Friday, June 01, 2018

Where I'll Be At

Sticking this to the top of the blog for a little while - a list of events I'm planning to take part in, some relating to the upcoming publication of Austral. Hope to add a few more before the year's out.

30th March - 2 April 2018. Follycon, Majestic Hotel, Harrogate.

12th April 2018. Edinburgh Science Festival, Can Science Fiction Save Us? Anatomy Lecture Theatre, Summerhall, 20:00 - 21:00.

25th - 27th May 2018. Satellite 6, Crowne Plaza Hotel, Glasgow. I'm one of the guests of honour at this space-themed science fiction convention.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (18)

High-end fashion cosplay from Gucci's 2017 Fall/Winter Ad Campaign.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Three Questions

(My answers to three questions asked by SFX Magazine for their book issue.)

What are you working on at the moment?
 I’m thinking about the novel I’ll be trying to write in 2018. A kind of samurai western set on an artificial world after the sun has evolved into a white dwarf and the Andromeda Galaxy has collided with the Milky Way. Kind of thing.

What would be your "desert island book(s)"? (ie the one(s) you can keep going back to again and again)?
T.H. White’s The Once and Future King has long been my desert island book. It’s a retelling of the Arthurian myth in which an orphan named Wart, mentored by Merlyn (who lives backwards in time) becomes king, attempts to create a chivalric age in which his rule isn’t enforced by violent men in metal suits, and how he fails, yet never quite gives up hope. It’s the kind of novel into which the writer pours his entire life, a wonderful baggy monster that comfortably contains low comedy, high romance and deep tragedy, not to mention hugely entertaining infodumps on everything from falconry to the politics of ants. I’ve read it a dozen times, two passages still spring tears, and I like to believe that reading it has made me a better writer.       

What are you most excited about in SF/fantasy publishing?
 The increasing number of novels that aren’t published as science fiction yet use the SF toolkit or contain some weird element, and the increasing recognition that the world is no longer what it once was and never will be again, and we must find new ways of telling stories about it.

Monday, January 01, 2018

New Year's Resolution

 I've started, so I guess I better finish.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Arthur C. Clarke At 100

I never met Arthur C. Clarke, but in the last century, so long ago I was still a teenager and the last Apollo mission had returned from the moon less that a year before, I saw him give a talk at Bristol University in a packed lecture theatre in the Physics Department. I don't recall any useful details about his discussion of the moon landings and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but remember his affable charm and broad hint of a Somerset accent, and one anecdote - that he didn't realise that 2001's HAL was one letter ahead of IBM until someone pointed it out - because I'd read the same quip in his book about the making of the film.

Which was then and still is in my personal top five films, so I'm very pleased that my short story 'The Monoliths of Mars' will be included in an anthology which will be published in 2018 to commemorate and honour the centenary of Clarke's birth. More details can be found here. My contribution is a Quiet War story, and like all the other stories and articles in the anthology, it's exactly 2001 words long.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Before The End Of The Year Overtakes Us

First, thanks to all the people who came to the various events where I was pushing my little anthropocene novel Austral. And apologies to anyone who wanted to come but couldn't, because they were all in London. But I will be in Glasgow, next year. And Harrogate. So there's that. I didn't write much this year, but did publish the ebook version of my career-surveying collection A Very British History, and spent much of the end of it working on a couple of Quiet War stories. And way back at the beginning of the year, the paperback of Into Everywhere was published.

Austral made two best of year lists, both good tick marks. The first was the Guardian's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy round-up; the second was the Economist's list of the best books of 2017. In the latter, Austral is right below Hari Kunzru's White Tears, which was one the best novels I read this year. What with one thing and another, I didn't make lists of books read or films watched this year, but sticking with novels, among those published in 2017 that I very much liked were Michelle Tea's Black Wave, the recent translation of Ismail Kadare's The Traitor's Niche, John Crowley's Ka (I heard him give a terrific reading of an extract at Readercon), Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2040, and China Mieville's This Census-Taker. Also, two short-story collections, the late Susan Casper's Up The Rainbow, and M. John Harrison's You Should Come With Me Now. And for what it's worth, I spent a lot of time catching up with Martin Cruz Smith's oeuvre, and re-reading Mary Renault's novels of Ancient Greece.

