Thursday, 7 September 2017

NCC 1701

Although I wouldn't presume it's of interest to the majority of my readers, I enjoy making models of things. Just as I can't walk past a record shop (and can't go in one without making a purchase) so I'm a sucker for any model shop/hobby store type establishment. Give me a craft knife, a cutting board, some glue and a CD or two to while away the hours and I couldn't be happier. I suppose it goes back to childhood fridays after school, when a trip to Bridgend market would often see me returning home with the treat of an Airfix kit ... usually reduced to a sticky, finger-printed blob by the end of the evening. Yes, we really knew how to live it up in the old days.

During a trip to Manchester about seven years ago, I snuck off for an hour or two and returned to the hotel with a large and expensive box containing a plastic kit of the USS Enterprise.

As I've mentioned before, I have a particular "thing" for the Enterprise. It makes no sense from an astronautics/physics point of view (what the hell are those warp engines doing so far from the nominal center of gravity?) but it sure does look cool, and this lifelong love affair was firmly cemented by about the age of seven, when I had the Aurora kit of the original version of the ship. I loved everything about the original Enterprise and was heartbroken when one of my warp pylons snapped off (it could nae take the strain, clearly). Later I had the Aurora kit of the Klingon cruiser which suffered a similarly terminal neck-break. Clearly I wasn't destined to possess a Star Trek spaceship for any length of time.

Decades later, and that itch hadn't been adequately scratched, as I still felt the need to own an Enterprise. If I was going to have one, I reasoned, it might as well be big ... and the Polar Lights model, shown above, is certainly on the large side, being 35 inches long when assembled. At the time of purchase, the only kit offered was the one for the "refit" version as featured in the films, and truth to tell I still preferred the clean, art-deco lines of the original ship. Still, it was an Enterprise, wasn't it?

Early on in the build, I decided to light the model from inside. This entailed adding a lot of LEDs and black light-masking, with silver foil to help the light bounce around inside.

In the end the model used about 50 LEDS of various colours, none of which can ever be replaced.

I also added some etched details, including tiny crew figures, barely visible through some of the windows:

I worked on the model during odd evenings over the last few years, but it was only this year that progress really came together. Most of the work involved fitting LEDS, and then laboriously ensuring that no light was spilling out where it shouldn't. For instance, here's the saucer section, fixed together but still being tested and light-blocked:

Finally, the various parts of the model were ready to be assembled and painted. One major step is to cover almost every square inch of the thing with decals, simulating the complex patchwork of shades on the film model. Adding these was very long-winded, but an oddly therapeutic and satisfying process. Finally, the decals for the name, registry number, and so on, were added over the top - literally hundreds of these, since every phaser port, photon torpedo launcher, airlock, etc, has a decal.

At last the model was ready for final finishing, and here it is from another couple of angles compared to the shot at the top of the page.

The biggest pay-off, for me, is when the lights are on. Here's a shot of the overall ship, and a close-up of the shuttle bay.

And the upshot of all this work is that I've formed a very strong appreciation for the refit Enterprise ... to the point where I think I now prefer it to the original version. I think it's a truly beautiful and iconic design, one of the great televisual/cinematic starships. Never mind that it makes no sense!

I hope some of you enjoyed this somewhat off-beat interlude.

Sunday, 3 September 2017


Walter Becker, felt tip sketch. 2012

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

That's great! It starts with an earthquake,
Birds and snakes, an aeroplane;
Lenny Bruce is not afraid.

Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn.
World serves its own needs, don't mis-serve your own needs.
Speed it up a notch, speed, grunt, no strength.
The ladder starts to clatter with fear of fight, down height.
Wire in a fire, represent the seven games
In a government for hire and a combat site.
Left her, wasn't coming in a hurry
With the furies breathing down your neck.

Team by team reporters baffled, trump, tethered crop.
Look at that low plane! Fine, then.
Uh oh, overflow, population, common group,
But it'll do. Save yourself, serve yourself.
World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed.
Tell me with the rapture and the rev-'rent in the right, right.
You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light;
Feeling pretty psyched.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

The Weight of Words

Another new story of mine appears in "The Weight of Words", edited by Dave McKean and William Schafer, and published by Subterranean Press.

Quoting from the publisher's description:

The consummate artistry of Dave McKean has permeated popular culture for more than thirty years. His images, at once bizarre, beautiful, and instantly recognizable, have graced an impressive array of books, CDs, graphic novels, and films. In The Weight of Words, ten of our finest contemporary storytellers, among them the artist himself, have created a series of varied, compelling narratives, each inspired by one of McKean’s extraordinary paintings. The result is a unique collaborative effort in which words and pictures enhance and illuminate each other on page after page.

