Monday 4 November 2013

Horizon of events

I'm out and about in the UK quite a bit this month.

The evening of this coming Wednesday, 6th November, I'll be speaking at the Institute of Physics in Derby:

I'll also be signing at Waterstones Derby from 2 - 3 pm on the same day.

The following Thursday, 7th November, I'll be speaking at the Cambridge University Science Fiction and Fantasy Society in, unsurprisingly, Cambridge.

I'm not entirely sure how it works if you are not a member of the society or the university itself, I'm afraid, but I imagine they'd be welcoming. Best to phone ahead, though.

As if that wasn't enough excitement, I'll be in Nottingham a week later to talk to university's science fiction and fantasy society, on Friday 15th November. The talk is scheduled to start at 7.00pm.

Finally, at the end of the month on Thursday 28th November I'll be in Glenrothes, Fife, talking about Doctor Who and other things:

Hope to see some of you at one of these events.

Thursday 17 October 2013

Newport State of Mind

This weekend I'll be participating in Space, Time, Machine and Monster, a literary festival in Newport, South Wales.

Quoting from the website:

"Following a hugely successful first outing in Pontypridd in 2008, the Space, Time, Machine & Monster literary festival returns for two days packed full of science-fiction, fantasy and horror. Expect talks, workshops, film screenings, panel events and competitions for adults, teens and your little horrors.
Event highlights include a talk with Rhianna Pratchett on the world of narrative gaming; and Page to Screen: Sci-fi, Fantasy and Horror with Catherine Bray who is currently editor of and a regular guest presenter on BBC1′s Film 2013 With Claudia Winkleman. Plus, discover the real science behind Doctor Who with Mark Brake and Jon Chase and explore the work of Arthur Machen and J.R.R. Tolkien with Catherine Fisher, Gwilym Games and Dimitra Fimi.
There will also be the chance to explore the world of Warhammer and take part in a series of battles waging throughout the day, or you could create your own animated alien universe, zombie comic and even your own origami Star Wars character. The programme features a top line-up of speakers, authors and illustrators including, Huw Aaron, Ben Aaronovitch, Horatio Clare, Jasper Fforde, Catherine Fisher, Gwyneth Lewis, Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Volk and many more.
Bestselling fantasy author Jasper Fforde commented: "There are clearly not enough zombies or Time Travel in South Wales, and I am delighted to see Literature Wales addressing that imbalance"

I note also that the excellent Adam Roberts will also be attending. My events are on the Saturday, and I look forward to seeing some of you there.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Two Trunks

According to popular wisdom, all writers have at least one early and unpublished book that is best consigned to obscurity - the so called "trunk novel", the idea being that you keep it locked away in a trunk rather than doing the sensible thing and binning it. According to another branch of popular wisdom, the first thing writers do when they're stuck for inspiration is dust off a trunk novel and pass it off as a fresh new book. I'm sure that happens occasionally, but I suspect the truth is that most writers would rather throw themselves under a bus than see their juvenile work reaching print. More probably, I'd suggest, we look on these things as part of the necessary learning curve of becoming a fluent writer - we don't have to admire them, or even like them, but we can understand that they were an essential part of our literary development that we had to pass through. There may even be elements of these unpublished works that, with a little recasting, can still filter through into our professional work.

My two trunk novels don't live in a trunk and while they're not exactly representative of where I'm "at" as a writer in 2013, I'm certainly not ashamed of them. I keep them on the same shelves as all my other written works, and look on them with a sort of tolerant fondness. I take them to schools and libraries and pass them around. I don't have any illusions as to the quality of the books, but I am proud that I started and finished them. They were vital stepping stones on my path to becoming a published writer, and if they served one useful function, it was to cure me of any fear of The Novel.

Here they are, in exactly the same ring folders in which I started them:

Exciting, aren't they? I bet you can't wait to see what's inside those enticingly patterned covers.

Wait no more, because here are the thrilling title pages:

The uppermost book, the one in the yellow Colman's Mustard folder, is "A Union World", which I wrote between 1979 and 1982. It took a long time because whenever I got to the end of the book, I hated the start. This initiated a Forth Bridge-like process of constant revision which might have gone on forever had I not decided to finally accept the book on its own terms and stop.

When I began "A Union World", my science fiction horizons were very limited. I enjoyed TV and cinema SF, 2000AD magazine, and had read a bit of Clarke and Asimov. But I was really pretty clueless. When I finished the book, my literary tastes had widened to include the likes of Larry Niven, Harry Harrison and James White - true eclecticism, I think you'll agree. During the late revisions, indeed, I tried very hard to emulate the tone and scope of Niven's Known Space sequence. The novel deals with the human space federation making first contact with a number of different alien factions. It has colony worlds, FTL, robots, space battle fleets and so on. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a military research base on a distant colony world, which has mysteriously severed all contact with Earth. In a setup surprisingly similar to the opening act of Aliens, the Colonial forces decide to send in an assault ship full of elite soldiers to retake the base and establish what has happened, and in doing so recruit (or rather blackmail) a civilian pilot into helping them out. It turns out that the civilan's creaky old space freighter has an outmoded drive system which means it's the only ship that can enter the planet's atmosphere undetected, enabling the troops' dropship to be placed close to the compromised base. Later on we discover than an alien mastermind has taken control of the base, plans to enshroud it in a force field, and use planet-destroying bombs to literally shatter the entire rest of the planet, so that the base becomes a free-flying space fortress. This all happens! Later, predictably, there's an enormous space battle between the combine forces of Earth and the flying space fortress. There's even a space-aircraft-carrier called the Ark Royal.

The second book, entitled "Dominant Species", is of similar length and takes place in the same universe. But I wrote it in a much shorter span of time compared to the first. My recollection is that I started it very late in 1983 and finished it somewhere around the Spring of 1984 - in other words, in a few months rather than a few years. The upside of that intense burst of creativity was that the book was much more uniform in its style, and actually had a plot that made a kind of sense. The downside is that I really should have been studying for my 'A' levels in 1984, which I duly failed in spectacular fashion. But at least I had a novel to show for it.

Both books are handwritten in their entirety, on lined A4 paper, in black biro:

I've still got a bit of a thing about black biro: I can't be doing with blue at all. I also used a tankerload of Tip-Ex correction fluid, and where that wasn't practicable, I either rewrote the entire page (front and back) or glued a small insert over the offending section. Years later, I'd go through a very similar process of cutting and pasting while preparing the artwork for my PhD thesis, so the experience certainly wasn't wasted.

I shan't say too much about the second book, except that it picks up the story of the human expansion a bit later on, and there are some more aliens and giant flying space things. Neither book takes place in the Revelation Space universe, incidentally, but a lot the furniture and character names of the RS stories show up here for the first time. Most of the planet names, as well as some of what would be later be principle characters in Revelation Space such as Sajaki and Captain John Brannigan, but here in very different roles.

Speaking of which:

At the time I wrote the second book, I was heavily influenced by the "fake documents" style of Joe Haldeman's second novel, Mindbridge, and so I made up a few fake documents and logos to be inserted into the text. Looks fantastically convincing, doesn't it? I'm sure they'll still be using typewriters with sticky ribbons in 2332, and won't yet have solved that tricky "right justification" problem.

Wednesday 18 September 2013


ON THE STEEL BREEZE is only ten days from UK publication, and at least one bookseller seems to have copies in stock already, although they may not yet be for sale. Having just returned from America, and with my post still to be collected from my neighbour, it's entirely possible that there might be a finished copy in my mail as well. I'll find out soon enough. It's always a sobering moment, the first time you hold the end product. Months or years of work, distilled into a rectangle of card and paper. This is it - no more changes now.

It seems odd to have said so little about this book, but I swore some time ago that I would avoid talking it to death before publication, a trap I suspect I fell slightly into with Blue Remembered Earth. On the other hand, I'm genuinely excited to see what the world makes of it. And, of course, not a little nervous about that same reception. This is the middle book of the "Poseidon's Children" trilogy but, from my standpoint at least, it feels like quite a different book to its predecessor. In my more pretentious moments, I've suggested that this is the darker second movement of a symphony, and there's no doubt that, in parts, the book is markedly more violent and dystopian than Blue Remembered Earth. If BRE explored some unabashedly utopian ideas, then OTSB offers a sort of critique or reflection on where some of those trends might end up given another century or two of development. Yes, stuff goes wrong in this book. Bad stuff happens to people, people do bad things to each other, and there are deaths - quite a lot of them, in fact. That's not to say that it's an out-and-out dystopia, any more than the real world of 2013 is. But there's a good deal of peril, there are ominous developments, and things that we might have thought we understood at the end of BRE turn out to be ... otherwise, and not always in ways we might have wished.

I'm tempted to say more (in fact, I've just deleted a paragraph of expository waffle, telling you all about Chiku Akinya, my central character) but I shall refrain. In the meantime, the prologue and three chapters of the novel are now available to read on the Gollancz website, and here are the links:

Hope you enjoy these excerpts, and (if you soldier through them) that they provide some incentive to read the whole book.

Sunday 15 September 2013

Remember the Alamo

I enjoyed the World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio. As always, I'm left with slightly mixed feelings about what I expect to get out of such a gathering, as well as what I'm actually bringing to the show by being there. But there's no doubt that from my perspective as a writer and program participant, it all seemed well organised. The convention centre was, from a British viewpoint, typically huge and at times bewildering in its layout. I never did make it to the Green Room. But the panels seemed to be well attended and judging by the feedback, enjoyed by both participants and audience members. After two attendees were not able to make it, the panel on SF art and artists as writers turned out to be just Joe Haldeman and myself, but we enjoyed ourselves and I think we kept it just the right side of self-indulgence. Luckily, because I wasn't very well prepared, Joe had brought some examples of his own art along.

I did a few other program items but the one that will stick in my memory was the panel on the legacy of Iain Banks and the Culture books. Ably moderated by Vince Docherty, the panel also included Kim Stanley Robinson, Ben Jeapes and myself. In his opening remarks, Vincent stated that a female panelist had been unable to attend, which was why Ben had come on at short notice. (For the record, I'm not hugely bothered about panel parity on a given topic provided there is a good shot at balance across a convention's entire programming track, but it was good to hear that efforts had been made). What made this panel memorable, in my view, was that for once none of us were there to promote our own works or careers - not that my fellow panelists would have been so crass as to do that anyway, but it was one hundred percent Iain and his legacy that we were there to discuss. It was an honour and a privelege and I hope we rose to the occasion. I knew Iain only slightly, as I've written elsewhere, and I don't think Ben had met him. But we had all been saddened by his death, and brought to a renewed appreciation for the huge body of work he left us. Stan Robinson, though, had known Iain much more closely, and over a much longer span of time. It was wonderful to hear Stan's thoughts on both the books and the man. SF is much the poorer for Iain's passing, a fact that I think will only become more evident as time passes.

