Folks, please welcome the brains behind Unsung Stories, an indie SFF publisher based in London, UK. Unsung Stories publishes intelligent genre fiction – science fiction, fantasy, horror, speculative, steampunk, and importantly those works that blur the boundaries between these genres.
Myths and beliefs that we would consider fiction or fantasy in modern literature once upon a time shaped history (think of all the hunts for unicorns & dragons). Do you see modern fantasy/horror/scifi fiction affecting human cultures today and how?
So this turned out to be a vast question that we couldn’t really answer concisely at all. We’re both in agreement on the themes of the answer, as below, but given it’s a big question we figured it deserved a big answer.
Starting with an easy one I see! All narratives, contemporary SFFH, Homeric epics, Jane Austen and even The Daily Mail, are reflective of the society that created them and help shape history. So unicorns, dragons, the Cyclops, witches, changelings and more, have very specific functions beyond whether or not people believe they’re actually there. The same applies to Ebenezer Scrooge, Hamlet, Emma Woodhouse and Malcolm Tucker.
Demons and angels. Our aspirations and our fears. How we manifest these in art has changed, absolutely, but the reason why we do it remains as essential and indefinable as ever.
As to whether contemporary SFFH affects human cultures today? Of course! The how is more telling. One of the most pervasive SF narratives of recent times is Star Trek, which is at its core a utopia project. Sure, they’re knocking on the doors of the Heavens, and it’s about intrepid adventurers and individual acts of heroism, but the thesis is of humanity at its best. Reaching to the stars, embodying justice in a universally welcoming and productive society. Add a splash more hubris and tragedy and you’re getting back into the same territory as Homeric epics. Only this time Icarus has shields and inertial dampeners.
One idea I have is that we use different genres for different purposes. So science fiction is about exploring hypotheses for humanity. What our existence will mean when the fundamental state of humanity has changed. Gibson does this excellently, Haldeman’s The Forever War and countless others. It’s a sandbox for thought experiments, inherently philosophical at heart.
Fantasy has created vast explorations of history and the moralities of governance and action. We can transpose political realities into new environments and comment on and satirise them. There’s so much of humanity’s history to understand and fantasy lets us do that freely, calls on us to tackle political and sociological Gordian knots.
Finally horror might be the most introspective of the three. Sure, it’s about scaring people but it’s also based on what we are afraid of. It’s more than big rats, it’s the darkness and the void, our weaknesses and fears, our inability to protect what we love.
Obviously that’s three broad generalisations, and only offered as a springboard for thought. It’s a big question!
All of human history, all human life, is shaped by narrative; it’s how we fundamentally understand and process the complex, messy reality we find ourselves in.
I see that SFFH affects human culture today in some very profound ways. Speculative fiction as a whole has always been a wonderful way of exposing and exploring collective hopes, dreams, fears and nightmares.
Trends in science-fiction can accurately map entire cultures’ feelings towards the future – do we see utopia or dystopia ahead? Will technology set us free, or create new traps for us? Do we even believe in a future anymore? In turn, these narratives exploring these issues will inform how we think about ourselves and the way we live, and where we are going (or perhaps going wrong).
The horror genre is a place where our worst fears, anxieties and repulsions can be explored (and exploited). I think there are two camps of horror fiction, the cathartic ‘ghost train’ types of horror, where everything works out in the end, where the evil is defeated and mankind overcomes: fiction ultimately as a form of validation that the world is OK.
Then there’s the other kind of horror, pioneered by Lovecraft and perfected by writers like Thomas Ligotti, where there is no victory, no catharsis, where the bad things win. This is my preferred model of horror fiction – not because I think life is hopeless or inherently ‘bad’, but because I think this kind of writing serves a useful function, to allow readers to face and explore difficult emotional topics.
We have a deep psychological need for monsters. Through storytelling we can turn an abstract fear into something physical that can be, at least potentially, defeated. Fear of the consumerist, mindless masses become zombies, aggressive male sexuality takes form in the werewolf, the ghost is a clear manifestation of past guilt/trauma, and so on.
With fantasy the enduring appeal of Tolkien and the LOTR films, the continued popularity of epic fantasy novels, the Game of Thrones phenomenon are all things that cannot be discounted. It would be nice if some mainstream fantasy was not based on the models established by Tolkien (Celtic/Saxon/Norse European myths, essentially). But there’s obviously some appeal to that kind of mythic setting that has a real appeal.
The invite list first: Iain M. Banks, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett first of all because you need wise, nice and irreverent people to balance any debate. To stir the pot I’d add Hunter Thompson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Adam Roberts, Octavia Butler, John-Paul Satre and Charles Bukowski. That should provide enough knowledge, experience and strong-willed extroverts to ensure a healthy debate, right? Or at least an unforgettable evening. Actually, maybe add Imperator Furiosa as referee.
As for the books? I’d go with Ubik, The Trial and The Master and Margarita. Not because they are perfect bedfellows but the all fascinate and terrify me in equal measure. They all poke at the consensus of the ‘normal ‘state of affairs, be those philosophical, social or political. And they all leave you with very difficult questions.
Are strict guidelines for genres dead in today’s book market? Where does Unsung Stories fit in?
