Monday, October 12, 2015

The Martian

Not so much a review as a series of thoughts, so ... mild spoiler alert.

There have been stories about astronauts stranded on Mars before, of course. Short stories by Arthur C. Clarke and Theodore Sturgeon, Rex Gordon's novel No Man Friday, and the film Robinson Crusoe on Mars have all turned on various kinds of Martian shipwreck (and one of the characters in my novel The Secret of Life refused to leave the home she'd made on Mars when offered the chance of rescue). But The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott and based on the novel by Andy Weir, brings a couple of new ideas to the game.

It's a film whose beats are snaps of inspiration and the appliance of science. Unlike Robinson Crusoe on Mars, The Martian doesn't dramatise the effects of solitude and the continual struggle for survival on its lone protagonist. Like his departed colleagues, who left him behind in the confusion of a dust storm, the stranded astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a scientist, come to Mars not to fight monsters or set up a hotdog stand or moon about ancient crystal cities, but to do science. And he goes about the business of survival in a thoroughly intelligent, rational and convincing way, confronting each problem and sciencing the shit out of it. As on Mars, so on Earth. Once they realise that Watney is alive, NASA scientists and engineers begin to devise a way to rescue him, and like him they must work with what they have, within the immovable limitations of physics and orbital mechanics. As in Apollo 13, the ticking clocks of dwindling resources and orbital windows drive the drama; unlike Apollo 13, there are few glimpses of the hinterlands or interior lives of its protagonists. Its gaze is not unsympathetic, but is cool and vast, more comfortable with technical details than messy human lives.

That same gaze pans across vast panoramas of Mars as we now know it from the camera eyes of spacecraft in orbit and rovers and robot landers. Views from high above showing Watney driving across vast desolations in a Mars buggy are resonant with the Romantic sublime: the works of man lost in the enormous emptiness of nature. There's a wonderful Martian sunset, and a nice shot showing Watney sitting on a rocky ridge and looking out across the ochre landscape: part of a short passage in which in which, in a rare moment of introspection, he reflects that everywhere he goes is new territory, his every footprint the first.

Despite the film's claim to verisimilitude, there are, inevitably, compromises made for dramatic purposes. The dust storm that kicks off the story is far more violent than any possible in Mars's thin atmosphere; Watney recovers an actual probe that landed near the landing site of his fictional expedition by digging it out of an unlikely dune, presumably deposited by similar storms. I appreciate the dramatic reason -- the excavation nicely parallels the unveiling of its Earthbound twin in a Jet Propulsion Laboratory warehouse -- but it misses an opportunity to show Watney finding it by navigating the rocky landscape where it actually landed, and which it extensively and famously imaged. Likewise, the region where he's stranded, Acidalia Planitia, contains some fantastic geology -- outflow channels where ancient floods have modified the landscape; tens of thousands of mounds that might be extinct mud volcanoes; huge boulder fields and areas of shattered blocks -- but while an actual expedition to the region would most definitely science the shit out them, they're never mentioned in the film. A pity, I think, as they could have been used to give a sense of Mars as a place with its own deep dynamic history.

But the film is after all called The Martian, not Mars. And its story of tribulation and dogged survival, of the triumph of one man's will, and of human ingenuity and cooperation, is upliftingly optimistic. No wonder, despite a subplot that depicts technicians outwitting NASA politicians, the agency has thrown its weight behind it. It not only shows us how it would be for humans to walk on Mars; it's also a hymn to the space industry's scientific and technical capability, and to the spirit of exploration.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

News From Pluto

'If an artist had painted this Pluto before our flyby, I probably would have called it over the top, but that’s what is actually there.' Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator

Monday, September 14, 2015

Hard To Be A God

Back in 1975, in a review of Thomas M. Disch's collection Getting Into Death, M. John Harrison highlighted a passage in one story, 'The Asian Shore', and excoriatingly compared its uncompromising realism with the airless constructions and frictionless problems and discourse of much contemporary SF. In the story, an American recently moved to Istanbul, haunted by an identity crisis, crosses the Bosphorus to the Asian side of the city and comes across a boy crying by a public fountain. It's winter. The boy has been sent to collect water in two buckets, but he is shod in plastic slippers with a thong that must be grasped by the first and second toes. When he tries to walk, freezing water slops onto his feet, his numb toes lose his grip, and he cannot keep his slippers on. He can't leave them behind, and he can't leave the water buckets, either. But as far as the story's non-Turkish-speaking protagonist is concerned, the worst of it is the horror of his own helplessness:
He could not go up to the boy and ask him where he lived, lift him and carry him -- he was so small -- to his home. Nor could he scold the child's parents for having sent him out on this errand without proper shoes or winter clothes. He could not even take up the buckets and have the child lead him to his home. For each of these possibilities demanded that he be able to speak to the boy, and this he could not do.

Harrison's explication of that passage made a huge impression on me at the time; as far as I was concerned, it epitomised the division between genre science fiction and the ambitions of the New Wave. And I was strongly reminded of it while watching Aleksei German's film Hard To Be a God, just released on Blu-ray in the UK.

An adaptation of Arkady and Bros Strugatsky's science fiction novel, it's an epic drama the director planned over four decades, spent a dozen years making, and did not live to complete  -- the final post-production work was carried out by by his widow and his son. Filmed in black and white, it's set on an alien planet whose people and history are much like our own, except that its nascent Renaissance has been snuffed out by the persecution of intellectuals and artists by a violent sect, the Greys. Its inhabitants are imprisoned by squalor, violence and meaningless ritual. Crumbling buildings are swept by seething rain or muffled by fog, and mired in glutinous lakes of mud and shit through which everyone must struggle on their daily rounds.

The film's densely imagined, claustrophobic world is depicted in crowded, busy scenes that deliberately echo the paintings of Breugel pere and fils, and Heironymus Bosch (many of the extras were chosen for their resemblance to characters in their work), and the restless camera not only immerses the viewer in the action but also becomes a character in the film. Passers-by often turn to address it with complaints or knowing looks; it roves with a kind of avid detachment over faces and animals, corpses and atrocities, peers under tables or into corners of rooms while elsewhere something else is always going on. Passages are reminiscent of the films of Terry Gilliam (especially Jabberwocky), Sergei Eistenstein's Ivan the Terrible, and Elim Klimov's World War 2 masterpiece Come and See, but the sheer density of its world-building and its unblinking documentation of human folly and degradation are arresting, exhausting, and wholly unique.

This universal misery is watched and recorded by a small group of anthropologists from Earth. The film's narrative, recounted in elliptical episodes, centers on one of them, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), who masquerades as a swordfighter descended from a local god. We are never shown the spaceship that brought him and his colleagues to this backward world, but he wears a crystal camera eye, his sword can effortlessly cut through armour, he plays jazz on a complicated clarinet, and affects an ironic detachment. He cuts off the ears of his enemies rather than killing them, and insists on a plentiful supply of hot water and white linen to set himself apart from the grimy, stinking locals, but gradually becomes mired in a struggle between the Greys and a rival sect, and an intricate sequence of betrayals. He wants to do good, but doesn't know how. He wants to stay aloof, but is forced to take violent action to defend himself. And it slowly becomes clear that his seprior powers can have no effect on the dead-end of the planet's civilisation: remove the Greys, and another sect will take its place; kill all the noblemen, and others equally violent and corrupt will take their place.

The parallels between the fantastical world of this compassionate, compelling, witty, intelligent film and our own are obvious; the contrast with much contemporary science fiction, with its super heroes, worlds designed to reward their protagonists, and simplistic morality plays, is as strong as it was forty years ago.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Cover Reveal

Monday, September 07, 2015

Science Friction

In the early 1970s, Samuel R. Delany and his ex-wife Marilyn Hacker edited four volumes of a little magazine, Quark. Original short stories and poetry. Speculative fiction. New Wave experiments in inner space. Stories by Thomas M. Disch, John Sladek, Joanna Russ, M John Harrison, Kate Wilhelm. An early piece by Christopher Priest. Cool stuff, and a nice little cross-section of science fiction at a certain node in its history. I have the first two volumes, and after a few years of failing to spot the other two at dealers' tables at SF conventions (not that I was looking very hard), I took the search online. A book dealer in New Jersey had a nice copy of Quark 3 at a keen price. I ordered and paid for it, he packaged and dispatched it . . . and somewhere between New Jersey and London, it went astray.

