If you're still after a signed first edition of Inhibitor Phase, keep an eye on Goldsboro Books. Here I am signing copies which will shortly go back to them.
Friday, 10 September 2021
Wednesday, 8 September 2021
It's Star Trek Day apparently, so by way of minor celebration, here's a nearly completed model of Galileo, from The Original Series.
The shuttlecraft was one of my favorite SF designs, standing out even though it featured in relatively few episodes. I like the utilitarian, non-aggressive look and the way it echoes some of the design features of the larger Enterprise, suggesting a common technology.
The first model kit of any type that I owned was the AMT Enterprise, largely built by my dad and later broken (by me). AMT had gained the rights to produce the kit before the original series aired, via a strange deal that saw them producing the prop and miniatures for the shuttlecraft to be used in filming. AMT made one full-size shuttlecraft which still exists, albeit after extensive restoration. Weirdly, to me, AMT didn't release their own kit of the shuttlecraft until 1974, half a decade after Star Trek's initial run. I don't ever remember seeing one in the shops, although I had the AMT Klingon cruiser (broken by me) and the Spock diorama (also broken by me - can you see a pattern here?).
This new kit is from Polar Lights and was released in 2020. It purports to be the most accurate rendition of the shuttlecraft and I've no reason to argue with that. It lacks any interior detail but that's not too obvious once the model is finished as not much light gets in. Mine went together quite easily although I did have to use a bit of filler here and there to get the seamless look of the studio model. I sprayed it using Ford Dove Grey and it looks about right. The decals are excellent but the absence of panel lines and so on makes it a bit tricky to get them aligned.
My model came from Antics:
And here's a fun video about the restoration of the original prop:
Tuesday, 7 September 2021
I was delighted to be told that my short story Zima Blue won Japan's Seiun award for best translated story. Although the news link below is from July, I was asked not to mention anything until after the middle of August, and then I forgot to note it here.
The story itself originally appeared in Postscripts magazine in 2005. I'd written it in 2004, fresh off the back of tutoring an Arvon writing retreat with Christopher Priest. Spending a week with the masterful Priest, not to mention the other writers, doing little but talk about fiction and its many facets, left my head spinning with inspiration and an intense need to write something. But the story itself did not come easily. I''ve written before about the creative processes that led to the central idea, so I won't bore you with them here, but it was only after that watery epiphany in a Dutch swimming pool that I was able to settle down and finally create the story. Although it is now 17 years since it was written, I'm still very pleased with it as an entry within my own output. Of course the story cast a few minor ripples and then faded away, as is the nature of these things, but it gained a curious second life when it was picked up to be animated for the Netflix series Love, Death and Robots. Now there are many videos and articles dissecting the themes of the animation and sometimes going beyond it to the original story. There have been Zima Blue internet memes, Zima Blue t-shirts and mugs (Peter Hamilton kindly gave me one of the latter). There is a Zima Blue edition of a particular brand of electric guitar, although so far they haven't told me where they got the name from. Whether or not the Seiun nomination benefitted from this Netflix signal boost, I don't know, but it is a pleasing development all the same.
The full results of the Seiun award are here:
Friday, 3 September 2021
Courtesy of Media Death Cult again, I list ten SF books that I found particularly influential in shaping me as a writer. These were all books I encountered in my teens, or thereabouts.
I've put it in as a link this time.
Blogger allows me to search Youtube to provide an embedded link, but for some weird reason this one won't come up in the search. I've had this happen before where I want to link to a specific music video which I know to be on Youtube but which blogger maddeningly refuses to list.
Incidentally this list was far from exhaustive. I could have added titles by James White, Larry Niven, Joe Haldeman, Gregory Benford and many others. But one has to draw a line somewhere.
Thursday, 2 September 2021
I'm informed that the problems with the audiobook have been fixed (it was a file transfer problem which only affected certain retailers) and that those who have downloaded the affected copy can delete it and then download again to get the corrected version.
I appreciate the audio team fixing the issue as quickly as they did.
Wednesday, 1 September 2021
Hello. Until the audiobook problem is resolved, I'm putting the entire chapter six here for anyone missing the complete article. As I understand it from Stephanie's comments in the previous post, this is chapter seven in the audiobook. I've no idea why the numbering has changed.
Do let me know if anything else is missing, and I'll endeavour to put it up here.
In another part of the ship a table had been laid for dinner. Plump-backed chairs faced each other, with plates, cutlery, glasses, bottles and jugs set between them. Candle flames wavered in Scythe’s air-circulation currents.
‘If you want me to eat, just give me some food I can take back to my quarters.’
‘No, I insist. And when I say “insist” . . .’ Glass indicated the chair facing the window. ‘Take that one. They say it’s polite to let guests have the view.’
Rather than argue with her – sensing how futile it was likely to be – I took my seat. Glass took up the opposing one, with the windows ranged behind her back. There was no sign of Michaelmas now, only the ruddy smear of the dust disk, pricked by a few of the brighter stars. There must have been some trick of contrast going on because even the candlelight should have washed out my view of those stars.
Glass poured wine for me without asking.
‘Let’s begin anew, Miguel. Let’s put all that bad business behind us. I’ve taken you from your family, and that’s not a thing I expect you to thank me for. But I guarantee in time you’ll see matters in a different light. Until then, we are obliged to share this ship. Share this ship, share in my quest, and – in so far as your survival is predicated on my own – look out for each other.’ She dropped her voice confidingly. ‘We’re heading for dangerous waters. Sea monsters and peril. But at the end of it will be a prize worth all our travails.’
‘You were paying attention after all. Now shall we agree to a truce, of sorts? My ship is your ship.’ She raised her own glass and encouraged me to raise mine. ‘A toast. But not to me, or even to us: it’s far too soon for that. You despise me and I understand your feelings. But to your friends, and mine, and our mutual struggle against the wolves. The night is cold, the forest full of terrors , but there is a glimmer of light on the horizon.’
‘To my friends,’ I allowed.
‘And to mine.’
‘And pray they never meet,’ I continued. ‘Because whatever you are, and whoever or whatever sent you, I want no part of it.’
‘My friends aren’t the same as me.’
Glass sipped from her wine, and I sipped from mine, and as much as I wished it to be otherwise, it was heady and delicious.
Nor did I care that the wine might contain anything, or that it would very likely cloud my judgement. I was on Glass’s ship now, entirely at the mercy of whatever she wanted to put into my body or take out of it. If I allowed myself to draw a breath of air, I might as well drink her wine.
‘What can I possibly offer that you can’t already do for yourself?’ I asked her. ‘Or have this ship do for you?’
‘You’ll have proven your worth by the time we get to Charybdis.’
‘Which is where, exactly? I didn’t think I’d ever heard of a planet called Charybdis. So I checked Sun Hollow’s libraries: no mention of any such place.’
‘Then you’ll have to trust that it exists. But I’ll help with part of your confusion. The reason the name doesn’t show up is that it’s one I gave to the place, not anything official.’
‘Then where is it?’
‘In a system within easy reach of this ship.’
‘But still decades of flight away.’
Glass gave a hopeless shrug, as if we were both caught up in a situation that had nothing to do with her interventions. ‘Space is deep. What can you do?’
