New Year's Eve

On the subject of stuff I liked over the past year, you can find out more of what I liked and others liked as well at fantasybookcritic.blogspot.com.

It's New Year's Eve, and about the time people back in Scotland are celebrating, I'll be fast asleep in bed, because it'll be about eight o'clock in the morning in Taipei when it's New Year in Western Europe. See you in '09.


half-price ebooks

If you're a reader of ebooks, you might be interested to know WH Smith's - a British chain of shops - are doing them all at half-price just now. That means you can pick up an ebook version of Stealing Light in epub format just now for three quid. It's drm-ed, mind. Over and out.


2008 in review

I've been a touch quiet around here, but that relative silence on the blog has translated into being just shy of the one hundred thousand mark on the third Dakota book in barely two months. This makes me happy. There's a long, long way to go, especially when it comes to revising the manuscript. I might be writing fast, but I can guarantee I'll be sweating words every day right up to the deadline in July.

I've noticed people have been doing stuff like best-of-year lists, so rather than be original and do something different I'm going to jump on the bandwagon.

Books that stood out for me this year include Cory Doctorow's brilliant Little Brother, Lewis Shiner's semi-historical novel about race in America, Black & White, and Dan Simmons' utterly superb sf/horror/historical, The Terror.

Best movie I saw was Iron Man, closely followed by In Bruges, a tale of two hitmen stuck in Belgium on a long weekend. The worst film I saw this year - and in fact, several years - was the latest Indiana Jones movie. They may be making more of them, but I won't be seeing them.

I enjoyed Batman Returns, but I spent a good third of it squinting at the screen and asking my other half, "what're they saying?" Although there were many tremendous and gripping scenes and Ledger's Joker was game-changing, some parts of the film were muddled and the sound a muddy mixture of too-loud special effects and mumbling actors.

Best gadget by far for me this year was the Sony Reader. If you don't believe me, I just can't explain it. Let's just say it makes the reading experience so desperately addictive you start jonesing when the damn thing isn't around to play with.

Music ... god knows. It gets faintly annoying when other blogs start posting about obscure indie bands out of some Brazilian favela, but the fact is I just don't buy or listen to anything anymore. The reason is very simple: I don't have the time. If I'm listening to music, I'm not doing anything else. I don't like music as background noise, because that's just so wrong. It's music. You listen to it, and you give it due attention.

And I would, if I had the time, and I don't. The only intrusion music makes on me at all these days is the stuff at somafm.com, whose 'drone zone' - mainly ambient, slightly beepy stuff heavy on the atmospheric effects - I sometimes have on in the background when I'm writing since it's more of an aural mood setting than actual music. If it starts sounding too much like actual music, it distracts me and I can't write.

Which is weird, because I bought myself a new acoustic a few months back, a small, cheap travel guitar. I used to play a hell of a lot of guitar, electric and acoustic, and there's a long, long story in that. But it's nice to keep my hand in with my Simon & Kilpatrick guitar stuck back in Scotland.

The major personal event for me this year was moving to Taiwan with my girlfriend and getting married. Some friends asked why I hadn't mentioned this fact already on the blog - we got hitched at the start of the month - and the reason is I don't see this blog so much as being about my personal life nearly so much as it's about my writing career. Blogs, after all, aren't the same as diaries. But that - along with living in Taiwan, at least for a while - was the most significant thing in my life this year.

In terms of writing, it's been my most successful year so far - onwards and upwards, as they say - with Stealing Light selling better than anything else I've had published, as well as being my first hardback publication. So all in all, a good year.


Sony Reader Six Months On

I wrote about getting a Sony Reader with an e-ink screen almost six months ago. It's a second hand 500, as opposed to the more recent 505, which is now more widespread. I bought the older, cheaper version because I wasn't sure if I would still be using it after six months. And it's only after that amount of time you can really be sure a device has really made that much difference to your life. There didn't seem to be much point in buying something that might wind up lost in a drawer by the time six months rolled around. So this entry is the six-months-later entry: did the machine make a difference to my life?

The answer is a very vigorous thumbs-up. I love the bloody thing, despite its many faults. God knows there are enough of them; it crashed from time to time, necessitating sticking a pin in the back to get it to laboriously reboot. Changing pages can occasionally also be a bit slow. It doesn't come near the stated 7000-pages-before-needing-a-recharge stated in all of Sony's advertising. And that's just the hardware. There are endless problems to do with file formats - .lit, .mobi, .epub, and .on and .on and .on. Books sold on ebook sites can frequently be outrageously priced compared to the dead tree version (the fault of the publisher, not the retailer). Many of them are DRM-ed, meaning software has been used to 'secure' the book so it can only be read on one device. Which in the case of the Sony Reader rather limited your options, since until limited upgrades were made available earlier this year, you were pretty much stuck with books sold through their own site with its woefully limited selection.

Because of this, I've had to download software that allows me to 'crack' books I've legally bought before I can even read them. I've worked my way through a nightmarish morass of incompatibilities, software issues, hardware issues ... oh,I could go on and on ... and there are enough problems, indeed, to send most sane human beings running screaming back to their tactile, bound hardbacks and paperbacks that never need to be recharged and are never going to prevent you from reading them because, well, you might be a software pirate, mightn't you?

And yet, it's still the greatest thing. The words are an absolute delight on the screen. It's remarkably like reading words on paper. The text is clear and sharp. The machine is stunningly sleek and portable. And my reading has gone through the roof; I've read more books in the past six months than I'm usually likely to get through in a couple of years, if that. I only realised after purchasing the device that many of my purchasing decisions previously depended on whether I had anywhere to put the books I bought, and whether I would need to buy more and more shelves to hold them.

That's no longer an issue, and neither is the number of books I've accrued since coming to Taiwan when it comes to my future return to Scotland, either. If I'd bought the dead tree editions, I'd have needed an extra (large) suitcase to carry them home. I read waiting in restaurants, standing in trains, sitting in waiting rooms; the Reader fits perfectly in my jacket pocket, and I can whip it out in a moment and start off where I'd last left in seconds. In fact, I now find it distinctly hard to go back to reading paper books. They seem large, and unwieldy, and difficult to hold. I am, in short, a convert.

I've made a point of being the first to describe the many discouraging issues concerning the technology. I suspect machines like this are really for the hardcore reader like myself; critics are right to point out these are not devices for the kind of people who might read one or two books in a year while on holiday. But for people who like to read a lot, they're an absolute godsend. More recent devices manufactured by other firms - such as the Cybook and Bebook - have solved certain difficulties concerning battery life and file compatibility, and all the newer machines apparently have much greater contrast and legibility. It's clear the technology is still evolving, and is far from reaching a plateau. There are many issues - not all positive - to consider in the future; the way in which many of these devices are effectively hobbled both by publisher and manufacturers, for one. But for the moment, for this reader here, I can safely say I've renewed my addiction to reading, and you can prise my ebook reader from my cold, dead hands, and not a moment before.


Writing the first draft

Usually when I write, I have a habit of editing on the go. That means on a good day I might get out seven hundred words, which I'll go over and check, re-write and re-type, adjust and mull over, and so forth. At the same time I'll jump back into the body of a manuscript and fix whatever apparent errors or mis-phrasings I happen to come across, as well as checking things like continuity errors. All this can stretch the time needed to write a manuscript of about a hundred and thirty thousand words to several months at the very least.

I've been trying a different approach with Dakota book number three, a method other writers apparently swear by, of writing an almost entirely unedited first draft at a rate of no less than two thousand words a day, every day. That can produce a hundred and thirty thousand words in about sixty-five days, or just a little over two months. I haven't managed to hit two thousand words every single day; just most days. Nonetheless I've gone from just under ten thousand words at the end of October to just under sixty thousand about a month later.

For someone like me, this approach can't really work without having a very, very good idea of how the story is going to progress, as well as what's going to happen to whom, when, where and the reason why. I have an eleven thousand word synopsis sitting on my hard drive, which I don't often need to refer to since by now it's all pretty much tattooed onto the inside of my skull.

Now that I've tried it I find this approach quite refreshing, actually, since it's really nice to end a month with the knowledge you've produced almost half a novel in about thirty days. That it's 'National Novel Writing Month' in the USA (and everywhere else,I guess) is purely coincidental.

