It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Man reading Girl Reading

I forget where I saw mention of Katie Ward’s Girl Reading – I’ve a feeling it was on one of David Hebblethwaite‘s lists of novels by non-genre imprints that might eligible for the 2011 Clark Award. The blurb sounded interesting, so I stuck it on my list of books to keep an eye open for… And a few months ago, I saw it at my mother’s so I borrowed it. (She doesn’t remember the book, and certainly hasn’t read it, so one of my sisters may have left it there.)

Annunciation, Simone Martini (1333)

Girl Reading is not one of those novels which defy summary, but a description of its plot – or plots – does not really give the true flavour of the book. It is constructed from seven sections, set in, respectively, Siena in 1333, Amsterdam in 1668, an English country house in 1775, London in 1864, another English country house in 1916, London in 2008, and an unnamed European city in 2060. The sections are not linked, except by mention of the previous section’s subject – ie, a picture of a girl reading. (The exact pictures which inspired the novel are given in ‘A Note’ at the end of the book; some are reproduced in this post).

Woman Reading, Peter Janssens Elinga (1668-1670)

Comparisons with Cloud Atlas are inevitable, and while Ward’s control of voice may not be as accomplished as David Mitchell’s, Girl Reading trumps Cloud Atlas because it relies less on hoary clichés for its plot and because its structure makes sense within the context of the story. It’s there in the final section, ‘Sincerity Yabuki – Sibil, 2060’:

“Sibil makes you experience, in mesh, real or fictionalised aspects of what is already there embedded within a real-world object. The artwork is the starting point; from that, it weaves an extended portrait of sorts, showing us this art piece in a new way.” (p 302)

Isn’t that we all we do? When we see the cover-art of a novel, we imagine the story it represents. When we witness an event in real life, we try to make a story of it as if that somehow makes it more understandable, helps makes sense of the narratives of our own lives. For a fixed number of objects – paintings and photographs – Girl Reading not only makes this process overt, it presents the results of the process for us.

Portrait of a Lady, Angelica Kauffman (1775)

It’s a science-fictional conceit – so, yes, the book was perhaps suitable for consideration for the Clarke Award – but because the narrative works forward from the past to the future, it’s unlikely Girl Reading will ever be read as science fiction. True, it doesn’t reveal its genre underpinnings until that final section, and the links between the sections are subtle, but that last section does make sense of it all. It often seems that literary fiction novels lack a final payoff – or rather, it sometimes feels as though much of the story didn’t actually contribute toward the ending. Not a twist ending, not something that makes you drastically reconsider all that has gone before – although the ending of Girl Reading does do something like that. But when it does happen, it’s good. Of course, that’s not to say it’s necessary – I can think of several such novels where much of the book’s appeal lies in the journey toward the ending.

Giulia Grisi, Horatio Nelson King (1860s)

Girl Reading is written throughout in the present tense, without the use of speech marks for dialogue. Obviously, this is a style which appeals to me, but Ward’s prose is also good. It is, perhaps, a little precious in places, but not so much it obstructs the narrative or draws attention to itself. She has a fine eye for what gives surroundings character, and though the language is not particularly complex she succeeds in evoking sense of place:

Haunted by sadness. It is a grand building, but Angelica has been in grander, and it is the absence of society, of comings and goings, that makes it feel enormous like a cavern, serious like a church. (p 109)

The female subjects of each section are also well-drawn, interesting characters – the young woman of fourteenth-century Siena, the deaf-mute Dutch maid, even the ambitious but conflicted young Parliamentary assistant in 2008. Their concerns are personal – yes, relationships – but they work in context. Above all, the historical detail is convincing, and the characters fit their historical milieu. That’s a difficult trick to pull off for a story set in one historical period, and harder still to do for multiple periods.

Vanessa Bell (née Stephen), Duncan Grant (circa 1916-1917)

There have been sadly few books I’ve read this year which I’ve classified as “impressive”, that I finished knowing I had just read something special. Girl Reading was one of them. On the strength of it, I’ll be keeping an eye open for future books by Katie Ward. And I very much suspect her debut novel will be appearing in my top five at the end of the year.

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Dare more

When I wrote my post on the Hawk Books reprints of the Dan Dare strips, I didn’t bother including the other Dan Dare books I own. So here they are. There is one not shown, however: Dare by Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes, which I have spent the past month looking for but have yet to find. No doubt I’ll stumble across it within hours of this post going up on the blog…

Anyway, more Dan Dare books, see:

This is the one started it all for me. As you can see, it’s a bit tatty. But then it is thirty-five years old and it did get chewed by mice at one point… It contains ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ and the first part of the Terra Nova trilogy, ‘Safari in Space’.

