Monthly Archives: August 2014

Rites of Passage

I’ve always enjoyed writing long short stories – that is, tales longer than around eight thousand words and shorter than novella length, around sixteen thousand words. There’s more scope the develop characters, ideas and often setting in longer stories, more space and time to allow myself to get into the story. I’ve often started what I thought was going to be a short story only to find, in the writing, that it demands greater length, that either the characters tale off and want more space to grow, or the initial idea flourishes and spawns further ideas.

The odd thing is, when I get the idea for a novella over sixteen thousand words, I somehow know that it will be that length or longer before I start. The mysteries of writing…

So when Keith Brooke asked if I had four or five long stories that I might gather into a collection for his Infinity Plus paperback and e-book imprint, I looked through my ‘uncollected’ file and selected three stories; he suggested that it might be nice to include a never before published tale – so I decided to write one specially for the collection. I wanted to tackle something I’d never done before, and as I like reading about the far future, but have written little in that milieu, I decided to try my hand at something set in the far, far future when the seas have dried up and the remnants of humanity scrabble for existence in deep valleys in what was once the bottom of the sea.

It wasn’t long after my first hazy idea that I began writing, with little notion of where the tale would take me. (Usually I have a pretty good idea where a story is going, and a very good idea of how it will end.) The characters took off in this one and dictated their arduous trek beneath the ancient, swollen sun. “Beneath the Ancient Sun” (16,000 words) is a rites of passage tale and a story of conceptual breakthrough, as Par and Nohma embark on an initiation quest and along the way learn a lot about the past greatness of their race and their place in the world. On finishing the story, I realised that I’d like to write more about Par, Nohma, and the brave troupe of cavern dwellers battling inimical conditions beneath a vastly swollen sun.

The lead tale in the collection is “Bartholomew Burns and the Brain Invaders” (10,000 words) – my very first attempt at steampunk (in the very loosest sense of the word). It’s the only story in the collection in which the setting did not become a character in its own right. It features the enigmatic Bartholomew Burns – saviour of the Earth on many previous occasions – and his young sidekick Tommy Newton, who together thwart an evil alien invasion. While in all the other stories collected here it is the central characters that undergo the titular ‘rite of passage’, in this story it’s Tommy Newton who learns much from his travails. The story saw light of day in the online serial magazine, Aethernet, edited by Tony and Barbara Ballantyne.

“The Guardians of the Phoenix” (13,000 words) began as a short story – I thought it would come in at around six thousand words – but expanded in the telling. I rarely write post-apocalyptic tales, but I was gripped by the idea of a bunch of good people travelling across an inimical desert in search of water. Even after I finished the story, it kept on growing in my imagination, and a year later I expanded the story by some eighty-seven thousand words and it became the novel of the same title, published by Solaris in 2010. The story appeared in Mike Ashley’s anthology Apocalyptic SF (End of the World in the US).

“Sunworld” (11,000 words) is not only a rites of passage tale but one of conceptual breakthrough, to which the genre of science fiction is admirably suited. I enjoy writing stories in which the central character undergoes a journey the events of which, by the end, will subvert everything he or she thinks they know about themselves and their world. This tale is another which begs to be expanded, and some day I would like to write Sunworld, the novel. The story was first published in George Mann’s anthology The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction 2.

I enjoyed the process of writing “Beneath the Ancient Sun” so much that, a few weeks later, I thought I’d try my hand at another topic I don’t write much about: time travel. Last week I finished the second draft of a tale influenced by Oscar Wilde’s epithet, “No man is rich enough to buy back his past…”

“Buying Time” is a little over eleven thousand words long and, once I’ve attempted to sell it somewhere, might find its way into another collection.

Rites of Passage is out now from Infinity Plus Books.

This piece originally appeared on Upcoming4me.

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Interview

This interview first appeared on My Bookish Ways.

Jani and the Greater Game sounds amazing! Will you tell us a little more about it and what inspired you to write it?

Jani is set in 1925 – but a 1925 very different from the one in our own history. The reason for this is that the British in India discovered, some fifty years earlier, a fantastical power source in the foothills of the Himalayas (in Nepal, to be precise), which resulted in the British being the major power in the world. (The exact nature of this power source is kept under wraps for most of the book, to be revealed at the denouement: it’s known throughout the story as Annapurnite.) The book is set in India and Nepal, and is an action-adventure-chase novel with characterisation.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Always. That is, ever since reading Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table when I was fifteen. I’d managed never to read a book until then, and the novel was a revelation. I went out and bought all her titles and devoured them one by one. A few months later I discovered SF – Robert Silverberg and H.G. Wells. Not long after that, I decided that I wanted to write science fiction, and began churning out short stories (hundreds before my first acceptance) and short novels (some twenty-odd before I sold my first one, Meridian Days, in 1992). So yes, since the age of fifteen I’ve wanted only one thing: to be a fulltime professional writer.

What made you decide to write a book with a steampunk flavor?

