Where I’ll be at Bristolcon

I’m going to be up, out, and on a train at a deeply uncivilised hour tomorrow morning, but it’ll be worth it because Bristolcon! Last year it was only my second con ever; I listened to great readings and discussions, met lovely people, and thoroughly enjoyed it. This year I volunteered to do ‘stuff’ – and the stuff I got is great:

Programme Room 1  –  10am

Creating A Culture – Building A Working Fantasy / SF Society

Worldbuilding: you want to change some of the rules to make things interesting, but you still want people to buy into the world you’ve created. Rocks, trees and dragons may give you a setting, but unless your protagonist is alone on an uninhabited planet, people (human or otherwise) will have to be organised somehow. How do you set about designing an original and yet believable society? What are the most ingenious societies we’ve seen in SF&F – and what might they tell us about ourselves?

Panel discussion with Dev Agarwal (moderator), Mary Robinette Kowal, Robert Harkess, Stephanie Saulter, Peter Sutton

Programme Room 2  –  6pm

Plausible Critters    

We see a lot of creatures in SF and fantasy that are just horses or dogs in cheap disguises. Conversely, we see interesting alien life forms that are hopelessly implausible. When sticking wings on a rabbit and calling it a snoogle just won’t do, how can you create weird, wonderful and convincing critters? What are some examples of the best and worst critters in fiction?

Panel discussion with Max Edwards (moderator), Snorri Kristjansson, Stephanie Saulter, Jaine Fenn, Gareth L. Powell

Both panels are variations on a theme: the construction of a storyworld that makes a kind of intuitive sense to the reader, that is coherent and immersive enough to allow for the suspension of disbelief so crucial to any kind of fantastic fiction. So – come hear how we think it should be done and who we think does it well (or not). And in between there’s loads more to see and hear; I’ve got my eye on the Re-Telling Fairy Tales panel, as well as Comics – Art And Literature With Speech Bubbles. And of course Forbidden Planet will be there, plus the organisers have arranged a sale table for authors they may not carry. So, you know. Buy books.

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Nine Worlds News

Where have I been, where have I been?

Enjoying that rarest of phenomena, a proper British summer; selling my house (big moves afoot! more in a future post); rereading the Binary draft, collating thoughts — editor and agent, the ®Evolution Readers, and my own (again, lots of material for its own post here) — and commencing my own edit; all interrupted, for the past 36 hours or so, by a visit from the norovirus (who knew you could get the winter stomach flu in the summer?!?); and getting ready for the NineWorlds Convention, now only two and a half weeks away.

I jumped on the Nine Worlds bandwagon when it was running its Kickstarter back in February. The organisers billed it as ‘an unconventional convention’, with multiple tracks to accommodate all fans of the fantastic; from comics and cosplay, to gaming and Game of Thrones, to films and fanfic, to academia and, of course, books. If I’m honest, the thing that had me most worried was the sheer enormity of their ambition – could a first-time convention put together by a bunch of fans actually pull off something on this scale? But I made my pledge anyway, because I prefer grand ambitions to puny ones, and because I was really impressed by the con’s commitment to being thoroughly diverse and completely inclusive; to internalising the full breadth and depth of fandom, and making the event a place where everyone is welcome and safe, and no one feels marginalised. That, I thought, was well worth a punt.

I’ll report back after the event, but on both fronts the signs are good. The number of tracks is frankly mind-boggling, and they all seem really well programmed. The guest list is, to say the least, impressive. And judging by that programme and those guests and the regular bulletins we’ve been receiving, they’re doing what they promised and making it a con for everyone.

My appearance schedule looks like this:

  • Friday 9th August, 10:15pm: NEW VOICES SLAM SESSION. Short readings from nine of science fiction and fantasy’s most promising new authors! (Full disclosure – I suggested this one to the organisers, because there are always more authors wanting to read than can be accommodated, plus it’s hard for new authors to pull an audience on their own. So if it tanks, blame me. But it won’t. It’ll be great. I can’t wait. It’s on Saturday night as well, with a different line-up — go to both.)
  • Sunday 11th August, 10:15am: CAN’T TAKE THE SKY FROM ME: SCIENCE FICTION AND SPACE TRAVEL. It’s over fifty years since we sent the first humans into space. Are we still as excited about going to the stars? How have real-world concerns about the reality and practicality of space travel affected the genre? I moderate Charles Stross, Adam Christopher, Jaine Fenn, Ian Whates and Gavin Smith.
  • Sunday 11th August, 11:45am: RACEFAIL 101. The panellists discuss colonialism, xenophobia and racism in science fiction and fantasy, recommending the best works discussing these issues as well as discussing the problems we face in writing and reading SFF and what we can do about them. Anne Perry moderates me, Zen Cho, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, and Tade Thompson.
  • Sunday 11th August, 1:00 – 2:00pm: BOOK SIGNING. I’ll be racing from Racefail to the Forbidden Planet table to sign copies of Gemsigns – do drop by for a chat and a scribble.
  • Sunday 11th August, 3:15pm: WRITING THE OTHER. Last but by no means least, I’m joining Rochita Loenen-Ruiz to run this workshop as part of the Queer stream. The thinking is to follow on from some of the themes of the Racefail panel, looking broadly at issues of inclusion, diversity, and social justice in addition to the core LGBTQ focus. I’m told that signups are essential for this one; email queer@nineworlds.co.uk.

