It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


The Future of Science Fiction?

My last post seems to have caused a bit of a fuss, with responses, agreements and commentary appearing in a surprisingly huge number of different places. At last count, it was about 22 separate blogs and sites. It was the Great August Bank Holiday Blog Storm.

I was amused by the various “facts” about me which appeared in some of the comment threads. I’m apparently a kid, who has read none of the classics. I’m also a published author, who is trying to promote his own books, or is jealous of classic writers’ success.

For the record, I’ve been reading science fiction for about 30 years (so not a kid, then), and that includes most of the classics. I didn’t write Don’t Look Back in Awe to boost sales of my own book or short stories. That would be difficult because I’ve not been published yet – although I do have an agent, John Jarrold, and I have sold some short fiction.

You know what they say about assumptions: they make you look like a complete idiot.

Ah well. Debate is good. Or so I’m told.

I think my favourite comment from the whole affair was the incredulous bleat of some fan who couldn’t understand why Foundation was out-of-date as it’s set 20,000 years in the future…

Here, however, is a topic which follows on quite nicely from the aforementioned infamous post: what do I actually want science fiction to be?

I want it to be… a toolbox.

I want science fiction to be seen as a set of tools that writers – of whatever stripe – can use to tell a story. Action-adventure, “literary fiction”, thriller, satire, romance… it doesn’t matter. Sf is called a genre, but it’s characterised by its furniture. Thrillers aren’t. Romances aren’t. They have their conventions, yes; but their setting doesn’t actually define them.

I’m not saying we should throw away the label “science fiction”, or remove the marketing category and hide all the sf books in amongst the general fiction. Nor am I saying we should stop thinking of ourselves as sf readers or fans.

But as writers and commentators, I would like to see the tools of science fiction be recognised as tools of writing. Good science fiction, after all, still has to be good fiction. Too many people seem to forget that. They focus on the idea as paramount. Foregrounding the idea is not an excuse for bad writing.

Science fiction should be good writing using the tools of the genre. It should be judged as writing which happens to use the tools of the genre. It gets no special dispensation because it’s science fiction, because it has this great big flashing idea going bang in your face.

If you look at a lot of modern sf, then you can sort of see this approach in action. Not just the military action-adventure of David Weber and Jack Campbell, fighting various historical wars with spaceships. But also in excellent novels such as Richard Morgan’s Black Man, which uses the tools of science fiction to hoist a near-future thriller into a position where it can ask the sort of questions, and make the kind of commentary, we demand of good science fiction. And that we often can’t get, in fact, from other genres.

I’m going to leave this here for now. I suspect it needs more thought – if only to determine whether or not I’m reinventing some kind of wheel. Or pointing out something that’s bleeding obvious.


Don’t Look Back in Awe

Here we go again. I’ve complained before about the undeserving admiration given to many science fiction novels and short stories of earlier decades. Such reverence frequently results in fans recommending these works to people wanting to try the genre. And that’s not a good thing. Readers new to the genre are not served well by recommendations to read Isaac Asimov, EE ‘Doc’ Smith, Robert Heinlein, or the like. Such fiction is no longer relevant, is often written with sensibilities offensive to modern readers, usually has painfully bad prose, and is mostly hard to find because it’s out of print. A better recommendation would be a current author – such as Alastair Reynolds, Iain M Banks, Ken MacLeod, Kim Stanley Robinson, Gwyneth Jones, Tricia Sullivan, Justina Robson, Jaine Fenn, and so on.

I can hear howls of outrage across the tinterweb.

And so I say again: holding up Foundation or Second Stage Lensman as good introductions to sf will no longer wash. They’re historical documents. In those days, science fiction was a different place; they did things differently. And many “classics” of those days do not fare well when compared to modern works.

I recently reread ‘Nightfall’ by Isaac Asimov, in the anthology A Science Fiction Omnibus. ‘Nightfall’ was first published in the September 1941 issue of Astounding Stories. In the story, the world of Lagash has six suns, and only ever experiences darkness once every 2,049 years. A group of astronomers have calculated that a “night” is imminent, and realise it’s the cause of their cyclical history.

