Thursday, 2 October 2014

Novel delivered

If I've not had much to say here in recent months, it's not because I haven't been busy. In truth, 2014 has been one of the most productive years of my writing life, but other than offering a series of endless progress reports on steadily increasing word counts, I don't find that there's much to say about being in the act of producing another book. Put simply, it's not very exciting. I start my day, I produce my intended wordage, I back up and switch off my computer - and then repeat for eight or nine months or however long it takes. I'm also loathe to talk in too much depth about works in progress. I used to worry about killing my own enthusiasm - now I worry about killing everyone else's.

Still, the book is in. This is the third and final volume in the Poseidon's Children trilogy, and as yet it does not have a title, although a few possibles are floating around. Although the end result might not seem strikingly different to its predecessors, it's actually presented quite a radical change of routine for me. Although I'd been thinking in very general terms about the third book for almost as long as I'd been thinking about the trilogy - going back to 2008 - that's a world away from having a clear sense of the structure, plot, characters and so on.

In October of last year, though, I set about producing a 12,000 word outline for the new novel, a level of planning completely outside my usual experience. I'd produced detailed notes for a few of my earlier novels, but nothing compared to this. In fact, by the time I finished the outline, I felt like I'd put in all the creative effort of writing a book, but with none of the emotional payoff of actually having done the thing. Nonetheless, when I did start work on the novel, I had the confidence of that detailed outline to keep me on the straight and narrow. Not having to worry about where the story was going proved a major blessing, as I personally don't find the working through of plot mechanics all that satisfying. That's not to say that the novel wrote itself - there were setbacks, changes of plan, anxious weeks - but the overall shape of it did adhere fairly closely to the outline, and I always had a clear sense of where it was headed. I started the actual writing in the middle of February, and proceeded with few interruptions right through to the middle of September. Along the way I completed and delivered two lengthy short fiction projects - a 40,000 word novella, and a fairly long novelette, and I also wrote a few shorter fiction and non-fiction pieces for various people. I purposely kept my travel to a minimum this year, attending a science festival in Edinburgh and the London worldcon, followed by a short promotional tour in Sweden, during which I found time to do a bit of writing on the move. I took a few weeks off from writing due to minor illnesses and family obligations, but other than that, I was pleased at how many available days were actually occupied with productive work. It was good to fill in progress on a wall calendar, and see the word count progressing reliably from week to week.

I started work on the 12th of February, which is the date I was able to move into a new purpose-built garden office. We'd had it constructed over the winter - mostly during those long weeks of dreadful rain which afflicted the UK in the early part of 2014 - but it took several weeks to get the interior painted, carpeted, and fitted out for occupation. I made a conscious decision to deny myself internet access, and - speaking only for myself - that has worked out tremendously well. In my previous writing rooms, I have always made a point of not having internet in the room itself but the weak link has been that it is always present elsewhere in the house. However, now I simply don't have it, and the wifi signal is too weak to be useful even if temptation gets the better of me. Surrounded by music, and with a kettle on standby, I find that I seldom miss internet access during my writing hours. If I need some vital piece of research, it can generally wait until the evening. That's just me, though - what works for one writer would be intolerable for another.

The book will now go through the usual round of edits, always more work than I care to remember, but in the meantime I am busying myself with a bit more short fiction, as well as thinking ahead to the next two novels. I don't know about you, but I'm feeling pretty optimistic about the shape of SF at the moment. I came away from the London worldcon invigorated and enthused, and determined to continue adding my voice to this great and tempestuous conversation of ours.

(cross-posted to

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

New stories

While I continue work on the new novel, just time to mention a couple of new fiction items that are available online for free.

Back in June, I was pleased to be given the chance to write a piece of short fiction for something a bit out of the ordinary. The piece was slated to be part of a scientific press release, centred around the announcement of some exciting work done by astronomers at Queen Mary (University of London). Guillem Anglada-Escude and his team were reporting on a striking discovery in the field of exoplanet studies - the detection of a planet orbiting a relatively nearby star which may be older than most of the stars in the rest of our galaxy. I'd been following this still-young area of astronomy with quite some amazement since my own research days, and the opportunity to build a piece of fiction around this new discovery was a total delight. You can read more about the work, and check out my (very short) story, entitled, "Sad Kapteyn", here:

Again, thanks to Guillem and the team for this wonderful opportunity.

Elsewhere, you can, if so inclined, also read a much longer piece. "The Last Log of the Lachrimosa" is a completely new story in the Revelation Space universe, and the first such piece since 2009's "Monkey Suit". I'll say no more other than that I enjoyed the challenge of rebooting the RS universe in my head, and judging by the notes on my PC, there should be one or two more stories along before too long. "Last Log" is online at Subterranean magazine, in their final issue.

Many thanks to the good people at Sub Press for finding room for my piece amid such good company.

Incidentally, I'm still undecided about how to move forward with the splitting of content between my two active blogs. So for now, I'll be doing a certain amount of cross-posting.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

All change!

 I've had a major overhaul of my author website:

The URL hasn't changed, but the site now has a totally new structure and look, and should be much more easy for me to maintain and update in the future. As part of the revamp, there is now a dedicated blogging area as part of the new site. This begs the question of what is to become of this blog, and my first thought - other than to discontinue this one - was to continue cross-posting entries to both sites, at least for the foreseeable future.

But long-time readers will know that I do occasionally go on about matters other than SF, or at best tangentially related to it, so I thought the sensible thing might be - from this point on - to retain the other blog for SF news only, and to keep this one for all the other stuff. I'll cross-post "important" announcements, of course.


Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Class of '88

Or thereabouts. After gaining my degree in astronomy from Newcastle in 1988, I moved to Scotland to begin my postgraduate studies in St Andrews. I was to spend three years working toward my PhD in optical astronomy, during which period I also made my first professional sales as a writer. Here, a quarter of a century later, are four of us from those days.

I'm on the left; next to me is Gavin Ramsay, who joined us in St Andrews a year or so after my arrival. Gavin has remained in astronomy and now works at Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland; he is a leading expert on cataclysmic variable stars and compact binaries. During our time in St Andrews Gavin introduced me to Shostakovich, establishing a lifelong interest in classical music - I am hugely indebted. Gavin and I also worked in the same department in Utrecht, though on different research programs. Later, we were part of a collaborative study between ESA and the Mullard Space Science Laboratory on high speed optical observations of magnetic cataclysmic variables.

Next to Gavin is Steve Bell; Steve was a few years ahead of me in St Andrews and helped show me the ropes. Steve was also my partner during two observing runs at the Anglo-Australian Telescope in New South Wales.  During the first such run, Steve contracted a severe eye infection which resulted in him being admitted to hospital and spending the rest of the trip having emergency treatment to save his sight. Fortunately all came well, and our second run was more successful. Our main research topic was optical spectroscopic observations of high mass X-ray binaries, using the instrument to measure the velocity of one of the stars in a binary. This radial velocity curve then gives you an idea of the mass of the other object in the binary, which might well be a neutron star. Measuring neutron star masses is a critical test of fundamental physics since the Chandrasekhar Limit predicts that they cannot be more massive than 1.4 times the mass of the Sun. All our neutron star measurements were consistent with the theory, pleasingly enough. Since leaving St Andrews, Steve has worked for many years in the Nautical Almanac Office and is now in a senior position at the UK Hydrographic Office in Taunton. If you purchased the official guide to the 1999 eclipse, that was Steve's work.

Next to Steve is Paul Rainger, with whom I shared an office after my arrival in St Andrews. Paul was nearing the end of his PhD work but was spending increasing amounts of his time involved with politics; our local MP was Menzies Campbell with whom Paul worked for several years. Paul later moved to London to continue his involvement with the Liberal party. Paul is now resident in Bristol, where he is involved in green activism; he is one of the curators of Bristol's Big Green Week which this year takes place in June. Owners of Interzone 39, which contained my second published story - "Dilation Sleep" - will note that Paul is credited with taking the author photo.

Photo by Emma; thanks to Emma and Paul for hosting this most enjoyable reunion.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014


By now the events surrounding Jonathan Ross's proposed MC'ing of the Hugo awards have been well covered - see (for instance) Cheryl Morgan: and Adam Whitehead:

I did not think Ross was a good choice for the MC and tweeted as such. But my dislike of Ross's TV persona was my own problem, nobody else's, and I would have been far better off shutting up. Furthermore, despite the high-minded sentiments of my last blog post, I did Ross a particular disservice by automatically presuming that he would be paid for his appearance. In fact, Ross had kindly volunteered his time. My contributions added nothing to the debate and I apologise for them.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Does it have to be this way?

Perhaps it's always been like this, but I can't help feeling that the dialogue around SF&F has in recent years grown increasingly toxic and counter-productive. It may well have been just the same in the old days of mimeographed fanzines and letters columns - feuds run long and deep in literary circles - but there's no doubt that the nature of online discussion has raised the temperature, enabling flamewars and "fails" to flare up with numbing regularity. If they burned out as quickly as they started that would be one thing, but the online environment also helps to keep them running and running, the rhetoric growing hotter and the positions more entrenched, until the next flamewar kicks off and the cycle is sustained. Notably lacking (with, of course, some exceptions) is a general presumption of good faith on behalf of the participants.

