Sometimes I get stuck with dramatic motivation: when you want a character to do something or else, you need to have a good reason for them to do it. If it's not a good reason, you've lost your reader. They need to be able to identify with the character sufficiently to believe in what you have that character do.

On the other hand, the strict logic of survival is often abandoned in favour of dramatic tension, the classic being: 'hey, let's all split up and look for the monster'. Or, 'I think I'll go into the spooky abandoned house at the end of the street and see what's behind that locked attic door I was told never to attempt to open.'

In real life, there's no way I'm going into the attic. Not without a full army patrol, a couple of tanks, fifteen gallons of holy water and a flame-retardant kevlar body-suit between me and It. At least, that's what you'd do if you're me.

I got thinking about this the other day watching a movie called 'Wag the Dog', in which Robert De Niro (playing a high-level 'fixer' for the US govt.) and Dustin Hoffman (playing a big-time Hollywood producer who resents he's never been recognised for his efforts at making box-office busting productions) co-operate on inventing a war in Albania to distract the voters, a few days prior to a presidential election, from the President's unfortunate behaviour towards a young girl in the Oval Office (amazingly enough, the movie was finished before the Clinton scandals).

Towards the end of the movie (spoiler alert), the job finished despite a number of obstacles, Hoffman's character declares to de Niro he has every intention of collecting on his hard work. He wants the world to know just how well he handled the creation of the phony war, which he now looks upon as the crowning achievement of his career. De Niro reminds him that he can't talk about what he's done, ever. It's worth his life, literally. Hoffman's character retorts he doesn't care about his life, he cares about cementing his reputation.

The producer's death - a supposed heart attack - is inevitable. Yet knowing you would be murdered without hesitation under such circumstances, would any of us really choose to be so remarkably blind to the fatal penalty? It's clear the producer's attempt to claim responsibility for creating a phony war will not end up with the respect he so clearly seeks: he will simply be a dead producer.

Hoffman's character is walking up to the locked attic door, the one with the sound of something heavy shuffling and grunting behind it, with a shiny new key in his hand. Whistling.

But to do otherwise is, unfortunately, insufficiently dramatic. So I understand why the script does what it does. It's the very, very fine balance between that dramatic tension, and what drives that character. Sometimes it's also worth remembering something Harlan Ellison once said - that hydrogen isn't the most common element in the universe: it's stupidity.

One of my favourite stories of all time is called 'The Little Magic Shop', by Bruce Sterling. It takes every one of those cliched conventions - the locked door, the monster in the basement - and gives them a good hard shafting. It's an object lesson in how to defy expectations, and if you can find it, I can guarantee you'll have read one of the best short stories you've ever encountered.


I was talking only recently about the Sony electronic ink (or e-ink) portable text reader: I discovered Sony have a rival in the Irex Iliad E-Reader, which is apparently already available here, at least on order from the continent.

It's not cheap, mind. You're talking the same cost as a cheapish laptop, which might lead some people to question why they might want one. The important consideration to keep in mind here is the screen technology. This is, apparently, nothing like the screen on your laptop or PDA.

When you read a page on a laptop, light is projected from the screen into your eyes. When you read a page in a book, ambient light is reflected from the page and into your eyes. The latter makes for a far, far easier reading experience - it's why we can sit with a book for hours and suffer few problems. Try reading a whole book on a laptop, and you won't last nearly so long.

Since the e-readers rely instead on ambient light, the appearance of text is intended to mimic the printed page, which is one reason why it's so expensive: new technologies only drop in price through mass production. I'm not about to rush out the door to get one myself just yet - cost and the fact it's a new technology are major and obvious factors - but people who need to work with a number of technical manuals in their work are going to love it. So are a lot of students, when they look at the cost and effort of acquiring physical textbooks over a period of several years of study and having them handy.

Another bonus is you can annotate and make notes in the Irex e-reader with a stylus. I think that feature is going to sell it to a lot of people. As an author, it means I can make corrections on a virtual page to an already existing manuscript without necessarily having to haul around either a laptop or a heavy print-out every time I want to work away from home.

Give it a couple of years, and these things will probably be cheap and plentiful. Newspapers are already investigating the technology as they gear up for the changes coming over the next few decades. You can take a look at a video 'review' of the reader over on youtube.

