Thursday, April 12, 2018

It Was Thirty Years Ago Today

As you grow older, anniversaries are too often bittersweet, or remind you of the vertiginous abyss of backwards time you've ascended. This one is the latter: on this day thirty years ago my first novel was published. Written so long ago that it was typed, because home computers and word processing software weren't common back then (although my second novel was written using WordPerfect 4.2, on a computer that, with its printer, cost about the same amount as a good secondhand car). Typed out at least three times, in fact, because there were three drafts, and because if I made more than three typing errors on a page, I retyped the damn thing.

I'm a British writer, but the first edition of Four Hundred Billion Stars was a paperback original in the US, partly because there wasn't that much British publishing in the late 1980s, but mainly because I'd acquired an American agent after publishing a handful of stories in American science fiction magazines. Some of those stories were set in a future history that Four Hundred Billion Stars and the two novels that followed it share, mixing the history of the faltering expansion of human colonisation of the near stars (Larry Niven's Known Space universe was one of its touchstones) with speculations about alien intelligence, cosmology, and deep galactic history. I'd been playing with that future history for some time; it was the setting for the first story I sold, at age 19 (it was never published, because the magazine which bought it promptly went bust: my first lesson in the exiguous nature of SF publishing). Which is why the novel features old school tropes such as faster-than-light travel and a heroine with a low-grade psychic power; ideas about red dwarf stars, brown dwarfs and weird biology were somewhat more cutting edge, but it is at heart a planetary adventure, and looking back at it I can see that I was, like many beginning novelists, writing my way out of my influences.

It went on to win the Philip K. Dick Award (jointly, with Rudy Rucker's Wetware), was published in hardback by Gollancz in the UK and sold to a respectable number of foreign markets, and has more or less been in print ever since (you can buy it in paperback or in ebook). It may not be the favourite amongst my novels, but after thirty years I'm still inordinately fond of it; not just because it was the first, but because of the debt owed to it by everything else that followed.


Blogger Rob said...

Quite an anniversary. Thank you for writing that wonderful novel.

I think your analysis of where you covered well-trodden ground versus breaking new ground is spot-on, but there's something about the novel that elevates it. Your calm, almost bloodless style is deceptive as it draws the reader in.

For one thing, your creation of Dorthy Yoshida is just brave, because she's such a difficult character to like (at first). She's mopey, she quotes Shakespeare at people and gets snooty with them when they don't recognise it, and she hates travelling to a fantastic alien planet and just wants to go home and stare at the stars. But that just sets the scene for transformation.

"She had climbed the rimwall and reached the caldera and won rescue. It had been sixteen days since the herd of critters had overrun the camp, down on the plain. The sun was only just beginning to decline from its noon station." I think that was the point, about half-way, when I realised I loved the book. Such straightforward description, but somehow my heart leapt as the thought of sixteen days in the wilderness became real to me, and I felt the intensity of relief of rescue.

I have only been reading your novels for eight or nine years. Four Hundred Billion Stars was my first, and my edition was published in 2009. I'm still nowhere near through all your works, they are worth taking some time over. After 30+ years you're entitled to stop when you like but I can't help hoping there's more to come.

April 12, 2018 9:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Somehow I missed this when it first saw print (possibly because I was living in the Netherlands when it came out in the US), because from the description I would have snapped it up in a second. (Well, maybe not the telepathy, but still.) I guess even 30 years still counts as better late than never.

On a barely-related note, I just recently finished reading Austral, and I think it's quite possibly the finest thing you've written. And that was a really high bar to clear.

April 18, 2018 10:40 pm  

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