Die, Vampire, Die!

Back when I joined the Glasgow SF Writer's Group in the very early 90s there was this weird skinny kid at the first meeting I went to who had green face paint and a bandana. He explained he was protesting the US invasion of the Gulf (the first one) by dressing up as Martin Sheen's character from the end of Apocalypse Now. Exactly how this worked as a protest I still don't know, but I remember nodding slowly and scooting my chair back from him a little. Anyway, he wrote these really terrible stories (in fairness, I certainly did), and I rolled my eyes at them whenever they came through the door (since they were all posted out in those pre-net days).

Anyhoo, that kid became Hal Duncan, and sometime...maybe ten? Twelve years ago? Or maybe even longer, he brought a story into the circle called Die, Vampire, Die! Which was essentially a deconstruction of the entire - I say, the entire, boy - corpus (heh) of vampire movies and literature.

(About the same time I wrote my own attempt at deconstructing the genre, called The Ranch, which was posted up on the previous version of my website some time ago. I really need to get it back up.)

So anyway, people did their bit around the circle, and when it go to me I declared to all and sundry not only was it the best story Hal had written it was, indeed, the best story that had ever passed before my eyes in the context of my entire career within that writer's circle, by anyone. It wasn't short; maybe fifteen, twenty thousand words, maybe more, maybe less. Memory fails me. More of a novelette than a story. Every now and then since then I'd ask him what was happening with the story, and if he'd thought of putting it out on Kindle.

Well, now he has indeed put it out on Kindle and you can get it here for a mere £0.77p, and you can get the chance to find out if you agree with me or not. The story, to use Hal's own words from the description, "sets out to take the vampire mythos out back into a dark alley and systematically smash it to pieces with a baseball bat." I think that sums it up. 


This Year's Reading

I thought it might be worth taking a glance back at what I've been reading over the past year as it approaches its end. Almost everything I read these days is on the Kindle, and the nice thing about the device is that it allows you to engage the list-making, pedantic side of your personality, even when - as in my own case - it rarely gets an outing. Before the Kindle, I rarely if ever made lists of anything. This haphazard attitude towards organisation extends into all aspects of my life: I have six or seven hundred (physical) books on my shelves, and they've never been in anything ever resembling alphabetical order. Or any kind of order, in fact. Tidy my desk? Pah. But with the Kindle, it's easy to create folders and tag books according to year, name, genre, whatever.

But I do for some reason like being able to know what I was reading at a particular time, and in what quantity, and as anyone who owns an ebook reader knows, they're a great enabler; I read considerably more now, on an ebook reader, than I ever did when I bought exclusively physical titles. I no longer feel a pang of concern regarding where to put each new book, and whether its purchase can be justified in terms of how much space it might take up.

Because I'm a working writer, and because nobody ever sets out to write a bad book - and, further, because whether a book is 'good' or 'bad' is often a purely subjective measurement - I'm going to omit mentioning, with one or two exceptions, books I didn't like at all. The exceptions are mostly by authors safely long dead, and hence unlikely to feel much concern over my opinion.

I've made a habit of picking up ebook editions of works I already own, partly because significant chunks of my life are spent in the Far East, where I can't get hold of those physical volumes; and also because the science-fictionality of owning a near-complete virtual library of works I bought through the 70s, 80s and 90s is very appealing. Not to mention, of course, that these books often turn up in sales, or start at low enough prices to make their purchase justifiable.

The first of these reissues I bought and read this year is Dreamside, Graham Joyce's first novel, a book I remember very well and which he's put out himself on Kindle. I recall seeing Joyce at a convention shortly after the publication of his first book in, I think, the late 80s or early 90s. He was standing in the dealer's room, staring down at a pile of copies of Dreamside with a broad grin and chuckling with apparent disbelief. Dreamside is more science-fictional than his later work, I believe, and tells the story of a group of students engaged in ultimately dangerous dream research. I think it's brilliant, and if you get it, I think you'll agree.

I had Shakespeare shoved into my unwilling brain at school and, while I appreciate many aspects of the work, being forced to read often incomprehensible texts did me no favours then or in later life. Ben Crystal's Shakespeare on Toast does a lot to bring clarity to WS's work, as well as the revelation - well, perhaps it's not so much of a revelation - that many of those school editions were based on versions of the plays that literally can't make any sense. Crystal explains the importance both of iambic pentameter and the layout of the original folios, as opposed to those stupendously brick-headed school editions, in interpreting and understanding the narratives as tehy were written.

Richard Grant's Ghost Riders is an interesting (if at times bleak) non-fiction narrative concerning the author's road trip across the American midwest in search of the misfit wandering spirits who first travelled across that continent as half-wild nomads, and whose modern equivalent live out of cars or Winnebagos or steal rides on trains. A book that gives you a real sense of vast, desolate landscapes, populated by people who can't or don't want to fit in anywhere else.

I also re-read Robert Silverberg's Book of Skulls. I have a difficult relationship in some ways with Silverberg's books; to employ a musical analogy,  to me, books like his later Lord Valentine's Castle represent sf's bloated prog phase, to be winnowed out by the arrival of cyberpunk. I remember scouring the shelves of WH Smith's in the early Eighties, and finding them dominated by similarly bloated works by Asimov, Heinlein, and others...books with too many pages, and a distinct paucity of imagination (it took me five attempts to finally read the whole of Heinlein's The Number of the Beast and I'm still not sure why the hell I made the effort, unless it was just to make it easier to slag it off in the pub after a writing workshop). If not for the arrival of the likes of (William) Gibson, Sterling, Interzone magazine et al, I might have given up reading sf altogether. The field, it's safe to say, is in far safer hands these days.

Even so, I was aware that before books like Lord Valentine's Castle, a reading experience I recall as being akin to stuffing oneself with puréed cardboard until sick, Silverberg had produced a huge amount of work, much of it highly lauded. With this in mind, I took a chance sometime in the late 90s on Book of Skulls and it was incredible; so much so it was hard to believe it was by the author of the aforementioned Valentine or even The Face of the Waters, another stultifying brick I made the mistake of trying to force my way through back in my teens or early twenties.

The Book of Skulls, written in the early 70s, features four students who, after finding a rare manuscript in a university library, go on a road trip to try and find an ancient temple that supposedly grants immortality - but only to two applicants out of four.

From Amazon: Candidates for eternal life must present themselves at the "Skullhouse" as a foursome. The brothers are happy to provide training in their secrets (including tantric sex)--but there's a price. The Ninth Mystery in the Book of Skulls states: "Two of thee we undertake to admit to our fold. Two must go into darkness". One of those four college students must willingly commit suicide. One is fated to be murdered by his own friends.

Highly recommended.

Ian Sales is the author of the only self-published Kindle books I've ever bought that didn't originally come out as part of a traditional publishing deal. I've avoided nearly all self-published Kindle books because even a glance tells me most of them are very badly written, and my experience editing unpublished manuscripts has taught me that most writers self-publishing on Kindle are likely doing so long before their work is good enough to meet even the most basic requirements of prose and plot. That goes, by the way, just as much for some of those wild success-stories making a fortune via Kindle and going on to movie deals. To me, their success is literally inexplicable, when there are authors like Ian putting out work both vastly superior and astonishingly good.

The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself is the second short novel in a projected quartet, all based around the space race and all featuring in some way or another alternate timelines. Ian likes to play tricks on the audience, clever sleights-of-hand that twist expectations and confound conventional narrative. I bought the third in the series, Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, the instant it was released. That should be all the recommendation you need.

John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood is an interesting exploration both of the legacy of Edgar Rice Burrough's Martian hero and of the machinations of Hollywood that might help explain why some good movies do badly, and why some bad movies do well. Mad Mobs & Englishmen is a very interesting look at mob behaviour and how it's portrayed in the press, and how 'mob' behaviour sometimes isn't nearly so random and chaotic as you might think. It was written in response to the summer riots in various cities across the UK a few years back.

I keep telling myself I'm not a fan of zombie fiction, but World War Z is one of the finest books I've read in quite a while (although since I read it a few years back, it's not really part of this review). Some impulse caused me to glance at the sample of Roberto Calas' novel of medieval zombies in the midst of the Black Death, The Scourge, in which four knights journey across England to rescue the wife of one of them. I couldn't stop reading and so bought the entire volume instantly. Completely ridiculous, completely over the top, frequently hilarious and highly engaging. Recommended.

I finally re-read Roadside Picnic by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky, a book I think I can claim as an actual influence since I first read it in the late Seventies. It's in a new translation, which helps; however, reading it now it seems to me a book more important for the originality of its idea than for the execution, and for the serendipitous prescience with which it seems almost to foretell the lonely devastation of the cities and towns surrounding Chernobyl. Its influence on popular culture - not just in other books, but also on movies and even more than a few video games - is undoubted. To some extent the same could be said for Stanislaw Lem's Solaris; a remarkable idea, a remarkable story, but one which I think I prefer as illustrated in Tarkovsky's equally remarkable cinematic epic of the same name.

I enjoyed the heck out of Bullettime by Nick Mamatas, a weird, twisted fantasy about school shootings, but probably got more out of his more recent 'crime' novel, Love is the Law, about a supremely nihilistic punkette obsessed with left-wing politics and the works of Aleister Crowley trying to uncover the mystery of the death of her lover/mentor in 80s Long Island. I always come away from Nick's books feeling like I've been on a trip to somewhere remarkable, even if my memory of where we went and why somehow feels a bit hazy. Also recommended.

I've read a couple of Ernest Hemingway short stories in the past, and finally got around to reading A Farewell to Arms. It's an interesting book; I say interesting because I got about a third of the way through before I stopped reading. Not because it was bad, but because I knew everything I could get out of the book, I had got out of it by about page one hundred. In the introduction, Hemingway wrote he enjoyed getting up each day and making up what came next in the story...which is why, I guess, there essentially is no story, because Hemingway was making it up as he went along. There's no real incentive to keep going, but it was nice while I was there. Perhaps in future I'll stick to the short stories.

I picked up a second-hand copy of Kage Baker's In The Garden of Iden in the mid-2000s and thought it absolutely brilliant. I finally got around to re-reading a free ebook version of it acquired during Tor.com's launch a few years after that and it's still brilliant. It's also the first book in a series about immortals rescued from the past by a time-travelling organisation called Dr Zeus that compels them to rescue art, literature and knowledge from the past for the benefit of the future. I've been compulsively gorging on the sequels since re-reading Iden, although the quality does slip a bit the further on you get in the series and the books become more rambling. It might perhaps have worked better as a four- or three-book series, although I've only just finished the fifth volume. The characters and situation are compelling enough, however, that I'll also read the final two volumes in the series.

Will Storr's Heretics is a non-fiction work about, well, heretics, mostly of the scientific variety; but at the same time Storr does a good job of trying to analyse what you might as well call the limits of personal perception - the degree to which we can truly understand highly complex theories of the non-heretical variety without sharing that same degree of expertise, and the ways in which personal bias and history can cause people to cling to notions or beliefs that seem outwardly bizarre, regardless of any amount of evidence that contradicts those beliefs.

On a slightly tangential note, I became particularly obsessed with cycling this year and started doing a lot more of it than I ever have before - it helps that I never learned to drive a car (too expensive, too boring). On that basis I read and thoroughly enjoyed Bella Bathurst's The Bicycle Book and Just Ride by Grant Peterson.

Anyway, that's the highlights. I also reread books by Neal Stephenson, Gregory Benford, William Gibson, Iain Banks, amongst others, all or nearly all rapidly acquired during various online sales. 



Today, Tor UK officially revealed the cover art for my next book Extinction Game, and the start of a new series that's a slight departure from my usual material. Here's a quick synopsis:

Jerry Beche should be dead. But instead of dying alone, he’s been rescued from a desolated earth where he was the last man alive. He’s then trained for the toughest conditions imaginable and placed with a crack team of specialists.  Each one also a survivor, as each one survived the violent ending of their own versions of earth. And their specialism – to retrieve weapons and data in missions to other dying worlds. But who is the shadowy organization that rescued them?  How do they access other timelines and why do they need these instruments of death?

As Jerry struggles to obey his new masters, he starts distrusting his new companions. A strange bunch, their motivations are less than clear, and accidents start plaguing their missions. Jerry suspects that organisation is lying to them, and team members are spying on him.  As a dangerous situation spirals into fatal, who is an enemy and who can he really trust?

I think it's fair to say I'm very happy with this artwork. You can expect to see this on shelves some time around September-ish, 2014. I wanted to write a book about post-apocalypses, (note the plural), after wondering what it would be like if you could take a bunch of people - all of whom were the last man or woman on (different) Earths - and stick them in a room together. 


Prime Air

I just saw Amazon's test footage of their unmanned drone package delivery system, and it seems to have attracted a fair degree of hilarity on Twitter and elsewhere. I can see where a lot might go wrong with this. But then, I can also see it being used to deliver packages to the kinds of places you and I probably don't live, meaning, out of the way remote places that aren't easy to get a postman or a delivery truck to...depending, of course, on what range the drones can actually cover. And while I can see people taking potshots at them in certain parts of the world, I can also see those same people becoming very, very unpopular with their neighbours, if they're the kind of people for whom receiving packages flown-in by drone is a godsend. Like, people on islands, or in remote villages up the sides of mountains. And I can't help but wonder even as I write this if Amazon is eyeing the parcel service in different parts of the world with an eye to undercutting it...

There's been a lot in the press recently about Amazon's sometimes brutal approach to employment, and deservedly so. But when I see people scoffing at Amazon, I find myself thinking back to when I briefly worked in Borders Books, another once-monolithic American business with a cool disregard for unions and workers rights, and how their managers would laugh - literally laugh - at how much money Amazon was losing, and how foolish their investors must be. Then they scoffed at the first Kindle, for being an ugly, ungainly lump of plastic that couldn't possibly challenge publishers. Now Borders is dust, and the Kindle is only one small part of Amazon's increasing domination of the entire publishing industry. Let's just see if that drone looks so silly in a couple of years time. 


Essential Me

This is nice. The Scottish Book Trust put together a list of 'essential' sf by Scottish authors, including my own Final Days. I'm keeping company here with Grant Morrison, Iain Banks and Alasdair Grey - by the looks of it, the works are the same ones put on display by the National Library of Scotland last year, as part of their SF in Scotland exhibit.

What else is happening? Apart from the joy of preparing for a house move early next year, the next book is more or less plotted out. It's going to be a sequel to Extinction Game, which is due to be published September/October next year. The working title for the sequel is Extinction Road, and you're not likely to see it before autumn 2015. 



This week I had the rare pleasure of being invited to talk to the members of IO, Glasgow University's science fiction society that's been running on and off since the early Eighties. I read a bit from Marauder, then spent quite some time answering questions and talking about the writing life. All in all, a nice change from being stuck behind a desk. Someone asked me how I'd feel if I sold a novel to Hollywood and they adapted it into an unforgivably terrible movie. I told them I'd cry, but at least I'd be crying on a big bed made of money. That got a big laugh. I also left a big pile of freebies exhumed from the cupboard whence all my complimentary copies have been residing lo! these many years, and they descended on them like wolves on a wounded caribou.

Mike Cobley's doing his own spiel for them in a couple of weeks, and in fact I ran into him at a gig the next day - the gig in question being Hawkwind. It's the first gig I've been to in three years, and the last one I was at was...also Hawkwind. It was glorious, but the stage set, dancers and animated backdrops remind me that Hawkwind have always been a kind of live-action cartoon, who seem at times more like they should be a fictional outfit somewhere in the background of a Richard Curtis movie, with Rhys Hughes playing a former member. However, their sound is entirely unique. If you have Spotify nearby and fancy a recommendation, try Hall of the Mountain Grill, particularly Psychedelic Warlords.

It is impossible not to love a band that write songs with titles like Psychedelic Warlords.

In other news, I note with passing interest that Scotland has gained yet another pro novelist. I haven't met Libby McGugan, but other members of my former writing group have, and her novel The Eidolon looks like my kind of thing. You can read about it here, and she had a launch for her debut novel at Waterstones last night.

I don't talk often enough about what I have or haven't been reading. I just re-read Kage Baker's Garden of Iden as preparation for (finally) reading the follow-up Sky Coyote, and it's exactly as brilliant as I remember it. You should all read it. I'd also recommend Nick Mamatas' Love is the Law, with its mix of nihilism, politics, punk, Thelemic philosophy and good-old-fashioned murder, which I thoroughly enjoyed. 


Early sales

I've been scanning various old documents I thought worth preserving, along with various legal documents I might need to refer to while abroad. During the process I came across this, which I figured (naturally) was worth preserving. It's the acceptance letter for my first ever professional sale as a writer, to a long, long-defunct horror magazine called Skeleton Crew waaaay back in early 1990.

Here's what it says, in case you can't read the handwriting (I've adjusted it a bit to try and make it stand out):

Many thanks for sending 'Mother Love' to the magazine. I'd really like to use it but, sadly, have a very tight budget. I could only offer you £30 for it. Is that okay?
   Ps - is there any chance of supplying the story on a disk? It would be a great help. 

I re-read it now and think you total chancer. In fairness, the official rate would have got me £40, so I was only losing a tenner (the story was just two thousand words long).* And it was a pro sale, my first, so whoopee! And then he has the cheek to ask me to post it on a disk, those being the pre-internet days. I can't remember if I did or not.

Interesting side note - this editor was, I think, the second the magazine had during its short run, after the original apparently published a long editorial in the first or second issue lambasting the publishing company who had taken his magazine on, and was promptly out on his ear. A bit of an own goal, that.

*I do recall speaking once to Keith Brooke, who also had a story in that issue, who informed me that he never got paid at all, so perhaps I can count myself as lucky. 


