It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Anatomy of a Story: A Cold Dish

Back in October 2009, I wrote a piece on my first Euripidean Space story, ‘Thicker than Water’ – you can find it here. ‘A Cold Dish’ was the second of my stories set in that universe, and it too was published in Jupiter magazine – in Jupiter 28, April 2010.

‘A Cold Dish’ is based on the play The Suppliants by Euripides. The play recounts how Theseus approaches the king of Thebes in order to ask for the bodies of the Seven Against Thebes, the seven leaders of an army which failed to invade the city-state. In Ancient Greece, burial rites were very important, and wars fought over dead bodies were not uncommon in the literature of the time. Unfortunately, this plot didn’t translate well to my Euripidean Space universe. It wasn’t really dramatic enough. Further, the need to bury dead heroes is not a cultural urge which translates to modern Western European culture.

In the universe of my Euripidean Space stories, the Earth has locked itself off behind a firewall for reasons unknown. This has left a number of off-planet settlements – on Mars, in the Asteroid Belt, among the moons of Jupiter and Saturn – struggling to survive. Patrolling the Solar System is an alien sentinel, origin unknown, which appears to exist solely to protect a number of alien artefacts. Unfortunately, these artefacts are not obvious – some of them could be somewhat unusual natural phenomena. In ‘Thicker Than Water’, for example, the artefact was a sea of buckminsterfullerenes on the moon of Tethys.

I’d already decided what the alien artefact would be in this, my second Euripidean Space story, and that dictated its setting. The Saturnian moon Mimas is sometimes known as the “Deathstar moon” because it features an enormous crater, Herschel, which covers a third of its face – as is obvious from the photo below. Herschel resembles a huge radio-dish, like Arecibo or Jodrell Bank. Identifying the artefact gave me part of the story’s plot – the “seven” would attack Mimas to prevent the Mimanteans from experimenting with the artefact. Herschel Crater also gave me the story’s title: ‘A Cold Dish’.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

But it still wasn’t enough. Happily, the title of the story – it was originally only a working title – provided the answer: revenge. Theseus’s mission to Mimas would be partly to retrieve the bodies of the dead heroes, but would also be driven by revenge. My Theseus analogue I named Spiro Maris – the Spiro, I suppose, from his adventures in the Labyrinth on Crete. I don’t recall why I gave him the family name Maris. The other characters in ‘A Cold Dish’ also bear names derived from their Greek counterparts. The Seven of Euripides play were Amphiaraus, Capaneus, Hippomedon, Parthenopeus, Polynices, Eteocles and Tydeus. Not all are named in ‘A Cold Dish’, but of those that are… Capaneus was known for his immense strength, so I called him Armstrong. Amphiarus means “twice-cursed”, which became Bimalison. Hippomedon… well, “hippo” is horse, so I named him Steed. The two Foote brothers are so named because their father was Oedipus, or “swollen-footed”.

As an example of “just enough information”: in ‘Thicker Than Water’, I’d named the settlement Torus for its carousel living-quarters. This phonetically aped Tauris, the name of the city where the Euripides’ play I’d based the story on had taken place. I felt I needed something similar for ‘A Cold Dish’. The Suppliants takes place in Thebes, but I couldn’t find any reference to the name’s meaning. So I decided to use the name as is for the Mimantean settlement. But I called it The BES, without actually bothering to work out what the acronym meant. The Built Environment System? It didn’t really matter.

As for “too much information”. I realised I didn’t know how large Saturn would appear in the Mimantean sky. The moon orbits at a mean distance of 185,520 kilometres, so I suppose I could work it out. Or I could finesse it, of course, and simply not mention it. But it felt like a useful detail. Instead, I went hunting on the internet, and on the JPL-NASA website found this:

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

The webpage here contains a number of artist’s impressions of the surfaces of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

I had a plot, a cast and a location. Now I needed an opening. I had this image in my head of figures in spacesuits encrusted with ice, so that’s what I used. Maris is inspecting the frozen bodies of the Seven, and then returns to the BES to negotiate with the Mimanteans. The rest of the story more or less wrote itself. I needed a Greek chorus. In ‘Thicker Than Water’, I’d used Saturn’s radio noise, but I wanted something different. So I decided to have all voice communication in the BES broadcast throughout the settlement. That allowed me to insert the grieving mothers, who provide the chorus in Euripides’ play, into the story and, as a bonus, gave me some pointers to the character of the Mimanteans. I also managed to include a reference to Theseus’s boat (also known as Granny’s broom).

