science fiction

Humber SFF – Stephen Aryan and RJ Barker

King’s Head, Beverly was the venue for another great event from Humber SFF, organised by the redoubtable Shellie Horst. The guests were a very entertaining double act: Stephen Aryan and RJ Barker. Both are established authors with multiple books to their names, and both offered the gathered audience useful insights into the publishing industry and the life of a writer.

Stephen Aryan’s latest novels are a duology: The Coward and The Warrior. The Coward looks at the reality of post-traumatic stress and what happens when the hero is recalled to save the world a second time.

RJ Barker regaled the audience with his journey from failed musician to successful writer. His Tide Child trilogy is set in a remarkable world where Bone Ships sail the seas. He asked himself what would a world look like without a resource which we take for granted? In this case: wood or material to build boats/ships. He was inspired by whalebone carvings and created a massive ocean-going leviathan that was pursued to extinction in order to use its bones to build ships. A fascinating world and a fascinating read.

Both authors treated the audience to readings from their current novels. A real pleasure to listen to. Questions from the audience were taken panel-style with both Stephen and RJ pitching in. It was a relaxed and enjoyable evening with several members of the audience being put on RJ’s ‘naughty list’ for asking particularly challenging questions that made both authors dig deep.

I’m looking forward to the next event on 27th November, with Sunyi Dean and Daniel Godfrey as guest speakers. Get your tickets early!

Fantasycon 2022

The British Fantasy Society annual convention was held September 17th – 18th at the Raddison Red Hotel, Heathrow. Although a slightly curtailed version of the annual convention that we all know and love, it was still well worth the time, money and effort it took to get there. I arrived on Friday night (16th) so that I would be ready for the full onslaught of panels running through Saturday and Sunday morning.

There was a lot to choose from! I opted to start with ‘Portraying Families in SFFH’ as my own writing is family orientated. The panel discussed the fact that the expectations of readers are now more focused on the depth of familial relationships–they want to see internal conflict and have an opportunity to flex their empathy. While this is certainly true, not all satisfying family dynamics are centered around conflict. For example, the four Fallow sisters in Liz Williams’ Comet Weather provide a more cooperative model of family dynamics.

My next port of call was the panel on ‘Writing Humour’, ably moderated by Sandra Unerman. The panel discussed ‘ways to approach the arduous task of being funny’. It certainly is an arduous task for me. The panel was interesting, informative and, yes, genuinely funny. David Wragg, by his own admission, aims to be intentionally funny in his books; he made it clear that you need the implied consent of the reader and that you must ask yourself: are you making a good point? Dan Hanks emphasised the need for humorous banter to be organic (‘organic’ is a term that came up a lot during the panels); and Jen Williams discussed her challenges around removing humour from her latest crime novel. When is humour appropriate? A good question.

‘Character Development in Short Stories’ was interesting and a good refresher. In short stories, characters are the ‘glue’ that holds everything together. All panelists agreed that any physical descriptions of characters need to be short and must appear early in the story. ‘Love, Sex, Magic: Romance and Relationships in SFFH’ was entertaining in its own way and covered familiar ground around gender issues.

The Guest of Honour this year was Liz Williams, a prolific writer and stalwart of the annual Milford Speculative Fiction Writers’ Conference. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to her speak. Knowledgeable, insightful and overall deftly done.

The panels on ‘Religion in SFFH’ and ‘Mental Health in SFFH’ gave me plenty to think about in relation to my writing (and the writing of others). Religion is certainly a useful tool when it comes to world building and can be used to drive the plot forward. What I need to consider is how religion makes my characters think and how it influences their behaviour. And yes, when it comes to the depiction of mental health in SFFH, we really do need to do better. As pointed out by Tej Turner, a mental health issue could just as easily be a strength as a weakness. There was an interesting discussion on the need for trigger warnings in books–again, Tej suggested the use of links to the author’s website rather than include possible spoilers at the beginning of the book.

