It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


4 Comments

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

justi_imagine

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.]


Leave a comment

La petite mort de sf

I’ve been working my way through Figures of Paradox, a study of Aleksandr Sokurov’s films by Jeremi Szaniakawski, and at one point he references the Kantian sublime, “the feeling that is so great it inspires neither love nor hate”, and it struck me that science fiction, in its own small way, is forever striving for that moment of the sublime. It’s not an actual objective of the genre, just something its readers look for in the texts they read. But they call it “sense of wonder” (please let’s not use “sensawunda”, which sounds like a brand of margarine). However, sense of wonder isn’t the same as the sublime. It’s a small version of it, the B-movie version – more colourful certainly, lots of bright primary colours in fact, but less actually awe-inspiring.

I think that difference in intensity may be simply a lack of physicality. Mountains are, famously, there. But the sublime doesn’t require an actual physicality. When NASA published the photographs of the surface of Vesta back in 2011, the asteroid was 188 million kilometres from Earth – and no one in my lifetime will ever visit the asteroid in person – but the fact of Vestia’s existence, its realness, the knowledge that it shares this universe with us, still prompted a moment of the sublime.

vesta

And against that, all science fiction can do is… manipulation of scale. When Stephen Baxter casually drops a billion-year history into the plot of his novel, when Alastair Reynolds writes of a journey across the width of a galaxy in his story, when Ann Leckie mentions in passing that the Radchh live in a Dyson Sphere… Because the story is focused on individuals, the sudden realisation – carefully stage-managed by the author, of course – that the story encompasses so much more, at a scale so much greater than the merely human, evokes sense of wonder. Admittedly, suspension of disbelief relies on a degree of plausibility. The universe is fifteen billion years old – that’s not only plausible, it’s a scientific fact. But a Dyson Sphere is not, on the face of it, an especially plausible idea… but it was proposed in scientific literature, and has since become part of science fiction to such an extent its plausibility no longer seems relevant: it has a form of virtual plausibility.

Of course, not all science fiction makes use of sense of wonder. Not every science fiction story takes place over billions of years or across millions of planets. On the contrary, some forms of science fiction deliberately downplay the sense of scale in order to suggest a more homogenous setting for the story – such as space opera. I mean, seriously, no one thinks there are zillions of human-habitable worlds out there just waiting to be settled, or that there’s a Kuhnian Paradigm Shift waiting somewhere in history’s wings to turn reduce the distance between these worlds to journeys of hours, days or weeks instead of centuries and millennia. But then it’s not like space operas are intended to be plausible in any way. They’re just adventure stories, and they use a language all their own.

In a mode of fiction which offers “idea” on one axis and “sense of wonder” on the other, there will always be works which score low, or even zero, on one axis. And too, the popularity of regions of such a graph will shift with time and fashion. We’ve had New Space Opera and we’re now living through the tail-end of it. Space opera has returned to its roots; the space operas being published today are no different in sensibilities to those of the 1970s (although the style of prose may well have changed). One sub-genre which seems to be flowering at present is military sf. Just look at the thousands of self-published titles available on Kindle. And as subgenres of science fiction go, mil sf is probably the least sophisticated. It is war stories told in the language of science fiction. It relies on an insultingly simplified worldview; it is the pulp sf of our times.

I gave this post the title “La petite mort de sf” not because I think science fiction is dead. (Again…) I used the expression “la petite mort” because of its meanings – including “fainting fit”, “nervous spasm”, or, more recently, “post-orgasmic unconsciousness”. While I’m not suggesting science fiction – good or bad – should inspire such states, it seemed like a good fit for an analogy of the gap between sense of wonder and the Kantian sublime. Paul Kincaid once wrote a critical work titled What it is We Do When We Read Science Fiction – and a very good critical works it is too – but I wonder if a more important question is: What It is We Want When We Read Science Fiction. And what I find interesting is the tools built into the genre which address those wants; and a) how those tools have come into being, and b) how the tools are deployed to generate specific effects. For “tool”, you might as well read “trope”… although I think of tropes as the manifestation of deep-seated ideas, sort of like how three-dimensional figures appear in two-dimensional space…

Like manipulation of scale, sf is also open to manipulation of affect. The cheapest way to do this is through language – choosing the right words, essentially. This is not something unique to sf, by any means. Nor is it a technique used all that much in the genre. For much of science fiction’s history, prose has been seen as merely the transmission vector for story. Some sf writers have declared prose should be “beige” or “transparent”, the idea being it should not be a barrier to understanding the story or plot. But, quite frankly, if any style of prose is such a barrier then it’s not doing its job. This doesn’t mean the reader shouldn’t have work for it. Prose can do many things – it can declare, describe, imply, suggest, evoke, generate trains of thought only peripherally linked to the text being read… It can create pictures in your brain, moving pictures, stories which not only re-enact those written on the page but go further, outside the story, beyond the story…

Which means prose carries a heavy burden, over and above that of story. Personally, I prize clarity; but I also prize detail. Perhaps even an over-abundance of detail. Prose should not be “transparent” or “beige”, it should evoke as much as it possibly can, using all the tools at its disposal, linguistic and genre. And there are a great number of tools at the sf writer’s disposal – not just the manipulation of scale or the manipulation of affect mentioned earlier in this post.