I vaguely recall first reading the story when I was around eleven or twelve. I’ve long been aware of its status as a “classic”, of its reputation as one of Asimov’s best stories. So I was surprised on my recent reread to discover that it’s, well, it’s pretty bad. Asimov’s prose was clunky at best, and it’s not his best in ‘Nightfall’. The world-building is lacklustre and slipshod – characters have names like Sheerin 501 and Beenay 25, and that’s it. In all other respects, it could be set in 1940s USA. The ending – the darkness and resulting panic – is given away on the first page. Much of the “idea” is explained in conversation by the cast. The narration even pulls out of the story at one point, destroying the compact with the reader (ignore the bad grammar, a sentence fragment wodged onto a sentence with a semi-colon):

“Not Earth’s feeble thirty-six hundred Stars visible to the eye; Lagash was in the center of a giant cluster.”

By all criteria, ‘Nightfall’ fails as a good short story. And yet it’s still regarded as a classic. Some people will even suggest it’s a good example of science fiction. Rubbish. It’s built around a single, not very interesting idea – a world has never seen darkness… and then it gets dark. Wow. There’s a comment on the boom-bust nature of civilisations in there, but it’s pretty much thrown away. Asimov uses it in much more detail some ten years later in Foundation, anyway.

In part, this harkens back to my earlier post about the primacy of idea in science fiction. ‘Nightfall’ contains a very obvious idea and it appears to me that many think the sheer in-your-face nature of it overrides all the story’s faults. Which should not be the case. A story should be considered a classic for a number of reasons – continuing relevance, good writing, originality (in ideas and/or deployment), rigour (of world-building, of story), meaning, impact upon the genre, impact upon the reader…

Shining the spotlight upon idea leaves all else in darkness (seems an appropriate metaphor for a piece citing ‘Nightfall’). In fact, the more an idea or trope is used, the more polished it becomes, and so the higher its albedo.

The howling is becoming deafening now, so I’ll finish by saying I don’t think we should refuse to read old classic works, but we must recognise that they’re historical documents. And add that caveat to any such recommendations or commentary. Further, modern sf readers shouldn’t need to be aware of everything which has gone before, but modern sf writers certainly ought to.

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Mud & Metal

I spent last weekend in a field in Derbyshire with several thousand other people. We were all there for one reason.


The Bloodstock Open Air music festival takes place at Catton Hall in Derbyshire each year. It’s considerably smaller than European ones such as Germany’s Wacken or France’s Hellfest. I don’t know what the actual attendance at Bloodstock 2008 was, but I’d guess around 8,000 people. It was certainly higher than last year.

Much as I’d enjoyed Bloodstock Open Air 2007, I’d only planned to attend in 2008 if bands I liked were playing. So when Opeth signed up, it was hard to resist. Add in Swallow the Sun and Akercocke, and resistance was futile. I also quite fancied seeing the likes of Eluveitie, Týr, Moonsorrow, Soilwork (again), Napalm Death and At the Gates. The headlining acts on the Saturday and Sunday night – Dimmu Borgir and Nightwish – I was not so keen on.

Calin also wanted to do Bloodstock again. And this year, we were joined by Craig, another work colleague. So the three of us bought tickets, booked the days off work, and made our plans…

Friday 15 August at 10:30 a.m., and Craig turned up in his car. We headed off to pick up Calin (and his camping gear). The plan was to arrive at Catton Hall around midday – in time to get the tent pitched before the first performance.

Except this year, Bloodstock actually started at 10:00 a.m., not 4:00 p.m. Still, the first band I really wanted to see, Akercocke, weren’t on until 2:55 p.m., so there was plenty of time…

Once Calin and his gear was aboard, we stopped off at Asda for beer, water, baby wipes and assorted other items. And then onto the M1.

Which is where it all started to go horribly wrong.

Craig had googled for Bloodstock’s venue, and taken the postcode from Catton Hall’s website to use in his GPS. The route it gave him struck us as odd, but it was the right distance so we didn’t question it too much. We should have done. There are apparently two Catton Halls. One in Derbyshire – the location of Bloodstock. And one in Cheshire. Which is where we ended up.