It's SF award season again (this being a month with a vowel in it) so naturally thoughts have turned to the growing trend for writers to post lists of their eligible works. I don't personally care for these lists myself, and I've stated my position in a blog post. Other writers and commentators have made similar observations - most recently Adam Roberts, in a widely discussed post on his blog. Adam and I get on well and we feel essentially the same way about these eligibility posts, although perhaps Adam articulates his position more successfully than I do mine. Here's the thing, though: it's just an opinion. It's not worth the unpleasantness of falling out with another writer or commentator because they happen to take a different view. Paul Cornell, another writer I know and like, happens to regard eligibility posts as a fundamentally good and useful thing. So does Rachel Swirsky, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at a Hugo ceremony. John Scalzi even goes so far as to open up his blog to other writers to post their own eligibility lists. Many readers have pointed out (as they did in the comments to my own blog piece) that it's actually quite a helpful thing to see a list of stories you might wish to consider when compiling your awards nominations. I might not agree with that, but my counter argument - that if you need to be reminded of something, it probably isn't award-worthy - isn't terribly easy to defend either, since it speaks only to my personal reading habits. I don't consume a lot of SF in a given year and I tend to be selective about what I do read, so it's relatively easy for me to recall the pieces I liked - if indeed there are any. But there are many readers who are much more engaged with the field than I am, and probably do read dozens or even hundreds of stories a year. From their point of view, I'm forced to conceed, those eligibility lists serve a genuinely useful function. So there's no need for an automatic presumption of bad faith on the part of those defending the lists, or to assume that the writers who publish them are doing so out of naked self-interest. I'll continue to take a jaundiced view of eligibility lists, but I'll accept that there are, on balance, some reasonable arguments to be mustered in their favour.

And yet ... within days of Adam Roberts' blog post, the conversation had become intensely polarised. Rightly or wrongly, the issue had become conflated with two different topics: the wider theme of self-promotion, and the under-representation of women writers in the field. Now, I have no problem with self-promotion at all. Almost everything I do as a writer that doesn't involve typing prose fiction into a keyboard is some form of self-promotion. This blog is self-promotion. Being on Twitter is self-promotion. Doing public events, going to conventions, doing phone-in interviews, doing reviews for free - it's all self-promotion and I accept it gladly because most writers do not have the luxury of a huge publicity machine to do the work for them. This is not the same activity as awards campaigning, and whether you regard eligibility lists as a form of campaigning, or a useful service for readers, it's surely distinct and separate from the larger business of self-promotion which is part of being a professional author. To think otherwise is, I think, an error. When John Scalzi, in an otherwise reasonable and good-spirited response to Adam's post, mentioned that Adam was "shy" of announcing the eligibility of his own work, Scalzi was making exactly that mistake. Trust me, I know Adam. He's an outspoken critic of the field, a confident and engaging public speaker, and not someone you could remotely describe as "shy". That's missing the point totally - and by the same token, it isn't shyness of modesty that prevents me posting my own eligibility lists.

Still, that was mild compared to the position articulated by another writer, Amal El-Mohtar, that to state a dislike of eligibility lists was a "peculiar, unbearable, vicious smugness", and that in arguing against such lists one is helping to silence exactly those writers who are most in need of attention. This struck me as wrong. My feeling was that, again, self-promotion and awards-boosting are being seen as facets of the same activity, whereas to my mind they are fairly distinct. I promote myself to further my sales, because that is what my livelihood depends on. Awards are an entirely different sphere of my life as a writer, and whether I'm nominated or not nominated (mostly the latter), I'd far rather that it didn't depend on the visibility of my eligible works. Furthermore, I couldn't really see how a newer writer was going to benefit by adding another voice to an already loud conversation. Regardless of that, though, the rhetoric had become more divisive. Who is honestly going to consider their position on a topic, when they've been described in those terms I quote above? It's a presumption of bad faith - the notion that we're saying one thing and thinking another. I'd rather assume that the opponents of eligibility posts are sincere in their stated positions, and that this also applies to the proponents. I didn't care for the particular tone of El-Mohtar's piece at that point, but her wider position - that eligibility posts are a platform for enabling newer writers to receive some sort of attention - is far from unreasonable, and deserves serious and civil discussion. To put it another way, it's something to think about, and perhaps it has shifted my attitude to a degree. It's also made me aware of Amal El-Mohtar as a writer and I apologise for not reading her work sooner.

The almost universal presumption of bad faith is once more on display in the reactions to Alex Dally MacFarlane's piece on the Tor blog, discussing the representation of post-binary gender in SF. Regardless of what you make of the piece, it sets out its position in extremely cogent terms, arguing that SF needs to think a bit more about the depiction of non-traditional gender roles, and that the field can't keep pointing back to forty year old books by Ursula Le Guin as if to say it had that one covered. The piece is suitably respectful to Le Guin, and makes only the mildest of demands on the field. You may or may not agree with it. My take was, this is interesting and I need to think about it.

And yet, the responses to the piece have been predictably intemperate, with an almost immediate crystallisation of "for" and "against" camps. Some of the rhetoric from the "against" camp has been astonishingly spiteful, although at this point I don't suppose I'm very much astonished. Shot through it all, though, is the presumption that Alex Dally MacFarlane is presumably out to destroy SF as we know it, as if anyone with a long-standing engagement with the field would ever want to do that. There is sensible and civil engagement with her points, but as in all these intensely polarised arguments, it's becoming very hard to tune the signal from the noise. Sarcasm and strawmen arguments abound; line are drawn and positions fortified; the presumption of good faith is all but lost.

Does it have to be this way? Can't we disagree with each other, but reserve the right to accept that the other person might, ultimately, have a point?

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Sword and Laser video interview

This coming Saturday (18th) I'm doing a video interview with the good people from Sword and Laser, who are based near San Francisco. I'll be Skyping in from Wales. If you'd like to ask me a question, you can drop a suggestion here:

Sorry about the short notice.