It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Metaphorising the metaphors

To some people, science fiction is a toy-box packed with neat gadgets and shiny gewgaws, which they pull out and deploy in service to their story. They need, for example, a locale in which certain events happen a certain way, so they invent an alien world. That alien world needs to be distant, so some form of travel to reach it is required. And since distance in most people’s minds equates to time taken to reach the destination, some type of long-journey travel is required. To early writers of science fiction, there was only one model they could use: sea travel. And that worked pretty well because distant lands were exotic, and the distance – ie, journey time – itself was a signifier of exoticism.

Initially, Mars was pretty distant, but as we learned more about the Red Planet, so it became closer and less “colourful”. Locales in sf thus moved further afield. But by that point, the limits of the knowledge of the time had been reached, so imagination took over. The worlds were made-up, with no basis in reality. The universe itself became a fiction.

We now know a great deal more about the universe than we did in the 1920s and 1930s. We know that it is unimaginably vast, that the distances between stars preclude any meaningful relationship in human terms. The universe is no longer a fit place on which to map distant shores and strange new lands.

We also have over fifty years actual space travel, and we know how difficult it is to keep alive in space the fragile human organism and to travel useful distances in useful times. We also know there is an enormously expensive barrier between our world and the rest of the universe: our gravity well.

The spaceship-as-ocean-liner trope belongs to the fictional universe, not the real one. But the metaphor for the journey to far-off places has become so embedded in genre that it’s used as if it were no more than setting – as if it were a signifier of the genre itself. And while sf writers over the decades have rung a variety of changes over the spaceship trope – inventing new and more imaginative ways to explain how it circumvents the real universe, how it can traverse those distances beyond imagination in an eyeblink – the spaceship still operates very much as it did back in sf’s earliest days.

Except now, the spaceship trope is not enough. Now it has to be disguised, by referring to it metaphorically.

I work in computing, so the illustration of this which works best for me is that of the operating system. An OS is, according to Operating Systems Design and Implementation, by Andrew S Tannenbaum and Albert S Woodhull, a fundamental system program “which controls the computer’s resources and provides the base upon which the application programs can be written”. In the beginning, as Neal Stephenson once said, was the command line. Using it, computer operators could call on programs which would perform specific tasks. They understood that listing files from an area of the filesystem entailed reading data embedded in a magnetic media and then rendering that data in a human-readable format. But when computers moved onto the desks of business people and then into the home, that knowledge was unnecessary. Worse, it was potentially confusing. So someone invented the idea of a metaphor to represent the data on the magnetic media and the programs which performed operations on the data: the Graphical User Interface. (Invented by Alan Kay at Xerox PARC in 1973.) A GUI such as Windows or OS X or X11 is a metaphor which allows users to easily and simply perform complex operations on a computer using its built-in resources.

An interesting aside: several people have researched, and even built, orthogonally persistent operating systems. These are ones which run entirely in memory, and the complete memory-state is flashed to persistent storage (disk, flash card, etc) at regular and frequent intervals. Should the computer crash, the last memory-state image can be loaded back into memory, and the user returns to exactly where they were before the crash. The interesting thing about an orthogonally persistent operating system is that it needs a new metaphor. The existing one has become uncoupled from the underlying reality. The orthogonally persistent OS does not keep files in folders on a disk because it doesn’t need to put data way somewhere safe while it’s not in use. It doesn’t need to organise the stored data so it can be navigated. Everything is in use all the time. So it has a workspace, and everything is accessible within it all the time.

This concept of the operating system metaphor is one of the chief problems I had with cyberpunk as a subgenre – aside from its uncritical use, and tacit approval, of neoliberalism, of course. It took the metaphor that was the GUI and then layered another metaphor, cyberspace, on top of it. Cyberpunk writers wrote about the metaphor as if it were the thing itself.

And that’s what I see some twenty-first century sf writers doing. They’ve taken sf’s tropes, and are not only using them as if they were the thing itself but are adding a layer of metaphor on top. So when you dig deep into the story, you don’t find reality, you find a metaphor which has become uncoupled from its underlying reality. This is how I interpreted Paul Kincaid’s reference to “exhaustion”.