I don't mean to sound too gosh-wow about all this, but I think these devices represent a huge ground-shift for how we deal with text, and one that's coming soon. Personally I thought the Irex ran a little slow, judging by the video, but for one of the first devices of its kind on the market, I still think it's very impressive.
My old mucker Mike Cobley has only gone and scored himself another book deal. He's been talking about this for a wee while - I've been hearing the details of negotiations between himself, his agent, and Darren Nash at Orbit, who's bought the rights to Mike's new trilogy. Whereas his last trilogy - the Shadowkings books - were solidly epic fantasy, the new books are space opera. The collective title is 'Humanity's Fire'. The Shadowkings books were published by Earthlight, an imprint which crashed and burned with some notoriety.


I've been playing around with MySpace recently (there's a link to my profile there on the right, just scroll down). For all its considerable faults, it's this year it seems to have really grabbed hold of a lot of writers. I was steering clear of the site for a long time because I thought it was primarily intended for teenagers - and largely, it is. But there's a very formidable community of genre novelists and the like on there, enough so for me to take the plunge and put a profile up a couple of months ago. David Louis Edelman has a fair bit to say about the site from a programmer's point of view on a recent blog entry.

I've become seriously addicted to www.youtube.com. No, sorry, it's too late for me. Watch this, if you can stand the cheesy eighties metalness of it all. Why? Why, you cry? Well - assuming you're not scarred for life by all the spandex and poodle haircuts, you might just spot a chap in the line-up who subsequently spent several years doing cover art for many UK sf book imprints, and has since moved on to doing installations for rather large fees (or so I understand). I couldn't possibly name the individual concerned - although he's an acquaintance of mine and several other people I know.

On the subject of youtube again: a spot of browsing has located segments from the South Park episode I mentioned recently - particularly Tom Cruise Still Won't Come Out Of The Closet and The Secret Doctrine Of Scientology.

Lastly, I recently had occasion to come across a site maintained by an Australian sf writer Simon Haynes. He's also a programmer - I haven't had time to fully check it out, but he's the author of what appears to be a rather nifty piece of software designed for the express purpose of planning out, organising and writing a novel. Worth checking out, since it looks like it might make the process of writing a book a touch less daunting if you haven't done it before.

Gee, you can tell I've got a lot of spare time on my hands right now, can't you?


After Louise Welsh's The Cutting Room (still very recommended) I read Iain Banks' Canal Dreams, which I somehow missed getting around to all these years. It turned out to be as good as I expected, and as violent as I expected. That was rapidly followed by John Irving's The World According To Garp, which I actually started reading years and years ago but for some reason got distracted from before I could get very far. It's good, but there's something weirdly prissy about Irving's style. Sometimes, language can be too exact. At times, I was reminded of the way various teachers I had encountered in school life had, with few exceptions, stripped the life out of the fiction and music they were supposed to be 'teaching' us. In the end I enjoyed the book, but almost in spite of the language.

Stuck for something to read next, I pulled John Fowles The Magus down from my bookshelves. I have an enormously distant memory of seeing a movie of the book, quite possibly starring Anthony Quinn, on television. The language in The Magus, by contrast with Irving, just flows - I was carried along and felt involved with the story, as opposed to the experience (with Garp) of feeling I was having events described at one remove by a prissy narrator. I'm still Magus, and it's been too long since the last time I read it to know yet if I'll like it more or less than previously.

The Magus is twisty stuff. An english teacher at a school on a remote Greek island encounters a solitary millionaire who claims to be psychic, before leading the teacher through a series of inexplicable, apparently supernormal events (as I vaguely recall) which might be rationally explained away - or might not. In other words, the main character has his understanding of how the world works challenged.

I just ordered Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita - originally a samizdat novel about life in 'thirties Moscow, in which the Master is the Devil, let loose in the land of Stalinism. It wasn't officially published, apparently, until the late sixties, many years after the author's death. It's meant to be a classic, so we'll see.


It's funny the route procrastination can lead you. I was googling around, doing some research, when I somehow found myself led to this Wikipedia entry on Scientology. Funny enough; particularly the bit about the South Park debacle (there's a famous episode of South Park - I haven't seen it - which not only lampoons Scientology, but also Tom Cruise. It's called 'Trapped in The Closet'. 'Nuff said).

Cruise attempted to stop the episode being broadcast; I knew that much. What I didn't know was the the episode of South Park in question also featured an animated dramatisation of the story of Xenu - a deeply, deeply whacked out story of aliens coming to Earth (in, eh, exact replicas of Douglas Dc-8's, apparently ...) some tens of millions of years ago and blowing up a lot of volcanoes. All with the words THIS IS WHAT SCIENTOLOGISTS ACTUALLY BELIEVE plastered across the screen throughout.

