Monthly Archives: September 2014

Forthcoming

Next year will see the publication of Jani and the Great Pursuit, the second volume of the Multiplicity series, which will see Jani, and her friends Alfie Littlebody and Anand, fleeing for their lives around the globe from London to Tibet…

The third volume of the Telemass Quartet, Reunion on Alpha Reticuli II, will be out from PS Publishing, followed later in the year by the fourth novella, as yet untitled.

A planned collaboration with Tony Ballantyne is in its early stages. He came up to Scotland last year and, as we were strolling around the seaside town of North Berwick, we started chatting about the writing of short-short stories. We discovered that we both loved writing them – as a relief from the writing of novels – and that we’d written a couple of handfuls each. Immediately the idea of a collaborative collection came to mind, with the title of Microcosms. Of course no big, commercial publisher would be interested – collections don’t sell, after all – but we thought a smaller press might be interested. We parted with the promise that we’d write more short-shorts in the interim – and, by early next year, we should have enough to launch the book.

On the short story front, “The Ice Garden” will be appearing in Gary Dalkin’s Improbable Botany anthology later this year. Five or six other short stories are currently doing the rounds of magazines and anthologies.

~

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Interview

This interview, conducted by Mark Chitty, first appeared on The Speculative Scotsman website in 2011. My thanks to Mark Chitty and Niall Alexander.

MC: If I may, I’d like to start by talking about The Kings of Eternity. You mentioned in my last interview with you in 2010 that you had “…been writing the novel, on and off, for ten years, and I think it’s probably the best thing I’ve done.” It certainly was a great novel, and from the reviews I’ve seen from around the internet I’m not alone in that. Both Mark Yon and Rob Bedford over at SFFWorld.com named it their favourite science fiction release of 2011. How have you found the reaction to it?

Thanks for your kind words – I’m pleased you enjoyed it.

To my delight, the reaction has been uniformly excellent. I don’t think I’ve come across one bad review… yet. When one of my books is published I’m pretty resigned to reviews running the gamut from good to bad and everything in between. When a book goes out there, I know that some people will love it, some hate it with equal passion, and many people won’t give a damn either way. The response to Kings is especially rewarding as of all my books it’s the one I’m most pleased with. I loved writing it, I loved rewriting it, and, when I dip into it very occasionally, it’s the novel that picks me up and carries me along – it’s almost as if I didn’t write it. It’s certainly the novel that means the most to me, of all my stuff: I identify with the characters, their predicaments, and the sentiments expressed. Because I wrote it over such a protracted period – over ten years – I think it had time to mature, and I certainly had the opportunity to go back to it again and again and tinker, fix, cut…

MC: I believe your next novel due out, The Devil’s Nebula, is a venture into a shared world setting with Abaddon Books. Can you tell us a little about the novel?

The Devil’s Nebula is about a small starship, ostensibly a salvage ship, and its crew of almost-criminals in a future fascistic, human empire. They sail close to the judicial wind, keeping just to this side of the law – until they land on a world within the out-of-bounds territory of the alien Vetch, searching for art treasures. Caught by the Terran authorities, they’re given an ultimatum: face the death penalty, or take your ship beyond Vetch territory to the Devil’s Nebula, in search of a colony ship that left human-space a century earlier… It’s out-and-out space adventure, of the type I love to read, set in a universe where an evil alien life-force, the Weird, are bent on invading our universe through portals from another dimensions. It’s a space opera with Lovecraftian overtones.

MC: How did you find the process of creating such a setting knowing that other authors would be writing within it at a future date?

That will be one of the delights of the project: setting up the background – the ground-rules, if you like – and seeing where other writers will take it. I’m looking forward to reading the novels in the series and taking inspiration from them, borrowing ideas maybe, riffs, and hopefully writing more in the series. It has great scope for many fascinating adventure stories, of many types, and I’m fascinated to see where it goes. The first novel, while complete in itself, sets up the series, leaving many ideative avenues for others to explore.

MC: After The Devils’ Nebula we’ve got Helix Wars to look forward to, a sequel to your 2007 novel, Helix. Is there anything you can say about that yet, and why the choice to return to that setting?

Helix Wars is set two hundred years after the events depicted in Helix. Humankind has settled on New Earth, the colony is thriving, and the alien Builders of the Helix have conferred upon humanity the mantle of Peacekeepers – the monitors of the six thousand-odd alien races who inhabit the Helix. However, the Builders ceased communicating with the human colonists around a hundred and ninety years ago, retreating into virtual quiescence. The humans have been going it alone for that long and successfully keeping the peace between the various races – until now. On the circuit of the Helix below where New Earth is situated on the fourth circuit, an alien race known as the Sporelli has invaded the peaceful world of Phandra and the neighbouring world of D’rayni, and the central character, Jeff Ellis, is caught up in the conflict when his shuttle crash-lands on Phandra and he is saved by the elfin, pacific natives. What follows is a story of personal loyalty – as Ellis attempts to save the life of the woman who saved him, when she is kidnapped by the Sporelli – and the destiny of various races on the Helix.

