sci-fi

Amazing what you find when you’re clearing out

Photo by Giallo on Pexels.com

Ten years ago I entered a Sherlock Holmes-inspired flash fiction competition. I forget the exact criteria but I didn’t get anywhere, and never knew what to do with the resulting short tale about the impossibility of time travel. Having finally mothballed my decaying laptop I’m tidying up the file structure on the new (second-hand) desktop and stumbling across forgotten stories, including that one. It’s less than 500 words long, so if you fancy a small piece of Victorian-set SF, read on, and if you enjoy it you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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When you’ve eliminated the impossible…

“Carstairs, you simply must come,” insisted young Fotherington. “How could you miss the chance to use a time machine?”


Professor Carstairs sighed. In twenty minutes of argument his delightful cousin’s foolish husband had failed to take on board the basic principle that such a machine was a physical impossibility. It was all the fault of that bounder Wells and his sensational literature. If only more people had read Conan Doyle’s excellent stories in The Strand instead.


“How indeed?” Carstairs said. Fotherington beamed at this apparent capitulation, and set about writing to the friend who had invited them for the weekend.


By the time they boarded the train on Friday, the professor was looking forward to the trip. Since the machine couldn’t really transport anyone through time, he wanted to ascertain whether the perception was created through physical or psychological means. In short, did the experience involve the administration of drugs or a subtle blend of auditory stimuli and the power of suggestion.


They had almost arrived when Fotherington said, “I knew you’d come round in the end, Carstairs.”


“Fotherington, you do understand that the supposed inventor of this machine, your friend’s new acquaintance, is either a fraud or a fool? Or both.”


“Carstairs!”


“There are laws of physics which absolutely forbid -“


“Wasn’t it once a law of physics that the sun went round the earth?” asked Fotherington, his smile suggesting his clever friend had been caught out.


“That wasn’t a law of physics, it was a piece of dogma which has since been overthrown.”

#

The breathless Fotherington found Professor Carstairs prowling their host’s library later that afternoon.


“Carstairs, it was marvellous. I threw back a lever and fetched up in Elizabethan times, I could hear feasting.”


“Hear?” Carstairs raised an eyebrow. This hinted at the drug-free theory of subtle suggestion.


“Yes,” said Fotherington. “The chap said stay in the shadows and don’t interact with anyone.”


Carstairs smiled and followed Fotherington to the contraption which had been built into a closet. He shook hands with the inventor and settled himself inside, nudging the lever gently forwards. There was a prolonged mechanical whirring, a flash of light, and then silence. Carstairs opened the closet door expecting Fotherington, but found an empty room. The light seemed different and he cursed himself – the handshake must have been a means of transferring an hallucinogenic substance.


“…doesn’t matter what I saw on Friday, I’m not convinced, Fotherington.”


Carstairs heard a familiar voice and two sets of footsteps approaching. As the door to the room opened, he came face to face with himself wearing a look of abject horror.

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Airedale by Dylan Byford

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Outside London, it’s pretty rare to find English sci-fi set in a real place. I can think of one or two set in Manchester, and Peter F Hamilton’s Greg Mandel series set in and around Rutland, but beyond that I’m struggling. It’s fair to say I was intrigued when I spotted one of the first novels from new crime publisher Northodox Press was ‘a near-future thriller’ set in a place I used to live: Airedale.

If you’re a dog-lover you might be familiar with the terrier of the same name, but I’m guessing that outside Yorkshire (probably even inside most of Yorkshire) the name won’t conjure up a place for you. As you might have guessed, it’s the dale (valley) where the River Aire runs, and these days houses Leeds commuters, many of them living in buildings that forty years ago were textile mills. There is also a UNESCO world heritage site, the mill village Saltaire. Dylan Byford has cleverly taken this geography and history and extrapolated it into a messy future. An unspecified time when another industry is disintegrating in the periodically flooded dale leaving empty warehouses and unemployment, Saltaire exists in a protective bubble, and northern politicians look to Durham rather than Westminster.