A pair of annuals from two of Dare’s later reincarnations. On the right, 2000 AD’s Dare from 1980, and on the left the relaunched Eagle’s Dare from 1987. Neither are especially good.

The beginning and possibly the end: Dan Dare began life in Eagle, and his last appearance was in a six-part mini-series in 2007 written by Garth Ennis. I thought the Ennis Dare very disappointing, so much so that I never bothered to buy the second “collector’s edition” volume containing issues 4 to 6.

A novelisation of one of the Dare stories. It’s not very good. A collection of lesser Dan Dare stories from Eagle. And a non-fiction work on him, which I must get around to reading one of these days.

Two books about Dare’s creator, Frank Hampson. Tomorrow Revisited, published by PS Publishing, is actually a revised and expanded edition of The Man Who Drew Tomorrow.

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Writerly bloggy hoppy thing

I got nominated for this by RJ Barker and apparently bad things happen to you if you don’t answer the questions and pass it on. So, fingers crossed, here goes…

What is the working title of your book?
I’m currently putting the finishing touches to the second book of my Apollo Quartet, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. It needs a little more work in places, but my beta readers all think it is a stronger work than the first book of the quartet, Adrift on the Sea of Rains, which pleases me.

Where did the idea for the book come from?
I blogged about this in a series of post on the Whippleshield Books blog – Genesis of Apollo parts one, two and three.

What genre does your book fall under?
Literary hard sf. Or “art house hard sf”, as one person has described it.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
If Steve Forrest were a couple of decades younger, he’d be perfect for the lead role.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A scientific station on an exoplanet, humanity’s only presence outside the Solar System, has vanished and they send the first man on Mars to find out what happened to it.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It will be published by Whippleshield Books, which is, er, my own small press.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
About four months. It’s a 22,000-word novella, but it required a lot of research.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I’m not sure there are any. Outside the genre, Ascent by Jed Mercurio, perhaps.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landings – see Genesis of Apollo parts one, two and three. But elements of the plot of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself were specifically inspired by Lavie Tidhar’s review of Adrift on the Sea of Rains (see here).

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It suggests a reason for the Fermi Paradox.

Nominate five people to roll this onto
I shall cheat as RJ Barker did, and nominate a single person – Neil Williamson, who writes excellent short fiction and has even been known to enjoy an Opeth song or two on occasion.


More self-publishing home truths

Adrift on the Sea of Rains has been in print for just over six months and has so far sold around two hundred copies in all three formats. I didn’t set up Whippleshield Books and self-publish because I thought it was a sure-fire route to riches and success. I’d much sooner someone else had published the book. But I did it myself because a) I wanted it done quickly, and b) I didn’t want to compromise on my vision. Happily, I got the book out on time, and no one has had a problem with the way I structured the novella.

However, being a self-publisher and starting up a (very, very) small press has definitely taught me how difficult the entire process is. Basically, it’s a numbers game. If one hundred people know of your book and ten percent buy a copy, that’s ten sales. If one million know and ten percent buy a copy… well, you get the picture. But how to get your book in front of a million pairs of eyes? Every time someone buys a book by someone they’ve never read before, they’re taking a chance. How to convince them it’s a chance they won’t regret taking?

One of the myths of the American Dream and, by extension western society, is that hard work leads to success. It’s utter bollocks, of course. People work hard all their lives and still die owing thousands of dollars, pounds, euros, etc. Bosses expect workers to put in unpaid overtime, even though the workers don’t actually profit from those unpaid hours. But when you do work hard for yourself, you often find obstacles thrown up in your way – partly because the system is set up to protect established businesses, but also because the only methods open to you as an entrepreneur have been so widely abused they poison everything that uses them…

1 Most forums have indiscriminate zero tolerance spam policies
When is a self-published sf novel like a pair of Nike trainers, or Louis Vuitton luggage, or even Viagra capsules? When mention of it is classified as spam. It seems eminently sensible to limit the amount of spam subjected to members of forums, and many self-published authors have used the tactics of spambots in getting their title in front of as many people online as possible. As a result, most forum moderators categorise any kind of promotion as spam. Typically, there’ll be a ring-fenced thread or group, in which authors can promote their books. But outside of that – nope, not allowed. Even if the poster is a member of good standing, even if it’s relevant to the discussion. Verboten. The offending post, or link, gets removed, and you receive a patronising message from the moderator. You’d think a sf forum, for instance, would be interested in sf books. Self-publishers, or indeed small presses, of course, can’t rely on the presence of their books in book shops to spread knowledge of their titles. They have neither the print-runs nor the coverage to be able to do so. So they have to promote. But most of their intended audience is routinely blocked from getting the message.

