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Fables of the Deconstruction, #1: Robots

All too often, people point at the tropes in a piece of fiction and use them to categorise it. This story has spaceships in it, therefore it’s science fiction; this one has elves, so it must be fantasy. One of the tropes often used to “identify” sf is the robot – well, a robot is clearly the product of technology, it’s an artificial person, a mechanical man or woman (or neither). What’s not science-fictional about that?

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The term “robot” comes from Karel Čapek’s RUR (1920), and is derived from the Czech word robota, a local form of serfdom in which serfs had to work only for a specified number of days each year for their liege. RUR was first translated into English in 1923 but, according to the OED’s Science Fiction Citations, the word’s first appearance in English wasn’t until 1925, in a novel by French-born British writer Thomas Charles Bridges, The City of No Escape. However, it was the mid-1930s before “robot” appeared in US science fiction magazines. It was then, of course, co-opted by Isaac Asimov, who wrote some forty short stories and a few novels (it’s hard to be precise as Asimov spent much of his later years trying to stitch his oeuvre into one great stupid shared future history, featuring both psychohistory and robots).

Čapek’s robota were actually biological – what are now commonly referred to as “androids” – so I’m not entirely sure why the term was adopted for purely mechanical beings. Perhaps this was because the mechanical being was an already existing trope: the automaton. (The SF Encyclopedia indicates there was a story in the November 1931 issue of Amazing titled ‘Automaton’.) But automata were real things – marvels of mechanical ingenuity, show-pieces, designed to display their inventor’s cleverness and so win them the patronage of some wealthy potentate; and they were often fake (the Mechanical Turk, for example). Automata were typically good for a single task, and in no way a replacement for a human being.

L6.1Talos

Go even further back, of course, and you have the golem, an automaton powered and controlled entirely by magic. There are also automata in Greek mythology, built by Hephaestus – such as Talos, the giant bronze man who protected the island of Europa (although it seems the clockwork owl in Clash Of The Titans is an invention of the film’s writers). But neither automata nor golems fit in with early science fiction’s burning enthusiasm for science and engineering, for technology. If electronics magazines showed readers how to build their own television sets, their readers were hardly likely to be interested in a mechanical servant which required magical incantations to operate.

robot_maid

And yes, servant – because technology exists, so these magazines would have you believe, to make life easier and more comfortable, and what could improve comfort more than a servant – to do the cooking, cleaning, laundry, fetch the mail, etc. And because these robots are servants, so they must be in the shape of a human being. Unlike real servants, however – and here lies their obvious superiority – they don’t require wages, food or rest, will always perform tasks to the high standard required, and will never be lazy, sullen, unresponsive or rebellious. In other words, robots are perfect slaves, but without offending anyone’s delicate morals. This could, however, be taken too far, as in Jack Williamson’s ‘With Folded Hands…’ (1947), in which robots do such a good job of looking after humanity that the race becomes too weak to survive without them. Or they could prove so ubiquitous that some humans might believe they were robots themselves, as in Margaret St Clair’s ‘Asking’ (1955) – although once the protagonist learns her true nature, she adopts all the arrogance of a slave-owner toward robots.

VW-Puebla-Robot

In the real world, robots are entirely different. They’re more often referred to by a name specific to their purpose, such as a Computer Numerical Controlled Machine or Autonomous Underwater Vehicle or space probe. They’re built for specific tasks, or to perform within specific spheres of operation; and programmed only for that task or for that sphere. They’re used in situations that are too dangerous for human beings – eg, AUVs and space probes – but they’re not capable of everything a human could do. Or they’re used to perform repetitive tasks more quickly, more frequently and more accurately than a human could. In such cases, building robots in the form of a human being is not an advantage.

Science fiction, however, rarely shows robots as CNC machines, AUVs or space probes, but almost always as anthropomorphic machines. (Although Star Wars didn’t – not only is R2-D2 one of the most famous robots in sf cinema, but remember the variety of robot forms in the Jawa Crawler?) The SF Encyclopedia claims robots have proven popular in sf cinema because they can be played by human actors. (These days, of course, they’re done using CGI.) But in written sf? Why this insistence on human form? Why this need to present them as mechanical humans? After all, pretending robots are human is effectively treating them as an underclass, as slaves. If they are human in all but origin – something which applies just as much to artificially-created persons, such as the title character in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, – if they are human to that degree, then to treat them as not-human is no more than scientific bigotry, it’s the sort of immoral rationalisation used by owners of slaves.

Io-robot

There are certainly science fictions featuring robots which question the morality of their existence, but they’re uncommon. Asimov used his robots to solve simplified moral conundrums, based around his Three Laws, which are themselves a moral code reduced to a single dimension – a moral code, that is, which does not question the existence or ownership of robots. Implicit in the use of anthropomorphic robots in almost every science fiction is an acceptance of slavery. And, to make matters worse, such robots are often then dehumanised – Cylons referred to as “toasters” in Battlestar Galactica, for example. Having created these ersatz people and enslaved them, they need to be reduced to the status of machines in order to justify ownership. They’re the people we demonise because we want to excuse our poor treatment of them, because we want to justify our belief that they are inferior to us. Much like the Tories are doing to the poor and unemployed in 21st Century Britain – calling them “skivers” and “scroungers”, as if it is their own fault, it is something they’ve done themselves, which means they’re not as good, not as human, as everyone else.

weapon

And speaking of Cylons, they’re another form of robot common in science fictions: the killer robot. Arguably, these sorts of robots are more common in twenty-first century science fictions (horribly old-fashioned Hugo-nominated stories by Mike Resnick notwithstanding). Robots make an excellent enemy because they are implacable – unlike humans, or even aliens, they will not stop, they cannot surrender, and you can destroy as many of them as possible without worrying about the morality of it all. Likewise, generals can sacrifice countless numbers of robots for the most trivial of gains, and it doesn’t really matter since they’re little more than smart bombs. It’s the machine-nature of war-robots that is stressed, and not their human-like qualities. Owning people, it seems, is fine in sf, but the genre still feels some small qualms at killing them in great numbers.

Of course, real robots are not people. No matter how sophisticated their programming, the code which drives them is still a series of IF and WHILE and FOR loops. Any operation they perform must be part of their programming… or they can’t do it. Even if they do have the right snazzy tool fitted to one of their manipulator arms. Smartphones are pretty damn clever devices, but no one would ever consider them more than a machine. The same is true of supercomputers, Voyager 1, Curiosity, a UAV or those dancing industrial robots in that old Volkswagen advert.

voyager

Perhaps people think there are no dramatic possibilities, other than in military sf, in robots-as-machines. Perhaps that’s why authors and film-makers have their robots look and behave like human beings. But once upon a time, science fiction’s spacecraft all used to resemble pointy rockets, of the sort painted by Chesley Bonestell in those Collier’s Magazine articles by Wernher von Braun. Look at the cover art of any late twentieth century or twenty-first century science fiction novel, however, and you’ll now see a huge variety in sizes, shapes and designs of spaceships.

