Category: Guest Post
by November 19th, 2014-
Ken MacLeod’s DESCENT is an alien abduction story for the twenty-first century set in Scotland’s near-future, a novel about what happens when conspiracy theorists take on Big Brother. It comes out in paperback this week, and we asked Ken what is is about Scotland that brings him, and other writers, back to it as a science fiction setting again and again.
Two months ago, Scotland was in what Charles Stross called ‘The Scottish Political Singularity’. The referendum made the entire political future so uncertain that even planning a near-future novel set in the UK had become impossible – not least because you couldn’t be sure there would still be a UK to set it in.
My novel Descent, just out in paperback, was written before the result looked close, but I was careful to leave the outcome of the then future referendum open to interpretation. In earlier novels such as The Night Sessions and Intrusion, I’ve also left it up to the reader to decide if the future Scotlands described are independent or not.
Preparing for a recent discussion on ‘Imagining Future Scotlands’ I realised that the majority of my novels are at least partly set in Scotland, or have protagonists whose sometimes far-flung adventures begin in Scotland. And it made me wonder why there haven’t been more. With its sharply varied landscape, turbulent history, and the complex, cross-cutting divisions of national and personal character which Scottish literature has so often explored, Scotland may inspire writers of SF, but as a location it features more often in fantasy.
The result is that there have been many Scottish writers of SF – including Orbit’s very own Michael Cobley, Charles Stross, and the late and much missed Iain M. Banks – but not many SF novels have been set in Scotland. Of those that are, quite a few are written from outside the genre, such as Michel Faber’s Under the Skin. Flying even more cleverly under the genre radar, Christopher Brookmyre has been writing what amounts to an alternate or secret history of contemporary Scotland – some of them, such as Pandaemonium, with SF or fantasy elements – for two decades. And within the genre, there are some well-regarded novels I haven’t read, notably Chris Boyce’s Brainfix. I can’t help feeling I’ve missed stacks of obvious books. If so, I look forward to being corrected in the comments.
Let’s start with straight, unarguable genre SF.
Halting State by Charles Stross is a police procedural set in a near-future independent Scottish republic. Unlike many fictional detectives, the heroine is married, and her wife understands her. The multi-viewpoint second-person narration, though disorienting at first, soon becomes transparent – you could say you get used to it – and apt for a novel set partly in a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. From the opening shots of a bank robbery in virtual reality, the story has you under arrest and briskly frogmarched along.
Time-Slip by Graham Dunstan Martin is a much grimmer vision of a future Scotland. Decades after a nuclear war, the Scottish Kirk has resumed its dour dominance of society. Our sympathy for the hero, a young heretic who founds a new religious movement on his rediscovery of the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, fades as the implications sink in. It’s a thought-through and engaging novel, sadly out of print, but easily available secondhand.
Not quite SF, but set in a (then) future with a deft touch or two of technological extrapolation, the political thriller Scotch on the Rocks is an old-school Tory take on an armed insurrection for Scottish independence. Sex and violence are never far away. Glasgow gangs and Moscow gold play a bit part behind the scenes. Given that it was written by Douglas Hurd and Andrew Osmond, this isn’t surprising. What is surprising is the sharpness of its insight into the issues that drive the independence movement, from cultural alienation through economic decline to nukes on the Clyde. The speeches, give or take the odd detail, could have been delivered this September.
Moving to fantasy, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark is often rightly cited as a landmark in Scottish literature. It was an avowed influence on Iain Banks’s The Bridge, the closest Iain ever came to writing SF set in Scotland. But my own favourite of Gray’s novels is Poor Things, a Scottish revisioning of Frankenstein that confronts the poor creature with the harsh self-confidence of the Victorian age and that age with her outraged innocence.
Michael Scott Rohan’s science-fantasy novel Chase the Morning starts in Scotland – or at least in a port very like Leith – and casts off for worlds unknown on an endless ocean, full of adventure and romance. Its striking image of the Spiral, in which ships magically sail upward beyond the horizon to farther seas in the sky, was inspired by the vista down the Firth of Forth. On some evenings looking down the Firth you can’t tell where the sea ends and the sky begins, or what’s a cloud and what’s an island. Like all good science fiction and fantasy, this novel and its sequels make us see the real world in a different light.