White spheres floated into the room. They were some kind of servitor, each about the size of a human head . Multi-jointed arms came out of each sphere, holding the steaming plates containing our first course. The plates contained a selection of dumplings, glistening with drizzled sauces. The spheres set the dishes down, then departed.
If the wine had been superlative, the dumplings required a vocabulary I no longer possessed. It might have been the contrast with the diet in Sun Hollow, but I could not remember anything more delicious, or anything better suited to the fading preferences of my palette. I was a blind man rediscovering colour.
‘To your taste?’
‘Don’t expect gratitude.’ I paused, swallowed another morsel of dumpling. ‘But you were right about your ship. It cooks very well.’
I made to set down my knife, then hesitated with it still between my fingers. It was heavy, made of some cold solid alloy. It was not as long or as sharp as I might have wished, but it could still do some useful damage if I were quick enough.
Glass pushed aside her plate. ‘You’re thinking about stabbing me. You’re debating with yourself whether or not you could spring across the table speedily enough to reach me. There’s another part of you wondering if the knife will melt in your hand the instant you try to do some harm with it, or even if it will turn itself against you.’
She must have expected me to put down the knife in befuddlement, astonished that she had read my intentions so unerringly. She must also have thought I would ask how such a feat of mind-reading were possible.
Instead, I lunged across the table with all the force I could muster, the knife before me, scattering plates and glassware, only thinking of whether it was better to go for the eye, the throat, or the chest. I was ready to hack and stab at her until she died. I was ready to test her promise all the way.
Glass did not seem to move. There was simply a discontinuity; she was in a different position, blocking me with her right arm and seizing my knife hand with her left. I stopped as if I had impacted an iron framework, an armature welded into the shape of a woman.
Glass did something to my wrist, barely a pinch, and the knife tumbled away. Then she held me in that posture, suspended over the wreckage of the table, our faces only a hand’s width apart.
‘I don’t blame you for trying,’ she said, as calmly as if we were still continuing our conversation. ‘It would have been all too easy for me to bluff.’ She reached out and retrieved the knife, then slid it back over to my side of the table, through a tide-pool of spilled wine. Then she relaxed her hold on me, giving me a gentle shove back in the direction of my seat. ‘Try again, just so you’re absolutely clear. Go for it with all your will. This time I won’t make any sort of countermove. Scythe will intervene instead.’ She dipped her hands into her lap, beneath the table. ‘No, please try. It will be . . . instructive.’
I thought about it for a second then pushed the knife further away. My hand contained a little hot star of pain where she had pinched my nerves together.
‘There wouldn’t be much point.’
Glass looked to the door. The spheres came in again and quickly tidied up the mess I had made. The throb in my wrist was starting to die down.
‘See the larger picture,’ she continued, lifting her goblet again. ‘Make that adjustment, no matter how hard it seems. Come with me and find something that will make a difference against the wolves. Show, if you will, the ultimate love for those close to you.’
The spheres brought in the main course. I had no wish to continue playing the subservient guest to my domineering host. But that was only my pride having its say: my appetite was perfectly willing to debase itself .
‘Back in Sanctum,’ I said, lifting my knife by way of emphasis, rather than with the intention of stabbing. ‘You said something that puzzled me.’
‘You were making a point about the ethics of intention. To serve as an example, you dredged up the Butcher of Tharsis.’
Glass cocked her head. ‘I suppose I did.’
‘Why him? You had all of history to play with; any number of despots and mad-men. Why did you settle on the Butcher of Tharsis, out of all the possibilities?’
She met my question with one of her own. ‘Did they teach you much about him?’
‘Enough that I remember that his name was Nevil Clavain.’ I ate on for a few mouthfuls. ‘A military figure, something to do with Mars. A long, long way back. Five or six hundred years, I suppose.’
‘He was involved in the first war against the Conjoiners,’ Glass said, leaning in with a sort of scholarly eagerness, as if she had just learned something and was itching to parade her knowledge. ‘He tried to crush them, tried to stop them from happening. He earned that name because of the excessive brutality and cruelty of his methods.’
‘He’d probably have said he was just doing his job as a soldier.’
‘I’m inclined to take the same view,’ Glass said, surprising me. ‘Different times. We mustn’t be too censorious. But a man like that – a man prepared to go to extremes, in the interests of a military end? He’d be quite useful to have around now, wouldn’t you say?’
My quarters were several times more comfortable and well-equipped than any chambers I had known in Sun Hollow. They consisted of several linked rooms. There was a bedroom, a small lounge, a toilet, a bathroom with a weightless shower and washing basin – which even ran to a selection of soaps, oils, unguents, and grooming accessories – as well as a wardrobe and exercise nook. The water in the bathroom ran so hot that I nearly scalded myself. For my entertainment, there was a small library of printed books, mostly classics, and all of them conveniently in their early Russish or late Russian or English editions. There was a digital library, with a searchable database accessed by a fold-out keyboard suspiciously similar to the ones we used in Sun Hollow. One of the lounge walls was configured to act as a false window, showing the view beyond Scythe’s hull, but it could as easily show ocean breakers or a mountaintop sunset or a million other supposedly soothing scenes. The facilities met all my needs and more: it was almost a shame that I would be making so little use of them.
Glass assured me that I was not a prisoner, and as soon as I had explored the room, washed and dressed (there were fresh garments in the wardrobe, and they fitted me perfectly) I tried leaving my quarters.
Nothing prevented me.
I walked in every direction for as far as I could, until I was certain that I had explored every possibility at least twice. I found the hibernaculum, with two waiting reefersleep caskets; I found a sort of games room or weapons-testing range, and near to it another room full of weapons stored behind walls of opaque glass, so that all I could make out were murky silhouettes.
In another part I came upon a corridor that ended in a partition inset with a small window, with a bright space beyond it. I peered through the window and saw what, at first, I imagined to be a kind of engine room, filled with a mass of beguiling, mirror-surfaced machinery. Spherical robots were toiling in and around the machinery, slipping between blade-like vanes and corkscrewing helices that made me think of some immense turbine, stilled for now, but capable of whirling into lethal motion. It could not be an engine room, though, or at least nothing resembling a conventional engine. I had seen little enough of Scythe from outside, as it hovered over Michaelmas. But that glimpse had been enough to identify the basic cruciform outline of a ship built according to Conjoiner principles, with a pointed hull and two outriggers upon which were mounted Conjoiner engines. Glass had mentioned that they were darkdrives, but my instincts told me that this was a variation on the basic technology, rather than something entirely new.
The partition had no hinges or visible seals in it, but that did not preclude it becoming a door upon the right command. Yet despite my curiosity as to the room’s contents, I felt an instinctive disinclination to go beyond the partition. A prickling intuition told me that something was going on in that space that was neither safe nor wise, and I wondered what it said about the sanity of my host.
That was the only visible part of the ship to which I was denied immediate access, and yet it could be no accident that I had been allowed to get exactly as close as the window but no nearer. If Glass did not want me to see what was happening in that chamber, she could easily have denied me access to this whole area of the ship, or just made the partition opaque. She had done neither of those things, and I did not for a moment imagine it was through simple oversight or neglect. Glass was content – willing, even – for me to see the thing that the robots were working on, and that fact alone told me that it figured in my future.
