It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Musical interlude

Noumena, an excellent Finnish melodic death metal band (yes, there is such a thing as melodic death metal; it’s a known subgenre), have just released their new album, Death Walks With Me, seven years after the preceding album. I have bought it and it is very good indeed. Noumena have also decided to promote the new album with a promo video. And here it is. Enjoy.

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The future we used to have, part 15

One of the things we used to have was the USSR, which meant we also had the Cold War. That gave us “the three-minute warning”, fallout shelters, Mutually Assured Destruction, vast military-industrial complexes, spies and defectors and assassinations, and all manner of political posturing that nowadays all looks a bit farcical but was quite scary at the time. It also gave us some very effective-looking military aircraft. On both sides. Here are some Soviet ones.



Mikoyan Mig-21’Fishbed’


Mikoyan MiG-25PU ‘Foxbat-C’  trainer


Sukhoi Su-15 ‘Flagon’
(source: Wikipedia)


Tupolev Tu-28 ‘Fiddler’


Yakovlev Yak-28 ‘Maestro’



Myasishchev M-4 ‘Bison’


Myasishchev M-50 ‘Bounder’


Sukhoi T-4


Tupolev Tu-16 ‘Badger’
(source: Wikipedia)


Tupolev Tu-22 ‘Blinder’

The Tupolev Tu-28 was, and remains, the largest and heaviest fighter ever to see service. The Myasishchev M-50 was a prototype – only one was ever built. A second prototype, designated M-52, was built but never flew. The Sukhoi T-4 was also a prototype, and was never given a NATO reporting name.


Public speeching

Last week, I was invited to give a talk – along with two other speakers – to the University of Sheffield Natural History Society. The topic was “science in science fiction”. This wasn’t quite the same as my only previous other public engagement, at the National Space Centre in February. This wasn’t a reading, it wasn’t about my books. So I had to write a new speech. And presentation slideshow. I stuck to a similar topic, however: real space and space travel and how science fiction has traditionally been getting it wrong.

Despite a couple of technical problems, the talk went well. First, Pieter Kok, Senior Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the university, spoke about time travel and showed how to solve the grandfather paradox using quantum mechanics. Then it was my turn. And finally, David Kirby, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication Studies at the University of Manchester and author of Lab Coats in Hollywood, talked about the use of science consultants in Hollywood films. We then had a short Q&A session.

It was a fun evening. I don’t think my delivery was as polished as it could have been – I’m still not used to public speaking. And I did feel really old sitting in a venue full of students. A couple of them spoke to me afterwards – I think I may have upset them with my talk. I was a little dismayed that most of the sf novels they mentioned were all a good twenty or thirty years old, though one did name Ken MacLeod’s Learning The World. The society then laid on a barbecue, but because it was raining they just bought food into the venue – a burger, corn on the cob and coleslaw. I spoke to a couple of lecturers who were present, and then caught the tram home in time to watch the +1 edition of that night’s episode of In Plain Sight.

And here is the talk I gave (I’ve inserted the slides as jpegs):


My name is Ian Sales and I write science fiction. But you won’t find any of my books in the local Waterstone’s as I’ve yet to sell a novel to a publisher.

But I have written and published two parts of a quartet of novellas, called the Apollo Quartet: Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself.

Adrift on the Sea of Rains won the BSFA Award in the short fiction category earlier this year.

I’ve had short stories published in a number of anthologies and magazines, and last year I also edited an anthology, Rocket Science, for Mutation Press.

Tonight, I’ll be talking about space and space travel in science fiction literature.

You probably all recognise this quotation – in fact, most of you, even the non-sf readers, have probably read the science fiction novel in which it appears. And yet, despite the vast, huge, mind-boggling bigness of space, Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Trillian and Zaphod Beeblebrox zip about the galaxy as if it were no bigger than the South Seas.

But space really is big.

Last month, Voyager 1 – the most distant human-made object from Earth, some 18 billion kms away – left the Solar System. It’s not aimed at any particular star but it will pass within 15 trillion kilometers of Gliese 445, 17.6 light years away.

At its current speed of 38,000 kph, it’ll reach there in 40,000 years.

The fastest human-made objects ever built were the Helios-A and -B space probes, launched in 1974 and 1976 by West Germany and NASA. They reached a velocity of 252,792 kph. That’s London to New York in 79 seconds.

The fastest human beings ever were the crew of Apollo 10, who hit 39,897 kph during their return from the Moon. That’s London to New York in 8 minutes and 20 seconds.

Our nearest star is Proxima Centauri. It is 4.24 light years away, 4 years and 3 months at light-speed. But those Helios probes, the fastest objects ever built…

… they only reached 0.000234% of light speed. It would take them 13,000 years to get there. If Voyager 1 were heading toward Proxima Centauri it would take it nearly 74,000 years.

So, you see, space is really really really big.

