Several weeks ago someone posted a link on social media to a Penguin Classics cover generator. So for a while my Facebook TL was filled with Penguin Classics versions of friends’ books. So, naturally, I had to get in on the act. I posted the covers below on Facebook, as everyone else did; but for those of you who don’t use that platform, here they are… the totally not really bogus Penguin Classics editions of the, ahem, five books of the Apollo Quartet…
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, I moved from the United Arab Emirates to the United Kingdom; in the second decade, I moved from the UK to Sweden.
As the second decade of the century opened, I was living in Sheffield, and once again employed by the company I had originally moved to Sheffield to work for. I had started writing short fiction again, after a hiatus of a decade or so. I widened my reading, continued to buy too many books, regularly saw bands perform live in Sheffield venues, and watched films from two DVD rentals services, my own DVD purchases, and terrestrial and cable television.
In 2010, my favourite books of the year were mostly literary, or new books by favourite genre authors, such as Gwyneth Jones and Bruce Sterling. I also discovered my all-time favourite film, All That Heaven Allows. Five of my short stories saw print, and I continued reviewing books for Interzone – and also interviewing authors: my interview with Bruce Sterling in Interzone #221 I still considered the best interview I’ve done.
I began writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains, the first book of the Apollo Quartet, in 2011 and also edited my first anthology, Rocket Science. I had made an effort the previous year to read more books by women writers – successfully – but in 2011 I took it one step further and created the SF Mistressworks blog, which reviewed science fiction books by women writers published before 2000.
Rocket Science was launched at the Eastercon in 2012. I decided to launch Adrift on the Sea of Rains at the same time… which meant I had to publish it myself in order to have it available in time. So I started up my own small press, Whippleshield Books. I published Adrift on the Sea of Rains in signed limited hardback, paperback and ebook editions. Reading-wise, I raved about Katie Ward’s Girl Reading. Sadly, she has yet to publish anything else. In films, I continued to explore the cinemas of other countries.
My interest in space had been rekindled in the first decade of the century, and eventually led to Rocket Science and the Apollo Quartet, but in 2013 I discovered a new interest – I call them “enthusiasms” – which was… deep sea exploration, undersea habitats and saturation diving. This fed into both my reading and my writing. The second book of the Apollo Quartet, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, published in early 2013, was very much an exploration of Apollo-era space technology, as the first novella had been. But the third book, Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, published in late 2013, included a narrative strand featuring the bathyscaphe Trieste, directly from my latest enthusiasm. Neither novella proved as successful as Adrift on the Sea of Rains, which in 2013 won the BSFA Award and was nominated for the Sidewise Award. 2013 was also the year I “discovered” Malcolm Lowry, who became a favourite writer. It was also the first year I began attending Nordic conventions.
I don’t remember 2014 being a particularly memorable year. I had signed up to attend Loncon 3, the Worldcon taking place in the UK, but ended up so pissed off with sf fandom I sold my membership and didn’t attend. I’m not even sure I can remember what prompted my change of heart. I made a serious attempt to read some well-regarded genre fiction so I could vote for the Hugo, but nothing I liked made it to the shortlists. This was not entirely surprising – my tastes have never aligned with those of the Hugo voters and I adamantly refuse to be tribal about the writers whose books I like. I worked on the fourth book of the Apollo Quartet, this one intended to be novel-length, All That Outer Space Allows. I also had a story published in a literary magazine, and one of my stories was the cover story for a Postscripts anthology.
I can’t remember how I got involved with Tickety Boo Press, a small press based in Northumberland. I was asked to edit a self-published sf novel its owner had bought. For a fee. I did so – but the writer rejected most of my structural suggestions. Somehow I managed to accidentally sell a space opera trilogy to Tickety Boo Press. I’d written the first book, A Prospect of War, in the late 1990s, spent much of the early 2000s rewriting and polishing it… and it came very close to being picked up by a major sf imprint. (I note that A Prospect of War’s flavour of space opera is currently very popular.) I sold A Prospect of War and its sequel, A Conflict of Orders, to Tickety Boo Press, who published them in May and October of 2015. I would deliver the third book, A Want of Reason, in 2016. The books were published in signed limited hardback, paperback and ebook. At least they were supposed to be. The ebook sold really well and was well-received. I signed about forty hardback copies of A Prospect of War. No paperback ever appeared. Nor did any of the editions have ISBNs. Although a hardback edition of A Conflict of Orders was available for sale on Tickety Boo’s website – and I know several people who ordered one – it never actually existed. So I stopped working on A Want of Reason. One day I may get around to finishing it. I’d like to. In 2015, I published the final book of my Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, which was subsequently honour listed by the Tiptree Award (now the Otherwise Award). I also attended my second Nordic con, Archipelacon, in the Åland Islands.
