Friday, May 27, 2016

Currently Reading (8)

A ship crewed by a disparate crew of humans and aliens bags a prize job: tunneling a wormhole to the titular small, angry planet that's the gateway to the core of the galaxy and rich amounts of the unobtanium prized by interstellar civilisations. There's just one problem: the core is barricaded by an ongoing war between clans of a particularly bad-tempered alien species, and despite a brand-new treaty the clan which controls the gateway may not be entirely trustworthy.

So far, it's the stuff of a hundred standard space operas. But Becky Chambers is part of a new cohort of authors who are repurposing the tropes of science fiction and fantasy to explore diversity and identity, and ways of accommodating and accepting difference. Some of the tropes she deploys are a bit too hoary to be redeemed by any amount of irony, but she has a good ear for snappy dialogue, the members of the starship crew are nicely drawn and pleasingly variegated, and there's deep back history to her universe and a rich variety of aliens and alien worlds.

Don't expect a conventional plot: the problem of the angry planet and its horde of angry aliens is hectically and quickly dispatched towards the end of the novel. The point of the story is the getting there, and what the crew discover about themselves along the way. 'You're trying to learn how to be good,' one of them tells the latest recruit, a young woman from Mars with an Awful Secret, and one by one the various problems of the various crew members and their back stories are resolved through kindness, understanding and, yes, goodness. Most of the resolutions are friction-free, and one turns on a fantastic coincidence -- the cost, difficulty and sacrifice of caring for others isn't much emphasised here. But it's done with wit and care, and while some may find it a bit too saccharine, it's a refreshing difference from the adolescent attitudes and kick-ass heroism of rather too much contemporary science fiction. Somewhat unadvertised, this turns out to be the first of a trilogy about these wayfarers. A little more grit next time, perhaps?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

There Are Doors (24)

Monday, May 23, 2016

On Beauty

Photo © Yutaka Kagaya

What do we mean, when we say that prose is 'beautiful'? When we say that 'beautiful prose' is one of the defining characteristics of literary fiction?

Actually, I dunno. It isn't just that 'beautiful' is dependent on cultural context, or that's it's one of those words devalued by overuse, most often by estate agents. See also 'stunning', 'spacious', 'superb', so on. It's also a descriptor that's both too precise and too inadequate for the kind of prose that rises above the mundane.

We know what bad prose is, because it's mostly, as Toby Litt points out, boring. And we more or less know what genre default prose is, too. (In science fiction, the default used to be Isaac Asimov; now it's Internet Snark.) But what kind of prose is better than default? What kind of prose is, if not beautiful, then truly great?

It isn't the kind of transparent prose that some insist is the sine qua non. The kind of prose that doesn't get in the way of the reader's experience. The kind of prose that doesn't snag her attention. The kind of so-called transparent or windowpane prose that George Orwell didn't actually write about in that essay which wasn't, in any case, about the literary use of language. In any case, how can prose pretend that it doesn't get in the way of the story when it is part of that story?

Great prose is much more than not being bad, or simply utilitarian, or merely competent. It's more than being lyrical, or poetic, or moving, although it can be all of those things. It can be precise and thrilling. It can lure you into its mazes and won't let you go. It can be witty and profound, can work on several registers at once, but it can also be stupidly banal when only stupid banality will do. It's the distinctive voice of the author, or the character, or the voices of both twined in dialogue. Most of all, maybe, as Toby Litt points out, it takes risks. It's a high-wire act. It isn't afraid of failure. It doesn't aim to please. It isn't fan-friendly. It doesn't want to be likeable or relevant. It'll be your friend and bake you a cake and take out the garbage, and it'll seduce your partner and steal your children. It laughs in the face of the grammar police and the impotent artillery of amazon reviews. It hides in your stairway and hangs in your curtain and sleeps in your hat. You know what I mean.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Currently Reading (7)

