Wednesday 26 December 2012

Friday 21 December 2012

Year's end

Best wishes for the holiday season and coming year - may it bring good health, general pleasantness and lots of excellent reading. Do you like the card? It's a joint effort by my wife and I. I did the background, my wife did the camels, based on a photo from a camel trekking tour she did recently. The Father Christmas hats were cut out of paper, positioned in place, and then the whole lot was photographed, very carefully, before either of us sneezed and sent the hats into oblivion.

2012 has been an interesting year. I did a huge amount of writing, which is good. I also did a substantial amount of travelling, which is also good in many respects, but perhaps less so for the actual business of getting work done. By the middle of the year I had packed in two visits to the Netherlands, one to Denmark, another to Dubai and another to Japan - as well as numerous smaller trips within the UK. All of this was terrific to one degree or another (my mind is still reeling from Japan) but I am very poor at writing efficiently when on the move, or indeed for a week or so either side of a big trip. There are always lots of things that need to be done at the last minute, not to mention the double-whammy of jetlag when you arrive somewhere and also when you get back.

I'm often asked about discipline and working routines, especially given that I work from home where there are plenty of distractions and no boss other than the calendar on my wall and my own conscience. But in fact I've never really found it a problem. Long before I finally quit my day job, I had intervals of part time working in which I was able to road-test my ability to work from home. A few intervals of unemployment between contracts also came in handy. For me, at least, it's not all that hard to shut myself away and spend the day writing. It is, after all, the thing that I wanted to do. It would be odd to invest years of your life getting to a position where you can write all the time, and then end up putting just as much energy into avoidance strategies.

What I'm less good at is time management. I tend to over commit myself, saying yes to things that in hindsight it would have been wiser to decline. It's hard though. Again, after years of brutal, soul-crushing rejection you spend years getting to a position where people want you to write stuff for them. That's a pretty amazing position to be in. The last thing in the world you want to do is start turning them down, especially when the people are nice and the work also sounds interesting. I am terrible for agreeing to produce stories six or nine months down the line, a deadline that seems an eternity away. But the weeks roll around, and suddenly the story has to be done now, this week, while you're also trying to deliver on some other obligation. I have started being firmer with myself, declining story approaches, but I still end up over committed. The same goes for convention attendances, speaking engagements and so on. Generally speaking these are all quite good fun, but even a one-day event can take two or three days out of my writing week. So I've started cutting down on those as well.

I was thrilled to be asked to do the Dr Who book, but again I managed my time badly. I started doing story notes as far back as December 2010, but I did not settle down and start writing the book until earlier this year. I had a month between the Dubai and Japan trips, and I naively thought that might be sufficient time to produce a workable draft. I had spent the latter half of 2011 working on Steel Breeze, the follow-up to Blue Remembered Earth, and had written about 100,000 words of "stuff". Progress had stalled after Christmas, though, due to uncertainty about the handling of a section of the book. I put it aside to work on another of those story commitments I should probably have declined. Then I went to Dubai.

Unfortunately, it took me a bit more than 4 weeks to do the Dr Who book. In fact it was closer to 4 months. I was pleased with the final book, and still just as delighted to have had the chance to write it, but it had eaten a much bigger hole (should that be spacetime rupture?) in my writing year than I anticipated. And of course, that was time that I was not actively working on Steel Breeze. Never mind, though - I had 100,000 words in the can, didn't I? Sadly, though, when I returned to SB - this after completing yet another story commitment, and a few more foreign trips - I didn't like what I had written in 2011. The book was going in the wrong direction. It felt too tonally detached from BRE - almost like a completely new universe. I had opted to tell the story with the wrong main character. There was too much stuff set on generation ships and not enough stuff about Earth and Africa in it. After some agonising and staring at calendars, I realised I had no practical option but to start again, back to page one. Yes, there was a tremendous amount of material in the initial 100,000 words that could be adapted and salvaged, but still much that had to go - and a huge amount of totally new stuff that had be written from scratch.

So I'm late, basically, which is not good, and certainly not where I wanted to be at the start of this year. Dig back into the blog comments and at some point you'll find me confidently assuring someone that the Dr Who book would have no impact on my other writing commitments. I was wrong. It wasn't totally the fault of the Who book, of course - the 100,000 words would still have been problematic - but I probably would not have taken so long to realise the fact. On the plus side, I am now nearly done with it. Nonetheless, there is no escaping the fact that the interval between the first and second novels has been much longer than desirable. That said, I still feel positive about BRE and that makes me even more determined that SB should be a strong successor, not just a tick-the-boxes sequel. I've never consciously gone into a trilogy before, so it's been a learning experience, one that I'm not yet done with. My editor Simon has been tremendously supportive through all this, I hasten to add - but I am more than conscious that there are many readers who will have had to wait more than a year for the follow-up. I'm genuinely sorry about that. My immediate strategy, other than working damn hard on the second book, is to keep 2013 as free as possible so that I can dive into the third novel without too many distractions. For that reason, I've been saying "no" to a lot more things than usual.

A year from now, we'll see how I did. In the meantime, thanks for your patience, thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy both Steel Breeze and the Dr Who novel when they appear.

Al R

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Patrick Moore (1923 - 2012)

At least in the British Isles, it's hard to overstate the influence of Patrick Moore in shaping the popular perception of astronomy. Over his long broadcasting career, he stimulated the imaginations of millions and directly inspired the career choice of several generations of space scientist. Never a professional astronomer, and with no formal education in that direction, Moore nonetheless commanded the utmost respect of his peers - not just professional astronomers, but the astronauts who came to depend on his scrupulously accurate lunar maps. No one knew the Moon better than Patrick. In my whole professional career, I never met a space scientist who didn't admire him.

I doubt that there's anyone with the slightest interest in astronomy who does not own a book with Patrick's name on it somewhere. For many Christmases, I could count on his astronomy yearbook being among my presents - and since those yearbooks contained serious things like tables and maps and little scholarly articles by actual scientists, they felt like a form of admission to a more grown-up academic world, one that I would soon be doing my level best to enter. I had many other books by Patrick, of course - big hardcovers on general astronomy, smaller hardcovers on individual planets and celestial bodies. For those of us who had first encountered him on television, the voice - the old-fashioned diction, the enthusiasm, the gentle self-deprecation - came through very strongly. It was impossible not to hear Patrick's mile-a-minute delivery, even as you were reading about the discovery of the white spot on Saturn or radar mapping of Venus.

I met him once, but then so did many. The one constancy running through these many accounts of personal meetings with the man is that what you saw on television was essentially what you got in real life. It wasn't an act, a persona cooked up for the camera - this was just the way he was, bumbling and infectious and full of stories. By all accounts he remained utterly unchanged until the end.

Somewhere around 1987 I was involved with the Newcastle University astronomical society. I think I was the treasurer, although it's hard to think of a more spectacular mismatch of administrative position and ability. Me, as treasurer? What were they thinking? That money was only "resting" in my account, as Ted Crilly was given to say.

One day Patrick came to speak at the university. I forget now how the arrangement came about, or what the society's precise role was in the evening, although I suspect that it was already in the calendar when my friends Henry, Julyan and I took over the committee positions. Whatever the case, we were tasked with collecting Patrick from a book signing in central Newcastle and conveying him back to the university, where there would be tea and biscuits before his talk. Two or possibly three of us went down to the bookshop, where Patrick had just concluded his signing. It was a very warm day in early summer, and I had anticipated that Patrick might wish to take a taxi back through town to avoid either tiring himself out or being caught up in the crowds, but no, he was adamant that we would walk and so we did, the enormously tall, three-piece-suited and monocled Patrick bounding ahead, still keeping his mile-a-minute outpouring of stories and anecdotes. He seemed to me to be fairly ancient even then, although he would have been a relatively youthful 64 - and indeed, there was no infirmity or lack of energy. Nor did he seem in the least bit self-conscious about being Patrick Moore, or in any way bothered that he might be noticed, detained or mocked for his obvious and unfashionable eccentricities. My recollection, in fact, is that no one bothered him at all although it's hard not see how they could have failed to recognise him.

