It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Apollo Quartet 5: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum

And so here it is, the, er, fifth installment in the Apollo Quartet. Its official title is Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum. It’s 7,000 words long, approximately, so technically a short story (which means the quartet now comprises all three legitimate lengths of fiction – short story, novella and novel). It has an introduction by Adam Roberts, author of The Thing Itself. It is – well, YDSFMV: Your Definition of SF May Vary.

Don’t forget the rest of the Apollo Quartet – that would be books one to, um, four – are currently available on Kindle and in paperback at a new low price. I am not entirely convinced Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum makes a great deal of sense without knowledge of them, although it does, I think, sort of read well enough on its own. (But you’ll miss all the jokes, damn it.)

Anyway, here it is.

nasm

 

 


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Five of four: the Apollo Quartet

I mentioned a few weeks ago I was planning to write a pendant to the Apollo Quartet and publish it before the end of the year. It was prompted by a silly idea: making the Apollo Quartet eligible for the Best Series Hugo Award, due to be trialled in 2017 at Worldcon75. But to qualify as a series, the total wordcount must be over 250,000. Which pretty much rules out the Apollo Quartet. But… inspired by a recent read of Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Dream, the fiction of Paul Park, a story idea I’d always planned to use about Soyuz 21, the films of James Benning, and a phrase I’ve used time and again to describe my fiction, “19 turns”, I went ahead and wrote something anyway.

It’s titled Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum and it will be published this week. For free.

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It’s about 7,000 words long, and includes an introduction by Adam Roberts, author of The Thing Itself (among many other fine works of science fiction and science fiction scholarship). I’ll be making a zip file available here, and on the Whippleshield Books blog, which contains .mobi, .epub and .pdf editions. There will also be a paperback edition, limited to 25 signed and numbered copies, available in the New Year. I’ll put up a pre-order page for that soon.

To celebrate the release of Coda: A Visit to the National and Air Museum, I’ve dropped the price on all Whippleshield Books, both Kindle and paperback. To wit:

aq1_2nd_edn_cover Adrift on the Sea of Rains Kindle
£1.99
Paperback
£3.99
aq2_2nd_edn_cover The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself Kindle
£1.99
Paperback
£3.99
aq3_2nd_edn_cover Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above Kindle
£1.99
Paperback
£3.99
aq4_front_cover All That Outer Space Allows Kindle
£1.99
Paperback
£4.99
dotsa-ebook-cover-01-small Dreams of the Space Age Kindle
£1.99
Paperback
£3.49
aphrodite-terra-front-cover-01-copy Aphrodite Terra Kindle
£1.99
Paperback
£3.49

[prices in the US and other countries are equivalent to UK prices]

Go on, grab a bargain.

Incidentally, there are still signed and numbered hardback copies of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, All That Outer Space Allows and Dreams of the Space Age for sale on the Whippleshield Books website. I’ve also put up some first editions of various books for sale on the site – see here – and will be putting up more as I slim down my book collection.


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Weekend in Iceland

The last weekend in October has just seen the first ever Icelandic science fiction convention, Icecon 2016, take place in Reykjavík. As soon as I heard it was happening, I signed up – for a number of reasons: I’d never visited Reykjavík but wanted to; I know a few people in Icelandic fandom; and, in recent years, I’ve attended several Nordic conventions. And, of course, I’m more than happy to support Icelandic fandom’s first ever convention.

I flew from Manchester to Keflavík (the plane was named “Eyafjallajökull”, which I hoped wasn’t an omen). The flight was uneventful – except for some turbulence – but as the Boeing 757 finally reached land, I looked out the window, saw a snowy landscape like that of some Jovian moon, and thought, shit, I’ve brought the wrong clothing. Fortunately, as the plane flew further north and closer to the airport, the snow disappeared and the land began to resemble what I had expected: wet, scrubby and windy. Keflavík airport proved surprisingly large. Iceland has a population of around 330,000, but the airport is comparable to that of the capital cities of nations ten to twenty times the population. Since Johan Anglemark was arriving thirty minutes after my flight, I’d arranged to meet up with him at the airport. So I waited… only to receive a text from him that he’d probably miss the next bus to Reykjavík – which would mean a further hour’s wait. I went and caught the bus – actually a coach – only for Johan to appear five minutes later.

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To get from Keflavík to Reykjavík, a distance of 50 km, you can either take a taxi, which would cost around £100, or catch a coach, such as Flybus, which costs around £36 for a return. The coach takes you to the BSÍ, where you transfer to a minibus, and that takes you direct to your hotel. Which, in my case, was the Apotek Hotel, located 250 m from the con venue, Iðnó theatre. (Those members of Icecon who had flown into Iceland were scattered in hotels and apartments around Reykjavík, as the con had not arranged any deals with hotels.) The con did not start until 8 pm, when the attendees were gathering in Klaustur bar, the con’s designated bar, in the block next to Iðnó and some 200 metres from my hotel. So I ate in the restaurant attached to the Apotek Hotel – except, it would be more accurate to say the hotel was attached to the restaurant, as it was an actual restaurant. The menu featured puffin and minke whale, but I avoided those and had salmon. The meal, plus a small beer, cost me around £44. Iceland is expensive.

