Sunday, January 19, 2020


Skim ice on a puddle, photographed on Hampstead Heath this morning. Which was the first properly frosty morning of this otherwise temperate and often rather wet New Year, here in London. We should enjoy these traditional winter days while we can, I suppose. The last decade was the warmest on record, and the past five years were the hottest in the 170-year series dating back to 1850. Which might explain why crocuses and miniature narcissi are already abloom, in my garden.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Rembrandt's Window

The current exhibition of Rembrandt's paintings and etchings at the Dulwich Picture Gallery shows off his mastery of light and shadow to great effect, but it was a tiny self-portrait at the very end which caught my attention. One of many in which Rembrandt tried out techniques using the closest model to hand, in this example he leans in to the reflection he's capturing on the etching's copper plate, and a trick of perspective makes it seem that, instead of looking at the picture from the outside, we are somehow on the inside, looking out at the artist looking in, and the whole of the gone C17 world is going about its business beyond the borders of that little window.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Hampstead Heath, July To December

More snapshots from my Sunday walks around and across Hampstead Heath's sprawl of meadows and woodland. First half of the year here.







Tuesday, September 17, 2019

War Of The Maps

I've just sent the amended copy-edit of War of the Maps back to the publishers; the next stage will be combing through the proofs, and after that it will become the actual object. As the cover suggests, it's set square in prime science fiction territory: the very far future, after the Andromeda galaxy has collided with the Milky Way, and the Sun has evolved into a white dwarf. But as Adam Roberts pointed out in a recent essay, 'SF worldbuilding is part of the system of a science fiction text; but the point of SF is not its system.' Worldbuilding aside (and if you want to know a little about that, here's a link to the research paper that set me to thinking about the world of War of the Maps), what is this novel about? I'll skip the recent trend for reducing novels to bullet-point lists of fashionable tropes, and mention instead the novel's themes: the limits of heroism and how heroes are defined by the villains they pursue, and the razor-edge boundary between duty and obsession. This particular pursuit drives our hero to leave behind everything he knows and takes him into the heart of a war against a transformative alien invasion. That's all I can tell you about right now, except that the UK publication date is March 19th 2020. And if you like the sound of it, you can already preorder it here.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Something I'm In

The Apollo moon landings turned out to be the beginning of the end of the first space race, not the end of the beginning, and for a while, they were also an end to stories set on the Moon. But after a couple of decades absent actual science, science fiction began to reclaim our sister world, and this anthology, edited by Neil Clarke and published a week before the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, collects a nice variety of those post-Apollo lunar stories.

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction
  • Bagatelle by John Varley
  • The Eve of the Last Apollo by Carter Scholz
  • The Lunatics by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Griffin’s Egg by Michael Swanwick
  • A Walk in the Sun by Geoffrey A. Landis
  • Waging Good by Robert Reed
  • How We Lost the Moon by Paul McAuley
  • People Came From Earth by Stephen Baxter
  • Ashes and Tombstones by Brian Stableford
  • Sunday Night Yams at Minnie and Earl’s by Adam Troy Castro
  • Stories for Men by John Kessel
  • The Clear Blue Seas of Luna by Gregory Benford
  • You Will Go to the Moon by William Preston
  • SeniorSource by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  • The Economy of Vacuum by Sarah Thomas
  • The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt
  • Fly Me to the Moon by Marianne J. Dyson
  • Tyche and the Ants by Hannu Rajaniemi
  • The Moon Belongs to Everyone by Michael Alexander and K.C. Ball
  • The Fifth Dragon by Ian McDonald
  • Let Baser Things Devise by Berrien C. Henderson
  • The Moon is Not a Battlefield by Indrapramit Das
  • Every Hour of Light and Dark by Nancy Kress
  • In Event of Moon Disaster by Rich Larson

Sunday, July 14, 2019

In The Woods

Monday, July 08, 2019

Podcast: What If...

