SF

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 🙂

MAYDAY Magazine – Revamp

“After more than ten years of publishing literary fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and works in translation for an international readership, MAYDAY Magazine is relaunching with a new format and expanded editorial vision.”

Really looking forward to the new-look MAYDAY magazine with its focus on art, literature and the community. Look out for the live interview with Kali Wallace at 4pm on the 4th August. Kali is the author of the young adult novels Shallow Graves and The Memory Trees and the children’s fantasy novel City of Islands. Her first novel for adults, the sci-fi horror-thriller Salvation Day, was published by Berkley in 2019. Her short fiction has appeared in ClarkesworldThe Magazine of Fantasy & Science FictionAsimov’s Science FictionLightspeed, and Tor.com

Check out some of their past fiction pieces, including one of my own short stories, using the following links:  Susan OkeMichael CzyzniejewskiLiz EganDariel SuarezJorge VolpiÓlafur GunnarssonMollie Boutelland others.

Once Upon A Parsec

So EXCITED to have one of my stories in this most excellent anthology by NewCon Press…

“Have you ever wondered what the fairy tales of alien cultures are like? For hundreds of years scholars and writers have collected and retold folk and fairy stories from around our world. They are not alone. On distant planets alien chroniclers have done the same. For just as our world is steeped in legends and half-remembered truths of the mystic and the magical, so are theirs.”

Find out more on the NewCon Press website:

http://www.newconpress.co.uk/info/book.asp?id=146&referer=Catalogue

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.”

Book Review – Two of a Mind – S M Stuart

I have recently written a review of ‘Two of a Mind’ by S M Stuart for the British Fantasy Society. You can read it here:

http://www.britishfantasysociety.org/reviews-old/two-of-a-mind-by-s-m-stuart-book-review/

The Flash Challenge

Long form is my shutterstock_203226655forte. The freedom of chapter after chapter, building the story. I need space to stretch and explore. Short stories are a challenge, one that always leaves me with a question: perhaps this really is a novella, or maybe even a novel? Sigh. So imagine what writing flash fiction is like.

That said, I’ve had a few flash fiction pieces published over the last few months. The most recent being ‘Distant Fires’ in the Life is a Roller Coaster anthology. It was a kind of tortuous fun. This particular piece started out at 1,250 words, an achievement in itself. I then spent a long weekend reducing that to the required 750 words. That was agony; being forced to find ever more effective ways to get the message across, cutting and cutting, trying to parse backstory into, in some cases, a single word choice. While painful, it was an exercise that left me feeling both pleased and surprisingly energised. I could actually do it.

Example: Encapsulating the relationship between son and father (the only mention of the father)

I’m here most nights. Dad noticed: ‘Finally got a life, have you boy?’ I nodded. We left it at that.

Now it’s time for me to concentrate on finishing THE BOOK. I’ve learnt a lot working on flash fiction, though. It’s a discipline that I can make good use of in crafting longer stories, and it’s one that I will go back to when I need a break from the complexity of novel writing.

If you write long form, try your hand at flash. Trust me. It’s good for you.

Home Rock

ImageThrough his link with Tara he knows she is close to Home Rock, but he is closer. He’s crouched within twenty strides of the fist of granite that marks the start and finish point of the game. The urge to throw off his concealment and make a dash for it is almost overwhelming. Alden’s legs tremble with the need to win. Let me beat him. Just once. Please.

They’ve been playing Hide and Hunt for two hours, and already four teams have been captured by the Hunter. At dawn twelve Prey, split into teams of two, had spread out from Home Rock and concealed themselves within the forest. A mixed bunch of nine to twelve year old boys and girls, all keen to claim the honour of defeating the Hunter. Now only Tara’s and Mika’s teams are left.

Tara’s words whisper in his mind. ‘This is our chance. I’m going to make the run.’

‘Wait. We don’t know where the Hunter is.’

‘C’mon Alden, we can win this!’

Her excitement is infectious. Alden grins, maybe she’s right. ‘I’m closer. I’ll do it.’

Home Rock sits at the centre of a broad circular clearing surrounded by dense forest –– all they have to do is touch Home Rock to win. Only Prey are allowed to set foot inside the clearing, but the Hunter can strike from a distance. And this time the Hunter is his brother, Zand.

‘I’m the fastest.’ Exasperation stripes Tara’s words. She’s three years older than Alden, with two wins to her credit; one more win and she’ll be promoted to Hunter. Her tone softens. ‘Get ready to distract and defend.’

Tara sprints like a deer flushed from cover. In five thundering heartbeats she covers more than half the distance to Home Rock. Alden wants to yell with excitement. The edge of the tykae strike catches his shoulder and knocks him aside. He flings up a defensive barrier even as his mind cries a warning, but he’s too slow. The force of the strike lifts Tara into the air before sending her sprawling face down on the rough, pebble strewn ground.