Given this was the first Icecon, meeting up at the bar was an excellent way to start the convention. We were actually sharing it with a book group, who were discussing The Girl with all the Gifts, so some people sat in on that (I’ve neither read the book nor seen the film). Registration was also onhand in the bar – which was important, as con membes could buy drinks at happy hour prices (a mere 800 ISK, £5.85, for 500 ml of Viking pilsner beer). It was an excellent night. The two guest of honour, Karin Tidbeck and Elizabeth Bear, were present, as were con members from Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, the UK, the US and Ireland. And probably further afield.

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Icecon 2016 began in earnest the next day. The first programme item was at 10 am, an introduction to fandom. The Iðnó is a theatre, and is used for a variety of functions. There is a stage at one end, a foyer at the other, and off that a small room containing a bar for serving hot and cold drinks, and another small room with three tables. Upstairs, one room was being used as the dealers room. The conventiob took place entirely within Iðnó’s main room, which had been left with the chairs arranged around small tables. On the stage, there was an armchair for the moderator, two sofas for the panellists, and a small coffee table for carafes of water. The layout gave the con an informal atmosphere, which worked really well.

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I didn’t catch every programme item on the Saturday, but I did see Johan Jönsson interview Karin Tidbeck (which was good), and a panel on “The multimedia of science fiction: adaptation, borrowings and rewriting” (which was, to be honest, a bit waffley). I spent some time in the small room with the three tables, chatting to people, and I wandered outside to take a couple of photographs on my phone. At 6 pm, I joined a group of Nordic fans – mostly Swedes, but also Norwegian, Icelandic and Finnish – on a hunt for a meal. A restaurant called Snaps had been recommended to me on Twitter, so we went looking for it. But there were nine of us in the group, and this was too many to seat in Snaps. And in the next restaurant we found. And the next. We ended up in an Italian place, called, imaginatively, Italia, where they put five two-seater tables together for us. The food was good (not as posh as that in the Apotek Bar and Restaurant, but not as expensive either). The restaurant was good about gluten-free, as one of the party had a gluten allergy, but less so about dairy. (One consequence of being lactose-intolerant is I’m now learning the words for cheese, butter and milk in different languages – in Icelandic, it’s ostur, smör and mjólk.)

Back at Iðnó, the costume ball had begun. It was essentially a con disco, but people had been encouraged to turn up in fancy dress. And quite a few had. Some had put more effort into it than others. I, er, made no effort. I stayed until about midnight. The music was loud, and so shouting over it proved tiring – although I did have a good time.

On the Sunday, the programme didn’t start until 1 pm. (There was a hangover lunch in Iðnó at noon, but I didn’t sign up for it.) So I used the time to explore the city. Both Iðnó and my hotel are in the touristy bit of Reykjavík, between the lagoon and the old harbour. It was wet and windy, and not much different to UK weather during November or March. During my wander, I spotted a huge shop that sold Icelandic tat for tourists and the Listasafn Reykjavíkur, Reykjavík Art Museum… but the latter was closed. Back at my hotel, I spotted a brochure in the foyer for the Volcano House, and the opening times indicated it would be open. So I headed for it – it was just up the road from the Art Museum. The Volcano House has a small exhibit of volcanic rocks, but it also offers a 60-minute documentary on two of Iceland’s most famous volcanic eruptions: Eldfell on Heimaey in the Westman Isles in 1973, and Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. Fascinating stuff. And I can now almost say Eyjafjallajökull. On my way back to the hotel, I swung by the Art Museum, and saw that it was open. Whenever I visit my sister and her family in Denmark, we usually go to an art museum, so I’ve found myself becoming interested in them. The Listasafn Reykjavíkur was… Um, well. The biggest exhibit was for Icelandic pop artist Erró, but I was not impressed. Neither did I think much to the Yoko Ono exhibition. One of the galleries contained “Some New Works” by Örn Alexander Ámundson, which I thought very clever, and reminded me of the tricks with narrative structure I enjoy reading and writing. The highlight of the museum, however, was “The Enclave”, a six-channel video installation by Richard Mosse, shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo on infra-red satellite photography film which transform shades of green into shades of pink… Sadly, there was nothing by Mosse available in the gift shop.

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Back at Iðnó, I caught the programme item on “Inclusive futures: diversity in speculative fiction and publishing”, which was good, before I climbed onto the stage myself for “Climate change, nationalism, famine: addressing contemporary problems in scifi and fantasy”, with moderator Hildur Knútsdóttir and panellists Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf, Kristján Atli and Scott Lynch. You know that thing where you have several important points to make on a topic, but once you’re up on stage your mind goes completely blank? It was a bit like that; although I was told afterwards that the panel went well. I was also told that once Brexit had been mentioned I turned into a stereotypical Brit (Remainer, of course).