I was recently a guest on What The If ..., the high-octane, cheerfully irreverent speculative science podcast run by documentary filmmaker Philip Shane and scientist and author Matt Stanley. They let me play around with a question related to War of the Maps: What The IF we could save the Earth from the inevitable death of the Sun? Check it out here.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Doctor's Story

From War of the Maps:
‘People of our age sometimes have the foolish notion that they must prove that they have not been brought low by time,’ the doctor said. ‘After living full and useful lives, they suddenly realise that the end of the road is only a little way ahead of them. They begin to fear that they are no longer relevant. That the world is moving on without them. They believe that there may yet be time for one more grand adventure, want to prove that they can still make a mark and win respect. But an important part of growing old is accepting without regret that all lives end in some kind of failure. We never do everything we hoped to do, or do what we have done as well as we would have liked.’

‘Are you talking about me, doctor?’ the lucidor said. ‘Or are you thinking of yourself?’

‘Oh, I got over my foolish need for adventure when I was very much younger. It is a story of madness and failure with a kind of happy ending. Or so I like to think.’

When she was a student, the doctor said, she had become interested in medicinal herbs. The creator gods had seeded the world with a wealth of plants that possessed healing properties, but only a small number had ever been cultivated, and many had died out in the wild. But now and then a new species was found, or ones thought lost to the world were rediscovered, and after she had earned her medical qualifications the doctor used a small inheritance to fund a plant-finding expedition of her own.

‘I lived for a year amongst the folk who lived in the mountains to the north of this town,’ she said. ‘Although they are a patriarchal people, being a woman turned out to be to my advantage. Most of their healers are women because caring for people is considered women’s work, and while their men would tell anyone about everything, their women confided their secrets only to each other. And, eventually, to me. With their help and advice I found several useful plants unknown to my profession, including one whose leaves yielded an effective painkiller when mashed with slaked lime. And because I worked hard to gain the women’s trust, I was at last allowed to take part in a ceremony they called “Touching the Hands of the Godlings”.

‘It involved the ritual ingestion of a small portion of a mushroom found only in the mountains. A mushroom said to have been used by those who were ridden by godlings when the world was still dewy fresh and everything in it was their plaything. I was inducted into the secret by a shaman who seemed to me then to be incredibly ancient, but probably was no older than I am now. She and the other old women of her village took me into a system of caves, where she and I were stripped naked and bathed, and I was painted from head to foot with patterns of dots and dashes that matched the patterns of the tattoos that covered her body. Prayers were sung, and she led me deeper into the caves, at last squirming through a narrow passage to a kind of cell whose flowstone walls were painted with the likeness of godling spirits: slender long-limbed human figures each with a single large eye, and decorated with the same patterns as the shaman’s tattoos and my body paint. There, in the light of a single small clay lamp, the shaman chewed a portion of her sacred mushroom, and with a deep kiss transferred it to my mouth. It was a solemn, thrilling moment, and it changed my life. Not so much for what I saw, but for the obsession it planted in me.’

‘What did you see?’

‘We sat together for a long while, and when I was beginning to believe that nothing would happen the painted figures on the walls began to move in the flicker of the lamp’s flame. They danced, and stepped down and invite me to join in their dance. The ceiling of that little space was so low I couldn’t stand, yet I seemed to be in a much larger space, and the godlings took my hands and spun me around and passed me from one to the next. They talked to me, too. Or sang. Of what I can’t recall, but I do remember the feeling those songs and that dance gave me. It wasn’t unique. Many experience it through prayer, meditation or ecstatic trance. Some say that it is the most primal state of consciousness, gifted to us by the gods. Perhaps you have experienced it yourself. But there, deep underground, out of my mind on shaman spit and mushroom juice, it seemed to last forever. A feeling that there was no part of me separate from the world, and no part of the world was separate from me. I felt that I had floated off into a limitless ocean that contained all of time and all of space, and at the same time I felt that ocean opening up inside me.

‘It seemed to last forever, but when it subsided and the godlings faded back into the walls the little clay lamp was still burning steadily, and when the shaman guided me back to the cave entrance I discovered that it was still night, and scarcely more than two hours had passed. I wanted to experience the vision of the dance again, craved it as an addict craves soma, but as far as the shaman was concerned it was a rite of passage that should not and need not be repeated, and neither she nor the other women, nor any others I asked in the other villages, would tell me where that mushroom grew. I begged. I tried to bribe them. I tried to threaten them. Nothing shifted them. I looked for a year, walking mountain trails familiar and unfamiliar, and never found it.

‘By then I had run out of money. I took a job in a city in the mountains of the south-west, hoping that I might find the mushroom there, but had no better luck. I dread to think what might have happened to me if I had. Fortunately, I was young, and was able to outgrow my foolishness. The obsession slowly lost its grip, and when I learned that the doctor who ran this infirmary died I applied to take his place and was successful. I have been here ever since, treating the townspeople as best I can and cultivating a little herb garden, and have never regretted it. And there is the happy ending.’

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Hampstead Heath, January to June

I take a photograph or two whenever I go for a walk on Hampstead Heath. There's no plan, no search for the ideal image; the photos are little more than snapshots of whatever catches my attention. Memos taken with an old Android phone, some unprocessed, some with simple filters. Here are six, from the first six months of this year.







Monday, June 17, 2019

Three-Park Problems and Forest Bathing

It's a commonplace amongst writers that if you become blocked or jammed, or have simply run out of inspiration, the best cure is to go for a walk. I live in one of the most built-up boroughs in London, but despite the lack of open spaces I have a local loop of a couple of kilometres that takes in three small parks and is usually just about long enough to work out the kinks in simple problems in narrative dynamics. Solutions often arrive sideways while thinking about something else or while being simply absorbed in the exercise of walking, courtesy of some process or sub-agent working away below the upper flow of consciousness.

I take that walk two or three times a week when I'm working on something. And for the past couple of years I've taken to walking around the woods and meadows of Hampstead Heath early every Sunday morning. The Japanese have a term for it. Shrinrin-yoku. Forest bathing. Immersion in the green light and forced perspectives beneath a forest canopy.  The birdsong and the cathedral hush. Hampstead Heath is one of London's larger green spaces, elevated on a ridge above the simmering brawl of the city's basin, but you wouldn't ever mistake it for a true wilderness. Even so, despite the early-bird joggers and dog walkers, it most often manages, like certain passages of music, to lift me out of myself for a brief while.

It's possible that these walks may have informed the unplanned traverses across unpopulated landscapes that both the narrator of Austral and the protagonist in War of the Maps are forced to take, although a similar traverse was also the backbone of my first novel, Confluence is a journey down the length of a world-spanning river, there are similar hikes and tours across various moons in The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun, and Cowboy Angels is an American road trip. If you write for long enough, common themes begin to emerge. Chorography and landscape writing may be foregrounded in my most recent work, but both have been there from the beginning.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Not Even Past

Taken from Google Street View, this image of one of the boundary walls of Keble College, Oxford, shows the faint trace of part of an old graffito. It's just where the new section of wall meets the old; just above the piece of street furniture. Six letters. Three a complete word, three a fragment. OVE YOU. It might seem meaningless now, but I knew the graffito when it was still whole, back in the 1980s, when I was working in a laboratory nearby. And I knew that it was a line from David Bowie's 'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide':


'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide' is the final track on Bowie's science fictional concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. An odd, fractured song about failure and redemption, in which an aged rock and roll star wandering the uncaring streets of a doomed city on a doomed planet is swept up and saved (or torn apart in Dionysian frenzy, according to Bowie's exegesis of the stage show) by his fans. The quote, wrenched out of context, painted in bold white letters on red brick, seemed like a cry from the heart, part desperation, part caritas, in what can sometimes be a cold and lonely city, where the wealth and storied traditions of the university's colleges are often intimidating and alienating to students who haven't transitioned smoothly from the same kind of wealth and tradition of public schools. An offer of connection. A reminder of our common humanity.

It always caught my attention when I walked past it, I've thought about it now and again, in the thirty plus years since I first saw it, and it's strange to see now that this ephemeral fragment of my past has survived time's abuses. A reminder that even something as transitory and fugitive as street art might not be completely overwritten by the future.

And there's a personal resonance, because a good number of my novels have been about how the future can be shaped by the intransigent past. In Something Coming Through and Into Everywhere, human destiny is warped by the gifts of kindly aliens and remnants of the technologies of their long-lost former clients. The narrator of Austral is trying to escape the consequences of her family history in a world altered by the kind of climate change we're going to hand down to our children's children. And the dogged hero of War of the Maps sets out on a long journey across a world abandoned by its creators because he has discovered that his past isn't yet past. The future is palimpsest and bricolage, shaped by our present as surely as our present had been shaped by the past. What will survive of us?

Monday, January 28, 2019

War of the Maps

I started work on the new novel on January 1st 2018, and a year and a week later turned in the final draft to my agent. Although, of course, there will be changes yet to come in the process of turning it into a book, it has reached its proper shape and feel. Here's a short extract from somewhere near the start:

By the time he reached the beginnings of the forest the cloud had burned away and mirrorlight was hot on his back and his coiled hair. This was the northern edge of the high plain, frayed by steep valleys that wound between knife-edged ridges. He followed the course of a dry stream down one such valley, tall conifers he could not name rising on either side. Ribbons of sand and gravel. Boulders thatched with glass moss that spun tiny rainbows from mirrorlight. A grassy clearing thick with saplings where one of the big trees had fallen. The windless air heavy with heat and the buzzing song of some kind of insect, flavoured with a clean medicinal scent. Now and then the lucidor halted the warhorse and turned in the creaking saddle to look behind him. A lawkeeper fleeing retribution. A trespasser in this strange country, far from his desert homeland.
The forest was scarred by tracts of dead trees; the valley sides were cut by erosion gullies and long rockslides. The climate of the entire map was changing, altering its weather, disfiguring its land. The heartland of the Free State endured long summer droughts now, and its winters were colder and wetter. And while most mirrors dimmed each winter, as they always had, some were permanently dimmer than they once had been, and one, at the tail of the Sandday arc, had in the last century shrunk to a faint red spark. Some said that the creator gods had stinted when making the world; others that the world’s slow dying was part of their design. Yet still people were born and met and married and died to make room for the next generation, and life went on, somehow. Perhaps the creator gods had made people better than they had known.
Many of their relics had likewise outlasted their passing. Once, the lucidor rode past a roofless circle of pillars rising out of scrub trees on a bluff above the dry stream. Once, he stopped to study with his spyglass a tall column that stood at the prow of a high ridge, decorated with carvings of some forgotten skirmish of the Heroic Age when godlings, autonomous shards of the creator gods, had walked new-made maps clad in the bodies of men and women, and left behind monuments and temples and even entire cities, and rumours of places where time stretched from seconds to centuries between one footfall and the next, or where the unwary could be thrown into the sky or transported instantly to a map halfway around the world or to the bottom of the World Ocean. Places where rocks floated in the air. Places where the sick were healed. Places where the words of godlings still echoed and could drive the unwary mad or grant certain adepts disciplined by years of meditation a pure and everlasting instant of ultimate enlightenment. How to measure the significance of this last assignment against any of that? The lucidor thought of an ant crawling over a child’s balloon. Not even close.
Remfrey He had once told him that people busied themselves with habit and ritual to avoid thinking about the awful truth – that they were no more than discarded toys in an abandoned house, created to serve a whim of gods who had moved on long ago, and only those who accepted that their world and their lives were a cosmic joke and laughed at it and found new games to play could be truly free. Not that Remfrey He believed that, of course. He did not really believe in anything, apart from the singularity of his genius. No, he had been having fun, the only kind of fun he could have after his arrest, by challenging and trying to undermine the lucidor’s beliefs. A game he had continued to play long after he had been sentenced and exiled. Smuggling out notes commenting on disasters and crimes. Asking disingenuously, after the death of the lucidor’s wife, if the lucidor still believed that his little life had any kind of meaning or structure.
Well, he still believed in the principles that had shaped his life. He still held that to be true. That was why he was here. Remfrey He would be amused by his persistence, no doubt, but it was all he had now. All he knew.
Older Posts