In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!
“Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever.” To many people, no doubt, those seven words would most instantly relate to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But not to me: to me, they’re the title of the penultimate track of Bad Religion’s 2004 album The Empire Strikes First. Bad Religion, for those of you not in the know, are an LA-based punk band who’ve been going since 1980, i.e. for two more years than I’ve been alive (also: yes, I will persist in using plural pronouns for groups of people unified under a single name. I’m British; it’s what we do).
Let’s rewind. It’s 1995 and I’m on the 10th Ipswich Scouts summer camp, sheltering from the sun and (less effectively) from wasps in a tent pitched on Skreen’s Park in the Essex countryside. The air is hot and thick, and smells of warm canvas mixed with the faint, plasticky scent of the waterproof groundsheet. Jamie Dreher has a battery-powered stereo and two cassettes: Smash by The Offspring and Bleach by Nirvana. He gets to The Offspring’s “Self Esteem” and suddenly something in my head clicks. Up until now the bits and pieces of pop music I’ve heard has seemed vacuous and pointless. But “Self Esteem” isn’t pop. I can hear the lyrics, and the lyrics tell a story, and it’s a story that makes sense. It’s nothing I have personal experience of, because the song’s about lacking the guts to walk away from a girl who treats you awfully, and as a socially-awkward, spotty 13-year-old I don’t really have much clue about that (and that wouldn’t change for quite a while). But it is, at least theoretically, a song that has a point.
Also, distorted guitars are cool.
That, more or less, was the start of me picking up an interest in the various flavors of what can loosely be defined as rock music. It’s swung hither and thither in the meantime, but whatever else I’ve dabbled with there’s always been one genre that I’ve enjoyed above pretty much all others: punk.
When I was 16 I got an electric guitar, and despite never being the most dutiful of students I learned enough to get by with what I wanted to play (scales are for fish and I inherently distrust them). I was in a couple of bands at sixth form, then formed one at university, taking on the dual role of “lead singer” and “worst guitarist” in each. As a former drama and performing arts student it was no problem at all to get on a stage (okay, most of my first gigs weren’t anywhere that had a stage) to sing and play music at people. I was socially awkward, not shy: giving a performance was far less stressful than holding a conversation, because I didn’t need to adapt to another person’s input.
It wasn’t until I’d left university that I formed a band that both Played Our Own Music and Got Regular Gigs. This was XPD, named after the Len Deighton novel, and unlike my previous bands we were most definitely playing actual punk. It wasn’t a particularly serious band—our live stage show included me bouncing around on a space hopper, and spraying silly string at the audience during a song about vandals—but apart from a punk cover of “The Hokey-Cokey” we were generally playing serious music, about political issues that meant something to us. I think my favorite was always our highbrow critique of the War on Terror: “Bang Bang, You’re Dead.” Sadly, XPD broke up due to us variously having other commitments, but a couple of years later (after dabbling with industrial and electro) I was back in the saddle, with a band that was initially called AJediCravesNotTheseThings (we just wanted to make one EP called Adventure, Excitement! and we’d have been happy) but which eventually morphed into my current outfit, Interplanetary Trash Talk (where I have, for the first time, taken a step back to only being the secondary singer).
Oddly enough, Interplanetary Trash Talk wasn’t named as such because I like sci-fi (it actually comes from a line in one of Ed Byrne’s stand-up shows) but that, along with my natural inability to take anything I do too seriously, has certainly surfaced. We have song titles like “We Brake For Nobody” and “Can’t Stop The Signal” (as well as “Look Behind You, A Three-Headed Monkey!”, and if you get all three of those references then hit me up, we should probably become friends). However, despite stupid titles and a stage presence more focused on enjoying ourselves than hitting every note to perfection, I can assure you that there’s a purpose and a real emotion to what we do. “Tragic Roundabout’”decries revolving-door populist politics. “Thunder From A Clear Sky” expresses disgust with self-serving power structures in organized religion. I get up on a stage and use six strings and my voice to express my discontent with the world as I see it, and have a blast while doing so.
So, much like a lot of sci-fi writers.
There’s a stereotype of fans of science-fiction and fantasy as nerds and geeks, and sometimes that’s true (it is with me). There’s also a stereotype of punk fans as violent yobbos, and yeah, unfortunately sometimes that’s true as well (although not with me). However, despite these apparent discrepancies I find that the two cross over very nicely because they are both about imagining change.
SFF is the great “What if?” of literature, where you can throw any idea at the page and explore it. What if global warming continues unabated? Then you get The Osiris Project by EJ Swift. A quantum bomb goes off and merges our reality with those of mythical creatures like elves and demons? Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity. Napoleonic-style armies have to contend with sorcerous foes? Django Wexler’s The Shadow Campaigns. Far-future humanity is enslaved in a dogmatic, ultra-fascist religion-state? The entire Warhammer 40,000 universe. Humanity invents faster-than-light travel, but not faster-than-light communication? The galaxy-wide, Wild West-esque frontier space of my own Keiko series.
But SFF isn’t just a “What if?” adventure. It’s often a commentary. The galaxy of Dark Run is not a happy, Roddenberry-esque utopia, and that’s not because I don’t want humanity to come together for the mutual benefit of all, but because I don’t think we will. No-one could read Osiris and think that Swift isn’t opposed to the planet ending up primarily as flooded or burnt. It’s a fully-fledged story with well-realized characters, not a climate lecture dressed up as a trilogy of novels, but it’s certainly a cautionary tale. Even something as ostensibly fantastical as Wexler’s The Thousand Names carries messages opposing racism and homophobia. And if you want to find punk music with similar outlooks to those last two, then try Rise Against’s “Collapse (Post-Amerika)” and NOFX’s “Leaving Jesusland,” respectively.
I’ve worked with the homeless as my job for the last twelve years. It’s an experience that has given me stunning insights into both the potential and the vulnerabilities of the individual, and into the sometimes shocking inadequacies of society. When I’m not doing that I use words, and sometimes music (with a Skreen’s Park badge on my guitar strap), to identify what I see as wrong in societies and in people, or to speculate on how things could be improved, or to write warnings of what might happen if they don’t. So while science fiction and punk music might at first seem to be two completely unrelated hobbies they’re both huge parts of who I am. They’re simply different outlets for the same thought processes.
And, in whatever medium, I’m unlikely to shut up any time soon.
Mike Brooks is the author of the Keiko series of science-fiction novels. The first book, Dark Run, is out May 24th from Saga Press. He lives in Nottingham, UK with his wife, two cats, two snakes and some tropical fish. When not writing he works with the homeless, plays guitar and sings in a punk band, goes walking in the countryside, and DJs wherever anyone will tolerate him. Follow him on Twitter @mikebrooks668.