Monday, 13 February 2017

Megatech - Technology in 2050

Due out at the end of March is this exceedingly handsome paperback from the Economist, full of smart and informed speculation about the state of the world in the coming mid-century, and also containing two original short stories. One - entitled Ma Ganga - is by the excellent Nancy Kress, and the other - entitled "Visiting Hours" - is by me. My piece takes a speculative look at advances in neuroprosthetic medical technology, springing off from developments already making the headlines.

The 242p page book is edited by Daniel Franklin and contains non-fiction contributions from Tom Standage, Frank Wilczek, Melinda Gates, Oliver Morton, and many others. I am very pleased to be among such esteemed company.

I haven't yet found a link to it on the Economist's UK website, but here's a link from the US version:

Friday, 10 February 2017

Go back, Jack

In 1985 I left home to start my university studies in Newcastle, situated on the chilly, north eastern side of the United Kingdom: about as far from Wales as it's possible to get before you end up in Scotland. Even the Romans got as far as Newcastle before deciding that was about as far north as it was sensible to go.

 It had not been my plan to go that far up; my hopes had revolved around a degree in Sheffield or - when the former option started looking doubtful - Colchester, both of which involved lengthy but not arduously long journeys. I had in fact been accepted onto a place in Colchester to study laser technology and attained (by a whisker) the necessary qualifying grades. When a place became available on an astronomy degree course, though, I jumped at the chance to study in Newcastle, even though I had never visited the city, not even for the usual university interview. The day I showed up for the start of term was my first time in Newcastle, and I came with as much as I could cram into a single rucksack, which would have been several changes of clothes, a book or two and perhaps a small portable kettle.

I almost certainly didn't bring my Sanyo Hi-Fi system, which would have followed a day or two later in a metal shipping trunk sent by British Rail's then Red Star parcels service. Someone kindly helped me collect the trunk from the Red Star depot in Newcastle, and from then on I was able to lead a much more comfortable existence in my student bedroom. By then I had a small but cherished collection of vinyl records, mostly acquired over the preceding three years. I had rarely listened to music in my early teens but by the time I was sixteen it had become an increasingly big part of my life, with regular visits being made to the record shops in Cardiff to stock up on an album or two. Like many such listeners back then, though, I was also an avid compiler of cassettes. Most of the new music I discovered came my way not through vinyl, but through the sharing of tapes between friends.

That was fine, because I couldn't possibly have brought my JVC turntable as well as the Sanyo system, so the turntable stayed at home, along with my records, and I made do with cassettes, both pre-recorded and home-taped.

On my first or second free weekend in Newcastle, I went down into the town and bought a cassette to listen to. It was an interesting choice, partly because it was a double cassette, but also because it was by a band I knew next to nothing about, and most of whose music I couldn't have named or recognised. I didn't know where the two albums on the cassette sat within that band's output. What I did know, though, was that one of the albums had the song Do it Again on, and that was my sole motivation for buying the cassette.

Whether it was the summer of 1985, or the one before, I can't now say, but at some point I had heard a song on the radio and it had burrowed itself into my brain as the ultimate earworm. That song wasn't even Do it Again, at least not in the purest sense. It was a mashup of Do it Again and Michael Jackson's Billy Jean, performed by Club House:

Something about the rhythm and melody of Do it Again, the plaintive, yearning vocal line, sunk its talons into me pretty deeply. I had to have that record, and if the price of that was a couple of Steely Dan albums on a double cassette, so be it. At that point, though, I couldn't have cared less about the rest of that band's output.

Within a few listens, though, both albums on that cassette - 1972's Can't Buy a Thrill, and 1977's Aja, had begun to exert a powerful pull on my imagination. I found myself listening ever more intently, sucked in by the lyrics and the amazing arrangements, quite unlike anything else I'd ever heard up until that point.

Steely Dan rapidly went from a passing interest, to my number one musical obsession. It was a love affair that would continue right through my student years, but doomed from the outset by a dark, dispiriting realisation: they had already split up.

This was 1985; Gaucho, the band's last album, had come out in 1980 - an age ago, or so it seemed at the time. They had made seven nigh-on flawless records and then just stopped. Donald Fagen had recorded one album in the intervening time, but even that was three years old. Walter Becker had been completely silent.

This was a bittersweet realisation. I had begun to explore a lush new musical universe - but it was finite, and like a non-renewable resource it must be treated as such. I therefore resolved to limit my purchase of Steely Dan albums as far as possible, delaying the inevitable point when I would have to accept that I had run out of their music.

For the rest of 1985, I bought no new Steely Dan material. I was ferociously strict with myself, listening instead to Aja and Can't Buy a Thrill on near-constant turnaround, finding new levels and subtleties in the music. Just trying to figure out the lyrics was a mission in itself. There were no lyric sheets or liner notes with the cassettes. I remember lying in bed, listening to Aja's title track over and over, trying to plumb its mysteries. Holy crap, is he singing "double-helix in the sky tonight"? What the hell is that about?

By earlt 1986 I'd cracked, though, and I purchased two more Steely Dan records. These were vinyl editions this time, since I was back home and able to make tape copies of them on my turntable. These records were 1974's Pretzel Logic, and 1976's The Royal Scam.

The Royal Scam remains one of my all-time favorite albums, not least because I can still remember the almost unbearable thrill of setting the needle down onto side one, and being blown away in short order by the holy trinity of Kid Charlemagne, The Caves of Altamira and Don't Take me Alive. Again, as per my experience with the first cassette, I had heard next to nothing of theirs before. In any case, they only had one or two "radio friendly" hits and I don't think these were ever part of my formative musical education in the 1970s. Quite simply this music was all new and fresh to me, and wonderfully exciting. Cool and clever, too. Fagen and Becker seemed like two wise older brothers, well versed in the ways of the world. Their lyrics dripped with bittersweet experience, hard-won cynicism, droll observations and exquisite flourishes of detail. It would still be years before I travelled to America, but via the music of Steely Dan, a little part of it began to unfold in my head anyway.

I cracked in another, smaller way as well: I bought Fagen's 1982 solo album, The Nightfly. This didn't seem like cheating as it wasn't precisely Steely Dan, and anyway, who knew how long I'd have to wait if I didn't snap it up there and then? It's still one of my favorites, not least because of the gorgeous Asimovian retro-sci-fi head-trip of IGY (International Geophysical Year), in which Fagen puts himself back into his own head as a teenager in 1957, imagining the coming world of 1977, with its wheels in space,  undersea trains of "graphite and glitter", and "just machines, programmed by fellows with compassion and vision". My sensors suitably attuned, I began to realise that sci-fi imagery cropped up elsewhere in the Steely Dan catalogue as well.

As 1986 wore on my resolve took another falter and I purchased Gaucho, the final Steely Dan album. Received opinion at the time of its release seemed to be that it was a step too far into flawlessly smooth production values, verging on the sterile, but I've always loved Gaucho, for all its studio perfection. In fact it's a hard one for me to pick an absolute favorite out of the final three albums, all of which I think are masterfully good, but it would probably end up being a toss-up between Aja and Gaucho. Far from being anything to do with production techniques, I think what really lifts these final three albums is the presence of the gorgeous female backing vocals, more prominent (to my ears) than on the earlier releases.

But the truth is that I love them all, and there isn't a Steely Dan album that you could reasonably call weak. By the end of my student days I had them all in vinyl, with the sole exception of Aja. Fittingly, perhaps, when I recently returned to the occasional vinyl purchase, a beautiful, heavy vinyl edition of Aja was one of my first treats.

Although it seemed so at the time, it wasn't really the end for Steely Dan. By 1986, Fagen and Becker were playing together on the same album, although in this instance it was the one and only release of former model Rosie Vela. I bought it because of the SD connection - and it's good, too. Becker got involved with China Crisis, so I bought their stuff as well, and then Fagen put out another solo album, 1992's cyberpunk Kamakiriad. By the mid-nineties they were playing together as Steely Dan again, and another two studio albums were to follow.

But by then I was buying CDs, and that's another story.

The author's Steely Dan collection, all but one of which was bought thirty years ago.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Diamond Dogs goes live, general service update etc

The stage version of Diamond Dogs, which I've mentioned on and off during its development phase, is now playing at the House Theatre of Chicago. The run - which has already begun - continues until the 5th of March.

The play is adapted from my original novella set in the Revelation Space universe, and deals with the psychological allure of a lethal but tantalising alien artefact floating just above the surface of the alien planet Golgotha. Drawn to this trap-cum-puzzle is a small but determined team of explorers and chances, intent on getting to the top of the Spire.

