Oh yes, says you, I remember it, Christopher Ecclestone and Simon Callow, great episode! Ah well, says I, it so happens I wrote a different story before anyone knew what Mark Gattiss was doing for the first season of the Doctor’s return.
Back in 2004, Paul Cornell was editing a Christmas anthology for Big Finish, and invited me to submit a story. I really enjoyed writing ‘Who the Dickens…?’, researching all the detail was fascinating, and Paul was very pleased with it. All was well until … the BBC spiked it. Sorry, that particular story was a no go for the forthcoming book.
Everyone was very nice, and thoroughly professional, and I was paid, and so while I felt a bit wistful, I didn’t feel in the least hard done by. These things happen with licensed property work. And when the new series aired, all was explained!
The story stayed in my computer archive because unlike a story of my own, I couldn’t sell it elsewhere, obviously. Then Paul contacted me earlier this year to ask if I’d ever done anything with it. No, as I explained, as far as I recalled without digging out the contract, the copyright and intellectual property rights belonged to Big Finish and the BBC, as is standard for such work. It would never see the light of day unless the powers that were gave their approval. Let me talk to a few people, says Paul…
Well, now you can read that story if you click over to Paul’s website and this year’s 12 Blogs of Christmas, free and gratis, to entertain you as this year draws to a close. Enjoy!
It’s time to share some news about a writing project I started around five years ago, to broaden the scope of my writing in these challenging times for authors. As a lifelong crime fiction fan and an erstwhile classicist, I reckoned historical mysteries set in Ancient Greece between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, had potential. There are plenty of good books set in Rome after all, so how about a change of scene?
I started my research, and thirty years after my undergraduate days, it was fascinating to see where thinking had changed, and what discoveries had been made. I plotted out a story, wrote a draft, sought no-holds-barred feedback from selected academic friends, and revised that draft. Then I started sending the project out on submission, working my way through a list of selected literary agencies.
A year of so later, I found an agent as keen on the project as I was. With the benefit of his fresh viewpoint, I reworked some aspects of the book, and he started pitching it to publishers. Six months later, we had a two book deal, with a view to launching an ongoing series. The plan was I’d write these books alongside my SF & fantasy, using the pseudonym J M Alvey to keep these books separate from my other work.
Things have not gone to plan. Not for any reason to do with my writing. Circumstances arise in publishing that authors can do nothing about, despite the seriously adverse impact on their careers. There’s no point in me going into the details. That would be unprofessional as well as unproductive.
I would simply like readers who might be interested to know these books are there to be enjoyed. Advance readers and reviewers have certainly taken to Philocles, a writer for hire in 5th century Athens who dreams of making his name writing comic plays for the great festivals. Check out the quotes on Amazon.
In Shadows of Athens, Philocles discovers a murdered man outside his front door, a few days before his new play is to be performed in the Dionysia drama competition. Is it just a robbery gone wrong? If so, why didn’t the thieves take the dead man’s valuables? Philocles wants answers, even though he has no idea where his investigations will lead. But who else is going to see justice done? Ancient Athens is a city with no police force, still less any detectives.
In Scorpions in Corinth, Philocles and his actors have travelled to the Isthmus, gateway to the Peloponnese. They are relying on a local fixer to help them stage a play there, to promote ties between the two cities. But Eumelos is killed soon after the Athenians arrive, and it’s clear that someone is out to wreck their performance. Philocles must find out who, but how? He knows his way around Athens but making enquiries in Corinth is a very different story.
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The Green Man’s Foe is published tomorrow and since I’m not taking a laptop to the Dublin 2019 Worldcon, I’m posting this today, before I travel to Ireland. I want to acknowledge the part that my first literary agent, Maggie Noach, played in this story. One of the underlying themes of this particular novel is the idea of legacy, good and bad, and that has a particular resonance for me, in the unusual way this novel has come to be written.
As well as representing my epic fantasy fiction, while I wrote The Tales of Einarinn, and The Aldabreshin Compass, Maggie encouraged me to take my writing in other directions. She knew and loved the Cotswolds where I live, and more than once, we discussed the sense of history and folklore that’s so embedded in the local woods and villages. I wrote a draft of a novel about a country house being turned into a hotel, and a visitor from London who gets drawn into its secrets, that may or may not include the supernatural.
We were discussing how to improve on that, when all of us who knew and admired Maggie were devastated by her untimely death on 2006. Over the next few years, in between other projects, I went back to the novel a few times, and tried a couple of different approaches. Somehow, whatever I ended up with was never quite right. Looking at the dates on the files on the hard drive, I see that I last revised it in 2010 before finally setting it aside.
The success of The Green Man’s Heir in 2018 meant a great many people were asking me hopefully about a sequel. I certainly wanted to write one, but what would it be about? Frankly, I was at a loss until quite suddenly one day, when we were on holiday in the Lake District and I wasn’t even thinking about work, I remembered those drafts were still tucked away in my computer archive. When we got home, I searched out the back ups and realised I had the detailed setting, background characters and a framework of events that I could use for a whole new story, where Daniel has no doubt about the supernatural threat to this country house hotel project.
Once I stared writing, everything came together in a way that my attempts to rework that early draft novel simply never had. I only wish that Maggie was still with us to see the end result. I have no doubt what she would say. This all goes to show that no writing is ever wasted. That is most definitely part of her legacy to me.
World Book Day seems like an excellent day to post this 🙂
To recap, as the Guest of Honour at Novacon last year, I got to pick and discuss eight SF&Fantasy books that have had a lasting impact on me over my decades of voracious reading.
The last of my selection for Novacon, this book was published in 2012, so it’s a relatively recent read, but I want to find time to go back and re-read it. It’s another Arthur C Clarke Award winner, and I was one of the jurors who selected it. For myself, I found it one of the most original SF novels I’d read in years while at the same time harking back to so many of the classic SF elements and themes which first attracted me to the genre.
There’s a lost colony, survival against the odds in an alien, hostile environment, human ingenuity rising above these challenges, as well as human frailities – selfishness and greed – threatening all that’s been achieved.
The familiarity of these ideas extends beyond SF and I suspect have contributed signficantly to the favourable reviews and reception the book deservedly won beyond fan circles, from the sort of people who’d usually say they don’t like SF&F.
However, and crucially, as with all the best contemporary SF, this story isn’t merely rehashing these familiar elements as if that will somehow be sufficient to please both the Fans and those who prefer ‘real’ literature. Beckett brings these classic narratives all up to date by examining them through the prism of our own decade and its preoccupations. Once he’s done that, Beckett uses these ideas as tools to tell a story that’s unique and compelling in itself.
A trio of spacefarers were stranded on a dark world lit only by the bioluminescence of its intensely alien flora and fauna. Their descendants live a marginal and impoverished existence with a culture woven from half-remembered Earth traditions, coloured by misunderstandings and the consequences of that first desperate struggle for survival by people never intended to be colonists. Against all the odds, the population has grown to a point where the stresses on their meagre resources means something has got to change. Who will be the agent of change? John, who wants to venture into the snowy dark and see what lies beyond the confines of Circle Valley? Or David who wants to be in charge and have everyone do as he says? What consequences will follow as these two clash, for the women who have their own narrative handed down from mother to daughter which includes the admonition to never trust a man who believes the story is all about him. Then there are the other thinkers like Jeff who believes in focusing on being right here, right now and solving the problems at hand first of all.
It’s a deceptively simple story exploring some very complex ideas about humanity’s relationships with stories, from folklore through that well-worn adage about winners being the ones who write history to our own decade’s struggles with fact versus narrative embedded in the endless rolling 24 hour news cycle. This subtext underpins but never overwhelm an enthralling and fast paced story that’s shaped by unforeseen twists as well as characters’ choices. This simplicity extends to the language as Beckett writes in a dialect stripped back to its barest essentials which nevertheless contains clues and hints about the Eden population’s history. Uncompromising peril and surprises continue to the final pages where the ending proves both satisfactory and yet inconclusive. But that’s the nature of history. Individuals’ stories are only ever part of the ceaseless flow of events.
Since this first book came out, Chris Beckett has written two more stories set in this world; Mother of Eden and Daughter of Eden, which I thoroughly enjoyed (as you can tell if you’ve read my reviews of both in Interzone). These take place decades/generations later, so one more reason why I’d take this first book to the desert island is I know I could entertain myself for hours imagining how the different factions and populations got from the end of this first story to the societies we meet in later volumes. And then I could spend still more time analysing and admiring the skills of Beckett’s writing.
And if I was truly stranded on a desert island, a tale of survival would be a good morale booster – as well as an incentive to make me do whatever was necessary to get out of there!
This was one of those books it seemed everyone was enthusing about at the same time, when it won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 1998. For me, it was an enthralling read which gave me all those things I’d loved in Clarke’s work, Heinlein and Asimov but brought intelligently up to date. There were really alien aliens, a wide range of believable human characters (including women with opinions and agency) and a thought-provoking subtext as the plot explores so many facets of communication and miscommunication, issues of race and colonisation, among other debates about humanity, society and belief; religious and otherwise. Most important of all, the story does all this without getting bogged down. Lucid, literate prose keeps the plot moving swiftly along. Scene setting is vivid and the dialogue natural, all making for an immersive read.
Following the plot that demands the reader’s engagement. The narrative unfolds in different strands and you need to pay attention as you read them in parallel. We see events unfolding from 2019 onwards when the SETI project picks up alien signals from Alpha Centauri. How can an expedition to make first contact be organised and financed? At the same time, we follow the investigators in 2059 who are trying to work out why the expedition ended in such lethal disaster. There’s only one survivor and something inexplicably horrible has happened to him. Sustaining this balancing act between telling the reader at the outset that disaster has struck and then compelling them to keep turning the pages to find out precisely what has happened and then how is a mighty writerly achievement.
Rereading this book in 2016, with 2019 now on the horizon is an interesting experience. Near-future SF notoriously offers up hostages to fortune, especially with the things which writers fail to predict. How many authors devised plots that would be instantly unravelled by mobile phones? Well, mobiles are not noticeable here but their presence wouldn’t make much difference. Mostly, Doria Russell avoids the worst pitfalls by blending logical extrapolation from then to roughly now with a deft lack of potentially compromising detail. The Horn of Africa is a war zone. Countries in Central and South America have refugee, economic and health crises. How these things happened isn’t directly relevant to the story, so we don’t need to know more than the broad brush strokes.
Other apparently prescient things do catch my eye. How does word of the SETI discovery spread? When an illegal download of the musical signal effectively goes viral on what looks very like the Internet. How is an interstellar mission launched? Not by NASA, the UN or any such agency. Space exploration has become the province of non-state bodies. In this case, the Catholic Church, or to be more precise, the Jesuits, take on the challenge. Doria Russell doesn’t pull this out of thin air; there’s been an observatory in the Vatican since 1774 and the Church first became interested in astronomy faced with the challenge of calculating dates for Easter and other holy festivals. This maybe SF but there’s an awareness of the depth of history (and the lessons it can offer) running through this book.
But why get involved in contacting aliens? Well, what would the presence of intelligent life elsewhere have to say about mankind’s relationship with our supposed Creator? What will the faithful do with any answers they might find? More immediately, can explorers voyaging so far with such lofty ideals actually cope with the practical challenges of an alien environment, its ecology and a complex society they don’t understand when they’re at the mercy of powerful individuals whose own concerns are their priority. As those questions are answered, we learn the chilling truth of what happened and why.
I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this book. I also recall recommending it widely at the time, including to friends and family who’d usually say they didn’t like SF but found this an enthralling read all the same. If you haven’t come across it before, do go and find it in your preferred format. And remember it the next time you see one of those ‘Best of/Must Read/Memorable’ lists that persist in erasing women authors from our genre. Ask why this book isn’t mentioned.
If picking a single Edith Nesbit title was tough, choosing which Terry Pratchett book I’d want for this particular list was nigh on impossible. But there had to be at least one. As I’ve observed before, the Discworld series is my main ‘refuge reading’ these days, which is to say, the books I reach for when I need some respite from reality, a breathing space before I return to the everyday fray.
So why ‘Men at Arms’? For me, this is where Pratchett really hits his stride with the City Watch strand of books, especially with regard to the social and political commentary underpinning his exploration of Ankh Morpork. Dwarfish culture and society are expanded upon, as are the racial tensions between the dwarfs and the trolls. There’s the uses and abuses of technology discussed and so more besides. All this really deepens and enriches the Discworld hinterland.
In particular, we see the challenges and contradictions of democracy, set against the ‘enlightened’ autocracy of Lord Vetinari. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to let someone as intelligent and cunning as he is take care of running everyday life for us all? But that relies on having someone like Vetinari willing and able to take on the job. How do we feel about having our lives run according to a very different set of rules operating under the fig leaf of monarchy? What about the destructive nostalgia of Edward d’Eath putting grubby commoners in their place? Or the self-serving machinations of Dr Cruces ensuring the elite stay rich and powerful? Or come to that, the ruthless expediency which Sam Vimes would like to apply to maintaining law and order?
The Watchmen and women themselves are very much still a work-in-progress at this point in Pratchett’s writing, making this book all the more interesting to re-read. Vimes can still believably relapse into his old drunkard ways and the differences between him and Lady Sybil remain pronounced. Is their marriage really going to happen? If it does, can it possibly work out? Carrot’s naivety is still self-evident in his creatively spelled letters home but now we see new and intriguing facets to his straight-forward approach to life. Minor characters are fleshed out, developing the ensemble. Detritus has far more than a walk-on role, particularly in his partnership with Lance Constable Cuddy.
At this point in the series though, Detritus’ character development could take any one of several paths. The same is true of Angua, and of her relationship with Carrot. Most of all, there’s uncertainty, even danger, stalking these characters in a way that’s absent in later books. At this point, no one has plot immunity and that gives this particular story a definite edge.
There are also genuine ‘whodunnit’ puzzles to solve, with regard to the murders and what really happened to poor Brother Beano. Plus, of course, the book is deftly, wickedly funny, not least thanks to the reappearance of Gaspode the talking dog, who’s evidently made his way back to the city after his experiences in ‘Talking Pictures’. And as with all the Discworld books, the bright flashes of Pratchett’s lightning wit illuminate the threats lurking in the shadows all the more clearly.
I put this particular list of books together back in September and October 2016, when the world was a very different place. We’d had the self-destructive folly of the UK Brexit vote but the US election still lay ahead. Looking at this book in early 2017? With the self-deluding Hard Brexiteers persisting in their arrogant belief that they can dictate the best of all possible deals to the rest of the EU? When every passing day gives European states less reason to do the UK any favours, let alone respect Theresa May or Boris Johnson? With President Trump in the White House and heading an administration convinced they can peddle whatever lies they like while enforcing a racist, extremist agenda and dismantling or ignoring as many checks and balances as they can?
Reading Men At Arms in these circumstances, it’s tempting to think we really could use a Lord Vetinari or a Captain Carrot about now. We seem to have slipped into a world like the Discworld era ruled by Lord Snapcase, as seen in the later novel Nightwatch. But that sort of thinking is as much of a fantasy as anything Terry Pratchett wrote. The lesson we really should take from his writing right now is that it’s no good waiting for someone else to deal with such problems. Everyone has a responsibility to act.
I promised I’d carry on with this blog series from my Novacon talk. Okay then.
This book was a revelation when I first read it in 1988 and it has stood up to re-reading since. Dragon Prince epitomises the game-changing mid-to-late 80s shift in epic fantasy from straight-forward Tolkien-alike tales to more challenging and ‘grown-up’ fiction drawing on and informed by history and human nature. There’s dragons and magic but not just for the ‘oh, wow, cool, cool’ factor. These classic elements of epic adventure become tools in the multi-faceted and believable power struggles between those princes who want to rule in the best interests of their people and those who think being born into the nobility means they can do whatever they want, indulging every desire and vice. All this is set in a vividly-realised and convincingly coherent, original world.
Every character in this book is complex, and in the case of the ‘good guys’ Prince Rohan and his Sunrunner-sorceress wife Sioned, conflicted. How can you counter someone utterly ruthless and completely without scruples without ending up compromised yourself? Because the main villain, High Prince Roelstra, is absolutely not some cardboard-cut-out Dark Lord driven by motiveless malignity. Rawn doesn’t flinch as she portrays just how absolutely absolute power can corrupt, in the hands of vengeful, spiteful man. Anyone who thinks that epic fantasy is all consolatory conservatism saying, ‘hey, patriarchal feudalism really isn’t so bad’, really needs to read this book and those that follow it.
Though not everyone’s dedicated to these power struggles, and that’s another important element. As well as the loyal princes backing Rohan, we see women whose main desire in life is to be a devoted and dedicated wife and mother, like Princess Tobin. Not because she’s forced into that role but because that’s what she chooses. There’s value in these women’s lives and in their contribution to the greater good and that’s important. There’s no hint that the only route to real merit for a female is to be faux-male. Indeed, we see the sacrifices that a forceful women must make.
Then there’s the impact of just plain bad luck, from small-scale misfortune to the utterly devastating. Heroes and villains alike have to cope with the consequences of uncaring nature and no one gets ‘plot-immunity’ to anything. All of which really challenges the reader. This is a book that demands engagement rather than merely offering entertainment to be passively absorbed.
What wasn’t revelatory about this book was seeing it written by a woman in the 80s. There were a whole host of female authors writing intelligent, challenging epic fantasy around that time – such as Elizabeth Moon, Katherine Kerr, Barbara Hambly to name merely my personal favourites. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series deserves mention too, even if she always insisted those books were Science Fiction rather than fantasy. They were all writing work to equal the finest male authors of the day, such as David Gemmell and Tad Williams, and they were equally visible back then. They’re all still writing but at times, you’d be hard pressed to know it, when all we see promoted is macho grimdarkery. Such women’s contribution to the epic fantasy genre is repeatedly and far too easily erased by all those ‘Best of’ ‘Must Read’ retrospective lists that only even mention male writers with ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ as the sole nod to female authors.
Did all these books shape my own writing? Absolutely. Do I owe any specific debt to Melanie Rawn’s work? I think so, when it comes to dragons. Much as I love the telepathic dragons of Pern and characters like Morkeleb in Hambly’s ‘Dragonsbane’, I reckon dragons should be as dangerous and unpredictable as the one that kills Prince Rohan’s father. Top predator, like the ones in my own Aldabreshin Compass series.
It may be nearly 30 years old now but Dragon Prince still deserves to be widely mentioned – and read. It was a significant book in epic fantasy’s development. So I was very pleased to be asked to write a piece on it for SFX magazine’s bookclub some while back. You can find that here.
You may also be interested in Tor.com’s Re-Reading Melanie Rawn blog series by Judith Tarr – who is herself another superb fantasy author who should go on your To Be Read list if you’re not already aware of her work.
Flipping the Desert Island Discs format for Novacon still meant including some music, by way of equivalent to the Castaway’s choice of books. My first selection is the 1981 album ‘Time’ by the Electric Light Orchestra. And honestly the Birmingham connection is entirely fortuitous. I’ve been a fan of ELO and Jeff Lynne’s work for decades. Anyway, we couldn’t play the whole thing that Friday evening so I picked ‘Here is the News’ as the track epitomising this album’s appeal for me.
For those of you not familiar with the song, here’s the official video. Which does look as if it was made for a tenner in about half an hour one Friday afternoon. So, please, just listen to those lyrics and try not to be too distracted by the cutting edge 1980s technology, not to mention the hair and makeup.
The words are the thing for me. Because I listen to lyrics above all else. I always knew that, sort of, but in recent years long car journeys with just the Music Student Son has really driven that home for me. Whether we’ve been heading for a SF convention, a University open day, or latterly, trekking up and down the M1 to Huddersfield where he’s studying, we alternate choice of CDs. When whoever’s not driving is swapping the music over, we’ve exchanged a few thoughts on the other’s choice. My observations are always about the words – “did you see what they did there with those references?” While his responses are always about the intricacies (or not) of the sound – “but they used a standard drum track!” Or alternatively from me – “it was a good tune but the lyrics barely avoided rhyming June with Spoon” versus him “but didn’t you catch what they did with the bass line?” Er… no…
Which is one reason why I cannot listen to music while I’m writing. Certainly not music with lyrics. At worst, I get horribly distracted. At best, the words end up in whatever I’m writing. This is the reason there’s a brothel in one of my books called ‘The Rising Sun’.
And which explains why I love this album so much. The whole thing’s a story, and one that prompts as many questions as it offers answers. Is the narrator dreaming? Is this a real time travel experience? What do these songs have to say about how we live now, about the future, about humanity, about relationships? While offering everything from fast-paced rock to heart-breaking ballads. Where do writers get their ideas from? If you’re like me, it’s from things like this.
As a single track, ‘Here is the News’ has intriguing questions in just about every line. Why ‘good old’ rocket lag? What does a cure for that mean anyway? Someone left their life behind in a plastic bag? How does that happen? Someone’s escaped from Satellite Two? So what happens there that means everyone must now ‘look very carefully, it might be you’? The Justice Computer… let’s think about that one for a while… And so on and so forth. I reckon I could get back from this Desert Island with an anthology of stories based on this one song alone, never mind the entire album.
As a student, I discovered Larry Niven’s writing in the extensive and eclectic paperback library maintained by the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Society – OUSFG. Which had been forbidden, on its foundation by CS Lewis and Brian Aldiss, to call itself a Science Fiction society, lest any unwary undergraduates were deceived into thinking it had anything to do with actual, proper and respectable science. Whatever.
Niven’s writing showed me still more facets of science fiction. Far more challenging aspects than I than I had encountered thus far, reading the likes of John Wyndham’s cosy catastrophes or the more cerebral musings of Arthur C Clarke. Niven’s books were full of hard edges, often sardonic, even sarcastic. His stories turned on sharp injustices or implacable forces of nature where, sorry, nobody cares. He relished drawing out ideas to logical yet appalling conclusions such as transplant technology leading to organ legging. Along with feeding my appetite for that sensawunda that underpins the best SF – transfer booths, stage trees, Mount Lookitthat, the Bandersnatchi, the Ringworld. Plus his work featured a whole lot of the stuff I already loved; psi powers in the Gil Hamilton stories, solar system adventures with the Belters, so on and so forth. And whatever the Oxford University Proctors might think, I actually picked up a fair bit of science, even if that was in a fairly haphazard fashion, from books like The Integral Trees.
Why this particular collection, of all Niven’s books? It has some of my favourite stories in it, such as Eye of an Octopus for a start. It’s also an interesting collection for a writer since it charts the evolution of his Known Space writing and includes a timeline as well as some author’s notes reflecting on the haphazard creation of a milieu through a varied body of work, written over many years. Unsurprisingly, this is of particular interest to me, as I continue exploring the River Kingdom world which I’m developing. I also want to take a new and closer look at Niven’s skills and techniques, in the peace and quiet that I hope to find on this notional Desert Island. The advent of ebooks is seeing a resurgence in shorter form fiction and I reckon we can all learn a lot from looking back to the previous heyday of SF as published in weekly and monthly magazines.
What? I’m calling for a return to the past? Advocating a reactionary, old-fashioned view of SF? Not at all. Don’t be daft. I’m talking about craft, not content here. Mind you, if you want to argue with the content, you’ll need to come prepared. Niven is an eloquent and persuasive advocate for his particular world view. Do I always agree with him? No. But that’s something else I’ve always valued about reading science fiction: getting insights into attitudes that might challenge me to justify my own. All the more so in our current world, now that it’s fatally easy to end up in our own personal echo chambers, thanks to Twitter and Facebook. Reading stories from people who in operate in different spheres can definitely broaden our perspective.
And this series of posts is a personal retrospective on my lifetime of reading SF and fantasy. I wouldn’t hand my own student son my dog-eared copy of Tales of Known Space and expect it to have anything like the same impact on him, or the same resonance. Context is everything, in reading as in writing. Thirty-odd years ago, my SF universe was underpinned by Star Trek, Star Wars, Asimov et al. He’s grown up with Battlestar Galactica (the reboot), Firefly, the Halo games, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Martian and so much, much more.
As far as I am concerned, this is the fatal flaw in insisting that today’s newcomers to SF&F must go back and start their reading with the classics of the genre which meant so much to the likes of me, in the way back when. Some may take to these stories as readily as I did and that’s great, but I really wouldn’t necessarily expect it. That was then and this is now. I’m far more inclined to offer the newly curious current work that’s been written in the same context as their own lives and experiences. After all, there’s no shortage of excellent writing available at the moment, from doorstop novels to short stories. There’s time enough for those readers who become dedicated fans, or who decide to turn their own hand to writing, to go on to explore the origins and antecedents of the genre. Where I’d hope they’d find reading Larry Niven as much fun as I always have.