In addition, I’m definitely going to the launch party for Tom Pollock and Snorri Kristansson‘s new novels (The Glass Republic and Swords of Good Men respectively) at 8:30pm on Friday; to the panel on gender and sexuality at 8:30pm on Saturday; and then to the New Voices Slam at 10:15pm Saturday, assuming I’m still vertical. In between all of that I shall be spinning around like a top, trying to work out how to take in all the other great events.

Nine Worlds is being held at the Radisson and Renaissance hotels near Heathrow. Tickets are still available here, and you can follow them on Twitter; the event-wide handle is @London_Geekfest, the Books track is @booksnineworlds, the Queer track is @NineWorldsQueer, the Writing track is @9WorldsWriting … and there are more. Did I mentioned I’m impressed? I’m impressed.

Of giants and gentlemen

Gosh, that was fun.

I’ve been trying to figure out what my FantasyCon highlight was. There were the free books courtesy of a host of SFF major and indie publishers, and the free booze courtesy (mostly) of Jo Fletcher Books, and being introduced to the great and the good by the lovely Nicola Budd thusly: ‘Oh, have you met Stephanie? She’s one of our authors.’ There was the almost-impossible SFF trivia quiz which we came oh-so-close to winning, and the casual chat about one of my favourite authors with one of my favourite publishers, during which just enough was said about his next book to have me literally salivating in anticipation. It might have been getting to know the delightful Tom Pollock, reading (over and over) the inscription he wrote in my copy of The City’s Son or hearing him read the first chapter of its as-yet-unfinished sequel The Glass Republic; or laughing and talking literature with the equally delightful Snorri Kristjansson, whose first novel The Swords of Good Men I’m now looking forward to just as much.

But on reflection, wonderful as all those moments were, THE moment was something else. And I didn’t even know it at the time.

It was at the JFB 1st-anniversary party on Saturday night, surrounded by the beautiful books they’ve published over the past year and the beautiful bookmarks showcasing some of the volumes – including mine – coming next year. I started chatting to another of the authors whose novel Planesrunner is also featured on said bookmark. He was a convivial bloke named Ian McDonald, possessed of a thick brogue, a battered black leather jacket and amusingly wry commentary about books that do well in the US but not the UK and vice versa, for no reason that anyone can work out. There was something very familiar about him, though we clearly had never met before, and I blame the wine for me not paying sufficient attention to that fact at the time. He politely asked about me, and I gushed forth – as I’m afraid I may have done rather a lot – about how amazed and lucky I felt to be an about-to-be-published writer, how quickly and unexpectedly it had all happened, that a year ago I hadn’t even finished writing the novel whose cover art we were admiring. He blinked in what looked like genuine surprise and complimented me, something along the lines of: that’s pretty unusual, must be a really good book. So they tell me, I said, but let’s see what the punters think when it comes time to drop a tenner on it at Waterstones. And we had a chuckle, and shortly after that the currents of the party pulled us in different directions, as they do, and I didn’t see him again.

I wish I could say that the penny dropped the moment that scruffy jacket disappeared into the crowd, that waves of enlightenment parted around him and crashed over me in a well-deserved tsunami. I’m afraid it took a little longer, but I got there in the end. Ian McDonald. That’s the guy who wrote River of Gods and Brasyl, along with a host of other award-winning and -nominated books of the past twenty-odd years. The BSFA, Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke. That Ian McDonald. Look him up if you don’t know. I did, as the penny pirouetted to a halt with a mocking tinkle. I must have not-quite-recognised him from a book jacket, or maybe from a webcast interview he did with that aforementioned favourite author of mine, talking about their respective Great Works. And he must have clocked me as an oblivious newbie, unaware of the extent of my own ignorance, and just let it go.

And that, in microcosm, was what made FantasyCon such a good experience. The warmth and welcome, the genuine enthusiasm and complete lack of pretension, the amused and kindly forbearance of the veterans for the novices. The fact that a giant of our genre was nice enough to let me prattle on, and felt absolutely no need to clue me in to who he was. To say and not say exactly the things that made me feel that I belonged there, just as he did.

