sci-fi

5 podcasts that helped me through lockdown

Back in mid-March, just before official lockdown in England began, I stopped going in to the office, with 2 weeks of my contract left to work. Ordinarily, OneMonkey and I would listen to the World at One if we were lunching together at home on a weekday (oh, the excitement of our forty-something lives) but for obvious reasons we decided current affairs analysis wasn’t the best accompaniment to a break from work at the time, and looked for something different. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a habitual listener to the Reasons to be Cheerful podcast, where Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd talk Big Ideas with an assortment of expert guests, but that fell into a similar category. What on earth could we listen to?

We tend to use a five-year-old tablet computer as a portable radio in our flat – BBC Sounds, Spotify, radio.net, and all our digitised music in one handy-to-carry purple package. We could, I suppose, have bunged an album on and chatted over our sandwiches but because we were used to speech and information, we first turned elsewhere on BBC Sounds and came up with the You’re Dead To Me podcast. This is a light-hearted but factual look at history presented by a historian, Greg Jenner, who has two guests each episode, an expert and a comedian. Topics include Stonehenge, chocolate, football, Mary Shelley, general elections – some narrow, some broad, some British, some not. As a rule I’ve enjoyed them, both when I was already pretty clued-up on the topic and when I didn’t think I’d be interested, and they work best when the comedian is interested in the history, not just in trying to sound funny (Tim Minchin was a great guest. And I don’t even like him as a comedian). In short, highly recommended, but I’m not including it as one of the five because I suspect it’s not available outside the UK, and knowing BBC Sounds it’s probably not available at all times, either.

And so, on to the list proper – 3 sitcoms (comedy dramas?) and 2 discussing forgotten or overlooked books. All of these are available on Spotify, that’s where we listen to them:

  1. We Fix Space Junk. For the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fans, this one revolves around 2 people and a computer, on a spaceship. And one of the people doesn’t really want to be there. I have to admit if I’d only listened to the first episode I probably wouldn’t have listened to the second, but we had it on autoplay while Spring-cleaning and it got more interesting in episode 2 so we stayed with it. Some adventures, some satire, and an overarching story. The website says “an award-winning dark sci-fi comedy about two repairwomen surviving in space against insurmountable odds and unimaginable debt.” The production company have a variety of ways to support them, including merchandise to buy, at the link above.
  2. Marscorp. Also comedic sci-fi, this one is about EL Hob becoming the new supervisor at the Marscorp base on Mars. She’s just been woken up after her journey from Earth in 2072, keen and ambitious and not at all nervous. The characters are definitely on the caricature side, it gets very silly and quite sweary, and is immense fun. The sideswipes at corporate culture are fab. This one’s more of a sitcom I guess, with ‘what hilarious misadventures can our favourite characters have this episode?’ though there are sort of running threads or longer story elements in the background. You can support the production company on Patreon.
  3. Mission Rejected. An American spy comedy this time. Their greatest secret agent has gone on a world cruise and due to budget cuts they’re forced to use a backroom nerd and his scraped-together team of misfits to fill in. Great characters who work well together, in one disastrous farce after another. These episodes are self-contained adventures but there’s also a longer story bubbling away and the odd reference to a previous mission pops up. You can support the series via Patreon at the link above.
  4. Backlisted. Part of the joy of discovering a podcast is delving into a well-stocked archive. Backlisted has been going a couple of years already so there’s plenty to catch up on. The idea is that the 2 hosts have a guest each episode and discuss a book that deserves a wider readership. It could be a minor novel from a well-known author of the 1960s, seventeenth-century non-fiction, a forgotten Victorian poet – if their guest can enthuse people about it, it’s fair game. The hosts have also read the book in preparation for the episode, and they might play snippets of the author reading their work or being interviewed, or read out other people’s opinions of the book. I started out by listening to a couple of episodes where the featured book (they begin each episode with general chat about what they’ve all been reading lately) was one I was familiar with, to test out where the hosts’ tastes lie in relation to mine, then moved on to books I’d heard of but hadn’t read. So far, they’ve only persuaded me to add one book to my To Read list but I have enjoyed the bookish chat and banter. The hosts are the kind of middle-class southern men who are confident, bordering on arrogance (one mentioned a Ben Myers novel as being surprisingly good, and not just for people interested in the north!), though the guests are often a contrasting voice, but if you can put annoyance aside and be amused by that for an hour, it’s worth a listen – they are usually both irreverent and nerdy about the books, which is a winning combination. You can support the series via Patreon at the link above.
  5. Slightly Foxed. This one is my guilty pleasure. I actually discovered Backlisted when I listened to the Slightly Foxed episode where one or both of the Backlisted hosts was the guest (I confess in my northern prejudice I can’t tell their voices apart, and neither can I tell the 3 main women on Slightly Foxed apart – the 4th is clearly younger and therefore easily distinguishable). As with Backlisted the idea is bringing overlooked books to a wider audience, but this time it goes with a magazine. Slightly Foxed is a quarterly publication where enthusiasts, both well-known authors and the erudite amateur, write about a book that means a great deal to them – often it’s out of print, sometimes Slightly Foxed will put out a fancy edition of it. The format of the podcast is an independent host talking to the Slightly Foxed editors at their publishing HQ, usually joined by a younger member of the team and one or more guests to talk about a theme, e.g. books about gardening, books about royalty, travel memoirs, Evelyn Waugh. They also chat about what they’ve been reading lately, and there’s an audio version of one of the articles from a past issue of the magazine. It’s incredibly gentle and soothing, and I can’t quite believe that the presenters are real people. They all talk so much like characters in a 1950s film, they make the Queen sound common, and they’ve never been reading the latest Val McDermid, it’s always something like ‘I was put in mind of the third memoir by Algernon Fitzsimmons when he was the British consul in Greece in the 1860s, so I revisited him in all seven volumes and I’m so glad I did’. Like I said, guilty pleasure, but class-consciousness aside they talk about books I would never delve into (probably still won’t) which opens up whole vistas of the literary world to me and I enjoy listening to them being so absorbed in these books, and so damned nice.

