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!