But you wouldn’t know it if you read science fiction. In novels by Iain M Banks, Peter F Hamilton, Lois McMaster Bujold or Elizabeth Moon, humans or aliens flit about the galaxy in starships, travelling from planet to planet in either hours, days or weeks.

But space in science fiction plays a metaphorical role. It is a signifier of distance. And distance itself is a measure of strangeness or exoticism.

In science fiction’s early days, Mars was a common locale for stories – not just Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars in 1912, but also Robinsonades like Rex Gordon’s No Man Friday from 1956.

However, as scientists learned more about the Red Planet, so it became closer and less exotic. Locales in sf moved further afield. But by that point, the limits of the knowledge of the time had been reached, so imagination took over. The worlds were made-up, with no basis in reality. The universe itself became a fiction.

And that’s how science fiction continues to treat it.

Because it’s all about distance.

To Westerners of yore, the South Seas were exotic. And I mean that just as much in its demeaning colonialist definition as I do its less provocative meaning. Africa, South America – they were the same. Both were a long way away – weeks or months by sea travel. Science fiction authors just substituted weeks on the open sea with weeks in a spaceship.

Which is why spaceships in science fiction pretty much resemble ocean-going ships.

They have bridges, they have crew stations for everything from communications to navigation. They have cabins and wardrooms and storerooms. They have captains and first officers and chief engineers.

Real space travel isn’t like that at all.

Back in April 1961, just over fifty years ago, the human race sent someone into space for the first time. Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth in a steel ball 2.3 metres in diameter. That’s about as unlike an ocean-going ship as you can get.

This is the Skylon, a spaceplane being developed here in the UK by Reaction Engines Ltd. It can carry passengers, but it doesn’t have any crew. It’s completely automated.

The Boeing X-37B is robotic.

Even the Soyuz is chiefly controlled from the ground.

Real spacecraft are tiny.

On each of nine Apollo missions, three men travelled to the Moon in a command module with an interior volume of 5.9 cubic metres. That’s about the same as a Ford Transit van.

The Soyuz is even smaller – the re-entry module is only 2.5 cu metres. It’s so small, in fact, that in order to fit in three seats, the centre seat has to be set back from the other two – so the person sitting in it, the commander, can’t even reach the control panel. They have to use a small stick to press the buttons.

There are other issues, as well. It’s all very well travelling to other stars and planets at physics-busting speeds, but it’s no good to you if you arrive there dead.


Given current technology, a fast transit journey to Mars would take about 150 days. It would be expensive, of course – vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly expensive, in fact. But we don’t know yet how to keep those astronauts alive. We have yet to build a Closed Environment Life Support System capable of keeping human beings alive in space for any useful length of time.

Our only beachhead on the real universe, the International Space Station, requires around eight supply missions per year. And it’s only 400 km away.

But even before we take that first step, we have an obstacle to overcome. And it’s a biggie.

Our gravity well.

The best method we have to date for throwing things into orbit is a chemical rocket. And it’s horribly inefficient. You have to chuck away most of the rocket to get off the planet. It took 2.3 million kilos of Saturn V to send 45,000 kg to the Moon. That’s throwing away 98% of the total mass.

Worse, rockets are limited by the very science which makes them possible.

This is the rocket equation.

The important variable here is ve, the effective exhaust velocity. (It’s “effective” because, for obvious reasons, it’s lower in atmosphere than in vacuum.) The problem with exhaust velocity is that it’s determined by the propellants used in the rocket, and there’s only so much energy that can be generated from a chemical reaction involving two specific propellants. You can’t magically make dinitrogen tetroxide and a 50/50 mixture of hydrazine and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine generate more energy than it does. Chemistry doesn’t work like that. Those, incidentally, were the fuels used by the Saturn V to send men to the Moon.

Because getting into orbit is so inefficient, it’s correspondingly expensive, between five and ten thousand dollars per kilo. Which means you need to make the most of what you can throw up there. Spacecraft are tiny because every kilo counts. You don’t want to waste valuable weight on cabins and wardrooms.

Of course, if you had some magical means of propulsion that could power your spaceship to escape velocity without all that chemical inferno, then it would be a different matter. But we don’t, and science fiction has a bad tendency to gloss over that lack. Authors wave their hands and invoke the phrase “anti-gravity”, but really it’s not at all scientific.

The same is true of interstellar travel.

Science fiction likes its hyperspace drives and warp drives and FTL drives and such, but they’re about as scientific as an Infinite Improbability Drive. Even theoretical ones like the Alcubierre Drive would require more energy to operate than actually exists in the universe, so that’s not going to happen any time soon.

Which begs the question – how important is the science in science fiction?

There are science fiction novels which contain bona fide science, or have premises based on real science:

… like Greg Benford’s Timescape or Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero or Gwyneth Jones’ Life or anything by Greg Egan. But they’re more the exception than the rule.