What I think would be interesting would be to ditch the anthropomorphic robot, the ersatz human, with all its dodgy moral baggage, and instead treat robots as they actually are – like space probes, CNC machines, UAVs: ie, accept that they are products of their programming, they are tools, very sophisticated tools, but ones which can only perform tasks for which they have been designed and programmed. After all, it’s the twenty-first century, we shouldn’t be presenting worlds in which people, artificial or otherwise, are enslaved; we should be creating visions of the future in which technology plays a true role, is not just setting or a piece of hand-wavery used to justify magical maguffins. Far too many science fictions use genre tropes as little more than window-dressing for stories based on historical templates and loaded with historical baggage.


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Fables of the Deconstruction

I’ve recently been reading a new science fiction anthology for review for Interzone and this, coupled with David Hebblethwaite’s remarks on science fiction awards here and Nina Allan’s comments here, has brought into focus some elements of my increasing dissatisfaction with the genre and its resistance to progress. Especially hard science fiction.

David complains about the lack of experimentation in form in sf, but I think there’s also a lack of experimentation in settings and narratives in hard sf. It’s all very well using cutting-edge science, the latest descriptions of exoplanets or the moons of Jupiter… But it always remains outside, outside the reader’s viewpoint on the plot, outside the characters’ psychology, their motivations or perceptions or worldview. While it’s true human beings need a specific environment to survive, and will take their society and transplant it wherever they may find themselves, irrespective of that external environment… their new surroundings will affect them, will change them. Not only must they make accommodations with their location, but their society will likely change as a result. But it rarely seems to in science fiction stories. Writers simply transplant a society little different to the writer’s present to their new environment, and add some technological bells and whistles to justify its presence. Even worse, they often model their society on an older one, such as the Wild West, with all its lawlessness and amorality, and stick it on, say, Io. How progressive is that? It’s not, of course. For all the story’s gimmickry and ideas, it still posits the sort of individualistic and brutal human (male, usually) that hasn’t characterised human society for centuries and is certainly unlikely to do so in the future.

To me, hard science fiction’s inability to reflect its settings in the psychology of its protagonists is a failure of the imagination. A good non-genre example would be Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, comprising The Jewel In The Crown, The Day Of The Scorpion, The Towers Of Silence and A Division Of The Spoils. It covers the years leading up to, and during, the independence of India, but much of the story is set among British expatriates in the country. While the British in India built communities that were models of those back home in the UK, they could not help but evolve into something different through contact with the country’s population. And the people living in those countries changed too – so much so that they often suffered culture-shock on their return to Britain.

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If you look further afield in sf, particularly in the short fiction market, there’s plainly a twenty-first century strain of the genre, one which freely borrows imagery and tropes from fantasy and New Weird. It also displays a greater spread of settings, societies and protagonists. Personally, I think the focus on imagery is mostly surface and usually hides a lack of sfnal progress – that’s progress in terms of how science fiction works, of course; the elements which go together to create science fictions and so differentiate them from other works of literature. The other areas in which sf is progressing – diversity, non-binary gender, etc – I think are excellent and long past due.

All this makes hard sf’s insistence on sticking to old story patterns all the more puzzling. I once defended hard sf from an accusation of being inherently right-wing. I still think it’s not right-wing, though I recognise many of its proponents write from a right-wing perspective. But certainly the subgenre is reactionary and conservative (with a small “c”, note). It doesn’t have to be. The laws of physics may be immutable, but there’s nothing that says human societies always tend to the Competent Man (usually a white Westerner) lording it over others by virtue of his competence, wits and willingness to commit violence. In fact, that’s a pretty offensive characterisation of human society. It’s sadly also widely prevalent in hard sf (and in sf too, in a wider sense).

Nina Allan, in her post, writes that sf no longer seems to comment on political and social issues, nor displays “evocative and original use of language”. She also makes a very useful distinction – between authors who write from within science fiction and authors who “draw their influences from science fiction”. Both her and David’s comments are addressed to the former – as are mine.

I think Nina makes some interesting points, but her comment about language seems to me to forget that science fiction is chiefly a genre of commercial fiction, with much of its DNA provided by pulp fiction. The current economic climate (well, actually, the global economy the neoliberals and neocons have gifted us over the past thirty years) means publishers prize commercial science fiction more than they do literary science fiction. The small presses – and self-published authors, to some extent – have picked up the latter baton, but they are still small fry in a large profit-driven ocean. When writing commercial fiction in any genre, there’s a tendency to stick to tried and tested – and familiar and lucrative – patterns. So it doesn’t really surprise me that prose in sf novels is blanding out, or even that ideas and the presentation of those ideas is tending to more… comfortable forms. I can rue this, I can compare it unfavourably with the situation thirty or forty years ago… but there are too many things that need to change, many of which the publishing industry has no control over, before it can be resolved. Plus, there are other issues which need to be addressed first – notably the lack of diversity, and the preponderance of sexism and racism – and it’s good that the sf conversation keeps on talking about these topics and is making progress at combatting them.

But. Science fiction. The stuff that makes these stories what they are. Nina uses this year’s Clarke Award shortlist as a barometer of the state of the genre. Which is not necessarily a fair argument. It has never been part of the award’s remit, and the jury are, as she acknowledges, all too human – in fact, I suspected one of the judges of championing the Mann but when I asked they said they hadn’t… which only shows the danger of making such assumptions. And speaking of Phillip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise, for all the book’s faults, it can’t be accused of not being experimental in form. True, its structure is hardly original – a story-within-a-story, with “author” interpolations, plus ancillary material presented as appendices – but neither is it the far more common straightforward linear narrative, or indeed the relatively common dual narrative, past versus present, of the eventual winner, Ancillary Justice.

The point I’m trying to make, which unfortunately I keep on ruining by drifting from the point, is that the science-fictionalness, to coin a phrase, of a text, particularly hard sf, has not appreciably progressed for decades. I don’t doubt that the bulk of sf authors in years past never really bothered to interrogate or deconstruct the tropes they used – although some did, Samuel R Delany certainly did – and likewise very little present-day science fiction makes a serious attempt at examining the science-fictional assumptions, the tropes and genre furniture, of which it makes use. Nor do they explore the psychology of their protagonists. These, I think, are not only a missed opportunities, but also make sf, for me, a less interesting genre than it could be in the twenty-first century.

So let’s add these things together – from David, the lack of experimentation in form; from Nina, the lack of contemporary commentary; and from myself, the failure to examine what science fiction actually does and why it does it… Surely there’s something in among that lot worth exploring? Which is why the hard sf anthology I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this post proved so disappointing a read – and also seemed to be so emblematic of much that I feel in sf isn’t working for me. The anthology’s contents certainly met its theme, and they definitely qualified as “hard science fiction”… but there were so many unaddressed assumptions implicit in the stories, and so little examination of what makes a story hard sf rather than simply sf, that I couldn’t understand why the editors had even bothered to put it together.

Science fiction is by definition fecund terrain for stories. Hard sf may add some restrictions, but that should in no way limit how it tells its stories. Why can’t sf writers dig a little deeper into the tropes they use so blithely? Why can’t they take science fiction apart, examine it from all angles, and then put it back together in interesting ways? I’d not only like to see that happen to a much greater extent than it does presently, I’d like to see it as the default mode for writing science fiction - especially hard science fiction.


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Writing, creativity and the internet

So apparently George RR Martin writes his novels using some 1980s software running on a computer that has no internet connection. Because obviously Game of Thrones needed to be mentioned again in the national press and this seemed like a good excuse. But seriously, I don’t see what’s news-worthy or admirable in someone who continues to use thirty-year-old technology when far more sophisticated and useful wordprocessors exist today. It has nothing to do with “creativity”.

As for the internet being a “distraction”. Well, okay, Martin doesn’t exactly have to check his facts or look things up because he’s writing big fat commercial fantasy and where do you research that sort of stuff? (Other than the history the author is ripping off, of course.) But some of us do a lot of research, and the internet is pretty damn useful for that. Sometimes it’s just a first port of call, before moving onto more detailed books on the topic; other times, the internet provides more than enough information for the purpose.

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I’ve often wondered how writers – especially science fiction writers – managed before the invention of the Web. I remember James P Hogan on a panel at the 2005 Worldcon talking about the various contacts he had made during his career – he admitted he was quite shameless at approaching people he thought might prove useful and blagging their contact details – and how he’d telephone them if he needed their expertise. So that was one method. And, of course, there are libraries. But reading some Golden Age science fiction, it’s plain a lot of sf authors didn’t even bother – they just made it up and assumed no one would catch them out. Nowadays, given that readers have access to exactly the same tools as writers, getting caught out is almost a certainty. (And it’s not like authors before the Web weren’t pulled up on their mistakes either – cf Larry Niven having the Earth rotate the wrong way in Ringworld; or indeed the design of the ringworld itself.)

There’s no such thing as too much research, although it’s certainly possible to put too much of the research into the narrative. Unlike Kim Stanley Robinson, I don’t consider the info-dump just another narrative tool in the sf writer’s toolbox - so no, I don’t think it can be used freely without embarrassment. Exposition is a speedbump, or a pothole, in the reader’s journey through a story. However, I do think a writer can make a virtue of the research. Some, in fact. do. But there are those, on the other hand, who do it really badly – like this one:

“Ready, Barn,” the lunar commander replied.

“Okay. TIG 142034700 NOUN 67 5530000370 plus 0002, need A 47 in plus 37364 plus 05607 plus 58642 plus 56955, needle 465 is plus 00370, needle 546 is NA. Ignition 1 Rev late is 1440209, toug weight 10789. Over.”

“Roger. Copy 142034700 55350000370 plus 0002 plus 37364 plus 05607 plus 58642 plus 56955 plus 00370, NA 1440209, tug weight 10789. Over.”

“That’s affirmative, Kathy. P32 CSI PAD follows. NOUN 11 143015060 NOUN 37 14438 all zips NOUN 81 0492 all zips. Need A 473 is 01818, 275 is 02780, AGS DELTA Vs plus 0492 all zips plus 0010. Over.”

No, that’s not from Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It’s actually from Space Station Friendship by Dick Lattimer, published in 1988.

Of course, not all science fictions require research. A style that has become quite common over the last few years – I’ve seen it labelled with the horrible term “sci fi strange” – seems almost completely made-up. Nothing requiring research there (unless you include the frequent references to other science fictions, that is). Still, it’s not for me  - don’t like reading it, have no intention of writing it. I like my research, it’s often what motivates me to write a story. And finding a way to use it in a narrative that works is, for me, part of the fun of writing.

Also, the shit that I look up is usually just plain interesting.

(Incidentally, the picture is, as the front of the machine states, a Research Machines 380Z, the first computer I ever used. The school I attended had two of them. These days, most of my colleagues at work are younger than that computer…)


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On genres, modes, distances and invention

I won’t say where, or on what, I was at the time but this weekend I was thinking about definitions of hard science fiction for a podcast, and my thoughts spiralled out from there to definitions of science fiction itself. And it occurred to me that sf narratives break down into three rough forms: encountering the Other, embracing the Other and rejecting the Other. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to hold true. Think of a random sf novel, like… Dune. That’s embracing the Other – both Paul Atreides becoming a Fremen and learning to  use his new-found powers.

Since its earliest days, science fiction stories have been characterised by distance just as much as they’ve been characterised by science and/or technology. Alongside the Gernsbackian tales of new inventions which would improve the lives of all were stories of alien places and the strange peoples found there. Distance is a signifier for the “exotic” (in both meanings of the word). Before science fiction, they told tales of the South Seas.

The further away a place is, the more Other it is – it’s a simplistic formula, but this is pulp fiction, after all. The difficulty of the journey is less important than the distance travelled. There are very few Shangri-Las hidden in inaccessible mountain valleys, or their galactic equivalents, but lots of worlds on the rim of the empire or the edges of the galaxy. Travel itself is not uncomfortable, but does take time. Real spacecraft are small and cramped, with no amenities. Sf’s starships are interstellar ocean liners with cabins and restaurants and promenades. This is because the journey does not matter, it is only a metaphor. If there are hardships, they are associated with either finding the destination, or at the destination itself. Off the top of my head, the only sf story I can think of in which the journey itself is an obstacle is Ursula K Le Guin’s ‘The Shobies’ Story’ (in Gwyneth Jones’ Buonarotti stories, and her novel Spirit, there’s a similar effect with interstellar travel, but it does not make the journey an obstacle). No doubt there are other stories, though I maintain such stories are rare within the genre.

But then, there’s not much that’s Other about the act of travelling from A to B. Even in the Le Guin story mentioned above, the means of making the journey affects the travellers’ perceptions of their destination, making the act of encountering, or even embracing, the Other so much harder and more prone to misunderstanding.

Space opera, of course, is traditionally predicated on rejecting the Other, as is military sf. The drama in both subgenres typically derives from conflict, either from within the world or from without. And the further the enemy is from known space, the more Other they generally are. Even when they’re humans, they’re typically barbarians from the edge of the empire – though that may simply be science fiction ripping off the history of the Roman empire… which it has done far too many times.

The same argument might well apply to fantasy, even though it is a different genre. I suspect there are more narratives of rejecting the Other in epic commercial fantasy than of the other two forms. Given its generally consolatory nature, this is no surprise. Other modes of fantasy may well be more evenly distributed – I’m not as well read in fantasy as I am science fiction. It might well be that the same argument does not apply to fantasy, given that it is an entirely different genre to sf.

Science fiction is not, and has never been, a branch of the fantastic. You can’t categorise fiction by the degrees of invention it exhibits. All fiction by definition contains invention, whether it’s literary fiction with made-up characters , fantasy with made-up worlds, or science fiction with made-up science and/or technology. Nor can you categorise by trope… because first you would have to define each and every trope. And lay out the conditions under which each trope is fantasy and not science fiction, or vice versa. If a fantasy novel has a dragon in it, then it does not follow that all novels containing dragons are fantasy. And so on. Science fiction is a fundamentally different genre to fantasy, and it’s an historical accident that the two are typically marketed alongside each other.

 


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What I learned self-publishing my book

There were two chief reasons why I self-published the first book of the Apollo Quartet, Adrift on the Sea of Rains: timing and control. I wanted to launch it on the back of Rocket Science at the Eastercon this year, and only by doing it myself would I make that deadline. I also took some chances with the book that most self-respecting editors would have baulked at: not using speech marks for dialogue, writing the flashback sequences in long discursive passages in italics, and using a list of abbreviations and an extensive glossary. I could have just formatted the book for Kindle, and loaded it up onto Amazon. Which is what a lot of self-published authors do. But – if only for my own self-respect – I decided that if I was going to self-publish I was going to do it properly: paperbacks, hardbacks, ISBNs, a proper small press…

And that’s what I did.

To be honest, the hardest part was writing the book. Typesetting it and getting it printed were not difficult. Likewise buying ISBNs. Or setting up the online shop. The launch at Eastercon went well, and I sold a good number of copies – and not just to people who knew me, or who had read other fiction I’d written (sadly, the latter number is lower than the former). And yes, I did have to do a bit of a “hard sell” at times.

But once the Eastercon was over, and I was back home, the really hard part began. They say the average self-published book sells less than a hundred copies, and those are mostly to family and friends. I’d gone past that number by selling my book at Eastercon and alt.fiction. But if I wanted sales to continue to grow, I needed to make them online. My next priority might well be writing book two of the Apollo Quartet – the working title is currently The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself – but I also needed to work on promoting Adrift on the Sea of Rains.

And having now spent two months trying to do that, I’ve learnt a few home truths:

1. breaking out of your community is hard
There are about a dozen reviews of Adrift on the Sea of Rains online. Quite a few were done by friends of mine. I value their opinions, so the fact they thought the book good makes me happy. Some of the reviews were done by people unknown to me. But if I want to sell more copies of Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I need more of the latter than the former. I need people who have never heard of me to buy copies of the book. Reaching them is hard – they have no reason to listen to me. I’m an unknown quantity. I don’t even have the benefit of a known imprint on the spine of my book -ie, a logo which indicates a history of publishing science fiction a buyer knows they like.

2. there is no secret place online which will lead to sales
I have started threads promoting Adrift on the Sea of Rains on a handful of forums. I’ve watched the number of views of those threads climb up into the hundreds, but only a few people have actually posted comments. Even less have actually followed the links and purchased a copy. Again, it comes down to being an unknown. I’ve been a member of some forums for several years; people there know me. On others, I’m pretty much a drive-by spammer. People in the former situation are more forgiving of my promotional posts; but in neither case has it proven especially effective at generating sales.

3. quality is immaterial
I made sure Adrift on the Sea of Rains was a quality product – a well-made paperback and hardback, with striking cover art, and properly-edited text. None of that is obvious online. The same is true for the quality of the writing. Amazon provides a preview for the Kindle edition, but is that really enough to get an idea of how good the book is? You read the previews for some self-published authors, and the prose is semi-literate. Yet they seem to sell hundreds of copies a day. I suspect it’s the number of books such writers have available which is the chief factor in driving sales.

4. promoting your book will often lead to you defending your choice to self-publish
The fact that I chose to self-publish Adrift on the Sea of Rains will damn it in many people’s eyes. It’s true the vast majority of self-published titles are complete rubbish – even the successful ones. People will choose to believe I self-published because my story wasn’t good enough for a commercial publisher. (For some reason, small presses never seem to factor into this argument.) I could have pretended Whippleshield Books was not my press, and created some separate online identity to promote it. But that’s a lot of trouble to go to for a lie that would be quickly seen through. I’m operating an open submissions policy for Whippleshield Books, so it’s not a true self-publishing venture, it’s not solely for my books. But that’s a distinction many critics of self-published books consider irrelevant.

5. the internet allows you see how badly you’re failing in real-time
If you publish for Kindle, the Kindle Direct Publishing website displays how many copies you’ve sold on a monthly basis. Other sites, like goodreads.com or librarything.com, tell you how many people on those sites own copies of your book, or have seen fit to review it or comment on it. Very few casual readers will bother to write a short review of a book they’ve read. And when the number of readers is still in double-figures… Unsurprisingly, it can be very disheartening.

I came up with the idea for the Apollo Quartet partly because I’m a big fan of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and partly because I had a couple of ideas for stories which I felt could be thematically linked (a third has changed greatly to fit into the quartet, and another was entirely replaced). I’m hoping that the appearance of each book will increase sales of the preceding volumes. And if, as some of the reviews have stated, Adrift on the Sea of Rains is good enough to appear on an award shortlist or two (providing people remember to nominate it, of course), then that too can only help.

None of this, however, alters the fact that Adrift on the Sea of Rains is a self-published book, a fact which will be seen to define it far more than its story or the quality of its prose. And while I can bemoan that, I can understand why it happens. Because, bar very rare exceptions, self-published books are typically pretty damn poor. Evangelists for so-called “indie” publishing may get all offended when this is pointed out – no, they’re not the future; yes, ignoring self-published books is entirely reasonable – but I’m not interested in promoting the means I used to get Adrift on the Sea of Rains out into the market, I’m interested in promoting my book. I may have self-published it, but that doesn’t mean I automatically support every self-published author on the planet. Nor am I convinced it is the best way to publish a book, or the only way which is economically sustainable in the mid-term. I support those books and authors I like and admire, irrespective of how their books were published.

And I would hope others apply the same to me and Adrift on the Sea of Rains.


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The serendipity of writing

This weekend, I’ve been working on the second book of the Apollo Quartet, which will now be titled The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. It’s a line from the final verse of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Hymn of Apollo’ (1824):

VI.
I am the eye with which the Universe
Beholds itself and knows itself divine;
All harmony of instrument or verse,
All prophecy, all medicine is mine,
All light of art or nature;—to my song
Victory and praise in its own right belong.

Not only does the poem title link to the quartet title, but the quote I’ve used also sort of explains the plot.

Apollo Quartet Book 2 is partly about a colony on an exoplanet… and in my researches, I discovered that Apollo is the god of colonisation. Which is a pleasing link.

But, even better – the story requires a form of faster-than-light travel, and for reasons I no longer remember, I decided that the story’s FTL spacecraft were actually repurposed asteroids. This was because they needed an “anchoring mass” of – and I plucked this figure completely out of thin air – five gigatonnes. So I went googling for real asteroids with masses in the region of 5 x 1012 kg. And the first one I found was… 1862 Apollo.

I love it when shit like that happens.


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How science fiction works

Let’s be reductive and say science fiction refers only to those subgenres which occupy what is generally considered the genre’s heartland – hard sf, space opera, soft sf, first landing, first contact, military sf, etc. Let’s call all the rest “speculative fiction”, a term I dislike, but since they seem not to bother with the science aspect it is perhaps more appropriate.

Let’s say there are two types of science fiction as defined above. There is the type of science fiction that appeals to people who would happily read supplements for a role-playing game. And there is the type for people who would prefer to read a physics text, or a book about the engineering involved in building the Saturn V. Both types, at heart, operate by adjusting a reader’s sense of scale and turning that which cannot be conceived into something which can. Or vice versa. For example…

Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Look at the photograph above. That’s the surface of Titan, a moon of Saturn. The photo was taken by Cassini-Huygens, a space probe which launched in 1997, and the Huygens part of which descended to Titan’s surface in 2005. Saturn orbits between 1.3 billion and 1.5 billion kilometres from the Sun. Earth orbits between 147 million and 152 million kilometres from the Sun. If you could travel to Titan in a straight line (which you can’t), it’d be a journey of around 1.2 billion kilometres… That’s equivalent to flying from London to New York and back over 108,000  times, or 6.5 million circuits of the M25 (at an average speed of 120 kph, that would take you about 1,150 years).

Numbers. They define our world – what we can directly see and experience, and what we can’t see or experience. As those numbers increase in size, so our sense of place in our world is increasingly diminished. Using science we can investigate, and gain an intellectual understanding of, this feeling of diminution. Science fiction, however, postulates situations in which we can experience it directly. It also gifts us with agency in this new world being explored. It is a visceral, albeit vicarious, manifestation of what science can show us.

Science fiction is scale, its uses and abuses. It can take something huge and beyond direct human experience, and by giving it the purpose of something within the reader’s real-world frame of reference, render it unfamiliar:

Planets. Seven of them. Armed and powered as only a planet can be armed and powered; with fixed-mount weapons impossible of mounting upon a lesser mobile base, with fixed-mount intakes and generators which only planetary resources could excite or feed. (p 40, Second Stage Lensman, EE ‘Doc’ Smith (1953))

It can directly manipulate the human frame of reference, and make of it something which would otherwise be strange and impossible to fathom:

It was not clear what had happened to the man for the next million years or so. One line of argument held that he had expanded himself to encompass a massive swathe of galactic space – swallowing hundreds of thousands of systems, across thousands of lights. (p 239, House of Suns, Alastair Reynolds (2008))

Or, it can simply map parts of the real world we cannot experience, and allow us to compare the scale of our frame of reference with that being described:

It took an effort to remember that the distance to the horizon was more than ten times that on Earth. That the storm was two thousand kilometres across. That the sky was hydrogen and helium a thousand kilometres deep, with cloud layers of ammonium ice above and decks of ammonium hydrosulphide and ammonium-rich water-ice and water-droplet clouds below, endlessly blowing around this vast world. (p 215, The Quiet War, Paul McAuley (2008))

There are a number of rhetorical tools and literary devices science fiction uses to manipulate scale and the reader’s perception of it. Analogy is a particularly common one – by directly referencing something known, and of a size encompassable by the reader’s mind, the sf text can make manageable the scale of something normally beyond comprehension. This is not always a good thing, as it can have a trivialising effect.

There is a great deal of implication in the findings of science. The photograph earlier in this post does not in and of itself present a particularly impressive-looking picture. It’s a stretch of orange ground littered with pebbles. But it’s on Titan. Which means… the launch of the space probe, the journey there, the distance the probe travelled, the mechanisms which comprise the probe and the science behind them, the descent into Titan’s atmosphere, Titan’s surface conditions… the real and true fact that it is an alien world.

Science fiction not only gives us the orange photograph, but it also shows us how it was achieved. It makes explicit the wonder. And since wonder is central to science fiction, then to define wonder is to define science fiction:

…where:
W = wonder
lg = greatest distance mentioned in the text
tg = greatest length of time mentioned in the text
Nn = number of ideas/nova in the text
Nf = number of ideas/nova reader has encountered previously
ir = closeness of the viewpoint character to the reader as a function of background, worldview, attitudes, etc – ie, an indicator of their ability to identify with the character
jn = number of situations of jeopardy for point-of-view character(s)
ja = amplitude of situations of jeopardy for point-of-view character(s), where 1 is fatal
Cn = size of cast in the text
Br = bandwidth of the reader (calculated from educational level, number of books read, age)
Dr = willingness of the reader to suspend disbelief


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Fragment

So a year or two ago I had this idea for a postmodern planetary romance, a Leigh Brackett-style story as much about story as it was about the events in its strange and implausible world. But like most such projects – and I have an embarrassingly large number of them – it never got beyond some vague ideas and a couple of hundred words. I had a great title, ‘Gods of Saturn’, and what I thought was a pretty cool opening, but then other new shiny ideas captured my attention and my postmodern planetary romance got filed away in a forgotten folder. Until now. Maybe one day I’ll do something with it, actually finish it off perhaps, but for now it qualifies as one of those “stories that never were”, of which I have far more than I care to enumerate. But rather than let it go totally to waste and, in part, to perhaps prompt me into actually working on it and maybe finishing it, here’s the opening of ‘Gods of Saturn’ for you to enjoy…

Of all the winds which blow across the sand seas, an easterly is the most disagreeable. From that quarter, the town of Kumpara boasts no defence against the scouring grains of sand. The western wall of Pu Chou rises behind Kumpara’s tumbled blocks, and curves enfolding arms to north and south. But to the east: nothing.

There was, however, much which could be said about the couple who strolled along Kumpara’s long stone jetty one day in the Age of Helium, as small wisps of easterly wind whipped up dancing devils of sand.

Kumpara had seen better years, but had yet to reach the nadir of its decline; or its subsequent rise to quiet gentility. See it now, and perhaps you would find it hard to picture the narrow streets thick with blinding red dust, the sand whipped into fountains fifty feet high, and every house shuttered and doors firmly bolted. Those who lived there knew better than to risk the wind’s wrath.

A local spy – and there was one – who watched the young couple will have deduced they were strangers to Kumpara. The wind was not yet dangerous, but only the foolhardy or ignorant remained out once it began to blow. So too did their garments advertise their origins. The young lady was dressed in a fashion yet to be seen in the town. The eye in the telescope might have glimpsed the split skirt which was common at that time in the capital city, Xu; the high-collar, with its arcane symbols of rank and allegiance; the long gloved sleeves. Her companion was equally well-dressed.

As they turned to stroll back along the jetty, some feeling or whim caused the young woman to look back. She halted, head turned and, as if conjured into being by her gaze, features formed on the face of Saturn. The lemon and orange and tan stripes swirled like the ingredients of some decadent cocktail. It was a vast face, a face which filled the planetary canvas on which it appeared, and it caused the spy to drop his telescope and scramble from his vantage point.

As a result, he did not see the reactions of the Xuan lady and her companion. He did not see her turn her back on the face in disdain.

If such an occurrence sounds remarkable but the couple’s reaction does not, it is because at that time the gods of Saturn would often manifest on the face of the gas giant. From their celestial vantage point, they would gaze on each of the moons and on each of its civilisations. Their impact depended very much on the moon’s distance from Saturn. Here on Janus, where Saturn occupies a significant portion of the horizon, the gods held sway more than on, say, distant Iapetus.

When a god appears, all see him or her. When a god speaks, only those to whom they direct their instructions hear.

Lady Eresu turned to Captain Quradu and took his arm. She gently pulled him about. “Ignore him, Quradu,” she said softly. “He cannot harm us.”

The captain dropped his hand from the butt of his tantalum-pistol. That looming face – its presence alone in the sky suggested great power. Quradu looked up at Lady Eresu – as befitted her rank, she was a head taller than he – and noted her lack of concern.


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Words Beyond the Veil

I don’t normally post my fiction on this blog, published or otherwise, but this one is a bit of a one-off. It’s the first death metal hard sf story ever to see print – or at least, I think it is. I’m pretty sure it’s the first to ever quote the lyrics from an album by a real death metal band – the excellent Mithras. I originally wrote it to submit to Mutation Press’s Music for Another World anthology. I’d wanted to write something incorporating my favourite genre of music for a while, and the anthology gave me the perfect opportunity. But death metal and sf doesn’t mix very well – death metal and horror, yes; in fact, that’s almost a cliché. But not sf; and especially not hard sf. Then the idea of metaphors for communication occurred to me… and I knew exactly the album whose lyrics would work in that regard. I wrote the story, emailed it to the band, and they very kindly gave me permission to use their lyrics.

Unfortunately, after all that my story didn’t make the cut for Music for Another World. So I sold it to Jupiter instead, and it was published in Jupiter XXXIII: Euanthe, July 2011.

WORDS BEYOND THE VEIL
Ian Sales

There comes a point in many death metal songs when the down-tuned guitars begin to play a simple mid-tempo riff—it’s almost a chugging noise—and the music turns… visceral. Standing there, shoulder to shoulder in a crowd, the volume near-deafening, the music seems to beat a sense of unity into those present. A single organism, at one with the music—those with their gazes fixed on the stage; those too in the maelstrom of moshers, spinning and colliding and roaring together.

Then the riff abruptly shifts into something far more complex. The time-signature alters. The drummer hammers out blastbeats at inhuman speed, and the singer attacks his lyrics in a guttural growl.

Something like that came over me as I put my gloved hands to the alien artefact’s side.

I can’t explain it. I knew I floated a hundred metres from the Orion crew module, and yet I could feel myself back at one of the many gigs I’d attended during my twenties. The memory of that concert was over-powering.

I pulled my hands away. A click sounded in my earphones, followed by a voice:

“Hey, Mike? You okay?”

It took me a moment to respond. “Fine, Val; I’m fine.” I shook my head, as if to dislodge the ghostly riff I could still hear. “Why?”

“You kind of zoned out there for a while,” she said.

“I did?” I blipped my Manned Manoeuvring Unit through ninety degrees to look at Stone, but the sun reflecting off her visor made it impossible to see her face. “For how long?”

“Nearly a minute.”

According to my Helmet-Mounted Display, everything was in the green. It wasn’t a fault in my spacesuit then, some sort of hallucination brought on by an interruption in the oxygen supply. I focused a moment on the hum of the pumps in my backpack—which both reassured me and reminded me of the spacesuit’s comforting protective embrace. As I calmed, I watched the graph of my heartbeat on the HMD slowly subside. And that, in a positive feedback loop, relaxed me further.

So I reached out again, and laid both gloves against the side of the artefact.

Once more, I felt that sense of one-ness, an alignment with, and brought on by, the pummelling assault of the musicians. After no more than a handful of bars, the tempo changed, the singer growled out his words, and the complexity of the guitar parts hinted at sense, yet still seemed to elude it…

I lifted my hands.

I knew that song. I recognised the band, and I still listened to them. In fact, I had all of their albums on my phone in the crew module. And yes, I’d seen them perform live a number of times.

I can’t explain why death metal appealed to me, or why I still listened to it. I’d imagined that as I grew older my taste in music would mellow with the years. Instead, the reverse happened. After a childhood listening to radio-friendly rock, at university I’d discovered extreme metal—black, death, doom… Death had drawn me in, and I’d been introduced to its various sub-genres: technical death, brutal death, melodic death, progressive death, death/doom…

But what did my taste in music have to do with an alien artefact found in the Kordylewski Clouds at the Earth-Moon L5 point?

###

When the artefact was first detected, everyone thought it was an alien derelict. Telescopes showed a cylinder some five hundred metres long and thirty metres in diameter, with a rough unfinished appearance. It had no visible means of propulsion, no visible anything. Spectrographic analysis hinted at exotic matter in its construction. Which was why I’d been included in the team sent to investigate it. My field was exotic physics. I was also a qualified astronaut, having spent two tours on the International Space Station performing experiments with inconclusive results.

I remember peering out one of the Orion CM’s horizon windows as we closed on the L5 point after a three-day trip from Earth, and feeling a crushing sense of disappointment. The mysterious object in the Kordylewski Clouds wasn’t an alien spacecraft. The cylinder was hollow; it was a piece of space junk. This mission wasn’t going to be humanity’s first contact with an alien species. True, the artefact’s presence implied the existence of another civilisation somewhere out there; but it seemed we would not be meeting its builders.

And who knew how old this piece of junk was? It might have been drifting through space for billions of years before being captured by the Earth-Moon L5 point.

Neubeck—Colonel Ed Neubeck, USAF; mission commander—was as disappointed as the rest of us. More so, perhaps. I could at least investigate the properties of the material from which the “space junk” was constructed. But Neubeck thought of himself as a throwback to the heady days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. He’d been a test pilot at Edwards AFB before joining NASA. As far as he was concerned, he was the living embodiment of the “Right Stuff”, and he wanted his page in the history books. It made him insufferably arrogant. Since launch, he’d been dictatorial, brooking no disagreement to his orders, and sublimely uninterested in discussion.

Admittedly, he was good at his job—more than that, he was a gifted pilot. If there was a crisis and Neubeck was in charge, you actually stood a better chance of coming out of it alive. But I didn’t like him, and the feeling was mutual.

Val Stone, the other pilot, scared me a little. She brought an unnatural, and frightening, focus to whatever she did. Often, she treated people like pieces of equipment. She also had an annoying habit of always being right—although she took her time figuring things out.

The final member of the crew, and the reason why for me the four of us didn’t qualify as “amiable strangers”, was Xiang Yu, a computer science and communications specialist from San Francisco. He and I had shared a tour on the ISS, so we knew each other. It was a “space friendship”—we didn’t mix on the ground, but in LEO we’d hung round together. Figuratively and literally.

The four of us were the first humans to leave Low Earth Orbit since Apollo 17 in 1972.

###

Stone and I returned to the CM, where Yu and Neubeck waited. We parked our MMUs in an open bay of the Service Module, and worked our way hand over hand along the cable, past the wing-like solar arrays, to the inflatable airlock. I entered the tube first, landing feet first on the inner hatch, and then pushing shut the inflated plug which served as the outer hatch. I waited patiently for the airlock to fill, while the song I’d heard ran round and round inside my head. I even found myself nodding in time to the beat—although not too much, or I’d bash my chin on the lip of my helmet.

The inner hatch swung out…

As soon as I saw Neubeck’s face, I knew Stone had spoken to him on another channel. He was furious.

I unlocked and pushed up my visor.

“You’re a goddamned flake, Ross,” Neubeck snapped.

He might be commander of the mission, but that didn’t give him the right to speak to me like that. I was a civilian, even if he wasn’t.

“Oh shut up,” I replied.

Yu quietly helped me get out of my spacesuit, undogging the rear hatch so I could squirm out.

“I didn’t know it was going to do that,” I continued as I pulled my legs from the spacesuit’s hard upper torso. “We know the bloody thing’s alien, so how can we know what it would do?”

Neubeck opened his mouth, then snapped it shut. He glowered at me. “Do what?”

I took my spacesuit from Yu, pushed it across the crew module’s interior to the storage lockers below the mission specialists’ seats. Behind me, I heard the hatch open and shut to let in Stone. Neubeck followed me to the lockers.

“What the hell are you saying, Ross?” he demanded. He had a habit of looming over people, and he did it much more effectively in zero gravity. He made sure everyone was in his shadow.

“I felt something,” I told him, as I carefully pushed my spacesuit into its coffin-like storage. “When I touched the artefact. That’s what made me trance out for a moment.”

I moved across to my personal locker, yanked open the door and began rooting around inside it.

“What are you doing?” Neubeck asked.

“Looking for my phone.” I’d put it away before getting ready for the EVA.

“The hell you are. I want to know what’s going on.”

I looked back over my shoulder at him. “I heard music, all right? And I recognised it. I need to figure out what it was.”

Yu and Val drifted across to the storage lockers. It was a bit cramped with all four of us.

“What’s this?” asked Yu. “You heard music?”

So I explained that when I’d touched the alien artefact I’d been overwhelmed with a memory of a concert I’d attended years before. I’d recognised the music and wanted to identify it. I brandished my phone, which I’d just found.

###

“Tell me more,” Yu insisted.

I described the sense of unity I’d felt, how death metal always affected me in that way and how the artefact had seemed to mimic the same sensation.

“Wow,” said Yu. “That’s so weird.”

Neubeck swore. “His mix was wrong. He hallucinated. If that’s really an alien out there, it’s not going to use some goddamn devil-worshipping rock music to communicate!”

“Death metal’s not about worshipping Satan,” I said, affronted. “That’s black metal. Well, some black metal bands.”

“You’re a grown man, Ross, and you listen to that crap?”

Grown men, I thought mulishly, didn’t follow their childhood dreams and become astronauts. The whole space industry was a glorified—and hideously expensive—adventure. And I loved every minute of it.

I knew full well that Neubeck did too.

“Look,” I said, “I think I know what the song is. Maybe that’s not a piece of space junk out there, maybe it is the alien. And it’s using music to communicate. But I want to check the lyrics, to see if the song I heard was a deliberate choice.”

Yu pulled his phone from a pocket of his constant wear garment. All our phones could access the Deep Space Network and, through that, the Web. “I’ll see if I can find the words on-line,” he said.

Neubeck and Val looked at each other. The only thing missing from their expressions was the finger twirling at their temples. Still, they were pilots, and we pencil-necks had a reputation to uphold.

I plugged my comms carrier’s cable into my phone, and scrolled through my album collection. “This is it,” I told Yu, holding up the player so he could see the artwork. I identified it for him: “Worlds Beyond the Veil by Mithras. They’re a British band.”

“I prefer stoner myself,” he said, shaking his head.

It didn’t take me long to find the stretch of music that had been running through my head since I’d touched the alien artefact. The song was called ‘Psyrens’. I tracked back and forth through it. Yu held up his phone and I read through the lyrics displayed on its screen. I pointed.

“There,” I said. “Those lines.”

On stellar waves I’ve travelled
And will so again

“What does that mean?” Yu asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t know. The artefact is an explorer, perhaps?”

###

“You’re making this shit up,” Neubeck accused.

He gave me a look of disgust, and then pushed himself to the pilots’ seats and the instrument panel. He went straight on the radio to Mission Control but he spoke really quietly and I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I could guess, however.

Aliens using death metal to communicate… It sounded completely insane. And, I suppose, Neubeck could well be right: I might have been making it up. How did I know it wasn’t confabulation on my part?

But the feeling of experiencing that music live had been overwhelming, more so even than I remembered from the Mithras gigs I’d attended all those years ago.

“So what do we do?” Yu asked quietly.

I shrugged—and had to put out a hand to prevent myself from drifting. “Go back out and listen a bit more,” I replied. “I don’t see what else we can do. It’s the only way we have of finding out what the artefact really is.”

“Neubeck will nix that in a heartbeat.”

“I don’t care.” And I didn’t. I wanted to hear that alien music again. I wanted to put my hand to the side of the artefact. I’d come here to learn what the artefact was, and I couldn’t do that cowering inside the crew module.

“I agree,” said Stone slowly. “We can’t know what Mike felt is real unless we repeat it.”

“You could try touching it too,” suggested Yu.

Stone shook her head. “No. Only Mike. We don’t know what’s happening here, and we shouldn’t risk more than one of us.”

“But I’m expendable, right?” I said, a little annoyed; but also perversely happy because it meant I’d be first. I’d be in the history books, not Neubeck.

“But how do we know if it’s real if no one else confirms it?” pointed out Yu.

Or perhaps I’d be in some psychiatric journal as a case-study.

###

Neubeck reluctantly agreed to a second EVA. So Stone and I suited up, exited one by one through the inflatable airlock, and jetted on our MMUs across the hundred metres of open space separating the CM from the alien artefact.

This time, I put both gloved hands to the side of the artefact. My head was immediately filled with blastbeats. I could hear the spacey sounds of a synthesiser, evoking galactic vistas, furious guitar-work suggesting the secret workings of the universe… I felt as though I was seeing, and had seen, other suns and worlds. Great towering columns of nebulae, tens of light-years high. The fractal swirls of galaxies. The leaping prominences of a star’s corona.

Accompanying those visions, I heard music of an intensity I’d never experienced before; and a sense of unity which made me an integral part of the sights and sounds to which I was being subjected.

I pulled my hands from the artefact’s side, and swore loudly.

Once I’d calmed down, I asked Stone how long I’d been out.

“About two minutes,” she said.

“What song did you hear?” asked Yu. “Could you identify it?”

I thought a moment. “‘Beyond the Eyes of Man’,” I replied. “Same band, same album.”

Moments later, the familiar sounds of the song came over my radio. It sounded flat and distant, despite the high fidelity of the comms channel, compared to what I’d just witnessed. I listened carefully until I recognised the part the alien artefact had played me.

Yu stopped the music and read out the lyrics:

“You hear my song
It enchants your souls
You are in my power
I shall take you away.”

“Wow,” he said. “That’s pretty explicit.”

“In what way?”

“It’s like a galactic siren or something,” he explained. “It entices you and then sucks you in.”

“Assuming this isn’t all in Ross’s head,” said Neubeck.

“No,” I insisted. “It’s too intense, too visceral. I suppose dreams can sometimes feel real, but this is different. There’s this amazing sense of unity, like you’re at one with the band, with the audience, with everyone who’s listening to the music. You can feel it—like the way at a gig you can feel the kicks on the bass-drum as blows propagated through the air.”

