Guest Post! Laura Anne Gilman on the origins of ‘Silver on the Road’.

Since I’m going to be madly busy this next week with VATstuff, I’m extremely grateful to Laura Anne Gilman for offering to entertain and intrigue you all with these insights into her new book, Silver on the Road which is already attracting enthusiastic reviews.

For those of you yet to discover and enjoy her work, check out Laura Anne’s website. Not only is she a talented and inventive author, her background in publishing means she also talks a great deal of good sense about all aspects of the book trade.

So, without further ado, over to Laura Anne!

After the Writing, the Classification (and the Understanding)

A few years ago, I might have been the last person you expected to write a Western. The genre wasn’t one I particularly favored, despite having personal experience with horses, guns, and sleeping outdoors. Or perhaps because of all that, who knows? But Westerns as a genre didn’t draw me in. And Weird West? I’d read it, liked it, but most of the tropes left me cold.

But…. There’s a reason we never say “never.”

In 2011, I wrote a story called “Crossroads,” followed the next year by “The Devil’s Jack.” They were strange little stories, in a vaguely historical, vaguely high prairie setting. But I quickly realized that the next story – originally called “A Town Named Flood,” wanted to expand into a novel – a novel set in a mostly-recognizable west-of-the-Mississippi North America, circa 1801.

“I’m writing a Western?” I asked my agent, somewhat bemused.

“Nope. You’re writing an American fantasy,” he responded. “Like American Gods, only … not.”

I backed away quickly from the comparison to American Gods, because, well, who the hell needs that kind of pressure? But his comment made me think. SILVER ON THE ROAD is set in the American west, yes. And there are horses, and guns, and conflict between native residents and immigrants, and all the tropes that we recognize as “Western.”

And magic, so that by default tips it into the “Weird West” category.

So… I was writing a Western?

Yes … and no. For most of us, the “Old West” calls up images of cowboys and sixguns, of stagecoaches and saloon girls, gold prospectors and cattle ranchers. But those images come from 1820 and later. In 1801… well, I’ll spare you the historical neepery, but the territory west of the Mississippi didn’t look anything like that.

But the Western story isn’t only that. It’s the story of our histories, our cultures, and our myths… and I use the plural of those words intentionally. Because America’s history isn’t simply the United States – it’s Canada and Mexico as well, started long before the first European immigrants landed on the eastern (or southern) shores, and our shared identity is not simple one, the pot only half melted together, and half clumped together stubbornly, parts overbaked and the others still painfully raw.

SILVER ON THE ROAD is a fantasy of that North America. Not the quest of empires, or the clash of armies, but the movement of people, and the ever-shifting thing we call a frontier, where one person’s home becomes another person’s hope – and conflict. About dividers and demarcations – and the human urge, and need, to cross over them.

And a Western – and yes, Weird West, invoking and involving the tropes of the restless frontier, and twisting it – was, for me, the only way to tell this particular story.

So it looks like my agent and I were both right.


Diversity in SFF – some thoughts on some recent reports.

This week sees some important data on who wins SFF awards and by writing about what, from Lady Business. Their survey was prompted by Nicola Griffith’s earlier work looking at the gender balance in mainstream literary award winners.

The central finding in both cases in that books by men about men win awards far more often than anything else.

I wish I could say this came as a shock, but as regular readers of my Equality in SFF post will appreciate, I wasn’t in the least surprised.

Instead my first thought was to recall Viola Davis’ speech at this year’s Emmys, where she was the first African-American woman to win best actress in a drama. She nailed the central problem for women of colour (and other under-represented groups) in film and TV: “You can’t win Emmys for roles that don’t exist.”

You can’t win awards with books that just aren’t there. So where are the books by women and black, Asian and other ethnic/minority writers? Cheryl Morgan recently attended a discussion at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival on diversity in children’s books and her report has some highly relevant observations, which make it well worth reading in full.

The panel included Bali Rai; an award winning writer from multi-cultural, multi-racial Leicester who is eminently qualified to speak with authority and experience on such matters. Experience which includes being taken to task by white, London-based editors over his characters’ language. That’s the language being used by children of Asian heritage in the Midlands…

More than that, he said that most of the non-white writers he knows are self-publishing rather than going through the traditional route because they assume that an overwhelmingly white industry won’t be interested in their books.

