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Descent by Ken MacLeod


Author of 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award-nominated Intrusion tells a science fiction story for the twenty-first century – what happens when conspiracy theorists meet Big Brother?
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The start of a brand new epic fantasy trilogy from the author of the Stormlord series – full of scheming, spying, action and adventure.
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Category: Guest Post

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Caveman Beats Astronaut

Whenever aliens invade, it doesn’t really seem to matter how technologically superior they are.  They almost always lose.  Star Wars took a lot of flack for its Ewoks beat the Empire elements, but when you think about it, this is almost how it always goes.

In Independence Day, aliens with giant spaceships that can devastate whole cities not only lose, they lose after having already devastated most of the planet.  You would think after wiping out billions of human lives and destroying billions of dollars of vital infrastructure that they would have a lock on victory.  And you’d be wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

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For some time now I’ve been running a feature on my website called SF/F Song of the Week. Like a bar which sells books and also serves chocolate, this has the merit of combining several really good things under a single roof. And I’ve invited a number of writer friends and other folk connected with the genre to contribute their choices — as ‘blogjay’ of the week.

The selections  have been fabulous, as you’d expect, with such a huge wealth of science fiction and fantasy related songs to choose from. But for my money, the intros have been even better than the music — some of them are love poems to favourite songs, many are rich in autobiographical detail, and all offer insights into the writer’s heart and soul.

I relish Mike Cobley’s account of his experiences at University when selecting Space Station Number 5. Stephen Hunt has written a gorgeous account of his youth as a young geek in love with Sarah Brightman and Hot Gossip; before maturing into the very grown up and sophisticated geek that he now is. Mike Carey wrote a joyous piece about Genesis, a band who also dominated my teenage years. Adam Roberts wrote a piece about Gary Numan that made me laugh out loud. Lilith Saintcrow chose a filk song that made me laugh out loud even louder. Read the rest of this entry »

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A is for Alien

I love aliens. My belief is that science fiction is a genre which may and should deal with serious themes and complex ideas, but it’s also a form of fiction which is uniquely positioned to celebrate the full gamut of the fantastical and the amazing and the extraordinary.

In other words, unless the SF writer in question has a compellingly good excuse, there should ALWAYS be aliens.

Some aliens are allegorical; they’re a way to explore themes of, er, alienation and identity. Some aliens are just B.E.M.s — aliens of the bug-eyed and monstrous variety, who are only there to be zapped or blown up by a muscular hero. But some aliens are the good guys, who rebuke us with their higher moral code. That can be a little tiresome — my own theory/thesis is that for all its flaws, the human race will not prove to be the MOST evil or pernicious species in the universe. Plus, nobody loves a goody-two-shoes.

It is, I’d argue, pretty much impossible to write a credible alien, unless you ARE one. All a writer can do is hint at a strangeness beyond comprehension; which tends to result in aliens that come across like Buddhist monks, or dysfunctional nerds with no social skills. I know no examples of the former;  but most of my friends fall into the latter camp. So, actually, aliens to me aren’t all that strange.

It’s also pretty much impossible to create an ORIGINAL alien. There are only so many permutations of carbon-based life-forms that can be imagined. Two legs, three, four, or many more. Head in the wrong place. Different eyes, more eyes than we’re used to, no eyes at all. The marvels of the insect kingdom have inspired many SF writers;  the monsters of the ocean deep are also a great source of inspiration. But frankly, if it’s not a crab or an insect or a squid or a snake or a dog with the head of a jackal, it’s going to be an alien disguised as a human being. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Future of Yesterday

The last ever space shuttle mission landed on Thursday morning in Florida, and it’s in light of this that I post this blog entry.

It’s mostly an excuse to send you to this…

… which is a self-proclaimed love-letter to the wonder that has been the last thirty years of space travel, on which subject I have a proper rant on my own blog:

… and which here provoked me to have a mull about how the past has written about the future!  This is, after all, a place for science fiction and fantasy writers to ramble, and what is this genre for if not to think about The Way Things Might Be?  Read the rest of this entry »

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Have you heard the joke about the Hollywood starlet who was so dumb she slept with the writer?

Another favourite of mine is the joke about the writer who died and was offered the option of going to Heaven or to Hell.  So he went to Hell, escorted by St Peter, and was shown a room full of writers chained to desks, being beaten and whipped and abused by demons. He didn’t fancy that, so he went to Heaven and was shown a room full of writers in chains, being beaten and whipped and abused etc. The writer, baffled, asked what actually was the difference between the two places? And St Peter said, “In Heaven, the writers all have book deals.”

I love writer jokes because they’re all true;  writers are crazy people who only write because they have to.

In the course of my career I’ve met a lot of writers.  Almost all of them nice, a couple not so nice.  I’ve worked with theatre writers and movie writers, including one Oscar winner (“The British are coming!”), and as a writer myself I’ve written prime time TV cop shows, thrillers, movies (2, as co-writer), and a pretty wide variety of radio plays, as well as writing SF for those nice people in Orbit.  [NB the software on this site is programmed to automatically amend  the words 'my bloody publishers' to 'those nice people at Orbit' - clever, huh?]

Writers, you’ll be interested to hear, are all the same, no matter what medium they write for.  We’re all, in other words, wonderful, warm-hearted, generous, and totally obsessed with the ideas in our own brains.  We’re also inclined to carp; Kieran Prendeville once told me that the apposite collective noun is a ‘whinge’ of writers. Read the rest of this entry »

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“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.

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Crime and Punishment

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 »

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How to Create an Alien

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 »

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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 »

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Artificial Stupids

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 »

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