Interview with A Page to Turn

APTT: Give us an insight into your main character. What makes he/she so special

LW: The Rain Never Came is concerned with the lives of ordinary people at the end of the world, and so Bill, who tells the story, is a pretty ordinary person – he isn’t a solider or an action-hero, nor is he a scientist or saviour or any of the othjer stereotypical post-apocalyptic main characters. This, along with his typically laaiback ‘Australian’ point of view, adds a fresh voice and unique perspective on the end of the world, especially when viewed in conjuction with the more volatile and action-oriented Tobe.

APTT: Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from The Rain Never Came?

LW: As The Rain Never Came is a deliberatly Australian book, Australian actors would obviously have to play Bill and Tobe, the book’s main characters. Making it difficult is the fact that many of Bill and Tobe’s physical traits are loosely based on real people, making it hard for me to see them embodied any other way.

However, if I had to make a choice, and if they were slightly younger men, I would say that Ben Mendehlson and Guy Pearce would make a great Bill and Tobe, respectively. Mendehlson’s shaggy-dog dolefulness is the epitome of Bill’s laidback yet resigned personality; Pearce’s tightly-wound intensity and edgy vibe is a perfect fit for the sometimes unstable Tobe.

APTT: What genre is your most current release?

 LW: The Rain Never Came is a tricky book to pigeonhole – you could call it dystopian, you could call it post-apocalyptic, you could call it climate fiction. But more than anything, I suppose you could call it ‘Australian’ through-and-through.

APTT: What draws you to this genre?

LW: For many of us, post-apocalyptic fiction appeals what you could call our lizard-brain, a sometimes dark part of us that longs for a simpler life, free of our contemporary distractions and problems, and that relishes seeing our civilisation’s monuments and idols reduced to rubble. It’s no coincidence in a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction, the landmarks we see destroyed consist of those that are recognised around the world: the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids of Giza, the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

And then there’s the fact that we right now the end of the world feels like it’s just around the corner. Right now, the heralds of the apocalypse are many: climate change, overpopulation, fundamentalism, isolationist tribalism, vast inequality, terrorism, delusional zealots controlling nuclear-armed countries. At times like these, I think that many of us fantasise about an enormous event that would allow society and civilisation to begin again, this time in a more fair and just way.

APTT: Who designed your book cover/s?

LW: I have a friend who is a lapsed graphic designer, and that I call my ‘brother in science fiction’ – we have similar tastes in the genre, and similar ideas about science fiction’s fundamental philosophies and the successes and failures of its tropes in any given story.

This friend was one of my sounding-boards during the writing of The Rain Never Came, back when it was part of my PhD. When it came time to submit said PhD, I asked him if he was interested in making a ‘mock’ cover. He accepted, supplying two different and equally fantastic images. Afew years later, when Odyssey Books picked up The Rain Never Came, I showed them these covers as a way of conveying the type of vibe I was after. Odyssey Books liked one of these images so much that they decided to base the real cover on it.

APTT: Do you think that the cover plays an important part in the buying process? What’s the purpose behind your cover images?

 LW: I believe that the cover is an undeniably important part of the buying process, but more so in terms of informing the reader as to the ‘type’ of book it is, rather than the quality. For example, the covers for space operas typically feature spaceships and alien planets; those for cyberpunk typically feature minimalist design elements; those for post-apocalyptic fiction typicallly feature washed-out vistas and bleak terrain. These kinds of covers allow us to quickly categorise the books, so that we can either further investiagte them or ignore them dependent on the sub-genre that they belong to. That’s the purpose of the cover for The Rain Never Came – it is set in a drought-stricken future Australia, a land that is almost a character unto itself, something that the cover makes clear.

APTT: What book/s are you reading at present?

LW: I have a bit of a magpie-mind when it comes to my reading – I’ve usually got three or four books on the go, which normally cover a number of different genres, styles and topics. Right now, I’m reading some unsettling science fiction (Michel Faber’s Under the Skin); a wide-ranging history and analysis of classical and popular music, written by the New Yorker’s music critic (Listen to This by Alex Ross); Charles Bukwoski’s Post Office, which I’m rereading for maybe the fifteenth time; and I’m just about to finish Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, which has rocketted to my favouyrite’s pile.

APTT: Which writers inspire you?

LW: I’m inspired by those writers who possess a singular ‘voice’ and focus on the emotional states of their characters, and on their characters’ psychological development. Within the same genres I work in, these kinds of writers normally use their science fiction ideas to further an exploration of those states and feelings that unite us all as people, rather than as an end unto themselves. These are writers like JG Ballard, Michel Faber, Frank Kafka, Katherine Dunn, Kurt Vonnegut, William Kotzwinkle, Debra Biancotti, Steven Amsterdam and Margaret Atwood – their work is truly memorable for the way it makes us feel, rather than the way the make us think, something only made people by these deep humanistic explorations.

APTT: When did you decide to become a writer?

LW: I’ve loved books and stories ever since I was a little kid, but I didn’t start writing until late high school. I kept at it through my early twenties, submitting short stories and poems to magaiznes and journals, but never taking it that seriously. One day, I stopped. Almost a decade later, I returned to university to finish a Bachelor’s Degree that life had interrupted. At this point, I had already had the idea for The Rain Never Came, but turning it into a book seemed like a dream. However, during my resumed degree, I took more and more writing classes, rediscovering my passion and enthusiasm. I practised and practised, writing a lot of rubbish on my way to glimmers of the good stuff. Then the opportunity arose to do a PhD, which would involve writing a novel and a piece of literary criticism. I leapt at it, realising that here was the perfect environment to bring The Rain Never Came to life and turn myself into a proper writer.

APTT: Do you write full-time or part-time? Do you have a special time to write or how is your day structured? Do you aim for a set amount of words/pages per day?

LW: I currently write part-time, and work part-time at my ‘real’ job. I enjoy this balance, as my real job is as a nurseryhand and is very physical – I spend the whole day on my feet walking-walking-walking, and do a lot of lifting and lugging. It’s a great way to shake off the stiffness and soreness that inevitably settles in after a day spent sitting in front of a computer or hunched over a notebook. What it means, though, is that my writing routine is flexible dependant on deadlines that are due and the mood I’m in – I always start early, but what I start is a different story, as is how I structure the day. If I’ve decided to focus on creative writing – rather than, say, one dedicated to admin or book publicity or research – I’ll set the whole day aside and aim to just produce a good amount of content, rather than set myself a specific target. It’s easier that way, and you can run free more rather than get locked down.

APTT: Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just see where an idea takes you? What’s your basic process?

LW: I use the big ideas at the heart of my stories to allow me to explore the ways in which people might react to their new situations and new worlds, which have been caused by these ideas. After all, an idea isn’t a story, it’s just an idea. And it’s only useful in a story as a nifty thought-experiment that allows a hitherto unseen exploration of our own lives and what us human. To do this, I rely on every writer’s trick: observing and eavesdropping, creating characters and situations based on people I know and see, and on the minutiae of life around me. Once I’ve got a loose grip on my characters and a plot, I then spend some time with them, letting reveal themselves through the process of writing – their formation should be a bottoms-up process, based on attempts at the way people really would behave in any given situation, rather than a top-down process in which a predetermined plot guides them with an unwavering hand.

