Tuesday 28th April – It’s a gorgeous sunny afternoon in Bristol. Down at the Brigstow Lounge on the harbour front, DoaS creator Toby Smith and Sci-Fi/Dark Fantasy author David J Rodger are talking storytelling, urban planning and the nature of reality ahead of the Redcliffe Future Way project this coming weekend (Friday 1st May 2015). It’s a big one, and a mind bender!
TS: You moved to Bristol in the 90s when it was a very different place to the city we see today. How do you feel this environment affected your writing style?
DJR: Bristol in the 90s, for me, had a weird anachronistic quality. Industrial decay. Bombed out shells of structures from a war that had ended 40 years earlier. I’m writing stuff set in the near future – science fiction… so really, back then, I think Bristol was more about escaping the situation in the North.
TS: So the bombed out shells provided no inspiration for your futuristic wreckages?
DJR: Hmm. See for me, are you talking about my post-apocalyptic stuff? There I am running on imagery from my teenage years. Playing the RPG Gamma world one summer, every day, for 12 hours a day, for weeks during the summer break – that game more than anything, other than Call of Cthulhu shaped my imagination. Even now, when I am driving down a motorway, I am visualising it as I did when I was 14, as deserted in some post-apocalyptic future. But then I suppose, even in my near future cyberpunk work – there are cities where the abrupt removal of funding by UTOC as yet another corporate entity decides to relocate assets… Leaves behind the gaping hole of decay in the social fabric. So maybe, Bristol 1991 lodged into my head there.
TS: You said you visualise these post apocalyptic landscapes all the time… How much of an impact has that had on the way you view the world?
DJR: Yeah. I am always registering things in the city around me – or wherever I am, I travel a lot – that dial into things that turn my imagination on. Like a deserted warehouse might trigger a Lovecraftian vibe – that place could be somewhere a deranged cultist might hide out and perform nefarious rites. Or a certain type of building warps in my head into how I might see it in my own version of the future. I am basically running three types of wetware inside my skull, scanning sensory inputs and flagging up anything that trips horror, cyberpunk or post-apocalyptic themes.
TS: So moving on, you used an excerpt from your novel God Seed in the Bristol Story Trail earlier this year which referenced a stone wall alongside Gasworks Lane. What originally drew you to this feature?
DJR: The shape. The cobblestones. That little kink in the curve that makes an “s” so there’s a potential secret place beyond. It’s just a very handsome alley. *grins* Go figure. And it has survived the onslaught of developers – who, I have to say, have done a pretty decent job of making the harbour really interesting and usable. Apart from that god-awful monstrosity that is meant to look like a ship or something, but seems to be more like the wreckage of the Titanic fused with a bad Costa Del Sol hotel complex in a mad Nazi experiment gone wrong.
TS: So do you feel that storytelling may have something to offer the decision making process on how we place value on areas of the city, looking to the future?
DJR: Sounds like you’re talking about Discovery Days for digital products. That’s a methodology for digital developers, designs, UX, IT-ops and clients to work on an idea for something – and rather than relying on the “past”, storyboard and brainstorm narrative ideas that help understand how something is going to be used… more importantly, discovering where the original brief is actually badly conceived and coming up with REAL stories, that describe how a product (website, app, commercial , database, etc) will work. And why. Sorry, digression. So to answer your question: Hell Yes! Bring in the experts by all means but get them to mix with local community (pinch of salt to dilute extreme views of course) and some off-the-wall thinkers like… drum roll… artists and writers.
TS: The stone wall in God Seed obviously had an inherent quality about it which caught your interest before it made its way into your literature. Are there any examples (your own or otherwise) where that interest in a place has been unlocked through the process of writing about it?
DJR: Absolutely yes. Specifically, if you look at the way fame works in (western) human society. Take any successful work of fiction, be it literary or moving pictures, and you’ll get droves of people seeking to visit these shrines to sacred fragments of their imagination fused with a successful product. Case in point, I drove several hundred miles out of my way (okay, I was in a convertible Mustang and in California) to visit a lighthouse on the tip of a landmass. Big deal. Except that lighthouse featured in the John Carpenter movie The Fog (1981) and I grew up with it in my imagination. To actually be able to visit it, to bridge that gap between imagination and physical reality, was profoundly rewarding for me. I don’t know why. It just was. So I am sure there is scope for architects and urban planners to weave in some of this magic into their “products”.
TS: With that in mind, could you ever see an area being regenerated entirely by fiction?
DJR: No. Now I to have to think why I just said that. Gut instinct. You have to build something that people can visit. Interact with. Okay, maybe you could do this virtually… but that virtual reality would have to be considered on par with physical reality for people to engage with it – otherwise it’s just a novelty. You can’t paint over the cracks with words. You need action.
TS: But something has to trigger this action, surely… Could it be words?
DJR: Yes. Words are the most dangerous weapon in human history.
TS: Your short story for the Redcliffe Future Way project, Redcliffe Requiem, explores the effects of augmented and virtual reality on humankind as we move into the future. Do you see connections between the growth of virtual technologies and the ancient art of storytelling as ways to imagine our cities?
DJR: No. The ancient art of storytelling was about passing down knowledge before the written word. And secret knowledge too. There was often a ceremonial, mystical or theatrical element to it. Augmented reality / digital layers? To me, this is all about presenting the VAST wealth of data now available in a way that can be quickly digested, so I think the future tech has more in common with cave paintings that story telling? Make sense?
