Heart of the Original – Steve Aylett interview
“Aylett crams more ideas into one sentence than you’ll find in all the novels on the New York Times bestseller list put together” – Bookmunch
“the most original voice in the literary scene” – Michael Moorcock
Sci-fi writer Steve Aylett uses books, films and music to trick you into seeing things in a different light, and can be mentioned in the same breath as Philip K Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. Yet the mainstream is not yet fully aware of Steve Aylett, who was a finalist for the Philip K Dick award and believes he resembles “some sort of giant hen”. What does a person have to do to get noticed nowadays? Isn’t having startling ideas and communicating them with hen-like skill enough?
Aylett’s new project, “Heart of the Original“, is an exploration of originality: why we need it, why society fears it. Let’s make the magic happen.
Heart of the Original has been described as a satire. Will it use humour to expose a great truth?
Steve: Yes, but satire isn’t just humour being used to speak the truth – it’s a very particular set of mechanisms that pull you in one end and churn you over. If you were honest and real to begin with you’ll come out the other end more or less the same, but if not you might not come out at all.
You say that “‘Nothing new under the sun’ is an order, not an observation”. Are we socially encouraged to think that originality no longer exists? Is someone giving the orders? And if so, why?
Steve: This definitely isn’t an original idea, it’s a total cliché, but the less that most people think, and simply move along and consume, the more profit there is for a small set of movers and shakers. It isn’t a conspiracy – nobody could organise that – it’s just the pattern things have fallen into, given the forces that exist. Things have to fall into some sort of pattern and this is how we’ve ended up. Any pattern will continue to support itself with more of the same, or improvements on the same. It’s comfortable enough. It usually takes a change of external circumstance to genuinely change a pattern like that. Like an asteroid.
Why do we react to originality with revulsion?
Steve: By definition real originality is something we’ve never encountered or conceived of before, all the way around. So we don’t have a receptor for it, a correctly-shaped slot to fit it into. Of course we can shift our head about a bit to accommodate it, but most people feel such discomfort with that – an obscure discomfort that they can’t even really articulate – that they prefer not to make that small effort. It’s got worse as most people have become more conservative and hidebound, more defensive and time-poor. I can understand that, but for me originality is so golden and amazing, I’ll crawl through broken glass with a knife between my teeth to get to it.
Heart of the Original explores why ‘obvious outcomes’ are met with surprise, and why old ideas are hailed as new. Do we pretend familiar ideas are original ones as a sort of safety net, because we can’t bear the idea of something new?
Steve: Yes, I think so – and also people have short memories and a very foreshortened idea of timescale. The first real novel was written around 2,800 years ago by a woman whose name has been forgotten. In the Day was meant to be a religious tract but she made it into something like a Mexican soap opera. She set up the ‘show, don’t tell’ thing for everyone subsequent and various dialogue forms that have been used since. It would be nice if people were more informed about what’s been done before. Did Koushun Takami get any royalties for The Hunger Games?
In regard to obvious outcomes being met with surprise – a sort of faked surprise, really – it’s a way of pleading innocence and evading responsibility. Making the poor poorer and the rich richer means there are more homeless people and suicides? What a shock. They could just be honest and admit they’re throwing a whole portion of society under the bus.
You talk of mischief being a creative spark…
Steve: When you know nothing you write will really change anything, it frees things up. If you’re in hell, what else can you do but be mischievous? I said once that ‘The great thing about being ignored is that you can speak the truth with impunity’ and I still think so.
What are your favourite instances of human originality?
Steve: I like that Walther Bauersfeld quietly invented the geodesic dome during a standard building commission, even if Buckminster Fuller nicked the idea and took the credit decades later. Another scientific one was Charles Hinton, who invented a method of seeing the way a four-dimensional creature would see – in full three dimensions. It involved memorising a square yard of space in your mind and placing everything you encountered inside it, so that you ‘feel’ every object inside and out.
Can originality happen on a small scale, or must it always be big, like inventing the wheel?
Steve: On any scale. And whatever scale it’s on, it releases energy as if it’s been compressed and then suddenly explodes when you trigger it. It unpacks very fast, almost with relief.
Can you kill your own creative spark? Can you do anything to re-ignite it?
Steve: It’s easy to allow the creative spark to be killed, as easy as accepting what other people tell you. Unfortunately that gets us very young, so most human beings are effectively dead by the time they’re into adulthood, on automatic. Actually these days it’s completing way, way earlier than that.
If you’ve got into that state it can take a lot of effort to re-examine everything from the ground up, or just let things in without the automatic parsing you’ve taken for granted for years, but it can be done. And there’s a lot of techniques involving locating a crap idea at a certain point in space in your mind, and then travelling several million miles in another direction and seeing what’s over there, then triangulating over another billion miles and so on. There’s various stuff you can do. It all has to do with disregarding, in one way or another.
Do you think originality is catching, like a virus? So a good conversation with a passionately original person can spur you to new heights?
Steve: The creative juices can get flowing that way but I find there needs to be some going inward to come up with the truly original and that’s not a very social or collaborative thing. It’s often a result of clenching the mind. You may have to go away and do a bit of clenching in private. But a really original person can certainly inspire that.
Do you think originality stems from any particular emotions?
Steve: It’s a ferocity of consciousness. Contrariness can be useful. So can anger and resentment, so long as they aren’t allowed to take over – those things in themselves aren’t creative. If you have the humour to retain some perspective, they can be used to set up a beautiful golden mechanism with light running all through it, especially in the case of satire. If this is set up in relation to dishonesty and injustice it can be like a holy fire. It’s a pure but human honesty machine that burns along like a vimana.
Have you ever experienced public disgust at your displays of originality? If so, how do you deal with it?
Steve: I tend to bring conversations to a slamming halt pretty often. I’m socially fairly inept anyway, but saying something completely startling in the middle of what’s supposed to be a ‘passing the time’ exchange is unacceptable. It’s a shame as I offer it in the belief that it’s interesting, I don’t mean anything bad by it. At other times I get distracted by the shape of something that someone’s said, and get absorbed in looking at it as a sort of thoughtshape, so a lot of the time I come across like a village idiot. I think that leavens the effect of the other stuff.
In ‘Heart of the Original’ you discuss how to ‘pass’ among the living dead while remaining alive…
Steve: Putting on today’s vapid smile and empty eyes is a major part of ‘playing dead’, but if you’ve truly got a mind of your own that may not be enough. It’s uncanny how they can sense that there’s something not quite right about you. It’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, when the pod people can detect a human by some sort of inner spark.
Another strategy is to adopt a standard-issue boil-in-the-bag wackiness such as pink spiky hair or something – this will be accepted and people will feel they’ve done their dutiful work of scanning for individuality and found nothing. Meanwhile, you may actually be an individual. You’re hiding in plain sight.
If someone read ‘Heart of the Original’, could it rewire them?
Steve: Yes. It’ll burn your soul with the fertile fire of angular glee, unfortunately.
Thanks for your time.
On a final note, I first discovered Steve Aylett through the biography of a fictional man called Lint. I thought Jeff Lint was real. I told my friends they needed to read this book, because beautiful people existed and Lint would CHANGE them. And they all shook their heads wearily and said “Mags, Lint doesn’t exist.” I had one of them epiphany moments, and felt like I had won; through being duped by a beautiful trick, I had grown inside.
So… that ugly, strange thing you thought of? So ugly and strange that you daren’t reveal it to anyone? It might be originality. Take it further, and see how far you can go. And if you’re suddenly faced with something ugly and strange, take a good long look. It might be rather beautiful, after all.
Read next: Heart of the Original review on Mookychick