Infinite Worlds

Here's a neat little book I picked up via Abebooks.com by the way of looking for research material. It's called Infinite Worlds, and it's ostensibly about exoplanets, the worlds discovered or at least strongly inferred by marginal wobbles in nearby stars. I think it's remarkable that when I started out reading sf, writers were quite able to make up anything they liked when it came to whatever satellites might be orbiting our nearest neighbours.

Now, however, they'd have to include known planetary masses such as the hot Jupiters discovered around a significant number of stars. For the moment, very few small, rocky worlds have been discovered, so there's still room to make stuff up there.

The new book I'm working on is set on several near-ish star systems, which means I've had to do a bit of research to get some idea of exactly what's orbiting some of them - or what's believed to be orbiting them, based on astronomical inference.

What's particularly nice about Infinite Worlds, however, is that it includes a large number of paintings of what some of these worlds and systems might actually look like by the artist Lynette Cook.

On a related subject, I was recently in contact with Lee Gibbons, the artist who did the cover of Empire of Light, my favourite cover art this far. He happened to mention in passing that the cover design had also been picked to appear in the new edition of Sci Fi Art Now. I hadn't actually heard of the book before, but after browsing through it on Amazon, I think I'll be picking up a copy.


Reviews, films, and festivals

Let me just self-aggrandize for a moment and tell you about two new reviews, the first being in the September issue of SFX (the one with Star Trek on the cover).

It calls Empire of Light 'gripping, imaginative and morally complex', and also describes it as 'page-turning sf with a distinctive identity and brutal, stylish action sequences, all of which adds up to a compulsive read'. Sci Fi Now magazine, meanwhile, has this to say about the new paperback of Nova War (full review here): 'An immediately enthralling and intelligent read, which captures the reader’s attention through graphic description of numerous exotic species and locations alongside early dramatic developments. Nova War is (...) a shining piece of sci-fi writing'.

Which is a nice thing to find in WH Smiths while you're waiting for a train to Edinburgh, where myself and Emma spent the day yesterday checking out the Festival. We wound up seeing a stand-up comedian called Alex Horne performing a show called 'Odds', partly because he was the first name I saw on the Fringe festival website (one of the advantages of having a name that starts with 'A'), and because someone else recommended him entirely separately. Which just seemed like fate, somehow. The last time I went through to the Festival and paid to see a performance was a long time ago - and I mean a long time ago: a play written by Grant Morrison, of all people.

As for Horne - I'd recommend him. His show isn't really stand-up comedy in the fall-over-laughing sense, although it is tremendously entertaining and remarkably thoughtful. I'm also pretty sure no one else could do a Powerpoint presentation and make it funny. But he managed to tie together gambling, quantum mechanics, and golf into a single hour-long show, which I found very impressive. There are some clips of him on Youtube, but they don't really do his act justice, unfortunately (his website looks a bit more promising).

Apart from that, I'd say the highlight of the day was the ex-Cirque du Soleil performer balancing his entire body, sideways, on one hand, on top of a twenty-foot pole held in place by four slightly tipsy locals pulling on ropes, just off Princes Street.

Films: we recently watched a Taiwanese film called 'Au Revoir, Taipei' (there's a lengthy review at that link), which was a huge hit in Taiwan. It's a romantic comedy about a kid who gets dumped by his girlfriend after she's flown off to Paris, then borrows money from the wrong kind of people in order to fly over and get her back. It's not quite as great as some of the reviews have made out - some of it, I think, is lost in translation - but that's not the only reason to see it. It's practically an hour-and-a-half long advert for Taipei itself, which is no bad thing. We both recognized a lot of locations used in the movie, including quite a few set in the Shida district, where we lived for two years. It's worth seeing.

I am slowly getting in gear for The Thousand Emperors, working on the outline and brainstorming the plot and characters. It's a tenuous sequel to Final Days, which I just handed in to my publisher a few weeks ago. By 'tenuous', I mean you won't have to read Final Days to know what's going on. And after I've finished that, it's on to another Shoal Universe book, which I'm now calling A River Across The Sky.


The future of sf publishing (not)

I had a read at this article online that explores ways in which an untapped audience of potential sf readers might be persuaded to pick up a new publication with high-production values, modern design and bleeding-edge genre fiction; these would be the kinds of reader who don't identify themselves particularly as 'fans' of sf books, but might be the kind of people who attend, say, Comic Con or go to lots of sf movies or watch Stargate, read Batman comics, etc etc.

There are a considerable number of responses in the comments, enough so that I was forced to skim many of them (I have an outline to write). But a fair number of those I did read tended towards the negative, and a few went so far as to break down the actual costs of publication: paying the writers, the editor, the printing, the time necessary to break even, the percentage of cover price that goes to the distributors, etc, etc. The comments are all worth reading.

Here's my take on this:

1. It's been done. It was called Omni. It was a newsstand magazine first published in the late '70's with stunningly high production values. I loved it, although I stopped buying it in '87 when the quality started slipping. Before that it published some of the most cutting-edge fiction around, including William Gibson's first stories. So, yes, it can be done. But only if you have an sf-loving Bob Guccione sitting on top of a gigantic pile of ready cash made from a long and profitable career in porn.

2. It'll never work nowadays. Key words to this argument: 'Kindle'. 'Ipad'. 'Tor.com' and other online magazines that now publish some very high-quality and award-winning fiction. You don't need to be on a newsstand. Nobody does.

3: Personal anecdote here. Assuming I've read the argument right, there's an enormous untapped audience of people who are sf fans but don't know it yet. They play sf-flavoured computer games, watch sf movies, etc, but don't necessarily read sf.

Well, I have some - admittedly small - experience in small-press publishing. Way back - we're talking early '90's here - I was involved in a small-press publication filled with fiction and articles centered mostly but not entirely around sf. It was, looking back, a fairly decent little magazine. I got to meet some interesting people and interview writers like Kim Stanley Robinson when he'd just started out on the Mars books. Michael Moorcock rated the magazine, apparently, which still gives me a warm and rosy glow of satisfaction. It was a tiny, tiny publication, but a lot of thought was put into it by those involved in its production, not least myself.

I too made the mistake of thinking that 'large, untapped' audience was just desperate for really high quality fiction and articles. When the '95 Glasgow Worldcon was about a year away, the magazine had pretty much finished its run, but I explored the possibility we could put out another, larger glossy-covered publication, possibly a freebie with advertising in it to pay the cost of printing, especially for the Con. The contents I had in mind - both articles and fiction - were influenced to some extent what I was reading in magazines like Boing Boing (yes, it used to be a print publication and I still have copies), the very early Wired and even Mondo 2000, as well as the aforementioned Omni.

I went along to a pre-con meeting of some sort, wanting to talk to organisers there with networking in mind. There were maybe fifty or sixty people there. I spoke to someone I'd been told I should maybe talk to. He nodded seriously as I described what I had in mind, and he told me he knew some people I should talk to.

He introduced me to a gaggle of three or four frankly fucking huge women who also, I was told, had a publication. They showed it to me. It was a bunch of A4 pages stapled together at one corner. The cover showed a bunch of crudely dawn elves wearing Star Trek uniforms on snowmobiles circling a Christmas Tree. I learned their publication had 5,000 subscribers.

My publication had rather less than fifty.

That's the exact point I chucked in small-press publishing, because I realised I was essentially trapped on a tiny island with people who wanted to read interviews with Kim Stanley Robinson and read fiction which was, to my mind, genuinely interesting and thought-provoking (and if you read Interzone over the past ten or fifteen years, believe me, you'd recognise a lot of the names we published). That island, however,  was surrounded by a vast ocean of people posting each other stapled fanzines of elves in Star Trek uniforms. More power to them, I say, if that's what you want. But I didn't, not by a long shot, and I sensed the project I had in mind was not going to find favour with anyone I spoke to in that room. I had a sense I was not being taken seriously. The upside to the story, if any, is that all that experience of producing and editing and designing stuff led to me professionally editing and/or designing a few publications for a tiny Glasgow publisher whose one claim to fame is that one of their telephone salesmen went on to be a well-known Freddie Mercury impersonator. 

Which is my very long-winded way of saying, yes, you can create that publication and aim at that large, untapped audience of would-be fans going to comic cons or watching TV or going to see the new Star Trek movie. But only if it has lots of elves in ST uniforms. Then it'll be a surefire hit.

Did I mention the elves had little red caps on with white bobbles? I shit you not.



Got this through from Mark Harding, who in a sudden fit of insanity felt motivated to send me a copy of Music from Another World, an anthology of new fiction based around, yes, music, edited by his good self. It's identified on the cover as 'strange fiction', but what we're really talking about here, of course, is primarily science fiction and fantasy of one flavour or another. Mark is a member of the Glasgow SF Writer's Circle. There's a good few names I recognize in there, including Aliette de Bodard, Neil Williamson and Jim Steel. Thanks Mark!

You can buy Music from Another World directly from the publisher here.

What the project reminds me of, actually,  is another, similarly-themed project from the '90's called In Dreams, easily one of my favourite anthologies from that entire decade - or even one of my favourites, full stop. You can pick it up for literally pennies off Amazon these days (there's some info about it here). It was edited by Paul McAuley and Kim Newman. If you can track a copy down, you should. 


Cult of less (vinyl)

I find myself fascinated by one of the recent memes doing the rounds, apparently sparked by a BBC article on the 'cult of less', the idea that you can vastly minimise the amount of stuff you have by selling off, say, your tv, cd's and books and replacing them all with digital media. Those who take it farthest don't apparently need furniture either. Those who take it really far don't need a roof over their head.

Although I wouldn't go that far, I'm sort of fascinated. I've written before about the appeal of reducing the vast load of Stuff I own, although sentimentality and a certain possessiveness prevents me from ever selling the vast majority of my books (I think 'prised only from my cold, dead hands' is apposite here). Even so, it's entirely possible myself and Emma might choose to go back over to Taipei at some point for a good long while. Maybe. We haven't really decided yet. If that does happen, all those books go into a couple of big boxes and stored somewhere, which is kind of a pain in the ass. It's not that easy to be sentimentally attached to something stored in a box in a dark corner somewhere several thousand miles away.

Which brings me to something I might have mentioned before (or maybe haven't), that being the decision to finally sell my old collection of vinyl records, most probably in a single chunk to a local record dealer. I've no idea how much I might get for them - we're talking 500 records at an absolute minimum, possibly closer to 600-650 (all lp's, apart from a couple of twelve-inch singles). Knowing my luck, it would be a laughable pittance.

On the other hand, I no longer value them nearly as much as I do my books. I've converted the vast majority to MP3 format, so it's not like I'm losing the music. Plus, when I thought about it I realised I hadn't actually played any of the physical, vinyl items for getting on, ooh, let's see...fifteen years. In fact apart from the 'dronezone' channel on Soma FM, I've pretty much stopped listening to anything at all. If I'm not writing, I'm browsing the net, or reading, or watching a DVD. Or socialising. And if I really want to check out a piece of music, I can just head to grooveshark.com.

Nonetheless, I've had those records for a long time. There are Hawkwind gatefold sleeves. More than a dozen Black Sabbath albums. The first Jane's Addiction album with the cover that caused record shops to force the band's label to hide it inside a ribbed rubber sleeve. ZZ Top. A crapload of stuff, frankly, all sitting unloved in the cupboard next to my front door. Better, I think, they all wound up with someone who might actually play them from time to time (and remember, I have them all in MP3).

I still have to sort them out into two piles - those I want to sell (95%), and those I won't just yet, at least not until I've resolved the sneaking suspicion they might actually be worth something resembling real money (I'm talking the first Budgie album here).

I may post pictures of the exhumation.


Well, I'm glad that's over

Writing Final Days, that is. Or when I say it's over, what I mean is: I've finished it to the point where I'm thoroughly sick of it. So it's been emailed off to my agent and editor and at some point, assuming they're happy with what I've produced, I'll get it back, with editorial suggestions scrawled all over it, and I'll have to read the damn thing again. And then there'll be a typesetter's comments (not counting any 'first readers'), and then I'll have to read the damn thing again. Carefully. And then, if all is well, I'll get a copy of the page proofs to read, and, yes, I'll have to read the damn thing. Again. Very carefully. Searching for those niggling little errors.

And I'll still get email pointing out that somebody drives up in a balloon-wheeled truck on page XXX and departs on the following page in the same vehicle, which has miraculously swapped balloon wheels for tractor treads. There will always be mistakes (and please note, if you spot them, I am grateful to hear of them. If nothing else, it keeps me on my toes).