Is this racism or just the numbers game, when the bookshops protest they have to sell what sells? And the publishers protest that they have to publish what the bookshops will buy from them. But if what they’re publishing and selling only ever targets the white, middle-class majority, what possible incentive is there for black, Asian and other ethnic/minority writers and readers to ever engage with them?

Does it actually matter whether it’s active racism or an unintended consequence of a numbers-driven system when the end result is the same exclusion of black, Asian and other minority/ethnic participation?

Which brings us back to the vicious circle prompted by systemic inequalities in visibility which I (and others) have been highlighting for oh, so long now. They sell what sells which means what they sell sells so they go looking for more of the same.

How do we break this cycle? How and where could some sort of affirmative action be useful?

Because after five years of writing about this, I really don’t think anything’s going to change on its own.

Is a ‘Women’s SFF Prize’ an answer? I’ve pondered this before.

If anyone has new thoughts or observations, do speak up.

The latest VATMOSS update & how to help EU VAT Action towards still vital goals

The Telegraph (and other papers) have been triumphantly proclaiming victory in the VATMOSS fight. The EU has conceded that the legislation needs revising to include a threshold. Hurrah!

Well, as the saying goes, up to a point…

Securing this sort of solid, on-the-record commitment by both the European Commission and the UK Government to researching and enacting such revision as soon as possible is undoubtedly a major win for the EU VAT Action campaign. A year ago they were all saying there was no need for any such thing, everything would be fine and anyway, nothing can be done if it wasn’t.

But we still won’t see any long-term relief for the thousands upon thousands of businesses hit by this for another two years – maybe eighteen months at very, very best. Which means we still need vital interim suspension or some other easement to stop the ongoing damage being done to the grassroots digital economy.

This could come from Westminster – and yes, we know it’s asking a lot but we’re asking on the basis of informed, expert opinions by legal and academic authorities.

Not least because the deficiencies in the consultation process (laid bare here) before all this was brought in are so appalling that could be the basis of a legal challenge – if any of us had the money to instruct the appropriate lawyers…

So please feel free to write more letters to your MPs and MEPs stressing just how and why we need to see action now.

Interim relief could come from Brussels, especially if as many people as possible reply to the current consultation on modernising VAT for cross-border ecommerce. If this affects you at all, please do so – no questions are compulsory and there are plenty of boxes for you to go into detail about your problems, and most likely, why a lot of the questions being asked are in themselves inappropriate, revealing dangerous flaws in the understanding of the new problems.

Please complete the survey if you’re not yet a digital seller but only deal in physical products. Although ‘plans to roll this out to physical sales in 2016’ have been revised to ‘plans to discuss plans to roll this out in 2016’, it’s still vital that the law makers understand the needs and concerns of those posting actual parcels who will be affected by any extension of what’s currently still such a mess.

As part of this consultation process, EU VAT Action Team members (specifically me and Clare Josa) are off to Brussels again next week. Then we’ll have another trip in November, focused on meetings with cross-border, cross-party groups of MEPs, looking to nail the misapprehension that this is only a UK problem.

As before we’re having to fund all this ourselves, at time of writing. The previous Just Giving appeal was focused on getting Clare Josa to the Fiscalis Summit in Dublin and hoping to fund one further trip to Brussels. Now that we’re looking at two Brussels trips plus more meetings in London to make our case up to ministerial level, any and all donations to the campaign fund via PayPal will be most gratefully received, however small those might be.

(If anyone wants to discuss other methods of making a contribution, email me as per the information on my Contact page. And yes, I am very well aware how generous the SFF community has already been – we are extremely, profoundly grateful.)

Bristolcon, and the Universal Monster Template Theory Reprised

This weekend saw this year’s Bristolcon, and it was another excellent event, thanks to the hardworking team behind what’s now established as an outstanding regional convention in the UK calendar.

I heartily recommend it; both for long-time fans and also for those more recently come to SF&F who’re wondering about investigating the convention circuit. It’ll offer the former an interesting and entertaining programme that’s very much not the usual suspects and subjects, as you’ll see from this year’s website. At the same time, it’s a compact, friendly and very accessible event that’s not going to be overwhelming for a first-timer in the way that, potentially, a big convention like an Eastercon can be.

Next year’s event is on October 29th, with Guests of Honour Fangorn (artist), Ken McLeod and Sarah Pinborough (authors). Mark your diaries and make your plans accordingly.

Anyway, back to this year’s convention, I thoroughly enjoyed contributing to discussions on censorship and to a wide-ranging exploration of alternate history within speculative fiction. It was also great to catch up with friends as well as to meet new, interesting and enthusiastic readers and writers – not least to remind me that my life really isn’t going to be all about EU digital VAT for ever and a day. It was also fabulous to find so many people sharing my enthusiasm for the new Southern Fire ebook cover.

The last panel I sat in on, in the audience, was ‘Here be dragons’, discussing mythological creatures in fantasy and going far beyond dragons to discuss ones that have been overused and those which deserve more exposure. On a personal level I was pleased to see heads in the audience nodding as the panel pretty much agreed that today’s friendly, conversational, telepathic and pet dragons have gone as far as anyone needs to in denaturing the original scary beast. Because if anyone’s looking for devasting dragons, The Aldabreshin Compass ebooks should be just what they’re wanting…

There was also some discussion about humanity’s enduring fascination with and relationships with monsters, but as is invariably the case, there were so many interesting threads to the conversation that not all could be fully explored. I immediately thought of The Universal Monster Template Theory – but with time at a premium and since an audience member expanding at length on something tangential to the panel’s main discussion is bad convention manners, I held off sticking a hand up. That’s what blogs are for, after all.

So for those of you who didn’t come across this when I blogged about it before – because checking back, I discover that was in 2007! – here’s the Universal Monster Template Theory Bearing in mind that I’m summarising from a talk I went to given by cryptozoologist Richard Freeman who was in turn summarising the presumably considerable quantities of thought and argument that went into developing this.

Cryptozoologists are always interested in myths, since they seek out mythical creatures, and it has become apparent to them that wherever one goes in the world, there are common themes in monster myths. The six universals are giant hairy humanoids, little people (often magical), big mysterious dogs, big dangerous cats, giant snakes and flying predators – which are variously expressed as birds or dragons which also encroach on the giant snake theme.

One puzzle about this is while fear of enormous lizards or predatory cats may be perfectly reasonable in areas where crocodiles or tigers are part of the local fauna, these six archetypal monsters crop up everywhere, including in places that have never had even faintly relevant animals. And anyway having myths developed from local animals still doesn’t explain the persistence of giants and little people in folk lore.

At which point, we move to Madagascar, a place of considerable interest to cryptozoologists on account of its unique wildlife, its extinctions (or not) and its rich mythical culture. One puzzle there for zoologists, crypto and otherwise, is a particular behaviour of lemurs, which are, please note, a primitive primate, and as such, creatures whose overall behaviour is primarily instinctual rather than learned.

As I discovered recently visiting ‘Monkey World’ primate rescue centre in Dorset, lemurs and tamarinds can still successfully parent offspring even if their own prior treatment has been appalling and they were captured or separated from their own parents too young to have observed their own kind raising infants. Unlike the higher primates like chimps, orang-utans and gorillas; those seized as infants and separated from their own kind prove incapable of successfully mothering their own offspring.

Bear that in mind as we focus on the specific lemur behaviours which fascinate cryptozoologists. If something blots out the sun, be it a cloud or a plane or anything, lemurs will freeze and exhibit classic prey-animal-not-wanting-to-be-eaten reactions. But there’s nothing flying around Madagascar that is remotely big enough to carry off a lemur, and certainly not one of the largest species, but even the biggest animals exhibit exactly the same response.

But recent fossils discoveries have shown a truly massive eagle once lived there, umpty-thousand years ago. So it’s suggested that this prey-animal behaviour in lemurs is a very ancient instinct, carried over from the days when something could indeed swoop out of the sky and eat them.

So we return to the persistence of the six universal monsters in human myth. The theory goes that all these stories have grown out of humanity’s common subconscious because Homo Sapiens still has primitive instincts lurking in the most basic bits of the brain.

When we were Australopithecines living in the African savannah there were indeed other hominids/primates bigger and smaller, who didn’t make the evolutionary cut. There were creatures akin to Gigantopithecus as well as little hominids like Homo Florensis. Those Indonesian discoveries happened since I heard this talk, and I imagine had cryptozoologists hopping up and down with excitement.

At about 4’6″, our remote ancestors were certainly preyed upon by big dogs, big cats, giant snakes and big eagles all quite capable of carrying us off – these megafauna are in the fossil record along with the humanoid variants that similarly died out, and together with plain evidence of Australopithecines being eaten by such things.

That’s the theory anyway. Make of it what you will. I certainly find myself wondering what role this might be playing in the ongoing mythmaking about monsters which still goes on around us today. Does this lie behind the enduring belief in the Beast of Bodmin and other such creatures? Has Gigantopithecus morphed into Bigfoot in the popular imagination while instinctive fear of small hominids has evolved into tales of alien greys?

And have a rather wonderful picture of a lemur from our visit to Monkey World.


Southern Fire – first of the Aldabreshin Compass ebooks outstanding cover art!

As (long) promised, I’m absolutely thrilled to show you the first cover of the ebook editions of The Aldabreshin Compass series. Click to see the larger version in all its glory!

Southern Fire.  Artwork by Ben Baldwin

Southern Fire.
Artwork by Ben Baldwin

The artist is Ben Baldwin who has been an absolute joy to work with, taking what I’ve said in our email discussions as well as what’s written in the books and somehow not only managing to get right inside my head to see what’s been there since I first imagined these stories but also translating that into four superb pieces of art.

For those of you who’ve not yet read this series, you can get a taste to whet your appetite here.

For those of you, established readers or newcomers, who are curious to know more about Aldabreshin belief in omens and portents, I’ve added a new and detailed page exploring this to the website for your entertainment.

To keep you going until the ebook itself is published next month :)

Links to three things well worth checking out thanks to my fellow writers

Well, my plans for the week were comprehensively revised when a Treasury meeting came up at short notice. So that was Monday afternoon and Tuesday claimed by VATMOSS and EU digital VAT issues. Story of my life at the moment…

Thankfully the Internet is full of fascinating things courtesy of my fellow writers.

Like this fabulous cover reveal from Stephanie Burgis for her first adult historical fantasy novel. It looks intriguing – that’s both the book and the cover.

Meantime C.E.Murphy is thinking about writerly advice and procrastination and suchlike. Do go and find out what she means by ‘just putting the handles on cups’.

Catie’s also hosting a great guest post from Chaz Brenchley about his new Patreon project. Find out what’s happened since he had this thought…

“Y’know, if Mars were a province of the British Empire, the Chalet School would so have a sister foundation there…”

It’s already established in the canon that boys are sent home to the great boarding-shools of England; but aethership journeys are expensive, and space is at a premium. Of course they’d want to educate their girls locally, oh yes…

(And if the notion of Mars as part of the British Empire, and’Chalet School’ means nothing to you, that’s explained as well).

So that’s enough to be going on with, until later this week when I will finally make good on all those long-held promises of new material about the Aldabreshin Archipelago! Honest!

Thoughts on VATMOSS thresholds

For those of you playing the VATMOSS game, who haven’t already picked up on this elsewhere, the EU VAT Action Campaign’s latest blog post – as written by me.

The VATMOSS Threshold Paradox, Reasons Why Countries Are Wary & Why We Need Action NOW

For those of you now getting replies from MEPs and other indicating general support for the notion of a threshold, please go back and press them hard on the timing issue. EU and other countries’ agreement in principle is all very well but the current timetable won’t see anything agreed before 2018 and could take as long as 2020. By which time the grassroots digital economy will be wrecked.

Who’ll be the first to get all the Temporally Out of Order signatures?

My author copies of the Temporally Out of Order anthology arrived over the weekend, and as well as admiring the high quality of both the book and the stories within it, I am particularly taken with the dedicated author signatures page right at the front.

What an excellent idea! Because I have signed my particular story in no end of anthologies and also my contributions in non-fiction books which I’ve written essays for, over the years. And I can absolutely understand why keen fans like to get their volumes signed.

This offers the writer a quick and elegant solution to clumsily fumbling with pages as they leaf through to find their particular chapter plus any conundrum over where exactly to write their name, which is not always as straight forward as you might think! As well as giving the book owner a one-glance checklist of who they have or have not yet got – because, yes, I have also been presented with anthologies only to find I have already signed it! Which doesn’t bother me in the slightest but book owners have been known to blush with embarrassment.


And you know, I really, really do think there should be a prize for the first person to collect the whole set. If that’s you, email me a photo and we’ll come up with something good!

VATMOSS and Patreon developments. Feedback requested.

A quick VATMOSS related update and question for those using this crowdfunding platform, whether as creators or supporters.

Patreon are now clearly adding the VAT due at the ‘customer’s’ location to the pledges people are making. So someone in the UK looking to support a US creator at $5 a month now sees they’ll actually pay $6 – of which $1 goes in tax.

This certainly relieves creators of the headache of registering for VATMOSS and processing individual returns.

But is it going to have an impact on patrons’ willingness to support them?

And I very much want to see if the VAT is ONLY being added where the creator is supplying the patron with something via digital means; an ebook, an art file, a music file or similar.

Or is everyone being charged VAT, even when the buyer and seller are in the same country, on the basis that Patreon’s supplying the digital service of managing the crowdfunding and that’s what’s now subject to VAT? In which case, should the patron be bearing all that cost when the creator is the one offering their wares or services via this platform?

Please could those of you who use Patreon let me know how you’re seeing this work in practise, and particularly about any negative feedback or drop-off in support, either in comments to this post via email if you prefer (see contact info here)

Or get in touch via Twitter or Facebook – whatever suits you best. And spread the word.

Many thanks.

Are those who don’t follow Science Fiction condemning the rest of us to live it?

I’ve been experiencing a weird sort of déjà vu lately. A lot. Most recently, watching news footage of thousands of desperate refugees walking along a Hungarian motorway hard shoulder. I keep recalling a BBC drama film ‘The March’ from (as a little research shows me) 1990, in which thousands of Africans fleeing climate change walk to Europe. Their challenge to richer nations is help us or watch us die. Those richer nations don’t know how to cope…

I also recall at the time that film was dismissed as unnecessarily alarmist and melodramatic. Oh, no, they said, that could never really happen. How’s that opinion looking now?

Then there’s the US elections. I keep thinking back to John Brunner’s ‘The Sheep Look Up’ (first published 1972). I must have read that when I was a student, or certainly some time in the 80’s, because I remember considering the buffoonish, soundbite president ‘Prexy’ and thinking well, at least Ronald Reagan isn’t quite that bad. But now? Donald Trump? Yes, I can easily see him talking such gibberish while the world goes to hell in a handcart.

Not that we in the UK have any room for complacency. Who else is watching the media attacks and distortions surrounding Jeremy Corbyn and recalling A Very British Coup? Both the 1982 novel by Chris Mullin and the first TV adaptation for Channel 4 by Alan Plater, with Ray McAnally playing the lead; Harry Perkins is the unabashed socialist elected to lead the Labour Party, committed to challenging media bias, American hegemony and pro nuclear disarmament. Goodness, the Establishment cannot possibly have that…

I could go on. Ken Macleod’s ‘The Exection Channel’ is another title that springs to mind with unnerving regularity when I’m watching the news or reading the papers these days.

I suppose I should just be grateful that (so far) we’ve escaped the dire fate predicted for us all in Threads; another BBC film from 1984 dealing with the aftermath of nuclear war.

Anyone else experiencing anything similar? Anyone got other titles to add, from books, films or TV?

And how the hell do we get the politicians and decisions makers to start reading or watching this stuff and thinking about more than their own short-term careerist interests?

Well, we can at least make a start by using our votes and making the effort to write to our elected representatives. If there’s one thing that losing most of this past year to campaigning on EU digital VAT has shown me, it’s that enough single voices really can make a difference.

Let’s do it.