Increasingly I’d say genre is being normalised, the distinctions eroded by audiences growing more sophisticated. We’re not the people who thought The War of the Worlds was real. Genre tropes are commonplace now and we are seeing an increasing number of crossover success stories both ways. Ishiguro is exploring genre in his work. Cloud Atlas was nominated for the Booker and the Clark and Nebula. Gaiman is an international sensation despite being massively Genre, even starting out in *gasp* comics. And of course SF and fantasy are all over TV and cinema. So it’s increasingly not about defining the lines between ideas, but the opportunities in how they interact.
Here at Unsung Stories, we love non-generic takes on genre. We want to give a home to writers who grab this opportunity with both hands. The people who don’t see rules or conventions, just the way their story is. Commissioning isn’t about if we can see a market, it’s about finding the stories we love, and know deserve to be published.
Philip K. Dick, probably. He’s the man who posited a Matrix-like reality decades before even Gibson started at it. Aside from writing some of my favourite books his take on reality fascinates me as much as it seemed to trouble him. Especially because he didn’t seem to have that layer of detachment from the problem academics do. So I’d talk to him about what his philosophies of perception and what it is he thinks we’re not seeing.
If you could, what book/movie/TV series would you like to experience for the first time all over again and why?
All of the bits that weren’t terrible, ideally. But if I had to pick one it would be The Sandman because it achieves so many different things. It’s a glorious collection of short stories, it’s a revelation for the potential of comics, it’s a vast indulgence of amazing ideas, it’s funny, it’s scary, it’s utterly heart-breaking in several places, and so much more.
In fact, if I could have just one page, I’d ask for Delirium and Death in the funeral procession from Worlds’ End. It might just be perfect.
Over the years, are the changes in society reflected in today’s villains and heroes?
One thing I find fascinating is the development of monsters in horror. After the explosion in the 1960s monsters abound, starting with the classics like Dracula, Frankenstein’s creation and werewolves. Then aliens are introduced, incomprehensible powers given physical form. Soon we’re creating new demons for cinema like Freddy and Jason, where they can be defeated but only temporarily. The step after is the one that grabs me though, where they all suddenly become human. Us. No more immortals, no masked killers returning from the grave. Teenagers. Your neighbours. Your children…
With SFF we’re beyond grimdark and sci-fi horror now as well. Bank’s Culture is full of stories that blur the ideas of who is the hero. We love Game of Thrones and Abercrombie because it’s not so simple to say who the hero is. We’re interested in the grey areas more these days, probably because we understand them better than the extremes of heroism or villainy.
So yes, absolutely. And watching how this growing canon of influences develops is something I find incessantly fascinating.
The other thing is post-apocalyptic fiction is huge right now, which works on the base assumption that we somehow failed as a race. As a result of technological developments in the last 20 years we have burgeoning global identities, a greater awareness of what is happening across the world. Maybe we’re coming to realise it’s not about heroes and villains, but about our collective responsibilities as a species?
More and more we see fiction being multimedia – a book, a TV show, a PC game, a graphic novel. How do you see the publishing industry evolving to handle this trend? Any plans to take Unsung Stories into the multimedia realm?
I think it will continue to evolve as it already has been. Ebooks are commonplace now for instance, and apps and enriched variants are going the same way. A lot of the most interesting examples I’ve come across have been games – Device 6 or Dear Esther for example – but that doesn’t mean it will all be games. What I will say, is I suspect the great ideas will come from writers/indies who create something as a labour of love. People in the industry are readers, gamers, fans, just like everyone else. So they’ll be there with everyone else when good things happen.
Unsung don’t have plans right now, but if we see an idea we like enough we’ll go for it. There’s no reason for stories to be limited to books any more (however much we love them). The crucial thing is to ensure the story works for the format. So, for example, rather than shoehorning a popular book into a graphic novel I’d want to see something written with comic format in mind. It’s about best serving the stories, after all.
Care to share an awkward fangirl/fanboy moment where you were gushing over an author’s work?
I exist in a perpetual state of anxiety as a rule so that would mainly involve every conversation I’ve had with an author, ever. I’m also particularly bad at recognising people as we rule so my worst moments are the opposite kind where you talk to someone, usually spouting flawed opinions at great length, to then discover they’re Pat Cadigan, or someone like that. Things like that happen to me, so I operate the working assumption that my brain hates me.
That said, when I met Brian May I had a not-inconsiderable haircut myself and proceeded to compliment him on his hair. Not his music, charity work or career as an astrophysicist. His hair. I got the impression I wasn’t the first person to do that.
What is the first book you remember reading on your own?
I’m not sure what it was called but there was something involving a mad professor taking a teenage boy to Jupiter where he had to play hockey with 20 metre tall bruisers. It’s the illustrations I remember more than anything. Something I remember the title of though, is either the Mary Plain books by Gwynedd Rae, or The Arabian Nights. That and poring over the Terran Trade Authority books in my primary school’s library.
Finally, what upcoming Unsung Stories events and works would you like to share with the readers?
We have our Unsung Live event scheduled for 20th October in Kings Cross, London. This is SFF storytelling, with readings from Simon Guerrier, Robert Sharp, Cassandra Khaw and David Hartley. We’re doing this because we couldn’t find any live-lit events for genre fiction and thought there should be at least one! Tickets are free, you just need to RSVP to secure a place at – www.meetup.com/unsung/events/224926265/. It was very popular last time so booking is advised!
We do have other things in the pipeline in terms of books, but nothing I can talk about yet. They’ll be good though, promise.
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