An observation about Amazon reviewers

This has sort of been addressed before by several different people, and is a well-known enough phenomenon that it even gets its own blog, but just every now and then I come across some review of a book on Amazon so awe-inspiringly idiotic that I can't make up my mind if the 'reviewer' was serious, or instead engaging in some kind of desperately obscure and impenetrable sarcasm, as if the ghost of Andy Kaufman was somehow wandering the electronic byways of online bookstores, pulling pranks for the sole benefit of itself and a cadre of undead snickering through their see-through sleeves.

In this case, I took a look at the Amazon.com page for a book called Eternity: Our Next Billion Years only to find this jaw-dropping review by someone who hasn't actually read the book. Apparently. Unless, of course, this is a very, very, very obscure piece of piss-taking. It wins my Occasional 'You, Sir, Are An Idiot' Award, handed out by me, to no regular schedule whatsoever.


text movie

Here's something that occurred to me would be a sort of neat tool for a writer to play around with - sort of a live action-ish version of the Wordle software that was doing the rounds a year or two ago.

Paragraphs in novels get rewritten a lot. A lot. It occurred to me it would be interesting if someone could write a small piece of software that recorded all the changes being made to a particular paragraph or piece of text from inception to finished work. Then you could save it as, say, a video file that shows you all the changes, deletions, additions, retypings of that piece of text as a movie - minus, of course, all the long hours of introspection when the writer is either thinking or playing Quake Online (not me, honest guv). If anything, it would demonstrate just how much work goes into writing even a single sentence, sometimes. And it would sort of be a way to actually see inside a bunch of different writer's heads.

But which text? I figure an opening paragraph or page would be the obvious one to go for. Does anyone out there know if it's possible to write a piece of software like that, or if it already exists?


Reviews, interviews, books to come

So anyway, the hardback of Nova War has been out for a few days and appears to be doing really well. Tor have taken off the 'movie blurb' type line from the version of the book cover that's been visible on Amazon and elsewhere, which is good, but have used a picture of me on the inside back flap that made me shriek when I saw it. Unfortunately the only person I can blame is myself, since I'm the one who gave it to them (slaps self around head).

(I am occasionally inflicted with the desire to have an author photo where I 'm standing with a copy of one of my books held up in front of my face. I once saw a guitarist on the cover of a magazine holding a 'stick' electric guitar upside down by the neck, so that the body of the guitar obscured his features. I've always been a bit, shall we say, ambivalent about the whole notion of author photos, and so this particular conceit holds some appeal to me.)

I was invited to go down to London not long after i first signed to Tor, partly so they could get their photographer to do a quick, professional shoot for the book covers. I never got round to it. But after seeing that, maybe next year I'll make the time to go down there and let them snap me.

I sent them a slightly better picture recently, and that's the one that appears in the most recent issue of Sci Fi Now magazine (where I have a short article on science fiction book covers, revolving around the poll I ran here with my editor to see which cover readers preferred out of a choice of two).

There are reviews of Nova War at Walker of Worlds, The Guardian, Fantasy Book Critic, and in the latest issue of SFX magazine, and so far they've all been very positive, I'm glad to say. There's an interview with me here, about the writing of Nova War and various and sundry matters, and it's crossposted here.

What else? I'm working on a proposal for a new book to come after Empire of Light, the third Dakota Merrick book. It was previously under the working title of The Array, but now I'm calling it Final Days, which has a good chance of being the actual title. That means putting together an outline - done - and maybe a sample chapter or two for flavour. I'm also thinking seriously about writing another book set in the Stealing Light universe, possibly with a completely new set of characters, and possibly set several hundred years after the events in Empire of Light.

There's good reasons to do so. One of the things that made writing Nova War and Empire of Light a relatively smooth process was that I was working in a ready-made 'universe', something that's benefited many other authors, most notably the likes of Iain Banks, Neal Asher, and Alistair Reynolds. I'm pretty sure there's more I can do in that setting.

I have a Mind Meld piece coming up on 'first sf books' for SF Signal, and I'll post a link when that goes online. For what it's worth, although my blogging rate has decreased a little over the years, I'm starting to use Twitter (there's a live feed over there on the right hand bar, if you're viewing the web page) more and more these days, so that's another source of occasional information.


The fantasy book I picked.

Since the last post, I've had a bit of an opportunity to think about what it is I do or don't get out of any fantasy I've read. If I don't like most fantasy, then what's the common element in the fantasy that I do like?

For the record, I'm going to avoid getting into any heavy discussions about what actually constitutes 'fantasy', and point to this piece by Cheryl Morgan, where she makes the point that when people talk about a 'genre', they're really describing a set of familiar tropes, and that the quality of any particular text is dependent on the way an author chooses to make use of those particular narrative tools.

Within the context of this post, then, 'fantasy' is a very fuzzy-edged cloud that varies in content from person to person. It includes people like Robert Jordan or Tolkien, but also Jonathan Carroll and Ursula le Guin. For some people the cloud is more clearly delineated, for others it spills out into a disparate fog that swallows up all of science fiction and quite a bit of the supposedly mainstream. It all depends on where you stand and what you choose to see depending on your own inclinations.

