Saturday, April 22, 2017

Tomb Taxonomy (repost)

From Into Everywhere:

Most of the tombs were small, and most had collapsed or been buried by wind-blown sand that over thousands of years had cemented into friable rock. In certain places, tombs had been built on older tombs, creating tells ten or twenty strata deep. Many were empty, but fragments of Elder Culture technology, usually sympathy stones or the mica chips that contained the entangled pairs of electrons that underpinned q-phone technology, could be found in some, and tesserae were embedded in the walls of others. No one knew if the tesserae had been created by the Ghostkeepers, or if the Ghostkeepers had excavated them from ruins left by other Elder Cultures and used them as decoration or markers for reproductive fitness. Almost all of them were inert and of only archaeological interest; those that still generated active eidolons were highly prized.

Like all tomb raiders, Lisa and Willie had eked out a living from sales of mundane finds while dreaming of discovering the kind of jackpot that would kickstart a new industry or technology and make them so rich that they would never have to work again. They sifted through the middens of abandoned hive-rat nests – the fierce little creatures dug deep and sometimes brought up artefacts. They found their way into intact chambers where eidolons might kindle from shadows and lamplight. When everything else failed, they sank shafts into the mounds of collapsed tombs. Willie disliked digging. Not just because it was hard work, although that was a consideration, but because it disturbed what he called ‘the flow’.


The City of the Dead was a sargasso of history, according to him, with strange tides and currents, backwaters and eddies. Everything flowing into everything else.
 

If they found no intact tombs or abandoned nests, Willie preferred to dowse rather than dig. He would wander over the parched landscape with two lengths of copper wire bent into a pair of L-rods, delicately pinching the short arms between thumbs and forefingers and narrowly watching the quiver and dip of the long arms. Circling a spot when the rods began to twitch, insisting that Lisa start digging if they violently see-sawed.
 

Willie’s dowsing had a surprisingly good hit rate – slightly better than chance, according to Lisa’s Chi-squared tests – but he preferred spelunking, and so did Lisa. Finding their way into spaces untouched for thousands of years, where the psychic traces of the creatures that had built them yet remained. She remembered spiral tombs augered into the earth. She remembered labyrinths of broken stone. She remembered one huge, cool, bottle- shaped chamber lit by a shaft of sunlight from a high crevice. As Willie had climbed down the swaying rope ladder, orange fronds clumped in the splash of sunlight on the floor had suddenly broken up and scurried off in every direction, seeking the safety of shadows. A kind of colonial beetle-thing, it turned out, with symbiotic plants growing on its shells. Lisa remembered another chamber, this one long and low, where eidolons had exploded around them like bats: after they’d sold the tesserae that generated them, she and Willie had lived high on the hog for two months.
 

She remembered the time the truck’s LEAF battery had run out of charge at the western edge of the City of the Dead, a long way from the nearest settlement, with the eroded range of mountains that marked the edge of the Badlands shimmering at the horizon. Willie had pulled his trail bike from the load bed and roared off with the battery strapped behind him. He’d said that he’d be directly back, but a day passed, and another, and there was no sign of him and Lisa couldn’t pick up a phone signal. She discovered that she didn’t mind being stranded. She had plenty of food, enough water to last a couple of weeks. She slept in the back of the truck’s crew cab during the day and watched the starry sky at night. Dissolved into the antique silence of the desert. Looking back, she’d never been happier.
 

On the fourth day a hot wind out the south blew white sand from the crests of sand dunes. The sky grew milky and the sun faded to a dull smear and the horizon closed in. The truck’s door seals couldn’t keep out the dust and Lisa had to tie a handkerchief over her nose and mouth. Everything was covered with a fine white bloom. Her eyes itched madly.

Willie drove out of the tail end of the storm towards sunset. He’d been caught up in a business deal, he said, but it hadn’t panned out. Lisa didn’t bother to ask. It might have been a lead on Elder Culture ruins or a poker game, a girl or a spell in jail. In the morning they mounted the recharged LEAF battery and drove to Joe’s Corner and bought water and food and went on.
 

Those were the days of their lives until they finally hit their jackpot. Until the Bad Trip.

