It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


A science fiction story – with flying boats!

A week or so ago I set myself a challenge: to write a science fiction story in which a flying boat featured prominently. I was hoping to come up with some heartland sf story, something with spaceships and aliens and such. And flying boats, of course. But I couldn’t think of a plot in which a flying boat, especially a historical one, might plausibly appear in the distant future or on another planet.

I could have just invented some futuristic flying boat, but I was determined it’d be a known type – and I had in mind one of those flying boats from the 1930s which carried passengers to Australia or across the Atlantic. So I dreamt up and considered a number of ideas, and promptly discarded them… and then realised there was only one way I could justifiably have a Short Empire flying boat, for example, in a sf story. But I didn’t really want to write alternate history. I wanted something more sfnal than that.

And I think I’ve sort of done it.

It’s a somewhat experimental story – in both structure and the fact that the plot is only implied. I shouldn’t think it’s the first story, science fiction or mainstream, to ever be written in this fashion, but it’s the first time I’ve tried it. It was fun to research, and I had fun “writing” it. I hope it proves as much fun to read.

Here it is (PDF): Disambiguation



The ethical writer

There was a bit of fuss caused last week by a nitwit post claiming that epic fantasy has degenerated since the days of Robert E Howard and Tolkien (I shall not dignify the post with a link to it). Nihilism and Decadence in populist escapist literature. Oh no! We must be in the End Times! I’ll not bother responding to the article – smarter folk than I have already done that. And done a much better job. But the subject has provoked an interesting line of thought…

There are those who say a writer’s only obligation is to be entertaining. Nothing else matters, providing the text entertains the reader. The aforementioned fantasy fuss would have you believe a writer is also obliged to be morally uplifting – or rather, to reinforce a narrowly-defined moral framework belonging to the writer of the post which started off the whole thing. Which is patently bollocks. In so many ways.

Writers do indeed have obligations above and beyond making their texts entertaining. They have an obligation to get it right.

Shoddy – or indeed a total lack of – research is inexcusable, and tantamount to artistic cowardice. This could mean, in science fiction, getting the science right, for example – something media sf is notoriously bad at doing. But it’s more a repudiation of the myth that you can “make it up as you go along”. Once, perhaps; once, when genre readers were unsophisticated. Not any more. And certainly not now that we have the Internet. Anything in a story that doesn’t seem quite right, you can look it up. You can do the research the writer should have done. And then you can decide not to read anything else written by that person ever again.

Fictionalising real-world examples is no defence. Want to make your fantasyland stand out? Why not look to the caliphates for inspiration? Yes, why not misrepresent and misinterpret someone else’s history and culture just to give your novel a little colour? Those people are unlikely to read your story, so why should you care if they get upset? And anyway, it’s all “made-up”… Except it’s not. Not if its inspiration is so obvious any reader can spot the parallels. In such cases, writers have an obligation to originality in their world-building. And a concomitant obligation to be accurate when the inspirations lie close to the surface.

There are those who claim it is immoral to use real people in fiction – public people, that is, dead or alive; not people the author actually might know. It is, they claim, an “invasion of privacy”. Except, public people rely on a public persona, it is their source of revenue, it is what they “do”. And as such it could be said it no longer belongs to them. If a writer were to use such a person in their text, then they are obliged to make their portrait, when necessary, as accurate as possible. The right places at the right time (providing the point of the story is exactly not that, of course).

Writers are certainly under no obligation to reinforce the prejudices of their readers. In fact, it is the reverse: they should challenge their readers’ prejudices. A good book should make you think about the world around you. It should not make you feel more comfortable with your attitudes; it does not exist to provide a helping hand carrying your personal baggage.

So, all that about a lack of conservatism in current epic fantasy, about these heirs to Tolkien who are spitting on JRR’s grave… It seems these degenerate, nihilistic writers are meeting their obligations: they’re challenging the worldview of the writer of the original post. He may not have responded intelligently, but that’s not their fault. Is it?


