It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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That sound you hear is my ears ringing

It’s been a musical week for me. On Tuesday 20 October, I saw Tinariwen in concert. They’re a Tuareg band from Mali. I’ve liked their music since seeing a documentary on the Festival in the Desert seven or eight years ago. They proved much better live than I expected. I bought their new album, Imidiwan: Companions, at the gig, and it’s better than the previous one. Here’s some Tinariwen:

And then I spent Saturday 24 October in Leeds at the Damnation Festival. I’d thought about going to this the last couple of years, but the line-up never appealed. This year, it definitely did. I got to see three bands I like a great deal – Mithras, Anathema and Akercocke. Mithras played with their new line-up, with Sam Bean, ex-The Berzerker, replacing Rayner Coss on bass and vocals. Anathema performed a somewhat over-the-top “best of” set, but it was bloody good. Akercocke weren’t wearing suits. Also there were Rotting Christ, whose last album Theogonia is good. The headline act was Life of Agony, but I wasn’t too impressed. But still, a good festival – much better than I’d expected.


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People of Fact in Fiction

There’s an interesting article on the Aqueduct Press blog regarding the use of real – dead or alive, historical or celebrity – people in fiction. This has apparently been kicked off by AS Byatt’s comments on Man Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Byatt has said in an interview that it is “appropriation of others’ lives and privacy”, and “I really don’t like the idea of ‘basing’ a character on someone, and these days I don’t like the idea of going into the mind of the real unknown dead.”

As a writer of science fiction, how relevant is this to me? After all, sf is set in the future, right? In space. With aliens. It’s not real.

Well, yes it is.

Science fiction is as real as any other genre. Sf is not just spaceships and robots. Sf is not divorced from, or irrelevant to, the real world.

I don’t have a problem with fiction writers using real people in their stories. I’ve done it myself. I’ve even had it done to me – I’ve been horribly dismembered in at least two stories by writer Jim Steel.

But I do have a problem with writers who confuse their fact with fiction.

On my Space Books blog, I’ve reviewed a number of books about the space race. And some of them have been written in a style which dramatises their subject, makes it more immediate, a more readable book and not a dry academic tome. It is presented almost as if it were fiction. When the non-fiction author describes what a person is thinking or feeling, with no citation or quote to show that this is what the person has said they thought or felt, then the author is writing fiction. But since their book is presented as fact, they’re misleading the reader. I think that is wrong.

But for a fiction writer to use fact? It doesn’t even require the “ironic distance” discussed in the Aqueduct Press piece. The text itself is fiction, and is pretty much always labelled as such. There may be other clues in the story – especially if it is alternate history.

Take, for example, my own flash story ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’ (available here). The story has three characters: Stuart A Roosa, Gerald P Carr and Paul J Weitz. It mentions two other people by name: Neil Armstrong and Iven Kincheloe. All five are real people. Three of them are still alive.

The story describes Apollo 20, a mission to the Moon which never took place. So it’s alternate history. This might not, of course, be obvious to everyone. The US went to the Moon eight times, and landed twelve men on its surface. That it happened is known to everyone. The details of each mission may not be. So a lunar landing with Stuart Roosa and Gerald Carr could conceivably be misread as fact, if a reader didn’t know the names of the twelve men who walked on the Moon.

Even the line “Apollo 20, the first mission to visit the dark side of the Moon” only really signals that ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’ is alternate history to someone who knows that the last Apollo mission was Apollo 17 (Apollo 18 was actually the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project), and that no Apollo mission visited the dark side of the Moon.

But ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’ is clearly labelled as “fiction”.

I could have invented astronauts for the story – Commander Stu Bobbington and Lunar Module Pilot Gerry Freddison. I didn’t have to use real ones. I could have crewed Apollo 20 with entirely made-up people.

But.

I used real people because I find it interesting when fiction intersects the real world. ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’ is intended to read as feasible – its plausibility rests on its feasibility. By referencing real people, I bolstered its feasibility. Iven Kincheloe really did die in 1958. He was a test pilot, and had been selected in 1957 – along with Neil Armstrong – for the USAF Man in Space Soonest programme. Conspiracy theories have been built on less.

I didn’t make a serious attempt to capture the characters of Roosa and the others – it’s a 1,000 word story, after all. Some might consider that an unfair appropriation of their names. In fact, I’d originally written the piece with Jack R Lousma as the LMP – he was the most likely candidate for Apollo 20. But I had to read out the story and Roosa and Lousma sounded too similar, so I replaced Lousma with Carr, who was actually the planned LMP for Apollo 19.