Airedale is a cyberpunk police procedural featuring politics, subversion, riots and local businessmen. It’s full of wonderful details of integrated technology and state surveillance, what’s changed and what hasn’t. Haz Edmundson is a contractor working for the police, what we might call a forensic computing expert who doesn’t usually have to deal with dead bodies. Except tonight, when for one reason or another he’s there when the body of an activist is discovered and he can’t let it go when it’s officially marked as an accidental death. How far is he prepared to go to uncover the truth? And who can he trust?

Haz is a wonderfully human character. A hopeless, unreliable, scruffy single dad who’s good at his job but not hard-boiled enough to deal with death in a detached way. He’s also apt to ask the wrong questions at the wrong moment, and land himself in trouble. I would happily read more books about him. If he can hang onto his life or his job long enough to star in them. There were a couple of interesting strands that weren’t fully followed up, in my view, and I don’t claim to completely understand the conclusions but I had a fabulous time along the way. Except for the bit near the start that’s really not for the arachnophobes (grit your teeth and race through it, it’s only half a dozen pages and only one of them is horrifying).

I didn’t pay for my copy because I won it in a draw on Twitter but other than them once reading (and rejecting) the manuscript of a crime novel of mine set in Newcastle, I have no relationship with Northodox and I don’t know Dylan Byford either. If you like William Gibson but have always wished someone would write in a similar vein but with uncool characters in small town Yorkshire (it can’t just be me), you are definitely onto a winner here. Similarly if you enjoyed the Greg Mandel series from Peter F Hamilton (I reviewed the first and second books a few years ago), or if you’re a fan of British police procedurals and you have an open mind on the SF elements. It does have a great sense of place, and I was initially attracted to it because of the setting, but I was hooked from the first page and the setting soon became the icing on a fine cake. Highly recommended, whether you know where Airedale is or not.

If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Learning to write about climate change

I can’t believe I haven’t yet written about How to Start Writing the Climate, a series of four workshops run by Linda France for New Writing North. Prospective participants had to apply with a sample of their writing, and it’s always a boost to be selected in that way, whether it’s for an anthology or an online gathering. As I write this in mid-June we’ve had three of the four workshops, with another short piece to write before the final one in early July.

Since I write in various genres including sci-fi, it would be easy to see climate change as something I could (should?) tackle in a particular way. The books I’ve read that had it at their heart have all been sci-fi (I recommended a few a while back). It’s a common theme, usually used in a dystopian way – societal breakdown due to food or water shortages, damage to infrastructure through storms or floods – and set in the future. The trouble is, we’re living through it right now and it could (should) crop up in every genre except fantasy, because it is the realest of real.

I say that, but it even has a place in fantasy. My semi-rural fantasy novel set in northern England in 2018, the one that got me onto the Penguin WriteNow day in 2017, has a strong ‘green’ theme: pollution, fracking and ecosystem damage, as well as changing weather patterns and political responses to the climate emergency. It’s still SFF though, still a niche readership (if it’s ever published) and all about impending disaster – the North Sea has decided people can’t be trusted with the land so she decides to reclaim it. I felt that climate change, its effects and possible mitigations, people’s fears and plans relating to it, ought to crop up, however subtly, in all genres. Just like environmental considerations ought to crop up to some extent in all policy and planning. Hence my desire to attend these workshops.

Bridlington beach
The North Sea in calm mood in 2015

The trouble is, if it is a topic with strong emotional pull – a topic where there are fears and arguments in the background – it’s hard to know where to start. I also found it was hard for me not to stray into near-future SF, or into some kind of hectoring, doom-laden vein. On top of all that I’m not an expert, just a Guardian-reading citizen who’s looking to live through this. All those mythical target dates (this by 2030, that by 2040, the other by 2050) should be comfortably within my lifetime, I have a stake in this. Maybe not as much as if I had children, but still…

Linda started off by acknowledging these difficulties and trying to help us through them. We had a delve into why we write at all, why we want to write about climate change, and why it’s difficult. The delve included some free-writing sessions, where you write for a set time without stopping (if you get stuck you write e.g. ‘I’m stuck, I can’t think of anything, how annoying’ etc until you break out of the rut). I’ve often found these useful for freeing up the mind, or rather, sneaking ideas past the self-censor, and it helped here too. I gained a tiny insight into what my personal angle might be, the motivation that could see me through. I also did a mind map which I augmented over a few days, and that gave me some bare topics but also phrases I jotted down like ‘no plastic tat’, ‘ok if you’ve got good quality belongings to start with’, ‘it’s expensive to be frugal’.