So we didn’t arrive at the Bloodstock until much later than planned. After Akercocke’s set, in fact. Damn.

It didn’t get better. There were a few other changes instituted this year. Such as, no parking the car near the tents. All vehicles had to stay in the designated car park, which was allegedly a “short distance” from the camping field. Lies. It was a good ten minute walk. Another new rule was a limit of one case of beer per person in the camping area over the entire weekend.

We arrived, carried the gear through two fields until we found somewhere to pitch the tent, put it up, had a can of beer, and then made our way to the arena. The increase in size was immediately obvious. Not only were there more clothing stalls and more food vendors, but also a funfair, with bumper cars and a couple of rides – the ones that are guaranteed to make you lose your lunch. Especially when you’re drunk. There were also lots more people.

And lots more security. They were checking the bags and pockets of everyone entering the arena. Not for weapons. For beer. No cans or bottles were allowed in the arena. Fair enough – that could be a safety issue. But when the bouncers were turning back people who were carrying paper cups of beer purchased inside the arena earlier, it was clear it was really about forcing festival-goers to buy their drinks from the arena bars.

At £3.50 a pint.

And there was a 10p surcharge on the paper cups. But you could get this back at another stall. I thought this was quite a good idea – less litter, more environmentally friendly. Until I discovered the surcharge only applied to alcoholic drinks. There was no 10p refund on cups which had held soft drinks. Which made the whole thing mostly pointless.

Still, music festivals are about the, well, the music. We were there to see bands perform. I didn’t get to see everyone but – with the exception of Akercocke and Týr (who had actually been on before Akercocke) – I did get to see everyone I had wanted to:

Friday. I caught the opening of Soulfly’s set, but I’m not a fan so I left after a couple of songs. Helloween none of us bothered with. Power metal. Ugh. But, of course, we were back in front of the stage for Opeth. They’re a favourite band, but that night they were disappointing. I’ve seen them twice before and both times they were excellent. However, the sound wasn’t good at Bloodstock, and the set was too laid back.

Saturday. Eluveitie were entertaining. It’s not every day you see a metal band with a member who plays a hurdy gurdy. Unfortunately, there were a lot of people carrying around flags at the festival, and they often got in the way and blocked the view of the stage. Swallow the Sun, who followed Eluveitie, were good. The sound could have been better, but I plan to buy their new album (released later this month). I saw the start of Napalm Death

Speaking of flags, Calin bought a Romanian flag (since he is, after all, Romanian), and carried it around all Saturday. Later that morning, he was approached by a bloke who was also Romanian. He was at Bloodstock with a group from Scruffy Murphy’s, a well-known rock pub in Birmingham. We spent much of the weekend in the company of Cornell and Semina, the two Romanians in the group. Unhappily, the flag was stolen from outside our tent while we were asleep on Saturday night.

Throughout the weekend I saw flags from a number of countries, among them Sweden, Finland, Norway, Russia, Netherlands, Germany, Israel, Australia… and one I couldn’t identify. I asked and learned it was Slovenia. Oh, and lots of Union Jacks, of course.

Sunday. The three of us plus Cornell and Semina went for lunch at the White Swan in Walton on Trent, and very nice it was too. There were two bands on at 1:00 p.m. we wanted to see – Alestorm on the main stage, and Serotonal in the Scuzz tent. We managed to make it back, albeit ten minutes late. Serotonal were excellent. They finished before Alestorm, so I also caught the end of the pirate metallers’ set. The five of us then hung around the arena for a bit until the next band appeared…

It was bad enough the fairground rides pumping out Tina Turner and Bon Jovi, and drowning out the stage in some areas of the arena; but there was also a DJ blasting out commercial metal to advertise Monster energy drink. They had a couple of armoured cars – no, I’ve no idea why; and a “Ball of Steel”. This last was some twelve or fifteen feet in diameter, and at regular intervals three blokes on small motorcycles would do a Wheel of Death-type act inside. And every time they did it, the announcer’s patter was identical. Even the “ad lib” joshing during which the DJ “persuaded” the announcer to stand inside the ball while the motorbikes whizzed around him was word-for-word the same.

