It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Self-publishing from the inside

Once again, there has been some discussion online about self-publishing versus traditional publishing, prompted by a deeply-flawed report by Hugh Howey posted here. Others have already taken apart Howey’s argument, so I won’t bother – although I will point out that equating the quality of a work of fiction with its level of commercial success is a fallacy and not at all useful.

However, on reading Howey’s piece it occurred to me that my own experiences self-publishing my Apollo Quartet over the past two years might prove a more useful example. Especially since I can provide actual numbers – ie, real data. I am an award-winning self-published science fiction author, but my level of commercial success has been very modest. I’m happy with this – I didn’t self-publish in the hope of earning £millions, and I put much greater personal stock in critical acclaim than I do units sold.

The first book of the Apollo Quartet, Adrift on the Sea of Rains, was published on 9 April 2012, and launched at that year’s Eastercon, Olympus 2012 at the Radisson Edwardian Hotel, Heathrow. I priced the signed hardback at £5.99 and the paperback at £3.99, price points I felt were about right for its length, although during the convention it was sold for £5 and £3 respectively. The second book, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, was published on 17 January 2013. Since the cover prices for the first book had barely covered the costs of printing the book – and actually resulted in a loss on each sale through Amazon, thanks to its non-negotiable 60% discount – I increased the hardback and paperback cover prices to £6.99 and £4.99. At that year’s Eastercon on the weekend of 29 March 213 to 1 April 2013, EightSquaredCon at the Cedar Court Hotel in Bradford, I sold copies of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself at £6 and £4. The third book of the Apollo Quartet, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, was published on 30 November 2013, and had the same pricing as the preceding book.

HBK PBK EBOOK
AQ1 09 Apr 2012 £5.99 £3.99 £2.99
AQ2 17 Jan 2013 £6.99 £4.99 £2.99
AQ3 30 Nov 2013 £6.99 £4.99 £2.99

On 30 August 2013, I dropped the price of the paperback of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to £3.99 and the ebook edition to £1.99. Initially, the new lower price was only intended to last for the month of September 2013, but I’ve kept them in place ever since. The new paperback price only applies on copies bought through the Whippleshield Books online store. Amazon currently offers the paperbacks for each book at £3.99, £4.84 and £4.97.

When I decided to self-publish Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I was certain that I wanted to do it “properly” – ie, as a small press would do, with a signed limited hardback edition, a paperback edition, and ebook editions in the most popular formats. I did not pay myself as the writer, nor as the cover artist; and I asked a friend to act as editor, with the promise of payment once my small press was in the black. So the only costs associated with Adrift on the Sea of Rains were the actual costs of getting the hardbacks and paperbacks printed up. I used MPG Biddles, a printing firm used by a number of small presses in the UK, and ordered 100 copies of both the hardback and paperback – but only 75 copies of the hardback would be available for sale, the remaining un-numbered copies were for beta readers, family, friends and my agent, etc. I used Biddles again for The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. Unfortunately, the company went into administration in July 2013, so I was forced to look elsewhere for my hardbacks and paperbacks of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. I chose Lightning Source for the hardbacks, and Amazon’s CreateSpace for the paperbacks. Both are print-on-demand, which meant there was no financial advantage to ordering the full print-run up-front. So for the hardbacks, I have so far had 65 copies printed, and while the paperback has been available for sale through Amazon since 31 November 2013, I’ve only ordered 20 copies to date to hold in stock for Whippleshield Books’ online store. As a result, my unit costs for the books were:

HBK PBK
AQ1 £3.04 £2.32
AQ2 £2.86 £2.02
AQ3 £5.09 £2.31

In actual fact, I make £1.55 on each paperback copy of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above sold through Amazon, whereas Amazon buys paperbacks of Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself from me at 60% discount for £1.60 and £2.00 respectively (and I have to pay postage myself, typically £1.10 for an order of one copy). This gives me a unit profit on each book through each channel of:

