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'Topiary for Tomorrow


This is the text of a talk Chaz gave several years ago, about the approach of writers of speculative fiction to the theme of utopias. It is quite long, so you may prefer to print off a copy to read. You may prefer to click here for an rtf version to print.

When Mike invited me to deliver the last lecture in this series, to provide as it were the final landfall, the Ultima Thule, proof positive that all quests must in the end end, the first thing I did was to turn to -

No, that's not true. When Mike invited me, obviously the first thing I did was to say "yes". Where, obviously, I should have done the other thing, I should have said "no". It's a simple little word, shorter even than the alternative and so much more powerful. It's a bulldozer of a word, it clears bad country and levels difficult ground, it makes space for other things. It has an inherent violence to it, it's a sort of proactive brick wall that thunders forward to meet the enemy before they're fairly ready for a fight. We will return to the word no later, but to those of you who are thinking meanwhile that violence never solved anything, I say tell that to the city fathers of Carthage. Which is a quotation I have clung to, or which has clung to me, since my teenage; it's certainly from a science fiction novel, because sadly I read little else back then and nothing capable of sinking so deep into my emotional or indeed quotational vocabulary, if you can spot the difference: I have a theory that says that all teenagers' emotional lives are lived within quotation marks. Be that as it may, I haven't chased down the Carthage quotation but it has the reek of Robert Heinlein about it, a man whose work became more and more Utopian as he aged and decayed, whose vision of Utopia was more and more explicitly drawn and further and further removed from decency. We will return to Robert Heinlein later; I advert to him now purely in the interests of touching base, of mentioning science fiction and Utopia in the same breath, and of stressing what should need no stress: that the personal is pertinent, that any picture of perfection is necessarily individual and likely to look quite strange to your neighbour.

My own particular vision of a perfect world and a perfect life within it is, like that of many before me, a picture of simplicity: it has to do with focusing on one project at a time, meeting deadlines comfortably, and venturing nothing that does not lie easily and demonstrably within my compass.

None of which conditions apply just now. I'm trying to write three very different books this year; I've already been late with the first of them, the second will be late in four days' time and the third will be very late indeed; and the public lecture-theatre is by no means my natural stage. That's why I'm a writer, damn it, so I can stay at home and lock the world away...

All of which I put forward as very good reasons why I should have said no to Mike. Having said yes, the second thing I did was to turn to my ultimate authority, my vade-mecum, Every Girl's Handbook of 1936. You think I jest; I do not. Herein is wit and wisdom for every occasion. I turned to the chapter on public speaking, as this is an art to which I am still genuinely unaccustomed, and its primary piece of advice was never to read one's talk off the page, for fear of boring one's audience. What was true for the daughters of Empire between the wars holds true still, I am sure, for the sons of Commonwealth in these caring sharing nineties; already I hear the sag of your eyelids and the wander of your thoughts. A pint and a pie, you are thinking, or nearest offer: and that seems to you a vision of a perfect world, because the ultimate definition of Utopia - to which we will return later - surely has to be the place you would most like to find yourself, which at the moment is anywhere other than here. Never mind that the pint will be gassy and the pie-crust soggy, reality has no place in these imaginings.

But I am wandering perilously close to my topic, when all I meant to do was beg your indulgence for my script. While in a perfect world no doubt one would be able to step up here with no more aide-mémoire than a little pack of cards, and speak extempore to the greater benefit of all. Again, however - as ever - reality veers from the vision, and the thing simply cannot be done. Besides which, I am after all a writer, not a critic; style is at least as important as content, and style requires precision above all. The right words in the right order. Actually I'm quoting scandalously out of context there, and again I'm not sure of the source, only that it was a poet insisting on the primacy of his art above mine. Bollocks, I say. In a perfect world, prose would be awarded equal respect to other literary forms - but as we know, perfect this world is not. We will return to that thought later, and likely more than once.

