How many spaceports is the UK going to have?

For those of us writing science fiction based in the UK, this is a very important question. And it is all the more important given news like this, where there is local opposition to the building of said spaceport.

So let’s go back to 2018 when the UK government announced a shortlist of sites, summarised in this lovely graphic…

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That makes three rocket launch sites, all in Scotland and four airport sites all in the west of the UK. I know, I know… the accepted wisdom is to have launch sites near the equator to get the assist from the Earth’s rotation, but the aim is to launch satellites that travel North Pole to South Pole so to speak.

The opposition cited earlier is at the Western Isles site.

Investment is being pumped into the Sutherland site and one firm is already waiting to launch rockets from there. Experiments by various firms are well on the way to making aircraft launched spaceflight a real possibility: Skylon’s engine research, Virgin Spaceship 1 and so on.

Notice that the spaceports are in the main well away from densely populated areas, which is why the likes of London and the belt of northern cities don’t have one. It’s for safety reasons – the in case something goes horribly wrong scenario – which I hope does not.

And in essence this is where the problems are going to start. People like facilities close by and will get them – witness the development of London City airport.

Right it’s time to get creative… where would you put a new spaceport closer to the big cities?

I’m going to concentrate on Bristol because I know the area reasonably well. It is situation closed to the Severn estuary where there have been schemes to build tidal wave schemes, comprising of long stretches of barriers in which tidal machines are embedded to catch the energy of the tidal flows in and out of the estuary. So why not widen such a stretch to make it a runway for a spaceport?

But there is something else lurking in the back of my mind: the anticipated rises in sea level. What if we built this runway-tidal energy scheme as a dam against the rising tide to protect places along the upper reaches of river from rising sea levels.

Yes, it’s a three in one job project here.

And that is its problem. Our society works in silos i.e. everyone works on their narrow specialist project. There is very little cross-fertilisation between projects because people don’t talk to each other that much, or at least the right people don’t talk to each other.

This is the kind of failing science fiction can help to redress. Science fiction writers are people that bubble away with ideas and only write about those that they feel ‘sings’ to them or have legs to turn into a story.

And which ideas are those?

They tend to be the ones with the sense of wonder… and a three-in-one project like the spaceport runway that acts as a dam and produces tidal energy is a veritable playground for ideas. Go write!

 

 

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Newsy Bits and Bobs

I always like to see what the Guardian has in its monthly column of best recent science fiction, fantasy and horror picks at the start of the month. Today I was disappointed. Very disappointed. Of the five books mentioned, three are fantasy, one horror and an anthology of previously published stories that are a mix of horror and science fiction. So nothing new in science fiction in their column.

Thanks to Jo Zebedee who passed on the photo below, this contrasts with this month’s issue of the Starburst magazine page of what is coming out shortly. Thank goodness. Phew! Other similar exclamations at nauseum… but hold on a moment – two of the suggested books are to do with Star Wars and Star Trek. Another is the official adaptation of a the game alien. A fourth looks like an alternate history and the fifth has the feel of fantasy. The only really super-new science fiction is the Distaff anthology.

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While I’m sure these new books will delight many people, I worry about the lack new ideas entering the genre of science fiction.

Which brings me neatly to a progress report. I’m rewriting (it started out as editing, but this was soon overtaken) what I call novel number three. I have just got to the 60 percent mark when I decided I needed to list all the main loose ends and make sure I tied them up plot wise in the remainder of the novel. Took some doing as it was a tight fit, but I managed to intertwine them in a sensible manner in the word-space available. The fact that I had to struggle means there is a richness to this novel that I seldom see in other novels, certainly this is a first for me. So paint me very excited.

Even more so as in this novel there is richness of new ideas in the world-building and their consequences on the story arc. Add to that a good emotional story arc… you can see why I’m excited about this one.

Like any science fiction author worth their salt, I keep an eye out on the science to see if there is anything intriguing going on.

  • We’ve had the announcement from NASA that they are going to fly another mission to Titan (Saturn’s largest moon – the one with a seriously dense atmosphere). It will use a drone to fly around – can’t do that on Mars. But we won’t get the results until 2034. At least we have something exciting to look forward to.
  • Then there was the obscure announcement that scientists are setting up an experiment for open a portal to a shadowy dimension which mirrors our own world. This article gives a very good explanation of why and what they are trying to do. But it does give me echoes of Heinlein’s The Cat That Walked Through Walls and Peter F Hamilton’s Salvation. It will be worth keeping an eye out for the results (one way or the other) which won’t happen until August at the earliest.
  • This month, as everyone knows, is the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing. There are celebrations a plenty. But there is also a partial lunar eclipse on July 16th at 10.38pm BST. If you do get a clear sky, it ca be a very beautiful sight – enough to be inspirational in writing science fiction.

That’s it for now… more anon…

 

 

 

How to find new science fiction?

Looking for something new in science fiction on Amazon or in a bookshop? How do you find it when you a swamped by classical titles, cinema and TV tie-ins and long in the tooth book series?

It’s difficult and requires patience and time, something a lot of busy people are short of. I have now come to the conclusion that we need a new category on Amazon science fiction novels – the new universes section. This would allow the first book of a series to be there or the standalone one-off novels. It would exclude fan-fiction and re-published novels.

I reckon the indexes that Amazon uses has not been swamped by too many titles. It is, certainly in science fiction, no longer as helpful as it might be. It is not Amazon’s fault. But they do need to think about doing a refresh on the way they index things. And that will take time and transition planning.

In the meantime, how do you find the new universes novels and anthologies, without wading through the mire?

Word of mouth is certainly a good start, but that relies on people noticing the new universe book in the first place. How can such a book be made to stand out? The elevator pitch – that five seconds where you get to describe what is so exciting about the novel that you really must go out to buy it. For instance, Gareth L Powell’s Embers of War five second pitch is ‘it concentrates on what happens after a galactic war, not during it.’ Or Greg Egan’s Perihelion Summer is about ‘dealing with climate disaster in the southern hemisphere caused by a black hole tilting the Earth.’

So what would be my five second elevator pitch for the up and coming Distaff anthology I helped edit? Of course I could say it is the only anthology I know of this century that has new science fiction stories all written by women. But that does not tell you what it is about. How about all new science fiction stories with new ideas to give food for thought? Nearly there. Let’ try stories spanning science fiction’s spectrum, all with new ideas to give food for thought. I like this one! It tells me what ballpark we’re playing in with a positive buy-me spin.

Are there any other ways to bring the new universe books to the public’s attention? There are reviews. But you need to want to read reviews in order to know the book is being published. Some people do. Others don’t. It’s not a method to be sneezed at as it may start the word of mouth rounds. If you can get a review in a column that is not limited to science fiction audiences, that would be marvellous. But before you get there, you need a lot of what I call publicity pressure to get noticed.

Radio and TV interviews I consider in many ways have similar impacts to reviews. You’ve got to want to listen in or watch them in the first place.

That leaves one other option to consider – doing something unusual with the new universes book that gets the attention of the media. If I knew how to do this, I would have long since started doing it.

So it really boils down to getting your elevator pitch right for your novel or anthology.

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Distaff Anthology News

We’ve had two reviews for the Distaff anthology already – from people who’ve had an Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC).

What particularly caught my eye in the second is his summary paragraph…

“All in all, this anthology works wonderfully in showing that SF is still a genre which has a lot to say and has so many ways in which to say those things. Filled with great ideas and characters, Distaff is, hopefully, the first volume in what I hope will be an anthology series, and deserves to be widely read and enjoyed.”

Wow! This is not only a science fiction anthology with all new stories written and produced by women, it also has some ground-breaking space-breaking tales to read!

Only 45 days to go to publication date. You can pre-order for Kindle version here. (The price will revert back to its normal price on publication date.) A paperback will be published at the same time.

If you want to follow what is going on on the Distaff anthology – here’s its own website (thank you Juliana Spink Mills).

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Seven Lessons for Newish Science Fiction Writers

I had one of those mad moments when I decided to catalogue all the short stories I had ever written and still had a record of. I didn’t need to do this, but it would help with a small project I’m currently working on.

I then took time out to study the results. They were a bit of an eye-opener.

As you would expect, the first stories were either too ambitious for me to write at that time or naff. But I could pick out half a dozen stories that are worth revisiting and rewriting. So lesson number one. NEVER EVER THROW ANY WRITING AWAY. You never know when you come back to it whether their ideas might form a basis of a new story.

There came a point when the stories started to be published, and after the hesitant start, there is a pleasingly high proportion of them having been published in one form or another. As you would expect this proportion drops away towards the end as the short stories had not yet done the submission rounds. This is the kind of pattern I every writer should aspire to. But the interesting thing is that once the stories started being published, there was distinctly less in the way of satires to go back to that could be rewritten. So lesson number two. DO NOT EXPECT TO FIND AS MUCH POTENTIAL STORY MATERIAL FROM UNPUBLISHED WORKS FROM AFTER YOU START GETTING PUBLISHED REGULARLY.

There was one story I had completer forgotten about, and rereading it, I must have been in an evil mood to come with such a dastardly plot. I never sent it out on the submission rounds because of what happened shortly after I completed it. Now that time has gone by, I think it is more acceptable. But, but, but… it needs a rewrite because the language has subtly changed in the intervening period, there are little techno-traps that date it, and well, to be blunt, my writing has improved since then. Sending it out now as it is would not be sending it out at its potential best. Lesson number three. ALWAYS REWRITE YOUR UNPUBLISHED STORIES AFTER THEY HAVE BEEN LEFT ALONE FOR A SIGNIFICANT PERIOD OF TIME.

What I found interesting was that over time my science fiction ideas have become increasing ambitious in scope. It is only natural to start with what you know. I certainly had to put a lot of effort in improving my writing skills. To add significant world-building to that, was at the time a step too far. But as my skills grew and continue to grow, the panorama and intricacy of my new worlds also grow. Lesson number four. WORLD-BUILD TO THE CAPACITY OF YOUR WRITING SKILLS AND NOT BEYOND IT.

This extra world-building comes at a cost. My stories grew longer over time. I actually found it very difficult to write short short stories after a while. The only way I could do that was to focus on a very small part of existence. And even then I would blunder into other existential parts of that world, because they were interesting. I now realise that the emphasis these days on flash fiction comes at the cost of losing the richness you can have in world-building. It is not surprising that flash fiction deals with the familiar, the world as know it or the accepted science fiction tropes. If you want new in science fiction, you have to write at least novelette length. Lesson number five. IF YOU WANT TO SELL SHORT SCIENCE FICTION, STICK TO THE KNOWN WORLD OR WIDELY ACCEPTED SCIENCE FICTION TROPES.

Over time, with a few exceptions, my stories have gone from third person past tense to first person current tense. The reasons are simple. Readers get more buy-in from the latter, so it pays, quite literally to take up this format. Writing in the present tense is a lot harder than writing in the past tense. I had one story I flipped from past tense to present, only to find that some of my paragraphs in the original story were convoluted garbage. As an experiment I flipped the present tense story back to the past tense. The second version in the past was a huge step up in story quality. But writing in first person comes with its own dangers. The people in your stories tend to converge to the same type of person. Be wary of that. If necessary give you character a habit that your type of preferred character would never have. You would be surprised how well this works. Lesson number six. ONCE YOU START WRITING IN THE PRESENT TENSE, THROW YOUR MAIN CHARACTER AS FAR AWAY AS POSSIBLE FROM THE PERSON YOU NATURALLY WANT TO WRITE ABOUT.

Technology, or should I say the improvement in technology, moves fast in our world. What was a new idea several years ago can be bought off the shelf in your local shopping centre today. All near future science fiction writers suffer from the fate of having their stories overtaken by events. This includes some things in my stories. Its painful when it happens, in the sense that the newness of your story has vanished down the drain. The resulting satisfaction of having been right does not make up for it, believe me. There is a but coming… if you exaggerate or magnify your technology of interest, the story loses far less of its gloss. Exaggeration can be done in all sorts of ways. No one way is correct. But it should align with the technology concerned. It has the added advantage of, if done with skill, garnering the wow factor from your reader. Lesson number seven. EXAGGERATE THE TECHNOLOGY YOUR STORY RELIES ON, TO GIVE THE STORY LIFE IN BOTH SENSES OF THE WORD.

To summarise – seven lessons are

  • Never ever throw any writing away.
  • Do not expect to find as much potential story material from unpublished works from after you start getting published regularly.
  • Always rewrite your unpublished stories after they have been left alone for a significant period of time.
  • World-build to the capacity of your writing skills and not beyond it.
  • If you want to sell short science fiction, stick to the known world or widely accepted tropes.
  • Once you start writing in the present tense, throw you main character as far away as possible from the person you naturally want to write about.
  • Exaggerate the technology your story relies on, to give the story life in both senses of the word.

I hope these thoughts will help some developing writers somewhere, somewhen.

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I can’t write normal Science Fiction!

Occasionally you come with some interesting thoughts when you’re e-mailing someone. This is true for me as well. My latest spiel was:

  • I can’t write normal (science fiction) or variations on normal (science fiction) tropes. I’d get bored!

This is a very serious problem for me! I just cannot sit down in front of a computer to write science fiction that has all the standard ideas I’ve seen in the genre. I have to write about something different, or I just lose interest.

But there are consequences.

One of those is that the publishing industry does’t like new. They like tried and tested formulaic stories, at least from the less famous writers like me. Even if there was a pot of gold at the end of writing a formulaic novel, I just couldn’t do it. I might squeeze a occasional ‘boring’ short story, but that is it.

Another consequence is that you have to very articulate about the new. Sometimes, as I have recently experienced, you have to very articulate about the obscure old as well. Without naming names, all I’m going to say is that yes, some slingshot catapults are designed to fire bolts – they are used to hunt fish! But when I wrote about these catapults and their bolts, I didn’t know that. It was to me a natural consequence of weaponry and the world I was writing about. And yet those who’ve seen a draft of my story got confused by the catapult-bolt concept. End result is that I’ll spend some time editing my story to describe in more detail what this catapult and its bolts look like. Which of course makes the story longer and slows the pace down in a few places.

A third consequence is with all these ideas developing in my mind, I end up thinking that such and such a published story by anther author is nice, but they haven’t thought about this aspect or that, which would have changed the story line. To be fair to these authors, they haven’t had the chance to find out about these aspects because my stories have not been able to reach the public. So unless their minds have some kinship to mine, they don’t have a chance with these ideas. Nevertheless end result is that I find these science fiction stories less credible and therefore a bit disappointing.

My problem screams to go down the self-publishing route. I hate the thought of it because I’m not a natural sales person. So my stories languish in the depths of my computer memory or back-up USB sticks.

But there is one thing I can say. Being part of the Distaff anthology publishing team, I’m learning a lot about the marketing side from Jo Zebedee, Juliana Spink Mills and Shellie Horst. They bring their own very different strengths to the sales pitching. I stand in awe of their knowledge and go-get marketing attitudes. But these days it is all part of the self-publishing required skill set.

Ah well, back to my court trial scene. Though I fear if ever The Judge over at the SFFChronicles forum gets hold of it, she’ll say I can’t do that. Um… the judiciary system as we know cannot be applied to my world… it just would not fit in! Not even a slight variation. See what I mean about writing science fiction away from the norm!

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New Sciency Science Fiction Book Pick for July

I am straying from my usual picking of a novel this month because there are hardly any new science fiction novels being published in July. Yes, there are some, but they tend to be parts of series or are tie-ins to science fiction films or TV series. Instead I’m going for a very interesting anthology.

The pick of the new science fiction novels to be published in July is:

Mission Critical

edited by Jonathan Strahan

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The Blurb:

SPACE IS DANGEROUS
The greatest threat, to those who dare venture among the stars, isn’t from aliens, or enemy nations, or cosmic forces from outside reality, but from the simple things on which our lives in space are built: the engines and control systems, the machines that provide our atmosphere, our gravity, even our food and water.
In the vein of Andy Weir’s The Martian and James S. A. Corey’s Expanse books, Mission Critical tells the stories of when the machines go wrong.
Featuring stories by Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, Ann Leckie and many others.

The Reason:

It includes stories by the authors:

  • Peter F Hamilton 
  • Alastair Reynolds
  • Ann Leckie
  • Yoon Ha Lee 
  • Aliette de Bodard 
  • Greg Egan 
  • Linda Nagata 
  • Gregory Feely 
  • John Barnes 
  • Tobias S Buckell  
  • Jason Fischer 
  • Sean Williams 
  • Carolyn Ives Gilman 
  • John Meaney 
  • Dominica Phetteplace 
  • Allen M Stelle 
  • Kristine Kathryn Rusch 
  • Peter Watts

I know at least some of these will produce something very interesting and thought provoking in sciency science fiction. (I think I might have heard an excerpt of Peter Hamilton’s darned good story at the Bristolcon Fringe in January – not sure though.) Really looking forward to this one.

UK Amazon link here.

US Amazon link here.