TS: Yes, so we’re looking at a something representative rather than involved, right? But what about the gaming industry? Here we’re looking at controllable fictional narratives in fully immersive environments… Do you see the relationship between reality and fantasy changing as a result?
DJR: There’s a risk of a certain fraction of population losing touch with reality when real immersive technology becomes mainstream. They’ll just switch on and drop out. It’ll be a phenomenon worse than any drug epidemic. Maybe. People may find sanctuary in alternative worlds when they can pay for the experiences they can’t have in reality. But I think there’s also a beauty in the idea of digital layers wrapped around a physical space. Gives designers hope for a job in the future *wry smile* but there’s an opportunity, maybe, to make existing places that are a little grim / drab / uninspiring to become truly breath-taking with a little bit of technology (design feeding into a readily available display format).
TS: Jumping back to Redcliffe Requiem, the story explores these concepts on a very personal level through the characters of Monica and Jordão. What can it tell us about personal identity and memory and their relationships with the city, real or imagined?
DJR: I think this dials into my personal belief that the body is not who we are but just the vehicle we have been assigned for this particular journey. I think as more people start to be able to explore teletronic extensions of themselves – limbs, sexual devices, whatever, basically bolt-on components that are either physical / robotic in structure – or digital rendering of themselves in a virtual reality, the human brain (or the non-physical mind behind it) can quickly adjust to the idea of a few formats to exist within – and operate with.
TS: And if these digital layers and essentially fabricated narrative, are they real or just stories?
DJR: If people are interacting with them and using them in their daily lives, then they’re real, right? I mean, it’s like money. What IS money? It’s just a bit of paper, or even just a string of numbers on a computer screen that somehow equates to time / value ratio. Money only works because we all play the game and say we believe in the Emperor’s New Clothes. The Internet itself. In the early days it was seen as a novelty. Some folks would have said that’s all it would remain. Can you imagine today’s world functioning WITHOUT the Internet? So the idea of digital layers, of augmented reality, I think that is a very real taste of a future coming our way.
TS: So taking future tech out of it, could something fictional change the reality we experience?
DJR: Yeah. Definitely. Package it correctly. Give it the fame buzz. Make people WANT to be involved and a part of it – make them want to use this new language / paradigm / technology – then mass thinking will bring about change. It’s inevitable – right?
TS: Interesting… That’s the second time the idea of fame has come into it. Maybe the distinction between what is real and what is fantasy is just how we present it? Tell people something’s true enough and they’ll believe it?
DJR: I’m tempted to say yes and abandon thousands of years of philosophical thinking and psychological study in a whimsical statement – ahem, but I do believe there is a core part of most human beings that knows when they’re having the “virtual” wool pulled over their eyes. Not inferring that you’re looking to manipulate people. But that statement does smack of George Orwell’s 1984. Tell people the sun is shining during a monsoon and they’re going to look at you strangely – but SHOW people that the sun is shining regardless of the monsoon, well, they’ll shake your hand and tell you you’re a God.
TS: OK, so 1984 is the ultimate dark conclusion, but this is just what happens every day isn’t it? Can you actually imagine a city with no narratives?
TS: Your latest novel, Oakfield, has been in making since you were 19, in which time you have constructed a whole alternative world through your other novels and board games. Was it necessary for you to add this depth to your other world before you could finish Oakfield?
DJR: Oakfield is just one way of looking at that world. It’s being called a gateway novel, mainly because the science fiction aspects, and the horror elements, are dialled way back – so that folks who might not ordinarily consider themselves fans of sci-fi or horror are actually discovering they quite like it by reading this book. The world has evolved over a couple of decades. 1996, 2004 and 2007 are big dates of development, you might say, when I could clearly say – ah, this is when this bit dropped into place.
TS: You’ve described the novel as a beginning and an end. Does this mean you’ve closed this world now?
DJR: There’s still a lot of scope for the world to evolve. New corporations. New organisations. Fresh glimpses of cities as they are in the near future and again in the wake of an apocalyptic event – but I guess the core structure, the foundational framework, that’s pretty much rigid and in place now. Everything else is just cosmetic.
TS: And it’s a world that’s been with you your entire adult life… How has it affected the way you see ours?
DJR: Yeah. I mean. I’ve used big chunks of Bristol in my books. I go to New York a lot – have friends there – and there are places in NYC or upstate that feature heavily in my work. Same with Norway… I suppose what I’m saying is that when I visit these places, and the same for fans who have read my work, we see these locations differently than people who have not (read my work / been infected by my insidious neuro-linguistic virus m’whaaahaha).
TS: So do you see yourself as a creator of stories or a creator of new realities?
DJR: Definitely a creator of stories. I’ve built a world and I’m delighted when people discover and explore deeply that world (i.e. buy ALL my books and then tell me how many times they have read them), but I don’t see myself as a prophet of new technology or social paradigms. I’m just a guy having fun with words (dangerous) and sharing his love of imagination.
DJR: 2,000 words. That’s a short story. Can I charge you by the word?
To read David’s Redcliffe Requiem as well as three other wonderful tales, get involved in Redcliffe Future Way, kicking off at 1pm Friday 1st May with a launch outside the North Entrance of St Mary Redcliffe Parish Church.
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