Friday, 30 December 2016

Remembering Piers Sellers

The British-born astronaut Piers Sellers died on December 23rd 2016, only fourteen months after his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Piers was a hugely respected figure within the scientific and astronautical communities, a veteran of three shuttle missions who rose to the directorship of NASA's Earth Science Division at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Knowing full well the likely term of his diagnosis, Piers nonetheless preferred to spend the last year of his life working with friends and colleagues, and doing all that he could to spread the word about global climate change. Piers was a passionate and optimistic advocate of the scientific worldview, and despite all the setbacks he believed that human will and ingenuity would always win through in the end.

He was also an avid and informed reader of science fiction, which is how our two very different worlds intersected. A couple of years after I'd left ESA, but while I was still living in the Netherlands, I got a phone call out of the blue from a NASA employee, Tim Kauffman, who was visiting ESA while involved with the International Space Station. Tim was a reader of my books and we happily agreed to meet for a coffee the day after, when he had an afternoon free of meetings. As it happened, Piers joined us and the three of us spent an incredible couple of hours talking space, science and science fiction.

With Piers Sellers, Holland

Later my wife managed to get to the hotel where we'd arranged to meet up for coffee:


The conversation would have flowed, but my wife and I were booked to ride some horses that evening, so with much regret we had to leave. But that afternoon with Tim and Piers left an indelible impression, and we were to keep in touch with both of them.

Piers was exceptionally generous with his time and kindness. I'll mention two things in particular. During STS-121, the flight of Discovery in July 2006, Piers had taken a photograph of that rarest of things: a completely cloudless Wales. He promised to send me a copy of this unlikely image and it duly arrived, signed by Piers, and it's up on our living room wall as I write this.

Piers also carried a print of the first photograph above (the two of us sitting down) into space. He placed it on the frame of the observation cupola in the ISS, with the Earth beyond the glass, and took a photo of that. So I can truthfully say that there was a photo of me on the International Space Station.

Despite keeping in touch over the ensuing years, we only met twice. We came very close to each other on a third occasion - but only because Piers was four miles away, in the Space Shuttle Atlantis, while we watched from the viewing galleries. My wife sent him an email on the morning of the launch. Piers responded - he was actually in the shuttle, waiting to go.

STS-132


The second and final occasion was a little over a year ago, just before Piers received his diagnosis. In October 2015 I attended the Capclave convention near Washington DC. It was too good an opportunity not to hook up with Piers again. The only snag was that Piers was leaving town shortly after we arrived, with the only available evening being the one where we arrived in DC. Tired after a transatlantic flight, and with just barely enough time to dump our bags at the hotel, we nonetheless made it to Piers' beautiful house for what turned out to be a delightful, stimulating evening of great food and conversation.

With Piers and friends. Paul and Tucker to the left of me, the wonderful Colleen Hartman to the right.
Piers' diagnosis came as a terrible shock to his friends. But I spoke to him last Christmas and his strength of spirit was incredible. I told him about my new telescope mount and throughout the year sent him the occasional image of whatever I'd managed to capture, on those rare instances when it wasn't clouded over.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to have met Piers Sellers will feel an awful void now that he's gone. But we'll be left with his immense optimism and the memory of a generous, genial man.










Monday, 31 October 2016

New Merlin story - "The Iron Tactician"

Appearing soon from Newcon Press is the first of the new stories I worked on earlier this year, and I'm very pleased to have it out in the world. "The Iron Tactician" is a 29,000 word novella featuring my recurring character Merlin. Somewhat drunk on his own glory, he's a far-future space traveller at a time of galactic war, on a lone quest to find a fabled super-weapon which may be the only thing that can end the aeons-long conflict. Although his heart's in the right place, Merlin is also vain and boastful, and prone to getting tangled up in the affairs of those smaller human cultures he happens to bump into on his travels. This doesn't always go as well as he might have hoped, as we discover in the new story.


"When Merlin encounters the derelict hulk of an old swallowship drifting in the middle of nowhere, he can't resist investigating. He soon finds himself involved in a situation that proves far more complex than he ever anticipated."

There are four Merlin stories to date, but in typical fashion they weren't written in chronological order, which would be:

Hideaway (2000)

Minla's Flowers (2005)

The Iron Tactician (2016)

Merlin's Gun (2000)

My new novella is the first in a new series for Newcon Press, all with artwork by Chris Moore, and which link together to form a single image. The story is available in both print and electronic formats, and Newcon will be doing a signed edition as well.

http://www.newconpress.co.uk/info/book.asp?id=79&referer=Hp

Amazon.co.uk:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Iron-Tactician-NewCon-Press-Novellas-ebook/dp/B01M2B9P7V/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1477915601&sr=8-1&keywords=the+iron+tactician

Amazon.com:

https://www.amazon.com/Iron-Tactician-Alastair-Reynolds-ebook/dp/B01M2B9P7V/



Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Coode Street Podcast

Over the weekend I recorded a Coode Street Podcast with the inestimable Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe. Always great fun, and we touched on a lot of topics, including REVENGER.

Unfortunately laptop hassle meant I had to switch to a backup machine at short notice, and the sound quality on my voice isn't the best at times. Hopefully you can still get some sense out of my ramblings.

http://www.jonathanstrahan.com.au/wp/2016/09/10/episode-284-alastair-reynolds-revenger-and-the-far-far-future/

Thanks to Jonathan and Gary for having me on the podcast.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Tour dates

My good friend Peter Hamilton and I both have new books coming out so we're doing some joint signing sessions through the UK. Unfortunately it wasn't possible for me to synch up with Peter for all the dates on his side of the tour, but we're showing up together for the following joint events:

Monday 26th September: Waterstones Birmingham, at noon.
Waterstones Nottingham, talk and Q&A, 7pm.
Tuesday 27th September: Waterstones Sheffield, (city centre) a signing at noon.
Waterstones Leeds, talk and Q&A, 7pm
Wednesday 28th September: Waterstones Newcastle a talk, 7pm.
Thursday 29th September: Waterstones Manchester Deansgate, a signing at 12.30pm
Waterstones Liverpool One: Talk and Q&A, 7pm.

I don't normally get as far north as places like Leeds and Newcastle, so if you haven't managed to get to one of my signing events in the South, now's your chance.

These are the events with Peter and I; if you can't make those dates or want to catch Peter on his own, he's doing the following extra dates:

Friday 23rd September: a signing at Forbidden Planet, London; 6-7pm.
Saturday 24th September: signing at Waterstones Canterbury; noon.
Waterstones Guildford: Talk/reading and Q&A 7pm.
Sunday 25th September: Waterstones Swindon, signing at noon.
Saturday 1st October, I'll be at Titancon Belfast.

(and possibly more - check out Peter's Facebook page for info):


I'll also be attending the Gollancz Festival this coming weekend:

And I'll be making an appearance at New Scientist's big live event at the ExCel centre, London, on the afternoon of 23rd of September, where I'll be discussing The Future with Warren Ellis.


We're trying to firm up an additional signing event in the South West, so I'll post details here when it's comfirmed.


Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Revenger word cloud







We're still a month out from publication of REVENGER, but early word is starting to creep in and I'm anxiously waiting to see what the world makes of it.

Goodreads has a slew of reader responses - hop over to:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28962452-revenger?from_search=true&search_version=service

and you can read these observations.

Amazon.co.uk also have some early reader reviews:

https://www.amazon.co.uk

Meanwhile, Starburst magazine carried the first print review that I'm aware of, which you can read in its entirety here:

http://www.starburstmagazine.com/reviews/book-reviews-latest-literary-releases/15956-revenger

In the review, they say: "On the one hand, Revenger is definitely worth a go for space opera fans and followers of Reynolds. Yet even if your tastes are a bit more down to earth, the book is still a must-read as it is an unexpectedly personal and emotionally-driven tale of determination and retribution - with some great twists along the way and a gutsy heroine who will appeal to fans of young adult literature."

Which raises the fair point - is this a Young Adult novel or not? I suppose my answer would be kind of, sort of, not sure really, but what it is - I hope - is a straightforward SF novel that also happens to be accessible, and perhaps accessible to somewhat younger readers, in the same way that I was able to approach books like NOVA and DUNE when I was in my mid-teens. The central protagonists of REVENGER are both on the cusp of adulthood, but they're certainly not children, and the question of their legal identity as independent adults is one that rises in the early chapters of the book. I also wanted to write a book that was fun, colourful, fast-paced, with lots of danger and excitement and larger-than-life characters - a sort of TREASURE ISLAND in space.

It's certainly a shorter book than some of my other novels, coming in at 140,000 words, but that's still lengthy by some standards and in my mind it only reflects a general desire to write more economical books, one that I've been trying to enforce on myself for some while (and often failing, as I'm more than willing to admit). The sheer fun I had in doing the Doctor Who novel (around 110,000) was certainly part of that process, but I also appreciated the energy and pace of Joe Abercrombie's HALF A KING, and I was strongly motivated to try something similar, but in an SF vein. And yes, Joe's book is supposedly YA but I read it with perfect enjoyment as an adult and I never once felt I was being talked-down to. None of this precludes me writing something huge and sprawling again in the future, indeed I'd be surprised if I didn't, but for now I'd like to hold myself to the discipline of a shorter word count.

Meanwhile, for your edification, I offer the Word Cloud above, courtesy of:

http://www.wordclouds.com/

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Royal Society science books




Today sees the release of the shortlist for the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book prize for 2016, for which I was one of the judges. The shortlisted titles are:

The Most Perfect Thing by Tim Birkhead (Bloomsbury)
The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson (Head of Zeus)
Cure by Jo Marchant (Canongate)
The Planet Remade by Oliver Morton (Granta)
The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Bodley Head)
The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf (John Murray)

It was a pleasure - and a considerable challenge - to whittle the initial set of books down to these six excellent volumes. Without patting ourselves on the back too much, I think the judging panel (under the able guidance of Bill Bryson) managed to come up with a healthy selection of topics, ranging from the history of science to the most cutting-edge developments in genetics. While we had to let go of many rather wonderful titles - and each of us championed individual books that did not necessarily find favour with the other judges - we nonetheless arrived at a very encouraging consensus pretty early on in the discussion. That said, the hard work is still ahead of us, in that we have to select a winner from these six - it won't be easy.

The Guardian has a short article about the selection:

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

REVENGER - two sketches and an excerpt

REVENGER will appear in a little under six weeks, so I thought I'd post another excerpt and a couple of sketches from my working notebook.

In the extract, the two recently hired sisters - Fura and Adrana Ness - are getting their first taste of working in the Bone Room of the sunjammer Monetta's Mourn.







Cazaray spun the wheel that opened the door to the bone room.

‘Go in,’ he said quietly. ‘Just don’t touch anything – for now.’

Adrana went in first. I followed on her heels, taking care never to lose my hold on the wall. Cazaray came after us, then closed the door, turning the inner wheel so that it latched itself tight against the frame.

It was quiet in there. I couldn’t hear anything of the life-support system, nothing of the sail-control gear – the occasional whirr and whine of its winches and pulleys had become familiar since the sails were run out – nothing of the usual clamour and chatter of the crew.

The room was a sphere, about fifteen spans across, and the skull was floating in the middle of it like the main exhibit in an art gallery. It was trussed up in a kind of bridle, a frame made up of metal bars and struts, and this bridle was fixed onto the walls by dozens of springs.

‘Quieter and stiller we hold her, the better,’ Cazaray said. ‘Trig’s damped the ions, and that helps, but it would only take a jolt to rattle something loose.’

From end to end the skull was about as long as my sister was tall – about eight spans. It was the colour of a bad tooth, rotten to the root. It wasn’t anything like a monkey skull. It was stretched out, all snout and jaw, more as if it had belonged to some giant horse than a person. It was made up of lots of parts, joined together like a sort of puzzle. A dark fissure ran across it, stitched together with a ladder of little metal sutures. Whoever had done that had worked a long time ago, and with care.
The skull had also been drilled and tapped in many places. Slender probes and wires had been pushed through the bone into the not-quite-emptiness within.

‘Tell me what you know,’ Cazaray said, never raising his voice above a murmur.

‘It’s old,’ I answered.

‘How old?’

‘No one knows,’ Adrana said.