I didn't go to the Hugo ceremony, so I missed the controversy, such as it was. My wife was in town with me, but since she did not have an attending membership, we decided to go to see a film instead - Elysium, during which I mostly slept. I couldn't summon tremendous enthusiasm for the Hugo evening anyway. Some undeniably good works were nominated, and I didn't sense any great outpouring of anger after the results. I'd have liked 2312 to do well, certainly, but John Scalzi has been such a force for good in the field, taking a genuinely heroic stand, that I doubt anyone would have much begrudged his win for Redshirts, quite aside from the fact that it had many admirers. The fact is, though, that I didn't even vote. I just couldn't summon up the enthusiasm or the energy, in a professionally difficult year in which I'd read almost nothing eligible and in which the one book I did rate highly - 2312 - was to some extent likely to overshadow my own eligible novel, Blue Remembered Earth. (Stan's is the better novel, though - go and read it). I needn't have worried, though. When the full Hugo results were made available, nothing of mine had come to close to being nominated, let alone winning. Normally there's a work or two of mine somewhere down below the cutoff, which is enough to provide some crumb of consolation, but this year there was nothing. I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised - I've made plain my thoughts on SF's year-long awards circus - but it was sobering all the same, as if my entire SF career was happening in some parallel world entirely removed from the Hugos. To be fair, I have had one Hugo nomination, for Troika back in 2011, for which I was genuinely grateful, and which is one more Nebula nomination than I've managed to notch up in 23 years of professional publishing. All of which probably sounds bitter, but actually I'm more bemused than disappointed. I do well enough commercially, and people whose opinions matter to me occasionally say nice things about my fiction. My short fiction is widely reprinted and anthologised. But the field has two conspicuous badges of merit, the Hugos and the Nebulas, and judging by those I'm just barely on the map.

Rather than end on a downbeat note, though, I'll reiterate that I enjoyed the convention very much. I appreciated the work that went in behind the scenes, and I saw a lot of people having a great time. I was personally disappointed that my friends from Helsinki did not succeed in winning their bid for 2015, but - hey - London is next. And awards or otherwise,  I hope to be there.

Thursday 5 September 2013

Chiefly nocturnal

Eagle Owl caption, Field museum of natural history, Chicago. I have no idea why the upright image insists on displaying like this, but I'll fix it when I return to the UK. Among many things about the wonderful Field museum, I loved that they had made no attempt to update the dated diction and tone of their older captions. I wish more museums kept faith with the past in this fashion, rather than constantly chasing an ever decreasing attention span. "This results in the discomfiture of the owl", indeed.

Friday 16 August 2013


Unless you're on it, the International Space Station is a long way away - 400 or more km, even if it's flying right overhead - but on the other hand, it's huge. Modern digital cameras and lenses can do surprisingly well at capturing images of such a large and distant object, so - having been impressed by some of the pictures I've seen on the web - I thought I'd have a go myself.

This is my first proper effort -I tried a couple of nights ago with my camera on automatic mode, but the battery was low and in the low light conditions I struggled with finding the focus at infinity (my camera has a continuous focussing dial, so there's no handy end-stop). Tonight I set the ISO to 800 and the shutter speed to 1/500th, and focused on the Moon and a couple of stars beforehand. My cameras is a Lumix FZ50 with a 1.5 teleconverter on top of the built-in 420mm lens. The sky was clear except for some cirrus and the pass was a bright one. I balanced my camera on a wheelie-bin, as I've seen mentioned elsewhere - good tip. A tripod is not much use as you can't track fast enough to keep on the station.

What do you reckon? It looks like I've resolved something more than a smudge, but I admit it's not very scientific. Next time, I'll take a sequence of exposures at the same angle and see if there's any consistency between the images.


Tuesday 13 August 2013


My story "At Budokan", which originally appeared in Jetse de Vries's Shine anthology, is now available to read for free in Lightspeed magazine:

Monday 12 August 2013

Mural and Year's Best

I was delighted to hear from Dakota Freeman, a physics and mathematics undergraduate at MIT. Dakota tells me that they're allowed to paint more or less whatever they like on the dorm walls, which strikes me as a great concept. For Dakota's dorm the inspiration came from the cover of my collection Deep Navigation. Says Dakota: "I particularly enjoyed "Fresco" and "Tiger, Burning", though my favorite story of yours is definitely "House of Suns."

A person of taste and refinement, I think we can agree.

Here's the magnificent result:

Thanks, Dakota - I'm honored.

In other news, I'm as thrilled as ever to be included in the latest edition of Gardner Dozois' Year's Best Science Fiction, in this case, amazingly enough, the thirtieth annual selection. This year Gardner has kindly chosen my story The Water Thief, which originally appeared in Arc magazine at the start of 2012.

You might think I'm terribly blase about this sort of thing but it couldn't be further from the truth. I still get an immense kick out of being picked for inclusion in the Year's Best. Back when I started reading Interzone, in 1985, the SF field was undergoing one of its periodic bursts of reinvention - in this case, the emergence of a whole new slew of writers loosely organised into the "cyberpunk" and "humanist" camps. Interzone published some of these writers, but equally there were a large number that one could only read about in the reviews and commentary section. When I got hold of my first copy of one of Gardner's anthologies, it felt like gold dust. That was 1987, and the confusingly retitled British edition offered no hint that this series had already been running for some while. Quite apart from the contents of the anthology - which contained, among other things, Bruce Sterling's "The Beautiful and the Sublime" - the volume also had a lengthy overview of the preceeding year in SF, as well as a huge selection of "honorable mentions" at the back of the book. In a way, these lists of titles were at least as fascinating as the anthologised pieces themselves because one could imagine the stories that fitted the titles. Some writers seemed to have a gift for brilliant titles. I remember thinking that this Lucius Sheperd dude sure came up with some good ones.

Years later, when I'd started selling short fiction, I would anxiously scan the "honorable mentions" in the hope of, well, an honorable mention. I remember being gutted when a story I regarded as my strongest to date didn't merit so much as a nod, let alone inclusion in the book. That was one of those moments when I almost considered giving up. Yet, within a year or two of that, I found myself on Gardner's radar and before very long, he had picked a story of mine for inclusion. That was an amazing feeling. I was on a high for months, counting down the days until the book appeared. It's been a kick every time since - and just as much as a downer when I haven't managed to get a story into the book. In other words, it still matters to me. There are other "Year's Best" editions out there, all edited by people of sound judgement (some are even friends of mine) but Gardner's will always be "the big one" as far as I'm concerned.

So here we are, twenty five-odd years later, and it's a blast to be included. link:

Thursday 18 July 2013

From sketch to cover

Everyone loved the hardback cover of Blue Remembered Earth by Dominic Harman (me especially), but for the smaller format required for the paperback edition, it was felt that a significant redesign was needed, together with a visual element that emphasized the space-based action of much of the book. In other words, another spaceship.

There is no one spaceship that dominates the action in BRE - I actually tried to make the various craft more like routine vehicles than major characters in their own right - but it was clear that the ship "Winter Queen", which figures in the later action, might not be a bad choice. It also serves as a generic template for the basic look of some of the other vehicles mentioned in the book, such as the Maersk Intersolar liner and the Kinyeti - hopefully conveying a sense that these technologies are only a little more advanced than what we have now.

To give the artist (I think it was also Dominic) something to go on, I provided this extremely rough and ready sketch:

It's very interesting to compare it to the final cover - note the "details don't matter". I liked the final interpretation very much, although I've still a soft spot for the original cover, with its lovely hues and evocation of Earth.

Friday 5 July 2013

Eagles High

Eagle, the hugely popular children's comic, casts a very long shadow. In its original incarnation it ran from 1950 to 1969. Its golden age, however, was even shorter than that, for by the mid sixties the comic (which was always aimed squarely at boys) was struggling to find its place in a world of television, pop music and a new era of global sport.

Yet the reach of the magazine was huge, and there must be countless children who came to a knowledge of Eagle not through the comic itself, but through the durable hardback annuals, which would have belonged to our parents and relatives a decade or more earlier.

Such was the case for me, for my father's copy of Eagle Annual 3 soon passed into my possession:

The annual was published in 1953, when my father would have been ten. By the time it entered my consciousness, in the early seventies, it would have been the better part of twenty years old. Of course, it had something of an old fashioned feel to it but it was also a very attractive and colourful package, and I found much to enjoy in it. Not least, of course, the colour spread containing the adventure of Dan Dare and the Double-Headed Eagle:

This would have been my first encounter with Dare and of course I came to it without any establishing context, knowing nothing of the characters or their world. I remember looking at the pictures with some interest, long before I was able to work my way through the story and grasp the "plot", such as it is. But it has stayed with me ever since.

Eagle, though, was not just about the science fiction exploits of Dan Dare although he may well have been the comic's most iconic creation. The comic set out to be educational as well as entertaining, and it was stuffed with factual articles, as well as stories and comic strips documenting historical events. The comic took an optimistic view of technological and scientific progress - this, after all, was the time of the Festival of Britain, a period when the memory of the war was beginning to fade and a newly invigorated Britain was still a world class player in engineering, ranging from supersonic aircraft to record-breaking motor cars. Eagle championed all this and more. Known for its staggeringly detailed cutaway drawings of then contemporary technological marvels, Eagle had tapped into an audience warmly appreciative of such matters. A few years ago I was delighted to pick up this Eagle "spinoff":

Times were moving on, though, and there's no doubt that the appetite for such wholesome educational material could not be sustained. Eagle was gone by time of the Apollo landing, and yet magazines of the same general "improving" type must have taken a long time to fade away completely. Four years after the demise of Eagle, for instance, this was one of my Christmas presents in 1973:

Now, I have no idea whether or not "Tell Me Why" had an existence independent from this annual, but between the covers it's really just a slightly updated variation on the Eagle theme. There are factual articles - the book opens with a chapter on the wonders of modern Japan - but also cutaway drawings, historical comic strips and so on. It's a very similar formula.

For better or for worse, I don't think it's possible to understate the degree to which these annuals colonised my imagination. Here's an example: I know the story of Earnest Shackleton well enough as an adult - I have read about it, and seen television documentaries. But my sense of the internal narrative of the story is entirely predicated on this monochrome comic strip from the Tell Me Why annual:

It's actually quite a fantastically good piece of history as entertainment, and that choice of blue as the sole tinting is suitably chilly. Elsewhere in the annual, there are similar stories and articles which still form the bedrock for my understanding of the relevant subject. (There's one on early lighthouses, for instance, which will always flash through my mind whenever someone mentions lighthouses, and another on the sinking of a Japanese aircraft carrier).

