Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Friday, 21 December 2012

Year's end

Best wishes for the holiday season and coming year - may it bring good health, general pleasantness and lots of excellent reading. Do you like the card? It's a joint effort by my wife and I. I did the background, my wife did the camels, based on a photo from a camel trekking tour she did recently. The Father Christmas hats were cut out of paper, positioned in place, and then the whole lot was photographed, very carefully, before either of us sneezed and sent the hats into oblivion.

2012 has been an interesting year. I did a huge amount of writing, which is good. I also did a substantial amount of travelling, which is also good in many respects, but perhaps less so for the actual business of getting work done. By the middle of the year I had packed in two visits to the Netherlands, one to Denmark, another to Dubai and another to Japan - as well as numerous smaller trips within the UK. All of this was terrific to one degree or another (my mind is still reeling from Japan) but I am very poor at writing efficiently when on the move, or indeed for a week or so either side of a big trip. There are always lots of things that need to be done at the last minute, not to mention the double-whammy of jetlag when you arrive somewhere and also when you get back.

I'm often asked about discipline and working routines, especially given that I work from home where there are plenty of distractions and no boss other than the calendar on my wall and my own conscience. But in fact I've never really found it a problem. Long before I finally quit my day job, I had intervals of part time working in which I was able to road-test my ability to work from home. A few intervals of unemployment between contracts also came in handy. For me, at least, it's not all that hard to shut myself away and spend the day writing. It is, after all, the thing that I wanted to do. It would be odd to invest years of your life getting to a position where you can write all the time, and then end up putting just as much energy into avoidance strategies.

What I'm less good at is time management. I tend to over commit myself, saying yes to things that in hindsight it would have been wiser to decline. It's hard though. Again, after years of brutal, soul-crushing rejection you spend years getting to a position where people want you to write stuff for them. That's a pretty amazing position to be in. The last thing in the world you want to do is start turning them down, especially when the people are nice and the work also sounds interesting. I am terrible for agreeing to produce stories six or nine months down the line, a deadline that seems an eternity away. But the weeks roll around, and suddenly the story has to be done now, this week, while you're also trying to deliver on some other obligation. I have started being firmer with myself, declining story approaches, but I still end up over committed. The same goes for convention attendances, speaking engagements and so on. Generally speaking these are all quite good fun, but even a one-day event can take two or three days out of my writing week. So I've started cutting down on those as well.

I was thrilled to be asked to do the Dr Who book, but again I managed my time badly. I started doing story notes as far back as December 2010, but I did not settle down and start writing the book until earlier this year. I had a month between the Dubai and Japan trips, and I naively thought that might be sufficient time to produce a workable draft. I had spent the latter half of 2011 working on Steel Breeze, the follow-up to Blue Remembered Earth, and had written about 100,000 words of "stuff". Progress had stalled after Christmas, though, due to uncertainty about the handling of a section of the book. I put it aside to work on another of those story commitments I should probably have declined. Then I went to Dubai.

Unfortunately, it took me a bit more than 4 weeks to do the Dr Who book. In fact it was closer to 4 months. I was pleased with the final book, and still just as delighted to have had the chance to write it, but it had eaten a much bigger hole (should that be spacetime rupture?) in my writing year than I anticipated. And of course, that was time that I was not actively working on Steel Breeze. Never mind, though - I had 100,000 words in the can, didn't I? Sadly, though, when I returned to SB - this after completing yet another story commitment, and a few more foreign trips - I didn't like what I had written in 2011. The book was going in the wrong direction. It felt too tonally detached from BRE - almost like a completely new universe. I had opted to tell the story with the wrong main character. There was too much stuff set on generation ships and not enough stuff about Earth and Africa in it. After some agonising and staring at calendars, I realised I had no practical option but to start again, back to page one. Yes, there was a tremendous amount of material in the initial 100,000 words that could be adapted and salvaged, but still much that had to go - and a huge amount of totally new stuff that had be written from scratch.

So I'm late, basically, which is not good, and certainly not where I wanted to be at the start of this year. Dig back into the blog comments and at some point you'll find me confidently assuring someone that the Dr Who book would have no impact on my other writing commitments. I was wrong. It wasn't totally the fault of the Who book, of course - the 100,000 words would still have been problematic - but I probably would not have taken so long to realise the fact. On the plus side, I am now nearly done with it. Nonetheless, there is no escaping the fact that the interval between the first and second novels has been much longer than desirable. That said, I still feel positive about BRE and that makes me even more determined that SB should be a strong successor, not just a tick-the-boxes sequel. I've never consciously gone into a trilogy before, so it's been a learning experience, one that I'm not yet done with. My editor Simon has been tremendously supportive through all this, I hasten to add - but I am more than conscious that there are many readers who will have had to wait more than a year for the follow-up. I'm genuinely sorry about that. My immediate strategy, other than working damn hard on the second book, is to keep 2013 as free as possible so that I can dive into the third novel without too many distractions. For that reason, I've been saying "no" to a lot more things than usual.

A year from now, we'll see how I did. In the meantime, thanks for your patience, thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy both Steel Breeze and the Dr Who novel when they appear.

Al R

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Patrick Moore (1923 - 2012)

At least in the British Isles, it's hard to overstate the influence of Patrick Moore in shaping the popular perception of astronomy. Over his long broadcasting career, he stimulated the imaginations of millions and directly inspired the career choice of several generations of space scientist. Never a professional astronomer, and with no formal education in that direction, Moore nonetheless commanded the utmost respect of his peers - not just professional astronomers, but the astronauts who came to depend on his scrupulously accurate lunar maps. No one knew the Moon better than Patrick. In my whole professional career, I never met a space scientist who didn't admire him.

I doubt that there's anyone with the slightest interest in astronomy who does not own a book with Patrick's name on it somewhere. For many Christmases, I could count on his astronomy yearbook being among my presents - and since those yearbooks contained serious things like tables and maps and little scholarly articles by actual scientists, they felt like a form of admission to a more grown-up academic world, one that I would soon be doing my level best to enter. I had many other books by Patrick, of course - big hardcovers on general astronomy, smaller hardcovers on individual planets and celestial bodies. For those of us who had first encountered him on television, the voice - the old-fashioned diction, the enthusiasm, the gentle self-deprecation - came through very strongly. It was impossible not to hear Patrick's mile-a-minute delivery, even as you were reading about the discovery of the white spot on Saturn or radar mapping of Venus.

I met him once, but then so did many. The one constancy running through these many accounts of personal meetings with the man is that what you saw on television was essentially what you got in real life. It wasn't an act, a persona cooked up for the camera - this was just the way he was, bumbling and infectious and full of stories. By all accounts he remained utterly unchanged until the end.

Somewhere around 1987 I was involved with the Newcastle University astronomical society. I think I was the treasurer, although it's hard to think of a more spectacular mismatch of administrative position and ability. Me, as treasurer? What were they thinking? That money was only "resting" in my account, as Ted Crilly was given to say.

One day Patrick came to speak at the university. I forget now how the arrangement came about, or what the society's precise role was in the evening, although I suspect that it was already in the calendar when my friends Henry, Julyan and I took over the committee positions. Whatever the case, we were tasked with collecting Patrick from a book signing in central Newcastle and conveying him back to the university, where there would be tea and biscuits before his talk. Two or possibly three of us went down to the bookshop, where Patrick had just concluded his signing. It was a very warm day in early summer, and I had anticipated that Patrick might wish to take a taxi back through town to avoid either tiring himself out or being caught up in the crowds, but no, he was adamant that we would walk and so we did, the enormously tall, three-piece-suited and monocled Patrick bounding ahead, still keeping his mile-a-minute outpouring of stories and anecdotes. He seemed to me to be fairly ancient even then, although he would have been a relatively youthful 64 - and indeed, there was no infirmity or lack of energy. Nor did he seem in the least bit self-conscious about being Patrick Moore, or in any way bothered that he might be noticed, detained or mocked for his obvious and unfashionable eccentricities. My recollection, in fact, is that no one bothered him at all although it's hard not see how they could have failed to recognise him.

The rest of the evening went very well. Oddly, I don't remember the talk at all, but I do have a very vivid recollection of taking tea and biscuits beforehand, and Patrick telling us the story about the time he swallowed a fly on live television. I suspect I may have already heard it, and I've certainly heard it since, but it was a good story, well told, and I doubt that any of us minded. He was a limitless mine of stories. This was a man who had met the first man to fly and the first man to walk on the Moon - no small achievement. A life, as they say, well lived. After the talk we took him to dinner in (I think) a private room at the university, where a fine time was had. I remember asking him about the possibility of water under the ice of Europa - I was thinking about using it in a story.

