Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie (2014)

[I’m catching up with SF classics I have missed.]

I suspect there is little I can say about this. Ann Leckie’s debut won just about every award going in 2014, and I felt like I was the only person who hadn’t yet read it.

Sometimes, when you come to a book that has been so highly praised, it can be off-putting. There’s a little internal voice that says, ‘go on then, impress me.’ And if you aren’t immediately grabbed, you might turn against it.

I had no such problems here – this was fantastic. I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the set-up. The protagonist, Breq, is the sole remaining part of what was once a group of ‘corpse soldiers’, part of a hive-mind military unit controlled by the AI that runs a troop spaceship on behalf of an expanding galactic empire. The book tells the story of her seeking revenge against the person who betrayed her, and also in parallel the story of that treachery.

I was utterly gripped from page one. The storytelling was engaging and compelling. I was so impressed with the way Leckie made the reader care deeply about the characters, even while playing all sorts of tricks with gender, point of view, individual consciousness. I especially liked the way the main character referred to everyone as female, even when noting that some people appeared to be male! (This appears to have annoyed some readers, but I thought it was funny.)

The far-future society was suitably strange, and sketched convincingly by the author, without going overboard on exposition – the focus remained strongly on the characters and their struggles. Breq, as the remnant of an artificial intelligence controlling a cadre of zombie soldiers, ought to be thoroughly inhuman. But Leckie gives her warmth and character, and a humanity that outshines that of some of the more ‘normal’ characters.  The occasional line such as, ‘I’m not human, but my body is’, made me laugh out loud.

A definite 9 out of 10, and I expect I will read the two further books in the trilogy.

When I Close My Eyes – New Story in Interzone

It’s always a kick to have one of your stories hitting print, but I’m especially pleased that my latest story, ‘When I Close My Eyes’ is out this month in the UK’s longest-running (and best) science fiction magazine, Interzone.

I will confess: I’ve been trying to get a story in Interzone for ages, but they kept turning me down. The editor, Andy Cox, is rightly a demanding man. Anyway, you know the old saying: if at first you don’t succeed, make a bloody nuisance of yourself!

The story is probably my ‘hardest’ SF yet; set on Saturn’s moon, Titan, and featuring some fragile but peskily well-organised alien lifeforms. (There’s still a ghost in it, though, which I guess means that as SF goes, it isn’t that hard!)

You can buy Interzone here. If you subscribe – which you really should – you can even get this issue free.

 

How to be Invisible – New Story in Cold Iron

New from Iron Press is Cold Iron – Ghost Stories from the 21st Century.It’s edited by Peter Mortimer and Eileen Jones.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to be at the launch, which took place at midnight on Saturday 10th June, in the atmospheric St George’s Church, Cullercoats. But I am pleased and honoured to have a story in the book.

It’s a short and sad tale, called How to be invisible.

I don’t write many of them these days, but I’ve always had a soft spot for ghost stories. I remember a job interview once, when the panel picked up on the fact that I wrote fiction in my spare time. When I said I wrote ghost stories, I was very pointedly asked why. As if this quirk made me unsuitable for responsible employment.

I think I rambled. It didn’t seem sufficient to say, ‘It’s what I like’. I distinctly remember at one point advancing the thesis that ghost stories were a metaphor for the way in which the present is shaped by the past. So they were a perfectly logical pursuit for someone with a history degree. * I don’t think I had ever thought about that before the words tumbled from my nervous lips, but even now I think it’s mostly true.

Most of what I write falls into two broad categories: ghost stories or science fiction. And I think the two genres are fuzzy mirror images.

In most ghost stories, events in the past reach into the present. Nothing can ever be said to be finally over and gone, especially where powerful emotions and bad deeds are involved. So, when you write a ghost story set in the present, you are inevitably also writing about the past.

Science fiction is a bigger and woollier beast, given the range and diversity of its settings. But I think it is generally recognised that the most powerful SF stories are metaphors for issues in our own times. So, while SF may be set in the future (or sometimes in the past, or a parallel timeline), it resonates when it is really about the present.

When Ursula Le Guin wrote about the fantasy city of Omelas, with its happiness dependent on the misery of a single unfortunate child, she was saying something about inequality and injustice in our own world. When Samuel Delany wrote about sexless spacers in Aye and Gomorrah, does anyone think he wasn’t really writing about sexuality in the 1960s?

Perhaps this begs the question of why I don’t just write about the past or the present, if that’s what I mean. I’ll have to think about that.

Having said all that, I’m not entirely sure How to be Invisible is actually a ghost story. But don’t tell Iron Press! You can in any case read plenty of proper ghost stories, with a modern twist, in the book, which is well worth your time.

If you want to buy a copy (and you should!), Cold Iron is available here

[*I got the job!]