You can’t even say that once upon a time sf stories were all about the science, even though the inventor of the genre, Hugo Gernsback, described science fiction in 1926 as:



Science fiction was born in the white-hot enthusiasm for technological progress implicit in the electronics magazines of the 1920s. But few of its purveyors were trained scientists, and when the genre was repositioned at the end of that decade as yet another form of pulp adventure fiction, whatever scientific credibility it had demanded subsequently lapsed. Since then, it could be said science fiction has been little more than a  mechanism for delivering bad ideas to impressionable members of society.

In other words, science fiction is, and always has been, scientifically bankrupt.

Happily, the genre’s name comprises two words, and if the genre has long since lost the intellectual rigour demanded by one of those words, it has at least always been driven by the second. Science fiction is fiction, it is…

stories. And it is in its approach to those stories that it comes closer to science than any other mode of fiction. It posits a rationalist scientific worldview. It might fumble the details, or just make them up out of whole cloth, but it recognises that the real universe is a place where…

… physics and chemistry and biology and such all hold sway. It may use magical science and technology, but it’s still science and technology, it is still assumed to work like science and technology. It doesn’t work because. It doesn’t require divine powers or chicken entrails or a magic hat.

Despite the fact science fiction gets it wrong so frequently and so consistently, I still prefer to call it that and not “speculative fiction”. All modes of fiction are essentially speculative. Telling stories is a way of speculating about something. By unpacking the abbreviation “sf” as science fiction, it tells us it’s a mode of fiction which views the world with a scientific eye – even if its actual scientific record is pretty damn poor…

As I’ve outlined, we have a fifty-year tradition of real space travel, but science fiction insists on using its ocean-going ships in space.

We know the universe is even more vast, huge and mind-bogglingly big than Douglas Adams could even imagine, but science fiction still pretends interstellar distances are crossable within a human lifetime.

Here’s an example of that mind-boggling bigness:

… the Sculptor Wall is a superstructure of galaxies. It’s 370 million light years long, 230 million light years wide and 45 million light years deep. That’s millions of light years.

In kilometres, that’s 3,500 with 18 zeroes after it. And the Sculptor Wall’s not even the largest superstructure we’ve found.

The more science tells us about the universe, the less significant we discover we are. By manipulating our sense of scale, science fiction puts us back where we want to be – at the centre. Important. Sf humanises a universe which is completely indifferent to us.

And, in order to do that, science fiction writers all too often fall back on metaphors that they, and their readers, find comfortable. The chemist’s down the road.

Spaceships with a captain sitting in a big important chair on a bridge. The real world isn’t like that, real space travel isn’t like that, real interstellar distances aren’t like that.

As Korzybski might have said, “the metaphor is not the thing itself”. But use that metaphor too much and too often, and it might as well be – even if it has become completely decoupled from the thing it metaphorises.

Of course, it may well be that we’ll hit a Kuhnian paradigm shift sometime in the future and render everything I’ve said so far completely irrelevant. It may well be that all those science fiction novels of galactic adventure really are maps of the future.

But I’m not holding my breath.



Recent readings

I’ve been reading a lot for review recently – not just SF Mistressworks, but also Interzone, Vector, and Daughters of Prometheus. But I do occasionally read for pleasure as well – although the reads don’t always turn out to be pleasurable…

ON THE BEACH,  Nevil ShuteOn The Beach, Nevil Shute (1957), is apparently a classic and is often claimed for science fiction since it depicts a world immediately after a nuclear holocaust. The Albanians started it all off, the Egyptians then attacked NATO, and NATO thought it was the Soviets and so the nations of northern hemisphere wiped each other out in Mutually Assured Destruction. Now the last few humans, in southern Australia, pass the few months remaining to them. A lone US nuclear submarine has survived the destruction of the US and made itself available to the Royal Australian Navy. When a series of signals in Morse code – mostly unintelligible, but occasionally a clear word comes through – is detected coming from the west coast of the US, the USS Scorpion is sent to investigate. Much of the novel describes the Australians coming to terms with their impending doom – nuclear fallout is drifting south across the equator, and no one will survive when it reaches them. The USN captain pretends he still has a family back in New England, the RAN officer aboard the submarine and his wife plan for the future of their young baby, Moira, the young woman who is paired off with the USN captain, drinks and parties a lot and falls in love with the captain, and the scientist who’s tracking the drift of the fallout starts racing fast cars, culminating in a fierce race in which most of the drivers die in crashes. The prose is clunky at best, though Shute draws his characters quite well. It’s easy to see why the book is so well-regarded, though it wasn’t as smooth a read as I’d expected. Happily, it’s better than the film adaption – which starred Gregory Peck as the USN captain, Ava Gardner as Moira (as an Australian with an American accent), and Fred Astaire as the car-racing scientist. You’d think the book would adapt well, but Stanley Kramer managed to make the whole thing extremely dull.