Triangulate Kafka, Camus, and the early novels of J.G. Ballard, and you'll find Kōbō Abe's The Woman in the Dunes, his first and also his best known novel, in part because of Hiroshi Teshigahara's wonderful film adaptation (Abe collaborated with Teshigahara on that and three other films, Pitfall, The Face of Another and Man Without a Map). Illustrated with line drawings by Machi Yamada, Abe's wife, its allegorical narrative is as simple, and as morally complex, as a fairy tale. Amateur entomologist Jumpei Niki visits remote dunes in search of rare beetles, becomes caught up in the scheme of a village to save itself from the advancing sand, and is trapped at the bottom of a pit with a young widow who is stronger and more capable than she at first seems. Niki's predicament and his attempts to escape, the parched heat of his claustrophobic prison and the sand which frustrates his plans and permeates everything are vividly evoked; his relationship with the woman, who is stronger and more capable than she first seems, evolves into an uneasy forced marriage. Like all great stories of survival, Abe's bleak fable strips its characters to their fundamental selves, and its bizarre situation and dark, absurdist humour frame serious questions about human relationships, sacrifice, and the nature of our lives.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

What Is The Clarke Award For?

It seems quite simple. It is, according to its simple self-description, an award for ‘the best science fiction novel published in Britain in the given year’. A measure and celebration of achievement in science-fiction writing that isn't limited to novels published within the science-fiction genre. But what is meant by 'best'? and what is meant by 'science fiction'?

When I was a judge for the Clarke Awards, back in 2003, defining 'science fiction' turned out to be mostly a practical matter. We were presented with around fifty novels submitted by publishers, and as far as we were concerned, any novel that had been submitted should be considered, whether or not it had been published as science fiction. So we read everything we'd been sent, agreed that one or two were so obviously fantasy novels that they could be excluded, and then got down to the business of deciding which were the best.

And that, of course, is where the trouble starts. What do we mean be 'best'? What defines an exceptional science-fiction novel?

It's one of the topics that Nina Allan discusses in a long and interesting essay about the merits and relevance of the Clarke Award. Is the award still worthwhile? Does it stimulate critical discourse? Does it reflect the increasing diversity of the genre? Is it being given to the right kind of novels? What are the right kind of novels?

It's that last question I'd like to discuss here. Allan believes that what she calls 'core SF tropes' are only of interest if they are somehow subverted, and that 'if a work of science fiction cannot [her italics] stand next to works drawn from the mainstream and hold its own in terms of literary values, we need to be asking ourselves if it is truly great.' In other words, a good science fiction novel should not be measured in terms of whatever it is that defines the science-fiction genre, but by the standards of literary fiction.

What are those standards? Most agree that literary fiction is in part defined by fine or beautiful prose, that it gives preference to theme over plot, and explores the psychology of the individual in particular and the human condition in general. It's concerned with analysing reality, while other kinds of fiction (genre fiction, commercial fiction, paraliterary fiction) are concerned with escaping reality. Some might also say, not entirely inaccurately, that literary writers are expected to write a different novel every time, while genre writers are expected to write the same novel every time.

Science fiction, perhaps the most protean of genre fictions, is somewhat harder to define. We know it when we see it, but it includes a vast variety of different kinds of fiction; its borders are vague; it overlaps other genres, including literary fiction. But in all of those different kinds of science-fiction works, there's perhaps one unifying factor: rather than exploring reality, science fiction is interested in exploring the limits of reality. Rather than analysing and universalising individual human experience, it's interested in analysing the reality of the universe and measuring it against human values. It's about change and difference, and the consequences of change and difference.

In short, the values of science fiction are not identical to those of literary fiction (or any other genre), for otherwise we wouldn't need to distinguish it from other varieties of fiction. Sure, good writing and fine characterisation should be celebrated, and bad writing and flat characterisation shouldn't be excused because of other qualities. To paraphrase Samuel R. Delany, fleas are fleas, no matter where or how you catch them. A badly written science-fiction novel is badly written even its ideas are novel and excitingly executed. Even so, and this is where I have a problem with Allan's argument, there are good reasons why great works of science fiction, works worthy of the Clarke Award, shouldn't be judged by the same standards as literary fiction.

