Category: Guest Post
by July 19th, 2011-
“Phat off, you molking bucket of steaming clang!” Right. So what’s that all about, then?
My first fantasy novel Dusk (published by Bantam in the USA, and winner of the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel 2007), polarised opinion. I think that’s a good thing – I’d rather have people love or hate my books, as opposed to being mostly indifferent. And some of the criticism about the book focussed on the sex and swearing it contained. It was suggested that, because it was a fantasy, I should have thought up new swearwords. But I argued that if that were the case, I’d also have to think up new words for hill, and saddle, and kidney.
I stick by that now, and though Echo City is, of course, a purely imaginary world, it’s inhabited by very human characters. A fantasy novel needs distinctly human characters to make it work. So they drink Mino Mont ale and, if they can afford/steal it, Marcellan wine; they swear when they’re angry or scared; and they have sex. Indeed, it’s not glib to say that there’s a hand-job in the novel that is a pivotal plot-point. So watch out for that one when you’re reading it.
I love swearing. It’s effective in real life and in my writing, and can be cathartic, a venting of angry steam. I love ale – dark, light, summer ales, heavy winter warmers. And I love … well, doesn’t everyone?
So in order to create characters that feel human to the human readers of Echo City, I wanted them to come across as people you could almost know. Admittedly, some of the inhabitants of Echo City wouldn’t look at home anywhere we know. But I’d really like to sit down for a beer with Nadielle, and Malia, and Gorham. We’d put the worlds to rights, both mine and theirs. I’d talk about “f**king phone hackers”, and they’d talk about “bastard border spites and Marcellans”. And in ale and swearing, we’d find a common language.
by July 15th, 2011-
One of the major influences on Rule 34 was a throwaway idea I borrowed from Vernor Vinge — that perhaps one of the limiting factors on the survival of technological society is the development of tools of ubiquitous law enforcement, such that all laws can be enforced — or infringements detected — mechanistically.
One of the unacknowledged problems of the 21st century is the explosion in new laws.
We live in a complex society, and complex societies need complex behavioural rules if they’re to run safely. Some of these rules need to be made explicit, because not everyone can be relied on to analyse a situation and do the right thing. To take a trivial example: we now need laws against using a mobile phone or texting while driving, because not everyone realises that this behaviour is dangerous, and earlier iterations of our code for operating vehicles safely were written before we had mobile phones. So the complexity of our legal code grows over time.
The trouble is, it now seems to be growing out of control. Read the rest of this entry »
by July 13th, 2011-
Last Saturday I ran a workshop for a bunch of new and aspiring SF writers on behalf of a great organisation called Spread the Word, at the Hunterian Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. This was the follow up to a previous event last year organised by StW called Guilty Pleasures, which was a panel/workshop day featuring writers of SF, crime, horror and historical romance — ALL IN THE SAME ROOM!
But the brief this time was to explore the potential and craft of SF in a one- day workshop for writers new to or experienced in that genre; and I was pleased to find it was a sell-out.
I began the day by discussing some general concepts of writing that are particularly important for SF — namely worldbuilding and POV. I read a chapter from Hell Ship, featuring Sharrock, his cathary, and his lost village. And I then read a section from The Book of the New Sun, a fantasy novel that’s actually SF (although, since it’s Gene Wolfe, that’s never ENTIRELY clear) and which is a masterly example of how to create a world with a detailed geography, culture, and language all its own.
Words are the key in my view; those magic phrases that feel real, yet evoke strangeness. Wolfe’s genius is to use words like ‘autarch’ and ‘fuligin’ and ‘asimi’ which sound invented, but are in fact real words that have fallen out of use, or are utterly arcane. World building isn’t just about making maps and writing future histories; it’s about the poetry of words that imply as much as they describe. At the other end of the spectrum, a military SF writer like Dan Abnett has to invent words for GUNS; like the PDW (personal defence weapon) and PAPS and hardbeams and M3A pipers and thumpers, all of which feature in his fab new book Embedded. If the jargon is right; the world feels real.
I also talked about Scott Westerfeld’s The Risen Empire, which is the masterclass in how to manipulate POV to create great action sequences. And I talked a bit too about Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which creates a stunningly real near-future world in prose so beautiful you could kiss it.
Then I asked a room full of strangers to create an alien for me … Read the rest of this entry »
by July 12th, 2011-
I started as a horror writer and now I’m also writing (quite dark) fantasy with Echo City. The combination of these two genres can produce some very memorable results, so I thought I’d share my favourite fantasy/horror crossovers in books, TV and film:
When I first saw The Dark Crystal I was mesmerised by the story, the darkness, the landscape and creatures, and the sad and heroic main characters. I fell in love with world building, and Echo City bears witness to the fun I have imagining strange, unique new worlds. I saw it again recently with my children, and was equally mesmerised by the animation, and the love and skill that went into making this unique film.
My second film choice is much more recent. Guillermo Del Toro is a genius, and Pan’s Labyrinth is his towering achievement. It’s beautiful, haunting, wondrous, and I’ve cried every time I’ve watched it. It draws you into its complex, detailed world and refuses to let you go, even after the devastating final scenes have played out. Pretty close to perfection. Read the rest of this entry »
by July 8th, 2011-
One of the hoariest of science fictional archetypes is the idea of the artificial intelligence — be it the tin man robot servant, or the murderous artificial brain in a box that is HAL 9000. And it’s not hard to see the attraction of AI to the jobbing SF writer. It’s a wonderful tool for exploring ideas about the nature of identity. It’s a great adversary or threat (‘War Games’, ‘The Forbin Project’), it’s a cheap stand-in for alien intelligences — it is the Other of the mind.
The only trouble is, it doesn’t make sense.
Not only is SF as a field full of assumed impossibilities (time machines, faster than light space travel, extraterrestrial intelligences): it’s also crammed with clichés that are superficially plausible but which don’t hang together when you look at them too closely. Take flying cars, for example: yes, we’d all love to have one — right up until we pause to consider what happens when the neighbour’s 16 year old son goes joy riding to impress his girlfriend. Not only is flying fuel-intensive, it’s difficult, and the failure mode is extremely unforgiving. Which is why we don’t have flying cars. (We have flying buses instead, but that’s another matter.) Food pills out-lived their welcome: I think they were an idea that only made sense in the gastronomic wasteland of post-war austerity English cuisine. I submit that AI is a similar pipe dream. Read the rest of this entry »
by July 4th, 2011-
Bearers of the Black Staff begins a new chapter in the pre-history of the Shannara world - now revealed to be our own at a time in the distant future. I got started on this with the Genesis of Shannara trilogy which chronicled the destruction of civilization in the Old World and the efforts of a handful of survivors to escape what would prove to be an even greater cataclysm. Having gotten past that, we now pick up on their descendants some five hundred years later and find – I am sure, to no one’s great surprise – that things haven’t yet been resolved and that survival of those who remain is not yet assured.
What’s both interesting and difficult is that having written the Shannara books early on, I now have to find ways to make this current series dovetail into all the stories we already know while at the same time making everything seem new and interesting and revealing secrets that to this point I haven’t. For example, how did the various Races come to be? How did the magic evolve? We have Knights of the Word in the pre-history, so what happened to them? Did they end up becoming the Druids in the Shannara world of the future? Read the rest of this entry »
by July 1st, 2011-
Unless you’re very old or very ill, you probably expect to live to see the near future. The “near” future is a terrifying period: it’s that part of the future when I’ll still be around, and readers like you can poke fun at me for my predictive failures. (Not that SF is actually *about* predicting the future, but lots of people seem to think it is, and the fun-poking proceeds on that basis.) It’s also that part of the future that’s hardest to second-guess, because we’re so close to it.
Who, five years ago, would have predicted that we’d have had a global banking crisis, a wave of democratic revolutions in the Middle East, a black President of the United States, and three nuclear meltdowns in Japan? It sounds like the back story for a bad technothriller. On the other hand, I don’t see a technothriller author as being likely to predict a 1970s fashion revival, vinyl 45s making a come-back, or Apple being the #1 smartphone manufacturer. (In 2006, Apple didn’t have a phone. They made computers and mp3 players.) So, to a first approximation: the shape of the future is made up both of big pieces (political upheavals, natural disasters) and ephemera (steampunk and smartphones).
But that’s what the future looks like. What is it made of?