Personally, I think understanding how something works is key to learning how to do it better. It’s important to my development as a writer, I feel, to know what science fiction does, how it does it, and in what ways I can bend or break or subvert it to best effect. The uncritical use of tropes, and subsequent disguising of them, doesn’t appeal to me as a technique for writing sf. It pushes all the emphasis to the presentation layer, to the prose. Yes, good prose is important, I appreciate good writing. And I like to think my prose is good. But choosing pretty words is not enough for me.

I would sooner explore science fiction itself. I think as a genre we’ve stopped doing that. We’re either playing postmodernist shellgames, or metaphorising the metaphors, or deep-mining the genre for tropes as if those tropes were its sole raison d’être. Some might say these are indicators of decadence. Perhaps they are. But I don’t think it means science fiction is dead or dying, just that it needs a good kick up the bum…


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England 3 Scotland 0

Last month, Neil Williamson was bemoaning his lack of productivity in short fiction on his blog, so I proposed a friendly competition to motivate him and myself. For each story we completed and submitted we would score one point. (Resubmissions didn’t count.) And for each story we sold or placed, we would earn another point. The one with the least points at the end of the year would buy the winner a slap-up meal in Glasgow at the 2014 Eastercon.

At the moment, I’m in the lead. With three points. I finished and submitted a story, ‘The Incurable Irony of the Man who Rode the Rocket Sled’, to Rustblind and Silverbright, an anthology of railway-themed genre stories edited by David Rix and to be published by Eibonvale Press, but… Rocket sleds ran on rails, yes, but I knew the link to the theme was tenuous. And so it proved. Which proved a bit of a problem, as I didn’t think the story was really sellable. It’s a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, has no plot, is only really genre if seen in a certain light, and is far more literary than most genre venues are comfortable with. Happily, The Orphan has taken it for their next issue. And I see from the contents of previous issues that it’s in excellent company.

‘The Last Men in the Moon’, however, is more overtly science fiction, but it’s also quite literary. I really must get that t-shirt printed up: “too literary for genre fiction, too genre for literary fiction”. (Joke.) Happily, literary serial anthology The Fiction Desk has taken it – my second sale to them after ‘Faith’ in The Maginot Line last year. ‘The Last Men in the Moon’ is a bit of a piss-take of sf, and it’s a bit of a deconstruction of the hoary old alien invasion / conquest of the earth trope, and I also get to flatten Sheffield in it.

I describe myself as a science fiction writer, but I’m starting to wonder if what I write really qualifies as sf. But the Apollo Quartet!, you cry. Except, as someone said to me recently, “I’m just waiting for someone to twig that the Apollo Quartet is not hard SF”. And it’s sort of true. The novellas are set in the past, they’re about real space hardware, and the central tropes to date are handwavy things like the Bell and a FTL drive I don’t bother to explain. And then I look at my last few stories to see print and… ‘Faith’ features real named astronauts but inexplicable irrational woo-woo things happen to them (it’s available free here). ‘The Way The World Works’ is set in an alternate 1984 and the ending is in no way science fiction. ‘Wunderwaffe’ is a Nazi / Metropolis / alternate history / time travel mashup, and probably deserves a genre all its own. ‘Dancing the Skies’ is just pure fantasy, with flying monsters and Spitfires. On the other hand, ‘Words Beyond the Veil’ is heartland hard sf, even if it does quote from the lyrics of a death metal album (you can read it here).

I think I write with a sf sensibility, even if what I write isn’t always science fiction. What I read is reflected in my writing, and I read a mix of science fiction and literary fiction. But I admire the prose of the latter more, and so try to emulate that. However, when I try to write straight-down-the-middle sf, I find I can’t do it. It feels… too arbitrary, too ungrounded. It’s not anchored to the real world. Even my fantasies have to be grounded in the real world – Spitfires and Wellingtons and the ATA in ‘Dancing the Skies’, for example.