When I made the change, I didn’t rewrite the dialogue. As I said, the story is not an attempt to present real versions of the people. I’ve no idea if they talked the way I portrayed them. I don’t especially care. It’s their career baggage which interested me, and which added an additional dimension to my short story.

‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’ is not the first time I’ve used real people in a piece of fiction. Another features World War I soldier-poet Wilfred Owen (it will be published next year). I’m sure there’ll be other stories – some have to be told from the viewpoint of a real person; some real people need to have stories told about them. I see no reason why a writer should limit themselves by only using invented characters.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t research – the character needs to resemble the real person, or the reader won’t recognise them for who they are. You can’t just appropriate their names – Roosa’s career mapped perfectly onto the plot of ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams; I didn’t simply pick a random member of the astronaut corps. And besides, the final line simply doesn’t work if I’d used a made-up name instead of Neil Armstrong. My Wilfred Owen story references his poetry and writings, and the plot hinges on the fact that he did not survive World War I.

There should be no limits on fiction. Start telling writers what they can and cannot do, and the readers will suffer as well. Imagination works best when it is unfettered.


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Advance warning: my reading challenge for 2010

Since starting this blog in late 2006, each year I’ve run a reading challenge – read one book per month to a theme, and blog the results. In 2007, it was my favourite sf novels. In 2008, it was twelve classic authors I’d not read before. This year, it’s a dozen sf novels I remember fondly from my teen years.

I’ve been thinking about what I should read next year.

And I had a jolly good idea. I’m going to read a fantasy novel each month. Specifically, I’m going to read the first novel in a fantasy series. And then I’m going to write about it, about what I thought to the book, about whether or not the book is good enough to make me want continue to read the series. However…

I don’t know which books to read. So I’m looking for suggestions. I’d like people to recommend the titles of epic fantasy novels, the first books in series. There are a few caveats – well, one caveat: there must be at least three books in the series currently available. I don’t want to read a book, only to discover I’ve got wait a few years until I can read the next one.

When I say “series”, I’m also including trilogies. Anything more than two, in other words. Er, that’s another caveat.

And before you start banging out suggestions, the following series are out because I’ve already read, or am reading, them: The Lord of the Rings, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Steven Erikson’s Malazan Books of the Fallen, Paul Park’s A Princess of Roumania, Samuel R Delany’s Nevèrÿon, anything by Michael Moorcock, George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Ricardo Pinto’s Stone Dance of the Chameleon, Mike Cobley’s Shadowkings, Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles, Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea , Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant or Mordant’s Need, M John Harrison’s Viriconium

So, to summarise:

  • epic fantasy
  • three books or more in the series
  • three books or more of the series published
  • not one of the above-named series

All suggestions welcomed – just leave me a comment. You’ve got nearly three months to persuade me which titles to read.


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An Unreliable Review: Transition, by Iain Banks

“Apparently I am what is known as an Unreliable Narrator, though of course if you believe everything you’re told you deserve whatever you get.”

So opens Iain Banks’ Transition. It is a science fiction novel, set among and across many alternate worlds; but it has been published in the UK without the defining “M”. Transition is ostensibly about the Concern, an organisation from an alternate Earth which operates an undefined number of agents who have the ability to “transition”, to travel between alternate realities. In order to further an agenda which never quite becomes clear. Chief among these operatives is Madame d’Ortolan, who heads the Concern’s Central Council and so runs the organisation. Set against her is the rebel Mrs Mulverhill. And caught between the two is Concern agent and assassin Temudjin Oh.

The novel comprises a number of different narratives, none of which progress in chronological order. One featuring “Patient 8262″ does very little until the epilogue, which gives his identity without actually explaining it. Another narrative is that of a Yuppie barrow-boy-turned-trader, who is peripherally involved. And there’s another, which appears only a handful of times, about an American film producer trying to get a project green-lit.

There is little that is actually unreliable about the story of Transition. Perhaps there’s a vague possibility that it is all confabulation, but if there are clues suggesting as much I missed them. In fact, other than the bald “I am an Unreliable Narrator” which opens the book, there’s very little in the way of narrative games in Transition. Structurally, yes – the plot is a collage of related vignettes and episodes from life histories. But that’s nothing new for Banks – his Use of Weapons is justifiably known for its innovative structure. But the structure of Transition does beg the question: is it greater than the sum of its parts?

And… I don’t think so. Banks has never been a great prose stylist – good, but not great. But his fiction has always been characterised by great imagination. Even as Iain Banks, the mainstream writer, there has been bleed-through from his science fiction persona, Iain M Banks. And while Transition is certainly not a M book in feel or presentation, it is coloured by his sf far more than any of his other mainstream novels. It’s not a M book because it is low-residue, low-profile science fiction. It’s not the in-your-face space operatics of the Culture novels.