‘Writing Older Characters’ raised a number of interesting ideas. Firstly, the relationship between how old a character is compared to their natural lifespan, which can be very different in the SFF genres. There was an interesting discussion around the implications of older characters actually being immortal. The point was made that older characters already have their own story arc in motion (baggage, a complicated past) and are likely to have a different perspective on events. There are not as many tropes around older people, which may give a writer more freedom. While older characters can certainly learn new skills (e.g. technical skills), they can’t replicate the mindset of the young. I can’t remember which panelist quoted Oscar Wilde ‘I’m not young enough to know everything’. Terry Pratchett’s character, Nanny Ogg, was agreed to be everyone’s favourite older character. She gets my vote too!

I’m already looking forward to next year’s Fantasy Convention in Birmingham 🙂

GollanczFest16 is Coming!

Guess where I’m going to be in just a couple of short weeks? The GollaczFest, of course! I attended last year and it was a real treat. Gollancz Fest Banner SquareThe panel discussions were particularly interesting, with authors giving candid views on topical issues. I especially loved the way Gollancz used the event to promote its debut authors.

This year I plan to split my time between the author panels and the events aimed specifically at upcoming writers. Have a look at the list of authors taking part. It’s going to be so  much fun!

The Water Knife

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (Orbit, 2016)

“Sweat was a body’s history, compressed into jewels, beaded on the brow, staining shirts with salt. It told you everything about how a person had ended up in the right place at the wrong time, and whether they would survive another day.’

the water knifeThis quote from page one of The Water Knife gives the reader a taste of the desperation of people struggling to survive in a world where water is a precious commodity. Those cities with ‘senior water rights’ are building archologies (self-sustaining environments, with clean air, plenty of water and all the amenities the modern world takes for granted), while the majority of the population buy water from Red Cross pumps and wear masks against the constant dust-storms (well, those that can afford to—a dry, hacking cough is the norm outside of the archologies).

Set primarily in the state of Arizona, more specifically Phoenix, the three main protagonists are drawn into the battle over water rights—rights that will give the owner power of life and death over thousands as the water supply to whole cities can be cut by the stroke of a ‘legal’ pen.

Angel—the ‘water knife’ of the title—works for Catherine Case, the leader and ruthless driving force behind the relative prosperity of Las Vegas. Recruited by Case from prison as a young man, he is now a highly trained ‘water knife’ and does whatever it takes to secure the water rights of Las Vegas and the state of Nevada.

In the opening chapter Angel ‘serves papers’ on a water refinery and then escapes as it is blown up. The city it supplies has no other source of water. “It’s the end of times,” he muses as he watches the flames. “Guess that makes me the Devil.” Despite this, Angel (note the name) understands and empathises with the desperation of others. He sees the world for what it is, and harbours no illusions about the future. He does what needs doing. Driving through the desert, he reflects that it is the truest place he’s ever known—“it’s always been a gaunt and feral thing”. Unlike Texas, which had pumped up ice-age water and “thrown on the garments of fertility, pretending to greenery and growth… realising too late that their prosperity was borrowed.”

Lucy is a prize winning reporter, who left the relatively water-rich north (it still rains there) to write about the deprivations suffered by the people of Phoenix—a city struggling to survive the permanent drought—and the Texan refugees who everyone reviles. Texas was the first state to collapse, its population flooding neighbouring states until borders were closed. Lucy is looking for a big story, which she finds when she becomes embroiled in the fight over water rights. After years of bowing to pressure: “All the things you don’t say… All the stories you teach yourself not to tell.” Lucy posts a story that pulls-no-punches, a story that makes her a target for both political and criminal powerbrokers.

Angel feels a powerful connection to Lucy. They had both “seen too much and had given up on pretending the world was anything but a wreck.” Lucy is attracted to Angel, both in his role as a dangerous killer, and in his unguarded moments as “the boy before the water knife.” Betrayal is a key theme, though it’s generally depicted and understood by the parties involved as: nothing personal, just business. Angel is the one person who is steadfastly loyal.

Maria is a teenager struggling to survive alone after the death of her father. She collects water from the Red Cross pumps and sells it on for a small profit to construction workers. Her best friend ‘sells ass’. They are both Texans, the lowest of the low, who are forced to ‘kick up’ part of their earnings to a local crime lord. Despite her best efforts, Maria ends up in the ‘right place at the wrong time’ and her life is forfeit.

Angel is an unlikely saviour. Twice he uses Maria as a foil to save himself, but in both cases she is also ‘saved’. There is one question that she asks several times in the book: “Why do you care?” It points to the harsh reality of her life, and the lessons she learns as the story progresses. She has an impact on Angel: “He had a sudden overwhelming need to balance all the things in the world that couldn’t be balanced.”

This book depicts a world after the devastating impact of climate change. The characters take this fact as a given, and so the only reference is an advert on bottled water: “Your purchase helps us mitigate the impacts of climate change on vulnerable peoples around the world.”

In the struggle between California, Arizona and Nevada for valuable water rights, it seems that there is no ‘right’ thing to do (despite Lucy’s protestations). No matter who wins, there has to be losers. As Angel says: “Someone’s got to bleed, if anybody’s going to drink.”

This is a masterful depiction of a society fighting to survive in a world damaged by greed and wilful blindness—another strong theme in the book. Bacigalupi takes us on a journey where we are confronted by the filters through which we view the world, and brings us face-to-face with difficult truths.

My favourite quote:

“If I could put my finger on the moment we genuinely fucked ourselves, it was the moment we decided that data was something you could use words like believe or disbelieve around.”

Existence is Elsewhen

Published today – Existence is Elsewhen, Science Fiction anthology headlined by John Gribbin

Twenty stories from twenty great writers, also including Rhys Hughes, Christopher Nuttall and Douglas Thompson

 9781908168856-188x300DARTFORD, KENT – 18 March 2016 – Elsewhen Press, an independent UK publisher specialising in Speculative Fiction, is delighted to announce the publication today of Existence is Elsewhen, an anthology of twenty science fiction stories from twenty great writers. According to Peter Buck, Editorial Director at Elsewhen Press, “The title paraphrases the last sentence of André Breton’s 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism, perfectly summing up the intent behind this anthology of stories from a wonderful collection of authors. Different worlds… different times. It’s what Elsewhen Press has been about since we launched our first title in 2011. We were thrilled when John agreed to headline.”

Headlining the collection is John Gribbin, with a worrying vision of medical research in the near future. Future global healthcare is the theme of J.A.Christy’s story, while the ultimate in spare part surgery is where Dave Weaver takes the reader. Edwin Hayward’s search for a renewable protein source turns out to be digital; and Tanya Reimer’s story with characters we think we know, gives pause for thought about another food we all take for granted. Evolution is examined too, with Andy McKell’s chilling tale of what states could become if genetics are used to drive policy. Similarly, Robin Moran’s story explores the societal impact of an undesirable evolutionary trend, while Douglas Thompson provides a truly surreal warning of an impending disaster that will reverse evolution, with dire consequences.

On a lighter note, there is satire as Steve Harrison uncovers who really owns the Earth (and why); and Ira Nayman, who uses the surreal alternative realities of his Transdimensional Authority series as the setting for a detective story mash-up of Agatha Christie and Dashiel Hammett. Pursuing the crime-solving theme, Peter Wolfe explores life, and death, on a space station, while Stefan Jackson follows a police investigation into some bizarre cold-blooded murders in a cyberpunk future. Going into the past, albeit an 1831 set in the alternate Britain of his Royal Sorceress series, Christopher Nuttall reports on an investigation into a girl with strange powers.

Strange powers in the present-day is the theme for Tej Turner, who tells a poignant tale of how extra-sensory perception makes it easier for a husband to bear his dying wife’s last few days. Difficult decisions are the theme of Chloe Skye’s heart-rending story exploring personal sacrifice. Relationships aren’t always so close, as Susan Oke’s tale demonstrates, when sibling rivalry is taken to the limit. Relationships are the backdrop to Peter R. Ellis’s story where a spectacular mid-winter event on a newly-colonised distant planet involves a Madonna and Child. Coming right back to Earth and in what feels like an almost imminent future, Siobhan McVeigh tells a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of using technology to deflect the blame for their actions. Building on the remarkable setting of Pera from her LiGa series, and developing Pera’s legendary Book of Shadow, Sanem Ozdural spins the creation myth of the first light tree in a lyrical and poetic song. Also exploring language, the master of fantastika and absurdism, Rhys Hughes, extrapolates the way in which language changes over time, with an entertaining result.

Existence is Elsewhen, published today by Elsewhen Press on popular eBook platforms, will also be available in paperback from the 25th March with a launch at the 2016 Eastercon in Manchester.

FantasyCon

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at FantasyCon this year. Great panels, great people and a wonderful atmosphere. Such a packed and varied programme that I (and plenty of others) skipped lunch in order to attend as many interesting and (to us writers) valuable workshops and panels as possible.

Needless to say, I took loads of useful ideas away with me. Here are a few little gems:

Stealing from the Past: Fantasy in History (Jacey Bedford, Susan Boulton, Anne Lyle, Juliet E McKenna, Toby Venables, Susan Bartholomew)

  • What you think is true about history probably isn’t.
  • Think about: what are the usual rules in this time/society?
  • Find the base line (i.e. the ordinary people), so that you can then show what it means to be extraordinary in the time period.
  • There are so many ways that humanity has not changed over the millenia.

 

Protag/Antag: Character Creation (Ruth Booth, John Connolly, KT Davis, Peter Newman, James Oswald, Caroline Hooton)

  • Every character is a hero in their own minds (can justify their actions)
  • Play fair with the rules you have created
  • Keep your characters interesting and believable (know why your characters behave they way they do) then it doesn’t matter if they’re ‘good’ or ‘bad’
  • The hook can be not what you know about the character, but what you don’t
  • Less is more in many ways

 

Blades, Wands and Lasers: Fighting the Good Fight Scene (Clifford Beal, Juliet E McKenna, Kevin Murphy, Jo Thomas, James Barclay)

  • Think about the psychological aspects of a fight: when experts fight, their moves and counter moves are done automatically
  • In real life, sword fighters aim to disable via strikes to the neck, wrist and behind the knees
  • The aim is to get as many combatants off the field as possible. If you kill your opponent, his/her colleagues will just step over them and continue the fight. If you injure you opponent, his/her colleagues are more likely to want to take them to a medic (so three off the field with one injury)
  • Young men are more afraid of being disabled than being killed
  • Luck plays a huge part in any fight/battle
  • All fights happen one-to-one, whether in a duel or a battle
  • Tactics when confronted: 1. Run Away; 2. Break their will to attack
  • When fighting: Don’t look at the eyes (they can fake you out); Don’t look at the weapon; LOOK at the body language.

Quote: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.”

The last quote applies to fighting, but I think you can apply that to writing too!

There was lots of fun stuff to do in the evenings, of course. I particularly enjoyed the performed reading of ‘One for the Road’. A comic short story by Paul Kane, ably performed by James Barclay, Guy Adams, Lee Harris and Phil Lunt. They certainly brought to life the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse!

The live edition of Tea & Jeapardy was excellent and very entertaining. Emma Newman, assisted by Latimer the butler, interviewed Brandon Sanderson over tea and cake (and a cursed shield). Great stuff!

I’ve already booked my ticket for next year’s Fantasy Con, to be held in the wonderful seaside town of Scarborough.

 

Bristolcon

This was my first visit to BristolCon – a one day SFF convention. I have attended the larger events (EasterCon, FantasyCon), which are great (an understatement, really). BristolCon offered all the types of events (panels, workshops, author readings, art gallery, dealers’ rooms) that a larger convention does, just on a smaller, more intimate scale. I was going to say more friendly, but in my experience all conventions are unerringly friendly and welcoming.

I attended panels on lost cities and abandoned places, the rise of AI’s and FTL travel. The guest of honour interviews were both interesting and entertaining – Jaine Fenn (author), Jasper Fforde (author) and Chris Moore (artist). The workshop on Multiple Story Arcs, run by Jonathan L Howard was particularly useful.

Favourite quotes from the Lost Cities and Abandoned Places panel:

“We project onto ruins our own stories.” Jaine Fenn

“Cities eat themselves.” Pete Sutton

There was a wonderful display of Chris Moore’s art – here’s my favourite piece”

chris moore

My Milford Writing Group Adventure

The Milford Writing Group is comprised of published authors of speculative fiction (includes Science Fiction, Fantasy, and all their sub-genres). The authors gather once a year, usually in September, to workshop ideas and discuss work in progress. This year I was eligible to attend (you need at least one professional sale), I booked my place in March and spent the next few months looking forward to the experience. I was not disappointed.

Over a week since I got back and I still feel crammed with ideas for my novel. I’ve made a start, of course I have, but what I really need is time to focus and work.

The Adventure

ImageThe venue: Trigonos, sited amongst the impressive beauty of Snowdonia, is perfect for a bunch of writers to work both creatively and critically, while offering outlets for those with an inclination to walk, jog, climb and generally explore.

The writers: fifteen in total, including three newbies (of which I was one)—a diverse group of friendly and talented people whose professional approach to writing was matched by their sense of fun.

The process: in a day liberally spiced with excellent meals, and breaks for home made biscuits and cake, there was space for several hours of writing (or catching up with critiques) in the morning, followed by a focussed critiquing workshop in the afternoon.

But what was it like, I hear you cry, to be part of such an adventure?

A little scary at first, but exciting too. And, oh my god, bloody hard work.

After a convivial breakfast, I spent the mornings working on a new chapter for my book, inspired by the general buzz of creativity about the place, and only occasionally distracted by the chickens foraging in the meadow just beyond my window. I didn’t always make it to the 11am drinks and biscuits gathering; it’s hard to stop when you’re caught in the flow. The more energetic amongst us went for walks around the lake, or runs to/from the desolation of ‘Mordor’. The truly adventurous scrambled their way up mountainous trails in both rain and shine.

The afternoon workshops were both challenging and incredibly useful. The critiques offered were professional, honest, no-punches-pulled assessments that also offered support and, quite often, generated ideas on how to solve problems or take stories forwards. I must admit that after working through five or six stories with the group, I escaped back to my room for a much needed nap before dinner!

Evenings were spent in the Library with a comforting log fire, drinks and, of course, chocolate. A satisfying end to the day in the company of other writers: lively conversation, laughter, games, and for some the fine art of knitting and crocheting. I was introduced to the game of Bananagram, a great twist on traditional Scrabble, which I look forward to teaching to my (grown up) children.

After five days of solid work (Sunday to Thursday) we were all ready for the Friday outing. Gwydir Castle—one of the most haunted homes in the country—offered sculpted gardens, wonderful trees (huge cedars planted in 1625) and rather haughty peacocks. The house itself was full of original artefacts and an ancient presence that will find its way into my writing, one way or another.

It was hard to say goodbye on Saturday morning, both to the place and to everyone in the group. But on the other hand, I was so full of ideas that I couldn’t wait to get back home and start work on the rewrite of my opening chapters.

I’ve already booked my place for next year, and can’t wait for Milford 2014!

Details for Milford 2014 can be found here.

I like distractions…

There comes a time when I just can’t look at it any more–and by ‘it’ I mean my dissertation. So, I took a break and wrote a fun (but interesting!) article for Astronaut.com. I found my self decidedly cheered up by their return email and the posting of ‘On The Coat-Tails of Science Fiction’ to their site that very morning.

The Coat-Tails of Science Fiction

Refreshed and reaffirmed… I guess  it’s time to get back to IT.

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