 (First posted 18th March 2016)

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Transect: Putney to Hammersmith








Thursday, March 23, 2017

Life


Impossible to avoid comparisons with Alien and Gravity when writing about this swift, wildly uneven film about a body-invading alien stalking the crew of the International Space Station. But although it has an A-list cast and strains for profundity, this is really a B monster movie with some excellent special effects. The set-up is neat and swift, although the execution is features the kind of logic holes that pepper the script. A return capsule containing a sample gouged from the Martian surface is knocked off course by an unlikely swarm of space debris, but not very far off course: Ryan Rogers's gung-ho engineer is able to catch it using a Canada arm during an EVA just off the ISS. The soil sample contains a slumbering single-cell organism that when woken swiftly grows in size, strength and smarts. Nicknamed Calvin (after the school of a child vox-popped about the excitement of the discovery of Martian life), it escapes from its containment in a nicely tense scene where it crushes the hand of Hugh, the hapless British biologist (Ariyon Bakare), and stalks the crew as, with communications to Earth cut off, they try to recapture it.

Trouble is, while the Martian monster is nicely rendered, the script fails to make any of the crew - Jake Gyllenhaal's experienced astronaut and Rebecca Ferguson's microbiologist, backed up by Hiroyuki Sanada as a systems engineer and Olga Dihovichnaya as the mission commander - especially memorable or interesting. Despite some cool zero-gravity ballet in the cramped confines of the ISS, and a good deal of desperate hatch-slamming, it's hard to care about their peril or their fate, and the finale is almost fatally compromised by a great dollop of saccharine sentiment squeezed out of the children's book Goodnight Moon. Almost, but not quite: at the very end there's a good, grim twist that's true to the DNA of Life's B-movie creature feature progenitors.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Meanwhile . . .


Here's the cover rough for Austral, due out in October this year. Unlike any novel I've written before, according to my editor. That's a good thing, yes?

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

R.I.P.




Georgina McAuley, née Hawtrey-Woore, 1966 - 2017

Monday, January 02, 2017

Films Watched July -- December 2016

See also.

Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood (1992)
Heart of Glass, Werner Hertzog (1976)
The Shooting, Monte Hellman (1966)
Ride in the Whirlwind, Monte Hellman (1966)
The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn (2016)
Wolf Creek 2, Greg McLean (2013)
Ghostbusters, Paul Feig (2016)
Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Werner Herzog (1972)
The Mission, Roland Joffe (1986)
Heaven's Gate, Michael Cimino (1980)
Jason Bourne, Paul Greengrass (2016)
Suicide Squad, David Ayer (2016)
The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino (1978)
The Firm, Alan Clarke (1989)
Lady Snowblood, Toshiya Fujita (1973)
Ant-Man, Peyton Reed (2015)
The Paperboy, Lee Daniels (2012)
Wiener Dog, Todd Solenz (2016)
Eddie the Eagle, Dexter Fletcher (2016)
Carriers, Àlex and David Pastor (2009)
Five Dolls for an August Moon, Mario Bava (1970) 
Son of Saul, László Nemes (2015)
Room 237, Rodney Ascher (2012)
Zodiac, David Fincher (2007)
Lo and Behold, Werner Hertzog (2016)
Gerry, Gus Van Sant (2002)
Hell or High Water, David Mackenzie (2016)
Arrival, Denis Villeneuve (2016)
Captain America: Civil War, Joe Russo and Anthony Russo (2016)
The Raid: Redemption, Gareth Evans (2011)
The Raid 2, Gareth Evans (2014)
Kvinden i buret, Mikkel Nørgaard (2013)
Hypernormalisation, Adam Curtis (2016)
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Edward Zwick (2016)
American Honey, Andrea Arnold (2016)
Ivan's Childhood, Andrei Tarkovsky (1962)
When Marnie Was There, Hiromasa Yonebayashi (2014)
Allied, Robert Zemeckis (2016)
The Sacrifice, Andrei Tarkovsky (1986) 
The Lone Ranger, Gore Verbinski (2013)
Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford (2016)
Dheepan, Jacques Audiard (2015)
Silence, Martin Scorsese (2016)
Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson (2016)
LaLa Land, Damien Chazelle (2016)
Fences, Denzel Washington (2016)
The Lady in the Van, Nicholas Hytner (2015)
Pride, Matthew Warchus (2014)
The Founder, John Lee Hancock (2016)

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Reading Matter July -- December 2016

See also this previous entry.

