Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Foss Way

Over at Paul McAuley has been posting some classic 70s paperback SF images, many of which are by the incomparable Chris Foss. These days, it's perhaps hard to grasp the extent to which the spaceship-orientated visual style of Chris Foss was absolutely inseparable from SF, to the extent that many of the other artists of the period were obliged to emulate the Foss look. I adored Foss's work even as I came to the sobering conclusion that most of the images had nothing whatsoever to do with the contents of the book.

This seemed as good a time as anyway to reprint my review of Hardware, which originally appeared in the BSFA's Vector magazine:

"That'll never happen."

These words were delivered by a geography teacher, examining a paperback of Asimov short stories that I'd foolishly allowed to remain visible on my desk. The focus of his scorn was not the contents of the book, of which he remained ignorant, but the cover, a painting of some daunting megastructure rising above an alien moon. Actually, I'd have readily agreed with him that not only would the depicted situation "never happen", but there was a vanishingly small chance of it having much to do with the stories in the book. This, after all, was a Chris Foss cover. Foss covers seldom related to anything.

It didn't matter. I loved Foss and I still do. The colour, the drama, the vast sense of scale and possibility - his pictures have always delighted me. Liberated from the texts themselves, as they are in this massive restrospective edition, it matters even less. Foss has been prolific, so clearly nothing less than a big book will suffice. I haven't counted, but with more than 230 pages, a good number of which are divided into three or four panels, Hardware must contain well over 500 illustrations, all - to my eye - well reproduced on good quality paper. Given the proviso that it's almost all machinery and landscapes, the range is impressive. There are, for instance, fifteen paintings just of submarines. There's a two-page spread devoted solely to paintings of things being grabbed by giant robot claws coming out of the sea. Hundreds and hundreds of spaceships, space stations, bases, asteroids, towering robots, explosions. People crop up here and there, but they're not the reason we come to Foss. His most iconic images are largely devoid of the human element. Personal favorites: the marvellous double-spread picture for "A Torrent of Faces" - Ballardian entropy made manifest, even though it isn't a Ballard book, and the gorgeous single image that was split into three for the Foundation trilogy.

It's such a generous assortment that it seems churlish to quibble. I'd have appreciated an index by book title, and I'd be slightly wary of the date attributions: my edition of Harry Harrison's In Our Hands The Stars, for instance, with its gorgeous cover of a chequerboard spacecraft rising from a night-lit cityscape, dates from 1981, not the 1986 stated here. There's also little about Foss the man: other than a single small photograph from 1977, there's no image of him (and even in the photo, it's not obvious which one is Foss). I'd have appreciated a sense of the artist in his natural habitat. We're assured that Foss is still active, but there's little evidence of that from the images, few of which date from later than the early 90s. Clearly, SF paperback illustration is a very different game than it was in the "golden age" of the seventies, but Foss's work still looks pretty timeless to me. It would be good to see new work, but in the meantime this lavish book is a fitting retrospective.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Denver pissed him off

There's almost certainly a post to be done on the influence of Joe Haldeman's work on my writing (I've been a huge admirer of Haldeman's work since I finally scored a paperback copy of The Forever War, years after reading about it, in those valve-driven days of the early 80s) but for now I was happy to be given the chance to review The Best of Joe Haldeman over at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Some quibbles aside (I'd have liked the book to feel more like an "event") this is a fine way to sample more than forty years of short fiction output by one of the most significant voices to enter the field in the last half century.

You can read the full review here.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Falling Sky

Belatedly, my review of Pippa Goldschmidt's excellent novel The Falling Sky appeared on Arcfinity a few weeks ago:

"Pippa Goldschmidt’s The Falling Sky is that rare thing: a literary novel that gets under the hood of science as a social enterprise, done by real and fallible people. It’s an extremely accomplished debut and the best evocation of the actual life of an astronomer I’ve ever read."

You can read the full review here. It's a fantastic book which deserves some attention. As a literary novel about the process of science rather than a piece of genre science fiction, I doubt that it will receive recognition from any of the field's usual awards - although if the Clarke can extend its remit to include genre fantasy, I see no reason why this book could not be shown the same generosity of spirit. Novels about science are rare enough things. In any case it would be encouraging to see it on some mainstream shortlists. Stephen Fry liked it.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Bookplates and book signing arrangements

I've fallen quite badly behind on sending out bookplates over the last few months, but with my wife's help I've had a bit of a catch up and signed plates should now be on their way out to you. If you've requested bookplates from me ages ago (say, before start of this year) and you're still waiting, feel free to drop me a gentle reminder at the usual address, available on the website:

As a general reminder, I'm happy to sign and personalise bookplates in small quantities at no charge. I normally send out about ten at a time, although I can do more if required. I can either sign my own supply of Orion bookplates (when they're in stock from my publisher), or you can send me some of your own to be signed and returned. I'm also willing to receive, sign and return books, subject to availability and time constraints. As always, drop me a line and we can discuss arrangements. For overseas readers, where providing return postage might be difficult, I generally suggest a charitable donation equal to the incurred postage costs.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Iain Banks 1954 - 2013

The great Iain Banks has died. We had known this day was coming, of course, after Iain announced his terminal illness a couple of months ago. But it still feels to have happened shockingly, unfairly soon. My thoughts are with Iain's family and friends, and I am very sad that we only got to meet on a handful of occasions.