Or perhaps I write with a literary fiction sensibility, which is why my sf usually turns out to be weak sf. It has been mooted that some of the most interesting science fiction being written these days is being written outside the genre. There are certainly literary fiction novels which use genre tropes that I consider better than most genre novels, like The Road or Girl Reading or Never Let Me Go. I used to think such books felt old-fashioned because their writers didn’t know how to deploy their tropes, didn’t have the experience of practiced sf authors in doing so, but what those literary authors have actually done is make the tropes more accessible.

And that I think is a problem with a lot of modern sf – it’s too abstruse, too much the product of, and for, a private members’ club. I complained, for example, that Leviathan Wakes was regressive, a throwback to the hegemonic space operas of the 1970s, but how many people actually care about that, or know enough about sf and its history to realise it? A small group within the small group that is the readers and fans of science fiction. Which makes me wonder what a space opera written by a literary fiction writer would look like. Not one of Banks’ Culture novels, there’s far too much pure genre in them. Is such a story possible? It would be a wonderful experiment, I think.

I’ve a feeling science fiction as a genre is no longer as willing to experiment as it once was. It’s settled into a happy rut, a happy series of ruts, in which expectation plays a large part – as it does in so much of twenty-first century life. This is a century defined by the management of expectation. Yes, there is stuff that challenges those expectations, but it’s way out on the long tail. And we’re happy with that because it can’t destabilise the centre from there. And yet everything that has destabilised science fiction in the past has made it a stronger, better genre – the New Wave, Cyberpunk, New Space Opera. Even if it did eventually get co-opted by the establishment as it became a core fixture.

It is time, I think, to repudiate science fiction’s core values. We need a New New Wave.


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Films you must see: Only Yesterday

onlyyesterday_54849I vaguely recall seeing Porco Rosso (1992) back in the early 1990s, but the first Studio Ghibli film I ever watched knowing it was a Studio Ghibli film was 2001’s Spirited Away. It was only a couple of years after its release. I’m not a huge fan of anime or animated films, though I’ve seen most of the big ones, so I only bothered adding later Studio Ghibli films to my DVD rental list if someone had recommended them. And that’s how I came to see Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and Tales from Earthsea (2006) (though the latter wasn’t exactly “recommended”…).

But a couple of years ago, I decided to work my way through all of the Studio Ghibli films, so I stuck them on my DVD rental list in their order of release. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), which is not strictly speaking a Studio Ghibli film, I found an interesting, if slightly odd, sf film. Laputa – Castle in the Sky (1986) was also fun, especially some of the steampunkish bits. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) I described here on my blog last year as a “sad story spoiled by mawkishness”. My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) I thought were overly twee.

But then last weekend I watched Only Yesterday

Released in 1991, Only Yesterday is unlike the other Studio Ghibli films in that it is a realistic drama, and contains no genre elements at all. It was adapted from a manga of the same title by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, and written and directed by Isao Takahata. The plot is relatively straightforward. Taeko, a young woman resident in Tokyo, decides to get away from city life for a while and travels out into the country to help a relative with the safflower harvest. During the train journey to Yamagata, Taeko remembers incidents from her life when she was ten years old. The film then flips back and forth between Taeko’s present in 1982 and her childhood in 1966. The sections set in the past are drawn with backgrounds which resemble watercolours, while the 1982 sections are much more realistic – and in many cases, quite beautifully painted.

Given my previous experience with Studio Ghibli films, Only Yesterday was completely unexpected. It wasn’t just that the quality of artwork seemed to stand out more because it depicted the real world, but also that the characters were so well-written. Taeko is both an interesting and engaging heroine, at both ages, and the two narratives played off each other extremely well. Even the supporting cast were good – from the grandmother who’s perhaps a little too blunt, to Toshio, the love interest, whose understated matter-of-factness anchors one of the film’s best scenes. And the ending, where Taeko’s childhood self and her school friends appear and help her make a decision which changes her life, was beautifully judged. I’ll not be surprised if this film makes it onto my best of the year list.

Meanwhile, I still have eleven Studio Ghibli films to watch, though I suspect I’ve just watched the best of them…


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My trip into space

Well, into the National Space Centre, that is…

I may have been involved in science fiction for 25 years, but I’m relatively new to this “author” thing. I’ve done plenty of panels at conventions, but I’ve never given a reading, and I’ve certainly never spoken about something I’ve written to a bunch of complete strangers who may or may not have come to hear me talk or indeed have any clue who the hell I am.