Strange Tide -- Christopher Fowler
1966: The Year the Decade Exploded -- Jon Savage
The King Must Die -- Mary Renault
On The Black Hill -- Bruce Chatwin
Point Omega -- Don DeLillo
Revenger -- Alastair Reynolds
Voices From Chernobyl -- Svetlana Alexievich
The Massacre of Mankind -- Stephen Baxter
The Thing Itself -- Adam Roberts
The Gradual -- Christopher Priest
A Burglar's Guide to the City -- Geoff Manuagh
Estuary -- Rachel Lichtenstein
The Sunset Limited -- Cormac McCarthy
Angels of Music -- Kim Newman
Time Travel -- James Gleick
Hav -- Jan Morris
Cove -- Cyan Jones
Nine Fox Gambit -- Yoon Ha Lee
Keep On Keeping On -- Alan Bennett


Saturday, December 24, 2016

More Story News

Audible.com are currently promoting my lunar disaster story, 'How We Lost the Moon, A True Story by Frank W. Allen.' Link here.

And in other news, I'm very pleased to announce that my story 'Elves of Antarctica' will feature in Jonathan Strahan's The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 11.

And over at Clarkesworld, you can read my Quiet War story 'Reef', for free.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Year's Best



Very pleased to announce that my story 'Something Happened Here, But We Don't Know What It Was' will be included in Rich Horton's The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2017 Volume. The story is set in the Jackaroo universe, in the little crossroad town of Joe's Corner that also featured in Into Everywhere and 'City of the Dead'. First published by Tor.com, you can read it here. And here's the full Table of Contents of Rich Horton's Year's Best:

“Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshippers of Yul-Katan” by Maggie Clark, Analog
“All that Robot Shit” by Rich Larson, Asimov’s
“Project Empathy” by Dominica Phetteplace, Asimov’s
“Lazy Dog Out” by Suzanne Palmer, Asimov’s
“The Visitor from Taured” by Ian R. MacLeod, Asimov’s
“Openness” by Alexander Weinstein, Beloit Fiction Journal
“In Skander, for a Boy” by Chaz Brenchley, Beneath Ceaseless Skies
“Laws of Night and Silk” by Seth Dickinson, Beneath Ceaseless Skies
“Blood Grains Speak Through Memories” by Jason Sanford, Beneath Ceaseless Skies
“Rager in Space” by Charlie Jane Anders, Bridging Infinity
“Ozymandias” by Karin Lowachee, Bridging Infinity
“The Bridge of Dreams” by Gregory Feeley, Clarkesworld
“Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home” by Genevieve Valentine, Clarkesworld
“Things with Beards” by Sam J. Miller, Clarkesworld
“Innumerable Glimmering Lights” by Rich Larson, Clockwork Phoenix 5
“Between Nine and Eleven” by Adam Roberts, Crises and Conflicts
“Red of Tooth and Cog” by Cat Rambo, F&SF
“The Vanishing Kind” by Lavie Tidhar, F&SF
“A Fine Balance” by Charlotte Ashley, F&SF
“Empty Planets” by Rahul Kanakia, Interzone
“Fifty Shades of Grays” by Steven Barnes, Lightspeed
“I’ve Come to Marry the Princess” by Helena Bell, Lightspeed
“RedKing” by Craig deLancey, Lightspeed
“A Non-Hero’s Guide to The Road of Monsters” by A.T. Greenblatt, Mothershipship Zeta
“Dress Rehearsal” by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Now We Are Ten
“The Plague Givers” by Kameron Hurley, Patreon
“Gorse Daughter, Sparrow Son” by Alena Indigo Anne Sullivan, Strange Horizons
“The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory” by Carlos Hernandez, The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria
“Something Happened Here, But We’re Not Quite Sure What It Was” by Paul McAuley, Tor.com
“That Game We Played During the War” by Carrie Vaughn, Tor.com


And -- another nice tick mark -- Gardner Dozois has chosen 'Elves of Antarctica' for his The Year's Best Science Fiction: 34th Annual Collection. That story is a kind of precursor to my forthcoming novel Austral; both are set in the Antarctic Peninsula that's been colonised after global warming has begun to melt its glaciers and deep blankets of ice. Presently, Austral is due to be published at the beginning of the last quarter of next year, the year now almost upon us, and right now I'm working my way through the copy edit, sentence by sentence, mostly killing commas.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Arrival

Last year, director Denis Villeneuve delivered a fresh take on the drug war genre with last year's Sicario. His new film, Arrival, an adaptation of Ted Chiang's award-winning novella 'Story of Your Life', is an intelligent re-imagining of another familiar scenario: First Contact with enigmatic aliens. Like Interstellar and Contact, it leavens speculative science with a human story of loss, grief and redemption, but here, true to Chiang's story, the alien and human elements are more deeply and cleverly entwined than in its predecessors.