When Mike invited me to do this, the third thing I did was wonder what the hell I had to say. What do I know from utopias, I thought? If I have any kind of speciality, it's the history of the Crusades: which may indeed have been launched with Utopian dreams in mind, the eternal blessings of their God and land, lots of land under starry skies above to satisfy the greed and ambition of so many younger sons, all that milk and honey, who could resist it? - but which resulted inevitably and very quickly in bog-standard human muck and muddle. One could preach, I supposed, on the necessity of failure and disappointment, how all such enterprises must come to dust and decay, how man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for? - another thought to which we shall return later - but I'm no preacher and my philosophies are irredeemably depressing, so I thought I'd better not.

What to do, then? There's an obvious answer, a get-out clause, to fall back on what is easiest. Mike had suggested that I might like to take a look at utopias and dystopias in speculative fiction, and sure, I could have done that. I've read Plato and Thomas More and H G Wells, I had time enough to catch up on other utopian writers; I was already more than familiar with Samuel Butler and George Orwell and Aldous Huxley and Jonathan Swift, the great dystopians. There is perhaps an interesting point to pursue there, that I'm far better acquainted with anti-utopians than with their more optimistic brethren. Neither am I the only one; every tolerably-educated schoolkid reads 1984 and Brave New World, or used to, while damn few have read Utopia or The Republic or New Atlantis. We will return to this later. But no more than I am a literary critic am I an academic lecturer; any one of the staff here could do a better job than me, with half as much study and anguish.

Mike also suggested that I might like to talk about my own work in this field, wherein I do perhaps have some expertise and a modicum of insight, perhaps even a unique point of view. I have after all published a novel called Paradise, and also a short story, A Terrible Prospect of Bridges, which deals with an attempt to establish a small utopian community. But even my most fantastic work struggles to treat with the world as it is, not as it is dreamed to be; Paradise is both a historical and an ironic title, it's a book about Benwell, inner-city life as I have experienced it, which while far from utopian is not exactly hell on earth either, regardless of what the press has at times found to say about it.

So, thinking things through, and perforce rejecting this on grounds of inadequacy and that on grounds of irrelevance, what I came up with was a curious compromise, where what I hope to do is to dance lightly over a couple of classic texts, spend a little more time considering more recent works including my own, but largely to discuss the act of writing, the creative process in the context of utopian fictions, and how that process works on the writer, the creator. Basically, this is a talk about playing God, the awful responsibilities that that entails, and how we cheat in order to get away with it.

In other words, I'm going to jigger about hither and yon like a very jiggery thing; but that's okay. Half the art or possibly craft of writing entails persuading or bullying or inveigling the language to do half the job for you, to underscore the peaks of passion or the limpid pastoral interludes, the hurly-burly of the chaise longue which is followed of course by the deep deep peace of the double bed. The sounds tell the story. You know this; but the same can be true on a larger scale and in a less obvious way. Certainly the internal patterns of a loosely-organised and discursive talk reflect the creative process, how a book is built: a little from here and a little from there, deliberate study and serendipity conjoined in a way that has in its time been associated with magic, and will ultimately defeat any rational analysis.

The fourth thing I did after Mike's invitation was to make up a title; the fifth was to forget it again, because it had come to me in the dark, in the dead of night in my bed, and of course I didn't write it down, why would I? So then, when he nagged me, I had to go through the self-same process, lying awake in the dark and playing with egregious puns in order to reproduce it.

I do not apologise for the puns. We have this wonderfully rich and resonant language to work with, it supplies both the ground on which we structure and order our society and also the engines by grace of which we can leap far beyond it and roam without limits. The language of mathematics may describe the universe more exactly, but in this country at least, in this culture maths is taught and talked about in English. If there is any offence in playing games with words, it's lèse majesté; but just as God is not mocked by a little teasing, so English is not injured by a little happy punning.