The programme item following the above was the last of the convention, “Carving a path to the future: Icelandic sci-fi and fantasy writers”, which was informative, and it sometimes comes as a surprise – although it shouldn’t – quite how different the road to publication in genre is in countries other than the UK and US. Once the panel had finished, the con organisers all appeared on stage, and admitted they were hugely gratified at the turnout. Just over one hundred people had joined the convention, and nearly half of them had been from outside Iceland. Oh, and did I mention that the first lady of Iceland, the Icelandic president’s wife, dropped by Iðnó on the Saturday afternoon to see how the con was going? Not many conventions can say that. And all this was despite the fact a general election had been called and was taking place over the same weekend. (Two of the moderators for the con’s panel items were standing for parliament.)

The con finished back where it had started, with a dead dog party in Klaustur Bar. I lasted until midnight… but then I did have to get up at 4 am to catch a Flybus to the airport for a 8 am flight back to Manchester.

I thought Icecon 2016 was very successful – and so too, I hope, did the organisers (to their surprise, they admitted). The next one is scheduled for 2018, and I certainly plan to attend. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Reykjavík and would welcome the opportunity to explore the city, and the country, further. Despite the expense. The convention ran very smoothly, and the venue worked so much better than expected – seriously, other cons should adopt the chairs around tables layout, rather than row upon row of chairs; the sofa thing also works a lot better than having the panellists behind a table (fun with dodgy microphones notwithstanding). It was an excellent convention, and a definite highlight of 2016.

I’ve now atteneded conventions in Sweden, Finland and Iceland. Next year, of course, the Worldcon is in Helsinki. But I’d still like to do a con in Norway and Denmark. Perhaps next year…


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“When I read a story, I skip the explanations”

In my review of Katherine Kurtz’s The Legacy of Lehr, a 1986 science fiction novel, for SF Mistressworks – the review will appear on Wednesday – I use the phrase “Ruritanian sf” as a description of the novel’s type of genre fiction. There is, of course, already a genre of “Ruritanian romance”, in which an invented European country is used as the setting for a swashbuckling adventure, “centred on the ruling classes, almost always aristocracy and royalty”, as Wikipedia has it. The Wikipedia entry goes on to point out that Ruritanian romances have colonised genre fiction, naming Andre Norton as an early proponent. And yet…

Fiction, especially romance, has been all too happy to use invented royal and aristocratic houses in existing countries for its stories. There’s no need to invent an entire nation. Actual literature, on the other hand, can’t seem to make up its mind – for example, the plot of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, hidden though it is, revolves around the royal house of an invented country, and Boyd’s A Good Man in Africa is set in the invented country of Kinjanja; but Greene’s The Heart of the Matter is set in… Sierra Leone. So why use an invented country? What is it about the story that it must be set in a fictional nation? The most obvious explanation appears to be that no existing nation has the characteristics required by the story, whether they are geographic, historical, or social. Which neatly leads into science fiction and “Ruritanian sf”…

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… because the settings of sf novels, especially “heartland sf”, are by definition entirely invented. They are the future, or an alien world, or an interstellar empire. But where a Ruritanian romance allows an author to tell a story that would not be plausible in a real place, Ruritanian sf allows an author to tell a story that is plausible but happens to boast an invented setting. And it does that by pretty much transposing elements of the real world into a science fiction setting. So cruise liners become spaceships, airliners becomes shuttles, assault rifles become blasters, and so on… Everything is an analogue of something in the real world with which the reader is familiar. There’s no need to explain the workings of the VanGriff Mk 29 Magnum Blaster because it works, in effect, in story terms, just like a Colt .45. There’s no need to describe the layout of a spaceship, because it uses the familiar terminology of ships that sail the oceans – bridge, cabin, engine room… (Of course, it goes without saying that real-world spacecraft are nothing like this.)

The end result is a setting built up from well-understood and commonly-accepted tropes that need no explanation, or scaffolding, in the text itself. There’s no need to explain how FTL works because it’s so prevalent in sf its effects in story terms are more important than its (invented) workings. It gets characters from A to B, where A and B are interstellar distances apart. Far too many sf tropes have become “black boxes” in this fashion. And a story which uses them uncritically, which simply slots them together like Lego, is Ruritanian sf. It’s telling a present-day story in an invented setting, but a setting that is as familiar as the reader’s world. It’s only science fiction because of the furniture and vocabulary.

