It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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My first book!

So what if I published it myself. At least I did it properly. See:

That’s 100 paperback copies and 100 hardback copies of Whippleshield Books’ first, er, book: Apollo Quartet 1: Adrift on the Sea of Rains. Well, that’s what I ordered. There may be more, and sometimes the printers do over-run. It looks like more. But I won’t know the exact number until I actually count them.

Anyway, I’m really pleased with how it’s come out. Not bad for a first effort. The cover art is actually more effective than I’d expected:

Having said that, I’ve spotted a few things I’m not completely happy with, but… lessons learned. I shall make sure not to make the same mistakes when I come to publish the second book of the Apollo Quartet, Wave Fronts.

For now, I have 75 copies to number and sign before the Eastercon…

 


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Awards frenzy!

Wasn’t yesterday fun? The Clarke Award shortlist is announced on Tuesday to muted cries of disbelief: what, no By Light Alone? No Osama? No The Islanders? Sheri S Tepper? Are you serious? This is neither unusual nor unexpected. But then Christopher Priest comes crashing into the debate with a long and (mostly) well-argued rant that teeters throughout on the edge of madness and then at the end finally topples into lunacy. Kill the jury! They are incompetent! They didn’t pick the best books!

And now the Clarke Award is all over the newspapers, and even people in the US have actually heard of it.

Result.

This is a photo of China Miéville - because every piece on the Clarke Award or the state of British sf should be accompanied by a photo of China Miéville (source: guardian)

I remember back in the early 1990s when one publisher was so pissed off at the Clarke shortlist they boycotted the awards ceremony. Another year – it may even have been the same year – the “wrong” book won, and a publisher threatened to never submit any books ever again. It happens, it passes. We talk about it, we move on.

Which is not to say that sometimes awards do royally fuck up. Blackout / All Clear*, for instance. And many people, including myself, are somewhat disappointed with the 2012 Clarke Award shortlist. I didn’t think Embassytown belonged on it. Hull Zero Three I’ve heard mixed reports about. I’ve not heard anything good about The Waters Rising. Rule 34 is a loose sequel to Halting State, which has been sat unread on my book-shelves since I was given a free ARC of it at alt.fiction in 2008 (see here). Besides, I’ve worked in IT for twenty years, I’m a geek – and I hate geek fiction. I know nothing about The End Specialist, though the general consensus seems to be it’s pretty good and shows promise but isn’t exactly award-worthy. The Testament of Jessie Lamb I’ve read and it was the one title I guessed would be – and wanted to be – on the shortlist, so I’m pleased I got that right.

Of course, when teacup tempests like this occur, something is needed to calm the troubled, er, beverage. “It wasn’t a failure of process” is one. “The committee did exactly what they were charged with doing” is another. Both are valid. “It’s entirely subjective” is a third. It’s also complete bollocks. As Adam Roberts put it “aesthetic judgment is not an exact science”. But it’s certainly not an “entirely subjective” process. Otherwise we wouldn’t have literary sf vs every other type of sf. We wouldn’t even have classics of literature. Some books are objectively better than others. FACT.

The Clarke is a juried award, so it’s not a popularity contest. It doesn’t matter how nice the author of a book is; it should not influence the judges’ decision (see Cheryl Morgan here for mention of the different ways in which juried awards can work). Books don’t get on juried shortlists as rewards for long and well-regarded careers. Having said that, the Clarke is not just about the best science fiction novels published during the preceding year. It also tries to say something about the state of the genre in the UK. It’s a bloody great loud announcement in the genre conversation. (Which does make you wonder why they shortlisted a ten-year-old Tim Powers novel last year…) The Clarke shortlist does not just say, “here are the six best sf novels published last year” – because they are patently not. The shortlist also says something about what British science fiction is and should be. Whether we want to hear, or understand, that message is another matter entirely.

I certainly think that British science fiction appears to have smeared out into a spectrum with two extremes, at one end China Miéville and at the other Neal Asher. We have “literary” sf on the one side – Adam Roberts, Christopher Priest, Gwyneth Jones, etc. On the other, the giant splodey spaceships school of sf – Gary Gibson, Michael Cobley, Stephen Baxter (mostly), Gavin Smith, Charles Stross, Paul McAuley, Al Reynolds… And everything spread out on a line in between. The more literary end has dominated the Clarke Award in recent years. The current shortlist shifts the balance a little back towards the core genre end.

It’s an argument worth making. I can’t claim to know what was going through the heads of the judges, I can only speculate given the six books they chose for the shortlist. Some of them are acquaintances, and I’m aware of their opinions on certain genre-related matters. But even then, I wouldn’t dream of speaking for them as I’m as likely to be completely wrong as I am anywhere near the truth. However, if their intention was to get people talking, then in that respect they have succeeded admirably.

