science fiction

Prescient at the time, outdated now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.

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.

Bradford, City of Film

Continuing the Bradford theme (I know, such an unusual topic for me), I ran across a story I wrote a few years ago but never found the right place to submit. Reading through it this week I found I still liked the concept and was pleased with how I’d done it but (thankfully) it’s a bit outdated now. Bradford’s picking up again, as I said in a recent post about the literature festival. They’ve even moved the central library. So, have this (magic realism?) story on me, constructive feedback and comments welcome as always.

Bradford, City of Film by JY Saville

Chris drove past the shining new signposts heralding his return to the city of his birth: Bradford, City of Film. He smiled to himself and shook his head. They were grasping at straws, he thought; it was hardly the new Cannes, not even Edinburgh but if it helped, where was the harm. That it had helped was obvious as soon as he dropped down into the city centre. He parked behind the library and stood looking around at the surroundings. Everything looked smart and new, there was even a bayonet in the war memorial statue – Chris had never seen one in place except when Tom Courtenay saluted it in the film Billy Liar. Rumour had it that the council had given up replacing it after it had been stolen so many times, but other rumour had it that it unlocked a secret tunnel under the neighbouring Alhambra theatre. Chris laughed out loud as he strode down the hill, glad to be back, revelling in memories.

Chris Thompson had left university with ambition; once upon a time that ambition could have been fulfilled in Bradford, a bright young lad could have gone far, learned languages, travelled the empire, all in the service of worsted. Chris knew what worsted was but that was as far as it went; his kind of ambition needed a modern city like Leeds to thrive. And since you may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb he’d left the county altogether and moved to London. Once there, he’d dusted off his middle name – Pyrah, Bradford to the core – and attached it to his surname. Now Chris Pyrah-Thompson was home.

He kept walking, never getting closer to his fellow citizens than the glimpse of a turned-up raincoat collar or a flat cap rounding a corner. Not many people out so late; maybe those that weren’t at home were at the cinema, helping the city earn its new title. Chris himself would head off soon but it had been a long drive so the brief diversion on foot was welcome; for the moment the glow of the sodium lamp over the familiar streets drew him on. He hadn’t realised it was so late and dark when he’d arrived. And suddenly quiet, too.

The eerie silence solidified round the cathedral where the sound of trains should have been a periodic background thrum. Looking at the cathedral full-on it seemed real enough, but glance up Church Bank and he could see from the corner of his eye how grainy the edge of the churchyard was. He shook his head, looked away, looked back. Tired from the long drive, or had his Aunt Irene’s warnings of the effects of living in the South been justified? He looked down at his feet. The cobbles took over from tarmac a few feet away. He whirled round and a silent horse was ridden past jerkily at the top of the street in that characteristic stop-go of early cinema. City of film indeed.

It was convincing enough to fool a passing visitor, but how many of those were they expecting? As some fellow Bradfordian had once angrily informed him – and to be honest he’d never bothered to check if it was true – there were no signs pointing the way to Bradford, and the single junction of the M62 that hinted at its existence was rumoured to loop round and deposit the unwary motorist back on the carriageway pointing in the other direction. This was generally assumed to be part of the Great Conspiracy to Steal Bradford’s Thunder which, so the story went, the Leeds city fathers had been perpetrating since long before the advent of moving pictures.

For a son of Bradford, these images hinted at past glories and lost youth, presenting Bradford as the returning wanderer remembered it. And maybe that was the point. Though how many returning wanderers were there? How many of the people Chris had seen that night were real? Did anyone still live here?

He ran along cobbles, tarmac, packed dirt, through the early days of silence to the full colour noughties. Shifting, disconcerting visions of the city overlapped around him. Look from one angle and you could see the old market, go round the corner and instead of a rear view you might see the field it had been built on or the shopping centre that replaced it. The beck was underground or above ground, almost dry or overflowing. It was a real test of local knowledge and Chris didn’t feel up to the challenge. His shoes rang out on the solid surface of the streets; he had no doubt that if he fell in the beck he’d get wet. Or poisoned – he’d heard his grandad tell the old tales.

