Archive for January, 2016

The Long Mars

Posted: January 28, 2016 in Book reviews
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By Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett

Firstly one of my usual warnings, this is the third book in the Long Earth series, following on from The Long Earth and The Long War, so whilst I will try and keep spoilers for this book down to a minimum, its likely I will give away plot points relevant to the first two books. You have been warned.

Years have passed since the eruption of the Yellowstone Super volcano and Datum Earth (the original Earth) has suffered major environmental collapse in the aftermath. With most of its population stepping to new homes in the Long Earth.

In the midst of this the US Aegis, the American Government across the Long Earth, despatches naval commander Maggie Kauffman on a mission to explore the outer reaches of the Long Earth. With two Twains (airships) and a crew that include a talking synthetic cat, a humanoid creature descended from dogs, and her grouchy Doctor, Mac, she sets out to travel further across the Long Earth than any human has gone before.

Meanwhile the irascible Sally Linsay has been contacted out of the blue by her long lost father, Willis Linsay, who persuades her to join him on a trip to Mars. She recruits astronaut Frank Wood and together the three begin a stepwise journey across the Long Mars.

Whilst this is going on Joshua Valienté is prompted by Lobsang (the supposed Tibetan motorcycle repairman reincarnated as super intelligent A.I—don’t ask!) to investigate the mysterious Next, who may be the next evolution of man, and who the US Aegis fear so much that they’re prepared to take terrible action against in order to protect humanity…

 

Three books in and this series continues to entice and frustrate in equal measure. To be fair I enjoyed this a whole lot more than The Long War, which didn’t seem to feature an actual war and which just meandered along without really going anywhere. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of meandering in The Long Mars, but at least it’s more focused than its predecessor.

Still I can’t shake the feeling of a universe in search of a plot. Sure we have three distinct plot strands going on here, Maggie and the crews of the Twains Neil A. Armstrong II and Eugene A. Cernan step further and further west, with Sally and co taking a shorter, but even more dangerous route along the Long Mars, meanwhile Joshua and others of Lobsang’s friends look into the concept of the Next, but in many ways the strands don’t go anywhere, or if they do they take an awful long time to get there.

Part of the problem is that the Long Earth/ Mars are huge, in both instances our heroes step across millions of worlds, and in so doing they conversely render the universe almost too big for us to care, when you can step across thousands of worlds in a day, then the multiverse of Earths and Marses becomes a trifle mundane, especially when, for example, Earth 174,500,126 doesn’t seem so different from Earth 209,139,005.

The authors delight in creating some new lifeforms, some more complex than others, across many Earths, and a few Marses, but even here too often the story speeds on, just giving us glimpses of wonder. Sometimes you just wish characters would slow down.

And whilst Maggie Kauffman, heroic Twain commander has always felt like a very obvious Trek homage, the homage goes so far as to effectively imitate a specific Star Trek episode and film, even down to paraphrasing dialogue from the classic episode itself. It’s far too obvious to be coincidence and I found it jarring.

At least Maggie, Mac, Snowy the humanoid dog and Shi-Mi the talking cat, are engaging characters. By contrast Sally Linsay is just plain unlikeable, and to be honest has been from the get go, but perhaps it makes sense now when we meet her father because he’s even harder to empathise with. This means it’s up to Frank Wood to carry much of the Mars segments of the book, but it’s still a struggle because it’s hard to care about three characters who barely talk to each other.

This just leaves Joshua and Lobsang’s investigation into the Next, which again riffs on Trek and feels a trifle short-changed sandwiched in between all the long-range explorations

In the end, after a lot of meandering, the novel ends up rushing to its finale. This is a story that details in depth the outward journey hundreds of millions of Earths and millions and Marses yet has everyone go home again ‘off camera’ without much incident, which is a shame. There’s some set up for the next book, but no clear sign of just where, if anywhere, the story is going. Given the sad passing of Terry Pratchett I wonder if The Long Utopia will be the final book. I do plan to read it, because the universe is interesting, and clearly both authors have enjoyed playing in the sandpit they’ve created, but thus far the books have yet to be anything truly memorable.

If you’ve got this far with the series I’d recommend reading The Long Mars because it does have its moments. It’s an improvement on the Long War and I found parts very interesting, I just wish rather than skimming across millions of worlds they focused on a few, and rather than skimming across characters they actually gave some of these people more depth.

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I think one thing you don’t realise until you start writing, is just how many stories a single person can produce. Of course this always assumes you don’t give up after your first few rejections. I’ve talked about rejection before however, so for the purposes of this article I’m going to assume that you’re the stubborn as a mule who’s particularly stubborn kind of writer who won’t let a few (hundred) NO THANK YOUs slow them down. I’m also going to assume you’re the kind of writer, like me, who writes in both long and short form (and everything in between.)