Another reason it's nice to produce that many words so quickly is it makes up for the niggling conviction over the previous several months that when you were working out the details of the plot you were really just sitting around and doing nothing. But it's been a hard genesis for this book, which will be my fifth published book when it comes out in - good grief - 2010 (the expected hardback publication date for Nova War, the second book, is September 2009).

The original plot featured a brand new central character, with Dakota a little more on the periphery of things. The plot centred around this new character's life and how they'd got to be where they were, and indeed there are one or two places and events in Nova War and even as far back as Stealing Light which were intended to foreshadow this character's appearance. I worked up an intricate arc for this character, and three months ago I had about twenty thousand words of fiction down, a little over half of which introduced this one person.

And then I chucked almost all of it out. Once I got to twenty k, I realised it just wasn't going to work and I was going to have to effectively start again. But if you're serious about your writing, you don't cry about it or gnash your teeth. You just knuckle down and figure out what it is you have to do to come up with a story that feels 'right'. And by 'right' I mean sufficiently dramatic and engaging as well as having whatever it is that propels a narrative towards a satisfying conclusion.

So out he went. Sayonara. I heavily restructured the plot and replaced him with another character with a different background and different motives, and at the same time I brought Dakota far more into the centre of things.

But I hate to completely waste old stuff. Before I wrote Stealing Light, I submitted several prospective novel outlines to Pan Macmillan after completing Against Gravity. One of them looked hopeful so, rather than just sit around until they made their decision about whether to take it on or not, I wrote nearly forty thousand words of a novel. Then Pan decided they wanted something else (which turned out to be Stealing Light) and I abandoned those forty thousand words. Several thousand words of it, however, eventually ended up in Stealing Light; I lifted the Freehold out of the abandoned work and inserted them into SL. Various other bits and pieces of prose from the abandoned story were also lifted effectively wholesale and dropped into the new, contracted book (such as the conversation between the pilot and Dakota on the way down to Redstone on her first visit there in Stealing Light). That pilot was the central character of the abandoned book, but he gets a few brief appearances in Stealing Light.

I'm not at all sure right now what I'm going to do after the third Merrick book. I could write more books set in that universe, or I might come up with something different. That depends on a lot of factors, not least whether Pan are interested in them. But at some point I might resurrect that abandoned plot outline or rip bits out of it to put into other, future projects.

Anyway, I was talking about taking a different approach to writing books. It's working for me, basically, which is nice, the payoff of course being that you have to spend a lot more time editing that rapidly written first draft once it's completed. I'm also trying to make the most of the opportunity I have to write full-time here in Taipei before going back to Scotland next spring, and I especially want to get this book finished before then.

Now if I could only think of a damn title for it ...


Stealing Light on the Iphone

Apparently Pan Macmillan have launched a new initiative to sell non-drm ebooks specifically tailored for the Apple iphone/itouch, in a deal with the makers of the Stanza book-reading software. Although I prefer e-ink devices like my Sony Reader, apparently a lot of people like to use their iphones for reading e-texts on the go. I picked up the details of the following press release by way of Walker of Worlds and Teleread:

"Clive James, Peter F. Hamilton, China Mieville and Neal Asher Among the Authors Available to 500,000 Stanza Users

London, UK – November 24, 2008 – Pan Macmillan and Lexcycle, the maker of the highest rated electronic book reader for the iPhone, today announce the availability of the first set of Pan Macmillan titles for Lexcycle’s popular Stanza electronic book reader for the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch.

Stanza users will have access to free excerpts from selected best sellers. Over the course of the next 12 months, more of the Pan Macmillan ebook catalog will be made available on Stanza."

So there you go. And it's nice to see I'm still prominent on that iphone display .



Neal Asher wins the no-prize for being the first in the previous posts's comments to spot something curiously Chris Foss-like about the cover illustration for Nova War. That's no accident.

Years ago, I remember hearing the now-deceased Glasgow sf writer Chris Boyce talk at cons about how he kept putting Fossian space ships into his books. The reason he did this was that no matter the content of your book, if it was published anytime in the Seventies it had a very good chance of getting a typical Chris Foss illustration of big spaceships shooting at each other. But when Chris described distinctly Foss-ian craft in his own novels by way of a small in-joke, it seemed to guarantee he would never get covers to match.

So when I was writing certain scenes in Nova War, just for fun I described them in Foss-like terms, not really imagining anything from them would wind up on the cover. Surely, I thought, they'll immediately spot what I'm up to. But oh no.

I think I've probably had Foss on the brain ever since I got hold of a copy of 20th Century Foss when I was a teenager. I had a look at that book last year for the first time in many, many years and discovered something curiously relevant to the Moebius illustrations for Jodorowsky's never-made '70's version of Dune that have been floating around the internet. What a lot of people don't realise is that Chris Foss was also commissioned to create many concept paintings for that movie; many of which can be found in 20th Century Foss and are, frankly, incredible (he's also responsible, er, for the original illustrations in The Joy of Sex). In fact, the book in many ways is worth finding for its introduction, which is written by Jodorowsky himself (21C Foss, you idiot, not Joy of Sex). You'll love the man's ideas, but you'll be glad he never got the chance to make Dune.

Some of you may be interested to know that fellow GSFWC alumni Hal Duncan has a new book, Escape From Hell!, out from MonkeyBrain in December. Go buy. Mike C's epic space opera Seeds of Earth should be out by Easter next year, I think.


Nova War

I think this is about as final a cover as it's going to get, and Tor were good enough to send me initial sketches and drawings of the concept for this cover and ask my opinion. This is the kind of thing that can cause some authors to gnash and grind their teeth with envy, since it's more common in the world of publishing for an author to be entirely ignored when it comes to the cover art they're going to get. Mostly I've been just fine with the art Tor have given me. There was one initial design for Against Gravity that had me nearly running screaming in the streets, but Tor were kind enough to listen to my gibbering pleas for mercy and your eyeballs were saved from a terrible fate as a result. At the same time, of course, I don't want to be too pernickety.

As yet, I have absolutely no idea what the release date for this is, bar that it's sometime next year. At a guess, I'd say about July. What you see below here is the full wraparound cover for the hardback. If you want to see them in more detail, click on each image and it should open up much larger than you see it here.


Kitty Overload

Presidents: Well, America actually got what appears to be a halfway decent President for once. By 'decent' I mean 'capable of forming a coherent sentence or thought while on national TV'. With any luck, he'll turn out to be everything the people who voted for him are hoping for. A bit like we thought Tony Blair would be, but unfortunately wasn't. Knowing our luck, Britain'll lose its free national health system just about the time America finally gets one.

Mike Brotherton is a hard sf writer who enjoys the wonderful distinction of being a working astrophysicist, which means he actually knows what he's talking about when it comes to the science behind his stories. I've found his blog to be very enjoyable reading. I stumbled across him because, according to the US Amazon website, people who buy Stealing Light also most often buy his latest book, Spider Star. His previous (and first) book, Star Dragon, is available in full as a free download from his website, if you fancy trying before you buy.

Look at this picture below.

Terrifying, isn't it?

Every now and then I fly from Taipei to Hong Kong and back again. Most often my departure lounge is the Hello Kitty! lounge. To get the full effect of the picture, it's best to put on a cd of punk-pop hits as sung by midgets overdosing on helium. The stand-out 'kill me now' track pumped out regularly at the Hello Kitty! departure lounge (at Taipei's Taoyuan airport) is "Ça plane pour moi", originally a hit in '77 for Plastic Bertrand. I don't actually wait in this lounge, I hesitate to add, I wait as far from it as I can humanly get before making a fast dash through it and onto the plane as quickly as possible.

If you're very unlucky, one of these days I might post a picture of the Hello Kitty! passenger jet.

Television: if I were to trace the exact moment at which I decided my life might be better without a television set, it would be the moment when, slumped on my couch in Glasgow about five years ago, I found myself watching - remote in hand - as a couple with a failing relationship were offered 'relationship advice' by an 'expert'.

