Friday, April 18, 2014

Afresh

A little over twenty years ago, on April 5th 1994, Channel 4 broadcast the last interview given by the playwright and novelist Dennis Potter, then in the terminal stage of pancreatic cancer. He famously described how the immediate prospect of death heightened his awareness of the world:
'At this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west, early. . .  Last week looking at it through the window when I'm writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both much more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn't seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know . . . The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.'
Anyone rudely confronted by their own mortality can attest to the absolute truth of this. Three years ago I was finishing a long course of chemotherapy, unsure whether or not I would survive, and the blossom then was, yes, whiter and frothier and blossomier than any blossom there ever had been. It wasn't the immediacy of childlike wonder, or the ecstatic visions of William Blake, or the intensity celebrated by the Romantic Poets. It was the understanding that there was only the moment of seeing, and the nowness of that moment. Of seeing the world as it was, not as you expected it to be be. Seeing it afresh.

I was more or less unable to write then, but something of that immediacy is what all fiction writers aspire to, of course. To make the world new; to see it afresh. To find the detail that makes a particular moment spark in the reader's mind. In genre fiction, by definition mostly furnished secondhand, it's especially important to make things new. To see them again as they really are. That spaceship. That world. That fat orange sun fixed just above the flat horizon. Those ruins. That clear-eyed person, her giant shadow preceding her as she picks her way through tumbled stones, seeing them as they really are, in that moment of discovery.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Book Birthday



Out today: the UK paperback of Evening's Empires. It's the fourth novel to be set in the Quiet War universe, but you don't need to have read the others (although I hope you will): its story is self-contained. If you'd like an introduction to my Quiet War stuff, there's Life After Wartime, a low-price Kindle ebook collection of short fiction that also contains the first chapter of Evening's Empires.

'The Quiet War was one of the best books McAuley has written, and Evening's Empires makes an excellent companion to it.  These are books that, if there is any justice, will shape the stories we tell about our solar system for many years to come.' Interzone

'McAuley's work has many sweet spots, and this book is smack in the middle of a big one.' Locus

'The whole thing is wrapped in a melange of weird cultures and mind-boggling tech and steeped in a thoughtful and intelligent vision of the future, but, unlike some of his peers, McAuley delivers a tight-knit, propulsive storyline too. Grown-up SF that still manages to pack a punch.' Starburst

' Evening's Empires is a great addition to the 'Quiet War' sequence to date and a rollicking adventure that would very much appeal to readers of Alistair Reynolds and Iain Banks.' Concatenation

'Evening's Empires is everything you could possibly want from a science fiction novel, from the grand visions to the plausibility to the engaging story this book hits all the right notes.' SF Book Reviews

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Here We Go

I'm supposed to be doing a chapter-by-chapter outline of the new novel, but over the past week I have written three and a bit chapters instead. So much for discipline. I hoped to prove that I could map out new territory and pick my route before setting off, but as usual I'm discovering where I need to go by going there, at the rate of roughly 1500 words a day. Every writer has their own walking pace; this appears to be mine. Meanwhile, the cow parsley is frothing in unattended corners of the parks and graveyards of North London, and the horse chestnuts are candling. Spring is moving in the air, and in the earth below*, and in what I hope will be another book, better than the last. Always hope for a new and better destination, when you set out.

*Wind in the Willows

Monday, April 07, 2014

Down To A Sunless Sea


Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
From Evening's Empires:

Escorted by the assassin and her sisters, Hari passed through an airlock into a short tunnel lined with stained white ceramic, where hidden machines blitzed him with microwaves, neutrino beams, and X-rays. He was forced to surrender his book, felt a small surge of relief when it was returned to him after it had been interrogated inside a virtual space as ancient as the tunnel’s security protocols. It was the only thing he’d brought with him. He’d left everything of his old life behind, but he hadn’t been able to abandon or give away the book, and not just because it was a memento of the dead man who had saved his life, or because it had smuggled the copies of the eidolon and the djinn aboard Pabuji’s Gift. He had carried it through adventures and hardships; its stories had amused and amazed and informed him; he was bonded to it by something stronger than sentiment or gratitude. And he hoped that some trace of the djinn might still be hidden inside it; it was a faint and foolish hope, but he needed all the help he could get.