Women in sf reading challenge #2: Winterstrike, Liz Williams

Liz Williams is one of those British sf writers who was first published in the US. Her debut novel, The Ghost Sister, was shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award in 2001, but has never received a UK edition. It wasn’t until her second novel, Empire of Bones, that she had a novel published in the UK. And yet, despite writing more than a novel a year since then, and even being shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2006 for Banner of Souls, she’s not a writer who seems to have impinged much on my map of the genre. I’m not entirely sure why. As far as I could tell, her science fiction was of a variety that would appeal to me. Yet I never bought or read one of her books. Perhaps it was because she seemed focused on her Detective Inspector Chen series of Chinese fantasy novels, which don’t interest me in the slightest.

Whatever the reason, it’s a lack I’ve now rectified. Winterstrike is the first book in a planned trilogy. It was first published in 2008, although no sequels have yet to appear. It is set on a far-future Mars which bears very little resemblance to the Mars of science fact. Parts of the story take place on Earth, which is also greatly changed.

There’s a lot of praise for Winterstrike and Liz Williams reproduced on the covers of the paperback edition I read. So it would not have been unrealistic to have high expectations of the book. Perhaps they were too high. While I enjoyed Winterstrike, and thought parts of it very good, it left me overall feeling a little underwhelmed. It may well be that the misleading back-cover blurb didn’t help. It claims the novel is about Hestia Mar who has been sent to Caud, an enemy city-state, “to recover details of an ancient weapon”. Which she finds and passes to her home city of Winterstrike, an act which “has virtually guaranteed the use of the weapon”. Her cousin Essegui, meanwhile, “discovers a plot by creatures who hold the secrets of the Martian past, and its future”. Which all sounds very exciting and science-fictional, but is no real preparation for what the story actually describes.

Hestia is indeed a spy for Winterstrike, looking for data on an ancient weapon in Caud. But when she finds it and passes the data back to her handler, the effects of the weapon’s use are not described until near the end of the novel; and even then it’s peripheral to the main plot. Hestia’s story meanwhile goes off on an entirely different path: while returning to Winterstrike from Caud, she finds herself in the ghostly city of the Noumenon, and stumbles across the army of Mantis, a clone of an ancient despot. Essegui, on the other hand, is searching for her sister, Shorn, who has escaped after being imprisoned in her room for consorting with a man-remnant. But Shorn is not really Eseegui’s sister, nor in fact is she really human. Also important is Earth’s Centipede Queen, who has come to Mars to find Shorn, for reasons not fully disclosed, but which result in Hestia travelling to Earth to tell them their queen has gone missing…

The two main narratives of Winterstrike, Hestia’s and Essegui’s, frequently come close to touching but never quite meet. But they do overlap, often taking place in the same parts of Mars. Such a carefully-braided plot is not especially unusual, but the voices of the two characters are so similar it is sometimes hard to distinguish between them. It’s only when Hestia reaches Earth that the locales differentiate the two threads sufficiently to keep them separate in the mind of the reader. Even then, the novel never quite reveals what’s going on. When Shorn is revealed as a bio-engineered experiment, it comes as a surprise because there’d been no foreshadowing in her character, nor had the existence of the technology to do it been mentioned earlier. Admittedly, this does remain true to the points of view of the narrators, but the revelation still feels abrupt.

As indeed do many of the book’s other revelations. It’s difficult to sense the shape of the story because Hestia and Essegui are in thrall to forces they don’t understand, and their narratives do not allow for an omniscient viewpoint to give the reader greater knowledge. This is not as claustrophobic as it might suggest, but it does mean much of the story has to be read on faith.

Throughout Winterstrike, Williams uses an invented vocabulary to describe many elements of the world,  her word-choices often giving the novel a flavour similar to Gene Wolfe’s The Book Of The New Sun. Unlike Wolfe, Williams has not used real obsolete or antique terms. For example, the Changed, the bio-engineered races of humanity on Mars and Earth, include vulpen, kappa and demothea. I googled the last word, wondering if it had any mythological meaning… and discovered that  it’s apparently a boy’s name from the Wild West and means “one who talks while walking”. Which, I suspect, was not the intended meaning in Winterstrike. None of Williams’ invented terms are glossed, or entirely clear from context; and it often takes a while for their precise meaning to come clear.

I wanted to like Winterstrike more than I did. The Mars Williams has created is bizarre and fascinating, but, while described as a matriarchy, there didn’t seem much that was, well, especially female about it. In fact, for much of the story, Mars might well have been an alien world and its inhabitants entirely unrelated to humanity. I’d like to read the next two books in the trilogy, but I shall not be waiting with bated breath for them. This is not to say Winterstrike is a bad book, just that I didn’t take to it as much as I had expected. But I may very well try Williams’ other sf novels should I come across them.


