Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Asimov's - March 2015

I anticipated that I might struggle to keep up with these Asimov's reviews, and so it has proved, but nonetheless I do hope to keep doing them throughout the year, even if the lag between issue and review stretches ever further.

In these puppy-benighted times, it's good to return to Asimov's and be reminded that there have been, and continue to be, generations of SF writers quietly content to write the best SF they can, year after year, with no particular complaint or sense of outrage that "their" brand of SF isn't the one currently finding favour with the Hugo voters, or that they are somehow being excluded from glory by some imaginary cabal of "Social Justice Warriors".
Due to an unfortunate production error, the lead story - Suzanne Palmer's "Tuesdays" - suffered from having its first page missing from the print version of the magazine. All sympathy to those involved, and thanks to editor Sheila Williams for kindly supplying me with a PDF of the whole story. This is the kind of mistake that's bound to happen when you put out a magazine month after month, for year after year, and the wonder is that something similar didn't happen decades earlier. It's worth reading the entire story, though, as "Tuesdays" is a cleverly told piece which attempts something interesting with structure, beind told through a mosaic of fractured points-of-view, skipping around in time while commenting obliquely on the events surrounding an out-of-the-way diner not too far from a certain place in New Mexico where something may or may not have happened in 1947. I've quibbled about multiple points of view in the short format before, and I will again (see my thoughts on the final story in this issue) but "Tuesdays" gets away with it because the structural decisions are fully integral to the aims of the story, not simply bolted on to make the plot work. It's a good piece with a lovely payoff, and I'll be keeping my eye out for more work by Suzanne Palmer.

Kage Baker had a relatively brief SF career, spanning less than thirteen years between 1997 until her untimely death in 2010. In that time she achieved great popularity within the field, most notably for her Company stories. It takes some doing to say something new about time-travel - or at least give the impression of freshness, which is much the same thing - but Kage managed that, and the Company stories were justly celebrated. Now her sister Kathleen Bartholomew  is developing further Company stories based on the notes left by Kage, as well as the many conversations they shared over forty years. "Pareidolia" is an ingenious fable about the unintended consequence of good intentions, and - fittingly, for a time travel piece - its action spans the entire period from ancient Egypt up until the sixth century, with of course hints of data and communications to and from the future. It's an enjoyable piece, with a sustained and effective use of voice, dense with period detail, and it gets into some clever territory concerning visual perception and what can be best be described as "mind viruses". The central conceit, of an image that hacks the nervous system directly, reminded me a little of David Langford's Basilisk stories, but that's only a passing similarity.

If I had one lingering reservation, it would be that the story lacks a certain swerve or complication which might have been expected - it sort of proceeds smoothly from A to C via B, but it would have been nice if D had shown up. Perhaps the resolution is just a little too straightforward for the time travelling protagonist, with not enough difficulty or jeopardy involved. But that's a small complaint, and it's fine to see the legacy of Kage Baker being continued in such capable terms.

Kit Reed has been publishing SF since 1958, all over the genre map, and often somewhere off the edge off it. The sheer longevity of SF careers is something to be celebrated, I think, especially when writers like Reed, in their seventh decade of publication, are still capable of coming up something as incisive and affecting as "Military Secrets". It's a parable about loss - or more precisely about the limbo of those children whose fathers go missing in war, and who therefore are denied the bitter comfort of closure that a confirmed death would offer. These children are on an endless nightmarish bus ride, trapped in a kind of driverless tube, doubting that they will ever leave - they envy those children who at least know where and when their parents were killed, and who are allowed off the bus. It's a short piece, but no less powerful for that.

