Nova War sighted growing out of Kate Mosse's head

I was watching a BBC interview with Kate Mosse - on the subject of how to get started writing a book - where they'd obviously interviewed her standing in a local Waterstones. I was kind of tickled to notice Nova War, sitting face out, just to the right of Kate's head for much of the interview. I know I said I'd like it if somebody filmed one of my books,  but this isn't quite what I had in mind ...



Ebook of Nova War

And just to reiterate, in case people miss it on the left-hand sidebar there; the ebooks of Stealing Light and Nova War, as sold through www.panmacmillan.com, have no DRM. And that goes for all the ebooks sold by Pan Macmillan through their UK website.

If they're sold through third-party resellers like Waterstones, then they do have DRM, but that's imposed by those resellers, not Pan Mac or Tor. I've been getting occasional queries from people about where to find the ebooks, particularly from people outside the UK who are concerned they won't be able to purchase them due to geographical restrictions. To my knowledge, no one has had trouble buying my or anyone else's ebooks direct from the www.panmacmillan.com site, regardless of where they live.


Finding Nova War

Nova War has, according to my publisher's, been selling really well - this is as far as I know the main reason it keeps showing up on Amazon as 'currently out of stock'. It's not, to my knowledge, so presumably as soon as it arrives it gets mailed out again. I did start to get slightly worried, however, when I noticed one or two tweets by random people saying they were having trouble tracking down copies. I also know that acquaintances and friends would tell me in the past that when they went looking for my new books in physical bookshops, they had trouble finding them (mind you, this was usually specifically in terms of trying to find stuff in Borders, and obviously that's not going to be a problem for much longer). Has anyone reading this blog had trouble tracking copies down?

Edit: Got an email from Tor that it's back in stock in the bookshops, and shows up as in stock on Amazon. For now, anyway.


Final Days, FB website and article ideas

The Fergus Bannon website is pretty much complete and features the complete text of Judgement along with a couple of stories and articles published in places like Interzone. I need to get round to writing another BSC review/article sometime soon, once I've figured out what to write about. Right now, in my head, it's roughly a choice between a look at the past ten years (dead original, I know) or ... Hawkwind. A band I like a great deal, and one I suspect many North Americans - who constitute the vast majority of BSCReview.com's readers - don't know about. Oh hell, I'll do both.

I'm a bit over twenty thousands words into Final Days at the moment, rolling along. Trying to discipline myself by timing how long I actually write each day, which is producing some interesting results.

Edit: Silly me, I completely forgot to mention. I asked two other writers to contribute to Fergus's website and write a piece each about him - one is by Jim Steel, a name familiar to readers of Interzone magazine, and the other is by that other esteemed member of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writer's Circle, Hal Duncan. Both pieces, along with a few words by me, are up there at www.fergusbannon.blogspot.com.


More fun with publishing

My wee experiment at playing publisher continues, although at a somewhat reduced rate given I have to write a seriously complicated novel between now and next August. Fergus Bannon's novel Judgement is still on sale at Smashwords, and it's been selling steadily, if not spectacularly, although I'm already getting emails from those who bought it telling me they'd have happily bought it at full price; which is no news to me since I happen to think it's a knockout piece of work you should all be reading.

All of this unexpectedly became an opportunity to play around with the tools of modern zero-cost online publishing and all that it offers, as well as all that it promises, which is almost certainly  considerably more than it can  actually deliver; nonetheless, I've noticed one or two out of print novels, including at least one one-time bestseller, popping up on Smashwords, which appears to be going from strength to strength.

After spending a bit of time reading up on online promotional methods, I decided to also set up a website for Fergus, modelled roughly after this one. It's called 'Neurological Intervention For Beginners', and it's very much under construction at the moment, so some of it's still a little bare bones and uncompleted. Nonetheless, I put the complete text of the novel up there,  so if you're still too shirty to either sign up to Smashwords or part with cash, you can at least see what I'm on  about. Also up there at the moment is Burning Brightly, Fergus's one and only appearance in Interzone way back in 1993. You can still, of course, buy the complete book in ebook format for $2 (about £1.40) at Smashwords.

The thing I have noticed - and this will of course surprise no one - is that the book's sales are entirely dependent on online mentions. Every time it's been mentioned online, the sales have briefly spiked. First there's a spike in downloads of the 50% sample from Smashwords, then within a day or two there's a spike in actual cash sales that gratifyingly trails only slightly behind the number of freebie sample downloads.

It occurs to me that there's a better way for me to explain why I think you  should be reading the book. It involves a bit of history, specifically relating to GSFWC, ie the Glasgow SF Writer's Circle, which I first attended in the winter of 1990.  Fergus was already a member, as was a very young and callow Hal Duncan. The circle also featured Duncan Lunan, a frequent contributor of non-fiction articles to Analog, and author of Man & The Planets, which was huge in the early to mid Seventies. Right place, right time, as they say. Also present was Mike Cobley,  whose fourth novel Seeds of Earth was recently published in the UK. Two other members, Jim Steel and Paul Cockburn,  are frequent contributors  to Interzone, while Neil Williamson, who's  had a fair number of stories published in that magazine and elsewhere, has a short story collection out and co-edited the anthology of Scottish SF Nova Scotia. And let's not forget Bill King, author of numerous novels for Games Workshop.

And in the middle of all that is Fergus, whose career stalled way back when, not because he wasn't as good a writer as the rest of us, but because sometimes shit happens. If not for fate, Fergus's books would have been up there on the Waterstones sf shelves next to books by me, Bill, Hal and Mike. That is why $2 for the ebook is an extraordinary bargain. Buy it. Or read it online and, if you like it, tell people about it.


Final cover for Empire of Light

Just saw the final cover for Empire of Light tweeted by my editor at Tor UK, Julie Crisp, and it does look good - in fact, it might be a contender for my favourite cover yet.


Well, I'm very sad to hear of the demise of Sofanauts. I think it was pretty much the first podcast I ever listened to, and that was only a month or two back. I listened to it sometimes when I was out walking or at certain points during long cycling trips I took along Taipei's extensive network of riverside cycling paths, and had started to really look forward to each episode.

But it only had 500 listeners, which amazes me. The sofanauts web page has links to every single episode over the past year, and I highly recommend checking out pretty much every single one (although I'll have to admit I'm still working my way through them myself). Great stuff, with lots of interviews with the likes of Richard Morgan and Jeff Vandermeer, and as close as you can get to watching a con panel without actually being at a con.


What I want for christmas

I've played guitar for more than twenty years, on and off, and this thing is a fricking delight (link). There's a video on the website, to my recollection. Not cheap at four grand, but there's a mini version for £350.


Dear Gods of Publishing

Dear Gods of Publishing: I know you feel the need to put me in my place every time I reach some new summit in my writing career, but could you try harder not to have my boiler explode so that I need to get it replaced at extraordinary cost every single time? K thanks.


Book offer

I just got an offer for Tor for three new books, starting with Final Days, which I've blogged about in the past. The other two books are a sequel to Final Days, called The Thousand Emperors, and Core (very much a working title), a standalone story set in the same world as Stealing Light and its sequels. Off to a restaurant to celebrate.


Interview at Amazon UK

There's an interview with me over at Amazon.co.uk's 'Author Spotlight at the moment, if you fancy checking it out.

My publishing experiment, continued

Several days ago, I wrote about an excellent unpublished novel by a writer I've known for nearly twenty years. Fergus Bannon finished his book just in time for real life to scupper any serious attempts at placing it with either an agent or a publisher. As a result it wound up forgotten in a drawer for a long, long time until I asked to see it. I liked it so much I was determined that it shouldn't simply vanish. And since Fergus has zero time or opportunity to do anything about it, I volunteered to try and get it out there in some way.

Well, you can buy it now, from the online publishing site Smashwords, as an ebook in a wide variety of formats for the price of $2.00. It's been raved about by Neil Williamson and Jim Steel, both of them frequent contributors to Interzone, here and here.

Free copies of the ebook go to anyone who has a blog, website or twitter account and is willing to give the book some kind of review or mention: to this end, either email me (gary at garygibson dot net) or leave contact details in the comments for this entry and I'll send you a code you can use to download the book from Smashwords for free. Otherwise, you can download and read the first 50% of the book for free, or read it online here.

The blurb: 'It started with a few isolated incidents. A mob shootout in Las Vegas, a firefight in the Central American jungles - one apparently unconnected event after the other, hinting at a worldwide conspiracy of unprecedented proportions. But before long CIA computer specialist Bob Leith realises it's something much more than mere globalised terrorism, something literally not of this world ...'


