Count Motorhead

I had the privilege of seeing Motorhead play live, once, some time in the mid-90s at one of Glasgow University's two student unions. It was pretty great. I was very sad to hear of his passing. Having Lemmy in the world was one of the few things that made having to live through the Eighties bearable (shit music, shit fashion, at least in the mainstream).

I've long been a fan of the band Hawkwind, for whom Lemmy was also, for a number of years, the bass player. It's hard to think of an appropriate tribute to such a remarkably iconic figure, since everyone and their Granny has by now posted videos on Facebook of the band playing Ace of Spades or Killed by Death or even Silver Machine when he was still in his old band.

Few people are aware Lemmy was also a character in a novel. A really, really terrible novel called The Time of the Hawklords, purportedly co-written by Michael Moorcock (who had some involvement with the band) and Michael Butterworth in the mid-70s. A quick google reveals something I didn't know: Moorcock had nothing to do with it, and worked hard to disown the book.

Having read it, or at least a fat chunk of it, I really don't blame him. The writing is amateurish at best, and there's no trace of anything that might have come from Moorcock's hand.

Weirdly enough, my memory informs me that the plot featured the characters roving a largely depopulated Earth, the majority of the species having opted instead to go and live inside a vast virtual reality. In other words, it's a work of singularity science fiction before anyone started using that word in that context, and does indeed contain Lemmy in the form of a character known as - wait for it - Count Motorhead.

You could track it down and read it, but you wouldn't thank me. 


That was the year that was: books read, movies seen, TV watched in 2016.

It's my second year (back) in Taiwan. I finally finished redrafting the sequel to Extinction Game. It was originally going to be called The Deeps, but Pan MacMillan's marketing department didn't like that, apparently, so now it's Survival Game. I'm pretty happy with the results. In truth, my editor, Bella Pagan, is probably a big part of the reason why it came out as well as it did. A good editor is the one who tells you the things you don't want to hear. The revised ending in particular has come out very well. Anyhow, you'll find out all about it once August 2016 rolls around, because that's when it finally comes out.

We acquired a dog, Cooper, currently asleep in the same room as me. There are also some career changes afoot, but I'm not quite ready to talk about the details yet. Maybe in another few months, once I've got a better idea of what's happening.

I sold my first short story in nearly twenty years, Scienceville, which was published in Interzone in December 2015. I have several other stories doing the rounds of various markets. Hopefully I'll be able to write more next year as well. I never found it easy to write short stories, because there was something about the writing of them I just couldn't figure out. And then it just...clicked. It's also resulted in me reading a lot more short fiction than I used to, and that's definitely a good thing.

Movies: The Force Awakens was...okay. It relied too heavily on the original movies and was essentially Disney playing the safest bet possible. Avengers: Age of Ultron was just fun. To be honest, I'm incapable of being entirely critical of the Marvel movies because I grew up reading those comics. But so far they've done a pretty excellent job of taking the comics and adapting them to the screen. Ant-Man was far better than it had any right to be, given the loss of its original and highly talented director.

I think we can safely say the Fantastic Four movie is proof of just how badly these things can be done.

Fury Road was a standout for me because its' the first Mad Max movie I've seen that I actually liked. I wasn't keen on them when I was a kid, possibly because they seemed to appeal to the most thudding morons at school. I finally watched the second movie this year all the way through, and it wasn't bad. Not great, but not bad. But Fury Road was the perfect distillation of all the elements of the previous films. The best way I can think to describe it is that it's either a 2000AD comic strip with a vast budget, or an Iron Maiden video without the song. But the flames! The guitars! The soundtrack! The visuals! All were amazing.

I also managed to catch Ex Machina, but to be honest I found it a little disappointing. It seemed, if anything, like a missed opportunity, featuring supposedly very smart people behaving like absolute dunces because the plot would be impossible without the characters being severely damaged. The non-human characters were really just one more variation on overly-familiar and frankly cliched tropes.

Outside of genre, the stand-outs for me were Birdman, Whiplash, and The Gift, probably in that order. Sicario also deserves a mention, because it seems like it's going to be a standard cops-and-heavily-armed-drug-dealers movie, then turns out to be something quite different. An arthouse action movie, if you will.

Similarly, The Gift may have been misunderstood, by those who didn't see it, as a standard stalker/horror movie. It isn't. It's so much more than that. If you have a Netflix account and a decent VPN, you can watch it on the French Netflix.  Then you can come back here and thank me.

Actually, Netflix has turned out to be an absolute Godsend. Especially with a VPN to get past the regional restrictions. The Netflix Original series of Daredevil was...entertaining, but proved, for me, far from essential. Jessica Jones was much better, and David Tennant as Kilgrave was terrific. But it worked best the longer it stayed away from any reference to its origins as a superhero comic.

I also had fun with Sense8, even if it did get a bit...Californian at times. I'm hoping for less group hugs in season 2.

I think Jodorowsky's Dune deserves a special mention. I caught it on Netflix. I still haven't managed to watch more than the first twenty minutes of Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain, although there's something deeply compelling about it. Actually, the most fun I have with that movie is probably just when I try and describe it (or the first twenty minutes) to other people. I once tried watching El Topo, but gave up after ten minutes. Sorry, it just seemed quite, quite terrible.

But Jodorowsky comes across in the documentary as really quite a lovely man and very charming. Shame his movie version of Dune, most likely, would have been deeply impenetrable if it had ever been made. I say that with some uncertainty, however, since the glimpses we see of the Dune storyboard are also quite, quite compelling. So maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it could be an animated movie some day?

I think the Amazon adaptation of The Man in the High Castle deserves a shout-out. It was very good (I had a free month of Prime to use, and took advantage of the offer to watch the whole series), even if it took a remarkably laissez-faire approach to adapting the book. But then again, the book as it stands really can't be adapted to the screen very easily, I suspect. Adopting a more straightforward thriller structure was likely the only way they could do it.


I read 43 books in 2015, and took out two subscriptions - one to Interzone, and one to Wired. Both were digital subscriptions. The last was a special offer, hence dirt cheap.

I re-read several books this year: I use a website called ereaderiq.com to track the prices of Kindle books I'm interested in and grab them when they drop to a certain level. In this way, I've been slowly buying up electronic copies of old favourites to reread on my Kindle and/or iPad.

So far, I still read exclusively ebooks.

I re-read Philip K. Dic's The Man in the High Castle because, well, Amazon. It's been many years since I read it and what a strange, if nonetheless deeply compelling, book it is. A statement that might be made about much of Dick's catalogue. I remember being eternally flummoxed by the ending of the book when I was younger. I'm less so now, although I certainly did come away with at least a few questions as yet unanswered.

Peter Watt's Firefall was something of a stand-out. I can't necessarily say I enjoy reading Watt's books, which is neither to say that I don't. But I always come through the experience feeling enriched and enlightened by some very big ideas.

On a lighter side, I read those of Kage Baker's Company books I hadn't yet got around to. The most fun books I've read in quite a while, even if she had some very, very strange ideas about a) Britain and b)the future and what it would be like.

I was very underwhelmed by Michel Faber's Under the Skin; a silly book, that essentially collapsed in on itself halfway through, and contains absolutely no surprises to anyone who's read even a scintilla of decent sf. Far better was Ian Sales' All That Outer Space Allows. Louise Welsh, a Glasgow crime writer I've always had a soft spot for, did a better job with genre - and indeed, with disaster fiction - with A Lovely Way to Burn.

I read Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers for the first time. It's...odd. Extremely so. Was this really considered a classic? The first half is set in a training camp that, powered space suits aside, could have been set in Fifties America, with extra recruit-whipping. Not to mention a Heinlein stand-in howling at classrooms full of kids about the horrors of democracy. As a result, I look at the movie with far greater respect. No wonder the director couldn't take his source material the least bit seriously. Or was Heinlein writing some kind of clever satire? Perhaps, but I doubt it. The whole book reads like one long howl of 'get off my lawn, you damn longhaired commies'. Or at least it does as far as I could read it: I wound up skimming the last fifty or hundred pages because it was full of fairly predictable military moves involving planets, burrows and mean, mean aliens.

I reread Childhood's End by Arthur C.Clarke, which while terribly old-fashioned, is thoroughly decent in only the way that Clarke chap could be. Thoroughly indecent but utterly brilliant would be an apt description of Lucius Shepard's Two Trains Running, which I first read on Omni Online, of all places, many, many moons ago. Highly recommended.

In non-fiction. Ben Macintyre's Agent Zigzag, about a British double agent in World War 2, was hilarious. Who thought the Nazis loved English country dancing so much?

Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: a brief history of humankind was also quite brilliant. So was Jon Ronson's Frank, about his time in a band with Frank Sidebottom, a man who can only possibly make sense to the British.

Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States was one of the most eye-opening books I've read in a long, long time. If you were to pick one book out of all these to read, make it this one.

Again in the fiction stakes, I bought Jay Stringer's Ways to Die in Glasgow almost entirely because I liked the title and the cover. So naturally I bought it and it's quite excellent. It's a very disconcerting book because half of it is set literally within five minutes of my flat back in Glasgow. I know every single bar, street and location mentioned in the book, even if some of them I would never dare to tread within. I'd highly, highly recommend it. I strongly suspect Stringer is or was a close neighbour of mine.

Every now and then I try and break out of familiar reading patterns by finding something unlike anything else I'd normally read. Unfortunately, the experiment rarely seems to work, and this is one of those times. The book I chose was the New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, only the first third of which I could bring myself to finish. Does something this amateurishly-written genuinely rate as high-quality literary fiction?

A very good book on writing technique I read this year is Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. It's not so much how to write, as it is why the right techniques make us want to read a work of fiction. It's a book, essentially, about the physiology of writing, and what it is readers want on a deep, unconscious level, and I found it thoroughly fascinating.

And that's it!


Political Metal

One of the things about living in a different country is you get to observe all the things that are probably completely normal to the locals, but which have that unmistakable quality of otherness for the expat or economic migrant, such as myself. 

Despite being a country that retains an unwavering and perhaps inexplicable love for Air Supply and Europe, one of the bigger bands round these parts are Chthonic, a metal band. They've been around a couple of decades. They're also pretty political, on the leftist/progressive side of things, which around these parts often also means anti-China. China insists Taiwan is Chinese, and the majority of Taiwanese say we are, and always have been, Taiwanese. They have their own flag and their own elected government. It's a little more complicated than that, but at heart that's the essence of it.

Anyway, the singer is running for a government post. There's an election coming up next year. All this came together in the form of a free concert at Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei. Here's what the Guardian said about it in an article:

"Wearing combat boots, lead singer Freddy Lim held the stage with the brand of music that has seen the Taiwanese “black metal” band dubbed the Black Sabbath of Asia.
But this was not just any gig: it was also a political rally ahead of a crucial year for Taiwan. Described as a “concert to calm the soul and defend the nation”, the event was intended to energise Taiwanese youth and gain political support for Lim’s new role – as a parliamentary candidate for the New Power party (NPP).
The party, which was formed earlier this year, emerged out of Taiwan’s 2004 Sunflower student movement and represents, said Lim, a means “to channel the energy and frustration of young activists and frustrated Taiwanese” ahead of the parliamentary elections on 16 January."
Naturally, we went along. It was pretty good. I haven't been at a full-out metal gig since I saw Opeth sometime in the mid-2000s. I'd have to think about it to be sure. But there's something decidedly surreal at being at a gig like this and seeing various besuited politicians trotting up onto stage between songs to rouse the crowd. Now try and picture Hilary Clinton turning up at a Rage Against the Machine gig, and you're pretty much there.

Here's a short clip from the gig to give you a wee taste of what the experience was like. There were a LOT of people there. We were stuck somewhere way, way, way at the back.

Force Awakens review

I actually posted the following on my Facebook account a couple of days ago, and there's already been a spate of post-release reviews all saying pretty much the same thing. But, for what it's worth, here's my take on the new Star Wars movie. TL:DR; it could have been a lot worse, but it could have been a deal better, too.

On the new Star Wars movie - needless to say there may be spoilers, but I'll try hard to avoid them. And the tone of what I say may come across as a lot more negative than I actually felt watching the movie, but which needs to be said nonetheless:

I think it's safe to say, judging by what I've seen via Google (try googling "Force Awakens plot holes"), that I'm not the only one left a touch bemused - if not downright perplexed - by the new Star Wars movie. Once the credits rolled, Emma asked what I thought of it, and I said 'I'd give it 7/10. It was...okay.'

That surprised me a little, because I'd actually gone in with high hopes. I was genuinely looking forward to it. I've always been willing to cut Star Wars some slack because in the original trilogy at least, it told a pretty effective story with some genuine surprises. Even when I was a kid, seeing Star Wars for the first time, I already knew spaceships couldn't make noise in space, and that a parsec was a measure of distance, not time. But if you can get the story right, the audience, including me, will forgive a lot.

What _also_ helped were the endlessly positive reviews of The Force Awakens, particularly from reviewers like Mark Kermode, whom I don't always agree with, but whose reviews I always respect (if you don't know him, he's a BBC film reviewer with the haircut of a middle-aged rockabilly, and a highly-regarded podcast). He gave it an enormous thumbs-up, despite himself never having been that much of a fan of the previous movies.

I often find I don't really figure out what I think of a film until I've had a little time to absorb it and think about it. Now, a day later, I feel less like I've seen a Hollywood film than I have a dramatised spreadsheet in which points of drama are strung between points of fan-service.

I found it curiously lacking in excitement, for all the running around and explosions. In fact, for a major Hollywood movie, it's surprisingly lacking in any real dramatic tension. I had a hard time caring, to be honest, because the movie was aimed, judging by reports I've read of audience reactions in packed cinemas, at people who wanted to see familiar faces and familiar objects and places from the original films. These faces, objects and places (I'm trying to avoid spoilers) overwhelmed what otherwise might have been a decent story.

If you'd kept all the old faces out and concentrated on the new - on Finn, Rey and so forth - it might actually have been a better and more involving movie, because there would have been time for the story, such as it is, to develop. It would also have allowed for - and one can only hope for the Star Wars movies still to come - a more _original_ story.

That way, we might have had time to get to know and thereby empathise with those newer characters, instead of them being subsumed in the tide of referentiality that otherwise constitutes the plot. In fact, what you get is less a movie than a _cover version_ of a movie. Not quite a reboot, but more like what might have been a genuinely original story that's been strangled at birth and fed into the gaping, Jabba-like maw of a commercial franchise.

I could say more regarding the huge, massive plot holes that litter the whole thing, but instead of that I'll just point you to at a review that goes into far greater detail, but which I agree with.

It's far from the best movie of 2015; it's far from even being the best science fiction movie of the year. If it's akin to anything, it's a reunion gig by some 60s or 70s rock dinosaur where the audience sits and waits passively while they rumble through the new, not so good songs, before cheering hysterically the moment the band plays the opening chords to a familiar hit.

Again: I really wanted to like it more than I did. I went in with high, rather than low expectations. If I was 12, I'd probably have enjoyed the heck out of it. But when I was 12, I also thought Irwin Allen's The Lost World was the greatest thing ever, and just a couple of years before that I'd probably have thought cardboard boxes were a barrel of fun too.

But as an adult, I felt like I'd gone to a restaurant everyone raves about that turns out to serve a meal that's merely acceptable, if even that. In other words, I felt disappointed, and just a little bit let-down. I can only imagine what that other, better movie featuring the new actors and none of the old would have been like. 'Better than the prequels' just isn't enough.


New book, new cover

It's been through a bunch of name changes, but here at long last is the cover and publication date for Survival Game, the sequel to Extinction Game. It's coming out at the beginning of August 2016.


Algorithms and Amazon.

...so now Extinction Game is back up to £4.19 on Kindle, Final Days and Thousand Emperors are still cheap, and Empire of Light is now way down in price. So if you missed that Extinction Game deal, you missed it. I'm guessing an algorithm, rather than an actual human being, is responsible for all these prices bouncing around. 


Price Drops (UK) for Thousand Emperors, Final Days, and Extinction Game

I have no idea if this is something specific to Cyber-Monday, or Black Friday, or Slightly Mauve Wednesday, or whatever the hell it is this week, but you might be interested to know the ebook editions of several of my books have just drastically dropped in price on Amazon UK.

Being naught but a lowly author, I have no idea for how long these deals will pertain, but the prices are low enough to edge the books in question into impulse-buy territory; The Thousand Emperors and Extinction Game (my most recent book) are £2.45, and Final Days is £2.10.

So my advice, if you've been thinking about getting these particular titles, is to get them now.

This works well both ways - you get the book cheap, but I still get my full royalties from the sale, regardless of what price it's sold at. So the more it sells, the more I can eat and pay for a roof over my head, and the more writing I can do without having to throw a pesky day-job into the mix.

You can get Extinction Game here, Final Days here,  and The Thousand Emperors here.

The prices have been gradually dropping over the last couple of days, so it's not outside the bounds of possibility Amazon UK might decide to drop some of those prices further.