Monday, 30 November 2015

Chasm City sketches

A sort-out of an old box turned up a notebook containing sketches and thoughts toward what eventually became Chasm City, my second novel. The notes were written - to the best of my knowledge - in early 1999. By that point I had already completed one draft of the book, but much of the sleeper ship subplot - Sky, the grubs and so on - was absent from the first version. These sketches were done as I thought my way into the more complex story that eventually figured in the final book.

Cross-section through Chasm City

Canopy structure and cable-car

Grub starship

Grub ship interior cross-section

Flotilla sleeper ship

Monday, 9 November 2015

Star Wars

Over on File770, there's been some discussion about the way the SF community responded to Star Wars when it came out in 1977:

Personally, I loved Star Wars with every beat of my heart and still do. What's often forgotten is that, over in the UK, we didn't get the film until early in 1978. I saw it on my twelth birthday, in Swansea, and I can still recollect pretty much every detail of both the film and the drive to and from it along the M4, past the alien nightscape of Port Talbot. I remember sitting in the back of the car and hearing Kate Bush on the radio - "Wuthering Heights" had been released in January of that year, and had hit the number one spot by the time my birthday rolled around. I hadn't seen a picture of Kate Bush at that point, but - even at twelve - I was mesmerised by her voice, and in my imagination she looked exactly like Princess Leia, down to the ear-muff hairdo.

I already knew about Princess Leia, though, because - even though the film hadn't come out - we'd been tormented by an incredibly long build-up. My first hint of the film had come a year earlier, I guess, when a brief clip had been played on one of the news programmes. It was a space battle scene but beyond that it didn't leave a huge mark on me. Some while later, my frend Stephen turned up with a glossy magazine, one of those Sunday supplement giveaway things, which had a colour spread about this new film that was taking America by the storm. The main picture was of an X-wing being shot at by a TIE-fighter, and I immediately knew it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. The spaceships looked like the kinds of craft you'd seen in Space: 1999, but sleeker and even more dirtied-down. Real, basically, if such a thing were possible. And the rest of the article showed some of the characters, such as Darth Vader, Han Solo and so on. What struck me most forcibly, though, were the Stormtroopers. I didn't know what they were, except they looked like evil incarnate, with those skull-like helmets and their pristine white armour. There was something about that glossy white armour which made them about as terrifying as it was possible to imagine. I remember staring at them, trying to work out if they were robots or cyborgs or what. All I knew was that they were scary. From that point on, Star Wars had gone from something I was mildly interested in, to a burning, single-minded obsession. I had to know more. And I would.

Through that summer, I collected complete sets of both the blue and red-bordered bubble-gum cards. In that autumn, as I started at The Big School (Pencoed Comprehensive, where I still help out with creative writing workshops) I got hold of George Lucas's novel of the film. Yes, it was amazing, wasn't it, that George Lucas had not only found time to make this film, but also scribble down a novelisation of it? It was only later that Alan Dean Foster was credited, but not on my edition. It was a shiny paperback with a yellow cover and a set of colour photos stitched into the middle. It was a holy relic, as far as I was concerned, and when I accidentally dented one of the corners, I felt as if my world had ended. I also got the 7" disco-funk version of the Star Wars music:

Which was only the third record I'd ever bought, after the Jaws theme and Queen's We Are The Champions.

By early 1978, clips of the film had appeared on television many times and bits and pieces of additional merchandising were starting to appear. Stephen had the Marvel comics Star Wars editions, and we looked through them after school, gleaning clues. Slowly we were piecing together something of the experience to come. Nothing, though, could serve as adequate preparation for the film itself. From the beginning, it was different. There was the familiar 20th Century Fox intro, but - astonishingly - the music had an additional flourish, one that I'd never heard before, and all because Lucas had insisted on using the Alfred Newman fanfare:

Of the film itself, there isn't much to say that hasn't been said a million times before. The ships, the speed, the colour, the spectacle - it was all bigger, louder, faster, than anything I'd seen before. One thing sticks in my mind, though. No one had prepared us for the doors! The doors on the Death Star, the Falcon etc - they closed so quickly! For some reason that had never come across in any of the TV clips and yet it seemed so important to the texture of the film, adding a real sense of menace. You didn't want to be stuck under those doors when they came rocketing down.

