Monday, November 24, 2014

In Other Words

Received in the post: copies of a Spanish anthology, Terra Nova 3, which includes a translation of my story 'The Choice'. Which reminds me that Future Fiction has just published a little ebook containing Italian translations of two short stories of mine, 'Gene Wars' and 'Rocket Boy'.

The ebook is part of a series run by Italian SF writer Francesco Verso to promote science fiction in Italy, where it's very much a niche-clinging genre. No one involved in the series gets paid; any profits are ploughed back into the next book. There's also an English version.

And of course, there are a few other collections of my short stories on Kindle, including Little Machines, Stories from The Quiet War, and Life After Wartime.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

An American Story

'The great thing about Dylan is that he is such an American story, and such an American artist. He’s an American in a more important way than the Beatles or the Stones are British. He is so identifiably American—and this comes across very well in the movie, and I think it’s one of the most important things about the movie.'
Don DeLillo in conversation with Greil Marcus after a screening of Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home.
Bob Dylan is the golden thread that runs through my novel Cowboy Angels. He never appears: he's in the air: a ghost, a breath, a vibration. Cowboy Angels is about America's dreams of itself; one of its sources was Greil Marcus's The Invisible Republic, which was about Dylan and the Band's Basement Tapes, and its relationship with what Marcus called the old, weird America. The country of dreams and myths recorded in old-time blues and country music before big-box retailers and Clear Channel and Fox News and the blipverts of the internet homogenised and leveled culture. I was lucky enough to live in America for a couple of years in the early 1980s, when the last traces of the old weird were still visible, if you knew where to look. That experience informed Cowboy Angels, where agents move through alternate versions of America in 1984, including our own, chasing dead men and deep conspiracies.

My publisher at the time tried to suppress the novel. Talking of conspiracies. It was a kind of cold-war paranoia thriller (it was structured as a thriller, at any rate), but it was also 'too science-fictiony' for their taste. It sprawled over their rigid notions of what genre boundaries should be, and what genre was supposed to do. I had to buy it back from them eventually, and was lucky enough to find a home for it elsewhere. It was published in 2007, four years after I wrote it, when talking of 'genre boundaries' already seemed so tired and old-fashioned - and how much more that seems now, when everything gleefully appropriates tropes from everything else without a thought of boundaries or obeisance to the keepers of the mirrors where alternate realities cross and mingle.

Saturday, November 15, 2014


 Image courtesy of ESA/ROSETTA/PHILAE/CIVA

Last week the European Space Agency landed a fridge-sized robot, Philae, on an actual comet. A tremendous and hugely exciting achievement that was compromised by the failure of various devices meant to firmly attach Philae to the surface, meaning that in the comet's vestigial gravity it bounced a couple of times and came to rest in a boulder field hard by the wall of a crater. With their lander stranded mostly in shadow and unable to top up its batteries with solar power, Philae's team raced to do as much science as possible, and in the last moments used Philae's hammer, drill and flexible landing legs to try to bounce it into sunlight. As of writing, it appears that Philae rotated by some 35 degrees but then ran out of power and is unlikely to awaken.

It's exactly the plot of those old pulp SF stories where a lone space adventurer tries to get herself into a jam using basic Newtonian physics - see, for instance, Isaac Asimov's 'Marooned off Vesta' or Poul Anderson's The Makeshift Rocket. And, substituting relativistic effects for Newtonian mechanics, it's also the crux of Interstellar, Christopher Nolan's blockbuster SF film I caught this week. Note - if you haven't seen it yet and intend to, SPOILERS AHEAD.

Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former astronaut turned corn farmer who's so cool he doesn't have a first name. In the film's dystopian near future, corn is the last major crop plant: all others have succumbed to disease; Earth has been turned into a dust bowl by what can't be called climate change for US marketing reasons; billions have died but all the values of small-town America have survived. The story kicks off when Cooper's bright daughter helps him realize that a poltergeist in her bedroom is actually a manifestation of alien intelligence. Decoding a message transmitted using gravity points them towards a massive super-secret NASA base that apart from the lack of sharks with frikking lasers on their heads is exactly like a Bond villain's lair. It's run by Cooper's old mentor, Professor Brand (Nolan's favourite father figure, Michael Caine who basically plays the same role here that he did in Children of Men, but without being permanently stoned), who despite the urgency of the project hasn't bothered to track down NASA's best former astronaut.

Clunky exposition reveals that aliens have set a wormhole in orbit around Saturn. The wormhole leads to a dozen worlds in another galaxy that might be suitable for colonisation - it's too late to fix problems on Earth because corn is about to be blighted by a rust that will consume the nitrogen in the atmosphere or some such nonsense. A dozen astronauts have been sent out to explore those new worlds; none have returned. Now there's one last chance to check out the last best hope - three worlds orbiting a supermassive black hole. Naturally, because this is such a critical expedition, Cooper is at once appointed mission commander despite not having flown for many years (not seen is the astronaut who, after years of preparation has been bumped).

So it's off to the black hole via Saturn with Cooper in charge of a four-person crew, including Brand's daughter (Anne Hathaway), leaving grandpa John Lithgow to look after Cooper's daughter and son and the farm. And as soon as the mission transits through the black hole, needless to say, it's in deep trouble.

The outer space scenes are gorgeous (if you can, you should see it, as I did, in IMAX), there are some cool robots and space hardware, a credible attempt to render the inside of a five-dimensional tesseract, and a great score by Hans Zimmer, and McConaughey perfectly renders the laconic heroism of those who work at the bleeding-edge intersection of hardware, human endurance and orbital mechanics. As in his Batman films and Inception, Nolan develops a complex multistranded story (co-scripted with his brother) that climaxes in a deftly orchestrated concatenation of swift intercuts, and he makes the human stories of Cooper's long exile from those he loves the heart of a film that's heralded as cleaving closely to scientific realism. Unfortunately, as in those previous films, Interstellar also aims for profundity and falls far short, with characters uttering lines no human was meant to speak about love, like gravity, transcending time and space, a ludicrous fistfight on an ice planet, and scientific bloopers and a story stretched thin over huge plot holes. Those three planets are orbiting a black hole but possess light and a modicum of warmth that can't come from the black hole's accretion disc because it was that active it would also fry them with radiation; at one point for plot purposes an astronaut is left alone on a spaceship for 29 years and doesn't go crazy, kill himself, or run out of food, air and power; because the plot requires hands-on exploring, there are no probes like Philae, and communications are mysteriously flaky, but not so flaky that the explorers can't pinpoint the landing sites of their predecessors; the trick that Cooper uses to communicate with his daughter across years and light years echoes that used in Contact; and the film's big reveal has been used in countless SF stories and novels.

Despite many homages that stud it - the best being an inversion of that famous air lock scene - Interstellar is no 2001: A Space Odyssey (I'm really looking forward to watching a new 70 mm print of that at the end of the month). Frankly, it's much more like 2010. But despite its many flaws it is a big gorgeous SF epic, and for all its pretension, bombast and abrupt slides into silliness it does possess what so much so-called hard SF lacks: a raw bruised beating human heart. And the ending, which I'm not going to give away, is, like the ending of brave little Philae out there in the lonely dark, quiet and lovely and touching.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Becoming A Thing

In the post today: bound proofs of Something Coming Through. So now the book has moved from being an electronic file to an actual artifact. After all the necessary corrections and final adjustments have been made to the text, the book will enter the queue at the printers (and the system that converts manuscript files into ebooks) and at some point in the New Year finished copies will appear. Meanwhile, bound proofs will be sent out to reviewers and booksellers as part of the signalling process that something new is coming through. In its own small way this is part of that signalling process too.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Postcard, 1914

Sent by my grandfather to my grandmother, while he was in an army training camp, 1914. Here's the reverse:

Friday, November 07, 2014

Mr Turner, I Presume

In Mike Leigh's new biopic, we're given an idea of JMW Turner's priorities from the outset. After a brief scene that situates him as a remote figure studying a Dutch landscape, he returns to his house in London, where he gropes his compliant maid, reassures his father, who acts as his manservant, that he was a safe distance from a fatal explosion much in the news, and heads straight for the easel. Artists, eh? Selfish buggers.