The only thing I do apologise for is a misprint that sneaked past my care. I suspect it of being a computer error, the dreadful heavy hand of Bill Gates trying to dictate rules in areas the man simply does not understand. A Gates-crasher, if you will. To those of you with tickets, therefore, please note that the first sigil, the apostrophe that begins the title, has been printed back to front and upside down: it is not there to signify the opening of a quotation that unhappily never finds a closure, it's an elision-mark, a sign that something is missing. In this case, of course, a syllable, u- or dys- depending. But you knew that already, didn't you? You knew I wasn't really going to talk about privet or box.

So. 'Topiary for Tomorrow, or how we hedge our best: a writer's relationship with a future perfect world. It's a complex series of puns, and the joy of it all is that actually it does mean something, or I think it does. We'll see...

Chaz prepares to talk about books

Like thousands, like hundreds of thousands of teenagers before me and I hope a greater number since, I first read Aldous Huxley at school, because I was required to. Brave New World was a set text; fourth form, if I remember correctly. I believe they count otherwise these days, but the past of course is another country, we did things differently there. What I was not required to do but did regardless was to read and reread this particular text when I should have been reading others that had also been set: I never did get to the end of Adam Bede. That's always been my reading pattern: some books, some writers I'm compulsive about, others I discard and just busk my way through exams or conversations, sometimes even public lectures. Brave New World I got to know so well that a friend could throw a line at me and seven or eight times out of ten I could cap it with the line that followed, more or less verbatim. I could have been a trainspotter too, but for an unfortunate incident on Oxford station when I was but a wee bairn; I bear the scar to this day.

Aldous Huxley provides I think an interesting starting-point for a consideration of utopian and dystopian fiction, because he wrote both; I must be one of the few, one of the very few schoolchildren of my generation who read both. This again I was not required to do, but as I say, I was and am compulsive. We could make a case for calling these two novels his first and last books, on the slightly-dodgy but I would maintain legitimate grounds that Brave New World is the first of his novels that most adolescents encounter, and Island is not only genuinely his last book but also the last, the very last that anyone in their right mind should ever read. I'm a generous and forgiving soul, as any regular reader has to be - Homer nods, remember, and the rest of us are just poor replicants many, many generations down the line, corrupt to the soul of us, like a game of Chinese whispers - but some things, some books are very hard to forgive.

I won't rehearse the story or indeed the themes of Brave New World here, on the assumption that you're all familiar with it; in the hope that Island remains a blank space in your otherwise capacious list of novels read, allow me to leave you in that happy ignorance. Believe me, there's no benefit to be gained from the damn thing; Huxley himself, in a later essay, offered the opinion that he had perhaps overburdened the book with too much philosophical speculation for the story to bear. Personally, I think he was rather lenient on himself. Rather oddly, given the genres that I work in, I am myself no great advocate for the plot-driven novel, indeed I dislike it quite intently; I have been heard to say that I am bored with plots. Quite independently, my best friend in the business said to me that no one comes to a Chaz Brenchley novel for the plot; and I am currently engaged in trench warfare with a new editor on a major new project, who is one of those earnest young men - publishing is full of 'em - who says "I think we must be quite ruthless here, and excise everything that doesn't carry the plot forward". Bullshit, say I. Oranges are not the only fruit, and plot is not the only weapon in a writer's armoury, nor the sole criterion of any story worth the telling.

But storytelling is the point here, there are storytelling values that are universal, and prime among them is that the story itself has a value, it is not - or at least never should be - purely a vehicle for the author's other baggage, be that political or philosophical or whatever. Huxley's Island genuinely is an island, in that it's a body entirely surrounded by water, above and below as well as round about: swamped and sunk it is, drowned and dead and never had a chance of life. If I may not mix but change my metaphor, the job we are given is before all else to spin a good yarn, yes? Whereas this has a poor thin thread of a narrative that snaps very early on and is it ever picked up, repaired, reinforced and sewn back into the structure of the book? No, I'm afraid not.

