Friday, January 08, 2010


If influences catch you early in life, then I reckon I owe a good deal of my career to Burke Publishing Co, a London publishing firm so thoroughly vanished that I couldn't find them on Google (were they absorbed by one of the conglomerates, or did they just evaporate - does anyone know?). First, because they published Maguerite Desmurger's Stories From Greek History, one of the first books I owned. It was given to to me as the Vicar's Prize at my primary school (no big deal, this; there were only 40 children in the whole school, and sooner or later almost everyone of them won some kind of prize). I was nine. I still have it. And it's a lovely little book, retelling with wit and concision stories of Sparta and Croesus, the Medes and Persians, the Athenian philosphers, and Alexander the Great. It showed me that history wasn't a collection of dry facts, revealed the ancient world to be another country with its own customs and habits, and taught me how to shape a story, and how to use the telling detail. And in the story of Alexander, it introduced me to that classic trope, the tragic hero.

Burke also published Patrick Moore, the British amateur astronomer who has done more than anyone else in this country to popularise the science. His TV programme, The Sky at Night, was first broadcast in 1957 and he is still featured on it today; he was one of the BBC's commentators for the Apollo 11 moon landing; and he wrote juvenile science-fiction novels. And he was a prolific novelist. His first titles, beginning with The Master of the Moon (1952) were published by another long-lost outfit, the Hardback Museum Press, but Burke published the novels featuring his best-known hero, sixteen year old astronaut Maurice Grey (Mission to Mars, The Domes of Mars, The Voices of Mars, Raiders of Mars, Peril on Mars). I read them all, and everything else of Moore's that I could find in the local library. They are very old-fashioned (even for the 1950s and 1960s) tales of derring-do by upright British chaps, and the prose is at best serviceable, but they were, for their time, scientifically accurate and stirred in me the first feelings of that good old sense of wonder. How could I not resist something like this, the opening of Wanderer in Space?
It was full Earth. The brilliant, bluish radiance flooded down upon the bleak landscape of the moon, catching the tops of the crater-walls abd making the floors look like pools of ink; there were no half-lights, and everything was either brightly lit or else totally dark. The sky seemed ablaze with stars, shining steadily and without the slightest sign of twinkle.
By the way, the cover of Wanderer in Space is by well-known space artist David Hardy.

Thursday, January 07, 2010


Some authors blast through their first drafts as if they're taking dictation. Shakespeare famously never blotted his copybook. William Golding wrote the first draft of his Booker-winning novel Rites of Passage in a month (although this was a break from the long and arduous task of completing Darkness Visible). Other authors patiently accrete their novels one polished chapter at a time until they're done. That's not for me. I labour away at a first draft for months and months and then more or less rip it up and start again. Luckily, I love revising.

Although I did once write the first draft of a novel in a month. A chapter a day every day until it was done. At the time it was a straight crime novel, set in the area where I lived. I did it for fun, but as I was an SF writer I didn't have anywhere to place it and I also had other books to write: books I'd already been paid to write. But after that first draft had been sitting in a folder for a couple of years, my then publishers arm-wrestled me into writing near future thrillers because they wanted to get out of the (according to them) dead-end no-hope SF business. So I took out the MSS and spent six months completely revising it, transcribing its setting to a near future London half-wrecked by terrorism, and it was published as Whole Wide World on September 9th 2001. So it goes.

Right now, I'm in the first stages of first draft limbo, which follows on from a long and shapeless period in which I made scads of notes and did about a metric ton of aimless research. And then I threw most of the notes and the research away, but at least it let me know what the thing isn't about. After that, I spent a few weeks footling around, trying out this and that move, trying to find the first foot- and handholds on the long climb upward to the nirvana of the last page.

Now, I have a rough idea of the shape of the plot. I've a fix on two of the main characters and after a couple of weeks I think I've got an idea or two about the third. For one thing, I know now that he's a first-person narrator, which after several false starts came as something of a surprise. Still, as John Cheever used to tell his creative writing students, you can't just jump into first-person narration; it has to be earned. Ahead of me lie all kinds of false starts, dead-ends, pointless detours, horrible mistakes, and futile attempts to avoid the sucking pits of cliche. One thing I've learned from writing novels is that writing the next one isn't easier. Wouldn't have it any other way.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Furnished Early In Books

It's a new year and a new decade (psychologically at least) so let's start over from the beginning. Here I am, aged three or thereabouts, being introduced to the world of books by my uncle (and also, if you look closely at his right hand, to cigarette smoking: the books took but the cigarettes didn't). Oh sure, it isn't the first book I encountered, but it's the first record of my book-addiction. I can't remember what that book is, and don't have the Bladerunner-style software to resolve the cover - is that a running dog, or the silhouette of a brontosaurus? Whatever it is, I'm fascinated by it. I'm hooked.

(It's summer 1958, in my grandmother's garden. More than fifty years ago. But the first commercial nuclear power station had begun operation in Britain two years before; it was a year after Francis Crick had laid out the 'central dogma' - the relationship between DNA, RNA, and proteins that underpins molecular biology - and the replication mechanism of DNA's double helix had just been confirmed by the Meselson-Stahl experiment; Christopher Cockerell had just unveiled the first hovercraft; there were more households owning TVs than radio-only households; IBM had just made its first computer; there were Russian and American satellites in orbit.

(In short, just as I was learning to enjoy and understand books, modernity was everywhere. It was only natural to grow up expecting aircars, unlimited electrical power, space stations, and moonbases to be just around the corner.)
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