Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Short Stuff


Just arrived in the post, copies of this beautiful French translation of my novella The Choice, from Le Bélial'. I believe that publication date is February 11th. There's an ebook version too.

In other short-story news, Lightspeed Magazine have reprinted my story 'Transitional Forms', and the latest edition of Clarkesworld includes a new story, 'The Fixer', which was partly inspired by this.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Now Hear This


The paperback of Something Coming Through has been out in the world for a couple of weeks now,  and the second Jackaroo novel, Into Everywhere, will be published in a couple of months (the 21st of April, to be precise). At the same time, my publisher will be releasing unabridged audiobooks of both novels in the UK (and, I assume, the rest of the EU). So if that's how you like to take your fiction, both of them are now available for preorder - here and here, for instance. Although there are audiobook versions of some of my shorter fiction - notably in Allan Kaster's series,The Year's Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction - it's the first time any of my novels have been turned into audiobooks, so I'm somewhat excited.

Oh, and by the way, now that Something Coming Through is out in paperback, the ebook is considerably cheaper. Just saying.

Friday, January 22, 2016

You Can't Get There From Here

Like chaotic systems, novels are highly sensitive to initial conditions. But it's often a mistake to think that you can fix the one you've just started to write by reworking the first page, the first paragraph, the first sentence. The initial conditions of a novel, the warm little pond where it was first nurtured, precedes the first word. The tone of the novel's narrative and the sequence of its story are shaped by decisions made before you start to write. The history of the characters and their place in history, the privileges they possess and those they lack, so on, so forth, determine what might happen to them, and the decisions and actions they make in response. Sometimes, when the novel you think you were writing starts to become something else, it's because you haven't been true to to its characters and their situation, and you can retrace your steps until you find the place where you went wrong, and start over. But sometimes the novel you're writing becomes something else because that's what it was all along. And then you have two choices: either step up to the plate and own it and have fun finding out where it takes you next, or run away and try to fix the initial conditions so they'll come out the way you want. I know which I prefer.

Monday, January 18, 2016

In Short

Charles Baxter, New York Review of Books:
O’Connor’s central idea is that the short story is a more private art than that of the novel. And its dramatis personae are of a different order: more solitary, isolated, and uncommunicative. Going out on one of several limbs, O’Connor claims that we do not identify with most short-story characters. Instead, we find in stories “a submerged population group” made up of lonely outcasts, “outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society, superimposed sometimes on symbolic figures whom they caricature and echo….” He is thinking here of Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and its central character, Akaky Akakievich, and Akaky’s distant, echoing similarity to Christ:
What Gogol has done so boldly and brilliantly is to take the mock-heroic character, the absurd little copying clerk, and impose his image over that of the crucified Jesus, so that even while we laugh we are filled with horror at the resemblance.
Allied to romance rather than realism, the short-story form, O’Connor suggests, does not provide the kind of necessary space for a writer to build up a worthy and heroic individual as novels do. Remembering an author’s stories, we therefore recall a population group and not an individual. As a consequence, what we encounter in short stories are these exemplars of various subcultures, “remote from the community—romantic, individualistic, and intransigent,” a class of people who were largely invisible to us before our reading. Accordingly, the central feeling of short stories, O’Connor asserts, is that of the loneliness associated with that particular group.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Dead

Originally posted January 2nd 2011 as My Grandmother's Photograph Album.
 


One of the memes endlessly circulating the Sargasso of the internet is that the living now outnumber the dead. It seems to be based on the exponential mathematics of the population explosion: if two people have three children, and if those children each have three children, and so on, and so on, then in only a few generations it's a mathematical inevitability that there will be more living descendants than dead ancestors.
But like too many simple ideas it has a fatal flaw: we tend to underestimate the numbers of the dead. One calculation, quoted in a debunking article published in the Scientific American, suggests that around 106 billion people have been born; since only 6 billion are currently alive, 94% of all people ever born are dead. Or as Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick suggested in their foreword to the novelisation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, 'Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.'



An inspection of old photograph albums confirms this simple truth. Here are the dead, in their multitudes. They are dressed in antique costumes, stand in front of new cars, hold up babies. They are often on holiday.




 


We know so little about them. Many are nameless, now. Yet they wait patiently for us.  They have plenty of time, after all. The universe is still young: a little less than 14 billion years. Whether it expires in a Big Crunch or subsides in a long Heat Death, many more billions of years stretch ahead. We'll all be dead for far longer than our pre-birth non-existence.



 'Come on in. The water's fine.'

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Now In Paperback



Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Alien Impulses And Strange Memes

From Something Coming Through, published in paperback Thursday January 14.

