Sunday, 31 May 2015

Slow Bullets

Tomorrow is the official publication day of my chapbook novella "Slow Bullets", which I'm very pleased to have published with Tachyon Press, ably assisted by my editor on the project, Marty Halpern. At just a shade under 40,000 words, it's not quite novel-length by the usual rules, but it is certainly at the long end of short fiction.

Like many of my stories, this one had a very long gestation. For several years I'd been playing around with two completely separate story ideas. The first concerned a prison ship, loaded with an assortment of the good, the bad and the ugly, suddenly catapulted into a situation where only the collective wisdom of those on board is going to save the day. I could see the opening scenes in my head - a battle-scarred planet, soldiers and POWs being loaded onto transports, former enemies forced into close confinement with each other. Then something goes wrong...

But that was as far as it went; all I had was the outline, not a stab at the material, as I knew that something was missing.

The second idea was also only a series of outlines. I'd become fixated on the idea of scribes, of regiments of monk-like scholars being forced to transfer information from one medium to another, by hand ... I could see them sitting in the hulk of a crashed ship, half submerged in some alien sea, trying to preserve as much knowledge as possible from the ship's dying memory. Perhaps they'd been doing this for long that they barely remembered what the ship was, or where it had come from ... all that mattered was the task of transcription. The monks had to work to the point of exhaustion, though, because on some level time was against them.

But again, I couldn't go from those outlines/images to a story; I knew that the story would fail unless I found the missing element.

There matters rested. One evening in early 2012 my wife and I were out for the evening - we'd gone into town to see a performance by Holiday on Ice. We got to our seats early and there wasn't much to do until the presentation started. With the lights still up, and people still filtering in from outside, my mind started wandering. That was when I realised that those two story ideas each formed the missing half of the other. I wasn't trying to write two stories, I was trying to write one ... and now the only problem was to integrate the two ideas into a single narrative.

The performance started. I enjoyed it, but some part of my mind was busy beavering away on the connections between those two story ideas. One by one the pieces began to fit together. By the end of the evening, I was in no doubt that I could write the implied story. I knew it was going to be a larger piece - a novelette or maybe even a novella. But even then I didn't anticipate that it would still make me more than a year, and that the finished article would be closer to 50,000 than 40,000 words.

When Marty Halpern contacted me in April 2013, asking about the possibility of a novella for Tachyon Books, it was already more than a year since I'd found a way to merge the two ideas ... and it would be the better part of a year again before Marty had the story. At one point I rewrote the entire thing without using a single comma or quotation mark... before sense prevailed.

And here we are a year later again, with the book now shipping.

Here are some early reactions and reviews:

“Alastair Reynolds’ new novella Slow Bullets has the scope of a much longer work (Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empires, say), the literary speed of the most rapidly hurtling bullet, and so many provocative scientific  and / or philosophical ideas that even Stephen Hawking’s head might well spin with them. Moreover, Reynolds artfully compresses all these disparate elements into a portable trade paperback or a weightless e-file, the better to accommodate our busy reading habits and the more fully to entertain us.

“Let me also note that Slow Bullets posits a far-future situation akin to the one that we confront on planet Earth today, but leavens his fictional crisis with a hard-won grasp of human psychology and a down-to-the-ground optimism that bestows on its readers reasons for supposing our ‘dammed human race’ nimble enough to overcome our demanding real-world crisis du jour. A fine example of the true science fictionist’s art . . . ‘with a bullet,’ as the editors at Billboard Magazine  used to say.”
—Michael Bishop, author of A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire, And Strange at Ecbatan                                                                                                                        the Trees, and Transfigurations

“Alastair Reynolds is the world’s best writer of space opera. If you have any doubts, then read Slow Bullets.”
—Allen Steele, author of Coyote and Spindrift

“The writing is tight, the characters are well developed, and the story itself moves along at a cracking pace.”
Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Corner

 Slow Bullets  is classic science fiction, a space opera, a puzzle story, a character study, visionary science fiction, and a prayer for peace.  I see no reason why you should not love it.”
—Michael Swanwick, author of Tales of Old Earth and Dancing with Bears

“Alastair Reynolds weaves a tapestry of dark, dystopian societies in a tense, colorful narrative.”
New York Journal of Books

“It’s a more intimate vision than what I encountered until now in Reynolds’ books, but for this very reason it felt more profound and poignant than any other I read so far, and it gave me a new level of interpretation for this author, and a key to a new way of reading his stories. Highly recommended, both for Reynolds’ admirers and as an introduction to this author.”
Space and Sorcery

Slow Bullets is a tightly focused tale that moves forward at a brisk and entertaining pace. It is a satisfying story of survival mixed with an intriguing mystery.”

You can order Slow Bullets from Tachyon Press:

Or from

And if you want the Audible version from the good people at Tantor:

Thank you again to Marty, Jacob, and all at Tachyon and Tantor for making this possible.

Friday, 29 May 2015

The same old same old

I got quite an interesting email from a reader a few days ago. Here's a quote:

 I have some questions about your work that have been bugging me for a long time. In your Poseidon's Children books, your style of writing appears to me to be markedly different from those of your short stories and the Revelation Space books; notably, that it shys away from the technical detail and minutia seen in your Revolution Space literature. I was wondering why this was, because that detail (like Skade's control of her area postrema, the many detailed descriptions of technologies, physics, and interstellar travel) are what make your work stand out to me and many other readers. Those details and explanations are what distinguish you from your peers and what in my mind elevates your work to the status of "hard SF", something very few SF writers manage to write today.

My initial reaction was one of annoyance - I don't relish the thought that I'm somehow less good at my trade now than I was some years ago. But on reflection, the email raises a fair and interesting point which I think it would be narrow minded to dismiss.

I don't know how typical I am as a writer, but I can say this with some honesty: I'm riddled by self-doubt. Whenever I sit down to write, questions are circling vulture-like somewhere at the back of my mind, ready to pick over the bones of my reputation. Am I actually any good at this? Have I deserved the success that has so far come my way, or have I in some sense pulled a kind of confidence trick on the SF community, camouflaging an inherent deficiency of talent with a superficial surface of technical competence? Did the fact that I have a scientific background act as a kind of compensating function for other failures in my writing? Have editors and publishers given me a pass on the aspects of my work that are less good, because I know about stars and orbits and stuff? Some years ago the critic Franz Rottensteiner said of my work that it consists of "endless machineries that produce exactly nothing: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Believe me I do not dismiss such thoughts, much as I might wish to.

And more than this: even allowing for the objective quality of my work, and setting aside Rottensteiner's dismissal, am I getting better or worse at what I do? And what do we mean by "better" anyway?

I think about this stuff all the time. The first thing to say - and a very obvious point - is that there need be no correlation between effort and effect. In other words, just because I put X hours into work Y, there is no guarantee of achieving result Z. I can't speak for other writers, but I've sweated months - even years - over labours of love that have been met with general indifference by the world at large. I've also written pieces in a blaze of industry, sometimes over no more than a weekend, that have hit a note and continued, in their modest way, to do well. I recently got a cheque for yet another reprint of "A Spy in Europa", a story I started on a Friday evening and had finished (barring minor polishing) by Sunday, and which has done very well for itself over the ensuing 18 years. So, yes - I'm well aware that merely putting in the requisite hours is not a reliable metric of artistic success, as any unpublished writer will acknowledge.

To go back to that "better" thing - what do I mean by it?  My answer to that would be that because writing is a complex, multivalent activity, there can be no single metric of improvement; it's not like being a faster sprinter, a taller high-jumper. Being an excellent writer is not about being better at plotting, better at character, better at voice, being better at world-building (which I think is what our letter writer was chiefly thinking of) but rather a question of full-spectrum dominance across all those aptitudes and more. The problem - or perhaps the challenge - is that some of those metrics are in subtle tension with each other. Most writers will know this. If you think of writing as resembling a vast mixing desk with lots of sliders, pushing some of those sliders in one direction will mean that some of the other sliders can't be pushed to their full extent. There is only so much narrative space within a text.  When I made a conscious decision to anchor the Poseidon's Children books around a very human clan of family members, and to eschew obvious villains and heroes, I knew that this was going to involve some sacrifices in other aspects of my writing. There's a reason we speak of the "novel of character" - it's an acknowledgment that some other aspects of novel writing will be less prominent. Similarly, when we speak of a book as being plot-driven, a "high octane thrill ride" or some such, we won't be too surprised if the text is not full of lingering, atmospheric descriptions of locales, or passages fixated on weighty introspection.