Translating an impulse into an order on some merchant's web page and arranging the paperless transfer of credit is largely friction free, apart from the mediation of touch pad or keyboard. But pressing the virtual BUY button sets in train a hugely complex set of processes in the physical world, involving two different postal services and two sets of customs, at least one air freight company and one of its planes and the plane's crew, a trans-Atlantic flight, various air traffic control systems, two airports . . . The kind of stuff glimpsed at the edges of the narrative of Castaway; the infrastructure hymned in John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay's Aerotropolis. We think about it when we shop online about as much as we think of abattoirs when we order a hamburger, which is to say hardly at all. Until something goes wrong, and the friction of actual things moving through the actual world makes itself known. And something did go wrong, in transit, with the copy of Quark 3 I ordered. I never did get the book, but because the transport system tracks objects via their unique codes I was able to find out that that it reached my local sorting office, which tried twice to deliver it . . . to a house number one digit different to mine.

It's a very twenty-first century experience, this kind of futile omnipotence: you can see where things went wrong, but only when it's too late to do anything about it. You have the information, but you can't use it to solve the problem because although the system allows you to be an observer, it doesn't allow you to be an agent. I know, because the bookseller kept a scan of the postage label, that the address was correct when he consigned the book to the maw of the machine. And I know that somewhere, somehow, the address changed. Perhaps either US or UK customs opened the package to check it, and slapped on a new label with a miskeyed address. Perhaps the label was subtly damaged, a smudge or rip changing the last digit of the house number from 8 to 9. Maybe, like the fly that falls into a teletype printer at the beginning of Brazil, and changes the name Tuttle to Buttle, there was an actual bug in the machine. In any case, no one was in on the two occasions, two weeks apart, when the postman tried to deliver the book to the wrong address. While-you-were-out cards were left, addressed to me; presumably, the home owner shrugged and threw them away. And when no one came to collect the book after the second delivery attempt, the sorting office sent it off to the depot that handles international mail, so that it could be returned to sender.

I know the dates of the attempted deliveries, and the date of return, but after that the trail goes cold. A month has passed. The book hasn't yet come back to the bookseller. I hope it does. It was - I hope it still is - a nice clean copy of a paperback more than forty years old. I wouldn't like to think that my stupid impulse to buy it consigned it like some hapless hero to a journey with no clear destination or way back; that the frictionless scratch of a little itch of desire, a momentary impulse that crossed the Atlantic at the speed of electricity, has been the undoing of a fragile innocent little memento of history and imagination.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Status Update

I've now consigned the much-scribbled-on copy-edited manuscript of Into Everywhere to my long-suffering editor. Into his actual hands, after I tramped through London's implacable August weather, enough rain that it was as if the waters of a new creation &tc, to Gollancz's new offices. Where I was told, at the front desk, that they don't accept packages, presumably because it's the twenty-first century, and it's all infopipes now. But however you deliver it, there's always a feeling that you haven't finished the novel so much as abandoned it -- even though you know that there comes a point where actual improvement gives way to mere tinkering, it's hard to tell, when you've been working on something so closely for so long, where that point actually is. Next up, in the march from vague notion to thingnicity: proofs and cover art. I've seen a cover rough already, and it looks rather good.

Meanwhile, I've sold two stories, one of which, will be my hundredth in print, more or less.* One, 'Rats Dream of the Future', to Asimov's Science Fiction; the other, 'Elves of Antarctica' to an anthology of original stories about climate change, Drowned Worlds, Wild Shores, edited by Jonathan Strahan. Not so much science fiction that last; not any more.

