Ulysses shifts to subscription model: some thoughts.

In short, not a fan.

For those of you who don't know, Ulysses is writing software, similar to Scrivener but not as detailed and available only on Mac. And Scrivener, in case you don't know what that is either, is also writing software, and very, very popular: I've used it for writing every single book I've produced since 2007. Recently Ulysses announced a shift to a monthly paid subscription model and saw their servers crash due to a flood of visits from people who were, so I gather from social media, less than thrilled by the news.

I've seen some solid arguments about why some firms shift their software over to a subscription model: it's because every time they release a new version of their software, there's an initial rush to buy, followed by a long spell of no purchases until the next major update. With little or no money trickling in, sometimes for years, there's little incentive to work much on updates beyond hurried compatibility patches for OS upgrades. A subscription model, by contrast, keeps money flowing in regularly and allows for more frequent and meaningful software development.

And that's a valid business model - for a software company. For fiction writers and those who might be described as casual users, it's perhaps a different matter.

I think this move shifts Ulysses solidly away from casual to business software. I use both Ulysses and Scrivener, but for different things. I write short stories and book reports in Ulysses, since Ulysses is very good at handling short form work, but not long-form. I write novellas and novels in Scrivener, because there's no contest. It was also a nice way of compartmentalising my work: professional critiquing goes here, my own stuff goes there.

Scrivener is due an update very soon to version 3. I can tell you right now it rocks, because I've been beta testing it for months (I can't talk about it in any more detail than that, I'm afraid). It does make me wonder if Soulmen, the company behind Ulysses, saw what Scrivener are about to unleash and felt their collective hearts sink.

The question is, is it worth it to me to subscribe to Ulysses? Not really, no. Why? Because there's an alternative - Scrivener - that doesn't require a subscription. I could write the cost off as a business expense, but why pay yet more money? If I were using Ulysses for work, every single day, as opposed to spurts of activity as and when I'm asked to critique a manuscript, then a subscription might make sense.

And as a writer, my business expenses are always to the fore of my mind. Money is always to the forefront of my mind, as it is with every one of us whether rich or poor - and to be fair, it's poor, for most of us writers.

That's why this feels like a deliberate move to a specifically business, rather than casual model. If they've got a business model that can support them, great.

In the meantime, however, I'm going to keep using the non-subscription versions of the software, at least for as long as it'll work, which hopefully might be a couple of years. Ulysses has been very useful to me, but when push comes to shove, I know where I'd choose to land - with Scrivener. 


Four Things I Liked This Week

If you're wondering about the results of that poll I posted a few days back, they're on their way. In one respect, the results did not surprise me. In another respect, it surprised me a great deal. I'll elucidate further in an upcoming post.

I've been meaning to share a few things I've read, seen, listened to or made use of, hopefully on a semi-regular basis. Obviously I want you to buy my books, but I don't live in a vacuum: there's other good stuff, and since most of the things I encounter are through personal recommendation, it makes sense to pay that forward. So until I post the results of that last poll, here are some things I liked this week, and that I think you might too:

Comics: Locke and Key, Vol 1-4.
I actually started reading this a while back, but picked up the most recent volumes of this comic book series by Joe Hill during a sale on Comixology.  If you were to ask me for a recommendation, this comic series would likely be top of the list.

The Keyhouse, a sprawling mansion, has been part of the Locke family for centuries. After the brutal murder of their father, the Locke children return to live in the Keyhouse with their increasingly alcoholic mother. They soon discover certain keys open doors, and that passing through those doors produce unexpected results. They can make you bigger, or change your sex, or allow your spirt to wander free temporarily. But there's something hiding in the bottom of the well, and it wants out...

Film: Baby Driver, directed by Edgar Wright
Baby, a former teenage car thief, pays off a debt to a criminal kingpin by working as a getaway driver for bank robbers. His tinnitus means he constantly blasts music into his ears to drown out the noise. Sixty seconds into the movie, with the sound of Bellbottoms by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion blasting out of the speakers, I was ready to stand up and cheer. A triumph of not only vivid and powerful storytelling, but also style. A future and perhaps even current cult classic by the director of Spaced and Shaun of the Dead.

Books: George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
This is the book I wish a lot of the people writing endless military sf novels set in some kind of space Vietnam would read. Orwell, like many,  went to the aid of the Spanish communists and anarchists fighting Franco's fascists during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Once there, he vacillates between boredom, spending long weeks half-drowned in mud at the bottom of a trench to no apparent purpose, and time in Barcelona, where he sees the people he came to help disintegrate into bickering and mutual betrayal, torn apart by larger forces abroad that have their own ideas of how the war should come out. Essential reading for anyone wanting to set a story in war times.

Documentaries: The Accidental Anarchist. 
This may still be on BBC IPlayer. Carne Ross is a former diplomat to countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. He rapidly became disillusioned, and came to the conclusion he was doing more harm than good by aiding the Western war effort in the Middle East. Then he journeyed to Rojava, which is to modern idealists as Barcelona was to Orwell and his contemporaries: a place where a new kind of democracy could be brought into existence. There, he finds anarchism in action and working, and finds the same thing in scattered communities in modern Spain. One of the most enlightening and remarkable pieces of documentary film-making I've seen in a while. 


Time for another Poll!

Time for another poll! Because there’s always time for another poll.

This time, it’s not about whether I should write a novella versus a novel, or a sequel versus something completely new. Instead, it’s about the kind of story I might write next, that’s not a sequel and not a novella.

If I need a justification for this latest poll, it’s simply this: I want to get a sense of what the people who read my books want from me.

Now, to be fair, I think I already know the answer to that. But even so, I think the results would be interesting.

Before we get to the actual poll itself, here is the question I’ll be asking, and the possible answers. The poll itself will be at the end of the blog.

Question: Excluding the possibility of a sequel to Extinction Game and Survival Game, what kind of story would you, as a reader of my books, like to see me write?

1 - GHOSTS OF THE DEEP: Interstellar, far-future hard SF in the mode of Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and Alistair Reynolds.
2 - PROXY: Near-future, cyberpunk-ish sf dealing with the ramifications of a groundbreaking new communications technology.
3 - BLACK DOG: 1970s-set Lovecraftian horror.

For the sake of context, I have, apart from a further Extinction book, the outlines for a number of other novels. One of these, Echogenesis, has already been written, and is currently being touted around publishers. Echogenesis is undeniably in line with my previous output.

But there are other books still waiting to be written, and the ones listed above are the ones that currently have most of my interest. Ghosts of the Deep is undoubtedly closest to the kinds of book I’ve written in the past, set centuries hence. Proxy is much more contemporary and a lot more cyberpunk in feel. Black Dog is wildly different from anything else I’ve had published - although now is probably as good a time as any to mention that my first ever published short story appeared in a horror magazine in the very early 90s.

Anyway, I’m curious to see what you pick. So click away and I’ll tally the results in a couple of weeks.

(Edit: it appears the poll form isn't appearing in some cases, possibly on people's phones (I see it doesn't show up on my ZenFone), so if you still want to cast a vote while you're on the move, feel free to pick a number and put it in a comment and I'll tally it with the rest.)


The Poll Results

So a week or two ago I posted a poll by way of a casual (very casual) means of canvassing the readers of this blog regarding what I should write next. The three possible actions I asked people to vote on - and the results - are as follows:

1 - Write a novella following on from Survival Game. I really want to know what happens next. (10 respondents)
2 - Screw that. Write something completely new. Don't hold back all those original ideas. (11 respondents)
3 - I hate novellas. You should definitely spend the next year slaving over a brand new book. (3 respondents)

That's a couple dozen replies, which is about as much as you can hope for with these things. Ten people think I should write a novella sequel to Survival Game, eleven think I should do something completely new, and three think I should get the hell on with writing another actual book.

Now, in fairness, it's not the best designed poll. Right after I posted it, I started having flashbacks to college when I learned how to build survey questions that aren't leading or trigger unconscious biases. However, the questions wouldn't quite fit in the box that the SurveyMonkey website describes, so question 3 often disappeared from view. So it's quite possible people didn't see that they needed to scroll the box to see the third question.

Secondly, I neglected to specify in Q2 that when I referred to writing something completely new, it should be a completely new novella. It was implied, but that's not the same thing as stated. So the low figures for option three could be construed as being the result of bad poll design.

Either way, I think we can call it an even split: roughly half of you think I should get on with writing the third Extinction Game story, and roughly half of you again think I should write something new. That means I could go either way.

I did go back into my files and dig out the outline for the third Extinction Game book and work on it again. It was a little rough, since these things are usually put together in a relative hurry for the sake of the publisher. The rule of thumb is these are only rough guidelines for how a book might look once it's done, particularly since a lot of writers tend not to stick exactly or at all to any outlines they might generate. They exist purely to give the publisher a rough idea of what they might get.

Or at least, that's the theory. I suspect some editors don't realise just how much of the creative work happens during the writing of the actual book. Anyway, the outline I had was a little threadbare so I took most of a week to fill out the bones and get something that held together better.

So all I really need to do is write it, although I suspect, given the amount of detail, it would be rather more than a novella. There's enough there for a full novel, though I'd still like to keep the length down. I'm also far from sure how this works if a publisher has already published the first couple books.

So there's that. What about original stuff? Well, there's some ideas waiting to be written, but right now my brain has more or less left me a note saying it's going away on holiday for a couple of weeks and it's not doing any fiction writing until it's good and ready.

Or maybe it's just its way of telling me to write another Extinction Game story. Now the question is: if I wrote it, would enough people buy it to justify the effort?

Perhaps it's time for another poll. 



Like I said, I was going to talk about novellas.

Novellas are strange, sometimes unloved beasts. Too long for short story markets, too short to sell as novels, they’re never quite the right size. And yet a lot of writers love them because it’s possible to express an idea in a story only a quarter or a third the length of a full novel, so in terms of sheer typing, at least, they’re a lot less work. Readers love them because, unlike many novels, they’re short and sharp and no longer than they need to be. But they’re also a good deal harder to sell.

Back after I delivered my last book for Tor, I realised I had the opportunity to work on stories I’d been wanting to write for years. First, however, I needed something for my agent to market, so I spent ten months working on Echogenesis. Publishing is a slow business, with negotiations dragging out interminably for months or sometimes longer, so I knew I probably had a wait ahead of me.

I wrote some short stories, but once those were done I had other ideas that felt like they deserved more than a short story. But neither did I want to spend up to a year writing each one.

Writing those ideas as novellas was clearly the answer. I think I originally had the vague notion of publishing them myself, but ultimately that's going to be a matter of last resort. If you can market something to a publisher, you should. So far I’ve written two novellas, but now I need to think about what to do next: write another full-length novel, or work on more novellas?

There’s an outline for a third Extinction Game book that Tor rejected. It doesn’t need to be the full length of a novel: I could probably fit it into a long novella if I wanted to.

Or I could write something different and entirely original. But if you happened to have a preference, what would it be?

(By the way, the window on that survey there is a little funny. You might have to scroll it up so you see all three options).


File under 'G' in the Library of Babel

Between 2004 and 2015 I wrote ten books for Tor, but they weren't the only books I could have written. Like most people, I sometimes submitted outlines and ideas that didn't get accepted. Why they weren't accepted proved instrumental in my growing understanding in the early years of my career of how publishing actually worked.

At the time Angel Stations got picked up, I was already halfway through writing my second novel, Against Gravity. Indeed, I'd started it before I even had a flicker of interest from Tor, as I recorded in this very blog way back when.

Angel Stations was unabashed space opera hard sf. It was pretty much everything that had been rolling around in my head for a decade. It was also, believe it or not, something of a sequel. My first novel, written about 1997, was set in the same universe, but never got published. It did get me an agent, and it did secure the interest of Tor, who had said while they weren't interested in acquiring it they were interested in seeing what else I'd come up with. Angel Stations was what I had come up with.

When I first signed a contract with Tor, I found it slightly weird that they didn't even ask to know what my second as yet unfinished novel was even about. In retrospect, I suspect they'd just gone ahead and assumed it was a sequel to the first. It wasn't. They didn't know that, because they never asked. Where Angel Stations was full-on space opera, Against Gravity was a bit more in the near-future cyberpunk mode. It was about cyborg technologies, nanotechnology, a near-future war and some pretty whacky theories about the end of the universe I'd come across a few years before. But they were still both unabashedly science fiction, and so far as I knew that was all that had mattered
Actually, it's not quite true that Tor never expressed an interest in the subject matter of my future books. I had a brief chat with my new editor at an Eastercon not long after signing that first contract. He suggested, rather jocularly, that everything would be fine as long as I wasn't going to go off and write any books about magic cats.

That really wasn't very likely, I replied. But I was also a little annoyed because I felt at the time like I was being talked down to. I went home and tried really, really hard to think of some way to write a book about magic cats that was, nonetheless, unabashed near- or far-future science fiction. I thought of Schrodinger's Cat, which is as near as hard sf gets to a magic cat, but unfortunately no good ideas involving quantum mechanics would come to mind. Which is a shame, because I was still pissed off. I'd have given anything to hand the editor in question a hard sf manuscript called The Magic Cat.

Angel Stations did as well as any debut novel does, which is...okay. Moderate sales, but that's how it works. People often don't pick up on you until you're three, five, eight books deep into a career. Then if they like what they read, there are lots of others they can go and buy. Against Gravity came out and also did okay, but only okay, possibly not helped by my publisher's deliberate decision to not have a single copy available anywhere on the grounds of the World Science Fiction Convention that took place in my home town almost to the day it was released. Instead, they had two hundred copies available in a Borders Books three miles from the Convention. I found it strange at the time, and appalling now. When six thousand hardcore science fiction fans descend on a town, you don't make sure the last thing they can find is your new author.

It did get a review in Locus. Well, I say a review: the reviewer actually spent an entire page talking about my blog instead, which he liked. Thanks a bunch, asshole. Not as bad as a decade before when an Interzone critic decided he not only didn't want to read a 'zine I'd put together, he didn't want to print the address from which it could be ordered (back in the pre-Internet era). That asshole spent the rest of his column reviewing his own work. But, still. Pretty bad.

My first contract was for two books, so for the third I needed to score a new contract. I put together an outline for a book called Things Unseen which I was very enthusiastic about. It was a conspiracy story set in the 50s, 60s and 80s involving remote sensing, the occult origins of modern art and n-dimensional parallel realities. It was, or I wanted it to be, a total mindfuck.

My agent loved it. Tor rejected it without comment.

Great. I put that to one side and tried to think of something else. I came up with a planetary adventure called Slow Burn. I wrote ten thousand words and an outline and submitted it. While I was waiting, it got up to thirty thousand words.

Tor knocked it back, this time with a comment saying: better, but could you make it more "intergalactic"?


I wrote to my then-agent Dorothy. What do they want? I had tried asking the publisher, but didn't get a reply.

Somewhere in Dorothy's own reply, she mentioned another client of hers who wrote mystery stories set around the world of horse breeding.

Hang on, I emailed back. Are you saying all her books are written only in the context of horse breeding? Yes, she replied. That's what her publishers want her to write.

Only then did it click. Tor wanted something that wasn't Angel Stations, but was. They wanted space ships and interstellar intrigue and action.
What I hadn't realised until then - and remember, by the way, we're still barely into the Google era at this point, still pre-Facebook, so things that can be easily googled now couldn't be so easily found out as they can now - is that publishers want more of the same, and more of the same.

Well, duh, you might say now. But again, at the time, there was no one around to tell me this. What example I did have were authors whom I liked and who wrote in multiple genres - horror, science fiction, mainstream - apparently with impunity. What I didn't realise was that these different books were often for different publishers under all kinds of crazy circumstances, and that the choice to write in different genres or styles was dependent on the relative success of the author. To be precise, the more successful you are, the more you can get away with.

And me, being far less powerful, could therefore get away with far less.

I'll be honest with you, at the time I first started putting together Stealing Light, I felt a little cynical towards it. It wasn't what I'd hoped to be working on. Searching through my files for a notion or an idea, I stumbled across a single scrap from an unfinished story and it became an early scene in that book. I wrote ten thousand words and a rough outline, submitted it to Tor - and they liked it, as I'd darkly suspected they would. I signed a second, one-book contract.

Somewhere in the writing of that book, something changed, and I started to get into it. I found a reason to be writing that story. It's the book where I figured out how to do what I did. Angel Stations and Against Gravity had each been a struggle to write, because I was still learning. Stealing Light was the fruition of what I learned, aided, it must be said, by my discovery of Scrivener.

After a quarter of the way into the manuscript I stopped long enough to completely redraft the outline I'd submitted to Tor. It expanded from a six thousand to a thirty thousand word outline. The book itself also grew, and grew, until it was just shy of 140,000 words.

I felt happy with it. The project I hadn't wanted to do became something I was entirely happy to do. It also went on to be the best-selling by far of all my books. It was the first to come out in hardback. It got compared to Peter Hamilton and Neal Asher, two very popular Tor authors, which I found amusing because at that point I had not yet read a single word by either author. I thought I was writing in the vein of Greg Bear, Iain Banks and Dan Simmons, who were undoubtedly influences, but it appeared not.

Some scenes from Slow Burn made it into Stealing Light, with some of the names changed. Just one or two.

So far, my entries in the Library of Babel equalled half a dozen. Apart from Things Unseen, Slow Burn and my unpublished first novel were a couple of vague outlines for other books set in the Angels universe (put together long before the first contract) and an attempt at writing a kind of fantasy western with Chinese magic called Western Gothic.

From there, I was on a roll. Pretty much nothing got bounced back until fairly recently, when a proposal for a third book in the Extinction Game series got rejected. I don't rule out writing it in some form, most likely another novella, but that remains to be seen.

Next time, I'll talk novellas. 


Wherever You Go, There You Are: a career in 12 years, 7 months and 14 days.

A lot can happen in twelve and a half years.

Back in March 2003, I got an email from my agent, Dorothy Lumley (since sadly passed away), telling me I had scored my first book deal with Tor UK, a new science fiction imprint created by Peter Lavery. Over the next twelve and a half years I wrote ten novels, starting with Angel Stations. The tenth, Survival Game, came out in hardback in the late summer of 2015. During that period, I went from writing part-time to full-time. I spent the last part of 2015 putting together detailed proposals for two new books, respectively titled Echogenesis and Proxy. My then-editor got quite excited about them, particularly Echogenesis.

By then, I had a new agent. Word came from him  a few months later, in October 2015, that Tor/Pan Macmillan had decided not to make an offer on either Echogenesis or Proxy. This was no reflection on the part of my editor, who was eager to acquire the books. The decision was made elsewhere within the company.

So after twelve and a half years, I found myself without a publisher.

But the terms of the previous contract still held, and I had just delivered a re-draft of Survival Game, so there was still work to do: after some further editing it came out in hardback in 2016 and this year in paperback. Like the book it's a sequel to, it got some pretty great reviews. In general, all my stuff gets decent - even, dare I say it, excellent - reviews. Extinction Game even scored a 'starred' review in Publisher's Monthly. But even good reviews aren't always enough.

Once Survival game was done, I had to figure out what to do next. Now, being Scottish, and therefore of an inherently miserable nature, I had assumed throughout my career that I was always just one short step away from doom and penury, and therefore made a point of saving every last penny against that day. It's a sensible strategy, and one that paid off (a little on-the-side book doctoring helps somewhat too).

I had to consider whether or not to talk about all this here on my blog. Back when I started, writers were often reluctant to discuss such matters. Things have changed since then, largely, I think, because of the internet. Writers compare notes online or even run surveys to get a sense of mean income by genre, or generally just talk about these things openly. But since it's unlikely I'll have much out this year apart from the recently published paperback of Survival Game, I wanted you to know why.

Different people deal with bad news in different ways. Some put the pen down and stop writing and do something entirely different with their lives. Some just keep writing.  Based on an entirely subjective survey of writers I've met who got stuck between deals for a while, five or so years in the wilderness is not untypical.

In the meantime, I kept writing.

Since I got that email in October 2015, I've written in excess of 180,000 words of fiction: four short stories, two long novellas, and a full-length novel. The novel, Echogenesis, is being shopped around by my agent as we speak. So is a novella, Ghost Frequencies. A second novella, Devil's Road, was just recently completed (why I've been writing novellas rather than full-length novels  is a matter for another blog).

In some ways, not having a book deal has been remarkably freeing. For once, I can write what I want to without having to worry about whether it fits Tor's idea of what I should be writing.

Over the next couple of weeks or months, I'm going to talk about some of the things I've learned over that twelve year period I was under contract to Tor. I'm also going to talk about my plans for the future, and where a possible future book deal might fit into that. I'll also talk about some of those recently completed projects, and some of the ones I'm considering working on over the next year.

And, of course, there may be avenues which don't necessarily involve traditional publishing.  That's something else I'll be thinking about, although certainly for now my intention is to get a traditional publishing deal for Echogenesis and other books.

So as they say, watch this space. I'll even maybe have a little more time to blog in future. If it's been a bit sparse, that's only because I've been busy writing books and novellas.

In the meantime, if you like my writing, you might consider dropping a few pennies into the 'buy the writer a coffee' link over there on the right. It's always, always appreciated and it's nice to be reminded I'm not writing into a vacuum. One never knows what the future might bring, but hopefully this is little more than a relatively brief pause in my writing career.

Expect more posts in the near future.


A sudden rush of noise after a prolonged period of silence

I'm back. For the moment, anyway.

Since you last saw me, Survival Game has been out for a few months in paperback. That book was completed and sent to the publisher way back in autumn of 2015. Since then, I've written another novel, two novellas, each about 35,000 words in length, and a number of short stories, some of which have sold, and one of which you can download over there on the right (if you're viewing this on your computer and not on your phone, anyway).

In an upcoming blog, I'm going to talk about a few things - where I go from here, my likely plans for the future, and some of the realities of modern publishing. So think of this as a bookmark, and sometime in the next few days or weeks you'll get a fuller update on what is - or isn't - coming next. So think of this as a placeholder until that comes. 


The paperback of Survival Game is out now.

The paperback of Survival Game, the sequel to Extinction Game, is published in the UK today! And if you prefer ebooks, the price of the Kindle edition has dropped as well. So if you don't have it already, go git it

If you're in the US, you've got a little while to go - the paperback won't be out there until July. But if you want to preorder on Amazon, go here.