The schoolkids ran through a pretty good version of ‘Scarborough Fair’, bowed to the scattering of applause and were led off the stage by their conductor. Chloe could feel an energy gathering in the little crowd. An MC took to the stage, an amazingly confident young woman dressed in a metallic silver leotard and black tutu who hunched into the microphone and to a backing track of car-crash rhythms began a rap about the great change coming and hard times ending. When she was done and the whoops and applause had died down she asked everybody to raise their hands for the man with the plan, the man who knew.
 

‘Give it up for Mr Archer. Mr Archer going to speak the truth to you right now.’
 

There was an awkward pause, some kind of hitch. The MC stood at the edge of the stage, talking to people, shaking her head. The sound system started to reprise the clanging smash of her backing music, then cut off abruptly. Several people were helping someone climb onto the stage.
 

Mr Archer was a slight old man wearing what was probably the suit he planned to be buried in. His white beard was neatly trimmed; his pink scalp showed through his cap of fine white hair. The MC ushered him to the microphone stand and he clung to it and looked around like a grandfather dazed with pleasure at his own birthday party. A hush fell over the small gathering.
 

Chloe’s spex were capturing everything. Eddie’s little drone hung in the sunlit air. The moment of silence stretched.
 

‘Uth,’ Mr Archer said. ‘Uth!  Uth!’ And, ‘Penitent volume casualty force. Action relationship. Flow different.  Uth!  Uth!’
 

Most in the audience chanted Uth! Uth! too. Those who weren’t part of the cult, who hadn’t drunk the snake oil, looked at each other. A couple of kids in front of Chloe started to jeer.
 

Chloe felt a sinking sense of disappointment. She’d seen it all, in her time. Fiery-eyed preaching. A woman who spoke through a pink plush alligator. People standing face to face, staring into each other’s eyes, sharing significant gazes. Ritual bloodletting. A young girl walking among her followers with a silver wand, touching them at random, causing them to fall into faints and foaming fits. A hundred different attempts to express thoughts for which there were no human equivalents, no words in any known language. Speaking in tongues was commonplace. She’d seen it a dozen times.
 

Mr Archer spoke for some time, enthusiastically expounding his thesis in his private language, repeating his catchphrase at intervals, smiling as his followers chanted in response. The two kids who’d been jeering walked away; others followed. Chloe wondered how it would end, a procession or a mass hug or a conga line, but instead the old man simply stopped speaking, laboriously stepped down from the stage, and hobbled off at the centre of a cluster of acolytes. His audience gathered up their children and drifted towards the camp.

They looked pleased. They had spoken in public. They had marked their territory. They had let out the ideas jostling in their heads, like that ancient rock star who’d shaken out a box of butterflies at an open-air concert in Hyde Park.  Most of the butterflies had died, but it was the gesture that counted.
 

This was something that couldn’t be quantified by Disruption Theory’s surveys: the happiness of the people possessed by alien impulses and strange memes. The ecstasy of expression. The simple childlike joy of creating a channel or connection. Although the breakout was nothing special, Chloe was glad to be reminded of that.  She took a flyer from one of the kids who were handing them out to the few non-believers who remained, slipped it into her messenger bag and got out of there while Eddie Ackroyd was packing up his drone.

We Thought He Was Saying Hello But He Was Really Saying Goodbye

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Another Country

Over Christmas I read, with increasing enchantment, a lucky find in a charity shop - a 1970s Penguin edition of Mary Renault's The Bull From The Sea. Which I first read it more than forty years ago in my school library, where I also discovered the novels of The Lord of the Flies* and The Lord of the Rings. It's the sequel to Renault's The King Must Die, taking up Theseus's story after he returns from Crete and inherits a kingdom after his father, believing Theseus to be dead, commits suicide. Its first-person narrative is vivid and vital. The action -- and there's a lot of action in a story that encompasses the rise and fall of Theseus's reign -- is spare and swift:
The Kolchians kept a good watch and saw us landing, though there was no moon; but it did not give them long enough to get their goods up to the Citadel, and they left a good deal behind. We fought in the streets by the light of the burning houses; and the men of Kolchis giving way before us we caught up in the mountain road with the mule-train that had the gold.
The episodic narrative does sometimes feel that Renault is ticking off boxes as she covers the rest of her hero's life. But the storytelling, omitting everything that isn't essential and framed through Theseus's restless, pragmatic eye, is masterful and relentlessly propulsive, and with sharp economy effectively conveys a rich sense of its antique world. Not for Renault baggy descriptions of every room and every minor character, or discursive sidebars on the sewerage system of Athens or the pantheon of her Gods; instead, much of the sense of the world is conveyed through action -- by what Theseus does, or what he thinks about the people and situations he encounters, and the problems he must solve. It's a paradigmatic example of how worldbuilding serves the story, rather than vice versa. It's also (something rare these days) a story square in the tragic mode, as Theseus chases the unattainable carefree days of his youth, and loses, piece by piece, everything he loves. Not Renault's best novel, but better than almost everything else.