The film stitches together vignettes from the final years of Turner's life, showing him producing a series of masterworks,visiting sponsors, at home in banter and rivalry of the Royal Academy, and gradually falling in love with the twice-widowed Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey), the Margate landlady with whom he would live out his last years in Chelsea, growing ever more crankier and spurning his maid and his common law wife and daughters. Timothy Spall gives an award-winning performance of the artist as a huffing and grunting outsider with bulging eyes and pendulous lower lip. A lonely man armoured in gruff self-confidence, who only occasionally reveals his inner self - when he breaks down while sketching a prostitute after the death of his father, or the tenderness with which he sings, in a reverent but cracked baritone, his favourite Purcell aria.

There's no through plot, except that of Turner's increasing solitude and eccentricity as artistic fashion leaves him behind, he becomes, in the public eye, a caricature, and distances himself from almost everyone but his beloved Mrs Booth. You have to give yourself up to its flow, immerse yourself in its translucent depictions of English landscapes and riverlight. Leigh uses CGI to recreate the moment that Turner reproduced in The Fighting Temeraire, when a warship that fought at Trafalgar is towed down the Thames towards the breaker's yard. Turner's friends, out on the river with him in a skiff, remark on the end of an era; Turner is more interested in the steam tug towing the hulk, and sets it at the centre of his painting.

It's one of the moments when we are allowed a glimpse inside Turner's creative process. Otherwise, we see what he's sees, and see how he translates scenes onto the canvas, stabbing and sweeping with his brush, spitting on oils to make them flow into his great falls and flows of luminous colour, but the psychological process of creativity - of translation - remains unexplained. It's a romantic view of the creative genius: a remote, alien figure unable to form proper relationships because he is consumed by his art. But it's also how Turner happened to live his life, vividly captured in this long, meditative film, and beautifully shot by cinematographer Dick Pope in the style of Turner's paintings, full of misty white and gold. See it on the biggest screen you can find.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Book Birthday

Published today. Do try to avoid filing cabinets and misprints.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (17)

Chuck Palahniuk has a reputation as a high-concept satirist who unflinchingly explores extremes of human behaviour. Beautiful You, which takes aims amongst others things at every kind of feminism, chick-lit bonkbusters, consumer-society sex, and male fears of uncontrolled female sexuality, is definitely high-concept. But its satire falls woefully flat, and at times flirts a little too closely with misogyny.

Penny Harrigan, an ordinary and humble associate in a Manhattan law firm, and is wooed and won by billionaire C. Linus Maxwell. So far, so romance beach reading. But Maxwell has an ulterior motif: he wants to use Penny as a test-bed for his new range of sex toys, including Beautiful You, the ultimate in vibrators. After he dumps Penny, the Beautiful You range threatens to cause civilization to collapse as women abandon men and obsessively diddle themselves to death. Only Penny and a two-hundred-year-old sex guru can frustrate Maxwell's fiendish plans.

There's plenty of energy and invention in Palahniuk's apocalyptic vision. Women beg for batteries; sex toys are turned into weapons ('Flaming dildos continued to pelt down, dealing random death'); there's a vividly cartoonish climatic confrontation at a wedding. But as satire it's thin stuff. The characters are caricatures and mostly dislikable, the sex is graphically gynacological, but unlike, say, J.G. Ballard's clinical descriptions, it's also interminable, the sex guru seems to have wandered in from an unfinished Kurt Vonnegut novel, and the idea that women would become instant sex addicts is risible.