I probably could tell you roughly how many stories I’ve written if I could be bothered to do a check on my story folder, but frankly I’m too lazy, and besides that kind of thing (like totalling up how many rejections you’ve received) can be counterproductive. Suffice to say that I’ve written a lot. Five full novels, three novellas and several dozen short stories at least.

Many of these stories have yet to find a home outside of the digital one squirreled away on my hard drive (and backed up several times over, don’t EVER make that mistake!) and, like the crazy old relative in the attic, quite a few of them I’ve chosen to forget ever existed. If you’re not aware of the term ‘Trunk Stories’ then I’d recommend Googling it. Suffice to say that every writer is probably going to have stories he or she could never find a home for, because not matter who you are and how successful you are you’re going to get rejections. Just the other day on Twitter a writer I follow, who’s had multiple novels formally published, was bemoaning the fact that an American sci-fi mag had rejected a story submission, so don’t imagine that even if you become a bestselling novelist everything you write will turn to gold. Everyone, at every level, will have stories they haven’t found a home for.

And it’s possible that they imagine they never will. Now I’m not quite so defeatist. I firmly believe that every story has a home, even the terrible ones, because every story has merit, even if the only virtue was as part of your development as a writer. In today’s world anyone has the ability to publish their words, whether as a print on demand kind of way, or as an eBook, or simply by posting them on their blog—and I’ve done all three of those things. As I’ve always said, it’s better that 3 people read your story than nobody does. Hidden away in the attic or hard drive nobody is going to read it. And, you know, even though you think it’s terrible, someone else might not, and sometimes writers are their own worst critics (and, in fairness, their own most blinkered champion).

None of which is my way of admitting that if I’ve self-published or posted a story on my blog that I think it’s terrible. Far from it. That’s just the right home as far as I could see, especially for the novels because it is so very hard to get interest from an agent or publisher these days, the opportunities are infinitely fewer for a 130,000 word novel than a 5,000 word short story, and given how much time and effort it takes to write a novel the thought of no one ever reading it is so much more depressing. Especially when I think my novels are, for the most part, good. To date, as I’ve said, I’ve written 5 novels. The first, third and fourth ones are now available to buy as print on demand, pdf, or via Amazon. The fifth book may end up in the same place, but at the moment I haven’t exhausted all the options for attracting a publisher or agent to it. So it will be published, either because someone wants to publish it, or because I want to publish it. That leaves my second novel, a twisty turny time travel story worthy of Steven Moffat. That one may never see the light of day. In part because I’m not sure how good it is, in part because my characterising of certain characters is quite heavy handed, but also because the nature of the story necessitates a very specific time period within which it can be set so it would have to be published, if at all, as a kind of weird period piece.

Maybe one day…

Going back to short stories, I think there’s a lot more scope for finding a home for these, but persistence is the order of the day, persistence, a touch of luck and, just perhaps, the lowering of your sights.

The first thing to state is that just because you’ve been rejected by a mid-range publisher, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you can only ever pitch that story at the independent end of the market, far from it. I once had a story rejected by the sadly now defunct Pill Hill Press, very much an indie concern in the States, that story ended up being published by the British Fantasy Society. Remember, a rejection of a story is just that A rejection. Every editor has their own tastes, every editor has their own idea what they’re looking for, and maybe that story about spider cowboys you wrote happened to be the third spider cowboy story they’ve seen that week—they can’t take them all. Abaddon Books’ commissioning editor David Moore makes the point very eloquently here about the process of cutting through a submission pile. But just because your story didn’t fit one editor for one publication, it doesn’t follow that it won’t grab hold of the next person you send it too (remember there are editors out there who turned Harry Potter down).

If you believe in a story you have to keep sending it out, I’ve eventually sold many stories that had been rejected many times because they finally found the home they were made for. So maybe that is luck, but really I think it’s more down to persistence. I also talked about lowering your sights, though as I say sometimes it can be as simple as heightening your sights as well, don’t be afraid to target the indie market. That isn’t to say they’ll automatically take your tale, they have standards just like anyone else, but the truism is, well, true! The wider you cast your net the more chance you have of landing a fish.

Don’t be afraid if it takes some time, often a story will fit a particular niche (Horror western, superheroes, erotic sci-fi etc.) and anthologies that are looking for that kind of story might be few and far between (and then three might come along at once like Number 6 buses!) but there’s no greater feeling than scrolling through somewhere like The Horror Tree and suddenly spotting an anthology you have the perfect story for.

