The Importance of Le Guin’s Acceptance Speech

November 22, 2014

I have only just got round to reading Ursula’s Le Guin’s acceptance speech at the National Book Awards, and what a speech it was – insightful of the current markets. So many sentences rang so true with me, but I’ll concentrate on one:

“Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.”

We are in this situation because of the industrialisation of printing – the more we produce of the same product the cheaper the unit price becomes of that product for the consumer. So we get novels that have as wide an audience appeal as possible – and that usually ends up being the ones that pamper to selfish hedonist desires.

Strangely enough we saw what industrialisation did to science. Anything that was new in science would cost a lot to bring to market. So the potential profit margins have to be assessed up front before the investment is made. That investment usually comes in the terms of loans from financiers who will demand their interest payments in due course. A small part of the investment was speculative, like investing in blue skies research.

The Thatcher government in the UK significantly reduced the amount of investment in research. You only have to look at the story of the UK’s space program. The funding for the Black Knight rocket program was stopped in 1971, with the remaining rockets being destroyed or scrapped. Hotol was rightly stopped in 1988 because there was a fundamental design flaw. But it was not replaced. And that was it until recently.

It took the foresight of several brave engineers to keep the space dream alive in this country – people like Colin Pillinger in leading the way on the ill-fated Beagle 2 lander to Mars (but a lot of the development work he did on that has been introduced on other spacecraft by NASA and ESA), and Alan Bond and his team with Skylon who went back to the drawing board and effectively redesigned Hotol to what it should have been. Now the government wants to take the credit for recently investing in the space program. But without these brave souls struggling against the odds to find the time and money for equipment to work up the ideas, the government would not have had a chance to make those investments today.

The book publishing industry is going through a similar investment arc. They are not investing in the new ideas for stories – in fact if anything they are pulling the plug on that investment. They are concentrating on the mass production, minimum unit price stream. There is no overhead for publishing the speculative novels. Which means they are starving the writers of the future out of the industry.

So what is the prediction if things go on on the path that is being projected now… the publishers will continue publishing the same old stuff with slight variations. They will pick up on the occasional new writer who has the ability to somehow gain the attention of the public, but in this day and age of easy self-publishing how is the readership going to find the gems amongst the hugh morass? There have been efforts to invest in science fiction writing coming from some quarters, like Nature publishing their Futures stories. But because they are coming from a niche area, they seem unable to break much beyond that ‘nicheness’.

The book publishing industry has to change in order to survive in the longer term. I don’t know how it should, but someone somewhere must have some ideas. I can only hope they get those ideas out in time to induce the brave new talented up and coming writers of today to stay practising their art.

If you need reasons of why science fiction should be one of the genres to be encouraged, you need only look at the rest of Ursula Le Guin’s speech. The main reason is that science fiction can offer the smorgasbord of what could happen in the future from which society’s leaders can pick and choose the way forward. Without that capability to see the possibilities, the leaders will be blind to what can happen, and are far more likely to make the wrong decisions.

Coincidences of the literary kind…

November 19, 2014

It’s a rare thing when literary, science fiction and different parts of my past life coincide to produce something interesting, but that is exactly what has happened.

There is an article in latest issue of science fiction magazine, Interzone (no. 255), written by Nina Allen entitled ‘Time Pieces’. She introduces us to the author Samantha Harvey, only I know her as Sam Harvey. Samantha Harvey has recently had her third novel, Dear Thief, published.

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Her first novel The Wilderness was shortlisted for the the Orange Prize and Guardian First book Award, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and won the Betty Trask Award and AMI Literature Award. So she definitely qualifies as a literary novelist.

I knew her as one of the tutors on my MA Bath Spa Creative Writing course. Whilst she did not tutor me directly, she did tutor one of my friends to write her novel submission – and I could see the tutoring did my friend a heck of a lot of good. She has many wise words to say about how to write fiction.

And this is why Nina Allan picked up on Sam. Writers, no matter of what genre or no genre would be well advised to pick up writing tips from Sam - website here.

To add to the list of coincides, I was actually on the same week-long writing course in 2004 as Nina. Even then her writing had what I call the eerie surreal feel to it that comes across so much more strongly today.

Now I have been accused of writing literary science fiction, though I’m not quite sure what the definition of literary is. In particular this was true of the novel I wrote on my MA. My style in that novel is so very different from the short stories I had published. The style of words, somehow and I don’t really know how, resonate with story. Yet, most of my short stories are straight forward tales. The exception is Agents of Repair, but you would have to be a computer programmer to appreciate the method of resonance, and that is not something the majority of science fiction readers would be aware of.