HBK PBK
by hand online Amazon by hand online Amazon
AQ1 £1.96 £1.85 n/a £0.68 £0.57 -£1.82
AQ2 £3.14 £3.03 n/a £1.98 £1.87 -£1.12
AQ3 £0.91 £0.80 n/a £1.69 £1.58 £1.55

So, while it’s possible to make a profit assuming the only costs are printing costs, there’s not enough in it to make it worth the time and effort. However, each book is also available in an ebook edition, priced at £2.99. And that’s where the money lies. The hardbacks and paperback editions of the Apollo Quartet have been, to put it bluntly, subsidised by the Kindle editions of the books. As of 14 February 2014, Whippleshield Books is £939.14 in the black, and I’m pretty sure it’d still be in the red if I’d only published the Apollo Quartet in hardback and paperback.

finance

The two dips at the end of 2012 were a result of the invoices from the printers for The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. Ebook sales were robust throughout 2013 and the dip at the end of the year is the printing costs for Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. (The only fixed costs for Whippleshield Books are the annual fee of £143.86 for the ecommerce website and the purchase of ISBNs at £118.68 for ten (each title uses three, one for each edition).)

AQ1sales AQ2sales AQ3sales TotalSales

Although Adrift on the Sea of Rains won the BSFA Award in April 2013, the two jumps in sales shown on the graph above were a result of mentions in the Guardian newspaper. Neither The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself nor Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above have received such mentions. In fact, to date Adrift on the Sea of Rains has been reviewed in 44 venues, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself in 21 venues, and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above in only 7. Each book also has, respectively, 18, 8 and 3 reviews on Amazon UK; and 7, 4 and 3 reviews on Amazon US.

And speaking of Amazon, I can see no relationship between the Kindle rankings and actual sales:

AQ1Kindle AQ2Kindle AQ3Kindle

And I’ve yet to be convinced the rankings are in any way useful to the author or publisher.

So, what have I learned publishing the first three books of the Apollo Quartet?

The most obvious lesson is that ebooks are crucial. They subsidise the hardbacks and paperbacks. And of all the ebook platforms, the Kindle is by far the most successful. I never bothered releasing the Apollo Quartet on Smashwords or the iTunes store, but I’m told by other small presses that it’s actually not worth the bother of doing so – over 90% of ebook sales will be from Amazon. I have made the Apollo Quartet available on Kobo, and both epub and mobi editions have been there for purchase from the Whippleshield Books online store from publication dates of each novella. But I’ve sold only single figures of each book from either of those venues.

Secondly, it’s all about eyeballs. If 1,000 people are aware of your book and 1% actually purchase it… that’s 10 copies sold. However, if 100,000 people see it and 1% buy it, that’s 1,000 sales. As a self-published author, it’s up to me to ensure that as many eyeballs see the books of the Apollo Quartet as possible. It’s not just self-promotion. If you’ve built up social capital, you can spend it to spread the word. It is, fortunately, a renewable resource, but it’s also hard work to spend. I put much more effort into getting word out about Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and the sales figures reflect that. (There’s also the possibility that Adrift on the Sea of Rains was a) sufficiently unlike anything else being published in science fiction to stand out, and b) I wasn’t chiefly known as a writer at the time so a little bit of novelty value attached.)

Having said that, timing also plays a part. The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself was published in January, leading many to mistakenly believe it was published in the previous year and so ineligible to be nominated for that year’s award. I published Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above at the end of November, giving only two months – and over Christmas too – for word to spread before nominations for the BSFA Award closed. The best time to launch a book is between April and August, which gives sufficient time for sales to grow and word-of-mouth to spread. It’s even better if you can launch the book at a convention, as you’ll have a captive audience of your core readership for an entire weekend.

Although everyone says “don’t judge a book by its cover”, I’m pretty sure people do. Several friends and acquaintances have complimented me on the cover art for Adrift on the Sea of Rains but I’ve no way of knowing how much of a factor it was in generating sales. I’ll be releasing a new edition of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself with new cover art soon, so hopefully that should give some indication of the role played by cover art. I also deliberately chose titles – long titles, which have subsequently proven a bit of an arse to type out all the time – which sounded literary and so signalled the Apollo Quartet was literary science fiction. This may be why the one group of people I thought might buy the novellas have so far failed to do so: space enthusiasts. I sent copies to a couple of space-related websites, but none have so far run reviews. But then I’m not known in that group and have zero social capital there. I still think the Apollo Quartet would greatly appeal to space enthusiasts, but I’ve yet to find a way to get that message to them. Having audiences in two readership blocs can only help sales.

