How to tackle the European Union if you’re used to living in the SFF universe…

A few not entirely serious observations on my trip to Brussels this week – but I’m not entirely joking either.

1. Familiarity with the apparently M.C. Escher-inspired architecture of SFF convention hotels will make the European Parliament building much less daunting.

(Radisson, Heathrow – Sheraton, Boston – (the old) Ashling, Dublin, I’m looking at you…)

Yes, we did get spectacularly lost but only the once, so I gather that actually makes us more legitimate as campaigners, not less.

Mind you, when you are wandering round the EU Parliament and wondering how exactly to find a way out, it’s probably best not to think too much about the similarity between that institution’s logo and the one from er, The Prisoner…

eu-logo

prisoner

2. The SFF convention rule of 6/2/1 is a good one to adopt. That’s six hours sleep, two meals and one shower in any twenty-four hours.

Those two meals may well end up being a working dinner and a working breakfast. And I do mean working – not just some excuse for a feed at the public’s expense.

Our first event on Tuesday was Clare Josa presenting our findings to the European Internet Forum, thanks to the support for our cause from Vicky Ford and Syed Kamall, both UK Conservative MEPs. Clare was one of five speakers invited to talk about barriers to European hopes for a digital single market to 90-plus people from the European Parliament, the Commission and businesses which will be directly affected. They all had interesting and relevant things to say and everyone was listening, not just eating.

There’s a whole corridor of dining rooms in the European Parliament where all sorts of these dinners were going on, getting people together. The following morning they were full of different groups of people having breakfast, swapping information and making plans about mutual concerns before heading off for a full day’s work in their respective offices.

On Wednesday we were guests at just such a breakfast, hosted by Eurochambres, where Clare presented our case again to a different group of MEPs and Commission officials. Talk across the croissant and coffee cups immediately turned to the nuts and bolts practicalities of getting this issue onto the official agenda, who to enlist in which Commission offices and across the different political groupings. Catherine Bearder, Lib Dem MEP had already done a lot of work on making sure this was being raised as a cross-party and international issue, to counter any idea that this is a purely Tory concern being raised for domestic political consumption. Nothing could be further from the truth.

3. Think Vulcan not Klingon.

European politics isn’t two-party-confrontational. Think infinite diversity in infinite combinations. Table thumping and shouting, or expecting any kind of ego-stroking, will get you nowhere, not least because it just wastes time and no one has that to spare. The MEPs and their staff who’ve been helping us will be tackling upwards of twenty issues simultaneously at any one time.

One reason we’ve got so far and so fast with this is we have all our facts and figures prepared to show the damage being caused by this unworkable system and we let that information speak for itself. We weren’t there to play the blame game but were focused on working towards solutions. So were all the people we met.

And Clare’s presentation wasn’t far short of a mind-meld. There wasn’t a digital projector available so none of the speakers at our various meetings could be tempted to try Death by PowerPoint but the way Clare made our case was as far from that as it’s possible to get. She invited our audiences to imagine themselves as digital entrepreneurs setting up a successful business in 2014 and then took them step by step through the shock of discovering the successive costs, complexities and outright impossibilities now demanded by these new regulations. The sound of metaphorical pennies dropping around the rooms was deafening!

4. It can help to be a hobbit who just wants to get back to The Shire.

As well as being asked about the EU VAT issues, we were both asked at various times about ourselves, our wider involvement in politics, our plans…

Well, we just want to get this sorted out so we can go back to running our own businesses. It’s as simple as that.

Which isn’t to say it would have been a particular problem if we had said we had plans to set up some digital microbusiness organisation or had political party ambitions ourselves – but it does make life much more straightforward when the people you’re dealing with realise you don’t have any other agenda they should (perfectly reasonably and legitimately) be taking into consideration.

5. Just go with the plot-convenient co-incidences.

Another reason we’ve got so far so fast is I happen to live in the UK Prime Minister’s parliamentary constituency. So I was able to make a constituency surgery appointment to brief my MP, David Cameron, personally about the problems this new regulation has created. He got it. We’ve found this time and again over the past few months – whenever we’ve been able to make the case in person, that penny drops within minutes.

Establishing this connection has opened doors for the campaign and got us invaluable practical support, not least for this trip to Brussels. No, I can claim no credit for this. There is no time travel involved which might explain why I moved to Witney in 1985 just to set this up!

And no, this absolutely isn’t a party-political issue. We’re dealing with the Conservative party at the moment because they lead the current ruling coalition in the UK. We’ve also had great support from the Greens and from the Lib Dems in Europe, notably Catherine Bearder who just happens to be based in Oxford, so I met her as well and once again, that penny-drop moment as we talked has made all the difference.

Another useful coincidence is the presence of Nicholas Whyte in Brussels. Those who know him in SFF circles are probably vaguely aware that he’s worked in and around the European Parliament and Commission in various roles for a good few years. This means he’s been an invaluable source of practical information and support as we’ve begun to engage with European legislation policies and procedures.

Personally, I wouldn’t have had the nerve to head off to Brussels without his encouragement. When he first said, ‘you’ll need to come over to the Parliament—’, the squeak in my voice as I said, ‘really?’ probably startled passing dogs…

6. Settle in and prepare for further developments and surprises in the next film/series/book in the franchise.

We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress. This problem is being discussed at the highest levels now. There’s still a great deal of work to be done. Space stations and battlestars aren’t quickly or easily manoeuvred.

But even the smallest person can change the course of the future. And the more people who join in, the more change we’ll see.

(Some background for anyone coming late to this story – I am part of a grassroots campaign group EU VAT Action which is pressing for review and revision of the new EU VAT regulations on cross border digital sales which threaten tens of thousands of small businesses and are already doing untold damage to any hope of a digital single market to benefit customers and sellers alike.)

Light and Shade in Epic Fantasy Fiction versus Grimdark

The ebook of The Assassin’s Edge sees The Tales of Einarinn series finally completed for e-readers. Preparing these editions has been interesting for many reasons. It’s been fascinating to revisit what I was writing a decade and more ago. I honestly had forgotten quite how gruesome, violent and downright spine-chilling some of the events in Assassin are. But even then, and even though the term wasn’t in general usage in those days, I don’t think the book can ever be labelled Grimdark. That’s true of the other epic fantasies I was reading at the time. Because there’s so much else in the Tales and other such series.

More than that, when I compare Assassin and its contemporaries to the epic fantasy novels I’ve been reading recently for review, the more convinced I’m becoming that Grimdark is devolving into a narrowing focus that’s stifling creativity in our genre. The more the current visibility bias in bookshops drives sales towards downbeat stories dominated by moody blokes in cloaks, the worse this will get.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating fluffy feel-good tales where everyone gets a happy ending and even the villains are redeemed with hugs and kisses. I’m all for hard edges in epic fantasy. Those were definitely a feature of books such as Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane and The Darwath Trilogy, Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksennarion and Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince and Dragon Star trilogies, all of which enthralled me as I turned to writing seriously myself. I vividly recall the visceral impact of reading David Gemmell’s Legend for the first time, swiftly followed by The King Beyond the Gate and Waylander.

These writers were absolutely what epic fantasy needed to stop the genre trundling down an equally stultifying path towards naive, consolatory fiction. I can assuredly see the value and appeal of tales where characters learn in the hardest possible way that life isn’t fair, virtue isn’t necessarily rewarded and you just have to get through hard luck as best you can. These are all aspects of real life and as I’ve said so often, realism is essential to give fantasy fiction a solid foundation.

That’s my first problem with Grimdark. Unrelenting and universal misery in a story is so often as unrealistic as non-stop rainbows and kittens. Unless there’s sufficient context within the world-building to explain why brutes behave as they do, all this violence becomes merely nasty set-dressing. Without some degree of exploration of what underpins it, Grimdark slides far too easily into tacky exploitation.

Yes, we can readily point to historical and contemporary real-world examples of innocent people living utterly wretched lives, but whole societies based on such brutality have always been an exception and rarely endure. More than that, even amid such horrors, individuals emerge time and again in whom the human spirit strives towards hope, altruism and defiance.

There will always be those who fight to light a candle instead of yielding to curse the darkness. It’s exactly that light and shade which makes for a far more realistic reading experience as far as I am concerned. Take a look at the works of Robin Hobb or Kate Elliott, among many others. They don’t shy away from the worst that humanity can do but they aren’t labelled Grimdark, even when their work includes toe-curlingly shocking events. Indeed, the impact of such brutality is heightened by the contrast of such darkness with the glimmers of hope and warm light of happiness elsewhere in their characters’ lives.

Which brings me to my next problem when books have an endless supply of shit, literal and metaphorical, for everyone to wade through. Pain and poo have their place among trials and tribulations which test and reveal character but the story overall must sustain and justify that. If there’s no narrative progression – and I don’t just mean some simplistic triumph over adversity, but some sense that events shape and drive the story – what’s the point? Grimdark too easily becomes a series of increasing misfortunes bombarding passive or at best reactive individuals who never take any initiative to change their own fate.

Why should a reader bother engaging with such a character or investing emotion in their fate when the unfolding narrative so clearly indicates that everything is going to go horribly wrong time and again? If any hint of light at the end of the tunnel is only ever an oncoming train, I find myself progressively distanced from the characters and their predicaments. This becomes even more pronounced when the central characters themselves are grim and brutal. When a reader can’t identify with, or simply doesn’t much care about, such people, the impact of their suffering is drastically reduced, further lessening engagement.

And incidentally, just in case anyone thinks I’m making a gendered argument here, the most recent striking example for me of all that I personally dislike in Grimdark is Rebecca Levene’s Smiler’s Fair. But this debate really isn’t about any one book or any single writer.

Epic fantasy needs light and shade to give it three dimensions. Detail and colour get lost in unremitting gloom. Thankfully there are plenty of current epic fantasy writers who understand this; Sam Sykes, Helen Lowe, Aidan Harte and Elspeth Cooper are just a few such authors whose books I can see on my shelves as I write this. Please feel free to flag up more in comments.

And equally, do feel free to speak up in favour of those authors who are most often labelled Grimdark; to explore different perspectives on such reading. I’m curious to know if, how and why you’re getting something rewarding that I’m missing.

But I’m still concerned about the artificial skewing of the market towards the Grimdark tendency, when a narrowing selection of books increasingly gets the bulk of promotion and front-of-bookstore presence. Not bad books by any means; I have found undoubted merits in novels that have exemplified the worst of Grimdark for me personally, yes, including Smiler’s Fair where I see plenty that’s positive in the book with regard to diversity, inclusivity and pacing. Even when the grimdarkery still kills that particular title for me. Though I have no problem with other folk reading and enjoying such books if they wish. Tastes vary after all.

But if disproportionate visibility means Grimdark increasingly dominates sales then retailers and publishers alike will look first and foremost for more of the same. That’s how the book business works. Then those of us with other tastes in reading will lose out if the authors we enjoy simply can’t sustain a writing career. If competition for that remaining market then sees Grimdark authors striving to outdo each other with ever increasing nastiness, ultimately those fans will lose out too, as epic fantasy hurtles towards that creative dead end. Just look at the way the serial killer narrative has devolved so far towards unredeemed ghastliness in a lot of recent crime fiction.

Thankfully we’re not there yet. So let’s do all we can to avoid taking that particular path by celebrating and promoting the full breadth and depth of epic fantasy fiction, past and present.

Mr Smith went to Washington. Ms McKenna’s been to 10 Downing Street.

For a SF and Fantasy novelist, I’m spending a remarkable amount of time being an activist at the moment. Well, it needs doing.

You’ll recall I met David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister to discuss the problems for small businesses created by the new EU digital VAT regulations on cross border sales? As a direct result of that meeting, the PM’s office set up a meeting for Clare Josa and me, on behalf of the EU VAT Action Team, with his special adviser Daniel Korski of the No.10 Policy Unit.

The full report – and guidance on useful actions for everyone affected – is here.

To summarise, the UK Government now realises just what horrendous difficulties these new regulations have created. Countries creating wonderful systems to handle collecting the new taxes and paying them to each other is not the slightest use to the digital sellers whose businesses are now so horribly complicated by the need to locate and appropriately tax their customers at the initial point of sale.

They’ve also acknowledged how vital it will be to have end-user input into any discussions about any proposed technical or other implementation solutions. We’re already following up on that.

The people we need to convince now are the EU Commission and national finance ministries across Europe. Okay then…

EU VAT Action will be rolling out assorted calls to action with a particular focus on Europe. I’ve also met with Catherine Bearder MEP this week, and spent an extremely productive hour and a half going over all the key issues with her and getting her invaluable input on how best to get our voices heard in Europe. Subject to final confirmation, key EU VAT Action team players will be heading for Brussels in the week commencing 16th March.

So we’re definitely making progress.

And what’s No.10 Downing Street really like? Well, I’d say it’s a stately home devoted to the day to day business of government, if that makes any sense at all. Lots of people coming and going, all very focused, in elegant and historic surroundings.

There’s a really interesting history available here, including photos. Yes, I did get to meet Larry the cat – who is the most aloof feline I have ever encountered, and for those of us who know cats, that’s really saying something.

There was a fox as well, trotting about and sniffing at doors first thing. I saw him when I glanced out of the window, when we’d just arrived and were going through the security check. Oh yes, says the friendly copper, he often comes over from the park for a look around…

Talking of coppers, the constables who guard the famous door are clearly a dab hand at taking good photos with any sort of camera or phone they are handed. So that’s quite a snap for the family album.

jules-No.10

And here’s a picture of the cat.

cat

The EU VAT Action Campaign – recent and upcoming events

Last Monday saw the EU VAT Action team represented for the first time at the HMRC Working Group meeting to discuss implementation of the new VATMOSS system. You may rest assured that we highlighted the ongoing problems which microbusinesses are having with compliance, 3rd party platforms and the VATMOSS system itself, not to mention the widespread failures in European implementation.

Since he’s my constituency MP, I was also able to meet David Cameron last Friday, aiming to make sure he realises what the current problems are as well as their wider and longer term implications. It was a positive and constructive meeting, with every indication that the PM understands the seriousness and complexity of this issue.

While we are definitely making headway convincing the UK government, we still need to convince the finance ministers and key officials in other EU member states that this same trouble is heading their way. They just don’t know it yet because their own digital businesses don’t even know about the new regulations, still less about how impossible the law is to work with!

We need as many non-UK responses to the EU VAT Action survey as possible, as soon as possible.

Please spread the word. We’re already compiling country-specific reports from the data we do have – and the picture in the Netherlands for instance, is horrifying.

We want as many people as possible to contact the EU Commission’s Taxation Department with a personal complaint and also to submit comments to the OECD’s current consultation on implementing this sort of taxation.

Sounds daunting? We’re putting together clear guidance on how to go about it and on Thursday 12th February, we’ll be having a major online push to inspire as many people to act as possible.

On Wednesday 11th February I’ll be part of a Google Hangouts live online event at 7pm GMT organised by the The Alliance of Independent Authors to discuss the new regulations, VATMOSS and associated issues.

I’ll be particularly focusing on the campaign and the actions everyone can take to help. The more voices raised, the better the chances of being heard!

If you can’t make that particular time, you’ll be able to access a recording afterwards – check back for linkage in due course.

And I am really, really truly planning to post something NOT about bloody VAT here soon!

Musing on legal aspects of the new EU digital VAT rules.

Bearing in mind I am nothing remotely approaching a lawyer, but as a reasonably well informed onlooker, I find myself pondering the following questions.

How long before the first court case over VATMOSS and the new digital EU VAT?

and

Should HMRC and HM Treasury be the ones explaining themselves in court?

An interesting debate about Amazon and a quiz about EU VAT

I have a lot on this week, so here’s a couple of things to muse on in the meantime.

Is Amazon a Hero or a Monster? This question was debated with strong feelings on both sides recently. It makes for interesting reading.

My answer? Amazon is neither – and casting the debate in these all or nothing terms actively obscures the key issues. Which may well be why Amazon are so keen to present the picture as so black and white. Because Amazon is, as far as I am concerned, an example of unfettered capitalism. So the buyer really should beware… are the short term gains going to be worth the long term losses?

Meantime, over at the EU VAT Action website we have a shiny new quiz! If you think you’ve got a sound grasp of the issues, see how well you get on? If you’re still trying to work out why people are so stressed about it all, see how you get on?

If you are caught up in this and looking at the various solutions now on offer, ask whoever’s offering it some of these questions. Because we’re seeing quite a few semi-compliant solutions cropping up which may be a short term fix but could pose problems in the longer term.

Independently publishing ebooks in the UK – what’s changed since 1st January 2015?

For those of you playing the EU VAT Consequences game, here’s a post I’ve written all about the real world consequences of the new VAT regulations on cross-border digital sales.

Mid-month update

I don’t suppose you’ll be in the least surprised to learn that campaigning against the new EU VAT legislation on crossborder digital sales continues to take up a lot of my time. We are now collecting evidence on just how unworkable the supposedly simple system is – and that is thankfully getting the attention of various MEPs and MPs. Updates here, from EU VAT Action and here on the other blog I started to handle this issue.

Since all this means making noise about other things like the representation of women in SFF is taking a back seat, I’m particularly pleased to see this on Marianne de Pierre’s blog

So here’s the thing guys… I need your help. I began my Research Masters on Future Feminism today, and I’m compiling a list of contemporary female SF authors (not fantasy, not YA, and not straight SF romance) who have been published in novel length work since 2000.

I’d love to hear who your favourite female SF (post 2000) author is so I can add them to my reading list. Please leave the names in the comments section and I’ll add them to my main list. I’ve made a solid start, but there are many more! I’ve alphabetised by surname.

Do check out the blog and see if you can add to the list?

In other news? Well, I’ve had a short story accepted for an anthology and am currently turning that from a draft into a final version thanks to the editor’s helpful feedback. It’s nice to be tackling some fiction again!

In between times, I am working on prepping the texts of the Aldabreshin Compass novels for their ebook editions. We’re also briefing an artist for cover art. The plan is to get all four done at once so we can release them in alternate months later this year. I’m also seriously considering writing some related short stories as re-reading the books has tempted me into tugging on a few lingering loose threads…

Once that’s all underway, I’ll turn my attention to getting the River Kingdom novella ‘The Ties that Bind’ out as an ebook as well as a collection of the short stories I’ve written in that setting.

Meantime, the novel I wrote last year is doing the round of agents… Reactions so far remind me just how subjective this game is. I’ve had ‘thanks but no thanks’ responses like ‘Aspect A is great but I’d really be looking for more Aspect B’ to set against ‘Aspect A is lacking for me, though Aspect B is very well done’. Plus the always baffling ‘I really like Aspect A and Aspect B… but I don’t quite love the whole thing enough to represent it…’

So on we go…

An EU VAT update – and a call for action.

As the holiday break draws to a close, Cheryl over at Wizard’s Tower Press spends yet more of her valuable time sorting out the complicated mess which these new EU VAT regulations have made of our pricing – as well as forcing all of our sales through third parties who all take their hefty cut. So readers will be paying more while all of us involved in making these books available earn less for them.

Meantime, I’m working with the EU VAT Action team to do all we can to create pressure for the changes we need, to get this legislation reviewed and revised from the ground up.

The more voices speaking up, the better the chances of meaningful action. So there are a couple of recent posts over at Digital Microbusiness Action Group on new targets for your letters.

A few recollections of PD James

New Year’s Eve seems like a good day to finally post these valedictory thoughts.

I don’t claim any level of personal acquaintance with PD James, but she was an Honorary Fellow of my old Oxford college, St Hilda’s, and also a regular at the annual Crime & Mystery Conference there, which I attend as often as I can. I think I’ve only missed three or maybe four of those since 1994. So I have had more opportunities than most fans to hear her speak and occasionally, to talk briefly with her.

She always took a personal interest in whoever she was speaking to, remarkable when you consider how many thousands of people she must have met in the briefest of encounters. One year at the St Hilda’s crime conference, I was substantially pregnant with my second child. The weather was hot and sultry and more than once, Baroness James of Holland Park appeared beside me, asking if I was alright, and did I want to sit down or perhaps she could get me some water? The next year? ‘Oh, my dear,’ she greeted me with a smile, ‘now, do tell me, was it a boy or a girl?’ I told her I’d had a second son and her congratulations were wholly sincere, no mere politeness.

I have pages of notes which I made while listening to her talk about aspects of the writing craft and the writing business, at St Hilda’s and elsewhere, notably during her tenure as President of The Society of Authors. She offered far too much good advice for me attempt to detail it here. I particularly remember her talking about the sense of place in her books, and how that was so often her personal starting point for a story. I especially remember her talking about the nature of malice and yes, evil, and how that isn’t something separate from everyday life and that’s what makes it all the more menacing. She was also, always, a passionate advocate for the literary value of genre fiction, upholding its merits when dealing with narrative, plot and character. And so much more besides.