I go chop your dollar

While reading Misha Berry's fascinating book 'McMafia' on the globalisation of crime since the early Eighties, I discovered that Nigerian 419 scammers have their very own anthem 'I go chop your dollar' about the joys of conning rich suckers out of untold quantities of cash, most spectacularly Nelson Sakaguchi of a major Brazilian bank to the tune of $245 million dollars. Naturally, I just had to google it.

Don't ask me what he's singing - I can't make out a word - but upon a further google, it becomes clear the lyrics refer to a certain exuberance on the part of some Nigerian con-artists come cheque-cashing day.


Playing around with online publishing ideas

I'm thinking of trying a small publishing experiment when I have the time. First, some background.

About twenty years ago, a fellow author, member of the Glasgow SF Writer's Circle (from whence came myself, Hal Duncan, William King and Michael Cobley amongst others) and one-time contributor to Interzone known as Fergus Bannon wrote a pretty decent sf thriller called Judgment.

He sent it off to a couple of agents or publishers, got it sent back, then shelved it forever. He hasn't written anything since. There's nothing wrong with his writing - he'd been published, as I say, in Interzone, and I think had one or two stories in a couple of other places, including a reprint of that Interzone story in the Shipbuilding paperback anthology our writer's circle put out for the Glasgow '95 worldcon.

Eventually I asked to read it some years back and really, really liked it. It turned out one reason he'd given up trying to push it was that much of the story - in his eyes - was dependent on the politics of the late Eighties. He had the bad luck to write a very near-future thriller only a year or two before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Then Mandela was freed from prison, and the international political climate underwent some severe shifts away from the background of his story.

After reading it sometime in the early 00's I felt that it wouldn't take much work to rejig it to get past some of the more out of date references, and with his prompting that's exactly what I did a few years back. Then I got busy with my own writing for Tor and had to put it down for a while. I was driven by the feeling that if Ferg's book never got read by anyone else, it would be a terrible shame.

Since then, however, ebooks have come up in the world in a big way and now I'm beginning to think it's time to actually do something with the damn thing. Professional publishing deals are out of the question, because it's a one-off by nature: Fergus isn't likely to do any more fiction writing. But I need to give it one more go-over edit-wise to incorporate some comments, and then I'm going to think about putting it up under his name on ebook sites like Smashwords.

The only real problem I see is that I can't see myself having much time to spend on promoting it or persuading people to read it, let alone let them know it even exists: it may be that about ten people will download it in total and that's it. And since the aim here isn't necessarily to actually make a profit, the best way to do things as I see it is a combination of a)selling it at a low, low price, based on online recommendations on various ebook-related forums: b)simultaneously give it away for free: and c) trying to persuade various other bloggers to mention it on their own sites if at all humanly possible.

At some point soon-ish, I'll post the first chapter up here. Any other thoughts on a suitable plan of attack?

New post on BSCReview.com

And this time it's a rant about DRM and ebooks and piracy. It started out as a post on a website, but a thousand words later I realised I had the solid bones of an actual article:

"There are many pro writers out there worried by piracy, who see the internet as the greatest illegal intellectual land-grab of all time. Here’s the deal: if you’re worried enough to want to stop it, you’re not only going to have to stop people’s internet connections, you’re also going to have to ban photocopiers, computer scanners, OCR software, and computers. At the least.

The vast majority of those books floating around on bittorrent sites were derived from print copies of books. You scan the pages with a scanner and run OCR software that creates an unedited, error-filled file that is then saved as a PDF – surely the most unwieldy ebook format ever created – and uploaded. No professionally edited ebook files were involved ..."



Nice place to visit, shame about the UN ranking

Interesting to see the UN's latest chart of countries according to quality of life, with Britain ranked all the way down at No. 21 with Norway, Australia and Iceland taking the top three positions. Interestingly enough, Ireland comes in at No. 5. Maybe I should go and live in Dublin instead of Glasgow. It's only a boat ride away, and they have tax breaks for writers (or did last I heard). Hmmm ... and it's not like we'd lack for people coming to visit ...

Two mildly annoying caveats about the list: it would have been nice to see Scotland in there, since I'd be interested to know how its perceived 'quality of life' ranks compared to England, but that's just for the sake of sheer curiousity. I honestly couldn't guess whether it would be ranked higher or lower, though one suspects if one wanted to make the survey even more granular, there are a couple of bits in Glasgow which might fit right in with Sierra Leone at the bottom of the chart. Somewhere in Glasgow, there's a bridge - I think it might be on the way to Easterhouse - with the words 'WELCOME TO BEIRUT' spray-painted on one side.

Genuinely taxing, however, is the omission of Taiwan, which the UN treats as being part of China, which is ridiculous, given that Taiwan is an independent democratic state with free speech, and China ... isn't and doesn't. I strongly suspect if it had been included, it would have been ranked very high up that list indeed. What a shame.


New column

I got asked a while back by Jay Tomio of BSCreview.com if I fancied writing for his website, and the first of my Burn After Reading columns is now up. Writing for your own blog is one thing, but writing for someone else's website - especially one that gets considerably more hits - is another. I'm going to try to get something up there every four or five weeks if I can. One result of this will be a lowered frequency of posting here, apart from the usual bits and pieces of news or stuff that wouldn't fit into BSC. I will, however, make a point of posting the first few paragraphs of an article so you know when it's up. Intro to the first one follows.

"It does seem like the eternal war between SF and the mainstream just goes on and on and on, doesn’t it? One minute you think it’s dead and buried, the next it’s climbing back out of its grave, spitting out mouthfuls of dirt and gnashing its teeth.

The latest round started with a recent issue of New Scientist (September 19th: they called it a ’scifi’ special, but let’s just quietly skip over that) featuring a bunch of particularly fine flash fiction by various luminaries of the British SF field. These were accompanied by a lengthy and erudite essay by Kim Stanley Robinson asking, amongst other things, why no science fiction novels had been long-listed or short-listed for this year’s Booker prize ..."

Read the rest at BSCreview.com


An observation about Amazon reviewers

This has sort of been addressed before by several different people, and is a well-known enough phenomenon that it even gets its own blog, but just every now and then I come across some review of a book on Amazon so awe-inspiringly idiotic that I can't make up my mind if the 'reviewer' was serious, or instead engaging in some kind of desperately obscure and impenetrable sarcasm, as if the ghost of Andy Kaufman was somehow wandering the electronic byways of online bookstores, pulling pranks for the sole benefit of itself and a cadre of undead snickering through their see-through sleeves.

In this case, I took a look at the Amazon.com page for a book called Eternity: Our Next Billion Years only to find this jaw-dropping review by someone who hasn't actually read the book. Apparently. Unless, of course, this is a very, very, very obscure piece of piss-taking. It wins my Occasional 'You, Sir, Are An Idiot' Award, handed out by me, to no regular schedule whatsoever.


text movie

Here's something that occurred to me would be a sort of neat tool for a writer to play around with - sort of a live action-ish version of the Wordle software that was doing the rounds a year or two ago.

Paragraphs in novels get rewritten a lot. A lot. It occurred to me it would be interesting if someone could write a small piece of software that recorded all the changes being made to a particular paragraph or piece of text from inception to finished work. Then you could save it as, say, a video file that shows you all the changes, deletions, additions, retypings of that piece of text as a movie - minus, of course, all the long hours of introspection when the writer is either thinking or playing Quake Online (not me, honest guv). If anything, it would demonstrate just how much work goes into writing even a single sentence, sometimes. And it would sort of be a way to actually see inside a bunch of different writer's heads.

But which text? I figure an opening paragraph or page would be the obvious one to go for. Does anyone out there know if it's possible to write a piece of software like that, or if it already exists?


Reviews, interviews, books to come

So anyway, the hardback of Nova War has been out for a few days and appears to be doing really well. Tor have taken off the 'movie blurb' type line from the version of the book cover that's been visible on Amazon and elsewhere, which is good, but have used a picture of me on the inside back flap that made me shriek when I saw it. Unfortunately the only person I can blame is myself, since I'm the one who gave it to them (slaps self around head).

(I am occasionally inflicted with the desire to have an author photo where I 'm standing with a copy of one of my books held up in front of my face. I once saw a guitarist on the cover of a magazine holding a 'stick' electric guitar upside down by the neck, so that the body of the guitar obscured his features. I've always been a bit, shall we say, ambivalent about the whole notion of author photos, and so this particular conceit holds some appeal to me.)

I was invited to go down to London not long after i first signed to Tor, partly so they could get their photographer to do a quick, professional shoot for the book covers. I never got round to it. But after seeing that, maybe next year I'll make the time to go down there and let them snap me.

I sent them a slightly better picture recently, and that's the one that appears in the most recent issue of Sci Fi Now magazine (where I have a short article on science fiction book covers, revolving around the poll I ran here with my editor to see which cover readers preferred out of a choice of two).