Here's some 'fantasy' books I mentioned I liked: House of Leaves. This almost borderlines on Stephen King territory, albeit in the form of a wildly post-modern meta-text that heavily references other forms of media like video (a large part of the book is actually a transcript of what one character, whose input appears in the form of hugely extensive footnotes, starts out believing is a fictional documentary about a house that grows rooms without getting any bigger on the outside). It actually started out on the early internet as a series of disparate texts that had some people thinking it might all be real before seeing physical publication. If you liked Blair Witch, you're going to orgasm over this book.

I realised one thing I liked about it was the way the people in the documentary (the transcript of which we are reading) approached the house: with a very human desire to define and delineate - to understand what the house actually is, and to discover if there are physical limits to its growth. Like 19th Century explorers, they strike out into a strange new land with the goal of understanding it. Their approach is a product of the Enlightenment. Rather than reacting with superstitious fear, they seek to apply human knowledge and gain understanding. Whether they succeed or not isn't the point - what matters is their ultimate goal, to find a rational explanation for what they encounter.

Then there's 'City of the Iron Fish' by Simon Ings. This is like an anti-fantasy book - and here I'm drawing heavily from memory, because my one copy is currently residing in a cardboard box several thousand miles from my current location. The characters live in what they believe is a 'made' universe. The farther you get from the city, the more reality breaks down. It doesn't stop the hero trying to find out just what lies beyond the edge of his very limited universe. His behaviour is highly rational, but also very human. Rather than simply accepting his environment, he tries to understand it.

In Robert Holdstocks' 'Mythago Wood', a young man returns from the Second World War to find his father has disappeared into the supposedly haunted Ryhope Wood, having left behind extensive notes regarding his encounters with the entities there. He believes these mythological creatures are directly generated out of the collective subconscious of the human race and somehow given physical form by a means little understood, but that is never described nor regarded as 'magical'. As well as more typical mythological entities, the hero while exploring the wood encounters a First World War Tommy, who is himself part of an urban legend. Like his father, the hero attempts to understand the entities in rational terms.

I particularly enjoyed Jeffrey Ford's The Physiognomist a few years sgo since, as I've said to various people, it reads like the greatest Tim Burton/Johnny Depp gothic comedy never made (read the first few chapters here, particularly the first several paragraphs, and tell me I'm wrong). This was a case where the sheer quality of the writing carried me past things I might have found my inner critic questioning, questions that often arise when I encounter 'secondary worlds'. Such as, where is this place? And why is nobody telling me where it is?

In a science fiction novel, when the characters encounter or find themselves in an unusual environment, they usually try and figure out where the hell it is, or what it is. Put it this way: if you read a book set inside a sub-light starship big enough to contain a civilisation who've forgotten they're on a journey, at some point you're going to expect somebody to want to dig a hole through the skin of the world and see what's on the other side. If an author chose to write a story in which the people inside that spaceship never once tried to figure out the actual parameters of their world, and just go on blindly existing and never asking the obvious questions, you'd feel more than a little cheated. That's essentially how I feel about a lot of fantasy.

Yet in The Physiognomist, as is the case with so many fantasy novels, there is no attempt made to understand or delineate the environment in which the narrative is set: this is what makes City of the Iron Fish so special, since the hero spends a good part of his time trying to figure out just where the hell he is - that's how I remember it, anyway - and this encapsulates the basic human drive to understand our place in the universe (although I stress this is no criticism, merely an observation regarding my own preferences and prejudices; The Physiognomist is a fine, fine novel that I got sent by Tor UK, when they republished it a while back. I highly recommend it).

This means, therefore, that if I'm going to buy a fantasy novel, I'm going to feel a bit underwhelmed if it involves a bunch of characters having some adventure without any reference to the nature of the environment in which they find themselves.

And now a repeat of the standard 'I'm a hypocrite' clause: I can read Jonathan Carroll without giving a damn how the hell any of the stuff in his books happens, at least partly because he's one of the finest writers in the English language - his 'Outside The Dog Museum' is still one of the best books I've ever read. I used to read a shitload of Jamie Delano's Hellblazer comics, and never had a problem - presumably because it was set in a world I nonetheless recognised in its more mundane elements. So why can I get into these, but not, say, Tolkien or Donaldson?

Partly, I think, it's the writing, and partly it's the sense of conciliatory escapism. This isn't to say science fiction can't be or isn't any more or less escapist than other literary forms, but even when it is it's almost always set in some variant of the world we know, no matter how far removed in time and space. When you read a full-on fantasy book, it's more of a complete retreat from any notion of consensual reality as we know it. And that's okay. Most of the people I've met who read that kind of dense, magical-kingdom fantasy tend to be pretty sharp people with demanding day-jobs for whom a fat fantasy novel is a terrific way for them to unwind.