Then it was time for Kataklysm. They’re not a band I know, even though they play the sort of no-frills death metal I will happily listen to. I don’t know what it was, but everything seemed to come together right for them. The sun shone, and the wind dropped. The sound was excellent. The crowd were in the right mood, too. Before the band appeared, a group of moshers had been entertaining us – one of whom was in a kilt, and happy to demonstrate exactly what he was wearing underneath. Or wasn’t. These moshers had also tried human pyramids, but kept on falling down. Then they did high-speed Ring a Ring o’Roses, which resulted in most of them being flung at speed into the surrounding crowd like bowling balls…

Kataklysm definitely gave the set of the weekend. Nothing afterwards came close. We missed As I Lay Dying and Overkill. And had fun on the bumper cars while we waited for At the Gates to appear on stage (they were good, but I’m not a big fan). Last act of the night, and clearly the most popular of the festival, was Nightwish. Another band I don’t particularly like. The pyrotechnics were impressive; the music less so.

Of course, no music festival in the UK is complete without a downpour. Bloodstock 2008 was no exception. Friday was glorious, but torrential rain had been forecast for the Saturday. In the event, it didn’t rain until late that day, and it wasn’t as heavy as promised. It rained for most of Sunday. The camp site turned into a quagmire – although happily not where our tent was pitched. A lot of our stuff got wet, however; and we still ended up muddy.

And, of course, no report on a music festival in the UK is complete without mention of the chemical toilets. I’d been suffering from a bad stomach the week before, which had me worried. The combination of that and portaloos did not bear contemplating. But on the Thursday, I discovered that the Bovril I’d been eating each day was from a contaminated batch. I stopped eating the Bovril, and my stomach immediately recovered. And yet, the toilets at Bloodstock… were actually better than the previous year. They smelled, yes; and when they filled up they were stomach-churning. But they stayed clean, and they were emptied regularly. Of course, there weren’t enough. There never is.

Bloodstock 2008 was bigger and more commercial than 2007. That was both good and bad. I didn’t see as many bands I liked as last year, but the selection was better. And some I watched proved to be good. There was also more of a festival atmosphere. But the beer was expensive and the security was intrusive. If they want people to buy beer in the arena and not sneak in cans, they should sell it at a reasonable price – like £2 a pint. Mind you, it’s not as if music festivals are about music. They’re about money. Hence the expensive beer, the expensive burgers (£5!), the expensive jacket potatoes (£4!), and the annoying Monster energy drink marketing. Ironically, the CDs on sale were mostly cheaper than on the high street.

Will I go in 2009? Probably. And almost certainly if the line-up is good. A festival is pretty much the only chance I get to see bands which don’t tour the UK, such as Swallow the Sun or Eluveitie. There are certainly plenty I’d like to see, but haven’t done so yet. And just as many I’d happily see again.


Top 48 Films Based On A Book

Saw this on Mark Charan Newton‘s blog. No one tags me on these meme things, but I’m going to do it anyway. So there.

Below is a list of the top grossing 48 films based on science fiction novels. Apparently, the list is from Box Office Mojo, and it looks distinctly dodgy – at least one isn’t from a novel, and several are obscure straight-to-video films. And there are a lot of not very good ones there, too.

Anyway, the rules are: mark in bold those books you’ve read, italicise those films you’ve seen. I’ve also annotated it because, well, I wanted to.

