Hello! Mrs Albert Baker here, otherwise known as The Last Witch Of Pendle. Obviously there is no Pendle any more, since The Chronic Agronauts utterly destroyed it with treacle and sprats, but I’ve set myself up quite nicely here in Lancaster, running this little soup kitchen for the street urchins. There certainly are a lot of them and I’m always looking for helping hands to cook up and serve something delicious!
Helping me this morning is poet and science fiction author Kevan Manwaring! Good morning Kevan, thank you so much for coming to help me in my soup kitchen today! Can I take your hat?
Thank you most kindly. What a lovely place you have here.
Why thankyou dear! Now then, have a seat here by the window where it is a little cooler. How was your journey here from your own dimension? I hope you weren’t waylaid by any land pirates or skywaymen en route?
The wormholes were kind today.
Excellent! And have you brought some soup with you today to share with the orphans?
The best soup recipe I know is Stone Soup – it’s a very old recipe… A penniless storyteller arrives in a village and sets up on the village green. Folk gather round. ‘Today good people,’ he declares, ‘I’m going to make stone soup!’ ‘Stone soup,’ they mutter, ‘Never heard of it.’ ‘Yes! With this magic stone!’ He produces a stone from his pocket. ‘All I need is a pot and some firewood and water.’ ‘Well,’ said the villagers, ‘it’s got to be worth the entertainment.’ So they went to get the pot, wood and water. A fire was lit, and soon the water was boiling. With great ceremony, the storyteller placed the stone in the water, stirring it with due solemnity. Now and again he would taste it. ‘Mmm, not bad, but it’d taste even better with some salt…’ Someone went to get some salt, eager to taste the finished product. He added the salt and stirred some more. ‘Now, if only we had a potato, or a few carrots. Even a turnip would do…’ Folk were now intrigued. Some left and returned with a spare spud here, an odd shaped turnip there, a twisty carrot or two, not much, but between them the soup was looking very promising. Mouths were watering. The storyteller declared the soup was ready and for folk to bring bowls and spoons. Which they did, and more besides. A cool jug of cider, a fiddle, hunks of bread and cheese, even some of last years apples. The storyteller ladled out the soup and everyone tucked in, and a contented silenced descended. Then someone struck up a tune, folk began to dance, laugh and share tales. By the time the fire had died folk went home, all agreeing it was the best evening they’d had in a long while. The storyteller was thanked, offered a soft bed, and in the morrow he went to leave. A boy watched him longingly. The storyteller placed the stone in his hand – ‘Now you know how to make stone soup, you’ll never go hungry.’
And that’s how you make Stone Soup!
Oh how marvellous! The children will absolutely love it! Now while that is simmering away nicely, why don’t you tell us a little more about your upcoming science fiction novel Black Box?
Well, it’s a darkly thrilling science fiction adventure with an eco-undercurrent. It’s the first full-on SF novel I’ve written, although my previous series, TheWindsmith Elegy, had science fictional elements in its later volumes (there’s five in total, starting with The Long Woman). I don’t have a physical copy yet – except a dog-eared manuscript. It awaits just beyond the veil to be manifested here on Earth by the goodwill of kindly folk through the crowdfunding platform, Unbound.
Marvellous! Was it a conscious decision to write in the science fiction genre?
I’ve always written imaginative fiction – for me there is little separation between genres (SF, Fantasy, etc) which seem to be often more marketing categories for the convenience of booksellers. There are interesting differences, and traditions that inform them, but in the act of writing they vanish. I believe in not ‘writing in box’ – but writing without boundaries. The characters dictate where the story is going to go. They’re really in charge, and where they come from, heaven knows.
Of course every writer tackles the task of novel creation differently – perhaps you could tell us a little about your own writing process, or ‘journey’ if you like?
I loved English at school – especially the ‘creative essay’, but I seriously got into writing as a spin-off of my first degree in Fine Art (through the writing of my dissertation). After completing that, I wrote my first novel back in the early 90s (an unpublished effort which taught me how not to write a novel). I’ve written 9 since then (with Black Box as my Number 9 Dream). When I’m first drafting a novel I write at least a 1000 words a day. With Black Box, I wrote the first 20,000 in a couple of weeks (while holed up on retreat in a remote croft on the coast of the Wester Ross), then another 50,000 during National Novel Writing Month, an annual initiative which takes place in November. I completed the whole novel in four months, a record for me.
Black Box has been described as an ‘Eco-SF Thriller,’ could you tell us more about the real life issues that inspired your writing?