But that’s what I did last Sunday.

The National Space Centre in Leicester had organised a two-week celebration of “Space Fiction”, beginning on 9 February and lasting until 24 February. I was asked if I’d like to contribute on one of those days as one of the clients of the John Jarrold Literary Agency. Since Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself are proper hardcore realistic space fiction books it struck me they’d be well-suited to a reading in the National Space Centre… And so it was arranged: Philip Palmer, Chris Beckett and myself would each give a 30-minute talk/reading on Sunday 17 February.

As you approach the National Space Centre, the first thing you see is a giant pupa pointing up into the sky above Leicester. That’s the Rocket Tower. The rest of the building looks more like something you’d find on a university campus or science park. I’m not sure what I was expecting – something like a museum, I suspect – but it’s far more resolutely modern than my dim memories of visits to museums as a child suggested. I was immediately taken with the Soyuz on display in the main foyer. And it really is a tiny spacecraft. I’d known that, of course – I’ve researched this stuff, after all. But you have to see it in the flesh, so to speak, to realise quite how small and makeshift and fragile it is. The Soyuz is apparently only one of two on permanent display in the West.

I was collected from the foyer by Charlie, who was wrangling the three of us that day. She did an excellent job of looking after us, so much thanks. The actual venue for the talk proved to be a small lecture area just off the main concourse, with rows of benches facing a small stage backed by a large screen. There was another screen above the stage. Most of the National Space Centre is one big open space, partitioned into display areas by walls no more than three metres high, so there was a lot of background noise. But we had microphones.

Phil Palmer’s talk began at 12:15. He talked about science fiction and extrapolation, and it was obviously something he had spoken about before. He then read from both Debatable Space and Hell Ship. The audience was mostly families with small children – about twelve to fifteen people in total. Chris Beckett arrived during Phil’s talk.

Afterwards, we had a thirty-minute gap before Chris’ session started at 13:15, so we went to get a bite to eat from Boosters Restaurant. It was sandwiches and soup, so my face fell when I saw it. I asked one of the staff if they had anything that was dairy-free. He told me they’d make me any sandwich I wanted in a dairy-free version. That level of service and helpfulness still impresses me – it shouldn’t do, not in the twenty-first century; but it’s still unusual enough in the UK to be a pleasant surprise.

Chris’s talk was not as well attended as Phil’s had been. He spoke about rogue planets and how they’d been scientifically proven about he’d written Dark Eden. He also described the inspiration for the novel, and then read one of the chapters.

There was then another thirty-minute gap until my talk at 14:15. Phil had booked a ticket for the planetarium show, so he shot off to that while Chris, his wife Maggie, and myself went for a wander round. We headed for the Rocket Tower, though I was a little worried about suffering from vertigo on the top deck. But I was fine as long as I didn’t get too close to the railing. The LM simulator looked more like a computer game than an actual copy, but the 1960s living-room was good. The three of us recognised several items in it from our own childhoods. There was a piece of moon rock in a globe of the Moon, and one wall gave an illustrated timeline of the Space Race. The next deck down celebrated Soviet achievements, though from what I could see the Soyuz simulator was just a little room with a plastic seat in it. I didn’t linger as I needed to get back to lecture area.

Then it was time for my talk. I’ve not done public speaking since I left school decades ago, and I knew this was going to be nothing like being on a panel at a convention. For one thing, my audience would be just walk-ins, who had likely wandered across to see what was going on. My name will have meant completely nothing to them. (In the event, beside Phil and Chris, at least two members of the audience knew me – Will Ellwood, who I know via Twitter, and Dave Caldwell, who was a member of an APA I was in back in the 1990s.)