There's a thesis waiting to be written - not by me - on the pernicious influence of Joss Whedon on an entire generation of younger writers. With its tough-as-nails laconic space crew trading stories around a bar - some true, some lies, everyone with a human-interest backstory - I got a distinctly Whedonesque vibe from "Twelve and Tag", the novella by Gregory Norman Bossert. Perhaps it's just me, but I could easily have visualised this story as an extended episode of Firefly, or something similar. There's something about the dialogue, a certain quality of forced snappiness ... Apologies to Bossert if there is no Whedon influence, of course. Such grumbles aside, though, it's a nicely drawn piece which successfully conveys the impression of a grittily complex mid-term future, in which the outer solar system is being ruthlessly plundered for its economic worth. It doesn't really strike any new ground - Tiptree and Delany pretty much nailed this spacegrit mode forty-plus years ago, and over the last decade we've seen plenty of SF works explore the colonisation and exploitation of the solar system, but it's still enjoyably done.

"Holding the Ghosts" by Gwendolyn Clare starts out with a confusingly vague point of view, and then compounds things by scene-shifting into a different one on the second page. But it quickly becomes clear that these shifts serve a purpose, and the apparent vagueness of the opening paragraphs is in fact pin-sharp given the theme of the story, which is about multiple personalities inhabiting the same brain-dead body. It's the near-ish future and there's a process which enables scanned personalities to be uploaded into the neural matrix of surrogate bodies damaged at birth due to a medical error. There's a glitch with the technology, though, so that each personality leaves an impression of itself which hangs around when the next one is in control of the body. Pretty soon these "ghosts" start colluding with each other. There's nothing radical about the telling here - other than the "body" being the only constant viewpoint, the story's told in pretty conventional past-tense relaxed-prose SF terms - but it's effectively done nonetheless, and occasionally hits some high notes:

"One morning she sat up in bed, wide awake, as if the paling eastern sky spoke to her loud as an alarm clock."

The longest piece in the issue, and the only novella, is Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "Inhuman Garbage". It's a kind of CSI-type police procedural, set on the Moon in the future, and concerning itself with Lunar politics and cloning. It's another smoothly written piece, one that never loses the reader, but at the same time I confess that I didn't find it tremendously engrossing. There's a murder, and we're introduced to a set of protagonists, and we get some sense of the wider Lunar society and its mores. But there's a matter of fact flatness to the telling, a lack of ambition in the language, a paucity of invention, that left me feeling that I was reading something that had been written without any particular investment at the level of style.

"Ethan Brodeur looked at the information pouring across his screen, and let out a sigh of relief. The hardening poison wasn't one of those that could leach through the skin. He still had to test the compound to see if the poison had contaminated it, but he doubted that."

This is SF prose at the default setting; it gets the job done and in any context a few lines like this are no problem at all, but a whole novella told in such flat, affectless terms becomes quite grey and uninvolving - and that's largely what we get; there is no striking imagery, no really inventive use of language, no attempt to make us see and feel what living on a Lunar colony would really be like, given that we've all read such settings many times over. It's certainly not a piece that's going to leave you reeling with future shock, the way the cyberpunks tried to cram at least one eyeball-kick into every paragraph.

It's also told using the familiar structural conventions of the modern thriller novel, or indeed the modern detective TV show format, with the viewpoint shifting around as it needs to, rather than being kept tightly on one protagonist. Brodeur, the character described above, is merely a forensics specialist, rather than the main detective or the primary antagonist. Perhaps I'm too much of a purist, but (as I've mentioned in the earlier reviews) I'm always a little uneasy with viewpoint shifts within the context of short fiction, even in a longer piece like a novella. It's also worth mentioning that the telling is extremely leisurely - it takes six whole pages just to detail the initial crime and the on-scene interview. Because it's part of a larger series, too - I'm unfamiliar with the other stories and novels - we keep getting bumped out of context to be fed extraneous little asides about the functioning of the wider world and its legal and economic apparatus. Whose benefit are these info-nuggets for? Not the main characters, who are already embedded in this world.