True, science fiction will never reach the sublime, but no form of literature will. In its use of sense of wonder, it can approximate it (in a peculiarly circumscribed way, that is). Unfortunately, it is also chiefly a commercial genre of fiction, and much of its DNA was drawn from pulp fiction. The genre as it exists today prizes story and plot and all the mechanical things which together form beginning, middle and end; and yet it has the potential to be so much more. Sometimes, it hints at that promise – and it’s not necessarily genre authors who manage to do so…

Science fiction is a broad church. It has room for two-fisted tales of interstellar derring-do just as much as it does for lyrically-written cautionary tales or avant garde explorations of inner space. And in some years, one form of science fiction will be more popular, and win more awards, than another form. Like the alleged variation in lengths of skirts during times of economic hardship and boom, so science fiction cuts its cloth to the world around it. Unlike skirts, however, it doesn’t appear to go up when times are bad, but the reverse. When times are good, sf is typically optimistic; when the future is not so rosy, dystopia and mil sf rule the roost. It is a barometer of our times.

But it still has a long way to go before it gets close to the sublime.


6 Comments

Wonderbook, Jeff VanderMeer

wonderbookThey say everyone has a book inside them. Some people, it seems, even have a book about writing books inside them. While many of the latter have been written by people whose only published work appears to be a book about writing a publishable novel, there are a large number by authors with long and illustrious careers. This is especially true in science fiction and fantasy, a mode of fiction which as been curiously self-fertilising since its inception in the pages of Amazing Stories in 1926. Names from the letters pages of the pulp magazines soon had stories appearing in those same titles. There is a long list of successful science fiction and fantasy writers who have published “how to write” books, from Bob Shaw to Ben Bova, from Lisa Tuttle to Damon Knight, and from Stephen King to Ray Bradbury. And yet, despite the marquee names on the covers, such books are not always useful. Shaw’s How to Write Science Fiction (1993) may be an entertaining read, but its advice can be distilled down to “read lots of books”. The best, despite its age, is probably Knight’s Creating Short Fiction (1981). Bova’s The Craft of Writing Science Fiction that Sells (1994) is simplistic, and the stories – his own, of course – he uses to illustrate his points do the book no favours. However, Bova did go on to edit a series of books on specific aspects of writing science fiction for Writer’s Digest Books and, while necessarily specialist in the topics they cover, they can be helpful.

All of which is a roundabout way of introducing Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer. Vandermeer is no stranger to genre fiction – he is an award-winning writer and anthologist, and he also runs a highly-regarded small press, Cheeky Frawg Books. Wonderbook, subtitled “the illustrated guide to creating imaginative fiction”, has apparently been several years in the making. Given the book’s size, and its copious illustrations, that’s a boast it’s easy to believe. In fact, as an object, Wonderbook is pretty impressive, which is not something that can be said of most “how to write” books.

And yet… There’s something in the whole concept of a “how to write” book which seems vaguely antithetical to the process of creating fiction. The axiom that writing is a craft, that it is a skill set which can be taught, appears to suggest there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. As a result, “how to write” books often come across as prescriptive – “this is what fiction should be”, “this is what genre fiction should be”… And this can lead to a blanding out of literature written in a science fiction or fantasy mode.

If the recent self-publishing boom has taught us anything, it’s not just that everyone has a book in them, but that most of those books really should have never seen the light of day. It’s not simply an inability to tell a compelling story, it’s that many self-published writers simply do not have the language skills – their books are replete with typos, grammatical errors and malapropisms.

But is a facility with written language all that’s required? Certainly, a writer should know what they are doing before they make a deliberate choice not to do it. It’s not that there’s a need for rules, or even accepted ways of doing things… but expectations certainly exist – from editors to readers, from publishers to reviewers…

Wonderbook scores higher in this regard than other books of its ilk – the clue is there in the subtitle. This is a book designed to catalyse the creative process, and then show how to shape that creative impulse. Vandermeer is also clear on Wonderbook’s audience: “although of use to beginner and intermediate writers working in any genre, Wonderbook’s default setting is fantasy rather than realism” (p xiv). The book covers its subject in seven chapters, titled: Inspiration and the Creative Life, The Ecosystem of Story, Beginnings and Endings, Narrative Design, Characterization, Worldbuilding, and Revision. Each chapter contains numerous illustration – some instructional, some merely decorative. There are also a number of sidebar essays by established genre writers, such as Kim Stanley Robinson, Lauren Beukes, Karen Lord, Ursula K Le Guin, Nick Mamatas and Neil Gaiman. And a detailed analysis of Vandermeer’s own novel, Finch.

The sidebar essays demonstrate that asking ten different writers how to write will result in ten different answers, many of which will be either contradictory or too specific to be of much use. Authors with successful careers have by definition experience at writing publishable fiction, but what worked for them is not necessarily transferable. Nor should it be.