The Helix is a vast playground, and it was great to return to it. I’ve had great fun writing this novel – I love SF adventures featuring humans and aliens, exotic settings, fabulous inventions, crash-landed starships, strange cults… I can see myself (if my publisher so wishes) returning again and again to the world(s) of the Helix. The amount of fun I can have there is never-ending.

MC: Any further novels planned, and if so can we get a sneaky bit of info on them?

The novel contracted for after Helix Wars is The Serene Invasion. It’s an idea I’ve had for years, and one I’ve wanted to write for ages. And it might be the most difficult I’ve ever tackled. The background is that an alien race, the Serene, come to Earth and abolishes the act of violence, our capability for violence, for the better of the human race. The novel will follow the consequences of this over the course of approximately forty years. It will focus on three or four characters and chart not only how their lives have changed, but how society and the race as a whole have been transformed. I want to write a novel of character, like Kethani, and a big novel of ideas. Sometimes I’m daunted by the task I’ve set myself. I’m confident of depicting the characters to my satisfaction, but it’s the societal examination of the premise that will be a big challenge.

After that… As I mentioned earlier, I’d like to do another Weird Space novel. And I’m always working on short stories. I’ll be writing a novella soon with Keith Brooke, and finishing off my Salvageman Ed story cycle, which very possibly will be appearing as a book in France before anywhere else.

I have a collection (Ghostwriting) of my horror stories due out soon, as both an e-book and a real book, from infinity plus books. I’ve just had a proof copy through, and it looks great. It contains my eight horror/ghost stories to date – though they’re not bloody, gory, macabre tales, rather examinations of characters in stressful/horrific situations. Depending on how well Ghostwriting sells, infinity plus books might also do my e-book SF collection, The Angels of Life and Death, as a pod book.

I wrote a crime novel last year, set in 1955 – it’s still doing the rounds – and I’d like to write further novels about the central character.

All in all, what with moving up to Dunbar in Scotland earlier this year, I’m more than a little busy.

MC: You’ve recently had some of your older novels and novellas come out through the ebook imprints Infinity Plus Books and Anarchy Books. Have you updated any of these, and are there any plans to get the remainder of your backlist out via this format?

I’ve not updated anything that’s gone into e-book format, other than correct of few errors or typos and things. Most of my longer work is available in e-books, I think – with the exception of my two Web books for children, Untouchable and Walkabout. Solaris brings out e-books all my novels; PS Publishing brings out all the novellas I’ve done for them as e-books (or will do soon); and Anarchy Books do the Virex trilogy.

MC: Speaking of ebooks, the success of the Kindle and other devices has brought a flood of self-published books to the market. What are your thoughts on the ease in which books can be published like this, especially with many of yours available in e-versions only?

Well, it does mean that the market is flooded with unedited material, so it’s harder for the reader to wade through the dross to find the good stuff. And, I suppose, that means my e-work will be buried under the flood. But I’m not complaining. I often wonder if, had the internet and e-publishing, and POD, been around when I started writing thirty-odd years ago, I might have gone down that road to start with. What I did was put all my unpublished – and unpublishable work (some twenty-odd novels and three hundred short stories) – under my bed, where it didn’t get edited, or read.

I’ve read three authors recently who self-published their stuff as e-books, sold – or had downloaded – millions, and achieved real publishing deals as a result – two Americans and a Brit. All three books were of low quality, and I despise the respective publishers for jumping on the band-wagon.

I still think Alfred Bester’s dictum should be seriously considered by every writer (and I’m paraphrasing him here): Write a million words, and only then try to sell.

MC: You mention that you’re always working on short stories, and you’ve had some collections of these out in the past (Kethani, The Fall of Tartarus). I like the idea of these collections that focus on the same setting and/or characters, and I’m aware that you have other short stories and novellas that fall into this category (the Starship stories, Salvageman Ed). Can you see these being collected either as a print or ebook edition in the future?

Ideally I’d like to see them as print books. PS Publishing is doing all four Starship novellas in one volume – so it’d be lovely to see a mass market paperback of that. It’d work, as in total it’s around 120k, and reads like a novel. As for the Salvageman Ed tales; they stand at 70k at the moment, and are almost finished, and it looks as if they’ll be coming out in France as a print book from the people who publish the Bifrost SF magazine, where some of the tales have run.

