Thursday, July 02, 2015

Double Planet

With the spacecraft New Horizons on its final approach, Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, are very quickly becoming places. In the latest images, Pluto looks rather like a sketch of Mars as seen though Percival Lowell's telescope, with huge patches of dark and light shades, and the Earth's Moon apparently in orbit around it. In fact, because Charon is relatively large, and so close to Pluto, that the two bodies wobble around a common barycenter located just outside Pluto: a miniature double planet. Strange new worlds we're about to see up close for the first time.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Psychic Cure

Lisa hadn’t given psychics much thought before the Bad Trip, but after the neurology consultant told her that it was impossible to remove the eidolon without causing serious brain damage, she began, like a cancer patient who’d been given a terminal diagnosis, to search for cures outside mainstream medicine. Meditation and mindfulness. A sleep machine that was supposed to modify her alpha waves. And then she finally nerved herself to walk into the psychic parlour she passed every day on the way to work.

She waited until the place was about to close. Feeling, as she slipped inside, like a kid trespassing on a grouchy neighbour’s lawn. There was none of the paraphernalia – velvet drapes, antique furniture, wax-encrusted candelabra, batteries of crystals – she’d expected. Just two plastic stacking chairs either side of a small glass-topped table, recessed spotlights in the ceiling, a doorway screened with a waterfall of plain glass beads that clicked as a young man pushed through them. He wore a white shirt, black pants and wire-framed glasses, looking more like an architect or a college lecturer than someone who communed with alien spirits. Holding up a hand when Lisa began to explain why she was there, giving her a lingering look, saying that he could see that she was troubled, that she wanted help. It was her aura, he said. It was an unhealthy colour and had a swollen, lopsided look.

‘You have a guest with deep roots. How did it begin?’

She found herself explaining about the Bad Trip. The psychic listened attentively. He did not seem to judge her. When she finished talking there was a silence. Then he told her that understanding what possessed her was the first step on the road to self-knowledge.

‘That’s why I’m here.’

Lisa paid a hundred and forty dollars for an initial consultation. They sat either side of the table and the psychic took out a small parcel of silvery mylar cloth and unfolded it to reveal a pale, thumbnail-sized tessera. He centred it between them, told Lisa that he was going to evoke his familiar and that she should not be frightened.

'I’ve seen eidolons before,’ she said.

‘The Butcher can be intimidating to some people.’

‘The Butcher?’

‘It is what I call him,’ the young man said. ‘His actual name has no real human equivalent, of course.’

‘Of course,’ Lisa said, beginning to feel that she’d made a mistake.

The psychic told the lights to dim, touched the tessera. And his eidolon was suddenly there, filling the room like a faint fog of cigarette smoke. The psychic closed his eyes. His hands rested palms up on the table, thumb and forefinger pinched together. Lisa expected him to speak in a sonorous voice, channelling his spirit guide, offering nuggets of wisdom, asking leading questions. Instead, the fog began to thicken and coalesce behind him, and she had the brief impression of something larger than the room leaning in, looking down at her. Then the smoky fog blew away, vanishing beyond the walls of the dim little room, and the psychic stood with an abrupt motion that knocked over his chair.

‘Go,’ he said. He looked as if he had been punched hard in the stomach.

‘What about my reading? What did you see?’

There was a stinging metallic taste in Lisa’s mouth, a headache pulsing behind her eyes.

‘Just leave. Please. I can’t help you. I can’t . . .’

For a moment the young man stared at her, a look that was half longing, half revulsion, then turned on his heel and shouldered through the glass-bead curtain.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Don't It Always Seem To Go

So I rewatched Silent Running a couple of weeks ago, on Eureka's fine Blu-Ray reissue. The flaws are still there - notably, of course, and by the way for those who care SPOILER, the ridiculous length of time a crusading botanist takes to realise that plants fail to thrive without adequate illumination. But the spaceships and their geodesic domes look as lovely as ever (director Douglas Trumbull was of course one of the special photographic effects supervisors on 2001: A Space Odyssey), Bruce Dern's manic yet sympathetic performance is still terrific, the robots are even cuter than I remember, and its take-home message that the human species shouldn't trust capitalism to look after nature is still urgent.

Silent Running was released in 1972. A couple of years before, I first heard Joni Mitchell's 'Big Yellow Taxi', which struck me with such a thrill that I still remember the circumstances: sitting with my family at the square table, with its green oil cloth cover, in the kitchen of my great-aunt's boarding house in Bognor Regis, where we regularly stayed for our summer holidays. It was mid-August, 1970. A few days later, little further down the south coast, Joni Mitchell would close her set at the Isle of Wight Festival with the song. I was 15, keen on natural history. I knew about the damage cause by the Torrey Canyon disaster; I'd read Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room!, John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up, and other science-fictional Awful Warnings; there'd been the First Earth Day earlier that year, calling for greater awareness of damage to the environment and squandering of the planet's resources. And here was a sprightly pop song with the same message. 'Don't it always seem to go, That you don't know what you've got, Till it's gone.' Ecological disaster was very much in the air back then. We were beginning to realise that everything on the planet is connected to everything else.

Silent Running, in its title, and 'Big Yellow Taxi', in its lyrics ('Hey farmer farmer, put away that DDT now'), pay homage to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which documented the catastrophic effects of the indiscriminate use of pesticides on the environment. A little over fifty years after its publication, the bleak future suggested by the title of Carson's book is coming true: a paper just published provides strong evidence that Earth's sixth mass extinction event really is under way, driven not by geological or astronomical disasters, but by human activity.

The authors of the paper used fossil records to calculate a background extinction rate, and compared it with an estimate of what has been lost since 1900. In that time, nine vertebrate species should have become extinct by natural causes; instead, recorded extinctions are occurring at a hundred times the expected level, faster than at any time since the demise of the dinosaurs. Similar calculations have been criticised for overestimating differences from the background rate. But this new study uses highly conservative figures; although its conclusions are stark, the authors point out that actual rates of loss could be higher. As in the case of the Eastern Cougar, just now listed as extinct, it can take many decades between the last sighting and the official declaration that a species is gone.

It's been known for some time that a catastrophic level of extinction is imminent, driven by the expansion of the human race and our increasing utilisation of the Earth's resources. We account for one third of the total mass of all land vertebrates; our food animals make up much of the rest; wild animals account for just 5% total mass. Our cities and agriculture take up increasing amounts of land area, destroying natural habitats; we consume about forty per cent of the world's annual photosynthetic output; the carbon dioxide produced by our burning of fossil plants is irreversibly changing the planet's climate.

Not only are we at risk of losing large numbers of iconic and charismatic species, from tigers to Emperor penguins. We're also playing a giant and potentially lethal game of Jenga with the environment. Remove a keystone species, or reduce its numbers so that it's no longer influential, and the consequences ramify in unexpected and sometimes catastrophic ways. In the eighteenth century, for instance, the population of sea otters along the Californian coast was enormously reduced by the fur trade. Sea otters eat sea urchins, and in the absence of otters the urchins multiplied, gnawing away the holdfasts of giant kelp and destroying vast kelp forests where hundreds of other species lived. Multiply that by a hundred instances over the next few decades. That's where we're going if we aren't careful, because everything's connected.

Sea otters were saved from extinction by conservation measures introduced in the early twentieth century and the kelp forests have partly returned. And there's a consensus amongst scientists that it's possible to slow the current rate of loss and destruction. Partly, at least. But if action isn't taken, we will have to choose what to save and what to let go. Ecosystems will be regulated or replaced. Intervention will become the norm. Charismatic species will be tagged, monitored by drones, tailored so that they can live in cities or farmland. The last of Nature will be subsumed into the technosphere, confined to refugia. Gardens, parks, zoos. Biomes will be sheltered under geodesic domes, nurtured by cute robots. Trees will be preserved in tree museums. Don't it always seem to go.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Only Real

In her perceptive review of Paulo Bacigalupi's The Water Knife, Sherryl Vint observes that 'As many critics have noted in a variety of contexts, as the 21st century unfolds, science fiction increasingly comes to seem like a realist rather than a speculative genre, documenting the pervasiveness of technology in daily life and conveying the affective experience of living through end times.' Like any inhabitant of the 21st century attuned to the hoofbeats of various kinds of war, the global increase in inequality, the sixth extinction, the slow-motion hydra-headed disaster of climate change, and all the other horsemen of the apocalypse, I get the implied irony. How bad are things? So bad they not only look a lot like science fiction. So terrible that reading science fiction is actually a useful prep for how to survive the darkness at the end of the tunnel.

But as a science fiction writer, I can't help thinking that the conflation of the actual 21st century with science fiction is not only something of a back-handed compliment, it's also a gross simplification of the kind of things science fiction can do. For one thing, it suggests that science fiction is increasingly defined by the dystopian mode, and that anything other than that is no more than a thought experiment. But while there are a good number of recent and notable examples of dystopias, especially in young adult fiction and by authors outwith the genre, the vast variety of science fiction hasn't yet collapsed into the singularity of day-after-tomorrow apocalyptic fiction. It's still possible to imagine near futures without road warriors, hypercapitalism, bird flu, or zombies. Futures which are as complicatedly and variously good and bad as the present, and futures that may not be likely or even probable, yet contain their own internal logic and also have something to say about the way we live now.

Science fiction has always been a speculative literature. Any realism it possesses isn't merely about precise and accurate representations of the world as it is, but also concerns the logical consistency of the other worlds it creates, whether or not they're directly spun from the present. Sherryl Vint qualifies 'realist' with 'realistic', but I think the quality of verisimilitude is more important.  Unlike literary realism, but somewhat like romanticism, science fiction attempts to present believable versions of the world as it might be, not as it actually is.

While Vint expertly anatomises the sources of The Water Knife's near future scenario, Bacigalupi points out in an interview quoted in the review, the speculative process that illustrates what we might be heading towards involves 'going two or three steps down the road beyond what you can actually report.' Realism in science fiction isn't an inherent quality. It's a tool.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins proposed that we are no more than survival machines for our genes: 'gigantic lumbering robots' whose sole purpose, as far as our genes are concerned, is to successfully propagate them. And given that genes are made of DNA (apart from the genes of some viruses, which are made of single-stranded RNA), it's possible to think of Earth's biosphere as a huge DNA factory. Given that point of view, a number of interesting questions suggest themselves. Such as, how much DNA is there on the Earth?  How much information does the biosphere contain? How is that information divided between different groups of organisms? And, can the information processing capacity of the biome be calculated?

Three scientists have just published a paper that give some estimated answers to those questions. The lower bound for the estimate of total DNA in the biosphere is approximately 5 × 1010 tonnes (five followed by ten zeroes, if you're unfamiliar with scientific notation). This contains 5.3 × 1031 megabases, equivalent to the storage capacity of 1021 of the most powerful supercomputers. The Library of Congress has been estimated to contain a mere 3 × 109 megabytes.

A great deal of that information, it turns out, is contained in plants - around 3.65 × 1031 Mb. Although prokaryotes (various kinds of bacteria) are more numerous than all the high organisms, each contains somewhat less DNA than an average plant or animal cell; nevertheless, prokaryotes contain a total of around 1.6 × 1031 Mb. Animals, including, of course, us, contain about a hundred times less information than plants, at about 4.24 × 1029 Mb.  That's rather similar to the amount of information contained in viruses, around 3.95 × 1029 Mb, and somewhat less than the amount of degraded or junk information contained in leaf litter, at around 7 × 1030 Mb. Still, as the paper's authors remark, it's interesting that the various classes of organism each contain, within a couple of orders of magnitude, similar amounts of information.

As for processing capacity, all of the DNA in Earth's biosphere is estimated to transcribe stored information into nucleotides at around 1039 NOPS (Nucleotide Operations per Second). That amount of processing power would need 1022 supercomputers, given that one of the biggest can process 1017 FLOPS (Floating Point Operations per Second).

All of that information, the paper suggests, gives one definition of the present carrying capacity of the Earth. It also defines the amount of information in a biosphere that gave rise to a species that was able to ask and answer such questions. Which poses another interesting question. Will the biospheres on life-bearing exoplanets need to be of a similar size, if they are to give rise to extra-terrestrial intelligence?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

All Change

This month I have been mostly working on the edits for Into Everywhere. Which, because I still use WordPerfect means that, for the first time, the novel has been translated into industry standard Microsoft Word, and I have to grapple with Word's track change feature to find and deal with my editor's comments and suggested changes, and make any alternative changes of my own.

Track change is probably great if you are dealing with a multiauthor presentation document, a contract, or something of similar length. With a 140,000 word novel? Not so great. It's becoming standard practice to use it in book publishing because it is easy to follow who has made what change, allows layers of sidebar comments, and doesn't involve unwieldy piles of paper and and a set of different coloured pens, one of which is guaranteed to run out of ink halfway through. It's fast. It's kind of efficient (although its command structure sucks). But it also encourages the user to concentrate only on changes rather than the context in which they are embedded, and in a novel context is all, and in a strict sense, every sentence depends on every other sentence, because each reacts to or builds on, contradicts or enforces, its predecessor.

Track change, with its helpful marginal bars and coloured highlighting, privileges changes over the rest of the text. Which is of course sort of the point, because at its most basic editing is about pointing out glitches, omissions, inconsistencies and plain old mistakes, and making suggestions about fixing them. But changing one part of the text, sometimes even a word, can affect other parts of it - the parts you might not see while concentrating on nothing but the changes track change tracks.

Which is why I'm now reading through the entire manuscript, sentence by sentence. Partly trying to make sure that fixing problems highlighted by editing hasn't created other problems, partly polishing the text. Removing superfluous commas and adverbs, making sure sentences aren't back to front, checking that the things characters say are the kind of things they would say, so forth. It's terrifically useful to have others critique the text, but in the end, all writers should be the harshest editor of the thing that came out of their head.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Some Chapter Headings From The Forthcoming

Ghost In The Head
Wizards Of The Slime Planet
The Geek Police
Rogue Moon
Serious Throw-Weight
The Alien Market
The City Of The Dead
Colonel X
Road Dogs
Dry Salvages
Rain City
Old Dark House
Somewhat Resembling Venus
The Kōan Brothers
Deeper Than Sex
Pyramids Of The Ancients

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Open Air, Olympic Park, London

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Here, There And Everywhere

The web site has moved to a new and permanent address. I've added a bibliography, and if you poke around you can find the usual free stories, articles and extracts.

In other news, I have a few events coming up:

The first is on Friday May 23rd, 8.00 - 9.30 pm, at the new Greenwich Book Festival, with Tom Harper, Justina Robson, Sarah Lotz and Lavie Tidhar. Tickets on sale here.

On Saturday, June 6th, 3.00 pm, I'll be at the Stoke Newington Book Festival, talking about utopias and dystopias with John Clute, Farah Mendleson and Lavie Tidhar.

Finally, I'm one of the guests of honour at Edge-Lit 4, an all-day event on Saturday July 11th at Derby's QUAD.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Persistence Of Memory

Monday, April 20, 2015

Fun With My Past

Back in the early years of this century, I was writing weird thrillers whose stories were set in the present or the near future, turning on warped applications of strange bits of science or technology - The Secret of Life, Whole Wide World, White Devils, Mind's Eye and Players. They're mostly out-of-print now, so I've begun a small publishing project to revive them as ebooks.

First up is Mind's Eye, just published as a Kindle ebook. Like Fairyland, it's about entoptical phenomena, visual effects whose origin is within the eye or the optical pathways of the brain. Here, the discovery that entoptical forms developed by paleolithic shamen can trigger certain behaviours or reactions is contested by the secret services and the grandchildren of the explorers who first discovered them:
When Alfie Flowers chances on a strange piece of graffiti daubed on the window of a North London restaurant, it triggers a flashback to a childhood accident that left him with a peculiar form of epilepsy. Convinced that the elusive graffiti artist, 'Morph', possesses clues to his past, Alfie sets out to track him down. His search leads him to the mysterious Nomads Club, the rituals of a lost tribe, and a secret history of espionage and mind-altering patterns - glyphs - connected with the disappearance of his father. 

The source of the glyphs is hidden somewhere in the chaos of post-war Iraq. Deep inside an ancient network of caves lie powerful secrets sought by people with dangerous and sinister motives. People who are determined to do whatever it takes to prevent Alfie and the Nomads Club from interfering with their plans.
It's very specifically set in the time it was written, and Alfie Flowers lived around the corner from me, in a caravan in an old bus garage. His local pub is my local pub; a brief car chase includes the road (and its traffic-calming system) where I live. A couple of years after the novel was published, the ramshackle bus garage was demolished: squatting there now is a block of flats of the kind that seems to have been designed using Lego, with lots of glass and tiny balconies that inevitable contain a tiny table, two small folding chairs, and a high-end bicycle. The expanding bubble of the London property market is steadily eroding the London Alfie and I knew, but here, in this odd little thriller, it's 2004, and the old weird London still stands, hipsters do not yet stalk the streets of Dalston, and the ill-fated Iraq invasion hasn't collapsed into something even worse . . .

Friday, April 10, 2015

Days Of Their Lives

I'm about to send off the manuscript of Into Everywhere, the follow-up to Something Coming Through, to my editor.  In the brief afterglow of creation, before the business of editing, copy-editing, and dealing with proofs lands on my head, here's a short extract:

Like all tomb raiders, Lisa and Willie had eked out a living from sales of mundane finds while dreaming of discovering the kind of jackpot that would kickstart a new industry or technology and make them so rich that they would never have to work again. They sifted through the middens of abandoned hive rat nests: the fierce little creatures dug deep and sometimes brought up artefacts. They found their way into intact chambers where eidolons might kindle from shadows and lamplight. When everything else failed, they sank shafts into the mounds of collapsed tombs. Willie disliked digging. Not just because it was hard work, although that was a consideration, but because it disturbed what he called ‘the flow’.

The City of the Dead was a sargasso of history, according to him, with strange tides and currents, backwaters and eddies. Everything flowing into everything else.

If they found no intact tombs or abandoned nests, Willie preferred to dowse rather than dig. He would wander over the parched landscape with two lengths of copper wire twisted together in a Y, delicately pinching the two ends between thumbs and forefingers and narrowly watching the quiver and dip of the antenna. Circling a spot when it began to twitch, insisting that Lisa start digging if it violently see-sawed.

Willie’s dowsing had a surprisingly good hit rate – slightly better than chance, according to Lisa’s Chi-squared tests – but he preferred spelunking, and so did Lisa. Finding their way into spaces untouched for thousands of years, where the psychic traces of the creatures that had built it yet remained. She remembered spiral tombs augered into the earth. She remembered labyrinths of broken stone. She remembered one huge, cool, bottle-shaped chamber lit by a shaft of sunlight from a high crevice. As Willie had climbed down the swaying rope ladder, orange fronds clumped in the splash of sunlight on the floor had suddenly broke up and scurried into the safety of shadows. A kind of colonial beetle-thing that grew symbiotic plants on their shells. She remembered another chamber, this one long and low, where eidolons had exploded around them like bats: after they’d sold the tesserae that generated them, she and Willie had lived high on the hog for two months.

She remembered the time the truck’s LEAF battery had run out of charge at the western edge of the City of the Dead – thirty or forty kilometres from the nearest settlement, with the eroded range of mountains that marked the edge of the Badlands shimmering at the horizon. Willie had pulled his trail bike from the load bed and roared off with the battery strapped behind him. He’d said that he’d be directly back, but a day passed, and another, and there was no sign of him and Lisa couldn’t pick up a phone signal. She discovered that she didn’t mind being stranded. She had plenty of food, enough water to last a couple of weeks. She slept in the back of the truck’s crew cab during the day and watched the starry sky at night. Dissolved into the antique silence of the desert. Looking back, she’d never been happier.

On the fourth day, a hot wind out the south blew white sand from the crests of sand dunes. The sky grew milky, the sun faded to a dull smear, and the horizon closed in. The truck’s door seals couldn’t keep out the dust and Lisa had to tie a handkerchief over her nose and mouth. Everything covered with a fine white bloom. Her eyes itching.

Willie drove out of the tail end of the storm towards sunset. He’d been caught up in a business deal, he said, but it hadn’t panned out. Lisa didn’t bother to ask. It might have been a lead on Elder Culture ruins or a poker game, a girl or a spell in jail. In the morning they mounted the recharged LEAF battery and drove to Joe’s Corner, and bought water and food and went on.

Those were the days of their lives until they finally hit their jackpot. Until the Bad Trip.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Into The Vacant

There's no there out here. Back in the day, it was far worse than it is now.  It was being confined to a series of tubes or pipes, strings of intimate little rooms, voids, with an accentuated version of the existential airplane dread playing in your head 24/7 because outside a thin metal skin there was a killing vacuum and nothing else. At first, people were selected from a tiny cadre who piloted prototypes of flying machines and tried to find the edge between control and chaos. And even then, these archetypes of coolness in the face of were trained in simulations until they grew bored with the ritual and repetition, and were kept busy during the actuality with the minutiae of housekeeping in their little tin cans, and never traveled so far that they were ever out of sight of some spectacular view of Earth or Moon. But there's no there, here. Stars, if you squint, but hey, stars are stars. We made the ships bigger, turned them into ocean liners, but they were still strings of rooms, with endless etiquette numbing the nerve and thickening the air. So we made them bigger still, made them into worlds, and had to ask - what's the point of reaching any particular destination when all you need is to hand? But even when you go skiing on some alpine range in one of the cloud chambers, there's still that little hum of existential dread. You come into the resort bar tingling with cold and endorphins, and there on the TV is a report of a blowout. Six hundred dead, recovery craft deployed to recover the bodies from the void everyone spends their life not thinking about. And it's a thousand kilometres sternwards, and is the kind of thing that only happens once in a lifetime, according to the news thing, and your world doesn't have volcanoes or hurricanes unless someone gets a permit to order them up from environmental control, but still.  You think: what are we doing out here in the dark?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Happy Chappie

Mostly reviled by mainstream reviewers, Neill Blomkamp's third feature-length film turns out to be a charming picaresque story of a robot's coming-of-age. Set, like Blomkamp's District 9, in a near-future Johannesburg, the film starts out as a RoboCop homage, with an army of police robots tackling a crime wave in a by-the-numbers meathook urban dystopia. When a couple of hapless gangsters (Yo-Landi and Ninja, played by Die Antwoord rappers Yolandi and Ninja) fall foul of their terrifying boss, they have to come up with an impossibly huge amount of cash.  Their brilliantly stupid plan is to steal one of the robots and kidnap their designer, and use them to rob a bank. In a parallel story, the designer, Dev (Deon Wilson), has been attempting to develop a true AI; stymied by his boss, he has just stolen a damaged robot to experiment on when he's kidnapped by the gangsters.

So far, so B-movie, but the film kicks up a notch after the stolen robot, Chappie, is animated by Dev's AI program, rapidly develops from childhood through strutting rap gangster adolescence to adulthood, and tries to reconcile the opposing moral frameworks of his gangster parents and his creator. Yolandi and Ninja play Chappie's surrogate parents with broad but credible strokes; Hugh Jackman is a somewhat cartoonish embittered alpha male who plots to supplant Dev's robots with his own creation; Sigourney Weaver doesn't have enough to do as their boss. The story's mix of broad comedy, pathos and noisy violence is pretty uneven, doesn't always make sense (Yo-Landi and Ninja let Dev go after he's animated Chappie, even though he knows where they live), and reverts to B-movie cliche in the final showdown, a version of the three-way stand-off in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but with much bigger guns. But Blomkamp's direction is fluidly kinetic, there are some clever twists, and Chappie is a terrific CGI creation. He may lack a recognisable face, but the voicing and motion capture work of Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley, and a script that nicely charts his intellectual and emotional development, create a wonderfully engaging and sympathetic character who is the human heart of this patchwork fable.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Magnolias Coming Through

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

This Strange, Old, Vast And Mostly Empty Planet

In Vic’s opinion, there was as yet no sign that humanity was going to change any time soon. People had come up and out, built cities, and begun to spread across the empty lands and explore the ruins, and they’d also brought all their old shit with them. A few had managed to reinvent themselves, but most hadn’t been able to escape what they already were. Accountants were accountants; estate agents were estate agents; drug dealers were drug dealers. Vic had been a raw constable in Birmingham when he’d won the emigration lottery, and here he was thirteen years later, a murder police unable to maintain any kind of long-term relationship. (‘Let’s face it,’ his ex had said when they’d met for a drink on the day their divorce papers went through, ‘neither of us are cut out for marriage.’ She had been trying to be kind, but it had still stung.) But even though he had long ago learned that reality fell far short of the ideal of justice, at least he still loved the job. On his good days, anyway. He wasn’t yet burned out. He still wanted to make things right by his dead, was still curious about people and this strange, old, vast and mostly empty planet.
From Something Coming Through

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Lost River

Actor Ryan Gosling's debut as director/screenwriter is a strange little urban fable that mixes social realism with a fairytale curse. Infused with homages to Gosling's directorial influences, notably Nicolas Winding Refn and David Lynch, it's set in a post-industrial town (it makes good use of the ruin porn landscapes of Detroit) blighted by the construction of a reservoir. Bones (Iain De Caestecker), scuffling a living by stripping copper piping from abandoned buildings, runs foul of Bully (Matt Smith, with a shaven head and a muscle T-shirt), who sits in an armchair strapped to the back of an open-top Cadillac, chauffeured by his mutilated henchman and using a bullhorn to tell everyone that the town is his. Meanwhile, Bones' mother (Christina Hendricks) tries to save the family home from foreclosure and demolition by taking up a job in a nightclub run by the bank manager who refuses to extend her credit, and Bones learns about the curse and how it might be lifted from goth-girl-next-door Rat (Saoirse Ronan).

This slight story is infused with a striking dreamlike quality, enhanced by Johnny Jewel's synth soundtrack and cinematographer Benoît Debie's feverish photography. The club, where performers (including Eva Mendes and scream queen Barbara Steele) fake bloody mutilations and death for the delectation of jaded yuppies, and women can earn extra in the glowing purple basement, is straight out of Lynchland; there's some lovely imagery of burning bicycles, the hell-mouth entrance of the club, a line of streetlights receding into a lake, and lingering shots of decaying houses, graffitied factories and the overgrown ruins of a zoo; Christina Hendricks, although mired in ruinous poverty, is always immaculately dressed. And although the urban dystopia is clearly early twenty-first century, the rite-of-passage struggle between Bones and Bully, in a criminal milieu lacking both guns and drugs, is reminiscent of Frances Ford Coppola's adaptations of S.E. Hinton's Rumble Fish and The Outsiders. The story's climax, in which Bones rides to the rescue of both his mother and Rat, seems both trivial and abrupt after the brooding build-up, but Gosling's evocation of the uncanny lingers.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Lost Hothouse

Just published in the US, the anthology Old Venus, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. A collection of stories, including my 'Planet of Fear', set on the mythic steamy, swampy version of the second planet from the sun before those pesky space probes revealed the truth.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Words In Place

'Smeuse is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now I know the word smeuse, I notice these signs of creaturely commute more often.'
Robert Macfarlane, The Word-Hoard

'My favourite park's a car park, grass is something you smoke,
birds are something you shag.'
Pulp, I Spy

When I wrote the first two Quiet War novels, largely set in the icy moons of the outer planets, I was able to use the real names of real places. They were from maps compiled using images taken by the two Voyagers, Cassini and other robot space probes, but of course they showed only the geographical features - the craters and montes, the faculae, planitiae, regiones, flumina and so on. Robert Macfarlane has written an ode to the huge variety of words for the small-scale features and transient phenomena in our landscapes, and notes that, by naming something, it becomes more observable, more memorable. If ever people come to live on Callisto and Dione, Titan and Oberon and Charon, they will certainly develop their own fine-grained language of place, the equivalent of Macfarlane's 'terms used by crofters, fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, miners, climbers, soldiers, shepherds, poets, walkers and unrecorded others for whom particularised ways of describing place have been vital to everyday practice and perception.'

Meanwhile, it occurs to me that we need something similar to describe features peculiar to the urban landscape. There are already some - the Oxford dictionary, for instance, has recorded the variety of regional variant names for alleys. But we need more. Words for the plastic bag caught in the branches of a tree (as opposed to the plastic bag caught on the razor-wire of a security fence), the ring of green algae that grows at the bases of street lights and traffic signs in winter, the water that lurks under a loose paving stone. The temporary freshet that wells from a broken water pipe. The weeds that crack through concrete. The weeds that grow at the seam between pavement and wall. The hump in tarmac raised by a tree root. The wind that skirls down the side of a skyscraper. The gleam of low winter sun on a glass curtain wall. Those things inhabitants of cities unsee every day, because as yet they lack the vocabulary to make them a permanent part of the urban experience.

Sunday, March 01, 2015


I've written a few pieces for other people's blogs based around the themes of Something Coming Through. For those who might be interested:

A piece on alien invasion films on Entertainment Focus.

A short essay on crime and science fiction over on We Love This Book.

Another short essay, this one on friendly aliens, on Games Radar.

And over at SF Signal, Alvaro Zinos Amaro asked me a few questions.

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