The central conceit, the travelling between alternate Earths, is certainly science fiction; but it is never explained or rationalised. There’s a drug, septum, and a certain small percentage of the population has a talent… There’s a vague nod in the direction of the Many Worlds Hypothesis, but no real attempt at depicting the phenomenon realistically. If anything, it’s simply a device to allow Banks to present different worlds – which are constructed with much of the invention and excess of his science fiction. Sometimes too much, in fact…

The Culture at least provides Banks with a framework for his invention. And he needs it, otherwise he has a tendency to over-colour his worlds. The chief villain of The Algebraist, the Archimandrite Luseferous, is such a pantomime figure, all he is missing are twirling moustaches. And the same is true of Madame d’Ortolan in Transition. She’s not real. Neither, for that matter, is Mrs Mulverhill. They’re comic-book characters – in fact, you can almost imagine them in some brightly-coloured hyper-real graphic novel. Adrian, the 1980s trader, is more real, but even then he’s something of a cliché. And, it has to be said, yuppie excesses are an old target. Today it is the bankers, especially the incompetent CEOs who get to walk away from the wreckage with millions.

In fact, there is a sense throughout Transition of old battles being dragged back into the light. Banks has never been one to shy away from a fight, and we get the usual well-worded attacks – on libertarianism, religion, the rich, military adventurism, the ends justifying the means, torture…

The religion one is especially interesting. There have been many mentions of the novel’s assertion that Christianity is a perfect religion for terrorism.Which may be true considering its creed. But terrorism is a secular activity, and Islam, unlike Christianity, is not simply a creed and a moral framework. It is a political and judicial system, it is more tightly-interwoven into the lives of its followers than Christianity. And, it should be pointed out, all studies on suicide bombers and terrorists to date have demonstrated that they are driven more by nationalistic and political motives than they are religious.

In total, it’s hard to know exactly what to make of Transition. The total doesn’t quite add up. The Concern’s secret agenda – which is the hidden engine of the plot – is not properly geared to the story. The low-profile sf which permeates the novel gets inexplicably thrown away at the climax and replaced with, well, magic. If the villains are comic-book characters, then Oh only wins through at the end because he turns into a superhero…

On reflection, seen in that light – Transition is a hyper-real graphic novel in prose – then perhaps things begin to make sense. The need to atone for the 1980s. The brightly-coloured and highly-detailed backgrounds. The ungrounded inventiveness. The larger-than-sf characters. The way in which each vignette or episode must be treated as complete in and of itself, and yet must also be taken as a part of the greater plot. Transition feels as though Banks has adopted comic-book story-telling techniques to a prose novel. And disguised it as science fiction.

Has Banks has created a novel which can be read in three modes – mainstream, science fiction, and comic-book? Possibly. Because reading Transition solely in one of those modes renders it an unsatisfactory read. It never quite convinces as science fiction; it becomes increasingly too fantastic to work as mainstream; and its narrative is perhaps too complex to succeed as a comic-book. But it certainly makes for a (mostly) interesting read.

Someone once said of Anthony Burgess that he was a great novelist who never wrote a great novel. I’m beginning to wonder if we should say the same of Iain Banks…


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Waking the Dead

The eighth series of Waking the Dead finished a couple of weeks ago. And it’s difficult to know what to make of it. One character died, one resigned but then seemed to stay, one transferred out of the team, and one handed over to a replacement while she went into hospital… but her replacement cocked things up and so might not be taking over after all.

Waking the Dead, for those of you who have never heard of it, or don’t watch it, is a BBC drama about a police team which investigates old unsolved case, the Metropolitan Police’s Cold Case Unit. The programme has been broadcast annually since 2001, and each series usually takes the form of four to six two-hour episodes, each one split over two nights (typically Sunday and Monday). At present, the Cold Case Unit comprises Detective Superintendent Peter Boyd (Trevor Eve), psychological profiler Dr Grace Foley (Sue Johnston), Detective Inspector Spencer Jordan (Will Johnson), Detective Sergeant Stella Goodman (Félicité du Jeu), and forensic pathologist Dr Eve Lockhart (Tara FitzGerald).

I don’t normally write about television programmes on this blog – well, not unless they’re science fiction… But Waking the Dead is one of my favourite series. And that’s despite not being much of a fan of police procedurals. Waking the Dead, however, is not only classy drama, with high production values, it’s also very watchable. And – it is probably this which appeals to me the most – each series it does something interesting… as a police procedural and as a television drama. Past series, for example, have been themed, with each story an interpretation of the theme. It has run story-arcs in the background over multiple series. And in series eight, it put the entire cast at risk, and then failed to resolve their fates.

In fact, if there is a theme to series eight, it’s that: lack of resolution. Not one of the four stories was properly resolved. I couldn’t actually decide if this was deliberate, a choice explored by the writers, or simply evidence of poor writing. Given the programme’s history, I’m inclined to the former.

But it’s such an odd choice of theme. And its implementation seemed to undercut the plausibility of the programme.

In the first two-parter, ‘Magdalene 26′, a body found hanging in the victim’s house, which has been dead for several days, proves crucial to the investigation. Except… it is never actually identified. Initially, it’s believed to be the victim’s husband, but he later turns up alive. So who was it?

So: not resolved. One or two loose ends I can accept. Not everything needs to be tied up neatly.

But the ending of the story? The murder eventually proves to be the work of a pair of Turkish gangsters, after the victim’s millions. Boyd, claiming to be a shady financier, arranges to meet the Turks in a secluded spot. He has a pair of hidden snipers with him. Boyd pulls out his warrant card to show the Turks. One goes for his gun. Two shots ring out. The credits roll.

Hang on a minute.

They haven’t solved the case. Justice hasn’t been served. The Cold Case Unit shot the villains. That doesn’t happen in the UK.Certainly not without a great deal more provocation.

Was this, perhaps, an attempt to make the series more US-friendly? Or was it a commentary on US-style police procedurals?

The second two-parter, ‘End of the Night’, made it no clearer. Twelve years earlier, a teenage girl was raped and her younger brother murdered by a pair of men the authorities have failed to identify. The girl, now a young woman, attempts suicide, and this inspires Boyd to re-open the investigation. Eventually, the Cold Case Unit identify both rapists. The young woman learns their names. She kidnaps the man who murdered her brother and takes him to the scene of the crime, a high stone bridge over a narrow brook. She murders the killer, and then tries to kill herself by jumping off the bridge. Boyd stops her before she can. The credits roll.

Okay. A more plausible ending, certainly. But the only resolution is that of the victim’s character arc. And, like ‘Magdalene 26′, it’s a more abrupt ending than you’d expect from a television drama.

Like the previous two, the third story, Substitute’, started well enough. Eve enters into a relationship with a man, but doubts his identity. So she secretly takes a DNA swab, and checks up on him. It seems his DNA was found at the scene of a ten-year-old murder – in fact, his semen was on the victim’s body. The means by which Eve took the DNA means the evidence is tainted. But Boyd insists on re-opening the investigation into the murder. As the story progresses, the more it seems the main suspect, Eve’s lover, is not guilty. Or is he? Not that it really matters. During the investigation, the team have identified the villain of the piece. At the end of the episode, Eve has taken her lover to a remote boat-house in order to determine whether he is truly innocence. The rest of the team turn up. As does the villain and his henchman. Eve gets her answer. Boyd and the team drive away, leaving the suspect to be killed by the villain. A shot rings out. The credits roll.

Er.. what? The Cold Case Unit left their suspect to be murdered by a criminal? What happened to justice? The Cold Case Unit are members of the Metropolitan Police, aren’t they? They’ve not only allowed a murder to take place, and so condoned it, but they’ve also failed to charge the villain – against whom they have plenty of evidence.

I did wonder if this was the last series of Waking the Dead, and they were wrapping everything up. Stella had been shot in the first two-parter – and then abruptly died off-stage in hospital from a thrombosis. Spencer had jumped ship to CID, and Eve had handed in her resignation. Boyd was complicit in a murder, and clearly going off the deep end.

The Cold Case Unit was finished.

But no. The final two-parter, ‘Endgame’, seemed to be a return to form. It brought back an old villain, the psychopathic prison guard Linda Cummings from series seven, and also referenced a couple of episodes from previous series. Spencer, despite his move, was dragged back in to help. Stella’s replacement Kat was clearly now a full member of the team. Grace, however, had been admitted into hospital for treatment for cancer, and a replacement had joined the unit. Played by Gina McKee. Casting her led me to suspect she would be staying, that Grace was going to be written out. But she proved to be partly complicit in Linda Cummings’ scheme. So she’s unlikely to stay. And we still don’t know what’s going to happen to Grace.

The ending of the story was also less abrupt than those of the preceding two-parters. Cummings kidnaps Grace from her hospital bed, and threatens to kill her unless Boyd does as she says. There’s a last-minute reprieve and Grace is rescued unharmed. It is, on reflection, an almost traditional ending to these sort of stories. It is also completely at odds with the endings of other series eight stories. It’s as if the writers bent the concept of a “police procedural story ending” completely out of shape… only to let it snap back in the final two-parter. Which certainly qualifies as “interesting”.