In fairness I should probably add that while I went through a phase of my life where I gobbled up police procedurals and crime thrillers like they were going out of business, I'm no longer as fascinated by the form as I once was. So an SF version of a police procedural is going to have to work really hard to hold my interest. But - on the plus side - this is unambiguously SF, of a rather hard nature - all the technical details ring true, and feel well researched - and it never wrong-foots the reader.

(edited for minor spelling mistakes and typos)

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Space is Ace

While I crack on with the March issue of Asimovs, here's a brief mention of the fantastic new album by Public Service Broadcasting:

PSB are a pseudonymous duo based in London who play mostly instrumental music, assembling their pieces around historical voice samples, sound effects and so on. The Race for Space is their second album and in broad terms tells the story between Sputnik and Apollo 17, drawing heavily on NASA and British Film Institute archival material. All well and good; the music is inventive and varied, but the results could so easily have been glib, with the samples simply used to create a superficial sheen of space-age atmosphere, but it's far from that. The whole thing is assembled with meticulous care, almost a reverence, and a real respect for the grand narrative of the space program and the very human individuals who made it happen. It's hard to pick a favorite, but I'm very taken with "Gagarin", a driving funk workout which manages to celebrate both the heroism of the first man in space, and also hint at the sadness of his early death. "Go" is also splendid, with its recordings of Gene "failure is not an option" Kranz doing the rounds of the Apollo 11 flight controllers, asking each to give a go or no-go response.  But the whole thing is worth cherishing. It's a superbly inventive, uplifting piece of work.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

In Babelsberg

My short story "In Babelsberg", which originally appeared in Jonathan Strahan's anthology Reach for Infinity, is one of the finalists in the Locus awards. I'm enormously happy to have made the shortlist, and I wish the best of luck to all the nominees.

Here's a link to the complete set of finalists:


Thursday, 23 April 2015

The story behind Poseidon's Children

Here's a link to a short piece I wrote on the genesis of the whole Poseidon's Children sequence.


Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Forbidden Planet, Poseidon's Wake, Slow Bullets

With a new book due out at the end of the month, I ought to mention that I'll be signing Poseidon's Wake at Forbidden Planet, London, on the evening of April 30th.


Different people have different "rules" regarding signings. Generally the shop would like you to buy at least a new copy of the book, but I'm very happy to sign older editions if people bring them along. For the sake of the people waiting in line, I'll gladly sign three items at a time, but if you have more - and the line is still behind you - it might be an idea to go around more than once. I'll have to shoot off fairly promptly at 7.00, unfortunately, but while I'm in the shop I'm more than happy to chat, so don't hesitate to come along and ask me stuff.

There hasn't been much advance press on Poseidon's Wake, so I'll keep my power dry for now, but here is the book description as it should have appeared on the inside cover flap:

Two hundred years after the fall of Mechanism, human society has achieved a kind of stability. There are colonies beneath the oceans, throughout the solar system, and beyond: on the worlds of extrasolar systems. Vast hemirelativistic ships connect these colonies, travelling at half the speed of light. Or rather they would, if the ominous presence of the alien Watchkeepers had not led to an enforced moratorium on interstellar travel.

But when a seemingly impossible radio signal reaches the colony Crucible, everything changes: 

Send Ndege

It’s origin is unpopulated, unexplored space. No one could be there – at least, not if they travelled using human technology – so who could have sent it? How did they get there? And what use do they have for the disgraced scientist Ndege Akinya?

Finding the answers will require one of the greatest expeditions humankind has ever launched, a journey further than ever attempted before, conducted under the implacable scrutiny of the Watchkeepers.

But as a mission is prepared on Crucible, it turns out they weren’t the only ones to see the message – or its potential . . . 

Actually, due to one of those inevitable snafus, the wrong version of the flap text ended up on the final copies, mispelling Ndegi's name and mentioning such things as faster than light travel which never had any place in the intended text. These things happen, and the correct text will be substituted at the first opportunity. For my own part, I also managed to make an error in transcribing the epigraph, which will also be amended in future editions, although I don't think that error will be at all obvious to anyone not familiar with the original Edward Thomas poem.