As soon as I was ready to begin, I hit my first snag. I only had two hands. I was using a PowerPoint presentation, so I needed to hold the clicker to advance the slides. I also needed to hold a microphone. And then there was the script of my talk, which I hadn’t learned off by heart. Damn. I’d need three hands. Charlie happily lent me her hands-free mike. She then introduced me and I started babbling…

I thought it went quite well. I managed not to speak unintelligibly fast, and I clicked through the slides in mostly the right places. I spoke about realistic space travel and science fiction’s poor record in depicting it, using ocean liners as spaceships rather than actual real spacecraft (such as the Soyuz in the foyer), and how I came to write the Apollo Quartet. I cut down the excerpts from Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself I’d planned to read, and that proved to be a wise decision. I finished it pretty much exactly in thirty minutes. And the entire audience stayed throughout the entire talk. Afterwards, a couple of people came up and thanked me and said they had found it interesting.

Phil, Chris and myself then moved across to a table in the main concourse, where people could buy copies of our books and we would sign them. We were actually approached by more people asking for directions than we were people who wanted to purchase our books. But never mind.

It was a fun day. I’d liked to have taken the time to explore the National Space Centre more fully, and I certainly think it’s an interesting place to take children. Personally, perhaps, I’d have preferred more hardware and less science, but that’s what fascinates me. All the same, I could happily spend a day there.

Finally, the last two slides of my presentation were hints to the stories of the final two books of the Apollo Quartet. And here they are…

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Self-publishing for fun and profit

Some people have made a lot of money very quickly through self-publishing; some people have won big prizes on national lotteries. I’m not sure which has the better odds, but I suspect there’s little difference in it. You can, of course, increase your chances of doing the former – write something derivative that plugs into an existing fanbase, and self-promote to such an extent you’re indistinguishable from spam. If, on the other hand, you self-publish because you have a vision and you want to get it out there, but no one else is interested in publishing it for you… Well, in that case, don’t give up the day-job just yet…

I’ve made no secret of my reasons for self-publishing the Apollo Quartet. I didn’t want to compromise on my vision for Adrift on the Sea of Rains – a vision that has been happily vindicated, since the novella has been shortlisted for the BSFA Award; and I wanted to launch the book at the same time as Rocket Science, and no existing small press, had they chosen to publish it, could have done so in time.

I also chose to publish the book as both paper and ebook. I could, of course, have just released it on Kindle, as so many self-published authors do. But instead I paid a printer – MPG Biddles – to do me hardback and paperback copies.

I have learnt much about writing and publishing over the past ten months…

1 the elephant in the room
It’s actually a huge South American river, not a pachyderm, but it certainly dominates book-selling. And it treats us small fry very badly. If I hadn’t signed up for Amazon Advantage, my books would be shown as unavailable on the Amazon website (I’ve only signed up for the paperbacks, so the hardbacks are indeed shown as “currently unavailable”). Signing up for Amazon Advantage, I have to accept the 60% discount Amazon takes. So every sale I make through Amazon is at a loss. If they ordered 100 copies tomorrow, I’d have to refuse the order. I can’t afford to fulfil it. As it is, the orders Amazon has placed for single copies in dribs and drabs over the months are costing me more as I have to pay postage for each copy I send them.

Incidentally, I’d be happy to cut all my ties to Amazon, but I see no alternatives. I use the Amazon affiliates scheme on this blog, and I had planned to drop it. So I investigated a few alternatives. The Book Depository one is simple enough to use, but they’re owned by Amazon anyway. The Waterstone’s one is a joke. It’s run by a third party, you have to apply for approval first, and I couldn’t find out how to link to individual titles on the Waterstone’s site. They should sort that out – they’d get a lot more business.

2 it doesn’t have to be ebook all the way
Publishing on Kindle is trivial. You format the document, knock up a cover, and then upload it to Amazon through the Kindle Direct Publishing website. Easy. Publishing paper books is harder, but not that much more so. And it does cost money, which publishing on Kindle doesn’t – but even then, it’s not that much. For The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, I formatted the document as PDF, and had the cover-art done the same way. I got an estimate from MPG Biddles, then placed the order, uploaded my PDF files to their website… and weeks later boxes of books were delivered to my house. It cost me £202 for one hundred 80pp paperbacks.

