News: The Sci-Fi Chronicles (or: Blimey, I’m In a Proper Book that’s ACTUALLY IN SHOPS…)

There is a book in bookshops that has words written by me in it (alongside words written by lots of other people). It exists. It’s in the world. And here it is, in the wilds of Waterstones:

The Sci-Fi Chronicles

I got asked to work on this last year by Guy Haley (one-time reviews editor of SFX who gave me my first break on the mag), as he was editing this massive book on SF and needed contributors. The Sci-Fi Chronicles was released at the start of this month – it’s a big, picture-heavy reference book featuring tons of infographics, timelines and articles on a whole variety of SF, from books and short stories to TV, films and animation.

I’m responsible for fifteen of the articles – I wrote about Battlestar Galactica, The War of the Worlds, John Carter, Christopher Nolan, George Lucas, Independence Day, the Riddick movies, The Thing, Predator, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Philip K. Dick, Doom, Batman, Cordwainer Smith and Flash Gordon. (The ones on the list that I’m most proud of are the Cordwainer Smith piece, the Philip K. Dick profile, and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen article, where I got to do a fictional timeline of the League’s world that was so much fun to write. Flash Gordon, on the other hand, almost broke my brain, as doing a timeline of the original Flash Gordon comic book was more difficult than I ever would have dreamed…)

It’s come out looking very nice indeed, and it’s great to know that there’s a book like this out there that has my words in it. Okay, it isn’t a novel yet, and my words only make up a small percentage of the total word count, but it’s a START, dammit…



That Was The WFC That Was… (Belated Thoughts on World Fantasy Con 2013)

So, last weekend, a hefty chunk of SF/Fantasy publishing and fandom all descended upon Brighton for World Fantasy Con. It was big, it went on for five days, and it was the first con that my girlfriend and I had been to for eighteen months, which meant we were a little bit more tentative about it than you might expect.

The reasons? Well, 2012 was not an altogether good year for either of us, in a whole selection of ways, and it should tell you a lot that having a book turned down by a publisher was actually one of the easier problems I had to tackle. Personally and professionally, 2012 was a rough time, and various things happened that made me feel like the best thing to do was just retreat to the shadows, keep out of trouble, and keep my head down. World Fantasy Con struck me as a good time to return to the fold – originally I’d made enthusiastic plans (“I will have THREE NOVELS REWRITTEN and out being looked at by publishers by the time WFC arrives!”) that then became slightly less enthusiastic (“I will have TWO NOVELS REWRITTEN and out being looked at by publishers by the time WFC arrives!”) and then ultimately became realistic (“It’s okay if I actually don’t have any novels completely finished and ‘out there’ by the time WFC arrives.”)

Cons can end up slightly strange experiences when you’re not only part of fandom, and not only trying to get yourself ‘properly’ published, but also earning most of your money from working in SF/Fantasy-related publishing. I was nervous about dipping my toe back into these waters – when you’re insecure, it’s easy to get edgy about things, especially places like cons which can sometimes feel simultaneously welcoming and like the most clique-driven places you’ll find outside of an average American high school.

It didn’t help that WFC 2013 also managed a wide range of some of the worst con-related PR decisions I’ve seen, from accessibility problems, to absurdly punitive charges like the £75 charge for anyone who needed a replacement membership badge, and the £5 charges for the meeting-with-authors Kaffeeklatsch events (which, according to a Facebook post on the WFC group that mysteriously vanished a day later, were supposedly refunded after the con to those who had turned up – and if I’d known that, I might actually have gone to a couple of those events and not refused on principle). The general air of the pre-con publicity and statements were weirdly confrontational and didn’t give the impression that this was going to be anything other than an exceptionally weird and stressful time.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. World Fantasy Con may not have been an awe-inspiring experience that changed my life, and I did have a couple of emotional wobbles across the weekend (for reasons which are, to be honest, way too complicated and involved to go into), but it was a very enjoyable con which gave me the most important things about cons – new people to meet. It’s people who make cons (I should know this – I met the woman I’m currently head over heels in love with at a con), and the nicest thing about this con was not only being able to meet people I’d only previously encountered on Twitter, but also meeting people I hadn’t expected, sometimes in wonderfully surreal and drunken late-night encounters that’ll live with me for quite a while.

 Brighton Pier

Brighton itself was fascinating – a genuine old-school Victorian beach resort with plenty of faded decadence that was aided by a level of blustery wind along the seafront that nearly flattened me on several occasions. We ate out plenty, mainly in JB’s Diner, an American-style restaurant along the seafront that did an impressive burger, and also found some time to explore the bizarre and head-spinning pleasures of Brighton Pier, although we missed out on seeing the oddball magnificence of Brighton Pavillions simply from lack of time.

The WFC Comics Panel, including Joe Hill and Neil Gaiman...

The WFC Comics Panel, including Joe Hill and Neil Gaiman…

The con itself was huge, taking place across a bewildering number of levels on a layout that took a lot of getting used to, and as is traditional with cons, any aim at seeing the maximum number of panels soon flew out of the window in favour of a more improvisational approach. The panels I did see were, on the whole, very good indeed – interviews with writers like Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett and Joe Hill, along with a talk about comics that did manage to go to some places that SF/Fantasy con panels don’t normally go. (I could start on about the general negative approach to comics from the World Fantasy ‘Board’, who govern what WFCs can do – that it would be easily possible to do a series of panels that would concentrate on the literary side of fantasy comics – but the fact that a Sandman issue won the World Fantasy Award best story in 1992 seems to have permanently scarred them, so that seems to be that…). The most interesting panel I managed was actually the Steampunk panel, which managed to be different from the usual run-of-the-mill con Steampunk panel by having Tim Powers, James Blaylock and K.W. Jeter, the three men who actually invented Steampunk, where I found out that the Steampunk subgenre was actually kicked off thanks to an abortive series about reincarnations of King Arthur that fell through, leaving K.W. Jeter with a load of material about Victorian London and nothing to do with it…

There were also the parties. A cunning person could surf on free red wine from one publishing party to another, and there was lots of entertaining talk to be had. I met an awful lot of new people at the con – people I’ll hopefully be able to keep in touch with over Twitter – and some of the most fun moments were the least expected. Among many highlights, there was hanging out in the bar the first night with Charles Stross, the impromptu conversation about travelling across America I had with Kaaron Warren, winning a book thanks to my unexpected skill with a fairground crossbow, hearing an eye-opening late-night story from the splendid Max Edwards, as well as the encounter that myself, my girlfriend Emma and another friend had with a drunken Irish woman that was hilariously surreal simply thanks to the fact that it didn’t feel like it was ever going to end.

Nicest of all, I got to the end of the con and felt like I could actually let go of some of the stuff that had been bothering me for a while. One of the reasons I’d been troubled by the idea of cons is simply that they’re regular reminders that I’m not where I want to be, in terms of my writing, and that plenty of people are speeding ahead of me while I look like I’ve been standing still. I got an agent back in 2008, and it was in no way part of my ‘plan’ to be still trying to get myself published over five years later. But sometimes, things don’t go according to plan, and you can rail against that and complain and bitch and moan, or you can simply pick yourself up, continue onwards, and fail better. I haven’t always been good at doing that – letting go of the past – but thanks to WFC 2013, I felt like that goal was a little more achievable, like a little of the mess inside my head had been resolved.

I’m very good at feeling like I don’t quite fit in, even at places that are almost entirely populated by people who don’t feel like they quite fit in, but WFC 2013 was overall a good time for me. I know it wasn’t ideal for everyone – I certainly heard enough about organisational and communications snafus to make me thankful I wasn’t one of the amazing hard-working red-jacketed volunteers, several of which were good friends – but I came through it feeling better about myself, having had plenty of fun, and with a suitcase of new books, most of which I was able to pick up for free. And that can’t in any way be bad… I doubt that I’ll be making it to another WFC anytime soon, as the fact that it’s normally held in various areas of America basically makes it a no-go for now, but I’m glad I went, and I’ll do it again if I do get the chance.

(There’d only be one request if I ever go to another WFC – chairs. For the love of God, chairs. I realise it was principally a result of the hotel, but the only ‘lounge’ area for a con with upwards of 1500 people was a fairly small bar with limited seating. Many of the publishing parties took place in huge rooms with hardly any seating available, and by the fourth and fifth days, we were hi-jacking chairs wherever we could find them or sitting on the floor. A decently-sized chill-out area would have made a massive difference to the comfort level – and hopefully that’s something next year’s London-based Worldcon will be bearing in mind…)

Of course, in two weeks time, there’s the Leeds-based comic convention Thought Bubble, which I’m absurdly excited by, and which is likely to be a very different experience. I’ve been regularly impressed by Thought Bubble’s ability to evolve and grow as it’s become more popular, and it’s the friendly atmosphere – combined with this year’s awesome guest list – that has me looking forward to this with a giddy amount of enthusiasm…




Novel Review: The Dancers at the End of Time

Author: Michael Moorcock ~ Pages: 672pp ~ Publisher: Gollancz ~ Year: 1981

The Dancers at the end of Time Michael Moorcock

[xrr rating=5/5]

The Low-Down: A magical, whimsical and beautifully written trilogy of eccentric science fiction from one of fantasy literature’s biggest names, this is also a time-travel romance that’s witty, well-crafted and ultimately moving.

What’s it About?: Far in the future, near the end of the universe, the remains of humanity lives an immortal, decadent and morality-free existance where anything is possible. But when Jherek Carnelian falls for accidental Victorian time-traveller Mrs Amelia Underwood, the resulting love affair takes them all across time, and into many kinds of bizarre dangers…

The Book: Warm, witty and hopelessly romantic, The Dancers at the End of Time is the omnibus edition of a trilogy of novels (An Alien Heat, The Hollow Lands and The End of All Songs) written in the mid 1970s by massively prolific fantasy author and genre titan Michael Moorcock –  and it stands on the border between his more traditional sword-and-sorcery fantasy (the Elric, Hawkmoon and Corum novels), and his more challenging and literate work (The Cornelius and Pyat novels, as well as works like Mother London). Moorcock is one of those authors who can be intimidating simply due to how much he’s produced, but The Dancers of the End of Time is a very accessible starting point, especially since despite being a mixture of science fiction, romance and comedy, it’s mainly influenced by early twentieth century literature, especially the works of Oscar Wilde.

What Moorcock has produced here is a beautifully charming and ceaselessly imaginative romantic comedy, and the level of invention in the trilogy is amazing, conjuring up a colourful and surreal world at the End of Time and packing it with a lively selection of memorable and distinctive characters. It’s also thematically daring right from the start – this is a book where, thanks to the decadent ‘anything goes’ nature of the End of Time, the main character has sex with his own mother within the first three pages of the book, and while Moorcock has tremendous fun colliding his playful, morality-free world with the staunch and moralistic Victorian outlook, it isn’t just culture-clash comedy for its own sake. Instead, the love affair that blossoms between Jherek Carnelian and Mrs Amelia Underwood really does examine the nature of morality, and the craft and skill with which Moorcock explores this central idea is truly exceptional.

Mixing comedy with social satire and genuine romance, it’s a unique read that manages to be engaging throughout all three of its volumes, and it’s almost impossible not to be swept along by the trials and tribulations of the central relationship. It’s true that the longer and more melancholic concluding volume The End of All Songs doesn’t quite have the level of frothy comedy that Moorcock pulls off in An Alien Heat and The Hollow Lands, but it does tackle some daring science fictional territory, while still keeping the focus firmly on the characters, and the evolving relationship between the two protagonists. Back in the early twentieth century, books like The Time Machine would be described as ‘Scientific Romances’, and that’s exactly what The Dancers at the End of Time is – a magical and moving Scientific Romance that’s an incredibly distinctive work of literature, and the kind of off-beat yet moving saga that’s very easy to get lost in.

The Verdict: A tale of love, heartbreak and morality that stretches across the entire history of the universe, The Dancers at the End of Time is a quirky and utterly English tale of romance and entropy that simply demands to be read.

[amtap book:isbn=0575074760]

The Book(s) of Lost Things

Holiday reading:- (Most of which was thanks to the e-book reader on my Asus Eee PC, a device I’m finally starting to seriously appreciate…)
1: Farthing, by Jo Walton – an alternate history whodunnit, set in a world where the UK made peace with Hitler directly after Dunkirk, this was excellent stuff, functioning both as a great mystery and a very unsettling piece of fiction, allowing the really dark edges of the story (and the wider implications) to sink in gradually rather than going the sledgehammer route. It’s also very well characterised, and the first time in a while that I’ve read a genuine whodunnit. Powerful, effective, and very relevant.

2: Infected, by Scott Siegler – a very Crichton-esque tale of a mysterious outbreak of psychotic disorders that turns out to be connected to an odd disease with very horrible consequences. It’s a very good pageturner, and he’s obviously done his research, but it all starts getting silly halfway through, and part of the central character’s conflict seems to be won by him embracing his similarities with his abusive father, which I don’t think was quite what Siegler was aiming for. It’s fun, fast-paced and fantastically gory, but you’ll have forgotten it twenty minutes after finishing.

3: Four and Twenty Blackbirds, by Cherie Priest – An engaging tale of Voodoo and ghosts in the Deep South, although I can’t help feeling that the more the overarching plot becomes important, the less interesting the book gets. There’s a real charm in the far more episodic first four chapters that the book can’t quite sustain, and I can’t help feeling it might have been better as a short novella (or even a collection of short stories).

4: Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman – To be honest, I didn’t finish this, and am not certain if I will. I seriously admire Newman’s short fiction (the collection Unforgivable Stories is wonderful), but I really have trouble with his novels. It doesn’t help that Anno Dracula is essentially doing the same thing that Alan Moore went on to do with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Newman’s stuff suffers from some of the problems that have admittedly started affecting the League (particularly in The Black Dossier) – the fact that if you can’t keep up with the multitude of references, it gets very difficult to care. There’s some fantastic ideas here, but it does feel a little too much like an intellectual exercise rather than a story that’s compelling me to find out what happens next.

Reasons to be Cheerful

There are some days when the life of a freelance writer/reviewer can seem absolutely fruitless, annoying, and beyond depressing. And then, there are the days when a little bit of effort results in £100 of work coming in (and no transport costs to deduct), and when you open an interesting looking parcel in the post, and it turns out to have sci-fi author Greg Egan’s entire back catalgoue in spangly new jackets that say “I’M GREG EGAN, I AM!” Six novels- Permutation City, Distress, Schild’s Ladder, Quarantine, Diaspora and Teranesia, and two short story collections – Luminous and Axiomatic- all of which I’ve meant to get around to reading at some point, and they’re now sitting in the corner looking inviting.

It’s official. Just for now, life is good.


No spoilers here. Move along. Nothing to see.

Picked up Harry Potter VII for George today and, frankly, couldn’t really resist reading it first (She’s working her way through the audiobooks, and I’m a much faster reader). Not because I’m a crazed Potter fan (which I’m not)– but because they’re entertaining pageturning fantasies that manage to draw you in despite their many flaws (and their turn towards flabbiness in the more recent volumes). And because I can’t stand being spoiled on stories that I’ve enjoyed, and with the amount of Internet I look at, it’d only be a matter of time before I happen across some important detail that makes me go “AHHH! MY EYES!!! IT BURNSSSS!!!!”

So, got it at 12, finished by 9.30. And the verdict?

It’s a great ending. It’s flawed, rambling in places with some of the clumsiest exposition that Rowling’s used yet, but it’s also ridiculously epic, packed full of stuff, and with a dark attitude that takes no prisoners. It’s not going to change any Potter-haters into fans of the series, but as a cap to the series, it rounds off virtually all the loose ends with lashings of action, a handful of great character moments, and some surprisingly grim violence. The Potter books haven’t changed my life, but they’ve given me plenty of fun entertainment, and sometimes that’s all you need.

And if the movies had trouble fitting everything in with the earlier books, I don’t know how in hell they’re going to turn this into a film that isn’t just a ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation. I forsee many scriptwriting headaches ahead come 2009…