As a bonus I’ll mention I’ve just discovered the Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast, a bunch of British Asian writers including crime authors Vaseem Khan and Abir Mukherjee chatting amongst themselves or to guests. I’ve only listened to half an episode so far but I enjoyed it.

If you’ve found new audio delights via this post you can always buy me a cuppa once you’ve supported your new favourite podcast…

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A quick SFF round-up

Possibly as an attempt to escape from real events, I’ve spent the last 4 months almost exclusively reading fantasy and sci-fi. Some newish, most not, and due to slow reading and assorted distractions I haven’t felt capable of writing proper reviews of any of them. However, a quick summary may suffice to prompt some of you to check out some of them, so here’s a rattle through The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby, The Interminables by Paige Orwin, The Body Library by Jeff Noon, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, and Virtual Light by William Gibson.

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The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby was one of four ebooks I bought from Angry Robot at the start of lockdown, when they had their Shelf Isolation offer on. It’s easy-to-read comic fantasy in the Terry Pratchett/Tom Holt tradition which was a godsend in the early days of corona-anxiety. Marius don Hellespont is a corpse-rat, a looter of the dead on battlefields. He gets mistaken for a dead king and taken to rule the kingdom of the dead. They’ll let him go if he finds them a replacement king: cue highly entertaining quest/chase. It was Battersby’s debut, from 2012, and there is a sequel available.

The Interminables by Paige Orwin is another debut from Angry Robot (this time from 2016) with a sequel now available. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic 2020, which seemed too fitting! It’s also one of the most compelling and original fantasies I’ve read in a long time. The east coast of the USA is ruled by wizards (not the pointy-hat and wand variety, more like technocrats of a particular type) attempting to keep the fragile peace intact. The central partnership consists of a ghost and a jazz-loving near-immortal from the 1940s, and they need to investigate an arms-smuggling ring. Of course it’s never that simple, and there are secrets and lies aplenty, and I was on the edge of my seat for ages.

The Body Library by Jeff Noon was another of my Angry Robot ebooks (I haven’t read the fourth yet). Jeff Noon is more of a well-known name, and this book is the second of his Nyquist series, from 2018 (the first is A Man of Shadows, and the third, Creeping Jenny, has just been released). If you liked The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry and can stand your fantasy pretty dark, you’ll love The Body Library. Private detective John Nyquist is on a simple tail job that turns out not to be, and finds himself mixed up in something beyond his understanding. It was weird and unsettling, blurring the lines between the fiction we’re reading (the ‘reality’ of the novel) and the fiction within their world, focusing on worlds within books and the power of words. I haven’t read the first Nyquist book because it sounded like it was firmly in the horror genre, and I had a nasty feeling this novel was heading that way too but it pulled back from the brink. Still not for the overly squeamish, I think, but I enjoyed it.

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny is an odd (Hugo-winning) sci-fi novel from 1967. It’s set on a planet where the technologically-advanced have set themselves up as Hindu deities in a pseudo-heaven, while the masses toil and worship. Buddha, or Sam as he’s known to his friends, finds it tiresome and devotes his life (or lives) to disrupting the status quo. It’s not an easy read, not least because the chronology is not straightforward (I think Chapter 1 happens later than the next few chapters), and if you don’t have a passing familiarity with Hinduism and/or Buddhism I’d say you’re going to get confused more than once. It is ultimately a good and thought-provoking novel, however, so if that doesn’t put you off I’d give it a try.

Finally Virtual Light by William Gibson, which I can’t believe I hadn’t read. It’s from 1993 but set in 2005, which of course is now further in the past than it was in the future when Gibson was writing it. I had to laugh at the portable fax machines, but the masks and the passing mentions of pandemics resonated. It’s a proper thriller (albeit with a cyberpunk flavour) involving stolen wearable tech, bike couriers and a failed policeman, as well as weird millennial cults and big data. It occurred to me after reading it that so much Gibson (and many other stories) hinge on exploitative capitalist societies – people forced into situations because of their lack of money and/or status (need the money so bad to pay the rent/bills that they’re prepared to do something illegal or against their principles, or can easily be manipulated into such). Depressing as that is, it does make for a cracking read.