Finally, we shouldn’t forget Scotland’s abiding presence in the wider field: Victor Frankenstein built the mate for his creature on a remote Orkney island; the Mars mission that opens Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land had as its prime contractor the University of Edinburgh; and Star Trek‘s engineer Scotty was born in Linlithgow . . . a few miles from Scotland’s notorious UFO hotspot, Bonnybridge.
by November 11th, 2014-
It took me a little while to work out what was bothering me about Interstellar.
The realisation came about two thirds of the way in, when Matthew McConaughey and his merry band of intergalactic explorers were contemplating another dive into the black hole which has flung them to the other end of the universe in the search for a new home for humanity. It was then that I had the thought, “This would work so much better as a TV series.”
Going through a black hole, if we are to believe physicist (and executive producer) Kip Thorne, is a very noisy, turbulent, chaotic experience. So is the movie. Director Christopher Nolan never stops blasting you with information: quantum mechanics, on-planet disasters, portentous imagery, space-time fluctuations, really loud music, and lots and lots of Dylan Thomas.
And boy, do things happen fast. One minute, McConaughey and company are puttering about on Earth trying to grow corn, and the next they’re at the other side of the cosmos, seeing if humanity can survive on a watery planet with mountainous waves (spoiler: we can’t).
There are other problems too. The sound mix is ridiculous, juxtaposing the silence of space with long periods of bombarding your eardrums with noise. And there are several glaring plot-holes. My particular favourite: ace ex-NASA pilot McConaughey is living just down the road from their secret facility, but they somehow never bother to pop on over to his farm and ask for his help. Naturally, when he shows up on their doorstep, they immediately insert him into the ship crew. I feel a bit bad for the poor bastard he replaced.
Perhaps the biggest letdown is that the movie never asks the most important question. If humanity has wrecked the Earth so badly, do we even deserve to survive? At no point do any of the astronauts and scientists stop to ask whether we’ve learnt enough not to screw up the next planet we land on. Nolan is happy to speculate on spaceship mechanics, the power of family and the ability of love to cross the infinite gulf of space, but he never wonders if we’ve done enough to deserve any of it.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see Interstellar. For one thing, there’s nothing else that looks quite like it. Everything from the different planets to the dusty, scorched fields on Earth to the black hole itself is just gob-smacking. Nolan is known for astounding imagery, but this is next level. And while McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine and company are by no means giving the best performances of their careers, there’s still enough meat to make things compelling.
In the hands of a TV showrunner like David Simon or Vince Gilligan, Interstellar would be absolutely essential. In the hands of a director like Nolan, it’s a wildly ambitious movie that doesn’t quite deliver. Caine’s scientist enjoys quoting Dylan Thomas – that old chestnut about not going gently into that good night – but perhaps a more appropriate reference would be Shakespeare. Specifically, Macbeth. Interstellar may not have been told by an idiot, but it is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Rob Boffard is a journalist and the author of the upcoming scifi thriller novel TRACER, releasing in July 2015.
by October 29th, 2014-
In ICE FORGED (US | UK | AUS) and REIGN OF ASH (US | UK | AUS), Blaine McFadden is sent into exile in an arctic prison colony for murdering the man who dishonored his sister. When a war destroys mankind’s ability to control magic and bend it to their will, out-of-control wild magic brings deadly storms, monsters pulled through rifts from other realms and a madness that drives its victims to violence. Blaine discovers that he might just be the only one who can put things right.
In WAR OF SHADOWS, Blaine and his convict friends discover that plenty of people are trying to kill them. Blaine’s attempts to fully restore the magic affect the new status quo. With the king and nobility gone, there’s a power vacuum, and some ruthless players have decided to fill that gap themselves. As warring factions fight over territory in the kingdom of Donderath, Blaine emerges as a warlord trying to restore the rule of law, amid betrayal, intrigue and opponents who will go to any length to see him dead.
