And so in a recent correspondence with my editor, I laid out in some detail the particulars of my literary mission as I conceive it an amplification of the ideas I put forward some time ago on my words page. That version is still worth reading, if you want to hear it short and pithy. If you want to drill down, you've come to the right place. (And if you want to steal all my ideas, well I suppose that's what I get!)
When my old editor (Mike Barnard) and I met originally to discuss marketing for my first book, we were talking about the fact that most new fiction is bought by middle-aged women. I posed one of my pet questions: is this a demand problem, or really a supply problem? Would twentysomethings really just rather be playing video games, going to the cinema, and downloading porn (than reading)? Or are they perhaps a bit of an underserved market? My feeling was that when you gave young people (particularly young male people) something really to be excited about such as a Neal Stephenson, Douglas Coupland, or Chuck Palahniuk they could get very excited indeed.
I tried to stress that aside from (or in addition to) the technosophical aspects of my literary mission (see below ) it's on this field that I hope to play. Specifically, I'd like to trot out fiction that is as immersive as video games, as action-packed as the movies, and as up-to-the-minute in its concerns as the Internet and see who comes to the party.
And but of course all that's more or less about surface matters: stylistic conventions, target demographics, and marketing concerns making fiction relevant and competitive and gripping in a technological age which provides an awful lot of easy and gratifying entertainment options (again: films, video games, Internet). Don't get me wrong: these "surface" matters are important, and certainly salutary. Dickens was doing the critical cultural work of sorting out the confusions and contradictions of late-Victorian/early-Industrial society. But it's said he's still read today mainly because he's damned funny, and his characters come to life for us. The Dickens comparison is an apt one for me in that I consider my weightier, under-the-surface project to be that of explaining lucidly, working through the ramifications of, and incorporating into a cultural context (and the common consciousness) the dizzying, paradigm-shifting, unprecedented scientific and technological breakthroughs of . . . well, the last 5 seconds.
Consider a few things that have very recently been thrown in our collective, cognitive, cultural laps:
Biological Evolution Through Natural Selection
Not quite 150 years old. This is the revelation (and I use the term thoughtfully) about where everything interesting in the universe, including and in particular ourselves, ACTUALLY CAME FROM. Human beings, it turns out, are not little replicas of Our Father in Heaven, cast in his likeness, and dropped into the Garden. We are in fact the output of a long-running and bloody equation, wildly contingent, brutal and arbitrary in its operation the effect of slight survival and reproduction advantages and unimaginable oceans of time upon simple bits of matter.
Moreover: the vicar, the chimp, the lizard, and the blue-green algae are all made up of the same basic amino acids. Can you even imagine (much less produce an example of) a bigger shift in humankind's conception of itself, and of the world? (As Dawkins put it: "We animals are the most complicated things in the known universe . . . our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but it is a mystery no longer because it is solved.")
Now, maybe I'm a little slanted in my view coming from a country where more people believe in angels than in evolution; but I've got to think that the ramifications of this change in conception to culture, to consciousness, to religion, and to art have not finished filtering through. I'm not sure they've really begun in earnest.
Computation (and Artificial Intelligence)
Computing is only about 50 years old. And computers are more than clever tools they are homunculi. God didn't make us in His image, but we certainly made computers in ours. They are tools specifically for doing the thing that makes us human: cognition (or, at any rate, processing symbols that have information value).
This is why the artificial intelligence people and the cognitive neuroscience people watch one another so closely. If you're trying to build a thinking machine (artificial intelligence) it's very helpful to get all the info you can on how an actual, existing thinking machine works (neuroscience). On the other hand, if you're trying to understand and map a working thinking machine (the brain), it's very helpful to understand what are the theoretical, and real, requirements for cognition to happen (computer design). In fact, computation and AI are giving us a whole new vocabulary for talking about thinking: we can now measure the "clock speed" of the brain in megahertz, and measure its storage capacity (in gigabytes).
And the reverse is true: We build so-called "neural networks" and try to get our machines to pass the Turing test of "holding a conversation". These are not coincidences again, we're building homunculi, doppelgangers. In fact, we now have self-evolving software which grows and complexifies the same way we did. And, ultimately, as hardware and software grow exponentially in power and subtlety and capability . . . we face the prospect of co-existing with a race of sentient machines like us, but not like us; our creations, but their own "people". I could go on and on in this vein. But suffice it to say that the ramifications are enormous and have only just begun to be worked through within the arts and the culture at large.
About 20 years old. Psychology itself is a quite a young science; and, until recently, the dominant model was that of behaviourism and the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM). Together, these said that human minds were basically blank slates at birth, and they were filled up via experience and conditioning by the dominant rules and values of the surrounding society; and, as well, that the rules and values of these societies were arbitrary and could vary arbitrarily widely. Very recently (in the scheme), it became apparent that all of this (this first stab at explaining human behaviour) was very largely wrong.
In fact, a human brain comes out of the womb hard-wired with a great deal of information and behavioural patterns, formed into specific mental modules to perform certain fairly specific tasks, all of which were molded by millions of years of selection pressures of hominid evolution. And because human brains have all these pre-configured pre-dispositions, the human societies that human brains produce ALL known human societies have a huge number of things in common. Funnily enough, Darwin himself had an early sense of this. In a little aside in Descent of Man, he said something to the effect that there's no reason why these principles that account for the body, and biology, wouldn't also be responsible for the mind, and psychology. It just took many decades for anybody to follow up on that one.
In my view, this is the most stunning breakthrough of all: for the first time, after millennia of trying to puzzle it out, we now have ANSWERS to the critical questions of: Where the human being (qua personhood, ie "the soul") actually came from; Why we do the numerous wacky things we do; Why we feel the strange things we feel; and, if you extrapolate a bit, How we can achieve some happiness and goodness despite now being in an environment that is utterly unlike the one for which we were evolved. This, self-evidently I think, is huge.