There are plenty of examples given of the narrative techniques covered in Wonderbook, but unfortunately some of the details are just plain wrong. The love affair in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 is between Swan and Wahram, not Waltham (p 87). Iain M Banks’s Culture novels do not “postulate a far future in which humankind has spread out across the galaxy”, but are set during our present day – see the novella ‘State of the Art’ (p 147).

Despite all that, if you’re looking for insights into writing for publication successfully, a “how to write” book is not necessarily the best place to look. Shaw’s advice – “read lots of books” – may be trite, but it’s still the best way to learn how to write. Some “how to write” books may present novel-writing as a “get rich quick” scheme, but anyone with any sense knows it’s anything but. Wonderbook makes no such claims: its lessons are clear, its analyses are mostly unobjectionable, the illustrations add welcome texture, and it’s a poor reader who will walk away from the book without learning something. For the “beginner or intermediate writer”, it’s certainly one of the best books available of its type. For the seasoned writer, perhaps not so much – there’s just a little too much which feels restrictive.

But that’s the nature of writing about writing fiction.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #250, January-February 2014.


64 Comments

10 things I learnt writing space opera

The following may read as pure cynicism, but it’s actually meant to be tongue-in-cheek. I thought it best to mention that before some redditor sees it and starts frothing at the mouth…

1. There is nothing to be learned from analysing other space operas
Why are some space operas successful, and some not? It’s no good looking for a magic ingredient or a magic formula – there isn’t one. This also applies to epic fantasy, another resolutely commercial form of genre fiction. I read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series to see what made its books bestsellers. I couldn’t figure it out. They were terrible and derivative, and often astonishingly dull. They also sold by the boatload. Go figure.

2. Yes, you can be too clever
Space opera is a commercial subgenre of science fiction and has proven wildly successful on television and in the cinema. It is broad-brush literature. Yes, you can get clever with it, but the sort of people who enjoy space opera are unlikely to appreciate it, and the sort of people who like clever fiction are unlikely to pick up a space opera in the first place. This doesn’t mean there aren’t successful exceptions, of course. But. M John Harrison’s Light had his name on the cover, so readers knew exactly what they were getting. And Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy judged the amount of cleverness to include pretty much perfectly.

3. In a trilogy or series, never put off the resolution of minor plot threads or mysteries until the next book
It’s one thing to draw out a plot over the length of a trilogy or series, but that’s the meta-story – no one expects that to be resolved in the first book. But if you’ve included a bunch of minor plot threads, or even a couple of mysteries, you need to resolve them before the end of the book in which they appear. Readers will either conclude the plot thread doesn’t work, the author has forgotten about it, or won’t remember it when you do resolve it in the book following. See above re too clever…

4. Readers will swallow anything… as long as it’s a trope
As Joe Abercrombie tweeted several weeks ago: “Always surprises me the things people find utterly unbelievable in a fantasy. Giant winged lizard? Fine. Female smith? BEYOND RIDICULOUS.” In space opera, that would be: Faster-Than-Light travel? No problem. A society that never developed gunpowder? I DON’T BELIEVE IT. Guess what – it’s all fucking made-up. Every bit of it. Dragons are not real, FTL is not real. So if the author wants to posit a star-faring society without guns, then why the hell not? Um, see above re too clever…

5. Familiarity does not breed contempt, it breeds the moneys
Commercial fiction of any genre trades on the familiar. It exists mostly to be comfort reading, and most people don’t like to have their likes and prejudices questioned. See Puppygate, see Lovecraftgate, see anybody who uses the term “political correctness” or “social justice warrior” unironically. Space opera is big spaceships, big battles, derring-do and as much colour as can be reasonably squeezed into 700 action-packed pages. Themes are big and bold and simple: good people win, bad people lose; evil empires are evil; one man (it’s always a man, of course) with a stout heart can topple the biggest of empires; if you can’t map Middle America values onto a fictional universe, then it is clearly wrong.

6. Unless your space opera is military sf, don’t package it to look anything like military science fiction
If you put a GIANT SPACE BATTLESHIP on the cover of your space opera, most readers will expect to find something inside which is all about the GIANT SPACE BATTLESHIP and nothing else. Manly man human space fleets battling nasty reptile aliens, for example. And when that’s not what’s in there… When people buy a meat pie, they expect to get a pastry shell filled with some sort of flavoured flesh. If it was filled entirely with, say, aubergine, they would be rightly disappointed. Of course, books are not meat pies, and it may well be that a military-sounding book title and a GIANT SPACE BATTLESHIP on the cover are actually relevant to the story, which is, despite all that, not at all military science fiction. But that, of course, is why we have blurbs – and why Kindle books let you read an excerpt.

7. Too much description is a bad thing
Descriptive prose gets in the way of action. Though how immersion is supposed to work without descriptive prose is beyond me– oh wait, clichés. Of course… And you could always stick it in dialogue. Readers like dialogue – it explains things. You know that writers’ maxim: show, don’t tell? It should really be: don’t show, tell it in dialogue. Fact.