Floating Worlds – Cecilia Holland (1975)

This was a pleasant surprise. It doesn’t quite fit into my category of SF-Classics-I-missed-in-recent-years. It came out in 1975, when it was nominated for a Locus award. So it ought to have been picked up in my peak juvenile SF-reading years. But I missed it back in the day, and nowadays it mostly appears on lists of lost and neglected classics.

Another book that had rested undisturbed for a couple of years on my ‘To Be Read’ shelf. Until recently, I regularly passed over it in favour of other books. Mainly, I think because I knew nothing about Cecilia Holland. This is apparently her only science fiction novel, among many reputable historical fictions.

If you’re only going to write one SF novel, this is a pretty good one to have on your roster.

The set-up is simply stated: thousands of years in the future, in a solar system where anarchism is a settled system of ‘government’, Earth has been largely damaged in some past disaster, and humanity has spread to other planets. The civilisations of the inner solar system are troubled by raids from the Styth, a race of mutants descended from early pioneers to the outer planets of Uranus and Saturn. Paula Mendoza accepts a mission from the ‘Committee of the Revolution’ to negotiate a treaty with the Styth. This she does in an unorthodox way, going on to spend many years living among the Styth, and acting as ambassador between them and the inner worlds. She also skilfully builds a role as adviser to the Styth leader in the brutal politics of his people.

I found so much to enjoy and admire in this book. Unusually for a science fiction novel, the future world is drawn very subtly. There are big and imaginative ideas here, but the world-building is left in the background. We learn about the characters through their actions and their reactions to the world around them, not through interior thoughts or monologues. Holland doesn’t trouble to explain how the domes of the ruined Earth work, nor how the world came to be wrecked. Nor does she linger over the technicalities of the way the Styth live in the inhospitable environment of the outer planets. The prose is taught and spare, and we see the world as the characters do, in the moment.

There are important themes of race and sexism, explored thoughtfully and subtly. Mendoza herself is a fascinating – and at time frustrating – character, who embodies a convincing way of operating – anarchistic in a plausible, real-life way in her refreshing disregard for rules and authority, rather than the caricature some other writers might have offered.

It’s a big, sprawling story, wide in scope and vision, but intimate in its focus on realistic people, grappling with realistic problems in fantastic circumstances. Vividly written, with tight dialogue. The 600-plus pages fly by.

I see from a glance at Amazon and Goodreads that the book divides readers: plenty of rave reviews, but some people absolutely hate it. Sure, it has flaws (I was never quite sure what motivated Mendoza, the ending was a little flat and inconclusive for me, and it’s very much a 1970s conception of the far-future). But I’m definitely more on the rave end of the spectrum. Shame there was never a sequel. Maybe someone could have a go…

A well-deserved 8 out of ten for me.

Boy, Was I Wrong: Fifty One – First Edits

So, you’ve written your book.

You’ve dreamed up the story and done the research. You’ve spent endless hours agonising over character development and sequencing events. You’ve written the first draft, and then more drafts. People have read it and commented, and you’ve revised and sharpened it. Rewriting until you’re sick of it, and can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to read the damn thing.

Then – oh joy! – a publisher likes it and signs it up. Job done, you think. Time to start on the sequel.

 

 

 

 

Boy, are you wrong. Enter the editor.

When I was younger, and greener in judgement, I admit I was sceptical about what editors contributed. I sometimes read an author’s fulsome gratitude for their editor in the book’s acknowledgements, and I would mutter to myself, “Can you not write properly on your own, then?” I was pretty confident I could do my own punctuation, thank you very much. I couldn’t see what else I might need from an editor.

Boy, was I wrong.

My novel, Fifty One, is on its way to publication (in September) with Filles Vertes Publishing. We are currently in the editing process, and have recently been through what I think of as the Big Edit. In my case, this meant my editor, a sharp guy called Harvey Spectre (of Spectre Editing), brought a completely fresh eye to my manuscript, asking difficult questions about the structure, themes, style. In effect, he took the  story for a test drive, having thoroughly kicked the tires first.

It was disconcerting to read his feedback on that test drive.  I thought I’d done a pretty good job. I was pleased with myself. But he told me that the book was way too long, nothing happened in most chapters, the characters were annoying, and – by the way – the time travel science on which the plot hinged was fundamentally flawed!

I exaggerate. But not much.

Harvey’s comments made me take a long, hard look at my work. And have a good, hard think about the tough questions he raised. I didn’t agree with every single comment he made, but – once I’d picked myself up – I could see that he had spotted a better story, and a better way of telling it, inside my original.

By chance, I was able to clear my schedule and make a few weeks available. I could work nearly full-time on a complete rewrite. I trimmed the length, straightened out the science, and gave the main relationship in the story more room to breathe.

