It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

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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.


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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Serendipity strikes again

Sometimes, when you’re working on a piece of fiction, and you’re wondering perhaps if this marvellous plan you have in your head and you’re trying to get down is a) achievable and b) not going to result in ridicule from all those who will read it… Sometimes, when you’re in that space, an artistic decision turns out to be just so right, you can’t help but feel it really is going to work after all. This has happened for all of the Apollo Quartet… and today I had my moment of serendipity for the fourth book, All That Outer Space Allows.

The protagonist of the story – it will be a short novel rather than a novella, around 50,000 to 60,000 words – is a science fiction writer, and she is married to a test pilot who is selected by NASA for the Apollo programme. For one scene, I needed the names of some women sf writers who had had stories published in 1965. One of the names I picked was Josephine Saxton – her debut, ‘The Wall’, appeared in the November 1965 issue of Science Fantasy. I wanted my protagonist to say something about the story after reading it, but I didn’t have a copy. Fortunately, it was collected in The Power of Time and I found a copy of the book on eBay. So I bought it…


The collection arrived the following day, I read ‘The Wall’… and discovered its central metaphor fitted in perfectly with the general shape of All That Outer Space Allows.

I love it when that happens.

On the other hand… I remember sitting in the Bijoux Bar in the Raddison Edwardian Hotel, Heathrow, the day after the launch of Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and describing to Maureen Kincaid Speller the plot of All That Outer Space Allows. Yes, even back in April 2012, I knew what it was about and what the title would be. But now I’m about a quarter of the way into writing it, and it’s shaping up somewhat differently to that original plan. For a start, it’s proving to more about science fiction, and the history of science fiction, than I had intended. It’s also going to be more of a work of imagination than the preceding three books, chiefly because I can find no direct documentation I can use to help me evoke the time and place. For example, I can tell you the average temperature on 1 April 1966 in Lancaster, California, was 66.8°F, but I’ve found only a handful of photos online of the city taken during that year. And, of course, astronauts wives are not as well documented as the astronauts themselves. I’m having to do my research by reading between the lines…

But if it was easy, I wouldn’t do it. Would I?

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Sales report

Loncon 3 is now in full swing. I am not there. After spending last weekend in a field in Derbyshire, drinking and watching a number of metal bands perform, I can’t say I’m especially bothered about missing the Worldcon (though I’m sorry I won’t have the chance to meet IRL a few visitors to the UK I know only from online). Bloodstock was good – I think I enjoyed the music more this year than last, even though initially I hadn’t been that keen on the line-up. Highlights were the sets by Obsidian Kingdom and Shining, and the crowd’s performance during Evil Scarecrow’s set. Other good stuff included Orphaned Land (twice), Rotting Christ, Winterfylleth, Old Corpse Road and Voices. The weather behaved – mostly. It hammered down on the Sunday, and everywhere got wet and muddy, but it cleared up by the evening. Security this year was much improved; the toilets were much worse. A good festival, nonetheless.

Meanwhile… these summer months so far have felt spectacularly unproductive, and there have been days when I’ve had trouble working up the enthusiasm to write, edit, or even get started on a book review… Which is not to say I’ve done nothing. It just feels like it. I’m assuming reviews count. I wrote a fair few of those during June and July. Four for SF Mistressworks, in fact: We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (here); Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (here); Worlds for the Grabbing, Brenda Pearce (here); and Judgment Night, CL Moore (here). A fifth went up this week – The Revolving Boy, Gertrude Friedberg (here) – and I have another two suitable books I’ve read but I’ve yet to start on the reviews – Aurora: Beyond Equality, edited by Vonda N McIntyre & Susan Janice Anderson; and Second Body, Sue Payer. I also reviewed Extreme Planets, edited by David Conyers, David Kernott & Jeff Harris, for Interzone (the anthology’s publishers really need to sort out its Amazon page); and I have another book sitting on this desk beside my laptop to review for them, which is, er, already late. (I’ll have it done by the end of the week, Jim. Honest.)

Whippleshield Books continues to quietly stumble along. Sales of Adrift on the Sea of Rains have just passed 1100, those of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself are over 500, and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above has to date managed a tardy 200-or-so units sold. I’m determined to get the final book of the Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, out before the end of the year, although at present I can’t predict exactly when. (Which reminds me: I need to buy some more ISBNs.) Aphrodite Terra, however, should appear some time next month. (The contributors were paid on acceptance, so any delay is more annoying than anything else.)


Also, next month, I’ll have a story in Litro magazine. The issue has a “future fashion” theme, and my story, ‘The Spaceman and the Moon Girl’, is about astronauts and space age fashion designers. Sort of. Postscripts #32/33: Far Voyager should also be out some time this year, with my story providing its title. And later this year – no date as yet – Tickety Boo Press are publishing an anthology Space: Houston, We Have A Problem, which contains my story ‘Red Desert’.

ETA: I forgot to mention I contributed a couple of Friday Fives to Pornokitsch – one on sf novels about first missions to the Moon titled, with a great deal of imagination, ‘5 Trips to the Moon’; the other about sf movies set at the bottom of the ocean, ‘5 Pieces of Soggy Sci-Fi Cinema‘.



Loncon 3 and me

As you likely all know, the Worldcon this year takes place in London. So they’re calling it Loncon, the third of that name as there were previous Loncons in 1957 and 1965. It will take place from 14 to 18 August at ExCel, which is some sort of humungous exhibition centre in Docklands. It also seems it’s going to be the biggest Worldcon so far. All of which is academic as far as I’m concerned, as I won’t be going.

I did buy an attending membership, and I volunteered to be on programme items. I was asked to be on one panel, but I turned it down. It was not a topic that interested me, or one I felt could usefully contribute to. All of which is, again, pretty much moot.

There are a number of reasons why I’ve decided I’m no longer attending Loncon 3. One of them is that I had hoped to have Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows and Aphrodite Terra ready for the con. But that’s not going to happen, so I think I’d better spend the time working on them. Loncon 3 is also the weekend after a metal festival, and I doubt I could recover from one in time for the other.

There are lots of people I’d hoped to meet IRL at Loncon 3 for the first time. Back in 2005, at the Glasgow Worldcon, I remember such plans failing spectacularly – but then the “voodoo board” wasn’t very effective… These days, of course, social media and smartphones make it all so much easier. Another time, perhaps. Helsinki in 2017?


The Apollo Quartet that never was

The Apollo Quartet is hard sf, but it’s also alternate history. And the books of the quartet themselves have their own alternate history too. They say a plan never survives contact with the enemy and, in pretty much the same way, a synopsis never survives unscathed once you actually get into writing a novel, novella or story.

I can’t remember at what point in the writing of Adrift on the Sea of Rains I decided it would be the first of the quartet… but once I’d made the decision I obviously needed to come up with three more stories. I had one sitting in my “ideas book” (actually, it’s just a Google doc) that I thought would be suitable. It was only when I started writing the second book of the quartet that I realised it didn’t quite fit. So I kept one narrative thread, left the other as implied, added a new narrative about the mission to Mars, set the story decades earlier… and changed the title to The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself.

The original Apollo Quartet 3 and 4 bear no resemblance to the ones that have been/will be published. The original synopsis for Apollo Quartet 3 just simply didn’t fit in with how the quartet was shaping up. And I’d decided I really wanted to write about the Mercury 13 and the bathyscaphe Trieste. So I did.

With the Mercury 13 as the subject of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, another theme was rising to the forefront of the four novellas… and so I needed a new story for the final book. I’d already “borrowed” the title of my favourite film, but the link to Sirk’s masterpiece was too thin. That wasn’t going to work. But with a little sleight of hand, I had myself a new plot which provided a suitable end to the quartet, and then the title – with a little tweaking – would suit it perfectly. Instead of an Avro engineer, my protagonist would be an astronaut’s wife. And rather than just a fan of science fiction, she’d be a writer…

So here, for your delight and delectation, are the original synopses for Apollo Quartets 2 to 4, which I recently discovered in a Google doc created back in September 2011.

2. Wave Fronts The Earth has a single interstellar colony – administered by NASA, ESA and JASA – on SuperEarth2 at Gleise 581, twenty light years from Earth, and which has been in existence for twenty years. By now radio waves from the colony should have reached Earth, but there has been nothing. So Shepard has been sent to find out what’s happened. He travels to Gleise 581 by bubble-ship, and when he arrives at SuperEarth2, he discovers that the colony has completely vanished. Using one of the bubble-ship’s re-entry capsules, he lands on the surface and treks across the land to the settlement’s location. But it is as if it had never existed. And now he stuck there as there is no way for him to get into orbit. A second narrative depicts the dismantling of a colony and its preparations to leave its world before the light front reaches Earth. The colonists move onto another planetary system… where they meet an alien race, engaged in the same method of colonisation as themselves.

3. The Shores of Earth Earth is now home only to the empress of the Healing Empire, her family and staff, who all live in a vast palace. The rest of humanity lives off-Earth, scattered throughout the Solar System. The protagonist travels to Earth and lands in capsule which can reconfigure itself into lifting-body/glider. He is immediately arrested by the empress’s personal guard, and subsequently interrogated by a captain of the guard. The protagonist has come to report the arrival of a vessel from an interstellar colony populated centuries before by a generation ship, but its arrival is too soon – there’s not been enough time to get to the exoplanet, and then build the necessary infrastructure to send the ship back. Perhaps the visiting ship is alien? Except no evidence of aliens has ever been found…

4. All That The Stars Allow It is the late 1950s, and a British electronics engineer is offered a job in Houston with NASA, which entails moving from his current job in Canada where he works for Avro. (A lot of Mission Control was designed and built by British engineers, many of which had previously worked for Avro in Canada.) He packs up and drives south, anticipating the future of manned spaceflight given what he knows of NASA’s plans. The engineer is an avid reader of science fiction, and the second narrative is the text of a story of the period of an engineer in a future in which humanity has colonised the Solar System.

Perhaps one day these stories may appear, no doubt in somewhat changed form. But when all’s said and done, I think the Apollo Quartet as it now exists is a much better piece of work than it would have been had I used the above plots.


Apollo Quartet 3 published

Apollo Quartet 3: Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above is now available from Amazon. It’s been available as an ebook for several days – on Kindle (UK | US), Kobo, and as both epub and mobi from the Whippleshield Books website.

Since MPG Biddles went into administration back in June, I’ve had to find a different printer for Whippleshield’s books, and I decided to try Amazon’s CreateSpace for the paperback edition of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. Which means a book of the Apollo Quartet is now available in paperback in the US for the first time. You can buy it here (UK | US).

The limited hardback edition will be delayed a week or two as I’m using a different printer, but it’s available for pre-order here.

I’ve also decided to move forward the fourth book of the Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, and will try to get it out for the first half of 2014. Perhaps even in time for the Eastercon in Glasgow. I’ve always had a clear vision of the story – unlike books 2 and 3 when I started them – so it shouldn’t be that difficult. But we shall see what the new year brings…

In the meantime, there’s always Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above to read, in either ebook or paperback…

ETA: Those of you have already pre-ordered the limited hardback edition, or are thinking of doing so, I’m happy to provide an ebook version – in pdf, epub or mobi – free of charge immediately to ease the wait…


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