Like the other authors, I was sent a portfolio of Dave McKean's phenomenal and unsettling images to examine and hopefully be inspired by, and one in particular leapt out at me and immediately suggested both a story and a setting. My piece, Belladonna Nights, is set in the same distant future as House of Suns, and also features Campion from that novel. For me it was deeply enjoyable to re-immerse myself in that universe and explore some of the more arcane traditions of the Lines.

Here's a short excerpt:

I had been thinking about Campion long before I caught him leaving the flowers at my door.

It was the custom of Mimosa Line to admit witnesses to our reunions. Across the thousand nights of our celebration a few dozen guests would mingle with us, sharing in the uploading of our consensus memories, the individual experiences gathered during our two-hundred thousand year circuits of the galaxy.

They had arrived from deepest space, their ships sharing the same crowded orbits as our own nine hundred and ninety nine vessels. Some were members of other Lines—there were Jurtinas, Marcellins and Torquatas—while others were representatives of some of the more established planetary and stellar cultures. There were ambassadors of the Centaurs, Redeemers and the Canopus Sodality. There were also Machine People in attendance, ours being one of the few Lines that maintained cordial ties with the robots of the Monoceros Ring.

And there was Campion, sole representative of Gentian Line, one of the oldest in the Commonality. Gentian Line went all the way back to the Golden Hour, back to the first thousand years of the human spacefaring era. Campion was a popular guest, always on someone or other’s arm. It helped that he was naturally at ease among strangers, with a ready smile and an easy, affable manner—full of his own stories, but equally willing to lean back and listen to ours, nodding and laughing in all the right places. He had adopted a slight, unassuming anatomy, with an open, friendly face and a head of tight curls that lent him a guileless, boyish appearance. His clothes and tastes were never ostentatious, and he mingled as effortlessly with the other guests as he did with the members of our Line. He seemed infinitely approachable, ready to talk to anyone.

Except me.

The book (as far as I can tell, only the trade edition has not already sold out) may be ordered from Subterranean Press:

Or PS Publishing:

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Extra, extra

I'm very pleased to have a new short story in this excellent-sounding new anthology featuring a fine line-up of writers, edited by Nick Gevers.

Here's a description of the book:

Among the brilliant visionary scenarios in Extrasolar: military antagonists meet in the atmosphere of a gas giant; gifted children hijack a starship to search out a new home; a superjovian world yields mysterious and much-coveted gemstones; aliens find our solar system disconcertingly paradoxical; a feminist SF writer of the Seventies crafts liberating exoplanetary dreams; the habitats aboard a gargantuan spaceship cater to the needs of truly exotic aliens; and scientists eagerly seeking exoplanets confront a devastating truth. And then there are songs of home and far away and bitter exile; intelligence calling to intelligence across light years and species barriers; utterly immersive dives into perilous planetary atmospheres; brave responses to enigmatic messages from the stars; a machine embracing a Gothic destiny; and a truly different kind of space opera.

And here's the list of stories:

  • Holdfast – Alastair Reynolds
  • Shadows of Eternity – Gregory Benford
  • A Game of Three Generals – Aliette de Bodard
  • The Bartered Planet – Paul Di Filippo
  • Come Home – Terry Dowling
  • The Residue of Fire – Robert Reed
  • Thunderstone – Matthew Hughes
  • Journey to the Anomaly – Ian Watson
  • Canoe -- Nancy Kress
  • The Planet Woman By M.V. Crawford – Lavie Tidhar
  • Arcturean Nocturne – Jack McDevitt
  • Life Signs – Paul McAuley
  • The Fall of the House of Kepler – Ian R. MacLeod
  • The Tale of the Alcubierre Horse – Kathleen Ann Goonan

The book is available to purchase from PS Publishing. More information here:

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Five Medical Memoirs

Recent reading included five autobiographical books with a common background in medicine. I found them all equally compelling and fascinating. Two of the authors are now deceased.

Full disclosure: I first encountered Paul Kalanithi's book as part of the reading for the 2016 Royal Society science book prize. Although the book wasn't one of those to make the final shortlist, I still found it to be a powerful and affecting piece of literature, not least because Kalanithi did not live to complete his own manuscript. On the basis of this book, he would have been a very gifted medical communicator, writing engagingly and lucidly about his chosen profession of neurosurgery. What makes the account striking and perhaps unique is that the still-young Kalanithi was himself diagnosed with lung cancer, the diagnosis, treatment and eventual outcome of which is treated with unflinching honesty. It's commonplace to talk about the courage of cancer patients, and perhaps not always helpful, but when Kalinithi eventually returns to the gruelling demands of neurosurgery, it's hard not to feel admiration at his mental and physical fortitude, knowing full well the likely progression of his disease. The book was eventually completed by his wife, Lucy Goddard Kalanithi.