Allan anticipates this, saying that she is aware that her view is contentious, and that some would 'disagree with it violently, attesting that it is attitudes and tastes like mine that are destroying science fiction, stripping the field of what makes it unique and worthy of specialist discussion in the first place.' I wouldn't go that far, but I do think that claiming that the standards of literary fiction are a universal yardstick is reminiscent of the kind of snobbery that asserts that literary fiction is the good stuff, created out of noble artistic aims, and all other kinds of fiction are bad, written for baseless commercial motives. It's also an instance of a kind of cultural cringe peculiar to the science-fiction field. Judges of crime, horror, fantasy and romance novels give awards to works that epitomise the best of their genre, not to those which best approximate 'literary values.' Only in science fiction are we so uncertain of what the values of the genre are, and whether they are worthwhile, that we seek to outsource them.

One of the reasons that literary fiction champions beautiful prose is that it seeks to make the familiar fresh and new, and that's hard to do in what's somewhat disparagingly called workmanlike prose. Science fiction, on the other hand, seeks to make the unfamilar familiar, and that can sometimes be hard to do if you adhere to what Martin Amis has called the war against cliche. Instead, science fiction has developed a huge common toolkit that enables writers to anatomise the unfamiliar and make it vivid to the mind's eye, to merge human stories with things slant to ordinary human experience or processes vaster and more ancient than anything in human history. And it turns out, here in the twenty-first century, in which our common reality is fractured by the consequences, good and bad, of scientific and technological advances, that the science-fiction toolkit is becoming ever more useful in grappling with weirdness of the happening world.

This is one reason why writers of literary fiction are increasing producing novels that overlap with the concerns of the science-fiction genre; why, from its inception, the Clarke Award has often included literary novels on its shortlist, or awarded prizes to them. This infusion is welcome, maybe even vitally necessary. But those novels should be judged by the same measure as novels written in the so-called 'core' of the genre, not by standards outwith it. They should be judged by how well they work as science-fiction novels, within the generously wide definitions of science fiction. From Allan's preference for 'a mixture of literary postmodernism, subjective hyperrealism, advanced and/or experimental structure bound together with speculative elements' to new varieties of the old kinds of science fiction, they should engage the heart and the mind, and deliver something fresh and startling and fully rounded. And we should be alert to the possibility that something fresh and startling can as easily come from inside the field as outside it, just as literary excursions in science fiction can sometimes be as trite and unoriginal as anything written inside the field that doesn't examine its assumptions and tropes.

I'm aware that's both vague and hopelessly idealistic. As Allan points out, awards decided by a jury or panel can be weakened by a variety of all-too-human failings, from compromise and favouritism, to prejudice and stubbornness. The short list of any award usually contains at least one oddity, and omits at least one title which, according to almost everyone else, should have been included. That's why the critical discussion that Allan rightly champions is so important, even though we should remember that critics are as prone to the same all-too-human-failings are the judges. But in the end, 'best' is not a value that can be defined by measurement against some external standard. As when I was a judge, as is hopefully the case this year, it's recognisable only by comparison with its peers.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Transect: Ballardland, France

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Fairyland Resurgam

Fairyland, my sixth novel, was published in 1995 and has managed to stay in print in the UK ever since. Very pleased to say that its latest incarnation, out today, is a spiffy SF Masterworks paperback with an introduction by Stephen Baxter. It's also available as an ebook, of course, and as an audiobook narrated by Max Dowler. It's an Audible editor's pick, and there's a free clip here.