*The Lord of the Flies was pretty much a mandatory text in English schools at that time, but as far as I was concerned, it wasn't set at O-level, and at A-level I moved into the science stream, so was able to read it unencumbered by the feeling that I was doing some kind of work. Later, I helped to organise a showing of Peter Brook's adaptation at the school cinema club.** The teachers grew increasingly quiet and still as anarchy deepened, but perked up when the naval officer appeared.

** It was a county grammar school with the pretensions of a minor public school; I was a bright kid from a poor family who shamelessly benefited from its facilities.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

And What Have I Done?

Another year over, a new one about to begin...

In 2015 I wrote, mostly. First up, a new novel, Something Coming Through, which brought together some ideas I've been working up in short stories for the past ten years or so. About the way that technology has become a cargo cult that is changing us in ways we can neither predict nor, as yet, fully understand. About what might happen if we were given free and easy travel to other planets right now. About mysteriously helpful aliens, the Jackaroo, and what happens when the Other understands you better than you understand yourself.



I finished writing a second Jackaroo novel, Into Everywhere, in the first half of this year. It's related to Something Coming Through but works as a standalone, and is scheduled to be published in April 2016, a couple of months after the mass market paperback of Something Coming Through and a couple of months before Fairyland is reissued as a Gollancz SF Masterwork.



Also published in 2015, a big fat paperback of the Confluence trilogy, reissued with two associated stories. Some people think that it's my best work. I'm pleased to see it back in print after a long hiatus. And I turned two out-of-print novels, Players and Mind's Eye, into ebooks - Kindle only, at the moment, I'm afraid. Players is a police procedural revolving around a massively multiplayer online game. Mind's Eye is a weird thriller that moves from London to Iraq in a chase after the origin of mind-altering entoptic glyphs and the strange family history of its protagonist.

There was a smattering of non-fiction, and two short stories, 'Planet of Fear' (in Old Venus, edited by G.R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois) and 'Wild Honey' (in Asimov's SF). Both have been selected for upcoming Best of the Year anthologies. I also wrote, and sold, four short stories that should see print in 2016, and I'm in the middle of writing a novel I don't want to talk about for the usual superstitious reasons, except to say that it's one I've been trying to find way of writing for some time.

Based on previous years, I could predict that I'll spend much of 2016 writing, too, but one thing I've learned from writing science fiction is that making predictions is a chancy business. Meanwhile, a Happy New Year to all who've stopped by here. Let's hope it's a good one.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Dream Logic

In the gardens of my childhood, a subdivided acre behind the row of four rented cottages, I was digging in the soft deep dirt for lugworms, usually found in the intertidal sand of beaches. I excavated one and dropped it in a plastic bag with an inch of seawater in the bottom, but abandoned the search when I uncovered a hollow chamber the size and shape of a child's balloon -- I was afraid of being attacked by the bees which I knew had made it. With the kind of narrative skip common in dreams, I noticed that the sports field next to the gardens had been dug up to reveal the salt dome beneath. Workmen were carving the white salt into a replica of the hills that rose above our little valley. So far, they'd only roughed out the contours, and created a miniature of the parish church. The tall wire mesh boundary fence was gone and big hawthorn bushes had been planted in its place, each bent like an elbow, to create the beginnings of a hedge. I walked along it, towards my childhood home. And then I woke up.

Friday, December 18, 2015

More Listing

This time, ten films from 2015 (in the UK) that I really liked, in no particular order.


Birdman (dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu)



Hard To Be A God (dir. Alexei German)



Sicario (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland)

Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)


Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller)

The Falling (dir. Carol Morely)

It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell)

The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)



A Most Violent Year (dir. J.C. Chandor)




Most Disappointing Beginning To A Series: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Worst Theme Park Ever: Jurassic World

Worst/Best Punning Title: Bridge Of Spies

Most Hoo-Ha! The Sniper

Two Hours I Won't Get Back: Fantastic Four

Possibly The Best Film I Haven't Seen Yet: A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

The Inevitable List Redux

A short-story collection and nine novels published this year that I enjoyed reading. Looking back, I realise that I haven't read much new science fiction, apart from short stories. I need to catch up. Three non-fiction books I especially liked were: Oliver Morton's history of climate change and geoengineering, The Planet Remade; Luc Sante's chronicle of the old, tough City of Lights, The Other Paris, and Owen Hatherley's tour of Eastern Europe and its architecture, Landscapes of Communism.