8. It’s impossible to know what needs to be explained
Some readers will complain because a space opera’s particular flavour of FTL is not backed up by an info-dump. Others will be unwilling to suspend their disbelief regarding the book’s social set-up without some sort of history lesson to “explain” it. There is no way of knowing what level of exposition is appropriate, or what elements actually require exposition – it varies from reader to reader, from story to story. Personally, I tend to go for “less is more”, but readers seem to trust authors far less these days than they used to.

9. There needs to be a Poe’s Law type thing for pastiches
Science fiction, they say, is a genre in conversation with itself. It might be better to consider it as some sort of colony creature, which passes its genes – ie, tropes – from one generation to the next, slowly evolving, often mutating, as it goes. A GIANT SPACE JELLYFISH. Conversation, after all, it implies some sort of intellectual engagement, and if tropes are what genre uses to propagate itself, you wouldn’t expect them to be used so uncritically so often. So when tropes are indeed pastiched, it’s often impossible to tell if it’s being done ironically or uncritically.

10. You can overthrow the universe as long as you put it back how you found it
Nothing ever really changes in space opera – or in epic fantasy, for that matter. Different uniforms but the same old jackboots. You can only take progression so far. See earlier re female smith. Start putting too much progression in there and you put the entire genre at risk – you get Puppygate. Still it’s hardly surprising that a subgenre based on autocratic political models is regressive, it’s written into its DNA. And if you change that, well, you haven’t really got space opera, have you? So keep your universe tidy and put things back where you found them. You know it’s the “right” thing to do…

Chrysaora-sp-1

Of course, for every point made above, someone is going to name a particular space opera which disproves the point. Which, er, pretty much proves point 1. But when you look at a genre which exists in two distinct markets, one of which is driven by marketing spend (proper published books), and one by weird sales algorithms (self-published Kindle books), it tends to be the more traditional fare which succeeds best in the latter market. Besides, the points made above are not actually meant seriously…

Or are they?


6 Comments

Reasons to be cheerful… in space opera

Consolatory fantasy typically ends with the existing power structure back in charge, and they’re usually the good guys – no matter how unfair the society – so as a result I suppose that could be seen as optimistic. Of course, the bad guys are always much worse. Most space operas follow a similar set-up. If it’s not the barbarians at the gates, it’s the rot from within. Either way, the empire or republic is in for a kicking and the good guys have to put up the good fight to save it. If the empire does go down in flames, a new more powerful one will rise phoenix-like from its ashes. So far, so consolatory.

I will happily admit I deliberately set out to pastiche the consolatory fantasy template when I wrote A Prospect of War. Here’s the emperor – he’s under threat. So here’s a posse of good guys all set to fight the dark lord and defend the throne. And so the plot of the novel pretty much kicks off the conspiracy and sees the peasant hero gather his forces for the final battle.

However, part of the fun of writing the sequel, A Conflict of Orders, was then carefully upsetting that structure. The final battle takes place halfway through the book, rather than at the end of the trilogy. The villain is defeated (that can hardly be a spoiler) and the throne is once again safe… And then the tone of the story changes…

There is a plot hiding beneath the story of the An Age of Discord trilogy. Hints and clues to it appear in both A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders, and it was always my intention to bring that plot into the light and resolve it in the third and final book, A Want of Reason. But in the years since I finished writing A Conflict of Orders and now – when I have to write A Want of Reason from scratch to complete the trilogy – I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things. Not least what happens in A Want of Reason. Part of this is practical – I put together lots of notes for the third book back when I was writing the first two, but those notes now sit on a dead computer and are inaccessible. But it’s also true that my definition of what constitutes an optimistic ending, never mind an interesting story, has changed in the years since I completed A Conflict of Orders. Which is not to say that A Want of Reason will be a domestic novel – I’m not going to do a Tehanu (much as I would love to)…

SpaceOpera

But as A Want of Reason begins to take shape and settle into its story, I’m finding it a much darker novel than I had expected. The focus of the story too has altered, and now rests on a different selection of characters. Casimir Ormuz, the peasant hero, is still there, of course. But his journey to the resolution – never mind the resolution itself – is very different to the one I had originally envisaged.

I wrote each novella (and novel) of the Apollo Quartet to confound reader expectations. I see now that I’d been working to a similar principle – albeit considerably weaker – when I’d written A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders. But for A Want of Reason… I’m going all-out. The good guys will become bad guys, and the bad good, and the ending will neither reinforce the status quo nor raze the empire to the ground.