Any competent writer knows that making an aesthetic decision to amplify one aspect of novel writing will lead to some readers feeling short-changed because they're inevitably getting less of the stuff they like. To those readers, the writer has indeed got worse, because their particular tastes are no longer being served as efficiently. Another group of readers may prefer the newer direction, though. To them, there's no question that the writer has improved. However, neither group of readers has a claim to anything more than a subjective position on the matter.

The writer, meanwhile, might acknowledge that the new work is different in effect than the older, but they might not wished to be pressed into admitting that is either better or worse. To the writer, it might just feel like an invigorating change of mode, a holiday from what has become am effective but routine style. Writers (interesting writers, anyway) are creatively restless, and even when they hit on a set of approaches that seems to match the tastes of a given cohort of readers, they'll want to poke and prod at that envelope as much as possible - even in the full knowledge that some part of their core audience will be disappointed or indeed alienated.

Returning to the email:

Your style of writing in the Poseidon's Children series is more simplistic in than your Revelation Space work in this regard (doesn't mean I'm knocking it!), and I've been wondering why ever since I picked up Blue Remembered Earth. Is it to appeal to a wider audience? Is it your personal choice? Did people complain/not like the technical writing and explanations?

I'm not sure I'd go with "simplistic" - certainly from my side of the desk it often felt as if I was juggling far more variables than at any point in the Revelation Space stuff - but I would accept that there has been a conscious intention to downplay the technical aspects of the universe. Why? Because I wanted to evoke a sense in which my characters were fully immersed in a living, breathing twenty second century - and none of them really cared how the tech worked, as long as it did. That's why there are no detailed descriptions of VASIMR drives, or telepresence systems, or implants - it's all just there, fully accepted as the furniture of day to day life. How many people know what a "universal serial bus" really is? How many people understand MP3 encoding? None of that downplaying of the technical aspects was unconsidered, and I can safely say that none of it sprung from commercial pressures, or any desire to reach a wider audience.

The fact is I write solely for myself; everything else is a bonus. My publisher has given me extraordinary latitude to write exactly what I want, across thirteen novels, with next to no pressure to make my work more or less approachable to a wider audience. But to come back to that restlessness - I don't want to do the same thing over and over again. That doesn't mean I repudiate the old thing, or won't return to it. But it's just one mode and I don't want to be defined by it. But I also know that it is impossible to grow as a writer unless you are prepared to disappoint some cohort of your readership.

That's just the way it is.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Asimov's - March 2015

I anticipated that I might struggle to keep up with these Asimov's reviews, and so it has proved, but nonetheless I do hope to keep doing them throughout the year, even if the lag between issue and review stretches ever further.

In these puppy-benighted times, it's good to return to Asimov's and be reminded that there have been, and continue to be, generations of SF writers quietly content to write the best SF they can, year after year, with no particular complaint or sense of outrage that "their" brand of SF isn't the one currently finding favour with the Hugo voters, or that they are somehow being excluded from glory by some imaginary cabal of "Social Justice Warriors".
Due to an unfortunate production error, the lead story - Suzanne Palmer's "Tuesdays" - suffered from having its first page missing from the print version of the magazine. All sympathy to those involved, and thanks to editor Sheila Williams for kindly supplying me with a PDF of the whole story. This is the kind of mistake that's bound to happen when you put out a magazine month after month, for year after year, and the wonder is that something similar didn't happen decades earlier. It's worth reading the entire story, though, as "Tuesdays" is a cleverly told piece which attempts something interesting with structure, beind told through a mosaic of fractured points-of-view, skipping around in time while commenting obliquely on the events surrounding an out-of-the-way diner not too far from a certain place in New Mexico where something may or may not have happened in 1947. I've quibbled about multiple points of view in the short format before, and I will again (see my thoughts on the final story in this issue) but "Tuesdays" gets away with it because the structural decisions are fully integral to the aims of the story, not simply bolted on to make the plot work. It's a good piece with a lovely payoff, and I'll be keeping my eye out for more work by Suzanne Palmer.