Monday, December 07, 2015

Signs Of Life

The western end of London Wall is a forbidding entry to the City of London. Brick and concrete, glass and steel buildings rise ten, twenty, thirty stories high in an elephantine fortification. One building, faced with panels the colour of Elastoplast, straddles the four-lane road, with a branch of Pizza Express suspended in its arch. Giant foghorns painted red and blue cluster in front of another. But off to one side, in the lee of the Museum of London, is a small open space where a few stretches of the old wall of London still stand. Medieval brick and stone built on Roman foundations. In an embayment there's a neatly planted herb garden, maybe three metres long and a metre across, the green shoots of narcissi showing in this warm December. And a desire path has been trampled by human feet across the grass, swerving around a bulwark as it angles towards the rectangular ponds at the rear of the Barbican.

I was there to visit the Museum of London's Crime Museum Uncovered exhibition. From which you learn that most murders don't involve unraveling clues left by meglomaniacs to taunt the police, but are manhunts for men whose violent chaotic lives have fatally intersected with their victims. 'Luckily for us, most criminals are stupid -- that's why they're criminals,' a Portland, Oregon cop once observed to me, when I accompanied him on a ride-along. One of the exhibits was what looked like a pair of child's stilts, constructed by a Victorian burglar to make fake footprints to mislead the police. He was convicted because the prints of his own shoes were found next to his false trail.

Friday, November 13, 2015

E-Anecdote

An anecdote is not necessarily a datum, and all that. So this is just an observation I found interesting. I was doing a Q&A with a university creative writing class this week, and midway through the professor asked a question of his own: how many of the students read e-books on any media, from Kindles to iPads? Out of around twenty, only three raised their hands.

The New York Times recently reported that e-book sales have fallen in the first part of this year, suggesting that the survival of printed books isn't as precarious as once thought. Certainly, those students, all of them digital natives and presumably a target audience for purveyors of e-books, prefer the printed page. It wasn't the time and place to go into any detail as to why, but for authors who, like me, are putting some or all of their back list* out as self-published e-books, it is interesting. Who is the audience? One survey suggests that e-book consumption 'seems to be a habit acquired after the age of 24.' Are we missing out on a rising generation of readers, who think that e-books are no substitute for printed books, which don't need expensive devices to read them, and can be bought cheaply secondhand?


*See the blog's sidebar for links to short stories, short story collections, and two novels that fell out of print.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Meta-Miracle

I saw a 35mm print of Tarkovsky's Stalker a few weeks ago, deep in the mazy bowels of the Barbican Centre. Based on the novella Roadside Picnic, by Boris and Arkady Strugasky, its narrative follows a stalker who guides two clients through the forbidden Zone, an area imprinted by some unspecified event, to a room that is said to grant the true desires of those who enter it. Not their spoken, conscious wishes or ambitions, but something much more dangerous: their heart's desire. It's a slow-paced meditative film that leaves the interpretation of much of its dreamlike story and images to the viewer, and like a dream its atmosphere clings to you for some while afterwards. Whenever I think of the wretched Stalker, who keeps returning to the Zone even though it has made a ruin of his life, I'm reminded of a couple of lines from T.H. White's The Once and Future King (also, amongst other things, the story of a quest): 'The miracle was that he had been allowed to do a miracle. And ever, says Mallory, Sir Lancelot wept, as he had been a child that had been beaten.'

Monday, November 02, 2015

Proof Of Life

Friday, October 30, 2015

NED

A little over five years ago I was told that I had bowel cancer. This was in in an office half-full of broken furniture and with a view of a weedy car park, the former site of the Odeon and Paramount cinema. A conjunction of bathos and cheap symbolism that would be rightly edited out of any fiction. Five years on, the office, the building it was in, and the car park, are all gone. Erased by redevelopment. Five years on, after major surgery, seven months of chemotherapy and a small nervous collapse manifesting mostly in anxiety attacks, I'm still here. And I've just been told that my latest and hopefully last CT scan has shown no trace of the disease. Five years on, I'm not cured, because there is as yet no way of determining that a cancer patient is entirely free of cancer cells. But I am no longer in remission. I am, prosaically, inelegantly, happily, NED -- No Evidence of Disease.

