It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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.


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.



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.


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…


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.





“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”…


… 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.


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).


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.


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.


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.