There are reviews of Nova War at Walker of Worlds, The Guardian, Fantasy Book Critic, and in the latest issue of SFX magazine, and so far they've all been very positive, I'm glad to say. There's an interview with me here, about the writing of Nova War and various and sundry matters, and it's crossposted here.

What else? I'm working on a proposal for a new book to come after Empire of Light, the third Dakota Merrick book. It was previously under the working title of The Array, but now I'm calling it Final Days, which has a good chance of being the actual title. That means putting together an outline - done - and maybe a sample chapter or two for flavour. I'm also thinking seriously about writing another book set in the Stealing Light universe, possibly with a completely new set of characters, and possibly set several hundred years after the events in Empire of Light.

There's good reasons to do so. One of the things that made writing Nova War and Empire of Light a relatively smooth process was that I was working in a ready-made 'universe', something that's benefited many other authors, most notably the likes of Iain Banks, Neal Asher, and Alistair Reynolds. I'm pretty sure there's more I can do in that setting.

I have a Mind Meld piece coming up on 'first sf books' for SF Signal, and I'll post a link when that goes online. For what it's worth, although my blogging rate has decreased a little over the years, I'm starting to use Twitter (there's a live feed over there on the right hand bar, if you're viewing the web page) more and more these days, so that's another source of occasional information.


The fantasy book I picked.

Since the last post, I've had a bit of an opportunity to think about what it is I do or don't get out of any fantasy I've read. If I don't like most fantasy, then what's the common element in the fantasy that I do like?

For the record, I'm going to avoid getting into any heavy discussions about what actually constitutes 'fantasy', and point to this piece by Cheryl Morgan, where she makes the point that when people talk about a 'genre', they're really describing a set of familiar tropes, and that the quality of any particular text is dependent on the way an author chooses to make use of those particular narrative tools.

Within the context of this post, then, 'fantasy' is a very fuzzy-edged cloud that varies in content from person to person. It includes people like Robert Jordan or Tolkien, but also Jonathan Carroll and Ursula le Guin. For some people the cloud is more clearly delineated, for others it spills out into a disparate fog that swallows up all of science fiction and quite a bit of the supposedly mainstream. It all depends on where you stand and what you choose to see depending on your own inclinations.

Here's some 'fantasy' books I mentioned I liked: House of Leaves. This almost borderlines on Stephen King territory, albeit in the form of a wildly post-modern meta-text that heavily references other forms of media like video (a large part of the book is actually a transcript of what one character, whose input appears in the form of hugely extensive footnotes, starts out believing is a fictional documentary about a house that grows rooms without getting any bigger on the outside). It actually started out on the early internet as a series of disparate texts that had some people thinking it might all be real before seeing physical publication. If you liked Blair Witch, you're going to orgasm over this book.

I realised one thing I liked about it was the way the people in the documentary (the transcript of which we are reading) approached the house: with a very human desire to define and delineate - to understand what the house actually is, and to discover if there are physical limits to its growth. Like 19th Century explorers, they strike out into a strange new land with the goal of understanding it. Their approach is a product of the Enlightenment. Rather than reacting with superstitious fear, they seek to apply human knowledge and gain understanding. Whether they succeed or not isn't the point - what matters is their ultimate goal, to find a rational explanation for what they encounter.

Then there's 'City of the Iron Fish' by Simon Ings. This is like an anti-fantasy book - and here I'm drawing heavily from memory, because my one copy is currently residing in a cardboard box several thousand miles from my current location. The characters live in what they believe is a 'made' universe. The farther you get from the city, the more reality breaks down. It doesn't stop the hero trying to find out just what lies beyond the edge of his very limited universe. His behaviour is highly rational, but also very human. Rather than simply accepting his environment, he tries to understand it.

In Robert Holdstocks' 'Mythago Wood', a young man returns from the Second World War to find his father has disappeared into the supposedly haunted Ryhope Wood, having left behind extensive notes regarding his encounters with the entities there. He believes these mythological creatures are directly generated out of the collective subconscious of the human race and somehow given physical form by a means little understood, but that is never described nor regarded as 'magical'. As well as more typical mythological entities, the hero while exploring the wood encounters a First World War Tommy, who is himself part of an urban legend. Like his father, the hero attempts to understand the entities in rational terms.

I particularly enjoyed Jeffrey Ford's The Physiognomist a few years sgo since, as I've said to various people, it reads like the greatest Tim Burton/Johnny Depp gothic comedy never made (read the first few chapters here, particularly the first several paragraphs, and tell me I'm wrong). This was a case where the sheer quality of the writing carried me past things I might have found my inner critic questioning, questions that often arise when I encounter 'secondary worlds'. Such as, where is this place? And why is nobody telling me where it is?

In a science fiction novel, when the characters encounter or find themselves in an unusual environment, they usually try and figure out where the hell it is, or what it is. Put it this way: if you read a book set inside a sub-light starship big enough to contain a civilisation who've forgotten they're on a journey, at some point you're going to expect somebody to want to dig a hole through the skin of the world and see what's on the other side. If an author chose to write a story in which the people inside that spaceship never once tried to figure out the actual parameters of their world, and just go on blindly existing and never asking the obvious questions, you'd feel more than a little cheated. That's essentially how I feel about a lot of fantasy.

Yet in The Physiognomist, as is the case with so many fantasy novels, there is no attempt made to understand or delineate the environment in which the narrative is set: this is what makes City of the Iron Fish so special, since the hero spends a good part of his time trying to figure out just where the hell he is - that's how I remember it, anyway - and this encapsulates the basic human drive to understand our place in the universe (although I stress this is no criticism, merely an observation regarding my own preferences and prejudices; The Physiognomist is a fine, fine novel that I got sent by Tor UK, when they republished it a while back. I highly recommend it).

This means, therefore, that if I'm going to buy a fantasy novel, I'm going to feel a bit underwhelmed if it involves a bunch of characters having some adventure without any reference to the nature of the environment in which they find themselves.

And now a repeat of the standard 'I'm a hypocrite' clause: I can read Jonathan Carroll without giving a damn how the hell any of the stuff in his books happens, at least partly because he's one of the finest writers in the English language - his 'Outside The Dog Museum' is still one of the best books I've ever read. I used to read a shitload of Jamie Delano's Hellblazer comics, and never had a problem - presumably because it was set in a world I nonetheless recognised in its more mundane elements. So why can I get into these, but not, say, Tolkien or Donaldson?

Partly, I think, it's the writing, and partly it's the sense of conciliatory escapism. This isn't to say science fiction can't be or isn't any more or less escapist than other literary forms, but even when it is it's almost always set in some variant of the world we know, no matter how far removed in time and space. When you read a full-on fantasy book, it's more of a complete retreat from any notion of consensual reality as we know it. And that's okay. Most of the people I've met who read that kind of dense, magical-kingdom fantasy tend to be pretty sharp people with demanding day-jobs for whom a fat fantasy novel is a terrific way for them to unwind.

But I need just a little bit more than that, and some of you people reading this blog have been kind enough to give me some really interesting suggestions. But for the moment I've pretty much settled on buying Lev Grossman's new book, The Magicians, even though it's largely set in a 'secondary world'.

Why? Well, partly because it's been getting terrific reviews, inside and outside of the genre press. Partly because I feel like reading something different for a change. But largely because I've read some online excerpts that show not only that the writing is terrific, but also that the hero is clearly a bit of a maths genius, and that the story strenuously avoids ticking any of the usual 'good vs bad' boxes.

I guess I'm hoping our boy genius will turn out to make some attempt at defining the parameters, the why of the magical world he finds himself in; the fact that what little of the narrative I've read so far appears to be heavy on the moral ambiguity just sweetens the cake. At least, that's what I'm hoping. So there you go.


Recommend a fantasy novel to someone who doesn't like fantasy.

Here's the deal. I hate The Hobbit. You really seriously couldn't pay me to read Lord of the Rings. I read the first page of the first Harry Potter book and thought, well, it's for kids. Why would I want to read this when I'm not a kid? And that's not even going into what appears to me from the outside to be a remarkable lack of imagination - they're trainee wizards, so they ride around on broomsticks. Broomsticks? Are you shitting me? That's the best you could come up with?

I read Pullman's His Dark Materials and wasn't impressed. The heroine - and here I'm vaguely recalling - doesn't particularly in my recollection so much discover what's going on in her world as get told it straight out by various adult protagonists. Dull. And then there's the talking bears. Talking bears? How did they get that way? Did they evolve? Or what? Now, admittedly, this is a kid's book, and if you're young enough you're probably happy to just accept that at face value. But me? An adult? Eh. Now, I've got talking fish in my books, but they either evolved that way, or were radically redesigned by another species using highly advanced technology. I'm the first to admit to the liberal use of handwavium in my stories, but to me magic is the worst kind of handwavium - oh, it's magic, as if that explains everything. Science has a clear definition, but what, then, is magic? I have no clear idea.

On the other hand, and just to prove what an enormous hypocrite I really am, I'm a big fan of Jonathan Carroll, undoubtedly a fantasy writer. Why this should be so when I hate the former kind of fantasy isn't a question I can't immediately answer, except insofar as to say that it has something do with being set in our very real world.

It's that connection that gives me something to hold on to that Lord of the Rings does not - with the latter, my first reaction on hearing about it as a kid was, where is Middle-Earth? Is it on Earth? An alien planet? Where? And if I didn't know, I couldn't possibly figure out why on Earth I should care about anything set there.

Now, I'm not saying my position is unassailable. I just could never bring myself to believe in fantasy worlds of the aforementioned variety. SF was the literature of human endeavour, of pushing back the limits of the known world and coming to first understand and then control it. It was about the future, the coming world. Fantasy seemed retrogressive, backwards, wishful thinking for some impossible age that never could be and never would be.

Let me just stress here that I'm talking here about my feelings as a young reader. I'm not dissing the genre, just trying to say why I never really got along with it when I was growing up. If someone gave me a book with dragons in it when I was a kid, I'd say, how does something that big get airborne? How does it breathe fire? How come they never explode in mid-air?

Undeniably impossible things happen in Carroll's books, but somehow it's the dissonance with reality and the jarring effect it produces that's so effective for me. Here's what appears to be the normal world, and suddenly it turns out there's something about it you don't understand, that you can't explain, and that might be very, very threatening. That I can appreciate; that, somehow, resonates with me emotionally. The world appears to be one way, now it appears to be another. The tables have been turned.

Same with Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, one of my absolute, all-time favourite works of fiction. It's magnificent. You never, ever, ever find out just what it is haunting the echoing, abyssal halls of the endless house; you only know that its realm may be infinite. This is people from our world, exploring the edges of what constitutes our reality, and retreating in fear from whatever may lie just beyond that edge, just beyond the known, the safe and the quantifiable. Somehow, this has satisfied me entirely through several re-reads.

A work closer to traditional fantasy that is also one of my favourites is Robert Holdstock's equally magnificent Mythago Wood. But I don't think of it as fantasy, I always thought of it as science fiction. The protagonist and his father have clearly thought out and developed theories as to the nature of Ryhope Wood; they take the apparently magical and make an attempt to quantify it, to understand it and ultimately control it where a thousand lesser writers might simply have had their characters take the apparently magical at face value. They are, again, exploring the absolute limits of our reality, and looking a ways beyond into the face of the terrifying unknown.

Even closer to traditional fantasy is Michael Moorcock's The War Hound and the World's Pain. I've not really read much Moorcock fantasy, but this is one of the few. And, it's great, perhaps because it's set in our own (past) world. Somehow, that makes all the difference.

So here's a question for you. Given that I really, really don't get on very well with the traditional stuff, what would you recommend to me to read? Or, what fantasy would you recommend to someone who really doesn't get on very well with fantasy at all?

For what it's worth, I've been considering Lev Grossman's The Magicians because it's getting such good write-ups. I read an excerpt that got me interested for various reasons, so I figure it's worth checking out. Any opinions?


Pizza, books, and bank cards

Although still not 'officially' published (still a few days to go), Nova War nonetheless has pretty much shot up to what I'd call a comfortable ranking on Amazon at the time of writing. By way of celebration, and by way of saying thank you to Emma for financially supporting me for the several weeks it took me to sort out some bank card woes, we went to a local pizzeria called Alleycats here in Taipei, running into two English-teaching friends of hers when we got there. They turned out to be science fiction fans, which led to some typically spirited conversation about Frank Herbert and Babylon 5, amongst other things.

If you see someone in Taiwan and they're white, chances are they're teaching English. It gets to the point there's really no need to even ask: in much the same way, they assume I also teach, unless informed otherwise.



Just a wee note to say there's an interview with me double-posted at two separate review blogs - Fantasy Book Critic, and Walker of Worlds. Both review blogs are very worth your time checking out.


money, the future, and the black market

Here's something I've been wondering about while I work on an outline: how would the black market operate in a future economy where money exists only in digital form? How would you buy and sell things you weren't legally allowed to buy and sell if money primarily or solely existed in some electronic medium which could be monitored with relative ease?

Thinking hard.



Well, that's been fun. I have a Mastercard, partly for internet purchases, but also so I can withdraw emergency cash if I need it. I've been waiting for a new debit card to come to me out here in Taiwan for several weeks now - yes, several weeks, don't ask - and figured at the worst, I can make cash withdrawals with the Mastercard, and pay it off immediately using my online bank accounts. Simple, right?

Except the Mastercard locked up the very first time I actually tried to use it to withdraw cash. So I called up their customer service line and they unfroze it, except actually they didn't, because it still didn't work. And after several more calls, I wind up with some guy who tells me off for not telling them I'd be using it abroad, and effectively - or at least, that's the way I read it - telling me to piss off.

Which is kind of ironic, really, given I signed up to it ... in an airport, on my way to Asia.

A lot of googling while praying for my debit card to hurry up and arrive through the post reveals this is far from an unusual scenario. Nor is it unusual for people who are in fact aware of these frankly arcane rules to inform their credit card company they'll be using their plastic while abroad ... only to find it doesn't, in fact, work, and they wind up stranded or worse.

Not in the best of moods right now.

New links and a review

I got my hands on a neat little piece of multi-platform software called Dropbox that backs up my most important files and documents to a remote server in realtime, and it turned out to have a facility that allows me to store the short stories and book samples on this blog in such a way they can be downloaded much more easily than before. I should point out that the link above is a referral, in that if you start using it I get extra storage space (as do you, apparently). But what's important is, all those downloadable RTF format files dotted around WSOD will now actually work. Or ... they should.

The first review for Nova War is in, and Mark Chitty likes it:

"Nova War is a great example of intelligent and thoughtful space opera that delivers a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining read. As the second book in a series it builds very successfully on the foundation laid in Stealing Light and also gives plenty to carry through to the next book (which I just can't wait for!). For an enthralling widescreen space opera with characters and aliens that are both interesting and engrossing this is the books to read. Very highly recommended."

I finished the copy-edits on Empire of Light last night. Always an interesting process, in the 'Oh my GOD, how did I miss that!?' sense of 'interesting'. But hopefully I've caught every last instance of Author Shooting Self In Foot and sent it spinning into limbo. In the meantime, working on the outline for The Array, investigating the idea of trying to do a bit of freelance magazine writing (worth a shot), and wondering whether there's any steam in the idea of setting another book in the Stealing Light universe, but unrelated to the three previous books. Maybe, maybe not.

Talking of non-fiction writing: Martin Lewis has put together a pamphlet for the British Science Fiction Association called 'Sf Writers On SF Films: From Akira to Zardoz'. I wrote the 'Zardoz' piece, in which I once again attempt to convince the world that Zardoz is really rather good, actually, and deserving of your attention, and you in the back - stop snickering about Sean Connery in thigh-length leather boots and a bright red loincloth. It's a f**k of a lot better at generating a sense of the Other than Battlestar Galactica with it's 'everyone in the universe will wear business suits just like us' sartorial lunacy. I've also got a short article coming up in Sci Fi Now magazine, where I talk about the recent poll for the cover of Empire of Light.

Just a couple of days until the Nova War hardback is out, although I suspect it's possible one or two copies may already have crept onto bookshelves around the UK.


New Design

All right, that's the new-look template up. You'll also find a new short story added on the right - well, not exactly new, since it was first published in Interzone in 1994, but new to the blog anyway. I've also placed links to excerpts for all the books now, and all *should* work. But if some things still manage to go wrong, I won't be too surprised. I've also included in each excerpt page a download link for a .rtf file. This is a text file that should be readable on just about any computer in existence. It had been my intention to put up various flavours of ebook format - .lit, epub, Sony and the like - but trying to get it right was starting to take up way too much of my time. If you own a Sony Reader or a Kindle or some such, you probably already have a way to convert basic 'rtf' files into other formats, should you so choose. If you don't, then download Calibre, a freeware ebook library and conversion program I've often found extremely useful. You can get it for Mac, PC and even, so I believe, Linux. If you happen to convert one of the excerpts or stories and are feeling charitable, you could always email me a copy and I'll put it up here.

I was a wee bit nervous about putting up an older short story like Touched by an Angel since I think my writing has improved immeasurably since then, but as its author I'm probably inclined to be perhaps too picky about it. It did make Gardner Dozois' 'recommended reading' list in the Year's Best SF, so it does have its merits.

(Edit: Well, what do you know, the download links for the .rtf files don't work. Sigh. I'll get them sorted, but I'm bang in the middle of the line-edits for Empire of Light. So that'll get sorted out ... let's say, soonish.)


The jig's up

Guess it's time to move on to quantum foam. Especially the extra bubbly kind with added micro-singularities.

(from The Onion)


Since people have been asking, rest assured that despite the images of Taiwan while Typhoon Morakot passed over it, I remain entirely unaffected by it. I wasn't even aware of some of the news since we don't have a TV. Not a mudslide or a collapsing hotel in sight from where I live. I'm nearly bang in the middle of a skyscraper-dominated city - Taipei - and although I'm not so far from a river, there's a dirty great motorway between me and it, and the elevator is built on a bank of ground about twenty feet high. The stuff about mudslides and the rest is the kind of thing that, as far as I know, only affected isolated villages in mountainous areas hundreds of miles from where I am which happen to be uniquely vulnerable.

That said, things do shut down here whenever a typhoon is on its way. A couple of public services shut down and quite a few businesses, so it's a bit like a Bank Holiday back home. It rains and it gets very, very, very, very windy. This typhoon in terms of my own personal experience was much like any other I've experienced since I got here in that it was, er, weirdly fun the few times we ventured out.. Not fun for people getting washed away by mud, certainly, but that's not something I have to worry about where I am. The only thing that's freaked me out since I got here are the earthquakes, and I'm kind of used to them now.



I got reading some of Holly Lisle's terrifyingly extensive online notes on writing and came away with something that seemed like a good idea; regardless of what you're working on, if you've got a dream project you want to work on for which there's no prospect of a contract, give yourself one day a week to work on it. I'm running on memory here because I've lost the original link, but as I recall Holly mentioned being initially concerned by the idea of doing this for the same reason it worried me, in that you can end up distracted from what you should really be doing, ie working on stuff you're reasonably sure you might get paid for. But apparently it made her more productive on her other output as well, so I'm going to give it a try. There's a couple of ideas I have I'd like to put together, and now that I'm sitting down and writing them up for the first time (Friday being my chosen day), it's feeling good.

I mentioned a while back I was going to redesign the website. That's done, but first I have to figure out how to set up some file formats for downloadable stuff. I've taken excerpts from all the books and tried setting them up in different ebook formats, but this has proven more difficult than I hoped it might be. I'm doing the same for two short stories, The Ranch, which has been up for a while, and another story related to my first novel first published in Interzone way back when. They're fine in .rtf and Sony Reader format, but anything else like .epub just seems to be jinxed. But once I've sorted them out - or rather, when I've had the time to sort them out - they'll go live along with the rest of the redesign.


And the winner is ...

It's late at night here in Taipei, and having got back after several hours away from the house to find no more new votes have been cast since I left, I decided it was time to wrap up the poll since the result is, shall we say, startingly clear in its lack of ambiguity: out of a total of 103 votes, only 21 were for the one featuring blue ocean waves. Which makes the above the official cover for the third Dakota Merrick book, Empire of Light.

I got an email from my editor saying I should be getting a high-resolution image through from Tor at some point soon, and I'll put it up here when it arrives. Every email or tweet they received through their own linked page with the two covers were unanimously - unanimously - in favour of Cover 2. Thanks to everyone who took part. It'll be live in the bookshops some time next year.

Someone did ask in a comment who the artist was. I'm assuming it's probably the same person who did Stealing Light and Nova War, a chap by the name of Lee Gibbons. A bit of googling didn't turn up anything more informative than this page here, but I hadn't realised Lee had also done the covers for some of Ken MacLeod's books. If it's not Lee, I'll let you know.


Vote for the cover of one of my books (finished!)

Update: although there appears to be a clear winner already (as would be obvious to anyone who's already voted) I'll keep the poll up until late Friday (late Friday where I am, at any rate). The poll's been mentioned in a couple of places - thanks Mark, Liviu - so it makes sense to leave it running until anyone clicking through from those links has a chance to voice their opinion.

I'm in the highly unusual and very lucky position of being signed up to a publishing company who like to know what I think of whatever cover design they're thinking of putting on my books.

No, really, I'm not kidding. So I'll repeat. I'm signed to a publishers who really do like to know what their writers think of their cover designs. In the world of publishing, it would be a matter of some understatement to say this is unusual.

Anyway, I just recently delivered the third Dakota Merrick book, Empire of Light. Not long after, some rough designs came through from Tor, all variations on the same theme. There were some emails back and forth about which one was nicer. I'd tell you what my own preference is, but that would spoil the experiment I'm hoping you'll all take part in: I'd like you to tell me which one you like by voting in the poll below.

My editor, Julie Crisp, came up with the suggestion of putting both prospective covers up on the Tor site after I canvassed the opinion of my writer's circle back home, and of those who responded, their preferences were more or less evenly split. Now, like I say, I have my preference, but I don't want to influence you by telling you which one it is. But I and Tor UK would like you to take a moment to tell us which one would catch your eye and make you want to pick it up - should you see it in a bookshop.

There are two ways you can do this:

1 - Go here, to the dedicated Tor UK page also featuring the covers, and either email your opinion to the address provided or twitter Julie directly.


2 - Vote in the poll above.

I wasn't originally going to set up a poll, but it occurred to me a good few potential voters might want something with fewer clicks involved than twittering or emailing. It would also be nice to see how the numbers come out. There's nothing, of course, to stop you voting here and then going to the linked page and letting Tor know which you prefer, and why. But if you do email or twitter Julie, try to be clear in your preference. Don't say, I like this one for this reason, but that one for another reason - make a clear choice which one you think should get to be on the cover.

A few words about the covers: as should be immediately obvious, they are very much variations on the same theme. One shows a spacecraft clearly driving towards an ocean surface from beneath. Fish are visible swimming by. The other, more orangey-yellow one, instead of fish and waves, has a huge wrecked starship far above in orbit. But what's important is - and this is worth reiterating -

Which one is most likely to make you want to pick it up in a bookshop?

And yes, gut reactions are important.


Pirate Dilemma

I spend a lot of time browsing websites to do with ebooks and publishing, and one subject that turns up with increasing frequency is piracy. I'm very anti-DRM, because a)the only people it inconveniences are people who actually pay for their digital products, and b)it doesn't work. But that's not to say that piracy doesn't exist. In fact, I've never really quite made up my mind about exactly how much of a problem it is or isn't. My personal inclination is to believe that if you price something right and make it easily available, people will hand over their money, but it's one thing to have an inclination and another to have access to cold, hard facts. And those tend to be hard to come by, since any quoted figures tend to have a lot to do with the personal politics or circumstances of the individual speaking about them.

Still, it's hard to ignore situations like the one Cory Doctorow finds himself in - quoted sales of at least a hundred thousand on Little Brother, despite the book being available as a free download. Yes, he's very high-profile thanks to boingboing.net, but nonetheless that high profile itself would, if the pro-DRM parties were correct, lead to less sales, not more (as I write this, I recall Monty Python's strategy of putting high-quality clips of their most famous sketches up on Youtube for free a few years back, resulting in an increase in DVD sales of something like two thousand percent.)

So it was with interest that I read an interview with Steven Soderbergh in The Guardian in which he claimed that the failure of his two-film biopic of Che Guevara was almost entirely down to piracy. Once I read this, I googled around until I found various Hollywood-related forums which pointed out that movies like Transformers 2, while being obvious and clear targets for piracy, were nonetheless extremely high-grossing. It was further suggested that the reason Che hadn't done so well (making back only half of what it cost) was because it was filmed entirely in Spanish ... and, possibly, just wasn't that great.

Which brings me to the suspicion that this will become the new excuse for high-profile films tanking; it's the pirate's fault. Not the lousy script, dodgy effects or bad timing ... the pirates. Your album doesn't suck, it was killed by pirates. Even three-year olds thought your film was vacuous and pointless? Can't be true, so it must be the pirates.

And this is all part of the problem; getting a clear grasp on what's actually going on without the politics getting in the way. So far, from what I can see, the evidence leans very strongly in favour of piracy not being an issue - people who download for free from bittorrent sites are usually the people who spend the most money on entertainment, or they're people who would never have bought the product in the first place. Whether or not you think it's a good or bad thing, it's also an unavoidable fact of life.


Books, The Guardian And More Damned Chickens

Spent not nearly enough time today thinking up ideas for a new book proposal for Tor, which has the working title - and it really is a working title - The Array. I've got the backstory, and now I'm trying to develop the characters. It's always a bit of a frustrating process, but in the next few days or weeks I'll come up with something; the waiting around until the ideas arrive is the only bit I don't like. I very much suspect this one is going to be a one-off, rather than another trilogy or series - though to be honest, if I can come up with something good enough, I'd be thrilled to write another multi-part story. There's also a notion for something else coming together in my mind that might work in the Stealing Light universe, though it would be unrelated to the events in the three I've written so far.