So never mind what it's about, I won't trouble you with any of that. All you need to know for our purposes tonight is that where Brave New World is a satire painted with a very broad brush, encompassing the whole planet, the human condition and human conditioning, hell writ large, Island is a very earnest novel treating with a small community which has kept itself deliberately isolated from the rest of the world, where hell is other people and only the saved are free. It is in the nature of things that both novels require an invasion, someone from outside to be either repelled or enchanted by the revealed mystery of what he finds; it is in the nature of things also that the dystopia can swallow its invader with barely a belch, while the utopian community is discovered to be far more vulnerable to external influence and pressure. Unfortunately, even this adherence to traditional figures and patterns cannot save Island as an exercise in storytelling, largely I think because the author does not care about it as a story; neither does it work in the context of what Huxley intended it to be, that is as a portrait of an ideal society, because we the reader - and you will forgive me if I take you for granted in this; if anybody out there treasures Island as a philosophical masterpiece, a gem of perspicacity as well as of narrative form and structure, then they should simply assume that my use of the plural pronoun is editorial rather than inclusive - we the reader, I say, do not in general care much for his vision of how life ought to be. Frankly, life on the Island sounds to me irredeemably dull.

And aye, there's the nub, there's the point, there's why dystopias tend to work far better than utopias in fiction. It's why nineteenth-century preachers thumped on about hellfire and the wages of sin, rather than singing the rewards of virtue; it's partly because hell is passion where heaven is pastels, but I think more importantly, hell is general where heaven is particular. Pain and suffering are universal indicators; so are brainwashing, eugenics, any form of human conditioning more blatant than the nuclear family and the daytime crèche. Soma or Room 101, they both come with human health warnings attached. No one would speak in favour of the levels of social control imposed in Brave New World or 1984, no one who was not carrying a serious level of mental damage could possibly want to inhabit such a world. We can all recognise a vision of hell on earth, and share a mutual shudder at it; it might not be quite our vision of the worst of all possible worlds, but it comes close enough, it's definitely a place one would strongly prefer not to be.

The converse, though, is very much harder, because we don't share a common vocabulary in the same way. Huxley's island is subtropical, and already some of us are backing away, thinking serious discomfort here even before you get to the philosophical tedium of it all: thinking heat-rash and stickiness and never being properly cool, never seeing anything clearly for the glaring sun and the iron shadows, thinking if you were going to set up your own little patch of heaven on the earth, could you for God's sake not find some place a little more pleasant to be in?

Sydney Smith spoke of heaven as eating paté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets, though I believe he was speaking of someone else's vision rather than his own and I hope he was doing it only to prove my point, that there is an impossible diversity of desire here. I mean, me, I wouldn't object to that prescription on principle, as a way to pass the time, though it would rather depend on who was blowing the horn; Miles Davis I could listen to throughout eternity, but possibly no one else. And I rather think the foie gras would sicken fairly soon. On a slightly coarser level, I have a friend whose idea of a perfect Sunday afternoon lies in a stack of Barbara Cartlands and a box of candied fruits. If I had to choose between that and a weekly visit to Room 101, I think I might dither.

There is, as they say, no accounting for taste, and it's taste above all that's going to define anyone's picture of an ideal society. You can't get away with bland generalities, it's necessary above all to be specific in this kind of novel, and specificity by definition leads to exclusion. The more specific you are, the fewer readers you can hope to carry with you. You may just leave them behind, which is in itself fatal to a writer; the greater risk you run is of alienating them utterly. You say "Look, here is my idea of a perfect society"; they say, "Yuck."

Which brings us back to Robert Heinlein.

Actually it brings us into what seems to me to be the genuine golden age of science fiction, the sixties and seventies, the books of my teenage years, when the genre had outgrown its pulp-fiction roots and far outrun those mainstream authors who played with its conventions for purposes of their own and then abandoned it after a book or two for the comforts and convenience of their own more familiar milieu. Being alive to the excitement and adventure of the genre at that time was good in itself, but to be young was very heaven; I had all the excuses of adolescence and seized on them joyfully, read every science fiction book I could lay my hands on and virtually nothing else. I also reread compulsively, and still do.