Straight men, frustrated and disenfranchised, turn into Paleolithic rapists, and the reaction of the gay community is summed up by a couple of joggers ('Let the gals have their fun!' 'I don't care of they never come back!'), but women come off far worse. Penny, about the only vaguely sympathetic character in this short novel, is a chick-lit cliche from the Mid-West caught between careerism and old-fashioned notions of marriage and family as she tries to make it in the carnivorous Big Apple, and despite some Learning and Growing she remains wedded to cliches of female fulfillment. The female autoerotic addicts are pitiable - Penny's mother is saved as if from substance abuse by the intervention of her husband and a male friend - and at every level female sexuality is shown to be determined by what men want and by their fear of losing control of it - let's not even get into the nanobot powered vagina lasers that update the concept of chastity belts. In short, nobody comes out of this well, including the author.

Friday, October 24, 2014



Down to the British Film Institute to see, as part of the BFI's celebration of science-fiction films, the premiere of what was billed as a Polish science-fiction movie filmed in Iceland, but which turned out to be something completely different. The European Space Agency commissioned director Tomek Bagiński to make a short SF film (link to YouTube because I can't embed it) to promote and celebrate the Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The premiere was the unveiling of this hitherto secret project.

 A Master (Aiden Gillen) and Apprentice (Aisling Franciosi) in the art of world-shaping look back to the beginning of humanity's great expansion, and the first spacecraft to probe the mystery of the origin of the most essential element for life on Earth. It's a swift little parable, rich in CGI and making good use of Iceland's primordial terrain and some of the amazingly detailed images of the comet, and the fusion of SF speculation and an actual space mission is an interesting new direction. The showing of the film was followed by a presentation by some of the scientists involved, a short talk by science-fiction writer Alastair Reynolds, a brief panel discussion, and a reception where I was disappointed to discover that none of the drinks were fuming comet-wise.

At the end of the 'Making of...' featurette, one of the pixel wizards who helped make the film muses that it's odd that the fantastic achievement of catching up with a comet, following it as it plunges sunwards from beyond Jupiter's orbit, and attempting to set a small spacecraft on its surface, needs a piece of fiction to catch the public's imagination. But what the film does is, like all the best science fiction, attempts to give the science - the vast distances, the mathematically precise manoeuvres and the alien cometscapes - a human context. It's a bit of a stretch to imagine that up the line, people will look back and pinpoint this particular mission as the hinge-point (especially as the brave little lander won't attempt its risky drift to the comet's surface until November, but given the mission's ambition, and its success at turning science fiction into the actual, this little bit of hubris is forgivable. It would be interesting, though, to try to frame the mission to the comet in a mundane, contemporary setting, rather than the abstraction of a free-floating far future. Its discoveries are, after all, adding to knowledge and speculation and wonder about the origins of the solar system and life on Earth right here, right now.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Hallowe'en Signing

Somewhere in a big crowd of horror authors, I'll be signing advance copies of Brazil and a clutch of other books, including the three portmanteau novels in the Zombie Apocalypse series, at Forbidden Planet in London on Saturday October 25th from 1pm.  Do come along!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Exit Strategy

Sometimes when I begin a novel I know where it begins. And sometimes I know where it should begin, after I've written what turns out not to be the beginning after all. As for what follows, I have several characters, an idea that entangles them, and an outline that always turns out be only partly compatible with what the characters want or need to do. That difficult middle bit, which is actually most of the novel's narrative, is written sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter, discovering the beats of the narrative as it unfolds.

It's not a way of writing a novel I'd recommend. It's an uncertain start-and stop-and-start-over business. It's a process of discovery that can lead to all kinds of inconvenient dead patches and false trails caused by trying to force the characters down a path until you realise they wouldn't have taken at all, if only you had listened to them. So then you have to backtrack until you discover where the paths diverged, and you start over from there. How much nicer it would be to know exactly where you are and where you have to go next at every point, to be able to fill your required word count every day and know that you are that much closer to the end! Instead, I write sort of first drafts that mix actual first-draft material with chunks of rewritten and repurposed stuff.  But it's the only way I know how to do it, and while the way points of the outline quite often evaporate or turn out to be in the wrong place, at least I always know where the end is, and what it looks like.