In 2015, I also published my second anthology, Aphrodite Terra. I’d originally planned to launch it at Loncon 3, but, of course, I didn’t attend the convention. And I was, I admit, disappointed by the apathy shown by the genre community to the book when I put out a call for submissions. However, I wanted to submit All That Outer Space Allows to the Arthur C Clarke Award but it wasn’t eligible as it was self-published. The award agreed that if Whippleshield Books published someone else’s fiction, as well as my own, then it wasn’t a self-publishing press. So I pushed out Aphrodite Terra, and All That Outer Space Allows was accepted for the Clarke. It wasn’t shortlisted, of course. Annoyingly – and insultingly – when the Clarke Award opened itself to self-published books a year or two later, the only example of a “self-published” book it used as justification was Becky Chamber’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which had been published by a major sf imprint anyway.
A year or two earlier, I’d submitted a story to a Tickety Boo anthology of hard sf – on invitation, I seem to recall. But the book kept on getting delayed. I gave them a reprint story when they complained of a lack of submissions. A new editor took over the anthology – and promptly sent my reprint back. I decided in 2016 to publish a selection of my hard sf space-based stories in a collection, Dreams of the Space Age. I asked Tickety Boo if I could include the story I’d submitted to them. They said fine, the anthology was sure to be out before my collection. The anthology has never appeared. My collection did. And on its acknowledgements page it lists the story ‘Red Desert’ as having been previously published in a non-existent anthology. Ah well.
As well as Dreams of the Space Age, which includes a previously unpublished story (the Yuri Gagarin Robinson Crusoe on Mars mashup), 2016 was bracketed by two pieces of published fiction. The first was a story in Interzone, to date my only story published in the magazine, although I’d been reviewing books for it since 2008. The story was titled ‘Geologic’ and was inspired by my deep sea exploration enthusiasm. At the end of the year, I added a pendant to the Apollo Quartet, Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum, which makes it a quartet of five parts. It was partly in service to a joke: the Worldcon had announced the best series Hugo Award, and any series which had an instalment published in the previous year was eligible. So I wrote something to make the Apollo Quartet eligible. Except the total word count had to be over 250,000 and the Apollo Quartet didn’t come anywhere close to that, so it was a meaningless gesture. But Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum did allow me to throw several more references into the quartet.
I also attended IceCon in 2016, the first ever sf con held in Iceland, in Reykjavik. I felt somewhat obligated to do so given I’d instigated it – at a Swecon I’d jokingly told an Icelandic fan he should organise a con in Iceland. Several other people have since claimed credit for the suggestion – all credit to the organisers, of course – but it was definitely me. (I also attended IceCon 2 in 2018, and plan to attend IceCon 3 in 2020.)
In early 2016, a team-mate at work left and the major project he had been working on was dumped on my desk. That pretty much defined my 2017 and 2018. It was an important project, and a lot of people were involved. When I got home each evening, I didn’t have the energy to do more than watch films or read books. Likewise on the weekends too. My blogging sort of dropped off, devolving to a series of Reading diary and Moving pictures posts. I did regularly visit Scandinavia for conventions, however – mostly Sweden and Denmark – and made many friends in Nordic fandom.
