It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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A reading guide for grown-ups

There’s a common misperception that as you get older, so your tastes in reading drift toward non-fiction. No more fanciful story-telling, from here on in it’s facts and figures. And I’ve certainly found that as I impinge on my sixth decade on this planet – that makes me fifty, dumbass – so I find myself wanting the certainty of non-fiction and a world I can relate to. They say the Golden Age of science fiction is thirteen, which is, perhaps, a comment on the ability of the thirteen-year-old to read uncritically, given that the vast bulk of sf novels fail even the most cursory critical read… But I think it’s more generally accepted that at thirteen we as readers are more willing to be wowed, we are not so cynical, we can surf the tide of ideas generated by a science fiction text. As we age, so we need more scaffolding to those ideas – possibly because we know more about the world and so are less willing to accept unsupported the premises upon which most science fiction stories rely.

Personally, I continue to read the same sort of novels I read ten or twenty years ago. But I do find them less satisfactory– No, that’s not quite right. There are ways of telling science fiction stories, and I can now discern how they are constructed, and if that’s lacking then I see it is lacking. I can think of a number of sf novels whose flaunting of the so-called “rules” actually makes them stronger fiction, and I doubt I would have seen it that way two or three decades ago.

One of the things I have certainly noticed in my response to my reading as I get older is that I’m no longer willing to put up with world-building which creates abhorrent universes in order to either create drama or, worse, make a point about our own world. The world right now is shit and getting worse on a daily basis, so writing a novel in which human beings can sell themselves into indentured labour to pay off their debts is… so fucking mindlessly right-wing it beggars belief. Why are sf authors writing the playbook for our right-wing future, when they should be telling tales to prevent it?

Remember “cli-fi”? A horrible neologism, but the point was that writing about climate collapse – which is still going to happen, by the way – would persuade the public it was a cause worth pursuing. Except no one gave a shit. Because one mid-list novel is not equal to the PR budget of an oil company. So when science fiction sets stories in futures in which human rights have been removed, all they’re doing is normalising the political thought behind the removal of human rights. Look at how many science fiction television series show torture – in 2018! – despite the fact it is morally abhorrent and globally illegal.

Science fiction has spent the last five to ten years fighting for diversity. And it has partly won that battle. Women, and women of colour, have dominated genre awards for the past couple of years. This is a step in the right direction. However, while we’ve been celebrating those successes, science fiction has been normalising the sort of right-wing shit even the Nazis had to soft-soap the German public before they would accept it. So we have a Star Trek series in which a villain repeatedly kills the crew of the Enterprise over and over again… but that’s okay because it’s a time-loop. I’m sorry, but his way out is death for everyone? How is that right? And then there’s The Expanse, in which the nominal government of Earth, the UN, uses torture, and in which a corporation murders millions of people in the cause of research. How is this right? How is this even moral? We have been so busy celebrating our own victories in the cause of  inclusivity that we’ve allowed fascist stories to take over our genre.

I don’t want to see stories of the future in which humans are treated as slaves, in which millions are murdered to disguise the kidnap of a plot token, in which torture is treated seriously as an intelligence-gathering technique, in which violence against women is used as “character development”, in which the othering of non-white people is considered “world-building”…

I want a socially responsible science fiction, that is self-aware, that knows it is a powerful tool for affecting public opinion – and not just at the behest of corporate paymasters. I want a science fiction that scorns shit right-wing concepts like evo psych and alpha males and eugenics. I want a science fiction that tells good stories and does so responsibly. I want a science fiction that doesn’t abandon its ethics or its artistic integrity in pursuit of the bottom-line. And I want a science fiction readership that accepts partial responsibility for the shit content that is produced, that demands more reponsible content and rewards it by consuming it in sufficient numbers to make it profitable. Cli-fi, after all, had its heart in the right place. But a tendency to be too preachy, an inability to match the oil companies and their anti-global-warming lies, and an inability to find a story that resonated… told against them. Science fiction has a much wider remit, and somewhere in its countless worlds and stories, there must be something we can use to tell stories of the futures we want to see, not futures we’re afraid to see.

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All the new year feels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year.


