17th September 2014
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The Future is a Storm Front

Experimentation in mainstream comics and why science fiction can’t predict the future.
Warren Ellis | Author of comics, novels and TV scripts, including Transmetropolitan and Red

Warren Ellis2

Warren Ellis is an English author of comics, novels and television scripts well known for their exploration of transhumanist themes, particularly cryonics, nanotechnology and human enhancement. He has won numerous Eagle Awards for best comics writer. His first nonfiction book, Spirit Tracks, is due out this year (published by Farrar, Straus & Girou...

Warren Ellis is an English author of comics, novels and television scripts well known for their exploration of transhumanist themes, particularly cryonics, nanotechnology and human enhancement. He has won numerous Eagle Awards for best comics writer. His first nonfiction book, Spirit Tracks, is due out this year (published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and looks at the “future of the city, the ghosts that haunt it and the science-fiction condition we live in.”

 

Vassili Christodoulou: Let’s kick off with science fiction. What sort of things did you read when you were younger, and how did this inspire your adult work?

Warren Ellis: I was a voracious reader as a kid. But I didn't really get a sense of what science fiction was supposed to be until my early teens, where in quick succession I discovered Michael Moorcock, William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and Jack Kerouac. Science fiction is social fiction, using the tools of science fiction as a scalpel with which to examine the present day. That's what science fiction is for, and that's when I learned it and what I learned from it.

On the association with Kerouac, I know William Gibson, who is also obviously a massive science fiction figure, names Kerouac in "the Beats" as his main inspiration. So where do you draw inspiration from?

Bill and I come from a similar thing in that we wanted to read stuff that sounded like the music we liked.

Which was what kind of music?

In those days it was plain old rock and roll. Jack Kerouac wrote like BeBop, and I wanted to write like the things I was listening to in the '80s and '90s. So that's the Kerouac association. It was the first prose both of us found that sounded like music, sounded like contemporary music. It was the sound of a present day.

 

You famously dislike superheroes and superhero comics, but what comics are you reading at the moment?

At the moment? God, people always ask me this, and I'm not reading a hell of a lot of comics right now. Mostly, I’m finding that the field is going through one of its fallow phases. The American comics industry is in trouble. People in comics are still trying to work out what the internet is for, and it's leading to a lot of close-minded thinking. So you're not really finding, at least in the commercial comics industry, a lot of experimentation or people trying to kick out new ground.

Ed Brubaker is doing some interesting crime stuff. Matt Fraction. Casanova, I think, is wonderful. I’m really liking what Brandon Graham is doing on Prophet. It's considered experimental, but it shouldn't be, because what he's doing is actually '60s and '70s European science fiction in 2012 American comics.

You mentioned that comic publishers en masse are not yet using the internet properly. FreakAngels was published first as a web comic, and then by Avatar in paperback. Do you think with new touch screen technologies and tablets we're going to see more experimentation, a move away from nine panel comics into something else?

Nine panel comics are more of a rarity in the American field than you think. What's happening is that people are looking at the tablet and starting to focus on it in landscape form, but what they're doing is cutting a regular comics page in half. So you get half the screen, half the page on a screen at a time, but it's forcing people into two-tier storytelling. It's just two strips of everything. It looks like a Sunday special, like the old Calvin and Hobbes or Doonesbury, where they had the Sunday edition where it was two strips instead of one. 

Everything is looking like that, and then they're going to go back and assemble those into a full comics page. So although it's kind of looking dull and homogenous, you don't get a sense of what the entire page can do. In a comic the entire page is information reactive. 

Do you think there are ways around that we just haven't discovered?

I think, honestly, people are focusing too much on tablets. The web does still work, they didn't actually switch it off when Apple invented the iPad. A comics page would display just as well on a tablet. It will be small, but if you look at the smaller formats like the digest format that Manga appears in, or Scott Pilgrim, or actually Darwyn Cooke's Parker books, they're also a good example. They actually fit the tablet screen almost perfectly, but it's still a full page with all the information or activity that a full page has. It works perfectly well, and they look fine on the web, too. 

Do you believe there's any sort of sanctity about either the written word in its physical form, or comics in their physical form?

No. I don't. My generation doesn't. My daughter is sixteen. She's a digital native. She's never known a time without the internet. She's never known a time without 50 TV channels. When she was two or three years old we were talking about old television and I had to explain to her that when I was a kid there were only three TV channels and one of them only switched on at five o'clock in the evening. And she started at me like I had lumbered out from the Mesozoic period, and then thought about it, and then said, "Daddy, was one of them the Disney channel?"

And I said, "No," and she threw herself back in her car seat and said, "But Daddy, what did young people do back then?"

But she refuses to own a Kindle. She refuses to own a tablet. An author tried to send her an eBook the other week and she said, "No. Books are on paper."

Why?