There’s not much room for innovation in space opera, given that everyone judges the subgenre by its bells and whistles. It’s either the world-building or – and this is a development of the past few years – its gingerbread prose which seeks to disguise common tropes beneath obfuscatory metaphors. The story templates haven’t changed, the tropes certainly haven’t changed. (There’s probably a Tough Guide to Space Opera, er, Space post somewhere in all this.) And those few space operas which have rung changes have generally caused very few waves. Has there, for example, been anything comparable to Nova published in the twenty-first century? (Having said that, are there any space opera authors as fiercely intelligent as Samuel R Delany currently being published?) There’s Ann Leckie’s trilogy of Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, of course, which used an astonishing piece of sleight of hand in using female as a default personal gender to add a fresh new flavour to something Iain M Banks had been doing for three decades. And while Banks was certainly more innovative than pretty much every other writer of space opera – a consequence, I suspect, of having one foot in the literary fiction camp – even then he had a tendency to use tropes as they were set up rather than subvert or re-engineer them.

Sadly, Banks is gone and I suspect Leckie’s trilogy will prove a one-off blip. Space opera was already busy retrenching after the exciting times of the British New Space Opera of the eighties and nineties – not just Banks, but Take Back Plenty, Eternal Light, Light… But that movement introduced more of a hard sf sensibility to space opera (and some of the names attached to it, including McAuley and Reynolds, are probably better considered hard sf writers), without substantially changing its story patterns or its commonest tropes.

I’ve said before that space opera – if not science fiction itself – is an inherently right-wing genre (even if not all of its practitioners are right-wing). But more than that, I think space opera is inevitably drawn to the right. If someone writes a space opera which isn’t right-wing, it soon veers back to that side of the political spectrum. In part, it’s a function of the political systems which usually appear in space opera: emperors and empresses and empires and bloody great huge space navies. (I don’t, incidentally, hold with the argument that it’s the supposed tyranny of the laws of physics which lends science fiction, especially hard sf, its right-wing character.) However, I do think that science fiction has now, more than ever, reached a position where much of what qualifies as sf is little more than the rote deployment of sf tropes. There’s no insight, no consideration, attached. Put FTL into a story and no one so much as blinks. It’s just part of the furniture. Flat-pack science fiction.

And if you’re going to claim FTL is okay, it’s plausible, because there might be a Kuhnian paradigm shift which means it could happen… Which is, er, not my point at all. The tropes exist, they’re the building blocks of both space opera and science fiction. But I don’t think they should be used uncritically. I’d like to think I haven’t used them myself uncritically. Admittedly, a commercial space opera is likely not the best vehicle to deconstruct space opera tropes (but then I’d have said an commercial fantasy trilogy might not be the best place to deconstruct epic fantasy tropes, but Delany went and wrote his Nevèrÿon novels; but then, Delany…).

My area of interest in writing lies chiefly in the shape of stories, the narrative structures used to present a story in a particular way. I’m not interested in immersion – or rather, no more so than I need for a story’s world to be rigorous in my own mind. I’m not interested in literary techniques designed to make one reader response more likely than others… I jokingly mentioned in a recent conversation that I’d set a story on an exoplanet orbiting Gliese 876 but moved the setting to 61 Virginis because I didn’t think it plausible the story could have taken place given the original star’s distance, and likely travel times, from Earth. This is a science fiction story, of course, which posits a human civilisation across several star systems. No one would have noticed, but it was important to me.

If a science fiction story creates its own world , its version of Mars, Dubai, the Atlantic Ocean, etc, that doesn’t to me mean it does not demand the same level of rigour which pertains in the real world, in mimetic fiction. And at those points where the science fiction touches the real world… then the rigour applies just as much. This was a defining philosophy of the Apollo Quartet. The An Age of Discord space opera trilogy, however, does not touch the real world – at least not to any degree which might affect its setting. But its universe still needs to be internally rigorous. This may be why I find narrative structures and story templates preferable to be experimented upon – because they do not jeopardise rigour. (Yes, yes, you can make a point of ignoring rigour – surrealism, if you will – but that’s a different discussion.)

And so, in a more roundabout way than I am typical guilty of, it’s back to A Want of Reason and my total inability to wrap up what is supposed to be a commercial space opera trilogy in a nicely commercial way. The final chapter of A Conflict of Orders gives a flavour of the third and final book, and it wasn’t until I came back to that chapter a few months ago that I realised exactly what I’d set myself up for. Empress Flavia is on the Imperial Throne – and she’s kicked off a crack-down. When I first wrote it, it probably meant something in terms of my original plan for A Want of Reason. Now, it means: space opera fascism! And that’s what you’ll be getting: a space opera setting that moves ponderously to the right, in order to set up a climax that shifts everything irrevocably to the left. And, meanwhile, your favourite characters? I’ve either dialled them back so far in the narrative they no longer have any agency, or I’ve got them doing stuff villains normally do.

Because. Space opera.


Leave a comment

On writing and how to

I’m probably the last person who should be giving writing advice, which is as good a reason as any for a blog post on the topic. If you want to know how to write short stories which are guaranteed to sell, look elsewhere. I suspect no one else really knows either, they’re just not honest enough to admit it. “Hey, it worked for me – sure it’ll work for you!” Yeah right. If you’re looking for rules on writing readable saleable fiction, I’m the wrong person to ask. If that makes me a dilettante, then so be it. I’m interested in fiction, I’m interested in how fiction works, and I’m interested in using that knowledge to create fiction which does something different. At least, that is, within my chosen genre.