From the first, the film cleaves to the viewpoint of linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who loses her daughter to a lingering illness. When twelve alien ships appear, hovering above what appear to be random locations (including Devon, disappointingly never shown), Villeneuve focuses on their unsettling effect on human society; it isn't until Louise is recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) that we see one of the ships clearly for the first time, in a terrific swooping shot that contrasts its serene black crescent with the busy muddle of the army base hastily thrown up close by. It's a wonderful payoff to a long, careful build-up, with the menacing serenity of the floating ship enhanced by Jóhann Jóhannsson's brooding score.

Each ship opens a hatch at its base every 18 hours, to admit human representatives into a gravity-bending space where a pair of aliens appear behind a huge glass wall. The Russians and Chinese believe that fragmentary translations suggest the aliens are bent on conquest; as some kind of conflict appears inevitable, Louise and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) scramble to decode the complex graphics the aliens blurt out in inky smoke, and parse their true meaning. Amy develops a relationship with the two aliens after shucking her protective suit; her and Donnelly's collaborative work on their cyphers is intercut with fragmentary glimpses of the life of her lost daughter; pace the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that language alters the way we think, she slowly comes to see the world, and time, as the aliens do, a revelation that's the crux of the narrative's intricate double knot.

Villeneuve takes the science fictional ideas and the intellectual labour of attempting to understand the unknowable with admirable seriousness. Despite the ticking clock of threatened war against the aliens, and an undercooked subplot involving sabotage in the second act, the narrative unfolds at a deliberate, sombre pace, but amidst the exchanges of jargon and computer manipulations Amy Adams's performance, intense and vulnerable, maintains a focus on the emotional and personal consequences of understanding the aliens.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Ebooks

Like their paper counterparts, it's necessary to reset and reprint ebooks every now and then. So, I've just spent a couple of days titivating the various ebooks I've made available on Kindle, bringing them up to date for the latest devices, imposing some kind of uniformity on their typesetting, and correcting a few small irritating typos.

They fall into three general categories: a couple of novels that have fallen out of print; short-story collections; and novellas and novelettes published as singletons.


The two novels, Mind's Eye and Players, date from my time with Simon and Schuster, who wanted to promote me as a thriller writer. Neither, though, are exactly straightforward thrillers. Mind's Eye is about the deep-time origins of mind-bending entopics and their involvement in the fucked-up childhood of its hero; there's a car chase that at one point speeds down the street where I live, because the hero, Alfie Flowers, lived in a (real) disused bus garage just around the corner (as this is in London, it's now, inevitably, a block of flats). Players, as close to a straightforward police procedural as I'm capable of writing, features gold farming in massive multiplayer online games (cutting-edge when it was written, back at the beginning of the century), and a folie a deux pair of killers, one of whom fancies himself as a transhuman godling. Republished as ebooks, they're available in the US for the first time.


Of the short-story collections, one, Little Machines, was originally published as limited edition hardback by PS Publishing. Stories From The Quiet War and Life After Wartime both collect stories that I wrote before and after the four novels in the Quiet War sequence, including a bunch of flash fictions, written immediately after I finished the last novel in the sequence, set in the long Golden Age that the novels hint at but don't explore. I'm beginning to think I may write about that at greater length sometime soon, so it's been interesting to reread these early drafts of that particular future history.


The singletons include 'City of the Dead', an early exploration of the Jackaroo universe, and the first ebook I published as an experiment some five years ago. 'Prisoners of the Action' is my second collaboration with Kim Newman (the first, 'Residuals', is collected in Little Machines), a pulp-inflected story about a Guantanamo for aliens captured after a failed invasion. And 'Dr Pretorius and the Lost Temple' is a ghost story set in early Victorian London, entangling Mr Carlyle, an adept in the Matter of the Dead, and the young Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Another Mr Carlyle story, 'Bone Orchards', is included as a bonus.

