3/17/2017

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. 

12/31/2016

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.
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10/04/2016

Thirty Years of Rain, Elements of Time, and a new story.

As is often the case when I'm close to finishing a manuscript, certain things worthy of my attention get passed over, or are blogged about later than I intended. So let's fix that with mention of two new books that just came out, and which I have some connection with: Duncan Lunan's Elements of Time, and the anthology Thirty Years of Rain, which collects stories by numerous authors who have attended the Glasgow Science Fiction Writer's Circle over the last three decades.

A few years back I carried out an experiment called Brain in a Jar Books, having realised I knew numerous authors who had work languishing unseen on their hard drives. Often these works had been previously published in some professional capacity, but not in ebook form. I chose to put a number of these out on Kindle to see if anyone noticed and bought them with minimal - and by minimal, I mean zero - advertising.

The experiment was variable in its success, and had unexpected consequences. In most cases, the books sold very little, despite at times having a considerable pedigree behind them or receiving a few (a very few) rhapsodic reviews. I wanted to see if such books would sink or swim if thrown bodily into the proverbial ocean of ebooks, or if their inherent quality, having in some cases been nominated for awards or even won awards, would allow them to swim.

Unfortunately, almost to a man, they sank. There are endless  accounts regarding the golden opportunities afforded writers by self-publishing on Amazon, but my own experience as a publisher didn't appear to bear that out at all. Maybe it's the covers of the books. Maybe it's something else: I'm not quite expert enough to say.

However, for some reason the name Brain in a Jar Books became a force in and of itself: people knew I had something to do with it, and it seemed to get a lot of attention...without anyone actually buying the bloody books. I saw my name and Brain in a Jar mentioned in some of the bigger media-oriented sf magazines, and was startled to find that Brain in a Jar formed part of an exhibition in the National Library of Scotland.

Again, none of this translated into sales. But it appeared to be wonderful advertising from me, which I hadn't expected.

Anyway, one of those books was a collection of time travel stories by Duncan Lunan, several of which had first appeared as cover stories in Asimovs, and at least one or two of which  were nominated for a Nebula. You'd think that would be worth a punt of a quid or two, wouldn't you? Apparently not.


Fortunately, the collection has now been taken over and republished and even put out in a printed edition by the people behind Shoreline of Infinity, the magazine that published my recent story 'Senseless'. It had a small launch just the last week, and you can buy it now. It's called Elements of Time.

I also have a story called The Ranch in Thirty Years of Rain, the aforementioned writer's anthology, which comes both in a print edition and a pleasantly light on the pocket e-edition. This also had a launch - twice - first at a convention, and then at the Glasgow Waterstones.

Other authors featured in the anthology include William King of Warhammer fame, Louise Welsh the crime writer (and whom I never realised had attended the group at any point), Hal Duncan, Neil Williamson, Mike Cobley and so on, and so forth. Here's the Amazon link.





9/11/2016

Flagrant Podcastry

A couple of months ago I committed a flagrant act of podcastry with the kind aid of Mr Rob Paterson of The Department of Nerdly Affairs. I apologise for inflicting my whiny nasal voice on you all. However, even though I literally can't stand to listen to my own voice, I encourage you to listen to me be very rude about Robert Heinlein, with the proviso that I know how to write a whole lot better than I know how to speak in a coherent manner.

8/24/2016

Five Questions and an Excerpt

I've been so deep in working on the manuscript I'm trying to finish that I failed to post about a couple of things.

First up is a 'Five Questions' piece posed by Tor Books, in which I answer five questions about writing the new book. I also wrote an article for them on personal early influences called 'Here's to the Late Show,' which I hope you'll get a kick out of. And finally, there's an excerpt from Survival Game itself - the complete first chapter. Go read!

8/07/2016

Survival Game is released this Thursday

That's right, I have a new book out. You didn't know? CLEARLY I WASN'T TALKING LOUDLY ENOUGH. Survival Game is the sequel to my very well-received (starred review in Publisher's Weekly!) Extinction Game, which came out in 2014. Both books are published in the UK by Tor and you can get it here.

