It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Adrift on the Sea of Rains: the podcast

An audio version of Adrift on the Sea of Rains has just been published by Starship Sofa – see here. I didn’t really believe the story would work as a podcast but, with some careful editing by Adam Pracht and myself, I think we managed it. Go and check it out and you’ll see what I mean.

However, we couldn’t really have the narrator read out the glossary, and since that’s part of the whole Adrift on the Sea of Rains reading experience, I’ve published it on the Whippleshield Books blog, both as a blog post and a downloadable PDF. See here.


The cost of doing business

During the Bank Holiday weekend, while working on Apollo Quartet 3: Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, I stumbled across a book I’d not known about and which would prove very useful for research. So I promptly tracked down a copy on and ordered it. As I added it to the bibliography, it occurred to me that I’d spent more on research books for Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above than I had for the previous two novellas of the quartet.

It’s a somewhat unfair observation as both Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself were written chiefly using books I already owned – books I’d collected for my A Space About Books About Space blog over a number of years. But because Apollo Quartet 3 is partly based on something about which I don’t already own reference books… I had to buy them. But exactly how much had I spent?

Totaling up the cost of all the books, and DVDs, mentioned in each of the Apollo Quartet books’ bibliography proved a bit of an eye-opener. It looked like this:

AQ1 £480.02
AQ2 £452.81
AQ3 £477.77
Grand Total £1410.60

That’s a hidden cost of writing, that is. Yes, I write science fiction, so I could just make it all up. And it would cost me nothing. Or I could just rip off ideas from other science fiction novels (I have quite a few of them too). On the other hand, maybe I could borrow books I need from the library – although I suspect at least 80% of the ones I used wouldn’t be available, even through inter-library loans. However, if I include only the books I bought specifically as research for the three novellas, then the figures are considerably reduced:

AQ1 £9.86
AQ2 £62.52
AQ3 £262.93
Grand Total £335.31

That’s not to say that reading all those books for research has been a chore. Having said that, don’t read about the Mercury 13 unless you need more anger in your life. But, on the whole, everything I’ve read for research has proven very interesting. Who knows; I’ve read books on women aviators before – such as Diana Barnato Walker’s Spreading My Wings – and so I might well have sooner or later ended up reading about the Mercury 13 anyway. I’ll certainly be hanging onto the books, and perhaps even re-using some of the research in later fiction… So it’s not like they were a waste of money.

Besides… books.


Cold War (book) pron

So Jared of and I had this cool idea: we would each post something about the various books we owned which were about, or set during, the Cold War. His are here. I’m old enough to remember the Cold War, although not all of it, of course. I’ve not been around quite that long. Anyway, I had a quick look through my book collection and discovered that I had almost 100 books on military aircraft used during the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s. I don’t remember buying so many. Some, I can pass off as research for various pieces of fiction. Honest. But others… Er, no. I put together a post about some of these aircraft books, but then I realised it wasn’t very interesting. So I binned it. Maybe I’ll inflict it in you another day. Instead, I decided to write about some other Cold War books instead… And yes, one or two of them are about military aircraft. But never mind.

One feature of the Cold War was the Space Race. Which didn’t actually amount to a race. At least, NASA always insisted it was never one. But then they did lie on occasion. Not about putting a man on the Moon, however. That was real. And I find it really annoying when people claim it was all faked. But anyway, the Cold War… Science fiction was more than happy to take the Space Race and run with it – and extend the Cold War to low earth orbit, the Moon, and wherever else US sf authors and their manifest destiny thought the Soviets might try and compete with them. Even as late as 1984, Kim Stanley Robinson had Americans versus Soviets in space in his Icehenge. The following sf novels, however, actually predate Gagarin’s momentous flight… which means they get a lot of the details, er, wrong. But never mind.