The rest of the evening went very well. Oddly, I don't remember the talk at all, but I do have a very vivid recollection of taking tea and biscuits beforehand, and Patrick telling us the story about the time he swallowed a fly on live television. I suspect I may have already heard it, and I've certainly heard it since, but it was a good story, well told, and I doubt that any of us minded. He was a limitless mine of stories. This was a man who had met the first man to fly and the first man to walk on the Moon - no small achievement. A life, as they say, well lived. After the talk we took him to dinner in (I think) a private room at the university, where a fine time was had. I remember asking him about the possibility of water under the ice of Europa - I was thinking about using it in a story.

He was a complex man with political views that were not to my taste - fiercely patriotic, not overly fond of the giving of foreign aid. In later life he became a vocal supporter of the UK Independence Party. On the other hand, he opposed foxhunting. He was said to have old-fashioned views on gender, but on the other hand he was massively encouraging when it came to women in science. In the nineteen eighties, in my recollection, you could count the number of female scientific role models in the popular media on one finger  - it was Heather Couper, and nobody else. But Heather Couper had written to Patrick Moore at the age of 16, asking whether he thought she might be able to have a career in astronomy, and he had written back in the most encouraging terms, assuring her that "being a girl was no handicap at all". Heather Couper herself must have had a tremendous effect on the perception of women in science, and perhaps Patrick played a small part in that sea-change.

It was my enormous privilege to have met him.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

A compass

Paul Kincaid has concluded his series of articles on the state of SF with this piece which I recommend you to read if you have not done so; I think it provides a good encapsulation of his main grievances. This has been a useful discussion, I think, conducted without too much rancor.

I've been thinking a lot of PK's points, and the discourse surrounding them, and how they might factor into the kind of SF I want to keep writing. I'd hesitate to call the following a manifesto, but at the very least it might serve as a kind of personal compass, to keep my writing heading in what I hope is a fruitful direction.