It didn’t take long for me to realise I’d got myself stuck in a rut. I mean, I had a good job and I worked only four days a week… But I seemed to be spending most of my time just buying stuff on eBay and Amazon, and by “stuff” I mean books, films and games, not all of which I really wanted. It got sort of ridiculous. I’m a big fan of the Traveller RPG and have been for many years. Collecting items published for the game is more or less understandable. Collecting back issues of role-playing games magazines that contained articles for Traveller is perhaps a bit excessive. Collecting 1970s and 1980s science fiction boardgames by GDW, SPI and Avalon Hill is definitely excessive. Especially since I never bothered playing them. I have, for example, among a couple of dozen other games, John Carter: Warlord of Mars, a sf boardgame by SPI from 1979. I remember seeing the game when I was a teenager. I’ve never played it.
Anyway, the big work project completed in September 2018, and I decided it was time for a change. I’d been joking since the Brexit Referendum in 2016 that my Brexit Plan A was “move to Sweden”, and I had in the years since my first visit to the country in 2013 had a look at job opportunities there in my field. Most were contract work, and I didn’t fancy making the move for 6 months of work, and then flailing about looking for my next job. But shortly after the big project at work finished, I found an advert for a job online in Sweden, applied for it… and they offered it to me. In Uppsala. In Sweden. Of course, I said yes. Brexit Plan A unlocked. (I’d visited Uppsala in 2017 for Swecon and really liked the city… but had never expected to end up there.)
I was one of a team of three at my job in Sheffield. All three of us handed in our notices within a week. One team member moved to the multinational which owned the company we worked for (I later heard he moved back), another moved to Germany, and I moved to Sweden. Our manager was not very happy…
In March 2019, I left the UK with a cabin bag and a 26 kg suitcase and flew to Sweden. I left behind 85 boxes in storage, most containing books. The move itself was… an adventure. Never resign your job and move to another country just before Christmas. You effectively lose a month of your three-month notice period. I still managed to sell enough stuff – books, mostly – to finance my move to Sweden: to dealers, to a local secondhand bookshop, on eBay… DVDs I didn’t want, or could easily replace, I gave away to friends through Facebook. I sold enough to pay for: Pickfords collecting everything that was going into storage, a month of storage, house clearance, taxi to the airport, overnight stay at airport hotel, flight to Sweden, train to Uppsala… The only thing it didn’t cover was my first month in an apartment hotel in Uppsala, which is where I stayed while I was looking for somewhere to live. (Sweden has no landlord culture, which is good, but makes it difficult to find somewhere to rent.) 5 March 2019 was my last day at work. 6 March, I travelled to Leeds to meet my mother and say goodbye. 7 March, the house clearance guys did their stuff. 8 March, I flew to Sweden. 11 March, I started my new job.
In hindsight, I’m surprised it all went so smoothly. Planning your move to another country Just-in-Time is probably not smart. It certainly impressed the guy I’d hired to clear my house. After he’d accepted the job, and also after he’d cleared my house, I received a series of rambling drunken SMS messages from him, in which he admitted to admiring me for planning my move so well but then segued into some holiday he’d had in Manila and all the prostitutes he’d had sex with. Or something. It was very weird.
Anyway, in March 2019, I moved to Sweden and started a new job. And a new life. So to speak.
Welcome to the 2020s.
Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the first landing on the Moon. So the media is full of science fiction writers commenting on the event, many of whom weren’t even alive when it happened. To be fair, I was only three when Armstrong took his “one small step”, and the only Apollo mission I actually remember watching was ASTP. It’s not like science fiction writers are even experts on the Apollo missions, or indeed actual realistic space exploration. Not unless they’ve written a novel about it. Which some have.
I did too. It was a few years ago now. The Apollo Quartet, published between 2012 and 2015. I’d planned to publish an omnibus edition in time for today, but then I went and moved countries… So, sorry, no omnibus edition. But the four individual volumes are still available on Amazon, in paperback, audiobook and Kindle editions.
All four are based on alternate visions of the Apollo programme – except for All That Outer Space Allows, which takes place during the actual Apollo programme (but is still alternate history).
For those wanting more realistic space-based science fiction, there is also Dreams of the Space Age, a collection of short stories.
I’m not sure what happened to March, it seems to have been a lost month for me. Which is a shame as something pretty damn cool happened during it: the Apollo Quartet was published as audio books by Novel Audio. So now you get to hear all those acronyms and technical terms actually spoken, instead of just littering the pages of the four books.
