Sunday 26 July 2015

My 10 favourite SF novels

'Oryx & Crake' and 'The Drought' missing in action...

When compiling this list I thought about the books which have left enduring impressions on me, whether these be images, atmospheres, ideas or characters.  My imagination tends to be cinematic – as I read the images roll over the screen of my mind, and the more striking the better.  In my novel ‘The Scion’, I tried my best to write what I was seeing, which gave the book a visual feel.  My hope was that some of the images I’ve created would have the same kind of long-lasting effect as the books I most admire.

This is a book I return to again and again.  It was the first McAuley I read and one of the books that kickstarted my interest in SF.  The descriptions of a terraformed Mars jolted my imagination awake, the settings lingering in my mind.  I had the pleasure of meeting the author at Worldcon last year, when he told me (as he signed my first edition hardback) this was one of his favourites.  I just smiled, being a bit starstruck.

Where would we be without the late, great Iain M?  This book has it all – some wonderful set pieces, epic landscapes and a seriously cool female lead to boot.  An antiquity hunter, Sharrow is a strong and believable character.  The Lazy Guns are without comparison and possibly one of the coolest inventions in SF.  Added to which there are monowheels (a kind of supercharged motorbike), cable cars, glass-bottomed swimming pools, hovercraft…  Dark, as the title suggests, humorous and a book which grows on second, third and fourth reads.

The author of this novel may not consider this to be SF, but I do.  Science has effectively destroyed Earth, after the release of Crake’s monster virus (SF, right?).  The grim post-apocalyptic tone of this book takes hold from the outset and doesn’t let go.  But there is a lesson here for humanity – about what could happen if science’s advances are allowed to progress unchecked.  This is Frankenstein for our times.  It could really happen one day.

A brilliant Banksian rollercoaster ride on the ridiculously named planet of Spatterjay, where a plethora of bizarre creatures grow with abandon.  The drones in this are seriously sophisticated, kick-ass machines.  And the transformed Hoopers, infected by the Spatterjay virus, are a nice touch.  Asher’s finest moment. 

5. The Dramaturges of Yan – John Brunner

An alien world filled with ancient artefacts, a galaxy known artist who creates on a celestial scale, the strange effects of the Shrimashey drug: Brunner manages to summon a world which is fascinating and truly strange.  There is even a kind of internet (written before this existed).  At the same time, there is something very Seventies about this book, which doesn’t seem to date it, but instead gives it a retro feel.

More artefacts, this time a mysterious eponymous space hub created by a vanished race called the Heechee.  Travelling on the alien craft located in the hub to different worlds is a kind of Russian roulette, with the accompanying financial rewards making this a space race on a different scale.  The analysis sessions through which the protagonist reveals the secrets of Gateway lend a humanising context.  I read this for the first time in one sitting, spellbound, each new world visited as thrilling as the last.

No best SF list would be complete without some Ballard.  This was one of a series of apocalyptic novels, although they are otherwise unrelated.  His writing is clinical, detached and paradoxically completely submerges the reader in a world without water.  Reading this is like being transported into a surrealist landscape, where nothing quite makes sense.  There is a mirage-like touch to the prose that sticks, like your tongue to the back of your dry mouth.

This book opened my mind to the unbelievable depth of space.  That hundreds of civilisations could have lived and died before humans even emerged from the cat’s cradle of evolution on Earth.  Of course, in Rama itself, there is an alien artefact which requires exploration (you detecting a theme here?).  And, yes, space really is that big. 

9. The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

I was brought up with the Triffids.  They were there on the television creaking around through 80s TV sets and devouring people.  For a while I thought they were real.  Later I consumed the book like the voracious Triffid reader I am.  The idea of the meteor show blinding Earth’s inhabitants, rendering them powerless to the Triffids’ advances is haunting and I still have a mild panic attack any time I hear of (or even witness) a meteor shower. 

10. Stone – Adam Roberts

Roberts turns his hand to many different tropes in SF, his books diverse and fascinating.  Here he does space opera on a grand scale, whizzing through many different exotic planets with an assured prose.  And for his third outing, this feels like a book from a much more experienced writer.  High concepts abound: faster than light travel, quantum physics and intelligent nanotechnology (dotTech) which has created a kind of human utopia (or has it?).  On reading this, I almost shouted with joy, revelling in the fact that modern SF has so much to offer.  Simply breathtaking.

This blog post originally appeared on Margo Bond Collins' blog on the 7th July 2015, as part of the blog tour for my novel 'The Scion'.

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Some stuff about aliens

I’ve met many aliens during my brief time on Earth.  None to my knowledge in reality, but many through millions of words and fictional worlds I’ve avidly consumed over the years.  These have no doubt informed the way I’ve created aliens over the years.