Finally, I could have just published the Apollo Quartet as ebooks and left it at that. That’s all some self-published authors do, and they make a very nice living at it thank you very much. But I felt I needed a small press of my own, and hardback and paperback editions, in order for my novellas to be taken seriously. And that’s precisely what happened. I don’t think Adrift on the Sea of Rains would have been shortlisted for the BSFA Award, and then gone on to win it, if it had only been published on Kindle. But, as I mentioned earlier, I value critical acclaim above units sold, so that dictated how I approached self-publishing.

It’s still my ambition to be published by a major publishing house. I plan to start soon on a novel, and I will not be self-publishing it. When I wrote Adrift on the Sea of Rains I was pretty sure no magazine or small press would publish it – which is why I did it myself. Its success came as a very pleasant surprise; but it has also demonstrated that I can write award-winning science fiction and, just as importantly, helped me find the space in which I want to write, the sort of science fiction I enjoy writing. I’m not a space opera writer, though I enjoy reading it; I don’t want to write cyberpunk or post-cyberpunk, though I admire some sf which is classified as that. I now know the type of science fiction I want to explore in my writing, and that’s what the Apollo Quartet has shown me.

And I also won an award and made around £1000 while doing it.


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It’s enough to make Hugo crazy

The Hugo Award is a world award – it says so on its website: “The Hugos are World awards”. They’re not, of course, they’re US awards. The electorate is overwhelmingly American, and the rules are set up to maximise visibility of eligible works to Americans. It is voted on by members of the annual Worldcon, but that too is American. In fact, since the first Worldcon in 1939, it has taken place in the following countries:

worldcons

So it comes as no real surprise to find that the Hugo Award for Best Novel has been overwhelmingly won by US authors:

hugowinners

In fact, during the six years when the Worldcon took place in the UK – 1957, 1965, 1979, 1987, 1995 and 2005 – a UK author won the Hugo Award for Best Novel only in 2005. This year, of course, the Worldcon is back in the UK: Loncon3. And the likelihood of a local author winning best novel is much the same as it has been in previous years.

The British Science Fiction Association Award, on the other hand, is a British award and makes no pretence of being otherwise. It is awarded by members of the BSFA and the annual British Eastercon. Books published in the UK during the preceding year are eligible. So the nationalities of the winners are not much of a surprise – although, to be fair, 16% US winners of the BSFA is only marginally more than 15% UK winners of the Hugo:

bsfa

(I’ve counted Michael G Coney as Canadian, because even though he was born in the UK he was resident in Canada; and I’ve counted Geoff Ryman as British, because he even though he is a Canadian he has been resident in the UK throughout his career.)

Because the Hugo Award is structured to give maximimum visiblity to US voters, books published outside the US are eligible a second time when first published in the US. Which leads to the farcical situation this year where last year’s winner of the BSFA Award, Adam Roberts’ Jack Glass, is eligible for this year’s Hugo because it was first published in the US in April 2013; but one of the books on this year’s BSFA Award shortlist, God’s War by Kameron Hurley, which was first published in the UK last year by Del Rey, is not eligible because it was first published in the US in 2011 by Night Shade Books. Perhaps this would make sense if the 2014 Worldcon were taking place in the US and not in the UK, perhaps this would make sense if the Hugos did not claim to be “World awards”.

On the other hand, perhaps it will never make sense…


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Drafting my Hugo

This is in the nature of a first pass through my ballots for the 2014 Hugo Awards, a work in progress. My reading is not yet complete for the various fiction categories, so I hope to have five choices for each of them by the end of March. As for the other categories, read on…

novel
1 A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)
2 Empty Space: A Haunting, M John Harrison (Night Shade Books)
3 Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (Orbit)
4
5

Eligible books I have yet to read which might take up those last two slots: Life After Life, Kate Atkinson; The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes; What Lot’s Wife Saw, Ioanna Bourazopoulou; Shaman, Kim Stanley Robinson; Martian Sands, Lavie Tidhar; On the Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds; The Disestablishment of Paradise, Phillip Mann; and The Machine, James Smythe.

Eligible books I have read which won’t be appearing on my ballot: Proxima, Stephen Baxter; Evening’s Empires, Paul McAuley; The Violent Century, Lavie Tidhar; Seoul Survivors, Naomi Foyle; and Swords of Good Men, Snorri Kristjansson.

novella
1 The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, Ian Sales (Whippleshield Books)
2 Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, Ian Sales (Whippleshield Books)
3
4
5

It has been brought to my attention that I’m allowed to nominate my own fiction – which is not allowed for the BSFA Award – so I thought, why the hell not? Both of my novellas were published in 2013 (January and November, respectively), and it’s not like hundreds of other people will nominate them. Plus, I’m also the publisher of said novellas, which arguably makes it all a bit blurry anyway. The reason the same old names always appear in this category is not because they write the best novellas every year but because most Hugo voters can’t be arsed to read around. If putting my novellas on my ballot encourages them to look beyond Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF, then all to the good. Meanwhile, I shall be reading around, checking out novellas such as this one (ta to Abigail Nussbaum for pointing me at it).

novelette
1 no award

I think the category needs to be dropped, so I’m not going to nominate anything in it.

short story
1 ‘The Incurable Irony of the Man Who Rode the Rocket Sled’, Ian Sales (The Orphan)
2 ‘Selkie Stories are for Losers’, Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons)
3 ‘Golden Apple’, Sophia McDougall (The Lowest Heaven)
4 ‘A Bridge of Words’, Dinesh Rao (We See a Different Frontier)
5

I’ll probably drop my own story from this ballot – I mean, I think it’s good, of course I do; but maybe that’s pushing it a bit. Although, again, if it prompts Hugo voters to read around a little… I’m still looking for a story to fill one, possibly two, slots.

related work
1 Red Doc>, Anne Carson

It occurred to me that Red Doc> is a poem not a novel, and so would better suit this category. I’m still thinking about other – perhaps non-fiction – works I might nominate.

graphic story
1 no award

I have no idea what to nominate and no real interest in finding out.

dramatic presentation (short)
1 no award

I think the category should be dropped. But if I were going to nominate something, it would probably be ‘The Five-ish Doctors Reboot’ (BBC).

dramatic presentation (long)
1 no award

Another category I think should be dropped. But if I were going to nominate something, it would probably be season one of Orphan Black.

editor (long form)
1 no award

Awards should go to works, not people.

editor (short form)
1 no award

Awards should go to works, not people.

professional artist
1 no award

Awards should go to works, not people.

semiprozine
1 Interzone
2 Strange Horizons
3 Vector
4 no award

The category definition is farcical, but these are the genre magazines I read regularly.

fanzine
1 SF Mistressworks
2 Pornokitsch
3 Nerds of a Feather
4 Sibilant Fricative
5 Good Show Sir

I’ve no real interest in fanzines per se, but I’m nominating five blogs/web sites here in order to point out that no one gives a shit about paper fanzines anymore and it’s long past time the Hugo Awards realised that.

fancast
1 no award

I don’t listen to podcasts.

fan writer
1 Liz Bourke
2 Jonathan McCalmont
3 Abigail Nussbaum
4 Jared Shurin
5 Nina Allan

Awards should go to works, not people – but I’m nominating five people here as a political act.

fan artist
1 no award

Awards should go to works, not people.

So there you have it. My thoughts on my ballot so far. I shall continue reading, and nearer the date I’ll post what my actual final ballot will be.


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2014 reading diary, #1

This year, I’m going to try and be a little more disciplined about writing up what I’ve read. So I’ve decided to title the series of posts a “reading diary” and I hope to put one up every month or so. As usual, however, the choice of books will be somewhat eclectic – a mix of genre and literary fiction and, er, other stuff – and I’ll also mention any non-fiction I’ve read for research. You’ll notice that the fiction alternates between male and female writers. That was one of my New Year’s Resolutions, and so far I’ve managed to stick to it.

lachlan-fenrir7Fenrir, MD Lachlan (2011). I really liked Lachlan’s debut, Wolfsangel, to which Fenrir is a sequel, so I had pretty high hopes for this. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite meet them. The plot – deliberately – echoes that of Wolfsangel, but this time takes place in the late ninth century, and in France. Three characters unknowingly act out the romantic triangle from the earlier book, which apparently echoes some Norse god romantic triangle and will bring about Odin’s return to Earth. Fenrir opens with the Siege of Paris (885 – 886), and ends 532 pages later in Aldeigjuborg, a Viking-ruled Russian kingdom near what is now St Petersburg. The first member of the triangle is Aelis, the sister of the ruler of Paris, who manages to escape the siege and then has to evade capture by the marauding Vikings. The other two members are male – Jehan, a crippled monk, and Raven, a Viking shaman. The ruler of Aldeigjuborg wants Aelis for his wife, and has sent a trader, Leshii, and a wolfman, Chakhlyk, to fetch her. She doesn’t want to go, of course. And Raven is after her for his own – and his sister’s – nefarious purposes. And when the wolf is awakened in Jehan, by Norse magic, then he becomes fit and able, and he gets involved too. I said when I read Wolfsangel that werewolves and Vikings were not really my thing, but that novel did something very interesting with them – and Fenrir continues in that vein, but unfortunately it’s a bit too long for its story. The first half dragged badly in parts. It also didn’t help that “dirham” was incorrectly spelled as “dihram” throughout, or that one character’s name went from Swava to Suava and back again. Having said that, some of the set-pieces are really good, and I’ve every intention of continuing with the series.

minaretMinaret, Leila Aboulela (2005). The narrator is the daughter of a well-to-do Sudanese businessman – or rather, he was well-to-do. He prospered under the country’s old regime, and he and his family were almost aristocracy. But when that government was overthrown, he was arrested and executed as a symbol of its corruption. So now the narrator, Najwa, is in London, and working as a nanny since all the family’s riches (justly earned or not) have been seized. The woman she works for is a young Arab who grew up in the Gulf states, is married to an Egyptian currently working in Oman, and is studying for a PhD at a London university. She’s not especially religious. Her younger brother, also a student, however, is religious. And Najwa, who has discovered religion since coming to London, is drawn to him. But it’s not a match the family condone. Minaret is more about Najwa, how she became the woman she is, than it is about her burgeoning relationship with her employer’s brother. The writing is very good throughout – Aboulela writes in English – and Najwa is a beautfully-drawn character. I thought this a much better book than Aboulela’s earlier The Translator.

squarescityThe Squares of the City, John Brunner (1965). An Australian traffic analyst is invited to a South American model city clearly patterned on Brasilia (although the invented country in which it is located is Spanish-speaking) because the visionary president of the nation believes traffic analysis will cure his lovely city of its unsightly slums. From the moment of his arrival, the narrator is in over his head, as it turns out there are two main political factions in the city and he’s being used as a tool by one of them. Though he repeatedly says he can provide short-term solutions to the slums, but in the long term proper housing and education is the only way to really fix the problem, the city authorities want a quick result. And then people start to get killed. I liked that Brunner had based his invented city of Vados on Brasilia, and it seemed to me he sort of captured a similar architectural flavour. The characters also seemed to suit the setting, although the narrator drifted a little too close to Overcompetent Man at times. However, The Squares of the City is apparently notable because the plot is based on a famous chess match, with each of the characters representing various pieces. To be honest, not knowing this in no way changes how you read the story, nor does knowing it actually help you parse the plot. It’s a gimmick that means nothing to the reader, and I’m surprised Brunner even bothered mentioning it. Yes, it turns out the two chief movers and shakers in Vados – the president and the leader of the opposition – have been playing a chess game with people, and that’s why there have been deaths, but it seems too abstracted to make any real difference. I think that makes the novel more of a curiosity than anything else.

Journey, Marta Randall (1978). See my review on SF Mistressworks here.

violent-century-lavie-tidharThe Violent Century, Lavie Tidhar (2013). This novel landed in October last year with quite a thud. In fact, only last weekend a friend mentioned he was thinking of reading the book because it had received so many positive notices. Which is, I suppose, as good a reason to read a book as any. The Violent Century covers, well, not even a century really – it opens in the 1920s, but the present of the story is labelled only “the present”, although clues suggest it is near the turn of the millennium, if not just after. Back in the early part of the twentieth century, Dr Vomacht inadvertently released a probability wave which changed a small proportion of the world’s population, effectively giving them superpowers. In Britain, these superpowered people were recruited as spies and undercover agents, and spent much of WWII trying to track down Vomacht, or eliminate Germany “Übermenschen”. The book’s two protagonist are Fogg and Oblivion, a pair of British agents, and the novel covers their escapades during WWII and the Cold War, as told in flashback from the present-day. Fogg has been brought out of retirement because something has happened, and the flashbacks lead up to the explanation of that. The structure works well, although there’s a niggling sense at times that some information is left unsaid when it needn’t be because the requisite flashback has yet to take place. And speaking of niggling, The Violent Century reminded me of something else but I could never quite put my finger on it. It borrows heavily from comicbook mythologies, of course; and there’s a pulpish flavour to its alternate history… but there was something in the mix that was quite heavily reminiscent of… something. I also thought the ending was a bit weak. A strong novel, yes; but not, I think, one I’ll be putting on my Hugo ballot.

Fireflood and Other Stories, Vonda N McIntyre (1979). A review of this will be posted up on SF Mistressworks in a couple of weeks.

Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (2014). I reviewed this for Vector.

breakdownBreakdown, Sara Paretsky (2012). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s VI Warshawski novels since first stumbling across them in the UAE in the early 1990s. In recent years, the politics have been much more in your face – not necessarily a bad thing, though it does sometimes over-balance the story. Breakdown is a case in point. It opens with Warshawski stumbling across a recently-murdered man in a cemetery while trying to track down a group of missing teenage girls who have gone there to practice a ritual tied into their love of an urban fantasy series of books (plainly based on Twilight). The plot spirals out from there to feature the right-wing media, particularly the sort of moronic far right television pundit who presently seems bafflingly popular in the US at the moment. There’s also an ultra-rich Jewish industrialist, possibly with a shady past, who is the chief target of the  TV pundit’s attacks, and even a pair of senators battling for the local seat – a liberal, backed by the industrialist; and a Tea Party-type loon, backed by the right-wing media. If Paretsky’s novels are overly target-rich from a liberal perspective, Warshawski is turning increasingly quixotic with each subsequent book. Parestsky chooses big themes, but gives Warshawski small victories; it’s a strategy guaranteed to leave you angry when you finish the book. And no matter how righteous that anger, Warshawski’s – and by extension, the reader’s – inability to change things makes you wonder what the point of it all is. But I like Warshawski as a character, I like that Paretsky wears her politics on her sleeve (and I mostly agree with them), and so I’ll continue to read these books.