I didn't have any Star Wars toys as such, but the day after I did what we all did in the seventies: I made it up out of Lego. I made Lego X-wings, Lego Tie-Fighters, and even arranged some boxes to create a makeshift "Trench" to send them shooting down. Later I would get more ambitious and make Lego Imperial Cruisers and even a Lego Millennium Falcon, complete with a row of white bricks at the back to simulate the exhaust glow. It was fantastic.

I saw Star Wars one more time, and then that was it - the long, long wait for the sequel. I didn't stop being obsessed with Star Wars. I read "Splinter of the Mind's Eye", Alan Dean Foster's sequel, imagining - as I think did a lot of us - that this was what the next film was going to be about, and in truth found it a bit boring and bewildering. It was with some relief that hints began to surface that the next film wasn't going to be like that at all. There were huge walking machines in it, and a battle on an ice planet. Great! When "The Empire Strikes Back" came out in 1980, I went to see it, again in Swansea, once with my family and the second time on the train with a friend. I thought it was brilliant, but it left me with a strange melancholic feeling at the end. I was 14 by then, and starting to read "proper" grown-up science fiction, but I could still enjoy Star Wars perfectly well on its own terms. By the time the next film came out, in 1983, I was seventeen, old enough to go to pubs, trying to write my own stuff. It was a different time, and although I enjoyed the speeder bikes and space battles, the magic wasn't quite there for me any more. But I still retained a basic affection for the films and their characters, and years later, almost by an effort of will, I forced myself to find some meagre crumbs of enjoyment in the rightly derided prequels. I'm still a Star Wars fan, you see. It doesn't bother me in the slightest that Star Wars isn't really science fiction, in the sense that we usually prefer to see it. Worrying about that is like worrying about whether ice cream is pudding. It is what it is - good in parts, silly in others, occasionally great and wonderful, and in that respect my view of it isn't hasn't shifted all that radically in nearly forty years. Give me a huge spaceship cruising in from upper screen right, give me that bass rumble, give me a tiny ship trying to outrun the larger one ... and I'm sold.

Oh, and I still like Kate Bush.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Asimovs - April/May 2015 double issue

As I alluded to in my review of the June issue, I had to set this one aside for the time being due to losing my physical copy of the magazine. I'd been reading it during a trip to Geekopolis, the big multimedia comvention in Paris, and to the best of my recollection I must have set it down on a table during an interview and then left it there. Sheila Williams, the editor of Asimov's, very kindly sent me a pdf of the edition but that brought its own complications. I could only read it on a laptop, and that meant the occasions when I normally read Asimov's - bedtime, bus rides, train rides etc - were out of the question. It took me longer to get through than normal, not helped by the double issue containing much more fiction than the usual editions.

I also found - to my regret - that quite a bit of the fiction in this issue just wasn't to my taste on any level, but there were still a handful of stories I could get behind. I also decided to make a pragmatic call - if a particular story was turning into a serious struggle, I gave it two or three goes before abandoning it.

 Unfortunately - for me, anyway - the lead story in this issue, "The New Mother" by Eugene Fischer, was one of those pieces I couldn't finish. I did try. It's an extremely lengthy account of the emergence of a strange new sexually transmitted pandemic that gives rise to diploid eggs, allowing for "virgin" births. It's competently told - there's nothing clumsy about it on a line by line or even page by page level - but the net result is, to my eyes, dull, diagrammatic storytelling, propped up by lengthy infodumps in the form of article excerpts. If you've ever wondered how the American medical system would respond to the kind of pandemic outlined in the story, it's probably accurate enough in its imagined details, but despite two goes I couldn't get more than a few dozen pages into it. I wasn't engaged by the journalist protagonist, her situation, her travels, the dull-but-credible dialogue. The stuff I want from short science fiction - colour, pace, weirdness, estrangement, invention, language, mood ... it's all absent here. Sorry.