Directed by Nathan Allen, the play is an adaptation by Althos Low , a pen name for Shanghai Low Theatricals, a group dedicated to bring challenging works to the stage. Frankly you couldn't get much more challenging than a piece of space-operatic dark SF, involving interstellar travel, cyborg prosthetics and a monstrous alien structure - but suitably undaunted, Shanghai Low (with chief adaptor Steve Pickering) have put together what is by all accounts a very striking and inventive production, involving hi-tech stage design, imaginative costume work, and the resourceful and skilled puppetry of Mary Robinette Kowal, already greatly respected within SF circles as a fine writer. The script, which I read some months ago, is clever and involving, and very true to the beats of the original story. This is the first adaptation of any of the Revelation Space stories into another medium, and I can't wait to see it.

Assuming there is still such a thing as the United States a month from now, I'll do my best to be in Chicago in the latter part of February and catch at least one or two performances. Chicago is absolutely one of my favorite cities anywhere in the world, so it will be far from a hardship to pay a return visit. But first, a book must be finished, among other commitments which prevent me getting over sooner.

Here's a link to the House Theatre:

If you're within reach of Chicago, and you like my stuff, why not give it a go?

Link to a larger version of the poster

In other news ... not much to share, in all honesty. I'm late with the aforementioned book, so it's been head down for several months trying to wrestle that particular python. In publishing news, the US print edition of Revenger will appear soon, as will the UK edition of my novella Slow Bullets, but I'll do proper blog posts nearer the time for those two events. And, rather abruptly, perhaps, I decided to leave Twitter and deactivate my account. One or two people were kind enough to ask if all was well, and indeed it was, but I'd been tweeting less and less as we went into the latter half of 2016, and it seemed as good a time as any to knock it on the head. Rather than risk temptation, I decided that the safest option was to close the account. Good thing too, as there've been a number of occasions when I felt the urge to tweet something, and I doubt I'd have had the self-control not to go back onto it full-time.

So anyway, here we are - 2017. Best wishes to you all, and onward.


Friday, 30 December 2016

Remembering Piers Sellers

The British-born astronaut Piers Sellers died on December 23rd 2016, only fourteen months after his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Piers was a hugely respected figure within the scientific and astronautical communities, a veteran of three shuttle missions who rose to the directorship of NASA's Earth Science Division at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Knowing full well the likely term of his diagnosis, Piers nonetheless preferred to spend the last year of his life working with friends and colleagues, and doing all that he could to spread the word about global climate change. Piers was a passionate and optimistic advocate of the scientific worldview, and despite all the setbacks he believed that human will and ingenuity would always win through in the end.

He was also an avid and informed reader of science fiction, which is how our two very different worlds intersected. A couple of years after I'd left ESA, but while I was still living in the Netherlands, I got a phone call out of the blue from a NASA employee, Tim Kauffman, who was visiting ESA while involved with the International Space Station. Tim was a reader of my books and we happily agreed to meet for a coffee the day after, when he had an afternoon free of meetings. As it happened, Piers joined us and the three of us spent an incredible couple of hours talking space, science and science fiction.

With Piers Sellers, Holland

Later my wife managed to get to the hotel where we'd arranged to meet up for coffee:

The conversation would have flowed, but my wife and I were booked to ride some horses that evening, so with much regret we had to leave. But that afternoon with Tim and Piers left an indelible impression, and we were to keep in touch with both of them.

Piers was exceptionally generous with his time and kindness. I'll mention two things in particular. During STS-121, the flight of Discovery in July 2006, Piers had taken a photograph of that rarest of things: a completely cloudless Wales. He promised to send me a copy of this unlikely image and it duly arrived, signed by Piers, and it's up on our living room wall as I write this.

Piers also carried a print of the first photograph above (the two of us sitting down) into space. He placed it on the frame of the observation cupola in the ISS, with the Earth beyond the glass, and took a photo of that. So I can truthfully say that there was a photo of me on the International Space Station.

Despite keeping in touch over the ensuing years, we only met twice. We came very close to each other on a third occasion - but only because Piers was four miles away, in the Space Shuttle Atlantis, while we watched from the viewing galleries. My wife sent him an email on the morning of the launch. Piers responded - he was actually in the shuttle, waiting to go.