He was a complex man with political views that were not to my taste - fiercely patriotic, not overly fond of the giving of foreign aid. In later life he became a vocal supporter of the UK Independence Party. On the other hand, he opposed foxhunting. He was said to have old-fashioned views on gender, but on the other hand he was massively encouraging when it came to women in science. In the nineteen eighties, in my recollection, you could count the number of female scientific role models in the popular media on one finger  - it was Heather Couper, and nobody else. But Heather Couper had written to Patrick Moore at the age of 16, asking whether he thought she might be able to have a career in astronomy, and he had written back in the most encouraging terms, assuring her that "being a girl was no handicap at all". Heather Couper herself must have had a tremendous effect on the perception of women in science, and perhaps Patrick played a small part in that sea-change.

It was my enormous privilege to have met him.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

A compass

Paul Kincaid has concluded his series of articles on the state of SF with this piece which I recommend you to read if you have not done so; I think it provides a good encapsulation of his main grievances. This has been a useful discussion, I think, conducted without too much rancor.

I've been thinking a lot of PK's points, and the discourse surrounding them, and how they might factor into the kind of SF I want to keep writing. I'd hesitate to call the following a manifesto, but at the very least it might serve as a kind of personal compass, to keep my writing heading in what I hope is a fruitful direction.

  • Avoid recursion. I'll be doing my best not to be too encumbered by what has gone before. Most of us are in this game because at some point we connected with SF on a deep emotional level. We love SF, we know its history well. We can tell our Kornbluths from our Cordwainers. That fondness has never left me, and I hope some of that comes through in my writing. That said, there's always a danger that it can shade too strongly into nostalgia or a kind of stale recycling of familiar imagery and tropes. For instance, I love the work of Arthur C Clarke and when I think about the deep future, about the limits of human potential, it's very hard for me not to connect with the version of myself sitting in a caravan in the Lake District during one spectacularly rainy summer holiday, gobbling up the pages of The City and the Stars and being possibly more mesmerised and awestruck by the vistas of Diaspar and the adventures of Alvin than any human being at any point in history. Quite a lot of my work, especially the far future stuff, is me attempting to hit some of the same notes - while at the same time having the benefit of another fifty years of scientific and social advancement through which to filter my ideas. But really, it's a kind of nostalgia trip, and if you didn't happen to connect with Clarke to the degree that I did, many of these notes are going to ring hollow or will in fact not ring at all. So a bit less of that, if I can help it. I also won't be writing SF that explicitly depends on intimate knowledge of the genre - no stories that are in intricate argument with earlier ideas or traditions. Start with a blank mental slate, and pretend no one had written a word of SF before today, and then off you go.
  • Try and be true to the present, and what the present tells us about tomorrow. The Revelation Space universe is massively good fun to write, and I get plenty of requests for more from it. But it's also a kind of fantasy. Yes, the events in the books and stories are to some degree "realistic" in the sense that there is subservience to Einstein's laws and the worlds and biologies make as much sense as they can, given the premises. But as a possible future it feels like a wildly unlikely thought experiment, a kind of hermetic game detached from any actual speculative foundations. Pushing Ice, on the other hand, for all that it gets into deep cosmological territory, does begin in what (at the time I wrote it) seemed like a plausible idea of the mid 21st century. Even House of Suns, which in terms of its technologies and landscapes is much trippier than the RS books, still feels in some sense like a valid perspective on life in the year six million AD. Century Rain, on the other hand, which I personally am very fond of among my books, is again a kind of fantasy. And Blue Remembered Earth, about which I have said more than enough, is my attempt to be as true as I can be to the real world. It is not about moving tropes around or being in cosy dialogue with the past. When I inserted robots and spaceships into that story, I wasn't thinking about Asimov - I was thinking about the actual robots and spaceships that are already in our world or in the minds of researchers. So, a bit more of that kind of book, anchored to the present and trying to be sincere about the likely direction of things. It doesn't mean that I won't be writing more Revelation Space, just that I don't want to be defined by it.
  • Try and be a better writer. There, that's easy, isn't it? But honestly, I want to be better at this, and to keep getting better. That's a war waged on many fronts, of course. I want to write elegant and efficient prose that avoids the cliched and the pedestrian. I want to get better at dialogue, better at delineating my characters. I don't particularly care whether or not people like my characters, but I do want people to be able to tell them apart, and also to care about their fates - for better or for worse. I want to get better at integrating plot and theme, better at pacing and structure. I want to start thinking about form - about the ways to tell a story, or convey an idea, that are not simply a linear sequence of events. I don't think SF should cut itself any slack - we should aspire to the same high literary benchmarks as the rest of fiction, and be called out when we under-perform, and if that means accepting that I'm not very good at some aspect of writing, so be it. At least I can try to better. That's how it works in other areas of life, after all. When my guitar tutor tells me my barre chords are crap, I don't take it as a personal sleight - just an invitation to work on that area of my craft.
  • I am happy to think of myself as a science fiction writer. As I've said before, no one put a gun to my head and forced me to choose this genre. I love SF unreservedly. But at the same time, I am massively bored with endless circular in-genre arguments about taxonomy and ghettos and acceptance and rejection by the wider literary community. I firmly believe that the more we fixate on these perceived genre boundaries, the more we unconsciously reinforce them. The best course of action is to be agile and open-minded, to be a free agent, to read widely and be prepared to have your work evaluated within a larger fictional discourse. I have had, in my limited way, quite a fruitful series of interactions with the academic literary and critical establishment - they're not my enemy, and I'm not theirs. Yes, there will always be commentators and critics who take a narrow view of genre - but so what? It's their opinion, they're entitled to it, it doesn't make them bad people. When Terminal World lost the Wales Book of the Year award in 2011, it was the only work of prose fiction on the English language shortlist - a fact that went all but unremarked in SF circles, even though the prize was much higher than any SF award. And in the course of the award being decided, I met many pleasant members of the Welsh literary establishment who had not only genuinely enjoyed the book, but told me that it was the first work of SF they had read. "I didn't think it was my thing, but ..." was the phrase I heard over and over. That was even more gratifying because TW is in some sense one of my most hermetic novels, beginning who knows when and who knows where. There's a degree of blowing my own trumpet in all this, of course, but I merely make the point that I did not feel like any kind of outsider, merely someone who had written a big, bouncy book with airships and monsters in that could be read with some enjoyment by someone not steeped in SF tradition. Ever since then, I've tried not to presume that there is hostility to SF, because that perceived distaste or skepticism may not exist. But as soon as we start talking about high-falutin' literary types, so-called mainstream literature, us and them, we've basically had it. I won't be doing that.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Space travel's in my blood

If SF has lost its collective faith in the future, what does that say about those stories that take place predominantly in space, or on other worlds? Is this no more than the twitching tail of a dying wish-fulfillment dream better consigned to the garbage heap of the twentieth century, a fantasy that has nothing useful to tell us about the real future, that thing that our descendants are going to be living in whether they like it or not? There are many that seem to think so, judging by my own entirely subjective experience of internet discussions and the like. As far back as the late and not very lamented Mundane SF movement, we were being told in no uncertain terms that merely to speculate about the possibility of leaving the solar system was a dangerous abdication of responsibility, a tacit acceptance that, having trashed one planet, we were at liberty to do the same to the others. More recently, in the discussions revolving around the purported exhaustion of SF, I have seen similar sentiments expressed - a perception that this space stuff is all very well as undemanding entertainment, but it really is a bit beneath us now.

It's not hard to see why people might think that way. SF has always presented many Janus faces to the world, but there are some faces it feels more comfortable about than others. SF is very pleased with its Earthbound dystopias, its grimly forbidding ecocatastrophes and other such dire warnings of times to come on our own planet. It is rather less happy with all the stuff about rocket ships and alien planets, as if that was now all a bit juvenile, best locked away in the attic room of the imagination while the visitors are around. The fact that, fifty years into the human space age, we have yet to venture further than the Moon, is seen as damning evidence that it was all a bit silly and unrealistic to begin with. Dream on, girls and boys. The space age is over.

This has always struck me as a slightly odd position, but in addition it also strikes me as a two-pronged oddness. The first prong of oddness is that SF has never really been in the predictive or extrapolative business. That's a mug's game. So what does it honestly matter if, here and now, we are in the spacefaring doldrums? SF should not concern itself with writing about the most probable future, it should concern itself with what is the most fictionally interesting - be that probable, possible or downright unlikely. Did Philip K Dick consider the future of Do Androids Dream as likely to happen - or did it just strike him as fictionally rich territory, worth treating as if it were probable? (Which is not at all the same thing as believing in it). I'll leave you to answer that one, but I know where I'd come down.