Rather related to evolutionary psychology, in my view . . . we now know that the mind is nothing more, nor less, than the physical activity (chemical and electrical) of the human brain. (Not some numinous cloud that floats above our heads, or on some other plane, or that survives the body after death.) We are just scratching the surface of understanding (from a scientific viewpoint) how it actually works i.e. how the operation of a brain makes what we experience as a mind. As we slowly figure this out, it is going radically to impact our view of the self, of society, of morality and moral culpability, of self-mastery and happiness, and much more. Sorting through it all culturally is going to be the work of decades.
Technically 33 years old but really only 10 as a social phenomenon. I believe that for the first time we are wiring into one vast distributed archive the sum total of everything that's ever been figured out by anyone and, remember, it's figuring things out (and SHARING them around!) that has allowed us to conquer the planet the sum total of human knowledge. I believe that for the first time we have a many-to-many mass medium of communication, that verily brings all humanity nose-to-nose. I believe that we're now having a global conversation and, more, that we now effectively have a global consciousness. This is changing, and is going to continue to change, human society radically. It's a new social space. It needs its art. (I occasionally thought, in grandiose moments, that The Manuscript might be the first Great Cyberspace Novel . . .)
Precisely three years and three months old. That's when the Human Genome Project completed its map of the human genome "nature's complete genetic blueprint for building a human being" (in the words of the HGP guys themselves). Obviously, the conceptual breakthrough, Watson and Crick's discovery of the double helix, is 50 years old (still an eyeblink, in the scheme). That bit itself was huge for the reason that we now had an idea of how evolution worked. (Darwin only knew that it had to work he hadn't the vaguest idea of the mechanism, and wouldn't have recognised a strand of DNA/RNA if it had crawled up his trouser leg and gnawed his privates off.) But the details were only nailed down about .0005 seconds ago (I exaggerate very slightly), with the completion of the mapping of the human genome. I probably needn't say a lot more about this.
In fact, I'll pipe down entirely. There are several other instances of very recent stunners I might throw in there as well: the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, general relativity and quantum mechanics (and quantum computing), the Big Bang and the rest of cosmology (how's that for giving you a sense of place?), high-energy particle physics.
But, in each case, basically, the sequence is this: First we wonder about these things, and the priests make up fanciful stories to account for them. Then, scientists appear, experiment properly, and work out the surprising actual facts of the matter. Then, the journalists and science writers explain the concepts in lay terms within science journalism and popular science books. But I say a last step remains: cultural assimilation and accommodation. Using art to explain ourselves, and the universe, TO ourselves and by that I mean these NEW (and very different, and much more accurate) conceptions of self and universe. I believe that one of the things about being human is a deeply-rooted need to tell stories to make sense of our experience.
And I believe something else (about that experience of which we need to make sense): that many aspects of the human experience are thousands of years old: grief, jealousy, longing, love (romantic and filial), loyalty, betrayal the same issues that Shakespeare's players wrestled with down the Globe. But many aspects of the current human experience are about five seconds old. As cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has put it: "For 99 percent of human existence, people lived as foragers in small nomadic bands. Our brains are adapted to that long-vanished way of life, not to brand-new agricultural and industrial civilizations. They are not wired to cope with anonymous crowds, written language, modern medicine, formal social institutions, high technology, and other newcomers to the human experience." And as Dana put it to Miles in The Manuscript (cribbing from Pinker): "Please. Miles, you sit in a beige cube and stare into a liquid crystal display for eight hours a day. You walk amongst anonymous crowds and send e-mail to keep in touch with your family and lifelong friends. You think your brain has any hard-wiring to cope with any of that?" It seems to me there are reasons why we're all neurotic and on Prozac and read self-help books and drink quite a lot of cocktails.
So THE WORK, in a word, is to recast these timeless human themes in the light of these very timely scientific and technological and social bombshells listed above and see if they now look any different . . . or even make a bit more sense . . . or perhaps even get put to bed entirely. Put another way, we need to come up with some kind of synthesis of the eternal and of the blindingly-new the hope being that this synthesis will also engender a new, and accurate, and workable conception of the place of humanity in its universe. And that's the true purpose of art, isn't it?
Plus gunfights. Lots of really over-the-top gunfights. (Hey, what's the point if it's not a blast to read? And to write!)
It's said that all drama comes from the irreconcilable conflict between man's internal desires and his external environment (which is hostile to those desires). Well, brother, the environment is changing fast and so we're looking at fertile ground for a lot of interesting drama in the next years and decades. And I may or may not succeed in radically changing the cultural landscape the memesphere with this literary project. But I'm pretty sure I'm going to have a lot of fun trying. 8^)
Slightly ironic side note: If all that sounds rather heavy . . . in fact the book I'm working on at the moment, which is called D-Boys, is a pretty straight techno-actioner. (Though even it deals with the new social space of massively-multiplayer online games and the very timely problem that the world is threatening to tear itself apart with irreconcilable ideologies and opinions about how modernity should work (ie terrorism).) However, much as Graham Greene did "novels" and more frivolous "entertainments" (as he called them), I hope I can do both. At my best, I believe I can combine both aspects in the same work. With my second novel, for instance, Pandora's Sisters, I hope I've done just that.
Acknowledgement: I'm indebted to a lot of people I've discussed these matters with but particularly Ryan Canolty, with whom I thrashed out a lot of this in one lovely weekend in Tennessee. Actually, he'd thrashed out a lot of it beforehand . . .