On the mystery of shorts


Planet Stories ran from 1939-55; this artwork was probably produced by Allen Anderson or Kelly Freas

“Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”

Ray Bradbury

I’ve never really got short stories. I’ve read quite a few collections in my time but, with rare exceptions, they’re from authors I know and like rather than miscellanies or speculative picks.

There’s no good reason for this: I totally (like, totally) respect short stories. I guess I’m just used to the long form: a short story, for me is either experimental (China Mieville, Neil Gaiman), and couldn’t be sustained over 300 pages, or feel to me just too short. I want to know what happens next. I want to know what came before. I just don’t get it.

Don’t get me wrong – some are perfect. Pratchett (‘Final Reward’) and the aforementioned Gaiman (‘Chivalry’) have written some wonderful short fictions. Asimov is at his (inconsistent) best when writing shorts, and all ‘classic’ SF writers seem to have collections in their libraries.

But when I hear a favoured author has a new release on the way I’m always a little disappointed when I find it’s ‘just’ a collection. I want more. I want depth. I want the classic forms of storytelling.

It’s not you, little stories, it’s me. I want more than a casual fling. I’m looking for commitment.

So why have I suddenly started writing them myself?

The quick answer is that I have no idea. I just found myself struck, last September, by an idea that seemed to work best in the short form. I wrote it down. I struggled with it, toyed with it, put it down for later reworking.

And then, a few weeks later, I wrote another.

Now I find myself with four of the little blighters and an expression of puzzlement on my face like a veteran punk-rocker who suddenly wakes to find he’s the far side of forty, has four kids and a job in telesales.

How has this happened?

I guess partly it must be because, with a freshly-minted youngling of my own, I’ve not had a chance to really get to grips with a new novel. The short form is merely my creativity seeking some kind of release.

Another reason is that I’ve had a lot of time to ponder little things: the rise of fake news, for example; or the changes in technology and attitude that have led inexorably to the Fitbit. These have given rise to little ‘what if we take this to its logical conclusion?’ questions – in other words, speculative fiction. These thoughts are often inconsequential, whimsical: they can’t on their own sustain a novel-length plot but strike me as – well – fun.

I struggle with fun. Humour is one thing that my novels really lack. But in short fiction I can play. I can (by my own standards) be witty. I can be Douglas Adams or Pratchett; I can embrace lunacy and surrealism the way I’ve never managed before.

I’m also writing purely for my own pleasure. Short stories: the literary equivalent of masturbation, or modern jazz. I’m not going to seek publication; there’s no great message I’m trying to impart. I’m just enjoying myself in a way I’ve never done before.

That’s not to say that if I see the right competition or submission criteria I won’t chance my arm. I’m also aware that enough material might lead to a compilation of my own. These stories are words in the bank, so to speak. But I’m not writing with any particular aim in mind.

I’m simply having fun. And this is a revelation. No-one ever told me writing could be enjoyable.

Now: back to the thorniest issue of the day. Why didn’t King Arthur wake during the second world war?


The most anticipated releases of 2018

Stack of books

Morning all. After a quick canter through my favourite books of 2017, here’s a simpler post: the books I’m most looking forwards to getting my grubby little protuberances on in 2018.

The Queen of All Crows – Rod Duncan

This, the first of The Map of Unknown things series, is already out and garnering excellent reviews. I’ve just finished the first chapter and am already seized.

Rod is a great writer (and a lovely chap) and Elizabeth Barnabus is a great character. I can’t wait to see how the Gas-lit Empire will finally fall. I’m just hoping it involves more of the dwarf Fabulo.

Out now

The Dark Angel – Elly Griffiths

I don’t read as much crime as I used to but I still can’t resist the lure of a good murder. The Ruth Galloway series is a wonderful example of how to carry characters over long arcs – this is the tenth book and the pleasure is as much in the protagonist’s uncertain relationship with (married, but not to Ruth) DI Harry Nelson as it is with solving mysteries.

Also it’s set in my spiritual home of Norfolk and features an archaeologist in the lead role. What’s not to love?