If you found these mini-reviews useful, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Prescient at the time, outdated now

I’ve been tidying up my work in progress folder over the last few days, part genuine attempt to feel less overwhelmed when I switch on the computer and see such a massive list of incomplete work, part procrastination technique at a time of wavering focus. For whatever reason, they’re mostly speculative fiction of some flavour or another. Probably because with SFF I’m striving for perfection and never finding it, comparing every story to Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett or PKD and feeling dissatisfied, endlessly seeking the optimum ending.

Some stories I have no recollection of writing, and I read the pages I have got (3,000 words, in some cases!) with great enjoyment, getting caught up in the plot, feeling for the characters, and then… What? What happens next? I need to know! But if I knew, I’d have written it down 8 years ago. Those ones stay, somewhat optimistically, in the work in progress area, a promise to myself that one day, one day I will know and I will write it down.

Others are from writing exercises and aren’t going anywhere. They maybe have some good descriptions but I’m just riffing on a half-baked idea and there’s nothing much to salvage. They go in the folder labelled Abandoned so I can strip them down for parts later. I rarely do, but there’s always the possibility that gold is buried in those paragraphs of dross.

The ones that I’m finding the most interesting and frustrating are the ones that would have looked like I had insight, if I’d actually finished them. Like the one where I had Boris Johnson as PM (I wrote a note on that one in June 2016: “with Boris looking likely to replace the recently-resigned Cameron this no longer seems as amusing as it did a few months ago” – of course, it was actually 3 years later that he finally got there), or Hillary Clinton pointing out (in 2008) that if she’d been elected as president this situation would have been handled so much better. There’s the one I wrote when civil partnerships were a new thing, featuring the first gay cabinet minister to get married (in a church!) while in office, the incredibly futuristic one where everyone wears wristbands that they wave at the barriers to pay credits for their city journey – I’ve seen my friend do that with her Apple watch on the underground when I visited her in London 2 years ago! There are numerous instances of people using things that are suspiciously like ipads (usually called entscreens) as well as scientific and technological developments where capabilities and attitudes have come a long way in 15 years.

I’m not sure what to take away from this rummage through my old writing. If you haven’t touched a story in 17 years you can probably delete it? Some developments are inevitable? Or maybe I’ve learnt that if I can just figure out how to find the optimum ending for those lingering stories, I could be a pretty decent SFF writer.

Oppressive regimes in recent SFF

In Vox by Christina Dalcher, America has been taken over by fundamentalist right-wing Christians: a woman’s place is once more in the home. Only this time, she’s only allowed to speak 100 words a day. The Dark Gifts trilogy by Vic James is set in contemporary Britain with an alternative history, where only people with magic in their blood are full citizens with acknowledged human rights. Quite different styles and settings, but both give well-crafted and thought-provoking portrayals of oppressive regimes and how people react to them.

Vox has been on prominent display in three for two offers and the like at WHSmith and Waterstones on and off for months. It’s been in bestseller lists, and praised as a new Handmaid’s Tale left, right and centre. Which is why I’d delayed reading it, even though Christina is one of the flash fiction crowd I chat to on Twitter and I’d been so excited when she first announced her novel was going to be A Real Thing. Sci-fi that appeals to people who don’t read sci-fi is rarely satisfactory to those that do, in my experience (see my review of The Bees). I’m so glad that Vox turned out to be chilling, thrilling, near-future sociological SF with a healthy dose of science in it, and I can honestly say I really enjoyed it.

It’s hard to say much about Vox without giving away plot-twists. I thought the idea of the slippery slope was handled brilliantly, the glimpses of the path they’d gone down to get to the current state. At what point does behaviour cross a line between being the preserve of a weird minority it’s safe to ignore, and prominent enough that right-minded liberals (as the phrase would probably go, in the USA) should react against it? Can a person look back and pinpoint the moment they should have stood up for their (or someone else’s) rights, their last chance to change the course of society? What about if someone you love edges step by step along a path you abhor, following one seemingly reasonable (in isolation) argument after another? Then there’s the science element, laced with ambition and ethics. It’s all biology/medicine so I have no idea how real or plausible any of it is, but it did make me think about the way lots of scientific research can be used for good or ill, and all we can do is trust that it won’t be weaponised.

My one reservation is the epilogue; I personally would have preferred the book to end after the climax and do away with the hindsight summarising. However, I have similar views on the Jeff Vandermeer novel Borne, but that didn’t stop me loving the novel and recommending it. I’m happy to recommend Vox too.

I’ve only read the first two of the Dark Gifts trilogy so far (Gilded Cage and Tarnished City), though the third is lurking on my Kobo ready for me to dive into when I’ve finished the book I’m reading just now (Christmas-themed, therefore timebound). The main characters are the children of two very different families, ranging in age from ten to mid-twenties, with much of the action revolving around two boys in their late teens who end up bonded by circumstance in a fascinating (and not at all friendly) way.