I. Need. To. See. This. Episode.

Even better is the statement Trey Parker and Matt Stone made after the episode was initially yanked:

"So, Scientology, you may have won THIS battle, but the million-year war for earth has just begun! Temporarily anozinizing our episode will NOT stop us from keeping Thetans forever trapped in your pitiful man-bodies. Curses and drat! You have obstructed us for now, but your feeble bid to save humanity will fail! Hail Xenu!!!


—Trey Parker and Matt Stone, servants of the dark lord Xenu, Daily Variety"

Trey and Matt, I kiss your shiny pink feet.

PS - every time I invent some nutjob religion for a story, and I worry they're just too bizarre, I'm going to reread that entry.


Signs of change in the part of Glasgow I live in. Unemployment is sky-high, lumps of concrete are regularly chucked out of top floor windows in high rises at passing cars, and entire streets are derelict. I used to live in the West End, which was way more upmarket. So upmarket that the people who made the area what it was - students, artists, writers, booksellers and so forth - can no longer afford to live in that part of town.

Yet amongst all the relative devastation, the BBC will soon open its new headquarters. A new road bridge over the Clyde will provide faster, cheaper access between the West End and the South Side.

And walking down Copland Road today on my way to post a letter, I saw a delicatessen had opened. A delicatessen. Here.

What next? Coffee shops? God, I hope so.


I made a comment on a blog maintained by David Louis Edelman and he asked in return why White Screen of Despair wasn't giving off any atom or rss blogreader feeds. Arse. My knowledge of HTML stems from the hazy days of 3.0, when I designed web pages for a local environmental concern about, eh, 1997 or so? And what little I knew then I've mostly forgotten since.

If anybody out there does read blogs through news feed programs, let me know if this blog can be read through them now - I've made some internal changes to the page. Blogger allows you to set feed preferences, but the template I use is a wildly modified version of a very old Blogger template, and somewhere along the line I've quite possibly accidentally deleted something I needed.

More than likely I've buggered up the repair process as well, but as far as I can tell from my end you can now get a RSS feed of my blog (but not atom, for some reason). If the aforementioned makes sense to you, do try it out and let me know if it doesn't work.


Here's the weird thing: my agent agents my short stories as well as my novels. Why is that? If there's one thing you're told about agents, it's that short stories aren't worth their while in terms of effort versus recompense. Yet she does send them out.

Back before I got a book deal, Dorothy suggested sending a couple of stories to her (to my surprise), on the understandable basis that making a few short sales would draw attention to the novel manuscript then doing the rounds. This would have been about 1998, 1999. They never sold, which to be honest is a good thing, because I went over one of them recently and it was actually pretty sucky. The central idea was still good, but it was weird seeing how much my prose has improved (I heard that. Shut it.) since then.

I just don't write short stories anymore - well, one a year, anyway. And half the time I don't even really get around to sending them out, except perhaps half-heartedly. I just ... can't be that arsed when I can be working on a book.

I hardly even read short stories anymore. In the Eighties, I read a lot of short fiction. I regularly bought Interzone (I bought the first eighty issues or so, bar one early one, which I missed because a specialist bookseller told me it had gone out of business, for reasons entirely peculiar to himself), as well as Asimov's and Analog, pretty much every month. I also used to have a big pile of early Eighties Omni magazines, which introduced me to a lot of writers, particularly William Gibson. I have copies of disappeared publications like Extro (featuring Ian McDonald's first published story), and many others. Now I guess I'm burned out.

Weirdly, the story I just sent Dorothy is a vampire story. It's weird, because I wrote it less than a week after going to a writing workshop and saying something along the lines of, there's no fucking point in writing a vampire story because it's all been done (one notable exception is a novella by Hal Duncan which hasn't seen the light of day yet, which is a shame, because it's very good).

So I wrote a vampire story. Go figure.

I'm thinking about things to do (apart from looking for a new job) once I'm finished with Stealing Light. I fancy having a go at writing a play for radio - something Nigel Kneale-ish; if you remember 'The Stone Tapes', you'll know the kind of thing I mean.
I think I can safely say I'm on the road to recovery, back-wise. It's hard, though, for people to understand this is a bit more than 'a bit of a bad back'. We're not talking a bit of an ache while you're sitting at a desk or lifting up the shopping, we're talking something akin to a heated dagger being inserted with brute force into your spinal column. We're talking nasty.

