned a trip, booking a hotel room for two nights but not in the village itself because no such hotel, B and B or guest house seemed to exist. As we approached the coast, I made notes in between exclamations. We walked the beach, the castle, the rocky cliffs – and it was inspiring. It’s beautiful, geologically fascinating and has its own individual history, but it’s also startling. It’s not difficult to imagine mystery or danger in such a setting, and I did. Lucy finds herself at risk from the Great Intelligence again and again, whether she’s tempted to jump a moat so wide that even Greg Rutherford wouldn’t attempt it, or fight waves that would drown a red flag, or is simply surrounded and invisibly outnumbered inside a rocky cage. Because I’d felt the power of these settings in a multi-sensory way, I could recreate them, and I relished trying to translate the multi-sensory experience onto the page.

There was, however, another place I needed to bring to creepy life without visiting: Mark Lane, a disused underground station beneath London. The best photos, which were taken illicitly, are richly atmospheric. Imaginatively I walked my characters around it in darkness. So the vulnerability of the intrepid, real-life photographer is exceeded on the page by the dark force trying to track Lucy and Hobo there. The contrast between Ogmore and hidden London is striking, but in Ogmore the layers of time can be peeled back; they’re in the rocks. In Mark Lane time has stood eerily still. In my novel, being sci-fi, time can break the normal rules, but only now and then, because I bring the unreal into a world that’s solidly, vividly real, just as my characters need to be.

What I’ve tried to write is a novel that feels real, emotionally and geographically, in spite of strange happenings. It’s also a novel in which adults in particular will hear echoes in the plot of the noise around us right now. I wanted it to be thoughtful as well as fast-paced and dramatic. But without convincing characters no one would really care, so more than anything else I wanted Lucy and Hobo to live as flesh-and-blood individuals with distinct voices. Without two such heroes at the core, there’d be no way to keep this fantasy real. Do some readers skim the surface for escapism without considering parallels, or even the ‘deep themes’ acknowledged by some teenage reviews? I dare say. But whatever else a genre demands, I can’t write without them.


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