Category: Thoughts On Life

Art: Frivolity in The Face of Tyranny

Art: Frivolity in The Face of Tyranny

I recently read John Scalzi’s post about how his productivity has suffered in the face of the unrelenting bad news cycle since Trump took up the Presidency. Within the post, he mentioned that in light of this unending period of depressing events, writing almost felt frivolous. It’s something I’ve experienced myself over the years. Being in the UK, however, has meant that the whole Trump thing has not affected me as directly as those in the States. Despite that, I still feel that daily miasma of depression, I just get it from world news.

To those in the States, I’m sure Trump and related recent tragedies will feel raw, but from my side of the pond, they’re just more of the same of what’s happening all around the world. Here in the UK, we have the mess that is Brexit (and our pathetic politicians as a whole) and the now-familiar terrorist attacks. Nationalism and right-wing attitudes are on the rise throughout Europe. ISIS is still a thing. As are the atrocities in Syria. Then we have the awful forced migration of the Rohingya from Myanmar. I could go on and on and on.

The point is: horrific tragedy is ever-present. It has always been thus and will continue to be so. Violence, brutality, tyranny, oppression—these are as much a part of the human condition as love, compassion, charity, and generosity. So, if it’s a reality, is writing or creating art frivolous?

Firstly, what does frivolous mean?
The dictionary says: Adjective—not having any serious purpose or value.

I think this is a pretty good barometer for all artworks actually. I mentioned in a previous blog post about how I can no longer tolerate superficiality or entertainment for entertainment’s sake. If one perceives their artwork as frivolous then perhaps it shouldn’t be created. I would argue, however, that almost all art has at least some purpose or value.

We then have to ask ourselves: if I’m not going to write or create art in the face of tyranny because I feel it’s frivolous what else will I do? By not doing the art, will we change the tyranny? Not likely. It’s hubris to think so. One only has to look through a brief history of humankind to see that violence and brutality have persisted throughout the ages. It’s an act of great arrogance to assume that one can change that. Entire nation-states and allied states have failed, what hope an individual? The reality is none in the larger scheme of things.

We have to cast our eyes closer to home. Our friends, family, and most importantly—ourselves. If we change ourselves, we change society. Even if we don’t change things on a grand scale we can stop harming those around us, dissolve separation and division. This extends to art, to writing. We can respond to the bad shit that’s happening in the world by exposing it in our works. By holding up a mirror to the world, we can show reality for what it is, not what the biased media wants us to see, or what we assume it to be.

Exposing truth in our work is never frivolous and always worth doing. I’m not suggesting we do this as a form of escapism, however. I don’t think that helps matters one bit. By ignoring the truth, we condemn ourselves to live a lie. Entertainment hasn’t helped matters. Quite the opposite: it has exacerbated things. It’s a tool used to numb us to what’s going on. To the ugly truth of humanity. By ignoring it, we can not fix it. But like those who wield ‘entertainment’ to further their agenda, we artists can use it to fight back. To shine that light.

And there’s nothing to say that creating art that exposes truth can’t be as entertaining as the truly frivolous escapism. I think that’s every artist’s responsibility. And I’m not necessarily talking about huge truths that will change society overnight. It can be something small; something that people can recognise within themselves; something that makes them think a little and break out of the hypnosis of news and media and all the bullshit that comes with it.

Getting depressed in the face of tyranny won’t make it better. We have to raise our brushes, draw our comics, write our books, compose our songs in reaction to tyranny. It’s under intolerance and oppression that we need to increase our productivity. Shout louder. Art harder!

Because the alternative is to let the fuckers win.

I call for all artists to stop for a brief moment and consider: are you creating frivolous escapism, or are you creating truth? We all have the power to choose. Choose wisely.

I’m not the thing I used to be. (Or why change is the only constant.)

I’m not the thing I used to be. (Or why change is the only constant.)

This is a long one. Sorry.

I’ve experienced a lot of change over the last five years. Relationships have come and gone, I’ve moved home three times, I’ve seen entire lifestyles evolve from one thing into another. My livelihood has altered immeasurably, but the thing that’s changed the most is me—as in my identity, personality, the idea that coalesces as Colin.

It hasn’t changed from one thing to another, but instead, it’s devolved—or at least in the process of devolving— to what I’m not entirely sure. I have a suspicion, but I guess I’ll know for sure when it happens.

You may be wondering why I’m writing about this now. Here, on my author website. You may be wondering what this has to do with my books. The simple answer is it has everything to do with all of this because the thing that used to be Colin had built an image of itself as a writer. Not a singular image; they never are. All the identities we create for ourselves are made up of thousands of images, millions even. One could wrap up this process in a bundle called: Author brand, which is, ultimately, the same as ego or identity. We just use it as a tool to sell books to people, and it’s something against which I’ve always struggled.