MC: Finally, where would you recommend a new reader to your work to start?

Mmm… that’s a difficult question, because it depends what the reader likes. For readers who prefer space opera, I’d recommend Helix, Penumbra and Engineman; for those who like more quiet, introspective, character-driven SF I’d recommend The Kings of Eternity; Kethani; The Fall of Tartarus; and the Starship novellas, and the novella Gilbert and Edgar on Mars, featuring G. K. Chesterton and Edgar Rice Burroughs on the red planet. Then the Bengal Station trilogy (Necropath, Xenopath, and Cosmopath) combines both space opera and character – in fact, in terms of characterisation, I think Vaughan in those books is my most successful creation, in that I managed to achieve – I think – exactly what I set out to do in starting with someone who had very little to live for, was a nihilist, and through his experiences over the course of the three books came to some degree of happiness and contentment.

~

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Murder…

I’ve been a reader of crime fiction from the age of fifteen, when I began reading novels. I’d somehow managed to avoid reading fiction before then, but in 1975 discovered Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, quickly followed by Robert Silverberg’s Sundance and other stories. And if Christie was a revelation, you can imagine what effect Silverberg had on my innocent young mind.

After reading his Sundance, I wanted to be a science fiction writer.

Seventeen years after that, my first SF novel, Meridian Days, was published, and for the past twenty-odd years all my output, other than a few children’s books, has been in the genre.

But for over twenty years I had an idea for a crime story. It involved an embittered writer and his murderous scheme to get even with critics, colleagues and editors (and no, it isn’t autobiographical). The central conceit – which I won’t give away here – meant that it had to be set before DNA testing came into use, or the crime would have been discovered in a few hours.

About five years ago I wrote the tale as a short story, not a novel, “The Human Element”, and it sold to Pete Crowther’s excellent Postscripts magazine/anthology. A year or two later it came to me that I could expand the story into a novel.

Not much remains of that early effort, other than the core idea of an embittered author. The central character, not the embittered author but a successful writer of crime thrillers, becomes embroiled in a series of murders. Around him, fellow writers, editors and critics are being despatched one by one – and our hero Donald Langham, ably assisted by his literary agent Maria Dupré, attempts to solve the crimes.

It’s set in 1955 – because DNA testing wasn’t around then, and because the fifties is an era I find interesting. Britain was emerging from the privations of the pre-war years, and change was in the air. London was still the Smoke, and the countryside was relatively unspoilt.

I wrote the first draft in a month – about the average time I take to write a novel these days. I found writing about the nineteen-fifties, writing about the ‘real’ world, as opposed to an invented future world, incredibly liberating. I didn’t have to build the world from the ground up, or to describe things in as much detail. Readers would know of the world I was writing about, because they lived in it from day to day.

I let the ms of the crime novel lie for a few weeks, then rewrote it and sent it off to my agent, with a couple of recommendations as to where to send it. I forgot about it and concentrated on other projects – The Devil’s Nebula and Helix Wars.

Weeks elapsed, then months, and when a year had passed by without any news from the publishers, I nudged my agent (who had been nudging the publishers in turn), and heard back from Severn House. Their response was, “Haven’t got round to reading it yet, but will do soon…”

I reconciled myself to another long wait – par for the course in this line of work – and was surprised when a week later I heard from the editors. They very much liked the novel, but felt that the mystery and intrigue element could be ratcheted up in the last third of the book. I agreed, and duly rewrote the last third, and a chapter near the start, adding two new characters and ten thousand words.

Thankfully the editors were happy with the rewrite. But one sticking point remained: the title. I’d called the book The Grub Street Murders – which I thought pretty well summed up the story. However, the powers that be at Severn House considered it too abstract, and thought that the ‘grub’ in the title wouldn’t go down well in the US, where much of their market resided. We passed through a period of batting alternative titles back and forth before someone in the Severn House office came up with the excellent Murder by the Book which, while not wholly original, did fit with the content of the novel and sounded good.

So my first crime novel, Murder by the Book, came out in June 2013, the opening volume of what I hope will be a series of ‘Langham and Dupré’ mysteries. The second book, Murder at the Chase, was published this year.

Next on the cards, it’s back to SF with a follow-up to my steampunk novel Jani and the Greater Game; and following that the fourth novella in the Telemass Quartet.

And then… Well, I have the vague, first stirrings of the third Langham and Dupré mystery niggling away in my back-brain.

This piece first appeared on Upcoming4me.

~

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Space Opera

My first love in science fiction, both reading it and writing it, is space opera, or as Brian Aldiss termed it, wide-screen baroque. I’m not sure I’ve done anything very wide-screen, but I’ve written my fair share of space opera, starting with Engineman back in 1992. That was followed in 1999 by Penumbra. There was another longish wait until 2007 when Helix came out, and proved to be my bestselling title ever (with almost fifty thousand copies sold to date). After that I did the Bengal Station trilogy which, though set mainly on Earth, did in each book visit the stars. These novels were followed by The Devil’s Nebula, Helix Wars, and Satan’s Reach. Salvage, published last year, is a space opera fix-up of linked short stories.

I like writing about starships, aliens, and exotic planetary locations. I like writing fast-paced adventures using all three. Recently, however, I’ve been writing a couple of crime novels and the first and second volumes of the steampunk Multiplicity series, starring Jani, a plucky Anglo-Indian woman and her adventures in a very different 1925.

I’d like to get back to writing space opera, however, and for the past year, on and off, I’ve been daydreaming about just such a project. It will be called The Engines of Eternity trilogy, and each book will be longer than any I’ve done before, around 150,000 words. The trilogy will feature a human expansion, a host of alien races, vast alien artefacts from millions of years in the past, a war or two, colonies under threat, telepathy, sentient starships… and, above all, characters the reader will come to care about and root for.

So, I hear you say, what’s new?

A good question.

And the answer is, I don’t know. My counter question would be: what does it matter?

What does matter is that the story is gripping, the characters real and moreover believable and sympathetic, the action fast, the settings exotic…

That will do for me, and, I hope, for prospective readers.

Of course, The Engines of Eternity project might never come off; might remain as a daydream bubbling away in my back brain.

Only time will tell.

~

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Twenty-Five Years

Next year will mark the twenty-fifth year since my first book, The Time-Lapsed Man and other stories, was first published. This is a frightening anniversary because, subjectively, very little time at all seems to have elapsed. I can still recall my first meeting with the editor responsible for buying the book for Sphere, then part of the Penguin group, (a month or so later he moved to Macmillan, and took the book with him). I recall the thrill, as if it were just yesterday, of signing the contract, and recall the heady notion that, after years of slogging away, I was about to see a book of mine in print.

In the intervening twenty-five years I’ve published over fifty books and a hundred and thirty-odd short stories, a fact that I still find amazing. It’s not just the quantity that surprises me, but the fact that, despite all the knocks and set-backs, I’ve kept going. There have been times when, novel contracts thin on the ground, and with mounting financial pressures, I’ve considered stopping writing novels and getting a ‘proper’ job, while continuing to write short stories in my spare time. Then sense – and the fact that I can do nothing else – intervened and I ploughed on, turning out novels and outlines until they started selling again.

A few years ago at a convention, someone who wanted to become a professional writer asked me, “What would you advise me to do to get a career as a writer?”

I must admit that the question floored me. I thought for a time before replying, “First of all, don’t think of writing as a ‘career’. If you want a career, go into banking…” I went on to suggest something that still sounds sensible to me. I said that the young man could do worse than considering getting himself a trade, an apprenticeship as a carpenter, a plumber or an electrician, “And write in your spare time.”

Looking back, it’s perhaps what I should have done – it would have saved me from some hard financial times. In my late teens I had the opportunity to serve an apprenticeship as a joiner. I thought about it, then decided to do dead-end factory work instead and spend all my spare time scribbling.

There were times down the years when I’ve regretted this decision, wished that I had the fall-back of a trade to get me through the hard times. Then again, had I been a joiner, would I have persevered with my writing to the extent that I did – turning out the novels and outlines that, eventually, did make their way into print? I’ll never know.

But I must admit that it’s a suggestion I’d still make to any aspiring writer, especially these days when it’s even harder for a writer to scratch a living from putting pen to paper – ironically, as we live in an age when getting into print, via PoD and online publication, has never been easier. Think about getting a trade, do a ‘real’ job, and write in your spare time because you love writing and have a story to tell…

But would I have listened, as a headstrong aspiring writer back in 1980, with his head full of ideas and a burning desire to get into print?

Probably not.

~

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Books v Kindles

I collect books.

I rarely return home after visiting a new town or city without bringing back an armload of volumes. Even trips into Dunbar, five miles away, tend to see me return with books garnered from the local charity shops. I have a very small study, nine feet by seven (though when we move I’ll be getting a bigger place), and it’s crammed with bookshelves lining every wall and even on shelves placed at right angles to the walls, so that my writing area is hived off from the door; it’s more like a cockpit. And we have hundreds of books scattered around the rest of the house, belonging to me, to my wife – lots of hers are historical books and novels – and to my daughter.

I collect science fiction, and among the authors I concentrate on are Aldiss, Ballard, Baxter, Beckett, Cowper, Daventry, Kilworth, Lovegrove, McIntosh, Russo, Sellings, Shaw, Sheckley, Silverberg, Simak, Stableford, Vance, Wilson (Robert Charles). I also love and collect forgotten British authors from the thirties, forties, fifties and sixties: Rupert Croft-Cooke, Robin Maugham, Peter de Polnay, Miles, Tripp, James Wellard (though he’s Anglo-American), along with more contemporary scribes like Jonathan Coe, Geoff Nicholson, and Ethan Mordden. I also have a growing collection of travel books, and many volumes about India.

A friend once stood in the doorway of my study, looked around in stupefaction and said, “But you could have all these books on Kindle, and save the space…”

I tried to explain that, for me, books are more than just the intellectual ideas they contain. They’re more than the story, though that’s their primary delight. Subsidiary attractions are manifold: they’re often beautiful physical objects. Each tome has a history – a personal history for the individual reader – and a history in terms of publication that ties a book to a time and place. When I pull a book down from the shelf and leaf through it, a store of memories and association fly up from the volume. I’m taken back, not only to my recollection of the story itself, to the emotions and passions it engenders, but to where I was when I last read it, and even the mental state I was in at the time.

Then I’m interested in things which, to a non-book lover, might seem perverse, like the font of a certain book, its cover, its binding, its paper stock, the stitching of its spine, even – I admit – its bouquet.

The totality of a book, its physical presence as well as its ideative content, is far more important to me that a ‘book’ as a mere collection of bytes on a machine.

That’s why Kindles strike me as soulless and lacking everything that makes a book such a delight; for me Kindles, despite being light, convenient, great to take on holidays etc, will never replace the Book – and that’s why I’ll never purchase one.

~

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Jani and Steampunk

It has been said that all my SF works are typified by the exploration of humanity’s reaction to change in society, clad in an SF jacket. I wouldn’t disagree with this, but would point out that this applies to almost all SF written these days. To set out to write about the future, and about some scientific and/or technological advance in the future – allied to the explication of character (after all, that’s what all writing is about) – is by necessity to explore humanity’s reaction to these changes. I’m not a Hard SF writer – I’m not that interested in the nuts and bolts of technological invention, or the theory behind the science. What interests me is how science and technology changes people, society and culture. To me, the prime example of a writer who did this well, and, what’s more important, entertainingly, is Michael Coney. On the surface his stories are about human interaction and the emotions wrought by simple human conflict; beneath the surface, he’s writing about a society, and individuals, changed by some scientific or technological advance – or, in the case of Hello Summer, Goodbye and its sequel I Remember Pallahaxi, about change brought about by alien biology.

Now, can it be said that my latest novel, the steampunk romp Jani and the Greater Game, is typified by the of humanity’s reaction to change in society? Well, ‘typified’ is a loaded word, but I can safely say that the novel is very much about the changes wrought to society – in Britain, India, and indeed the world – by one very important difference to reality as we know it. This difference is that in the world of Jani, set in an alternative 1925, the British Raj has discovered an almost magical power source in the foothills of the Himalayas. Throughout the novel this power source is alluded to, but never explained – until the denouement. It’s known simply as Annapurnite, and the reader, reading between the lines, will guess that it’s not much different to nuclear power. With it, the British Empire has secured its place at the forefront of the superpowers vying for world domination, the other contenders being Russia and China. Britain rules the waves (and waives the rules, as Jani Chatterjee points out at one point) and history has been changed by the discovery of Annapurnite… or whatever it is. There was no first World War, Europe has been at peace for decades, and America is ruled from London. However, there is Nationalist unrest in India, and Jani finds herself conflicted as to where her loyalties lie. Her mother was English, her father an Indian with pro-British leanings, and while Jani was brought up in India until the age of eight, she was educated in Blighty until she was eighteen. She can see the many benefits brought about by British rule, and the Raj’s utilisation of the mysterious Annapurnite, but she is also aware of the drawbacks; the racism, the elitism, the very iniquity of one race lording it over another.

And what she learns during the course of the novel subverts everything she ever thought true not only about the British in India, about Annapurnite, but about the very reality of which she is a small, but very significant, part.

So there we are: Jani and the Greater Game fits neatly into he corpus of the rest of my work: it is about change, and humanity’s reaction to it… (And it’s also about Imperialism, and racism, and loyalty, both personal and societal – as well as being, I like to think, a rip-roaring, page-turning adventure story with a heroine at its centre who you’ll come to love).

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