The Unbearably Patronising BBC History of Science Fiction…

I know I shouldn’t have been disappointed by the BBC documentary about science fiction, Tomorrow’s Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction, presented by Dominic Sandbrook and broadcast recently on BBC2 here in Britain. I should have realised that it would be a glib overview of the genre for those millions of viewers whose knowledge of SF goes no further than Star Trek, Star Wars, and Dr Who; I should have known that it would be skewed towards the visual, concentrating on film and television. But I was disappointed by the programme: how it told me nothing I didn’t already know; how it was padded with clips from movies and TV programmes I’d seen a hundred times before. I was also disappointed by the talking heads they inserted between these clips. We’ve had a few big name SF authors saying their bit, Ursula K. Le Guin, William Gibson and Kim Stanley Robinson… but they’re not on for long, and not allowed to say much of relevance before the hapless viewer is subjected to another out-of-context film clip. Then there are the other talking heads, John Landis and John Carpenter among others, who contribute nothing to the discussion and do so at tedious length. And – god help us – we’re even treated to the views of an actor who was inside a robot in a Star Wars film.

But why am I complaining? What did I expect from a programme about SF aired at 9.45 on a Saturday night?

Well, I had hoped for something along the lines of Alan Yentob’s excellent Imagine series mainly about writers and artists, which isn’t afraid to let its subjects speak, and which doesn’t patronise its viewers with a plethora of film clips.

But then we’re talking about SF here, aren’t we, which the BBC has always regarded as little more than throwaway entertainment for children.



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I finished the second draft of Jani and the Great Pursuit last week. It came out at 104,500 words, which gives me a bit of leeway for cutting when I go through the ms again with a red pen before Christmas. Jani and the Greater Game was 96,500 words long, so if needs be I can cut around eight thousand words. It’s amazing what I will end up cutting, everything from minor things like ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ and ‘he nodded’, etc, to bigger things like paragraphs of description. At the moment, I don’t think I’ll be cutting entire scenes – but I’ve said that before at this stage and, in the cold light of day, come to realise that what I thought were vital episodes were only so much dead wood that could be excised to the betterment of the story. We’ll see.

And then? I have the third Telemass novella, Reunion on Alpha Reticuli II, to rewrite and submit to PS Publishing, hopefully before Christmas, and a short story that needs work. As for what I’ll be doing next year… At the moment, I don’t know (other than writing the fourth Telemass novella, as yet untitled). I do know what I’d like to work on: the third Langham and Dupré crime novel and the third Jani book, but neither has been commissioned yet (it all depends on the sales figures of the previous books in the series), so things are still up in the air, work-wise.

But before then it’s the Christmas holiday, which we’re spending with family down in Haworth, Yorkshire, a world away from work, the dog, and work on packing up here (Tyninghame, Dunbar) for the move twelve miles south to the village of Cockburnspath in Berwickshire, which should be happening towards the end of January.


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The New Book

I began the second Jani novel, Jani and the Great Pursuit, last week, and it’s going well. I’m around thirty thousand words into the story from Jani’s point of view (I’ll write from two other character’s viewpoints later, before returning to Jani for the finale). I hope to get a good second draft in the bag before Christmas. After that, I’ll send the ms to a few good friends for their criticism, rewrite the novel in February, and with luck hit the March the 10th deadline.

Anyway, that’s the reason I haven’t been keeping the website up-to-date with these pieces – I have very little time, between working on the book, walking the hound three times a day, and fetching my daughter from school… quite apart from cooking and cleaning the house. (Which sounds as if my wife does nothing; let me state, before she verbally clobbers me, that she has a full-time job as a university lecturer, and her workload makes mine look miniscule).

Right, Uther the red and white setter is demanding his afternoon constitutional… so I’d better obey.


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I’ve written several pieces about my work for Here’s the publisher’s blurb about the third collected volume of these writings by various hands:

Story Behind the Book: Volume 3 collects nearly 40 non-fiction essays from some of the most exciting authors working today. Offering an unique insight into the creative and publishing process, these essays reveal all the beauty, effort and frustration that inevitable comes hand in hand with the urge to write, edit or illustrate.

All proceeds will be donated to Epilepsy Action.


Story behind The Demi-Monde by Rod Rees
Story behind Salvage by Eric Brown
Story behind The Beautiful Land by Alan Averill
Story behind The Ballad of Halo Jones by Ian Gibson
Story behind Kill City Blues by Richard Kadrey
Story behind The Shoal Sequence by Gary Gibson
Story behind The Fabulous Beast by Garry Kilworth
Story behind Celestial Inventories by Steve Rasnic Tem
Story behind Shadows of the Apt by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Story behind The Summer Isles by Ian R. MacLeod
Story behind The Bride Price by Cat Sparks
Story behind Falling Over by James Everington
Story behind Age of Godpunk by James Lovegrove
Story behind Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson
Story behind Plastic by Christopher Fowler
Story behind Chalk by Pat Cadigan
Story behind Kinslayer by Jay Kristoff
Story behind The Mona Lisa Sacrifice by Peter Roman
Story behind Dust by Hugh Howey
Story behind Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye by Paul Tremblay
Story behind Blood Song by Anthony Ryan
Story behind Dragon Queen by Stephen Deas
Story behind Saxon’s Bane by Geoffrey Gudgion
Story behind Ironskin by Tina Connolly
Story behind Dust by Joan Frances Turner
Story behind A Taste of Blood Wine by Freda Warrington
Story behind Allegiance by Beth Bernobich
Story behind Trickster by Jeff Somers
Story behind Seven Forges” by James A. Moore
Story behind Phoenicia’s Worlds by Ben Jeapes
Story behind The Revelations of Zang by John R. Fultz
Story behind Bullettime by Nick Mamatas
Story behind Wounded Prey by Sean Lynch
Story behind Clean Burn by Karen Sandler
Story behind Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
Story behind Marrow by Robert Reed
Story behind The Scourge and The Scourge Nostrum by Roberto Calas
Story behind Greenbeard by Richard James Bentley
Story behind The Bird Saviors by William J. Cobb

The cover image is of a fluorescent micrograph of acridine orange and propidium iodide double-stained human non-small cell lung cancer cells (H460).

The links are:




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The Frozen Woman

My short story “The Frozen Woman” is now on StarShipSofa as a podcast, along with an interview with me conducted by Tony C. Smith.

The story was first published in Interzone 190 back in 2003. It’s a time travel tale about a journalist, Amy Sullivan, who is summoned to a country house to meet the most famous human being on Earth, Timothy Masters – the Frozen Man. There Masters reveals how he became ‘frozen’, what this entails, and the reason he summoned Amy. It’s a love story as well as a time travel tale – a combination I thinks works well.

I wrote this story back in 2002, though to be honest I have almost no recollection of doing so. All I can recall is that the idea came one day and I wrote it the next – one of those rare, but happy, occurrences for a writer.

“The Frozen Woman” was reprinted in my collection The Angels of Life and Death, Infinity Plus Books, 2012. It also appeared in Greek translation, in the magazine ‘9′ #126.


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10.00 am…

Well, I’m being interviewed by Tony Smith from StarShipSofa – or as my daughter says, Spaceship Settee – later this morning and I’m dreading it. My fear of public speaking extends to phone interviews. So this piece is in two parts. This bit, pre-interview – and a follow up piece post-interview.

I live my life by Laurens Van Der Post’s dictum, “Reality is never as bad as you expect it to be” – which he came up with, amazingly enough, while imprisoned by the Japanese during World War Two.

Or rather I try to live my life by it. By and large I succeed, but public speaking is another matter. No matter what I tell myself: “The only thing I have to fear is fear itself,” and, “It’ll be fine once it’s under way,” I can’t dispel the bowel-quaking nerves that beset me before the event. That’s why I never appear on panels at conventions, and try as best I can to avoid speaking engagements.

I suppose my upbringing is responsible for this. I come from a northern working-class background and I left school at fourteen: two facts that don’t augur well for confidence before an audience. I was brought up in the Yorkshire tradition of ‘shut up until you’re spoken to’, and ‘don’t get above yourself’. The idea of getting up on a podium and pronouncing was anathema. ‘Who the hell does he think he is…” etc.

And leaving school at fourteen has left me with a life-long inferiority complex when it comes to matters of the mind. I know it’s daft, and I know too that it has no bearing on most people’s apprehension of me. But a lack of education can be a debilitating thing. Despite the fact that I’ve written over fifty books, and some of them have been well reviewed, I fear the day when I’ll be ‘found out.’

Non-writers, I think, expect writers to fall into stereotypes – university educated, intellectual… when in fact all we are, at base, is story-tellers. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.

Dammit, that’s the phone. Here goes…
11.25 am…

Well, what can I say? Laurens was right. All I had to fear, etcetera…

Tony Smith at StarShipSofa was the perfect host and put me at ease immediately, asking some great questions. At one point, ten minutes into the interview, I found myself actually enjoying the experience. ‘Reality is never as bad as you expect it to be.’

But, come the next interview, or public speaking engagement, will I dispel fear with a nonchalant shrug? Of course not. I’ll be as apprehensive as ever.

Well-meaning friends have suggested I do more public speaking, to get over the fear. And while I agree that experience might ease the apprehension, the fear would still be there. After all, veteran actors still suffer stage-fright before a performance.

A few years ago, against my better judgement, I took part in a few engagements over the course of a month or so. I spoke to the Brum SF group, then gave a talk to students at Keith Brooke’s SF writing course at Essex University, and then – terrifyingly – addressed prisoners at a gaol in Chelmsford – which I wrote about in an earlier piece on this site called Lalophobia. (Which title, I’ve just discovered, is wrong. Lalophobia is the fear of speaking in general. Fear of public speaking is known as glossophobia.)

And, despite the fact that I did these events one after the other, by the time it came to go to gaol, I was still petrified. Life for a few days leading up to the visit was unpleasant.

So, all things being even, and everything considered, I’ll remain averse to climbing on my soapbox.

Anyway, my thanks to Tony Smith for the experience. My story “The Frozen Woman” will be aired on StarShipSofa as a podcast on Wednesday, along with the interview. I’ll write a piece about the story on this site on Wednesday or Thursday.


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Invisible Verb

I’ve noticed an odd construction that some writers use – and I’ve even used it myself from time to time, accidentally or when writing a pastiche of Victorian or period prose.

Now, in the normal run of things, the order of a sentence is: Subject, verb, object… etc.

You would write: ‘Jane ran down the hill’, and not: “Ran Jane down the hill’.

However, when it comes to writing dialogue, it’s surprising how often some writers, for whatever reasons, ignore this rule. Open a novel, scan a page of dialogue, and I bet that within a few seconds you’ll come across a line written something like this:

“Get away!” said Jane.

‘Said’ Jane?

I collaborate with various writers from time to time, and one good friend uses this verb-subject construction a lot. (I change it around when he’s not looking…)

As has been noticed by commentators, ‘said’ is an invisible verb – the eye glides over it when reading dialogue, though the brain takes it in, almost subliminally. That’s why we get away with using the inversion, without it seeming an anachronism.

The exception to this is if we use the inversion while writing first person dialogue. It becomes glaring, like this:

“Get away!” said I.

Instantly, this construction is jarring, and brings to mind Victorian construction, when such a line was frequently used.

So, as a rule – unless writing in a period style when I want to draw attention to the inversion – I try not to use the verb-subject construction when writing dialogue. Of course, there are times when I break the rule inadvertently and, much later if rereading my work (which I try not to do) wince when I find an example.


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