I briefly touched on this struggle with a brand in my last blog post regarding how my tastes have changed, expanded so that they no longer fit into a neat genre box that aligns to my author brand. The industry as a whole promotes this idea at countless panels at conventions—among other equally lousy advice. It’s damaging and restricting, and yet it’s a lie that so many of us create images around to bolster our identity as humans and writers.

Over the last few years, I’ve been slowly stripping away these images. They often evaporate when you observe them and question their validity. It started for me at a very young age when I questioned the vicar who used to come to our school to indoctrinate and condition our minds to accept the concept of religion. It took minimal effort for me to see it for what it was: a collection of empty symbols created by the mind of men and women.

Later I questioned the education system and rejected it soon after leaving secondary school. I went to a college for a while but again felt a deep dissatisfaction there. When I left to go into the workplace, I saw for myself that education is yet another set of images we wrap around ourselves to create an identity. I then returned to study literature and creative writing with various educational establishments gaining yet more images.

These images were centered around a conceit of what a writer should be. It’s the crux of the schism between so-called ‘literary’ writing and ‘genre’ writing. When you strip away the symbology behind that, it’s quite clear to see there is no discernible difference. Those who cling to the ‘literary’ idea are merely propping up their image they’ve created for themselves as a superior writer, because that’s what most of this comes down to: my image is better than yours. I was guilty of that also, and it meant that I didn’t write as freely as I wanted. The image demanded I second-guess everything and measure the output to an imagined ideal—to other people’s images of what a literary writer is. Genre writing lately has a similar image, that of the rebel of the pulp spirit. “My word vomit is just as valid as your poetry.” The truth is they’re both the same: an expression of consciousness. I admit to judgement, but we all do, it’s how tastes are honed. My judgement, thankfully, is changing, daily.

Anyways, as I got into writing, I rebelled against ‘literary’ ideas and wrote SF. Again, that was a reaction to a conditioned state of mind. I would often say: I’m a cyberpunk writer. Or, a technothriller writer, or on the days when I couldn’t decide which image was the shiniest, just ‘science fiction writer.’

The truth is, none of those images fit correctly. When I looked at them closely, it was clear that they were as empty and meaningless as any other ego-created label.

So as with everything else, I stripped them away. Or to be more accurate: in the process of stripping them away. These things cling like barnacles.

I’ve also stripped away the notion of nationalism. I never understood why it was important to be proud of one’s country. Why? I was born here through circumstances beyond my control. What’s there to be proud of? A false label for a group of geographically close people? Makes no sense. Neither do borders, or maps, or country names, or the worst of the lot: flags. What utterly pointless and vapid symbols they are. All designed to condition one’s mind, to relate to and to become the thing the wielders of those flags desire from you—blind loyalty usually.

There are downsides to peeling away these layers. It means I have to live alone; my views, unfiltered by various images, don’t seem to be compatible with most people. Sports no longer hold any excitement for me anymore. Even though I still retain a small image of being a Tottenham Hotspur fan, the truth is, I’m indifferent. Why self-identify with yet more imagery and symbology that means nothing? Football fans like to pretend their team is somehow more worthy than others, creating yet more division and separation in the same way nationalistic viewpoints do. And the result of that? Violence usually. The creation of an ‘us and them’ image which obscures the truth—that we are all the same. Even TV and film has lost its sheen. I can no longer tolerate superficiality. Or entertainment for the sake of entertainment. I no longer play any video games. I flirted occasionally over the last few years but its always a short-lived and empty experience. The image/ego/whatever wants to like that stuff, to fit in, but below that image, I just find it all hollow and unsatisfying.

It has also meant that I’ve removed myself completely from politics. I don’t vote. I reject the system. Again, the entire system is created around the idea of division and separation. People self-identify as a lefty or a tory or whatever label applies. It’s yet another filter that obscures the truth.

The entity previously known as Colin therefore no longer exists in any tangible sense. Even on a physical level, a human’s cells completely change over a period of time (some people estimate between 7-10 years, but it’s ongoing all the time).

What about mentally? Isn’t there permanence there? Memories are just inaccurate images of a story we’ve told ourselves about a past event. Our memories bolster the images we hold of ourselves, but by questioning those images, we lose attachment to those memories and see them for what they are: an accretion of second-hand stories told after the fact. They’re not real. They don’t need to inform who we are any more than a flag or a random place name.

And so, with the letting go of memories and the other images, I’m left with the age-old question of ‘Who am I? The answer I’ve come to is that it doesn’t matter. I am what I am. The next question is: What should I write? The answer I’ve come to is that it doesn’t matter. I’ll write what I’m going to write. Then: Should I write at all if none of it matters? The answer is that it doesn’t matter: I’ll write or not write.

