Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Star Trek Beyond

After the disappointment of the confused, incoherent Star Trek: Into Darkness, Star Trek Beyond is at least a film that can be enjoyed on a surface level without too many objections. I confess that I'm not a huge fan of the rebooted series as a whole, finding the films to be visually spectacular, excellently cast, genuinely moving and/or funny in places, but otherwise shallow, with gaping inconsistencies in basic plot logic - a failing I also found in the first of the new Star Wars films, which started unravelling in my head almost before I'd got to the carpark.

But Star Trek Beyond is probably the best of the three, and a desperate improvement on the second. Once again, I can't find anything to complain about in the casting; all the central roles are beautifully handled by their respective actors, with the recurring parts inhabited with a wonderful conviction, while also bringing fresh touches to these long-established figures. It also, for the first time, felt much closer to what a Star Trek film ought to be like, with a clear narrative line and a strong sense of Starfleet both growing out of and emblematic of a Better Future - and we could certainly use a bit of that optimism now.

The opening sequence - after a comedic episode with Kirk trying to negotiate a peace treaty with some scrappy, puppy-like aliens - is terrific, with the Enterprise docking inside a ridiculously vast Starbase, with some lovely shots of the ship sliding through glassy tubes that penetrate the main living space of the enormous structure. It's also completely bonkers, with several cities worth of skyscrapers folded up into a gravity-defying Escher-like interior landscape, so complexly visualised that it's a fair bet it's going to have to turn up later in the film just to justify the rendering costs. Minor quibbles were starting to circulate at this point: if it's the twenty third century, and this structure has been built anew in space, why is the civic architecture of these buildings so crushingly familiar, as if all the skyscrapers had been transplanted from Toronto, Sydney, etc? Why do the plazas and malls look like they're contemporary civic settings CGI'd into this virtual space? Because they are, I suspect, and perhaps it's no bad thing as the entire sequence functions as a loving throwback to those episodes in the original series where a Starbase would look suspiciously like a 1960s university campus or shopping complex. It did, however, all remind me of the similar alien mall-scape in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Things quickly go awry when the Enterprise leaves the Starbase to respond to a distress signal, which in grand Star Trek fashion turns out to be a trap, and before long we're back into the same "villain with superweapon" plot which underpinned the two previous episodes. But at least the story is well handled this time, cross-cutting between the main groups of characters in a way that was mostly followable and developing a story that, while in no way groundbreaking, at least still feels narratively satisfying by the time you've left the cinema. The main new character, Jaylah, is very good and it would be nice to see more of her in the follow-up, presuming such a thing happens.

So it's a colourful, fast paced action film with some very enjoyable character beats, impressive effects and a plot that does at least withstand superficial scrutiny. What it isn't is a film in any way interested in new ways of thinking about the future. It's put together very well, and it's thrilling in parts, but if science fiction is the literature of ideas, this isn't science fiction.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Beyond the Aquila Rift is out

Today sees the UK publication of my huge Best Of collection, "Beyond the Aquila Rift" - around two hundred and fifty thousand words of short fiction, plus exclusive story notes. Here's the UK cover:

And here's a link to the Amazon page for the book:

None of this would have happened without the indefatigable efforts of Jonathan Strahan and Bill Schafer, who worked together to produce the Subterranean Press edition, which eventually appeared a few weeks ago. I am grateful to both of them, and the whole Sub Press team, for their enthusiasm and support over many years. I am also indebted to Gillian and Robert, my editor and agent respectively, for working hard to make it possible to have this near simultaneous release of the UK edition.

Publishers Weekly said:

“This collection of 18 long and short stories by Reynolds (the Poseidon’s Children series), one of the most gifted hard SF writers working today, displays his facility for building fascinating settings and integrating romance and mystery plots into space opera… Readers will greatly appreciate the breadth and variety of this deeply enjoyable collection.”

While Paul di Filippo, writing in Locus Online, said:

"Combining the melancholy fatedness of early George R. R. Martin, as found in Dying of the Light, with the clear-eyed cosmicism of Stephen Baxter, Reynolds gives us a galaxy where the gravity of astronomical phenomena is counterbalanced by the dark energies of the human heart. This collection should stand as a cornerstone of the contemporary SF edifice, showing us exactly how to elegantly fuse those separate but overlapping magisteria."