Mr. McDonald, sir: I salute you. Better late than never.

The City’s Son shines

I’ve just finished reading one of those books that grabs hold and hangs on and gets in your way until you’re done with it; or until it, possibly, is done with you. The kind that interrupts my own writing and even my sense of place; I’ve looked up a couple of times over the last couple of days, slightly dazed to find myself in a sunny garden in Devon instead of a wintry, smelly back alley in the Big Smoke in the company of garbage gods and warrior cats. Urban fantasies of alternate Londons are almost a genre of their own now, what with your Neil Gaimans and China Mievilles and Ben Aaronovitchs and … I could go on, but you get the picture. You’d think there wouldn’t be too many new takes on the idea, not too many opportunities to seduce a fairly jaded reader like myself. You’d be wrong.

Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son is a delight. Nominally aimed at the young adult market, I think all you have to be is young at heart to appreciate this beautifully written, cleverly constructed tale of a city whose very fabric is alive and vital – a city of sodium-light dancers and tower-crane demons and the ghosts of trains, a city where the Pavement Priests are made of stone and bronze and the Mirrorstocracy are, quite literally, no more than reflections of former glory. Into it stumbles graffiti artist Beth Bradley, fleeing tragedy at home and trouble at school, only to find herself in the company of Filius Viae, abandoned son of the city’s absent Goddess. Together Fil and Beth must find a way to save their city from his mother’s ancient enemy, Reach, the King of the Cranes. And that’s as much of the story as you’re getting from me. All I’ll say is that the outcome isn’t obvious; Pollock, like Mieville, has a fondness for turning tropes on their head. That’s not all he’s got going for him; his characters jump off the page at you, fully realised and recognisable in the space of a few words (not unlike Gaiman, and believe me when I tell you, coming from me that’s very high praise). And like Aaronovitch, the story is full of snarky humour and a palpable love of London.

Are there flaws? Of course there are, but they are few and forgivable. The speed with which Beth’s dad and best friend accept the altered reality in which they find themselves seems a bit unlikely under the circumstances. The friend, Pen, is subjected to horrific ordeals in both Londons but the one in the ‘real’ world, although an inciting event for much that happens later, is pretty much glossed over. And I found myself wondering how the cataclysmic events in the ‘other’ London were perceived and explained in ours, and why the police didn’t seem to be involved in the hunt for two missing teenage girls. In a lesser book these would have been real problems; here they are quibbles. Pollock’s prose flows so beautifully it would disguise far greater sins. I’ve read a fair few first novels recently that are long on story but short on storytelling, in which the craft of writing seems neglected by writers in love with the tale, but not the telling.

The City’s Son works the way all magic works; by paying attention to the details that seduce and misdirect, using turns of phrase and moments of imagery to channel emotion and imagination. Tom Pollock didn’t just tell a great story; he’s a great storyteller. I’m looking forward to the next one.

Good Omens

The good times continue to roll. My last post chronicled my delight at being on the receiving end of literary luck; now I get to be a giver. A book giver, to be precise, on April 23, in celebration of World Book Night. I applied months ago, along with many tens of thousands of passionate readers in the UK, Ireland, Germany and the USA. Emails were sent to the successful applicants last night. And I do feel truly privileged to have been selected. For a reader, writer and lover of story, this is my kind of community work.

World Book Night prints special editions of 25 great books which volunteers then give away, preferably to non- or light readers. The objective is not only to pass the adventure and excitement of reading on to people who currently don’t spend much time with books; but to do so in a way that makes them ambassadors in turn, passing their WBN books on to others and to others and to others. There’s even an online registration portal that can track the journey that each of the gifted volumes takes.

I get to give away 24 copies of my first choice, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It is a fantastically funny, witty, wicked take on the age-old (and frequently rather tired) tale of ponderous powers locked in a battle of good vs. evil. But there’s nothing turgid or trite about this version. In this one the angels and demons, formally avatars of opposition, turn out to have far more in common with each other than with their ineffable and absent bosses. The deep and imponderable mechanisms of apocalypse are about as reliable as a cheap watch. And humanity, supposedly no more than pawns in their grand game, manages to give a pretty good account of itself.

Good Omens is a bravura collaboration by two great writers at the height of their powers. Gaiman’s feel for character, and his gift for not just retelling but subverting mythology to suit his own satirical ends, mashes up wonderfully with Pratchett’s mastery of the comic fantasy form. The plot spins at a dizzying pace through a series of mounting crises, charting the course from mistake through disaster to catastrophe, leaving you with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach about what might be about to happen – even as you laugh out loud. It is that rarest of things, a comic horror novel.