Yes, there was something very dated, very paternal, in these magazines - especially in their assumed choices of content, for the middle class male readership they undoubtedly had in mind. But I cannot deny that they have played a part in shaping my view of things, and stimulating my interest in what, for want of a better word, one might call "progress". I accept their deficiencies but at the same time I am quietly pleased to have been born in the shadow of Eagle.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

The Foss Way

Over at Paul McAuley has been posting some classic 70s paperback SF images, many of which are by the incomparable Chris Foss. These days, it's perhaps hard to grasp the extent to which the spaceship-orientated visual style of Chris Foss was absolutely inseparable from SF, to the extent that many of the other artists of the period were obliged to emulate the Foss look. I adored Foss's work even as I came to the sobering conclusion that most of the images had nothing whatsoever to do with the contents of the book.

This seemed as good a time as anyway to reprint my review of Hardware, which originally appeared in the BSFA's Vector magazine:

"That'll never happen."

These words were delivered by a geography teacher, examining a paperback of Asimov short stories that I'd foolishly allowed to remain visible on my desk. The focus of his scorn was not the contents of the book, of which he remained ignorant, but the cover, a painting of some daunting megastructure rising above an alien moon. Actually, I'd have readily agreed with him that not only would the depicted situation "never happen", but there was a vanishingly small chance of it having much to do with the stories in the book. This, after all, was a Chris Foss cover. Foss covers seldom related to anything.

It didn't matter. I loved Foss and I still do. The colour, the drama, the vast sense of scale and possibility - his pictures have always delighted me. Liberated from the texts themselves, as they are in this massive restrospective edition, it matters even less. Foss has been prolific, so clearly nothing less than a big book will suffice. I haven't counted, but with more than 230 pages, a good number of which are divided into three or four panels, Hardware must contain well over 500 illustrations, all - to my eye - well reproduced on good quality paper. Given the proviso that it's almost all machinery and landscapes, the range is impressive. There are, for instance, fifteen paintings just of submarines. There's a two-page spread devoted solely to paintings of things being grabbed by giant robot claws coming out of the sea. Hundreds and hundreds of spaceships, space stations, bases, asteroids, towering robots, explosions. People crop up here and there, but they're not the reason we come to Foss. His most iconic images are largely devoid of the human element. Personal favorites: the marvellous double-spread picture for "A Torrent of Faces" - Ballardian entropy made manifest, even though it isn't a Ballard book, and the gorgeous single image that was split into three for the Foundation trilogy.

It's such a generous assortment that it seems churlish to quibble. I'd have appreciated an index by book title, and I'd be slightly wary of the date attributions: my edition of Harry Harrison's In Our Hands The Stars, for instance, with its gorgeous cover of a chequerboard spacecraft rising from a night-lit cityscape, dates from 1981, not the 1986 stated here. There's also little about Foss the man: other than a single small photograph from 1977, there's no image of him (and even in the photo, it's not obvious which one is Foss). I'd have appreciated a sense of the artist in his natural habitat. We're assured that Foss is still active, but there's little evidence of that from the images, few of which date from later than the early 90s. Clearly, SF paperback illustration is a very different game than it was in the "golden age" of the seventies, but Foss's work still looks pretty timeless to me. It would be good to see new work, but in the meantime this lavish book is a fitting retrospective.

Thursday 20 June 2013

Denver pissed him off

There's almost certainly a post to be done on the influence of Joe Haldeman's work on my writing (I've been a huge admirer of Haldeman's work since I finally scored a paperback copy of The Forever War, years after reading about it, in those valve-driven days of the early 80s) but for now I was happy to be given the chance to review The Best of Joe Haldeman over at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Some quibbles aside (I'd have liked the book to feel more like an "event") this is a fine way to sample more than forty years of short fiction output by one of the most significant voices to enter the field in the last half century.

You can read the full review here.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

The Falling Sky

Belatedly, my review of Pippa Goldschmidt's excellent novel The Falling Sky appeared on Arcfinity a few weeks ago:

"Pippa Goldschmidt’s The Falling Sky is that rare thing: a literary novel that gets under the hood of science as a social enterprise, done by real and fallible people. It’s an extremely accomplished debut and the best evocation of the actual life of an astronomer I’ve ever read."

You can read the full review here. It's a fantastic book which deserves some attention. As a literary novel about the process of science rather than a piece of genre science fiction, I doubt that it will receive recognition from any of the field's usual awards - although if the Clarke can extend its remit to include genre fantasy, I see no reason why this book could not be shown the same generosity of spirit. Novels about science are rare enough things. In any case it would be encouraging to see it on some mainstream shortlists. Stephen Fry liked it.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Bookplates and book signing arrangements

I've fallen quite badly behind on sending out bookplates over the last few months, but with my wife's help I've had a bit of a catch up and signed plates should now be on their way out to you. If you've requested bookplates from me ages ago (say, before start of this year) and you're still waiting, feel free to drop me a gentle reminder at the usual address, available on the website:

As a general reminder, I'm happy to sign and personalise bookplates in small quantities at no charge. I normally send out about ten at a time, although I can do more if required. I can either sign my own supply of Orion bookplates (when they're in stock from my publisher), or you can send me some of your own to be signed and returned. I'm also willing to receive, sign and return books, subject to availability and time constraints. As always, drop me a line and we can discuss arrangements. For overseas readers, where providing return postage might be difficult, I generally suggest a charitable donation equal to the incurred postage costs.

Sunday 9 June 2013

Iain Banks 1954 - 2013

The great Iain Banks has died. We had known this day was coming, of course, after Iain announced his terminal illness a couple of months ago. But it still feels to have happened shockingly, unfairly soon. My thoughts are with Iain's family and friends, and I am very sad that we only got to meet on a handful of occasions.

Here's a snap taken at the last such meeting, late last year, when Iain, Peter Hamilton and I teamed up for a Google hang-out. It was terrific fun, as I think you can tell from the smiles on our faces. Iain was on excellent good form - it was, as ever, a wonderful thing just to be able to hang out with him.

After the event, the three of us went to a nearby pub for a quick pint. Iain had to dash off (Peter and I continued on for a pizza and more beer) but I remember telling Iain that I looked forward to seeing him soon as I wanted to tell him something about Raw Spirit, his 2003 book on whisky. Iain laughed with that particular glint in his eye, but time was tight and the story had to wait. I was confident I'd get a chance one day.

Well, it's not much of a story (the main thing was that it was Iain's book) but here it is anyway. I have had a layman's liking for single malt whiskies for many years without ever going deeper than that simple, uncluttered appreciation. A few months earlier, though, I had picked up a copy of Raw Spirit in the interests of educating myself. On the train up to London I read about the smokey and peatey Laphroaig, which I knew I had tasted and liked, and also Lagavulin, which I did not think I had sampled. That was my mission, then - to try some Lagavulin at the earliest opportunity, and see how it measured up against the Laphroaig.

That night I had attended some literary thing and found myself back in my hotel, alone, at the unreasonably early hour of 10.00 pm. I'm normally a bit hyper after these things so rather than squirrel myself away in the room, I generally prefer to go down to the bar and have a quiet and reflective drink. Suitably emboldened, I stuffed some cash into my pocket and wandered down to the bar. Scanning the whiskies I immediately spotted a bottle of the fabled and as yet unsampled Lagavulin. Just the ticket, I thought. I asked the barman to pour me a single measure, without ice or water. Supposedly you really ought to drink whisky with a small amount of water to activate the aroma (I was told this by a friendly and authoritative Scots barman, during another post-literary drink, but old habits die hard). The London barman poured me my whisky, gave me the glass and told me my single measure would cost in excess of ten pounds.

Yes, that was a shock to me as well - London prices, I suppose - and this was a very swish hotel by my usual standards. But to my dismay I simply did not have enough money on me. The room had been paid for me, so I did not want to get into the complication of charging the drink to my account, and then having to sort that out in the morning. Instead I rather lamely apologised and said I would need to return to my room to get more money, which might take several minutes.

The barman, though, waved aside my embarrasment, took the money I had on me, and told me to enjoy my Lagavulin. Which I did, adding it to my mental register of sampled whiskies, and deciding that it compared well against the Laphroaig. Just the one measure, though. I suppose, in the back of my mind, I might have been half anticipating another, if the Lagavulin had cost about half what it did.

So there - not, as I said, very much of a story, but I think Iain would have been tickled - it was his book, after all, that had brought me to this bar - and at the very least I'd have enjoyed being gently steered to some other discovery.

I did not know Iain terribly well - we had met on, I think, three occasions - but I liked him tremendously and found in his enthusiasms exactly the person you might hope had written all those dense and imaginative novels. If you felt that you knew Iain through his work, then - on my admittedly limited experience of the man - you probably did.

And now I'm off to have a look through my whiskies, because I fancy a dram.

[Update - it was a glass of Laphroaig, because that was all I had in. But very nice all the same.]

Wednesday 5 June 2013

Doctor Who events (again)

Here's an updated schedule for the Doctor Who events:

Thurday 6th June 6 - 7pm - Forbidden Planet Bristol (Clifton Heights, Triangle West, Bristol BS8 1EJ)

Friday 7th June 6 - 7pm - Forbidden Planet London  (179 Shaftesbury Ave, London WC2H 8JR)

Wednesday 12th June - 7pm - Waterstones Cardiff (2A The Hayes, Cardiff CF10 1W). This is a ticketed event - details here.

Thursday 20th June 6.30pm - Forest Bookshop, Coleford, Forest of Dean (8 St John's St, Coleford, Gloucestershire GL16 8AR)

Tuesday 2nd July 8 - 9.30 pm - Toppings Bookshop Bath (The Paragon Bath,  Somerset  BA1 5LS). This is a ticketed event - details here.

Please note that the Toppings event is in July, not June - I've seen a couple of mistaken listings for that one.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Harvest of Time - what's it all about, then?

The official publication day for my Doctor Who novel is the 6th of June, but (as tends to happen) I'm hearing reports that copies of the book are already in the wild. I am tremendously excited about it all and looking forward to the signing and reading events to follow in the coming weeks.

That said, I'm well aware that for many of my readers, Doctor Who is going to be a bit of a blank. It is a huge cultural property in the UK, but much less so beyond our shores. It can be intimidating, coming into the continuity of a long-running imaginative universe, so I can imagine some readers might feel justifiable hesitation in picking up the book. This is a series that's been running, on and off, for fifty years - so isn't the backstory hugely complicated and bewildering, something for insiders only?

Obviously, I hope not.  And I hope that if you like my other stuff, you might consider giving the Who book a shot. The first thing to say is that my grasp of Doctor Who continuity isn't very detailed - there are huge gaps in my knowledge of the show, and lots of stuff I don't know as well as I should. It doesn't matter, though. At almost any point in its existence, Doctor Who has usually tended to be quite simple in formula, which is one of the reasons that generations of children have been able to jump into the series and feel that it is theirs. It's never been too burdened by its past.

I aspired to write Harvest in such a way that you wouldn't need to know very much about the Doctor Who universe to get on with the book. Whether I've succeeded or not is not for me to say, but not having watched Doctor Who needn't be a reason to give the book a miss. If you have seen the show over the years, you'll hopefully enjoy picking up on the characters and references, but none of that is essential. And as I say, the basic premise is incredibly simple.