The complete story selection is as follows:

Great Wall of Mars
Beyond the Aquila Rift
Minla's Flowers
Zima Blue
The Star Surgeon's Apprentice
The Sledge-Maker's Daughter
Diamond Dogs
Thousandth Night
Trauma Pod
The Last Log of the Lachrymosa
The Water Thief
The Old Man and the Martian Sea
In Babelsberg
Story Notes

Quite a lot to get stuck into, and a nice selection of material covering different modes and themes, I think. The Orion cover, illustrated above, is gorgeous, but I'd be remiss in not showing the equally lovely illustration done by Dominic Harman for the Sub Press version. Dominic and I communicated closely during the execution of this illustration, as Dominic was determined to get the lighthuggers just right - and he did.

The Lettered edition is sold out, but Sub Press still have copies of both the Trade and Limited versions, and if you go for the latter, you'll get the slipcased one with my cover:

Rather pleasingly, this edition also has a fold-out rendition of Dominic's artwork, and splendid it looks as well. Really you can't go wrong with any of them.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Slow Bullets wins Locus award

Although I couldn't be there in person, I was delighted with the news that Slow Bullets had won the novella category in this year's Locus awards, held in Seattle. I've never won a Locus award before, although I did get close with Revelation Space, so this was doubly welcome, especially as I've always found the Locus staff to be excellent company.

Locus has the complete breakdown of results:

Congratulations to all.

And here's a photo (picture by Patrick Swenson) of Jacob from Tachyon Press kindly accepting the award on my behalf:

I wrote a few words for Jacob to say on the night:

"Thank you to all who voted for my story. I'm overjoyed to have won this award, especially for a story
that was written as a personal project over a very long period, with no real idea of what the world would
make of it. Marty Halpern did his usual meticulous job as editor, and I couldn't have hoped for a more
enthusiastic and committed publisher than Tachyon, who did a superb job in making sure the story got
noticed and read. Thank you to Jacob, Jill, Jim, Rick and all at Tachyon for giving the book such an excellent
push. I'd also like to thank those writers, including Michael Bishop, Allen Steele and Michael Swanwick who
were so kind as to provide endorsements for the book. Once again I was blessed to be part of such a welcoming
and generous field as ours. Thank you!"

I can only reiterate that it was a pleasure from the word go to work with such people, and everyone else who had any involvement in the distribution and promotion of the book, including Subterranean Press and the Washington Science Fiction Association.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Why I'm for the UK remaining in the EU

In a very short while the UK will be holding a referendum on the country's continued membership of the EU. At the moment, judged on the polls (which are of course often inaccurate, as with the last general election), things seem to be heading the way of a vote to leave.

I think it would be a great shame were this to happen. As a young scientist, I benefitted tremendously from the freedom of movement allowed within the EU. I'm not talking about my time within the European Space Agency, which is a non-EU organisation, although that experience certainly helped frame my views on European cooperation and integration. But having left ESA in 1994, I was immediately able to take up a two year postdoctoral position at a Dutch university, and I did so with the minimum of hassle and paperwork. Once again I was immersed in a pan-European working environment which I found stimulating and encouraging.

After my postdoctoral position expired in 1996, I found myself unemployed. There were a handful of possible job opportunities back in the UK, but I had grown fond of the Netherlands, and my partner at the time, who later became my wife, had a full-time job. She too had benefitted from freedom of movement within the EU. Disinclined to leave Holland, therefore, I signed on for unemployment benefit from the Dutch state, while continuing to look for work opportunities within the area where we lived. I applied for one job in Delft, working on satellite monitoring of the Earth's atmosphere, but was not made an offer.

Luck eventually intervened, in that I saw an advert in Nature for a newly founded business in Haarlem, which would revolve around developing scientific software for astronomical applications. It seemed right up my street, almost literally so, in that Haarlem was only a short train ride from where we lived near Leiden. I applied for the job and was suitably astonished to learn that the driving force behind the business was an old colleague of mine - and a Welshman, like me, who had settled in the Netherlands. We met for an interview, which went well. While there was a strong prospect of working for the company in the future, though, there was still going to be a few more months of unemployment. I therefore continued to sign on, while going through the motions of looking for work. It was an odd, unsettling time, but - in hindsight - a blessing, because it enabled me to dust off the abandoned manuscript of Revelation Space and finally give it the polish it needed prior to submission. That was early 1997, and the book sold two years later. Those months of unemployment were therefore literally life-changing, and I owe them to the Dutch state and EU regulations on worker's rights.