None cost more than $2.99, or £2.56, and most cost much less -- the singletons are just 99 cents, or 99 British pennies. And while I'm engaged in pimping my work, I should mention 'Something Happened Here, But We're Not Quite Sure What It Was', a Jackaroo story published earlier this year by Tor, also available as an ebook. And finally, there's a bunch of free stuff available over on the web site.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Currently Reading (14)

Been a while since I did one of these, so here are two books I've just read or am reading, each describing new and different ways of seeing cities and how they work.

Geoff Manaugh, of the architecture blog Bldgblog, begins A Burglar's Guide to the City with a great story about an architect in nineteenth century New York who used his spatial skills to commit meticulously planned robberies, and develops it into an argument that burglars - 'people who can't used floors and ceilings the right way' - help us see the built environment afresh. According to Manaugh, the true urban experts are anonymous thieves who use cities better than everyone else, occult psychogeographers 'so well versed in the legal and spatial marginalia of his or her city that it's as if every room, apartment, home, and private business there is an open book.' Packed with anecdotes of daring crimes and police who specialise in chasing down burglars, Manaugh deftly evokes a true outsider viewpoint that, luckily for straight citizens, is often combined with an endearing incompetence.

 Artist Ingrid Burrington's slim book, Networks of New York, is a kind of urban naturalist's field guide to the physicals eversions of the internet within the structure of the city, from standardised code that marks buried cables and ducts, to carrier hotels and data centres, and the inevitable apparatus of surveillance. Copiously illustrated and extensively researched, it makes the invisible visible and knits the history of the networks that infiltrate and regulate the city at every level, and link its citizens with each other and everywhere else in the world, with the larger history of a city that's constantly reinventing itself.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Lo!

How huge, and in so many different and unexpected ways, has the internet grown since a team led by Leonard Kleinrock attempted in 1969, a few months after the first manned moon-landing, to send a message from their computer in UCLA to another in Stanford. It's a perfect subject for Werner Herzog's patient, humane, open-minded investigations of obscure wonders and the outer edges of human obsession, but his new documentary, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, doesn't try to capture its entirety (there are scarcely any references to social media, sex, or shopping, for instance). Instead, it's divided into ten chapters -- 'The Early Days', 'The Glory of the Net', 'Artificial Intelligence', so forth -- woven from interviews with internet pioneers, victims of trolls, roboticists, medical researchers, scientists, entrepreneurs, hackers, and refugees.

Rather imposing a narrative commentary, Herzog mostly prefers to let his interviewees do most of the talking. And for the most part this works wonderfully well. Delighting in the aroma of old circuitry, Kleinrock gives a tour of the Spartan room (hey, I had a metal desk just like that when I worked at UCLA) in which that first message was sent (the connection broke while someone was typing the command Log, truncating a utilitarian instruction to the rapturous Lo). Danny Hillis recalls a time not so long ago when there were only two other Dannys on the internet ('And I knew both of them'), and flourishes a copy of the ARPANET directory from the 1970s, which lists the names and physical addresses of everyone who was then connected by the new technology, a small township long since swallowed by the exurbia of the current three billion users.

There's an engineer who admits love for the best of his football-playing robots, disquisitions on the networked intelligence of self-driving cars and how the idle moments of networked PCs are used to model the structures of medically useful biochemicals. But the documentary is at its most engaged when it shows how the networked world intersects with the raw stuff of human lives. There's a sober episode about an early example of the internet's dark side, where Herzog allows the Catsouras family, somberly arrayed, to explain how they were tormented by trolls who bombarded them with taunts about their dead daughter and photographs of her body after she was killed in a traffic accident. And he records without judgement the lives of people who believe that their health has been wrecked by civilisation's saturating buzz, and have found refuge in the shadow of a radio telescope sited in an area where electronic noise, from mobile phones to modern car engines, has been eliminated.

Two of the best moments come when Herzog chooses to speak up. He startles Elon Musk by volunteering for a one-way flight to Mars (now there's a documentary) and intrigues Musk and other internet enthusiasts with a question that's characteristically naive and profound: 'Could it be that the internet starts to dream of itself?' As impossible to imagine the thrilling and terrifying consequences of that as imagining the connected complexity of the happening world once was.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Austral, Edited

After two months of close work, the revised, edited manuscript of Austral has been dispatched to my editor. Only copy-editing and proofreading to go before it's turned into a book; publication is presently scheduled for October 2017. Here's the jacket copy:
The great geoengineering projects have failed.
 