Britain is powered by slaves; every non-magical person must do a ten-year stretch. Meanwhile the magical aristocracy (the ‘Equals’) live on their country estates in luxury, and the country is ruled by the heads of these powerful families. A mixture of propaganda and the silence of the traumatised ensures that the wider public never hear about, or simply don’t believe, the treatment of slaves in some parts of the country. When the Hadleys opt to do their slave-days as a family, on an aristocratic estate, their belief in the basic fairness of the system and the inevitability of slavery begins to wobble. Of course, even within the Equal society, some are more equal than others, and the tensions between and within families play out on a large scale.

Gilded Cage is very good on how ordinary people either turn a blind eye or simply miss the hints that all is not well – with busy lives and faith in basic decency they don’t want to rock the boat and assume the nastiest rumours are trouble-causing nonsense. It also portrays complexity and grey areas well, and the way that individuals don’t necessarily align with the group you expect them to. There are some fabulous characters in the trilogy, Silyen Jardine in particular keeps wrong-footing me and revealing yet another facet. Tarnished City kept the pace and tension and developed some of the characters in interesting ways, I’m looking forward to reading Bright Ruin, the final instalment.

Climate change fiction: some recommendations

Climate change and impending environmental catastrophe have been in the news somewhat over the last couple of weeks. It seemed like a good time to recommend some novels which deal with the topic, a few of which I’ve mentioned here before. Obviously some are more realistic than others as possible scenarios go but they’re all good to read and if they get you thinking about what you could do right now, so much the better.

I’ll start with Kim Stanley Robinson because of the books I’ve read, he’s done it best. There is a trilogy (Science in the Capital) which starts with Forty Signs of Rain, which I read a few years ago and loved. It’s full of detail, being set in Washington with the main characters including a government policy wonk and his statistician wife, and shows a near future where climate change is producing noticeable effects but society is mainly still ignoring it in the hope that it will go away. OneMonkey tried to read it but pronounced it dull and gave up – too much detail for his taste. However, I thought it was excellent in the way it showed the clash between capitalism, day to day politics, and scientific prediction. Also there was an interesting thread of Buddhism, as I recall. It was written over 15 years ago so we’re probably well within that near future now (and still the politicians say ‘I’d love to, but…’).

The other KSR is a stand-alone novel from a couple of years ago, New York 2140. You can read my review of it at The Bookbag, but suffice to say it’s full of great characters in a flooded Manhattan. Again, man-made problems and capitalism’s disregard for long-term consequences are major themes but amazingly he still manages to be optimistic.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is set in Thailand and deals with climate change, genetic modification, rampant capitalism and their interplay and consequences. It was brilliantly written and suitably tense but there are some pretty nasty bits in it, so maybe not for the overly squeamish.

The word ‘capitalism’ keeps cropping up here, doesn’t it? I’m partway through Economics: The User’s Guide by Ha-Joon Chang at the moment and it’s got interesting things to say about the view of consumerism as the be-all and end-all. Even the Extinction Rebellion protesters in London had a load of new-looking tents, stickers and plastic bits and bobs in the photos I saw. It’s a hard one. But I digress…

The classic Ursula Le Guin novel The Lathe of Heaven (you can read my review at Luna Station Quarterly) is set against a backdrop of climate change, an unhealthy future that some people obviously wish they could go back and change. The main focus of the book is the reality-changing dreams of a man named George Orr, but the setting gives a good view of a 1970s vision of the future.

If you’ve already read those, or want to explore further, you can find a list of other novels to try at the Wikipedia entry for the subgenre. I haven’t figured out yet whether it’s more environmentally friendly to produce physical books (you can after all use recycled paper and vegetable-based inks but you have to transport them) or e-books (you have to build an electronic device with all its rare materials but you could charge using renewable energy sources, and then there’s the storage capacity). Borrow a copy from a friend or your local library, is my advice. If you use the library (in the UK at least), they even give royalties to the author.

Short piece at Visual Verse

I’ve got a story called Air of Belonging at Visual Verse in response to this month’s prompt, you can read it here. It’s less than 500 words long, perfect for a tea break. Because September’s guest editor is Carmen Marcus (I recently reviewed her novel How Saints Die) and because I’ve been banging on about class again anyway, my sci-fi story is kind of informed by the row about working class access to the arts. While still being very much related to the prompt image, which is a woman in ballgown and breathing apparatus, playing a harp. Intrigued? Read everyone else’s response to it as well, as usual it’s sent all the contributing writers off in different directions, which is pretty impressive for such specificity.

Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Alastair Reynolds so far (a novella, a few novels and short stories) but his 2004 novel Century Rain is not only the best I’ve read from him, it’s the most enjoyable sci-fi I’ve read in a while.