The second and final occasion was a little over a year ago, just before Piers received his diagnosis. In October 2015 I attended the Capclave convention near Washington DC. It was too good an opportunity not to hook up with Piers again. The only snag was that Piers was leaving town shortly after we arrived, with the only available evening being the one where we arrived in DC. Tired after a transatlantic flight, and with just barely enough time to dump our bags at the hotel, we nonetheless made it to Piers' beautiful house for what turned out to be a delightful, stimulating evening of great food and conversation.

With Piers and friends. Paul and Tucker to the left of me, the wonderful Colleen Hartman to the right.
Piers' diagnosis came as a terrible shock to his friends. But I spoke to him last Christmas and his strength of spirit was incredible. I told him about my new telescope mount and throughout the year sent him the occasional image of whatever I'd managed to capture, on those rare instances when it wasn't clouded over.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to have met Piers Sellers will feel an awful void now that he's gone. But we'll be left with his immense optimism and the memory of a generous, genial man.

Monday, 31 October 2016

New Merlin story - "The Iron Tactician"

Appearing soon from Newcon Press is the first of the new stories I worked on earlier this year, and I'm very pleased to have it out in the world. "The Iron Tactician" is a 29,000 word novella featuring my recurring character Merlin. Somewhat drunk on his own glory, he's a far-future space traveller at a time of galactic war, on a lone quest to find a fabled super-weapon which may be the only thing that can end the aeons-long conflict. Although his heart's in the right place, Merlin is also vain and boastful, and prone to getting tangled up in the affairs of those smaller human cultures he happens to bump into on his travels. This doesn't always go as well as he might have hoped, as we discover in the new story.

"When Merlin encounters the derelict hulk of an old swallowship drifting in the middle of nowhere, he can't resist investigating. He soon finds himself involved in a situation that proves far more complex than he ever anticipated."

There are four Merlin stories to date, but in typical fashion they weren't written in chronological order, which would be:

Hideaway (2000)

Minla's Flowers (2005)

The Iron Tactician (2016)

Merlin's Gun (2000)

My new novella is the first in a new series for Newcon Press, all with artwork by Chris Moore, and which link together to form a single image. The story is available in both print and electronic formats, and Newcon will be doing a signed edition as well.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Coode Street Podcast

Over the weekend I recorded a Coode Street Podcast with the inestimable Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe. Always great fun, and we touched on a lot of topics, including REVENGER.

Unfortunately laptop hassle meant I had to switch to a backup machine at short notice, and the sound quality on my voice isn't the best at times. Hopefully you can still get some sense out of my ramblings.

Thanks to Jonathan and Gary for having me on the podcast.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Tour dates

My good friend Peter Hamilton and I both have new books coming out so we're doing some joint signing sessions through the UK. Unfortunately it wasn't possible for me to synch up with Peter for all the dates on his side of the tour, but we're showing up together for the following joint events:

Monday 26th September: Waterstones Birmingham, at noon.
Waterstones Nottingham, talk and Q&A, 7pm.
Tuesday 27th September: Waterstones Sheffield, (city centre) a signing at noon.
Waterstones Leeds, talk and Q&A, 7pm
Wednesday 28th September: Waterstones Newcastle a talk, 7pm.
Thursday 29th September: Waterstones Manchester Deansgate, a signing at 12.30pm
Waterstones Liverpool One: Talk and Q&A, 7pm.

I don't normally get as far north as places like Leeds and Newcastle, so if you haven't managed to get to one of my signing events in the South, now's your chance.

These are the events with Peter and I; if you can't make those dates or want to catch Peter on his own, he's doing the following extra dates:

Friday 23rd September: a signing at Forbidden Planet, London; 6-7pm.
Saturday 24th September: signing at Waterstones Canterbury; noon.
Waterstones Guildford: Talk/reading and Q&A 7pm.
Sunday 25th September: Waterstones Swindon, signing at noon.
Saturday 1st October, I'll be at Titancon Belfast.

(and possibly more - check out Peter's Facebook page for info):

I'll also be attending the Gollancz Festival this coming weekend:

And I'll be making an appearance at New Scientist's big live event at the ExCel centre, London, on the afternoon of 23rd of September, where I'll be discussing The Future with Warren Ellis.

We're trying to firm up an additional signing event in the South West, so I'll post details here when it's comfirmed.