Of course, selling paper books is more difficult than ebooks. You have to hold stock of a physical item, and ship it to customers when they order copies. For Kindle ebooks, Amazon does all the work for you. You just watch the sales mount up (or not). And selling around the world is trivially easy. Except Amazon US pays you in US$, which is a problem.

3 what’s the bottom line?
Amazon offers 35% and 70% royalty rates on books published on Kindle. You chose the price at which you sell the book. It’s best, of course, to look at the price of comparable ebooks. Too high and no one will buy it, too low and people will think it’s not worth reading. The ebook market is still in flux at the moment, with huge numbers of low-priced self-published books, and ebooks from major imprints priced roughly the same as hardback copies. So there are as many pricing models as there are publishers. I chose to price my ebook editions at about two-thirds of the paperback price – £2.99. That seems to be working quite well.

For self-published paper books, there is no royalty. There is only sale price minus unit cost. I priced Adrift on the Sea of Rains at £3.99, because I felt that was a fair price for a 80pp paperback novella. Unfortunately, I was thinking like a buyer not a seller. It was too low, and I’d have to sell the entire print-run of 100 to cover my costs. So for The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself I increased the price to £4.99. Which means…

Cost per unit: £2.02
Cover price: £4.99
Profit per unit sold: £2.97

Except…
For copies sold over the internet, I include p&p in the £4.99, so that’s -
£4.99 – (£2.02 + £1.10*) = £1.87 per sale

For copies sold by hand, I only charge £4.00, so that’s -
£4.00 – £2.02 = £1.98 per sale

(* I don’t include the cost of envelopes as I re-use as much as I can; but if I did, it would be an additional 20p)

If I sold copies only over the internet, I’d have to sell 52 copies to break-even; if I sold only by hand, it would be 51 copies. The true figure is probably slightly higher as I sell using both methods, and there’s those copies I sell through Amazon Advantage. Nor do I factor in the cost of the copies I give away for review.

Of course, this is only the manufacturing cost. There are a host of unpaid contributions which create the final product – not just myself as writer, designer, promoter, publisher and book-seller; but also the cover artist and the editor. At present, I’ve been lucky enough to receive all that for free (though I plan to pay once Whippleshield Books is more established). There are also peripheral costs which have to be included – ISBNs, the ecommerce website – so it’s going to be a while yet before Whippleshield Books climbs out of the red.

However, those £2.99 Kindle ebooks are more or less pure profit (less Amazon’s cut, the VAT they charge but do not pay, delivery cost, etc.). The money from Kindle sales helps finance the paper versions of the books. I’ve also sold more copies on Kindle than I have paperbacks or hardbacks. In fact, it’s been interesting watching sales uptick when Adrift on the Sea of Rains gets mentioned online. There was small jump in sales when SF Signal reviewed it. And a considerably larger one when the book was mentioned on the Guardian’s book blog“one of the most outstanding self-published books of the year”. More copies were bought on Kindle as a result of that mention than in the preceding nine months.

Having said all that, there is one advantage to publishing a book as a paperback or hardback rather than just on Kindle: you get taken seriously. If I’d gone for the low-cost option – ie, ebook only – I very much doubt I’d have sold as many copies, seen the books reviewed so many times, or even had one shortlisted for the BSFA Award. The future of publishing may lie in self-publishing – I hate the term “indie author”, incidentally – but, with the exception of a handful of outliers, the rewards are proportional to the effort, and money, you put into it…


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Book porn: Philip Kerr

Not all of the authors whose books I collect in first edition are science fiction or postwar British literature. One or two of them are non-genre and more recent. Like Philip Kerr – who could, I suppose, be classified as a genre author as most of his books have been crime novels featuring the historical twentieth-century detective/policeman, Bernhard Gunther. I’m not sure why I decided to collect Kerr’s novels – there are other authors I read with as much enjoyment and anticipation, but I don’t generally hang onto their books once I’ve read them. Perhaps he was just easier to collect when I started tracking down first editions…

Whatever the reason, here are all of Kerr’s books to date. There’s a new one – a Bernie Gunther novel, of course – due out in March this year: A Man Without Breath. It’s on my wishlist.