Kage Baker had a relatively brief SF career, spanning less than thirteen years between 1997 until her untimely death in 2010. In that time she achieved great popularity within the field, most notably for her Company stories. It takes some doing to say something new about time-travel - or at least give the impression of freshness, which is much the same thing - but Kage managed that, and the Company stories were justly celebrated. Now her sister Kathleen Bartholomew  is developing further Company stories based on the notes left by Kage, as well as the many conversations they shared over forty years. "Pareidolia" is an ingenious fable about the unintended consequence of good intentions, and - fittingly, for a time travel piece - its action spans the entire period from ancient Egypt up until the sixth century, with of course hints of data and communications to and from the future. It's an enjoyable piece, with a sustained and effective use of voice, dense with period detail, and it gets into some clever territory concerning visual perception and what can be best be described as "mind viruses". The central conceit, of an image that hacks the nervous system directly, reminded me a little of David Langford's Basilisk stories, but that's only a passing similarity.

If I had one lingering reservation, it would be that the story lacks a certain swerve or complication which might have been expected - it sort of proceeds smoothly from A to C via B, but it would have been nice if D had shown up. Perhaps the resolution is just a little too straightforward for the time travelling protagonist, with not enough difficulty or jeopardy involved. But that's a small complaint, and it's fine to see the legacy of Kage Baker being continued in such capable terms.

Kit Reed has been publishing SF since 1958, all over the genre map, and often somewhere off the edge off it. The sheer longevity of SF careers is something to be celebrated, I think, especially when writers like Reed, in their seventh decade of publication, are still capable of coming up something as incisive and affecting as "Military Secrets". It's a parable about loss - or more precisely about the limbo of those children whose fathers go missing in war, and who therefore are denied the bitter comfort of closure that a confirmed death would offer. These children are on an endless nightmarish bus ride, trapped in a kind of driverless tube, doubting that they will ever leave - they envy those children who at least know where and when their parents were killed, and who are allowed off the bus. It's a short piece, but no less powerful for that.

There's a thesis waiting to be written - not by me - on the pernicious influence of Joss Whedon on an entire generation of younger writers. With its tough-as-nails laconic space crew trading stories around a bar - some true, some lies, everyone with a human-interest backstory - I got a distinctly Whedonesque vibe from "Twelve and Tag", the novella by Gregory Norman Bossert. Perhaps it's just me, but I could easily have visualised this story as an extended episode of Firefly, or something similar. There's something about the dialogue, a certain quality of forced snappiness ... Apologies to Bossert if there is no Whedon influence, of course. Such grumbles aside, though, it's a nicely drawn piece which successfully conveys the impression of a grittily complex mid-term future, in which the outer solar system is being ruthlessly plundered for its economic worth. It doesn't really strike any new ground - Tiptree and Delany pretty much nailed this spacegrit mode forty-plus years ago, and over the last decade we've seen plenty of SF works explore the colonisation and exploitation of the solar system, but it's still enjoyably done.

"Holding the Ghosts" by Gwendolyn Clare starts out with a confusingly vague point of view, and then compounds things by scene-shifting into a different one on the second page. But it quickly becomes clear that these shifts serve a purpose, and the apparent vagueness of the opening paragraphs is in fact pin-sharp given the theme of the story, which is about multiple personalities inhabiting the same brain-dead body. It's the near-ish future and there's a process which enables scanned personalities to be uploaded into the neural matrix of surrogate bodies damaged at birth due to a medical error. There's a glitch with the technology, though, so that each personality leaves an impression of itself which hangs around when the next one is in control of the body. Pretty soon these "ghosts" start colluding with each other. There's nothing radical about the telling here - other than the "body" being the only constant viewpoint, the story's told in pretty conventional past-tense relaxed-prose SF terms - but it's effectively done nonetheless, and occasionally hits some high notes:

"One morning she sat up in bed, wide awake, as if the paling eastern sky spoke to her loud as an alarm clock."