I’m not nice to my characters. It’s true. Blaine’s had a rum go of it. Raised by an abusive father, forced to make a choice no one should have to make in order to save his sister and younger brother, condemned by the king and exiled to the edge of the world—it hasn’t been a good seven years. Yet Blaine rises to the challenge, not because he covets power, but because he doesn’t want to live in the world as it is, and someone has to step up to make the difference.
Blaine doesn’t go looking to be a hero. In fact, when he kills his father, he fully expects to die for the crime to spare his sister and brother from further abuse. An act of ‘mercy’ commutes his sentence from hanging to exile, but the Velant prison colony is known for its inhumane, grueling conditions. But Blaine finds it within himself to adapt, and that ability to change lies at the heart of the series. Blaine and his convict friends, as well as the survivors back in Donderath, find strengths they never knew they had when confronted with challenges they never expected to face.
Blaine’s story is also about the power of ‘the family you make.’ In the brutal environment of Velant, and then later as colonists in the harsh environs of Edgeland, Blaine survives because of the ‘family’ of loyal friends who band together to protect each other. Back in Donderath, his ‘found’ family combines with what remains of his blood family, and several key people are added to the group. Blaine’s companion’s skills, courage and loyalty make the difference for his survival and for having a chance to fix the magic and set things right.
I’m also having fun looking at how a kingdom reacts in the face of overwhelming disaster, destruction of both economic and governmental infrastructure and continued instability. That ‘perfect storm’ combination affects everything from food production to religious identity to social cohesion, turning everything that people thought they knew upside-down. It’s a crucible from which everyone emerges changed—if they emerge at all. And whatever solution is found, one thing is certain: nothing will ever be the same as it was before the disaster.
Depending on your view, that’s either a terrifying statement or the glimpse of hope at the end of the storm.
War of Shadows isn’t the end to Blaine’s story. I’m working on Book 4, SHADOW AND FLAME, right now. So there is more to come. Because surviving is just the beginning of the journey.
My Days of the Dead blog tour runs through October 31 with never-before-seen cover art, brand new excerpts from upcoming books and recent short stories, interviews, guest blog posts, giveaways and more! Plus, I’ll be including extra excerpt links for stories and books by author friends of mine. You’ve got to visit the participating sites to get the goodies, just like Trick or Treat! Details here: www. AscendantKingdoms.com.
by October 15th, 2014-
Brian Ruckley, author of THE FREE – a rip-roaring tale of action and adventure – talks about magic systems, and why they’re completely unnecessary. Except when they’re not.
While I was doing the interview I did here the other day about my new book THE FREE, I left out a heap of stuff. Because you always have to leave stuff out, right? But there were a couple of topics I’d like to have kicked around a bit more, and here’s one of them: magic systems.
Role-playing games have to have their magic systematised to some degree – defined, constrained, structured, all that – because otherwise the whole thing would get messy fast. But what’s the deal with magic systems in fantasy novels?
The fantasies I loved as a kid did not, as best I can recall, generally define what magic was or how it worked in any detail. In most of those books, magic was an immanent property of the world, or of individuals, or objects. It was just there, inherent in certain people or places or things. A capacity for change that was kind of unspecified, and with inner workings that remained entirely invisible.
Which, I tend to think, is the natural state of magic in fantasy novels. Why would we want to have this stuff explained and circumscribed? The ‘magic’ of magic is in its numinous quality. We don’t need to know the mechanics of it all. That’s not really the sort of awe-inspiring otherliness and wonder we’re after in fantasy. It’s engaging the wrong bit of our brain. Look what happened when Mr. Lucas tried to escape the clutches of fantasy by midi-chlorianising the Force. He gently systematized his magic, and much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued.
So, naturally, having said all that, I’ve got a bit of a magic system in THE FREE. As you’d expect, I have reasons (excuses?) – aside from the basic one that I’ve got a brain that tends to see, and look for, systems and processes in the world around me generally.
First up, there’s the notion of having your approach to magic fit with the tone of a book. With THE FREE, I was shooting for a fairly hi-octane adventure vibe, with grounded characters making tough choices in psychologically plausible ways. It just felt consistent to have some structure to the magic that both reader and character could grasp and – to some extent – anticipate.
Of course, I decided I could have my cake and eat it too, because I didn’t want to lose the element of surprise and wonder and pyrotechnics that magic can bring. Thus, those who use magic in THE FREE (I call them Clevers) are theoretically capable of doing almost anything. Everything – physical and non-physical, every single aspect of the world – can become a part of magic, and that makes it both immensely powerful and almost infinitely varied. So although there is a sort of rationale for what’s happening and why, it’s not a prescriptive, circumscribing one.
Second up, there’s magic as an engine of plot, story, character. I figured that if I was going to have a magic system, it might as well help me as a writer, so I tried to come up with one that by its nature embodies some tension and conflict and climax. Read the rest of this entry »
by September 30th, 2014-
Angus Watson, author of debut epic fantasy AGE OF IRON – the first book in a rip-roaring trilogy of Iron Age warriors fighting off the Roman invasion of Britain, outlines five moments in history which could have gone very differently . . .
We should all be speaking Latin.
Julius Caesar’s first British invasion force in 55BC was the same size as William the Conqueror’s in 1066 – around 10,000 men. It stayed in Britain for just a few weeks. The second one in 54BC was two and a half times the size, but it returned to France after a few months. No Roman legionary set foot in Britain after that for a hundred years.
The accepted historical take of Caesar’s invasions is that the Romans won every battle and returned across the Channel victorious, twice. This version comes entirely from Caesar’s own diary and is clearly absolute bollocks. He didn’t come to Britain with 25,000 soldiers for a summer holiday and he didn’t leave because he was winning too much. He intended to conquer. He should have been able to. His army had overthrown all of France in two years. Something big happened to stop him.
My Orbit trilogy AGE OF IRON is a fictional, fantastical account of how an unlikely gang of Brits united to hand Caesar’s invincible arse to him. Had Caesar’s invasions succeeded, then the Romans would have had Britain for a hundred years longer. The extra resources might have enabled Rome to conquer all of Germany, Arabia and then the rest of the world, and the Roman Empire might never have fallen . . .
This blog post looks at four other events in history that really should have gone the other way, resulting in a completely different world today. Read the rest of this entry »
by September 10th, 2014-
My Orbit-published epic fantasy trilogy AGE OF IRON is set in Britain during the . . . you guessed it . . . Iron Age. After looking around for about twenty years, I learnt about Britain in the Iron Age and I’d knew I’d found the perfect place and time to set a novel. Here’s why.
An Almost Blank Canvas
The Iron Age ran from roughly 800BC to 43AD, so was relatively recent. Your great times ninety grandparents might have been running around then. The Age of Iron trilogy is set near the end of the period, between 61BC and 54BC.
This period of history was much busier than most would think. There were roads, towns and massive hillforts all over the country. However, we know almost nothing about it because the ancient Brits didn’t write and in 43AD – a hundred years after my book is set – the Romans invaded successfully, stayed for 400 years and wiped out any oral histories. The pre-Roman population was pretty big, the estimates range from one to three million, so there were loads of people, and they weren’t cavemen who sat around saying ‘ug’. They were men and women like us – full of wit, passion, inquisitiveness, jealousy, anger, love and so on. So, throughout the long Iron Age, there must have been epic love affairs, huge wars, intrigues, trysts, adventures, disasters and more, all of which we know absolutely nothing about, which, for me, screams out an invitation for us to create stories to fill the void.
It was a massive joy to learn as much as I could about the period and then make up a world and people to fill it. Anyone else can walk up a hillfort and do the same (see point five for the best hillfort to do this on). Read the rest of this entry »
by August 19th, 2014-
I have enjoyed the Bannon & Clare books thoroughly. From inception to proofs, even when frustrated at the characters’ insistence on doing what they pleased instead of what I thought was proper, I have felt a secret little thrill of joy at each page.