Check them out.
Adrift on the Sea of Rains
Narrated by Jeffrey Schmidt
The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself
Narrated by Jeffrey Schmidt
Then Will The Great Oceans Wash Deep Above
Narrated by Trina Nishimura
All That Outer Space Allows
Narrated by Kathryn Merry
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.
I mentioned a few weeks ago I was planning to write a pendant to the Apollo Quartet and publish it before the end of the year. It was prompted by a silly idea: making the Apollo Quartet eligible for the Best Series Hugo Award, due to be trialled in 2017 at Worldcon75. But to qualify as a series, the total wordcount must be over 250,000. Which pretty much rules out the Apollo Quartet. But… inspired by a recent read of Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Dream, the fiction of Paul Park, a story idea I’d always planned to use about Soyuz 21, the films of James Benning, and a phrase I’ve used time and again to describe my fiction, “19 turns”, I went ahead and wrote something anyway.
It’s titled Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum and it will be published this week. For free.
It’s about 7,000 words long, and includes an introduction by Adam Roberts, author of The Thing Itself (among many other fine works of science fiction and science fiction scholarship). I’ll be making a zip file available here, and on the Whippleshield Books blog, which contains .mobi, .epub and .pdf editions. There will also be a paperback edition, limited to 25 signed and numbered copies, available in the New Year. I’ll put up a pre-order page for that soon.
To celebrate the release of Coda: A Visit to the National and Air Museum, I’ve dropped the price on all Whippleshield Books, both Kindle and paperback. To wit:
|Adrift on the Sea of Rains||Kindle
|The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself||Kindle
|Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above||Kindle
|All That Outer Space Allows||Kindle
|Dreams of the Space Age||Kindle
[prices in the US and other countries are equivalent to UK prices]
Go on, grab a bargain.
Incidentally, there are still signed and numbered hardback copies of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, All That Outer Space Allows and Dreams of the Space Age for sale on the Whippleshield Books website. I’ve also put up some first editions of various books for sale on the site – see here – and will be putting up more as I slim down my book collection.
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time won the Clarke Award, which was a surprise – but a pleasant one. At least the book I’d expected to win didn’t take the prize; but, sadly, neither did the book I wanted to win. I had Children of Time pegged more as a BSFA Award book than a Clarke Award, but when I wrote about it in August last year I predicted good things would happen to it. And I’m happy for Adrian, who is a thoroughly good bloke (and scarily prolific). Children of Time is one of the very few books I started reading on the day of purchase – and it was completely by accident. I’d bought the book at Edge-Lit 4, but during the journey home I finished the novel I’d brought to read on the train and so turned to Children of Time. I wonder if it’s repeatable…
I’ve written about the Clarke Award shortlist elsewhere, and about the individual books on it in scattered Reading diary posts on this blog. It was – and I’m not the only person to use this word – a lacklustre shortlist. The Clarke has always been a boundary-pushing sort of literary award, but the last few years it seems to have been circling its metaphorical wagons. There has been surprisingly little commentary about the books on the shortlist this year, despite it being the award’s thirtieth anniversary, despite the extended period between the announcement of the shortlist and the announcement of the winner. But when most commentary on sf these days seems to consist of brainless hyperbole on social media, having all the criticial insight of marketing copy, it’s plainly a problem much wider than an award shortlist. In today’s genre conversation, books receive either five stars or one star. It’s a piss-poor excuse for a conversation, and it’s poisoning the genre. Not only is sf blanding out, we seem to be actively encouraging it to do so…
Which makes the award’s decision to allow self-published works to submit baffling. The vast majority of self-published books are derivative commercial sf, space opera or military science fiction. It’s precisely the sort of sf you’d hope the Clarke Award would avoid. Of course, there are also self-published works which are anything but commercial – and may well have been self-published for that very reason. But the award director cites the examples of Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and Jeff Noon’s Channel Skin (which I’ve not read) as good reasons for including self-published works. Of course, the Chambers was already eligible because it had been picked up and published by Hodder. I’m a bit annoyed the award bent the rules to allow me to submit All That Outer Space Allows – which was also selected for the Tiptree Award’s honour list – but then hasn’t seen fit to hold it up as an example of a self-published novel that was worthy of submission.