Evening-empireEvening’s Empires, Paul McAuley (2013). I read this because it has been shortlisted for the BSFA Award this year, even though it’s the fourth book in a loose series – preceded by The Quiet War, Gardens of the Sun and In the Mouth of the Whale, and only the first of which I’ve read (and I didn’t really like it; see here). Evening’s Empires can be read as a standalone, but it also makes numerous references to the events in those earlier novels. All the same, I didn’t find that an obstacle, though it did leave me curious about the earlier two books. But. I’d not really taken to The Quiet War, and I suppose I’d not really expected to take to Evening’s Empires, although something about its blurb did suggest I might be mistaken. Perversely, I found myself underwhelmed by the novel thanks to something I’d not even considered… Evening’s Empires opens with Gajananvihari Pilot marooned on a tiny asteroid on the outer edges of the Belt. The asteroid had once been inhabited – most recently by an ascetic – so there is enough infrastructure present for Hari to survive. He’s been marooned because dacoits captured his father’s ship but he managed to escape. The hijackers were after the fruits of Dr Gagarian’s research into the Bright Moment, a single vision granted to every member of humanity at precisely the same moment when Sri Hong-Owen “vastened” and melded with the alien intelligence present in Fomalhaut’s gas giant (which is apparently what happened during In the Mouth of the Whale). When a pair of dacoits come to capture Hari – and Dr Gagarian’s head, with which he has absconded – he kills them and uses their scooter to escape… and promptly follows a series of clues around the Asteroid Belt, and out to Saturn, in order to have his revenge on the hijackers and discover why Dr Gagarian’s research was so important to them. McAuley describes a Solar System in decline – the places Hari visits are long past their glory days. There have been system-wide wars, empires have risen and fallen, and in many cases, those that are left are just living in, or have re-purposed, the ruins of earlier centuries. Which means that while Evening’s Empires is very much hard sf, it mostly reads like space opera. McAuley has also filled his story with in-jokes. Each of the sections, for example, is named for a sf classic of the past. And part of the plot’s climax takes place at the Memory Whole, an Earth-orbiting asteroid which hosts a virtual environment for avatars of early uploaded post-humans. One of these avatars is quite cutting to Hari about humanity’s predilection for living in the fantasies of earlier ages. Given that the Memory Hole is a real-life UK-based fanzine collection, I can’t decide if McAuley is taking the piss or writing a savage indictment of science fiction…

therainforestThe Rain Forest, Olivia Manning (1974). I loved Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy when I read them several years ago, so I always keep an eye open for books by her when I visit charity shops. Which is where I found this copy of The Rain Forest. It’s her last novel, and set on the invented Indian Ocean island of Al-Bustan (clearly based on Mauritius; there are several mentions of the dodo). Hugh and Kristy Foster have moved temporarily to Al-Bustan so Hugh can take up a position in the local British administration of the island. He’s actually a screenwriter – and Kristy is a successful novelist – but the industry has collapsed in the UK and left him out of work and out of cash. The couple are put up in the Daisy Pension, a boarding-house populated by a cast of minor grotesques. They make friends with the owner’s profligate son, who is shunned by the pension’s guests, and through him meet some of the island’s colourful inhabitants. Although published in the early 1970s, and clearly meant to be set around that time – there’s mention of fashion designers Pucci and Gamba; a helicopter is the chief means of reaching the island – everything felt like it was a couple of decades older. There’s a feel of 1940s Raj to it all – I mean, I was an expat in the Gulf states in the 1970s, and while I was only a child then, I don’t remember it being how Manning describes it on Al-Bustan. Having said that, Al-Bustan is a small island with a native population descended from waves of earlier immigrants from Africa and the Arabian peninsula, so the situation hardly maps onto that, say, of the Trucial States as was. The plot of The Rain Forest bumbles along, there’s a feeling that in the hands of a male writer the story would have been more comic, played for laughs, though to be honest I prefer Manning’s approach. It’s not entirely clear what role the titular woodland plays, and certainly some of the events described in the novel don’t quite gel with it – the Fosters’ treatment by the other residents of the pension, the small war they fight with the new owner after the original owner dies, Kristy’s pregnancy, even the trip Hugh takes to the rain forest in the final section. The cast are mostly unlikeable, except for the Fosters, and what little pathos is present seemed to fall flat more often than not. The Rain Forest is nowhere near as good as those two earlier trilogies – though I do have to wonder if it’s as autobiographical as they were (after all, Kristy is a successful novelist) – but all the same, I’ll continue to keep an eye out for Manning’s novels.


