Wednesday, October 01, 2014

A Thing I'll Be Doing Later This Month

I'll be joining a crowd of writers promoting all kinds of horror and dark fantasy, but I'll sign anything you bring. More details soon...

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Mars Rocks

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Friday, September 12, 2014

There Are Doors (21)

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Influence of Anxiety

The cheapest shot in the lazy or inept interviewer's arsenal is: 'So, what are your influences?' Polite or anxious authors will, through obfuscation, circumlocation and denial, provide endless material for follow-up questions ('So what precisely drew you to the work of George Herbert Wells?') and pseudo-psychoanalytic speculation that will pad out the rest of the session nicely.  No need to have read or thought about the author's work: job done!

If I'm ever asked this question again, I'll refer the interviewer to this brief list:

HP Sauce; a cloud I once saw on June 2nd 1972, around 2:30 pm; sunstars glittering off the windshields of traffic on the Santa Monica freeway, 1981-1983; scribblelarks; the proper motion of Antares; eschatological dread; the odour of secondhand books; the label on the Camp Coffee bottle; the exhaust beat of a Class 3F steam locomotive echoing up the winter valley; Zoom ice lollies; the welt on Action Man's face; several wasps; the map of the British Empire; the second half of the Twentieth Century; rain in Bristol; rain on Lake Champlain, Vermont; the rain that fell elsewhere; airport wi-fi; the motion of cigarette smoke in the beam of cinema projectors; the song of the fan heater; pine needles underfoot; 21a Dartford Close, Manchester; a shopping list I once found in a secondhand copy of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (between p122/123); a tray of glass eyes; whatever it was I last ate; the tea I'm drinking right now; every book I ever read; everyone I have ever met; every last second of my life, so far.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Where Cyberspace Went

One winter the wrong type of snow caused chaos on the British railway network: soft powdery stuff that infiltrated the electrical systems of trains and, when it settled, wasn't deep enough for snowploughs to remove. Now, it turns out out that the latest refinement in transmission of share-trading information is stymied by the wrong kind of rain.

Once upon a time, high-frequency share trading relied on data piped through fibre-optic cables. But in the glass threads of the cables light travels at about two-thirds its speed in a vacuum. And when nanoseconds count in the frenzied automatic trading that's far too slow. In the US, that information is blurted through the skies via microwaves, high-frequency millimetre waves, and now, beams of infra-red laser light. A good fraction of cyberspace, the place where billions of pounds of currency and shares are traded every day, now inhabits the sky, and the traffic is entirely between machines that shuffle gigabytes of data in the space of a single human heartbeat.

But the rise of the machines is not yet complete. The average droplet size of London's rain is smaller, disrupting laser-light transmissions. As Donald MacKenzie points out in his article on the arm's race in high-frequency-trading communications, 'if you’re a Londoner, and are spooked by the idea of lasers flashing stock-market data overhead, be grateful for drizzle.' Engineers working for trading companies strain at the outer limits of physics, but as yet there's nothing they can do about the British weather.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (16)

For descendants of European colonists, the Australian Outback is a palimpsest of apocalyptic fable. A place where law and morals fail; a pitiless landscape where ramshackle settlements that need only minimal set-dressing to portray the ruins of civilisation's end. Wake in Fright shows how upright teacher John Grant was undone by a lost weekend in a rough outback mining town; the inhabitants of The Cars That Ate Paris prey on passers-by; a serial killer stalks backpackers in Wolf Creek (2005); lawmen turn bad in The Proposition and Red Hill; and in the post-apocalyptic landscape of Mad Max, a policeman relentlessly chases down the outlaws who killed his family.

Rover invokes something of Mad Max in its day-after-tomorrow end-of-civilisation scenario.  It's ten years after the Collapse. Apart from desultory army patrols, the Outback is as lawless as the mythic Wild West. Petrol, water and bullets command a premium. When a wanderer (Guy Pearce) loses his car to a trio of fleeing bandits, he sets out to get it back by any means necessary. Along the way he picks up Rey (Robert Pattinson), the brother of one of the bandits, who was wounded and left behind, and the unlikely duo carve a bloody path across the desolate landscape as they head towards the bandits' hideout.