The Doctor is a time-travelling humanoid alien, a member of an alien culture known as the Time Lords. The Doctor can regenerate his appearance - my Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee, was the third actor to play the role on television. For various reasons, Pertwee's Doctor spent much of his time confined to Earth in the twentieth century. There's a particular flavour to these Earthbound stories, all of which aired in the early nineteen seventies, and for me they are very much a defining element in my relationship with the series. The Doctor is attached to the British wing of UNIT, a military branch set up to deal with the routine invasion of the planet by various alien factions. The UNIT stories mostly take place in the UK, with a small surrounding cast of regulars. Jo Grant was the Doctor's assistant at the time, a civilian laison to UNIT. Jo answered to the Brigadier, head of the British wing of the organisation. The Doctor and the Brig eventually became friends, but were also at constant loggerheads over the best way to deal with whatever alien invasion was presently on the agenda. Supporting the Doctor, Jo and the Brig were two more UNIT regulars, the soldiers Benton and Yates. And that was your entire regular cast of good guys.

Adding a strong thematic element to this run of Pertwee stories was the introduction of a recurring adversary, in the form of the Master. The Master was also a Time Lord - but a distinctly antisocial one. Like the Doctor, he had rebelled and stolen a shape-changing time machine (Tardis) of his own. They had much in common, and often found themselves "teaming up" to solve a particular crisis, usually of the Master's making. But they were also mortal enemies and the Master was only ever waiting for a chance to kill the Doctor, as he attempted to do so on many occasions. Generally speaking, if some aliens were up to no good, the Master would usually turn out to be involved in the plot on some level. If the Doctor was Holmes, the Master was his Moriarty. A genius with an intellect beyond even that of the Doctor, the Master's downfall was generally caused by his arrogance and conceit.

Like the Doctor, the Master also had the capacity to regenerate. During the Pertwee era he was played to terrific effect by Roger Delgado. Sadly, Delgado was killed in an accident during the actual run of Pertwee stories, meaning that his version of the Master never got the big send-off that he deserved. It would be some years before the Master returned to Doctor Who, but the character remains an important element of the mythos. For me, the Master is the best fictional villain of all time and was at least as strong a motivator for me choosing the Pertwee era as the other characters.

That's really all you need to know. The plot of Harvest of Time depends on some alien villains that are entirely my own invention, and the backstory that I invent in regard to these villains, the Time Lords, the Master and so on, is also unique to the book. At 100,000 words it's about half the length of one of my usual novels, but there's a lot in it - stuff set on Earth, stuff set in the far future - time travel, alien technology, dangerous super-weapons and so on. If you do try it, I hope you enjoy Harvest of Time. If you don't give it a go, there won't be a long to wait until my next normal novel.


Monday 3 June 2013

Strange Horizons fund raising picture

Strange Horizons is one of the best places on the net for intelligent and informed discussion about the literatures of the fantastic, and we're lucky to have it. Once a year the magazine runs a fund drive and on the last couple of occasions, I've offered an original painting as one of the potential prizes.

I'm pleased to say that Duncan Lawie was the winner of the painting this year, and this is the picture I did. The artwork was produced on canvas board using a background of airbrushed acrylic ink, with a foreground of painted acrylics. I had a bit of fun using metallic silver for the highlights on the spaceship and asteroids, giving the finished piece a distinctive shimmer.

What's going on? No idea, but it looks to me as if the ship has suffered some sort of explosion and that the nearer of the two asteroids is in the process of being mined for replacement raw materials. The picture is now with Duncan.

Thursday 30 May 2013

Let's all go to the ISS

During a much needed clear out, I came across this issue of the short-lived British magazine Speed&Power from very early in 1975. As I've mentioned elsewhere, S&P was essentially my gateway into SF since they reprinted many short stories by Arthur C Clarke and (later) Isaac Asimov. (Note, incidentally, the "Reynolds" pencilled into the upper right corner of the magazine, by the newsagent in Barry who kept my copy aside each week).

What caught my eye this time was a neat little article on the construction and operation of America's future space station. The article would have been written in 1974, seven years before the first flight of the space shuttle, and a decade ahead of Reagan's announcement of the first proposal for the actual station, then called Freedom, in the mid nineteen eighties, and a full quarter of a century ahead of the actual constuction of the station.

Although the illustrated space station is built on a triangular geometry, the essential details aren't far off the mark - modular components, huge solar arrays, and the space shuttle doing the heavy work of lifting modules into orbit and then positioning them with its robot arm. All this, of course, was to some extent already on the drawing boards, but it's interesting nonetheless to see a piece of pop science prediction which doesn't look laughably wide of the mark forty years on.

Even more remarkable, to my eyes, was the supposed acronym for this "Initial Space Station" - the ISS. Doubtless the term ISS was already circling within NASA circles at the time, but I've no recollection of hearing it until much later in the real history of the space station.

Monday 27 May 2013

On the Steel Breeze - cover and blurb

With the first round of edits now complete on On the Steel Breeze, I thought it was time for another update. I promised that I wouldn't talk this one into the ground before publication, but hopefully this teaser and back cover copy should provide some flavour of the book.

“Last of all, the Chibesa engines were lit. With the slowness of clouds the readied arks began to pull away from the birthing orbits. They went out in caravans, for mutual support. Each caravan was part of a larger flow of holoships, assigned to a particular solar system. It took years, decades, for the holoships to reach their cruising speeds, a whisker under thirteen percent of the speed of light.”

We have found a distant planet. It carries sign of an alien civilisation.


And on a fleet of holoships, vast asteroids hollowed out and turned into miniature worlds, millions of us are heading there. With engines designed to exploit a physics we barely understand we are on a one way journey, travelling at one sixth the speed of light, to a new home. And an encounter with the unknown.


And we take with us hopes and lies, secrets and betrayals. And another, quite alien intelligence.


The Akinya family have not finished with space. Their destiny still lies with the stars, however they get there, whichever of them make it.


And the Mechanism has not finished with the Akinyas…

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Doctor Who promotion

I'll be doing quite a bit of promotion around the release of Harvest of Time. Here are the signing events, at which I'll also be doing a reading and general chat for anyone interested.

Thurday 6th June 6 - 7pm - Forbidden Planet Bristol (Clifton Heights, Triangle West, Bristol BS8 1EJ)

Friday 7th June 6 - 7pm - Forbidden Planet London  (179 Shaftesbury Ave, London WC2H 8JR)

Wednesday 12th June - Time TBC - Waterstones Cardiff (2A The Hayes, Cardiff CF10 1W)

Thursday 20th June 6.30pm - Forest Bookshop, Coleford, Forest of Dean (8 St John's St, Coleford, Gloucestershire GL16 8AR)

Tuesday 2nd July 8 - 9.30 pm - Toppings Bookshop Bath (The Paragon Bath,  Somerset  BA1 5LS)

Hope to see some of you!

Monday 20 May 2013


Unusual visitor to the garden yesterday. Not the first time we've had one but the last was a few years ago and only just avoided being gobbled up by a fox.

Nuthatch chicks

The nuthatch chicks are now a week old. There were five to begin with, but now we're down to two, although the final pair do seem to be doing quite well. They look quite a bit larger now.

Wednesday 8 May 2013

Harvest of Time - first review

SFX are in with the first review of Harvest of Time, and they seem to like it:

"Reynolds nails both the family horror tone of the series and the characterisation of the regulars. The Doctor is all warmth and gentle pomposity, while the Master is charming, detached and amusingly ruthless. At one point he hypnotises a man into committing suicide – but lets him finish his cup of tea first. The secondary characters are also a well-drawn bunch: sympathetic, believable and often doomed."

Full review: 

The cover seems to be a source of some amusement, which I'll take in good humour, although I must admit on first viewing I saw only a bulbous grey spaceship rather than a phallic symbol. But I suppose all spaceships, on some level, run the risk of looking just a tiny bit phallic.

Getting back to the review, my main fear, when I went into this, was that I might not hit the right notes with the main characters. Doubtless there will be dissenting opinions but for now I'm well pleased that SFX feel my evocation of the Doctor, Jo, The Master, Brig and so on hit the mark. I was immediately attracted to the idea of doing Pertwee's Doctor because, apart from a basic affection for that era, I felt that his character was the one that I had the best handle on in terms of dialogue and mannerisms. I am just as fond of the Tom Baker era but I would have found his Doctor quite a bit harder to evoke on the page. For Harvest of Time, I rewatched almost all the Pertwee adventures that have been released on DVD and tried to pay particular attention to the interplay between the recurring leads. Oddly enough, as a child, I never had the faintest interest in who the UNIT soldiers were, and even now I had to keep reminding myself which one was Benton and which one Yates.

Tuesday 30 April 2013

Nuthatch eggs

Title says it all really. There are at least six eggs in this nestbox. If all goes to plan they should start hatching somewhere around May 14th.

Friday 12 April 2013

Excession Man

It took me a little while to get what Iain M Banks was up to. I had been only distantly aware of his books before the publication of his first SF title, Consider Phlebas, in 1987. On the strength of an interview in Interzone, and a short story set in the same universe, I bought the hardcover of Phlebas when it came out. No small thing, that, since I was still an undergraduate student and hardcover purchases were not something to be taken lightly. However, Phlebas seemed likely to be the kind of thing I would enjoy. It was a chunky book with a spaceship on the cover. I was excited by the idea that this literary writer was taking on not just science fiction but full-on, galaxy-spanning space opera. How could it not be fantastic?

It turned out, though, that I couldn't really get on with Consider Phlebas. I read it but found it not particularly to my liking. It was big and colourful and noisy, but it didn't - to my eyes - feel as modern or disruptive or radical as I'd hoped. Perhaps I was hoping for something more closely aligned with the prevailing orthodoxies of contemporary SF - this was the tail-end of cyberpunk, after all. Phlebas felt to me to be looking back to an older tradition. The furniture felt second-hand, even if it was sometimes used in clever ways. There was a great deal of scientifically improbable stuff like force fields, hyperdrives, antigrav generators and so on. The book veered sharply between manic ultraviolance and knockabout humour. It did have, I had to admit, an amazingly tense conclusion in the bowels of an alien planet, even if that conclusion was drawn out over many chapters. On the whole, though, I found more to be annoyed by than to like. Why was the book set in the past? The presumption of a humanoid civilisation already out there now seemed to edge perilously close to Von Daniken nonsense of ancient aliens.

So, I didn't get on with Phlebas. But a year or two later I moved to Scotland and at the insistence of a friend I was introduced to Banks' earlier novels. I was loaned a copy of The Wasp Factory and found it remarkable. I went out and bought Walking on Glass and The Bridge. The Bridge struck me as absolutely amazing - even now, large parts of it haunt my imagination. Here was a different Banks - concise, formally inventive, fascinated by structure and narrative resonance. I became a totally committed fan of Iain Banks whoile remaining skeptical about the SF output of Iain M Banks. I did not read The Player of Games and have in fact still not read it.