I'm flying to France for a convention tomorrow, and hope to glimpse the Magic Kingdom, where the fairyland of Fairyland emerges into the world, through the window of one plane or another as I transit through Paris.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

'Rats Dream Of The Future'

I have a new story, 'Rats Dream of the Future', in the new issue of Asimov's, which turns on a minor obsession with the ways in which the speed of financial trading information exchange push at the limits of physics. Or maybe it's about ethics in science journalism. Or maybe it's about rats, you know, dreaming about the future. Their future, not ours. Another post-nature story, anyway, like 'Wild Honey.' Out now, as they say.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Currently Reading (6)

On a foundation of contemporary documents and literature, Matthew Beaumont constructs an immersive cultural history of an alter London, from the curfew of the medieval city to the familiar urban nightscapes through which Dickens steadily paced on his obsessive nocturnal pilgrimages. London by night, and how the liminal spaces of its darkness altered and freed the people who inhabited it:
Nightwalking, like writing poetry or taking opium, was one of the means by which Romantics like De Quincey, and post-Romantics like Dickens, fostered a second self -- a silent, shadowy, mysterious other. It collapsed the dark recesses of the psyche into the labyrinthine spaces of the city.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Out Next Week

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

No Longer Novel

Into Everywhere was launched into the world a couple of weeks ago, and faint signals are beginning to return. One of which, pleased to say, is a podcast of a roundtable discussion of the book, featuring Jonathan Strahan, Gary K. Wolfe, James Bradley and Ian Mond. There are also a few reviews, mostly friendly, including a nice one in SFX that brought me up short because it mentioned my age, suggesting that I was 'shaping up to be one of those rare SF novelists -- like Christopher Priest and M John Harrison -- whose work gets better even as the bastard years go by.' Which is of course lovely, but implies that many science-fiction authors begin to burn out too early. Implies that it's an almost inevitable part of the career arc. Up like a rocket! Down like a sounding plummet!

Science fiction, ever avid for novelty, does tend to celebrate youth. Its readers often start young (famously, the Golden Age of science fiction is 12). Likewise, many authors start their careers at a relatively early age. Samuel R. Delany published his first novel when he was 19; Tanith Lee published her first novel at age 24. Michael Moorcock became the editor of Tarzan Adventures at 17 and published his debut novel five years later, by which time he was editor of New Worlds. So on.* The average age of a Hugo-winning author is 44, although the mode of the distribution (the most frequent age) is 37 (data compiled by Nicholas Whyte.) Is it all downhill from there?

In a recent interview with Don DeLillo (79), the interviewer notes that although the author eschews email, prefers to communicate by fax and writes on a typewriter, there's a scene in his latest novel where characters stab at a taxi video screen, trying and failing to turn it off its annoying infomercials -- this celebrated revenant knows about touchscreens, is still in the world. Well, we're all in the world, more or less. The trick is to stay aware of it. Especially if you're a writer of the kind of fictions that extrapolate the weirdness of the happening world into something and somewhere else. The trick, as you get older, is to stay current. And to be aware of the themes you return to, and the habits you accumulate. You can't do much about those themes, they're as much a part of your identity as your fingerprints, and losing interest in them, failing to find anything new in them, is like losing interest in yourself. But habits are a form of laziness, shortcuts, defaults, and you should try to sidestep or cut out them out, subvert them, invert them, make them into something new. Writing a novel is a little like dreaming, sometimes, It should never be like sleepwalking. And then there's the kind of damage you can only accumulate as you move through the world and time. That's an advantage you have, as you grow older: the damage. That's something you can use.

*I started relatively late: I was 33 when Four Hundred Billion Stars was published (I did sell a story when I was 19, but before it was published the magazine folded; it wasn't a very good story anyway).

Monday, May 02, 2016

Transect: Westminster To Chelsea

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Currently Reading (5)

Some Rain Must Fall is the fifth volume of My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard's 3600 page six-volume novelistic memoir (heroically translated by Don Bartlett), and in some ways the most straightforward. An account of Knausgaard's struggle to become a serious writer, beginning with his induction into a prestigious writing course at the tender age of nineteen and ending with the success of his first novel, it also includes his first real love affair and his first real job, meeting and marrying his first wife, and the deaths of his grandmother and father (a distant but domineering figure, the immediate aftermath of his death was described in devastating detail in the first volume). All the landmarks of growth into adulthood, then, conveyed in prose that's sometimes flatly descriptive, sometimes banal, sometimes conversational, sometimes crackling with insight, that doesn't avoid cliche yet is precise, clear-sighted, and unflinching. Of all the real people who populate these pages Knausgaard is most acute and least sparing about himself, dissecting with unflinching candour the shame of private moments of selfishness, self-doubt, folly and reckless (and often drunken) foolishness.