This 'expert' advised that they should listen to opera in the bedroom while the lady in question reclined upon silk sheets. The gentleman in question, despite not having an artistic bone in his body and all the verbal sophistication of a nightclub bouncer, was required to sit at an easel and paint his girlfriend's portrait. He sat there dabbing at the canvas like a bored four-year old stuck in the house when it's raining outside, making random marks with a brush. I watched his cheek twitching spasmodically with the promise of incipient violence. I knew he had the same image in his head that I did; that of sawing the expert's head off with one edge of a blunt easel. It was one of the most cringe-worthy things I've ever witnessed.

The point of this is the obvious contempt not only for the couple in question, but for the audience watching. I wondered if I really wanted to keep on paying my TV licence, which costs me about £140 quid a year. And yet I did keep on paying, since outside of visual slop like the aforementioned, the BBC, in particular, is capable of some stunningly high quality programming.

So imagine my joy when I recently discovered that the license only relates to live television. If you don't have a TV receiver, but you do have a computer with a biiig monitor and a broadband connection, you're not required to pay. Instead, you can stream programming from both the BBC sites and the various sites that cater for the independent UK channels, since these don't qualify as 'live'.

Even before I left the UK I was using a DVR to pre-record only those shows I wanted to watch to a hard disk. So when I get back to the UK, the TV goes. And in comes a bigger monitor. Or maybe even a table-top projector.


Things I Learned Today

Today, I learned that Google has the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

Also, that some people really, really don't enjoy the experience of shopping in big chain bookstores. One can only pity the poor but honest bookseller concerned ("our music selection is really bad"), and hope that his employers can't work out who was on duty at that particular Borders on that particular day at that particular time by careful study of the article.

I feel driven, however, to think back on some of my experiences in much smaller, single-proprietor bookshops, which owe much more to Bernard Black than to some rose-tinted post-Victorian vision of a kindly old gent in bifocals with a cat sleeping on top of a mound of poetry. There never was a Golden Age of small bookshops, I'm afraid, whatever the perceived faults of the modern chain bookstores.

I particularly recall one small bookshop - and I mean about the size of your living room - which contained The Worst Toilet In The World, that had never, never been cleaned by the establishment's owner.

The owner himself was indistinguishable from a vagrant who had simply wandered in one day and plumped himself, all wild hair and unwashed tattered clothing, behind the counter in order to eat jam tarts, read dog-eared novels and shout at anyone who dared ask where anything was. Said owner was also in the habit (I kid you not) of designing helpful signs pointing to different sections of the bookshop in the form of hastily scrawled notes written in biro on sheets of A4 paper. These were then sellotaped to bits of string whose opposite ends were, in turn, sellotaped to the ceiling. As you entered the shop, the gentlest of breezes would rush in and send a blizzard of paper flapping around your head in a most disconcerting fashion.

I also learned that Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a better book than Walter M. Miller's Canticle For Leibowitz, or at least that Sam Jordison at The Guardian makes a convincing case. As Jordison himself notes in the comments following his article, "... I do wonder if part of the issue is that books get classified as 'SF' rather than 'literary fiction' because of flaws that are common across the genre... information dumping, technology fetishisation, or (as here) a lack of modulation on the 'preach' button."


The Career Novelist

If you either fancy yourself as a writer, or you're shopping your first novel around, or even several books deep into a career, you could do a lot worse than reading The Career Novelist, by American super-agent Donald Maass of one of New York's largest literary agencies. Although it's focused almost entirely on the nature of American publishing, much of the information (and the stories Maass tells about the way publishing works) is universal.

Fortunately, you can now download that book entirely free in PDF format directly from the Maass agency. I'm most of the way through it, and there's a lot to discover about the nature of modern publishing and why things work the way they do. If you're a writer like me, some of the information contained within it is pretty much invaluable.

Luckily a lot of the information is directed particularly towards genre writers, since Donald Maass does indeed represent a fair few science fiction and fantasy authors. It should be further noted that Robert J. Sawyer, a Canadian science fiction author who turns up on the awards lists fairly frequently, apparently regards The Career Novelist as one of four books essential to any would-be professional writer.


Hong Kong

We spent a couple of days in Hong Kong weekend before last, and although it was an enjoyable experience I came away from it with a particularly bad case of 'flu that left me bedridden for at least half a week upon our return to Taipei. Even now I don't feel entirely recovered. Hong Kong, meanwhile, was dirty, messy, overcrowded and faintly hostile in nature; and whoever said the food in Hong Kong was of particularly high quality should be shot. We tried the local food on several occasions, and came away disappointed almost every time. Certainly compared to what you can get in Taipei, the food was frequently badly prepared, low quality, stomach-churning gunk. And expensive, to boot (a friend of Emma's told me that after spending several days touring around Hong Kong, he wound up eating almost exclusively out of McDonald's because so much of the food otherwise was so intolerably bad).

At one point we visited a cafe apparently famous for its 'tea/coffee'. Tea ... and coffee, mixed together. I was dubious when we went in, and even more dubious when we came out; they don't mix. But perhaps I might have expected no less of a city where they design buildings according to the principles of feng shui.

So, no, I can't say I was entirely blown away by Hong Kong. Nice place to visit for a while, but that's about it, although in the few days we were there we didn't really get a chance to see nearly as much of it as we might have liked. For that reason, we may return there at some point next year, finances depending. We didn't even make it as far as the New Territories.

I finally finished revising the outline for the third Dakota Merrick book and got working on the actual manuscript, which is still very much at the early stages, but feels much improved thanks to the changes. I also got through some early designs and sketches for the cover of Nova War. Too early to show you yet, but hopefully in the next several weeks I might have a cover to post.


new writers

"John Jarrold has concluded a three-book World Rights deal for Scottish-based Finnish SF writer Hannu Rajaniemi. Hannu’s debut novel (presently untitled) plus two further books were pre-empted by Simon Spanton of Gollancz for a high five-figure sum, on the basis of one chapter."

I know Hannu through the Writer's Bloc spoken-word events that take place most frequently in Edinburgh, and others might know him through his story in the Nova Scotia anthology and a recent piece in Interzone (or maybe it's about to come out, I'm not sure which). Hannu's material, from what I've read, falls squarely in the Stross/MacLeod school of hard sf and is annoyingly clever. Annoying, because he has a PHD in maths and physics and actually knows what he's talking about. Unlike ... er ... me.

But anyway, he's a very nice chap and it's nice to see another Scottish - or Scottish-based, really - pro author in the making.


character assassination and teddy bears

Working on major revisions to Dakota Merrick book three; I decided the way the story was going wasn't the right one, so I'm taking a step back to write a new, very detailed outline (for my own benefit) of the whole book. About half of what was already written - which is from the viewpoint of a new, subsidiary character - is going to be torn out and replaced by completely new material.

I think part of the problem was I originally had a very detailed, very carefully worked-out background and plot for the original subsidiary character; I had his entire life story ready, and my intention was to tell his story in a series of flashbacks until he reached the point where his story intertwined with that of Dakota. Unfortunately, as interesting and fun as his life was to construct, I finally had to admit it had bugger all to do with anything that needed to happen in the third book. So, and not with some considerable regret, out he goes; but that regret is tempered by the knowledge that the new outline feels far more cohesive and interesting than the old one. Sometimes you know when the story is finally right, because it just feels right.

Talking of writers ... an interesting essay here, by the author of The Tao of Pooh, in which he explains his decision to abandon novel-writing altogether. One can only feel for him.

"Months pass. The Tao of Pooh is about to be printed and released. For what seems a long time, you have been dealing with a very prickly editor and a very cold-blooded publishing house. But the book-to-be reads well, and you have some hope for its success. The editor tells you that he will be visiting the Dutton West Coast sales representative at his home in Olympia, Washington -- a two-hour drive from where you’re now living -- and that he would like to buy you a dinner to celebrate the upcoming release of your book. He suggests a certain restaurant in Seattle, a forty-five-minute drive north of Olympia.

You show up at the restaurant carrying a stuffed bear made by your mother, very closely based on Ernest H. Shepard’s Pooh drawings. You meet the editor and the sales rep, and the latter's girlfriend. The editor orders a tray of cheese blintzes for the table. He tells you that the new foreign corporate owners are authorizing only $1,275 to advertise the book, and that Dutton is planning to spend the money on little ads in The Village Voice. As if to demonstrate that you the author are not the only one to suffer from the publisher’s austerity program, he shows you his broken glasses, which he has taped together as a cheap fix. By now, you are convinced that the man is not only prickly, he’s crazy.

The sales rep’s girlfriend, who says she is studying art in college, tells you that she believes it’s good for artists to starve, because poverty (which she seems to have no first-hand knowledge of) strengthens character. Having grown up with professional-artist parents, your viewpoint is somewhat different; but as the conversation indicates that your viewpoint is not of interest, you decide not to pursue the subject."

Which, along with the rest of the story, may well have many an author nodding and tutting to themselves, except after I'd read the whole thing I thought, 'hang on ... he turns up to meet his publisher with a fricking teddy bear ... and he thinks the editor is crazy?' I mean, okay, yes, the bear is fundamental to the story ... but, still, c'mon ...


Seeds of Earth

Fellow Glasgow writer Michael Cobley, who previously wrote a series of fantasy novels in the early years of this century (the Shadowkings series), has a new book coming out from Orbit in March next year. He's switched to space opera this time with Seeds of Earth. I would have to say that the cover design, by Steve Stone, is jealousy-inducing (click on it to get full size). From the blurb on Amazon:

"First contact was not supposed to be like this. The first intelligent species to encounter Mankind attacked without warning and swarmed locust-like through the solar system. Merciless. Relentless. Unstoppable. With little hope of halting the savage invasion, Earth's last, desperate roll of the dice was to send out three colony ships, seeds of Earth, to different parts of the galaxy. Earth may perish but the human race would live on ...somewhere. 150 years later, the human colony on the planet Darien has established a new world for Humanity and forged a peaceful relationship with the planet's indigenous race, the scholarly, enigmatic Uvovo. But there are secrets buried beneath the surface of Darien's forest moon. Secrets that go back to an apocalyptic battle fought between ancient forerunner races at the dawn of galactic civilisation..."

Mike has a blog, linked to in the right hand column of this page.


Harry Wars

I've been playing around with ideas for the book after the last Dakota volume, which could be set on Mars (New story! New characters! And possibly a new head after the voluminous corrections to Nova War I've been wading through). I had a notion - possibly terminally pretentious, or cleverly postmodern (or so I like to convince myself) - that the characters could spend some time discussing the 'monomyth' story structure, the Hero's Journey found in different cultures and delineated in detail by Joseph Campbell in Hero With A Thousand Faces. A bit of googling brought me to this page, which contains the scan you see here. If you want to see it clearly, click on it and you should see it at full size if you can't already.

I award this 'most entertaining jpeg of the week' by a long shot.


Typhoon Sinlaku

Usually, if I stand on the front door veranda and look to my right, I can see over the top of an elevated motorway beyond the end of the street (being on the sixth floor as I am) to a riverside park; except today there is no riverside park, because it appears to be underwater, and that's because we're in the middle of an enormous typhoon (Typhoon Sinlaku) that passed over Japan on its way to Taiwan and the South China Seas.

Whenever there's a typhoon - and there's usually several around here of varying force throughout the year - everything pretty much shuts down for a day or so until it's past. Yesterday most of the shops and offices were closed throughout Shida, but me and Emma headed out anyway along with a few hardy others to grab cheap dan-bei and soya milk at a small poky eaterie just past Roosevelt Road. The wind was pretty intense, but not nearly as intense as it got after midnight. Right now the wind is gone, and we're left with what I'm assuming is torrential rain - ceaseless, unending torrential rain - that'll probably last the rest of the evening. It's fun, in a slightly twisted sort of way.


getting around

I was interested to discover earlier today that the news of Pan MacMillan's experiment with non-DRM ebooks has been spreading; to my knowledge I was the first to bring it to public attention in the Mobile Read forums. From there it spread to a couple of items at Teleread, with this piece grabbing my interest in particular; it has a link to a demo video by the makers of the stanza ebook software showing, amongst several others, Stealing Light. The image you can see is a screengrab taken from the video, of an iphone running the software (the picture is from Teleread).


taking a break

Yesterday I was in Hong Kong all day, and today I've just been sitting in the flat in Taipei browsing the net and generally not doing any work. I hit the 20–30k writing barrier; I get that far, then anything that's wrong with the plot comes screaming out, and I have to take a step back and figure out what the book should really be about. It happened with Stealing Light, and it happened with Against Gravity and the one before that too. Basically, you get so far in, and then you know what is or isn't working.

So I'm taking a step back, doing some relaxing and reading (new Neal Stephenson! Yay!), and trying to not think about the third Dakota Merrick book too hard just yet. At least, not until Saturday or Sunday, when I can come at it again with a clearer mind.


N Is Here

Right now I'm waiting on the final edits on Nova War (I'm pretty much resigned to that being the title of the next one) to come through the post, and meanwhile working on the third Dakota Merrick book, which is flowing suspiciously quickly - about twenty thousand words in already. I'm sure I'll stumble screaming into one of those familiar bottomless authorial potholes before very long.

Talking of stumbling screaming, if you like scary stories you should really check out N Is Here, both a book trailer and a full-length animated adaptation of a short story from Stephen King's collection coming out later this year. I can leave King more often than I can take him, but the fact is he doesn't mess about when it comes to frightening the crap out of you.

I've been down on book trailers in the past, and I think with good reason; most of them are awful. The one exception up until now was the one for Jeff Carlson's Plague Year, which was professional, polished and, I'm guessing, not cheap either. It didn't embarrass the author and it was witty and entertaining. N Is Here is the sign of book trailers moving into the big leagues, and it's much more than just a trailer. It's Hollywood-polished, slick, tight and, most especially, quite scary. It's a solid work in its own right, and I'd really like to see more trailers and short movies making use of what is a very simple yet very, very effective style of animation.


Is the electronic book market in the UK doomed to die?

The Waterstones ebook site has been up for barely a day and yet it's already possible to feel concern that it's standing on wobbly foundations, ready to keel over the instant a sufficient number of the people buying the £199 Sony Reader from Waterstones do a quick google and suddenly find themselves on American sites like Fictionwise.com or BooksonBoard.com, with a far larger and very significantly cheaper range of titles available. And before very long, they're going to realise the majority of those books are available in widely used formats such as mobipocket* that simply won't work on the Sony Reader**.

Beyond that rather unfortunate fact (I wouldn't want to be standing at the help counter when an irate customer, suddenly aware of how desperately limited his choices are, comes storming in and demanding a refund on his Reader), some books on Waterstones' site are not unfairly priced, including my own Stealing Light and several other titles from Pan Macmillan, at about £4.75; this is cheaper even than the discounted price on Amazon UK. But it doesn't take long to do a quick compare-and-contrast on the price of other books available both here and in the States to find many titles are available from US-based sites for almost half of what they are here. And the internet being the great leveller of international boundaries it is, the money for ebooks will inevitably flow towards the same goods at a cheaper price.

As much of a supporter of ebooks as I am, I feel the Sony Reader might be judged a failure by Christmas, in the UK at least. The Sony Reader is a fine device, but far from perfect. Despite the fact the latest model of the Reader can now handle the Epub format, it's a format as yet far from universally adopted by ebook retailers, with Waterstones being the exception. The machine also isn't immune to crashing from time to time. The stated '7,000 page turns per charge' may be little more than hyperbole. The fact remains that for many who don't share my lust for gadgets, the machine is still too expensive, deliberately crippled in the range of formats it can read, and the titles available from UK publishers limited and costly. Once this becomes obvious to people new to e-ink technology, they will turn away in droves, making this yet another missed opportunity.

It doesn't help much that ebooks in the UK are susceptible to VAT. This is apparently because books are regarded as 'digitised product' under UK law; this further drives up the price, once more pushing the British consumer towards other shores for their ebooks.

To my knowledge (a quick google search doesn't bring up any results to confirm my vague memories) books were originally made exempt from VAT because it was felt that knowledge should not be taxed. This, however, was long before the advent of the digital age, and it's clearly time the law did some catching up.

The ebooks on sale from Waterstones have one thing in common that makes them different from other VAT-levied 'digitised products' out there today: they all have an ISBN, and they all already exist as paper books. The former fact alone should be enough to give an ebook VAT-exempt status. But at the very least British publishers urgently need to look towards changes in the law to have ebooks given a VAT-exempt status.

It's still early enough to assume that British publishers are preparing price drops and deals that will lower the cost to the British consumer of buying ebooks to something more palatable to their wallets, and certainly there are plans to expand the numbers of titles available, but I'm concerned at this moment in time that it might prove to be too little too late. Some ebooks listed on the Waterstones site cost more than the equivalent hardback; according to one user posting to the mobileread.com forum, it would cost less for him to purchase the hardback of one particular title and have it shipped to him in Australia than it would to buy the ebook from Waterstones.

I can only hope such exorbitant pricing will eventually prove to be an accidental, rather than an intentional strategy.

*It should be said in fairness that Mobipocket is owned by Amazon, which in itself may well be the reason the format won't work on the Sony Reader; perhaps Amazon has refused to license the format to Sony since they're directly competing in the ebook market.

**Unless, of course, you're sufficiently tech-minded to find and implement some of the available tools to strip the DRM from mobipocket books, rendering them readable on the Sony Reader, as I have. If I hadn't known this before I purchased my own Sony Reader, I think I would have saved my money.


Ebook out

You might be interested to know you can now buy Stealing Light from Waterstones as an ebook. It's also available direct from Pan Macmillan as part of a 3 for 2 offer that also includes China Mieville, John Scalzi, Neal Asher and Hal Duncan.

I should also add that I was recently contacted by the man in charge of taking Pan Macmillan deeper into the digital age as to whether I would be happy about Stealing Light being released as an ebook without any DRM; a request to which my reply was a hearty yes. Neither the Pan Macmillan site nor the relevant Waterstones page mentions this, unfortunately. It needs, I think, to be trumpeted; but the Waterstones ebook site, for one, is barely up. Let's see how it's looking in a couple days time.

Update: it turns out that all the ebooks available directly from Pan Macmillan at www.panmacmillan.com are free of DRM.


New Testament Science Fiction

There's a bit of a to-do over a recent piece on Ian Sales' blog about some comments he made regarding the commonly held 'past masters' of the genre:

"I've complained before about the undeserving admiration given to many science fiction novels and short stories of earlier decades. Such reverence frequently results in fans recommending these works to people wanting to try the genre. And that's not a good thing. Readers new to the genre are not served well by recommendations to read Isaac Asimov, EE 'Doc' Smith, Robert Heinlein, or the like. Such fiction is no longer relevant, is often written with sensibilities offensive to modern readers, usually has painfully bad prose, and is mostly hard to find because it's out of print. A better recommendation would be a current author - such as Richard Morgan, Alastair Reynolds, Iain M Banks, Ken MacLeod, Stephen Baxter, and so on.

I can hear howls of outrage across the tinterweb."

There's a wider argument behind what Ian has to say. For people outside of the genre, authors like Clarke and Asimov are familiar touchstones they've heard of regardless of whether or not they've actually encountered their fiction.

However, these writers also date from a period when many writers - and Asimov was particularly vocal in this context - who believed that the Idea was far more important than the language used to express it; in other words, the 'story' was nothing more than a vehicle for the Idea. If the prose was a bit rough, well, that didn't matter as much as the Idea.

This is why sf has historically been seen as a low-rent form of writing typified by bad prose skills and wooden characterisation. The fact that much of it was written in a time when open racism and deeply offensive views of women were much more common currency can at times become unpleasantly obvious. Elements of this can be found, unfortunately, in some of Heinlein's novels.

This changed to a great degree first with the 'New Wave' sf of the Sixties and later with publications such as Interzone. The quality of the prose became as important as the Idea, as did developing rounded, more interesting and - particularly in the wave of New Space Opera - morally ambiguous characters. In all, things have become much better, and it's rare for me to find pleasure any more in the old-school fiction. I find that I overwhelmingly prefer to read stuff dating from the late Seventies on, with notable exceptions such as Ellison, Tiptree, Dick, Delany, Moorcock and others of similar ilk.

On the other hand, the reason some prefer the old stuff is quite simply because it's relatively straightforward, dating as it does from a time when the available scientific knowledge was still relatively easy to assimilate in a diluted fictional format.

Some critics, such as Barry Malzberg, have argued that the average non-genre reader might well have no idea what is going on in a modern sf story if they were to pick up a magazine and attempt to read the contents; that the concepts and language used to express the Idea can be particularly opaque to a casual browser with relatively little conception of such notions as quantum physics, nanotechnology or dark energy.

The answer for new readers, I think, lies in a middle-ground: accessible, well-researched and well-written fiction. Kim Stanley Robinson immediately springs to mind in this context. So does, despite the density of the ideas involved, Neal Stephenson. Ian's suggestions of Richard Morgan and Iain Banks are apt ones, in my opinion, as would be Dan Simmons and also early to mid-period John Varley.

This all isn't to say that all the older stuff is rubbish, far from it; perhaps the more accurate argument is that the older fiction being recommended is the wrong kind to recommend. Rather than the Damned Holy Trinity of Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke, we should be recommending Silverberg's Book of Skulls, Zelazny's Damnation Alley, and Philip K. Dick. Perhaps an apt metaphor for the difference between the two forms would be: Old Testament SF, and New Testament SF. The old, mean, lightning-bolt chucking stuff as opposed to the later, more ambiguous works.



The Digitalist

Apparently Pan Macmillan have a website dedicated to publishing in the digital age, called The Digitalist, and fascinating reading it is too. And not just because they've posted my piece on 'short fiction in the age of the ebook' over there, either. It's at TheDigitalist.net.

I'll have some news before too long concerning the increasingly imminent release of Stealing Light as an ebook.



Here's a thought that occurred to me, while I was working my way through the corrections and editorial suggestions for the sequel to Stealing Light: who reads a sequel without reading the book it's a sequel to?

There's a certain degree of infodumping in the new book, designed by me as a kind of 'reminder' of what happened in the first. Most of it happens in the first chapter. Pan want me to be sure people know what's going on if they haven't read Stealing Light. But here's the thing ... maybe it's just me, but I can't imagine picking up the second, third or whatever book in a series without reading the first one. I therefore assumed that if anyone was picking this up, they'd be picking it up after having read Stealing Light.

So does this mean that lots of people out there will read a series of books in any old order? I'm not saying it's always a bad idea - I like George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman books, which have a chronological order, but you can pretty much jump in anywhere and have a pretty good idea what's going on. But I can think of quite a few series of books I really wouldn't want to read out of order.

The only time I remember doing so is Vernor Vinge's Marooned in Realtime, which turned out - I hadn't known this when I picked it up - to be a sequel to another book called The Peace War. I could read Marooned fine without having read The Peace War, but if I'd known I think I'd have hesitated.

Just wondering.


short fiction in the age of the ebook

To my surprise, I'm reading more short fiction since I got the Sony Reader than I have in years, mainly because of two factors; short pieces make for a nice occasional break from a full-length work, and I've found quite a lot of sf anthologies for sale online at quite a bit less than they'd cost me if I bought physical copies of them from a bookshop. The same goes for some novels as well. This is a bit ironic, since I recently commented on a Tor.com article that I didn't read short fiction any more because I couldn't find anything to read.

I recently bought Year's Best SF 13 for just under £3.50 from a US store - it was either BooksonBoard.com or Fictionwise.com. The current exchange rate between the US and the UK, obviously, helps a lot. But you get a lot of fiction for your buck. Next in line will likely be a new collection called Seeds of Change, available for about the same price. That's not to say they're all bargains - I bought the ebook of Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near, ostensibly for research, and that cost me well over a tenner, which hurt. But I've got it now, and the site I bought it from had a rebate that allowed me to pick up a copy of Asimov's (short fiction again) virtually for free. Interzone and Black Static can similarly be had as virtual editions.

A new collection of short fiction by Chris Beckett, whose The Holy Machine I rated very highly here some time ago, is also out, in both paperback and virtual edition, from Elastic Press. I'll be getting the virtual edition sometime in the next couple of weeks, and I note with pleasure that the ebook of The Holy Machine can be had for the equivalent of about three and a half quid again. Considerably cheaper than the edition I bought at a convention, which cost me about a tenner. If you own an ebook reader and you're looking for something to read, you could do an awful lot worse. It would be nice, of course, if some of the other books I'd really like to buy - Jay Lake's Mainspring, for example - were available in electronic format. But hopefully it and others will be someday.

There's a potentially very positive aspect to ebooks in relation to short fiction I hadn't previously considered. Publishers rarely produce collections of short fiction in meaningful numbers any more because they long ago ceased to be cost-effective; much of my early reading was done through the medium of collections by well-known sf authors that would be deemed financially unworthy in the modern age.

Yet without the requirement for printing, binding and shipping, it would be nice to think that short fiction collections could achieve some kind of rebirth in the age of the ebook. Although there are certainly authors such as Beckett and quite a few others with collections out, these tend to come from smaller, specialist presses and thereby both cost more, have smaller print-runs and are harder to find. Ebook publication, I think, places such collections in a better position to be found by the right audience. It certainly means an extra potential revenue source for any author who's had, say, a dozen or so stories professionally published and would like to be able to bundle them in an e-format.

In the meantime, the corrections for the new book, which is still swinging between a variety of possible titles - Nova Light, Nova Fire, Night's End, Stealing Fire, and, er, 'Nova War', the latter being the publisher's suggestion - have arrived, so I have that to work through. While I was waiting for that to turn up, I got started on book three, with about five thousand words on that so far.

I've got a paragraph or two turning up on SFSignal's 'Mind Meld' column sometime soon, and I'll post a link when that appears.


Onto the next book.

I haven't been writing much here because there hasn't been much to write about. I get up, browse the net, curse myself for my procrastination, finally get some guilt-induced writing done, eat lunch, read for a bit on the porch, come back in, browse the net some more, curse my procrastination yet again, and if I'm actively at work doing what I'm supposed to be doing - writing fiction - knock out maybe a thousand words or so.

I did have something to say about my purchase of the Sony Reader, but I felt i'd rather write a long piece about something I had an opinion about rather than several 'what I had for breakfast'-type entries. I did a lot of sitting around after finishing up the current version of the sequel to Stealing Light, with some note-taking here and there along with the occasional 'ah-hah!' moment as potential new plot-twists came to mind. But yesterday - having come up with about ten thousand words of good-enough-for-now plot synopsis - I started work on the third Dakota Merrick book proper.

'He turned to the battered sink, plugged with rags, next to which stood a large plastic jug containing their remaining water. He poured some of the last few drops into a cup and took it over to Parnias, lifting the old man’s head up slightly and tipping it towards the narrow slot that acted as a mouth. The water trickled in and Elah hardly spilled a drop. Elah then returned to the sink and poured the last remaining drops into the sink, touched plastic-tipped fingers to it and abluted the smooth surface of his face, muttering a few words of prayer as he did so. His artificial flesh felt smooth, free of blemishes or wrinkles or any of the myriad afflictions of flesh. For this, he was thankful. '

At some point in the next several weeks I'll have to step away from it, as and when the revisions to the second DM book come through. But so far the publishers seem pretty happy with it, although there's been a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing over what the title should be. At least they're asking, because a lot of publisher's wouldn't bother, to be frank.


Why I Bought A Sony Reader

Every time I finish a book and send it off to the editor, I like to get myself something. A present to myself, for all the hard work I've done over the past year. So at the start of this month I finally put my money where my mouth is and bought an e-ink reader, specifically a Sony PRS-500 e-reader with e-ink display.

The Sony PRs-500 is the successor to the Sony Librie, which was available only in Japan and wiped every book put into it after it had been there for sixty days, in a breathtaking display of corporate stupidity. The PRS 500 does nothing of the sort, fortunately.

Since the 500 came out, the 505 has been introduced; and at the time of writing, is now available for pre-order in the UK. Apparently it's a step up from the 500, but there's a mental limit in my head beyond which I just can't yet bring myself to spend when it comes to purchasing an ebook reader, no matter how shiny and gadgety. So I picked up the older model - the 500 - from an online seller for considerably less than it would cost me to purchase the 505 (it'll go for about £200).

There has been yet more talk recently on the impact of ebooks online, particularly in terms of Tor's promotional release of a couple of dozen of their books as free ebooks, including several titles which are already quite well known and successful. Esquire magazine is putting an e-ink display powered by a 90-day battery on a hundred thousand copies of one of its upcoming issues. The leading ebook devices were recently rated on The Gadget Show, and the internet is full of haters and lovers talking about the technology. Either it's a sign of the end, or the best thing that ever happened to writers - or, more usually, something in between.

I had to get one of these things, partly to satisfy my curiousity, partly because it feels like a prop out of the tv shows I watched when I was a kid, and partly - and most justifiably - because I'm in the Far East until next year, and any physical, ink-and-paper books I buy here I'm going to have to mail back home or lug on the plane. Not only that, I can store hundreds - potentially thousands - of ebooks on my Sony Reader. Any books I've purchased can be easily re-downloaded from whichever site I bought it from if I ever lose or irreparably damage the device.

Since I got it, it's rarely been away from my hands. It's easy to read - in fact, it's easier to read in sunlight or bright light than any computer screen. It looks like actual printed letters - until you hit the next page button and, boom, it blanks out and refreshes with new text.

It is, as they say, as light as a paperback, but thinner. The fake leather jacket it comes with probably weighs as much as the reader itself. The quality of the appearance of the text is really quite startling. The screen is at times slightly reflective - something I understand has been improved on in later ebook readers.

It lacks, of course, the physical tactility of paper, yet the eye is very much fooled into believing it's looking at letters printed onto something very paper-like - with the caveat that the 'paper' is light grey in colour.

What really needs to be addressed about ebook readers in contrast to their printed cousins has more to do with habit and tactility than anything else.

I have, like many people reading this blog, a certain emotional investment in the owning of and display of paper books. When we (people like you and me) finish reading a book, we don't stick it in a box in a cupboard - we put them on display, on shelves. We like to be seen to be readers, to have the breadth of our reading and our tastes on full display. We covet books as physical artefacts. Or at least those of who are voracious readers do - by which I mean, say, anyone who owns more than a hundred books (almost eight hundred in my case, although it would be considerably more if the titles I know I won't miss or didn't particularly like in the first place weren't constantly winnowed out and given to friends).

There is, indeed, a smell and tactility to real books that e-readers cannot match.

And yet, and yet ...

When I first moved out of home and into a flat with friends lo, so many years ago, there were two things that caused me the greatest difficulty when it came to the physical process of moving. A collection of nearly a thousand vinyl lp's, and almost as many books, went with me. They had to be stored, they had to be visible, and I sure as hell wasn't going to leave them behind. They felt like they were part of me. And yet every time I wanted to move to a different flat - and I moved around quite a lot over the next several years - I had to drag this vast tonnage of plastic and paper with me every single time.

I knew people who had much less 'stuff' than me. If they wanted to move flat, they could get everything they owned into a backpack and off they went. I envied them, but I couldn't bring myself to ever contemplate losing my books and albums. It simply wasn't an idea I was prepared ever to entertain.

And yet I now have almost my entire vinyl collection in mp3 format, crammed onto a device about the same size as a packet of cigarettes. The vinyl has indeed been consigned to a cupboard in a flat back in Glasgow, a long way from Taipei. I don't miss them nearly as much, perhaps because I no longer assign them the same value as I do my books.

And not just books: almost a hundred issues of Interzone. Maybe a hundred more of more of obscure publications like SF Eye, New Pathways, and many more that seem indelibly linked into my experience of being of a certain mind and in a certain time and place. Stuff that all led and fed into the process of my becoming a professional writer. Indispensable, in other words; but far from practical when when it comes to having room for them.

It is now feasible for me to store my entire book collection on a device that is the reading equivalent of an MP3 player. On one hand, this creates a sense of freedom; I don't have to carry them all around with me if i don't want to, or as I travel around the globe. On the other hand, I still very much value my dead tree books, and have a sufficient emotional tie to them I wouldn't want to give them up. In fact, I still very much want to continue buying actual books - perhaps the ultimate indicator of how caught in the middle I am, I want at this moment to own both the electronic and paper versions of each book I buy.