Or at least the future that she thought she had planned for me.
I touched the glass, felt an astral coldness, then backed off and resumed my explorations. I went as far as I could, along straight corridors and curved passages, through junctions and nodes, and at every point I tried to visualise myself as a small moving dot within the form of Scythe, attempting to build a mental map. But the ship’s layout was disorientating, the task hopeless. I had been denied no apparent point of entry, except for that partition itself. And except for what I saw through the glass, I had come across nothing that looked delicate or dangerous enough to be a promising candidate for sabotage. I did not want to die, but if I had found a means of crippling the ship, forcing Glass to return to Sun Hollow, even if that did no more than buy me time until she once again bettered us, I would gladly have taken it.
Perhaps it was something in the wine or the food, or it might be the accumulation of recent days, but eventually fatigue got the better of me. I gave up exploring, accepting that Glass was in complete control of my surroundings, and returned to my bedroom. It was easily found, as if the ship had detected my intentions and opened up a helpful short-cut within itself. A fog of tiredness sent me under the sheets, but not before I sat at the fold-down keyboard and attempted one query, typing in a word and seeing what Scythe had to say to me.
The word was Cydonia.
A moment later the system responded, an image appearing of the rust-red face of a small, airless planet, before zooming in on a part of that planet where a random conjunction of geological events had produced something eerily similar to a human face, staring back at me with blank eye-sockets that reminded me of nothing other than Glass herself.
Superimposed over that image, in green Russish text:
Cydonia: region of Mars, First System.
See also: Knights of Cydonia.
See also: Conjoiner-Coalition War.
See also: Nevil Clavain.
I slept badly.
I had been ripped from my home, torn from the two people I most loved in the universe. I had been severed from the community I had helped build; the five thousand faces that might be all that was left of humanity. In place of family life and the consoling obligations of work and duty – the almost comforting grind of daily worries and pressures – I had been granted the company of a ghoul-faced psychological tormentress and a dark, dangerous ship I neither understood nor trusted.
It was not what she had done to me that I found most troubling: not the sundering from my people; not the flight from Sun Hollow; not the confinement aboard Scythe.
It was the little cracks she was opening up in my self: fine as the flaws in tooth enamel. And just as surely with the promise of agony to come.
‘Good morning, Miguel.’ Glass was sitting at the table, finishing off a glass of squeezed fruit. ‘I trust everything was to your satisfaction?’
‘If it wasn’t, would it make any difference?’
‘Ah.’ She nodded peremptorily, confirming some inner suspicion. ‘I see that we’re going to continue in that vein. I’d rather hoped that a good night’s rest would have put you in a more agreeable mood.’
‘You mean, a more subservient one.’
‘I’d rather think in terms of cooperation. Still . . . how about a little diversion, over breakfast? Sit down, please.’
As I took my chair I said: ‘Nevil Clavain was a Knight of Cydonia.’
‘Was he now?’
‘But, of course, you’ll know that I know that. There’s no way in hell you’d let me access Scythe’s data systems without keeping a record of my queries.’
‘And what did you make of your little detour into early history?’
‘You tell me.’
‘He was an interesting figure,’ Glass mused. ‘First a staunch enemy of the Conjoiners; one of the highest-ranking figures in the Coalition for Neural Purity. But something happened to turn him. We know that he was captured and held prisoner by Galiana, the enemy’s leader. But he eventually returned to his own side and appeared to still believe in the cause. Something must have changed in him, though; some little seed of doubt planted during that period of capture.’
‘I read a little further. He didn’t defect without provocation.’
‘No?’ Glass asked, as if she did not already have the facts laid out like a schematic.
‘There was a peace mission. Clavain went down to Mars to talk the Conjoiners into accepting some kind of treaty. At that point he was still fully aligned with his own cause. But elements in his own side were working to sabotage the peace initiative. Clavain was deemed expendable in that effort. They set him up to die, making it look as if the Conjoiners were to blame. History tells us that he survived, though. And the fact of that betrayal was obviously sufficient to shift his loyalty to Galiana.’
Glass widened the black pools of her eyes. ‘The betrayal must have stung.’
‘I suppose that it did.’
‘The architect of that betrayal must have been very glad when Clavain took his leave from human affairs.’
‘Do you think so?’ Without waiting for her answer, I added, ‘Here’s another question, Glass. You dropped that reference into our conversation for a reason. Like a depth charge, trying to sound something out. But I’m afraid it didn’t have the effect you desired.’
‘I’m sure that it didn’t. Of course, it’s a little telling you felt the need to query Scythe . . .’
‘Because I’m still trying to figure you out, and if you throw me a bone, I’ll follow it. Even if it leads to a dead-end from history.’
‘Well, I think all we were talking about was the usefulness of the military mind. I picked a . . . bad example, is all. I’m sorry if it touched anything raw.’
‘It didn’t . . .’ But I shook my head, exasperated by Glass and even more frustrated by my own reaction to her; how easily I felt played. ‘But you’re wrong, anyway.’
‘A man like that isn’t any use to anyone, now or then. We’re fighting monsters. We don’t have to become monsters ourselves.’
‘Let us hope, then, that we haven’t already done so.’ She passed me the other glass of squeezed fruit, and then whipped a cloth away from the thing in the middle of the table. It was the pegboard game we had played in the infirmary, set up for the start of play. Not the game itself, unless Glass had spirited it along with her, but an indistinguishably precise replica. ‘And to prove that I am not the monster you may think, I’m prepared to offer you back your family.’
I shook my head, refusing to accept any part of that statement.
‘If you want to mess with my head, Glass, do it some other way. I’m resigned. You wouldn’t have gone to all that trouble only to throw me back.’
‘Ah, but my word is my bond. And I’m perfectly sincere in this. I told you I like games. We’ll play three rounds. If you win two of those rounds, I’ll turn this ship around and take us back to Sun Hollow. You can go home, live happy ever after.’ She made a tiny doubtful pucker of her lips. ‘Well, apart from the wolves, of course. But if I win two rounds, we continue to my next port of call.’
Some foolish part of me played along. ‘Is that Charybdis?’
‘No, there’s some small business I have to attend to first, in another system. You needn’t be woken for any part of that. But of course, you can avoid all that by taking me on.’
I shook my head, refusing to be drawn in. ‘I don’t believe for a second that you’ll honour your promise if I win.’
Glass sighed. ‘You have a choice here. We’ll either play the game or we won’t. If we don’t, we’ll go straight to the hibernaculum. If you do play, there’s an outside possibility that you’ll see Nicola and Victorine again. And I’ll make it a fairer contest: I can handicap myself, de-allocating neural resources.’
With a fatal guarded interest, I asked: ‘By how much?’
Glass looked pleased. ‘I’ll start with a figure; a percentage handicap. I’ll make my opening offer generous, but I’ll be reducing that handicap by one per cent for every second that passes. The sooner you jump in, the better your advantage – but you’ll need to be quick about it. Wait too long, and I’ll be playing with almost no handicap at all.’
‘I know this is meaningless,’ I said, sighing as well. ‘But if there’s even a tiny chance that you can be beaten, and that you’ll honour your promise, I’m compelled to try.’
Glass nodded emphatically. ‘Right answer.’
