Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Gardner Dozois

I was saddened to learn that Gardner Dozois had passed away over the weekend.

Gardner was enormously kind to me as an editor, supporting and encouraging me over nearly twenty years, from the point when he began to take an interest in my work near the end of the 1990s.

I'd been aware of him for a good deal longer than that, though. Back in the mid 1980s, I was excited to read as much of the new American SF as I could get my hands on. Interzone carried stories and articles by and about some of these new writers (including but not limited to the "cyberpunks") but it was very hard to go beyond those pages and discover other material. Besides Omni, I'd never seen any of the usual American SF publications in the flesh, and although Omni was important, it only carried a relatively small amount of fiction. Magazines such as Analog, Asimov's, etc, might as well have been published on the Moon for all that they were visible to me. Yet it was in those cheap-looking digests that much of the new stuff was happening.

Luckily, there was such a thing as "The Year's Best Science Fiction", of which Gardner was the editor. The series had been running for four editions in the States before it began to be picked up for reprint in the UK in 1987, confusingly titled "The Mammoth Book of Best New Science Fiction" for the first volume (actually number 4 in the States), then "The Mammoth Book of Best New Science Fiction 2" for the second (number 5), and so on. This was of no concern to me, though, as all I really cared about was the fiction. I was particularly infatuated with the novels of Bruce Sterling at the time and the "Mammoth book" contained his 1986 story "The Beautiful and the Sublime", which was one of the first of his short stories I was able to read anywhere at all. (Later in 1987 and 1988 I made a raid on Forbidden Planet in London, and was able to pick up some of the Interzone back issues with Sterling in them, but that's another story). Besides Sterling, there was also a great deal of excellent and fresh writing to be found in Gardner's book. Beyond that, though, and something that I came to value almost as highly as the fiction, was the enormously in-depth summation that Gardner provided at the start of the book, a sort of state-of-the-nation address about the SF community. For someone who couldn't have felt more disconnected from the SF world, it made enthralling reading. Equally fascinating, too, was the long list of "honorable mentions" at the end of the book - stories that Gardner liked well enough to name, even if they hadn't quite made the cut. I remember being fascinated by the titles alone, wondering how a writer like Lucius Shepard could come up with titles that were as seductive and alluring as lost album tracks, practically demanding that you sought out the stories themselves.

Every subsequent year I would buy the next edition of the Mammoth Book, and although I eventually found a way to obtain the American magazines (which were, sometimes, a bit disappointing in actuality) I always regarded the Year's Best as an essential landmark, testament in large part to what I saw as Gardner's evident good taste and wide-ranging interests. I was beginning to be published myself by the turn of the 1990s, and I always thought it would be some kind of achievement to make it into the "honorable mentions", even if being in the book itself was a dream too far.

My stuff was being published mainly in Interzone at the time, under the primary editorship of David Pringle, and although a handful of other figures in the British SF community had bought or said kind things about my work, I had no sense that I was on anyone's radar over the Atlantic. I didn't mind, particularly, sensing that I was still at an early stage of my career and was a long way from writing a story that had got more than a handful of people excited. By 1996, though, I was starting to feel that I'd hit my groove and when Interzone took my space opera, "Spirey & the Queen", I had the sense that it was going to open some doors for me. I liked it, Interzone liked it; it was a pacy, inventive piece of work with lots of cyberpunky invention. I reckoned it might be up Gardner's street as well - after all, by that point I had a sense of his likes, if not his dislikes. As it was, though, the story made no impact at all, and I was disheartened when it didn't even merit an honorable mention. That sounds very much a case of self-inflated entitlement now, and perhaps it was, but I felt I'd put my all into that piece, and if it didn't do it for me, nothing else would. The following year (when the story would have been picked up for inclusion) was one of real self-doubt. I still wrote, though, and even risked sending my first submissions to the American magazines. I sent "Angels of Ashes" to Asimov's, and waited. And waited.

Nothing - not even a rejection slip. Several months had gone by before (following their submission guidelines) I resubmitted the story, with a covering note to the effect that the earlier version might have been lost. Then (and I've told this story elsewhere, for which apologies) my landlady appeared, with a very sheepish expression. She'd been spring-cleaning and in the process had discovered some mail which had fallen down behind her letter box, and which ought to have been passed onto me months earlier. One of these items was an envelope from Asimovs. Now, as soon as I touched that envelope I knew it contained good news. It was too thick to contain a rejection slip, yet not thick enough to contain my story, so what else could it hold but a contract? True enough, it was a letter from Gardner acquiring "Angels of Ashes". I was overjoyed - but also distressed! Months had passed during which I ought to have returned the contract, and instead I'd just confused things by resubmitting the same story. What sort of lunatic did they think they were dealing with?

All came well in the end, and - given the magazine's long inventory of acquired material - I doubt that I caused them any real difficulties. Just as excitingly, too, it was also around this time that Gardner acquired my most recent Interzone story, "A Spy in Europa", for reprinting in the Year's Best. In a few short months, everything had turned around. Suddenly, I had an editor in the States who liked my stuff - and, just as importantly, kept liking it. I went on to sell more stories to Gardner for the magazine (and elsewhere) and, he in turn, was extraordinarily kind in picking up my pieces for reprinting in the Year's Best. He certainly didn't like everything I did, but he liked enough of it that my stuff appeared with quite some regularity, and once or twice I even got two stories into the same volume, something that left me reeling. I now have a sizable shelf full of Year's Best editions, and I get a thrill out of walking past it, thinking that each of those volumes contains at least one story by me, and that Gardner picked them.

I can't say I knew him terrible well; we met on perhaps two of three occasions over the years during which he (and his late wife) were charming company, but I liked him very much and his passing will leave a considerable void in the SF community. I always let him know how much it meant to me that he picked up my stories, and I hope some of that got through to him - it really was sincerely meant. And - all too briefly - I ought to mention that he was also a fine and stylish writer, a very accomplished SF thinker who could easily have had a career just as a writer, but who directed most of his energies into editing instead, and thereby did the community a great favour. He was also a very readable diarist, and - although it's been many years since I last encountered them - his travel writings were extremely enjoyable. He was a loud, colourful presence at SF conventions, but also a sensitive, cultured and knowledgeable man in private.

We shall miss him; thank you, Gardner, both for your personal support, and the great service you did to science fiction.











Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Recent things

Time for a minor update on a couple of projects. I delivered the sequel to Revenger at the end of 2017, but after taking a couple of months away from the book, I began to feel dissatisfied about the ending. It was not so much that there was anything badly wrong with what I'd written, but that the ending the book deserved lay a few chapters beyond the point where I'd stopped. So, with the agreement of my editor, I took the book back during February and re-delivered it with a revised and extended conclusion, while also making a few small alterations to the rest of the text. The book is now going through the usual editing process. We have a title, by the way - Shadow Captain.

In between delivering those two versions of the book, I also wrote a new story, Death's Door, which I am pleased to say will appear in Infinity's End, the last of Jonathan Strahan's "Infinity" series of original anthologies. My story (not connected to anything else I've done) is set in a hyper-connected solar system of the distant future, in which almost every conceivable niche has been colonised in some fashion. I really enjoyed writing it, and am delighted to have made the cut for the culmination of this series.


With the revised version of Shadow Captain off my desk, I spent the rest of March and April writing "Permafrost", a long novella about time travel, about which I'll have more to say when we finish the editing process. I've long regarded time travel as one of the central pillars of science fiction, but it's not one I'd ever really addressed in any depth, even though it does feature obliquely in one or two stories and books. With this piece, time travel was to be the heart of the story, and I wanted to attempt to find something fresh in this age-old theme.

Other than Permafrost, the rest of the year will be taken up with editing and preparing Shadow Captain, as well as drafting the follow-up to that book, for which the provisional title is Bone Silence. And doubtless, one or two other things.

What is there to report from the exciting world of music? I'm pleased to have picked up the second album from Blackpool's Rae Morris, new to me even though it came out in February. Morris's first record was an exceptional piece of work, and the new one is just as good, and perhaps even more sonically inventive. I hope it does well for her, as she seems to be a striking and unique talent, with a one of those once-in-a-lifetime voices. But is she loud and brash enough for these times, I wonder?


In something of a contrast, I also acquired the latest album from The Damned, long-time favorites of mine, and now pushing into their fifth decade as recording artists. The Damned are great. They tend to crop up on those "story of punk" type documentaries with their first single, New Rose, famously the first punk single in the UK, and thereby assuring them a snot-encrusted place in that particular strand of history. New Rose is still thrilling, no doubt about it. But there's rarely any consideration given to the rest of their career, which soon saw them bursting through all sorts of musical barriers, as well as practically inventing "goth rock". By the time of their fourth full-length record, The Black Album, they were displaying an astonishing musical and lyrical sophistication, culminating in the amazing Curtain Call, which references Rimsky-Korsakov, of all things, and on which David Vanian delivers one of the great vocal performances in the history of the world. The follow-up, Strawberries, is just as fantastic. They've had some ups and downs in the ensuing decades but the new album is exactly what you'd want, and I like it very much.