Like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, Pearce's wanderer is gruff, efficiently violent and single-minded. He does have a name - Eric - but refuses to give it. He's also sparing about his background, and refuses to explain why the car, an ordinary unblinged sedan, means so much to him; he only opens up to a soldier who briefly detains him, explaining that he killed his unfaithful wife and her lover ten years ago, and has been waiting to be brought to justice ever since. But that's it. The simpleminded Rey is slightly less opaque, a natural-born follower who transfers his loyalty from the brother who abandoned him to Eric (director David Michod's previous film, Animal Kingdom, was also about double-crossing siblings), but the film's premise, set up with great panache, is never really developed.

In the similarly terse film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road (directed by another Australian, John Hillcote), the father's guilt at surviving his wife is tempered and given direction and meaning by his need to preserve the life of his son. All Eric wants is his car back, and we never find out why until the very last moments of the film. The existential minimalism of the story-telling is admirable, but its lack of exposition and stubborn refusal to give any insight into Eric and his mission, or into the nature of the bandits' crime, leaves the viewer with a series of tense and violent scenes that don't cohere, and characters that fail to communicate much of significance to each other. It's a pity, because this day-after-tomorrow western looks terrific, the acting is fine, and Antony Partos's score ratchets up the tension even when the story doesn't.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

London Marvels and Oddities

The World SF Convention takes place in London Thursday to Monday this week. Here are a few things visitors may like to search out while in town.

Thomas Hardy's Tree
A little to the north of St Pancras Station is St Pancras Old Church, one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in England. When the railway was built in the the nineteenth century, it cut through the old cemetery and Thomas Hardy supervised removal of the graves. Hardy's tree, in whose shade he's supposed to have eaten his lunch, still stands, surrounded by a ruff of headstones. You can also find the memorial tomb of Mary Shelley's father, William Godwin and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (famous in her own right for being the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women), as well as the graves of Dr John Polidari, who shared the Swiss lakeside villa with Lord Byron and Mary and Percy Shelley when Mary wrote Frankenstein (Polidari wrote a vampire story), and the architect Sir John Soane, which inspired the design of the iconic red telephone box.
SFF connection: Frankenstein, vampires

Sir John Soane's Picture Room
The Soane Museum in Lincoln Inn Fields houses the eighteenth century architect's collection of books and artworks in the townhouse he built and left to the nation.  Three walls of the Picture Room, containing works by Hogarth and Canaletto, are cunningly equipped with hinged panels that slide out to display layers of pictures.
SFF connection: TARDIS

The Irish Giant
Directly across the square from the Soane Museum is the Royal College of Surgeons, and the Hunterian Museum, where you can marvel at examples of surgical procedures, anatomical oddities and the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the 7' 7" tall 'Irish Giant'. Worried that on his death his body would fall into the hands of John Hunter, the eighteenth century surgeon who founded the museum, Byrne left instructions that he should be buried at sea, but Hunter bribed Byrne's wards to seize his prize.
SFF connection: brains in jars, resurrection men
George Frederic Watt's Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice
Located in Postman's Park in Little Britain, just north of St Paul's Cathedral, this touching memorial consists of ceramic tablets with brief descriptions of the incidents in which nineteenth century heroes and heroines perished while saving lives.
SFF connection: steampunk tragedy

Darwin's Walking Stick
A whalebone walking stick topped with a skull, once owned by Charles Darwin, is amongst the many oddities and wonders, most related to medical science, collected by Henry Wellcome and displayed in the Wellcome Collection, Euston Road.
SFF connection: a sculpture inspired by J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition is also on display

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs
Commissioned when the Crystal Palace was moved from Hyde Park to South London, these concrete sculptures embody the theory of Sir Richard Owen that dinosaurs really were terrible lizards. Extensively restored, they stand in a landscaped garden.
SFF connection: dinosaurs. Really weird dinosaurs.

Monday, August 11, 2014


Scientists have discovered that myriads of tiny water droplets float in natural tar pits in Trinidad and Tobago, each 'teeming with diverse ecosystems of bacteria and methane-producing organisms'. Tiny world-engines converting hydrocarbons into life; miniature biospheres dispersed through the tarry dark like planets scattered across space. If microbes can thrive there, the scientists suggest, regions where groundwater mixes with methane and ethane ices on Saturn's moon Titan may also be hospitable to life.