‘Start your damned reverse auction.’
‘I shall. Fifteen per cent . . .’
‘Accept,’ I said, I jumping in before she had a chance to say another word.
Glass favoured me with a tight-lipped, approving nod. ‘That was . . . much quicker than I expected. My opening bid wasn’t too low for you?’
‘Of course it was too low. What difference is a fifteen per cent handicap likely to make? But it was the best offer I was going to get. It’s vastly in your favour, but it’s still better than no advantage at all.’
‘You aren’t the first I’ve played this auction game with,’ Glass confided. ‘You’d be surprised how many don’t see things as clearly as you did. Others hesitate.’
‘Perhaps they don’t trust you enough to take the game seriously.’
‘But you did?’
‘No, but a poor chance in a weighted game is better than no chance at all. Shall we get this over with?’
Glass let me have the first game. Or perhaps I won it by legitimate means: she was playing well, but so was I. The difference between this time and the game in the infirmary was that I gave no quarter from the outset. In the infirmary I had been playing to keep her amused, not taking it seriously until she began to better me, by which point it was far too late to turn the tide. Now I went in hard, straining to think as many moves ahead as possible, and drawing on the memories of a thousand games won and lost against Nicola and Victorine. It was not about the fates of individual pegs, but the disposition of pieces as a whole.
But the second game went to Glass. I held her off for as long as I could, and at one point thought I had her cornered, but it proved a false dawn. She responded cleverly and soon had me pinned down. I managed to drag out the inevitable for a few more moves, but the game was all but decided. She had bettered me, and yet I could not deny that the game had felt fairly won. I had played against machines, and knew the feeling of losing to an algorithm. Glass was not like that. I only ever felt that I was playing against a person: one who was both ruthless and extremely quick to learn and adapt
Defeated, I leaned back in my chair.
‘You knew you’d beat me, even with half your brain switched off.’
‘But I haven’t beaten you – not just yet. We’re even: both a game up. The third is the decider.’
‘I’ve nothing left to play.’
‘You’ve also nothing left to lose. We’ve each learned from each other. Either of us could make an error. Either of us could stumble on a surprising move.’
I sighed, shook my head, but set up the pegs on my side of the board while Glass did hers. Glass permitted me to make the starting move. I accepted, and embarked on a counter-intuitive opening, one that opened up an initial weakness in my flank. It looked like a bid to end the game quickly, but I had lulled Nicola into a similar false security, and it had not gone well for her. I doubted there was much hope of Glass falling into the same trap, but it seemed to offer marginally better odds than a continuation of my earlier style of play.
It worked, for a little while. Glass was thrown . . . she could dig into the bag of moves she had learned from me, and find that none of them were applicable to this new configuration. She had to improvise, and in doing so she opened up a subtle vulnerability of her own, one that it took my own experience to recognise and exploit. I retaliated, treating her as callously as she had treated me, and I began to methodically shatter her defences.
But as we each depleted our opponents’ pieces, so the game fell into a more familiar pattern, and Glass was again able to draw on her developing library of moves and sequences of moves. There came a point where all my instincts told me I was beaten, but I strove not to show it, playing with all the intensity and concentration I had brought to the game from the outset.
Glass won. I had bloodied her, but not enough, and the tournament was hers.
‘That was instructive,’ she said, packing away the pegboard.
‘To see how gullible I was, to ever think you would let me win?’
‘On the contrary: to see how determined you were, until the last. I’ve a small confession to make.’
‘No, I kept to my promise. But I had Scythe run a non-invasive scan of your neural workflow during all three games. I wanted to see how seriously you were taking it. The answer pleases me. You gave your all, right until the end. No one could have played more valiantly, more determinedly.’
‘This proves something?’
‘It proves that I was right about you. You’ll fight until the bitter end. Until your last breath. No matter how the odds seem to be stacked against you.’
‘I was ready to give in.’
‘But you didn’t, which is the important thing. I’ll be frank: after that first game we just played, there was very little likelihood of you winning. But the probability wasn’t zero.’
‘Would you have honoured your promise?’
‘I like to think so.’
I wondered if that was the first truly sincere thing that had come from her lips since our acquaintance.
‘But you can’t be sure.’
‘Under the circumstances, I’d have honoured the pledge . . . and then looked at other means of persuasion. It wouldn’t have pleased me to lose you, especially now I know how tenaciously you’ll fight.’ Glass rose from the table, leaving the pegboard where it stood. ‘Come. There’s nothing to prevent us going directly to the hibernaculum. It will be easier for you, once you’re on the other side of reefersleep.’
Glass extended a hand across the table, beckoning me to my feet. I got up and moved along the table until we were both at the same end of it. I cowed my head, faking submission, ready to be led to my fate. I doubted very much that she was convinced by it, especially if Scythe was still looking into my skull, reading brain activity. My intentions would have been obvious to the dimmest machine. Still, it was all I had.
I lunged, planting my left hand around her throat and punching her beneath the ribs with my right. Glass crashed back against the wall behind her. I redoubled the pressure on her throat and pushed hard into her abdomen. Glass got her right arm up, balled her fist and punched me across the face. She followed through with her elbow, jabbing into my throat. Something crunched somewhere in my larynx or windpipe. I drew a breath and nothing came. Glass wrenched my hand away from her throat, raised a knee and kicked me in the groin. I went tumbling back into the table, hitting its edge with a spine-jarring crack. I tried to snatch another breath and still nothing came.
Glass laughed. It was a deep, broken, wet-throated laugh, like a tumble of rocks in a bucket. She got a foot up and kept me pressed against the table, bent backwards so that it would only take a little more pressure to snap my spine.
‘You know . . .’ She paused, rubbing at her neck. ‘You know, I’d have been ever so slightly disappointed if you hadn’t tried that.’
I made a wheezing sound. A straw’s worth of air must have reached my lungs.
‘I’ll keep trying.’
‘But not here, not today. Today, you sleep.’
Glass yanked me up as six or seven of her white globes came into the room. They bustled around me, pinning me with their multi-jointed manipulators. I wrestled against them, but I had no strength left in my limbs.
Glass gave no audible command to the spheres, but they knew what to do with me. Scooping me up like a doll, no part of me able to touch any surface, they conveyed me to the hibernaculum. We got there easily, as if the labyrinthine puzzle of the ship had straightened itself out overnight. The two caskets waited for their occupants, side by side and set at forty-five degrees to the floor. They were chrome-green cocoons, fluted with radiator fins, control pedestals next to each. Instead of the lidded casket that had brought Glass to Sun Hollow, these units peeled open along their mid-sections, with interlocking hinged petals waiting to close over again and form an impervious seal.
I might as well have been a drowsy baby being lowered into a crib, for all the resistance I was able to muster. The idea of fighting was still there, it was just that my body had already surrendered. The spheres busied around me with surprising tenderness, while Glass stood by and watched, hands on hips.
I managed to croak:‘You said you had business in some other system. Where?’
‘You don’t need to worry your little head about that.’
‘I still want to know. If I matter to you, give me that much.’
Glass looked at me with a distant species of pity. ‘Oh, very well. We’ll be making a short stopover in the Yellowstone system, around Epsilon Eridami. I’ve made arrangements to collect some items of importance.’