I’ve wanted to do a steampunk novel for a long time, since reading Powers, Blaylock, etc, back in the 80s. I’d sent a couple of steampunky outlines to my editor at Solaris, none of which he jumped at. Then he suggested I think up an idea for a steampunk novel set in India, and a few weeks later Jani was born.

The book takes place in India in 1925. What kind of research did you do for the book? What was one of the most interesting things you learned?

I rarely do research for a book until it’s finished, and then I check to make sure I’ve got the facts and details right. That said, I’ve been reading about India, and the Raj, for decades, after spending a year there in 1984. And all that reading fed into Jani. (One of the most interesting things I found out about the British in India wasn’t actually from a book, but from talking to Indians on the street in 1984. What surprised me, as a left-of-centre liberal with a wariness of all things Imperial, was how many Indians I met who not only praised the British for bringing so many innovations to the subcontinent – the railways and bureaucracy, to name but two – but how many people thought the Raj a good thing and wished it had stayed on. I don’t agree, and I think this is obvious in Jani. The British, with a few exceptions, don’t come over in the novel as that enlightened.)

Tell us more about Janisha Chatterjee and what you enjoyed most about writing her. Why do you think readers will root for her?

Jani is 18, of mixed Indian-British parentage, brought up by her father in India until she was eight, and then packed off to Blighty to be educated. As the novel opens she’s returning to Delhi aboard an airship to be with her dying father. Jani is conflicted, torn between her love of India and her British education, torn between Nationalist leanings and the inculcation of her father who, as a security minister in the Indian government, is pro-British. Early in the novel she is confronted by someone – not of this planet – who throws all her thoughts into chaos. We follow her as she flees to the Himalayas on a mission to save the world, pursued by the British and Russians who will stop at nothing to prevent her progress. I think readers will root for Jani because she’s human and humane, a young woman beset by doubt, but eager always to do the right thing. She’s very moral, but conflicted; not your usual ‘strongman’ hero, but nevertheless brave and resourceful.

You are an author that wears many, many hats! Is it a challenge to write in so many different genres?

Not really. I read widely, in many different genres, and have always written different things. As I mentioned earlier, Agatha Christie kick-started my writing career, and I’ve always had a hankering to write detective novels. A couple of years ago I wrote my first, Murder by the Book, which came out last year; my second – following the same two central characters – Murder at the Chase, is due out this month. I hope to do more, but sales figures will determine this. Within the SF genre, I like to think I write different kinds of novels – space opera, planetary romance, near future SF, something I term Quiet SF, character-based and often romantic. I’ve also written books for children, both SF and mainstream. I like the variety and change of pace offered by writing so many different things. It was great to write the detective novels set in 1955, as I didn’t have to build SF-nal worlds from the ground up – readers knew what London was! Also, I could use simile and metaphor in the novels, which for various reasons are difficult to employ in SF.

What’s one of the first things you can remember writing?

I can recall the very first short story I finished, a bucolic story with a sting in the tail, very much influenced by Roald Dahl. I recall the sense of accomplishment at actually finishing the thing. I still have the tatty ms (written on my old Kovak manual typewriter, all in upper case letters, for some reason.) Needless to say, it never sold – in fact, I never sent it out.

What are a few of your biggest literary influences?

Agatha Christie, for obvious reasons. Roald Dahl, as I read him early on and loved his short stories – with H.G. Wells and Robert Silverberg as other early influences. Moving on, I discovered the novels and stories of a very underrated British SF writer, Michael Coney, whose quiet tone and concern for character I tried to emulate. My Starship Season series of novellas is a tribute to Coney. I also love the work of Rupert Croft-Cooke – I run a website devoted to his work: http://www.croft-cooke.co.uk. He wrote over a hundred and twenty books from 1930 to around 1979, of many kinds, straight novels, crime novels, books on food and wine, gypsies and the circus, Victorian writers, Oscar Wilde and Bosie – as well as a series of twenty-seven wonderful autobiographical books about his life and times and the people he met on his extensive travels.

What are you currently reading?

I’ve just started The Time Dissolvers by Jerry Sohl – I like reading forgotten SF writers! – (it’s about a man who wakes up to find that he’s missing eleven years from his life.) Before that I had a binge of reading novels by the contemporary British writer Jonathan Coe. I recently returned from holiday where I read an old Penguin crime novel A Nest of Vipers by Tod Claymore, and the memoir by the amazing Naomi Mitchison, You May Well Ask – quite an eclectic bunch.

What’s next for you?

Later in August, or maybe at the start of September when my daughter goes back to school, I’ll be starting on the next novel, the second volume of the Jani series, Jani and the Great Pursuit. I hope to get a second draft finished before Xmas, when I’ll start on the fourth and final Telemass novella for PS Publishing, which is as yet untitled. (In the next couple of weeks I’ll be rewriting the third Telemass novella, and a long short story about time travel). So I’ve plenty to keep my busy.

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First Novels

This piece first appeared on the infinity plus website.

First novels are curious creatures because they are rarely, of course, first novels.

It’s very rare for a writer to sit down, write a first novel, and a little way down the line have it published. More often than not, a ‘first’ novel is the result of years of laborious apprenticeship, writing numerous novels in order to learn the craft, and abandoning them to the bottom drawer or, more drastically, to the flaming hearth.

