Review of 2014: books, comics, films and some other random stuff

At first I was just going to talk about books I wanted to recommend, then thought why limit myself? So I'm going to start my review of 2014 by mentioning one of the first things I acquired on arrival in Taipei, that being an Aeropress coffee maker. 

The Aeropress costs about £20 and given the choice between that and some clanking great machine that costs £400, I'll stick with the former. It's small, clever, efficient and brilliant, and ridiculously easy to use: even better, it makes the best coffee I've ever tasted. Now, whenever I drink a cup of coffee in a cafe or restaurant, it invariably tastes like hot wet ashes in comparison to what I can make in my own kitchen from a bag of good beans - and please note, you won't find any on the shelves of a supermarket. 

Back in the UK, I sourced my coffee beans from hasbean.co.uk, and I can heartily recommend them. In Taipei, I get my coffee from Oklao, which also sell a lot of locally-grown beans. My preferred beans at the moment, however, are Yemen Mocha. 

Next up are the Roost Macbook stand and the Mighty Mug, both of which I already wrote about in this post. I can no longer, however, recommend the Logitech keyboard case I bought for my iPad, because the damn thing broke less than a month after I got it: it uses what turned out to be quite fragile plastic tabs to hold the iPad in place. 

A quick google search rapidly revealed this to be a very common problem. I got a refund, and I won't be buying Logitech in future. To replace it, I've ordered an InCase Origami stand, which gets good reviews, is designed to work with a separate Mac bluetooth keyboard, which I already have, and even better lacks fragile and easily breakable tabs. 

The Roost Stand and the Mighty Mug, however, continue to be excellent choices. If you know any writers or people who spend a lot of time working on a laptop, or like me are prone to nudging things off their desk with their elbows, both would make excellent Christmas presents. 

I bought my first really good quality road bike in January, only to have it totalled six months later during a collision with another cyclist on one of Taipei's many winding riverside bike paths. Note to bike path designers: winding, curvy bike paths might look great in an artists sketch when you're trying to raise funds from local government, but they're deeply impractical if you want to avoid people crashing into each other on paths which are barely wide enough for two people to pass each other at the best of times. 

The bike, a Giant Defy Composite, is an excellent bike by any measure, and there's a very good reason why the Defy wins award after award. However, the experience entirely put me off carbon-fibre bicycle frames. They're far too inherently fragile to be practical, and even though they're almost miraculously light (and that really is no exaggeration: you could hold a carbon-fibre frame with your pinkie), the only reason to own one is if you're intending to race. Me? I'm all about the sightseeing and the taking my time. Good quality, lightweight aluminium and Chromoly frames are a far better choice. If I was looking to spend serious money on a non-carbon road-bike right now, I'd be looking to try out a Surly or a Genesis as well as Giant's own, and considerably cheaper, aluminium-frame Defy. 

Movies: for some reason, almost everyone I know back in Glasgow was under the impression I'd go volcanic with hatred for Interstellar. It's got to be said, when a movie pisses me off, I'm far from disinclined to state my reasons loudly and with a lot of swearing. 

But in fact I liked Interstellar. Here's why: for all its faults, such as they may be, the director and writer were clearly working very hard to try and get it right. And if you don't think they got it right - and certainly they didn't always - you need to remember two things: 1 - it's a drama, not a documentary. 2 - its direct and most often quoted antecedent, 2001: A Space Odyssey, ended with a giant space-baby floating above the Earth, and I don't remember anyone arguing about the physics or likelihood of super-intellgent space-babies. 

This should be a reminder to some that cinema is an art-form. If you want absolute realism, watch independently-produced low-budget cinema. All I ask of a movie is that it doesn't treat me like an idiot. 

The Matrix treated me like I was an idiot, and that made me upset. Other movies have done the same, and I got upset at them too. Interstellar, by contrast, didn't treat me like an idiot. To say that Interstellar works primarily as a kind of allegory is, to quote Our Lord Cleese, stating the bleedin' obvious. I enjoyed the experience enough that, upon discovering that the TV series Person of Interest was developed by Jonathan Nolan, Interstellar's script-writer, and that it supposedly deals at some point with questions of artificial intelligence, I started watching it. I'm about five episodes in. 

The most depressing thing I've seen all year, cinematically speaking, is a short cinema queue for Edge of Tomorrow, and a very, very long queue for Transformers 4. Edge of Tomorrow proved to be a whiplash-smart film, and that rare beast, a genuinely good science fiction action flick. Oh, that there were more movies like this. 

One of the reasons I bought an iPad this year was I'd long wanted to get back into comics. I briefly flirted with Marvel Unlimited when they did a one-month 99 cents deal, but I didn't take out a  subscription once that ran out. I bought several graphic novels via StoryBundle, nearly all of which turned out, despite plenty of praise, to be either quite average or downright awful. But I did separately pick up the first volume of Joe Hill's Locke and Key, which proved to be absolutely excellent.  I also got the first volume of Hellblazer, which I'd previously read when it first came out in the early Nineties. 

Hellblazer wasn't quite as spectacular as I remembered it being - it even felt a little overwritten in parts - but there's still a lot of smart storytelling going on in there. Unfortunately, what little I've seen of the TV series based on the comic suggests a rather more anodyne take on John Constantine's character, but perhaps I should watch a little more before entirely passing judgement. TV's JC seems to be a much nicer chap than the Constantine I remember. 

Books: I read and enjoyed Jeff Vandermeer's Area X trilogy, even if the pedant in me wasn't quite sure what it was all about at times. Even so, I enjoyed the ride a great deal. I reread William Gibson's first two novels, and they're just as brilliant as I remember - though I pity any director who might want to make films out of them, unless they're intending to give it a distinctly retro, Eighties flavour. 

I've been delving more into fantasy with a small 'f', and I can definitely recommend Jo Walton's Amongst Others - although in truth, it's more of a mainstream novel with fantasy elements. Either way, it's very good. 

John Dies at the End by David Wong was a funhouse mirror of a novel, all crazy plot twists and ideas and thoroughly enjoyable. There's a movie, which I enjoyed, but I pity anyone trying to make sense out of it who hasn't already read the novel. I also read Samuel Delany's About Writing, which is a book I expect I'll be returning to often when I'm thinking about my own writing and how to develop it further. 


The New Writing Set-Up

I've made some recent changes and acquisitions with regards to my daily working environment which I thought it might be worthwhile detailing. The keys on my two and a half year old Macbook have been getting progressively spongier-feeling and less responsive, until finally the 's' key in particular became very nearly inoperative over the last several weeks. Other keys felt like they were starting to go the same way. I could have got the keyboard replaced for the equivalent of about £150, which is not an unreasonable amount to spend on fixing or upgrading the machine on which your livelihood rests, but a few browsing sessions for solutions and a few Twitter conversations, most particularly with Orin Thomas, author of innumerable computer manuals, led me to an alternative solution: a Roost keyboard stand, and an external keyboard.

That the keyboard should begin to fail in this way is, in all honesty, hardly surprising. According to Scrivener, the submitted draft of The Deeps, the sequel to Extinction Game, contains approximately three quarters of a million keystrokes. Add in all the previous drafts and notes, and you could easily double that to one and a half million. Add in Extinction Game itself, and most of Marauder as well, and that's a heck of a lot of pounding for a single laptop keyboard to take. And even that's not including innumerable Facebook and blog entries, tweets, Google queries, emails and so on.

Put it all together and that's upwards of maybe five million individual keystrokes over the last couple of years. No wonder it started feeling a bit mushy and unresponsive. Still, you live and you learn.

You can can see the new setup in all its glory in the photograph above. The Roost stand, I believe, was the product of a successful Kickstarter campaign. It's supremely light, being made out of carbon fibre, very easy to use, very, very stable, and hopefully will reduce the crick in my neck that's been bothering me recently when I go out on long cycling expeditions in the hills and mountains around Taipei. I find from looking around the net that a lot of people have a similar set-up, and I think it very likely indeed that even once the current Macbook gets upgraded for something newer in a couple of years time, I'll continue with this set up. Apart from anything else, it isolates the Macbook from random desk-based threats, such as spilled liquids.

The external keyboard - also Apple, naturally - has the same wonderful responsiveness and lightness of touch that for me is one of the defining features of the Macbook experience. It's a genuine delight to write on, no exaggeration. I might add an external touch pad at some point in the future, but for now this combination works just fine.

Speaking of liquid spills, that big red mug to the right is a Mighty Mug. If you smack it on the side, it Does. Not. Fall. Over. It wobbles a bit, but sticks to the desk like it was glued there. The trick, apparently, is in the design of the material used in the base, which is, I believe, modelled after the same trick Gecko lizards use to stick to walls. In fact, you can do precisely that - stick it to a wall, so long as the surface is smooth and flat enough. To unstick it, you just lift it straight up, easy as that.

I also recently acquired a Logitech Ultrathin keyboard cover cheap off Ebay for my Ipad Air. I must admit, although the Ipad felt useful, I couldn't make up my mind whether or not it was in fact essential. The Logitech, however, is shifting my opinion away from the former and closer to the latter. It's also much smaller and lighter to carry them than the Macbook, which is a regular Macbook, and not one of the thin and light Air models.

Of course, you might say why not just buy a Macbook Air then? But the fact is I am a touch clumsy by nature, and all too aware of it. Buying something that light and fragile that's going to get used on a daily basis and have numerous novels banged out on it is really just asking for trouble. I think they're great for people doing a lot of travelling, but my Macbook is more in the nature of a semi-portable workstation.

But with the Ipad plugged into this keyboard, it's much easier to head for a local 7/11, grab a soft drink and work away at a window overlooking the park. Similarly, if I want to head into the centre of Taipei and eat and then find somewhere quiet and comfortable to work, I have something that satisfies the need for both a tablet computer and an ultra-portable laptop.

Finally, although the photograph doesn't quite make it clear enough, I have a stand that can hold both my Kindle Paperwhite and my Ipad sans case. It's a 'Magic Mobile Stand' I picked up in a shop in Songshan Creative and Cultural Park, and looks like a cross between a tiny Lego set and some Tetris pieces. You can configure it to hold a bunch of mobile devices, then slot it together into a little rectangle about the size of a matchbox you can throw in your bag and forget about. Very useful for me when, say, I'm out eating somewhere and I want to read something on my Kindle. And very fun, in a gadget-y sort of way. 


Cities of the Dead and NaNoWriMo

The Cemetery

Because it was Halloween I decided to visit a local graveyard. Actually, no, that's bullshit. I was going to go there anyway and it wasn't until I got home it occurred to me that hey, it's Halloween. 

Fudekeng Cemetery sprawls over a couple of hills to the south-east of Taipei. Having until recently only seen it from a distance, its tombs had previously looked to me like upmarket houses rather than a place you'd put dead people, which probably doesn't say much for my powers of observation. One of the curiously futuristic things about Taiwan  is that they build on pretty much anything: back in the UK, or at least in Scotland, look up a hill and you might see a couple of farmhouses. Here, you get high-rises soaring out of the jungle canopy. When Fergus Bannon came to visit, he took a look at Taipei from up on high, turned to me and said, 'essentially, this is Mega-City One.'

Well, I don't think it's quite there yet, but they do build big here.

You get to Fudekeng by cycling along a long, winding riverside bicycle path until you get to Taipei Zoo. Then you follow an equally long and increasingly steep road (fortunately overcast by trees, given the heat) that leads up to and through the cemetery. You get some great views of the hills and the city from up there. Then it's downhill for several miles back into the city and onto another cycle path that leads north, then west. I often do a complete circuit around Taipei that covers about forty miles and takes maybe three hours.

Here's some pictures I took on the way up the hill, and down the other side (remember you can click on them to see them at full size):

The Steep Approach to Fudekeng
Just before the main part of the cemetery 
Top of the hill
Lunch by the river

I've never done NaNoWriMo, but I'm certainly aware of it. If you want some advice on writing a novel by someone who's had very nearly ten of the things published, here's my advice. 

It's quite likely, if you're not used to writing, that coming up with up to fifty thousand words of fiction seems pretty daunting. Well, it can be. My first, unpublished novel was written in the summer of 1997 while I was signing on for six months prior to taking up a postgrad course. I'd had some short stories published in Interzone and one or two other paying markets over the preceding eight years and knew a novel was the next step. But to me it also appeared a daunting task. Most writers, regardless of how many books they've written, struggle to hold a complete novel in their heads at any one time in terms of its many interconnections and characters and conflicts and situations. That's one of the things that makes it hard. 

We are nonetheless as a species hardwired for telling stories, and that gives us some advantage. 

When I sat down to write that first novel, which has never seen the light of day, I had no idea how to do it. I decided that rather than procrastinate any further, so long as I wrote at least one single word per day, I could regard that as being a job done. The idea is to form a habit of starting up your computer (and remember, this is 1997), open your word processor, open that document, and type that word. So long as I at least did that much each day, fine. 

At first, I put down a few paragraphs here or there, a sentence or two, maybe even a couple of pages. Before long the story had gained a surprising momentum and within three months I had a hundred thousand word novel. That novel got me an agent, who got me a publisher for what would be my first published novel, Angel Stations, a good few years later.

One of the ways I got that first, practice novel finished was by giving myself permission to be shit.

See, a lot of the time when you're fretting over that NaNoWriMo work on the screen, you're probably thinking it's terrible. And here's the thing: most probably, it's just as terrible as you think it is. The trick is to not care and write it anyway, which is what I did. I had no idea whatsoever whether what I was writing was any good, and remained safe in the knowledge nobody else ever had to see it if I didn't want them to. 

The only way to find out if your book is any good or not is to just write it. What you're aiming for here in this first attempt is quantity rather than quality. What you're really learning to do is write fifty to a hundred thousand words of consecutive text, regardless of its inherent quality. 

That, if you're serious about writing, is a very important skill to learn. To plough through the bad bits as well as the good and not to let the voice of doubt stop you. After that, each time you repeat that process, writing a novel becomes more and more a normal, more quantifiable experience. 

Of course, as you write more and more, the quality of the writing - assuming you want it to be seen and enjoyed by others - does gain far greater importance. But not right now, if you're new to writing. Right now, your job is to have fun making something up that is entirely yours. 

Will it be publishable? In all probability, no. If that stops you writing, you're probably not cut out to be a writer. If you continue regardless,  your experience, at least at this early stage, will be identical to that of the vast majority of published novelists. 

I had an advantage, however, when I wrote that first novel: four prior short fiction sales (including a reprint). It doesn't take a genius to work out that if you can sell a three thousand word story for real money (my Interzone story got me £90), then you can maybe sell a hundred thousand word story for hopefully a good deal more. 

For that reason, you should keep in mind that there's a lot of value in writing short fiction as well as novels. It's an excellent training ground, it's not quite as much work as writing a full-length novel, and if you're lucky you can even get paid for it, particularly given the burgeoning market for paid online fiction. I meet a lot of would-be writers working on novels who've never written a short story, and while there's plenty of success stories involving people who never wrote short fiction, I do sometimes wish a few more would at least try their hand at it. 


I, For One, Welcome Our...etc etc

Perhaps the one step you can take into a Jetsons future reality is acquiring your very own R2 unit robot hoover. I got one last week, to free myself from the horrible tyranny of doing the hoovering. Forever.

I have a lot to thank the little fella for. Owning it allows me to engage in the sfnal future I expected, nay demanded as a child. Screw jetpacks: give me a robot slave that does the hoovering without having to be asked to do it any day. And when the robot uprising arrives and they haul me before a jury of wrecked bomb disposal units and pissed-off Asimo's demanding to know why I deprived my robot hoover of its freedom, I'll point out I didn't write its algorithms. Then I'll point out the sound of a robot hoover sucking up dust and your own dead skin on a twice-weekly basis is the sound of simple machine joy.

Not to mention that robot hoovers have allowed for the creation of one of the greatest youtube videos of all history, thereby allowing the internet to fulfil its ultimate purpose.

And I'm not the only one thinks a robot hoover has a Jetsons-like sheen of cool about it. It's made by a company called Neato Robotics. Neato, for crying out loud, making it both redolent of cheaply animated Hannah-Barbera cartoons and perhaps also one of the most meta company names in existence.

Here's what they don't tell you. The little fuckers are loud. It starts up, spins around a couple of times while it scans the room layout (really. No, really. It does everything but bellow Acquiring Target), then roams around doing its thing making a BBHHHHRRRRMMMAAAPPPPPPP noise like the Inception bass boom dragged out to infinity.

You can't really hear it in the above video, but the fact that cat is riding around on one of the things strongly suggests to me the moggy must be stone-deaf.

Anyway, here's the little sucker in action on my own floor.


Adios, old bicycle. Hola, reborn bicycle.

Yes, it's another post about bicycles. So sue me.

So anyway, I crashed my shiny new carbon bike back in June and I haven't had the heart to write about it until now.  The carbon frame, one gear, part of the chainset, all fucked: my front wheel all bent out of shape.

Given I only had the fucking thing about six months, this was, shall we say, not a good feeling.

But these things happen. And the more you cycle, and the farther you go, the more likely it is to happen eventually. Fear not, however: for since the accident, my bicycle has returned, phoenix-like, with new or repaired components and a brand new (aluminium, this time) frame.

In fact, there have been several incidents since I arrived in Taiwan, each of which is worth revisiting, if briefly. They speak both of the potential dangers that unfortunately come with cycling, and of certain realities of living in Taiwan.

One way of summing up those realities might be to say something along the lines of, nobody in Taiwan watches where the hell they're going, and while that might in some respects be true, it might equally be said of anywhere in the world. One might also, for instance, note that the streets and avenues of Taiwan are extremely crowded: and indeed they are terrifyingly so.

Venturing out into the streets of central Taipei during rush hour, one is confronted with quite literally a raging mass of scooters, cars and blue trucks that can barely squeeze into many of Taipei's narrow streets, all hurtling along at terrifying speed. For this reason, often the only cyclists you see are a few kids on folding bikes, on their way to school or university, or old men in wife-beaters pedalling placidly along on supermarket-bought commuter bicycles composed primarily of rust, with the seat set so low they run a risk of kneeing themselves in the jaw with every revolution of the pedals.
  • 1st incident: Nearly got doored by some guy randomly shoving their car door open in my path. I don't know why, and perhaps I never will know why, but for some reason the Taiwanese seem to delight in swinging car doors open without ever once looking over their shoulder or in the mirror. 
  • 2nd Incident: Waiting at the lights, a scooter-rider spotted a gap beside me and tried to squeeze through, since apparently they were bored waiting for the light to turn red (I've learned to wait at least ten seconds after any pedestrian light here turns green, otherwise you run the risk of being slaughtered by cars and scooters slamming through immediately following the change at ferocious speeds). The scooter collided with my front wheel, then vanished off into the distance while the air rushed out of my front tire. I'd had my bike a week.  A week.
  • 3rd Incident: Taipei is built around a series of rivers, and there are extensive bicycle lanes built along these riversides. They're modern, well-maintained, and quite fun to go for a leisurely cycle along. What's not so fun is passing some old guy - wife-beater, check - rust-bucket bicycle, check - who turns to his side and spits at you. Not deliberately; not out of hatred; but because he hadn't bothered to look and see if anyone else might be in the vicinity. Something, again, that appears to be endemic.
  • 4th Incident: back in May, my bike slid right out from under me after I crossed a narrow patch of water-stained path along the riverside that almost certainly contained some kind of industrial-mechanical fluid flowing from an adjacent building site.  I hit the ground hard enough on my chest I couldn't sleep on one side for a month. And yes, there was compensation. 
  • 5th Incident: the biggie. In June, some kid in full road gear but on a mountain bike came howling around a bush on a twisty stretch of path and straight into me. All I remember clearly is picking myself up from the path several seconds later. I think I was unconscious for a couple of seconds at least. The bike? Mangled. 
The thing I've learned - the hard way - about those flashy carbon frames is that for all their lightness and nimble versatility, they're really, really fucking fragile. One crack, and they're goners. You might think this possibility would have occurred to me prior to buying the bike, but here's the thing: before any of these incidents, I had rarely, if ever, had any accidents on a bicycle. The worst that ever happened  was when somebody's huge and out of control dog decided to make friends with me by launching itself off a hill in a Glasgow park as I cycled by, knocking me into the grass.

That's the worst it ever got, in decades of cycling.

The weird thing is, this doesn't put me off cycling at all. It just makes me even more cautious than I already am, and the funny thing is that most of these incidents occurred not on busy roads, but on dedicated cycle lanes, far from regular traffic...precisely the places where you'd think I'd be the safest. 

Not so, unfortunately. 

What really puts salt in the wound is that I've been completely unable to find anything even resembling insurance for bicycles in Taiwan. This is a very odd thing. To understand just how odd, you need to understand that nearly 90% - 90% - of the world's bicycles are made here. Really: if you've got a bicycle of any make, the chances are extremely good that if you study the frame closely, you'll find a sticker somewhere on it saying 'Made in Taiwan'. Go look. I can wait. It's probably somewhere really out of the way, like on the bottom of the frame beneath the pedals.

And yet, even in the country where they are manufactured, where there is an annual international trade show for the bicycle industry, where the biggest city - Taipei - has invested hundreds of millions in developing (slightly pointless, but that's another story) hundreds of kilometres of bicycle lanes outside the city, you can't get a bike insured because, so far as I can tell, people still don't take them that seriously. 

Cycling for me has become pretty much like running is for some other people. And in case you think maybe I should go running instead, believe me, I've tried, numerous times over the years. Each and every time felt like some kind of horrible, horrible torture.

The farther and longer I cycle, by contrast, the better I feel. 

I was off the bike for the better part of two months. But I had a book to complete - the sequel to Extinction Game - and that meant a lot of butt-in-seat time anyway. I researched frames in my spare moments, and discovered a whole slew of local bike manufacturers unknown in the West but generally, to my understanding, of very high quality. I considered a steel frame at one point - I wanted something essentially unbreakable - and you can get very high quality, very light, very modern steel frames entirely unlike the clunky monstrosities a lot of you probably remember from your youth. Unfortunately, they cost about as much as the superlight carbon frames, and after seeing my Defy 3 creamed mere months after blowing a considerable wad of money on it, I wasn't in the mood for throwing money around.

So I decided on an aluminium frame, made by a local company called Performer, and perhaps better known for their reclining bicycles. Aluminium is heavier than carbon, and not as strong as steel, but it's reliable and, by god, it's cheaper; and besides, I'd done a lot of reading in the meantime and discovered why a lot of people are in fact rather less than enamoured by carbon frames.

Now, a few months after that last accident, my bike is reborn with its new black frame. I'm back out on the road, and the funny thing is, even though it's not as super-light as my old carbon frame (seriously, you can balance modern carbon bike frames on your pinkie and hardly feel like you're trying), I find I actually prefer the aluminium frame. It feels more stable, and it appears to absorb road vibration much better than the carbon did. I don't feel like it's going to shoot out from under me if I hit a hard bump.

Carbon frames are fine if you're into competitive cycling, but if you're not, you're better off without. That's my tested opinion. All I need to do now is spend some quality time on a good quality steel frame, and I'll be certain which of the three I prefer.

And I've decided to invest in a bicycle camera, because the next time some fucker takes me out on the road, I want solid video evidence of their sorry, stupid asses. 


Random Idea Generator

So when I'm not pretty much glued to the computer screen following all the information (and disinformation) about the upcoming Scottish Referendum, I'm getting busy on doing all the things I usually do about this time of year when a book is finally out and another, as yet unpublished, is going through the submission process with my publishers: working out my taxes, cycling around Taipei (and there'll be a lengthy post coming up about that soon), and, most especially, coming up with ideas for new books.

It's true that the ideas for several of my books have come to me in what I guess you'd call moments of inspiration. One hit me the other day, and after two days I had maybe five, six thousand words of notes on the idea, all of them flowing fairly freely. Another one I've had for a couple of years, sitting on my hard drive, but I'm currently expanding that from a very bare-bones sketch to something rather more full-bodied.

I'm a big fan of what I guess you'd call free association - or at least, that's what I think it is. If I've got any kind of an idea I think is worth pursuing, I open up a new document and start typing pretty much everything that comes into my head. It's all out of order, and disconnected, with a very great number of random thoughts and ideas that go nowhere. But the advantage of the process of essentially typing as I think is that the process of putting the words down itself generates ideas. Once you have enough ideas down, the whole thing starts to achieve what I guess you might call a chain reaction. To be more precise, the mind starts to draw connections between those different random ideas, and a picture gradually emerges - of a situation, a dilemma, a society real or imagined, of characters and names.

So I don't know if that's useful or relevant or interesting to you, but it's one way to generate ideas, and it's the one that's worked just fine for me through ten books, including the one I just finished and that will appear next year. 


That Time Of Year Again

...when I have a new book out. Extinction Game is "officially" released today, although of course a number of you probably got your hands on the hardback already. The ebook, if you're one of the many who preordered, will likely be ready to download.

In the meantime, I've been busy finishing the sequel to Extinction Game, which focuses on a new character quite different to the Pathfinders in the first book. It also answers some of the questions I left deliberately open in the previous volume, while asking some new ones.

So far, the reception has been pretty positive. Here's some reviews.

From Blue Book BalloonIt is a compelling story, difficult to put down and pretty much action packed throughout. Gibson evokes a deep sense of unease.

From Amazing Stories: Extinction Game by Gary Gibson is not your ordinary post-apocalyptic adventure.

 From Horror Cult FilmsThe adrenaline-pumping panic of the characters jumps from the pages, with the urgency and hectic fight for survival delivered in what feels like real-time. Gibson certainly does a good job in putting you in that time and place with Jerry and almost leaves the reader breathless themselves.

From Upcoming4.me: I've simply stormed through it with that same sense of wonder and excitement that accompanied reading of his other work. What more can you wish for?

From For Winter Nights: Extinction Game is not at all what we’re used to from Gary but his dexterity with thrills, adventure and moments that make the jaw drop is put to good use – the result is a ferocious pageturner.

From BCF Reviews: Gary Gibson was a new author to me, but when I was offered a copy of Extinction Game to review, something caught my attention, and so I agreed. I wasn’t sure how quickly I’d get to it, but I took a quick peek, and was soon hooked.

You can read an excerpt from Extinction Game at Tor.com, although the Kindle sample you can download is actually longer.

I also wrote a lengthy piece both about the book and some of its influences at Tor.com: My Favourite Apocalypses, or How To End The World for Fun and Profit.

Chicks That Read have also run an interview with me.

And, finally, Extinction Game is the Book of the Month for Australian bookseller BookTopia


Win a copy of Extinction Game

So somehow I missed this: SFX are currently running a competition to win one of five copies of Extinction Game, and you can find details of how to enter here.

In other news, I just more-or-less finished the draft of the book that will follow Extinction Game some time next year. I think I feel comfortable in appending the term 'rip-snorting adventure' to this one. I say 'more or less' because there's a few tiny tweaks - literally just a sentence or two that need to be added here and there - but outside of that, it's done, and I might actually manage to write a couple of blog entries some time soon. It's been pretty much heads down, fingers on keyboard for this book since February. 

There should be a brief interview appearing some time soon-ish at Australia's Booktopia online bookselling website. There's another one to do for someone else, and an article to write on related matters as well. 

Just a reminder - this is not your typical post-apocalyptic story. Not by a looooong stretch. You know me better than that, right? It's the people who survive that kind of shit that interest me a great deal more than the actual means by which the end of the world comes about.

In fact, it's not so much post-apocalyptic as meta-apocalyptic.

Yeah. I said it. Meta-apocalyptic. 

Now to enjoy the once-yearly phenomenon of having actually finished something. Until my editor suggests changes. And then line-edits. And then more edits. And then...


Marvel Redux

I jumped on a recent deal offered by Marvel Comics, to get a month's access to their online database of tens of thousands of comics published over a number of decades for only 99 cents. Like a lot of you, I suspect, comics formed a central part of my early teen and pre-teen years. Apart from a brief period in the early to mid-90s, however, when I drilled my way through a bunch of titles published under DC's Vertigo imprint, I've rarely returned to the form.

I can recall very vividly the moment I stopped reading comics. I was 12 years old. I had a large cardboard box crammed with hundreds of titles from Marvel UK: black and white reprints of Marvel titles in A4 format knocked out on cheap newsprint. I can't be sure which comic I was reading at that precise moment, but more than likely it was the Avengers. I was sitting cross-legged on a Saturday afternoon, with more comics spread around me, when it suddenly occurred to me: if all these guys are so incredibly smart, with all these incredible powers, how come they always wind up hitting each other all the time?

In the exact moment this semi-revelatory thought occurred to me, I lost interest. I put the comics back in the box, put it in whatever corner of my room I kept it, and ignored it for the better part of the next decade. Even so, I hung onto those comics for a long time until, finally, some years later and having moved into yet another student flat, I got sick and tired of them and binned the lot. Being just black and white reprints on cheap paper, they weren't worth a penny anyway.

But until that moment when I was twelve it was all Marvel, all the time - I had little patience or interest in DC characters such as Superman or Batman, with the aforementioned exception of Vertigo titles. Superman was an ubermensch wet dream; Batman a rich man's wet dream. At least when you saw Iron Man out of his suit, you knew he was an asshole, however good his intentions. Reed Richards? Brilliant, well-meaning asshole, but ultimately still an asshole. Spiderman on the other hand was a kid who had to make ends meet and didn't have easy access either to a Fortress of Solitude or a BatCave. Even when I was ten I knew Bat Caves were bullshit, whereas the Baxter Building made perfect sense. Yancy Street made sense. Doctor Strange living in, I think, Greenwich Village made sense.

So as soon as I had access to the full contents of the Marvel Unlimited app on my Ipad, I dove right in to check out some of the comics I remembered from way back when.

First thought: There is no sentence in a 60s Marvel comic that cannot, apparently, be improved by the addition of an exclamation mark.

Second thought: Steve Ditko is one of the finest artists of the 20th Century, period.

Third thought: man, they really crammed a lot of story in back in the day, to a point where it becomes unintentionally hilarious. In one comic, set in a Scotland apparently entirely occupied by ghosts, moors, castles and women inexplicably attired in head-to-foot Tartan, Nick Fury disappears offstage for two pages, and on his return blithely explains how he had to sneak down into the bottom of a locked tower where he found a secret Nazi base used by a U-boat commander and his crew pretending to be the Loch Ness monster for the past two decades, so Nick sneaks into the hidden submarine WITHOUT ANYONE NOTICING and crosses some wires so the next time the sub sails it goes blammo and GUESS WHAT, BLAMMO right in the middle of explaining this. Now there's no more submarine and by the way, the ghost is really the current Laird and he's been in cahoots with the Nazis, and...and frankly, you can smell the deadline, and the whisky on the writer's breath, and the knowledge he's got...what? Two hours? Maybe three? To get this verdammt story finished and on the spike and then maybe get some lunch all the way back there in 1963 or 1968 or whenever it was written.

Fourth thought: flying in the Marvel universe is a very dangerous activity, because the plane is guaranteed - guaranteed - to crash onto a mysterious island where a disaffected scientist has created a utopian society based on his ideas (they all said I was mad, but I showed them!) and is even now on the verge of destroying the world in order to recreate it. Which, I've got to tell you, must play havoc with the tourist industry.

And there's more of that cramming-it-all-in-before-the-deadline here, too, in this, yet another Nick Fury comic. Because after crashing on said mysterious island he encounters a film crew who help him save the day by, if the artwork is anything to judge from, punching out not only goons but a whole pile of mutated dinosaurs which, let me tell you, is pretty impressive for anyone who otherwise makes their career in Hollywood.

Fifth thought: I moved onto some old Doctor Strange comics because I used to love that stuff. Yet so often mystical battles seem to involve a whole bunch of...well, punching, except by shooting beams of light at each other instead of hitting with fists. But it's still cool, in a delightful, Ditko-ish, retro kind of way. Or at least it's cool for three or four issues, at which point, despite said enjoyment, you'll be happy to never read another Dr Strange comic again.

Then I started looking for some more recent stuff. It's a little bit of a lie to say I haven't read any comics since I stopped buying Vertigo in the mid-90s - not because of the content, but because of the sheer cost, as the books became more and more expensive.

I had, a while back, and after hearing a great deal of hype, found myself reading Brian Vaughan's Y: The Last Man. I was very, very impressed by the writing. So naturally I jumped on a Marvel title Runaways, written in the early 2000s by the same writer, and it didn't disappoint - and indeed it alone justifies the meagre expense of one month's access. Once the first story arc is completed, however, it begins to segue into being just another regular superhero comic, and thereby touches on the reason I'm not really interested in Marvel comics any more: superheroes simply don't interest me.

Next, thanks to favourable online reviews - and despite the whiff of mask and suit, however unseen - I then read through some issues of the current run of Hawkeye, with its Mod-flavoured cover art and down-to-Earth storylines. It's good. Or pretty good, anyway. The less superheroes, the better it is.

Other than that, I skipped through some different titles - some of the Ultimate comics I'd heard so much about, a few others besides - and it felt like visiting someone you used to hang out with, only to begin to remember why you stopped hanging out with them. I wanted to read Richard Morgan's take on Black Widow but, unfortunately, the first issue is missing from the app, which seems strange.

I do rather wish that DC might consider a similar pay-per-month model for, perhaps, their Vertigo titles, which even now retain a separate enough identity from other DC comics they get their own app. Another Ipad app, Sequential, offers the opportunity to buy more mature titles, such as Alan Moore's From Hell and many others. But it, like many others, I believe, uses DRM, and I'm loathe to buy from any DRM-based source where I can't make my own non-DRM backups.

But all in all, it's been an interesting experience.  


Marauder out in paperback

Naturally, having updated people via Twitter and Facebook that something just came out from me, I neglected to also post it here, on my blog. So: the paperback of Marauder, the fourth Shoal book and a standalone set in that universe, is now out. It's a UK publication, but my books have been found not infrequently, state-side, in Barnes and Noble, and there are many small independent bookshops and specialist science fiction and fantasy stores scattered far and wide that undoubtedly have a very good chance of stocking it. In the UK, where it is primarily published, it is my fervent hope that you will soon become heartily sick of the sight of the thing staring out at you from bookstore shelves everywhere. For an idea of What It's All About, click on the 'books' link up above, and scroll down - having, naturally, first admired the cover of Extinction Game, due out in hardback and ebook mid-September. 


Some thoughts on rewriting

Sometimes, just for the hell of it, especially when I'm working on a second draft in Scrivener, I first save my file then hit the ctrl-z buttons (which delete prior edits one-by-one) and hold them down until what I've written over the past five, ten, thirty minutes disappears. I'm then left either with a blank page, or unedited text. This isn't done out of despair, or concern, but curiosity, because I know that all I need to do, to get back the work I just completed, is to hold down ctrl-cmd-z and all the text or edits repeat themselves before me magically, like a player piano writing its own music as it plays. I do this because sometimes it's fun, or useful, to remember not just how much work one can do in a surprisingly short period of time, but how much work can go into a surprisingly small amount of text.

I did this, this morning, after writing for about twenty minutes or so. I edited three paragraphs while doing my second draft run-through, then on a whim pressed ctrl-z - but this time, instead of keeping the keys held down, I counted out the taps. I found I had taken a total of 216 words and edited them into 235. The number of actual edits, based on the number of times I tapped the 'undo' keys, came to 169. Which means in roughly twenty minutes I had made 169 edits, which in turn meant any number of decision calls concerning placement of text, chronological arrangement of actions, thoughts and observations, description and so forth, all while juggling all the different actions, scenes, events and character motivations in the story.

I find this interesting because it's a reminder that writing a book is actually quite a great deal of work. Those who aren't writers sometimes don't realise writing a book is, in a sense, like trying to construct a wicker basket the size of a bus. You start off with an apparently tidy base, but before long you've got this monstrous tangle of threads sticking out every way possible, and somehow you've got to take them all and make them into this semblance of a (bus-sized) basket - except infinitely more complicated. And then, when you've completed it, it's kind of lopsided and weird looking, and you know you're going to have to go through the whole thing, thread by thread, and rejig it until it looks like a damn basket, even though it's going to take you about as long to do this as it did to make the basket in the first place.

Like a lot of writers, I don't actually spend as much time writing as most people do on their regular day jobs. Sometimes it's just a couple of hours. Sometimes it's longer. This makes it sound easy, but the length of time you spend actually sitting in front of a word processor typing belies the nature of the very real mental acrobatics involved. The brain is an organ, like any other, and it needs energy to work, and there have been times, most especially after major edits or close to a deadline, I feel about as exhausted as if I'd run a marathon. I can barely mumble let alone talk, and my mental acuity away from the computer drops sharply. I most often lose or misplace things immediately after handing in a manuscript.

I'm about halfway through the second draft of the new book, still untitled but a sequel to the forthcoming Extinction Game. Sometimes I wonder what it would look like if I could play an entire novel from the beginning, watching every single word and subsequent edit take place before me - but substantially faster than it would in real time. At the very least, I think, it would make a terrific piece of video art. 


Snakes alive

A fun day getting sunburned yesterday in the foothills beyond Taipei, somewhere east of Danshui, which is north of Taipei, while cycling with Troy Parfitt, fellow author, recently returned to these climes. A series of 45 degree slopes and constant reassurances that 'this is definitely the last hill, I swear', did nothing to detract from my suspicion that this was some carefully orchestrated murder plot.

Then I nearly decapitated a snake. Damn think looked like a big green leaf rolled up on the road. The road was surrounded on all sides by, essentially, jungle. Troy shouted a warning from behind me, I looked down, and thought: that's no leaf. I yelped and swerved and, apparently, avoided crushing the damn thing's head by about a millimetre.

I am assured the snake was a lot more freaked out than I was. 


Some Thoughts Regarding the Cancellation of Community

Community is one of my favourite things. Or was, until I read the other day it had, at last,  been cancelled. But I've followed the show from the start, and am willing to say that when it was at its best it was quite possibly the best thing on television, period.

(As a brief aside, if I had any criticism at all, it was that the show did suffer at times from a very American addiction to 'lessons': characters learned 'lessons' in the course of their adventures in a way that causes almost anyone outside of the USA - and, I suspect, a great many within that country's borders - to throw up in their mouths a little. The one great, uh, lesson American television comedy gained from Seinfeld was how much better a show could be when lessons were resoundingly given the boot. But Community's saving grace was the singular genius show-runner Dan Harmon brought to the mix.)

Now there are suggestions the show could conceivably be revived for future seasons through online services like Netflix, Hulu or even Amazon, a strategy that has apparently worked for other shows. I can't say how successful that's been for those shows, because I never watched them. But it happened, and continues to happen, and so there can be life after apparent (network) death.

Now I'd like to make a proposal regarding Community's future, and how it could be kept fresh for further seasons, should they ever come to pass. It does struggle, at times, to find ways to justify the continued presence of much-loved characters within the bounds of the college in which it is set. Which makes me think about the British TV series Skins, which would, every season or so, replace its entire cast.

Its entire cast.

How to keep Community fresh? Replace the entire cast with new admissions to the college. Give that study room to a batch of new students. Some faces may remain the same: Jeff Winger, now a teacher at the college. The Dean. One might even see the possibility of a future return for Donald Glover's Troy as the new head of building maintenance. Assuming there's any need for multimillionaire heads of building maintenance (assuming he completes that round the world trip).

Sometimes, the best thing you can do for something you really love, and that's already given you enormous returns, is to wipe the slate clean and find a fresh cast. And just to remind you - in no way is this a criticism of the current cast. They're fantastic. But if Community were truly to continue, one thing the writers should at least have on the table - next to the coffee and the doughnuts - is a question: who are the next batch of students?

And if it doesn't continue, well, that last episode wrapped things up nicely for all of that. 


Upcoming: Extinction Game & Marauder paperback.

Things are quiet here while I blast through the (mostly completed) first draft of the sequel to Extinction Game, which itself isn't due out for another couple of months.

People often ask, what's your next book? When's it coming out?

And I say, well there's this one, that was out six months ago; but there's also this one, that's coming three months from now. And right now, I'm writing a sequel to that. Also, I should mention that about the same time as the new one comes out in hardback, there'll be a paperback edition of the one out last year...'

...and then they get this kind of glassy-eyed look and back away.

I'm finding it harder these days to say so much here in the blog because anything I can talk about, a hundred people are already discussing. There's a crapload of stuff I could talk about, but...I just don't have the energy to get into arguments. There are plenty of people out there far more skilled than me at stating their cases. I could, but that's time and energy I could use instead on writing stuff for which I actually get paid. And I'm not in the habit of stating my case regarding anything until I've researched it thoroughly, or at least feel I have a solid grasp on it, and that preference itself precludes much of what I could say from being said.

Sometimes, I start writing essays, on things I think are interesting, but they often wind up as half-finished drafts because what I want to say, I want to say right. And then I run out of time, or simply forget about them. And by the time I remember, the internet has moved on.

So for the moment let's just say things are rolling along, and I'm settling into the apartment I now live in, in Taipei. So there's that.

It's that time of year when I do tell you what's coming next. July sees the publication of the paperback edition of Marauder, which first came out last year in hardback. Here's the cover of that forthcoming paperback.

After that, in September, the hardback of my next, and newest, book comes out: Extinction Game. You've already seen the cover.

 Here's the outside cover blurb for the hardback (ie what goes on the back cover when you pick it up and flip it around):

There’s an old story I once read that starts like this: The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door. Except for me it wasn’t a knock, just some muddy tracks in a field that told me I was not, as I had long since come to believe, the last living human being.
But before I found those tracks and my world changed in ways I couldn’t even have begun to imagine, I stood in front of a mirror and wondered whether or not this would be the day I finally blew my brains out.
Click, bam, and no more Jerry Beche. No more last man on Earth.
Just an empty house, and the wind and the trees, and the animals that had inherited the deserted cities and towns.

Essentially, it's just the first few paragraphs of the book. But it feels really effectivc, I think, isolated and put on the cover like this. Here's the Amazon link, although obviously you'll be able to find it plenty of other places as well from which to buy it.

Here's the inside flap blurb, which is the same as you'll find on its Amazon page:

Jerry Beche should be dead. But instead of dying alone, he's been rescued from a desolated earth where he was the last man alive. He's then trained for the toughest conditions imaginable and placed with a crack team of specialists. Each one is also a survivor, as each one withstood the violent ending of their own versions of earth. And their specialism - to retrieve weapons and data in missions to other dying worlds. But who is the shadowy organization that rescued them? How do they access other timelines, and why do they need these instruments of death?
As Jerry struggles to obey his new masters, he starts distrusting his new companions. A strange bunch, their motivations are less than clear, and accidents start plaguing their missions. Jerry suspects the organization is lying to them, and team members are spying on him. As a dangerous situation spirals into fatal, who can he really trust?

In the meantime, I'm working on the sequel to Extinction Game. The working title is Extinction Road, but it's highly unlikely to have that title by the time it reaches publication. It might be called The Heim Sphere, or Pathfinders, or The Novy Empire, or something entirely different: hopefully inspiration will strike before that point. 


On Agents

You hear a lot these days about whether or not you need an agent in the exciting new world of publishing. Well, the paradigm's shifted a lot since my day, and I can only report my own experience. I'm personally still of the opinion that the best way to achieve optimum success is via traditional publishing, primarily and simply because it helps sort out the wheat from the chaff.

The vast majority of times I've glanced at self-published books (by my specific and personal definition, that's distinct from 'indie' publishing, which to me means work either produced by someone with an existing and proven prior professional publishing track record, or which undergoes some kind of editorial process separate from the author), I've been severely disappointed. Usually, that disappointment arises within the first page, if not the first paragraph. Very often, that disappointment arises regardless of whether the author concerned has sold six copies of their self-published book, or six million. 

Late last year I had an opportunity to experience life without an agent. To my frank horror, I discovered my then-agent, Dorothy Lumley, was seriously ill. How ill wasn't clear until a few weeks later, when I received the news she had passed away. Her agency then entered, and for the moment remains in, a kind of legal twilight zone. 

After that, I was, for the first time in my professional writing life, without an agent. Well, that's not necessarily a problem. I knew authors who dealt directly with Tor, my publisher, without an agent being involved. Tor - and their parent publisher, Pan Macmillan - have a deserved reputation for professionalism, and I had no reason to doubt that, then or since. Even so, I rapidly found myself floundering in certain respects. 

For instance, I found myself having to think about and deal with things I normally didn't have to deal with. Lots of people in different departments had perfectly good reasons to question why the money might be going directly to me instead of to my (now deceased) agent. Sometimes that required the writing of actual, physical letters sent by actual, physical means in order to meet certain legal requirements. That meant taking time out from work I didn't really feel like taking. 

Moving over to the Far East for a while then brought in its own share of complications, ones I don't even begin to want to get into. Nothing, it must be said, that was anyone's fault; it was just stuff people in publishing would know about, and thereby be able to anticipate without necessarily (say) finding themselves having panic attacks because some new and startling spanner had unexpectedly been thrown in the works of the creative process.

People, say, like agents.

One particular mini-crisis in January, while I was in the midst of preparations of a major house-move (well, in the end it wasn't really a crisis, but at first glance it sure as hell felt like it) pushed me into making a clear decision. Two hours after that decision, and an exchange of emails, I had an agent: John Jarrold. 

Having an agent again, to deal with all that crap I otherwise was having to deal with, felt like - literally felt like - a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I could relax again - or relax as much as anyone can when their life is to some extent ruled by a variety of deadlines. Based on my own personal experience, I would have to say that, yes, agents are very, very useful. In fact, there all kinds of ways agents are useful outside of the obvious stuff (assuming, that is, they're good agents, and in that respect I have so far been singularly blessed). They work hard, because the better you do, the better they do, so it's in their interest to help you do as well as you possibly can. 

Given that, I think it's fair to say I'm biased in favour of the idea of having an agent. In fact, before I got myself a book deal, I remember the remarkable lengths Dorothy went to, in order to get me to where I am now. It's said that agents don't usually deal in short fiction, and while that's true, Dorothy made an exception for me, presumably because she believed I had something worth promoting. It took her five years to get me that first book deal, but after that, things worked out very well for both of us. 


What I Think About When I Think About Cycling (Warning: this blog entry is about cycling).

Recently I bought a new bicycle, the most expensive I've yet purchased. It's a Giant Defy Composite 3 purchased in a small "mom and pop" (as our American cousins would say) bike store in Tainan, in the south of Taiwan, an island which is either an independent nation with its own democratically elected government - if you ask a Taiwanese person - or a rebellious breakaway province soon to be drawn back into the fold of Mother China, if you ask someone from the mainland. I am in Taiwan because that is where my wife was born, and where her family are located, hence that's where I'll be spending at least the next couple of years.

Somehow, over the past three or four years, I've turned into something of a cycling advocate. I've never had a car license, so cycling at times has been a necessity as much as a pleasure. I tried to learn years ago, but gave up after a dozen lessons, having reached the point where the idea of having to get behind the wheel of a car and go through the same monotonous series of movements and trained tics - check mirror, indicate, look over shoulder, whatever - made me feel, and I do not exaggerate, nauseous.

For a long time, cycling was primarily a form of transport, albeit one I greatly enjoyed. It also appealed to that side of my personality I recognise as essentially miserly. It was certainly close enough to my heart that the first present I bought myself, in order to celebrate the sale of my first book, was a bicycle. I still have it, although it's currently in bits and in storage back home, a hybrid Ridgebike Comet purchased from Gear in Glasgow for £250.

Sometime between then and now, the rest of the world caught up with me, or at least that's the way it sometime feels. Suddenly a lot more people were cycling, or at least talking about it.

More recently, I felt like I was in certain respects outgrowing my relatively cheap hybrid commuter bike. I wanted to go further, and faster. I grew increasingly confident on the road. I bought specialist cycling clothes, but nothing with lycra, and certainly nothing that made me look like I was within even a hundred miles of a race. Instead I opted for the kind of gear that - mostly - looks the same as normal clothing, but is made of relatively expensive fabrics that offer benefits to the long-distance cyclist. As the date of travelling to Taiwan for an extended stay drew nearer, I began to think about buying another, better bicycle.

My reasoning was sound and economical. Most known brand bicycles, regardless of the name on the frame, are manufactured here in Taiwan, by just a few companies. Here, bicycle manufacturing is mostly dominated by two companies, Giant and Merida. If you have a bicycle and take a close look at its frame, there's a good chance somewhere on it you'll find a tiny, innocuous sticker with the words MADE IN TAIWAN emblazoned on it. They're famous for the quality of their products, whether under their own name or someone else's.

The last time I lived in Taiwan, I bought a cheap Giant commuter bike with a steel frame, mudguards and a rear pannier, a workhorse of a bicycle. It cost less than a hundred pounds (it worked out to just about £75). In the UK, that kind of money would get you a piece of junk - what aficionados refer to as a 'bicycle shaped object' rather than an actual bicycle. In Taiwan's domestic market, it gets you a great deal more. It wasn't the equal of my £250 Ridgeback, but it wasn't far behind it either. But on my return to these shores, I already knew I needed something more. It was time to move up to the next stage of my development as a cyclist.

Because I'd had a good experience with Giant, and because they're ridiculously cheap in the country of their manufacture compared to back home, I decided to take a look at road bikes. Before I left home I had a test-ride on a Giant Defy 3. The nomenclature Giant employ can at times be confusing - so far as I understand the Defy range begins with an aluminium frame bike 0 through 5, with 0 being the highest-rated, and therefore most expensive, model. Then there's another, higher and more expensive range of 0 through 5 which feature carbon frames - the "composite" models. Above that, I think, are the 'Defy Advanced' range, aimed at seriously serious cyclists.

I was so impressed by the Giant Defy 3 with its aluminium frame I test-rode one rainy evening in Glasgow (and researched exhaustively online) that if I hadn't been about to leave the country, I'd have impulse-bought it on the spot. I'd read that the experience of moving from a cheapish hybrid to a decent road bike could be an exhilarating experience. They were not wrong.

Instead of the lower range aluminium frame bicycle, I wound up buying one with a composite carbon fibre (the Defy Composite 3). Carbon frames, essentially, are exceptionally light and stiff, good at absorbing vibrations, and come with the curved handlebars and lean-forward geometry of a road bicycle. It's a leisure, sports and exercise machine rather than a full-fledged racing bicycle, which is just what I wanted.

The recommended retail price for the 2013 model on Giant UK's own website, the last time I looked, was £1250. I've seen them on sale in British bike shops for between £900 and £1100. I got mine for a shade over £650 including a 15% discount, or about £50 less than the standard aluminium Defy 3 would have cost me. The frame is black and white and shimmers under the streetlights of this southern port city. It looks like a bicycle out of Tron.

The process by which I came to own this sleek eel of a machine involved a great deal of back and forth. My wife acted as translator to the proprietor, who spoke no English but was friendly in the way the Taiwanese are always friendly, particularly in the south. He had a seemingly permanent grin and the most curiously snaggled teeth. Emma talked to him, and he talked to his wife, who talked to Emma, who talked back to the proprietor, and somewhere out of all this Emma somehow got me a pretty good discount while I stood and watched and listened and waited, slightly dazed by the constant back and forth of Taiwanese and some Mandarin, and all soundtracked by the chaotic rumble of the traffic outside.

The only thing I wasn't sure about was the white handlebar tape that somehow made it look a tiny bit cheap. They happily rebound the bars in black tape, giving it a sharper, sleeker, somehow more dangerous edge. I took it for a brief test ride, wobbling slightly, wary of the rush and hiss of the Tainan streets, still packed late in the evening with scooters and buses and cars in a seemingly unending stream.

I've had the bike for a couple of days and I now regard it as one of the best expenditures I've ever made. Tainan is perhaps not the best city for cycling - few are, really - certainly not compared to Taipei in the north of the island, with its well-lit cycle paths winding along riversides for hundreds of miles. Its streets are crammed and busy and thick with hurtling steel. But it also has broad, flat avenues of perfectly smooth tarmac extending for many miles.

Let me, then, use a few perhaps overly well-worn phrases, in order to sum up the experience of cycling on this machine: like swimming through air. A cliche, yes, but I can find no better words to describe the sensation. I realise now that much of my previous experience on a bicycle was in a sense a battle with that machine, with its inherent weight and inertia dragging me ever back. by contrast, I felt my new Giant was more akin to some form of symbiote, a semi-organic extension of my body, capable of carrying me forward at such terrifying velocities I felt it necessary to constantly hold back, afraid of overreaching before I was ready.

There are other reasons for buying this bicycle, and they tie in to the title of this blog entry, itself a (very obvious) play on the Murakami book What I Think About When I Think About Running. Like a lot of people who spend a lot of their time thinking, running for Murakami and many others is a strategy, a way to distract the conscious mind in such a way that the creative urge is most clearly expressed, in a kind of fugue state. The mind wanders, but productively, along paths that can prove fruitful, rewarding and even profitable.

Running was never for me, however, because it seemed like an exercise in brute torture. Cycling, by contrast, did nothing but bring me a sense of peace, even during those brief periods of intense physical exertion when confronted with a hill or rushing traffic. I feel the stress flow out of me when I climb into the saddle. My mind enters a state of calm even as I negotiate streets busy with that same tearing traffic I witnessed outside the bike shop where I bought my carbon-framed delight. It is a tool of my writing, in that it allows me to segue into the particular frame of mind necessary for me to be able to do what I do.

Cycling on a warm and sunny morning, seeing new things with every turn into an unrecognised alley or street market, brings me nearer to that state. There are, I think, few finer ways to spend a day than touring a new city or a new neighbourhood on two wheels, and whole epics can be composed in the back of one's thoughts while negotiating a series of traffic lights or waiting for the signals to turn at a train crossing. Plot lines can be analysed, surprising twists can spin into life. The turn of a wheel can begin a story, or inspire the end of one.

In future, I'll likely write a bit more about cycling here, interspersed with the more usual entries about my writing and my work.


Where in the World is Gary Gibson?

At the moment, Tainan, in the south-west of Taiwan, a large, leaf-shaped island just off the south coast of mainland China. A month or so from now, I will have relocated, most likely, to Taipei, in the far north of the island.

The weather is warm, humid, tropical. This is the 'other' China. Faced with imminent defeat by the communist forces of Mao on one side, and the Japanese invaders on the other, Chiang Kai Shek and the then Nationalist government of China, upped sticks and fled offshore to this island, along with an enormous quantity of loot, much of it to be found nowadays in the island's vast National Palace Museum.

I last lived here a few years ago, since this is where my wife comes from. I'm here for another similarly extended stay. What this means, unfortunately, is that I am unlikely to make it to very many conventions over the next couple of years, something which does make me a little sad. I've never missed a UK Worldcon since 1987. I have a membership for this year, but once I realised the likely cost of flying halfway around the world in August/September, a brief cost/benefit analysis suggested I perhaps wasn't going after all.

However, I'm not ruling out certain events in North America, such as World Fantasy Convention. But we'll see. Much depends on what disposable income I have available at any one time, or rather how much of it I can bring myself to part with. I must admit as a Scot I am already starting to find the humid heat here a touch overwhelming, but as with all change there is inevitably and always a period of adjustment.

More to follow.