William Gibson famously observed that the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. The flip side of that observation is that the near future is just like the present, with added nuggets of weirdness embedded in it. About 90% of the near future (10-20 years out) *is* here today: the buildings, the cars, the clothing. Read the rest of this entry »
by June 10th, 2011-
You know, when the Telegraph called my Avery Cates novels “an action movie in print,” my immediate reaction was, of course, anger and suspicion. What kind of action movie did they mean? Jean-Claude Van Damme? Dolph Lundgren? Surely not . . . Steven Seagal?!?!? Bastards. I would have my revenge, I thought.
Then someone forced me to drink several cups of strong black coffee, put me in a warm bath, stroked my hair for a few minutes, and suggested perhaps they meant to reference good action movies. Something from the Bruce Willis oeuvre, perhaps. Or some classic Steve McQueen. I mean, if you’re trying to say that my books are like Steve McQueen jumping the fence on his motorcycle in The Great Escape, well, okay then. Tantrum regretted.
What’s interesting about living in the modern world is that we’re a bunch of people who have never lived without films, for the most part. You can no longer really write a novel without having movie conventions and styles in your head. I have no idea how people imagined things before movies. Even if you somehow avoid imagining things as movie scenes in your head as you write, your readers will no doubt do that heavy lifting for you, friend. You can’t win. All you can do is try to imagine a really good movie version of your story as you write. As opposed to, say, something by Uwe Boll. I know at least that for every line of the THE FINAL EVOLUTION I wrote, something like this was happening in my head:
The Avery Cates novels are set in an unspecified future Read the rest of this entry »
by June 3rd, 2011-
Welcome to the Metrozone. To give it its full name, the London Metrozone. Twenty-five million people, set behind a wall of concrete and wire a hundred miles long, reinforced by automatic guns and watchtowers. It has the economy of a prosperous industrialised nation, its citizens come from every corner of the planet and it’s the last city in England.
Things look the same, but different: the Houses of Parliament – disused but safe from flooding behind a massive dam. Marylebone station lies dormant: no more trains to the Midlands, because the Midlands are an irradiated wasteland. Buckingham Palace is still at the end of the Mall, but it’s flagless. Regent’s Park is now home to thousands of refugees in their converted shipping-container houses. England, as a country, has ceased to exist. The only part of it remaining is the Metrozone.
What happened? Armageddon. But the brief, world-changing years of nuclear terrorism are a fading memory. The city remains.
So why pick on London? I mean, what’s it ever done to me? Do I take perverse delight in trashing my capital city, threatening it with flood, fire, war and disease, wrecking the national monuments and destroying millennia of history?
Yes. But that’s not reason enough. Okay, setting a series of novels in a post-apocalyptic London is an obvious choice, simply because it’s the biggest and most well known city on these islands. It has iconic buildings and internationally recognisable landmarks, in a way that Coventry, Aberystwyth or Motherwell don’t. St. Paul’s, the Gherkin, Battersea power station, Trafalgar Square, Tower Bridge: all are instantly recognisable from thousands of books and hundreds of films by people who live half a world away and will never see London for real. Read the rest of this entry »
by May 31st, 2011-
Recently, I was invited to attend Natcon, New Zealand’s national Science Fiction & Fantasy Convention as a guest of honour. As such, I was also asked to put forward some panel suggestions. One of the first that occurred to me arose out of an earlier post here on Orbit about the grand symbiosis between fantasy and history. But I didn’t want to just repeat that discussion, so I’ve added in an extra wrinkle, focusing on weapons and armour, battles and military tactics in the historical context—another fascination that arises, not just out of my love of history, but from my martial arts background.
I am not sure why I’ve always loved martial arts. As kids, my brothers and I were always making ourselves toy swords, bows and arrows, and wooden guns so we could run wild and whack each other with them. I suspect this experience probably established the first element of my love for martial arts—their physicality. The martial arts are all about knowing your own physical strength and limitations, learning those of others, and finding sneaky ways to deal to those with superior strength. Physicality and sneakiness lead straight to the next reason I have always enjoyed martial arts—they’re really fun. I’ve practiced a number of different martial arts and found a great spirit of camaraderie in all of them. And in “aikido, the early years” (aikido is the martial art I have practiced longest) training always wound up with a session of “elbow-waza”, i.e. bending our elbows as we all raised a glass together at the pub. Read the rest of this entry »