Saturday, 29 December 2007

Film review: The Golden Compass

The current Christmas fantasy blockbuster, this is based on Northern Lights (known as The Golden Compass outside the UK), the first volume of Philip Pullman's highly successful His Dark Materials trilogy. I read the trilogy a few years ago and, while I wouldn't call myself a fan, thought it worth the fairly considerable time involved (there is a total of nearly 1,300 pages). Although marketed for children, Pullman did not write for this audience - the marketing decision was based on the fact that the principal characters are children - and in fact the tale is rather grim for the young.

For those unfamiliar with the story, a brief background: this is an unusual and complex fantasy, involving a parallel world (of approximately late-Victorian technical development) with people whose souls are housed outside the body, in talking animals called daemons. The story focuses on a 12-year old English girl – Lyra Bellaqua (very well played in the film by 13-year old novice Dakota Blue Richards) – who becomes the focus of interest of the powerful religious Magisterium and its ally, the formidable Mrs Coulter (an excellent performance by Nicole Kidman, with just the right blend of beauty, charm and reasonableness covering evil intent). In this first part, young children keep disappearing and Lyra, with the aid of a truth-divining pocket-watch like device known as the alethiometer (the Golden Compass of the film title), becomes involved in trying to discover what has happened to them. Lyra's journey takes her to an experimental station in the far north, and encounters with giant talking polar bears, who wear armour and live for fighting.

When making a film of a long and complex book (six or seven hours of reading, condensed into a couple of cinematic hours), the film-makers can either cut out many characters and large chunks of the plot, or can try to include all of the key elements but treat them rather briefly. In the case of The Golden Compass, the later course has been selected. The film starts with a long, voice-over infodump to try to get the audience up and running, then (as far as I can recall) remains more or less faithful to the book thereafter, but with each scene cropped in a way which keeps the story moving quickly. This works well enough for those familiar with the plot, for whom it acts as a kind of visual refresher, but may I suspect prove confusing and even irritating to the uninitiated. On the credit side, there are many visually spectacular scenes and the CGI is as good as we have come to expect. The acting is also very good from a strong cast, including the Casino Royale pairing of the rugged Daniel Craig as Lyra's "uncle" Lord Asriel and the beautiful Eva Green as the witch-queen Serafina Pekkala.

The trilogy has attracted controversy because of its anti-religious content, which becomes stronger in the later books. Not surprisingly, the Christian churches have reacted rather badly to the success of the series, although this aspect has been played down in this first film. I presume that films of the other volumes will follow if this one is successful (which so far it seems to be, although less so in the USA).

Overall, a good effort and I will certainly be watching the sequels, if they appear.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Review: Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer

This review is of the Tor 2004 edition which also includes a novella set in the same world, Balzac's War. It is a first novel by an established short-story writer.

Veniss Underground is a dark and grim fantasy set in a dystopian future; one in which Artificial Intelligences had previously taken control only to be overthrown by a human revolt. People now live in scattered cities, each enclosed within a massive wall and surrounded by wasteland. The city of the title, Veniss (nothing to do with Venice), does not just exist above ground but has thirty levels below of steadily increasing degradation. Escape from the underground is tightly controlled and possible only by means of a lottery.

Veniss above ground is in no great shape either. Contact has been lost with planets formerly colonised, and the space ships no longer call. The city is in a slow, inevitable decline, with the administration struggling to keep its basic services functioning. Policing has been outsourced to private security firms, which have divided the city up into zones with checkpoints on the boundaries. Life is decadent for the privileged, dangerous for the rest.

There are four principal human characters in the story (plus a non-human one). Shadrach Begolem is a lottery-winner from underground and now a "fixer" for the mysterious and apparently all-powerful Quin, a genetic engineer who has created intelligent life forms, most notably giant meerkats able to speak (one of which is the non-human character). The other two are twins, Nicholas and Nicola; the former a failed artist, the latter a computer software expert helping to keep the city functioning, and Shadrach's former lover.

The viewpoint shifts between the characters: at first, Nicholas tells the story in the first person. Then the focus switches to Nicola, whose story is told in the second person. The final – and longest – part of the tale is told from Shadrach's viewpoint, in the third person. This sounds confusing but in fact works well and does not break the flow of the story: for those interested in writing as well as reading, it makes for an interesting case study.

The plot is complex, but after initially focusing on the relationships between the characters, it switches to Shadrach's attempts to find Nicola, believed missing in the underground. This is a place of gothic horror; of organ banks and grossly deformed creatures created in Quin's experiments. Some of the descriptive passages are so gruesome that they proved a bit much for your reviewer's delicate sensibilities, so were skimmed over. Despite this, there was no danger of my giving up on the story, as it was gripping enough to hold my attention to the end. It is, I suspect, a story and a world likely to stick in my mind. I was reminded a little of Cordwainer Smith, although the tone is more Bladerunner.

Veniss Underground finishes with an Afterword, a combination of a short story which gives some pre-history, and some notes in the author's voice.

The novella, Balzac's War, is set much later, in a city which had been formerly abandoned and becomes the scene of a climactic battle between the remnants of humanity and large, intelligent, genetically-engineered animals. Again, the tone is dark, grim, gruesome and dystopic.

I normally dislike the kind of stories in this book, but the author's writing is good enough to keep me reading; he has the ability to make me interested in the characters, and care about what happens to them.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Review: A Trace of Memory by Keith Laumer

Keith Laumer (1925-1993) was a prolific American SF author who specialised in fast-paced adventure stories (of which the Bolo series, concerning intelligent tanks, is best known) and comic satire, notably in the Retief books about an interstellar diplomat. A Trace of Memory, published in 1963, is a stand-alone novel in the former category.

The story is set in the (then) present day with the protagonist a capable but down on his luck American drifter called Legion. He accidentally becomes involved with Foster, a wealthy middle-aged man, who is desperate to flee some unspecified danger. To make matters worse, Foster falls into a coma while they are on the run and, the next morning, wakes up not just restored but rejuvenated. He has the appearance of a twenty year old; but no memory of who he was or what had happened to him.

Legion is drawn along in Foster's search for answers to his identity, a search which ends in the discovery of an ancient control centre from where they trigger the recall of a spacecraft which takes them to its mothership in distant Earth orbit. Foster realises that he originally came from this ship; he is able to recover some general memories of his language and culture with the aid of mental-transfer teaching devices, but is still unable to discover his identity. Foster's people are related to Earth humans, but long ago overcame the disease which causes old age. They are virtually immortal, but every century or so their bodies reset to a younger age, when their memories are wiped. To overcome this, they download their memories ready for uploading afterwards, but Foster cannot find his old memory record.

Foster takes the mothership back to his home planet in search of answers, while Legion takes the shuttle, loaded with saleable high-tech products from the mothership, back to Earth to enjoy a life of wealth and ease. This does not last; he finds himself chased off Earth and decides to take the shuttle in search of Foster. On arrival at Foster's home planet, Legion finds the situation radically different from what he expected and there are various twists and turns before the conclusion.

This book is certainly a page-turner (I finished it in one sitting) with something of the style of an old-fashioned private eye novel; in fact, it reads more as if it belonged to the 1940s rather than the 1960s. I have to admit that while it's a fun read, it isn't brilliant; the characterisation is minimal, there is no mention of women except for the brief appearance of a girlfriend, and there are plot holes which suggest a rather cursory attention to logical consequences. I have a few more of Laumer's books which have been sitting on my shelf for decades, and I hope to work my way round to re-reading them in due course because I enjoyed them as a young lad, but on this basis I'm not too optimistic. Still, at least it's short!

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Scales review

Another review of Scales, this time a long Featured Review by Nathan Brazil on the SF Site. A brief extract:

"Narrated in the first person, the very readable story suggests inspiration from Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land, the TV series Sliders, David Icke and a smattering of Harry Turtledove's Worldwar novels. I found it entertaining throughout, and finished keen to read more."

Review: City of Truth by James Morrow

Veritas is a (more or less contemporary) city in which the population has been conditioned to be completely honest at all times. As young children, they go through an agonising ritual in which they are forced to repeat lies and given electric shocks each time, until they cannot even think of lying without feeling ill.

James Morrow's satirical novella explores the implications of this for Veritas society. Some of the results are very funny, as any kind of dishonesty or unsubstantiated claims are impossible. So you have cars with such names as the "Ford Sufficient" and "Plymouth Adequate", a restaurant offering "Murdered Cow Sandwich with Wilted Hearts Lettuce and High-Cholesterol Fries", a morning TV programme called "Enduring Another Day", a "Camp Ditch-The-Kids" summer camp, the "Centre for Palliative Treatment of Hopeless Diseases" and (my favourite) an illuminated sign on the cathedral: "Assuming God Exists, Jesus May Have Been His Son".

The effect on interpersonal relationships is indicated by the vow at a traditional wedding ceremony: "To have and to hold, to love and to cherish, to the degree that these mischievous and sentimental abstractions possess any meaning." All those little "white lies" and "lies by omission" which lubricate relationships in our world are impossible, so a degree of frankness which we would consider brutally rude is the norm.

Living in this "City of Truth" is the protagonist, Jack Sperry, with his wife and young son. He is a critic, which involves destroying any artistic products (sculpture, written works and film) which are not factually accurate: which is to say, nearly all of them. His acceptance of their way of life becomes severely strained when his son falls seriously ill, and he seizes on a banned text which suggests that a positive mental attitude can cure illness. What follows is a journey into the Veritasian underworld, where there is a secret society of people who have been de-conditioned so that they can lie again. He decides to undergo this process so that he can convince his son that he can defeat this illness.

Mostly comic, at times tragic, this tale holds up a mirror to our society: not exactly a distorting mirror, but a flat one which shows the distortions in our lives. Such distortions seem to be basic to human nature and have no doubt occurred in all human cultures to some extent, but our current society has developed them into a fine art. We live in a comforting cocoon of tacitly approved deceit, hypocrisy, euphemism and "spin", so all-pervasive that we barely notice it (except when a politician is interviewed on TV). Morrow's style has been likened to Vonnegut's, but this wry little story reminded me of Swift. As a valuable reminder of the lack of truthfulness in our society, it should be read by everyone!

Saturday, 1 December 2007

On publishing, a disappointment and Interzone 213

By "on publishing" I'm not referring to the article of that name on my website (although I will probably be revising it in the light of what follows) but to an item in 'Vector', the reviews 'n interviews journal of the British Science Fiction Association. This is a very long (seven page) interview of Jo Fletcher by Graham Sleight. Jo Fletcher is editorial director of Gollancz, and she gives a frank and honest appraisal of the current British SF publishing scene which is quite the best thing I've ever read on the subject. Really fascinating for all authors (actual and prospective) and readers too; it sheds a great deal of illumination on many aspects how the system works.

The disappointment came with Peter David's satirical fantasy novel 'Sir Apropos of Nothing'. This must have had some very good reviews, because these days I don't buy books without them. My problem with the story is that I found it slow and unengaging, and not particularly amusing. It was well-enough written, and I wouldn't argue with those who like it, but it didn't hit the spot with me. I read the first four chapters (86 pages) and, had it been the same length as the typical classics I've been reviewing lately, I probably would have persevered to the end. But I noticed that it runs to almost 650 pages and I asked myself "do I really want to devote that many precious hours to this book?" And the answer came "no, not really". So I stopped.

Which brings me on to Interzone 213, which I did read from cover to cover. The usual mix of news, reviews, graphics and short stories. The front cover, showing nightmarish gothic spacecraft over a contrastingly dull-looking city of packed skyscrapers, is by Kenn Brown.

Featured in this issue is a special report on the Yokohama Worldcon (that's a science-fiction convention, to the uninitiated) which gives a flavour of the strangeness of that country as seen through western eyes. In that respect, it put me in mind of 'Lost in Translation', that (non-SF) Bill Murray film. An interesting read, reminding us that there are other worlds of SF about which we know little, due to the translation problems. I have a book which gives a rare insight into this particular world: 'The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories', edited by Apostolou and Greenberg, published by Barricade Books, USA, in 1997: recommended.

There's a regular column of short obituaries, which this time includes Robert Bussard (1928-2007), the US physicist who invented the concept of the Bussard Ramjet, a slower-than-light starship drive which will be familiar to readers of Niven's 'Known Space' series, among others.

The reviews include one of a non-fiction book: 'Beyond Human: Living with Robots and Cyborgs' by SF author Greg Benford and Elizabeth Malatre, which explores the possibilities of human interactions with increasingly intelligent machines. Personally I can't help thinking that an intelligent and vaguely humanoid companion is likely to prove highly attractive to a lot of people, being far more dependable and loyal than a human and more interesting than a dog. Provided that they don't "do a Hal" and go frighteningly wrong, of course…

The interview is with Gary Gibson, author of 'Angel Stations', 'Against Gravity' and 'Stealing Light', described as technological space operas (I can't comment, not having read them). He has some interesting observations on the nature of religious belief and its place in SF, plus the nature of space travel. As an occasional author myself, I read his account of the circumstances in which he wrote his latest novel with attention. He comments on the great benefit to authorial focus of being housebound with nothing else to do for months, but since in his case this involved floating on painkillers as a result of a major back problem I think I'll pass.

And so to the stories, with a familiar mix ranging from the conventional to the rather odd.

'Molly and the Red Hat' by Benjamin Rosenbaum, comes in the latter category, a bizarre present-day fantasy about a little girl's search for her red hat, which is rather more than it seems. It involves the Queen of the Owls, a visit to Outthrown Trashland and an angry version of herself. I enjoy contemporary urban fantasies, the sort which show bizarre and fantastic worlds running in parallel with our own (and if you do too, and you haven't yet read Sheri Tepper's 'The Marianne Trilogy', do all that you can to get hold of a copy. I posted a brief review on this blog: see the reviews index, lower left). This one was a bit too strange for my taste, with a dreamlike, or perhaps nightmarish, quality; a touch of the 'Alice in Wonderlands'.

'The Men in the Attic' by John Philip Olsen, is a story which I started out disliking. Not that it's a bad story; it featured the minds of political refugees being given virtual asylum inside the head of the principal character (while their bodies are hidden away), in such a way that he can "visit" them in their virtual apartment. What I disliked in this story is the sense of impending doom, the near-certainty that it will all end in tears. But just as I thought this was duly being delivered, an intriguing get-out scenario appeared, which redeemed the tale for me.

'The Best of Your Life' by Jason Stoddard, is one of those in which you (well, me anyway) only really figure out what's going on towards the end, so you feel you have to read it again. It's set in a dystopian near-future world in which existence is hard unless you manage to earn enough to live in a protected settlement, in which you are provided with an attractive spouse who has agreed to be 'wired', i.e. electronically stimulated to be devoted to you, in return for escaping from destitution. Which is fine until the system goes wrong…

'Odin's Spear' by Steve Bein, is a story of obsession: two mountaineers determined to climb the highest peak in the Solar System, which happens to be an ice pinnacle on Callisto, one of the moons of Jupiter. To make it a suitable challenge, they wear suits which simulate the gravity of Earth plus the reducing air pressure as they climb higher.

The story section is topped and tailed by two unrelated ones which are coincidentally set in alternate worlds in which the current western hegemony did not come to pass (is it my imagination or are alternate world stories becoming increasingly common?). Both are good reads.

In 'Metal Dragon Year', by Chris Roberson, the Muslim world has spread to include Imperial China, which becomes the centre of its power. The Muslim empire did at one time cover the world, until a successful revolt by Mexica. There is now a space race in which both powers are trying to be the first to make a manned launch. We follow the tale of the Imperial Chinese engineer given the responsibility for winning that race, but something is wrong…This is a part of the author's 'Celestial Empire' sequence, which so far includes no less than two forthcoming novels plus a third in progress.

'The Lost Xuyan Bride', by Aliette de Bodard, is set in a world in which the Chinese were the first to reach the Americas, which are now divided into three; the powerful Chinese Xuyan in the west, the Aztec Greater Mexica (an interesting coincidence in names) to the south and the American (i.e. European) east. The story follows an American private detective trapped in Xuyan, who is commissioned to find a missing teenage girl of a wealthy Xuyan family. The culture clashes are interesting, and the alternate world could support a lot more stories about this character, if the author was so minded.

I have never been a great fan of short stories (and not so far been tempted to write any) but they are beginning to grow on me as a result of reading Interzone. There is something intriguing about these brief glimpses into other realities, merely suggesting worlds which would have been explored in detail in novels. I think I prefer that approach to its converse, the long epic fantasy in which a complex world is created in exhaustive detail (with an honourable exception for Tolkien, of course: the giant surrounded by a flock of knee-high wannabes), but each to his/her own.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Scales reviews

I have updated the reviews page for Scales on my website, HERE

Review: The Paradox Men by Charles L. Harness

Charles Harness is little remembered now, but he was a significant writer at the end of SF's "Golden Age". When I checked on Wikipedia I was surprised to find that the last of his dozen novels appeared in 2002 (he died in 2005, at the age of 89) and that most of them were published in the 1980s, since I had always associated him with the 1950s and 60s. 'The Paradox Men' was his first novel, published in 1953 under another title (Flight into Yesterday). My edition, a NEL Master SF Series paperback from 1976, benefits from a substantial introduction by Brian Aldiss.

The story is set a couple of centuries in the future, on an Earth divided into two huge power blocs, with space travel only within the Solar System. A man named Alar, who has some non-human characteristics, survives (with all memory lost) a crash-landing in an unidentified spaceship and becomes a "Thief"; the Society of Thieves being a guild which provides the only organisation to oppose the government of America Imperial. A unique attribute of the Thieves is a mentally-powered armour which reacts to block fast-moving objects such as bullets, but lets through slower weapons like knives: an idea later borrowed and adapted by authors such as Frank Herbert (Dune) since it allows the romantic combination of swords and spaceships!

As well as Alar there are some memorable characters: Haze-Gaunt, the scheming and arrogant Chancellor of America Imperial; Count Shey, the sado-masochistic Imperial Psychologist; Thurmond, the ruthless Police Minister and a superb swordsman; the Microfilm Mind, a badly scarred man with the ability to synthesise vast quantities of data and jump to conclusions based on non-Aristotelian logic; the beautiful Keiris, trapped in a forced relationship with Haze-Gaunt; and her husband Kennicot Muir, a brilliant scientist and explorer believed to have died years ago but still casting a shadow over events.

Alar is hunted by Haze-Gaunt, Thurmond and Shey after being identified by the Microfilm Mind as a major threat to their regime. The pressure which this puts him under forces him to develop his unusual abilities to escape from their traps. At the same time he is trying to solve the mystery of his arrival on Earth five years before, studying records of strange astronomical disturbances before his spaceship arrived. And America Imperial is completing a spaceship with a new kind of drive, designed by Muir, which is believed to be capable of exceeding the speed of light. The ship is called the T-Twenty-two; a reference to the historian Toynbee's classification of civilisations which (for the present) concludes with our own at Toynbee Twenty-one. T-22 is the theoretical next civilisation to follow after our own collapses, and it is hoped that the FTL spaceship will provide a way of surviving that collapse. The T-Twenty-two bears a remarkable resemblance to Alar's wreck, which becomes increasingly significant as Alar wrestles with the concepts of space and time to understand what is going on. There are two dramatic climaxes; one on board a huge platform hovering above the surface of the sun to collect precious elements, the other on an Earth on the verge of a nuclear Armageddon. The finale is as breathtakingly ambitious as one could hope for.

Typical of the SF novels of its era, 'The Paradox Men' is short, fast-paced, and concentrates on mind-stretching strangeness rather than extended character development. By modern standards there are some clunky contrivances, notably an early info-dump in the form of an unconvincing extended conversation between two of the principal characters, but it is still a real page-turner. Aldiss memorably describes this type of fiction as 'Widescreen Baroque', which gives a flavour of the style. It won't be to everyone's taste, but I enjoyed re-reading it and am looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with some of Harness's other novels.

Friday, 16 November 2007


I am a member of both the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) and the British Fantasy Society (BFS). Readers may be interested in my assessment of how worthwhile they are.

First, some background: the BSFA is the older of the two and is currently celebrating its 50th birthday. The BFS broke away from the BSFA in 1971, primarily to focus on horror and fantasy. However, the distinction between them is not clear-cut: the BSFA includes reviews of works of fantasy, while the BFS reviews science fiction. Both of them are essentially fan clubs, providing publications containing news, book and film reviews, interviews with authors, and so on. More on that later. In addition, the BFS organises a national convention each autumn (the last one was held in central England, in Nottingham), plus occasional "open nights" elsewhere, while the BSFA holds monthly meetings in London, which is fine if you live in London… Both organisations provide annual awards for various categories of publications, with members involved in the selection process.

The BSFA produces six mailings per year of two magazines; Matrix (to become free online in 2008) and Vector. Matrix is the "media magazine", with news, short articles, and reviews of films and TV programmes. Vector is the "critical journal", with articles about books, interviews with authors, and lots of book reviews: in the current issue, more than twenty long reviews and almost as many short ones. In addition, two copies per year of Focus are sent out; this is a magazine for writers, including articles by writers on various aspects of the craft. In the present issue, there is (among other things) guidance on the value of agents plus a list of British ones receptive to SFF works (and those who aren't), a long "Masterclass" by Christopher Priest (on inspiration and observation) and an authoritative article on "Tomorrow's Soldier: The Future of War" although modesty forbids my naming the author…The BSFA also provides support for new writers via a series of Orbiters: "online work-shopping groups where prospective writers can regularly submit their work to gain constructive critiquing from their contemporaries and also contribute their thoughts on the work of others".

The BFS publishes Prism, a quarterly newsletter (in A5 format rather than the A4 of the BSFA mags) which contains news of the society's doings, plus (a nice touch) items from members concerning their latest publications. It contains some general articles, but most of it is filled with reviews; about a dozen of SFF books (including some from small press publishers) and similar numbers of both graphic novels and roleplaying games plus associated fiction. They also occasionally publish (free to members) Dark Horizons, which consists of about a dozen short stories with some author interviews and other articles mixed in, plus other anthologies from time to time.

Both organisations have websites offering news and information, plus an opportunity for feedback and discussion via a blog or forum. The BSFA website is HERE, the BFS site is HERE. The BSFA launched a new site a few weeks ago, which is still a work in progress. At the moment, it is difficult to find much information, for instance about their publications or the annual SF convention, Eastercon. The BFS site was also revamped recently, but is complete and quite informative.

The annual membership fee for each organisation is in the region of £25-30

There is clearly some overlap between the two organisations, but each has its own strengths. In the case of the BSFA it's the support for new writers, plus the greater volume of reviews and articles in a rather more professional style of publication. The BFS offers opportunities for writers to have their short stories or poems published (albeit without payment) and seems to work harder to bring members together, both at the annual convention and also at Open Nights in various locations – not just London.

I joined both organisations about a year ago and, although I haven't attended any of their events, consider them both worth belonging to for the modest cost involved.

Saturday, 10 November 2007


Part 1 (the first four chapters) of my SF novel, Scales, may now be read online, HERE. This follows what happens to a present-day Englishman who recovers from massive burns to find that he has acquired some decidedly non-human characteristics. At first he tries to find a way of life which makes the best use his new-found abilities. But later, when he discovers exactly what happened to him and why, he becomes involved with parallel worlds, alien civilisations, and mortal threats to humanity.

Review: Ringworld by Larry Niven

Larry Niven was my favourite SF author in the 1970s. I must have read everything he wrote at that time, and still have many of his novels and collections. I particularly enjoyed his stories set in Known Space, covering the history of humanity – and various alien species – through a long period of future history. The first of these novels was The World of Ptavvs, published in 1966, but he hit the jackpot in 1970 with Ringworld, which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards as well as fulsome praise from some of the SF world's giants. It was a sensation at the time.

I can well recall being enthralled by Ringworld, and read it three times over a period of a few years (I have read very few books that often). Now I've just finished reading it for a fourth time, after a gap of decades, and I am pleased and relieved to say that I still find it as good as ever.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, the story is set many centuries in the future and concerns an expedition to explore a strange artefact in the form of an enormous ring surrounding a distant sun; an artificial world made from incredibly strong material, with an inner surface area equivalent to three million Earths.

Why do I like the story so much? For no one reason, but a combination of them. The writing style strikes the balance that I like: there's enough description to draw a clear picture, but not an ounce of padding. There's no purple prose, but enough mystery, adventure, tension, surprise and wonder - plus more than a dash of humour - to keep the pages turning effortlessly. There are three clearly defined and very well-drawn characters: a human girl bred for good luck; a huge, ferocious, intelligent, cat-like Kzin (formerly humanity's deadly enemy); and a Puppeteer - perhaps the most memorable and enjoyable of alien creations. Plus, in the central role, Louis Wu, the 200 year old human who provides the point of view; the archetypal 'rational man' with whom I find it natural to identify and empathise. And above all, a plethora of wonderful, mind-boggling, science-fictional ideas, which any present-day writer would spread over a fat trilogy (not that many writers could come up with any ideas half so good). There is only one slight reservation I have; the credibility of the "luck" factor, which is fundamental to the story but never explained.

An important part of the attraction of 'Ringworld' is, I think, nostalgia. Not just because I first read the book as a young man, but because of the whole tone of the book. It has an underlying light-hearted optimism which seems to be generally absent from today's fiction of the future. This is a universe in which humanity has survived to become a space-faring race dealing (mostly) peaceably with alien races as a matter of course, one in which disease and death have been almost conquered. Life is good, and there appear to be no serious worries (other than escaping from the explosion of the Galactic Core, which wouldn't affect Earth for another 20,000 years…). The kind of future which most of us would grab with both hands, given half a chance.

My one regret; I wish I could write stories like that!

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Review: War in 2080 by David Langford

This book, which was published in 1979, was an attempt to look forwards to the likely technological changes in warfare over the next century. The author (now a well-known SF author, critic and commentator) makes two working assumptions from the start: that the predicted exhaustion of energy reserves would not take place until after an alternative – possibly fusion power – was in place; and that a nuclear Armageddon would be avoided.

The book provides a good summary of the development of weapons up to that point. As a specialist in weapons technology myself I didn't see much to quibble over, except that the author repeatedly confuses warhead or bomb weight with the high explosive content. The RAF's Grand Slam bomb did not contain ten tons of the bangstuff: that was the total bomb weight including the steel casing, fuzing system and the aerodynamic surfaces, and the actual weight of HE was about half of that.

Of closer interest to SF fans is the analysis of how different types of conventional weapons would work in space. Again, a good summary, with some useful tips for SF writers to note (you do not want to turn off readers by making some simple error in the basic physics of this).

Next comes consideration of nuclear weapons; again, a very good and useful summary of the different types, how they work and their effects. And again, a small quibble: MIRV is said to mean "Multiple Independently Retargetable Vehicles", which implies that the targets could be changed en route. In fact it stands for "Multiple Independently-targetable Re-entry Vehicles" which has a slightly different meaning.

The potential of more recent weapon systems is considered next, such as fuel-air explosives and lasers (the options for the latter being examined in some detail). Even less-lethal weapons for crowd dispersal are described, although a couple of the technologies now being tested (an extremely loud sonic system, and a millimetre-wave skin-heating weapon) are not included. Chemical and biological warfare are covered also, as are some more exotic possibilities such as artificially triggering tsunamis, earthquakes, or other "natural" disasters.

The author then moves off-planet to examine warfare in near space, before turning to the issues around interstellar warfare (in fact, he goes way beyond what could conceivably be achieved in his 100-year timescale). As well as the use of nuclear and beam weapons in space and possible countermeasures to them, he examines the potential for anti-matter weapons and considers the theoretical techniques and energy levels involved in various means of destroying a planet, or life on it. In passing, some advanced physics is explained (in this section there is some overlap with Michio Kaku's "Parallel Worlds" reviewed on this blog on 13 October).

Considering the age of this book, it stands up very well. The science has changed hardly at all, and for non-scientific readers I can't think of any better discussion of advanced weaponry. I can happily recommended it as a good read and a useful reference. However, there are omissions. Although conscious of the future energy supply problem, he does not extend this to include the impact of the shortage of other essentials (even though at least one SF novel of the period I can recall dealt with conflicts around a future shortage of fresh water). There is also no reference to the potential consequences of climate change, beyond pondering how this might be artificially induced (but, to be fair, no-one else was worrying about that at the time).

On the technical side, the notable deficiencies are a lack of any reference to stealth technologies (again, a subsequent development), and an assumption that warfare will become increasingly high-tech. The author stated, "high technology limits you to fighting large-scale technological war: it's very difficult to go back". Current events in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate otherwise. Compared with their counterparts in the Second World War, our infantry now benefit from some advanced technologies – much improved radio communications, night-sights for their guns, and support from precision-guided weapons – but they are still kicking down doors and shooting people at close range with chemically-propelled projectile weapons. Not at all the kind of warfare which the author envisaged, yet there is no indication that this won't still be going on into the foreseeable future.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Review: Jog Rummage, by Grahame Wright

This little book has been sitting on my shelf for almost three decades. I recollected having enjoyed it the first time (I wouldn't have kept it otherwise), but had almost completely forgotten the plot, so it was obviously time for a re-read.

And what a strange story this is. The first part concerns a mysterious world inhabited by Jogs and Rats. It gradually becomes clear (although it is never spelled out) that the Jogs are hedgehogs. These are no ordinary animals; they are intelligent and converse with each other (the two species share a language), and seem very human. The Jogs and the Rats live on opposite sides of a large body of water and their relationships are sometimes cooperative, sometimes antagonistic. This part of the story is told entirely from their perspective (and especially that of the young but wise Jog, Rummage) so many aspects of their environment are taken for granted and not explained, leaving the reader to puzzle out what they might be; particularly the fixed Moon and the Great Star. The climax of this part of the tale is an expedition to the Great Star, which can be reached only by climbing a huge mountain.

The second part takes up the story from the perspective of Elizabeth, a young and lonely disabled girl. She has a strange and vivid imagination, and lives in her own world as much as the real one; it is difficult for the reader to sort fact from fantasy in her thoughts. The context is contemporary, in an unnamed town or city somewhere in England. She lives with her father who scrapes out a living as a street newspaper-seller, and who has a mysterious past which he won't explain to her. Elizabeth imagines a golden age in the past, when her mother was still alive, and is convinced that if she can only discover what happened to her father and put it right, all will be well. By chance, she stumbles on the world of the Jogs and the Rats as she searches for the answer to her father's plight.

The third part of the story switches back to the perspective of the Jogs and the Rats, and reveals what Elizabeth's arrival means to their world.

This novel is difficult to characterise. Possibly as a result of this, it does not seem to have been republished since the 1970s and the author isn't listed as having published anything else. The world of the Jogs and the Rats is nothing like as light-hearted as in "The Wind in the Willows", it tends more towards the grimmer tone of "Watership Down". The depiction of the human world is also realistic and at times brutal. The narrative is adult and often philosophical, especially in the human world (the viewpoint switches between various adults as well as Elizabeth). The cover text compares the work to Tolkien, but I find it difficult to see any similarities. Despite first appearances, this is not a book for young children. It is, however, a very unusual and rather haunting story, and has been returned to its place of honour on my shelf.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Review: Wolfbane by Frederick Pohl and C M Kornbluth

It is the 23rd century. Two hundred years before, a small planet had entered the Solar System, captured the Earth and the Moon, and pulled them out of their orbit into interstellar space. The controlling intelligences of the wanderer were enigmatic mobile Pyramids measuring 35 yards on each edge and possessing incomprehensible powers. One of them planed off the top of Mount Everest and had sat there ever since. Every attempt by humanity to attack the Pyramids and their planet ended in failure, and the Sun had become just another star in the night sky. The Earth remained habitable because the Pyramids turned the Moon into a mini-Sun. This faded over time and had to be relit every five years, causing a cycle of heat and cold which played havoc with the Earth's climates, sea levels and agriculture.

Humanity had suffered badly from these changes and the population had dropped to just 100 million, most of whom had to survive on 1,000-1,500 calories a day. The perpetual hunger had led to a low-energy lifestyle in which people lived their lives slowly within an elaborate structure of approved social behaviour, with every word and gesture being carefully stylised (the authors have some fun with this). Displays of emotion were solecisms, as was any attempt to take more than one was entitled to. Meditation was the most popular pastime, with the aim being to achieve "Translation": when someone reached the state of having a perfectly blank mind, a swirl (known as an "Eye") formed in the air above them and they disappeared in an instant.

Not all of humanity fitted into this pattern. A small minority, called "Wolves" by the rest, lived selfish, competitive, aggressive lives. When discovered they were seized and ritually killed (in a particularly unpleasant way) by the majority.

Glenn Tropile was a young misfit who, despite his traditional upbringing, had discovered and deliberately encouraged Wolfish tendencies in himself. He was caught and sentenced to death, but managed to escape with the aid of the members of a settlement composed entirely of Wolves, which had been able to establish itself and remain hidden from the rest. The Wolves ate well, being efficient scavengers, and they did not meditate. But Tropile could not give up this one aspect of his former life, and was duly Translated.

More of the plot cannot be revealed without spoiling it for new readers, but suffice to say that the Pyramids had a particular use for humanity which eventually proved to be their own weakness. The Wolves lead the resistance against them, taking the battle to the Pyramids' planet.

Pohl and Kornbluth were among the leading SF writers in the 1940s and 1950s. They wrote separately but are probably best remembered for their collaborations, of which "The Space Merchants" is the most famous. "Wolfbane" was first published in 1959. The plot was a departure from traditional genre themes: to start a novel with the Earth being wrenched out of the Solar System, leading to the death of 99% of humanity, was unusual to say the least. Because the human culture described is quite alien to us (although not unlike that of parts of ancient China) the story has not dated in the same way as most SF of this period. It could have been written today, although a modern author would certainly make the story stretch over far more than its 160 pages and would spend a lot more time in developing the characters. I'm not at all sure that this would be an improvement: "Wolfbane", like so many of the products of the "Golden Age" of SF, is a novel of ideas and concepts to stretch the imagination. In that respect it still works today, benefiting also from being so fast-paced that it's difficult to put down. It's well worth the brief time needed to read this little classic.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Scales review

An uncommon sight: a review of my novel Scales has been spotted on my discussion forum, here!

Those able to summon up a vague interest can check out other reviews and read the first couple of chapters of the novel online, via links from my home page here.

Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku

Not fiction this time, but a book which seeks to explain to the non-scientist the development of current ideas in advanced physics. Tailor-made for me then, as although I subscribe to the 'New Scientist' magazine to try to keep up with developments, I have found current cosmological concepts to be more or less incomprehensible.

The author of 'Parallel Worlds' explains the revolution in thinking from Newton through Einstein to quantum physics, string theory and beyond. He explains that the existence of an infinite number of parallel, branching worlds is not a fanciful SF notion but may well be an inevitable consequence of the quantum universe. He concludes with speculation about the way in which our universe may develop in the far future, and what an advanced civilisation might be able to do to escape from its fate as the universe dies.

Michio Kaku has an accessible writing style, easy to follow, with no equations (except, of course, E=mc2) and with any necessary jargon clearly explained. There is a glossary at the end in case you forget the meaning of any of the terms he uses. Absorption is also helped by the way in which he divides each chapter into manageable chunks, each with its own sub-heading. This is not a kiddies' primer though, and concentration is required to understand the strange concepts which he describes.

What will be of particular interest to SF readers is that Kaku is clearly an SF fan himself. The book is littered with references to SF books, films and TV series, as he uses them to illustrate the concepts he describes. The Matrix films, Star Trek and Sliders are all mentioned as are many novels; for instance, a couple of pages are devoted to an analysis of Greg Bear's 'Eon'. I was surprised by some of the early SF novels he discussed which I was unaware of, for example Edwin Abbot's 1884 novel 'Flatland', concerning a race of beings who inhabit a two-dimensional world and are completely unaware of the existence of the third dimension.

So did the author succeed in his aim in making modern physics understandable? Well, I won't pretend to have completely grasped all of the weird, counter-intuitive concepts he discusses (I suspect that a doctorate in physics would be needed for that) but I do feel much more comfortable about tackling those articles on cosmology in 'New Scientist'. It is also, of course, an excellent reference work for hard SF authors looking for a scientific basis for their plots. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Interzone 212

This magazine shows strange variations in the binding method, paper quality and the use of colour. This issue (Sept-Oct 07) is on matt paper and monochrome only, except for the cover. The format remains the same however, with SFF news and comment, several short stories, and book, film and other media reviews (including podcasts this time), plus the odd author interview (Charles Stross in this issue – not that he's particularly odd…).

The stories (all of which tend towards the bizarre in the Interzone tradition) are as follows:

Feelings of the Flesh, by Douglas Elliott Cohen. A fantasy set on what seems to be a post-apocalyptic Earth in which humanoid Aberrates live alongside (and in a state of lethal conflict with) normal humans. These Aberrates are of various types, but all have the ability to remove a particular sense from humans for their own pleasure, and are called Tasters, Sighters, Feelers, Listeners or Smellers accordingly. The story concerns a bounty hunter's long search for the Feeler who killed his love. A grim tale, but it finishes on a hopeful note.

Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth Lyn Powell. A near-future tale concerning a cartoon character, transferred to virtual reality, who takes on a life of his own through an online learning programme, with catastrophic results for human technology. What you might call a "pre-apocalyptic" tale.

A Handful of Pearls by Beth Bernobich. A disturbing fantasy about a sexually disturbed man and a tortured young girl.

Dada Jihad by Will McIntosh. Another story in what could be described as a near-future apocalyptic world, in this case as a result of a gradual deterioration in civilisation as a result of present trends, rather than any dramatic single event. A young scientist struggles to earn her PhD, very much against the odds.

The Algorithm by Tim Ackers. A fantasy in a medieval-level world concerning a Church based on machinery found in strange vessels which occasionally float downriver and are believed to come from God. One of these is found to contain a young girl, who has a message…This is really about the arbitrary way in which humanity builds belief structures, and the intensity with which they will be defended.

All of the stories are worth a read, if collectively rather depressing (it would be nice to have a few upbeat tales scattered through future editions), but The Algorithm seems most likely to stick in the memory. However, I had to laugh at the editorial note at the end of that one: "Tim wrote this story in a lined moleskin notebook with a brushed aluminium Lamy Studio fountain pen and antique brown ink." Surely a blatant bid for inclusion in Private Eye's Pseuds Corner!

Sunday, 30 September 2007

Review: Saucer / Saucer: The Conquest by Stephen Coonts

These two novels were published in 2001 and 2004 respectively. 'Saucer' is set in the present day and describes what happens when a perfectly preserved - and fully functional - flying saucer is discovered in the Sahara, embedded in rock sediments 140,000 years old. The hero of the story, Rip Cantrell, is a young researcher who makes the find. With the aid of a former US Air Force test pilot Charlotte "Charley" Pine, he steals the saucer out from under the noses of various groups who arrive to claim it. What follows is an exciting contest as various governmental and private organisations battle to claim the prize.

'Saucer: The Conquest' takes up the story a year later. We are evidently in a slightly different parallel universe, in which the French government is manning and supplying the only base on the Moon. A wealthy French entrepreneur is funding much of the project, but he has a secret agenda: a saucer-derived anti-gravity weapon at the Moonbase which is capable of wreaking limitless destruction on Earth, and which he intends to use to rule the world. Charley Pine has taken a job as pilot on one of the French 'space shuttles' and of course becomes involved in battling the threat, as does Rip Cantrell. A series of space and aerial combats involving saucer beam weapons takes place before the finale.

Coonts is a writer of light adventure techno-thrillers rather than science fiction, and these books are very much in that mould. 'Saucer' is the more successful work, in my view, because there is only the one "MacGuffin" - the saucer itself - and the novel is otherwise very much a contemporary all-action story. It's an easy, undemanding read and the author is a good enough story-teller to keep the pages turning.

'The Conquest' takes a sharp step towards the more fantastical James Bond films - I kept expecting the villain to start stroking a fluffy white cat - and therefore requires a more strenuous suspension of disbelief. I was initially unimpressed, but Coonts' story-telling powers eventually won out and I carried on to the end.

Neither book advances the state of the art - indeed, they could have been written decades ago - but they're an entertaining way of passing the time if you need a break from more serious SF. This particular series may not yet be at an end, because there's a hook at the end of 'The Conquest' which suggests that a third volume may well be along sometime.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Harry Potter in 3D!

I should start by admitting that I'm not a particular fan of the Harry Potter series. I've only read one of the books; the first one, a few years ago, to find you what all the fuss was about. I concluded that I would have really enjoyed it when I was aged 8 or 10, but wasn't moved to read any others. However, last year my wife felt like watching some light entertainment on TV and I discovered that I had the first Potter film on video (I video TV films in much the same way that I buy books: I always collect far more than I've time to deal with). We watched it and, to my surprise (since she is no SFF fan), she enjoyed it. So we've since watched all of the others which have appeared on TV.

We were recently in London for a few days and since there was only one play we fancied ("The Last Confession", a very good Vatican drama starring David Suchet) we saw the latest Bourne film the next evening (a lot less intellectual, but good of its type and quite a blast) and had the third evening spare – which is when we spotted that the most recent Harry Potter film (the Order of the Phoenix) was on at the Waterloo IMAX cinema.

I'd visited an IMAX once before and was impressed by the spectacle. For those of you unfamiliar with them, they show films shot on specially large film stock and projected onto a giant screen, with huge depth as well as width. By comparison, viewing the usual cinema widescreen is like watching through a letterbox. However, they don't usually show programmes which we're interested in seeing. This time was different, so we duly went along.

The programme started with trailers of some of their other films, many of which seemed to be CGI productions. The novelty was that they were in 3D. It's many decades since I last saw a 3D film and the technology has moved on – and then some. You still have to wear special glasses but they're no longer red and green (I presume that they use Polaroid lenses at different angles to separate the images, but I haven't enquired). The effect of this in combination with the huge screen is simply amazing. To give one example, an underwater scene showed a shoal of fish which swam towards the viewer. The effect was so realistic that it was tempting to try to reach out and touch the fish as they swam up to us. It reminded me of the Star Trek holodecks! If you've never been to an IMAX theatre and get the chance, go and see any 3D production – it doesn't matter what it is – just for the experience.

So to the Potter film, the finale of which was also in 3D (not to quite such dramatic effect as the CGI films, but it still added considerable depth to the scenes). It looked great on the big screen, you feel that you’re a part of what's going on rather than watching from a distance. I won't bother to recount the plot (you either know it or you're not interested) but it continued with the tale of Potter at Hogwarts, with the mix being much as before. There were some oddities and loose ends which I presume resulted from a desire to include as much as possible of the book: Hagrid is initially absent on a mission to recruit the Giants to their cause, but the outcome is inconclusive and we never hear about the Giants again (although Hagrid does produce a giant half-brother, with no explanation for their difference in size); a strange girl, who changes her hair colour with her mood, appears as a member of the Order of the Phoenix but after one scene never appears again; another rather fey blonde girl appears at the school and is given some prominence but doesn't appear to add much to the plot.

I find these films entertaining enough to watch, but not especially involving. One of the weaknesses in my view is Harry Potter himself: the action goes on all around him, but he mainly seems to stand there looking blank or apprehensive. My favourite character is Hermione; Emma Watson is a talented young actress and her portrayal of her character's quirks and expressions always makes me smile.

So when the next Potter film comes out, we'll be looking for it to appear on IMAX…

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Review: Night Walk by Bob Shaw

It is the 22nd century and humanity has spread to nineteen planets scattered across the Galaxy. They are connected by spaceships using portals in "null-space", a little-understood phenomenon which permits instantaneous transits across interstellar distances. There is a catch, however; the portals are few and far between, and the routes to other planetary systems long and complicated, requiring hundreds or thousands of "jumps". What's worse, it is impossible to return by the same route; an entirely different series of jumps must be found. The paths through the portals have only been discovered by trial and error, through sending out countless automated probes of which only a tiny percentage return. So the discovery of routes to new, habitable planets is of critical importance to relieving population pressures.

The hero of 'Night Walk', Sam Tallon, is a research physicist turned secret agent sent to Emm Luther, a colonised planet which has broken away from Earth, to discover the co-ordinates of a new planet which the Lutherans have found. His attempts to escape with the information fail, and he is blinded before being sent to an escape-proof prison isolated by a vast swamp and guarded by automated guns firing heat-seeking missiles. There he meets with another blind prisoner, Logan Winfield, who has spent years trying to restore his vision by developing glasses fitted with micro-cameras and a system of direct stimulation of the optic nerves (prosthetics being banned by the Lutherans for religious reasons). Tallon brings his research skills to bear on the problem and, with the surprising assistance of a senior prison official, is able to solve them by abandoning the cameras and designing the glasses to tune in on and display whatever a nearby person or animal can see. With this aid, they are able to put into effect the escape plan which Winfield has devised. The rest of the story focuses on Tallon's efforts to escape back to Earth and his adventures (including romance) along the way.

This story was written forty years ago and it must be thirty since I last read it. Shaw is one of my favourite SF authors: from the 1960s until his death in the mid-1990s he wrote 26 novels plus a large number of short stories. Most of his novels were stand-alones, set in a wide variety of environments and with equally varied plots and themes. All were quite short by modern standards ('Night Walk' is only 140 pages), fast-paced and intelligently written, and he was a great story-teller; his books are hard to put down.

So how does 'Night Walk' stand up today? Very well indeed; it is as good a read as ever. Shaw is excellent at creating interesting environments and plot devices and exploring their implications. The parasitic glasses are a fascinating idea and Shaw has fun with their possibilities and limitations (tuning in on the vision of a man who is hunting him, for instance). I would have liked a little more attention given to the effects of the different types of vision that animals and birds can provide; some wasted opportunities here, I think (although possibly less was known about animal eyesight at the time). Despite the short length and fast pace, he even finds time to outline the socio-economic structure of Emm Luther, which has consequences for the plot. I was slightly surprised that, very close to the climax, Shaw slows the pace down by having Tallon wrestle for several pages with the advanced mathematics and physics needed to solve the problem of null-space, but it's still an excellent read with a satisfying conclusion.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Review: Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold

This is the second (in terms of story chronology) of the author's Miles Vorkosigan series, and follows on immediately from 'Shards of Honour', reviewed in this blog on 1 August. Cordelia is now married to Lord Aral Vorkosigan and pregnant with their first child (Miles – who finally makes an appearance at the end of the book). The story follows the fortunes of Cordelia as she first struggles to adapt to life on Barrayar, then faces assassination attempts and finally a civil war with her usual ingenuity and courage.

I was not initially impressed by this story. In the first seven chapters (over a third of the book) not a lot happens, and it is basically an historical romance with a few dispensable SF trimmings: new bride accompanies powerful husband to his homeland and has problems adjusting to strange customs. It is all about the minutiae of social interactions, politics and dress, which isn't what I read SF for.

After that, the story gets moving and Bujold's story-telling ability turns the rest of the novel into a real page-turner. There is even an SF element which is important to the plot: the replicator. One detailed gripe: her decision to call all of the Barrayan nobles Vor-something caused me a lot of confusion, I was forever scratching my head to distinguish between Vortala, Vorhalas, Vorpatril, Vordarian and so on.