The world is still warming, sea levels are still rising, and the Antarctic Peninsula is home to Earth's newest nation, with life quickened by ecopoets spreading across valleys and fjords exposed by the retreat of the ice.
 

Austral Morales Ferrado, a child of the last generation of ecopoets, is a husky: an edited person adapted to the unforgiving climate of the far south, feared and despised by most of its population. She's been a convict, a corrections officer in a work camp, and consort to a criminal. And now, out of desperation, she has committed the kidnapping of the century. But before she can collect the ransom and make a new life elsewhere, she must find a place of safety in the peninsula's forests and icy plateaus, and evade a criminal gang that has its own plans for the teenage girl she's taken hostage.
 

Blending the story of Austral's flight with the fractured history of her family and its role in the colonisation of Antarctica, Austral is a vivid portrayal of a treacherous new world created by climate change and shaped by the betrayals and mistakes of the past.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Writing Tools



Logitech deluxe 250 keyboard. I've had this for more than ten years. It has clickety-clack* keys, and even though I'm a four-fingered typist who hammers the heck out of keyboards, none of them have failed.

*actual technical term


I started out using WordPerfect 4.2 back in the 1980s, the age of 5.1 inch diskettes, video nasties, and Max Headroom. It did everything a writer needed it to do, didn't come loaded with a ton of superfluous extras, and presented a nice clean space on the screen. I've been using various iterations ever since, sticking at version 8.0, which I bought back in the late 1990s. Of course, I have to convert finished documents to Word because that's the industry standard, but it's a minor inconvenience compared to the delight of using something whose commands and shortcuts I never ever have to think about.

Aspiring writers could read one How-to-Write handbook every day for a year, and still never reach bottom (and never get any work done). Strunk and White is at least compact, and contains one piece of essential advice that I try to cleave to every day: omit needless words.

At some point I need to print out at least one version of the ongoing work and go over it with a red pen. Maybe it's an affectation of a geezer who started out in the pre-internet age, but I like to think that reading a MSS in hard copy is another way of seeing those goofs and glitches my eyes might skate over on the on-screen version.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

More Post

I think it's been out for a couple of weeks, but this arrived in the post this morning -- my contributor's copy of the 33rd edition of the indefatigable Gardner Dozois's Year's Best Science Fiction anthology. My story, 'Planet of Fear', set on a Venus that never was, is one of thirty-six selected from a huge range of sources. Check it out.

First post here for a while. I'm working on the edit of Austral, pruning, hewing, chopping, trying to make the commas behave, the sentences make the sense they're supposed to make, the paragraphs paragraph where they should, and to check that hats maintain their continuity.

The cover, by the way, is by Jim Burns, first commissioned for the PS Publishing edition of my collection A Very British History, and based on a scene from one of the stories collected there, 'Sea Change, With Monsters'. The ebook of that collection will probably appear in October, after I've finished, and recovered from, the edit of Austral.

Friday, August 12, 2016

A Very British History, Redux

Coming soon in an ebook edition, this collection of stories from my first twenty-five years as a published author. Originally released in 2013 by PS Publishing, it includes:

'Little Ilya and Spider and Box' (1985)
'The Temporary King' (1987)
‘Cross Road Blues' (1991)
‘Gene Wars' (1991)
'Prison Dreams' (1992)
'Children of the Revolution' (1993)
'Recording Angel' (1995)
'Second Skin' (1997)
‘All Tomorrow's Parties' (1997)
'17' (1998)
'Sea Change, With Monsters' (1998)
'How We Lost the Moon, A True Story by Frank W. Allen' (1999)
'A Very British History' (2000)
 'The Two Dicks' (2001)
‘Meat’ (2005)
‘Rocket Boy’ (2007)
‘The Thought War’ (2008)
‘City of the Dead’ (2008)
‘Little Lost Robot’ (2008)
‘Shadow Life’ (2009)
‘The Choice’ (2011)

Also, the following bonus material:

'Searching For Van Gogh at the End of the World' (2000)
'Karl and the Ogre' (1988)

and an autobiographical essay, 'My Secret Superpower'

Monday, August 01, 2016

We May Be 10 Trillion Years Too Early

Friday, July 29, 2016

Clarke Award Round-Up

Ideally, the winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award should be more than the best sf novel of the year: it should be the best of the best, chosen from a strong shortlist of ambitious, innovative, gripping and genuinely exciting titles. A shortlist that not only stimulates debate about the contenders among readers and critics, but also showcases the vitality and diversity of the genre. So what, then, of the novels selected by the award's panel of judges for the 2016 shortlist? Do they give a fair and useful snapshot of the state and concerns of the current sf scene in Britain? And are they a worthy set of competitors for the bookend trophy and £2016 cheque? And which of them is mostly likely to win?