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That’s the essence of Ruritanian science fiction. It is genre fiction which builds an invented setting out of elements which might as well not be invented. The labels are different but the objects are the same, or fulfil the same function. It’s not a failure of imagination, because imagination doesn’t feature in the process. And it’s only a failure of craft if the author is attempting something more than Ruritanian sf. If all they want is a science-fictional setting the reader can parse, one that’s uncoupled from the real world but close enough to it that few explanations are required, then if they’ve produced Ruritanian sf they’ve succeeded. Info-dumps are a given, but they’re usually “historical”, inasmuch as they attempt to give the invented world solidity and depth through exposition – but shifting the burden of exposition onto the setting’s own narrative only demonstrates how little exposition the tropes in the story actually need.

Needless to say, I think such forms of science fiction are low on invention and make poor use of the tools at the genre’s disposal. They can be entertaining, there’s no doubt about that; but their uncritical use of tropes, and their failure to interrogate the form, means they have little or nothing to add to the genre conversation. This doesn’t mean they can’t be commercially successful – because, after all, their chief characteristic is that they confirm readers’ prejudices (even when they seem to be challenging them – or rather, it’s the challenge itself that the reader wants). Ruritanian sf is comfort reading, it is unadventurous and unlikely to promote critical discussion.

It also forms the bulk of science fiction being published today (and yes, I’m including self-published sf).


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Made from books

Nerds of a feather have been running a series of posts by its members on “books that shaped me”, and I wondered what books I’d choose myself for such a post. And I started out doing just that but then it stopped being a listicle and more of a narrative, so I just went with it…

These will not be recent books – or, at least, the bulk of them won’t be. Because while people’s attitudes, sensibilities and tastes evolve over the years, some of the books I read back when I was a young teen obviously had more of an impact on me than a book I read, say, last week. Some of the following have in part shaped my taste in fiction, while some have inspired and shaped my writing. Some I read because they seemed a natural progression in my reading, some were books I read because they covered a subject that interest me, some I read because they were out of my comfort zone and I felt I needed to broaden my horizons…

Early explorations in sf
I read my first actual science fiction novel around 1976. Prior to that I’d been reading Dr Who novelisations, but a lad in my class at school lent me a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones. After that, another boy lent me some EE ‘Doc’ Smith, the Lensman books, I seem to recall (and probably some Asimov, although I don’t actually remember which ones). But during my early years exploring the genre I cottoned onto three particular authors: AE Van Vogt, James Blish and Clifford Simak. And the first books by those authors I recall reading were The Universe Maker, Jack of Eagles and Why Call Them Back From Heaven?. Actually, I may have read The Voyage of the Space Beagle before The Universe Maker, but something about the latter appealed to me more. Sadly, no women writers. A few years later I started reading Cherryh and Tiptree (and yes, I’ve always known Tiptree was a woman), but I suspect my choices were more a matter of availability – Cherryh was pretty much ubiquitous in UK book shops during the early 1980s.

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Growing up the sf way
I remember a lad in the year below me at school reading Dune – that would be in 1978, I think – and it looked interesting, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I read it for myself. And immediately loved it. These days, my thoughts on Dune are somewhat different – it’s not Frank Herbert’s best novel, it’s not even the best novel in the Dune series (and we won’t mention the execrable sequels by his son and Kevin J Anderson)… but what Dune is, is probably the best piece of world-building the science fiction genre has ever produced. And then there’s Dhalgren, which I still love and is probably the sf novel I’ve reread the most times. It wasn’t my first Delany, but it remains my favourite. I still see it as a beacon of literary sensibilities in science fiction. Another discovery of this period was John Varley, whose stories pushed a lot of my buttons. His The Barbie Murders remains a favourite collection, and the title story is still a favourite story. Around this time one of the most important books to come into my hands was The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists by Malcolm Edwards and Maxim Jakubowski. It’s exactly what the title says – lists of sf and fantasy books and stories. But it was also a map to exploring the genre and, in an effort to find books and stories it mentioned, I started actively hunting down specific things I wanted to read. I was no longer browsing in WH Smith (back in the day when it was a major book seller) and grabbing something off the shelf that looked appealing. This was directed reading, and it’s pretty much how I’ve approached my reading ever since.

Explorations outside science fiction
The school I went to had a book shop that opened every Wednesday afternoon, and I bought loads of sf novels there (well, my parents bought them, as they were the ones paying the bills). But when I was on holiday, especially out in the Middle East, I was limited to reading what was available – which included the likes of Nelson De Mille, Eric Van Lustbader, Judith Krantz and Shirley Conran. I think it was my mother who’d been reading Sara Paretsky and it was from her I borrowed Guardian Angel, and so became a lifelong fan of Paretsky’s books. And after graduating from university and going to work in Abu Dhabi, the Daly Community Library, the subscription library I joined within a month or two of arriving, had I poor sf selection so I had to widen my reading. One of the books I borrowed was Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, and that turned me into a fan of his writing (although, to be honest, while my admiration of his writing remains undimmed, I’m no longer so keen on his novels… although I still have most of them in first edition). I also borrowed Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet from the Daly Community Library, but had it take back before I’d even started it. So I bought paperbacks copies of the four books during a trip to Dubai, and subsequently fell in love with Durrell’s writing. So much so that I began collecting his works – and now I have pretty much everything he wrote. Perversely, his lush prose has stopped me from trying it for myself – possibly because I know I couldn’t pull it off. Much as I treasure Durrell’s prose, it’s not what I write… but his occasional simple turns of phrase I find inspiring. Finally, two non-fiction works which have helped define my taste in non-fiction. While I was in Abu Dhabi, I borrowed Milton O Thompson’s At the Edge of Space from the Abu Dhabi Men’s College library. It’s a dry recitation of the various flights flown by the North American X-15 – and yes, I now own my own copy – but I found it fascinating. It wasn’t, however, until I read Andrew Smith’s Moondust, in which he tracks down and interviews the surviving nine people who walked on the Moon, that I really started collecting books about the Space Race. And then I decided it would be interesting to write fiction about it…