One of the extraordinary attractions of the genre at that time was the breadth of it, the scope it offered both to writers and to readers. It still gave safe harbour to its founding fathers, the men - and they were largely, if not exclusively men - who had shone in the days of the pulp magazines and were in some cases still working, still writing classic texts. At the same time it could and did give space and time to new writers who wanted both to explore a wider universe than the realistic schools of mainstream fiction could offer and yet also make serious points about the world we actually inhabit. Hence on the same shelves and under pretty much the same covers you could find Isaac Asimov and Samuel R. Delaney, the gorgeous E. E. Doc Smith and Theodore Sturgeon; more to the point tonight, you could find Robert Heinlein and Ursula K. LeGuin practically rubbing shoulders, an orthographic accident setting side by side two writers who could hardly be less alike or less comfortable with each other: right wing and left wing, militarist and pacifist, a man who had started his writing life as a hack, albeit a good hack, and a woman destined to become one of the leading literary figures of this or any genre, blessed in her generation.

And bless them, they both wrote visions of their separate utopias.

Well, that's almost stretching a point in Heinlein's case, though not quite; utopian novels are necessarily community novels, and I can't immediately recall his writing about any community much larger than an extended family, unless you count the army. But he makes his own prejudices, his ideals, his vision of the good and moral life so explicit - and the concept of a small elite living among the mass of lesser mortals is so very fitting to that vision - that I think the point has enough elasticity to stretch that far. Besides, I need him as a counterbalance, so I'm not letting him go.

LeGuin, on the other hand, wrote a very explicitly utopian novel in The Dispossessed, and made it work in a way that Huxley and his predecessors had explicitly failed to do: it has its philosophy and its ideals, but it also works absolutely as a novel, as a well-crafted story.

I think that's partly because it's actually quite a convincing community that she creates, it's communistic as most utopias are but very human with it, and certainly credible within the accepted tenets of the genre; but largely LeGuin makes it work because she never forgets that she is first and foremost a storyteller, that's her job and she does it immaculately.

It seems to me that that there is a fundamental problem, an inherent contradiction in setting a story within an imagined utopian community, whatever form that community may take; the problem is that almost by definition the essential ingredients, the seeds that make a narrative are not there. Where all's for the best in the best of all possible worlds, where all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well, then there is no conflict; and where there is no conflict, by long tradition there is no story. Huxley tried to tackle this by bringing an outsider in, as he had successfully in Brave New World, where a normal human sensibility could point up the horrors of his dystopia, with tragic consequences; but it is I think inevitable that the same trick will not work in reverse. If you bring a normal human sensibility into an earthly paradise, then all you get is exposition, revelation, no story.

LeGuin attacks the problem by first making her utopia a tough place to live, more an Israeli kibbutz than a pleasure-garden, normal human sensibilities an inherent part of the weave; this is a utopia where people throw rocks at each other. Then she inverts Huxley by sending a doubter, a questioning ambassador out into the opposing culture, taking all the unresolved tensions of his own life with him. Politics, sex and violence, all human life is here. The Dispossessed is a great novel, by any standards; it was at one time Ken Livingstone's favourite book, back in the glory days of the GLC, which has got to be saying something.

Heinlein meanwhile - having been instrumental in establishing what we might call the "Boy's Own" school of science fiction where strong young men carry the American dream out into the cosmos, blasting any dirty injuns, I'm sorry, aliens, who don't want to salute the flag - Heinlein seems in his later years to have suffered from softening of the brain. There is in fact a wonderful story about a brain tumour and an operation, following which he flung all his half-finished manuscripts into the fire and started again; but I suspect the truth is that like many successful writers before and since, he became uneditable, or at least unedited. In consequence of which he rode his hobby-horses and let his obsessions get the better of his undeniable storytelling talents, producing books that got longer and longer and more and more unreadable, intolerant epics that laid down quite clearly his rules for a perfect society. As I have said, in the early days his vision of a utopian community appeared to be the military, or at least a political system where only ex-soldiers had the vote. Later he turned against even so much government and advocated a form of right-wing anarchy, pioneer societies where a paterfamilias could rule an extended family, where girls were married off to cousins in early adolescence - if they're tall enough, they're old enough - in order to cook, keep house and produce many children while their menfolk chopped wood and built barns and tilled the fruitful soil. In one of his madder books he got as far as producing a scientific rationale that proved conclusively that it was perfectly safe genetically for a brother to marry his sister; and his ultimate achievement, the perfect moment for his perfect hero, was when Lazarus Long - one of his immortals: the older Heinlein got, the longer his characters tended to live - Lazarus contrived to travel back in time purely in order to have sex with his own mother.