The more I read up on the Ancient Greek characters on whom I was basing my cast, the more information I could insert into the story regarding their backgrounds. For each of the Greek city-states, I picked a moon: Athens became Rhea, Troy is Iapetus, Sparta is Hyperion, for example. Likewise with the personalities from the myths: Oedipus I renamed Rex Foote, Agamemnon is Stanovsky, Helen of Troy is, er, Helen Bright, Paris is Alexander Lek… Some of these may well make appearances in other Euripidean Space stories.

Some might say I’ve put far too much into ‘A Cold Dish’. All the references to Euripides’ play and Greek myths, which most readers won’t actually spot, some might consider those irrelevant in “a fun pure SF piece” (as Rich Horton described it on But I believe stories should be more than just “fun”. I’d like to think there’s plenty to unpack in my stories, not just what appears on the surface. I feel that enriches the reading experience.


A literature of ideas

They say science fiction is the literature of ideas. They say every science fiction text is about two dates: the date it is set, and the date it was written.

Yet when discussing a science fiction text, it is generally the “big themes” which are addressed: identity, the survival of the human race, the invasiveness or pervasiveness of technology in society, the nature of the physical universe, etc… While it’s true that the concerns and issues of “the date it was written” are typically present, as major themes of a work those concerns are usually sadly lacking. Tackling those issues head-on might well date a novel, although, to be honest, it seems many of the problems affecting modern-day society are, if not perennial, at least recurring. In the relatively short term, that is – say, a few centuries.

So where are the science fiction stories and novels which deal directly with the problems affecting readers today? Why must space operas be based on centuries-old political structures? Why must they refight wars long since lost or won? Why must cyberpunk novels wallow in the economics and geopolitics of the 1980s? Why must hard sf pretend the 1960s has lasted for fifty years? Why must sf ignore existing difficulties and challenges and invent entirely new and irrelevant ones?

I look around and I see that we are failing as a species. We are rendering our planet uninhabitable, and yet are making only token efforts to find solutions. We’re not even looking seriously at off-planet as a possible escape route. Thousands of years of civilisation and we have yet to eradicate wars, hunger, poverty, disease, inequality, slavery… Solutions to all these lie within our grasp, but we refuse to do anything about them. Do these not count as “ideas”? Are they not fit subjects for genre fiction?

True, science fiction is neither predictive nor didactic. It has not been since the 1920s, but I sometimes wonder if it needs to be once again. Back then, it was a marketing gimmick, a way of selling the newly-formed genre to readers of electronics and popular science magazines. Now, the genre has grown far too sophisticated for the simplistic agendas of Gernsback and his contemporaries. As a literary mode of fiction, it has evolved a vast repertoire of tropes, an extensive toolkit, and a lexicon that is in many ways peculiar to it. And along with this increase in sophistication has come a shift in viewpoint from the immediate to the abstract.

Abstract commentaries, however, often yield abstract results. Neither prediction nor didactism are useful tools in today’s fiction market, but that doesn’t mean sf should ignore the immediate. At a time when science itself is coming under attack, perhaps the genre which includes “science” in its name should take up arms once again. I see labels such as “speculative fiction” and “strange fiction”, and all I see is a move to define the genre by its aesthetics.

Science fiction is not fiction which incorporates a defined catalogue of tropes. It is not fiction which features science, or which is about science. It is fiction that once battled for science, which was once a soldier in science’s army. Science fiction is every mode of fiction, every trope, every writing tool, which was invented in order to win that struggle. And, once upon a time, it fought the good fight, inspiring generations to take up careers in science and engineering – including those who made the Apollo lunar landings a reality. Sadly, it could not sustain the offensive, and the war has long since been lost.

This is not to say the genre is as uniform as the above might suggest. Like any movement which has evolved, which has been in existence for more than eighty years, it is varied and disparate. It is a house of many rooms. And a great many people live in that house.

Not everyone is a spectator. I like to think I’ve done my bit, that I’ve contributed something. My story ‘Through the Eye of a Needle’ was a direct attack on climate-change deniers (see here). My Euripidean Space stories are based on the latest data on the moons of Saturn (see here). My story ‘Human Resources’ comments on capitalist economics (see here). I wrote a story to celebrate the achievement in 1960 of Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh (see here) – although the story has yet to find a home.

I plan to contribute much more.

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Des Lewis has started a “Real Time Review” of the Winter 2010 BFS Journal (see my photos of it here). So far, he’s read the first eight stories from New Horizon. Which includes mine, ‘Barker’ – about which he writes:

“A claustrophobic vision, this time in a punch-drunk comic-strip rocket. Real history and real names in retrocausality. To my hindsight surprise, I enjoyed it thoroughly as a lighter part of these movements in a dark symphony.”