It is hard to avoid cliché when creating an alien. In a gravity different to Earth, they could be taller or shorter; their atmosphere may be completely different; they may have completely different food sources and will no doubt support different microbiomes which may have in turn channelled their features.  Carbon-based lifeforms are mostly likely according to the higher echelons of SETI, but that doesn’t mean to say other forms are unlikely.  Many authors use silicon as the predominant building block, although Silicon-based compounds are inherently more unstable, and other elements even more so.  In any case, it seems that when considering this that they will be like us in any shape or form. But is this strictly true?

We have seen so called biological or physical attractors in evolution on our planet – look at how the octopus eye and human eye, have developed independently along completely different evolutionary pathways – so-called convergent evolution.  Are humanoids clichés or an inevitability?  I tend to think the latter.  Although this isn’t to say there won’t be other differences.  Although, this is probably a presumption based on a carbon-based lifeform, which has evolved in a similar ‘Goldilocks’ zone to Earth.  This could explain why we see so many humanoids in SF, for example in series like Banks’ Culture.

So should aliens be feared or should we be grateful for their presence?  If aliens do ever make contact, then they would surely be of at least a technological parallel to ours, if not more advanced.  There is a good chance they may be able to help us out, let us piggy back off some of their technologies, such as the McAuley’s Jackaroo.  This doesn’t mean to say they won’t want something from us, whether it be elements of our culture, or at least, a calm, focused approach to their presence.  Humanity doesn’t have a great record when it comes to dealing with members of our own species, let alone others.  Could this be one of the reasons why they haven’t yet contacted us?

This brings me to Fermi’s paradox, the contradiction between the thought that given the four hundred billion stars out there in our galaxy, there is a high probability some must harbour civilisation, so why don’t we know about them?  Is there an alien race out there, truly to be feared, like Reynolds’ Inhibitors, which extinguish everything as soon as it starts propagating beyond certain pre-defined limits?  Have their civilisations blossomed and died already on the vast canvas that is space and time, such as those which created the cylinder of Rama?  Is it because we inhabit a part of the Milky Way lacking enough dark matter for subspace transport?  Or are we simply too immature as a species, too intolerant and irrational to intelligently deal with them?

Is it highly likely that aliens are out there, somewhere, or maybe even moving amongst us.  Whether they will be able to help us or thwart us as a species is likely to depend on how we react to their presence.  But until they make themselves known to us, we have to rely on conjecture, and sometimes fantasy.  In the meantime, they can make good stories and help explain elements of ourselves, preparing us for that moment which will shake us a species, but perhaps bring out the best in us.

Banks, I. M. Consider Phlebas. Macmillan. 1987
Clarke, A. C. Rendezvous with Rama. Gollanz. 1973
McAuley, P. Something Coming Through. Gollancz. 2015
McGhee, G R. Convergent evolution: Limited Forms Most Beautiful. Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, Cambridge (MA). 2001
Reynolds, A. Revelation Space. Gollancz. 2000
Shostak, S. The bricks of life: exploring the idea of alien chemistry @ 2004

This blog post was originally written for 'Beauty In Ruins' and was posted on the 6th of July, 2015 as part of the Blog Tour for 'The Scion'.

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Music for The Scion

I find it hard to write without music.  I need it to transport me to that other place where writing comes naturally.  Think of it as jump starting my imagination, the battery of which has become flat due to the excesses of work in a busy hospital.  So it goes without question that I listened to many different notes whilst writing 'The Scion'.

It doesn't come as much surprise that many writers have music on in the background during the creative process.  SF writer Al Reynolds reportedly played lots of Interpol loudly while writing 'Revelation Space'.  And another Al (Robertson) writes beautifully how music was important to him when writing his recently published SF novel 'Crashing Heaven'.

Much of the music which vibrated my tympanic membrane during the 112,000 or so words and various edits of 'The Scion' comprised instrumental pieces - these seemed better suited to the atmosphere I was trying to create (and possibly prevented copyright issues with lyric creep).  Some of these artists I like to think of as purveyors of SF music, or at least music which goes some way to explain the unfathomable depths of space and the alien worlds surely out there.  Music, in its inexplicable way, explains the unexplained.  Tangle your headphone wires around that one.

This was a playlist I made for my friend Dr Rich Grenyer back in 2012 or so as 'accompanying listening' to 'The Scion'.  Think of it as the novel's soundtrack if you like.  Not all tracks are available, including one I wrote (with a different friend) which may never see the light of day.  But you get the gist.

1. Glink - Bola

2. Witches Ov - The Black Dog

3. Imp - Yimino

4. Monkey Back In - Mrs Jynx

5. Phontron (030303 mix) - EOD

6. The Great God Pan Is Dead - Johann Johannsson

7. Sphere Of No-Form - Biosphere

8. Goodbye - Ulrich Schnauss

9. Sticklebrick Symphony - Ochre

10. Cold Out There - Jon Hopkins

11. Hoy Yoi - Yimino

12. Love Movement (Ulrich Schnauss Remix) - Justin Robertson

13. How I Missed You - Clatterbox
14. Demo 4.1 (Unfinished End Titles) - Element 33
(not available)