Perhaps they had no choice – they had to leave the series as they found it. This is not unusual, given that most television programmes are made on a series by series, or season by season, basis. Some, such as Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes (also programmes I like a great deal), have strictly-defined runs – although I believe this is a lot more common on British television than it is on US television. But still most expect to return the following year. And so they have to leave cast and story-arc in a state which does not preclude continuation.

But this doesn’t explain the events of the first three two-parters of series eight. Certainly one of the cast has gone – killed in the line of duty. Spencer is unlikely to return given his transfer. Eve resigned, but then stayed on. But perhaps she’s leaving too. Grace’s fate is unknown.

And yet, if no series nine was planned, I would have expected a more final ending to ‘Endgame’ – I suspect the title is not a hint. The more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to believe that in this series the writers were exploring the use of dramatic unconventional endings. While this may have had unintended consequences – plausibility took something of a bashing, and the various endings seemed more characterised by a lack of resolution than anything else – it does strike me as a valid, and interesting, artistic choice.

I can only wonder what next year’s theme will be. Because I certainly hope there will be a series nine.


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Anatomy of a Story: Thicker Than Water

The second of the two stories I’ve put up on this blog is ‘Thicker Than Water’, a hard sf story set on a moon of Saturn. It was originally published in Jupiter sf magazine, issue 23, in January 2009.

Major Gina Priest lives on Tethys, a moon of Saturn. When two raiders from another moon, Titan, attempt to steal some of the fullerenes found on Tethys, they are captured. Gina is shocked to discover that one of the raiders is her brother. She learns she was abducted from Titan at a very young age. After another officer disobeys her orders and tortures the raiders, Gina decides to help the Titans escape and return with them to to her long-lost mother and father.

Here’s the PDF. You might want to read the story before you continue reading this.

The plot of ‘Thicker Than Water’ is based on the story of Iphigenia from ancient Greece. She was abducted as a child and taken to Tauris, where she grew up and became a priestess of Artemis. A pair of Athenians then raided the temple while Iphigenia was present. She learned they were her brother Orestes and his friend Pylades. So she lied to the Taurians, and returned to Athens to join her long-lost family. With the statue of Artemis they had stolen.

I forget where I originally came across Iphigenia’s story. It was back in the early 1990s, so it wasn’t on the Web. I’d also found a mention of a mysterious dark patch on Tethys in a planetology textbook I’d bought for reference – Exploring the Planets by Eric H Christiansen and Kenneth W Hamblin (1995). The book’s a bit out-of-date now, but I have the Web instead. I decided that the dark patch was buckminsterfullerenes – carbon molecules in the shape of spheres or tubes, which were thought to be artificial but do occur very rarely in nature. This idea came partly from another story, ‘Black Rain’ (available in Set It In Space And Stick A Robot In It), which is set on Titan, and takes place in an earlier version of the universe of ‘Thicker Than Water’. In that story, the settlement’s manufactory was destroyed by a blow-in of Titan’s noxious atmosphere, and the superconductor cultures were poisoned. So, instead of Aphrodite’s statue, I’d have Orestes and Pylades, natives of Titan, travelling to Tethys to steal fullerenes in order to re-seed their superconductor cultures. It all slotted very neatly together – and this is actually mentioned in passing in ‘Thicker Than Water’.

I wrote the story, and even submitted it to a magazine or two. They rejected it.

Then it sat in the “bottom drawer” for over a decade.

Last year, I dug out the manuscript, read through it, and decided it was worth having another go. But it needed more than just rewriting. While reminding myself of Iphigenia’s story, I came across mention of Euripides, an ancient Greek playwright. He actually wrote a play, Iphigenia in Tauris, based on Iphigenia’s story. So there’s another dimension, I thought. I can tie in an ancient Greek tragedy.

Greek plays, of course, have Greek choruses. So why shouldn’t ‘Thicker Than Water’ have one? And since NASA had posted a MP3 of the radio noises generated by Saturn, why not use the ringed gas giant as my “chorus”? Hence the numerous mentions of Saturn’s radio-noise in the story.

I used the play in other ways, too. I borrowed the odd phrase from the Potter translation (which provides the lines from the play which preface the story). And I named all my characters for the characters in the play. The king of Tauris is Thoas, but I decided to use King instead. Iphigenia, priestess of Aphrodite, is of course Gina Priest. Orestes and Pylades I shortened to Orris and Pyle. And two unnamed characters, a herald and a herdsman, became Messenger and Shepard.