This maximalism, larded with descriptions of the ordinary transactions of everyday life leave in all the things that most other writers leave out or dress up with flash and filigree, sometimes recalls the kind of naive science fiction worldbuilding that attempts to convey the future through endless invented details. But Knausgaard's impressionistic narrative, unconstrained by any particular pattern or plot, moving unforcedly from incident to incident, is also addictive and hypnotic. One of his themes is the nature and reliability of memory, which he believes to be an act on recreative imagination, purposively shaped, 'everything coloured by the mind,' yet his compound of memory and mimesis seems artless, flowing directly from mind to page with enviable directness and freedom, and it's in this volume that he gives some insight into his technique.

After two years hard work produces a few polished paragraphs of conventionally 'beautiful' writing that he can't take any further, he finally hits on the breakthrough that will allow him to write his first novel:
A girl parked her bike outside, performed all the necessary movements with consummate ease, in with the wheel, out with the lock, click it into position, straighten up, look around, head for the door and remove the hood of her rain jacket.

She greeted a girl at the table behind mine, ordered a cup of tea, sat down and started chatting. She talked about Jesus Christ, she'd had a religious experience.

I wrote down exactly what she said.
There, in the mingling of the mundane and the ecstatic, the entwining of the internal with the external, is the genesis of the voice that captures, in encounters with people and things, in feelings and struggles large and small, the essence of a single life and makes it universal.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Wizards Of The Slime Planet

An extract from the second chapter of Into Everywhere.

When the perimeter alert slammed down the pipe Tony Okoye was lying on his command couch and one of the hands was braiding his hair. He raised a finger to still the clever fingers of the man-shaped machine and said, ‘I hope this isn’t another cosmic-ray impact.’
    ‘Not this time,’ the ship’s bridle said.
    ‘Because if it is, I swear I will modify your detection filters with an axe.’
    ‘Then I’m almost glad I’m looking at an actual intruder,’ the bridle said, and opened an arc of windows in the dim warm air.
    Tony sat up, bare-chested in lime-green ‘second skin’ shorts, pushing a fall of loose hair from his face as he studied multi-spectrum images, vectors, estimates of the intruder’s capability. She was real. She was big. A G-class frigate ten times the size of his C-class clipper, bristling with weapon pods and patches. She had come through the mirror less than two minutes ago, she was already driving straight for the slime planet, and she was displaying a police flag. CPF Dauntless.
    ‘What are the police doing here? Have they said what they want?’
    ‘They haven’t said anything. And they aren’t the police,’ the bridle said. ‘The Dauntless is a G-glass frigate, but that G-class frigate is not the Dauntless. The configuration of her assets is wrong, and her flag’s certificate is a clever fake. Clever enough to fool the average freebooter, but not quite clever enough to fool me.’
    ‘Are you certain?’
    ‘I can show you my workings.’
    Tony flicked through images of the intruder. It looked a little like a weaponised jellyfish got up from shards of charred plastic: a convex shield or hood three hundred metres across, trailing three stout tentacles ornamented with random clusters of spines. No one knew what the original function of G-class Ghajar ships had been, but plating their shields with foamed fullerene and attaching weapon pods and patches around their rims turned them into formidable combat vessels.
    ‘If they aren’t police,’ he said, ‘they must be pirates. Claim jumpers.’
    ‘The possibility is not insignificant,’ the bridle said.
    ‘A ship that size, running under a fake flag? It is the only possibility. The Red Brigade has frigates, doesn’t it?’
    ‘So do a number of other fringe-world outfits. We should challenge it,’ the bridle said. ‘You can use your notorious charm to get its crew to reveal who they really are and what they want.’
    Her personality package, presenting as a bright eager capable young woman, was the front end of the AI that interfaced with the mind and nervous system of the actual ship, which like the frigate, like all ships everywhere, had been built by the Ghajar thousands of years ago. Tony’s C-class clipper was called Abalunam’s Pride, but no one knew its real name. The name its maker had given it long before it had been extracted from a sargasso orbit, refurbished and modified, and purchased by his grandmother. The secret name it might still call itself.
    Tony said, ‘I already have a pretty good idea about what they want. And it is possible that they do not know we are here. So we will maintain radio silence and continue to monitor them. And if they contact us, we will tell them that we are just a freebooter with an exploration licence and nothing to hide.’
    ‘Which we are.’
    ‘Which we are. But my family has a history with the Red Brigade. And if that really is one of their frigates . . .’
    Tony grazed the cicatrices on his cheek with his thumb as he thought things through. He was scared, yes, shocked and sort of numb, but he also felt alert and focused. Babysitting Fred Firat and his crew of wizards while they probed the ancient secrets of the slime planet had proven to be astoundingly tedious. There were no beasties to hunt, and the scattered Elder Culture ruins weren’t anything special. Junot Johnson was supervising the wizards’ work; Lancelot Askia was keeping them in line; after completing the survey of stromatolite sites and setting his little surprises, Tony had mostly stayed aboard the ship. Now, for the first time in four weeks, he was fully awake. At last he had something to do. And if that frigate really was one the Red Brigade’s ships he would have a chance to test his skill and cunning against his family’s old nemesis.
    He said, ‘How long before it gets here?’
    ‘Nineteen point three eight hours, if it maintains its current delta vee,’ the bridle said.
    ‘We will have a lot less than that if it fires off scouting drones. What about our assets at the mirror? Has our unwelcome guest pinged them, tried to spoof them, knocked any of them out?’
    ‘Not yet.’
    ‘It could have left behind assets of its own when it came through. Have one of the drones scan the mirror and the volume around it out to five thousand kilometres, but keep the rest dark. And shoot a message to Junot, brief him on the situation and tell him that the wizards should start packing up their stuff straight away.’
    ‘Then we’re going to make a run for it,’ the bridle said.
    ‘I am not going to sit on the ground and wait to see what that frigate does next,’ Tony said. ‘Check the mirror, message Junot, and raise the ship and aim it at the wizards’ camp.’
    ‘Shall I have the hand finish braiding your hair, too?’
    The bridle had a nice line in sarcasm, but Tony took the offer at face value.
    ‘Why not?’ he said, settling back on the couch. ‘If those claim jumpers do want to talk to me face to face, I should look my best.’

Monday, April 25, 2016

Transect: The Dome To The Thames Barrier

Friday, April 22, 2016

Ghost In The Head

An extract from the first chapter of Into Everywhere.

There were some days now when she didn’t think about the ghost in her head. Or there might be a moment when she’d wonder if it was asleep or awake, if it was looking out through her eyes, and then the moment would pass and she’d get on with whatever it was she happened to be doing. It hadn’t shown itself for eight years. It had receded into the background hum of her life. But then there was the day when it returned in all its terror and glory. Black lightning snapping in the cave of her skull. A thunderous swell obliterating all thought.