This brings me to an interesting point… I don’t know of any science fiction books other than Ian Sales’ books that uses some sort of techie stuff to reflect the story. For instance his Adrift on a Sea of Rains has its story sections placed in the order to reflect the circularity of the story. So it’s not surprising it won the 2012 BSFA Award.

7th May 1959

November 14, 2014

So what is so important about this date and how is it important to science fiction?

Well that was the date C P Snow delivered his lecture about two cultures. One culture is the ‘shallow optimism’ of the scientists. The other culture is the humanities / artists with their ‘total lack of foresight, peculiar lack of concern with their brother men, in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxiety to restrict both and thought to the existential moment.’ Worse, there was a lack of dialogue and interaction between the two cultures.

His view was borne out of him having a foot in both camps as he was both a physicist and a novel writer. He could see the usefulness of the cross-connecting between the cultures: how art can inspire the development paths of science and engineering; and how science can enhance and develop new artistic endeavours.

There is one area in our lives where the cultures meet, science fiction. We are not talking about the fantasied science fiction here, but true science based science fiction. We are talking about authors like David Brin, Ben Bova, Alastair Reynolds and Greg Egan, though I must admit that some of these authors’ novels have strayed towards fantasy.

But has anything changed in how these two cultures since the lecture was given over fifty years ago?

Well in 2012 the Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said the current problems related to security and freedom in cyberspace are the culmination of the absence of dialogue between the two cultures.

This echoes my own experience. The science fiction of today can be divided into ‘fantasy’ and ‘true science fiction’. I have seen novels containing elves, wizards and fairies without any scientific explanation or hint of scientific explanation being called science fiction. Worse the fantasy and true SF do not really talk and interact with each other. The fantasy people don’t understand the science or even want to understand the science in science fiction. As far as they are concerned it is magic, but with the label of science attached to it. The true science people are fed up this hand-waving attitude, which to them means nothing more than lack of homework and lazy writing.

So science fiction has its own two cultures. The one trying to look to the future, trying to find the good positive things that could come our way if we only let it. The other burying their heads in the status quo of the thought of the current moment of, for want of a better word, hedonism.

Which do you want? Self-indulgent fantasy or thought-provoking useful true science fiction?

Bristolcon 2014

October 25, 2014

Another year, another Bristolcon. Now into its sixth year as a Science Fiction and Fantasy convention, it seems to be going from strength to strength. Admittedly this year, it was more biased to the fantasy end of the spectrum, but that is only fair given last year it was the heavily weighted towards science fiction.

Like the previous Bristolcons I attended, it has two streams of panels and a kaffeeklatsch room. So there is chance to pick and choose the panels you want to attend.

The first panel was one of those discussions that could have easily gone on into a second session about the discoverability and representation. There was talk about the Amazon effect – basically the set of algorithms that Amazon uses to identify best selling books, which are then promoted more than any other books, which in turn leads to more sales. It makes it harder for new independent authors to get a look in.

[It’s at this point I have one of those ‘lightbulb moments’… the Amazon algorithms could be quite simply altered to allow more independent authors to be promoted under certain circumstances, say for 10% of the promotions being put forward to readers looking for a book to read. But Amazon don’t do this. Why? It would not surprise me if maximising Amazon profit was behind this lack of slightly more sophisticated algorithm. I suspect if Amazon rivals put this into their algorithms, they would start taking customers away from Amazon, particularly those who want a change from reading the same old type of thing they’ve been reading for ages.]

However, there is a form of Amazon effect seen in many bookshops. The display tables feature books the bookshops thinks will sell well. The issue of the lack of women writers being promoted seems to be still ongoing. Although science fiction and fantasy is seeing an extreme of this, other genres appear to suffering the same effect. Juliet McKenna has previously pointed out these issues, backed up by statistics.

So what about Independent writers trying to be discovered? There are publishers trying to get good new writers onto the scene, but their best option to get noticed still seems to be by word of mouth.

The second panel I attended was common writing problems. All the panelists gave what I call sound practical advice to the questions asked, like how do you get over writers’ block or what happens if a minor character takes over your story? Well worth attending if you were have difficulties in getting your story on the page.

After lunch I attended the fully booked kaffeklatsch on how to get an agent ably run by Jacey Bedford. She went through her history with agents and then through the process of getting an agent. Even she noted that there are very few science fiction and fantasy agents in the UK compared to the USA. It came as a surprise to me that she had a list of about 100 agents she could apply to a couple of years back – yes they were mainly in the USA. She then went through the process of how to apply to an agent. Again, all good sensible advice – like don’t write in green ink on pink paper unless the agent asks for it. Overall a very helpful session.

This was followed by Amanda Kear’s (Dr Bob’s) talk on ‘More Weird Sex’ where she compared the odd sex lives of real animals on Earth and found the equivalents written about in science fiction. It was those Mexican lizards and their the different strategies of how the golden/blue/yellow males attracted females that really was complicated. The golden male lizards were aggressive, having large territories where they could have several females. The blue  male lizards guarded their single females, while the yellow male lizards scurried around trying to find females to have offspring with. It turns out the the aggressive golden lizards tend to beat up the blue males, but the blue males having only single females to look after keep a look out for the yellow lizards and ward them off. Meanwhile the yellow lizards could easily attract one the golden male lizard’s females while he was busy elsewhere.

The final panel I attended was Past Lives, Future Visions. This was the poorest of the panels I attended, but nevertheless good, which goes to show that Bristolcon, though one of the smaller cons, is high quality. There was talk about the Game of Thrones being based on various parts of history, where were those pivotal moments in history (e.g. what happened if Richard III had NOT been killed on the Battle of Bosworth), parallel universes and alternative histories.

In between panels, I met a lot of friends, old and new. The atmosphere was friendly and happy. And I certainly enjoyed myself.

My thanks go to all the people who organised and helped out at Bristolcon to make it the success it was. Well done, all of you!

 

Token and Non-paying Markets for SF Short Stories

October 19, 2014

Given recent events (and I’m far too angry to write them down so that they won’t be taken the wrong way), I’ve decided that I’ll only be submitting my short stories to semi-pro and pro markets from now on. The exceptions will be those who helped publish my stories in the past:

These are short story markets I can recommend from experience. All the editors genuinely want to help budding SF writers. Each of these has their own tastes in science fiction, so you are best off to read what they’ll accept before submitting. But their main aim is to get quality science fiction out into the market.

There will be one other exception in due course… but I can’t say much about it now, because there are others involved and things will take their own pace.

Otherwise, (apart from two stories already subbed) it’s semi-pro or pro or not at all for me. For those that say I shouldn’t go down the ‘not at all’ route, I say ‘tough – I don’t want the hassle.’ If the semi-pros and pros don’t want to publish my stories with new ideas etc, then the readers won’t have access to them. It’s that simple.

Newsy Bits and Pieces

October 16, 2014

As well as Jupiter accepting Air of Freedom, I’m delighted to say that the Kraxon magazine has accepted my short story Tyrell’s Flight. 

I’m very pleased that both these stories will get to be published, because they have both done something very interesting in the engineering side of things. I should add the engineering is completely different for each story. No, you’ll have to wait for them to be published to find out what.

Talking of space, there will be a conference on London November 18th-21st, called Reinventing Space. More details can be found here. Those of you who are interested in writing space opera really do need to look through titles if nothing else. Come to think of it, one of my stories is really applicable to the conference. Ah well… I’ll just have to sit this one out!

Bristol Science Fiction Competition

October 11, 2014

What lies ahead for Bristol in 100, 300 or 500 years time? Well now’s your chance to write a short science fiction story of between 500 and 5,000 words length to enter the Bristolcon team’s competition. See here for full details. Closing date 5th November – which reminds me – where did I save that scene with science fiction fireworks?

A science fiction short story example of mine is Getting There, which Kraxon published on-line here.

I spent today on the Gloucestershire Worcestershire Steam Railway (aka GWSR – yes they are based on the real GWR alias the Great Western Railway alias God’s Wonderful Railway). They like the Central Steam Railway in Loughborough are extending their line. They want to get to Bovington, which is the next major stop on its way north to Stratford-upon-Avon. Is it me or are all the little steam railways trying to get connected to main lines (some like the North York Moors Railway already are)? And if I didn’t have enough writing of science fiction on my plate at the moment, I would write a story about how all the steam railways banded together and took over the main lines, in the spirit of Reverend Wilbert Audrey. Of course you can write the story instead. Furthermore, if you base such a story from Bristol Temple Meads, you can have a short story to enter the competition above.

The SF Numbers Game…

October 6, 2014

Those of you who follow my blog, know that each year I publish a graph of new novels published in SF, Fantasy and Horror (and lately Paranormal Romance) based on the numbers given an Gardner Dozois Best of Year anthology. Well here’s the latest update, which includes the numbers for last year.

 

 

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Note the Paranormal Romance was part of the Fantasy genre prior to 2007.

Of the four genres, only science fiction has increased from 2012 to 2013. Whilst it is good news for science fiction, in reality it is only catching up on what Fantasy and Horror genres did earlier this century when they more than doubled their numbers. Even so it’s still got a long way to go to catch up with Fantasy. So there’s still room for more science fiction novels in the market.

I am personally not surprised by the noticeable drop in Fantasy because I thought there were too many books for the market to bear. But this is only from what I observe in the High Street.

So is science fiction coming out of its exhaustion or inward looking phase that Paul Kincaid suggested was the case last year?

Well looking in Waterstones Bristol today, they were definitely promoting a lot of the past masterworks. In comparison there was very little on the new side of things I hasten to add. So the rise in the number of new science fiction books are not getting into the bookshops as I, for one, would have hoped. So I’m a bit puzzled by this apparent contradiction.

According the great and the good in science fiction, new science fiction is coming out of countries who are increasing their science fiction output. I’m not sure this may be the case, because there has been a lot of written science fiction through the centuries and it is so easy to re-invent old stories without realising it. Only time will tell on this one.

 

 

Science FIction Workshop etc at Bristol Fun Palace

October 6, 2014

If you weren’t there yesterday, you missed a heck of a lot of fun, as well as the serious moments when you could see people fairly new to writing thinking, ‘Hey I can do this.’

The fun bits included laser pigeons or laser ants (take your pick) and Blackbeard selling his cloned female selves (how did we get to that story line?). For those of you who could not make it, here’s the first part of the worksheet I gave out (if you want the rest, with some starter ideas, there will a few sheets to grab at Bristolcon, but the ideas concentrated on Bristol – besides I’m seriously thinking of working one of them into a short story – it just won’t let my brain go!)

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Science Fiction – Bristol Fashion

Every story starts its life as an idea. It could be a based on a character like Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Or it could be based on a theme like Bristol Blue Glass. Or it could even be based on a plot like the exiled thief, Leofa, murdering King Edmund I at St Augustine’s Day mass in Pucklechurch in 946. Whether you lead by character, theme or plot, your story needs to be turned into science fiction. The question is, ‘How?’

Science fiction stories often tell about science and technology of the future. That science and technology can include how the world and environment can change based on scientific advice. So how do we add future science or extrapolated environment (e.g. the effects of global warming) to character, theme or plot?

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The Science Fiction and Technology panel could have gone on much longer. Being the moderator, I had to curtail myself and my overabundant enthusiasm from adding much more in!

We covered things like science fiction giving the scientists a wish list of inventions to work on, that science has grown so much that the world building of future Earth and humanity is much more difficult to get right, and how we could actually go faster than light.

Then there was the toilets in space panel led by ably competent Moderator Amanda Kear, who knew her biology. I think I’ll refrain from commenting further on this subject, except to say we all had a good laugh.

There was a final question and answer session for those who wanted to write the short science fiction story about Bristol.

My thanks, as ever, go to the Bristolcon crew who organised this lovely day out, in particular Jo and Roz who did a lot of behind the scenes work.

All Bristol Science Fiction is GO!

October 4, 2014

This is definitely turning out to be an interesting month for science fiction, especially here in Bristol.

First off, tomorrow…. yes TOMORROW SUNDAY 5th October at Watershed (Meeting Room 3), there is me doing a science fiction writing workshop (1200 – 1245), followed by me moderating a panel of science fiction and technology. So if you want to find out how to turn Bristol Blue Glass into a science fiction story, come along. See here for more details.

(As Justine knows, I can make science for science fiction exciting – see here if you don’t believe me.)

Then there’s Bristolcon itself. Having been on the previous two years’ programmes, I thought I’d give it a rest this year. But that doesn’t make the programme any less exciting. You can find out more here.

I’m also pleased to say that Jupiter has accepted a short story of mine – Air of Freedom. They are hoping to publish it in their January issue – I’ll let you know when it’s coming out.

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