Onto "Day Job" by the respected veteran author Tom Purdom, whose work I've enjoyed in the past ... but not here, I'm afraid. Following on the heels of "The New Mother", it's another story which has a kind of plausible-but-dull "TV Movie of the week" feel to it. It's all very grey and uninvolving, with a pointlessly large cast of characters and viewpoints, but no real sense of place or texture. It's just dialogue, action, dialogue, action, all the way through. It's about some kind of psychological retraining scheme allowing borderline sociopaths to function in the normal workplace ... I think. But again I gave it two goes before my eyes glazed over.

It's a blessed relief to turn to the Swanwick/Frost collaboration. Michael Swanwick (along with Allen Steele, who also has a story in this issue) provided a kind endorsement for my story "Slow Bullets", so feel to free to disregard my opinion, but "Lock up your Chickens..." is what I want from short science fiction, in that it's weird, colourful, different, does significant things with voice - while being incidentally laugh-out-loud funny - but it's also the kind of story that immediately offers reassurance that you're in the hands of writers who know what they're doing, who know how to sustain narrative interest, handle pace and so on. It's a kind of depression-era tale of itinerant con-men, H'ard and Andy, and I enjoyed it entirely on its own merits, completely oblivious to the fact that the characters are an affectionate take on the personalities of the real writers Howard Waldrop and Andy Duncan, something I only learned when I shared a panel with Michael Swanwick at a recent convention. It's not groundbreaking stuff, it's not going to storm the awards shortlists (I think) but it's fun and funny and technically assured.

Just when things are looking up, we come to "Paul and his Son" by Joe M. McDermott, which I'm afraid I couldn't get on with at all. I read it twice, too, from beginning to end. It's all over the place. Set a decade or two from now, I'd guess, it's about a father who's come up through the era of global over-medication, and now there's a kind of backlash, in that the next generation are having to make their way into the world without being medicated ... and the story hinges on the father's efforts to track down an illegal, imported drug which he thinks will make life easier for his son. The son, incidentally, is also called Paul - a pointless, confusing complication which serves no purpose at all, other than to have the reader constantly backtracking up a line or two to see which Paul is being referred to. The narrative voice is that of the older Paul, but it's tonally inconsistent, and unfortunately quite clumsily written, with too many commas, sub-clauses and rhetorical questions. The story proceeds to an underwhelming conclusion, and I'm sorry to say it's one of the weaker pieces of short fiction I've encountered in my recent reading.

My friend and one-time collaborator Liz Williams delivers a short but vivid vignette in "The Marriage of the Sea", which like much of Liz's fiction straddles the Vancean border between science fiction and fantasy, preferring to leave much unexplained. This piece deals with a sacrificial ritual that takes a wayward turn, and there's not really much more to be said other than the writing is sharp and descriptive, with Wiliam's usual control of language. I particularly liked "an air of ghastly festivity", but you'd need to read the piece to get the context.

I've long enjoyed Robert Reed's work, both at novel and shorter length. He's extraordinarly prolific, and if his stories don't always light a spark, they're always delivered with a certain panache, a certain minimum level of competence, and you can be sure that they'll embed at least one or two very clever insights. "What I Intend" probably isn't classic Reed but it's reliably interesting and insightful, offering a breathtaking new take on the age-old question of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Reed revisits the famous "Wow" signal, then spins off from that to speculate that there might be "Wow" signals going on all the time, if only we had the capacity to detect them, and then goes a step further to come up with a genuinely original, bracing and bleak idea of What It Might All Mean.

