Late addition to the recommendations

As soon as I finished writing the book recommendations in that last post, I started reading a book I'd been meaning to get around to for a while, Ernest Cline's Ready Player One. As it turns out, the book is one of the best works of science fiction I've read in really quite a while, and stands a chance of making some 'best of the decade' lists as well. It has duly been added to the list in the previous post. 


Book recommendations

I don't often do an end-of-year recommendation-type thing, but what the hell. Here's a few things I read this year I think are seriously worth your time, regardless of whether or not they were actually published this year.

First up is 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill. I don't normally go for collections of short stories, but I'd previously read Joe's first novel and enjoyed it, and besides, it was cheap on the Kindle. As is usually the case with collections these days, it took me a good long while to finish it, but it was worth the journey. Hill is clearly one of the best horror/weird fiction writers around, and employs a particularly lucid and clear form of writing that isn't overstated. The last - and possibly longest - story, Voluntary Committal, is probably the best, and reminded me of some of the stuff Jonathan Carroll writes. Plus, it genuinely creeped me out, and very few other writers have managed that (an honourable shout-out to a story in Carroll's collection The Panic Hand I can't remember the name of, and Jingling Geordie's Hole by Ian Watson, which I read in Interzone way back in the Eighties).

I finally, finally got around to rereading Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver before moving on to the two massive, massive sequels, very nearly three thousand pages of tightly-written, twisty and (I believe) historically accurate fiction set around the Enlightenment and a work with an essentially science fictional heart. I won 't - can't - even begin to summarise the plot or what made it to me such essential, if demanding, reading, because that would take a ten thousand word essay all on its own. Sometime next year, I'm going to re-read Cryptonomicon which, although it was written first, is set chronologically after that three-book sequence. Now, I'm a huge Stephenson fan, and I loved his recent Reamde, but it wasn't quite in the same arena of awesomeness that his previous books, including Anathem, achieved. You can consider Reamde recommended, definitely, but if you haven't read him before, get something else by him first.

My hatred for poetry extends all the way back to school, when I had the stuff shoved down my unwilling throat by countless English teachers. Science fiction, fortunately, saved me from giving up reading entirely. There's even something about the word 'poetry' that makes me wince. Perhaps, then, the reason I like Charles Bukowski's stuff so much is that his poems read more like short stories rendered in very, very short lines. So when I came across his collection Love Is A Dog From Hell (and how can you resist a title like that, really?), I couldn't help but grab it. And it's definitely worth it. Download the sample from Amazon and see if I'm wrong.

George Friedman is the head of something called Stratfor, which employs geopolitics to make near-future estimates - like, one to two years ahead - of likely political and even technological developments for big businesses assessing investment or development opportunities. In other words, he's a futurist, and his book The Next 100 Years, while technically non-fiction, comes very close to science fiction in its latter chapters as he speculates on how the world might look a hundred years from now, and how it might get there. I've read reviews that suggest Friedman is too US-oriented, and that may be the case, but he makes what seem to be cogent arguments about who'll be calling the shots internationally a century from now. Whether or not you agree with him, it makes for compelling  and often surprising reading.

Max Brooks' World War Z is far, far more entertaining than it has any right to be, and I caught sight of some of the filming taking place this summer in George Square here in Glasgow. Normally I steer the hell clear of anything with 'zombies' in it, but this is a superb piece of work, with the emphasis much more on the social aftermath of an outbreak. Really, the zombies are just a shorthand for any kind of infection that can spread rapidly, and kill in droves. Whatever you might think this book is like, you'd be wrong.

Troy Parfitt's Why China Will Never Rule the World makes almost for a companion piece to the Friedman book in its analysis of why China's geography, politics, history and, most especially, the Confucian philosophy that still underpins much of the country's culture mean it may never become the major world power some have claimed it could. Parfitt is amongst those writers who believe China as a political entity is unlikely to survive the changes of the next few decades, and he draws both on rigorous research and the dozen or so years he lived in the Far East (slight disclaimer: I know the author, but I'd still recommend this regardless).

If you're a writer, I found Andrea Sokoloff's Screenwriting Tricks for Authors full of excellent suggestions and some surprising insights into the movie industry as well, from a former screenwriter turned bestselling novelist (and you'll learn why you should never see a movie with three or more writers listed in the credits).

A late addition, a book I only just finished, but stands out as one of the best sf novels of the past several years: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. I know phrases like 'astonishing tour de force' are terribly cliched when applied in book reviews, but I honestly can't think of better words. It's astonishing, and a tour de force. There are quite a lot of reviews and articles out there about the book - which received a serious Hollywood offer, I believe, even before it was published - so if you don't believe me, google it and see. All I can say is, the book deserves all the plaudits it's been receiving. Go buy it. 


More on Fergus Bannon's Judgement

A while back, I wrote about Judgement, by Fergus Bannon, a long-time member of the writer's circle and an old friend of mine. You might be interested to know I've taken advantage of Amazon US's new promotional trick of allowing for ebooks to be made free for a certain number of days over a particular period.

Well, I took advantage of it myself an hour ago in my capacity as the book's publisher, and in that short period of time Fergus's book shot to the No1 slot on Amazon US's Free SF ebooks chart and to Number 62 in the overall free Kindle books. So if you fancy trying it, now is the time, before the deal runs out. The link is http://amzn.to/vuMAkghttp://amzn.to/vuMAkg

Go Fergus!

(I should add that the book is still 86 pence on Amazon UK, a mere snip, may I say. However, it may be that given the time differential between here and the States, the freebie offer may kick in here in Britain from midnight. I will be watching with interest to see if that's the case). 


Working on a timeline

What you see above is a low-res screenshot of a single page from the timeline software I use to map out the events in a story, the modern version of pinning cards with bits of writing on them all over the wall above your desk. The screenshot is an excerpt from the planning I've been doing for the next Shoal Sequence book, River of Light. If you look at the bottom, you'll see a long cluster of little colour-coded squares - each one of those is an element of the plot, mapped out in chronological sequence. Each line of squares down there represents a separate major character. Essentially, that little bar at the bottom allows you to see the whole thing at one go, while a small part of it is reproduced in rather larger size in the main window. The text, as you can see, is fairly crammed; it's an attempt at reducing the essence of the events of the book, and the order in which they happen, to as few words and virtual cards as possible. A map, basically, to the book before I start writing it. 

The thing I really like about software like this is that it helps you sort out potential chronological disasters before you start the actual writing. If Tim has to get to the airport at ten in the car, but the assassin you want to kill him before he gets on the plane couldn't possibly have left Moscow yet, you know you've screwed the order of events up somewhere. This kind of software helps sort that kind of problem out, And I really can't be fussed with sticking holes all over the walls of my kitchen, where I work. But with any luck I've finally managed to work out every little detail of the story (the above is separate from a several thousand words long synopsis I already had, and which the above timeline is based on).  And if you're a budding writer wanting a go at something like this for that first novel or your NaNoWriMo project, a Google search should turn up a few free alternatives - I paid for my timeline software because I was used to using a freebie version of it I already had, except that it crashed all the time. 


An Excerpt from The Thousand Emperors

As mentioned before, I've got an indirect sequel to Final Days coming out in the later summer of 2012, set a few centuries after the events in that first book. People have asked me if it's going to be a trilogy or a series, so it's worth mentioning here that it's just these two books I have in mind, so far. I could technically write more books set in the same universe,  but I'd prefer not to, since any stories I might come up with, I feel, would not necessarily be as compelling; I'd rather write two good books and leave it at that, than produce a trilogy in which the final work was something of an afterthought. On the other hand, there is going to be a fourth Shoal Sequence book, River of Light, which I've just started, but only because I came up with what I considered to be a compelling story for it.

Anyway, on to the main course. Here's a short chapter, lifted from the forthcoming The Thousand Emperors, as a taster:

Chapter 3, The Thousand Emperors.

His name was Jacob Moreland, and he was a spy.

His mission had begun seventy-four years before, when he had been placed into a one-man craft launched from a Sandoz platform in orbit around Novaya Zvezda. Along with an armada of identical craft, each carrying a lone passenger, the ship carrying Jacob had accelerated rapidly out of the system, reaching eighty per cent of light-speed within half a year. The star around which Novaya Zvezda itself orbited soon became just one more exquisitely jewel-like point of light amongst countless others.

Jacob slept unawares, his body buffered by impact-gels and cooled by onboard cryogenics.

For a very long time, Jacob Moreland was, by any objective measure, dead. The instantiation lattice within his skull had encoded much of the fleeting data that made up his conscious mind, while more specialised structures did their best to repair the unavoidable damage done to his delicate human tissues by prolonged deep-space flight.

Attrition soon took its toll, as some of the craft accompanying Jacob on his long journey were destroyed by micrometeorite impacts. It had proven necessary to provide each ship with relatively low-grade shielding, since this increased their chances of evading detection by the Coalition’s deep-space monitors. That a certain number of craft were likely to be lost had been taken into account during the mission’s planning stages. It was an unfortunate, but ultimately necessary, sacrifice.