Moving on...

Slow Bullets, my other book this year, will appear in June, but advanced word is already out and I've been blessed with some very kind comments from my peers.

“Alastair Reynolds’ new novella Slow Bullets has the scope of a much longer work (Edward Gibbon’s The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empires, say), the literary speed of the most rapidly hurtling bullet, and so many provocative scientific  and / or philosophical ideas that even Steven Hawking’s head might well spin with them. Moreover, Reynolds artfully compresses all these disparate elements into a portable trade paperback or a weightless e-file, the better to accommodate our busy reading habits and the more fully to entertain us.
“Let me also note that Slow Bullets posits a far-future situation akin to the one that we confront on planet Earth today, but leavens his fictional crisis with a hard-won grasp of human psychology and a down-to-the-ground optimism that bestows on its readers reasons for supposing our ‘dammed human race’ nimble enough to overcome our demanding real-world crisis du jour. A fine example of the true science fictionist’s art . . . ‘with a bullet,’ as the editors at Billboard Magazine  used to say.”
—Michael Bishop, author of A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire, And Strange at Ecbatan                                                                                                                        the Trees, and Transfigurations

“Alastair Reynolds is the world’s best writer of space opera. If you have any doubts, then read Slow Bullets.”
—Allen Steele, author of Coyote and Spindrift

“The writing is tight, the characters are well developed, and the story itself moves along at a cracking pace.”
Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Corner

 Slow Bullets  is classic science fiction, a space opera, a puzzle story, a character study, visionary science fiction, and a prayer for peace.  I see no reason why you should not love it.”
—Michael Swanwick, author of Tales of Old Earth and Dancing with Bears

“Alastair Reynolds weaves a tapestry of dark, dystopian societies in a tense, colorful narrative.”
New York Journal of Books

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

On the present Hugo mess and why I still want one.

The current unpleasant thing happening in the SF world - there's always something - is the hijacking of the Hugo award nominations slate by a group of vested interests with leanings to the extreme right. Neo-fascists isn't too strong a term. They're racist, homophobic and intolerant of anyone who doesn't subscribe to their ultra-conservative religious beliefs. I won't even begin to unpack the grisly complexities behind this, the Sad Puppies versus the Rabid Puppies, but if you're coming to this completely cold, here is as good a summary as any:


It's a vile, offensive stunt, cynically motivated, and one that does real damage to the reputation of the Hugo award. At the moment, within the constitution of the World Science Fiction Convention, there is only so much that can be done to limit the harm. Those who know the system better than me are trying to work out which is the best strategy for limiting the impact of the Puppy slate - whether it's best to attempt an honest ranking of the nominated pieces in each category, or simply vote "no award" in each slot. Unfortunately, the Puppies have more or less guaranteed to pull this stunt year after year unless their nominated stories pick up the awards. Presently it's not at all clear what can be done, while preserving the spirit of the Hugos.

I'll be honest - I've had a decidely mixed relationship with the award. As a young SF reader, I was drawn to books that had won the field's two big awards - the Hugo and the Nebula. They seemed like badges of merit that could be trusted. Of course I had no idea how these awards actually functioned. That only came later, once I'd entered the field as a writer and begun to understand something of the wider SF community and its mechanisms.

I always thought it would be great to win a Hugo or a Nebula. Technically, I've been a professional SF writer for twenty five years, although I'm not sure whether Interzone, where I made my first sale in 1989, would have been considered a qualifying market. Nonetheless, I got paid and soon began to try placing my stories and novels with other markets. There were times when I couldn't sell anything, and it still took a decade before I got a book deal, but at no point did I feel like the field was actively conspiring to prevent me getting ahead in my career. I just figured that I wasn't quite hitting the right marks. It never bothered me that I wasn't on the radar of the Hugo or Nebula awards. That, I hoped, would come later, if it came at all.