‘I’m afraid that means nothing to me.’
‘I’d be concerned if it did.’
‘What are Gideon stones, Glass?’
She leaned in a little, as if she were about to whisper a lullaby. ‘They’re going to help us murder some wolves. Quite a lot of wolves, if all goes well.’
‘I saw something through a window. All blades and helices.’
‘Ah. You saw that, did you?’
‘You know what I saw.’ I wheezed against the effort of speaking. ‘You’ve controlled that happens to me since I came aboard this ship. What is that thing?’
‘Oh, you do like to spoil a surprise.’
‘I suppose I do.’
She sighed as if I had taken the fun out of a parlour game. ‘It’s something else that will help us. Not so much a weapon as something that will make a weapon. But for it to work the way it needs to, we must have the Gideon stones.’ Glass touched a finger to the black cupid’s bow of her upper lip. ‘But I’ll take care of that, little man. Rest now. I can’t have you worrying. You can stay asleep while I take care of the stones. I want you rested: you’ll need all the strength of mind and body you can get, for when you meet them.’
‘The Pattern Jugglers,’ Glass said, as if that was the fullest answer that I could reasonably expect.
I've heard from various sources (with thanks) that there have been some production errors with the Audible version of the new book, with at least part of chapter sixteen missing. I've raised the matter through the relevant channels and the problems are being looked into. I'm assured that once the corrections have been made, listeners will be able to delete their current download and re-download the corrected version without any trouble.
I'm very sorry for this. If any of you are aware of the specific omissions, leave a message in the comments and I will then post the missing passages in this blog.
Monday, 30 August 2021
Sunday, 29 August 2021
Tuesday, 24 August 2021
"Reynolds tells meticulous tales in the hard-SF tradition that invariably pack an emotional punch. Inhibitor Phase, a novel about middle-age, loss and redemption, is a heart-thumping adventure to boot." - The Times.
Publication dates tend to be a little porous these days. Although Inhibitor Phase is not supposed to be out in the UK until the 26th, I'm informed that copies have been spotted in the wild, most notably in Waterstones.
I've signed a quantity of bookplates for said establishment, so while these aren't quite signed editions, they're the next best thing:
For the time being, if it's a genuine signed hardcover that you're after, you are kindly directed to Anderida Books of Worcester, who should have signed copies in stock immediately (we did a number of them on my kitchen table), and will shortly be selling signed, numbered editions as well:
As and when I have news about other signed editions, I'll let you know. Obviously some of the usual options are a little difficult at the moment. While Covid restrictions may have eased throughout the UK, I'm remaining cautious and doing as little travel as possible. And, needless to say, if you want an unsigned hardback or trade paperback edition, or an audiobook or ebook, there are a number of online retail concerns who may be able to assist.
More news as it comes.
Monday, 16 August 2021
Friday, 13 August 2021
In the run-up to the publication of Inhibitor Phase, I did a video interview with Andrew Sumner and Forbidden Planet.
There's also a short interview with me in the forthcoming issue of SFX, but I don't think that will be available online.
Current reading (just finished):
I thought Simenon was pretty good when I read him 20 years ago, but now he's off the scale. He hasn't changed; I have.
Sunday, 8 August 2021
The Fireflash atonic airliner appeared in the very first Thunderbirds episode "Trapped in the Sky", which is still one of the best, as well as one or two others.
One of Derek Meddings's usual striking designs, it's a fine looking machine with some unusual touches, such as the passenger lounges built into the wings, and the cockpit set way back in the tail. As always, there's something that needs to go wrong, so in the case of Fireflash it's an atomic reactor which needs servicing after every few hours of flight, or everyone dies. Obviously not the ideal configuration in the case of a diversion to Luton or Stanstead. Please stow your trays, put your seat backs into the upright position and be prepared to be exposed to lethal amounts of radiation. Thank you for flying Air Terrainean. We realise you had a choice of carriers and you're probably wishing you went with one of the others.
The kit is the Aoshima 1/350th model, which builds into a compact but bijou Fireflash with a simple assembly and nice, clean parts, There are some variations in the kit to enable gear up or gear down configurations, including folded wing tips, and the kit comes with the International Rescue elevator platforms used to save Fireflash at the end of its maiden voyage. I think it comes with four but I only made three of them. I used Revell and Humbrol paints which seemed to give a reasoable approximation to the colours of the stuodio models.
All decals and white markings are included, and go on well.
I think it would be nice to have a larger Fireflash but the kit is perfectly nice as it stands.
This and other Aoshima Thunderbirds are kits are now available in the UK under the Adventures in Plastic range, via Bachmann:
Friday, 6 August 2021
Hot on the heels of the Zero X post, here's another Gerry Anderson-themed model. I've shown this one before but I thought it might be worth a post on its own, as it's such a iconic design.
I've loved the Eagle Transporter from the moment I saw it, way before Space:1999 itself actually aired in September 1975.
The series had been in development since 1973 and the marketing push was well underway by the start of 1975, and perhaps earlier. I remember seeing a cardboard advertisement for the forthcoming Dinky models in the toy department of Dan Evans, in Barry, a good nine months or more before the show itself arrived.
I don't think this is the in-store advert itself but it had a similar look, with a line-drawn Eagle rather than a photo of the studio models or the die-cast replica.
The build-up to the series was also stoked by articles in the boy's magazine Speed&Power, to which I've alluded before (it was where I first read Arthur C Clarke, since they serialised many of his stories). I must admit the concept of the show sounded totally fantastic to an eight-year old already a fan of such Anderson shows as UFO and Joe 90.
The wait for the series was interminable, but I was also anxious to get my hands on a Dinky Eagle, and it was an equally long wait. I ended up with two, in the end: the metallic green Eagle Transporter, and the (slightly more-accurately coloured) white Eagle Freighter. I won one of them in a competition through Speed&Power, correctly answering enough questions in a space-quiz to be one of the happy victors. I still have both of them, although right now I can only put my hands on the Transporter.
If my memory serves me well, another Eagle appeared at the end of the hot summer of '76, from Airfix. I certainly had one, although it's long since disappeared. It was bigger than the Dinky model and from what I can recall, went together easily.
Space:1999 was not the best science fiction show ever made, with generally awful science and some unsatisfying scripts, but it still looks terrific, had a great title sequence, and the sets and model work hold up very well. The Eagles in particular still look very plausible as an all-purpose Lunar transport, with a modular, skeletal design ideally suited to operations in vacuum and low gravity. The show made them do all sorts of things that didn't really sit well with that, though, including shuttling back and forth from habitable planets with atmospheres, despite the almost total lack of aerodynamics. I always thought the show was missing a merchandising trick there by not inventing a second craft that could go where the Eagle couldn't, but perhaps the budget wouldn't permit it. Incidentally, the second series was never aired in Wales so I've still not seen it, but I gather there were some variants on the Eagle introduced for that season. It was very confusing to get my second Space:1999 annual and see the different costumes introduced for the second run, and wonder why I'd never seen those episodes.
A few years ago a new Eagle model came on the market, from MPC. The is a 22 inch kit closely replicating the 48 inch studio model, and as close to an accurate Eagle as one is likely to get. Just as the model-makers on the series raided Airfix and Revell kits for details, so those touches appear on the MPC kit, just shrunk down by half.
