It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Welcome to An Age of Discord

What is this, I hear you cry. A space opera? But, Ian, you write hard sf, literary hard sf, the sort of hard sf that needs two pages of bibliography! How can you write a space opera?

Well, it sort of happened like this…

I first started work on A Prospect of War back when I was living in the UAE. I’d previously completed two novels, neither of which were especially good. One was a sort of Dickensian space opera, and the other a first contact novel with a time-slipped narrative. But after working my way through the first seven books of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, and failing to understand why they had proven so successful, I decided to write a space opera trilogy which used the structure of an epic fantasy. It took several goes before I was happy with the universe I was building (early versions probably owed a little too much to science fiction role-playing games such as Traveller).

So, I would have a “peasant hero”, a young man of common birth who proved to have some magical ability which resulted in him leading the forces of good against an attempt by a “dark lord” to overthrow the existing ruling dynasty. But I wasn’t quite ready to throw magic into my space opera. In fact, what I wanted was a relatively low-tech civilisation that had managed to build an interstellar empire using only a limited number of pieces of handwavey technology. I didn’t want it all shiny high tech because I needed to justify the rigidly-enforced social classes. You need those class barriers in place for a peasant hero to break through (and to provide yet more jeopardy to justify his eventual victory). And I wanted an atmosphere of fading grandeur and deep history.

I invented a world which reached an early industrial level of technology, and promptly discovered three satellites in orbit. A space race led to one nation – the most socially conservative and repressive of those on the world – getting into space first… where the astronauts found three ancient wrecked starships. And from them they reverse-engineered: a Faster-Than-Light drive, a cheap energy generator, anti-gravity, a powerful directed-energy ships’ weapon, and a force-curtain. (They actually had a little surreptitious help… but that’s a story for another day.) These five things gave that nation first the planet, and then an interstellar empire.

But my story would be set millennia later, after the empire had declined and a new empire, catalysed by a successful war against another interstellar polity, had been carved out of it. The dark lord would be only the latest leader of a conspiracy which has been harbouring a grudge since the defeat of the old empire…

This was getting bloody complicated. I took some time out from writing to do some world-building… and eventually ended up with a couple of hundred MB of spreadsheets, documents and text files giving details on everything from the imperial government to its military to naming conventions to ancient history. I even built a wiki, with the eventual aim of either publishing it online or in book-form as an encyclopaedia.

A generic space opera image from a wallpaper web site

A generic space opera image from a wallpaper web site

Then it was back to writing the story… which never quite went as planned. This was partly because I’d been too clever for my own good. For reasons which now escape me, I decided that FTL travel entailed journeys measured in weeks, but in the real universe the length of time the journey took was longer, on a logarithmic scale. So a journey which for a ship’s passengers might take a week would see them arrive eight days after their departure; for two weeks, it would be seventeen days… and so on. Since I decided to use four main viewpoint characters, and I’d have them travelling about on different journeys… I had to create a giant spreadsheet in order to keep the chronology straight. It was a major headache.

And that epic fantasy template I’d planned on using… that was getting completely bent out of shape too. I had my four protagonists meeting and then separating and then meeting again, just so I could get them all into position for the end of the first novel. To make matters worse, every time I reached for a space opera or epic fantasy trope to incorporate, it would never quite fit, so I had to either rip it apart or subvert it.

Anyway, I eventually finished the first book, after many years of writing and polishing. It was good enough for John Jarrold to take me on as a client. I started work on the second book of the trilogy. This was a mistake. If you can’t sell the first book of a series, what’s the point of writing the second book? A few years passed. I wrote a few treatments for novels, but no one bit. I wrote Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It won the BSFA Award. I discovered I much preferred writing the sort of literary sf that requires lots of research. I wrote the remaining books of the Apollo Quartet (well, was working on the fourth book). Then a small press – Tickety Boo Press – asked to see my space opera. What to do? I’m not writing that sort of science fiction any more. Won’t its appearance confuse readers who have come to expect the likes of the Apollo Quartet from me?

Decision time.

Now, I still stand by A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders. I think they’re good work. And now actually seems like the right time for them to appear. Publishing has changed, the sf market has changed, space opera has changed. Which doesn’t mean I don’t intend to do a little wrangling before they see the light of day. At 200,000 words, A Prospect of War could do with being made a little tighter and punchier. And I changed some background details when I wrote A Conflict of Orders, so I need to retcon them in A Prospect of War. A Conflict of Orders’ 170,000 words will also receive some rewriting. And I’ll finally get around to writing A Want of Reason – which will please some friends, who have been demanding I write it for years.