I recently did a quick 'five questions' piece for Tor's UK website for you to take a look at, and there'll be another short article coming up very soon. In the meantime, if you buy the book (which I'd hugely appreciate) I hope you enjoy it, because it's been a long time coming. 

7/22/2016

What is this new hardback novel that stands before me?

Here it is, handsome devil that it is. The new hardback of Survival Game, the sequel to Extinction Game that came out just two years ago. I know! Two whole years you've had to wait before you get this in your hands.

Well, I feel your pain, so here's a handy preorder link if you just can't bear to wait until the day of actual publication.

And hot on its heels, here's another sexy little number that sashayed its way into my hands: a physical copy of Scottish sf magazine Shoreline of Infinity, and a proper luxurious little number it is, especially given it contains my most recently published short story, Senseless. You can of course get it here at Amazon, or direct from the publishers if you prefer, in ebook as well as paperback format. 

7/16/2016

Scrivener for iPad and iPhone, or: Scrivener Über Alles

Well, it's finally here. They said it would never happen, but Scrivener for iPad and iPhone is finally being released to the Apple App Store on July 20th, priced at twenty US dollars.

I've written extensively about the differences between different pieces of writing software for both the Mac and iPad over the last year, in blog articles that brought me a fairly enormous number of hits (start here, then go here, then here, then here and, lastly here). The ghost hanging over all of those discussions, primarily focusing on the desktop version of Scrivener and its nearest rival, Ulysses, was the long-awaited Scrivener for phone and tablet. It seemed for a long time as if Scrivener had been long overtaken and even superseded in the mobile market by Ulysses and Storify, which each synced between their desktop and mobile versions via iCloud.

Scrivener was  still the acknowledged King of writing software on the laptop and desktop, both PC and Mac, but there was a constant demand for a mobile version that some came to believe would never appear as year passed after year. Even just two days ago, I received an email from someone asking about alternatives to Scrivener they could use on a mobile device. They hardly believed me when I told them a mobile version of Scrivener was, at last, imminent. I explained I had in fact been beta-testing Scrivener on my iPad for the last two months.

I'm not going to go very in depth regarding the specific workings of Scrivener for iOS, because there are already a whole screed of blog posts and reviews detailing them, and you can get more of a downlow on what it looks like and how it works direct from Scrivener's makers. Instead, I'm going to talk about how it compares to what else is out there, and how it's affected my own workflow as a working writer and writing teacher.

So please don't think I'm being bombastic when I declare that Scrivener for iOS is, quite simply, a game-changer. In those two months, I've written the entirety of a second draft of a novel on my iPad. In some respects, Scrivener for iOS is even better than the desktop equivalent.

The reason for this goes back to what some perceive as the relative complexity of desktop Scrivener. It has a lot of bells and whistles, although rather than being bloat, these are absolutely necessary features. However, not everybody needs all those bells and whistles, and some people, coming fresh to Scrivener, can apparently feel a touch overwhelmed by it. I think that's a shame, because at heart it's a beautifully simple concept: you can have a page of text to be written or edited, and around that page you can arrange as much ancillary information as you need, from moment to moment: character and story outlines, illustrations, story notes, rough ideas, other parts of the same novel-or-work-in-progress for reference, sheets of reference material, and so on.

It also still carries at its heart the basic principle that unlike the 'What You See Is What You Get' principle of programs like Microsoft Word, which present you with a representation of an actual printed page, Scrivener (and other programs like it) take a more pragmatic approach where the     appearance of the text is set only at the final output stage when you create either a text or ebook file or PDF. Until then, you have absolute control over the colours of the screen, the different windows, and the text. You can have inline annotations that print or don't print, and so forth. But at the heart of it, what you get is whatever piece of text you're working with, plus a few notes in little windows you can move here and there around the screen and arrange any way you like, along with an outline or two, a reference picture in one corner, perhaps, so that as your  eyes flick between the work in progress and all that ancillary information ,you get to see exactly what you need from moment to moment.

Contrast that with, say, Microsoft Word, where you might have to endlessly scroll through several different documents, switching between different programs and so forth to find  the information you need from moment to moment. Microsoft Word was built for writing business letters, not novels, and it shows.
Image 1

Image 1 here shows you Scrivener on an iPad Air: the  opening of my new book is on the right, while a list of chapters is on the left. Image 2 is the same, with one change: I can view, edit and scroll through the following chapter (or any other) in the bar on the left (which can, if necessary, be expanded). It could also be notes, or expanded information about the chapter, and so forth.

Scrivener for iOS, however, by necessity, is a more stripped-down affair. In that respect, it answers the need by some for a simpler approach. Indeed, I noticed while reading through comments on a beta-testers thread that some liked the idea of being able to use Scrivener for iOS on their desktops, seeing it, essentially, as a 'Scrivener Lite'.
Image 2

Although there are good reasons why that isn't possible, it's been clear to me over the last couple of years that laptop computers may eventually give way to tablets equipped with keyboards. Indeed, I find my iPad Air and Microsoft Universal Keyboard exceptionally easy to work with - I'm writing this blog post on it at the moment. Scrivener for iOS may offer that "non-threatening" alternative that might draw new users in.

What really matters, however, is that it's essentially impossible to fault Scrivener for iOS. There are a couple of things it can't do the desktop version can, and while it's worth remembering that this is only the 1.0 version of the software, meaning future iterations may be able to do more, at the moment those areas in which it might be perceived as lacking are areas most users aren't likely to have much use for.

It offers the perfect paradigm for writing in. The right of the screen is occupied by text being worked on. The left contains a wide bar in which can be viewed a list of chapters inside a draft, or the contents of each of those chapters, or indeed images and notes from other parts of the "project" within which you're working.

When I first started comparing Scrivener with Storyist and Ulysses, the field of combat, as it were, was much more even, although Scrivener ultimately always proved to have the edge, particularly when it came to novel writing. Now, however, Scrivener, with its new incarnation for iPhone and iPad, has pulled far, far ahead of the competition. It is, simply, unrivalled. I am not joking when I say I find the process of writing on my iPad, using Scrivener, quite addictive. It is as near to a perfect writing tool as I've yet encountered.

If you have a desperate need to write in Markup, then Ulysses remains your tool of choice, and it syncs well on both Mac and iOS via iCloud as well as having an excellent interface.

However, in direct comparison, the limitations of Ulysses for iPad, compared to Scrivener for iPad, become obvious. In Ulysses, it's possible, but more difficult, to see information related to the main text you're working on. Notes are always linked to a specific document, meaning if you're working on some other document and went to see those notes, you either have to copy them over to the current document or keep going back to that other document, which is terribly aggravating. Similarly, even if a note is to hand, viewing it pulls out a window that obscures the main text window on the iPad. That makes it impossible, say, to work on one text document, while glancing to the side to compare what you're writing with your notes.

This, by contrast, is stupendously easy to do on Scrivener.

So if markup text isn't of overwhelming importance to you, and you like the idea of using your iPad or even your iphone as an actual work tool, then Scrivener, for the great majority of writers, is indeed an absolute game changer. Really, I don't think it could get better than this.

So my final, final, final, final word on writing software, in the specific context of the iPad is: forget the rest. Scrivener is now, officially, the two-ton King of writing software on the iPad, and very probably on the desktop as well. 

6/15/2016

Is it easier to sell short stories if you're a published novelist?

In short, God, no.

I haven't ever really submitted that many short stories since I started getting serious about writing way back at the start of the Nineties. But of those I did submit, I sold a few - a very few - to professional markets. Between 1990 and up to the present, I've sold a grand total of six stories - and three of them were placed only in the last nine months.