The longest piece in the issue, and the only novella, is Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "Inhuman Garbage". It's a kind of CSI-type police procedural, set on the Moon in the future, and concerning itself with Lunar politics and cloning. It's another smoothly written piece, one that never loses the reader, but at the same time I confess that I didn't find it tremendously engrossing. There's a murder, and we're introduced to a set of protagonists, and we get some sense of the wider Lunar society and its mores. But there's a matter of fact flatness to the telling, a lack of ambition in the language, a paucity of invention, that left me feeling that I was reading something that had been written without any particular investment at the level of style.

"Ethan Brodeur looked at the information pouring across his screen, and let out a sigh of relief. The hardening poison wasn't one of those that could leach through the skin. He still had to test the compound to see if the poison had contaminated it, but he doubted that."

This is SF prose at the default setting; it gets the job done and in any context a few lines like this are no problem at all, but a whole novella told in such flat, affectless terms becomes quite grey and uninvolving - and that's largely what we get; there is no striking imagery, no really inventive use of language, no attempt to make us see and feel what living on a Lunar colony would really be like, given that we've all read such settings many times over. It's certainly not a piece that's going to leave you reeling with future shock, the way the cyberpunks tried to cram at least one eyeball-kick into every paragraph.

It's also told using the familiar structural conventions of the modern thriller novel, or indeed the modern detective TV show format, with the viewpoint shifting around as it needs to, rather than being kept tightly on one protagonist. Brodeur, the character described above, is merely a forensics specialist, rather than the main detective or the primary antagonist. Perhaps I'm too much of a purist, but (as I've mentioned in the earlier reviews) I'm always a little uneasy with viewpoint shifts within the context of short fiction, even in a longer piece like a novella. It's also worth mentioning that the telling is extremely leisurely - it takes six whole pages just to detail the initial crime and the on-scene interview. Because it's part of a larger series, too - I'm unfamiliar with the other stories and novels - we keep getting bumped out of context to be fed extraneous little asides about the functioning of the wider world and its legal and economic apparatus. Whose benefit are these info-nuggets for? Not the main characters, who are already embedded in this world.

In fairness I should probably add that while I went through a phase of my life where I gobbled up police procedurals and crime thrillers like they were going out of business, I'm no longer as fascinated by the form as I once was. So an SF version of a police procedural is going to have to work really hard to hold my interest. But - on the plus side - this is unambiguously SF, of a rather hard nature - all the technical details ring true, and feel well researched - and it never wrong-foots the reader.

(edited for minor spelling mistakes and typos)

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Space is Ace

While I crack on with the March issue of Asimovs, here's a brief mention of the fantastic new album by Public Service Broadcasting:

PSB are a pseudonymous duo based in London who play mostly instrumental music, assembling their pieces around historical voice samples, sound effects and so on. The Race for Space is their second album and in broad terms tells the story between Sputnik and Apollo 17, drawing heavily on NASA and British Film Institute archival material. All well and good; the music is inventive and varied, but the results could so easily have been glib, with the samples simply used to create a superficial sheen of space-age atmosphere, but it's far from that. The whole thing is assembled with meticulous care, almost a reverence, and a real respect for the grand narrative of the space program and the very human individuals who made it happen. It's hard to pick a favorite, but I'm very taken with "Gagarin", a driving funk workout which manages to celebrate both the heroism of the first man in space, and also hint at the sadness of his early death. "Go" is also splendid, with its recordings of Gene "failure is not an option" Kranz doing the rounds of the Apollo 11 flight controllers, asking each to give a go or no-go response.  But the whole thing is worth cherishing. It's a superbly inventive, uplifting piece of work.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

In Babelsberg

My short story "In Babelsberg", which originally appeared in Jonathan Strahan's anthology Reach for Infinity, is one of the finalists in the Locus awards. I'm enormously happy to have made the shortlist, and I wish the best of luck to all the nominees.

Here's a link to the complete set of finalists: