Saturday, May 06, 2006

Science Fantastique

It’s Saturday morning, the forecast rain hasn’t yet materialised, so G. and I decide to go into town to see the giant rocket ship that’s crashed a test-tube’s throw from the headquarters of the Royal Society. It’s big all right, like a Land-of-the-Giants streamlined beer barrel with a red-lensed porthole; when we get there, a work crew and a crane are busy removing it from the hole it made in the road. An onlooker tells us that the giant elephant is just across the Mall, and so it is, towering above a happily bemused crowd. Attendants are decking it out in oriental cloths, and the giant girl-child (who clambered out of the rocket ship yesterday) is slowly making her way towards it.

All of which is part of a very wonderful four-day spectacle that has taken over streets and public places in central London, and liberated the imaginations of the city’s workers and visitors. Created by the French theatre company Royal de Luxe, it was first staged in Nantes to mark the centenary of Jules Verne’s death, and while it’s clear that the French know a thing or two about the honourable and ancient tradition of civic street theatre, I think Londoners should rise to this challenge. After all, we have ten years to work out how to stage scenes from War of the Worlds in time for the 150th anniversary of H.G. Wells’s birth.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Beach Not Sea

We used to think that there were canals on Mars. We used to think that Venus was covered in jungle on which rain never ceased falling. We used to think that Titan was covered in oceans of ethane. As usual, the truth is so much more wonderful: familiar and utterly strange and with its own compelling logic.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

I've Got Your Quote Right Here

Sandwiched between title and text, an epigraph provides a clue to the theme of a story, chapter, or novel; that is, the unifying idea or collision of ideas that binds the whole thing together. Choosing the right epigraph is a tricky business whose success relies as much on serendipity as it does on native cunning. It’s not just a question of finding an apposite and pithy quote. If you adorn your beloved work of art with an epigraph that reeks of pretension, wilful obscurity or banality, you’ve handicapped it before it’s out of the gate. Avoiding the Bible, Shakespeare, the Romantic poets is a good start (yes, that means you, Robert Heinlein), but the whole business is so fraught with peril that it’s surprising that any writers ever bother. We’re just natural risk-takers, I guess. Or rotten show-offs.

For there are surprisingly few authors who haven’t succumbed to temptation. A quick, dirty, and completely non-scientific trawl through my library revealed that only J.G. Ballard and Pat Cadigan seem to be wholly innocent. It also showed me just how many SF and fantasy authors get around the problem of finding exactly the right bon mot by the simple method of making one up instead. Tim Powers used a quote the fictional poet William Ashbless to provide both an epigraph and title for On Stranger Tides; Greg Egan has used poetry attributed to fictional characters as epigraphs to Permutation City and Distress. Other writers cunningly use fictional quotes as both epigraphs and infodumps; Isaac Asimov quoted extensively from the 116th Edition of Encyclopaedia Galactica in his Foundation novels; in Dune, Frank Herbert borrowed from, amongst others, The Manual of Maud’Dib, A Child’s History of Maud’Dib, and Maud’Dib’s Favorite Recipes for Dip (I may have made one of these up). Stephen Baxter’s use of epigraphs from the works of Hama Druz in Exultant continue this fine and thrifty tradition.

As for me, I have not one but two epigraphs for Cowboy Angels:

‘We ought to look in a mirror and get proud and stick out our chests and suck in our bellies and say: "Damn, we’re Americans."’
Lieutenant-General Jay Garner

‘We blew it.’
Wyatt, Easy Rider

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Shameless Self-Promotion

Maybe I should say something about the contract I just signed. It’s with Gollancz, it’s for three novels, and one of them has been written, while the other two are at the golden vapourware stage. The one that has been written (but not finished, as it is currently being parsed by my eagle-eyed editor, and I have some ideas about what needs to be changed, too), was once called Look For America, but is now Cowboy Angels. Five points if you know which the two songs, one by Bob Dylan and the other by Gram Parsons, I stole that from. It’s had an interesting history, mostly due to publishing nonsense I don’t want to go into (at least, not yet). I wrote it directly after I finished White Devils, starting early in 2003 and turning it in early in spring 2004, which is where it languished until I resold it to Gollancz. It’s currently scheduled to come out in August 2007, an incubation period more like that of a literary novel than a genre novel that’s a cross between 24 and Doctor Who (or The Man From U.N.C.L.E and The Time Tunnel for you older readers). It’s about a retired CIA agent brought back into service to track down an old friend who has started murdered different versions of the same woman. For this CIA isn’t our CIA; it’s based in an alternate version of America that calls itself the Real, in which a method of travelling between alternate histories (Turing gates) was invented in the late 1960s. The Real has been interfering with other Americas and imposing its own version of democracy on them ever since, until the adventures in other Americas, and the CIA’s budget, were scaled down after Jimmy Carter was elected President. But as our hero tracks his old friend through different versions of America, he stumbles on a plot to reverse peacenik Carter’s policy . . .

Well, it’s pretty clear where in the happening world my inspiration for this came from. And I hope to turn the delay in publication to my advantage by stirring in a few glancing references to the Real’s versions of Things You Just Can’t Make Up that have since popped up in our own America’s adventures. Because I’m still just as angry about the whole sorry shooting match in Iraq and Britain’s shameful role in it as when it kicked off, I think I still have a good sharp edge, and I also think I have a much better perspective on it, too.

As for the other two novels, they both share the settings of my ‘Quiet War’ stories. One will be about the Quiet War itself; the other about the aftermath. At the moment they’re a growing pile of notes and a number of attempts at a first sentence, so I better not say any more. Since I’m hopeless at multitasking, I won’t be making a formal start until the edit of Cowboy Angels is out of the way; and there’s also another novel that needs some work, too, but more about that some other time.
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