Ingredients for a writing life
When I originally started writing sf short stories, they were pretty well, er, generic. I’d read plenty of short fiction, and so I turned what I thought were neat ideas into neat little stories. None of them sold. So I spent several years having a bash at novels – A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders are products of those years, as well as a couple of trunk novels – and didn’t return to writing short fiction until 2008. It took a few goes before I found the kind of short fiction that worked for me, but it wasn’t until I wrote ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’ (see here) that I realised I’d found a, er, space I wanted to explore further in ficiton. I’d been partly inspired by Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, because its obsessive attention to detail really appealed to me – and when I started working on Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I wanted it to be like that. But I’d also read some Cormac McCarthy – The Road and All The Pretty Horses – and that gave me a handle for the prose style. I’ve jokingly referred to Adrift on the Sea of Rains as “Cormac McCarthy on the Moon” but that was always in my mind while I was writing it. And for the flashback sequences, I wanted a more discursive and roundabout style, so I turned to a book I’d recently read, Austerlitz by WG Sebald, and used that as my inspiration. And finally, there’s a point in astronaut Thomas Stafford’s autobiography, We Have Capture, in which he discusses the deaths of the three cosmonauts in the Soyuz 11 mission – Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev – and he mentions the 19 turns needed to manually close the valve which evacuated the air from their spacecraft, and that figure became sort of emblematic of my approach to writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It’s odd DNA for a science fiction novella – Stafford, Mercurio, McCarthy and Sebald – but there you go…

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The next two books of the Apollo Quartet were driven by the their plots, inasmuch as their inspirations were plot-related, and the only books which fed into them were the books I read for research. But I should definitely mention Malcolm Lowry, who I’d started reading around the time I launched Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and the titles of some of his books – Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid – inspired the titles of books two and three of the Apollo Quartet. But when it comes to book four, All That Outer Space Allows, well, obviously, Sirk’s movie All That Heaven Allows was a major influence, but so too was Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which showed me that breaking the fourth wall was a really interesting narrative technique to explore. But there’s also Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games, which inspired the whole breaking the fourth wall thing in the first place, and which led to me using art house films as inspiration for short stories, so that ‘Red Desert’ in Dreams of the Space Age and Space – Houston We Have A Problem was inspired by François Ozon’s Under the Sand, and I’m currently working on a story inspired by Lars von Trier’s Melancholia titled, er, ‘Melancholia’, and in which I take great pleasure in destroying the Earth.

Reading for pleasure
Despite all that above, there are authors whose works I read purely because I enjoy doing so. It’s true there might be a bit of DH Lawrence in All That Outer Space Allows, but if I had to pick a favourite Lawrence novel out of those I’ve read I’d be hard pressed to do so. I’ve mentioned Lowry already – for him, the one work I treasure is his novella ‘Through the Panama’ which appears in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. And with Karen Blixen, AKA Isak Dinesen, a new discovery for me and becoming a favourite, it’s her novella ‘Tempest’. But I don’t think she’s going to influence my writing much. Neither do I think the writings of Helen Simpson or Marilynne Robinson will do so either, although Simpson has paddled in genre. And much as I admire the writings of Gwyneth Jones, Paul Park and DG Compton, their writing is so unlike my own, their books are just a pure reading pleasure. Jenny Erpenbeck, on the other hand, I think might influence my writing, as I love her distant tone. And while I love the deep personal focus of Hanan al-Shaykh’s novels, she’s reading for pleasure.

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To some extent, I think, I treat books like movies. There are the disposable ones – commercial sf, in other words; and you can find many examples on the SF Masterwork list, which is more a reflection on the genre as a whole than it is on the SF Masterwork list. But I much prefer movies from other cultures, and while science fiction scratched that itch to some extent, even though its cultures were invented… the level of such invention wasn’t especially deep – and if I get more of a sense of estrangment out of a novel by Erpenbeck, a German woman, than I do from any random US sf writer, I see that as more a flaw of the genre than of its practitioners. Happily, things are changing, and a wider spectrum of voices are being heard in genre fiction. Not all of them will appeal to me, not all of them will earn my admiration. But I wholeheartedly support the fact of their existence. I do enjoy reading books like that but in the past I’ve had to read mainstream fiction – Mariama Bâ, Abdelrahman Munif, Magda Szabó, Elfriede Jelineck, Leila Aboulela, Chyngyz Aitmatov… as well as those mentioned previously. These are the books and movies which join my collection, and for which I am forever struggling to find shelf space.