As for films, I liked A Ghost Story, Baby Driver, Colossal, Get Out, The Handmaiden, Logan, The Love Witch, Okja, Raw, and War for the Planet of the Apes. I also liked the astounding aerial sequences in Dunkirk, and would have liked Blade Runner 2049  a lot more if it had dropped the plot and allowed its terrific images of the anthropocene to carry it (like almost everyone else I want cinematographer Roger Deakins to finally win the Oscar he's long deserved). Essential DVD/BluRay releases were Na Hong-jin's The Wailing (2016), in which a hapless detective teams up with a shaman to try to solve an outbreak of brutal murders, Agnieszka Smoczyńska's The Lure (2015), in which two carnivorous mermaids find employment and temptation in a nightclub, Twin Peaks The Return (2017), Criterion's box set of all six Lone Wolf and Cub films, and (at last), Network's release of Bristolian down-at-heel detective series Shoestring. I was living in Bristol when the first season was filmed, but haven't yet glimpsed a so-much younger version of me in the background. Just as well, probably.

Monday, November 06, 2017

London Twilight

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The First

(Note: this is a passage didn't make the final cut of my new novel, Austral. I've repurposed it as a short story.)

For a long time, Antarctica was no more than a rumour. The obsession of a handful of cartographers and hydrographers. A southern land which terminated in the islands of Tierra Del Feugo. A fabled continent isolated by storms, snowy seas and pack ice, inhabited by every fancy of the human mind. Terra australis recenter inventa sed nondum plene cognita.

In 1773 Captain James Cook’s expedition was the first to cross the Antarctic Circle, and in that year and the next he recrossed it from different directions, keeping as far south as ice allowed, ice encountered from every direction, killing the idea that any land beyond was habitable. Other European explorers discovered desolate islands covered with ice and snow to varying degrees; it was some fifty years after Cook’s expedition before the mainland of Antarctica was at last sighted.

By then sealers were plundering the great colonies of fur seals and southern elephant seals in the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, and were sailing south in search of new hunting grounds. Whalers came south too, hunting the southern right whale. One sealer, William Smith, discovered the South Shetlands. Soon afterwards, in 1821, a landing party from the American sealing ship Cecilia, captained by John Davis, made a claim, long disputed afterwards, never settled, to have set foot on the shore of Hughes Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula. Other explorers sailed down the long finger of the Antarctic Peninsula, and sighted Wilkes Land and Mount Erebus and Mount Terror, but there was no documented landing on the continent until 1851, when Mercator Cooper, another American sealer, stepped ashore at Victoria Land in Eastern Antarctica.

Even supposing that Captain John Davis’s undocumented claim was true, there may have been others before him. People who were not Europeans, or Americans. People from shores much closer to the last unconquered continent. It is possible, for instance, that voyagers from New Zealand or Tierra Del Feugo may have been pushed south by storms, and somehow survived the brutal crossing. Lashing their ocean-going outriggers together, surviving storms and giant waves, avoiding bergs and pack ice, and at last fetching up on one of the islands fringing the continent, or the northern shores of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Imagine these voyagers encountering the edge of an ice shelf in the white light of austral summer. Hauling their canoes across its frozen trackless waste. The sea lost behind them in a long glare and a forbidding land rearing up ahead, bare black mountain peaks rising from a tumult of ice, and along the rocky shore of a bay mostly free of ice penguins crowding in their stinking rookeries, solemn as convocations of priests, snowy storms of seabirds whirling up from their cliff roosts, and seals crying like men as lost as they.

Imagine them building stone shelters against the knifing wind. Although it’s January, midsummer, the average temperature is never more than a degree or two above freezing. Imagine them building a great fire from dried seaweed, huddling around it for warmth, their faces scorched and their backs freezing. They make a great slaughter of penguins innocent of fear of man, and use the oily carcasses as fuel, and roast the meat, which tastes of beef laced with rotten fish oil. They raid penguin and seabird nests for eggs and eat them raw. They stalk and kill seals, and feast on their meat and wear their stinking uncured hides.