So far, I have slightly mixed feelings about this series. Bujold is an intelligent, perceptive writer who can handle action scenes as well as she does the social ones, and her characters are great. She writes as well as anyone I can think of. However, as I commented in my review of 'Shards of Honour', the SF elements tend to be minor aspects of her stories, and in Barrayar this is even more true than in 'Shards'. Despite this, I was sufficiently hooked by 'Barrayar' to want to proceed to the next in the series.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

On marketing and success

Marketing is an issue for most authors these days, not just for those like me who self-publish. Only those lucky enough to be given full support from a big publisher can sit back and let it happen, but they are the chosen few. The costs of extensive advertising, and of paying bookstores to feature books in displays, are beyond the reach of individuals or small publishers, and even the big publishers have to be selective.

So the great majority of authors have to spend time on boosting their own chances of success. The traditional routes are well known, the main one being to send out review copies to all appropriate paper and electronic journals (but there are far more books than there are review slots, and well-known authors and big publishers tend to take precedence). The internet permits other alternatives, such as websites, MySpace, blogs like this one, and book discussion forums (although most of the forums understandably take a dim view of authors trying to promote their own work). Perhaps one of the best routes, particularly for those of us who use POD publishing and rely on on-line sales, is to accumulate a lot of reviews from satisfied readers on amazon. Even that has its downside, however, with the unscrupulous getting their friends and family to post glowing reviews (something which amazon is trying to address). There is also, of course, a Catch-22 with amazon reviews: getting many good ones probably boosts sales a lot, but since only a tiny percentage of readers bothers to comment, you need a lot of sales before you can get those reviews.

The problem for authors is that however much effort you put into marketing, the results are completely unpredictable. I have been reflecting on this lately due to the varied fortunes of my two novels. At the time that the first one, 'The Foresight War', was published at the end of 2004, I knew little about fiction publishing, and decided to self-publish because I wanted to hit a particular publication date (the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War 2). I put very little effort into marketing: a few review copies, a few mentions on websites, and that was all. Yet the book started selling immediately and has sold steadily ever since. Despite the fact that I paid for a full service from my publishers (Authors Online), profits from book sales recovered those costs some time ago and continue to deliver a small but steady income.

For my second novel, 'Scales', I was much more organised. To minimise the costs, I did more of the preparatory work myself (and a special thank-you to Oleg Volk, who designed the cover for me), and I took a much more systematic approach to marketing, sending out a lot more review copies and providing details to many different booksellers. I was even lucky enough to be interviewed for a podcast on 'The Writing Show', as I described in an earlier post. However, the book's sales since its publication earlier this year have so far been depressingly slow. More experienced self-published authors tell me that this is normal, that I should be patient, and that I was lucky the first time, but I can't help thinking that something more than luck is involved.

One possible variable is of course the quality of the work, but I doubt that is a factor. 'The Foresight War' is actually weak on some of the usual elements of fiction, particularly characterisation, because I wrote it in order to explore ideas about an alternative World War 2, so the characters are mainly there to carry the plot. 'Scales' is much more focused on the principal character (and the story is told in the first person to emphasise this), and the feedback I have had from those who have read both is that it is a much better novel. It did get off to an unfortunate start with one reviewer who took a great dislike to it (it happens; something which all authors have to live with) but the few reviews posted since then have been much more favourable.

The conclusion which I have come to is that it is the plot which makes the difference. While 'The Foresight War' is probably of little interest to most readers of fiction, it appeals strongly to those fascinated by the Second World War, and particularly those who enjoy discussing the "what ifs" of that conflict. There are discussion forums which focus on just that, and their members are interested in hearing about novels on the subject. In fact, there aren't that many novels published which deal with such 'alternative WW2' scenarios, so there is little competition.

'Scales', on the other hand, fits into the mainstream SF category. It's set in the present day and concerns what happens to a man who acquires non-human characteristics and abilities as a result of an accident. It is, I am told, much more interesting and enjoyable for non-WW2 enthusiasts than 'The Foresight War'. However, it is battling for attention with countless others and, being self-published, has a much lower profile. It's simply getting lost in the sea of fiction.

So what lessons can be drawn from this?

The first is that success (particularly for self-published works) is more likely if a story appeals to a niche market which can be identified and reached.

The second is that it is easier to build sales if succeeding novels are in the same genre; and easier still if they form a series, which is why publishers like authors to write sequels to successful novels.

Finally, a philosophical approach is required. Most novels (whether traditionally or self-published) lose money, which is why publishers put such a lot of effort into identifying and promoting the few best-sellers which make all of the profit.

To sum up; write if you must, publish if you can, market as vigorously as you feel able to, but keep your expectations low and be prepared to be very patient and persistent!

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Review: Wasp by Eric Frank Russell

This story, first published in 1958, is by one of the old masters of SF. It is set in the far future during an extended war between the human and Sirian space empires. The humans have the edge in technology but the Sirians have far greater numbers, so a novel way must be found to reduce the numbers the Sirians can deploy.

The answer is to send in a "wasp"; the analogy being with a multiple-fatality auto accident caused when a wasp got into the car and started buzzing around the driver. Men with pre-war experience of living on Sirian planets are recruited to be disguised as Sirians (not difficult: they are basically purple-skinned humans) and dropped on Sirian planets to cause as much trouble as possible.

The story follows one wasp – James Mowry – who is deposited with a cache of sabotage/subversion material on one of the target planets. He starts out by creating an imaginary Sirian resistance movement and liberally distributing posters, allegedly from this movement, around towns and cities. He then engineers a number of incidents, which he publicises as the work of his resistance movement, in his efforts to get the Sirian authorities worried enough to divert considerable resources to deal with this threat.

Naturally all does not go to plan, and what follows is a gripping thriller. By modern standards it is very short (140 pages) and the relentless pace meant that I finished it at one sitting.

It is probably thirty years or more since I last read it, and I was curious to see how it stood up. I enjoyed the read but I have to admit that, surprisingly for the author and period, the SF elements are weak. The Sirian planet is virtually the same as Earth; the Sirians are the same as humans in their culture and personalities, and their towns and infrastructure are basically mid-twentieth century Earth, except for electric vehicles running on broadcast power. With a few changes the story could easily have been set on Earth, for instance in Japan in the Second World War; a notion reinforced by a suspicious resemblance between the name of the Sirian secret police – the Kaitempi – and that of the Japanese military police, the Kempetai.

Still, it's an entertaining read and worth the brief time required, should you come across it.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Just a note to let you know that, due to other commitments, I will be dropping to a weekly post here, probably on Sundays (but don't hold me to that!) .

Review: The Seedling Stars by James Blish

This compilation of three novellas and a short story was first published in 1957. They are set in the same universe, starting with the colonisation of the Solar System and concluding thousands of years later with humanity widely spread across the galaxy. However, the theme of the stories is very different from the space opera which this might suggest.

The first novella, 'Seeding Program', features the battle over the best method of colonising the Solar System, using three competing methods: building airtight domes around settlements, terraforming the worlds, or modifying human beings so that they could live in very hostile environments, by means of drastic genetic work before conception. Big business strongly favoured terraforming, as it was the most expensive solution and promised big profits over a long period. They were accordingly strongly opposed to the genetic modifications producing 'Adapted' people as these would bring them no such benefits, and closed down the work – but not before a colony of the Adapteds was set up on the surface of Ganymede. The story features one man who was later modified in a similar way and sent to Ganymede as a spy, with the aim of closing down the settlement. Naturally, all does not go to plan.

'The Thing in the Attic' moves far into the future, during the programme of 'seeding the stars' with Adapted humans. In this story, the humans become small, monkey-like, tree-dwelling beings living in a world dominated by a huge forest. It follows the adventures of a small group of rebels who are sentenced to live on the very dangerous forest floor. The theme here is the need to move from their comfortable environment and overcome the dangers of the surface if they are to conquer their world.

The third novella is a well-known classic: 'Surface Tension'. In this case another seeding starship crashes on a wet and almost barren planet, and the only form of humanity they can devise is at the microscopic level, living in ponds. They are left a 'history' in tiny engraved plates, but find it difficult to understand. The epic journey some of them make in a two-inch 'spaceship' crawling from one pond to the next is wonderful.

The final short story, 'Watershed', completes the circle after thousands of years with another seeding ship returning to a ruined and abandoned Earth, ready to seed it with humans modified to live in its changed environment. The key focus here is on the racial discrimination that unmodified humans feel for the Adapted ones – and the fact that the Adapteds are now in a majority, in a huge variety of forms across the Galaxy.

It is easy to dismiss the stories as dated, particularly since we now know that Ganymede doesn't even have the tenuous atmosphere Blish described, and certainly couldn't grow any plants. Even ignoring this, it is hard to imagine that humans could have their biochemistry so drastically modified as to tolerate the conditions in the story. And while Blish's training as a microbiologist shows in 'Surface Tension', the mind boggles at the concept of microscopic humans being as intelligent as full-size ones – and conversing with intelligent microbial life!

Despite these issues, I found the stories intriguing and worth the read. 'Surface Tension', in particular, is one of the standard canon of stories which all SF enthusiasts should read. The meticulous attention to the physical constraints of an alien world recalls Clement's 'Mission of Gravity'.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Science Fiction, Fantasy, or…?

Some questions which are often debated: what is the difference between science fiction and fantasy, how do they relate to mainstream fiction, and is this changing?