I built the kit out of the box and found it to go together very well. The details are excellent and the worst you could say is that some parts of the assembly are a little repetitive, especially the engine pods and the trussing around the front and back bits. The kit includes two Gemini astronaut figures to go in the cockpit, exactly as per the studio model. I thought about lighting it but decided not to, although I could still get into the cockpit if I changed my mind.
One thing it also replicates is how the design doesn't quite work! The arrangement of the windows on the outside of the Eagle didn't match the set used for the cockpit, and there's no way to have a connecting airlock between the front and the rest of the ship.
As a model of the model, though, it's 100% accurate and far better than the Dinky model. Notice how the trussing on the Dinky moulding is much busier, with diagonal bits that shouldn't be there. Presumably the Dinky model had to be beefed-up to work as a toy. Mine certainly picked up a scratch or two. The Dinky model cleverly makes use of relatively few components, too. I don't have an Airfix one to compare but it would be interesting to see how it fares in relation.
The MPC kit came with a pod, but I wasn't sure whether to go with the red-striped version or the more typical plain white. In the end, reasoning that the model would mostly sit in a glass cabinet with only one face visible, I did red on one side and left the other plain. I had to mask and paint the red as it didn't come on the transfer sheet, which was my one real criticism. It's said that the Eagle sits a bit high on its sprung legs, which is probably true, but I didn't feel like altering them.
MPC sell some expensive upgrade kits to replace some of the plastic castings with turned metal assemblies, but I felt the model was fine enough as it came. They have also done a season 2 Eagle with a docking extension on the pod, as well as the freighter with its nuclear-waste handling pod.
Anyway, here's to the Eagle, one of the better 70s spaceship designs, and one that still holds its own.
Wednesday, 4 August 2021
A couple of days ago I sent in Eversion, which if all goes well should appear in the latter part of next year. I started thinking seriously about it late last summer, but didn't get really going on it until I'd completed the first round of edits on Inhibitor Phase.
It's a standalone, unrelated to anything else I've done. It's basically a novel about first contact with a "big dumb (or not so dumb) object" but it's a fair bit weirder than that summary might make you think, with (I hope) an unusual approach to both theme and narrative viewpoint. It's also, in its present form, quite a bit shorter than my previous novels. After the relatively long Inhibitor Phase (which is still shorter than its predecessors in the RS universe) I wanted to try delivering a short, sharp, shock of SF, perhaps closer in tone to my novellas such as Troika, Slow Bullets or Permafrost. It's still taken me seven or eight months, though, allowing for time off to work on the Inhibitor edits, and of course this book will in turn eat into my time as I make inroads into the next book. Before that, though, I'm likely to try another novella.
Eversion becomes my eighteenth novel from my primary publisher. For those keeping score. it's the ninth novel in the ten-book sequence I signed up to with Gollancz/Orion/Hachette. It's my nineteenth if you include the Doctor Who title, and my twentieth if one allows The Medusa Chronicles, my collaboration with Stephen Baxter. It's my twenty-second if you include the two novels I wrote in my teens.
You'd think it would be getting easier by now. The only lesson I've learned across all those books is that there will come a point where the creative momentum slows to a halt, the inspiration evaporates, the work feels valueless, and ... you just work through that. Like the graining on Lewis Hamilton's tyres, it will eventually sort itself out. You remember why you were excited about the idea in the first place, and a second wind comes in.
That's really all I learned - just to keep carrying on.
Tuesday, 3 August 2021
Thursday, 29 July 2021
Occasionally I post pictures of sci-fi modelling on this blog, which I presume to be of interest to at best one or two readers. If it's not your bag, please avert your eyes now.
Anyway, for those still with me, the Zero X!
This splendidly impractical spacecraft appeared in Thunderbirds Are Go, the 1966 film which was both the first Thunderbirds film and the first full-length feature from Gerry Anderson's studio. The film was a terrible flop, but it's fondly remembered by many, and I count myself in that number. Although I hadn't seen much of the original TV series (it was rarely shown on the ITV regions where we used to live) I had the toys and annuals, so I was well acquainted with the characters and vehicles. The film came onto television in the mid-seventies, which is when I first saw it, and I certainly found it entertaining. Granted, the plot is a bit rubbish, with the Tracy brothers having almost nothing to do until the last quarter of an hour of the film, and there's a charming but dull dream interlude in the middle, but the Barry Gray music is top notch and the effects and sets still look brilliant.
The main star of the show is the Zero X ship, of which two prototypes are shown, both ending in disaster! The first one crashes into the sea shortly after take-off (cheers, The Hood), and the second one takes out an entire city after coming back from Mars with a malfunction that wasn't even The Hood's fault! Great stuff! I think it says a lot about the genius of Derek Meddings, the effects supervisor, that his designs still look exciting and futuristic nearly sixty years on.
The film had such an effect on me that I immediately wanted to make a Lego model of the Zero X and crash it into stuff over and over again. However, in the absence of video recorders and pause buttons, all I could do was attempt to remember what it looked like after the film had finished.
I drew a felt-tip pen sketch of it from memory:
Could be worse, but it's not right in all sorts of details. However, luck was in as some while later I was able to borrow a friend's TV21 annual and there was a photo of the Zero X I could copy at my leisure:
Not too bad given the alternatives, I feel. I did build the Lego ones, and enjoyed smashing them into things, but there was still an itch that needed scratching...
Fast-forward 45 odd years, the felt-tip pens have long since dried up, but I still wanted a Zero X. Yes, some things just won't be denied. Although the design has proven popular with Japanese toy and model makers over the years, the options are still a bit limited. From what I could gather, the two most accessible routes to a Zero X were a ready-made die-cast model made by Aoshima, or a very small plastic kit made by Imai. There have also been one or two battery-operated toys from the sixties which seem to be more on the "toy" end of the spectrum, with enormous Monster Truck wheels, and maybe one other 1960s or early 70s kit long out of production which might just be a figment of my imagination. The only other option that I could see, besides scratchbuilding, was a fairly pricey offering from the 1990s that made into a 25-26 inch long model, also made by Imai, and advertised as a resin kit.
I dithered over this for about a year before deciding to take a punt on it, but it was with a measure of uncertainty as I couldn't get a very clear idea of what the components were like, how it fitted together, or what it would look like when finished. No one on the internet seemed to have made one either. However, I felt that neither the Aoshima model nor the small Imai one would give me the "big" Zero X kick I needed.
Here's what the Imai box looked like when it arrived:
It was a tatty box but the parts and decals were all in perfect condition and nothing was missing, broken or distorted in any way. For a kit made about 30 years ago, that's good news.
The first shock was how simple the kit was. There were so few parts that I could just about build the thing there and then while boiling the kettle. In fact all I did for this picture was place the pieces together, with no glue involved at any point:
The second observation was that the kit was designed to be made into a one-piece model, with no provision for any detachable bits. In the film, in a triumph of Derek Meddings' effects work, the Zero X is assembled on the apron before taking off, and then various bits come off it during flight, before reattaching as it comes back to Earth. The kit doesn't allow for the Mars Excursion Vehicle to come off, nor the streamlined nose-cone, and the wings are clearly designed to be glued permanently in place. That's fine for a Zero X flying through the atmosphere, as in the shot at the top of this page, but it misses a lot of the bonkers fun of the original concept. I therefore decided that I would try and modify my kit to make the bits fully (if not easily) detachable. This turned out to be no simple job...
