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 dildos. 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

Ambition

Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

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

Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

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.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

London Marvels and Oddities

The World SF Convention takes place in London Thursday to Monday this week. Here are a few things visitors may like to search out while in town.

Thomas Hardy's Tree
A little to the north of St Pancras Station is St Pancras Old Church, one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in England. When the railway was built in the the nineteenth century, it cut through the old cemetery and Thomas Hardy supervised removal of the graves. Hardy's tree, in whose shade he's supposed to have eaten his lunch, still stands, surrounded by a ruff of headstones. You can also find the memorial tomb of Mary Shelley's father, William Godwin and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (famous in her own right for being the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women), as well as the graves of Dr John Polidari, who shared the Swiss lakeside villa with Lord Byron and Mary and Percy Shelley when Mary wrote Frankenstein (Polidari wrote a vampire story), and the architect Sir John Soane, which inspired the design of the iconic red telephone box.
SFF connection: Frankenstein, vampires

Sir John Soane's Picture Room
The Soane Museum in Lincoln Inn Fields houses the eighteenth century architect's collection of books and artworks in the townhouse he built and left to the nation.  Three walls of the Picture Room, containing works by Hogarth and Canaletto, are cunningly equipped with hinged panels that slide out to display layers of pictures.
SFF connection: TARDIS

The Irish Giant
Directly across the square from the Soane Museum is the Royal College of Surgeons, and the Hunterian Museum, where you can marvel at examples of surgical procedures, anatomical oddities and the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the 7' 7" tall 'Irish Giant'. Worried that on his death his body would fall into the hands of John Hunter, the eighteenth century surgeon who founded the museum, Byrne left instructions that he should be buried at sea, but Hunter bribed Byrne's wards to seize his prize.
SFF connection: brains in jars, resurrection men
 
George Frederic Watt's Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice
Located in Postman's Park in Little Britain, just north of St Paul's Cathedral, this touching memorial consists of ceramic tablets with brief descriptions of the incidents in which nineteenth century heroes and heroines perished while saving lives.
SFF connection: steampunk tragedy

Darwin's Walking Stick
A whalebone walking stick topped with a skull, once owned by Charles Darwin, is amongst the many oddities and wonders, most related to medical science, collected by Henry Wellcome and displayed in the Wellcome Collection, Euston Road.
SFF connection: a sculpture inspired by J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition is also on display

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs
Commissioned when the Crystal Palace was moved from Hyde Park to South London, these concrete sculptures embody the theory of Sir Richard Owen that dinosaurs really were terrible lizards. Extensively restored, they stand in a landscaped garden.
SFF connection: dinosaurs. Really weird dinosaurs.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Microcosms

Scientists have discovered that myriads of tiny water droplets float in natural tar pits in Trinidad and Tobago, each 'teeming with diverse ecosystems of bacteria and methane-producing organisms'. Tiny world-engines converting hydrocarbons into life; miniature biospheres dispersed through the tarry dark like planets scattered across space. If microbes can thrive there, the scientists suggest, regions where groundwater mixes with methane and ethane ices on Saturn's moon Titan may also be hospitable to life.

The first life on Earth evolved around 3.8 billion years ago, but multicellular life - macroscopic algae, fungi, plants and animals - evolved just 0.8 billion years ago. For three billion years, life on Earth consisted of single-celled prokaryotic microorganisms: bacteria and archaea.  Energy-hungry multicellular eukaryotic organisms were able to evolve and diversify only after one group of bacteria, the cyanobacteria or blue-green algae, developed a form of photosynthesis that produced free oxygen as a waste-product. Even now, prokaryotic microorganisms are still found everywhere in Earth's biosphere, from deep inside the Earth's crust (bacteria discovered near a gold mine 2.8 kilometres underground thrive on sulphur in anaerobic groundwater and hydrogen produced by decay of radioactive elements) to the stratosphere. Sulphur-reducing bacteria form the basis of rich ecosystems around deep sea vents; thermophilic bacteria tint the water of hot springs in Yellowstone Park and elsewhere.

One species entered into symbiosis with early eukaryotic cells and its descendants survive as the mitochondria that produce ATP, the chemical that's the basis of our cells' energy economy. Other species inhabit our skin and guts: the human microbiome accounts for between 1 and 3% of our body mass, outnumbers our cells by 10 to 1, and may contain more than a hundred times the number of genes in our own genome. We're each a bacterial microcosm. Living spaceships patchworked with dozens of ecosystems, carrying trillions of passengers.

While we search for signals from alien civilisations, for charismatic megafauna like us, the first aliens we discover may be weird microorganisms lofted on the plume of a geyser rooted in the world ocean of Jupiter's moon Europa or the polar sea of Saturn's moon Enceladus, thrifty sulphur-reducing extremophiles deep in the Martian crust, or tar-eating microbes in a Titanian hot spring. Or maybe we'll spot the characteristic chemical signature produced by methanogenic bacterai in the atmosphere of an exoplanet around a distant star. And if we do ever find creatures like us and the alien ambassador shakes the hand of the President of Earth, it won't just be a meeting of minds, but an exchange between two ancient and indescribably diverse empires.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Comet Terrain



Photos: ESA

What's interesting about the first close-ups of the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (apart from the fact that they were taken by a robot spacecraft that has taken more than ten years to rendezvous with and go into orbit around an object currently plunging sunwards at 55,000km per hour) is that its landscapes aren't entirely alien. There are step terraces and a cirque of cliffs, a scattering of car-sized boulders and what looks like an alluvial plain, or perhaps a sheet of snow. Elsewhere there are craters, and rounded pits like sinkholes. Like the mountains and cliffs and plains of Saturn's icy moons, these features are composed of ice and dust rather than rock and soil, but although they are unearthly and formed by processes as yet unknown, they are not unrecognisable. Like the landscapes of the outer moons, there's something of the sublimity of icescapes of the Alps and Himalayas, the Arctic and Antarctic, in them. They are utterly remote from human experience, but they are something that the human imagination can appreciate and attempt to encompass. They are not exotic forbidden zones. They are destinations.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Polish Covers ...

... of The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun (hat-tip: Konrad Walewski).



Saturday, August 02, 2014

Novels Aren't Selfies

'Identification with a character is one of the pleasures of reading, or of watching movies, or of seeing plays, though if it is where one’s engagement with the work begins, it should not be where critical thought ends. The concept of identification implies that the reader or viewer is, to some degree at least, actively engaged with the work in question: she is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.
'But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.'
Rebecca Mead, 'The Scourge of "Relatability".'

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Something Has Been Lost



That bare yellow sky.
Those rolling rounded hills.
That first footprint.
Those first words for the ages.

That frail craft, bright in the distance.
Those tracks leading away from it.
That feeling that everything has changed for ever.
That something has been broken.
That something has been lost.
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