Lisa’s dog was nuzzling her neck when she came back to herself. She flapped a hand, trying to push him away or gather him close, she wasn’t sure. Pete sat back on his haunches and wordlessly barked, once, twice. She was sprawled in the yard, halfway between the house and the barn, looking up at the cloudless dark blue sky. Someone had hammered a nail into her skull, right between her eyes.
    She pushed onto her elbows, managed to sit all the way up. A greasy swell of nausea washed through her and she rested her head between her knees for a minute or so. Her mouth tingled with a metallic taste like a battery’s kiss. The sharp pain in her head began to diffuse into a general skull-cramp; she noticed that her pipe wrench lay next to her. She’d been fixing something, a leak in the water supply to the hurklin pens. She’d gone to fetch the wrench from the toolbox in her pickup truck ...
    Pete told her that she had fallen over.
    ‘I’m okay now,’ Lisa said, although she was very fucking far from okay. She was frightened and confused and angry. After all this time it had happened again. After all this time her ghost had woken in thunder and lightning and had knocked her on her ass.
    Later, she told her friend Bria that she didn’t know what had triggered it.
    ‘I haven’t been handling any especially weird shit. Just the usual tesserae, sympathy stones, so forth. And anyway, I haven’t had a client for two weeks now. More like three. I haven’t eaten anything I haven’t eaten a hundred times before, I’m clean and sober . . . I can’t figure out what I did to set it off.’
    ‘You sound like you’re trying to find some way of blaming yourself,’ Bria said.
    They were sitting in Lisa’s kitchen, drinking coffee. Lisa dressed in her usual blue jeans and denim shirt, Bria in a pale green pants suit, caramel-coloured hair done up in a high curly ponytail. She’d been in a business meeting when Lisa had called, had insisted on driving over.
    The two of them went way back. They had both come up and out to First Foot on the same shuttle trip, had both started out working as coders in the Crazy 88 collective. Lisa’s freelance career had run onto the rocks, leaving her with a reputation as a brilliant eccentric whose best years were long behind her; Bria, ten years younger, with a relentless work ethic and good people skills, had founded one of the first code farms in Port of Plenty, was happily married with two kids. A rambling red-tiled house in the burbs, school runs, dinner parties, a subscription to the city’s theatre, weekends at the country club where she was attempting to reduce her golfing handicap with the focused zeal that characterised her work. The whole aspirational middle-class-professional bit. Lisa had once asked her friend if this was how she had imagined things turning out when she had won her emigration ticket; Bria had said that back in the day the so-called Wild West had opera houses and gas lighting, and wasn’t she dealing with alien shit every day, down on the code farm?
    ‘It’s been eight years since the last time. Eight years, three months, nine days. What I’m wondering,’ Lisa said, ‘is did Willie’s ghost give him a kick in the head too? I gave him a call, but it went straight to voicemail. So then I phoned around the hospitals and clinics. You know, just in case. No sign of him anywhere, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t zapped. Maybe he shrugged it off. Or he’s lying hurt somewhere ...’
    ‘Have the two of you ever been affected at the same time?’
    ‘Sure. During the Bad Trip.’
    ‘Apart from that.’
    ‘Not that I know of. But Willie and I aren’t exactly close any more.’
    Bria raised an eyebrow.
    ‘So he stops by now and then,’ Lisa said. ‘But he doesn’t tell me everything. I can’t help thinking he had some kind of accident. That maybe something happened to him and woke up his ghost, and that’s what woke up mine.’
    ‘He’s probably scratching around in the City of the Dead, out of phone range,’ Bria said. ‘Or he’s in the drunk tank after one of his parties.’
    She didn’t have much sympathy for Lisa’s ex.
    ‘If Willie had been arrested I would probably know,’ Lisa said. ‘Because he would have asked me to bail him out.’

Thursday, April 21, 2016

UK Publication Day

Wednesday, April 20, 2016


What do we write about when we write about aliens? Of course, we mostly write about ourselves – even when we're writing about cat-aliens. Perhaps especially when we're writing about cat-aliens, because despite all the behavioural studies we don't, really, have any idea about what cats are thinking, what they feel, the nature of their sense of self. We can try to imagine all that, but whatever we imagine is a transposition of what we think cats might think, a reflection of a reflection of ourselves.

And when we try to write about actual aliens, who come to us not from the dark of our gardens but the dark between the stars, we're trying to fill, maybe, the gulf between our small little lives and the vast vacant uncaring unknown. When we're kids, we look up at the stars and imagine kids like us looking back, from some planet like our planet. Because recontextualising the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar is what kids do, that's their superpower. And then we grow up, and realise that outside Earth's thin envelope of air there's nothing human or familiar. When we look up at the stars, the unknown indifferently stares back.