But when Use of Weapons came out in 1990, my friend had acquired a copy of it and passed it on to me to read. I approached it with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, especially as it was yet another "Culture" novel. When was Banks going to give up on this nonsense, I wondered?

The thing was, though, that Use of Weapons turned out to be rather brilliant. It felt tighter than Phlebas, more economically told, and yet at the same time it seemed to contain much more. The playful approach to narrative and structure that I'd enjoyed in the non-SF books was here as well. The inventiveness, ranging from the gruesome to the delightful (I love the entombed battleship) was a thing of wonder. The book became one of my favorite recent SF novels and its influence on my second novel, Chasm City, is not something there would be much point in denying.

So there it was - I'd become a fan not just of Iain Banks, but Iain M Banks as well. And from that point on I tried to buy all his novels in hardcover when they came out. I continued to be staggered by his range and adventurousness, and when he moved away from the Culture in Against a Dark Background and Feersome Endjinn, I found myself enjoying those new universes as well. The Banksian universals were always present and correct. It seemed pretty clear to me that we were very, very lucky to have a writer of Banks' stature mixing it up in SF.

In 1996 I was at a bit of a crossroads. I'd  been working for two years as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, but that stint was coming to an end and there was no realistic prospect of continued employment in Utrecht. I had already completed a three year fellowship at the European Space Agency and there were no obvious openings back there either. So with distinctly mixed feelings I realised that I would probably have to begin to looking for employment outside of the Netherlands. This was not easy because my partner (now my wife) had a permanent job in the country and in any case I felt I had invested part of my life in living abroad. I did not particularly want to scuttle back to the UK. It would have felt like an admission of failure.

Nonetheless, a job did come up at the University of Leicester and I applied for an interview. Leicester was the home of UK X-ray astronomy and this was an area where much of my recent research had taken place. I had not visited Leicester before although I had friends in the town so moving there would not be too much of a shock. I was flown in for the interview and did not perform well. I think, in hindsight, it must have been pretty obvious to all concerned that I was not all that enthusiastic about getting the job, so I must have come across as a very ambivalent candidate.

After the interview, for some reason, I had to fly out to Luton Airport to get back to the UK. It wasn't the airport I'd flown into. A taxi was provided for the long drive to the airport and I got there with plenty of time ahead of me before the flight. I felt deflated. I knew I hadn't shone in the interview, but the worst part was that I was sure it was my own misgivings holding me back. Why had I even bothered applying in the first place? It had only wasted someone else's time and money. I called my partner from a payphone (remember those?) and told her how things had gone. I hadn't really achieved anything because I was still going to be jobless at the end of 1996 and sooner or later I was going to have to face up to the hard likelihood that I would need to look for work outside of the Netherlands.

Later, I wandered over to the bookshop in the international departure lounge. Being a Banks fan I'd been aware that a new Culture novel was immiment but it was still a pleasant surprise to see copies of Excession on sale. Needing to lift my spirits, I bought one of the hardcovers. Despite my earlier reservations about Phleblas, I'd come to enjoy the Culture and I was excited to see what Banks did with it on his return. The book had a very good design.

I grabbed a coffee and with nothing better to do, started reading. I must have read a chapter or two before a flashbulb went off in my head. What the fuck was I doing here in Luton Airport? What the fuck was I doing applying for a job in Leicester that I neither wanted nor was suited to? (Nothing wrong with Leicester, I hasten to add).

I could be doing what Banks was doing in this book. Writing SF. And giving every impression of this being the single coolest, adventurous, most amazingly brilliant intellectually stimulating thing you could ever imagine doing. I was already publishing short fiction at this point - had, in fact, been doing so for six years - and I had a semi-finished SF novel lying around on computer files which I didn't know what to do with (something called Revelation Space). Here though, in the grand surroundings of the international departure lounge of Luton Airport, it all became magnificently, bracingly clear. I had to become an SF novelist. This was imperative. Nothing else would do it for me. The opening chapters of Excession had blown away all uncertainty. My partner had already told me that we could get by on her salary if I wanted to try writing full time, so what was I waiting for? Why had there ever been any doubt? I saw, suddenly, that I would much rather be unemployed and happy in the Netherlands than employed and unhappy back in the UK. The wonder was that this had not been obvious to me until that moment. And why had it taken the opening chapters of Excession to open my eyes?

I returned to the Netherlands. The day after, I drafted an email and withdrew my application for the Leicester position. I continued to work out the remainder of my postdoctoral contract. As it happened, though, an opportunity for employment did eventually open up in the Netherlands. I saw an advert for a small scientific consultancy firm based in Haarlem who were looking for a space scientist. I applied for more information and learned - to my immense surprise - that the firm was being set up by an old friend of mine, a fellow ex-patriot Welshman who I had known during my time at ESA. And so I ended up working for a Dutch-based scientific consultancy firm, managed by a Welshman, registered in the name of his wife, a fluent-Dutch speaking British ex-patriot dentist (who also became my actual dentist). It turned out to be a few months before the firm could take me and (as it transpired) contract me back to working at ESA but that window of unemployment turned out to be exactly what I needed to knock Revelation Space into shape and finally submit it. It went off to a publisher early in 1997.

The moral of this, if there is one, is that major life decisions can be swayed by the strangest and most unexpected of things. And in my case it was a chance encounter with a new hardcover of Excession that showed me where my priorities ought to lie.

And for that, Iain Banks, you have my immense gratitude.

Saturday 30 March 2013


The continued cold weather may be sapping our spirits but there's always the possible consolation of unusual winter visitors to the garden. This morning we had fifteen redpolls in, drawn by niger seeds spilled onto the ground by the messy-eating goldfinches. My wife noticed that there was a collection of ground feeding birds that were something out of the ordinary, so we reached for the binoculars and camera. Redpolls are enchanting little birds, beautifully coloured, and this is certainly the first time I've had such a good view of them.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Harvest of Time update

PDF proofs of Harvest of Time have arrived, meaning that the book is now all but nailed down. UK publication is June, so only a few months away. Here's the back cover copy, to give you a hint of the story:

After billions of years of imprisonment, the vicious Sild have broken out of confinement. From a ruined world at the end of time, they make preparations to conquer the past, with the ultimate goal of rewriting history. But to achieve their aims they will need to enslave an intellect greater than their own... 

On Earth, UNIT is called in to investigate a mysterious incident on a North Sea drilling platform. The Doctor believes something is afoot, and no sooner has the investigation begun when something even stranger takes hold: The Brigadier is starting to forget about UNIT's highest-profile prisoner. And he is not alone in his amnesia.

As the Sild invasion begins, the Doctor faces a terrible dilemma. To save the universe, he must save his arch-nemesis... The Master.

Monday 18 March 2013

A Map of Mercury

I've written a story entitled "A Map of Mercury", which will appear in Pandemonium: The Lowest Heaven, an original anthology of stories to be published in June in partnership with the Royal Observatory Greenwich and related to celestial bodies in the solar system. You can read a bit more about the book here:

And here is the table of contents:

  • Introduction by Dr. Marek Kukula (Royal Observatory Greenwich)
  • "Golden Apple" by Sophia McDougall (The Sun)
  • "A Map of Mercury" by Alastair Reynolds (Mercury)
  • "The Happiest Place on [Expletive Deleted] Venus" by Archie Black (Venus)
  • "The Krakatoan" by Maria Dahvana Headley (Earth)
  • "An account of a voyage from World to World again, by way of the Moon, 1726" by Adam Roberts (The Moon)
  • "WWBD" by Simon Morden (Mars)
  • "Saga's Children" by E.J. Swift (Ceres)
  • "The Jupiter Files" by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Jupiter)
  • "Magnus Lucretius" by Mark Charan Newton (Europa)
  • "Air, Water and the Grove" by Kaaron Warren (Saturn)
  • "Only Human" by Lavie Tidhar (Titan)
  • "Uranus" by Esther Saxey (Uranus)
  • "From This Day Forward" by David Bryher (Neptune)
  • "We'll Always Be Here" by S.L. Grey (Pluto & Charon)
  • "Enyo-Enyo" by Kameron Hurley (Eris)
  • "The Comet's Tale" by Matt Jones (Halley's Comet)
  • "The Grand Tour" by James Smythe (Voyager I)

Looks rather enticing, doesn't it? My story deals with an art broker's attempts to negotiate with a bohemian "Cyborg Artistic Collective" living on the surface of Mercury and was inspired, in a small way, by the giant sculptural installations of the Burning Man festival.

Mercury geologic map courtesy NASA/USGS.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Three Vignettes

These three unpublished vignettes - flashbacks in the life of the character Quillon - were written for my novel Terminal World but omitted in final edits as they did not fit neatly into the structure of the book, as well as adding 8000 words to what was already a bulky text. Nonetheless, I've always been quite fond of them and hope they are of some interest to those who have read the novel. Feel free to pick up on any typos or errors in the comments - they have not been proofed, and I have only given the text a cursory read today. All copyright Alastair Reynolds 2009 and 2013.