I was pleasantly surprised when an email arrived from Pan Macmillan with a link to this article in The Guardian, wherein I'm described by Stuart Jeffries as being amongst the 'heroes' of what he calls a new golden age of British science fiction. I'm thoroughly tickled, as I'm sure are Mike Cobley, Liz Williams, Ken McLeod and the several other writers mentioned in the piece.

At first I thought this was the reason for a sudden big jump in hits on this blog, but instead it turned out to be those damn evil chickens I blogged about a few weeks ago. The increasingly sf and fantasy-friendly Guardian has started a new blog covering past winners of the British Fantasy Awards, beginning with Moorcock's 'Corum' novels (although I'm a big fan of Moorcock where the Jerry Cornelius books are concerned, I'll admit I never read any of his sword-and-sorcery novels; there's nothing wrong with them, they're just really not my kind of thing). Reference and a link is provided referring to Terry Goodkind's 'evil chickens' passage , but it wasn't until I did a bit of online research that I realised the article was in fact linking to me. Props really should go to the chap who mentioned the chickens in the first place, in the comments of one of The Guardian's other articles.

What else? I'm redesigning the blog. Probably. Well, I've already done it - minus some tweaks - but it won't go live for a few days or weeks yet, or at least not until I've tried it out on one or two people first. I'll also have to set up an excerpt from Nova War sometime soon.

Rough artwork for Empire of Light came through the other day - two pieces, both of which look absolutely brilliant, but one of which not only looks great but stands out to me as something that should be on the cover. Hopefully Pan M. will agree with me. It really does look quite amazing. As soon as something's finished or approved or whatever, you'll be seeing it (or whatever Pan decide on) here, probably sometime in the next couple of weeks.


The Idiotrix

I came across this article on a website called Coilhouse I'd never heard of until I stumbled across mention of it at warrenellis.com, where it's noted ten years have passed since The Matrix came out. The Matrix is popularly held to have been a pop-culture phenomenon, a cinematic earthquake that shook things up and brought forth a style, freshness and philosophical adventurousness that has rarely been achieved since. According to the article and several million movie-goers, that is.

My arse. I hated that movie when it came out. Hated, hated, hated it. Why? Two main reasons. 1: the wow-look-at-that-how-did-they-do-that bullet-time effects had already been in use since the very early Nineties, most particularly in a series of near-inescapable Smirnoff adverts. I'd seen it all before, but apparently everyone else had a case of collective amnesia and forgot they'd seen the same damn thing about a million times already, sandwiched between Channel Four News and the start of Countdown. 2: The idiot plot. The idiot, idiot plot, and most especially the 'we're all human batteries' revelation.

No, don't roll your eyes. Tell me, why is it okay to forgive stupid writing in a science fiction movie that you would find entirely unacceptable in a book? By 'stupid' writing I don't mean 'misunderstood some basic facts and unintentionally misrepresented them', I mean 'wilfully ignored reality because the people making the movie were more concerned with giving their coke dealer a writing credit than not treating their audience like idiots'. That kind of stupid writing.

I think what really pissed me off was that the movie was sold beforehand as some kind of avalanche of conceptual wonder. We all heard stories about the actors being required to read Kevin Kelly and freaking Derrida before shooting. And what did we get? A dumb-faced stoner in a 'chosen one' plot that reads like it was written for five-year olds.

On the other hand, I've grown a little softer on the film since nearly walking out on it when I first saw it in a Glasgow cinema (I've only ever walked out on a film once before, and I still regret not walking out on the Matrix in particular). I think this is primarily because I now recognise The Matrix as really being a kind of Goth version of Point Break.

Point Break, by contrast, is a great film, and also dumber than a sack of rocks. It's great because it makes absolutely no claims to being anything but what it is: a series of stunningly daft action scenes strictly played for laughs. A B-movie, as I like to say, that knows it's a B-movie and just wants to have fun. But the Matrix is a B-movie that thinks it's an A-movie, and there are few things more insulting to the intelligence.

Put it this way. Watching The Matrix is like being invited to a dinner party by the Philosophy Department of a University. You go expecting to have your mind enriched, and instead you find everyone sitting around an XBox in the living-room, mainlining Pepsi Max and making pew-pew noises at the TV. It's a bit of a letdown.

If you instead approach The Matrix as a live-action anime, it becomes more acceptable, quite possibly because my expectations where anime is concerned are very, very low. The only one out of the several such films I've endured so far that I actually enjoyed was Akira, and it was still damn near incomprehensible. As live-action dumb-as-nuts anime? Fine. As a serious movie? Christ, no. There's one scene - one scene - which I now recognise as transcending everything else within that film to the level of potential greatness - and that's the red pill/blue pill scene.

That one scene, my friends, is terrific. It's a perfect exemplar of a key plot point which appears in almost every book and movie, where the Hero steps out of their ordinary world and into a greater, unknown and frequently very perilous universe on their journey to truth. But such a terrible shame about the rest.

Oh Mr Jones, Not You Too

I'd been looking forward to seeing Duncan Jones' sf movie Moon after the bubblegum horror of Star Trek (and one of these days I'm going to write a post about why you should watch a British TV movie called Strike! from the mid-Eighties immediately after watching the ST reboot), given it was being sold as a distinctly more intellectually weighty slice of science fiction, but after reading this post by Nancy Kress, I'm once again disheartened by what does sound like rather an idiot plot. It should be noted that her review is really very spoilerific, but I've decided (as Nancy herself states in her post) that there's just no point in seeing movies with scripts that sound like they were written by idiots (even though the reality is frequently that a good script has been mauled by a succession of uninformed opinions).

I'd always rather hoped that the increasing democratisation of movie-making and sfx technology would lead to a renaissance of bright and sparkling home-made cinema entirely bypassing Hollywood, and, indeed, there have been a few gems. But otherwise? A million and one Star Trek/Babylon 5 fan-film crossovers. In Norwegian. I'll pass.


Who put out the lights?

The blog was down for most of a day - some kind of outage at blogger.com, I think, that affected this and other sites. But normal service is, yet again, resumed.



About a week back, deep into the edits and rewrites, I got to the point where I couldn't take any more and crashed to a halt. Saturday through to Monday I could barely speak or walk, and reacted to any queries, statements, or requests with a glassy-eyed stare. Don't ever let anyone tell you writing isn't hard work.

But I wasn't finished, so once I'd recovered a little I spent the next week doing more editing, mostly running through the now-completed manuscript to check on what I'd missed and, surprise surprise, finding lots of things that had me yelling "how the hell did I miss that?" In a better world I'd stick it in a drawer once it was completed and forget about it for six months before revising it yet again, but unfortunately modern publication schedules don't work that way.

Now I have to think of future projects, a wee hint at which is in that screengrab I posted up here a couple of days ago. There are several ideas for books floating around in my head, but not all of them are suitable for Tor.

It's worth taking just a moment to define exactly what I mean by 'suitable'. In that same better world, an author would be entirely unrestricted in their choice of subject matter - well, actually they're free to do that in this world too, but you run the risk of making your life a bit harder (unless you're a King or a Stephenson or someone like that, because then you're the goose that laid the golden egg, baby, and your editor is a less likely to nitpick about your latest novel idea ... unless the follow-up to your bestselling vampires and werewolves romance series is a collection of meditative haikus on the subject of Minoan pottery - then, maybe, you've got a problem). Some get away with it, some don't. Some are just damn lucky. Dan Simmons and Iain Banks are both annoyingly talented and damn lucky, in that they get to cross genre borders pretty much at will with a permanent get out of genre-jail card.

But for the rest of us, we mostly stick to a fairly specific area of subject matter. That's just fine most of the time, because mostly we really like that subject matter. But it's not just a question of your publisher expecting a detective story, or a science fiction novel, or a romance book. No, your detective stories are all set in Stalinist Russia during the '50's; or, your sf novels all have a strong emphasis on action, intrigue and interstellar travel, with a soupcon of aliens; or your romance novels all feature time travel and lots of Celtic mythology.

The requirements really can be that narrow. Come up with something else, and your publisher will likely balk. One way to get past this to write one kind of book for one publisher, and another kind of book for another publisher - quite possibly in an entirely different country, and sometimes under a pseudonym. I have a *lot* of ideas for books I'd like to write, and only some of them are full-on space opera (although nearly all are very definitely science fiction).

I've promised myself that at some point I'll try and write a different kind of book from my usual, althought it's going to have to be arranged not to interfere with the stuff I do for Tor. It would be 'on spec', written without a pre-existing contract. And only when I have the time.

To that end, I've been thinking about planning out a short novel and then writing a first draft at speed when I have a spare month at some indeterminate point in the future. When I say 'short' I mean about sixty thousand words, or half my usual book length. This decision to write something so relatively short was recently bolstered by reading Cory Doctorow's Eastern Standard Tribe, which clocks in at only fifty thousand words (it's very good, too: you can download it for free at craphound.com) and it's lean and mean with not an ounce of fat on it. If the book was an animal, it'd be a greyhound. But it would be nice to have something I can jump to when I'm not working on other projects.

To my surprise, I've even been working on some short story ideas. I used to find short fiction very hard to write - still do, if I'm honest - but not quite so hard as it might once have been. I think, more than anything, it's just nice to be writing something that doesn't feature either Dakota or Trader.

Other news: I mentioned a few weeks back that Stealing Light is doing very well in Germany (where it's known as Lichtkreig). To that end Heyne, my German publisher, have also bought the rights to Nova War, so you can expect to see that in translation before too long.


Normal Service Will Shortly Be Resumed

... just as soon as my brain has recovered from finishing what shall henceforth be known as Empire of Light and emailing it to my editor all of five minutes ago.


Evil Chickens

Dakota Merrick Book Three is almost done. I'm still knee-deep in words and racing to get everything finished by the deadline, but I found myself reading an article by Sam Jordison on The Guardian Online this morning that included the following quote from Soul of the Fire by Terry Goodkind (in one of the comments) that I feel, naturally, compelled to share.

"Hissing, hackles lifting, the chicken's head rose. Kahlan pulled back. Its claws digging into stiff dead flesh, the chicken slowly turned to face her. It cocked its head, making its comb flop, its wattles sway.
"Shoo," Kahlan heard herself whisper. There wasn't enough light, and besides, the side of its beak was covered with gore, so she couldn't tell if it had the dark spot, But she didn't need to see it.
"Dear spirits, help me," she prayed under her breath.
The bird let out a slow chicken cackle. It sounded like a chicken, but in her heart she knew it wasn't. In that instant, she completely understood the concept of a chicken that was not a chicken. This looked like a chicken, like most of the Mud People's chickens. But this was no chicken. This was evil manifest."

Now, it must be said that there are times when I fret over the quality of my words much as any writer does, when I feel the nagging fear that every word I'm writing is drivel. Well, I'll tell you what, anytime I feel like that in the future, I'll just read the above. Print it out, stick it above your computer, and every time you feel like your writing's going nowhere and you'll never be published, take a look at it and repeat the mantra: No matter what, I will never write about evil chickens.


Hard Slog

And it is. A hard slog, that is. I'm nose-deep in the third Dakota book, and will be by the time I get it into Tor - hopefully - by the deadline at the end of the month. I've still got another eighty thousand words needing serious editing and tidying before then, so as you can imagine I may be a wee bit scarce around here until then.


Star Trek

Everybody loves the new Star Trek but me. Well, me and George RR Martin. And possibly several other people, except I can't remember who they are just now. Like the embarrassing relative at a wedding party who keeps following you around and bugging you, I'm here to tell you just how shit I think the new movie really is.

For a start, it's basically Dubya: The Trek Years. Seriously. Wayward kid with daddy issues who aspires to his daddy's job, but instead of applying himself spends his time getting drunk, hanging out in bars and getting beat up until a father-figure stand-in turns up to give him a stiff telling-to. Next thing you know there's a major terrorist event, he grabs the reigns of power and leads a space-posse to find the bad guys and drop them down a very deep hole.

Let me be clear. I have a soft spot for JJ Abrams, mainly because he gave me Lost and Fringe. Neither is flawless, but in the greater scheme of things, they've given me something to mildly obsess over. But Abrams' Star Trek isn't a movie. It's a Republican Party broadcast.

For what it's worth, the actors generally do a decent enough job with the material they're given. Chris Pine did pretty much the best he could under the circumstances, and the same could be said for the rest. Quinto was always pretty much a shoe-in to play Spock. If you watch the movie in complete neutral, brain off and floating on a sea of caffeinated sugar drink and sweetened popcorn, critical faculties firmly booted out of the room to sulk, you kind of enjoy it. It's CGI as pornography, money shot after gratuitous money shot: big spiky spaceships, shit blowing up, skydiving from space; such things are there not to support the story so much as to replace it. Every five minutes, when you start to think 'just hang on a minute, that doesn't make sense', something goes BOOM and you're staring at the pretty, pretty lights. It's Kurt Vonnegut's 'Harrison Bergeron' as deliberate corporate entertainment strategy.

Now the negatives, and spoilers abound, naturally.

Look, I'm not asking for rigid adherence to the boundaries of Einsteinian physics here, but ... come on. A singularity that eats planets, but handily sucks Romulan mining ships into the past? Bollocks. Are you going to build a mining ship with flimsy awkward platforms hanging over enormous drops? No, I don't fucking think so.

And while we're at it ... Kirk gets dumped on a random planet, chased by a monster, then just happens to wander into the cave where Future Spock's been sitting around on his arse? There just happens to be a Federation base nearby, which just happens to have Scotty in it? And, guess what; Spock just happens to know the means by which the transwarp drive operates, which Scotty handily knows how to program in order to beam our heroes back onto the Enterprise.

Get. To. Fuck.

The same stupefying lack of sanity applies to the Romulans: apparently they decided to just hang about for all this time without traveling back to Romulus in their great big fuck-off so-advanced-it-must-be-from-the-future starship and warn somebody? Tell me, if the Earth was destroyed and you went back in time to before the destruction, what would you do? Float around in space looking moody OR DO SOMETHING? (and don't give me that 'emotionally compromised' line from the film. By that point, I was actually muttering 'oh, come on' out loud in the cinema.)

And that's before we even get to the Red Matter. As at least one internet commenter has pointed out - I think it was Mike Brotherton - apparently this miracle substance, once transformed into a singularity, doesn't work unless you drill a big hole in a planet first. People, if a singularity hit Earth right now, the lack of a big hole conveniently drilled into the ground for it to fall into really isn't going to make one bit of difference.

The destruction of Romulus actually had me swearing at the screen. Apparently there's a supernova endangering the whole galaxy - well, okay; I used the idea of a gamma-ray burster as the central threat in my first novel, Angel Stations. They're threatening because of the amount of radiation they put out. The levels of energy involved are beyond stupendous. But in the movie, we see a planet going all kerflooie when a big wave of dust hits it.

Er, no. Once, twice, thrice, no.

I'm a writer, not a scientist (dammit). But I do at least try to enough research that I can have at least some kind of tenuous grasp on what the hell I'm talking about, even when I wind up breaking the laws of physics with glee. Making shit up is part and parcel of a writer's job. Matter transporters? Sure, why not. It's called suspension of disbelief. But that suspension of disbelief - essential when dealing with this kind of subject matter - goes out the window in the first five minutes when you discover that kids in the twenty-third century like stealing open-top roadsters and listening to the Beastie Boys. Really?

The problem here is essentially that of an idiot plot designed to fit around a series of 'cool' set-pieces designed by people who, if you actually asked them what a star is would, I assure you, have to think about it. A surprising number of people - otherwise entirely intelligent people who tie their own shoelaces and do their own taxes - don't actually know what those twinkly lights in the sky even are. And if you tell them, they'll have a vague sense that they're sort of ... floating around out there, like random billiard balls bouncing around an infinitely large pool table. It isn't because they're stupid. It's just that they're merely insufficiently interested to ever, ever bother finding out. And if they did, they wouldn't care. That's how we wound up with TV shows in the Seventies like Space: 1999. Even then, I knew the idea of the Moon just floating around and randomly bumping into alien planets in that same perpetual game of interstellar billiards was complete dribble, but a lot of people - primarily those that created the show - didn't know, and cared less.

The complete lack of sense or logic in almost every scene of Abrams' reboot can be easily explained by a desire to make the images on the screen look good, regardless of whether or not they contain a single iota of rationality. A starship with a series of platforms strung over the top of an enormous drop and no railings to stop people falling off? But it looks so cool. Check out that artist's rendition of the Romulan ship, guys. How about they have a big drill? They're miners, right? Yeah, and then we can have them jump off the spaceship and parachute down to the drill platform. Well, yeah, sure they have transporters that can get them down to where they need to be in seconds (I seem to recall they're certainly used to get them back off the drill platorm), but on the other hand if they skydive down to it it'll look really cool.

As others have said, Chris Pine sure does spend a lot of time hanging off of things by his hands. On a quick mental recount, there's a cliff at the start, then the drill platform, one of those dodgy hanging-over-a-void platforms in the Romulan ship ... did I miss any? There are scenes shot in what is meant to be the Enterprise's engineering section, but is so obviously the interior of a chemical plant that I was immediately jolted out of any sense they were taking place on board a starship.

All right, I admit it. Star Trek movies by and large, aren't hard to shoot down. I've ignored the more well-known idiocies, like Spock being half-human and half-alien. If you really want to understand beyond even the obvious reasons why this is so startlingly idiotic, I recommend a book called 'What Does A Martian Look Like,' by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, a series of carefully informed speculations about what form alien life might actually take, starting with the observed rules of evolution and the more extreme life-forms occupying some fairly radical ecological niches right here on Earth. Their general conclusion is that such life would probably be so remarkably different from anything we understand as 'life', we might not even recognise it. In other words, it probably wouldn't look just the same as us bar a pair of pointy ears and a habit of making sarcastic remarks about Earthmen. But we can forgive that - somewhat - for the sake of those long-ago episodes that made the series as long-lived as it's proven to be.

Now, I grew up with Star Trek - the original Star Trek, anyway. For all its problems, there were times when it made for outstanding television. And then, unfortunately, there were times when you got see Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan duking it out on an alien planet. Or some girl in a silver wig and a desperately unflattering loincloth churning out lines like: 'Captain Kirk, what is this ... love, that you speak of?' I've never been fond at all of the subsequent reboots like Next Generation or Deep Space 9 or any of the rest, since by and large they were so bad they made me cringe. So why am I picking on this movie out of everything else?

Perhaps because of the praise it's been given that I feel is far from deserved; perhaps because I have fond childhood memories of episodes like Space Seed or City on the Edge of Forever. These are the benchmarks by which the movie - all the movies, all the shows - must be judged, and they rarely if ever reached it. If people say this is the best Star Trek movie they've seen since, say, Wrath of Khan, then I must say (with the caveat I didn't see the last couple of films) that it is instead the worst. Chris Pine's Kirk is a wayward kid you wouldn't put in charge of a hot dog stand let alone a starship. Think I'm wrong? Here's a challenge. Go back to the original series of Star Trek, something like Space Seed, which introduced Ricardo Montalban's Khan. Watch it and just try and tell me Shatner's Kirk wouldn't have Chris Pine crying in his milk in a hundred seconds flat.

For all the hamfistedness sometimes evinced in the original series and to a greater extent in those later reboots, the show had one redeeming quality that has been named again and again by commentators and critics over the years: a certain sense of optimism. The show even began with a mission statement of exploration, discovery, and split infinitives. And yet, none of this spirit is evident in this new film. It is, instead, a tale of almost medieval revenge; you kill my planet, I kill your planet, and in turn I kill you.

Gene Rodenberry this is not.

In a way, it's the fault of all of us that such inept, cruddy, irredeemably stupid and downright cynical films are being made, because we all troop off to the cinema to see them, myself included. But there are times when I think, no: I've had enough. Enough of seeing my genre denigrated by people who literally have no idea what they're talking about. Enough of giving my money to charlatans who've reduced movie-making to a kind of visual pornography of set-pieces and special effects. I won't be going to see Wolverine, or Terminator: Yet Again, or whichever episode of Franchise: The Quickening is being churned out to the local cinema this month. Instead I'll be spending my money on the little-known genre movies with big hearts made by directors I've never heard of. Films like Let The Right One In, or perhaps Cold Souls, starring Paul Giamatti, about which I've heard good things. Because in my experience, it's the smaller movies - like Pi, or Primer, or Pan's Labyrinth - that dare to not treat their audience like morons.



Back home, dental offices have front desks with all the nasty needles and drills and stuff tucked away in rooms at the back. In Taiwan, you're practically on display. You walk in, there's a desk ... and the dentist's chair right behind, with some poor woman lying there staring up into the bright light.

Mind you, the service is excellent. Even if you end up feeling a bit on display as upwards of HALF A DOZEN PEOPLE including your other half stand around you once you're in the chair yourself, chatting casually in Chinese, while whirring pointy things are lowered into your gaping mouth.

Note to my teeth, particularly the crown on the left-hand side; in the future, try to fall out a few weeks AFTER my medical insurance comes through, not before.


Making things up

I read this article in The Guardian in which PD James explains why she made up the location of her new book, an imaginary island off the British coast. The article's an interesting enough explication of the creative process of worldbuilding, but I still felt a bit confused; why did she need to 'explain' why she made up an imaginary island? Granted the 'explanation' is related to the fact that up until now everything she's written has been set in some real location, but something still rankled about it; 'explain' making a place up? Isn't making things up a fundamental description of what any writer does?

Maybe I'm being overly sensitive, but the first thing that came to my mind was a TV interview with Iain Banks - it might have been Late Review, and the interviewer might have been Kirsty Wark - and I recall she made reference to a passage in one of his (non-sf) novels where he describes a particular setting - a cliffside, maybe, next to the sea. She seemed genuinely taken aback when Banks explained he'd made it up and there was no such sea-side cliff, pointing out that 'that's what writers do'.

It got me wondering if there some aspect of mainstream literary culture that demands every setting for a story must exist in the real world. Did I miss a memo somewhere when I decided I'd rather just make shit up?



Boredom, I find, can sometimes be a useful creative tool. The more hours stretch out, the more the mind wanders, and if you're a writer, that can actually turn out to be a good thing. It not only allows you to get some distance from the story you're working on, it's during those distracted moments when some of our best ideas can come to us via the subconscious.

I'm in the final stretch of the third, as yet still untitled, Dakota Merrick book (some working titles - Killing Light, Ghosts of the Magi - if you can come up with a seriously good title without knowing what the book's about, I'll send you a copy of everything I've ever published. And I'll also be eternally grateful). I didn't write the end of the book during the first draft, not because I didn't know what happened, but because it needed something 'more'. For the kind of fiction I write, which is strongly plot-driven, I want to surprise the reader, to come up with twists or unexpected ideas that spin the last stage of the story in interesting new directions. What I had for an ending in that first draft was good enough, but that - if you follow me - isn't always good enough. I needed something more.

At times like this I might get inspiration just by randomly typing any idiot idea into Scrivener's notepad until something emerges, and sometimes I've been surprised by the ideas that have come to me this way. Writing out the already-familiar details of the story or scribbling randomly about the relationships of the characters to each other can lead to unexpected connections becoming suddenly apparent. Or new ideas can appear that require me to go back into the text and rejig the story in order to foreshadow it. This can allow the plot to go in unexpected new directions that themselves prove to be springboards for yet more new ideas.

Another approach is to do anything but write, and this is where carefully cultivated boredom comes in, the only drawback being the conviction I'm not actually doing anything productive if I don't have my fingers permanently glued to the keyboard. Today I've deliberately done no writing, having reached a point where I know I want to develop the end of the book to include new themes and events that should eventually pop into my head. I could tinker endlessly with the existing text, but in my own experience that doesn't get me where I need to be. So instead of doing anything at all I'm watching tv, or youtube, and getting that jittery feeling I get when I haven't really done any writing all day.

At some point - today, or the day after, or the day after that - the ideas I need will come, as they've always come.

Other stuff; it hit me recently I've written pretty much nothing about life here in Taiwan. I may need to do something about that, but if so it's going to have to wait until book three is finished - the deadline is July 1st, or slightly less than sixty days. Nova War, the sequel to Stealing Light, is due out at the beginning of September, in hardback. It's currently available on Amazon UK for pre-order.

Someone pointed out in the comments recently that the Angel Stations link at the top of the page doesn't work. Yeah, sorry about that. Authorial laziness, I'm afraid. I really need to do something about it. I also need to take the other online book samples and make them into downloadable formats - epub, Sony, Kindle format etc. Lots of things to be done. I could do them while I'm thinking about the book, but that kind of displacement activity, I frequently find, rarely results in the genuine ideas that result from the kind of mind-numbing tedium I'm after.

I've been informed by a friend in the banking industry (Chris! Pizza!) that he believes the economy will be back on track by this time next year. I tend to pay attention to Chris's opinion on financial matters because he saw the credit crunch coming and gave me some very useful financial advice during the year I was half-paralysed with an injured spine.

If Chris is right, an improving economy would be good news for me, since I'd like to be back in the UK by this time next year and I'll need to get some kind of day job. I won't - unfortunately - be able to live entirely off my writing income the way I can over here (and even that isn't so straightforward anymore since my money is worth a good bit less than it was before the financial crisis).

I have a couple of practical work ideas in mind, but I must admit the idea of teaching creative writing does appeal, although it may not prove to be practical. A random browse through the websites of various local colleges and further education establishments back home shows they all have creative writing courses, but whether or not they pay enough to be at all worthwhile doing is another matter; I know little about how these things work, and I have a dark suspicion any income generated from such efforts wouldn't really amount to much more than pocket money in the greater scheme of things. But it's something at least worth investigating, especially now Edinburgh's Napier College is now running year-long courses in genre writing. Clearly a lot of people want to be writers.