If ever there were an excuse and a justification for Sigmund Freud, I've always felt that Robert Heinlein was probably it.

But what is this, what is going on here? I've been talking for half an hour, discussing science fiction and utopian societies; the word 'culture' has passed my lips several times, and never yet have I given it a capital letter, never yet have I mentioned the name of Iain Banks. Those of you who know me must have been feeling an increasing concern; a whisper must have been running along the rows there, 'Has Chaz lost his marbles? Or his memory, or both? Chaz can't talk about books for five minutes without talking about Banks, last time I heard him do this he spoke of nothing and no one else...'

Well, relax. Here we are and here he is, last and best. Or last and biggest, at any rate: biggest in volume of words, because his books about the Culture must cover a couple of thousand pages by now, he visits and revisits; biggest in volume of space also, because the Culture is a vast galaxy-spanning civilisation that encompasses every variation of human and technical development that a wildly inventive mind can come up with.

Whether Iain actually intended at the outset to write on utopian themes, I am I confess uncertain. His first SF novel, Consider Phlebas, is a vast sprawling epic in the classic tradition of space opera, pitting a fundamentally-peaceful communistic culture against a militaristic and expansionist empire in a ruthless war. I don't find it hard to imagine that the utopian aspects of the Culture crept up on him unaware. There he'd be, simply doing his job, creating his two societies; and simply for the purposes of contrast, he gave this one a peaceful and cooperative philosophy coupled with seriously advanced technology and artificial intelligence of the highest imaginable order. The inevitable result is a close fusion of human and machine, a society that works for peace but is nevertheless extremely good at waging war when it needs to. The bonuses for the human population include no need ever to work if they don't want to, instant access to information, remarkable physical security and almost total control over their own bodies. Sexual and religious taboos are a joke under such conditions; a vast variety of drugs is built into their glandular system, trips on demand; they can and do change gender several times during their long, long lives; they can live under any conditions they fancy, and occupy their time in any way they can imagine. This fulfils exactly my own definition of a utopia, the society in which you would best prefer to live; and the joy of invention on this scale is that if you don't like life on this particular planet or that particular orbital or whatever, you can just trog off and find another. Or build another, construct your own society according to your own inclinations: the Culture has enough material resources and plenty enough people to meet any requirements and make anybody happy (except perhaps the most perverse, those who can't be happy themselves when other people are doing things they disapprove of. But I don't think they could happen within the Culture, it's such a peculiar mental twist; and people like that within our own culture wouldn't be reading these books anyway, so either way we can ignore them and claim this genuinely as a utopia for all). As Iain himself says, who wouldn't choose the Culture, if we were only offered the option?

And yet, and yet. Although the Culture is so broad and so various, so inherently big both in conception and realisation and so peopled with genuine human beings who suffer yet from traditional human problems, the old argument still applies: you'd have to work hard to introduce any convincing conflict, to make any real story in the heart of the Culture.

Fortunately, Iain is no fool; he's well aware of the temptation, the enchantment that the Culture has for him. Which is I believe why the hero of his first novel is a man - not quite human, but a man none the less - who hates the Culture, who profoundly distrusts the hedonism of their basic philosophy and elects to fight in opposition to them, though he holds no brief for their imperialist enemy. Neither is he persuaded at any point in the book of the rightness of the Culture's position; in defiance of the tradition, he is defiant to the end. Which results in the delightful conceit of the reader being shown all the attractions of the Culture via the medium of a character who despises it: his own perversity works against his intent, we're sold simply by virtue of the laddie protesting too much. It's beautifully done, and very effective.