Time to dust it off, maybe give it a polish and another proof, and send it off.

Every decent story can find a home; if you’re patient, persistent, and pig headed enough. Good luck!

You’ve possibly already read my review of The Force Awakens, so you might be wondering what else I have to say? Well I’ve now seen the film three times, and my initial viewpoint has not shifted one iota because I still love it to bits. It’s my favourite film of 2015 (which is a shame for Kingsman given it help top place from about January) and might well be my favourite film for several years. However it might be nice to talk in more detail about various elements of the film, and some of my own thoughts about its themes and the characters in it. And of course because this isn’t, strictly speaking, a review, I can spoiler the film to my heart’s content.

Yes you hear me. SPOILERS! So if you haven’t seen the film yet I recommend, nay insist, that you bugger off right now and come back once you have. But if you have seen the film, and want to check out my ramblings, why not hop over BB8 here and read on…

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Is Rey a Mary Sue?

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I’ve seen a few comments along these lines, and there is a certain amount of evidence to back this up—she can fly a ship, she can repair a ship, she can fight and shoot and she can use the Force and she’s pretty handy with a lightsabre the first time she picks it up…but, and this is a pretty big BUT, so what? I mean, is her skillset any different from Luke’s? Let’s not forget Luke went from farm boy and hotshot bush pilot to battling highly trained Stormtroopers and flying an X-Wing into battle against the Death Star! In fact you could argue Rey likely had a less sheltered upbringing than Luke, I mean he had Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru to look after him, Rey only had herself, so is it any wonder that she’s quite handy in a fight? She’s spent most of her life scavenging downed spacecraft on Jakku, so even setting aside the fact that she had clearly been working as a mechanic as well as a scavenger, she’s probably got quite an intimate knowledge about how space ships are put together. Then there’s her flying skills, which seems to surprise her just as much as anyone else. She’s clearly flown a ship before, but as she herself says, only in the atmosphere, yet suddenly she’s besting Tie Fighters. The interesting thing here is that Finn says ‘how’d you do that’ (or words to that effect) and Rey’s answer? ‘I don’t know?’ so I think we can chalk that kind of natural ability to the Force (same as Luke and in fact Anakin).

As for her use of the Force, this does seem more innate than, say, Luke’s, but you have to take into consideration that Luke had never heard of the Force, or Jedi Knights, or lightsabres, whereas for Rey these are all known things. They might be mythical, maybe even apocryphal, but she’s aware of them, so her trying out a Jedi Mind Trick ™ is a bit like Silent Bob in Mallrats!

So yeah, Rey is a bit of a Mary Sue, but no more than Luke or any number of other fictional ‘innocents’ who suddenly start kicking arse like professionals. Of course what’s the major difference between Rey and most of those characters? She’s a girl of course! Oh lordy, they’ll be wanting the vote next (Paul rolls eyes)

 

Does Harrison Ford pull a Paul McCartney?

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This may be a huge case of me reading things into something I spotted, but when Han and Chewie first show up on the Falcon, and Han’s talking to Rey and Finn, we see him side on and damned if he doesn’t seem to be very pointedly pointing towards his feet.
Now way back the album cover for The Beatle’s Abbey Road featured the fab four walking across a zebra crossing. Three of them are dressed wearing shoes but Paul McCartney is not. Not only is he barefoot but he’s very obviously pointing towards the floor so you notice he’s not wearing shoes.

Now this was interpreted as suggesting that Paul was dead (if you aren’t aware of the whole ‘Paul McCartney died in the 60s and was replaced story I refer you to Google). It’s something to do with him being barefoot.

Last year Doctor Who had a similar photo shoot done, and this time Jenna Coleman was the one barefoot and pointing and again this was interpreted as suggesting the character of Clara was not long for this world.

Now with this in mind, Han pointing towards the floor takes on a whole new meaning, especially given that he won’t survive to the end credits. But, like I say, I might be seeing something that isn’t there. Maybe Ford just stands like that all the time…

 

Masks

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It struck me on the third viewing, that it can’t be coincidence that the three (new) main characters are all masked the first time we see them? Kylo Ren is wearing his sub Vader mask for a good half of the film but the first time we see Finn his visage is covered by his Stormtrooper helmet. This leaves Rey, and the first time we see her, clambering around inside the crashed Star Destroyer, her face is covered by her scarf and goggles.