Henry Marsh is a brain surgeon who has achieved a modest degree of celebrity thanks to television appearances. His two memoirs, published over the last few years, document the ups and downs of his career and his transition - sometimes uneasy - to a life of somewhat discontented retirement. Along the way he works to assist neurosurgical colleagues in the Ukraine and Nepal, not always with entirely positive results. Throughout the memoirs, Marsh is tormented by difficult ethical considerations, constantly balancing the risks of surgery against the likely outcomes and the anticipated quality of life.

Near the end of the second book, Admissions, Marsh makes an impassioned case for right-to-die legislation. It makes for uncomfortable and challenging reading, but few professionals will have been confronted with the actualities of end-of-life care and mortality as often as a brain surgeon, and it is hard not to be swayed by Marsh's case.

Westaby is a heart surgeon and a friend of Henry Marsh, and despite their rather different backgrounds, there's a distinct similarity of tone and surgical methodology running through the writings of both authors. They have each come up through the NHS in the last forty years; both bear witness to the triumphs and failures of that organisation; both seem at times to be righteously enraged by the slow accretion of bureaucracy and privatisation, choking and fragmenting the very institution they both served and loved. Both surgeons seem driven to form a personal, human connection with their patients, over-joyed when procedures work well, intensely saddened and troubled when the outcomes are not as positive. They are about as far from the image of the cold, detached physician as it is possible to imagine.

I adored the writings of Oliver Sacks - I read almost all of his popular books  - but found this autobiography almost too painful to approach in the immediate aftermath of his death in 2015. After two years, I felt I could return to it, and it's a glorious capstone to his writings, candid and generous in equal parts. Sacks' life has always been a thread in his medical stories, and if you have read Uncle Tungsten, his earlier autobiographical account of his intense love of chemistry, you will pick up on a certain amount of common ground as Sacks relates his upbringing in a bustling, loving Jewish household in London, surrounded by encouraging parents, devoted aunts and uncles, bright siblings and an environment of intense intellectual stimulation. Sacks moved to North America to pursue his interests, and the early chapters of the book - illuminated by his long, discursive diary entries and letters home - are a colourful snapshot of a time now past, during which Sacks indulged his deep fascination with motor bikes and champion weightlifting, while finding his way in the gay communities of the early nineteen sixties. Along the way, we revisit the fascinating and tragic story of the post-encephelitic patients, recounted in the book Awakenings, and the Robin Williams film of the same name. Sacks was clearly impressed with Williams's depth of engagement in the part, achieving an chameleon-like mimicry of both the patients (thanks to visits to clinical facilities) and Sacks himself, whose mannerisms Williams began to imitate in an almost subconscious fashion. At the time of the film I assumed that Williams bore no resemblance to the real Sacks, but period photos put me right: the casting was uncanny.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Elysium Fire and a new title for The Prefect

I'm pleased to be able to announce that my next novel will have the title Elysium Fire. Actually the title has been out there for a little while courtesy of various online listings, but at least now I can confirm it (sometimes provisional titles do escape out into the wild) and also offer up the cover artwork, concerning which I'm very happy.

This is a direct sequel to 2007's The Prefect, and although it's been a decade since I completed the earlier novel, the action in this book begins only two years after the events of the first. Although it features the same settings, organisation and main characters of the first, it concerns itself with an entirely different story and is intended to function as a standalone book, requiring no prior knowledge of The Prefect.

While my editor and I were discussing title options for this new novel, none of which seemed to follow on organically from the first, I made the not entirely flippant suggestion that, given the chance, I would jump at the opportunity to retitle The Prefect. Although I still liked the book, over the ensuing decade I'd come to feel that it was one of my weaker titles and was particularly problematic from the standpoint of establishing the idea of the Panoply stories forming a sort of universe within a universe. So, once we had begun to settle on a title for the new book, thoughts turned to the possibility of a fresh identity for the older one, and after some deliberation this is the result:

Obviously I am keen that no one should mistake this for a new novel, so the intention at the moment is that the original title will feature prominently as part of the description on the rear cover (this will be a paperback reissue) while the front cover will have a removable sticker clearly identifying the nature of the book. Online descriptions will also strive to make it clear that this is not an original work, and I'll aim to get the word out at all opportunities between now and the re-issue.