Mondo 2000

Back in the early 90s, when I was in my mid-20s, I bought a lot of magazines. A lot of magazines. Quite a few I still have. Others, like the Asimov's and Analog's I bought through the 80s, have largely gone, apart from a few favoured issues. Also remaining is my collection of the first eighty or so issues of Interzone. Those formed such a fundamental part of my reading experience I don't see myself ever letting go of them.

But I also bought publications rarely if ever remembered now. To a great extent, these magazines, and others, were superseded by the internet. At that time, in the early 90s, technology had progressed to the point where it was possible to do relatively cheap, fast but professional-looking graphics and typographical layout on a computer, opening the gates to a veritable revolution in budget magazine design. It allowed any number of publications that were previously simply typed up and photocopied to gain a professional sheen, regardless of how small the print run or how cheaply produced. I got on the bandwagon myself, working on various minuscule titles as editor, publisher, contributor and designer, all at once and in all kinds of combinations. That led me to do a course in graphic design. That led in turn to me getting freelance work on a local music publication. That led in turn to working in a printshop, in a desperate attempt to escape the slave-fiefdom Borders Books I had been trapped in for a year and a half.

Amongst those magazines I still have are sf magazines like Extro, which appeared at the same time as Interzone, and lasted three issues. Purportedly, a major distributor binned an entire run of the magazine in order to make room for some other publication, and there was apparently little they could do about it. One of those issues contains the first published short story by Ian McDonald. There were others, infinitely less interesting, like Nexus and ProtoStellar, which lasted either one or two issues. Much more worthy, in my opinion, are my collections of US publications like New Pathways, Aboriginal SF, SF Age and others, which respectively lasted dozens of issues.

Also amongst that collection are the likes of SF Eye, Omni and Mondo 2000, each of which have had the term 'cutting edge' applied to them at various times. I've started selling many of these magazines off, but pulling them out and photographing them in order to put them on Ebay does give me an opportunity to revisit them. I even have print issues of Boing Boing before it uploaded itself. Mondo 2000 in particular is interesting because much of what was in this distinctly non-mainstream magazine in the early 90s is now very much the mainstream.

For instance: there's a 1991 issue featuring Debbie Harry on the cover. A lot of the articles inside focus on hacking, government intervention, phreaking, and a whole variety of related stuff like members of the Legion of Doom, Virtual Reality 'street tech' (in 1991?!), 'computer graphics (read 'swirly fractals'), and fashion articles with dresses covered in prints of Aleister Crowley. Not to mention editorials and articles by Robert Anton Wilson and William Burroughs. A veritable cornucopia, you might say, of early 90s counterculturalism bashing head-on into retrospectively primitive computer technology. At the time, I couldn't get enough of stuff like this. Even so, I did recently see an image from an issue of the magazine of a 'cyberpunk' loaded down under a mountain of gear, all of it carrying out a whole range of functions nowadays available squeezed into a handheld smartphone.

(It just occurred to me someone should take William Gibson's 'Neuromancer' and replace all of the imagined technology with the real, modern variety. I suspect it might not be that hard to pull off).

Anyway, all of these magazines are gradually getting sold off. Some are rare enough I'm making more off selling them than they cost me in the first place, and they weren't exactly cheap even back then. They have to go, partly because it seems a shame to lock them into a cupboard for the years I'll be back in Taiwan, and partly because a part of me wants to reduce the mountain of stuff that's accumulated around me over the years. And to be honest, in some cases, it's not actually that hard to find scanned PDF's of these publications floating around online...and if I ever do re-read them, then, it's more likely to be on the screen of a tablet than a physical artefact held in my hands. 


My current favourite displacement activities

There are two of them: cycling is the main one, with photography sneaking up on the outside.

I think I get the same thing out of cycling some writers claim to get out of running, with the exception that I consider the latter to be a form of torture. I've gone running in the past, but more with a sense of steely determination than anything resembling enjoyment. I rarely last long.

Cycling is different. I've always cycled, and unlike driving, you can start from around the same age you start walking. One of the first things I bought with money from Angel Stations was my Ridgeback hybrid, and that's been carrying me around Glasgow for about ten years. I took driving lessons back in the mid-90s and hated it. After about a dozen lessons that were going nowhere I never wanted to sit behind the wheel of a car again. And now, with rising fuel prices and self-driving cars just over the horizon, getting a licence now just seems kind of pointless.

Put me on a bicycle and it's a different matter. Just in the past year, however, it began to slide into something closer to obsession, I think in part because it's an opportunity to get out of the house and into the open. It's also a reflection of my improving health. If you suffer from a relatively minor but nonetheless debilitating illness, it can sap you of the desire to even walk out your front door much of the time, which is why in many ways writing is the perfect work for me. The fact I've been going out almost every day to cycle in the past several months is a clear sign of improvement.

Then I had a sudden hankering to get myself a half-decent point and click camera. I've rarely taken photographs, so this came as a surprise even to myself, but on reflection the reasons are clear. 1: it's another reason to get out of the house. 2: there have been too many occasions when I've wished I had a half-decent camera to take pictures. 3:  the basic low-resolution camera on my cheap-as-chips smartphone is never going to cut it.

There's another reason, which is my impending return to Taiwan for an extended period of time. Taiwan is an eminently photographable place. If I'd had a decent camera last time round, I might have taken a lot more and a lot better pictures.

This is the first picture I took outside with the camera - a Canon Powershot SX220, since you ask, got via Ebay for a song. And, yes, I'm aware it's an amateurish shot. That's because I'm a desperately amateurish photographer. I don't care. I hadn't even yet discovered you had to hold the button halfway down for a few moments so the camera could correctly focus before clicking. But, still. It's my bike, next to the Clyde, on a damp October afternoon. I read a few online guides to taking better snapshots after I got home and, believe me, this is the best of the bunch. Given time, maybe I'll improve.

In the meantime, I'm finally trying to get myself into gear for the next book. I have a halfway-to-rough idea of its shape, and the next step is to knock together a coherent, detailed outline. The first book is called EXTINCTION GAME, and this next one will follow on directly from that. For the moment it's untitled, but if it turned out to be called 'EXTINCTION [something or else]', I wouldn't be too surprised. 


Plans and Agents

Well, it's certainly been an interesting couple of weeks. Shortly before I completed and submitted Extinction Game - that being the next book you're going to get from me in late 2014 - I heard word from my agent, Dorothy Lumley, that she wasn't well. As in, really unwell. I had to read between the lines a little because Dorothy had that very English way of understating things even when things were really, really bad. Bad as in cancer, it turned out. I'd barely found out before word spread through social media that Dorothy had, in fact, passed away, only weeks after informing me her agency - for reasons, again, that were implicit rather than stated forthright - would soon be wrapping up.

Naturally, this came as a shock. Even though I've only ever met Dorothy a few times in the flesh, she's been my agent since, I think, 1997, and was responsible for selling Angel Stations to Tor UK in 2003 (published in 2004). Without her, I might never have had a career. I guess she must have believed in me to have kept plugging away all those years until something finally sold. Occasionally she would venture into the far North and Glasgow, to meet not only myself but various crime writers she represented scattered across Scotland. We'd have a very pleasant chat over tea and scones. To be honest, I really thought she'd be around for forever, more or less. Not only that, I gradually came to realise over the years I had really, really lucked out in finding Dorothy. She was an exemplary agent. You hear so many stories about bad agents. Well, take everything bad about them and Dorothy was the precise opposite.

So now I find myself in the interesting position of not having an agent. I don't know if the agency still technically exists - another agency is taking care of putting Dorothy's business into probate. At some point, I guess, I might get a letter officially setting me free. After that, either I'll hunt out another agent...or I won't. That's something I haven't made up my mind about. When I first got an agent, it was because I wanted to sell a book. Great. Job done. Now I'm selling books regularly to a particular publisher, which is an entirely different kettle of fish. And while there may well be certain advantages to having agent representation, if I do get another agent, I'm going to need to know exactly what they could do for me outside of just signing my cheques and taking a percentage of my income. That, I could do myself. The question now is, what can an agent do for a writer who is already to some extent established?

As you'll guess, I'm far from having made my mind up about anything.

On top of that, we - my wife and  I - are planning on returning to Taiwan early next year for at least another couple of years. That means sorting out my flat, renting it out, and dealing with a hundred and one other things as well as trying to work out the plot for the sequel to Extinction Game. But I'm looking forward to the return trip.

Meanwhile, Marauder seems to be doing quite well. The hardback, last I heard, is already into its second printing. The price on all my ebooks available through Amazon, Kobo, and elsewhere mysteriously dropped to ridiculously low prices, helping to boost their sales, which makes me happy. For instance, Stealing Light is currently only £1.32 on Kindle, and similarly low elsewhere. Curiously, this doesn't mean my publisher and I get less money for it - we get the same money. So it's a win-win situation. If you want to try out my ebooks, you get them dirt cheap, and we still get our money. How long this situation may continue I cannot remotely begin to guess. So if you ever fancied trying some of my stuff and haven't, now is the time.

Edit: I just remembered something. Back before I sold Angel Stations, Dorothy asked me to send her short stories for her to try and sell to the magazines. Let me be clear - this never happens. She was that determined to raise my profile in some way that would see me sell books. I've told people this in the past and they clearly had a hard time believing an agent was willing to represent short stories. That's how good an agent Dorothy was. Believe me, she earned her 10%.


Price Drop

Just a quick note to mention that Amazon appear to have dropped the price on the Kindle editions of all my Shoal books quite considerably, including Marauder, which is only just out, in both the UK and US. This kind of thing often happens entirely without the involvement of the publisher, and so I have no idea exactly how long Amazon's offer is going to last. Which means if you want to get them, or you've been thinking about getting them, the time to do it is pretty much right now.

At the time of writing, Stealing Light is going for £1.78 and $2.99 respectively, and Marauder isn't far behind at £4.58/$7.49. Nova War and Empire of Light cost only slight more, which is pretty bargain-licious. That's a pretty good deal (and in case you're wondering, I'm not losing out - regardless of the promotion, I and the publisher still get the same money and it's Amazon who take the hit). 


Update on book launch, appearances, publication schedule

Marauder is officially released in a little under twenty-four hours, which means those of you who pre-ordered it to arrive on the day of release should have it tumbling through your doors pretty soon (and those of you who pre-ordered the digital edition should find it appearing on their Kindles pretty soon as well).

I'll be at the York Festival of Writing this weekend, speaking to a whole lot of would-be novelists. Next after that is the book launch for Marauder, which I already mentioned (the reason it's taking  place a week after publication is because of my prior commitment to the festival).

Apart from that, I'm only rarely emerging into the sunlight while I work on the final drafts of The Extinction Game, the next book after Marauder, featuring a new story, new settings and new characters. The work's pretty intensive at the moment. The deadline is the end of the month, and I'm working on the third draft, furiously re-editing roughly ten thousand words a day to make that deadline. I'll make it, by the skin of my teeth.

And apart from that, I've been indulging when I have the rare opportunity in some cycling. I've always cycled - only marginally because I never bothered to learn to drive - but recently it's become more of an obsession. I put this down partly to improved health, since I've always had some (minor compared to most people, but debilitating in their own way) health problems. But for some reason that appears to be diminishing recently. My hope is it stays that way. There are times when I've thought of blogging, but only really felt like writing about cycling. You may get some posts in the future on that subject.


Book Launch

Just a note to let you all know I'll be having a book launch for Marauder in the Argyle Street branch of Waterstones in Glasgow (just across from Central Station) on Thursday, 19th September, at 7pm. This is notable to me because it's been about ten years since my last book launch, for Angel Stations, in the now-vanished Ottakars. Hope to see some of you there.

Here's a link to the details.



Sometimes, I think, the hardest thing you can do as a writer, even after many years, is to trust yourself. It feels a little too much like closing your eyes at the wheel of a speeding car, of putting your trust in the force. It's as if you have to keep an eye on yourself all the time, to worry and fret, because if you don't, the words won't be as good.

I think now the problem with that attitude - which is largely unconscious, I think, and is shared by many writers of varying pedigrees - is that it assumes the writing process is entirely conscious. Large parts of it are, of course: you have to do a lot of thinking in this job. There are a lot of moments of sudden stillness, eyes fixed on the middle distance, while you search for some connection, some way of reconciling parts of a story that don't quite somehow fit. But the fact that revelation - sudden insights, previously missed connections - occur spontaneously, and when you least expect it, indicates that a lot of writing is, in fact, unconscious. It comes out of the fingers, via the subconscious. Your fingers know how to do the dance without being told.

This occurs to me because a while back I calculated how many words I've written since I sold my first ever short story waaaay back in 1990, and it's well over a million - and the very vast bulk of that took place following the publication of my first novel. My career has in itself been an education in how to become a writer. Learning on the job, essentially.

In other news, I'm in serious danger of becoming a cycling bore. I've always enjoyed cycling, and have always cycled, only slightly because I never learned to drive. Sometime recently some internal barrier was broken and now I'm cycling more and more. When I'm back in Taiwan, I will be considering a silly amount of money on a half-decent road bike (as opposed to my current cheap-ish Ridgeback hybrid). 

The Thousand Emperors is out in paperback today

My seventh novel, The Thousand Emperors (or 1kE as I am sometimes known to describe it) is out today in paperback in the UK, and is also available on Kindle and as an audiobook in both the UK and North America (I'm not 100% sure about the audiobook in the US, but it's definitely available through Audible.co.uk).

It's technically a sequel to my previous novel, Final Days, but it's been written as a standalone - it's set so far in the future after Final Days it constitutes a brand new setting and story, so, no, you don't at all have to have read the previous volume, though at the same time there are elements of this new novel that should take on an extra depth if you have. I've got to say I'm particularly proud of this one. It's the first time where I essentially actually felt like I knew what I was doing when I was writing a book, at least in retrospect (how it feels when I'm actually in the process of writing is a quite different matter. I never feel like I know what I'm doing when I'm deep in a first or second draft).

So, go buy, if you're so inclined, and hope you get a kick out of it. So far, to my amazement, it's not had a single bad review on Amazon, either here or in the US. Here's to my first one-star review whenever it appears!


Time versus Work

Writing is a strange thing. There's less corollary between the time spent on it and the amount and quality of what's produced than you might think. Stephen King's spent a couple of decades producing massive doorstoppers with just four hours of writing a day; and what you see on the shelves doesn't include the stuff he abandoned halfway through (though sometimes, as with Under the Dome, he picks up on it again much later). The American writer Dean Wesley Smith appears to produce an insane quantity of writing - short stories, books - a year. I'm sure I read somewhere Iain Banks spent maybe two or three months a year writing each new book to the final draft. Any numbers of writers I know or follow online write maybe two thousand words a day (as I do), and it probably doesn't take them much more than a couple of hours. Others, like Tony Ballantyne, with a busy day job schedule and a family, I seem to recall, can afford maybe fifteen minutes out of each day.

I had a hard time waking up today and felt fuzzy, despite a good night's sleep, until maybe 1pm. It's now 2.12, and up until lunchtime I couldn't find it in me to write a damn word.  It just doesn't come. I keep getting that sense of misplaced guilt that I should be working, damn it: but that's silly. It's silly, because sitting bashing out words for eight hours a day produces work of less quality, not better. The brain is an organ of the body, after all, and can only sustain intensive work for so long...or so experience suggests to me.

In that past hour, I wrote maybe a thousand words. The writing comes like that: in fast, intensive spurts of activity. It's been like that from day one. I spend most of the day beforehand feeling guilty I'm not writing, and then when my brain tells me it's ready, boom. Out it comes.

Now I'll probably have some lunch, potter about, and boom (hopefully) another thousand words.

It's at times like this it's worth reminding myself I'm actually very lucky to get to do this job. 


Pacific Rim: a review

Pacific Rim is probably the best bad movie I've seen in a while. By which I mean, it is not a movie that inspires you to actually bury your head in your hands, or to stare, appalled, through fanned fingers while thinking: what were you thinking? What were you thinking? Which is the effect a lot of recent 'blockbusters' like, say, Prometheus or the Star Trek reboot have had on me. That it's not actively bad is not the same thing, however, as saying it's necessarily great

There are two things that persuaded me to see this film: good reviews from sometimes surprising corners, and Guillermo Del Toro. Essentially, Del Toro did the best that could be done with the material, and with the plot and leading characters essentially demanded by a studio keeping a close eye on the returns. Financial necessity demands burly, not very bright leading characters, and a lot of monster-on-robot action. Anything else would likely have led to a box-office failure and less chance for Del Toro to gain the funding for the much more interesting and more personal projects that have so far made his career. And that's how I like to think of Pacific Rim: essentially a fundraiser for the movies Del Toro really wants to make. And that's fine. In that respect, the movie is more interesting for its implied politics than for its own story, what little there is of it. 

It says a great deal that three secondary characters prove far more interesting than the leads, who don't really need to do much more than stand on their mark and flex their muscles. I've seen it noted that the movie, unlike many of its type, actually has some character development, and while that's true, in the main it's only really sketched in. There's nothing there - in terms of the leads, at least - that you can't easily predict. That this has been noted as a positive attribute is not so much a reflection of the quality of the film's character development as it is a reflection of the lack of it in other, similar, big-budget CGI spectaculars. 

And, again, that's okay, because the world is full of hyper thirteen-year olds overdosing on sugar water and with a deep-seated need to see robots fighting monsters, and they deserve entertainment too. But it's in the details you can see the better, if considerably less profitable, movie that might have been made. 

Specifically, the two 'comedy' scientists, along with Ron Perlman's Hannibal Chau, are far more interesting than anyone else in the film. As I watched, I found myself imagining a far better movie: one in which the Kaiju (monsters) are simply an ongoing and occasional fact of life, with no immediate solution at hand to satisfy the Hollywood need for a climactic ending.  In this better movie, the two scientists, Geiszler and Gottlieb - particularly Geiszler, with his Kaiju tattoos, and Chau, the underworld kaiju organ dealer - are the leads. The monsters, to a very great extent, are in the background (in this movie in my head), and only glimpsed as the story leads our much more interesting 'secondary' characters through an adventure in many respects only tangentially related to the monsters. 

The fact is the movie only becomes genuinely interesting when it focuses on the culture that grows around the kaiju: whole districts of cities built around the remains of fallen monsters, and an entire black market industry dealing in kaiju skin, organs, bones and even parasites. The point where Chau is first seen, in a vast hidden marketplace of Kaiju organs, bones and teeth, is the one truly Del Toro moment of the movie. Every time we moved away from Chau and the scientists, I felt disappointed. I wanted to see more about this world, because it was fascinating. But every time it felt like we were about to discover more about a world that's learned to cope with the presence of skyscraper-sized rampaging monsters, we instead had to watch a robot and a monster hit each other a lot. 

And this is all why Pacific Rim is the best bad movie I've seen in a while. It's not really a bad movie, because it does precisely what it's intended to. It's disappointing, in the sense that I've seen very good reviews of it by people whose opinions I usually respect, so that's more of a personal thing. But oh, to see a film that focuses entirely on Chau, and his kaiju organs recovery team, and Geiszler and Gottlieb as his two most devoted customers...

(a side note: I again find it deeply interesting that once again, the heroes of the day are brooding Hollywood hulks with grim expressions, while the smartest guys in the room - Geiszler and Gottlieb, without whose combined brains humanity is entirely doomed - are treated as light comic relief. I'd hesitate to suggest it signals the end of Western Civilisation, but neither would I say it's a positive reflection on our culture.)


New blog piece up at Torbooks.co.uk

I've written another piece for torbooks.co.uk, the website for my publisher, on the path that led me to being a full-time writer:

The first time I sold a book, I got an email from a friend saying ‘that’s it! You’ve got a book published. You can die now.’

Writing a book – or rather, writing it and then seeing it published – is the kind of thing that turns up on bucket lists of Things To Do Before You Die. A while back there was a survey – I think it was in the Guardian – where they asked people what careers they most aspired to, and ‘novelist’ came out top of the pile. So speaking as a published author of some ten years standing, I guess I’m doing pretty well.

But it takes a lot of work and dedication to get there. And even having one book out isn’t enough. If you actually want to make a career out of it – and there’s an unspoken assumption that you do – you need to write another. And then another. And yet another. Preferably at a rate of one a year.

You can read the rest here.  


Kip Thorne

Sometimes I see movies or tv shows and curse because they're using some really cool idea I came up with years ago all on my own. It's not plagiarism, of course, just parallel evolution. That unfinished fantasy novel sitting on my hard drive since the mid-Nineties about a Chinese warrior trying to recover an ancient and powerful Chinese artefact in mid-19th Century America in the company of an American Indian? Shanghai Noon, more or less, or certainly close enough. It was Steampunk before there was really that much in the way of Steampunk bar a few James Blaylock and KW Jeter novels.

Or there's the pattern gun in another unfinished novel, Wonderland, all about psychedelics, CIA experiments in mind control, abstract art (seriously) and non-Euclidean dimensions. Once, years later, while watching an episode of Fringe, I shouted loud enough to frighten the neighbours when I saw a weapon I thought only I had invented for that selfsame novel used on one of the show's characters - a handheld device that projects patterns of flashing light that cause the viewer to have a seizure or become unconscious. In my book, it was called a Pattern Gun.

I just read an article about Kip Thorne in the Guardian that makes me happy, because Christopher Nolan's next big movie project is based around the same exact physics developed by Thorne that I used in Final Days. It's nice to be first, just for once. 


Iain Banks

People have been talking about their memories of Iain Banks over the last couple of days. Like a lot of you, hearing the news first about his cancer and then his sudden passing-away felt like a gut-punch. It's something that brought shock and anger and I know there are a good few people in the world of publishing this week who didn't get much work done the day they heard the news of his passing. Banks' passing leaves a very, very large Banks-shaped hole in both general and science fiction that's going to be exceedingly hard, if not downright impossible, to fill. His contribution was that important.

With that in mind, I've seen people sharing stories, and in the spirit of that ongoing virtual wake, it feels like the right time to share the memories of my own, few and exceedingly brief encounters with Banks.

The first time I met Iain Banks in person was back about 1989 or 1990 when I carried out an interview with him for some tiny, tiny local magazine that probably pretty much nobody bought, ever. I had a notion towards becoming some kind of magazine journalist at the time, which had led me to interview Grant Morrison not long before - not a difficult feat, since both lived fairly locally. I got in touch with Banks' publisher, and a few short weeks later got a train to Edinburgh and found my way to his flat, in the company of a colleague lugging a frankly huge tape recorder. At that time, Banks lived fairly centrally, not far from the city centre.

I still have that interview somewhere, in a back issue hidden in some cupboard or other. It's probably not interesting enough, in all honesty, to dig out and reprint here. It probably doesn't help either that Banks is probably just about the single most interviewed writer on the planet ever, ever. I mean the man gave interviews to just about everyone. You'd be hard put to dig up any kind of sf fanzine, magazine or general culture 'zine printed between 1985 and 2000 with even the most glancing interest in literature or geek culture that didn't feature a few words from the man.

He proved, as anyone who has ever met him knows, to be ebullient and charming and entertaining, all at once. My primary memory is this:

I had noticed a medium-sized dinner plate nailed to a wall in the kitchen where we conducted the interview. Some indeterminate yet roughly circula object clung to the surface of the dinner plate, and I asked what it was. Banks replied that during a particularly good party, either he or someone of his acquaintance had thought it might be a terribly good idea to make a microwave pizza, except instead of setting it for, say, twelve minutes, they set it at something like a hundred and twenty and then promptly forgot about it. By the time the thing eventually pinged, the pizza's dessicated and quite possibly mummified remains were now, apparently, permanently welded to the surface of the plate. I noted at the time that it now resembled nothing so much as the 'flying pancake' monster from an old episode of Star Trek (specifically Operation: Annihilate, Google informs me).

Most people would chuck the whole thing in the bin. But Banks? Nope. He nailed it to the wall as a tribute to one particularly rockin' party. That, then, is my main memory of Banks.

I met him on just two occasions since then that I can remember. The second-last time was at the bar of a convention hotel right here in Glasgow in, I think, 2005. I hadn't realised he was there until he said hello, having apparently recognised me even after all those years. We chatted briefly, he mentioned something about having just gotten divorced (I'd had no idea), and then we went our separate ways. The last time was just last year at a monthly writer's event, again in Glasgow, where he had been invited to say a few words. I made a point of saying hello afterwards, having no idea it was the last time I would ever set eyes on him, although in truth he seemed distracted. Given this was quite some time before the announcement of his illness, I have no idea whatsoever whether he yet had any inkling regarding his condition. I prefer to think he was just a bit hungover.

I am going to miss his books, both with and without the 'M', very much. 

Future Thinking up at Tor.com

I have a blog piece about technology and science fiction up at Tor.com, my first appearance, I think, on that website.

'...science fiction is both an epiphenomenon and a response to the accelerating rate of technological advancement. When Mary Shelley wroteFrankenstein, the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment had already taken steps towards radically revising our understanding of how the universe works. Her most famous novel was partly inspired by experiments in which dead tissue appeared to be reanimated—to be galvanised—into unholy life by the application of an electric current. It’s rightly known as the first science fiction novel because it’s a response to both the threat and the promise of such experiments.'

Go read the rest of it here.

By the way, my email troubles are all sorted now, if you've been getting any bouncing messages from me in the recent past. 



Just a quick note to say that if you've emailed me at gary@garygibson.net and haven't received a reply, it's because setting up this new version of the website involved diving into the domain registrar and making changes there - changes that appear to have screwed up the email forwarding that comes with the domain name. I'm far from conversant in such matters, so let's just say until you hear otherwise, if you want to hear from me, you have three options: use my other email (garymgibson@gmail.com), message me on Facebook, or message or DM me on Twitter. This isn't a major problem, just an annoying one that will hopefully be resolved soon-ish.

And you can consider it now resolved and fixed at last. 


Marauder wraparound cover and some trailers

Tor UK just posted both the complete wraparound cover for the upcoming hardback edition of Marauder (released in September) and an interview with not only myself, but also Steve Stone, who's responsible for the new art for my first five books, just reissued.

Look at that full cover art. Just look at it (and click on each to get the full glory).

Steve mentions in passing in his own interview that he's just directed and produced his first film, Entity, due out in the UK in June. This is something of a recurring theme, because when I recently contacted Lee Gibbons - who did the art for the original editions of the Shoal Trilogy - he mentioned his foray into book trailers.

So here's the trailer for Steve's movie, Entity -

. and here's a trailer by Lee for Tin Moon, his book trailer project, which is rather fun.


First Drafts now and then

A year or two back I wrote an article for a manuscript agency's website on something I called 'the one third slump', by which I meant the way a novel, outlined or otherwise, tended to dribble off into confusion round about the thirty or forty thousand word mark. This used to really freak me out when it happened to me, in a OH GOD MY NOVEL DOESN'T MAKE ANY SENSE TOR WILL ASK FOR THEIR MONEY BACK I'LL END UP ON THE STREETS DRINKING GUTTER WATER kind of way. When it happened to my third novel, Stealing Light, instead of completely losing my shit, as they say, I took my six thousand word outline and revised it in order to try and figure out what was and what wasn't working in the novel. That's when I realised writing is a bit like planning an invasion or storming a building with hostages inside. However much you prepare, however much you train, all your preparations aren't worth shit about five minutes after you hit the beach and logistics meet cold hard reality. What I thought would work, didn't work, but that's always the case with initial outlines.

So I went back and re-planned for a month. At the end of that process I had a 22,000 word outline. The result was my most successful and bestselling book to date. It, along with four other of my earlier novels, just got re-released by Tor with brand new cover art and design, so as writing processes go, I guess intensive outlining works for me.

My writing habits, however, appear to be in flux once more. One of the drawbacks of my writing method in terms of actually getting words onto paper is that I sometimes become neurotically obsessed with getting the words just right even when I know there's a reasonable chance those words will need to get chopped later on. I think I've broken the habit, and for the first time in my life I've managed to write myself all the way up to 95,000 words of the current manuscript without yet feeling a creeping urge to stop dead, re-outline everything and only then write the end. Instead I'm ploughing through to the bitter end and ignoring all the structural faults that would previously have brought me to a screeching halt, saving that work instead for a later draft.

It feels to me a little like flying blind. But I've realised I like re-writing a first draft a whole lot better than writing it. This is a Good Thing, because I'm obsessing less with getting things 'just right' in the first draft. I'm happy just to bang down the main ideas and then go through it sentence by sentence and character motivation by character motivation in order to sort out what works and what...needs work. I figure I'll finish this extremely rough first draft in a week or two. Then I'll spend longer planning and re-structuring the story and, now I've had the opportunity to spend some time with them and see what makes them tick, work out my characters in much more detail. Whether or not this might produce a better/more successful book I can't begin to say, but hopefully it'll be a less stressful one. 


Future Thinking

Tor UK asked me to do an article for their website, in support of the current spate of re-issues of my backlist:

One of the things you often hear people say these days is that science fiction is in danger of being overtaken by the sheer pace of advancements in science and technology. It’s an understandable refrain, particularly when the news is filled with reports about downloadable blueprints for building guns with those same 3D printers. The feeling that you’re living in a world co-scripted by John Varley and John Brunner tends to grow when you take a quick scan through any number of online news sites and discover front-page features on exoplanets, life extension, and NASA research into Alcubierre drives. It might seem that in the face of such remarkable advances, science fiction might no longer be as relevant as it once was, reality having in many respects caught up with it. You might think that, but you would be wrong. 

Read the rest here.

You also have a chance to win some of my books over at Tor UK's facebook page.


Windows Hate

I had occasion to be reminded just why I switched to Mac this afternoon. I was in town with my brother and his girlfriend (both visiting from Malaysia) where we picked up a cheap but hopefully good quality laptop (a Packard Bell) for our mother, whose computer died a few days back. We headed across the road to get it started up, download some software, the usual kind of thing, and I mucked around with Metro for a while and figured out some things.

Now, I'm no dummy with computers, but 'intuitive' is not a word I'd use to describe Windows 8. I might even have preferred to have 7 on it, but of course you don't get a choice. Even after half an hour I still couldn't figure out how to close some of the Windows 'apps'.

It makes me even more determined that if I ever have occasion to buy a non-Mac computer - and it's entirely possible, if I want something ultra-light and portable with a decent keyboard - the first thing I'll do is install Ubuntu, which, frankly, seems to me the better operating system (it's installed on my wife's computer). 

Celebration Day

Today is the official release day for the entire repackaged and republished Shoal Trilogy, comprising Stealing Light, Nova War and Empire of Light, and to which my next book, Marauder, due out later this year, is a kinda-sorta sequel cum standalone.

Here's a picture of them spine-on, leached from the Tor website. Aren't they pretty?

(If you want to see them in their full resplendent glory, merely click on the 'my books' tab up there and they will be revealed.)

In the meantime, I've got a quick five-question interview posted up at the moment over at Tor UK, in which I answer questions like: who would play Dakota in the films? Did I have a 'space dust' problem in my pre-teens? And, you know, books and stuff. 


Deborah J Miller

Well, I just heard some horrible news, that fantasy author Deborah J Miller just passed away. I first knew Debbie when she was writing as Miller Lau, when she had some fantasy novels out at the turn of the century. We were stablemates at Tor Uk for a couple of years, and I first got introduced to her by fellow writer Mike Cobley. Debbie was one of the nicest people you could hope to meet.

I have a recollection of telling her how I thought she had looked terribly exotic in her author photos in her early novels, not realising the reason she was wearing a turban was because of a long battle with cancer. When I last saw her, at a convention a few years back shortly after (I think) my return from Taiwan, she was walking with a stick, and I believe her cancer had recurred. By then, she was putting a lot of her energy into running and promoting the David Gemmell Awards.

I'm not sure what else I can say beyond that really, except, perhaps, fuck cancer. There's some more details here.


New books

So the other day I found a snazzy little picture someone had posted on Twitter of the new editions of the Shoal Trilogy which they had, apparently, received for review. I hadn't realised Tor were sending out review copies, but if they are, and you're a reviewer and you want copies, you might want to drop an enquiring line their way.

I finally found copies in my local Waterstones the other day and my, they do look snazzy. I mean, they look seriously good with the wraparound Steve Stone art and the new 'b' format paperback size. I need to finish up a Q&A on the reissues today, and you can expect to see that up at the Tor site sometime later this week. 


New and updated site

As I said back in March, the site needed a bit of a spring-clean and it was starting to look a bit old-fashioned and cluttered. I thought about going for some paid services - and some of them, like squarespace.com, offer some very attractive packages indeed - but my steely cold Scottish heart just can't countenance the expenditure. Spending money. On a website?

So instead I got back inside the guts of my blogger account and created this new, updated version - which is also accessible, I should remind you, through the garygibson.net domain as well as through its blogger address. It's not a hundred per cent complete - I'd like to figure out how to include some drop down menus without having to essentially redo a bunch of stuff I've somehow managed to do without quite knowing how I did it, and for that reason I'll leave it for another day. But suffice to say the new site looks cleaner, and has several static pages instead of landing immediately on the blog itself. There's information about the books, and also various articles and so forth that have appeared around the net. In the future I'll incorporate various interviews and other bits and pieces. I also need to incorporate my Twitter and other social media accounts and contact details.

I did this at least partly, if not mainly, because it made sense to do so with the new books coming out, and I didn't want people googling me just to find a dusty, cluttered blog that might at times not be updated for weeks or even months. 


New cover and Eastercon

Those concerned at my relative sparsity hereabouts should know I spend my time most often these days on Twitter, as @garygibsonsf.  I sometimes check out potential providers for building a static front page for this here blog with lots of details about the books and so forth, and maybe I'm just a cheapskate, but I ain't yet seen anything I'm comfortable spending real money on, as good as some of them are (I particularly liked what they offer over at Strikingly.com, but it's still just too expensive).

Not to say there aren't some things to report: the cover artwork for Marauder recently popped up online and started quietly spreading around, so I figured it was time to get it out and about. And so, here it is, the artwork for my next book, now due out at the start of September.

I'll emphasise that although this is set in the same universe as the Shoal trilogy, it's a separate, stand-alone story. You won't need to have read those previous books, and even though there are a few plot strands that connect it to certain prior events, everything you need to know to understand and enjoy the book is there. I must say, I'm particularly proud of this one, and I think you're going to like it.

I'll be at Eastercon in Bradford this coming weekend, getting down by rail and arriving at the actual con, I suspect, at about 6 on Friday early evening before diving straight into things. I'm only doing one panel, kind of a general thing on writing, at five on Saturday afternoon. There's something called a 'genre get-together' at 7 on Saturday evening I'm apparently part of. Outside of that, I'll be here, there and everywhere. 



With all the fuss over the Oscars, I felt driven somehow to point you at some things I've seen over the last year which I think, in most cases, are better than the current contenders (the Oscars are actually over at the time of writing this, but I still don't know who the winners are). To be clear - I liked Argo, but I don't think it's the best movie of the year. Django Unchained was, I thought, a return to form for Tarantino, although I think he had about two movies worth of material in a single work - enough so he might have been better going down the same route he did with Kill Bill 1 & 2. I also enjoyed Zero Dark Thirty, and thought it a clever, smart movie that in no way remotely condones torture - rather the opposite, in fact. I haven't, unfortunately, seen Lincoln, although from what I've seen and heard both it and its lead actor deserve their nominations.

But there are always movies that I am surprised to find are not even nominated. Here's the one that particularly struck me as glaring omissions:

The Hunter - based on a novel by Julia Leigh, starring Willem Dafoe as a man sent by a biotech company to find and kill the last Tasmanian tiger so they can benefit from unique properties inherent in the creature's biochemistry (essentially, they want to develop a powerful nerve agent). This is one of those man-against-nature and man-against-man movies. It's powerful and gripping and reminds me why Dafoe is such a superb actor. Definitely one of my movies of the year.

A Royal Affair - this is based on a true story. IMDB says: "In 1767, the British Princess Caroline is betrothed to the mad King Christian VII of Denmark, but her life with the erratic monarch in the oppressive country becomes an isolating misery. However, Christian soon gains a fast companion with the German Dr. Johann Struensee, a quietly idealistic man of the Enlightenment. As the only one who can influence the King, Struensee is able to begin sweeping enlightened reforms of Denmark through Christian even as Caroline falls for the doctor. However, their secret affair proves a tragic mistake that their conservative enemies use to their advantage in a conflict that threatens to claim more than just the lovers as their victims."

What's remarkable about this Danish film is that it feels weirdly science-fictional. Both Caroline and Struensee (played by the same chap who appeared as le Chiffre in Casino Royale) are effectively airdropped into a society considerably more backwards than their own, so that they almost feel like time travelers from the present lost in a scarcely post-medieval society - but with the unique privilege of being able to change it.

Finally, I'd recommend The Sessions - also based on a true story: "At the age of 38, Mark O'Brien, a man who uses an iron lung, decides he no longer wishes to be a virgin. With the help of his therapist and his priest, he contacts Cheryl Cohen-Greene, a professional sex surrogate and a typical soccer mom with a house, a mortgage and a husband. Inspired by a true story, The Surrogate, follows the fascinating relationship which evolves between Cheryl and Mark as she takes him on his journey to manhood."

In summary like that, it sounds like some kind of American Pie affair, but it's really, really not. It's way smarter and cleverer than that. O'Brien was a noted poet, with several books of his work out, despite being completely immobilised from youth. And it shows, through the dialogue and his interactions with the people and the women around him, and it's hardly surprising, if this movie is anything to judge by (and assuming it's an accurate portrayal of his life) that so many women ended up falling in love with him.

So there you go: three recommendations from me.


New 'Brain in a Jar' release

It's been a while since the last release, but here it is: Cowboy Saints and Other Lost Wonders, by Phil Raines and Harvey Welles.

(that's the Amazon UK link. Here's the link for Amazon US.)

A few words about Phil and Harvey. They've been writing together for at least twenty years, and in that time have managed to quietly steal their way into several Year's Best anthologies as well as being published in a variety of publications well-known to most of you reading this blog, particularly Interzone, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and Albedo One. Some of the stories herein contained have also appeared in Year's Best SF and Fantasy collections, as well as being listed in 'recommended reading' annual retrospectives by the likes of Locus magazine.

Here's a small taster of what you might find inside, in the form of Hal Duncan's introduction, Plastic Hippos for Feet.

(At the moment I'm considering putting together a freebie sampler of stories and articles from previous Brain in a Jar publications. Watch this space.)

Plastic Hippos for Feet
Hal Duncan

Part of me wants to start this intro with a personal story, an anecdote of An Adventure With Phil, involving a miniature sarcophagus with plastic hippos for feet and a shovel hidden in a banjo case for a trip through town in the dead of night. Or the story of an abandoned railway tunnel aglow with hundreds of tea-lights. Or of statues of Teutonic knights gifted with golden eye-shadow and lip gloss. More. Part of me wants to sketch in a half dozen illustrations of the imaginative spirit behind the stories you’re about to read – or one of the imaginative spirits at least – as if to say: See, knowing this, now you get where all the weirdness is coming from, don’t you? It makes sense now, right?

But such truth would be a lie, I reckon, an explaining-away. Better, more honest, I think, to offer just the images, a few real-world lost wonders as hints of what’s to come, to leave it to you to piece something together from, say, a shovel in a banjo case and a sarcophagus with plastic hippos for feet – oh, and a coin, a condom, a toy cow, an invitation, a map. Make of that what you will.

A little enigma seems apt here, after all. See, I’ve known Phil Raines for some twenty years now, it must be, as a member of the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle and as a good friend. But, to coin a term, I’ve unknown his writing partner, Harvey Welles, for about the same period – Harvey, the ever-present, ever-absent other half across the Pond, there in the fiction but hidden behind it, Harvey, somewhere in Milwaukee, happily working away on their collaborations but having nothing to do with the kerfuffle after creation. I’ve never met the Gilbert (or George?) of this literary Gilbert & George. He’s as much of a mystery to me as Phil is a mate, as elusive as his invisible lagomorphic namesake. So even if I might illuminate a little of the force behind the fiction with a tale or two of Phil’s eccentric “projects,” there’d still be this... negative space where what you really need to know is Harvey’s quirks and foibles.

But that too seems apt: if one thing marks out the stories in this collection, it’s a sense of mystery at their hearts. One shouldn’t be misled by the “Wonders” in the subtitle; the “Lost” in there is crucial. These aren’t tales of the merely marvellous – nerd-raptures of brassy SF/F conceits conjured to inspire the gosh-wow sensawunda where “What if” is really “Wouldn’t it be awesome if?” Oh, here and there you’ll find a trope like teleportation on whim – Bester’s jaunting specifically referenced indeed – but the actualisation of desire is too thematic to simply be performed as textual spectacle. Lost wonders are wonders out of reach, not the Fisher Price doohickeys in the genre sandpit.

For sure, the wondrous is right there in many of these stories, but it comes not from gadgetry and gimcrack tropes but in the actualities of the communion of the mosh pit, or of “that fado that can blur the boundary between listener and music and blot the world out for a moment,” or in the notion of “a perfect song. God plays it once on the carrier, produces the part and the string dissolves into noise. Never to be repeated.” Which is to say it’s something deeper than the marvellous we’re concerned with in these stories. The where and how of those Portuguese sad songs being made manifest in the world, in the story titled simply after the mode itself, “Fado,” is certainly as fantastical a conceit as you can get... but the marvellous? No. Here we’re talking about the sublime.

(The marvellous: gosh wow! The sublime: holy fuck! That’s the difference, in case you’re wondering.)
So, in the title story of the collection we get an image of that sublime, of “the light at sunset, a sky big enough for the light to spread, a desert ridge to give it a bright cutting edge, and the face of a cowboy saint to give it focus –” It’s an honest awe in the face of the real and natural cosmos we’re being given, the expanse of empty desert and vast heavens above, an edge of rock slicing into us, invoking a wonder for beyond the Technicolor and Cinemascope of SF/F’s silver screen SFX.

And yet...

And yet, this is where it gets gnarly, because I can’t help but note how that sublime light is being captured in (mediated by?) reflection upon something at once gaudier and more homely. I mean, this cowboy saint is there to give the light focus. And whatever a cowboy saint might be – as the character himself imagining this vision wonders – how can that phrase not conjure icons Hollywood or Catholic? The Lone Ranger! Dashboard Madonnas! Gene Autry! Buddy Jesus! Isn’t a cowboy saint maybe just... a little kitsch? This is, I might add, in a story where the key lost wonder is a stolen wig made of a cloned Christ’s luscious locks.

But if the touch of Technicolor to the iconographies of pulp cinema and plastic religion might edge such an image toward the aesthetic of a Jeff Koons or Pierre et Gilles, I think of household gods, and of Dennis Potter explaining why he used bubblegum pop songs in his TV plays, insisting on the genuine power of things others dismiss as trite. Sell statues of Saint John Wayne the Divine and someone would revere them. Or as Potter might have put it, a three minute pop song of lollipop lyrics can be a fado for the right person in the right context. The secret of some such kitsch might be that it’s always already a lost wonder, the sublime reduced to the mundane, the mundane striving to be sublime. It might be sublime precisely because it’s mundane – a wonder because it’s lost, lost because it’s disposable, signifying ultimately all lost wonder(s).

Whatever the dynamics of import at work, you’ll find the lost wonders at play here can beg the question of just where the line is between mundane and sublime. In All the Things She Wanted, we see fabulous things manifesting from people’s dreams, but these are marvels of the everyday transcendent – the most perfect hamburger in the world, tickets for a gig by a crooner decades dead. And these seem only the perfections of all the small things of The Sight of God, a tale loaded with references to the Flood in which we see a latter-day catastrophe’s flotsam and jetsom turned near enough to sacred mysteries of a cargo cult, stored in an ark of “junk: shells, old records, faintly green from algae, Coke and whiskey bottles, smoothed by the ocean, things that might have been iPods or parts of larger machines. And everywhere, the traces of animals. A fan made from peacock feathers. The wooden head of a snake. A tortoise shell. Statuettes of giraffes and elephants.” 

Junk. Kitsch. Kipple. Knick-knacks. Plastic hippos. Triviality makes such things no less sublime though. Here, you’ll see how objects out of memory – a set of monkey bars, a bar of chocolate – can function as notes in the fado of life, in a song being played on us, the most disposable knick-knack loaded with all the import of a crystal-clear high-C.

This is not to suggest it’s all about signifiers of the lost past rendered wondrous by nostalgia though. Desire is a force at large in the world in many of the stories, but even where it’s out there making its objects real, making ephemera permanent, the effect is an ambiguous boon at best. There are stories I want to throw the words Sehnsucht and saudade at, but I’m not sure those words stick, to be honest. Certainly the latter is at the heart of Fado, as integral to the story as to the music it’s named for. But that story has a darkness to it, verges on horror – if it doesn’t, in fact, in its closing paragraphs, wholly commit to it. Elsewhere there’s a niggling question of the hunger after all desire is fulfilled, when we’ve run out of things to want. And most of all, there’s a motif of worlds so catastrophically estranged by those forces at large in them that, really, yearning for yesteryear through its signifiers might well be a character’s undoing.

Change and stasis are in conflict throughout, direct or indirect: in a world where Good Humor Men come out at dawn to clear corpses from the shells of stone that have sealed them in their apartments, in their rooms, on their sofas, in their own statued bodies... the corpses of those who have surrendered to stasis; in a Washington recombined, retrofitted with patches of other cities, mappable only in collage, but where the protagonist can regain the entirety of her past... if that’s what she really wants; in a Glasgow sundered into St. Mungo and Kentigern, grimy No Mean City on the one hand, gentrified City of Culture on the other. Often, we find characters faced with a world transitioned to utter strangeness, radical instability. The past is not just another country; it’s another reality. The present? The present has run wild with mystery, defies easy explanations. What one does in the face of that... well, that’s the big question.

There are stories of those who have adapted though, as much as of those who are struggling to or stubbornly refusing to. If the world has been irreversibly weirded, there are those like the eponymous character of The Last of the Greyhound Kings who can find the constancies at higher levels, across and between the ceaseless changes. “Routes let you keep the motion,” he says. “Making the next connection is the only way you’ll stay in constant flow. Gotta know the routes better than your own body, gotta know them so well that there’s no line between your body and the city.” Echoing the fado that can “blur the boundary” between listener and music, that zen surrender to the flux of a city or a song might well be worth bearing in mind when it comes to the stories you’re about to read.

The ground under your feet is going to be constantly moving here – not ground at all but the roof of a bus on the road. You’re going to have to hold on tight at the turns, follow the Greyhound King Raines and the Cowboy Saint Welles as they leap from the roof of this moving bus to that one. But if you can turn your focus to the routes – to the patterns that Mercedes, in Red Shoes, has her knack of gleaning from the most seemingly inconsequential details, to the strange new order in the interstitched streets of Washington and who knows where, to the matrix of junctions where St. Mungo and Kentigern weave through each other – maybe you’ll get a sense of what a cowboy saint is, where the Greyhound King goes, what God’s perfect song might sound like, played once, never to be repeated. 

As I say, the lost wonders herein are not the marvels of your traditional fantasy. No, expect a whole lot more than that. In the collision of mundane and sublime, expect a fierce strangeness ripping loose through the world, rewriting its rules, a strangeness unleashed in The Fishie into the very language of the story itself, to breath-taking effect. Where the wonders are lost within these pages, it’s not marvels but mystery waiting to be found. I can’t do justice to these stories any more than I can to the tale of a miniature sarcophagus with plastic hippos for foot, so I’ll say no more now.

I’ll just put you in the more than capable hands of Messrs Raines and Welles, let you discover the joys of that experience for yourself.

- Hal Duncan is the award-winning author of Vellum and Ink. 


Book Names, Outlining and Future Projects

I'm definitely one of those authors who works best when he's outlining a book in detail. It's been said, accurately I think, that there are two kinds of writers - those who plan extensively, and those who make it up as they go along (and, I'm presuming, don't mind scrapping tens of thousands of words when they turn out not to work). The nice thing for me about planning everything beforehand is that such things are much less likely to happen.

It's been my experience that there's a correlation between how successful one of my books is, and the length of the outline. I found a copy the other day of the outline for Stealing Light, which clocks in at 22,000 highly detailed words. Even then, there are minor differences between that and the completed manuscript, although the key word here is 'minor'. My first two books, for which I did only cursory outlining, drove me to endless frustration. Stealing Light, by comparison. was a cakewalk to write.

So with all this floating around in my head, I finished up the current outline for the new book, at just under 18,000 words. Nearly one-fifth the length of some people's novels. I've heard some people suggest that outlining everything in such detail removes all the pleasure of writing a novel and discovering aspects of the story along the way, and feeling the excitement of the narrative as it builds.

Well, each to their own, but I'm inclined to think that's balls.

Spontaneity can produce good results, but only at the cost, in my experience anyway, of a huge amount of wastage. Your mileage, of course, may vary, etc, etc. But what other people call 'spontaneity' I call 'hours and days of clawing at my hair trying to figure out how the hell I'm going to get myself out of the corner I've painted myself into without scrapping half of everything I've written over the last three months'.

My current outlining process arose from such frustrations. When writing Against Gravity, I found the only way to make sense of things by the time I was halfway through was to write a highly detailed summary of everything that had so far happened. That way, I'd be able to clearly see the forest as well as the trees. Then I realised I could keep my scalp safe by doing all this worrying and fretting before I'd written one word of the damn novel in the first place.

And that's been pretty much the way I've done things since. I don't even start until everything's planned out. In detail.

The new book, as I've said before, is a slight departure from previous novels. It is, essentially, about a team of survivors - each one the last man or woman from an alternate post-apocalyptic Earth - brought together for the purpose of exploring other post-apocalyptic alternate universes. It'll be the first novel I've written that doesn't feature spaceships.

The question of why they've been brought together, and the ultimate purpose of the Authority - the organisation responsible for bringing them together - is only one of many questions for which the characters have to find the answer. I've heard it said the post-apocalyptic sub-genre is getting a bit tired, and I agree; that's why I thought it would be much more fun to write a book in which you get to see a whole bunch of end-of-the-world scenarios, packed in together.

The new deal is for two books, so there'll be a sequel as well. What happens in that I haven't yet
planned, although ideas are stirring. It's possible it might step away from post-apocalyptic scenarios, and concern itself a little more with exploring the multiverse.

The only thing I can't tell you for sure at the moment is what it's going to be called. When I came up with the original title, Touring the Apocalypse, I was going through a bit of a John Kessel kick. I love that title, but Tor thought it a bit lighthearted given the actual story, and so asked me to come up with alternatives. They're right, unfortunately, but there are the very rare stirrings in my head of an idea for a short story (set in the same universe) for which I could use that original title.

As for the book itself, I have a couple of ideas.

But naming a novel can be hard. It can be exceptionally easy to come up with something trite, or ridiculous, or overblown. There's no lack of dodgy self-published novels with the word apocalypse in them. I think hard about titles. The only one of my book titles I don't like is Nova War, at least partly because I didn't pick it; that was a case of editorial fiat. It's my own fault, though, because I couldn't come up with anything better at the time.

Generally speaking, I tend to prefer book titles that don't just say what's in the tin, so to speak. I prefer titles with an element of ambiguity, that make you think of possible alternate meanings. Angel Stations does in fact feature 'angel stations', alien-built space stations, but that's not the first thing you think when you see that title. It triggers off all kinds of associated ideas and thoughts that don't immediately make you think alien space stations.  Against Gravity doesn't make you think doomed cyborgs. Nova War, by contrast, is about...a nova war.

One current working title for the new book is: The Last Diary, which I actually really like. It does, however, sound a great deal more mainstream than the story I'm writing. It sure as hell doesn't suggest band of adventurers across the multiverse. For that reason, it's not likely to make the grade.

Or there's The Extinction Game, which I kind of liked when I came up with ti, and still do...kind of. I just have to figure out what the game is. Unless it's 'game' in the sense of being a 'racket'.

A third title that came to mind is Scavenger Red. I like this because it sounds sort of cool without being specific. Scavenger, because that's what the survivors nickname themselves. Their job is to scavenge dead worlds throughout the multiverse. As for where the hell the Red came from well, your guess is as good as mine. It just sounded cool, and being a writer, I can probably easily come up with a reason for it (there might, for instance, be teams of scavengers labelled Scavenger Red, Scavenger Green, Scavenger Blue).

Take none of this as absolutely read, by the way. I have a bad habit of changing my mind. Frequently.

Hopefully some time soon, I'll be able to post the cover for the new book set in the Stealing Light Universe, called Marauder.