The second prong of oddness is that: hang on - we're only fifty years into the human space age. That's fifty years behind us, counterbalanced by hundreds, thousands, even millions of years ahead. Really, I'd argue, we are in no fit position to debate the likelihood or otherwise of our having a significant destiny in space. It is simply much, much too soon to rule anything out. Still, having said that, I think anyone would agree that there are only two possible futures at stake here: one in which most of us never leave the Earth, or do much more in space than we have already done, and one in which most of us do. And whether "we" means us, or our robots, or our distant posthuman cybernetic offspring, really need not concern us. The point is that there are two futures open to science fiction  - one in which we remain on Earth, one in which we break out in the solar system/galaxy/universe/sevagram - take your pick.

Both strike me as equally fascinating, offering equally rich imaginative scope. It also strikes me that it is absurd to privilege one over the other, to say that this branch of SF is intrinsically more worthy of serious consideration than this other one.

Saturday, 10 November 2012


Over on Twitter, I'm following @WaxwingsUK, the handle for UK waxwing observations. With the cold weather, these enchanting migrants have begun to return to our shores and there are reports of sightings in many counties, although as yet none near me. I love these marvellous birds but have only been fortunate to see them on one occasion - or rather, one period of a few days (2006, I think) in which a large flock made themselves at home in a couple of trees near our home in Noordwijk, Holland, during a particular cold snap. Waxwings are remarkably tame so if you are fortunate enough to have them near you, you can stand a good chance of getting very close indeed.

Fighting winter light and an unfortunate sun angle, I failed to get any really fantastic pictures - certainly none that capture the beautiful colours of their plumage, and certainly none that record their lovely trilling song - but you take what you can get, and I have been pleased to have this record of my one waxwing sighting ever since.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Sheep at the price

Not the promised blog post on spaceflight, but some scenery instead.

Wales, Brecon Beacons, October 27th 2012. Not quite the view from my office, but not far off.

Monday, 29 October 2012


The debate sparked by Paul Kincaid's essay on SF's state of exhaustion rolls on. Here, for instance, is PK's latest statement - it's well worth reading, and also includes a handy set of links to some of the other contributions to the dialogue.

It's always hard to know how to engage with this sort of thing. As writers, we are strongly discouraged from responding to our critics, advice which I think is eminently sensible and which I have tried to abide by. Even the simple act of linking to or mentioning a negative review can be seen as a kind of attack by proxy, since many writers have extremely loyal readerships who will not hesitate to take up the sword on the writer's tacit behalf. I don't approve of that sort of thing, but I have seen it happen many times and I can easily think of some serial offenders. With a few excusable exceptions brought on by moments of moral weakness, I have tried not to do it and I have very little time for writers who indulge in it as a matter of course. It's gang politics, the crude tactics of the playground. Critics should feel free to speak up without fear of personal attacks. That is an obvious truism in literature as a whole, but it applies even more stringently within the extremely clubby, collegiate world of science fiction.

A piece like PK's original article invites, I think, a different kind of response. It's a not a review, and it doesn't mention my writing. In the sense that I have a view of PK's opinion of my SF, I sense that he is more inclined to see my work as part of the problem than the solution. Looked at another way, the class of SF that I am often associated with - call it heartland SF, whatever - seems, broadly, to be the kind that PK is now finding to be in a state of exhaustion. The writers he has been most recently impressed by are, generally, those operating on the margins of the form, far from the heartland. None of them are writers whose work sits squarely in the crosshairs of what we think of as genre science fiction. They are pushing against the boundaries of the form, interrogating it from one or other side of the border. As it happens, they are all writers I either already admire intensely or look forward to investigating. Christopher Priest's work, for instance, couldn't be more fascinating to me as a reader, even though it's not remotely the sort of thing I create. Similarly, I can't read a page of M John Harrison without questioning my entire commitment to writing. But there's no escaping the fact that I operate in a fundamentally different mode to these writers and that, eleven or twelve novels into my career, I obviously choose to do so. The question for me now is two-fold. Firstly, is it possible to engage with PK's discussion in a way that is neither defensive, nor a form of attack by proxy? Secondly, given the obvious and sincere substance of PK's opinions, what can I do to improve not only my own craft, but (and if it isn't too arrogant) in some small way the state of SF?

To take the first point - I hope that it is possible to respond, and to do so in a civil and constructive way. As I hope was clear from my earlier posts, much of what PK says makes perfect and depressing sense. In fact I would have welcomed engagement from many more writers than those who have already responded. Agree or disagree, I'm sure we all have something interesting to add.

The second point is obviously much harder to address. But here I want to mention something that my colleague Paul McAuley wrote on his blog back on the 5th of October - - which was to say "... let's face it, twenty years on, it's possible that I've become part of the problem." Now, I don't think PM is part of the problem at all but those are nonetheless excellent words to live by. As writers I think we ought to ask ourselves that question on a pretty regular basis. Am I good for science fiction, or is science fiction good for me? If I had not written a word, would the field be better or worse or indeed no different? I can't be alone in sometimes feeling as I've lucked into my SF career - as if, rather than bringing anything new to the field, I've just somehow managed to slip into the party and find myself a corner. On my better days, I tell myself that I'm doing useful work, adding to the conversation, treating the form with the seriouness it deserves. On my less good days, I feel like a complete fraud, and I expect the knock on the door at any moment. But it seems to me that, whether you are an imposter or not - and posterity's going to have the word on that one, not the blogosphere - it is a pretty good thing to remain in a state of questioning self-doubt, striving constantly to step back from your own work and examine the easy assumptions and platitudes underpinning it. A discussion like that sparked by PK's essay can only be healthy.

With that off my chest, in my next blog post I want to talk a bit about space travel, why it is not just about moving tropes around, and why I think there is intellectual value in the theme.

Friday, 12 October 2012


You might not think it, and some of my critics will be laughing into their cornflakes at this point, but I spend quite a bit of time thinking about prose. It's fair to say that a sizable proportion of science fiction readers don't much care, or at least don't think that they care. Read a sample of amazon reviews of science fiction novels - in fact, a more general sample of web reviews will do just as nicely - and you'll find a lot of stuff about the plot being interesting, the characters likable, the story fast paced, the world-building good and so on. Or, indeed, quite the opposite - they didn't care for the plot, they couldn't relate to the characters ("I didn't want to spend any time with these people"), the story dragged, the world-building was insufficiently thought-through, and so on. Quite often you'll see a statement to the effect that the book was "well written", but as often as not there's no deeper qualification as to what it meant by this. Usually, I would contend, it simply means that the pages slipped by effortlessly enough, that the story was adequately engaging, that there were some good bits and an ending that was both comprehensible and satisfying.

A reviewer of mainstream or literary fiction, though, probably has something slightly different on their mind. Whereas a genre reviewer might take "well written" to mean a quality of transparency -  functional, efficient, prose that doesn't occlude the narrative - the mainstream reviewer is probably applying a somewhat different set of criteria. What they mean, generally, is that the prose aspires to be more than merely a painless delivery mechanism for the story; that it can and should do more than that. Not being clumsily written doesn't get you bonus points: that's the absolute least that should be expected. Nor is it enough to avoid cliches; that's only half the job. We can all omit cliches, find prosaic workarounds that convey the same sentiment - but that's like taking out a dead lightbulb and screwing a dimmer one in its place.

There are, I think, at least three schools of thinking when it comes to science fiction prose. Let's be unkind and say that the first school is the Analog approach. This is the notion that the prose, above a certain basic level of competence, has no obligation to be anything other than workmanlike. Cliches, hackneyed turns of phrase, worn-out descriptions, all are sanctioned provided nothing gets in the way of the ideas. The problem, in my view, is that the very dullness of this sort of thing actually works against its intended transparency; it's like a window that hasn't been cleaned. You can sort of see the view through it, but there are lots of cobwebs and smears in the way. In other words, it doesn't do what it thinks it's doing.

I've aspired - and on occasion have no doubt failed - to mostly occupy a middle ground where the prose is aiming for a quality of maximum transparency, a sort of defect-free optical glass. The primary function of the prose is still a delivery system for the story, but it is trying, really trying, to do this with genuine elegance, an economy of expression, some wit and originality, and an avoidance of ugly constructions. CS Forester, for instance, generally wrote this sort of prose, as did HRF Keating. Indeed, throughout the twentieth century it was the default mode for many writers of what we might call the "quality" end of genre writing. It is not trying to do anything really inventive with the language, but at the same time there is an effortlessness to the writing which demands a certain control and authority on behalf of the author. Just as an expert bricklayer can lay a wall with no kinks in it, this is the prose of an expert troweller of words.