For which I am of course, immensely grateful. To the NHS, and the staff of University College Hospital London, where I was treated. To my steadfast partner, and everyone who offered condolences and support. To all, again, thank you.

But after a brief surge of elation at the good news, in which, yes, the world did look more vivid and significant, as if leaving the cinema after watching a terrific and involving film, life resumes. Partly, this is because someone close to me is currently undergoing treatment for cancer. So cancer is still a very large part of my everyday life. But also because while having cancer is life-changing, no doubt, life goes on anyway. Other stuff insists on happening. The world inconsiderately does not pay full attention to you, and you are not continually bathed in the glorious light of revelation. Which is probably just as well, as it sounds awfully tiring.

But you are, of course, abruptly confronted with your own mortality, and the stark realisation that part of your body, that marvelous intricate communal cooperative which you've mostly taken for granted, has rebelled. Cells have regressed to an embryonic state. They are no longer cooperating. Instead, all they want to do is feed and divide. And given the chance, they will continue divide and spread until that marvelous cooperative collapses. They are so greedy for life that they don't care that their greed will kill you, and kill them too.

That knowledge is a continual low level dread, and the needling reminder that comes at odd moments in the day, and lies with you, unsleeping, at night: remember, you have cancer. And often it seems the other way around, a version of the old Russian joke. You don't have cancer. Cancer has you.

There are two narratives imposed on cancer patients by much of the media. There's the foot soldier in war against cancer, bravely battling the odds. And there's the stoic saint bravely facing her looming unavoidable fate. But if treating cancer is a battle, the patients aren't the foot soldiers. They're the battlefield. And while most of us would all like to aspire to the condition of sainthood, only some of us achieve it.

So, I was no foot soldier. I was a battleground. And, regrettably, I was no saint, either. I had a few low-key and somewhat sentimental and commonplace Damascene moments. I was privileged to witness the ability of my fellow patients to endure with dignity and humour (there's no darker humour than the humour of the chemo ward) the various indignities and travails of treatment. But mostly I tried to get on with my life, which meant that I continued to write books and stories and articles, travel when I could, pay the gas bills, so on, so forth. And maybe it was a selfish or unimaginative way of dealing with the situation, but hey. It mostly worked for me.

Five years on, then, I'm no longer a patient, but I am not cured. There is no cure. I am NED. I am still subject to survivorship statistics, although the odds have increased massively in my favour. Five years ago, my odds of surviving the next five years -- staying alive with or without evidence of cancer in my body -- were about 60%. Now, because most recurrences of cancer happen within five years of the original treatment, my odds of surviving the next five years are little different to those of everyone my age who hasn't had cancer.

That needling little reminder hasn't yet fallen silent. I doubt that it ever will. But it's now in the past tense. It no longer says, remember, you have cancer. It says instead remember, you had cancer. It's no longer a warning. It's a valediction.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The View From My Window Today


Low afternoon sunlight and leaf colour in London.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Upcoming, In Black And White



Two different views of life after the coming of the Jackaroo, those willfully enigmatic aliens who are here to help. Whatever that means.

First up, the paperback cover for Something Coming Through, scheduled for publication in January next year. Second, the cover for Into Everywhere, due out in March 2016. Just the draft version at the moment, but it can be found elsewhere in the internet so I thought I'd throw it up here.

More later, you bet.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Continuum

In the purest kind of science fiction, the characters are in service to the story, and the story, whether it's about exploring alien megastructures (Rendezvous With Rama) or dramatising the unforgiving nature of orbital dynamics ('The Cold Equations'), is strung on a spine of actual or extrapolated science. But the pure quill of so-called hard sf quickly shades into fictions with more human concerns which respect the scientific spirit but have a focus that's elsewhere. That may be more interested in changes in society driven by science and technology, and the moral dilemmas those changes create, than in the actual science. And that in turn shades into the kind of sf in which science, or the vocabulary of science, or science's angle of attack, is used to illustrate a moral dilemma or some aspect of the human condition present in the actual world. The kind of story that has begun to dominate the Hugo Awards; the kind of story that this year's iteration of the Sad Puppy group railed against. John Cho's 'The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere', for instance, or Rachel Swirsky's 'If You were a Dinosaur, My Love'. Humanist stories that appear to be the antithesis of hard sf, yet in fact respect the scientific rational and central importance of science in our culture as much as the purest, hardest hard sf. Stories that, like hard sf stories, are informed by the time in which they were written, for although scientific verities secured by empiric evidence may be immutable, the culture of science, because it's a human construct, is not.There's no us v. them. No central core that must be defended from impure outsiders. It's a continuum.
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