A mantlepiece full of goodies

It’s time I publicly admitted I have a problem: “my name is Ian Sales and I buy lots of books”. See, here’s the proof. Yup, it’s book haul time again. And here’s what has arrived at the domicile since my last book haul post. A mixed bag, as you can see. Now all I need to do is find the time to actually read them…

First up, a few for the Space Books collection. Spacesuits is about, well, spacesuits. I reviewed it here. The Apollo Guidance Computer is about… go on, have a guess. I saw Frank O’Brien’s talk on the subject at Satellite 2 in Glasgow in 2008, and it was fascinating. Sizing Up the Universe is full of amazing photographs of stellar objects, and Voices from the Moon is full of amazing photographs from the Apollo programme: a pair of excellent coffee-table books.

Night Shade Books had their annual sale a couple of weeks ago – at which I bought these four. I’m looking forward to reading them. One day.

Some critical works. I already have Wolfe’s earlier collection of reviews, Soundings, so I know what to expect from Bearings. Evaporating Genres also promises to be fascinating. I’ve had a quick look through Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels and I suspect I disagree with around eighty-five of his choices. Oh well. Bearings and Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels were both bought from Brian Ameringen at Porcupine Books, an excellent book-seller.

I’m not old enough to remember Dan Dare when he first appeared – my first exposure to him was a reprint annual containing ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ and ‘Safari in Space’, published by Fleetway in 1973. Then it was the 2000AD take on the character (and when are they going to publish an omnibus edition of that, eh?). But I’m definitely a fan of Hampson’s original Dare, and own all the Hawk omnibus collections – and even a copy of PS Art’s lovely Tomorrow Revisited. Bernard Spencer is one of my favourite poets; this Collected Poems is from 1965.

Three second-hand books. Space in the Sixties by Patrick Moore is for the Space Books collection. Jed Mercurio is an author I can’t recommend highly enough. His Ascent is excellent, and I recently read American Adulterer and thought that very, very good too. Bodies is his debut novel, and I’m looking forward to reading it. The Quantum Thief is, of course, the sf debut of 2010, and my thanks to Michaela Staton for passing on her ARC of it for me to read.

These are the Harper Perennial editions from the late 1990s of Ursula K Le Guin’s short story collections. Although not all of her published short story collections, just some of them – I’ve no idea why they chose only those titles and not the others. I’ve been buying these over the years as I find them, and I recently managed to find a copy of A Fisherman of the Inland Sea to complete the set.


It’s not rocket science

Perhaps television science fiction is too easy a target. Perhaps the demands of television drama are incompatible with the demands of good science fiction. Good prime-time television drama, that is: a television series that doesn’t want to appeal solely to fans of television science fiction.

I am, of course, speaking of Outcasts, BBC1’s new science fiction drama. It’s currently being shown at prime-time on Monday and Tuesday nights, but in March will be moved to late night Sunday. I have so far watched the first four episodes, and I can’t decide which is worst: the plotting, or the world-building.

To be fair, the programme looks good and is mostly well-acted. And those television series which have clearly spent a lot of time and effort on world-building have ended up with (relatively) small but loyal fanbases among media sf fans – Battlestar Galactica, for example; or Firefly. But perhaps such an investment was thought too much for an eight-episode drama aimed at general television viewers, and which just happened to be science fiction.

But, you know, the world-building is important. It’s one of the pillars holding up suspension of disbelief. And without suspension of disbelief, you have a television drama that’ll shed viewers and end up being moved to a graveyard slot. You don’t need to create an entire world’s worth of back-history, you don’t need to invent new swearwords. But you do need to apply a little common sense to the world you’ve created for the story. No giant starships, for example, which are plainly not built to make planetary landings, but do anyway – despite previous attempts by other giant starships often proving catastrophic. Or re-introducing slavery, which is morally abhorrent no matter how you try to justify it, and simply wouldn’t happen in a story set no more than handful of decades from now. Or possessing sophisticated technology, but ignoring the way it is used in the real world – for communications, for instance; or GPS.