They fly together. It will be the last time, before their wings must be cut away. They orbit the glittering spire of the Celestial Levels, braiding trajectories through the air, giddy on the delicious warm thermals winding up from the lower reaches of Spearpoint. The sky is a cloudless mauve and the lights of the city look very beautiful this evening. He watches her body flex on the wind, cusping the air in the translucence of her wings, so skilled at finding the right line that she hardly ever needs to beat her wings, and never needs to use the propulsion unit fixed at the base of her spine. He cannot match her agility, her elegance, and he does not even try. He is a competent flier, even a good one, but she is a true daughter of the air, angelic in every sense of the word.
‘It was like this when we met,’ he tells her, pushing the words into her head without the need for speech.
‘You mean when you first saw me,’ she corrects.
‘Yes,’ he admits, for it is true that he watched her from afar, marvelling at her, hardly daring to imagine that they would one day become lovers.
‘But it’s colder now,’ she says. ‘I feel it, even with these warm airs coming up from below. There’s a tang to it. A sharpness that wasn’t there when we met.’
‘It’s just the seasons,’ he says.
They circle the ever-climbing spire, corkscrewing their way up that luminous thread. They have left the other fliers far below. Few go this high; the air thins and the uprising thermals turn turbulent, and the danger of accidentally trangressing the overlying zone boundary cannot be neglected. When he looks down, the others are no more than gliding motes of pastel light. They look very far below, slow-moving coloured flecks caught in lazy eddies. He feels a twitch of vertigo. It’s a deep, rational phobia and it’s never been completely excised from the human brain. Even the birds, which sometimes accompany the angels, must feel it occasionally. No flying thing is ever truly unafraid of falling, but without that basal fear, flight itself would be as dull as floating in the sea.
‘I’ve never been this high before,’ he tells her.
‘And we’ve never been as deep as we’re about to go. Aren’t you excited?’
‘I thought I would be. But that was when it was a distant possibility, not something about to happen.’
‘Second thoughts?’
‘Honest qualms. Don’t tell me you don’t feel the same way.’
‘It’s something special, what we’re doing. Something that will benefit us all. Not just the angels, but all of Spearpoint. Something to be proud of.’
‘That’s what I keep telling myself.’
‘It will all be fine,’ she says. ‘It will all be fine and we’ll fly again, both of us.’
And she does something that stops his heart. Collapses her wings, surrendering lift, allowing herself to drop like a stone, gathering speed with the pull of gravity, becoming a bright falling jewel. He has only a moment to evaluate the situation, realising that even with his propulsion pack he will struggle to catch her unless he also collapses his wings and minimises drag, when she snatches herself out of the dive, whipping her wings out to maximum extension again, gathering the wind into them, laughing into his head with the wild exuberance of what she has done. He has seen her fall like that before, but each and every time he fears that she will not be able to recover.
‘You shouldn’t do that.’
‘I like falling,’ she says, as if that is all the explanation required.
They continue flying, but now there is an unease, a sense that they have overstayed their welcome. They don’t talk. He wishes she hadn’t fallen; wishes also that he had not chided her for doing so. But it’s too late now and as the evening draws in, the other angels pull nearer to Spearpoint, abandoing the cold airs to birds.
They land on one of the balconies, he with a touch of clumsiness, she flaring her wings at just the right instant to arrest her approach. And for a moment they caress, just another two lovers returning from the sky, nothing to distinguish them from any of the other angels returning to the warmth and light of the Celestial Levels.
‘It’s time,’ she says, and he nods.
They go deep into the Levels. They pass through the golden plazas and light-filled atria. They fly when it suits them, and ride platforms and transit baubles when it does not. Through the bowers and vaults of the public volumes, through security screens both subtle and overt, into the windowless warrens and corridors of Measures. Measures is the closest thing to a security organisation in the Celestial Levels; they both work there. It has been their home for many years, and they both feel safer within its cordon. Measures has taken very good care of both of them, for they are valued. But even Measures holds secrets within itself.
There is an annex, a series of rooms, within which angels will be stripped of their angelhood and remade into prehumans. They make their way to these rooms, passing through ever more stringent controls, until the necessary clearance has been authorised. They are so used to this process that it doesn’t even bore them any more. It’s like breathing. And the one thing they don’t doubt is the need for secrecy.
They join the other two, who are already waiting outside the transformation theatre. Beyond something like glass, stainless machinery – an intricate jellyfish of knives and lasers - waits poised over the padded, open chassis of a kind of operating table. In a little while the tools will cut and slice and cauterize, and a little while after that – when the cellular and neurological transformations are complete, and the memories established, - four of them will go deep. He feels the anxious scrutiny of the other volunteers; even that of his lover. They know that only he understands the protocol in its entirety. That he will be travelling with him is only the smallest of consolations. If something goes wrong down there, something biomedical, something he hasn’t allowed for, there won’t be a great deal he can do.
‘I will submit to the machinery first,’ he tells the others. ‘Then I will guide the rest of you through the transformation. We will work quickly, and we will continue with the procedure once it is initiated. There will be no option to change our minds. It’s much too late for that now. But understand that this is the only beginning. Months of adaptation lie ahead of us. None of it will be pleasant. Much of it will be painful and traumatic. But you have my assurance that it is all reversible. When we have completed our mission … it can all be undone.’
‘Except the memories,’ she says.
‘New ones will fill the place of the old.’
‘But they won’t be the same.’
‘This is how it must happen. There is no other way, if we are to function down there. If we are to integrate, to pass as them.’
It’s the hardest part, in truth. The stripping away of what he is, the changing into something new, is a purely mechanical process. But to live in Neon Heights, not just to survive, but to pass as prehumans, will require more than just cosmetic and physiological alteration. Their memories of life in the Celestial Levels will be suppressed, buried under a skein of lies, lies picked out of the dying brains of those who have travelled to the levels on their Ascension Day. When the new memories have fully integrated, the volunteers will feel as if they have always lived in Neon Heights. They will remember the Celestial Levels, and they will remember the purpose of their mission. But anything not strictly essential will be allowed to wither. Even their names will be superfluous from this point on. They will take on new ones, and they will feel as if they have always known them. They will remember friends and lovers and mothers and fathers, neighborhoods and jobs and television shows and subway advertisements. They will remember the smell of shoe leather and aftershave, cigarettes and cheap perfume, the ozone crackle of electric trains.
He’d feel horror if he didn’t believe in the cause. Even with that belief, he feels a terrible trepidation. But it will be worth it, he assures himself. What they are embarking on is dangerous in the extreme. But the higher purpose it serves is unquestionably noble. The zones are a prison, not just for the angels but for the prehumans as well. But only the angels – only Measures – has the means to do something about it. With surgical modification, and the right drugs, an angel should now be able to tolerate conditions that would otherwise kill it. That’s the work he has dedicated years of his life to bringing to fruition. But by its very nature, it can’t be tested in the Celestial Levels. Nor can the knowledge of the process – even its existence - be shared with the adjoining zones. The angels maintain cordial relations with much of Spearpoint, but on some level they’ll always be feared and distrusted. No one can know that they now have the means to walk among the wingless.
So the process must be tested in secret, and that means that a party of angels must live as prehumans, until such time as the effectivess of the process has been evaluated. They will interact with the local population only as needed, and at all times with the utmost caution. Their identity cannot be known.
But when the work is done, what then? He believes that, ultimately, the project will be to the betterment of all of Spearpoint. Even if it can only ever be made to work on angels, there would be incalculable benefit in having at least one portion of the populace able to move freely, without being bound by the zones. Angels could serve as agents, couriers, free-roving specialists in universal medicine. In times of disaster or catastrophic zone change, angels could provide vital assistance. Corpuscles in the body public, keeping the city alive.
It will be for the best. It never even occurs to him to doubt this.
‘I’m ready,’ he says, and passes into the sterile hum of the transformation theatre. He lies down on the padded chassis, allowing his wings to fall through slots in the table. He supervised the design of the transformation machinery, and it was his decision that the operation should be initiated not by the surgeon, but by the subject. Once he has issued that mental command, though, there will be no means of revoking it.
He thinks of all he now is, all he is about to lose. It would be intolerable were it not for one fact: she is going with him. And that changes everything.
He gives the command. The process begins. The table enfolds him and rotates his body through one hundred and eighty degrees, until he is flat on his belly. There’s a momentary coldness near the base of his spine and then the pain is eclipsed. He hears the whisking arms as they toil to remake him, a sound like knives being sharpened against each other, but even when they begin to cut away his wings, he feels nothing except a vague itch. The work – this basic, preliminary work – is conducted with merciless efficiently. Yet for all his intimate knowledge of the process, he’s still taken aback when the arms fall silent and the table returns him to a resting position.
He lies there, appalled by the knowledge of what he has done to himself, exhilerated by the thought of what lies ahead. And then the theatre admits her and she comes to his side and touches an angelic hand against his cheek.
‘It went well,’ she says.
‘There’s nothing to be frightened of,’ he answers. Then, on a whim: ‘Show me my wings, will you?’
‘Are you sure?’ But she doesn’t wait for an answer. She collects the severed wings from the suspension tray where the system placed them, tipping them to allow the preservative nutrient to run off in greasy rivulets. She brings them to his side, holding them delicately, and allows him to touch their sleek translucence. He traces their filigreed mysteries. They have been severed very skillfully. Bone, muscle, nerve and circulatory reconnection will be uncomplicated. There’s a long history of that, just as there’s a long history of regrowing wings from scratch.
‘They’re just tissue,’ she says. ‘They don’t make us what we are.’
‘I know.’
‘And we’ll fly again. The two of us. When all this is over.’
He closes his eyes and whispers: ‘Destroy my wings.’


When he returns to the safe house for the last time – and it will be the last time; he intends only to collect what he needs and then go to ground elsewhere in Neon Heights – he parks the slot car a block away and walks the rest of the distance, vigilant for any signs of change, anything that was different the last time. They could easily have got here by now, he thinks. If the other two were reporting back to the Celestial Levels, then it’s entirely possibly that their handlers – whoever is controlling them – now realise that something has happened. Who knows what contingency plans were put in place, in the event that something went wrong with the infiltration program? Not Aruval, for she would have said something. And definitely not Quillon, for it’s clear now that he was never meant to know the full extent of the mission’s objectives.
It’s a rainy morning and nothing about the safe house, or the surrounding streets, suggests anything amiss. Except for every single detail looking malevolently off-key, every familiar thing now causing him to question the reliability of his memory. Was that window in the opposite tenement always shuttered? Was the loading bay open or closed when he was here the last time? Would there normally be this many cars parked on the other side of the street at this time of day? And those dustbins under the rain-dripping, candy-striped awning of the clocksmith – shouldn’t they have been emptied by Hygiene and Works, at least a day ago?
But he tells himself it can only be his imagination; that nothing in these quotidian details is in any way out of place. It’s just another wet morning in Neon Heights. He won’t come back here, not after today, but there’s still time to get in and out.
He enters the apartment building, checks the pigeonholes for mail. Presses the call button and waits for the creaking electric elevator to grind down to the lobby. The building’s half deserted – it’s in a crumbling, low-rent district – and no one’s around as he digs out the key and lets himself into the rooms where the four of them used to live. Rain pitter-patters on the roof over his head. Other than that it’s silent and still. He can’t hear a whisper of traffic through the grimed-over windows.
He goes into the back room. The drugs and testing devices are still there. He snaps open an empty briefcase and sharts shovelling them in. He has no idea how much he really needs. If he has to stay down here for more than a few months, these medicines won’t be enough to keep him alive. But without them, he won’t survive more than three or four weeks. Best to take what he can.
He snaps shut the briefcase and surveys the miserable, sepia-coloured surroundings. Angels slept on these dingey mattresses; they sat around that lopsided dining table and talked of the day’s activities under a brown-flickering light bulb. Sometimes they smoked local cigarettes and drank prehuman alcohol, testing the limits of their new metabolisms, seeing how well they could blend in, taking a childish delight in intoxication. Sometimes they would listen to the wireless, to the scratchy, tinny sounds that passed for music in Neon Heights, or gaze at the pale strobing rectangle of a wooden-cased television set. What the other two did repulses him, and if he’d known their intentions he would have gladly killed them before they murdered Aruval. But he remembers sitting at the table, laughing and smiling along with them. Making prehuman noises and faces, as if they’d been born to it.
Should he take the automatic? He doesn’t know. He never used it. He was never even trained to use it. He was the doctor, the transformation specialist. He doesn’t really want the gun because implicit in the understanding that the gun would make him safer is the possibility that he might at some point have cause to use it.
He slides open the bed-side drawer. He’s almost relieved to note that the automatic’s gone. At least that will free him from considering any course of action where the gun might be a necessity.
He hefts the briefcase. He’s been listening intently and no one has used the elevator since his arrival. There’s nothing else here he needs. All he has to do now is lock up and leave.
That’s when he thinks: why was the elevator on the top floor?
It would never have troubled him before; it would mean only that one of the others must have returned while he was out on some errand. But there are no others now. And hardly anyone ever comes and goes from the other rooms on the top floor.
He’s still thinking about it, trying to find an explanation that doesn’t place him in jeopardy, when he hears the soft, deliberate click of a safety catch.
A man with a low, rasping, buzz-saw voice tells him: ‘Put the case down. Turn around slowly with your hands raised.’
Quillon puts down the case and turns around slowly.
He’s a policeman. Quillon knows this instantly. He’s dressed in plainclothes, heavy grey raincoat over a heavy business suit, but it’s in the curve of his body as he leans against the doorframe, the laconic way he holds the gun – aimed not at Quillon, but at Quillon’s general location in the room, as if that’s enough. And maybe it is. Quillon doesn’t even think of trying to run. He just waits for the big man in the doorway to make the next move.
‘I said raise your hands.’
Quillon does as he’s told. ‘What’s the problem?’ he asks quietly, as any reasonable man might.
‘You’re the problem.’
‘I’m afraid I don’t understand. Am I under arrest?’
‘What do you think?’
‘I think you need to tell me why you’re aiming a gun at me. You’re a police officer, aren’t you?’
The big man scratches at stubble and the bags under his eyes. He’s got the rumpled look of someone who hasn’t seen a bed lately. Or much in the way of soap and hot water. For all that, he’s still a commanding presence. Quillon knows that even if the other man were unarmed, he wouldn’t have a hope in hell of getting past him. Angels are fast, but they’re not strong.
‘You got any compelling reason to have been near the Second District refuse dump at around three this morning?’
Quillon blinks and tries to look as if the question has left him puzzled rather than startled. ‘The Second District dump? I don’t even know where that is. What would I have been doing there anyway?’
‘I don’t know, dumping something, maybe? Making multiple visits with black bags in the trunk of your slot-car?’
‘I think you must have me mistaken for someone else.’
‘I’ve had you under observation,’ the big man says. ‘For a few days now. You’ve been of interest to me.’
‘I can’t understand why.’
The big man thinks about this for a moment. ‘We found the body.’
‘What body?’
He gives a pained smile, as if he’s reached the limit of something. ‘Let’s give up the charade, shall we? The woman at the bottom of the elevator shaft, in the Allied Pharmaceuticals warehouse. Night watchman found her in the end. I took the call. It was hard work getting to the body – which is why I figured you had no choice but to leave her there and hope no one noticed, at least for a while.’ He nods the barrel of the gun, which is a revolver, not the missing automatic. Quillon notices a micro-tremor in the man’s grip. ‘But I see you’re packing now. Thinking of moving on, by any chance?’
‘I don’t know about this woman.’
‘That’s odd, because we tied her to this apartment. Found a stub on her, a repair chit for the clocksmith across the road.’ He looks around at the many dumb, silent clocks. Only a handful are still keeping time now. ‘A lot of clocks in here, even for Neon Heights. You itchy about something?’
‘I don’t know about a clock either.’
‘Well, this woman did. She must have taken one in to be fixed. Got the repair chit, but never went back to claim the clock. Of course, the chit gave us the address of the clocksmith.’
‘Proving nothing. There must be a thousand people using that shop.’
‘Yeah, maybe. Trouble is the clocksmith specifically mentioned seeing her coming and going from this building. Said she was striking.’
‘I still don’t know her.’
‘That’s odd. I did some further digging around and found witnesses that tied her to this floor. Said that she wasn’t usually alone. Sometimes with a man, sometimes with a man and a women. Sometimes three of them. Coming and going at weird hours of the day, hardly ever talking to anyone. Getting warm?’
‘I’m sorry that this women died,’ Quillon said, and fights to hold back the emotion, because for the first time it’s hitting him that she died falling, dropping like a severed counterweight down that elevator shaft. He thinks of her collapsing her wings, plummeting through Spearpoint’s cold airs on the last day they ever flew together. The wild gleeful shriek as she recovered from the fall. ‘But I didn’t know her.’
‘And the other woman, whoever she was? The other man? Any idea who they might have been?’
‘I’m afraid not.’
‘So you just live here on your own?’
Quillon stammers out the answer, because he knows how ludricrous it will seem. ‘Yes.’ Because even a stupid local cop can see that these rooms were once occupied by more than one person.
‘I know you’re lying. I also know that there are body parts in those bags you’ve been ferrying to the dump. You cut them up in here?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘We shipped the woman to the Third District Morgue. I’ve got a friend works there, agreed to look her over. Calls me back a couple hours later and tells me what he’s cutting open isn’t like anything he’s seen before. You know anything about that?’
‘I don’t.’
‘Says she’s an angel. Or something like it. Made to look like one of us, but only on the outside. And that’s when my blood runs cold, because it’s the last thing I need.’
‘I’m sorry for you.’
‘You any idea of the shitstorm that’s coming down on my head if I file a report that says an angel was living incognito in Neon Heights? That’s big news, my friend. The kind that could embarrass a lot of people. The police chiefs trying to tell everyone they’ve got this city under control. The men in the chamber of commerce keen to keep doing business with the Levels. Any number of causes who don’t want it known that angels are operating down here, under our noses.’
‘I can imagine it might cause difficulties.’
‘The kind that can end a career. Not that that would stop me, if I really believed a crime had taken place here. But if I had reason to think that this was just some … business … some … altercation … between angels, that happened to be conducted on our turf … that might change things. Technically speaking, I’m not even sure that it would continue to be a criminal investigation at that point.’
‘Again, I’d love to help.’
‘Let me tell you what’s going to happen,’ the man says, pausing to dig his little finger into a gap in his teeth. ‘It’s one of two things. Either you’re going to give me an explanation of what went on in that warehouse, and what’s up with the body bags, or I’m going to proceed on the basis that a human crime was committed here. And arrest you and take you down to the station. I’ver got a car outside. Two other men in the car, ready to meet me.’
‘If this was the work of angels,’ Quillon says, ‘why would you not care?’
‘It’s not that I don’t care. It’s not that I relish the thought of those cold-blooded sonsof bitches sneaking around down here passing themselves off as us. It’s just that I’m smart enough to know when something’s not my problem. And this is very much not my problem.’ He looks Quillon in the eye, the man’s eyes sleepy and not quite focused, but still with an interrogator’s intensity to them. ‘So do we have an explanation, or do we not?’
There’s a moment that encompasses lifetimes. He knows that he’s reached an impasse, a point where he has no choice but to take this man at his word. He cannot escape, he cannot lie. To be taken into custody would surely result in the kind of close physical examination that would mean his identity being exposed. At the very least, he would be denied access to the antizonal medicines necessary for continued existence this far from the Celestial Levels, and the ensuing sickness would be just as revealing as any examination.
But to place his absolute, unconditional trust in a man he never set eyes on until five minutes ago?
He has no choice but to do exactly that.
‘I didn’t kill the woman,’ Quillon says.
‘That was sort of my hunch. But you did know her?’
‘Of course. You know it, so what’s the point in lying?’ At one and the same moment, Quillon feels both an enormous relief and a terrible feeling that he has stepped off the edge of something, without wings to bear him up. ‘Her name was Aruval. And yes, your friend in the morgue was correct. She is – was – an angel.’
‘And the same goes for you and the two you cut up.’
Quillon looks down. Now that he has to articulate what he has done, the words don’t come easily. ‘I killed them after they murdered Aruval. I was meant to be keeping them alive. They relied on me for that. But I altered the dosage to put them into a state of paralysis, and then I used more medicines to kill them.’
‘You want to tell me why all this happened?’
‘It’ll take a while.’
‘Do you come out of it smelling of shit or roses?’
‘I guess that’ll be for you to decide.’ Quillon pauses. ‘We came here to do something good. Aruval and I believed that. But we were wrong. That’s why they killed her. And that’s why I had to kill them.’
‘Tit for tat.’
‘I’d have been next, once they convinced themselves they didn’t need my expertise.’
The man glances past Quillon to the table. ‘Whatever that is, pour me a shot of it. We’re not going anywhere fast.’
Quillon does as the man tells him, handing him the glass even as the man still has the gun on him.
‘If I tell you everything, and you still take me in, where does that get me?’
‘Exactly where you’d be, just quicker. You’ll just have to trust me when I say I don’t want to get involved in angel business. And I’ll have to trust that you’re not spinning me a lie. Puts us in the same boat, sort of.’
‘If you say so.’
‘You want to start with your name?’
‘Sounds local.’
‘It is. And I don’t remember my real name. It was scrubbed from my memory when they sent us down here. And you’d be, who exactly?’
‘Fray,’ the man says off-handedly, as if he’s given away nothing of value. ‘Not that it matters to you. You and me, we won’t be doing continued business. If I like your story, you’re out the door and we never see each other again. If I don’t, it’s down to the station and you’ll be snatched away from me faster than I can blink.’
And Quillon notices again the slight tremor in the man’s big fisted hand, the nervous quiver of the meniscus against the sides of the glass.
‘Maybe we could help each other,’ Quillon says.
Fray takes a big gulp from the glass. ‘Somehow I doubt it.’