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The art of brewing fiction

At the end of 2014, I sold a space opera trilogy to Tickety Boo Press. I’d written the first two books a few years before, but had never got around to writing the third. This wasn’t a problem, however. I saw it as an opportunity to prove I could write a big commercial novel in a reasonable timeframe, despite never having tried it before. Unfortunately, I hadn’t factored in two important things: a) real life, and b) even when I start writing commercial science fiction it turns into something else.

Anyway, the first book, A Prospect of War appeared in March 2015, and the second book, A Conflict of Orders, six months later. Everything seem to be going well… Until, in early 2016, the day job dumped a major project on me… and the writing on book three, A Want of Reason, ground to a halt. But – and this is, I hope, the point of this piece – the months off from writing space opera will, I think, make A Want of Reason a stronger and better novel. I may not have been banging out the words, but I’ve never stopped thinking about the story; and I’ve jotted down notes when ideas occurred to me.

When two chargers are set at an angle of 23.7 degrees to each other, they cause a catastrophic distortion in reality: an implosion.

One of my objectives when I set out to write An Age of Discord (the trilogy’s overall title) was to explore the structure of commercial fantasy trilogies. I chose to do this using space opera because I much prefer science fiction to fantasy. A Prospect of War is based on the hero’s journey template, in which a young man of humble birth is elevated to leader of a powerful military force pledged to defend the throne against the evil usurper. (There are a few narrative loops and detours thrown in there too, of course.) For A Conflict of Orders, I wanted to avoid “middle book syndrome”, in which the author just shuffles pieces around the board for the epic final battle in book three. So I made the epic final battle the centre-piece of my second novel. The second half of A Conflict of Orders then covers the lifting of the siege of the Imperial Palace and the aftermath of the attempted coup.

The angle must be precise. A fraction of a degree either way and the two chargers will simply bounce apart, like magnets of the same pole.

But when it came to writing A Want of Reason, some five years after I’d completed A Conflict of Orders… The first thing I did was throw away the original synopsis. I’d planned the novel to have two main narratives: one set in the days following A Conflict of Orders, in which the main characters prepare the Imperial capital for the final act of the 1000-year-old conspiracy which has been driving the trilogy’s plot; and another narrative set 1000 years in the past and describing the events which led to that conspiracy forming. But I decided I didn’t like the idea – for a start, it felt like too much work to create a version of the empire as it was 1000 years earlier, given all the work I’d put into world-building for the empire of the time the main story is set. Instead, the novel would follow on directly from A Conflict of Orders, but I’d take the story in an entirely different direction…

The exact angle is, of course, a closely-guarded secret, known only to a few hundred academicians and munitions artificers.

But I don’t want to write too much about A Want of Reason, because things might still change as I get further into the writing of it. And I don’t want to spoil people’s enjoyment of the novel when it does finally appear. It’s just that recent thoughts I’ve had about the book have led to me thinking about the creative process and how it relates to A Want of Reason and the trilogy. For example, a major part of the first third of A Want of Reason is two characters, Dai and Finesz, each investigating a minor mystery. While it had been clear in my mind right from the start what the answer to those mysteries were, I’d not quite figured out how they linked into the plot of the novel and the story-arc of the trilogy. Later, not only did I come up with a way of fitting them in, but a way of using them to actually advance the plot and add to the world-building.

Marla Dai could not remember when she had originally come across the information, but she was making good use of it now. It had been easy enough to find an unused aerocraft at Kukoi Aerodrome, likely belonging to some noble with more money than sense. It had not flown for months. Less than an hour later, Dai had removed a pair of chargers from its underside and concealed them nearby.

I chose the word “brewing” for this blog post deliberately, because for me ideas often feel like the product of fermentation. I envy those writers who can start writing and ideas just come to them; as well as those who sit down and plan out their writing like a military campaign. But creativity is a subconscious process – I don’t know how many times during the writing of An Age of Discord I’ve come up with what felt like a neat idea, only to find several chapters later it served as an excellent hook for an even neater idea

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There’s that old saw of the writer being asked, “where do you get your ideas from?” There are as many answers as there are writers. For me, it’s lying in bed at night, thinking, “Shit, I’ve got Finesz hunting for Azeel now, so how does she go about tracking her down and what does she discover when she does find her?” And it all has to work within the universe of the book, it has to be rigorous. I know where the story is going, of course; I have a general direction in mind – and sometimes a quite detailed idea of the end – and I know what sort of things I want to write about. I suppose it won’t come as much of a surprise to those who know me, but A Want of Reason is primarily about the fascistic character of space opera empires. I admit a lot of it was about the uniforms when I was writing A Prospect of War, but now, some 350,000 to 400,000 words later, and however many years, and one of the major points I want to make in An Age of Discord is the way space operas always default to the right, and the easy acceptance of same by readers of the sub-genre. And the best way to comment on that, I decided, was to push the empire of the story even further rightwards. It’s there in the final pages of A Conflict of Orders, the forced closing of the civil government and a crackdown on what little political freedom already exists…

The troopers had already subdued most of those inside by the time Inspector Sliva Finesz of the Office of the Procurator Imperial entered the premises. This was not her operation, she had been roped in to help, although no one had bothered to fill her in on the details. She strode into the building, pulling her gloves onto her hands, and found herself in a large workshop room, two storeys high, with a sharply-raked roof supported by narrow iron pillars, and filled with large mechanisms… Printing-presses? The air stank of hot oil overlaid with the acrid tang of some chemical she did not recognise. Troopers held a group of proles at the back of the room. Some of the proles were injured—bruised and bloodied. Above them, half a dozen yeomen peered out of office windows on a mezzanine floor, while a couple of low-ranking OPI officers stood by in attendance.

Although it was not planned, the last six months of fermentation have proven beneficial to A Want of Reason. Last year, I decided the Involutes’ main headquarters would be called the Fastness. But all I had was a name. A couple of months ago, as I lay in bed, natch, an idea occurred to me… and a number of things just started slotting together, not just the Fastness, but the Involutes’ masks, things that had happened in the earlier books… It was like watching a Transformer, er, transform. It may be a dilettante-ish way to write, but it works for me. I once said that if the half-story ever became an art-form, I’ve a body of work ready and waiting. Because that’s how it goes for me. I have an idea, I start on a story… I give up after a few hundred words because it’s not working… And then the story sort of sits there in the back if my mind, brewing away, until one day I pretty much bang it out fully-formed. That’s what happened with ‘Geologic’.

They met an hour after dawn in a secluded corner of a park beneath the wall of jagged hills which separated Gahara from the rest of Toshi. Dew lay heavy on the grass and bowed the thin branches of the trees surrounding the spot they had chosen. A faint mist lay a ceiling across the sky some two or three hundred feet up, the sun a hot diffuse dot of orange above the hills. Despite this, the air smelled cool and fresh, with a faint hint of the sea from the bay below. A young lieutenant from the Honourable Basilisk Company, with more decency than most of the nobility Casmir Ormuz had met in Toshi, acted as second. Ormuz’s opponent, a viscount and the son of an earl, who had not expected a challenge but had responded to it with alacrity, appeared both composed and quietly confident. He either discounted the stories he might have heard about Ormuz, or he had never heard them. His equally doltish second smirked at what he clearly expected to be a quick and victorious bout.

I’d wanted to write a story about saturation diving in a science-fictional context for a while, and had decided that a world with high atmospheric pressure was the best setting. And there’d need to be some sort of alien ruin or something to justify explorers spending so much time in such an inimical environment. But that’s as far as I got. I wrote a few hundred words… and there it sat for several months. Brewing away Until one weekend I sat down and wrote it. A read-through by my beta readers, some cleaning up, and I submitted to Interzone. The magazine bought it, and it appeared in issue 262.

Unfortunately, it’s not always so easy. The final story in Dreams of the Space Age, ‘Our Glorious Socialist Future Among the Stars!’ may have gestated and been born in a similar fashion – “I’m writing a story about Yuri Gagarin crash-landing on Mars and I’m going to pastiche Robinson Crusoe on Mars… and, I know, I’ll have all the dialogue in Russian! And… this is a great idea… I’ll throw in lots of references to Soviet sf!” – but I never managed to sell it to a magazine. Was it the title? The Russian dialogue? The quotes from The Communist Manifesto? Who knows. Although most comments about Dreams of the Space Age single out ‘Far Voyager’ as the best story; and that was originally published in Postscripts, was in fact the title story in Postscripts 32/33: Far Voyager.

People like to ask, what’s the best writing advice you’ve received, and all I can think of is Bob Shaw’s admonition in his How to Write Science Fiction to “read lots of books”. Example and self-experimentation are powerful learning tools. But I’d go one further, and say, read lots of books from lots of genres and modes of fiction. Read too widely outside sf and there’s a danger of being disillusioned with the genre, but that can also feed back into your writing. Science fiction should never be given special dispensation; instead, we writers of sf should strive to lift the genre up to the level where it is taken as seriously as any other mode of fiction. Which is why writers should read widely. (I don’t get that thing about writers who refuse to read other books when working on a project, I really don’t.)