I'm getting close the end point of Into Everywhere, the sort-of-sequel (continued by different characters) to Something Coming Through. I can see the exit, and a strategy to get there is beginning to resolve. I've been playing a lot of Philip Glass while writing this one. Particularly the soundtrack of Powaqqatsi. Maybe the significance of that will become clear when I reach the exit.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Mysterious Boulders Of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko


This one, about 45 metres across, has been named Cheops.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Something Coming Through Coming Through

The other book I finished this year, out in February 2015. An experiment in writing about the continuous floating present - as if the future is pretty much like the present, but with the strangeness of incipient futurity turned turned up to 11. And with helpful aliens. Suitably weird cover by Sinem. I'll get hold of a better image at some point, to show how it wraps around the book.

Meanwhile, here's some blurb stuff:

The aliens are here. And they want to help.

The Jackaroo have given humanity 15 worlds and the means to reach them. They're a chance to start over, but they're also littered with ruins and artifacts left by the Jackaroo's previous clients.

Chloe Millar works in London, mapping changes caused by imported scraps of alien technology. When she stumbles across a pair of orphaned kids possessed by an ancient ghost, she must decide whether to help them or to hand them over to the authorities. Authorities who believe that their visions point towards a new kind of danger.

And on one of the Jackaroo's gift-worlds, the murder of a man who has just arrived from Earth leads policeman Vic Gayle to a war between rival gangs over possession of a remote excavation site.
Something is coming through. Something linked to the visions of Chloe's orphans, and Vic Gayle's murder investigation. Something that will challenge the limits of the Jackaroo's benevolence...

Thursday, October 02, 2014

A Book I Accidentally Wrote

Courtesy of the nice people at Pan Macmillan, I have an early copy of my monograph on Terry Gilliam's film Brazil. I was planning to write a novel and not much else this year, but I was given the opportunity to pitch for a short series the BFI are publishing as part of its celebration of SF on film and TV, and now I have the thrill of seeing it as an actual thing.

It's published on October 31st, but there will be early copies available a week before that, when I'll be taking part in an event on October 25th (see previous post; more details to follow soon).

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

A Thing I'll Be Doing Later This Month

I'll be joining a crowd of writers promoting all kinds of horror and dark fantasy, but I'll sign anything you bring. More details soon...

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Mars Rocks

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Friday, September 12, 2014

There Are Doors (21)

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Influence of Anxiety

The cheapest shot in the lazy or inept interviewer's arsenal is: 'So, what are your influences?' Polite or anxious authors will, through obfuscation, circumlocation and denial, provide endless material for follow-up questions ('So what precisely drew you to the work of George Herbert Wells?') and pseudo-psychoanalytic speculation that will pad out the rest of the session nicely.  No need to have read or thought about the author's work: job done!

If I'm ever asked this question again, I'll refer the interviewer to this brief list:

HP Sauce; a cloud I once saw on June 2nd 1972, around 2:30 pm; sunstars glittering off the windshields of traffic on the Santa Monica freeway, 1981-1983; scribblelarks; the proper motion of Antares; eschatological dread; the odour of secondhand books; the label on the Camp Coffee bottle; the exhaust beat of a Class 3F steam locomotive echoing up the winter valley; Zoom ice lollies; the welt on Action Man's face; several wasps; the map of the British Empire; the second half of the Twentieth Century; rain in Bristol; rain on Lake Champlain, Vermont; the rain that fell elsewhere; airport wi-fi; the motion of cigarette smoke in the beam of cinema projectors; the song of the fan heater; pine needles underfoot; 21a Dartford Close, Manchester; a shopping list I once found in a secondhand copy of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (between p122/123); a tray of glass eyes; whatever it was I last ate; the tea I'm drinking right now; every book I ever read; everyone I have ever met; every last second of my life, so far.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Where Cyberspace Went

One winter the wrong type of snow caused chaos on the British railway network: soft powdery stuff that infiltrated the electrical systems of trains and, when it settled, wasn't deep enough for snowploughs to remove. Now, it turns out out that the latest refinement in transmission of share-trading information is stymied by the wrong kind of rain.