There are exceptions, of course. J.K. Rowling’s first effort found a publisher – after numerous rejections – and I seem to recall it did rather well. And the host of this website, Keith Brooke, sold the very first novel he wrote, Keepers of the Peace, damn him.

But for the rest of us, the hill is steeper.

Looking back on my career, the hill seems to have been a mountain of my own making.

You see, I was labouring under a misapprehension from the very start.

In my late teens I read somewhere, in an interview with the SF great Alfred Bester, that all writers must write a million words of rubbish before they finally become published. Now, had I read that the prescribed total should be a hundred thousand words, I might have been published a lot earlier… But that magical million words lodged in my brain and wouldn’t be shifted – affecting me, I’m sure, subconsciously, and ensuring that Meridian Days came out when it did.

Meridian Days, my first published novel, was in fact around my twentieth written novel.

The very first novel I wrote, I recall, was a terrible pastiche of two of my favourite writers at the time, Leslie Thomas and Tom Sharpe. It was horribly written, cliché-ridden, badly plotted, and unfunny… which for a comedy novel was the ultimate crime. But at least I finished it, eighty thousand words written longhand over a period of eighteen months. I even typed up the first two chapters, before realising how bad it was and abandoning the thing.

Then came a slew of very short science fiction novels using the usual tropes: time-travel, alien invasions, future dystopias. These were short because while living in Australia for four years until the age of eighteen I’d come across the Ace Double range of SF novels (they also published westerns, romances and thrillers in the same format); each one was between around 25k and 55k – giving me the false impression that this was the length of SF novels. So I churned out loads of the things, and even submitted one or two of them to paperback houses in the UK, Hamlyn and Sphere, and in the States, Major Books. (That ms was returned with the note on the package that the company was no longer in business). I have a vague recollection of receiving a rejection letter from my now agent John Jarrold, when he was a commissioning editor at some London house.

All the while I was writing short stories in various genres: SF, crime, mainstream, and getting nowhere.

In ’84 I spent a year in India, and that seemed to spark something – that, and the fact that I’d written a million words of rubbish, and a few years after I got back I began writing the short stories which would be published in Interzone, beginning in ’87.

A year later, on the strength of these tales, I was approached by an agent: did I have a novel I would like him to look at? Well, I had twenty of the things under my bed, but none of which I thought up to scratch. I bundled together a collection of short stories instead, and miracle of miracles Pan Books bought them. The volume appeared as The Time-Lapsed Man and other stories in 1990.

Of course, Pan then wanted to see a novel, so over a period of nine months I wrote Meridian Days, a short novel of doomed love, extraterrestrial colonies, matter transmission, and much more, which was published by Pan in 1992.
* * *
Issues #3 and #4 of Peter Young’s excellent fanzine Big Sky, exclusively about the first and second series of the Gollancz SF Masterworks list, are now available for free download as PDFs from http://efanzines.com/bigsky/index.htm. Both fanzines are big: #3 is 240 pages (9Mb) and #4 is 191 pages (6Mb), and are ideally read on a e-reader such as an iPad. Included in issue three is my review of The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth. The whole project contains around 250 reviews and commentaries on every title in the series, in order of appearance in the Masterworks series.

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Lalophobia

I fear public speaking, to the point where I’ve actively avoided doing much of it in the past. A few years ago, however, I rashly agreed to give a talk at a prison – H.M.P. Bullwood in Essex – as part of World Book Day. My short novel for adult reluctant readers, Revenge, had gone down well in prisons around the country, and my publisher Barrington Stoke asked if I’d care to talk about it to a group of prisoners. Well, the thought filled me with dread, but the publisher had been great to work with over the years, so I bit the bullet.

On the day itself I had lunch with a regional organiser of the library service in Essex, who then drove me down to Southend. I must admit the journey was fraught with nerves as I read through my notes and feared the worst – drying up, fainting in front of the inmates, verbal abuse…

The jail was approached through a tiny hamlet of thatched cottages like something from a fairytale, and then, at the end of the lane, there appeared a concrete monstrosity surrounded by tall barbed-wire-topped plate metal fences. That was the first line of security. We were shown through a locked door in the fence – we had to display our passports to get through – and then led by a guard across a yard to the main building. We passed though another set of locked doors which led into a large chamber, the far end of which was barred and gave onto a courtyard. Here they checked our passports again and searched our bags. We could not take the following into the prison: mobile phones, soap, yeast, chewing gum, knives, and explosives. After the guards assured themselves that we were carrying none of the above, we were let through into the courtyard where we were met by the librarian, and taken across the yard to another wing. We climbed a flight of stairs into another locked area and arrived at last at the library, a pleasant area of books, videos, posters, and a big map-of-the-world rug.

I had about ten minutes to compose myself and set up the books I’d brought as visual aids, then take a final look through my notes. I must admit that at this point, before the inmates were led in, I wondered how I was going to get through the next two hours. My heart was thumping, my mouth dry, and palms sweaty. I took deep breaths, paced up and down and drank plenty of water.