I still can't quite get my head around the notion of reading a book and not being able to put it on my bookshelf.

(A brief aside: I could spend some time going into the negatives of the ebook readers. My purchase of the Sony was carefully considered, but done in the full knowledge of the many, many things that are still broken in the ebook market, something Charlie Stross has discussed at length in his blog. But there are always ways to circumvent the ridiculous limitations placed on such devices by their manufacturers, and I've been more than happy to apply those hacks when and where possible in order to be able to purchase and read the books I want to purchase and read. There are still plenty of good reasons for people to want to hold off buying an ebook reader just yet; but these reasons are almost entirely the fault of the manufacturers and their lawyers, rather than of the technology itself.)

After spending some time thinking about it, I realised that for many people, the medium - the physical book - is indistinguishable from the message contained therein: the text. They are one and the same. Yet at the same time, I know this is partly out of habit. I grew up with books this way, so my habits and inclinations are very much fixed this way.

But even so, there's a clear element of snobbishness in criticisms of e-ink readers in the press. There have been too many condemnatory articles in papers such as The Guardian where authors or critics will, in the process of rhapsodising about their collection of hardbacks and the many crammed shelves of their houses, reveal themselves to be precisely the kind of person who covets books not merely for their content, but for what possession of them says (whether consciously or otherwise) about their own perceptions of who they are and what social stratum they occupy.

To dismiss ebook readers out of hand while being photographed in some well-appointed study filled to the brim with books is to identify one as distinctly middle-class, with middle-class aspirations. They are invariably people who have a small portable television wedged into one tight corner of their living room for fear they might be seen as having 'populist' tastes, and if they have a computer, it's similarly a small, cheap laptop kept well out of sight.

This kind of attitude makes me feel much more positively towards my e-reader. Yes I had qualms, but now I have one I can't imagine not having one. I live in terror of being caught waiting for a train or bus without having it to hand. I'm reading much, much more than I have for a long time, simply because of the convenience of the device.

Another reason so many of the arguments put forth by naysayers irritate the hell out of me is they appear blinkered to one of the primary benefits of e-readers - the potential democratisation of reading, in the same way knowledge has become easily available over the internet. Yes, the devices are expensive, but although I don't think they'll become as cheap as a paperback for a long, long time, they nonetheless offer an immediate, easy-on-the-eye reading experience that can be used anywhere in the world that has computer access. That, in turn, means access to tens of thousands of out of copyright but still enormously influential novels and texts as well as more current works that can be bought and read without needing to rely on the presence of a well-stocked bookshop with plenty of titles in English And believe me, here in Taipei, I can tell you for a fact that from over here the English-speaking world looks very small and very far away.

I find myself irritated by the sniffiness of certain critics who can afford the luxury of sufficient living space they can afford to decorate their walls with thousands of books. I hope the e-reader gets into the hands of all the people who love reading but simply don't have the room for all the books they want, who, like me, don't have the luxury of a well-appointed library in their tiny flats.

To be fair, there are many other issues to be considered when it comes to the potential of ebook technology, not least the issue of how it will affect the careers and incomes of writers. I recently signed a contract allowing Pan to sell my books in e-format myself. I don't think the paper book will die. The e-ink technology will very likely be subsumed into more general-purpose devices, but there will - I believe and hope - be a continuing demand for dedicated reading devices that mimic the look and feel of a book while being able to store tens of millions of words of text. If you like reading - if you really like reading - it might be that you can't afford to not have an e-reader over the next couple of years.



There's another good review of Stealing Light at King of the Nerds, although some caveats are made; I read these with interest (as I read all comments of my stuff with interest, as part of the constant feedback loop which exists between readers and writers. Yes, I do pay attention to what people say, and yes, sometimes it has an influence on what I write. I'm sure I'm not alone in that).

Nova Light (formerly Stealing Fire) is away in the email and I'm probably going to have to wait at least a couple of weeks to find out the reaction from the publishers. In the meantime, I'm relaxing a little bit, ie: spending too much time online and doing some tidying up the rest of the time. I'll also be working on ideas for the (as yet untitled) third Dakota Merrick book, to be started on soon-ish.


Good News From Outer Space

Just got word from Pan via my agent that the first paperback run of Stealing Light is about to sell out after less than a month on sale, and as a result a reprint has already been ordered. Nice.


progress, editing, new book title

One week to go before the new book has to be emailed to the publishers, and I've been at it pretty much ten or twelve hours a day. Yeah, yeah. Poor me. I get it. I anticipate lots of vacant staring interspersed with bouts of furious typing between now and next Wednesday when it gets fired off to Tor.

The paperback of Stealing Light has been out a couple of weeks now, and seems to be selling well, and certainly scoring higher than the previous two. Last time I looked, it was at number two on Waterstone's sf and fantasy bestseller lists, right behind Terry Pratchett. It's been floating pretty high on Amazon as well.

I got bored with the title 'Stealing Fire'. Sounds too much like some crappy action movie, possibly starring Steven Seagal. Even if the new book does indeed contain much, yes, much running around, shooting and blowing things up. Therefore I rename this book 'Nova Light', which not only sounds better, it also continues that whole thematicy-namey-thingy I was aiming for.

So. 'Nova Light'. Sounds about right.

Now I just have to figure out what the hell to call the third book when it's done.



I read about a piece of online software called Wordle on Justine Larbalestier's blog; it takes a piece of text - even a whole book - and turns it into a picture of the most common words based on frequency. In terms of what's important in the plot of the new book - that being the text I fed in - it's actually pretty accurate. 'Remembrance' and 'Honeydew', by the way, are the names of two characters.



Erscheinungstermin: April 2009, as they say in Germany.

I do like this cover for the German publication of Stealing Light, and I'll really have to drop a line to Random House/Heyne and ask them very nicely if I can have a larger jpg of this illustration. This came from randomhouse.de's own page for the book, and the title sounds like something you'd shout as a warning to someone in dire and immediate danger. As in, "Run, run! Lichtkrieg!" And I especially like that hint of sunlight creeping stealthily around the side of a doomed planet ...


One week in & Lewis Shiner

Stealing Light seems to be doing well since it came out in paperback; it's definitely floating a bit higher on Amazon than the previous books were, which bodes well. Right now I'm powering through the more-or-less final draft on Stealing Fire.

A couple of recommendations: a book collection/cataloguing/community website called goodreads.com. It has the usual stuff about being able to upload info about your books, something I find particularly enjoyable since the real things are currently stuffed into a cupboard back home. Books, I'm sure you'll agree, are meant to live on shelves, not in darkened cupboards.

One of my favourite authors in the Eighties was Lewis Shiner. I first encountered him in a short story called 'Jeff Beck', printed in Asimov's. It was in the second or third copy of the magazine I ever bought, about the time I started buying Asimov's regularly for what turned out to be several years. That story particularly appealed to me because I was learning to play guitar at the time (although I was more of a Jimmy Page and Hendrix fan). Looking back at it now, it makes even more sense than it did then. I did in fact learn to play guitar at least passably. One could easily read the story and substitute 'writing fiction' for 'playing music'. Shiner also wrote one of my favourite novels - Glimpses.

He's got a new non-genre book out called Black & White which sounds very interesting, but even more interesting is that he's in the process of putting every single piece of fiction he's ever had published up on the net. I consider this to be a very, very good thing because until relatively recently Shiner was very much in the 'whatever happened to ...' category of writers. He was published very regularly in Asimov's and F&SF before fading off the radar during the Nineties. I've missed his stuff. He has a website where you can also download the complete text of his new book.

As an aside, I have a still-growing list of free downloaded fiction, much of it from Tor. All of it together is in itself reason enough, should I ever have the cash, to buy an epaper device if and when they become cheap enough.


Stealing Fire

Since I'm in an excerpt-posting mood, here's the first page (or 250-ish words) from the start of Stealing Fire, the sequel to Stealing Light I've been writing for Tor. It's due in by the 1st of July, so busy, busy, busy.



