Why I want to write about someone on Mars in ZNB’s next anthology

As someone who’s been reading SF for over forty years now, I’m fascinated by the different ways life on Mars has been portrayed over the decades. My earliest encounters were through books like Robert Heinlein’s Red Planet, H.G Wells’s The War of the Worlds, and in my early teens, C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet. Alongside such fiction, I remember reading about Mariner 4 in my grandfather’s National Geographic magazines. So I already knew that real scientific discoveries meant these enthralling stories were impossible. That didn’t matter. Mars fascinated me.

That’s still true today, as books on my shelves by Alastair Reynolds, Andy Weir and James Corey attest. The film of The Martian and the TV adaptation of The Expanse series are merely the latest depictions of Mars that I’ve enjoyed on screen, from Flash Gordon through Doctor Who to Babylon 5. I’m still reading National Geographic, and any articles I see elsewhere discussing the real practicalities of sustaining human life on our near neighbour. Then there’s the ongoing exploration of Mars by the Opportunity rover. Go robots!

So now I want to write my own story set on Mars. It’s the ideal setting for me to explore a notion that’s been coming together in my imagination thanks to several recent popular-science articles that I’ve read. The last piece I needed was the invitation to write a new story featuring the Ur Bar, the eternal, time-travelling tavern from the ZNB anthology ‘After Hours’.

So now all I need is this year’s ZNB anthologies Kickstarter to fund. At the time of writing, we’ve got a week to go, and we’re just over two-thirds funded, so there’s $6333 still needed. Do take a look, if you haven’t done so already, and flag the project up to friends who might be interested. There are three anthologies to choose from, and to consider submitting something to, if you’re a writer yourself. You can get involved for as little as $7.

If you’re really keen, there’s a tuckerisation up for grabs. Do you fancy giving your own, or someone else’s, name to my story’s protagonist?

A thought on world building – remember that pre-industrial doesn’t have to mean primitive

I’ve just included a bit of equipment which I saw in a museum in Malta, into the River Kingdom novel that I’m currently writing. It’s a library lamp from the 17/18th century. As you can see, it has four wicks to maximise the available light plus an adjustable reflector for positioning to direct as much light as possible into the page. Those chains attach a snuffer plus a pair of tweezers and a pair of scissors for trimming the wicks. This particular example could do with a bit of a polish, we saw others in museums where photography wasn’t allowed in highly polished silver and brass which would have reflected even more light. So no, there was no need to be squinting over a book by the light of a single candle, not for the wealthy and educated at least.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

We need to remember this, when we’re creating non-industrial worlds. It’s all too easy to get suckered into a positively Victorian mindset that sees the modern age as the pinnacle of human achievement, in some pseudo-evolutionary fashion, which therefore demands that anything that came before us is by definition inferior. No, pre-modern and pre-industrial solutions to the same problems that we face may well be different but that doesn’t mean lesser.

Human ingenuity has been around for untold millennia and it’s worth doing the research to find examples of solutions to problems, because the history that ‘everyone knows’ is frequently at best only half the story, and at worst it’s downright misleading. ‘Everyone knows’ that Henry Ford invented the production line, right? Actually, he invented a particular mechanised version of an approach to manufacturing that’s been around since the Bronze Age. There’s an archaeological site in (if I recall correctly) Turkey that I read about some while ago, flourishing in the 8/9th century BCE where carved hollows and troughs in the rock have recently been rescued from that all-purpose archaeologist’s explanation of ‘ritual purposes’. Someone realised that these shapes looked familiar and went away to check. Yes, these troughs and hollows are the outlines of the component parts of a chariot; specifically those long pieces of wood and elements of wheels that experimental archaeologists have established could only have been shaped by steaming the wood, somehow clamping it and allowing the wood to cool into a new form. These chariot builders weren’t using clamps but the rock itself to make the components that were then assembled by specialists in mass-production.

I have a particular advantage here in that I’m married to a mechanical engineer. He spends his working life designing car assembly lines with dozens of robots now doing the work done by hundreds of men when he first started his apprenticeship, forty-plus years ago. So he’s very good at working out how things work, and at identifying how approaches to the same problem change over the years and centuries. He also has a solid appreciation of the issues around for instance, moving massive slabs of stone to build monuments from Stonehenge, to the pyramids, to the temples of Hagar Qim on Malta, dating back to 3600-3200 BCE. This would be an engineering challenge today. For people using stone rollers, wooden levers and some sort of rope? No one who could manage that deserves to be called primitive, as far as he’s concerned.

So from the small scale items for day to day use, to major building projects in our imagined worlds, we need to remember that non-industrial societies could get along perfectly well without all our modern conveniences. And we don’t only find such things in museums and archaeological sites. Fantasy world builders should take a look at the ingenuity and practical skills of our fellow humans currently living in what can all too often be patronisingly called ‘developing’ countries across Asia, Africa and the Americas.

I remember seeing a TV programme where a group of Andean women build a suspension bridge to cross a river gorge, only using grass and their bare hands. Yes, really. First they made string by twisting the long strands together, then they combined those strings into cords and then made those cords into ropes, and the ropes into cables, all twisted and counter-twisted at every stage to create strength through tension. The village women on the far side of the gorge were doing the same. When they had enough cables ready, someone fired an arrow to carry a string across the gorge. That string was tied to a cord which pulled a rope which pulled a cable to be secured across the gorge. Three cables gave them one to walk on and two hand rails on either side which were joined together with more grass-rope struts which formed a framework for weaving solid sides. By the end of the day, they had a new bridge.

So please don’t make the mistake of thinking that life in your pre-industrial fantasy land has to be nasty, brutish or short. Anymore than you underestimate people who don’t happen to be white and westernised in our own world today.

Recent articles well worth reading for writers – link post

I’ve come across some thoughtful and thought-provoking pieces recently. Sharing them on Twitter is all very well but that’s both a fleeting and a hit-and-miss way of reaching people, so here’s a round up for you to refer to as and when suits you best.

Do Literary Agents Reject Your Submission After Reading One Line? – Mary C Moore, author and literary agent.

I remember being appalled the first time I heard an editor say they can tell if a book’s any good in the first 500 words, and being left speechless when a literary agent said that was generous, they’d say 50 words. Twenty or so years later, I understand what they meant.

Picking Stories for an Anthology: A Guest Post by Joshua Palmatier

As yesterday’s post makes clear, I’m a great fan of anthologies and this new era of ebooks makes them viable in a way we haven’t seen before. They give writers like me opportunities to try out new ideas and to offer our work to new readers. Aspiring writers gain valuable experience and a track record to offer potential agents and editors. So how do you maximise your chances of acceptance?

Disability Erasure And The Apocalyptic Narrative by Shoshana Kessock

As regular readers will know, I’m keenly interested in issues around diversity and representation in SF&F writing. Thus I’m very aware that the further someone’s lived experience is from my own, the less likely I am to understand the issues they face without listening to their perspective. This article is a case in point, and I will be keeping it in mind for my own writing purposes for a long time to come.

That’s enough to be going on with, so I’ll close with a reminder that you can find other articles about writing, by me and by other folk here.

New for you to read, new for me to write – anthologies from ZNB

The mass market edition of The Death of All Things is now available, and as those who backed last year’s Kickstarter can attest, having already had their copies, it’s an anthology full of excellent stories.

So do take a look over at your preferred e-retailer, whether that’s Amazon UK or somewhere else, for tales taking on the Grim Reaper with explorations of the mythical, fantastical, and futuristic bonds between life and death. Learn the cost of mortality, the perils—and joys—of the afterlife, and the potential pitfalls of immortality …

The authors are – K. M. Laney, Andrea Mullen, Faith Hunter, Kendra Leigh Speedling, Jason M. Hough, Julie Pitzel, Shaun Avery, Christie Golden, Leah Cutter, Aliette de Bodard, Andrew Dunlop, Juliet E. McKenna, A. Merc Rustad, Ville Meriläinen, Amanda Kespohl, Mack Moyer, Fran Wilde, Kathryn McBride, Andrija Popovic, Jim C. Hines, Stephen Blackmoore, and Kiya Nicoll.

Are some of those names unfamiliar? They surely will be, because one of the many good things about these anthologies from ZNB is the editorial team’s dedication to including new voices by offering slots to unpublished writers, via an open call for submissions once the Kickstarter funding is secured. If you’re an aspiring writer, do keep your eyes open for the submission guidelines for this year’s new projects, and take note that ZNB is now a qualifying market for SFWA membership requirements. Meantime, Joshua Palmatier has written this in-depth post for File 770 on what he looks for through the selection process.

This dedication to new voices is just one reason why I and other writers keep coming back to be part of ZNB projects. Others include (but are not limited to) their high standards in editorial feedback and book production, and being paid a professional rate. ZNB may be a small press but they’re thoroughly professional when it comes to creating books worth having for the reader, and worth doing for the writer, whether you’re not yet published, just starting out, or an established author.

While you’re browsing, take a look at the other ZNB anthologies out this month. All Hail Our Robot Conquerors harks back to SF of the 1950s and 60s and the era of evil robot overlords, invading cyber armies, and not-quite-trustworthy mechanical companions. Submerged turns its back on deep space to stare into deep water. Do dark monsters swim unseen beneath the waves? What ancient wonders lie hidden, waiting to be discovered? What sirens call …?

I mentioned this year’s new projects earlier. Here’s the Kickstarter page with all the information you’ll be looking for.

I’m signed up for SECOND ROUND: A RETURN TO THE UR-BAR, alongside Jacey Bedford, C.E. Murphy, Kari Sperring, Kristine Smith and Gini Koch. This is going to be great fun, since the 2011 publication by DAW Books of AFTER HOURS: TALES FROM THE UR-BAR, was the very first anthology edited by Patricia Bray & Joshua Palmatier. That’s what started them down the road which eventually led to the formation of the small press Zombies Need Brains. So I’m looking forward to returning to that legendary time-travelling bar with all-new stories set throughout the ages. Let me repeat that – “all new” means none of us are returning to the era we visited before, as the immortal bartender Gilgamesh serves up drinks mixed with magic and a dash of intrigue.

What will I be writing? Well, provided this year’s Kickstarter gets funded, I can tell you this much. It’ll be a SF story set on Mars a couple of centuries from now. Writing SF for the Eve of War anthology, and for Novacon, last year seems to have whetted my appetite…

This also gives me the opportunity to offer up a Tuckerisation as a reward at the $250 pledge level. Fancy seeing your name – or someone else’s – in print as a character in my story? I’m also offering a signed set of the Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution trilogy as one of the $90 pledges. There are a whole lot of other incentives and add-ons, so do check them out!

Brief memories of Brian Aldiss

I was sorry to hear of Brian Aldiss’s death at the weekend. Like almost everyone else I know in SF and Fantasy circles, his writing was an early discovery to draw me into the genre and an influence thereafter, from his short fiction to his Helliconia books and beyond. I also had the great good fortune to meet him and hear him talking about well, life, the universe and everything else on various occasions over more than thirty years.

The first occasion was as an undergraduate, when he was a guest at the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group annual dinner. He had been instrumental in founding the society, along with C.S. Lewis. He explained with withering sarcasm how the Powers That Were at the time refused to allow it to be called a Science Fiction club, in case the word ‘science’ misled anyone into thinking there would be serious, academic discussions and pursuits involved. It was very apparent he did not suffer fools gladly.

Hearing him give a talk or being interviewed, it was equally apparent he was wholly unsentimental about his early life, the ups and downs of writing and publishing and indeed, about old age. One of the last times I saw him was when we did an event in support of a local library six years or so ago, where we talked to a packed audience about our respective careers and approaches to writing SF and to writing Fantasy. Sharing a stage with Brian Aldiss on that basis? Imposter syndrome – I had it!