1. Jurassic Park
2. War of the Worlds – seen all three versions, in fact.
3. The Lost World: Jurassic Park
4. I, Robot
5. Contact
6. Congo
7. Cocoon – nope, not based on a novel.
8. The Stepford Wives – seen both versions.
9. The Time Machine – seen both versions.
10. Starship Troopers – book bad, film good.
11. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
12. K-PAX
13. 2010
14. The Running Man
15. Sphere
16. The Mothman Prophecies
17. Dreamcatcher
18. Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)
19. Dune – new film adaptation in production!
20. The Island of Dr. Moreau
21. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
22. The Iron Giant (The Iron Man)
23. Battlefield Earth – to my eternal shame, I have read the book. And it’s a toss-up which is worse, the book or the film.
24. The Incredible Shrinking Woman
25. Fire in the Sky – not novels, then: this is “based on a true story”. About a UFO abduction. Ah, so it is science fiction.
26. Altered States
27. Timeline
28. The Postman
29. Freejack (Immortality, Inc.)
30. Solaris – seen both. The Tarkovsky version is vastly superior. Lem apparently hated it.
31. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
32. The Thing (Who Goes There?) – seen both versions.
33. The Thirteenth Floor
34. Lifeforce (Space Vampires)
35. Deadly Friend – never even heard of this, looks like a straight-to-video.
36. The Puppet Masters
37. 1984
38. A Scanner Darkly
39. Creator – never heard of this one, either. These are supposed to be the 48 top grossing sf films?
40. Monkey Shines
41. Solo (Weapon)
42. The Handmaid’s Tale – I have the book, not read it yet though.
43. Communion
44. Carnosaur
45. From Beyond – apparently based on something by HP Lovecraft.
46. Nightflyers – another straight-to-video, although it seems the novel was by George RR Martin.
47. Watchers
48. Body Snatchers

I tag Jim Steel, Gary Gibson, Craig Andrews, and Mike Cobley.


Worth A Thousand Words…

Until recently, I’d never been much of a reader of comics or graphic novels. I used to read comics when I was a kid – in fact, I think there’s still a big pile of them in my parents’ garage. When in the Middle East, it was usually Marvel (which I much preferred to DC), but in the UK it was British comics – 2000AD, Starlord, Warlord, Tornado

In the years since, I’d picked up the odd graphic novel, usually from word of mouth recommendations. Watchmen was superb, and enough to get me interested in the medium (and yes, I’m looking forward to the film). Unfortunately, my next purchase was Batman: Killing Joke, which was less good. I thought the same of Give Me Liberty. So I stopped buying them.

After returning to the UK in 2002, I bought and read The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and Heart of Empire, and was much impressed. After meeting Richard Morgan and reading his debut novel, Altered Carbon, I bought the two miniseries he wrote for Marvel’s Black Widow: Homecoming and The Things They Say About Her. They are excellent. Unfortunately, they didn’t go down so well with most readers of comics – one fan review said something like “if I want to read politics, I’ll read the speeches of George Bush”, which is just wrong in so many ways.

Not long afterwards, I purchased the X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga omnibus, having remembered reading and liking bits of when I was a kid. (That’ll date me.) Sadly, I wasn’t that impressed. It’s true that you can never go back.

Anyway, this year I’ve read more graphic novels than ever before. So here are some of the ones I really like:

The Authority – I’ve only read the first five trade paperback collections in this series so far, and it’s both excellent and infuriating. Created in 1999 by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch, the Authority are a spin-off team from Stormwatch (which I find less good). Unlike most superhero groups, the Authority have taken it upon themselves to right all the world’s wrongs. An ambition that has not gone down well with existing governments – especially that of the US. And this is where it gets infuriating: in order to give the Authority the moral high ground, despite the death and destruction they frequently dish out, the writers often make the villains too evil to be entirely credible. (Well, yes, credible… superheroes… I know. But.)

Tom Strong – after Watchmen and Batman: Killing Joke, I don’t think I’d read any Alan Moore until I picked up the first trade paperback collection of this. And discovered that I loved it. Like much of Moore’s output, it’s post-modern, ironic and clever. Rather than being a superhero, Tom Strong is a “science hero” – and a very knowing take on the concepts and tropes of superhero comics. This is something Moore has done before – in Supreme and Promethea, for example – but I think the Tom Strong series is easily the most fun of them.

