Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Why can't time travel be easy?

Perhaps it's because I've just waded into Audrey Niffenegger's 'The Time Traveler's Wife' (thoughts so far: is the grooming of a six-year old Clare okay because it's perpetrated by Clare's future husband, or because it's written by a woman?), but my mind has been turning to time travel.

It's a device that I've used before, that virtually every science fiction writer has deployed at some point.  It's also - sort of - the subject of my story The Loimaa Protocol, published in Wit & Whimsy volume 2.

It's never easy, time travel.  Have you noticed?  You either need some vehicle, or some esoteric token or knowledge.  Vehicles go wrong or are lost - how many time has the Doctor slapped the console of the TARDIS?  Spells don't always work.  Potions may need obscure ingredients that the corner shop just doesn't have.  Or, when you don't need any of those things, like in The Time Traveller's Wife, it's invariably uncontrollable, fickle, capricious.

Think of a story where the hero can just go 'Battle of Waterloo' and click his fingers without problem.  Easy as wandering down the end of the garden to pull some carrots.  No need to stoke the boilers of a time machine or incant correctly.  No, me neither.

There's a story-centric reason, of course.  Story is about somebody (singular or plural) who wants something but can't get it and has to overcome those barriers.  Story, at essence, is that simple.  But the second half is vital.  Nobody wants to read a story where the goals are easy.  That's why time travel is hard.

It's also because, in the real world, time travel is hard.  Actually, scrub that.  It's impossible.  (But, if it's impossible, then it doesn't matter where you set the dial between 'easy' and 'you must be joking' in terms of implausibility).

But - and this would be the real challenge to write - what about a story where the hero can time travel with ease, just wish himself elsewhen, with no need for a TARDIS or a book of spells?  The authorial challenge then is what challenges you present your hero, where do the barriers to be overcome move to if it's not the challenge of moving in time itself?  The very ease of your character's quest becomes the author's own problem to solve.  There's something quite meta- about that, don't you think?

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Brace yourselves

Really struggling for a title for this posting, so a play on brace being two of something - although have you ever heard it used outside the context of bloodied animals held in the mouths of gundogs as they trot back to pink-faced men in tweeds with Purdeys under their armpits?

Well, you have now, because this posting is just to make you aware of a brace of stories that I'll have in circulation later this spring.  Atthisarts will have 'Five Minutes at Hotel Stormcove' out by May, and nestled in amongst 58 (yes, 58!) other stories will be my tale, 'A Room with a View'.  Not sure where I got that title from.  Looks great, even as a jpeg, I'm sure you'll agree.  Get your hands on one by clicking here.
Before that, 'How Did They Get You?', a tale of androids and Canadian whiskey on a Martian mining colony, will, hopefully, be appearing in issue number 7 - free, gratis and for nothing - of James Gunn's Ad Astra.  That'll hit your browser next month, I understand.

Both these tales are alike but very differing in that they went through a rewriting process in the light of editorial comments.   'How Did They Get You?' didn't just go through a process, but a wringer, being pitched in November 2017, chased in June 2018, with rewrites submitted in July and October 2018, and a final tweak last month.

Each redrafting was in response to detailed editorial comments questioning the science, the motives and actions of characters, the plot, everything.  Let's just say I don't think the good burghers of Ad Astra would have let Cervantes get away with Sancho Panza's donkey disappearing and reappearing in Don Quixote.  I doubt I thought as much about the story when I first wrote it as they did in reading it.  In contrast, my preference is always to keep the action moving along at a sufficient clip that you don't consider the bits that don't quite fit, hence my view of the process flip-flopped between 'oh my God, what now?' and 'good point, well made'.  To their credit, the rewrites improved the story without changing it.

Meanwhile, the edits for Hotel Stormcove were dealt with by an exchange of emails in a day.  I hope you enjoy them both, or this longer one...


Friday, 15 February 2019

Why I want to live in the future. Or on television

I used to sign off my biography, the short paragraph that decent publishers allow writers to include as a bit of a flag wave and a pointer to other works, with the phrase 'He's allergic to cats and doesn't like dogs'.  Because it's essentially true.

Or, at least that's how I rationalised matters.

I've now dropped it, partially because tone is a tough thing to convey, and it's really not my fault if Americans can't tell when a Briton is joking (dwell on that a moment; there's a meta-level you may be missing).  And if you can't tell when I'm joking, even over something true, it may genuinely cause offence and, heaven forfend, damage sales of my novel '2084'.  Did I mention I have a novel out?

Because everybody - and I mean everybody - seems to have a dog now.  They're everywhere.  Even friends who we thought were mutt-free have now gone over to the dark side and have got themselves yapping sappers of time and freedom.  Telling anybody that you’re a bit South Korean over dogs is an instant one-way ticket to the social-leper colony, certainly in Britain.  Possibly less so in South Korea.

But there's a more subtle reason: I’ve found that I don’t actually dislike dogs.  You see, when I see a working dog - sheepdog, guide dog, sniffer dog, whatever - I have no negative feelings towards them.  Only respect and admiration.  Unlike a pooch on a lease, which always strike me as shitting deadweights.  I saw a 'service dog' on the tube earlier this week.  Think about it.  A dog that can change the oil, check the tyres.  My car'll need its timing belt seen to sometime soon.  Can he do that?   I'm impressed.

I've concluded that my negativity is not towards dogs, but pet ownership.  The enslavement of fellow animals for our amusement and company.  I see something inherently, fundamentally wrong.  I like my wildlife free to roam and do what comes naturally, and wearing coats and collars isn't included in what nature intended.  I like to think that my feelings towards dogs are on a par with those of early abolitionists when they saw a negro boy on tow to open doors and suchlike; that it's wrong, but I'm the only one who seems to get it.

And if you’re reading this thinking, well they’re part of the family and we treat them well and they have a wonderful life, better than they would otherwise, that’s exactly what the regency women would have said about their negro child door openers.  My point is that they would have looked at you like you were a loon if you expressed what today isn’t just a mainstream view, but the only socially acceptable view.  Just as ‘animal lovers’ would - and have - regard(ed) my views as in the territory of tinfoil hats.

But any society can only judge itself against its own moral code.  And I think that moral code will shift.  Slowly.  But it will shift.

And I think I have science on my side.  The differences between humans and animals keep diminishing.  We're more alike than differing.  Animals fall in love, establish rules for fair play, exchange valued goods and services, hold "funerals" for fallen comrades, deploy sex as a weapon, get jealous and violent or greedy and callous and develop irrational phobias, monkeys address inequality, wolves miss each other, elephants grieve for their dead, and prairie dogs name the humans they encounter.  Oh, and dolphins masturbate.  Not only that, we’ve found that all mammals have about the same number of heartbeats per lifetime, around a billion, and that we all urinate for around 21 seconds.  That last one got Dr David Hu an Ig Noble prize.  And richly deserved it was too, I'm sure.

This all adds up to a watertight case for not keeping them as pets.  And in the future, we won’t.  But I can’t live in the future, so where’s the next best thing?  Why, television, of course.  Watch carefully.  Unless it’s vital to the story, nobody ever has a dog.  Television is relatively pet-free, far more pet-free than real life.  No casual stranger in the background is ever out walking the hound.  Because they’re too dumb to take direction and too irrelevant to the story to risk wrecking the scene, slobbering and walking off in the wrong direction.

And I'm including the dogs in that claim as well, the shitting deadweights.

Friday, 25 January 2019

A modest proposal

Publishers.  Don’t they just make you want to crawl in a ball, tuck your arms behind your knees and bounce about screaming?  I don’t mean professional operations, like anybody on SFWA’s good books or the too-many-to-name that we all know we can trust.  My gripe this fortnight is aimed squarely at hobby publishers who set up a website with an ominous-looking spacecraft or sword-wielding wench partially clad in leather and rivets, give themselves a logo and portentous name, and call for submissions.

I sometimes wonder whether it’s just an elaborate ruse to get reading material.  What’s wrong with a bookshop?

I had intended to produce this sober and reasonable mini-tanti in any case, but a rather bizarre coincidence has recently highlighted matters.  As a writer of short fiction who occasionally places pieces in the pro market, but whose level of success seems to be more consistently semi-pro and lower, I’m regularly sending pieces out to magazines and publications that I may not know that well as a reader, and whose reputation, unlike James Bond’s, does not precede them.  The pattern is fairly well-established: you send in a piece, await a response in the time stated on the website, maybe a week or so more, check your spam, chase by email, wait a couple of weeks more, then record a no response on the Grinder and find a new market.

What happened to me earlier this month followed that pattern exactly.  A story was submitted in July 2018 to a publication I won’t name, but which pays a token rate (and doesn't state a response time).  The silence of deep space followed.  I chased after what, I felt, to be a reasonable timescale, in early December, and then waited until the 18th January before declaring the market dead and recording a no response on the Grinder, alongside about half of all other submissions to that site.  I then found another market, an SFWA-qualifying market, to submit it to, and off it went.

A mere three hours later, an email drops out of the ether from the first publisher, not responding to the chase, not apologising for the delay, but accepting the story with contract attached.  Not even the whiff of an acknowledgement that I’d been in contact a month before to try to find out what was happening; indeed, whether the operation was still functioning.

What to do?  Well, apart from record the acceptance on the Grinder because I like it when my names floats down their list, nothing as yet.  I’m certainly not going to withdraw the story from an SFWA-qualifying market, although it’s been kicked aside from most of the rest of them so far, but you never know, it may be just what they're looking for right now.  And I’m not going to sign the contract whilst it’s under consideration by a better customer.  It’s a Mexican standoff, albeit one that the two other pistoleros don’t know they’re in.

(Just as an aside, this is the self-same story that, in 2017, I withdrew having been accepted by Allegory, and was accepted in 2018 by G Allen Cook for an anthology which then folded due to health reasons.  Cursed story?  Who knows?)

Much of the source of confusion to my mind are those websites, the ones with the spaceships and the tart in leather and rivets, that look as fresh as the day they were uploaded.  Even when their creators have decided that the whole thing's a bad idea, moved to Boise, Idaho and become spoon salesmen.  I think there's scope for a story with some future Indiana Jones uncovering a website looking as fresh as the day it's HTML and CSS were conceived, like a digital proxy for some Mayan gold relic. 

A suggestion, if I may, a Swiftian ‘Modest Proposal’ of my own, but one that is intended in all seriousness.  It’s also one which is far more universal in its application than just semi-pro sci-fi publishers’ websites.  It’s this: that all webpages should slowly fade, wither and die – unless properly maintained.  That way, the fresh webpage of the operation that ceased to function a year ago will grey and crumble.  Ivy will climb over calls for submission that merely appear to be still open.  Maybe ravens could peck at the eyes of those sword-wielding maidens with the leather and ironwork who now stand for nothing?

And then we could tell which sites are open, and which merely look open.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

End of year report

Yes, it's time for the annual look back at a year of sometimes writing, but mainly procrastinating and prevaricating and finding ways to avoid hitting the keyboard.  Say, by updating this blog.  So let's check those targets and see where the arrows lie:

Send a submission a day
Well, the Grinder tells me that I sent 339 submissions out in 2018, so a miss, but a near miss.  I was actually on track until October-ish, when I started living away part of the week to work in London.  This severely curtailed my writing time - but, as I've just said, boy, do I find reasons not to write - but two other factors came into play as well.

Firstly, noticeably fewer markets started to appear on the Grinder late on in 2018; sometimes it seemed a whole week would go by without any being added.  Lower demand means constricted supply.  Secondly, as stories were sold they - obviously - couldn't be sent out again, thus diminishing the stockpile of stories.  That said, I sent nine stories to Clarkesworld this year, albeit a couple were old stories re-engineered; Clarkesworld being the venue to which I send stories first, so it's not as though I wasn't producing content.

Sell three stories
So, what about the stories that sold, that fly in the ointment as far as the first target was concerned (only joking, this is the one that counts).  Well, the Grinder reports 11 acceptances in the year, so a hit:

So, nine or ten real sales, but three reprints (of which one looks like a non-runner), and two are a hundred words or less.  That's about 13,000 words of new material.  Not that impressive.  But add in an honourable mention in L Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future competition, a couple of near misses with Daily Science Fiction, another with Shoreline of Infinity, and stories still held by Galaxy's Edge and James Gunn's Ad Astra, and it's looking like a year to build on.

Sell a novel
A miss.  Baen decided to pass on my YA Harry Potter-meets-Doctor Who (figuratively) novel after being "selected from the slush pile for further examination" for over two years.  Haven't got any remaining irons in the fire; at least, none with any sort of glow.  I guess I need to pick myself up, dust myself off and get back to marketing.

Write a novel
Or, more specifically, finish writing a novel.  Big miss, particularly as the short stuff is meant to help market the bigger pieces - like 2084 - that pay by the sale rather than by the word.  I've taken 'Toefoot', my sci-fi thriller, from 16,300 words to 18,800.  Please don't extrapolate a completion date from that rate if progress...

Publish a novel
I have a novel written thirty years ago, juvenilia, that will never make the cut professionally, but I have ambitions of putting it out as an ebook.  It's written, just needs an edit, a polish, formatting and epublishing.  Have I?  No.  Miss.

Oh, and for regular readers, yes, that's right - I am still awaiting my kill fee from Carrie Cuinn at Lakeside Circus...


This year's targets?  Same as last year's, with a recognition of the need to focus on the long pieces, plus to complete my SFWA qualification, which I think I'm about thirty percent of the way to (or, possibly, put negatively, to disqualify myself from Writers of the Future).  A third straight showing in Best of British Science Fiction - or one in Best of British Fantasy - would be nice too, but there's nothing I can do about that any more, those submissions are in.  Watch this space.


Tuesday, 25 December 2018

A Christmas story... just not the Christmas story

Santa Claus.  Father Christmas.  Saint Nicholas.  What's his job?

Yes, you heard right.  What's the great man's form of employment?  What does he say at parties?  How does the sentence, "Hi, I'm Nick, I'm a..." end?

Now, you may think, given he's got almost 2 billion addresses to deliver presents to (okay, that's the number of children in the world, but it's easier to google, so go with it), that he'd say he was something in logistics, transportation.  You'd think he'd be in the Teamsters.  Actually, you'd think he'd be life president of the Teamsters, given he has 364 days to devote to union activity, and who works Christmas Day?

But that's just where you'd be wrong.  Because the flaw in your logic would be staring you in the face.  What's he doing the other 364 days of the year?  He's making a list; he's checking it twice.

That's a bloody big Excel file.  Excel's good, and it's a simple table (name; address; present wanted; naughty or nice?; maybe a column for evidence), but 1.9 billion lines may be flying at the limits of it's capacity.  I haven't worked that one out.  But the point is that Nicholas of Bari was - nay, is - a data jockey, a spreadsheet pilot.

You see, the whole courier thing is a sideline, little more than a hobby.  There are Yodel drivers on zero hours contracts that are more committed to door-to-door deliveries that Santa.  Like the rest of us, he's a corporate wageslave, a commuter with a computer most of the year.  Probably works in a cubicle.  Maybe seen him on mass transit, sat next to him.  He'll have a grey pallor; a faraway expression like he has something on his mind; I don't think he'll have a loud tie.  He's looking forward to Christmas; it's his one day away from a screen, out in the fresh air.  He's not that different from you.

You don't like that Christmas story?  Okay, here's another: NewMyths.com has just run my seasonal tale, Charles Edward Tuckett's Yuletide Message.  Maybe you'll like that one.  Or this one:


Sunday, 16 December 2018

Who am I to criticise Isaac Asimov? Well, let's find out

Well, as we've recently found out, sudoku and futoshiki won't save us from dementia.  One of my strategies to hold back the softening of my cerebrum, which I'm sure I can feel happening daily, is to record the books I've read on goodreads.com with a short review.  Maybe it won't slow down my eventual descent into senility, but the ability to look back and say, did I really read that?, may act as some kind of speedometer.  Or, possibly, depth gauge.

One of the most recent additions to my goodreads history is 'Robot Dreams' by Isaac Asimov.  It's the third Asimov I've added, joining 'Foundation':

Asimov is famous for the sheer weight of words that he wrote. I suspect that all that writing left precious little time for re-writing, and it shows. A succession of silly characters with silly names, a storyline that aims at portentous and just hits pretentious, I'm baffled as to why this is a classic. Is it me, or is it Isaac? Perhaps volume two will give me a clue... (two stars)

And 'Foundation and Empire':

Abandoned around page 50 when all the characters started speaking in the voice of Matt Berry in my head. Typing, not writing. Drivel. (one star)

Robot Dreams is a different proposition, a collection of short stories, rather than part of a longer narrative.  You get a sense that Asimov could see the finish line of each tale, so managed to navigate himself there; whereas in the Foundation trilogy I sensed a writer without a map banging on a typewriter in the hope of spotting the end point in the fog.

Too many of my reviews on goodreads complain of a lack of story masked by the ability to write some damn good prose (Ian McEwan, I mean you).  Asimov's situation is somewhat different; it's not a lack of ideas that's the problem, it's that Asimov can't wait to simply have one of his characters explain it.  There's little in the way of subtlety or subtext.  It's beyond show, don't tell; if he could have got these tales to tell don't state, that would have been a start.

The stating is typically done by having a number of characters meet - I don't know how many meeting room tables were spoken over - and explain a predicament in a very on-the-nose conversation.  The situations are often realistic, in the context of science fiction; say, that first formal meeting when a visitor to a facility of some kind has the mystery explained to them.  But there's little in the way of realistic talking round things, oblique references that would make sense to the characters if not the audience, and when backstory is referred to, it's for our benefit, not their's.  Very little rings true.

There's some good idea, sure.  Some really good ideas.  An anti-gravity device that causes objects to reach the speed of light, which a scientist uses to kill an experimenter who's rejected the hard graft of theory ('The Billiard Ball').  That humans host an unseen, other-dimensional parasite that causes death ('Hostess').  The monetization of a time travel bubble; the fruits of the first experiments thrown away when the inventors find they can reach further back ('The Ugly Little Boy').  Or computers having narrowed the electorate down to the one representative voter (Franchise).

But there's also a strange moral code running through these, redolent of the stiff and formal 1950s.  There's no room for the drunks, delinquents and paranoids of PKD's work.  In an Asimov story you do your tie up, kiss your wife, and go to to work.  No sex before marriage, and probably nothing beyond missionary.  But it's beyond simply not writing stories about non-conformists, there seems to be a strand that says this is what the world is like.  Hostess depends for its logic on a lack of pre-marital sex: not that you shouldn't, just that people don't.  But, lest we forget, Asimov spent an awful lot of time typing.

The best and worst story is 'Spell My Name with an "S"'.  In this science fiction gives way to speculative fiction, as if Isaac had just bashed this one off having watched an episode of The Twilight Zone.  It's still high on people talking to each other, but differs in that the conversations are mainly others speculating on and misinterpreting the main character's motives.  But, just when he's built a world running slightly askew, he explains the oddness by way of alien intervention.  This one would have been so much stronger if he'd omitted the coda.

What Asimov's writing reminds me of more than ever is television.  The 1950s brand of science fiction that looks like a parody of itself now: two people in mid-shot wearing rubber heads or costumes with capes and fins, talking hokum.  Stuff that had to be banged out because the writer had an episode to write a day, and had to be heavy on the static shots of people explaining because the cameras weighed more than a car and you couldn't move the lights.

I quite understand why science fiction TV and cinema should have evolved.  Digital equipment is so light and portable that we can now film virtually anything, and when we can't film it we just make it up.  But back then, the action was staged - almost literally.  But, guys, this is writing, this is words on a page, little lines of black ink on pressed wood pulp.  We've never been constrained by technical parameters.  We could do anything, can do anything - then and now.  There's so many ways to be different, subversive, innovative.  So, why make your writing feel like it's got to fit into a dialogue heavy, wooden acted, static framework?  

I've written before about the difference between supply and demand of stories now and in the late fifties, exactly the era that most of these hale from and from when Asimov made his mark.  Back then, by all accounts, you only had to be adequate to get published and keep getting published.  And 'adequate' as a bar to leap over doesn't lead to innovation or paradigm shift.

Perhaps the most damning test for me is to ask myself whether any of Asimov's stories would get sold on the pro short fiction market today, into a publication like, say, Asimov's.

To be honest, I really don't think they would.