I had been told that my audience would be young offenders – and the notion filled me with dread. I found out, just before I was due to speak, that this was not the case at all: the offenders were all illegal immigrants, and most of them from Africa.

Then the inmates were led in in threes and fours, and I chatted to them as they took their seats, and the fear evaporated.

I began the talk with a humorous story, and got a laugh, and the rest was relatively plain sailing. I could see that more than half of the audience of twenty were really interested (the other half sat at the back and snoozed), and my fear that I’d run out of material was unfounded. I actually had more to talk about that the allotted time allowed.

The first hour went well, and then the second lot came in and I had to repeat the entire performance, adapting it where I thought it could be improved. By this time I was confident, and the fear had gone, which was just as well as the second lot were pretty unresponsive; didn’t laugh at the opening joke, looked bored, and didn’t have many questions – in fact one guy, a surly-looking bruiser in his fifties, got up and walked out towards the end. But I battled on to the bitter end, and the librarian was pleased with the whole talk.

But the relief of walking out of jail after my sentence!

Three hours later I arrived home, glad to have got it over with. All in all, a fascinating experience, though one I wouldn’t want to do again in a hurry.

It did have the desired effect, though, of lessening my fear of public speaking. I’ll never enjoy it, but in future it might just be a little less nerve-wracking.

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Celluloid Frustration

I’ve had several dealings with the film world in my twenty-five years as a freelance writer. The first brush with this potentially wondrous but always frustrating industry came in 1992. My first book, the collection The Time Lapsed Man and other stories had been out for a couple of years, to a few kind reviews and a lot of indifference. Then I received a letter – this was before the days of widespread emails – from a director in LA saying he’d read the collection and loved the title story. When he was next in London, he wrote, could we meet to discuss the story and his ideas for the project?

Now this was my first contact with anything to do with films, and I was naïve. I thought the deal was done, the film would be made, and all I had to do was sign on the dotted line.

Of course, it didn’t quite turn out like that. In fact, it didn’t turn out like anything.

I met the director and discovered that he hadn’t actually directed anything, other than a student film and one commercial. “But,” he said as we dined in a plush London restaurant, and he slammed the table with his fist, “I’ve got big BALLS! I’ll get this film made.”

He wanted me to write an outline he could show around a few influential people he knew back in LA; he discussed a few ideas he had to transfer the short story (which to be honest I thought unfilmable) to the big screen, and we parted with handshakes.

I went home and did the three page outline, posted it off, and received an enthusiastic letter from him a few weeks later. I heard nothing from him for a few years, then received an email from him saying he hadn’t forgotten the project and let’s keep in touch.

That was fifteen years ago.

Around ten years ago, I had another close shave with celluloid frustration.

This time a director/producer approached me via a friend in the business (my friend wrote treatments and scripts for a living, but only ever saw two of his projects make it into production). They wanted a film about virtual reality, and they wanted to meet me and my friend with the idea of our co-writing a treatment with which they could raise the money to make the film. We met in a bar in London and listened to what they wanted.

A film set in a grim near-future London, they said, to contrast with a phantasmagorical VR world to which people would go in order to escape from their humdrum lives.

There was to be no money up front (and this is a paradox of the industry, which is awash with cash: very little of it is splashed in the direction of tyro script-writers, even though it takes time and effort to produce treatments). We duly produced the outline and they liked it – no, they loved it, but wanted a few changes. This went on for a few months. We invested days and weeks of effort, and the last we heard from them was that although they loved what we’d done so far, the fact was that the disparity between the grim near-future London and the graphic VR we’d envisaged was too great – they couldn’t raise cash sufficient to be able to produce the expensive VR effects required. Could we tone down the VR sections of the film, make them a little more like the grim, near-future London?

At which point we cut our losses and got out.

A few years ago, 20th Century Fox and a smaller production company based in New York both expressed interest in my novel Necropath, the first book in the Bengal Station trilogy. The latter crowd wanted to speak to me about possible ideas they had. But, once bitten…

It’s in the hands of my agent at the moment, and the only writing I’ll be doing on future film projects will be when I sign my name on a contract granting someone the rights to the novels.

Until then I live in hope, but expect nothing.

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My Kind of SF

I’m not a scientist. Truth be told, I must admit that I’m not even that interested in science. I watch Horizon, read the Bad Science column in the Guardian – and since I was about twenty I’ve attempted without success to keep up with latest scientific and technological trends by reading the New Scientist… but after a paragraph or two my attention wanders. I’m looking for the characters, the emotion, the excitement.

I can hear you asking why the hell, then, do I write SF?

Well, I write SF for the same reasons I read it (and this might not be a popular answer, nor one that many people will admit to). The principle reason I read SF, and other kinds of fiction, is that it’s escapism. I read to be taken out of myself, to forget the worries and cares of everyday life, to be embroiled for a few hours in other lives, other places, to experience emotions and thoughts not my own, to have adventures on far-flung alien worlds… And of course a by-product of this is that I might learn something new along the way, but that’s not the main reason why I read SF.

And when it comes to writing, the same rules apply. I don’t write because I have any vast ideas about the world, or humanity, or philosophy to impart. I write because I have the overwhelming need to tell a story about people in dilemmas, with emotions they need to work through and resolve, often set on alien worlds or in some exotic future, often action-adventure oriented (but not always: my mosaic novel Kéthani was a very quiet book about near future life in my native West Yorkshire), and always with the need to entertain the reader with story. This is vitally important. Story is what I want to read when I turn to fiction, not some ranting diatribe, not some thinly-disguised political screed, not tub-thumping propaganda for whatever idea is in fashion at the time. If you can write compelling, entertaining, page-turning story, then you’ve discharged your principle duty as a writer of fiction.

As a writer of SF, however, you’re saddled with the extra responsibility or expectation of having to write knowledgeably about science or technology or both.

So how do I go about it, with my scant knowledge of all things scientific?

Well, normally, I take a page out of the book of SF writer Michael Coney. He wrote human-centred tales often set on colony worlds about how science and technology effected the culture, and therefore effected the characters within those cultures. You’ll find no long explanations of starship drives, or genetics, or anything else, in a book by Coney. What you will find is beautifully observed dramas of the human heart, set in exotic locations, and driven by story.

That’s all very well when I write books like Kéthani, which was about a group of friends and the coming of an alien race bearing the gift of immortality. I was interested in how the various characters reacted to this gift, and their reactions powered the individual episodes or stories. I kept the aliens in the background – they’re never seen in the book – and gave no explanation whatsoever of the means by which the aliens conferred immortality.

Which is fine when writing a Coney-esque book set in the pub in a near-future West Yorkshire. But what about when I came to write an (ostensibly) Hard SF book like Helix?

My overriding interest when starting Helix was how the various characters, human and alien, reacted to the events in which they found themselves. I wanted to write an action-adventure – peopled with characters as realistic as I could make them – about a starship crashing on an alien world which they find is not merely a single planet, but one of ten thousand worlds strung on a helical bead around a sun. To survive, they must climb away from the lower tier of the helix, where inimical winter prevails, to a more clement level. Along the way they would have adventures, learn things about the habitat and about themselves, meet various alien races – and learn, ultimately, the big question: why did the Builders build the helix?

So I did that, wrote (I hope) an action-adventure sense-of-wonder space novel which by the very fact that it had a big spaceship on the cover raised expectations of its being Hard SF.

It wasn’t, and was never meant to be. Had I been Peter Hamilton, Steve Baxter or Al Reynolds, I would have written a vastly different novel to the one I turned out: the science would have been brilliantly and breathtakingly explicated, and seamlessly woven into the fictive fabric of the novel. I chose, as I chose in Kéthani, to ignore the science, the technology, and merely concentrate on the effect of science and technology on the cultures and individuals I portrayed in the novel.

Some people found this deeply problematic, and I understand this. They wanted Hamilton-Baxter-Reynolds, and not some Star Wars/Star Trek adventure. Their problem – valid from their point of view – was that I’d committed the sin of creating a vast technological construct, without explaining how it worked – which explanation they would obviously find fascinating.

An analogy I sometimes use is the technology in the background of contemporary novels. No one reads Graham Greene or Vladimir Nabokov for explanations of how cars or televisions work. Many of us have no idea how they work – we just know that they do. In my kind of SF, the characters in the stories know that the technology works. This is enough for me. If the characters believe, then so too should the reader. I don’t have to go into explanations of how the technology works in order to convince the reader, do I?

I don’t find explanation of how things work that fascinating. To be honest, I couldn’t give a damn how the helix was put together, how the meteorology worked, how the planets were made to turn. I wanted to tell a fast-paced, emotionally resonant adventure, and the very fact that the helix was there, working, and observed by the characters to be doing so, was sufficient for me. I believed the world while I was writing it, and hoped that the reader would too.

Many didn’t, and wrote about my sins of bad science at length in reviews and blogs. Some loved the story for what I hoped it would be, fun, exciting adventure about strange worlds, aliens and spaceships. (Check out the reviews on Amazon UK and US, and elsewhere on the Internet, for a diverse range of opinion.)

Now, this isn’t to deride or belittle the kind of SF I don’t write, or to say that what I write is how SF should be. The beauty of our field is that it is broad and encompasses Hard SF, Soft SF and SF of every type of squishiness in between. And I’m not even saying that the critics of Helix were wrong. They were right (the little science I did inadvertently commit was sometimes off the mark); but readers hoping for a Hard SF read were reading the wrong book.

After Helix I published Kéthani (Quiet SF) and then the Bengal Station series starting with Necropath (a rewrite and expansion of my 2004 novel Bengal Station), which was declared: ‘Eric Brown’s triumphant return to Hard SF!’

It isn’t Hard SF (Hard SF fans be warned). It’s more Soft, Quiet SF about a telepath and his quest for happiness (with aliens and spaceship and lasers) and which follows his character arc from being a nihilist to being a reasonably happy chap.

Above all else, I think, it is story.

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Dominic Harman

n221684I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of knowing Dominic Harman, the artist, for more than twenty years. Back when I was selling stories to the Interzone, Dominic was commissioned to do the covers for the magazine, one or two of which illustrated stories of mine. Years later he did the cover for my novel, Helix – a fantastic burning spaceship with the helix in the background. I credit the fine cover with being instrumental in the book’s doing so well – fifty thousand copies sold to date, and counting. A couple of years later Dominic did the cover for the reissue of Engineman – another brilliant depiction of a spaceship. And then came what I regard as the finest cover he’s done for my work, that of The Serene Invasion: a great alien starship hovering over an arid African landscape.

SERENEINVASION (2)Dominic’s range has evolved over the years, since I started working with him, and his popularity has increased. His fine covers grace the work of many a best-seller, and I’m fortunate indeed that he’s still able and willing to illustrate my books. I think you’ll agree that his artwork for Jani and the Greater Game is excellent.

Anyway, I thought I’d write a short piece on Dominic’s work as it’s his fortieth birthday today: here’s to another forty and many more fine covers…

Jani

 

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Silver Machine

The British heavy metal band Hawkwind released Silver Machine, composed by Dave Brock with lyrics by Robert Calvert, in 1972, and it reached number three in the hit parade. It was released again in ’76, ’78, and ’83. It must have been around ’78 that I became aware of it. I liked its energy, it allusion to SF – which I’d discovered a few years earlier while living in Melbourne.

Robert Calvert has written: “I read this essay by Alfred Jarrey called, ‘How to Construct a Time Machine’, and I noticed something which I don’t think anyone else has thought of because I’ve never seen any criticism of the piece to suggest this. I seemed to suss out immediately that what he was describing was his bicycle… I thought it was a great idea for a song. At that time there were a lot of songs about space travel, and it was the time when NASA was actually, really doing it. They’d put a man on the moon and were planning to put parking lots and hamburger stalls and everything up there. I thought that it was about time to come up with a song that actually sent this all up, which was ‘Silver Machine’. ‘Silver Machine’ was just to say, I’ve got a silver bicycle, and nobody got it. I didn’t think they would. I thought that what they would think we were singing about some sort of cosmic space travel machine.”

Well, I certainly did.

In the early eighties I went to a concert by Hawkwind at St. Georges Hall, Bradford. The only track I knew by them was Silver Machine – I’d heard a few others, but they did nothing for me. I was hoping to hear more tracks like Machine. As it happened I was wearing an old Hawkwind t-shirt, given to me by a woman I worked with in a factory in Keighley: her son was or had been a roadie with Hawkwind, and she was clearing out some of his rubbish… Anyway, there I was, an overawed fellow in my early twenties wearing this heavy metal t-shirt surrounded by what looked like a convention of Hell’s Angels in the bar of St. Georges Hall. At one point I noticed a vast bearded guy staring at me, and I shrank into my half of bitter and wondered what I’d done to offend him. A minute later I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned to find this hirsute giant glaring down at me. I felt, I can safely report, like shitting bricks and building myself a barricade. “Like the t-shirt,” he said, and went on to say that it was very rare and he’d give me a tenner for it. I was astounded. A tenner was a lot of brass to me, back in the early eighties. I said, “Ber-but… but I don’t have…” He vanished, to return a minute later with a new, cellophane-wrapped t-shirt that were on sale in the foyer. He gave me a tenner and I stripped off the t-shirt and donned the new one, a tenner the richer. All parties were happy.

That’s all I recall of the concert.

I haven’t heard Silver Machine for years.

I still don’t much care for heavy metal, or for Hawkwind.

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The Naming of Names

The art or craft of naming things – nomenclature – is something I leave largely to my subconscious. Rarely do I come to a piece of writing, whether a novel or a short story, with the names of characters already set in stone.

So, regarding the names that my subconscious conjures up… can I look back and claim, on behalf of my subconscious, an insight that was lacking in my upper brain at the time of writing? Did the names relate to mythology, or have some deeper meaning than was at first apparent? Well, leafing through my last few novels, it would seem not. I see many routine Anglo-Saxon names, a few Indian names, and a few – belonging to aliens – that I must have made up because they sounded euphonious, or just plain right.

I tend to spend more time, for some reason, thinking about the names of things: planets, cities, starships, etc. These have to sound right, convey the correct impression, the required atmosphere. For instance, in the novel Satan’s Reach, the second book in the Weird Space sequence, I have the following names of planets: Ajanta – which sounds Indian, sultry and exotic, to me, which is the atmosphere I wanted to instil in the reader’s mind; Tourmaline (which I have an idea Ed Bryant used for a planet, too) which sounds bright and shiny, and for some reason rural; Teplican – the corruption of the name of a town in, I think, Hungary, which I came across in Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. Teplican sounded mysterious, and indeed there is a mystery on the planet; then the next world our intrepid heroes venture to is called Vassatta – an ice world which describes a highly erratic orbit around the sun, so that a winter lasts for a hundred Terran years. Vassatta sounds a little Nordic, which worked in the context of the chapter. (I get a lot of names for planets and cities from other books, often non-fiction: I’ll read a name that resonates with me, then play about with it, change a consonant here, a vowel there, until I have something that fits.)