Space opera is a more commercial, and commercially successful, subgenre than literary hard sf. If An Age of Discord sells well, and encourages people to buy the Apollo Quartet, then it’s all win. There are space operas currently available on Kindle – badly-written and derivative ones – which sell several thousand copies a month. In three years, I’ve sold 1,300 copies of Adrift on the Sea of Rains. Granted, novellas don’t sell as well novels, but all the same…

An Age of Discord does not mean I’ve permanently decamped to space opera. I still have a number of hard sf projects planned, both at novella and novel length. But I see no reason why I can’t write big fat space operas and literary hard sf. But we shall see how well the trilogy does. Perhaps people will hate it, perhaps no one will buy it. Perhaps its time has not come, after all…

 


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Space opera trilogy to be published

The news is out… Tickety Boo Press have picked up my space opera trilogy, An Age of Discord, to be published in 2015 and 2016. The three books are A Prospect of War, A Conflict of Orders and A Want of Reason, and they’re sort of a steampunkish widescreen baroque space opera sort of thing. The official press release (see here) describes the general story as…

Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, but those who ignore history do so at their peril. The Empire was born in civil war and now, 1,300 years later, a fresh civil war is brewing. But who is the mysterious “Serpent” who threatens the Imperial Throne? And what can the renegade naval officer known only as the Admiral, and her single battlecruiser, do to combat him? Casimir Ormuz, a young man of low birth, may be the key. Whoever controls him is most likely to win—but he is determined to be his own master.

And then the historical origin of the Serpent’s conspiracy abruptly intrudes into the present… And the civil war becomes a battle for the Empire’s survival.

Set in a colourful and richly-detailed universe, An Age of Discord tells an epic story of derring-do and intrigue, while subverting space opera sensibilities and traditions.

… which is all a bit vague and tantalising-y. As all good blurbs should be.

acoo

I wrote a back-cover blurb for the first novel, and while it may or may not appear on the actual book when it’s published, here it is to give a flavour of the trilogy:

Lieutenant-Commander Rizbeka demar Rinharte is lieutenant of intelligence aboard Vengeful, a renegade battlecruiser commanded by the mysterious Admiral.

Sliva demar Finesz is an inspector in the Office of the Procurator Imperial, and involved in investigating a conspiracy to overthrow the Emperor Willim IX.

Murily Plessant is captain of the data-freighter Divine Providence. She is also an agent of a secret order dedicated to protecting the Empire against the clandestine machinations of its internal enemies.

Although all three women do not know it, they are fighting the same enemy.

Vital to this fight is the young man Casimir Ormuz, a member of Divine Providence’s crew.

Only Plessant and her secret order know the role Ormuz will play… and even then he is far more pivotal than they realise.

Did I mention that the plot is really complicated? There’s wheels-within-wheels and sword-fights and space battles and no space opera cliché is left unmangled by the Sales treatment…

Oops. Forgot to mention. A Prospect of War will be launched at Edge-Lit 4 in Derby on 11 July this year.

PS: An Age of Discord will feature quote marks for dialogue.


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Resolute

I don’t know why I bother, I rarely manage to keep to the bloody things. Looking back at my post on “reading resolutions” for 2014 (see here), I see I successfully kept… one of them. I stuck to alternating genders for long fiction, but failed to read every 2014-published book I bought and only read seven translated works during the year (and two of those were anthologies of Soviet science fiction). Ah well. For 2015, I think I’ll continue the alternating genders thing. But I’m not going to make any other promises about what I read during the year. I’ve signed up for the GoodReads reading challenge and set myself a target of 150 books, and I think that’s sufficient.

I doubt I’ll be visiting the cinema any more often in 2015 than I did in 2014 (which was twice). I might go and see Jupiter Ascending, but is there anything else due out during the year worth catching in 3D IMAX? I do intend, however, to keep watching films on DVD from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I doubt I’ll finish the list – some of the films are just too hard to find, but I’d like to get as close to complete as possible. But not to die when I’ve seen them all, I don’t want to do that. Obviously.

And then there’s the other stuff, what I laughingly call my writing career… Later this month should see the completion of the Apollo Quartet, with the publication of All That Outer Space Allows (at last!). Plus, shiny new paperback editions of Adrift on the Sea of Rains, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. I’ll need to do some promoting once all four books are available, so prepared to be spammed. Mercilessly. And in February, I’ll be publishing Aphrodite Terra, an anthology of six stories sort of about the planet Venus.