I’ve been concerned about the environment since the 80s and was quite an active eco-campaigner throughout the 90s, but I realise where my strengths lie – in the spoken and written word, in telling stories that engage hearts and minds. The denial of the reality of Climate Change is sickening and that is one of the biggest motivations. The fate of this incredibly beautiful, fragile and precious planet (and all that lives upon it) haunts me and compels me to protect and celebrate it in any way I can.
Humans certainly do tend towards an anthropocentric view of the universe don’t they? Is this something in particular that you sought to challenge?
Absolutely. It is so conceited of us, to think we’re the apex of creation and the only intelligent, sentient being on Earth. And SF film often reiterate this – by having aliens that are, conveniently, very humanoid – usually English speaking bipeds. The universe is vast – it is pure narcissism to think we’ll find anything remotely like us. Let’s hope it’s weirder and wilder than we could possibly imagine.
Indeed! Do you think it is important for science fiction to consistently challenge the ethics, conceptions and perceived consequences of scientific exploration? (With a certain pig’s brain in mind, I hesitate to say ‘advances’!)
Yes, the rhetoric of a lot of SF is rather unquestioning of the myth of progress, rarely challenging the ethos of ‘Capitalism in Space’, as though that is the only way to be in the universe – endless expansionism and rapacious consumption of resources, a plague of locusts scouring the galaxy. Is that really the best way forward? Also, space exploration is often a consoling fiction for those who don’t really want to deal with the problems we face on Earth – it is pure ‘escapism’ (although, to be fair, some do see it as a way of tackling the crisis humanity faces on a big scale, and it does often involve inspiring international collaboration). But my argument is (and Black Box dramatises this) that however far we go in the universe we will always have to face our shadow. We have to sort our shit out now, not project into space.
We’ve spoken a lot about themes within the novel but what about the main characters? Would you like to tell us a little about them?
There’s Lake, the unstable, but resourceful captain of the mission to explore the moon of Jupiter for signs of life; there’s Boone, the black female commander of the Europa Survey Base; and there’s the international crew of the research vessel, which goes beneath the ice. There are others, including a sarcastic AI.
And do you have a favourite?
Each one became my favourite as I wrote them. The dynamic between the crew of Ultima Thule, the submersible that explores the oceans beneath Europa’s frozen surface, was particularly fun to write – especially the different senses of humour and sensibilities. The Polish guy ended up having some of the funniest lines. I became familiar with swearing in different languages.
My goodness! (Although not in front of the orphans, please, their language is quite bad enough already!) Black Box is in its launch phase just now isn’t it? What other promotional spots / events do you have planned?
Well, I know Nimue Brown has a review lined up, as do other key folk.
I’m promoting it daily on Twitter, and writing frequent blogs revealing the background of the book on https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com
I’m co-organising an Arts/Science showcase in the Autumn in Leicester – part of Everybody’s Reading festival. This will focus on Artificial Intelligence and showcase my prize-winning commission, GOLEM Speaks.
Other things may coalesce as we go along. I’d certainly be planning launch events when there’s a firm publication date (about 6 months after reaching its target).
And where can we purchase a copy of Black Box?
Glad you asked! By making a pledge to support the project through Unbound you will receive a copy of the book (either digital or print) and your name in the back (or front), plus various other enticing rewards, depending on the level: original artwork, custom fiction, one-to-one writer mentoring, a personal tour of the National Space Centre, a guided walk around the Solar System (along the Somerset Space Walk) and more! Simply follow the link to make it so: https://unbound.com/books/black-box/
Wonderful! Ah, now here’s the kettle boiling, what is your beverage of choice and how do you like it?
A Pangalactic Gargle-blaster please :0)
By all means, Zaphod himself dropped a batch off last week! There you go. You also write poetry don’t you?
Yes, I’ve been writing poetry the longest – since 1991 – and I’m about to bring out a collection of my bardic poetry bringing together 25 years of work.Silver Branch is coming out from Awen Publications soon.
Is that also inspired by the impact of humanity upon the lives around it?
Definitely. Many of my poems celebrate the Earth – they range from full-on eco-protest to the full-bloodied Pagan. The land and its legends inform everything I do. My poems are often inspired by deeply powerful experiences at sacred sites, from long walks, wild-camps, and wild times!
And where can we read your poetry or experience it live?
There are some examples on my blog – https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com/poetry/ and when Silver Branch comes out I hope to perform my bardic poetry wherever people are willing to listen.
Well thank you so much for coming to help out in the soup kitchen today, Kevan, it’s been wonderful to chat with you! I must say that soup smells delicious. I think it must be about ready and the little urchins seem anxious to devour it so shall we start dishing it up?
My pleasure. Thank you for inviting to your hearth. May it prosper, and your cauldron never grow cold.
Thankyou! And thankyou all for joining us in the kitchen today!
Blessings on your brew my dears!