In the same novel I have two starships, one chasing the other, and in the first and second drafts of the book I left the names blank (or rather wrote ???, where the names should be), and only during the third go through will I give the ships names, after a lot of careful consideration.

I keep a note-book in which I jot down words which will one day become the names of planets, cities, or alien races. In France a few years ago I saw a poster for a music concert, and one of the bands was called, if my memory serves, Bokkota; this became Bokota, the name of an alien race in one of my books. Many moons ago I came across a list of words that were synonyms for kambucha – a type of fungus tea that was apparently good for the digestion (it wasn’t: it made me ill): many of these words were wonderfully alien in their own right, and found their way, altered slightly, into my fiction. One day I hope to use names lifted from Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar: he was travelling through Malaysia by train, and at one point describes the names of a series of railway stations and comments that they sounded like the names that a science fiction writer might give to planets. Thanks, Mr Theroux.

I have a couple of favourite writers who are brilliant at giving things – people, planets, cities, societies – just the right name. Jack Vance is a genius. Open any of his books and you’ll come across wonderfully evocative names, names that combine the exotic and the commonplace but which perfectly describe whatever he’s writing about. James Lovegrove is another author who works hard at his names: he’s a wordsmith par excellence, and his novel Provender Gleed is an object lesson in the naming of things.

In my novel The Serene Invasion I have the S’rene come to Earth and stop human beings from committing violence. Of course the S’rene soon come to be known as the Serene. Their enemy are the ugly-sounding Obterek, and I have no idea where that name came from. I have a number of Indian characters in the book, and I had fun with Hindu baby name websites, matching the names and their meanings to individual characters.

But, that said – as with all my work – I owe most of what I do to that mysterious thing called the subconscious.

I power up the PC in the morning, make sure I have a cup of piping hot green tea at my elbow, then send down a silent prayer to that strata of my mind that will, for the next few hours, with luck, transport me to a world light years away from this one.

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Influential Books

These are the ten most influential books on my writing career…

1) Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie. This book changed my life. I left school at fourteen when my family emigrated to Melbourne, Australia. I’d never read a novel in my life. I was bored one summer holiday, and in desperation my mother said, “Read this. It might keep you quiet.” A Pan edition of Cards on the Table. I read it and was spellbound from the first page. I finished the book and began reading it again. I find it hard to relate the revelation this piece of fiction had one me: it was shattering. To be allowed into the heads of other people, albeit fictional characters, to be given a view of the world not my own… I knew, as soon as I read the book, that I wanted to be a writer. The very next day I sat down and began plotting my first novel. It was three pages long and featured a vicar, a retired major, and a tennis party.

2) Sundance and other stories by Robert Silverberg. I read Christie religiously for months, and then while in Menzies bookstore in Melbourne saw the Corgi paperback edition of Sundance, featuring a bull-nosed starship by (I think) Chris Foss. I was captivated by the image and bought the book. It was another, even greater revelation. If Christie blew my young mind, then imagine what Silverberg did. It’s not one of his best collections, I realise in retrospect, mainly featuring tales he wrote at speed in the fifties, but it contained a story called “The Overlord’s Thumb” about a planetary governor and a tricky alien-human conflict which fired my imagination. Years later I paraphrased the opening paragraph in one of my own stories, “The People of the Nova.”

3 & 4) The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. I’ve listed these two books together because that’s how I discovered them in an ‘Opportunity’ shop – which is what they called charity shops in Australia back in ’75 (and might still call them today) – in Mordialloc. They were bound together in a Heinemann hardback, and I think it might have been a schools edition. Anyway, the books amazed me, especially The Time Machine. It was the first time travel tale I’d read – what an auspicious starting place! – and the very idea of time travel filled me with that tingling sense of wonder that SF is all about. I was very affected by one of the final scenes in the book, when the Time Traveller stands on a lonely shore millions of years in the future, surrounded by scuttling crab-like beasts, and contemplates the vast, red fulminating sun. Vast, red fulminating suns make guest appearances in my fiction to this day. I loved The War of the Worlds, too, and recall that I was very taken by the tripods. It was shortly after reading these books that I set aside any idea of writing whodunits and concentrated on writing SF.

5) The Father Brown stories by G.K. Chesterton. Around the same time I discovered Silverberg, I came across a Penguin edition of The Wisdom of Father Brown, began reading it and found the prose too ‘hard’. It wasn’t what I was expecting from a detective story, being far too philosophical for my liking. A few years later, however, I returned to the book and loved it – loved Chesterton’s rich, alliterative, declarative prose, his poignant descriptions of the English countryside (which I lapped up as I was still in Melbourne, and homesick). I admired his turn of phrase, his alliteration, the way he used the language in a fresh and vibrant way. He’s still one of my favourite writers (I pastiched his style and featured G.K. himself in my novella Gilbert and Edgar on Mars) and I collect his work – a mammoth task as he wrote a lot.