And I get to share it! I get to go up to perfect strangers on the street, or in the pub, or waiting for a bus and say, Excuse me. I’ve got a great book here, and I’d like to give it to you. No thanks, you’ve had a rough day? Believe me, it’ll cheer you up no end. D’you believe in God? The Devil? Either way, you’re going to have fun with this. You think books are boring? Really? Let me read you the first page.

I’m looking forward to it with an almost evangelical intensity. Is being able to give a great book to new readers a good omen for a new writer? Better believe it.

What’s in a genre? Unpicking science fiction, fantasy and horror

My bookshelves are bastions of unreality. Narnia and Middle-Earth, Dune and the Culture. Morgan and Mieville. Gaiman and Pullman. Joe Hill and H.P. Lovecraft. The direction of my reading has been second to the right and straight on ’til morning since I was young enough to want to be Wendy.

Most bookshops stack the stuff I love in a corner labelled Fantasy/Sci Fi/Horror, and they do indeed sit very comfortably on a continuum of related reading experiences. As a reader, I never thought too much about the underlying structure of the fantastical. As a writer, I have to. And I’ve discovered that the distinctions which are often subtle for the reader can be quite profound for the writer.

All three genres posit a reality that is different than the humdrum, everyday “real world” that we all inhabit; the writer has to create that reality and draw the reader into it. This is worldbuilding, and while it’s a necessary element of almost every story, its demands on the imagination are arguably greater for horror, fantasy and science fiction than for other genres. But there are some key differences between these broad categories of the unreal. I find them in the measure of internal coherence required of the fictional world; the degree of continuity between it and the “real” world; and the amount of explanation that needs to be provided to the reader.

In horror, the reader is given little or no information about the hidden mechanics of the storyworld; it often appears to be the same as the “real” world (and therefore to require no explanation), until weird things start to happen. Then the inexplicability of events, and their disconnection from a rational, coherent framework wherein they make sense in relation to other events is what drives the sense of apprehension and terror. (A caveat: this applies more to modern horror writing. Classic novels such as Frankenstein and Dracula were written following what we would now think of as a science fiction or fantasy approach to worldbuilding.)

In fantasy, the reader is given a greater degree of explanation for how the world of the story works, which is necessary as it is usually immediately obvious that it is not the “real” world. These explanations are often elaborate and detailed, but they only need to be internally coherent – in other words they only need to make sense within the covers of the book, within the world of the story. The laws and logic of the fantasy world can be completely disconnected from the “real” world, as long as the story obeys the special rules of the fantasy world.

In science fiction lots of explanation is required, and it needs to be both internally coherent and to have some continuity with the “real” world. The physical reality of the science fiction story needs to follow the same basic rules as the “real” world, or at any rate to provide a rational explanation for any discrepancies. Science fiction need not always be set in the future; but wherever and whenever the story occurs, and however profoundly different the world it inhabits, the reader needs a plausible connection between the “here” of the real world and the “there” of the science fiction world. A fantasy world does not require the same degree of plausibility.

It seems to me that this sequence represents an ascending order of difficulty for the writer as worldbuilder. In horror the storyworld does not need to make rational sense; in fantasy it needs to make sense internally, but not externally; in science fiction it needs to be plausible both internally and externally. (I’m not, by the way, suggesting that it’s easier to write horror than science fiction – far from it. Creating the suspension of disbelief necessary to make you scared of an implausible monster is a tough trick.)

Having managed to unpick the nature of the writers’ challenges and readers’ complicity in constructing these imaginary settings, we inevitably run up against the stuff that just doesn’t seem to fit. Novels like The Time Traveller’s Wife or Never Let Me Go create a problem for genre cubbyholers. The scenarios they posit should be classic science fiction Big Ideas – but the authors make no real attempt to explain the how or why of the situations the characters find themselves in. Their worlds could be ours, but for the disconnects – an unrecognisable history that just is, seemingly impossible stuff that just happens. And excellent and acclaimed though these books are, there remains a sneaking sense of unease amongst both the SF geeks who want an explanation, dammit, and aren’t entirely inclined to trust an author who doesn’t give them one; and the snobbish literati who can’t quite put to bed the suspicion that they’ve been conned into reading something that smacks – gasp, shudder – of sci fi. Horrors.

Which, actually, is pretty close to the mark. I’m not a genre pedant; I’m happy to simply read a good book. But if I had to shelve these two in my fantasy bookshop of the fantastical, under Horror they would go.

  • I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it.

    In the meantime check out Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration, available wherever good books are sold.

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