science fiction

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.