With two of the assassins in front of him and two behind, he descended a ramp that spiralled down a vertical shaft. A small zoo of machines squatted in alcoves and niches cut into the raw, rough ice of the shaft’s wall.  Most were dead, mantled with frost, but a few reached out with brief whispers of microwaves and a man-shaped bot stepped forward to watch the little procession go past, its eyes burning red in the chilly shadows of its crypt.

A string of lamps hung down the centre of the shaft, and presently Hari saw that their little lights were reflected on a black circle below.

Water. The still surface of the buried sea.

Three streamlined scooters were moored at the bottom of the ramp. Hari climbed aboard one behind one of the assassins, as he’d once ridden behind Riyya, and the scooters drove down a long tunnel and at last emerged into a limitless cavern. An icy overhead stretched away in every direction, lit by chains of floating lamps. Swales and humps like inverted hills, fins, long gashes fringed with stalactites dozens of metres long. Grids of illuminated rafts hung all around, dangling streamers of red and brown weed. In the far distance, a chain of fat spheres dwindled into the deep dark.

Hari felt a flutter of relief. As he’d guessed, as he’d hoped, Sri Hong-Owen’s daughters hadn’t entirely thrown off their human instincts. They lived close to the overhead of their pocket sea. They were vulnerable. And because they hadn’t shut down his p-suit’s deep radar, he could see the floor more than two kilometres below, could glimpse immense bulkheads, walls, curving away, delimiting a chamber was less than five kilometres across. He supposed that it had been sealed off from the rest of the subsurface ocean so that it could be warmed and oxygenated. A small, vulnerable bubble habitat.

His escorts drove him to a pod hung from a smooth bulge of ice where small schools of fish flickered amongst a fuzzy turf of red weed and clusters of fleshy flowers pulsing on bony stalks. They pushed him through the entrance, a moon pool at the base where external hydrostatic pressure was balanced by internal atmospheric pressure, and sealed him in. It was spherical, the pod, chilly and damp, divided into three levels by mesh platforms. In the lowest level, a teardrop-shaped cleaning bot that had clearly gone insane was slowly working its way around the rim of moon pool, following a shallow, circular groove it had carved into the floor. It might have been working there for centuries.

There was no link Hari could latch on to, through either his bios or the suit comms. He couldn’t open any windows in the pale walls.

He wondered if the Saints had managed to intercept Pabuji’s Gift. The manikins controlled by the eidolon and the copy of the djinn should be enough to hold them off, but even if they gained control of the ship it didn’t matter. By now, its course had been set and its motor had been shut down. If the Saints tried to take control, if they tried to restart the motor, they’d trigger his little surprise; if they didn’t, it would activate itself in a little under seven hours. Meanwhile, there was nothing Hari could do until Sri Hong-Owen’s daughters decided to talk to him.

He had a long wait. He couldn’t detect any toxins or contaminants in the pod’s atmosphere – a standard nitrox mix – but he kept his p-suit sealed. He watched the clock he’d set up in his visor display tick down, tried not to think about the potential flaws in his plan. Such as it was. He mostly sat still, trying to seem calmer than he felt.

The insane cleaning bot completed a painfully slow circuit, began another. At last, with three hours remaining on the countdown, a patch in the opaque wall cleared. He ankled towards it, felt a flutter of relief when he looked out and saw a little cluster of faint shapes rising through the black water. Sri Hong-Owen’s daughters were coming for him.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

100,000 Stars

Here's a neat little demonstration of our insignificance. Move the slider on the right to zoom out from the sun and through the solar system. past the nearest, named stars and the next 100,000 stars, onwards to the edge of the Milky Way. Or click on the button on the upper left to get a tour and some context.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Räzboiul Liniştit


Out around about now in hardback, Räzboiul Liniştit, the Romanian edition of The Quiet War, translated by Nicu Gesce (who kindly sent me the image of the cover). Pleased to see that the publishers have gone with Sparth's cover illustration, first used in the US Pyr edition.