One such conversation took place yesterday on Twitter between myself and Neil Williamson. He argued that entertainment was often under-valued when determining the quality of a book. I pointed out that good books should do more than just entertain – “a book that aims for a low target should not be praised for hitting it”. Bad books can also prove entertaining – the example I gave was the works of AE van Vogt, which are abysmal but I enjoy reading them. Neil responded that writers should be praised if their books are entertaining, and skilfully and deliberately so. And so forth. We agreed to agree. I don’t doubt that over the next few weeks – and especially in the bar at the Eastercon next weekend – the Clarke shortlist will spark off further discussions. Some of them may even reach a conclusion or two.

And then, of course, there is the awards ceremony, when the winner of the Clarke will be announced. They will, of course, pick the wrong book. That’s how it works. And then we can argue about it all over again…

Until next year.

(* Completely unrelated, but has no one noticed that choosing Blackout and All Clear as titles links them incorrectly? During WWII, the blackout was permanent, it did not signal the start of an air-raid. The “all clear” was sounded after an air raid had finished.)


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Attack this book!

The Fiction Desk has just announced that their new anthology, The Maginot Line, will be published on 7 April. This is important because it contains one of my stories. ‘Faith’ is another of my alternate Space Race stories, and was inspired by a very strange dream I had.

There are eight other stories in the anthology. So that’s nine very good reasons to buy a copy. You can pre-order it for £9.99 from here.


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Relevance? What’s that then?

It has been said that current science fiction is not especially relevant, if at all. It fails to address or comment on the concerns which face us on a daily basis. As we watch the world around us change for the worse, so science fiction fails to either document it, or perhaps chart a way out of it. When it does try to offer object lessons and thought experiments, they always lead to dystopias, while ignoring the fact that we’re already heading in that direction. We don’t need sf to tell us what can go wrong. We can see what’s going wrong in the world about us.

This is not true of all science fiction, of course. There are some sf writers who write about the world we know – Ken MacLeod, for example; or Bruce Sterling.

I have even tried to do the same myself, write stories about the abuses capitalism and the super-rich perpetrate upon everyone, stories about the climate, the economy… In ‘Human Resources’, I posited a world in which the free movement of labour followed the same rules as the free movement of capital, and described some of the ramifications of that. In ‘Through the Eye of a Needle’, I described a post-wealth world created by a billionaire’s catastrophic attempt to “fix” global warming. In ‘The Contributors’, I wrote about the effects on people when they’re treated as nothing more than dispensable components in an economic system.

But no one wanted my stories.

Two of them were published by M-Brane SF, after numerous rejections from other magazines. One I published myself here on my blog.

People want stories in which spaceships get blown up. They want stories about wars against humanised aliens… while in their daily newspapers the human enemy their armed forces are fighting are othered and demonised. They want stories about privileged heroes making their mark on the world around them. They want stories where violence – something which requires no talent or intelligence – solves seemingly intractable problems and makes lives better. They want simple solutions, not complicated problems.

It could be, of course, that my stories were crap. No one wanted them because they thought they were rubbish. Which does suggest that only good stories get published – but you’d have to be a real idiot to believe that. There is a lot of crap that gets published. Some of it even becomes popular.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. For every Leviathan Wakes, there’s an Embassytown (for every A Game of Thrones, a The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms). Not that any of those four novels are relevant. Science fiction (and fantasy) is a broad church, and the most popular sect will always be the least sophisticated. Most sf readers – most sf fans, in fact – don’t contribute to the genre conversation. They just consume. And it’s their levels of consumption that dictate in which direction the genre travels, not the commentary by those actively engaged with science fiction.

Take, for example, the Arthur C Clarke Award. Yesterday at noon, I started a thread on this year’s shortlist on SFF Chronicles. As of 8 am this morning, there were no comments on it. No one’s interested. They want to discuss the latest installment of A Song of Ice and Fire, or some fifty-year-old piece of crap that’s set firmly within their comfort zone and does little more than reinforce their prejudices

How can science fiction combat that willful blindness? No matter how relevant the genre is, if it’s preaching to an empty room it can never succeed.


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Clarkes announced

Yesterday, the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist was announced. And it goes like this:

Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three (Gollancz)
Drew Magary, The End Specialist (Harper Voyager)
China Miéville, Embassytown (Macmillan)
Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press)
Charles Stross, Rule 34 (Orbit)
Sheri S Tepper, The Waters Rising (Gollancz)

Well, I didn’t see that coming. I was expecting a more literary shortlist, but this one is definitely more core genre. So much so, in fact, that at least half of the books harken back to much older sf. Hull Zero Three is a generation starship story (with, apparently, a resemblance to Pandorum), and The Waters Rising is a sequel to a book published in 1993. Embassytown I’ve read (my review here), and thought it somewhat 1970s in story and style.