Since I write SF and fantasy, I also remember a question from the floor at some event or other, when she was asked what she thought of the film adaptation of her novel, The Children of Men. She smiled and with a distinct twinkle in her eye, said she would much rather see a good film loosely based on a book than a bad film that was a completely faithful adaptation.

Or is ‘twinkle’ the right word? That seems a bit too cosy. ‘Glint’ seems rather too hard though and she definitely wasn’t hard. But as Val McDermid said ‘there was nothing cosy about Phyllis’. She’d lived far too demanding a life to indulge in sentimentality. Let’s not forget that Baroness James of Holland Park wasn’t born to rank, wealth or privilege. She was an honorary fellow of St Hilda’s but never went to university herself to study. Her father didn’t believe in such things for girls. She married young and then found herself supporting her family when her husband returned from the Second World War mentally ill. She would refer to such events in her talks, as and when some facet of her own life might be relevant to the topic at hand. Always matter of fact, never looking for sympathy, praise or such like. I think she would have found the idea of anything of the kind preposterous. But those experiences assuredly gave her a sound understanding of the unfortunate and the underdog which informed her professional and political life as well as her fiction.

Her literary interests went far beyond crime writing. She was an expert of the work of (another St Hilda’s alumna) Barbara Pym. As recently as last November, she gave a talk at the Bodleian Library to mark the Pym Centenary. I particularly remember her talk at The Oxford Literary Festival a few years ago, where she spoke without notes for 45 minutes, standing at the lectern, and then took questions for a further quarter of an hour, giving each one a considered and erudite answer. Since my mother is a tremendous fan of both Barbara Pym and PD James, she came up to Oxford for the day. Since I am on the college media network committee, and was thus involved in helping run the St Hilda’s day of programming, I was able to introduce Mum to her. Once again, even in that briefest of meetings they made a personal connection. (And seeing what that encounter meant to my mum meant everything to me.)

Then there was her interest in Jane Austen and ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’. I don’t mind saying, I approached the book with some reservations, having read a slew of truly dire Jane Austen continuations when I was a bookseller. Thankfully I liked it, and all the more so after hearing her talk about the process of devising the story and the thoughts that had prompted it, most particularly about the burdens of service and obligation on the likes of Mr Darcy and what that says about society, then and now.

That was at a St Hilda’s event for the English School, and the room was packed with students and alumnae and the occasional classicist like me . When PD James explained that she’d opted to write that book rather than a new crime novel because she so disliked the thought of leaving a Dalgliesh unfinished if she died half way through writing it, there was… not a murmur nor a whimper but a sudden and palpable stillness as everyone looked at her at once. The unspoken words on every tongue were ‘Oh no, don’t say that!’

She looked back at us all with the faintest of smiles, and observed dryly, ‘Anyone who has reached my advanced age without coming to terms with their own mortality must be a very strange and unhappy individual.’ As everyone looked at their shoes or their notes, just a little bit abashed, she continued briskly on with her shrewd analysis of (I think) George Wickham’s character.

So that’s something, I suppose. To know that she was at peace with her own mortality and with the consolations of her faith, at the end of a life so very well lived by any possible measure. It was still a shock to hear of her death though. She had always seemed so indestructible as well as indefatigable. It’s only in the past couple of years that she showed visible signs of aging, notably her deafness which she regarded as a confounded nuisance.

As the cliche goes, her work will live on. But there’s more to her legacy than that. I know I’m by no means the only writer over the years who’s seen her as a role model in countless ways. As we will continue to do.

Indeed, that’s largely the reason why I’m finally posting this more than a month after her death. I’ve been writing this piece in fits and starts ever since the end of November. That’s when the EU VAT catastrophe was just unfolding and was suddenly and unexpectedly taking up all my time. I did have more than a few moments’ indecision about what I should be doing and where my priorities should be. No word of a lie; thinking ‘What would PD James do?’ genuinely helped clarify my thoughts. She would have considered tackling such damaging and ill-thought-out legislation was the most pressing task at hand!