*because amongst other things I'm counting two collaborations with Kim Newman

Friday, August 21, 2015

So Long, Dione

Although it was fairly flat compared to Iapetus, and lacked impressively large features like Tethys’s Ithica Chasma, or Rhea’s two great multi-ringed impact basins, Dione’s moonscapes were nevertheless highly differentiated. Satellite surveys and a century of exploration had not yet exhausted them; gypsy prospectors like Karyl could make a living from searching out volcanic deposits of phosphates and nitrates and sulphates, veins of breciated carbonaceous chondrite material from cometary impacts, and the remains of stony or iron meteorites.
It was a lonely life, sure, and often frustrating, with long dry spells when strike after strike uncovered nothing useful. But like all gamblers, the occasional reward drove him ever onward across Dione’s cratered plains and smooth plains, through the troughs and labyrinthine badlands. Sometimes, especially late in the afternoon, with low sunlight mingling with Saturn’s pastel glow and the moonscape curving away on every side glowing like beaten bronze and everything casting two shadows, one short and one long, like the hands of an old-fashioned clock, Karyl’s heart lifted and turned on a flood of happiness, as if he was the emperor of all he surveyed, the only witness to Dione’s pure, bleak, uncanny beauty.

Words from 'Karyl's War', Stories From The Quiet War.
Images from Cassini's last close encounter with Saturn's moon Dione, August 17, 2015. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Confluence Paperback

Published today: the hefty paperback edition of the reissued omnibus of the Confluence trilogy. Three novels and two related stories; 935 pages. As it says on the back:
Confluence - a long, narrow, man-made world, half fertile river valley, half crater-strewn desert. A world served by countless machines, inhabited by by ten thousand bloodlines who worship their absent creators.

This is the home of Yama, destined to become a clerk until the discovery of his singular ancestry. For Yama appears to be the last remaining sion of the Builders, able to control the secret machineries of the world.

Pursued by enemies who want to make use of his powers, Yama voyages down the length of the world to search for answers to the mysteries of his origin, and discover if he is to be its saviour, or its nemesis.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Two Men Looking For U.N.C.L.E.

Another day, another film that's the origin story of an old franchise rebooted for a new generation. But unlike Fantastic Four, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is an action film that instead of footling around with the laborious construction of a Macguffin delivers what's expected of it from the outset. In Cold War Berlin (Kennedy's 'Ich bin ein Berliner' speech is on the TV, so it's 1963), CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) duel over East German car mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), daughter of a missing atomic scientist (Udo, not the actual atomic scientist Edward). But when their bosses realise that Gaby's father is building a nuclear weapon for a gang of fascists, Solo and Kuryakin are forced to work together, helping Gaby to find her father and infiltrate the fascist organisation.

The story is a nod to the central trope of the TV series, where innocents routinely became entangled with Solo and Kuryakin's espionage underworld. The odd-couple pairing between suave former art thief Solo, and Kuryakin, a by-the-rule-book strongman with severe anger management issues, is enlivened Gaby's presence - from the outset it's made clear that she has her own particular skill-set, and she gets the best of Kuryakin in their flirtatious exchanges. Elizabeth Debicki is a fine villain, by turns smouldering and icy, the mostly Italian settings burst with sumptuous colour, the costumes are achingly stylish, the soundtrack is punchy, and Guy Ritchie directs the action setpieces with the style he honed on his two Sherlock Holmes films. It's very much an homage to period action films rather than a knowing pastiche.

It's unfortunate, then, that the chemistry between the two male leads doesn't quite gel. Exchanges meant to be snappy too often fall flat; Cavill's Solo is a little too ponderous (and his American drawl is startlingly similar to Christian Bale's in American Psycho - I kept expecting him to break into a short disquisition about the merits of Burt Bacharach). Hugh Grant, as a deceptively bumbling British spy chief, gets the better of both of male leads; Alicia Vikander's nimble and witty turn as Gaby outclasses them all. And because the film concentrates on how Solo and Kuryakin met and why U.N.C.L.E. was set up, the actual plot, with its chases and confrontations with playboy villains, ex-Nazis, double agents and atomic weaponry, is somewhat exiguous and implausible. It's understandable, I guess, that the setup of a fifty-year-old TV series needs to be explained to its young core audience (the film also gives a quick, clever reprise of the basics of the Cold War in its opening credits, and later illustrates the essentials of the Second World War - Adolph Hitler had a hand in it, apparently), but it's something that the original The Man From U.N.C.L.E. neither bothered with nor needed. An entertaining caper, lovely to look at, but one that left me wishing that it had spent more time on plot than setup, and found a better balance of substance and style.