Of course, this is merely in reference to the prose and story-telling. Don’t get me started on research. Assume at least one of your readers is an expert in the subject you are writing; assume they will mock you for getting it wrong. So get it right. Don’t make it up as you go along. In the past, the writer might never have learnt that some people thought him or her an idiot for getting simply physics wrong in a sf novel, but these days, with social media, someone is sure to “helpfully” let the writer know… (Or even bully them over it – it’s scumbag behaviour, but it happens.) But that’s a discussion for another day…

[This post contains some lines from the opening chapters of A Want of Reason.]


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Awards, rewards and self-publishing

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time won the Clarke Award, which was a surprise – but a pleasant one. At least the book I’d expected to win didn’t take the prize; but, sadly, neither did the book I wanted to win. I had Children of Time pegged more as a BSFA Award book than a Clarke Award, but when I wrote about it in August last year I predicted good things would happen to it. And I’m happy for Adrian, who is a thoroughly good bloke (and scarily prolific). Children of Time is one of the very few books I started reading on the day of purchase – and it was completely by accident. I’d bought the book at Edge-Lit 4, but during the journey home I finished the novel I’d brought to read on the train and so turned to Children of Time. I wonder if it’s repeatable…

I’ve written about the Clarke Award shortlist elsewhere, and about the individual books on it in scattered Reading diary posts on this blog. It was – and I’m not the only person to use this word – a lacklustre shortlist. The Clarke has always been a boundary-pushing sort of literary award, but the last few years it seems to have been circling its metaphorical wagons. There has been surprisingly little commentary about the books on the shortlist this year, despite it being the award’s thirtieth anniversary, despite the extended period between the announcement of the shortlist and the announcement of the winner. But when most commentary on sf these days seems to consist of brainless hyperbole on social media, having all the criticial insight of marketing copy, it’s plainly a problem much wider than an award shortlist. In today’s genre conversation, books receive either five stars or one star. It’s a piss-poor excuse for a conversation, and it’s poisoning the genre. Not only is sf blanding out, we seem to be actively encouraging it to do so…

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Which makes the award’s decision to allow self-published works to submit baffling. The vast majority of self-published books are derivative commercial sf, space opera or military science fiction. It’s precisely the sort of sf you’d hope the Clarke Award would avoid. Of course, there are also self-published works which are anything but commercial – and may well have been self-published for that very reason. But the award director cites the examples of Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and Jeff Noon’s Channel Skin (which I’ve not read) as good reasons for including self-published works. Of course, the Chambers was already eligible because it had been picked up and published by Hodder. I’m a bit annoyed the award bent the rules to allow me to submit All That Outer Space Allows – which was also selected for the Tiptree Award’s honour list – but then hasn’t seen fit to hold it up as an example of a self-published novel that was worthy of submission.

I deliberately set out when writing each book of the Apollo Quartet to upset the expectations of readers, something I had the freedom to do because I was self-publishing. And while that has seen the books win one award, be nominated for a further two, and appear on the honour list of another… I’ve sold only 3700 copies since April 2012. And Dreams of the Space Age, a collection of short stories set in the same, er, space as the Apollo Quartet, published in April of this year… well, I can barely give them way – 86 copies sold since its launch. However, I don’t have the marketing clout or the distribution channels of a major publishing imprint, so this was hardly unexpected. To be honest, I’d actually expected Adrift on the Sea of Rains to sink without trace.

Because I self-published, because I had no expectations of commercial success, so I was free to write something challenging. The fact that some people appreciated that enough to nominate the books for awards was a huge surprise. And I saw that as grounds to write even more challenging sf. Which at least might have stood me in good stead for some awards. Except now the Clarke Award appears to prefer more commercial works, and by opening itself up to self-published books, is likely to become yet more commercial. I’m guessing, of course; but you can’t get more commercial than the Firefly fanfic that is The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

It’s an inevitable conclusion, and one that has plainly occurred to Adam Roberts, who has gone on record as saying he will no longer write challenging science fiction novels as he would sooner not have his books ignored. And I think to myself I would sooner write more difficult sf. On the other hand, success brings its own acclaim, and it’s astonishing how popular books become “awesome” and “amazeballs” and “the best book ever written”. Which is not to say challenging works can never be popular, nor commercial works possess literary quality, nor literary works enjoy commercial success… But we’re in danger of losing what’s best about science fiction if the only game in town is “most popular kid in the playground”… And I was going to write something about lone voices in the wilderness being the only ones to carry the flame, but that really is a mixed metaphor too far… But it’s not unrealistic to expect, to hope, that the Clarke Award is skewed toward challenging science fiction novels, and not the dull, and often juvenile, meat-and-potatoes/bread-and-butter sf which sells by the yard (and is likely written by the yard too), and which appears to comprise the vast undifferentiated mass of self-published science fiction.

But I’m speculating – and we shall see next year how the Clarke Award implements its expanded remit. A juried award at least has the advantage of not being bent out of shape by eligibility posts, or fan and tribe affiliations; and for that reason I look to the Clarke as a truer picture of what the word “best” means in science fiction in any given year. I would hate to lose that…