cold_war01According to the back cover of First on the Moon (1958), it is “a thrilling adventure of the very near future. Written with up-to-the-minute accuracy by a professional aviation research engineer…” Aviation research is, of course, all about spaceflight. Not. So it’s no surprise that First on the Moon hews pretty closely to early 1950s visions of missions to the Moon. But we mustn’t forget those pesky Soviets, who are determined to use “assassination and sabotage”, or “an H-bomb loaded rocket missile”, or even “a Red spaceship with a suicide crew” to prevent the noble Americans from claiming the Moon for “Old Glory”. First on the Moon was Jeff Sutton’s debut novel, and it’s the sort of alarmist Cold War claptrap that normally appeared from publishers of cheap thrillers rather than genre imprints. For the record, the Americans get to the Moon, but then there’s a game of cat and mouse between astronauts and cosmonauts, as illustrated by the cover art. I’m assuming the guy in the red spacesuit is a Russian, because of course being Reds they’d have spacesuits that colour. You can just make out that the bloke shooting at the Red is wearing a blue spacesuit. He must be a good guy, then.

cold_war03cold_war04Bombs in Orbit (1959), Sutton’s second novel, is more of the same. Not only does the cover art feature a pair of Convair F-102 Delta Daggers (Sutton worked for Convair at the time), which of course can’t reach orbit, but the back cover boasts the immortal strapline  “SPACE FROGMEN!” (which, I freely admit, is what prompted me to buy the book in the first place). The titular bombs… “Now the Russian space lead had taken a fatal turn – they had three controlled H-bomb Sputniks circling the Earth ready to drop when and where they wished.” Oh no! Not the H-bomb Sputniks! Bombs in Orbit is “a novel that cannot be put down until the last taut page.” This is blatantly untrue as I have done it many times.

cold_war05Sutton continued writing his Cold War space novels with Spacehive (1960), which boasts – I think – another Convair delta-winged fighter on the cover. I’m not sure which one, however; perhaps it’s one of the research aircraft used when they were developing the B-58 Hustler supersonic bomber– Ahem, anyway… The Spacehive is some sort of project in low earth orbit – “The United States was tossing the parts of Project Spacehive into orbit like bits of a jigsaw puzzle” –  but the US has not quite thought things through because “how do you get any work done when you’re a sitting duck every ninety minutes for Russian rocket snipers?” Oh no! Not the Russian rocket snipers! I’ve yet to read this book, or Bombs in Orbit (all the quotes here and above are taken from the back-cover blurbs), but they but look very… manly, all stony glances and blazing eyes. And gruff, lots of gruff.

cold_war02Charles Eric Maine, on the other hand, was a Brit and an actual science fiction writer. High Vacuum (1956) was his fourth novel and is a straight-up Moon disaster novel. A US rocket crashes in the Sea of Rains – a little bit of prescience by him there (I mean Apollo 15, which of course didn’t crash, but you know what I mean; and not Adrift on the Sea of Rains). “There is enough oxygen to keep alive four survivors for five weeks – or two for ten – or one for twenty…” It’s fortunate the crashed astronauts haven’t lost their ability to add up or take away. In actual fact, only three astronauts survive the crash and must struggle to survive… and try to figure out how to get back to Earth – um, this is starting to sound a little familiar…

cold_war07cold_war08The moment I saw Caper at Canaveral (1963) by Roger Blake on eBay, I had to have it. Just look at that strapline: “Bolder than today’s headlines! Cuban Commies use the fiery desires of a lush nympho to try to gain American missile secrets!” They don’t write them like that any more. Fortunately. And the back-cover’s no better, with its “COUNTDOWN FOR SEX!”. And just in case you don’t know what that is: ” 5 4 3 2 1″. The blurb is, well, it’s… “Gary’s public relations job meant getting the top scientific brains to join his firm. And his formula for winning them over was simple: FREE WHEELING SEX!” So there you go, back during the Cold War even the pencil-necks were manly stallions.

I did say I was going to mention some books about Cold War military aircraft, but in my defence they’re not real Cold War military aircraft. They are in fact aircraft that never got off the drawing-board or beyond the prototype stage.


There were some pretty cool ideas floating about at the time – all in an effort to go higher, further and faster than the enemy. Midland Publishing specialises in military aviation books, and has produced a series on the, er, blue sky thinking prevalent at the time. I don’t have all of the Secret Projects books – there’s another British Secret Projects (which I have but haven’t included here), an American Secret Projects on bombers which I don’t own, and a Soviet Secret Projects on fighters which I also don’t own. Midland have also published several books on Luftwaffe Secret Projects. But Nazi secret technology and occult flying saucers is probably a post for another day…

cold_war09Some of those proposed Mach 3 bombers and fighters may have been cool, but the coolest machine of all was the Caspian Sea Monster. Caspian! Sea! Monster! It was actually an ekranoplan, or ground effect vehicle, which flew a handful of metres above the ground or sea surface. Only the Soviets bothered to build them, and some of them really were monsters, huge things capable of carrying tanks at 500 kph. Unfortunately, they did require a very placid sea-state, which limited their usefulness. Still, they are cool. An ekranoplan makes an appearance in Sebastian Faulks’ James Bond novel, Devil May Care, and I believe Charlie Stross has mentioned them too in his fiction. But really they should be in every story ever written.

cold_war11After all that money spent designing and building aircraft that could fly as fast as possible, during the 1960s a bunch of politicians decided supersonic bombers were an inefficient method of delivering nuclear warheads to the enemy. Build a faster bomber, and the enemy only went and spoiled things by building a faster interceptor. And they were expensive too. Even when they were controlled by Giant Computer Brains, like SAGE – which was used to direct interceptors to bombers entering US airspace. At the time it was built, SAGE was the biggest computer in the world, with each of its 24 machines weighing 250 tons. Yay for miniaturisation and the integrated circuit. Anyway, no supersonic bombers and no supersonic interceptors. Instead, it was all about ballistic missiles. These were buried in silos hidden in the countryside, or carried on submarines. I don’t have any books on ballistic missile submarines but I do have this one on missile silos. Nowadays, you can buy abandoned missile silos, and several have been converted into homes. We may laugh now, but they’ll be the ones laughing after World War III…

cold_war13Speaking of which, should there be an exchange of missiles, the government and military command structure need somewhere safe to carry on the fight. A nuclear bunker. Or several of them. The general public had fall-out shelters of their own, of course, but they had to build them themselves in their own backyards. It’s doubtful they would have been very effective. The shelters documented in Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers – which, of course, are not all that secret anymore – were only for the government and military. And they were pretty damn big. Most have now been abandoned. Of course, fall-out shelters were only effective if you managed to get inside them before the missile hit. In the UK, we had the “three-minute warning”, which didn’t really give enough time to do anything except perhaps say “Oh shit”. The government successfully sold this to the British public as crucial and important because the US told them to. In actual fact, putting early warning stations on British soil gave the US a ten- to fifteen-minute early warning, which was plenty of time for them to see about defending themselves. If the UK got turned into a post-apocalyptic wasteland in the process, why should they care? That’s what allies are for, right? Recently, a military nuclear bunker in Scotland was put up for sale – very useful for the family who needs a Giant Nuclear Bomb Proof Basement.

cold_war12Other countries beside the UK had not-so-secret-now nuclear bunkers. In the US, they had enormous secret underground command complexes built into mountains. Like NORAD, and that one where they keep the stargate. And the ones where they keep all the aliens. Underground Bases and Tunnels was published by Adventures Unlimited Press, which probably tells you all you need to know about it. If you need a hint, here’s the back-cover blurb: “This is a disturbing and important book, revealing a massive level of secret underground engineering activity on the part of the federal government” and “A must read for students of conspiracy, technology suppression, UFOs and the New World Order”. There is a companion volume, Underwater and Underground Bases, but I’ve yet to pick up a copy. All that money Western governments spent on secret bases full of reverse-engineered alien technology, and all they really needed to control their populations was… neoliberalism! And we bought into it, even though it’s all based on a spreadsheet that contains equations that don’t add up. Economics: it’s magical. Personally, I’d sooner governments used alien technology. That would be much more fun.

So there you have it, a small slice of the Cold War in fiction and fact. Four decades of the twentieth century in which the two largest industrial nations postured and blustered… and a complete waste of time. Because the USSR just collapsed on its own. Apparently, when the USSR did crash, many powerful officials in the US intelligence community didn’t believe it. They thought it was a trick. The Soviets were only pretending their entire nation had come crashing down about their ears! In actual fact, they were going to go: Aha! Fooled you, imperialist yankee running dogs! And then invade everywhere. Still, history often makes fools of even the cleverest among us (not that there are any of those in government, of course). But at least the Cold War made an excellent topic for fiction, both science fiction and otherwise. It allowed various writers to fight the good fight under alien skies, or present secret services that weren’t collections of over-educated incompetent nincompoops. At least the Cold War was good for art. And cool aeroplanes. Don’t forget the cool aeroplanes. And the ekranoplans as well, of course. At least the Cold War gave us ekranoplans. And for that we should be properly thankful.


Recent readings since the last recent readings

Books, huh, what’re they good for? No, wait, that’s something else. Books are good for reading, which by some amazing coincidence is just what I’ve been doing recently with some of them. To wit…

praguefatalePrague Fatale, Philip Kerr (2011) This is the eighth book in Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, which nearly brings me up to date – there’s one more, A Man without Breath (2013), currently available; although Kerr has not said how many books the series will eventually comprise. Prague Fatale is set during Gunther’s war years. While not a Nazi, and clearly has trouble dealing with them, he’s respected enough by his superiors to be asked to Prague to solve the locked-room murder of an aide to Reinhard Heydrich. The crime itself is plainly an homage to the golden age of crime fiction, and Gunther has little trouble working out what happened. But there’s much more going on in the novel than just a puzzling murder. Early on, Gunther rescues a young woman from an attempted sexual assault, and then helps her out a little with food and money before eventually entering into a relationship with her. He takes her with him to Prague – when all the senior officers have mistresses, and even a select brothel for their use only, why should he not take his girlfriend? As Gunther makes a nuisance of himself at Heydrich’s chateau, asking impertinent questions (not all of which are related to his investigation) and making plain his contempt of the Nazis – so he gradually works out who killed Heydrich’s aide… and how his death ties in with earlier events in Berlin. More than any other of the recent Gunther books, Prague Fatale feels like a crime novel. But it also feels like Kerr is taking the piss a little by presenting the central murder as a locked-room mystery. The solution proves to be relatively straightforward, and delivered almost in passing – but having it as the core of the story turns the book into a warped country house mystery rather than an historical police procedural. It makes for a pleasant change after the complex spy-fiction plot of the preceding novel, Field Grey (2010). Good stuff.

wolf viz 2:Layout 1Wolfsangel, MD Lachlan (2010) Much praise has been heaped on this, the first in a series, and at an Edge-Lit the author begged me to buy a copy despite it not being my thing at all (actually, he didn’t; it looked interesting, so I bought it; but Mark did sign it for me). On finally getting around to reading it, I was surprised by two things: it was more commercial than I’d expected, and it was a lot more interesting than I’d thought it would be. The story opens strikingly, with a loyal warrior of a Viking king stepping from a longship to drown in mid-sea. He and the king were the sole survivors of a raid on an Anglo-Saxon monastery, the object of which was to steal a pair of twin baby boys. The king’s wife cannot give him a son, so a witch told the king where to find one – her part of the bargain was the other twin. But no one must know the true origin of the king’s “son”, so no warriors must make it back alive from the raid. Initially Wolfsangel reads like an historical novel as it describes Prince Vali’s life as a ward of a rival king – there’s a vague feeling that some of the more fantastical elements are the results of worldview rather than actual magic – but as those fantastical elements slowly begin to intrude more and more into the story so the magical side of the story begins to take over. The giant wolf’s head on the cover, not to mention the title, is a clue as to which supernatural creature is central to the book, and Lachlan’s put an interesting spin on the trope. He’s integrated the werewolf into his take on Norse mythology, and it works really well. He pulls a fast one initially, presenting one of the twins as the werewolf, only for the truth to later reveal itself. After finishing the book, I could understand why it had been so highly praised, and I’m keen to read the next on the series, Fenrir (2011). So that’s a shock – I actually thought a fantasy novel was good.

songsofbandgjpgSongs of Blue and Gold, Deborah Lawrenson (2008) I put this one on the wishlist after learning that its story was based on Lawrence Durrell and his time in Corfu, and some time later I was lucky enough to stumble across a copy in a charity shop. When Melissa’s mother passes away, she finds among her possessions a signed and dedicated poetry collection by famous author Julian Adie. Melissa knew that her mother had spent time in Corfu during the 1960s, and is surprised to discover she knew Adie, who lived there at the time. So Melissa heads for the Greek island to learn as much as she can about her mother’s time there. Adie, of course, is Durrell, and Lawrenson does a good job of fictionalising his life and stitching Melissa’s mother into it. There’s a slight mystery attached, which is neither hard to figure out, and resolved offhandedly, and the writing throughout is of a type you’d sort of expect from a novel boasting such cover art if you did have any expectations regarding prose style from the book’s presentation… I enjoyed it, but I suspect I wouldn’t have done so as much if I hadn’t been familiar with Durrell and his life and oeuvre.

murder-by-the-book-vis-1aMurder by the Book, Eric Brown (2013) This is the first crime novel by Brown, and the first in the “Langham and Dupree Mysteries”. Set in the 1950s, the book’s protagonist is Donald Langham, a crime writer who has churned out a dozen well-received novels. Dupree is Maria Dupree, the well-heeled daughter of an upper-class French emigré, and the personal assistant of Langham’s agent. When a series of people involved in the world of 1950s crime writing die under mysterious circumstances, and Langham’s agent is framed for one of the deaths, Langham turns reluctant detective with Dupree’s help. The template, of course, dictates that as the two spend more time together so they are drawn to each other. The murders are a succession of “book murders”, ie, the sort of tricksy killings you only really find in crime novels, especially crime novels of the genre’s golden age. But then Murder by the Book is not trying to do something different genre-wise, but is as centrally-placed in crime as Brown’s sf novels are in science fiction. The period is handled well, without an excess of detail and nothing that jumps out as anachronistic. Langham is a solid hero, likeable but not too firmly wedded to 1950s sensibilities that he’s not sympathetic to a modern reader. Dupree might be a little too good to be true, if not teetering on the edge of cliché, but she’s just as engaging as Langham and the growing relationship between them works. Not being a crime fan per se, though I’ll read the books and am certainly a fan of the oeuvres of a couple of crime writers, I have to wonder if the mechanics of the central murders occupy a similar place in the genre as “ideas” do in science fictions. The complex murders in Murder by the Book seem to operate much like “nova” do in sf, but I suspect that may be a modus operandi (so to speak) more suited to the story’s setting than the modern crime genre marketplace.

hook1Whirlpool of Stars, Tully Zetford (1974) This is the first book in the Hook quartet, and it’s pretty much hackwork. But then Tully Zetford was really Kenneth Bulmer, who was a complete hack – as Alan Burt Akers, he wrote over fifty books in the Dray Prescott series between 1972 and 1997. Whirlpool of Stars opens with a starship breaking down – something in the engineroom blows up as a result of shoddy maintenance. The passengers and crew are forced to flee in lifeboats, though this is no orderly evacuation. Hook is aboard, and he manages to get a seat aboard one of the lifeboats. The nearest planet, however, is run by a rival corporation to that which had operated the starship, and everyone who lands would be subject high fees… which they can pay off by indentured labour… Hook evades the authorities and, with a woman in tow, runs about the planet, trying to avoid slavery and also the Boosted Men, who are after him. You can tell this is complete hackwork because it panders to the worst prejudices of the sf audience. Hook is an alpha-male protagonist, but one with a weakness – he is a Boosted Man himself, but an early iteration and his powers only operate when he is close proximity to a real Boosted Man. The women in the story exist only as set-dressing, trophies, or damsels in distress. The villains are aliens. The background is a typical right-wing corporatist future, with slavery, success oriented purely on wealth and the power it brings, a blithe disregard for the value of human life, ineffective government and murderous and overly-powerful police forces. Whirlpool of Stars is tosh, distasteful badly-written tosh, and while Bulmer was clearly doing it for the money, you have to wonder what excuse present-day writers of similar science fictions have. Oh, and I have another three of these books to read. Sigh.

cleftThe Cleft, Doris Lessing (2007) There is a phrase in Brian W Aldiss’s story ‘Confluence’, a “dictionary” of alien terms, that goes: “YUP PA: A book in which everything is understandable except the author’s purpose in writing it; an afternoon sleigh-ride”. That pretty much describes The Cleft. A Roman historian has been handed a bunch of writings, normally kept hidden, and which he plans to turn into a treatise of his own. The documents are purportedly the written-down oral history of the earliest human civilisation, long before agriculture, nations, cities, kings or government. Apparently, humanity was originally female-only, and they lived in caves beside a sea. They reproduced parthogenically, and would occasionally sacrifice their offspring in a nearby rock chimney they called the Cleft. Every so often, mutant children called “squirts” – ie, not “clefts” – were born and left out for giant eagles to take – presumably to feed their chicks. But when one is left to grow to adulthood, he – because, of course, the squirts are men – leaves the women to found a community of his own over Eagle Mountain. More squirts are born, the squirts and clefts discover sex, the two communities begin to interact, one squirt leader leads an expedition away from the two communities along the coast… and I really have no idea what Lessing hoped to achieve with this novel. The Roman historian interjects at various points of the oral history he is supposedly working on – this was denoted using different font sizes, but as the book progressed this seemed to go wrong somewhere until the font size was completely random. There’s very little that’s Edenic about the society in the book and the gender politics once the “squirts” appear runs along somewhat clichéd lines. This has a tendency to reduce all of those early people to one-note characters, and while Lessing throws in some interesting speculation on their physiology, their society doesn’t feel like that much thought has gone into it. Disappointing.

Matthew Farrell_2001_Thunder RiftThunder Rift, Matthew Farrell (2001) Matthew Farrell is really Stephen Leigh, and I suspect this book was published as by Farrell because by 2000 Leigh had become a category killer. In fact, since 2003 he’s been writing fantasy under the pen-name SL Farrell. In all other respects, Thunder Rift reads like a Stephen Leigh sf novel, and fans of Leigh’s earlier Dark Water’s Embrace and Speaking Stones will probably enjoy it. Unfortunately, familiarity with Leigh’s oeuvre does make Thunder Rift a somewhat predictable read. The titular wormhole has mysteriously appeared in the Solar System, out by the orbit of Jupiter, and the EMP generated by its sudden arrival pretty much wipes out all the technology on Earth, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Yet thirty years later, the nations have not only recovered, they’ve even managed to build a huge military spacecraft to send through the wormhole to see if they can find the wormhole’s creators. On this spacecraft is maverick exo-anthropologist Taria Spears, who is obsessive, uncompromising and all-together difficult. On the other side of the wormhole, the humans find an inhabited world, but its alien civilisation does not appear advanced enough to have created the wormhole. Nonetheless, they send down a contact team… but it doesn’t go very well, and the alien ambassador/chief priestess-type person will only allow Taria to remain on the world. While she tries to learn more about the strange alien culture – their eyesight is so poor, they pretty much use sonar to perceive their surroundings; and they sing a lot – the military aboard the spacecraft set about trying to explore the planet. And then the wormhole vanishes. But something doesn’t want the humans to colonise the alien world. And Taria discovers the secret of the aliens and… This is heartland sf, written with competence if not style or vigour, reliant on far too many familiar tropes and used furniture, but given just enough spin not to generate déjà vu from start to finish. There are lots of sf novels about like Thunder Rift, and they’re all pretty much of a muchness. Fans of this type of sf will likely not to be able to tell it from other books of its ilk, and so enjoy it for that reason.

StonesFallStone’s Fall, Iain Pears (2009) Pears started out writing crime novels about a detective art historian, the few of which I’ve read I found quite ordinary; but he also writes complicated historical novels which are several levels of magnitude better. The last of his Jonathan Argyll series was published in 2000, so it would seem he now writes only the historical novels. Of which Stone’s Fall is the most recent – it was preceded by An Instance of the Fingerpost (1998), The Dream of Scipio (2002) and The Portrait (2005), all of which I have read. Stone is an Edwardian industrialist, the wealthiest and most powerful in Britain, and one night in 1909 he falls from the window of his third-floor study and is killed. But was he pushed? His will makes reference to a child he had not previously known about, so Stone’s widow, Elizabeth, hires a freelance reporter, Braddock, to track down the missing heir. The first third of the book – framed as the reminiscences of Braddock, who has just attended Elizabeth’s funeral in Paris in 1953 – attempts to explain Stone’s success in business. The second third is set in Paris in 1890, and is the reminiscences of a British spy whose career began around that time, and who knew Elizabeth, a Parisian socialite at the time, and witnessed her meeting, and growing relationship, with Stone. The final section is set in Venice in 1867 and is written as an apologia by Stone himself, attempting to explain the event which led to him becoming so powerful and also documenting an affair he had at the time which… There’s a mystery at the heart if Stone’s Fall, and it’s not hard to figure out what it is, but it’s only as the Venetian section progresses that the solution slowly starts to reveal itself. Stone’s Fall is not as complex as Pears’ earlier historical novels, but it is very readable and handles its historical detail impressively. Bizarrely, someone has used Wikipedia to give historical notes for the book, most of which are blindingly obvious, rather than summarise the plot or book’s reception…


An epistemological model of (speculative) fiction

All too often people point at the trappings of a fiction and claim that they identify it. Book A contains spaceships and robots, therefore it must be science fiction. Book B has dragons and castles, so it must be fantasy. But as a means of defining a fiction, it’s imprecise, often inaccurate and very much open to abuse. For every book which can be definitively identified by its tropes, there are countless others that can’t, or that require the trope itself to be re-defined. Tropes do not identify a genre: if you paint a car yellow, it does not make it a banana.

To date, the one definition of science fiction that has generated the least argument is Damon Knight’s 1952 comment, science fiction “means what we point to when we say it”. It makes the definition purely personal and subjective. Which makes it completely bloody useless as a tool. And I think it’s important to know what science fiction is you’re going to write it or write about it. Having said that, most of the definitions of sf in Wikipedia – see here – are by sf writers. And most of those definitions are completely ineffective.

A useful definition has to describe something intrinsic to the text, not something extra-textual. We don’t, for example, assume every book with a robot on the cover is science fiction – though many sf novels have robots on the cover, and many books with robots on the cover are sf. And to assume that every book which features a robot in the story is science fiction is identification by trope, which is also wrong. A bildungsroman novel set in a car factory, for example, would feature robots.

I’ve been thinking about agency in fiction and how it can be used to differentiate between fantasy and science fiction. In fantasy, objects which do not have agency in the real world are given it by authorial fiat. In science fiction, the agency is applied systemically by the natural world – the laws of physics, cosmology, biology, etc. Just like it is in mimetic fiction. Things happen in mimetic fiction as the real world dictates they happen – planes fly because their wings generate lift, boats float because they displace water equal to their weight, apples fall from trees because of the law of gravity, and so on. The same holds true in science fiction, though some of the elements of the natural world may be invented, such as that allowing FTL travel.

Also important in science fiction is wonder, which is the bit that fills your imagination up to the brim and then spills over. It is the chief reason people read science fiction in the first place. But wonder also applies to fantasy – dragons are objects of wonder, for example. I have in the past had a go at defining wonder – see here – and even managed to turn it into a (slightly tongue-in-cheek) equation.

Then it occurred to me that if I used both agency and wonder, it gave me a handy way to categorise fiction:


Works can, of course, straddle borders, which can lead to interesting effects. But as means of distinguishing between various genres, the above chart doesn’t rely on tropes – in fact, it completely ignores them. A story can, for example, feature dragons, defined as cryptozoologic reptiles, and be science fiction. A fantasy novel can feature spaceships which fly between worlds because some person in a cloak waves their hands and mutters gibberish.

Now, of course, someone is sure to think of examples where my definition doesn’t fit…

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The future we used to have, part 19

While we wait for the next Chicxulub meteor to end the experiment we laughingly call “civilisation”, here’s a few of the more aesthetically-pleasing things we’ve managed to produce since we stumbled out of the Rift Valley. I say, “aesthetically-pleasing” because machines expressly designed to kill people in large numbers are not what you would call admirable…



Martin P4M Mercator maritime reconnaissance aircraft (1950 – 1960)

19_F-101 (36)

McDonnell F-101 Voodoo supersonic jet fighter (1957 – 1972)



SS Canberra (1960 – 1997)


USS Enterprise (1960 – 2012)



Stockwell Bus Garage, London (1952)


Trinity United Reform Church, Ecclesall Road, Sheffield


Fiesta Nightclub, Pond Street Development, Sheffield (1966)


Pond Street Development, Sheffield, seen across bus station (1966)



Pierre Cardin fashion


Pierre Cardin fashion


from Star Trek, ‘The Naked Time’. I have no idea what they’re wearing or why they’re inspecting a frozen shop window dummy


from The Solarnauts, an unsold pilot for a UK sf television series


Check out this website for even more fun futuristic fashion, from both designers and media.
And here’s the full pilot of The Solarnauts. It is ace – the credit sequence alone is brilliant.