Chosen by the award's judges from 113 titles submitted for consideration by publishers, the six titles contending for this year's award are:

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)
Europe at Midnight – Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder & Stoughton)
Arcadia – Iain Pears (Faber & Faber)
Way Down Dark – J.P. Smythe (Hodder & Stoughton)
Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor)

The size of the submissions list shows that in terms of volume, if nothing else, British sf publishing is in a healthy state. There were also a good number of titles submitted by publishers who don't ordinarily produce sf, suggesting that the genre's toolkit is proving to be useful and relevant to authors who haven't developed inside it. Nevertheless, all but one of the shortlisted novels (Iain Pears's Arcadia) were published as science fiction. Three are partly or largely set on spaceships or starships, one features posthuman superheroes and another time-travel, and two not only explore the idea of pocket universes via plots in which the British secret services play a role. In short, their tropes and ideas are reassuring familiar, embodying what are popularly perceived to be the central concerns of sf and deployed in narratives that for the most part are driven by action and suspense. None of the shortlisted novels are outright clunkers, all have their virtues, and there's a considerable amount of accomplished writing on display, but the shortlist is dominated by a sense of middle-of-the-road orthodoxy rather than cutting-edge innovation. If I had to sum it up in one word, that word would be safe, and I can't help feeling that it's a shame that complex novels of ideas like Margaret Atwood's The Heart Goes Last, Adam Roberts's The Thing Itself, Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora, Justina Robson's Glorious Angels and Jo Walton's The Just City failed to find a place on it.

It's notable that while J.P. Smythe's Way Down Dark is the only shortlisted novel specifically marketed as a Young Adult novel, two others, Becky Chambers's The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Iain Pears's Arcadia, feature protagonists who are teenagers or just a little older, and focus on the kind of problems -- assuming responsibility, working out personal ethical and moral values, and so on -- characteristic of the YA genre. I'm not sure if this reflects a preference of the judges or the growth in numbers, quality and influence of sf novels aimed at a rising cohort of younger readers (there's a YA Literary Convention happening in London as I type this), but it does seem to exemplify the ongoing shift away from the kind of sf that investigates our relationship with the universe or our own inner spaces, or wildly extrapolates from cutting-edge science to the kind of sf that uses established tropes, devices and situations as scaffolding for stories that interrogate, satirize and illuminate contemporary personal and social issues.

Links to my reviews of all six shortlisted novels can be found here, but I'll indulge in short discussions of each of them below.

J.P. Smythe is a rising star whose earlier novel, The Machine, a marvelously controlled fable of self and memory, was shortlisted for the 2014 Clarke Award. Way Down Dark, his first YA novel,
follows the struggles of teenage heroine Chan Aitch after she inherits the responsibility of protecting her people and the home they've carved out of the mid-levels of a decaying multi-generation space ship. Chan's moral dilemmas and the casual savagery of the ship's inhabitants are forcefully conveyed, but the grimdark ultraviolence grows wearyingly repetitive, and the book, abruptly ending with a not-especially novel twist that leaves Chan's conflict with the leader of a nihilistic gang unresolved and aims her towards new challenges in the rest of the trilogy, is the weakest on the shortlist.

Mainstream author Iain Pears's use of genre elements in Arcadia's intricate story about (among other things) a teenage girl's entanglement in the fate of a pocket utopia created by a refugee scientist from the future, is both playful and assured. He expertly knits up an intricate plot complicated by time-traveling protagonists and makes some interesting arguments about the nature of story and story-telling, but while Arcadia is a witty and entertaining page-turner that investigates the nature of story and story-telling, but it never feels especially serious, its future dystopia is sketchily imagined and rather too familiar, and the story looks more to the past than to the future.

The plot of Becky Chambers's debut novel, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, is the stuff of a hundred space operas, but its focus isn't on interstellar politics and derring do but on the virtues of diversity and decency. There are sympathetic characters, nicely varied aliens and alien worlds, and oodles of snappy dialogue, but the narrative is unevenly episodic, the life lessons are too often easily won or turn on implausibly neat coincidences, and the novel comfortably inhabits rather than transcends its space-adventure milieu. It's a fun, enjoyable read that explores complex problems of tolerance, diversity and identity with wit and good humour, but doesn't quite attain the necessary heft of a Clarke Award winner.

Adrian Tchaikovsky's Children of Time is closest in form and theme to Arthur C. Clarke's writings about the future of humanity. Tchaikovsky has built a considerable reputation as a fantasy author, and his first sf novel is equally accomplished, its century-spanning narrative cleverly maintaining consistent viewpoints as it chronicles the rise of a civilisation of spiders on a terraformed planet and the gradual descent into barbarism of the human crew of a starship that's fled a dying Earth. The development of arachnid technology is packed with ingenious ideas; while the human narrative arc is more familiar, it provides some lovely moments of cognitive estrangement during clashes with the alien yet sympathetically drawn spiders. Children of Time doesn't quite avoid cliche (that flight from a dying Earth, for instance, which also features in Becky Chambers' novel), but its thoughtful depiction of two civilisations attempting to understand each other cleverly inverts and interrogates the usual narrative of planetary conquest.

Dave Hutchinson's Europe At Midnight is firmly set on Earth, in a Balkanised near-future Europe darkened by mistrust and conflict. Deploying a rich array of spy-novel tropes, the story moves from the Campus, a seemingly hermetic pocket world suffering the aftermath of a bloody revolution, through an austerity-stricken London, to a mission to infiltrate the Community, a quaint yet sinister English Ruritania that underlies or sits sideways to reality. A section involving infiltration of the sewers under a micro-state created by kleptocrats in the middle of Dresden doesn't quite escape the spy-novel cliches Hutchinson knowingly repurposes elsewhere, and it's a rather blokeish novel -- the two main female characters are sacrificed on the altar of plot. But the narrative that leads its characters ever deeper into a warren of rabbit holes is expertly carpentered and informed by a wry cynicism, the backdrop of Europe's patchwork of microstates, with their rivalries and cross-border capers, is vividly realised, and Hutchinson's exploration of the Community's stifling utopia satirises and explores the Matter of England and the nature of Englishness with a trenchant and mordant wit.

I suppose that Nnedi Okorafor's The Book of Phoenix could be counted as the fourth YA-inflected novel on the shortlist. The memoir of a self-styled supervillain, Phoenix Akore, bookended by the story of its discovery in a post-apocalyptic future, it's in part a coming-of-age narrative, and pits its narrator against the kind of malevolent world-spanning corporation that too often features as the antagonist in YA dystopias. But it's also a furious political polemic driven by Phoenix's self-education and radicalisation: the story of a superhero's justification of how she chooses to use of her world-scorching powers. Her anger is fueled by her education about the extent of colonial exploitation of Africa and its peoples: the narrative is shot through with explicit references to slave ships, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the immortal cell line of Henrietta Lacks, and much more. In parts it's wildly uneven, and its villains are thinly sketched straw men, but the scenery-smashing superhero stuff is tempered with some lovely tender and reflective passages, and the whole burns with a vital exuberance.

Which of the six will win? I don't think that Way Down Dark is in the running, and although Arcadia and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet are both likeable they're also somewhat lightweight -- but I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Chambers on the Clarke shortlist again, after the not-inconsiderable achievement of winning a place with her first novel. We're down to the last three, any one of which would be a worthy winner. The Book of Phoenix is my personal favourite, but may be too uneven and too strange to win over all the judges. Despite its many virtues, Children of Time is the kind of so-called heartland sf that rarely wins the Clarke, but given that Anne Leckie's space operatic Ancillary Justice was successful in 2014 it may be in with a chance against Europe at Midnight, which I suspect will be the popular choice for the prize.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Something Happened


Published today, my story 'Something Happened Here, But We're not Quite Sure What It Was' is now up at tor.com. And is also available as an ebook in the UK and US on Kindle and all other platforms. It's a Jackaroo story, set in Joe's Corner, a little crossroads town in the middle of an alien necropolis that also features in my latest novel, Into Everywhere.

'City of the Dead', a kind of prequel to 'Something Happened', is also available as an ebook on Kindle in the UK and US.

The splendidly strange cover illustration is by Eleni Kalorkoti.
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