Wither SF Writing Styles?

14 09 2014

O.K. I’ve been rather quiet of late… tradition tends to take over my life for a few weeks September… you know things like the local village flower show with the continuing saga of the lemon curd wars (but rather chuffed my coloured potatoes won third prize…) and trying to getting the garden back into some semblance of order. September is also the month when other deadlines appear. Writing-wise I have one coming up at the end of this month that I must meet… or a chain reaction of plans going out of kilter will make my life for the next year or so bedlam!

I had the pleasure of going to the ‘official Bristol’ book launch for Daughter by Jane Shemlit. She was on the same MA Creative Writing course as me, and indeed we were in some of the same workshops. So it’s given me great pleasure to see her novel come to fruition and being published.


But reading the first few pages of her book made me realise something very interesting… there is a definite split in style developing. There is what I call the semi-poetic graceful style where you can absorb what is going on. And then there is the fast interwoven multiple ways to read the manuscript style. Both are difficult to get right.

But why the split now? I suspect it is to do with the way we are getting used to dealing with computers. We’re dealing with several thought threads at once. We’ve already seen the impact this can have on TV programmes like Sherlock. I’ve heard quite a few people complain that it is too fast at times. And yet if you concentrate on the programme you enjoy the way it dances from one thing to another to weave an intricate and complete picture with all lose threads tied up.

In a sense Jane accomplishes this by having two interwoven time threads. This is nothing new in literature, but a closer ‘lateral’ interconnectedness between the two or more threads has been making its mark. Needless to say, Jane’s are very closely connected.

But the multiple layers seems to be proving divisive amongst readers. My guess is the simpler stories are being published as YA (providing the material is suitable of course), and the more complicated at adult level.

Science Fiction is a natural home for such multiple layers, because of the subjects it covers. What bothers me is that I’ve seen very little of it published in science fiction. There is some e.g. Quantum Thief. Will we see more? The answer has to be yes. But I’d like to take this further… for instance why not make a story structure somewhat representative of a Moebius Strip? Or could not a novel be a series of short stories where each universe is linked to another, and you end up affecting the first universe before the start of the first story. [I hope someone has had a go at this...].

As for me… well I’ve started the C.A.T. novel with the two-thread structure in mind. I sure can tell you it’s hard to get the tempo, pacing and plot all lined up. So Jane’s achievement with her novel is really quite something. Congratulations, Jane.

PS There was a rumour that the warehouse had sold out of Jane’s paperback books doing the rounds at the launch last night… and it’s a Judy and Richard recommended book… and it’s in the Sunday Times bestseller list (I’m not surprised). My view is Daughter deserves this success.



Progressive Science Fiction – Part 5

29 08 2014

Part 4 discussed the third of the first of the four points below about how the cutting edge science fiction was becoming less available in the shops due to:

  • innovative technology needs more knowledge and understanding than in the past, because we are dealing with a bigger body knowledge, and therefore needs in general more or better explanation of how it affects us humans
  • the more politically correct society limits the subjects we can write about when it comes to political and social science fiction themes
  • ‘new’ places requires more understanding and aligning with sciences to be plausible that requires a lot of work on the part of the writer, which in turn can severely detract from a writer’s income
  • publishers not wanting to publish or push the really innovative science fiction because they want to invest in ‘safe bets’, like something similar to what sold well before

I have argued before that publishers are risk adverse to publishing anything that is considered likely to lose them money. This has changed from several decades ago when publishers would take a promising talented writer under their wing and help them into publishing, because they had the cash to spare. Why the change?

We saw competition creep in, which meant that book prices were reduced. This led to looking for books that would sell large numbers to get the necessary return. Economies of scale crept in as result. Which meant publishers were only looking for large print runs that they could sell. Which in turn meant that publishing houses had to merge to survive.

Along came print on demand and the internet, which meant you could order a book that could be printed just for you. This turned out not to be successful, mainly because the internet intervened with its selling of e-books. So paper books became less in demand, which in turn meant the economies of scale the publishers had built up no longer made the profits that were needed. So even fewer books got the large print runs.

Along came new small scale publishers who can afford to only do small print runs. But their problem is that unless they can tap into a niche market, they will find it difficult to do the marketing and publicity. Meanwhile it became easy to put together e-books and sell them. The number of books shot up, with a significant proportion of e-books being poorly written. These independent publishers suffered from one other problem. Lack of publicity. With so many e-books being published by independent authors, how do they make themselves stand out publicity-wise to get the sales? There have been a very few examples where word of mouth has done the trick, but let me emphasise – they are very few.

So publishing is basically in a mess. But it does explain why publishers want to publish only safe bets, which means variants of the successful.

But let’s look at this from another viewpoint. What are the reasons for publishing science fiction?

  • To find a ‘world’ that helps discuss our current society problems or adds emphasis to morality tales (think H G Wells’ The Time Machine with its Eloi and Morlocks being a commentary on Victorian social values or Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers)
  • To make up new games that have adversaries (think E E Doc Smith’s Lensmen series or any other military science fiction for that matter or Hunger Games)
  • To make suggestions about how the future might turn out (think Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars or Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel), including warning about  potential dangers to the human race (think Arthur C Clarke’s The Hammer of God or John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids)
  • To describe how the places we can’t visit might look lie (think Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea or Larry Niven’s Integral Trees)

Or summarising:

  1. Today’s societal issues being emphasised (or fairy tales in space if you must)
  2. Gaming
  3. Predicting the future
  4. Visiting exotic places

Given the ‘conservatism’ of the publishers, which of the four categories are they most likely to go for?

Well fairy tales have always sold, so definitely (1). And ever since the Roman times the people have wanted games, so definitely (2). But (3) and (4)? Well, no. Predicting the future and visiting exotic places both require newness in their stories, whether it be a new invention that makes a heck of a difference to lives or visiting the black hole at our Galaxy’s core. So publishers are unlikely to be interested.

If publishers are concentrating on (1) and (2), they are concentrating on the fantasy end of science fiction. Which means the science end of science fiction will not get much, if any, of a look in.

Hm… looks like I’ve argued that the publishing industry and its need to survival is responsible for the lack the science end of science fiction.

But what you may ask about the likes of David Brin, Kim Stanley Robinson Ben Bova, Alastair Reynolds… well apart from the last named, they have all been around a long time. This means they have a following the publishers are counting on to buy their books. Alastair’s first book, Revelation Space, caught the public’s imagination at the turn of the millennium, when we were thinking about what the future would bring and it did so in a spectacular fashion. His next books were sequels. Definitely good moves, publishing-wise.

But are the small presses doing anything to redress this imbalance? They are trying. But given that the publishing industry has concentrated so long with such great emphasis on the fantasy end, they’ve got the readership to believe fantasy science fiction is good, science science fiction is not the in-thing. So the bias against the science end of science fiction is reinforced. Which means writers, especially new ones looking to get published will veer towards the fantasy end, which further reinforces the fantasy emphasis. Which means the science end science fiction stories are not being written and hence not available to the publishers. No wonder even the small presses and indeed self-publishers are pushed to avoid the science end of science fiction.

There was a brief respite for the science science fiction a few years back, when the technology world wanted inspiration from stories. The investment, unfortunately, did not keep the initiative going in the public domain. It would not surprise me if the big firms kept their own small band of science fiction writers going to help decide how to market the products they come up with. These writers would naturally have confidentiality clauses imposed on them.

To sum up:

The financial squeeze on the publishing industry has made it veer away from publishing the science end of science fiction, so much so that we are unlikely to see this sub-genre being published in the near future.





Dr Who – Deep Breath Episode

24 08 2014


Spoilers alert!!

The first episode with Peter Capaldi as Dr Who has received a mixed reaction. I’m not surprised.

First off, people are naturally inclined to stay with what they know and love. So Peter Capaldi coming in as the new Doctor disrupts that nice comfortable cosiness.

However, Steven Moffat has done the same thing with the new Dr Who as he did with the third series of Sherlock. He enriched the characters and made them more, as we say in the fiction trade, 3-D. When you get a 2-D character, viewers tend to put their own wish list of characterisation on the actors. So when they come along with a more developed character, naturally some viewers are disappointed.

Now the first part, when Dr Who is getting to grips with his new body is probably the most confusing for a lot of people. There were quite a few references to previous episodes. If, like me, you don’t know them, then it can come out as a jumble rather than a witty lively script. However, I twigged that something clever was going on when the Dr in his bed was translating what the dinosaur was saying. So I let things be, and waited to see where the episode would take us. And yes, it improved.

Some have complained that the ending was long and drawn out. Well that phone hanging out of the phone box way way back when always bothered me. But now I have the answer. It was the Matt Smith Doctor ringing Clara to ask to be nice to his next regeneration… which means the Matt Smith Doctor must have known he was going to regenerate, which in turn would add to the confidence of the Matt Smith Doctor, which is why he was such a jokey, light-hearted type of Doctor.

I actually watched the first ever episode of Doctor Who with William Hartnell as the Doctor (yes I know it shows up my age). He was more irascible and serious than quite a few of his later regenerations. In fact, the jokey silliness really took hold with the Simon Baker Doctor Who. So in a sense Peter Capaldi’s Doctor Who is for me a walk down memory lane to what the first three Doctors were like, and a welcome one at that. I’m looking forward to the series to see how it all turns out…

So that was Loncon3

19 08 2014



So that was Loncon3… first and foremost – a BIG THANK YOU to all who organised and helped to make this the success it was. Yes there were teething troubles as you would get with any large one-off event, but by and large things ran smoothly.

Some aspects were certainly an eye-opener for me. Amongst other things it made me realise why Iain M Banks wrote science fiction so successfully – he effectively wrote in what I would term mild poetic prose and when the words resonate like that, it sticks. I’m only sorry that he is not around to write more science fiction.

There was only one really sour note… when a certain publisher went on about the lack of women science fiction writers. I don’t know why they are not publishing the same ratio of women to men science fiction writers as other publishers seem to manage to find. I can however well believe that women are put off submitting to them because of their poor record of publishing such a, I can only term it, abysmal ratio. After that comment, I’m certainly put off ever submitting anything to them!

But I did get my hot sticky little hands on an Interzone issue 199 – yes I did say ONE-NINE-NINE. If anybody like me is short of that issue, and they are at Fantasycon in York next month, pop along to the Interzone desk and ask. Roy might have one or two lurking in his cardboard boxes that he hides under his desk.

I thoroughly enjoyed the orchestral concert, with the conductor using a light sabre for a baton. We had all kinds or science fiction related pieces played, from the iconic Star Trek to the Holst’s classic Mars and Jupiter from his Planets’ Suite. But for me, the Dr Who sequence was what won the day, but only by a hair’s breath.

I was lucky enough to get a seat in Alastair Reynolds’ presentation on science fictional methods of interstellar flight, from generation ships to sleeper ships to digital transmission of bodies to be made on new planets. I hope he has another chance at a different convention to give the same presentation. Of course all these methods don’t break the speed of light limitation…

I met some very lovely people, who were just themselves. None of this 9-2-5 grey suits stuff. I could name quite a few, but some of them might just blush… and there were lots of things done and a lot of e-mails promised (note to self – must make a start on these).

There will be repercussions from Loncon3… but things have to take their time and mature… so watch this space – and no this not the final frontier type!

P.S. Of course, C.A.T. got a mention in my intro at the panel I sat on – he wouldn’t have let me get away with anything less!

It’s SF-ishly Quiet

9 08 2014

Went to town today to buy a suitcase and some new make-up for Loncon3 – well what more does a gal want?

Well… I paid my customary visit to Waterstones in The Galleries in Bristol – of the 33 books they put on the special show-this-is-a-good-book-to-buy, only one was by a female – Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. Not impressed, one tiny little bit. In fact distinctly cheesed off – of the Stinking Archbishop variety!!! [Or if you're in the USA - the Limburger variety!!!] See Juliet McKenna’s blog on this subject. Though she does go on to add a more positive later on in another post. But I still want to see women better represented on the sales tables – by better I mean more fairly in terms of the proportion of books written by women being representative on the table.

[No I did not complain, because my comments would have been rude. VERY RUDE! And that would have been to a person who probably had nothing to do with the decisions and therefore totally unfair on them.]

With all these cons (Nine Worlds, Loncon3, Eurocon) coming in quick succession in such close proximity, it’s not surprising that people are prepping/being-at/recovering from them. Anything else goes by the board. So it’s quiet, Quiet, QUIET!!!!

Thank goodness for Jupiter 45 – Helike  dropping through the letterbox – am looking forward to reading that between the domestic chores…

So to keep you amused, though you’ve seen this before… here’s C.A.T.’s video. Mrrooowwww!


Space Opera is about to change…

3 08 2014

Justine pointed me in the direction of the EmDrive – a new kind of engine that has recently been shown to have thrust capabilities. The main thing about it is that it does not at least obviously rely on reaction engines i.e. throwing material away. The current excitement is that it has had some positive measured results in static tests in three independent places now. So there is something going on… More details can be found here. For those of you more into the physics of things, check out wikipedia for the principles behind it – or at least the purported principles.

First of all a few of words of caution -

  • This has not yet been tested in microgravity, although it would not surprise me if a test mission is being planned as I write this.
  • They’re talking about this being based on group velocity – where a wave appears to travel faster through a medium because it is the adding up of many other waves (superposition is the techie term). We’ve seen this in fluid mechanics (think waves travelling along the surface of water here). This has in other areas been shown not to transfer energy and momentum.
  • We are dealing with quantum mechanics here where weird things (i.e. things that do not feel logical or sensible) happen.
  • They are not absolutely sure why it works.

If this is shown to work in space, then it’ll change science fiction space opera in many ways. Here are some of them…

  • Interplanetary travel near stars (there are planets in the middle of nowhere that have no stars to orbit around) becomes a heck of a lot easier because we don’t have to gather physical fuel for the spacecraft (which includes lifting it out of gravity wells like Earth).
  • Because these engines are reusable, there will be less debris in space, say in the geostationary orbits around Earth.
  • There will be less need for mining minerals, especially copper-based ones
  • Interstellar ships can use these drives to accelerate and leave a system, and providing the trajectory can be correctly predicted don’t need to worry about fuel to get to their destination.

The spacescape with the Emdrive is looking very different from what we’ve seen in science fiction… it’s time for the science fiction writers to get going on this what-not-so-if…

On a personal note, I had hoped to have two space-orientated stories published by Loncon3. That’s not going to happen for various reasons beyond mine and anybody else’s control. The interesting thing is that both are still realistic even if the Emdrive technology was implemented. I’m going: “Huh? Why?” Because neither of these stories relied on the reactionary method of propulsion…

But there is one very serious question. Why didn’t the science fiction writers spot this one coming?


Visionary modern science fiction – where is it?

2 08 2014

There is currently a debate going on over at SFF Chronicles about who are the modern visionary science fiction writers. Of course the first questions to ask are:

  1. What do we define to be modern?
  2. What do we define to be visionary?

I’m going to say modern is the last 20 years – and this covers books published in the last twenty years, not when the authors first published.

Visionary is defined (at least on the web) as thinking about the future with imagination and wisdom. Well, for starters, that  rules out most dystopias because they tend to cut back on what is possible rather than grow it. It rules out fantasy-biased science fiction as this is not really thinking about the future. That means no GoT of Hunger Games types. I would also rule out the straight adventure – goodies versus badies – stories as they tend to use standard scenarios or tools.

So what’s left?

  1. Alastair Reynolds with his Revelation Space series
  2. Greg Egan with his various novels including Diaspora that seems to be attracting a lot of discussion on the thread
  3. Iain M Banks with his culture series
  4. John Meaney’s To Hold Infinity and his Nulapeiron series
  5. … and this is where I get stuck…

Yes, I know the likes of Ben Bova, David Brin and Stephen Baxter have been publishing good solid stuff. Don’t get me wrong, they are enjoyable reads. But do they have that ‘je ne sais quoi’ to be called visionary?

What about the literary novels like those of Adam Roberts? Well, they tend to take ideas from elsewhere and examine the social consequences. Again all good stuff and very worthy of being published. But visionary? No.


With such few visionary novels being published, one has to ask the question why aren’t there more? Are they not being written? Are the publishers discouraging such novels from being written by not taking the risk of publishing something ‘new’?

My gut feel, based on experience, is the publishers see something that is out of the mould and send an immediate rejection – no ifs or ans or consideration – just an absolute rejection. This discourages anyone writing such things. It’s more than discourages, it’s absolutely depressing hitting your head against the very think brick wall of the establishment. And worse, it would not surprise me in the least if established authors of the non-visionary kind aid and abet the publishing industry to go down this track because it helps their own sales.

Can the non-visionary mould be broken?

It would take a very brave person to say yes and mean it…





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