Moon men, cyberpunk fashion, procedurally-generated horror and favourite books of 2020

The good news, for me at least, is that I finally broke ground on one of those writing projects I talked about last time around. As I said then, I've planned out at least three books in considerable detail, and intend to spend the rest of this year working on them. At the time of writing this, I'm about 18,000 words into a first draft of (provisionally titled) The Moon Man.

I'd intended it to be another novella/short novel, meaning about 40,000 words in length or about the same length as either Ghost Frequencies or Devils Road, but it feels already like it's probably going to be longer than that. Which is fine by me.


Chuck Rothman, writing for Tangent Online, gave me a very nice review for my story Warsuit that recently appeared in Interzone: "The story moves from the usual battles and escapes of military stories and concentrates on the philosophical implications of the situation. Its never dull, though. The battle scenes are mixed with a discussion of the issues involved. Highly recommended." Nice!


I came across this fascinating article by Mark Frauenfelder, on Boing Boing, called "The Quiet Horror of Procedural Generation":

"According to Know Your Meme, The Backrooms originated on 4chan in 2019 when someone posted a photo, taken at an uneasy angle, of a dingy yellow room illuminated by fluorescent lights. There's no furniture or people. The wallpaper, reminiscent of a 1980s hotel conference room, is mismatched. The carpeting has large stains. A divider at the far end hints at an entrance to another, possibly similar room."

This ended up becoming a kind of weird, Ballardian shared universe, with people creating programs to simulate hundreds of millions of square miles of randomly generated empty rooms.

Indeed, Frauenfelder himself notes that this bears more than a passing resemblance to the short story by JG Ballard, "Report on an Unidentified Space Station", which is not only most likely my favourite Ballard short story, it's also quite possibly one of my favourite science fiction stories of all time. You can read it online.


I think I saw this article mentioned on Twitter, possibly by William Gibson himself. One thing about it that immediately grabbed my attention was its reference to a photo illustration from a nineties magazine called Mondo 2000, which you can see if you click through, titled R.U. A Cyberpunk?.

I used to buy Mondo 2000 religiously because, like Omni during its heyday, it seemed to offer a glimpse into the future, even if in retrospect a lot of it was probably nonsense.

Let's pass over the fact that back in those days I had hair pretty much like the model in the photograph, and focus on the fact the article has some fascinating things to say about the relationship between technology and clothing and how we use it to portray the future. It also reminds me of an article I recently read about how cyberpunk fashion appears to be becoming mainstream in China. I don't know what my teenage self when he first read Count Zero in the pages of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in the early to mid-eighties would have made of it all.


I read — or rather, listened to — about forty books in 2020, a mixture mostly of science fiction, horror and non-fiction. I thought it would be fun to pick out the ones I personally thought were my favourites, in case you're looking for something to read in the grim grey days of the New Year:

Every Anxious Wave (review below)
Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee
The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts
The Gone World by Tom Schweterlitsch
Three Laws Lethal by David Walton
Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
The Weird and The Eerie by Mark Fisher (special mention).

And if I absolutely, positively had to pick just one overall? The Gone World, by Tom Schweterlitsch.

The 'special mention' of Mark Fisher's book is because I actually read it in 2018, but an audiobook came out early in 2019, and I bought and listened to it immediately. Why? It's a dense if informative book, and almost demands a return to its pages - not to mention it was probably my favourite book of that year.

Runners-up include: Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys, Crooked by Austin Grossman, Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties, and Wanderers by Chuck Wendig.

I've included a complete list of all the books I read in 2020 below.


And here's a closer look at what I read in December:

This one makes for a pretty remarkable follow-up to Alec Nevala-Lee's Astounding, which I talked about in last month's newsletter, not least because it features Parsons and others involved both in rocketry and the occult interacting with the then leading lights of what would later come to be regarded as the Golden Age of science fiction.

For those who don't know, Jack Parsons, the subject of the book, was both a fan of science fiction and also deeply instrumental in the development of rocket science as a distinct field of research in the US in the years leading up to the Second World War, despite considerable opposition and the widely-held belief that rocket travel into space - Parson's ultimate goal - was a physical impossibility. 

After proving it was feasible to build a rocket that could reach the stratosphere, he received funding to build larger and better rockets, eventually receiving far greater funds from the US military upon America's entry into the Second World War. In the process he set up the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, choosing to use the word 'jet' because the word 'rocket' still had so many negative connotations.

At the same time, and which makes Parsons' story so intriguing to so many, he developed a deep fascination with the occult that led to his forming a Californian chapter of Aleister Crowley's OTO, or Ordo Templi Orientis. That, in turn, did him little favour so far as his scientific reputation was concerned.

He formed a friendship with a certain L Ron Hubbard, the later founder of Scientology, and that in turn led to him meeting and befriending a number of science fiction luminaries including Robert Heinlein and John W Campbell.

Definitely recommended, especially if you already read the Nevala-Lee. File under: "you wouldn't believe it if it was fiction'.

Matt Ruff, of course, is the author of the wildly successful Lovecraft Country. 88 Names, by contrast, bears zero resemblance to that other book.

I have a huge amount of respect for Ruff's willingness to buck commercial requirements and write, or so it seems to me, whatever the hell he feels like writing. Most of the time, publishers require their authors — whether they state it openly or not — to write essentially the same book again and again.

And, in fairness to publishers, there are good commercial reasons for this. But if you're a writer, and if like me you get bored writing the same kind of story again and again, you wind up wondering why you don't just get a regular day job instead of just churning out the same old stuff with what feels like diminishing returns.

I can't speak to Ruff's motivations, but in my mind I like to imagine his reasons are similar to mine. Instead of writing Lovecraft Country 2: Zombie MLK, he instead chose to write a Ready Player One-like tale about political intrigue and computer games.

In this case, a Sherpa — here, defined as someone who makes a living guiding rich people through highly complex MMORPG's sometime in the near future — begins to suspect his new, anonymous client might be none other than the leader of North Korea.

And all in all, it's a pretty decent story, but perhaps not quite up to the level of his previous stuff, including but not limited to Lovecraft Country. Which is why it doesn't make the top of my years best list. Still, it's definitely worth checking out.

This is a straight-up, old-fashioned tale of adventure in the ocean of a Europa-like moon in another solar system. Indeed, it could almost have been written by Niven or Bova back in the seventies. Human researchers are engaged in the study of the intelligent denizens of that ocean, but aren't permitted to interact with them or get very close to them, thanks to the oversight of a third and much more advanced spacefaring species who have their own version of Star Trek's Prime Directive. Naturally, that isn't exactly how things work out, and this novel details the consequences.

This one had been on my radar for a while, and I have to admit I felt a little motivated to finally get around to reading it because I myself had been working on an outline for a novel set in the hypothetical ocean beneath the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa. And while it's entertaining enough, it perhaps feels a little too close to its influences, and rather than evoking a sense of wonder it's more likely to invoke a sense of nostalgia.

This made my list of favourite books of the year by taking a familiar idea and doing something that felt appealingly fresh. It reads like a more punk Bill and Ted, after the former guitarist in a 90s indie band, now running a bar called The Dictators Club, discovers a wormhole in his bathroom — an experience I'm sure we've all shared at some point in our lives.

Quickly getting a friend and MIT graduate involved, they soon have a brisk trade in sending people nostalgic for their youth back in time to long-past gigs. After accidentally sending a friend back to 980 rather than 1980 by punching in the wrong numbers, the protagonist recruits a physicist who also just happens to share his love for nineties indie rock in order to try and get him back.

On the surface, and described like that, the story sounds so light as to be almost ephemeral, but Davaiu is an exceptionally talented writer, and brings a considerable depth of character development and emotion to her tale. It isn't long before numerous timelines get twisted together like a plate of spaghetti dropped from a very great height, as our hero journeys into the past, future and all points in between.

Thinking about it, what made this book really work for me is that it takes the classic science fiction notion of the competent protagonist and boots it right out of the park in favour of the messy, emotionally complex and frequently illogical reality.

Unfortunately, and I say that with real regret, this appears to be Davaiu's only novel, published about five years ago, although her Amazon page shows that she's had material published in a number of literary and definitely non-genre publications. It just goes to show you it doesn't matter how good a book is, quality doesn't guarantee commercial success. I just hope you like it as much as I did.


Strange Angel by George Pendle
88 Names by Matt Ruff
A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias
Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee
The Origin of Consciousness in the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes
Wasteland by W. Scott Poole
Tropic of Kansas by Christopher Brown
Burning Chrome by William Gibson
The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts
The Gone World by Tom Schweterlitsch
Crooked by Austin Grossman
The Fisherman by John Langan
Ghostland by Edward Parnell
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
World War Z by Max Brooks
Chaos: Charles Manson, the CI adn the Secret History of the Sixties
The Crying Machine by Greg Chivers
Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys
The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires
Foundation by Isaac Asimov
Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder
Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
Three Laws Lethal by David Walton
Obscura by Joe Hart
The Deep by Alma Katsu
The Colony by F.G. Cottam
The Weird and the Eerie by Mark Fisher
Terminus by Peter Clines
Agency by William Gibson
The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss
Ayoade on Top by Richard Ayoade
Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel by Tom Wainwright
Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
The Ministry of Truth by Dorian Lynskey
Danse Macabre by Stephen King
On Her Majesty's Secret Service by Ian Fleming.