APTT: What is the hardest thing about writing? What was the hardest thing about writing your latest book? What is the easiest thing about writing?

LW: I don’t really find writing hard or easy, at least not in the conventonal sense – it’s just something that I do now, and I have good writing days and bad writing days. The only thing that I do find particularly hard, is when I hit a plateau on the way to getting better. We’ve all been there; every writier only has to gio back and look at work from years past to see how much they’ve changed. But for me, that change comes in fits and starts surrounded by periods where I churn out words no better than those written months ago. This is a slog, to be sure, and was the hardest part of writing The Rain Never Came. But you just have to shake your head, try and laugh it off, and endure it with a smile.

APTT: If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?

LW: The only book I’ve ever really wished I had written is JG Ballard’s High Rise. This was a formative read when I was a teenager, teaching me that science fiction and specultiave iction need not only concern bug-eyed monsters and UFOs, but could extend to an exploratiomn of universal emotions and states of being.

This is soemthing that has guided me as a writer – sicence fiction and speculative fiction should be all about the characters, and how they pshychologically and emoptionally react to the big idea at the stry’s core, rather than focussing on the idea itself. Ballard, true psychological science fiction writer that he is, does this so well in High Rise, making me sometimes wishj that it was my own.

APTT: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

LW: If you want to write, all you need to do is keep at it. No-one is born a great writer, bar the odd savant – like all creative arts, writing is something you need to practise and practise and practise. By writing as much as you can whenever you can, and keeping your chin up as you wade through the shit, you’ll eventually get there.

But remember, despite what some people say, there are no real rules when it comes to writing. Everyone has their own methods and means, their own rituals and routines; what works for some doesn’t work for others. Finding your own system is what’s important, and probably the only thing that I hazard all writers would agree upon, alongside the necessity of practise and perseverance.

(Originally published on A Page to Turn, 11/10/2017)

Advertisements

Interview with Arvenig.it

A: Tell us a little about yourself and your background!

LW: I’m a writer and a nursery-hand. Once upon a time, I was a musician and a cook. I’m a country boy living in the city, a working class intellectual, a cynical optimist, a Doctor of Literature who avoids academia, an outdoorsy bookworm, a highly-motivated daydreamer, a lover not a fighter, a hippy who eschews dreadlocks, tribal-chic, drum circles and earnestness.

A: When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer?

LW: I’ve loved books and stories ever since I was a little kid, but I didn’t start writing until late high school: poems and short fiction, the usual teenage stuff. I kept writing during my early twenties, submitting the odd piece of work but never taking it seriously. And then one day I just stopped.

Nearly a decade later, I returned to university to finish a Bachelor’s Degree that life had gotten in the way of. As I kept on through my degree, I took some writing classes, and rediscovered my passion for writing. I practised and practised, writing my way through a lot of crap before I got to the beginnings of the good stuff. The opportunity arose to do a PhD, which would encompass writing a novel and a piece of literary criticism. I seized it, knowing that here was the perfect environment to bring The Rain Never Came to life, and to turn myself into a writer.

A: Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?

LW: I normally avoid outlining any kind of message that I would like readers to take away from my work – to me, the joy and beauty of literature is that the reader is the one that matters, not the writer. I might want people to read The Rain Never Came in a certain way, but I can’t force them to do so. Reading is an incredibly individual act, and the messages that we take away from what we read apply to no one but ourselves, dependent as they are on our own points of view and personal philosophies.

A: What are you working on at the moment?

LW: I don’t think writers can ever have too many projects on the go – the difficulty is in knowing which to focus on, something I’m not very good at yet. And so right now I have a completed draft of a serious book-length story cycle that looks at giant monsters of the Godzilla/King Kong kind, and I’ve also made a start on two other books: a post-apocalyptic western, and a piece of metafictional science fiction. One day, one day, they’ll all be done…

A: Any last thoughts for our readers?

LW: All I can say is that, as science fiction fans, we need to explore beyond the boundaries of the countries that produce the majority of it: Europe, the UK, the US and Japan. From Africa to South America, from the Indian Subcontinent to Eastern Europe, and from South-East Asia to the Antipodes, science fiction allows everyone to express their hopes for and fears of the future, regardless of their race or creed. All we need to do is look a little further and dig a little deeper.

(Originally published on Arvenig.it, 16/8/2017)

Interview with Cheryl Holloway

CH: Please tell us in one sentence, why we should read your book.

LW: Told in an unmistakably and undeniably Australian voice, The Rain Never Came will show you a different end of the world, one of thirst and drought and baked earth, of mateship and laconicism and black humor.

CH: Since this book is about a drought in Australia, was it hard creating believable situations and issues or did you take them from real life and elaborate?

LW: A great deal of The Rain Never Came is extrapolated from real life. Almost a decade ago, I moved back to my hometown at the tail end of a ten-year drought that devastated much of Australia’s south-east. My hometown is a tiny country town, deep in the bush—at that time, it was suffering from the effects of this drought. Life was strange: communities were fraying; some people who depended on water for their livelihood began abandoning the land and moving to the city; and water theft had become common.

It seemed as if the past had returned—a world of hard work, dust and thirst. And yet, we were surrounded by the trappings of 21st Century life. More than anything else, this world of old and new seemed like the beginning of some post-apocalyptic world you would find in science fiction. From there, based on my own experience, it was easy to imagine the parched land only a handful of years hence. And so The Rain Never Came was born.

CH: What made you decide to write this book?

LW: I returned to university in my late twenties, to finish a Bachelor’s Degree that life had interrupted. I’d already had the idea for The Rain Never Came, but turning it into a book seemed like a fantasy. However, during my degree and my honors year, I took quite a few writing classes, and rediscovered a passion and enthusiasm for writing that I thought had disappeared.

I practiced a lot, trying to find a voice and point-of-view all my own. I finished my studies and returned to real life, writing as much as I could, whenever I could. And then one day, the opportunity arose to do a PhD, which would involve writing both a novel and a piece of literary criticism. I seized it, realizing that it would be the perfect environment to bring The Rain Never Came to life.

CH: Where do your ideas come from? Do you have a standard formula for plots or do stories come to you as a whole concept?

LW: Like most writers of science fiction/speculative fiction, the big ideas at the heart of my stories are really just frameworks upon which I can hang explorations of the ways in which people might react to their new situations and new worlds. After all, an idea isn’t a story—it’s more like a spark—a spark that ignites a fire. As I want my fires to contain what-ifs and maybes (that nonetheless still connect to the world we live in), I’m always on the lookout for real-life stories that seem to point towards our future—changes in technology, politics, culture, the environment, medical science, communication devices, interpersonal relationships, infrastructure systems, and organizational, learning and teaching methods.