First things first, though and I decided to tackle the tail as a starting point, then work forward.
The tail consisted of just four very simple parts. A great deal of model filler had to be used to smooth out the joints between the components. There was very little detail of any kind on the castings, so I scribed in some extra lines using film stills as a rough guide, but not being too critical about it. One thing that helps in this regard is that there were two filming miniatures used, and they don't quite agree in a number of details. I took the view that so long as my Zero X didn't look terribly different from either of these models, it would be fine enough for my purposes.
Now, the kit was described as resin, but once I'd got a good look at it, I began to think it was actually made from some kind of very high density polystyrene foam. The parts are all solid, but once I sanded off the grey top layer (some kind of primer, I think) then a cellular structure began to show through, just like sheets of insulation foam. In terms of detail, I also opened out the air-intakes and added some extra refinement using plastic sheet around the openings. I later discovered some metal castings in the box that probably would have been fine if I'd used them.
The next step was to mate the tail section to the boxy main fuselage:
Soo far so good, but a big problem was about to rear its head. In the meantime, I'd filled, sanded and re-inscribed much of the panel detail on the fuselage part. This was a waste of time as it would all need to be done again because of the lurking problem - it pays to think ahead!
Here's the snag:
Just to the left of the leftmost hole in the top, the fuselage widens out to a different profile. Unfortunately, this is totally wrong. On the filming model, the profile is a constant boxy form until it widens out just before the bit that tucks in near the front:
Although the wrong bit is mostly concealed under the forward wing, and therefore doesn't look too jarring with the wing on, I felt it was worth correcting. By this point, I'd reasoned that I was only ever going to make one of these, so I might as well do as good a job on it as possible, within a reasonable span of time.
The way to solve the profile problem was to file the solid moulding back to the right shape along its length, but this - while simple in principle - turned out to be immensely tedious and time-consuming, and it took many, many goes before I got the profile where I wanted it to be. Once that was done, all the panel detail had be marked out and carefully re-inscribed.
I could then move onto some other issues. The first point of business was to arrange for the wings to be detachable. I sunk small nuts into the body, one for each wing, enabling the wings to be screwed on and off from above and below. I also milled a wide groove into the model at the narrowest point, where I wanted to insert some embossed plastic sheet to improve the detailing.
That addressed, it was time to deal with the two bits that should come off at the front, the Martian Excursion Vehicle (MEV) and the nose-cone.
Two problems here: the first is that the front of the MEV isn't modelled at all in the kit; there's just a stubby bit of material which is meant to disappear once the heavy nose-cone casting is fixed in place. Secondly, the nose-cone needs to be made hollow so that it can slip over the MEV as in the film.
The first job was mark off the point where the MEV attaches to the main fuselage, and - deep breath - saw through in order to separate one bit of the casting from another. This was done very carefully using a hacksaw, as a mistake at this point could in principle have scuppered the whole model. All went well, though, and once I'd made the cut, I tidied it up by gluing and trimming a sheet of plastic to the rear part to provide a nice smooth mating surface.
In order to allow the two parts to be rejoined, I followed a similar approach to the wings. Two small nuts were embedded in the back of the MEV, and then a pair of screws could be fed through from the narrow bit, where there are two rocket exhausts on the studio model. We've jumped ahead slightly here, by the way, as the MEV has also had a scratchbuilt front added to it.
Incidentally, I can't help wondering if this joining method is the very reason for that narrowed bit on the fuselage. The studio model must have needed a means of easily attaching and detaching the MEV, and putting screws through the rocket exhausts seems like a reasonable approach. However, in order to get a screwdriver roughly in line with the screws, there needs to be a bit where the hull tapers in, just as it does on the model.
The front of the MEV needed to be built up from plastic card. using photos as a reference. I eyeballed the various angles and slopes and while they might not be quite right, I think they're acceptable in context. Once I was satisfied with the basic shape, after a lot of filling and sanding, I marked off the window positions (the ones I could see) and drilled them out, followed by much careful dressing with files.
This was my main reference shot for the MEV, shown during the bit where it attaches onto the main ship.
It was then time to deal with the nosecone. This turned out to be not too bad a job as the plastic/resin stuff was quite strong even when a lot of it had been milled out. It was a very laborious job, though, which involved hours and hours of test-fitting. In this shot, I've begun clearing out the necessary space inside the cone but there was a lot more to go.
The next problem to be faced was how to get the nosecone to fit on and off easily without resorting to screws. In the end I embedded a magnet in the cockpit roof of the MEV, and a piece of steel plate in the top bit of the cone. This worked far better than I'd anticipated and the cone snaps in and out of position very satisfyingly even though it's still extremely heavy. The model can be tilted into a near vertical dive before gravity overcomes the strength of the magnet, so it's fine for just displaying.
General tidying-up and detailing took place on all the parts, and then I was ready to begin painting. My first thought was to use some metallic blue paint I'd bought years ago to touch up a scratch on my Telecaster. I'd only gone a little way with this, though, before it immediately became clear that it was much too dark. The film models look different in various shots but never quite as dark as mine was heading, so I stopped and had a rethink. It was off to Halfords next, where I picked up a couple of cans of Audi metallic blue spray paint. The colour looked great on the can, a sort of pleasing mid-blue, and was an improvement, but the finished model still came out a bit too dark:
I was happy with the durability of the sprayed finish, though, and none of the other blue car shades looked any more promising. In order to knock it back to a slightly lighter shade, then, I oversprayed a very dilute mix of silver and thinners. The effect isn't obvious in these shots but you'll just have to trust me that the lightened shade looks much better in certain lights:
The blue is still a little too far into the warm end of the spectrum but it'll have to do. The main thing is that virtually any shade is going to look wrong relative to one or other of the stills, so you just have to go with something that looks right-enough.
It was then onto the decals and detail painting, seen below at an intermediate stage of the work:
Now onto one of the other headaches with the kit. As supplied, it doesn't come with anywhere near enough wheels to model the ship with undercarriage down, which is why it's resting on a film canister in the above shot and tupperware below. In addition, the number 1 wing would need its ends folded down, as per the take-off sequences in the film. Personally, I'd like to model it like that, but that will mean sourcing many, many more suitable wheels, as well as making further modifications to include the missing undercarriage wells. That's something I'd hope to consider in the future, but for now it's modelled in the flight condition we only see very briefly in the film before The Hood's dastardly exploits cause it to crash into the sea!
I've now completed most of the painting and decaling (still a few tiny touch-up jobs to do) so I thought I'd take a few more shots for the sake of this write-up, hopefully showing what a fantastic design Derek Meddings and his modelmakers came up with all those years ago.
I think it fair to say that I've been waiting most of my life to own this model. I'm considerably pleased to have finished the build and be able to admire the sleek lines of this iconic if unwieldy design from any angle I like. As mentioned, there is more that can be done to it, but it'll do for the time being.