‘Good answer. And it’s the truth, too. They were finding skulls in the Sixth and Seventh Occupations, but whoever left them must have been through these parts a lot earlier than that. They don’t fit the morphology of any of the aliens we know about today, not the Crawlies nor the Stingtails or the Tuskers. Some people who ought to know better think they come from dead Bonies or Bug-Eyes, but I’ve seen enough of them to know that can’t be true. My guess is that the coves who used to own these bones died long before people got going. It was some other aliens who left the skulls here, and they used them just the way we do, like a kind of squawk.’

From opposite sides we peered into its mysteries.

‘It’s not empty,’ Adrana said. ‘There are little lights, flickering on and off.’

‘Whatever mind was in that skull,’ Cazaray said, ‘it’s long gone. There’s no grey, no brain tissue. If ever there was. But the machinery that was in that brain, it’s still there. That twinkly stuff still twinkles. Still doing something. What, we don’t know. Trying to regain contact with others of its kind? Trying to send signals back home, to whatever part of the Swirly they came from? Singing an endless song of death? No idea, and best not to dwell on it. What matters is what we can do with those patterns. We can imprint our own messages on them, treat them like carrier signals.’ He nodded at the equipment racked around the walls, all neat and clean and organised. ‘That’s what all this hardware is for. And it’s a Bone Reader’s job to send and receive those imprinted messages. The skull won’t work for everyone. Doesn’t even work for me some days. But you have the lamps for it, I think. Ready to try?’

I was about to answer, but Adrana said the word first. ‘Yes.’

‘Behind you. That apparatus hooked onto the wall. Slip it over your head.’

It was a bony metal contraption, halfway between a crown and a torture device. She settled it over her scalp, pushing hair out of the way. A pair of metal muffs folded down over her ears, and there was also a kind of visor that could be pulled down over her eyes.

‘You too, Arafura,’ Cazaray said.

I unhooked my own apparatus and fiddled it onto my head, not as prettily as Adrana had done.
‘That’s the neural bridge. None of this works without the bridge. To speak to the skull you have to mesh with its expectations. The messages come through almost subliminally – it’s like catching a whisper on the wind. The bridge is the focusing device, the amplifier.’

‘I don’t feel anything,’ I said.

‘You’re not plugged in yet. Draw the contact wire from the bridge. Reel it out, all the way.’

The wire was an insulated spool, running into the left side of the bridge. It ended in a little nub.
‘You can hook the wire into any of those probes on the skull, or you can splice onto one of those wires. Gently does it. Normally one connection is sufficient, but you can hook into multiple contact sites if you’re chasing a weak signal. There’s a splitter on the wall.’

Adrana was bolder than I, but even she hesitated to make the final connection. I shared her misgivings. I could not help but feel there was going to be some kind of psychic jolt, like an electrical shock, as soon as the contact was made.

I thought of Garval, tied to her bed.

‘It’s all right,’ Cazaray said gently. ‘Just do it. No one gets the full rush the first time. What happened with Garval . . .’ He shook his head, clearing the thought. ‘You’ll be lucky to pick up anything, even if you’ve got the talent.’

I picked a probe near the open eye socket and clicked the wire home. Not caring to be second, Adrana made her own connection almost simultaneously. The skull bounced lightly on its springs for a few seconds, before the motion ebbed away.

We looked at each other across the skull, daring each to feel the first twinge of contact.

‘When we’ve had a little more experience, when you know where the probes lie, you’ll prefer to work in darkness. Now, empty your minds. Let your senses drift. I’ll be silent.’

There was nothing.

I guessed there wouldn’t be any sense in holding my breath – I couldn’t have kept that up for long – but still I tried to become quiet in my head, ridding my mind of everything, becoming a room with an open door.

I did the only thing I could think of, which was to wait.

Adrana was waiting as well. Our eyes were averted, looking down, but every now and then one of us couldn’t resist glancing at the other, to see how they were doing. Once or twice our eyes met, and the silliness of that moment made us glance quickly away, until the impulse to look built up again and we ended up doing exactly the same thing.

After a couple of minutes of that, I resolved to jam shut my eyes, and not care whether Adrana followed suit.