Rounding a corner in colour he saw a man locking up a shop. Chris didn’t pay too much attention to the details, just shouted to see if he could get the man’s attention, and to his relief he turned to face him, hand still on the door handle.

“Thank God,” panted Chris. “I think I might be going mad.”

“Evening,” smiled the shopkeeper.

“How long’s it been like this?” asked Chris, hoping the man didn’t ask what he meant. There was still a faint possibility that Chris was losing his grasp on reality.

“Well,” began the man, considering, “We’ve had a couple of weeks to get used to it, and I think folk are settling into it.”

“A couple of weeks? That might explain why no-one’s noticed yet. I mean, from the outside.”

“Aye,” agreed the shopkeeper, folding his arms, still smiling at Chris.

“Doesn’t it bother you?” asked Chris, aghast.

“I’m quite adaptable.”

Chris was quiet for a moment, wondering how adaptable a person would have to be to take something like this in their stride. He was about to say something when the shopkeeper said:

“It has caused a few problems, mainly with older people.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Chris. “If they weren’t confused before they will be now.”

“Well, they’re trying to convert everything as they go along, and the mental arithmetic’s not always up to it, you know how it is.” He smiled again and the penny – old or new – dropped. Chris remembered seeing this documentary about decimalisation at school; he remembered it because his gran’s neighbour was in the background halfway through, just after the adaptable smiling shopkeeper said his piece.

Chris wandered back through the variously dark, variously old streets, in silence or with accompanying traffic noise, none of it – as far as he could tell – real. Although the silence, when he thought about it, must be real. He hadn’t managed to track down a real live human being in half an hour of running after people and shouting. Though if someone who thought his home town had been replaced by a cinematic echo of its former self came running after Chris asking if he was real, he was fairly confident that he’d ignore them and walk faster. So what had he proved, after all?

Assuming he could leave the city on a real road that went somewhere, Chris wondered what his family would say if he asked them about the city’s transformation. Had they noticed? He wasn’t sure any of them went into the centre of Bradford any more, and that was undoubtedly the problem. As a child, Chris had been taken by his family to pantomimes each year at the Alhambra. One year it had been Peter Pan, and the part that had stayed with him for thirty years was the bit where you had to shout I believe in fairies because whenever someone says they don’t believe, a fairy dies. Was that what had happened? Belief in Bradford had evaporated as the last of the mills shut down, the big shops followed and investment dried up. One by one the streets had winked out of existence, eventually replaced by the captured dreams of days gone by – archive footage, lovingly stitched together by enthusiasts with European money.

“I believe in fairies!” Chris bellowed in the middle of Centenary Square, but not even the pigeons seemed to care.

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).

A Random Walk Through Speculative Fiction

The first book review I’ve written for Luna Station Quarterly has appeared today (Doctor Who novel, nailing my colours to the mast at the start), which is exciting and I urge you all (assuming you’re a partaker of speculative fiction) to go and read it, then lose yourselves for a couple of hours in the vastness of their archives. Further reviews should emerge quarterly, in a column I’ve called ‘A Random Walk Through Speculative Fiction’, mainly because I’ll be reviewing whatever I happen to have stumbled across that’s good, so it’ll be a bit random (but also because I once did a research project involving random walks, and you know me and maths jokes).

In other exciting news, my friend Alice and I will be holding a story-telling event at the York Festival of Ideas on June 10th (I’d link to their site but it still has the 2014 details up, I’ve seen a proof of the programme this week and when it’s available I’ll mention it here). The theme of the festival is Secrets and Discoveries, so our evening will focus on the importance and the dangers of secrets, through myths and fairytales, and a couple of stories I’ve written (one historical, one sci-fi).

What with all that and the writing workshop I’m going to in the morning, I feel positive and busy, but none of this is getting me any further with editing the sci-fi noir novel…

A Blink of the Screen, short fiction by Terry Pratchett

I might not have read this collection if my dad hadn’t recommended it then lent me it, which just goes to show something or other. Years ago, near the height of my Pratchett-fandom, I read a couple of pre-Discworld novels (The Dark Side of the Sun, and Strata) and my boat, as it were, remained distinctly unafloat. I haven’t fancied reading his recent sci-fi collaboration with Stephen Baxter, though I did enjoy a radio adaptation of Nation, and I don’t recall reading any of Terry Pratchett’s short stories. So a whole book of them, well over half of which was non-Discworld output, didn’t sound like I needed to rush out and read it (as indeed I haven’t, it came out in 2012). Occasionally (whisper it) I can be wrong, a little hasty in my judgement, for not only did A Blink of the Screen turn out to be most entertaining, the Discworld offerings on the whole were the weakest of the lot.

The non-Discworld stories in the book cover the period 1963-2010 (Discworld 1992-2009), some serious but most with his trademark humour to the fore, and mostly within the broad spectrum of speculative fiction (horror, fantasy, science fiction or some blend thereof). Each one has a short (or not so short) introduction by Pratchett, setting it in context or adding a relevant anecdote. Twenty-four pages of colour illustrations are slotted in, mostly by Josh Kirby, quite a few you probably haven’t seen before. There is also a foreword by AS Byatt which gives an unexpected glimpse into her life – I love the thought of her curling up with a Discworld novel after a long day writing Literature.

I can’t quite decide whether this is a fan’s book or not. There are definitely some parts of the Discworld section that are strictly for the fans (football cards tied in to Unseen Academicals, for instance), and a deleted extract from a Granny Weatherwax/Nanny Ogg story called The Sea and Little Fishes. However, even some of the Discworld parts should have wider appeal, like the story for The Times Higher Education Supplement in 2005 in which various senior members of the Unseen University discuss the ludicrous idea of inspecting and somehow measuring the productivity of a university, which any academic subject to the REF will surely raise a weary smile at. Among the non-Discworld gems are the character who turns up to meet his author, the time-traveller called Mervin who ends up somehow in Camelot mistaken for Merlin, and the computer who believes in Father Christmas. All in all, as long as you’re comfortable at the comic fantasy end of SF, I imagine there will be plenty in this collection to keep you entertained for a while.

I wrote this review a week or two before Terry Pratchett died, then put it aside for later as I often do. It meant that at the time of his death I’d recently been reminded just how good a writer he was, which I’m very glad about.

Nova Swing by M John Harrison

cover of Nova Swing by M John HarrisonAward-winning SF noir novel from 2006, the resolution (or lack thereof) perhaps unworthy of the set-up, but worth reading if it’s one of your sub-genres of choice.

Vic Serotonin is a tour guide, leading wealthy tourists to the unstable edges of Saudade, where reality isn’t as real as it could be and no-one knows what you might find. In between clients he hangs out at Liv Hula’s bar with Fat Antoyne, who only wants a chance to fit in. Together they watch the cats stream past twice a day, and the ships taking off and landing in the city, largely minding their own business. Sure, Vic smuggles the odd artefact out of the event site for collectors and the mildly eccentric Detective Aschemann keeps half an eye on him, but it’s not such a big deal. Until it is, and Vic really finds out who his friends aren’t.

With any kind of noir it’s the details that make it, and when you’re weaving some sci-fi world-building in, doubly so. The details in Nova Swing really make it work. There’s a musical theme which I liked, as well (playing it, listening to it, watching performers in bars).

Nova Swing is described as the sequel to Harrison’s earlier novel Light, which I haven’t read but I understand it to be set in the same place with completely different main characters. I didn’t feel like there was a gaping hole in my understanding as a consequence, it just felt like I’d been dropped into a complete world where life went on before I started observing the place, and will continue (after a fashion) after I’ve gone. That should be the case with any well-written fiction, anyway.

I didn’t feel completely satisfied by the time I closed the back cover, one too many loose ends perhaps. Nevertheless I’d enjoyed my time in Saudade and I was left with a dreamy feeling of enlightenment being just beyond the grasp of my sluggish brain. If you don’t mind having some questions remain unanswered as long as you’ve absorbed the atmosphere of the place during the investigation, then this might be just the SF noir for you.