It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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The art of brewing fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Awards, rewards and self-publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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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.

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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.


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10 things I learnt writing space opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or are they?


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On writing and how to

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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…


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Breaking the wall, breaking the wall

There comes a moment in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) when Paul, one of the two young men who has invaded the holiday home of a middle-class Austrian couple, turns to the camera and winks at the audience. Breaking the fourth wall is shocking because the compact between film-maker and viewer, or writer and reader, is suddenly revealed as completely artificial and based wholly on trust. Yet that compact exists only as a matter of expectation, because that’s the way stories are. We know the book we are reading, the movie we are watching, is an invention, a fabrication. There might be elements of fact to it – that street in New York really does look like that, for example – but the people whose story we are following, they aren’t real, if we visit New York we’re not going to bump into them, we’re not going to reminisce with them about the events of this story which they experienced and we witnessed… That’s how fiction works.

Kim Stanley Robinson has said that he considers exposition to be “just another narrative tool”. Exposition is important to science fiction and fantasy. Genre stories may take place in entirely invented worlds, ones in which the reader has no actual knowledge or experience, no built-in map to help navigate it and its societies or technologies… And so the author must explain those fabricated details. Otherwise elements of the story may not make sense, or may in fact be completely impossible to parse.

Of course, in most cases, this information is already known to the story’s characters – they know how to navigate their world. This is why the “As you know” conversation, where one character explains something to a second who already knows it because the reader needs to be informed, is the most egregious form of exposition. No one actually does this: “I’m just off to the supermarket, which, as you know, is a large store that sells a variety of foodstuffs at competitive prices.” Even successful authors still use “As you know”. They shouldn’t. It’s a failure of craft. It is also, when you think about it, breaking the fourth wall.

If a narrative is tightly limited, constrained the POV of the protagonist, why should the author need to explain anything? The character already knows it, or has come to terms with the fact they do not need to know. Not everyone who travels by air in 2015 understands how jet engines work, so why should everyone who travels between stars need to understand how FTL works? The problem with exposition is that it can only work by breaking point-of-view. In other words, exposition breaks the fourth wall.

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Not an issue, of course, if the narrative is written in third person omniscient, but that voice is much less popular now than it once was, and almost non-existent at the more commercial end of popular fiction. It might also be argued that omniscient POVs pretty much straddles the fourth wall anyway – and there are certainly examples in literary fiction where an omniscient POV is used to make explicit the fictive nature of a story.

And yet… immersion requires a level of knowledge about the world of the story to work, and without a narrative angel sitting on the reader’s shoulder whispering exposition, how is the reader to truly immerse themselves in an invented world?

The point here is not that exposition is necessary, but that it is crude. It is not the techniques used for exposition that are crude – “As you know” conversations, wodges of explanatory text aimed directly at the reader… Exposition itself is crude. It breaks the fourth wall, it exists only because the reader is aware, consciously or subconsciously, of the reader-writer compact. Without the reader’s acceptance of the fictive nature of the story, exposition could not exist. It would make no sense.

That compact, however, is a real thing. And it is possible to make use of it in ways that fiction normally does not. In Apollo Quartet 2, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, for example, I set out the clues to a puzzle which I knew the protagonist of the story could not solve. But the reader could. I did so by using a a device which is so blatantly expositional it can only exist outside the story: the glossary.

In Apollo Quartet 4, All That Outer Space Allows, on the other hand, I decided to do things differently. I had originally intended to write it firmly within Ginny’s point of view, and rely on a general air of familiarity – ie, the USA in the 1960s – to allow the reader to accept those aspects new to them. But I also made some artistic decisions specific to my story – such as naming Ginny’s husband Walden, because All That Outer Space Allows was partly inspired by Douglas Sirk’s 1955 movie, All That Heaven Allows, in which Thoreau’s polemic is prominently mentioned – and it occurred to me that there was no need to rely on the reader’s extra-textual knowledge to spot that connection… Because I could break the fourth wall and make the link explicitly. So I did.

And once I’d done that, it occurred to me there were other aspects of my novel that could be “enhanced” by the sort of commentary open only to the author or a critic. Not to explain the purpose of a scene – that surely should be obvious – but to give some indication of why a particular scene might exist, or indeed provide what would normally be extra-textual knowledge in order to strengthen the novel’s argument.

There is, it has to be said, a fine line to be trod here. Particularly with science fiction. How… porous should the fourth wall be? If well-handled exposition allows the world of the story to leak out into the narrative, and badly-handled exposition is akin to a series of windows in the wall… I chose to build doors in my fourth wall. All That Outer Space Allows is a novel about writing science fiction, and so it seemed especially apposite to draw attention to the fictive nature of the story by breaking the fourth wall and commenting directly on the narrative. And doing so in, and as part of, the narrative.


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What is it about space opera?

It often seems to me that space opera has within itself to be all things that are science fiction. Most writers, however, treat it as little more than action-adventure in space, or the fall of some historical empire transplanted to an interstellar canvas (with added cool techno-gizmos). Given the size of that canvas – there are literally no limits – there’s more than ample opportunity to ask relevant questions and play through the various answers. Some space opera authors have indeed done so – Iain Banks springs to mind: in his Culture novels he often examined the morality of intervention in other sovereign states’ internal affairs. Sadly he’s an exception, rather than the rule.

So why is it so few space operas do little more than pit one group against another, usually differentiated by either race, class or politics? Or show an interstellar polity torn apart from within or without? And the science fiction, well, that’s embodied in the background or some maguffin around which the plot revolves.

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One of the chief elements of a space opera which the subgenre rarely seems to interrogate is the whole idea of an autocratic or feudal interstellar polity, in which custom and tradition has embedded an oligarchy so deeply in place it can only be dislodged by actually razing the polity to the ground. Historically (real history, that is), rulers claimed divine descent and so justified their exalted position – this was probably the second biggest con ever perpetrated on humanity, after the concept of an afterlife (capitalism comes a close third) – but any such claims of godly DNA are risible at best, deluded at worst. And if those rulers didn’t actually claim divine descent, they certainly claimed divine right – ie, they ruled in the name of the gods, with the gods’ permission and blessing. Quite how you prove that is beyond me, but it certainly happened – and there are probably a few royals out there who are so stupid or inbred they still believe it.

But let’s assume a space opera empire is ruled by a particular dynasty for the same reasons that such dynasties ruled in real history, ie, canny politics and/or historical accident, and park that for a moment. What about the actual society, its various levels and the lack of social mobility? What Herbert called “fraufreluches” in Dune. I can understand the need for a tightly-controlled society in an artificial environment such as a space station – everybody’s lives depend on people not breaking things – but space operas in the main presuppose a galaxy of earth-like planets ready to be colonised by land- and resource-hungry humanity… Except, wait, they can’t be all that land-hungry because a lot of space operas feature worlds that are either populated to a ridiculously dense degree, or almostly entirely empty. And those densely-populated worlds… A world like Trantor or Coruscant, it would be impossible to feed the population of such a world, it’s just not physically possible to ship in the foodstuffs required to support a population of a trillion or more (Wikipedia gives Corsuscant’s population as “Approx. 1 trillion”, although the Wookiepedia claims three times that; isn’t the internet wonderful?). Assuming an average of 2,500 calories per person per day, for the entire population that’s equivalent to about 5 billion (or 15 billion) cows a day.

For a highly technological (ie, “magical” per Clarke’s dictum) space opera, most problems, not just food, would be magically solved by magical science and magical engineering – replicators, or something like that. If there’s no scarcity, you’d expect the society to be relatively flat, and any social classes that have shaken out have done so depending on whether the empire follows an egalitarian socialist model or a more restrictive model based on, well, any variety of right-wing ideologies. I’ve said in the past that science fiction – and especially space opera – is an inherently right-wing mode of fiction, irrespective of the politics of its writers. Just look at the various societies depicted in science fiction texts, look at the solutions proposed to the problems presented by science fiction texts. It’s said that editor Donald A Wollheim once ran a straw poll among sf fans on the best form of government and “benevolent dictatorship” proved most popular. Even back in the 1960s and earlier, when science fiction traded on the assumption its fans were “better” than readers of other modes of fiction (“fans are slans”), that’s still a horribly juvenile result. But then look at genre’s various role models, and then count all those Marxist space operas…

The idea of science fiction, or indeed any mode of fiction, as primarily a form of “entertainment” has often been used to poison the debate regarding the genre’s uses. Some people – often stupid ones – will champion fiction as a literature of ideas, a vehicle for thought experiments, and then pooh-pooh concepts or approaches they don’t like as “message fiction”. All fiction is message fiction. It’s only the content of the message, and the power of its vector, which differs. And, of course, the ability of the reader to pick up the message.

But space opera… Most space operas require huge, often cumbersome, authoritarian political structures in place at the start. And there’s usually an associated fascination with all the pomp and circumstance and cool uniforms that go with such structures – er, Star Wars anyone? (And now we have Imperial Stormtroopers appearing at conventions and such… Er, they were the bad guys, you know.) Of course, the better entrenched the power structures, the greater the equity gap, the more melodrama there is when the empire burns. But where space operas so often fail is in showing the consequences for everyone. Heroes must by definition have sufficient agency to either destroy or save the empire, but those embedded in the power structures are far from the only victims. As the title of Robert Sheckley’s 1972 story has it, ‘Zirn Left Unguarded, the Jenghik Palace in Flames, Jon Westerley Dead’ – palaces are, after all, home to more than just empresses and emperors. In CL Moore’s excellent Judgment Night, the two protagonists, Princess Juille and Egide, prince of the H’vani, actually meet at a “pleasure moon” which is, naturally, purely for the use of the upper classes and, as in other space operas, the only non-aristocrats mentioned are servants or soldiers.

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I freely admit that when I started writing my space opera trilogy, An Age of Discord, I chose to base the plot on a well-established story template from consolatory fantasy: someone is trying to unseat the emperor, for reasons not clear when the story opens. Toppling the throne, of course, does not necessarily entail a complete destruction of the empire, it might just be a dynastic struggle. But this is a consolatory fantasy, which sort of presupposes an elemental battle between good and evil – and a dark lord makes a better villain than an ambitious cousin. I had no intention of using a moral landscape painted in such primary colours in my trilogy, and it was while considering the alternatives that it occurred to me I should present the irruption caused by the plot across all levels of imperial society. To some extent, I had to consider this: the main protagonist, the “peasant hero” was by definition a member of the lowest sector of society.

But there’s a paradox there. While the fight may affect, or indeed include, all levels of society, the conditions which define defeat or victory exist only in the uppermost levels. So I had no choice but to elevate my peasant hero if he was to play any sort of useful role in the struggle – and this in a society in which social mobility is near-impossible. I could show how the consequences applied to all social levels, and I felt I needed to show that – so  I had to make a discussion on the society of my interstellar empire an important element of the plot. Which I did. A Prospect of War opens with three main narrative threads – one features serfs (I call them proletarians), another has a pair of middle-class (ie, yeoman) characters pretending to be proletarian, and the final one is firmly yeoman (but also features aristocrats). There’s no getting away from involving the upper sectors of society if the stakes are empire-wide, so I had to introduced them – but by making one of the protagonists a peasant hero, I could use the mechanism of his elevation to the position required to lead the fight as commentary.

I based the empire of A Prospect of War on an historical model and I built a fictitious history for my empire which justified its various institutions. (Chiefly, I admit, by limiting the technology of my empire such that Age of Reason technology was more than sufficient to maintain society.) I also went for pomp and circumstance. I gave everyone uniforms, and then I described them (I even worked out a colour scheme for the uniforms of army regiments). I described the architecture because that’s another good signifier of monolithic social structures and embedded power groups. I used the sword – the carrying of it, the legal right to use it – as an indicator of social class. In other words, I made it as plain as I could that here was a society that had not, and could not, change or progress. Except by violent upheaval. Which I even signposted – the empire of A Prospect of War is around 1300 years old, and came into being when a powerful admiral used his fleet to seize the throne of the preceding empire.

The term “space opera” was coined as a pejorative, a reference to “horse opera”, which were bad Western stories. In the decades since the term first appeared, its meaning has changed, and those works boasting the label have gained a measure of respect that now puts them on a par with other types of science fiction. Moore’s Judgment Night, mentioned earlier, was first published as a magazine serial in 1943. Wilson Tucker coined the term “space opera” in 1941. I’ve no idea how Judgment Night was originally received by its readers – perhaps at that time it had not even been identified as space opera. It’s certainly a classic of the subgenre now. But like early classics in any genre or subgenre, it deals chiefly with archetypes and its tropes have long since become clichés (sadly, in Judgment Night‘s case, several elements of its plot seem to have been forgotten by science fiction for several decades, such as a princess leading the defence of the empire). For me, A Prospect of War had to function not just as an entertaining space opera, but also as a commentary on space opera – and, to some extent, consolatory fantasy. I’d like to think I managed to do so, but that’s for the book’s readers to say.