4/21/2021

Story sale, mailing list, and Zardoz

 I haven't been keeping up with posting my newsletters to the blog, but I'll try and get back on track with that. But expect at least a month's delay before you get news from me unless I have a new book coming out.

And a reminder: if you want to hear from me regularly, sign up to my mailing list because blogs are dead and mailing lists are the new thing. You get a free novelette currently not available anywhere else (it's not even been submitted to any markets and was in fact created especially for my mailing list), and I write about writing progress, upcoming projects, books I've read and other news. 

The number of subscribers, I'm glad to say, has been climbing steadily, and it's the only guaranteed way to find out what I've been up to and what I've been working on. A new newsletter comes from me at the start of each month, and you can unsubscribe as easily as you can subscribe.

Here's a quick summary of the main points from my most recent newsletter:

2/07/2021

Stardust Cowboys, Moon Men and a sale on Devil's Road

I had a nice surprise in January when I discovered I had not one but two works in the long list for the BSFA (British Science Fiction Association) Award for best short fiction of 2020: Warsuit and Devil's Road.

Something like seventy short stories and novellas also made the long list, and that will be whittled down to a shortlist of about five for the final award. So while it's quite unlikely either will get that far, it's always nice to get the nod.

Ghost Frequencies, meanwhile, had an equally unexpected but equally nice review over at SF Crowsnest:

"Gibson's writing is flawless, the story is paced so well that one doesn't notice it at all. Equal parts hard science, ghost and detective story, the mixing of genres is handled exceptionally well."

SALE ON DEVIL'S ROAD


The ebook of Devil's Road is on sale at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com from February 2nd to February 9th. So if you're new to my stuff, or you aren't but hadn't yet decided whether to go for this one because it's different from a lot of my previous work, for the next couple of days you can get it for just £1/$1.

The sale will only last a couple of days, so you'd better be quick. And if you're an audiobook fan, Devil's Road has an audiobook available on Audible ( US link / UK link) which you can get at a reduced price if you buy the Kindle edition.

MOON MAN


The first draft of Moon Man is now up to about 40,000 words and progressing reasonably nicely. As I mentioned before (I think) it's about a Scottish immigrant hunting an otherworldly creature across 1860s California.

And because I haven't really put much of my own cultural background into my writing up until now, I've decided to write it partly in Scots.

This requires a really fine balance between authenticity of language and not making it too difficult for the non-Scottish reader to understand. I workshopped it with my writer's group here in Taipei, the majority of whom are American, and it's fair to say one or two of them were a little baffled by the language. But then again American readers represent at best perhaps 10 to 20% of my readership, so I'm not overly worried.

Working on Moon Man has led me to do a little research into the background of the Scots language, which has proved fascinating. Rather than being a dialect of English, or a corrupted form of that language, as some claim, it's an entirely separate but closely related language that in fact predates modern English.

Indeed, prior to the Norman invasion, Scots - or Inglis, as it was then known - was common throughout the British Isles. What most of us now think of English is, in fact, a merging of that language with Norman French.

GEEK STUFF


Or, I Browsed The Internet So You Don't Have To.

First up, Buckaroo Banzai.

One of my enduring memories of the 1987 Worldcon in Brighton was the premiere of a new American film called Buckaroo Banzai In the Fifth Dimension, starring Peter Weller, concerning the adventures of a half-Japanese man who is simultaneously the world's leading brain surgeon, the world's greatest scientist, holder of multiple land speed records and singer and guitarist in the world's most popular band.

What Buckaroo Banzai really is, is Doc Savage adapted for the 1980s and the film, I remember one reviewer commenting with considerable accuracy, leaves you with the feeling of having just watched the latest episode of a long-running series with zero knowledge of prior story developments.

There was meant to be a sequel, referenced heavily in the closing credits, called Buckaroo Banzai Versus the World Crime League, but the movie failed to be enough of a commercial success for that to happen. So consider me flabbergasted when I discovered that the screenwriter has now written that sequel as a novel due to be published later this year .

I, for one, will be buying it. And not just because I really want to know what that watermelon was doing there .

LEGENDARY STARDUST COWBOY


if you're ever stuck for something to talk about during those long zoom meetings with friends, you could always tell them about the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.

I fell down a google hole after discovering NASA once used a song called Paralyzed to wake up astronauts aboard the Skylab in 1973, but got so many complaints that NASA banned the song from their playlist... Making it the only song ever banned in space.

And that tenuous connection is sufficient for me to talk about him here.

How bad or loud could it be for NASA to ban it, you ask? Here he is appearing on the Rowan and Martin Laugh-In in the 60s. You either come away from that thinking it's the greatest of the worst thing you've ever heard.

Personally, I think it's one of the greatest – and apparently David Bowie thought so too. In fact, he not only nicked the 'Stardust' for his own Ziggy Stardust, he later covered one of the Stardust Cowboy's songs on his Heathen album - I Took a Trip on A Gemini Spaceship.

Apparently a documentary about the Legendary Stardust Cowboy is in the works. He's still around, and still playing.

THIS MONTH'S BOOK REVIEWS


I spent January revisiting some old favourites, but as audiobooks this time. Here they are:

HITCHHIKERS GUIDE TO THE GALAXY by Douglas Adams

Specifically, the original double album LP recording of Hitchhiker which I originally owned on vinyl in the early 80s and wore out a bunch of record styluses playing it.

There's not much I can say here about it, beyond the fact of it remaining a classic and that I got some funny looks from the Taiwanese when I was walking my dog listening to this and basically laughing my head off from one street to the next.

I'd actually forgotten until this moment that back in Glasgow I have a Zaphod Beeblebear — a teddy bear based on Adams's character Zaphod Beeblebrox . And true to form, it has two heads and three arms and an eyepatch.

Whenever I had visitors back in Glasgow I would be careful to make sure it was out where they could see it. I'd watch people looking at it and see how long it took them to realise what was wrong. The reactions ranged from bemusement to stricken horror. But they never failed to react.

EXPERIMENTAL FILM by Gemma Files

I remember picking this one up as an e-book a few years back pretty much on a whim because it sounded interesting. It turned out to be one of my favourite books I read in 2018.

The story is of a Canadian film critic who discovers a cache of previously unknown films from the early twentieth century made by a woman known for her interest in spiritualism and who had been the sole survivor of a bizarre massacre when she was a young child.

There's something about the combination of cinematic history and horror that really appeals to me, something that was equally done well in Theodore Roszak's Flicker.

The critic starts out trying to uncover more information about a previously unknown chapter in early Canadian film history, thinking there might be a grant in it, before gradually realising she's been drawn into something much darker and much, much older. Terrific stuff.

ANNIHILATION by Jeff Vandermeer

I've known of Vandermeer's work for some years before he broke through to the mainstream with Annihilation, partly because he was an acquaintance of some people in my writers group in Glasgow, partly because I'd run into him at least once at a convention, and partly because he's been a pretty constant online presence for the last couple of decades.

Annihilation was the first book of his that really appealed to me, and again, it's a book that so well-known now that there's not much I can really add about it. Basically, if you like your fiction weird and uncanny — and I certainly do — this is a good example of the form.

A group of investigators are sent into an isolated stretch of coast called Area X which is somehow cut off from the rest of the world, and from which few ever return. The landscape is both familiar and alien, with the protagonist constantly in confused as to whether one prominent feature of the landscape is a tower or a tunnel. The feeling is of a constant derangement of the senses in a manner not dissimilar to another book that explores broadly similar territory, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic.

I'm currently listening to: THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE by Daniel Ellsberg and THIRTEEN STOREYS by Jonathan Sims. I'll be talking about them next time. See you then!

1/08/2021

Moon men, cyberpunk fashion, procedurally-generated horror and favourite books of 2020

The good news, for me at least, is that I finally broke ground on one of those writing projects I talked about last time around. As I said then, I've planned out at least three books in considerable detail, and intend to spend the rest of this year working on them. At the time of writing this, I'm about 18,000 words into a first draft of (provisionally titled) The Moon Man.

I'd intended it to be another novella/short novel, meaning about 40,000 words in length or about the same length as either Ghost Frequencies or Devils Road, but it feels already like it's probably going to be longer than that. Which is fine by me.


WARSUIT REVIEW

Chuck Rothman, writing for Tangent Online, gave me a very nice review for my story Warsuit that recently appeared in Interzone: "The story moves from the usual battles and escapes of military stories and concentrates on the philosophical implications of the situation. Its never dull, though. The battle scenes are mixed with a discussion of the issues involved. Highly recommended." Nice!


COOL STUFF FROM THE INTERNET

I came across this fascinating article by Mark Frauenfelder, on Boing Boing, called "The Quiet Horror of Procedural Generation":

"According to Know Your Meme, The Backrooms originated on 4chan in 2019 when someone posted a photo, taken at an uneasy angle, of a dingy yellow room illuminated by fluorescent lights. There's no furniture or people. The wallpaper, reminiscent of a 1980s hotel conference room, is mismatched. The carpeting has large stains. A divider at the far end hints at an entrance to another, possibly similar room."

This ended up becoming a kind of weird, Ballardian shared universe, with people creating programs to simulate hundreds of millions of square miles of randomly generated empty rooms.

Indeed, Frauenfelder himself notes that this bears more than a passing resemblance to the short story by JG Ballard, "Report on an Unidentified Space Station", which is not only most likely my favourite Ballard short story, it's also quite possibly one of my favourite science fiction stories of all time. You can read it online.


CYBERPUNK AND FASHION

I think I saw this article mentioned on Twitter, possibly by William Gibson himself. One thing about it that immediately grabbed my attention was its reference to a photo illustration from a nineties magazine called Mondo 2000, which you can see if you click through, titled R.U. A Cyberpunk?.

I used to buy Mondo 2000 religiously because, like Omni during its heyday, it seemed to offer a glimpse into the future, even if in retrospect a lot of it was probably nonsense.

Let's pass over the fact that back in those days I had hair pretty much like the model in the photograph, and focus on the fact the article has some fascinating things to say about the relationship between technology and clothing and how we use it to portray the future. It also reminds me of an article I recently read about how cyberpunk fashion appears to be becoming mainstream in China. I don't know what my teenage self when he first read Count Zero in the pages of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in the early to mid-eighties would have made of it all.


YEAR'S BEST

I read — or rather, listened to — about forty books in 2020, a mixture mostly of science fiction, horror and non-fiction. I thought it would be fun to pick out the ones I personally thought were my favourites, in case you're looking for something to read in the grim grey days of the New Year:

Every Anxious Wave (review below)
Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee
The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts
The Gone World by Tom Schweterlitsch
Three Laws Lethal by David Walton
Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
The Weird and The Eerie by Mark Fisher (special mention).

And if I absolutely, positively had to pick just one overall? The Gone World, by Tom Schweterlitsch.

The 'special mention' of Mark Fisher's book is because I actually read it in 2018, but an audiobook came out early in 2019, and I bought and listened to it immediately. Why? It's a dense if informative book, and almost demands a return to its pages - not to mention it was probably my favourite book of that year.

Runners-up include: Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys, Crooked by Austin Grossman, Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties, and Wanderers by Chuck Wendig.

I've included a complete list of all the books I read in 2020 below.


BOOK REVIEWS

And here's a closer look at what I read in December:

STRANGE ANGEL BY GEORGE PENDLE
This one makes for a pretty remarkable follow-up to Alec Nevala-Lee's Astounding, which I talked about in last month's newsletter, not least because it features Parsons and others involved both in rocketry and the occult interacting with the then leading lights of what would later come to be regarded as the Golden Age of science fiction.

For those who don't know, Jack Parsons, the subject of the book, was both a fan of science fiction and also deeply instrumental in the development of rocket science as a distinct field of research in the US in the years leading up to the Second World War, despite considerable opposition and the widely-held belief that rocket travel into space - Parson's ultimate goal - was a physical impossibility. 

After proving it was feasible to build a rocket that could reach the stratosphere, he received funding to build larger and better rockets, eventually receiving far greater funds from the US military upon America's entry into the Second World War. In the process he set up the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, choosing to use the word 'jet' because the word 'rocket' still had so many negative connotations.

At the same time, and which makes Parsons' story so intriguing to so many, he developed a deep fascination with the occult that led to his forming a Californian chapter of Aleister Crowley's OTO, or Ordo Templi Orientis. That, in turn, did him little favour so far as his scientific reputation was concerned.


He formed a friendship with a certain L Ron Hubbard, the later founder of Scientology, and that in turn led to him meeting and befriending a number of science fiction luminaries including Robert Heinlein and John W Campbell.

Definitely recommended, especially if you already read the Nevala-Lee. File under: "you wouldn't believe it if it was fiction'.

88 NAMES BY MATT RUFF
Matt Ruff, of course, is the author of the wildly successful Lovecraft Country. 88 Names, by contrast, bears zero resemblance to that other book.

I have a huge amount of respect for Ruff's willingness to buck commercial requirements and write, or so it seems to me, whatever the hell he feels like writing. Most of the time, publishers require their authors — whether they state it openly or not — to write essentially the same book again and again.

