Another Good Conversation …

… this time with the wonderful Ian McDonald (I chronicled our first meeting in one of my earliest posts on this blog). Strange Horizons asked if we’d like to have a conversation for publication on the subject of Energy in SF. We may have meandered around and away from and back to the topic just a bit …

Win ‘Planesrunner’ by Ian McDonald

The last book giveaway generated some great responses, and I have a feeling this week’s offering will be equally inspirational. The lucky winner will receive a book I read and raved about just a few weeks ago. I’m so pleased to be able to pass this gem on to some lucky reader – maybe you! Before I get too excited, here’s a reminder of the competition format:

I post a summary of the book, plus a thought or two of my own about an aspect of it that I find especially intriguing. Then I ask you to tell me about your particular version of that particular reality. What do I mean? Read on:

 

Plannesrunner_Bfmat

There is not just one you, there are many yous. We’re part of a multiplicity of universes in parallel dimensions – and Everett Singh’s dad has found a way in.

But he’s been kidnapped from the streets of London, right under his son’s nose, and now it’s as if Everett’s dad never existed. The police won’t help, and his mum thinks Everett has brought shame on his family. There is only one clue for him to follow, a mysterious app his dad sent to his iPad: the Infundibulum.

The app is a map, not just to the Ten Known Worlds, but to the entire multiverse – and there are those who want to get their hands on it very badly. Now Everett’s got to find a way to unlock the secret of the Infundibulum and cross entire dimensions to find his father. If he’s going to beat the bad guys, he’s going to need friends: like Captain Anastasia Sixsmyth, her adopted daughter Sen, and the crew of the airship Everness.

Ian McDonald’s novels explore the idea of a multiverse, an infinite sequence of alternate universes each of which is different from the one we know. The difference here on Earth may be one tiny, almost unnoticeable thing – a slightly altered pattern on the wing of a particular butterfly, for example. Or it may be huge – maybe the continents never broke apart. To win a copy of Planesrunner, tell me this: How would the alternate universe you’d most like to visit be different from this one?

Post your answer in comments, or tweet it to me @scriptopus (or both!). You have until midnight on Sunday (UK time) to get it in, then I’ll pick a winner. The competition is open to you wherever you are in the world, as long as your answer is in English. Prizes will be dispatched from Jo Fletcher Books HQ in London, and remember, we’ll need your address if you win.

Here’s the question again: How would the alternate universe you’d most like to visit be different from this one?

Planesrunner by Ian McDonald

There is not just one you, there are many yous. We’re part of a multiplicity of universes in parallel dimensions – and Everett Singh’s dad has found a way in.

plannesrunner1-186x300

So begins the jacket copy for Planesrunner, Ian McDonald’s first novel aimed at a YA audience. In truth it’s also a great first novel for anyone unfamiliar with McDonald’s work, or leery about novels full of heavy-duty science. McDonald builds Everett’s story around his favourite themes of quantum physics and the possibility of an infinite multitude of parallel universes; but here he goes a little slower and explains a little more than in the very adult, densely packed storyscapes of Brasyl and River of Gods, which I found indisputably brilliant, but which would probably prove more challenging reads for someone completely unfamiliar with the ideas he riffs on.

Everett’s dad is a quantum physicist and Everett is a ‘physics brat’, a kid who’s grown up so immersed in the esoteric worlds of theoretical physics and multi-dimensional mathematics that he can instinctively grasp concepts which even learned scientists struggle with. When his father is kidnapped off the streets of London right in front of him, he manages to send Everett one clue: an app on his iPad, the Infundibulum, which Everett is able to recognise as a map of the multiverse. One of the many things I love about this book is the fact that Everett is so unabashedly smart; there’s none of the apologia one often gets for that, the sense that there are negative social consequences to being really really intelligent and aw-shucks, you wouldn’t really want to be that clever, would you? Yes you would. Everett is geek to the core, but it’s made very clear that geekiness is cool, and that it does not prevent you from being good at other things too. Everett is also a star goalkeeper, and a stand-out cook.

Those interests are shared with his newly divorced dad; the descriptions of them screaming in the stands at Tottenham Hotspur matches or concocting dinners on their weekend ‘cuisine nights’ are delightful, and subtly reinforce the message that this is a normal family. The relationship between Everett and his father is in many ways the core of the book, which is interesting given that we see them together only very briefly; but Everett knows his dad and his dad knows Everett, and that closeness drives the story. Dr Singh knows Everett can work out the Infundibulum. Everett knows his dad would not have sent it to him otherwise, and therefore also knows he can do it. And that’s another thing I love; McDonald has not descended into the tired trope of angry, angsty teenager at odds with parents he doesn’t understand and who don’t understand him, which we see so often it feels as though all of literature is populated by dysfunctional parent-child relationships. No, he’s written normal: the far more prosaic – yet profound – reality that most parents and kids know each other well and love each other a lot and and have happy, comfortable lives together.

So hurrah for geeks, hurrah for ordinary, loving families, and, finally hurrah for diversity! This is not a story populated by the default Western-SF-standard of middle-class white people with a token brown or foreign person thrown in as a minor character, like a too-small dash of seasoning in a generally bland stew. Everett is a Londoner of mixed ethnicity, and the descriptions of the Punjabi side of his family are another delight. When he escapes to a gloriously electropunk London on a parallel earth in search of his father he meets Captain Anastasia Sixsmyth, her adopted daughter Sen, and the crew of the airship Everness – and finds himself part of the community of the Airish, a sky-going subculture with their own language, fashion, manners and customs. It’s a precise, insightful depiction of a different kind of caste and class system; the Airish are not defined by skin colour, national origin, religion or the other ethnic signals we’re used to, but they are nevertheless a very distinct group, and subject to very recognisable prejudices and presumptions as a result.

Despite all the fancy science and exotic scenery, Planesrunner is (like all good books) a recognisable story about kids and parents and society and challenges and relationships. It’s also a cracking adventure that jumps through worlds full of of super-cool heroes and cold-hearted villains, bizarre landscapes and alien technology, and offers up three new mysteries for every one solved. It’s the first book of the Everness series, and I can’t wait for the next one.

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.

  • Stephanie Saulter

    I love stories.
    Regeneration is now out in the US! It joins Gemsigns and Binary, already available throughout 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.

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    REGENERATION

    The 3rd Book of the ®Evolution

  • US Edition

    BINARY

    The 2nd Book of the ®Evolution

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    GEMSIGNS

    The 1st Book of the ®Evolution

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