Five were sold to paying markets, and one is going to appear later this year in an unpaid anthology put out by my old writing group in Glasgow. One was reprinted in an Eastern European magazine back in the mid-90s, and then later appeared again, in another writing group anthology, given away free at the 1995 Worldcon in Glasgow.

I never saw myself as a short story writer, more of a novelist, but something changed last year and I started banging out short fiction for the first time in a long while. I've written four stories, of which two have sold, and the other two are still doing the rounds. Well...I say "short", but some of them are going past eight thousand words. I'm slowly figuring out how to get them down to more manageable levels.

Someone, who just recently made their first professional short story sale, told me they took some hope from the fact that despite having ten novels published, I still got a lot of rejections. Well, everyone does. And it's one of the good things about writing short stories. It doesn't just make you a better writer, it also gets you used to rejection.

Scienceville, which was in Interzone last year, had previously gone to Tor.com and Clarkesworld. Senseless, appearing in the latest issue of Shoreline of Infinity, went to several markets before that. I still have two other stories doing the rounds, one of which has racked up maybe half a dozen rejections.

So what you can you take away from this? Well, if you're a new writer, that rejection isn't about you. I always knew you shouldn't take a story rejection personally, but it's one thing to say it and another for it to be true. If you're thinking, but what if my stuff isn't good enough? Then, well, maybe it isn't, but maybe also it just hasn't landed in front of the right pair of eyes yet.

So take heart that even after working in the field since the early 2000s on a pro level, it doesn't automatically make selling a short story any easier. Nor, I suspect, should it be.


6/05/2016

Noteworthy books read so far in 2016

It's been a while since I wrote a post about books I've read recently, and that I'd like to recommend (or, in one case, not recommend), so this is going to be a slightly longer post.

THE PERIPHERAL
I've long been a fan of William Gibson's writing, but I started to lose interest from about the point he wrote Idoru. I've read several of his books that followed, including, most recently, Spook Country, but they felt terribly ephemeral and lacking in any real substance, certainly compared to his earlier, defining work. I'm aware those later books have numerous fans, but I had more or less reached a point where I thought it unlikely I would read him again.

I therefore only read his latest book, The Peripheral, on the recommendation of a friend who felt much the same way about Gibson's output over the last couple of decades. It's a return to science fiction, and somehow a return to the kind of truly gripping writing and world building with which I most associate William Gibson. If it's not yet quite my book of the year, it's certainly a close contender.

INHERENT VICE
I've tried, and failed, on multiple occasions to read Thomas Pynchon, most recently Inherent Vice, which I picked up and abandoned partway through a couple of years ago. Curiously, it was catching the movie on Netflix that brought me back to the book and gave me a way "in". Once I heard actors portraying the characters, the voices in the book made sense in a way they hadn't before. I can't absolutely say, even now, whether or not I can recommend the book, though, because I came away from it with no clear sense of what Pynchon was trying to say, if anything. An addled, stoned detective in early 70s LA muddles his way through a muddled investigation littered with the broken and the eccentric...and then it ends. Pynchon is highly rated, particularly by writers I admire such as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, so I came away from the experience still feeling as if I were missing something.

STARSHIP TROOPERS
Something I didn't expect to get around to reading was Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. Like, probably, a fair few of my own readers, Heinlein was part of my introduction to science fiction. I read Podkayne of Mars, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and a pile of short fiction pretty much from the moment I first got my hands on a library card.

Heinlein, unfortunately, doesn't read so well from an adult perspective. Farnham's Freehold proved, on rereading, to be astonishingly racist, and Glory Road is, simply, crude, childish and ultimately unreadable.

The only major Heinlein book I hadn't read back in my youth was Starship Troopers, and I bought it only because the ebook was on sale for a quid, and because as a purported classic of the field I felt I should read it at least once.

What you get is less a science fiction novel than, for the first half at least, a fairly straightforward story about military boot camp, with the addendum that real boot camps neither have powered suits that can have you leaping around like a super powered grasshopper, nor do they, to my knowledge, regularly whip their soldiers, or have to suffer endless monologues by barely-disguised authorial stand-ins about the horrors of democracy. It's a genuinely and unapologetically fascist piece of writing.

Once the action moved into space, I started skipping pages because there's nothing more boring than reading about people and insects shooting at each other. Is it a classic? Hell, no. Is it a good book? Not that either. But it proved at least a salient reminder that Heinlein was exactly as bonkers as I suspected.

RANDOM ACTS OF SENSELESS VIOLENCE
By far my favourite book of the year, however, is a Jack Womack novel I first read way back in the early or mid-Nineties. I already reviewed it earlier this year, and in terms of quality of prose, of characterisation, and of nuance, it's the diametric opposite to juvenile trash like Starship Troopers. Read it, enjoy it, and thank me later.

BIMBOS OF THE DEATH SUN
Sharyn McCrumb's novel, rather than being science fiction, is instead a crime novel set around a science fiction novel: a famous novelist, notorious for his utter contempt for his audience, is brutally murdered at a con. There are endless walk-on parts for pretty much the worst kind of people you can meet at a convention. I've met a lot of terrific people at conventions, and they can be a huge amount of fun, but it would be remiss of me to deny that I'd also met some of the worst people in the world at conventions, and it's clear that McCrumb's knowledge of, and experience of, the world of conventions is both deep and extensive. Like Random Acts, I read this one originally some time ago, but more recently picked it up on Kindle when it was going cheap. Definitely recommended. 

6/01/2016

We materialised in another hangar

We materialised in another hangar, apparently identical to the one we’d just departed. In fact, the only hint we had gone anywhere at all was that the stage technician on duty was now a woman, and the sunlight coming through the open hangar doors behind her was of an entirely different hue.

I took a breath. Even through the respirator, the air smelled…strange.

The Pathfinders were the first down from the stage, and we followed them out through the hangar doors in a group.

Outside, I saw an unearthly blue and yellow forest spreading towards distant hills beneath a pink sky. Although when I say forest, these organisms bore an at best tangential relationship to any tree I had ever seen; instead of branches, they had long, whip-like fronds that spiralled up and around broad, twisting trunks. There were also preposterous growths like huge sea anemones, swaying in the breeze.

All of this riotous, alien flora came to a precise halt at the edge of the paved area, as if it had been neatly trimmed back that very morning. For all I knew, it had.

I turned to look behind me, and saw that the hangar was at one end of a huge, paved expanse perhaps a kilometre in length and half as wide, and scattered across which were about a dozen gargantuan metal-walled sheds, huge compared even to the hangar.

A dandelion seed drifted past me, except that no dandelion seed I had ever seen moved in sudden, sweeping motions with hummingbird rapidity. I caught a brief glimpse, there and gone, of a pale, grub-like body at the heart of a feathery cloud. In the next instant it had zipped away from me, almost too fast to follow.

Then I spied what at first appeared to be an enormous spider, several inches in diameter, wobbling on spindly legs in the shade of one of the anemone-like trees. A whiplike stalk extended upwards from its body, and it had something very like an eye on top. The creature rushed towards me, then fell back in a shower of sparks the moment it tried to cross onto the pavement.

I watched, stupefied, as it leapt back in amongst the anemone trees, screeching a flurry of bird-like notes as it fled out of sight. There must, I thought, be some kind of field separating the paved area from the surrounding forest.

The Soviets all had stunned expressions. Most likely I did too.

'Are we…are we still on Earth?' Boris asked plaintively. All that morning, his hand had constantly twitched towards his neck, until he finally had the good sense to take his crucifix off and simply carry it in one hand.

‘Sure,’ said Chloe. ‘Just one where evolution took a very different path.’ She spread her arms. ‘Welcome to Site A, Alternate Delta Twenty-Five.’