The flip answer to the first question is that anything with spaceships is SF, anything with magic is fantasy. This is generally true, but James Schmitz's wonderful 'The Witches of Karres' includes both. A more considered view is that at least some attempt is made in SF to convince the reader that the story just possibly might happen, but in fantasy anything goes (although internal consistency is still required). The distinction is very clear at the extremes: Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy is obviously SF, Tolkien is obviously fantasy. However, as is often the case, there is a big grey area in between.

Some stories seem to be pure fantasy, such as Ann McCaffrey's 'Dragonflight', but she slips in a reference to the colonisation of the planet which gives it some kind of SF justification. It is not uncommon to find stories like which are a mixture of SF and fantasy elements (as instanced by Orson Scott Card's 'A Planet Called Treason', reviewed below).

The distinctions are further confused by the fact that both genres are subdivided. Some of the subdivisions are concerned with the type of plot, such as 'space opera', which tells you to expect galactic empires and battling fleets of spaceships, and 'epic fantasy', usually concerned with quests vital to the future of the world, for the mythological all-powerful grail/ring/sword (delete as appropriate). However, some sub-genres are more subtle and less clear-cut.

SF is often divided into 'hard' and 'soft', but different opinions can be found as to the precise distinction between them. Some apply the academic test: 'hard' is to do with the natural sciences (focusing on physics, chemistry, biology and technology in general), 'soft' to do with the social sciences (psychology, sociology, the impact of the future on humanity). Obviously, it's a question of balance; most SF will include something of both. A different view regards 'hard SF' as excluding technology which current science regards as impossible: sub-light-speed interstellar travel using generation ships or frozen sleep is acceptable, faster-than-light starships or artificial/anti-gravity machines are not. Time travel and psionic abilities such as telepathy and teleportation (all traditional SF themes), are also excluded from this definition of 'hard SF'. A further complication is the recent promotion of 'mundane SF', which is harder than hard: it excludes interstellar travel and aliens, and is restricted to known science within our solar system. At this point it may be difficult to distinguish SF from some mainstream fiction such as those thrillers which are set slightly in the future and include yet-to-be-built technology.

Fantasy also has its subgenres. Epic fantasy has already been mentioned, but there is also contemporary (or urban) fantasy, set on Earth in the present day, while vampire and horror fiction are also subgenres. In fact, some fantasy supporters claim that SF itself is just a subgenre of fantasy, although a more acceptable overarching term for SFF is 'speculative fiction' which also includes the genre of alternate worlds (which examine what might have happened in history if critical events had turned out differently).

Mainstream fiction is often described by its supporters as 'literary' or 'serious' fiction: terms clearly intended to be dismissive of all genre fiction (not just SFF). This literary snobbery would be amusing if it weren't so sad. It harks back to an earlier age, when the stereotypical SF fan was a geeky adolescent and his reading matter was a comic with a cover featuring rocket ships and/or scantily-clothed busty women being threatened by alien monsters. This view of SFF as being 'not serious' and 'intended for adolescents' has probably only been reinforced by the success of the Star Wars and Harry Potter films.

Not that there is anything wrong with having fun. There can be joyousness in a good space opera or fantasy which is usually missing from mainstream fiction, as well as the famous 'sense of wonder' evoked by a compelling far-future vision (although that is harder to generate than it used to be in the golden age of SF, when lots of ideas first emerged). While early works might have been somewhat lacking in writing quality, much modern SFF is beautifully written, fully comparable with the 'literary' works. Furthermore, modern SF often deals with themes which are far bigger than the interpersonal relationships which so dominate the mainstream. Themes such as how humanity will be affected by the rapid growth of cyberspace, against the background of a world in which we are using up the resources and changing our environment at an accelerating rate. Arguably, such fiction is a lot more serious and important than the relatively trivial concerns of most of the mainstream.

While fantasy and space operas will always be essentially escapist (and long may they continue – we need some respite from reality from time to time), it seems possible that the gap between mainstream fiction and the more serious end of SF will narrow even further in the future, as the predicted developments in cyberspace and changes to our planet's environment become part of the backdrop to our lives. Established mainstream authors have already written novels with SF themes, for example P.D. James' 'Children of Men', recently turned into a feature film, although they are usually careful to avoid the results being categorised as genre fiction. At the moment such crossovers are uncommon, although I suspect that they might increase. Perhaps we will see a return to works comparable with Orwell's '1984' or Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451' – a merger between SF themes and the literary mainstream. In which case, 'mundane SF' could have a big future.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Review: A Planet Called Treason by Orson Scott Card

I first read this over twenty years ago and it made quite an impact on me at the time (more so than the author's far better known Ender series), so I decided to read it again to see if it was still as good as I remembered.

The story is set in the distant future, on a planet on which mutineers from a generation ship had been abandoned three thousand years before (hence the name given to it). Each of the leaders of the mutiny had settled in a different location with their families, and their descendents had divided up the planet into states, each of which developed a very different culture based on the special knowledge of the founder. They had not forgotten where they came from and were desperate to redevelop the technology to build space ships so they could get off the planet, but there was no accessible source of iron. The only way of obtaining it was to trade with the unseen Watchers in space – descendents of those who had marooned them there – and the only way of communicating with them was to leave objects on the Ambassadors (two-way matter transmitters). If the Watchers liked what they were offered, they sent some iron in return.

The story is told in the first person by Lanik Mueller, who at the start of the tale is the accomplished 16 year old male heir to the land of Mueller. This was the most powerful state because they had found something which the Watchers would give them iron for, so had been able to make enough swords and lances to dominate their neighbours. The original Mueller had been a geneticist, and his descendents had developed this science to a high degree. They were extremely difficult to kill because their bodies were capable of rapid self-repair and would quickly regenerate almost any loss of limbs or other body parts. In some cases, this ability ran out of control and resulted in the "radical regenerators", or rads, who kept growing extra body parts which could be harvested and traded with the Watchers (echoes of Cordwainer Smith here).

At the start of the story Lanik is identified as a rad (the initial sign of this being a shapely pair of breasts), which means he is automatically disinherited. His father sends him on a journey to the land of the Nkumai, who had suddenly started to expand their territory thanks to a huge supply of iron weapons, in order to find out what they are exchanging for the iron. So begins an odyssey which takes Lanik through various states, in which he is captured, grows an unprecedented number of body parts, escapes and is healed. He discovers that the isolation of each Family has led some of them to develop their specialisms to a staggering degree, and from them he learns several advanced abilities which give him formidable power. Despite this, he does not have everything his own way and faces many trials before discovering what is happening, eventually concluding his adventure in a dramatic way.

This is a terrific read, every bit as good as I remembered, and deserves to be regarded as a classic. It is packed with novel concepts in the best traditions of SF, although the fairly 'hard SF' beginning gradually shades into epic fantasy as the god-like powers of the Families are revealed.
My copy is the original version of this story, first published in 1979. This was revised in 1988 and re-issued under the title Treason; I haven't read this version but I understand that the changes are mainly stylistic and do not affect the plot.

I realised on re-reading this that it must have subconsciously influenced me when writing Scales; the plot is very different, but each is focused on the story of one person who acquires non-human abilities of increasing power and uses these – with considerable vicissitudes – to effect a dramatic change to his world.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Review: The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner

This is the sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, reviewed on 16 July. It carries on directly from the earlier story, concerning two children in Cheshire and their inadvertent adventures in a magical underworld with wizards, elves, gnomes and other more ominous beings.

It is very much a direct sequel – Garner assumes that readers would have read the earlier book, as the story plunges straight into the action without any of the introductory scene-setting which occurred in Weirdstone. It might be therefore regarded as a 'part 2' of that story. The pace is rather frantic, with one crisis following rapidly after the last, and as well as the familiar characters from Weirdstone, quite a few new ones are added. As he explains in an end note, he has researched the obscurer aspects of Celtic mythology and populated the book with creatures from there. The problem is that new creatures keep appearing in the book with little in the way of introduction or explanation.

On the whole, I felt that Gomrath lacks the charm which made Weirdstone such a success. It has a rushed feel to it, with little build-up of the characters or the plot. Those who loved Weirdstone will enjoy the book, but I found it a dispensable addendum to the earlier work.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

BBC TV series: Empathy

I don't usually watch much SFF on TV or at the cinema, but I recently saw the start of a promising new series on BBC TV, called 'Empathy'. It is set in present-day England and concerns a man, recently released from prison, who has intense visions whenever he comes into contact with people or belongings associated with them. He discovers that these visions are real, that they actually show him what the people experienced at a moment of strong emotion – such as when killing someone. As a result, he stumbles across evidence concerning a murder. He tries to alert the police, but they arrest him for the murder instead, because he knows too much about it. Eventually he is able to prove his innocence and to convince the police that his ability is real, and he joins with them to track down the killer.

In an effort to identify the cause of his visions he has various medical checks, including a scan which reveals a brain tumour which he believes is causing his visions. In SF terms, there are some problems with this basic premise: to have him picking up images and emotions from people on contact with them is one thing, to have the same visions when handling their clothes is entirely another…and there's a suggestion at the end that he might be able to see visions of the future. So there's a greater than usual suspension of disbelief needed.

The mood of the production is adult and serious, like one of the better crime series. Some interesting tensions are building up between the protagonist, his ex-wife (now remarried) and the female police officer who works with him.

Despite the dubious plot issues, I found it a quite gripping and entertaining 90 minutes and will be watching at least the next one, to see how it develops.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

The length of SF novels – quantity vs quality?

Books are getting fatter – and have been doing so for decades. When I first started reading SF in the late 1950s, the typical full-length novel was no more than 200 pages long (about 80,000 words). This remained generally true throughout the 1960s but then books began to expand, resulting in today's doorstops. Clearly, the genre has something to do with it; Tolkien set a standard in the length of fantasy novels (as in so many other respects) and it seems today that no fantasy can be regarded as serious unless the story fills up at least a trilogy. However, SF has followed the trend, albeit more slowly. The question is – does quantity equal quality? Are today's novels better for being so much longer?

First some definitions, as "story length" can be a slippery concept. The stand-alone single-volume works are obvious, but the multi-volume ones less so. Some of them are simply one continuous story divided into several volumes for production or marketing convenience (e.g. 'The Lord of the Rings'). Others follow the same characters and occur in a chronological sequence, but each story is self-contained with its own ending (crime series featuring the same detective are the best example; in SFF the 'Harry Potter' books also qualify). Finally, there are the self-contained stories set within a universe created by the author, but they may feature different characters and don't occur in any particular sequence (e.g. Iain Banks' 'Culture' series). As always with such classifications, there are grey areas; for example, Catherine Asaro's 'Skolian Empire' series, in which the stories feature different principal characters and are not in chronological order, but the characters are all members of the same family and all appear in most of the books.

Anyway, for the purpose of this exercise I count each self-contained, continuous story as one work, regardless of whether it is published in one volume or several.

I will not spend much time on fantasy, as it is clear that its appeal is rather different to that of SF (acknowledging yet again that there are grey areas!). There is a strong market for escapist fantasies (usually with medieval and magical elements) in which readers can lose themselves, and the longer they go on, the better they like it. The painstaking creation of an elaborate world, usually with its own maps, genealogies, laws and customs, is an important part of the appeal. In some cases this can be obsessive; I have read of many Harry Potter fans who have no interest in reading any other fantasies, all they care about is the world which Rowling has created. It is significant that while the first in that series was short by modern standards (just over 220 pages), this rose in successive volumes to 256, then 320, then jumped to over 600 and finally to more than 700 pages. Clearly, her fans just can't get enough.

I want instead to focus on SF. Let's look at some of the longer works. Frank Herbert's 'Dune' was one of the first really successful long novels, running to around 500 pages (including appendices). Most books remained of more modest size for a long time (for example, Larry Niven's 'Ringworld' is less than 300 pages), but in recent years the length has been growing. Iain M Banks' books vary but the longest are around 500 pages, Stephen Baxter's Manifold trilogy runs to around 450 pages each, Vernor Vinge's 'A Fire Upon the Deep' is 600 pages while the prequel, 'A Deepness in the Sky' clocks up 750. Alastair Reynolds' works are in the 500-600+ range, while John Meaney's Nulapeiron trilogy (one continuous story) runs at 500-600 pages each.

Compare these with some of the classics: Alfred Bester's 'The Stars My Destination' is just 195 pages in my edition, Asimov's epic 'Foundation Trilogy' runs to 170-190 pages per volume, Arthur C Clarke's 'Childhood's End' is 190, Hal Clement's 'Mission of Gravity' is just over 200, Zelazny's 'This Immortal' is 186, Pohl & Kornbluth's 'The Space Merchants' is 170, Erik Frank Russell's 'The Great Explosion' is under 150, A E Van Vogt's 'The Weapon Shops of Isher' is less than 130 and Jack Vance's 'The Dragon Masters' is just 122 pages long. These were typical lengths for SF novels of the period.

Are the new doorstops that much better than the old masters of only a third of the length? Certainly the experience is different; the reader looks for a more detailed environment, more character development, and more complex plotting, and the best authors deliver this. 'Dune' is rightly praised and Herbert creates a compelling world, packed full of fascinating concepts and characters. However, I find that in many cases the extra detail just slows down the plot and dilutes the experience. I started Kim Stanley Robinson's award-winning 'Mars' trilogy by reading 'Red Mars' (400 pages) but found that the author's fascination with building up his description of the colonisation of the planet came at the cost of an engaging plot and characters I could care about, and didn't read the other volumes. I did manage the first two of Baxter's 'Manifold' trilogy, but found them a real effort to slog through and gave up before the third. Reynold's books are also hard work – I have had a couple on my shelf for many months, but have to work up to reading those, with long gaps in between. Meaney's 'Nulapeiron' trilogy did keep me engaged (a remarkable achievement considering the total of 600,000+ words), but I still finished each volume with a sense of relief, and will not be re-reading them for a very long time – if ever.

A good short novel delivers a faster pace, a punchier message and has all the more impact for the fact that it can be read in one or two sessions instead of being spread out over a week or more. The 'wow' factor so important in SF is also more concentrated; it has been rightly observed that 'The Stars My Destination' contains so many ideas that a modern author would spread them over at least three times as many pages. Would such an extended version be better? I doubt that very much – an important part of the story's appeal is its exhilarating pace.

I think that the 200 page novel is roughly equivalent to the 100 minute feature film, in that you can concentrate fully on the story without getting restless. 300 pages / 150 minutes is about the limit to absorb in one go. Much more than that and endurance begins to become a factor, and that eats away at enjoyment.

My time is precious and I don't like to waste it. If I'm going to take the time to read a 600 page novel, then I expect a great deal more of it than I would of a 200 page story. Sadly, I find that few of the long books really justify the extra time they take to read. Many of them leave me feeling dissatisfied, and I stop reading books before reaching the end far more often than I used to. The modern emphasis in SF seems to be on improving its literary respectability by emphasising character development over plot. Believable characters who the reader can relate to are certainly essential to the enjoyment of any story, but that doesn't take hundreds of pages to achieve.

Maybe I'm old fashioned, but to me SF is just as much – if not more so – about ideas as about characterisation, and is particularly well-suited to the fast-paced, punchy thriller. I like to have my imagination stretched – it's why I read SF in the first place. Sadly, I am nowadays too often bored instead.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Review: Shards of Honour by Lois McMaster Bujold

For some reason I missed out on Bujold's Vorkosigan series - I think that I was going through a period of not reading much SF when they came out - but they kept being enthusiastically recommended to me by so many people that I thought I'd better rectify the omission. After pondering the reading order, I decided to follow the chronological story line rather than the order of publication, so kicked off with Shards of Honour.

The series is set in the distant future, in a space-opera setting of human-colonised planetary systems and warfleets of spaceships. This story concerns how the parents of Miles Vorkosigan (the hero of most of the series) met. The principal character is his mother, Cordelia Naismith, with his father Aral Vorkosigan in a secondary role. As far as I can recall, Naismith is in every scene and, although written in the third person, the story is told entirely from her point of view. The complicating factor is that they are officers in the armed forces of two hostile systems, and the plot is all about how their relationship develops despite the difficulties this causes.

The first and most important point to make is that Bujold is a great writer and storyteller. I really did not want to put this book down, and finished it in two sessions - helped by the fact that it is 250 pages long, short by modern standards but very much in my comfort zone (I'll be expanding on that in a later blog). The descriptive passages and the quality of the characterisation and plotting are superb, and I thoroughly enjoyed the read. I look forward with great anticipation to working my way through this series.

However, there is no such thing as a perfect book, any more than there is a perfect human being, so what can I find to criticise? For me, what makes a good book (apart from the basic essentials of good quality writing and the author's storytelling ability) is the right blend between characterisation, plot and setting (which may vary, depending on the story). What makes a good SF book is that the plot and setting contain elements which are very different from mainstream fiction and stretch the mind to achieve that "sense of wonder" which is unique to the genre. This is, however, the area in which Bujold is weakest (at least in this novel). The SF ideas are limited and unoriginal. The different planets visited are described rather sketchily and there's no attempt to tie these into coherent ecologies. A reasonable attempt is made to describe the Barrayan political system but that never came alive for me. What this story really is, is a romance in an SF setting - but perhaps that is inevitable given the basic plot.

In that respect, Bujold resembles Catherine Asaro (I posted a review of her Skolian Empire series on 18 July). Both write space operas which are great reads and strong on romance. On the basis of only reading one of Bujold's novels so far, I would give her higher marks for writing quality but lower ones for the SF elements. I'll have to see if that changes as I read through the series.

Monday, 30 July 2007


The interview with Paula Berinstein of The Writing Show about my novel Scales is now available for downloading as a podcast here: (it lasts for almost 50 minutes...)

Mental note - if I ever get interviewed again, I must acquire a microphone and so on, rather than talk over a telephone - it sounds much better!

Saturday, 28 July 2007

A review for Scales

A rare sighting - a review for Scales (with thanks for Google Alerts for locating it)!

It's by Laura Stamps and appears on the 'Book Reviews and Discussions' site for 27 July 2007:

Modesty forbids but honesty compels that I post some extracts....

"If you’ve been searching for a science fiction novel with a touch of fantasy and the pace of a thriller, look no more. SCALES is the story of Matt Johnson, a man whose home mysteriously explodes one evening. Engulfed in flames, Johnson is rushed to the hospital, his entire body badly burned. When he recovers against all odds, doctors discover his skin is now covered with a fine layer of scales, which change color according to his moods.Thus begins one man’s journey to discover not only what happened to him but also what he has become...

In an effort to adjust to his startling new appearance, Matt changes his name to Cade, and soon realizes he has also acquired the ability to heal certain diseases. Cade’s quest leads him from one mission to the next, from healer to world diplomat to harbinger. I can’t say too much, because there are so many twists and turns in this ingenious plot I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises. However, this is such an original and unusual story I wouldn’t be surprised if a filmmaker snapped it up one day. Hollywood, are you listening?

This well-written novel was a pleasure to read, and I look forward to enjoying future efforts from this incredibly talented novelist. Highly recommended."