Anna Tambour's "The Gun Between The Veryush and The Cloud Mothers" starts off intriguingly enough, with a potentially evocative off-world setting involving a low-tech tribal society but with a lingering sense that there's some sort of science fictional premise lurking not too far away. But it soon shifts viewpoint (why?) and gets bogged down in interminably dull stuff involving priests and acolytes and lots of made-up names, and I'm afraid I found it impenetrably dull and earnest, and was not able to get very far into it. I don't demand that a story grab me on the first line, or even the first page, but something's got to give me a reason to keep turning the pages and simply getting to the bottom of someone else's worldbuilding, no matter how intricate or thought-through, isn't going to do it. I've said it before in earlier reviews, but I don't understand why so many writers seem intent on using multiple points of view in short fiction, even at novelette or novella length. What works in a novel works against the effectiveness of short fiction.

Bloody hell, I sound harsh, don't I?

"Willing Flesh" by Jay O'Connell isn't anything exceptional, but at least there's only one point of view, and the tone is perfectly suited to the material. It's a clever premise: a fat dude signs up for a dodgy weight-loss program that involves much more than he bargained for. Like all these things, it starts well, then goes off the rails. There were some odd dialogue glitches in this pieced where I found it hard to determine who was speaking, but that's a small observation. The story doesn't have a knock-out ending but it's enjoyable enough because it's not trying to do nine zilllion things at once.

I enjoyed "How to Walk through Graveyards in the Post-Digital Age" by Fran Wilde rather a lot, without quite being sure I got to the bottom of it. There's some really smart, inventive stuff in this story, which blends the after-effects of post-war cybernetic surgery (involving some nasty but plausible speculation about memories being deleted or suppressed for military security reasons) with what might - just - be an actual, honest to god ghost story. I don't mind not getting everything on a first pass through a story, provided the writing gives me the assurance that there are additional levels, and in this case the piece has that necessary sheen of competence.

"The Sentry" by Frank Smith also deals with the after-effects of war, but in this case the premise struck me as much less plausible. It's the twenty fifth century, supposedly, and we're out in the solar system, where the moons of Saturn, such as Tethys, have been terraformed (good luck with that, I was thinking). It's a quiet piece, in its way, dealing with a veteran of the war and his reactions to a violent but innocent event in a domestic context - the family dog mauls a rabbit - but the telling, and the details, are such that the story could easily be transplanted to 2015 with very little effort, all the more so because we're told that, despite it being the twenty fifth century, people still watch baseball and use the commonplace American slang of the present day.

Allen M Steele's "The Children of Gal" is the long concluding piece in this issue, and it's very much in the tradition of classic SF stories such as Clarke's "Against the Fall of Night", in that we start with an insular, cut-off society that does not properly understood its origins or nature, and a protagonist breaks away from the immediate confines to get a better understanding of their place in the universe. Steele is too much of an old hand to put a foot wrong here, and from the outset we're given a reason to keep turning the pages. In its way, it starts off from a similar place to the Anna Tambour story, but Steele holds his focus on one character and gives us a reason to care about their immediate predicament. In this case, the boy's mother has been shamed and exiled after claiming - against the accepted rules of her island culture - to have seen a light moving through the sky. Of course we're intrigued, and when the mother returns from her exile - impossibly, it seems - we follow the protagonist as he comes to a richer apprehension of the nature of his world. Once the mother returns, there's surprisingly little jeopardy, and - as the protagonist meets the beings responsible for that moving light - things begin to creak a little under the weight of exposition. Oddly, I didn't much care. Perhaps it's because the story moves so smoothly, or simply that Steele's voice is so engaging, that it doesn't really matter that at least half the story simply consists of the protagonist being shown and told exciting stuff. This story, incidentally, is part a larger narrative that Steele is developing, but it reads satisfyingly enough on its own terms.

So there you are - the April/May double issue. I disliked rather more of the stories than I expected to, but on the upside, there's still some good, solid stuff here and I went on to be rather more appreciative of the June issue.

Friday, 23 October 2015


Looking down Nevsky Prospekt, St Petersburg, on a cloudless late summer evening.