The question is, is that the best we can hope for? A few years ago, I was broadly of the opinion that this was not only a good sort of prose for science fiction purposes, but actually the optimum sort. That's not to say that there aren't aesthetic choices to be made at this level - attentive readers of mine, for instance, might note that the prose in Revelation Space generally avoids contractions, something that was important to me at the time. Later, I decided that the avoidance of contractions actually led to an awkwardness which is in itself a bad thing, and so I allowed them back in. Now I am again trying to avoid contractions, but this time at (I hope) a higher level of craft. You live and learn.

Back in 2009, I had the pleasure of sitting on a discussion panel hosted in London by the British Science Fiction Association, in advance of that year's BSFA awards. I can't remember whether we were meant to be discussing the novel or short fiction shortlists, or indeed both, but I do remember that my fellow panelist was Adam Roberts. The first thing to understand about Adam is that he is, and was, astonishingly well-read, to a degree that certainly puts me to shame. I seem to remember, in fact, that Adam stated that he made a point of reading the entire Booker longlist each year. He also keeps up with the major SF longlists. So when Adam makes some remark about the relative merits of science fiction versus the mainstream or literary novel, he absolutely does have the data to back up his statements, and his opinion is worth thinking about.

During that discussion, Adam made a point - I think - that, as good and admirable as lots of SF novels are, as richly as their ideas are explored, it's rare to encounter writing at the same level as the best writing encountered in the modern non-genre novel. The prose, in other words, is often serviceable but it's not doing anything more. The best writing in the non-genre novel is often actively non-transparent; it is quite happy to get between you and the story. When David Mitchell writes of a bat, "chased by its own furry turbulence", he's not shooting for workmanlike. But is that the right mode for SF?

At this point in the discussion Adam and I had a bit of a friendly disagreement. My point, made as well as I could, was that to apply the same set or sets of aesthetic criteria to the SF novel as to the literary novel was in fact a mistake, a category error based on a profound misapprehension of what SF is trying to do. My argument was that it would be equally wrongheaded to apply the aesthetic norms of classical music to, say, punk, because in doing so you would not only misunderstand the terms under which punk operates, but in forcing it to be more like classical music you would rob it of much of its intrinsic vitality.

I think I was wrong, though, and that the category error was mine. Punk is a genre; classical music is unquestionably another. Their boundaries are not especially porous. SF's relationship to literary fiction is more complex than that, more like an embedding or an intersection, and while much of SF does indeed run along genre tramlines, the interesting stuff generally doesn't. The question for me now is to what degree the second kind of prose is still the correct tool for the task, and to what degree I should be pushing beyond it, into what might one call intentional non-transparency.

[Edited - the BSFA event was in 2009, not 2008]

Monday, 8 October 2012

On Mediocrity

It's been said, with some truth, that SF writers have given up thinking seriously about the near future. The problem, so the commonplace wisdom goes, is that so many elements of the real world are now changing so rapidly, and so unpredictably, that there's no sense of a clear path before us. By contrast, writers used to have it a lot easier in the past. They could see the way things were going, they could sense the winds of change. The pace of technological and social change was quickening, but it had yet to turn into a blizzard of endless innovation and rapid obsolescence. The foundations of the present seemed surer.

I'm not sure about this. I agree that serious speculation about the near future has, with some honorable exceptions, been generally neglected - and I've scarcely got good form in this regard - but I'm not convinced that there is anything particularly difficult about writing about the future now, as opposed to twenty or fifty or a hundred years ago. That, it seems to me, would be making a claim that there is something exceptional about our own time, and I'm not sure that this is the case. There is a very powerful interpretive principle in science which says that it is unwise to make any exceptional statements about one's own viewpoint. In cosmology, for instance, insisting that the Earth is at the center of things leads to a cockeyed view of the universe in which the celestial clockwork has to be jigged to make the Sun go around the Earth. It is much simpler, and more elegant, to assume that the Earth occupies no special position within the solar system. Just as powerfully, demoting the Sun to the status of being merely another star leads to a richer appreciation of our own unexceptional place within the Milky Way galaxy. And assuming that the Milky Way is itself an unexceptional spiral galaxy leads to the staggering appreciation that the Big Bang was the creation not just of matter, but of the very fabric of reality, spacetime. Heady stuff, indeed - and what does it have to do with SF? Not much, perhaps, but I'd suggest that that same Principle of Mediocrity - the rejection that our viewpoint is priveleged - ought to apply just as squarely to history as it does to observations of planets and galaxies.

Whether or not SF is the literature of the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution, it has existed in the form that we currently recognise it for only a couple of centuries, and perhaps rather less than that. I would argue, in fact, that there has been almost no point in the last 150 - 200 years in which the future has been any easier or harder to prognosticate than is now the case. 2012 is an astonishingly difficult thing to get a handle on - but then again, 1912 must have seemed much the same. HG Wells, who was born a century before me, lived to see electricity, mechanization, powered flight, two world wars, atomic weapons, radio, television and the dawn of the jet age. That's an astonishing number of things to cram into one life - but I don't think Wells' life was exceptional in that regard. Much the same could be said of almost any writer born since the start of the nineteenth century. The future has always been arriving faster than we might wish, and it certainly has no requirement to make life easier for SF writers.

Friday, 5 October 2012

It was twenty years ago today

Well, not quite. But we are now in the autumn of 2012 and in the autumn of 1992 - rather astonishingly, twenty years ago - I started writing Revelation Space. Not some remote ancestor of that book, either, but the thing itself. I had made a number of false starts on a book with similar themes and (in some cases) exactly similar characters and situations, but all of these had come to naught. By 1992, though, I had achieved enough domestic stability that I was finally able to carve out the necessary number of hours a week to make tangible and continuing progress on a novel. I had moved to the Netherlands at the tail-end of 1991, quite an upheaval in itself (I arrived with everything I could cram into a rucksack and not much more) but even when I had begun to settle down to living outside the UK, there remained many demands on my time. I had a serious new job - my first job, in fact, of any kind. I had to take the bus to and from work, which ate into my time even more. I had quickly enrolled in Dutch classes, two a week, which necessitated homework and yet more travel. Keen to meet people, I had also signed up for the local mountaineering/rock climbing society and also the local horse riding club, eating into yet more spare time. I also needed to learn to drive - I had begun taking lessons in the UK in the eighties, but had only got as far as failing my test once before putting all that aside in order to complete my PhD studies. However, now that I was an adult with a proper job, I really could not avoid that one any longer. Learning to drive in the Netherlands, with a unique set of road rules, in one of the most cycle-conscious countries in the world, was certainly a learning experience. But things gradually feel into place, some order and stability entered my life, and by the latter months of 1992 I had developed a pattern of work which was to serve me well over the next year and a half. After dinner, I would clear away my meal and set up a small folding table in my tiny living room. I would put some music on, roll a sheet of paper into my manual typewriter, and set to work. This was total liberation, as far as I was concerned. When I had been a student, living in dormitories with thin walls, I never felt happy about using the typewriter when other people might be trying to sleep or concentrate. So I confined my efforts mostly to saturday and sunday afternoons, and as a consequence didn't get very much done.

Now, though, I could write as often and for as long as I liked. But in fact I quickly fell into a fairly predictable routine - maybe 3 or 4 typed sheets a night, say an hour or two's work. I have never been anything than a hamfisted, two-finger typist but I eventually reached the point where I could type as quickly as I could generate prose, and could sometimes get through an entire sheet without making an error. Two or three were more the norm, but that was what Tipp-Ex was for.

I learned that if I was going to finish a draft of a novel, I had to keep pushing forward. So, no cheeky going back and fiddling with what I had already written. I just kept adding sheets to the pile, and over the weeks and months it grew, and grew. I punched the sheets and inserted them into a ring binder. Eventually it began to turn into quite an impressive stack of paper. That's something you'll never get with an electronic document - that sense of a growing body of work, something with tangible mass and heft - unless you print it out, of course. Not that I'd willingly return to using a typewriter, but still...

I continued work on Revelation Space throughout 1993, with the odd setback, but always moving forward. I learned that it was important to maintain momentum on a big writing project. A lengthy holiday was all very well, but it could be hard to return to the writing mindset afterwards. Instead, I carried my typewriter with me. I took it on a rowing boat, to a small island in the Phillipines. I worked by day, since there was no electricity at night. However, as romantic as that sounds, none of the stuff I wrote on holiday made it into the final draft.