I’m not entirely sure what the “dark symphony” is in reference to, but I’ll take my compliments where I find them.

Full review here. You’ll need to scroll down to see Des’s comments on ‘Barker’.


Cor. Swag.

Today, postie brought me the amalgamated British Fantasy Society Journal. The three magazines – Prism, Dark Horizons and New Horizons – are now a single hardback book. And very smart it looks too. See:

And what’s this on page 22? Why, it’s a story by Yours Truly: ‘Barker’, an alt history about the Space Race.

And while I’m at it: M-Brane SF Quarterly #1 is also now available in the UK:

With two of my stories in it: ‘Through the Eye of a Needle’ and ‘Human Resources’.

Go on, you know you want a copy…


Women in sf reading challenge #1: The Steerswoman, Rosemary Kirstein

I forget where I first came across mention of The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein. It was in the last year or so, although the book was originally published in 1989. I do know that it’s not well known in the UK. But whenever, and whatever, I read about it, I decided it might appeal, and so determined to keep my eyes open for a copy. Which I found several months later in a local charity shop.

It is not a book , if I had known nothing of it, that I think I would have looked at twice. Had I not known of it when I found it in that charity shop, I would not have bought it. I’d heard it was quite good – but how often do you hear that about books, which promptly disappoint? I’d heard it read as fantasy but was really science fiction – but there’s so much room for manoeuvre in that statement, it’s hard to take it as any kind of useful description. Something brought The Steerswoman to my notice, something persuaded me it was worth reading…

And I’m glad I did. The Steerswoman is a gem. It’s by no means great literature, but it is most definitely appealing.

Rowan is the steerswoman of the title. Quite what these are, or how they came about, is never fully explained. They travel the land, observing, gathering facts, drawing and redrawing maps. Any one can ask them questions, and they must answer to the best of their ability. Should, however, they ask a question and are refused, then they can ban that person from ever being answered by a steerswoman again. There are, incidentally, steersmen, but they are greatly outnumbered. (In fact, The Steerswoman states there are three during the period the story takes place, and that it’s the largest number they’ve had in the organisation’s history.)

While investigating the origin of a strange blue jewel she has found, Rowan comes to the notice of the wizards. She is attacked by one of their soldiers but, with the help of new-found companion, Bel, a barbarian warrior woman from the Outskirts, she fights off the attacker. This only makes her more determined to solve the puzzle presented by the jewel. She returns to the steerswomen’s Archive to discuss her problem with her colleagues.

Bel has told her of a large bed of such jewels in the Outskirts. Rowan and Bel head for that bed, in disguise since the wizards are still after Rowan. En route, they are joined by William, a fourteen-year-old boy who has run away from home with the intention of being taken on as an apprentice by a wizard. He has magic of his own – charms which can do everything from crack stone to make things disappear noisily. En route, they are attacked by more soldiers, but win the fight. They trail the surviving soldier to the wizards’ keep and infiltrate it. But Rowan is captured, and subsequently learns some of the secrets behind the wizards’ powers…

The world The Steerswoman presents is a standard Dark Ages fantasy. People fight with swords, use candles to light their homes, and ride on horses when travelling great distances. There’s nothing especially original or distinctive about it. The wizards are not the rulers of the world, but they are an elite who appear to control everything. They are also split into two factions, Red and Blue, who periodically fight each other.

The Steerswoman is cleverly revealed as science fiction as the story progresses (unlike the cover art to the US paperback). There is nothing overt about this. William’s “charms”, for example, from their description are clearly chemical explosives. The magic lighting in the towns is plainly powered by electricity. The wizards, then, are a technological elite, presenting their science and technology as magic (rather than as, say, divine powers, as in Roger Zelazny’s Lord Of Light).

This slow evolution to science fiction is more subtle and immediate than in Jim Grimsley’s Kirith Kirin, which opens up its story’s universe in a series of appendices and so becomes almost a space opera; or even the hints dropped regarding the Age of Legends in Robert Jordan’s bloated Wheel of Time series.

The Steerswoman is not a novel whose prose shines; but neither does it put a foot wrong. It may resembled some sort of McCaffery sf lite/romance, but it is not in the slightest bit mushy – it features several graphically-described swordfights and a torture scene, for one thing. The protagonists are engaging and the mystery is enticing. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Kirstein went on to write three sequels to The Steerswoman: The Outskirter’s Secret, The Lost Steersman and The Language of Power. All four are available in an omnibus volume, The Steerswoman’s Road. I shall have get me that omnibus volume. (Edit: apparently the omnibus only contains the first two books. Ah well. I shall try to find all three books, then…)

A good start to 2011’s reading challenge.