Earth has been uninhabitable since the Nanocaust, but field archaeologists like Verity Auger still make trips there to study its artefacts. When she messes up on one of those trips, Verity is handed an offer she can’t refuse and finds herself on a secret mission for which her expertise on twentieth-century Paris will be invaluable. Government scientists have discovered an unstable entrance to a poorly-understood galactic transit system whose origins they know nothing about. This particular branch appears to lead to nineteen-fifties Paris, though not quite the same version Verity’s studied. All she has to do is use the transit system and retrieve the belongings of a murdered government agent who went through before her.

Meanwhile jazz-loving Paris-based private detective Wendell Floyd is on his uppers as usual, and takes on a murder case against his better judgement. At least, the client thinks it’s murder but Floyd’s inclined to go along with popular opinion and stick to accident or suicide. Until he starts to wonder if the victim was actually a spy, particularly when another one shows up.

This is part spy thriller, part space opera, part beautifully-rendered fifties noir, and I loved every minute. With more twists than a journey through an unstable pseudo-wormhole, Century Rain has tension, romance, dry humour, and a suitably tear-jerking Casablanca reference or two. It touches on ethics and the unknown consequences of new technology, but it can be approached simply as a wild adventure. I can particularly recommend it if you’re a sci-fi fan who likes Raymond Chandler or Maigret, and if you’ve read and enjoyed Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer you’ll probably love this.

Stories of empire

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Coincidentally, the first two novels I read in 2018 were both tales of empire, though from quite different perspectives. One was the Portuguese empire as seen through the prism of science fiction, in Brasyl by Ian McDonald. The other was the British empire via crime fiction in India, in A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee. I recommend them both.

Brasyl had an interesting structure, within each chapter there were three sections set in 1732, 2006 and 2032 respectively, in three different parts of Brazil. It had slavery (of different types), stratified societies, football, religion, and quantum mechanics running through everything, and I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who likes both historical fiction and SF (because most of the 1732 strand reads as straight historical fiction). The book was peppered with non-English words and phrases, which added a flavour of Brazil but I felt like my reading speed was unusually slow because of it (and not everything was translated in the glossary at the end). The more I read, the more I realised how little I know about Brazil; I had no idea if historical events or people were real or not, and I found myself wishing I’d watched the programme I seem to recall Michael Palin making about Brazil a few years ago. I spent a while on Google maps dashing about the country though, so maybe I learnt something. I love a book that makes me go find out more in some way.

Abir Mukherjee was one of the writers on a panel at the Penguin WriteNow insight day I went to last September in Newcastle. I chatted to him a bit during that day, he seemed both thoughtful and entertaining, and I liked the sound of his crime series so I made sure I picked up one of the goodie bags that had his latest novel in it. That book was A Necessary Evil, which follows on from A Rising Man (which I’ve yet to read) and is set in India in 1920. Captain Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police, and his Sergeant Surendranath (‘Surrender-not’) Banerjee witness the assassination of the heir to the throne of one of the states they have no authority in. But he was assassinated within their jurisdiction, and Banerjee did go to school with him, so they go to his funeral, blunder into a political situation they don’t fully grasp, and race to find the truth. Short chapters, flowing narrative voice with a dash of disrespectful humour, and a nicely flawed main character; I was hooked within a couple of pages and sped through it. Particularly good on complexity (characters and situations neither one obvious thing nor the other), and the British in India failing to (or refusing to) understand the culture they’re surrounded by, and being tripped up by preconceptions.

Two Hundred and Twenty-one Baker Streets

Cover of Two Hundred and Twenty One Baker Streets

If you, like me, are lucky enough to find Two Hundred and Twenty-one Baker Streets in your local library, grab it and run to the issue desk. Edited by David Thomas Moore, it’s an anthology of fourteen reimaginings of Holmes and Watson across time, space and gender, and it’s almost entirely brilliant.

I came to Sherlock Holmes in the eighties via my dad and Jeremy Brett but I’m not precious about the characters so a ‘based on’ or a ‘reworking of’ is fine by me as long as it’s done well. In this collection there are stories set in America, England, Australia, even a high fantasy universe (courtesy of Adrian Tchaikovsky). There’s a female Watson with a male Holmes, and vice versa, there are pre-Victorian stories, present-day stories, one set in the future, even a couple of stories where the main characters are not called John Watson and Sherlock Holmes. And yet in each one the essence is there, some riff on the famous partnership, a recognisably Holmesian character who always puts facts before feelings. There is also, naturally, Mrs Hudson.

I only recognised one of the names on the author list and I’d never even read any of his work – I borrowed this book on the strength of its Sherlock Holmes connection. I’m glad I did, as I’ve now found a few new names to look out for. Two-thirds of the way through the book, as I finished another story and declared how much I loved it, OneMonkey pointed out that I’d said that after every one so far. Some work better than others in terms of mystery or solving a puzzle, but there’s plenty in the collection for any Sherlock Holmes fan with a predilection for alternative history or SF.

A dystopian moment for your reading pleasure

There’s a slice of my dystopian imaginings over at Visual Verse, less than 500 words so it won’t take you long and you can read it via this link. I recommend dipping in to the other responses to the prompt photo as well, it’s amazing the variety that one image can spark off.

I don’t have anything else new for you to read yet, but I did have an editor express interest in the sound of the sci-fi noir novel (the one I’m reworking, if you recall) this week. A good sign, and simultaneously confidence-boosting and terrifying. Will the manuscript live up to its description? Only time will tell.

This month has brought a spate of near-miss rejections full of praise, urging me to submit again soon, but ultimately unable to find a home for my stories. The one that included the line This is the best flash fiction I’ve read this year almost made me cry – if I’m hitting the heights and still can’t make it, what chance is there? All is not doom and gloom, however. I have a cliche-ridden 150 word story available for your amusement (story number 16 on this list) as part of a project arising from a recent flash fiction festival which is intended to grow into a charity anthology. I’ve also got a story coming out at The Fiction Pool soon, I will of course give you the link once it exists.

Science writer for hire

I had a revelation recently: I haven’t lost my love of physics, it had just faded for a while, and that being the case I could potentially combine science with writing.

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Because I loved the one on the left and have never been able to get rid of the one on the right

I do write sci-fi, you can read some of it in the Cracks in the Foundations collection (which also contains fantasy stories), and I’ve continued to read it even in my science-free years but I’d got out of the habit of reading popular science books or New Scientist and it hadn’t occurred to me to write factual science articles. Until now.

Last summer I did a story and science evening with Alice Courvoisier for the York Festival of Ideas and helping Alice put together her relativity presentation made me realise I was still fascinated by physics. For the last few months I’ve been giving private tuition in GCSE physics (with occasional forays into maths and chemistry) and loving those moments where understanding dawns. My don’t-inspect-too-closely analogies are definitely improving. Considering all this, when I say that I finished reading an interesting and well-wrought popular science book on the same day as I got an email from a MOOC provider (you know I love my free online university courses) advertising a science writing course, you’ll have guessed that I signed up immediately.

I’m hoping to get some science-related writing published soon. If anyone would like to point out any opportunities or offer work along those lines, the usual methods of communication apply (@JYSaville on Twitter; jy at ostragoth dot co dot uk; or leave a comment here and mark it private so I don’t let it through moderation).

In the meantime you can read my review of Marcus Chown’s book The Ascent of Gravity here at The Bookbag.

Never mind Article 50, won’t someone think of the environment?

Acres of coverage today for the ‘news’ that the UK is leaving the EU. We knew that already, it will take ages to sort everything out. Ultimately not much will change. Meanwhile outside the arena of UK navel-gazing there are some changes being made that deserve a bit more coverage. Trump tinkering with energy and environment policy matters to all of us because whatever trading bloc we do or don’t belong to, climate change is something we need to be doing something about. We don’t get to opt out of European temperature rises because we’re no longer in the EU, and Trump doesn’t get to build a wall round America to keep extreme weather or rising sea levels out.

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Read my review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, New York 2140. Then read the book itself. Then think about what you can do to make a difference.

Week 20: In armchair if wet

The wind and rain of the last few days have been best enjoyed from a snug reading corner. It seems somehow appropriate that I’m reading a book about climate change and major sea-level rise, New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ll be reviewing it for the Bookbag once I’m done (it is long! Brilliant so far, but long) but in the meantime I recommend this interview with the author in Scientific American.

This week has also been a time of radio preparation, fine-tuning the timings and rehearsing the readings and all that. I’m on Chapel FM at 6.15pm (BST) on Saturday 1st April, with Andrea and Roz from Ilkley Writers. There is so much good stuff going on for the whole weekend though, and if you miss it live it’ll be up for listen again. I’ll just leave this here: Writing on Air schedule pdf

Reading my way through 2016

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As far as number of books goes, my reading hit a bit of a dip in 2016 and most of those books I read because of writing. There’s the how-to books about writing, of which I read two this year and re-read a third. Then there’s the nine books Sue at the Bookbag kindly posted to me, to read and review. All of them this year I think were previously unknown to me before I picked them from a list of available books, so in that sense they were read for writing purposes (for the most part I’m very glad I did read them and as a whole batch I enjoyed them enormously, all I mean is that at the outset they were on my reading pile for a reason). I read two history books as background to my contribution to the Dangerous Women Project and another non-fiction book that I’m not sure how to categorise (environmental mindfulness?), as background for a potential future project with Alice Courvoisier. And I read four novels, and abandoned a few others partway through, so I could review female-authored SF for Luna Station Quarterly.

When I first signed up for reviewing at LSQ I did notice that I hadn’t read much female-authored SF in the previous couple of years, but I thought apart from anything it would be a useful way to redress the balance. How hard can it be to find four SF books a year written by women, when you have the whole of the local library and charity shops to go at? Maybe it’s the skew of the collection in my local library (and maybe this is why I hadn’t read much female-authored SF for a while) but I found myself pulling book after book off the shelf and dismissing it. Teenage vampires. Cliché-ridden steampunk. Sounds OK but it’s book 4 of the series. It got so that every time I went to the library I was scouring the fantasy and sci-fi shelves for female authors rather than books that grabbed my attention, and I started reading quite a few that sounded ok but were quickly abandoned when it became clear this was yet another book with a main character who was ‘feisty’ (incredibly feminine but with laddish behaviour as a way of proving something tiresome) or, particularly in urban fantasy ‘quirky’ (hey I have green hair and I might kiss other girls) and that was its main point.

I’m as happy as the next curmudgeon for there to be a romantic sub-plot to an epic fantasy (Tad Williams throws them in as main plots, for heaven’s sake – look at Bobby Dollar) but I don’t like mushy and I don’t like sentimental. I also don’t think female characters are shocking or even particularly interesting just because they don’t fit some kind of narrow old-fashioned ideal of heterosexual womanhood (meek and weak, with a skirt, a handbag, make-up and a glossy pony-tail). Ursula Le Guin and CJ Cherryh seem to have cottoned onto that a generation ago, so I’m not sure what went wrong since. Like I said, maybe we just don’t get much good stuff round here. Anyway, I quit reviewing for LSQ a couple of months ago.

I did read some fabulous books in 2016, including a couple more in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series (police procedurals in a fantasy-overlaid London) and some Anthony Trollope novels, after my self-imposed Trollope fast in 2015. A few I read out of curiosity and was surprised at my immense enjoyment:  Morrissey’s autobiography for instance, as well as the slightly cynical fantasy novel The Magician King by Lev Grossman, Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey (which I haven’t posted the review of yet – keep your eyes peeled) and The Blackbird Singularity the breathtaking debut from Matt Wilven in which a man full of grief and hope loses his mind. The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan was every bit as fabulous a fantasy novel as it sounded and The Devil’s Feast by MJ Carter was a richly imagined historical crime novel with real chef Alexis Soyer as one of the main characters.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of my reading year, but I’d love to hear what anyone else has enjoyed reading in 2016, or if you agree/disagree with any of my comments.

Fiction as a thought experiment

The final event I went to at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival was another Comma Press one. For a few years they’ve had a project where a writer gets paired with a scientist: the scientist briefs the writer on a particular topic, the writer writes their story which is somehow linked to it, and the scientist then provides an afterword. The latest anthology of these stories (due out next month) is called Thought X, and is concerned with thought experiments.

Having spent a total of 9 years at 3 universities immersed in maths and theoretical physics, I hadn’t realised that thought experiments were anything other than an everyday matter or that the concept might be unfamiliar to people (I can’t think why people complain about academia being disconnected from the real world…). There are a variety of different sorts of thought experiment, some just an ‘imagine you have a…’ to get people to grasp a concept, others that either stop you from having to do an experiment (because you’ve worked it through logically via your imagined scenario) or that highlight a flaw in a theory by showing that there would be some contradiction if you thought your way through it in this case.

We heard extracts from three of the stories respectively based on the grandfather paradox in time travel, Laplace’s demon, and Schrödinger’s cat. Each thought experiment gave the author an existing narrative (e.g. there had to be an element of time travel and it had to involve some version of killing your own grandfather) around which to base their own narrative. Each of the three stories were different in tone and setting, and it sounds like it should be an interesting book.

To follow the readings, Professor Steven French of the University of Leeds (coincidentally Mark the artist’s academic grandfather i.e. his PhD supervisor’s PhD supervisor) talked about the importance of thought experiments in science, the history of Schrödinger’s famous cat and the many-worlds theories of quantum mechanics, as well as literature as a thought experiment. Which made me think science fiction is almost always explicitly a thought experiment – what happens if we increase global temperatures, what happens if there’s a scarcity of resources, what happens if we develop this technology? A good cue to go write some.

Looking at the future of Iraq through fiction

On Friday evening a regrettably small audience gathered at the Ilkley Literature Festival to hear about the new book of short stories from Comma Press. Called Iraq+100, it’s an exploration of what Iraq might be like a hundred years after the 2003 invasion, i.e. in 2103. Comma Press founder Ra Page and the book’s editor Hassan Blasim (sometimes with the assistance of an interpreter) talked us through the idea behind the book, what it’s like to be a writer in Iraq, and the lack of a science fiction tradition in the Arab world.

Hassan Blassim is a writer and film-maker who fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and after 4 years on foot across Europe (writing all the way) settled in Finland, where he is still based. He has been published in English by Comma Press for nearly ten years. Hassan made the point that all across Europe ‘international’ literature festivals often mean work from North America or other parts of Europe, there is little African or Arabic literature available, so the Iraq+100 anthology was a good way of getting some Arabic stories translated into English.

The idea for the book arose in 2013, from the 10th anniversary of the invasion and most of the stories in it were written before Isis took Mosul in 2014 thus dramatically changing the narrative. Consequently the book was delayed until some stories dealing with the legacy of Isis had been written, but the result is a mixture of hopeful, dystopian, and satirical writing. Apparently all the writers were hesitant about setting work so far in the future, at first. Since the 1940s there has been a small sci-fi presence, mainly in Lebanon and Egypt, but there wasn’t the nineteenth century industrial revolution in the Arab world that kickstarted the genre in Europe. Hassan’s view also is that there have been so many conflicts in Iraq, everyone’s writing is influenced by war and conflict and they don’t have the luxury of sitting back and letting their imaginations run wild. “Peace is a great laboratory for imagination,” he said.

In Iraq, Hassan said, the ‘official’ writers are affiliated to government bodies and aren’t free to write as they choose, though the most danger for writers there now comes from the religious militia and not the government. He is hopeful for the future as the rise of Isis has made it easier for writers, or young people on Facebook, to criticise religion and religious figures, which would have been unthinkable in 2006. Young people in Iraq are protesting weekly about religious governance, although that appetite for change is rarely (if ever) shown in Western media.

This was an eye-opening evening, which I think shows the importance of literature in translation for getting a true view of situations in other countries.

Book reviewing

There’s a new review of an old book on my A Random Walk Through Speculative Fiction outpost at Luna Station Quarterly – I finally read The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin (I know, sometimes I don’t know where I’ve been or how I miss these things). Anyway I’ve read it now, and it was great (one for the PKD fans I think).

I’ll also be part of the blog tour for freshly-released novel The Last of the Bowmans by J Paul Henderson this Sunday, so drop by to read further thoughts on that. You might already have read my review of it at The Bookbag.

All that and preparing for Ilkley Writers to be on the radio, too! More of which anon, but suffice to say I’m excited (and yet cool and nonchalant, obviously).

The Bees by Laline Paull

I was intrigued by this book. Sci-fi on the Baileys Prize shortlist – surely that has to be a good thing, though I wasn’t sure if I fancied reading it. Then a friend lent me a copy and said she hadn’t been able to put it down, so I dived in.

Now I should say right here that I’m often mistrustful of SF in the mainstream, I am after all one of those left-wingers that doesn’t know what to do when we’re not the underdog, so if it’s popular I assume I couldn’t possibly like it. I’m also an avoider of literary prizes, in general. I have read prize-winners (AS Byatt’s Possession, for instance, which friend T bought me knowing exactly why I’d love it) but I don’t deliberately do so, I tend to have the impression that they’ll be dull but worthy. Awfully well-written and clever, but not necessarily gripping. So, with The Bees I was wary but hopeful, shall we say.

I tried. I read much more than I would have done if I hadn’t been lent it. I was intending to review it for Luna Station Quarterly but I couldn’t bring myself to finish it and even if I had I wouldn’t have been able to recommend other people spend hours of their lives on it. Perhaps the way to summarise it is ‘it’s just not my cup of tea’, though I do think there might be some truth in the whisper at the back of my mind that says ‘this is SF for people who don’t read SF, hence it’s on a mainstream prize shortlist’. It felt simplistic with heavy-handed analogies, it felt like a children’s book (except for the inclusion of a word that could be mistaken for the Health Secretary’s surname), it felt like a string of events with no connection other than proximity or coincidence. It was the kind of wet story (all warm fuzzy feelings, and babies) that puts me off reading female-authored sci-fi – this is the kind of thing I’m worried I’ll get.

Flora 717 is a sanitation bee in a hive which was vividly imagined and well described – I really liked the importance of scents, and the use of scents as masks (‘invisibility cloaks’ if you like) or messages. However, the hive is suffering, pesticides and climate change the apparent culprits. Flora 717 gradually gets shoved higher up the ranks because these are desperate times. It’s never explained, though, why she can speak when other sanitation bees can’t, why she manages to start speaking again after she’s had something done to her to make her lose the ability, why she can suddenly understand the dance of a forager when she shouldn’t be able to, why she picks up on the hive mind which is such a rare honour. I did also wonder why the hive mind wasn’t picked up by more than a few of them, all the time, but then I don’t know much about bees so maybe I’ve misunderstood how it works.

This book has been immensely popular and had many favourable reviews, so I’m clearly out of step with received opinion (there’s a surprise) but if you share my SF tastes I doubt you’ll enjoy it.

If you are interested in bees and sci-fi, but like it a little more robust, OneMonkey recommends The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees by E Lily Yu.

Confluence by Paul McAuley

If you fall into that centre bit of the Venn diagram of fans of Dune (Frank Herbert), Gormenghast (Mervyn Peake) and Shadowmarch (Tad Williams) that likes all three of those series, may I recommend (assuming you haven’t already read it) the Confluence trilogy by Paul McAuley, which I’ve written a nice review of over at The Bookbag this week. I can’t believe I hadn’t read any of his novels before!

Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis

My review of Lives of the Monster Dogs is now up at Luna Station Quarterly. It’s science fiction from 1997 with a pleasingly old-fashioned (19th century) aspect, so if that sounds at all like your thing, bob over there and read the whole review. If it doesn’t, stay here and read something else…

READ, carved in rockYou could try my SF collection Cracks in the Foundations, which you can download for free here (tip me if you enjoy it).