As it says in the blurb:
In secolul al XXIII-lea, Pământul, distrus de schimbările climatice provocate de poluare, este condus de câteva familii puternice şi de aşa-numiţii „sfinţi verzi” ai acestora. Milioane de oameni lucrează la reconstrucţia ecosistemelor devastate. Alţii au preferat să plece pe sateliţii lui Jupiter şi Saturn, unde au creat o varietate de habitate,protejate de atmosferele inospitaliere cu ajutorul unor vaste corturi sau ascunse sub scoarţa aştrilor respectivi. Aici şi-au dat frâu liber imaginaţiei şi au pus în practică până şi cele mai fanteziste teorii ale geneticii.
Însă pacea fragilă dintre Pământ şi colonii este ameninţată de ambiţia „exteriorilor” de a se răspândi prin întreg Sistemul Solar şi de a grăbi evoluţia umanităţii... 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Evening's Empires In Paperback


Something that never gets old: the arrival of a box of author's copies. In this case, the paperback edition of Evening's Empires, due to hit the shops and big box warehouses on April 10th. Hey.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Scribble Scribble Scribble

In the comments to my last post, I was asked about stories about the Jackaroo, those helpful aliens who gift humanity with a bunch of marginal worlds littered with ruins left by previous client races.  There aren't that many:

‘Dust', first appeared in Forbidden Planets, edited by Peter Crowther, Daw, 2006
‘Winning Peace’, first appeared in The New Space Opera, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Gardner Dozois, HarperCollins, 2007
‘Adventure’, first appeared in Fast Forward 2, edited by Lou Anders, 2008
‘City of the Dead’, first appeared in Postscripts, 2008
‘Crimes and Glory’, first appeared in Subterranean Magazine, 2009
‘The Choice’, first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Dell Magazines, 2011
‘Bruce Springsteen’, first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Dell Magazines, 2012
‘The Man’, first appeared in Arc Infinity Spring 2012

'Crimes and Glory' is over at the Subterranean site (although perhaps for not much longer), and you can buy a Kindle version of 'City of the Dead' for a few pennies or cents.

Meanwhile, and this is one of the reasons posting has been so sparse here lately, I've just turned in the first of two Jackaroo novels to my editor at Gollancz.  It's called Something Coming Through and is currently scheduled for publication in the UK in February 2015.  I've also been working on a BFI Classics book on Terry Gilliam's fabulous dystopian comedy Brazil, which will be published (I think) in September, as part of the BFI's SF season.  There's just a week to go before the deadline, and I still have to revise the conclusion and introduction and organise the footnotes. More later.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

On Mars On Mars On Mars


One of the lovely things about NASA is that you can poke around the raw images taken by their robot explorers. The image above was taken by the mastcam of the Curiosity Mars rover on the February 23rd. It shows layered rocks weathering out amongst flows of sand in the foreground, the long arc of a ridge with low hills beyond, and in the background, hazed by the dusty atmosphere, the flank of Mt. Sharp, Curiosity's ultimate destination (the original is here - click to embiggen).  It's a composition as beautiful as a Chesley Bonestell painting, lacking only a couple of astronauts hunting for fossils in some long-dry stream bed. You want to walk out into it, kicking rocks as you go.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Take Me To The River

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Confluence-Trilogy-Ancients-Shrine/dp/057511939X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1366986562&sr=8-1&keywords=paul+mcauley+confluence

The omnibus edition of the revised Confluence trilogy is published today as a trade paperback and  ebook editions in all formats. A fat doorstopper of a package of 994 pages containing three novels - Child of the River, Ancients of Days, Shrine of Stars - and two associated short stories, 'Recording Angel' and 'All Tomorrow's Parties.' It's taken a few years and some hard work to get it back into print, so I'm thrilled that it's now been released back into the wild.

The story of a boy and his river, here's the moment when its hero reaches the capital city of his world:
At first the houses were no more than empty tombs with narrow windows chipped into their carved walls and smoke-holes cut into their roofs, improvised villages strung along the terraces at the old edge of the Great River.  The people who lived there were very tall and very thin, with small heads and long, glossy black hair, and skin the colour of rust. They went about naked. The chests of the men were welted with spiral patterns of scars; the women stiffened their hair with red clay. They hunted lizards and snakes and coneys,collected the juicy young pads of prickly pear and dug for tuberous roots in the dry tableland above the cliffs, picked samphire and watercress in the marshes by the margin of the river, and waded out into the river’s shallows and cast circular nets to catch fish, which they smoked on racks above fires built of creosote bush and pine chips. They were cheerful and hospitable, and gave food freely to Yama and Prefect Corin when they halted at noon.
Then there were proper houses amongst the tombs, straggling up steep, narrow streets, painted yellow or blue or pink, with little gardens planted out on their flat roofs.  Shanty villages were built on stilts over the mudbanks and silty channels left by the river’s retreat, and beyond these, sometimes less than half a league from the road, sometimes two or three leagues distant, was the river, and docks constructed from floating pontoons and the cut-down hulls of old ships and barges, and a constant traffic of cockleshell sailboats and barges, sleek fore-and-aft rigged cutters and three-masted xebecs hugging the shore. Along the old river road, street merchants sold fresh fish and oysters and mussels from tanks, and freshly steamed lobsters and spiny crabs, samphire and lotus roots and water chestnuts, bamboo shoots and little red bananas and several kinds of kelp, milk from tethered goats, spices, pickled walnuts, fresh fruit and grass juice, ice, jewellery made of polished shells, black seed pearls, caged birds, bolts of brightly patterned cloths, sandals made from the worn rubber tread of steam wagon tyres, cheap plastic toys, cassette recordings of popular ballads or prayers, and a thousand other things. The stalls and booths of the merchants formed a kind of ribbon market strung along the dusty shoulder of the old road, noisy with the cries of hawkers and music from cassette recorders and itinerant musicians, and the buzz of commerce as people bargained and gossiped and argued. When a warship went past, a league beyond the crowded tarpaper roofs of the shanty villages and the cranes of the docks, everyone stopped to watch it. As if in salute, it raised the red and gold blades of its triple-banked oars and fired a charge of white smoke from a cannon, and everyone along the old road cheered.
That was when Yama realised that he could see, for the first time, the farside shore of the Great River: a dark irregular line of houses and docks. The river was deep and swift here, stained brown along the shore and dark blue further out. He had reached Ys and had not known it until now. The city had crept up on him like an army in the night, the inhabited tombs like scouts, the streets of painted houses and the tumbledown shanty villages like the first ranks of foot soldiers. It was as if, after the fiasco of the attempted rescue of the palmers, he had suddenly woken from a long sleep.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Figures In A Landscape

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Confluence-Trilogy-Child-Ancients-Shrine-ebook/dp/B00FYUM5QI/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1366986562&sr=8-1

Here's a good lesson in writing from Graham Greene's A Sort of Life:
Excitement is simple: excitement is a situation, a single event. It mustn't be wrapped up in thoughts, similes, metaphors. A simile is a form of reflection, but excitement is of the moment when there is no time to reflect. Action can only be expressed by a subject, a verb and an object, perhaps a rhythm - little else. Perhaps I should have turned to Stevenson to learn my lesson: 'It came all of a sudden when it did, with a rush of feet and a roar, and then a shout from Alan, and the sound of blows and someone crying as if hurt. I looked back over my shoulder, and saw Mr Shaun in the doorway crossing blades with Alan.'
There's another useful lesson in Kidnapped (from which Greene so approvingly quotes) - the way in which, as Margot Livesey puts it, Stevenson describes 'landscapes that both shape and reveal the actions of the characters.' This isn't about the way in which landscapes can reflect emotional weather or moral character. That can be useful, no doubt - especially in science fiction and fantasy, outwith the constraint of depicting real landscapes.  But it can tend towards the pathetic fallacy: goodness inhabiting lovely woods of silver-leafed trees and evil lurking in lands ruined by dark satanic mills; the functional logic of future cities depicted by clean white towers linked by monorails. But I mean instead the ways in which characters can be shaped by the landscapes of their childhood, and how their responses to new landscapes can reveal their strengths and weaknesses.

To give a trivial example of the former, Yama, the main protagonist of the Confluence trilogy, is raised in a semi-military household sited in a vast and ancient necropolis. He values order and hierarchy, nurtures an ambition to become a soldier, and is steeped (more than he realises) in casual, everyday encounters with the past. All of this affects his ideas about the wider world, and influences his plans and the way he attempts to overcome the obstacles he encounters. The shape of his travels down the length of his world was already laid down in the bone-white paths between the tombs where he played as a child.

As for how landscape can reveal character, there's nothing better than those chapters of Kidnapped in which David Balfour and his friend Alan Breck (who crossed blades with Mr Shaun in the passage quoted by Greene) tramp across the heather of the Scottish Highlands after escaping a shipwreck. Stevenson's evocation of the spare, bleak nature of the landscape is masterly, as is his exploration of the different reactions of David, a Lowland Scot pitched headlong into this alien territory, and Alan, who was raised there. The hardships they endure expose their differences and test them to breaking point; yet each has qualities the other needs to survive their adventures.

Confluence is structured as the long journey of a young man searching for the truth of his life: who he is; where he came from; where he's going. Yama travels from his childhood home to the capital, and then doubles back and heads downriver towards the world's end. All the while I kept in mind lessons learned from Stevenson's use of landscape and character, especially in the passages in which Yama's self-appointed squire, Pandaras, searches for his master and helps him reach what they mistakenly believe will be the end of their journey. And I also kept in mind the plain fact that even the most hostile landscape is indifferent to human suffering. Surviving it is a hard test, but surviving the people encountered in it is even harder.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Water, Everywhere

Credit: Howard Perlman, USGS; globe illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (©); Adam Nieman.

Earth is the blue planet. Two-thirds of its surface covered in oceans; its skies are swathed in cloud. And here in England, right now, it seems most of the air is water falling steadily from the sky. But how much water is there, compared to the mass of the Earth? The graphic, borrowed from the US Geological Survey, shows it's not as much as you might think. The largest blue sphere is the water in Earth's oceans; the smaller sphere to the right is the total amount of freshwater (in the ground, in lakes, rivers and swamps); the tiny sphere below that is the amount in rivers in lakes - the fresh water that's readily available.

There's also a hidden ocean in the upper mantle, in pores of clays and other minerals, and water in the rocks deep in the lower mantle, maybe all the way to the earth's core. No one knows for sure, but best estimates are around two oceans worth - which means the total amount of water on and in the planet is around 0.1% of its mass. It isn't much, compared to icy moons like Jupiter's Europa, or Saturn's Enceladus. But maybe just enough to allow civilisations like ours evolve. Because if the water content of the Earth was just 1% of its mass, rather than 0.1%, it would be a water world, completely covered in deep ocean.

Water worlds may be very common. Three quarters of the catalogue of discoveries made by the Kepler space telescope are mini-Neptunes: planets up to ten times the mass of the Earth, but with low density, suggesting that they possess thick hydrogen-helium atmosphere. Those close enough to their stars may have lost most of their original atmosphere, blown away on the stellar wind, leaving behind rocky cores completely enveloped in liquid water.

Although life might thrive on many of them, it is unlikely than any world that lacks dry land could harbour an advanced technological civilisation like our own - how could you smelt metals, or build a computer underwater? So while the equivalent of dolphins of intelligent squid may evolve on these planet-wide oceans, they probably wouldn't be able to develop ways of escaping their planet, or communicating with us. Another factor contributing to the Great Silence, perhaps. As the people of Somerset and the Thames Valley know, you can definitely have too much of a good thing.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Obligatory Shot Of The Product In A Box

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Confluence-Trilogy-Child-Ancients-Shrine-ebook/dp/B00FYUM5QI/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1366986562&sr=8-1

Friday, February 07, 2014

Walk-On Part

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Confluence-Trilogy-Ancients-Shrine/dp/057511939X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1366986562&sr=8-1&keywords=paul+mcauley+confluence

Writing a novel is a process of discovery. It can be intensely frustrating as you try to make headway through landscapes that are, at first, little more than shadows in fog, but it's also intensely rewarding, and full of unexpected surprises, as the world gains shape and focus and internal coherence, and the characters begin to take control of their lives.

When I wrote the last sentence of the Confluence trilogy, I knew far more about its hero, Yama, than when I had begun. After all, we'd walked a long way together, sometimes down paths that had been previously mapped out, sometimes along unplanned diversions and into unknown territory. He's an orphan who wants to escape the petty clerkship his adopted father expects him to take up; wants to find his real family and where he came from; wants to become a hero without any clear idea of the cost. And he does become the hero of his story, as he was always intended to be, but he is not its only hero.

A little more than halfway through the first book, he encounters Pandaras, a pot boy in an inn who warns him of a plot against his life, and helps him escape. Beyond a few lessons in the iniquity and history of the city in which Yama had lost himself, that was about all the use I had for this minor character. But Pandaras had other ideas. He appointed himself Yama's squire, followed him through the gates of the Memory of the Palace of the People, the administrative heart of the great bureaucracy that rules the world, and accompanied him on a voyage down the length of the world's great river. By the third book, Yama and Pandaras have become separated, and the narrative alternates between them as Pandaras searches for his master, and finds him, and loses him again.

None of this was planned from the outset. But just as Pandaras made himself indispensable to Yama, drawing on the skills learned from various relatives in various trades (unlike Yama, he has an extensive family), so he also made himself indispensable to the narrative. Yama is not a high-born hero. He does not serve the masters of his world. He doesn't even want to become one of its masters. He is instead a hero of the ordinary people of the world, the hoi polloi of which Pandaras is an exemplar.* The people who are, as he puts it, the strength of the city.

Yama is a hero to Pandaras, and by serving him Pandaras also becomes a hero: he endures and must overcome his own hardships and perils, and suffers his own grievous wounds. He was the character I'd been looking for without knowing it, until he turned to Yama in that candlelit room in the inn, in his clean, much darned shirt and a pair of breeches, small and unremarkable, and warned him that he was in trouble, and advised him how to get out of it. In novels, as in life, we should always pay attention to people like him.

(*He's also, a point I forgot to make before posting this, a counterpoint to Yama's predestined exceptionalism.)

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Something Coming Through Coming Through

I've just finished the last draft of Something Coming Through, my next novel. And by finished, I mean that it still needs to be read through before it's sent off to my editors at Gollancz, and then it has to be edited, copy-edited and proofed before it's published. And then I'll read it through again, to check for stray typos which can be corrected in the paperback edition. There's always something that slips through: in 1984: Selected Letters, Samuel R Delany describes to one correspondent the work of correcting the 17th reprint of his bestselling novel Dhalgren, and the errors he decided to let go.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The story's done; what's left are steps in a production process that turns thought into print.

Something Coming Through is set in my Jackaroo universe, first explored in several short stories.  Trickster aliens have gifted the ailing contemporary human civilisation with 15 worlds orbiting various red dwarf stars and the means to reach them. In London, Chloe Millar is searching for a troubled young man who is compulsively drawing pictures of a landscape on Mangala, one of the Jackaroo's gift worlds. On Mangala, an investigator and his novice partner become embroiled in a murder involving an ancient alien artifact. And as Chloe's search and the murder investigation draw together, it become apparent that the Jackaroo's concept of help is stranger than anyone could guess...

Monday, February 03, 2014

Fantastic Art

'There has always been fantastic art. Particularly in times of internal and external upheaval. Fantastic art has always taken up a position between the world of ideas and the real world. It reflects the tension between the two, the degree and nature of their non-congruence.'
         Hanna Höch, 1946

Friday, January 31, 2014

Collaborating With Myself

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Confluence-Trilogy-Ancients-Shrine/dp/057511939X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1366986562&sr=8-1&keywords=paul+mcauley+confluence

I'm not one of those writers who can produce a detailed plan of a novel and then fill it out, chapter by chapter. I usually know the beginning and the end of a novel before I begin, and a few places along the way that contain crucial turns of plot, but it's mostly a process of discovery. I know where I'm going but I don't know how I'm going to get there until I set out; as I learn more about my characters, they refuse many of the clever bits of plotting I've dreamed up, turn out to have their own ideas about what to do. After sprinting through a first draft, with its many diversions from the path I intended, there are several revisionary drafts where darlings are slaughtered, the narrative is deepened and reconciled with the story, continuity glitches are fixed, and the prose is tightened and polished. Each new stage is a collaboration with the last. I'm at the final stage in that process with Something Coming Through; this time last year, I was revisiting the three novels of the Confluence trilogy, working in collaboration with my younger self from 17, 18 years past.

When I was finishing the first novel, Child of the River, and was working on the first drafts of the second and third, I'd recently won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Fairyland, had just quit my job, and had moved to London. The second and third weren't triggered by the first. I'd already planned to resign from my job as a lecturer at St Andrews University before I won the award, and because I'd only moved to Scotland to work there and had no ties, I'd also decided to move on.  So through the summer of 1996 I worked on the books in a spare bedroom of a house I didn't own, and spent most of my spare time looking for a permanent home. Like Yama, the hero of the trilogy, I had given up everything I knew for an uncertain future and had moved from a small town to a capital city; as I sweated in the summer heat, he travelled further and further downriver through tropical landscapes towards the waist of his world.

The three novels, published in 1996, 1997 and 1998, were caught up in corporate takeovers in the UK and the US; when Gollancz agreed to republish them in a fat omnibus, the original files used to set the books were long gone. So I resurrected my old WordPerfect 5.0 files and read through them, and then went over them again to remove a few niggling inconsistencies in the narrative and to give the prose a further polish. My younger self didn't need my help move a story through its twists and turns. He'd learnt from Robert Louis Stevenson how landscape can shape and reveal the actions of the characters, and to keep action scenes short and sharp.  He'd crammed plenty of eyekicks and estrangement into the narrative.  And Yama's story, his discovery of the costs and obligations of escaping from his mundane fate and becoming a hero, and the sacrifices he must make to find a way of saving his world, was fixed by the course of the river he follows.

So in its omnibus incarnation, the story and almost all of the narrative of the trilogy remains the same. Revision was mostly a question of tightening the focus of sentences and paragraphs, and sharpening certain passages. My younger self loved adjectives far more than I do, and tended to force-weld sentences together (like this one). Some of the dialogue was a little forced, too; sometimes it strained for profundity. I've tried to cut that away without losing any of the meaning. In short, if Yama's story reads a little more easily in places, I hope I've stayed as true as possible to the intentions of that younger self as he wrote himself into his new life.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Shortlisted


Evening's Empires has made the shortlist for Best Novel of 2013 in the British Science Fiction Association Awards. A hugely unexpected and very pleasing tick mark. Many thanks to all who nominated my book, and congratulations to all the other nominees - it's an intimidating list:

  • God’s War by Kameron Hurley (Del Rey)
  • Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie (Orbit)
  • Evening's Empires by Paul McAuley (Gollancz)
  • Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L. Powell (Solaris)
  • The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)
The full list of nominees for all BSFA Awards is here. Winners will be decided in a balloted vote by members of the BSFA and attendees at the Satellite 4 convention, Glasgow, in April.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Genre Trap

Outwith the many parallels between the actual Greenwich Village scene in the early 1960s and elements of the story and mise en scene of Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film by the Coen Brothers provides a useful lesson in the trap of genre. The eponymous hero is a musician in the pure folk revival tradition, playing old songs and murder ballads with no little skill and intensity, but failing to find a way to advance his career.  He's just released a solo album after his singing partner committed suicide, but can't prise any royalties out of his manager and fails an audition at a prestigious venue after a sisyphean journey to Chicago. He's lost the thread of his life and his artistry.  At one point he notices a toilet graffito: What are you doing? What he isn't doing is creating anything new, apart from a few licks in a work-for-hire novelty record (and he signs away his rights for a quick buck). He isn't breaking out of the narrowing trap of genre, where you can get by with the old tropes and tricks even if you don't believe in them any more. He's waiting, in the brutal winter of 1961, for a thaw that comes (too late, for him) with the arrival of Bob Dylan and his magpie incorporation of the old lines and myths and figures into vivid new structures that speak to the present, not to the past. Take the old and make it new and make it sing again, and break on through to the other side.


Monday, January 13, 2014

Names In The Sky

On Twitter, following up from this, Adam Roberts asked 'How many named stars are there in the sky? As few as 70?'

It's a good question. Even the largest star catalogues list only around a billion stars, out of an estimated total of 200 to 400 billion in the Milky Way, but there are only a few hundred stars with proper names. Stars in constellations have Bayer designations - α Cephei, β Cephei and so on - and often have proper names that reflect their position in the constellation.  α Cephei is known by the Arabic name Alderamin, the right arm, and by the Chinese name Tian Gou wu, the Fifth Star of Celestial Hook. And then there are the bright stars, like Sirius or Procyon, or unusual stars like Barnard's Star or Luyten's Star (both red dwarf stars with large proper motions), or Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun. Names that sound like names, rather than a catalogue number such as, say, BD+20°2465.

Actually, I have a fondness for BD+20°2465. It's a red dwarf star that's also known as AD Leonis (which sounds like the name of a character in an Isaac Bashevis Singer story), just sixteen light years away. It was the star of the fictional planet on which I set my first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars. Even a string of numbers and letters can grow familiar. Can seem like a name, a tag for something known and understood, a local habitation.

On the Twitter thread, Winchell Chung reminded us of this great quote from James Blish's Earthman Come Home:
The entire pack of cities, decelerating heavily now, was entering the 'local group' - an arbitrary sphere with a radius of fifty light years, with Earth's sun at its centre.  This was the galaxy's centre of population still, despite the outward movement which had taken place for the past centuries, and the challenges which were now ringing around the heads of the Okies were like voices from history:  40 Eridani, Procyon, Kruger 60, Sirius, 61 Cyni, Altair, BD+4°4048, Wolf 359, Alpha Centauri . . . To hear occasionally from Earth was no novelty, but these challenges were almost like being hailed by ancient Greece, or the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
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