So I went to Russia, and it was great.

I was invited to be a guest at the Saint Petersburg Science Fiction Assembly, a small but friendly gathering of fans taking place in mid August. It came at the end of an exceptionally busy summer for me, the culmination of a year in which, at one point at least, I had been working on three novels at the same time. By August I had thinned that down to just the one novel, but I was still far from done with it and I left for Russia with considerable trepidation, aware of the work ahead of me between then and the end of September. I took a laptop and vowed to come back with ten thousand words of new material by the end of the trip.

My wife travelled with me to Saint Petersburg and we were both made very welcome by the Russian fans. Nataly and Nikolay met us at the airport on a glorious sunny afternoon, and I felt immediately at ease as soon as were in their company. The gathering actually took place a long way from the city itself, but we had been told as much and it wasn't any surprise when we ended up taking a lengthy car journey into the beautiful wooded countryside, both of us seeing Russia for the first time. My wife had passed through Moscow airport on her way to Mongolia once, but I'd never set foot within the borders of Russia, despite very nearly going on a school trip to the USSR in the late 1970s. Here we were, decades later. Our venue was the "Raivola", a kind of holiday camp, with huge chalets and a very impressive central building where we ate and did all the talks and panels.

Your author ponders a particularly searching question from the audience. Look, you can tell it's Russia.

The Raivola (which my brain kept insisting on translating as "ravioli") had a great buffet meal set-up which meant that we were never in any danger of starving. In fact the main problem was eating too much, and despite the many paths winding around the grounds of the camp, I only managed one rather pathetic run during the whole trip. During our meals we were always made welcome by the Russian fans and the whole atmosphere was exceedingly relaxed and convivial. I did a few discussions and interviews, a reading (for which translated text had been made available ahead of time - a very good idea) and also sat in on one or two other discussions, not being shy of sticking my oar in when I recognised a book title or authour name amid the stream of Russian. My hosts took all this very graciously.

Friendly faces.

Your author makes a shameless bid for attention with one of his shiny Russian editions.

The Raivola trip had been in my thoughts for at least a year, but it was over all too soon, and before long we were on our way back to Saint Petersburg. Again we were very well taken care by our drivers Tina and (on the way back to the airport) Elena. The trip wasn't over for my wife and I, though, as we'd booked some extra days in the heart of the city, a destination we'd wanted to visit for many years, and as well as spending some extra time with Nikolay, a resident of Saint Petersburg, it was also a chance to meet my Russian editor Alexander Guzman.

My wife and I are big on art, and we'd long wanted to visit the Hermitage. I can safely say that it was everything we'd hoped it would be, times about ten, and although we went back for a second day, you could cheerfully spend a month in the place and not see enough.

Looking through an arch to the main building of the Hermitage

The General Staff Building is part of the Hermitage, located opposite the main museum.

Being fans of impressionism and post-impressionism, we were particularly drawn to the General Staff Building which - internally, at least - is considerably more austere than the main part of the Hermitage, but houses a totally breathtaking collection of some of the greatest paintings in the history of art.

Detail of Renoir's Young Woman With Fan.

We also visited the Russian museum, which was equally phenomenal. You couldn't do justice to it in a week, let alone a day. Oddly, though - and this also applied to the General Staff Building - once you were in, you couldn't get a coffee! Personally, as much as I love art, I need a sit down and a break after an hour or two of wandering galleries. Never mind, though, as Saint Petersburg was hardly lacking in cafes:

Contemplating the selection of cakes in a nicely understated establishment.
Another cake. So good to look at I hardly dared start eating it. But with a massive effort of will, I succeeded.
Eating and drinking was always a pleasure, and we dined out very well during our trip. Perhaps the most enjoyable meal we had in the city itself was on our first night, in a lovely, snug restaurant called "Maisha and Bear". It was brilliant. Caviar on toast to begin with (about seven pounds a head), followed by Chicken Kiev for my wife and Beef Stroganoff for me, all washed down with some rather nice local beer.