Deadlines are good, for me at least. They focus the mind. In the absence of a contract, I chose to impose my own delivery date. Early in 1994, my work was going to take me back to Australia, for a short telescope project. My wife-to-be was coming with me. It seemed the ideal opportunity to get the book finished, so she could read it on the trip. I worked right up until the day before we flew, hammering down the pages in a blind passion, but I did finish it, and from that point on Revelation Space existed.

But the road from finished typewritten draft - a first draft, in the rawest possible sense - to publication - was an exceedingly lengthy one. I began entering the text into a Mackintosh SE personal computer, my first real experience with word processing. I could not resist the urge to tinker and polish, as I went. The redraft stalled, and stalled again. I complicated things by creating separate documents for each chapter of the book - nowadays I work on a single seamless document, and only insert chapter breaks relatively late in the day. A new job, between 1994 and 1996, nearly scuppered my writing for two years due to a daily commute lasting nearly four hours. I got a lot of reading done in that interval, but far less writing than I would have liked.

The book sat around as a work in progress until early in 1997. Then, fortuitously, I had a period of unemployment between science contracts. It was only a few weeks, but enough of a window for me to pull out the RS files and make a concerted effort to produce a consistent draft. Not long after, I was able to submit three sample chapters and a synopsis. But the rest of the book was finished. In the summer of 1997 I wrote another novel - Chasm City.

And there things sat with RS, for another two years, until things began to move again early in 1999, with an offer of publication. Originally, the book was going to come out in 2001. Later, it was moved ahead to 2000. I spent the rest of that year redrafting RS, while alternating with work on the redraft of Chasm City, which had already been scheduled as my second novel.

I mention all this because people are, to my immense gratitude, still picking up Revelation Space for the first time. And, of course, it's not a new book by any means - 12 years is a long time by any measure. But I've been living with it a lot longer than that...

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Exhaust gases

As I mentioned in the previous post, the critic Paul Kincaid has recently ignited a debate about the perceived state of exhaustion of science fiction. It's worth reading PK's original review, and the subsequent interview relating to it, and worth also taking a look at Jonathan McCalmont's lengthy (and broadly supportive) response. PK confines his focus to short fiction - indeed, he does not appear to regard novel length SF to be suffering from quite such a serious malaise - but JM's complaints are more wide ranging, and significantly more lacerating in tone. Both commentators, though, are in agreement on the main points. Literary SF has reached a state of creative crisis, due to a number of factors. I won't reiterate the main arguments since they are made clearly enough by both authors, and you can easily find some surrounding commentary from other parties.

As someone intimately involved in the production of written SF here in the second decade of the twenty first century, I obviously have some stake in the continued vitality of the form. PK is careful to note that he is not predicting the death of SF, but instead noting a sense that SF has become insular, self-referential, disengaged from the present. It has stopped saying anything useful about the world. It is ceasing to innovate from within itself, ceasing to explore the possibilities of what it could be, rather than what it already is. Tropes are being recycled, games of recognition and irony are being played against the knowing reader. People are writing SF about SF. Writers have stopped having confidence in their own creations. Everything feels a bit thin and under-imagined. Too much SF consists of moving around bits of science fictional furniture, with nothing deeper going on under the surface. There is an absence of intellectual rigour.

Clearly, I don't feel that SF is mined-out. Perhaps it isn't a terribly good idea to read lots of SF in one go, any more than you'd want to listen to lots and lots of blues or jazz in one continuous stream. I don't consume art that way, and in fact never have. I've hardly ever read an anthology cover to cover, much less three in one go. Sometimes it's good to get away from things. These days, in fact, SF constitutes only a very small element of my reading, and on the occasions when I do read it, I'm invariably excited and enthused by the experience. But there's more to PK's complaints than simple reader fatigue. As it happens, I have quite a bit of sympathy for some of his criticisms.

When I aspired to become a science fiction writer, that's all I wanted to be. I didn't want to be a hard SF writer or a new space opera writer, just an SF writer. My heroes were Clarke, Asimov, Philip K Dick, James Blish, James White, Harry Harrison. Later, I discovered Haldeman, Pohl, Niven, James Tipree Jr and others. Later still, Ballard, Harrison, Priest - and through Interzone, a whole slew of new writers such as William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Gwyneth Jones, Geoff Ryman and others. Gene Wolfe took the top of my head off in the Book of the New Sun. Kim Stanley Robinson blew what was left of my mind with Icehenge and the Memory of Whiteness. And yet, I'd very nearly turned away from SF completely. Shortly before leaving school for university, I'd written a mainstream short story which won a prize - the first payment I received for any piece of fiction, in fact, and the first story of mine to be reprinted in something resembling a professional publication. Later, via one of my teachers, I learned that someone had commented that the story reminded them of Malcolm Bradbury. Suitably encouraged, I went off and read Bradbury, and then David Lodge, and that was the gateway to a far wider world of literature which - I'll readily admit - I had not hitherto explored to any great degree. Around the same time, I also encountered an issue of Analog SF which seemed to me to contain some of the worst fiction I'd ever read. Interzone, at least, seemed to have been written for grown-ups by grown-ups - most of the time. With the benefit of hindsight, I'm sure that my assessment of Analog was overly harsh but at the time it seemed rather childish and frivolous, not really about anything except the recycling of tired old ideas.

That reaction, for me, encapsulates something fairly central to my subsequent relationship with SF. I don't care for a lot of it. Never have done, never will. But at the same time, I doubt that I'd feel much inclination to write it if it were not for that generative friction, that grit in the oyster. There are two impulses at work when I produce SF - a sense that no one else is doing it exactly the way it should be done, and an acute desire to write it as well as it is written by the writers I most admire, whoever they might be at the moment. Ask me now: David Mitchell, perhaps. If I was truly happy with the state of SF, in other words, I suspect I'd feel very little incentive to write it. When I wrote Revelation Space, for instance, I perceived a massive, book-shaped hole where one ought to be - a book that was true to Einstein, true to our view of the limits of life and intelligence in the universe, true to our understanding of our own evolution, and yet which was also faintly Medieval, and rather ornately gothic, a sort of dark mash-up of the Name of the Rose and Ringworld. I failed, obviously, but that was the impulse - and in the end it produced something quite different from the objective. I'd be delighted if Revelation Space proved sufficiently irritating and wrong to another writer that it served as their generative grit. Pushing Ice, a more recent novel of mine, was written out of a sense of annoyance with the way so much SF cooked the books when it came to speculation about alien intelligence and galactic evolutionary timescales. House of Suns, more recently still, was written out of a conviction that it was possible to create a novel that felt galactic in scope, and yet which was still strongly constrained by the real physics of causality. My most recent novel, Blue Remembered Earth, was written to full another book-shaped hole - a perception (rightly or wrongly) that nobody was doing a mid-term, spacefaring future in quite the way I wanted it to be done. I am very happy to be told that I failed at all of these things, but these were the impulses.

What I am trying - and perhaps failing - to articulate here is that for me, I do not think I could write SF if I were not disenchanted with large areas of the field. Those areas of disenchantment are precisely the interesting interfaces where I can begin to feel my imagination doing useful work. So in that sense if I would be a bit worried if everything was all right with SF. I don't think it is - but then, I don't think it ever has been. Rather than perceiving a particular crisis affecting SF now, I see the field as being in a constant state of stagnation and renewal, constantly exhausting itself, constantly hitting new seams. This is not to disagree with much of what PK has to say. I find that far too much SF has nothing to say beyond its own echo-chamber of cleverness. I do find that a great deal of modern SF has totally abdicated any engagement with the present, and has more or less given up on the future completely.

I am not ready to surrender. The future still seems to me to be a profoundly interesting thing to think about. I am not intimidated by that at all, any more than I am intimidated by fears that the world is now changing too quickly to be modelled by SF. I am of the strong conviction that, contrary to perceived wisdom, science fiction really can say cogent things about the future, as well as the present, or at least speak to the human condition of living there. We're doing that already, how does it feel? Pretty weird, actually. How much weirder will it feel tomorrow, or the year after next? Sorry, but I can't stop thinking about this stuff - it's what gets me out of bed. SF can't predict the future, transparently, but there is nothing to prevent it from deploying interesting thought experiments. As I've said elsewhere, one way of thinking about SF is a tool for mapping the space of possible futures - probing the parameter space. That, to me, is intensely exciting. But SF is the ultimate literary Swiss Army knife, it doesn't have to do just one thing - nor should it.

And now I'm off to write some.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Breaking cover

A few brief things ... I'm deep in novel work at the moment, and will remain so for some while, so I'd like to apologise for my continued tardiness in responding to emails. I know I say this all the time, but (as I hope some of you will be aware) I do have a big catch-up every few months, and will strive to do so again.

Secondly, last week's Google event went very well, in my experience, and if nothing else it was terrific fun to hang out with Peter and Iain, albeit briefly. Even if you're not subscribed to Google Plus, you can review the experience on You Tube: this link should do the trick:

Thank you to all who contributed! In addition to the friendly staff at Google, I'd also like to thank Orion's publicist Jon Weir for making sure my trip to London went smoothly.

It seems that SF is in a state of permanent crisis and/or self-examination lately, and the last couple of weeks have been no exception. The latest round of introspection has been occasioned by the critic Paul Kincaid's review in the LA Review of books of some of the latest batch of "best of" anthologies, which he found symptomatic of an exhaustion within SF, a profound failure of confidence in SF's ability to engage with the present, let alone the future. That review is here:

Paul was later given the chance to amplify his thoughts over a question and answer session hosted on the Nerds of a Feather blog, and his responses are split across two lengthy posts:


These responses make fascinating reading.

In response to that, the critic Jonathan McCalmont has also posted a lengthy and thoughtful essay, which in essence takes Kincaid's position and dials it up to eleven. It doesn't make for comfortable reading, especially if you're one of the targets, but there's no doubt that some of his points hit close to home. SF has become massively self-congratulatory and inward looking, besotted with its own year round awards circus - something I've been known to complain about. Like Kincaid's piece, the McCalmont essay is clearly written from a position of enthusiasm for the possibilities of the genre, albeit coupled with obvious frustration around SF's frequent failure to measure up to its own oft-toted potential. Whether you agree with the specifics of the piece or not, it's worth a read.

I'd like to draft a more considered response to both pieces in due course, but for now I thought it was worth providing links to the articles in question.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Google+ event, 27th September

While I surface from work on ON THE STEEL BREEZE, just a word to say that I'll be participating in a three-way Google+ hangout with Iain M Banks and Peter F Hamilton. The event takes place next week, on Thursday 27th September. Here's some information:

Now, as far as I understand it, this is not a public event in the sense that you can show up in London when we do it. But via the medium of Google+ you can still participate. In fact some people are already posting questions for the panel in advance of the event.

Iain and Peter are always good company, so I'm sure we'll have a blast and get some good discussions going.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Two things

Couple of items worth mentioning - I've just done a lengthy podcast interview with, which is available here, together with a useful transcript:

Thank you to John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley for giving me the opportunity to talk.

Elsewhere, there is now a fan forum for all things to do with my work, with a strong focus on the Revelation Space universe. The forum is nothing to do with me, but I wish it well and thank the instigators for taking the initiative. I suspect it would not be creatively healthy for me to spend time lurking around the place, so I shall strive not to do so unless specifically requested. The people behind this forum are also trying to gauge interest in a one-day convention for 2013, and to that end there is talk of an informal fan meet-up later in 2012, more of which you can find on the forum itself. Due to pressure of work there's little chance of me getting up to London for that, but if the 2013 event takes flight, I would do my best to make an appearance.


Monday, 27 August 2012

Mystery house

While I get my act in gear for a proper series of posts, here's a quiz for you. I recently photographed this property. It's the fictional home of a long-running British TV character - anyone recognise it? The series is also aired in the States - in fact, I first saw it in America.

No prize, other than the vast satisfaction of identifying it.

Edit - well, that didn't take long. But have a few more photos from the same location. Here's Bert Large's restaurant:

And here's another of the Doc's house:

The Doc's house in context - it's really close to Large's restaurant:

Looking across to the other side of the harbour:

Fabulous place, Port Isaac.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Redditch public library

Apologies for the lack of activity here since July - busy, busy, busy. Just dropping by to say that I'll be talking at Redditch Public Library this coming saturday (August 25th) in connection with Redditch Astronomical Society. If you're in the area, why not drop in? I'll be talking about science and science fiction and there'll be plenty of time for questions, chatting etc.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Cheeky chappie

I posted this picture and linked to it from twitter, forgetting to put an explanation here. It's an unusual bird I photographed in Holland. Obviously a corvid of some sort, and probably immature, but what is it? The best guess, courtesy of one of my twitter responders, is that it's a leucistic jackdaw, but I've yet to see a really persuasive photo of a similar bird. It was also suggested that it might be an immature hooded crow, but in my 20-plus years of living in and visiting the Netherlands, I never saw a hooded. In fact the first time I did see one, in either Finland or Sweden, I did a double take because it was (to me) such an unfamiliar species.

Monday, 2 July 2012


On the admittedly slight chance that you're already working at ESA/ESTEC in Holland, I'll be doing a talk tomorrow:


Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The PI files (contains significant spoilers)

Clay's excellent timelime prompted me to dig out this material, which is all that remains of the notes I kept during the writing of Pushing Ice. (To be honest, there wasn't much more - a few back of the envelope calculations about acceleration, time dilation etc). I kept these because I felt they might come in handy when I came to write the much promised sequel, and I suppose they will.

First up is a handy breakdown of the organisational structure of the Rockhopper at the start of the novel. This is interesting because it rather obviously lays bare my thinking concerning the likely ethnic makeup of such a ship in the year 2057. It disappoints me that there is not a single Middle Eastern name, for instance, and only one name that could charitably be taken to indicate African origin. Obviously I could have done better, but it is what it is and any sequel would presumably have to draw largely on this pool of surnames.

Moving on, our next thrilling document is a breakdown of loyalties, depending on who I perceived to be nominally on Bella's side and nominally on Svetlana's. While it was easy to keep track of the core characters, and of course there was a certain amount of swapping of loyalties, I needed hard numbers to give the shipboard politicking some conviction.

In similar fashion, once the ship ended up on Janus, and the crew started founding the new settlement of Janus, I needed to keep tabs on who married who, births and deaths etc. This document shows the inhabitants of Crabtree in 2065, by Rockhopper's skewed dating system.

Finally, we come to some aliens. There's a mildly boring story attached to this one. I needed to conceptualise my main "good guy" aliens, but I didn't yet have an idea what they were meant to look like or be called. I'd been bashing my head against this problem for several days when circumstances called me away from my office. I had a dental appointment, which necessitated a stroll through town. Along the way, my mind freewheeling (probably thinking more about anaesthetic and drills than aliens) I spotted an ornamental fountain in someone's front garden. Hence, Fountainheads! I gave no thought to how these strange-looking aliens had evolved; what kind of planet they'd come from, what kind of metabolism they had, etc - all that worldbuildy stuff seemed then to be completely irrelevant and I would take the same view now. They have been space travelling for millions of years; they themselves barely remember how they got there.

I was very pleased with the Fountainheads and enjoyed writing every scene in which they featured. I particularly wanted to make a point that any sufficiently advanced aliens are likely to have no trouble understanding us, which is why these incredibly weird beings nonetheless have a perfectly relaxed grasp of colloquial English, give themselves easily pronouncable names, and do everything they can to set our minds at rest.

Thank you to my wife for scanning these documents, and I hope they are of some interest.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Pushing Ice Timeline (significant spoilers)

Reader Clay Hunt produced this fantastic schematic of the timelines in Pushing Ice. In Clay's words: "When I got to the point where Bella touches the Memorial Cube and starts figuring out JUST HOW FAR into the future they have traveled, it BLEW my mind." This is Clay's attempt at figuring out the basic chronology of Bella and Svetlana's journey into deep time. Clay wonders if it's correct, and my truthful answer is that it could well be, but I'd need to re-read the book to be sure. In the meantime it looks pretty damn excellent, doesn't it? I'm a sucker for these things, and I'm knocked out that someone considered it worth their time to produce one for my story. Thanks, Clay.

Click to embiggen. If any of you have any thoughts on the timeline, I'm sure Clay and I would enjoy hearing them.

Monday, 28 May 2012

All stacked up in the rain

I don't mind spending days, weeks or even months on a piece of art, but sometimes it's good to cut loose and work quickly. When I was a student I went on a two week residential art course in South Wales, where we were encouraged to do just that. I remember one of the assignments involved being dropped in Pontypridd market and told to produce as many pen sketches as we could, aiming to capture people as they stopped to buy bananas and so on, almost a candid camera approach where the work would consist of a few pen strokes at best and then on to the next subject. I found it very liberating at the time but olde habits die hard and my natural tendency is to work meticulously and neatly.