So what are we supposed to take from this? Than none of them is quite what they initially appear to be? This is most clear with Finn, he looks like a Stormtrooper but he’s actually like no Stormtrooper we’ve ever encountered before. And whilst on first inspection Kylo Ren looks like Vader, he’s about as far from the Sith Lord as you can get. Any rage in Vader is kept under tight reign, but with Kylo Ren it’s out of control. And when he finally does take his helmet off we see that he isn’t some scarred old man, some creature more machine than human, instead he’s a perfectly healthy young man. He doesn’t wear the mask because he has to, but because he wants to, and I wonder if Kylo Ren will actually wear it at all in Episode VIII? You could argue that in removing his mask and in killing his father, the real Kylo Ren has been revealed?

And what does this say about Rey? Clearly that she is more than she initially appears to be more than just a simple scavenger. On the one hand her hidden depths may refer to her Force powers of course, but it may also relate to her heritage. Which brings me to the next point…

Is Rey the daughter of Luke, or even Han and Leia?

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An awful lot of people have suggested that Rey is Luke’s daughter, and cite the way he looks at her at the end of the film as evidence (not to mention her abilities with the Force, and the fact that it seems she was abandoned by someone, and seems quite attached to her Rebel pilot’s helmet and Rebel Pilot themed teddy/doll). Would this make sense? I suppose so. Do I hope it’s true? No.

First off I don’t like the notion that Force ability is only hereditary, it makes little sense, especially when you factor in Jedi Knight’s celibacy. Secondly if she is Luke’s daughter, then that suggests either Luke abandoned her to the tender mercies of a disreputable sort on Jakku, or else someone else took her and Luke just never bothered to try and track her down. Neither option reflects well on Luke.

Finally, it’s just too obvious!

Another option, which frankly holds less water, is that she’s Kylo Ren’s sister. Again it seems unlikely. Sure Han takes to her quickly, and sure Leia hugs her before they’re even introduced, but neither of them talk about having a daughter, which would be kinda weird (and the same problem arises of her being abandoned on Jakku).

None of which means she isn’t a Skywalker, it just means I hope she isn’t.

Why are they still using Tie Fighters and X-Wings?

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I think we all know that the reason they’re still using X-Wings and Tie Fighters 30 years later is because a/ they’re cool and b/for added nostalgia. But, having said that, does it really seem that unexpected? I always figured that X-Wings were a relatively new kind of craft at the time of the original films, and for all we know Tie Fighters were similarly fresh off the production line. Now taking this into account, and factoring some real life 20th/21st Century examples into the equation. First off look at the Panavia Tornado which entered service with the RAF in around 1979/1980. Although it is due to be replaced within the next few years it is still, as we speak, flying combat missions over Iraq and Syria, which means it’s been operational 35 odd years. This isn’t a unique example either, the US Navy has been flying F18 Hornets since the late 1970s.

With this in mind, and considering as well that it’s likely the avionics/engines of both X-Wings and Tie fighters have likely been upgraded making them, technically, different beasts to the ones Luke flew/flew against, then the fact that the First Order and the Resistance are still flying them is quite logical, maybe more so for the resistance who might have less of a choice in the matter.

That said given the original trilogy gave us Y-Wings (my own personal favourites) A-Wings, B-Wings, Tie Bombers and Tie Interceptors, let’s hope for some new ships in episode 8 in addition to the old favourites.

 

Kylo Ren is rubbish, he’s taken down by two characters who’ve had no lightsabre training.

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I think first and foremost we need to consider what condition Kylo Ren is in during this fight. First off emotionally he must be all over the place, you know given that he’s just killed his own father. That’s got to affect his judgement and his thinking. And then of course he’s also just been shot by Chewie. Now the film takes every opportunity to show us how powerful everyone’s favourite Wookie’s bowcaster is. It knocks Stormtroopers clean off their feet, and even factoring in the greater ranger Kylo Ren clearly takes one hell of a pounding via this wound. So he’s emotionally off balance, he’s bleeding and likely in a lot of pain, and from the way he keeps hitting his own wound either he’s getting the adrenaline to pump, or distracting himself with the pain. Neither of which suggest a fighter at his best.

Now to his opponents. Finn might not be adept with a lightsabre, but he is a trained stormtrooper, and, judging by his encounter with the riot-trooper earlier, stormtroopers get a lot of melee training, so whilst he might be unused to the weapon, he probably isn’t unused to the kind of weapon.

And of course Kylo Ren takes him down.

On to opponent number 2. Rey might have grown up a scavenger, might not have had in-depth training, but we find out early on that she’s not afraid of a fight, and is quite useful with the staff she carries. Again a lightsabre might be something very different, but it isn’t like she hasn’t fought with melee weapons before, and you could even argue that her lack of formal training makes her a much more unpredictable opponent than Finn. Plus you have to factor in that Rey is strong with the Force. Likely not as strong as Kylo Ren (yet) but as we’ve already argued he’s probably not at his best.

