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.