I’ve gone off short stories, so I suspect I’ll not bother writing any in 2015. None of the current crop of magazines publish the sort of science fiction I’m interested in reading or writing. I have a couple of ideas for novellas I might have a go at, although it will be fun trying to sell them… And then there’s the novel, the infamous literary hard sf novel, which will obviously have a very short title, something like A, perhaps, or Z. Um, except that won’t be much use for internet searches. Something a bit longer, then. I did like Tim Maughan’s suggestion, Fuck the Outward Urge, but I suspect the profanity will make it difficult to sell. At the moment, I’m sort of leaning toward Bow Shock. Eight letters. Easy to type. Let’s hope the novel itself proves as easy to type…

Bow_shock_around_a_star

Mostly, I just hope I’ll be a more productive in 2015 than I was in 2014. I did take on a lot last year, and I didn’t manage to finish all that much of it to my intended schedule, but it also felt like I wasted a lot of time. I’d like to better manage my time this year. So, of course, with that in mind, I’ve decided to take on even more than I did in 2014… And, hopefully, that may soon require a small announcement about something. So keep checking back.


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2014 and me

This time last year I said 2013 hadn’t been a particularly good year, but this year has been worse. Admittedly, last year felt bad, but quite a lot of good stuff happened during it – including winning the BSFA Award. This year… well, the event of 2014 was Loncon 3, and I chose not to go to it (for a variety of reasons which felt right at the time). I did, however, attend the Eastercon in Glasgow, Edge-lit in Derby and Fantasycon in York. No trips abroad, sadly. I also went to Bloodstock Open Air festival, and it was a good one.

Only three of my stories saw print in 2014. ‘Waters of Lethe’ appeared in Perihelion SF in June; ‘The Spaceman and the Moon Girl’, my first ever sale to a literary magazine, appeared in Litro #137 in September; and ‘Far Voyager’ provided the title to the latest Postscripts anthology, #32#33 Far Voyager, in November. Another two stories were due to appear in an anthology this year, but its appearance has been delayed.

ps3233

Speaking of delayed… I’d hoped to have Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows out in 2014. My initial hope was to have it ready for Loncon 3, but by July I was still busy doing research. And sort of feeling out the story and how I wanted to tackle it. Once I started writing it, and decided it was going to be a short novel rather than a novella, publishing it by the end of the year seemed unlikely. So it’s going to be a 2015 release and I’m aiming for the second half of January.

I’d used MPG Biddles to print the paperback editions of Apollo Quartet 1 Adrift on the Sea of Rains and 2 The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, but they went bust in June 2013. So I had to use Amazon’s CreateSpace for book 3 Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. And now that I’m running low on my stock of books 1 and 2 in paperback and would have to use CreateSpace to replenish… I decided it was a good opportunity to produce a second edition of each. New cover art, such that all four books will look like a set; and even some bonus material to up the page-count as CreateSpace can only put lettering on the spine for books of more than 100 pages. One advantage of this is that Amazon will print and carry its own stock, so I won’t make a loss every time I sell them a book. I’m also hoping shiny new editions will give sales of the books a kick in the pants – as too will the appearance of book 4 All That Outer Space Allows. As of 12 December 2014, sales of books 1,2 and 3 stand at 1,160, 540 and 255 respectively.

All of this had unintended consequences for another project I was working on: Aphrodite Terra, a mini-anthology of six stories about the planet Venus. Again, I’d planned to have it out for Loncon 3, but that didn’t happen. And given the amount of work I’ve ended up doing in the last quarter of this year, I’ve had to knock that into early 2015 too. I hope it’ll be worth the wait.

On the non-fiction front, I was interviewed at the beginning of the year by some Spanish bloggers – the Spanish-language version appears on Leticia Lara’s Fantástica Ficción here, and the English version is on Odo’s Sense of Wonder here. I was also interviewed on Confessions of a Book Geek for Sci-Fi November. I reviewed 23 books for SF Mistressworks and 3 books for Interzone. I also started a new reading project: postwar British women writers. Only two books read so far – by Storm Jameson and Susan Ertz – but it’s an informal, unstructured reading project so there’s no rush. I also contributed a pair of ‘Friday Fives’ to Pornokitsch: 5 Trips to the Moon in June and 5 Pieces of Soggy Sci-Fi Cinema in August.

2015 should prove… interesting. I’m determined it will be a more productive year than 2014 has been. Once All That Outer Space Allows and Aphrodite Terra are out, I plan to get started on a literary hard sf novel. I also have a stand-alone novella I’d like to write. And some short stories – I have several I started this year but never quite managed to finish. Toward the end of 2015, I’d like to gather together my space fiction stories and publish a short collection through Whippleshield Books. I also have another little project I’m considering tackling, a sort of pendant to All That Outer Space Allows. But we’ll see how everything goes.


