Thursday, March 03, 2011

In The Mouth Of The Whale

My agent has just delivered the manuscript of my next novel, In the Mouth of the Whale, to Gollancz, so I thought I'd put up an extract:
It began like every other day. Ori climbed into her immersion chair and plugged into her bot, trundled it out onto the skin of the Whale, and helped her crew shepherd a pair of probes from their garage to the staging post. Fuelling and charging them, running final checks before they set off on their long journey down the cable. Important, demanding, finicky work, but nothing out of the ordinary.
The staging post was near the base of the Whale’s vertical cylinder, at the lip of the conical end cap that tapered to the cable’s insertion point. Immediately above, a marshalling yard spread like ivy around a tree trunk, bustling with purposeful movement. At the upper end, hoppers stuffed with a variety of raw construction materials scooted down rack and pinion tracks towards tipplers that seized and lifted them up and turned them upside down and mated their hatches with the hatches of bulbous freight cars. The hoppers shed their cargo with quick peristaltic shudders, were swung right side up and set down on return tracks on the far side of the tipplers, and zipped back to the refinery. Further down the yard, loaded freight cars assembled themselves into long strings that trundled away along one of the four parallel magrails that crossed the inverted hill of the end cap and converged on the cable, the strings rolling over flying bridges at the insertion point and gathering speed as they descended the cable towards the deck of fluffy white ammonia clouds that sheeted the sky from horizon to horizon, passing strings of empty cars climbing in the opposite direction.  More here...

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Learning To Love The Alien

It's one of the chief signifiers of science fiction, the other, the alien, but in literary sf at least, it's a signifier that's fallen out of favour. There are still plenty of aliens in turning up in TV and film sf, and some even escape the cliches of messiah, seemingly unstoppable menace (until they catch a cold or get 419'd), or comedy sidekick.  But in literary sf, at least on this side of the Atlantic, where we don't have a tradition of military sf and the need for ravening hordes of easy targets, not so much. Oh, there have been a few, of course. Even some good ones, such as the bleakly inimical gene machines in Peter Watts' Blindsight, or the cruel and elegantly wasted aristocrats in Gwyneth Jones's Spirit. But on the whole, they've fallen out of fashion. My first three novels are a case in point. In Four Hundred Billion Stars, aliens were a tangible presence; a puzzle to be confronted and solved. In Secret Harmonies (aka Of The Fall, in the US), they were admonitory presences that may or may not have been intelligent, and died if human beings hung around them for too long. And in Eternal Light, they'd quit the universe, become as untouchable and about as understandable as angels.

After that, I more or less gave up on the alien business for the next fifteen years, but now I'm giving it serious thought again. It started with a short story, 'Dust', and grew from there into what's more of a scenario than any kind of future history. Just suppose we get one of the things we always thought we'd get in the future, back when the future was still a good place to be travelling towards. Suppose we get easy travel to other planets, right now. Suppose it's a gift from aliens who want to give us a helping hand. It isn't much of a gift - a few cold and dusty and barely habitable planets littered with ancient and mostly useless artifacts, but hey. What do we do with it? How would it change us? Would it change us?

I've been writing a few stories to explore the edges of this frame, but now I'm beginning to think that, after the next novel, I need to go a bit deeper. I need to take a good look at those aliens. What do they want? What are they? Not monsters from our ids, or distorted reflections of ourselves (or of our pets), that's for sure. Maybe in the end they're what they've always been - an articulation of the inhumanness of the universe. Or maybe they are their own selves, just as we are. I think it might be fun to find out.

Meanwhile, just to remind you, you can find one of those stories in my new ebook, City of the Dead.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Debatable Zones

As an exercise, the reader might like to substitute 'science fiction' and 'sf writers' for 'poetry' and 'poets' in the following:
The edgelands are a complex landscape, a debatable zone, constantly reinventing themselves as economic and social tides come in and out. Of course, the idea of edgelands does not just refer to parts of the physical landscape. It's a rich term for poetry, too, and can maybe break down other dualities. Poets have always been attracted to the overlooked, the telling details, the captured moment. And the moment is important here, too. If parts of remote rural Britain feel timeless (though this feeling is, of course, illusory) then the edgelands feel anything but. Revisit an edgelands site you haven't seen for six months, and likely as not there will be a Victorian factory knocked down, a business park newly built, a section of waste ground cleared and landscaped, a re-war warehouse abandoned and open to the elements [or a Zeppelin factory swarming with zombies - PM]. Such are the constantly shifting sands of edgelands that any writing about these landscapes is a snapshot.  There is no definitive description of the edgelands of Swindon, or Wolverhampton, only an attempt to celebrate and evoke them at one particular time.

Edgelands: Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts
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