The remaining three at least appear to be more relevant. I’ve read The Testament of Jessie Lamb and thought it very good – well, I thought the first half excellent, and the second half less good. Rule 34 I may try reading, but The End Specialist doesn’t appeal at all.

Anyway, once again the Clarke Award has confounded expectation, something it has done since it was first inaugurated. I am, perhaps, a little disappointed in the shortlist – there were, I thought, better books than some of the ones chosen. Interestingly, Nicholas Whyte guessed four of the six, and could have guessed five of them, simply from their popularity on Goodreads.com and LibraryThing.com. Does this mean the Clarke was looking for “readability”, just as the Booker judges foolishly claimed to be last year? I’m pretty sure that’s not the case, but I do think there was an attempt at narrowing the definition of science fiction after previous years’ occasionallly bizarre flexibility over the term.

And no, I’m not going to predict the winner. I just hope it’s not Miéville.


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Back in deepest water

Early Monday 26 March 2012 local time, film director James Cameron became the third person to visit Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the ocean. It was last visited in 1960, by Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh in the bathyscaphe Trieste – see here. Challenger Deep is a slot-shaped depression in the floor of the Marianas Trench, is 10,898.4 metres beneath the surface of the sea, where the water pressure is 114,000 kPa (about seven tons per square inch).

Cameron made the trip in a submersible called Deepsea Challenger, which was developed in secret. Unlike the Trieste, it did not use gasoline for buoyancy, but syntactic foam. The trip took Cameron over two hours, less than half the time it took Piccard and Walsh to make the same journey. He remained on the ocean floor for three hours – and not the planned six due to a hydraulic fluid leak. The Trieste spent less than twenty minutes in Challenger Deep.

There is an X-Prize associated with Challenger Deep: $10 million to the first organisation to make two crewed descents. This does suggest Deepsea Challenger will make another trip soon.

The fact that a private individual has achieved this – and he wasn’t the only one planning to do so: Richard Branson has a submersible of his own – does make you wonder if the first trip to Mars will be funded by some starry-eyed multi-billionaire. In Terry Bisson’s Voyage to the Red Planet (1990), the first Mars mission was partly funded by a film studio, who wanted to make a movie there. The novel was intended as a satire, but it could be sadly prophetic.

This is not to belittle Cameron’s achievement – though, to be fair, it hardly presented any insurmountable engineering challenges. The Trieste made the trip more than half a century ago, and consisted of a hollow steel ball attached to a float filled with petrol. Its designer, Auguste Piccard (incidentally, Hergé’s inspiration for Professor Calculus), had started work on his first bathyscaphe in 1937, and the Trieste‘s keel was actually laid in 1953. Deepsea Challenger is a far more sophisticated vessel, but a descent to Challenger Deep could have been made any time during the past fifty years.

All the same, it’s pretty cool. Though I doubt we’ll ever see people living and working in Challenger Deep.


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30 films in 30 words

Well, I used to do readings and watchings posts, and since I did 30 words on 30 books, I should do the same for the movies I’ve watched. It’s the usual eclectic mix, of course.

Bunny Lake Is Missing, Otto Preminger (1965)
American expats newly arrived in London misplace young daughter, but then it seems daughter might never have even existed. Police very confused. But all a cunning plot. Curiously low-key thriller.

Limitless, Neil Burger (2011)
Just think what you could if you had total mental focus. Why, you could make movies like this one. Smart drug leads to smarter than expected film. Actually worth seeing.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Niels Arden Oplev (2009)
Swedish TV series original. Swedish Nazi back during WWII proves to be psycho killer. Big surprise. Journo and hacker chick investigate. Interesting thriller with good characters and sense of history.

The Girl Who Played With Fire, Daniel Alfredson (2009)
Lisbeth Salander tracks down her evil dad, ex-KGB bigwig. He tries to kill her but she won’t be put down. Thriller series turns silly as Salander develops superpowers. Or something.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, Daniel Alfredson (2009)
Salander’s evil dad was protected by secret group within Swedish spy services as Millennium trilogy jumps shark. Drawn-out courtroom drama stretches credulity way past breaking-point. Makes 007 look eminently plausible.

Red Psalm, Miklós Janscó (1972)
Hippie paean to 19th century Hungarian peasant revolts, with much socialist declaiming, folk songs, striding about and a complete lack of coherent plot. Brilliant. Loved it. More please. Review here.

Mr Deeds Goes To Town, Frank Capra (1936)
Simple but honest man inherits fortune and elects to do good with it. Establishment aren’t having it and try to have him declared mentally unfit. Heart worn blatantly on sleeve.