8th February

Smoke Eaters – Sean Grigsby

Grigsby is a new author for me; another I came across via Twitter. Smoke Eaters will be his debut novel and the idea – firemen versus dragons – is temptation enough on its own. The buzz for it is building, and that – along with an excellent cover – is enough to intrigue.

He also runs the Cosmic Dragon podcast, if you’re at all interested.


The Soldier – Neal Asher

I used to recommend Asher to all and sundry; he’s certainly one of the best sci-fi writers out there with his mix of AIs, interstellar warfare and viral contamination. Sadly, his politics means I can no longer extol his praises. His ‘Owner’ trilogy was just too much for me.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not eagerly anticipating his new release. I’ve learnt a lot from his writing over the years – he’s one of those surprisingly influential writers that seem to creep up on you unawares.


Revenant Gun – Yoon Ha Lee

 The concluding part of the ‘Machineries of Empire’ trilogy, Yoon Ha Lee is one of the authors (along with Ann Leckie) who has really changed the way we look at science-fiction other the last five years. This series isn’t for everyone, but it is great. Looking forwards to this immensely.

14th June

Lies Sleeping – Ben Aaronovitch

I love the Peter Grant series. I can’t express just how much I wish I could write with this much smart humour. And, as ever, it’s the audio version for me: Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s voice is perfect

21st June

The Labyrinth Index – Charles Stross

In The Delirium Brief Stross left us with the government killed and an elder (evil) God in charge of the country. How will we get out of this one? Bob only knows.

And no, you’re not allowed to complain about spoilers. You’ve had months to read it. And spoilers only whet the appetite. It’s true. I read it on the internet.


Priest of Bones – Pete McLean

I’m not so massively up on grimdark. I respect it, for sure, but I like some sense of hope in my life. I like to be able to feel that things might some day be better.

But Pete McLean is a great writer. I trust he’ll bring some smart humour to illuminate the darkness.


The Widening Gyre – John Scalzi

Sequel to The Collapsing Empire, I recently learned that the series was inspired by musings on the trade empires of the colonial era, and what would happen if the winds suddenly changed. And if that’s not enough to get you reading, I don’t know what is.


Night Shift – Robin Triggs

Cheap plug alert! 2018 should see my debut release. Yes, I’m in a state of eager, anxious anticipation. Stay tuned for more news.

Late 2018

The Thorn of Emberlain – Scott Lynch

Volume the fourth in the Gentleman Bastard series, and if you’re not up on the Gentleman Bastard series you’re missing out. They’re wonderful: the long con is a wonderful game to watch, like an episode of Mission: Impossible set in a nightmare fantasy-land of depth, conviction and – yes – horror. Really looking forwards to this. We just have to hope that it actually comes out this year after a series of delays.

Who knows?

Winds of Winter – GRR Martin

Will 2018 finally see the release of the next book in the Song of Fire and Ice series? To be honest I’ve almost forgotten about Martin: I’ve avoided the TV show because I want the characters to still be the ones I’ve created in my head and it’s been such a long time that they’ve become lost to me.

But maybe, just maybe, this will be the year it all comes flooding back…


*          *          *

This little lot, plus the three shelves of books still to be read from last year’s accumulation, will keep me busy. But I’m always distracted by new shinies: my local library will no doubt tempt me from the straight and narrow. And you, lovely reader – what’s tempting you this year? What have I overlooked? All recommendations gratefully received.

A second note: I came across several of these authors (and others without scheduled 2018 releases like Aliette de Bodard) through Twitter, and through them being nice people. The rest I found through my local library. These things work, folks. Make use of them and make the world a better, more interesting place.

Best Books of 2017

Cat and books

Happy 2018 y’all! Sorry it’s delayed, but I was in hospital just before Christmas. But now I’m back and exactly the same as ever. And, without further ado, it’s time for…

The Best Books of 2017!