Identity Crisis – I’ve not read a lot of DC, much preferring the Marvel universe. But I saw several approving reviews of this one-off by thriller writer Brad Meltzer. So I picked up a copy and… it’s very good indeed. The Elongated Man’s wife, Sue, is murdered. While there’s no evidence at the scene of the crime, a group within the Justice League of America suspect villain Dr Light of the crime. Because years before he had raped Sue, and they had wiped his memory of the event to protect themselves. The DC universe has always struck me as a little bit corny when compared to Marvel, but Meltzger’s strong story handles it with an appealing knowingness – yes, even Batman and Superman. This one is definitely worth buying.

Ministry of Space – after Alan Moore, the comics writer I probably read most is Warren Ellis. And even then I’d be hard-pressed to say who is the better of the two. Ellis, at least, has a more varied output. As this alternate world tale of a British post-war space progamme shows. There’s something greatly appealing about all those old British designs – and we had some world-beating technology in those days: TSR-2, SR.177, Fairey Delta 2, Avro 730… in fact, just look at these. Then we threw it all away. Happily, we didn’t in the world of Ministry of Space. Oh, and there’s an excellent twist in the tale too.

Scarlet Traces – and speaking of alternate world Britains, Ian Edginton & D’Israeli’s Scarlet Traces is one of the best graphic novel takes on the subject. It’s a sequel to HG Wells’ War of the Worlds (which the pair later adapted). After the Martians’ defeat, Britain has reverse-engineered their technology. But there’s something rotten in the heart of Empire… Here’s a preview of Scarlet Traces, so you can see just how good it is. The sequel, Scarlet Traces: The Great Game, takes the story to Mars, which Britain is invading. I was hugely amused to spot Dan Dare and Digby making a cameo in this…

Dan Dare – because I’ve been a fan of Dan Dare since I was a kid. Admittedly, the stories were often poor, and their grasp of science was feeble at best. But Hampson’s artwork looked gorgeous, and I liked the world he’d created. Some of the stories are very good indeed – ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ and ‘Safari in Space’, in particular. Dare has been re-imagined several times, but none of them have really matched the original. 2000AD‘s take seemed to entirely miss the point (although I’d still like to see it collected). Grant Morrison’s revisionist Dare was probably the only successful re-imagining. The more recent version by Garth Ennis for Virgin Comics has been… disappointing.

Trigan Empire – here’s another sf series from my childhood. I remember reading it in Look & Learn, which the school I attended had on subscription. Like Dare, the stories were often terrible, but the artwork was beautiful. For the past few years, the Don Lawrence Collection has been issuing handsome leather-bound collections of the strip – or that version of it produced by original artist Don Lawrence. They’re expensive but definitely collectible.

There are several other graphic novels I like which I’ve not mentioned here – such as those by Alexandro Jodorowsky, or Christin and Mézières’ Valérian Spatio-Temporal Agent. I might write about them at some later date.


Catching Up With The Challenge

I’ve been a bit crap the last couple of months with my 2008 Reading Challenge. It seemed like a really good idea when I started it: each month, read a book by a classic author I’d never read before. Sadly, it’s proving a bit of a chore. I gave up on Hemingway. Woolf was definitely not to my taste. Five months in, and the best I could say was, I’d like to read more of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.

And two months and two books later…

Well, June’s book was Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. I wanted to like this. I know a lot of people who think it’s very good indeed. But I found it hard-going. I took it with me on a business trip to Stuttgart in early June. Plenty of opportunity for uninterrupted reading, I thought. I also took John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman with me. I like Fowles’ writing a great deal, but I hadn’t expected to like The French Lieutenant’s Woman so much that I’d polish it off in three days.

And then I started Nostromo

Nostromo is set in the invented Central American country of Costaguana, and chiefly in the town of Sulaco in that country. The book’s title is the name of the town’s capataz de los cargadores, the leader of its gang of stevedores. Believed by all to be incorruptible, he is asked to hide the San Tomé mine’s silver from bandits and warlords taking advantage of a struggle for the presidency. Naturally, Nostromo proves less reliable than people had thought…

I didn’t actually finish Nostromo. I got bogged down somewhere in the middle and, after one too many looks of longing at the unread books on my shelves, put it down and turned to something new. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate what I’d read – Conrad clearly deserved his reputation. But after The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Nostromo‘s old-fashioned, more discursive and less focused prose failed to capture and keep my attention.