A few other of the ships suffered fatal systems failures, victims of high-energy particle impacts that interfered with their delicate circuitry. The rest continued on their long flight across the light-years, their onboard computers communicating with each other via encrypted channels, aware within their limited intelligence that, as time progressed, their numbers were steadily dwindling, although not yet below mission-critical levels.

At the apex of their journey, the armada was moving at just a shade over ninety-seven percent of light-speed. Time-dilation slowed the pace at which the attritions of age and radiation damage wore away at their passengers. The onboard medical systems did their best but, inevitably, there were further casualties: those ships bearing the irretrievably dead automatically shut themselves down and fell behind the rest, to drift between the stars forever.

The years passed, and the ships flew on. They did not begin to decelerate until the last decade of their voyage, finally braking into the 36 Ophiuchi system, deep within Coalition territory.

Automated defences patrolling the outer worlds of 36 Ophiuchi detected a number of the approaching ships, analysing their trajectories and responding by moving hunter-killer mechants into intercept patterns. The craft came under fire from kinetic weapons that sent chunks of asteroid slag curving in towards them along gravity-assist paths.

Attrition once more took its toll as the majority of incoming craft were destroyed, and the survival rate of the spy-ships finally teetered towards mission-critical levels. The computers on board the ships risked data-bursts between each other, readjusting their shared flight plans according to decades-old algorithms: if only a few of them managed to reach their destinations, the project set in motion so very long ago might yet have a chance of succeeding.

The survivors lost themselves amidst the rubble of a dead world, long ago drawn into a belt of debris a billion kilometres beyond 36 Ophiuchi’s habitable zone. Only half a dozen of the spy-ships now remained.

Each took it in turn to accelerate towards the inner system, matching courses with cometary bodies and asteroids in order to disguise themselves, drifting sometimes for months before finally manoeuvring into new trajectories that would carry them all the way to Darwin, the system’s sole inhabited world.

It wasn’t long before Jacob’s turn came.

For the first time in several decades, he began to dream, his core body temperature slowly rising as complex cryoprotectant solutions were leached from his bloodstream. His heart began to beat, falteringly at first and then with added strength. Nutrients entered his body via a complex of hollow fibres inserted into his spine, while invisibly tiny microchines worked hard at repairing the inevitable cellular and neural damage sustained during the voyage. Some minimal damage had also been sustained by his instantiation lattice.

Jacob Moreland would live, but some of his memories were gone forever. This much, too, had been anticipated.

Networked autonomous security devices parked in libration zones, balanced between the blue-green world they guarded and the star it orbited, detected the majority of the surviving spy-ships and swiftly destroyed them. Only Jacob’s ship escaped, by wrapping itself within a hastily improvised informational cocoon that made it appear to be little more than an unmanned reconnaissance vehicle on a registered mission. It had been lucky, matching the trajectory of a cluster of supply drones, returning from the A-M refineries orbiting just inside 36 Ophiuchi’s solar corona.

Jacob Moreland drew breath and gasped, his lungs still filled to capacity with breathable nutrient gels that tasted vaguely of mint and antiseptic. A moment later, he remembered his name.


He became more fully conscious during the final stages of atmospheric re-entry. Fresh data, generated by the instantiation lattices riddling his cerebral cortex and nearly indistinguishable from his own, entirely natural thoughts, flowered in his mind.

Plasma cannons designed to destroy random garbage falling from the orbital wheel that encircled Darwin burned his craft as it dropped towards the upper layers of that world’s atmosphere. It responded by releasing a burst of chaff that fooled the cannons into thinking their target had been destroyed. The ship then dipped lower into the atmosphere, burning off its ablative surface before dropping towards the cloud level.

Jacob’s pulse began to quicken as he remembered not only who, but what, he was. Upon his request, sensors embedded in the craft’s skin relayed to him images of the night-time landscape towards which he was falling. He saw deep valleys, and ancient mountains rising above shallow seas and wide, glistening salt-flats. He saw cities like brilliant kaleidoscopes of light, dense conurbations that reached silver fingers far above the planet’s atmosphere, linking into the world-wheel dotted with countless antimatter forges and industrial complexes.

This, then, was Darwin, a world that had become the economic and cultural heart of the Coalition following the Abandonment.

His craft bucked as it passed through the turbulent layers of air at the edge of a high-pressure zone, then dropped towards a ragged and apparently unpopulated coastline, minuscule thrusters slowing the ship’s rate of descent in the last moments before it finally touched down. In the last moments before he landed, Jacob caught sight of green and violet-leaved flora growing amidst spongy-looking trees that bowed under the weight of their broad, finger-like branches.


He staggered out of the blackened shell of his craft in time to see the first fingers of dawn colouring the night sky. He coughed and retched, his lungs and throat still carrying traces of suspension fluids from his long voyage. Cold air whipped against his naked skin. Feeling weak and helpless, he sagged to his knees, pushing both hands deep into gritty soil as a deep and ravenous hunger gripped him.

His instantiation lattice fed data to his conscious mind as he kneeled. He learned that he was the only survivor out of the nearly forty men and women who had been launched from the Tian Di so many years before. He found, despite the deprivations of his voyage, that he could still remember most of their faces and names, having come to know nearly all of them over the course of the year they had spent training for this mission. They had all known how high the risks were. Even so, he was appalled to find he was the only one left.

And if he failed, the mission failed with him.

He staggered back over to the craft and quickly retrieved a one-piece combat suit, pulling it on before he could freeze to death in the chilly air. He next retrieved a case, then stepped quickly away from the craft as his lattice flashed him an alert.

He watched from a safe distance as the ship that had carried him so far immolated itself, its hull collapsing into sections that burned with a pungent smell. Flames flickered inside the craft’s interior, reaching up past bone-like spurs that would crumble away to nothing within just a few days. In time, the only evidence that there had ever been a craft here that was capable of travelling between the stars would be unusually high trace amounts of rare minerals in the soil, along with a marginally higher than normal level of background radioactivity. But one would have to look very, very carefully indeed.

Jacob stood watching for over an hour as the ship continued to crumble into gently steaming ashes that filled the night air with a scent like burning grass. Something about it filled him with a curious sense of loss, which was strange, given that he had been placed in suspension prior to being loaded aboard the craft. Nevertheless, on some deep level, a part of him recognized that this had been his home for long decades, and so it felt strange to finally leave it behind.

From this point on, there was only one way left for him to return home to the Tian Di - and doing so would constitute a major part of his mission.

When he felt ready, Jacob reached into a pocket of his combat suit, retrieving a device small enough to nestle almost invisibly in the palm of his hand: a pin-sized transceiver. He activated it, and even though there was no reason to think it might malfunction, he nonetheless felt a palpable sense of relief when it proved fully operational.

His journey across the light-years had all been just a prelude to this, the moment when his mission truly began. His first step would be to make contact with Tian Di agents who had been in place on Darwin since before he had even set out. Once their own transceivers notified them of his arrival, they would find him and aid him in fulfilling his mission.

It might have taken him decades to reach this world, but the return journey would take, quite literally, no time at all.


What's Going On

That's one of the longest whiles since I've blogged. I spent a good few weeks there on the final, pre-proofreading edits of The Thousand Emperors, which turned out to be a fairly substantial draft in and of itself. Things were moved around; large chunks of text were chucked, others introduced, background details (hopefully) more clearly aligned in relation to each other. I had someone say he thought it was the best thing I had ever written, which is cheering.

After that, I needed a break. I've been taking a couple of weeks out from writing, excepting this blog entry here, a few occasional notes when they spring to mind, and some more proofreading. this time on a chapter I contributed to Keith Brooke's latest project, a book of sf criticism called 'Strange Divisions and Alien Territories: The Sub-Genres of Science Fiction'. I've seen a PDF of the complete thing - other contributors include Justina Robson, Alistair Reynolds. Paul Di Filippo, Adam Roberts and, frankly, a whole crapload of talented writers. In a fit of potentially suicidal editing, Keith has seen fit to make my chapter the first in the whole book, barring the introduction. My piece is called 'From slide–rules to techno–mystics:
hard sf’s battle for the imagination' (try saying that after sucking on some helium).

Sometime this weekend, I'll start trying to get back in the frame of mind for writing the next book, which I strongly suspect is now called River of Light. I had thought of A River Across the Sky, which is nice, and kind of borrowed/ripped-off from a Jonathan Carroll book, but River of Light, on the other hand, feels more entirely my own thing. Also, since it's set in the Shoal universe, it's a title that fits in nicely with all the other books in the series, excepting Nova War, the name of which was an editorial decision outside of my power. But then again, I was never really able to come up with a halfway decent title for it myself.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to paint damp seal all over a stripped bathroom wall. Some things apart from writing still need to be done. 


Zardoz: an Appreciation

Often maligned, frequently laughed at, but full of the kind of WTF imagery that first drew me to science fiction: Zardoz. I'd always meant to blog about it, but never did, although I did write a piece about it for Martin Lewis, when he put together a collection of short essays by various sf writers on their favourite movies. It was published by the BSFA as a small pamphlet, called SF Writers on SF Films: from Akira to Zardoz. It came out in Summer of 2009. Here's what I wrote:


It's easy to forget that after the imagined, shiny, optimistic techno-future of the Sixties, exemplified by movies like 2001, the Seventies were in many ways characterised by a creeping cultural malaise predicated on the notion that there was no future to be had; that civilisation had reached some kind of apotheosis which could only be followed by an inevitable decline into chaos and anarchy. Although this sense of imminent doom was largely fuelled by the constant and very real fear of nuclear war, there was also a nascent environmental movement to warn of the imminent collapse of the ozone layer - assuming, that is, the oil didn't run out first. And if that didn't happen, then nature would find some other way to punish us for our hubris.

Although there was no lack of post-apocalyptic movies prior to the Seventies, the form they  took at that time seemed reflective of a genuine inability to see beyond the end of that decade. The hopefulness of the Sixties had given way to the sense that Judgement Day was a-coming, and neither good old-fashioned American know-how nor plucky British stoicism would be able to do a damn thing about it. It was a time that saw the birth in the US of Survivalism as a life-style choice, and cinema found itself reflecting the fear that with the end of civilisation so clearly approaching at breakneck speed, the only sane thing to do was to hole up in the country with plenty of ammunition and a portable power generator. This fear was reflected in the UK as much as anywhere else, manifesting itself in TV shows such as Survivors and the final Quatermass series, with John Mills fighting  his way across a collapsing Britain. Even the innocuous back-to-nature  comedy  of The Good Life was a reflection of this save-yourself zeitgeist with its comfortably middle-class take on self-sufficiency.

To understand Zardoz (dir. John Boorman)  in its proper post-apocalyptic context, it’s worth taking a look at Boorman’s previous movie, Deliverance, where Lewis - played by Burt Reynolds - makes it clear he expects the collapse of civilisation at any minute when he delivers the following lines: "Then  it's going to come down to who can survive and who can't, when the lights go out and the taps are dry. Survival."  Zardoz,  made in 1974, crystallises this expectation in a work of visually stunning science fantasy.

The film straddles a curious bridge between the apocalyptic fantasies of the mid-Seventies and the more psychedelic excesses of the Sixties. Starring Sean Connery as a wasteland-warrior commanded by his god Zardoz to slaughter ‘Brutals’ in a landscape clearly made from the ruins of our own, he smuggles himself inside the mouth of his God - which manifests as an enormous flying stone head - only  to discover that Zardoz is nothing more than the creation of a race of human immortals (Eternals) who have survived the fall of civilisation within communities known as ‘Vortexes’. Protected by impenetrable force-fields and deeply stultified by unending life, these Eternals secretly yearn for death. However, since they made sure their central computer (The Tabernacle) would always resurrect them upon death with their memories intact, even suicide isn't  an option. Connery’s role, then, is to bring welcome death to the Eternals.

Without giving too much away, Zardoz is effectively a brutal, sexual, psychedelic take on The Wizard of Oz, with Connery as Dorothy, the Tabernacle as The Good Witch, and Arthur Frayn as the Wizard, while the Vortex acts as a stand-in for the Emerald City. Mostly, however, Zardoz is best remembered for its visual appeal, particularly the enormous stone head and the costuming (Connery spends most of the movie in a red loincloth and thigh-length leather boots, as well as a ponytail and zapata-style moustache that would probably have gone down a storm in some of the era’s gay disco’s). Its inventive visual imagery makes the most of a relatively tiny budget, and doesn't skimp on the plot, presenting an intelligent and carefully woven tale of dissent amongst the Eternals in which Connery's ultimate role is never quite clear until the end.

Although dismissed by some critics, I consider it a welcome antidote to the modern crop of over-CGI’d committee-produced epics. It was a movie that always seemed to appear last thing at night on the TV schedules in the Seventies and Eighties, usually unannounced; the kind of thing you tended to stumble across after a long  weekend hanging out in the student union (or at least, you did if you were me). Plus, Charlotte Rampling gets her kit off. Can’t knock that.


New Gig, and Writing Advice

I have a new, occasional gig writing for the blog over at writersworkshop.co.uk, on the subject of writing, naturally. My first entry is here: The One-Third Slump.


And here's what it's about.

Catalogue copy for The Thousand Emperors:

"Archivist Luc Gabion has finally achieved his life's goal — of bringing down Winchell Antonov, head of the Black Lotus terrorist organisation, and the scourge of the Tian Di’s stellar empire for countless years.
     But instead of feeling victorious, the encounter has left him scarred. Forcibly implanted with a technology far in advance of anything he's encountered before, Luc sees and hears things he knows he's not supposed to. Worse, the technology is killing him, slowly. So when he finds himself investigating the murder of one of the Tian Di’s ruling clique, the Thousand Emperors, he knows he's in real trouble. Any one of them could be the killer, and any one of them could have him put to death on a whim.
     Worse, the dead man is the architect of the coming Reunification: two great civilisations, separated for centuries by old enmities, are about to reunite in a new age of peace and prosperity. But it soon becomes clear that someone out there is willing to do anything to make sure that day never comes..."
Those two civilisations, as anyone who's read Final Days will guess, being those colonies originally controlled either by the Western Coalition or the Pan-Asian Congress (now the Tian Di). As I've said before, it's really a stand-alone set in the future of Final Days, than a direct continuation of FD, which means you don't have to have read the first (or so I believe) in order to read the second.

The cover of the next book

The cover is by Steve Stone, of course (http://www.stevestoneartworx.com/galleries/index.html), the same man that did the artwork for Final Days, and did some amazing work for Mike Cobley's Humanity's Fire series of space opera books. 


Some nice reviews for Final Days

Final Days has been out for a week or two now, and it's really heartening to see so many positive reviews already. I thought I'd stick one or two up here (at some point, I'm really going to have to think about expanding this blog into a proper website, with a page for each book, or something like that...).

Liviu Suciu, from Fantasy Book Critic: "While a loose sequel titled Thousand Emperors is scheduled for next year, Final Days is a standalone novel in all ways that matter and it is another very strong showing for the author."

Ove Jansson, at Cybermage: "a well written apocalyptic story that really engages once you get past the buildup."

Falcata Times: "Thought provoking, enticing and above all else a story that demonstrates the authors development through successive stories to become someone that is a sheer joy to read."

Mark Yon at SFFWorld: "I liked this a lot, in that it’s a plot-driven old-school type of tale with some great new ideas to make it work. I think this is Gary’s best to date, and look forward to the next in the series."

And I got my first review from the, er, Daily Mail, which took me by surprise: "...high-octane action, terrific future tech and a superbly imagined alien civilisation help to make this a page-turning belter from one of our best exponents of hardcore SF adventure."

Otherwise there's also a review in BBC Focus magazine, but there's no online version of it.

What's happening otherwise: I've spent the past few weeks doing very little of my own writing, but I'm starting to put together notes both for the next book - which is set in the same universe as Stealing Light and its sequels - and for some future projects, which I'm hoping will come out over the next several years. The Stealing Light book is going to be called either A River Across the Sky or River of Light; I haven't made up my mind which yet. As has been noted, there's a follow-up to Final Days, The Thousand Emperors, on its way next year, but it's worth mentioning again that it's not really a sequel as such; rather, both books are best thought of as stand-alone works set in the same universe. 



I was in a supermarket with my wife the weekend after the riots down in England. England, let's remember, not Scotland - when we have riots, it's over much, much stupider things than shootings or inner-city deprivation. Football, for instance. Images of looters running down streets with armfuls of Nike were on my mind as much as they were on anyone else's as I headed for an opticians just inside the front entrance of the supermarket. Unfortunately the opticians, unlike the (24/7) supermarket itself, was closed.

"You just missed it," we were informed by a guy manning a security station located between the opticians and the supermarket entrance. "Excuse me," he said, next directing his attention to Emma, "but are you actually Chinese?"

No, she explained, she was from Taiwan, and suddenly we found ourselves deep in conversation with this man, who had gone backpacking in China for a month and wound up meeting his fiancé there. He was thinking of retiring to Shanghai to live with her.

He mentioned the colossal bootleg culture in China, and how his wife-to-be was in the habit of acquiring ripped DVD's of current Hollywood releases at phenomenal speed and posting them to him so he could watch them in the comfort of his own home, sometimes before they even reached our own cinema screens. While he was proudly telling us this, I could see some kid with a mohican slowly wheeling a 40 inch Plasma TV through the doors behind him. The alarm started to sound. The kid kept walking at a steady pace, apparently oblivious,

"Excuse me," said our new friend, and we watched as he ran off and talked to the kid. Less than a minute later he and a security guard frogmarched the kid past us and into a tiny office. The guy who liked to watch bootleg videos of new movies had just arrested someone who'd tried to nick a TV on which, I suspect, those ripped-off DVD's would have looked pretty good. This struck me as an object lesson in irony.


Die Stadt und die Sterne

Something totally awesome happened to me just as I was on the run-up to completing the manuscript for The Thousand Emperors: I got an out-of-the-blue request from my German publisher, Heyne, to write the foreword to someone else's novel, at very short notice.

But not any novel, oh no. Only Arthur C. Clarke's City and the Stars. Not only that, it's by far the best paid fifteen hundred words I've ever written. Ok, yes, it's in German but, still, talk about feeling honoured; although it feels a little old-fashioned now, it was hugely influential on me as a writer - something I didn't realise until I reread it for the first time since my early teens in preparation for writing the foreword. 

When I say it had to be written fast, I mean fast. The publication date of Heyne's reissue of Die Stadt und die Sterne is July 11, just a couple of weeks after I handed the finished foreword in to them. It was translated, I think, within about twenty-four hours. 

It did seem unusual to me to get such a request at such very short notice, but a little bit of detective work reveals a possible explanation. I checked Amazon.de to see if the edition with my foreword was there, and it was...but on the cover, it said (in German) foreword by Dan Simmons. I scrolled through the Look Inside! preview and found my foreword there. So I'm guessing Mr Simmons perhaps had to pull out of writing the original foreword at very short notice, or something like that. Luckily for me, assuming that's what happened. 

You can see the foreword here, on Amazon.de, and in rather more detail, here, on Heyne Verlag's own website. In German, of course. If I can get permission from Heyne to post the English version of the introduction here at some later date, I will. 


Release date

Today is the official release date of both the hardback of Final Days and the paperback of Empire of Light, but if you're someone who occasionally drops by these pages and perhaps even - shock! - reads my books, you probably already have one or both, since they've already been shipping for a couple of weeks. I have celebrated by stripping one wall of my living room in preparation for this afternoon's re-papering - people ask me why I don't do a book launch, but these are rarely worth the trouble and, truth be told, I don't really enjoy being the centre of attention all that much. I will, however, be attending the launch of Hal Duncan's new collection here in Glasgow on Saturday evening - details of which can be found at halduncan.com.

I was disappointed not to find the words GET OUT OF MY HOUSE written in blood on the plaster behind the stripped wallpaper. I am struggling to resist the urge to buy some red paint and put those very words up on the wall before covering it over to freak future owners of this property when or if ever I sell it.

What else? I'm putting together outlines for some books I'm hoping to pitch to Tor about this time next year. Once I've done that, I'll start work on my next, already-contracted book for Tor, A River Across the Sky/River of Light (haven't quite made up my mind which title to use yet). This one is set in the Shoal universe, but features all-new characters and is set a couple of centuries on from the end of Empire of Light. It's also a stand-alone.

I also had the interesting experience of teaching a two-week course in science fiction writing at Strathclyde University immediately after emailing Thousand Emperors, the sequel to Final Days, off to Tor. Fun, but exhausting. When I get the chance or inclination, I'll try and write some more about that. 


Return to Horizontal

Some time ago I wrote a short piece on a science fiction novel that stuck with me for a long time, and I'm enormously pleased to see it now republished after all these years as an ebook. It's Farewell Horizontal by KW Jeter (his equally brilliant Infernal Devices was recently republished by Angry Robot Books), and I recommend you buy it now.

Also, I got an advance copy of both Final Days (hardback) and Empire of Light in the post today, and they look sweet. 


Electronic self-publishing

I've occasionally commented in the past on the growth of ebook readers, but said little regarding the 'indie' ebook market, often characterised as a flood of crap with a few gems dotted in it. This is, of course, an oversimplification, as is its counter argument, that sites like Amazon and Smashwords by placing publishing power into the hands of authors are signalling the death of traditional publishing. But there are elements of truth in both, and it's far too early in the midst of continuing developments for me to want to make any serious attempt at predicting where things are going.

I've self published in the past. More than twenty years ago, when a wave of cheap desktop publishing revolutionized fanzine and indie magazine layout and production (in the process giving me and many others a career in graphic design and layout after learning how to use Quark XPress and Photoshop), I got involved with other idiots like-minded enthusiasts putting together small-press comics and magazines with an average print-run of 200 copies that, at best, made back the cost of producing them.

In that context, self-publishing was not only accepted, but even encouraged, and provided a test bed for up and coming artists and writers including Frank Quitely, a Glasgow artist who now draws big-title comics for DC like Superman. Twenty years ago, he was providing art for Electric Soup, a Glasgow-based small-press comic. More recently, I put a friend's unpublished novel up on Amazon and other ebook retailers. A similar DIY aesthetic has long been in place in music.

Even so, I'm leery of the unfortunate belief on the part of quite a few untested authors that the new wave of e-publishing means they can now skip past the towering colossi of publishing like mice past the feet of an elephant guarding the entrance to a cave filled with treasure and immediately achieve success. The idea that they might want to improve as writers or gain some level of requisite skill seems to have passed most of them by.

The real publishing revolution, however, is for authors who already have a professional track record. Keith Brooke, himself a seasoned sf writer for some years with bestsellers and movie options under his belt, has been doing sterling work with his new infinity plus ebook imprint. There are many other examples, including 'collectives' of writers republishing old material from decades ago. Norman Spinrad and - hallelujah! - KW Jeter have been releasing backlist titles onto Amazon. These are tried and tested craftsmen and women who now have the bonus of not having to rely on certain machinations of commercial publishing to keep their older work in print essentially for ever. And for me, that's the great thing about self-publishing.

And while we're on the subject of seasoned authors releasing their own stuff, you should head over to Bill King's blog and read about his own experiments in that area. Bill - a former member of Glasgow's SF Writer's Circle - is the bestselling author of several fantasy novels for Warhammer. More recently, he started a separate series of fantasy novels he describes as 'a gunpowder military fantasy about a world ruled by racist elves' with a hint of Lovecraftian horror. The books sold in several territories - but only in translation. For various reasons, English-language publishers didn't want to take a chance on it. As a result of which, he's selling it himself as an ebook on Amazon and elsewhere.

As Bill himself says:

"My German publishers decided they wanted it. So did my Spanish publishers. So did my Czech publishers. I signed contracts for a series. At this stage my agent had not yet exhausted the English language publishing options and I thought surely somebody will come on-board when they see  that its a series and all these other people are buying it. I was wrong.
My writing career took a very weird turn for the next few years. I was a very published writer– just not in English (...) it wasn’t that Death’s Angels couldn’t find a publisher in English because it was “unworthy” of being professionally published — it was professionally published elsewhere and by people who had to pay good money to have it translated. It just did not happen to be what English-language editors were looking for at the time it was submitted to them. Since the book very possibly has a limited audience, those editors made an absolutely correct decision from a purely commercial standpoint.
Given the economics of mainstream publishing, a book like Death’s Angels might not make back the money needed just to get it printed and editors have to really, really love a book before they will take a risk like that."
So there you go: the real epublishing revolution, in action.


Speaking of writing fast

As has already been commented on in many places, Steph Swainston is stepping down from full-time writing in order to become a Chemistry teacher and, presumably, to suffer the sullen stares and unspoken death threats of every English teacher/frustrated novelist she encounters from now until the end of time.

I was a little surprised when I read the article because to me, a full-time writer taking a step back from what can for some be a gruelling schedule isn't really news. And she doesn't even say she's intending to give up writing; she wants to go back to working at her own pace, which seems to me to make the article even less genuinely newsworthy. Even so, one can only wish her luck.

Personally, I'm on a steady, one book a year schedule, at least so far. Sometimes that can get a bit aggressive when I get close to a deadline, but having just come out of some very, very long days of writing over the past few weeks, I feel pretty good about it. Some writers write well under pressure, some don't. I'm one of those who do. The real question, of course, is can one write well to a deadline, or does a book automatically become better if it's been laboured over for a long time?

Sometimes you meet people who aren't writers, and find they've picked up the idea that  'great'  books are by necessity languished over for years, forgetting that many famous authors wrote at speed, and often to commercial requirements. But then again, there are plenty of successful authors who really do work best at a much slower pace. So, to answer my own question:  How long should a book take to write?

As long as it takes to write it.



Holy shit, that was an intense couple of weeks; up until Sunday night I was pretty much getting up in the morning, eating breakfast, then sitting down to write and - bar a couple of breaks here and there - finishing at ten in the evening. Not every day, mind, but enough of them to be notable, but as a result of which a finished draft of The Thousand Emperors is off to my agent and my publisher. The official deadline was July 1st, but I usually overshoot that by a couple of weeks. This time, I had to complete a draft faster than I ever had before.

It's a loose sequel to Final Days - which is out in just a couple of weeks in hardback - loose as in, I feel reasonably confident you could read it without having had to have read the previous volume. There are only a very few continuing characters, and the roles they play in 1kE have little relationship to their roles in Final Days.

At some point, I'll try and put together a reader-friendly synopsis of the story and post it here. Next book up is what I think will be called A River Across the Sky. It's set in the same Shoal universe as the three Dakota Merrick books, but is not related to those three volumes.


Draft finished

That's the final-prior-to-emailing-to-agent-and-publisher draft of Thousand Emperors finished. 114,000 words, started 25th October 2010 (after three months of planning and outlining) and finished five minutes ago on 10th July 2011 at about half past ten in the evening.

Of course, there'll be more editing later, with editorial comments, proofreading, etc etc.

There's less than a month to go before Final Days, my sixth novel, comes out. Thousand Emperors is a loose sequel to it. In a couple of months time I'll be starting the next book, which (unlike either Final Days or Thousand Emperors [or 1kE as I sometimes refer to it] is set in the same Shoal universe as my last three books.


Everything, Everywhere

...and just a few days after I wrote a blog piece suggesting that the future of information consisted of Everything, All of the Time, I get a text from my mobile operator (Orange), telling me they've combined with T-Mobile to become...'Everything Everywhere'. Is that a frisson of futureshock rushing through me like a chill wind, or have I just been drinking too much coffee again?


Me, Mamatas and Duncan

I had a pleasant surprise last week by unexpectedly finding myself lunching in Glasgow's West End in the company of Hal Duncan and Nick Mamatas. Mamatas is the author of, amongst others, 'Starve Better', an excellent book on, essentially, surviving as a writer, particularly when faced with economic difficulties (by a curious happenstance, I'd given it a positive review on Amazon UK just the week before, while having absolutely no idea I'd find myself having lunch with the guy within a few days). He's a man with a sometimes fearsome online reputation, most often expressed through his blog, when he's not the editor for Haikasoru books. In short, it was a lot of fun; Nick was over with his Scottish-born partner Olivia for a family wedding. Typically, given their guide was Hal, they washed up at Stravaigin's in the West End. Hal talked about the bizarre architectural similarities between Glasgow and parts of New York; I urged them to visit the city's enormous graveyard, the Necropolis (Mamatas: 'it's like you know me').

At some point, the conversation steered towards Asian theme restaurants, which I thought I'd discussed before on this blog but, to my consternation, find I haven't. They range from the cute to the mindboggling and, sometimes, to depths greater than you can possibly imagine. I've seen a restaurant designed to look like the inside of a jet, complete with waiting staff dressed as airline attendants. But I've also seen a restaurant called Modern Toilet, which I'm not even going to describe to you because, really, I prefer not to think about it (but if you can bear the horror, there's a piece about it here). I also told Nick about the infamous Nazi death-camp themed restaurant that briefly opened in Taipei several years ago, and was quickly shut down.

I could have sworn I'd already written about this place, but a search through my blog entries reveals this is not apparently the case. But before you start thinking Taiwan is a hotbed of Fourth Reich activity, consider this excerpt from the ten-year old BBC article I linked to above:

The restaurant's manager, Stone Cheng, told Associated Press that the owners and designers had spent months planning the interior.
Customers in Jail
The theme was not intended to offend customers, or show support for the Holocaust, he said.
"Taiwanese just aren't that aware of this history and aren't as sensitive about it as foreigners are."
 Most Taiwanese can describe in detail the atrocities committed by Japanese troops who controlled Taiwan and parts of China during World War II. But many are unclear about what happened on the other side of the world.
 To say that the Taiwanese, by and large, continue to be 'unaware' of history outside of Asia is putting it mildly. I've heard stories - possibly apocryphal - that elderly Taiwanese have been known to greet German tourists with the words 'Heil Hitler' not because of their support for Nazi principles but because it's the only two words of German they know. A few years ago there was a flurry of outrage in the press when someone spotted Hitler dolls for sale in the Ukraine that later turned out in fact to have been manufactured in...Taiwan.

But it's not just Taiwan: it's Asia in general. Consider the case of the Japanese boy band that dressed in SS uniforms just earlier this year.

This all came to mind recently when a friend in Taiwan posted this image on Facebook:

In case you're wondering, it's on the pavement outside an Italian shoe shop in Taipei. Whoever chose it did so out of regard for what they considered its aesthetic properties, from within a sucking vacuum of ignorance regarding its historical context. To put it another way: people in Asia don't realise that Nazis still frighten the shit out of a lot of the rest of the world, and have zero awareness of the atrocities of WW2 in Europe and the years leading up to it.

Before we all get riled up about how shockingly and scandalously ignorant people in Asia are, may I first remind you:

Yes, it's our very own Prince Harry, dressed as a Nazi, back in 2005. We have our own ignorant dimwits too. And once you've gotten over Nazi-themed restaurants, ponder the existence in the West of Chairman Mao-themed restaurants. Yes, that's right, you too can scarf down rice and chicken under the glowing paternal image of a ruthless dictator whose time in power saw tens of millions of Chinese starve to death during the forced collectivisation of agriculture. So: yay for theme restaurants!


Objects of Desire

I am, like most, subject to uncontrollable lusts for certain items, most frequently gadgets. My most recent indulgence was an Orange San Francisco phone - itself a rebranded ZTE Blade, manufactured in China. It is, according to pretty much everyone I've asked, pretty much the best smartphone you can get for under a hundred quid. It's barely been out of my hands since I bought it, though I'm tempted to root it sometime soon and change networks - Orange's PAYG data allowance is paltry, and rooting would hopefully allow me to upgrade the Android operating system as well as switch networks and get rid of some of the truly foul and irredeemably buggy Orange software that currently infects it. Before the phone, it was the Kindle; and before the Kindle, it was the current generation of Macbooks.

Apart from gadgets, I have a weird thing for shoulder bags. I have a couple - a canvas green one I got from Gap years ago that's served me well, and a memory foam-lined laptop bag that's excellent. The Gap bag is getting a bit knackered now, and although I don't really need a laptop bag that much, since I rarely take my laptop out with me, the idea of getting something that combined the possible benefits of both did occur from time to time. The desire manifested into object-lust when I saw someone in the street with a bag that looked much like this one: the Pell-Mell messenger bag.

It ain't cheap, though, at least by my standards, at just over a hundred quid. But it's quality, hand-made stuff, and seems to get rave reviews from more places than just Amazon. The idea of a good, solid shoulder-bag/satchel that could last me a twenty years has a lot of appeal. I'm not completely stuck on the idea of getting a Pell-Mell, though - there might be equally good but cheaper leather shoulder bags out there worth considering. If you know of any, leave a comment.


I finished the first draft of Thousand Emperors Tuesday afternoon, and entered into a state of general collapse after that. It's a feeling I've had before - like I'd been worked over with a couple of baseball bats the week before, but for some reason didn't notice until now. The only reason I can think of why I might feel that way is that there's a certain tension generated in a process you know is going to take several months of incremental work; the tension just sort of slowly builds up and up and up, and isn't really released until you type THE END. Then I just sort of shuffle around blinking like I've been locked in a cave for five years. Given writing isn't that physically labour intensive, you wouldn't think it could have that kind of effect on me; and indeed during these times I usually find myself trying to work out how just typing for a couple hours a day could possibly have that kind of effect. But it does.

Now I've got two months or so of hardcore editing to do. I gather some people find this harder than just making stuff up, but I actually find it easier than sitting in front of a laptop trying to will two thousand words into existence day after day after day. At least, when you're revising, you already know what the story is or should be. All you're doing is rearranging words and events in a hopefully more attractive and/or interesting way. So, head down again, really, and not to re-emerge until sometime in July...when I send this off, and get started on A River Across The Sky, a new book set in the same universe as Stealing Light and its sequels (but not, itself, a direct sequel to any of those).


Taipei Mon Amour

At the moment, Taiwan is facing a new election, between the two main parties the DPP and KMT. The KMT are the old guard, who fled the Maoist revolution on the mainland, bringing with them the entire Chinese gold and foreign currency reserve. The DPP only came into existence in the mid-Eighties, as part of moves towards eventual democratisation.

To cut a very long and confusing story short, you just need to know that the KMT, despite having fled mainland China, are the party who most favour renewed cultural and economic contact with the Chinese government. The DPP are the ones who generally want an official declaration of independence from China; and despite being one of the boom economies of the Asian-Pacific, a lot of maps still show Taiwan as being part of China.

You have no idea how much this pisses off a lot of Taiwanese. Things got bad enough in the mid-Nineties that the Chinese military forces fired some 'test missiles' over Taiwan when they thought the then-DPP President was getting too cozy with Washington. Cue a major political crisis.

At the moment, the KMT are in charge again, and things are terribly cosy between President Ma and Beijing. Things, however, are not necessarily looking good for Ma in the upcoming elections, which means the DPP could wind up back in power. Which is why I find the following recent statement taken from the BBC news so weirdly entertaining:
"We don't need outsiders' help to win votes (said Sun Yang-Ming, vice president of the Cross-Strait Interflow Prospect Foundation, a government-linked think tank), but we hope they will avoid such actions as making threats or conducting military manoeuvres, including test-firing missiles."
Does make our politics look a bit bland, by comparison, doesn't it?


SF Writing Class

The Imp of the Perverse landed upon my shoulders a while back and demanded I do something I've never done before: teach a science fiction creative writing class. It had occurred to me that with five books in print so far, I was at least partly qualified to take whatever it is I do that persuades publishers to give me ridiculous sums of money and try and stuff that same knowledge into the heads of a bunch of complete strangers.

The pay is terrible, by the way, so transcendentally minuscule that, when I dropped by Strathclyde University for a chat with the woman organizing the Summer Learning Programme, she actually cringed upon describing the level of remuneration concerned, as if expecting me to leap to my feet and heap invective upon her and her shrivelled, miserly soul. She needn't have worried. Having already done my research, I was already entirely aware of the meagre compensation involved.

Which is my roundabout way of informing you that, no, I am not doing this for the money. What exactly I am doing it for is harder to define, although certainly an interview with the Canadian author, Robert J. Sawyer, served as an influence: he describes how teaching classes on sf writing in Toronto helped him better understand just what it is he does when he writes, a statement that brings to mind the old saying that one of the best ways to really understand a subject is to teach it.

Actually, there's another reason. I once took part in an evening creative writing class many years ago which was, quite simply, transcendentally awful (sorry, but it's my word for today: transcendentally). But as the years passed and I slowly evolved into a pro writer, I began to wonder if perhaps, given the opportunity, I couldn't help but do better.

Strathclyde University, in their wisdom, took my class proposals and chopped them in two, so I in fact will be teaching two courses as part of their Summer Learning Programme: Writing SF in late July, and Understanding SF in August. Each class consists of just two two-hour classes, which isn't really a great deal of time at all, so maybe I'll have to learn how to talk really, really fast. But if it goes well for me and for the University, there's the possibility of longer, more in-depth classes in the future.

So what's my Unique Selling Point, as they like to say in marketing seminars? Well, for a start, it's a class on science fiction writing run by an actual working science fiction writer. Beyond that, the aim is to take all the things I've learned while writing that I wish I'd known at the start, and cram them into the heads of people who are themselves only just starting out.

The emphasis, in the writing class, anyway, is on fiction more than it is science, since the rules are the same regardless of what genre you work in. But the science part will most certainly be there, in the form of digressions regarding worldbuilding and creating a sense of verisimilitude. The intention is to incorporate some level of workshopping, but it remains to be seen just how practical this proves to be in a class that only lasts a total of four hours.

The other class, Understanding SF, is a quick guide through the history of the genre. To some extent it's aimed more at those not entirely familiar with the genre, but I'm going to try and demonstrate why the 20th Century might not have taken the shape it did if not for the influence of science fiction.

The SF Writing Workshop lasts two weeks, starting Monday 25th July, from 6 to 8 in the evening. Understanding SF runs from Friday 12 August for two weeks, and takes place between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. Both cost £19 each, and you can book these and any other of the Summer Programme classes at www.strath.ac.uk/cllsummer


Everything, All of the Time

Thoughts going through my head on the home-run to finishing The Thousand Emperors: if I had it in me to write some vast, sprawling thousand-page novel taking in everything that mattered about social chance and technology in the 21st Century, it would be called Everything, All of the Time.

I'm not sure if I heard that phrase somewhere before and picked it up, but to my mind it pretty much sums up where things feel like they're going, particularly given my acquisition in the past few weeks of my first smartphone.  Such questions regarding the increasing density of available information can also be a problem in fiction, when plots are often defeated by the increasing and immediate availability of the same.

Most often plots are about what people don't know, and their subsequent search for enlightenment. It's something that occurs to me as the fatal flaw at the heart of any science fiction novel set more than thirty years from now, including my own: that given sufficient time and progress, anything anyone wants to know will be available to them, everywhere, immediately.

Everything, All of the Time.

Describing such a future with any prospect of accuracy whatsoever would, I suspect, require the kind of indepth technical knowledge of how networks operate, interface and connect with their users that simply isn't available to those of us lacking the time, means, motivation (or funds) to absorb a PhD-equivalent body of knowledge: so that leaves you, the author, with the choice of either a)ignoring the question or more often b)trying to find ways to restrict the flow of information between characters in a story.

Which, again given the way things are going these days, leads you into encryption, a science as important, if not perhaps more important, than the development of the networks and databases it's used to protect. It's all terribly complicated, and attempts to create any future containing even a whiff of plausibility inevitably gets washed up on the shores of real-world technological evolution, rendering all your carefully extrapolated work within a few years into little more than one more nostalgic tour of past visions of the future (witness the lack of mobile phones in Stephenson's Snow Crash).

Perhaps that, it occurs to me, is why fantasy is so popular these days. But that's a thought for another day. Let's just say that the point of this post is that if I had the necessary understanding of the system of the world and put it to use writing a book of the near-future, it would be called Everything, All of the TIme.


Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede

That being the title of the novel by Bradley Denton, a book I well remember reading in the late 80s or early 90s, and which still sits on my bookshelves. I'd read a while back it was actually being made into a movie, and looks to be the perfect antidote to some of the 'mainstream' Hollywood product I've had to sit through recently. This new 'development' trailer certainly looks amazing, and I can't help but hope they make as good job as the reost of it.

Boing Boing have a piece about it, and since I'm too lazy to write my own synopsis of the story, I've cribbed part of theirs:

For those of you unfamiliar with the book, the premise is a simple one: Oliver Vale (whose recently deceased mother instilled in him a healthy respect for Buddy Holly) is about to watch a John Wayne movie pulled in by his satellite dish when the transmission is interrupted by a shot of a young Bully Holly, standing in a bubble on an airless rock, holding a guitar. Holly reads a sign hanging from the camera in front of him, and it says, "For assistance, contact Oliver Vale." And then he reads out Oliver's home address. 

I keep meaning to write again about those slightly obscure books that influenced me as a reader and also as a writer (I previously wrote about KW Jeter's Farewell Horizontal), and this, if I'd been a little less lazy about it, would have been a prime candidate.

Edit: Apparently the book, which has been out of print for a number of years, can nonetheless be freely downloaded under a Creative Commons license, in a variety of formats, from Manybooks.net.



Found, on io9.com: a video taken from the front of one of Taipei's over/underground trains as it travels the Neihu line. As the writer on the website says, it's oddly hypnotic. I don't think I ever did actually travel to Neihu while I was living there, but I'm sure I must have been on that part of Taipei's ginormous mass-transit system at some point. But it does all look terribly familiar.


Source Code (with spoilers)

Well, I finally caught Source Code, enervated by all the positive reviews, but came away from the cinema feeling let down. Again. There are so many things wrong with the film I almost don't know where to start: I could simply summarise all the issues in this single statement: it makes no sense whatsoever. None of it adds up in any even vaguely rational way whatsoever, which is probably why I spent so much of my time in the cinema staring at the screen in absolute confusion.

I'm going to get spoilery here: Jake Gyllenhaal can travel back in time, into the mind of a dead man, in his last eight minutes of life, so he can figure out who planted the bomb that will blow up the train on which the dead man was/is travelling. No...wait a minute, that's not it: his mind is instead interacting with the residual radiation of a dead man's mind that the Source Code team are somehow able to tap into. The radiation contains, apparently, the dead man's final memories. So it's not time travel after all.

It's true one character states it would take too long to really explain what's going on, and in terms of cinematic shorthand, that's fine: but far, far too many liberties are subsequently taken with logic. If our hero only taps into a dead man's residual memories, why, then, is he tasked with locating a bomb on board a train that was blown up earlier in the day? How could the dead man - a passenger on that train - possibly know himself where that bomb is?  How can our hero possibly experience anything objectively real outside of the dead man's subjective experiences unless the train is, in fact, real, and (presumably) in the past?

But we're explicitly and repeatedly warned Source Code is not time travel. Our hero can't change anything in the past. because what's happening isn't in the past...it's in the present.

Isn't it?

Yeah. I'm still scratching my head over that one. Then it gets more ridiculous. Towards the end, our hero learns his body has been reduced to a ruined sack of meat in a tank wired into Source Code's computers. He's technically dead - or at least, reduced to communicating via a terminal wired directly into a part of his brain that hasn't shut down. He demands 'one last chance' to go back into the train and save the passengers - and particularly the Girl. He does. Don't ask me how, since the train isn't meant to be real. Then, somehow, instead of dying when his life support is subsequently switched off (per his wishes) he finds himself alive and hale and continuing on in the (imaginary?) body he's entered.

There's some guff tossed in about how any changes he makes in the past can have no meaning since they can only create an 'alternate reality', except I once again question how this can come about since he is - I recall - not, in fact, travelling through time, merely interfacing with some fading remnant of someone else's mind.

This leads me to the inevitable conclusion that the only way to enjoy a mainstream Hollywood movie these days is, essentially, to pretend you're far, far more stupid than you actually are. 

And yet, Duncan Jones - the director of Source Code - previously directed a perfectly acceptable, if not stunningly original, feature film called Moon. District 9 was one of the better movies I've seen in the past few years. Darren Aaronofsky's first film, a low-budget black and white effort called Pi, is easily one of my favourite films, and one of the very few I bothered to buy on DVD. Yet I found Black Swan - a bigger-budgeted, more mainstream affair - to be an atrocious mess.

I see now that the problem is with mainstream Hollywood: District 9, Pi, Moon...they're all 'indie' movies, in the sense at least that they're created on a low budget. There's a sameness to bigger-budget Hollywood films that I don't find in those cheaper, more daring productions: originality becomes smothered by studio demands for a standard three-act structure with a heroic denouement in which the hero always, always gets the girl, even if all laws of logic and sanity have to be tossed out the window in order to achieve it.

So it's indie movies and arthouse flicks for me from here on in. I've been bludgeoned by too much big budget stupidity to want to waste my time with it any more.

One last, highly spoilerific observation for those who have seen Source Code: I experienced overwhelming levels of WTF when our 'hero' has, apparently, taken over the brain of some unsuspecting schoolteacher in order to steal his girlfriend. What the hell happened to him, the schoolteacher?

And how long before our hero's new girlfriend figures out there's someone else entirely lurking inside her boyfriend's skull?


Tentacles of Dawn

Found on an i09 comments page, and presented with minimal comment.

Turns out Rainn Wilson is the son of a science fiction writer, Robert Wilson (no, not Anton or Charles), who had one novel out in the Seventies. Not one of the good ones, by the sound of it.



I'm not much of one for writing movie reviews, mainly because I'm lazy, but myself and Emma were checking out the listings for something cool to see, and it came to a choice between Fair Game (interesting-looking thriller based on a true story), The Adjustment Bureau (based on a PK Dick story), and...Rango, an animated CGI comedy about a chameleon that's also a spoof on the Western Genre. Given that I feared Adjustment Bureau might wind up with me spitting out my own teeth if they did (as has been hinted) ass-rape the corpse of Phil Dick by turning it into what looks suspiciously like an inoffensive light romantic thriller, it was only really a choice between two. And Rango is voiced by Johnny Depp, a man with a pleasing habit of choosing some fairly off-beat cinematic projects to get involved in. So Rango it was.

Do you know what I mean when I say there are moments in a film when your brain says 'Sold'? It's a line, an image, something that makes you think: I'm in. Whatever you do from here on in is okay by me.

I fear becoming SPOILERISH at this point but the scene I'm about to describe occurs at the opening of the movie, and gives away little. Rango - the chameleon voiced by Depp - has, along with the glass case that has been his home until now, been sent tumbling out of the rear of a car on some lonely midwest highway. He is sent bouncing around the road, and between cars and trucks, surviving at improbable odds. At one point he splats onto the windscreen of an open-top convertible, with his head stuck inside a plastic smiley face.

With Hunter S. Thompson at the wheel.

And Dr Gonzo in the back.

And with that, I was won over. They're even wearing the same goddamn Hawaiian shirt. But it's that same out-there-ness that ultimately works against the picture's chances of success: is it a kid's picture, or an adult film masquerading as a kid's picture? Hard to tell. I enjoyed it, although the story was a little uneven in places, and I'd certainly watch it again (Hunter/Duke is not the only real-life character to get an unnamed cameo), and it's without doubt a hell of a lot more original than much of what comes out of Hollywood these days. Do I recommend it? Yes, absolutely, and it frequently steers into the wildly surreal in a manner I find highly entertaining, but it does seem to be trying to be two things at once.

But that scene, near the beginning. I laughed out loud and resisted the urge to start clapping, thereby making myself look like a total freak. Maybe I was the only one who got it, maybe not; most of the audience were students, whom, I rather suspect, are this film's true target audience.


On a slightly more sober note

Watching the footage, live, from Japan: scary stuff, especially when you see a car belting down a highway away from the surge of junk and water spreading across fields on that country's East coast. After a couple of years in Taiwan, I'd only rarely experienced tremors, but one of the things that I remember is the eerie silence of it all. Things shake, but more or less soundlessly. '70's epics like 'Earthquake' on some subliminal level caused me to believe the air would be filled with a constant RRAARRRR but it's not so.

If you want to get some idea what it feels like, stand on a table and get four people to stand around you, jerking the thing from side to side. That's pretty much what it feels like.

At some point, some of those waves are likely to hit Taiwan, but I don't expect them to have too many problems. People on the Japanese coast only had a few minutes warning before the waves hit, but Taiwan'll have hours to prepare before the waves reach their low-lying coastal areas.

UPDATE: According to someone reporting from Taipei (Taiwan), the time at which the waves were expected has come and passed with no significantly damaging coastal activity. They're not definitely in the clear just yet since this depends (according to the BBC News) on such things as sub-aquatic topography that might slow things down, but for the moment they've lifted their tsunami warning.

My Favourite Tweet, So Far

You got to love this one, picked up by a search filter I set up on Twitter a while ago:
"My dads about me on fb is "reading nova war by gary gibson" lol wtf father this is a social networking site not a bloody book club"
Lol, wtf, indeed, @marquezfan. And if you're reading this...
n, may I also +, yr dad hs xpressd phat taste n hs readN material, + I do hope he keeps posting 2 FB whnvr he chooses 2 read 1 of my bux.

(For a translation, go here)


Plan B

The talk at Plan B books in Glasgow city centre went really quite well, and it was also an opportunity to catch up with Richard Morgan, whom I hadn't spoken to in a couple of years. We had a good, decent-sized audience, and there was a mixture of faces both familiar and new; unfortunately I had to dive out for twenty minutes immediately following the talk,  and it's possible I didn't get the chance to sign books for one or two members of the audience - sorry about that, if that was the case. You'd think it would be hard to fill up a full three hours just talking about writing, but it's surprisingly easy, actually, and between the three of us, with questions from Will Couper, who acted as our host, things rolled along rather nicely.

Here's a picture from the event, courtesy of Mark Harding:


Teaching SF and Q&A with Hal Duncan and Richard Morgan

Just a heads-up to say I'm going to be teaching a couple of summer evening and afternoon classes, in July and August this year, at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. One is a workshop/writing class, the other is on 'understanding sf', essentially a primer on the field. I don't have the exact dates and so forth just yet, and neither has the cost of the classes been established so far, but I can tell you that each class will run over two consecutive weeks, comprising two classes That means there's going to be a lot packed in to a fairly short space of time, but it's my intention to cram people's heads full of as much incredibly cool stuff as I possibly can. Assuming things go well, this'll hopefully lead on to longer classes in the latter part of the year, running over several weeks.

Remember also that I'll be at Plan 9 Books in Glasgow, on Saturday afternoon, from about 1pm onwards, in conversation with Hal Duncan (Vellum, Ink) and Richard Morgan (Altered Carbon, Thirteen). Plan B, as well as selling books and comics of a distinctly indie bent, also has an excellent little coffee shop built into it, so you'll be assured of being in comfortable surroundings.


Stupid Idea of the Day 2

I got up earlier than usual today, and my brain isn't really talking to me, so blame it, not me, for what's being written here. I had nothing to do with it. My fingers are protesting at having to type these very words. There. You can't see it, but one of my hands just gave me the finger.

Yeah. Same to you, finger.

Anyway. It must be early, because this is a truly stupid idea, and also a really, really, really old one already far past its sell-by date. It's this: bring back Celebrity Big Brother, but give it a different name, put it on BBC4 and fill it with writers. Martin Amis, Jeanette Winterson, Kazuo Ishiguro, and whoever else you can think of. Lock them in there with access to only one manual typewriter and a limited daily allowance of paper.

Then lightly salt with 'surprise' house guests, particularly book critics. Preferably ones with a habit of writing excoriating reviews. Then get them all to vote each other out not on the basis of how well they get on, but on what they think of what each of them has written that day (limited amounts of paper, say ten sheets each, means they can't spend all day hiding behind the typewriter. Hopefully, anyway). Sort of like a writer's workshop crossed with Rollerball. You could call it Last Author Standing.

Now there's an image that's going to stay with me for a while.

I swear, there'd be blood on the walls. I'd be glued all day. Plus, you'd get something resembling intelligent conversation between people who have enough intelligence to know that Madagascar is a real place, and not just an animated movie.

My fingers would like to inform you this all occurred to me after making a crack about how sharing a cottage with Adrian Tchaikovsky, Paul Cornell, China Mieville, Peter Hamilton and Mark Newton at the SFX Weekender might be compared to a sort of SF/fantasy Celebrity BB house, minus the cameras and bitching. Not that it was really like that, but we spent a lot of time sitting around the kitchen table talking.



I actually quite like the theme of the series (Outcasts), the idea of whether or not the human race would make the same mistakes, given a chance to start over somewhere else. It's something I've been working towards for a while, even if it's not particularly obvious or evident in my stuff. But in so many respects it's a weird show, perhaps because the writer is clearly far from au fait with either science fiction or indeed science, even the sketchy pop-quiz level of knowledge that most authors get by with. Actually, a better word for it might be 'bizarre'.

It's set in the mid-21st century, barely forty years from now, and we've somehow managed to cross untold light years on board enormous ships that are way beyond blue-sky at the current moment.

There appear to be no vehicles in or around the settlement. They got there by spacecraft, but otherwise appear to walk everywhere. Okay, limited resources, but if they can clone pigs...why not horses?

They have some kind of mobile comms tech that mysteriously operates fine within the settlement's boundaries, but which they mysteriously fail to use once they leave town to look for people who should be eminently traceable using existing and dirt-cheap technology. Of course, half of the story lines would then cease to exist.

There's a kid genius who listens to the Sex Pistols, leading me to the suspicion he's really seventy-five and very youthful-looking for his age.

There's an 'earth mast' for communication with home, as opposed to, say, a cheap satellite. There's a moon or nearby planet so close they look like they're about to hit each other. We've somehow managed to grow fully adult human clones with special genetic abilities and ship them to another planet and get reports back from there, sometime in the next 40 years, so far as I can judge, at rather less than light speed. 

A lot of things can be put down to budgetary restrictions, no doubt. There are many things that could, with just a tiny bit of effort, be easily explained away.

I could get annoyed, but I'm too weary. Fish, barrel, shotgun. You know the drill. I can actually picture the manuscript report I could put together for the guy behind this series, and the list of recommended reading regarding plausible back-grounding I'd give him. Nothing technical, just a couple of book titles, non-fiction plus a smattering of novels by people who actually manage to write this stuff in a believable way. Then I'd explain why these mistakes would kill any chance of his getting his novel published because he'd be laughed out of print. Then I remember he's not a novelist but a script writer;  a new writer on a prime time BBC drama can pull down, at minimum, something like thirty grand per hour-long episode. That's a couple of hundred k for writing something pretty much any print publisher or agent in the land would bounce right back out the door for lack of plausibility, insufficient world building and confusing story structure.And yet there it is, on our television screens.

There is, I remind myself, no point in getting annoyed.


Why China (might) never rule the world

Troy Parfitt is a Canadian writer I first got to know in Taipei through my wife; they taught at the same school for several years. I've read and enjoyed Troy's previous book, Notes from the Other China, although I understand that some of his observations in that book caused some minor controversy. His follow-up, Why China Will Never Rule The World, is coming out later this year, and in it he's going to attempt to present a thesis on why he doesn't think China is going to present nearly the economic threat to the West - or indeed the rest of the world - that many seem to believe. Given that I spent a couple of years in considerable proximity to China (although the closest I got to actually visiting the place consisted of nothing more than a couple of trips to Hong Kong), I find the whole debate quite fascinating.

Troy's put together a promotional video where he talks about the thinking behind the book. You might have to use the password 'china' to access it.

China from Tyler Ellis on Vimeo.

There's an excerpt from the book here. Another book worth reading on the subject of China is The Man Who Loved China, by Simon Winchester, a biography of Joseph Needham.


SFX Weekender

Well, that was a blast. I just spent the weekend being a guest at this year's SFX Weekender at Camber Sands, not far from Brighton. I'll be honest - the location struck me as being a bit bleak and remote, although that was as much a function of the time of year and the howling winds sweeping along the beaches nearby as much as anything else.

There were a lot of people there, and it's easily one of the biggest cons I've ever been at, barring a couple of Worldcons. I understand there were between two and three thousand people there over two days, but if you told me there were more, it wouldn't surprise me.

Via Mark Newton's blog: giant robot terrorizes audience.
The moment I'll most remember? The rabbit-in-the-headlights experience of finding myself on a huge stage in front of several hundred people, and quite possibly more, hearing my voice boom out across this vast freaking hall, just an hour or two after Chloe from Tor had picked me up from the train station at Rye. I was taking part in a panel on 'science in science fiction' and, as interesting as it was, it was also just a tiny bit overwhelming. I turned to my right - I was bang in the middle of the line-up behind a long desk - and saw Stephen Baxter and Peter Hamilton. To my left, China Mieville, Paul Cornell and Kevin J. Anderson. All speaking with an air of confidence and erudition that was, for want of a better word, challenging.

Dear god. Rabbit in the headlights for sure. The sound wasn't as good as it could be and for much of the hour I was up there, the audience was in fact mostly invisible due to extremely powerful lights shining onto the stage. It reminded me of a conversation I'd had with a friend who performed in various metal bands way back in the Eighties; I'd asked him if he ever got nervous up on stage, and he replied that most of the time you couldn't even see the audience, so that took a lot of pressure off. He was right.

The sound problems - including a heavy echo across this vast, hangar-sized room - meant I had to keep leaning over to hear what people next to me were saying. Every time I turned towards China on my left, I kept getting distracted by the highly detailed tentacle tats wrapped around his arm. The rest of them had an admirable rapport with the audience, indicating they had considerably more con panel experience than I've yet managed to muster even in several years as a writer.

Given the circumstances, I made a point of not saying anything unless I could make it as clear and cogent and pointed as possible. Unfortunately, by the time I felt like I was starting to relax, the panel was just about over. And that was my only panel, apart from a signing session in the company of all the other Tor writers the next afternoon, which went about as well as I'd expected.

Me, Orbit's Anne & JC Grimwood, via the Orbit blog
Some observations about the con itself: I didn't actually see a great deal of it, since the majority of the time, myself and the other Tor writers were at a cottage our editor Julie Crisp had hired just down the road from the holiday camp. Tor UK threw a party on the Friday night, where most of the Orbit crew turned up, and a lot of other people. It got pretty crowded, and proved to be a good night. I had excellent company over the weekend - my editor Julie Crisp, Chloe and Amy, also China Mieville, Mark C Newton, Paul Cornell (with whom I shared a room), Adrian Tchaikovsky and, of course, the iridescently-waist-coated Peter Hamilton.

Here's one thing that did particularly strike me about SFXW: it reminded me so much of the conventions I first went to, back in the early/mid Eighties. My first ever con was in Glasgow, maybe in 1982 - an Albacon, I think - and I've gone to them more or less regularly ever since. Contrast that with a lot of pro writers at SFXW for whom this was apparently only their first, second or third convention.

Back in those days, you had all kinds of fandom present. There were people like myself who were primarily into fiction, but there were also Star Trek fans, Star Wars fans, comic fans, and every other kind of fan; movies, media, and books, all mixed in together. Over the next several years many of these groups evolved their own media-related cons and the attendance at specifically sf cons such as Eastercon grew more specific and also smaller. This led into what's been described as the 'greying' of fandom, as younger fans fail to attend.

SFXW wasn't like that at all. Those attending were split roughly equally half and half in terms of males and females, and the majority were also refreshingly youthful. There were even quite a few families. These are people who I suspect certainly read plenty of sf but love their movies, comics and tv shows just as much. On top of that, the organisers put on a terrific show the likes of which I have never experienced at any con. There was a sense of fun I haven't felt since I was a teenager attending my very first cons.

That's not to say I don't have one or two criticisms, though they are relatively minor ones. The SFX awards ceremony started off with dancing girls in bikinis. All I'm saying is, this is the 21st Century, folks, and for me science fiction is supposed to be about looking forward to an era of equality and balance. Instead I felt like I'd fallen into some sf-oriented version of a night club straight out of Mad Men. There was, at times, a level of objectification of women that made me just a tiny little bit uncomfortable. Or possibly more than a tiny bit. If you're going to have dancing girls, you might as well balance it out and have male dancers of a similar style as well, otherwise there's the risk of engaging in some pretty blatant stereotyping not only of the women concerned, but ultimately of the fans too. I know the portrayal of women in this way isn't a phenomenon limited to certain aspects of the sf genre - I've been to computer trade shows in Taiwan and, believe me, they're probably worse in this respect - not to mention endless newspaper shots of some new sports car with a half-naked model draped across it - but that doesn't necessarily make it right.

Also, I think I mentioned the location - a Pontin's holiday camp, in early February, for God's sake - was kind of bleak. Also, to put it mildly, out of the way. I had to fly down to London the previous night, stay in a hotel, get up at the crack of dawn, take a train to Brighton, then switch to another train to Rye that took waaaay longer than I thought it would, then get a lift from Rye to the camp three miles away. I can imagine the logistics of putting on an event like this are fairly horrendous, however, and with any luck the event will take off well enough in the future that SFX might be able to find a more central or urban location. It's a tribute to them that they managed to pull things off quite so well as they did given the circumstances.

If there's one advantage institutions like Eastercon still have, it's that they largely take place in hotels, which provide endless opportunities for socialising and meeting new people either in corridors, bars or at the many, many room parties. SFXW, on the other hand, took place in a large echoing hall (plus a tiny pub next door), physically separated from the rather barracks-like buildings surrounding it. Getting from one to the other meant fighting your way through a bitter, howling gale coming straight off the sea. Nonetheless, I think there's a very, very, very great deal trad cons could learn from an event like SFXW, and I came away thinking cons like this are going to lead the way in the coming years. It was enormously fun, and I'd do it again in a flat second.