The first life on Earth evolved around 3.8 billion years ago, but multicellular life - macroscopic algae, fungi, plants and animals - evolved just 0.8 billion years ago. For three billion years, life on Earth consisted of single-celled prokaryotic microorganisms: bacteria and archaea.  Energy-hungry multicellular eukaryotic organisms were able to evolve and diversify only after one group of bacteria, the cyanobacteria or blue-green algae, developed a form of photosynthesis that produced free oxygen as a waste-product. Even now, prokaryotic microorganisms are still found everywhere in Earth's biosphere, from deep inside the Earth's crust (bacteria discovered near a gold mine 2.8 kilometres underground thrive on sulphur in anaerobic groundwater and hydrogen produced by decay of radioactive elements) to the stratosphere. Sulphur-reducing bacteria form the basis of rich ecosystems around deep sea vents; thermophilic bacteria tint the water of hot springs in Yellowstone Park and elsewhere.

One species entered into symbiosis with early eukaryotic cells and its descendants survive as the mitochondria that produce ATP, the chemical that's the basis of our cells' energy economy. Other species inhabit our skin and guts: the human microbiome accounts for between 1 and 3% of our body mass, outnumbers our cells by 10 to 1, and may contain more than a hundred times the number of genes in our own genome. We're each a bacterial microcosm. Living spaceships patchworked with dozens of ecosystems, carrying trillions of passengers.

While we search for signals from alien civilisations, for charismatic megafauna like us, the first aliens we discover may be weird microorganisms lofted on the plume of a geyser rooted in the world ocean of Jupiter's moon Europa or the polar sea of Saturn's moon Enceladus, thrifty sulphur-reducing extremophiles deep in the Martian crust, or tar-eating microbes in a Titanian hot spring. Or maybe we'll spot the characteristic chemical signature produced by methanogenic bacterai in the atmosphere of an exoplanet around a distant star. And if we do ever find creatures like us and the alien ambassador shakes the hand of the President of Earth, it won't just be a meeting of minds, but an exchange between two ancient and indescribably diverse empires.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Comet Terrain

Photos: ESA

What's interesting about the first close-ups of the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (apart from the fact that they were taken by a robot spacecraft that has taken more than ten years to rendezvous with and go into orbit around an object currently plunging sunwards at 55,000km per hour) is that its landscapes aren't entirely alien. There are step terraces and a cirque of cliffs, a scattering of car-sized boulders and what looks like an alluvial plain, or perhaps a sheet of snow. Elsewhere there are craters, and rounded pits like sinkholes. Like the mountains and cliffs and plains of Saturn's icy moons, these features are composed of ice and dust rather than rock and soil, but although they are unearthly and formed by processes as yet unknown, they are not unrecognisable. Like the landscapes of the outer moons, there's something of the sublimity of icescapes of the Alps and Himalayas, the Arctic and Antarctic, in them. They are utterly remote from human experience, but they are something that the human imagination can appreciate and attempt to encompass. They are not exotic forbidden zones. They are destinations.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Polish Covers ...

... of The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun (hat-tip: Konrad Walewski).

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Novels Aren't Selfies

'Identification with a character is one of the pleasures of reading, or of watching movies, or of seeing plays, though if it is where one’s engagement with the work begins, it should not be where critical thought ends. The concept of identification implies that the reader or viewer is, to some degree at least, actively engaged with the work in question: she is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.
'But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.'
Rebecca Mead, 'The Scourge of "Relatability".'

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Something Has Been Lost

That bare yellow sky.
Those rolling rounded hills.
That first footprint.
Those first words for the ages.

That frail craft, bright in the distance.
Those tracks leading away from it.
That feeling that everything has changed for ever.
That something has been broken.
That something has been lost.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Mirror In The Sky

A book by Stephen Webb with the somewhat cumbersome title If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens - Where Is Everybody?: Fifty Solutions to Fermi's Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life tackles the enduring question first posed by Enrico Fermi: our galaxy is big and old and should be teeming with alien civilisations - so where are they? Webb's book is a fun and thought-provoking read (he provides a handy link to a document summarising his ideas here), but why stop at fifty answers? Why not five hundred, five thousand, five million?

The thing about aliens is that the only thing we know about them is that we don't know anything about them. We don't even know if they exist (Webb thinks that they don't). Recent research explores the possibility of detecting alien civilisations by the air pollution their industries create. It's kind of boggling that we actually have the technology to do this right now, although it only works for planets orbiting uncongenial white dwarf stars, and there might only be a small window of opportunity before the aliens either clean up their act or are strangled by their own effluent. And maybe, unlike us, most civilisations are too smart to produce air pollution in the first place, or perhaps most never go down the industrial road.

When it comes down to it, the question isn't 'why aren't they here?' Instead, it's actually 'are they anything like us?' Could we recognise them, and would they recognise us? If a lion could speak, we would not understand him, but if he sang we might recognise it as song. We hope that aliens might share something with us: music, mathematics, Marxism, motorways. When we search the sky for signs of life, we're really looking for a mirror.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Quiet War Ebooks Update

Pleased to announce that the ebooks of both In the Mouth of the Whale and Evening's Empires are at last available from both Amazon and iTunes. In The Mouth of the Whale can also be bought in Nook format, and I'm told that Evening's Empires they should be available on Nook any day now.

Unlike, say Kindle Direct Publishing, where you can upload your formatted book with a mouse-click or finger jab because you are interacting directly with a combined publisher and retailer, commercial ebook publishing is a bit more complicated - especially when a British publisher is dealing with retailers in another country. In this case, two digital distributors where involved: the publishers sent the ebook files to a distributor here in the the UK, which then sent them on to one in the US, which then registered the titles and turned them over to retailers, who processed them and made them available to readers. It was that handover to retailers where a bit of a glitch has delayed publication; the process is usually automatic, but the software stalled, and so the books have had to be pushed through by hand ('pushed through' is the actual technical term, reminding us that the net really is just a series of pipes). All of this activity, exposed by that pernicious glitch, reminds us that mass-market ebook publishing isn't quite as cheap and labour-free as we might imagine.

But anyway! At last all four Quiet War novels are available in both the UK and the US. And the two short story collections, Stories of the Quiet War and Life After Wartime are also available, although only on Kindle. I don't have access to the rest of the pipes, right now. . .

UPDATE 25/07/14 The ebook of Evening's Empires is now available from Barnes and Noble.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Some Other Things I'm Doing Next Month

First of all, I'm appearing at the above, on a panel exploring the thematic differences between SF and fantasy. More details here. And this is my schedule for the World SF Convention:

Bagpuss vs. Treguard
Thursday 15:00 - 16:30
Alex Ingram, Juliana Goulart, Paul McAuley, Sarita Robinson, James Harvey.

Why Aliens are Cool again
Thursday 18:00 - 19:00
Stephen Foulger, Dougal Dixon, Paul McAuley, Gert van Dijk, Jonathan Cowie

Space on Screen
Friday 15:00 - 16:30
Jaine Fenn, Chris Baker, Bridget Landry, Paul McAuley, Alastair Reynolds

Saturday 15:00 - 16:00 (at the PS Publishing Dealer's Table)

Reading: Paul McAuley
Sunday 11:30 - 12:00

Botanical Conquistadors
Sunday 18:00 - 19:00 Helen Pennington , Paul McAuley, Howard Davidson, Dr Lewis Dartnell

Monday, July 21, 2014

100 Best Science Fiction Films

Time Out has organised a wide-ranging poll to work up a snap-shot of the current top 100 science fiction films. I was one of the participants: for what it's worth, here's my top ten (sneakily listed in chronological order so I didn't have to rank them, although I do have a favourite, as you'll see), and a short explanatory note. All but one of my choices are featured in the top 100, by the way.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951)
Road To The Stars (Doroga k zvezdam) (Pavel Klushantsev, 1957)
La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962)
Quatermass And The Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1967)
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
The Man Who Fell To Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)
Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997)
Children Of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)

Almost 50 years after I first watched it with slack-jawed wonder, I still think that Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is not only the greatest science-fiction film, but also one of the best films ever made. Quatermass and the Pit deals with similar themes of uplift and fall within the confines of Hobb’s Lane and its Tube station. Road to the Stars (a significant influence on Kubrick) begins with a portrait of rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and ends with an expedition to Mars; like 2001's Pan-Am shuttle and space station, it’s a reminder of the ambitious futures we have lost. Alien introduced an iconic monster and one of science-fiction’s best heroines, while the cluttered, grimy claustrophobia of its spaceship inverts Kubrick’s chilly antiseptic aesthetic. La Jetée’s haunting examination of time and memory, the portrayal of an alien seduced and corrupted by human appetites in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Children of Men’s story of loss and redemption, prove that science-fiction films can move the heart as well as the mind. And the blackly comic satires of Brazil and Starship Troopers, and the stark warning of The Day the Earth Stood Still, are all still cuttingly relevant: a reminder that, at its best, science fiction holds up a distorting mirror to ourselves and our times.

UPDATE Amended because The Man Who Fell to Earth was made in 1976 not 1987. And Quatermass And The Pit was 1967 not 1957...

Friday, July 18, 2014

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (15)

In Thomas M. Disch's The Genocides, where a kind of alien Japanese knotweed turns Earth a vast monoculture of itself, a ragged group of survivors reminisce about favourite movies and movie stars and other fragments of the common culture that once helped to bind civilisation together. Anne Washburn's Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play, takes that idea in a different direction, exploring the unreliability of memory and the power and mutability of story.

There are three acts, episodic glimpses of life after the fall set years apart. In the first, a ragged group of survivors of a recent and comprehensive plague sit around a camp fire, trying to recall an episode of The Simpsons, 'Cape Feare' (the one where Bart's nemesis, Sideshow Bob, combines the roles of Roberts Mitchum and De Niro).  In the second, seven years later, the group have become travelling players, putting on live action reconstructions of Simpsons episodes and 'commercials' that recall the unregarded luxuries (ice, Diet Coke, baths) of their lost world. And in the third, seventy-five years after the fall, their descendants stage a spectacle in which a trickster/devil figure, Mr Burns, comes for Bart Simpson's life.

The first and second acts were both a bit too long: the first lost dramatic tension when characters took turns to recite lists of their missing; the second overextended its exposition of the play's themes and ended with a bit of cliched melodrama, although its portrayal of the dynamics of a troupe of actors was funny and affectionate.  But the last act, a full-blown musical, was astonishing, carpentered from the scraps of the Simpsons, pop songs, hip-hop, Gilbert and Sullivan, The Night of the Hunter and much else that littered the first two acts, and staged with spectacular brio. A genuine transformation of pop culture into a rich and strange theatrical ritual about loss and rebirth. It was too long too, but I didn't care.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

One Of The Things I'm Doing Next Month

So I'll be at the Nine Worlds convention on Saturday August 9th, doing this:

Cyberpunk: exploring society in the corporate machine age (.net)
10.00am - 11.15am
Science fiction in a science fictional real world.
Panel: Anne Charnock, Fabio Fernandes, Laurie Penny, Paul McAuley

I'll do my best to avoid any trace of nostalgia for the good old days of sockets in the back of the neck and razorblade fingernails and other tropes that predate the eversion of the net into the actual.

 Afterwards, I'm signing at the Forbidden Planet stall 11:15am - 12:15pm.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Best SF 31

Happy to note that my little story 'Transitional Forms' is included in Gardner Dozois' selection of the best science fiction stories of 2013. Table of contents over here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dead Media Edition

Here's the opening of Evening's Empires in punched card form, via this nifty site. Any day now, according to my publishers, ebooks of Evening's Empires and In the Mouth of the Whale will be available for readers in the US. In fact, you can already buy ebooks of In the Mouth of the Whale for Nook readers and from iTunes. Other formats will follow soon, although apparently there are Problems that haven't yet been fixed. Back in the day, many common problems with data-handling could be solved by picking the cards off the floor after you'd dropped them or a card sorter had spat them out, and shuffling them back into order. Life probably wasn't easier back then, but when the interface between the world and the net throws a glitch, it sometimes it seems that it was.
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