I also have an article up at Torbooks.co.uk about the writing of the book. No, wait, that's a lie. It's got nothing to do with the writing of the book. Sort of. Maybe. Well actually, it's about the question every writer but me hates to answer, which is where ideas come from. And that means brain science. Read it here

Here's some reviews to put you in the mood:
  • Gibson's take on two thoroughly familiar tropes (Cold War + apocalypse) is actually quite refreshing ... The prose is also satisfyingly good - FantasyLiterature.com
  • Gibson’s artful worldbuilding sets the stage(...)it is the emotionally-driven characters and their curiosity about alternate possibilities that makes this story so compelling. - amazingstoriesmag.com
  •  If you like SF romps combined with an exploration of a solid SF trope wrapped up in a high-powered adventure then you'll love Gary Gibson's Survival Game. - Concatenation.org
  • This is exactly the kind of SF I enjoy – thoughtful and intelligent, yet action-packed with great ideas. - sffworld.com
  • Gibson turns the genre on its head ... He excels at depicting real-feeling destruction and the tenacity and weaknesses of survivors, along with the moral wrestling of survivor guilt. This potent, teeth-gritting SF thriller shows death and love only a shadow away from our ordinary lives -- Publishers Weekly starred review of Extinction Game (Book One)



"But, over several months, my manuscript was rejected for reasons that bewildered me: often because all the slots for debut literary fiction that year were taken; once because I was a woman; but mostly because editors “just didn’t love it enough”. When I took the call from my agent saying we had no deal, I cried like a little girl. I defiantly started a second novel. It was my masterpiece, but it bombed, too. Years of work and emotional investment wasted, I finally gave up, to save my sanity."
 This  article in the Guardian speaks to me in a way its author didn't intend; of the value of persistence and of false expectations. Writing novels is often seen, wrongly, as a primarily middle-class pursuit, and as a result a certain number of those who chase publication expect or hope it to support them in a middle-class lifestyle - I recall a recent article in an Irish newspaper where a writer spoke of having to go back to his civil service day job because writing novels didn't pay him enough to support a wife, two kids and a mortgage.

I read articles like this and laugh like a drain. I guess it says something about the kind of writers I admire, who always extolled the virtue of constantly writing, and writing fast if need be. When I think of being a writer, I think of Michael Moorcock, sitting in a cramped apartment in Ladbroke Grove in the mid-sixties, banging out fantasy novel after fantasy novel to keep New Worlds afloat, or Philip K. Dick, making ends meet in a record shop while similarly hammering out novel after novel. Those are serious writers - far more serious in their intent and focus than many of those who fancy themselves 'literary' writers, who are more taken with a vision of accolades than of ripping out ideas and putting them on the page, hour after day after week after year. 


Dropbox issues fixed

Just a quick note to let you know that since Dropbox have made some under the hood changes, some links on the website stopped working, most importantly the ones that let you download Scienceville when you sign up for my mailing list. It's fixed, so far as I can tell, and if it isn't, then be sure to let me know in the comments. And if for any reason you've tried to download the books and failed, again, let me know and I'll email a copy personally. 


Year's reading, 2016

Some weeks since my last post, mostly because I've been busy with a rush load of book doctoring work pre-Christmas, along with some more agent-suggested edits on what I'm hoping will be my next book: but I do hate to let a year go without giving at least some recommendations, and especially if you're a working writer, book recommendations are the main way by which you can pay it forward, so to speak.

So, a little analysis of my reading over the last year first.

I read 52 books in 2016. Of these, perhaps just five or six were published in 2016: I rarely read books in the year they’re published.

All of the books were read on my Kindle Paperwhite, and occasionally on my iPad Air, which makes for an excellent e-reader in its own right.

Of those 52, about 22 were non-fiction. Nearly ten of the fiction books I had read before (bit more than I realised, actually), but it had been so long since I last read them it felt like coming to them for the first time; either they’d turned up cheap on Kindle, or I'd bought them in e-format years before and just hadn’t got around to reading them until now.

I re-read Joe Haldeman's Forever War, partly because I've had a vague notion for an anti-war story floating around in my head for some time now. I've been looking for years for a way to write some kind of military sf that doesn't require me to throw my personal morals out the window, and the only way it could possibly work is if it came from a strongly anti- perspective.

With that in mind, I recently read Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers for the first time, and was thoroughly appalled. It made sense to follow that up with the Haldeman, since many people see it a direct response to the Heinlein.

