Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My old foe

I'm attempting to edit the first of my SSWriMo stories, "Beacons", and an old enemy of mine has once again reared its infuriating head: tense. I have this horrible habit of switching tense without realising I'm doing it. This used to be a problem when I was writing history essays at university, and it has enthusiastically carried itself over to my short stories.

It's frustrating, because I seem incapable of getting it right the first time, and have to read pretty closely to pick it up in editing. And then a whole lot of verbs end up changing.

Grumble, grumbled, grumble. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

City detective spots trend

Looking back over the list of books I enjoyed most this year, I noticed a couple of trends. The most pronounced is that six of the eight books I mentioned are urban novels. Actually, in the majority the city was basically an extra character -- Finch and The City & the City in particular. The second trend is that half of the genre novels I listed were detective stories. Two more of them featured law enforcement prominently.

Looking back over the complete list of things I read this year, it doesn't look like urban detective stories were all that common. They just turned out to be the ones I really enjoyed.

I think it's pretty obvious why I like urban novels: I live in the city (or, at least, very close to it). I also think that urban genre fiction is going through a bit of a renaissance at the moment, particularly in fantasy. That makes sense, I think. Ours is a largely urbanised society. Cities are what we -- both authors and readers -- know.

I'm less sure why I've enjoyed the detective stories so much. Maybe I'll get back to you on that one.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Best books I read this year

It really is tough finding time to do anything productive in December, isn't it? The SSWriMo debrief that I promised is coming -- I have re-read two of the three stories I wrote during November, and the good news is they're not as bad as I feared they might be. I'm plugging away at some edits to the first one, "Beacons". I don't think it will be long before I'm ready to unleash it on anyone who will promise to read it and give me feedback.

For now, I thought I'd give you my picks for best books that I read this year. It was a good year all round -- I read lots of stuff, and lots of it was good.

Science Fiction: The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi

I've already spoken at length about this one, so I won't go on about it too much again. I'm not sure if it was actually the best SF book I read this year, but it was certainly the one I had the most fun reading. It was full of the sorts of things I like in my science fiction. I'm excited for more novels from Rajaniemi.

Honourable mentions: The City & the City, by China Mieville, and The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Both deserving Hugo Award winners this year.

Fantasy: Finch, by Jeff Vandermeer 

This one is about a detective called Finch, living in the conquered city of Ambergris. The city is falling apart, infested by the fungal technology of its conquerors, the equally-fungal gray caps. Finch, who is technically a gray cap collaborator, is called in to investigate the unusual murders of one of the invaders and a human man. Things spin wildly out of control from there.

This book just drips with atmosphere. It is beautifully written, almost post-apocalyptic. Grim, but really compelling. It reminded me a little of Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville. If the New Weird exists as a genre, Finch certainly sits well within it.

Honourable mentions: Sun of Suns, by Karl Schroeder, and Kraken, by China Mieville. I expect to see Kraken do very well at next year's Hugo Awards.

Literary Fiction: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer 

Typically I steer well clear of 9/11 fiction. I only read this one because I joined a book club, and I'm glad that I did. It's about a young Jewish kid called Oskar trying to deal with the death of his father in the World Trade Center attacks. Oskar finds a key in his dad's stuff, and sets about trying to methodically work out which lock in New York it opens. Scattered throughout Oskar's story is the story of his grandparents, both Holocaust survivors.

I doubt I can really explain how lovely this book is. It's sad, and charming, and hopeful, and I think you should read it right now.

Honourable mention: Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates. One of those few cases where the film adaptation actually does the book justice.

What did you read this year that you really enjoyed?

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi

I wanted to talk about Hannu Rajaniemi's first novel, The Quantum Thief, because I think it is the kind of science fiction that I'd like to write.

This isn't a review, but I feel like I should say a few words about the plot. The book is about the master thief Jean le Flambeur. In the opening chapter, he is sprung from prison (a prison of the mind, where he plays out the Prisoner's Dilemma endlessly, against himself) by Mieli, a woman from the close-knit communities of the Oort Cloud, and her ship Perhonen. They need le Flambeur to steal something, but in order to do so he first needs to retrieve his old personality and memories. He hid them, even from himself, on the moving Martian city of the Oubliette, where personal information is tightly controlled and the seconds in your life are a commodity. Of course, once le Flambeur arrives, the great young detective Isidore is immediately on his tail.

So what do I like so much about it? I'm just going to say straight off that Rajaniemi has, I think, a very literary writing style for a science fiction author. His prose feels pretty sparse, but in a way that is quite pleasant to read. I think that's something I'm unlikely to be able to emulate, though. I tend to be wordy.

The book is really about exploring possible societal responses to things like immortality, and the digitisation of the human mind. Transhumanism, I guess. Mostly this is done through the lens of the Oubliette, where society has chosen one set of rules to deal with these issues. There are plenty of hints to other cultures and their responses to the same questions, though, generally as they come into conflict with the Oubliette and the characters trying to solve a mystery within it.

The real treat, though, is that those questions are explored pretty much entirely through the characters. Mieli is an outsider in the Oubliette, confused by its social norms. Isidore is very much part of the system. And le Flambeur is caught between the two, trying to work out how he used the Oubliette's social system to hide from everyone, himself included. It never feels like Rajaniemi is lecturing us about the ideas he's interested in; they're just explored naturally as the plot unfolds. 

That's a neat trick -- I think all science fiction writers aspire to it, but often with limited success. I'm not sure exactly how Rajaniemi does it. Lots of detailed world-building, probably. He's clearly got a knack for thinking through plausible responses to his world-building, too. It's too common, in my opinion, for a piece of technology or an idea in a science fiction story to leave society essentially unchanged.

Rajaniemi has clearly thought long and hard about what it means if your mind and personality, as well as everything you see and hear, can be hacked, uploaded, backed-up, transferred, pirated, and all those things we can do with data. That's cool. He's also come up with a fast-paced, exciting plot that keeps the pages turning. Just because you're exploring ideas doesn't mean you can't blow a few things up along the way.

It's not perfect, though. There are a couple of pitfalls I'd like to avoid (although if Rajaniemi can't, there's probably no hope for me!). The first is that the book is very demanding. Science fiction tends to have a pretty steep learning curve; it can take a while to have any clear idea what's going on. This is especially true in The Quantum Thief. Rajaniemi didn't shy away from using new words to describe new concepts, and while it generally added to the feel of the book, it did make it quite dense. A glossary would have helped, and none was present. Really, though, I'm not sure if you haven't already failed if a glossary is necessary.

There are also interludes scattered throughout the book whose reason for being there took a long time to reveal itself. A less patient reader might have been turned off by these bits. Then again, a more attentive reader than I might have worked out why they were there much sooner.

Rajaniemi also played a game with perspective which I found a bit jarring. le Flambeur's parts are told in first person, everybody else's in third person. I'm not really sure why he did that. No doubt there's a clever reason, but it's buried too deep for me, and it just sort of got on my nerves.

The book also suffers a little, in my opinion, from first-book-of-a-series syndrome. While the central plot (retrieving le Flambeur's personality) is wrapped up by the end of the book, very satisfactorily, there is an epilogue that clearly sets the scene for the next novel. I really do prefer the Alastair Reynolds/China Mieville method for writing a novel series: same setting, different plot and characters.

Woah, this got long. And I feel like I just scratched the surface. Suffice it to say, I thought The Quantum Thief was an amazing book, and I know it's one I'll be coming back to again. If anyone out there has read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts on what Rajaniemi did well, and what (if anything!) you didn't like so much.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Final score

It's November 30th. Pencils down, everyone. Here's my SSWriMo final score:

30 days
3 stories (2 sci-fi, 1 fantasy)
20,084 words

I made it (just)!

Later this week, hopefully, a debrief post. Then I think I want to say a few words about The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Infodumping, done wrong?

I've just started reading a science fiction novel by a very successful author who will go unnamed. The first fifty pages are pretty infodumpy. That's fine -- you often need to explain how stuff works in science fiction books. The trick is finding a way to do so that makes sense at the time, so it doesn't really feel like infodumping.

So a scientist in the book just said the following, talking about a genetically engineered organism:
"The temperature they encounter outside means they don't have a particularly fast metabolism, which makes their physical motion correspondingly slow. Their blood is based on glycerol so they can keep moving through the coldest ground without freezing solid."
The problem I'm having here is that she was talking to a group of kids aged nine to twelve. Not savants, either, just ordinary kids. It's been a long time since I was twelve years old, but I feel like those sentences would have been pretty meaningless to me back then.

Am I underestimating your average nine to twelve year old, do you think? Or just overestimating the average scientist's ability to talk to them?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Single villain seeks devious plan

12,939 words written (target: 16,000)

Good day today. I wrote 1756 words on a fantasy story that currently has no name. It seems to be flowing well, but I've already identified a problem that I'm going to need to fix when I come back to edit: I don't know what the villain is doing. Or, I suppose, I know what he's doing but I don't know why he's doing it.

It's not a problem that is stopping me from writing the story, but I'm guessing that when the whole thing is done the villain is probably not going to be very compelling. 

Hero (anguished): why are you doing this, you dastardly fiendishly evil monster?!

Villain (smug): because I'm dastardly, fiendish and evil! Also, a monster! Also, behold my death trap!

Yeah, not ideal.

As you can tell by the word count above, I'm still behind. It's going to be a crunch to get this done by the end of November -- 1267 words a day, for the next 6 days -- but I'm going to give it my best. You probably won't hear from me again until it is done and dusted.

And then, hopefully, I'll have some time for some more interesting content!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

I finished a story!

8203 words written (target: 12,000)

I just now finished the first of my SSWriMo stories. It's called 'Beacons'. I'm pretty pleased with how it ended. When I first came up with this story idea, I had the ending pretty clear in my head. I didn't plan how to get there, just wrote, and I finished up basically where I hoped I'd be. That's cool.

It feels alright, finishing one of these stories. Better than alright, actually. Now it gets shelved, at least until the end of the month, and I go on to something else. I've got 11,797 words to write if I'm going to meet my goal, so that means my new daily target is 983 words.
You know what? This is pretty fun!

(Probably boring to anyone reading this blog, though. Sorry about that!)

Friday, November 12, 2010

SSWriMo Day 12

5801 words written (target: 8000)

Has it really been nine days since I last posted here? Sorry about that.

I'm behind. About three and a half days worth of words behind. I'm beginning to suspect that November isn't the best time of the year for us southern hemisphere-types to do something like NaNoWriMo. It's Spring here, and Spring is busy. Mostly because there's sunshine again. If this were a northern hemisphere Autumn, I'm sure my social life would be getting ready to hibernate, rather than exploding. 

That isn't an excuse, though. It's about making time, and I haven't given up yet. I've had a bit of success writing in my lunch hours; the last three days I've managed to hit my targets using that time and a few stolen minutes before bed. I'm confident that when I can find a few days with nothing else on, I'll be able to catch up those missing 2199 words.

The not-a-neutron-star story is still rolling along. I'm working my way towards a conclusion. I suspect by the time it's done it will be novelette length (more than 7500 words, less than 17500), but there's a lot of fat that will need to be trimmed. A whole lot. The discovery writing has been fun, but I suspect the tone isn't particularly consistent, and there are probably characters wandering in and out without much underlying logic. I've only just now got an inkling of how to work my way from the middle bit to the end bit.

I said last time that I was looking forward to the prospect of editing, and I still feel that way. I'm taking that as a good sign, but I'm not letting myself stop and do any of that this month. The goal remains to get 20,000 words worth of stories finished, no matter how crappy they are. Fixing them up can come later.