When I say 'on the road to recovery', I mean I got to the pub on Saturday (with typical irony, the same Saturday a lot of people were in Belfast for Mecon, the con I was supposed to be at that weekend), but still spent half the night lying on my back when the pain of sitting up became too much. But I got out. This doesn't mean my social life is going to become once again a dizzy whirl, it means I can start on a very careful once a week trip out of the south side, and very, very slowly build up to normal. At the beginning of June I figured I'd be okay by mid-July: wildly optimistic. I'll now cautiously say I'll be hopefully most of the way back to normal by, oh, the beginning of October.


Time for another book recommendation. I've been on a non-sf kick at the moment (I need a break) so picked up a couple of interesting novels over the past couple of weeks. One that's particularly impressed my is a first novel by a local writer, Louise Welsh: 'The Cutting Room'. It's essentially a detective story, following a Glasgow auctioneer as he tries to unravel the story behind a series of decades-old photographs found in a dusty attic filled with the treasured porn collection of a recently deceased man with underworld connections. His search - driven by a to him partly inexplicable need to reach through the years to a long-dead woman and try and give her a voice - leads him through Glasgow's darkest alleyways.

I tried to think of a bunch of superlatives to describe why I liked this book so much, but all that really matters is it's hard to put down. Yeah, it's a cliche, but no less true. The flavour is distinctly noir and, being set in Glasgow, features places and names with a strong ring of familiarity. Welsh has a new book out, Bullet Trick - already added to the shopping list.


The first half of this week was pretty bad again backpain-wise, but it's started to pick up once more, and I'm thinking of venturing out beyond the South Side once more (I was out a couple of times last week, just very brief forays into town on the subway, but I've stayed put the past several days). Mind you, this is the weekend of the Belfast con I was supposed to be a guest at, which limits my options a wee bit since a lot of people are over there.

The thing that seems to be helping now is resting, and not exercising. This worries me a little, since overcompensation due to pain can lead to some very sore muscles, and I feel like I should be doing something. But perversely enough, after a couple of weeks back there of fairly intensive, if relatively gentle exercising, its reached the point where doing exercises seems to increase the pain, not lessen it. I'm sort of hoping this means I'm past a certain curve, and I can now just let my body get on with healing itself.


I've got to be honest, I'm drooling for one of Sony's new ebook devices* when they come on the market. It's going to bring a potentially huge amount of text my way that's otherwise difficult or a pain in the arse for me to obtain in printed form - particularly out of copyright books, classic texts and CC works by people like Cory Doctorow and Peter Watts that, yes, are obtainable online, but like most people I know I hate, hate, hate reading prose off a regular screen.

The important thing about Sony's new ereader is according to reports so far, it comes very close indeed to reproducing the sensation of reading normal printed paper: it's not backlit, in other words, so you'll need to have the lights on to use it. It'll inevitably have a text resize option that'll be heaven sent for anyone with bad or failing eyesight (I have a small, non-growing cataract in one eye, and a plastic lens in the other). And besides, it appeals hugely, gigantically to my need for gadgets. Imagine, I mentioned to someone doing a university course, how nice it would be to have everything you need stored on something the size of a paperback book instead of lugging half a ton of books around campus.

This device likely also represents the sound of an enormous thudding hammer sounding the future for authors like me. It's going to be very interesting, seeing how we adapt to the challenges of this new technology. I suspect the major street bookstores have very little to worry about over the next couple of decades, in the sense that paper books and online works will remain side by side for a good bit to come. On the other hand, I think the newspapers - particularly the broadsheets - are going to have to think hard about what's coming.

Change is good: stasis is death. That, if anything, is the core philosophy of science fiction. For writers, the question may be whether to adapt or die. It may kill some of us off, or it may provide a huge new market and a golden age for fiction. But here's something I've been wondering about - art, including the written word, is a response both to the culture that produces the art, and to the way technology changes that culture. Is it possible that at the heart of electronic paper lies a new fictional paradigm - that in some intrinsic aspect of this technology lies a new way of writing, of engaging/involving the reader?

Off the top of my head, I can think of two ways this might go - Mark Danielewski's superb, ground-breaking House of Leaves is one. This actually started life as a series of online documents that created the creepy sensation of having stumbled across something real, Blair Witch style. TV shows like Lost are another: the producers run online text/interactive games that explain some facets of the show that hint at a greater story. So maybe it'll be some form of interactive, multiple-level story - a story, say, where you have to search the 'net for clues to what happens next in the narrative: or maybe it'll be something else altogether. For writers, the next ten or twenty years is bound to get very interesting.

*Keeping in mind this is Sony, of course, who like to install secret software on your computer and who don't like me listening to some cd's or watching some movies on my laptop which, frankly, really, really fucks me off.