Lately, though, I've been trying to draw and paint faster, to set myself a self-imposed time limit and see if I can produce a piece of art within that period. Sometimes this can be as brief as a couple of minutes, or perhaps half an hour for a slightly more involved drawing. Where the quick approach really comes into its own is with painting, though, since it really encourages you to drop your inhibitions and just start splurging paint around.

This picture was inspired by a black and white image in a collection of images of nighttime railroads - I've blogged about O. Winston Link before, although this image while in a similar vein was not one of his - and it was painted very, very quickly. The entire thing was completed during a two hour evening at the local art society, but allowing for a coffee break, and a certain amount of faffing around at the start, deciding what to do, then cleaning up at the end, the picture couldn't have taken more than 90 minutes to finish, and was probably closer to an hour. The key in this case was that nothing in the picture needed to be painted with any great precision, and I chose to use acrylics rather than the oils I've been using a lot recently. Oils are great for working fast as well, but in this case the high contrast between the lit and dark areas suggested that acrylics would be a better bet, since I'd be able to paint highlights onto already dry areas very soon after the initial application. I began with a blue background which had dried by the time I got back from coffee, then added black and white and intermediate tones over that.

The original, and I hope the painting, has a definite noir quality which I found intriguing. Who are those people further up the train platform? Who is the figure in the hat? Do they know each other? Is the man in the hat some kind of fugitive hoping to get on the arriving train and escape the other people? Going back to my O Winston Link post, the original photo made me think of the Blue Nile, of the cover of their album Hats and the imagery in many of their songs of late night trains and rain and melancholy encounters. I love the fact that a single photograph, a snapshot of a innocent moment (doubtless it was just another day at the station) can activate so many thoughts.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Saturn's Return

My adventures in astrophotography have been hampered by poor weather and (to be fair) a measure of lethargy on the part of your correspondent. But tonight some clear skies heralded this first attempt at capturing Saturn, low in the south but still rather lovely through a telescope. I took this at about 11 pm local time. It's still cold here - indeed, we don't really get warm evenings in Wales any more.
OK, it's not going to make the cover of Sky & Telescope, but it's another step and I'm pleased with it. I'm a little behind on emails and bookplates, by the way, but catching up slowly. Bear with me, as there's been a lot of travel these last couple of months, as well as two novels that need finishing. Cheers!

Thursday, 19 April 2012


Back. Jetlagged. Had a great time. Three pictures.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

In Yokohama

I promised updates during my Japan first so here's the first. Unfortunately there won't be any pictures as I don't presently have a means of downloading the images from my camera. You'll just have to take my word for it that they were some of the finest examples of the photographic art ever committed to an SD card.

My experience so far has been extremely favorable. I arrived early Thursday morning, to clear blue skies and an abundance of cherry blossom trees visible even before I'd left the aeroplane. I'd agreed to be met in the airport a couple of hours later, which allowed time for a shower (I could do an entire blog post about how excellent the shower facilities were, compared to the joke that is Heathrow) and some basic necessities such as arranging cellphone rental. Japan is 3G, so many foreign phones don't work here - however the rental process could not have been easier and the phone came with a handy set of basic operating instructions. I was up and texting within minutes of receiving the phone.

I was met at the airport by Tomoki Kodama, one of the Japanese fans involved in the organisation of the convention. Kodama-san and I then rode the impressively fast and modern Skyliner train into the Ueno district of Tokyo, where we met Andrew Adams, an ex-pat Brit with a long involvement in science fiction and who has been my point of contact in the long run up to Hal-Con. Within a few minutes of meeting we were sitting in the upstairs section of a fantastic Japanese restaurant, and not long after that we were eating. I had to pinch myself - I'm in Japan. Foreign trips like this are often so much more enjoyable when you can tap into a bit of local knowledge, and this was definitely the case here. The food was great. I've eaten enough Japanese food prior to my arrival to feel that it was to my taste, but one never knows quite how well that will map onto the true experience of eating locally. However, so far I've found the food to be excellent and very much to my liking. After an enjoyable stroll through Ueno's park and museum, Andrew very kindly invited me back to his place for an evening meal. Andrew and his wife were extremely hospitable and served me a very nice selection of sashimi dishes. Then I met up with Kodama-san again and we took a series of local trains to the hotel in Yokohama. I'll readily confess that, while having heard of Yokohama before, until the preparations for this trip I didn't know that it was so close to Tokyo. We were travelling at night, but I never sensed any great transition from one urban area to another.

I like Yokohama very much; people here (indeed, everywhere since my arrival) have been unfailingly friendly and helpful. And I've had a great day at the convention, in a characterful old brick building that I think many British conventions would kill for. I'll say a bit more about the convention in my next update, though.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Over Narita

"Sometimes I can hear the jets, laced into holding patterns over Narita."

- William Gibson, New Rose Hotel

So I'm off to Japan, where I'll be attending Hal-Con. I'll be in Japan for six days - five nights in Yokohama, where the convention is located, followed by one in Tokyo, which will place me near the airport for an early departure. Sitting here today, it's rather difficult to believe that, almost exactly a week from now, I'll be back in London, and then shortly after that on my way home to Wales. It all seems a little dreamlike. Other than an extremely short visit to Australia for a telescope run, I don't think I've ever flown more than 10 hours in a plane and not stayed for at least two or three weeks. It's a short trip, however, because I've a lot of work on at the moment, with two novels to finish and a busy period of commitments, literary and otherwise, running right through to June. I don't expect to have fully recovered from my jetlag before returning from Japan.

I'm tremendously excited, but also (I don't admitting) a little apprehensive. I consider myself reasonably well-travelled, including a fair few parts of Asia. I've spent time in Malaysia, Thailand, the Phillipines, Singapore, Hong Kong, and I can even legitimately claim to have visited China, albeit as part of a brief tourist excursion over the border from what was then British-governed HK. But Japan promises to be something else again. Every website or guidebook I've looked at leads to me to expect that I can expect a kind of sensory and cultural overload as soon as I get out of the airport. On one level, of course, that's massively exciting - like a chance to step into the future for a few days. But I don't doubt that I'll also find it dizzying and disorientating. I'll also be grappling with total immersion in a foreign culture, which is not something that can really be said of Hong Kong or Singapore. But, again, there would be no point going if I wasn't ready to experience that. As it happens, I've been fascinated by Japan for years - it's somewhere I've always wanted to visit - and I'll be a little disappointed if my perceptions aren't knocked askew just a bit. I fully expect they will be.

I'll aim to blog and tweet during my trip, in so far as it's practical, so watch out for updates.


ps - and - in passing - thanks again to my extremely generous sponsors for the Sport Relief run, many of whom put in money after I'd completed the run. Thank you all for your donations.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Sunday, 25 March 2012

I Ran

Back from the Sport Relief run - lovely day for it. Warm, clear skies, great atmosphere with everyone very happy to be out and about. Thanks again to all who sponsored me, and who retweeted my requests for sponsorship - much appreciated. I left my decision to enter until relatively late in proceedings, but as an asthmatic with an on-off chest infection for the last week or so, I couldn't really commit to the run until I knew I was up for it. (Of course I could always have hobbled around, I suppose). Aside from my generous sponsors, both friends and family, I must thank my wife for not only putting the word out, but also being there on the day with camera and encouragement. In the end we raised 340 pounds for Sport Relief (edit: now up to 400 pounds, which is astonishing!).

Here are some snaps. I was feeling a bit apprehensive about the whole thing to start with - 3 miles is not much but I'd already seen one man being helped out of the earlier 6 mile run with what looked like a painful knee injury.

The calm before the storm:

Enjoying a last sip of fruit juice.

The start! Brilliant mix of adults and kids of all abilities.

About half way around. It's an up and down course and the steep bit seemed to get a bit steeper each lap, the swines.


27 minutes after the start, it's over! I feel as knackered as I look. Time for a celebratory ice cream, and then we stayed to watch the 1 mile run which had a very good turn out.

Once again, thanks for the support.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Silent Running Man (see what I did there?)

This Sunday, I'll be running three miles for Sport Relief. You can find out a bit more about it, and sponsor me if you so wish, by following this link:


Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Wordy Rappinghood

How much is a decent day's work for the jobbing writer? I've often been asked about my own working habits, and I've tried as far as possible to answer honestly. I aim to produce 3000 words each working day, which for me is essentially the normal working week; I'll generally do a bit of work on weekends, but that's more about catching up and maintaining momentum, than hitting a set target.