Now some people may find this viewpoint nihilistic, but it’s the complete opposite: it’s freedom. With no images to uphold or maintain, one is free. There’s no ‘me’ that requires effort to maintain. That’s not to say there aren’t practical issues with all this: I still need money for food, bills, and shelter (I couldn’t care less about luxuries or travel or status) and as a result, that means I still need to present my work in ways in which readers can relate. As an aside, I had considered an experiment of getting rid of my name altogether from the covers and metadata of my books. I might still try this at some point.

As change continues, it does mean that my books will change too. I’ve resisted this a great deal over the last few years as my ego frantically held on to the images it had created around who I was as a writer. When I look at my back-catalogue, I can see the change quite clearly.

I started out writing horror because I used to enjoy reading it. That’s as far as the motivation went. Again, I didn’t question it because I was wrapped in the image my ego had generated when it thought the idea of me being known as a horror author. That identity eventually crumbled when I realised the effects of my fiction: I had people say that it was hopeless, too dark, and they found it depressing. I experienced this myself with the ending to the film adaption of Stephen King’s The Mist. (I won’t spoil it here). Suffice to say I knew then I didn’t want to elicit that feeling in people.

So I moved onto my other first fiction love: Cyberpunk. I liked it because of the imagery it created; the sense of railing against a tyrannical corporate world etc. Some of that has value for sure, but in these last twenty-four or so months, I’ve realised again that my tastes no longer align to that collection of symbols.

On and on, I’ve covered different topics, explored different subject matter as collected in organised ways in which genres work and I’ve railed against them all. None of them hold a fascination for me anymore. No singular thing seems important. Especially with regards to speculative fiction.

This was the biggest image I’ve resisted: the separation of the contemporary and the speculative. The latter being my previous wheelhouse because of the images my ego had built up around it. As I’ve dipped in and out of various projects this year, I’ve come to another realisation: I no longer have that strong desire to speculate. I thought I did, conditioned myself to say that I did because it’s easier to market oneself if one fits in a particular box but I’ve always been uneasy there. I did it because I guess I have a talent of sorts for that kind of story as opposed to say a historical romance where my talent is absolute zero. But it was never quite right.

I’ve let go the desire to fulfill the image of a speculative writer. In fact, I’m letting go of the idea of being any particular kind of writer. As I continue to change and my tastes evolve/devolve, so will my subject matter. I know this will bring difficulties to the practical marketing side of things. I know that my disdain for networking and other expectations (You’ll never see me at a book signing, for example, or as a guest speaker or panelist at a convention. It’s highly unlikely I’ll be at any writing conventions), will impact on my career, but that’s all okay. The idea of a career is yet another image. In fact one of the biggest ones we hold. If I can’t make a living out of writing in the future, does that matter? It only matters in that it creates a dissonance toward the image I have of myself. Take that image away, and it brings freedom: no expectation of results; no obligations.

I’m not quite there yet, though, but I’m changing. And will continue to change as I drop more and more images my ego has created. For now, my work will likely concern itself more with contemporary issues, the search for relatable truths, self-reflection even. It probably won’t be as easily marketable or able to be classified as one thing, but that’s ridiculously exciting.

And that’s what it is all about.

There are many lofty notions (yet more images) enforced within the writing world along with the rotting hellscape of comparison. They’re a strangling vine we allow to grow around us. Some thrive within that world, and I wish them well, but for many, it’s a fast way to burnout or dissatisfaction.

And for me, I’m far more excited about being free in every way I can. Free of nationality, of politics, of identity, of ego (that’s a tough one admittedly), of reliance, of ‘shoulds’ ‘woulds’ and ‘coulds,’ of accumulation, of wealth, of desire.

Writing is just one aspect in all of this, but an important one. It’ll be interesting to observe where all this will take me. The one thing I do know is: I’m better off embracing the change instead of wasting months and years of my life with my thoughts railing against these images as my ego does all it can to retain them. Much better, and infinitely quicker, to drop them and move on, let the ego die and take identity with it.

I know this is long and rambling and probably makes little sense, but it is what it is.

TL;DR: My writing is likely going to be varied and weird from here on in. If you come along for the ride, that’s cool. If not, that’s cool too. You’re awesome either way.

I haven’t retired. New things coming.

I haven’t retired. New things coming.

I’ve recently heard from a number of people who asked if I had retired from writing. It’s a fair question; I’ve not published anything under my name for almost two years. My last release was Soil back in February 2016, and I finished that in 2015. I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking that I had quit writing, or perhaps ran out of ideas. The truth contains a little of both. But let’s roll the time back a little as I explain my lack of prolificacy.

After finishing Soil back in mid-2015, I took a break to work on some super-sekrit pen-name titles which took me into early 2016. I then decided to move to a new town (Stafford, United Kingdom, a former hometown of a little-known fantasy author called, J. R. R. Tolkien).

I underestimated how distracting moving to a new home would be. It was all too easy to think that I could settle quickly and get back to the writing mill. I had lots of plans; synopses, ideas, half-written novels all ready and waiting for me to dive into and share with the world. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen. I found it increasingly difficult to focus and get the work done as more and more tasks cropped up from the ether-of-never-ending-things-to-do.

Renting proved distracting as I was consumed with the indecision of whether to continue to rent or buy. I was fortunate enough to have a couple of good years publishing-wise, and I didn’t want to make the wrong financial decision. Thinking over the choice to rent or buy and the search for a home (I decided to buy) quickly ate up another six months. That took me into December 2016 where I finally settled on a place. The buying of my current house became a full-time job for a couple of months as I took on the role of an estate agent, solicitor, surveyor and all other things in between to get the sale through before Christmas.

The move happened, and now I had the task of making the new house my home, which meant complete renovation inside and out. Instead of being a writer, I was now a project manager. There were times where I managed to get some work done; marketing, brainstorming, etcetera. It was slow going. After a few more months, the renovations were complete, and my mind returned to writing. Only now, I had other questions to work out.

The first being: who am I as a writer? That sounds loftier than I intend. What it boiled down to was: what do I want to write and what do I want to be known for? There’s always been this problem with me. I don’t fit into a neat and tidy box. I can’t easily explain what I write, or what I’d like to write. My interests are wide, and I’ve never been wholly into a singular genre. When most people think of an author, they usually have an association with one (or at least relating) genres. George RR Martin mostly writes fantasy, Dan Brown historical thrillers, Dean Koontz suspense, and so on. My ideas and interests include cyberpunk, post-apocalypse, dystopian, literary, thrillers, technothrillers, light-science fiction, supernatural, and mysteries.

My tastes are constantly changing. Genres and books that I was interested in a few years ago no longer hold any fascination for me now. I’ve given up reading space opera, as an example. Even my first love, cyberpunk, doesn’t grab my attention anymore. Anything set in the mid-to-far future has suffered the same fate. I’m finding that I’m not as interested in the speculative nature of genre fiction as I am exploring characters and the effect of technology in our current society. My mind is currently closer to home, as it were. All this means marketing my work has (or will perhaps be) difficult. Which brings me to the topic of pen-names.

My logical aspect wants to keep one name with one genre to preserve that association. When someone picks up a Colin F. Barnes book, for example, I’d like them to know what they’re going to get. That’s difficult when my interests are so varied. However, if I do use several pen-names for different genres, then there’s the issue of splitting my attention when it comes to marketing and diluting any progress across multiple avenues. I wonder, though, does it matter? Do you as a reader care about this genre-author association malarkey? If I were to release a contemporary, light-SF mystery mashup, would you be interested in that considering how far removed it is from Code Breakers or The Last Flotilla books?

Suffice to say I’m undecided. Although, I will write whatever I’m going to write and figure it out afterwards. After so long without writing under my name, I’m eager to re-establish myself and get back to a more regular release schedule.

I’m currently working on a near-future SF, despite my earlier comments about my tastes changing — that’s how weird all of this is. The current novel defies my current tastes, and yet there’s something about it I love (the characters mostly) that keeps me writing. If I were to describe it, I would say it’s similar to the Expanse in that it deals with a human-colonised solar system, but is ultimately a small-ish, character-driven story that doesn’t feature aliens or wacky faster-than-light technology. It’s ostensibly a mystery with thriller elements set on a number of space stations, colonies, and a ruined earth. The story could be transplanted into modern times, and it’d still work.

So that’s my current Work-In-Progress, and I’m aiming to have that released before the end of the year. I’m also working on a light-SF contemporary mystery that may or may not be submitted to the traditional publishers under a new name. Like most things with me currently; it’s up in the air. I feel like most of my life is a big game of Schrodinger’s Cat. I only know what something is when it’s done and happened. Until that final moment, it could be anything or nothing. I’ve given up long-term plans as I’ve discovered they rarely work out as intended—at least for me. I know some people who can conjure a plan and stick to it. My mind is too capricious to do that, despite all my efforts to the contrary.

TL;DR — I’ve not retired. There’s a new Sci-Fi book coming soon and perhaps something else later. And, what do you think about authors writing multiple, disparate genres under one name? Do you think that’s too confusing, or are you happy to read widely if you like the way the author writes?