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Stephen Palmer & The Fzzz-ed Up Brat

Stephen Palmer & The Fzzz-ed Up Brat

Manfred ran like a fzzz-ed up brat along the alley behind the public toilets, skidding into a junkfood-splattered dead end…

Like most writing newbies, I learned that grammar, spelling and literary technique were crucial to authorial success; and I still believe they are vital when you’re learning your craft. But recently, particularly after the experience of writing my short story ‘Xana-La,’ and ‘Hairy London,’ the novel it inspired, I have come to realise that there are advantages to really breaking those rules…

The sentence at the top of this piece is taken from one of the opening chapters of my new novel ‘Beautiful Intelligence,’ which follows two teams of AI researchers in 2092 as they race to create the first sentient machine. For some reason the phrase fzzz-ed up brat has stayed with me, and become a symbol for a way of using made-up words to convey things.

What does that phrase mean to you? A lazy, or bonkers author? Somebody trying too hard to be different? Or does it invoke an image of a hyperactive youngster with lots of cheek and too much energy?
I could easily have written, Manfred ran like a hyperactive child along the alley behind the public toilets, skidding into a junkfood-splattered dead end… but that’s not how it came out. I wanted to use a kind of Carrollian nonsense to evoke the image; and I think absurdity works better, at least, in the context of this novel. My editor Keith Brooke left the phrase in.

In some of my novels I’ve used these artificial, often mannered techniques to enhance the mood of the piece. ‘The Rat & The Serpent’ was written entirely in black-and-white (as a film might be shot in black-and-white) because the tale and setting were gothic, and I thought a monochrome technique would enhance the prose. It was hard to do – not mentioning blood was the most difficult part – but after I had completed the first chapter I knew success was possible. However some reviewers disliked the mannered feel, prose style, and the use of words. ‘Urbis Morpheos’ was similarly disliked by some because almost everything relating to the plot happens for mysterious reasons kept beneath the surface of the narrative, which the reader has to work out for themself. But in such a far-future, enigmatic milieu, I thought that technique was okay.

I have flirted with the technique before. My 2004 free-festival book ‘Hallucinating’ (not written for SF fans, rather for music fans, and not originally intended to be published as a novel) uses a lot of invented dialect to get across the feel of the setting: There is a small but enthusiastic crowd, spliff-taffs mostly, but also rasta hangers-on, tipi folk, and ambient heads seething their brains in Lo-Dose and Mighty. I think this novel might have been my first proper use of this near-nonsense technique. Similarly, in ‘Hairy London’ things are evoked rather than described, using both made-up words and ambiguous images: With that, the machinora rose with resonant lowing into the heavens, leaving a trail of part chewed grass that splattered in a line along the roof… while, shortly afterwards: Velvene jumped out, frightened that the heatorix would blow up. He hauled out the clay figure then grabbed his belongings and threw them on the ground, leaping out of the capacity just as fire enveloped the heatorix. He could do no more. Ablaze, the machinora went up with a final, despairing low and a delicious smell of roast beef.

You could argue that this sort of thing is over-done, and a few reviewers did find the verbal absurdity a little too much, but, in the context of that bonkers novel (which I should point out was both liberating and immense fun to write), I think it is at least consistent with the mood. And the technique is of course employed by many authors apart from Lewis Carroll; one thinks of Anthony Burgess and his droogs.

So: fzzz-ed up brat or hyperactive child? Well, I think my phase of mannered prose – both enigmatic and absurdist – is over for the foreseeable future. My most recently completed work ‘The Girl With Two Souls’ is as straight-laced as they come. But who knows, perhaps one day I’ll be overcome with Carrollian madness and write another daft tale. I do have a rather silly sense of humour, and I have thought of an idea…

Stephen's latest book, Beautiful Intelligence, has just been released and is garnering a lot of early buzz: