Monday, July 21, 2014

100 Best Science Fiction Films

Time Out has organised a wide-ranging poll to work up a snap-shot of the current top 100 science fiction films. I was one of the participants: for what it's worth, here's my top ten (sneakily listed in chronological order so I didn't have to rank them, although I do have a favourite, as you'll see), and a short explanatory note. All but one of my choices are featured in the top 100, by the way.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951)
Quatermass And The Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1957)
Road To The Stars (Doroga k zvezdam) (Pavel Klushantsev, 1957)
La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962)
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
The Man Who Fell To Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1987)
Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997)
Children Of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)

Almost 50 years after I first watched it with slack-jawed wonder, I still think that Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is not only the greatest science-fiction film, but also one of the best films ever made. Quatermass and the Pit deals with similar themes of uplift and fall within the confines of Hobb’s Lane and its Tube station. Road to the Stars (a significant influence on Kubrick) begins with a portrait of rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and ends with an expedition to Mars; like 2001's Pan-Am shuttle and space station, it’s a reminder of the ambitious futures we have lost. Alien introduced an iconic monster and one of science-fiction’s best heroines, while the cluttered, grimy claustrophobia of its spaceship inverts Kubrick’s chilly antiseptic aesthetic. La Jetée’s haunting examination of time and memory, the portrayal of an alien seduced and corrupted by human appetites in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Children of Men’s story of loss and redemption, prove that science-fiction films can move the heart as well as the mind. And the blackly comic satires of Brazil and Starship Troopers, and the stark warning of The Day the Earth Stood Still, are all still cuttingly relevant: a reminder that, at its best, science fiction holds up a distorting mirror to ourselves and our times.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (15)

In Thomas M. Disch's The Genocides, where a kind of alien Japanese knotweed turns Earth a vast monoculture of itself, a ragged group of survivors reminisce about favourite movies and movie stars and other fragments of the common culture that once helped to bind civilisation together. Anne Washburn's Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play, takes that idea in a different direction, exploring the unreliability of memory and the power and mutability of story.

There are three acts, episodic glimpses of life after the fall set years apart. In the first, a ragged group of survivors of a recent and comprehensive plague sit around a camp fire, trying to recall an episode of The Simpsons, 'Cape Feare' (the one where Bart's nemesis, Sideshow Bob, combines the roles of Roberts Mitchum and De Niro).  In the second, seven years later, the group have become travelling players, putting on live action reconstructions of Simpsons episodes and 'commercials' that recall the unregarded luxuries (ice, Diet Coke, baths) of their lost world. And in the third, seventy-five years after the fall, their descendants stage a spectacle in which a trickster/devil figure, Mr Burns, comes for Bart Simpson's life.

The first and second acts were both a bit too long: the first lost dramatic tension when characters took turns to recite lists of their missing; the second overextended its exposition of the play's themes and ended with a bit of cliched melodrama, although its portrayal of the dynamics of a troupe of actors was funny and affectionate.  But the last act, a full-blown musical, was astonishing, carpentered from the scraps of the Simpsons, pop songs, hip-hop, Gilbert and Sullivan, The Night of the Hunter and much else that littered the first two acts, and staged with spectacular brio. A genuine transformation of pop culture into a rich and strange theatrical ritual about loss and rebirth. It was too long too, but I didn't care.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

One Of The Things I'm Doing Next Month

So I'll be at the Nine Worlds Geekfest convention on Saturday August 9th, doing this:

Cyberpunk: exploring society in the corporate machine age (.net)
10.00am - 11.15am
Science fiction in a science fictional real world.
Panel: Anne Charnock, Fabio Fernandes, Laurie Penny, Paul McAuley

I'll do my best to avoid any trace of nostalgia for the good old days of sockets in the back of the neck and razorblade fingernails and other tropes that predate the eversion of the net into the actual.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Best SF 31

Happy to note that my little story 'Transitional Forms' is included in Gardner Dozois' selection of the best science fiction stories of 2013. Table of contents over here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dead Media Edition

Here's the opening of Evening's Empires in punched card form, via this nifty site. Any day now, according to my publishers, ebooks of Evening's Empires and In the Mouth of the Whale will be available for readers in the US. In fact, you can already buy ebooks of In the Mouth of the Whale for Nook readers and from iTunes. Other formats will follow soon, although apparently there are Problems that haven't yet been fixed. Back in the day, many common problems with data-handling could be solved by picking the cards off the floor after you'd dropped them or a card sorter had spat them out, and shuffling them back into order. Life probably wasn't easier back then, but when the interface between the world and the net throws a glitch, it sometimes it seems that it was.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Träumen Roman

It was a fat Gollancz hardback with a yellow cover, so I must have written it in the late 1980s, presumably between Four Hundred Billion Stars and Secret Harmonies. Or perhaps, in the dream, it was my first novel. I was pleased to find it in the secondhand bookshop, so I must have lost or given away all my copies. A one-word title I can't remember, now, on waking. Did it begin with an 'R'? A 'P'? Somehow I knew, in the dream, that it was set in one of those cities on the edge of time, or a city in a virtual reality realer than what we like to call reality. A kind of dream within a dream. And I also knew that the narrative was shared by three protagonists, each speaking in the first person. Something about visions or abilities they were trying to make sense of, and something about finding a secret location in the city that would explain everything, once they all realised they contained or represented different parts of the key. There was a long quote in the acknowledgments about the blues singer John Lee Hooker. From Charles Shaar Murray's biography, perhaps, although that was published after Gollancz discontinued their signature yellow jackets. Still, dreams have their own logic and chronology. I remember thinking, as I thumbed through that unborn dream book, that it wasn't especially well-written - that it was just as well that the only copy could be found in the bookshop which dissolved when I woke up.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Not Your Usual Ultraviolence

I'm quite often late to the party these days, but usually not quite this late.  First published in the US in 2011, Kameron Hurley's God's War won a British Fantasy Society award and the 2011 Kitschies Award for Best Debut Novel, and after it was published in the UK in 2013 was shortlisted for the Clarke Award. I was at the ceremony, where extracts from the contenders were read out (an idea that was much, much better than it first sounded), was taken by the novel's strong voice, and bought it a couple of days later. Not my usual route to a book, but hey, as long as it works.

It's set in an indeterminate future on a colony world where a religious war has been raging for centuries, kind of like a blend of First World War trench warfare and last century's conflict between Iran and Iraq. Nyx, a dogged, damaged bounty hunter, so broke she sells her womb, is tossed into prison by her enemies, raises a crew when she's released, and takes on a commission to find an off-worlder on the wrong side of the interminable war, racing against those same enemies, who this time want her dead. Its pulpish narrative is more than a little uneven (although I quite like the way Hurley takes to extremes Elmore Leonard's rule to miss out the parts readers skip over), but Hurley is very good at showing, not telling, the details of Nyx's world, where a kind of Islam contests with a kind of Christianity, men are sent to war by a tough unflinching matriarchy, magicians manipulate insect-based biotech, and shape-changers attract the attention of those off-worlders. And like Joanna Russ's Alyx, Nyx isn't simply a woman who beats men at their own game, and God's War is rather more than a simple inversion of cliched sci-fi and fantasy hack-'em-ups.

For a start, there are clear consequences and costs to the outbursts of violence that punctuate its story: Hurley's anti-hero is damaged and brutalised by her chosen life. We see her most clearly through the eyes of one of her crew, Rhys, a second-rate magician from who dislikes what she does yet still loves her, although it's more complicated than the kind of hero-worship by the female love-interest in a more conventional novel, because Rhys is an avowed pacifist. He's also a refugee from the enemy country, and in his adopted home encounters prejudices against both his sex and nationality. He's beaten up by a gang of women, dons a burqa to escape the disapproving female gaze, and in short must deal with the kind of problems that women in our world must deal with.

It's not only a great example of how science fiction and fantasy can point up the faultlines of our own society; it's also an exemplar of the way that writers should always challenge preconceptions. There are far too many SF and fantasy novels which don't colour outside the genre lines. Far too many that reuse tropes without examining them, or transpose received notions from the author's culture directly into the future. And far too many in which women are the victims, or the prize or reward for the hero, or little more than the object of the male gaze - the author's as well as the characters. (It's not a problem peculiar to science fiction - how many crime novels start with a murdered woman?) God's War challenges that kind of default assumption on every page, and the result is hugely refreshing and thought-provoking.

Monday, June 23, 2014

There Are Doors (20)

Friday, June 20, 2014

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (14)

A veteran of the Iraq war, Leroy Kervin, lies in a coma after unsuccessfully trying to commit suicide; one of his nurses, Pauline, juggles work and caring for her ungrateful, mentally-ill father; Freddie, who works as a night-watchman in Leroy's group home because he can't earn enough to make ends meet in his day job, takes on a tremendous risk to pay the medical bills for the treatment of his young daughter.  Willy Vlautin, of Portland-based band Richmond Fontaine, writes songs that are condensed short stories about people living hard lives of quiet desperation; The Free, his fourth novel, contrasts his raw and heartfelt reportage with a dash of surrealism.

As the stories of Pauline and Freddie cross and recross, Leroy, a science-fiction reader, dreams of trying to escape with the woman he loves from a dystopian version of America where gangs of vigilantes, the Free, hunt down those who have been indelibly marked by a test 'to weed out those who think from those who are soldiers.' The America of Leroy's nightmares, like all dystopias a distorting mirror of its present, becomes a counterpoint to the quests of Pauline, who becomes entangled with a troubled young runaway, Jo, and of Freddie, who has to set out on a journey in his ailing car to recover his daughters from his deadbeat wife and her selfish boyfriend.  Against its dark backdrop, ordinary moments of kindness and bravery shine a little brighter, a little more hopefully (and, thinking of the bloodbaths and torturefests of some contemporary science fiction and fantasy, I can't help wondering how dark our waking world seems to have become, to need such a grim contrast).

Vlautin's portraits of people down on their luck, and the stoic way they face up to injustice and hard choices, are drawn with plain but sympathetic detail; the mundane daily struggles of their lives are delineated by bills and shopping lists, the bone-ache of routine, and frank conversations with strangers caught up in the same kind of problems - deadbeat bosses, a health care system that can bankrupt ordinary people, a social system where old values and certainties have been replaced by zero-hour contracts and the ever-present the threat of bankruptcy and foreclosure. Likewise, the O. Henry sentiment of the intertwined stories - a damaged war veteran who tries to kill himself in a moment of clarity; a father making a sacrifice to take care of his daughters; a nurse trying to save a young patient from her bad choices - is tempered by a tough, clear-eyed realism. The runaway, Jo, goes back to the abuse of her life on the streets because it is all she knows; having to take care of his daughters give Freddie a renewed purpose in life, but his worries about medical bills and insurance still loom over him. As Leroy's dream quest runs out, the characters in the waking world find hope in renewed or newly found love, and heroism in surviving each new day. And that, this affecting novel, suggests, is sometimes all we can hope for: the small but vital moments of human grace it chronicles might just be enough to keep away the dark world of the Free.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


Cover by Peter Strain. Publication scheduled for October 31.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Under Mars, In Denmark

I've just finished the edits of my new novel, Something Coming Through, and the BFI monograph on Brazil.  Much rereading and rewriting, much adverb hunting, now all done and dusted.  This weekend, I'm one of the guests of honour at Fantasticon 2014, in Copenhagen.  As part of the fun, my first work to be translated into Danish will be on sale: a short story collection, Under Mars, selected and translated by Niels Dalgaard:

Here's the table of contents:

Under Mars indeholder følgende ti noveller: Antarktis begynder her (Antarctica Starts Here), Tilflyttere (Incomers), Under Mars (Under Mars), Festplaneten (All Tomorrow’s Parties), Genkrigene (Gene Wars), Hvordan vi mistede Månen, en sand historie af Frank W. Allen (How We Lost The Moon, A True Story By Frank W. Allen, Rev (Reef), To gange Dick (The Two Dicks), En meget britisk historie (A Very British History) og Dr. Luthers assistent (Dr Luther’s Assistant).

Friday, May 16, 2014

First And Last

Quoted by Nalo Hopkinson in a recent tweet, here's Samuel R. Delany pithily summarising how his dyslexia affects his writing, in answer to a question put to him by Junot Diaz: 'I'm a very bad writer. What I am is a good rewriter.'

Actually, I don't know many people who write near-perfect first drafts. I certainly don't. Well, okay, I have written a few short stories more or less straight out, but that was a rare confluence of luck and inspiration, and they were very short short stories. But with novels I find the trick is to keep going to the end, and to resist the temptation to start revising halfway through. To keep pushing forward, somehow. To let the narrative and characters find their own logic and flow (and to let them surprise you: I'm still childishly delighted when they do). And when I reach the end of the first draft, the real work begins - making the story comprehensible to itself, and to others. It doesn't finish until the proofs are pried from my hands.

Right now, I'm at the ante-penultimate stage with Something Coming Through: folding in the notes and comments and corrections from my editor, and polishing the text one last time. In some ways an oddly nostalgic task, like reading the diary and looking at the photographs of a holiday you took in some other country a couple of years ago. That odd roadside shrine, that beach, the cafe where you ate breakfast every day, the little lizard basking on a stone . . . Meanwhile, the difficulties you had getting there in the first place are all forgotten.

Monday, May 12, 2014

In Print Or Pixels

Sometimes I'm asked by US readers whether they can buy a particular title of mine. So I thought it would be useful to list what's available in print and ebook in the UK and the US so that I can point enquiries towards it. Apologies in advance: this is going to be a post that's a) pretty listy and b) completely self-promoting.

In the UK

The following titles are available in print and ebook form (although older titles may be a bit hard to track down outside of online or specialist bookshops):
Four Hundred Billion Stars
Eternal Light
Red Dust
Pasquale's Angel
Cowboy Angels
The Quiet War
Gardens of the Sun
In the Mouth of the Whale
Evening's Empires

There are also several story collections and individual stories that I've published through Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing.  They're available from Amazon UK, Amazon US, and other countries covered by KDP:

City of the Dead
Dr Pretorius and the Lost Temple
Prisoners of the Action

Little Machines
Stories of the Quiet War
Life After Wartime

 In the US

 The only titles still in print in deadwood format are Cowboy Angels, The Quiet War, and Gardens of the Sun; again, they're probably only available via online or specialist bookshops. But you can order other titles via the Book Depository, which offers free worldwide postage.

As for ebooks, the following titles are available in Nook, Kindle and iTune formats:
Four Hundred Billion Stars
Eternal Light
Red Dust
Pasquale's Angel
The Secret of Life
Whole Wide World
White Devils
Cowboy Angels
The Quiet War
Gardens of the Sun
In the Mouth of the Whale
Evening's Empires

I'll do my best to keep this updated. All additional information gratefully received.

UPDATE#1 Michael Rossow and Brian both have kindly pointed out that The Secret of Life, Whole Wide World and White Devils are available on Kindle in the US, but In The Mouth of the Whale and Evening's Empires aren't.  The first three are invisible from the UK but the last two are visible with $ prices because Amazon's site has geolocation that imposes local publishing rights.  I spoofed it with Hola to get the correct US customer view.

UPDATE#2 (9 July 2014) In The Mouth of the Whale is now available in Nook format in the US. Hopefully it will soon be available in Kindle format too, as will Evening's Empires.

UPDATE#3 (19 July 2014) In the Mouth of the Whale is now available on Kindle in the US, and in the US iTunes store.

UODATE#4 (21 July 2014) Evening's Empires now available on Kindle in the US.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Meanwhile, On Mars

Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Malin Space Science Systems

Taken by Curiosity Mars Rover's Right Mastcam, May 3, 2014. More here.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Reality Closing In

Last year, NASA scientists used a 3-D printer and panoramic images taken by the Opportunity Mars rover to reconstruct a plastic model of the largest meteorite ever found on Mars.

Eleven years ago, a similar reconstruction featured in my short story about a Mars-themed amusement park, 'Under Mars', published in Peter Crowther's Mars-themed anthology Mars Probes, and republished in my collection Little Machines. Getting harder to keep up.
They walk through a crystal gateway into the next slice of the park's pie. Red rocks and red sand dunes saddle away into the trompe l'oeil distance of a painted backscene. Signs point towards the Viking landing site, the secret flying saucer factory, the Mars landing simulation, the life on Mars display.

"It works in here," Homer says, tapping his head. "Focus makes the impossible real. It suspends disbelief. It makes fake reality as real as you and me. I was plugged into one of the NASA rovers, Buzz, travelling through Nirgal Vallis. I was on Mars."

"You're on Mars right now," Buzz says, turning in a circle with his arms out, taking in the red sand (dyed Florida beach sand fixed into shape with resin), the pockmarked red rocks (each hand-carved from Arizona sandstone), the red crags (ditto).

"I never did try it in the park," Homer says, "but I'm told it works just as well here as with VR."

"You're serious about this stuff, aren't you?"

"It's the real deal. When we're done with this little job we'll try it out. You and me, what do you say?"

"I'd say you've done so much of this stuff you don't know what's real or not any more. Hey! Quit it!"

Because Homer has grabbed Buzz's arm, is steering him off the main path.

"I want to show you something," Homer says.

Buzz pulls free. "Man, what's wrong with you?"

"It won't take but ten minutes," Homer says stubbornly.

Buzz knows better to argue. It's always been this way: Homer making up his mind, and Buzz going along with it. Homer is the go-getter, the man with the plan; Buzz is the sidekick.

The path winds between bigger and bigger rocks, dives into an artfully simulated crevice in the arc of a crater's rampart wall. The room beyond is low ceilinged, red lit, and, apart from a bored docent lounging in the far corner, completely deserted. Tall glass cylinders are scattered across the black rubber floor, and Homer walks straight across the room to the largest, in which a red lump of rock half a metre high sits on a black display stand.

"There," Homer says. "That there is real."

"Come on, Homer. It's just plastic. A model."

"I know that. I'm not fried. But it exists. It's sitting on Mars right this moment, in one of the canyons in Deuteronilus Mensea. A robot took twenty-eight days to scan that rock right there on Mars, and a laser stereolithograph used the information to build it up out of polymer. Look at it, Buzz. It's a fossilized stromatolite, just like the ones found in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks on Earth, which in turn are just like living stromatolites found in certain shallow bays of the Australian coast. See the striations, like pages in a book? Each one is a layer of sediment trapped and stabilized by a year's-worth of growth of mat-forming microorganisms. There was life on Mars, once upon a time. This is the hard evidence."

Monday, April 28, 2014

Giving It All Away

As a bit of promotion for the paperback of Evening's Empires, Tom Hunter has interviewed me for London Calling magazine. If you're located in the UK, you might want to click over even if you're not interested in my blether, because there's a link at the end to a competition with a set of my books as a prize, as well as the chance to download, absolutely free, the ebook collection Stories from the Quiet War. Unfortunately, the offer isn't available to those outside the UK (although I guess that if you know how to spoof your location, you could grab the ebook . . .).

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Define 'Define'

The problem I have with this series on literary definitions, and Anita Mason's article in particular, is not the clickbait idea (and perfect example of circular logic) that genre fiction somehow lacks one or more of the essential qualities that elevate literary fiction above all other categories. Or even that literary fiction is the center from which all else radiates (and if it is, it must have sunk there, displacing everything that came before it, because literary fiction, like science fiction, is an invention of the twentieth century). No, what's problematical is the idea that there are boundaries between different types of fiction that exactly map onto the narrow range of publishing categories defined by labels on bookshop shelves.