6) Riotous Assembly by Tom Sharpe. It must have been around 1976 that I picked up this novel, Sharpe’s over-the-top satire on apartheid in South Africa. I was fifteen and knew little about the political situation there, and read the book as a comic novel about ignorance and racism. It was hilariously funny – the first funny book I’d ever read, and again it blew me away. I haven’t read it since – I’m afraid to, in case it doesn’t live up to my recollections of it – but I recall being taken by Sharpe’s prose style, his long, complex sentences, and his intercutting between scenes.

7) Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake. Skip a few years and I’m back in England; I’ve read a lot more and written lots of unpublished rubbish. I’m in my early twenties. I can’t recall how I came across this book, and was surprised I liked it. I’m wasn’t too keen on fantasy (not that this novel is strictly fantasy, though that’s what I read it as back then) and I preferred pared down prose to lush, descriptive writing. But I was taken by Peake’s descriptions, his rendering of the setting, his larger-than-life characters, and the brooding sense of menace he builds up throughout the book. I fell in love with Titus Groan’s sister, Fuchsia, and was deeply moved by her accidental death. I was captivated by Peake’s description of her, too: “She was gauche in movement and in a sense, ugly of face, but with how small a twist might she not suddenly have become beautiful. Her sullen mouth was full and rich – her eyes smouldered.” Wonderful.

8) The Drums of Morning by Rupert Croft-Cooke. This is the third volume of Croft-Cooke’s twenty-seven book autobiographical sequence entitled The Sensual World. He’s a sadly neglected writer who between around 1930 and his death in 1979 wrote over a hundred and twenty books, thirty-odd mainstream novels, the same number of crime novels under the name Leo Bruce, and books on such diverse subjects as darts, gypsies, the circus, wines, cooking, and biographies of Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas and Kipling, as well as short stories and poetry. But his lasting legacy is The Sensual World, a brilliant evocation of his life and times – concentrating on the latter. The odd thing is that although he wrote so many volumes of autobiography, he never once mentioned the fact that he was homosexual – partly of course due to the times in which he was writing, and partly because, as he was at pains to point out, the books were less about himself than the places he travelled to and the people he met. Croft-Cooke was a non-conformist, an eternal optimist, and eternally seeking – perhaps as a rebellion against his upper-middle-class upbringing – new and varied experiences. The autobiographies bristle with incident and loving accounts of the personalities, famous and otherwise, he encountered during his varied and peripatetic life.

I came across The Drums of Morning in a junk shop in Haworth, West Yorkshire. I read it quickly and knew that I had to find the rest of the series. Over the course of the next few years I began collecting Croft-Cooke’s books, and found the story of his life, its many vicissitudes and few triumphs, as true inspiration.

9) The Girl with a Symphony in Her Fingers by Michael G Coney. A few years later I discovered the excellent and neglected SF writer Michael Coney. I recall precisely where I found this fix-up novel. It was in W.H. Smiths in Bradford, on a discount table. I picked up the Elmfield Press hardback for 50p – and bought it because it was SF. I’d never heard of the author, but the blurb sounded interesting. I devoured the novel and it remains one of my favourite SF novels. It’s not his best (Hello Summer, Goodbye or Brontomek! are technically superior novels) but it spoke to me. It’s a quiet novel about Joe Sagar, a slithe farmer, on the Peninsula. Slithes are alien creatures whose pelts, when shed, change colour according to the emotions of the wearer. Joe meets and falls for a young woman, has run-ins with the haughty and egocentric 3-V star Carioca Jones, and flies his sling-glider in the skies above the Peninsula. It’s a light read, and Joe Sagar is a wry, likable character who features in other uncollected tales set in the same milieu. This novel, and others by Coney, were the influence behind my novel Meridian Days and the series of novellas that comprise the Starship Seasons sequence.

10) Helix by Eric Brown. This might seem a stroke of blatant self-publicity, but the book was a great influence on the rest of my career as an SF writer. I’d had a trilogy out with Gollancz – the three New York books – which didn’t sell well, perhaps because Golly, in their wisdom, brought the books out over a period of five years. They then rushed out The Fall of Tartarus, with no publicity at all, then promptly dumped me. After a period in the doldrums, I had what I thought was a great idea for a big SF novel: a vast spiral of ten thousand worlds created by an enigmatic alien race as a haven for races on the edge of extinction. I wrote an opening chapter or two and a detailed ten thousand word outline, and sent it to various publishers and agents. To cut a long story short, no one wanted it. I was disappointed, to put it mildly. A couple of years later John Jarrold contacted me, knowing I was unagented, and asked if he might represent me and if I had anything he might be able to sell. I leapt at the chance and sent him the outline of Helix. He thought it sellable, and promptly sold it to Solaris. It proved to be my best-selling book, with nearly fifty thousand copies sold to date. I wrote a sequel, Helix Wars, and hope to do more in the series. The moral of the tale, keep at it and don’t let the bastards get you down. Anyway: Helix, a big influence on my career.

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