Then we talked about who the audience might be, and I faltered. There’s a mix of poets and prose writers in the group but we’re not talking documentary style, factual writing. Primarily we’re looking to inform as we entertain, with poetry or fiction or creative non-fiction (true events written in a storytelling narrative style). I can’t imagine that any reader of the sort of literary journal I might aspire to be published in will be unaware of climate change or what they can do to slow down or mitigate it. They might not be prepared to make the changes they recognise as necessary or they might not be able to afford to (I once explained to an earnest middle-class student that normal people aren’t deciding between the recycled brand and the standard big-name brand that costs the same, they’re deciding between the recycled brand and the value brand which costs half the price. He didn’t seem to get it). But fundamentally, I’m not telling them anything they didn’t know and I’m unlikely to change their behaviour. Two things, then: one, I can at least reflect reality better if I weave some thoughts on climate change in; two, I can make it specific and bring it closer to home.

The view from my front door when the moor was on fire 2 years ago

While I think it is true that at some level we must all know what’s going on by now, and what we can do (would like to do, are prepared to do, ought to do) about it, it still sometimes seems far away if you live in a comfortable inland area of a developed country. There’s talk of droughts and sea-level rises and melting glaciers but I live in a pretty rainy part of northern England where people still laugh at southerners and their summer hosepipe bans. We’ve had some devastating moor fires over the last five years but it’s easy to focus on people’s carelessness with cigarettes or barbecues, rather than how much more likely these fires are if the moor gets drier than normal. So maybe Climate Change the big scary topic is familiar, but specific ways it’s affecting northern England and its weather and wildlife will be unusual enough to make someone pause.

My next problem involves starting out on climate change and ending up on biodiversity loss, extinctions and habitat destruction. I worry that, although the two are connected, I’m straying off topic. However, if there’s one thing I learnt from my repeated reading of Douglas Adams (sadly I don’t seem to have learnt how to write good comic fantasy), it’s the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. By which I mean, if I write with the intention of writing about climate change and how I feel about it, then if it ends up being about reduction in butterfly numbers and changes to migratory patterns that aren’t all directly caused by climate change, that’s ok. Feeling a connection to nature, which many people have discovered or deepened during the pandemic, makes us care more about our impact on the planet, and by extension, man-made climate change. Expect more birds and trees to crop up in my non-SF stories. And butterflies, of course.

A butterfly photo I took at Tropical World in Leeds, before I even had this blog

If I’ve given you something to think about, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Wyldblood Magazine issue 1

Wyldblood Magazine is the new bi-monthly speculative fiction magazine from Wyldblood Press. For the writers, it’s a paying market based in the UK. For readers, it’s 11 stories ranging between 4 and 10 pages each, plus an author interview (Tiffani Angus) and some book reviews. The editor Mark Bilsborough was kind enough to send me a review copy, so here’s a quick scoot through what you can expect.

Coal Dust and Shadows by Holley Cornetto is a good old-fashioned eerie story set in a mining town in the USA. An odd girl is rescued from a mine, and seventeen-year-old Preston’s in love. But is this silent girl as innocent as she seems? One of my favourites from this issue.

Thawing by JL George is firmly in the realm of fantasy, set in a world where cold-bringing dragons are feared. A young girl is enthralled by the legend of the ice princess but how close is it to the truth?

The Butcher’s Dog by Peri Dwyer Worrell is a light-hearted tale of animal experiments, narrated by the dog of the title. Who is really in charge in this human-canine relationship?

A Gleam of Gold by Dorothy A Winsor is a fantasy tale in a land where magic is seen as barbaric. We meet Jarka as he begins to learn the mastery of his magical skills. This reads like a selfcontained excerpt from a longer story, there’s definitely a sense of a fully-formed world out there with a past and a future.

Bargaining with Frogs by Stephanie Kraner is a fun take on the frog prince fairytale.

Et In Vanadia Ego by Rosemary Sgroi is science-fiction. In a society geared for cyclists, where energy is currency, a young man has fallen in love with a woman from Vanadia, the last outpost of capitalism.

Little Escher by Robert Borski. Is there more to a little boy’s drawing ability than his father thinks?

A Murder of Crows by Jacey Bedford is a gripping story with a noir edge. Anka works for the Port Authority, basically she’s a cop, and having just lost an apprentice she’s determined to go it alone when her greatest foe shows up in the city. My personal favourite, I think, and anyone else with a fondness for William Gibson’s style will probably also love this one.

The Paint-Over Artist by Mark Rigney is sci-fi initially feeling like fantasy. A secluded authoritarian state, and the woman whose job it is to paint over graffiti and subversive slogans. Another favourite of mine.

Souls of Smoke and Ash by Sydney Paige Guerrero is set in the Philippines and nudges into vampire territory without the gore. It’s a compelling character-driven tale of betrayal, teenage identity and loneliness.

The Klizzys by Bonnie West is a sad and unsettling tale of a grieving child and imaginary friends.

The stories range in tone from light-hearted to dark and tense, and cover sub-genres across the speculative spectrum. Not every story will be to everyone’s taste, and it’s skewed towards fantasy but only because the submissions were, I think – if you want to redress the balance submit some good sci-fi, or nudge your favourite sci-fi short story writer to do so. Wyldblood magazine has the potential to become one of those broad-taste SF mags like Interzone, where you know you’ll find stories of a certain calibre and there’s sure to be something to entice you, even if you won’t like every story in every issue.

The interview with Tiffani Angus was interesting and really made me want to read her novel – my To Read list just keeps on growing. Threading the Labyrinth is essentially about the garden of a large English house, over several centuries. She gave some insight into the amount (and types) of research involved in writing real history with fantasy and time travel elements. The editor then rounds out the issue with a few book reviews – most of them seem to be books that didn’t quite satisfy him! However, he gives the sort of detailed reasons that should help you work out whether the book still sounds like it’s your cup of tea.

It would be nice to see some commissioned artwork in the magazine but I know that racks up the costs so maybe it’s unrealistic at this early stage. It can enhance a good SF story though. I guess you’d expect that viewpoint from the founder of International Illustrator Appreciation Day

Issue 2 is due out mid-March as print, pdf, epub and mobi editions. You can buy individual print or electronic copies or take out a subscription at the Wyldblood website, individual copies are also available via Amazon.

2020: a year of not much reading

The traditional look back over what I read during the year just gone, as an excuse to round up the reviews I wrote, and provide a few mini-reviews of the books I didn’t review at the time. I only read 20 physical books in 2020, most of which are pictured below, split into non-fiction and fiction. I also read 14 e-books and listened to 4 audiobooks, but for various reasons the audiobooks never get counted in any of my totals. I read even fewer books in 2020 than I had in 2019, and as I noted a year ago, 2019 was my joint-lowest book-tally of the decade. The proportions were broadly similar though: about two-thirds of it was fiction, just over half the fiction was sci-fi and fantasy and just over a third of it was crime. Some of it was both.

An eclectic selection of non-fiction I read in 2020

As you can see from the photo above, my non-fiction reading was pretty wide-ranging. I started with the pair of Simon Armitage books my sisters bought me for Christmas 2019. In Walking Home, Simon Armitage (now the poet laureate) walks the Pennine Way in the reverse of the usual direction, starting in Scotland and ending up near his house in West Yorkshire. It’s an entertaining journey through the north, sometimes walking with friends, sometimes with strangers and sometimes alone, but each night doing a poetry reading in an attempt to pay for bed and board. Walking Away is a similar format a couple of years later, but this time he’s walking in an unfamiliar part of the country, the south-west coast. I didn’t enjoy Walking Away as much, partly because I got the sense that he wasn’t enjoying the trip as much. He comes across as almost mourngy at times – his back hurts, his feet hurt, he’s not in the mood for a reading, he’s not enjoying the company of the strangers who’ve come to walk with him – and the book has a faintly dissatisfied air like a contractual obligation album from a band you used to like. If you’ve enjoyed any of his prose though, give Walking Home a go.

Common People is a collection of short memoir pieces from known and hitherto unknown writers from working-class backgrounds, several of whom I chat to now and then on Twitter, which gave it an added thrill for me. There are a variety of tales in there and I recommend it whether you think you might recognise any of the experiences in it or not. Maybe particularly if not. The Kinks book was heavily class-based too, but definitely for the Kinks fans as you need a certain level of familiarity with their early albums.

I wrote about Footsteps when I read it, and gave links to scanned-in copies of the original memoirs on archive.org, which is also where I found an excellent account of the Luddites around Cleckheaton. You might be surprised at the local history books or niche memoirs you can find there – have a nose around if you have even the slightest interest in history beyond the national level and the famous names. I also listened to the audiobook of Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem, via the library and the Borrowbox app. Lara searches the tidal Thames for historical artefacts and I found her account fascinating despite my unfamiliarity with London. I suspect I missed out on great pictures though so if you have the chance, get hold of the actual book.

I reviewed An Indifference of Birds a few months ago – highly recommended for the interested amateur birdwatcher, particularly urban-based. I haven’t reviewed English Pastoral by James Rebanks because I don’t know where to start but I think it should be read by every politician, everyone on the board at supermarkets, and everyone who has the luxury of choice when it comes to food (by which I mean, their first priority isn’t maximum nutrition per pound due to their tiny food budget). James Rebanks is a Cumbrian farmer and in this book full of love and a sense of responsibility, he looks back at the way his grandfather farmed, where it all went wrong in his father’s generation, and how James and his children might be able to start putting things right. It talks about soil health and the downward spiral of artificial fertilisers, but also about the land and the wildlife, and it’s written beautifully. In a similar vein but with a different focus is Wilding by Isabella Tree, which OneMonkey and I listened to (again via the library). I started out bristling at these entitled aristocrats but it is a fascinating account of switching from intensive farming to a system that’s more in tune with nature, and I learnt a lot about counterproductive government incentives for agriculture.

Some of the fiction I read in 2020. Mostly I read e-books

Now to fiction. I did read a few physical books, as shown in the photo above. Mainly they were second-hand copies that were already on the To Read shelf when lockdown hit, a couple were ordered via Hive (which supports independent bookshops) or the Waterstones site. Mostly, however, I read e-books: a couple via the library and Borrowbox, some direct from small publishers, several from Kobo (since I have a Kobo mini), and one out-of-copyright downloaded for free.

I did an SFF round-up in the summer, gave a quick recommendation of Diary of a Somebody by Brian Bilston, and individually reviewed The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes and Big Sky by Kate Atkinson. Big Sky was the fifth in a series where I’d read the preceding four, and there were a few similar continuations during the year (by Tad Williams, Reginald Hill, Georges Simenon, CJ Sansom, Vic James, Jodi Taylor) so I don’t think I have any more reviews to give. I will, however, mention the audiobook of Early Riser by Jasper Fforde. A standalone novel, this is set in an alternative Wales where Tom Jones is still known for Delilah, but most humans hibernate every winter to avoid the arctic conditions. Nothing is quite as it seems, and poor Charlie Worthing’s about to get caught up in a winter nobody wants to experience, least of all him. The level of detailed imaginative brilliance was breathtaking but the reading by Thomas Hunt gave it an extra dimension and I’m glad I listened to the audiobook from the library (so we could both ‘read’ it at once) rather than read the book.

I’ve already read two books in 2021, reviews to follow shortly, but if I just helped you find your next book to read you can always buy me a cuppa…

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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.