No little of that joy comes from research—a huge canvas map of 1880s London hanging on my office wall, full of notes and dirty from my fingermarks, a shelf groaning under various Victoriana books and assorted notes stuffed in a binder covered with fleur-de-lis, long emails exchanged with various people about pepperbox pistols and gaslamps.
The other half comes from gleefully throwing research out the window and taking off into the wild blue yonder with only a guess and a prayer.
The longer a series goes on, the more choices one initially makes in the first flush of creation become…well, not quite a straitjacket, but foundation specs that need to be honored if a work is to have any internal consistency at all. In other words, you can have utter lunacy on the page, but it must be consistent lunacy.
I am certain there is much madness in any book of mine, but I do try to make it consistent. Part of that consistency is Emma Bannon’s character. She is female in a time and place that doesn’t allow women a great deal of leeway, and navigating through such a sea is a difficult thing. Her talents and business acumen make it both more and less difficult in varying ways, and she is most often the one to “rescue” Clare. That inversion, and the power dynamics between them, is fascinating for me.
Even though Archibald Clare is a mentath and a gentleman, he is not so much a hero as a socially awkward misfit unable to compromise his honour for advantage, and not really caring what the world thinks of him. Emma Bannon cares even less, but is forced to play the social games of a lady as if she did, because it makes things easier for her and those she protects. Neither of them are quite heroes, and I like that the usual “gendered” roles—rescuer and rescued, logic and emotion—for both of them shift and change all through the series.
Another area of consistent madness is the uneasy relationship between magic and Industrial Revolution technology in the series. I hesitated over calling the Bannon & Clare Affairs “steampunk” because to me, that’s an aesthetic, not a genre. I much prefer the term “alt-history,” especially since I know the exact moment their historical timeline diverged from our own less-magical (perhaps?) one.
Above all, though, I set out to tell some ripping good, exciting yarns. I hope I’ve succeeded. I did have plans for what I called “the traveling books”—Bannon & Clare in America, in Russia, in India during the Raj—but alas, those are not to be.
So I hope you enjoy The Ripper Affair—and I hope my madness, so to speak, is consistent.
by June 18th, 2014-
If you were to ask me to list my five favorite novels of all time, I’d probably give a slightly different answer every year. I’m always discovering something new and glorious that blows my mind and leaves me in a giddy state of wonder. But one book that will never leave that list is Ender’s Game. In fact, it’s currently perched there at the number one spot, and I doubt anything will ever unseat it.
I’m not alone in this. For millions of readers, reading Ender’s Game was a transformative experience. It taught us that characters in a book don’t have to feel like characters in a book. They can feel like real, genuine friends.
That was my experience, anyway. Ender and Valentine and Bean and Dink. It’s like I knew these kids and felt a connection to them. Our hearts were knit together, as the saying goes.
So when Orson Scott Card invited me to join him in writing prequel novels to Ender’s Game, I was a little gun shy. I worried that fans would be expecting another Ender’s Game and that if our novels didn’t transform them and wow them as much as the original, they’d crinkle their noses and hate me for life.
Remember when George Lucas announced that he was going to make The Phantom Menace? I went fanboy bonkers. Another Star Wars movie? Glory hallelujah! I couldn’t believe it. I’m going to sit in a theater again and have an experience just like I had watching the originals.
And then the movie came out and it was, um, less than what I had hoped.
Is this the curse of all prequels, I wondered.
Scott Card put my mind at ease reminding me that we weren’t writing Ender’s Game. That isn’t the goal. This is something different.
So I dived in, and learned quite a bit along the way . . . Read the rest of this entry »
by June 16th, 2014-
When you write a first-person series for a few years you start to hear voices – other voices than your main character, that is. To let those voices tell their own story you have to give them their own chapters, and I began that process in the sixth book of the Iron Druid Chronicles, HUNTED ( UK | AUS). That was the first time Atticus’s former apprentice, Granuaile, had a few chapters to herself. The change from Atticus was lovely as an injection of variety but I quickly realized that the new point of view allowed me to develop both Granuaile and Atticus in ways not previously available.
