It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

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All the new year feels

I think on the whole 2017 is best forgotten. I did have some good times – conventions in Sweden, Finland and Denmark, for example – but on the whole the year was a bit of a dead loss. I had plans, I had modest plans. I failed them all. Well, I didn’t manage to get much done during the year outside the day job. I’m hoping 2018 will be much better in that regard.

Having said that, it’s hard to be optimistic when your country has decided it would sooner be racist and poor instead of prosperous and a member of the planet’s largest trading bloc. And then the US elected a posturing baboon to the White House, and the GOP seems determined to roll back every piece of legislation that had begrudgingly dragged the US into the 21st century… So, the world went to shit and it sort of killed my motivation to do much other than lose myself in movies.

I’m not expecting 2018 to be any better politically or geopolitically. I’d like to move to a more civilised country. But it’s hard to change a situation that isn’t personally broken – I work four days a week at a job I enjoy, for money that more than pays for the stupid number of books and films I buy. And my current situation certainly doesn’t prevent me from writing, or reviewing. I’ve done both in previous years.

So in 2018, I want to start writing again. I want to finish the third book of my space opera trilogy, A Want of Reason. Which is all plotted out and about a third written, and will likely turn out to be the most un-space-opera space opera that ever space opera’d. I’m basing an entire chapter on Le grand meaulnes, FFS. It opens with a terrorist attack. By one of the good guys. And wait until you see the Space Communists from Space… I also have several ideas for novellas I’ve been mulling over for a few years. I could have a bash at the Poseidon Quartet (as mentioned in Apollo Quartet 5: Coda – A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum). Or maybe the Jupiter Quartet, which I’ve been thinking of doing for a while… I’d like to write some short fiction too, although I am notoriously crap at it, well, at finishing it. I envy people who can sit down and bang out a first draft in one sitting.

I also intend to drag SF Mistressworks out of mothballs. I read several books that qualify for it during 2017, so I just need to write the reviews. And I’d like to start reviewing again for the venues I reviewed for previously. It’s all very well banging out a couple of hundred words on books I’ve read, and films I’ve seen, on my blog, but most of those “reviews” sort of turned into rants and I really need to be a bit more disciplined in my criticism. In fact, I’d like to write more about science fiction in 2018. At one point, I was going to write a whole series of posts, Fables of the Deconstruction, on individual sf tropes. I did space travel (see here) and robots (see here), but never got any further. And then there’s the spoof how to write space opera guide myself and another award-winning sf writer drunkenly hacked out one night… We really should finish it.

Of course, I’d like to read more books too. I managed to reduce my four-figure TBR pile by exactly one book in 2017. That’s excessively rubbish. I didn’t make my target of 140 in the Goodreads Reading Challenge (I finished the year on 128), so I plan to beat that for 2018. I’m an inveterate list-maker, so I’ve already started putting together a list of the books I want to read this coming year. I think I should buy less books too – I mean, buying eleven per month on average is not good for, well, for the fabric of the building I live in. I should probably have a clear-out at some point, but some authors I’ve been collecting for so long I’m reluctant to get rid of their books, even if I no longer read them…

So, resolutions… They should be in a handy list (see above). Twelve is a good number; there are twelve months in a year, twelve days of Christmas, twelve eggs in a dozen, er, eggs… So how about twelve resolutions for 2018?

  1. Read more books than last year – I have to beat 128 books but would prefer to beat 140 books
  2. Speaking of which… only start reading a new book when I’ve finished the last one
  3. Read at least six books from countries whose literature I’ve never read before
  4. Watch less films than last year – I mean, 602 is a bit fucking excessive; anyway, now LoveFilm has packed in I’ve only got one DVD rental service
  5. Finish the damn space opera novel – it’s all there in my head, and has been for a two years; I just need to get it down on paper
  6. Complete at least one novella – they’re probably going to take a shit-ton of research; why do I do this to myself?
  7. Complete at least four short stories – bonus points if I can actually sell the bloody things
  8. Get SF Mistressworks back up and running, start reviewing books again
  9. Write more about science fiction on this blog, so it’s not all films I’ve watched and books I’ve read
  10. Drink less wine
  11. Exercise – I’ve made half-hearted attempts at developing a running habit several times in the past; it usually lasts a month or so
  12. I plan to attend two Nordic cons in 2018, but maybe I can squeeze a third one in?

There, they look achievable. All I need is a bit of motivation. And self-discipline. I don’t expect to complete all twelve, but they’re mostly about getting me back to where I was before 2016 landed on my head at the day job. And then, in 2019, I can start building on them…

Happy New Year.


The Marching Morons

To all the people who read Liz Bourke’s review on Strange Horizons of Michael J Sullivan’s Theft Of Swords, and didn’t like the review because:

a) historians should not review epic fantasy
b) “intellectuals” should not review epic fantasy
c) women should not review epic fantasy
d) a negative review will upset the author
e) a negative review will negatively impact the author’s sales
f) popularity and quality are the same thing, as any fule kno
g) bad prose is better than good prose, as is demonstrated by any best-seller list
h) taking quotes from the novel “out of context” would make any author’s prose look bad
i) you read the book and enjoyed it so it can’t be bad
j) the book is meant to be “fun” and “light reading” so it can’t be bad
k) a negative review is obviously not objective since you disagree with it

Congratulations. You are officially stupid. If you want to know why genre fiction is not taken seriously, go and look in the mirror.


How to write a good review

First, see this review of Michael J Sullivan’s Theft Of Swords on Strange Horizons. See its long comment thread. This post is not aimed at Liz Bourke, who has written an excellent review of what is plainly a bad book. This post is for some of the commenters on that thread, who clearly don’t understand what a review is for, or how a book is reviewed.

1 A dishonest review is a bad review.
2 Not all books are good.
3 It’s not just good books that deserve reviews.
4 If a book is a bad book, it’s dishonest not to say so.
5 If a book is not a good book, it’s dishonest to refuse to review it.
6 Books can be bad for a number of reasons; most of those reason are a result of failure of craft.
7 Reviews are not written for the author of the book being reviewed; their audience is potential readers of the book being reviewed.
8 A good review is not opinion because it will contain evidence supporting its assertions.
9 Whether or not a reviewer enjoyed a book is completely meaningless, since enjoyment is unrelated to quality and is entirely subjective.
10 A review does not have to meet the expectations of people who have read the book being reviewed.
11 A review is based on a critical read of a book; this means the reviewer has probably put a lot more thought into their reading of it than you have.
12 If you come across a negative review of a book you thought was good but you did not read the book in question critically, then you are not qualified to comment on the review’s findings.

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Another Catastrophia review

Library Journal have posted a review here of Catastrophia, edited by Allen Ashley. My story, ‘In the Face of Disaster’, is one of four from the anthology mentioned in the review. Although the review only gives a short précis of each of the four stories, it says the anthology is “inventive though somewhat uneven in literary quality”.

There’s also a review of LE Modesitt Jr’s new novel, Empress of Eternity, on that page. Library Journal apparently liked it a great deal more than I did – see my review in this month’s Interzone.


Mentioned in despatches

It must be some sort of milestone in a writer’s career when something of theirs is reviewed in the national press for the first time. Today is that day for me. In the Guardian Reviews section, Eric Brown has reviewed the Catastrophia anthology edited by Allen Ashley, and in which I have a story. Eric mentions four stories from the anthology, one of which is mine, and writes: “…the more sober, literary examination of the breakdown of society when humanity suffers apperceptive prosopagnosia – face-blindness – in Ian Sales’s affecting ‘In the Face of Disaster'”. You can see the full review here.


Somebody out there likes me…

…or rather, likes one of my stories. Tangent Online has reviewed Postscripts #20/21 ‘Edison’s Frankenstein’ here, and it’s a mostly positive review of the anthology/magazine. Steve Fahnestalk says of my story ‘Killing the Dead’ (you have to scroll about halfway down the page):

“I particularly liked this story as it was pure SF that couldn’t happen in a different context; that is, the reasons for the terrorism could only exist at that time in that place, and the arguments for and against made perfect sense in context; as well, the Inspector’s conclusions were in keeping with his personality and his role aboard ship. Highly recommended.”

Which I’m particularly happy about… because if you can change the setting of an science fiction story and it still works, then it’s not science fiction. And I write science fiction.

The “Highly recommended” is very nice, too.

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What I’ve Been Doing Recently…

… or A Desperate Attempt To Generate Content For This Blog Before People Give Up On It. Well, perhaps not “desperate” – it’s not been that long since I last posted. But my last few posts might have given the erroneous impression that I’ve mostly given up on reading science fiction. I haven’t. And here’s the proof. Sort of.

I have been reading…

The Quincunx of Time, James Blish (1973) – I knew this was an expansion of a short story, but I didn’t know if I’d read the story. So the déjà vu which hit me two pages into the book didn’t come as much of a surprise. I had read the story, ‘Beep’. Unfortunately, as Blish explains in a foreword, he had never intended to expand ‘Beep’, and when he was eventually persuaded to do so he chose to focus on some of the issues raised by the story. He didn’t expand the plot, or the story’s remit. He just deepened the scientific bollocks the various characters explain to each other. It made for a dull and unconvincing – and short – novel. Not one of Blish’s best.

The Facts of Life, Graham Joyce (2002) – I have unjustly neglected Graham in my reading. I thought his first few novels were very good indeed, but sort of stopped buying and reading them for no real reason. I actually interviewed him for a small press magazine when his debut novel, Dreamside, was published. Unfortunately, it was on the last day of a convention, and we’d both been drinking until 4 a.m. the night before and were very hungover. I sent Graham a verbatim transcript of the interview. He replied, “I remember it as quite an insightful interview… so who were those two fucking Martians on the tape?” A carefully edited version, which made both of us appear sane and intelligent, later appeared in the magazine. But, The Facts of Life. I decided to buy this because it’s set in Coventry. I went to university there, so I know the city. The Facts of Life is excellent stuff and I have no excuse now for not reading more of Graham’s books. Incidentally, I was little spooked by one chapter in the novel – because it’s set in Coventry it of course features Lady Godiva. Which couldn’t help but remind me of my own encounter with her (see here). Graham’s done that to me before: I had a lucid dream the morning before starting Dreamside, which opens… with someone having a lucid dream.

The Universe Maker, AE van Vogt (1953) – for some reason, an image from this novel has stayed with me throughout the decades since I last read it: a shadow in the shape of a person, and in which you can see stars, appearing in a park and speaking to someone. But I couldn’t remember the context. So I decided to reread the book to remind me. And it is apparently a Shadow, one of an elite which rules a future Earth and the members of which appear to have special powers. So there you go. This novel is, like most of van Vogt’s, completely bonkers. It’s a headlong charge through a number of sf tropes – chief among them time travel – most of which make little sense if you pause to think. And that’s part of its charm. Before you can even scoff, you’re thrown into something new and even more implausible. Now I want to reread van Vogt’s Mission to the Stars, which has the giant battleship that splits up into hundreds of little ships when it hits a galactic storm…

House of Suns, Alastair Reynolds (2007) – Reynolds is one of those authors whose books I buy in hardback as soon as they’re published. He’s also one of those authors whose work can sometimes disappoint, but only when compared to his other novels. And so it was with House of Suns. I never quite swallowed the novel’s timeline of millions of years, and the characters seemed a little too contemporary for me to willingly suspend disbelief. But, there were – as usual – some real gosh-wow special effects, some jaw-dropping ideas, and even an occasional nod here and there to other sf books and films. Good stuff.

The Ship That Died of Shame & Other Stories, Nicholas Monsarrat (1959) – I have a soft spot for Monsarrat’s fiction – The Cruel Sea is a classic, and his unfinished The Master Mariner is one of my favourite non-sf novels. So I continue to seek out and read his books, even though many of his plots have passed their sell-by date. It’s a bit like watching the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents from the mid-1950s – those twists in the tale have been done so many times you can see them coming a mile off. But they must have been a surprise when they were first used back then. And so it is for some of Monsarrat’s novels and short stories. But I’ll still read him.

I’ve been watching stuff, too. Such as…

The Sacrifice, Andrei Tarkovsky (1986) – Tarkovsky isn’t a science fiction film director, although three of his films were sf. Both Solaris and Stalker were adaptations of sf novels – by Stanisław Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, respectively. The Sacrifice, on the other hand, is from an original screenplay by Tarkovsky himself. A man living on Gotland, a Baltic island off the coast of Sweden, witnesses the end of the world by nuclear war, and in despair vows to God that he will sacrifice everything he loves if the world is returned to normal. He then – at the urging of a friend and neighbour – sleeps with a female servant, who is a witch. The next morning, it’s as if the nuclear holocaust had never happened. And so the man sets about fulfilling his vow, alienating his loved ones, destroying his possessions, and burning down his house. Like all Tarkovsky films, it’s very slow, with very long takes. But parts are disturbingly intense. The reaction of the man’s wife, for example, to the end of the world is difficult to watch. There are also dream sequences which might not be dream sequences, and a use of colour and black & white film which might help unravel the ambiguous story. I think I prefer Mirror more than The Sacrifice, but it’s a more affecting film than some of Tarkovsky’s, and he remains a favourite director.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season 2 (1993) – I’d read often enough that DS9 was the best of the Trek franchises, but I’d only ever seen a handful of episodes from the first season. From them it was hard to see it as any better than any of the other franchises. But I decided to give the series a go – prompted by a much-reduced price on Amazon. And discovered that not only was the setting interesting – the planet of Bajor after Cardassian occupationary forces have withdrawn – but I liked the characters. Much more so than the Star Trek: The Next Generation ones. Well, except for Quark the Ferengi. He’s just irritating. Anyway, I finished season 1, and then bought season 2. And I have every intention of working my way through to the end of season 7. Especially since I’m told it gets much better when the Federation go to war against the Dominion….

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, dir. Steven Spielberg (2008) – it seems a bit pointless to moan about Hollywood remakes of perfectly good films from earlier decades when they’re just as liable to dig up old franchises and add a new vehicle to it. And what a creaking lumbering vehicle it is. Harrison Ford manages to hold his own, despite his advanced years, but the plot in this thing is a horrible mess. It’s as if they chose to throw as many clichés at it as possible in the hope one or two would stick. Unfortunately, it’s not plot coupons which stuck. This film is just an embarrassingly bad sequence of CGI spectacles and stunts held together by a plot which makes no attempt at plausibility. Best avoided.

Aliens Vs Predator 2: Requiem, dir. the Strause brothers (2007) – sadly, my film-viewing could sink even further than a geriatric Indy chasing after a “magnetic” skull which can bizarrely attract non-ferrous materials. It plummetted to this. The directors clearly felt that making the film as dark as possible would hide a multitude of sins. And I don’t mean “dark” as in mood. I mean, “dark” as in filmed at night, “dark” as in having to sit in a pitch-black room in order to actually see what’s on the bloody screen. Which isn’t much more than the title suggests. There’s this Alien, see; and it crash-lands on Earth. And a Predator gets this signal telling it what’s happened. So off it goes to hunt it down. In Ridley Scott’s excellent Alien, the eponymous creature was an unstoppable killing machine. In AvP2, teenagers with shotguns slaughter hundreds of them. Which is a bit like revealing Sasquatch as a marmoset. But then, what teenager wants to watch a platoon of elite forces get blatted by a single alien? They’d much rather see themselves in the title role, wreaking mayhem and spraying bullets and killing all those nasty cunningly-externalised fears and neuroses… Avoid this film like you would a, well, an alien.

The DEFA Sci-Fi Collection – I mentioned one of these in a previous posts – Der Schweigende Stern / The Silent Star, dir. Kurt Maetzig (1960). See here. The other two in this boxed set are In the Dust of the Stars / Im Staub der Sterne, dir. Gottfried Kolditz (1976), and Eolomea, dir. Herrmann Zschoche (1972). The first is… plenty weird. A mission from one planet arrives on another. There’s something suspicious going on, but they’re welcomed with a big party. Of course, they soon find out what the actual situation is…. But. The strange 1970s GDR aesthetic is one thing. But the gratuitous – tastefully back-lit, so in silhouette only – nude scene just seems completely, well, gratuitous. And then there’s the party scenes. Disco-dancing East Germans in Spaaaacccceee. Sort of. Eolomea is a much more restrained affair. Some ships have gone missing, and a group of scientists are sent to figure out what happened. It seemed to me a bit of the story went missing somewhere as well. The film’s title makes no sense for the first thirty or so minutes, and is only explained in passing. But never mind. It’s all good post-2001: A Space Odyssey 1970s sf – none of that silly Western Imperialist space opera thank you very much. There is a fourth DEFA sf film which isn’t included in this collection, Signal: A Space Adventure (1970). I want a copy.

And I have been listening to…

The “double whammy” – I wanted to see Isis, who were performing locally last Sunday night, but no one else wanted to go. Then Stuart said he’d go, if I went to see Johnny Truant at the same venue the following night. The “double whammy”.

Isis were excellent, as usual. They’re another one of those bands you forget how good they are… and then you see them live. I ended up buying one of their CDs from the merchandise stand, and was tempted to buy more. They were ably supported by Torche, who were good in parts.

And then it was Johnny Truant… Who are a bit too hardcore for my taste. This was a much younger crowd than Isis – I could have passed as just about any audience member’s dad. The sound was also very loud. I don’t mind loud – and I’ve been to plenty of loud gigs. But it seems a bit pointless when everything’s turned up so high you can’t actually hear the guitars. Just the bass and blastbeats. The rest is a wall of noise. Mind you, there was a little more banter between songs than the previous night. The only words spoken by Isis were, “This is our last song.” The lead singer of Johnny Truant, however, was cracking jokes – “Our next two songs are ‘Hotel California’ and ‘Tiny Dancer'” – and moaning about eating too many pies. Not to mention the lead singer from support act Blackhole, who climbed down from the stage and performed most of the set from the middle of the dance-floor…

I’ve been working as well, of course. The big fat space opera sequel, assorted short stories (three sold this year so far; go me), and even another poem or two.