I also re-read Neal Stephenson's Zodiac soon after finishing his Seveneves this summer, for reasons below.

I re-read another ageing classic, Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley, mainly because I wanted to explore any potential similarities it bore to a story I’ve been working on. Fun, but light.

I re-read Lev Grossman's much more recent - and excellent - The Magicians, in order to finally read the other two books in the trilogy.

I re-read City of the Iron Fish by Simon Ings, partly because the first time I read it, back in the 90s, I’d been impressed by the way it subverted certain fantasy tropes.

The most significant re-read of the year for me, however, was Jack Womack's hugely, gigantically impressive Random Acts of Senseless Violence, of which I only retained vague memories of reading, again in the mid-90s. Less a post-apocalypse, more of a pre-apocalypse, it charts the crumbling of society under economic and political pressures in an America ruled by a President who bears some very, very unfortunate similarities to Donald Trump.

The story is seen through the eyes of a young girl, trapped in the failing city with her parents, and as the city crumbles and distorts, so does she, her language and mind shifting and changing with each passing page. One of those books that very deservedly can be regarded as a genuine classic.

I didn't exactly re-read Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon, but instead picked it up again after having bought it, started it and then abandoned it a few years back. That's a very typical pattern for me where Pynchon is concerned; read a few chapters and then put it down, baffled. Indeed, the only reason I picked up Inherent Vice was I'd heard it was a little more…accessible than his other works.

Weirdly enough, it was the recent film, starring Joaquin Phoenix, that brought me back to the book. I figured if I couldn't make sense of the book, maybe I could make sense of that. And I could: after watching it, on a whim I found the book and glanced again at its opening lines - and suddenly, the dialogue made sense in a way it hadn't before. I finally finished the book in less than a week.

What did I think of it? Well, with some books, it feels like going on an enjoyable ride, but there's no there, there, if you follow me: it's like you heard about this great place I ought to go to, except I turn up and there's nothing there but an empty lot.

Yes, it’s true that sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. But for all that, the book felt like a slightly hollow experience. If there was a theme in there or a message or some particular thought the author wanted to impart, I clearly missed it.

On the non-fiction front, the ones that stood out for me were The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century, a biography of Nikola Tesla by Robert Lomas; Debt by David Graeber; Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford; and Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall.

The Marshall is particularly fascinating because it delineates clearly the relationship between borders, geography and the wealth of nations. It seeks to explain the geopolitical underpinnings of modern conflicts and the ways in which geography influences the relationship between nations and why some are rich and some will always be poor. It’s in light of that latter point that the meaning of the title, Prisoners of Geography, becomes particularly apposite. It details the genuinely fascinating relationship between the USSR's expansion into Eastern Europe and its lack of any year-round naval ports due to its geography, and the ways in which the types of terrain to be found in Africa and South America have affected the economic development of nations there.

Economics is a subject about which I feel I should have a grasp, but it's a slippery subject, I find. Still, I try, and I've read enough David Graeber in The Guardian to know I like the cut of his anarchist jib. It's long, and complex, but Debt is ultimately worth it. Certain key concepts such as fractional reserve banking are clearly and succinctly explained, and if ever you wanted a more expert understanding of the true horror of austerity, it’s a good place to start.

I don’t usually talk about books I didn’t like too much, because being a writer, I know just how much hard and difficult work goes into writing one. So it is with some trepidation I find myself forced to admit I felt a little…disappointed with Neal Stephenson's Seveneves this summer.

I've loved every other single thing Stephenson’s done until now, consider myself a major Stephenson fanboy, ever since I stumbled across a review of Snow Crash in the back pages of Mondo 2000 (no, really) a loooong time ago. I recall I spent the next two years demanding everyone I knew read the book so I could monologue at them about its inherent joys. Seveneves ultimately proved to be just too heavy and frustrating and overly didactic, determined to cross every t and identify, name, tag and describe every nut and every bolt. God knows it's a massive achievement, as every one of his books are, but that's the last time I want to read a hundred page description of how someone's flying suit works.

And what perhaps also gives me pause is that the plot is based on the moon exploding for no good reason (no spoilers, it’s right there in the first paragraph), something that is, quite literally, impossible. Really, he could have written 'a giant space rat ate it' and it would probably have made as much sense. Granted, it allowed him to describe how the human race might just save itself from an apparently inescapable doom using almost-current levels of technology, but at the cost, metaphorically and story-wise, of having an ant dance on the head of a pin swivelling on a toothpick gripped by an angel on a unicycle.