There are a few other scattered “clues” as well – such as “as if from some oracular distance” in the opening paragraph. Oracular. Oracle. Delphi. Get it?

Oh, and Tauris… In the original version of the story, the settlement on Tethys was also a carousel – a ring which rotated at a speed sufficient to provide some gravity – but it was unnamed. When I stumbled across Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris, it occurred to me that a carousel could be torus-shaped. So Tauris became Torus. Sometimes research just gifts you things you’d be a fool to refuse or ignore.

I also changed the plot slightly when I rewrote the story. In the original version, Gina decides to help her brother to escape, but when she returns to his cell he has already been taken away. The story ended with her being unable to prevent his execution – as he was pushed out of an airlock without a spacesuit. For the new version, I had the three of them escape successfully. Which then allowed me to bring the alien sentinel more into the story. That – the mysterious alien vessel patrolling the Solar system – was there right from the start, but more as a clue to why Earth had abandoned its space colonies, and as the reason for the Tethysians protection of the sea of fullerenes.

It had always been in the back of my mind to have ‘Thicker Than Water’ (and the earlier ‘Black Rain’) be part of a single fictional universe. In it, Earth has withdrawn all its space resources, shut down its EM broadcasting, and essentially firewalled itself inside its atmosphere. This has left on their own the many settlements and colonies scattered on Mars and the moons of the Saturn, Jupiter and the Outer Planets. These settlements have also discovered a series of strange alien artefacts, most of which resemble extremely unlikely natural phenomena. Their purpose is unknown. And then there’s the mysterious alien sentinel loose in the Solar system which doesn’t take kindly to any kind of interference with these artefacts.

Now that I was basing my stories on the plays of Euripides, I decided to call this my Euripidean Space universe.

Despite all this going on in the background, the story still needed something more. The escape succeeded, and in the process doomed the Tethys settlement – from an implied attack by the alien… That gave me a better ending. But I needed something extra to round out the middle. So I looked to the news. And came up with…

Torture. The Tethysians would torture the two raiders from Titan, and that would in part explain Gina’s motivation to help Orris and Pyle escape.

I’m not actually all that interested in writing science fiction, I’m more interested in using science fiction in writing, in extending the genre. I don’t want to write adventure stories in a science-fictional universe – I consider it a form of artistic cowardice. ‘Thicker Than Water’ is in part a sf treatment of an ancient Greek play – it uses the same cast, and I tried in some way to carry the flavour across. But it’s also about torture, about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Stories should be about something, about something relevant. Even if they are set in outer space and feature spaceships and aliens. Perhaps even especially if they are set in outer space and feature spaceships and aliens.

I read through the story now, nine months after it was published, and perhaps one or two of the reviews of it weren’t so far off the mark. Perhaps some of the characters’ motivations weren’t entirely clear – one of the perils, I suspect, of taking a story from an ancient Greek play. Perhaps the ending did seem a little disconnected… but the clues were there. But maybe that’s because that aspect of the story wasn’t intended to entirely stand alone – it would be just one element in a greater story, told through many stories. On reflection, I shouldn’t have relied on that. I’ll know better for the next one. And yes, there are more Euripidean Space stories planned.

Again, I hope you enjoyed both the story and this piece on it. No other stories of mine have been published in the last twelve months, although there’s a few due to see the light of day soon. Some time in the future, I may give one of those the same treatment.


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Readings, yes, and watchings too

In lieu of intelligent content, here’s another trawl through the books what I’ve read and the films what I’ve watched since the last time I did one of these posts…

Books
Lord Valentine’s Castle, Robert Silverberg (1980), was September’s book for this year’s reading challenge. I wrote about it here.

Live and Let Die, Ian Fleming (1954), I found in a local charity shop and I’m glad I got it cheap. The films are much better than the books. The books may be very much products of their time, but the casual racism and sexism makes them hard to enjoy. The plot, incidentally, only vaguely resembles that of the movie.

Fantasms and Magics, Jack Vance (1969), is a collection of short stories. The opening novella, ‘The Miracle Workers’, is classic Vance, and ‘Guyal of Sfere’ (which I kept on misreading as ‘Gruyere’) is a Dying Earth novella and quite good. The rest are forgettable.

The Dan Dare Dossier, Frank Hampson et al (1990), is the last of the thirteen volume series of Dan Dare reprints issued by Hawk Publishing. Unlike the others it’s not a reprint of strips from Eagle, but a discussion of Hampson, his studio of artists, the characters, world, and merchandising associated with the strip. The text could have done with some serious editing, but if you’re a fan of Dan Dare – as I am – then it’s all interesting and useful information.