Granted, these may be considerations which are only going to exercise the minds of science fiction fans; perhaps general viewers, unused to, or unconcerned with, the demands of genre television, will ignore them. A lack of them won’t spoil their viewing experience. But is that any reason not to take the trouble to get it right? Their inclusion can only improve the story, and they’re unlikely to turn off non-sf viewers. There’s no need to turn Outcasts into Battlestar Galactica, with an entire universe invented from scratch, but throwing in a little rigour will surely make the programme better viewing for all.

Because when you skimp on the world-building, the plot stops making sense. Since many of those dramatically-tense scenes wouldn’t exist if you’d used a bit of common sense. So, for example, you have lots of sophisticated comms gear on your colony world, but people go off into the outback without any means of being contacted, so no one knows when they encounter trouble. It’s dramatic; but it’s also pretty dumb. And when you abandon common sense in world-building, you end up with idiot-plotting, a story that can only progress if the characters make pretty dumb decisions.

Battlestar Galactica proved that science fiction television can tackle grown-up themes in a grown-up fashion. It doesn’t always have to be juvenile. Outcasts could have demonstrated that rigorous intelligent science fiction doesn’t only appeal to fans of media sf. Instead, it seems Outcasts‘ writers ran from that particular fight. A shame.


Not a failure of the imagination

I love research. I take a nerdish delight in it. When I’m writing, I want everything in my story to be right. If that means digging through books, or searching the Internet, to find the information I need, then I’m more than willing to do so. I should be writing, of course. Except I can’t write if I don’t know what I need to know, if I can’t make sure it’s absolutely spot-on.

I don’t think I’m capable of writing a story in which I can “make it up as I go along”. I have come to accept that. The nearest I managed, ‘Killing the Dead’ in Postscripts 20/21 Edison’s Frankenstein, was set on an entirely invented generation starship. But I couldn’t let it go there. I had to pick a real destination for the ship, and calculate the length of time the journey would take. But even that didn’t do the trick. So I structured the story according to Dante’s Inferno, and borrowed imagery from it; which gave me a topic to spend hours happily researching.

I have in the past bought a copy of a long-out-of-print and scarce book – see here – so I could read up on something that appeared in a story I was writing. My story ‘Barker’ (see here) required a lot of research into the history and personalities of the early decades of the Space Race. Because everyone in the story except the title character was a real historical person. Fortunately the subject fascinates me and I already own a large number of books on it. See my Space Books blog. And yes, the flash fiction I posted there, ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’, also required a great deal of research too.

The story I’m currently working on – ironically, a fantasy – has had me researching Supermarine Spitfires and Vickers Wellington bombers. The protagonist is a RAF pilot during World War II, and I wanted to make sure I had all the details of flying those aircraft correct. I could have finessed it, I suppose – a few general piloting terms, perhaps, and then on with the story. But that would be cheating. It wouldn’t convince me.

And, without that research, how else would I have learnt that the the first item in the Vickers Wellington Pilot’s Notes Check list before landing is “Auto-pilot.. .. .. cock–OUT”? I kid you not. See page 25 here.

Another story, as yet unpublished, has one section featuring an Alvis Scorpion Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked), so I hunted around until I found a copy of a book about the vehicle. Because I needed to get the terminology right.

Amanda Rutter of Floor to Ceiling Books asked on Twitter today “What book do you wish you had written?” She gave The Last Unicorn by Peter S Beagle, for its “simply gorgeous prose”, as her answer. I could have named something by Lawrence Durrell, whose prose I certainly admire the most. Or perhaps a science fiction novel that blew me away when I first read it. Or something by one of the my favourite sf writers. Instead, I picked Ascent by Jed Mercurio, because his intense and immediate, and closely-researched, style is how I’d like to write myself.

As a reader I want to know what it’s like, what it feels like, to be there. I want details. I am, after all, reading these books to explore other places, people and times – real or invented. And the last thing I want is glib one-line descriptions, or the distracting blur of authorial hand-waving. I feel novels should have bibliographies – and many novels do include a page of “Further Reading”. I have a work-in-progress which currently has twenty-five titles in its bibliography. It has, I admit, taken a long time to write. I hope it’ll be worth the effort.

I’ve wittered on about this subject before, but that’s because it’s something dear to me. True, fiction is not non-fiction. Nor should it try to be. But neither is it a failure of the imagination to research something heavily before writing about it.