I did eventually get a Hugo nomination. That was in 2011, at the Reno Worldcon. It was for my story Troika, which I'd written three years earlier. I was stoked - absolutely over the moon.
As it would be my first Hugo ceremony as a contender, I made a real effort to smarten up. The evening was exciting. I remember waiting in the holding area before the ceremony proper, looking at the changing light over Reno as the sun went down. The sky was an intense lemon yellow, something I've only ever seen in the desert. I didn't really rate my chances of winning, but at the same time, I couldn't honestly dismiss them either. I was a bag of nerves as the novella category finally rolled around.

I didn't win. No biggie. I'd made it onto the ballot - that was all that mattered. Afterwards, I went to one of the parties running in one of the big hotel suites. The atmosphere was jolly and I enjoyed winding down from the tension of the ceremony. I hung out with the Locus crew. It was a relief that the whole thing was over, and my mind was turning to the long journey I had facing me the day after, and the early start that was necessitated.

I missed the 2012 Worldcon for some reason or other. In 2013 I made it to San Antonio. My wife was with me in town, and since she didn't have a membership, and rather than leave her on her own for the evening, I thought the best thing would be to skip the Hugos and go to see a film. As it was I fell soundly asleep in the cinema, so I'd probably have nodded off during the ceremony as well.

In 2014 I was again at the Worldcon, but I'd been involved in a starship seminar all afternoon (as you do) and once more couldn't make it to the ceremony. I went to the pub instead, catching up on the news as it filtered through via social media and the live television feed running in the pub.

I hadn't gained another nomination since Troika, and far from heralding a long and glorious imperial phase of hitting the Hugo ballots with ominous regularity, I'd actually done progressively worse in each successive year. My stories were not only failing to make the nominations, they were sliding ever further below the cutoff! I'd be lying if I said this didn't dampen my enthusiasm for the Hugos just a wee smidge. The truth is, lots of writers get one nomination in their careers. Be grateful for that, I suppose. Plenty of writers better than me have never had a nomination at all.

Enthusiasm dented, though, I didn't bother voting after 2011. I didn't feel sufficiently well informed about the state of the field to do so. My reading was falling ever further behind the curve, and besides - I felt that if I had horses in the race, or at least potential horses, it wasn't really my job to vote. I wouldn't vote for myself, but equally I didn't want to vote myself off the ballot by unwittingly nudging another piece ahead of my own.

That said, it never occurred to me that there might be some kind of institutional conspiracy going on to keep the likes of me off the ballot. And even if I had suspected that - well, screw it. Life's too short. Move on and worry about something else.

 SF is about tolerance, inclusiveness - the accepting of other viewpoints, up to a certain point. Or at least, it used to be. Most of us involved in the field, I think, still want it to be like that. Friendships are more important than ideologies. Art is more important than doctrine. The Puppies can't see that, though. A handful of middling talents haven't yet managed to get their works on the slate through orthodox means, so they've elected to game the system.

The odd thing is - or perhaps it isn't odd at all - is that the ongoing trouble with the Puppies only makes me feel more warmly disposed to the Hugos. I certainly should have voted. It would have taken a lot more of us to outweigh the block voting effect of the slate ballot, but that's no argument not to have tried. As I've mentioned earlier, I've been striving to read a lot more short fiction this year, and I already feel a lot better informed about the state of the field in 2015 than in recent years. And yes, while the Hugo award has been damaged - it's hard to see a way around that, irrespective of what happens later in the summer - I would still like to win one eventually. I hope the award can weather this storm, and continue on as it should be - a prized part of SF's collective heritage.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Bad Science - 7th April

If you're in the area tomorrow, why not pop along to the Edinburgh Science Festival? In company with Doctor Stephen Brusatte, I'll be talking about the science - good and bad - in Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park.

Event info and tickets: