Speaking of Stars

On Friday 4th December I’ll be at the NN Contemporary Art gallery in Northampton for a panel discussion on the final evening of the current exhibition They Shall Have Stars, a group show thinking about possible futures for humans in space. I’ll be honest: when first invited by British Science Fiction Association president Donna Scott I demurred on the grounds that, unlike many other science fiction writers, I’m not a space travel enthusiast. I enjoy reading the odd space opera as much as anyone, but I’ve never bought into the idea that humans expanding into space is inevitable, or inherently desirable (I’m also forever having to point out to people that not all science fiction is space fiction – a perception due in no small part to the ubiquity of that notion). So I was all set to recuse myself, until Donna came back and said a sceptical note would in fact be quite welcome. With space fiction stalwarts Ian Whates and Jaine Fenn also on the panel, it should be a frank, searching and lively discussion. If you’re in the neighbourhood do come join us.

R.I.P. Melissa Mathison

I woke to the news that Melissa Mathison died yesterday, in Los Angeles, of neuroendocrine cancer. Most people will know her as an astonishingly gifted screenwriter, the woman who gave us all the cultural touchstone that is E.T. the Extraterrestrial, along with screenplays for other notable films: Kundun, The Black Stallion. She was also, as she wryly put it, a Famous Ex-Wife. Much will be written today about her contributions, and her trials. This is as it should be; public memories, and memorials, are important. But they never tell the whole story: and there is a resonance, an echo, a terribly sad symmetry for me in the news of Melissa’s death.

I met Melissa almost exactly ten years ago, shortly after my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. They’d become close friends over several years, and my mum had often told me about her; but as they mostly met up on Melissa’s visits to Jamaica, whereas I lived in the US and then the UK, our paths never happened to cross. And then my mother became ill, and by the time we finally got an accurate diagnosis the disease was advanced and the prognosis was dire. My family was stunned, horrified, overwhelmed by the calamity that is a terminal illness. Mum headed for a clinic in the States, in the hope that they would be able to provide us with more information, more options, some kind of hope. I headed for Heathrow, got on a plane and met her there.

Over the next year, as my mother went through brutal bouts of chemo- and radiotherapy, I would make that crossing several times. And I would finally meet her best mate Melissa, whose practical and emotional support became the rock that we clung to. There was nothing, it seemed, that she was not prepared to help us do in our efforts to find some kind of reprieve. She activated her network, enabling us to access doctors and clinics and people who had been through this particular hell before, and knew the things we needed to know. We stayed at her house. I drove my mum back and forth from chemo sessions in her car. She was there, in person, on the phone, endlessly gentle and resilient and generous. Her first and most basic question was always: “What do you need?”

What we needed then was the same thing she needed now: a cure. Neither of us got it.

This is one of those moments that make me wish I believed in an afterlife: I’d so like to think that Mum and Melissa are hanging out somewhere, catching up, comparing notes, trading stories about their kids. Cursing cancer.

I truly don’t think my mum would have been able to fight as hard or last as long as she did without Melissa’s help. She gave us a very great gift: not of life in the end, but of time. I am so grateful for those extra months she helped us to win back. And I am so heartbroken at the thought of her own children, whose time with their mom has run out. I remember how shattered I was, when it happened to me. I remember how incomprehensible the world suddenly seemed.

Malcolm and Georgia, I send you all my love. I send you my memories, too few and too brief, of your brilliant, funny, stalwart, immensely kind and endlessly generous mother. And I send you a truth that I could barely believe in when I was where you are now: it will get better.

Little Free Library, the Squats

This Wednesday, 21st October 2015, I get to do something I bet many writers dream of. I get to open a library.

Granted, it’s a little library. A very little library. A Little Free Library to be precise. Little Free Library UK is a charity that promotes reading, art and community engagement. They build and install beautiful little book cupboards in public places across the country, increasing access for everyone in the community. This one has been designed by artist Hannah Adamaszek and is going in on Wapping High Street, in association with Tower Hamlets Community Housing who went hunting for a local author to help launch the project.

I live just over the borough boundary in Hackney, but in a way I’m even more local than that. Close readers of the ®Evolution books will have worked out that the real-life location of the Squats, the semi-derelict riverside neighbourhood that the outcasts of future London reclaim and make their home, is the area that we in the here and now know as … Wapping. And all readers will recall that those future refugees turn to the archived knowledge of the past in order to restore the abandoned buildings, and learn how to live independently.