Here's a snap taken at the last such meeting, late last year, when Iain, Peter Hamilton and I teamed up for a Google hang-out. It was terrific fun, as I think you can tell from the smiles on our faces. Iain was on excellent good form - it was, as ever, a wonderful thing just to be able to hang out with him.

After the event, the three of us went to a nearby pub for a quick pint. Iain had to dash off (Peter and I continued on for a pizza and more beer) but I remember telling Iain that I looked forward to seeing him soon as I wanted to tell him something about Raw Spirit, his 2003 book on whisky. Iain laughed with that particular glint in his eye, but time was tight and the story had to wait. I was confident I'd get a chance one day.

Well, it's not much of a story (the main thing was that it was Iain's book) but here it is anyway. I have had a layman's liking for single malt whiskies for many years without ever going deeper than that simple, uncluttered appreciation. A few months earlier, though, I had picked up a copy of Raw Spirit in the interests of educating myself. On the train up to London I read about the smokey and peatey Laphroaig, which I knew I had tasted and liked, and also Lagavulin, which I did not think I had sampled. That was my mission, then - to try some Lagavulin at the earliest opportunity, and see how it measured up against the Laphroaig.

That night I had attended some literary thing and found myself back in my hotel, alone, at the unreasonably early hour of 10.00 pm. I'm normally a bit hyper after these things so rather than squirrel myself away in the room, I generally prefer to go down to the bar and have a quiet and reflective drink. Suitably emboldened, I stuffed some cash into my pocket and wandered down to the bar. Scanning the whiskies I immediately spotted a bottle of the fabled and as yet unsampled Lagavulin. Just the ticket, I thought. I asked the barman to pour me a single measure, without ice or water. Supposedly you really ought to drink whisky with a small amount of water to activate the aroma (I was told this by a friendly and authoritative Scots barman, during another post-literary drink, but old habits die hard). The London barman poured me my whisky, gave me the glass and told me my single measure would cost in excess of ten pounds.

Yes, that was a shock to me as well - London prices, I suppose - and this was a very swish hotel by my usual standards. But to my dismay I simply did not have enough money on me. The room had been paid for me, so I did not want to get into the complication of charging the drink to my account, and then having to sort that out in the morning. Instead I rather lamely apologised and said I would need to return to my room to get more money, which might take several minutes.

The barman, though, waved aside my embarrasment, took the money I had on me, and told me to enjoy my Lagavulin. Which I did, adding it to my mental register of sampled whiskies, and deciding that it compared well against the Laphroaig. Just the one measure, though. I suppose, in the back of my mind, I might have been half anticipating another, if the Lagavulin had cost about half what it did.

So there - not, as I said, very much of a story, but I think Iain would have been tickled - it was his book, after all, that had brought me to this bar - and at the very least I'd have enjoyed being gently steered to some other discovery.

I did not know Iain terribly well - we had met on, I think, three occasions - but I liked him tremendously and found in his enthusiasms exactly the person you might hope had written all those dense and imaginative novels. If you felt that you knew Iain through his work, then - on my admittedly limited experience of the man - you probably did.

And now I'm off to have a look through my whiskies, because I fancy a dram.

[Update - it was a glass of Laphroaig, because that was all I had in. But very nice all the same.]

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Doctor Who events (again)

Here's an updated schedule for the Doctor Who events:

Thurday 6th June 6 - 7pm - Forbidden Planet Bristol (Clifton Heights, Triangle West, Bristol BS8 1EJ)

Friday 7th June 6 - 7pm - Forbidden Planet London  (179 Shaftesbury Ave, London WC2H 8JR)

Wednesday 12th June - 7pm - Waterstones Cardiff (2A The Hayes, Cardiff CF10 1W). This is a ticketed event - details here.

Thursday 20th June 6.30pm - Forest Bookshop, Coleford, Forest of Dean (8 St John's St, Coleford, Gloucestershire GL16 8AR)

Tuesday 2nd July 8 - 9.30 pm - Toppings Bookshop Bath (The Paragon Bath,  Somerset  BA1 5LS). This is a ticketed event - details here.

Please note that the Toppings event is in July, not June - I've seen a couple of mistaken listings for that one.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Harvest of Time - what's it all about, then?

The official publication day for my Doctor Who novel is the 6th of June, but (as tends to happen) I'm hearing reports that copies of the book are already in the wild. I am tremendously excited about it all and looking forward to the signing and reading events to follow in the coming weeks.

That said, I'm well aware that for many of my readers, Doctor Who is going to be a bit of a blank. It is a huge cultural property in the UK, but much less so beyond our shores. It can be intimidating, coming into the continuity of a long-running imaginative universe, so I can imagine some readers might feel justifiable hesitation in picking up the book. This is a series that's been running, on and off, for fifty years - so isn't the backstory hugely complicated and bewildering, something for insiders only?

Obviously, I hope not.  And I hope that if you like my other stuff, you might consider giving the Who book a shot. The first thing to say is that my grasp of Doctor Who continuity isn't very detailed - there are huge gaps in my knowledge of the show, and lots of stuff I don't know as well as I should. It doesn't matter, though. At almost any point in its existence, Doctor Who has usually tended to be quite simple in formula, which is one of the reasons that generations of children have been able to jump into the series and feel that it is theirs. It's never been too burdened by its past.

I aspired to write Harvest in such a way that you wouldn't need to know very much about the Doctor Who universe to get on with the book. Whether I've succeeded or not is not for me to say, but not having watched Doctor Who needn't be a reason to give the book a miss. If you have seen the show over the years, you'll hopefully enjoy picking up on the characters and references, but none of that is essential. And as I say, the basic premise is incredibly simple.

The Doctor is a time-travelling humanoid alien, a member of an alien culture known as the Time Lords. The Doctor can regenerate his appearance - my Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee, was the third actor to play the role on television. For various reasons, Pertwee's Doctor spent much of his time confined to Earth in the twentieth century. There's a particular flavour to these Earthbound stories, all of which aired in the early nineteen seventies, and for me they are very much a defining element in my relationship with the series. The Doctor is attached to the British wing of UNIT, a military branch set up to deal with the routine invasion of the planet by various alien factions. The UNIT stories mostly take place in the UK, with a small surrounding cast of regulars. Jo Grant was the Doctor's assistant at the time, a civilian laison to UNIT. Jo answered to the Brigadier, head of the British wing of the organisation. The Doctor and the Brig eventually became friends, but were also at constant loggerheads over the best way to deal with whatever alien invasion was presently on the agenda. Supporting the Doctor, Jo and the Brig were two more UNIT regulars, the soldiers Benton and Yates. And that was your entire regular cast of good guys.

Adding a strong thematic element to this run of Pertwee stories was the introduction of a recurring adversary, in the form of the Master. The Master was also a Time Lord - but a distinctly antisocial one. Like the Doctor, he had rebelled and stolen a shape-changing time machine (Tardis) of his own. They had much in common, and often found themselves "teaming up" to solve a particular crisis, usually of the Master's making. But they were also mortal enemies and the Master was only ever waiting for a chance to kill the Doctor, as he attempted to do so on many occasions. Generally speaking, if some aliens were up to no good, the Master would usually turn out to be involved in the plot on some level. If the Doctor was Holmes, the Master was his Moriarty. A genius with an intellect beyond even that of the Doctor, the Master's downfall was generally caused by his arrogance and conceit.

Like the Doctor, the Master also had the capacity to regenerate. During the Pertwee era he was played to terrific effect by Roger Delgado. Sadly, Delgado was killed in an accident during the actual run of Pertwee stories, meaning that his version of the Master never got the big send-off that he deserved. It would be some years before the Master returned to Doctor Who, but the character remains an important element of the mythos. For me, the Master is the best fictional villain of all time and was at least as strong a motivator for me choosing the Pertwee era as the other characters.

That's really all you need to know. The plot of Harvest of Time depends on some alien villains that are entirely my own invention, and the backstory that I invent in regard to these villains, the Time Lords, the Master and so on, is also unique to the book. At 100,000 words it's about half the length of one of my usual novels, but there's a lot in it - stuff set on Earth, stuff set in the far future - time travel, alien technology, dangerous super-weapons and so on. If you do try it, I hope you enjoy Harvest of Time. If you don't give it a go, there won't be a long to wait until my next normal novel.


Monday, 3 June 2013

Strange Horizons fund raising picture

Strange Horizons is one of the best places on the net for intelligent and informed discussion about the literatures of the fantastic, and we're lucky to have it. Once a year the magazine runs a fund drive and on the last couple of occasions, I've offered an original painting as one of the potential prizes.

I'm pleased to say that Duncan Lawie was the winner of the painting this year, and this is the picture I did. The artwork was produced on canvas board using a background of airbrushed acrylic ink, with a foreground of painted acrylics. I had a bit of fun using metallic silver for the highlights on the spaceship and asteroids, giving the finished piece a distinctive shimmer.

What's going on? No idea, but it looks to me as if the ship has suffered some sort of explosion and that the nearer of the two asteroids is in the process of being mined for replacement raw materials. The picture is now with Duncan.