Anyway, enough about me. What have you been doing?

(Also, I'm saving up some content for non-SSWriMo blog posts for when I've got more time. Remind me to talk to you about Hannu Rajaniemi's Quantum Thief, Jay Lake's Green (a fantasy novel -- ooooh!) and the TV show Stargate Universe.)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

SSWriMo Day 3

2093 words written (target: 2000)

It's day three of my SSWriMo challenge, and I feel like I've already learned some things. I've started with a hard SF story, about the first expedition to see a neutron star up close. The 'crew' of this mission are a bunch of uploaded astrophysicists, their brains running on the computer hardware crammed into an otherwise fully-automated coke can-sized probe. When they get to their goal, they're in for a surprise.

I picked this one because it's the idea closest to the oft-repeated piece of advice: write what you know. I haven't had a whole lot of time to sit in front of the keyboard over the last few days, but I've had no difficulty reaching the target number of words (666 a day). The quality of the words, sadly, is pretty low. It's not that they're all that bad, they're just meandering. Laser-focused this story is not.

The folks on the Writing Excuses podcast split writers into two (non-exclusive) categories. Outliners write detailed story outlines. Discovery writers start with characters, a situation, and maybe an idea about the ending, and just start writing. I figured I was probably from the first category, so I thought I'd start by trying to discovery-write a story.

On the one hand, I think the meandering suggests that I was right; I should be spending some time coming up with story outlines. On the other hand, I'm actually quite excited by the idea of revising. It feels like by the time I've written the whole wandering mess out, I'll be much clearer on what the story is about, and I can get down to tearing it apart and making it better.

For now, though, I'm just going to push through. This whole SSWriMo thing is about turning off my internal editor for a little while, and getting something down on paper. Onward!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Things I like in SF #2: alien aliens

I'm not sure if this is a reaction to Star Trek, or a reaction to Tolkienesque fantasy, or something else entirely, but I like it when the aliens in my SF actually feel alien. I'm not just talking about them looking alien (although obviously that helps). I'm talking about alien psychology. It seems to me that so much of the way we think is influenced by our environment that I find it hard to believe that we'd have no trouble understanding a species evolved somewhere completely different.

Also, I'm not a fan of universal translators. At least, universal translators that work flawlessly. Everyone has played with Babelfish or some other online translator; you all know how bad they are, and that's on a single planet, amongst a single species. I don't know much about linguistics, but I do know that language is heavily influenced by culture, psychology, environment, and probably a dozen other things I haven't thought about. How the heck would you go about automatically translating something where none of those baselines were shared?

I suppose there are stories that this kind of thinking closes off for me. Assuming that alien-aliens is a hard and fast rule, of course (and I make no promises there!). No galactic clubs, where groups of aliens hang out and share knowledge and generally pal around. No Babylon 5. And maybe that's a pity.

Of course, it does provide opportunities. They can be excellent things for your characters to throw themselves against. How would we, as a species, respond to an alien race that we couldn't possibly communicate with? How would you respond to it? Unfathomable aliens can also make space feel really sinister -- they're out there, but what are they thinking? And would we like it if we knew?

Let me see if I can provide you with some examples where I've really enjoyed the aliens. There's "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang, which is all about alien psychology. "From Babel's Fallen Glory We Fled" has a good automatic translator in it. The aliens in Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space books are pretty darned alien. I suppose there's classics like Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, too.

Aaaaand that's probably enough reading for now!

Edit: it occurs to me on re-reading this post that it is basically just a long-winded way of saying that I like hard SF. Who knew?!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The postman is my friend

This arrived in the post a few days ago:

No idea yet if it is likely to be of any use. Normally I'd shy away from Complete Idiot's Guides to anything, but this one was written by Cory Doctorow (who seems like a pretty smart guy) and Karl Schroeder (whose work on Sun of Suns and Metatropolis blew my mind). 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Maybe you know that November is NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. The NaNoWriMo goal is to write a 50,000 word novel, from scratch, in a month. The idea, as I understand it, is to encourage people to write without worrying about what they're writing. It's for all those people who don't finish things because they spend too long tweaking, or too much time worrying that their writing is crap. The only way that 50,000 words in a month is even remotely possible, I gather, is if you don't stop to think about it.