All this prompted me to re-read Zodiac, a much earlier work about environmentalists battling Big Industry. It feels almost sparse compared to his later work, but for all that, ultimately it felt more satisfying.

I finally, at last, got around to reading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin and found it...okay. A common reaction I have on encountering, or re-encountering, the 'classics' of science fiction.

I was aware, going in, that much of its reputation revolves around its depiction of an essentially bisexual society, almost but not quite standard-human and able to change sex effectively at will. This, however, proved to have really not much impact on the story, so far as I could see, and the only time it was clearly addressed was in a kind of epilogue which, unfortunately, I gave up on quite quickly. It felt less like fiction and more like the author showing her homework.

I finally got around to reading some David Mitchell. Well, I had read something before, except I can't remember one damn thing about it, except it was set in Japan. And now I think about it, I can't remember the title either: that's how much it stuck in my head.

So I approached David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, I must admit, with a hint of trepidation, especially given the reputation it seems to have as a beloved work. It proved to be enjoyable, and more memorable, certainly, than that other, less memorable book...but like the Pynchon, I came away with the distinct sense that there's no there, there.

I thought the structure of the interlinked novellas was all very nice, but I could see no real purpose to it, or at least none that in any way enhanced either my enjoyment or understanding of the story. Indeed, I watched an interview in which Mitchell mentioned he can't really write books, and instead writes novellas and essentially glues them together. If that's not proving my point that there's no there, there, then I don't know what is.

I also read Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem, partly because it's massive in China and partly because, living in Taipei just across the Formosa Straits from the Chinese mainland, I sort of feel like I ought to. And God knows I do like my hard sf.

The results were...variable? I was perhaps less than enthused by the prose, but I don't know whether that's down to the original text or Ken Liu's translation. There was also some, let's be frank, slightly dodgy characterisation, including a, I suspect, unintentionally hilarious world-weary detective whose dialogue sounded like it had been ripped straight from some straight-to-video production sometime in the mid-80s.

But for all that, there were some fascinating moments, most especially the glimpse of life during the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. There were some nicely eye-popping scenes with some full-on sensawunda, and it's clear there's a great deal of intelligence going on here. But for all that, I can't feel any great enthusiasm for reading the subsequent volumes.

But what about books you actually liked, Gary?

I thought very highly of Experimental Film by Gemma Files, a kind-of-fantasy/weird fiction take revolving around the world of Canadian arthouse cinema of all things, and which was filled with fascinating detail by an author with a great deal of inside knowledge. It feels almost like a companion piece to that other work of fantasy organised around the history of the film industry, Flicker by Theodore Roszak.

I also thought a lot of Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn, first published a few years back. I thought it might make the top of my list, but the reason it doesn’t is simply the way it ends. I don’t think this qualifies as a spoiler, but essentially rather than having an actual ending, we instead get a kind of cliffhanger and a ‘to be continued’ in books two and three.

I’ve got no problem with trilogies, but I believe it’s quite possible to write a complete novel with a beginning, middle and end and still have sequels. I’ve certainly always tried to write complete novels, even when I know there are further volumes coming. Outside of that, however, it’s a terrific piece of writing.

In all honesty, I’d avoided it until now, mainly because the idea of a near-future Europe broken up into tiny warring statelets struck me as faintly ridiculous. But it was (again) on sale cheap on Kindle, so I took a chance. I’m glad I did, and it turned out the explanation for Europe winding up this way made legitimate sense.

In the end, I had a hard time deciding which would be my recommended book of the year, but in the end I've decided to give that honour to two books: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, and The Peripheral by William Gibson.

I’ve read a few of Gibson’s post-Sprawl novels such as Spook Country and generally found them disappointing, enough so I stopped buying his books. The Peripheral is, however, both a return to science fiction and a superb piece of writing, which suggests to me Gibson works best within the genre that birthed him.

Lovecraft Country was a supremely clever and modern take both on Lovecraftian fiction, while also addressing the racism of Lovecraft himself, from the perspective of a black family in the US in the early sixties for whom occult threats sometimes aren’t nearly so scary as the white authorities they sometimes encounter in those pre-civil march days.

Close runner-ups include The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson, an author I have a lot of time for. Also excellent was Constellation Games by Leonard Richardson, a kinda/sorta space opera about a contemporary games programmer who, in the days after first contact with a whole panoply of alien civilisations, finds himself blogging about alien video games, some of which are tens of millions of years old. Silly, intriguing, involving and extremely worth your time and money.

And that’s it! I’d go into more detail, but that’s just how busy I’ve been in the run-up to the end of this year. And before I forget, fuck you, 2016! Here’s to a hopefully better year next year.