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Stinking, outworn, spaceship yarns

These last couple of days I’ve started working again on my space opera, A Want of Reason, the third book of my An Age of Discord trilogy. (Preceded by A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders.) Real life sort of got in the way throughout most of 2016, but now that 2017 is turning out so shit, writing space opera seems a good way to tune it out. Except…

When I originally started writing An Age of Discord, I’d planned to write a space opera using the narrative structure of an epic fantasy. But that wasn’t enough for me, so I started turning space opera tropes upside down to see how they played out. And I also completely buggered up the typical structure of an epic fantasy trilogy – by, for example, putting the Final Battle (TM) in the middle of book two… When I finished A Conflict of Orders back in 2007, I had A Want of Reason plotted out, but after failing to sell the trilogy, I put the project on the backburner.

But then I sold it. In late 2014. And I only had two books of the trilogy written.

In the seven years the trilogy has sat in my bottom drawer, I’d had plenty of time to think about that third book I’d never got around to writing. And the first thing I did on returning to it in 2015 was throw away the plot I’d worked out eight years before. I put together an entirely fresh synopsis for A Want of Reason, and started work on it. A lot had changed in the intervening years; I had changed, as had my tastes in fiction. Previously, the third book had simply uncovered the historical conspiracy underlying the events of the first two books, and explained its genesis. But that no longer interested me – or rather, I didn’t feel it was the core of my story. Now I wanted it to be about the inequalities baked into the typical space opera universe, and I wanted to burn them down and build something new. And that’s what I started writing…

This was back in 2015. I’d done some clean-up work on A Prospect of War and it was published in July 2015. I’d done the same to A Conflict of Orders, and it was published in October 2015. The plan was to write A Want of Reason – all 200,000 words of it – and publish it in March 2016. That didn’t happen. But I started work on the novel, before real life got in the way… And coming back to it this last week… It’s a little frightening how much of it predicts what’s happening in the US. When I wrote this 18 to 24 months ago, my intent was to make my space opera empire swing further to the right in response to a perceived threat (which remained unknown to most of the population). It’s an understandable response: when the bandits ride into town, everyone shutters their windows.

Bit the perception of that threat is an important element of such a response. In a space opera empire, typically feudal in nature, the bulk of the population get no choice in perception or response. But what I could do in my space opera was change the nature of the threat. Yes, it would bring the empire crashing down, but it would replace it with something much more equitable. I’d already presented that argument in A Conflict of Orders when I showed that the villain of the piece was motivated in his attempt to seize the empire’s throne by a desire to improve the lot of the empire’s serfs, or, as I called them, proletarians.

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But when you write about a centre-right government cracking down, even if it’s a space opera empire, you end up writing about the sort of crap that Trump has pulled over the last week. I care about politics – of course I do, it affects me in every fucking way – and I like to stay informed… but I was writing space opera and trying to make it more realistic politcially, it never occurred to me this shit would turn real.

Had things gone according to plan, A Want of Reason would have been published last year and everyone would be saying how prescient I was. That didn’t happen, so you only have my word for it that recent events in the real world have uncomfortably reflected events in the plot of A Want of Reason. And had I a recently finished book to sell, then this post might well be considered just another piece of self-promoting bollocks. But A want of Reason is not finished – far from it, in fact. I may have returned to it in the last couple of weeks, but there is still a lot of work to do before it’s ready. And, let’s face it, who’s going to remember this post a week from now, never mind nine to twelve months from now.

I suppose that if I have a point to make, it might as well be this: if you look to science fiction writers for predictions, and those so-called predictions come true, then we are all well and truly fucked. Science fiction has never been futurism, and every sf novel is more about the time it was written than the time it was published or set. When sf novels become just as much about the time they were published…it’s pretty much accident. But a scary accident. Okay, so Random Space Opera Agency in Jackboots doesn’t map precisely onto a real world analogue, so plot points don’t map onto Trump’s Executive Orders… but it doesn’t take a genius see where things are going, and the one thing you can say about sf authors is that they know their invented world better than anyone else on the planet (note: does not apply to shared world universes in which sad nerds are likely to have encyclopædic knowledge, such as SWEU).

If there is a upside to this it’s that space opera can be a useful commentary on the real world. Which is, I guess, a first. Perhaps it just has to wait for the right conditions in real life to pertain. Which is a bit of a fucker. After all, let’s not forget the role science fiction, or “fantastika”, played in the USSR. To put it bluntly, if space opera has become samizdat, then we are well and truly screwed.

And all this, I hasten to add, is post facto. The popularity of dystopias in, for example, YA fiction has bugger all to do with real world political situations, although it might well be predicated on generational feelings of powerlessness. But to claim that The Hunger Games is a “blueprint for resistance” is the act of an idiot.