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The original Bernie Gunther trilogy, now available as an omnibus edition, Berlin Noir. A German Requiem is signed. (I see on Amazon that first edition copies of A German Requiem start at £120…)

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Dead Meat, a police procedural set in the Moscow, was televised in the mid-1990s under the title Gruschko, but I’ve never seen it. It doesn’t appear to have ever been released on DVD. When I first read A Philosophical Investigation, I was extremely suspicious of its philosophical underpinnings, and that was twenty years ago. I should think I’d be even more sceptical now. Gridiron, about a computerised building which starts killing its inhabitants, is probably Kerr’s worst book – yes, it’s such a hoary plot even The X-Files used it. My copy is signed.

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Three more thrillers. None especially stand out. My copy of the The Shot is signed.

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The Second Angel is actually a superb science fiction novel, and probably my favourite of all Kerr’s books. Dark Matter is an historical crime novel, with Isaac Newton as the detective. Hitler’s Peace is about the Tehran meeting between Hitler, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt.

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After a decade and a half, Kerr returned to Bernie Gunther, though now covering his activities since the end of World War II. The One From The Other is set in postwar Germany, but then moves to Palestine. In A Quiet Flame, Gunther is in Argentina, involved with the Perons and high-ranking Nazis who escaped capture by the allies. If the Dead Rise Not sees Gunther living in Cuba, with a second narrative set in Berlin in 1935 as the Germans set about building a venue for the 1936 Olympics.

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These two I have yet to read. They’re the seventh and eighth Gunther books.

Kerr has also written children’s books under the name PB Kerr – a series of seven Arabian fantasy novels, Children of the Lamp, and a YA novel about a boy who accompanies two chimpanzees to the Moon, One Small Step. I reviewed the latter here.


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Writing rules? Really?

I stumbled across this post on io9, via SF Signal, and I can’t decide if it’s typical of their cluelessness or whether the site deliberately caters to clueless people. To be fair, they have carefully quoted the word “rules” because the ten points they make are a combination of wrongness, bad advice and the opposite of common sense.

io9’s 10 writing “Rules” they wish more science fiction and fantasy authors would break…

1) No third-person omniscient
As far as I’m aware, readers prefer third-person limited PoV, so publishers prefer it, so writers use it more. Omniscient is no longer as popular in genre fiction as it once was, though you will see it used in thrillers or literary fiction, with varying degrees of success. Given genre’s current trend for immersion, omniscient voice would be counter-indicated.

2) No prologues
I’ve been saying this for years. Wannabe writers write prologues because their favourite books – no matter how old – feature prologues. And even then, those books probably didn’t need them.

3) Avoid infodumps
According to Kim Stanley Robinson, info-dumping is just another narrative technique – and one he uses interestingly in 2312 with its Dos Passos-like “Quantum Walks”. Anything which interrupts the flow of the narrative should generally be avoided, and that includes exposition. There are ways of getting important information across to the reader – some of them are more elegant than others. In Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I used a glossary – and used that glossary to tell the story of the Apollo programme. In The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, the glossary serves triple duty – telling the story of the Apollo and Ares programmes, but also offering clues to the real story of the novella and hiding the coda.

4) Fantasy novels have to be series instead of standalones
At present, publishers in the UK like trilogies. You probably stand a better chance of getting a contract if you’ve written a trilogy rather than a stand-alone novel. There’s no reason why fantasy novels (of the epic mediaevalish secondary world variety) shouldn’t be stand-alones, and many have been – such as, er, um… well, I’m sure there must be one somewhere.

5) No portal fantasy
Isn’t portal fantasy a bit out of fashion these days? Most epic fantasies are secondary world fantasies.

6) No FTL
So that would be like Alastair Reynolds’ entire oeuvre, then? Books set outside the Solar System but without FTL have been around for a long time. An especially good one is William Barton’s Dark Sky Legion from 1992. It’s a damn sight more interesting an approach than pretending spaceships are ocean liners and interstellar space is just a very large ocean…

7) Women can’t write “hard” science fiction
Argh. This isn’t a rule, even if in quotes. This is just rank ignorance. And to the people in the comment thread of the io9 post asking for the names of women hard sf writers… Well, there’s this thing called the internet, it has search engines you can use, so go and bloody look for yourself. Admitting you’re ignorant is only the first step. Now you have to do something about it. Don’t go demanding people give you a list of authors’ names. Go and look for yourself. It’s not difficult.