All of which adds up to what is, the more I think about it, one of the most interesting and mismatched lightsabre duels since Luke went up against Vader the first time in Empire.

If, and it might be a big if, Rey fights Kylo Ren in Episode 8, I imagine things will be very different. Kylo Ren will be more on top of his game, but Rey will probably have had more training.

Of course it wouldn’t surprise me if they leave the rematch for episode 9 and have Rey go up against another of the Knights of Ren in episode 8. I also hope we don’t get Kylo Ren vs Luke, because the likely outcome of that might be as depressing as what happened to Han this time!

Lure of the Dead

Posted: January 14, 2016 in horror, Published fiction
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Zombies are so hot right now! They’re everywhere in films, on TV and in literature. Abaddon Books even have a specific imprint just for the walking dead. It’s called Tomes of the Dead and recently I was honoured to have my novella, The Lazarus Conundrum, published under this imprint.

But what is it about the living dead that’s so fascinating? What is it about zombies that has elevated them above so many other monsters in recent years? I’m not sure I can give a definitive answer to that, so my thoughts here are simply that, my thoughts.

I suppose in a way they enable us to confront our own mortality in a way that other undead creatures do not. Death is a universal constant, but it’s something that most of us shy away from thinking about. Even when loved ones die we rarely confront the icky nature of death and decomposition. If we see a loved one before their burial then that encounter will usually be stage managed, they will have been dressed and arranged to give the illusion of life, and thankfully most of us will never see an actual dead body out in the wild, as it were, unless we are very unfortunate.

People have differing views about why people like horror. I’ve always been of the opinion that horror, good horror done well, is about catharsis, it’s about facing our fears in a safe environment, and it’s about watching characters overcome terrifying obstacles, which gives us hope. If Rick Grimes can survive the zombie apocalypse then our dead end jobs or annoying families spats or ever spiralling credit card bills don’t seem quite so bad.

And there’s definitely something cathartic about being able to stare death in the face, especially if the monsters are secure behind the screen of a cinema or a TV, or safely locked away within the pages of a book.

You could make the argument that other monsters can fulfil the same purpose, but I’m not sure that’s true. Aside from the fact that they walk (and bite!) Zombies are us, or at least the meat portion of us, although whatever made us human is long gone. They’re not vampires, imitations of living people with human memories and with eternal youth, perfect death, and they’re not werewolves, there’s no animalistic metamorphosis going on here, only slow decomposition.

And the death we’re staring at when we look at zombies isn’t inert, death might be waiting for us further (hopefully a lot further!) down the line, but this isn’t a prelude of what’s to come; oh no, zombies are death not just staring us in the face but rushing (or lumbering) right at us, death hurrying to meet us.

And of course there’s a more visceral thrill to be enjoyed with zombies. Most often encountered in large groups they’re a natural disaster rather than an intelligent enemy, a tsunami of dead flesh, the unstoppable force against us, the living, who are far from being an immovable object. Even at their slowest there’s something relentless about the walking dead, like a glacier slowly encroaching. You can’t scare them off by waving a crucifix at them, and they’ll come for you whether its day or night. The only way to stop them is to destroy their brain (usually, there are exceptions) but when there are so many of them ammunition will only last so long. After this you need to get inventive, and this is where zombie fiction can actually be all kinds of gruesome fun: knives, clubs, swords, lawn mowers, garden gnomes…

Sometimes though all you can do is run, and isn’t that what most of us spend our lives doing? Trying to stay out of death’s reach for as long as we can?

Tempo

Posted: January 13, 2016 in Published fiction
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I’ve now published another new book! My new novel is called Tempo and is available on Amazon UK, Amazon.com and so on and so forth.

A race against time, couple on the run, conspiracy thriller with more than a dash of sci-fi/fantasy in its DNA, it’s a story that proves time flies when you’re on the run. It’s available for an absolute steal at £1.35/$1.99 so why not check it out, remember you don’t even need a Kindle to read it, just the free Kindle viewer app. Below are the cover and blurb.

 

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“On the Greek island of Zakynthos a sexual predator believes his abilities afford him the perfect opportunity for abuse, until a mysterious stranger arrives to prove him wrong…

In a filthy flat in Geneva a man who should be barely thirty years old lies dying of old age…

And in London, a young artist on the verge of fame little realises that her otherworldly paintings have marked her out for death, and the only person who can save her is one of the men sent to kill her…”