Category Archives: books

Novella announcement: BLIGHTERS

I’m very pleased to announce the (very!) imminent arrival of BLIGHTERS. It’s a novella about a worldwide ‘invasion’ of alien slugs, from the viewpoint of a snarky woman living in Kendal, Cumbria. Here’s the blurb:

Them Blighters are everywhere.

They fell out of the sky last year, great horrible armour-plated slugs with razor-sharp fangs. But ugly as they are, they give the ultimate high to anyone nearby: a blissful, gleeful contentment that people are willing to kill for.

Not Becky Stone, though. All she wants is to drink beer, listen to her dad’s old vinyl, and get her life back to how it was before everything was all messed up.

Blighters? Frankly, she could do without them.

BLIGHTERS will be published by Abaddon as an ebook on 9th July, and it’ll likely be available in a printed anthology (with the other ‘Invaders From Beyond’ novellas) at some point later this year. Thanks to David Thomas Moore at Abaddon for picking up this story!

You can buy the ebook now from Amazon UK (£2.99) or Amazon USA ($3.99).

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Martian canals and borrowed ideas in SF

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I’ve got an article up on the Hodderscape website – it’s about Martian canals, the 1964 film Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and the borrowing of ideas in science fiction. It’s rather a ramble, but the main idea is that even misconceptions can lead to good fictional ideas that are then developed by writer after writer.

You can read the full article here.

Favourite books read in 2014

I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t read much this year (23 books, with two still unfinished). Blame my one-year-old son and my recent tendency to fall asleep after reading two or three pages in bed. (Having said that, I may have read Where The Wild Things Are more than 100 times.)

StonerMy absolute favourite this year was Stoner by John Williams, a story so familiar and everyday that each of the protagonist’s disappointments felt like a friend injured. Couples by John Updike didn’t let me down and opens up for me a whole world of Updike novels not featuring Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom. Concrete Island, though flawed in its second half, is my favourite of the three J G Ballard novels I read (the others being High-Rise and The Drowned World). The Machine by James Smythe was the only recently-released novel I read, but I thought it was fantastic. My favourite non-fiction book was Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. And I wish there were more books as digestible and unmissable as Sum: Tales From The Afterlives by David Eagleman.

Favourite books read in 2013

Rabbit

Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom novels (John Updike, 1960-2000)

I found reading Rabbit, Run (1960) a revelation. Its third-person, present-tense point of view lends the story an immediacy, but that would be nothing without Updike’s immaculate observational powers. That vast sections of the novel feature nothing more dramatic than Harry driving around in the dark, yet are still gripping, speaks volumes. While I found the switch to Janice’s point of view the least satisfying element, stylistically, the narrative bombshell dropped still makes me choke.

Reading a novel that you fully connect with is wonderful. Discovering subsequently that you have the ability to follow the same characters over forty years at decade-long intervals… that’s a rare treat. Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990) and the novella Rabbit Remembered (2000) each cover subtly different aspects of changing American culture and, more importantly, of the psyche of the average American male. Taken as a complete work, they are as perfect a novel as I think I’m ever likely to read.

 

The-Martian-ChroniclesThe Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury, 1950)

This ‘half-cousin to a novel’ (Bradbury’s own words) comprises 28 loosely connected stories. Most of them had been published previously in the late Forties in various SF magazines. In collecting them here, Bradbury traces connecting lines between stories and recurring characters. The effect is a disorienting series of snapshots that nevertheless builds up a far more complete vision of the future than a more straightforward novel.

And what a vision! At times, Bradbury’s prose can be staggeringly beautiful. For example, from ‘The Locusts’: The rockets set the bony meadows afire, turned rock to lava, turned wood to charcoal, transmitted water to steam, made sand and silica into green glass which lay like shattered mirrors reflecting the invasion, all about. Bradbury’s Mars, modelled in the image of the memories of homesick astronauts, tells us far more about nostalgia for one’s childhood than about the Red Planet.

At heart, my favourite science fiction has little to do with science. I may have only read it for the first time this year, but The Martian Chronicles is my favourite science fiction novel.

 

Other EyesOther Days, Other Eyes (Bob Shaw, 1972)

A down-at-heel scientist accidentally creates glass that holds its image for years. Inventions, breakthroughs and problems ensue.

I read this in a couple of sittings, amazed at how much mileage Bob Shaw gets from a simple, hypothetical invention. The eventual use of ‘slow glass’ as a surveillance tool prefigures issues topical today: CCTV and Google’s Streetview and Glass projects. Throughout the novel, interspersed sections paint vignettes of different aspects of life that have been irrevocably changed by the invention of slow glass, many of them heartbreaking.

While the main plot may wrap up a little too quickly, and the love interest is under-developed, Shaw’s novel dwells on the human resonances of an important breakthrough. I’ll be searching out more of his novels in 2014.

Gaming and subcultures in Little Brother

MMORPG 2In Little Brother, Cory Doctorow demonstrates that social gaming communities can give rise to independent subcultures.

At the start of the novel, Marcus Yallow and his friends take part in an alternate reality game (ARG), Harajuku Fun Madness. The game involves clues hidden around major cities, forming a overlaid network over ordinary society. The ARG foreshadows events later in the book, where Marcus’s resistance network must remain hidden whilst still interacting with society.

Similarly, Marcus has experience of live action role-playing games (LARPs). Again, his experience involved playing the games in public, therefore producing a gaming layer over everyday life. Importantly, these LARPs involved dressing as vampires, linked to goth subcultures at the fringes of society. Marcus uses his knowledge of ARGs and LARPs to stage the politically-motivated gathering at the end of the novel.

With the internet monitored by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Marcus uses a modified Xbox console to communicate with his peers. Significantly, the hardware is designed for gaming, now adapted for political use. Large corporations are symbolically aligned with the DHS, as the teenagers use Microsoft’s hardware for unauthorised purposes.

The Xnet itself is similar to chatrooms and forums that surround internet gaming culture. The massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), Clockwork Plunder, becomes less a game and more a legitimate social space for Xnetters to congregate, eventually becoming the home of the Xnet’s first press conference.

All of these examples are social activities that began as gaming experiences, adapted by Marcus and his friends for political means. Eventually, the situation is reversed: new game-like experiences arise from purely political activities. When Marcus meets the young teens Nate and Liam, he sees that they treat ‘jamming’ as an ARG, albeit one of which their victims are unaware.

In this way, Doctorow demonstrates that social subcultures and political movements can easily become merged, feeding into one another.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 10 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2

Image from Invertika / Wikimedia Commons

The Left Hand of Darkness and the ‘I’ of Ai

1eyeball004Ursula Le Guin’s choice of the name ‘Ai’ for the protagonist of The Left Hand of Darkness reveals a preoccupation with subjectivity, perception and the ‘other’.

The fact that ‘Ai’ and ‘eye’ are homophones is no coincidence. Genly Ai functions as the ‘eyes’ of the Ekumen, observing the Gethenians. Furthermore, although Ai states that ‘The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone’, he has selected all of the elements of the novel – it is ultimately experienced through his eyes.

Of course, ‘Ai’ also sounds like the word ‘I’. The novel is a personal tale of Ai’s life-altering experiences on Gethen. His own self-image changes during his travels with Estraven, to the extent that his Ekumen colleagues appear like ‘a troupe of great, strange animals’ in comparison to gender-neutral Gethenians.

Many Gethenians deny Genly Ai’s status. He encounters scepticism about the existence of worlds beyond Gethen and is labelled a liar and a ‘pervert’ due to his physiognomy. Ai’s name (‘I’) functions as a protest that he should be considered equal and capable of independent opinion.

However, no Gethenian makes this linguistic connection. When Estraven initially enquires about Ai’s name he perceives the sound differently. He hears in the answer ‘a cry of pain from a human throat across the night’, illustrating instead his own fear of the alien ‘other’.

The reason is not just that Gethen is isolated. Karhide and Orgoreyn are locked in a cold war, without contact, struggling for domination without war. In the same way that Gethen sees itself as alone in the galaxy, both realms refuse to cooperate with each other. As far as each is concerned, they alone are ‘I’, holding out against the ‘other’.

In short, Genly Ai’s name acknowledges that he is a reader surrogate, but also serves a narrative purpose, highlighting the conflict with characters that he encounters.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 09 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 3

Nostalgia in The Martian Chronicles

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In The Martian Chronicles, we are told that the colonists arrive ‘with small dreams or big dreams or none at all’. However, throughout the stories Bradbury suggests that the motivating factors for many characters are nostalgia and the clarity of early memories.

In ‘The Third Expedition’, John Black is easily tricked by the Martian’s use of his own memories to populate the town. When he sees his parents, he ‘[runs] up the steps like a child to meet them’. His unquestioning acceptance may be difficult to understand at first, but throughout the stories Bradbury shows that each group of colonists yearns for reminders of its past. Although Anna LaFarge in ‘The Martian’ says of her dead son Tom, ‘He’s been dead so long now, we should try to forget him and everything on Earth’, she and her husband perpetuate the illusion that the Martian is Tom in order to cling on to their nostalgic memories. Similarly, in ‘The Long Years’, Hathaway eases his isolation by creating robot versions of his family.

Nostalgia also fuels other aspects of the characters’ psyches. Father Peregrine’s memories of fire balloons fuels his evangelical religious convictions. In ‘Way in the Middle of the Air’, Samuel Teece’s memories of night-time attacks on black people involve ‘laughing to himself, his heart racing like a ten-year-old’s’.

Many characters demonstrate that their ambitions extend only to a recreation of familiar Earth occupations. For example, the luggage-store owner states, ‘We came up here to get away from things’, yet his job selling luggage to people returning to Earth is regressive. Sam Parkhill, in ‘The Off Season’, has travelled to Mars only to set up a hot dog stand.

Bradbury shows us that the visitors to Mars, like European colonists of America, are not searching for a new world, but rather a safe place to recreate their own past.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 08 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2