“You took too many damn drugs, Ross, when you went to see these bands,” sneered Neubeck.

“Drugs weren’t part of the scene,” I snapped. Booze had been, though. But I wasn’t drunk now.

“Describe it again,” Yu asked. “I just had an idea.”

So, as I floated there in deep space, my hands no more than a metre from the grey flank of the alien artefact, lulled by the quiet comforting hum of my backpack as it pumped air and water about my spacesuit, as I hung in the void, I tried to get across to Yu and the others what death metal meant to me, how it affected me. That sense of belonging, which was purely an artefact of the music as it was played. There was no life-style attached. If fans of the music comprised a tribe or clan, it was a loose and individualistic one and its only common factor was a love of the music. But at a gig, standing before a stage while a band played, that tribe became welded into a single organism. And with music that loud, with vocals so guttural the words were often lost, a new kind of meaning was carried in the guitar parts, in the interplay of the instruments, in the sudden changes in tempo…

I let my explanation stumble to a halt, slightly embarrassed.

“Yeah, I thought so,” Yu said. “It’s sort of like networking. That sense of oneness, that could be a handshake. You know, like it sends the music as a challenge, you accept it and respond to it, and that establishes the link. And then the tune, riff, whatever, that would be the actual content of the message packets. Because they’re alien, you can’t interpret them. It’s like your brain has found a metaphor for a communication from the alien.”

“So he’s not making it up?” asked Stone.

“The music, yeah, I think so. The artefact is communicating with him, but this is how he hears it.”

“Hey, folks,” I said. “I’m still here, you know.”

I wasn’t sure I believed Yu’s explanation. Admittedly, when you study exotic matter and the like, you’re dealing pretty much with metaphors and acts of imagination. It’s not exactly a “hands on” science. But I couldn’t decide how I felt about what Yu said, if only because it meant my brain was wired in such a way that it used death metal as a metaphor for communication.

Which was sort of scary.

###

Another laying on of hands resulted in a snippet from Worlds Beyond the Veil’s title track:

Open your eye
Awaken your senses
This I show you—now you shall see
And it will change your world forever

There was definitely a message there. Yu had been through the album’s entire libretto, and had expressed his worry at precisely what message the artefact was transmitting.

“This is pretty martial stuff, Mike,” he said, referring to the album’s concept. “It’s like a rebellion and they call on some higher being, and he sucks them all in.”

“But the bits I’m hearing seem to be about exploring,” I pointed out.

“Or joining the artefact,” added Stone.

“Joining? How?” demanded Neubeck. “The goddamn thing’s hollow. There’s nobody in there you can join.”

He had a point. If the artefact was recruiting, it couldn’t be looking for physical recruits. Not unless what we saw here at the Moon-Earth L5 point was only part of an alien spaceship—a whole spaceship. Perhaps the rest of it existed in other dimensions?

There was only one way to find out.

This time it was:

We shall embrace the sanctity
of these distant planes

The song was ‘Voices in the Void’, and the lyrics did sort of answer my question.

But if the alien ship wanted us to join its crew, how did we do so?

Where was the entrance?

###

Back aboard the crew module, I stared out of the horizon window at the artefact while in my head reverberated pounding drums, lightning-fast arpeggios, hammers and slides and pulls, the insistent growls of an invitation to travel the galaxies… I had my phone plugged into my comms-carrier and was playing the album, but it wasn’t the same. It was like looking at a photograph of a loved one who had recently died.

I have to go out again,” I said.

I could feel it calling to me. It wanted me to join it. I only had to scroll through the lyrics of Worlds Beyond the Veils to see the message:

Come to me
Children of Mother Earth

There it was, in ‘They Came and You were Silent’. I had no intention of remaining silent.

“I need to go out again,” I said.

“Not going to happen, Ross,” said Neubeck.

I looked back over my shoulder at him. He hovered at the far end of the instrument panel. Yu and Stone were across by the storage lockers. I was reminded of a photograph I’d seen years ago, taken inside the Apollo command module during one of the flights to the Moon. I forget which astronaut it had been. He had seemed a part of the machine, an integral component of the spacecraft, carefully fitted in amongst the switches and readouts and equipment. Without him, the spacecraft could not have operated; without the spacecraft, he had no function.

That was Neubeck, that was what he looked like as I gazed across the pilots’ seats towards him.

And then I knew what I had to do.

I had the hatch into the inflatable airlock pushed open before Neubeck noticed what I was doing it. I darted through and slammed it shut behind me. The outer hatch was a problem. It was an inflated plug, and air pressure within the airlock kept it sealed. It was made of Kevlar and Nomex, and to tough to pierce with a knife. Besides, I had no knife on me.

Fortunately, the atmosphere was not at sea-level pressure but at 8.5 psi. I managed to force one arm down the side of the outer hatch. It was enough to crack the seal. Air hissed out. Soon, I was gasping for breath, and the pressure was low enough for me to haul the outer hatch open.

I wasn’t wearing my spacesuit. I had about three minutes before I died. But I had to reach the alien artefact. I exhaled, emptying my lungs and directing my breath at the CM. I could feel the intense heat of the sun on my face. Rolling onto my front, I put out my hands. The moisture in my mouth, on my eyes, in my nostrils, was boiling away. My fingers and hands had swollen to twice their normal size, were turning black with burst blood vessels. I would not survive this.

I didn’t care.

My hands hit the side of the artefact.

###

The band has been playing for about ten minutes. Behind them, the backstage area is dominated by a giant holographic screen. On it, I can see, with supernatural three-dimensional clarity, a blue marble alone in the blackness of space. I know it to be my home, the home I am leaving. As I watch, that small blue planet recedes from view and disappears. Then the sun, an intense white dot, swings across the screen. It grows larger, ever larger, turning yellow, orange, red. I can see its corona, the prominences climbing up and falling, great arches of seething matter at colossal temperatures.

The alien spacecraft is leaving the Earth-Moon L5 point and falling towards the Sun for a slingshot manoeuvre. I will see the wonders of the universe on that screen, I will visit other star systems and they will be displayed up there behind the band.

The audience and I are one, brought together by the music. I feel unity and peace and expectation. The music—those inhumanly fast blastbeats, the complex guitar, the intricate bass-line, the growls of the vocalist, the abrupt changes of tempo—make me a part of something greater, an intellect vast and conjoined. A synergistic organism.

An organism of many disparate parts. I look to my left and right, and see creatures that are so strange I have no words to describe them. Aliens. Hundreds of them, hundreds of different races. And all at one with, and in, the music. A congregation of souls brought together by the band on stage, witness to the wondrous vistas displayed on the giant screen.

###

I can’t explain why death metal appeals to me, but I can explain how I knew that death was the only way to gain entry to the alien ship. It’s there in the lyrics of ‘Transcendence’, the penultimate track on the album:

The call has come to return
To leave this mortal coil
Return to the eternal
Become as one again
To remove back to spirit
I cast off these chains so binding

Ends

(All lyrics taken from the album Worlds Beyond the Veil by Mithras, and used with the kind permission of the band)

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