Perhaps one man goes mad and kills or wounds many of his companions before they can kill him.

Perhaps they split into two factions, and after a fierce quarrel one slaughters the other and hauls the canoes back across the ice shelf and sets out on a hopeless journey across the unforgiving ocean.

Perhaps they die one by one, from pneumonia or from injuries inflicted while hunting seals, from falling from the high cliffs while collecting eggs from sea bird roosts or from food poisoning after eating meat stored too close to their fire.

Or perhaps they have enough cunning and determination to make a kind of home on the Antarctic shore. They boil kelp into a slimy soup, gather shellfish and crabs, use the spears they brought with them to catch pale sluggish fish. Chipping tools from stones, like aborigines of a distant past. Curing hides in salt boiled from seawater in hollowed rocks placed in the margins of their great fire, and sewing clothes and boots using as thread ligaments pulled from seal and penguin muscle. Building hutments from stones, stuffing chinks with kelp and weaving roofs from tough kelp holdfasts. They know that without women their settlement will survive only as long as the life of the last man, and they fortify their resolve by singing the old songs around their fire and telling and retelling old stories.

But winter is coming.

Day by day, the sun in its tireless circuit of the sky dips closer to the western horizon. At last it touches the horizon of the ice shelf, turning it into blood. And ever afterwards it dips below the horizon a little more each day. The temperature plummets at night and the nights grow long. The sea birds leave. The penguins and seals are gone. There are fierce blizzards. Storms that blast in from the sea. Howling winds that strip woven roofs from huts and blow the flames of the fire flat. So cold they pierce hearts and bones. The stores of frozen meat lack sufficient vitamin C and the mens’ gums swell and their teeth loosen, their joints ache horribly and they are gripped by a deadly lassitude, and the great fire, unfed, gutters and goes out, and one by one they succumb to the cold that lies in wait beyond their crude shelters.

Perhaps they survive one such winter, and do not go mad in the months of permanent dark and do not exhaust their stores of food, and supplement their diet with seaweeds rich in vitamins. But in the next winter, or the winter after that, a storm blows so long and hard that they cannot survive. They burn even their canoes, but it is not enough.

They leave behind their huts and the stone circle of their hearth. A clutch of chipped stones. And their scattered bodies, skin shrunk to leather on bones inside seal-hide clothing, mummified by cold. The cold preserves much, but these men were shipwrecked a thousand or five thousand years before Captain Cook’s historic voyage, and at last a great storm washes away what’s left of them, or a tongue of ice pushes down the steep slope above and scrapes the camp clean and pushes the remains out to sea in a last burial, and snow settles where it had been like a new untouched page.

The continent erases them from history, but still: they were the first.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Happy Birthday, Little Book

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

As a spectacle, the sequel to Ridley Scott's Bladerunner, which was based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, is vast and achingly beautiful. Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins, marshalling an army of pixel wranglers and visual effects mavens, have conjured astounding set pieces: a flying car falling across a mathematically precise patchwork of solar farms; a shipbreaking yard littered with the dissected remains of huge colony ships; a ruined Las Vegas half-buried in sand, recalling J.G. Ballard's Hello America, and like that novel populated by holograms of icons from the 1950s and 1960s; and the brutalist skyline of future Los Angeles, a post-capitalist dystopia whose neon-lit clash of street cultures is dwarfed by the luminous giants of animate ads.

All of this, explored by Villeneuve's slow-moving camera, is a mindblowingly gorgeous homage to and an expansion of the future visions of its predecessor, and like its predecessor depicts a lived-in, depleted future crammed with telling details. The story it contains is, though, very much smaller, and spun out over almost three hours. Bladerunner K. (Ryan Gosling), a replicant that hunts down troublesome older models, discovers a long-buried secret that threatens to destroy the uneasy truce between replicants and the residual population of humans left behind when almost everyone else decamped for the colony worlds. Following a thin thread of plot, K. uncovers disturbing parallels with his implanted memories, and clues that point him towards a confrontation with former bladerunner Rick Deckard and entangle him with the plans of meglomaniac technocrat Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, the weakest link in the film).

Problem is, the story moves at a glacial pace through a sequence of stylised set pieces like kabuki theatre and a handful of effectively choreographed action sequences; Wallace's replicant sidekick (Sylvia Hoeks), is the only character that gives the narrative any propulsive kick. Questions of about truth, reality and authenticity are raised, but not explored in any depth. And as in Arrival, Villeneuve too often tries to convey profundity with ponderous brooding, while the linear narrative fails to invoke or resolve much of the opaque ambiguity of the original, or to escape the gravity well of its own back story. Yet it is lovely, and contains true moments of cinematic sense of wonder, especially when spectacle and throbbing soundtrack synchronise. Turn off your mind, and watch it on the biggest screen you can find.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Maybe Not As Dark As You Think

Although the Anthropocene has yet to be recognised formally as a unit in the Geological Time Scale, in August this year the working group that's been debating it for some years at last voted to agree that we have transitioned from the Holocene to a new epoch in which human activity is transforming geological processes on a global scale. Many geologists believe that the Anthropocene began around 1950, when nuclear tests spread of carbon isotopes around the world and plastic waste began to become ubiquitous. If that's accepted, then many of us have been living in the Anthropocene all our lives. We've also been driving a multitude of species to extinction, and are responsible for planetary-scale climate change, primarily due to the rapid increase in levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by burning fossil fuels. We have changed the weather so much we need new words for weather. In short, we're all part of a force that's reshaping the planet towards an unknown end point.

All of this and more has long been part of the background hum of most near-future science fiction, and is foregrounded in an increasing number of science fiction and mainstream novels (although, as Amitav Ghosh has pointed out, few mainstream novels set in the present acknowledge the changes in the happening world). Most of these, especially in YA fiction, are explicitly dystopic, set after apocalyptic transitions to full-scale dark Anthropocenes that make the burning oil-fields in the Second Gulf War look like cosy camp fires. Drowned cities, wild weather, pervasive pollution and a global greenhouse, depletion of resources, the end of nature and annihilation of species from whales to bees by the Sixth Extinction, so on, so on. Collapsed civilisations. Authoritarian polders isolated in howling wildernesses, or worlds depopulated by disaster and plague where young heroes can assert their agency.

But is it possible to have a good Anthropocene? I don't mean a blind or passive optimism, or a denial of what's actually happening right now, and will continue to happen at accelerating speed if nothing is done. And I don't mean to underestimate or erase from history the inevitable damage and costs, human and otherwise, of the disasters that are happening now, and will continue to happen, faster and harder, if we don't do anything about it (and maybe, even if we do). But perhaps we can embrace change and to try to work with it, try to ameliorate the worst by deployment of technology and adopting new ways of living, and adapt to those changes that can't be avoided. Perhaps we can accept our place in nature and the responsibilities that come with it, and act accordingly.

A few anthropocene novels have explored how we might find the best ways of living with the global changes of the new epoch. Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home, back in 1985. More recently, Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2140, and James Bradley's Clade. And it's partly what Austral is about. The idea that melting of polar ice by the great warming could reveal new lands and new opportunities - regreening the Antarctic Peninsula; creating new biomes that act as refugia for existing species and for those brought back from extinction. Exploring how people could live there, and whether they could avoid or escape the mistakes of their forebears, the people who lived at the beginning of the Anthropocene, and so were best placed to prevent the worst of it. Ourselves.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Hard To Keep Up With The Future

From an article about the facilitated adaption over on Motherboard:

"'From the top of the atmosphere to the bottom of the ocean, we have influenced everything,' Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecologist at the University of Maine, told me at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Boston earlier this year. 'On some level, that's terrifying, but maybe it frees us up a little to be flexible with our thinking.'

"And that's where colorful creatures like mammoth-elephant hybrids, bleach-resistant coral, and other human-designed frankenspecies get thrown into the speculative mix. This idea, sometimes called facilitated adaptation, posits that damage done to the planet's wildlife can be managed, and even reversed, by manually retooling the genes of threatened species for survival. These genetically modified organisms would be tailored to optimize the health of collapsing ecosystems, merging the futuristic visions of fields like gene-editing, de-extinction, and synthetic biology to support wildlife conservation."

From Austral:
‘Ecopoets were mostly nomads,’ I said. ‘Always on the move. You see that picture? The mammoth? The first ecopoets resurrected them from elephant stock and traits clipped from the genomes of pygmy mammoths that once lived on an island in Siberia. They were used to transport stuff from place to place. They helped with the landscaping, too. Shifting rocks and such.’

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Farewell Fantastic Cassini

Machine into meteor: Cassini's last encounter. © NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
I would have written The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun if Cassini had never been launched, or if it had failed, somehow, on its long journey. After all, Saturn had been already visited by four spacecraft. There were images of the surfaces of its major moons, where much of the two novels take place. There were maps. We already knew, before Cassini arrived at Saturn, something of the history and composition of those moons; could guess what it might be like to stand on the surface of Dione, or Mimas, or Iapetus.

But while the previous visitors had snatched glimpses of the planet and its rings and moons as they shot through the Saturn system on their way to other places, Cassini went into orbit. Settled in. Made the place its home for thirteen years, guided by its flight engineers in intricate loops that took it close to all the major moons, eking out its fuel by gravity assists during close encounters with Saturn and its biggest moon, Titan. Cassini's discoveries and beautiful images of the planet, its rings and above all its moons, immeasurable inspired, enriched and deepened my writing. We make up worlds all the time in science fiction. But here were real worlds as weird as any ever conjured by imagination; real landscapes. Some of those landscapes were - startlingly - like those of our own planet; others were utterly different. Places where people might settle one day - but who would choose to live there, and why? How would it shape and change them? I wrote those two novels to find some answers to those questions, and Cassini helped to bring those wildly strange and various worlds into sharp focus.

Launched in 1997, it arrived at Saturn, one and a half billion kilometres from Sun, in September 2004, its transit time shortened by slingshots around Venus, Earth, and Jupiter. A few months later, the European Space Agency's Huygens probe detached from Cassini and in January 2005 landed on Titan. The first landing on the moon of a planet other than Earth; the most distant landing ever made. And for the first time we saw the surface of Titan: glimpses of mountains cut by branching riverine channels as the probe descended through the thick nitrogen atmosphere and a haze of hydrocarbon smog; a fixed view of the marshy surface, strewn with pebbles, of the shoreline where it touched down.

Frozen beach. © European Space Agency
Titan is the second largest moon in the Solar System. Fifty per cent larger than Earth's Moon; bigger than the smallest planet, Mercury. And because it is so cold out there, where the amount of sunlight is one eightieth of that received by Earth, Titan has retained a thick, opaque atmosphere, and, like Earth, has a hydrological cycle, and weather, and seasonal changes which Cassini has observed for almost half a Saturnian year. Its surface features, with lakes and rivers and huge equatorial dunes, resemble those of Earth, but the lakes and rivers are of liquid methane and ethane, and the dunes are built of grains of frozen petroleum. A chilly but geologically active world that's familiar yet utterly alien.

Mapping and observing Titan's surface was just one of Cassini's achievements. It has discovered more than a dozen tiny moons and moonlets. Shown that the ring system is active and dynamic, an intricate dance of icy particles and shepherd moons and gravity; helped to solve the mystery of why one hemisphere of the moon Iapetus is dark, and the other is ice-bright. And it has not only shown that the little inner moon Enceladus is active, jetting plumes of icy dust from crevices in its south pole that access an inner sea or ocean of liquid water; it has also flown through and sampled those jets, discovering that they contain the ingredients necessary for life.

Jets. © NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
That's the reason why, as Cassini runs low on fuel, its engineers have aimed it towards Saturn. Better a fiery death in the gas giant's atmosphere than ending up in an orbit that might one day intersect with Enceledus and possibly contaminate that inner sea, and any exolife that might exist, with hardy terrestrial bacteria. And so, from April, in what Cassini's engineers and scientists have dubbed the grand finale, the spacecraft has been racing close above the ring plane, zooming through ring gaps, skimming above Saturn's cloudscapes. Engaging in the kind of manoeuvres that until now were too risky to contemplate. Thrilling moves that mirror those of its science-fictional counterparts.

And now, after hooking around Titan for the last time, the spacecraft is heading inwards. Heading towards its final, fatal encounter with Saturn, on Friday. It will go out transmitting a live feed. Doing science until it breaks apart, the sharp end of a great human enterprise of enquiry and discovery. Mourn the machine, but celebrate that achievement, which has accumulated data and images that will be analysed and picked over for years to come. A lasting legacy that's given sense of shape to things formerly unknown, and names and local habitation to places barely glimpsed, or never before seen. Ave atque vale!

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

In Shanghai

When he revisited Shanghai in 1991, J.G. Ballard discovered that the Tudorbethan house in the old International Settlement where he'd spent most of his childhood was still standing, although much dilapidated, overshadowed by new tower blocks, and serving as the library of a state electronics institute. Some years later, it was converted to a restaurant; when I visited a couple of weeks ago it had undergone another conversion and extension, and had become a gated private members club.

The golden gates to what was once J.G. Ballard's childhood home.
The caretaker saw a bunch of Europeans standing around outside and opened the gates for us; I snatched this picture of the regooded original house and its extensions just before he realised we were tourists.
Along with fellow author Richard Morgan, I was a guest of the Shanghai International Literary Week, part of a British delegation organised by the London Book Fair. Although the Literary Week focused this year on science fiction, our trek to the house on the former Amherst Avenue (now Panyu Road), was the only acknowledgement of this famous British science fiction writer's association with the city. But perhaps the past wasn't the point.

We were staying in the French Concession, a mostly low-rise area adjacent to the former International Settlement, its streets shaded by plane trees, a green island hedged by towers and skyscrapers. Elsewhere, Shanghai is an enormous ongoing experiment in economic evolution, a simmering petri dish inhabited by more than 24 million people, endlessly reshaped by China's expanding economy and foreign investment. Streets in the French Concession are lined with stores hawking international luxury brands from perfumes to Prada. An excursion to a famous garden in Suzhou involved a two-hour drive through an interstitial sprawl of factories, greenhouse farms, power stations and tower blocks, cut by canals, motorways and high-speed train lines. And while Ballard would still recognise the solid grey banks, trading houses and hotels along the Bund on the western bank of the Huangpu River, on the opposite shore thrust clusters of new skyscrapers that dwarf the iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower.

View from my hotel room window across the low-rise French Concession.
The Oriental Pearl TV Tower and the Blade Runner prongs of the Pudong shore.
One of my events took place in a huge, newly reburbished bookshop in a dockland office development, with tall French windows looking out across the river towards those Blade Runner skyscrapers. The next day there was a poetry reading in the biggest function room of the new W Shanghai hotel, with a railway-station-sized atrium and gold bars stacked on the reception desk like the trademark of a James Bond villain. The local government had invested heavily in the book fair. I didn't get to visit the arena where publishers hawked their wares to the public, but banners advertising the fair and extolling the virtues of literacy were ubiquitous in downtown Shanghai, there were guest writers from Argentina, France, Japan, Russia and the US, and amongst more than twenty Chinese writers Chen Quifan, Fao Yi_Feng, Han Song, Ma Boyong, Wang Jinkang, Zhang Ran, and Wang Kanyu represented the Chinese science-fiction scene.

This year's emphasis on science fiction may have been partly down to the international success of Liu Chixin's Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy (translated by Ken Liu, the first volume, The Three Body Problem, won the Hugo award for best novel in 2015). There was also a story floating around that, because many NASA engineers on the Apollo moonshot program had been inspired by reading science fiction at an impressionable age, the Chinese government was pushing the genre in the hope that it would encourage a new generation of space technology engineers. Weird if true, but it was given some credibility when in his speech at the opening ceremony the Vice-Chairman of the China Writers Association told a charming anecdote about having trouble figuring out how to use a phone-based peer-to-peer system to pay for his haircut, and suggested that science fiction could educate people like him about the future.

I'm not certain what the local science fiction writers, who have to navigate the mutable whims of the state-controlled publishing business, made of that, but it's certainly true that science fiction, long regarded as a marginal enterprise with little relevance to the present, is currently undergoing something of a renaissance. Yet although Chinese science fiction has a reputation for leaning towards traditional hard sf (and Liu Chixin's trilogy bristles with familiar hard sf tropes, from alien invasions and international conspiracies to space battles and virtual reality), it is as various and disputatious as the Western kind. Ma Boyong's The City of Silence is a dystopian satire in which the protagonist searches for human connection in a world where language has become fatally attenuated by control of the internet and face to face interactions; Han Song's Subway is a critique of China's unthinking embrace of modernisation and Western technology, in which descendants of space explorers returning to Earth find themselves trapped on a non-stop train; in Zhang Ran's 'The Gloomy States' stories, use of different technologies has shattered countries into a patchwork of independent states. If you want a taste of that variety, Clarkesworld magazine is currently publishing a regular series of translated stories by Chinese writers, or check out the anthology Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu.

At that bookshop event, Richard Morgan and I shared a panel with Wang Jinkang. Along with Liu Chixin and Han Song, he's one of the Three Generals of Chinese science fiction and has impeccable hard science fiction credentials: an engineer whose novels and stories deal with speculations about core science-fictional tropes such as biotechnology, artificial intelligence, god-like aliens, and virtual reality. Even so, as he made clear in the panel, he's more interested in the ethics and philosophical problems posed by biotechnology and AI than with the nuts and bolts of the actual science. In the end, like all the good stuff, Chinese science fiction isn't concerned with handbooks or guides to the future that's already all around us, but with a host of imagined futures that mirror and distort the concerns of the present, and the human stories that can be found there.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Who Can Replace A Brian?

An appreciation of the late, great Brian Aldiss, published in Locus. Dave Langford's Ansible has also published a fine collection of tributes. The photograph was taken by Steve Jones at a signing in the World Science Fiction Convention, London, 2014.

In 1989, when I was working at Oxford University and was also a fledgling SF author, I was lucky enough to visit Brian Aldiss at his home in the leafy village of Boars Hill. The rambling house, with its airy living room, a broad lawn running out to woodland, and large square study lined with packed bookshelves, was everything a successful author could desire. ‘All you have to do,’ Brian told me, with a mischievous twinkle, ‘is publish a book a year, and you’ll have something like this too.’

Brian’s productivity considerably outran that modest ideal. In a writing career spanning more than sixty years, he published fifty novels and around thirty short-story collections, as well as memoirs, plays and volumes of poetry, essays and criticism. He also edited numerous anthologies of SF stories, including the three hugely successful Penguin anthologies that, still in print today, comprise a definitive overview of sixty years of science fiction history. 

His career as an SF writer began in the 1950s, when the genre was still dominated by the big beasts of the Golden Age, almost all of them American. He invigorated over-familiar tropes with a distinctive, wryly British slant, and like Olaf Stapledon and HG Wells, some of his best works are unsentimental but not unsympathetic depictions of humanity’s petty triumphs and foolishness set against enormous backdrops of time and space. Galaxies Like Grains of Sand is a series of interlinked stories that spans forty million years of human history; Hothouse (aka The Long Afternoon of Earth) is a lush, melancholic vision of the deep future, when humanity and its works have become little more than ghostly memories, and our distant descendants have been stripped by evolution of unnecessary intelligence, and struggle to survive in the mazy branches of a vast world-tree. 

Hothouse, published in 1962, is one of my all-time favourite SF novels, as is Greybeard (1964), a pastoral apocalypse set some fifty years after humanity was sterilised by nuclear bomb tests. And let’s not forget Non-Stop, The Dark Light Years, Cryptozoic! Earthworks . . . It was my great good fortune that my personal golden age as an avid teenage SF reader coincided with Brian’s golden age as an SF writer. As the British New Wave developed he embraced a range of experimental techniques, from the fractured language of Barefoot in the Head to the infinite regression of observers in Report on Probability A, but his masterpiece, the densely imagined Helliconia trilogy, is superficially more conventional, describing the rise and fall of civilisations on a planet whose seasons span centuries, a perfect synthesis of pulp SF and serious speculations about cycles in history. 

By then, he’d also published two series of literary novels, the Squire Quartet and the rambunctious, best-selling Horatio Stubbs trilogy. And while many of his later novels were similarly character-led, he continued to be a prominent figure in SF, genial, generous, tirelessly promoting the genre as a serious literary endeavour. The last time we met was at the World Science Fiction Convention in London, where we shared a signing table for an hour and I watched him treat a stream of fans with gruff good-humour, Afterwards I had him sign my first edition of Helliconia Spring. To Paul, he wrote in a typically generous gesture, with much love. Hard to think that his ebullient imagination and busy pen are finally stilled.

Friday, September 01, 2017

In Omnibus

Out as ebooks, two pairs of novels from the Quiet War sequence. First up is The Quiet War, featuring the build up to war and its aftermath in The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun. And then, a thousand or so years down the line in The Vastening, there's revelation and change in In The Mouth of the Whale and Evening's Empires. Space opera and history's long tale around Fomalhaut and in the new, vast and varied outer reaches of the solar system.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Six Months

Friday, August 25, 2017

Another Blurb

"The excitement of a new country appearing right here on Earth, a real possibility that is quite fascinating in itself, is doubled down here by way of a thrilling kidnap-and-rescue plot that ranges across this beautiful new landscape, showing how we will soon be not only terraforming Earth, but finding new ways to take care of each other. It's a vivid example of science fiction at its best."
Kim Stanley Robinson 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017


In the early 1970s New English Library reissued a selection of the late Brian Aldiss's novels and short-story collections, with fabulous covers by Bruce Pennington. Here are seven of them (I'm missing The Interpreter).

Saturday, August 12, 2017


Austral is a science fiction novel - I'm a science fiction writer, it's set in the future, what more needs to be said? Except that these days not all novels set in the future are science fiction. Some, for instance, deal with the effects of climate change on the world in general and human society and the human pysche in particular, and although the effects of climate change are beginning to accelerate right here, right now, the worst effects will be manifest in the next couple of hundred years. So much  fiction dealing with climate change is by default set in the future. But it isn't science fiction. It's cli-fi.

I don't think it's a very useful term. Not just because it echoes sci-fi, often used as a label for the worst examples within the science-fiction genre by those who ignore the preference for the term SF by those who read and write the stuff, but also because the person who coined it is something of a jealous gatekeeper, policing its use, deciding ex cathedra what's in and what's out. It's less a genre, more a marketing tool, and much of it (especially the Young Adult fiction) is both dystopian and apocalyptic. Climate change as another excuse for winnowing the excess population and staging adventures in a simplified post-civilisation board game.

There's another sub-genre, solarpunk, which is much more optimistic, but currently there are few fictions that fall inside its boundaries, and it tends to scant the seriousness and difficulties of the immediate problems of climate change. But if Austral had to fall into a category I'd rather it shaded towards solarpunk than dour cli-fi dystopias. There are all kinds of problems caused by climate change in Austral's future, but its inhabitants are making the best of what's happened -- most especially by the establishment of a new nation in the Antarctic Peninsula, and greening tracts of new land which have been exposed by the great melting. Terrestrial terraforming, or a variation of the speculative extreme gardening I described in The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun.

Mostly, it's about these two people I know, trying to find an escape route across those emergent landscapes:

Close to the end of the day the girl and I drove up out of the forest and crossed the broad snow-covered saddle between the Cayley Valley and Blériot Basin. A solitary peak stood off to the north, hard pinkish light glowing on its flanks, and the wind blew cold and clean and the last of the sunlight turned the snow crust’s icy lace into a carpet of diamonds.
We’re simple creatures. A change in the weather or a glimpse of a distant panorama can transform our mood in an instant. Looking across snowy ridges towards that mountain peak I was struck head to toe by a tingling charge of exhilaration. We had escaped, I was about to take up the path Mama and I had once followed, and this time it would all come right.
Older Posts