2 It’s not a level playing field, and Amazon has its thumb on the scales
Amazon does not typically stock small press print titles. It will show them as “out of stock” or “unavailable”, even though the book is readily available from the small press’s own website. But when a person sees mention of a title and considers purchasing it, they will be often go and look on Amazon. They see “out of print”. Result: sale lost. If they’d known of the small press’s website, they could have gone there and bought a copy – but there’s no link from Amazon, and most people won’t bother to google for it. Which means that whenever you mention your small press or self-published title, you’re going to need to attach a link to your website. But that’s not allowed, that’s spam. It’s catch-22. Having said that, since Amazon takes a 60% discount – there’s no negotiation involved – any sale through Amazon will likely mean a loss. Amazon is a good platform selling ebooks, but for small presses without the economies of scale it’s completely useless for print books. Sadly, it’s also most people’s first port of call for print books.

3 Never mind the quality, feel the weight
I read somewhere of an established author who self-published a novel on Kindle and made $1250 of sales in ten days. He complained that was a poor result. But the vast majority of self-published novels on Kindle won’t make that in a year. The market does not have perfect information (which is one reason why capitalism can never really work), and so every reader out there for whom your novel might be a perfect fit is likely unaware of its existence. Instead, most readers will stick with what they know – they’ve read author A before and they like their books, imprint Z publishes good books so they’ll take a punt on their latest title, and so on. As a self-publishing small press, I need to get my name and the name of my press out there. My name doesn’t have sufficient weight to make much of dent in my intended market’s ignorance. The only way that will likely change is if… I get a contract with a major imprint.

4 Reviews are better for the ego than the bank balance
To date, Adrift on the Sea of Rains has been reviewed more than two dozen times on blogs, review sites and in print magazines. That’s a remarkable number for a self-published novella. On Amazon, it currently has eight customer reviews, which is not especially high – even for a self-published ebook. All of the reviews so far have been positive. The most negative comment I’ve seen about it is “it wasn’t too bad” by someone on GoodReads. Of those two dozen reviews, most of the people who wrote them received review copies – electronic or print. Reviews are good, they get word of the book out and about. People see the reviews and are sufficiently intrigued to buy the book. But only two or three of those reviews actually resulted in an uptick in sales. And I suspect there were several incidents of prospective buyers going to their preferred suppliers – Amazon, for example – not finding copies, and promptly giving up.

5 Once tarred, that’s you forever that is
I didn’t want Whippleshield Books to be a purely self-publishing venture, so I made it open submission. In six months, I’ve received a single query. I admit to being picky, but the guidelines are quite clear on what I want. I didn’t want to be spammed with inappropriate submissions – space opera, for example – but I’ve not even had that. Authors complain there aren’t enough venues to sell to, that those which do exist don’t like the sort of fiction they write… Perhaps there really is no one else writing the sort of fiction I want to publish. I find that hard to believe. Maybe it’s because Adrift on the Sea of Rains is self-published – I’ve made no secret of it. I know some book bloggers and review sites won’t touch it because it’s self-published – though they’ll happily review crap books by established imprints. Maybe the same also holds true for submissions?

Okay, perhaps not “forever”… I can think of two small presses originally set up to publish their founder’s own fiction. Both are now reasonably successful, with large catalogues of books by many different authors. Perhaps a decade from now, Whippleshield Books will be in the same situation. But in the years since those two small presses were established – and it’s less than a decade for both – much has changed in the publishing world. While new channels on the internet have made distribution and promotion much easier over a much wider area, the low barriers to entry have also significantly decreased the signal to noise ratio. The market is far bigger, but there are now so many traders that people can only hear you sing out your wares when they’re actually standing at your stall.

In a month or so, the second book of the Apollo Quartet should see in print. Having a second book out might change the game entirely for Whippleshield Books. It’ll be interesting seeing if it does. We shall have to see how it goes…

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A musical interlude

I mention music far too infrequently on this blog, despite the fact I have it playing almost constantly throughout the day – on my iPod when I’m at work, on iTunes when I’m at home. So here’s a top tune by Laethora, a side-project of two of my favourite bands, Dark Tranquillity and the now sadly disbanded The Provenance. ‘The Sightless’ is from Laethora’s latest album, The Light in Which We All Burn, which could almost be a title from the Apollo Quartet. The video is by Niklas Sundin, Dark Tranquillity and Laethora guitarist, and graphic artist.



Science fiction was born in the white-hot enthusiasm for the future found in the electronics magazines of the 1920s. Electronics – engineering – was going to build a better future for everyone, and science fiction would show the way forward. But there was also the pulp tradition as well, and that quickly polluted the pure-strain “scientifiction”, adding escapism and implausibility to the didactic rationality of the new genre.

Ninety years later, it looks like pulp won the battle for the hearts and minds of science fiction readers. In other words, there is very little science in science fiction. But then a lot of people think the acronym formed from the genre’s name, sf, should really mean “speculative fiction”. Ugh.

It’s true that that much sf could be placed on a sliding scale – at one end it would read “scientific content” and at the other “literary merit”. But scientific content and literary merit are not mutually exclusive. You can have both in a fiction. The fact that those who have tended to one have been poor at the other, and vice versa, is an historical accident. It’s neither a law nor a defining characteristic of the genre.

But taking the science out of science fiction does invalidate it. Sf is not some big amorphous playground in which you get to leave your grubby fingerprints over all the cool toys. Just because a fiction appropriates the trappings of sf – the spaceships, the robots, the Singularity, etc – that doesn’t necessarily make it sf. There is an underlying philosophy to the genre, a consequence of its beginnings, and to ignore that and treat sf like just another branch of fantasy is to ignore the genre’s history and its character. Which is why claiming sf pooh-poohs categorisation and boundaries is to miss the point of what it is.

When an author of mainstream fiction writes a story set in, say, the 1950s, or Budapest, or featuring a cellist, they do the research. They ensure their fiction has verisimilitude, that their 1950s isn’t just 2012 with hats, or Budapest isn’t a middle-American city with funny accents. Why do sf authors refuse to do that same? True, their invented worlds may not obey the same rules as the real world, but even when it does they blithely wave their authorial hand and magic allows the story to progress. That’s not science fiction. Treating the world as if it were some magical woowoo sort of place is anathema to science fiction. And, more than that, it’s entirely pointless.

Science fiction certainly needs the science putting back in, but perhaps it also needs to think about being didactic again. Don’t hide the science, don’t pretend you’re really writing woowoo futuristic fantasy. If there’s science in there, take pride in it.

Show your reader, I did science.

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The future we used to have – special 5

This has been the most difficult of these specials to put together, chiefly because many of the really cool spacecraft proposals of the 1970s and earlier never got beyond a few drawings. Science fiction is filled with spacecraft and spaceships, but most of them work using magic science and technology. Serious attempts at either reaching orbit cheaply and easily or travelling further than Low Earth Orbit are few and far between. To date, only eight crewed spacecraft have ever reached orbit or beyond – Vostok, Voskhod, Soyuz, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Space Shuttle and Shenzhou. A further twelve are in development or have been proposed.

There have been numerous plans in the past to expand on existing space programmes, or start up new ones. Some were by the military, others were civilian, and some proposals came from aerospace manufacturers. Of the ten space craft below, only two have flown in orbit and another two ever left the ground. Most never made it off the drawing-board. At least one of them I suspect was never intended seriously, although if you look online you can find models of it. Only one is still flying, and two went on to found follow-up projects which are currently ongoing.

Apollo Command/Service Module
Orbital and cislunar spacecraft (USA)
crew 3
mass 30,332 kg
payload n/a
proposed 1961
status flew 15 crewed missions

Hyperion SSTO
Proposed Single-Stage-to-Orbit launch vehicle (USA)
crew unknown
mass 470,000 kg
payload 18,100 kg
proposed 1968
status study only

Orbital spacecraft (USSR/Russia)
crew 3
mass 7,150 kg
payload n/a
proposed 1963
status still flying

Boeing X-20 Dynasoar
Orbital spaceplane (USA)
crew 1
mass 5,165 kg
payload n/a
proposed 1957
status cancelled after mock-up was built

Mikoyan Spiral 50-50
Orbital spaceplane and launch aircraft (USSR)
crew 1
mass 115,000 kg
payload unknown
proposed 1960
status cancelled in 1978 after single subsonic test article built and flown

Proposed Single-Stage-to-Orbit launch vehicle (GB)
crew unmanned
mass 250,000 kg
payload 8,000 kg
proposed 1982
status government funding withdrawn in 1988, restarted privately as Skylon

Northrop HL-10
Lifting Body research aircraft (USA)
crew 1
mass 2,721 kg
payload n/a
proposed 1966
status flew 37 test flights but never reached higher than 26,726 m altitude

Project Aldebaran
Proposed Single-Stage-to-Orbit launch vehicle (USA)
crew unknown
mass 50,000,000 kg
payload 27,000,000 kg
proposed 1965
status appeared in the book Beyond Tomorrow by Dandridge Cole (1965, Amherst Press)

Project Daedalus
Interstellar probe (GB)
crew none
mass 1st stage 1,690,000 kg, 2nd stage 980,000,000 kg
payload 450,000,000 kg
proposed 1973
status a new study, Project Icarus, for a crewed version is currently underway

Project Orion
Proposed Nuclear-propelled Single-Stage-to-Orbit launch vehicle (USA)
crew unknown
mass 800,000 kg
payload 300,000 kg
proposed 1958
status study only