But that aim of 3000 words is exactly that: an aim. It's something I'll do my best to achieve, and on a good day, or near a deadline, I'll shoot well past it. But I won't kill myself if I don't hit it; what counts is that week in, week out, there's a sense of productivity. 3000 words is a short chapter, or about half of a normal one (by my standards). It's half to a third of a short story. It's a fiftieth of a long novel. The main thing is that if I can hit somewhere between 10 and 15,000 words of fiction a week, I know that the work is going well and that I will eventually produce enough raw wordage to begin to shape a submission-quality draft. The secret to finishing a novel is not writing tens of thousands of words in a single caffeine-fuelled writing binge, but steady work over many months. Most of us will know what it's like to work ridiculously hard to meet a deadline, but by the same token we will also know the draining muscular and mental fatigue that follows. We all have to do it sometimes (I've done 10,000 words in one day) but that's no way to sustain a writing career that one hopes will span decades, rather than years.

However - here's the key thing: I didn't always write 3000 words a day and I'd hate anyone to think that this was some absolute gold standard that must be met. Far from it: I know writers who produce much less than this, and who do perfectly well. I also know at least one writer who cranks out 5000 words a day, again to no obvious detriment to either career or health. Ultimately, the individual must find the working habits that best suit their lifestyle and temperament. Do you produce 500 meticulously polished words of near-publishable prose, or 3000 words of rougher material that nonetheless moves the story along and can be edited and shaped further down the line?

When I had a day job, and a lengthy commute to and from work, I found it just about manageable to produce 2000 words of fiction an evening. But this wasn't always easy, and I could only do it because my wife was there to keep me suitably fed and watered. And that 2000 words was only achieved when I'd already had a good number of years of serious work behind me. I certainly couldn't hit anything like that wordage when I was beginning to find my way into writing.

Writing is an art, but as with any art there are elements of craft which can only be learned with time. The novice writer struggles with the basic units of prose: it's tricky to put together a decent sentence, let alone more than one. The rhythm's off. One sentence doesn't lead fluidly into the next. That paragraph break feels like it's in the wrong place, but you can't quite put your finger on where it ought to be. But if you work at it hard enough, and over a long enough period, you'll eventually get to the point where you'll have internalised the basics well enough to be able to write almost effortlessly on the level of sentence and paragraph. (That's not to say that it's all suddenly become easy, it's just that you've raised your game enough to be worrying about a whole truckload of other things). During this phase you're a bit like a learner driver, still trying to get to grips with the rudiments of clutch, throttle and brakes. And just as you wouldn't set out to drive 5000 miles before you'd got to grips with the basics of gear shifting, so I don't think it's realistic to set yourself difficult word targets before you've reached some basic level of fluency with the elements of prose. Put another way, by all means try and write 2000 or 3000 words if you think you can attain that, but don't feel too bad if you can't. Like most things, it will come with time.

Speaking for myself, I did 2000 words today. But I also did a lengthy telephone interview, and tomorrow I have a function to prepare for. The key thing is flexibility. Find a personal work target, set it, and aim for it as best you can. Be strict, but at the same time cut yourself some slack when the goal is clearly unattainable. We all have off days. If you exhaust yourself trying to meet today's target, you're probably not going to have too easy a time of it meeting tomorrow's...

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Monday, 5 March 2012

New Art Riot: Tug on this

Felt tip sketch, after an original pencil drawing by Frank Rines.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Silent Running

(This short piece on the film Silent Running appeared in Cinema Futura, edited by Mark Morris, in 2010.)

In the future, some kind of catastrophe – planned or otherwise - has befallen Earth’s once great natural environments. All that’s left is a handful of domed preserves, drifting through the solar system attached like glistening seed pods to huge skeletal space freighters. After the order arrives to jettison the forests, blow them up with nuclear bombs, and return the ships to commercial use, most of the crew are jubilant about the prospects for returning home. But one ecologically-minded astronaut – the begowned, plant-loving hippy Freeman Lowell – decides he isn’t going to stand for this. Before very long he’s killed the other crewmembers, taken the ship off on a white-knuckle ride through Saturn’s rings, and begun bonding with the maintenance drones. Lowell is eventually forced to sacrifice himself to save the last forest, itself left in the care of the final fully-functioning drone. The film closes with touching images of the robot tending the garden, continuing the task that humans couldn’t be trusted not to screw up.

It’s safe to say that Silent Running is implausible on many levels. I can excuse the habitats in space – maybe the domes already existed before Earth’s ecosystem went wrong – but it’s not at all clear why they need to be shepherded around attached to enormous spaceships. It’s even less clear why they need to be blown up, rather than just left to orbit the sun on their own. The story wouldn’t kick in unless the domes were imperiled, though, and (minor understatement ahead) it’s not as if the decisions of governments and corporations always make absolute, binding sense in the real world. Setting aside the dubious combination of magical artificial gravity on a ship that in all other respects appears to be bolted together from late-twentieth century components (an aircraft carrier was used for the impressively spacious interior shots), what is perhaps more problematic is the time it takes the treehugging Lowell to realise that the reason his sole surviving forest might be ailing, on the wrong side of Saturn, is that the Sun is now a very long away away. Long before the penny drops he hefts a yellow cue ball, as if almost making the connection…

Despite these problems I love Silent Running unreservedly. Emerging at the tail-end of the Apollo era, it’s as much a part of the early seventies as After the Goldrush, and should be seen in that context. When I saw it for the first time, at the other end of the seventies, it slotted neatly into place as the missing jigsaw piece tieing together the other big SF films of the last decade, of which it seemed to share a consensus view about the way the future was going to look. It had the plausible industrial design of 2001: A Space Odyssey: the huge, grey-clad spaceships sliding ponderously past the camera, the control rooms filled with complex navigational hardware and shuffling readouts, the emphasis on artificial intelligence as an essential component of our spacefaring future. It had the shuffling, bipedal robots that I had glimpsed in background scenes in Star Wars. It had the downbeat, working stiffs in space aesthetic of Dark Star (prefiguring Alien, which I didn’t see until several years later). Above all else, and for all its moments of humour, it was terribly, terribly sad: things just didn’t go well for Freeman Lowell or anyone around him. Stars Wars changed matters, of course, but the one thing you didn’t go to seventies SF for was a happy ending.

The connection with 2001 ran deeper than I appreciated at the time. The director, Douglas Trumbull, had led the effects team on that film. One of the key differences between Clarke’s novel and the film is that in the book the Discovery travels to Saturn, not Jupiter. In fact the change to Saturn was Kubrick’s idea – he was keen on the idea of showing the rings, and having the Discovery fly among them. Clarke rewrote the story accordingly. But Trumbull’s team, already under pressure with existing work, “went ape” and vetoed the change, which is why it remains Jupiter in the film. It’s tempting to view the Saturn sequences in Silent Running as Trumbull returning to do justice to the ringed planet, but in truth the Saturn encounter, while dramatic, is not even the most impressive element in the film, and doesn’t really improve upon anything in Kubrick’s masterpiece. While some of the spaceship effects are good, by far the best things about Silent Running are the convincingly rendered interior shots – the domes and vast, mechanized cargo bays - and the marvellously realised drones, all of which were operated by amputee actors.

Comparisons with 2001 rather miss the point, though. The earlier film was meticulously plotted and designed, with a logical basis for everything that occurs or is shown, whereas Silent Running functions better as a dreamily rationalised eco-parable. It’s all about conservation, ultimately, and the lengths one could or should go to in order to protect something utterly irreplaceable.

The film has been accused of being morally dubious, but I don’t go along with that. We’re not invited to sympathise with Lowell’s actions – even he seems rightfully appalled by what he has done – but merely to accept that, given the tremendous stakes, a good man might act in this way. After he has killed his colleagues, Lowell touches his conservation pledge, as if desperately trying to reassure himself that he has done the right thing. This is not a man with a clear conscience. And while he does end up saving one of the forests, he doesn’t save himself. In fact Bruce Dern succeeds in portraying Lowell as at least mildly unhinged from the very outset. Still, each time I watch the film I can’t help but put myself in Lowell’s position and wonder if what he does is in any way justifiable. One could argue that the stakes are artificially high – that in the real world it would never come down to a simple choice between murder and losing the last forest in existence. But setting up that kind of duality is one of the things that science fiction does rather well, and Silent Running does it as effectively as any SF film I know.

One final point: early in the film we’re told that the domed preserves were created around the turn of the century. Later, we learn that Lowell has been involved with the project for nine years, and was there from the beginning – thus neatly placing the action around 2009 or 2010. Thankfully, of course, in the enlightened world of the real 2010, we don’t have to worry about anyone cutting down forests any more, or the Earth’s climate going bananas.

Copyright Alastair Reynolds, 2010.