Broken Symmetries, Steve Redwood (2009), is a collection of short stories by a small-press writer which I reviewed for Interzone.

Winged Rocketry, James C Sparks (1968), I reviewed on my Space Books blog here.

Shades of Gray, Lewis Shiner (2008), is a chapbook given away with purchases of the limited edition of Shiner’s last novel, Black & White. Shiner himself describes the four stories in Shades of Gray as either too rough, too slight, or too silly to go into the upcoming Collected Stories. It’s hard not to disagree.

Shifts, Adam Thorpe (2000), is themed collection of short stories, the theme being careers and people whose lives are defined by their careers. The stand-out is the title story, about a Ghanaian immigrant eking out a living in London in 1966. ‘Sawmill’ is a Greenesque tale set in, I think, an invented African nation, and is also very good. Some of the others don’t seem to do much, but the writing throughout is of a very high standard. I plan to read more Thorpe.

The Lordly Ones, Keith Roberts (1986), is also a collection of short stories. I like Roberts’ fiction – in fact, one of his short stories is a favourite, ‘The Lake of Tuonela’. Sadly, there’s nothing as good as that in this; nor indeed is The Lordly Ones as good a collection as the collection in which that appears, The Grain Kings. On the whole, some lovely writing in places, but a little dated in execution.

Transition, Iain Banks (2009). A new novel by Banks deserves a review all its own. And it shall get one. Soon. Keep watching.

Films
Highlander, dir. Russell Mulcahy (1986), I first saw when it came out twenty-three years ago. I remember at the time thinking it reminded me of an sf novel – one I later identified as George Turner’s Vaneglory. Watching it again, it’s not so close to the novel, but it is, well, very camp. All that posing in dark alleys and lights shining through rain and steam. And the Queen soundtrack. I also seem to recall the film being held in relatively high regard, although I can’t see why. There’s the bizarre casting: a Frenchman as a Scot, and a Scot as a Spaniard (well, Egyptian originally). The badly-choreographed fight scenes. The stereotype characters. And the franchise degraded in quality, too.

The Spirit, dir. Frank Miller (2008), I’d heard plenty of bad words about, but I decided to see for myself. It is bad. The look of the film aping a comic – like Sin City and 300 – is just a gimmick. The story is silly, the characters are paper-thin, the women are there to make the men look good, and the dialogue is cringe-worthy. Not impressed.

The Faculty, dir. Robert Rodriguez (1998), has to be one of the most blatant metaphors ever committed to celluloid. Oh noes, the teachers have all been taken over by aliens! But it’s done with tongue firmly in cheek, and even Josh Hartnett’s brainiac slacker character doesn’t spoil the fun. Plus there’s a few mentions of sf and sf authors by someone who clearly knew what they were talking about. A fun film.

Total Reality, dir. Philip J Roth (1997), is a bad straight-to-DVD sf film. That should be enough to make me avoid it, but in fact the opposite happens. I want to watch these sort of films, no matter how crap they are. And I never really enjoy them. Because they’re so bad. But I keep on watching them. In this one, a team of soldiers sentenced to death for treason are sent back in time on the trail of a pair of rebels. They have to prevent the murder of the self-help guru whose “system” was adopted by a politician and subsequently resulted in a brutal interstellar empire several centuries later. The CGI is terrible, the production design is awful, and the acting is poor. But the explosion of the guru’s house is pretty impressive.

Futuresport, dir. Ernest R Dickerson (1998), is another bad straight-to-DVD sf film. But with a surprisingly high-powered cast: Wesley Snipes, Vanessa Williams and Dean Cain. How the mighty have fallen. Well, not Dean Cain – he was never A-list. Futuresport is little more than a remake of Rollerball, but nowhere near as good as that film. All you really need to know is that it’s about a new ball game, called Futuresport. If you were going to invent a new ball game, why would you call it “futuresport”? It’s a dumb name.

Letter From An Unknown Woman, dir. Max Ophüls (1948), is another film from the Time Out Centenary Top 100 films list. I have three lists on Lovefilm DVD rentals – one for recent films, one for foreign films, and one for films from the Time Out list. Each month, I’m sent two from each list. Not all the films from the Time Out list have struck me as enjoyable or impressive. Letter From An Unknown Woman was one such. Louis Jourdan plays a self-centred concert pianist who sleeps with, and then discards, a young woman – played by Joan Fontaine – who has had a crush on him since she was a girl. The story is framed as a letter written by the woman, and sent to Jourdan after she’s died. I found it a bit dull.