Beer was also on my mind when I met the SF Assembly fans again in a British-style pub not too far from the main railway station. It was really enjoyable. My wife and I also hooked up with Nikolay again for a lovely evening, and on another evening I spent a very enjoyable few hours with Alexander, who introduced me to the editorial offices where my Russian editions are published. After that, we went on something of a pub crawl, which was great fun. Thank you to Alexander, Nikolay and all who made our stay so pleasant.

With a couple of spare hours one afternoon, we took our chances with the Saint Petersburg metro system and went to visit "Grand Maket Rossiya", supposedly one of the top tourist attractions in the city. It's a huge version of Russia in miniature, with model trains and cars zipping around everywhere. It was crowded, and seemed very popular. Unfortunately we didn't have a chance to see it all but what we managed to look at was fantastically entertaining and I could have gladly spent a day there.

 I risked a shot of this Russian military facility:

Russian Bear taxiing.

 I've really only scratched the surface of our trip, but it was a really illuminating experience and we enjoyed every minute of it. I consider myself very fortunate to be in a position where I am invited to places like this, and treated so well. Thank you, SF Assembly, and thank you, SF fandom in general.

Subway entrance.

Poster for a stage version of The Master & Margarita.

ps - and what about those 10,000 words I promised myself? Not a chance!

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Asimovs - June 2015

At the start of the year I began reviewing 2015's run of Asimov's Science Fiction, but I was careful not to make any rash promises about delivering those reviews in anything like a timely fashion. My efforts to read the April/May double issue came acropper when I lost my copy of the magazine in Paris, and although editor Sheila Williams very kindly sent me a pdf of the issue, for various boring technical reasons, I can only read pdfs in my office - and I've had a novel to finish in the meantime. As it happens I'm just about done with the double issue but in the meantime I thought I'd skip ahead a month and do the June edition first.

With my own short fiction reading being so spotty in recent years - part of the reason I started this exercise - I came to this issue completely unfamiliar with any of the contributors, having not knowingly read anything by any of them before. As such, I'm pleased to say that I found it a generally strong issue, with a nicely varied selection of stories.

The lead story is "The End of the War" by Django Wexler, and it's military science fiction with a space-based setting. No, come back - it's actually pretty inventive, with an effective evocation of combat between different vessels equipped with advanced nanotech weapons. The war has been going on a long time:

The salvage isn't anything to write home about. It's a seventh-generation wetship, probably a destroyer. The second or third generation ships were profligate with materials - heavy metals, exotica, even organics - and are thus the most valuable targets for harvesting. By the seventh generation, resources were already getting scarce, and there's less worth digging out of the old hull.

There's nothing startling about the narrative choices made here, but the story's effective enough as it stands, if you can get past the overload of jargon and tech-talk. When I encounter a piece like this, though - told in the first person -  I'm more and more minded to ask myself - exactly who is being spoken to, and under which circumstances? I'm as guilty as anyone of making unexamined viewpoint choices in my fiction, but it's definitely something that preoccupies me more as I get older, and I can't help wondering how often these decisions aren't underpinned by any deeper considerations of form and intent, but are rather made on the spur of the moment, simply because a story feels like it'll work better one way than the other.

Henry Lien's "The Lady's Aquatic Gardening Society" is note-perfect in its evocation of the starched manners of high nineteeth century society. Dealing with an escalating feud between two almost equally dreadful women engaged in vicious social oneupmanship, I can't help wondering whether it owes something to the wonderful Mapp and Lucia stories of EF Benson.  The arch, comedic tone is very similar. But - although it doesn't become immediately clear until rather late in the story - it is science fiction, of a sort, and this tit-for-tat game eventually has (literally) world-changing consequences. If I've complained in previous reviews of a certain sameness of voice in many of these stories, that's not an issue here - the evocation of a certain ghastly social set is excellently done and sustained without a slip. If there's one problem with the piece, it's that the tone, once established, doesn't vary to any significant degree, leading to a certain monotony of effect as the story progresses. I also felt that the back-and-forth snidiness between the two main protagonists, while effective enough, wasn't quite as sharp and steely as it should have been. But these are minor quibbles and I enjoyed the piece very much.

