Quick review - Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack

Books: way back in the mid-90s, I read Jack Womack's Random Acts of Senseless Violence not long after it was published. I can't remember it made any particular impact on me, although I had already brought other books in his Dryco series (Random Acts is, I think, the third book written in that particular setting, but in terms of the story chronology sets out the path by which we got from here to there). Perhaps it didn't entirely stick with me because I had other stuff on my mind, which happens, but more recently I saw some commentary, possibly on Twitter, by people describing it as one of their favourite books. I'd meant to get around to rereading some of the DryCo books, and that seemed as good an excuse as any.

Random Acts turns out to be an astonishing piece of work, so astonishing I'm not quite sure how it skirted past my attention at the time I first read it. In fact, it's an outright classic. If you're not familiar with Womack's books, they're set in an increasingly hyper-violent, hyper-capitalist near-future USA. Later on, apparently, Womack went to visit Russia and realised everything he'd written about in the DryCo books had already happened, but in Russia. He went on to write another, non-genre novel based on those experiences, which I can equally recommend, called Let's Put the Future Behind Us. I liked it so much I stole the main character's name, Borodin, and used it for the antagonist in my next novel Survival Game.

What may have given Random Acts... a particular resonance is that it's set in an America that feels much like the America that might come about under a Trump presidency. It's also the story of an America on the verge of imminent social collapse. There's what I guess you could call a cyberpunkish sensibility to the books, partly because of the unique language Womack employs, a kind of street patois that might or might not be invented - I couldn't say.

I could say more, but it's easier to just point you to Jo Walton's detailed assessment over at Tor.com. I'm very glad I rediscovered it.


How I Write, Part Zillion, and Secret Project

What surprised me when I started doing this shit professionally was how often people genuinely asked me where I got my ideas from. Except I decided, unlike, apparently, every other writer on the face of the planet, that it was not in fact an unreasonable question and deserved more than an eye-roll. Obviously there's some kind of underlying psychological process, and how that process works for, say, someone who gets paid to write books or stories is to some extent different from how it works for most people sitting down to make stuff up for quite possibly the first time. 

The bad news is that it's all down to practise and persistence. That's it, no great secret. I also don't believe in writer's block. The real Jack Torrance wouldn't have sat there all day writing nothing but ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY. Noooo, he'd have carefully constructed a step-by-step description of precisely how he was going to slaughter his entire family in intricate detail about the same length as, say, a novel about a crazy person locked up in a hotel with his family who he's going to try and slaughter. 

Don't believe any one would actually be crazy enough to do exactly that? Here's an example from real life

When it comes to ideas, I just start writing whatever daft shit wanders into my head. I essentially talk to myself on the page, which has the advantage of not making people shy away from you in public or look up Wikipedia articles on how to get someone sectioned. Like this:

3 February
I like the idea that electronics - high-end stuff - doesn’t function well or at all on the island due to “interference”. This has three advantages: 1 - it means in many ways they’re pretty isolated. 2 - their cars have to be relatively low-tech without much in the way of fancy electronics. 3 - it explains how people don’t have much luck sending teams into the island because they find it hard to remain in contact.
Disadvantage: if there’s an international audience for this stuff, how do they get to watch it live? Maybe specially adapted low-tech cameras that can nonetheless upload? How?
Okay, I _like_ the idea of electronics not working well there. But people being able to watch the action is where I trip up. Could you build devices like, say, semi-autonomous camera drones that don’t require that same kind of electronics?
Perhaps it’s a distance thing. The cameras don’t work except on the coast, at a certain distance from the ‘rift’. Any closer, they fail. Okay, so it’s a gradation - that works!

What is this? Random unedited text from the "work diary" for an outline I'm putting together. I couldn't figure out how to get something in the plot to work, so instead of staring at the screen, as some people imagine writers do, I wrote that shit out. Once you get it down on the page and out of your head things can start to become a lot more clearer.

As I say, that above text is completely unedited - it's not actually intended to be seen, ever, by anyone but me. The last half dozen books I've written each have tens upon tens of thousands of words of notes like this where I try and work out, sentence by sentence, how something works, why somebody is doing something, how it'll affect the overarching plot, and so on and on.

So the lesson for today is: write it down. It doesn't matter if it's utter gibberish, because typing it up, spelling mistakes, dodgy grammar and all, will fire up the logic-driven part of your wet squishy brain until it wants to make sense of it.

As for where these notes come from, that's the SECRET PROJECT I'm working on. I've had SECRET PROJECT in my head for a good long time now, in one form or another, and I'm finally putting together a tentative synopsis. What's it about? Well...you'll have to wait. All I can tell you is that it just might be simultaneously the greatest and the stupidest idea for a book I've ever had. 


That book of mine

Did I mention that book I have coming out? Did I? Did I? The one called Survival Game? The sequel to Extinction Game, that got stellar reviews in The Guardian and other places, as well as a starred review in Publisher's Weekly? What's it about, you may ask? Well, it's sequel to Extinction Game, duh, so you know, more of the same.

Well, kinda, sorta. You didn't think I'd actually do what's expected of me, do you?

Here's a tiny wee snippet:

"The streets were still busy even at this late hour. N’Djamena, on this alternate at least, was a frontier town. Mosques and churches stood side-by-side with bars, tobacco shops and trading posts. From time to time a few people approached us from out of the gloom, looking for easy pickings, but Tomas warded them off by showing them his pistol. Instead of jeering at us and snatching his weapon from his grasp, as I half-expected them to do, they instead vanished back into the shadows. 
‘Wait,’ Tomas croaked, still leaning on me heavily. With a nod of his head, he indicated a blocky whitewashed building with smoky dark windows and a twisted neon sign in one window. ‘We can try in there. It’s as good as anywhere else we’ve seen.’ 
Despite my trepidation, I helped him inside the bar and into a booth. There were perhaps three or four customers at most, but I felt the eyes of every one of them following us as we entered. A broken screen above the bar ghosted fuzzy holographic images: a news report about General Yakov, leading the Tsar’s imperial forces against the rebels on this alternate. 
The bartender was a gangly Sudanese with tribal scars on his cheeks. I bought something to drink and asked him how I might go about buying a vehicle, without specifying exactly how far I intended to go and in what direction. As I did so, I drew out the small metal token I had been given by a contact at the Khartoum inter-parallel transfer facility: an imperial coin, with the symbol of the revolution stamped over the Tsar’s face. 
The bartender gave me a knowing look, and I listened to the sound of my heart thud, unsure how he might react. But then he directed me in halting Russian to speak to a man sitting in a shadowed corner, and twenty minutes later, at the cost of all our remaining money, I had somehow managed to negotiate the purchase of an all-terrain vehicle that had once, apparently, belonged to a goat-herder."

Book is coming out in hardback in August. I know! So far away! But you can preorder right now.