Soldier, dir. Paul WS Anderson (1998). Yes, I know: Anderson has never made a good film. (Although his television movie, The Sight, is actually not bad.) Soldier is certainly worse than Event Horizon (see here). It’s Rambo in all but setting. Which is a planet on which some vaguely-defined interstellar human federation dumps its rubbish (shades of Futurama). Kurt Russell plays a genetically-engineered soldier who is left for dead and dumped on the planet of rubbish after losing in a demonstration fight against a newer model. Where he is taken in by a lost colony. And those exact same newer models just happen to visit the planet of rubbish on manoeuvres. They attack the colonists. Russell fights back. It’s another Anderson film which makes very little sense if you think about it too hard. The story follows through from beginning to middle to end, but there’s no logic to it, or to the world on which it takes place.

Léon, dir. Luc Besson (1994), I reviewed for videovista.net – see here.

Earth Alien, dir. Kevin Tenney (2002), is yet another crap sf film. It doesn’t boast the talent of Futuresport, but it’s not that far off – Eric Roberts, Arnold Vosloo and the ubiquitous John Rhys Davies. Someone is killing people in gyms, and Roberts is the detective investigating. Turns out the serial killer is an alien on hunting trip. Earth is a game reserve, humans are the prey, and Vosloo is the game warden. A very silly film. There’s not even a good explosion in it.

Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, dir. Jack Perez (2009), I reviewed for videovista.net – see here.

Daratt, dir. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (2006), I rented after enjoying Haroun’s earlier Abouna. Like that film, it’s set in Haroun’s native Chad. Sixteen-year-old Atim, orphaned by the civil war, determines to find the man who killed his father – as all war criminals have been given amnesty by the government now that the civil war has finally ended. He heads for, I think, the capital N’Djamena, where he discovers that his father’s killer, Nassara, is now a baker, attends mosque regularly, and has a young pregnant wife. In order to get close to the man and so find an opportunity for revenge, Atim apprentices himself to Nassara. And as he gets to know him, the less he wants to kill him. An excellent film. Recommended.

Privates On Parade, dir. Michael Blakemore (1982), is based on a play by Peter Nicholls, which is in turn based on his own experiences, as described in his autobiography, Feeling You’re Behind, which I read several years ago. The film is about a British armed forces concert party in Malaysia in 1948. Many of the characters are apparently based on real-life individuals. It’s a comedy, but it’s hard to know exactly who or what are its targets. John Cleese plays the commanding officer, and he’s a typical John Cleese character. The rest of the cast are just as much caricatures. And the English countryside makes a poor stand-in for the Malayan jungle. Mildly amusing.

Burn After Reading, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen (2008). I’m not a big fan of the Coen brothers’ films. I’ll watch them, and I sort of enjoy them. But that’s about all. This one is fairly typical of their oeuvre. John Malkovich plays a nasty intelligence analyst fired by the CIA, who subsequently starts writing his memoirs. Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt plays a pair of dim-witted gym employees who find a CD-ROM containing Malkovich’s memoir. George Clooney plays an equally dim-witted philanderer who gets involved with Malkovich’s wife and McDormand, and so gets dragged into the whole sorry mess. More amusing than Privates On Parade, but not by a great deal.

The Stepford Wives, dir. Bryan Forbes (1975), is the original adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel of the same name. Which makes it the superior adaptation. It’s certainly an unsettling film, but not a very scary one. The plot staggers around a little and the sub-Hitchcockian ending is a bit of a let down, but it hangs together entertainingly.

All That Heaven Allows, dir. Douglas Sirk (1955), is from the Time Out Centenary Top 100 films list and… it couldn’t have been more different than Letter From An Unknown Woman. I don’t recall ever watching a film by Sirk before, and I didn’t expect much of this. A 1950s melodrama, starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. But. I loved it. So much so that I immediately went and bought the Directed By Douglas Sirk boxed set from Amazon – well, it was reduced from £69.99 to £13.48. Bargain. So All That Heaven Allows is just Lady Chatterley’s Lover set in 1950s USA, but it’s beautifully done and the 1950s Technicolour looks wonderful. You expect some wit in films of that period, but the condemnation of contemporary society and mores is done with surprising subtlety. A new film for the favourites list. Recommended.

Loulou, dir. Maurice Pialat (1980), stars a very young-looking Isabelle Huppert, and Gérard Depardieu, who seems to have looked the same for the past three decades. Huppert leaves her husband and shacks up with aimless drifter Depardieu. Things happen. It’s all very 1970s, very French and very sexist. Enjoyable, but I felt no desire to dash out and buy the DVD.

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