I'm not going to take part in NaNoWriMo. I don't want to write a novel at the moment, and I think that 50,000 words in a month is an impossible target for me. But I like the idea; I've lost count of the number of times I've started to write something, and ended up stopping because I'm afraid I'm writing rubbish. I'm sick of doing that. I want to finish something. It will be rubbish, but hopefully I'll gain some insight into why.

So, I give you SSWriMo: Short Story Writing Month. My goal is to write 20,000 words worth of short stories in the month of November. That's probably something like four stories, at a very satisfying rate of 666 words a day. 

Now 20,000 words is probably just as unreachable as 50,000. It's job season for astronomers, so I've got about a million job applications to write. They're obviously going to take priority. But I'm going to give it a shot. I'll try to keep you updated on my progress here, although there's a good chance it'll devolve into posts about word count and not much else. Every word written for this blog is a word that isn't going into a short story, after all!

Some ideas that are currently percolating in my brain: the first close-up look at a neutron star, a dangerous criminal loose aboard the World Train, and a dream I had that co-starred William Shatner.

Seriously, William Shatner. Awesome.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Paul McAuley update: "The Thought War"

Alright, I've read Paul McAuley's "The Thought War", in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Three, edited by the consistently excellent Jonathan Strahan. I promised I'd tell you what I thought.

I liked it. A lot.

Here are some reasons why I think maybe I liked this one where I'm less excited about McAuley's novels:

  • It's told in the first person, and I think maybe I sometimes have difficulty with the way McAuley writes in third person limited (at least, I think he's writing in third person limited...).
  • It's about not one but two (and possibly three) physics ideas, all handled well.
  • It's an idea story (or, really, ideas story), and so characterisation is less of a big deal.
  • It's a good zombie story, and considering how irregularly those three words run up against each other like that, it must be doing something special.
  • It's got unfathomable aliens, and that's how I like my aliens.
  • It's really punchy, with a killer last line.

Lessons from this one: short is very, very good. A well delivered sting in the tail is totally awesome. Never ever write zombie stories unless your zombies are really, really, really different.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Things I may have learnt from Paul McAuley

I've read four of Paul McAuley's novels -- Fairyland, The Quiet War, its sequel Gardens of the Sun, and I just finished Four Hundred Billion Stars (McAuley's first novel). I keep coming back to him because I think I like space opera and he's supposed to be good at it. I also think I like hard science fiction, and as a former botanist McAuley is well positioned to write it.

Thing is, I've never really loved what I've been reading. I didn't hate it either; it just hasn't grabbed me.

I'm not really sure why this is, but I've got a few ideas that I'm going to try laying out here. It comes down, I think, to McAuley's science and McAuley's characters. When I'm reading hard space operas those are the two things that are likely to drive me through the book -- how cool are the science-fictional ideas, and how interesting are the characters.

I mentioned that McAuley was a botanist. I'm a physicist, and so when I talk about whether a story is hard SF, I'm usually thinking about the author's treatment of the physics. McAuley, however, spends a lot of his hard SF time on botany. Details on ecosystems and genetically engineered gardens and things like that. I'm sure it's all clever, well thought-out stuff, but it just isn't a branch of science I'm interested in. Consequently, those bits don't really grab my attention. (Incidentally, I wonder if this is what it feels like when people who aren't particularly keen on science read any hard SF?)

So, if the science fictional ideas aren't really grabbing me, that leaves the characters. And again, I have trouble engaging. Partly I think it's the types of characters he tends to write (often cold, often outsiders who don't want to participate in events, often slaves to circumstance), and partly it's the way he writes them. What it comes down to is this: I don't really feel like I understand them. 