…but not before a quick note. In previous years I’ve limited my choices to books released in the year in question. I’ve now decided to abandon this policy as I really don’t read enough brand new books. Maybe in the future I’ll be invited to all the great publishers’ pre-release parties, but at the moment I’m still picking up the crumbs in my own sweet time and at my own expense. I’ll still use 2017-ness as a tiebreaker – I’ll favour newer works – but it won’t be a prerequisite. That okay?

So, without further ado, here is my

Book of the year 2017

The Stone Sky: NK Jemisin

…and we start straight away with a cheat because I’m really meaning the whole ‘Broken Earth’ series, not just this, the final volume. But my blog, my rules.

If you’ve not come across this series before, a quick précis: this is the multi-award-winning story that breaks rules with an almost spiteful joy. Large chunks in second person? Why not. War crimes committed by the hero? Yes please. Combining sci-fi and fantasy in a way that takes it beyond both? Oh, go on then.

The simple fact is that it’s brilliant. The writing and the world-creation are masterful. It’s one of those rare books that makes you re-examine your own writing and asks you why you’re holding back. And then demands you go and check out Jemisin’s entire back catalogue.

Other excellent reads:

Ninefox Gambit: Yoon Ha Lee

This is the other book that everyone’s going on about. The sequel to Raven Strategem, this takes us further into the world of exotic maths, religious heresy and giant space moths. Like Jemisin’s work (and Ann Leckie), this redefines how we think about science-fiction.

The truth is, though, I was all prepared to be disappointed. The lead character of the first book seemed to be missing and without her I felt loss, both on a personal level (she was great) and on the dramatic. The story needed her.

But Yoon Ha Lee rescued the game in the last third, setting up a rousing climax and a thoroughly satisfying ending.

The House of Binding Thorns: Aliette de Bodard

This is the sequel to the excellent The House of Shattered Wings in the ‘Dominions of the Fallen’ series. It works as a stand-alone novel as focus shifts from House Silverspires of House Hawthorn. Madeleine, angel-essence-addict, is the main link between the stories.

This is a novel of intrigue set in a Paris recovering from an onslaught of sorcery. The feel is Gothic, decadent and decayed, with Dragon princes, drug trafficking and fallen angels running the city like a mafia.

Beautifully balanced with characters both old and new at the forefront of the novel, this story both satisfies and tempts the reader to a third act which surely must be in the pipeline. Can’t wait.

The Collapsing Empire: John Scazi

Scalzi is a genius at introducing concepts with the minimum of fuss; of gripping you right from the start and propelling you forwards at breakneck pace. I’m not sure how he does it. I suspect he’s one of those authors whose cleverness and skill is overlooked as he makes it all look too simple. I want to break done his novels line-by-line to see how he does it.

The Collapsing Empire is as fun, fast and foul-mouthed as the rest of his work. The underlying themes, however, are about power and its abuse. To quote from this review, “Each of the main characters may be, as one puts it, ‘an asshole,’ but they are also fumbling toward having an ethical position on how to save people from impending disaster.”

You’ll read it so fast that you barely notice the pages turning.

The Delirium Brief: Charles Stross

We all know that Charles Stross is a great writer. We all know that the Laundry series on novels is a cross between Lovecraft, Fleming and Le Carre with a special dash of humour poured in for good measure. What we hadn’t seen is how dark his satirical tongue is.

The Delirium Brief is not only a great novel in itself but takes a surprisingly trenchant stance on issues such as privatisation, religion and media exposure. It follows on from The Nightmare Stacks in a way that might lose readers new to his work but magnificently raises the stakes. This is another book you’ll simply fly through and come out desperate for the next in the series.

Damnation: Peter McLean

Well this – and the whole series – is just fun. I mean really fun. Gritty urban noir with deep sarcasm and real punch. This is another book you’ll fly through – only to be shocked awake by an ending that demands the next book be read immediately. Or it would if it were out yet.

The characters are magnificent. Such a shame to see them damned all to hell.

The Essex Serpent: Sarah Perry

This was 2016’s hot ticket and I’m running a year behind. Which, to be fair, is quite good for me.

I came to this without knowledge beyond the title and its reputation. Turns out it’s a historical novel: it is, simply, a story of life the conflict between rationalism and superstition in the late nineteenth century. What sets it apart is wonderful writing and an ending that defies convention.

The female lead is unorthodox and convincing; the male foils – especially surgeon Luke Garrett – are perfectly drawn. This is a quiet novel and won’t be for everyone, but the quality of the writing alone earns itself a place here.

Glorious Angels: Justina Robson

I’ve done my best to track down all of Justina Robson’s works (Mappa Mundi in particular is worth tracking down) but in recent years she’s slipped from notice; this was released in 2015 but I only found it this year. And it’s great. A hierarchical society with women in power; ancient technologies that are used without understanding: and an archaeological dig that could cause a war.

There are more details in this review which also acts as a counterpoint to my opinions. This book, it appears, is not for everyone. Still, this is my blog, I loved it, so here it sits.

Leviathan Wakes: James SA Corey

Space opera on a grand scale; conspiracies, conflict, and a deadly alien contagion. Explosions, murder, all that stuff…

But the more time passes the less sure I am about it and I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly. I could probably write a whole blog-post on it, but suffice to say that there is just something slightly… um… ‘white male’ about it that makes me a little uncomfortable. Although there are physical differences (between the inner planets and the asteroid-dwellers) that could be taken as ‘racial’ the story feels very monoculture.

What struck me, though, is that there are no homosexual characters in a novel with a large cast. More than that, none of the characters seem to have considered homosexuality a possibility. This just seemed to me bizarre. There are also criticisms of total unfettered access to information that seemed undeveloped.

So yes, this gets my recommendation and I want to read more in the series. But not unreserved praise.

Best non-fiction

Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve: Ben Blatt

This is a novel of statistics. No, hang on, come back! I loved it, and, if you have an interest in books and writing, so will you. The basic premise is that you can use mathematical modelling to work out how an author constructs their books: not only their ‘favourite’ words (the titular Nabokov’s ‘mauve’, for example, or my ‘wrangling’) but the little words that can tell you whether a book was mainly constructed by a big-ticket author or by his writing ‘partner’.

The book also looks into writing ‘rules’, like whether we should really avoid adjectives and whether it really is a sin to describe the weather in the opening sentence. The only complaint is that you feel there’s so much more he could cover (Did Shakespeare really write those plays? What about my genre?) that the book feels a little short.

Also recommended:

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer: Sarah Bakewell

Philosophy. Thoroughly enjoyable philosophy at that. Montaigne was a French estate owner who dabbled in politics and diplomacy and left several volumes of thoughts about sex, farting, foreign travel and love. It’s his ordinary blokishness that shines through, ably brought to life by Sarah Bakewell and her innovative approach to his life and beliefs.

I came across Montaigne through Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy, which serves as a useful primer to the subject and the ways it can help you. Consider this a tiny bonus recommendationlet.

Best Graphic Novel

Saga: Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

I know, I know, I know. It’s hardly a surprise selection. It’s already, if Wikipedia is to be believed, won widespread critical acclaim. And I know I’m wildly out of date in only just getting round to it.

But it’s really good. The characters are beautifully rounded, the artwork sumptuous, the world (universe) convincing and just odd enough to keep us on our toes.

It’s even good enough to beat The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl to top spot. And you have to be good to do that.

Best Doctor Who:

Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet: James Goss & Douglas Adams

Well this was just a blast. An old Adams script has been expertly adapted by James Goss and for a dyed-in-the-wool H2G2 fan like myself it was a dream. Full of delightfully odd characters like the Pirate Captain and his nurse, this is Adams through and through.

The parrot – sorry, the Polyphase Avatron – steals the show, though. Kudos to Goss to making a brilliant, confusing, insane story into a fantastic and coherent novel.

Best Classic

Pride & Prejudice: Jane Austen

I know, I know. But I’d never read it before (I missed Austen week at school. I’ve not read any of the Bronte’s either) and I’ve always managed to avoid the adaptations too. I never thought I’d actually find it full of irony and dry wit.

