I've figured out what I'm going to get myself for Christmas (and possibly one or two other people, too) - journalist Jon Ronson has a new book coming out called "The Men Who Stare At Goats". Casting about for words to describe Ronson's particular shtick, I'd say he writes books reflecting 'extreme' politics and worldviews, such as 'Them - Adventures with Extremists', which was also a tv series here in the UK. That book took a look at many of the more bizarre mindsets of the more militant libertarian/isolationists in the United States today - the same kind of mindset that created Timothy McVeigh. It's a journey into the wilder side of the human psyche and the depths of absolute paranoia, and makes for uncomfortable but remarkably entertaining reading.

Jonson has an excerpt from '...Goats' online at The Guardian Online, which frankly has to be read to be believed. It reads like something out of a Lucius Shephard novel. I read the full article on Saturday morning with equal parts inspiration, amazement and depression (unfortunately, the online piece itself is only an excerpt from what appeared in the newspaper). Inspiration, because it's close to the subject matter of the book I next want to write. Amazement, because of the view it gives of parts of the modern US Army as being almost (if not genuinely) occult in some of its practices. Depression, because although it's not fiction, I still feel somehow like Ronson beat me to it. It did give me pause for a moment to consider whether or not, judging by the events described in the aforementioned article, I could set 'Things Unseen' in the present, but there are plot elements in there that may well keep it in its current setting in the Seventies.

Here's a tiny sliver of the excerpt, a chat with an unidentified soldier who worked at Abu Ghraib:

"We sat on the balcony of the restaurant and he pushed his food around his plate. "You ever see The Shining?" he said."Yes," I said.

"Abu Ghraib was like the Overlook Hotel," he said. "It was haunted."

I assumed Joseph meant the place was full of spooks: intelligence officers - but the look on his face made me realise he didn't.

"It was haunted," he said. "It got so dark at night. So dark. Under Saddam, people were dissolved in acid there. Women raped by dogs. Brains splattered all over the walls. This was worse than the Overlook Hotel because it was real.

"It was like the building wanted to be back in business," he said."

Yeech. Completely unreal. There's the roots of a genuinely politically conscious horror novel right there. And as for the title of the book, 'The Men Who Stare at Goats', that refers to Psych Ops attempts at causing the hearts of goats to cease beating by staring at them really, really hard. Really hard.

I'm fifty pages from finishing my second run-over the edits on Against Gravity, and still making a few last-minute changes here and there. The interview on Agony Column seems to have been pretty well received, which is good, and what's slightly weird about it (although I'm happy to get used to it) is seeing my name on the Locus Magazine website's front page. Slightly weird, because it's my default homepage, so everytime I start up netscape, that's just about the first thing I see. Until next week, anyway, when it gets replaced by something else.

I finally have a working title for the other book I wanted to write (apart from Things Unseen), a space-set book involving colonisation and sub-ftl technology: Slow Burn. Which I rather like. A quick browse through Amazon reveals, to my mild astonishment, that this title most often appears in assocation with romance novels. No sf books with that title I can find, which does surprise me: it seems like a perfect hard-sf title to me, anyway.


General fatigue combined with - finally -finishing the edits on Against Gravity has prevented me from doing too much blogging recently. I will note, however, that I have an interview up at the Agony Column, which has come out very nicely: it's what I've been working up the answers for, instead of blogging. Since it's appeared, Angel Stations has jumped from around the forty thousand mark in Amazon to about six and a half thousand, which is very nice. More details on other stuff, when my brain can handle coherent thought.


it's nice to be reminded occasionally of why I consider Neal Stephenson to be one of the best - and funniest - writers around, ever, period. The following excerpt is from an interview with Stephenson, in which he answered a variety of questions put forward Slashdot readers:

"Slashdot reader: In a fight between you and William Gibson, who would win?

Neal Stephenson: The first time was a year or two after SNOW CRASH came out. I was doing a reading/signing at White Dwarf Books in Vancouver. Gibson stopped by to say hello and extended his hand as if to shake. But I remembered something Bruce Sterling had told me. For, at the time, Sterling and I had formed a pact to fight Gibson. Gibson had been regrown in a vat from scraps of DNA after Sterling had crashed an LNG tanker into Gibson's Stealth pleasure barge in the Straits of Juan de Fuca. During the regeneration process, telescoping Carbonite stilettos had been incorporated into Gibson's arms. Remembering this in the nick of time, I grabbed the signing table and flipped it up between us. Of course the Carbonite stilettos pierced it as if it were cork board, but this spoiled his aim long enough for me to whip my wakizashi out from between my shoulder blades and swing at his head. He deflected the blow with a force blast that sprained my wrist. The falling table knocked over a space heater and set fire to the store. Everyone else fled. Gibson and I dueled among blazing stacks of books for a while. Slowly I gained the upper hand, for, on defense, his Praying Mantis style was no match for my Flying Cloud technique. But I lost him behind a cloud of smoke. Then I had to get out of the place. The streets were crowded with his black-suited minions and I had to turn into a swarm of locusts and fly back to Seattle. "

You can read the rest of this at http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=04/10/20/1518217


Last week I started feeling ready to keel over and decided to take a week's holiday - my first in, oh, two and a half years. I'm still writing, however, though not to quite the same degree as I was last week, so in that sense you could call it something of a working holiday. The only drawback is I realise now that the excessive fatigue I felt last week was simply the precursor to a bad headcold which has now swamped me. Fortunately these things rarely affect me more than a day, so I'm hoping I get back on track tomorrow. I have a first chapter for 'Things Unseen' ready, plus an outline of how I'm expecting it to go. These are going to my agent sometime this week. Apart from that, I forced myself to take it easy over the weekend, most of which was spent either hanging with friends, with MJ, or playing the xbox.

Cold or not, I dragged myself out this weekend to see Iain Banks read from and speak about his new book The Algebraist at Glasgow's Waterstone's earlier this evening. At one point he mentioned having written a vast, sprawling action scene, which his editor subsequently reduced to something like 'he tied himself to the railing' and I thought, nice, so it's not just my editor that does stuff like that, then.

I've become marginally obsessed with Amazon Sales Ranking. This is the number you see that tells you your sales figures within the website (which, by the way, many people don't realise isn't specific to books: that number also represents everything from ipods to cd's).

This is useful, but at times confusing, partly because it's a trade secret: Amazon aren't telling how it works. But I've done a little internet research, and it's possible to make some reasonable guesses according to those who have an interest in these things. What it comes down to is: if you're in top ten thousand, your sales are recalculated every hour. Between ten thousand and a hundred thousand, your sales are calculated by the day. Between a hundred thousand and, say, two million, it gets calculated somewhere between once a week and never.

Also, sometimes your sales will spike suddenly, and can drop and fall according to predictable fluctuations in sales. For instance, it's the new academic year in the UK, and as a result sales figures are artificially pushed down as the number of textbooks sold over Amazon goes up. In other words, a (non-textbook) book might look like it's selling less well, but this isn't actually the case. I've seen Angel Stations bounce ridiculously high at some points, before falling back to a decent but sustainable average.

I heard a story recently that someone, somewhere, supposedly figured out that Amazon sales are measured according to books ordered, not necessarily books sold: this means even if you order a book and then decide not to buy it, it still gets counted. Supposedly (and I suspect this is highly apocryphal, but you never know) some writer out there got all his (or her) mates to order dozens of copies of their book, and then cancel the orders. As a result, the book bounced up into the top ten for a weekend - which pretty much guarantees your being featured on the Amazon front page (as was recently the case with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell).

Supposedly. Of course, there's only one way to tell, and that's ... no, no, forget I said anything, all right? Let's just, I don't know, move on swiftly ...

... to a funny experience I had in Borders the other night, wandering around the music department in the late evening, while MJ browsed through the anthropology books looking for stuff she needs for her studies. I heard this terrific record, and couldn't figure out who it was. I thought maybe one of those bands who're in the middle period of their career, they're all thirty or forty something, not too concerned with commercial considerations, like a smaller version of REM or The Eels, or someone like that. The kind of band who aren't afraid to innovate.

So of course I had to ask the girl at the counter who it was, and blow me away if it wasn't ... now, prepare yourself for this, I'm not kidding, it really was pretty decent sounding - it was William Shatner.

Now, I'd heard rumours Shatner had actually recorded a good album, but how do you take a statement like that? With more than a pinch of salt. It's simply not the kind of statement you can take seriously, right? But the point is, when I heard it, I had no idea who it was, and so couldn't apply any preformed opinions to someone who is, rightfully, acknowledged as the creator of some of the most truly dire music of all history. But somehow things have turned round, and the monkey's gone and written Hamlet after all. Of course, it helps once you know that the album was produced, arranged and co-written by Ben Folds of Ben Folds Five; and all the pieces suddenly fall into place.

I'm going to say it again. I only heard three tracks before I could find a reason to decide it was bad, but instead it's good. Really.


I've been trying to find a review which I'm sure was published in either The Times or the Sunday Times without too much luck. The only thing that makes me think it was reviewed is that Angel Stations is listed on timesonline.co.uk under something called 'books first', which is apparently their own, online bookshop where you can buy all the titles reviewed by them.

I'm a touch obsessive about tracking down any and all reviews of my writing, so I've already visited the Mitchell Library, an enormous building occupying an entire block, near the centre of town (one of the biggest libraries in Europe). They have stuff on microfiche going back decades. I didn't need to go back that far, however. I went through the Sunday Times book reviews for the past six weeks, but no sign. I don't know if book reviews are published by The Times during the week, but obviously it's a bit more of a slog to go through all those over the period of an entire month.

And before you say 'online archive', yes, I've tried that already with no results. I emailed The Times' archive dept, and it turns out that for 'copyright reasons' not all their reviews are available on the net, even, apparently, to subscribers. So here's a small request: if anyone out there happens to recall seeing a review of the book in either the Times or The Sunday Times, let me know.

Otherwise, the past week has been spent on line-revisions to Against Gravity, which means the book should be completely done and dusted in the next week or two. I've also seen some roughs for the cover, which is still at the early stages, and could still change (there are some things I'm not too sure about, so I could be about to discover how much influence - or lack of influence - an author has in these matters). Publication is set for July at the moment, and I'm at least assuming the mass-market paperback of Angel Stations will come out at the same time. Myself, Hal Duncan, and Miller Lau will all have books coming out over a three-month period, timed to coincide with the Worldcon next year, which is rather neat. In the meantime, I have about four thousand words of 'Things Unseen', which seems not too bad. Tidy it up a bit more, put together some notes and outlines, send it off to the agent, and see what she makes of it.