But I need just a little bit more than that, and some of you people reading this blog have been kind enough to give me some really interesting suggestions. But for the moment I've pretty much settled on buying Lev Grossman's new book, The Magicians, even though it's largely set in a 'secondary world'.

Why? Well, partly because it's been getting terrific reviews, inside and outside of the genre press. Partly because I feel like reading something different for a change. But largely because I've read some online excerpts that show not only that the writing is terrific, but also that the hero is clearly a bit of a maths genius, and that the story strenuously avoids ticking any of the usual 'good vs bad' boxes.

I guess I'm hoping our boy genius will turn out to make some attempt at defining the parameters, the why of the magical world he finds himself in; the fact that what little of the narrative I've read so far appears to be heavy on the moral ambiguity just sweetens the cake. At least, that's what I'm hoping. So there you go.


Recommend a fantasy novel to someone who doesn't like fantasy.

Here's the deal. I hate The Hobbit. You really seriously couldn't pay me to read Lord of the Rings. I read the first page of the first Harry Potter book and thought, well, it's for kids. Why would I want to read this when I'm not a kid? And that's not even going into what appears to me from the outside to be a remarkable lack of imagination - they're trainee wizards, so they ride around on broomsticks. Broomsticks? Are you shitting me? That's the best you could come up with?

I read Pullman's His Dark Materials and wasn't impressed. The heroine - and here I'm vaguely recalling - doesn't particularly in my recollection so much discover what's going on in her world as get told it straight out by various adult protagonists. Dull. And then there's the talking bears. Talking bears? How did they get that way? Did they evolve? Or what? Now, admittedly, this is a kid's book, and if you're young enough you're probably happy to just accept that at face value. But me? An adult? Eh. Now, I've got talking fish in my books, but they either evolved that way, or were radically redesigned by another species using highly advanced technology. I'm the first to admit to the liberal use of handwavium in my stories, but to me magic is the worst kind of handwavium - oh, it's magic, as if that explains everything. Science has a clear definition, but what, then, is magic? I have no clear idea.

On the other hand, and just to prove what an enormous hypocrite I really am, I'm a big fan of Jonathan Carroll, undoubtedly a fantasy writer. Why this should be so when I hate the former kind of fantasy isn't a question I can't immediately answer, except insofar as to say that it has something do with being set in our very real world.

It's that connection that gives me something to hold on to that Lord of the Rings does not - with the latter, my first reaction on hearing about it as a kid was, where is Middle-Earth? Is it on Earth? An alien planet? Where? And if I didn't know, I couldn't possibly figure out why on Earth I should care about anything set there.

Now, I'm not saying my position is unassailable. I just could never bring myself to believe in fantasy worlds of the aforementioned variety. SF was the literature of human endeavour, of pushing back the limits of the known world and coming to first understand and then control it. It was about the future, the coming world. Fantasy seemed retrogressive, backwards, wishful thinking for some impossible age that never could be and never would be.

Let me just stress here that I'm talking here about my feelings as a young reader. I'm not dissing the genre, just trying to say why I never really got along with it when I was growing up. If someone gave me a book with dragons in it when I was a kid, I'd say, how does something that big get airborne? How does it breathe fire? How come they never explode in mid-air?

Undeniably impossible things happen in Carroll's books, but somehow it's the dissonance with reality and the jarring effect it produces that's so effective for me. Here's what appears to be the normal world, and suddenly it turns out there's something about it you don't understand, that you can't explain, and that might be very, very threatening. That I can appreciate; that, somehow, resonates with me emotionally. The world appears to be one way, now it appears to be another. The tables have been turned.

Same with Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, one of my absolute, all-time favourite works of fiction. It's magnificent. You never, ever, ever find out just what it is haunting the echoing, abyssal halls of the endless house; you only know that its realm may be infinite. This is people from our world, exploring the edges of what constitutes our reality, and retreating in fear from whatever may lie just beyond that edge, just beyond the known, the safe and the quantifiable. Somehow, this has satisfied me entirely through several re-reads.

A work closer to traditional fantasy that is also one of my favourites is Robert Holdstock's equally magnificent Mythago Wood. But I don't think of it as fantasy, I always thought of it as science fiction. The protagonist and his father have clearly thought out and developed theories as to the nature of Ryhope Wood; they take the apparently magical and make an attempt to quantify it, to understand it and ultimately control it where a thousand lesser writers might simply have had their characters take the apparently magical at face value. They are, again, exploring the absolute limits of our reality, and looking a ways beyond into the face of the terrifying unknown.

Even closer to traditional fantasy is Michael Moorcock's The War Hound and the World's Pain. I've not really read much Moorcock fantasy, but this is one of the few. And, it's great, perhaps because it's set in our own (past) world. Somehow, that makes all the difference.

So here's a question for you. Given that I really, really don't get on very well with the traditional stuff, what would you recommend to me to read? Or, what fantasy would you recommend to someone who really doesn't get on very well with fantasy at all?

For what it's worth, I've been considering Lev Grossman's The Magicians because it's getting such good write-ups. I read an excerpt that got me interested for various reasons, so I figure it's worth checking out. Any opinions?