There’s not much I can say that’s new; I’m sure you can find a line-by-line textual analysis cheap on ebay if you’re that way inclined. Let me just say that I found it much wittier and livelier than Dickens and no-one ever told me Austen was funny!

Best Short

A Rare Book of Cunning Device: Aaronovitch, B

This year’s ‘Best Short’ nominees consist of two novellas, both by Ben Aaronovitch. But limited opposition does nothing to diminish the joy with which I hold the Rivers of London series.

This is a short but perfectly formed little adventurelet set in the basement of the British Library. It’s only available as audio only – which is fine by me as Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is the perfect companion.

* * *

And that’s all folks. My prize picks from an excellent year for reading. I’d love to hear any recommendations you might have, and, if you’ve read any of these, whether you agree or not.

Here’s to 2018. It’s shaping up to be another fantastically-fictational year.

Book of the Year 2016


It’s that time of the year again: a chance to reflect on all the wonderful books I’ve read in what has been a pretty scary twelve-month. Reading has rarely provided a more welcome retreat from a world that’s rarely seemed more chaotic or terrifying.

So, without further ramblage, here’s a short selection of my favourite books of the year. Apart from the ‘Discovery’ choice, all have been published (in the UK) in 2016. Which brings me to my first confession: I’ve not read that many new books this year. Casting a quick eye over my book log I see that 2016 has been a year of catching up with books I missed on first release; books I always meant to read but never quite caught.

Book of the Year:

 Custodian of Marvels; Rod Duncan

It’s been a year of sequels. Sorry about that. But the sequels I’ve read have been top quality and none more so than this.

The Custodian of Marvels is the third book in the Elizabeth Barnabus series, and is that rare thing: a follow-up that surpasses the original. In (and beyond) the richly-drawn lands of the Gas-Lit Empire we see an alternative world that is neither utopia nor dystopia but plausible and fulfilling. Almost every scene tells us more about about both characters (and Elizabeth Barnabus is a wonderful creation) and society. A mention should also be given to the dwarf Fabulo, who enriches every scene he’s in.

Also, I’ve shared the odd Twitter-word with Mr Duncan and he’s a lovely man. Makes me want to live in Leicester.

Honourable mentions:

 The Murder of Mary Russell; Laurie R. King

Book #14 in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, this is a triumphant return to form after the slightly disappointing Dreaming Spies. It explores the history of Holmes’ housekeeper Mrs Hudson, giving one of Conan Doyle’s minor characters the depth and resonance she previously lacked.

I’ve read the whole series and, to me, King’s books are the closest you can get to the continuation of the Holmes canon. The characters are so well drawn, so plausible; they take the ‘afterlife’ of Holmes into new – but totally believable – directions.

The Woman in Blue; Elly Griffiths

I started reading Elly Griffiths because this crime series (Ruth Galloway; this is #8) is set in Norfolk, a county I still think of as home. I was immediately struck by the use of the present tense, which I found slightly jarring at first but now want to try out for myself.

This might be the best of the series; a wonderful setting (the holy village of Walsingham) and great supporting characters. But the real joy is the growth and awkwardness in the relationships between the central characters: adultery, confusion, the sheer humanity of Ruth Galloway and Harry Nelson. It’s utterly convincing.

And there’s a murder in there too. What more can we ask for?

Best Dr Who

 Shadow in the Glass; Justin Richards & Stephen Cole

Okay, so the 6th Doctor is probably my least favourite. His personality grates. Add in Hitler and the myths around his death (yawn?) and there are all the recipes for a disaster here. And yet…

A great ‘assistant’. Real horror. A proper kick-in-the-teeth ending. Somehow this novel really works. This is Doctor Who stepping a toe firmly into nightmare – and getting it absolutely right.

Best Graphic Novel: also Best Non-Fiction

The Trouble With Women; Jacky Fleming

Hilarious. Horrifying. Dripping with cynicism. This is one of those books that you read and then think ‘who can I give this to?’

To say too much about this would be to spoil it. Read it. Laugh. Learn.

And then get angry.

Best Short:

The Summer People; Kelly Link

Well. This is a bit of an oddity. I got a free copy of this from a Twitter-based giveaway; the publishers said ‘anyone want one?’ and I put my hand up just because you can never get enough books.

And it’s really good. Written with delicacy and grace, the borders between reality and fantasy slowly disintegrate. Gothic, fairytale, coming-of-age; it’s amazing how much this packs it in such a short read. This is just one of those books you finish saying ‘Yes. That just felt right.’

Best Discovery

This is my section to explore my favourite reads that weren’t published in 2016: that I somehow missed and have crawled back to, tail between the legs.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi

Admission: I’d never heard of Scalzi until he started appearing in my Twitter-feed. Enough times was he retweeted for me to get a sense that he was worth hunting down.

I could talk at length about the story, but what really struck me was the simple quality of his writing. His novels move with real pace it’s amazing how he manages to pack in such depth – in character, in world, and with such humour. I always admire writers who can get wit into their stories as it’s a trick I’ve never managed to pull off.

This is how Twitter works, folks. Don’t just shout about your work. Be human. Be nice. The readers will come.

Discovery Mentions:

Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett

Ah, charity booksales. Where would we be without them? This is where I get to pick up things I’ve heard of and think I should read. Occasionally you get gems.

This is a long book that feels much shorter because the writing flows so freely. The topic – religion and obsession – and setting (12th century England) are heavy but Follett makes them look easy. As you might have guessed, I love books that hide the hard work behind smooth writing. This deserves the respect it’s garnered since its release.

Ack-Ack Macaque; Gareth Powell

I’d heard vague rumours of this and took it on a punt. In truth, I wasn’t expecting much. Monkeys and Nazis. Humour and silliness: at best I was anticipating a fun adventure.

It’s a lot more than this. It’s a steampunk-inspired story with surprising heart. There’s a lot to it: the future of artificial intelligence, the nature of consciousness, and real depth of character. There’s a lot to make you think, a lot of deep philosophy carefully contained in – yes – a fun action-adventure. I’m sorry I didn’t get to it sooner.

*          *          *

And that, good people, is that. Another year done. Another year of wonderful books, most of which have probably passed me by and slipped off into the ether.

I hope it’s been a magnificent year for you and yours. See you in January for more book-based banter and writerly witterings. Just remember: as those most bodacious philosophers Bill S. Preston esquire & Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan entreated us, be excellent to each other.

Joyous Puppies

I’m fed up with the Hugos. Not the awards themselves, but in the stupid, pointless and vitriolic campaigns by the Puppies – both Sad and Rabid – to swing the vote in a way that in no way serves to promote the work of themselves and their bestest buds.

I suppose I should bung up some links to get you who haven’t been following up to speed: just one second…

Here’s a good overview
And another
Some analysis of their motives
…and what I’ve said previously about writing and politics.

Right. That’s that out of the way. Now here’s my perspective.

I am a man. I’m white. I’m middle class (by upbringing if not by dirty dirty moolah). I’m heterosexual.

I also love reading books by people who aren’t like me.

I love books with black, white, gay, lesbian, intersex, disabled protagonists. I like to read thought-pieces on politics and society, whether left-wing or right-wing – if they’re well-written I’ll read them. Some I might disagree with. Some might make me feel uncomfortable. Some may challenge my preconceptions or just make me massively angry. But how are we to learn if we don’t empathise, don’t explore the lives of others? How are we to grow, to make ourselves stronger if we limit our intake to that which we already know?

There is a place for the kind of fun novels that the Puppies promote. Although I detest the political agenda that seems to dominate their thinking (and what is it but the last fearful grab for power that’s been theirs solely by accident of birth, and now they feel slipping away?) I don’t have a problem with the writing in itself. Unless it’s bad.

But I am fed up with this non-controversy. I am fed up with science-fiction/fantasy being tarred with this pathetic mudslinging. I am fed up of talking about it.

So I am hereby launching my own group. Let us be known as the Joyous Puppies. A group that delights in diversity, who feels that there is room for all members of the writing community to be who the hell they want, to write what the hell they want for the sake of producing great stories.

Happy puppy

A joyous puppy. Because it’s all we need

The SFF world has never been in ruder health. Hell, all of writing is in a golden age. Never has there been more diversity; never have I seen more people reading, talking about, loving books. Finally, after years of being a slightly embarrassing secret, readers and writers from all walks of life are stepping out into the sunlight, stretching, and taking a good long look around them.

Let us celebrate all voices. Let us promote authors who don’t have the fortune that we’ve had. Let us read widely; let us learn and be challenged – hell, let us argue passionately about the merits of particular writers on the basis of the work they produce, not what they look like or where they come from.

Let us celebrate a community where there are no hard and fast rules about what we can write or who can join. Let us be open to all.

Let us dance and sings and get drunk and pass out in the dewy grass and wake with blinding hangovers in the blazing sun of an alien world.

Let us reclaim the SFF world for great books and let’s celebrate those books.

Joyous Puppies – saddle up and ride out!

Yes, It’s F**king Political

As Skunk Anansie told us, years ago, Yes, It’s Fucking Political. Of course it is. Everything’s political, when you get right down to it. We’re readers, we’re writers; for all we might like to think that we’re above the mundanities of the dirty world, we can’t escape it. You think Dickens wasn’t political? How about Shakespeare? Arthur Miller? And you’re into politics too.

At the moment it seems that there is a move – read ‘giant lurch’ – towards the right-wing in writing, and especially in science-fiction. Actually, that’s almost certainly not true; these voices have always been there, as have an equivalent bunch of Lefties. But circumstances have now propelled a small minority of extremists into the limelight. Check out this little slice of delight, for example; and we’ve barely just got over the Rabid Puppies contretemps.

Let me just go on record and say that I detest these people, and most especially their loathsome figurehead Vox Day*. I‘m not here to talk about them specifically; nor am I going to rehash old arguments. I want to talk about the nature of writing – and indeed, life – and SF in particular.

All writing is political. Hell, the clothes you wear, the way you talk – it’s all political. Mostly it’s something you never think about – you can perfectly enjoy the Shopaholic books without ever considering the consumer society in which the characters operate. Some writers are more overt than others – Orwell, of course, is an obvious example, and I could point at the doyenne of American libertarianism, Ayn Rand.

But no story exists in a vacuum. There are underlying concepts, a framework, behind every novel. Even historical fiction has to make a choice between presenting things we now find repellent – such as the treatment of women or slaves or rampant antisemitism – with a modern eye or in the most accurate light of the time. This is a political decision, although not necessarily done for political purposes.

But science-fiction is different. Everything science-fiction is political, almost by definition. This is because we either have to create a whole new world ourselves, or because our stories are born of that classic old question: what if..? Thus are born some of the greatest writers, and stories, in the canon. Asimov and Dick are the classic examples; if you’re after a more modern examples I’d point to the great Terry Pratchett – whose Discworld series is all about the real, modern world – and Adam Roberts, who has taken as themes religious extremism, communications and animal rights in his writing.

It’s inherent in science fiction – no, not all, but some – to look into ones fears, to find trends in the modern world and extrapolate them into the future. Now, I don’t believe in censorship; nothing should be off-limits. Science-fiction is not about hiding – it is about exploring, and the most beautiful explorations are those of the human condition. A novel on the rise of Islam, or the ‘spread’ of homosexuality, or of Liberal hand-wringing (a la Mr Covington in one of the above links) can have its place.

If it’s done well, and sensitively, and explores the issues rather than just demonising those the author finds distasteful.

It’s not just the Right that politicises. The Sad Puppies – the ‘political wing’ of the more extreme Rabids – originally set out to protest at a perceived bias towards the Left in the Hugo awards and in publishing in general. More personally, I am writing my new novel, Oneiromancer, with a left-wing slant: nothing overt, but with an underlying theme of society in peril from a biased media.

This (I hope) does not do my own work justice. I write about people first and foremost, with a bloody good story laid upon them. That, at least, is the plan. But I am a product of my upbringing, my (continuing) education and my environment – just as you are too. There’s nothing wrong with this.

But it’s something we should be aware of. It’s perfectly fine to explore the big issues – in fact, it’s a necessity for the good of mankind – but you ignore the consequences, the way others with perceive your work, at your peril.

Because yes, it’s fucking political.

Everything’s political.

And if you’re writing about white supremicism, or religious extremism, then you must know how the work will be taken. You must know that those who aren’t your race or religion are exactly the same as you, with their own hopes, fears, and prejudices. And you must acknowledge this in your work.

Otherwise you might be accused of foaming a little around the chops.

*This is a link to his Wikipedia page. I would never, ever link to his blog as every hit gives him the oxygen of publicity. I’m not too happy with him having the oxygen of oxygen. Besides, too long spent in his electronic company leaves me needing a good wash and, possibly, a lobotomy.

Adventure time

I don’t trust genre.

When you walk into your friendly local library you’ll see the books all neatly corralled, forced to comply with a regime that dictates their neat characterisation. Crime must not rub shoulders with Classics. Literary fiction is too good to mix with the SF/F oiks. Romance must – at all costs – be kept from the tiny LGBT shelf. And conspiracy theories demand a place in non-fiction, despite… well, despite evidence.

And that’s all well and good. But the fact is that a science-fiction novel can have more in common with mythology than it can with its immediate neighbour. It’d make as much sense to shelve books according to their settings as to their body-count (one or two corpses = crime: a million corpses = either space opera or political commentary). Think about it: books set in London all together on one shelf, be they sagas or gangland thrillers. Makes about as much sense as anything else.

Genre-division really doesn’t give you any idea of what any particular story is about, or how it’s told. What’s Agatha Christie got in common with Patricia Cornwell? The stories they tell are so different in voice that they might as well be from different planets. CJ Sansom cohabiting with Ellis Peters? SF/F is equally confusing. Ursula Le Guin next to Terry Pratchett? I love them both but hardly see them as interchangeable.

Which is why we’ve got all these subdivisions within genre. And that’s great. But it still doesn’t give us an idea of what any story is actually like.

See, I’m currently writing an Adventure. It’s an action story, told in a linear fashion: no flashbacks, little circularity save in location. Each scene will lead inexorably to the next as the tension grows, the stakes get higher…*

But of course it won’t be classified as an adventure. There isn’t really an adventure genre any more; not since the heyday of Wilbur Smith and Ian Fleming, not since we Gave Back Our Colonies has such a thing existed. It’s why Bernard Cornwell – the man who taught me everything I know about writing action – is historical fiction. And it’s why Oneiromancer will be classified as Urban Fantasy.

Adventure isn’t so much a genre as it is a way of telling a story. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are adventures. Some of you may know of Christopher Brooker’s ‘Seven Basic Plots’; for those who don’t know he divided all fiction into the following categories:

  • Overcoming the monster
  • Rags to riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

You can take issue about these categories. I wasn’t entirely convinced with some of his analysis. But a library or bookshop based on this categorisation would make at least as much sense as its current system. Genre, as we know it, really describes a book’s ‘dress’ – its setting or basic theme – rather than what it’s really about. Add a few more categories if you like: Extended Metaphor; Not-So-Subtle Political Manifesto; Loosely-Camouflaged Autobiography; Celebrity Cash-In; The Monster Within.

Really, we only accept the narrows of ‘form’ because a) we all grew up with it, and b) we know it well enough to navigate its treacherous undertow. But it means that I, and many, many other writers will feel ‘misfiled’ because the clothes matter more than the body beneath. And that, if you stop to think about it, is just a little bit strange.

*The right is thoroughly, completely and emphatically reserved to completely change this pre-emptive description of my future novel. What am I, a fortune teller?