Orion-Perseus Arm/Milky Way
32,000 light years from Galactic Core/2,375 light years from nearest edge of Consortium space
0.15 GC Revs since Start of Hostilities (approx. 15,235 years [Terran])

Inside a Shoal reconnaissance corvette, lost and hunted through a dense tangle of stars and hydrogen clouds a thousand light-years wide, a Bandati spy was being tortured by having his wings pulled off one by one.

In order to accommodate the prisoner, an air-breather, the bare steel vault of the corvette’s interrogation chamber had been drained of its liquid atmosphere. Misted brine formed heavy, wobbling droplets in the oxygen/nitrogen mix that had replaced it, floating in the zero gee like tiny watery lenses.

The Bandati had been pinned to an upright panel placed in the centre of the chamber, where the floor dipped to form a shallow, stepped well. The Shoal-member known as Trader in Faecal Matter of Animals noted the enormous iron spike that had been driven through the creature's lower chest in such a way that it was held immobile without, to his surprise, immediately threatening its continued survival. Nonetheless, it was not difficult to discern from the Bandati's ceaseless struggling that it was in some considerable distress.

Cables had been epoxied to the chamber wall directly above the scout's head, and hooks attached to the trailing tips of these cables had been inserted into the outermost edges of its five remaining wings. The tension in these cables pulled the wings wide, as if the Bandati were frozen in the act of gliding through the dense atmosphere of the world on which his kind had originated. Trader was reminded of a display he had once seen of small winged invertebrates, row after row of colourful dead husks pinned to a wall, carefully mounted, labelled and categorised.

Clearly, the interrogators had been in a creative mood when they had been ordered to extract as much information as possible from the spy."


Paperback Out

Today's the day - the paperback of Stealing Light is now out in the United Kingdom, and other places as well as and when it becomes available.

Here's an excerpt of the first page:

"Standard Consortium Date: 03.06.2538
25 kilometres south of Port Gabriel, Redstone Colony
Port Gabriel Incident +45 minutes

It was like waking up and finding you’d just sleepwalked through the gates of hell.

Dakota drew in a sharp breath, feeling like she’d first awakened into existence only a moment before. She stood stock still for several seconds, the touch of freezing rain clear and sharp on her skin.

Trying to take it all in.

Bodies were scattered all around her, under a slate-grey sky from which snow fell in sporadic squalls. Most had been cut down as they ran for safety. It was a scene of appalling carnage.

She remembered with dazzling clarity what it had felt like to kill them.

Her hands hung uselessly by her sides, Consortium-issue assault pistol still gripped in one fist. Fat-bellied Consortium transports rumbled far overhead, dropping down from orbit, looking to salvage something – anything - from the disaster of the assault.

The worst thing was that she remembered so much. Every moment, every scream, and every death: it was something she was going to have to live with for the rest of her life.

That made the decision to kill herself a lot easier."


Earthquakes and Arguments

Had my first earthquake the other night. Em reckoned it was maybe 3 on the Richter Scale, but I don't have the necessary experience to pass judgement. It was like a gentle rocking motion, entirely silent, for seven or eight seconds. There was something weirdly comforting about it, as if the Gods of the Continental Drift were rocking me to my sleep.

Anyway: Richard Morgan, another Glasgow author, recently posted online an essay originally written for an anthology in which he decries the SF field for its infighting and general bitchiness. I can well understand some of his bewilderment given that he arrived on the scene, convention and community-wise, relatively recently.

"... I'm still a relative novice in this place. I mean, I've always read SF and Fantasy, for the reason I guess most people read anything -- because I like it. But before the publication of my first novel, five years ago, I knew next to nothing about SF fandom, had never attended a con in my life, and was quite unaware there might be anything to warrant the wielding of such savage rhetorical weaponry. So I was a bit (actually a lot) taken aback to see these squabbles arising, and even more taken aback to learn that this kind of back-biting is nothing new in the genre. Trawl back through the short history of SF and you can see the exact same bitching and lekking oneupmanship set loose time and time again. New Wave writers lambast and laugh at their predecessors from the so-called Golden Age. Individual authors ally or square up to each other with ludicrous intensity. Lots of furious lit. crit. goes flying this way and that. Splat! Pow! Blood on the dancefloor. Oh, but the times, they are a-changing -- here comes the hard-SF revival to "take back" the genre, to barricade themselves in the genre cabin with their technophilic faith and new frontier spirit and hold off the weirdos for a while. Then cyberpunk kicks down the door all over again, proclaims itself dangerous and subversive (but over here, in this corner, some New Wave purists scoff).

And so it goes, drearily onward until we wind up squabbling all over again about how cool and cutting edge and unlike other fantasy writers we are in the New Weird, or more recently how hopelessly wrong and dangerously irresponsible anyone is if they're writing Faster than Light drives into their SF, or (see above) how goddamn fucking militant, humorless, and annoying anyone is who says it's off base to write FTL into ...

So forth."

I have great sympathy for what Richard says, yet at the same time I'm not sure I agree one hundred per cent. Now, I admit to openly dissing 'high' fantasy on this blog, although at the same time I made it clear it was purely a matter of personal taste; for a lot of people an interest in SF has gone hand in hand with an interest in fiction of the Tolkien/Elric/White Gold Wielder variety - just not me. In that respect, maybe I'm one of the guilty ones.

But still, I can't help feeling that all this posturing, infighting, and declarations of intent are the signs of a healthy genre. The reason people are arguing with each other is because they're passionate about what they believe in. I don't know that I'd necessarily prefer it if those same people were instead dispassionate about SF. If people weren't announcing manifestos, having flame-wars with each other and generally having wildly varying ideas about what sf is or isn't ... it would be kind of boring.

Wouldn't it?

To me, I'd say all the bitchiness is a sign that things aren't nearly so moribund within the genre as some have claimed. I'm not saying the arguments and fighting are always healthy, or necessarily mature; but I am saying it feels more alive than some genteel, mannered alternative. At least the way things are, it feels like people give a damn.


Find Shark, Jump Shark

I saw Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull on Saturday night. It was like watching a sweded production of a script so terrifyingly bad it had been locked in a steel vault inside a military warehouse far from the eyes of man, but with A-list actors and an actual budget. As I watched my youthful memories of Raiders of the Lost Ark being thoroughly vandalised, I wondered if the stars had been kidnapped for real as well as on the screen; there was a wild-eyed look to Ford et al that made me suspect they were dragged from their Bel Air beds in the middle of the night and forced to perform at gunpoint in some remote Eastern European state.

In the first forty minutes or so, Indiana survives a nuclear explosion by hiding in a fridge, and his son performs a series of Tarzan-like stunts swinging vine-to-vine in the jungle with sufficient Spiderman-like dexterity he catches up with a truck in an action sequence designed to make Scooby Doo cartoons look like bleak exercises in Dogma-style realism. After that, it gets progressively sillier until it achieves a kind of reality-destabilising ur-silliness, whereupon you feel the urge to bite off one of your own fingers and use the stump to scrawl a warning on the floor of the cinema not to watch the movie.

According to an article in The Independent:

"It seems that Spielberg, the director, and Ford, the star, had severe doubts about mystic, crystal skulls as the story line for the new Indiana Jones story, the first to appear since 1989. One of the reasons for the long delay, according to Hollywood gossip, is that Spielberg and Ford hated the skulls idea, put forward by George Star Wars Lucas, who wrote the script. But after a dozen re-writes, they were brought around."

Brought around? Brought around? Bribed? Threatened? The severed heads of Greys mailed to them? Enough money to buy Mexico? Oh Steven, Steven. You might as well drag that festering Jaws prop out of the garage and take a running jump over it.


No Smoking

Differences between Taipei and home that have begun to seep in: hardly anyone smokes. Walk into a newsagent back home, and there's always a vast, shrine-like display of cigarettes. Hundreds of packets. Walk into a newsagent here - or a 7/11 as they're known - you see about three, stuck up next to the counter. Go into a bar in Glasgow, it's guaranteed to have a mob of people standing and shivering in the rain outside and desperately clutching lit fags. You don't see that anywhere here.

Oh sure, you walk around the streets, and you see one or two people smoking. And I mean one or two. It just doesn't seem to interest people here so much. They just don't seem to be driven to clog up their lungs and everyone else's with foul, polluting smog.

It's nice.