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Finger on the Zeitgeist

So I started writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains sometime in 2010, and then the film Apollo 18 was released in September 2011 – although I didn’t publish my book until April 2012. And then I wrote The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself about a mission to Mars, and published that in January 2013… by which point Andy Weir’s self-published novel The Martian was doing so well, it was bought by a publisher for six figures who then published it in January 2014, and now it’s being made into a movie by Ridley Scott. I decided to write about the Mercury 13 for Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, and so does Kelly Sue DeConnick in Captain Marvel, which was collected as In Pursuit of Flight in late 2013. And BBC Radio 4 broadcasts a documentary on the Mercury 13 in November 2014. And for the final book of the Apollo Quartet, I’m focusing on the wives of the Apollo astronauts, and among the books I’ve used for research is Lily Koppel’s The Astronaut Wives Club… which has been adapted for television by ABC and will be broadcast in spring 2015…

apollo11_eva1

So it’s not just me writing about these things, but on the other hand it’s not like I’m getting any benefit from their appearances in popular culture. Clearly my marketing department is not doing its job properly…


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Structural engineering for fiction

There are many ways to be innovative in fiction writing, but the method which appeals to me the most is in looking at the different ways in which narratives can be structured – not simply in order to tell a story, but also in order to direct how the reader experiences that story. It’s something I was conscious of while writing the Apollo Quartet.

The most obvious structure, and the most common, is the linear narrative, in which events are ordered chronologically from start to finish, and typically seen from a single viewpoint. Then there is the multi-threaded narrative, in which different viewpoints all offer differing views of the events described by the story. There is also the time-slip narrative, in which two or more narratives running in different time contexts together lead to, or explain, the resolution. In most of these stories, the resolution offered to the reader is the one experienced by the protagonist. While in a multi-threaded or multi-viewpoint narrative, the reader might be possessed of more information than the protagonist, and so have a better understanding of the reasons for, or the nature of, the resolution, the end of the story is still immersive inasmuch as it takes place within the story.

structure-axo-q-theatre

While writing the Apollo Quartet, I decided to play around with the concept of narrative structure. I started out with a variation on common narrative structures, but with each instalment moved the focus of narrative understanding further out of the story and closer to the reader – while still maintaining what appeared to be a typical narrative format.

Corkscrew chronology with double twist
Adrift on the Sea of Rains has two narrative threads, one moving forward in time from the first line of the novella, and the second a series of flashbacks which are presented in reverse chronology. Both feature twist endings – but the twist of the reverse chronology narrative is what kickstarts the forward chronology, in effect forming a closed timelike loop of the entire story.

Delayed reaction external resolution
In The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, there are still two narratives, and they’re time-slipped, one in 1979 and one in 1999, but I wanted the novella to have two resolutions – one experienced by the protagonist, and one that only the reader understood from clues buried in the narrative and ancillary texts. I structured the novella to give what I called “a B-52 effect”, named for the cocktail not the jet bomber. I’d come across the idea of a coda “hidden” behind a glossary in Iain M Banks’s Matter – although I’m told Tolkein did it in The Lord of The Rings – and I really liked the idea of a short section after the end of the story which redefined everything the reader had read. But I decided to take it one level further and not categorically state what it was that redefined the story. I would include clues, scattered throughout the narrative and glossary, and the coda would be the final piece of the puzzle. In other words, the reader figures out the resolution for themselves outside the story.

Narrative action at a distance
And in Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, I chose to put more of a burden on the reader. In part, this was a consequence of the stories I was determined to tell. I wanted a narrative featuring the Mercury 13, I wanted a narrative featuring the bathyscaphe Trieste… but how to connect the two? I considered a number of somewhat obvious solutions before having an epiphany one day while making my way to the pub to meet up with friends. I wouldn’t connect them, I’d let the reader find the connection – but I would give hints to that relationship. And the chief element of that relationship is that actions in one narrative world could turn out to have consequences in the other narrative world, despite there being no actual relationship between the worlds – in fact, their only relationship is that they run side-by-side within the pages of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. The connection between the two is not only completely artificial, it’s an artefact of the nature of reading.

Narrative context mismatch
I’m reluctant to discuss the fourth book of the quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, in too much detail, but I will reveal that it’s structured according to what I call “narrative context mismatch”. Like the preceding three books, the narrative or narratives will on the surface appear to be straightforward, either chronologically linear or time-slip, but there is more going on than initially meets the eye – and it’s both a consequence of the act of reading and the artificial nature of story.

Novellas, I’ve found, are perfect vehicles for this sort of structural engineering or experimentation. Short stories are simply too short, and while there’s nothing preventing any of the above being used in one, the word-length may make them too obtuse for the reader as there’s simply not enough room to provide all the necessary clues. Novels, you would think, would make for more fertile ground – and there are indeed novels which do some very interesting things with their narrative structures, I’m thinking especially of Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle and Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley. But novels are also a far more commercial format for fiction, and as a result – particularly in genre – they tend to stick to tried and tested narrative structures. The experimentation, if it does exist, typically occurs in the setting or viewpoint.

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