However, I plan to give Conrad a second chance – if not Nostromo, then perhaps one of his shorter novels.

July’s challenge book was The Garden Party & Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield. This was a much easier read than Nostromo, but ultimately just as disappointing. Mansfield, according to Wikipedia, is “widely considered one of the best short story writers of her period”. To me, the contents of the collection I read were more vignettes than stories. Well-written vignettes, I have to admit, but entirely plot-less. Perhaps it’s my genre background, but I expect a story to be more than a description of an incident, or series of incidents. It has to go somewhere. It has a plot. It has a resolution – or, at the very least, implies a resolution. None of Mansfield’s stories do this.

In the title story, a well-to-do family are planning a large garden party. A young working-class man who lives in a nearby cottage is run over and dies on the day of the party. One of the daughters of the family throwing the party wonders if it they should cancel it in sympathy. In ‘The Voyage’, Fennella and her grandmother take the ferry across Cook Strait. And, er, that’s it. ‘Marriage à la Mode’ describes a man returning to his wife for the weekend, and his dislike of her sycophantic friends and how they have changed her.

Mansfield had a nice turn of phrase, although some of descriptive imagery she used is no longer as fresh as it once was. Her characterisation was also sharp. And, I suppose, the fact that she wrote chiefly about life in New Zealand (despite living in England at the time) adds an interesting patina of strangeness to her fiction. But. She’s neither comic (cf PG Wodehouse or EF Benson) nor plot-driven (cf Agatha Christie) and, no matter how crass this is, I can’t help thinking that fiction from the 1920s ought to be one or the other.

I’m not so daft I really believe this, and I’d like to read something that proves me wrong. Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing doesn’t count – it’s set in the 1920s but was published in 1951. But there are other writers I could try from the period. I might just do that.

For August, however, I’ve already picked out My Family & Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, brother of Lawrence Durrell, my favourite writer.

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The Joy of Cartography

It’s Monday, so let’s ramble…

World-building is like the proverbial iceberg. It’s only the top ten percent you see in the story. Or rather, it’s only the top ten percent you should see in a story. For example, drawing up a map of your galactic empire or fantasy continent is useful when working out how your characters get about, but is there any real need to share it with your readers? If you create it with the intention of sharing it with your readers, you’re going to be filling it with detail. Drawing little mountains and planets. Dreaming up names for all the worlds and hamlets the characters don’t actually visit. All time-consuming tasks.

Time that would be better spent working on your story.

Plus, of course, you’ll get it wrong somewhere. Rivers that flow uphill, earthlike planets orbiting outside a star’s habitable zone. You could, of course, research – to make sure you get all the details right. That’s time-consuming too.

Time that would be better spent working on your story.

It seems de rigeur these days to open a high fantasy novel with a map, but what do they actually add to the story? Very little. However, they do increase the immersive quality of the story. And that’s what many readers seem to want these days. The plot is almost incidental – a group of archetypes doing archetypal things, or perhaps stereotypes doing stereotypical things. The plot, as such, is often just an excuse to bimble about the fantasy world. With a bit of derring-do and suspense thrown in for good measure. Not to mention a good sword-fight or battle as well.

Maps are less prevalent in science fiction novels. The Evergence trilogy by Sean Williams and Shane Dix features a galactic map in an appendix. I’m fairly sure one or two novels by CJ Cherryh also have maps. There are likely plenty more, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head. But, as a general rule, they’re rare.

There’s an expectation these days that a fantasy novel will open with a map – created, of course, by the genre’s exemplar, The Lord of the Rings. It’s become a convention. In fact, given that much of fantasy’s furniture is filched from various historical periods, it strikes me that the genre’s conventions are not so much plot enablers as they are attributes of the story… Map. Quest. Plot coupons. Peasant-Hero. Hidden King. Dark Lord.

Perhaps that’s the chief difference between science fiction and fantasy. In sf, ideas enable the plot; in fantasy they’re the story’s framework.