I'm going to stop here rather than try to dig deeper into McAuley's characters. Basically, I don't think I can speak intelligently about what I feel just yet. Maybe I'll come back to it in subsequent posts. For now, though, I think I have my take-home message: even if science is a prominent part of your story, you better make sure the other bits are enough to carry a reader through, because not everyone is going to be interested in the sciencey stuff.

(It may or may not interest you to know that I've got a Paul McAuley short story coming up next in the anthology I'm reading. It's called "The Thought War", in Jonathan Strahan's The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Three. I'll let you know what I think.)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Things I like in SF #1: vast distances and deep time

I felt a bit guilty about starting with a negative post, so Paul McAuley is going to have to wait. Instead, I give you the first in a possibly-continuing series: things I like in science fiction. 

Space is big (a phrase totally, deliciously ruined by Douglas Adams). I really like it when space operas can convey this vastness. There are billions of stars in our galaxy, but even if every one housed life the galaxy would still be mostly empty. You can hide just about anything out there, and it wouldn't even require much effort. There's something about that emptiness that really grabs my imagination. We're totally insignificant when pitted against it. It's menacing. And depending entirely on your perspective, it's completely quiet, or alive with the noise of the galaxy.

Predictably, I'm not very fond of faster than light travel. For one, it sets my physics-brain on edge (FTL automatically gives you time travel, and so if you've got one I want to know about the consequences of the other!). But mostly it slices out all that distance, all that lovely inky void.

If you've got huge distances and no FTL, then going anywhere is going to take a ridiculously long time. Even exchanging a digital handshake with someone living at our nearest stellar neighbour would take almost a decade. I love reading about what these massive time periods do to people. What's it like knowing you won't have an answer for seven hundred years? What's it like if every time you take a trip somewhere, hundreds or thousands of years pass before you're back in civilisation? How much do you forget? How do you keep some sense of continuity? Deep freezes, time dilation, cultural dislocation, altered perceptions of time, maintaining networks across impossible distances, the reality of staggeringly long life-spans; I love all that stuff.

Now I've got some reading for you. Here are some examples of stories that I think do vast distances and/or deep time well. A short story: Galactic North, by Alastair Reynolds. A novelette: The Island, by Peter Watts (this won the Hugo this year). A novella: The Days of Solomon Gursky, by Ian McDonald. And a novel: Saturn Returns (the first of the Astropolis books), by Sean Williams.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I've got to start somewhere

Hey-yo. First posts are awkward, so I'm just going to dive straight in. I like to read genre fiction. Mostly science fiction, with a smattering of fantasy and other stuff on the side. I've decided it's time for me to get a bit more systematic about it -- I'd like to refine my ideas about what I like, and what I don't like. I'd like to understand why I like those things. And I'd like to collect in one place my observations about writing, and other little snippets that get me thinking.

I figure if I try to write these things down, then I'll be forced to think about them more critically than I usually do. That's why I'm starting this blog. There's another purpose behind all this, but if it's cool with you I don't really want to talk about it too much at this stage. Mostly for fear of jinxing myself. You can probably guess what it is, though.

So why should you read this? Let's be honest: at this stage, you probably shouldn't bother. There are a gabillion people nattering away on the internet, and many of them will be a lot more insightful and interesting than me. If you do decide to stick around, though, I'd really appreciate your help. I'd love it if you'd call me on it when I'm talking crap. And maybe point out when I've said something that makes sense (if that ever happens). Hopefully you can help me refine my ideas a bit. In return, maybe I'll be able to introduce you to some new stories or authors.

I'm going to try very, very hard to get at least one post up every week. Most of them will be about science fiction and/or writing, but I can't guarantee that I won't occasionally be driven to talk about other stuff. Up first, later this week, my thoughts on why I never quite get Paul McAuley's books.