I think when you grow up as a digital native there is a new, not reverence, but certainly an appreciation for the physical. I've seen this amongst her friends, too. In fact a cabbie was screaming about this to me on the way across London. Books are something you hold, and, for that generation, it seems they have a mystique unto themselves.

Okay, I'm going to go back to science fiction for a little bit. I read somewhere that your first memory was of the moon landing.

Yes, I remember being held up in front of a Philco black and white portable by my mother, saying, "Remember this. This is history, this is."

It has definitely impacted on your work quite a lot, I would say. There's a lot of space age optimism in one strand of your work.

Yeah.

And then there's another strand, which is very much dystopian, apocalyptic and quite bleak. How do you reconcile those extremes?

The culture when I was growing up in the '70s – I was born in '68, so I was growing up through the '70s – was very much the height of a certain strain of mainstream futurism, where it was somehow generally acknowledged that we were all going to be living on Mars in the year 2000 and there would be space hotels and we would have personal jetpacks. I mean it was rife in the culture. Even double page newspaper spreads in The Sun were about how we were going to live 20 years from now.

I'm like, "Cool. I'm up for this. Bring it on." And of course it never happened so, in that sense, my generation is the disappointed futurists because we're standing around waiting and all the things we were promised never came true. But on the other hand, no one ever promised us the mobile phone. No one ever really promised us the internet, but these things happened anyway. So there's a weird destabilisation as you learn that the future just doesn't work the way you thought it did.

Do you like what we've got?

Oh God, yeah. But don't get me wrong, I'm still pissed off I don't have my holiday home on Mars.

Yet.

Well, it's not going to happen in my lifetime.

You're a science fiction writer and you're a social fiction writer, really. How do you feel about the future? Do you think you can attempt to predict the future?

You can't predict the future. Because what you learn is that there is no single "the future". People tend to think of the future as lightning striking, and it's not. It's a huge storm front and it's blowing out thunderheads in all directions, and you know the lightning is coming, but you don't know where it's going to strike. So the job as a science fiction writer, or a contemporary commentator on these things, is simply to look at the thunderheads as they rise and suggest what might happen if they strike. There is no single prediction you can make. You can speculate about the various possibilities presenting themselves and – if you're that kind of wise writer – issue warnings.

Do you think they work?

God, I don't know. Did 1984 work, really?

Perhaps it gave us a vocabulary to discuss some of the problems facing us now?

It gave us a vocabulary to discover the monstrous number of CCT cameras in London right now, but it didn't really give us a process for dealing with them. The other thing about 1984 is that we've had Big Brother in place for a couple of decades now. Traffic cameras and so on.

But what Orwell never predicted was that the powers that be would be so crap as to render them almost ridiculous. I'll give you an example. From January 2001 to March 2002, all the traffic cameras in Norfolk had no film in them. And that's what Orwell didn't predict. He predicted the cameras. He didn't predict we would be too crap to put film in them.

It reminds me of something Neil Gaiman said along the lines of, "The future happens, it just doesn't work properly."

Well, I mean, yeah. Stewart Brand says a similar thing. The future happens, and what the future trains us to do is discover workarounds.

What do you mean by that?

As Neil says, nothing works properly, but somehow we make it work. The future teaches us how to make it work. It forces us to learn new tools to deal with the tools we're given.

Towards the end of his life J. G. Ballard stopped writing science fiction in an overt fashion, and he started just to take the tropes of the genre and put them in present day. Have you moved into crime as a result of feeling like we're already there with science fiction and there's nothing more you can say?

That's perhaps the big crisis in science fiction, in that science fiction seems to have reached the point where it has nothing to say about the present day because the present day moves so quickly. It's almost wiser to do what William Gibson does, which is to picture just two years ahead, so that when the book comes out it's roughly contemporaneous because things are just happening too fast. Which is why science fiction, in large part, has devolved into things like Grand Space Opera.

On the problem of William Gibson and his books that are set a couple of years in the future, I read Pattern Recognition a couple of weeks ago. A critical MacGuffin in this book revolves around a film that is edited mysteriously by an unknown creator and then released and disseminated on the internet, but it's hidden on forums and there's a cult following for this film, the footage. The novel revolves around attempting to find the creator and find the next bit of footage. The week after it was published YouTube was launched, and it was suddenly redundant.

Yeah, Pattern Recognition. It's only seven years old and already quaintly historical.

If you’re going to look to the horizon now, what are the thunderclouds that you mentioned?

Well, this is mostly what my next book is about, which is drones and surveillance. We were talking about Big Brother. What we're going to be faced with between now and, say, five years time are drones that don't actually require any human action whatsoever. Also, I saw one of the first facial recognition handheld cameras about two years ago. They're going to be in everything in three years time. So, drones, facial recognition, and ambient energy sources.

Ambient energy sources?

They're drones that don't need to refuel, essentially.

Oh, that's nice!

They’re little turbines, electrically powered. These things will be everywhere, because you can literally just fire and forget – they can stay in the air for three months at least and they are going to be doing the job of finding people themselves. They don't have to be big. You've seen the hexacopters. You're going to see drones that are like that, and they're going to have the camera in with the facial recognition, and eventually they are going to have an explosive payload. They are going to be able to see a crowd of 3,000 protestors, identify three ringleaders and fly into their heads without human agency actually being involved. In six years time you're going to see that as a headline.

One of the features that I identified in your books, and I don't know if you would agree with this, is that whilst a lot of the societies that you depict are technologically advanced and post-humanist in all kinds of interesting ways, they become increasingly politically apathetic, and it takes characters like Spider to come in from the outside and shake them up a little bit.

Well, I was writing Transmetropolitan in the '90s and the 2000s, which, here, was a particularly apathetic time.

So that's changing?

I mean, around '99 people were asking if the age of the protest was over, because people just couldn't be arsed. Now, I mean, we know it's not.

Do you think we're going to go out and fight the drones? Are we going to swat them down before they shoot missiles?

It will actually prove to be fairly easily done with stuff you can buy out of your local electrical store. It's ultimately just a case of jamming signals, running interference on software. Because these things are all Wifi enabled, there will be an anti-drone version of Stuxnet where you can actually infect a fleet of drones while they're in the air. This will happen, and you can run that out of a back of a car.

Do you think this is all going to be top down? I was interested in what you said about facial recognition because Facebook has recently introduced a feature so that when you upload photos of people from your camera phone they are automatically tagged as a friend of yours, and that's something that people are choosing to submit to because it's enjoyable rather than frightening.

The previous two generations on the web are the people who have been happy to trade privacy for functionality. There was a big debate in the early 2000s about entering a post privacy era. That's going to cycle back down. I don't want to keep on using my daughter as an example, but she proudly wears a t-shirt that reads: "Of course I'm not on fucking Facebook."

Are you?

Yes, but professionally. You kind of have to have a presence there. I don't have a personal presence, per se.

It's not like Twitter for you?

It's not like Twitter for me, no. To do my job, you need to have a foot in certain social services.

How do you feel about Twitter? It has obviously been massively useful to you?

Massively useful. And on a daily basis, too, because if you can tune your Twitter feed right it's just a constant stream of news and information, which I find massively useful.

I was quite interested in reading your Twitter feed to see that all the big science fiction authors around the world seem to interact with one another in a constant dialogue. Do you think there's something about the genre which makes Twitter particularly useful to authors?

It's a novelist thing, or a writer thing, to an extent. Because most of us have never actually met. You've got to remember that we are people who do business in dark rooms on our own. So it's that little bit of connection with the outside world, if nothing else.

If only to other novelists.

If only to other novelists. Because we don't all move in the same circles, it is, as you say, a way of touching someone on the shoulder and saying, "I like your work."

I want to talk about crime novels for a little bit, because you're moving away from science fiction and getting into crime. Crooked Little Vein, which was your first novel, wasn't crime novelist stuff. But it was hard-boiled.

It was a comedy novel, but yeah.

And Gun Machine is a crime novel.

It's as straight a literary crime novel as I could write, which means it's probably not that straight. But it's looking for ways to induce genre to do the social examination you want to do. Crime grew to be one of those things. It wasn't really until [Raymond] Chandler. It was Chandler who really turned crime fiction into social fiction, so the tools are there, and it just seemed to be a more real way to talk about the things I actually wanted to talk about in Gun Machine.

Does crime offer different tools than the ones you normally use? How much is it that it’s simply useful to have a genre which you can subvert and twist and play with?

It's an interesting set of limitations that force you to think around the idea more. It's useful to have that border, even if you kick in one of the fences. It's useful to have that border, because it helps you enclose the idea and focus on what it is you wanted to talk about. Crime fiction forces me more into the contemporaneous and into thinking more about people rather than ideas. In science fiction, you're looking to sell the ideas and you need what we call the eyeball kicks.

What's an eyeball kick?

It's that visual representation of a novel thing. What Samuel Delany calls the "novum" – the thing that makes it science fiction, that thing that did not exist in the world before you put it there.

There's a great example Delany uses from Heinlein, where Heinlein would just toss in these things just to throw you off balance and let you know you weren't in your world anymore. It wasn't "the door opened", it was "the door dilated", and he doesn't explain that. He just leaves it there, and that's why a lot of people find it difficult to read science fiction.

For me, that is my favourite thing about science fiction.

Right. So it forces you to do a little bit more processing on the page. "Wait, the door did what?"

Do you think you will be sticking with crime for some time? Are you going to go back to science fiction? Are there other genres that you want to explore?

Science fiction is something in my blood. My Dad was a science fiction buff. That's where I caught the bug. So I imagine I will go back to science fiction in some form, probably in comic. But probably not for a couple of years.

 

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