It often seems wannabe writers can’t make a move without bumping into some “rule” or other: “show, don’t tell”, “prose must be transparent to let the story shine through”, “there are only seven plots”, “use a three-act structure”… They’re all bollocks. Fiction, least of all science fiction, is not a programming language. It doesn’t need to be compiled, and it won’t break the reader if, for example, you chose not to use quotation marks around dialogue.

And no one knows why some fiction succeeds and some doesn’t. It is not true that good novels will always see print (never mind sell by the boatload). There are a lot of excellent novels that have never been published, there are a lot of bad novels that have seen print (and some have even been phenomenally successful). There are also a lot of hugely popular novels which garnered a raft of rejections before someone eventually took a chance on them.

As for posterity… Dickens was a hack, an unashamedly populist writer – he even let his readers choose how one novel ended. And Jane Austen was allegedly neither the best writer of her generation nor the most popular – but her novels have endured, while the others are forgotten. Mary Shelly wrote seven novels, but it is her debut, Frankenstein, which is remembered two hundred years later by most people.

Science fiction should be willing to stretch the boundaries of narrative and genre. That it usually doesn’t is a result of the fact it is, at heart, a form of pulp fiction. It had its beginnings in pulp magazines, and though it has at times tried to throw off its origins – the New Wave being the most celebrated attempt – the basic form usually ends up prevailing. And not necessarily for the right reasons.

0423-planetstories

It’s a long-accepted truism science fiction readers are more open-minded, more willing to accept the Other, than readers of other genres… Or are they? Has sf become a victim of its own success? Its most prevalent models have proven so popular across most media that all forms of science fiction are assumed to be of that type. It’s an easy argument to believe – the Sad Puppies certainly fell for it – but it’s not in the slightest bit true. Science fiction is a broad church, and it’s long been my contention that those who take the trouble to admire, and understand, how the genre operates will make better use of the tools available to a writer.

So it’s all very well just blithely introducing FTL into a science fiction text, because the story requires several different locations and the genre insists they be separated by light-years. Except… Firefly put all its worlds in a single planetary system. Not, it has to be said, a particularly plausible solution, but at least it was an attempt to address a common sf stumbling block: space is big, hugely mind-bogglingly big. There are remarkably few science fiction novels which take account of that – notable examples being the current fad (see below) for generation starship stories, such as Aurora and Children of Time.

But if Whedon failed to interrogate the tropes he deployed – no real surprise there – there’s no reason why other writers cannot. There is no GREAT BIG BOOK OF TROPES which must be obeyed. There are no rules which dictate how tropes should be deployed. No matter what some people might insist. Making use of them the same way everyone else has done is just lazy writing, cheap shorthand for complex objects (as is hiding those tropes under a thin veneer of metaphor – but that’s a rant for another time). Each trope certainly exists for a reason, and it makes for much more interesting fiction, to me, if it is the reason that’s interrogated.

The big point about writing, the thing that drives all others, is that you get out what you put in. But your readers probably won’t. There are tricks you can use to trigger a specific reader response, but sooner or later your readers will spot those tricks and they will no longer work. So you might as well write something which meets your own objectives and not those of some mythical reader. The market does not exist, it’s an emergent phenomenon – so it’s no good writing “to the market” because there’s no such thing. And should you decide to try – well, by the time you’ve written your novel, the fad is likely over, unless you’re uncannily good at trendspotting. You can only write to please yourself and hope it pleases others…

It’s not like I’m one to talk. The Apollo Quartet has sold in total some 3000 copies over 3.5 years, of which just over half were sales of Adrift on the Sea of Rains. I was surprised during a conversation at Fantasycon 2015 to be told the Apollo Quartet is held in high regard. It often feels like “regard” should have a number attached and I know – from tracking my own sales – what that number is for the Apollo Quartet. Certainly among my friends and acquaintances, the four books have their fans. But not every review of them has been complimentary or fulsome.

I wrote each book of the Apollo Quartet to deliberately not be what readers of the preceding book had praised. People liked that Adrift on the Sea of Rains was literary, so I wrote The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to be a science fiction puzzle narrative. With each book I tried to push the boundaries of narrative and narrative structure. I made a number of artistic decisions which readers have questioned – not just the lack of quotation marks, but also the lack of closure, the refusal to spell out acronyms, the use of inference to link two narratives… the choice by myself to make the reader work to understand the story. I didn’t intend the Apollo Quartet to be light reading, and that dictated how I approached writing it.

apollo17

There is, now I think about it, another reason why I’m a poor choice of person to write about writing science fiction: I can’t stick to the point, and I’m not entirely sure if this piece is in any way helpful. Writing advice is a poisoned chalice at the best of times – success is too individual for any particular technique to be held up as a general guideline. (I’m assuming a basic facility with language, of course). Having said that, one piece of advice I can give: get yourself a sympathetic group of beta readers. They will tell you what works and what doesn’t. Don’t just bang your novel up on Kindle, unseen by anyone else. (And don’t get me started on self-published 99p science fiction novels – that’s a rant for another day.)