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The fandom & the fandom

I was reading a blog post recently which described YA fiction containing spaceships and other overt science fiction tropes as “hardcore” – as a means to distinguish it from other science fiction YA. Of course, in YA “dystopian” is a genre rather than a description of a setting; and now it seems “science fiction” is a setting rather than a genre…

And it occurred to me  – not so much that this was not what science fiction is, but more that it was a different way of looking at science fiction.

It’s an established fact that science fiction fandom is greying. Where once enough people joined each year for sf fandom to grow, that’s no longer true. And yet science fiction as a genre has become ubiquitous. Obviously a proportion of consumers of sf probably think of themselves as fans – but they’re not in fandom. Either because they’re not invested enough in science fiction to do more than passively consume it, or… they have their own fandom. After all, “sf fandom” as we commonly use the phrase refers to a specific group of people, it’s not just a generic term for all active consumers of the genre. It’s a community which traces its beginnings back to the early part of the twentieth century, when groups of like-minded people met up in various cities around the globe to celebrate a specific mode of literature. Over the years and decades, the community and its activities have formalised – resulting in conventions, fanzines, jargon, an entire support infrastructure for the category sf publishing industry, but also support for those who offer first-line support to the publishing industry…

But there are other sf-related fandoms now. And some of them are doing very well indeed – as Worldcon attendances have declined, so Dragon*Con attendances have risen. Which is why that blog post about “hardcore” YA sf put me in mind of China Miéville’s novel about two cities which occupy the same space but refuse to acknowledge that relationship.

This is not to say there are no crossover points – NineWorlds is a good example of one. (I’ve never been, it clashes with a music festival I’d sooner attend; and yes, I’d rather camp in a field and listen to lots of metal bands than spend a night in that awful hotel in Heathrow.) There are also a number of blogs which transit freely through various forms of genre fandom. But if there are those who do not restrict themselves, there are also those who police the border. The fandom & the fandom has its very own Breach: the Hugo Awards. To be fair, the Hugos were created as a celebratory tool by those original sf fans, but now it seems the awards do little more than help provide a structure badly needed by a decaying community which refuses to acknowledge its time is past. The Hugo rules have fossilised practices which haven’t been true for decades, but no one wants to change those rules. Or rather, those in the best position to effect change are too busy fighting against change.

It seems foolish in the extreme for sf fandom to ignore YA genre fiction. The biggest-selling genre authors of the past couple of decades are YA authors – JK Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins. And each of their series has gone on to become highly-successful film franchises. It’s not as if YA sf is some strange new never-seen-before creature. Back in the day, they called the books “juveniles” and both Heinlein and Asimov, much-lauded writers in traditional sf fandom, openly wrote them. But past attempts to create a Best YA Novel Hugo have all foundered. Some say YA fiction should be treated like other fiction – if it’s good enough, it’ll be nominated for best novel; and JK Rowling did win the Hugo in 2001. But that doesn’t hold water. YA, as noted above, looks at science fiction differently; it is shelved in its own separate section in book shops; it has its own separate fandom… And it’s that latter point where the problem lies. YA sf fandom cannot be subsumed into traditional sf fandom. That’s never going to happen. Nor do fans get “promoted” from YA sf fandom to sf fandom – that’s not how it works. Plus, there are plenty of career sf authors currently writing YA fiction, so to continue to ignore it just looks like sheer spite.

Personally, I’ve no interest in reading or writing YA sf. But that doesn’t mean I think sf fandom should exclude it. I’d say sf fandom, and the Hugo Awards, are in danger of making themselves irrelevant, but that horse has long since bolted. This year’s Hugos have prompted a conversation online about change, about what needs to be done in order to halt their decline. The sort of major changes that are needed will never happen – the system is designed to prevent it – but two indicators of the need for a change I do expect to be reflected in the 2014 shortlists…

If the best fan writer and best fanzine shortlists are comprised entirely of candidates from paper fanzines, then the old guard have won and the Hugos are dead. If they comprise only bloggers and blogs, then that’s a step forward and there’s a possibility the Hugos can save themselves. But I think I’d go a little further: if a YA novel makes it onto the best novel shortlist, then there may be real change in the air…

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