  • Avoid recursion. I'll be doing my best not to be too encumbered by what has gone before. Most of us are in this game because at some point we connected with SF on a deep emotional level. We love SF, we know its history well. We can tell our Kornbluths from our Cordwainers. That fondness has never left me, and I hope some of that comes through in my writing. That said, there's always a danger that it can shade too strongly into nostalgia or a kind of stale recycling of familiar imagery and tropes. For instance, I love the work of Arthur C Clarke and when I think about the deep future, about the limits of human potential, it's very hard for me not to connect with the version of myself sitting in a caravan in the Lake District during one spectacularly rainy summer holiday, gobbling up the pages of The City and the Stars and being possibly more mesmerised and awestruck by the vistas of Diaspar and the adventures of Alvin than any human being at any point in history. Quite a lot of my work, especially the far future stuff, is me attempting to hit some of the same notes - while at the same time having the benefit of another fifty years of scientific and social advancement through which to filter my ideas. But really, it's a kind of nostalgia trip, and if you didn't happen to connect with Clarke to the degree that I did, many of these notes are going to ring hollow or will in fact not ring at all. So a bit less of that, if I can help it. I also won't be writing SF that explicitly depends on intimate knowledge of the genre - no stories that are in intricate argument with earlier ideas or traditions. Start with a blank mental slate, and pretend no one had written a word of SF before today, and then off you go.
  • Try and be true to the present, and what the present tells us about tomorrow. The Revelation Space universe is massively good fun to write, and I get plenty of requests for more from it. But it's also a kind of fantasy. Yes, the events in the books and stories are to some degree "realistic" in the sense that there is subservience to Einstein's laws and the worlds and biologies make as much sense as they can, given the premises. But as a possible future it feels like a wildly unlikely thought experiment, a kind of hermetic game detached from any actual speculative foundations. Pushing Ice, on the other hand, for all that it gets into deep cosmological territory, does begin in what (at the time I wrote it) seemed like a plausible idea of the mid 21st century. Even House of Suns, which in terms of its technologies and landscapes is much trippier than the RS books, still feels in some sense like a valid perspective on life in the year six million AD. Century Rain, on the other hand, which I personally am very fond of among my books, is again a kind of fantasy. And Blue Remembered Earth, about which I have said more than enough, is my attempt to be as true as I can be to the real world. It is not about moving tropes around or being in cosy dialogue with the past. When I inserted robots and spaceships into that story, I wasn't thinking about Asimov - I was thinking about the actual robots and spaceships that are already in our world or in the minds of researchers. So, a bit more of that kind of book, anchored to the present and trying to be sincere about the likely direction of things. It doesn't mean that I won't be writing more Revelation Space, just that I don't want to be defined by it.
  • Try and be a better writer. There, that's easy, isn't it? But honestly, I want to be better at this, and to keep getting better. That's a war waged on many fronts, of course. I want to write elegant and efficient prose that avoids the cliched and the pedestrian. I want to get better at dialogue, better at delineating my characters. I don't particularly care whether or not people like my characters, but I do want people to be able to tell them apart, and also to care about their fates - for better or for worse. I want to get better at integrating plot and theme, better at pacing and structure. I want to start thinking about form - about the ways to tell a story, or convey an idea, that are not simply a linear sequence of events. I don't think SF should cut itself any slack - we should aspire to the same high literary benchmarks as the rest of fiction, and be called out when we under-perform, and if that means accepting that I'm not very good at some aspect of writing, so be it. At least I can try to better. That's how it works in other areas of life, after all. When my guitar tutor tells me my barre chords are crap, I don't take it as a personal sleight - just an invitation to work on that area of my craft.
  • I am happy to think of myself as a science fiction writer. As I've said before, no one put a gun to my head and forced me to choose this genre. I love SF unreservedly. But at the same time, I am massively bored with endless circular in-genre arguments about taxonomy and ghettos and acceptance and rejection by the wider literary community. I firmly believe that the more we fixate on these perceived genre boundaries, the more we unconsciously reinforce them. The best course of action is to be agile and open-minded, to be a free agent, to read widely and be prepared to have your work evaluated within a larger fictional discourse. I have had, in my limited way, quite a fruitful series of interactions with the academic literary and critical establishment - they're not my enemy, and I'm not theirs. Yes, there will always be commentators and critics who take a narrow view of genre - but so what? It's their opinion, they're entitled to it, it doesn't make them bad people. When Terminal World lost the Wales Book of the Year award in 2011, it was the only work of prose fiction on the English language shortlist - a fact that went all but unremarked in SF circles, even though the prize was much higher than any SF award. And in the course of the award being decided, I met many pleasant members of the Welsh literary establishment who had not only genuinely enjoyed the book, but told me that it was the first work of SF they had read. "I didn't think it was my thing, but ..." was the phrase I heard over and over. That was even more gratifying because TW is in some sense one of my most hermetic novels, beginning who knows when and who knows where. There's a degree of blowing my own trumpet in all this, of course, but I merely make the point that I did not feel like any kind of outsider, merely someone who had written a big, bouncy book with airships and monsters in that could be read with some enjoyment by someone not steeped in SF tradition. Ever since then, I've tried not to presume that there is hostility to SF, because that perceived distaste or skepticism may not exist. But as soon as we start talking about high-falutin' literary types, so-called mainstream literature, us and them, we've basically had it. I won't be doing that.