A sharp barking laugh cuts the sudden silence. Zand steps out of green shadow into the sunlight dappled edge of the clearing: a tall stringy adolescent, snow-white hair coming loose from the single braid down his back, lips curled in a confident sneer.

‘Come out. Come out. Wherever you are.’

The sound of his voice is like a slap. Alden drops to his belly, heart hammering. Over the years Alden has perfected the art of concealment, an act of simple survival when growing up with an older brother like Zand. He feels Zand’s scan slipstream over his defensive shield and skip beyond his position. His brother’s curse sounds close. The air snaps with vicious anticipation.

Alden knows that the best tactic is to abandon Tara, circle round and wait it out. He might get another opportunity when Mika’s team make their run: only one member of a team has to reach Home Rock to win. It’s what Tara would do. But he can’t move. He’s transfixed by Tara’s struggle to rise –– blood darkens one side of her face; thick, slow motion drops spatter the ground as she raises her head and rolls onto her side. She doesn’t try to touch his mind; she knows that Zand can use an active link to backtrack Alden’s location. She starts to push herself up into a sitting position.

‘Last chance,’ Zand says, too loud in the green-gold stillness.

Zand has that look on his face. Alden wants to run but the familiar paralysis takes hold, leaving him helpless. Tara yelps as Zand yanks her towards him, her ankles bound in a savage tykae grip. It’s against the rules to use excessive force to subdue the Prey, but Zand doesn’t care about the rules. He just cares about winning.

His brother gives the tree line one last raking look, and then leans over to place his hand on Tara’s scratched and bleeding leg. Skin to skin contact, that’s all Zand needs to inflict his punishments. Alden knows what comes next; his body trembles with remembered agony.

All choices flee when Tara begins to scream.

Alden cowers under the bushes, his head buried in his arms, trying to block out the sounds tearing the air. He can almost feel the delicate tendrils of tykae energy piercing his body. Zand is laughing, the way he does when he’s got his little brother trapped and thrashing at his feet.

Silence –– broken by Tara’s wracking sobs. Alden peers through the bushes. Tara is curled into a ball, her body shuddering with the absence of Zand’s touch.

‘What’s it to be, noik? You or the girl?’

Alden’s heart is pounding so hard it hurts. Tara hands scrabble weakly at the pebbles as she tries to crawl away. Her whimpered ‘please’ stops his breath. Zand kicks at her until she stops.

White fury uncurls inside Alden; he steps into the clearing.

‘I knew it.’ Zand’s face twists with disgust. ‘Weak. Useless.’ He stabs a finger at Alden. ‘You should’ve run or stayed hidden. You might still have had a chance to get past me.’

Alden weaves his outrage into the lattice of his defensive shield. At least Tara is quiet now. Zand’s tykae strike sends him staggering backwards, but he keeps his feet and his silence, knowing that both will infuriate his brother. Zand never stops until you beg, and sometimes not even then. Alden can sense the confusion behind Zand’s rage as his brother skirts the edge of the clearing, closing the distance between them.

‘Give it up, little brother.’

Alden tightens his shield, and his fists.

Alden knows that Mika’s team is still out there; if he can distract his brother for long enough they might have a chance. Alden doesn’t want to win anymore. He just wants Zand to lose.

And then Tara slaps her bloodied palm against Home Rock.

END

‘Mindstar Rising’ by Peter F. Hamilton

The cover of the 17th November 2012 edition of New Scientist headlined:

CLIMATE CHANGE

Five years ago we feared the worst. But it’s looking even worse than that.

It seems that the climate models were wrong. The rate-of-loss of arctic ice, the increase in rainfall intensity, and the searing heat waves have already reached the levels that were predicted for the end of this century. As I read the dire warnings of more extreme weather in the northern hemisphere, the current and expected fall in crop yields in the UK due to heavy rainfall, the need to develop heat-tolerant crop varieties, and the likely flooding of many low-lying cities—the world created by Peter F. Hamilton in the Greg Mandel trilogy came to mind.

ImageHamilton’s first novel, Mindstar Rising, is set in England, where global warming has reshaped the physical, social and economic state of the country. Note that I said England; political chaos and industrial collapse have resulted in Wales and Scotland existing as separate political and economic entities. In the novel, massive flooding created a huge refugee problem, necessitating the requisition of buildings (shops, hotels etc.) under the government’s ‘one home policy’ to provide emergency housing. This re-imagined England has spent the past twelve years sweltering under bright hot skies, with high humidity and an annual rainy season. Most of the familiar plants and trees are gone, replaced by more tropical varieties. Low lying areas used for farming have been reduced to mud-clogged marshlands and bogs, and every available green space has been appropriated for raising crops.

Peterborough is the new industrial capital—referred to in the book as the new Hong Kong. ‘If you can’t get it in Peterborough, you can’t get it anywhere.’

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