There’s an unspoken compact between writer and reader. You can either stick to it… or have a bit of fun with it. Personally, I think the latter makes for more interesting fiction. Unfortunately, the former is more likely to result in successful fiction. You pays your money and you takes your choice…


11 Comments

Is that the book you really meant to write?

So that’s A Conflict of Orders, the sequel to A Prospect of War and the second book of my space opera trilogy, handed over to the publisher. Now I’ve got to make a start on the third book. And I’d say I’ve got carte blanche, literally, except I haven’t really, because there’s a plot laid out in the first two books and there’s all that foreshadowing I’ve done and the hints and clues I’ve dropped… But I’ve still got plenty of room to manoeuvre, and after writing the Apollo Quartet I’m going to take every damn inch available. Not just because I can but because I want to.

When I started writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I was trying to capture what it actually felt like to be wearing an Apollo era spacesuit on the Moon. It would be an act of imagination, of course – I’m not an astronaut, I’ve never been to the Moon, I’ve never worn a A7LB. But I’d read plenty of astronaut autobiographies and books about spacesuits and NASA technical documentation from the Apollo flights. And it struck me a Cormac McCarthy-like prose style would be good for evoking the desolation of the lunar surface. So I wrote my novella about a group of astronauts in an Apollo programme which had continued into the 1980s, and who were now stranded at a Moon base after the Earth had destroyed itself during a nuclear war.

ht_apollo_11_aldrin_ll_110901_wmain

I made certain artistic decisions that were, well, not the way you were “supposed” to do things. A long glossary. Astronauts that spoke like real astronauts, with no concessions made to the reader. No quote marks around the dialogue. I had no idea what sort of reception Adrift on the Sea of Rains would receive, but I was dead set on it being exactly the way I wanted it to be…

The rest, as they say, is history.

However, I’d foolishly decided to make my novella the first of a quartet. The Apollo Quartet. It had a nice ring to it. I went through a number of story ideas before eventually settling on what became the second book, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself – and then ditching the original structure after a comment in a review of Adrift on the Sea of Rains – none of which is especially relevant, as the point of this post is… writing sequels.

There are several different types of sequel. The most obvious is the one which continues the story begun in the preceding volume. Some of these can stand-alone, but many read like one humongous book split into several smaller volumes. Other types of sequel may be set in the same universe, and feature exactly the same cast, but follow a different plot – and those various plots may themselves contribute to a greater story arc (or simply fill in more details about the series’ world or protagonist). Some sequels share only a setting, but may reference the events of earlier books in the series.

Of course, a sequel doesn’t have to follow the story or protagonist or setting, the link might be more tenuous. Theme, for example. It might even be extra-textual. As it is in the Apollo Quartet. Although Adrift on the Sea of Rains has no real closure, the story would not be continued in the next novella, it would never be continued. The only link would be that provided by the quartet’s title: the Apollo programme. That’s about as extra-textual as you can get: imagined variations on a real-world space programme.

As for the second book’s story… The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of doing exactly the opposite of what was expected. People had said Adrift on the Sea of Rains was literary rather than science fiction, so I’d write The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to appeal more to a reader of science fiction (but I gave it a literary title because why not). The narrative would be a puzzle, one that no character in the story could solve, and I wasn’t going to explain it either. All the clues would be there, but the reader would have to put it all together themselves. That would likely piss some people off, but that was the plan. Especially since I wasn’t even going to put the main plot front and centre but hide it behind the two narratives. The idea was to write exactly what admirers of the first book weren’t expecting or, from their comments, didn’t especially want.

So I did.

Some liked it more than the first book, some didn’t.

But then I had to do something completely different for the third book.

If Adrift on the Sea of Rains was more literary than sf, and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself was more sf than literary, then book three would be… neither. The Apollo Quartet was based on alternate takes on the Apollo programme, but I’d make this third novella pure alternate history. The Mercury 13 provided the perfect opportunity to do so. But I also wanted to write about the bathyscaphe Trieste, and while I had the perfect story for it – the recovery of a spy satellite film canister – there was no obvious link, or indeed any link, to the Apollo programme. However, since part of the philosophy behind the Apollo Quartet was making the reader do the work, it occurred to me I didn’t need to explicitly document the link. A few hints, and let the reader figure it out. I’d done that in The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, it’s just that in this novella one narrative was not a consequence of the other, because the consequences took place outside the story.

1956-the-legacy-of-the-bathyscape-1

This became Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (the most Lowry-esque title of the entire quartet).

Right from the moment I’d decided Adrift on the Sea of Rains would be the first book of the Apollo Quartet I knew what the final book would be about: the wife of a real-life Apollo astronaut who wrote science fiction. Because I wanted to juxtapose the invented space travel of her imaginary worlds with the real space travel of his. I also liked the idea of ending a trio of alternate Apollo histories with the real Apollo programme. In other words, this fourth novella wouldn’t even be science fiction.