"Mutability", by Ray Nayler, takes its time with some extremely indulgent scene-setting, almost the kind of leisurely opening you'd expect in a novel, but once it kicks into gear it's an effective and somewhat warm meditation on the limits of memory, especially (as is the case here) in the very long-lived. In this future society, medical longevity has granted people many centuries of life, but the "horizon" of their memories is a constantly moving front which only reaches back so far. It's a fascinating idea which I've seen touched on elsewhere, but Nayler makes it the focus of the story and the ramifications are explored to full effect. It's also a rather touching love story, with - gasp - a happy ending, of all things. I'd need to read it again to pick apart the degree to which coincidence drives the story, but that wouldn't be any particular hardship.

Krasnikov Tubes! Who doesn't love a science fiction story featuring Krasnivok Tubes, eh? Oh well, perhaps it's just me. Anyway, "The Muses of Shuyedan-18" by Indrapramit Das is a nicely  inventive piece about some human explorers studying an exceeding weird alien ecosystem on a distant planet accessed by aforesaid Tubes. Tani and Mi are two female members of this expeditionary team, sent out from their "exoprot" base into the field to conduct observations of the reproductive cycle of a vast and strange alien organism loosely translated as a "lifecastle". Against the norms of their exoprot culture, illicit lovers Tani and Mi rashly decide to have sex in their transparent camp-tent and are witnessed by the alien, which then commemorates the act by shaping humanoid sculptures or "mindcarvings" into its own flesh. The problem for Tani and Mi is that their act is now enshrined on the side of the alien, there to be discovered by another surveyor from their colony. The story plays out from this incident, with flashbacks to the early days of Tani and Mi's relationship. There's nothing terribly groundbreaking in the voice or narrative choices here, but the story's salted with many nicely evocative details, and manages to feel about as up-to-date as any first contact piece you're likely to encounter, proof if any were needed that there are always new stories to be told.

I struggled slightly with "Ghosts of the Savannah" by M. Bennardo. There's nothing clumsy or incoherent about the story, but throughout it I had the nagging sense that I was missing something obvious, and perhaps I was. On the face of it, it's a piece of fiction set in prehistoric times, involving a hunter-gatherer culture, and centering on two sisters - Sedu and the (I think) unnamed narrator - who are much better at running and hunting than the males of their village, and not terribly keen on the idea of settling down to a life of childbearing. When Sedu runs into trouble after sustaining an accident, the narrator has to lie to her village to protect her sister.  It could just be a straight evocation of ancient human times - the setting is clearly Africa, since there are gazelles, ibis and so on - but there are odd details which confound that simple picture. The girls are orphans, and we don't learn too much about their origins. They're afflicted, if that's the word, with Secret Voices and Secret Senses - but then so (it seems) are all the other members of the village. When Sedu breaks a bone in her leg, we're led to believe that she could be up and walking again in mere days. What are we to make of that? It's not just Sedu who has that seemingly magical capacity for rapid healing, but all the others. Is it just because they're tough, or is something else going on? Are they time travellers, who've forgotten their origin? Aliens? Is it the future, and their bodies are stuffed with self-repairing nanotech? I couldn't work it out, and when the narrator drops this seemingly out-of-place observation into the text:

Can the sharpest-eyed hunters see the tiny pinprick of our fire glimmering in the dark? Do they know what it means? Or is it just another distant mystery, another alien enigma in the night? A new phenomenon with no cause or effect, to be catalogued and named and avoided by every sensible human?