Those labels can be a useful guide to browsing customers, but as taxonomy not so much. There are too many exceptions to pat definitions like Mason's. As far as I'm concerned, there are no boundaries. Everything's a continuum. Or maybe a series of strange-attractor vortices in n-dimension space. Who knows? Who cares? That last, perhaps, being a more important question than how to fit divots of the vast, wild landscape of fiction into a numbered series of sterile pigeonholes.

Friday, April 18, 2014


A little over twenty years ago, on April 5th 1994, Channel 4 broadcast the last interview given by the playwright and novelist Dennis Potter, then in the terminal stage of pancreatic cancer. He famously described how the immediate prospect of death heightened his awareness of the world:
'At this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west, early. . .  Last week looking at it through the window when I'm writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both much more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn't seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know . . . The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.'
Anyone rudely confronted by their own mortality can attest to the absolute truth of this. Three years ago I was finishing a long course of chemotherapy, unsure whether or not I would survive, and the blossom then was, yes, whiter and frothier and blossomier than any blossom there ever had been. It wasn't the immediacy of childlike wonder, or the ecstatic visions of William Blake, or the intensity celebrated by the Romantic Poets. It was the understanding that there was only the moment of seeing, and the nowness of that moment. Of seeing the world as it was, not as you expected it to be be. Seeing it afresh.

I was more or less unable to write then, but something of that immediacy is what all fiction writers aspire to, of course. To make the world new; to see it afresh. To find the detail that makes a particular moment spark in the reader's mind. In genre fiction, by definition mostly furnished secondhand, it's especially important to make things new. To see them again as they really are. That spaceship. That world. That fat orange sun fixed just above the flat horizon. Those ruins. That clear-eyed person, her giant shadow preceding her as she picks her way through tumbled stones, seeing them as they really are, in that moment of discovery.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Book Birthday

Out today: the UK paperback of Evening's Empires. It's the fourth novel to be set in the Quiet War universe, but you don't need to have read the others (although I hope you will): its story is self-contained. If you'd like an introduction to my Quiet War stuff, there's Life After Wartime, a low-price Kindle ebook collection of short fiction that also contains the first chapter of Evening's Empires.

'The Quiet War was one of the best books McAuley has written, and Evening's Empires makes an excellent companion to it.  These are books that, if there is any justice, will shape the stories we tell about our solar system for many years to come.' Interzone

'McAuley's work has many sweet spots, and this book is smack in the middle of a big one.' Locus

'The whole thing is wrapped in a melange of weird cultures and mind-boggling tech and steeped in a thoughtful and intelligent vision of the future, but, unlike some of his peers, McAuley delivers a tight-knit, propulsive storyline too. Grown-up SF that still manages to pack a punch.' Starburst

' Evening's Empires is a great addition to the 'Quiet War' sequence to date and a rollicking adventure that would very much appeal to readers of Alistair Reynolds and Iain Banks.' Concatenation

'Evening's Empires is everything you could possibly want from a science fiction novel, from the grand visions to the plausibility to the engaging story this book hits all the right notes.' SF Book Reviews

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Here We Go

I'm supposed to be doing a chapter-by-chapter outline of the new novel, but over the past week I have written three and a bit chapters instead. So much for discipline. I hoped to prove that I could map out new territory and pick my route before setting off, but as usual I'm discovering where I need to go by going there, at the rate of roughly 1500 words a day. Every writer has their own walking pace; this appears to be mine. Meanwhile, the cow parsley is frothing in unattended corners of the parks and graveyards of North London, and the horse chestnuts are candling. Spring is moving in the air, and in the earth below*, and in what I hope will be another book, better than the last. Always hope for a new and better destination, when you set out.

*Wind in the Willows
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