The experiment worked so well (for me, anyway) that I expanded the practice in SHATTERED. We still get plenty of Atticus and Oberon in the seventh installment of the Iron Druid Chronicles, but Granuaile gets equal time and so does Atticus’s old archdruid, who goes by the modern name of Owen Kennedy. Writing in three very different voices was a delightful challenge for me and I enjoyed exploring their musings on the nature of power and how it should be employed. I also enjoyed making all of them very uncomfortable.
Both Granuaile and Owen have to adjust to a very different life from the one they led before. Granuaile must carefully choose her path now that she’s been bound to the earth and possesses great power, while Owen, brought forward two thousand years into the future, must struggle to adapt to a completely alien culture and level of technology. And Atticus, normally so confident in his abilities, learns that he missed some key facts and the true situation with the gods bears little resemblance to what he thought it was.
Writing from three first-person views—alternating between chapters—also forced me to write in a nonlinear fashion. I discovered that when I tried to write in order it was slow going, because each voice had its own verbal tics and style and switching between them required a mental adjustment. Once I ditched the idea that I had to write from beginning to end, work proceeded much faster. I would write three Owen chapters or four Granuaile chapters and stay in those voices for days, piecing them together in order later. And because of that I managed to finish writing the book in only five months, which for me is quite fast. (And I know that some speedy readers out there will finish the book in a single day and then ask, “When’s the next one?” at which point I will weep and clutch a teddy bear.)
I hope everyone will enjoy getting to know Granuaile and Owen a bit better and appreciate the light they shed on Atticus as well. Many thanks to you all for reading; I do hope to get across the pond someday to meet you.
SHATTERED is available now to buy in the UK and Australia.
by June 10th, 2014-
THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS releases today in the US in hardcover, and will be out in paperback in the UK next week in (June 19th). Read the first ten chapters on Facebook or listen to a sample from the audiobook.
We know you’ll be hooked by Melanie’s heart-stopping story. M.R. Carey joins us today to tell you more about that journey.
I don’t know why I ended up writing a road movie. I almost never watch them.
I’ll make some exceptions to that blanket statement. I love Sideways. And Midnight Run. And if we’re counting yellow brick road movies, The Wizard of Oz is pretty damn cool.
It’s just that I’ve seen so many features where changing the scenery stands in for any kind of thought-through development in either the characters or the plot. Stories where it really is just one damn thing after another, episodes piled on episodes until you get to a slightly bigger episode that you realise (after the credits roll) must have been the climax.
If you’re still with me, you’re probably already compiling your own mental list of great road movies. “Hey, fool, you forgot O Brother Where Art Thou, Easy Rider, Wild At Heart…” And yeah, I did. For the sake of my argument, I’m willing to overlook a certain amount of inconvenient evidence.
Can we agree on one thing? When you take a story that depends on a fixed setting and works well within that setting, and for no reason other than variety being the spice of life you wilfully take it out on the road, you’re flirting with disaster. The very phrase “jumping the shark”, after all, comes from that terrible Happy Days episode where the whole gang goes off to Los Angeles and hangs out on a beach.
A long while back I read an essay by the French media guru Roland Barthes in which he talked about the appeal of utopias in fiction. Barthes claimed that most utopias are finite, enclosed spaces – “idealised caves” – that satisfy our need for security by providing an environment where stability is absolute and guaranteed. He made it clear, though, that this enclosure didn’t have to be a physical thing. The classic sit-com, he argued, is utopian because it presents situations and relationships that are entirely resistant to change. One of his favourite examples of a utopian world was that of the Carry On movies, the mildly smutty British comedies of the 60s and 70s in which a cast of beloved character actors would mount a series of gag sketches in a historical setting, effectively playing the same roles no matter whether we were in Cleopatra’s Egypt, the Khyber Pass or the London of Jack the Ripper. Read the rest of this entry »