And then it’s just a matter of extrapolating a new idea from any particular real-life stories that grab me, and working out how this new idea might affect everyday people. To do this, I rely on every writer’s trick: observing and eavesdropping, creating characters and situations by recombining the people I know and see and the minutiae of life around me. Once I’ve got the first inklings of my characters and a plot, I then tend to just spend time with them and let them reveal themselves through the process of writing—their formation should be a bottom-up process, based on attempts at realistic actions and reactions, rather than a top-down process, whereby the stricture of a predetermined plot guides them with an unwavering hand.

CH: Did you have to do any special research to write this book?

LW: Most of the way of life portrayed in The Rain Never Came was based on observation, guesswork and my own prior knowledge—the only real research that was necessary was on the effects of dehydration. And even then, we’ve all been thirsty at some time.

CH: Who was your favorite character to write? And which character was hardest to write?

LW: I didn’t have a favorite character to write, or a least favorite. Likewise I didn’t find any one particular character harder to write than any other. What I did find was that there were some character moments I thoroughly enjoyed, and some that I didn’t enjoy much at all. Funnily enough, these two disparate moments both involved the same characters: Bill and Tobe.

Even though Bill and Tobe are almost entirely fictional creations, there is one part of their relationship that is steeped in reality: the shit-stirring, knockabout sense of mateship that they share. Here, I drew upon the same kind of Australian-style trash-talk that exists between some of my own friends and I, and thoroughly enjoyed the process – the roughness and dismissiveness that they show towards each other, which masks genuine concern and compassion, never failed to make me smile. And so, without giving things away, I found writing the flip-side of their relationship to be a difficult and sometimes enjoyment-free process, so invested was I in the light-hearted and affectionately derogatory vibe that exists between them.

CH: Is there a message in this book that you want readers to grasp?

LW: I don’t really like highlighting particular messages that I want readers to take from my work—I feel that the beauty and the joy of literature is that the act of reading is all about the reader, rather than the writer. I might want people to find specific messages in The Rain Never Came, but I can’t force them to do so. Reading is the most individual of individual acts; whatever messages we take away apply only to ourselves, as they’re solely dependent on our own points of view and personal philosophies.

CH: What is different and exciting that you bring to your readers through your writing style?

LW: First and foremost, I want people to be excited by an Australian voice that is steeped in Australian-isms—this is something that I’ve tried hard to achieve, as we have some fascinating terms and colloquialisms that are as interesting as those of anywhere else, and what might be called our stereotypically ‘Australian’ way of looking at the world can provide a refreshing perspective.

As well, I hope that readers will find my style both straightforward enough to avoid affectation, and literary enough to avoid being boring or seen as riding the coattails of the bare-bone sparseness common to so-called literary science fiction/speculative fiction. I’ve always been an admirer of both types: the straightforward science fiction voice that simply gets the job done, and the literary voice that flaunts a love of words, language and story. But above all, I’ve always preferred those writers who can walk the fine line between the two.

That’s not to say that I want my ‘voice’ to sound like any of theirs. What I do want, though, is for mine to affect people in the same way as theirs do, and to straddle the same kind of line as they do. And lastly, I hope that readers find it to be unique without being precious, earthy without being coarse, learned without being pretentious.

CH: What can non-Australians understand by reading this book?

LW: I hope that The Rain Never Came will open the eyes of non-Australian readers to the uniqueness of Australian science fiction/speculative fiction, and I hope that these readers see The Rain Never Came as a deliberate addition to this subgenre/offshoot/micro-genre/call-it-what-you-will. Of course, every nationality has a different way of telling stories, both in general and about themselves; no two national perspectives are the same, nor are any two senses of national identity or foundational myths. But being Australian, in my book I want Australian-ness to shine through.

As well, I hope that in The Rain Never Came readers will see how the inherent potential and unreal nature of science fiction/speculative fiction allows for a creative exploration of what it means to be ‘Australian,’ a device used by many other Australian authors operating in the same genre. I also hope that after reading it, readers will imagine the Australian bush in much the same way as they imagined the Australian desert after seeing Mad Max—as a place of desolate beauty and ancient stillness, that doesn’t need dressing up to resemble a world after the apocalypse.

CH: What type of feedback are you receiving from readers?

LW: Most of the feedback I’ve received so far has been positive, or at least encouraging. I’m more than ready for anything negative, though nothing creative is ever perfect, and nor should it be. Luckily, I’ve got pretty thick skin. The writer’s lot has given me this ‘you can’t let rejection letter after rejection letter stop you from persevering,’ you just have to have confidence, determination and an honest eye, and realize that you can always get better.

Remembering that taste is in the eye of the beholder also helps. Even better is doing the best job that you can, and resisting the urge to grow complacent or lazy with your work. We write because we love writing and literature, books and stories. There’s no point in phoning that love in.

CH: Who are some of your writing influences?

LW: I like those writers who have a singular ‘voice’ and focus on the emotional states of their characters, and on their characters’ psychological development. Within science fiction/speculative fiction, these kinds of writers normally use their science fiction ideas as a framework to support an exploration of these states and developments, rather than as an end unto themselves: people like J. G. Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut, Debra Biancotti, Steven Amsterdam and Margaret Atwood. Their work, while full of ideas, is truly memorable for the way it makes us feel, rather than the way they make us think.

Outside the umbrella of science fiction, I like writers who do the same kind of thing, and possess a similarly singular voice and focus on the emotional and psychological states of their characters: Charles Bukowski, William Kotzwinkle, Katherine Dunn, Franz Kafka and Peter Carey.

CH: What has been the most exciting thing to happen on your publishing journey?

LW: The Rain Never Came hasn’t been out for that long, so I’m only really taking my first steps as a published author. But I don’t think that many writing accomplishments will ever feel as good as the first time I saw my book as an actual book, something I’m sure most published writers will agree with.

CH: What is your next writing project?

LW: I like to have a lot of projects on the go at once—the trick is knowing which one to focus on first, something I’m not that good at. And so right now, I have a decent second draft of a book-length story cycle, which looks at giant monsters with serious eyes, and have also made a start on two other books: a post-apocalyptic western, and an offbeat piece of metafictional science fiction. Did I really just use the word offbeat?

CH: For my audience, where is your book sold?

LW: You can find The Rain Never Came at all the usual places: Amazon, the Book Depository, Booktopia, iTunes, Barnes and Noble, and Odyssey Books’ website.

CH: Any closing remarks?

LW: I’ve banged this drum previously, but I’m going to beat it some more: as fans of science fiction/speculative fiction, we must ensure that we make an effort to explore beyond the boundaries of those countries that produce the majority of it: Europe, the UK, the US and Japan.

From South-East Asia to the Antipodes, from the Indian Subcontinent to Eastern Europe, and from Africa to South America, science fiction/speculative fiction allows all of us to express our hopes for the future and our fears of it, regardless of our nationality or background. All we need to do is look a little further and dig a little deeper. Cheryl, thanks for the opportunity to be on your blog.

(This interview originally appeared on Cheryl Holloway’s Blog, 11/9/2017)

 

Interview with What Cathy Read Next

WCRN: Without giving too much away, can you tell us a bit about The Rain Never Came?

LW: In terms of plot, The Rain Never Came is about a thirsty, drought-stricken future Australia in which the eastern states have been evacuated to more appealing climates. A stubborn few resist this forced removal, hiding out in small country towns where no one would ever bother looking. But no one can hide forever…

In terms of heart, The Rain Never Came is actually about two classically ‘Australian’ mates trying to take the end of the world in their stride. And it’s about friendship and community, independence and practicality, larrikinism and egalitarianism, the things that we fight for and the things we let go of. And in the end, it’s about the ties that bind and the length that these ties will stretch.

WCRN: How did you get the idea for the book?

LW: Some years ago, I moved back to my hometown at the tail end of Australia’s Millennium Drought, a ten-year drought that devastated much of the country’s south-east. My hometown is the actual town of Newstead, the main setting of The Rain Never Came – it’s a small country town, deep in the bush, and like everywhere else it was suffering from the ravages of the dry.

Life there was strange indeed – communities were fraying as those who depended on water for their livelihood began walking off their farms, abandoning the land and moving to the city; water theft had become a common occurrence; our 20th-century technology meant nothing against nature. It seemed as if the past had returned; a world of hard work, dust and thirst. And yet we were surrounded by the trappings of 21st-century life. More than anything else, this hybrid world to me seemed like the beginning of some post-apocalyptic world from the pages of science fiction, and I knew that one day I just had to make it so.

WCRN: The Rain Never Came is your first novel. Can you tell us a bit about your writing journey?

LW: I’ve loved books and stories ever since I learned to read, but I didn’t really start writing until late high school: poems and short fiction, some of it the usual teenage dross, some of it not too bad. I kept at it through my early twenties, submitting things here and there but never taking it that seriously. One day, I just stopped.

Almost a decade later, I returned to university to finish a Bachelor’s Degree that life had interrupted. At this point, the idea for The Rain Never Came had already come to me, but turning it into a book seemed like a fantasy. However, as I progressed through my degree and into my honours year, I took more and more writing classes and rediscovered my passion and enthusiasm for writing. I practised and practised, writing a lot of crap to get to the good stuff. Then the opportunity arose to do a PhD, which would encompass writing a novel and a piece of literary criticism. I leapt at it, realising that here was the perfect environment to bring The Rain Never Came to life.

Much perseverance and stubbornness has finally paid off.

WCRN: You are a reviewer and critic but what’s been your experience so far of being on the receiving end of reviews?

LW: I haven’t actually perceived that many reviews yet – The Rain Never Came hasn’t been out very long – and those I have received have been quite positive. I’m prepared for the negatives, however – nothing is perfect, especially something as personal as a story. Luckily, I’ve also got a pretty thick skin. The writer’s lot has given me this. You can’t let rejection letter after rejection letter stop you from writing. You just have to have confidence, perseverance and an honest eye, and realise that you can always get better.

It helps if you remember that taste is in the eye of the beholder. Even better is making sure that you do the best job that you can, and resisting any urges to grow complacent or lazy with your work. We write for the love of writing and literature, books and stories. There’s no point in phoning in that love.

WCRN: The focus of your PhD was post-apocalyptic fiction. What do you think makes this genre so attractive to authors, and to readers?

LW: I think that for writers and readers alike, post-apocalyptic fiction appeals to some dark part of us, a part buried deep in our reptilian brain stem, a part that longs for a life free of our contemporary distractions and problems, that relishes the idea of the symbols of our civilisation, along with its monuments and idols, reduced to wreck and ruin. It’s no coincidence that much of the iconography of post-apocalyptic fiction consists of landmarks that are globally recognisable, despite the devastation inflicted upon them: the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids of Giza, the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

And then there’s the fact that we live in an increasingly uncertain age, in which the end of the world feels like it just might be on the horizon, a cyclic cultural occurrence that has repeated itself numerous times throughout human history. Right now, the heralds of the apocalypse are many: climate change, overpopulation, fundamentalism, isolationist tribalism, vast inequality, terrorism, delusional zealots controlling nuclear-armed countries. At times like these – times of great change, instability, hopelessness and anxiety – I think that some people fantasise about an enormous event that would allow society and civilisation to begin again, this time in a more fair and just way.

WCRN: It seems to me the situation envisioned in The Rain Never Came, and people’s different responses to it, support the idea of a ‘thin veneer of civilization’. Is this an idea that interests you?

LW: I think that for some people, civilisation really is only skin deep, and that these people only ‘behave’ because they have to, and that they’ll seize any opportunity and/or circumstance in which they can indulge their barbaric side. As well, I think that many people would, rightly or wrongly, give up their civilised sides when it came to life or death. But to assume that everyone would act this way is to take a very dim view of humanity, and to wallow in pessimism and misanthropy. Not all of us are bad or selfish, even when things get hard. For some people, dire straits only make their humanity shine; something history has proven time and time again.

WCRN: Did the characters of Bill Cook and Tobe Cousins change at all during the writing process or did they arrive in your mind pretty much fully formed?

LW: The core relationship between Bill and Tobe existed from the moment I had the idea for The Rain Never Came: two classically ‘Australian’ mates standing side-by-side at the end of the world. But as individuals, Bill and Tobe constantly evolved as I fleshed out their world and explored the dynamic and history between them. They changed dramatically as the story progressed, as they became more ‘real,’ and as the history between them became an essential part of the narrative.

These changes often surprised me. But then, a well-rounded character should sometimes surprise both the reader and the writer. For the writer, their personalities and psychologies should direct how they’re written; rather than being shoehorned into an action or decision for the sake of plot, the actions and decisions they make should come from within them, from their individual personalities and psychologies. For the reader, a character should be surprising because that’s what people are like – at times, we’ve all been contradictory, impulsive, unthinking, inconsistent or just acted out of character.

WCRN: Are there any Australian colloquialisms in the book you think readers in other parts of the world may struggle with?

LW: I hope not… But in all seriousness, I believe that context is key when it comes to understanding colloquialisms – we should be able to understand them without needing to refer to a glossary, something that most astute readers have a handle on. In the case of The Rain Never Came, most of the colloquialisms have either been encountered before through Australia’s internationally successful films – think of how Crocodile Dundee and the Mad Max series introduced the world to phrases like ‘she’ll be right’ and ‘fang it’ – or else they should be easily interpretable, given the context. After all, one person’s ‘g’day’ is just another person’s ‘howdy.

WCRN: Which other writers do you admire, and why?

LW: Being a fan and writer of science fiction and its subgenres, most other writers I admire tend to come from the same field. I do, however, prefer those writers who have a singular “voice” and focus on the emotional states of their characters, and on their characters’ psychological development. These kinds of writers normally use their big science fiction ideas as a frame to support an exploration of these states and developments, rather than as an end unto themselves.

I’m talking about people like JG Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut, Debra Biancotti, Steven Amsterdam and Margaret Atwood. Their work, while full of big ideas, is memorable more for the way they make us feel, rather than the way the make us think. Outside the umbrella of science fiction, I admire people who do the same kind of thing, and possess a similarly singular voice and focus on the emotional and psychological states of their characters: Charles Bukowski, William Kotzwinkle, Katherine Dunn, Franz Kafka and Peter Carey.

WCRN: What are you working on next?

LW: I don’t think anyone creative can ever have too many projects on the go. The trick is in knowing which one to focus on, something I’m not very good at yet. And so right now I have a pretty decent second draft of a book-length story cycle that takes a serious look at giant monsters of the Godzilla/King Kong kind, and I’ve also made a start on two other books: a post-apocalyptic western, and a zany piece of metafictional science fiction. Did I really just use the word zany?

(This interview originally appeared on What Cathy Read Next, 12/8/2017)

10 Works of Science Fiction That Will Bring You to Tears or Heal Your Heart

Science fiction has been called many things, but I doubt that “highly emotional” is a label regularly applied. Even now – surrounded as we are by gadgets and gizmos so high-tech as to be almost unfathomable, living with and dependent on technology unarguably resembles a not-so-bygone vision of the far future, in which what was scientifically unthinkable yesterday need not necessarily be that way today, whereby science fiction’s terminology and motifs have become a kind-of shorthand for explaining and understanding the world we live in – the genre still too-often falls prey to accusations of shallowness, style-over-substance and spectacle-over-intimacy. It might often get a big tick for the inventiveness of its ideas, and another for its literariness and another for its socio-cultural influence, but it is sometimes still too easy to describe it as “emotionally dishonest.”

However, what’s true for some isn’t necessarily true for all. As an inquisitive and thoughtful reader, who doesn’t mind occasionally having a cry or having my sense of wonder reignited, I’ve been fascinated by science fiction’s potential to genuinely engage our emotions and move us deeply. After all, it just makes sense – one of the genre’s concerns is reframing the world we live in by asking a “what if?” question, opening our eyes to what is by showing us what it might be. And “what if?” is an emotional human question as old as time, followed closely by “what might have been?” If the big ideas and fantastical situations integral to science fiction are guided towards their emotional impact rather than their technological or physical, the results can sometimes bring us to tears or heal our hearts. They can show us our feelings anew by scrubbing away their regular contexts and then holding them up to the light; they can makes us remember that love persists, no matter what; they can remind us that simple human charity and kindness can exist even in the darkest times.

What the Family Needed by Steven Amsterdam

 What the Family Needed isn’t exactly science fiction per se (and so we’ll get it out of the way first), but it is undeniably based on ideas and concepts born of science fiction: superheroes. But it isn’t any old superhero story – Amsterdam makes a counterintuitive move and does away with the concepts of both a super-villain and the capital-H hero, concepts central to the sub-genre. Instead, the characters in What the Family Needed are simply normal people that just happen to possess superpowers. This conceit is almost unique and absolutely incredible, and will have you crying like the proverbial babe.

A family drama and story-cycle at heart, it follows, over the course of thirty-odd years, the lives of sisters Ruth and Natalie, their parents and their own children. Each chapter focuses on a different family member at a different point in time, detailing their struggles to cope with the stresses of their life and the interwoven nature of the extended family. During these struggles, each member inexplicably develops a typical superhero-style superpower – invisibility, flight, super-strength, psychic powers, time travel, etc. But unlike typical superheroes, no one in the family uses their powers to fight crime or protect the innocent. Instead, their powers act as metaphors for their internal and external lives. For example: Giordana, a typically awkward teenager torn between her warring parents, often wishes that she could disappear, and subsequently develops the power of invisibility; beleaguered mother Natalie, exhausted from the stresses of her life, develops super-strength; Ben, feeling trapped by domestic life and fatherhood, develops the power of flight; and so on.

While these power might seem to help each member better deal with their struggles – invisibility lets Giordana disappear, super-strength allows Natalie to carry her burden, flight gives Ben the ability to fly away – they ultimately prove inconsequential to the resolution of the family members’ struggles. The result of this is astounding, because it is so easily relatable – our own “powers,” be they intelligence or athleticism or practicality or beauty – matter not one whit when it comes to dealing with our own similar struggles. They can us at the most inopportune moments or prove more a hindrance than a help. Love is what really matters when it comes to families, alongside kindness, compassion, patience, affection, perseverance, understanding and acceptance. These are the things that all families need, the real superpowers that can help us on our own way. Who can’t relate to that?

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

If you were to draw from a line from Nietzsche’s philosophy of “eternal return” to Rust Cohle’s utterance in True Detective that “time is a flat circle – everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again,” you would find Slaughterhouse-Five smack-bang in the middle. Vonnegut’s most influential and acclaimed work, it sets out the themes and concerns that would dominate the entirety of his oeuvre: the futility of war, the relationship between love and hate, the uncaring unfairness of life, free will versus fate, that old maxim “no regrets,” and apathy/passivity in the face of events beyond our control.

Billy Pilgrim has become “unstuck in time.” A veteran of World War 2, rescued prisoner-of-war and survivor of the firebombing of Dresden, who will go on to be adducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore and put on display in their zoo, he periodically and involuntarily becomes detached from the present and drifts through the chronology of his life. He witnesses his past, present and future – from the horror of interment in Dresden shortly before the bombing (events that Vonnegut also experienced), to the banality and absurdity of his post-war life, to his eventual abduction – and comes to understand that instead of existing as multiple points on a line, these events, along with every other event that has been or will be, are actually points on a circle spinning endlessly. They are occurring simultaneously, their sense of historicity existing purely because of perspective. For Billy, with understanding comes acceptance, of his inability to change his past, of the fact that all he can really do is the best he can, of the cruelty of an uncaring universe, in the insignificance of his place in the universal machine.

To go on would do it injustice. It is a beautiful work – virtuosic, unique, inventive, heart wrenching, and equal parts frightening and funny – and it exists beyond comparison. Vonnegut was a singular writer, and Slaughterhouse-Five is a singular work.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

A work of grim horror and dazzling beauty, McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic father-and-son story was both a commercial and critical success. An unashamed genre work embraced by a broad general audience to a degree almost unheard of in recent memory, it is quite possibly the one piece of science fiction that people who hate science fiction have read. Referred to simply as “the man” and “the boy,” the father and son of The Road traverse a dead America rendered as such by an unidentified apocalypse. Theirs is a desperate and violent world, their lives solely consisting of searching for food, water and shelter, and evading other survivors who have banded together and reverted to cannibalism. Dark indeed…

And yet within this darkness, McCarthy creates a light so bright as to blind us. This is no surprise – from the beginning, McCarthy makes plain that The Road is really about nothing more than the bond between father and son, and the lengths a father will go to in order to ensure his son’s safety. It is this bond and these lengths that gives it emotional heft, and that ultimately brings us to tears. The unthinkable things that the man does in order to protect the boy; his unswerving dedication to the boy’s wellbeing, even at the expense of his own; the burning love that he feels and the way that this love keeps them from descending into savagery; they will break even the hardest heart. And this is where the post-apocalyptic nature of The Road becomes so successful – thanks to this setting, the aforementioned concerns and dedication of a parent towards a child, which are simple and everyday emotions, are elevated to an extreme seldom seen in literature.

Happiness TM by Will Ferguson

Satirical, philosophical and wickedly funny in equal measure, Happiness TM employs the science fiction trope of a dystopia disguised as a utopia. This trope usually works in one of two ways: people only believe their utopia to be so because they don’t know any better; or their utopia depends on the subjugation of a minority. However, Ferguson subverts these methods in a delightfully unexpected way – in his utopia, people know how and why it works, and there is no subjugation of a minority. And herein lies its problem.

To explain: Edwin, a frustrated book editor looking to plug a hole in his publishing schedule, finds in his slush pile a self-help book entitled What I Learned on the Mountain. Left with no choice but to release it, he does so, expecting it to sink without trace. But this isn’t the case, as it becomes a raging success and, furthermore, it actually works – 99% of its readers find themselves utterly transformed by it, and find that their lives have suddenly become completely fulfilled. As a consequences, society as we know it crumbles: with true happiness attained, those affected by What I Learned on the Mountain become akin to zombies and have nothing left to strive for, their “happiness” resembling a kind-of Zen emptiness. Guilty pleasures that help get us through the night end up, or help ease the pain of life, end up falling by the wayside – the tobacco and alcohol industries become bankrupted, fast food empires follow suit, and before too long the market for every other consumerist pleasure collapses. Edwin, however, is one of the few unaffected, and so sets about righting the wrongs that he has unleashed.

If this theme sounds more than a little familiar, that’s because it is effectively an explication of the concept of yin and yang. Without balance, without an opposite state to define our current state, we are left with nothing but a meaningless concept made so because it exists in isolation. In other words, without sadness to act as a comparison, happiness is just a word rather a state of being. Heavy stuff, yes, but Ferguson’s sharp wit and eye for the absurd mean that Happiness TM becomes truly moving and easily digestible, and will make us look at our lives and belief systems anew.

The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

While sneered at by many fans of science fiction because of its emphasis on love and romantic relationships, The Time Traveller’s Wife is a profoundly moving work with an ingenious science fiction conceit: Henry DeTamble randomly and involuntarily travels back and forth in time, as he suffers from a (fictional) genetic disorder known as Chrono-Impairment. However, rather than focussing on the search for a cure for this disorder, or the historical/cultural/social implications of his travels through time, or any number of other typical science fiction plot devices driven by the theme of time travel, Niffenegger instead focuses on the implications Henry’s disorder has on his relationship with his wife, Clare Anne Abshire.

A plot device that is perhaps unique in the annals of science fiction, it allows Niffenegger to examine a well-worn theme typically found in romantic fiction, without referring to cliché or sentimentality: how love can persevere and even flourish in the face of challenges, adversity and calamity. And she does so beautifully and intelligently, even when Henry’s travels through time take him and Clare to some exceedingly dark places. In the end, if you’ll forgive me for quoting Huey Lewis and the News, it’s all about the power of love, something that we should all believe in.

The Humans by Matt Haig

The Humans, my favourite book of all time, reverses the typical alien encounter trope common to science fiction: despite being set right here on Earth, we are the “aliens” thanks to Haig’s plot contrivances.

To summarise: Andrew Martin, a maths professor, has devised an equation that will advance humanity’s technological progress dramatically, and the Vonnadorians, alien beings that act as intergalactic observers, decide that humanity isn’t ready for this acceleration. And so they send one of their own to remove this new knowledge by killing Martin, destroying the physical and digital evidence of his breakthrough, assuming his physical identity through the use of alien technology and thus assuming his role as a husband, father and teacher, and then determining who Martin shared this knowledge with it so they can also be killed.

This set up allows Haig to craft a narrative that begins with cynical humour before moving into something approaching wonder and awe. Initially, the Vonnadorian impostor is bewildered and disgusted by humanity: he cannot understand why we do some of the ridiculous and contradictory things we do, why our lives sometimes seem devoted to trivia, why we seem so obsessed with the negative sides of our being, and why we seem so devoted to such unlikely-seeming things as dogs, sport and junk food. However, as he slowly grows into his role as a human, he learns to love and to loathe, to feel joy and sorrow, to experience pleasure and pain, excitement and boredom. In other words, he learns what it is to be human.

To the reader, the effect of this is incredible – the things that he learns remind us how incredible and how dull being alive really is. We come to see that life is both good and bad, rational and irrational, serious and nonsensical – that it just is what it is. And in the end, we come to see that The Humans is a panacea for our own troubled times, reminding us that even at a point in history in which there often seems to be nothing but darkness and crisis all around, our very nature will always allow us to carry on with a smile.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars tells the story of Hig and Bangley, survivors of a global pandemic that has wiped out almost everyone else on Earth. As people, they couldn’t be any more different – Hig still mourns the loss of humanity, and is frequently plagued by survivor’s guilt; Bangley is a misanthropic “hard case” relishing his role as a survivor, who often taunts Hig for his soft-heartedness. However, despite these differences they form a relationship that evolves from necessity born of their ability to help each other, to something much deeper: best friends who deeply care for one another, and rely on each other for emotional support rather than just survival. They become metaphorical brothers, whose differences in attitude and outlook have little bearing on the bond they share.

In other words, The Dog Stars is a book that both encapsulates the cliché of “a burden shared is a burden halved” and explores the notion of friendship found in the unlikeliest of places. It denies the common science fiction theme that in a post-apocalyptic world all that will remain is savagery and brutality – the post-apocalyptic world that Heller creates still contains hope, and those who dwell in it come to realise that there is more to their lives than an unfeeling heart made so by the constant fight to stay alive. There is no better example of this than in Bangley’s growing awareness that he needs Hig more for emotional support than physical, especially after Hig reciprocates these feelings – the end result it beautifully optimistic and absolutely staggering.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

A tender and kind work, Flowers for Algernon tells the story of Charlie Gordon, a simple-minded man with a dramatically low IQ who works as a cleaner/sweeper at his local bakery. Invited to take part in an experimental surgical procedure that will dramatically increase his intelligence, he duly accepts and finds himself slowly elevated to the level of “genius,” experiencing a hitherto unknown intellectual ability.

Structured as a series of diary entries in his own hand detailing his life before and after the experiment, Charlie comes to understand, thanks to his expanded awareness, that intelligence doesn’t necessarily equal happiness. Given a new home after the experiment, he adopts Algernon, an extraordinarily smart mouse who was the experiment’s first subject. A bond forms between them, Charlie’s rapidly growing intelligence and understanding meaning that he views Algernon as both a friend and a precedent. Charlie learns a new life – very much emotionally a child, he learns that not all is what it seems, that the jokes and nicknames that he once thought of as affectionate are in fact meant in mockery, that people lie and cheat and can be ridiculously contradictory, that what he once thought of as patient kindness was actually patronising cruelty. But he also finds hope, and love, and art, and friendship, and humanity at its best. He learns that life is both good and bad, and that neither can exist without the other. And then he learns that Algernon has started ailing and is beginning to revert to his natural, ordinary-mouse state…

Here are just a few of the emotions felt while accompanying Charlie on his journey: happiness, shame, perseverance, acceptance, hope, anger, heartbreak, regret, perseverance, sadness, joy, love, frustration, guilt and pride. Once read, it will never be forgotten, and you will be changed for the better.

Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut

 The second Kurt Vonnegut book on this list (Vonnegut being an author who specialised in using science fiction to explore highly emotional and humanist territory), Timequake was his last book, and a return to a genre that he mostly abandoned for many years in favour of realist, meta and speculative fiction. Centred on the kind-of genius science fiction concept that evokes jealousy in other writers working in the genre, it uses this concept as a springboard to explore the age-old maxims “seize the day” and “no regrets.”

In the depths of space, a mysterious cosmic event occurs that sends shockwaves across the universe, and here on Earth these shockwaves cause every single person to travel 10 years into the past. So far, so science fiction. However, this particular science fiction set-up doesn’t allow for anyone to change the future-to-come or change their own lives based on what they know will happen. Instead, they experience this repeated decade exactly as it unfolded the first time, forced to carry out every decision and action in the same way they did before they time travelled, fully aware of the consequences of these decisions and actions and yet unable to affect any change whatsoever. And then the repeated decade comes to an end and “real” life resumes, and all hell breaks loose – suddenly imbued with free will after years of paralysis, most people just don’t know what to do with themselves and succumb to depression and ennui. One of the few people unaffected is Kilgore Trout – the book’s central character, a recurring character in Vonnegut’s work, and a satirical stand-in for the author himself – who upon regaining free will tries to help those affected by stating, “you were sick, but now you’re well, and there’s work to do.”

As is probably obvious by now, Timequake is all about free will versus determinism, acceptance of the things we got right and the things we got wrong, seizing the day, not being defined by our history or our mistakes, and helping others when we can. While reading it, we just know that it was written by someone accepting their mortality, who knows that their end is drawing closer, who knows that sometimes what really matters isn’t what we did but what we do with the time we have left. It will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you rethink what you do with your own remaining days.

Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam

The second Steven Amsterdam book on this list – much like Kurt Vonnegut, Amsterdam is an author who specialises in using science fiction and speculative fiction to explore highly emotional and humanist territory – Things We Didn’t See Coming will return hope to your heart, and acts as an antidote to the bleak darkness that pervades so much post-apocalyptic fiction. A small-scale story-cycle covering almost the entirety of its unnamed narrator’s life, it gives us a glimpse of a world wracked by cascading natural disasters caused by climate change. I use the word “glimpse” because said narrator is usually too busy surviving this world to bother detailing it, and herein lies the book’s genius – while surviving this world, he also devotes his time and energy to helping others less fortunate than himself. However, unlike much post-apocalyptic fiction in which the protagonist helps others because he is more an archetypal hero than a grounded character, or because doing so is a means to an end, the narrator of Things We Didn’t See Coming helps others simply because he finds himself in positions to do so and offering help is just what must be done. He refuses to give up hope, refuses to let a wracked and ravaged world drag him down to the level of a beast, and refuses to let it strip him of his humanity.

Amsterdam’s moving debut reassures us that a spark of light can still exist even after all else is dark, echoing numerous instances throughout history in which ordinary people have held their heads high and lent a hand when their world seems base, cruel and savage. It is a testament to human endurance and human kindness, and is absolutely devastating.

(Originally published on duffythewriterblog, 3/2/2018)

Dressing the Part and the Clothes of the Future

Details matter, in any form of science fiction. I’ve covered similar territory in the past, but I believe that this territory needs to be elaborated on with a more specific focus.

A science fiction idea might be so original, thought-provoking or both that it actually make our hearts race, but it will ultimately be a letdown if its details aren’t internally consistent and contemporaneous with its story’s time period. These details consist of large factors such as dialogue and setting, and what might be called the ‘little things’ (despite their varying degrees of importance to each individual story): Architecture, the role and presence of nature, transportation systems, food and clothing, musical styles and other forms of entertainment, household devices, the presence or lack of cultural vices, domestic environments, the weather, and so on. These little things that exist in the background have to be as watertight as those large factors that exist in foreground, otherwise the story risks quickly becoming dated – if the characters in a story speak like private detectives from the 1940s or hippies from the 1960s, then the stories in question should feature 1940s-style private detectives or 1960s-style hippies. If not, their creator is merely betraying the influence of particular cultural and literary movements of the times in which they were writing. Likewise, if a story is set in a future more then four or five years ahead of the present, then the little things in said story must accommodate this passage of time, even if only in subtle ways – some of these little things will quite probably be the same as they are today, but some will definitely change even if they have to share the stage with their predecessors. The world of 2017 is both different and similar to the worlds of 2012 and 2007 – think the ubiquity of smartphones, the rise of nationalist populism, the dominance of the McMansion and the mainstream integration of the archetypal hipster – and likewise the slang of today will become part of everyday language in a year or two, and then retreat into the realm of daggy and old fashioned a few years after that. In crafting their science fiction worlds, creators must make decisions about which of these factors to address to ensure that these worlds are logical and convincing – nothing removes us from a story and makes us aware of our suspension of disbelief like one of these factors being illogically out of date.

This brings us to clothes and their importance in ensuring that a story is internally consistent. This importance rests upon two distinct reasons: The sense of historicity that is inherent in clothes and ingrained into our cultural psychology, and clothes’ contribution towards shaping and expressing an individual’s identity. A brief word of warning is necessary before unpacking these ideas, however – I have done no further research on the role of clothes in society, instead relying solely on my own observations and reflections.

In many ways, clothes are one of the chief signifiers of specific time periods, especially since the rise of post-World War 2 youth culture. Even a layperson who knows very little about a time period in question will probably be able to identify clothes belonging to that period, especially if that period is part of the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. Think of hipsters and the rise of activewear in the 2010s, rave and retro in the 2000s, grunge and homies in the 1990s, hair metal and bigger-than-big in the 1980s, disco and punk in the 1970s, hippies and mods in the 1960s, rockers and apple-pie-American in the 1950s, all the way back to the flappers and bohemians of the 1920s. Even in the far-flung past, clothes are still one of the chief signifiers of the times – think of gladiator sandals and togas, top hats and monocles, suits of armour and leather jerkins, buckle-up shoes and pantaloons. Even those will little interest in history will probably be able to identity these items as respectively belonging to the ancient Middle East and the Mediterranean, Victorian England, Medieval England and Renaissance Europe. With just a glance, these types of clothes establish a specific time period, and when used in a story they effectively ‘place’ it in time and consequently ‘bleed’ contextual associations and historical references (a point that we’ll return to). In written fiction, for example, the description of a character in a Victorian-era story as being dressed in ‘top hat and tails, sporting a cane and a monocle’ allows us to take an educated guess at the story’s time period, extend by association this manner of dress to the other characters and make inferences about the rest of its world (once again, a point that we’ll return to). In other words, with a few judicious touches in terms of describing clothes, a writer allows the reader to fill in the blanks thanks to their prior cultural knowledge of the story’s time period. Visual fiction is different, of course, as we are able to see the clothes of every character that appears on screen. What remains the same is the principle: The inherent historicity of clothes.

The upside of this historicity is that, for the same reasons as it allows a story to be ‘placed’ in time, it also allows a story to be ‘displaced’ if taken advantage of. On one hand, nothing screams futuristic like a dramatic and striking change to the clothes that people wear. On the other hand, if a creator is more interested in showing how even in the future some things might never change, then the inclusion of clothes from our present amongst the story’s futuristic mise-en-scene is a simple and effective way of doing so.

In terms of bedding-down the futuristic setting of a story, the use of clothes in A Clockwork Orange (1971) is still the example set for every other piece of visual science fiction, despite its age and the fact that much of the rest of the film has become dated. Even today, just one look at the uniforms/gang-colours worn by Alex and his droogs tells us that the film takes place in a science fiction future connected to and yet distinct from history as we know it. This can be seen in the contrast between their all-white jumpsuits and codpieces with their black bowler hats and bovver-boy boots: The jumpsuits and codpieces signify the future – all-white being one of the defining colours used to illustrate this – while the hats and boots connect the story to the real world through their inherent historicity (Victorian-era and punk). In combination, a sense of displacement is created, effectively defamiliarising the familiar and presenting it anew. And while dressing gangs and teams et al in matching uniforms/colours is an ancient part of our culture, and so could be used to argue that A Clockwork Orange takes place in some kind-of alternate past, the futurism of the droogs’ outfits also extends to the clothes worn by the secondary and background characters. Velvet, silk and polyester; lace, frills and oversized buttons; burnt primary colours; scarves, ruffles and brocade – it’s as the clothes worn by its characters are a mish-mash of fashions from the Georgian and Victorian eras and the 1970s, in a future that is taking place not long after our own present has concluded.

In terms of using clothes to show how even in the future some things might never change, Alien (1979) is probably still the example to which all other works of visual science fiction will be compared. Unlike A Clockwork Orange, its future is radically removed from our present, as it concerns a spaceship in deep space and the crew’s battle with a hostile alien that they inadvertently bring on board. However, even though this future is far removed from our present, when the crew are revealed we see that they’re wearing work shirts, coveralls, bomber jackets and sturdy boots, with each member sporting individual touches to their uniforms. If these clothes sound familiar that’s because they’re the quintessential outfit of a blue-collar worker – a factory hand, garbo, street sweeper, labourer, cleaner, gardener or mechanic et al. And that’s exactly what the crew are. They aren’t typical science fiction heroes – scientists, explorers, soldiers etc.– but people working a blue-collar job with all its pitfalls: Bad pay, lousy conditions, unsociable hours, unsafe environments. These associations and others (a sense that the characters will be practical, down-to-earth, unpretentious and maybe a little rough) immediately come to mind the first time we see the crew, thanks to the historicity attached to their uniforms. In other words, these clothes help define and emphasise the characters’ blue-collar traits, unlike in A Clockwork Orange where the primary purpose of the clothes on display is to solidify the film’s futuristic mise-en-scene.

The second reason why clothes are important in ensuring that a story is internally consistent is because of clothes’ contribution towards shaping and expressing our individual personalities. They might identify us as being a particular type of person – sporty and active, in the case of exercise wear and muscle tops; outdoorsy and practical, in the case of solid boots and durable fabrics; relaxed and comfortable, in the case of thongs and shorts; narcissistic and vain, in the case of revealing or obviously expensive attire. Furthermore, they can identify us belonging to a specific subculture or social group: Punk, goth, surfie, hippy, raver. Lastly, they can also identify us as belonging to a particular socio-economic segment, from the previously mentioned boilersuits all the way up to bespoke business suits. As we can see, clothes’ contribution towards shaping and expressing our individual identities is actually an exchange between the wearer and witness. For the wearer, their clothes are an expression, a part of their personality that they have decided to show the world. For the witness, however, they are an identifier, even if the identity thrust upon them is a stereotype or generalisation.

When harnessed by a competent creator, these two factors can be an incredible tool for establishing a well-rounded character. By relying on the audience’s cultural awareness of clothes, a creator can use them in their fictions as a kind-of shorthand, whereby the associations they conjure are used by the audience to fill in the blanks and add layers of meaning. Think of Deckard’s overcoat in Bladerunner (1982). We immediately associate such attire with hardboiled private detectives of the Phillip Marlowe-type, and so we make assumptions about his character, ascribing to him traits such as cynicism, world-weariness, possession of an individual moral code and bachelorhood (which is fitting for perhaps the greatest science-fiction noir ever created). A creator using clothes to instigate this process of association-assumption-attribution is employing one of the ultimate forms of ‘show, don’t tell’ – when supported by appropriate mise-en-scene, a massive amount of narrative information can be encoded into something as simple as a hat, a coat or a pair of shoes. For other examples, think of Max’s leathers in the Mad Max series (1979-1985, 2015), which tell us so much about his scavenger-nature, practicality and ability to handle himself in a fight; or the chrome sunglasses and shiny black coats of The Matrix (1999), which mark their wearers as fully-fledged cyberpunks; or the way different outfits are used to differentiate each incarnation of the titular Doctor Who (1963-1989, 2005-2017), from the shabby bohemian-chic of Patrick Troughton’s cosmic-hobo portrayal of the character, to the linen suits and cricket-influenced attire of Peter Davidson’s English-gentlemen portrayal, to the young-man-in-tweed-and-a-bow-tie of Matt’s Smith whimsical portrayal. In each case, what these characters wear helps us create a story for them outside of that proscribed by the creator, whilst simultaneously allowing the creator to designate the character in their own particular way.

As we’ve seen, clothes matter if a story is aiming to be internally consistent and contemporaneous with its time period, and if its creator wants their audience to remain somewhat ignorant of their suspension of disbelief. As well, the sense of historicity inherent in clothes and ingrained into our cultural psychology allows a futuristic setting to be more convincing than it would otherwise, while clothes’ contribution towards shaping and expressing an individual’s identity is a fantastic way of quickly and easily giving a character depth. But no matter which way clothes are used, a creator must show an awareness of these functions if they want to create the best story they can.

(Previously unpublished)