Finally, although it's not a 2018 release, I've been really enjoying the new War on Drugs album. I bought it soon after it came out, but I couldn't tear myself away from their last album long enough to do it justice. Few records have invaded my head-space as thoroughly as 2014's Lost in the Dream, and I count myself very lucky indeed that I stumbled on the record at all, largely because it was on of those in-flight entertainment systems one time. Anyway, whether or not the new one is as good is moot; few things ever will be, but it's certainly a very, very accomplished record. Approach if you like Springsteen, Kraut-rock, etc - an odd but effective juxtaposition.


That's it for now. More soon.

Al











Saturday, 21 April 2018

Wrexham Carnival of Words - an apology

At very short notice I had to pull out of my intended appearance at the Wrexham Carnival of Words. This was disappointing to the organisers, and deeply embarrassing to myself, especially because the reason for my cancellation was a mistake of my own making. When entering dates into my appointment diary (and more than likely when transcribing last year's diary to this one) I marked Wrexham down for the wrong date (27 instead of 22), and inadvertently double-booked myself on the correct day, when I was also due to be in London for an event organised with ESA. Unfortunately my error did not come to light until very close to the event itself. I am terribly sorry for this mistake, both for the aggravation caused to the festival organisers, and the disappointment to anyone who may have been intending to see me. Nothing like this has happened in all the years that I've been doing public appearances, and I sincerely hope it remains a one-off. Once again I offer my sincere apologies.

Al


Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Orion redux



Here is another go at M42, taken two nights later. In this case I dropped the exposure of the individual frames down to 5 seconds, which has helped reduce the over-exposure in the core of the nebula. However, I would still need to drop it a bit further. Here I took 29 sub-frames and again combined them using Nebulosity. There are still a few bits of electronic noise in the final image. It was a race against clouds again last night, or else I would have taken substantially more sub-frames.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Orion nebula

Once or twice a year I hope to be able to get a reasonable shot of M42, the great nebula in Orion. Here's last night's effort, assembled from 20 1 minute frames. I also took 20 equivalent dark frames to eliminate pixel noise, and they seem to have worked quite well. I did the processing in Nebulosity, a very nice astronomy image-acquisition and processing package.


What I've learned from this is that I still need to go to shorter exposures not to wash out the central core. Also, examining this composite shot compared to one I took a couple of years ago, I think my focusing was a little slapdash last night. However, room to experiment means more fun the next time the clouds roll away. I am always in a little rush since I only have a short window to observe Orion at this time, before it falls below trees as visible from my garden. Unfortunately we haven't been blessed with many clear evenings this winter, so the good time to observe this constellation was lost under cloudy skies.

Al


Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Spacerocks



I'll be participating in Spacerocks, a one-day event at the Indigo in London on April 22nd, 2018. Other guests will include Tim Peake and Charlotte Hatherley, one of whom has been into space, and one of whom has played on several rather fabulous records - two equally noteworthy accomplishments, in my world.

Spacerocks has a Facebook page, which you can visit here:

https://www.facebook.com/spacerocksofficial

There is also a Twitter handle: @spacerockslive

And an Instagram thing which I don't really understand.

I'll be posting more information in the coming weeks. It should be tremendous fun.

Al

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Direct from Mexico

I bet my wife a bottle of beer that Trump wouldn't make it to the end of his first year.



I lost.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Mark E Smith

Mark E Smith, who died on January 24th at the age of 60, was the singer and primer mover behind The Fall, one of the most enduring and prolific groups to emerge from the British punk explosion in the mid 1970s. Smith's death came as a jolt, but not quite a shock, as it had been clear for some months that he was in very poor health. Of course I had hoped that he would make a recovery and resume touring, but the omens were not good.

The Fall's music had been an all-consuming obsession of mine for nearly thirty years. I felt that I came to them rather late, for they had already been active for a decade when I bought my first Fall record, The Frenz Experiment, which I obtained from the bargain bin in a branch of John Menzies, in St Andrews, Scotland, in 1989. 


I think it was always my favorite Fall record, or certainly a consistent fixture in the top three. (The other record I bought that day, incidentally, and which I also still own, was a copy of OMD's The Pacific Age). 

In hindsight 1989 was a good time to get into The Fall as they were both visible and prolific, attaining a degree of mainstream success that, while not quite making them a household name, was still a relative high-water mark in their career. They were on the radio quite a lot; their posters were in student bedrooms, they were mentioned in pop-culture in things like Viz, Irvine Welsh and Martin Millar books. John Peel was still a central figure in UK radio and the Fall were never far from doing another session. They were on a major label (not with The Frenz Experiment, but with Extricate, which came out the same year, on Fontana) and this flirtation with conventional success would continue for a few more years, with perhaps the last gasp being 1993's Infotainment Scan, which got quite high in the album charts. In 1991, a song of theirs was even used in the soundtrack to the film Silence of the Lambs - yet mixed so low in the scene that even diehard Fall fans might have missed it.

The Fall - and Smith - were a unique and prickly proposition. Their early records are the only ones that fit into any preconceived musical categories, being steeped in garage/punk/rockabilly. Within a few years, though, they were off the map - any map. There was a deep weirdness to both the music and Smith's worldview that was barely tempered by the LA pop-rock influence brought to the band by Brix E Smith, whom Smith had married. The music took repetition to unheard of extremes. Smith's lyrics, delivered with the hectoring intensity of someone trying to control a village fete through a malfunctioning megaphone, veered from sci-fi to psychedelia, taking in Philip K Dick, drugs, MR James, drugs, time-travel, ghosts, drugs, psychic phenomena, the North, while at the same time railing against (it seemed) all other groups, all other musical personalities, all other forms of music, all other human beings, barring those born within a very specific part of Salford/Manchester. Over the years Smith's antipathy to the "south" and "southerners" would encroach further and further north, until even "South Manchester" was too far south for him. He had little time for fans in the conventional sense of the word, and even less interest in his own recordings.

I saw them on about half a dozen occasions over twenty years, with all but one of those concerts taking place in the Netherlands. I never met Smith, although I dreamt about him with some regularity. The closest I got was the occasion when I gave a lift to Neville Wilding, a guitarist who played with the band for a short period around the end of the century. Due to some mix-up or disagreement, Nev had been required to make his own way across the English Channel and needed ferrying from the Hook of Holland to Nijmegen. A friend and I picked him up in my 1989 BMW and drove him to the venue in time for the sound check. Nev insisted we stop at a petrol station and buy quite a large amount of beer, so we did. On the drive, Nev sat in the backseat cracking open one tinny after the next. Later, I carried his guitar inside for him. I didn't have a ticket for that performance, but I did catch them a night or two later. Oddly, Neville was walking out just as we arrived at the venue. He gave us a cheery wave as he passed - turned out he'd been sacked, just one of the sixty-odd members of the group to pass through  the ever-revolving turnstile of The Fall. He did return to the band for a period, I believe.

I had one other, minor link to the band's music. In 1994, at the dawn of the World Wide Web, I signed up for a mailing list dedicated to The Fall. It was a way for Fall fans to share their enthusiasm for the band, trade stories, discuss gigs and hard-to-find releases, and I found it invaluable. In fact, I'm still on it, nearly a quarter of a century later. Early on, though, one of the main "jobs" for people on the list was to transcribe lyrics, so that we could all pick over them and puzzle out their meaning. Quite a lot of the catalogue hadn't been done, so I volunteered to transcribe "Athlete Cured", one of the tracks off The Frenz Experiment. My transcription eventually entered the "lyrics parade" and as far as I'm aware any transcription of Athlete Cured on the internet now probably derives from my initial version, which was done by painstakingly lifting and lowering the needle on my vinyl copy.

I bought every Fall album, of which there were many, and there is still no group or musician whose output comes close to rivalling them, in terms of the number of official and semi-official releases. Neil Young would be the next, but I don't think even Neil touches The Fall - although of course we can hope for more Neil Young recordings, and there will be nothing new from Mark E Smith.

Smith was not necessarily the most likable person in music, but he was admirable, and single-minded, and possessed of tremendous energy and imagination, and for those of who tuned into the fringes of his deeply weird mind, nothing would ever be the same again. Thank you for the music, Mark.





Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Ursula Le Guin

"She was a better writer than any of us, past or present – we have lost our benchmark of excellence."

Christopher Priest has said all that needs to be said. I had never met her, nor read enough of her, but I regard The Lathe of Heaven as one of the greatest SF novels of the last fifty years.

Read the rest of Christopher Priest's remarks here:

https://christopher-priest.co.uk/ursula

Friday, 5 January 2018

New Prefect Dreyfus story

In advance of Elysium Fire, which appears at the end of this month, I've written a short story featuring Prefect Dreyfus, and which I hope will serve as a gentle introduction to the world of Panoply and the Glitter Band for those who have yet to read the first novel.

You can read "Open and Shut" over at the Gollancz blog:

https://www.gollancz.co.uk/2018/01/open-shut-short-story-alastair-reynolds/

I hope you enjoy it.

Al