Many of the arguments for and against membership of the EU seem to revolve around economics, which seems to me to be an extremely narrow metric. Even if we are better off out of the EU, which we probably won't be, so what? This is already a wealthy country, and leaving the EU won't mend the widening inequality between the very rich and almost everyone else. More than that, though, look at what would be lost. Friendship, commonality, freedom of movement, a sense that national boundaries are (and should be) evaporating. When many countries (including the Netherlands) moved to the Euro, it was a joy not to have to pack Guilders, Belgian francs, Deutschmarks, for a simple drive to visit to family in Germany a few hours away. The eradication of visible borders did not lead to a smearing out of regional cultures, but instead it made it much more easy to sample those cultures and gain a deeper sense of European history. I never stopped feeling that living in the EU was a thing to be proud of, and more than ever I am content to think of myself as European before British. I therefore hope that the Remain vote will win the day.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Medusa Chronicles at Foyles

"Saturday 4th June 2016 3pm - 4:30pm 107 Charing Cross Road Literary Event, Chargeable Event
In association with The Arthur C. Clarke Award and SFX Magazine.

Join us for a conversation with two leading figures in science fiction, Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter, as they discuss their new collaboration The Medusa Chronicles. Inspired by the classic Sir Arthur C. Clarke's short story ‘A Meeting with Medusa’, The Medusa Chronicles continues the story of Commander Howard Falcon over centuries of space-exploration. One of the most compelling novels of either author’s career, it combines moments of incredible action with an intricately-realised depiction of an expansive universe."

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Galaxy Quest

At last, an image of M101. This is a quick and dirty stack of six ten minute sub-frames, aligned using Photoshop. There is a lot of electronic noise in the frames which I would like to remove.

A pass through confirms the pointing:

And here's a crop, with some contrast tweaking, of the galaxy itself:

The string of stars in the lower left corner (and elsewhere) is the result of individual hot pixels being shifted and duplicated as I did the manual alignment. This is the kind of electronic noise which I'd like to remove when I get a bit more time.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Slow Bullets on the Hugo ballot

A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by the Hugo administrators to let me know that my novella "Slow Bullets" would be one of the finalists in that category. I was pleased, but not without some obvious misgivings. I'd been unhappy about the inclusion of my story on the recommendation lists of the Sad and Rabid Puppies, especially given that the latter was to all intents just another slate, designed to encourage block voting. At the time no one really had a clear idea about how dominant the Puppy factor was going to be in this year's shortlists.

Trying to have my cake and eat it, I suggested to the administrators that I'd gladly accept the inclusion now, but that I might change my mind when I saw the extent to which Puppy choices had (or not) dominated the ballot. The best case I was realistically hoping for would be one or two obvious Puppy candidates showing up, but an otherwise fair selection which didn't show blatant signs of block voting. I'd had high hopes for Slow Bullets, after all. I considered it a strong story, and it had picked up enough positive reviews and recommendations throughout the year that it didn't seem beyond the bounds of possibility that it might make the ballot. That's not to say I was confident, but that just that the omens were about as good for that story as they had been for any of my recent pieces.

The adminstrators, quite reasonably, wanted a clearer, less ambiguous commitment from me. After a friendly and productive transatlantic phone call, I came around to the view that I'd not only accept the nomination, but take whatever came after it.

As several commentators have noted, the eventual ballots are quite strongly biassed in favour of Rabid Puppy choices. The unpalatable conclusion to be drawn from this is that my story, good as its chances were, probably wouldn't have made the cut were it not for the RP block vote. However, I didn't ask for those votes and in fact I expressly requested that my story not be slated. Kate Paulk (of the Sads) and Vox Day (of the Rabids) both declined my requests.

Since the announcement of the ballots, there's been quite a lot of discussion about the rights and wrongs of the finalists withdrawing their stories. Quite honestly, I'm very sympathetic to both sides of the debate. If I knew then what I know now, I'd probably have declined the initial nomination. But I didn't, and beyond that I made a commitment to the administrators not to withdraw at a later stage. On that basis alone, therefore, I'm keeping "Slow Bullets" on the ballot. I can't say I'm exactly over-joyed about this decision, though - from my point of view it just feels like the least worst choice of a very bad hand. Compare and contrast to the situation when my only other nomination happened, for "Troika", and my mood couldn't be more different.

Let's hope things are better next year.