Incidentally, how big is meant to be? I don't think there's a conclusive answer. The kit is marketed at 1/600th scale, which would make the Zero X more than 1200 feet long! That's about the size of the Empire State Building tipped on its size. No, way too big, if you go by the sizes of those cars in the production stills. But on the other hand, when TB2 has to come underneath it, it makes TB2 look tiny. My guess is that they had models made to a couple of different sizes but weren't that bothered about strict consistency between different shots and different sequences in the film. However we cut it, though, it's clearly very, very big, and that'll do for me.
Tuesday, 27 July 2021
Wednesday, 21 July 2021
I've been following recent developments in space tourism with a sort of guarded interest, impressed by the technical achievements (even sub-orbital flight is difficult) but less persuaded by the billionaire gold-rush behind it all. It's not the timeline I wanted to be on, but it's the one we've got.
Of the three major commercial players, it's fairly obviously the case that Space X (which hasn't yet done any space tourism) is much further along in terms of offering reliable access to orbit, which in turn benefits satellite infrastructure, human settlement (the ISS and beyond) and even space science and exploration. I presume Blue Origin will catch up in that capacity given time, but I'm not sure that Virgin Galactic's model could ever be scaled-up in that sense, and perhaps Branson isn't chasing that market anyway. As Chris Hadfield alluded to during the coverage of the Virgin hop last week, the mission profile isn't all that different to what was being done with the X-15, sixty-odd years ago. Impressive, still, but perhaps something of a technological dead-end given the enormous disparity in energy requirements between a sub-orbital lob and orbit itself. It's not always understood that circling the Earth doesn't just mean getting above the Karman line - it also means going sideways really, really fast - and that's the hard part. Still, given a choice between not going into space, and popping up above the atmosphere for a few minutes of weightlessness, I'd still take the latter like a shot.
Bezos deserves credit for offering a seat to Wally Funk, a beautiful gesture. Good PR undoubtedly but i don't doubt it was heartfelt. I'm not a tremendous fan of the business activities that have made him rich, though. As is the case with many writers, Amazon sales are a part of my income - a part I'd miss if they were absent. That also includes royalties from affiliates like Audible. On the professional side of my life, not being an idiot, nor wishing to shoot myself in the foot, I deal with Amazon as I must. I don't decry anyone who makes use of their services, either. I used to, and I still own (and occasionally use) a Kindle. On the customer side of the equation, I always found the experience of buying from Amazon to be perfectly streamlined and painless, and I never had any problems. Equally, as a consumer, I long ago made the decision to use other services where I could. This isn't so much anti-Amazon as trying to support a more diverse ecosystem of suppliers. I buy my books from Waterstones or independent retailers, while almost all my music purchases go through HMV, of which Cardiff still has a very good store. Other stuff, I just get it as and when I can, even if that means paying more and waiting longer. I don't mind.
The problem with Amazon, though, is that it's almost impossible not to deal with it. A few weeks ago I was chatting to my mate Marc. Marc's a former punk who still plays bass (electric and upright) on the Cardiff gigging scene. We often talk about music and Marc was keen to tell me of a new piece of gear he'd heard about. The only problem was, he couldn't remember what it was called. It's a kind of amp, he said, but when you play into it, it starts jamming along with you! This sounded pretty rad but I had to wait for Marc to rack his brains and come up with the product name. This he duly did, sending me a text a few days later. The item in question is called a Spark and its made by Positive Grid (I got this the wrong way around earlier). It's basically a smart speaker/practise amp in one, and it works with an app that enables all sorts of cool functions, including - but far from limited to - the jamming thing. I did some research and convinced myself that a Spark would be a good addition to my gear, so I ordered one. The prices on offer were very good, but rather than go through the palaver of importing one from the States, I looked around for UK suppliers, deliberately avoiding the easy option of using Amazon. You can see where this is going, I imagine. I got the amp a few days later, but it arrived via Amazon, in an Amazon box. It turns out I'd really only been ordering it from a third party who presumably did their business via Amazon, but none of that was apparent at the point of purchase. Obviously it wouldn't bother most people but if you've gone out of your way to spend your money elsewhere, it does rankle somewhat.
Anyway, how is the Spark? It's pretty damned excellent. I plugged in my Strat to begin with, and I was immediately impressed by the tone and the complete lack of hum. When I set up my guitars in my office, there's an awful lot of EM noise coming from computer hard drives, fans, and so on, but rigging up the Spark in the kitchen was a revelation. As was the tone control. Using the app, one can browse an enormous "tone cloud" and dial in tone settings at a single touch. I quickly found a really nice Gilmore tone that sounded great despite my hamfisted attempts at Comfortably Numb. There's also a great feature where you can ask the amp (or more properly the app) to do a chord analysis on any given song. It will then play back the song with the chords indicated, and you just play along as best you can. The rest of it, including the jamming function, I've really only begun to scratch the surface of, but the rave reviews and sales of the product do indeed seem to be justified. Here's a link if you're interested, and check out the lovely retro-design:
But a cool amp is only going to get you so far, so what of learning the guitar itself? As mentioned elsewhere, I had a steady guitar tutor for about ten years, but he selfishly decided to get married and move away for work, so for the last couple of years I've been on my own. I tried a guitar class at my local adult education centre (pre-Covid, so I don't know whether it's still going) but the scheduling didn't quite work for me, so - as friendly as the group was - I dropped out after a couple of months. Since then I've been largely relying on self-directed learning, aided by books, CDs and the occasional Youtube video. Concerning the latter, I quickly realised that a lot of the most useful tutorials that kept coming up were by the same guy - an online guitar personality called Justin Guitar (aka Justin Sandercoe). I then clicked that he was the same Justin who had a column in one of the guitar mags I pick up from time to time. I really can't say enough about how good this guy is, and what a generous model he's adopted for his tutorials. You can watch a huge amount of it on YouTube, but for the full structured experience, it's worth going to his website, signing up, and accessing the various course modules he's developed. The amazing thing is that it's free. You can donate, if you wish, or buy "Justin" merch, and there are some areas like access to TAB sheets where he has to cover royalties, but a vast amount of it is just there for the taking. Clearly he's worked out a business model that functions for him (having more than a million subscribers won't hurt) but that shouldn't detract from the essential generosity of the enterprise as a whole. His books are good, too - I've started working through a couple of them - and they're as breezily informative and helpful as the videos. So, hats off to hat-wearer Justin, and I look forward to my continuing journey, wherever it takes me.
Thursday, 8 July 2021
As mentioned last year, we took an interest in bat detection:
This interest has continued through 2021 but bat sightings in and around our house have been noticeably scarcer, for some reason. The near-nightly displays by soprano pipistrelles simply haven't been replicated to the same degree, and when we do catch sight of a bat, there hasn't generally been the same pattern of intense vocalisation, presumably because the bats aren't as active in hunting.
However, on the plus side, we did successfully identify a "normal" (ie non-soprano) pipistrelle and tonight our diligence was rewarded by a clear identification of a serotine bat, a first for us. Doubtless they've always been around but a combination of size (large) and vocalisation range eliminated all other common possibilities. That's three species we've now identified with the bat detector.
From wikipedia, we learn that "the name serotine is derived from the Latin serotinus, which means 'evening'."
How lovely is that.