I deliberately set out when writing each book of the Apollo Quartet to upset the expectations of readers, something I had the freedom to do because I was self-publishing. And while that has seen the books win one award, be nominated for a further two, and appear on the honour list of another… I’ve sold only 3700 copies since April 2012. And Dreams of the Space Age, a collection of short stories set in the same, er, space as the Apollo Quartet, published in April of this year… well, I can barely give them way – 86 copies sold since its launch. However, I don’t have the marketing clout or the distribution channels of a major publishing imprint, so this was hardly unexpected. To be honest, I’d actually expected Adrift on the Sea of Rains to sink without trace.
Because I self-published, because I had no expectations of commercial success, so I was free to write something challenging. The fact that some people appreciated that enough to nominate the books for awards was a huge surprise. And I saw that as grounds to write even more challenging sf. Which at least might have stood me in good stead for some awards. Except now the Clarke Award appears to prefer more commercial works, and by opening itself up to self-published books, is likely to become yet more commercial. I’m guessing, of course; but you can’t get more commercial than the Firefly fanfic that is The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet…
It’s an inevitable conclusion, and one that has plainly occurred to Adam Roberts, who has gone on record as saying he will no longer write challenging science fiction novels as he would sooner not have his books ignored. And I think to myself I would sooner write more difficult sf. On the other hand, success brings its own acclaim, and it’s astonishing how popular books become “awesome” and “amazeballs” and “the best book ever written”. Which is not to say challenging works can never be popular, nor commercial works possess literary quality, nor literary works enjoy commercial success… But we’re in danger of losing what’s best about science fiction if the only game in town is “most popular kid in the playground”… And I was going to write something about lone voices in the wilderness being the only ones to carry the flame, but that really is a mixed metaphor too far… But it’s not unrealistic to expect, to hope, that the Clarke Award is skewed toward challenging science fiction novels, and not the dull, and often juvenile, meat-and-potatoes/bread-and-butter sf which sells by the yard (and is likely written by the yard too), and which appears to comprise the vast undifferentiated mass of self-published science fiction.
But I’m speculating – and we shall see next year how the Clarke Award implements its expanded remit. A juried award at least has the advantage of not being bent out of shape by eligibility posts, or fan and tribe affiliations; and for that reason I look to the Clarke as a truer picture of what the word “best” means in science fiction in any given year. I would hate to lose that…
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)…
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.
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.
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.
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…
Next month sees the publication in Spain of the second volume in the Nova Fantástica series of anthologies edited by Mariano Villarreal. This volume is titled A la deriva en el Mar de las Lluvias y otros relatos, and the linguistically talented among you will have spotted that the title translates as Adrift on the Sea of Rains and Other Stories. My novella, translated by Diego de los Santos, is only one among several award winners and nominees in a star-studded table of contents. Just looking at it makes me come over all unnecessary:
1 ‘La señora astronauta de Marte’ (The Lady Astronaut of Mars), Mary Robinette Kowal
2 ‘Algoritmos para el amor’ (The Algorithms for Love), Ken Liu
3 ‘Frigonovia’ (Bridesicle), Will McIntosh
4 ‘Regreso a casa’ (The Homecoming), Mike Resnick
5 ‘La verdad de los hechos, la verdad del corazón’ (The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling), Ted Chiang
6 ‘Si fueras un dinosario, amor mío’ (If You Were a Dinosaur, my love), Rachel Swirsky
7 ‘La Amaryllis’ (Amaryllis), Carrie Vaughn
8 ‘A la deriva en el mar de las Lluvias’ (Adrift on the Sea of Rains), Ian Sales
More details (in Spanish) can be found here, and the anthology can be pre-ordered on Amazon (Spain here and US here). Of course, Adrift on the Sea of Rains is still available in English – as are the other three books of the Apollo Quartet: The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above and All That Outer Space Allows (the titles link to Amazon, but you can also buy them from the Whippleshield Books website here).