Cazaray was present, but he made no sound, no observation. Still there was nothing, no whisper on the wind, not even a hint of that wind. Just silence, and the absurd, slowly forming idea that this could and would never work.

I do not know how long it was before Cazaray spoke.

‘Disconnect. Try different probes, a little closer to the base.’

We did as he suggested, this time disturbing the skull much less as the probes went out and in.
I still felt nothing. But for the sake of showing my determination, I floated with my eyes closed, willing something – anything – to enter my head.

‘I think . . .’ Adrana began.

But she fell silent.

‘You felt a contact?’ Cazaray asked.

‘I don’t know. Maybe it wasn’t anything. It came and went, like someone standing behind me for a second. A cold presence.’

‘It’s best not to read too much into the first session. The more you want that contact, the more you’re likely to imagine it.’

Despondent, I eased the neural bridge from my scalp, messing my hair back into shape where it had been pressed down. ‘Maybe she was wrong about us, Cazaray.’

‘When I began, I was in here three weeks before I got so much as a twitch out of it. The skull has its moods. It had to get used to me before it was willing to talk.’

Adrana relieved herself of the neural bridge. We uncoupled from the skull and hooked the bridges back onto the wall.

‘Better luck next time, I suppose,’ I said.

‘Luck has nothing to do with it,’ Cazaray answered. ‘What you have is in your lamps, and there’s no mistaking that. You’ll come through, and those bones will talk.’ Then he moved to the wall and retrieved one of the bridges for himself. ‘Normally it’s best to work alone. But you can watch, if you like.’

‘I thought it was getting harder for you,’ Adrana said.

‘It is.’

Cazaray put on the bridge, adjusting it until it was a tight fit over his blond locks, then spooled out the contact wire and slipped it into several probes in succession, concentration making a mask of his face until something eased and he gave the slightest of nods, followed by a half-voiced: ‘I have it. It’s faint today, so you shouldn’t worry about not feeling anything.’ Then he started babbling. His eyes were open, but they had begun to roll up under his lids. We caught words, phrases, but never the whole of it. ‘Down to the Sunward processionals . . . two orbits beyond the Dargan Gap. Opening auguries for the Jewel of Sundabar. Fire Witch, dropping sail at Auzar – assistance required. Wedza’s Eye will close in eight days, eight hours.’

More of that. He stayed in that babbling state for two or three minutes, before his eyes snapped back into focus and, like a man waking from a restful sleep, he at last moved his hands to the neural bridge.

‘Did you hear me?’

‘Yes,’ we answered.

‘I don’t always remember all of it. And a lot of it isn’t worth remembering – it’s just noise, certainly nothing Captain Rackamore needs to hear.’

‘And this time?’ I asked.

‘Did you hear me speak of auguries? That’s useful knowledge. Intelligence. Someone else’s idea of where and when baubles will open, and for how long. Knowledge like that can make or break an expedition.’

‘Then why would anyone share it?’ Adrana asked.

‘They don’t mean to.’ Cazaray unplugged from the skull and hung up the neural bridge. ‘We operate alone, for the most part, but there are other ships that we’ll occasionally help out, if they’ve done the captain a favour in the past. Some of the other ships, though, operate together all the time. They’re run by governments, or the private combines. And they have to communicate, to coordinate their efforts. Squawking’s all right – but it’s slow, easily intercepted, and signals don’t always get all the way through the Congregation, especially if the Old Sun’s putting out a storm. The superloom – that’s what we call the system of the skulls – is much, much faster, it’s hard to jam it, and there’s not much signal attenuation.’

‘But you’ve just listened in,’ I said.

‘They take matched skulls, matched pairs of readers, and put them on different ships. But if you’re good – if you’re experienced, and you’ve got a skull that’s especially sensitive in its own right – like this one – then you can catch a rumour of a rumour.’ Cazaray gave a self-deprecating shrug. ‘I make it sound easy.’

I smiled. ‘You don’t.’

‘You said it was hard to jam,’ Adrana said. ‘But you didn’t say it was impossible. What would it take to do that to a skull?’

Her question had been innocent enough. But something clouded his face when Cazaray answered us.

‘Nothing you’ll ever need worry about.’