I also addressed an annoying writing tic that Harvey spotted, and thoroughly skewered in his feedback (and which I will never reveal: once he’d pointed it out, it made me cringe that I’d not spotted it myself!).

Sculptors often say that their job is not so much to make something, as to chisel the stone to release the sculpture within it. Writing is different, of course, but in some ways your early drafts (and – in my case – what I thought was a final draft) are the rough stone. Sometimes, you’ll be lucky enough to be able to release the best story all on your own. But sometimes it is really valuable to have a critical friend to tell you that you haven’t finished.

The rewrite did the trick, and we’re now moving on to line edits, the more detailed polishing of the manuscript.

I’m hoping the next lot of feedback will be easier to read. But I’ll make sure I’m sitting down when I get it.

Grass by Sheri S Tepper – 1989

[I’m catching up with SF classics I have missed]

Near my home in south London, there is a splendid library, housed in an old red phone box, and run by community volunteers. The deal is that you can take a book that takes your fancy, and you’re encouraged to donate books you’ve read.

I pick up a lot of good books here. There is obviously at least one other SF fan in the neighbourhood, because I get numerous SF Masterworks from here (if my friend Max doesn’t snaffle them first!).

I got a copy of Grass some time ago, and then it sat on my shelf, unread, for months. Every time I needed a new book I passed over Tepper’s novel. For some reason, despite it’s Hugo and Locus nominations, it didn’t appeal. It was, after all, called Grass. About a world covered with grass. That sounded a bit, well, dull.

How wrong I was. The novel is set in a future where the earth has become overstretched, and is dominated by a ruthless religious cult. Humanity has spread to other worlds, including Grass. A plague threatens all worlds, except Grass, where for unknown reasons it does not take hold. Earth sends an ambassador and his family to try to find out more.

I loved the start of the book. (It was bold to make the first paragraph simply “Grass!” That made me laugh.) There is a great sense of dread as a group of aristocrats set out on a hunt. Without being told explicitly, it is clear that the hounds are not actually dogs, the ‘mounts’ are not horses, and the fox is not really a fox. Something is badly wrong with the whole picture, and it takes much of the rest of the book to tell you what and why. I have not read any other Tepper books, but was impressed by the style and delivery of this one.

The world-building is detailed and beautifully unravelled bit by bit. Some of the characters are real and interesting (although some of the men are a little cardboard). The first half of the book is slow-moving, but never dull. In fact, when the action hots up in the second half, I found I could have done with a bit less of the chasing around, and a bit more exploration of why the alien creatures are as they are. This was the only drawback for me, so much so that my excitement over the prospect of another two books in the trilogy had dulled by the end, and I’m not sure I’ll be reading them soon.

But still, overall a solid 7 out of 10.

Where I’m Coming From…The Stories I Love

I read a lot of science fiction when I was younger. In truth, I read little else. Stories set in the world I recognised around me seemed too mundane; I wanted imagination-stretching, mind-bending tales of adventure in the made-up realm.

So I grew up on Heinlein, Farmer, Asimov, Le Guin, Ellison, Pohl…the list goes on.

Later, I fell out of the SF habit. Did it get dull, or did I? I don’t know. I still dipped in occasionally, but I mainly moved on to crime fiction, non-fiction, the occasional ghost story.

Recently, I have come back to SF. I was led by my writing – after years of ghost stories and horror fiction, I found myself writing SF. Not very well, but I found myself enjoying it.  I also soon realised that a lot of things I was thinking about had already been written, earlier and better by other writers. The SF world had moved on since I drifted away from it.

I didn’t entirely abandon the field: I find I have read 10 of the Hugo-winning novels since 1986. But I have read 17 of the winners from the 20 years before that.

So, I’m setting out to explore the treasures that I have largely missed in the past nearly two decades while my attention has been elsewhere. I apologise for being so behind the game, but as penance I’ll write about the books as I catch up with them.

Let me know of the books you think I really must not miss, and I’ll try to read them.

Coming Soon – Fifty One

For some reason, the fine people at Filles Vertes Publishing are quite taken with my time travel romance story, ‘Fifty One’. It’s a simple story: boy (born in 2010) meets girl (who dies in 1944), and they fall in love in Blitz-era London. Boy discovers that girl is due to be blown up before the war ends, and risks life, the universe and everything to save her.

The book grew out of a short story that won a ‘Dark Tales’ magazine contest some time ago. That story was essentially a ghost story about a young woman killed by a flying bomb in a south London street market in 1944. The novel takes the same real-life incident, but leaps off into an action-packed, heart-aching and mind-bending romp through time. As one reader said, it’s a love story ship in a time travel bottle!

I’m having a lot of fun getting the book ready for publication: editing, looking at cover art, and all that jazz. I’ll post updates here as we work our way through the process.