I found myself none the wiser. There's also an earnestness of tone to this piece which makes for somewhat dull reading - it's all too suggestive of a creative writing assignment - "imagine yourself in the mind of a prehistoric hunter-gatherer" -  lacking humour or zest or any real spark that jolts the senses. I don't want to be too critical, though, because it's unfair to dismiss a story on the basis of one reading, and it's entirely possible - probable, even - that I missed something that was will be glaringly obvious to other readers.

The last and best story in the issue, in my view, is the piece by Sarah Pinsker. Entitled "Our Lady of the Open Road", it's nothing more than an account of a few days in the life of a travelling rock band, in an era when actual live music has beem more or less squeezed to the margins by ubiquitous hologram playback technology. The band - a trio - are making their way through the backroads of Middle America in a much-loved but elderly touring van modified to run on cooking oil, and the story confines itself to their day to day hassles of finding food, keeping clean, fuelling the van and getting gigs in various scuzzy dives. What's great about this story is that, although the stakes aren't terribly high, it's told with such complete conviction and attention to detail that we do come to care about the future of the band, and when the lead singer has to make a difficult choice about the band's financial set-up, we're fully invested in her dilemma. It's full of nicely authentic details, too, such as the correct protocols for taking towels from hotel rooms. What stands out more than anything, though, is the affection that the band members feel both for each other and their van. It's also dead-on about a certain son of New Jersey:

Down at the other end, two blonde women stood facing the Bruce holo, singing along and swaying. He pointed in their general direction, and one giggled and clutched her friend's arm as if he had singled her out personally. Two guys sat on stools near the stage, one playing air drums, the other watching the women. The women only had eyes for Bruce.

I got where they were coming from. I knew people who didn't like his voice or his songs, but I didn't know anybody, especially any musician, who couldn't appreciate his stage presence.

Amen to that.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Slow Bullets and the Canopus Award.

A week or two ago I was very pleased to learn that Slow Bullets had been shortlisted for the inaugural Canopus Award:

I was asked not to release the news until the 100 Year Starship organisation had put out its own press release about the shortlisting.

Unfortunately, I missed an important detail. Slow Bullets had been nominated in the long-form category, and I failed to notice that the cutoff was for works longer than 40,000 words. Slow Bullets is actually a bit under 40,000 words, bringing it into the novella category as defined by such things as the Hugo award. We (my editors and I) actually worked pretty hard to make sure that was the case, as the original version of the story was quite a bit longer than 40,000. I was also keen not to concern my mainstream publishers by bringing out what would technically have been a novel from another press. Yes, I know these categories are somewhat arbitrary, but they do matter.

The 100YSS people were extremely good about this, and were happy to let the shortlist stand as it was, but I felt that in this instance it was necessary to draw a clear distinction between novella and novel, and allowing it to remain on the shortlist would have blurred that distinction. To that end, I've asked for the piece to be withdrawn. To reiterate, the fault was mine for not spotting the category glitch in the first place, and I'm sorry for any embarrassment it may have caused to either Tachyon Press or the 100 Year Starship organisation. In any case, it was very pleasant to have the nomination, and I wish the best of luck to the finalists in all the categories.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Tomislav Tikulin

Tomislav Tikulin is a Croatian artist who has just had his first book published, by SST press. If you've been collecting some of my limited editions and chapbooks, you'll have already encountered Tomislav's fine work on the covers of Troika, Thousandth Night and so on.

I liked Tomislav's work from the outset, and when SST asked me for a quote for the new book, I was happy to provide an endorsement, of which this is a partial quote:

"It's been my great privilege to see Tomislav's artwork illustrating my stories. So much contemporary fantastic illustration is meticulously rendered, but also rather sterile and unengaging, but Tomislav's work is the exact opposite of that, with a real sense of texture and emotional depth."

The hardcover book, divided into roughly two halves - SF and fantasy - is terrific, and an excellent showcase of this talented and versatile artist. If you doubt me, then I'd point you to the equally effusive endorsements by the likes of Peter Crowther, Christopher Golden, Eric Brown and Trevor Quachri. If you have any SF artbooks in your collection, this is definitely one for the shelf.

SST press: