Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Of Evening's Empires, my publisher says:
A young man stands on a barren asteroid. His ship has been stolen, his family kidnapped or worse, and all he has on his side is a semi-intelligent spacesuit. The only member of the crew to escape, Hari has barely been off his ship before. It was his birthplace, his home and his future.

He's going to get it back.
A neat hook into the beginning of the story. A teasing fragment of exposition. A hint of narrative direction. I've been shown some cover roughs. They're very good too.

Meanwhile, I'm finishing a story for a themed anthology of stories set on the old, wet, habitable Venus. Some stories come easily. This one took a while to reveal what it was really about: it was necessary to write a kind of condensed novel, a biography of the hero, and then to strip out everything that wasn't relevant. Which revealed amongst other things that the story wasn't about the hero, after all. As usual, when I have trouble moving a story forward it's because I've started in the wrong place.

It's a kind of planetary romance, a kind of adventure, a kind of detective story. Stories about scientific discovery are often cast in the form of detective stories because they seem to share an obvious narrative structure - something happens, and despite difficulties, diversions and obstructions, the hero uncovers clues and pieces them together to form a narrative that explains the why and the how - but on close examination the analogy often breaks down. The fit isn't exact. My story is in part about the stories science tells itself, and why they are sometimes wrong, or point in the wrong direction. There are monsters, too, and an ekranoplan, and a new Cold War. It's called 'Planet of Fear.' That's one thing I didn't have to change, at least.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Chekhov's Pulse Laser Pistol

Chekhov's famous dictum about foreshadowing - "If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act" and variations thereof - is of course complicated in science fiction because the reader needs to understand what kind of pistol it is, the level of technology implied by its capabilities, the various devices that make use of the same techniques and systems, their effect on the social contract, and so on and so forth.

If the pistol isn't a red herring, ignoring it after its introduction in a science fiction novel not only leaves a plot hole but also a gap in the fabric of its world. Of course, unless it's done with subtlety, wit and concision, worldbuilding can quickly become as tedious as a list of plumbing parts. Which is why, perhaps, so many science fiction novels fall back on a generic future with a common, consensual backdrop.  Worlds of secondhand furniture, drawn from easily recognisable histories. Ikea worlds whose products only sometimes require assembly, using easy-to-follow instructions and simple tools, and furnish scenarios as clean, utilitarian, and anonymous as catalogue illustrations. Where Chekhov's Pulse Laser Pistol is probably called Bob. Good old Bob. He's so familiar he's practically invisible. No need to describe him, or worry about the implications of how he got there, or the consequences of using him, in the last act. Along with everything else in the catalogue, he's a prop in a fantasy future shorn of actual context, much like pornography.
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