meaulnesLe Grand Meaulnes, Alain-Fournier (1913), was one of my father’s Penguin paperbacks, and I thought it looked interesting enough to be worth a read. It’s framed as the reminiscences of François, who attended a village school in the Sologne run by his father. A new boy appears at the school, Augustin, but he runs away one day and stumbles across a wedding party at a small chateau. He is mistaken for one of the guests, and has a magical time. However, the wedding fails to take place, and Augustin leaves and returns to the school – but he cannot remember the location of the chateau, and desperately wishes to meet the sister of the bridegroom once again as he had fallen in love with her. The “lost domain” drives Augustin – le grand meaulnes of the title – but even when the MC of a travelling circus proves to be the bridegroom from the wedding, he is still no closer to finding the girl of his dreams. Eventually, François stumbles across the location of the chateau, makes friends with the young woman, and informs Augustin of his discovery. But Augustin has been on another quest, and things have changed… There’s a nicely elegiac atmosphere to Le Grand Meaulnes, though that’s hardly surprising in a story which covers both lost childhood and lost love. The writing in the translation I read was very good throughout and while the story was very slow to start, it was worth reading. A classic.

Dark Eden by Chris BeckettDark Eden, Chris Beckett (2012), was shortlisted for the BSFA Award but did not win, and has now been shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award. Set on a rogue planet travelling through, I think, intergalactic space, the novel plays out Cain and Abel among the 500 descendants of a single couple who were marooned there. The story is told by several narrators, in a strangely-random debased English – some words have devolved, but others haven’t. So the various words for local flora and fauna have remained unchanged, but the annual celebration of the landing has become “Any Virsry”. The inhabitants of the planet are also suffering from severe inbreeding, with many of them having deformed feet or severe hairlips. John Redlantern, however, is perfectly normal, although he is a good deal more thoughtful than everyone else. When he realises that the valley in which they live can no longer support further growth, he tries to persuade the elders to sanction a search for more living space. They reject his proposal because they believe they’re to wait for rescuers to appear… as they have been doing for nearly 200 years. Things come to a head, John is exiled and takes with him a small group of teenagers. But then his enemy back in the main colony foments hatred against John and his followers, there’s a clash, and John is forced to take his small colony across the frozen waste which surrounds the valley in search of a new valley in which to live. There’s an almost Biblical inevitability to the story of Dark Eden, and some members of the cast do play their roles with all the thudding predictability of characters from the Old Testament. But where Dark Eden does shine is in its presentation of its old story. The setting is a small work of genius, and beautifully described, and the integration of the characters in the setting is handled with real skill. It’s no surprise Dark Eden has appeared on the shortlists of the UK’s two most-prestigious science fiction awards.

jamiliaJamilia, Chingiz Aïtmatov (1958), I bought for my 2012 world fiction reading challenge, but I never managed to complete the challenge after getting bogged down in both Orham Pamuk’s My Name is Red and Javier Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow 1: Fever and Spear. But Jamilia is a slim work, more of a novella than a novel, so I picked it up one day earlier this month and read it on my way to and from work. It’s blurbed as “the most beautiful love story in the world” and, well, if it isn’t, it comes very close. It’s set in Aïtmatov’s native Kyrgyzstan sometime during the Second world War. The men have all gone off to fight, leaving the women, old men and boys to run the village and bring in the harvest. When Daniyar returns from the fighting, but his family are no longer alive, he is tasked with assisting the narrator’s family – especially transporting the grain by cart to the nearby town, along with the narrator and the narrator’s sister-in-law, Jamilia (whose husband is away fighting). Over several trips, Jamilia and Daniyar fall in love, but their relationship is forbidden as Jamilia is still married. The writing is simple but effective, although the translator has bizarrely mixed up Islamic oaths and Christian ones, which seems a pretty fundamental mistake to me. A fascinating little novella. Worth reading.

emptyEmpty Space, M John Harrison (2012), is the third and final book of Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, the first of which, Light, marked his return to science fiction after many years away. I’m not sure there’s any value in giving a précis of the plot, since in parts it’s wilfully opaque – as it has been throughout the entire the trilogy. Suffice it to say that some of the plot-threads from the preceding two novels do see some sort of resolution in this book. Harrison’s future is dirty and enigmatic, but it is also full of small inventive touches. The prose is like the roiling quantum foam of the strange physics it describes. Though the section set in the very near-future, featuring Anna Waterman, the widow of the physicist Michael Kearney from Light, reads more like the sort of literary fiction in which fantasy is injected sideways into the real world – much like Harrison’s earlier The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life; the narratives set on the worlds bordering the Kefahuchi Tract use the language of science fiction with a facility few genre writers can match. An alien installation, dubbed the Aleph, threads its way through the story, stitching together the various narratives as it manifests the strange physics emanating from the Tract. Strangely, though aliens are frequently mentioned in the book – and the tramp freighter Nova Swing’s cargo consists of mysterious alien “mortsafes” – they are entirely off-stage, or implied to have existed only in the deep past. Not every character is human, but the template of every character certainly is. Having finished Empty Space, but I can see the resolution and how it comes together, but I’m not entirely sure what has been resolved. It’s like the strange physics which informs the story – the effect is visible, the cause is unknowable and the process often seems to follow rules of its own. I think I shall have to reread all three books to get a real handle on it.