And, in fairness to publishers, there are good commercial reasons for this. But if you're a writer, and if like me you get bored writing the same kind of story again and again, you wind up wondering why you don't just get a regular day job instead of just churning out the same old stuff with what feels like diminishing returns.

I can't speak to Ruff's motivations, but in my mind I like to imagine his reasons are similar to mine. Instead of writing Lovecraft Country 2: Zombie MLK, he instead chose to write a Ready Player One-like tale about political intrigue and computer games.

In this case, a Sherpa — here, defined as someone who makes a living guiding rich people through highly complex MMORPG's sometime in the near future — begins to suspect his new, anonymous client might be none other than the leader of North Korea.

And all in all, it's a pretty decent story, but perhaps not quite up to the level of his previous stuff, including but not limited to Lovecraft Country. Which is why it doesn't make the top of my years best list. Still, it's definitely worth checking out.

A DARKLING SEA BY JAMES L. CAMBIAS
This is a straight-up, old-fashioned tale of adventure in the ocean of a Europa-like moon in another solar system. Indeed, it could almost have been written by Niven or Bova back in the seventies. Human researchers are engaged in the study of the intelligent denizens of that ocean, but aren't permitted to interact with them or get very close to them, thanks to the oversight of a third and much more advanced spacefaring species who have their own version of Star Trek's Prime Directive. Naturally, that isn't exactly how things work out, and this novel details the consequences.

This one had been on my radar for a while, and I have to admit I felt a little motivated to finally get around to reading it because I myself had been working on an outline for a novel set in the hypothetical ocean beneath the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa. And while it's entertaining enough, it perhaps feels a little too close to its influences, and rather than evoking a sense of wonder it's more likely to invoke a sense of nostalgia.

EVERY ANXIOUS WAVE BY MO DAVIAU
This made my list of favourite books of the year by taking a familiar idea and doing something that felt appealingly fresh. It reads like a more punk Bill and Ted, after the former guitarist in a 90s indie band, now running a bar called The Dictators Club, discovers a wormhole in his bathroom — an experience I'm sure we've all shared at some point in our lives.

Quickly getting a friend and MIT graduate involved, they soon have a brisk trade in sending people nostalgic for their youth back in time to long-past gigs. After accidentally sending a friend back to 980 rather than 1980 by punching in the wrong numbers, the protagonist recruits a physicist who also just happens to share his love for nineties indie rock in order to try and get him back.

On the surface, and described like that, the story sounds so light as to be almost ephemeral, but Davaiu is an exceptionally talented writer, and brings a considerable depth of character development and emotion to her tale. It isn't long before numerous timelines get twisted together like a plate of spaghetti dropped from a very great height, as our hero journeys into the past, future and all points in between.

Thinking about it, what made this book really work for me is that it takes the classic science fiction notion of the competent protagonist and boots it right out of the park in favour of the messy, emotionally complex and frequently illogical reality.

Unfortunately, and I say that with real regret, this appears to be Davaiu's only novel, published about five years ago, although her Amazon page shows that she's had material published in a number of literary and definitely non-genre publications. It just goes to show you it doesn't matter how good a book is, quality doesn't guarantee commercial success. I just hope you like it as much as I did.


BOOKS LISTENED TO IN 2020

Strange Angel by George Pendle
88 Names by Matt Ruff
A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias
Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee
The Origin of Consciousness in the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes
Wasteland by W. Scott Poole
Tropic of Kansas by Christopher Brown
Burning Chrome by William Gibson
The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts
The Gone World by Tom Schweterlitsch
Crooked by Austin Grossman
The Fisherman by John Langan
Ghostland by Edward Parnell
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
World War Z by Max Brooks
Chaos: Charles Manson, the CI adn the Secret History of the Sixties
The Crying Machine by Greg Chivers
Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys
The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires
Foundation by Isaac Asimov
Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder
Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
Three Laws Lethal by David Walton
Obscura by Joe Hart
The Deep by Alma Katsu
The Colony by F.G. Cottam
The Weird and the Eerie by Mark Fisher
Terminus by Peter Clines
Agency by William Gibson
The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss
Ayoade on Top by Richard Ayoade
Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel by Tom Wainwright
Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
The Ministry of Truth by Dorian Lynskey
Danse Macabre by Stephen King
On Her Majesty's Secret Service by Ian Fleming.