8) Magic has to be just a minor part of a fantasy world
Random assertion is random.

9) No present tense
That’s me screwed then – the Apollo Quartet and Wunderwaffe are all written in the present tense. I like it, I like its immediacy. And I’ve read some excellent books written in the present tense – such as Katie Ward’s Girl Reading.

10) No “unsympathetic” characters
The problem with unsympathetic characters is that they’re, well, unsympathetic. And if you do find yourself sympathising with them, then you probably need help. Writing unsympathetic characters – especially in epic fantasy – means you end up with rapey grimdark shit, and that’s something the genre really needs to grow out of. It’s not big and it’s not clever.

So there you have it. Within a subset of genre fiction, all novels apparently do not break these “rules” – though obviously of course lots of other genre novels do. But to point that out would have rendered io9’s entire article meaningless.


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Going into space

Well, the National Space Centre in Leicester. Which, for a fortnight in February, is putting on a “Space Fiction” special event. Between 9 February and 24 February, a number of authors will be giving talks at the National Space Centre. The full schedule is here.

I’ll be there on Sunday 17 February, with fellow John Jarrold Literary Agency clients Chris Beckett and Philip Palmer. Since Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself are your actual bona fide proper hardcore space fiction, I’ll be talking about, and reading from, them. There’ll also be copies available to buy.

I guess I’d better start making notes on what I’m going to say…


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First haul of the year

Though, strictly speaking, it’s not – some of the books below were brought to me by Santa. But this is certainly the first book haul post of the year. And it’s the usual mix of first edition hardbacks, charity shop finds, literary fiction, science fiction, and books on or about other things all together…

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Some literary first editions. I read Ultramarine over Christmas and it is very good indeed. I will read more Lowry. Milkbottle-H was recommended by someone on LibraryThing and this was the only edition of the book I could find. Paul Scott is a favourite writer, and both The Towers Of Silence and Staying On are for the collection.
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Some genre first editions. Apollo’s Outcasts I’ll be reviewing for Vector. I should know about this sort of stuff, right? Starship Spring is the final book in Eric Brown’s Starship quartet – I bet you can guess the titles of the other three. The Ice Owl is a novella by Carolyn Ives Gilman. I shall be reviewing it for Daughters of Prometheus. The Dragon Griaule is a beautiful-looking collection from Subterranean Press. I have all of its contents as separate novellas… except for the one original to this book. Which they clearly put in so that people like me would buy it.
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Some genre paperbacks. Unbelievably, I have never read A Canticle For Leibowitz. Good job I found this copy in a charity shop, then. The Islanders was a Christmas present. Frankenstein joins the other SF Masterworks. And The Explorer was sent to me by James Smythe (I swapped it for a copy of Adrift on the Sea of Rains).
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Non-genre paperbacks. Two more of the attractively-packaged Ballard paperbacks, The Unlimited Dream Company and The Day of Creation. That’s all of them now. I’ve been picking up Iain Sinclair novels – this one is Landor’s Tower – when I see them in charity shops, but have yet to actually, er, read them. Winter’s Bone I wanted to read after being very impressed by the film adaptation. Santa gave it to me.
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I’ve always rated Hitchcock as a director, so I made an effort to watch The Girl, the TV movie about his relationship with Tippi Hedren during the filming of The Birds and Marnie. It was excellent. Spellbound by Beauty is the book it was based upon. John Jarmain is one of my favourite poets, and Flowers in the Minefields is a collection of his poems and letters, with commentary. It is, I think, the only book about him ever published.20130126f
During a visit to Louisiana, a modern art museum in Denmark, over Christmas I saw some photographs by Gillian Wearing, and was sufficiently intrigued to pick up a book about her work. Before The Incal is a prequel bandes dessinée and it is excellent.

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