Libraries are important, and not just in the aftermath of apocalypse. Worlds are discovered in libraries. Ideas are shared. Imagination blossoms. Friends find each other.

So if you’re in Wapping after Wednesday, keep your eyes peeled for a magic box – especially if you’ve got a book to share, or are in need of one. You might find yourself whisked away to the past, or the future, or some little slice of the present you hadn’t yet encountered. You might learn something you didn’t know you needed to know.

You might discover that libraries, like another famous magic box, are always bigger on the inside.

LFL Wapping

Audio Audio Everywhere

I seem to be having a bit of a podcast spike just now. Last week Cheryl Morgan interviewed me for her Women’s Outlook program on Bristol’s Ujima Radio. Bristolcon director Joanne Hall was live on Wednesday’s show, ahead of the con this Saturday; Cheryl bounced expertly between the live interview with Joanne, the recorded one with me, and some truly inspired musical selections. It was made even more special by the news that Ujima had just won the  Community Organisation Award for Race, Faith and Religion at the National Diversity Awards. You can listen to the show here.

I’ve been a fan of the Midnight in Karachi podcast series on Tor.com ever since it began; this week I’m the guest! Presenter Mahvesh Murad (currently earning big kudos for editing the fourth volume of The Apex Book of World SF) and I talk about writing the ®Evolution, the politics of the ‘other’, the legacy of colonialism and what we mean when we talk about humans. It was a great conversation, and you can listen to it here.

Back in Bristol

It’s less than a week to Bristolcon! I’ll be there in voice (though not in person) a few days early, as an interview with Cheryl Morgan on Ujima Radio at 12pm Wednesday 23rd. Here’s the livestream link; it’ll be available on Listen Again after the broadcast. Cheryl will also be talking with Bristolcon director Joanne Hall about what this year’s con has in store. As we say in Jamaica, and on Ujima: CHUNE EEN!

The con itself is Saturday 26th September at the Doubletree Hotel in Bristol. Here’s what I’m doing:

15:50-15:55, Programme Room 1

Reading – a short passage from Regeneration (which will be available from con booksellers Forbidden Planet).

17:00-17:45, Programme Room 1

Bad-ass with a Baby

It’s still fairly rare to see depictions of parenting in SF&F. If a character has a child, does that mean they’re no longer allowed to be a bad-ass? And how difficult is it to juggle childcare and saving the universe?

Lor Graham (Mod), Amanda Kear (Dr Bob)Jasper FfordePeter Newman and Stephanie Saulter

Despite the fact that I dislike the term ‘bad-ass’ almost as much as ‘kick-ass’ (and for much the same reasons), I’m really looking forward to this discussion. The absence of children and family in SFF is something I’ve been writing and talking about for a while. Agree? Disagree? Do come listen, challenge and share.

When the Bookstore Doesn’t Have the Book

So Regeneration has been out for four weeks – four weeks! – now, and I couldn’t be happier with the reviews and reader reactions. (The email I received this week from a bookseller in Illinois, who ordered it international delivery because next year’s North American release was too long a wait, is just about the best validation of why it is I do what I do.) But I’m also hearing from readers who can’t find it in their local bricks-and-mortar bookstore. I’ve double-checked through Jo Fletcher Books, and the Quercus sales team have confirmed that the books are in stock and orders to retailers have been fulfilled. So what’s going on?

It would be nice to think Regeneration is selling so amazingly well that all the bookstores have simply run out of their initial orders. In some cases that may well be true. But here’s the harsh reality of the current market: the economy may be recovering, but sales of books so far have not. Most booksellers operate on very thin margins. They can afford to order large numbers of the latest footballer’s memoir or TV chef’s recipe collection or works of fiction from already-bestselling authors, and to send them out to all of their branches, because they know they will sell. But a novelist who is critically praised but doesn’t have a track record of high sales, or a high profile? A novelist, in other words, like me? The practice is to order our books frugally, and to send no more than a couple of copies to each store; and not even to every store in the chain.

So “selling amazingly well” can actually translate to only having sold one or two copies, which was a store’s entire stock. By the time you pitch up looking, they’re sold out. And here’s the thing: if you don’t speak to someone in the store about what it is you’re looking for, they’ll never know they could have sold more copies. If it’s a store that never got sent copies in the first place, and that never gets any inquiries, they’ll never know about the sales they could have made.

Here’s another thing: almost every modern bookstore, whether an independent or part of a chain, is linked into a database which allows them to locate and request the book you want in a matter of seconds. It’ll generally be in-store for you to collect in a couple of days. And they want to do that. They are in the business of selling books. They want to know what it is you want to buy, and they want to sell it to you.

There’s a fair amount of kvetching about what bookstores do and don’t get right, and some of it may well be deserved. But I have a lot of sympathy for the basic business conundrum that booksellers face: they cannot stock all of the books in the world, and they need to prioritise those that will sell. They don’t know which books will sell until people buy them. But people can’t buy them unless they sell them. So they end up relying on historical sales data, which may not always be a good predictor of future sales potential.

So please, for the sake of the booksellers and me and every other struggling newbie or mid-list author: tell them what you’re looking for. Order it from them if you can, but even if you can’t – even if you’re about to leave town, or you’re going to go check somewhere else because you can’t wait you want it NOW – tell them about the sale they could have made. Tell them there’s a market for that book. Give them the data.

You’ll be doing us both a favour.

TFFX writing contest, 9W con report(s) & a couple of cool reviews

UPDATE: The TFFX flash fiction contest has been extended!


Further to last week’s post: as part of their 10th anniversary celebrations, The Future Fire is holding a flash writing contest for speculative fiction stories of no more than 500 words, on the theme of the number 10. The deadline is midnight on Sunday 23rd August (yes, that’s THIS SUNDAY!), entry rules are here, and the prizes are copies of Gemsigns and Binary (which I’ll be happy to sign or inscribe for you if you win) and Jennifer Marie Brisset’s Dick- and Locus-nominated novel Elysium. Don’t forget to check out (and tweet links) to the TFFX anthology crowdfunder!

In my first couple years of going to cons I would always write up a report/ review afterwards. I seem to have fallen out of the habit, largely because I’ve become so busy following up on things that arose from or at the con (or that I was ignoring until the con was over). Suffice it to say that Nine Worlds was, once more, an intelligent, thoughtful, fun-filled, inclusive, kind and curious celebration of every nook and cranny of science fiction and fantasy creativity and fandom. The two sessions of the Writing the Other workshop were both exceptionally good and full to capacity; the two panel discussions I participated in – Arcadia or Armageddon? on the question of fictional utopias and dystopias, and I Don’t See Race on how aliens, mutants and robots are often stand-ins for the ethnic “other” – were lively, engaging, thought-provoking and packed to the rafters; and I loved catching up with friends, fans and fellow writers. But the thing that makes Nine Worlds so distinctive is the way in which it embraces those who don’t necessarily find public events and spaces as easy to navigate as I do – so here are two proper con reports that describe what makes it different, and why it matters.

Of course it was particularly special for me this year because of Regeneration, now making its way in the world. It was lovely to chat with folks who’d read Gemsigns and Binary (and in one case someone who’d started with Binary and was about to take up Gemsigns … it’s totally okay to read them out of order, as I explain here), and were looking forward to seeing where the story goes next. The reviews are coming in thick and fast; they can all be found under the Reviews tab above, and so far they’re all very good indeed. No reasonable writer can hope to appeal to everyone, nor expect that their intentions will be clear to – let alone appreciated by – every reader; but every writer, I think, has a soft spot for those readers who not only like what we did, but who get what it was we were trying to do. So on that note, here are two of my favourites.

Over the Effing Rainbow: Lisa observes that, “This is not a story for anybody who’s not interested in change.” She’s right.

A Fantastical Librarian: “What happens when the status quo is challenged?” Thank you, Mieneke. That, indeed, is the question.

TFFX: 10 Years of The Future Fire

Today I welcome Valeria Vitale to the blog to talk about The Future Fire, a magazine of social-political speculative fiction which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, TFF is crowdfunding an anthology: TFFX will include new fiction and artwork, plus reprints of some of the best work from the past ten years.

Valeria is one of TFF’s editors, and is also co-editor of the Fae Visions of the Mediterranean horror anthology. She has a soft spot for ghosts, vampires and old mythologies, but enjoys all sort of stories. When she’s not busy writing and reading (for pleasure or work) you may find her staring at ancient objects in museums or modelling buildings in 3D. At night, when she can’t sleep, she makes toys.

How did you first get involved with The Future Fire? Without looking it up, what is the first story you can remember buying for the zine, and what did you love about it?

Valeria Vitale: My first contact with TFF was as a reader, with issue #24 and I was really impressed by the quality of the stories and illustrations published. Discussing stories is pretty much my favourite activity, so I started doing it with other readers and with the editors, and, before I realised what was happening, I ended up being more and more involved with both TFF and the FFN (Futurefire.net Publishing) anthologies.

The first story that I remember strongly recommending for publication was Rebecca Buchanan’s “Sophie and Zoe at the end of the world.” It is a good, short story that points out issues of race, class and privilege. But what really struck me was the portrayal of the relationship between the two young girls. It felt so honest that it catapulted me back in time, to when I was that young, and very close to my best friend. It reminded me how our bond was built on sharing experiences, thoughts, and things we both loved. As for Sophie and Zoe, those things were, often, books. While reading the story, I knew that, if I had been in Sophie’s shoes, I would have given my leaving-for-a-hibernation-program soul mate a big, ridiculously heavy bag full of books too.

Do you have a favourite word and/or one that you hate?

VV: As many readers (and wannabe writers) I do love words. And I like learning them in other languages, and comparing them. It allows you to look at words from outside; to discover their strength, beauty, or fascinating precision like a foreigner visiting for the first time a place that, although awesome, is ordinary for the people who live there. My absolutely favourite word comes from the pages of French author Raymond Queneau who, I believe, minted it. The word, (in its Italian translation) is: “nottinauta”, traveller of the night. I fell in love with it at first sight. Because I think it suits me and my nocturnal attitude, my love for ghosts and vampires, for dreams and celestial bodies, I even made it my twitter handle.

There are a few words I hate, too. Usually those that _I_ tend to use too much. When I realise it, I start loathing them. But to be fair, it’s not really their fault.

What TFF story would you like to see adapted for the big screen?

VV: The first I could think of is Sara Puls’s “Sweet Like Fate.” Although part of the circus’ charm is definitely in the bold colours, I imagined the adaptation as a short movie in B&W. I think it would take the “glitter” away from the atmosphere and be more effective in showing things from the perspective of the artists, for whom that is a place of hard work and, in the case of Lambeth, of humiliation.

It’s a bit obvious, but I would use high contrast lights to show close ups of the (horrible) people in the audience. I could say in the style of Lang or Welles, but let’s not be too heavy handed. Kaurismaki’s style should be enough! The camera would show that the magic is not happening on stage, but behind the scenes, among the two main characters. Like in a Fellini movie, the tender, the oneiric, the surreal will take over reality. I also imagine it to be without spoken words, as Tati would have done it: with sounds, and only indistinct voices from the other characters. No dialogue between Ru and Lambeth, but looks, smiles, hesitations. The only words, those appearing on the acrobat’s skin.

What would be the most important thing for you to hold onto if civilization started to break down in your city?

VV: I happen to work with one of the most iconic cases of sudden disasters: Pompeii and Herculaneum. When reading the archaeological reports, it always strikes me how differently people reacted to that tragedy, and what they decided to take with them when they left their houses thinking that the world was ending. Some people made practical choices taking lamps, weapons, medical equipment. Other people tried to carry their most precious goods. But not everyone was that rational. Other people preferred to take amulets and religious statuettes, for protection. And others were found with objects that don’t have, in our eyes, any immediate practical or ritual use and maybe were just things that had an emotional value to them. I’m afraid I belong to the last category. If the world was collapsing and my house burning, I would take something not particularly useful but meaningful to me. Likely because it is a gift. Something I could look at when I need to find some inner strength. I suppose it will be one of my toy crocodiles (I have a few. Don’t ask…). And then I will start looking for some more sensible person to be my companion in the survival attempt.

Tell us more about the TFF tenth anniversary anthology and fundraiser?

VV: I see two main reasons for this initiative. The first looks at the past and is celebratory. Ten years is a lot of time for a small publishing house. We survived a few crises but we’re still here. And we want to ideally toast with all the authors, artists, and readers.

The second looks at the future. We keep receiving good stories and illustrations, but we feel we don’t give our authors the full recompense they deserve for their work, and we would like to change that. Many of the stories in the anthology are already available for free on the TFF website, but we’re also publishing new stories, flash-fiction sequels to earlier stories, poems, illustrations and Borgesian pseudostories. If you enjoy reading our illustrated stories and want to read more of them, please consider supporting the fundraiser. We have a list of nice perks to tempt you with—story critiques, artwork, or I’ll knit a zombie doll that looks like you!—or you could simply pre-order our 10th anniversary anthology featuring some of our very best stories plus new, exclusive extra content.


Many thanks to Valeria, and to editor-in-chief Djibril al-Ayad for making this interview possible. Do head on over to the fundraiser page; the TFFX e-book can be yours for only US$5, and there are great book bundles and other perks to be had. I plumped for the five e-books …

Regeneration! Fantasy in the Court! Nine Worlds!

6 August 2015. The day the ®Evolution ended.

Well, not quite. There’s a short story, Discordances, yet to be released; Regeneration won’t be out in North America until next year; and publication in various editions and territories will roll on for a few years yet.

But: Regeneration, the 3rd book in the ®Evolution trilogy, is out in the UK today. 

Four years ago I was about two-thirds done with the manuscript for what would become the first book. I didn’t know that anyone besides a handful of friends would ever read it, and I had no plans for any more. I didn’t have an agent, let alone a publisher. If you had told me in August of 2011 that this is where I’d be in August 2015, I’d have laughed and bought a lottery ticket.

So how am I celebrating? At Fantasy in the Court, which will entail a suitably epic trek across London town, seeing as there’s a Tube strike on. Given the troubled times the ®Evolution chronicles, hiking on a day of industrial dispute from the urban wilds of Hackney through traffic-choked streets into the literary heart of this ancient city seems entirely apt. Then it’s off to Nine Worlds, the annual tribal gathering of writers, readers and fan-folk of all descriptions, where there’ll be a launch at Friday night’s Jo Fletcher Books summer party, and discussions throughout the weekend of utopias and dystopias, representation and exclusion, and what it means to tell stories; what makes them meaningful, how we reflect and transform ourselves in their image, why they may be the most important cultural artefact we create.

The power of story is something I’m thinking about a great deal at the moment. It’s going to be the big theme of the next book. (It’s also a concern of The Future Fire, a magazine of social-political speculative fiction currently celebrating their 10th anniversary – look out for more on them next week.) It has, I realise, become the big theme of my own life.

I know what stories I’m going to write next. But which ones, I wonder, will I be written into? Four years from now, what tale will I tell?

July Round-Up

Last month felt like a sort of ramping-up to the release of Regeneration and the conclusion of the ®Evolution trilogy, with an interview and a couple of guest posts, several unexpected mentions, and much squeeing and Twitpic-ing as reviewers received their advance copies. Of course the first review was back in June, courtesy of the Birmingham SF Group (p8); they judged it “an excellent and thoroughly recommended story that examines regeneration on many levels.” An overview of the series and mini-review of Regeneration made it onto Holdfast magazine’s Bookshelf in July, and were equally complimentary. And then there were tweets like this:

… which is about as perfect a reaction as any author can hope for.

The first chapter is available to read over at Carabas. As sometimes happens scene breaks haven’t carried over to the web format, but the shifts are pretty clear I think. Old friends, new characters, and the hint of big new problems …

I wrote about Spreading the ®Evolution for Civilian Reader and Leading Characters for Liz Loves Books, and was interviewed by A Fantastical Librarian. Paul Weimer recommended Gemsigns as a particularly good SF choice for readers of mainstream literary fiction on the Reading Envy podcast. And Itcher Magazine put me on their list of 20 Top Female Science Fiction Authors, which is just … mind-blowing. I’m on a list with Ursula le Guin.

Top that, August.

  • Stephanie Saulter

    I love stories.
    Regeneration is now out in the UK; Gemsigns and Binary are already out in North America as well as the UK & the rest of the English-speaking world. I like to think they're literary science fiction, but you can make your own mind up. This is where I talk about what I'm working on, ask your opinion, and generally think out loud.

  • UK edition


    The 3rd Book of the ®Evolution

  • UK edition


    The 2nd Book of the ®Evolution

  • UK Edition


    The 1st Book of the ®Evolution

  • US Edition


    The 2nd Book of the ®Evolution

  • US Edition


    The 1st Book of the ®Evolution

  • Upcoming Events

    • Speaking of Stars: SF panel discussion December 4, 2015 at 7:00 pm – 8:00 pm Number Nine Gallery, Northampton
    • Worldcon 75 September 9, 2017 – September 13, 2017 Helsinki
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