It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

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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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The Flying Saucer, Bernard Newman

The Flying Saucer, Bernard Newman
(2010 Westholme Publishing, $14.95, 250pp)

America Reads is a series of books which are “rediscovered fiction and nonfiction from key periods in American history”. The Flying Saucer by Bernard Newman is the first of three books in the series subtitled “1950s: Visions of the Future”. Strange then, that America apparently reads a novel by a British writer as a vision of its future. Further strangeness lies in the title. This novel was apparently the first to use the phrase “flying saucer” as a title, and yet no flying saucer actually appears in the story. They are, like the novel’s central conceit, smoke and mirrors. Project Blue Book is just as much a work of fiction as The Flying Saucer, but the author is not the United States Air Force.

The author is, in fact, Bernard Newman, who, as Bernard Newman the author, narrates the story of The Flying Saucer. Such postmodern narrative games sit oddly in what is essentially postwar pulp fiction – especially given the book’s overt nods towards HG Wells and prewar scientific romances. Newman, riffing off The Shape of Things to Come, looks to a scientific elite to save the world from itself, despite only five years having passed since World War Two ended with its frenetic technological progress resulting in V-2s and jet-fighters and radar. The opening chapter of The Flying Saucer recounts a conversation between Newman, eminent polymath scientist Drummond, and ex-spy and comedy Frenchman Pontivy. Together, they hatch a cunning plot, based on the canard that Earth’s nations will unite against a common foe. They chose Mars to be the home of Earth’s enemy. Drummond invents a rocket, made of some indestructible substance, and powered by mysterious means. It lands in Leicestershire, but unlike in Wells’ The War of the Worlds, contains only a message in a strange “alien” alphabet.

As the story progresses, as more rockets land in various parts of the world, the central trio recruit more scientists to their cabal. The messages, for example, were written by the world’s leading linguist. Who is subsequently asked by the UN to translate it. Newman, the author, adds to the global tension by placing stories of UFO encounters in various newspapers and magazines. A British film about aliens invading the Earth becomes a worldwide blockbuster after it is hyped by Newman’s contacts in the media. Meanwhile, Pontivy’s plan to extort more money for the plot from a French criminal backfires badly when the criminal tries to take over the self-created scientific elite. It all comes to a head when a Martian lands in Africa. It carefully manages to escape before the deception can be unmasked. By this point, the nations of the Earth have put away their atomic toys, are in thrall to Drummond’s League of Scientists, and eventually line up to vote in a world leader who proves to be Winston Churchhill in all but name.

It’s all wildly improbable and implausible. There’s no science in this science fiction, only vague handwaving by the narrating author. The central conceit is as old as Tsun Tsu, the book owes many of its ideas to the oeuvres of Verne and Wells, and Pontivy is an offensive racial stereotype. The end result is a potboiler which fails to convince on almost every level, yet remains mostly entertaining. It’s certainly not a definitive or seminal work, by any means. Likely it owes its alleged importance only to an accident of titling. Newman can’t have known a handful of years after the term “flying saucer” was coined that the term, that ufology itself, would prove so popular, or indeed that it would still be going strong sixty years later.

It is good to hear that America Reads. But it’s a shame, if The Flying Saucer is any indication, that it has such poor taste in books.

This review originally appeared in Interzone 232, January – February 2011.

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The future we used to have, part 10

Since we’re supposed to be celebrating sixty years of Queen Elizabeth II on the throne, but watching a bunch of boats covered in bunting float down the Thames is dull, how about looking at some cool planes and cars and buildings from the last sixty years instead?


Hawker P.1121

Gloster Javelin

Mikoyan MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’

Mikoyan MiG-31 ‘Foxhound’


Supreme Court Building, Brasilia (Oscar Niemeyer)

Parque do Ibirapuera, São Paulo (Oscar Niemeyer & Roberto Burle Marx)

Ostankino TV Tower, Moscow (Nikolai Nikitin)

Observation deck of Ostankino TV Tower


NS Savannah, the first nuclear-powered passenger/cargo ship

NS Savannah

Bridge of the NS Savannah

A Stateroom aboard NS Savannah


You don’t know… what you just went and looked up

There’s an excellent review of Stina Leicht’s Of Blood and Honey on Martin McGrath’s blog here. Of Blood and Honey is an urban fantasy set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and it’s been widely praised. Martin finds much that’s troubling in the book regarding its setting – details which ring untrue to someone who grew up in the time and place in question.

And then there’s the Hugo Award-winning Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis, whose claim of historical accuracy has been met with howls of derision on this side of the Atlantic. Not to mention the historical blunders perpetrated in earlier novels, such as those in Doomsday Book outlined by Adam Roberts here.

How much trouble would it have taken Stina Leicht to discover that the Royal Military Police wear red berets – and not the Parachute Regiment, who wear maroon berets? Or that the British Army has never been referred to as the “BA” by anyone? BA is an airline, of course; and it was founded in 1974, three years before the time during which Of Blood and Honey is set.

How much trouble would it have taken Connie Willis to discover that the Jubilee Line of the London Underground was opened in 1977, in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, and so wouldn’t have existed during World War 2? Or that people burned wood and not coal in their fires in 14th Century England? Or that no one has used the phrase “trunk call” in the UK since the 1970s?

True, most readers will either miss these errors, or let them slide. Providing the mistakes don’t pull them out of the story, many readers don’t much care. But there are those who will notice – and they will not only be unimpressed, they might be also be offended.

Without drifting into a discussion on cultural appropriation or First World Gaze (to coin a phrase), I believe a writer has a responsibility to their readers, and to themselves, to get the details right. Writers need to strive for verisimilitude (not authenticity). Research is vital in all areas – not just setting, but also science; technology; language… Anything which exists in the real world and which affects the story in any way, no matter how seemingly trivial.

In these days of the Internet, there’s no excuse. Readers can go and look something up online – and frequently do. Wikipedia has made expert knowledge available and convenient for everyone. Writers should not only be prepared for that, they should armour their writing against it. The old days of genre writers getting away with the most egregious bollocks because they didn’t know better, because their readers were unlikely to know better… they’re over. There is no excuse for sloppiness. Writers must fact-check. Everything.

Because they’ll look very, very foolish if they don’t.


You don’t know good

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told “good is subjective” or “best is subjective”. Every time I hear it, it makes me howl with rage. Because it is wrong.

If there is no such thing as good – because if it’s entirely subjective and personal, then it’s completely useless as a descriptive term – then how do editors choose which books to publish, how do judges choose which books to give prizes to, how do academics chose which books to study? And why don’t they all choose completely different books?

They can do all this because the quality of a book can be determined objectively. It is not an exact science, and it is subject to changes in taste and/or re-evaluation in light of changes in attitudes and sensibilities. But there are certain key indicators in fiction which can be used to determine the quality of that piece of fiction. It’s what makes one writer more talented, more skilled than another writer. It’s what makes one story worthy of study and another not worth giving away for free. It’s why we have classics of literature, andwhy some books are still in print two hundred years after they were first published.

If good is subjective, then awards are completely pointless. And studying literature, well, that’s a complete waste of time too. After all, how can you be an expert in a topic in which one individual’s value judgment is worth exactly the same another person’s? There’d be no such thing as an expert. All books would have exactly the same artistic value.

This is patently nonsense.

Perhaps it’s easier to describe what is bad – if good is subjective, then by definition bad must be too. Except, strangely, everyone seems to agree that the following do indeed indicate that a piece of fiction is bad: cardboard cutout characters, idiot plotting, clumsy prose, tin-earred dialogue, lack of rigour, graceless info-dumping, unoriginality, bad research…

So if we can determine with a reasonable degree of accuracy what constitutes a bad book, then it logically follows we can do the same for a good book. And since this is a scale of sorts, then there must be an objective element to determining a piece of fiction’s position on the scale. Which means it is not subjective.

And “best”? It means “of the highest quality”, “most excellent”. It is the superlative form of “good”. Go and look it up in a dictionary. If good is not subjective, then best cannot be either.

If you want to describe a book in entirely subjective terms, then tell people how much you enjoyed it, how much you liked it. That’s your own personal reaction to it. It appealed to you, it entertained you. That’s the book directly affecting you. Another person may or may not react the same way, the book might or might not do the same to them.

Because that’s subjective, that is.