Monday, August 10, 2015

New York, New York

Friday, August 07, 2015

Fantastic Four

I didn't have any great expectations when I saw a preview showing of Fantastic Four a couple of days ago, so at least I wasn't disappointed. A reboot of the 2005 film, apparently made so that Fox could hang on to the franchise, it makes some radical changes to the origin story of Marvel's first superhero team: Reed Richards, supergenius elastic man; Sue Storm, with the ability to become invisible and generate force fields; Johnny Storm, human torch; Ben Grimm, stone-clad golem. But none of the changes are improvements, and the film fails to weld together three different narrative sections into a coherent whole. It starts with a slice of Spielbergian wonder as schoolboy Reed hooks up with Ben while searching for an essential component for his teleportation device; then jumps forward a few years when Reed is recruited to a hothouse academy and falls for Sue Storm; and finally takes a turn into grimdark territory after the teleporter accesses the weird energies of an alter Earth, and transforms the four heroes and the villain (as in the comics, helpfully called Victor Von Doom).

The major problem is that this version of the Fantastic Four's origin story isn't as much fun as the original, in which Reed developed an interstellar spaceship that ran into trouble as soon as it left Earth, exposing Reed, Ben Grimm (who was piloting it) and Reed's fiance Sue and her brother Johnny to the radiation of the Van Allen belts. The 2005 film was a variation on this - exposure to cosmic radiation on Reed's privately-owned space station. In both, Reed's wealth gave them independence and allowed them to become celebrity heroes: having superpowers could be troublesome (especially for Ben Grimm, with the world's worst skin problem), and the four squabbled and fell out in the way all families do, but on the whole being one of the team was pretty swell.

Not so much in the new version (and here, I guess, mild SPOILERS), where the transformation doesn't happen until more than halfway through the film, and the four nascent superheroes become pawns of the military-industrial complex. Despite the lead actors' best efforts to breathe life into their characters, it's a disjointed mess, focusing on construction of the plot MacGuffin and gloomy moral quandaries at the expense of the bits where the superheroes strut their stuff and the crucial annealing of the four as a team. If only it would put an end to the formulaic origin story - hero gets power, fights villain they've accidentally created, establishes franchise identity - repeated across original film treatments and reboots. But it probably won't even succeed in that.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Comet Dirt

Credits: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/ROLIS/DLR

It looks, someone responded when I posted the above to Twitter, like my back yard. It's actually the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, taken from a distance of nine metres by the Philae lander, at the very end of its descent after being released by the Rosetta comet chaser. The lander failed to anchor itself and in the comet's feeble gravity bounced off the surface several times, ending up wedged in the shadow of a low cliff. Without enough sunlight falling on its solar panels the little lander went into sleep mode after its battery power ran down, but recently woke again because the intensity of sunlight has increased as the comet makes its closest approach to the sun. A short while ago it transmitted a fat batch of data, just published, including that close-up of its first, very temporary landing site. Which does, yes, look like a patch of garden dirt. Or maybe the hardcore of a building-site car park. Or the surface of Mars, or of the Moon. Which either suggests (if you hate the idea of space exploration) that travel to other planets is a waste of time, or (if, like me, you geek out on planetary science) says something interesting about the universality of dirt. That there are similar geological processes on comets and planets that grind bedrock fine, and with the aid of gravity and wind (or the eruptive jets of comets) distribute the material in a more or less even blanket. That a comet isn't a simple ball of ice, but possesses dirt and boulders, cliffs with mass-wasted talus slopes, and even what look like rippled dunes.