Very near the beginning of one of the best, and probably the best known cinematic depictions of an alien encounter, 2001: A Space Odyssey, there's a scene where a family of man-apes huddled together at night under an overhang, wide-eyed, unsleeping, while the dark everywhere outside this inadequate shelter is resonant with murderous cries. And very near the end of the film, we see, in the eyes of an astronaut falling through a transdimensional wormhole opened by an enigmatic alien artifact, that same fearful gaze behind the reflections of impossible wonders flickering over a helmet visor.

We're still afraid of the dark.

Back in the 1990s, there was a belief that physicists were getting close to formulating a Theory of Everything – to reducing the complexity of the universe to an equation that could fit on a T-shirt. Such was the muscular optimism of the twentieth century. We know now that the universe is not only stranger than we once imagined: it could well be stranger than we can imagine. As Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, has pointed out, 'there may be some aspects of reality are intrinsically beyond us – just as quantum theory was beyond the first primates.'

This doesn't mean that the universe isn't comprehensible, only that we're only just bright enough to know that we aren't bright enough to know everything. And we also know that unless we are truly alone in the universe, or unless we've reached the outer edge of some kind of limit to intelligence that's inextricably woven into the intrinsic structure of the universe, that there are almost certainly other species out there which are considerably smarter than us. Highly-evolved species of aliens which have already figured out what mere humans simply can't.

We can only guess what they might be like. Sometimes, as in Alastair Reynolds's Revelation Space universe or John Varley's Eight Worlds future history, they treat humans and other inferior species are troublesome infestations. Sometimes, as in Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, they keep their existence hidden from mere primitives like us because they know that even the most casual contact would blow our tiny minds. And sometimes, as in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, David Brin's Uplift series, and Ursula Le Guin's Hainish Cycle, they want to help.

The Jackaroo in Something Coming Through and Into Everywhere want to help. Kind of. Maybe. They claim, anyway, that they are here to help, and gift humanity with fifteen habitable exoplanets and the means to reach them – but they won't explain why they want to help us, or to what end, or what happened to their many previous clients. Even more than cats, they're fundamentally unknowable. Perhaps there's a universal law: any species which can sufficiently understand and manipulate the fundamental properties of the universe to traverse a significant portion of it is incomprehensible to those species, like ours, which can't.

But while we can't understand them, aliens smart enough to understand the universe would also be smart enough to have a complete theory of everything human. We can't yet understand the minds of cats, but hyperintelligent aliens could see us whole, know us in ways we can't know ourselves. They could, if they wanted to, game and manipulate us in ways we can't begin to see, for reasons we may never be able to grasp. And even if they didn't toy with us, even if they were honest and open and completely straight forward, their innate superiority would inevitably create mistrust and resentment. They would reflect not only the unknowability of the universe, but our fear that we do not, perhaps, measure up to what it expects of us.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Transect: The Dome To Greenwich

Friday, April 15, 2016

Currently Reading (4)

 When I began my brief career as a university lecturer, there were slightly more women than men amongst the life science students. Yet the majority of postgraduates working towards their Ph.Ds were men, and of the seven lecturers in the School of Plant Sciences where I worked, only one was a woman. Hope Jahren's memoir Lab Girl is, amongst other things, a clear-sighted polemic, based her own personal experiences, about that imbalance, and the barriers and prejudices women scientists must overcome. She describes her rural Minnesotan childhood and her early interest in science, how she learned to perform lab work, and her struggle to establish a research career and her own laboratory, aided and abetted by her partner in research, Bill, whose passions and eccentricities match her own. Punctuated by lovely little essays on the life of plants, those strange machines that from sunlight, water and air create the energy that fuels life on Earth, it's a terrific exploration of the culture and practice of science, and a fierce, candid and funny account of a scientist's life.
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