Grave of the Fireflies, Isao Takahata (1988)
During WWII, kids run away from mean aunt and hide out in abandoned air-raid shelter. Of course, they’ve no idea how to cope on own. Sad story spoiled by mawkishness.

Claire’s Knee, Éric Rohmer (1970)
Fifth of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Educated French middle-class people pontificate on love while one of them fantasises about a teenage girl’s knee. Too many words, not enough insight. Meh.

Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964)
A dubbed Richard Harris visiting Ravenna gets friendly with his friend’s wife, mentally-fragile Monica Vitti, in beautifully-shot industrial landscape. Incredibly painterly film. Slow but involving. Brilliant. Loved it. Review here.

Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Tarkovsky (1962)
Tarkovsky’s first feature film. Orphaned boy acts as scout behind enemy lines for Red Army in WWII. Many touches of Tarkovsky genius but much more straightforward than his other films.

Torment, Alf Sjöberg (1944)
Bergmans’ first film, though he only provided script. Moody student carries on with corner-shop girl, but she is murdered – and nasty teacher did it. Hitchcockian thriller seen through distorting mirror.

, Frederico Fellini (1962)
Saw La Dolce Vita years ago and not impressed, so surprised to discover I loved this. Marcello Mastroianni meditates on life and art while making sf film. Huge ending. Glorious.

Heaven Can Wait, Ernst Lubitsch (1943)
Technicolor New York in 19th century as dead self-effacing millionaire Don Ameche is sent to Hell and is forced to reveal he was actually a nice bloke. Not a classic.

Melancholia, Lars von Trier (2011)
Planet on collision course with Earth. Everyone panic. Except people with clinical depression, that is. Lovely photography, good acting, bollocks physics. Can’t honestly see why people rate this so highly.

My Night at Maud’s, Éric Rohmer (1969)
Third of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Catholic stalks young woman, then talks about religion, fidelity and love with friend and his girlfriend all night. Lessons to be learned. I think.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Howard Hawks (1953)
Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell whoop it up among dirty old men on liner to Europe. It’s a cunning plot to force Monroe’s beau to declare. Goes wrong. Technicolor fun.

Summer With Monika, Ingmar Bergman (1953)
Young working-class lovers run away to Swedish islands. Monika gets pregnant, they return to the real world. But Monika’s not the home-making type. See, it was grim in Sweden too.

Santa Sangre, Alejandro Jodorowsky (1989)
Boy grows up in circus, witnesses mother have her arms cut off by mad knife-thrower. Years later, she uses him to commit crimes. It’s by Jodorowsky. So it’s completely bonkers.

Les Enfants Du Paradis, Marcel Carne (1945)
The lives and loves of assorted theatre types in early 19th century Paris. Three hours long, and feels like it. A classic to many, I found it slow and dull.

Pocketful Of Miracles, Frank Capra (1961)
Homeless lady is lucky charm for gangster in 1920s New York in cross between Cinderella and Pygmalion. Played for laughs but not much is a laughing matter. Capra’s last film.

The Magician, Ingmar Bergman (1958)
Max von Sydow gurns in title role as three town worthies take the piss out him in 19th century Sweden. Science vs magic and the fight is fixed from start.

Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors, Sergei Parajanov (1965)
Earlier “poetic cinema” by director of The Colour of Pomegranates. Beautifully-shot, absolutely fascinating, makes no sense whatsoever. More please.

Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder (2011)
They’re mental patients. No, they’re prostitutes. No, they’re super agents in steampunkish fantasy world. In corsets and stockings. Kick-ass women as exceptional – and hot – tools of patriarchy. Wrong message.

Captain America, Joe Johnston (2011)
Possibly the best of the recent rash of superhero films. Retro-action during WWII as Cap sells war bonds across US and then tackles Red Skull in his lair. Almost fun.

Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky (2010)
Ballet dancer driven to dance perfectly driven to madness. Well-played, though not the most original story ever. At least her shoes weren’t red. Have yet to figure out Aronofsky’s career.

Highlander 5: The Source, Brett Leonard (2007)
Worst film in a bad franchise, and possibly worst film ever made. Even the covers of Queen songs were terrible. There can only be one. Nope. Fear for your sanity.

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, Michael Bay (2011)
More coherent than earlier Transformers films, but just as offensive. Irritating, stupid, and wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s not big and it’s not clever – someone should tattoo that on Bay’s forehead.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Terry Gilliam (2009)
Carnival-type caravan wanders London and there are wonders within. Famously whimsical director produces another piece of whimsy. Yawn. Heath Ledger died during film, but story was rescued. Still dull, though.

Szindbád, Zoltán Huszárik (1971)
A classic of the Hungarian New Wave, just like Red Psalm. Just shows how individual are responses to such films. Loved Red Psalm, but found this one a bit dull.

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