I didn’t intend for An Age of Discord to reflect the real world as much as it has. It’s a space opera, FFS. The fact that is has done is extremingly worrying.

But it’s also one of those things where you fix the real world, not the space opera.

Remember that.


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Resolutions

At the beginning of every year, it is traditional to document a number of promises you will prove incapable of keeping throughout the following twelve months. But at least you mean well, or you wouldn’t be making such promises. They are, after all, meant to be improving. This is not a bad word, as some seem to think. We should improve ourselves. All the time. And New Year Resolutions (I apologise for the caps) are a good tool for doing so. But. They work better when they’re achievable, when they’re in your own gift, so to speak. It’s true, “I will sell a novel in 2017” could happen, but it’s someone else who makes the purchasing decision, no matter how much you network or self-promote…

And it’s precisely those sorts of personal target I’ve decided to set for my own resolutions in 2017:

  1. I will write more fiction. 2016 was not a productive year for me, thanks to the dayjob. That situation hasn’t changed – if anything, it’s likely to be worse. But I still want to make more time to write fiction. And finish off the third book of my space opera trilogy. I have plenty of ideas for stories, I just need to start putting pen to paper…
  2. I will watch more non-Anglophone movies than English-language ones. This one is relatively easy to implement – I’ve already changed my Amazon rental list so I get sent two world cinema films for every one Hollywood film. I just need to stick to it. I will, of course, continue to write about the films I’ve seen on my blog.
  3. I will read more widely in terms of geography. A few years ago I tried a “world fiction” reading challenge, and read a novel from a different country each month. I managed six months before it fell apart. In 2016, I read Erpenbeck, Mallo, Borges, Calvino, Müller, Blixen, Liu, Knausgård… all translated works. I’d like to read more books from more countries. I have a bunch of Arabic translated fiction sitting on my bookshelves, and a list of authors from various nations I’d like to try – most, sadly, non-genre. So I plan to go for it in 2017. I might even tackle some fiction written in another language (with a dictionary to hand). I’ll still maintain a gender balance in my reading, of course.
  4. I will write more non-fiction. I have… thoughts about science fiction. Some of them I’ve documented on this blog. I have also seen the genre change in the decades since I first started reading it. And those changes have been both good and bad. The “genre conversation” at present is a weak and feeble thing, partly propped up by the marketing departments of assorted genre imprints – I recently saw a small press magazine tweeting requests for support for authors published by a major genre imprint, WTF. The genre is in serious needs of its conversations, and it also needs to hold off on all those five-star reviews… I cannot change this, I do not have that power. But I can start writing about science fiction in a way that I think science fiction should be written about. This, I freely admit, is going to be the hardest resolution to keep.
  5. I will start reviewing again. Thanks to the dayjob I sort of dropped out of reviewing books for both Interzone and Vector. In fact, I sort of dropped out of contributing to pretty much anything. I shouldn’t have let that slide, and promise to get the two reviews I owe done as soon as I can.
  6. I’ll figure out what I’m going to do with Whippleshield Books. I set up Whippleshield Books so I could publish the Apollo Quartet, but I’d always planned to publish material by other writers. Unfortunately, my one attempt to do so – the anthology Aphrodite Terra – was pretty much ignored by everyone. Even the collection I rushed out for the Eastercon in 2016, Dreams of the Space Age, has sold only a handful of copies. Selling, and promoting, books required far more energy and time than I could devote to it last year, and much as I’d like to keep Whippleshield Books running in 2017 I’m not convinced I can give it that time and energy. I certainly don’t want to use it to publish only my own stuff – I have a collection of stories I’d like to see print, for example, but I’d sooner someone else published them.

I think that’s enough for now. I don’t want to get too ambitious. I didn’t even bother with any resolutions for 2016 – oh, except for one, the Reader Harder Challenge. But I promptly forgot about it, and seem to have read 13 of the 24 types of books in the challenge more by accident than by design. Anyway, the above half-dozen above are vague enough I should be able to a) remember them, and b) make a serious attempt at following them.

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Of course, no one knows yet what 2017 will throw at us, although Brexit and Trump will certainly have major impacts. And not for the good. But there’s not a fat lot we can do about those since in the twenty-first century democracy apparently no loger means rule by the majority. We are in the hands of the Super Greedy, and they will take it all, even if it kills people, even if it crashes the global economy or the climate. If we survive 2017 more or less intact, it will be in spite of Trump and May, not because of them… And on that cheery note, I need to go finish off my last two Moving pictures posts of 2016…


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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.

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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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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.]