Through a gap in the dust-caked blinds he watches the slot-car pull up outside the apartment. He’s been standing there for most of the night, keeping vigil. He can’t say why. It’s not as if he knew something was going to happen, because if that had been the case he would never have allowed Aruval to go with them. And if he had believed her, truly believed her, instead of telling her that they would wait until they had more evidence, then perhaps she would not have gone with them either. Together, Aruval and he could have done something. They could have confronted the other two, forced them into an admission of their real intentions. But now the car comes back, wheels off-slot, halts at the curb, and only two raincoated figures emerge. For a moment one of them holds the passenger door open and he thinks she might still be about to emerge, that all might be well, but then the door is slammed, and the two figures walk across the puddled, rain-spattered pavement and out of view into the lobby. A minute or so passes. Time for a last, frantic, whispered exchange. Working out what they’re going to say to him. Getting their story right. They’ve had the whole of the journey home to talk about it but it’s never enough. And then he hears the labouring whine of the elevator, bringing them up to the top floor. And thinks: they’ll be ready to kill me. If they have even the slightest suspicion that I know, it’s over. They’ve seen how the medications work. They can self-administer, if it comes to a choice between that and the mission being fatally compromised.
So he cannot let even a glimmer of skepticism show. Even though he knows, with bitter certainty, that they have killed Aruval.
The elevator arrives; he hears the dying whine of the motor and the iron clunk of its heavy doors. Footsteps along the hall, squishy with wet soles. Key in the door.
He lets the gap in the blind close tight, and returns to the table where he has been preparing the next batch of antizonals. It’s not hard to force his composure into one of acute disinterest. The one thing none of them are good at is making faces, and on the few occasions when he’s been outside Quillon has found the effort quite remarkably taxing. Inside the apartment, they’re all glad not to have to blend in, not to have keep striking the right note. Like overstretched rubber masks, their faces are keen to snap back into expressionless neutrality. Even their voices turn duller, like actors reading a script for timing, not effect.
‘You’ve been gone a while,’ he says, because it’s true and exactly what he ought to say.
‘You know we had work to do,’ says Baston, shaking the rain off his hat before hanging it up.
‘Did you get to the warehouse?’ They had gone to Allied Pharmaceuticals, to steal drugs necessary for their continued existence in Neon Heights.
‘We couldn’t get inside,’ Glaive says. ‘Too much security, too many lights on inside. It’s not normally like that. We’ll try again tomorrow.’
‘We need those antizonals.’
They had come down from the Levels with all the medicines that they could bring, but actual immersion in the zone is proving more costly than expected. Now the original supplies have been all but exhausted, and they must scavenge and improvise. The raid on the warehouse – supposedly poorly patrolled at night – was meant to have solved their problems for weeks.
‘And we’ll try again,’ Glaive repeats. ‘What is it with you, Quillon? Don’t you know we did our best?’
He looks beyond her, to the hall. ‘Where’s Aruval? Didn’t she come up with you?’
‘No, she’s still out there,’ Baston says, too casually.
Quillon dredges his mind for the appropriate response. ‘On her own? Since when was that protocol?’
Glaive says: ‘You know it is with Aruval. Hard to talk round once she gets an idea into her head.’
‘She decided to go and buy some over-the counter antizonals, using local cash,’ Baston says.
‘That’s not how it’s meant to happen. She’ll have to fill out forms, state the reason for needing the drugs. You know tightly they control the dispensaries.’
‘Yes,’ Glaive says patiently. ‘So do we all. So did Aruval. But she also knew we needed the medicines.’
‘And you let her go in alone?’
‘Better one of us take the risk, than all three,’ Baston says. ‘She understood that. And it’s just a one-off. We’re not establishing a pattern here. We’re not doing anything that will lead the authorities to the safe house.’
‘You hope.’
Baston’s demeanour is still rigorously calm. ‘Look, it’s easy for you. You hardly ever go out, hardly ever have to interact with the prehumans. We don’t have that luxury. And we certainly don’t have the luxury of being able to function without medicines. All Aruval’s doing is buying us some time in case we can’t get into the warehouse for a few days.’
‘Our supplies aren’t that low,’ Quillon says, but refrains from adding anything because he doesn’t want them to think he doesn’t believe their story. Only that he doubts the wisdom of it, which is something else. ‘You shouldn’t have let her go off alone,’ he says.
‘We tried to talk her out of it,’ Glaive answers. ‘You know how it is.’
‘I suppose.’ He looks around the room’s choir of clocks, their synchronised dials alert to the slightest hint of zone instability. They must be on guard at all times. What would inconvenience a local could prove rapidly fatal to an angel, for all their adaptations. ‘Well, when is she due back?’
‘It’s still early,’ Glaive said. ‘She’ll have a long wait until the dispensaries open.’ She glances at Baston, as if cross-checking a detail of their story. ‘I’ll be surprised if she makes it back much before noon. You should get some rest, Quillon. There’s no sense waiting up now.’
‘I need to finish these preparations.’
‘Don’t worry about Aruval,’ Baston says. ‘She can take care of herself.’
‘I know.’
He doesn’t rest, but continues to occupy himself with the antizonals, cutting and mixing, diluting and crystallising, testing against locally-sourced reagents and a dozen caged mice purchased from a grubby pet shop in the Second District. Of course the mice are acclimatized to life in Neon Heights but they can still be used to gauge the crude efficacy of the drugs, the severity of likely side-effects. Every day Quillon examines his colleagues, watchful for the creeping onset of Massive Maladaptive Trauma. They are all susceptible to some degree. They aren’t meant to be alive down here; all the transformations have done is allow them to survive with the aid of medicines. None of the angels are exactly alike in their responses, and each day the individual dosage must be recalculated. The work is complicated, requiring constant, scrupulous diligence. He makes the others perform tests of numbing repetetiveness. He has them read from cards, hold long lists in short-term memory, recite numeric sequences, catch falling objects when he lets them drop between his fingers. He shines lights into their eyes and pushes needles into reflex sites. He runs equally demanding tests on himself, with the other angels’ assistance. He computes dosages against graphs drawn in notepads from memory.
All the time, though, he’s aware that the others are learning. They don’t have his expertise and never will. But they’re intelligent – they wouldn’t be on the mission if they were not – and they can follow the outline of a process. They know the kinds of drugs they would need to source, and if they were forced to make their own preparations, they probably know enough to at least not kill themselves.
He wonders if they’ve realised it yet, and if not, how long it will take them.
He decides not to wait until Aruval is clearly late from her drug-procuring errand. In the mid-morning, as is his routine, he runs another battery of tests, calculates dosages, and selects the right strength of antizonals. Or at least appears to do. This is the moment of maximum risk, when he relies on sleight of hand to give himself the right dose and the other two something not right at all. He has to act quickly, but not so quickly that it looks odd. If the effects show in Baston before he gets to Glaive, she will turn on him.
But his calculations are good, his acting believable.
‘Something’s not quite right,’ Baston says, two minutes after the administration. ‘I feel … odd.’
‘What’s wrong?’ Glaive asks, the effects yet to kick in.
‘Lie down,’ Quillon says, with plausible urgency. ‘I doubt that it’s anything serious. Your readings were a little on the limit; it’s possible I may need to give you a corrective dosage.’
‘This hasn’t happened before,’ Baston says, lying down on one of the beds, muscular stiffness already apparent to Quillon’s eyes.
‘We’re in uncharted territory now, so I’m afraid this kind of thing is likely to happen more and more. But it’s perfectly within my abilities to correct for slight miscalculations. I just need to keep you under observation for a few minutes, and then I can … ’
‘What have you done?’ Glaive asks, and he turns round and sees her standing there, looking down at her hand, palm to the ceiling, the hand tremoring wildly.
‘Nothing!’ Quillon says. ‘I just followed the usual … ’
‘But you’re all right.’
‘One of the samples may have been incorrectly strengthed. Again, I can correct for it. Lie down, with Baston.’
‘This feels wrong. You’ve overshot before and it didn’t feel like this.’
‘My chest is tightening,’ Baston says, the first hint of panic breaking through his voice.
Glaive stumbles towards the door, towards her coat and the gun she must still be keeping there. She doesn’t reach it. Her left leg stiffens, the right buckles under her. She falls to the floor, crashing her head against the leg of a chair. ‘Quillon,’ she says, trying to force herself back up again. ‘What did you … ’
He’s past the point of pretence now, and they know it. The figure on the bed is choking, looking at him with wide, fear-filled eyes. Baston is nearly paralysed; Glaive will soon follow. He returns to his table and the prepared medicines, and sets about loading two syringes.
‘I want you to tell me what really happened,’ he says. Baston, by this point, can’t even breathe, let alone speak. Quillon continues softly: ‘Aruval knew something, didn’t she? She came to me, told me there was something she wasn’t happy about, something that concerned the true purpose of this mission. She said there was an agenda, a directive, that she and I were not aware of.’
‘Quillon,’ Glaive says again, but this time about all she can manage is a strangulated gurgle.
‘She’d seen the two of you conspiring, when you didn’t think you were being observed. She’d seen you returning from errands to different parts of the city than the ones you were meant to go to.’
He moves over to the bed, to Baston. By now the male angel is completely still, in a state superficially indistinguishable from death. He cannot breathe, and his heart will stop soon unless the paralysis is eased. Quillon draws up Baston’s sleeve and injects just the right amount. Then he moves to Glaive, who is still on the floor, and repeats the procedure.
‘I should have listened to her,’ Quillon says. ‘Instead I told her it was normal to feel feelings of paranoia after prolonged exposure to high-strength antizonals. I told her that if there really was something going on, I’d have noticed it. And that if I was going to believe her, I’d need something concrete. Is that what happened? Did she confront you out there, when you were supposed to be breaking into Allied Pharmaceuticals?’
‘We told you,’ Baston says, able to croak out a few words even as the drugs pin him to the bed. ‘Couldn’t break into the warehouse. Too much security.’
‘And that was the last you saw of her? She went off to buy the drugs over the counter?’
‘Yes.’ But there’s something desperate and hopeless in Baston’s answer. Even if it’s the truth, knows it’s not going to be enough to assuage Quillon.
‘I think you’re lying,’ Quillon tells him. ‘I think you two decided that Aruval was an operational risk, an impediment to the success of whatever it was you were meant to be doing down here.’
‘You’re wrong,’ says Glaive.
‘Very well.’
He moves back to the table, empties the syringes and reloads them, this time drawing from different vials.
It’s perhaps only then – before the work is complete – that the truth really hits him. He hasn’t just lost Aruval, as certain as he is of that fact. He’s lost everything else as well. Because if Aruval was right – and he has by now more or less committed himself to that possibility – then there can be no hope of him returning to the Celestial Levels. The people who sent him, the people he trusted, either lied to him or were themselves lied to. Either way, there is no safe haven there. If it has not already happened, he is about to become an inconvenient detail in someone else’s scheme. Baston and Glaive have robbed him of more than his lover. They have stolen the place that made him, the only part of Spearpoint that will ever feel like home. He thinks back to the last time he flew with Aruval, that cooling evening before his wings were snipped away, his glib certainty that he would not need them again, that he could always grow new ones when he returned. Strange that he remembers that so well, when he doesn’t even recall his own name. But at the time even losing his name seemed no more than a necessary inconvenience, something that could be put right when he returned at mission’s end.
But now there will never be a mission’s end.
‘I want to know what this is all about,’ he says, moving to Glaive. ‘You are going to die; that’s not up for debate. There aren’t enough drugs in the whole of Allied Pharmaceuticals to undo the damage I’ve already done. And it’s going to be slow, and it’s going to hurt. You can trust me on that. I know more about the relationship between pain receptors and zone sickness than anyone on this planet. I can, however, alleviate that pain.’ He pushes the mask of his face into a smile. ‘To some degree. I can make it quicker, too. To some degree. But only if I feel I’m getting truthful answers to my questions.’
There is terror in Glaive’s eyes. He is fairly certain that she wasn’t expecting to die this day, and by his hand. He holds the syringe up to the window, daylight seeping through the blinds, and taps a finger against the glass barrel to eliminate bubbles.
‘So. Shall we begin?’