warriorThe Mark of the Warrior, Paul Scott (1958), is likely to remind genre readers of at least two books, even though it is set in India in 1942 and is about officer-cadets being trained for combat in the region. Major Craig is a veteran of the war in Burma – while he made it out of the jungle, as did most of his company, he did lose his second in command, John Ramsay. And now Craig has been assigned to an Officer’s Training School near Pune, as has Ramsay’s younger brother, Bob. Craig sees in Bob Ramsay the same thing he saw in John Ramsay – “the mark of the warrior”, a natural soldiering ability coupled with what are probably sociopathic tendencies. Certainly, young Ramsay proves to be the best cadet at the school – so much so that when the design of a final exercise is made into a cadet competition, Ramsay wins it by presenting a scheme both he and Craig know will prove the only useful one to those destined to fight in the region. Instead of previously setting up combat set-pieces on the nearby plains, Ramsay’s scheme involves an attack on a fortified position in the jungle thirty miles to the north of the school. Those who have read Gordon R Dickson’s Dorsai trilogy are going to find a lot in The Mark of the Warrior which seems familiar, and given that Scott’s novel beat Dickson’s The Genetic General into print by a year, you have to wonder… On the other hand, it’s not all that likely a US sf author would stumble across a novel by a British mid-list literary writer within a year of its publication. Nevertheless, the Dorsai seem to owe a lot to Ramsay. As does Orson Scott Homophobe’s Ender, though not having read that book, I’m not sure how close any resemblance might be. Genre comparisons aside, Scott’s novel is a minor work. It’s well-written, and the characters of Craig and Ramsay are drawn extremely well. I said of Scott’s The Bender when I read it that it would make a good British film, and the same is true of this one. It’s time for adaptation is long past, however; though perhaps the story could be updated to the present day without too much difficulty.


April is the cruellest month

And we’re only halfway through it…

  • The Hugo shortlists are announced and kick off the usual commentary – though this year it seems a little more critical than previously. Excellent posts on the subject from Jonathan McCalmont, Ladybusiness, Paul Kincaid and Maureen Kincaid Speller. There’s also a telling comment by a fan on Seanan McGuire’s complaint that she’s been accused of “too much self-promotion”: “If not for your self-promotion, I wouldn’t have found out about the Hugo Awards”. The Hugos have lost the plot, and while the shortlists are admirably diverse, that’s about the only positive thing to be said of them. Also, why do they still have the novelette category? Kill it.
  • The Clarke Award shortlist is announced and it’s all male. The judges are immediately blamed, but given the decreasing numbers of eligible books by women writers in recent years, such a shortlist was sadly inevitable. Happily, things are looking up, with sf novels by women published this year by Del Rey UK and Jo Fletcher Books. There appear to be problems with distribution, however; so there’s still work to be done.
  • Iain Banks announces he has terminal cancer and will likely not see out the year. Readers of science fiction and literary fiction are understandably very sad. He’s been a fixture of my reading – in both genres – since the late 1980s, so I will sorely miss him.
  • Margaret Thatcher dies and then is recast as some sort of 1980s economic and political messiah. Er, no. I lived through the 1980s, I remember what they were like. I’ve already been told she was “the best prime minster we’ve ever had”. No, that would be Clement Attlee. And he didn’t get a state funeral.
  • Damien Walter, prompted by the imminent announcement of the Granta 2013 list of Best of Young British Novelists, produces a genre-specific list of his own, although not specifically British. I’ve never really understood the purpose of the Granta list – if it’s to say, “here are some writers who are just starting out but we think will go on to have long and fruitful careers and write some important books”, then why the age cut-off? Why choose some authors more than once? Walter’s list contains some obvious choices, and some frankly bizarre ones. An author whose first novel is not due until September, and has had nothing else published to date? An author who’s had a successful 15-year career already as a novelist? Hugh Howey? I mean, Wool is a terrible book. Saladin Ahmed? Throne of the Crescent Moon promises much, but it’s also very rough. There are some notable names missing too: Lavie Tidhar, Kameron Hurley, Katie Ward, Jennifer Pelland, Ted Kosmatka, G Willow Wilson… And no doubt I’ve forgotten some excellent writers, and will probably kick myself the moment this post goes live. Of course, if you raise the age limit, then there are a lot more candidates…
  • Hugh Howey, author of the ultra-successful Wool, goes and posts an offensive screed on his blog railing against a young woman who was apparently less than flattering about self-published authors at the 2012 Worldcon. Howey fans immediately jump in to reinforce his sense of entitlement – Howey admits he enjoys playing “secret millionaire”, as if anyone would know who he is anyway – before the wider community rightly announces itself deeply offended. Howey apologises, then removes the blog post, but the backlash continues…
  • For the second year running, April is Women in SF & F month on Fantasy Café. Which is good. Some excellent posts there so far. Go look.

And there you have it, a fortnight’s worth of fun and games in the world of genre – with a bit of UK politics thrown in. I don’t normally post this sort of stuff, but I’ve not written anything here for a couple of weeks so I felt I ought to post something.

In other news, later this week I’ll be one of three speakers talking about science in science fiction to the University of Sheffield Natural History Society – my second time being an author-y type person in front of complete strangers. I’ll post my talk and slide show here afterwards.

The spike in sales of Adrift on the Sea of Rains caused by the mention in the Guardian earlier this month seems to have died down. I’ve no idea what impact winning the BSFA Award had on sales, but I suspect everyone who would have bought it because of the award already had done. Or got it free in the BSFA booklet. Don’t forget the second book of the quartet is also available (as are review copies). I’ll be starting my research for the third one soon. It will be… different.


Memories of Maggie

Apparently I should not be disrespectful of Margaret Thatcher now that she has died, so I thought might instead share a few of my personal memories of her years in power and her immediate legacy:

  • the removal of the educational grants system and its replacement by student loans
  • three million unemployed, and the tories ever-changing definition of the word “unemployed”
  • the miners’ strike and communities split apart on NUM / UDM lines
  • the destruction of the British coal industry
  • the destruction of the British steel industry
  • the destruction of the British automotive industry
  • North Sea oil revenues squandered to prop up the balance of payments
  • Black Monday 1987
  • Poll Tax riots
  • my home town Mansfield becoming a ghost town after pit closures
  • Coventry becoming a ghost town after car factory closures
  • a Spitting Image sketch in which Thatcher berates Lawson, “I said phase out the Pound note, not the Pound Sterling!”
  • spending nine months on the dole after I graduated – they say 30% of graduates landed jobs within 6 months of graduation that year
  • living in a bedsit on £44.75 dole and £36 housing benefit a week, despite having just earned a BA (Hons)
  • having to leave the UK to get a job

Other people no doubt have other memories of her years in power. Mine are enough for me to see no good reason to respect her, alive or dead. I expect to be thoroughly sickened over the next few days by all the hagiographic crap that will be spouted via every media. Death does not make saints of sinners. When you see people praising Thatcher, take note of who they are – they’re the ones who benefited from her economic policies, and are still doing so. The rest of us, we just had to live with the damage she inflicted.


When I’m sixty-four

The Easter weekend in the UK traditionally sees around a thousand fans of science fiction, fantasy, horror and steampunk descend on a hotel somewhere in the country to discuss genre in all its forms, drink beer and generally socialise. They’ve been doing this since 1948 – but not the same group of people, obviously. This year, the Eastercon returned to the Cedar Court Hotel in Bradford, the site of 2009’s Eastercon LX. I remember Eastercon LX as a relaxed convention, and this year’s EightSquaredCon proved to be much the same. I had an excellent weekend, saw many old friends, met new ones, pretended to be erudite on a few programme items, bought a number of books, drank some beer, didn’t eat as much as I should have done, and, oh yes, I won a BSFA Award…

I’d planned to leave for Bradford around two pm on the Friday, but by lunchtime I was itching to go so I caught a train an hour earlier… which got me into Bradford around four pm. I had with me a suitcase full of copies of Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, which fortunately had wheels, so I dragged it across City Square to the hotel in which I was staying, Jurys Inn. It proved to be one of those modern minimalist places – restaurant/bar and reception on the ground floor, seven floors of rooms, all very comfortable. After checking in, I texted Mike Cobley, who I knew was staying in the same hotel and due to arrive around the same time as me. We agreed to meet in the lobby, which we did, and where we sat around for about thirty minutes catching up on each others’ news while we waited for the bus to the Cedar Court Hotel.

Because the con hotel is outside the city centre, but doesn’t have enough rooms for all the attendees, most of us were staying in either the Jurys Inn or Midland Hotel in the centre of town, or the Campanile a five-minute bus-ride from the Cedar Court Hotel. The con had organised two sets of buses running between the town-centre hotels and the Campanile every 15 to 20 minutes.

We arrived in time for the small press launch in the hotel’s Conservatory. Both PS Publishing and NewCon Press had new titles, and some of them I wanted. The hour that followed was my most expensive of the weekend – I bought four titles at £20 each. I also got them signed, though the NewCon Press ones were signed editions.


The books are all collections – The Peacock Cloak, Chris Beckett, and Microcosmos, Nina Allan, from NewCon Press; and A Very British History, Paul McAuley, and Universes, Stephen Baxter, from PS Publishing.

After the launches, it was down to the bar… which is where I spent most of the con, a not unusual state of affairs for me.

The following morning, I met up with Mike Cobley for breakfast, after which we went for a wander in a deserted Bradford city centre. We caught the bus to the Cedar Court Hotel, and I paid my first visit to the dealers’ room. I had a bunch of copies of Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to drop off at the Interzone table (thanks, Roy), but I also had a bimble about the room.. Aside from the Friday night launch titles, I only bought secondhand books all weekend, and they were all by women writers.


A selection of sf by women writers – two from The Women’s Press: Herland (donated by Kev McVeigh, thanks) and Woman on the Edge of Time. Both Walk to the End of the World and Star Rider are in The Women’s Press sf series, but these editions will do for now. O Master Caliban! has the horriblest cover art I’ve seen for a long time. Change The Sky And Other Stories is a, er, collection.


I’d have missed these if Mark Plummer hadn’t pointed them out to me, as they were squirrelled away in a box – the three female-only anthologies edited by Pamela Sargent from the 1970s, Women of Wonder, More Women Of Wonder and The New Women of Wonder. And Millennial Women, which was a new one to me.


Three by Marta Randall, including the first two books of a trilogy – Journey and Dangerous Games – and her second novel, A City in the North. Plus Sarah Newton’s Mindjammer, which was self-published and is set in the RPG universe of the same name designed by Sarah.

That afternoon, Mike and I were moderating a programme item on designing a constitution for a Mars Colony. I’d agreed to co-chair in a fit of stupidity, as I had absolutely no idea what to say. I’d provide some technical background, but that was as much thought as I’d put into it. The item started, Mike went into his introduction, I spoke a little about the technical challenges, and then Mike started talking about politics… and I could see we were starting to lose the audience. So I mentioned something Mike and I had actually thought of as we were climbing the stairs to the room where the item was taking place. And that triggered off a discussion which lasted for over an hour. I don’t think we reached any specific conclusions, but people seemed to have had an interesting time.

That evening, my agent John Jarrold threw his now-traditional party for clients and publishers. That was fun. I had intended to avoid the wine and just stick to beer, but I ended up having a couple of glasses without any ill effect. I ate in the hotel that night. As they had done in 2009, the con hotel laid on a canteen-style eaterie all weekend. The food was basic and a bit bland, but it was also cheap and filling. I never actually managed to get out of the hotel to eat, which was a pity.

Sunday I was on two programme items, and the first one was at ten am. The subject was “Older women in genre fiction”, moderated by Caroline Mullan, and including GoH Freda Warrington, as well as Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, David Tallerman and myself. I thought the panel went reasonably well, though none of us could think of many genre novels with an older woman as the protagonist – but Freda did mention her Midsummer Night, which qualified.

Before my second programme item of the day was the BSFA Awards ceremony. I sat on the front row, alongside fellow short fiction shortlistees Aliette de Bodard and Rochita. Paul Cornell emceed the ceremony entertainingly, but I don’t think he expected to get quite as much laughter as he did when he explained that, “BSFA… that’s what you get when you put BS together with FA”. GoH Anne Sudworth then presented the best artwork prize, which went to the cover for Jack Glass, and Freda presented best non-fiction, which was won by the World SF Blog. And then GoH Edward James took the stage to announce the winner of the short fiction category… I was so sure one of the others would win that it took a second or two to realise it was my name Edward had read out. And I hadn’t bothered to make any notes on what to say should I win. I did have a speech in my pocket, but it was by Karen Burnham, to be used in the event she won the non-fiction category. The best novel BSFA Award then went to Adam Roberts’ Jack Glass. Stephen Baxter was presenting this; he had also been asked by Adam to accept it on his behalf. Which led to a slightly surreal sketch in which Steve both presented and accepted the award.


I then had to dash straight upstairs for a panel on Joanna Russ vs Anne McCaffery. Again, Caroline Mullan moderated, and the panel comprised Tanya Brown, Bob Neilsen and myself. When it came to doing our introductions, I said that for a week or two I’d be introducing myself as “the award-winning Ian Sales”… I have read a handful of books by both Russ and McCaffery, and I’d have preferred to have been better read in both… but given the way the discussion went it didn’t prove any handicap. There was plainly a lot of love for McCaffery in the room, and I was frequently Russ’s lone defender. I think the eventual conclusion was that Russ’s more cerebral work might have longer staying power than McCaffery’s more emotional oeuvre.

Then it was down to the bar, where I didn’t have to buy a drink all night. I caught the last bus back to my hotel at one am. It had been a good day…

… And I felt fine when I woke the next morning. Admittedly, the thermostat in my room had been misbehaving all weekend, and randomly resetting the temperature to 30 C. Which had led to some bizarrely hot nights. But I was the first in the hotel to make it down to breakfast, then I went for a walk, and then I caught the first bus to the Cedar Court Hotel… Colin Tate of Clarion Publishing had mentioned the day before there was a small press showcase in the Conservatory from 10 am to noon, and he was leaving early and so wouldn’t be able to use the table he’d booked. I was welcome to it. So I used it. I set out copies of my books alongside Sarah Newton and her sf novel Mindjammer. Also present were the Albedo One group, and Tony and Barbara Ballantyne and their new serial genre magazine Aethernet. It was freezing cold in the Conservatory, but I stuck it out and managed to sell some books.

By this point, the con was already winding down. I got a bite to eat and then just hung around in the foyer with friends until it was time to make a move.

I liked Bradford as a venue the last time the Eastercon was there, despite the split hotel thing; and I enjoyed this convention very much too. It was relaxed – somewhat colder than is usual, true; but very friendly and sociable. I saw many old friends and got to meet in person some people I knew only online. I’d need to take notes to recall all the conversations I had, the topics ranged from death metal to reviews of our own books to Chris Beckett’s fashion sense (sorry, Chris), and all points in between. Some names I remember speaking with at some length, in no particular order: John Jarrold, Neil Williamson, Gary Gibson, Mike Cobley, David Hebblethwaite, Leisel Schwartz, Cory Doctorow, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Cara Murphy, Kev McVeigh, Will and Jenny, the Ballantynes, Gillian Redfearn, Darren Nash, Roy Gray, Helen Jackson, Nina Allan, Donna Scott, Neil Bond, Alex Bardy, Johan Anglemark, Eric Brown, Paul Graham Raven, Paul Cockburn, David Tallerman, Jobeda Ali, Sarah Newton, Chris Beckett, Aliette de Bodard, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Simon Ings, Paul McAuley, Phil Palmer, Simon Morden, Ian Watson, Andy Stubbings, Chris Amies, Jim Burns, Colin Tate, Brian Turner, Steve Baxter… and no doubt I’ve forgotten some people. Sorry.

For all that, I think I came away from EightSquaredCon with a desire to do more at conventions. Sitting around in the bar all day is not as much fun as it once was. I could attend programme items, of course; and this time I sat through one panel I wasn’t on, which is almost a record for me. While cons are social events, and an excellent opportunity to hang out with friends you don’t otherwise see, we interact daily online anyway so no real catching up needs to be done. The internet has changed the nature of friendship in that respect. I spend every day with my friends on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc, etc, and while they’re no real substitute for meeting IRL, they do make something less special of the infrequent times you do meet in person. And that was what cons used to be for. (Perhaps if I lived in London, and regularly attended events there, the same effect would apply – and would have applied prior to the World Wide Web.)

Anyway, EightSquareCon. A good con. Now I have to wait twelve months for the next one. Which will be in Glasgow, a city I’ve always liked. Roll on Satellite 4


To M or not to M

As no doubt most of you who read this blog are aware, Iain Banks today announced he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and is unlikely to see the year out. It’s not unfair to say this comes as a blow to both British literary fiction and British science fiction.

I met Iain Banks several times. The first was in late 1989 at a small convention in Glasgow. I know I’d read The Wasp Factory by then, but I’m not sure if I’d read any of his science fiction. It was during the con that the infamous “massage lotion incident” took place. I witnessed it. During a room party, Banks pretended to sip from a small bottle of Body Shop massage lotion – provided, I think, by Kev McVeigh – but within a few weeks rumours were flying around that he’d actually drunk the entire contents. But mad stories like that seemed to accrete around Banks. Even before I’d met him, I’d heard of his alleged cat burgling at a con in Brighton. If his space operas were larger than the genre seemed capable of containing, then so the stories about him seemed to describe a person so much larger than he really was.


The following year, at the Eastercon in Liverpool, Chris Reed of Back Brain Recluse had arranged to interview Banks for his magazine, but needed somewhere quiet to do so. I volunteered my hotel room. Around a dozen of us sat in on the interview. I remember Banks’ discussing his story ‘Piece’, which had just been published in The Observer Magazine. I also remember him talking about the structural engineering of corsets and bras and their similarity in that respect to bridges.

By that point, I was certainly reading his books – in fact, I bought Use Of Weapons and got it signed at that Liverpool Eastercon. I can still remember how shocked and impressed I was by the end of the book. In terms of the games writers can play with the chronologies of narratives, it has long been a touchstone work for me.


A year or two later at another convention, I remember a somewhat tipsy conversation with Banks on first lines. The opening line of his The Crow Road is famously, “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” John Varley’s Steel Beach, however, almost rivals it with, “‘In five years, the penis will be obsolete,’ said the salesman.” We conflated the two lines and came up with, “In five years, my grandmother’s penis will explode.”

Iain Banks was a fixture on the UK sf scene just as much as his books are a fixture on my book-shelves. After Use Of Weapons, I bought each book in hardback. And since starting up this blog, I have reviewed each new sf novel as it was published – which is not something I do routinely for other sf writers. If I often felt slightly disappointed by those novels, it was only because I expected them to be brilliant – is it my fault he’d himself set so high a standard?

I was hoping I’d be reading Banks’ fiction into my dotage. Sadly, I’ll only be able to reread it. A sad day.