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A short post on the BSFA Award short lists

Yesterday, Torque Control posted the short lists for the BSFA Awards – novel, short fiction, non-fiction, and artwork. Since I’m a member of the British Science Fiction Association, and usually attend the annual Eastercon, they’re the only awards in which I have any input. Congrats to all those short-listed.

The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Orbit)
I bought a copy of this last week in Waterstone’s 3 for 2, so I fully expect to have read it by Easter.

Zoo City, Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)
I’ve heard this is good; must pick up a copy.

The Restoration Game, Ken MacLeod (Orbit)
My review here.

The Dervish House, Ian McDonald (Gollancz)
Not read this. I was waiting for the paperback, and then I was almost certainly going to buy it.

Lightborn, Tricia Sullivan (Orbit)
Not read this, either.

Best Short Fiction
‘Flying in the Face of God’, Nina Allen (Interzone 227, TTA Press)
I remember reading this one and… I didn’t like it. It was about an astronaut, and the details didn’t convince in the slightest. That threw me straight out of the story, and as a result I didn’t care about the characters or the relationship between them.

‘The Shipmaker’, Aliette de Bodard (Interzone 231, TTA Press)
Have yet to read this. Will rectify that this week.

‘The Things’, Peter Watts (Clarkesworld 40)
This was one of last year’s stories in Torque Control’s Short Story Club. Most seemed to think it good, but I wasn’t so impressed. The conceit just didn’t seem strong for a story, and its unremitting grimness struck me as a poor reason to bother trying to write one.

‘Arrhythmia’, Neil Williamson (Music for Another World, Mutation Press)
The best story in a good anthology. And to my mind the only story which really belongs on this short list.

Best Non-Fiction
Blogging the Hugos: Decline, Paul Kincaid (Big Other)
This series of four articles I read as they were posted, and enjoyed. I also agree with Kincaid’s conclusions. And yet… In 2009 Kincaid was short-listed, but did not win, for What it is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, a much more substantial work – in fact, the posts above would likely have been no more than a single essay in that book.

Review: With Both Feet in the Clouds, Abigail Nussbaum (Asking the Wrong Questions Blogspot)
I have not read the book of which this is a review, nor was I especially interested in doing so. I’ll read the review now, but only because it has been short-listed. Which sort of misses the point a little…

Review: Wheel of Time, Adam Roberts (Punkadiddle)
Roberts’ reviews of eleven books of Jordan’s Wheel of Time may well have changed the way many people think about the series. I remember reading the books myself. They were pretty bad – derivative, flabby, badly-written, full of dumb writing tics – but the story pulled you through Jordan’s eye-burning prose. I’ve never really understood the series’ great popularity and while Roberts’ reviews didn’t explain that, they were certainly more entertaining than the books themselves.

Red Plenty, Francis Spufford (Faber and Faber)
I must pick up a copy of this, it does sound as if it would appeal to me.

The Notes from Coode Street Podcast, Jonathan Strahan and Gary K Wolfe
An odd choice – not the podcasts themselves, but a list of the contents of the podcasts. Is that not a bit like nominating the contents page of an anthology?
EDIT: apparently the nomination is for the podcasts themselves, and just wrongly titled to refer to the notes giving their contents. That makes more sense.

Best Art
Cover for Conflicts, Andy Bigwood (Newcon Press)
Cover for Fun With Rainbows by Gareth Owens, Charlie Harbour (Immersion Press)
Cover for The Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Dominic Harman (Gollancz)
Cover for Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes, Joey Hi-Fi (Angry Robot)
‘A Deafened Plea for Peace’, cover for Crossed Genres 21, Ben Greene
Cover for Finch by Jeff Vandermeer, Adam Tredowski (Corvus)

And now a few thoughts: the novels show a good spread across the genre. Enough said. The short fiction… two from Interzone, one from an original (small press) anthology, and one from an online magazine. I’d have expected more from online sources. Perhaps BSFA members still prefer printed fiction. Except four of the five non-fiction short list are from the Web. Were there so few works of relevant non-fiction published in 2010 that only online reviews/articles were nominated? I would have expected something more… substantial to have made the cut.

I also think it may be time to limit BSFA nominations to UK-only published works. And perhaps even limit the number of nominations per member. But that’s a post for another day…


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