Except, I went and spoiled things. First, I decided to make it a novel, rather than a novella. I’d originally planned to have two narratives – one would be the protagonist’s real life, the other would be one of her stories. But that felt too much like Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. When I started writing the novel, I decided to namecheck only women science fiction writers, but it occurred to me I could make more of a point by setting my story in a world in which science fiction was a women’s genre. And from that point, I was just throwing stuff in to make reading the novel as rich an experience as possible – not just the names of real-world women sf authors, but also references to well-known sf stories. I put the protagonist’s story in the centre of the novel and used the first half to show the inspiration for it and the second half to reflect its plot. Not to mention hints back to the earlier books of the quartet…

This was All That Outer Space Allows.

So none of the books of the Apollo Quartet are actual sequels according to the commonly-understood meaning of the term. And I approached each one with the intention of surprising, and possibly annoying, those who had admired the previous book. It seems to have worked. And it worked for me too as a way of finding my way into the stories of the quartet. Sometimes, as a writer, you need that. It’s easy enough when the plot of book 1 follows through into books 2 and 3 and 4, all you’re doing then is delaying the resolution – and, since you don’t want those sequels to be pure padding, complicating the resolution. You’re basically lay the groundwork for closure.

But closure is a commercial fiction thing, like transparent prose and sympathetic protagonists. And that’s particuarly true of genre fiction. Readers expect everything to be neatly resolved by the time they reach the last page. The Good King is back on the throne and the Dark Lord defeated. The alien invasion has been rebuffed and it was all because they needed our water. The drop-out hacker has found the secret at the heart of the evil corporation and revealed it to the world, which is rightly appalled (but nothing actually changes, of course).

Thing is, stories don’t actually need to end neatly. They don’t even need to end. And good books are those where it feels as though the universe continues to exist even after you’ve turned the last page. You can have giant novels split into multiple parts of publication, you can have a series where the same cast in the same setting experience different stories… or you can play around with the concept of “sequel”, much as you can play around with narrative and its various constituents. And doing that’s a lot more fun than putting the same old group of people through yet another lot of jeopardy, all in the name of drama.

But what about the space opera, you ask. That’s one enormous novel split into three, or at least that’s what the blurb implies. True, each book doesn’t really stand alone, and they need to be read in order. But even within the constraints imposed by a single story told over three books, I like to think I’ve bent the sequel template a little out of shape. Because a common complaint levelled at the second books of trilogies is that they do little more than move the cast into position for the big showdown in book three. I wanted to avoid that in A Conflict of Orders. So I changed the story. I stuck to the overall plot: evil duke conspires to take the imperial throne, ingenu from the sticks leads the opposition. But instead of continuing the story from the good guys’ point of view, I decided to give equal narrative space to the bad guys. And then I flipped the conspiracy on its head.

Structurally, A Conflict of Orders rings a few small changes. Since A Prospect of War was about putting a force together to combat the Serpent’s forces, clearly a big battle was in the offing. In epic fantasy, this is usually left until the very end, when the forces of good and evil line up against each other and everybody throws everything they’ve got against each other… And somehow or other the good guys manage to win the day. But there was no way I was going to drag the preparations for the final battle out over book two and half of book three. So I made it the centre-piece of A Conflict of Orders. And I described using short chapters, so I had lots of viewpoints of the action. And then, once the battle was over, I moved the plot into second-gear. The Admiral and her forces have won the day, and now it’s all a matter of cleaning up. Except there’s more going on than originally appeared to be the case… And that’s what book three, A Want of Reason, will resolve.

So, in terms of sequels, the space opera trilogy, An Age of Discord, doesn’t follow the typical pattern of a linear plot split over three volumes. In point of fact, there are three nested stories going on, and each volume resolves one of them. It’ll likely do my credibility no good, but this structure was partly inspired by EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series. Now they’re not very good books – Smith’s, that is – and the writing in them is mostly embarrassing. I’d also question their historical importance. But one thing they did really well was escalate jeopardy. No sooner had Kimball Kinnison defeated one villainous conspiracy then it was revealed there was a higher level of villains who had been controlling it. (To be fair, this structure was somewhat spoiled by the series being published in book form in internal chronology order, which revealed the over-arching struggle between the Arisians and the Eddorians right at the start.)

Gray_lensman

I’m not about to reveal the plot of A Want of Reason, and not just because it has yet to be written and even I don’t know how it will probably go. I’m thinking I might have a go at introducing Marxism into space opera, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ve already thrown away the plan I’d had in the back of my mind when I wrote A Conflict of Orders (for the record, it was an historical narrative thread, set 1000 years in the past, which would explain the trilogy’s underlying conspiracy). Having said all that, A Conflict of Orders very much ends, as A Prospect of War did, with the various narrative threads poised to make the jump to the next level. Casimir Ormuz and the Admiral have raised their forces, and they’re about the meet the Serpent’s army and navy in battle… And more than that, I probably shouldn’t say…

You’ll just have to read the book to find out.