It's a trick that will only work once; but the other books set in and around the Culture all feature narrators who are at best discontented with their current situation, characters intellectually or emotionally on the fringe; and all the storylines are set physically on the fringe, on the skin of this massive galactic empire, where the Culture rubs up against other societies with the inevitable friction that that situation will produce. Envy and antagonism are great producers of conflict, and Iain exploits that as we all do.

It is possible, then, to make fiction work within a utopian context, or at least with a utopian background; but it's harder work than its opposite, and you do have to cheat to do it. The best of all possible worlds yields no opportunity, so you either settle for second-best - a nice try at a utopia, but... - or else you find your stories on the periphery: Best of all possible? Oh yeah, yeah, that's over there, you can just about see it from here...

Dystopian fictions are easier, necessarily; in hell, conflict is inherent. And the sad truth is, they are also significantly more fun for us the writers.

This is an old contradiction, long recognised: that nice people in nice situations are not half so nice to write about as baddies are. Actors prefer to play villains; Satan is the only truly interesting character in Paradise Lost. He's also the only truly human character, but that's another issue. Negatives are stronger; the word no has infinitely more power to it than the word yes. Monks know a thing or two about this; what authority can Christmas claim, compared to Lent? What's a second helping of pudding and a chocolate liqueur, next to fasting for a month and lashing yourself with knotted thongs? It may be unfortunate, at least for the non-storytellers among you, but it's true. It's why stories stop at happy endings, why sequels are so dangerous. Abstinence is more exciting than indulgence, desire more potent than satisfaction. Huxley used to know that - it's exactly what Brave New World is about, bread and circuses, a land of loose content - but he forgot it somewhere in the intervening years, pre-Island. Heinlein never knew it, LeGuin exactly does; Banks cheats - of course; we all cheat - but he cheats by serving up a universe so large that both are readily available, concurrent and consecutive.

The couple of times I've dabbled myself with utopian themes, I definitely cheated. If you can't go the whole hog, firelit black drapes and pitchforks and the screams of souls abandoned to the torment, then there's little better than writing bountiful optimism with the certain foreknowledge of disaster to come, the light that failed, great oaks crashing to the forest floor to feed the fungi. Doomspeaking and I told you so are native human characteristics, so bred in the bone I wouldn't even call them failings.

Not that one does, of course, tell them so: there's nothing worse in a novel than the author exhibiting his omniscience, little did they know... But it is pretty much of a given at my end of the market that hopes will fail, dreams will turn to dust, certainly utopias won't last. If the readers don't expect that, they haven't been paying attention. As I said earlier, I like to treat with the world as it is, and as I am grateful to have it. I have a dreadful feeling that there are no stories in heaven...

Twice I've played with charismatic men trying to lead their people to a land they've promised: once in an inner city environment and a genuinely religious context, an evangelical preacher building a revival on miracles of healing, and once with a sort of New Age post-hippy community, just a few like-minded souls trying to make their own little patch of heaven in a wooded valley. That one was actually based on a true story and a real place, I'd been taken there by chance and the story was an unexpected gift.

Both times, the dream was shattered by disillusion, violence and betrayal; both times, because of the way I work, all I knew at the start was how things would wind up at the end. Tragedy is inherent, it's the human condition; disappointment is the only certainty we have. That apart, every story is an unexpected journey, for the writer as much as for the reader; we play God along the way, we create worlds for our characters to mess around in, but the only thing we can be sure of is that ultimately, if they and we are honest, they will mess them up.

Well, there it is and there you have it. The last time I invited questions from an audience, someone started quizzing me about my sex-life; happily that is of course utopian, and therefore there is no story attached, so you might as well not bother. If there is any other matter on which you require enlightenment, please feel free.

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Misha's 15 minutes of fame Consider Phlebas Chaz prepares to talk about books