Saturday, June 29, 2013

Links 29/06/13

Postcards of the Post Office Tower.

Natural sci-fi movie sets: photographs of the interiors of Icelandic lava tubes.

Patrick Cashin's photographs of transport tunnels under New York City.

The story of Manchester Baby, the world's first stored programme computer:

Thursday, June 27, 2013


Background: a few months ago, I did an email Q&A with Jonathan Wright, which was condensed into a short article just published in SFX magazine. The full Q&A is published here with Jonathan’s kind permission.

JW: Your new book "is set in the same far-flung future as his last few novels". Why did you want to tell a more intimate story this time around?

PM: The other Quiet War books have been about people caught up in big historical shifts. I needed several viewpoints because the stories spanned a lot of territory. For this last book I wanted to tell the story of someone whose life has been shaped by history - the history of his family, and the ruins of history - the history of the last three books - that clutter the Solar System. A simple story of someone trying to get back to his home, which someone else has stolen.

JW: "Throughout the novel we follow Hari's viewpoint". Was this a technical challenge as a writer?

Hari was raised aboard a ship, and has only been off it once before. Like any sailor, he's shaped by shipboard life and its customs and hierarchies. And while he's clever and capable and determined, he's also naive. Much like anyone else who leaves home for the first time. So the challenge was to tell the story from his point of view, and with his voice, while at the same time hinting that things aren't always the way he sees them.

JW: You upcoming PS collection: can you tell us a bit about this as well?

PM: Nick Gevers pointed out that my first novel Four Hundred Billion Stars, had been published 25 years ago, and thought it would be nice to bring out a collection of my best SF stories spanning that period. Nick and Peter Crowther, head honcho at PS Publishing, allowed me to make my own selection. It wasn't quite as easy as I thought it would be, but I finally winnowed it down to 21 stories, running from one of my first, 'Little Ilya and Spider and Box', published in one of the early issues Interzone back in 1985, to 'The Choice', which won the Sturgeon Award last year. It's interesting - to me, anyway - that the first and last stories and several in between deal with escaping from the confines of home and family. It takes a while to gain the perspective needed to see the shape of your life and your work.

JW: 25 years of novelising, d'ya feel like an old fella? Actually, seriously, how does it feel to get this far? A lot fall by the wayside...

PM: I wrote my first novel on a typewriter, and not out of choice. That's what you did. So I guess that, yes, I'm old. How do I feel, to still be writing and publishing? Grateful, I guess. Grateful and amazed to still have a voice, and a place. I still want to write the best book I can, every time. Even if it means writing a very different book than the one before. And I still have a few more books I want to write. And I still think I have things to learn, about writing. So that hasn't changed.

JW:  Is Brit SF healthier now than back then?

PM: Twenty-five years ago the lists of science fiction publishers were dominated by big American names.  And there weren't that many science-fiction books being published. Now, there are more books, by more British authors. But a lot of those books are fantasy, or so-called slipstream. Fantasy has grown; genre science fiction has dwindled somewhat. Which is a pity, and not just because it's what I write. Science grows ever more vigorous, our view of the universe ever more strange and complex. Society is shaped by technological changes. All of this should be stimulating science fiction, but too much of core science fiction - SF published as SF - seems to be talking to itself rather than engaging in dialogue with the world. That dialogue is going on elsewhere it seems.

JW: Your health: how is it? And did your health scare change your attitudes towards things at all?

PM: I've been very ill - I was diagnosed with bowel cancer two and a half years ago. Stage three, advanced, but not yet spread beyond its locus. Not quite terminal, although with only a 40% chance of survival over 5 years. I'm somewhat better now. In the acknowledgements at the end of Evening's Empires, I thank the surgical team and the chemotherapy team who saved my life [see preceding post - PM]. Without them I wouldn't have written Evening's Empires. Without them I wouldn't be around.

Cancer changes you - you can get better, but you can't go back. You're somewhere else. I'm still finding out where that is. Dennis Potter, when he was dying of pancreatic cancer, explained how every moment seemed much more significant, much richer. How the cherry blossom outside his window was the frothiest blossomiest blossom ever. I certainly felt that, at the time, when I didn't know how much time I had left.  I still feel something of it now. Oddly, the book I was writing when I was diagnosed, In The Mouth of the Whale, was in part about the consequences of trying to escape death. The burden of living a very long life. Now I feel even sorrier for poor Sri Hong-Owen now than I did before my diagnosis.

JW: You told me in Wales [at the SFX Weekender in February 2011 - PM] that it was difficult to write when in treatment... That must have been worrying.

PM: There's no such thing as light chemotherapy. You are poisoned to within a precise inch of your life as the doctors attempt to kill stray cancer cells without quite killing you. It was a world of very heavy gravity. I could write. I continued to write throughout the treatment, in fact, but it was . . . just a string of incidents really, without the backbone of narrative.

In my primary school class, there was a kid who could tell fantastic stories - the hero falls down a hole into a cave, is attacked by bats, falls into a stream, is washed over waterfall into another cave, finds treasure, is attacked by a bear, and so on. One thing after another. Great fun at the time, but shapeless. So while I continued to write, and as therapeutic as that might have been, it didn't produce anything with the shape or coherence of a novel.

I knew that I was getting better when I realised that the mass of stuff I'd produced was shapeless, and started over. Just as I was coming out of chemotherapy, I wrote a short story, 'Bruce Springsteen', and sold it to Asimov's. It felt incredibly good to be able to do that again. Then I went to Cornwall, and walked the coast route from Zennor to St Ives, on a beautiful sunny day. That also felt incredibly good.

JW: What next?

PM: I've re-edited the three Confluence books - the story of a world-changing hero, set in the very far future in a very strange world. 1200 manuscript pages. They're coming out in a single volume at the end of the year. I'm excited by that.

And I have ideas for two books set in the universe of my Jackaroo stories, in which aliens arrive on Earth to help, give humanity access to junk-littered worlds, and sit back and watch the fun. I'm working on the first of those right now. It's called Something Coming Through.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Without Whom

I'm not given to appending to the end of my novels the kind of effusive two- or three-page acknowledgements that are increasingly de rigueur, and seem include everyone the author has encountered during the writing process (I'm unfairly exaggerating, but not by much). So although the acknowledgements of Evening's Empires are only three short paragraphs, as far as I'm concerned they're rather longer than usual.

The chief reason is quite simple.  In October 2010 I was diagnosed with bowel cancer.  Although fairly advanced, it was still localised, and treatable by surgery and twelve rounds of chemotherapy.  All of which were free at point of delivery, by the way, thanks to the NHS. For seven months, I became a battleground between my own rebellious cells and the chemical weapons of modern medicine. Luckily, I remain in remission, and although I'm now a permanent resident of what the late, great Christopher Hitchens called Tumortown, I'm more or less recovered, and back at work.

The diagnosis came just after I had submitted the manuscript of In The Mouth of the Whale to my publishers, and I managed to deal with the editing process (including, as is my habit, a final draft) during the early stages of chemotherapy, before the cumulative effects of chemical warfare became too debilitating.  Evening's Empires is the first novel to have been conceived, completed, and published since then.  Hence my gratitude:
I have the great good luck to be able to thank a whole village of people who saved my life: Mr Austin O’Bichere, his surgical team, and the doctors, nurses and staff of the chemotherapy unit of University College Hospital.  My profound gratitude to all of them, and to my partner, Georgina Hawtrey-Woore.  If it hadn’t been for their treatment, care and support I would not have survived to write this novel.

My thanks also to Simon Spanton and Marcus Gipps for editing suggestions, Nick Austin for his thorough and lucid copy-editing, and Simon Kavanagh at the Mic Cheetham Literary Agency for his help, support, and coffee hit points.

I first read about the epic of Pabuji, and the Story of the She-Camels, in William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives.  The poem ‘I shall not coil my tangled hair . . .’ is adapted from a traditional song of the Baul minstrels of Bengal.  ‘On the seashore of endless worlds the children meet with shouts and dances’ is a line from Rabindranath Tagore’s poem ‘On The Seashore.’

Monday, June 24, 2013

Spaceships From 1970s British SF Paperbacks, Part 1

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