Once upon a time, high-frequency share trading relied on data piped through fibre-optic cables. But in the glass threads of the cables light travels at about two-thirds its speed in a vacuum. And when nanoseconds count in the frenzied automatic trading that's far too slow. In the US, that information is blurted through the skies via microwaves, high-frequency millimetre waves, and now, beams of infra-red laser light. A good fraction of cyberspace, the place where billions of pounds of currency and shares are traded every day, now inhabits the sky, and the traffic is entirely between machines that shuffle gigabytes of data in the space of a single human heartbeat.

But the rise of the machines is not yet complete. The average droplet size of London's rain is smaller, disrupting laser-light transmissions. As Donald MacKenzie points out in his article on the arm's race in high-frequency-trading communications, 'if you’re a Londoner, and are spooked by the idea of lasers flashing stock-market data overhead, be grateful for drizzle.' Engineers working for trading companies strain at the outer limits of physics, but as yet there's nothing they can do about the British weather.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (16)

For descendants of European colonists, the Australian Outback is a palimpsest of apocalyptic fable. A place where law and morals fail; a pitiless landscape where ramshackle settlements that need only minimal set-dressing to portray the ruins of civilisation's end. Wake in Fright shows how upright teacher John Grant was undone by a lost weekend in a rough outback mining town; the inhabitants of The Cars That Ate Paris prey on passers-by; a serial killer stalks backpackers in Wolf Creek (2005); lawmen turn bad in The Proposition and Red Hill; and in the post-apocalyptic landscape of Mad Max, a policeman relentlessly chases down the outlaws who killed his family.

Rover invokes something of Mad Max in its day-after-tomorrow end-of-civilisation scenario.  It's ten years after the Collapse. Apart from desultory army patrols, the Outback is as lawless as the mythic Wild West. Petrol, water and bullets command a premium. When a wanderer (Guy Pearce) loses his car to a trio of fleeing bandits, he sets out to get it back by any means necessary. Along the way he picks up Rey (Robert Pattinson), the brother of one of the bandits, who was wounded and left behind, and the unlikely duo carve a bloody path across the desolate landscape as they head towards the bandits' hideout.

Like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, Pearce's wanderer is gruff, efficiently violent and single-minded. He does have a name - Eric - but refuses to give it. He's also sparing about his background, and refuses to explain why the car, an ordinary unblinged sedan, means so much to him; he only opens up to a soldier who briefly detains him, explaining that he killed his unfaithful wife and her lover ten years ago, and has been waiting to be brought to justice ever since. But that's it. The simpleminded Rey is slightly less opaque, a natural-born follower who transfers his loyalty from the brother who abandoned him to Eric (director David Michod's previous film, Animal Kingdom, was also about double-crossing siblings), but the film's premise, set up with great panache, is never really developed.

In the similarly terse film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road (directed by another Australian, John Hillcote), the father's guilt at surviving his wife is tempered and given direction and meaning by his need to preserve the life of his son. All Eric wants is his car back, and we never find out why until the very last moments of the film. The existential minimalism of the story-telling is admirable, but its lack of exposition and stubborn refusal to give any insight into Eric and his mission, or into the nature of the bandits' crime, leaves the viewer with a series of tense and violent scenes that don't cohere, and characters that fail to communicate much of significance to each other. It's a pity, because this day-after-tomorrow western looks terrific, the acting is fine, and Antony Partos's score ratchets up the tension even when the story doesn't.
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