Anyway, given where we both lived, I was happy to help out the organisers, by going to pick him up, drive him to the venue, and take him home afterwards. So after he’d invited me into his home to show me a new piece of art he was very excited about, we chatted in the car all the way there and later, all the way back. Among any number of other topics, he told me with great animation about the display the Bodleian Library was planning about his life and work, so he couldn’t possibly die before that. Then there was the new book of articles and such coming out, An Exile on Planet Earth, so he couldn’t possibly die before that. That was the secret to living as long as possible, he reckoned sunnily; keeping the diary full!

Unsentimental and not suffering fools gladly? If that makes him sound unapproachable, nothing could be further from the truth, certainly in my experience. At that library event, he was genuinely and keenly interested in everything I had to say about my own approach to writing, comparing and contrasting his experiences and my own. There was no hint that he considered SF in any way superior to Fantasy. Good writing: that was the thing, regardless of genre.

Subsequently, he sent me an invitation to the launch party for An Exile on Planet Earth where I had the great pleasure of meeting many of his friends, family members and admirers. That was a busy evening, at the end of a very long day for him. When I went to get my copy signed, he greeted me with a charming smile and said, ‘now, my dear, you’ll have to forgive me, I am an old man. Remind me who we are to each other?’ I cannot think of a more straightforward and gracious way of handling that moment when you can’t quite place someone. He wasn’t going to bluff or dissemble, that simply wasn’t in his character. So I smiled back and mentioned the library event we’d done. ‘Oh, yes!’ he said with enthusiasm, going on to ask how I was getting on with various writing projects we’d discussed in the car.

It was a pleasure and a privilege to have spent such time with him.

First Chapter Friday – Eastern Tide

Here’s where you can read the first chapter of Eastern Tide.

This fourth volume wraps up The Aldabreshin Compass, bringing our hero Kheda full circle, as he realises no matter how far he travels, he cannot leave his obligations and responsibilities behind.

On the other hand, everything he has seen and experienced means he’s a very different man to the warlord he was when his domain and the Archipelago first came under attack. How can he resolve that particular conflict?

And once again, Ben Baldwin did a superb job with the new ebook edition cover.

Cover reveal for ‘The Death of All Things’ anthology

Here’s the eerily beautiful cover for the next Zombies Need Brains anthology THE DEATH OF ALL THINGS, edited by Laura Anne Gilman and Kat Richardson. You can preorder the Kickstarter edition or ebook at the ZNB online store and get the anthology early. (While you’re there, why not check out the other upcoming anthologies?) The general trade paperback edition will be available on September 1st.

I’m one of twenty-two writers considering the Grim Reaper through mythical, fantastical, and futuristic portrayals of what we may encounter between life and death, and what may lie beyond. What does that teach us about the lives we live first? My own story is called ‘A Constant Companion‘.

Personally, I can’t wait to read the other stories from: K. M. Laney, Andrea Mullen, Faith Hunter, Kendra Leigh Speedling, Jason M. Hough, Julie Pitzel, Shaun Avery, Christie Golden, Leah Cutter, Aliette de Bodard, Andrew Dunlop, Juliet E McKenna, A. Merc Rustad, Ville Meriläinen, Amanda Kespohl, Mack Moyer, Fran Wilde, Kathryn McBride, Andrija Popovic, Jim C. Hines, Stephen Blackmoore, and Kiya Nicoll.

Cover art by Justin Adams. Cover design by C. Lennox Graphics, LLC.

As sharp-eyed observers will note, there’s some redesign going on…

Issues with WordPress and its technical underpinnings mean we need to do some updating and rethinking hereabouts.

Bear with us, as Cheryl deals with my inability to visualise things until I can actually see them, or the lack of them, and thus make up my mind…

We will endeavour to have everything sorted and stable as soon as possible.

Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Planet of the Apes, and Doctor Who. Third post in this series

And so we come to War for the Planet of the Apes, the latest in what now seems to be an ongoing series of films rather than merely a trilogy. We see where events since the last movie have led us, as man’s arrogance encompasses his own downfall. Will the unexpected consequences of bio-technology offer other primates a chance at the top slot?

Technologically, the film is a tour de force. What motion capture and CGI can do is astonishing – you really cannot see where reality stops and special effects start. So far, so increasingly common these days. But great special effects are not enough, as rather too many movies fail to realise. A film like this must also have sufficiently strong central performances to make it a drama, not merely a spectacle. Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson deliver absolutely what’s needed. The dynamic between Caesar, leader of the apes, and Colonel McCullough, commanding an embattled remnant of humanity, is tense and compelling from start to finish.

Mankind’s inhumanity to man is front and centre, compared and contrasting with the apes’ mutually supportive culture. All Caesar and his kind want is to be left alone. Colonel McCullough needs an enemy to fight though, and unable to attack the virus that’s been humanity’s downfall, finds the scapegoats he needs in the apes.

As a war film, the movie wears its influences unashamedly on its sleeve, most obviously, though not exclusively films exploring the Vietnam War. It can absolutely and legitimately be called Ape-ocalypse Now. This is not merely retreading those footsteps though. Such echoes, and other references such as the slang names for servile apes, serve to tie this dystopian future to our own reality. There’s also the inescapable fact that the Vietnam War proved the hollowness of the American doctrine of ‘peace through superior firepower’. That undercurrent continually runs beneath our viewing of events where armed men seem to have an inescapable whip hand over apes with severely limited abilities to fight back. Beware assumptions.

Issues of gender in this movie are more complex than they might first appear, certainly as far as I am concerned. I’m using words like ‘man’ and ‘him’ advisedly because this is very male-gaze apocalypse. Not however, one where masculinity-under-threat-in-this-modern-liberal-world can finally come good, with its guns and its manly men taking charge of helpless women and children to save the day.

This is a story about the dead-end destructiveness of arrogant white male masculinity so used to solving everything with aggression that it’s incapable of thinking outside that self-defeating box. That influences my response to the widespread online comment about the complete absence of female voices in the dialogue (apart from possibly one female soldier’s scream?) The one significant human female role is mute and childlike in the most literal sense, and while a couple of female apes have things to say, they do so through sign language. Could one view the lack of female voices as a feature rather than a bug, if one were prepared to squint a bit…? Then there’s the almost-gender-neutral appearance of the apes apart from the females’ apparent (and to my mind inexplicable) inclination to unflattering central partings and rustic ear decoration. I think there’s more to be discussed about the absence of female characters here than might be first apparent. Is that very absence what permits masculinity to turn so toxic?

Not that this excuses the use of perhaps the laziest motivate-your-male-protagonist cliche in the first act of the movie. There are other script-writing choices I can quibble with, most notably some utterly bone-headed human tactics as the film rushes to its conclusion.

A fourth movie is reportedly under discussion, or development, depending on what you read. I’ll be very interested to see it, provided that the writers can offer something more than man and ape in conflict. These films have done that, and done it well, but the story needs to move on. In my head at least, there must be other corners of this world where the post-apocalypse is working out differently, with male and female voices contributing equally to co-operation rather than conflict. I’d like to see how that’s working out, given so many challenges will still remain to drive a story.

First Chapter Friday – Western Shore, Book 3 of The Aldabreshin Compass

One of the underlying themes of The Aldabreshin Compass series is the burden of rule. Rank has its obligations as well as its privileges. By this point in the story, our hero, the warlord Kheda feels increasingly under pressure from the expectations and assumptions of all those he rules over, all the more so because his own world view is changing in ways he cannot share.

Something’s got to give, but what? Or should that be who and where?

You can read the opening chapter to Western Shore by clicking here.