But even outwith the fact that it's part of the rind of a comet, the dirt in the image isn't ordinary dirt, of course. It's mostly water ice. Pebbles and shards and grains of water ice frozen hard as rock, leavened with carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide ices, and tainted with a variety of toxic chemicals - hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, sulphur dioxide, carbon disulphide, formaldehyde, methyl isocyanate, acetone, propionaldehyde, acetamide . . . 'If you could smell the comet, you would probably wish that you hadn't,' as one of the Rosetta team wrote in the project's blog. But in that poisonous cocktail are compounds that probably played key roles in Earth's ancient prebiotic chemistry. You couldn't grow flowers in comet dirt (although if you were one of the Quiet War's Outers, you might seed a comet like this with vacuum organisms that would mine useful organics), yet it contains the stuff of life: stuff that may have seeded the Earth with necessary precursors. That patch of comet dirt is a reminder of where we came from.

Friday, July 31, 2015

A Very Pure Form Of Hunting

‘I’m not a hunter,’ Summer said, ‘but isn’t a crossbow an unusual choice of weapon?’
‘It’s a very pure form of hunting – you only get the chance of one shot, so you must make absolutely sure that it is the kill-shot. You say you are not a hunter, but isn’t that why you are here?’

Dirk Merrit was amused, and seemed to believe that he was in complete control.

Summer said, ‘Maybe you could show me the crossbow. The one you used to kill the cougar.’

Both Denise and Dirk Merrit looked at her. Then the man turned and walked around the central fireplace to a set of tall glass-fronted cabinets. He opened a door, lifted out a crossbow, and carried it back to where Summer and Denise stood. It was bigger than Summer had expected, modern and very definitely lethal, with a pistol grip and a skeletal stock. Dirk Merrit rested it on his forearm, explained that the bow part was called the prod and the prod was attached to the table or deck, that both the prod and the deck were made out of carbon-fibre composite, the weapon had a draw weight of one hundred fifty pounds and loosed a twenty-inch arrow at a velocity of two hundred feet per second.

‘You can attach a telescopic sight, but I never use one. The lethal range is less than a hundred yards, and I prefer to get as close as possible. I admit to being something of a purist. For instance, I use a goatsfoot lever rather than a powered winder to draw the string.’

Dirk Merrit explained that the arrow generally killed someone not by shock but by massive haemorrhage, so it was necessary for the marksman to have a good working knowledge of the anatomy of his prey, and to be able to think in three dimensions when placing his shot.

‘You might say that it is not so much a shot as a lethal incision.’

Summer said, ‘Someone?’

Dirk Merrit stared at her and she stared right back. The air between them seemed to hum. On the TV behind him, the Mad Max warrior was hacking his way through tangles of creepers that were more or less the same colour as Dirk Merit’s blood-capped eyes.

Summer said, ‘You said “someone”, not “something”.’

‘Mmmm. Did you know that it’s forbidden by Papal edict to use the crossbow against Christians?’

‘Are you saying that you only shoot Muslims, Mr Merrit?’

‘If I did, I’d hardly be likely to tell you, would I? Even in the current political climate.’

His smile was back in place, but he seemed wary now, no longer the master of his domain.

From Players

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Farewell, Fantastic Pluto

I am older than the space age, although not by much. I was only a toddler when Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957, was too young to take any notice of the news about Yuri Gagarin's path-breaking orbital flight four years later. But I have a very clear memory of seeing, on the black-and-white television set the teacher brought into the classroom of Selsley Primary School for the occasion, images of the Moon's surface transmitted by the robot craft Surveyor 1 after its soft landing on the Ocean of Storms. That was on June 2, 1966. A little over three years later I was woken by my mother in the middle of a summer night to see Neil Armstrong make his historic first step. I remember the images captured by Pioneer 10 as it sped through Jupiter's system, Viking 1's first glimpse of Mars's rock-strewn surface, the softly tinted picture of a frozen beach sent from Titan by the little Huygens lander. And a few days ago I watched on the same screen that I'm now typing this, via NASA TV's internet channel, the presentation of the first high resolution images of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, captured by the New Horizons spacecraft. Less than sixty years after Sputnik the first era of solar system exploration is over . . .
More over at Strange Horizons.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Paper Work

Although I was doing some basic computer programming back in the early 1980s and bought my first desktop computer back in 1984, using it to write my second novel and finding that word processing was a huge improvement over working on my old electric typewriter, so on, so forth, I'm not a digital native. Didn't grow up with computers, let alone the internet; can't contribute anything to the debates about Scrivener v. Ulysses; still use notebooks for research and stray ideas, and scrap paper to unravel and re-ravel tricky sentences, jot down notes about the next day's work and for general doodling. And still find it tricky to copy edit and proof manuscripts on the screen, which is why, thanks to the patient tolerance of my editor, I'm currently working through the copy edit of Into Everywhere on an old-school printed manuscript with pencilled mark-up. Rereading the novel on actual pages reveals infelicities that somehow weren't apparent when working on various drafts on screen. And there's something satisfying about using pen, pencil and eraser to make changes, rather than fiddling with Microsoft Word's accursed change tracking system: something more immediate than tapping on keys. Something more like work. Perhaps because, not being a digital native, I still locate work in the real world. In the scratch of pen on paper, the flow of ink, the wobbly pressure of an eraser as it removes pencil marks. Also, and this is crucial, there's a definite shift in perception when I'm leaning over the page and looking down instead of looking straight ahead. It's somehow more engaging, makes it easier to displace the blooming buzzing confusion of the rest of the world, and tracking sentences word by word with the point of a pen instead of following a cursor sets up a rhythm that refines my concentration in a different way. Engages different muscles; different neural pathways. Maybe those pathways were laid down in the years I spent writing stuff down instead of looking at screens and tapping keys; maybe they're a hardwired response to a different perspective. Try it and see.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Big Box Of Big Paperbacks

Advance copies of the Confluence paperback. Three novels. Two stories. One fat book.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Aviles, Spain

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Macy Minnot Visits Charon

After some debate, Newt and two other volunteers took Elephant out of orbit and landed close to the equator. Newt stepped down to the surface, the fifth human being to set foot on Pluto, saying casually, ‘Well, here we are,’ and the three of them bounced around for an hour and set several drones tracking away across the frosty plain, then took off and caught up with Out of Eden as the shuttle went into orbit around Charon.

The dark surface of the smaller component of the binary system was divided between terrain cut by cobweb grooves and terrain pitted like the skin of a cantaloupe, all of it painted by broad, bright swathes of crystalline water ice and dusted with ammonium hydrate frosts in the shadows of crater rims: deep beneath Charon’s surface was a shallow ocean of ammonia-rich water that here and there squeezed up through subsurface cracks, erupted in cryogeysers that deposited swathes of fresh frost across the dark surface, marking it in tiger stripes.

The Free Outers agreed that Charon was a place where human beings could live, roofing over troughs and grooves, tunnelling down to the zone of liquid water. Everyone took turns to descend to the surface. Macy went down with Newt, following him out across a lightly cratered plain, the two of them bouncing along in especially insulated pressure suits to the site of the first probe to have landed on Charon, some eighty years ago. An instrument platform slung between three pairs of fat mesh wheels, it stood at the end of a wandering track where its little fission pack had finally run out of energy. Stranded in a charcoal desert struck with little craters whose floors glimmered with pale frost.  The close horizon circling around. The sun a brilliant star that even here, some 5.5 billion kilometres distant, so far away it took light more than five hours to span the distance, gave as much illumination as the full Moon, on Earth.  Pluto’s half-disc hung in the starry black sky, dim and grey in the faint light, capped white at the poles. The two dwarf planets were tidally locked face to face as they circled their common centre, Pluto waxing from full to gibbous to full again every six days.

Macy told Newt that it was a magnificent view, but she couldn’t imagine living here. ‘It’s going to get very cold and dark in winter.  And it will be hard to reach anywhere else.’

‘The new motor will make it easier than it used to be,’ Newt said. ‘Besides, it won’t be midwinter for more than a hundred years. And if we built habitats here, it will always be summer inside them.’

‘It’s so far away from anywhere else. Just this pair of frozen balls waltzing around each other and a couple of tiny chunks of tarry ice dancing attendance . . . ’

‘Is this your homesickness?’

‘This is something else. I feel like I’m a ghost in a stranger’s house.’

‘Right now, it is what it is,’ Newt said. ‘Sure, it’s empty and unmarked.  But so were Saturn’s moons when the pioneers arrived.’

‘Pioneers,’ Macy said. ‘There’s a lonely little word.’

‘That’s what we are, like it or not.’

The expedition explored Charon for ten days. They located tracts of carbonaceous material deposited by impacts with Kuiper Belt objects, and seeded them with vacuum organisms. They launched a satellite that would in time provide detailed topographical and geological maps. And then they began the long voyage back to Uranus. Everyone was bound close by their shared experience, and Macy felt that she was an integral part of the little band of adventurers now. She would never forget Earth, and she did not think that she could ever come to think of the stark and frigid moonscapes as any kind of home. But she was no longer a stranger, here in the outer dark.

From Gardens of the Sun (2009)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


I've just published one of my out-of-print backlist novels, Players, on Kindle. Like Mind's Eye, it has never before available in the US. And for the next two weeks it's available for just $1.99, or £1.28 in the UK.

Here's a bit of background:

Long ago, in a publishing company far away, I was for a brief period (apart from the science-fiction short stories I kept writing) labelled as a thriller writer. I'd published a big wild and weird biotech novel, White Devils, and after it had some moderate success my new publishers wanted more of the same.

Luckily, I was already in a day-after-tomorrow head space, and went on to write Mind's Eye, a contemporary thriller set in London and Iraq, and then a police procedural, Players. Mind's Eye, with its brain-zapping glyphs and deep secret history, wasn't exactly a straight thriller, and Players wasn't exactly a straight police procedural (it was based on a science fiction story, 'Before The Flood', collected in Little Machines), but my publisher reckoned that the weirdness threaded through their narratives wasn't quite weird enough to frighten readers who weren't familiar with science fiction.

I've always been a fan of science fiction and crime. And I'd already published two novels with elements of crime in their narratives: Pasquale's Angel, in which Machiavelli is a journalist/consulting detective in an alternate Renaissance Florence, and Whole Wide World, about a policeman investigating computer crime in a near-future London turned into a panopticon after a crippling terrorist attack. But Players, despite the posthuman ambitions of its wannabe serial killer and a plot that turns on a massively multiplayer online game (which back in 2007 was still a novelty), is a far more mainstream crime novel.

It's set in Oregon partly because I couldn't find a plausible way of fitting its scenario into a British locale, partly because it was inspired by an article about the ease of disposing of bodies in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, and partly because I had the foolish idea that an American setting would make it easier to publish in the US - I had plans to write several more novels about its hero, Summer Ziegler, that, in the end, came to nothing, as publishing plans too often do. But I had a huge amount of fun writing and researching the novel: amongst other things, I got to hang out with police in Portland, and drive around the forests and hills of southern Oregon, scouting locations. And although I didn't get to write any more Summer Ziegler novels, I'm very pleased to be able to revive her first and only outing.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Choose Art

From John Harris's review of Dylan Goes Electric! by Elijah Wald:
It seems that Seeger probably did not try to cut through cables with an axe, but he did recount what had happened with the crestfallen conclusion: “I thought he had so much promise.” Others, by contrast, knew what time it was. In the folk magazine Sing Out!, the critic Paul Nelson compared the two musicians and announced his decision to leave one behind. “Rose-coloured glasses or a magnifying glass?” he wrote. “A nice guy who has subjugated his art through his continued insistence on a world that never was and never can be, or an angry, passionate poet who demands his art to be all?” He said of Newport: “It was a sad parting of the ways for many, myself included.” But then came the slam-dunk resolution: “I choose Dylan. I choose art.”
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